His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

The newish Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie (which is on HBO Now through the end of the month) didn’t catch my fancy, but the audiobook (narrated by Stephen Fry) did, and this prescient passage caught my attention:

The President in particular is very much a figurehead — he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. On those criteria Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the most successful Presidents the Galaxy has ever had — he has already spent two of his ten presidential years in prison for fraud.

Has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

How, when, and why, Victor Davis Hanson asks, has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war?


Globalization had an unfortunate effect of undermining national unity. It created new iconic billionaires in high tech and finance, and their subsidiaries of coastal elites, while hollowing out the muscular jobs largely in the American interior.

Ideologies and apologies accumulated to justify the new divide. In a reversal of cause and effect, losers, crazies, clingers, American “East Germans,” and deplorables themselves were blamed for driving industries out of their neighborhoods (as if the characters out of Duck Dynasty or Ax Men turned off potential employers). Or, more charitably to the elites, the muscular classes were too racist, xenophobic, or dense to get with the globalist agenda, and deserved the ostracism and isolation they suffered from the new “world is flat” community. London and New York shared far more cultural affinities than did New York and Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, the naturally progressive, more enlightened, and certainly cooler and hipper transcended their parents’ parochialism and therefore plugged in properly to the global project. And they felt that they were rightly compensated for both their talent and their ideological commitment to building a better post-American, globalized world.

One cultural artifact was that as our techies and financiers became rich, as did those who engaged in electric paper across time and space (lawyers, academics, insurers, investors, bankers, bureaucratic managers), the value of muscularity and the trades was deprecated. That was a strange development. After all, prestige cars, kitchen upgrades, gentrified home remodels, and niche food were never more in demand by the new elite. But who exactly laid the tile, put the engine inside the cars, grew the arugula, or put slate on the new hip roof?

In this same era, a series of global financial shocks, from the dot-com bust to the more radical 2008 near–financial meltdown, reflected a radical ongoing restructuring in American middle-class life, characterized by stagnant net income, family disintegration, and eroding consumer confidence. No longer were youth so ready to marry in their early twenties, buy a home, and raise a family of four or five. Compensatory ideology made the necessary adjustments to explain the economic doldrums and began to characterize what was impossible first as undesirable and later as near toxic. Pajama Boy sipping hot chocolate in his jammies, and the government-subsidized Life of Julia profile, became our new American Gothic.

High Tech

The mass production of cheap consumer goods, most assembled abroad, redefined wealth or, rather, disguised poverty. Suddenly the lower middle classes and the poor had in their palms the telecommunications power of the Pentagon of the 1970s, the computing force of IBM in the 1980s, and the entertainment diversity of the rich of the 1990s. They could purchase big screens for a fraction of what their grandparents paid for black-and-white televisions and with a computer be entertained just as well cocooning in their basement as by going out to a concert, movie, or football game.

The Campus

Higher education surely helped split the country in two. In the 1980s, the universities embraced two antithetical agendas, both costly and reliant on borrowed money. On the one hand, campuses competed for scarcer students by styling themselves as Club Med–type resorts with costly upscale dorms, tony student-union centers, lavish gyms, and an array of in loco parentis social services. The net effect was to make colleges responsible not so much for education, but more for shielding now-fragile youth from the supposed reactionary forces that would buffet them after graduation.

An entire generation of students left college with record debt, mostly ignorant of the skills necessary to read, write, and argue effectively, lacking a general body of shared knowledge — and angry. They were often arrogant in their determination to actualize the ideologies of their professors in the real world. A generation ignorant, arrogant, and poor is a prescription for social volatility.

Illegal Immigration

Immigration was recalibrated hand-in-glove by progressives who wanted a new demographic to vote for leftist politicians and by Chamber of Commerce conservatives who wished an unlimited pool of cheap unskilled labor. The result was waves of illegal, non-diverse immigrants who arrived at precisely the moment when the old melting pot was under cultural assault.

The Obama Project

We forget especially the role of Barack Obama. He ran as a Biden Democrat renouncing gay marriage, saying, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Then he “evolved” on the question and created a climate in which to agree with this position could get one fired. He promised to close the border and reduce illegal immigration: “We will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws.” Then he institutionalized the idea that to agree with that now-abandoned agenda was a career-ender.

Read the whole thing. (I edited down each point.)

Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

Like many folks recently, Robin Hanson decided to learn more about Jordan Peterson, so he read Maps of Meaning:

He doesn’t offer readers any degree of certainty in his claims, nor distinguish in which claims he’s more confident. He doesn’t say how widely others agree with him, he doesn’t mention any competing accounts to his own, and he doesn’t consider examples that might go against his account. He seems to presume that the common underlying structures of past cultures embody great wisdom for human behavior today, yet he doesn’t argue for that explicitly, he doesn’t consider any other forces that might shape such structures, and he doesn’t consider how fast their relevance declines as the world changes. The book isn’t easy to read, with overly long and obscure words, and way too much repetition. He shouldn’t have used his own voice for his audiobook.

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight. The first third of the book felt solid, almost self-evident: yes such structures make sense and do underlie many cultural patterns. From then on the book slowly became more speculative, until at the end I was less nodding and more rolling my eyes. Not that most things he said even then were obviously wrong, just that it felt too hard to tell if they were right. (And alas, I have no idea how original is this book’s insight.)

