Monday, February 27, 2017

On France, Immigration, Islam, and Culture

I started this blog because I had a lot of time on my hands, as I had just lost my job.

Actually, wait. Let me back up a second. I was working on contract for a Boston-based higher education company, writing emails and website content to entice foreign students to enroll in American universities. One day I will write about the higher education bubble, but that is not today.

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the last week I worked at this company ended on January 20th. Indeed, I would be extremely surprised if the travel ban didn’t adversely affect a company funded through student visas.

But my personal problems, inconvenient as they are, aren’t what’s at stake here. Instead, I’d like to talk about immigration, and France.

First off, I want to parenthetically state that I am not French, my spoken French is poor, and my understanding of French culture and politics is rudimentary at best. Nevertheless, France is an interesting case study, and many of its problems are same ones that the world is struggling to address. While there are no easy answers for their problems, their attempted solutions have implications which provide a snapshot for the next several decades of geopolitical activity.

Let’s start with the French concept of Laïcité. In short, “secularism” is not new in France. Since 1905, the state and religion have been officially separate (though the French history of secularism goes back at least to Napoleonic times). This goes somewhat farther than it does in America; the first article of the French Constitution is: La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale (“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic”). Traditionally, religiously motivated thinking on political matters was incompatible with reasoned political debate, and candidates who used religious justifications for their beliefs were marginalized and not taken seriously. Laïcité is, essentially, a political correctness that makes the mention of religion in political affairs taboo.

This has changed somewhat, in the last decade, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued for a "positive laïcité", specifically, one that recognizes the positive benefits of religion in society. (Of note, France was historically very Catholic — separation of the church, not just a church. More on all this a little later.) Which brings us to another Sarkozy-era policy: the French burqa ban. The ban (which was ostensibly not religious, by including helmets and other face coverings) was upheld in the European Court of Human Rights, which begrudgingly recognized that the French argument of “vivre ensemble” (translated as “living together”) was legitimate. The defense was literally that the ban helped protect French culture.

Culture is such a slippery thing. What makes a culture? Does it need protecting, and if so, from what? Is it even possible to protect? (Witness the death of France’s “monokini beach culture, and the recent banning of the burkini)

Myself, I have an inordinate fondness for French culture. My eyes well up at the thought of Paris in spring, I am overwhelmed with joy at the sight of a boulangerie, and my only happiness in life comes from consuming French food. Nor am I alone in my adoration, France is an incredibly popular worldwide tourist destination and culture plays an important part of it. If the world had a single homogenous culture, with everything the same everywhere, what would be the point of visiting places? I’ll come back to this, but first, let’s talk about Algeria.

Algeria is here
Ignoring much of the earlier history, Algeria was run as a French colony from 1830 to 1962. Algeria, along with the neighboring protectorates Morocco and Tunisia, was the center of interest for France in North Africa. Nor was Algeria merely a source of wealth, in February 1863, Emperor Napoleon III wrote a public letter to the Military Governor, saying: "Algeria is not a colony in the traditional sense, but an Arab kingdom; the local people have, like the colonists, a legal right to my protection. I am just as much the Emperor of the Arabs of Algeria as I am of the French."

The Europeans certainly took this to heart, gladly settling throughout the Maghreb/Barbary Coast, and enjoying the benefits of French citizenship. The French system of government is organized differently than the United States’, but it is a decent approximation to say that Algeria was a state (département), with full representation and voting rights, albeit with a large population of surly non-citizens. By the 20th century, more than 10% of the population was European (mostly concentrated in the cities, where they numbered between 30-40% of the population).

While the French policy was ostensibly to “civilize” the indigenous population, in practice this meant seizing their land and forcing them to learn French (this should not be surprising to anyone with a modest knowledge of history). And while they did offer a path to French citizenship, this required complete submission to the French legal system, and a formal renunciation of certain aspects of sharia law. This did not go over very well with the native Muslims, and only a few thousand Algerians took this path to citizenship.

The remainder mostly stayed mad, and the colonial period was marked by strained relationships with the native Muslims, the Jews (who became French citizens), and the colonists. There were too many uprisings to list here, but most of them ended with a lot of Muslim Algerians dead, and the Muslim population of Algeria developed a lot of justified resentment to French rule, culminating in the long and messy Algerian War. By the end of it, the French government had collapsed and had been replaced with the “5th Republic” under the Presidency of Charles Du Galle, Algeria declared its independence, and over 800,000 people fled Algeria for France. Many of those left behind, including the Harkis (Muslims loyal to the French regime), were butchered, and I mean that very literally.

Much of France’s modern Muslim population is directly descended from the repatriated Harkis (many of whom spent years in internment camps before being moved to housing projects), which is why I’ve spent so much time talking about this. A lot of immigration activity in the intervening years were Muslim families being reunited on French soil. And even if many of them were not technically citizens, their children are by virtue of being born in France.

