Did Electricity kill Religion?

Let it go...

They say electricity drove away the fairies. Does it kill all belief?

I find it a lot easier to be absolutely terrified when it’s pitch black out. The last time that happened, I was in a national forest in the mountains, trying to find my way back to my car. My imagination, being mine, was convinced that the woods were full of thieves and I was about to be dead.

As a kid, prayer had a wonderfully soothing effect on my fear or the dark, but my devout spirituality cratered mid-highschool.

Every angry, nostalgic nerd claims that things were better back when he was a kid. Original Star Trek was better; the latest movie in an unholy abomination. Han Solo shot first; the new movie is an unholy abomination. The video games were awesomer, the school curriculae were smarter, the Christmas lights were merrier.

Even Santa Claus was way better when I was 5.

Does everything go to shit with time? Or do we just look at the world through different glasses when we’re little kids? Do we just believe more? Are there monsters under the bed, or just in our imaginations?

We adults don’t fear the dark–and why should we? Look at all of our lights. It’s 2 AM, and I can see my hands! I could write this post on notebook paper without even straining my eyes.

But when the electricity is gone and I’m left in the real, true, dark, suddenly the all of the emotions–not just the fear–come back. They’re stronger in the dark. In the childhood of dawn, we still believe there are things that go thump in the night, but in adulthood and the noonday sun, we’re atheists.

What was life like before electricity? When candles were a luxury?

It is pretty easy to massively over-estimate the amount of light people had at night. I see it frequently in fiction–characters easily reading or noticing each other’s expressions by candlelight.

Candles and fires don’t give off all that much light. And they are costly. Nights were dark. And long.

Nature_trees_dark_night_forest_moon_1920x1200

As much as I enjoyed Christmas as a child, I never felt like it had much to do with winter. When I grew up, I moved to a latitude where the winter sun had set by 4 pm, the rivers froze, and I walked home each night through this icy darkness. When the town strung up Christmas lights and handed out hot cocoa, what a welcome relief they were! So that’s why we lit candles in the winter, took comfort in their light.

When I visit my relatives in the country, I am suddenly confronted with the Milky Way; uncountable thousands of stars thrown like jewels into the darkness. Who has not beheld it and felt the majesty and awe of the universe?

When I look at the stars, I feel as if I am about to fall off the Earth and tumble headlong into the universe, the infinite void.

And from this unutterable blackness, this void, this trembling fear at the universe, do we draw our belief all things mystical. Is this where the idea of gods and ghosts and demons came from? (Angels, I suspect, could only have come at dawn.) When you grandmother tells you a ghost story in a pitch-black house while winter rages outside, what choice do you have but to believe her?

But then the lights came on… and belief flickered off.

Advertisements

Cats: Incomplete Domesticates

It’s hard being a cat person in a dog-person world. 70% of Americans describe themselves as “dog people,” versus only 20% who claim to be “cat people.” Even among people who only own cats, a full 26% of them are “dog people.” (By contrast, only 3% of people who only have pet dogs are “cat people.”) [source]

The dog gets to be man’s best friend, while the poor beleaguered cat is associated with crazy cat ladies.

images

(I decided to give you a picture of cats instead of cat ladies.)

Dogs were the first domesticated animals, accompanying hunter gatherers on their exploits some 40,000 years ago. We’re not sure exactly how the first dogs began, but pretty soon people began actively selecting for certain traits in their dogs to make them more useful to humans.

Cats appeared much later–less than 10,000 years ago–and appear to have become tame via a very different route.

There is a special class of animals that have become semi-domesticated without humans actually wanting them, which includes mice, rats, and pigeons. These are not tame animals, but neither do they live in the wild , having become adapted to life in and among humans.

Long after humans domesticated dogs, they domesticated grain, and with grain came cities, granaries, and trash; and with those, rats, mice, and pigeons. The animals that could stand to be in close proximity with humans (but out of reach) thrived in the new niche–don’t underestimate just how many mice a bountiful harvest can feed:

One night's catch of 200,000 mice, 1917
One night’s catch of 200,000 mice, Australia, 1917 [source]
From a more recent account:

First to the mouse plague which has invaded three states and damaged hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops. The rodents may be a familiar pest for farmers but the volume of vermin visible across parts of WA, Victoria and SA hasn’t been seen in more than 15 years. …

CHERYL WILLIAMS, BAYVIEW STREAKY BAY SA: I reckon the other morning I would have got two bucketfuls and there would have been near enough to 2,000 in it because it was piled high.  … I had them in the house earlier on and they were climbing the walls and on the furniture. Just everywhere. On the beds, gives me the willies. I’ve had enough of it. I can hardly stand it. …

ALLAN WILLIAMS, BAYVIEW STREAKY BAY SA: … We’ve been taking out 20 to 40 litres every day for the last 100 days which that’s 2,000-odd litres of mice which is – I’ve never seen that amount of mice in me life. …

LEON WILLIAMS: You come out here at night time and it’s just literally a moving mass of mice. By the millions.

Mice and rats are interesting in and of themselves, but I will have to discuss them later. For now, let’s just say they were soon followed by an opportunistic predator:

images-1

Early cats probably moved into human settlements to hunt for rodents, and after a while, humans decided this was a useful behavior. Even today, many “pet” cats are expected to earn their keep, catching the mice in and around their homes–unlike the average dog.

(Reports of Medieval Europeans massacring cats are probably overstated–the famous “Cat Massacre” was actually an anti-aristocrat French mob murdering noble pets.)

While dogs have diverged significantly from wolves, the average house cat still looks quite similar to its wild relatives:

African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat
African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat

Distinct breeds of cats–including most if not all of the more unusual looking ones–are extremely recent, perhaps less than 200 years old, but domestic cats do differ from wild ones in several important ways. They are smaller, lighter, and they meow.

