Pur Autre Vie

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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Total War

Part of social media's effect on our lives is that the struggle is constant. Houellebecq called one of his books The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle. He was talking about how the collapse of monogamy means that we are now in lifelong sexual competition with each other, but the concept certainly applies to modern politics.

In both cases the result is exhausting. A major aspect of modern life is simply figuring out how much of it you can stand. Personally I'm pretty burned out, and I'm not even that politically active.

I don't really know what to say about it except that traditional political activism is probably a lot less psychologically wearying. Unfortunately it's demanding in other ways. I don't know. We've built a hell of a world for ourselves, it's a wonder anyone finds any joy in anything.


I might mention that my previous two posts maybe shed a little light on what philosophical pragmatists are getting at. (To be clear what follows is just an analogy.) Imagine two true facts about the world. One of them, if publicized, will tend to increase the public's perception of the frequency of police brutality, the other will tend to reduce it. Depending on the public's existing perceptions, one of these facts is going to make the public better-informed and the other will make the public worse-informed, and yet by traditional measures both facts are true.

This might motivate a search for a richer conception of truth, one that takes into account the actual effect of believing the statement in question. Of course you don't want to go overboard and start reporting falsehoods "in service of a higher truth" or anything like that, I am simply observing that assessing the truth of statements in terms of their effect on the accuracy of your understanding of the world is not the craziest idea that has ever occurred to someone.

(Again, this is really by way of analogy only, pragmatism is to my knowledge not about overall social awareness of things but rather operates on an individual level.)

More On Sensationalism

In my last post I discussed the use of vivid, often viral stories to change public opinion. The idea is that you have to break through people's apathy and expose them to realities in order to persuade them that those realities are common (and, typically, need to be addressed). To be concrete about this, if you have a video of a police officer harassing a young black man who has done nothing wrong, you promote it on social media and hope that people will increase their estimate of how common it is for the police to harass young black men.

Of course this is an arms race. Fox News wants people to believe that it is the blacks who are dangerous, while police officers are heroic. BLM types want roughly the opposite.

On some level this comes down to a gruesomely cynical exercise in which each ideological faction relentlessly promotes stories that advance its particular agenda. The net effect is hard to estimate, but it certainly puts people under a lot of stress as they process all the distressing stories promoted by whatever faction they belong to. It also probably polarizes people, or heightens the effects of polarization, because we all end up living in different factual worlds. (Also, people tend to be very gullible about within-faction claims, so for instance it was self-evident to Republicans in 2012 that BENGHAZI would destroy Obama's campaign if only the media would report on it.)

There's something really horrible about this modern reality! But of course it's been going on forever, it's just that the fight is being conducted in a different way now that we have social media. Conservatives have long had talk radio, and Fox News started in the mid-90s. So old white people have been eating this garbage for years. By contrast, leftists using it on large scale is a relatively recent phenomenon, as far as I can tell.

An important aspect of all of this is that the information spread this way often has very little value. What I mean by this is that someone practicing some informal version of Bayesian reasoning should attach very little weight to most of these stories. That's because in a world as big as ours, there will seldom be any scarcity of disturbing stories that promote a particular ideology. If you encountered these stories at random, they would inform you about the world. If you encounter stories that have been curated by an activist, you have learned practically nothing new about the world. (To give an example, if your sister tells you a particular brand of ice cream sucks, that's probably valuable information. But the existence of a single negative review for that brand of ice cream, among thousands, tells you very little, particularly if someone is only bringing that review to your attention because he hates the brand.)

This isn't always the case. If a woman reports a negative experience and a bunch of trustworthy women respond, "That's happened to me too!" you can increase your estimate of how often it happens.

What should a reasonable person do? I guess I think the right reaction is to be a skeptical consumer of this stuff, and to avoid it for the most part. Look for reliable information that is actually informative in a Bayesian sense.

But... I'm not going to deny that my views on race, gender, and sexual identity in this country have probably been moved more by random stories of questionable statistical value than they have by statistics. So I don't know.


I had an interesting back-and-forth with Alon Levy on Twitter... it's a long-ass thread but it starts here:

I largely agree with Levy about this. Where I disagree is whether people should unilaterally disarm in the face of this tactic, or use it themselves. But I'll come to that in a minute.

