A Meritocratic Apocalypse

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

For policy experts, like Dan Drezner, the next four years will be a waking nightmare:

For technocrats, this is the darkest timeline. They are meritocrats to the core, and the emergent Trump administration is a meritocratic apocalypse. They have been trained to believe that things like expertise and experience matter in conducting the nation’s affairs. Trump hasn’t hired talentless hacks, but his hires possess little direct relevant experience or training to run the departments they’ve been hired to run. The conclusion to draw from this is that the country will be very badly run for the next four years.

This leads to an existential problem for experts. Wonks love their country and they love policy minutiae. They believe that experience and expertise are pretty important when it comes to governing. They are now trying to process an incoming administration that believes there are no such things as objective facts or words that matter.

This puts the technocrat in a very awkward situation. If their premise is that being wonkish is necessary for government to function, then they will predict awful governance for the next four years. That’s bad for intrinsic reasons.

But what if their premise is wrong? What if the Trump administration turns out to be pretty good at governing? Well, that’s worse.

All three loyal readers of Spoiler Alerts will scoff at the possibility of a competent Trump administration, but it’s worth mulling over. Trump has spent the past year and a half defying most political experts and winning the greatest natural experiment in American political history. What if he and his team prove to be better at governing than wonks expect him to be? What if it turns out that the country is already trending in a very positive direction and even the federal government can’t screw that up? Or what if disruption by inexperienced policy principals is just what the bureaucracy needs?

It would mean an Orwellian nightmare for wonks. Education is ignorance. Reading is harmful. Experience is fatally flawed. Debate is debilitating.

Jordan Peterson

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Joe Rogan interviews Jordan Peterson, tenured professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and what starts out as a light discussion of the craziness of political correctness turns deep a couple hours in, as he moves on to self authoring and the metaphysics of religion:

The Push to Diversify Gifted-and-Talented Programs

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

The push to diversify gifted-and-talented programs is on:

The Department of Education has allowed the highly sought-after school [the Brooklyn School of Inquiry] to set aside 40 percent of its kindergarten seats specifically for low-income children.


Citywide, about 77 percent of students are poor and almost 70 percent are black or Hispanic. Last year, BSI’s poverty rate was 23 percent, and less than 10 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The disparity is not unique to BSI, or to gifted education. Citywide, about 73 percent of gifted students are white or Asian, and the poverty rate averages around 43 percent.

There are almost no students in the city’s gifted programs who are learning English, have special needs, or are in temporary housing. Put together, they make up less than 10 percent.

“What we have right now is something we should be ashamed of,” said James Borland, who directs gifted-education programs at Teachers College at Columbia University.

We should be ashamed of the fact that almost no students in the city’s gifted programs are learning English, have special needs, or are in temporary housing. Clearly.

There’s no getting off this policy treadmill:

Districts used to be able to set their own admissions criteria for gifted programs. That changed in 2007, when the city standardized entry based on test scores, in part to increase diversity. A non-verbal test, also intended to address inequities, was added in 2012. Yet today’s gifted programs remain segregated.

Gifted programs are often seen as a way to help integrate schools:

“It is a way to attract white, higher-income families to a school. But once you do that, it’s like gentrifying a school,” she said. “You walk down the hallway, and you can tell which classroom is gifted and talented and which classroom is general education.”

Finding the Real Rasputin

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

The myth-busting of Douglas Smith’s Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs begins in Siberia, where Rasputin was born:

He was a wild youth, but not — police reports unearthed by the author show — the hardened criminal portrayed by his adversaries in St. Petersburg 40 years later. He was self-educated, late in life, but not illiterate. He developed a penchant for pilgrimages: They offered a way out of Siberian obscurity. His religious belief deepened, as did his pastoral touch: He had a knack for connecting with people of all stations in life.

Unfortunately for Russia, the bored and credulous members of the aristocracy were ripe for distraction. Rasputin was not the first mystic to thrill the drawing rooms of St. Petersburg, but he was the one whose attraction proved the most enduring and far-reaching. He clearly had some remarkable gifts — “powers” would be putting it too strongly. His hypnotic stare is well-attested. He had a disconcerting but engaging (and, one suspects, well-practiced) conversational style.

Crucially, he also had a knack for seeming to treat the hemophilia that afflicted the czarevitch Alexei, an illness that drove his already neurotic mother to the brink of madness. Rasputin’s faith-healing abilities may, in truth, have consisted of sparing the poor child the attentions of meddling doctors, but they earned him the fierce loyalty and affection of both Nicholas and Alexandra.

