Troll Feeders Anonymous

Hello, my name is Adam, and I feed trolls.

I try to ignore them. I try to just walk away. But. Just. You know? You know.

My sponsor, another Adam, who I believe you’ve all met, says that I need to use my time more wisely. Read a book. Spend quality time with my loved ones. Talk to people who will give me the benefit of the doubt and will genuinely try to have a conversation.

For a long time I’ll be good. And when it looks like something’s going to escalate, I’ll just choose to be the bigger guy, and say something nice, or apologetic, or just politely exit the conversation.

But then, just as I begin to think of myself as a perfect sage of patience, some comment thread on some libertarian blog post will start to get nasty and I just can’t help myself. I start out mildly sarcastic and then I move on to catty, and finally it just comes to insults, and I’m back to square one. I end up fatigued and annoyed and gained nothing.

I admit I am powerless, and give myself up to the elder gods of phpBB to set me free of this burden.

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That’s Right, Senator: Buffers

Elizabeth Bruenig wrote some nice things about our very own Adam Gurri at The Week, revisiting some of the hoo-ha at BHL last week. The question she asks, however, begs the question. Policy-wise, “What [should Libertarians, were they in power] do about poor children?” Well, that’s an awfully big a priori, there, with some straight lines drawn straight through some rather opaque boundaries, not the least of which is family.

She cites Rand Paul’s dancing around the issue, like a good politician should, when tackling the issue of unwed motherhood under state support. The aspiring presidential candidate advocated for absolutely no change in the status quo while sounding some boilerplate Libertarian guff. “…[W]e have to get that message through…” he says. Who’s “we,” kemosabe? (apologies to Bill Cosby). The problem of unwed mothers perpetuating poverty by essentially making themselves open wombs for whatever reason is not going to have a solution which an undefined or (as the case has been) over-defined “we” can accomplish for her.

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

See, we daydream, I think, about finally resolving the problem of poverty, of seeing the poor lifted up and out of poverty, especially when we define poverty as the absence of the pursuit of eudaimonia or arete. In a just society (important qualifier), however, the power to influence the lives of poor people for their own good is not in power structures, but in family structures. Willi Cicci was trying to explain this to the senator, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to pull it off, as Michael Corleone, also, ultimately failed in doing with his own wife–because he was evil, as she correctly evaluates. The point is made, even though the movie is about a descent into evil: there’s nothing the state can do to break the power of a structure which is not about power. It was Kay who attenuated the evil of Michael Corleone, not the federal government. Babies, you see, are going to keep being born, regardless of state policies. Poverty and wealth are existential realities which may or may not persevere for any amount of time, but babies keep pushing us forward. In other words, as posterity unfolds, likewise poverty and wealth.

The state, on the other hand, can foster the flourishing of family structures, mostly by keeping its fat fingers out of the family pie, and by keeping injustice from spoiling the pie. That, I think, is difficult enough. To feed poor people?

With whom shall we speak?

Even in a world with food and shelter as abundant as our own, time is still limited. We cannot get more of it, and each minute once gone is gone forever. Even if SENS or Calico delivers on biological immortality, we face the challenge of using the minute or hour before us at this moment as effectively as we can. The present is a resource that spoils.

This is related to a question that came to me today, which how to decide whom to engage in conversation. If I am speaking to Aaron, I cannot also speak to Bob (not and give them both my full attention). If I am debating sports at the local watering hole that’s time I’m not lobbying my fellow voters to pass a legislative reform.

I don’t mean to be overly clinical about this. Life is too chaotic to engineer a perfect use of each minute, and there’s also benefits both to yourself and others in engaging in conversation for the simple pleasures of discussing a common hobby or just spitballing ideas about this or that. But there are also heuristics we can use.

One such heuristic I believe in is “Engage with honest interlocutors.” I don’t mind disagreeing with people, or talking to someone who is ignorant about a topic entirely. I enjoy both learning from people who disagree or teaching to people who don’t know. All I ask is they put the same effort and honesty into the conversation that I do.

The other side of this heuristic, which is really just a version of the “forgiving tit-for-tat” strategy, is to engage people who disagree, try to find the disagreement, but abandon the conversation once it’s obvious they are not engaged in honest debate or interested in really appreciating what you have to offer. Speaking to them is a not a good use of my time.

