Corona and Nassim Taleb: The Tragedy of a Genius in a World of Imbeciles

I don’t pay much attention to Nassim Taleb. I doubt that it’s worth paying attention to anyone who claims that, after carefully pondering the matter, he’s concluded that Claire Lehmann of Quillette is a “neo-Nazi.” He’s also concluded that he’s a genius, and anyone who disagrees with him is an imbecile. Just ask him. Recently, however, he’s become the guru of the most extreme proponents of government lockdowns in response to virus pandemics. Let’s consider what they’re so excited about.

A good summary appears in a gushing article by Yves Smith at the “naked capitalism” website, entitled, “Taleb: The Only Man Who Has A Clue.” Smith does not inform us on what basis he feels himself qualified to dismiss every highly trained virologist and epidemiologist on the planet as “clueless.” Be that as it may, he cites Taleb’s “Systemic Risk Of Pandemic Via Novel Pathogens – Coronavirus: A note,” which summarizes his point of view under the headings, “General Precautionary Principle,” “Spreading Rate,” “Asymmetric Uncertainty,” and “Conclusion.” Let’s consider what he has to say under the first of these:

General Precautionary Principle : The general (non-naive) precautionary principle [3] delineates conditions where actions must be taken to reduce risk of ruin, and traditional cost-benefit analyses must not be used. These are ruin problems where, over time, exposure to tail events leads to a certain eventual extinction. While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events. While repeated risks can be taken by individuals with a limited life expectancy, ruin exposures must never be taken at the systemic and collective level. In technical terms, the precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.

Extinction? Zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events? Seriously?? There are millions of species on the planet. They all bear genetic material that has been around, in one form or another, for upwards of two billion years. Presumably, unless Taleb is claiming virus pandemics are unique to human beings, many of them have survived repeated exposures to such events. If life on our planet is not capable of surviving repeated exposures to pathogens without implementing Taleb’s nostrums, how is it that any life survives at all? It should all be gone, with the viruses turning out the lights on their way out. In what even remotely rational sense are we “risking ruin” with the coronavirus? We have lived with all kinds of much deadlier diseases throughout most of our history. Many of them have been persistent, and many others have passed over us repeatedly, and yet none of them, not even the Black Death, has managed to “ruin” us. Indeed, if you ask some of the legions of anti-natalists and radical environmentalists out there, this sort of “ruin” is just what the doctor ordered. After all, the global population has grown to the point where we are at least rocking the boat a bit lately.

This begs the question of where you draw the line when it comes to “ruination.” Apparently, we are not sufficiently “ruined” by the yearly visitations of flu. When is a new pathogen serious enough to take the proposed drastic steps? Assuming we do magically find a way to identify this “ruination” line in the sand, is it really probable that our only choices are obeying Taleb or going extinct? I rather suspect that our species, in spite of all the idiots and imbeciles that Taleb has identified among us, is intelligent enough to come up with measures a great deal more effective than lockdowns and wearing masks, if it ever really comes to our staring extinction in the face.

As far as “ruin exposures” go, there are many who believe that the risk at the “collective level” is much greater from shutting down systems as complex as modern economies than it is from COVID-19. No doubt Taleb, who considers himself a genius in economics as well as epidemiology would dismiss this concern with a wave of the hand. I’m not so sure. I rather doubt he’s the only man in the universe who has a clue. He informs us that this “precautionary principle applies when traditional statistical averages are invalid because risks are not ergodic.” This is a bit of jargon apparently intended to impress the rubes. I doubt that many of his worshipful fanboys have a clue what “ergodic” even means, and the term is best left in the realm of statistical mechanics in any case.