First I want to explain my view of what's going on here. People have two salient characteristics: they don't put much effort into learning about anything unless they are motivated to do so (another way to put this is that public attention for almost any issue is going to be suboptimal), and they don't really use statistics to understand the world, preferring to rely on personal observation (the "availability heuristic").

The consequence is that people are easy to mislead even if you don't lie to them. You simply have to slant the coverage in a way that induces them to believe things that aren't true. (In the degraded parlance of our times, people are easy to "hack.")

The extreme example of this is the racist website that Dylann Roof spent a lot of time reading. The game here was simply to compile every violent black-on-white crime in the news. I have no idea if the website ever broke the truth, but the point is it certainly didn't have to. In a country of 320 million people, there will be plenty of horrific examples of black people raping and killing white people. All you have to do is report them factually to give your reader the impression that white people are facing an existential threat.

Of course no reasonable person would spend time on a website like that. But less extreme examples are everywhere. This is the game that Fox News plays, for instance. It makes itself highly entertaining to certain people (overcoming their general apathy about learning things), and then it feeds them a steady diet of alarmist bullshit about minority groups, left-wing college students/professors, etc. This in turn convinces them that white people can't get a fair shake in this country, you should fear black people, and so on. It is extremely effective propaganda.

Now of course this is regrettable. But the problem is that you can't just snap your fingers and make people pay attention to important matters, or make them learn and apply statistics to their understanding of the world. I suppose formal education probably helps along these dimensions, but obviously not enough. So it can be effective to mimic the tactics used by Fox News. (Something like the Daily Show fits this model. It provides entertainment while alerting people to all of the ridiculousness going on in the world of conservatism.)

Anyway whatever you think of the Daily Show, there are certainly responsible ways to get people to pay attention to issues you care about. The question Levy was addressing was whether it is ever good to sensationalize relatively minor events to promote a narrative. The most common way this occurs on the left (in my experience at least) is through viral content on social media. One example that Levy cited was a white person calling the cops in response to innocuous behavior on the part of black kids or something like that. Lately these have been going viral, bringing a lot of stigma to the individuals calling the cops. When I brought up the example of sensationalizing incidents in which bicyclists are hit by cars, he agreed that those are an example of what he means.

My view is that this kind of thing has to be done judiciously, and ideally activists would confine themselves to cases where an individual won't be targeted or where something serious has happened. (The nature of viral social media posts is that the level of stigma is related to virality and not to the gravity of the underlying harm. If, like, 20 people shame a woman for calling the cops too readily, that might be okay. But for 200,000 to do so is probably overkill.)

But you can't just unilaterally disarm. You can say that ideally everyone would cite statistics rather than vivid examples, and would be equally (un)entertaining, so that people's information would be unbiased. But that's not the world we live in, and activists don't have the luxury of pretending it is. If you want safe streets for bicyclists, you have to break through people's natural apathy with vivid examples. And you (probably) aren't going to publicize cases where cyclists injure or kill pedestrians, because that's not the information you want the public to have heightened awareness of. (You might do it to encourage good behavior on the part of cyclists, acting as a kind of cop. It's just a question of what your priorities are.)

And the same goes for the overuse, misuse, and abuse of police power. Or everyday incidents of sexual harassment. Or bigotry. Or whatever. When these things go viral, it helps educate people and it increases their sense of how common they are. Of course that kind of thing can be bad (as when it leads people to believe black-on-white crime is much more prevalent than it is), but it can also be good (as when it gives people a more realistic sense of what it's like to be a woman or person of color in this country).

So in short, while there are definitely pathologies to this way of spreading ideas, I don't think it makes sense to shun the tactic. It simply has to be used responsibly.

Friday, June 29, 2018

National Identity

It occurs to me that every nation tries to define itself in terms of the things about itself that it is most proud of. I imagine Britain likes to think of itself as the country of Hume, Darwin, Newton, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Battle of Britain, stiff upper lip, and also things like religious tolerance, chicken tikka masala, the Kindertransport, as well as Freddie Mercury, Monty Python, and the English language as a whole, even when used by non-British people.

