Just one experiment

Like many people, I’ve tried to lose weight at points in my life. I even succeeded a couple times at losing a substantial amount of weight. Perhaps less like other people, this interest sent me into a decade-long study of human metabolism and nutrition, reading medical journals, scientific papers, popular health books, blogs – the whole mix. I have since abandoned discussing this topic in public much though because the whole conversation around nutrition and weight loss (in America at any rate) is just so ideological and stupid it hurts my brain.

That’s why I practically had an aneurism this morning reading this Vox article. It contains a bit of useful scientific data (such as the Hadza study), but the whole article is just steeped in the mindset of calories being important, and is unable to break out of it even when the data is staring them right in the face.

Let’s put it this way. Nutrition, despite how many people practice it, is subject to scientific inquiry using standard scientific methods. You propose hypotheses and do experiments, and if the results from the experiment contradict your hypothesis, the hypothesis is wrong.

The idea that calories are a central or important to weight gain or weight loss is a hypothesis. And it doesn’t matter how many experiments you do that produce results consistent with the hypothesis. If you do just one experiment that produces results contrary to the hypothesis (all caveats about experimental design and measurement error being a given), then the hypothesis is wrong.

Do you know someone who can eat pretty much whatever and never gains weight? I bet you do, because they’re fairly common. Calories aren’t the story.

Did you notice in that Vox article that the Hazda have the same calorie expenditure as humans in modern societies, and yet they’re all fairly lean? They eat the same number of calories, and burn the same number of calories, but their bodies don’t create large fat deposits. Calories aren’t the story.

Have you ever read an over-feeding study? Probably not, but they’re fascinating. One experiment fed US prisoners (who volunteered for the study in exchange for a reduced sentence) as much food as possible while forcing them to remain as sedentary as possible. We are talking quantities of food between 5,000 and 10,000 calories per day, for months. Most of them gained 5 to 10 lbs and then stopped gaining weight. Their bodies adapted to the new calorie load and the experimenters couldn’t make most of the prisoners gain any weight beyond that point. Calories aren’t the story.

Have you read any medical journal articles about patients on low-calorie diets that don’t lose fat mass? I have. They lose “weight”, sure, but it’s all muscle, bone, and internal organs. They don’t lose fat, even when on a “diet”. Some of them even die of organ failure from starvation even while retaining abundant fat stores. These people aren’t normal by any means, but they are evidence that calories aren’t the story.

Did you read the Men’s Fitness article years ago about the fat triathlete? This guy wasn’t a little fat. He was Santa Claus fat, no matter how many triathlons he did or how many calories his little pedometer said he burned. Exercise isn’t the story either.

Just the examples above, and many, many others, are experimental data. And they disprove the hypothesis that calories consumed (or calories burned by exercise) are the relevant variables in weight loss and gain. (No, again, it still doesn’t matter how many experiments are consistent with those hypotheses. That’s not how science works) If you want to understand how weight loss and gain work, you need to just stop talking about calories entirely for a while. If you can’t break the habit, I suggest biting yourself on the hand very hard every time you use the word “calorie”. It should only take a couple negative-reinforcement lessons to kick the habit.

So what matters? In a word, hormones. Your body’s cells, after all, do not know how many calories you eat in a given day. Each cell in your body is a local decision-maker, deciding whether to do things like burn fatty acid stores or create them. And they make this decision based on how hormonal signals interact with their internal chemistry. (Very similarly, to you Econ nerds, how local economic agents respond to price signals even if they don’t know what’s causing the prices to go up or down)

I’m not going to write the entire book that might be needed to convince you of this. I don’t have the time or inclination for that. I’ll lazily point you to how teenagers go through wild swings of body weight and composition. I’ll suggest you ponder why taking Testosterone and HGH injections causes people to become very lean (in addition to heavily muscled). I’ll suggest that you read studies on how X amount of exercise can cause fat loss, but 3X causes bodyfat composition to increase (Hint: because cortisol makes you retain bodyfat, regardless of calories “burned”). I’ll remind you that any study that measures “weight loss” without considering body composition is useless. I’ll suggest that studies on how artificial lighting can affect sleep, and that in turn affects weight gain, might be worth pondering deeply (unless you think LED lamps somehow throw off excess calories in addition to lumens).

And so forth. Calories aren’t the story (except to the extent they change your hormone profile). Exercise isn’t the story (except to the extent it changes your hormone profile). Hormones are the story.

And that’s all I have to say on this topic for the year 2016, I hope. Maybe one day the Great Establishments of Health & Medicine will come around to finally seeing what’s right in front of their nose. Maybe one day they’ll remember that it only takes one experiment to disprove a theory. Maybe it will even happen one day soon. (They’ve recently come around on saturated fat, after all, after only half a century of misadventures) But meanwhile the loud and “official” conversation continues to sonorously repeat the disproven theories, for reasons that probably have as much to do with grant funding as actual belief.