Speaking of rubes, have a look at the comments by Taleb’s followers on a Twitter thread in which Dr. Phil has the misfortune of being officially added to his list of “imbeciles.” These guys all consider themselves only a peg below Taleb among the ranks of the world’s greatest living geniuses. They must all walk around with permanent scowls on their faces from the stress of living among the rest of us idiots and imbeciles. They all imagine that they’re uttering great profundities as they squawk out variations on his latest tweets like so many parrots. In this case, Dr. Phil was being interviewed by Laura Ingraham, rightly pointing out that we accept significant risks of death from driving, smoking, swimming, etc., without feeling any need to do something as extreme as locking down the economy. Taleb tweeted the interview with the snarky comment, “Drowning in swimming pools is extremely contagious and multiplicative.” All of his acolytes thought this was most profound, but in fact it is a matter of complete indifference. Dr. Phil was making a point about acceptance of the risk of death. The fact that COVID-19 happens to be contagious just adds another number to factor in when quantifying risk. Overall risks can be calculated and compared regardless of whether one of them derives from a contagious disease or not.

I started to have my doubts about Taleb when I started wading through the grab bag of banalities in his third book, “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms.” Anyone whose tastes run to that sort of thing would be well advised to forget Taleb and buy a copy of Rochefoucauld’s maxims instead. They’re both more intelligent and more entertaining. One of them happens to be most appropriate in this case: “Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.” In Taleb’s opinion, Claire Lehmann is a neo-Nazi, Bjorn Lomborg is a right-wing, sociopathic quack, and Dr. Phil is an imbecile. He’s entitled to his opinion. I’m entitled to mine too. In my opinion, he’s an over-inflated windbag.

Oswald Spengler got it Wrong

Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines.  There are page limits, so they have to get to the point.  It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage.  Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler.  His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918.  Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean.  He should have quit while he was ahead.

Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak.  The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli.  Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels.  Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!”  It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself.  It was also wrong.

According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse.  Man had dared to “revolt against nature.”  Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man.  At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:

A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation.  Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength.  But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal.  The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…

Spengler went on to explain that,

Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.

No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia.  Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history.  Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book.  It was a rash assumption.  Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology.  He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all.  For example,

The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose.  In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot.  In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out.  Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.

Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book.  At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields.  He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives.  However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”

It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially.  Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power.  It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time.  For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then.  No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.

Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later.  Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.”  As he put it,

Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition.  the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.

In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races.  They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West.  Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:

For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose.  This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon.  The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close.  It will be eaten up from within.  When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.

Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”  (Matthew 24:36).  However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that.  Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time.  Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7).  In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:

The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War.  This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries.  It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.

Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well.  Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:

This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work.  The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost.  Their numbers are their death.

Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:

Only dreamers believe that there is a way out.  Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him.  That is greatness.  That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.  The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.

One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world.  And who can blame them?  After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova.  When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”

The Derb on Japan’s “Demographic Catastrophe”

John Derbyshire’s reaction to the BBC documentary, “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese,” about Japan’s “demographic catastrophe” is probably somewhat different from what the producers had in mind.  In short, he considers it a feature, not a bug.  In fact, he thinks “The 21st Century Might Belong to Japan” because they are biting the demographic bullet now.

The documentary follows reporter Anita Rani, a Briton of Indian descent, as she leads us through a series of nightmares in the demographic basket case that is modern Japan.  There is Yubari, a coal-mining town in the north, that once teamed with children, but whose maternity ward has been converted to a dusty storeroom.  There are a pair of late-30’s geeks whose main love interests, schoolgirls aged 15 and 17, reside in the virtual world of a Nintendo box.  There is a prison that is rapidly becoming a geriatric ward.  And finally we cut to the chase.  In a conversation with American-born economist Kathy Matsui, Rani observes sagely, ““Immigration.  Surely that’s the solution that’s staring them in the face.”  Matsui agrees, noting the extreme indebtedness of Japan, its stagnant economy, the increasingly unbearable cost of caring for a rapidly aging population without a steady supply of young taxpayers to milk, etc., etc.  However, she notes, “There is an order of steps that need to occur” for mass immigration to become acceptable in a traditional society like Japan.  Right, just like the order of steps that take you to the top of a gallows.