Interestingly, adult wolves do not bark and adult wildcats do not meow. Kittens meow at their mothers, and cats meow at their people, not each other. These are neotenous traits–baby behavior. Dogs will always be wolf pups, never adults, and a cat is always part kitten.

I shall leave you with a bit of light verse, from 9th century Ireland:

The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Pets, part 2

Picture 5

Americans really love dogs.

So much so, that it feels really dickish to point out that dogs aren’t actually humans and we don’t actually treat them like full family members. Maybe this is just the American difficulty with shades of gray, where such an argument is seen as the moral equivalent of eating puppies for breakfast, or maybe extreme dog affection is an instinctual mental trait of healthy people, and so only abnormal weirdos claim that it sounds irrational.

As we discussed yesterday, pet ownership is normal (in that the majority of Americans own pets,) and pet owners themselves are disproportionately married suburbanites with children. However, pet ownership is also somewhat exceptional, in that Americans–particularly American whites–appear globally unique in their high degree of affection for pets.

Incidentally, 76% of dog owners have bought Christmas presents for their dogs. (I’ve even done this.)

Why do people love dogs (and other pets) so much?

The Wikipedia cites a couple of theories, eg:

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.

Since I tend to feel overwhelmingly happy and joyful while walking in the woods, I understand where this theory comes from, but it doesn’t explain why suburban white parents like pets more than, say, single Chinese men, or why hunter-gatherers (or recently settled hunter-gatherers) aren’t the most avid pet-owners (you would think hunter-gatherers would be particularly in tune with the states of the animals around them!)

So I propose a different theory:

Pets are (mostly) toy versions of domestic animals.

Europeans–and Americans–have traditionally been engaged in small-scale farming and animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and occasionally goats, geese, turkeys, and ducks.

Dogs and cats held a special place on the farm. Dogs were an indispensable part of their operations, both to protect the animals and help round them up, and worked closely with the humans in farm management. Much has been written on the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, but let us not overlook the relationship between the shepherd and his dog.

Cats also did their part, by eliminating the vermin that were attracted to the farmer’s grain.

These dogs and cats are still “working” animals rather than “pets” kept solely for their company, but they clearly enjoy a special status in the farmer’s world, helpers rather than food.

For children, raising “pets” teaches valuable sills necessary for caring for larger animals–better to make your learning mistakes when the only one dependent on you is a hamster than when it’s a whole flock of sheep and your family’s entire livelihood.

Raising pets provides an additional benefit in creating the bond between a child and dog that will eventually transform into the working relationship between farmer and farm-dog.

Empathy has probably played an important role in animal domestication–the ability to understand the animal’s point of view and care about its well being probably helps a lot when trying to raise it from infancy to adulthood. People with higher levels of empathy may have been better at domesticating animals in the first place, and living in an economy dependent on animal husbandry may have also selected for people with high levels of empathy.

In other words, people who treated their dogs well have probably been more evolutionarily successful than people who didn’t, pushing us toward instinctually treating dogs like one of the family. (Though I still think that people who sell cancer treatments for cats and dogs are taking advantage of gullible pet owners and that actually treating an animal just like a human is a bad idea. I also find it distasteful to speak of adopted dogs finding their “forever homes,” a phrase lifted from human adoption.)

However, if you’ve ever interacted with humans, you’ve probably noticed by now that some would give their dog their right kidney, and some would set a dog on fire without blinking.

(I am reminded here of the passage in Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect in which the anthropologist is shocked to discover that violent Nuyorican crack dealers think torturing animals is funny.)

I have been looking for a map showing the historical distribution of domesticated animals in different parts of the globe, but have so far failed. I’d be most grateful if anyone can find one. To speak very generally, Australia historically had no domesticated animals, South America had llamas, North America had dogs, African hunter-gatherers didn’t have any, African horticulturalists had a chicken-like animal, and then Europe/Asia/The Middle East/India/other Africans had a large variety of animals, like camels and yaks and horses and goats.

Peter Frost has written a lot on empathy (and guilt), and the possibility that it varies between populations:

…a deletion variant of the ADRA2b gene. Carriers remember emotionally arousing images more vividly and for a longer time, and they also show more activation of the amygdala when viewing such images (Todd and Anderson, 2009; Todd et al., 2015). … Among the Shors, a Turkic people of Siberia, the incidence was 73%. Curiously, the incidence was higher in men (79%) than in women (69%). It may be that male non-carriers had a higher death rate, since the incidence increased with age (Mulerova et al., 2015). … The picture is still incomplete but the incidence of the ADRA2b deletion variant seems to range from a low of 10% in some sub-Saharan African groups to a high of 50-65% in some European groups and 55-75% in some East Asian groups. Given the high values for East Asians, I suspect this variant is not a marker for affective empathy per se but rather for empathy in general (cognitive and affective). [source]

The Shors are a small, formerly semi-nomadic group from Siberia. I haven’t found out much about them, but I bet they had dogs, like other Siberian groups.

Frost hypothesizes that extensive empathy developed as part of the suit of mental traits that made life possible in large communities of bronze-age hunter-gatherers along the Baltic:

This weak kinship zone may have arisen in prehistory along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic, which were once home to a unique Mesolithic culture (Price, 1991). An abundance of marine resources enabled hunter-fisher-gatherers to achieve high population densities by congregating each year in large coastal agglomerations for fishing, sealing, and shellfish collecting. Population densities were comparable in fact to those of farming societies, but unlike the latter there was much “churning” because these agglomerations formed and reformed on a yearly basis. Kinship obligations would have been insufficient to resolve disputes peaceably, to manage shared resources, and to ensure respect for social rules. Initially, peer pressure was probably used to get people to see things from the other person’s perspective. Over time, however, the pressure of natural selection would have favored individuals who more readily felt this equivalence of perspectives, the result being a progressive hardwiring of compassion and shame and their gradual transformation into empathy and guilt (Frost, 2013a; Frost, 2013b).

