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.

As a method of offering information to a reader, it is almost more honest with its bias.

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.

 It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present; and though there may be a sense in which this is unobjectionable if its implications are carefully considered, and there may be a sense in which it is inescapable, it has often been an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis

When the need arises to sort and disentangle from the present one fact or feature that is required to be traced back into history, the historian is faced with more unravelling than a mind can do, and finds the network of interactions so intricate, that it is impossible to point to any one thing in the sixteenth century as the cause of any one thing in the twentieth. It is as much as the historian can do to trace with some probability the sequence of events from one generation to another, without seeking to draw the incalculably complex diagram of causes and effects for ever interlacing down to the third and fourth generations

if Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century could return to look at the twentieth century, they would equally deplore this strange mad modern world, and much as they fought one another there is little doubt that they would be united in opposition to us; and Luther would confess that he had been wrong and wicked if it was by his doing that this liberty, this anarchy had been let loose, while his enemies would be quick to say that this decline of religion was bound to be the result of a schism such as his. The issue between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century was an issue of their world and not of our world, and we are being definitely unhistorical, we are forgetting that Protestantism and Catholicism have both had a long history since 1517, if we argue from a rash analogy that the one was fighting for something like our modern world while the other was trying to prevent its coming. Our most secular historian, and the ones who are most grateful for that “process of secularisation”, that “break-up of medievalism”, of which so much has been traced to the Reformation, are inclined to write sometimes as though Protestantism in itself was somehow constituted to assist that process. It is easy to forget how much Luther was in rebellion against the secularisation of Church and society, how much the Reformation shares the psychology of religious revivals, and to what an extent Luther’s rebellion against the Papacy helped to provoke that very fanaticism of the Counter-reformation against which we love to see the Protestant virtues shine. And it is not easy to keep in mind how much the Protestantism that we think of today and the Catholicism of these later times have themselves been affected in turn, though in different ways, by the secularisation that has taken place in society and by the dissolution of medieval ideals.

How is historiography like forecasting? Can we be better historians by spending our time forecasting the future? Can forecasters be better historians than historians themselves, because they understand the relationship between current information and future predictions?

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.

Could they have done it? It’s okay if you think a few guys already predicted it and no one else believed them, we can accommodate your scifi experiment too! We could freeze time and find the moment these guys made their prediction, and place them in a room, individually, iteratively, with every other meaningful investor and/or economist to allow them to make their case.


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.


SciFi Politics: Part 1

People are mostly sane enough, of course, in the affairs of common life: the getting of food, shelter, and so on. But the moment they attempt any depth or generality of thought, they go mad almost infallibly. The vast majority, of course, adopt the local religious madness, as naturally as they adopt the local dress. But the more powerful minds will, equally infallibly, fall into the worship of some intelligent and dangerous lunatic, such as Plato, or Augustine, or Comte, or Hegel, or Marx. -David Stove

The Matrix
Political theory is weird, and it has bugged me for years. There is obviously something useful in lots of political theory, but it doesn’t mesh nicely with empirical and scientific ideals of experimentation. Plenty of theorists, and even English professors write criticisms of Neoliberalism. They clearly think they are uncovering something interesting or true. Economists view most of these guys as idiots.

The problem is sometimes theorists are right (or at least sound right), even though they don’t follow understood scientific methods super closely. And sometimes experimental practitioners are wrong, even though they follow the scientific method closely. This varies between fields and problems. It ends up being very awkward. Frequently smart scientists will write inane political posts on Facebook, which they view as being separate and distinct from the scientific methodology they use.

I can’t stand having a scientific methodology that is so strangely inconsistent, and has no way of incorporating Facebook posts, political commentary, books, and random Post-modern theory, other than claiming it’s wrong. If it is wrong, we need to be able to explain why.