According to Derbyshire, “Mass immigration at best postpones the day of reckoning for a few years,” and by biting the bullet now, Japan may, “…speed off ahead of us into some new socio-economic order suited to low population levels and better age ratios, as we struggle with the transition they have already mastered.”  Regardless of how she masters her economic problems, Japan is fortunate indeed to have a “traditional” society that discourages immigration.  As Jayman put it in a recent tweet, “we should be so lucky” as to have a similar problem.  I can but hope that Japan never becomes so suicidal as to take the “order of steps” to mass immigration.

The peddlers of the “demographic catastrophe” scare stories would have us believe that there can be nothing worse than stagnant or declining economies.  Actually, there is something worse; failure to survive.  You don’t have to go back too many years to come to a time when this was actually a serious concern for Japan.  Just read some of the books and magazines about her published in the 30’s when her population was half what it is today.  However, with the agricultural technology available at the time, it appeared that there was no way she could continue to feed her population if it grew much beyond that.  We now know how she attempted to solve the problem, and the results of that attempt.  Now we are supposed to be shaking in our boots if her population returns to that level at the turn of the next century.

Apparently we are to believe that such unfortunate byproducts of continuous population growth are all behind us now.  Search the Internet and you can find articles claiming that the planet can easily accommodate 10, 50, or even 100 billion people.  As a wag on the nightly news once put it, “maybe so, but who wants to eat standing up?”  What’s amazing is that this stuff is being eagerly swallowed on both the right and the left.  The Beeb, of course, is reliably leftist, like most of the rest of the western European media, and unlimited immigration is one of the boards that makes up the ideological box that the left lives in these days.  It’s as if the denizens of that box are a bunch of lemmings who can’t wait to commit demographic suicide, or serve as promoters for the next wave of civil wars.

Consider, for example, the case of Switzerland, whose voters recently decided to apply some reasonable limits to immigration from the rest of the EU.  The German papers and news websites, which I happen to follow, became positively hysterical.  I haven’t seen much to compare with it since the most recent eruption of anti-American hate in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  Among other things, the evil Swiss were supposed to be hicks from the back woods, consumed by greed.  Their vibrant economy was built with the wealth accumulated by the Nazis and assorted other dictators, etc.  It was a classic example of the response of an ingroup to perceived attack by an outgroup.

Oddly enough, the right is playing a similar tune.  Anyone who thinks the planet might be better off with a smaller population must be “anti-Life.”  I have personally heard a retired Army 4-star general defend unlimited immigration, supposedly because it’s necessary to support a strong economy and, with it, a powerful military.  I’m of a different opinion.  I’d rather not rock the boat.

Global warming may or may not be a reality.  We may or may not run out of clean water.  We may or may not be able to produce enough food to feed the planet’s increasing population.  We may or may not run out of affordable energy in the next few hundred years.  It seems to me the pertinent question is, “Why take chances?”

Does that mean that the readers of this little blog should refrain from having as many children as possible?  Of course not!  Heaven forefend, gentle readers, that any of you should ever become defective biological units.  However, Mother Nature, in her wisdom, enabled us to perceive the world in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different rules and versions of morality applying to each.  To paraphrase General Patton, the idea isn’t to commit genetic suicide yourself.  The idea is to get the other poor, dumb bastard to commit genetic suicide.  The result will be a world with a manageable population where you will be able to pursue your own version of “human flourishing” in peace.  As for Japan, I don’t doubt that she is still producing men (and women) whose love interests don’t reside in Nintendo boxes.  In time, their children, and their children’s children, will inherit the islands.  When they do, the population demographics will likely take a turn for the better.

Of course, I’m supplying you with a “should” here, and as my readers know, I don’t admit the existence of objective “shoulds.”  Take it with a grain of salt, if you like.  It certainly won’t bother me.  I’ve made my reasons for preferring genetic survival to a life in which I make a “meaningful contribution” to the rest of mankind, and then croak, clear enough in earlier posts.  My point is, if you happen to share this whim, this preference for survival with me, don’t be concerned the next time you see some feminist harridan railing about the evils of having children.  Why on earth would you ever attempt to persuade her she’s wrong?  The best response is to smile, get a room, and get busy.

