Friday, September 29, 2017

George Lunt and the Tragedy of the Civil War

Apologies, my dear readers (if any of you still exist) for my extended absence. A combination of moving house, work being busy, and life in general contributed to my poor (read: nonexistent) showing of late. I was going to write something brief to this effect, but after long enough away, the only way back on the horse is a proper ride, not a symbolic hop-on-hop-off. So here we are at last.

I’ve been slowly continuing my way through the Moldbug Canon of primary sources. The most recent foray in this regard has been George Lunt's "The Origin of the Late War", the late war in question being the US Civil War.

At least for me, it was profoundly depressing reading. Not just for what it said about the Civil War, but for what it portends about the state of modern America.

Those of us of a reactionary bent are generally inclined to view history through a tragic lens, and to be vaguely attracted to lost causes.

It used to be acceptable to view the South (while regrettably tied to the injustice of the proximate cause of slavery) as nonetheless a lost cause of resistance to the overweening imperial might of Massachusetts, even if this was not the majority view. Then again, it used to be acceptable to have a statue of Robert E. Lee in your town as well. Increasingly, there is only one acceptable narrative of the Civil War, and Cthulu makes a few more strokes leftward.

But to me, the Civil War is still a tragedy even under the modern left's own terms. By these, I mean - that the only relevant issue was slavery, that it was a moral imperative that slavery be removed, and that any measures were sufficient to justify this end.

Discussions of the Civil War take place in a bizarre environment of historical illiteracy. Not about the Civil War itself, or of America's experience with slavery - Americans actually know quite a lot about their own history, even if they've only heard one version of events.

No, the ignorance that is more striking is the ignorance of the slavery experience anywhere else on the planet. Of which there was plenty. And in particular, the ignorance of the other ways that countries went about ending slavery. Because it somehow never occurs to people to ponder whether there might have been other, better ways to end slavery without resulting in 700,000 corpses.

For instance, if you were slightly more patient, you could try the Brazil option. After first outlawing the slave trade, they later passed a law to the effect that while current slaves would continue in slavery, the children of those slaves would no longer themselves be slaves. In this way, there wasn't a radical change in the labor supply overnight, but it meant that slavery had a use-by date, and would eventually become a smaller and smaller part of the economy, until at some point it could be eliminated entirely without being a massive disruption resulting in fierce and violent opposition.

To a lot of progressives, this gradualism is unacceptable because it takes too long. Slavery must not only be ended, but ended immediately, whatever the cost. In that case, you could do what the British did in Jamaica, and pass a law that not only abolished slavery, but provided for compensation to the slave owners, so they weren't getting all their assets (as they viewed it) confiscated with no recompense. Which is something people tend to strongly and violently oppose.

Because if you're serious about "whatever the cost", then it seems pretty likely that you could have simply bought every slave in the US for less than the cost of the Civil War. The 700,000 people who wound up dead might have been willing to contribute a fair bit towards the necessary tax, for instance.

But suppose you're an extremist who thinks that everyone in white America was so tarred by the injustice of slavery that their lives are literally worth nothing, even those of people in the North.

Even then, the Civil War and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of perhaps about a quarter of the slaves. Don't trust me, you can read it in famous reactionary papers like The Guardian:
Downs reconstructed the experiences of one freed slave, Joseph Miller, who had come with his wife and four children to a makeshift freed slave refugee camp within the union stronghold of Camp Nelson in Kentucky. In return for food and shelter for his family Miller joined the army. Yet union soldiers in 1864 still cleared the ex-slaves out of Camp Nelson, effectively abandoning them to scavenge in a war-ravaged and disease-ridden landscape. One of Miller's young sons quickly sickened and died. Three weeks later, his wife and another son died. Ten days after that, his daughter perished too. Finally, his last surviving child also fell terminally ill. By early 1865 Miller himself was dead.
Suppose this were a hostage rescue situation. You had proposed just paying the ransom, partly because in this unusual case it would come with a practical guarantee that this would be the last time you'd ever have to do it. Someone else decided that terrorism can never prosper, so sent in the army, who ended up inadvertently killing 1/4 of the hostages and a large number of their own troops to boot. Even if you hated the terrorists, would you view this as a triumph?

You may not like the idea of slave owners receiving money for freeing their slaves, still profiting one last time from their unjust system. Very well. Do you like the deaths of hundreds of thousands of slaves instead? Life is full of tradeoffs. Shut up and multiply, as Mr Yudkowsky put it.

It is against this background that the Origin of the Late War takes place. But the action of the book is not the war itself. Instead, the war stalks the narrative of the book, as the terrible tragedy just over the horizon.

And the unfortunate message, which Lunt emphasizes over and over again, is the following: if things had gone only slightly differently, all this could have been avoided.

And in Lunt's re-telling, it is amazing just how many places this could have happened. Some of these start long before the Civil War was even on the horizon. For instance, at one point he implies that the Whig Party's decision in 1840 to nominate William Harrison against the unpopular Martin Van Buren was a momentous one. Lunt claims, credibly, that had they nominated either of Daniel Webster (who "worked for compromises to stave off the sectionalism that threatened war between the North and the South") or Henry Clay ("the Great Compromiser"), the Whigs would likely have still won the election, and much of what followed might have been different. Instead, Harrison got elected, then died roughly a month into office.

Another aspect to this is the sense of slowly building antagonism that becomes self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling. People in both the North and the South were increasingly outraged by the violence in Bleeding Kansas. So they funneled money and support to their side, which outraged their opponents more. Or equivalently, the South seemed so shocked by John Brown's raid that they felt that there was little hope of reconciling with the North.

And you can see how they would have felt this. But the action is always haunted by the eternal elipses of the war itself. Lunt mostly elides over this, but the end of lots of the chapters dangles the implication: "Of course, this alternative didn't actually happen, and so..."

700,000 corpses are contained in those "..."

Because weighed against this, lots of other alternatives suddenly seem not so bad at all. Including, in Lunt's telling, for the South to just continue to take it. Not that this was the only option, but it certainly would have been a lot better for the South, even under their own preferences at the time, than the eventual outcome. The casualties for the whole Bleeding Kansas conflict amounted to perhaps 180 or so, according to La Wik. It is a horrifying thought to ponder how long it would have taken at Gettysburg to exceed this amount, and whether the time would be measured in minutes or seconds. And from the perspective of the South, the loss of slaves to Northern operatives sneaking them out through raids like those of Harriet Tubman is trivial compared with, for instance, losing all of your slaves everywhere, forever. Which is what happened.

As Lunt puts it, if the South had simply held their ground, the North actually had surprisingly little power to force the issue of emancipation. The vote to free the slaves during the Civil War barely passed as it was, and this was without any of the Confederate representatives in the room. Their presence would have been enough to make it a total non-starter. Lunt quotes Andrew Johnson from after South Carolina had voted to secede:
What is the reason for disunion ? Because one man was not elected ? If Mr. Breckinridge had been elected, nobody would have wanted to break up the Union ; but Mr. Lincoln is elected, and now they say they will break up the Union. He said, No. What was there to fear ? Mr. Lincoln was a minority President. Let South Carolina send her Senators back, and Mr Lincoln cannot even make his Cabinet without the consent of the Senate.
Lunt is no straightforward Southern apologist. While he is sympathetic towards the South's perception that they were suffering injustices at the hands of the North, his overall position is that open rebellion against the Government was both unnecessary and ill-advised. Towards this end, he often notes the ways in which Southern enthusiasm for confrontation led them to their own downfall. For instance, consider the relative glee and amusement with which Preston Brooks' caning of Charles Sumner was greeted in the South (he was, as the story goes, sent many replacement canes, including one inscribed "hit him again!"). But even to the most ardent southern supporter, it doesn't seem quite so funny in hindsight, does it? As Lunt notes:
The unlucky blow afterwards inflicted by Mr. Brooks, of South Carolina, upon Mr. Sumner, in the Senate Chamber, gave him a prominence which there is no reason to suppose that ho could otherwise have acquired. It also enlisted sympathy enough, on his account, to secure an indulgence to his extreme views, from persons to whom they had been hitherto repulsive ; and in this way powerfully seconded the general radical movement. Except for that blow, there is every ground for believing that Mr. Sumner's official course would have ended with his first senatorial term.
Relatedly, it is hard not to see the Democrats' decision to split their party into Northern and Southern candidates in the election of 1860 as a catastrophe for the South. By sticking to principle, they ensured that the Republicans, who lacked anything close to an absolute majority, nonetheless got into power.
Indeed, at this moment, the conservative masses of the country possessed an immense superiority of physical and moral force over their opponents ; and could that have been guided by prudence and patriotism, it must have resulted in the entire and permanent overthrow of the now concentrated elements of radicalism and discord. At the election for President, in the ensuing year, the Republican candidate, Mr. Lincoln, fell short of a majority by nearly a million of votes ; while his plurality, in the free States alone, was considerably less than two hundred thousand.' It needed now, far more than upon the important occasion to which Mr. Benton referred "in a note to the Debates in Congress, already cited in his volume, "the last words of the last great men of that wonderful time." There were many still upon the stage, inspired by as noble sentiments of patriotism as had ever animated the hearts of elder patriots ; but the latter had left few or no successors to the powerful influence which they personally exerted, and which had been found hitherto able to compose the stormy passions by which the country had at times been agitated. But, although the multitude, under the whip applied by a very inferior order of men, was fast getting possession of the bit, to run the sort of helter-skelter race which usually occurs under such circumstances, it needed, after all, but a very little of that true spirit of conciliation, among persons of substantial influence, on both  sides, which should have marked the conduct of fellow-citizens, in an enlightened and Christian age, to avert that terrible impending catastrophe, which, it is not to be supposed, that the great majority, upon either side, could have really desired to bring upon the common country. ...
As Carlyle remarks, somewhere, in reference to a certain period of English history, " The times were great and the men were small." 
Be very wary of giving up the reins of power for symbolic purity alone. There is, it seems, surprising value in being at the head of even a weakened and divided state.