I always try to start my methods comparisons by imagining God’s matrix, and working backwards. God’s matrix is the computer that simulates our universe. God has no interest in different models of the world. After all, the best model of a cat is another cat, preferably the same one. Reality is a perfect model of itself, there is only one file. In order to test counterfactual worlds, all God has to do is copy the matrix to another simulation and change some conditions. Here I imagine God as some sort of algorithmic version of Laplace’s demon. I don’t know if this is the right way to think of the world, but it’s at least consistent with how we understand scientific and counterfactual inference to work.


When we run experiments we wish we could create a counterfactual universe, but we can’t. So instead we try to create a counterfactual universe within our own reality. Two random samples of 100 people is a lot like using the same 100 people but duplicating the universe. It’s not the same — but we can use sampling statistics to try and measure our variance. What does this have to do with political theory?

Before we go to political theory, I want to explain what I think of humans. Recently the technological progress of humans has created advanced algorithms to model the world. It’s hard to survey all of human writing and research, but in past writing on human nature we always sort of viewed humans as mythical. Most of the old theorists of political theory and human nature, were religious.

It’s sort of interesting actually the way guys like Hobbes wrestled with religion. It’s hard to simulate in your own mind, but you can tell something felt off for Hobbes, but he couldn’t really understand. It’s hard for us to understand how radical and atypical it was at the time to not believe in God.

Even as religion faded, there was still no basis for understanding the human brain. In the 20th century as math and computers got cooler, they were still immensely distinct from the human brain.

None of the computers built in the 20th century were particularly smart, even though the humans who coded the machines were. The equations themselves of the world had to be specified in the code. A human had to study math, stare out his window at the world, and then try to think of the right equation to impose on the world. This is still mostly true, but now it’s possible to see how it might not be true.

Most of the things that we think are easy as opposed to hard don’t actually map to complexity in the world. Our brains evolved for specific purposes, and are optimized to find patterns that help us survive and reproduce.

The idea is that there is no meaningful difference between the world we live in, and the computer world. Reality is nothing more than a constant refreshing set of information, following a set of physical rules. We observe it, and our brains project a picture of reality that we interact with. The distinction between binary computer code and machine, and human, is meaningless. It only feels like it’s distinct. We’re both information processing devices that take input and produce output.

Another way to think about it, is an AI would never know the difference between being stationary and solving differential equations, and standing up and stacking blocks on top of each other. In both cases it’s receiving a set up inputs, using them to solve some function, and producing a set of outputs.  The difference is only meaningful to us because we evolved to be interested in things that interact with our project of reality.

This idea has existed in some form for a while. There were hints of it in old Greek philosophy, but I don’t give them any credit because they wrote lots of garbage, and then we look back and go “Oh wow if you reread their argument with current knowledge you can tell they secretly knew it all along!”.

There were also guys like Bertrand Russell who sort of picked up on the idea that chairs are sensory data reconstructions. It was interesting at the time, because knowledge of reality was growing from math and physics, but still not exceptionally useful. Bertrand Russell wrote about tables, well before we had this computational matrix view of the world:

To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.

He uses words like ‘sensory data’ to discuss the way humans interact with the world. I read his book on these problems of philosophy years ago. At the time I couldn’t really understand what he was trying to prove. There was this vague notion that sensory data and perception were weird or something.

There was some other garbage as well, by Jean Baudrillard. I actually think this quote is beautiful, it takes work to be so nonsensical.

“And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality. And so art is dead, not only because its critical transcendence is gone, but because reality itself, entirely impregnated by an aesthetic which is inseparable from its own structure, has been confused with its own image. Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even before it takes on the appearance of a dream.”

It makes more sense when you realize there is a set of information in God’s matrix, and we are program interacting with that information in a way to optimize our evolutionary function. We notice and build tables because they are useful to us, and we evolved to build useful things.



2001 Space Odyssey opens with a primate tribe fighting with another tribe over a watering hole. In a moment of evolutionary transcendence, one of the primates realizes he can use a bone as a weapon.

