Liberalism according to The Economist

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019


In Liberalism at Large Alexander Zevin explores the world according to the Economist:

He shows how its editors and contributors pioneered the revolving doors that link media, politics, business, and finance—alumni have gone on to such jobs as deputy governor of the Bank of England, Prime Minister of Britain, and President of Italy—and how such people have defined, at crucial moments in history, liberalism’s ever-changing relationship with capitalism, imperialism, democracy, and war.

A capsule version of this thesis can be found in the career of James Wilson, The Economist’s founder and first editor. Wilson, who was born in Scotland and became the owner of a struggling hatmaking business, intended his journal to develop and disseminate the doctrine of laissez-faire—“nothing but pure principles,” as he put it. He was particularly vociferous in his opposition to the Corn Laws, agricultural tariffs that were unpopular with merchants. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, three years after the magazine first appeared, and Wilson began to proselytize more energetically for free trade and the increasingly prominent discipline of economics. He became a Member of Parliament and held several positions in the British government. He also founded a pan-Asian bank, now known as Standard Chartered, which expanded fast on the back of the opium trade with China. In 1859, Wilson became Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer. He died in India the following year, trying to reconfigure the country’s financial system.

During his short career as a journalist-cum-crusader, Wilson briskly clarified what he meant by “pure principles.” He opposed a ban on trading with slaveholding countries on the ground that it would punish slaves as well as British consumers. In the eighteen-forties, when Ireland was struck with famine, which was largely caused by free trade—the British insisted on exporting Irish food, despite catastrophic crop failure—Wilson called for a homeopathic remedy: more free trade. With Irish intransigence becoming a nuisance, he advised the British to respond with “powerful, resolute, but just repression.” Wilson was equally stern with those suffering from rising inequality at home. In his view, the government was wrong to oblige rail companies to provide better service for working-class passengers, who were hitherto forced to travel in exposed freight cars: “Where the most profit is made, the public is best served. Limit the profit, and you limit the exertion of ingenuity in a thousand ways.” A factory bill limiting women to a twelve-hour workday was deemed equally pernicious. As for public schooling, common people should be “left to provide education as they provide food for themselves.”

The Church made us WEIRD

Saturday, November 9th, 2019

A new study, The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation, published in Science, makes the point that HBD Chick has been making for some time now:

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology

Church vs. Cousin Marriage

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of Tyler Cowen‘s at GMU economics.

Start with a big blatant neglected fact

Friday, November 8th, 2019

How does Bryan Caplan pick book topics?

How do I pick book topics? On reflection, I usually start with what appears to be a big blatant neglected fact. Then I try to discover whether anything in the universe is big enough to explain this alleged fact away. If a laborious search uncovers nothing sufficient, I am left with the seed of a book: One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts.

Thus, my Myth of the Rational Voter starts with what appears to be a big blatant neglected fact: the typical voter seems highly irrational. He uses deeply flawed intellectual methods, and holds a wide range of absurd views. Twist and turn the issue as you please, and this big blatant neglected fact remains.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, similarly, begins with a rather different big blatant neglected alleged fact: Modern parenting is obsessed with “investing” in kids’ long-run outcomes, yet twin and adoption researchers consistently conclude that the long-run effect of nurture is grossly overrated. Yes, the latter fact is only “blatant” after you read the research, but once you read it, you can’t unread it.

What’s the One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts in The Case Against Education? This: education is highly lucrative even though the curriculum is highly irrelevant in the real world. Yes, it takes a book to investigate the many efforts to explain this One Big Fact away (“learning how to learn,” anyone?). But without One Big Fact, there’d be no book.

Finally, the big motivated fact behind Open Borders is that simply letting a foreigner move to the First World vastly multiplies his labor earnings overnight. A Haitian really can make twenty times as much money in Miami the week after he leaves Port-au-Prince – and the reason is clearly that the Haitian is vastly more productive in the U.S. Which really makes you wonder: Why would anyone want to stop another human being from escaping poverty by enriching the world? Giving this starting point, anti-immigration arguments are largely attempts to explain this big blatant neglected fact away. Given what restrictionist arguments are up against, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t measure up.

