Secession in New England

January 31, 2010

I find a lot to sympathize with in this article. I see no reason to be opposed to allowing Vermont to secede. (However, I do think the secessionists should not underestimate the costs of secession, which they may be drastically underestimating).

Nevertheless, secessionist talk in New England makes me nervous. Last time there were big secessionist movements in that part of the country (William Lloyd Garrison "continued to support secession of the anti-slavery states and publicly burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution at an abolitionist rally in 1854"), they decided to stay in the Union but only after resorting to war to make sure the rest of the states in the Union did things their way. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that this time.

Video games and reading

January 31, 2010

I always find Ms Wood’s (The Thinking Housewife) writings interesting. But, I must disagree with her when she writes:

Given that experience, I find no validity in the strained romantic hope that the inadequately lettered and spottily informed student will prove somehow to be cognitively sharp in domains “beyond” the book…One effect of literacy, especially the literacy of narrative, on cognitive development is to create awareness of continuity, sequence, and ethical causality, especially as the last unfolds in a long-term temporal scheme. Today, many college students lack this awareness.

I just turned 29 and I am an active video game player. I also like to think that I do a decent amount of reading. I don’t understand why the two should be mutually exclusive.

I agree that many college students lack awareness of the long-term. However, I think the declining awareness is related to the fact that less intelligent people are attending college. Stupid people don’t have a solid awareness of the long-term, and no amount of reading books – that are above their heads anyway – is going to change this simple fact.

That said, as a male student, I think most of our literature courses were designed specifically to turn men off from reading literature. I would have hated books if my only exposure to them was through academic courses.

Review of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart

January 29, 2010

I was surprised by how much I loved this book. Wikipedia has a nice plot summary. Basically, a virus wipes out nearly all of the human population on the Earth. We follow a graduate student, Ish, who is one of the few survivors. Ish travels from California to New York – the descriptions along the way are worth the time it takes to read the whole book. Then he returns back to California, meets a woman, meets two more couples and they form a tribe and begin reproducing.

The quote at the beginning of the Wiki entry gets to the heart of what makes the book great:

Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism. Everything passes — everything.

There is a lot in the book for people interested in differences between men and women and for people interested in differences between high-IQ and low-IQ people. Ish is very smart but the rest of the survivors that he lives with are not – this becomes a major theme in the book. However, in the succeeding generations, intelligence isn’t particularly valuable. Only one of Ish’s children really learns to read. Ish spends lots of time preserving the library, but when this one child dies of disease, the fact that the library has been preserved is useless – there’s no one left to read (I found this part of the story heartbreaking – all that knowledge is effectively lost). Ish had to content himself with moving human history forward a few thousand years by inventing the bow and arrow and teaching his children and grandchildren to make fire. Heartbreaking.

Ish also comes around to loving dogs. After all, what are people without dogs?

His wife, Em, is portrayed as possibly the most perfect woman in all of literature. She is mother, wife, supporter, and comforter. At times Ish is upset at her inability to think bigger about restoring civilization. In the end, her constant efforts to simply take care of her children, her husband and her tribe seem more than sufficient. She perhaps, nearly alone through sheer determination, re-creates some semblance of society (though not civilization as we would recognize). The book is worth reading to see the differences between Ish and Em – between ideal man and ideal woman – alone.

In the end, are we to feel inspired by the slow re-building of humanity or saddened at the total destruction of civilization? The book is detailed enough that we can feel both, which is a testament to Mr Stewart.

My only criticism is that slight moral relativism that creeps into Ish’s view of his less-civilized children and grandchildren. He seems to be unable to state unequivocally that they are not better off than they would have been in civilization. I understand – and am willing to leave room for – the happiness associated with a more natural life (i.e. a life closer to nature without the benefits of civilization, which is a life impossible for anyone to live now), but I would not have trouble stating that a civilized, intelligent existence that would have allowed Ish’s son who could read to survive is a better one.

The book is supposed to have some libertarian sympathies. I didn’t see any. If anything, there was an argument for a natural monarchy. Ish becomes de facto monarch because of his intelligence. In his last act, he is expecting to pass on his (somewhat mystical) power. These realistic aspects of the story are, ultimately, what gives it so much power.

“This is the unfortunate truth – if you want to sell anything, you have to be cool.”

January 29, 2010

I agree with everything Mr Bardamu says in the first part of that post on libertarians and economists and their nerdiness. No amount of rap videos or anything else that the kids these days are into is going to make libertarianism cool.

But, I don’t think it’s fair to put the blame on libertarianism or good economics. The mass of people are idiots. I take the fact that most people don’t like libertarianism as a mark in its favor.

The real question then should not be: “what is the best way to sell libertarianism to the unthinking masses?” The real question should be: “how the hell can anyone with a brain think that the best way to run a country is to ask every idiot for their opinion and weight everyone’s opinions equally?”