Since we literally evolved through that state it’s not complex for us to imagine what it would be like, and why using a tool would be obvious. The amount of information processing required though is incredibly complex: For the primate you would think that there is another tribe that has been agitating recently. You are also concerned the leader of your tribe is ineffective and needs to be overthrown. You’re currently leading a small raiding party. You’re simultaneously surveying the landscape, thinking of attack paths, considering leadership dynamics, and estimating backup plans. In addition, using primitive languages you’re communicating this information you’re receiving through your senses to other members of your tribe. As far as the raw sensory input, it is a lot of memory.

Not only can this brain absorb phenomenal amounts of information, but can actively process it, formulate and update it, and convert it to very low-information speech to communicate this information. Our silicon computers are very very far away from this ability. It’s easy to gloss over this point, but it’s important to appreciate. Our senses are absorbing massive amounts of information at every tick of time, you can envision it as matrix-type information where 101010s are scrolling past at incredible speeds. Our brains than take in this information and create a projection of reality within our brains.

From this point in pre-history it takes tens of thousands of years for the smartest humans to understand and solve partial differential equations. In terms of complexity, outside of human biology, this mapping of PDE input to output is much simpler. We are not optimized to do it. Consider Gauss or Von Neuman, through a combination of genetic accident their brains were very very slightly different than ours. This difference let them solve math and traditionally complex problems with an ease most of us can only dream. The reality is historically these small quirks in their brains probably wouldn’t help them survive and reproduce. Yet they were just the right quirks to advance human scientific knowledge by decades, maybe more.

We evolved to understand causality in a very specific way. It was never to our advantage to understand causality as 100, 1,000, or an arbitrarily high number of interacting events. It was relationship, tribal, and environmentally based. The same way in which we understand wars, elections, or history, is in that same relatively low-dimensional storybook way that is similar to a tribal history or strategic recapping of a buffalo hunt. This retelling of causality is perhaps meaningless to Laplace’s demon–or God’s matrix.

The field of causal inference and methodology has worked remarkably well for building a framework for us to run medical tests and controlled experiments. Imagining counterfactual worlds seems similar to the idea that the world is simulated.

It hasn’t worked as well in building a great encompassing theory on causality. The following are refinements on causality. Each time someone tries to make a nice statement, it turns out someone else can play around with it and make some example where it falls apart, so then they refine what causality means.

This first excerpt from the Stanford Philosophy page on Causality states the most bare bones interpretation.

Where c and e are two distinct actual events, e causally depends on c if and only if, if c were not to occur e would not occur.

Then some people complained or had a fit or something, because there could be things in between or whatever. It was refined:

c is a cause of e if and only if there exists a causal chain leading from c to e

Then there was concern that this might miss some (potential) probabilistic features of reality. It was refined again:

Where c and e are distinct actual events, e causally depends on c if and only if, if c were not occurred, the chance of e‘s occurring would be much less than its actual chance.

From here there has been more research–lots of it brilliant–trying to pin down a fully consistent model of causality.

My view is that since we only understand and interpret a specific set of information from reality, it’s nonsensical for us to have an encompassing law of causality. Our distinctions between events are more related to a storied interpretation of the world based on evolution, than some true documentation of reality.

If you imagine a gigantic computer screen of all binary information on earth, updating on small ticks of time, the information we extract from it is very small and only that which is evolutionarily relevant to our survival. In this conception of reality, causality is the pattern linking the past to the future.

We see specific patterns in the information, but those patterns are not fundamentally different or more important than ones on different scales that are invisible to us. And within each pattern are intersecting and weaving subpatterns throughout space and time. Whether the future flows deterministically from the past, or how it relates simultaneously with the microscopic physical structure of reality up to the level of abstraction that is easiest for us to understand, is probably an empirical question that we need to employ a future learning super-computer to analyze.

Even then, our ability to understand causality is an arbitrary way to understand the world. It works well enough though, since in practice we often use it to understand things like medicine and the benefit of education salary. Which we can think of as strictly empirical and predictive strategies, where we don’t really care about proving the true causal path.

