My links for the week of 4/16

Why Americas richest cities keep getting richer – people feel like they have to be there

“the broader phenomenon of winner-take-all economics has been recognized for quite a while. Almost 20 years ago, the economists Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook popularized the concept of the winner-take-all economy and society. The rudiments of the theory are evident in the labor market for professional athletes: As high as the salary of the average athlete may be, the pay gap between middling players and superstars is enormous. Frank and Cook saw this winner-take-all phenomenon spreading throughout the broader economy, as large pay disparities appeared in industries ranging from consulting, banking, and management to design, fashion, medicine, and law. The earnings gap between CEOs and the average worker soared. In the roughly four decades spanning from 1978 to 2015, CEO pay increased by more than 940 percent, while that of a typical worker grew by just 10 percent. The average CEO earned 20 times what the average worker did in 1965; by the 2000s, the ratio had grown to more than 300 to 1, where it has remained since.”

“This dynamic is cumulative and self-reinforcing. Superstar cities’ expanding economies spur demand for more and better restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, galleries, and other amenities. Successful businesspeople and entrepreneurs endow their museums, concert halls, private schools, and universities. Their growing tax revenues are plowed into new and better schools, more transit, better libraries, more and better parks, and so on, which further reinforces and perpetuates their advantages. They have unique kinds of economies that are based around the most innovative and highest value-added industries, particularly finance, media, entertainment and tech; businesses in superstar cities are formed and scaled up more quickly. All of this attracts still more industries and more talent. It’s a powerful, ongoing feedback loop that compounds the advantages of these cities over time.”

“The astronomical real-estate prices of superstar cities—and the staggering gap between these prices and those of most everywhere else—are the product of the underlying motor of capitalist development: a clustering force that pulls people and resources together. Two key things cluster in cities. First, and most obviously, is firms and industries. Big, populous cities develop thriving industry clusters, like finance in New York and London, movies in LA, fashion in Milan and Paris, and technology in the Bay Area. Even more importantly, skilled and ambitious people cluster in cities.

But this process generates another force that operates in the other direction: While clustering drives growth, it also increases the competition for limited urban space. The more things cluster in a city; the more expensive its land gets. The more expensive land and housing prices become, the more people and businesses get pushed out.

This land crunch is not just a consequence of natural economic forces—that is, of limited supply in the face of surging demand. It also stems from the efforts of urban landlords and homeowners to restrict what is built, and in doing so to keep the prices of their own real-estate holdings high. Over the past several years, a growing chorus of urban economists has decried the way that NIMBY sentiment (NIMBY being an acronym for “not-in-my-back-yard”) keeps urban housing prices unnecessarily high. Traditionally, NIMBYs were concerned residents who were motivated to keep “bad” things, like prisons or waste-treatment plants, out of their own desirable neighborhoods. While there is certainly a place for neighborhood preservation and environmental conservation, NIMBYs do more than that: Well-intended or not, when they reflexively block any and all development, they preserve high housing values but put a brake on the very clustering that produced them. As the Bloomberg View writer Noah Smith put it, “It’s landlords, not corporate overlords, who are sucking up the wealth in the economy.””

“As counterproductive as this New Urban Luddism may be, this does not mean that the solution is to simply rid cities of all land-use regulations. On the one hand, the high cost of land in superstar neighborhoods makes it very hard, if not impossible, for the private market to create affordable housing there. Combine the high costs of land with the high costs of high-rise construction and the result is more high-end luxury housing, and very little (if any) of the truly affordable housing many of these superstar cities’ residents need. On the other hand, there is a tipping point where too much density can actually deaden neighborhoods. The world’s most innovative and creative places are not the high-rise canyons and vertical sprawl of Asian cities, but the walkable, mixed-used neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York, and London, filled with mid-rise buildings, factory and warehouse lofts, and the occasional high-rise, which enable constant mixing and interaction. What prosperous cities need is not just deregulation, but a reformed land-use system, which together with broader changes in the tax system, increased investment in transit, and a shift from single-family homes to rental housing, can help create a more sustainable and accessible version of the density that comes with clustering.”

  • Interesting thesis.  The tax changes are left undefined here.

“The takeaway is clear: As innovative and productive as the economies of superstar cities may be, their most-advantaged residents haul in the majority of the gains. Given these cities’ high housing costs, their working and middle classes struggle to stay in place, and the poor and the disadvantaged fall further behind.”

  • The dilemma of density.

“Thomas Piketty’s now-famous formula r > g denotes a rate of return on capital that is greater than the rate of overall economic growth, a huge driver of generational inequality. But the reality is that the outsized gains to capital have accrued more from increased real-estate values than from returns to assets such as stocks and bonds. The share of capital income derived from housing tripled between 1950 and today, according to research by the economist Matthew Rognlie, which is substantially more than the rise of any other form of capital. Simply put, people who own land and real estate in expensive cities have been capitalism’s biggest winners. Their penthouses, luxury townhomes, and other real-estate holdings amount to the visible, geographic manifestation of Piketty’s r > g.”

  • Important point.

“This illuminates the central contradiction of contemporary capitalism: The clustering force is at once the main engine of economic growth and the biggest driver of inequality. The concentration of talent and economic activity in fewer and fewer places not only divides the world’s cities into winners and losers, but ensures that the winner cities will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy. This unrelenting cycle is great news for wealthy landlords and homeowners, but bad news for almost everyone else.”

  • Restated thesis.  It’s a good one.  But the comments show some of the main holes in that.
  • A significant part of it is rich people viewing real estate as a safe growth asset and investing accordingly.  I haven’t seen any research on how much of a big deal that is or if there aren’t any beneficial tradeoffs.  For example, I suspect property taxes have gone up significantly, which is a benefit for the local government at least.  There are probably other benefits in addition to the costs.
  • It’s also worth noting, that in many if not most respects, Houston and others are just as wealthy and much more equitable than SF and NY.
  • Also, the authors shocking infographic – omitted from my notes here – is largely bunk.
  • Low interest rates are a huge part of it.  It shows the myriad ways that monetary policy can effect these things.  It also shows how big of a role luck plays in the outcomes of organizations.

Good Comments

I’m sure this in Florida’s book, but part of the self-reinforcing value loop he talks about occurs when superstar cities attract global investment in their real estate. In the 90s, I remember Michael Lewis saying that London real estate was the “reserve currency” of the global rich, a perceived safe place to park and/or grow some or all of their wealth. The same is true (perhaps not all the time) of New York or Toronto real estate. That amount of property speculation from outside is a distorting factor.”

