Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, May 29, 2017

Music Post

You've earned a music post. Here you go. They're both about people fading.

You know what? You deserve something more upbeat too, like "New York New York." Here you go (I can't embed this one).

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What Profit

On Wednesday, British* reporter Ben Jacobs was asking congressional candidate Greg Gianforte a question about the recent CBO report on Trumpcare when Gianforte allegedly assaulted him. Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault. I used the word "allegedly," but the audio recording of the incident, which you can hear at the Guardian (Jacobs's employer), makes it seem highly likely that Jacobs's version of events is accurate. (By contrast, the Gianforte campaign released a statement that flatly contradicted what can be heard on the audio recording.)

People were trying to piece things together on Twitter, and the following exchange occurred (note, Mandel is an editor at the New York Post):

I quickly scrolled through @Alexa_Bella's timeline, and she is clearly a strong supporter of Greg Gianforte. She offered no evidence (e.g. pictures, corroborating accounts) to support her claim that Jacobs grabbed Gianforte's wrist and then they both fell over. (Note that this is what the Gianforte campaign claimed happened. However, @Alexa_Bella's tweets did not precede the Gianforte campaign statement, so it would have been possible for her to parrot the campaign's version of events. Had she tweeted her story immediately, it might have gained some credibility from its correspondence to the campaign's statement.)

Of course there was some doubt as to the veracity of the "eyewitness" tweets quoted above:

I decided to see how this account held up over time.

Last night the sheriff in the county where the alleged assault took place stated that there were six people in the room at the time of the incident. Of course Ben Jacobs and Greg Gianforte were there. There were three Fox News journalists (who corroborated Jacobs's version of events). There was one other person whose identity I don't know. Of course, it seems that person would have to be @Alexa_Bella for her statement to be true. So I followed up:
And I got this reply:
McKinley is extremely partisan, as a cursory glance at her Twitter timeline will make clear. So it's unsurprising to me that she would weigh evidence in a way that leads to her preferred conclusion (in this case, that there is at least some doubt as to whether Gianforte assaulted Jacobs). Remember the extremely short term nature of the deception that is required. Voting will wrap up tonight. The key thing is to muddy the waters, even if only for a few hours. And this was the purpose to which @Alexa_Bella's almost certainly dishonest narrative was put. (Note that her account is now locked, but her tweets live on in the screenshot shown above.) Once the race is over, Republicans can either continue to minimize his actions (if he wins) or emphasize them as an explanation for his loss. Strategically, this is the right move, but it requires an astonishing level of dishonesty.

And so I'll wrap this up by noting that this woman forever tarnished her reputation for honesty for the purpose of... electing Greg Gianforte to what is almost certain to be only a 1.5-year stint in Congress? The debasement of vast numbers of conservatives in this country is an ongoing and depressing phenomenon, and it extends from the very top of the Republican Party all the way down through random people on Twitter.

* The media has reported that Ben Jacobs is from Baltimore, and a few people on Twitter have repeated that claim. This flies in the face of everything Dave Weigel has tweeted about Ben Jacobs in the last several years, and I refuse to believe it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Venture Cities

One of my old hobbyhorses is the failure to build transit-oriented cities in the U.S. The few transit-oriented cities we have grew during a time when cars were expensive or nonexistent, and their density made them especially suitable for things like subways. Today there is a chicken-and-egg problem, though, because a small city will pretty much never be a good candidate for grade-separated transit, and by the time it is a big city its car-driven pattern of development will likely have pushed it to develop in a way that is still unsuitable for grade-separated transit. Furthermore, tunneling through developed areas is very expensive relative to digging tunnels in the open countryside.

It seems as though you could build a planned city from scratch that would avoid these problems. You would do something like this: Dig a bunch of subway tunnels, but only lay track in one of them. Build a modest "downtown" area at one end and brownstone/row-house type neighborhoods along the rest of the line. Alternatively, don't install any track, just run bus lines on the roads where the subway lines will eventually go. You can also leave certain empty lots near future train stations, or build temporary, cheap, easy-to-tear-down buildings there.