This method does seem to go a little haywire though when we try to use it to understand grand histories. Tolstoy wrote ‘War and Peace’ on this exact point, sort of. At the time everyone was working to understand Napolean’s genius and the specific explanations behind his every action and victory. Tolstoy on the other hand viewed Napolean’s grand strategy, and the outcomes of specific battles, as far more due to random and undocumented events.

All he had to do was point out a series of dependencies. He ‘rolled’ the chain of causality up. It’s weird, but not hard, to imagine it rolled up further, into dimensions that don’t fit our storied interpretation of the world.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.

Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

We can switch back into our mathy-matrix view of the world now. The historians of the time were reading relentlessly into the specific details, and overfitting their models. Their brains were using words to generate non-linear models to classify and explain the Napoleonic wars into a causal story that best satisfies the way the human brain likes to understand the world. That’s fine, but they were over-fitting by using idiosyncratic events in a way that perfectly explained the story. Napolean was a ‘great man’ so every action he took had to have been calculated genius. It wasn’t. And yet Napolean seemed to be a military genius, so he had to have made some brilliant choices we can learn from.

Tolstoy was on to something, but didn’t have the scientific context to place it. In actuality it’s an empirical question as to how much of Napolean’s success can be attributed to his strategic ability. This question though is itself based on previous history — after all — what is strategic ability? We classify strategic ability based on previous events where a military leader succeeded. In this sense getting an idea of what strategic ability is can be viewed as a  filtering algorithm that is searching for the structure of attributes an individual has that contribute to military success.

We would then need to test this by looking at all past military leaders, scoring their success, and searching for attributes correlated with success. That’s actually really hard. We can try to do this as a rough approximation by reading history books, but it’s hard to ever be sure we are on to something given how much information processing is required to do this the right way.

Hume made a good case that proving causality is a lost cause, but you can get arbitrarily close. For example, I can’t prove the sun will rise tomorrow, but it seems likely as we observe it in the past, and it predicts the future perfectly. This works for Napolean and military strategy as well, as we notice patterns we test them by using them to predict the future. Then if we were able to predict the future, it means the model we used to predict the future is valid. So the more we correctly predict the future, the better our conception of the scientific method and causality becomes. Predicting the future gives us a chance to test the structure of our world, and see if we can understand the signal within current observed patterns.

Through this we can understand history (historiography), political theory, most philosophy, and most general study of human past information, as empirical science. It’s pretty much a tautology: We are computers embedded in an information space. Everything we observe and consider is empirical. The question “Is math intrinsic to the universe? Or did humans discover it?” is nonsense. Our brains are embedded in the universe, and when we observe two rocks sitting together, our physical brain structure adapts to simulate an abstraction of those two things.

Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not trying to claim some special authority on this blog to answer huge philosophical questions. What I want is everyone else to stop acting like they are clever, or worth talking about, or worth teaching to undergraduates as anything other than a history of broken human thought. If you can shake the notion that our brains are special, it’s easier to avoid these philosophical traps.



The Point of this Blog


With any political movement, it helps to know the ways different individuals perceive their interaction with other people and the economy. This tends to be pretty hard and requires radically debasing yourself from your own experiences. It’s like the scientific version of getting baked and staring out your window trying to look at the world in some new way you’ve never thought of before. It doesn’t even require you to change your own views of the world, although it might. If you still want to advocate for politicians or policies, understanding your opponent can only help. If your opponent mistrusts and hates you, it helps to know why.

If you want to dismiss your opponents as some combination of strictly less intelligent than you, sorely misguided, or evil, that’s also something you can do. It’s what the New York Times editorial team does. I don’t think that’s the case, so I’ll try to explain why. Part of this explanation requires taking seriously experiences or ideas that are ignored on the basis of being hateful or racist. On the other hand I’m not going to avoid uncomfortable arguments, and I’m not going to turn them into sanitized strawmen either (which I imagine to be a scarecrow dipped in rubbing alcohol that we set on fire).