My co-blogger Adam Gurri takes a slightly different view on this. He points to the benefits to himself that come from engaging in conversation even with, to be crude, assholes. Patience and temperance are virtues, and trying to talk to an asshole gives you the opportunity to practice both of them. It’s a virtuous exercise to engage them, if I understand Mr. Gurri’s view here, and thus the time is not wasted.

I still think that’s a sub-optimal use of time though, and here’s why – teaching and learning with honest interlocutors is also an exercise in patience and temperance. Imagine teaching a child, well, anything. They’re going to screw up a lot and yelling at them “Why can’t you figure out 2+2=4!?!?!” isn’t going to help anything. It would actually be quite harmful. And while adults you meet socially aren’t children, the same basic rule applies. I’ve never taught anyone a lick of economics by yelling at them or losing my patience, no matter how much bad economics or half-baked theories of ethics they have to unlearn.

Point is, the world is not lacking for chances to practice patience and temperance. I’d rather pick the ones that pay dividends to others and not just myself.

Full Disclosure: I have, on occasion, and as recently as this Saturday, poked the occasional jerk just for the pleasure of seeing them react. I can’t pretend I’ve above that. But that’s just for fun, not an invitations to my friends to get involved and actually engage with the jerk in question.

Traditionalism and Social Security

Matt isn’t satisfied with my response. He wants a substantive example—Social Security. Can a traditionalist support it or must they oppose it? And why?

What I’ve been trying to say (not very well apparently) is that my position is pluralist and pragmatist. I have substantive positions, and I haven’t tried to hide this fact. The fact that I draw on more than one little framework in the employ of my larger one is not cynical, it’s part of the framework which I have talked about openly. Traditionalism simply characterizes aspects of my position. The first aspect I discussed is simply meta-ethics; we’re all traditionalists in practice in that our ideas have a long history before they got to us and we could add our judgment to them. The third aspect is the one that Matt seems to chafe at; the idea that sometimes some communities are able to work things out among themselves without either the use or the threat of force.

The second aspect is the only one that’s of any use to me in answering Matt’s question about Social Security. That is a respect for what has lasted.

Ah, Matt says, but Social Security has been around since 1935! And apparently non-traditionalists believe that 79 years is a really long time for a policy to have lasted, so he thinks he’s got something here, as far as a challenging proposition for traditionalists goes. Of course, 79 years isn’t much longer than the entire life of the Soviet Union, an entirely ahistorical experiment in government that collapsed under its own weight in the end. I don’t mean to compare the two in substance, I’m simply interested in time horizons; to Matt the reformer 79 must appear an eternity.  To me, it tells me that Social Security is not as fragile as your typical American policy, but it’s still highly untested by time.

And let’s not forget that we’ve had to raise retirement age, increase taxes, and lower benefits before. The main problem that I see with Social Security is that it was designed to work for a specific demographic situation, and demographics fluctuate over time. “The test of time” is not just a cute phrase, it means that something has managed to survive a wide variety of scenarios and come out more or less intact. It’s no secret that Social Security is being increasingly squeezed by our aging population; the older our demographic distribution skews the more the math of Social Security simply does not add up.

Of course we can continue to increase taxes and lower benefits and move the retirement age for a while, but not for forever. Eventually you’ll have to be 200 years old and only get a dollar a year, in nominal future dollar terms.

Matt seems to think that the widespread popularity of Social Security binds me as a traditionalist to support it. But that’s just due to a persistent misunderstanding of his as to how I arrive at my substantive beliefs, as I explained at the beginning of this piece and in the previous piece.

I hope this post has answered Matt’s question to his satisfaction.

The Three Sides of Traditionalism

Back in December I began what has been a long and fruitful conversation with Matt Bruenig. I reached out to ask him a few questions in order to do justice to his assertion that the economy is a government program so that I might criticize it. Matt was kind enough to review my drafts to make sure I didn’t mischaracterize him and thus beat up on a strawman. Good thing, too—my first draft was way off the mark. I wrote about how he was a blank slate style rationalist, who just wanted to sweep away everything merely historical and build up society anew from a purely rational blueprint. Matt looked it over and said, essentially, “I have never said that and I don’t believe it.”

So I scrapped the entire piece (well, some of it was jettisoned to turn into this post) and I’m glad that I did. The resulting piece accurately represented Matt’s views, and the challenge of criticizing his actual views instead of the cartoon version I had assumed he believed was very rewarding.