American “government”

Pardon me while I rant, but the death of Antonin Scalia (who was ten times the lawyer that I or any of you, my dear readers, will ever be) and its subsequent political whiny fits and media-posturing by various parties reminds me that the American system of government is deeply, truly, and irreversibly (barring a Constitutional re-write) broken. It’s taken for granted that our elected officials are greedy, power-hungry, and corrupt, but they’re political cowards and immersed in bad incentives too. American government is so screwed that we cannot even pass budgets or laws anymore. Instead we get bare outlines of laws that Congress doesn’t even read, and those are passed off to unelected rule-making bodies so deep within the Administrative State that no elected official has direct control over them, to fill in the “details” (i.e., the hard and controversial parts that actually matter). And our Constitutional amendment process is so broken that we have instead come to rely on our Supreme Court to amend it for us while pretending they’re doing nothing of the kind. It’s a farce from top to bottom, and every American should be deeply ashamed of it.

The blame for this abominable situation can be laid at the feet of many people. Our elected Legislature could have the courage and tenacity to write and pass bills that are widely acceptable. The American people could bother to become educated about how government works, realize how messed up we are compared to other countries, and demand better. The Supreme Court could refuse the Constitutional amendment power that has been handed to them (and in fact, such a refusal has been the life work of Clarence Thomas). But ultimately, all of those actors are operating within a system created by our Founding Fathers, and it is principally at their feet that the blame can be laid.

The Fathers had a theory of government that posited that pitting interest against interest would lead to restrained government. That’s why the President nominates picks for the Supreme Court but then the Senate votes on them. This sounds like a reasonable solution, until you realize that what happens in practice is it creates a system where the President is incentivized to nominate the most radical candidate for “his side” (and the President always has a side, because of how we elect them) that he thinks can get 51 votes. And that makes it a big fight every time, and considering multiple Supreme Court picks, or ranking them by centrism and reasonableness, is impossible.

And basically everything in Congress works the same way. Instead of bills getting proposed, vetted, and voted on based on what would gather the most support from the greatest number of Representatives, laws are passed based on whatever the majority party believes is the most extreme thing they think can get past a Presidential veto. And it’s a huge fight every time, with a lot of bribery and arm-twisting, and the whole process is such an effort that getting detailed laws passed isn’t even possible. Oh, Congress can get in details like “Spend $20,000,000 on some highway in CA District 27”, but actual details about what the laws the bill is supposed to be about? As if! Instead the law that gets passed is a mere instruction to an Administrative agency to write a law. That’s why Nancy Pelosi said we have to pass the ACA to find out what’s in it. She was right, and her only mistake was saying it out loud where people could hear her. And what she said is true of most laws. Years after the Dodd-Frank Act was passed, years after both Dodd and Frank have retired from Congress, the rules on bank reform are still being filled in by the CFTC, SEC, and so on. We still don’t know what’s in that law, five years later.

And then there’s the Constitutional amendment process. The process as-written is so hard that it’s effectively unamendable. Instead we have cottoned onto a new process. Although the Founders never intended the Supreme Court to be a final authority on Constitutional matters, they made amending the Constitution so hard that it was easier for the President and Senate to appoint Supreme Court Justices who would allow the Constitution to be amended while pretending they’re doing nothing of the kind. Does anyone really think that the spending power should allow Congress to regulate speed limits on roads that exist entirely within one State? Does anyone think that the Commerce Clause was ever intended to allow regulation on the growing of wheat in New York, or on what substances are banner or legal in Colorado?  Is there even Constitutional authority for a standing army? The plain reading of English would say “No” to all of these questions, but since Marbury vs Madison, and especially since the New Deal, the Court has taken it upon itself to find new rights in the “penumbras” of the Constitution. The more progressive wing of the Court is more blunt about this, calling for a “Living Constitution”, but even on the conservative side of the Court only Clarence Thomas, of the currently sitting Justices, has been a consistent defender of the line that the Constitution should only be amended by its written process. (And judging by the thanks he gets for that, it’s clear no one really wants him to)

So as you see, the Founding Father’s idea of pitting interest against interest, and leaving no mechanism in place for finding consensus, has really left us in a place where cooperation is so impossible to achieve that our government (the parts of it that are directly electorally answerable to the people anyway), don’t do very much. All the really important stuff has been passed off to the Supreme Court or some obscure three-letter agency just so the minimum amount of government work gets done to keep the place “not ‘all dead'”. This deplorable state of affairs has left American government sclerotic, beset by 100s of 1,000s of pages of laws which no one can read the entirety of, let alone understand, written by people who no one knows or elected, while Congress spends the majority its time voting on laws that cannot pass for symbolic (i.e., electorally important) reasons, or hitting up lobbyists for money to run their next election.

It’s no wonder under the current circumstances that Congress has a 5% approval rating, or that many Americans believe “good government” to be an impossibility. Due to the systems and incentives currently in place, they’re right. Too bad most Americans are too deeply invested in the myth of the wise Founders to really question how we got into this mess.