So, bringing us towards the current year, we have a whole bunch of historically mistreated and mostly poor Muslims living in France, who have been given a rough deal over the last few decades and, understandably, have relatively little interest or opportunity to assimilate into French society. Also, as you might expect, the French were not especially welcoming to their refugees, even the ones that were ethnically European and spoke French. To sum up, it was a pretty bad situation all around.

Now it’s finally time to bring another big piece of the puzzle into play: Le Pen, and The National Front.

I would like to take a second to direct any readers interested in the history of far-right political parties to read my series on Fascism and Tribalism, as many of these movements share important commonalities. As one would expect, far-right Nationalist views have a long history in France, with clear ideological lines leading from the pro-monarchy faction opposing the French revolution (the original 1789 one, which is apparently still a force actively shaping French politics), to the Action Français (which supported the Vichy Regime and was an ideological cousin of Fascism), to the current Front National (FN). In the case of the FN, the FN party formed as a direct reaction to the war in Algeria, with many of the members, including Jean-Marie Le Pen himself (who reminds me strongly of Lyndon LaRouche), having fought against Algerian independence.

At any rate, the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen did not enjoy much electoral support, struggling until the 1980s, when they were able to form a coalition (the French political system is structured differently) with the center-right Rally for the Republic and centrist Union for French Democracy parties. Since then, they have struggled to maintain more than 10-15% of the vote in most places, with a crushing loss to Chirac in 2002 (Chirac refused to debate Le Pen on television, and won 82% of the vote, with polls indicating that over half the votes were cast specifically to block Le Pen).

In 2010, Le Pen (the “Devil of the Republic”) stepped down as president of the FN, and was succeeded by his daughter: Marine Le Pen. Since coming to power in the party, she has attempted to “de-demonizethe National Front, attempting to soften their image, dialing back their public xenophobia, and threatening to sue anyone who called the FN “extreme right”. This, coupled with the rise in right wing nationalism worldwide has led the FN to a projected first round victory in the upcoming election. Needless to say, Marine Le Pen has also benefited from the rise in anti-Islamic sentiment throughout France, as well as from a spate of high profile riots and terrorist attacks .
“The Immigrants are going to vote… and you’re not?!!”
There have been accusations of criminality, as well as investigations into Le Pen’s financial ties and support from Russia (with corresponding public statements), allegations of Russian interference in the election, money, and a mysterious visit to Trump Tower.

But it’s poor form to attack the arguer, instead of the argument. The issues (and contradictions) raised by Le Pen are worth discussing on their own merits, whether or not she eventually turns out to be a Russian plant. But I’m wondering at the central contradiction: we have an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim “France first” party, led by the daughter of a man who fought to keep Algeria as part of France. Issues of a “migrant waveaside, the Muslims the National Front is struggling against are the children of the Harkis, who fought for France against their homeland of Algeria.

And, since I started writing this piece, Emmanuel Macron, a "left-wing" candidate in the French presidential election, is dealing with backlash and falling poll numbers amid criticism of his statement that France’s history in Algeria was a “crime against humanity”. That the sharpest criticism has come from Le Pen should not be a surprise, but what is shocking (to me at least) is the degree to which this view is controversial at all. It would appear, judging by the reaction, that a sizable plurality of France has yet to come to an honest account of their colonial history.

Looking at it, I don’t see why it’s controversial that the French should apologize to the people they massacred. In fact, I’ll go on record and say that if you kill a bunch of people, you have to at least say you’re sorry afterwards. It just seems like common sense. Clearly, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this particular essay, because I haven’t even got to the part I really want to talk about: Déclinisme

It should not be surprising that the people who brought us Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida are heavily interested in the decline of civilization. Nor should it be surprising that Le Pen and the right are able to harness this national zeitgeist towards their own ends. But what I want to talk about is something my audience might find uncomfortable: what if they’re right?

What if France really is declining? More to the point, what if it’s already doomed? While there are severe demographic challenges lurking in Europe’s future, and although the French birthrate has declined past the point of replacement, they’re still doing better than most… right? Maybe not. Quick note on the stuff to follow, this isn’t as robust as the data I normally provide — a direct consequence of the fact that France has laws against racism that extends to the concept of race. As a result, there is no officially recorded data available tracking demographic changes in France. That means there is no easy way to know what’s happening, unlike in America, where there’s clear evidence of these trends.

This is the kind of headline that makes some people nervous and violent. At this point, most of the intelligentsia is familiar with the concept of white backlash, and the resulting long term political trends are eminently predictable (this link is from 2014). But, returning to France, neo-reaction blogger Steve Sailer has pulled together some data that I’m going to take at face value for this article (I don’t have enough French to adequately review his sources).

Steve, who is not off the hook for the race stuff (I’ll get to that in a second), found a way to estimate the percentages of births in France to parents of non-European ancestry. The French government tests newborn babies for sickle cell anemia if and only if both parents (or one if only one is known) come from regions with high genetic risk for the disease, or if there is a family history for the disease. He found a steady increase, from 25.6% in 2005 to 38.9% in 2015. He also noted that in the Paris region (Île de France), the rate was 73.4% in 2015. This, coupled with the falling birthrate, suggests a significant downward trend in births to European French.