Hanson shares one of his own insights that he had while reading the book:

It occurs to me that this [evolvability] is also an advantage of traditional ways of encoding cultural values. An explicit formal encoding of values, such as found in modern legal codes, is far less redundant. Most random changes to such an abstract formal encoding create big bad changes to behavior. But when values are encoded in many stories, histories, rituals, etc., a change to any one of them needn’t much change overall behavior. So the genotype can drift until it is near a one-step change to a better phenotype. This allows culture to evolve more incrementally, and avoid local maxima.

Implicit culture seems more evolvable, at least to the extent slow evolution is acceptable. We today are changing culture quite rapidly, and often based on pretty abstract and explicit arguments. We should worry more about getting stuck in local maxima.

Robertson’s The Last Utopians is instructive and touching, if sometimes inadvertently funny

Monday, August 13th, 2018

Michael Robertson’s The Last Utopians: Four Late Nineteenth-Century Visionaries and Their Legacy is instructive and touching, Adam Gopnik says, if sometimes inadvertently funny:

The instructive parts rise from Robertson’s evocation and analysis of a series of authors who aren’t likely to be well known to American readers, even those of a radical turn of mind. All four wrote books and imagined ideal societies with far more of an effect on their time than we now remember. The touching parts flow from the quixotic and earnest imaginations of his heroes and heroine: the pundit Edward Bellamy, the designer William Morris, the pioneering gay writer Edward Carpenter, and the feminist social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. His utopians showed enormous courage in imagining and, to one degree or another, trying to create new worlds against the grain of the one they had inherited. They made blueprints of a better place, detailed right down to the wallpaper, and a pleasing aura of pious intent rises from these pages.

The comedy, which is inadvertent, springs from Robertson’s absence of common sense about these utopian projects, pious intent being very different from pragmatic achievement. Hugely sympathetic to his subjects, he discovers again and again as he inspects their projects that, for all the commendable bits that anticipate exactly the kinds of thing we like now, there are disagreeable bits right alongside, of exactly the kinds that we don’t like now. The utopian feminists are also eugenicists and anti-Semites; the men who dream of a perfect world where same-sex attraction is privileged also unconsciously mimic the hierarchy of patriarchy, putting effeminate or cross-dressing “Uranians” at the bottom of their ladder. The socialists are also sexists, and the far-seeing anarchists are also muddle-headed, mixed-up mystics.

The sensible lesson one might draw from this is that the human condition is one in which the distribution of bad and good is forever in flux, and so any blueprint of perfection is doomed to failure. Instead, Robertson assumes that if we can just add to the utopian visions of 1918 the progressive pieties of 2018 — if we reform their gender essentialism and their implicit hierarchism and several other nasty isms — then we will at last arrive at the right utopia.

Read the whole thing.

Organisation is suppression

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Nick Land argues that organisation is suppression in a 1997 Wired UK interview:

According to Dr. Nick Land, lecturer in Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick (a title that he hates), pretty much everything the Western tradition has come up with in the way of thinking about itself and the world around it is not only wrong but bad. Using the work of French writers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as a jumping off point, Land substitutes a vision of a world of flux forever constructing and reconstructing itself via the operations of countless “machinic processes” for the models supplied by the linear, rationalist thought of the classical, modernist and postmodernist traditions. He draws parallels between the processes of late twentieth century capitalism, fascism, and schizophrenia, and strongly resists attempts to categorise his work, ridiculing the notion that there is even such a thing as “philosophy”. He has no time for the academic consensus that you have to produce a turgid tome every two years to prove that you are “serious”. At present, his favoured medium is multimedia performance, and he works closely with arts collective Orphan Drift.

James Flint: Why is it that much of the content on the Internet, this supposedly amazingly democratic, anarchic forum, is becoming dull and corporate and organised?

Nick Land: Your question suggests that there’s some pre-existing social pool of liberatory, revolutionary, emancipatory creative potential that could be expected to spontaneously express itself as soon as it had an opportunity to do so. But there is no such intrinsic power of innovation latent in the human organism that’s just waiting to bounce out onto the web. So the question really is what are the assemblages that are emerging? And correspondingly to what extent are distributed systems becoming operative as such?

JF: So how do systems which are initially freeform and distributed give way to centralised power structures?

NL: You have to understand that organisation involves subordinating low level units to some higher level functional program. In the most extreme cases, like in biological organisms, every cell is defunctionalised, turned off, except for that one specialised function that it is allocated by the organic totality. And hence the preponderant part of its potential is deactivated in the interests of some higher level unity. That’s why the more organised things get, the less interesting their behaviour becomes — “interesting” simply meaning here how freely they explore a range of possible behaviours, or how “nomadic” they are.

JF: I take it from that that you are not as keen on the idea of “self organsiation” as some thinkers.

NL: Organisation is suppression. It’s more accurate to say that systems which avoid self-organisation whilst maintaining trajectories of productive innovation end up parasitically inhabited by organisms of all kinds, whether those organism are biological organisms, corporations or state systems. The history of life on this planet right through to Microsoft is of the successive suppression of distributed, innovated systems.

JF: Can you give me an example?

NL: Well, first of all one has autocatalytic chemical systems that are subject to code control by RNA. When RNA begins to complicate enough to start exhibiting various kinds of lateral interference and experimental deviations, it becomes overcoded by DNA. The absolute crucial event in the whole history of the planet is the point at which the earth’s bacterial life system — which is very loosely code controlled, comparatively — is subjected to exterminatory gassing by oxygen-emitting, massively highly structured securo-maniac metazoan organisms. Many of the bacteria disappear except insofar as they are captured as productive subcomponents of highly organised, nucleated, concentrational systems which are now what dominate all life on the planet and have done for five hundred million years.