The point is that as the city grows, you can start "turning on" subway lines and allowing the construction of tall/dense buildings near the stations. Eventually you would have one of the most walkable, dense cities in the country, which would create a type of real estate for which demand is high and competition is virtually nonexistent (in the U.S.). And your subway system would be far better and cheaper than New York's.

Where I'm going with this is that it seems strange to me that private equity or venture capital or whatever hasn't funded such a thing. I think the answer is simply that politics are hard. A big investment is subject to expropriation, which is a dirty word, but could refer to something as simple as the residents of the city or state voting to change the zoning laws. Democracy has a tense relationship with large-scale private-sector development.

I hope this is a problem that can be solved, though. A state with a sufficiently motivated legislature could presumably write laws and sign contracts that would bind it pretty strongly to support the venture. Of course that's only likely in a blue state, which means we would be building another dense, walkable city in a place where its (likely Democratic-leaning) residents would have relatively little effect on the Electoral College. So it's not an idea that is free from problems. But I hope that it is tried by someone with the capital and the ability to pull it off.

Unpopular Obama

Very quick post, simply to note that Obama was quite unpopular throughout most of his presidency. Moreover, he provoked sheer rage in a large minority of the population. This is an important fact to remember as we consider the future of the Democratic Party. I am not now trying to re-litigate the 2016 primaries. But it's worth noting that for all his personal electoral success, Obama was a highly unpopular President whose unpopularity helped drive large Democratic losses down the ballot. And the crazy thing is that I think this had almost nothing to do with Barack Obama! My hypothesis is that practically any Democratic politician can be made comparably unpopular, because the conservatives have developed an extremely effective multi-pronged propaganda machine. (Thoughts inspired by this Richmond Ramsey post via David Frum. By the way, what idiot called it Frum Forum instead of View Frum Nowhere?)

[Edited to add: Nancy Pelosi is also extremely unpopular. I'm not saying it's trivially easy for conservatives to take down big-name Democrats, but it's something they seem to have the ability to do, and it appears to be a fact of life we'll have to live with for the foreseeable future.]

Monday, May 22, 2017

Racist Memes

A white college student is accused of killing a black college student (they attended different colleges), and it has been reported that the defendant is a member of the "Alt-Reich Nation" Facebook group. Of course the defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence as a legal matter, and anyway I'm only in possession of what facts the media has reported. But it doesn't look good.

This reminds me of a piece that Jesse Singal wrote last fall. The piece explores the motivations of the trolls who generate and spread racist and anti-Semitic memes such as the "Pepe" meme that became so notorious during the 2016 election. Singal points out that the standard (and understandable) outrage that these memes generate is mostly what drives their creation, and he argues that people who criticize the memes fail to understand the motives behind them, which are not necessarily racist. (In fairness to Singal, he points out that it's not the victim's job to assess the intent of someone posting Holocaust memes.)

Anyway assuming the allegations in the college stabbing are true, and assuming the killer was motivated by racist materials shared virally online, I think this points to an important factor that Singal's piece mostly didn't address, which is that the underlying intent of the racist memes is of limited relevance to their effect on the world. The people spreading racist memes must be held to account even if they are not themselves racist.

But another way of putting it is that racism isn't just about intent. The introduction to Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night says, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." If you spend your time spreading racist ideas, riling people up, making them feel bad and oppressed, then maybe we can say that you are engaged in racism, despite your protestations that you are "not a racist."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Consensus

I've noticed a strong convergence on Twitter toward a sort of grand unified theory of Trump, focusing on his extremely abnormal psychology and our resulting inability to comprehend him. Of course many of us have had a general sense of this for a long time, even before he launched his presidential campaign, but the accumulated evidence has become staggering. Here are some recent examples, in no particular order.

That last tweet refers to Trump's decision to fire Comey after allegedly asking Comey to call off his investigation of Mike Flynn. That is to say, he fired a man he knew to have direct personal knowledge of his own (Trump's) interference in the investigation. It is impossible to imagine why anyone would follow that course of action, and it is easy to see why Podhoretz was uncomfortable. However, there has been no convincing denial of the allegations, and it appears that the uncomfortable explanation is that Trump's mind is deeply dysfunctional.