Look. Please don’t get it wrong. I know racism is bad. And, more to the point, I know that discussing it is often taboo, and talking about race is extremely difficult, especially on the Left. But I also know that if the Left is going to seriously challenge the [alt] Right on issues like this, they need to provide a stronger case. Because a not-insignificant percentage of the population are worried that they and their culture are going extinct (14 words is a well known example of this). Really responding to this viewpoint takes far more than what the Left is currently doing (some combination of ignoring it, disinterest, and actively praising multi-culturalism). Telling someone who (rightly or wrongly) is concerned for their children’s future to get over it, and that they’re racist for thinking it, is not and cannot ever be a winning strategy. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we have to do better.

But back to culture. Now this is a very shallow and selfish argument, and almost certainly not germane to the discussion but I like French culture. I like walking through the arrondissements, carrying a baguette and whistling Aux Champs-Elysées. Yes, I might have a problem. And while I’m also interested in visiting the Maghreb (I hear Morocco is amazing), I don’t want France to lose whatever essential quality it is that makes it what it is. 

And, loath as I might be to admit it, the National Front has a point about Islamic culture being incompatible with secular western values. It is not difficult to see why conservative Muslim communities might have trouble adjusting to Laïcité — their views on women’s rights, gender segregation, homosexuality, alcohol, and Judaism put them far out of step with modern French society.

America is also dealing with these issues. And, places with higher concentrations of Muslims in America are seeing similar ethnic and political tensions. Places like Dearborn, Michigan get extreme attention from the right, who are using rhetoric and voicing concerns indistinguishable from the ones echoed by the National Front. I don’t claim to know how to effectively respond, but an effective response probably shouldn’t look like this one (from the huffington post).

My conservative readers are likely shouting at their screens about me missing the obvious conclusion to all of this, but I don’t think it’s that simple. At the risk of being wishy-washy, both sides make strong points, but the outcome is still very much in doubt (though, as I’ve mentioned before in “Don’t Be a Reactionary, conflict is part of the plan on both sides).

The most important takeaway I see, other than the fact that France is struggling right now, is that the left’s current definition of culture is woefully insufficient. At the very least, the long term consequences and implications have not been adequately explored. The toxic and dogmatic atmosphere surrounding “leftist” identity politics is more than amenable to right wing co-opting. As the penalties for being seen to transgress from the ideologically accepted lines become more severe (witness the backlash Uber has received, despite their protestations to the contrary), the more reasonable rightwing reaction movements will seem. 

This is slightly off the main topic, but in a world where #killallmen can trend, it’s not so surprising that a “men’s rights” should exist. A brief viewing of the “#whitepeople” hashtag will see (non-white) people talking about how they don’t like white people, and white people who are talking about white genocide and posting swastikas. Which is not to say that the two are equivalent, but neither one is making things better for the world. Is it a choice? Is this just the price we have to pay to hold back cultural homogeny?

I’m not sure, but writing about this already seems anachronistic, like I’m swimming against the tide of history. While I’d like to believe otherwise, I sincerely doubt that there exists some answer that can placate all sides. Eventually, we’ll have to choose.  

Friday, February 24, 2017

On Being a Cassandra: AI

On this blog, I've been accused of being a Cassandra, a Debbie downer, and a real stick in the mud.

I'll admit that my tone is dark, and that I'm completely lacking in optimism of any kind. My counter is this: there really is a lot to worry about. (safety is an illusion, the only solace is the void, etc.)

I'm not going to claim that I'm not a little neurotic and prone to alarmism. But the optimism bias is a very real thing, with the vast majority of people consistently overestimating things like their odds of success, underestimating how long unpleasant tasks will take, and generally ignoring unpleasant things if it's possible to do so. But I would imagine that (if it's in fact a real thing) I suffer from depressive realism, which is what they call it when a depressed person is able to operate without that bias. In fact, I'd say it's hard to be pessimistic enough.

So with that charming fact in mind, I'd like to start making a list of bad things I'm worried about. This post will be the first in a series of me ranting incoherently about problems.

Artificial Intelligence: I've written about this one before. The danger from A.I. comes in two major varieties; one near and one far. The near one I've written about in "A Futurist View on the Welfare State". We're already starting to see the effects of this, but there are more and worse in the future.

The far view is more speculative, the sci-fi Skynet situation, where an unfriendly A.I. does bad things. This one appears a lot in books and TV, which is unfortunate for two reasons:
1. It causes people to disregard it, the same way they disregard wizards and aliens as entertaining but not real.
2. The realistic situations aren't as exciting as the stories, so people get bored and tune out.

Intelligent systems are not people. Moral reasoning is not well understood, terrifyingly vague, and impossible to effectively implement. A superintelligent A.I. tasked with eliminating cancer  might happily develop new surgical techniques and treatment options, until it figured out a way to safely and reliably end all life on earth, thereby ensuring that no cancer cells could ever form.