On reflection, my current book project, Poverty: Who To Blame doesn’t seem to fit this formula. The book will rest on three or four big blatant neglected facts rather than one. Yet perhaps as I write, One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts will come into focus…

A vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

I don’t think this Atlantic piece on “porch pirates” in San Francisco is meant as an ad for Ring video doorbells (and Nest cams, too), but it achieves that goal nonetheless:

It was only about nine months later, in May 2017, when one of Fairley’s neighbors plastered photos of her, “Wanted”-style, on Nextdoor, that Fairley realized things were about to get worse. Nextdoor is an online ticker tape of homeowner and tenant concerns, and the grievances can be particularly telling in a city of Dickensian extremes like San Francisco, whose influx of tech wealth is pitting suburban expectations against urban realities. The city’s property-crime rate is among the highest in the United States. Nextdoor posts about dogs slurping from a public drinking fountain and Whole Foods overcharging again (“Be on guard”) show up alongside reports of smash-and-grab car break-ins, slashed tires, and an entire crime subgenre of “porch pirates,” the Artful Dodgers of the Amazon age.

Fairley and her neighbor do not agree — will likely never agree — on what happened in the minutes prior to the photos of Fairley going up on Nextdoor. Fairley has sworn that the boxes she picked up were from down the street, where they had been laid out for the taking, and that her 6-year-old daughter was helping to haul them to their home in the public housing down the block.

Julie Margett, a nurse who lives on the street, in a purple cottage with a rainbow gay-pride flag and a black lives matter sign in the window, said she was leaving her garage and spotted Fairley coming down her neighbor’s stairs carrying boxes with various addresses on them. Surmising that they were stolen, she asked Fairley warily, in her British accent, “What are you doing?”

Fairley called her a racist (in fact, she still does) and told her she was in the middle of moving. “That was what was so disarming about her,” Margett told me. “Before you know it, she’s torn you to shreds and she’s off down the block.” Margett snapped photos of the mother-daughter haul act — in one, the young girl sticks her tongue out at the camera — and, after calling the police, uploaded them into a Nextdoor post: “Package thieves.”

So, Fairley told me two years later, sitting in an orange sweatsuit in a county-jail interview room, that was the real acceleration of the epic feud of Fairley v. Neighbors of Potrero Hill, a vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance that would tug at the complexities of race and class relations in a liberal, gentrifying city. The clash would also expose a fraught debate about who is responsible, and who is to blame, for the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions. As Fairley says, “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Parts of potrero hill feel like the sort of charmed place where Amazon deliveries could sit undisturbed on your stoop. The hill’s western ridge, overlooking the city, is filled with cozy bungalows and Victorian houses that once were affordable for San Francisco’s working and artistic classes but have appreciated during the tech rush; now most of them sell for well over $1 million. The public hospital where Fairley was born is now named after Mark Zuckerberg.

Meanwhile, the hill’s eastern and southern flanks are still lined with decrepit 1940s-era bunkers of public housing between patches of scruffy grass and concrete patios. The unhoused have set up camp around the neighborhood too, the city’s homeless population having spiked 30 percent in the past two years. This sometimes has led to hostile and politically divisive clashes, like when a luxury auction house at the foot of Potrero turned its sprinklers on the tents clustered outdoors in 2016. (The auction house claimed that the sprinklers were meant to clean the building and sidewalks, and were “not intended to disrespect the homeless.”)

He never intended to become a political dissident

Monday, November 4th, 2019

He never intended to become a political dissident, but then Xu Xiaodong started beating up tai chi masters:

Since 2015, Xu has been the director, producer, and host of a lively one-man martial arts talk show called Brother Dong’s Hot Takes that he self-distributes via his various social media accounts. Each episode features Xu speaking, sometimes quite passionately, about whatever is riling him up that day. One recurring bit that initially gained Hot Takes a cult following was Xu’s profanity laced call-outs of “fakes,” or pianzi, in the Chinese martial arts world.