Ross Douthat put it this way:

Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.
 As I said, people's thoughts seem to be converging rapidly. A consensus is forming. Unfortunately it is far too late, and I see only a slight chance of Trump being removed from office. There is a slightly higher chance that he will resign, but I wouldn't count on it. Our nation is led by a man who is childish and damaged, and there is little we can do about it.


By the way, as I hazily pointed out earlier, all of this is grounds for humility in our efforts to understand what is going on. Trump is predictable in some ways and insanely hard to predict in others. The fact that we've put ourselves at the mercy of this man is the bizarre, incredibly scary tragedy of our times.

Fake News

Very quick point. The concept of "fake news" has become a toxic idea spreading within our political system. It is a way of dismissing inconvenient facts, and it is a major aspect of our collective inability to process information.
This is seen as a disease of the right, and it is undoubtedly most prevalent there. But cases are starting to pop up all over the left too. I noticed this during the 2016 primaries, when Sanders supporters went into full-on reality-denial mode. Clinton would win a state, and as the results came in the vote tally would change in each precinct or whatever. Sometimes the media outlet reporting the results would make a mistake, and the numbers would have to be revised. Sanders supporters became convinced that what was really going on was that poll workers were destroying ballots to rig the election for Clinton.

Anyway my point is that no one is immune from this stuff. The other point I'd make is that avoiding this stuff is partly a personal virtue, or obligation if you prefer to think of it that way (resisting the temptation to comfort yourself by avoiding the truth), but also partly a social norm that must be enforced. If you don't want the left to turn into a mirror image of the right, I suggest talking to your friends if you see them going down this road. In the very short run you can "do better" politically by spreading nonsense, but it is catastrophic over time, as the conservative movement amply demonstrates. We must maintain standards, for our own sake and because it's the right thing to do.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Comey Memo

Folks I can't keep up with this shit. I'll just note that it seems increasingly clear that Donald Trump suffers from pretty severe mental limitations. You have to assess everything in light of that. It's typically not exculpatory, but it does explain why people might believe they have a moral duty to serve in his administration or whatever. A child commands the most powerful military in the world.

Troubling Passages

This passage from the New York Times is rightly getting a lot of attention on Twitter:
In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.
However, I haven't seen anyone point out that it doesn't make much sense. When McMaster made his non-denial denial, he claimed that Trump hadn't said anything about sources and methods. This was recognized as non-responsive because the story was that the information divulged by Trump bore on those issues without expressly including them. If I tell my wife that she is a better kisser than her sister, all I've technically revealed is a personal preference. I haven't said anything about who has and hasn't kissed me. But my wife might well wonder how I came to possess the knowledge necessary to make an informed judgment about my preferences in that area.

Another View of the Cathedral

This tweet makes an important point:
Last night, on my Twitter feed, I watched as several journalists easily navigated through the bullshit that was being peddled by Masterson as he "denied" that Trump shared classified information with the Russians. I like to think I would have been able to figure this out on my own, but I'm honestly not sure. Certainly I needed guidance to understand the nuances.

This is an example of a skill that I imagine is actually not that hard to learn with practice. It's much like reading a contract or a law. You learn to recognize certain patterns, certain formulations, that repeat themselves over and over.

But plenty of people understood Masterson to be saying that the Washington Post was wrong. This is because his words strongly implied that conclusion to an ordinary audience. Therefore if you weren't accustomed to parsing statements carefully, you were easily led astray. (Masterson has, or had, a fair amount of credibility, so a serious denial from him would have meant something.)

Now it's important to note that even fairly smart people could be misled by this. Not because they're incapable of parsing a carefully worded statement, but because they assume that Masterson has enough integrity not to say something the literal meaning of which is opposite to (or at least starkly different from) the meaning that a normal audience would attribute to it. In other words, a lot of people have a "thick" conception of what it means to be truthful, at least when a "real" person (not a lawyer or a spokesman) is speaking.