JF: So how would you interpret the classical picture of evolution as a tree-like structure?

NL: The bacterial net is successively suppressed by levels of organisation, tiers of control that have a tree-like structure. But that tree-like structure is not at all inherent, it’s actually produced by organisation. It’s incredibly similar to the relation between corporations and markets, in the sense that markets are potentially open ended, distributed transaction systems which are subjected to regularisation, hierarchical structuralisation, specialisation and concentration by the corporate structures that superimpose themselves upon them.

JF: Might the widespread use of computers and the net challenge these structures?

NL: The thing about the potentialities of massively distributed computation capacity is that they disperse productive potential. And there’s a certain sense in which the personal computer introduces a fundamental break in the traditional structure of investment by being simultaneously a piece of consumer electronics and a piece of productive apparatus. But although this is the case, the old structures are being artificially maintained.

JF: How?

NL: Buying a personal computer is treated as productive investment if it is done by a corporate entity and as a piece of personal consumption if it is done by dis-integrated [sic] consumers. And presumably this kind of trompe d’oeil is getting results, because the intersection between software, broadcast media and telecommunications is at the moment in an absolute orgiastic state of capital concentration. And clearly the key actors in this sector think that their strategies are based upon some viable avenue of continued advantage — a continuation of the modernist situation of economies of scale, if you like. Their picture is clearly not one of disintegration into small scale horizontal agents.

JF: But can’t the net itself help us overcome these illusions, through increasingly universal access to knowledge and communication?

NL: Certainly the great potential in the technical infrastructure of the net is the telecoms base rather than the broadcasting base. This is not a very original thought, but nevertheless it seems of crucial importance. Capitalist and state organisations have an absolutely immense investment in disabling the telecoms dynamics of the forthcoming digital media system. But that doesn’t mean that much has yet been done that is particularly exciting with this telecoms infrastructure. The more of it the better, the more that you have a multi-switched high bandwidth communications oriented digital system rather than a one to many broadcast oriented, media-production-media-consumption oriented system, the more chance there is of actually eliciting innovative behaviour out of innovative systems. But I’d be very cynical with regard to the extent to which we have seen any of that yet.

Extraordinarily pessimistic, and yet still extraordinarily motivational

Saturday, August 11th, 2018

Peter Thiel speaks to Die Weltwoche, in English — after beginning the conversation in German with an American accent:

At the moment, Silicon Valley still looks all-powerful.

The big question is: Will the future of the computer age be decentralized or centralized? Back in the 60s, you had this Star Trek idea of an IBM computer running a planet for thousands of years, where people were happy but unfree. Today, again we are thinking that it is going to be centralized: Big companies, big governments, surveillance states like China. When we started Paypal in 1999, it was exactly the opposite: This vision of a libertarian, anarchistic internet. History tells me that the pendulum has swung back and forth. So, today I would bet on decentralization and on more privacy. I don’t think we are at the end of history and it’s just going to end in the world surveillance state.

What has become the problem with Silicon Valley?

One of the paradoxes of Silicon Valley is that this internet technology revolution is supposed to get rid of the tyranny of place and geography. And yet, it was all happening in one place. There is, however, always a tipping point with network effects. At the beginning, they are very positive, but at some point they can become negative. In economic terms, they become negative when the costs get too high. If you have to pay 2000 dollars a month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, maybe that is a sign of the boom. But when it is 4000 dollars a month – with a city government where the police don’t work, the roads don’t work, the schools don’t work – 4000 dollars is just a very high tax, in effect. There is also a cultural component: At one point, the wisdom of crowds tips into the madness of crowds – and you end up with a sort of conformity, lemming-like behavior. It actually becomes a somewhat less creative place.

You label yourself a “contrarian”. How did you become one? How does one become a contrarian?

It is a label that has been given to me, not one that I give normally to myself. I don’t think a contrarian per se is the right thing to be. A pure contrarian just attaches a minus sign to whatever the crowd thinks. I don’t think it should be as simple as that. What I think is important for people is to try to think very hard for oneself. But yes, I do deeply mistrust all these kinds of almost hypnotic mass and crowd phenomena and I think they happen to a disturbing degree.

Why do they happen in a supposedly enlightened society?

The advanced technological civilization of the early 21st century is a complicated world where it is not possible for anybody to think through everything for themselves. You cannot be a polymath in quite the way people were in the 18th century enlightenments. You cannot be like Goethe. So there is some need to listen to experts, to defer to other people. And then, there is always the danger of that going too far and people not thinking critically. This happens in spades in Silicon Valley. There is certainly something about it that made it very prone to the dotcom bubble in the nineties or to the cleantech bubble in the last decade.

Tell us about how your support for Donald Trump for president of the United States was received in the Silicon Valley.

That was quite striking. My support for Donald Trump was, on some level, the least contrarian thing I have ever done. If it is half the country, it cannot be that contrarian. And yet, in the Silicon Valley context it has felt extraordinarily contrarian. It is not that politics is the most important thing. I think there are many things that are much more important than politics: Science is more important, technology is more important, philosophy, religion… We normally think that political correctness is literally about politics. But politics is sort of a natural place to start. If you cannot even have differences of opinion in politics, that’s a sign that things are very unhealthy.

What was unique about the Trump campaign?