Empathy and guilt are brutally effective ways to enforce social rules. If one disobeys these internal overseers, the result is self-punishment that passes through three stages: anguish, depression and, ultimately, suicidal ideation. [source]

Someone has been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. But I’m wondering if the first ingredient is actually farming/animal husbandry.

To sum:

1. People with high levels of empathy may have had an easier time domesticating animals/raising domesticated animals, creating a feedback loop of increasing empathy in farming populations.

2. This empathetic connection was strongest with dogs and cats, who aren’t meat to be slaughtered but human partners.

3. Children assigned the task of raising dogs and cats bonded with their charges.

4. Modern “pets” are (living) toy versions of the working dogs and cats who once helped manage the farms.

 

Poll time!

1. Do you have a pet?

2. Do you think pets should be treated like family members/humans?

3. Would you shoot your pet for a million dollars?

A. Never!

B. Yes, but I would use the money to raise 100 abandoned animals out of suffering.

C. Yes.

D. That’s a terrible question! What kind of sick fuck makes up a question like that?

Why are people so keen on pets?

The Lady with an Ermine
The Lady with an Ermine

Don’t get me wrong. I like animals; I just don’t like them in my house. Every time I petsit for friends with cats, I am reminded of why I don’t own cats: scooping feces is repulsive (and don’t get me started on toxoplasma Gondii!) Dogs are marginally better, in that the homes of dog owners don’t always smell of feces, but unfortunately they often smell of dog.

For this post, I am defining “pet” as animals that people keep solely for companionship. Animals kept because they do useful things or materially benefit their owners, like seeing eye dogs, egg-laying chickens, mouse-hunting cats, race horses, or dancing bears are not “pets.” Medical “therapy animals” are basically pets. It makes plenty of sense for people to keep around work animals, but pets seem to be kept around simply for the enjoyment of their company.

According to Wikipedia, Americans own approximately 94 million cats, 78 million dogs, 172 million fish, and 45 million small mammals, fish, reptiles, etc. (Though of course some of these are “useful” animals that I wouldn’t count.) This comes out to about 4x as many pets as children, concentrated in 60% of the households (most pet owners have more than one.)

Pets cost quite a bit of money–the average small dog costs about $7,000 to $13,000 over its 14 year lifespan; the average large dog costs $6,000 to $8,000 over its much shorter 8 year lifespan. [source] (Note that it is cheaper per year to own a small dog; the lower lifetime cost is due entirely to their shorter lifespans.) Cats cost about the same as dogs–people don’t spend much on “outdoor” cats, but “indoor” cats cost about $9,000 to $11,000 over their lifetimes.

Just making some rough estimates, I’d say it looks people spend $700 per year per dog or cat, which comes out to about 120 billion dollars per year. That’s a lot of money! (And this doesn’t count the expenses incurred by shelters and animal control agencies to take care of the excess pets people don’t want.)

Americans are probably exception in the number of pets they have. According to Wikipedia, 46% of the world’s pet dog population lives in the US. (By contrast, only 4.4% of the world’s human population lives in the US.) The ratio gets even more skewed if we break it down by race–63% of America’s whites own pets, versus only 49% of the non-whites. [source]

However, other countries similar to the US don’t seem as keen on pets: the %pets/%people ratio for the US is 10.5, for Canada 7.5, and for Britain, 5.8. This might have to do with factors like Britain being a more crowded country where people have less space for pets, or with the Wikipedia data being inaccurate. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that pets are very characteristically American, and especially a white American thing.

One theory about why people own so many pets is that they’re substitute children/companions/friends for lonely people who don’t have kids/spouses/friends, perhaps as a side effect of our highly atomized culture. I came into this post expecting to confirm this, but it looks like Crazy Cat Ladies are actually a relatively small percent of the overall pet-owning population.

According to Gallop, 50% of married people own a dog, and 33% own a cat (some people own both.) By contrast, only 37% of unmarried people own dogs and only 25% own cats. People with children under 18 are more likely to own pets than people without. And people from the “East” are less likely to own pets than people from the “West.” (Interestingly, “westerners” are disproportionately more likely to own cats.)

So it looks to me like most pet ownership is actually motivated by the idea that kids should have pets, with pets more common in suburban or rural areas where they have more room to run around. This is probably particularly so for cats, who are probably more likely to be “outdoor” pets or mouse-catching farm cats in rural areas (ie, the “West.”)

There is an extensive belief–perhaps folk belief–that pet ownership is good for people. Gallop found that 60% of people believe that pet owners lead more satisfying lives than non-pet owners; numerous studies claim that pet ownership–or even just occasional interaction–makes people healthier. There even exists an “animal therapy” industry. Unfortunately, the studies on the subject look rather unreliable–the ones about pet ownership are confounded by healthier people being more likely to have pets in the first place, for example.

And yet, there’s something about the notion that I find appealing; something about playing with happy puppies or petting a bunny that I find downright pleasant. Maybe it’s something as simple as animals being nice and therefore making people happy.

It’s getting late, so I’ll continue this tomorrow.

Chinchillas

Photo credit Melissa Wolf
Photo credit Melissa Wolf (no, it’s not my birthday.)

Chinchillas are probably the cutest of the rodents.