Sadly, it is a cartoon version of my arguments that Matt criticizes in this post responding to my piece I have up at the Ümlaut today.

A phrase that Matt uses repeatedly in his piece to characterize my position is “I support deferring to status quo norms.” I’m afraid I’m going to have to paraphrase what Matt said to me back in December—I never have said that people should “defer to status quo norms” and that is not what I believe in.

The very framing of it is incoherent, in precisely the ways that Matt explores in his piece. As he puts it:

If everyone formed their views by deferring to the views of others (who were also in this example forming their views by deferring to the views of others), nobody could ever form any substantive views.

How true. Good thing that isn’t my position!

My position is in fact entirely consistent with self-conscious criticism of existing norms and institutions. I detail this at length here.

There are roughly three facets of my position that could be characterized as “traditionalist”. First, none of us arrive at ideas, beliefs, or habits of behavior from nowhere. All of us are brought up by parents, among family and peers, in a particular community (or communities, if you traveled in your childhood). This upbringing and the cultural artifacts (novels, poetry, movies, philosophy, whatever) we interface with form the foundation of our beliefs, habits, and articulated arguments. Given that this was Aristotle’s position with regard to moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s hardly an irrationalist idea.

Second: stable, reliable practices and institutions are hard to come by. It can seem all too easy to find fault with what exists, but if it has sufficient provenance it has usually survived for a reason. That doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize. It does mean that we should be cautious about what we do away with and what we change in any drastic way. When criticizing a trio of neoreactionary thinkers, I made the point that the US has never really worried about a military coup. It seemed to me that the parts of America’s culture they wanted to do away with had a lot to do with just why we’re able to take it for granted that our military will remain comfortably under the control of a civilian government, and not the other way around.

In short, institutions and norms and culture are intertwined in ways that are not crystal clear. Going in there and trying to fix it as though it were a car and we mechanics seems, to me, to be asking for trouble. This is precisely what I accused Matt of doing to a big, dramatic extent in the first draft of my criticism of him. It’s also, incidentally, why I don’t think that things like food stamps are quite so huge a deal as some libertarians might. In fact, from what I gathered they have actually been quite effective at helping people who could use it and also quite cheap in terms of tax funding, and (importantly) they’ve been around for a while (though not by historic standards). Cutting them was thus unconscionable—if I haven’t spoken out against it, it is because there are plenty of things coming out from the capitol building that I find unconscionable.

Finally, there is a thick layer of ground level knowhow that is largely inaccessible to the theorist, and which is what really keeps human social systems going. Sam tried to give an example of this but Matt didn’t seem to really get it:

I don’t think that Sam was trying to say that divining this sort of thing is how we should determine policy, necessarily. What I think he meant, and what I believe, is that this sort of thing actually allows a lot of people to get along on their own most of the time, without the use or threat or implication of force in the background. And I think that where that is true, we should let it happen, rather than attempt to impose a theoretically designed structure upon it. I know that Matt believes this happens sometimes because he describes it eloquently here. It’s clear that he believes it is a far more limited thing than I do, and that’s OK. That’s a disagreement I’m happy to continue to have discussions around in our ongoing conversation moving forward.

If I didn’t sufficiently engage with Matt’s specific criticisms here, I apologize. It just seems to me that he has so misunderstood my position that his specific points were, for the most part, entirely irrelevant.

Technically Correct

David points me to this review of William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts. The review summarizes the book and its castigations of “development experts” like Jeffrey Sachs trying to lift up poor nations with hydro dams and fertilizer plants. “It won’t work! It hasn’t worked! It can’t work! You have to give the poor rights first.” he cries.

What seems interesting to me is that Easterly decries the tyranny of experts, while also claiming superior expertise on what makes an economy develop. After all, Easterly isn’t saying that Jeffrey Sachs and the like cannot proscribe a method for developing an economy; he’s saying “You’re using the wrong method!”.

Personally I’m on Easterly’s side in this debate. The legal rights of the poor are a key and often overlooked ingredient in development success. Hernando de Soto has done great work on showing how formalizing property ownership and legal title systems, and then giving the poor access to capital markets through mortgages on their land, is a real multiplier for economic development. The poor need those legal titles, and then the rights to enforce them and borrow against them, to help themselves out of their poverty. Even in developed economies many new businesses are formed with capital borrowed from a family home, and Peru and Indonesia are no different in that respect.