And even up to the very end, the drumbeat of the counterfactual continues.
It is certain, however, that long after secession had begun, by the act of the South Carolina Convention, the breach could have been repaired without much serious difficulty. 
Indeed, Lunt argues that there is strong reason to believe that the Crittenden Compromise, if agreed to, would still have averted the war. He quotes a special reporter from the New York World on December 28th, 1860, eight days after South Carolina voted to secede:
"The Star (Washington paper), of this evening, says: 'Circumstances have come to our knowledge, within the last twenty-four hours, which lead us to hope that Mr. Seward will, ere the close of the current week, counsel a settlement upon the basis proposed by Mr. Crittenden.' 
"One word that way could instantly settle the controversy ; dethroning the disunionists per se at the South, whose power is but the result of the universal belief at the South that the Republican party made up its mind for war to the knife, from the start, upon the constitutional rights of the slaveholding States." ' 
It is very true, that a newspaper reporter may be mistaken both in regard to facts and to the conclusions which he deduces from them. But if an intelligent reporter, and the World at that time, a leading organ of the Republican party, was not likely to employ one who was not of that class, he could hardly make a mistake as to the opinion generally entertained at Washington, and especially among the Republicans themselves, with whom he would probably confer, as to the effect — and an effect how momentous ! — which " one word " from a particular source, and in a particular direction, might have exercised in the prevention of civil war. 
 But the "one word" was never spoken.

And so...

As irony would have it, I finished Lunt's book not long before the Charlottesville debacle. When having recently acquired a hammer, everything becomes a nail, and the temptation is to overfit the parallels.

But it did cement something that I had felt long before. One should be very hesitant before cheering on a rise in political violence, even when your side seems to be winning. Just read the stories of men stumbling blindly into a monstrous, calamitous war, whose consequences were far worse on all sides than the perceived slights over which arms were initially taken up.

Mr Lovecraft cautioned us to not call up that which we cannot put down. Political violence has a tendency to turn into one such aspect.

Compromise is always intellectually unsatisfying, and just continuing to take the abuse is undignified and maddening. More importantly, these are not the only options on the table, so it's not like defeatism is the only option, or the best one.

But be wary of stumbling inadvertently into open conflict. You may yet find out the horror of the elipses in some future narrative.

Monday, August 7, 2017

No True Communism

As the estimable Mr Moldbug famously put it, America is a communist country.

This is one of those statements that, on first glance, strikes you as ludicrous. And then you dig a little more, and it seems funny and has something to it, but still seems over the top and wrong. And then you dig a little more, and suddenly you're not so sure any more.

Then one day, you find that 'communism' is a pretty concise explanation for lots of the crazy stuff you see going on around you. And you try to mention this to people, and they look at you like you've wandered off the deep end.

Which perhaps you have - the internet is a wild place.

Then again, communism itself is partly to blame here. It's not like Marx spelled out exactly how his society was going to work in detail, meaning that the label necessarily has a lot more ambiguity than, say, a mercentilist or a right-to-life supporter.

And yet, when someone declares that America is a communist country, it doesn't prompt a mental response of you trying to haggle over exactly what Marx might have meant, and which of the ambiguities of what policies should be classified where in terms of mapping American political thought to a somewhat-light-on-specifics political system.

Not at all. Rather, trying to swallow "America is a communist country" at the first attempt is like trying to drink a tumbler of whisky all in one go. They do it in the movies and look cool. You try it at home, it burns your throat and you throw up.

But among the various ways I've tried to explain this idea to people, here's a surprisingly powerful one.

Consider the following list of policy proposals and aims. It's long, but bear with me.

We'll call this one, Candidate A

-Work to eliminate national oppression, national chauvinism, discrimination and segregation
-Fight against all racist ideologies and practices
-Fight against all manifestations of male supremacy and discrimination against women
-Fight against homophobia and all manifestations of discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people
-Implement a $15/hour minimum wage for all workers
-Implement national universal health care
-Oppose privatization of Social Security. 
-Increased taxes on the rich and corporations
-Strong regulation of the financial industry
-Regulation and public ownership of utilities
-Increased federal aid to cities and states
-Opposition to the Iraq War and other military interventions
-Opposition to free trade treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement 
-Nuclear disarmament and a reduced military budget
-Campaign finance reform including public financing of campaigns
-Election law reform, including Instant Runoff Voting

Okay, with me so far? Imagining a hypothetical Candidate A?

Now, he's about to square off against his challenger, Candidate B. What policies does he favor?

-Racial justice
-Fight for affordable housing
-Fight for women's rights
-Fight for LGBT equality
-Make college tuition free and debt free
-Get big money out of politics and restore democracy
-Create decent paying jobs
-Implement a $15/hour minimum wage
-Combat climate change to save the planet
-A fair and humane immigration policy
-Work to create an AIDS and HIV-free generation
-Empower tribal nations
-Care for our veterans
-Medicare for all
-Strengthen an expand social security
-Fight to lower prescription drug prices
-Fight for disability rights
-Support historically black colleges and universities
-Reform Wall Street
-War should be the last option
-Real family values
-Improving the rural economy
-Make the wealthy, Wall Street and large corporations pay their fair share

So John Q. Normie looks at that list, and thinks: well, look, the first guy seems to push things a bit further on nationalising healthcare, but then again the second guy wants medicare for all, which seems like basically the same thing. The second guy talks a little more about veterans and the family, but it's hard to know what exactly that means. In terms of policies where they differ, the first guy wants nuclear disarmament and the second guy wants free college, but is this because they sound like they'd vehemently disagree with each other over this, or just that they didn't think of the other one's talking point first? The first guy somehow sounds more angry than the second, even though they both talk a lot about fighting. Perhaps it's just the spin doctoring that the second guy is fighting for stuff, and the first is fighting against stuff. Do I want the friendly guy, or the passionately fired up guy? Geez, I don't know who to pull the lever for. Does it really make a difference?

Enough suspense. Let me reveal the identities of our two candidates.

Candidate B is Bernie Sanders, taken from his issues page

Candidate A is the Communist Party of the USA, taken from Wikipedia's summary of their ideology. If you don't trust them, you can get it straight from the source too.

Actually, I cheated ever so slightly, by leaving out the one aim in the opening sentence from the wikipedia entry that does sound like classical communism
Struggle for the unity of the working class 
That might have set off your radar. But the rest of the stuff is how they plan to struggle for the unity of the working class.

The obvious point here is that it is pretty damn hard to distinguish the two lists. You could use this to simply say "Ah ha! QED, Bernie Sanders is a communist!".

While true, that's not the interesting part here.

The first interesting part here is that the vast majority of Americans, and the vast majority of Bernie Sanders supporters, do not consider Sanders' policies to be examples of communism. They just consider them as examples of slightly left of center Democratic Party politics. In fact, if you accused the average Bernie Sanders supporter of being a communist, they would likely either scoff, or get offended, or both.

And yet here we are. The Communist Party of the USA is claiming pretty much the same list as their policies.

If you're someone who thinks America is not a communist country, this is quite a conundrum.

The answer which I suspect most of the aforementioned group will instinctively choose, is to say that the CPUSA is wrong. We've learned about communism, it's only about central control of the means of production. The rest of it shouldn't be there.

To which I respond: be careful before you go down that path. Are you really saying that the Communist Party of the USA is insufficiently communist? Are you saying you know better than the Communist Party of the USA what actually constitutes communism? These guys have a pretty long and storied history going back to 1919. They walked the walk when it comes to supporting the Soviet Union when it was still in business. Hell, they're still shilling for Madura in Venezuela right now, even as the whole country is starving to death. They seem pretty darn serious to me.

And they say that communism looks a lot like Bernie Sanders. They too support democracy. They too call themselves socialist.

But there's a second thing to note.

The CPUSA is not exactly looking to take over the mainstream, remember. That's why they insist on calling themselves not just communist, but Communist. They're aiming at the fringe left. Even Wikipedia, hardly a bastion of reactionary thought, labels them as "Far Left".

