Allied Bombing

I.

When I think about strategic bombing in WWII, I try to imagine my team changing our job from building economic forecasts for our firm to trying to build prediction models and narratives for where we should bomb, and why. There is a banal practicality behind having to make choices under uncertainty that doesn’t change form just because you’re deciding who to bomb.

This makes WWII strategic bombing very strange. What if the choices that resulted in millions of civilian deaths were based on the same low-information fuzzy decision making that basically all other choices are made from? It’s sad, and I think we all sort of hope that a group of brilliant British and American men sat around in 1943, with full information, and decided they had no choice but to burn hundreds of thousands of civilians to death in order to win the war. That would mean they had a clear philosophy and model of the world, which we can then try to supplant with our own refined philosophy and model. Wouldn’t it be more likely that they were instead a mix of CEO types and military bureaucrats, who were making choices without historical precedent in an existential environment? And if that were the case, doesn’t spending decades analyzing what they ought to have done seem… kind of silly?

If need be, as the war went on, we hoped to shatter almost every dwelling in almost every German city.  ”  (Official transcript of the meeting at the Kremlin between Churchill and Stalin on Wednesday, August 12, 1942, at 7 P.M.)

“The destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany [is the goal]. … It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives; the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale; and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy.  They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.” — “Air Marshal Arthur Harris to Sir Arthur Street, Under Secretary of State, Air Ministry, October 25, 1943”

August 7th, 1943, NYtimes

If you do want to analyze it, there is the economic statistical measurement of strategic bombing. What was the investment? What was the return? How do we measure this? In some aspects it’s incredibly open to economic analysis: There were inputs into planes and bombs, and we had an outcome of measured civilian deaths, shut down factories, and less economic efficiency. The civilian deaths of the axis are estimated at 305,000-600,000 German civilians, 330,000-500,000 Japanese civilians, and 60,00-100,000 Italian civilians. The allied forces also suffered, but not as much, excluding the Soviet Union which lost more than 500,000.

In Jurgen Brauer’s book, Castles, Battles, Bombs, which is a book by an Economic Historian, the author wrote that the British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris hoped bombing would be a method to win a war without the abject horror of WWI, which removed a generation of young men from Europe. Harris’ strategy was to measure success in square miles burned. His view was that surgical bombing was ineffective, and to win a war you had to burn or blow up everything in an area that was conducive to the enemy’s war effort, including enemy morale. The author’s interpretation of strategic bombing, which he took from analyzing the official military documents from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, is that the goal is to “first destroy the opponents ability to defend itself against air power; then, second, attack those targets inside the opponent’s territory that support it was war-making on the front; and third, wait until the enemy collapses from within.”

The problem though is that we have no counterfactual framework to even consider the question. Although we can observe that the war didn’t end until there was a ground invasion of Germany. In that case was strategic bombing useless? Obviously not, since the invasion might have gone faster or easier as a result of the bombing. The author goes on to try and measure the marginal returns from incremental inputs in bombings, which he argues were too low to justify the massive investment into each marginal bomb.

He uses the bombing in Hamburg as an example of a poor outcome on bombing returns. In Hamburg, Air Chief Marshal Harris created the first air-generated firestorm. From July 24th to July 30th the Brits and Americans dropped over 9,000 tons of bombs from thousands of planes. Between 35,000 and 50,000 civilians died in the inferno. Although it appeared that within days the bombed railroads and industries were back up running. That’s the type of stuff that I don’t think anyone could have predicted. It’s too complex. If a world has no real experience with this type of massive bombing, it would seem like a reasonable prediction that if thousands of planes create an inferno in a city, it will be permanently out of commission. That ended up not being the case, strangely enough. In that case we could say with new information it was a bad choice, but at the time it was a rational strategy.

It’s hard to know what percent of efficiency the city returned to, but let’s imagine 95%. WWII was a close war, what if 95% was enough? And what about the tens of thousands of civilians that were burned to death? At the company I work at now, if we randomly lost a few buildings and a few percent of our workforce we would have a tough time continuing at the same efficiency, even more so if we all knew people who had died. And could this have damaged the morale of the country? As far as I’m aware, measuring how slight changes in the morale of a country propagate through towards defeat or victory is essentially impossible. These things are impossible to measure.

II.

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. -Slaughterhouse 5

There is a pattern. These people who lived through the bombings are willing to make it an inalienable principle to never repeat this violence. When I was a little younger my rationality was more naive. I took a sense of pride in the fact that I’d have dropped the bombs. Why would I even think that? Well, dropping the bombs was a hard choice, it was a horrific thing to do. Yet we had to do it, for the good of mankind and our survival. My role model, George Orwell, wrote that pacifists secretly know that “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” I took that to mean that while the weak sit around, it takes an iron will and strength to make these hard choices.

May 30th, 1945, NYtimes

Both Vonnegut and Orwell had the same other worldly response to the bombs. The protagonist Billy in Slaughterhouse-5 is warped between the bombed German town Dresden, where he was kept as a prisoner of war, and an alien biodome run by the Tralfamadorians. His book juxtaposed the equal absurdity of mass incineration of civilians and alien abductions, as something we can’t accept understand or accept as true.

Orwell wrote:

A world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop a thousand tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some other planet.

What worries me is that there may be no way for us to evaluate whether it was the right or wrong choice without going through their experience. They try to write it for us and reconstruct the information, but when we read it and run it through our heads it’s pointless. If I could spin off simulations of myself who experience strategic bombing, then have them come back and merge, would my view change? Would I experience a surge of pacifism like Vonnegut?

An abstraction of the cost vs. benefit of a grand historical experiment is great when there is a clear signal, since we can then carry that knowledge with us into the future. When the signal is so volatile that reasonable people can’t come to a conclusion, it might mean the system is too noisy and has too much information loss for us to take a clear lesson. Even for those of us today who read and think about these things, the amount of information available in historical archives is too great for us to fully know, and the more crucial information is probably lost to the sands of time.

When scholars disagree, and 80 years after the fact people are still debating and arguing over the right answer, it might mean our estimation methods aren’t going to converge. It is possible that one side is totally right, and they will eventually convince the other side of the argument that they are wrong, but I tend to think that is less likely as time moves on from the event.

Why then are the modern debates so important to political identities? Different political groups take a stance on the strategic bombing question, since they trace their identity or roots back to this time. Depending on how they evaluate it, it counts as for or against their cosmic scorecard. There are clearly lessons to be learned from WWII and the existing political systems at the time, but how granular do these lessons get? Can we really add or subtract points to democracies or fascist governments based on the death tolls and bombing strategies during a period of total war?

While writing this I stumbled upon subreddits dedicated to making fun of the internet neo-Nazis, who often write about so-called alleged allied war crimes. These neo-Nazi groups that use the strategic bombings as evidence that the Nazis weren’t uniquely bad. Neoreactionary literature uses the WWII strategic bombing of the allies as evidence that the US and the allied forces don’t have a strong claim as the ‘good guy.’

And, of course, (c): the Allies positively reveled in the aerial mass incineration of German and Japanese civilians. They did not kill six million, but they killed one or two. There was a military excuse for this, but it was quite strained. It was better than the Nazis’ excuse for murdering the Jews (who they saw, of course, as enemy civilians). In fact, it was a lot better. But was it a lot lot better? I’m not sure. -Moldbug

There is probably some use in making that argument. I don’t think it’s related to political systems as tightly as many might like to believe. It’s instead related to the ability of humans to justify and commit massive atrocities, even when we think they are the good guys.