The author’s theories about what characterizes a super star city, are blown away by Austin, Dallas, and Houston Texas. These cities have thriving knowledge industries, but have remarkably affordable real estate. Knowledge industries thrive in Atlanta as well. Atlanta is an ascendant world-class city, and a rising economic superstar, while Dallas is a mature world class city, and an economic superstar of the first order. Dallas has the 4th largest GDP of US metro areas, Houston the 5th, and Atlanta the 10th. By contrast San Francisco has the 7th largest GDP. Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta are growing at a faster rate than San Francisco, with Dallas and Houston growing at a much faster rate. Yet, the author seems to think San Francisco is a superstar city, but not Dallas, not Houston, not Atlanta. The author’s definition of superstar city is more about having an east or west coast culture, than about having a thriving economy that generates a lot of wealth. I consider the lack of affordable housing, lack of living space, and filthy public spaces to be symptoms of urban pathology. By these measures, the author’s superstar cities contain much more urban pathology than cities like Dallas, Houston,and Atlanta.

Wait a minute! There is some faulty logic in the home price comparisons. This article compares the cost of a “$3 million SOHO loft” to an AVERAGE home in the other cities. Why doesn’t it compare an AVERAGE home in NYC to an AVERAGE home in a “regular” city? Why doesn’t it compare a “$3 million SOHO loft” to an average home in metro NYC?

The average home in the New York metro area is worth $460,000.Therefore, you could buy 6.5 homes in New York City for the price of a “$3 million SOHO loft.” Why don’t you say on your chart that you can buy 6.5 homes in New York for the price of a home in New York? Maybe because it sounds a little illogical??

Furthermore, I live in a home in Atlanta worth $900,000. Nothing fancy–just a little house in a nice neighborhood. I suppose that according to your logic, I could buy 7 homes in Atlanta for the price of my home in Atlanta. There are plenty of $3 million homes in Atlanta. For the price of a “$3 million SOHO loft,” guess how many $3 million homes you can buy in Atlanta? You guessed it: one.

Come on, people!!!!! This is giving me a headache.

A lot of what Florida talks about is true. But he fails to mention the single most important driver of all of this — artificially low interest rates. An activist Fed for the last 20 years has kept interest rates well below equilibrium, which has needlessly kept real estate values inflated where there are zoning/supply constraints. Combined with the network effects of the largest superstar cities that keep demand high, and you’ve got a recipe for the insane distortions we are witnessing in the RE markets in the top cities.

There are multiple feedback loops at play here — the elite are those who most directly benefit from low interest rates, because they own assets — companies, stocks, bonds, real estate. Perpetually low interest rates exacerbates Piketty’s equation because they grossly advantage those with existing assets — who can borrow for almost nothing to acquire more assets, than those trying to accrue assets — ie savers.

An astute finance writer commented recently on Jeff Bezos becoming the second richest man in the world by pointing out that only in an artificially low interest world could Amazon not earn a profit in 20 years and see its stock continue to skyrocket. If long term rates went back up to 6%, he argues that Amazon stock would plummet.

The real world distortions of low interest rates will last with us through generations.

In the superstar cities, the Baby Boomers are sitting on top of huge artificial capital gains in their homes but will find it increasingly difficult to find buyers at these inflated values from their children’s generation. The only way the Millennials will be able to buy homes is when their house-rich parents cash out their equity (along with a big cap gains tax bill) and give the money to their kids for a down payment they would otherwise never be able to save up for on their own. Or, like in Europe, the home will be co-habitated in by more than one generation and passed down.

Piketty’s three big mistakes in inequality analysis

The first is that Piketty doesn’t take depreciation into account. As capitalists accumulate more and more machines, buildings and other hard assets they have to pay more and more to maintain that physical capital. Trucks need new tires. Offices need renovation. What Rognlie notices is that this upkeep cost has been increasing over time. Nowadays, more than in the past capital goods are often in the form of computers, software and other high-tech products that go obsolete very quickly. That means that capitalists have to spend more money replacing these things. A lot of what looks like more money going into owners’ pockets is really just an increased cost of doing business. …But Rognlie adds two other important points. His second point is that much of the income that went to capital owners in the last six decades has been from capital gains — from stock prices going up, rather than from an increase in book value (the total net value of the assets owned by companies). When you look at book value, the increase was much more modest. It might be that what looks like the start of a permanent explosion in the wealth of shareholders is really just the end of the “equity premium” that has fascinated financial economists for decades.

But Rognlie’s third point is perhaps the most interesting. Economists combine a lot of different things into “capital,” such as machines, buildings and land. Rognlie points out that almost all of the increase in the value of capital over Piketty’s timeline comes from land, instead of from other forms of capital. In other words, it’s landlords, not corporate overlords, who are sucking up the wealth in the economy. It’s a dramatic, startling insight that was somehow overlooked before Rognlie came along.”

The North Korea reframe

“Prior U.S. presidents framed the North Korean nuclear program as a problem between the United States and North Korea, with China as an unhelpful third party with its own interests. That framing was weak and useless. North Korea did whatever it wanted to do.

President Trump recently changed the frame. Now it’s not so much a problem between the United States and North Korea as it is a branding battle between China and the U.S., with North Korea being the less-important part of the equation. President Trump has said clearly and repeatedly that if China doesn’t fix the problem in its own backyard, the USA will step in to do what China couldn’t get done.

See the power in that framing? China doesn’t want a weak “brand.””

fighting fake news using libel law – specifically section 230 of the 1996 communications act

All judges have to do is start interpreting a 1996 law as it was written, not as they would like it to be. There is no need for Congress to change any laws, and the politicians would likely inflict enormous damage to the U.S. economy and to U.S. consumers if they tried. But there is a legal remedy to fake news, and it will lead to better journalism than the reforms being marketed by Silicon Valley.

WSJ editorial board on how to fix Amtrak – basically get rid of routes in flyover country and across the country

“Amtrak’s $500 million operating profit along the Northeast Corridor was wiped out by losses on long-distance routes that can’t compete with airlines in cost or speed while offering equally miserable customer service. Someone who pays $176 to take a 62-hour ride on the Texas Eagle train from Los Angeles to Dallas to Chicago must really want to minimize Christmas with the in-laws. By contrast, Amtrak carries three times as many riders between Washington, D.C., and New York City as all the airlines combined. The annual ridership on the Northeast Corridor is more than three times the population of Connecticut.

In 2015 Congress authorized $8.1 billion in funding for Amtrak between 2016 and 2020, but only a third will go to the Northeast. Last year Amtrak contracted with Alstom to produce high-speed trains for the Acela that are supposed to be ready by 2021. But Amtrak doesn’t have enough money to upgrade the tracks, so speeds won’t exceed 160 miles per hour—about 25 mph faster than the current top speed between New York and Washington—and trip times will be about the same.