The point is, presumably they'd like to distinguish themselves from the leftist wing of the Democratic Party, otherwise why bother? Why go to all the hassle of getting ridiculed as a Communist and then just end up agreeing with the Democrats?

There are two leading hypotheses here.

The standard one is that this is all subterfuge. They really do care entirely about the single issue they're not trumpeting, namely seizing the means of production, and the rest is entirely bogus and a hook to get people in the door.

Perhaps. In that case, you'd probably conclude they're rather dense, if their "hook" is that if you join you'll agree with the Democrats on everything but face widespread mockery from your friends and family.

The alternative one is that they genuinely have difficulty distinguishing themselves from the Democrats. They've just done what Moldbug joking referred to in his post: for "workers and peasants", read "Blacks and Hispanics". As I wrote about a while back, the story of the latter half of the 20th century is that cultural marxism beat out economic marxism. They've just moved slightly with the times, but other than that don't see a big contradiction.

Not that they couldn't emphasize more the seizing the means of production. Admittedly they're already seizing the utilities, but they could talk about other stuff too.

No, the problem is that when you want them to flesh out the rest of their program, after the means of production are seized, that's when it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish them from the Democratic Party. The means of production are seized! We control the commanding heights of the economy! What else would we like to get done?

The answer, apparently, is Bernie Sanders.

And why is that?

At the bottom of the rabbit hole lies one answer: because America is a communist country.

The pill is large though, and your gag reflex is strong. It can't be. There must be some other answer.

Read on, or read it again, and ponder.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The fastest way in

"Nature," as Mr Emerson once noted, "has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended."

A similar principle operates with public policies.

To wit, policies that the average person is not willing to openly and publicly defend, under their own name, will eventually be dismantled.

This may sound like a tautology, until you realize that there are lots of policies that exist partially out of inertia. But when you try to explain why they exist, suddenly the explanations sound awkward.

And the awkwardness comes because the mind instinctively feels that they jar with a broader principle that has been enunciated, but not yet everywhere applied. They are, in other words, Larry Auster’s famous unprincipled exceptions. And they are strong candidates when guessing where the liberal zeitgeist might head next, as I’ve written about before.

Auster seems to mostly have had in mind exceptions that get made deliberately, out of a sense by those in power that being consistent would lead to bad practical consequences. While this is true, there are other instances where it seems that inertia explains a lot. Steve Sailer’s quip that the Eye of Soros is powerful, but can’t be everywhere at once, seems quite apt. Sometimes the discussion almost has the flavor of gradually pushing the boundaries of the Overton window leftward until the mainstream feels instinctively that the boundary is catching up to them, and move accordingly.

The most glaring instances of these apply to immigration.

Modern liberalism, if taken at face value, deems it the height of evil and injustice to grant people special privileges and status based on:

-Their skin color when they were born

-Their genitalia when they were born

-Their sexual preference, (according to current fashion, also decided when they were born, though it doesn’t matter much if it happens later).

But so far, it is still acceptable to grant people special privileges based on where their mother was standing when they were born.

Why is this the case?

More importantly, suppose you were asked to justify why this is the case, in an essay that would be printed under your name around your workplace.

How many people would be comfortable doing so? I suspect not very many.

Because there are approximately two defenses

i) F*** you, it’s ours, and we don’t owe anybody anything.

ii) As a practical matter, we can’t let in everyone.

Version i) has a variety of flavors, most of which hinge upon variations of the definition of “us”, ranging from a particular ethnic/religious group (e.g.: Israel), to the current citizens (however they got here), to the current citizens plus whoever we choose to invite at our sole discretion (though this mostly punts the question to that of who we should invite).

I suspect however, that the vast majority of public defenses would be made along version ii).
But version ii) inexorably leads to the current situation – the west absorbs the third world, but at a slightly slower rate. Everyone who is let in, stays in. The ratchet moves gradually, but never moves back.

There are, however, a variety of ways to chip away at the current immigration policies.
You can make the frontal assault on the idea itself – denounce the very idea of citizenship as racist. We may yet end up there, but the frontal assault runs into too many problems of seeming to go against things that normal people love, like the American flag and national anthem.

You can make the bait and switch – citizenship is so important and beneficial, that we must make the important act of generosity and grant it to anyone who wants it. In other words, citizenship changes from something based on lineage (where your parents must be American) to something merely based on assenting to American propositions, with those whose parents are American merely being presumed to assent to them automatically. At that point, it seems like mere mean-spiritedness to not let anyone who wants to assent to the ideas and become American to do so, provided they’re not a criminal. Because, after all, people are all the same, so there could be no differences in anything to consider, none whatsoever, no siree.

Or you can make a circuitous attack. Maintain the idea of citizenship, but find another reason to let people in anyway.

This seems to be the most likely outcome to me. And the vector that seems the most potent here is the expansion of refugee programs.

The notion of refugees circumvents people’s ideas of how immigration should normally work. Sure, we normally screen immigrants carefully and don’t let just anybody move here, but these people are refugees! To send them back to where they came from would be to return them to certain death.

And this association has been built up so strongly that mostly people don’t seem to scrutinize any of the policies being snuck in as a consequence. The clearest sign of this is the fact that the major war being used to justify large migration flows into Europe is the conflict in Syria. However, a cursory glance at either a) immigration statistics, or b) photos of the refugees themselves reveals that a large quantity of them are coming from Africa (or, more recently, Bangladesh!), from regions where there is either no war at all, or conflict at a sufficiently low level that what they are fleeing from is simply everyday life in these places. Suddenly, the definition of a potential refugee has expanded to anyone in a sufficiently crappy country. Which, at last count, is most of the people of the world.

Not only that, but a second bait-and-switch has taken place, also without much discussion. Refugees went from being people that were taken in temporarily for the duration of a conflict, to people who were settled permanently. This process is left quite mysterious to the general public, which appears by design. It’s good if it happens by a court. It’s better if it happens by a permanent civil servant, or a whole lot of them. It’s best if the average person who is annoyed at the idea doesn’t even know whose decision it was.

I write the above sentence with snark, but then honest humility forces me to admit that I also have no idea exactly whose decision it was to have the vast shifts in immigration for most of the west.

Even if asylum is not immediately granted on a permanent basis, the refugee can always claim the risk of violence if he goes back. Like all of these claims, they are incredibly difficult to evaluate from thousands of kilometres away with little, if any, documentary evidence available. One either has to accept most of the claims, or reject most of the claims. The idea that one will be able through careful scrutiny determine the facts of each case seems fanciful. Of course, now that they’ve arrived *we* would be killing them by sending them back, and you don’t want that on your hands, do you, prole?

The other great benefit, to the progressive, is that part of the process happens through bodies like the UN (certainly in the case of places like Australia). Phrases like ‘international treaty obligations’ get thrown around, which are another way of telling the rubes that they have no say in the matter.

Refugees have become the ideal motte and bailey  of the immigration world. The motte is the idea that we're temporarily helping people who would literally die without our help. The bailey is large scale, permanent immigration of people from some of the most dysfunctional parts of the planet, via a mechanism mostly shielded from the political process.

You may wonder why this is a bailey, but that's probably just because you're insufficiently educated in the benefits of diversity, comrade. A little time in reeducation camp will sort you out. Or more practically, knowing how holiness spirals work.

I expect that mass immigration will most be legitimized by a systematic expansion of the practical, though not necessarily the formal, definition of refugee. In the world where policy is determined by feelz, it will come to mean "anyone who might plausibly be portrayed as an object of sympathy".

Which in practice means that anyone is allowed to come, as long as they're some kind of approved minority. In theory, there's probably an additional requirement that they haven't yet been proven to have committed a crime, though the process for evaluating that clause becomes essentially nugatory.

And so the ultimate aim gets accomplished. The others might have got there too, but I suspect this one will effectively dismantle immigration systems with less resistance. The unprincipled exception becomes semi-principled consistency.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

On the time-series, the cross-section, and epistemic humility

One of the advantages of the economist's training is just the ability to instinctively think in terms of empirical tests. There's a reason that economists have tended to colonise other fields like sociology, law and politics - as much as anything, it comes from knowing about how to design proper empirical tests, and what good identification is.

Perhaps more importantly, it comes from knowing what poor identification is, including basic issues of endogeneity, reverse causality and omitted variables. For instance, knowing that you cannot infer almost anything about the relationship between prisons and crime just by looking at the variation over time in the total number of prisoners and the total number of criminals in a society.

The gold standard for identification, of course, is pure randomisation. When that isn't available, as it usually isn't outside a laboratory, you go for natural experiments - where something almost exogenous occurred. This gets used as an instrument - in the prisons and crime case, for instance, Steve Levitt used ACLU prison overcrowding litigation as a quasi-random shock to the prison population.