They hail from the desert of the high Andes, where it is simultaneously cold and dry. They are very well adapted to their native habitat, which unfortunately results in them being not very well adapted to places like the US. Some common problems that therefore plague chinchillas kept as pets:

  1. You can’t get them wet. Chinchilla fur is actually so thick and fluffy that it can’t dry out properly on its own, so a wet chinchilla quickly becomes a moldy chinchilla. (Chinchillas take dust baths to get clean.)
  2. They can’t take heat, or even warmth. Our “room temperature” is their “oh god it’s hot.” They prefer to be below 60 degrees F; if the temp heads north of 75, they’ll probably die.
  3. Too many raisins will kill them. Chinchillas love raisins, but unfortunately for them, they’re only adapted to digest dry, brittle, nutrient-poor desert plants. A chinchilla can easily eat a couple of raisins a day without trouble, but if allowed to eat raisins to its heart’s content, its intestines will get all blocked up and the poor creature will die. (At least according to all of the chinchilla-related websites I have read; I have never personally killed a chinchilla.)

(Even though they are cute and fluffy, I don’t get the impression that chinchillas make very good pets, both because they don’t really bond with humans and because they poop constantly. If you really want a rodent, I hear that rats are rather sociable, though honestly, you could just get a dog.)

When I look at modern humans, I can’t help but think of the humble chinchilla, gorging itself to death on raisins. Sometimes we just don’t know what’s bad for us. With us, it’s not just the food–it’s pretty much everything. Find a cute cat picture on the internet? Next thing you know, you’ve just wasted three hours looking at pictures of cats. There are massive internet empires devoted to peoples’ love of looking at a picture of a cat for about two seconds. Sure, you could use that time to interact with a real cat, but that would require getting off your butt.

Facebook is worse than cat pictures. Do you really need to know that your Aunt Susie “likes” IHOP? Or exactly what your Uncle Joe thinks of Obamacare? Or where your vague acquaintance from three years ago had lunch today? No, but you’ll scroll through all of that crap, anyway, rather than face the horrifying prospect of actually interacting with another human being.

I swear, next time I go to a family gathering where people have flown over a thousand miles just to be there, and someone whips out their phone in the middle of a conversation just to check Twitter or FB, I am going to… well actually I will probably just be politely annoyed, but I will definitely be imagining stomping all over that phone.

Modernity is a drug. It tastes great. It’s wonderful. It’s fun. You get TVs and air conditioning and you don’t die of plague. Frankly, it’s awesome. But in the meanwhile, fertility drops. You end up inside, isolated, no longer talking to other humans, simply because that’s more work than clicking on another cake picture. Communities wither. So we get replaced by people who resist modernity, people who still have children and build communities.

Are you here for the long haul? Or are you just here for the raisins?

And if you’re just here for the raisins, why aren’t you enjoying them more?

Indonesian Mystery Solved

A while back, (before the advent of this blog,) I read some study which claimed that Indonesian Muslims in the Netherlands commit far less crime than other Muslims in the Netherlands. (It’s been a long time, so I can’t find the study right now.) This seemed mysterious: what’s special about Indonesian Muslims in the Netherlands?

Perhaps Indonesians just have really low crime rates, I thought. (According to Wikipedia, Indonesia’s homicide rate is way lower than ours.) Perhaps Indonesians have something special about them culturally or genetically. Maybe it’s just very difficult to get from Indonesia to the Netherlands, so only a special sub-set of Indonesians makes it. Or maybe there just aren’t a lot of Indonesians in the Netherlands, resulting in measurement error due to small N.

Now I’ve found another, should have been obvious answer:

“My husband is of Dutch Indonesian heritage & was among the first wave of immigrants of color to arrive in Holland after Sukarno exiled them after the revolution. The Dutch Indonesians assimilated quickly into society, worked hard & were too proud ever to rely on the generous Dutch social safety net. In fact, my husband & his brother attended Catholic school, excelled & became a prominent dentist & business owner. Then, the various waves that followed included the Turks, Moroccans, Somali & Surinamese who had difficulty assimilating into the homogeneous society & placed a heavy burden on the already extremely overtaxed citizens. Many of the devout Muslims demanded that the tolerant & permissive Dutch should change their society especially after the murder of film director, Theo van Gogh & threats against Somali women’s right activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This is too much pressure for such a small country & now the society is full of conflict & increasing crime & stress.” —carla van rijk, NY Times commentator quoted by iSteve.

That’s right, the Dutch colonized Indonesia, ages ago. The Dutch East India Company and all that. Which means there exists (or existed) in Indonesia some population of people who already spoke Dutch, were educated in Dutch-run schools, were potentially even part-Dutch, culturally Dutch, or at least fairly familiar with Dutch culture. And if these people were employees of the Dutch government in Indonesia who were expelled after the end of colonialism, they may have viewed the Netherlands quite favorably.

Something similar may be true about folks employed by former colonial governments in a lot of countries.

At any rate, clearly this is a different situation, in many ways, than the circumstances surrounding most other groups headed to the Netherlands.

Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

Inspired by Infowarrior1’s comments on Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide, I got to thinking about “What is a state?” (Please note that I am sort of thinking out loud, so I can’t promise that I’ve got every detail worked out. Feedback is welcome and useful.)

I tend to take a pretty expansive definition of “government,” including not just the formally recognized thing people mean when they say government, but also the entire power structure of the entire society, including your boss, newspaper publishers, popular people, religious leaders, and even parents. (Note: most of the time when I use the word “government,” I mean it in the normal way that people would understand it.) Under the normal definition, the gang violence is just homicide, but under the expensive, gangs are a form of small-scale government (they exert power over others, after all,) and violence between them is warfare.