President Trump has proposed zeroing out funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes to prioritize improvements in the Northeast. Congress should do him one better by spinning off the Northeast Corridor—private investors might be interested—and devolving shorter distances to states. New York Senator Chuck Schumer and other Democrats who take the train might even hop on board.”

Steve Bannon’s worldview via Peggy Noonan

“”So let’s take a look at something impressive Mr. Bannon has done. I’ve been meaning to write of it for a while. In 2014 he did a live Skype interview for a conference on poverty at the Vatican. BuzzFeed ran it during the campaign under the headline “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees the Entire World.”

  • Note to self, watch this.

It shows an interesting mind at work.

The West is currently facing a “crisis of capitalism,” he said. The world was able to recover after the world wars in part thanks to “an enlightened form of capitalism” that generated “tremendous wealth” broadly distributed among all classes. This capitalism was shaped by “the underlying spiritual and moral foundations . . . of Judeo-Christian belief.” Successful capitalists were often either “active participants in the Jewish faith” or “active participants in the Christian faith.” They operated on a kind of moral patrimony, part tradition, part religious teaching. But now the West has become more secular. Capitalism as a result has grown “unmoored” and is going “partly off track.”

  • Secularism is driving capitalism off track is the thesis.  I’m sympathetic to that view.  I just think it needs much more evidence and fleshing out before I can actually buy it.

He speaks of two “disturbing” strands. “One is state-sponsored capitalism,” as in China and Russia. We also, to a degree, see it in America. This is “a brutal form of capitalism” in which wealth and value are distributed to “a very small subset of people.” It is connected to crony capitalism. He criticizes the Republican Party as “really a collection of crony capitalists that feel they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves.”

The other disturbing strand is “libertarian capitalism,” which “really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost.” He saw this strand up close when he was on Wall Street, at Goldman Sachs . There he saw “the securitization of everything” and an attitude in which “people are looked at as commodities.”

  • I am sympathetic to this as well.  But this also needs more fleshing out.

Capitalists, he said, now must ask: “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us . . . to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”

With both these strands, he says, the middle class loses ground. This has contributed to the “global revolt” of populism and nationalism. That revolt was fueled, too, by the financial crisis of 2008. None of those responsible on Wall Street were called to account: “No bonuses and none of their equity was taken.” The taxes of the middle class were used to bail them out.

  • This is the core populist critique and it is really strong.  I preach personal responsibility for comparatively small things like how taxes on cigarettes are essentially equivalent to a defined benefit healthcare plan.  My typical limitation is when people can’t reasonably held directly responsible for their actions as in taxes on obesity, which has a heritability element.  But that’s a lot harder in the cases that effect rich people.  There is much more at play.   Which means if personal responsibility is applied in public policy, (under the notion that you ought to pay only for your direct harms society) it will inevitably be applied much harder to the poor because their crimes are more direct and more difficult to hide than those of the wealthy.
  • He seems to have a compelling critique.  But his vision is unclear and his implementation has been utterly incompetent.  It leads me to sympathize more with the less charitable view of him as a cranky bigot looking to make the west white again.

There’s more in the conversation, which lasted 50 minutes and included the problem of racist and anti-Semitic overtones in populist movements. But it’s a thoughtful, serious talk, and its themes would reverberate in the 2016 election.

A catalogue of fate hate crimes that occurred after Trump’s election

Mike Pence and Indiana’s Medicaid expansion – basically it appears that he threw his supporters a small bone to get them to let him accept the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid

Dynamic christianity vs the Benedict option – a great article on its weaknesses

The entire Passion narrative presents us with a remarkable juxtaposition of profound, world-altering events and petty politics. We get glimpses into the motivations of all the major players: the Sanhedrin, wanting someone else to handle the dirty work of silencing this shrewd social critic; Pontius Pilate, a harried bureaucrat, reluctantly answering their wish because he is terrified of being labeled an “enemy of Caesar”; Jesus Christ, adroitly getting himself convicted without violating earthly law, to save mankind from their sins.
  • Great summary.
“We are not the first people in history to grapple with a confusing interplay between sweeping eschatological narratives and the tawdry tangle of temporal affairs. In our day, American Christians struggle to juxtapose a narrative of cultural decline against a faith that they believe will endure to the end of time. This past month, that discussion took an interesting twist following the release of several books that were written when most of us expected to be living under the enlightened reign of our first female president. Sober and bracing, these books explore the question of how Christians can remain Christian in a libertine, secular society. Suddenly religious conservatives found themselves in a conversation they would have had probably with far greater intensity had the Democrats won last November.

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been particularly influential, igniting controversy with the suggestion that “the culture war as we knew it is over” and that Christians should focus their energies on building families and smaller communities that are self-consciously countercultural. That book was complemented in interesting ways by Anthony Esolen’s apocalyptic Out of the Ashes and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s less extreme but still bracing Strangers in a Strange Land, which offers advice on “living the Catholic faith in a post-Christian world.”In concert, these books have thrown Christians into a debate about the wisdom of radical withdrawal as a means of coping with cultural loss. Should Christians stay engaged in political and cultural battles? Or is it better to accept our losses and focus on the higher things?

The Benedict Option was controversial in large part because religious conservatives are already very attracted to quietist modes of thought. Quietism, a posture of spiritual detachment, has appeared in various forms throughout Christian history and culture. It gains force when a culture is in decline or elites become overtly hostile to Christianity. Withdrawal holds appeal, not only because the world is hard but also because Christians believe themselves to be the inheritors of a rich tradition that promises something better. To Christian faithful, life is first and foremost a quest for eternal redemption. If the mainstream culture seems uncongenial to that journey, there will always be some who judge it best to give up the fight for the world and to focus instead on forging a less perilous path for themselves and their loved ones. American Christians struggle to juxtapose a narrative of cultural decline against a faith that they believe will endure to the end of time.

Throughout Christian history, many believers have withdrawn from the world for such reasons. But quietist movements are also a familiar part of American tradition; our nation’s history is peppered with self-segregated faith communities. Some denominations, like the Anabaptists and Hutterites, explicitly prescribe a more segregated lifestyle. Other communities identify with a larger denomination but collectively commit to a prescribed countercultural lifestyle. Americans are a people with a robust religious foundation, a strong commitment to freedom, and relatively shallow cultural roots. Experimenting with faith in community seems natural to us.

It’s been fascinating to read of late the multiple firsthand accounts of modern experiments that haven’tgone well. Worldly withdrawal is a hard row to hoe, which is why we probably needn’t worry too much that droves of Americans will suddenly decide to “go Benedict.” There will never be so very many who want to give up modern comforts and securities to become turnip farmers, and it’s not necessarily bad to have a few. Traditionalist experimentation can yield benefits for society, just as other forms of innovation can be beneficial. Tiny, traditionalist communities may succeed in uncovering or preserving certain salutary truths that have been lost to the culture at large. In any case, a free society should be able to make room for a few such endeavors.