Of course, the pendulum swings back and forth. If the initial identification push corrected the free-for-all of 1980's empirical work (regressing the number of left shoes on the number of right socks!), the subsequent view seems to have gone towards 'identification uber alles'. In other words, the only question of interest is whether you've really truly identified totally exogenous variation, not the importance of the underlying topic. Plus, oddly, very few people seem willing to learn from an imperfect instrument. It seems to me that if there are 100 potential explanations, and an imperfect instrument rules out 90 of them, then we've learned something quite valuable - the answer is either the main hypothesis, or one of the remaining 10. But making the perfect the enemy of the good seems to be the way of things these days.

These questions end up being most important when you actually run empirical tests. Me, I'm lazy - there is a large hurdle for me to actually download a dataset and start fiddling with it. I'm always impressed by people like Audacious Epigone and Random C. Analysis who do this stuff all the time.

But there is another aspect of empirical training that ends up being even more useful for the computationally lazy - helping you sort through hypotheses just by knowing the panel nature of the dataset.

In particular, a lot of questions that purport to be about a time-series are really about a panel. That is, it's not really about a single variable over time (the time-series), it's about a group of different individuals over time. And thinking of the cross-section simultaneously with the time series greatly clarifies a lot of things. That is, instead of just coming up with hypotheses about why the average of some variable as changed over time, think about whether this hypothesis would also be able to explain which individuals would change more or less, or would be higher or lower on average.

One of my favorite examples is birthrates. The classic question is about the time-series : why have birthrates, on average, declined over time?

But there is also a cross-section - whose birthrates? This could be of individuals, or countries, or characteristics. Moreover, the cross-section exists both today, and in the past. If you're too lazy to run a regression and just wanted to sort through hypotheses about the time series with help from your friend William of Occam, one rule of thumb might be as follows: A good variable explains both the time series and the cross section. A mediocre variable explains the time series, but not the cross-section. A bad variable explains the time-series, but predicts the cross-section in the wrong direction.

For instance, suppose I wanted to know why birthrates in the west had declined overall. Here's the US Total Fertility Rate over time

You might look at that graph, and notice a big decline starting in the early 1960s. Certain hypotheses start suggesting themselves. What was going on in the 60's? Feminism? The Pill, approved by the FDA in 1960?

Quite possibly. But what hypotheses would come to mind if instead I showed you this graph:

The US is now in green. But we've also plotted New Zealand, in purple, Sweden, in light blue, and Japan in pink.

I personally would be astonished if your reaction isn't at least partly like mine, thinking that the world is actually quite a lot more complicated than you'd bargained for. Sweden was actually rising in the early 1960s, and New Zealand was higher than the US for a long time. Japan, meanwhile, has a completely different picture altogether.

You can add any number of these together at the excellent World Bank website to test whatever theory you have.

But there are other cross-sections within countries which can be used to test theories further.

Suppose I were primarily interested in the west, and my theory was about a rising cost of having children. It's a lot more expensive to raise children than it was in the past, as you have to pay for daycare, and "good schools", and all this other stuff, because societal expectations are higher.

I certainly hear people with kids complaining about cost all the time, which tells me that maybe there's something to it.

In the first place, I don't think this hypothesis stands up well to an actual examination of the data above. It turns out there's nothing quite like downloading the bloody data and plotting it to explode a lot of preconceptions. This probably actually is the most basic economist's tool of all, to be honest. Because the US graph above shows that not only did birth rates in general go down, but they went down precipitously starting in the 1960s, hit their low point around 1975, and have been slightly rising since then. Of course, since the graph only starts in the 1960s, you have to be wary of giving prominence to this date alone for the initial decline. But still, does this look like a graph of what you expect the cost of raising a child was?

I'd guess not, but with something hard to measure like "the cost of raising a child", who knows, maybe it is. After all, the aggregate time series is always hard. We only have one run of history, and lots of things are changing at once. But the cross-section has a lot more data.

For instance, consider the cross-section of rich and poor. At least in 2000, here's how they looked:

In other words, the poor have more children than the rich.

This immediately doesn't sound like a cost story. Even if the cost has gone up for everyone, why are the rich less able to bear it than the poor? Even if you think that the poor are on welfare so they don't care about the cost, as long as the rich have more money, they still are better placed to be able to deal with it. Are children some sort of inferior good, getting substituted for jetskis as income rises?

And there's another aspect - there's a historical cross-section as well. I suspect, though it turns out to be harder than I thought to find an easy citation for this, that this disgenic pattern in birthrates with respect to income is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly in pre-history or in polygamous societies, only the rich could afford to have large large families (or multiple wives, in the polygamy case). When the Malthusian limit binds, access to resources matters, and the rich outbreed the poor.

I've written before about how I think improved birth control is a big part of the story. But doubt it not, this does not much better at explaining the current cross section as a cost story. That is, it approximately fails to predict it at all (making it mediocre by my rule of thumb), rather than predicting it in the wrong direction like costs do. To get birth control to explain the cross-section of income as well, you'd need to believe that the poor are unable to afford birth control, but are able to afford the resulting children. Seems hard to square to me.

Cost, incidentally, also has similar cross-sectional problems when it comes to the increase in obesity. Leftists love the 'food desert' explanation, whereby the poor are forced to become obese because the stores in their area don't have enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and hence the only options to them are potato chips and coke.

Again, from a cross-sectional point of view, this is possible. But it's a disaster from the time-series point of view. As society in general has gotten richer, we've also gotten fatter. How is it that the poor today "can't afford to eat healthily", but the poor in the 1930's could?

So explanations have to get more complicated. There's no rule of nature that everything has a single explanation. I've picked fertility and obesity because they are two of the most stubborn problems facing the west today, which suggests, but does not guarantee, that they may not be amenable to a single simple explanation.

I think there's something quite humbling about looking at the totality of the data, because it rarely looks like any one neat explanation of anything. It reminds you that your models of the world are just that - models. You include what you think are the most important parts, but you leave out lots of other stuff too. Even if you're right on what's important (a big if), the world is a large and complicated place.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The End of Empire

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been listening to Patrick Wyman’s excellent podcast series “The Fall of Rome”.

One of the things that’s most interesting is the way Wyman fills in the gaps of how these kinds of power transitions occurred in practice. A particularly fascinating story is about the end of Roman Britain. As Wyman puts it:
The Irish came from across the sea to the west. The Picts came south, through and around Hadrian’s formerly great wall. And the Saxons came from the North Sea coast of the continent. They plundered and burned, pillaged and raped, killed and took captives. Without the Roman army to defend them, the Britons were helpless to beat back the attacks of these marauders. Within a generation, most of what remained of Roman Britain was lost and gone forever.
In the first episode of this show, I emphasized the importance of taking a regional approach. The fall of the roman empire happened in much different ways in different places. Some regions barely experienced anything we would call a disruption until the year 500 or even later, whereas others were barely recognizable in comparison to their former selves by that date. No province of the former Western Roman Empire went down faster or harder than Britain. And no region was more fundamentally or more deeply transformed by processes that we are calling the fall of the Roman Empire.
The island fragmented politically into a patchwork of new kingdoms ruled by petty tyrants, some of them native, some of them foreign born. The level of material sophistication dropped off drastically. By 500, nobody knew how to run a proper bathhouse, or, more seriously, even how to build in stone. The economy grew simpler, and barter replaced cash money. Urban centres shrank and all but disappeared. Roman Law Codes and legal concepts fell out of use. People stopped speaking Latin as an everyday language. Most strikingly, mass immigration from the continent completely rewrote the political, linguistic, and demographic map of the island. Britain represents the catastrophe side of the fall of the Roman Empire. In almost no facet of life was there recognizable continuity between Roman Britain in the 4th century and Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th.

For instance, how did Britain end up transitioning from Roman rule to Kings? Well, in Wyman’s telling, Britain was always at the periphery of the empire. Not just geographically, but also in terms of importance and focus. As the Empire experienced increasing turmoil during the late 4th century and early 5th century, attention simply turned elsewhere, and there was less and less interaction between the capital and the garrisons out in Britain. Wyman indicates that at a certain point in the early 5th Century, it would have been quite possible for Roman troops in Britain to have simply not heard anything from the central authorities for years at a time, nor been paid anything by them. In fact, the most significant effect of Rome was when usurpers like Magnus Maximus or Constantine III took a large number of their troops from Britain in their attempts to claim the throne. When the troops left, they didn’t come back, and that was about the last you would have heard on the matter.

So what was happening in the garrisons in the meantime? Well, what was left of the troops still in the the garrisons mostly supported themselves and stayed supplied by assessing taxes on the local population. By this point, these were mostly taxes in kind, as coin was becoming increasingly rare, another aspect of Empire receding. While it’s not like the locals exactly had a choice about paying these taxes to support the garrisons, it’s not obvious that they were unhappy with the arrangement either, as the garrison kept them defended from raiding parties like the Picts, the Scots or the Saxons. These groups had been increasing their raids even during the period of effective Roman rule in the 4th century, and this just got worse once Roman rule declined. In some places, such as along Hadrian's Wall, the garrisons continued to operate.  As long as the general was competent enough to keep the people happy and the troops loyal (since by this point, the troops had much more loyalty to their local leader than the far-distant Emperor they hadn’t heard from in years), things scraped by.