I think the lesson behind studying this topic isn’t that there is a clear answer, but that it’s a complex problem that can’t be clearly classified. I see this as an optimistic lesson, because if we are able collectively to study history without trying to tally up the winners and losers, and fix past injustices, and as a result focus less on our classifications, identities, and historical records, we can lower the chance we end up in the same situation.

Bias Correction

[epistemic warning: I was recovering from surgery and wanted to document my strategy for reading the news and correcting for bias. This is a very boring post, read at your own peril.]

Contemporary media seems to be growing increasingly outrage driven. Trying to explain the media as a causal reason for increased polarization, or increased polarization as a causal reason for outrage driven media, is a hopeless exercise. In my own mind at least, I think about it as a complex simulation of interacting humans that is running a democratic algorithm, which due to our stronger information technology, has more interconnections every year. When Democracy is running as an algorithm, the optimal classification would separate two sides as efficiently as possible.

The equilibrium here will be whatever information sources most efficiently can divide an individual into one of two political tribes. Truth has no reason to replicate better than fiction. No one person can absorb all the truth of a given day, but the way they absorb information can be wrong in different ways.

I recently read this Yale Cultural Cognition piece on alternative facts. The author did an incredible job filtering through the dynamics of how Trump engages with segments of the mainstream media. The piece builds largely off this other equally great previous piece on motivated reasoning.

From this simple model, we can see how identity-protective reasoning can profoundly divide opposing cultural groups.  Yet no one was being misled about the relevant information. Instead, the subjects were misleading themselves—to avoid the dissonance of reaching a conclusion contrary to their political identifies.

Nor was the effect a result of credulity or any like weakness in critical reasoning.

On the contrary, the very best reasoners—the ones best situated to make sense of the evidence—were the ones who displayed the strongest tendency toward identity-protective reasoning.

Such coverage, in turn, impels those who want to defend the truth to attack Trump in order to try to undo the influence his lies could have on public opinion.

But because the ascendency of Trump is itself a symbol of the status of the cultural groups that propelled him to the White House, any attack on him for lying is likely to invest his position with the form of symbolic significance that generates identity-protective cognition: the fight communicates a social meaning—this is what our group believes, and that what our enemies believe—that drowns out the facts (Nyhan et al 2010, 2013).

A problem I see here is that motivated reasoning isn’t always wrong in a clear way. It is one of the trickiest ways you can be wrong, and probably the hardest to identify.

When making motivated reasoning errors, I like to use heuristics to try and estimate how and why my model of the world might be biased.

Once you receive an information set, there are different ways to build your model of the world incorrectly. In this case your model of the world is simply how you build a structure to transform raw information into knowledge of the world around you. Most of the time the information you’re receiving is output from someone else model. While there are exceptions for primary sources, even this is often only a partial-exception, since most of the time someone else had to build the feed to capture primary information and send it someplace where you can access it e.g. youtube videos of primary sources still required another person to build a model of the world where capturing and transmitting that information was beneficial.

There are many different ways you can build an incorrect model. Less Wrong does a great job of documenting these, and going over how almost everyone has a biased view of the world due to simple cognitive biases such as confirmation bias. While there are entire books documenting how to evaluate these models of the world, the goal should be to make sure they are probabilistic, unbiased, and systematically are not over or under certain (i.e. an 80% chance of something happening, happens about 80% of the time).

As I mentioned, I want to focus on motivated reasoning. When we use our brains we are able to think about and ‘scan’ all the information we know on a topic. This also includes references we have, sources we know to investigate, and even general processing skills, such as Causal Inference, that help us organize, evaluate, and structure our information. This is high-dimensional information from a variety of sources, including (primarily) output from other peoples models. While we can control what we read and hear to an extent, we can’t remove information from our brain (unless we simply forget about it over time). If we want to model the world correctly we need to do a few things:

1.) Ensure our information set spans the true outcome set. All this means is that there has to be complete information within our brain such that there exists some model  that is able to map our information set to a true model of reality. For example, if you only ever read the NYtimes, you will have trouble developing any bias correction, since the information you feed into your model is based only on the distribution of the output of their model.

The set of all relevant information is a purely theoretical concept, which is a record of all information possibly related to a given event, which is far too much and far too complicated for the human brain to absorb. We can imagine any given source (whether it’s news, primary sources, videos, twitter etc) as representing a subset of the set of all relevant information. For raw information you’re simply receiving an arbitrary slice of recorded or documented information on an event. Sometimes news outlets attempt to aggregate this information, and then reduce its dimensionality to give you a small model that represents reality. The reality is all information we receive is a tiny slice of the total information set, and typically suffers from model bias. However, if we are able to aggregate enough information from different sources, such that we have the fidelity that there does exist some bias correction and weighting that could allow us to create a true unbiased model of the event, then our information set will span the outcome set.

2.) Have an existing estimate of how the unbiased distribution should look. The only way to do this, properly, is to study all past events where a given information provider (e.g. NYtimes), view their prediction or explanation of the world, then find systematic biases or misses. This is challenging in part because we aren’t used to thinking or reading news articles as predictions, which we generally think of as clear statements with assigned probability values. We know that lots of news sites writes lots of articles on differences in outcomes between white and black people, and reports on how these differences are due to systematic racial discrimination at an individual and institutional level. This constitutes a prediction of the world. It is comparing the mean between two populations, based on a chosen variable, and then interviewing or asking for comments by journalists or academics who share an underlying causal view on why this is the case.

Since no two events are the same the goal is to identify a set of latent unobserved dimensions that map to salient policy dimensions. What this means is that while there might be thousands of articles on race relations, we can explain the bias behind the model in each article by using a Bayesian filtering algorithm. Having an idea of what it means to detect and filter out bias correction using modern methodological research design helps us frame the correction in a more scientific way. I can try to get my brain to simulate how I know those models would work if we could actually run them.

Unfortunately, estimating this is still very far out of the realm of data science, as it requires robust evaluation of reports vs. reality, both at a deep level, and across decades. The closest our best Political Scientists can get now is to extract the single left-right latent dimension from US congress, and use textual analysis to match the text base in a newspaper to the estimated dimensional points. While this doesn’t let us identify latent dimensions behind the entire set of news reports, we can use it as a first-order bias correction. You already know this though, Fox is ‘too far to the right’ and the NYtimes is ‘too far to the left.’ (or there is the more common view that one of them is perfectly unbiased and correct, and the other is hopelessly wrong.)

3.) The first two are problems for all scientific inference as applied to inference of the news: Ensuring you have the proper information set, and correcting for bias. The third is similarly a challenge across disciplines, but is the most egregious in political analysis. Motivated reasoning is when you have an attachment to a specific model of the world being the correct outcome. This seems to be a conflict between how humans evolved to build and form tribal political relationships, and what it means to accurately perceive a political reality.

Using motivated reasoning we are more likely to engage in biased search to seek out information or sources that confirm our views, accept evidence using biased assimilation, and in general across the board seek out bias confirming information. It’s silly when you think about it, if you are confident that your view of the world is correct, you would want to build that confidence by pursuing an unbiased look at reality. As far as I can understand, the only reason this isn’t what happens is due to our evolutionary preferences to belong to tribes. We literally get high when we follow political meme pages, watch Hannity, or share Jon Stewart clips. That tribalistic feeling of belonging helps us run our democratic algorithm to gain more political power for our side.