Christians may still have good reasons, though, for resisting the spread of a new quietism. Mass migration from mainstream culture is unlikely — far more serious is the risk of demoralization. While “the few” exert themselves to answer the quietist call, “the many” may just lay down their swords without picking up their ploughshares. Might not Dreher’s grim analysis persuade religious conservatives to disengage from public life, passively allowing the progressive Left to consume their remaining cultural strongholds? Instead of a network of vibrant faith communities, we could end up with a diffuse population of embittered reactionaries, clinging in isolation to whatever shreds of tradition they think they can manage to save.

  • Hmmm – She thinks withdrawal will merely hasten defeat.  The hidden (if only slightly) assumption throughout this piece is that if we choose withdrawal, it is a sign that indeed we are merely embittered reactionaries.  Such behavior is not a sign of faith in the power of the victorious Christ and implies a misaligned hierarchy of values.  All kingdoms of this earth are temporal.  Christ’s kingdom is what really matters.  Many would go even farther, arguing that the Christian nationalism promoted over the past fifty years by the religious right has on a net, lessened the reach of god’s kingdom here on earth and/or corrupted its practitioners.

In the end, the question that confronts us concerns the possibility of finding some new harmony between faith and (existing) culture. The quietist is inclined to see society as a lost cause; the only reasonable course is to get busy pulling what we can from the wreckage. That image resonates with American Christians in a moment when we are facing (really for the first time in our nation’s history) a serious eclipse of Christianity as our country’s dominant cultural-religious force. At one time, our faith was widely acknowledged to be foundational to American law and culture; today Christians find ourselves battling taxpayer-funded institutions that actively undermine our way of life, even as millennia-old doctrine is reclassified as “bigotry.” It’s alarming and often bruising. A few have lost their livelihoods in the scuffle, while nearly all committed Christians find it necessary to withdraw from at least some aspects of mainstream culture, especially to protect their children.

It’s fine to discuss practical strategies for how to do this. Still, the autumnal mood of these conversations can become overwhelming. We need to remember that Christianity is a dynamic faith, not meant to be lived in a defensive crouch. The political and social challenges of our present moment are formidable indeed, which is precisely why Christians as a group must not withdraw. The society they live in still needs them. We need to bring to the table the vast wisdom and resources of our faith, charting a path forward for all our compatriots and not just the chosen few.

We need to remember that Christianity is a dynamic faith, not meant to be lived in a defensive crouch. Is this even possible? The question ought to strike us as absurd. To those who worry that modernity is simply incompatible with Christian life, we should note that Christianity has ever been a faith of fruitful paradoxes. It has a remarkable capacity to combine pragmatic flexibility with an unbending doctrinal and moral core. Intensely communal in some respects, Christians are warned by Christ himself that they must be prepared to “hate” even their own families. The Christian philosophical and literary tradition stands majestically in the background of all Western civilization, never losing its dogmatic integrity; despite that, Christian Gospels denigrate the wisdom of the wise, and elevate young children as exemplars of celestial perfection. Christianity disparages legalism and worldly materialism. Nevertheless, Christians laid a foundation for modern commerce and democratic rule of law, even as they battled Islamic rivals under the banners of the Prince of Peace.

Some, of course, would see these “fruitful paradoxes” as just a maze of contradictions. Even acknowledging that the Babe of Bethlehem started with some admirable aspirations (to serve the poor, and to liberate his followers from the tyrannical excesses of Jewish legalism), Christianity’s detractors often characterize his followers as raging hypocrites, zealously embracing the same violence, greed, and pharisaical moralism that Jesus himself found so abhorrent. If that picture is right, we must at least say: For a hot mess of pious platitudes and contradictory claims, Christianity has remarkable staying power. Personality cults come and go, but the Jewish carpenter has held strong for nearly two millennia, today claiming almost 40 times as many living followers as voted for Trump in the last election. The lamb may look vulnerable, but he’s proven to be very resilient.

Quietist-type thinking trains us to look on our culture with an eye only for the things we cannot change. Dreher traces our current malaise back to philosophical errors deep within the modern psyche, although at the same time he also blames Christians for their own downfall, contending that they were too willing to sell their birthright for short-term political victories. Our current struggles, it seems, were somewhat inevitable; nevertheless, in Dreher’s view, we should blame ourselves and don sackcloth.

Christians have their failings, to be sure, but it seems perverse to paint ourselves into grim corners when our co-religionists (living and dead) have such a remarkable history of surviving and thriving under diverse circumstances. It’s one thing to sacrifice worldly glory for the sake of higher goals, but are our eyes really turned upward? Or are we simply reeling from recent cultural losses whose impact we haven’t yet fully absorbed? There’s no doubt that Christians have lost ground in the culture lately, and it’s reasonable to mourn those losses. But how long must we spend by the waters of Babylon, weeping for Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen? We must recall in the paradoxical Christian faith that losing can be winning, and too much winning can be the most soul-destroying thing of all.

  • The strongest critique I have observed of the Benedict option has come from Black Christians who observe that the black church has endured in this country despite the horrible persecution it has endured throughout its history.  In comparison to the struggles of the Black church, white protestants complaining about loss cultural status seem like whiny bitches.  Also, the ignorance of that reality among white protestants speaks volumes in and of itself.

Finally, it is important to recognize that withdrawal could represent a lost opportunity for the nation at large. The Christian tradition contains rich philosophical and cultural resources that America may need if it is to work through contemporary social crises. Consider our most pressing modern problems. Global markets have generated tremendous wealth, but far too many people are now marginalized, alienated, and lacking in purpose. Modern nation-states are finding it difficult to maintain democratic norms in increasingly diverse and polarized societies. On a more individual level, it’s difficult in our interconnected world to balance obligations toward those close to us against the claims of the further removed. Globalization has created a whole host of practical and cultural challenges, which in turn give rise to social unrest.

What philosophical or cultural tradition has experience addressing these sorts of issues? Might we find some helpful hints in a religion that’s spent the past 2,000 years bathing the globe in a message about God’s all-encompassing love, preaching it tirelessly to a divided, stratified, and wildly diverse array of humans? For centuries before our nation was even born, Christianity struggled to reconcile the dignity of the individual person with the broader need for social cohesion. Is now really the moment for Christians to throw in the towel?

Jesus Christ was not a politician. Still he was aware that the political realm can have great relevance to mankind’s quest for salvation. As we see in the Passion narrative, mere humans rarely appreciate the eschatological significance of their tawdry political struggles. God sees how they matter.

From Jesus’ time to our own, Christians have labored diligently to be salt and light to a fallen world. We never fully triumph. All the same, we should press forward with hope, believing that the best is yet to come. Even in the darkest hours, Christians are in a position to know that the sweetest victory may only be a sunrise away.”