And possibly more. The Russian public became convinced that the mad monk’s intimacy with the royal family included carnal knowledge of the czar’s wife and daughters. Though that claim is unproved, and some of the most lurid stories of his orgies are clearly false, Rasputin undoubtedly enjoyed unabashed, abundant and mostly consensual sexual relations with more than a few high-born women — not to mention prostitutes — in a way that scarcely befitted his trademark asceticism. The common accusation against Rasputin is thus that he corrupted Russian high society. It would be fairer, Mr. Smith argues, to say that it was the fleshpots of St. Petersburg that corrupted Rasputin, originally a humble and holy visitor.

Mr. Smith also refutes the theory that the blame for Russia’s downfall lies with Rasputin. He quotes a czarist deputy minister saying that Rasputin’s advice could be “simplistic and naïve” but that it was not “remotely harmful.” Rasputin was at worst a distracting influence, on some issues a positive one. He strongly opposed Russia’s entry into World War I. He decried prejudice against poor people — for example, a characteristically mean-minded ban on humble enlisted soldiers using public transportation in St. Petersburg. By the standards of the time he was remarkably tolerant towards gays, Jews and Muslims. He preferred plain food, was not notably unhygienic in his personal habits, did many unsung good deeds and genuinely loved his country.


The machinations against Rasputin would have done little to avert catastrophe, but his murder may have prompted it. The plotters believed that, without Rasputin, Alexandra would be so broken-hearted that she would go mad (or at least withdraw from politics), paving the way for a constitutional monarchy. Those hopes were as exaggerated as the story of the assassination itself. The poison, it turns out, was a plot detail invented later: Rasputin was simply lured to a dinner with a promise of an aristocrat’s wife, shot in the head and dumped in a canal. For many hard-pressed Russians, the murder of the only peasant ever to make it to the Romanovs’ court exemplified all that was rotten and unfair about the system. Within weeks, the Romanovs were toppled. The next year they were dead. When the Bolshevik murderers looted the bodies, they found sewn into the hems the topaz stones given to them by the family’s fascinating, wayward and beloved spiritual guide.

The biggest mystery of the American Revolution

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

The biggest mystery of the American Revolution is, Why couldn’t both sides arrive at a peaceful compromise?

The prosperous American colonies were a jewel of the British Empire. If the Americans were so incensed at their lack of representation, there seemed to be an obvious solution — just bring the colonists into Parliament.

Economists Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens think they understand why that never happened. In a new working paper, they analyze the American Revolution through the lens of game theory, the mathematical study of strategy and conflict.


For the British, the main headache was that the colonies weren’t pulling their own weight. In the 1750s and 1760s, the British spent millions of pounds raising armies to defend the North American colonies against the French in the Seven Years’ War. Parliament subsequently demanded that the lightly-taxed Americans should contribute more to the costs of their own defense.

This was a reasonable idea, Smith argued. And the new taxes were still a pittance compared to what people paid in England. Parliament had never demanded of the colonists anything “which even approached to a just proportion to what was paid by their fellow subjects at home,” Smith noted in his book, which was published in 1776, not quite a year into the American Revolution.

Still, Smith was an advocate for harmony and economic efficiency. If the Americans would not pay taxes without political representation, he argued that the most practical solution was to acquiesce. He recommended that Britain should grant the colonies some number of seats in Parliament, depending on how much they contributed in taxes.

He wasn’t the only one to come up with this idea. In the run-up to the Revolution, several similar proposals had circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. The British politician Thomas Pownall dreamed of a merged Parliament, a “Grand Marine Dominion, consisting of our possessions in the Atlantic, and in America, united into a one Empire.” In 1754, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “such a union would be very acceptable to the colonies, provided they had a reasonable number of representatives allowed them.”

So why didn’t any of these plans come through?

Galiani and Torrens argue that political considerations in Britain wrecked any chance of Americans gaining seats in Parliament. “It was not that such a deal was impossible to reach, or that it was completely crazy,” Torrens said in an interview. “Part of the problem is that this would have consequences for the internal politics of the British empire.”

As they discuss in their paper, the British Parliament at the time was dominated by wealthy landowners, who feared that the nation’s growing democratic movement would diminish their power. The common folk, who made up most of the country, were agitating for more say and more representation in Parliament.