Politics and power is fun. I remember when I was 17 and in my first year of university, I knew that I wanted to be an intellectual, and I liked being edgy. I remember going to the public library and renting books with titles like “The Anti-Corporate America Reader.” This was when Obama was campaigning, and everyone knew it was subversive and cool to be progressive. When I couldn’t reconcile these very far-left views with my Microeconomics courses, I resigned to be a Paul Krugman liberal.

With motivated reasoning it’s too easy to become and stay a progressive or a conservative. Since these represent the only two rallying points of political power in our democracy, almost every argument or model of the world attaches itself to one of the two. If you imagine these two points as being circles embedded in n-dimensional space, where every dimension is an abstracted political issue, no matter where you are, you must be close to one than the other (or equidistant). Here I think of motivated reasoning as not simply the way we tether ourselves to the point of closest political-power, but also the way everyone else works to keep you tethered, since your membership improves their power.

 

Culture War Watch #1

Those Who Can See wrote an interesting post a couple years ago on the reason for cultural profiling. It’s a more statistics oriented version of some of my slightly polemic past writing. It’s useful to compose this stuff together, because over time those of us who read this stuff start to put the anecdotes together in our head, but often don’t have a single source to present it clearly. And not only clearly, but without needless anger. Not only does anger towards other political tribes and cultural out-groups completely mind kill your ability to think clearly, but it is also pointless. Does sitting on your couch feeling angry improve your life?

The question of cultural shifts is what the current immigration culture wars are truly about. Terrorism and ISIS are the discrete and observable results from the far end of the right tail. In some ways ISIS is even a red herring, since we already know the baseline scenario for humans in lawless anarchy is a brutalistic and savage existence.

The more important question is how do two sides of a country discuss this sort of thing? One side wants a Paris that retains it’s ethno-nationalistic French pride, well into the second half of the 21st century. The current course is a predominantly Muslim Paris. Is it okay to not want that? Why is it wrong? I think I’m even handed and articulate enough that I could get away with saying I would prefer the Paris of Hemingway to the Paris of today, but I’m not entirely sure. I know it’s cool to punch Nazis who spew hate speech, and I know I’m not a Nazi, but what if someone else says that I am? The bar seems awfully low lately.

My methodological idol, Jens Hainsmueller, the director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, gave an interview.

Previously in the interview he raised points I agree with in regard to Trump’s executive order. Ending refugees so suddenly, and causing airport panic, was counterproductive. A sane policy can change the course of the US immigration policy in a fundamental way, while avoiding airport panic, revoking green cards to refugees who have spent the past frustrating, agonizing, years of their lives working with lawyers, and deporting illegal immigrants who have grown up in the US. Instead of causing fear, panic, and breaking our promises, we can simply cut off new promises. This is my strong preference.

Hainsmueller went on to say in his interview:

About 40% of Forbes 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their kids. This includes many of the most successful American brands: Apple, Google, Intel. The same goes for science. At the Stanford GSB, 40% of MBAs are citizens of another country. With these policies — emphasizing a more exclusionary approach and creating a climate that’s hostile toward immigrants — you will push some of this much-needed energy out of the U.S. economy and stymie discovery and innovation going forward.

No doubt this is true, but does this past observation of the 20th century predict the 21st? The demographic and rationale for immigrating to the US has changed. Different demographics have different probabilities of cultural assimilation, as well as mean IQs. Again, a sane immigration policy rank order metrics that benefit our nation, such as cultural fit, religious fit, expected IQ, and education, and then focus on using those immigrants as economic fuel. One way to get there is to walk through the halls of a major tech firm on the west coast, and make a list of the types of diverse people that you see, then do your best to let in more of them. Plenty of my colleagues have had an incredibly challenging time getting permits to work in the US.

This common sense approach to nation building is not really permissible to research either:

Uncomfortable though the topic may be, the authors have attempted a rigorous analysis. Denunciations came quickly, however. Within hours of publication, Mr Hamermesh received vitriolic messages and was labelled a racist in an online forum popular among economists.

A huge hidden danger in this mass denial and quasi-censorship is that it breaths life into the alt-right. While the debate continues, my own view (mainly from reading comments on Nick Land’s site, xenosystems.net) is that the neoreactionary movement and alt-right are extremely different. After all, we know the political founder of the movement is himself both Jewish, and happily pro-Jewish. If you read the true alt-right hubs, they are clearly anti-Semitic.

Both the NRx and alt-right movement reject the media and the cathedral, but the differences largely end there. The alt-right is far more base, and willing to turn inconsistencies into propaganda to push their cause forward. The NRx movement seems far more subdued, anti-violence, and wanting to optimize the world as it is, not conquer it for their tribe. Classifying nebulous political movements is probably a waste of time, but this is how I see it at the moment.

My point being, if we want the alt-right to lose, we need to find ways to discuss inconsistencies and irregularities in our current cultural policies in a rational and non-extreme way. I try to be optimistic though, and look to guys like Faisal Saeed Al Mutar as proof there are smart secular Muslim refugees who are trying to reshape their culture. I also hope genetic engineering and advanced technology might allow us to outright solve the challenge of different races, by increasing the IQ of the human race by a standard deviation or two.

The main reason I am optimistic though is because spending your time and energy angry that over the coming decades the demographic of your country will change in ways that, currently, seem to be strongly sub-optimal, is a shitty use of your time and emotions.

 

Gender Equilibria

Studying social equilibrium outside of mathematical game theory is pretty tough. Since the world is complicated, and there is lots of information, it’s pretty tough to use textbook game theory models to classify an equilibrium. Even the Prisoners Dilemma, which is probably the most useful, has varied success depending on the context. Some researchers will test it out on undergraduates every once in a while, or on real prisoners, then claim it doesn’t work, because they all cooperated. The reality obviously is that they missed some parameter. It turns out prisoners who share the same prison, or students who both cheer for the Wildcats at the home game, have community connections.

It’s tough to measure and parameterize that stuff though with, like, numbers. So we use words instead, which are better at complex and high-dimensions, but don’t easily replicate.

Recently I was thinking through a sad equilibrium on women in the workplace. Let’s say that there exists some very high pressure job, which is represented 85% by men and 15% women. How do we break this down? Or, is it a problem? And if it is a problem, can we be explicit?

Let’s start by assuming that there are only two reasons any person enters a job: The first is an intrinsic interest, the second is the distribution of men and women within the job. Now let’s suppose a single women with intrinsic desire x* to do this job. For this women, the threshold of the intrinsic desire necessary would need to be greater than a man, because this existing distribution is heavily male dominated. Another way to say it, is that there could exist a man with intrinsic desire x* who enters this career, and a women with the same intrinsic desire x* who decides not to, because the additional consideration of gender balance pushed her away.

Is this a bad equilibrium? Without boring ourselves by mathematizing our assumptions, we can see that it’s possible that based only on the intrinsic desire distributions alone that the equilibrium distribution could be something like 70% and 30%, but once we add the refinement that women wouldn’t want to work in a field heavily male dominated, it grows even more skewed to 85% and 15%.

This is actually what I think is happening in reality. It’s also why I’m simultaneously against mandates for equal (50%) representation, and equal (no control variables) pay, and still strongly for improvements in social conditioning and appropriate decorum for how men treat women in the workplace.