UPDATE:  More on the Derb’s article over at Occam’s Razor


Platinum and Silver and Gold, Oh My!

As Herman Melville might have put it, the precious metals are spouting black blood and floating fin up.  No doubt the astute readers of this blog are all short gold on the commodity exchanges, but I shudder to think of the gloom among the goldbugs today.

Gold spot close last Monday:  $1574

Gold spot close today:  $1335

The reason given for today’s drop of over $140 an ounce was “weakness in the Chinese markets.”  Lame.  The guys who come up with that stuff are just one step above editorial writers.

More on “Where have all the Babies Gone?”

Apropos the baby bust discussed in my last post, an interesting article on the subject by Joel Kotkin and Harry Siegel recently turned up at The Daily Beast via Newsweek entitled, “Where have all the Babies Gone?”  According to the authors, “More and more Americans are childless by choice.  But what makes sense for the individual may spell disaster for the country as a whole.”  Their forebodings of doom are based on a subset of the reasons cited in Jonathan Last’s “What to Expect when No One’s Expecting,” and are the same as those that usually turn up in similar articles.  The lack of babies, “….is likely to propel us into a spiral of soaring entitlement costs and diminished economic vigor, and create a culture marked by hyperindividualism and dependence on the state as the family unit erodes.”  As I pointed out in my earlier post on the subject, if all these things really will result absent a constantly increasing population, they are not avoidable outcomes, for the simple reason that, at some point, the population of the planet must stop growing.  The only question is, how many people will be around to experience those outcomes when they happen, and what fraction of the planet’s depleted resources will still be around at the time to deal with the situation.  Many of the commenters on the article do an excellent job of pointing that out.  For example, from Si 1979,

At some point the population has to stop growing, space on the earth is finite.  As such there is going to come a generation that needs to ‘take the hit’ and the earlier that hit is taken the easier it will be.  The larger the population gets the worse an ageing population each generation will experience.  We can take the hit now or leave future generations a much worse problem to deal with.

To deal with the “problem,” the authors propose some of the usual “solutions”;

These include such things as reforming the tax code to encourage marriage and children; allowing continued single-family home construction on the urban periphery and renovation of more child-friendly and moderate-density urban neighborhoods; creating extended-leave policies that encourage fathers to take more time with family, as has been modestly successfully in Scandinavia; and other actions to make having children as economically viable, and pleasant, as possible. Men, in particular, will also have to embrace a greater role in sharing child-related chores with women who, increasingly, have careers and interests of their own.

As a father of children who has strongly encouraged his own children to have children as well, I am fully in favor of all such measures, as long as they remain ineffective.

The baby promoters have remarkably short historical memories.  Are they unaware of the other side of this coin?  One need go no further back than the 20th century.  What spawned Hitler’s grandiose dreams of “Lebensraum in the east” for Germany, at the expense of Russia?  Hint:  It wasn’t a declining German population.  Why did the Japanese come up with the “Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” idea and start invading their neighbors?  It happened at a time when her population was expanding at a rapid pace, and was, by the way, only about half of what it is now.  In spite of that, in the days before miracle strains of rice and other grains, it seemed impossible that she would be able to continue to feed her population.  Have we really put such fears of famine behind us for all times?  Such a claim must be based on the reckless assumption that the planet will never again suffer any serious disruptions in food production.  These are hardly isolated examples.  A book by Henry Cox entitled The Problem of Population, which appeared in 1923 and is still available on Amazon, cites numerous other examples.

Needless to say, I don’t share the fears of the Kotkins and Siegels of the world.  My fear is that we will take foolhardy risks with the health of our planet by spawning unsustainably large populations in the name of maintaining entitlements which mankind has somehow incomprehensibly managed to live without for tens of thousands of years.  In truth, we live in wonderful times.  I and those genetically close to me can procreate without limit on a planet where the population may soon begin to decline to within sustainable limits because increasing numbers of people have decided not to have children.  It’s a win-win.  I’m happy with their choice, and presumably, they’re happy with mine, assuming they want to have some remnant of a working population available to exploit (or at least try to) once they’ve retired.  My only hope is that people like Kotkin and Siegel don’t succeed in rocking the boat.