  • “Salt and light of the world”

The Civic costs of illegal immigration – VDH is a lot like Chris Ladd.  He is very good at constructing narratives that I am primed to agree with.  This makes it easy to ignore the mass amount of faulty logic that he mixes in to serve his narrative.

“In the abstract, open-borders advocates argue that in a globalized culture, borders are becoming reactionary and artificial constructs. They should not interrupt more natural ebbs and flows of migrant populations.

More concretely, an array of vested interests sees advantage in dismantling the border: employers in hospitality, construction, food processing, and agriculture prefer hard-working low-wage immigrants, whose social needs are often subsidized by the government and who are reluctant to organize for higher wages.

The Democratic Party welcomes in impoverished immigrants from Latin America and Mexico. It hopes to provide generous social welfare assistance and thereby shepherd new arrivals and their offspring into the salad bowl of victimization and identity politics—and thereby change the electoral map of key states from red to blue.

La Raza activists see unchecked illegal immigration as useful in maintaining a large pool of unassimilated and poor foreign nationals who look to group leaders, thereby ensuring the continuance of what has become an industry of ethnic activism and careerism.

Mexico—which is now offering advice to illegal immigrants on how best to avoid U.S. federal immigration authorities—has the most to gain by porous borders. It envisions the United States as a relief valve destination to export its own poor and desperate rather than to have them agitate and demand costly social services from Mexico City.

Mexico enjoys some $25 billion in annual remittances, predicated on the unspoken assumption that its poor and hard-working expatriates can only afford to send such vast sums out of the United States through the magnanimity of the American social welfare system that helps subsidize families to free up hard-earned cash. Mexico has learned that its own expatriates are loyal proponents who romanticize Mexico—the farther away and longer they are absent from it.

Mexico enjoys some $25 billion in annual remittances, predicated on the unspoken assumption that its poor and hard-working expatriates can only afford to send such vast sums out of the United States through the magnanimity of the American social welfare system that helps subsidize families to free up hard-earned cash. Mexico has learned that its own expatriates are loyal proponents who romanticize Mexico—the farther away and longer they are absent from it.”

  • This is true in my view, although the section Mexico’s motivations is the weakest part of the argument.  The rest of it is quite strong.

“Yet lost in this conundrum are the pernicious effects of illegal immigration on the idea of citizenship in a consensual society. In the Western constitutional tradition, citizenship was based upon shared assumptions that were often codified in foundational constitutional documents.

  • American society could really use a national discussion on citizenship.  Working to re-establish an awareness of the rights and duties of citizens would go a long way towards reducing polarization in my view.

“The first pillar of citizenship is the idea that the nation-state has the sole right to create and control its own borders. The duty of all Western constitutions, dating back to those of the Greek city-states, was to protect their own citizens within clearly defined and defensible borders. Without a finite space, no consensual society can

  1. make rules and laws for its own,
  2. enhance and preserve commonalities of language and culture, or
  3. raise a military to protect its own self-interest.

Borders are not normally artificial or post-colonial constructs, but natural boundaries that usually arise to reflect common bonds of language, culture, habit, and tradition. These ties are sometimes fragile and limited, and cannot operate on universal terms; indeed, they become attenuated when borders disappear and residents not only have little in common, but lack the mechanisms or even the desire to assimilate and integrate their migrant populations.

When borders are fluid and unenforced, it inevitably follows that assimilation and integration also become lax, as society loses a sense of who, or even where, their residents are.

  • Funnily enough, this was true of America for much of its history.  The wild west is a an interesting counterexample to this.  There wasn’t really  much in the way of border enforcement in that time.  But people still assimilated.  Although perhaps you could say that the people heading west were either adventurers or rejects.

And the idea that the Bill of Rights should apply to those beyond U.S. borders may be a noble sentiment, but the practical effect of such utopianism is to open a Pandora’s box of impossible enforcement, affronts to foreign governments, endless litigation, and a diversion of resources away from protecting the rights of citizens at home.

  • The billions of dollars spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been an excellent lesson for me on the massive opportunity costs of nation-building.

“Residency is also confused with citizenship, but they are no more the same than are guests at a dinner party and the party’s hosts, who own the home.

A country reverts to tribalism unless immigrants enter it legally—often based on the host’s determination of how easily and rapidly they can become citizens, and the degree to which they can benefit their adopted country—and embrace its customs, language, and habits.

The Balkans, Rwanda, and Iraq remind us that states without common citizen ties, affinities, rights, and responsibilities become fragmented and violent, as their diverse populations share no investment in the welfare of the commonwealth. What plagues contemporary Iraq and Syria is the lack of clearly defined borders, and often shifting and migrating populations that have no stake in the country of their residence, resulting in competing tribes that vie for political control to aid their own and punish the Other.”

  • This section is an excellent defense of borders and why such structures are necessary.  This later section of the argument is weaker in my view.  It is not clear that tribalism is a result of illegal immigration.  That hasn’t been the case here.  What matters is that to some extent “embrace its customs, language, and habits.”  But even this is much more ambiguous than it appears at first.
  • Because the assumption of a border implies that “customs, language, and habits” is a singular phenomenon.   But that clearly is not and never has been the case in this country.  The culture (which I will from here on out a substitute word for “customs, language, and habits”) of colonial Boston was quite different from the culture of colonial Georgia.  The culture of California is quite different from the culture of Mississippi.  Hell, even the culture of San Francisco is quite different from the culture of the “inland empire” of California as this author has often noted.  The blue tribe is quite different from the gray tribe and the red tribe.  Indeed, assimilation as a concept is difficult when the largest cultural differences right now are urban/rural and blue/red.  People still seem to be assimilating just fine, I suspect that much of the anxiety on the red tribe is that they (the newcomers) aren’t acting like members of red tribes.  Red tribe associates itself with “American.”  So they aren’t very happy about that.
  •  What is culture?  What are immigrants being assimilated into?  This is way more ambiguous than the typical American conservative narrative would like us to think.  The only real constant in my view when it comes to culture is that which is derived from the Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, and for that matter, the motto’s on our coins and the statue of liberty.  It really has nothing to do with any concept of race or culture as it is typically understood around the world and realistically it has very little to do with the circumstances of your arrival, only what you become as you live here.  The melting pot is not dependent on the legality of the arrivals.  It is dependent on whether or not they merge with the local culture.
  • The basket cases of tribalism around the world do show the costs of not having some deeper level of national unity.  I disagree though that the problem is a lack of clearly defined borders.  The problems there are clearly that there is no unifying force greater than the tribe in those countries.  The fact that the Iraqi-Syrian border is ambiguous (because its in the middle of an uninhabited desert) is completely irrelevant.  It’s so easy for people I am inclined to agree with to lull me to sleep while they quietly slip bullshit into their story.The second part of the sentence however, is completely correct.  The problem is the “shifting and migrating populations that have no stake in the country of their residence, resulting in competing tribes that vie for political control to aid their own and punish the Other.”  That’s the real issue here.  The benefit of borders is that clearly defined polities help to mitigate these sorts of problems.  They are irrelevant to this example because nobody lives in the middle of the Iraqi-Syrian desert.  However, it would be relevant if you wanted to argue for or against the merits of splitting Iraq into three separate countries for the Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis.