On a more prosaic level, Britain undoubtedly likes to think of itself in terms of its well-educated, well-behaved, witty residents, tolerant and sober (in manner at least), cosmopolitan even if they live in the countryside, and so forth. But this is a class thing. Not really class in an economic sense, but class in the sense that Britain does not want to think of itself as a nation of chavs and hooligans, bigots, or idiots.

Now I think Britain would also not like to conceive of itself as a nation of toffee-nosed snobs, the sort of Oxbridge pieces of shit who get their degrees in like PPE or something. So it cuts both ways in terms of class. But predominantly I would imagine it is lower class behavior that Britain would rather not be known for.

Similarly when you think of Italians, or Germans, or Australians, there are various stereotypes that are probably not how those nations would care to think of themselves (it's complicated in the case of Australia because I get the sense they've somewhat embraced a certain kind of Australianness that you might not have expected them to, but it makes sense when you think about it).

Anyway I wonder, idly, whether Trump voters sense that they are the people the U.S. doesn't want to be known for, and they resent it, and they basically thrust themselves onto center stage, send Ted Nugent to the White House as an emissary of their shitty culture, and generally wreck the world for the sake of their bruised egos.

[updated to fix a typo]


I'm trying to work out in what sense Canadians might be subjects of Queen Elizabeth II. Edit: Fuck it, who cares.


It's just a nice life, a gentle life, up there in Ontario. Certain patterns of life are viable, certain assumptions about other people are borne out, it's an Alice Munro kind of place. People's minds are mostly free of turmoil, the libraries are good, if there is any crime the Royal Canadian Mounted Police can handle it. Life can still end in disappointment, of course, and in illness and infirmity, you will surely lose everything that you hold dear, but in the meantime there is some chance at happiness and dignity for a brief time.

Updated to add: I guess a good way to put it is that it's a good life if you don't weaken.

A Special Treat

When you unpack your suitcase, you find something that you splurged on for the trip, and you excitedly show it to your assembled family and friends: a bag or two of high-end east African coffee beans, lightly roasted, which you will prepare each morning in batches as people drift into the kitchen in ones and twos, rubbing sleep from their eyes, and maybe some steel-cut oats with dried fruit for breakfast. The coffee will be one of the best parts of each day, as it is every day.


Maybe it's the wholesomeness of the Canadians vacationing up in the Great Lakes. It's the kind of thing you do with your family, if there's any hanky panky it's with your wife, if there's any drug use it's responsible and under control. Not for the Canadians any very late nights, any loud dance music, any socialites, any cocaine, any DUIs or racism or ugly scenes of confrontation. Do you consume a little too much wine and a little too much maple syrup? Maybe. But your vacation is safe and dignified and ever so slightly boring, and this is its virtue.

Summer Vacation

I suppose New Yorkers can go to the Hamptons or Montauk or whatever, and Bostonians can go to the Cape or to Maine. I don't know why, but those don't seem quite as evocative to me as a proper Canadian Great Lakes type summer vacation. Maybe it's because I imagine the Great Lakes to be less expensive, less crowded, less fancy, less exclusive. Whereas going to the Hamptons is a thing, and renting a house in the Hamptons is especially a thing, going to the Great Lakes is something you do for its own sake. Or maybe I attribute a certain virtue to the Canadian way of life that I don't see in the United States, rightly or wrongly.

What Could Have Been

I sometimes imagine myself as a kind of quasi-affluent Toronto 50-something, bald and running to fat, living a kind of soft hedonistic liberal life, kind of a chaste Stiva Oblonsky. A typical southern Ontario attorney (or solicitor or whatever they call them), voting Liberal, trying to encourage my children to be intellectual, trying to protect them from being bullied, but ultimately helpless to steer them into a better life than I've had.

The Good Life

I bet all those upper middle class to upper class Toronto people who go out to summer houses on islands in the Great Lakes have a really good time up there. I bet there's something almost magical about those long days spent swimming, boating, grilling some food, then at night maybe relaxing with some wine, some cards, stories, jokes, then reading a good book, then waking up early to walk solitary on the beach and maybe watch the birds, watch the sun rise.