If this seems unrealistic to you, you don't understand how computers work. A recent A.I. was designed to play Nintendo games as well as possible. It got very good at Mario, because that game is beatable. When it was introduced to Tetris, it went as far as it could, and then paused (Tetris has been mathematically proven to be unbeatable). Pausing the game forever, so you can't technically lose, is exactly the kind of solution that Artificial Intelligences come up with when faced with a difficult to solve problem. If there is an easy path to take, they will take it.

The problem is that almost any goal, if pursued with superhuman intelligence, could easily result in outcomes that humans would consider bad. As anyone who has interacted with them knows, computers are very literal, and will do what you say, not what you mean.
Mickey did not realize the danger of poorly defined utility functions
There are some organizations doing research into this problem, but it is very very difficult, if not  insolvable. Our computers are not yet as advanced as Mickey's brooms (they knew right away how to fill up the buckets without being taught!) but they are no less single-minded in pursuit of their goals.

To conclude, there doesn't need to be any malice involved (though the dangers of someone using A.I. for nefarious purposes should need no explanation), and the A.I. doesn't even need to be all that intelligent, to develop major problems.

Monday, February 20, 2017

On Tribalism

An “On Fascism” follow-up.

A couple things happened to me today, making me want to put aside my other projects and stay up late writing a little more about Tribalism. The first is that someone had a critique for “On Fascism” that I wanted to address. The second, I will get to shortly.

I will reproduce the critique in part:
The trouble is that you like almost everybody else treats fascism as a synonym for "bad stuff" and basically your series can be summed up as "how neutral stuff can lead to bad stuff".
The problem is, neutral stuff, like 22 points, are normal to have. Therefore you should focus on how could people have those 22 neutral things without the big bad thing.
Otherwise the whole thing becomes yet another exercise in cuckservatism, basically telling conservative people you must mostly surrender to liberal stuff and have to give up your tribal view of nation and people or else there is the big bad stuff coming … You are just pushing the old agenda that any consistent and uncompromising way to be a tribal conservative equals Godwin.
He (and I assume it is a he) linked to another blog, whose central argument I will also reproduce:
“Fascists” are those populist, democratic-demotic, socialist, mass-movement leaders who don’t give a damn about the Intelligentsia. Who accept that the peasants want some kind national-religious superstitious mysticism. They are still socialist and envy-based to the core, they are just far more willing to look stupid and uneducated than Communists are. They don’t want to look Lenin-style smart and intellectual. They were basically saying they don’t need the Intelligentsia in order to whip up the Demos [people], they can do it without them.
It’s a small wonder Intelligentsia hated these guys first and foremost, far more than anyone else. They could deal with everybody else, they could ally with the Moderate Left and whip up the Demos to attack the Moderate Right, but these guys were taking their Demos tools from them!
So this is how these populist-socialist, anti-intellectual-socialist movements were constructed “Far Right” and “fascist”. In reality they were largely Anti-Intellectual Far Left, i.e. raw envy without the smart sounding stuff and with a lot of bullshit mysticism.
While, and I'll be honest, the novelty of being called a "cuckservative" is a fresh and interesting new experience for me, the argument is one I want to address more directly.

Let's start with something I hold to be self-evident: Tribalism is Bad. It's also, unfortunately, normal and unavoidable. Also unfortunate, is the fact that my innate bias makes a truly objective argument impossible. I can try to dress up historical examples as evidence, but even if I really try, it's still going to end up as motivated reasoning and virtue signalling. The fact that arguing, reason, and persuasion are only the tools that people use to gain power over one another, as opposed to facilitating a real exchange of ideas, is supremely frustrating to me.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone, when was the last time you got in a political argument with someone, and changed their mind? Or they changed your mind? Confirmation bias is real, and it's a bitch; anyone who disagrees has, in all likelihood, checked out (or is reading only to look for flaws in my reasoning). 

But this isn't just academic, look at this graph from YouGov:

Nor is this an isolated example, here's the one for Wikileaks:
I think the problem is obvious, but I'll spell it out anyway — people's opinions of things change drastically, both as they are seen to affect their tribe (wikileaks), or if high profile people in their tribe change their opinions. We have always been at war with Eastasia. 

This is madness. Things that are true (scientific theorems, a list of Putin's terrible deeds, etc) don't stop being true just because our opinion on them changes.

I realize I'm conflating several points here, but it's because I am continually struggling to understand how people think. I can guarantee that if it had been reversed, with Russia helping Clinton win the election by leaking Trump's emails, I would still not be a fan of Putin. That guy's killed journalists, and done other bad things too. I should hope I don't need to cite sources for this!

I've gone kind of a long way to get here, but it's important. I want to believe that (almost) everyone is fundamentally good and trying their best, and that post problems are more to do with coordination and intractable desires (two groups wanting the same piece of land, etc.). As part of this, it's axiomatic that human rights are paramount; you do the right thing by people not because they might do bad things to you (the golden rule), but because it's the right thing to do, because every person's life has inherent value. Not just when you feel like it but always; no wiggle room, no exceptions.