Republican candidates have always been way too glibly optimistic about everything. I’ve thought for many years that it was critical for the Republicans to somehow run a more pessimistic candidate just because that was a more honest description of what was going on. It is very hard to know how to do that because if you are too pessimistic, you demotivate people: If everything is just going down the drain, no point even voting for me. Somehow, the genius of Trump was that it was extraordinarily pessimistic, and yet still extraordinarily motivational. The slogan “Make America Great Again”, the most pessimistic slogan of any presidential candidate in a hundred years: The country used to be great, it is no longer great. That is a shocking, shocking statement!

Another issue that is debated very controversially is Trump’s trade policy. People are shocked by his imposition of tariffs.

At the center of this is the question with China. The US exports something like 100 bn a year to China, we import 475 bn. What’s extraordinary, is that if we had a globalizing world, we would actually expect the reverse to hold: you would expect the US to have trade surpluses with China and current account surpluses because we would expect that there is a higher return in China because it is a faster growing country than the US. This is what it looked, let’s say, in 1900, when Great Britain had a trade surplus of 2 percent and a current account surplus of 4 percent of GDP. And the extra capital was invested in Argentinean railroads or Russian bonds.

The fact that the US does not have a surplus, that actually it has a massive deficit, tells you that something is completely wrong with the standard globalization picture that we have. It is sort of like: Chinese peasants are saving money and it is flowing uphill into low-return investments in the US and bonds in Europe with negative interest rates. There is something completely crazy about that dynamic.

What’s your view on Switzerland?

Switzerland is an extraordinarily well functioning country. I don’t like the neighborhood it is in, but it is really remarkable. If you compare Switzerland with Austria or Scandinavia, human capital is equally good but the per capita income in Switzerland is 50 to 100 percent higher. It does tell you that there is something that people are doing that is dramatically better. The question is whether its cities are big enough. If you are a talented young person: Do you move to Geneva or do you move to London? It was good if Switzerland had a somewhat better answer to that sort of question. But as I stated at the beginning, I think the technology will be more decentralized and so I think what has been a limitation for Switzerland will be much less going forward.

Are you jealous that you didn’t invent Bitcoin?

It is hard to be jealous of something that you weren’t remotely capable of doing. I have to acknowledge I would never come up with anything like that. So I can’t even be jealous. I was very interested in all these virtual currencies in the late 90s. We started Paypal thinking about that, but at the end it was a payment system for existing fiat money. Somehow, that experience weirdly primed me to underestimate Bitcoin early on. It was on the radar in 2011 and there were people telling me I should buy it, and we didn’t really get involved until 2014. When you have experiences and you learn things, it is often very dangerous and my experience in the late 90s was that cryptocurrencies didn’t work. And it was largely correct, but you always have to be open to think about it.

(Those are just some of the questions and answers.)

Why does tech have so many political problems?

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Why does tech have so many political problems? Tyler Cowen suggests some reasons:

  • Most tech leaders aren’t especially personable. Instead, they’re quirky introverts. Or worse.
  • Most tech leaders don’t care much about the usual policy issues. They care about AI, self-driving cars, and space travel, none of which translate into positive political influence.
  • Tech leaders are idealistic and don’t intuitively understand the grubby workings of WDC.
  • People who could be “managers” in tech policy areas (for instance, they understand tech, are good at coalition building, etc.) will probably be pulled into a more lucrative area of tech. Therefore there is an acute talent shortage in tech policy areas.
  • The Robespierrean social justice terror blowing through Silicon Valley occupies most of tech leaders’ “political” mental energy. It is hard to find time to focus on more concrete policy issues.
  • By nature, tech leaders are disagreeable iconoclasts (with individualistic and believe it or not sometimes megalomaniacal tendencies). That makes them bad at uniting as a coalition.
  • The industry is so successful that it’s not very popular among the rest of U.S. companies and it lacks allies. (90%+ of S&P 500 market cap appreciation this year has been driven by tech.) Many other parts of corporate America see tech as a major threat.

What would the decline of America look like?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

So, Tyler Cowen asks, what would the decline of America look like?

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

Aging and entitlements will force the president, whether Democratic or Republican, to look for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. The spending cuts will diminish the range of the military, and the tax hikes will ensure that economic growth doesn’t pick up. The integrity of Medicare and Social Security will be (mostly) protected, but the U.S. will lose the ability to project power around the globe.

Over a period of less than five years, China will retake Taiwan and also bring much of East and Southeast Asia into a much tighter sphere of influence. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons and become dominant players in their regions. Russia will continue to nibble at the borders of neighboring states, including Latvia and Estonia, and NATO will lose its credibility, except for a few bilateral relationships, such as with the U.K. Parts of Eastern Europe will return to fascism. NAFTA will exist on paper, but it will be under perpetual renegotiation and hemispheric relations will fray.

One area of major technological advance will be drugs, and I don’t mean beneficial pharmaceuticals. The opioid crisis eventually will subside, but new waves of ever more powerful addictive substances will arise. Easy home lab production will make interdiction at the border fruitless. More than 80,000 Americans already die from alcohol every year, and more than 60,000 from drug overdoses. Total losses from addiction will rise.

Other technologies will indeed provide a bounty, but not all of it will be positive. Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

Driverless cars will be “the next big thing,” but they’ll make roads more crowded. The elderly will insist on their driverless car rights, and defeat economists’ proposals for new congestion charges. Americans will spend another hour a day in their cars, although texting and watching TV, rather than driving.

The very worst fears about climate change won’t come true. But a nagging succession of storms, plus required adjustments along the coasts to accommodate a rise in sea level, will eat up about 0.5 percent worth of economic growth. So when America does occasionally approach 3 percent growth, in terms of living standards it may feel more like 2 percent.