Anyway I point this out to explain how different people's experience of a story like this can be. Some people were whipsawed by the night's events, but to a certain (dare I say "elite") audience, everything unfolded in a pretty coherent way. It seems like yet another class distinction in our society, not driven by income exactly, but by a certain facility for processing information.

Edited to add the following.

Inevitably, this happened:
I'm going to need to write some posts on anti-elitism. The thought I have right now is that a tremendous amount of mischief can be done by camouflaging idiotic prideful ignorance as some kind of egalitarian anti-snobbishness. I realize this is an utterly banal thought, but it seems pretty central to our political discourse these days, so I will mull it over.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Complexity and Specialization

One of the defining features of modern life is its extreme degree of complexity. I don't think I need to defend this claim, it is obvious.

Our society deals with complexity by adopting a high degree of specialization. Most people don't understand the technology underlying mobile phones, but that's tolerable because we really only need a few thousand people (or whatever) to focus on the issue. They design the hardware, promulgate technical standards, etc., and the rest of us can go about our business.

Now consider a few implications of this. First, by definition you can't specialize in everything, and so most knowledge is inscrutable to most people most of the time. Most people probably couldn't understand technical issues no matter how much attention they devoted to them. But it's more than that. In the law (my career specialization), there are often surprisingly simple answers. It's not that the average person couldn't understand, it's that the average person has no need to allocate scarce resources to accumulating the relevant knowledge. (And, to be clear, there are lots of hard questions in the law, and lots of traps waiting for the unwary. I don't mean to imply that anyone should try to navigate the law without professional guidance. More on this below.)

And so the second implication, which follows from the first, is that knowledge tends to be highly modular. What I mean by this is that to be useful, a body of knowledge must make its fruits accessible to non-specialists. But since non-specialists can't deal with more than the basics, in practice there must be some "interface" by which non-specialists interact with it. You can think of a "function" or whatever in computer programming. You pass it a few parameters, and it passes you back a few results, and you don't necessarily know or care what is going on inside the "black box."

To give a simple example, meteorology is insanely complicated, and the people who do it professionally are highly educated and highly specialized. But all of this work would be pretty much worthless if it didn't generate simplified insights in the form of weather forecasts. And this is how it is for most people—they don't really understand what is going on behind the forecast, but they are perfectly capable of understanding the forecast itself, and they know what it means when a hurricane alert is issued. That's good enough for most purposes. It glosses over the debates within the field, or the disagreements between different models and different forecasters. But in practice the public doesn't need to worry about those nuances, or maybe a better way to put it is, the public is not equipped to assess the relative merits of different models, and so its role is restricted to demanding some kind of overall accountability and quality control (for instance, U.S. weather forecasting is now generally inferior to British and European forecasting, and various reforms have been proposed).

So anyway a lot of the process of disseminating knowledge involves simplifying it into digestible bits of information that non-specialists can understand, while sacrificing as little value/precision as possible. Weather forecasting seems like a particularly successful example to me. In other areas, like the law, the process is much different. Appreciating how complicated and misleading the law can be, we have set up a system where you typically need to hire a professional to guide you through it. Moreover, we've imposed educational and ethical standards that make it expensive to hire a lawyer. I won't engage in the debate about this right now, but I'll note that paying an expert for guidance is often difficult precisely because the non-specialist lacks the tools to assess the quality of the advice. In the abstract, some kind of safeguards are justifiable, though you may quibble about the precise ones we have adopted.

This brings me to my final point (for now). You can think of knowledge and intelligence as coming in two different forms. The first is the one that we all recognize, the ability to navigate a body of knowledge. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers, there are varying degrees of scientific accomplishment, and so on.

The second is a kind of meta-knowledge. It consists of an ability to make good judgments about the simplified knowledge generally provided to non-specialists. It is what you might loosely call "reasonableness," and it is probably what we should have in mind when we say things like "college teaches you to think." By definition, a non-specialist generally doesn't have the tools to assess debates within a specialty. Or maybe I should say, she doesn't have the tools to assess those debates directly. She is forced back on relatively crude methods. To be good at this kind of judgment, you have to know how to modulate your skepticism appropriately, how to identify red flags, how to identify the appropriate scope for a given conclusion.