This position is hopelessly naïve, and falls apart with a single defector. The reason I spend so much time talking and thinking about these political issues, is because the people involved (simply do not accept this (on both sides, looking at you black bloc). I can and will continue to list examples, but as near as I can tell, the vast majority of people don't behave this way, and care only about the people who are like them (or at least make decisions as if the lives of their friends, family, and countrymen are more important than the lives of anyone else). How can you make people cooperate? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that these right-wing nationalist groups, despite acting rationally, nevertheless embody the worst of humanity's tribalistic, short-sighted nature. 

I feel like an idiot, talking like this. "How do you make people better, smarter, wiser, and kinder?" is a stupid and foolish question, but it's one I keep coming back to.

Let me tell you about the second thing that happened to me today. I was in the supermarket, when I observed an interesting exchange. A brown-skinned man, for whom English was clearly not his first language, asked someone stocking the shelves where an item was. He was told were it was, and walked off. The stock-er then spent the next minute muttering (very very quietly) under his breath about immigrants, and how Donald Trump was going to fix it, and how he was the best president, and other things along that line. This really actually happened, and I was inordinately pleased at the time because I'm an inveterate narcissist who was thrilled to have something to write about. And I'm going to go on record and say that that man's reaction is both symptomatic of the problem and fundamentally inappropriate.

So no, I have to disagree. Call it an old agenda if you want, but there is ample evidence that tribalism, while undoubtedly a normal behavior for humanity, is fundamentally harmful (or at least inevitably leads to harmful outcomes for the out-groups. We have to do better than that. 

And I'm sorry, guy on the internet, that the thing you want is bad. I truly do empathize, as I wish I could make everyone agree with me, and other bad things too. But if the real goal is to have peace on earth, with everyone living long, happy, fulfilling lives, there's simply no way that a world of ethno-states is the way to go. What about people who don't fit? What happens when two different groups want the same land? What happens when one of these ethno-states wants to take something that belongs to someone else?

That's a rhetorical question, by the way. We all know what it leads to. Imperialism, if the other state can't fight back, and war if they can. I talk about this more in "A Historical Blip", but it's easy to forget how long and violent the history of the world has been, as we enjoy a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity. There is no such thing as a little bit of tribalism, or a "good" ethno-state, and it's not about intellectuals getting mad at anti-intellectuals (though I guess it's not not about that...), it's about having an ideological foundation for the world that works for everyone, not just for people like you.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Updates — Trump and Robots

Just a quick followup post, providing a few updates on Don't be a Reactionary and A Futurist View of the Welfare State. I'm hard at work on my next long post, which is about France, immigration, culture, and the National Front, but it's at least a week away, so I wanted to leave you all with something.

First, the anti-LGBT executive order I predicted in Don't be a Reactionary did not go into effect, though there were extensive leaks, suggesting that it was at least written, if not implemented. Recently in the news, there was a high profile axing of LGBT rights by Jeff Sessions. Clearly, some people in the White House (looking at you, Pence), are still working towards that, even though my exact prediction did not come to pass.

Secondly, though I didn't know all the details at the time I was writing A Futurist View of the Welfare State, major AI researchers met back in January to discuss future and societal implications of AI. Their analysis vindicates my own, and the later think pieces summarizing their views have titles like The AI Threat Isn’t Skynet. It’s the End of the Middle Class. The consensus view seems to be more in line with this paper, which estimates that "each additional robot reduces employment by about seven workers, and one new robot per thousand workers reduces wages by 1.2 to 1.6 percent." More robust write-ups are available from people who actually attended the conference (I wasn't invited).
More Shameless Theft from Scott Alexander's Much Better and More Popular Blog
Other corroborating points have been made since, most notably by our resident shape-shifting alien wizard Elon Musk at the World Government Summit: "There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better... What to do about mass unemployment? This is going to be a massive social challenge. And I think ultimately we are going to have some sort of universal basic income. I don’t think we have any choice.”

His full speech is available on youtube, but the relevant bit starts at around 45:25.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Foul Wisdom of Scott Adams

I started reading the blog of Dilbert-creator Scott Adams over a year ago. Specifically, when he predicted Donald Trump’s soon-to-be inevitable victory over the field of republican presidential candidates, and his victory in the general election, beginning as early as August of 2015.

This was at a time when Trump’s odds of winning the general election were lower than Scott Walker’s or Joe Biden’s. Just a quick warning, I won’t be linking to as many sources in this essay, as Adams tends to write short posts and develop ideas over time. This makes tracking the development of his ideas a little difficult, as he tends to follow up with a stronger, more formulated idea several days or weeks after his initial musings.

There’s another reason I won’t be citing sources: Scott Adams is a loathsome, amoral person, whose writings at best do not benefit, and at worse actively harm humanity.

This is perhaps an overly harsh criticism, and certainly one that Adams would probably disagree with (He would likely say that he is a provocateur trying to entertain and make people think about cognition).