I also view it as an example between the difference between a rationalist framework of the world combined with kindness, as opposed to a progressive framework of the world. In the rationalist world you create a strong prediction and argument for how things could be better, while doing your best to scientifically estimate the parameters involved in a non-utopian way. In the progressive one you say “I’ve determined parameter phi must be equal to zero, in accordance with the postmodern law of reality.”

 

Review #2

The big question now is whether the progressive system really has collapsed. Has the ‘enemies defeat’ really signaled such a huge change? If Grand historical narratives work well in the abstract, and they work well when you paint the future with a sweeping brush or massive projected change. I am unconvinced these predictions really do map to reality. Sure, Trump was the savior of Western civilization. The reality now is that he needs to figure out a country works. It’s one thing to take grand sweeping views on immigration or Russia, but actually handling the paperwork and managing the White House staff is different. I had bought into Scott Adams argument for a while that Trump was playing 11-dimensional space-backgammon. After the immigration fiasco it’s harder to reconcile. For a law and order candidate it doesn’t look good to have uncertainty in airports, randomly detained travelers, and mass protests.

If you read nothing else, read the comments in Scott Aaronson’s blog post on immigration. Mencious Moldbug (of Unqualified Reservations) debates Scott Aaronson for pages. It would take ages to read it all, but Moldbug’s comments (he’s posting as boldmug here) #153, #192, and #276 are particularly interesting. My favorite comment by ‘boldmug’:

I just think smart people should have a good practical grasp of actual historical reality as it actually happened. This (as I see it) is a little bit different from what you get in school these days, though less in concrete facts than interpretations. And it includes being able to solve a simple “ideological Turing Test” for any recent period. As Cicero said, those who fail to understand history will always remain children.

A good way to frame this test is to ask what the best minds of some other period would make of ours. Once you can pass this test for a period, I’d argue, you can feel comfortable about applying the lessons of that period to our present reality.

Until you feel you can pass this test, I think, try another period. Or try an argument that doesn’t need to use history as a weapon.

Historically, it’s in turbulent periods like this that understanding our enemies is the most important possible thing. I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything. I’m just trying to give people some tools which I think solve the problem in a neat way.

And two, on “return to the past”: I would argue that what some historians call “presentism,” basically racism as applied to the past, is fundamentally a problem that can’t be worked around. It has to be solved. A presentist society is a suicidal society. Feel free to disagree with me on this.

Moldbug’s an interesting guy. His epistemic style is to understand the past, not the base facts or statistics, but be able to truly understand the political views of the time sufficiently well to have a conversation with anyone from that time, without appearing crazy. And to understand what aspects of your modern political views they would find crazy, and who is currently shaping our political views.

This is probably the invisible glue that binds the reactosphere, the rationalsphere, and methodology blogs together. The community behind all of these shares a strong distaste for the ‘scientific consensus’ of fields with high uncertainty (e.g. Political Science, or climate prediction). Whether it’s Marginal Revolution, Less Wrong, SSC, or more neoreactionary areas, none of can be basically right while also accepting the mainstream moral and scientific consensus of Harvard Law policy wonks being basically right.

This Popehat post is old, but pretty funny, covering a refugee scifi hypothetical. It also seems to be a self-evident pattern that refugee preferences are correlated with the economic tribe you’re in. While it’s important and probably useful to know the statistics or ‘economic studies’ on refugees and their interaction with the labor force, it’s also clearly irrelevant to the debate. The rotting parts of America see rich coastal cities full of people who appear more interested in helping ‘outsiders.’ They wouldn’t be wrong either. At this point a nontrivial subset of the greater left would find a more natural (political) ally in a Muslim immigrant than a redneck townie; which is bad news for social dynamics.

Lastly, I ordered a book by Charles Lindbergh. Interesting guy. I think if anyone, sincerely, wants to avoid having horrible views of the world, it’s important to read books by people who seem to be genuinely good people but, for some reason, came to a different conclusion on some question that seems self-evident today. Why did they come to a different conclusion? What was their evidence and reasoning based off of?

Immigration Orders, Moralizing, and Institutions

Writing an executive order, which is immediately legally challenged, having to make exceptions, and throwing your federal bureaucrats into confusion, can’t be a good strategy. Even for a hard first bargain. I’ve rationalized lots of Trump’s choices in the past, but I’m also concerned that people are viewing him as a larger-than-life strategic genius. Rather than a 70 year old CEO who has a set of strategic heuristic tools that he is really good at using. The recent executive order is a bad idea, since it damages our credibility in making immigration promises. My general view on institutional changes is that invalidating past choices by your institution can irreparably damage future credibility. If the US made immigration promises to residents under a past regime, we should honor those even if the rules change for future applicants. This way you can try to swerve an institution in a new direction, and also believe the choices you make will be respected by the next administration. It’s how a good institution should work in a regime-switching democracy.

On the other hand, the progressive moralizing on the humanitarian evils of the executive order doesn’t make too much sense. They don’t focus on the actual dangerous parts of the policy. Each country on the list is either a failed state or not an ally of the US. The thing is, we don’t take many immigrants from these countries as it stands today. For Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, the US issued permanent residence to 21,107, 13,114, 3,840, 6,796, 127, 734, ad 3,194. As far as refugees, the US takes a shockingly low amount for how up in arms about refugees progressives act. The US took a total of about 70,000 refuges in 2015.

The difficult part to consider in all of this is how small these magnitudes are. What do we compare them to? is there a rational benchmark? Currently the suffering in the world is much, much higher than most people meaningfully consider. Not to mention the banal ways the US can contribute to suffering across the world. Nec Pluribus Impar shared a link on this topic showing that Madeleine Albright is very upset about Trump’s new measure. During her tenure she helped impose sanctions on the Iraqi government that killed a few kids. Well, more than a few, but that stuff is hard to estimate. Let’s say 1000 kids, you know, and be methodologically conservative.

That’s a tough choice to make, isn’t it? At the time Saddam Hussein was accused, correctly, of doing all sorts of horrible things to his own people and the Kurds. In order to pressure his government was it the rational or correct choice to place sanctions that would result in thousands of kids dying from lack of easily preventable death and disease? Was it obvious? Would you make a choice like that lightly?  After all, Madeleine Albright is still a strong figure for progressive values. Sure, not every strategy worked out, and sometimes people die, but it is all done with the goal of creating a much better world.

Or here is another way to think about it, the US donated about $43bn to global ad in 2015. Is that a good amount? Well, current cost per life saved as calculated by Effective Altruist nerds, for the most effective causes, range at about $2,000-$4,000, when aiming at causes such as malaria. It’s not so surprising, the amount of suffering from those in poverty is profound, and most of us don’t donate enough. Doesn’t something seem off to you though? The reality is we took only a few thousand Syrian refugees in 2015, while about 418 thousand ‘global citizens’ died from malaria in that same year?

To be fair, I think comparing any policy to lives saved by EA donations as a benchmark can miss important signals that predict the future. If this is the case though, why wasn’t there this level of feverish moral outrage over the 21,417 deported undocumented residents from El Salvador sent back in 2015? Hillary Clinton supported the deportations of El Salvadorian child refugees. The kids are usually sent on journeys, often alone, to the US, due to being picked to join a gang. At which point you either join, or are killed. There were immigrant activist groups petitioning to have them reclassified as refugees, but the politicians at the time knew that you can’t let everyone in always. That’s not a real policy that a country can sustain. And if you do, you need non-partisan backing from the population, because it’s expensive and hard to justify when parts of the country are rotting, with drug epidemics killing off our working poor. The El Salvadorian immigration issue seemed more like the type of event where you listen to the stories on NPR, think “how horrible, how tragic,” then get out of your car and go to work.