“The landed gentry, who controlled the incumbent government, feared that making concessions to the American colonies would intensify the pressure for democratic reforms, thus jeopardizing their economic and political position,” the economists argue.

“There was this slippery-slope argument,” Torrens said. “How could they give representation to the Americans, while many common people in London did not have proper representation?”

In fact, there were populist factions in the British government who welcomed the colonists — in part, it seems, because they thought the Americans would make good allies. It was a volatile period. According to Galiani and Torrens, the ruling class in Britain believed it was better to risk a war and the loss of some colonies than to risk losing control of the entire empire to a political coalition of the lowborn and landless. Their paper’s contribution is to illustrate the strategic logic behind this decision.

The Real War on Science

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

John Tierney’s liberal friends sometimes ask him why he doesn’t devote more of his science journalism to the sins of the Right:

My friends don’t like my answer: because there isn’t much to write about. Conservatives just don’t have that much impact on science. I know that sounds strange to Democrats who decry Republican creationists and call themselves the “party of science.” But I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the Left’s indictments, including Chris Mooney’s bestseller, The Republican War on Science. I finished it with the same question about this war that I had at the outset: Where are the casualties?

Read the whole thing.

Suez, the RAF, and the Royal Navy

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The Suez conflict provided lessons for British strategy and defence policy — beyond the long list of things not to do:

Since the early 1950s, the role of the Royal Navy and even of sea power more broadly had come under concerted attack in Whitehall. The Air Ministry pushed hard for a narrow focus on the early, nuclear stage of a total war with the USSR – for which, as it happened, the RAF’s cherished medium bomber force was well suited. This approach left little room for naval power; why seek to defend sea communications when the war would be settled quickly, by nuclear weapons? Some senior politicians and civil servants were convinced of the strategic logic of this case, while others went along with an approach that appeared to offer significant savings in defence spending. The Admiralty put up a spirited counter-case arguing that defence policy could not plan only for total war, let alone for only one form that such a war might take. Conventional forces, it insisted, including naval power, were an indispensable part of the deterrent to war; they would be essential to fighting any war if Britain was to survive; and they were vital for waging the cold war, which was bound to continue and even intensify as total war became less likely. The strategic logic of the Admiralty case was compelling but the financial implications were unpalatable; the Navy held on but only just and the assaults kept coming. Suez provided a much needed reality check.

First, it was a reminder that while deterring or fighting total war with the Soviet Union was bound to be the main focus for policy, it was not the only game in town. Britain and the West more broadly had interests around the world that were important in their own right, as well as having a potential connection to the cold war. Indeed, with a deliberate resort to war by the USSR being viewed as unlikely, preventing the outbreak of minor conflicts that could escalate became an important element of avoiding war. The Suez crisis both demonstrated the need for military intervention overseas and also shed a harsh light on existing British capabilities for such operations.

The second question concerned how such intervention should be conducted. Britain had hitherto relied on garrisons stationed overseas and on the use of air bases. These were expensive to maintain and as pillars of a strategy for intervention, they were being increasingly shaken by nationalism and decolonisation, resulting in the loss of bases or tight restrictions on their use. A potential ‘air barrier’ across the Middle East further complicated the British response to any crisis in the Gulf, Indian Ocean or Far East, reducing the utility of any UK-based strategic reserve. In response to these developments, the Admiralty was beginning to propose that the Royal Navy could take the lead ‘east of Suez’ with maritime task forces, based around carrier air power and amphibious capabilities, which would provide a stabilizing influence and a capacity for intervention. This vision appealed to those wanting a cheaper strategy as well as accommodating the reality of reducing access to overseas bases. It suited the Air Ministry which, focused on nuclear-armed bombers, was entirely content to see conventional, expeditionary air power fall primarily to the Fleet Air Arm. It also gave the Royal Navy a clear and viable role which attracted wider political support – at the same time as preserving capabilities that the Admiralty continued to see as essential for total war; hot war was de-emphasised in favour of warm and cold war.

Uganda to shut down Zuckerberg-funded schools

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

No good deed goes unpunished in Uganda:

Uganda’s High Court has described the Bridge International Academies (BIA) — which is funded by the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — as unsanitary and unqualified, and has ordered it to close its doors in December because it ignored Uganda’s national standards and put the “life and safety” of its 12,000 young students on the line.