Though as you can imagine, losing the support of Rome did have disastrous effects on the ability of the garrisons to actually defend the people. In the 5th century, along Hadrian's wall or in the east of Britain, you were between three to five times more likely to have a blade wound visible in your skeletal remains as people during the height of Roman Britain. As some Britons wrote in 446 in a letter to the Roman general Aetius
To Aeutius, thrice consul, come the groans of the Britons. The barbarians drive us into the sea, the sea drives us back on the barbarians. Between them, two kinds of death face us. We are either slaughtered, or drowned.
But no help was forthcoming. Aetius had his own problems.

And so as Rome collapsed, the autonomy of these local generals gradually increased, until there wasn’t anyone giving them orders any more. But this didn’t come at a definite point where they were explicitly cut loose, and the nature of what they were doing didn’t experience any sharp shifts – it’s just that over time it become gradually apparent that nobody was coming anymore, and they were on their own. As a result, the distinction between “Roman general in an outlying garrison” and “local warlord” was a very blurred one in this period. There was a guy, he gave orders, they got obeyed. He may have nominally claimed to do so on behalf of Rome, but the frequency of invoking Rome as the basis of authority probably also declined until eventually it stopped altogether. At some point, the general started calling himself “King”. In an alternative timeline, maybe some future Roman Emperor might have turned up to re-establish authority. But it never happened.

In other places, the garrisons were sufficiently worthless that the job of defending the populace fell to local elites instead. Perhaps you armed some of your peasants to defend against the Saxon raiders, and gradually figured out enough how to fight them off. Again, like before, if you end up commanding enough people in battle for long enough, you effectively become a warlord.

The narrative of history that we tend to get taught is one filled with definite events and dates, especially for power transitions. The Nazis were defeated in 1945. Constantinople was taken over by the Ottomans in 1453. The American Revolutionary War ended (roughly) with the battle of Yorktown in 1781. In all these instances, the new power seems to get established fairly quickly, and our understanding is that it was readily apparent that a large transition had taken place. Whether this was exactly true even for these events is not clear, but it seems not a bad approximation of reality. And from hearing enough narratives of this structure, one ends up implicitly taking this as the rough template for when you’ve reached a sufficient understanding of What Actually Happened and Why.

But the fall of Rome just doesn’t look like that. For one thing, it’s not even clear exactly when you date the end of the Roman Empire. Before listening to this series, I naively assumed that the sack of Rome was the end of things, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. For starters, there were two of them, one in 410 and another in 455, and Western Roman Emperors continued to rule in some form or other before, during and after both. I also didn’t know that Rome wasn’t actually the administrative capital at this point, it was Ravenna. I’ve seen the “end date” given as 476 AD, when the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus was overthrown by Odoacer.  But this was as much as anything the last gasp of what was already a thoroughly decayed system.

And if this holds true for Rome, it holds doubly true for Roman Britain. Admittedly, we have very few written records from this period, making it hard to say for sure. The evidence for the stories above comes through things like evidence of garrisons near Hadrian's Wall being still functioning in the 6th century, the existence of hill forts in other parts of Britain around this time, and aristocratic burials emphasising military rather than civilian themes. But it seems safe to say that the end of empire was experienced partly as power and central authority just receding, until at some point it became apparent that it was gone altogether.

And the things that replace it are local power arrangements, especially those that are relatively self-sufficient. If you imagined this in modern America, if the Federal Government were to collapse, some much decayed form of New York City might survive as a separate autonomous city-state. After all, it has an existing private army in the form of the NYPD. While they only barely tolerate DeBlasio (and I doubt their restraint in this regard would survive the collapse of federal authority), it’s not hard to imagine a Giuliani or a Bloomberg continuing to run the city if the federal government disappeared. This seems much more plausible than, say, New York State – how many people with guns owe a strong primary allegiance to New York State, and how much territory are they in undisputed control of?

But then again, maybe somewhere like Idaho is a better bet. You wouldn't bet on the New York finance industry to keep functioning as usual if Washington collapsed. Nor would I bet on the continued smooth functioning of hundred storey skyscrapers in the event of an extended civil emergency. In the case of Britain, the urban centres emptied out almost entirely.

If the distinction between “general” and “warlord” is murky in the late Roman Empire, then even more murky is the distinction between “migration” and “invasion”. When the Goths crossed the Danube in 376 AD, they didn’t come as army – they were invited across by the Romans, and promised to pay taxes, serve in the  army, etc. And indeed, there had been Barbarians serving in the Roman army for a long time before this, including in positions of command. What was less common, however, and less ideal, was for entire tribes to join as a single unit, as they did with the Goths. In addition, armies at the time tended to travel with women and children. Look at them one way, and they’re a tribe or people migrating into an already multi-ethnic empire. Look at them another way, and they’re a notionally Roman but practically semi-autonomous military force with civilians supporting the camp. Either way, the result was disastrous.

So Roman armies being made up of mixed barbarian and Roman troops was not inherently unusual. But in this era, armies were independent power bases whose loyalty to the Empire couldn’t be guaranteed. The leaders of these armies would negotiate with the central authority to take part in campaigns. Was this just an amicable discussion over costs and supplies? Was it insubordinate generals being paid off instead of being made an example of (assuming that was still possible)? Or was it the Western Roman Empire making ad hoc treaties with incipient kingdoms? As with so many questions in a decaying empire, the answer is hard to pin down, and the answer you pick with the benefit of hindsight may not be the one you would have picked at the time. They’re all shades of grey, in an era when grey went from mostly white to increasingly black.

And this wasn’t just a problem for Barbarian-led armies either. Part of the reason that the Empire initially didn’t treat the barbarians as a serious threat is that the Emperors had to devote a lot of their efforts to fighting off usurpers. Some general or other amassed sufficient loyalty from troops and decided to try his hand at becoming Emperor himself. In this context, most Emperors treated these usurpations as a much more urgent and existential threat to their rule. Barbarians causing problems at the periphery of the empire could wait, but if you got overthrown today, you were toast. To the extent that you thought of the barbarians much at all, they might have been viewed as potential auxiliary forces to be dragooned in to assist you in your battles.

Of course, problems at the periphery don’t always stay at the periphery.

We look back and see “Rome”, threatened and eventually defeated by invaders. But the people at the time saw their other Roman rivals for power as the real issue. Their main aim was not maximising Rome as an abstract idea, but maximising their own power and influence. The Empire itself was just taken for granted, and all the serious efforts were devoted to the real enemy within.

It doesn’t map exactly to the Blue State / Red State conflict we see today, but the parallels are definitely there.

In late Rome, mass migration of potentially hostile peoples can be seen as both symptom and contributing cause of decline. The migrations themselves had disastrous consequences (like the loss at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the first major defeat of a Roman Field Army in centuries). But you can also see the immigration itself as happening due to a divided and weakened state, where it was increasingly hard to staff armies, increasingly hard to maintain order, and increasingly riven with violent internal conflicts for power.

Even if the correlation is there, cause and effect may go the other way - a weakened state is unable or unwilling to prevent mass migration. This is certainly what post-Roman Britain looked like. The people who started out as raiding parties ended up as settlers. There is some dispute as to whether the Saxons arrived en masse uninvited, or whether some of them were brought over as warriors by local warlords to assist in the defence against other raiders, and just ended up pushing out the warlords once they had enough numbers. But the effect was the same - Roman Britain became Saxon England. If your local warlord wasn't strong enough to resist, you ended up being ruled by a new foreign warlord.

And how many people are we talking? To quote Wyman:
How big did a migration have to be to be a mass migration? Thousands? Tens of Thousands? Hundreds of thousands of people? I think say tens of thousands would be enough to qualify. They didn't all come at the same time, or even from the same places along that North Sea coast. A few thousand migrants per year doesn't sound like many in the context of a region with a couple of million inhabitants, but over a century or so, that's a huge number. Remember that idea of cultural diffusion, too. If those immigrants disproportionately end up forming the dominant class in that society, they can reshape it dramatically.
Do you find yourself wondering if historians of the future will say the same thing about Europe and America?

And so what starts out as a simple one-sentence narrative – the Roman Empire was destroyed by a disastrous decision to let in the Goths – ends up more nuanced. The original statement still has a significant kernel of truth, and you can see how it fits in the bigger picture. But history is complicated, and the more you look at the details, the harder it is to attribute everything to a single cause.

It's tempting to look at history and think that our lack of understanding comes mostly from a lack of source material and information. But as a friend of mine AL who studied it seriously once put it , we have almost all the source material you could want on the Iraq War - does that mean we fully understand it? Not really. The challenge is always what the economists call identification - we are always trying to tease out causation from a single timeline of events.

The economist would say that there is no hope of real identification from this kind of messy history.

The historian  might counter that when the issues are important enough, it is worth making the best attempt at it possible, even if it's imperfect. If there's a chance that you might be living through another major civilisational decline, that seems to be worth trying to figure out.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The economist's case for at least agnosticism about Bitcoin

As far as I can tell, the primary problem with Bitcoin is that after you've bought it, you become medically incapable of shutting the @#$% up about Bitcoin. So it goes.