One of his “petty gripes” looks familiar:

Due to the limited selection on Netflix streaming, fewer and fewer people will watch the great movies of the past, thereby neutering the durability of the 20th century’s greatest art form. And live performances of classical music — another of the West’s most significant and beautiful achievements — will cease to be regular in all but a few major U.S. cities.

Poor spending habits explain the persistence of the wealth gap

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

There is arguably no racial disparity more striking than the wealth gap, Coleman Hughes argues:

While the median white household earns just 65 percent more income than its black counterpart, its net worth is fully ten times as high. And, unlike income, which individuals earn in their own lifetimes, wealth accrues over generations, and whites are more than three times as likely as blacks to inherit money from their families. In the public debate on racial inequality, the wealth gap is among the sharpest arrows in the progressive quiver.


Although it is true that the median income of white men more than tripled between 1939 and 1960 (rising from 1,112 dollars to 5,137 dollars), the median income of black men more than quintupled (rising from 460 dollars to 3,075 dollars).9 Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women over the same timespan.10 Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.”11 But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.12


If wealth differences were largely explained by America’s history of favoring certain groups over others, then it would be hard to explain why Asian-Americans, who were never favored, are on track to become wealthier than whites.

Nor can historical racism explain wealth disparities between groups of the same race. A 2015 survey of wealth in Boston found that the median black household had only 8 dollars of wealth. Newsweek reported this fact under the heading “Racism in Boston.” But the 8 dollar figure only pertained to black Bostonians of American ancestry; black Bostonians of Caribbean ancestry had 12,000 dollars of wealth, despite having identical rates of college graduation, only slightly higher incomes, and being equally black in the same city.

Similar disparities emerge when people are grouped by religion. A 2003 study found that Jewish households had a 7-to-1 wealth advantage over Conservative Protestant households, despite the fact that Protestants have been favored over Jews for most of American history. Because facts like these discredit the assumption that government favoritism drives wealth accrual, they don’t make it into the progressive narrative. When all the facts are included, the story changes: wealth is not handed from the top down. It is produced by a bottom-up process involving millions of individuals bringing their skills, habits, and knowledge — attributes which vary from group to group — to bear on valuable tasks.


No element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns. Nielsen, one of the world’s leading market research firms, keeps extensive data on American consumer behavior, broken down demographically. A 2017 Nielsen report found that, compared to white women, black women were 14 percent more likely to own a luxury vehicle, 16 percent more likely to purchase costume jewelry, and 9 percent more likely to purchase fine jewelry. A similar Nielsen report from 2013 found that, while only 62 percent of all Americans owned a smartphone, 71 percent of blacks owned one. Moreover, all of these spending differences were unconditional on wealth and income.

To what extent do poor spending habits explain the persistence of the wealth gap? Economists at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania asked this question after analyzing 16 years of nationally representative data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Consistent with the Nielsen data, they found that blacks with comparable incomes to whites spent 17 percent less on education, and 32 percent more (an extra $2300 per year in 2005 dollars) on ‘visible goods’ — defined as cars, jewelry, and clothes. What’s more, “after controlling for visible spending,” they concluded that the “wealth gap between Blacks and Whites, conditional on permanent income, declines by 50 percent.” To be clear, that 50 percent figure doesn’t pertain to the total wealth gap, but to the proportion of the gap that remains after income is taken into account — which was 40 percent. The upshot: the fact that blacks spent more on cars, jewelry, and clothes explained fully 20 percent of the total racial wealth gap.

To make matters worse, spending patterns are just one part of a larger set of financial skills on which blacks lag behind. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis followed over 40,000 families from 1989 to 2013, tracking their wealth accumulation and financial decisions. They developed a financial health scale, ranging from 0 to 5, that measured the degree to which families made “routine financial health choices that contribute to wealth accumulation” — e.g., saving any amount of money, paying credit card bills on time, having a low debt-to-income ratio, etc. At 3.12, Asian families scored the highest, followed by whites at 3.11, Hispanics at 2.71, and blacks at 2.63.

Next, they asked if education accounted for the differences in financial habits by limiting the comparison to middle-aged families with advanced degrees. Surprisingly, they found that the racial gap in financial health-scores didn’t shrink; it widened. Highly-educated Asian families scored 3.49, comparable whites scored 3.38, comparable Hispanics scored 2.94, and comparable blacks remained far behind at 2.66. Thus, the study authors concluded, neither “periodic shortages of time or money” nor “lower educational attainment” were the driving forces behind the differences in financial decision-making.

Israel significantly relaxes gun license regulations

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Israel will significantly relax its regulations governing gun licenses, a move that would instantly allow hundreds of thousands of Israelis to acquire a firearm:

According to Haaretz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan will allow any Israeli who underwent level 07 rifle training in the IDF to apply for a gun license. All infantry soldiers are certified as 07, in addition to all combat squad commanders and the majority of IDF officers. The vast majority of IDF soldiers aren’t combat soldiers and are certified as level 02.

While the police do not oppose the move, it requested that the mandatory training course be expanded to four and a half hours from the current two. The updated guidelines are a direct result of efforts by the Knesset’s Gun Lobby head Likud MK Amir Ohana, who has long pressed for Israel to relax its tightly regulated firearms industry in order to allow citizens to protect themselves from terrorism.

“A civilian carrying a weapon is more of a solution than a threat, and doubles as assistance for the security forces,” Ohana told Haaretz, pointing out that “in 11 attacks in just the Jerusalem area, they neutralized the threat.”