Of Rights and the Radicalism of Benjamin Franklin

As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,

The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so.  I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted.  They seem to mistake the point.  Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme.  That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine.  The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards.  As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small.  A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states.  We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778.  An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights.  He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family.  I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists.  This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.

In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals.  As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified.  There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains.  There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves.  It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream.  Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits.  Such claims assume the independent existence of rights.  However, they have no such existence.  The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood.  It is impossible for them to be self-evident.  To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.

When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good.  In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable.  The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it.  One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself.  The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.

I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.”  I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.

Great Shades of the Blank Slate; Evolutionary Biology Flirts with Ideology

I must admit that I felt a certain malicious glee on reading E. O. Wilson’s defense of group selection in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  After all, Richard Dawkins dismissed the life work of men like Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt in his The Selfish Gene because, in his words, they were “totally and utterly wrong” in defending group selection.  I happen to admire all three of them because they were the most influential and effective defenders of the existence of such a thing as human nature during the heyday of the Blank Slate.  It was good to see Dawkins hoisted on his own petard.  However, my glee has been dampened somewhat of late by what I see as an increasing tendency of some evolutionary biologists, and particularly those who have come out most strongly in favor of group selection, to adulterate their science with a strong dose of ideology.  Apparently, they have learned little from the aberration of the Blank Slate, or at least not enough to avoid repeating it.

Consider, for example a paper that recently turned up on the website of the Social Evolution Forum with the somewhat incongruous title, “Joseph Stiglitz. The Price of Inequality. Cultural Evolution. The Evolution Institute,” by Peter Turchin, professor at the University of Connecticut in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics.  A good part of it was a review of The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz, which, Turchin informs us, he was about two-thirds of his way through.  He notes that “Stiglitz is sympathetic to Leftist ideas.  Actually, he is way out on the Left end of the political spectrum.”  This doesn’t seem to raise any red flags at all, as far as Turchin is concerned.  One wonders, “How can this be?”  Haven’t we just been through all this?  Were not the Blank Slaters who derailed the behavioral sciences for several decades also “way out on the Left end of the political spectrum?”  Did they not villify anyone who disagreed with their puerile notions about human nature as arch-conservatives, John Birchers, and fascists?  Did they not have powerful motives for making the “scientific facts” come out right so that they didn’t stand in the way of the drastic political and social changes they planned for us “for our own good?”  There is no reason that anyone on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum can’t do good science, but it goes without saying that, when one has strong ideological motivations for having the answers come out one way or the other, that bias must be taken into account and carefully controlled for.  That is particularly true when the answers always just happen to agree nicely with one’s ideological preconceptions.

None of this seems to occur to Turchin, who points out that Stiglitz “inveighs against the ‘Right’ on numerous occasions throughout the book.”  Apparently, we are to believe this is somehow remarkable and heroic, for he continues, “This is unusual for an economist, especially such an accomplished one who is (or, at least, has been) part of the ruling elite. Most economists know very well which side of their bread is buttered. It is curious how economic theories that yield answers pleasing to the powerful and wealthy tend to be part of the mainstream, while those yielding uncomfortable answers are relegated to the fringe…”  To this one can only say, “Surely you’re joking, Professor Turchin!”  Did not Paul Krugman, hardly noted as a conservative wingnut, just win the Nobel Prize in economics?  Has there been a sudden revelation that the economics professors at our great universities have issued a pronunciamiento in favor of the Republican ticket, with the exception of an insignificant “fringe.”  Where is the hard data demonstrating that “most economists” favor the rich elites?  Have all the leading economics journals suddenly gone hard over in favor of supply side economics while I wasn’t looking?