The Director of Education Standards for the Ministry, Huzaifa Mutazindwa, told CNN that the nursery and primary schools were not licensed, the teachers weren’t qualified and that there was no record of its curriculum being approved.

“The Ministry does not know what is being taught in these schools which is a point of concern to (the) government,” Mutazindwa said.

What has become of conservatism?

Monday, November 28th, 2016

What has become of conservatism?, Nick Cohen asks — in the not-so-conservative Guardian:

Conservatives once boasted that they were the grown-ups, even if they did say so themselves. They conserved the best of the past and believed in the sensible management of the world as it is, rather than in dangerous fantasies about the world as it might be. Hold out as their opponents might, eventually they would understand that conservatism was just common sense.

“Once again, the facts of life have turned out to be Tory,” declared Margaret Thatcher in 1976, as she prepared for one of the long periods of Conservative rule that have dominated British history since the 1880s. Dozens of respectable figures have agreed and played with variations on the theme of: “If you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart. If you are still a socialist at 40, you have no head.” Conservatives have condescended to allow that sensible people might have wild ideas about subjects they know nothing about. But as Robert Conquest, the great historian of the crimes of communism, said in the first of his three laws of politics: “Everyone is a conservative about what he knows best.”

English conservatives, who are by no means confined to supporters of the Conservative party, have the best reason to be smug. Conservatism supplied the dominant version of the English national story. It helped ensure that the Conservative party was, in a phrase that said it all, “the natural party of government”.

The English, a category they could expand to cover the Scots and the Welsh, but never the Irish, have not had a revolution since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution was glorious because it did not lead to civil war. (Ireland is always forgotten, as I said.) The country or, rather its ruling class, peacefully removed James II, a Catholic Stuart with pretensions to absolute rule, and assured the triumph of parliamentary government by replacing him with the Protestant William III.

In his speech to the (then all-male and all-wealthy) electors of Bristol in 1774, Edmund Burke explained the ideals of parliamentary government. An MP was their representative, not their delegate. He owed the voters only “his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

Burke’s denunciation of the French Revolution 16 years later, heralded a further strand to the story of England as a safe, sensible nation. When Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790, his contemporaries thought him mad to predict that an apparently benign revolution would end in “despotism”. By the time Robespierre began the reign of terror of 1793, he looked like a prophet.

Ever since then, Anglo-Saxon conservatives have been able to believe, with a smidgen of justice, that continentals had the guillotines of the 1790s and the death camps and gulags of the 1930s and 1940s because of their utopian willingness to tear up society by the roots. The pragmatic, empirical and, above all, conservative British were spared because we favoured a respect for tradition and gradual change.

You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Erin Simpson loves Mattis, but not as SecDef:

Among those in the Marine Corps I taught and deployed with, Gen. (ret.) Jim Mattis is a legend. The quotes, the foxholes, the knife hands. Everyone has their favorite story. I once handed Mattis a Diet Coke out of a cooler at Quantico. A mundane act? Yes. But I’ve remembered it fondly for 12 years.

He is Chaos, Mad Dog, and the warrior monk. But we should not add secretary of defense to that list.

I have long thought of Mattis as a “break glass in case of emergency” type of leader. He was uniquely suited to his roles in the early years of the War on Terror. He is a warrior and a leader of men in the application of violence. He is not, however, a man for all seasons. Many in defense circles have been so overjoyed as the prospect of a qualified secretary, that they seemed to have forgotten to stop and ask if Mattis would, in fact, be right for the job. He is not a politician, or a wonk, or a bureaucrat. To ask him to be any of those things would be like trying to keep a wave upon the sand.

As with all nominees, there are tradeoffs to Mattis running the Defense Department. He is a strategic thinker with a strong sense of history — his library is one of those aforementioned legends. He is a well-regarded leader who inspires fierce loyalty. But I fear Mattis may be wasted atop the vast expanse of the Pentagon. There are ultimately three primary reasons why we shouldn’t hope Chaos becomes secretary of defense.

1. Mattis is a recently retired general and is therefore statutorily prohibited from serving as secretary of defense. And while a legislative solution is possible, this law exists for good reasons and overriding it bodes poorly for long-term civil-military relations.

2. Warfighters rarely make good bureaucrats. The Pentagon is one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, and Mattis has shown little patience for management and administration.