It took me a long time to buy any bitcoin, but I should have done it about three years ago. This isn't cheap talk, by the way. I know exactly why I should have bought it back then, based on the knowledge I had at the time (which is the only criterion by which you ought to regret any decision). To wit: I considered myself a Bitcoin agnostic. This made me more optimistic than perhaps 99% of finance people I spoke to. But then again, 99% of finance people I spoke to also couldn't easily explain why Bitcoin existed in the first place. 3 years later, all of the above is still true, but I finally got off my butt and did something about it, albeit after an enormously costly delay.

The standard economics textbook description of money says that it tends to arise because it helps facilitate exchange. If we need to barter goods with each other, it's hard for me as a blacksmith to obtain wheat unless I can find a wheat farmer who also coincidentally needs blacksmithing services. But if I can exchange my blacksmithing services for some asset money (as yet undefined as to what that is) and then turn the money into wheat down the line, this greatly allows us to trade more and grow the economy. So far so good. But what exactly makes something money?

The standard economics textbook definition of money says that it has to fulfill 3 purposes, namely
#1. It has to be a unit of account - a way of measuring how much of something you have
#2. It has to be a medium of exchange - a means for people to transact amongst each other and exchange goods and services indirectly, rather than directly through barter
#3. It has to be a store of value - that is, have some worth derived from an alternative use other than the monetary aspect itself, to ensure that people will be willing to hold it.

Under this standard narrative, bitcoin fails. #1 is fairly easy to meet, but bitcoin's big strength is in #2, which it passes with flying colours. Importantly, however, it fails badly on #3. Digital bits have no inherent value, and no external use to make them a store of value. Ergo, it should have no value above zero, and anything else is a bubble about to collapse. So goes the standard story.

Gold originally fulfilled all three purposes. You could weigh it, and trade accordingly. Turning gold into gold coins helped with 1 and 2, so drove out raw gold. It was easier to transact and measure in coins. Of course, the problem with coins is that they could get filed away at the edges to steal some of the gold, but still be worth approximately one coin. So eventually the coins got replaced with pieces of paper that were claims on gold in a government vault. At the start, you could actually make the conversion. Then conversion became increasingly a fiction, before FDR decided to do away with the pretense of convertibility, suspending the conversion and limiting the ability of private individuals to hold gold.

 At this point, you may be wondering how US dollars continue to meet the 3 definitions above. After all, they kept being used as money, and economists didn't all seem in a raging hurry to update their definitions. So the standard answer is that the 'store of value' aspect is that the government, who has guns, will accept USD as a means of paying taxes (and indeed demands that form). Because they have a guaranteed value for that, they have a guaranteed value for everything else.

To me, this seems to have a definite flavour of ex-post rationalisation. My hunch is that if you asked people 100 years ago whether they would still be equally willing to hold dollars if they were backed by nothing at all, they would have answered strongly in the negative. In the end, they were prohibited from switching into gold at the time, so it was a moot point. But what about now, when they could switch? I highly doubt that many people today would explicitly state that they're willing to hold dollars because they can pay their taxes in them. 100 years ago, they probably would have laughed you out of the room.

The economists are right in a narrow sense, of course (as they often are). Bitcoin does indeed fail as a store of value, and, technically, the dollar does not.

And yet, here is some evidence that ought give you pause, assuming you're not an economist in the midst of full-blown cognitive-dissonance-induced denial:

This is Bitcoin today, stubbornly refusing to prove economists right by ceasing to exist. As a matter of fact, since the coinbase time series starts in January 2013, it's up some 19,000% or so.

Don't look at the graph and ask if you think it's about to drop. Look at the graph and ask how much it would have to drop to get to where it was in 2013 (let alone 2009).

At a certain point, it seems prudent to at least consider the possibility that there might be something going on here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones? Or at a minimum, ask the following question - what level of future growth would you need to see to change your mind? Another 100%? Another 1000%? Can we agree on it now, so that if it eventually happens, you might reconsider the question?

The null hypothesis here is not in much doubt. Bitcoin is a bubble, and will eventually collapse.

Actually, the true null hypothesis is a little more specific, at least if you believe standard economics. Bitcoin should have a price of zero. It has no value except as a currency, and it is worthless as a currency.

So what is the alternative hypothesis?

The alternative hypothesis is that Bitcoin is likely to stay at a non-zero value for quite a long time, if not indefinitely, and moreover may end up being worth a lot. That may sound woolly and hand-wavy, so let me explain.

First off, how many things can you name that truly have a value of zero?

It's surprisingly hard. If you don't believe me, here's a photo of cans of air from the top of Mount Fuji selling for ¥500


And things like rubbish or nuclear waste have definitively negative prices - you have to pay to get rid of them. They're still not exactly zero.

The point is that "fundamental value" is a concept that, in my opinion, creates at least as much confusion as it dispels.

The primary value of an asset today is what you think someone will pay for it tomorrow. If they can use the asset for some external purpose, and you have a guide to what that external purpose is likely to be worth to them, you have a guide to what it will be trading at tomorrow. But that's all it is. If you have some other way of estimating what people will pay for the asset tomorrow, then you don't need the intermediate heuristic of fundamental value. (This is especially true for assets which don't directly produce cash flows - for ones that do, there's a better case that you should just value the cash flows, but even then, you still need to know tomorrow's willingness to pay unless you're able to hold the asset to infinity to collect all the future cash flows).

So in that case, what should Bitcoin be worth? Whatever people are willing to buy it for tomorrow. And what number is that? Well, that's the rub. But at least we know the right question to ask now.

As a consequence, we can begin to formulate an alternative definition of requirement #3 for money that we started with. Specifically:
#3A - If you accept the asset today in exchange for giving up valuable goods or services, you have to have a very strong belief that you will be able to exchange said asset tomorrow for someone else's goods and services, and receive approximately the same value as what you exchanged today.
Viewed from this angle, we can see that requirement #3A is at heart a co-ordination problem. Once we all agree on something being money, it becomes money. More importantly, we can see why people mistakenly viewed #3 as being the requirement. In essence, being a store of value is one way of solving the co-ordination problem. If it's common knowledge that some people will be willing to accept gold because it's useful for jewellery, most people who don't value it for jewellery are nonetheless willing to hold it.

But this isn't a strict requirement. Once the belief is established, it becomes self-fulfilling. When you accept US dollars, you aren't doing the iterations and thinking that it will eventually be exchangeable for taxes. You're just accepting it because you can buy your groceries with it tomorrow. Now, in the long run, it's true that if the US government collapses, you don't want to be holding US dollars, so in that sense the economists are right. But this is a long way from most people's actual calculation.

In the case of Bitcoin, a belief that Bitcoin will retain some value tomorrow can justifiably be sustained as long as I know that there's a decent number of drug dealers and corrupt Chinese officials who want to hold Bitcoin because it's (sort-of) anonymous and can be easily taken out of the country when the porridge hits the propeller. But in the short run, I hold Bitcoin because I think that people tomorrow will hold Bitcoin.

In fact, it's stronger than that. Like a classic bubble, people actually believe that more people will want to purchase bitcoin tomorrow, and at higher prices. In other words, the supply is fixed, and the more the price goes up, the more people begin to think "Huh, maybe I should hold at least a few grand worth of Bitcoin, just in case." If more people begin to think that, the price will indeed keep rising. Of course it can't rise like that forever.

But even if you think of Bitcoin as a bubble, it behooves you to notice something rather different about it from most bubbles, like the tech boom. In the case of Bitcoin, it seems to me from anecdotal experience that many, if not most, of the people buying bitcoin today are planning to hold it for a long time, if not forever. And this is definitively not true for most bubbles. People generally ride bubbles planning to get out once it's gone up enough, then go back to holding cash, or houses, or whatever. If that's what most people are thinking, the belief structure becomes very unstable, as any dip in price suddenly might cause a lot of people to switch to selling. Even if Bitcoin is a bubble, if most of its adherents plan to hold onto it for a long time, regardless of current price levels, then this reduces the likelihood of a complete collapse when everyone rushes for the exits.

In other words, even if this is a bubble, it may be a surprisingly durable one.

And the reason that "bubble" here is not necessarily a pejorative term is a point made by Moldbug - that money is the bubble that doesn't have to pop. In other words, there will be at least one good that is held in excess of its demand for other uses, because of its use for transactional purposes.

It may seem strange to reference Moldbug, since he comes out as a skeptic, based on his guess that the government will outlaw it.

But there is a counter-argument to that - the Uber problem. Namely, the government has a limited amount of time in which it can easily ban Bitcoin. The reason is that as the price gets high enough, enough people have enough to lose that it becomes politically costly to ban it. And so at some point, you get a compromise answer, like Coinbase seems to have done - you have to submit ID, it's linked to your bank account, and you have to give a social security number. The US Government levels capital gains taxes, everyone is happy. Why ban something if you can make more money by taxing it instead?