It’s A Living

My dad’s friend knows a horse masseuse. No, that’s not a typo. Horse. Masseuse. Weird, right?

My dad and his friend volunteer at SCORE, a pro bono business consultancy for the small-business set (think of it as sort of like a Legal Aid for retired MBAs to hang out at), and it was through SCORE that my dad’s friend met this woman who massaged horses as a career. (There may have been a physical therapy angle to it as well, but I can’t say for sure) The problem she had was a good one for any entrepreneur (too much business), and she came to SCORE to get her accounting and pricing strategy straightened out. They did that and as far as I know she’s still driving all over New England doing her thing.

I am reminded of this because of a conversation I had today with Adam Gurri and Jordan Peacock on Twitter today. The topic was of robots, automation, and the future of jobs. Jordan, like many people, is concerned about automation destroying jobs and making people’s skills redundant. Adam and I were generally more sanguine about the economy’s ability to create new jobs at a sufficient clip to (more or less) maintain employment levels. We both acknowledge that the transition from one economic model to a new one can be very difficult for some people, and some individuals may never make the transition, but overall (from a big picture point of view), I’m not worried about vast swaths of humans becoming unemployable.

Ultimately we are predicting the future, so who can say whom is right, but given the economy’s past success at finding jobs for redundant labor (a process that has been going on in earnest for nearly three centuries now), why do many people share Jordan’s sense that future jobs won’t be there when we need them? To answer my own question, I think the center of if is this Tweet and this one where Jordan qualifies that he’s skeptical the economy will make “non-B.S.” jobs. Presumably then he thinks that the economy can always put people to work digging holes or something, but is hoping for something more than that.

Jordan’s hope for “non-B.S.” jobs (which I will henceforth call “important jobs”) is, I think, a fair one. No one wants to feel like they are useless, and while charity is appreciated by those who really need it, a lifetime of charity is grating. Most people want to feel that their work is important, that its value is appreciated by others. As Good Will Hunting said, there’s honor in being a bricklayer. Those are people’s homes you’re building, where families are raised. It was important to Will that the honorable nature of a bricklayer’s work was acknowledged by his therapist, and I can understand why. I would also have a bleak outlook about the future if I thought there might be jobs to be had in the future but no honorable ones.

Is a horse masseuse an honorable profession? If you’re like me (being among the 99.9% of Americans who don’t own horses or know much about their care and needs), it’s an impossible question to answer. We have no basis for assessing the worth of a horse masseuse. But we can say this much: Many horse owners are willing to pay a handsome sum (plus travel) to have someone perform this service.

With each step-change in technology, as subsistence needs are automated and employ fewer people, the work most of us do strays further away from providing the basic necessities. But this isn’t a bad thing! The misleading thing about future jobs is that many of them will be considered trivial by today’s standards, but the people of the future will value them nonetheless. This is equally true (from the perspective of the past) of the jobs that exist today. To a subsistence farmer, a web developer or pedicurist does profoundly unimportant work. The farmer grows food, and what’s more basic and central to life than food? We don’t need many farmers these days though, so people find other things to do – things that no one before realized would be valuable. And they are valuable! There is value in creating an enjoyable mobile video game, or driving an Uber car. These things make other people’s lives more enjoyable or convenient. You can do them well, and be thanked for them.

I look forward to the day when so much of what we currently do has been automated away that people are free to dedicate their working hours to making my life even easier and more convenient than it already is. For instance, I have tight muscle in my back and could use a masseuse myself. Do you think Uber could bring one to my home at this hour of the night?


The Space Peoples

In January of this year now coming to an end, I wrote about Rockets and how low-cost access to space will be a game changer. At that time there were no rockets that could fly to space and return safely to Earth, ready to fly again. Today, twelve months later, there are two.

The Blue Origin New Shepard and the SpaceX Falcon 9 are not really in the same league. The Falcon 9 is twice the size, ten times as powerful, flies in a parabolic arc flight path, and (most importantly) is capable of boosting its second stage to orbital velocities. The New Shepard cannot do any of that, and basically just flies straight up like a bottle rocket until it just barely kisses space, and then falls back down. But let’s just put that aside for a moment and think about the fact that two new entrants to the rocket business have in a decade finally done what half a century of Boeing and Lockheed Martin flying spec missions for NASA (and equivalent arrangements in Europe, Japan, and China) have not: advanced the art of what is possible.

To recap from my previous posts, reusability will reduce the cost to reach orbit on a per-unit-weight basis by a factor of 100. Rocket fuel is cheap, accounting for less than $200,000 of the current $60 million price tag, so amortizing the hardware and R&D over many flights will bring prices down a small multiple of that. This will in turn expand the market of space customers beyond the current crowd of military, NASA, and cable TV people. Use cases will expand, including mining asteroids for fuel and valuable resources, private space stations, and cheap satellite internet constellations. The size and frequency of our space missions will increase. NASA could end up have twenty times the number of scientific probes in action as they do today, with the same budget. Companies like Tethers Unlimited could self-fund (without waiting for NASA grants) their own in-space experiments on things like SpiderFab, which would in turn lead more quickly to extremely large space structures for science and communications. And course eventually it could lead to people living on Mars.