These callouts were inspired by what Xu calls a “bad wind” of fake tai chi masters penetrating the national consciousness. This was largely thanks to government intervention. Traditional Chinese martial arts (wushu), and tai chi in particular, are a core component of what President Hu Jintao called in 2007 the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since rising to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has redoubled efforts to promote and spread “traditional Chinese culture”—which includes tai chi as well as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—through a battery of subsidies, policy interventions, and good old-fashioned propaganda. Last year, it became mandatory for students in southeastern China’s Fujian Province to prove mastery of 24 tai chi moves in order to graduate from high school. Only a few months ago, state mouthpiece People’s Daily announced the establishment of the “People’s Tai Chi Development Alliance,” which purports to be aimed at making tai chi “fashionable” for young people and showcasing the accomplishments of Chinese civilization to the world.

Meanwhile, grandmasters from across China’s martial arts schools were called on to hype up tai chi in the media. In a 2013 program called The Showdown Show, the famed 12th-generation Chen-style tai chi master Wang Zhanhai showed how he could harness his energy to fling off four musclebound attackers in a single movement. On another episode of the show, the 76-year-old pressure point (dianxue) master Zhang Zhenling showed up a group of skeptical, strapping young kung fu students by causing one to double over in pain with a single touch to the ribs. (Zhang then cured the humbled student by touching a pressure point in his neck.)

Xu was unimpressed by all of this. In early 2017, he started honing in on the young Yang-style tai chi grandmaster Wei Lei, who had recently come to national attention thanks to a CCTV-4 program called Real Kung Fu, in which Wei was featured performing such feats as turning the inside of a watermelon into mush without penetrating its skin and keeping a live pigeon perched on his hand from flying away through a personal force field. Xu called Wei Lei “brainwashed” and “a dumbass.” In retaliation, Wei Lei, or one of his associates, published Xu’s personal information, including his address and phone number online. Xu, enraged, flew to the southwestern city of Chengdu, where Wei is based, walked into the tai chi master’s gym, and demanded they fight right there on the spot.

Corruption may or may not be illegal

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

Michael Munger explains Gordon Tullock’s joyfully contrarianism thoughts on corruption:

Corruption may or may not be illegal, but it’s always a bad thing. Isn’t it?

Some think of corruption — the misuse of public trust in the powers of political office for private gain — as comparing (a) the honest services and choices of a public official with (b) actions “corrupted” by considerations that are not legitimate. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has claimed that a decision is corrupt if the official is improperly, even if only subtly, influenced by the anticipation of some sort of economic gain or loss. Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout has claimed that if a public official acts in consideration of a private benefit outside of the standard compensation for his or her office, the action is automatically corrupt.

Suppose, though, you are an entrepreneur in a developing nation and you have a good idea for a new company. It normally takes six months to have a telephone or internet line set up, because the state monopoly utility company is notoriously inefficient. But if you pay lagay (“speed money” in Tagalog), or if you khilana para (“feed him” in Hindi), a happily willing, competent work crew will be there tomorrow. Who will actually cough up the cash? Whoever values the service most. Which means that the most economically productive firms and the best new ideas will get to jump the queue.

In a system with bad rules or limited state capacity, tacit endorsement of corruption improves the working of the system. The more inefficient the system, the greater the efficiency increase in the near term, as scarce resources are directed first to higher-value uses.

But as Tullock asks, “And then what?” In this case, two things happen. First, because the scarcity of the resources is artificial and discretionary, the state actors who formally and informally control those resources will adjust access strategically so as to increase the quantity of “rents” (i.e., undeserved benefits) they receive. In my example, the phone company might announce a mandatory two-year waiting period, increasing the value of access to the “informal” workaround of bribes. Second, those with control over the resources and thus access to the rents will start competing — very likely by offering bribes of their own — to maintain their lucrative positions.

Tullock noticed this phenomenon for himself at several points during his career. When he was briefly in private practice as an attorney in Chicago, his job as a junior associate involved paying bribes to minor officials in the Kelly-Nash political machine to ensure that his firm had fast access to records that might otherwise take weeks to secure through normal channels. Later, while working for the U.S. Foreign Service in Tientsin, China, he had the experience of being there on the ground during the Communist takeover of 1948–49.