Given the enormous complexity of the world, despite my sticking to relatively scientific arguments, for all we know they are individually robust but in totality represent a biased view of the world. That’s actually okay. My point here even as I try my best to be methodological isn’t that I’m right. It’s that a reasonable person could construct a view of the world in this way such that it has the same claim to validity as any other construction. We are getting useful observations of the world, it’s just that we have too many degrees of freedom.

Where to start? There are three books that are important to understand. Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, Butterfield’s Whig History, and Stovers essay. That’s where I should start, but I’m going to save that for the next post.

Instead let’s start with alt-right provocations. The alt-right might not be right, but they have a remarkably consistent model of the world. We’ll start with Milo Yiannapolis because he’s hilarious, but if you’re looking at him to understand why folks like Trump and Farage are gaining some power then you’re only going to become upset. Milo wants to post stupid memes to provoke you and rile up the future of the party and his career. His most intellectual post was a brief history of the alt-right, which is a fine article, but he’s no heavyweight.

Then there is Scott Alexanders anti-reactionary FAQ, which reads like a parent telling their kids “Ecstasy is really fun, but the risks don’t outweigh the rewards –which let me tell you–will blow your fucking MIND.” That was a brave post for him to write. You notice how he calls it anti-reactionary in the title? He also includes tons of trigger warnings. He’s essentially admitted himself he uses these rhetorical techniques to shield himself from accusations of racism by using tribal code-words to signal that he’s part of their group. He does this well, everything thinks Scott Alexander is on their side. Could anyone else be welcomed to a bar by both progressive intellectuals and neo-reactionaries? He deserves every ounce of his fame.

Could… could neo-reactionaries and progressives find common ground? I am certain they could if they actually tried. In the far reaches of the alt-right movement we have Taylor Swift for Fascist Europe. It’s strangely hilarious, but they are only half-joking either. It’s sardonic, it’s irreverent, it’s a ‘fuck you.’ When a cultural movement is built around criticizing and deconstructing whiteness, with modern academics writing ‘research papers’ on popstars, is it any a surprise that, as Moldbug says, “clever 19-year-olds discover that insulting it is now the funniest fucking thing in the world?”

Why is the alt-right rising? The reactosphere of neoreactionary, antisemetic, and anti-progressive internet denizens is growing quickly. Trump tapped into it, but it was growing before him in lockstep with the online social justice movement, which is fashionable. If you want to know what the fashionable position is ask yourself “If I posted this particular political meme on my facebook am I more likely to get likes? Or lose all my friends?” What’s peculiar is the alt-right has formed a one-sided alliance with the unfashionable white lower middle working class. I say one-sided because I don’t think the white lower middle class knows the alliance exists.

Why would you lose your friends though? Is it because your ideas are unfashionable? Or because they are simple and hateful, and we (rightly) don’t associate with hateful people?

When I lived in London I was in a neighborhood called Elephant and Castle. It is now home to a large Nigerian immigrant population, as well as ethnic Brits (which if you read Hume’s Volume 1 on England — which you should– means a mess of barbarian, pagan, and Roman populations — whatever). We had to be careful late at night due to muggings, which were perceived to be mostly from the poorer Nigerians. They looked scary, because we knew they drove the crime statistics. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t on edge because I’m not a liar. Every night around midnight, more so on weekends, a group of 10-30 Nigerian men and teenagers would get drunk outside my first floor dorm. They would yell and fight for hours in the street. Sometimes there would be screams from the fighting. Once they stared through my flatmates window at 2am and started yelling, until she came to my room asking to stay there because she was scared. Another time I heard someone get severely hurt, I rushed to the main entrance and told the dorm supervisor, who himself was a kindly Nigerian immigrant, that he ought to call the police. He said that wasn’t a good idea, you don’t want to get police involved around here. Just ignore it. Violence in the streets of London is the natural state of order, we would only cause more harm by interfering. I think he made the right call, but I was naive at the time.