It’s not that hard to imagine a counterfactual-world where Clinton was considered the ‘far right’ candidate, with a even more progressive opponent stoking massive outrage at her willingness to send children back to a country where murderous gangs will literally kill them. As a rule I don’t use counterfactual-world imaginations as evidence, since it’s a weird pseudo-empirical simulation our brains run. Still, it’s a fun theoretical exercise to at least play around with and see if it fits.

This is where it gets hard to argue why Trump detaining a few hundred green card holders temporarily was so awful, because the grim reality is that sending those kids back home to die was acceptable. It was an institutional practice, codified in law, and in line with immigration expectations. As a result our institutions remained stable, and we all went about our normal lives, somewhat oblivious to El Salvador, except for maybe feeling sad when we listen to NPR. Whereas damaging the credibility of what it means to have the right to live and travel in the US is jarring, and the matching rhetoric is an insult to our relationships with these governments.

All policies embed a signal that we can use to understand what future policies might look like, and how they will evolve over time. In that case does this executive order represent a final departure between progressive immigration values, and a xenophobic nightmare? Or is it a small increment on a scale, where the bounds are between the US spending 20% of its money to create refugee safe zones in the mainland, bringing and saving tens of millions of the suffering world poor, and shutting our borders entirely?

If each side was willing to make compromises on immigration reform, they might actually be able to discuss what is sacred, and what is up for debate. Right now it seems that on the progressive side everything is sacred, and the Trump side is carelessly damaging serious institutional credibility by not treading carefully. That’s probably the goal, since Bannon wants to ‘destroy the establishment.’

The whole thing is a mess.

 

 

 

Review #1

Elizabeth’s mother had been an incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such things as Women’s Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen’s pose was that of an artist exiled among ‘the Philistines’–these, needless to say, included her husband–and it was a pose that gave her almost unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself. –Burmese Days, George Orwell

Men are men and there is no innate virtue in the oppressed. On the contrary, as Bertrand Russell pointed out long ago when underdog changes places with upper dog he proves to be more ruthless because he has learned, while underneath, to scratch harder in the battle for survival. –Freda Utley

The base TakiMag has a post on being an angry white man. You know, I don’t want to devote this blog to going after low hanging fruit in the culture wars, but it would be nice if the anti white man hate would tone down a little. I guess the argument in favor might note that they are structural oppressors, and eventually if they are brought down to the same level as the current squad of minority ethno/gender-alliances in the U.S., the battle will be won and we will move on with our lives. Or, well, that’s what I assume a coherent argument would sound like, I have never seen it made. And even in that made up coherent argument I imagine, I still doubt it would come true.

A thread at The Donald was made on the ‘privilege’ of being a working class white man whose father died at a young age. If you read through the comments it’s sad, you can see lots of frustration and hardship. Growing up I’ve known, and been friends with, about four guys who died from opiate overdoses. The opiate overdose is what killed them nominally, but a wayward depression and lack of belonging or believing in anything is what was behind their addiction. If they went to a cosmopolitan university they could have joined a progressive movement, to get that feeling of belonging.

…but what if they didn’t? What movement or cause can wayward, working-class, white guys, join? Nationalism is frowned upon by the left. Pride in their own sex or race is extremely frowned upon, yet common, revered, and even taught in universities (can you imagine how angry you would feel if being proud of being a white Christian man was viewed as pathetic by a cause that is trying to import immigrants opposite of you to replace your demographic?). I’m not even going to bother with links, what’s the point? Google: The End of White Men.

Let me pause to say that this isn’t an alt-right blog. In a strange way it’s an anti alt-right blog. As a rule I try to avoid claiming I have societal solutions, since what the hell do I know? Still, I can’t help but predict that Democracies don’t function when the party alignments fall on ethnic ridges. The darker question is if this is inevitable, or can be thoughtfully overcome?

 

Ray Dalio wrote a blog post (on LinkedIn) reflecting on Trump’s cabinet picks. Do you see the methodological and structured way he is thinking? This is why the markets volatility is not strongly tied to the shrieking of the NYtimes. It seems “economists agree” that the rise in stock prices is partially attributable to improved conditions for firms. Knowing that stuff is pretty hard, but it’s worth pointing out that variations in a discount factor, risk premium, rent seeking, or corporatist wealth distribution could also explain the increased market share.

 

Here is an old, but great, journal article on the types of errors in a forecast. Outside of normal sampling error there are four main other types of error. For example, the frame is when there is a mismatch between the dimensions of the sample and the voting population. There are other interesting ones as well. If you’re interested in coming up with good forecasts, the best way is to probably find a reliable model where you do your best to correct for these errors mathematically and formally. The trick though is to make adjustments (either ad-hoc, or formalized them into a prior if you are willing to spend time on the stats) based on your own readings of the population. While I obviously could have been lucky, I made about $1,000 voting for Trump. My model was to take Silver’s model, and overlay an adjustment based on how I predicted non-response bias would hurt Trump.

 

I don’t understand Inter-universal Teichmuller theory, not even a little. It makes me happy though to know that other humans do.

There was a high-altitude nuclear test in 1962 called Starfish Prime.

 

Progress

Modern conservative and progressive thought–mainly progressive thought as it controls the academy–reminds me of a biased algorithm trying to estimate a model with tons of parameters. You need an algorithm that keeps trying parameter numbers, evaluating how well the model fits, and trying new ones. When I did economic research to estimate these models I would watch the four series, which were filtered from the parameters, as they would drastically change depending on the numbers chosen. In 100 dimensional space there are many areas in the parameter space your model can’t explore. You’re never sure if you have converged on a true estimate, or your model took a wrong turn on one parameter a few thousand iterations ago. If your algorithm gets stuck at a local maxima, it needs to take a huge guess in the right direction to escape. Our modern political thought–unlike all previous times and countries–might not be at a local maxima but is in fact progressing to the global maxima of a utopian society. If so, I hope to help prove that claim by exploring the most unfashionable arguments in order to build our confidence that we are approaching that global maximum.

We live in a world of more than 100 parameters. If the number of parameters that govern our interactions with the world can even be quantified in a meaningful sense. All the same, whether it’s a true comparison or an analogy–no way to tell–it’s a useful way of envisioning the world. After all, our best scientific discoveries tend to arise from mathematical and logical models with parameters, so it’s safe to assume the same logic applies to reality as a whole. Let’s make some assumptions and impose structure on what we want to call our model of reality, and state that each parameter represents a clear factor that makes sense to the human brain. We recently had a mass shooting (I’m sure this sentence will still hold true even if you read this post a year from when I posted it). In this case the primary parameters would be gun legislation, Islam, immigration, homophobia, and so forth. You’ll notice this is a little shaky, since homophobia and Islam might have a distinct relationship, but let’s just stick with it for now. What if we are missing parameters, and that these parameters have high-dimensional nonlinear interactions? If these are emergent properties from complex interactions every nice little argument would be dead wrong. Shorter arguments can be perceived as more persuasive. And the memetics of nice arguments can interact with the structures of our government.