As Carlyle said: “If of ten men, nine are recognizable as fools, which is a common calculation, [and probably a gross underestimate when it comes to governance]’ says our Intermittent Friend, ‘how in the name of wonder will you ever get a ballotbox to grind you out a wisdom from the votes of these ten men.”

Obama and the Supreme Court

January 29, 2010

I generally agree with Lawrence Auster, or at least understand where he is coming from. But, when he says of President Obama’s comments on the Supreme Court during the State of the Union that, "I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it in American history." I have no idea what he means.

Most historians consider FDR and Lincoln to be among our best Presidents. Both of them treated the Supreme Court with much more hostility than Obama. FDR attacked the Court and tried to pack it with cronies – he eventually succeeded in packing it by staying in the Presidency until his death. Lincoln blatantly ignored rulings of the Supreme Court. Compared to the actions of these "great" Presidents, Obama’s statement is hardly worth noticing. (I don’t really want to defend the President’s statement – I think it was incredibly tacky and cheap. I’m just pointing out that it’s hardly historically unprecedented).

Review of “The Arabian Nights Entertainments”

January 28, 2010

Wikipedia has a lot on this book. I don’t have a lot to say on it, other than to point out that the Arab world has been in an incredible decline for a long time. I what the HBD explanation for the decline of the Arabs is? Their clearly not stupid and they were responsible for many technological and intellectual advances for centuries. Then they completely stopped doing anything productive. It seems like even those of us who put emphasis on genetics would have to recognize the importance of culture when it comes to explaining how messed up Arab civilization (what’s left of it) is.

Hanson-Moldbug debate

January 27, 2010

I finally had time to listen to the debate between Mencius Moldbug and Professor Hanson.

The only items on the debate that I had read prior to listening to the debate were Moldbug’s and Professor Hanson’s summaries. From these summaries, I was assuming that Professor Hanson wiped the floor with Moldbug. I would have like Moldbug to make some different points, but I thought he held his own just fine.

First, I would have liked Moldbug to adopt the arguments from this post – on why seasteading will fail – to futarchy. If one understands the arguments in that post, it becomes clear that debating futarchy is silly (or perhaps, dare I say, retarded) because no sovereign entity will ever allow sovereign decisions to be made by markets. Go read the post, it doesn’t take much to see how the arguments against seasteading apply just as well to futarchy.

Second, it’s clear that Professor Hanson has a strong belief in markets – really strong. Moldbug frames himself as a crazy reactionary, which is why we love him. But, I think in a debate, he would have done better to argue that his position, not Professor Hanson’s, is the most market friendly position. In short, such an argument would be: the market has come up with a way of running large bureaucracies. Their method is a single, nearly-all-powerful leader (i.e. a CEO) controlled only by a board of directors, and ultimately controlled by equity investors. Moldbug’s ideal government is simply this method of corporate governance (which has risen to dominance in the free market) applied to sovereign governance. I would have liked to hear Professor Hanson respond if Moldbug had put him in the anti-market position. Why is Professor Hanson creating complicated markets to solve a problem which free markets have already solved?

Third, at the end of the debate, Professor Hanson admitted that the futarchy markets would have to be subsidized. Such a subsidy would be calculated based on "standard formula" for measuring the costs of government action (this was the only time that Moldbug’s X and Y example became solid in my mind). It would have been fun to see Moldbug press this point and get some specifics. Let’s say we’re in 1912 and the US is considering entering WWI. What is the cost of this decision based on the "standard formula?" How, for example, would policy decisions be put in the market? The recent cap-and-trade bill was 2000 pages. Let’s assume there there was 1 idea per 2 pages. Would the market have been given 1000 policy options? Can anyone submitted proposals for decisions to the market? Who would subsidize markets if the market is the sovereign? Can markets work to make good, long-term strategies if they are only provided with discrete, short-term choices? Who would carry out the "decisions" of the market? Who would interpret the meanings of the decisions? Wouldn’t the interpreter, the executives, or the people who get to submit policy questions to the market effectively become the sovereigns?

Finally, what was most interesting about the debate had nothing to do with futarchy. It was much more interesting to compare the way these two (highly intelligent) people think. Professor Hanson allows no room at all for knowledge that can’t be tested in a "lab" or subjected to statistical knowledge. Moldbug allows almost no room for this type of knowledge – at least when it comes to governance. To Moldbug, Professor Hanson is setting out to answer a question that has already been answered – namely how do we get better government. Moldbug turns to history (effectively the revealed word of God, according to Carlyle) to show that this problem was solved a long time ago. We already know how to get good government (interestingly the market has come up with the same solution that Moldbug has come up with). Professor Hanson seems to believe that such knowledge can only come about using lab experiments and regression analysis. It was ultimately for this epistemological disagreement that they ended up talking past each other. The same disagreement makes it hard for Moldbug to speak to any other groups of modern social scientists.