But regardless of my personal views, this is not to say that Adams' writing is of poor quality, or lacking in wisdom. My opinions of current events (specifically regarding the election) were immeasurably informed through his perspective. Indeed, I was persuaded early-on (by early September 2015) that Trump would win the nomination and likely the presidency. As a direct consequence, I have been insufferable ever since, and have said “I told you so” on over a dozen separate occasions.

I especially want to clarify why I have such a distaste for Adams, because it is inexorably linked to the most important thing that can be learned from his writings: a practical disavowal of epistemic, objective truth, in favor of an emphasis on exploiting cognitive biases and the science of persuasion (with a side of outlandish, high profile claims for attention and notoriety).

His latest stunt, featuring climate change is a typical example of the form. He is given to staking out a provocative, indefensible position and shielding it through the active sowing of skepticism and doubt on the epistemic process. In this case, by demanding evidence of climate change, and then claiming that any evidence provided is unreliable. It is strikingly reminiscent of the methods used by people seeking to forward the cause of creation science, or the anti-vaccine movement, or people trying to prove the moon landing was fake, or any of a dozen other examples.

The goal is to bait the establishment into responding, whereupon you win exposure and adherents, as well as the majority’s scorn.

But it’s worse than that. The crux of his argument, and the core of his philosophy, is the same that he used to defend Trump: the facts don’t matter, because people can’t know enough to make informed decisions. Even if the information and facts are available, your innate biases will color your judgment, making the decision fundamentally an emotional one — you believe climate science because you want to believe that you’re right about the things you already believe.

Adams argued that because Trump had good marketing (“Make America Great Again” and other sticky slogans), as well as the ability to reach people on a deep level (by tapping into their fears and insecurities), he had a huge advantage over the rest of the political field, who were focusing on arguments based on fact and policy.

The events of the last few years appear to support Adams’ position, as he gleefully notes that each blowup and negative headline is actually working in Trump’s favor, as part of his larger strategy (I’ve written about this before). 

I usually think of myself as a cynic, and work actively to shed any false and/or naïve beliefs I have. As such, I’m always surprised and unsettled to find someone more cynical than me out in the wild. I’m not one to flinch from the truth, but the truth exposed by Scott’s beliefs, accurate as they may be, are a bitter and poisonous pill. Who could wish to live in a world where objective reality doesn’t matter, where might makes right, and where power comes solely through the manipulation of the crowd? A “truth” such as this leaves no room for the important lies (as mentioned in my first post), and no path to bettering ourselves or our society.

Scott sees the world in terms of persuaders/hypnotists and the rubes who are unable to resist. On numerous occasions, he has delightedly proclaimed that hypnotists (such as himself) can work the explanation into their process, and it will still work — there is no defense. Clearly the persuasion works, it’s certainly persuaded me well enough, and his predictions, while not as accurate as he often claims, were closer than any of the mainstream pundits.

But what I don’t understand, and what’s most frustrating to me is, given these assumptions are true, is joining the bandwagon really the best he can do? The greatest good? The man wrote dozens of posts about Trump, ending many of them with a half-hearted disavowal of support for Trump dripping with praise for Donald’s powers of persuasion. It is, to be blunt, bullshit.

He later “endorsed” Clinton, but only because he was afraid for his ‘personal safety’. Then he endorsed Trump, then Gary Johnson (??), then Trump again. Clearly, attention-seeking behavior, but undeniably effective; he was able to go on TV news to talk about Trump, as well as hawk his latest book. Color me unimpressed

No, if there’s one overriding reaction I have, it’s disappointment. For all his talents, for all his millions, he would rather be a liar and a panderer, telling truths wrapped in lies. Is this the extent of his ambition? It’s a tragic waste, if so. As much as it pains me to admit it, there are more important things than being right. The world is dark enough without him adding to it, and we all need to be better than Scott Adams.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Anarchy in the News

One small benefit of terrible things happening throughout the world is that I can write something about them (hopefully something short, otherwise I'm stuck editing and researching for days).

But it's rare that events are so illustrative, bringing light to flaws in political philosophies.

This is not one I usually deal with, but let's address Anarchism.

Fun, right? A lot of utopian political philosophies require some kind of self-organized system, without the benefit of a state. The basic idea behind anarchy is not simple violence, but the premise that people will organize spontaneously.

More specifically, that the community can and will handle problems independently, even problems normally dealt with through governmental intervention. It is a very nice idea, and if you survey a dozen teens, you'll probably find one that can explain the benefits in more detail.

Occasionally, this idea is tested.

Yesterday, in the Brazilian city of Vitoria in Espírito Santo, the police were striking due to poor wages, or no pay. I was skimming when reading about the causes, but the reason isn't really the point.

What is far more interesting were the consequences: Residents saw actual Purge-styled chaos, "thugs" (not my word choice!) randomly shooting at passersby, looting, and plenty of good old-fashioned murder. Readers with a more prurient interest may do their own search for security footage and cell phone recordings, I will not be linking them here.