“Sending the citizens of Israel to protect themselves with pizza trays, selfie sticks, guitars and umbrellas is a crime of the state against its citizens. A law abiding citizen, who has the basic skill required, is entitled to be able to defend himself and his surroundings.”

Selling Ghost Gunners has been a lucrative business

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Crypto-provocateur Cody Wilson recently won his legal battle — the Department of Justice quietly offered him a settlement to end a lawsuit he and a group of co-plaintiffs had pursued since 2015 — and now posting gun designs online is recognized as free speech:

The Department of Justice’s surprising settlement, confirmed in court documents earlier this month, essentially surrenders to that argument. It promises to change the export control rules surrounding any firearm below .50 caliber — with a few exceptions like fully automatic weapons and rare gun designs that use caseless ammunition — and move their regulation to the Commerce Department, which won’t try to police technical data about the guns posted on the public internet.


Now Wilson is making up for lost time. Later this month, he and the nonprofit he founded, Defense Distributed, are relaunching their website Defcad.com as a repository of firearm blueprints they’ve been privately creating and collecting, from the original one-shot 3-D-printable pistol he fired in 2013 to AR-15 frames and more exotic DIY semi-automatic weapons. The relaunched site will be open to user contributions, too; Wilson hopes it will soon serve as a searchable, user-generated database of practically any firearm imaginable.


In the meantime, selling Ghost Gunners has been a lucrative business. Defense Distributed has sold roughly 6,000 of the desktop devices to DIY gun enthusiasts across the country, mostly for $1,675 each, netting millions in profit.


With the rule change their win entails, Defense Distributed has removed a legal threat to not only its project but an entire online community of DIY gunmakers. Sites like GrabCAD and FossCad already host hundreds of gun designs, from Defense Distributed’s Liberator pistol to printable revolvers and even semiautomatic weapons. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in doing things yourself, and it’s also a way of expressing support for the Second Amendment,” explains one prolific Fosscad contributor, a West Virginian serial inventor of 3-D-printable semiautomatics who goes by the pseudonym Derwood. “I’m a conservative. I support all the amendments.”


Inside is a far quieter scene: A large, high-ceilinged, dimly fluorescent-lit warehouse space filled with half a dozen rows of gray metal shelves, mostly covered in a seemingly random collection of books, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Hunger Games. He proudly points out that it includes the entire catalog of Penguin Classics and the entire Criterion Collection, close to 900 Blu-rays. This, he tells me, will be the library.

And why is Defense Distributed building a library? Wilson, who cites Baudrillard, Foucault, or Nietzsche at least once in practically any conversation, certainly doesn’t mind the patina of erudition it lends to what is essentially a modern-day gun-running operation. But as usual, he has an ulterior motive: If he can get this room certified as an actual, official public library, he’ll unlock another giant collection of existing firearm data. The US military maintains records of thousands of the specs for thousands of firearms in technical manuals, stored on reels and reels of microfiche cassettes. But only federally approved libraries can access them. By building a library, complete with an actual microfiche viewer in one corner, Wilson is angling to access the US military’s entire public archive of gun data, which he eventually hopes to digitize and include on Defcad.com, too.

Spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor

Friday, July 13th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I found Aaron Bady’s analysis surprisingly deep:

The MCU cycle began when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were created in 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidency. They are set against the backdrop of wars—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—that never seemed to end, and as such, are fables about the military industrial complex, artifacts from an era when people were still talking about “blowback,” when we still remembered (or cared) that the CIA had helped to create the conditions for Al Qaeda, and when “end the war” was a thing people promised, said, and demanded. To watch them now is to remember a time when we could still remember a time before we were at war, forever, with terror.

And so, those very first movies gave us Iron Man’s discovery that he is his own worst enemy, that Bruce Banner’s experiments have created a monster: himself. They are stories that take the salience of these stories for granted. Like Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which came to us around the same time, they are stories that ask a single, basic question: what if we are the enemy we’ve been searching for?

Since the answer, unavoidably, is yes, the next phase gave us The Avengers: with Thor and Captain America in 2011—leading up to The Avengers in 2012—the movies started to tell a larger story, about building a team of super-heroes out of this disparate set of “special” individuals; as fucked up as they all were, separately, maybe, together, they could be something… more? These are still stories in which the enemy we are searching for might turn out to be us, of course; they are still movies where anxiety about the self gets exorcized by violent combat with a double, just as Iron Man fought an even more iron man and The Incredible Hulk fought a bigger, more incredible hulk. And they are right to be anxious! What is Nazi-fighter Captain America, after all, but a genetically-modified Aryan super soldier? What is Thor’s quest to be “worthy” if not a conquering despot’s desire to justify the unjustifiable, to insist that he rules for some reason other than force? On some level, these movies always know that their protagonists are hypocrites, that the things they are fighting are basically themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. H.Y.D.R.A… what really is the difference?

But they are also stories in which “we” comes to take an interesting centrality, where the individual might be saved by the group, by friends, by family, by work. What if—in the course of human events—we the people could come together and form a union of super-special people? What if together we can become more than the sum of our individuality?