It's not easy! And it's made harder by the fact that in many areas there are people who are actively trying to mislead other people, either for profit or to advance ideological goals.

Wrapping this up, I should mention that it's not clear to me that the contrast I've drawn between "direct" ability and higher-level "navigational" skills is really a very sharp one. This is because of the fractal nature of specialized knowledge. What I mean by this is that if you zoom in on a particular area of knowledge, you generally find that there are sub-specialties that also function like modules. And if you zoom in again, you'll find sub-specialties within the sub-specialties. Certainly this is true in law. The gap between lawyers and non-lawyers is huge. But a big aspect of practicing law is being able to spot issues outside your area of expertise and knowing to consult the right kind of specialist. Only when you've drilled down several levels do you start to get into questions of directly understanding and navigating/manipulating the legal terrain. And even then, a lot of lawyers rely on secondary materials for knowledge.

Anyway it's an important aspect of modern society, one that I believe is tremendously important for almost all aspects of our lives, and one plagued by all kinds of pathologies that weaken the functioning of our political system and our overall public discourse.

Friday, May 12, 2017


I'm going to make a point that I don't fully believe in. Bear with me.

Trump has some sort of psychological problem. I obviously can't diagnose precisely what it is, and it would be unethical to do so if I could, but come on. The evidence is there for all to see.

Now here's the point. You can't interpret Trump's statements the way you might if he were psychologically normal (or just more psychologically normal).

In particular, we are accustomed to politicians who make their decisions in light of the truth. I don't mean that they tell the truth. I mean that they either tell the truth or tell artful lies. They lie in the shadow of the truth, so to speak.

Trump isn't like that. You can trick him into saying almost anything. And even unprompted, he often says batshit stuff with no regard to the truth.

Focus on that last part: with no regard to the truth. I don't just mean that he's untruthful. I mean that his statements are driven by impulses that don't reflect any consideration for the truth. He's in a frenzy and he'll say anything.

In these circumstances, it's very hard to interpret what he says, and I have to admit, grudgingly, that you have to be careful not to assume he's guilty just because his statements would (if made by a psychologically normal person) seem to imply it strongly.

I'll have more on this later. You shouldn't take this post as a defense of Trump or an argument that his statements are somehow acceptable. They're obviously not. But they are also not susceptible to our ordinary way of interpreting things, and we have to be careful for that reason.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump and Rational Irrationality

I plan to write a much longer post about Trump's psychology. For now I'll just note a concept from game theory (yes, yes, I suppose I have to include the obligatory "time for some game theory!" joke), which is the concept of "rational irrationality." The idea is simple. In some strategic situations, it is beneficial for your opponent to believe that you are not rational. The classic example is the game of chicken, in which car drivers race directly at each other. If both swerve, then both lose status. If one swerves, then he loses status while the other gains it. If neither swerves... kaboom.

In this game you can benefit by credibly indicating that you are crazy, since the other person will definitely swerve (assuming she is rational!). The difficulty is in the "credibly" part. You can't just say you're crazy, or engage in a few low-cost crazy activities. That could all be a pretense. You actually have to make your adversary believe that you are crazy (or that there is a good likelihood you are crazy), at least at the time the game of chicken is played. (If you are permitted to alter your car, you can also do something like physically removing the steering wheel. Let's ignore this possibility.)

Of course it helps if you really are crazy! Then you don't have to come up with some elaborate ruse to fool your opponent, you can just be yourself.  And Trump is unquestionably crazy, in the sense of not behaving at all like a rational player. In fact I think we can say that irrationality is one of his two defining features (the other being an almost supernatural facility with the language of racial resentment).

To give a real-world example, during the Obama administration the Republicans said they were prepared to cause the United States to default on its debt rather than vote to increase the debt ceiling. If this had been a credible threat—if the Republicans as a group had really been prepared to do this—then Obama would have been put in an extremely difficult position. Of course he could decline to reward them for their irresponsibility, but only by incurring tremendous risks and costs. Luckily, in reality the threat was never very credible, and so Obama got the debt ceiling raised without defunding Obamacare or whatever it was the Republicans demanded.