What is interesting is this experience of mine has zero model of the world embedded. It’s a recounting of a personal experience I had, nothing more. If my blog had more than three readers there is a good chance some would feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable might be the wrong word, but we can agree that in good cosmopolitan company this wouldn’t be an appropriate story to tell. The problem is we impose models of the world on people based on what they say. The type of person who would talk about the downsides of immigration or outcomes associated with a nationality or race is a bad type of person. Why? Because that type of person is correlated with the type of person who historically did bad things.

I call it the Hitler and Slave-owner experiment. If you walk into a bar with Hitler and a Southern Antebellum slave owner and tell your story, would they give you a nod and sip their beer? If so it’s implied your experience validates their model of the world. Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s not a good thing. But is it a bad thing? For example, we could have another model that embeds experiences that validate their model, but also include other experiences and use a function that doesn’t at all imply anything horrific.

Anyway, for those of us living in London we were thankfully at a great school. In fact, our school was founded by the great Soviet loving progressives of the time, which struck me as bitterly ironic as LSE is famous now as an investment banking school. As a result most of us made enough money to move to nicer neighborhoods after graduation, plus, it’s not as though we were raising a family in that area. For a year, unless you were like one of my friends that got mugged, we can just call it unpleasant.


The problem is some British families have lived in those neighborhoods for decades, and they remember back when the neighborhoods were safer and culturally homogenous. As far as safer goes, it’s based on the communities perception of security and safety. Should a community have a better knowledge of its safety than official statistics?

Official statistics are aggregate numbers broken down by predetermined dimensions. You have to have a hunch as to what data to track, how to track it, and how to segment it, before you actually go ahead and structure data collection.

Even then, it’s so easy to lie with statistics as to make them rarely more useful than the filtered experiences of a community. A community lacks that formality and attribution, and instead they approximate reality using a distributed process to filter out information, like around what housing developments does crime happen, what alley is most dangerous, and what do the criminals tend to look like.

The data is more granular and there are more data points, it’s less official and it’s less rigorous. A trade-off. It’s like a mix between the bias-variance tradeoff of modern day machine learning and Hayek’s point on knowledge in society. The model has lower variance because it can fit the data better at a granular level. Unfortunately, it might have more bias. But do the official statistics not have a bias? What if all groups can’t help but embed information from their model of how the world ought to be in their objectivity?

Consider the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal Click through them and read the names of those who committed the acts. There was initially a cover up, due to fear that reporting this information in the official records would inflame racism. Yeah, it probably would have. The common people have a more granular understanding of the data points regarding how other cultures interact among their communities. Of course, there is also a strong reason to believe we dislike someone from the outgroup attacking us far more than we care about the same attack from our own ingroup.

Let’s look at Japan for a second. There are huge protests because an American killed a Japanese women. There isn’t a great reason to believe Americans do this more than ethnic Japanese. We’re not part of their identity though, we’re an outsider. When outsiders attack your brain screams “fuck them fuck them fuck them.” It’s probably an evolutionary thing.

So here is the question you have to answer, why is this outgroup bias considered wrong? Let’s take the null hypothesis to be that child sexual exploitation is not correlated with ethnicity or immigrant status. We don’t know if it is or isn’t, it’s not as though the British aristocracy has a stellar record of not raping kids. If they don’t know that they are wrong, should they? Who is keeping track of this stuff in a way that’s sufficiently rigorous to be free from ingroup and statistical bias? And if it can be proven that per capita pedophelia is the same, can we impose that they are being irrational? Or is it legitimate to be angrier if someone from outside your identity commits a crime to someone within your identity? That’s the history of human conflict, isn’t it?

The point of this post, this blog, and really my entire point on the philosophy of science, is that our methods of filtering out signals from reality are broken and weird. It doesn’t take a sophisticated philosophy of science though to ask for the counterfactual. After all, if per capita pedophelia sex gangs are equally distributed across immigrants and non-immigrants then do we have a problem? Well obviously we have a problem, but you know what I mean.