Alas! It only lasts as long as the alien invasion, and by the time we eat the shawarma, there’s not much to talk about. In Iron Man 3 (2013), we learn that terrorism really is just the MIC tail wagging the democratic dog; in Thor: The Dark World (2013), we learn that the Asgardians really are just conquering bastards; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. actually are the same thing; in Age of Ultron (2015), we learn that keeping the peace with drone armies is a truly terrible idea, and it’s the only thing that Tony can think of; it’s the only thing ANYONE can think of. By the time of Civil War (2016), we’ve learned that “Us” is an unstable combination, that blowback is still real, and that no one really transcends their deep flaws. Even the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies tell a version of this story: if the first (2014) is about finding a new family, the second (2017) will be about remembering just how toxic family can be, and how long-lasting its wounds are.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, as the Avengers broke up and as the movies started to proliferate beyond narrative control—Ant-Man? Doctor Strange? Black Panther?—the people making them started to think about the next story they would tell. And so, it turned out that in the margins of these stories of American Empire—always the subtext for the original Avengers—they had begun planting the seeds for a different story, particularly in the post-credit sequences; there were hints and rumors and whispers of the larger story that was already taking place just off-screen, that had been from the beginning, a complex and nuanced and revelatory story—the very Grandest of Grand Narratives—about how a dude named Thanos was trying to acquire the six Infinity Stones so he could blow up the universe. This would be their big idea, their magnum opus, their greatest and most consequential story.


To pick a few random examples: Thor: Ragnarok was about emigrants fleeing a lost home, about how you carry home with you wherever you go. Spider-Man: Homecoming was about choosing not to be an Avenger, but simply to be a modest, humble, neighborhood hero (and also to be a kid). Black Panther was about blackness undefined by, conquered by, enslaved by, or beholden to whiteness. Guardians of the Galaxy is about finding a family among other people whose families hurt them.

Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how “half” his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda’s survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T’Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.

My point is that there’s a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person “can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field”; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.

Let me put it this way: There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

Display invites attention

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Heather E. Heying discusses toxic femininity:

Sex and gender roles have been formed over hundreds of thousands of years in human evolution, indeed, over hundreds of millions of years in our animal lineage. Aspects of those roles are in rapid flux, but ancient truths still exist. Historical appetites and desires persist. Straight men will look at beautiful women, especially if those women are a) young and hot and b) actively displaying. Display invites attention.

Hotness-amplifying femininity puts on a full display, advertising fertility and urgent sexuality. It invites male attention by, for instance, revealing flesh, or by painting on signals of sexual receptivity. This, I would argue, is inviting trouble. No, I did not just say that she was asking for it. I did, however, just say that she was displaying herself, and of course she was going to get looked at.

The amplification of hotness is not, in and of itself, toxic, although personally, I don’t respect it, and never have. Hotness fades, wisdom grows — wise young women will invest accordingly. Femininity becomes toxic when it cries foul, chastising men for responding to a provocative display.

Where we set our boundaries is a question about which reasonable people might disagree, but two bright-lines are widely agreed upon: Every woman has the right not to be touched if she does not wish to be; and coercive quid pro quo, in which sexual favors are demanded for the possibility of career advancement, is unacceptable. But when women doll themselves up in clothes that highlight sexually-selected anatomy, and put on make-up that hints at impending orgasm, it is toxic — yes, toxic — to demand that men do not look, do not approach, do not query.

Young women have vast sexual power. Everyone who is being honest with themselves knows this: Women in their sexual prime who are anywhere near the beauty-norms for their culture have a kind of power that nobody else has. They are also all but certain to lack the wisdom to manage it. Toxic femininity is an abuse of that power, in which hotness is maximized, and victim status is then claimed when straight men don’t treat them as peers.

Creating hunger in men by actively inviting the male gaze, then demanding that men have no such hunger — that is toxic femininity. Subjugating men, emasculating them when they display strength — physical, intellectual, or other — that is toxic femininity. Insisting that men, simply by virtue of being men, are toxic, and then acting surprised as relationships between men and women become more strained — that is toxic femininity. It is a game, the benefits of which go to a few while the costs are shared by all of us.

Forty-five things learned in the gulag

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

For fifteen years the writer Varlam Shalamov was imprisoned in the Gulag for participating in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities”:

He endured six of those years enslaved in the gold mines of Kolyma, one of the coldest and most hostile places on earth. While he was awaiting sentencing, one of his short stories was published in a journal called Literary Contemporary. He was released in 1951, and from 1954 to 1973 he worked on Kolyma Stories, a masterpiece of Soviet dissident writing that has been newly translated into English and published by New York Review Books Classics this week. Shalamov claimed not to have learned anything in Kolyma, except how to wheel a loaded barrow. But one of his fragmentary writings, dated 1961, tells us more.

Here’s what he learned:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

5. I realized that Stalin’s “victories” were due to his killing the innocent — an organization a tenth the size would have swept Stalin away in two days.

6. I realized that humans were human because they were physically stronger and clung to life more than any other animal: no horse can survive work in the Far North.

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

8. Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

10. Ordinary people distinguish their bosses by how hard their bosses hit them, how enthusiastically their bosses beat them.

11. Beatings are almost totally effective as an argument (method number three).

12. I discovered from experts the truth about how mysterious show trials are set up.

13. I understood why prisoners hear political news (arrests, et cetera) before the outside world does.

14. I found out that the prison (and camp) “grapevine” is never just a “grapevine.”

15. I realized that one can live on anger.

16. I realized that one can live on indifference.

17. I understood why people do not live on hope — there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will — what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

18. I am proud to have decided right at the beginning, in 1937, that I would never be a foreman if my freedom could lead to another man’s death, if my freedom had to serve the bosses by oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

19. Both my physical and my spiritual strength turned out to be stronger than I thought in this great test, and I am proud that I never sold anyone, never sent anyone to their death or to another sentence, and never denounced anyone.