How the Sausage Is Made

(The reason for my last post is that libertarian ideas are often dismissed as business-friendly, but intelligent libertarians actually espouse policies that would often be very bad for incumbent businesses. The tricky thing is that when a politician wants to do favors for incumbent businesses, he will often invoke libertarian rhetoric. It would be nice to have a coherent, narrow version of libertarianism that could not be misused in this way. Sadly I don't think it can be done.)

Libertarians and Populists

Just a quick thought. This is admittedly almost entirely terminological in the end, but I think terminology matters.

I think it's pretty well understood that populism is a rhetorical style and not an ideological stance. On the other hand libertarianism, for all its faults, at least aspires to policy substance.

But in practice, libertarianism tends toward mere rhetoric because it is too ill-defined to resist being misused. By way of example, if you want to deregulate the financial system, it's easy to use libertarian rhetoric to advance your goals, and a "true libertarian" might argue with you but generally won't be able to deny you the libertarian label. (The same goes for populism, and that's exactly my point. In practice libertarianism, like populism, functions as a kind of rhetorical tactic rather than a substantive agenda.)

This is too bad because within the thing that we call libertarianism is a respectable policy agenda that deserves to be taken seriously. It's just saddled with (A) a bunch of ridiculous bullshit, and (B) a bunch of opportunists who selectively invoke libertarian principles to advance their hard-right agenda. (Oh, and (C) a bunch of Ron Paul racist assholes. As a demographic, self-identified libertarians are scary as hell.)

As a side note, I think you could make the case that the reasonable parts of libertarianism should really be called liberalism, and to the extent libertarians seek to distinguish themselves from liberals they tend to veer into ridiculous territory. And that's fine, I don't really care about the lines at this point. I would just like to see the Julian Sanchez's of the world shake off the opportunists and racists and formulate a policy vision that can't be dismissed by association. To some extent this has already happened, as a lot of the smartest and most eloquent libertarians have essentially shifted into the nebulous liberal/Democratic/anti-Trump camp. (Meanwhile a lot of the Ron Paul types have given up any pretense of libertarianism and are full-on white nationalist.) But anyway the term "libertarian" continues to be too broad and poorly defined as a way to describe this ideology, and I wonder what might usefully replace it. Maybe "libertarian Democrats"?

(And yes I'm well aware of the abortive attempt to launch a "liberaltarian" movement about a decade ago. I guess in retrospect I have more admiration for the project than I did at the time.)

Thursday, June 28, 2018


I'm reading Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin's account of the financial crisis. It's good so far, but it stuns me that Sorkin of all people doesn't understand how securitization works. I want my readers to understand, so I will teach you.

It's actually not very complicated in broad strokes. I'll describe how a securitization might work and then I'll explain why it can be a useful thing to do.

I start by buying a bunch of mortgage loans. (This is a very pre-crisis example. Today there is essentially no market for private-label (that is, not Fannie or Freddie) residential mortgage-backed securities. But since residential mortgage-backed securities, RMBS, basically destroyed the world, I might as well use them for my example.)

So anyway I've got these mortgage loans, which I've purchased using financing from a "warehouse lender" (don't worry about it). I put the loans in a special-purpose vehicle (a legal entity that has no other purpose beyond its use in the securitization), which I own. The SPV issues notes (bonds) to investors, and I use the proceeds to pay off my warehouse lender.

Now we've got a bunch of notes owned by investors. The principal and interest on those notes will be paid with money coming from the mortgages. Money in, money out. Already the investors have gained an advantage from the securitization: the pool of mortgages is diversified, so a single default isn't going to be ruinous. By contrast, if an investor buys a whole mortgage loan, he loses a lot of money if that particular homeowner defaults. Much better to own 1/30th of 30 mortgage loans.