Gangs do many things that formal governments do: they engage in trade, regulate contracts, tax people, punish people who break their laws, control territory, and engage in warfare. The Mafia clearly has its origins in the family-based governing structure of Sicily/southern Italy, and creates a structure within which its family members benefit from government contracts and the like. The Japanese Yakuza “began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe” and host “an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals. … And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.” (source)

(It has long been somewhat of a mystery to me why the formal gov’t doesn’t just treat gangs like invading armies, and simply shoot everyone involved until they stop trying to occupy American cities.)

So what is the difference between such groups and formal governments? If we call a formal government a “state” and these other organizations “non-state governments”, then what is a state? Is ISIS a state? Yes, it seems to have enough of the normal characteristics of a state to call it a state. Is a gang a state? No, clearly a gang is not a state. What about Somalia? No, not a state so much as a state-shaped hole in the map where other states don’t want to go. The Somali government simply does not exert an organizing influence over its own territory.

Which got me thinking about the state as an institution that increases organizational complexity of a society/aids in its homeostatic maintenance within a specific territory.

By contrast, bandits, while they exert power over others, decrease a system’s organizational complexity by interfering with normal function in order to shunt other people’s wealth to themselves.

I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support, and so such conversations generally lead to painstakingly laying out the fact that libertarianism doesn’t deal very well with multipolar traps yet again, which, sorry, starts quickly feeling like explaining to my kids again that, yes, things really do cost money and no, people aren’t going to just give you what you want in life because you want them to. (Not that libertarianism is all bad–just the vacuous repetition of certain catchphrases.)

At any rate, a legitimate government uses its taxes to increase the overall order of the system, while an illegitimate one uses its power to decrease order. The Somali government does not increase (or maintain) the overall order of Somalia, so it is not a state.

Let’s switch for a moment from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ne Zaire, ne the Belgian Congo.

I have mentioned before Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC. It’s a great story, so I recommend you read it yourself, but I’m going to highlight a few relevant bits:

When the Belgians ruled the area, they built a lot of roads. Today, if you are brave enough to go there, you can see the condition the roads are in:

Photos by Frederick and Jospehine
Photo by Frederick and Jospehine

There are a few good roads in the country–built by Belgian-run NGOs, mining companies (I believe these are generally run by the Chinese), and Catholic missionaries, eg:

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

He also told us about the Mayi-Mayi rebels that still roam the jungle. We were not prepared for the horror stories we would hear. I still have problems giving these stories a place. They are not just stories though, he gave us a 100 page document with his interviews of victims. If you thought, like us, that cannibalism was something that belonged in comic books and dusty museums about Africa. You are wrong. :cry:” [source]

Not only do the Congolese themselves not maintain their own roads, they contribute to their destruction by digging holes in them to trap passing vehicles so they can demand money in exchange for helping them out. Likewise, many of the “tolls” charged of passing vehicles go not to road maintenance (a legit reason to charge people for using a road,) but to line the pockets of the people charging the tolls.

In other words, while many Congolese are trying to use the roads to conduct trade and transport goods, others are actively destroying the roads and sabotaging that trade in order to benefit off other people’s hard work. A man who charges tolls in order to pay for improvements to the road is contributing to the structural complexity of society; a man who charges tolls to line his own pockets is a bandit.

In response to a comment in the thread–“Absolutely great to read you ! Belgians in the Congo ! You must be nuts ! “–Frederik responds:

I presume you are referring to the “not so nice” role Belgium has had in the history of Congo. For a while I thought that would be a problem as well, but it isn’t. Just about anything that still exists in Congo is made by the Belgians. The older generation who had their education from the Belgians really have fond memories of that era. And at the moment Belgium is still one of the main funders of the country (via aid). The dark pages of history during the Leopold 2 era is not what the Congolese people think about. All in all I think being Belgian was actually a plus. As a matter of fact, a lot of people asked how things were going with the “war” in Belgium :-o” [source]

Also on the subject:

“Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike. [picture] He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things. [picture] He was a good example of the older generation. They grew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.” [source]

And on a related note:

If there is any thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response on mails, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo 8O And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities.” [source]

Someone else–Christian P.–comments on his own experiences,

Before entering the country, we did not really know what to expect and we had the same exact nervosity as you were reffering. And it never went away.

The place is hard to imagine and describe. I have travelled a lot in Africa but the DRC is like nothing else. And I have only spend a few days there….

The look on people’s face is different. The vibe on the street is intense. It seems like everything is on the verge of exploding. I had never seen that many guns in one place. There is no bank, no guidebooks, no backpackers, no tour bus, no hotels, nothing. It truly still is the dark side. [source]

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the times random villagers tried to hack Frederik and Josephine to pieces with machetes, which is a definite deterrent to trade!

Like Somalia, the DRC isn’t a country so much as a country-shaped hole in the map. What government there is tends to be local, tribal, or run by folks like the mining companies or Catholic missions, and much of the time, what authority exists is actively undermining any larger systems of social/economic complexity for their own short term gain.

But what about states that are clearly “states”, but are clearly bad for the people under their rule? Soviet land collectivization in Ukraine, for example, killed 2.5–7.5 million people. Collectivization caused mass famines throughout the USSR; the exact number of lives lost is unknown, but estimated between 5.5 and 8 million deaths. The previous Soviet famine of 1921 had killed another 6 million people. Depending on whose definitions we use, communist regimes are generally blamed for somewhere between 20 and 100 million civilian deaths during the 20th century.

(How is it, then, that some of the nicest people I know are communists? Are they just idiots?)

Communist governments, I think it is safe to say, are state-level bandits.

Thoughts?

How to decrease defection and encourage cooperation?