A second pillar of citizenship is the sanctity of the law.

What also separates Western and Westernized nations from often impoverished and unsecure states is a notion that citizens entrust their elected representatives with the crafting of laws and then show their fealty by obeying the resulting legislation.

The sanctity of the entire legal system in a republic rests on two important corollaries: citizens cannot pick and choose which laws they obey—either on the grounds that some are deemed bothersome and not in their own self-interest, or on the pretext that they are minor and their violation does not impair society at large. … Besides secure borders and respect for the laws, a third tenet of citizenship is the idea of equal applicability of the law. Citizens in modern Western societies are assured that their laws are applied in the same manner to all citizens regardless of differences in class, gender, race, or religion.”

  • Those are the two general axioms he lays out. What seems to really motivate him is outrage at the unfairness of the illegal immigration situation.  He is from California, where the government is just trash.  He and the middle-class white people like him have to live with all the stupid rules coming from the coasts while the illegal immigrants get to ignore a lot of it.  VDH and people like him have largely despaired of changing anything and have instead directed their anger at the new arrivals instead of at the wealthy people on the coasts who created the issue.  This has always been the problem for Republicans on this issue.  In order to actually solve the problem, they would have to take on their corporate masters.  Since Republicans are unable or unwilling to do this, they take out their frustration on the illegal immigrants instead.  They get to feel good in the sense that they can vent their frustration onto someone.  But it doesn’t move any closer to solving the problem.

Flawed climate models – basically argues that there is too much noise in climate data to reliably determine whether global warming is happening or not and that the models aren’t scientific – It’s beyond my ability to determine how accurate the critique is and I am not impressed by the credentials of either author on this subject.  So I’ll stick with the IPCC on this one.

A solution for the problem of robo-calls

“But I do have a proposal for addressing one particularly annoying kind of attention theft, the robocall.  Robocalls don’t just annoy you at a gas station or a doctor’s waiting room, places where time spent is usually pretty low quality anyway. They interrupt you at your home, or on your smartphone. The Federal Communications Commission says there are 2.4 billion robocalls a month, and it’s trying to do something. I have a solution of my own: Pay me.

Under my proposal, any incoming calls from people not on my contact list wouldn’t go through unless the caller paid me something. Twenty-five cents would probably be enough to discourage phone spammers, who make huge numbers of (mostly futile) calls. (Though I’d be willing to go higher. Maybe I could charge phone-sex rates: I’d be willing to listen to most anything from anyone for $3.99 plus $1.99 a minute.) … Give the phone companies a cut, and they’d get serious about addressing number-spoofing and other robocall tricks: There would be money on the line, and they’re nothing if not serious about revenue. (Plus, I’ll bet a cellular carrier who added this option to a plan would get a lot of subscribers.)”

A hilarious takedown of Elon Musk and Tesla from Holman Jenkins at the WSJ

“Last week the market value of Tesla surpassed that of Ford and General Motors . Tesla is now the most valuable homegrown American car company, worth almost $52 billion. Yet in the same week a reputable consultancy, Navigant Research, showed that Ford and GM lead all others, including Tesla and Google, in the autonomous car race. Shocking? Not really. These companies are making and selling cars, while the Silicon Valleyites have been mostly engaged in brand-building exercises based on public fascination with jazzy, futuristic auto technology. … To state the manner plainly, the car business just doesn’t generate the kinds of returns Tesla investors are anticipating. …

Mr. Musk has created a recognizable, compelling brand in Tesla, but selling cars into a crowded, competitive marketplace will never supply the Silicon Valley-like profit margins he needs. Read the analyst reports of his cheerleaders on Wall Street. One way or another, they think Mr. Musk is building an Apple, not a car company.

What product might eventually justify their faith? Who knows? Mr. Musk has dropped “Motors” from his company’s name. Maybe batteries from his gigafactory will become a near-monopoly standard the way Intel chips did during the personal-computer explosion. Maybe “Tesla Inside” will be found on every kind of large and small electronic device.

Forget the General Motors comparison. Tesla’s market cap is barely twice that of Snapchat’s parent, a company even more bereft of revenues, never mind profits.

Tesla bulls are betting on Mr. Musk, not on the car business. They are betting on some wildly profitable, Apple-like future that they can’t even clearly define.”

A critique of liberal christianity – currently paywalled – I don’t remember what was noteworthy about this article – may be a weakman or instructive

Gramscian Damage – on ideological warfare and how it has been used against us

“Americans have never really understood ideological warfare. Our gut-level assumption is that everybody in the world really wants the same comfortable material success we have. We use “extremist” as a negative epithet. Even the few fanatics and revolutionary idealists we have, whatever their political flavor, expect everybody else to behave like a bourgeois.

We don’t expect ideas to matter — or, when they do, we expect them to matter only because people have been flipped into a vulnerable mode by repression or poverty. Thus all our divagation about the “root causes” of Islamic terrorism, as if the terrorists’ very clear and very ideological account of their own theory and motivations is somehow not to be believed.

By contrast, ideological and memetic warfare has been a favored tactic for all of America’s three great adversaries of the last hundred years — Nazis, Communists, and Islamists. All three put substantial effort into cultivating American proxies to influence U.S. domestic policy and foreign policy in favorable directions. Yes, the Nazis did this, through organizations like the “German-American Bund” that was outlawed when World War II went hot. Today, the Islamists are having some success at manipulating our politics through fairly transparent front organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

But it was the Soviet Union, in its day, that was the master of this game. They made dezinformatsiya (disinformation) a central weapon of their war against “the main adversary”, the U.S. They conducted memetic subversion against the U.S. on many levels at a scale that is only now becoming clear as historians burrow through their archives and ex-KGB officers sell their memoirs.

The Soviets had an entire “active measures” department devoted to churning out anti-American dezinformatsiya. A classic example is the rumor that AIDS was the result of research aimed at building a ‘race bomb’ that would selectively kill black people.

On a different level, in the 1930s members of CPUSA (the Communist Party of the USA) got instructions from Moscow to promote non-representational art so that the US’s public spaces would become arid and ugly.