In the social sciences our goal is to explore the parameter space. Sure we do this with math and models, but it all starts with our brain’s learning algorithms. We try to filter out areas worthy of study in our n-dimensional reality. Political systems tend to be useful areas to study, as they explain how humans interact. The Mariana trench is not useful in explaining how humans interact. This is obvious, but it’s also not obvious. When you try to teach a computer the difference between obvious things, it often ends up being way way harder than you might expect. What, exactly, is our form of government? It’s a classification issue. There is no such thing, literally, as a Democracy (despite what the tombs of old political theorists tied to prove). It’s a word we assign when an extraordinary amount of attributes are satisfied falling into some boundaries. The definition changes over time, the attributes we consider change over time. A measure of the electoral connection seems to be one of the most salient features filtered out by political scientists. When we pretend we have firm definitions we are lying to ourselves. Our Democratic experiment continues, perhaps the defining attributes are yet to arise.

On Democracy, what exactly is a political centrist? As Soviet historian Martin Malia surveys academic thought in the introduction to his book, he writes that “The Soviet Union portrayed by Western social science represented a variant of ‘modernity,’ rough-hewn no doubt, yet in significant measure a success. Most specialists agreed, further, that the system was ‘stable.’” Malia continues to point out popular academic thought that the rise of Bolshevism was “Democratic” and tolerated “diverse views.” But those are boring examples. Let’s try some more fashionable conservative click-bait. If you’re not aware of this strain of communist apologists you might be a little shocked. More likely you have an idea that there are some of these people that exist, and take it for granted. Anyway, the red scare is so 1964. What we should really be concerned about is too many white men in our curriculum. That’s a topical link for me since I’m from Seattle, but it is commonplace.

There are enough blogs that highlight the absurd standards on what issues academics are (or aren’t) morally judged on. The question that interests me is how many times has this fight been lost already? We have entire departments devoted to all forms (except white) of ethnic nationalism, gender identity, and activism. The goals of these departments are to build a cohesive worldview that will build a better society, and proposes the core assumptions and worldviews that we must hold and enact to approach this optimal society. This blog focuses on only one question: Does this work as intended? Not whether it sounds nice, because of course it sounds nice. Plus, who doesn’t want to battle evil in pursuit of justice? Battle is fun. Unfortunately for the battle ready, Karl Popper, the most famous Philosopher of Science of the 20th century, doesn’t seem to think these battles should exist. In The Poverty of Historicism from 1957 he notes:

“i) Unintended consequences: the implementation of Historicist programs such as Marxism often means a fundamental change to society. Due to the complexity of social interaction this results in lots of unintended consequences (i.e. it tends not to work properly). Equally it becomes impossible to tease out the cause of any given effect so nothing is learnt from the experiment / revolution.[20]

ii) Lack of information: large scale social experiments cannot increase our knowledge of the social process because as power is centralised to enable theories to put into practice, dissent must be repressed, and so it is harder and harder to find out what people really think, and so whether the utopian experiment is working properly. This assumes that a dictator in such a position could be benevolent and not corrupted by the accumulation of power, which may be doubted.”

Do you think Karl Popper is assigned in many modern activist departments? I might be getting ahead of myself – a few quotes on soviet era scholarship, a link to some radical student activists, and a claim that Popper isn’t assigned shouldn’t be sufficient to convince anyone that activist departments do exist, much less that they are more about gaining power than scientific discovery. I will try to convince you of this as carefully and scientifically as possible. Or convincing myself that I’m wrong. Or that I’m in some foggy no man’s land of pure noise. I don’t know. I think I’m right, but many wrong people have thought they are right, so I’ll exercise some humility.

Still, there are reasons to be concerned. Certain questions are off-limits and cannot be discussed by any professor at an elite institution with a dream of tenure, power, or influence. They are left to a few brave academics and smart bloggers. The problem isn’t that these guys are right (those two links are on human biodiversity). It’s that they cannot be spoken. Try it, next time you meet up with your most fashionable friends bring up the arguments in The 10,000 Year explosion. Don’t assert that they could be right, or hint to it. Actually, don’t, because you’ll make everyone uncomfortable and might upset a few people.

Our philosophy of science works very well for the STEM fields, it’s rapidly improving for laboratory and medical experiments, and it’s making progress in some areas of the social sciences. Yet in a world where our supercomputers cannot simulate complex molecular interactions in any amount of reasonable time, with what hope do we have of constructing a story of history that has filtered out the true causal drivers of history, with all pesky interactions controlled. What if some of the views of history are dangerous? If humans are tribal, than evidence supporting a tribe–even if it’s true–might lead to war, genocide, slavery, and a number of horrific outcomes. Would we then need to be shielded from these views? Conspiratorial logic is awful though, there is no conspiracy. No group of academics gathered in a musky view to suppress thought. It makes for good movies, but it’s unrealistic. It would come about from emergent properties.

I remember vividly I was forced to take a course in African American Political Thought. I say forced because I had no choice in the curriculum in the honors program. We read James Baldwin and Frederick Douglas exclusively. Growing a little bored of literature, I once asked my professor in a seminar what his view on Thomas Sowell’s argument was in his book White Rednecks Black Liberals. Maybe Sowell was right, maybe he wasn’t, I didn’t know, I was a student. I was told we weren’t to discuss him because my professor didn’t respect Sowell’s authority. That seemed a little strange. Plus, in what sense is literature science? I don’t think it’s obvious one way or another how to incorporate literature into scientific thought. It is a valid question, but not obvious. There was no conspiracy here, was this just one of those emergent properties in action?

How do we incorporate old books, stories, or the news into our conception of government? We must though, as we all have opinions on these that are a direct result of more than just some textbooks and courses. When I think of the success of capitalism, what goes on in my head? It’s a cacophony of sources, models, and stores that I have read. They fire through the neural network of my synapses and I filter out a reason why capitalism is probably good. All this conditional on there being an already filtered set of attributes that we can consistently classify as capitalism. My experience of the world seems that trying to derive complex systems from first principles doesn’t work. No matter how reasonable the axioms appear. What actually seems to happen is that we filter out key components from empirical observations. If that’s true though, teaching the field from assumptions, as I learned it, doesn’t really make sense.

The rest of my courses focused on a standard liberal education. I was lucky enough to have a professor that introduced me to the great libertarian thinkers of the 20th century. That was independent study, of course. It’s incredibly rare for Hayek or Milton Friedman to be taught in class. Other than the libertarian perspective, there aren’t many academics who disagree with modern progressive thought. Some Economists will have a conservative bend, typically due to economic policy, and there are some unfashionable religious schools that disagree with abortion and perceived debauchery of the left.

At the time the libertarian thinkers seemed to be the dark side. I was never willing to fully commit, in the back of my mind gay marriage, universal healthcare, and legalized marijuana were the defining fights of my generation. I remember vividly the feeling of outrage and hate when I saw the religious right fight against gay marriage. Who do these people think they are? I saw myself as an underdog fighting against an oppressive power. Sure we had the entire academic system, most policy makers, the presidency, the NYtimes, and everyone under age 25 on our side. Of course, that’s not to say some of the points aren’t legitimate. While tough on crime policy can’t be obviously attributed to one evil side, it’s no secret that modern public opinion has the right favoring the death penalty and tough on crime approaches. Plus, depriving women of reproductive health care and preventing gays from marrying is needless and petty. The reason I’m not worried is because the religious right is boring because they are losing. Every time progressives beat them on an issue they push the line forward and start the next battle while lamenting that war never ends. The difference seems to be that progressives will actually define the 21st century. Does anyone really think the American right will?