Okay so anyway, here's the thing about the "being crazy" approach to winning. It works for some games but not others! If you happen to be playing chicken, you might do very well. But if you are playing, say, chess, it would help to have some capacity for rational thought, some ability to see three or four moves ahead. Rationality has some real upsides!

Now consider Trump's firing of Comey. The way Trump went about it was so slapdash and idiotic that it did a tremendous amount of harm to his standing and the standing of his congressional allies. It was a classic "unforced error" that a strategically competent player wouldn't make. (The firing itself may not have been a mistake, but it's difficult to see any advantage that Trump derived from conducting it the way he did.)

Anyway all of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think Trump is an idiot with idiotic advisors, and while this is often a serious impediment to his agenda, it will play out differently in different situations. The Democrats should be on guard against strategic situations that reward irrationality or unpredictability. (That said, by all indications Trump is an obvious bluffer who wouldn't actually be good at a "chicken" type situation. But there are many other games where his ignorance and psychological weaknesses might serve him well.)

Twitter Confusion

In the last few days I've noticed an annoying trend on Twitter. First consider this tweet (the one that Ram Ramgopal deleted):
The context here is that after Trump fired Comey, several media outlets were reporting that Comey had recently asked the DOJ (specifically Rosenstein) for additional money and/or resources for the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that this took place. Ramgopal's original tweet seemed (to some readers) to imply that Sanders was playing word games, denying that Comey asked for additional money but later admitting that he asked for additional resources. Gotcha! That of course would be absurd:
But as you can see from the Ramgopal tweet quoted above, this was all a misunderstanding. Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that Comey had asked for money or resources, and this was the import of the (inelegant) tweet that cause so much confusion. (I should note that Barro quickly tweeted a correction when this became clear.)

This is the familiar problem summed up in the saying attributed to Mark Twain, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." (Of course in this case there was no lie, just a poorly written tweet.) A lot of people saw riffs on Ramgopal's original tweet and drew conclusions from it before the corrections had made their way through Twitter. And of course, some people (maybe a majority of people who saw the original tweet) never saw a correction or understood that it had been retracted.

This problem is exacerbated by the architecture of Twitter, which (understandably) does not allow tweets to be modified. Once a tweet is published, it can only be deleted. But Twitter's fragmentary, centrifugal nature means that the audience for one tweet is likely to be very different from the audience for a later tweet that clarifies or corrects the earlier one.

Here is another example:
The context here is that Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Leader in the House, was commenting on Trump's decision to fire Comey. Of course, needless to say, members of Congress do not serve at the pleasure of the President, and it would be outrageous to suggest otherwise. Twitter was outraged.

But really, there would be no logical reason for a congressman to say something like that. Even if you think the Congressional Republicans are too servile in relation to Trump, they have absolutely no motive to emphasize the point by engaging in self-caricature. And indeed:
Since it didn't embed properly, here is the spokesman's response:
In this case, I don't know if McCarthy misspoke, or if the original tweet failed to capture his words accurately, so I admit this is a more ambiguous example than the earlier one. However, for most practical purposes, it doesn't matter unless you think the original statement was a sort of revealing slip. Clearly McCarthy was never going to stand behind it as his official position.

Note that both Ramgopal and Marinucci did the right thing by tweeting correcting/clarifying tweets. Nevertheless, I'm confident that the waves made by their original tweets were substantially bigger than the waves made by the corrections.

I said that the problem was exacerbated by Twitter's architecture. But that architecture is likely here to stay, and I think the problem is also greatly exacerbated by people's credulity. Read the original Ramgopal tweet again. Does it clearly indicate that Sarah Huckabee Sanders is playing word games? Not to my eyes.