This may seem like a bit of a stretch at this time, but I feel we are at an important inflection point in human history. I am reminded of the civilizations that flourished around the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age, and then collapsed; of the Roman Empire that flourished and then collapsed; of the Islamic Golden Age that came and went; and of the rise of the British Empire and its continued global dominance through its successor state, NATO.

In each of the above cases, there was a time of bright flourishing that was ushered in by an expansion of trade and resources. The larger the network of trade, the more wealth that was produced even absent significant technological change. Basic task specialization and comparative advantage at work. But technological change followed too, from the greater number of people who were having ideas and discussing those ideas with like-minded people. Well space doesn’t have any people to discuss ideas with (yet), but it does have a great deal of resources. The Moon can be mined, and manufacturing operated there, without concern for Earth’s environment. The Sun’s solar power can be captured in space with greater efficiency, and in far greater amounts, than on Earth. (It may seem far fetched at this time, but Google and Facebook moving their server farms to orbit could solve a number of problems in one go.) Further in the future we could start building destinations for colonization, taking the population burden off Earth. And so forth.

When England expanded its resource base ten-fold by colonizing North America, its wealth and influence was permanently increased. What happens when all of Earth taps into the ten-thousand-fold greater resources of the Solar System? It’s of course impossible to know for sure, but I feel confident in predicting that it will be a genuinely good thing for both the entrepreneurs seeking opportunities and the regular folks who trade with them. Let’s hope this golden age doesn’t come to an end too soon.

The Island of Leng

The island of Leng is split down the middle by a deep ravine – so deep that the ocean flows through it. The ravine is hundreds of feet deep, with crashing waves and sharp rocks at the bottom. The wind from the sea is always blowing through it. You could even say (because of the water in the ravine) there are two islands, but no one says that. Instead they just say call the two halves “Leng proper” and “the western bit”. And because of this ravine splitting the island of Leng, a curious custom has arisen.

You see, Leng proper is where everyone lives; it is where they are born and inevitably where they die. But many people like to spend time on the western bit too. It’s genuinely nicer there – the grass is greener, the air is fresher, and fruits and flowers grow there that grow nowhere else. Because the natural treasures of the western bit exists regular travel to the western bit improves the lives of everyone in Leng proper, whether they go to the western bit themselves or not.

Getting to the western bit is not easy however. There is a long, narrow bridge crossing the deep ravine. It is built about as well as anyone knows how to build bridges of this type, but it is still narrow, and shaky, and when the wind blows the whole things vibrates like a harpsichord string. The fact is that the great majority of Lengers are too easily frightened to cross the thing without help. The several who have tried discover a latent acrophobia and immediately return to Leng proper before getting ten steps from the edge.

The allure of the western bit of Leng is so great though, and the demand to go there so strong, that a profession has arisen to meet the need to cross the bridge. A certain few of the Lengers have become “Walkers”, and they are so called because they walk across the bridge with anyone who wants to cross. Walking however is not their core professional skill. Anyone can do that. Their primary skills are the ability to conquer their fear of heights, and a willingness to lie.

The job of a Walker is quite simple. People come to the Walker’s offices, called a “branch” for some reason, which are situated at a safe distance from the ravine where neither the cliffs nor the bridge can be seen. The walker then places a blindfold on the customer and leads them up the path to the bridge and across it to the western side. All along he whispers lies into their ears about how safe the path is, how no one could ever be in any danger, and also (those these are truths, not lies) how green the grass and how fresh the air is on the western bit of the island. Once safely across and sufficiently far from the ravine that it cannot be seen the walker takes the blindfold off the customer and sends them off to grow the fruit and collect the flowers that only grow on the western bit of Leng.

Despite the lies of the Walkers however, the bridge is not perfectly safe. It is narrow and high, and when the wind blows it vibrates like a harpsichord string (as I mentioned above). This makes the footing a bit unstable, but the Walkers are used to this sort of upset and quickly mention to their wards that it’s perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of. Happens all the time. And if the occasional customer is blown off the bridge and dashed on the rocks below, they must have brought that fate upon themselves somehow. Nothing wrong with the path. It’s safe. Sound. Everything’s fine.

So long has this custom been practiced on the island of Leng that many of the residents (the ones who are not Walkers anyway) have convinced themselves that there really isn’t a bridge at all. After all, they’ve never seen the bridge, and neither has their father. There must be some sort of natural connection between Leng proper and the western bit, which no storm or wind can dislodge. Or maybe there is a bridge, but it’s made of such strong stone and steel that the islands would sink into the sea before the bridge would go out. And the Walkers keep nets under the bridge anyway, don’t they? They wouldn’t just let people fall. The point is, the people have listened to the Walkers lies for so long, and so strong is their need to believe that the western bit is accessible and safe to go to, that their powers of self-deception have caused them to genuinely believe that which is not so.