Tullock was struck by a presentation from an academic who decried the corrupt practices of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan but lauded the new Communist regime on the mainland. In particular, the academic pooh-poohed the supposedly “restrictive” travel policies of the Communists, noting that it was easy to bribe officials to obtain passes.

To Tullock, both regimes seemed corrupt. But he also realized that corruption, far from being an immediate problem, was the only thing that made the cumbersome Rube Goldberg governing mechanisms work at all. “While corruption usually meets with disapproval,” he wrote in Contemporary Economic Policy in 1996, “it may have some redeeming features. It may make possible smaller or no salary payments to officials who, if carefully supervised, will still carry out their functions on a fee-for-service basis. The purchase of government jobs usually is thought to be corrupt, but in some cases, it has worked out quite well.”

He filed this lesson away in the late 1940s and often came back to puzzle over it for the next 65 years. If corruption is actually a benefit — at least in countries with bad institutions or sharply limited state capacity — then what is the problem? All we need to do is suggest that developing nations cultivate corrupt systems and voilà! Problem solved.

Of course, that’s not right, and this realization is what led Tullock to his signature contribution to the study of public policy: the problem of “rent-seeking.” In China, he said, officials write laws with the explicit expectation of selling “permits” that would exempt the “customers” from having to obey the regulation. In addition, officials may purposely limit the total number of exemptions so they can auction them off to the highest bidder. In the short term, corruption is a workaround for bad government, but in the long run corruption locks in bad government and encourages abuses of state power.

Tullock used the example of an official in Fukien (now Fujian), a province from which many citizens illegally traveled to Indonesia to work, returning with substantial sums of cash and goods. Local officials set up elaborate programs under which going abroad to work was technically not allowed but in fact actively encouraged for those who could expect to earn good wages. Officials charged licensing fees that were high enough to substantially enrich the “sellers,” but they made sure the cost was not so high that it would deter workers from traveling abroad in the first place.

The problem is that the system became firmly entrenched, and the bribes came to be capitalized in the “prices” for getting a job as a local official in Fukien. In fact, the “salaries” of government officials could be rendered as negative numbers. The opportunity to collect bribes was so lucrative that the positions were essentially sold as franchises, with officials paying their superiors, who paid their superiors, and so on.

This system, once in place, is nearly impossible to root out. In open, noncorrupt systems, parents might save or borrow to pay for law school or some other training for their children. But in a corrupt system, people save or borrow to pay the bribes necessary to get the kinds of jobs where bribes from citizens provide a good living. If a new, reform-oriented government comes into office, the reaction from government officials is likely to be fierce, possibly violent. After all, they paid for their corrupt jobs fair and square, and they expect to be able to collect.

“Evidence suggests that officials tended to draw a large part of their personal income from bribes,” Tullock wrote in his 1996 paper. “Indeed, it is almost certain that once a government structure has been set up so various people make profits, changing the structure in such a way to shrink the profits will be extremely hard, regardless of whether the profits are legal or not. Firing civil servants may be even harder than firing college professors.”

A passage from a recent New York Times article on illegal “sand-mining” in India puts the situation in stark relief: “Construction is the business where criminals have the best opportunities to launder the most money, [one real estate agent] explained, and a cascade of bribes go ‘to the topmost levels in the government.’…You pay 6 percent in bribes up front. Then, after the first payment, you pay another 7 percent, half of which goes to the state’s top politicians. The development authority’s junior engineer gets 3 percent. The associate engineer gets 1.5 percent. The senior manager gets 3 percent, and so on — until the total reached an astonishing 30 percent.”

For Tullock, the really interesting question is not why so many governments are corrupt. Instead, the puzzle is how any government manages to solve this problem and avoid corruption. The benefits, to those in power, of creating arbitrary restrictions and then selling indulgences to exempt the wealthy and powerful seem irresistible. The U.S. Internal Revenue Code is replete with relatively high income tax rates, at least on paper. But as each industry or investment group pays its “bribe” to Congress by organizing voting support, making campaign contributions, and the like, the actual rates to which it is subject are reduced, often sharply, via esoteric subsidies, tax credits, or deductions.