The populist xenophobes of our Western world miss the dignity of work and the safety of cultural homogeneity. The problem is when you explain these people’s beliefs and actions due to racism and xenophobia, what you’re really saying is “fuck you.” You’re attributing their behavior due to some degenerate moral condition or uneducation. If only they were as smart and educated as us they would appreciate their more violent neighborhoods and overcrowded hospitals.

Not to mention their desire to prefer living among their own traditional culture is viewed as a deeply racist preferences not worthy of our respect. My background is culturally and ethnically diverse, but when you ask me to tell you–to prove to you–why it is so deeply and obviously wrong for towns and cultures to prefer homogeneity I can’t come up with an answer. Who am I to tell them what they are right or wrong to want? Maybe if I had religious beliefs it would be obvious, but I have none.

If I started to build and speculate on an optimal societal structure, and I really shouldn’t, but if I did I might think it’s okay to prefer homogenous cultures, religions and values. So long as they welcome any person who is able to seamlessly integrate as well as contribute economically to this state of the world. If outsiders come in and do not assimilate to your values, often holding values that run counter to yours, and also damaged your economic standing, is it not natural to build resentment?

I’m generally of the belief that individuals in aggregate are better at understanding their circumstances than academics. Let’s see if I can cherry-pick any financial reports or research that back up this claim:

The costs associated with unauthorized immigrants immigrants are mainly concentrated in three areas: K-12 education, emergency medical care and incarceration, estimated by the researchers’ at approximately $116.6 million per year.

Fairley, Elena and Rich Jones. Colorado’s Undocumented Immigrants: What they pay, what they cost in taxes, The Bell Policy Center, April, 2011.

The overall taxes unauthorized immigrants pay into the system is greater than the amount of benefits they receive. However, many states and local public entities experience a net deficit because the costs of certain public services (education, health care, law enforcement, etc.) exceed the tax revenues they collect from unauthorized immigrant workers.

Coffey, Sarah Beth. Undocumented Immigrants in Georgia: Tax Contribution and Fiscal Concerns. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. January 2006.

It is estimated that the total revenue contribution, including state revenues and school property tax, from unauthorized immigrants was $1.58 billion. The total estimated cost of unauthorized immigrants, including education, health care, and incarceration, was $1.16 billion leaving the net benefit to the state at $424 million in fiscal year 2005.

Combs, Susan. Undocumented Immigrants in Texas: A Financial Analysis of the Impact to the State Budget and Economy. Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. December 2006.

I might be a little elitist, because the Texas Comptroller doesn’t strike me as a credible source, and I don’t know anything about the Georgia policy institute. They might not be as smart as real academics, on the other hand they might be less concerned about being fashionable and more interested in just putting out a good report. Conjecture on my end, I have no idea honestly.

We also have David Autor who brings us more credibility on econtalk. He writes about how the benefits of trade with China might have been overstated in so far as they benefit our entire country. It seems rather that some of our country keeps losing jobs with no replacement. Huh.

Our point here is to show that it’s entirely feasible for communities to suffer due to immigration on purely economic terms. You notice in many of these scenarios they pay in more than they take, but not in such a way that compensates the direct public services they use? Their taxes go to the general economy, and the work they do provides value to the aggregate consumer surplus and shareholders of a firm.

The school the townies take their kids to, and the emergency rooms they rely on, are overcrowded and overused. Their wages are depressed, which we usually measure as a positive thing for the economy in aggregate, but obviously sucks for them. Increased drug and gang violence seeps in, which is largely due to failed drug war policies from the federal government. But manifests itself as drug addicted communities and crowded jails.

And while we are lucky that our Christian culture has heavy overlap with Mexicans, it doesn’t with Muslim immigrants. The Banlieues in Paris is a Muslim ghetto, “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam.” Maybe things would be different in the U.S. with massive immigration. Maybe they wouldn’t. What are the benefits for the lower middle class culturally homogenous Christian communities that are already suffering for meaningful jobs and enjoy their townie values?