Once a century or so, though, a storm comes along. Not an ordinary storm, but a great storm. Greater than the bridge can withstand. Greater than even the western bit of the island can offer safety from. When the storm comes, all the Lengers on the western bit of the island are swept out to sea, never to be seen again. And all Lengers on the bridge are thrown into the ravine, to die on the rocks below. The Walkers are thrown off the bridge too, of course, and some of them die, but most of them are wearing parachutes made of a soft golden cloth you see – they land safely enough on a ledge they have stocked with supplies and shelter, having prepared themselves for this very day.

(As an interesting aside, part of the myth of the Walkers is that they are brave, but this is not so. Most of them are just sociopaths who have seen to their own comfort with the adornment of parachutes and opulent lodgings, and don’t really care whether their wards are safe or not. Like all Lengers, their powers of self-deception allow this play to continue for many a year, but instead of believing in the false safety of the bridge, they have convinced themselves that this “easy work” will continue indefinitely.)

For the residents on Leng proper though, this is all too much. A great anger fills them, and they demand that the Walkers be held accountable for the damage done by the storm. After all, someone must be at fault for the danger found on the bridge and Leng’s western bit. It wasn’t constructed as well as it ought to have been, and the western bit of the island should have been outfitted with proper shelters from the storm. Safety must be restored! And never mind that no one knows how to build a bridge better than the old one, and that covering the western bit of the island with shelters will prevent it from growing the fruit and flowers that are the reason anyone goes there in the first place. The residents of Leng demand a return to the status quo that existed in their heads, you see, where safety existed and they eat the fruit too.

And so, protests occur, and politicians pass laws. The old Walkers are told to retire, and some of them actually do, but for the most part they are replaced by the same sort of men (or even the exact same men). The bridge is rebuilt much the same as before, but this time with politicians offering advice on the placement of support structures and tension wires. And while the residents of Leng are told that shelters have been built on the western bit of the island, they are small, and over time dismantled by the fruit-growers who want more land for crops. And the new Walkers are still called Walkers (not something more accurate, like Liars, for that would defeat the purpose of their employment), telling the same old lies and collecting the same old tolls. And the people of Leng enjoy the fruit that is grown thereby.

Are the people of Leng bad? Are the Walkers? It seems that fear of heights is something inherent to most of the people there, and if the lies are not told then the people will not cross and the fruit will not be grown, harvested, and eaten. Life in Leng proper will suffer as long as the truth is scrupulously told. Occasionally a crazy person in town square, who sees the truth and cannot un-see it, will be driven to yell at his neighbors “Have courage!”, or (even less likely to happen) “Be satisfied with the fruit grown here!” — but who wants that? No one I know.

Voice, Exit, Loyalty, and Option #4

Albert Hirschman summarized the options of a consumer facing deteriorating quality of a good – voice or exit. That is, they can complain about the quality and hope the producer listens (voice), or they can just take their business elsewhere (exit). He extended this logic to government too, where voice is participation within a political system and exit is, well, not.

His discussions on loyalty are about how voice will often get used when exit is easier, out of loyalty. We see this in both the private and public spheres.

There’s a lot of sense to this, and it describes well how a lot of people act in real life. As an American example of the public sphere, voice is voting in local elections, and exit is moving to a new State for a better regulatory and job climate. Or maybe just switching careers to something differently regulated. This sort of freedom of choice by consumers produces a competition between providers that keeps the quality of available choices from deteriorating terribly.

Hirchman’s model also a trap. The lens of Voice, Exit, and Loyalty almost seems like a closed set of choices, but in fact there’s a Door #4, and if we forget it’s there a terrible surprise will befall us when it opens.

My co-blogger David has chosen exit as his response to the current culture war, but his closing thoughts remind us that Hirschman’s model is missing the fourth and, ultimately, most important option – Violence. There’s big, obvious violence like Timothy McVeigh or the Civil War, but also the everyday chronic violence of legal prohibition. Violence is the tool applied when voice is ignored and exit isn’t tolerable.

And I want to emphasize, that both the “winning” and “losing” sides of political contests may resort to violence once they tire of using voice. Both the loser and winners have failed to convince 100% of the population of the merit of their idea. Both the winners and the losers may decide that “live and let live” isn’t an option. Both the losers and winners may decide that the easiest solution is then simply to punish (whether by physical violence or other means) the recalcitrant other until they shut up and get with the program. Only the labels differ. The losers are “rebellious”, while the winners call it “enforcing the law”.

Religious Objects of Exasperation

There are a few topics in American politics which touch off firestorms, even while topics of similar importance and complexity can be discussed with some level of calm and distance. There are probably topics of similar difficulty in other countries, but I will stick to what I know personally here.

These topics are well known to most Americans, simply because of all the shouting. I think there’s a reason for all this shouting, and it’s because of conflict between objective reality and dogmatic belief by one side or the other, and the other side’s exasperation with the nonsensical dogma.