3. His boss won’t listen.


The point is not that Mattis is unqualified. Rather, the point is that he hates this shit. Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis’ strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary’s job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can’t run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division.

Why Saddam and Gaddafi Failed to get the Bomb

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, author of Unclear Physics, explains why Saddam and Gaddafi failed to get the Bomb:

While dictators with weak states can easily decide that they want nuclear weapons, they will find it difficult to produce them. Why? Personalist dictators like Saddam and Gaddafi weaken formal state institutions in order to concentrate power in their own hands. This helps them remain in power for longer, but makes their states inefficient. Weak states have fewer instruments to set up and manage complex technical programs. They lack the basic institutional capability to plan, execute, and review complicated technical projects. As a result, their leaders can be led to believe that the nuclear weapons program is doing great while, in fact, nothing is working out. In Libya, for example, scientists worked throughout the 1980s to produce centrifuges, with zero results.


As my book shows, these programs were afflicted with capacity problems at every stage, from initial planning to their final dismantlement. These problems were worse in Libya than in Iraq, because Gaddafi dismantled most state institutions as part of his Cultural Revolution during the 1970s. Saddam created a bloated state that was difficult to navigate for his officials, with competing agencies and programs blaming each other for various problems as these emerged. This made oversight difficult, from Saddam’s point of view, and caused endless infighting and backstabbing inside the Iraqi nuclear program. As a result, scientists spent days in endless meetings, blaming each other for delays, rather than working together as a team to solve problems they were facing.

Even when Saddam tried to put more pressure on his scientists to deliver results, he failed. After Israel destroyed a research reactor complex in Iraq in June 1981, Saddam became more determined to get nuclear weapons. But the program made little progress. In 1985, his leading scientists promised Saddam that they would achieve a major breakthrough by 1990 – without specifying what exactly they would achieve by that time. By 1987, it was clear that they would not be able to make a significant breakthrough by the deadline. This created plenty of shouting and conflict inside the program, and led to an in-house restructuring, but even at this stage no one was willing to tell Saddam the bad news. When the delays could no longer be denied, the scientists blamed another agency. This was a strategic blunder – because this agency was led by Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil. Saddam put Kamil in charge of the nuclear weapons program. Even Kamil, who was notoriously brutal against his employees, became so frustrated with the nuclear program that he threatened to imprison anyone found to intentionally cause delays. Tellingly, this threat was never implemented.

In contrast, Libyan scientists often did not show up for work. The regime couldn’t just fire them, partly because there were too few scientists in Libya to begin with. The regime was unable to educate enough scientists and engineers, and had to hire foreigners (including many Egyptians). Some of the Egyptian scientists went on strike during a 1977 conflict between the two states – and, apparently, managed to negotiate better conditions. Not quite what we would expect from a brutal dictator, is it? But, as the history of Libya’s nuclear program demonstrates, the regime invested enormous sums in buying equipment without getting significantly closer to the nuclear weapons threshold. In fact, nothing worked – including phones, photo-copiers and expensive laboratory equipment. Some of the equipment broke, and no-one knew how to fix them, whereas other stuff was left unopened because the technical staff was concerned that fluctuating voltage in their electrical system could break the equipment. The Soviet research reactor also faced problems, because the Libyans were unable to filter the water cooling the reactor system, which meant the pipes became clogged with sand.

The Iraqi and Libyan programs failed for different reasons. The Iraqi program was beginning to make some progress after the internal restructuring. Kamil decided to ignore Saddam’s rule to not seek help from abroad, and bought equipment for the nuclear weapons program from Germany and other countries in the late 1980s. But then, Saddam miscalculated badly and decided to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990. After the invasion, the Iraqis launched a crash nuclear program. Kamil told Saddam that they were on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons in the fall of 1990, which wasn’t true. But, if Saddam hadn’t invaded Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War, he would most likely have acquired nuclear weapons. The Libyan program never even got close.

Trump’s Return to Normalcy

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Europe has taken for granted just how abnormally unselfish America has been since World War 2, Robert Kagan notes:

No people ever took on such far-flung responsibilities for so little obvious pay-off. The US kept troops in Europe and Asia for 70 years, not to protect itself from immediate attack but to protect its allies. With half the world’s gross domestic product in 1945, it created an open economic order that let others prosper and compete. It helped spread democracy even though democratic allies proved more independent than the dictatorships they replaced.