Citing a theme of bête noire of the left Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Turchin continues,

It is interesting to note that when the wealthy ‘defect,’ they actually not only make the overall situation worse, but it is actually a suboptimal outcome for them, too.  At least that is the message of The Spirit Level:  Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Among other things, Wilkinson and Pickett make a striking observation that the expectation of life among the wealthier segment of Americans is less than the median for many European societies that are much more egalitarian – and spend much less per capita on health.

“Much more egalitarian”?  Evidently the authors never lived in Europe.  I lived in Germany, and if they think that the society there is much more “egalitarian” than the United States just because the top 1% take home a smaller percentage of the national income, they’re dreaming.  The country is far more stratified according to social rank and power than the US, and the same families tend to control positions of power in government and industry year after year.  The presence of minorities in positions of political and economic influence is virtually imperceptible.  Think the situation is different in France, another nation that beats the US in terms of income equality?  Just ask any black in Paris whether they think their chances would be better there than here.  Other than that, where is the data on countries where the rich “defect”?  Has such a thing ever actually happened in the sense described in Rand’s novel?  What evidence is there that the health of the top earners in the US, whether better or worse than their European peers, has anything to do with “egalitarianism”?

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with evolutionary biology?  According to Turchin, one of Stiglitz major “shortcomings” is that he “is apparently unaware of the great progress that cultural evolution and cultural multilevel selection theory made in the last decade or so.”  One wonders what, exactly, he is referring to when he speaks of “cultural” multilevel selection theory.  One of the authors he cites in support of this contention, David Sloan Wilson, is certainly well known for his work on multilevel selection.  However, his most cited work is on genetic, and not cultural evolution.  Regardless, Turchin’s point is that science is to be used as a tool to support preconceived ideological truisms.  That tendency to assume that “science” would always get the “right answer” contributed heavily to the debacle of the blank slate.

Turchin continues:

I had a similar experience in the conference the Evolution Institute organized last December in Stanford on Nation-Building and Failed States. One of the participants was Francis Fukuyama, who had recently published a book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he was clearly interested in engaging with evolutionary thinking. Yet he had to resort to appeals to the two tired (and badly wrong) models of human sociality – reciprocal altruism and kin selection.

Here we’ve come back to the point I made at the beginning of this article; the recent marked tendency of group selectionists to adulterate their science with ideology.  As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not particularly fond of Dawkins, Pinker, and some of the other major advocates of reciprocal altruism and kin selection.  However, when Turchin claims that they are “tired and badly wrong” he is just blowing smoke.  The jury is still out, and he has no basis on which to make such a judgment.  On what knowledge does he base this assurance that these theories are “badly wrong”?  Nowak’s “complex mathematical models”?  I was a computational physicist for much of my career, and while Nowak’s models are interesting, the idea that they account for all of the relevant data so thoroughly that they can serve as a basis for the conclusion that inclusive fitness theory is “badly wrong” is laughable.

Turchin is hardly the only one publishing such stuff.  I’ve read several others authors recently who argue in favor of group selection without giving any indication that they have even an inkling of the complexity of the subject, and who rain down furious anathemas on the supposedly “debunked” proponents of inclusive fitness, associating them with evil ideological and political tendencies in the process.  Their tone is typically one of outraged virtue rather than scientific detachment.  Do we really need to go through all this again?  Perhaps instead of declaiming about the philosophy of Kropotkin and crying up the moral superiority of their version of “equality,” advocates of group selection would do well to make sure they have the science right first.