The second tweet is more conducive to a negative reading, and honestly I don't have a good explanation for how it came to exist. Could McCarthy have really said that while mentally putting himself into the shoes of a political appointee? That's not a sensible way to communicate. But then, it's hard to see how Marinucci could have mangled the quote so badly, if McCarthy said something like, "Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the President."

Still, it's important to be skeptical of these sorts of crazy tweets. You have to take into account the significant possibility that the tweet you are reading is not as clear as it might seem to you, or that it misrepresents what was actually said. And you should be especially careful not to be selectively credulous, disproportionately retweeting questionable tweets that support your own set of beliefs.

But of course if Twitter's architecture is likely to stay, human nature is far likelier to stay with us, and so I don't hold out much hope. I guess I'm left to make a simple point about Twitter etiquette. You shouldn't spread these sensational tweets until you know what you are doing, or unless you indicate your skepticism to your audience. (Of course by far the best way to do this is to quote the tweet and comment "Big... if true.") And you should exert gentle pressure on your friends to maintain the same standards.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Timing Is Everything

By the way, my belief is that Trump seriously fucked up the timing on this. Democrats were just winding up to shit all over Comey for misstating the way that Huma Abedin's emails ended up on Anthony Weiner's computer (see ProPublica story), but there wasn't time for them to go on the record in large numbers or with much energy. Two or three days later, Trump would have a lot of very recent material to work with (and if he got lucky, a prominent D would have called for Comey to resign).

There is almost never any indication that anyone in this White House is intelligent, and sometimes, that's a good thing.


What I think is so jarring about Trump's firing of Comey is that it reminds us in a brutal way of how fragile the constraints on Trump are. We're squirming as we realize that he is probably going to get away with it, and there is (practically) nothing we can do about it.

The key point here is that laws are necessary, but they are not sufficient. People are constrained in the first instance by norms, and only in extremis by actual written law. Moreover, when the time comes to enforce the law, it is necessary for the people charged with enforcing it (and the judges who hear the cases) to be public-spirited and non-corrupt. In this area, it's useful to read the first section of Matt Levine's day-after-election-day newsletter.

I want to make several points about this. The first is that our system is not generally as fragile as it might seem from my description. In general, politicians want to be popular, judges want to maintain their reputations, prosecutors want to bring career-enhancing cases, and so forth. The general norms of behavior, and the patterns of behavior, are much better than a cynic would expect.

The second point is that formal laws are a bit like Roman walls. It's better to have a wall than not to have a wall, but to rely on walls is a sign of weakness. When the legions are the undisputed masters of the territory, the walls are irrelevant. It is only when the hordes are approaching that the walls come into play.

Or another analogy. I spent a week when I was a teenager helping maintain a trail in a national park. The ranger who was working with us told us about another group where they had a chainsaw they were using to clear small trees or whatever. The volunteers wore hard plastic guards on their thighs in case the saw slipped. But one idiot wouldn't even bother to keep the saw from bouncing off his leg, he let it happen all the time. Sure, the plastic leg guard protected him, but it's supposed to be there for true accidents, not as the first layer of defense. You don't actually want to be testing the leg guard all the time!

But this is the thing about Trump. He's like that guy, except the leg is our society, and Trump's slashes with the saw aren't careless. He's constantly probing the basic institutions that protect our way of life, looking for weaknesses. And he's finding them! Not so much in the rule of law (yet), but in the basic norms that are supposed to constrain the behavior of our public officials.

I think the crucial question is why. Why is he so confident that he can get away with it? And why is he in fact getting away with it so far?

I don't have anything resembling a complete answer to these questions, but the thing I'd focus on is the public's attention span and its general ability to process information. It turns out that if you keep enough Republicans "on side," and if the conservative media doesn't defect (which it almost never does), then it is possible to keep any public consensus from emerging. And in the absence of a public consensus, the mainstream media will generally "report the debate," enabling or actively engaging in false equivalence.

People have been making these points for years, and I'll admit that for a long time I didn't take them very seriously. I now think this is the fundamental problem with our system, and I am pessimistic that we will make any real progress in addressing it.