I’m trying to help you see the world from their eyes. If you view them as the uneducated proles or unwashed masses you’re not seeing it from their perspective. And if you aren’t willing to empathize with them then you aren’t willing to understand them. You’re giving them the middle finger. Empathizing and understanding the world from the perspective of people you disagree with is incredibly challenging.

After all, if Trump supporters and Brexit voters are simply evil and uneducated, then it’s hopeless. Because you’re not evil, and you are educated. So when you try to imagine it you just imagine “What if I had an irrational hatred of non-whites” than you think “thank God I don’t, could one imagine being so base?”

The problem is what if it is explained by factors you don’t appreciate? If an old British lady in Elephant and Castle said “I miss the days before these Nigerian immigrants” and you launch into a 5 minute speech on her misunderstanding of the world, I think you’re the one who doesn’t get it, because it’s really simple. In the past she wasn’t scared when everyone shared her culture and were part of her in-group. Now she is scared and hears people who are foreign to her fighting and getting drunk outside her home. This may or may not be true, but it’s how she perceives the world. And when she explains to you her perceptions, you call her a xenophobe.


Imagine the US shares a 4-dimensional hyperplane with intelliglandia. We just discovered this border last year, and it’s a country where the average person has an IQ 3 standard deviations above our own. At first they just visit us for tourism, but over time some of their less educated realize they can live relatively incredible lives in our country. At first they start coming to our best schools, soon our top 30 schools are 70% intellipeople. They then start getting jobs in high-finance and tech.

They then explain, look, there is this thing called the lump-labor fallacy, and we are providing incredible new value to your economy. I understand your generation was aspiring to breaking research, working at top tech firms, and working at hedge funds, but maybe it’s time to reskill and realize these aren’t the best jobs for you. I know your father, and his father before you, worked on computer science research and wrote code for the most elite firms, but there is a great accounts payable job at the QFC headquarters that you’re more suited for. I know it’s going to seem like you’re making 60% less money than your parents. But because society as a whole is so much richer due to the incredible value we add to society you’re actually going to enjoy a better quality of life. You’re welcome.

Most of my friends would be upset. Because for most of us it’s not the money or the cause-to-do-good that drives us. It’s the social praise. It’s being respected and appreciated by our family, our peers, and most of all strangers. The feeling of knowing others admire and respect you for your hard work and intellect is one of the strongest drivers. If you gut that, you gut the person’s drive for accomplishment.

If you want to understand the other side of America, or the UK, the Trump supporters or townies, you need to understand their feelings of social loss. They feel that they have lose not only their respectable work, but their desire for social accomplishment. The reason is complex, with some parts being hard to attribute.

The creative destruction of industry is nearly impossible to predict. Even if this could be delayed by 5 or 10 years, it seems inevitable. Still, it’s a smoking gun of why jobs are lost and not replaced. The next reason is immigration. When immigrants come in and push your wages down, that really sucks. Imagine you are doing research at your university, or coding for Microsoft, or doing analytics for a hedge fund, and a team of intellipeople come in and start doing the same job equal or better. Your boss goes “Look, you do great work here, but we’re going to pay you $70k a year now, down from your $150k, because you’re no longer as valuable.” Or the ambitious paper you submitted to a top journal was rejected because an intellipreson did the same thing but spotted a few biases you missed. Aren’t you happy? This is creative destruction, the economy is growing due to more value being added,

Nothing I wrote proves anything, it scratches the surface. You can believe it’s all false, or at least core parts of it are false, but you should at least understand this is the perception of those who voted leave, or vote for Trump. This is how they see the world. As far as I’m concerned it’s a reasonable way to see it from their perspective, and they deserve to be taken seriously. When you dismiss them as being uneducated, or call them bigots, you’re saying “fuck you.” Why be surprised when they give you the finger back? If you truly are the morally just one, then it might be that these other people do feel the same hot-blooded righteousness and outrage that you feel, it’s just that they are actually the wrong ones. That’s a position you can take if you want.