Americans hearing that last one tend to laugh. But the Soviets, following the lead of Marxist theoreticians like Antonio Gramsci, took very seriously the idea that by blighting the U.S.’s intellectual and esthetic life, they could sap Americans’ will to resist Communist ideology and an eventual Communist takeover. The explicit goal was to erode the confidence of America’s ruling class and create an ideological vacuum to be filled by Marxism-Leninism.

  • So while I think the narrative is over-hyped, there is an interesting application here.  What are Russia’s goals today?  There is no doubt that they infiltrated and stirred up groups within the U.S. in the lead up to the recent election.  What was the goal?  Was it just to sow division and mistrust of American institutions?  That by itself would hurt and if it was one of their goals, it was largely successful.  But that gives them too much credit in my opinion.  It could have at best accelerated existing trends.  The events of this election were enough to increase trust of institutions (increasing distrust of institutions has been a national trend for a while now anyways) in and of themselves.  They didn’t need any additional gasoline.  The alt-right/conspiracy types (likely Bernie fans as well) had more than enough material to go crazy with without Russian interference.  I have yet to see any compelling evidence of impact.
  • Condi (iirc) said a while back that another goal was to embarrass Hilary because she said something mean to Putin while she was Secretary of State.  If that was the case, that operation was largely a success.

“In a previous post on Suicidalism, I identified some of the most important of the Soviet Union’s memetic weapons. Here is that list again:

  • There is no truth, only competing agendas.
  • All Western (and especially American) claims to moral superiority over Communism/Fascism/Islam are vitiated by the West’s history of racism and colonialism.
  • There are no objective standards by which we may judge one culture to be better than another. Anyone who claims that there are such standards is an evil oppressor.
  • The prosperity of the West is built on ruthless exploitation of the Third World; therefore Westerners actually deserve to be impoverished and miserable.
  • Crime is the fault of society, not the individual criminal. Poor criminals are entitled to what they take. Submitting to criminal predation is more virtuous than resisting it.
  • The poor are victims. Criminals are victims. And only victims are virtuous. Therefore only the poor and criminals are virtuous. (Rich people can borrow some virtue by identifying with poor people and criminals.)
  • For a virtuous person, violence and war are never justified. It is always better to be a victim than to fight, or even to defend oneself. But ‘oppressed’ people are allowed to use violence anyway; they are merely reflecting the evil of their oppressors.
  • When confronted with terror, the only moral course for a Westerner is to apologize for past sins, understand the terrorist’s point of view, and make concessions.

As I previously observed, if you trace any of these back far enough, you’ll find a Stalinist intellectual at the bottom. (The last two items on the list, for example, came to us courtesy of Frantz Fanon. The fourth item is the Baran-Wallerstein “world system” thesis.) Most were staples of Soviet propaganda at the same time they were being promoted by “progressives” (read: Marxists and the dupes of Marxists) within the Western intelligentsia.

The Soviets consciously followed the Gramscian prescription; they pursued a war of position, subverting the “leading elements” of society through their agents of influence. (See, for example, Stephen Koch’s Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals; summary by Koch here) This worked exactly as expected; their memes seeped into Western popular culture and are repeated endlessly in (for example) the products of Hollywood.

Indeed, the index of Soviet success is that most of us no longer think of these memes as Communist propaganda. It takes a significant amount of digging and rethinking and remembering, even for a lifelong anti-Communist like myself, to realize that there was a time (within the lifetime of my parents) when all of these ideas would have seemed alien, absurd, and repulsive to most people — at best, the beliefs of a nutty left-wing fringe, and at worst instruments of deliberate subversion intended to destroy the American way of life.”

  • Again I don’t see these as result of communist conspiracy as much as running in conjunction with pre-existing trends.  If the suicidalist checklist was received well by western leftist intellectuals, it was only because they already believed most of it.  They didn’t need to be duped.  They believed it before communist influence and they believed it after communist influence.  It is more likely the case that this is an example of people becoming “unknowing agents” similar to how the intelligence community was concerned that members of the Trump campaign were unwittingly assisting the Russian government.

Learning to love scientific consensus

Scientific consensus is the best tool we have for seeking truth. It’s not perfect, and it’s frequently overturned by later scientists, but this is usually – albeit not literally always – the work of well-credentialed insiders, operating pretty quickly after the evidence that should overturn it becomes available. Any individual should be very doubtful of their ability to beat it, while not being so doubtful that nobody ever improves it and science can never progress.

– and I still think that. But I’ve shifted from being the sort of person who shares viral lists of maligned geniuses, to the sort of person who debunks those lists. I’ve started emphasizing the “best tool we have” part of the sentence, and whispering the “isn’t perfect” part, rather than vice versa.

I’ve changed my mind on this because of personal experience. Rather than trying to describe it, it might be more helpful to give the most salient examples.”

  • This seems like a pretty good way to look at it.

3. Social-Justice-Related Issues: Another narrative I used to believe was that a lot of sketchy ideas were being flattered because they spoke to left-leading academics’ biases in favor of social justice. Implicit association tests, stereotype threat, the idea of zero meaningful psychological differences between men and women, et cetera.

When I started worrying about implicit association tests, I thought I was defying some kind of broad scientific consensus. But the meta-analyses showing the Implicit Association Test didn’t do what people thought had been around since 2009 and have only gotten more numerous since then, with broad media coverage. Problems with stereotype threat research are getting mainstream coverage and even airtime on NPR.

The problem here is that there was no equivalent of the Nature poll on the replication crisis, so I didn’t realize any of this was happening until just recently. For example, in 2016 this Voxsplainer made it sound like there was a monolithic consensus in favor of Implicit Association Tests that no sane person had ever disagreed with, even though by that point there were already several big meta-analyses finding they weren’t practically useful. The correct conclusion isn’t that this is really what scientific consensus thinks. The correct conclusion is that Vox shouldn’t be trusted about any science more complicated than the wedge vs. inclined plane. Once I realized that there was all this intelligent analysis going on that I’d never heard about, my claim to be boldly defying the scientific consensus evaporated.

Yes, Cordelia Fine is still around and is still writing books arguing against gender differences. But she’s starting to sound really defensive, basically the literary equivalent of “I know I’m going to be downvoted to hell for this, but…”. Meanwhile, other scientists are doing a good job pointing out the flaws in her books and conducting studies like this biggest-ever look at male vs. female brain differences, this magisterial look at personality differences, et cetera – not to mention great and widely-accepted work on how intersex people take on more characteristics of their hormonal than their social gender (honestly, we should probably thank transgender people for making this field socially acceptable again). People talk a lot about how Larry Summers was fired from Harvard for talking about male vs. female differences, but Steven Pinker did a whole debate on this and remains a Harvard professor.