Because there is one rhetorical claim about Bitcoin made by its proponents that I think has caused more confusion than any other. It was this realisation that made me change my mind and invest in it. (Which, to emphasise, I'm not encouraging you to do. I'm some stranger talking smack on the internet, and this is not financial advice. But still)

It is this:

Bitcoin is not going to be a substitute for the dollar.

Bitcoin is going to be a substitute for gold.

Which is to say, the reserve asset that you hold in some amount as a hedge against the @#$% hitting the fan. This is of course, mid-level @#% hitting the fan, such as large-scale financial instability - if things really get hairy, the only worthwhile assets will be guns, ammunition, antibiotics, water purification tablets, and that kind of thing. But again, the same holds true for gold. If you honestly think that in a post apocalyptic New York there's going to be a vibrant demand for gold for jewellery purposes, perhaps you would do better investing your savings in shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.

Put another way, the case for Bitcoin in concise terms is that Bitcoin is to gold what neocameralism is to monarchy.

That is to say, it's what you get if you took an old but existing arrangement, and instead of trying to mimic it exactly, you thought about how you would design a modern version of it that a) retained the essential strengths while b) utilising technological innovation since the early form to overcome its weaknesses. (Some thoughts of mine on the neocameralism vs monarchy comparison are here).

In the view of Bitcoin, the essential aspect of gold is its relatively fixed supply. So let's go one better, and make a mathematically fixed supply. Rather than gold coins, let's create highly divisible bitcoins that can be traded across borders costlessly. Rather than measure purity over and over, let's create a blockchain to solve the problem of double-spending and transactions between mutually suspicious parties. Meanwhile, the fact that it can be mined by anyone easily at first, but only with more difficulty later, encouraged people to get in on the action early.

If you thought an essential aspect of gold was its value in jewellery, then you'd be a skeptic.

Rather, the other essential aspect of bitcoin was its first-mover advantage. Sure, someone else might invent other coins (and they have), but because Bitcoin was the first to market, it already has the advantage of incumbency. And in a co-ordination game, that's a huge deal.

And I think phrasing the question this way to economists helps to clarify the issue. In other words, if you're a Bitcoin skeptic and think its a bubble that's inevitably going to burst, I would ask you: is gold a bubble? This is harder to prove than in the case of Bitcoin, because it does have a fundamental value from other uses, so its value shouldn't go to zero. As a consequence, evaluating whether it's a bubble is much more thorny and more subjective. But it seems pretty clear to me that central banks aren't holding gold because they're about to turn their bullion into wedding rings. As Moldbug points out, in 2011 gold reserves were 50 times annual production. For silver, they were twice annual production. Assuredly there is something unusual about people's desire to invest in gold. So if you think that this is creating excess demand, surely this is pushing up the price, no? Supply is pretty fixed in at least the short term, if not the medium term too. And isn't excess demand pushing up prices the definition of a bubble? The point, of course, is that with gold this state of affairs has persisted for an extraordinarily long time. Is there any particular reason to assume that gold is about to disappear as a hedge asset? Not to me.

But I know my economist friends well, and I know their objection to the above reasoning, which makes Bitcoin different from gold. Which is to say, without a fundamental source of value other than as a money-like good, isn't the whole thing liable to unravel really quickly? Put differently, you and I might be willing to hold Bitcoin because we assume that there's reserve demand from Chinese officials and drug dealers, but why are the Chinese officials and drug dealers themselves willing to hold it?

This is another way of saying, why don't we all iterate backwards and realise that without an ultimate holder of the good from some other source, the value to everyone should be zero? Suppose we have a game where if we co-ordinate on a good being money, it gives value to both of us, but in the final round whoever is holding it ends up with a worthless asset.

If the game is finitely repeated, the economists are absolutely right. If everyone correctly performs backward induction, you'd predict a) Bitcoin should never have a positive value to begin with, and b) even if it does, this should be rather fragile. If it's an infinitely repeated game, then the Nash Equilibrium has more possibilities, as it usually does. In this case, if there is no final period, then it seems more like a straight one-shot co-ordination game where if we both agree, we both benefit. But let's take the finitely repeated version with a penalty for holding in the last round, as the logic is stricter there. And the logic dictates that since no-one is willing to hold in the last round, they don't want to hold in the second last either, and so on.

But here is the trillion dollar question - how much do people actually perform backward induction? And if they don't, how should you act in response?

The classic version of this is the iterated Prisoner's dilemma. Suppose two people are playing against each other 100 times in a row. The economist's answer is that if we're only playing a finite number of times, there's only one Nash Equilibrium to this game. We both defect in the last round. Knowing this, we both defect in the second last round, and the third last round, and thus in all rounds.

And yet... people don't. They routinely co-operate, and only begin defecting towards the end. This is why tit-for-tat works so well in practice. Because most people don't actually do backwards induction for more than a few iterations. This is why they don't start defecting until close to the end.

And bear in mind that, unlike Prisoner's Dilemma, Bitcoin is a co-ordination game, meaning it actually is a Nash Equilibrium for us all to believe in Bitcoin, at least in the one shot version. In the case of Prisoner's Dilemma, you can mathematically prove that people aren't acting rationally, and yet they still do it just the same. Here, it at least can be rational.

Now, bear in mind, the economists aren't wrong on the bigger picture - it still might collapse, for all the reasons they say. But that's not the same as saying that it has to collapse. I would guess, rather, that the opposite is likely to be true. The longer it goes without collapsing, the stronger the self-fulfilling aspect of the belief becomes, and the more stable it becomes.

Mainstream economists and finance types are looking at Bitcoin continuing to rise in price, yelling that this is a stupid and unstable equilibrium and that people should all start defecting immediately.

This is just like the economist watching two people play prisoner's dilemma and continue to co-operate round after round. You can laugh and call them morons, but a betting market just opened up. It's round 43 of 100. They both co-operated last round. Rubber to the road, what would you bet they're going to do this time?

After eight years of people continuing to not defect in Bitcoin, perhaps, dear economist, it's time to re-examine your assumptions.

Updated: On the other hand, if you wanted to make a concise case for a bubble, just check out some of the bizarre creations down at the lower market cap end of the cryptocurrency list. $10 million of FedoraCoin, you say? It's woefully underperforming PepeCash at $13 million. Hmm.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The metres lost, the metres gained

What is gone, but still remembered, is quite vivid and easy to see. What is yet to come is often only perceived dimly, if at all.

For a reactionary, taking a walk through the Basilique de Saint Denis in Paris is a singular and sobering experience.

Inside the church are the remains of 34 of the 37 Kings of France. This is a glorious history spanning from 481 A.D. to (depending on how you want to mark it) either 1792 or 1848. Just ponder how long that really is, and how many nations and empires rose and fell in that time.

It all was brutally cut down in the French revolution, though it recurred in fits and starts during the general chaos that was France in the 19th century.

But the tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that the glory of the institution is so utterly forgotten as to be almost irrelevant in modern France.

If you turn up in Saint Denis, dear reader, you will probably have the place almost to yourself. As indeed I did when I was there. Just me, Charles Martel, Louis XIV, and Clovis I.

I remember once asking a French friend of mine, "How exactly is the French Revolution portrayed in French schools? Is it an unalloyed good? Mostly good? Mostly bad? A mixture of good and bad? Opinions differ between good and bad?"

"Oh, it's a good thing", he replied. "You know, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - those things hadn't been tried before."

Deciding to elide over his odd narrative of the history of freedom, I instead opted for the more specific:
"But what about the Terror? And the 90-odd years of political instability that followed?"

His reply, "Oh yeah, I guess we don't talk about that stuff so much."

To the French, the only French history worth studying begins with the Revolution. Everything before that seems to just be lazily lumped in under the heading of "tyranny".

As ahistorical and contemptible as this is, the surest sign that nobody gives a damn about learning any of this is that the Church at Saint Denis remains relatively unruffled despite being located in what is now a heavily Muslim area of Paris. The last I heard of it being in the news was back in 2015 when the terrorists in the 2015 attack  on Paris were killed by police in Saint Denis in a massive shootout. But as far as I know, there is little evidence of vandalism of the tombs in modern times (unlike the looting of all the valuables in the French revolution). The simple truth is that even among the Muslims in the area nobody even knows or cares enough to attack it as a symbol. They attack the real symbols of France - theatres, football stadiums, cafes and restaurants.

Charles Martel weeps.

So we have a glorious and storied history of the French monarchy, dating all the way back to Clovis I, assigned to the dustbin.

We can see what is lost alright. I admit that I, unlike my French friend, am far less optimistic about what has been gained.

But somewhere in the back of one's mind while wandering around the Church, an odd niggling question pokes its way to the surface, to disturb one's reverie and melancholy. A question which, indeed, I've wondered about before.

What does it even mean to be the first King of France? Who was this Clovis I fellow? And what on earth happened before that?

Even relatively educated people often have large swathes of gaping ignorance about history, myself included. At the time I was walking around there, I didn't know at all.