Ben Franklin Channels Karl Marx

Before implementing radical social theories as the Communists tried to do in Russia in 1917, its always a good idea to try them out on a modest scale that doesn’t involve murdering anyone.  That goes double if the radical social theory in question has a strong appeal to those whose tastes run to saving the world.  The speed at which human reason runs off the track varies in direct proportion to the complexity of a hypothesis and the lack of repeatable experiments to confirm it.  Unfalsifiable hypotheses are born off the track.  Data in support of the above may be found in a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Morris in 1783, when he was serving as our Minister Plenipotentiary in France.  Referring to some resolutions against taxation adopted in town meetings he wrote,

Money justly due from the people, is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Of course, in the meantime we’ve carried out numerous repeatable experiments that seem to demonstrate quite conclusively that government policies intended to implement such ideas are undesirable because they don’t work.  In the end, they don’t serve the “welfare of the public” because they fail to take the behavioral idiosyncracies of our species into account.  Does that mean that Franklin was stupid?  Far from it.  As his experiments with electricity demonstrate, he had the mind of a true scientist.  The comments in his autobiography about influencing others to accept new ideas might have been lifted from a 21st century textbook on moral psychology.  More importantly, his combination of brilliance and common sense were an invaluable guide and support to our Republic in its infancy.

The point is that even the most brilliant human beings can easily delude themselves into believing things that are not true, and even things that in the light of later experience seem palpably silly.  We are not nearly as smart as we think we are.  The next time some wildly popular messianic scheme for saving the world inflicts itself on mankind, it’s “enlightened” proponents would do well to keep that in mind.

As for old Ben, the quote above was more the product of exasperation than sober thought.  Robert Morris was the great financier of our Revolution.  Read the fine biography of him by Charles Rappleye, and you’re bound to wonder how we ever beat the British.  Morris used all of his great intelligence, experience, and personal credit to somehow keep Washington’s army fed and clothed, in spite of the fact that the states whose independence he was fighting to win refused to be taxed.  His reward for all his tireless work was to be viciously vilified by pathologically pious super-revolutionaries like Arthur Lee and his brothers, men who deemed themselves great defenders of liberty, but who actually provided more “aid and comfort” to the British than Benedict Arnold ever dreamed of.  Franklin was well aware of their mendacious attacks on Morris, and their bitter resistance to any attempt to create an effective national government capable of collecting the taxes necessary to support the war effort at a time when the paper money we had relied on in the early years of the Revolution had become nearly worthless.  Their type should be familiar, as there are still ample examples among us today.  The fact that they provoked such a cri de Couer from Franklin should come as no surprise.


Of Ancient Helots and Student Loan Scams: VDH Nails It

Victor Davis Hanson’s specialty is ancient history, and he’s quick to notice parallels with modern times.  In an essay entitled “The New American Helots,” he suggests that the student loan scam has reduced many young Americans to the status of the Greek Helots of old, who were held in a state of semi-slavery by the Spartans so they could concentrate on warfare.  As he puts it,

Over the last few decades, we’ve created our modern version of these Helots — millions of indebted young Americans with little prospect of finding permanent well-paying work, servicing their enormous college debts, or reaping commensurate financial returns on their costly educations.

Annual tuition keeps rising, as it has over the last 50 years, usually at close to twice the rate of inflation. It must, if colleges are to pay for a vast new administrative class that is excused from teaching to monitor sensitivity and diversity, raise money, and comply with ever more race/class/gender federal mandates.

In addition, students support a new grandee class of professors who teach lighter loads, enjoy better benefits, retire earlier — and now offer instruction in a vast array of courses and disciplines that simply were never part of the traditional curriculum.

I couldn’t agree more.  Student loans are one of the cruder forms of exploitation in American society.  Their easy availability seduces many young people into assuming massive debt to finance educations that many of them consider essential.  Most of them have never experienced what it’s like to bear such a debt, even if they are lucky enough to land a job.  Instapundit has been posting links to a lot of similar articles about what he calls the “higher education bubble.”  Recent examples may be found here, here, and here.

I can think of few things more mendacious than allowing a generation of young people to start their careers with a millstone of unsustainable debt around their necks, and one which they can’t even shed by bankruptcy.  We’ve been flattering ourselves about how “free” we are for so long that we’ve come to accept this form of slavery-lite with barely a murmur.  There is currently a debate over whether student loan interest rates should be allowed to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1.  By all means!  Double and triple it!  The sooner the whole, rotten system comes crashing down, the better.  If it were up to me, student loans would be illegal.  Then the universities could jack up tuitions to their hearts content, but there would be no one around who could afford them.  Eventually, they would be forced to shed all the non-essential fluff, and the cost of higher education would descend from the stratosphere to affordable levels.