The way this usually comes about is that at time n a policy or opposition to a policy enters the consciousness of a political faction for perfectly good reasons, and it comes a defining characteristic of that faction. “We are A, and therefore we believe X.” At the time this defining characteristic is taken up, it’s not even a bad idea – or at least, the jury on whether it’s good or bad is still out.

Over time though the facts on the ground change. New evidence comes in, or the underlying social reasons for the policy go away, etc. The belief however doesn’t change, because of how it’s tied to the identify of the faction. “We are still A, and will remain A, and therefor we cannot stop believing X.”

Now I want to emphasize that this is not even irrational. The psychological identification with causes or beliefs is a part of human nature, and I think it’s useful. Forming groups of belief in greater goods is what allows society to happen at all. If we couldn’t join religions or feel patriotic towards a nation, we would be stuck with the bloodline-clans of hunter-gatherers as the most sophisticated form of government. Agriculture and markets would be impossible, let alone science and culture.

This psychological trick works pretty well when the self is identified with timeless goods, like love, or very abstract and flexible institutions, like the British Monarchy. The trick gets stupid though when it identifies with specific policy ideas (or policy oppositions) which may be proven wrong at at least sub-optimal within a decade or so.

Unfortunately though, our political parties have gotten in the habit of writing really detailed policy platforms during election season, and some number of these policies end up getting tied to their identify. Inevitably some of these ideas prove to be wrong (humans, amirite?), the faction refuses to admit it, the other faction eventually gets fed up with their stupidity over the point, and the firestorms I mentioned before get kicked off on a regular basis.

On the American Right the two most obvious examples of this stupidity are opposition to reasonable climate change regulations, and creationism. The science for evolution being a real thing is overwhelming. The science for global climate change isn’t as well supported as evolution, but it’s good enough we should be talking about reasonable precautions. Even if the risk of catastrophe is only 25%, a 25% chance of total social collapse is worth spending money on to avoid! We can dicker over the details of what to do about it, but total opposition just isn’t reasonable at this point.

As for the Left, I could make a list of these dogmas, but the impetus for this post was the City of Los Angeles passing a bill to bring the minimum wage up to $15 over the next five years. This is … dumb. The economic case against the minimum wage is at least as strong as the one for AGW, in my opinion. Yes, helping the poor eat and having a roof over their head is great – but why choose the minimum wage as a policy level? It’s not even in the Top 20 of ideas to help the poor, due to its numerous downsides (which are both theoretically sound and empirically observed). Of course the answer is because “supporting a minimum wage” has become an identify issue for the Left, and they won’t hear anything against it.

What’s to be done about the above? Well, my advice to the Right is to offer real bargains for getting rid of the minimum wage. Trade to get rid of it, by offering real welfare policies that are well funded in exchange. You’ll never convince the Left to let the poor fend entirely for themselves (nor should you; where’s your empathy?), but you can probably find a few willing to try superior methods. You don’t have to convince the entire Left to go with it – just enough of them to reach 51%.

But my advice to everyone (left, right, libertarian, green, or bacon) is this: don’t identify who you are with any policy, belief, or cause that’s less than 500 years old. You can’t avoid being a member of a community of belief, and you don’t want to avoid this either (society is good, mm’kay), but unless you eventually want to find yourself on the wrong and stupid side of an argument, carefully choose the timeless values you identify with. You’ll find friends in every corner of the world and every political faction, and when new facts come to light you’ll be able to integrate them well as they don’t threaten your identity.

Society itself will benefit from this advise too – since we can more quickly adopt the well-supported policies, and also stop yelling at each other over stupid and inane crap. I hope you’ll do your part to make this rational and polite future come to pass.

Innovation and Demosclerosis

A common trope among certain observers of China is that “China doesn’t innovate”. They copy, and act as a parts and assembly supplier to Western innovation. This isn’t even false, or unreasonable. China is a developing economy and they have a lot of catching up to do in terms of technology and business methods. Why should they reinvent the wheel when they can just learn how to use the wheels the OECD nations have already invented?

But this situation should not be confused with the idea that the Chinese are not an innovative people. Historically they have a long record of innovation, often inventing things (such as paper, the printing press, and gun powder) hundreds of years before the West had them. Culturally their disdain for the merchant class and centralized government prevented these innovations from being widely adopted, but the innovation was certainly there.

Further, we in the rich west have gotten complacent in some of our fields. Computers and IT are very innovative, but what about education or air travel? What about infrastructure? In 2008 the US Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, requiring passenger rail plans to be developed by States. In California that mandate didn’t even result in a plan to build high-speed rail until 2013, and construction of just Phase 1 (connecting L.A. and San Francisco) isn’t expected to be complete until 2029. Meanwhile during roughly the same time period (2007-Present), China has gone from zero miles of high-speed rail to 10,000 miles of working track. That’s more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined.