In the early 16th century, Martin Luther recognized this kind of corruption in the Catholic Church. In his “Thesis 27,” Luther complained of priests “who say that as soon as the coin jingles into the money box, the soul flies out of purgatory.” He was referring to an actual jingle, dating to long before Mad Men — perhaps the first ever used in advertising. A little rhyme, attributed to a German monk named Johann Tetzel (1465–1519), translates to: “As soon as the money in the chest rings, a soul from purgatory to heaven springs.” The very idea of judgment had been hijacked by some members of the Church as a way to increase their revenue, selling “Get out of purgatory” cards.

A lot of work has been done since Tullock first wrote about this problem. Our understanding of the temptations of corruption, especially in developing nations — he called it “the transitional gains trap” in a famous article in 1975 — is now standard economics. But Tullock saw the problem clearly in the 1950s.

Somehow nationality is the final frontier

Friday, November 1st, 2019

Zach Weinersmith‘s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic doesn’t normally cover political topics, but his new Open Borders graphic novel — which is certainly graphic, but doesn’t appear to be a novel — with Bryan Caplan has just come out, and it does deal with a contentious topic.

“Thanks to the power of Zach Weinersmith, it’s fun to read for all ages.”

SMBC Open Borders Concerns

They discuss the book here:

Only heartless trolls worry about costs

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

Michael Munger looks back at the joyful contrarianism of Gordon Tullock, starting with his insights into safety regulations:

Should governments mandate more safety in products? The usual terms of debate weigh reduced injuries — the “human toll” — against increased cost, with only heartless “rational choice” trolls actually worrying much about costs. The idea that perfect safety is morally undesirable, because such policies have enormous opportunity costs, is obviously, annoyingly important — and a big part of the reason economists often end up standing alone at parties, studying the wallpaper pattern.

Safety is valuable, of course. But economists pitch their arguments “at the margin,” meaning for the last increment. The first improvements in safety are cheap and uncontroversial: reliable brakes, turn signals, seat belts, safety glass in windshields. The next increment — airbags, anti-lock braking systems — comes at much greater cost and with a smaller associated reduction in injuries. Ultimately, the only way to make cars completely safe is to park them and throw away the keys. Driving is dangerous.

Tullock’s contribution was to ask, “And then what?” The problem is worse, actually much worse, than the increasing marginal cost of safety improvements. The safety of the car, after all, is just one factor; drivers and their attitudes toward danger are the key missing variable. The state can only mandate the safety of the car. Ultimately, the driver’s behavior determines the risk of driving.

This observation is now sometimes called the “Peltzman Effect,” after the University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman, but Tullock had argued some versions of it for decades. As the University of California, Irvine economist Richard McKenzie recalls it, Tullock noticed that safer cars reduced the costs of accidents for drivers. If the government “subsidizes” accidents by mandating airbags, there will be more accidents. Worse, because of increased automobile speed and recklessness, there will be more pedestrian injuries and deaths. Safer cars mean more injuries.

Tullock’s famous counterproposal was to place a long, sharp dagger firmly in the center of the steering column. His earliest notion of this was to have the tip pointing back and locked one inch from the driver’s chest. By the time I talked to him about it, in the 1990s, the idea had evolved to work more like an airbag, so that the dagger would be hidden but would deploy with explosive force in the event of an accident.

Calling this conclusion counterintuitive is an understatement — but there is an important insight underlying Tullock’s drollery. The risk of injury is jointly determined by the behavior of all the people who are driving in a particular area. If I’m aggressive and cause a wreck, I’ve imposed additional risk on you. If safety “improvements” subsidize risk-taking, and some — not all, necessarily, just some — people drive more aggressively, then the observed reductions in injuries from safer cars will be much less than regulators expect. Worse, no individual driver can, by behaving safely, escape these bad effects. Safety regulations have negative externalities.