The first thing to clarify is that Clovis I wasn't exactly the first King of France. Rather, he was the first King of the Franks. France is an area and a country - that came later. The Franks are a people, or a tribe.

And who were the Franks?

To give you the shortest and pithiest answer, you probably have heard of them and their exploits, but mostly under a different name.

They were the barbarians, destroying and preying on the last vestiges of the Western Roman Empire.

I've been learning about this in Patrick Wyman's excellent podcast series, The Fall of Rome.

They may not have been the Visigoths, sacking Rome under Alaric in 410, or the even more destructive Vandals, sacking it again in 455.

But make no mistake, if you were a supporter of the existing civilisational order at the time, you would have experienced the rise of Clovis I mostly in terms of his turning on and eventually defeating the few remaining serious Roman forces, such as at the Battle of Soissons in 486, and in his consolidating power over the other barbarian tribes.

In other words, Clovis became King of the Franks because he killed all the other Frankish chieftains and leaders, eventually uniting the various barbarian armies and tribes under his rule. That was how you became the first King of the Franks. What this replaced was the prior status of being one warlord of many, among a loose confederation of ethnically related tribes.

As Wyman points out in a number of places, during this period there wasn't actually a sharp distinction between concepts such as
i) 'an invading barbarian army',
ii) 'a barbarian people on the move' (since armies in those days often traveled with soldiers' wives and children, who lived with them), and
iii) 'a Roman army lead by a barbarian general with mixed Roman and barbarian troops' (since barbarians had fought on behalf of Rome, in one form or another, for a long time before this, and many of the leaders of this period were either allied with Rome or nominally Roman subordinates at some point, Clovis included) ,

Moreover, in the general disarray of this period, it's also hard to know how much to view the increasing power of these armies as the cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, or just the symptom of other groups rising to fill the increasing power vacuum left in the wake of the collapsing state. The distinction is not a clear one, and it doesn't much change what it would have been like to be on the receiving end of it.

If you were a Roman, living through the destruction of the society and structures that had ruled for 800 years, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look at savages like the Franks and see the possibility for a glorious future monarchy lasting 1300-odd years.

You would only see chaos, slaughter, and despair.

And for a long time, you would be right. There are not many fun stories out of Europe in the 6th Century, or the 7th or 8th for that matter.

But out of the chaos and carnage eventually rose the 37 Kings of France.

I confess, in my darker moments it is indeed quite difficult to look around at this fallen world of ours and see anything but societal decay, warded off only temporarily by technology.

Perhaps right now, that's all there is. But whether this is true or not, your perceptions are apt to make it likely to seem that way. You would have an easier time guessing who will be seen as the Valentinian III of our era than who might ultimately be seen as our Clovis I.

What is being lost is easy to see.

It takes much more judgment to look at the chaos and see the potential in what is yet to come.

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, May 1, 2017

On the Pathology of Low Birthrates

One of the important axioms of organisational development is that if you want an organisation to be successful and sustainable, you should make sure it's profitable.

For organizations like businesses, whose whole raison d'ĂȘtre is profit, this doesn't need much explanation. But what about for causes where the organisers don't care much about profit - a renaissance fair, a church, a literary magazine?

There was a great Social Matter article talking about this a month or so ago in the context of the Gulenist movement in Turkey - why would a religious cult also operate a test prep centre?

The reason is that a profitable organization is self-sustaining. Every organisation needs resources, and profit ensures you won't run out of them. Even if the resources you really need aren't money, profit ensures that a) you don't fail for lack of money, and b) you've got a good shot of acquiring the non-monetary resources you need anyway. Suppose you want supporters - well, would better marketing help? Would free food? Would a great place to hold meetings?

When you forget this lesson, you end up like jwz (whose writing I enjoy, even if I don't agree with all of it) with DNA Lounge (a nightclub I've been to, and very much like) - he made a ton of money in tech, wanted to run a cool nightclub, and didn't care about the money. Then $5 million later, he ran out of money. It sounds both mean and trite at this stage, but if he really cared about the mission of having creative musical venues available, he should have worked damn hard to make it profitable as soon as humanly possible.

But even people who think about this when it comes to profit and organisations often don't think about the equivalent for ideas and cultural practices.

To wit: if you want a culture or idea to survive, the people who practice it must have high birth rates.

Because while organisations propagate themselves by resources, ideas and cultures are carried by people. It doesn't matter how much you love your particular idea - feminism, classical music, the constitution, whatever. If the people who support that idea have below replacement birth rates, and the people who are opposed to that idea have above replacement birth rates, then the prevalence of that idea is being whittled away, slowly but surely. Ideas don't breed directly, but they can still be bred out.

Because ideas, like most things in this world, are heritable. Both genetics and culture mean that parents in general pass their values on to their children. Take away the children, and you take away the people likely to hold the idea tomorrow.

Of course, people are apt to forget this, because it's a slow-moving effect. The faster way ideas spread is through communication across a given population.

Which is all well and good. The more you spread the idea, the more people who hold it right now, and, ceteris paribus, the more people will hold it next generation.

Where things get complicated, however, is if the idea itself reduces birthrates directly. This is especially true for ideas like feminism or progressivism in general. In this sense, they are parasitic and pathological. I mean this as a metaphor, but only in the barest biological sense. They reduce the reproductive fitness of their host, simply by reducing the number of offspring it has that survive to adulthood to themselves reproduce. As a consequence, these ideas are like a deadly virus that can only survive by spreading and infecting other hosts. Is reducing the reproductive fitness of your host not the very essence of parasitism?

Ideas that increase procreation are symbiotic in that sense - the idea spreads by increasing the fitness of its host. But as in nature, parasites and diseases can spread and survive, although there is a tradeoff between the mortality rate and the transmission rate. The faster you kill off the host, the faster the disease must also spread, or it kills off itself with the host. In this sense, the fact that progressivism has spread throughout the west with increasing speed, and the fact that it is catastrophic for birth rates, are not a coincidence. The former is a requirement for the latter.

It is an unassailable fact that the ideas, beliefs and circumstances of the modern west are extraordinarily pathological in terms of birth rates. The exact cause of this is hard to pin down, but in some sense it doesn't specifically matter - not only the directly pathological ideas, but those that tend to co-locate with it, are similarly being selected out. So a taste for classical music rose with the growth of Europe and was able to last for a long time, but now is associated only with low birth rate groups. If you disagree with my assessment that progressivism is considerably to blame for low birth rates, that's fine, because they're all going down together. If you think the answer is just 'wealth' as the cause of low birth rates, then we are ineluctably being selected for poverty.

(The problem with wealth as an explanation, incidentally, is that while it could explain the time series and the current cross-section, it fails entirely with the historical cross-section. Which is to say, for most of history, the rich had more children. For them at least, wealth didn't seem to produce the same pathologically low birth rates that it does for us).

But no matter where exactly it is coming from, the west simply cannot survive long term in its present form. And this is a purely mathematical prediction, not a sociological one. Any set of values that creates below replacement birth rates is pathological, and is actively being bred out.

Of course, the other complicating factor is that the west keeps taking in new immigrants. When they arrive, they have high birth rates, before they too end up declining. In the mean time, they acquire at best only a fraction (if any) of the traits that made the west what it was.

Which, if you like the west as it is, or as it was, is a big problem.

But if you're the blind idiot god of social evolution, this is the pathology solving itself. The modern west is pathological, and the dismantling of the circumstances that created it is evolution's revenge.

The ultimate irony of social Darwinism is that while it was pilloried for its racism in predicting the decline of third world populations, on current birthrates it was ultimately the west itself, the very progenitor of the idea, that was the unfit one. Evolution does not work the way most people seem to think, just making stuff awesome according to your particular preference for what that involves.

The biggest question isn't whether the current situation can go on forever. It's only what will replace it. The replacement will be made up of individuals holding ideas that are resistant to whatever set of pressures create low birth rates. In this sense, we are like a population in the midst of a great plague, knowing that eventually society will only be made up of people with an immune system able to defend against it.

If you want to know who that might be, just look at who is currently having children. The sincerely religious, such as Mormons and Muslims, for one. And those with a very high time preference and few outside options.

There are many forms of non-pathological social structures and ideas that could replace the current one.

One is Victorian England.

Another is Africa 40,000 years ago.

You may care which of these we end up in, but evolution doesn't.

Most likely, it will be neither, but some new combination of traits and ideas. When the dinosaurs get wiped out, the new species don't evolve back into the same old dinosaurs.

The good news, however, is that ideas are not DNA - people can change their ideas much faster than their genes. And whatever pathology is producing our current predicament must be relatively recent in origin, suggesting that fixing it does not necessarily involve going back to the dark ages. I have suggested the birth control basilisk as one possible cause, but the problem is a hard one to pin down.

The bad news is that we seem to be making almost no progress in actually fixing the problem, or even identifying it.

But the big picture lesson stands - there are, and can be, no healthy low-birthrate societies. It is a contradiction in terms.