Now high-profile infrastructure projects like this always beg the question of whether we should build them, of if they’re worth the money, but that’s not the discussion today. The point is, both the USA and China have already decided they should, but only China did. There are reasons for that related to their comparatively lower labor costs and undeveloped rural countryside, but let’s not make excuses for ourselves. The West has hundreds of years’ head start in development, and all the laws and regulations we’ve collected as a result thereof seem to be holding us back more than they are pushing us forward.

This finally leads me to the real topic of this post (I’m terrible at getting to the point quickly), which is the Broad Sustainable Group of China. Broad Group (for short) has been around for a while now, primarily in the HVAC and air quality business. They make industrial-strength HVAC units, the ones that manage air temperature and humidity for major office buildings, very large apartment buildings, and sports complexes. They’re state of the art, managed in real time from a control center in Broad Town, a company town in Hunan, China of, well, Chinese scale and proportion (that is to say, large).

But what Broad Group is catching attention for these days is building really big buildings, really quickly. In fact, they aren’t built so much as assembled. They’re manufactured in a central factory and then flat-packed and shipped by truck to their destination, like Ikea furniture. All the wires, pipes, lighting, air ducts, etc. are built into the module back at the factory, so the assembly process on site consists of lifting the pieces into place using a construction crane and bolting them together.

The first building I’m aware of that Broad Group has built using their new was during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They built a pavilion there in a single day, but I cannot find a video of that now. Since then they have assembled a 15-story hotel in two days, a 17-story building in two days, a 25-story building in 17 days, a 30-story building in 15 days, and a 57-story building in 19 days. There have been others, but not all of them have been captured on video.

All this construction is leading up to Broad Group’s desire to build Sky City One, a 200-story tower (838-meters, or 2,749 ft, tall) that will be the tallest building in the world when complete. And they want to assemble it in 90 days. That assembly time doesn’t include the time spent at the factory building and assembling the modules, which would be a process of six months to a year, but for comparison the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took five years to build from start to finish.

Now before you start freaking out about safety or quality, take a look at this video of Broad Group simulating one of their buildings being shaken by a Richter Scale 10 earthquake. This seems to be a safe design, and in the six years they’ve been building them I haven’t heard of any of them falling down, burning, or experiencing some other catastrophe. They seems to be taking this side of things seriously.

The Broad Group’s methods convey other benefits besides speedy construction. For one thing, building this way is much safer for the workers, as most of the work is done in the controlled environment of a factory, with industrial robots lending assistance, and not in chaotic construction sites. There’s a lot less waste, clean-up is easier, and basically all the same benefits we saw moving to factory production of our cars, machines, and tools. And most importantly, it’s CHEAPER, which is something I’m sure anyone who’s bought an apartment in Manhattan could appreciate. Building more and better things for less is the sina qua non of economic growth.

This is an innovation that could have happened anywhere in the developed nations. This isn’t cutting edge science, and the engineering is easily within our grasp. But we don’t do things this way. Why? No doubt some architect will tell you a story about how we value our individuality too much, but all the Toyota Camry’s I see driving around belie that hogwash. The truth is that we don’t build things this way because we have forgotten that innovation is something that should happen in every industry, not just “technology” companies like Google and Microsoft. We have allowed the laws around permits and site inspections and zoning to calcify around how buildings were constructed at a certain time in our history, and there progress stopped. Meanwhile in China, without that legacy, innovation marched on. China, in this one field, is now more advanced than the West, as they made a step of progress we could have made – should have made – forty years ago or more.

But all is not lost. Here’s the good news: China has shown it can be done. This is as good a time as any to reflect on the laws we have, and reconsider our approach. Rather than specifying how we build, and send in site inspectors to shut down construction now and then (which is costly), we ought to focus on the results we want (especially around safety and environmental health) and then let innovation bloom again to find better, cheaper, faster ways of meeting those needs. This is how the developed West can ensure that the future happens here too, and not just in China.

Freedom, but from what?

Nicholas Eberstadt reports from The American Enterprise Institute on the continuing trend away from traditional marriage and two-parent families, and even family itself. We all know about the rise of single-parent households, but now we learn:

In Belgium … the likelihood of a first marriage for a woman of reproductive age is now down to 40%, and the likelihood of divorce is over 50%. This means that in Belgium the odds of getting married and staying married are under one in five. A number of other European countries have similar or even lower odds.

Europe has also seen a surge in “child-free” adults—voluntary childlessness. The proportion of childless 40-something women is one in five for Sweden and Switzerland, and one in four for Italy. In Berlin and in the German city-state of Hamburg, it’s nearly one in three, and rising swiftly. Europe’s most rapidly growing family type is the one-person household: the home not only child-free, but partner- and relative-free as well. In Western Europe, nearly one home in three (32%) is already a one-person unit, while in autonomy-prizing Denmark the number exceeds 45%.

Emphasis added.

I am reminded of this post by David about an old lady who hadn’t heard from her children in 46 years. She was alone in her dotage. That is truly sad, but at least David was around. Someone’s child was there. But what if no one has any children? Will anyone be there to even turn the lights off? Europe seems to be dying, and rather than try to fix the issue they’re just making the death a bit easier. It surely can be no coincidence that the lands with the highest rates of childlessness are also embracing assisted suicide. If there’s nothing to live for, and no future you’re fighting for, why bother with all the pain and trouble?