The most annoying thing about Tullock was that he was usually right. He was even right about car safety regulation (though maybe not about the dagger!): According to the American Automobile Association, there have been substantial increases in driver aggressiveness since 2000, with eight out of 10 drivers admitting to having intentionally tailgated another car and nearly half saying they have bumped, rammed, or gotten out of their cars to threaten the occupants of another vehicle. While the direct causal mechanism is complex, this increase in aggressiveness tracks the imposition of universal requirements for airbags and anti-lock brake systems in 1998.

This problem is borne out in the real “national sport” of America, NASCAR. Starting in 1988, the racing entity imposed “restrictor plates” as a safety measure, limiting the airflow into an engine (and therefore the horsepower, and speed, of cars). Restrictors were required in response to the horrific “going airborne” May 1987 accident of Bobby Allison at Talladega, where the car flew into the upper restraining fence and disintegrated, injuring five spectators, including one who lost his eye. But two refereed journal articles, one in the Southern Economic Journal in 2004 by J.B. O’Roark and W.C. Wood, and one in 2010 in Public Choice by A.T. Pope and R.D. Tollison, concluded that safety improvements had increased the number of crashes and multi-car pileups in the sport (though they had not affected the total number of deaths).

That is what you would expect. If speeds are suppressed and safety equipment is improved, the risks of death and serious injury are lowered. The result should be increases in risky behavior by drivers, including close drafting and “trading paint,” the euphemism NASCAR uses for high-speed bumping.

In February 2018, NASCAR switched from restrictor plates to the more precise and consistent “tapered spacers,” which have the same effect and the same “safety” rationale. The 2018 NASCAR “Cup Series” champion, Joey Logano, was clear about the likely outcome: “I totally expect to crash more cars,” the Associated Press quoted him saying. “As cars are closer and drivers are more aggressive, a mistake will create a bigger crash. We can’t get away from it.”

Of course, Tullock would ask, “And then what?” NASCAR is not stupid; it may not be an accident (sorry) that there are more crashes with the same level of driver safety. That may very well be the point: NASCAR fans come for the racin’, but they stay for the wreckin’. Using a “safety” rationale — particularly one that really does reduce injuries slightly — as a means of increasing the number of wrecks makes a lot of economic sense. If the authorities really wanted to prevent accidents, NASCAR would put big daggers in steering columns, not little tapered spacers in carburetors.

Most wealth isn’t devoted to extravagant consumption

Monday, October 28th, 2019

Everyone, regardless of their income and wealth level, would take a hit from the Democrats’ proposed wealth tax:

That’s because, contrary to what American progressives believe, most wealth isn’t devoted to extravagant consumption. Instead, it’s invested in companies; it’s used to fund research and development that will create better goods and services for consumers; it serves as the capital that innovators and producers borrow from banks to grow their businesses. In other words, most wealth is used to fuel other wealth-producing activities that improve well-being.

So whether a wealth tax will create a real disincentive to accumulate capital or force rich taxpayers to send a larger share of their money to the IRS, less capital will be available for everyone in the economy to use for their own businesses and training. That means that many Americans beyond the super wealthy will get burned by the tax.

This negative consequence is a reason why so many countries that had wealth taxes in the 1990s have since abandoned them. The cost of implementing a wealth tax and annually assessing assets often costs more than the tax actually raises in revenue. In France, for instance, the administration cost was double the revenue raised. As such, it’s not surprising that the country dropped its wealth tax in 2018.

Whimpering and crying and screaming all the way

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

Trump’s description of the operation to capture or kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very, very Trump:

He died after running into a dead end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way. The compound had been cleared by this time with people either surrendering or being shot and killed. Eleven young children were moved out of the house and are uninjured. The only ones remaining were Baghdadi in the tunnel and he had dragged three of his young children with him. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast.