Even things about genetic psychological differences between population groups are less bold and maverick-y than their proponents like to think. The relevant surveys I know trying to elicit scientific consensus (1, 2, 3) all find that, when asked anonymously, most scientists think these differences explain about 25% – 50% of variance.

I hate to bring that up, because it’ll probably start a flame war in the comments, but I think it’s important as a sign of exactly how hard it is to politicize science. Global warming skeptics talk about how maybe the scientific consensus on global warming is false because climatologists face political pressure to bias their results in favor of the theory. But scientists studying these areas face much more political pressure, and as long as you give the surveys anonymously they’re happy to express horrendously taboo opinions. This is about the strongest evidence in favor of the consensus on global warming – and scientific consensus in general – that I could imagine.”

  • This is useful info and history of the biology vs.social construct gender debate, implicit bias/racism, and a few other topics.  These phenomena are funny example of how what passes for scientific consensus in the media is often very different from the actual scientific consensus.  Of course this is done on purpose by various ideological advocates and explains why the scientific consensus doesn’t convince anyone.  Other examples he cites include AI Risk, IQ, Nurture Assumption, Blank Slatism, Nutrition, and the Replication Crisis.  In all of these, the scientific consensus actually changed pretty quickly in response to new information and was not substantially hindered by any political/ideological agenda.

“Against this I can only offer a personal narrative: the only light I have by which to judge scientific consensus is my own Inside View assessment of what seems correct. Again and again I have tried to defy scientific consensus. And every time, I either find that I am wrong, find that I am a few years ahead of a trend that most scientists eventually agree with, or find that what I thought was “scientific consensus” was actually a fiction peddled by biased industry or media sources slandering a scientific community which actually had a much more sophisticated picture. My history of trying to fight scientific consensus has been a Man Who Was Thursday-esque series of embarassments as I find again and again that my supposed enemy agrees with me and is even better at what I am trying to do than I am.”

  • That’s a funny way of looking at it and appropriately humbling.  This type of approach is one of the things that makes me want to become a SME.

“Scientific consensus hasn’t just been accurate, it’s been unreasonably accurate. Humans are fallible beings. They are not known for their ability the change their mind, to willingly accept new information, or to put truth-seeking above political squabbles. And our modern society is not exactly known for being an apolitical philosopher-kingdom with strong truth-seeking institutions completely immune from partisan pressure. I feel a deep temptation to sympathize with global warming denialists who worry that the climatological consensus is biased politicized crap, because that is exactly the sort of thing which I would expect to come out of our biased politicized crappy society. Yet again and again I have seen examples of scientific fields that have maintained strong commitments to the truth in the face of pressure that would shatter any lesser institution. I’ve seen fields where people believe incredibly-bizarre sounding things that will get them mocked at cocktail parties just because those things seem to be backed by the majority of the evidence. I’ve even seen people change their minds, in spite of all the incentives to the contrary. I can’t explain this. The idea that scientific consensus is almost always an accurate reflection of the best knowledge we have at the time seems even more flabbergasting than any particular idea that scientists might or might not believe. But it seems to be true.

(note that I’m talking about “scientific consensus” to mean a very high-level pattern, consisting of hundreds of scientists over the space of decades evaluating a broad body of work. Any individual study is still probably total garbage.)”

  • Good points.

“Given how weird all of this is, I realize there’s another possible bias here that should be taken very seriously – which is that I’m wrong about one or both sides of this. Which is more likely: that Science always agrees with Truth? Or that one guy’s perception of Science always agrees with that same guy’s perception of Truth? The latter gives me two degrees of freedom: I can either cherry-pick experts who agree with me and declare them to be Consensus, or I can conform my opinions to consensus so slavishly that I end up discovering only that Consensus agrees with itself. I don’t feel like I’m making this kind of mistake. But then again, nobody ever feels like they’re being biased.

But if I’m making this mistake, I think it’s at least a better mistake than the one where people dream up stories about being mavericks persecuted by hidebound reactionaries. This mistake at least sets the terms of debate as “let’s try to ascertain what the scientific community thinks” and forbids me from believing completely crackpottish things. And it encourages trust in one of our more trustworthy public institutions, always a prosocial sort of thing to do. I would rather have a world of people debating who agrees with scientific consensus or not, than a world of people debating whether scientific consensus is even valuable.

There are two caveats to the above. First, I think it’s dangerous to promote a norm of agreeing with scientific consensus, insofar as that helps encourage exactly the mistakes about the nature of consensus that I discussed above. When poorly-informed diet industry gurus support the Bad Old Paradigm, their rallying cry is usually “You’re a stupid crackpot, bow to the scientific consensus which agrees with me”. I gave three examples above of cases where I would have gotten the scientific consensus 100% wrong if I didn’t have access to a formal survey of scientific experts. In a world where these surveys had never been done – or some existing field without these surveys – or some field where these surveys have been done inaccurately or in a biased manner – people will often believe the consensus to be the opposite of what it really is. In those cases, demands that people respect consensus can be used to shut down people who are actually right – the field-wide equivalent of calling true facts you don’t like debunked and well-refuted. I see this happening all the time and I worry that waxing too poetically about the unreasonable effectiveness of scientific consensus will only serve to empower these people. Goodhart’s Law says that a measure which becomes a target ceases to be a useful measure, so we should be reluctant to target scientific consensus too strongly.

And second, I think that even when the Outside View tells you that the consensus is correct, you should continue pursuing your Inside View hunch that it isn’t. This avoids awkward situations like every individual scientist doubting the consensus, but suppressing their doubts because the “scientific consensus” has to be right.

So maybe the things I’m saying about scientific consensus aren’t very actionable. But respecting scientific consensus in a non-actionable way is a lot less exhausting than believing yourself to be against it, and talking about how you’re against it, and taking flak for being against it. And in the same way it’s helpful to believe that God is good, even if He never really gets around to doing much about it, so it’s reassuring to be able to have faith in our institutions every so often.”

Leftist mob violence undermines the rule of law – A sad consequence of our present polarization is that we are tolerant of violence against our opponents. That being said, there are groups that really ought to be shoved back into their closets. The problem is that the left is close to labeling anyone in the red tribe as worthy of that label and neither side appears willing or able to take on its fascists.

“If the media accurately and comprehensively reported on leftist mob violence, it would see that a pattern has emerged: On campus and in the streets, a violent or menacing core seizes the ground it wants, blocks access to buildings, and shuts down the speech or events it seeks to suppress. This violent core is often surrounded and protected by a larger group of ostensibly “peaceful” protesters who sometimes cheer aggression wildly and then provide cover for the rioters, who melt back into the crowd. After the riot, the polite progressives condemn the violence, urge that it not distract from the alleged rightness of the underlying cause, and then do virtually nothing to enforce the law and punish the offenders.”

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