The problem is that as you obsess over your in-group and fighting the out-group, you slowly form a contorted and twisted version of the world. You’re presented with a picture of reality that states some set of issues are the issues. Your opponents take their stance on the issues. What are the issues? They tend to be the specific policy questions that best split the population into two and can be incorporated into one of two parties. The question we have to ask yourselves is does this group vs. group battle over the issues portray an accurate picture of reality? Or do we get so caught up in our side, our battle, our righteousness, that we completely lose sight of just how complex our world is? And if we do lose sight, who is going to tell us? Where is the guy, detached from any group mentality, reading primary sources from the past and present, that will tap you on the shoulder and say “I think you’ve given in to the hot blooded excitement of tribalism, and have gone slightly off course.”

I’m not convinced what I learned accurately represents reality, or a meaningful history of thought. The academy handed me a set of base assumptions. I started out with half my worldview assumed to be true, without realizing I was at all learning on assumptions. It’s not that what I was taught was necessarily wrong, but after seeing the world of high-fashion in the academy and corruption of scientific thought, I have no reason to trust anything I was taught as an unbiased picture.

Curtis Yarvin started the neoreactionary movement online, which really just amounted to him breathing life into a once renowned, now less popular philosopher, Thomas Carlyle. Is he right? Well, his combined evidence and criticism of modern progressive thought is overwhelming. Is his solution the right one–that Democracy is a broken system? They are interesting questions. Why aren’t they asked in the academy? One reason is that because they are so obviously wrong, like anti-vaccination or numerology, that they serve no purpose. They aren’t obviously wrong to me and at least a few other smart people I know. Maybe we aren’t that bright and everyone else has it figured out, honestly though, I don’t think that’s it.

In our developed countries the inertia required to exercise political violence is large, as it rarely promises rewards. This is due to centuries of institutional architecture. In other countries and times it hasn’t worked as well. Looking back these revolutions, insane political experiments, massacres, famines, and wars, seem wrong. They were brainwashed people, probably evil. Except they didn’t view themselves as evil, they truly believed what they were doing was right and would save their country. Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist stationed in the USSR. He met with many of the British liberals who had come to visit the grand Soviet experiment with optimism:

You would be amazed at the gullibility that’s expressed. We foreign journalists in Moscow used to amuse ourselves, as a matter of fact, by competing with one another as to who could wish upon one of these intelligentsia visitors to the USSR the most outrageous fantasy. We would tell them, for instance, that the shortage of milk in Moscow was entirely due to the fact that all milk was given nursing mothers – things like that. If they put it in the articles they subsequently wrote, then you’d score a point. One story I floated myself, for which I received considerable acclaim, was that the huge queues outside food shops came about because the Soviet workers were so ardent in building Socialism that they just wouldn’t rest, and the only way the government could get them to rest for even two or three hours was organizing a queue for them to stand in. I laugh at it all now, but at the time you can imagine what a shock it was to someone like myself, who had been brought up to regard liberal intellectuals as the samurai, the absolute elite, of the human race, to find that they could be taken in by deceptions which a half-witted boy would see through in an instant.

At the time if you were an intellectual liberal in Britain it was expected that you would fawn over the USSR and the great promises of communism. How can we be confident we aren’t falling into the same traps? None of us want to be made fun of in 100 years for being misguided. If you took an incredibly unfashionable argument, something well thought out and not base, and presented it on Facebook how many friends would revel in their disgust for you? Sharing fashionable posts is a great way to signal how smart you are, and historically they have been misguided (as newsletters and pamphlets before Facebook). They aren’t always wrong, but what would it take to instill a seed of doubt in your mind?

On the other hand, the neo-reactionary view stating that progressivism and Democracy is completely broken is outrageous. So there might be a simpler explanation for why we don’t consider these seemingly radical ideas: They are stupid. If we assume a sort of efficient market hypothesis ideas it makes sense that the intellectuals of our past would have already vetted and discarded the areas of parameter space that make no sense. Unfortunately, the existence today of academics who take seriously the mysticism of philosophers like Hegel and the unfalsifiability of Marx doesn’t support that argument. As Stove points out, wherein he quotes Hegel:

“His book is, naturally, full of quotations from Hegel’s early writings. In subject-matter these passages range from the astronomical to the zoological. For the examples which I promised earlier in this essay, I have chosen two of the astronomical ones. First:

In the indifferences of light, the aether has scattered its absolute indifference into a multiplicity; in the blooms of the solar system it has borne its inner Reason and totality out into expansion. But the individualizations of light are dispersed in multiplicity [i.e. the fixed stars], while those which form the orbiting petals of the solar system must behave towards them with rigid individuality [i.e. they have their fixed orbits]. And so the unity of the stars lacks the form of universality, while that of the solar system lacks pure unity, and neither carries in itself the absolute Concept as such.

Second:

In the spirit the absolutely simple aether has returned to itself by way of the infinity of the Earth; in the Earth as such this union of the absolute simplicity of aether and infinity exists; it spreads into the universal fluidity, but its spreading fixates itself as singular things; and the numerical unit of singularity, which is the essential characteristic (Bestimmtheit) for the brute becomes itself an ideal factor, a moment. The concept of Spirit, as thus determined, is Consciousness, the concept of the union of the simple with infinity;

Do you know any example of the corruption of thought which is more extreme than these two? Did you even know, until now, that human thought was capable of this degree of corruption?

Yet Hegel grew out of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, as naturally as Green, Bradley, and all the other later idealists, grew out of him. I mention these historical commonplaces, in case anyone should entertain the groundless hope of writing Hegel off as an isolated freak. But now, remembering those historical facts, while also keeping our eyes firmly on the two passages I have just given, will someone please tell me again that the Logical Positivists were on the wrong track, and that we ought to revere the ‘great thinkers’, and that the human race is not mad?

Why were the Logical Positivists told that they were on the wrong track?  We’ve been handed a set of great thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and lessons from our historical past. Combined together they tell a story of how the world unfolded, the best form of government, and the most refined ideas. If we could look backwards and pull out a different set of thought that has been forgotten, but that is equally robust and suggests our current conclusions are completely incorrect, what would that look like?

Slavery Dynamics

Slavery Dynamics:

Overcoming Bias has an interesting article on the economic dynamics of American slavery. It reminds me of a recent EconTalk episode with Munger, who talks about how the intellectual culture of the south created incredibly clever pro-slavery arguments. Not that they are moral, or correct, but that they are clever enough that if you were born into that society they would be convincing. Presumably this is in contrast to most portrayals of the time, which involve almost comically evil folks.

Munger quotes a book called Cannibals All, which I had previously partially read. The book takes a sort of Marxist approach to slavery, claiming that given how awful working poor conditions are for wage-slaves, slavery is actually a good deal. The author’s reasoning is that the slave owner actually has an incentive to keep the slave healthy and safe, whereas the capitalist doesn’t own any particular worker and has no such incentive. Yet with his capital he has a residual claim on slave labor from all of the working poor.

It’s no wonder Munger was arguing these arguments are… surprisingly good. Not good good, but about as good as any modern PhD Sociology thesis (that is, pretty bad). But they sound good. And while sounding good often has no correlation with reality, it’s often enough.