But that's not the real magic. The real magic is that the notes are "tranched." What this means is that they are divided into different classes ("tranches"), and each class has a different level of priority. In other words, if there isn't enough income from the mortgages to pay the principal and interest on all the notes, they don't suffer equally. The lowest tranche gets hit first (it is in the "first loss position"), and then the next tranche, and so forth. (The analogy people use is a waterfall—as water (cash) flows in, it fills one tank (the highest tranche) completely before it spills down to the next tank, then the next, then the next. In practice this is not exactly how it works, since even the lowest tranches need to get paid principal and interest until the losses wipe them out, but it's a pretty good metaphor.) There is a fair amount of loss-absorbing capacity before you get to the highest tranche. The highest tranche, then, can be much safer than the underlying assets as a whole—it can even be safer than the safest of the underlying mortgages. In fact these notes were designed so that the top tranche would get a very high rating from the rating agencies.

An important point here is that while everyone likes to say that mortgages were "sliced and diced" in the process of securitization, this is a highly misleading metaphor. In fact the mortgages were pooled together and the resulting flow of cash was divided without regard to which mortgages generated it. It's not as though the top tranches were backed by the best mortgages in the pool, while the shitty tranches were backed by subprime garbage. They were all backed by all the mortgages, it's just that the high tranches got paid first. If by some weird circumstance the subprime mortgages happened to be the ones that didn't go into default, the top tranche would still have gotten paid first. The mortgages weren't divided (as "sliced and diced" implies), they were pooled.

Of course there's no free lunch—the safety of the highest tranche comes at the expense of increased risk in the lower tranches. But the point is that you can engineer the risks to meet investor demand. If investors really want AAA-rated bonds, you can generate them, whereas no mortgage would ever be AAA-rated. And that was basically the game. You could generate AAA bonds from mortgages of almost any quality. So for instance, infamously, subprime mortgages were put into securitizations that issued AAA securities.

I want to emphasize that this could have worked. With enough loss absorption built into the structure, you could absolutely support AAA bonds with subprime mortgages. (In the extreme case, imagine a senior tranche so small that it will pay out so long as there is a single performing mortgage in a pool of hundreds.) But of course the loss absorption generally proved to be insufficient, the bonds had to be downgraded, and so here we are.

The problem was twofold: mortgages were shittier than most people anticipated, and their shittiness was more highly correlated than most people anticipated. Think about it this way—if mortgage performance is perfectly correlated, then the securitization has accomplished nothing, because all of the mortgage loans will fail simultaneously and all of the tranches will be wiped out. You might as well not go to the trouble and expense of tranching. Of course in reality mortgage loans weren't that correlated, but their performance was much more correlated than you might have expected based on historical data. (So for instance, historically mortgage performance in Houston (a function of oil prices) would have been mostly uncorrelated with mortgage performance in Los Angeles (a function of... whatever). But this time the housing bubble was national and so was the crash.)

Anyway, now you know more about securitization than Andrew Ross Sorkin does.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Don't Fade On Me

I've said it before and I'll say it again—there is something perfect about "Don't Fade On Me." In some ways I think Jason Molina is singing to himself in the song. He died at the age of 39 of organ failure due to alcoholism.

Monday, June 04, 2018


As a boy I attended the First United Methodist Church in Little Rock. Of course no church in the United States is old by European standards, and FUMC isn't even very old by American standards, but it was one of Little Rock's earliest churches and it represented, at least aspirationally, a kind of upper class gentility that I haven't found at any other church. (The closest, in my experience, was an Anglican church in Washington, D.C.)

It's hard to overstate how refined and proper it felt. I remember in Sunday school a visiting speaker once made a joke about how a typical church member might wear a black suit every Sunday. A lawyer in the class gestured to the gray suit he was wearing and said, "Well, it's summertime, I figured I could go casual."

It came as a shock one day when a middle-aged man, toward the end of services, stood up and announced that he was visiting from Texas and was X number of days sober. He didn't interrupt a prayer or anything, but this kind of announcement from the congregation simply wasn't done. If you had something to communicate to the church, you would quietly tell the preacher and he or she would make an appropriate announcement.

The man was missing several teeth and his hair was thin and long, though carefully combed. He gave the appearance of someone who had cleaned up specifically for church, but who on an ordinary day would look unkempt.

Anyway once he had said his piece, the congregation burst into a loud, sustained round of applause, a sound that probably hadn't been heard in that building for years. I think this is an illuminating example of grace.