Back to Nicholas, he recognizes a problem with the Europe’s lack of families, but misses the larger point:

Yet in infancy and childhood and then again much later, in feebleness or senescence, people need more from others. Whatever else we may be, we are all manifestly inconvenient at the start and end of life. Thus the recasting of the family puts it on a collision course with the inescapable inconvenience of the human condition itself—portending outcomes and risks we have scarcely begun to consider.

On the contrary, I would say that Europe has considered it and found a solution more to their liking. They want freedom, but of a particular kind. They want freedom from the messy obligations to other individuals. They’re fine with taxes and tightly regulated economies, because freedom from government isn’t a European desire. The government, however imperfect, it appropriately distant and dispassionate in its actions. It leaves the ordinary European alone on a day-to-day basis to read their books, go for bike rides in the park, and sip a beer (either alone or with a friend for the day, as the mood strikes). There is no obligation deeper than to pay taxes, and the dole is available when that is too burdensome, and then assisted suicide is available when even breathing has become inconvenient. Truly, Western Europe is the most free society that has ever been created – no obligations of any sort, not even to live.

Back in the 19th century the masses of Europe who left their homes for America were greeted by a welcoming bronze gaze overlooking Manhattan’s harbor. Well Europeans to this day are still abandoning Europe in droves, but to a land far harder to come back from than America. Do they imagine who is there to greet them? The ancient Greeks believed that Hades had to abduct Persephone in order to have a queen in the underworld, but today’s seem to believe in a more welcoming embrace.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Freedom, she promises. Freedom from life’s burdens. Just put that burden down.

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Kings, pawns, and riflemen

Edmond: We are kings or pawns, a man once said.
Luigi: Who told you this?
Edmond: Napolean Bonaparte.
Luigi: Bonaparte? [laughs] Oh, Zatarra, the stories you tell.

An exchange from one of my favorite movies. In the time of Napolean it was probably true as well, but I don’t think so any more. We now live in a democratic age, where men are much more equal in power than kings and pawns on a chess board. Not fully equal – there will always be some with more influence than others, through their charisma, money, or political acumen – but more equal. At the margin, political equality has improved dramatically. And that’s largely thanks to the mass manufacturing of the gun.

The Colt Manufacturing company once used the slogan “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal”, and as slogans go, it’s an accurate one. The days when a knight in armor and his men at arms could inflict violence at will on unarmed peasants, or when Spartan youths could hunt helots for sport, are long gone. Americans have known this for centuries, which is why gun control laws originally targeted blacks only. A black man with a gun could be employed, but not enslaved.

Some people think that the age of the gun’s equality has come to an end, and that the professionalism, heavy armor, and overwhelming firepower of modern armies make the mere rifle an afterthought. This thinking is wrong. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that defeating a military and defeating an armed people are two very different things. A military can be defeated by smashing its armor and disrupting its supply chain, but a populace armed with weapons as “weak” as rifles and improvised explosives can only be bargained with, killed off in act of genocide, or retreated from. The Sunni tribes in Iraq taught the Americans this, and in turn the Kurds of Kobane taught it to the Sunnis. Truly, political power flows from the barrel of the lowly gun.

For this reason, we should be cautious when comparing our age to previous times and places. What worked in the past, when the common men could be safely ignored, will not work now. From the American and French Revolutions onward, all successful movements have been mass movements. Technology itself has become democratic, and it’s only getting more so.

Samuel Wilson at Euvoluntary Exchange writes about the problems Defense Distributed is having finding a shipping agent for its Ghost Gunner CNC mill (which really is no different from many other CNC mills on the market, but is marketed for its gun-making skills). It’s really a rather silly problem, which Defense Distributed has created for itself by speaking when they should be quiet. And ultimately, it’s a futile gesture by FedEx (afraid of the ATF and FBI, no doubt) to try to prevent the further democratization of gun ownership. The Ghost Gunner is hardly the only CNC mill that can make guns – they all can. The knowledge for making the gun is in the software that anyone can download to their local CNC machine, not in a particular piece of hardware.

Nonetheless I expect to see this pattern play out in many shapes and forms, as government tries to retain even its weak monopoly on force. As software eats the world, it will also eat into the production of arms and weapons. The drones which Noah Smith thinks means the end of democratic violence are in fact even more democratic than the rifle. A 10-year old girl with a laptop and an X-box controller is more the equal of an adult male in the drone pilot game than the infantryman one. Even kids in wheelchairs can do it. At the margin, equality of violence is still increasing. The Gini of death-dealing is going down. And again the American government knows it, which is why drone control laws are already on the books and targeting the hobbyist market (there’s no firmware-enforced no-fly zone in an Air Force Predator drone, I assure you). But this is just as futile as the Ghost Gunner blockade. Firmware without no-fly restrictions is just a download away.