As I was saying yesterday, functional societies are places where people cooperate rather than defect (prisoner’s dilemma style), but now people are trying to advance their own personal interests by accusing others of defecting–that is, in effect, defecting against them. Our particular class and racial dynamics have exacerbated–or perhaps caused–this dynamic.

So how to change things? A few thoughts:

1. Government has the most obvious power to curb defection and increase cooperation, and indeed, this should probably be thought of as one of the prime functions of government. All societies require cooperation merely to exist, and more cooperation => more society.

Libertarianism has many fine points in its theory, but it deals poorly with multipolar traps. In cases where someone can profit themselves by being a free rider (defecting,) chances are they will–and they will pass on this advantage to their children, until you have a nation of cheaters. I remember an example from my own school days: A group of farmers gets together one year to higher a crop-dusting plane, and they all enjoy a larger harvest as a result. But the next year, the guy with the field in the middle of the area being dusted decides not to pay in. His field gets dusted anyway, just because it’s impossible not to dust it in the process, and so he gets all of the rewards of crop dusting without paying the price.

The government effectively solves this problem by eliminating the possibility of being a free rider. Everyone now has to pay a tax that goes to hire the annual crop-dusting plane, and you must pay your taxes or go to jail.

2. The vague–or not so vague!–sense that others are defecting while you are cooperating may just be instinctual. Therefore, it is probably in the interests of any government to put in place some kind of measures to make sure people aren’t defecting and to reassure people about this.

However, it is critical that such systems not get turned into further vehicles for defection.

For example, many (if not most) of the lawsuits corporations lodge against each other are totally bogus and exist for the sole purposes of A. inconveniencing the opposition and B. benefiting the lawyers. Millions upon million of dollars and hours of human labor are poured each year into activities that only serve to mutually weaken corporations.

In lawsuits over patents that actually get all the way to court, to give a sub-example, it is extremely common for the patent itself to simply get thrown out on the grounds that it is a bad patent that should have never been granted. (I’ve seen estimates between 25% and 77%.) In many of these lawsuits, a company will just scatter-shot sue a dozen or two different companies all at once over a clearly bogus patent, in the hopes that the sued companies will cut their losses and settle out of court. There are even businesses whose entire model is just to buy crappy old patents companies don’t want anymore before they expire and then sue everyone in sight. It’s called “patent trolling.”

Assuming we want patents to keep existing, then people have to be able to sue others for infringement, but patent trolls need to be shut down. The obvious solution here is to identify patterns of patent troll behavior and then punish the trolls for it. First, once a lawsuit has been filed, don’t allow the parties to settle out of court. They must go before the judge/jury. Second, companies that lose due to patent invalidation must pay the sued-party’s legal costs.

I could go on, but people who are actually trained in legal matters can do a far better job of recommending fixes to the patent system than I.

To make another example: there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about whether or not the police are killing and imprisoning black people at higher rates than whites. The police should be (and be perceived as) trustworthy. This is a matter that the government should solve–figure out who is actually doing the defecting, publicize the results, and then do some trust-building between the police and their communities.

3. If white Yale professors think Yale needs fewer white professors and more black ones, the easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are not defecting against other white professors (who might otherwise receive those spots) is to give up their own professorships in order to make room for black candidates. Alternatively, they could just give up their paychecks to provide funding for the new positions.

4. People seem most willing to cooperate when they are all ethnically similar. Not only are they surrounded by people who are obviously behaving the same as they are, thus reducing concern about misbehavior, they have a genetic interest in cooperating. Defecting against your children or your siblings is a bad strategy in the genetic sense, because fewer copies of your genes end up existing, so people who defect against their own families tend to weed themselves out of the gene pool, leaving behind people who are good at cooperating with their kin.

Japan is an example of a society that is extremely ethnically homogenous. Just look at their little section in the graph at the top of the blog! (They’re on the far right.) Compare the smooth transition from yellow to cream with the jagged lines of the Uzbeks or the Bedouins. And the spirit of public-minded cooperation in Japan is extremely strong. The Japanese are clean, helpful, polite, and commit vanishingly little crime.

By contrast, high levels of ethnic diversity are correlated with high levels of violence, civil war, etc. in countries. There are a few exceptions to this rule, in countries that are so shitty that no one wants to move there, like Haiti. But in general, where people see themselves as ethnically different from their neighbors, they tend to defect on their neighbors.

Hartshorn ran a computer simulation of ethnic cooperation and defection strategies, with colored tiles on a board randomly assigned to cooperate or defect with tiles of their own color and to cooperate or defect with tiles of different colors. (4 different strategies in all.) In every simulation, the tiles that cooperated with their own colors and defected on other colors eventually took over the entire board.

So if two ethnic groups are living in close proximity, there’s a good chance that A. one or both of them will in fact be defecting, B. The group that defects more will actually benefit itself at the expense of the other, thus “winning”; and C. that both groups will become hyper paranoid about watching the other group for possibilities of defection, even if it isn’t happening. This is how wars get started.

The obvious answer to ethnic conflict is don’t have ethnic conflict. Only let people into your country who you would be willing to marry (in the hypothetical sense, not the literal,) and in such numbers that you can absorb them. You might also be able to let in people who are similar enough in behavior that you don’t really notice that they are ethnically different–for example, the Mormons are polytheists who tend to marry other Mormons, but they are generally polite, clean, hardworking, and easy enough to get along with. You could live next door to a Mormon and never even notice.