Find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

In 2015, two years after graduating from university, :

In one session, we asked the women to make an A3 map of their lives from torn-up magazines. The collage would show a road that meandered from their past experiences to future goals. Almost every road began with bottles of vodka, syringes and shadowy characters, and almost every one ended with symmetrical houses and white wedding dresses and Laura Ashley sofas. I had spiked the magazine pile with my partner’s railway-modelling magazines and glossy Sunday supplements in the hope of inspiring something different — a new job, an interesting hobby, some travel, perhaps? — but to little avail.

[...]

“It will be finding ‘the one’ that will get me out of my mess,” she said. “He will look after me and keep people away who come round trying to sell me gear [heroin] again.”

Cathy’s was an oft-told story. She had been prevented from seeing her children by social services because she couldn’t stop seeing an abusive partner. He kept coming round and, against her best judgment, she opened the door.

What I wanted to say was that she didn’t need a man to straighten her life out for her, that she had “everything she needed inside of her” (life advice that works best when Instagrammed over a picture of a thin white girl walking into a sunset).

In time I came to realise that she was probably right. Ambition and independence are a good deal further up the hierarchy of need than security. It’s pretty realistic to assume that the quickest way to ward off a coercive and abusive man is to find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way.

It would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

In Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age Ohio State University professor of political science Bear Braumoeller argues that war is not declining:

Braumoeller used the Correlates of War data set, which scholars from around the world study to measure uses of force up to and including war.

What he found with the statistical analyses was that any decline in the deadliness of war that we think we see in the data is within the normal range of variation — in other words, our period of relative peace right now could easily be occurring simply by chance.

[...]

Once an armed conflict has had more than 1,000 battle deaths (the criteria for being included in the Correlates of War database), there’s about a 50 percent chance it will be as devastating to combatants as the 1990 Iraq War, which killed 20,000 to 35,000 fighters.

There’s a 2 percent chance — about the probability of drawing three of a kind in a five-card poker game — that such a war could end up being as devastating to combatants as World War I. And there’s about a 1 percent chance that its intensity would surpass that of any international war fought in the last two centuries.

“This is pretty bleak. Not only has war not disappeared, but it would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history,” Braumoeller said.

There was all this complexity that we couldn’t ignore

Monday, October 21st, 2019

Patricia Marcoccia and Maziar Ghaderi decided to make The Rise of Jordan Peterson before he became controversial:

She’d become interested in his work while she was a college student studying psychology at McMaster University back in the early 2000s. “I found his work on the psychology of meaning very impactful,” she explains. “And I knew he was having a big impact on his students over in Toronto, too.” After graduating and shifting her focus to journalism and film, she decided that she wanted to make Peterson the focus of her first independent feature. She approached him about it in 2015.

After learning more about Peterson’s personal life, Marcoccia decided to focus on his friendship with Charles Joseph, an accomplished third-generation Kwakwaka’wakw carver/artist. A year-and-a-half into that project, she awoke one morning to find that Peterson had posted “Professor Against Political Correctness” on YouTube and that all hell had broken loose. “The video was a total surprise to me. I had no idea it was coming,” she says. “I’d been filming conversations about dreams, Charles carving masks and totem poles, and a sacred potlatch ceremony” — Peterson and his family were at the time immersed in a very involved process of being ceremonially inducted into Joseph’s extended family — “and all of a sudden, there was all this conflict and controversy.”

After a few weeks, Marcoccia decided that she needed to change the focus of her film, and follow the rapidly developing story on which, unexpectedly, she had a uniquely privileged perspective. At the time, neither she nor her husband, a multimedia artist who was now working with her on the film, felt particularly happy about this switch. “This wasn’t the ambulance we would have been chasing” had circumstances been different, she explains. “We didn’t feel comfortable dealing with the ‘free speech versus transphobe’ controversy. But we also didn’t see walking away as an option. You need to follow a film where it takes you.”

“There was so much of this culture war stuff that we didn’t understand,” Ghaderi reflects. Personally and professionally immersed in the left-leaning worlds of art, film, and theater, working with his wife on the documentary when everything “suddenly blew up” was “confusing.” Marcoccia and Ghaderi agreed that if they hadn’t known Peterson and his work personally, and had only read about him in the media outlets they normally digested, they would have most likely been swept up in the anti-Peterson sentiment that dominated their milieu. Instead, they became hyper-aware that “there was all this complexity that we couldn’t ignore.”