And lest we be tempted to say that this is a function of the general lawlessness and cultural instability of Brazil, there have been other examples. I want to draw the reader's attention to the 1969 Murray-Hill riot in Montreal (also caused by a police strike).
"Montreal is in a state of shock. A police officer is dead and 108 people have been arrested following 16 hours of chaos during which police and firefighters refused to work. At first, the strike's impact was limited to more bank robberies than normal. But as night fell, a taxi drivers' union seized upon the police absence to violently protest a competitor's exclusive right to airport pickups. The result, according to this CBC Television special, was a 'night of terror.' Shattered shop windows and a trail of broken glass are evidence of looting that erupted in the downtown core. With no one to stop them, students and separatists joined the rampage. Shop owners, some of them armed, struggled to fend off looters. Restaurants and hotels were also targeted. A corporal with the Quebec provincial police was shot and killed at the garage of the Murray Hill limousine company as taxi drivers tried to burn it down."
Steven Pinker's quote on the matter is also instructive, though I have to say that the most charming thing about the Canadian incident was a group of angry cab drivers deciding to burn down a competing limousine company.

The Brazilian army has since been brought in to restore order, to the applause of the people living there.

I don't have too much else to say about this at the moment, though I suspect I will remember the sound of people cheering at the sight of army trucks for quite some time. Human beings are consistently not well behaved when left to their own devices, and we forget this at our peril.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Futurist View of the Welfare State, Part I: Luddites and the 47%

Here is a cool bricklaying robot. Companies can use it to reduce the number of workers on  construction projects, and make their jobs easier. McDonalds is working on full automation for their restaurants (that link is already 2 years old!). Isn’t technology incredible? A full 47% of jobs in the United States are “at risk for computerization”, which is a fancy way of saying that those jobs won’t exist anymore.

Consider the imminently-arriving self-driving car, which I am personally a fan of, as I have to drive in Boston, where I constantly face death at the hands of other Boston drivers. Computers are a lot better at driving than people, and anything that reduces the 30-40 thousand people who die every year (in the US) due to traffic accidents is an unambiguous good and, frankly, a moral imperative.

But while self-driving cars are great for me, they will also “computerize” the trucking industry. And while that’s good for grocery stores, it’s terrible news for truck drivers. In 29 states, “Truck Driver” is the most prevalent job. It’s also an important job, providing above median wages to people of all genders, educations, and socioeconomic class.  

Truck driving jobs are important not only for truckers and their families, but for towns as well. Hundreds of small towns throughout the country are sustained by the consistent revenue that truck drivers bring, eating their food, sleeping in their motels, and pumping gas from their gas stations.

But I want to go back to that number: 47%, and really stop to consider it. What would that be like? An obvious comparison would the Great Depression, right? Let’s take a look:

At the worst of the Great Depression, the American unemployment rate was 25%. Things were famously bad back then, with bread lines, bank runs, Steinbeck, Huey Long, Benito Mussolini, and other sources of worldwide unrest. Things didn’t get much better until the war started, when everyone could work full time killing each other and building war machines.

This isn’t to say that society ground to a halt, but it’s a clear understatement to say that the world didn’t do very well with 25% of the people out of work. And 25 is a lot less than 47.

Now I hear you complaining, imaginary interlocutor. You’re complaining that I’m a Luddite. That the affectation I’m writing with is alienating and maybe a little off-putting. Rest assured, I hear your complaints. But to push back hard against the Luddite complaint, let’s look at their situation: thousands of highly trained and highly skilled craftsmen (weavers and textile workers) suddenly became obsolete with the invention of textile weaving machines. They were worried the years spent learning their specialized craft would be for nothing. So, they tried to break the machines. Which was not a very practical solution, but it certainly got the point across.
Frame Breaking, from Wikipedia

And they didn’t stop trying until enough of them were killed that the rest gave up (which is not generally considered a happy outcome).

Ever since then, textile weaving has been done by machines, or by people in faraway countries who work cheaper than a machine can. The creation of clothes and fabrics became just one more job that the west never thinks about, because for all practical purposes, it doesn’t exist.

Now this is an old argument. The consensus nowadays is that the next effect of this displacement is the creation of more jobs and opportunities. There’s no need to have a traffic cop at every major intersection, now that we have traffic lights, but we still have other things for the police to do. The coming of AI will be the same, people will just do different work.

Respectfully, I have to disagree. I think this is a far more Malthusian situation than most people realize, for one simple reason: people are fundamentally incompetent. Which is to say, they are people, not machines.

Even the smartest, most skilled, most competent person imaginable has a fundamental limit on their competency, some level of skill after which there is no meaningful progression. We’re only thinking meat, and the meat can only do so much (have you tried beating a computer at chess recently?). And as computers and machines improve, more and more jobs and tasks will no longer require people.