If the groups in a country do not effectively merge, you end up with two separate groups in one nation, which more often than not results in a bunch of people living in ghettos, and then you are very likely to fall into the mutual-defection trap. If having two (or more) separate groups in your country is inevitable (say, because they’re already there,) then I see two possibilities: A. try very hard to get everyone to think of each other as brothers and sisters in a metaphorical sense, perhaps through national holidays or forced conscription; or B. Give each group a bit of space so that they have fewer opportunities to defect on each other, and don’t set up systems that make people think defection is happening. Letting the Mormons live in Utah, for example, solved the problem of everyone thinking Mormons were weirdos back in the 1800s; letting the Amish be basically self-contained keeps them from getting into too much conflict with their neighbors today. (I think. I don’t have much experience with the Amish.)

Federalism was thought up as a way to let different people in different places effectively manage their own affairs. This system requires, however, that people actually abide by it. If we all agree that each community can educate its own children as it sees fit, and then one community decides it doesn’t have enough money for its schools, then the other communities have to be able to withstand the pressure to bail it out. Once you start bailing out other communities, they aren’t independent communities anymore but your wards, and they have to start abiding by your rules just as children obey their parents, or else we’re back to defection.

(Obviously helping each other out in times of environmental emergency may be perfectly reasonable.)

 

The neighbors don’t use trash pickup: the cellular automata of ethnic competition

I’ve noticed that the neighbors don’t put out their trash can on trash day. At first I thought nothing of it; perhaps they just hadn’t put their can out yet, or had accidentally slept through trash pickup. I don’t normally devote too much thought to the neighbors’ trash habits, but somehow, their cans never seemed to be out.

Last week, I witnessed them piling a mountain of trashbags into a truck. This week, again, no trash can.

It is technically legal, and cheaper, to not pay for trash pickup and instead pay a small fee to deposit your trash directly at the dump. So the neighbors are storing up a month or two’s worth of trash in their garage and then hauling it to the dump.

This is (or was) a nice neighborhood. Low crime, good schools, modern infrastructure, nice houses.

Now one of the other neighbors has been complaining to me that he’s concerned about rats coming from that house to his house.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this household, generally from other neighbors. Noisy, late-night parties. Guests who pee in other people’s bushes. Litter. Parking disputes (thankfully, not with me.) Mundanities that you have to put up with if you’re living around other humans. But this is a bit much.

So what to do? Call up the HOA and demand that they pass a resolution mandating that people pay for trash pickup? (Can the HOA even do that?) I don’t actually like the idea of getting the HOA to regulate the minutia of other people’s behavior, but then, I’ve never had a neighbor opt to keep giant piles of trash in their house instead of pay for trash pickup.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because I happened to highlight trash-related behaviors back in “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I’d call this a coincidence, but I suspect that disputes over proper trash disposal are actually very common.

I’m just glad we’re renting, so it’s not my money going down the drain–no, my money did that elsewhere. We cut our losses and got out shortly after the home invasions started and I found used drug needles on the playground. So we decided to pay extra, this time, for a nicer neighborhood, somewhere clean and safe.

So much for clean.

Why would anyone who can’t afford trash pickup live in this neighborhood? There are cheaper-but-still-nice neighborhoods nearby.

The answer is probably the obvious one. People who live on million-dollar estates on islands accessible only by ferry, who happily talk about how the cost of the ferry ride “keeps out the riff-raff,” vote for policies that move people from ghettos to middle-class neighborhoods.

****

This all gets back to competition, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and ethnicity.

You and I are in competition.

If it’s any consolation, we’re also in competition with pretty much everyone on Earth. Each of us, whether consciously or not, is attempting to secure resources for ourselves and our progeny.

The easiest person to conquer is your neighbor.

You are unlikely to care terribly much about the behavior of someone living across the country, or even across the state. If some guy a thousand miles away from you is storing up a pile of trash, well, that’s weird, but it doesn’t affect you. If your neighbor is storing up a pile of trash, suddenly it starts looking like your business.

Most violence is committed against people known to the attacker, or members of their own community. Most wars are waged against a country’s immediate neighbors. And if I can’t conquer my neighbors, perhaps I can ally with someone from far away–someone not an immediate threat to me–to conquer them.

The easiest way to get people to stop fighting with their neighbors and band together for the common good is to confront them with an even bigger, credible threat from further away. England and France finally managed to ally when confronted with Germany; if space aliens invaded tomorrow, I bet most countries on earth would forget their nationalistic squabbles pretty darn quickly.

But as long as there isn’t a bigger, credible threat, then stealing my neighbor’s resources can lead to my own success. And pretty soon, we’re back to squabbling.

In other words, getting people to cooperate instead of defect is pretty tough.

Indeed, a great percent of ethnic conflicts are phrased along the lines of, “My people are great and virtuous cooperators who bend over backwards for other groups of people, but your people are dastardly defectors who are taking advantage of our naive goodwill!” And for good reason–if you can consistently defect against someone who consistently cooperates, you’ll do really well for yourself.

Society can only function if people cooperate, but short-term interests are benefitted by defection. Why put in all of the effort to engage in trade when you can let other people do trade and then mug them? Society therefore has a strong incentive to punish defection–if society can actually identify it.

We’ve gotten into the habit of attempting to prove that we are great cooperators by accusing others of defecting–ironically, defecting against them in the process.

Most whites are in direct competition–for jobs, popularity, and mates–with other whites. Lower class (and some middle class) whites are also in competition with blacks and Hispanic immigrants. High class whites are not.

When low class whites complain about black behavior, it sounds to high class whites like defection–or as we more commonly put it, racism. When high class whites say so, this sounds like defection to the low class whites–especially when they believe the blacks defected on them first. (And the blacks, of course, will inform you that the whites defected on them first.)