Marcoccia and Ghaderi watched — and filmed — as activists, journalists, bloggers, fans, and even their close friends, rather than acknowledging this complexity, turned Peterson into a dichotomous “messiah/devil” icon. “There are right-wing opportunists who want to use Jordan for their own political ends,” Ghaderi notes. “There are people who want to use him to fill the gap of not having a father. There are the Antifa types who condemn him while they’re wearing a mask. It’s the media — journalists, writers, bloggers — that create Jordan’s persona.” The film’s official poster symbolically illustrates that these many competing forces collude to create a false image of the man they’ve come to know.

If the respect that the Marcoccia and Ghaderi have for Peterson is obvious, it’s also unexceptional. That respect extends to all their subjects, including a trans activist who criticizes them for making the film at all. As their website explains, they named their company “Holding Space Films” because the concept of holding space “is central to the filmmaking process”:

To hold space for someone is to metaphorically walk with them amidst their experience using genuine presence and deep listening to enable authenticity to emerge.

Rather than sorting their interviewees into partisan boxes, the filmmakers engage sympathetically with the multidimensional complexity of everyone involved. The consistency of Marcoccia and Ghaderi’s method constitutes a critical theme throughout the film. It’s what enables the (open minded) viewer to experience the nuances under investigation as thought provoking, rather than merely confusing. The people, issues, and events may sometimes be abstruse, but the unpretentious clarity of the filmmakers’ method results in a film that is intelligible, accessible, engaging, and coherent.

It’s important to note that “holding space” in the sense Marcoccia and Ghaderi mean it is difficult. It’s not easy to remain steady in the midst of intense conflict, and listen to the different sides involved with curiosity, empathy, and respect — let alone capture that in a 90-minute film. That they have largely succeeded is a significant accomplishment; one that’s much needed and all too rare. It requires a disciplined commitment to a deeply humane sensibility, an ethos that is widely misunderstood and ignored, if not denigrated and attacked today.

Naturally, it’s being shut out of independent and arthouse cinemas.

China will spend money and endure a dirty industry

Sunday, October 20th, 2019

Coal-burning China’s embrace of electric vehicles may also be more about money than the environment:

China produces less than 5% of the world’s oil — used in combustion engines — but about 45% of the globe’s coal, used in electricity production for EVs. In much the way that the U.S. is the world’s largest user of homegrown crops for motor fuel despite widespread criticism of ethanol subsidies as costly and environmentally damaging, China will spend money and endure a dirty industry to be energy independent as well.

More than that, though, Beijing wants to dominate tomorrow’s car industry. China’s opening to the West came too late for it to be a major exporter of internal combustion engine vehicles, but it has made aggressive moves to dominate battery production, including securing sources of key metals. Through lavish subsidies it already has by far the world’s largest domestic EV market.

Doesn’t that sound laissez unfair?

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

The March of History pits Mises vs. Marx in a Hamilton-esque rap battle:

Workers of the world — ASSEMBLE!
It’s time for the ruling classes to tremble.
I’m the people’s hero, the MVP:
M – A – R – X! Yeah, you know me!

Let’s go back to when men were free.
We hunted and gathered communally.
But get ready, ’cause here comes the twist,
A villain appears, called a “capitalist”.

He puts the proletariat — that’s US — in chains,
exploits our labor, and pockets the gains.
Though slick ads he trick lads and ladies in kind,
selling fake needs he poisons our hearts and minds.

He rots our soul through alienation
pursuing limitless accumulation.
He works us into an early grave,
through debt, steals back the money we save.

Greed is the gospel! Profit? GOD.
The rich get richer through graft and fraud.
The poor get poorer, but YOU don’t care.
Doesn’t that sound laissez unfair?

200 years I’ve been singing this song,
Now my chorus is 99% strong.
The revolution’s here. It’s time to repent.
Your moment is over — your capital’s SPENT!