This is not a new development; U.S. manufacturing has been continually shedding jobs. Sometimes to globalization, but mostly to automation. Whole swaths of America have spent the last century being automated and globalized out of the middle class and into a pretty upsetting situation. But it’s not as if the same thing isn’t happening other places too, eventually the jobs lost to globalization will be lost again to robots.

Obviously, there will be new jobs. Jobs related to Data science, Machine Learning, and other future-y sounding things you may have heard about. And, yes, some of the workers can learn to do these new jobs. But you’re kidding yourself if you think that all or most of them can. Even assuming the skills can be learned, the fact is that there will probably not be enough jobs (if the ratios are anything like the one for that Chinese factory I linked in the previous paragraph). Also, full disclosure, I've tried to learn data science. It’s hard! And if it’s difficult for someone like me with a college degree in math and science, well, any argument that assumes that the majority of people with at-risk jobs can pick it up in time is either willfully ignorant or deliberately malicious. 

Continued in Part II...

A Futurist View of the Welfare State, Part II: Cognitive Biases and Basic Income

In Part I, I started out focusing on truck drivers, because their vulnerability is easy to understand. But I want to make it clear: even “high-skill” or “high education” professions aren’t much better. Even doctors and lawyers aren’t safe. That noise you’re hearing is the sound of a million Jewish grandmothers spinning in their graves.

All humor aside, Artificial Intelligence is improving fast. If anything, our 47% number from earlier is probably a low estimate. Even assuming that a third of that 47% are able to retrain and secure new employment (a big assumption), we’re still looking at almost half the population (~31% + the current unemployment rate of 9%) being indefinitely or permanently unemployed, with the other half constantly looking over their shoulders for the next advancement to put them out of work. The fact is, as AI get smarter and smarter, the number of humans who can do work in any field that is better than the work of computers approaches zero.

Not that people are aware of it, but then again, humans are notoriously (and consistently) bad at figuring out the future. Much ink has been spilled, trying to overcome implicit human biases. But whether you take our basic optimism personally or not, people consistently and provably do not recognize that future trends will inconvenience them as well. 

My personal response to seeing data like this is to get angry, and rail at people for being stupid. But overcoming our innate cognitive biases in any consistent way is really, really hard, and insulting people doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than getting people to think that you’re a kind of evil Vulcan. Also, my unrealistic expectations otherwise demonstrates the same cognitive fallacy; no one is immune. This is part of why I can never get away from cynicism as practical life advice.

Regardless, it’s not difficult to see that this future I’ve sketched out is unsustainable. You can’t leave half the population bored and poor and expect that things will just work themselves out. People hunger for purpose and work, and if they can’t find it in society, they’ll find it in cults, religions, and demagogues. To expect otherwise is foolish; our optimistic friends will tear it all down before they’ll accept nihilism

Unusually for this blog, I actually may have part of the solution to one of the problems I’m outlining. Specifically, part of the answer for the problem of AI displacing human workers.

Now, I want to make it clear that this entire thing isn’t some Randian nonsense critique. I might not have made it clear enough earlier, but I strongly believe that human lives have meaning and “worth” beyond the simple monetary calculus of our economic contributions. And while I admit that I’ve just outlined a very “John Galt” scenario, with only a small fraction of people able to meaningfully contribute to the functioning of society, I will not further dignify this perspective. It is no fault of the majority of humanity that they are not able to exceed the capabilities of an AI, and until the transhumanists get their act together, humans are going to keep losing to Artificial Intelligence.

So, given that there will soon be not enough work for a huge percentage of people (and therefore not enough income for them to buy food, housing, or anything else our collective economic machine needs to function), a new economic paradigm is needed: Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI). Or a Basic Income (BI), there’s not really a ton of difference, it’s more about the implementation.

Assuming you’re not already familiar with it, GMI/BI is just socialism and safety nets at their finest. Instead of Medicare/social security/food stamps/any other program, every citizen is paid a living wage by the government, with no strings or limitations. If done right, this will hopefully free mankind from the drudgery of boring toil, ensuring that everyone has the chance to find fulfilling work, or the choice not to.

This is obviously a controversial position, with unexplored long term societal consequences. A system like GMI/BI could easily destroy self-reliance and the will to work on a societal scale; it’s hard to want to do anything if you don’t have to, and a computer is already doing it better than you can. If you want a vision of the future, picture a child asking google for the answer — forever. Technological dependency is already here, and will only get worse as generations grow up without ever realizing things could be different. 

Still from WALL·E, 2008
But even if GMI/BI does have all those negative side effects, it’s probably still necessary. The alternative is both unconscionable and unsustainable; unless the rich plan to retreat to safety while the rest tear each other apart (hard to do reliably), we need to prioritize solutions that are good for everyone. Even if (and likely when) we no longer live in a democracy, policies that completely disregard the general welfare will still have negative consequences.

I’ve rambled a bit, but my main point is fairly simple: in a world where humans no longer reliably control the means of production because the labor of humanity is economically negligible, a more egalitarian way of sharing societal benefits is necessary.

AI is the future, whether we want it to be or not, and we must plan for the future of our society.