20. I am proud that I never wrote an official request until 1955.

21. I saw the so-called Beria amnesty where it took place, and it was a sight worth seeing.

22. I saw that women are more decent and self-sacrificing than men: in Kolyma there were no cases of a husband following his wife. But wives would come, many of them (Faina Rabinovich, Krivoshei’s wife).

23. I saw amazing northern families (free-contract workers and former prisoners) with letters “to legitimate husbands and wives,” et cetera.

24. I saw “the first Rockefellers,” the underworld millionaires. I heard their confessions.

25. I saw men doing penal servitude, as well as numerous people of “contingents” D, B, et cetera, “Berlag.”

26. I realized that you can achieve a great deal — time in the hospital, a transfer — but only by risking your life, taking beatings, enduring solitary confinement in ice.

27. I saw solitary confinement in ice, hacked out of a rock, and spent a night in it myself.

28. The passion for power, to be able to kill at will, is great — from top bosses to the rank-and-file guards (Seroshapka and similar men).

29. Russians’ uncontrollable urge to denounce and complain.

30. I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.

31. I am convinced that the camps — all of them — are a negative school; you can’t even spend an hour in one without being depraved. The camps never gave, and never could give, anyone anything positive. The camps act by depraving everyone, prisoners and free-contract workers alike.

32. Every province had its own camps, at every construction site. Millions, tens of millions of prisoners.

33. Repressions affected not just the top layer but every layer of society — in any village, at any factory, in any family there were either relatives or friends who were repressed.

34. I consider the best period of my life the months I spent in a cell in Butyrki prison, where I managed to strengthen the spirit of the weak, and where everyone spoke freely.

35. I learned to “plan” my life one day ahead, no more.

36. I realized that the thieves were not human.

37. I realized that there were no criminals in the camps, that the people next to you (and who would be next to you tomorrow) were within the boundaries of the law and had not trespassed them.

38. I realized what a terrible thing is the self-esteem of a boy or a youth: it’s better to steal than to ask. That self-esteem and boastfulness are what make boys sink to the bottom.

39. In my life women have not played a major part: the camp is the reason.

40. Knowing people is useless, for I am unable to change my attitude toward any scoundrel.

41. The people whom everyone — guards, fellow prisoners — hates are the last in the ranks, those who lag behind, those who are sick, weak, those who can’t run when the temperature is below zero.

42. I understood what power is and what a man with a rifle is.

43. I understood that the scales had been displaced and that this displacement was what was most typical of the camps.

44. I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization.

45. I understood that a writer has to be a foreigner in the questions he is dealing with, and if he knows his material well, he will write in such a way that nobody will understand him.

Mercantilism was never about economics

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Mercantilism was never about economics, Ben Landau-Taylor explains:

I believe mercantilist policies were the central government’s solution to the problem of taxation. While modern governments can impose taxes almost arbitrarily, early modern governments could not. Royalty made money from the farmland they owned, but as the economic center of gravity moved from the farms to the towns, this became less important, and they needed more money. The royalty lacked the local knowledge and “boots on the ground” to collect taxes outside of their demesne, and so had to act through the local power holders. In the manors, this meant acting through the nobility. (That’s a complicated topic beyond the scope of this piece, so I’ll just gesture at the British Parliament and the civil wars that accompanied its origins as an example of the power struggles this provoked.) In the towns, this meant acting through the guilds.

It wasn’t practical to simply extort money from the guilds, so they ended up in a more symbiotic relationship with the state. Essentially, the deal was that that the state would use force to shut down the guild’s competition, and in return the guild would pay taxes and help administrate their collection. In other words, the state would sell a monopoly to the guild. The guild would then submit to the collection of tariffs, or to paying duties on their merchandise, or some other tax on their transactions. (Notably, I know of no cases in this period where income or wealth were taxed directly. States couldn’t get away with that until later.) Jean-Baptiste Colbert pursued this policy more brazenly and systematically than anyone else I’ve looked at.

Through this lens, the mercantilist policies make more sense. The focus on money was because the purpose was to collect money, and so the central government wanted to bring more money into the country and track it as precisely as possible. The hodgepodge of regulations follows no systematic rule of economics, but does follow the pattern of a symbiotic trade between the state and the guilds. For example, a punitive tariff on imported wine will raise some money for the state, and more importantly, it is a favor to the domestic winemaker’s guild (which pays taxes, unlike foreign winemakers). Granting a monopoly to a favored shipping company makes no sense as an economic policy, but does make sense as a taxation policy.

Of course, whenever the state is pursuing a course of action, there will arise a demand for intellectual arguments that the state policies serve the common good, and thinkers will arise to fill this demand. Such thinkers made arguments for mercantilist policies, and some then generalized these arguments and made further recommendations. However, I have seen no evidence that these thinkers were influential or their recommendations adopted, and suspect that they had negligible effects.

Nevertheless, these intellectuals made a convenient foil for Adam Smith and his peers. By casting them as his foes, Smith was able to demolish them and demonstrate his superiority, thereby associating his own program with progress and rationalism, and leaving his opponents no intellectual ground to retreat to. (Smith was a capable persuader with sophisticated models of his audience, although many of his peers were not.) I think the real story is that Smith’s program was possible because his true foes, the guild merchants, were no longer necessary to the state due to the institutionalization of taxation infrastructure and/or the nascent factory system. However, because every historian of economics has read Smith, his account is widely known; and because his narrative of progress and rationalism matches modern sensibilities, his account is widely accepted.