All this was profoundly in US interests, but only when viewed from a most enlightened perspective. Americans came to that enlightenment only after a world war, followed by the rise of Soviet communism, which persuaded them to define their interests broadly and accept responsibility for a liberal world order that benefited others as much as, sometimes more than, it benefited them.

Enlightenment doesn’t last for ever, however, and with Mr Trump’s election Americans have chosen, as in 1920, a return to normalcy. So what does the normal solipsistic superpower do? It looks for immediate threats to the homeland and finds only one: radical Islamist terrorism. Its foreign policy becomes primarily a counterterrorism strategy. Nations are judged not by whether they are allies or nominal adversaries, democracies or autocracies, only by their willingness to fight Islamists. Mr Putin’s Russia, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Israel: all are equal partners in the fight and all are rewarded with control, spheres of influence and defence against critics within and without. Most countries, by this calculus, are irrelevant.

The rest is a matter of money. Foreign policy should serve US economic interests, and where it doesn’t should be changed. Trade deals should be about making money not strengthening the global order or providing reassurance to allies living in the shadows of great powers. The US is no longer in the reassurance business. For decades an abnormal US foreign policy has aimed at denying Russia and China spheres of interest. That made sense when upholding an order to avoid a breakdown like that of the first half of the 20th century. But a narrower reading of US interests does not require it. What interest is it of the US who exercises hegemony in east Asia and in eastern and central Europe? Existing alliances need not be re­nounced — that would be messy — but, if allies have to adjust to new realities, that is to be welcomed rather than resisted.

As for the projection of US military power abroad, there should be no need. No foreign army threatens the homeland. Nuclear powers can be deterred by America’s nuclear arsenal. (Note to US hawks: there will be no bombing of Iran under a Trump administration.) Almost every intervention of the past 70 years was primarily to defend someone else or to uphold some principle of global order. They were “wars of choice”, not required by a narrow definition of US interests. The war against radical Islamist terror can be fought by drone strikes a few special forces and by our partners on the ground.

None of this should sound far-fetched. This narrow, interest-based approach to foreign policy was dominant in the 1920s and 1930s. It is the preferred strategy of many American academics today. More importantly, it plays well with an American public that has come to believe the US has been taken to the cleaners. Mr Trump promises they will not be taken for suckers any more.

Maybe Try a Little Listening

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

Many of David Brooks’ fellow Trump critics are expressing outrage, depression, bewilderment or disgust:

They’re marching or writing essays: Should we normalize Trump or fight the normalizers?

It all seems so useless during this transition moment. It’s all a series of narcissistic displays and discussions about our own emotional states.

It seems like the first thing to do is really learn what this election is teaching us. Second, this seems like a moment for some low-passion wonkery. It’s stupid to react to every Trump tweet outrage with your own predictable howls. It’s silly to treat politics and governance purely on cultural grounds, as a high school popularity contest, where my sort of people denigrates your sort of people.

Why Socrates hated Democracy

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Socrates was not elitist in the normal sense:

He didn’t believe that a narrow few should only ever vote. He did, however, insist that only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply should be let near a vote.

We have forgotten this distinction between an intellectual democracy and a democracy by birthright. We have given the vote to all without connecting it to that of wisdom. And Socrates knew exactly where that would lead: to a system the Greeks feared above all, demagoguery.

dēmos ‘the people’ + agōgos ‘leading’

Ancient Athens had painful experience of demagogues, for example, the louche figure of Alcibiades, a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking wealthy man who eroded basic freedoms and helped to push Athens to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. Socrates knew how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an election debate between two candidates, one who was like a doctor and the other who was like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival:

Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.

Socrates asks us to consider the audience response:

Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against you desires in order to help you’ would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think?

We have forgotten all about Socrates’s salient warnings against democracy.

The Downfall of Untempered Education

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Giovanni Dannato notes that the educated often believe sentimental ideology like it’s holy gospel:

People who get an education are generally smarter but their advantage in processing information only leads them further astray if they are given bad information. Even a great Empire like China becomes easy prey for a handful of toughened no-nonsense Mongols when the state is run by over-educated children and populated by downtrodden peasants who have no reason to care about who’s in charge.

History shows us those Mongols didn’t need college degrees or Confucian exams with 1% pass rates to run an empire. The downfall of untempered education is you can get caught up in credentials and then reel in shock when someone without a certificate in face punching walks up and simply punches you out.