It’s strange that there is tons of literature on American slavery, some of it by brilliant minds, most of it painting a different picture than what we were taught. Probably what happens is clever well read scholars devote a lifetime towards studying slavery, and come to shared conclusions. The problem is most people don’t have the ability or time to study all those texts. Cutting the texts down is dangerous, as a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The clever solution is to select a few core and simple texts on slavery that lead the reader to a one dimensional version of the slavery scholars final conclusions.  You can see the same thing in The Holocaust. The side effect of this is that those simple and selected texts are then mistake for the reality. So when someone starts digging a little into old books, and they spot inconsistencies, exaggerations, and exclusions, they immediately doubt the entire conclusion. Even though the conclusion is usually still generally right.

The problem is that these topics and conclusions become sacred, and are used as a shared signal for our morality. In Germany it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust. So when someone starts digging into small inconsistencies or questioning the past it’s viewed very negatively. Even though you would have to be delusional to actually deny the Holocaust or claim American slavery was in any way not a horror show.

So what seems to happen is every time someone makes a claim everyone goes along with it, since you can’t question the sacred.

And that sucks. Because while it might convince some people to care more, it also becomes a really inconsistent documentation of history that gives far too much credibility to groups who use conspiracy theories for their own ideological reasons.

SciFi Politics: Part 2

In “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” the greatest torture device is a device that makes you realize how small you are in relation to the universe. The joke is both that we are insignificant, we ‘know’ we are insignificant, and even then we still would need some special device to fully appreciate just how insignificant we are. I think the same thing about the complexity of reality. No one can truly grasp it all in their head, and it’s hard to measure in a useful way, so when explaining why it’s not obvious that the minimum wage is a good thing, I sometimes stammer “Well… you know… it’s hard to know that because reality is complex.”

Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy

To simplify that complexity, our most basic model tends to be a story. A full historical account of an event is fundamentally taking what is tiny sample of the total set of information related to the event, and turning it into a story that maps to the structure of how humans understand reality.

After all, what even IS a story? I mean, scientifically, you know? Andrew Gelman offers his theory, which mainly focuses on the wrong way to use stories “Storytelling has been championed by a wide range of scholars who would like to escape the confines of rigor.” The historical uncertainty comes from the fact that the sample is typically biased and an incredibly small set of total information and that the historical story is a set of functions mapping a high-dimensional set of primary sources to a lower dimensional account of causality that humans appreciate. The baby died because the hyena ate it. The stock market increased because GDP went up.

There is typically the ‘obvious’ cause: Slavery caused the civil war. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused WWI. The self-immolation in Tunisia caused the Arab Spring. The gulf of Tonkin incident caused the Vietnam war. Then there might be tombs of literature, often in disagreement, attaching these singular causes to their roots. Then some clever but unverifiable theories attaching them to more general trends that reach even farther back in time. Decades perhaps. That’s the story of both chaos theory as well as the limits of human understanding. We daisy-chain causal stories.

There is this interesting book called Human Smoke, which is sort of about WWII, that takes a different approach. The author spent years going through old newspapers leading up to and during WWII, and took out snippets that are dissonant with the common historical narrative. Each page has a snippet from a newspaper, or a short excerpt, with no argument or author written story. The book was reviewed by the New York times, but I first heard about it on Unqualified Reservations, whose author’s goal is to collect all historical documents and books over the past few centuries that clash with the modern progressive movement.

I think historical narratives are weird. We often are trying to understand more than is possible. A way to think about it is that while all humans have different cognitive abilities, there is a serious upper bound. A single human can only know so much information, and have so many analytical tools to decompose that information. So our knowledge of historical narratives has to fit inside our brain, and at some level of complexity or information can’t process any further. We try to overcome these issues by specializing, but this can bring in massive bias through shared societal priors.

It took the mind of a genius to write War and Peace. The main characters in the book never existed, but the story covered a historical narrative. It was based on history, but it was a story. Tolstoy imagined it in his head. The computer he calls a brain took fragments of history, his observations of humans, and a beautiful ability to build characters, to create a story. The difference between War and Peace, and Das Kapital or Chomsky is tiny. The humans who created the works had an uncanny ability to pull together disparate information in their head.

Our brains have an incredibly ability to find patterns where none exist. We can take feelings and use them to generate fake landscapes that are correlated with those feelings. Or we play with words whose sounds and feelings feel meaningful. Novels and plays let the artists capture and represent a distilled aspect of human existence. The reasoning we use to procedural generate these patterns are part of the same brain algorithms we use to find patterns in the physical world, or in human interaction. We need to assume these pattern matching algorithms are hopelessly broken. They are biased classifiers, which desperately need a scientific structure.

Understanding history without over-fitting your model is incredibly challenging. In 1931 a History professor at Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield, called this concept of understanding the past through the lens of the future as “Whig History.” His criticism was more pointed, and focused on the Whig practice of searching for some modern social accomplishment and tracing it back through time to paint a history of noble struggle, and using it as evidence of the indisputable validity of modern social progressive policies.

In time-series forecasting we refer to it as the information set available at time t. In this case it’s relatively intuitive, although the concept is still frequently ignored in practice and academia. When fitting a model to predict the future we always start with a set of data. Fitting a model over the whole time-period overfits the data, as the parameters are being tuned without respect to time — allowing the future to inform the past with information not available at the time. It’s cheating. If you fit a regression on a series of data that occurred over time, you are letting the parameters take on a value that assumes it is scientifically acceptable for them to have known what was going on the whole time.

The short solution is to use pseudo-prediction–out of sample validation–where you leave some of your data out. The challenge is that we choose our models, and we re-run backtests when we want, and as we run models we learn more about the problem space. Learning more is important, since we can then re-specify our model. As it turns out though, there is no clear method to ensure we are learning more and re-specifying our model to be more accurate, or we are cheating by using information from past models and results to overfit our model and then placing that model within an academic narrative that is also overfitted nonsense. If the signal is strong enough this method will still identify it, but it might also identify misleading signals it mistakes for real.

The problem is our brains are incapable of excluding information subset on time. A computer can do it trivially. For example, economic forecasting models were unable to predict the 2008 recession. Being able to predict the 2008 recession would have implied being able to predict asset backed security default rates. Now there is lots of research trying to find how this could have been predicted. The question is implicitly asking if there was a signal, conditional on information available in 2007, that could have forecast the recession (which because of the dynamic nature of markets, would have caused a slightly less severe recession earlier).

A cooler scifi way to solve this problem would be to gather all the smartest economists in a room a day before the crisis began, and give them access to all the information they had available at the time, and say “Tomorrow the economy will experience a unique event, what do you predict this event is?”. Since this is scifi, we can imagine we are speeding up their brains and give them 1,000 years each to build their model. We can then evaluate: Did they predict the right event? We can play with other dimensions as well, we can give them incrementally more information, augment their brains to be incrementally smarter, and experiment with asking them to predict it a day earlier, a year earlier, and so forth.

Instead we are trying to find a way to approximate this ideal scifi experiment. I think it’s worth doing, it’s fun. I’m not sure why, but humans enjoy it. Plus, we will only get better as we try. Now though we are dishonest about how successful we are, and as a result try to learn more from grand narratives of the past than is possible, while often ignoring the smaller cleaner lessons of human behavior when they contradict the grand historical narratives.