When whites move out of neighborhoods as blacks move in, it looks an awful lot to elites like defection. When elites make sanctimonious noises about the evils of “white flight,” this sounds like defection to the whites whose property values were destroyed as crime and trash–in the literal sense–invaded their neighborhoods. And when whites attempt to keep prospective black buyers out of neighborhoods (or drive them out after they’ve moved in,) this looks like defection, too.

Society needs a better way to determine who is and isn’t defecting.

 

Meditations upon Language

There is a certain frustration in not being able to express thoughts in a clear, unadulterated, perfectly understood form. This is impossible. There’s no point in whining about it, only in trying one’s best, anyway.

I run up against the limits of common language fairly often–at least once a week, if not five or ten times–when I find that there exist no words exactly suited to my purpose. A graceful word that sounds perfect given the cadence of a sentence may carry an unwieldy baggage of political connotations, or the word that perfectly expresses a particular notion may be grammatically awkward and ungainly. I generally aim to both produce pleasant writing and avoid overly-charged political language, but there are times when this is impossible. Ethnonyms are particularly prone to politicization. Should I refer to the nomadic or formerly nomadic descendants of Indians who’ve lived in Europe for several hundred years as “Gypsies” or “Roma”? “Inuit” or “Eskimo”? “Indians” or “Native Americans”? For each of these, you can find members of the relevant group who prefer Term A and dislike B, and members who, likewise, prefer Term B and dislike A. And no matter which term you pick, someone out there will assume that you are making a political statement about those people.

Heck, I used to know a man who preferred to refer to himself as a “Negro.”

In general, I try to stick with the most commonly known term; if two terms are equally known, I tend to use both. “Roma” I assume is fairly obscure, whereas “Native American” is clear, if clunky. (“Indian,” while actually the term a small majority of Indians preferred last time I checked, has the unfortunate confusion factor.) But there are times when innovation could be useful. “POC,” for example, is a mere three letters long and well-known. But it is severely tainted by politics, making it unsuitable for anything attempting even a vaguely neutral stance, or anything aimed at a non-leftist audience. Then I am left with some clunky phrasing, like “people who aren’t white.”

It would be lovely to be able to write posts that appeal to everyone, but words the left uses to distinguish its writing are anathema to the right, words used on the right are likewise anathema to the left, and neutral territory is generally regarded as simultaneously inadequately right and left.

Moderatism is possible, but neutrality is nigh impossible, whether I want it or not. So posts have their audiences, and the language selected accordingly, along with a heavy dose of my own bloody-mindedness, with the inevitable result that the language will never be perfect.

For example, Nick B. Steves recently expressed dissatisfaction with the use of the word “fascism” to denote generically authoritarian regimes in the post, “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I agree that “fascism” is really an unideal word. Unfortunately, “Increasing Diversity => Lots More Laws” or “Increasing Diversity => More Authoritarian Regimes” just doesn’t have the same cadence, and makes for an awkward title. (Also, the post was originally composed as a direct response to the sorts of people who’d inspired it.)

(There are those who argue that one should not write with an audience in mind, but that writing should instead be some sort of pure emanation of your soul/id/creativity/whatever. This is bollocks. All language exists in order to communicate something between the sender and the receiver, whether that be spoken language or written language. If I wanted to write something where the intended audience is just myself, I could, and I would write it in my diary and keep it there instead of posting it on the internet. Once something is put out there, it exists to convey a message to someone outside of myself, and therefore needs to be able to do so. If it cannot, then I have failed.)

I try to aim for an “intellectual but friendly” tone, but the tone has changed over time, which occasionally leads to confusion, especially if posts get shuffled around in the schedule. “Once a Political Position Becomes Popular, it has already won,” is one such post. Attempting coherence:

Mainstream political positions change over time. For example, the majority of people once opposed gay marriage, but now the majority support it. Two hundred years ago, being pro-slavery was a fairly mainstream political position, while believing in full racial equality was far outside the mainstream. Today, these positions have reversed.

People who are advocating a political position that is gaining popularity but not yet dominant or has not yet won all of its objectives often get very worked up about the fact that any vestiges of opposition remain, leading to increasingly strident demands that everyone need to toe the line and fall-in with the new position.

Of course, in a world with more than one person in it, there will always be someone who disagrees about something; in a country with 300+ million people, you can find tons of people who disagree with you! You can even find people who think they’re telepathically communicating with the CIA. The mere existence of people who disagree with a position does not mean it is not dominant.

How do we know whether a position that only a minority of people agree with is “winning”, in the sense of becoming steadily more dominant?

Look at who is advocating the position. Movie stars, popular musicians, Cathedral leaders and the “popular” people, at school and on the internet. Thought leaders shape and influence other people’s opinions; people want to look and act like elites.

People often make a big deal out of how brave they are for taking a popular position. There has been nothing particularly “brave” about being pro-gay rights for the past two or three decades; no one has been sued for being willing to bake a gay cake. Neither is Caitlyn Jenner “brave.” It is taking the opposition position that has cost people jobs, freedom, and money.

—-

Sometimes the problem is long-windedness increasing the noise:signal ratio. “Transsexuals Prove that Gender is Real,” may have been one such post. The TL; DR version:

  1. The idea that “sex is biological, gender is a social construct” is bollocks. Sex=gender.
  2. All trans people I have known in real life have obvious chromosomal or hormonal conditions leading to improper gender development.
  3. I suspect this is true of the majority of trans people.
  4. Trans people don’t actually act on the radical feminist claim that gender is some random, made-up thing invented by the patriarchy to oppress women. Rather, they pick a gender and then try to actually live like it.
  5. Note that this does not require you to agree that a trans person “is” a particular gender; it is merely asserting that they are trying to live as one.

I’m sure there have been some other things that were unclear or inelegantly or improperly worded, though I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

In the meanwhile, have a lovely day.