If you want to get an idea of what I mean by fluff, look at the curriculum vitae of an average young associate professor.  If you haven’t published scores of papers, you’re not even in the running for a job, not to mention tenure.  Beyond that, you’ll need to go to lots of academic conferences and schmooze with your colleagues, because you’ll need a respectable number of citations to go with the papers.  Beyond that, you’ll need to spend much of your time writing proposals, because if you can’t attract research dollars, you’re out of the running.  Finally, you’ll need a fistful of academic honors, plenty of outside activities to show your public spirit, hours of unpaid work reviewing other peoples papers, etc., etc., etc.  You have to hand it to these young professionals.  The level of effort and dedication they bring to their jobs is astounding.  It would be better if they could devote more of that commitment to what they’re actually supposed to be doing; teaching.

Silver: $30 an Ounce

Great shades of 1979-80 dear reader, when the Hunt brothers cornered the silver market, only to have the government change the rules on them in mid-stream.  Have you ever read Mark Twain’s Roughing It?  The times were just like that.  Money was lying in the street.  I was a graduate student at the time, and financed my education by collecting silver from the small dealers in town and running it to the big dealers who were paying top dollar.  It was worth it to the little guys, because they were able to keep their shops open while I did the leg work for them. 

One time I took a load of scrap gold to a dealer in Flatbush.  It took us all day to “clean” the gold.  We had to remove any small bits of foreign material, and then the dealer would check the gold with his “stone.”  It took us until about 1:30 A.M. to go through it all.  I was paid in cash:  over $100,000.  The dealer called a cab to take me to the airport, but I had missed my flight by then.  I walked into one of the airport hotels in my scruffy student garb, with a beat up backpack containing over 100 large in cash.  The guy in the lobby quoted the room price, looking at me dubiously, as if I couldn’t afford it.  Little did he know.

 In those days the dealers used to ignore diamonds when they were buying gold, so you could pick them up for a song.  I became a “diamond dealer” on the side, and learned to appreciate the beauty of D color flawless stones.  They’re awesome.  After you’ve seen a few hundred of the off-color, carbon-spotted rocks they put in jewelry, looking into the perfect heart of one of them with a loupe is a spiritual experience.  One time a dealer gave me a stone to irradiate in my university’s experimental nuclear reactor.  He was happy with the results, as it turned out a beautiful chartreuse green after neutron bombardment.  I had to caution him to set it aside for a few days until the activated gold that the diamond had absorbed had decayed.

In January 1980 the rules were changed so that you couldn’t insist on delivery of physical silver to cover your longs in the futures market.  For a while, the market didn’t seem to realize what happened, and charged ahead on momentum.  Then it went down limit every day for about two weeks.  That meant that, if you were caught holding a long, you were wiped out.  It was the greatest thing that ever happened to the little guy.  They were standing in big queues, waiting to sell their silver coins, sterling, etc., in front of all the coin shops.  They all got top dollar, and then the big dealers were left holding the bag.  A lot of them went belly up.   

A lot of beautiful pieces were melted down for their silver in those days.  I remember one in particular that a local coin dealer had somehow managed to purchase.  It was a massive inkwell with beautifully sculptured angels, all in .835 Latin standard silver, commemorating the union of Austria and Hungary in the compromise of 1867. How it ever got to this country I’ll never know.  An antique dealer who knew its significance was trying to buy it, but the silver value was so high that it was touch and go.  Eventually, he managed to save it, but took a huge hit in the bullion value in the process. 

After several months, the gravy train was over.  I went back to my studies, and silver sank to about $5 per ounce, where it stayed for many years.  It’s finally risen from the grave.  Who knows when the bubble will burst this time around?