And so we squirm at the mercy of a saw-wielding maniac who is actively looking for the gaps in our plastic armor.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

The Good Satiety

In passing in the Slate Star Codex review of The Hungry Brain, Scott Alexander (which I think is a pseudonym, not really sure) paraphrases the book's central claim as follows: modern food is hyperpalatable and causes obesity "because capitalism is an optimization process that designs foods to be as rewarding as possible, so however many different factors there are, every single one of them will be present in your bag of Doritos." I know very little about nutritional science, so I can't actually take a position on this claim, but I think it is a good springboard to a general discussion of the ills of the United States today.

The claim here is that the brain has a remarkably good "satiety" mechanism that (for most humans, for most of history) keeps people at a healthy weight. The way this works is that the brain simply turns off people's appetite when they have eaten an amount of food that is consistent with a healthy "set point" for their weight. The problem is that this mechanism can be bypassed or corrupted by repeated exposure to "hyperpalatable" food, leading to unhealthy "set points" that the brain then defends by making people hungry, making it agonizingly difficult to lose weight. In essence, the same dynamic that made it so easy to maintain a healthy weight in past centuries is now turned against us.

Again, I have no insight into any of this, but I think it's intuitively plausible, and I think roughly the same thing has happened across a lot of dimensions, Capitalism relentlessly ferrets out every conceivable way to induce people to part with their money, and the result is a kind of minefield of psychological tricks designed to bypass or corrupt the brain's normal decision-making processes. Thus people are parted from their money in all kinds of ways.

The other important aspect of capitalism is that its intersection with democratic politics tends to produce lenient policies that don't protect people from themselves. In other words, if there is money to be made, politicians will (eventually, and with exceptions) tend to allow the profits to be made, even at the expense of the welfare of their constituents. Or at the very least, a political movement that strives to protect people from themselves must be ever-vigilant, because it will be susceptible to constant attack and undermining maneuvers. (I will admit that tobacco is a striking counter-example, and although the public health victory was gradual, it appears to be permanent, at least within U.S. borders.)

The most obvious example, I think, is gambling. Once upon a time in the United States you could gamble in only a few limited circumstances. You could have a friendly card game. You could go to a racetrack or dogtrack (though there were only a handful of these). You could go to Las Vegas or, if you were affluent enough, somewhere like Monaco. That was about it. For people whose brains lead them to gamble more than is healthy (or more than they would choose in the abstract), this was a moderately protective system that kept their money in their pockets.

Now gambling is everywhere. This is a function of the capitalistic tendencies I described above, plus the fact that gambling laws are mostly controlled by states and reservations. So there was a classic race to the bottom, and now practically everyone in the U.S. is subject to psychological attack. Many resist it successfully; many others succumb, and some of them form part of the miserable underclass that is currently troubling our conscience and roiling our politics.

Gambling is a particularly stark example, but I think it is representative of a whole host of human activities that are doing essentially the same thing to our people. We are obese, we are unmotivated, we are depressed, we are addicted to drugs, alcohol, unhealthy food, television, video games, and pornography.

Note two things about the list I just rolled out. First of all, shoot, a fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. Which is to say, a lot of things are problematic precisely because they are so pleasurable, and so there are no easy answers for public policy.

Second, and relatedly, a lot of people can navigate their way through this minefield with little difficulty, or at manageable costs. These people stand to gain a lot from modern capitalism. And to my mind, this is a plausible (partial) explanation for our exploding inequality. Capitalism drags down a certain fraction of the population and immiserates it. Meanwhile a small class of intelligent, ambitious people unshackled by addiction are able to navigate the system nimbly, forming a wealthy and powerful upper crust balanced precariously above a chaotic ocean of despair.

I'll have a lot more to say about this, but for now perhaps I've rambled enough. I'll just note that I think it is to be expected that blame will be misallocated. Few are equipped to point the finger at compulsive behavior when this amounts to a partial indictment of those who are suffering. And as noted above, there are no easy answers. Prohibition is a distasteful or impossible solution, and whatever mild protections we build are likely to be eroded by the constant efforts of the profiteers. It is a true conundrum and I believe it will define our struggles for the foreseeable future.