And I might even go further. There has been good research on how family structure plays a role in economic development, and how the difference between England and the Netherlands (nuclear families living apart with distinct ownership rights) and Eastern Europe (multigeneration families with common ownership of farms and businesses) caused the Great Enrichment to start in Europe’s Northwest instead of its East or South. Why not include family law into the bundle of reforms that a developing economy needs?

And even further, because this is Sweet Talk, let us not forget the role of individual virtue. Throughout history men and women have claimed to have honor and to live by a strict code, but most of these codes did not result in the Great Enrichment. The virtues of Love, Faith, Hope, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage are not only unique in their combination but also in their interpretation. What constitutes “Justice” varies in particular from one culture to the next, and any culture that considers economic outcomes to be a greater Justice than equality in opportunity will not rise to join the wealthy nations of the world. After all, China did not start to rise from its slump until Deng said “Let some people become rich first.”

So what would my ideal development plan look like? It would replace the local law with the English common law, and send promising students to Common Law nations to study it. It would create a “Sesame St” curriculum to instill Bourgeois Virtues among the youth via TV and other media channels. It would make a point of promulgating a sense of what Justice “is” and what it looks like among the people. It would focus like a laser on the rights of the poor and their actual and effective access to the institutions that protect those rights (using methods that de Soto has been a leader in, such as measuring the number of days required to open a business, title land, or resolve a case). It would then keep taxes low and sit back to let the people figure out where to go from there.

But see? I am offering my expertise. I claim no expertise at whether Niger should build a hydro dam or a coal plant, or what crops they should grow and which fertilizers to use. Locals have much more useful information than I on those topics, and what they lack they can learn on Wikipedia or by conversing with experts in foreign countries at the local Internet cafe. Cell phones can tell them the prices of fish in six different markets, letting them plan their businesses better than I ever could. My expertise isn’t in planning, but in setting up conditions so that others may most effectively plan.

Jeffrey Sachs’ problem isn’t that he’s a tyrannical expert, it’s that he’s a well spoken non-expert. He doesn’t actually know how development happens. (And neither do I, 100%, but I’m fairly confident I know more than Sachs). Sachs is technically correct that expertise is needed, it’s just that the expertise needed isn’t the expertise he has. Easterly’s book would be better titled The Tyranny of Over-Confident Ignoramuses

E.K.O.U.S.

Excess Kurtosis of Unusual Size? I don’t believe it exists.

The Princess Bride, like many fairy tales of its ilk, relies on a narrative built from dashed expectations. Buttercup expects Westley to return, Inigo expects revenge, Vizzini expects normal humans to be unable to scale the Cliffs of Insanity, &c &c. The classical heroic tropes are interesting because they exceed ordinary human probability distributions. 

There’s no swashbuckling in the 95% interval.

Each of Westley’s achievements, from charming the Dread Pirate Roberts, to tailing Vizzini in thick fog, to scaling the cliffs, to besting a fencer who’s trained his entire adult life, to choking out Andre the Giant, to outwitting a Sicilian when death is on the line speaks of a character who lives in the fat tails of his distributions. Even when he’s recently recovered from being mostly dead, The Man in Black sweet talks Humperdink into surrender without raising anything apart from the tone of his voice.

The hero triumphs because he was underestimated. Vizzini found his actions “inconceivable” because models are more tractable when they employ normal distributions. Inigo’s model, one based on heuristics and experience brought by many years of practical training, was perhaps less precise, but certainly more accurate. Acknowledging uncertainty, acknowledging non-ergodicty grants robustness, flexibility, and wu-wei (to borrow a quip from Drew) to your model of the world. The death of Vizzini is a metaphor for the perils of hubris.

At EE today, I asked if exchange with a robot could be euvoluntary. In a world governed by normal probability distributions, the future of automation looks scary indeed. It’s very difficult to imagine what people might do with their time once robots have pushed us out of meaningful employment. But I have a hunch that if you’d have asked 14th c. farmers the same question about the development of the thresher or the gas-powered tractor or the combine, they’d have been equally at loggerheads to imagine a world of word processors and dubstep. Just because we can’t imagine life in the long tails doesn’t imply that such life doesn’t exist.

Don’t be Vizzini. Let your father’s sword guide you.