An Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists

600px-persian-kitten-in-teacupWelcome. Come in, take a seat. Would you like some tea?

Don’t worry, we aren’t even evil–though you might not want to tell your friends you’ve been here. They might not understand.

In light of the recent election craziness, it’s time for a serious discussion. First, some basic facts:

if only X voted maps
How the 2016 Electoral Map would look if only ____ Voted Source: Brilliant Maps

Here’s some poll data on the 2018 Election.  It tells the same story.

Voting is tribal. People vote with their group, for the interests of their group–and these groups happen to correspond surprisingly well with race and ethnicity.

This pattern has been going on for a long time–blacks have voted overwhelmingly Democratic since FDR, and whites have voted Republican since 1968. Even though whites are a majority and vote Republican, Democrats have been elected president 5 times since then.

And as far as whites are concerned, the electoral situation isn’t improving, because whites don’t have a lot of babies, and democracy is fundamentally a numbers game:

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The situation is true globally, as well. As Flexible Solidarity: A comprehensive strategy for asylum and immigration in the EU reports:

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“In 1980, the EU-15 had more people than sub-Saharan Africa; today, sub-Saharan Africa has twice-and-a-half as many people. Within the next two generations, sub-Saharan Africa should reach 2.5 billion people, 5 times more than Western Europe.”, h/t @SomehowUWill

The Changing Demographic Landscape: 

In 1900, the US was about 88% white, 12% black, and <1% Hispanic.

Today, the US is 64% white, 12% black, 16% Hispanic, and 8% Asians and others. In 1950, there were 500,000 Hispanics in the US. Today, there are 50.5 million.

ft_16-06-23_censusmajorityminority_agegroupsAccording to the census bureau, in 2012, American infants were 50% white and 50% non-white–about 25% of American children are now Hispanic.

The majority of infants born in the US are non-white and have been for six years. By 2050, whites will be an absolute minority in the US.

“So what?” you say. “Race doesn’t matter. Race is just skin color. It’s what’s inside that matters.”

Ah, but you forget: we live in a democracy.

And in a multi-ethnic democracy, people vote on tribal lines.

For example, in Norway:

Studies of the electoral behaviour of immigrants in Western Europe and North America have revealed a remarkably coherent cross-national voting pattern. Immigrants from the non-Western world hold a strong preference for left-of-centre parties. This unusual expression of group voting is so stable over time that it has been referred to as an ‘iron law’. There is, however, a dearth of scholarly research on this phenomenon. This article tests two explanations for the left-of-centre preferences of immigrants in Norway. The first is that the ideological and socio-economic composition of the immigrant electorate explains the preference for left-of-centre parties. If so, these voters’ ethnic or immigrant background is not in itself decisive on Election Day. The second hypothesis is that immigrant voters engage in group voting, in which one’s ethnic or immigrant background is significant and trumps other concerns when voting. This would express itself in a coherent voting pattern that cannot be explained by other factors. We also expect those who engage in group voting to favour candidates with similar ethnic backgrounds as themselves. The group voting hypothesis finds the strongest support. The immigrant vote appears to be driven by group adherence, rather than by ideology or social background.

In Britain, the historical political divisions have been mostly class-based, with the working class voting Labour and the wealthier voting Conservative, but with mass immigration, ethnic voting patterns are now important: Labour gets the ethnic vote; Conservatives the white; and the Scottish National Party, which actually has more members than the Conservatives, is explicitly Scottish.

Ethnic voting in Nigeria:

This paper examined the election and voting pattern in Nigeria with particular reference to 2015 Governorship election in Bauchi state. … The findings of the research empirically proved that voting pattern in Bauchi state is more greatly influenced by ethnic and kinship affiliation than party, issues and ideology. On the basis of findings of this study, it is recommended that, there is urgent need for public enlightenment by appropriate authorities on the dangers of voting based ethnic consideration. Voting a candidates is supposed be based on credibility and competence of contestant not ethnicity, religion and other parochial sentiments.

In Canada, ethnic minorities vote for the Liberal Party:

Canadian politicians make a point of courting immigrant voting blocs far more than their counterparts in the U.S., Kurl said. “They haven’t really figured out marginal minority politics in the way Canadians have,” she said in a telephone interview. “The parties in Canada at least pay lip service to, or really do double down on, courting and franchising the minority vote.”

Other Angus Reid polling found Trudeau won the overall immigrant vote due to a substantial lead among recent immigrants. The agency also found that its polling category of “other” religions — including Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist voters — skewed heavily for Trudeau.

Canada also has a number of regional parties, such as the famous Bloc Québécois. 

Ethnic voting in Kenya:

Do Kenyans vote according to ethnic identities or policy interests? Based on results from a national probability sample survey conducted in December 2007, this article shows that, while ethnic origins drive voting patterns, elections in Kenya amount to more than a mere ethnic census. We start by reviewing how Kenyans see themselves, which is mainly in non-ethnic terms. We then report on how they see others, whom they fear will organize politically along ethnic lines. People therefore vote defensively in ethnic blocs, but not exclusively.

Ethnic voting in Brussels, Belgium:

In recent years immigrant origin ethnic minorities have become a non-negligible electoral group in Belgian cities. … We investigate whether non-EU immigrant origin voters have a particular party preference which cannot be explained by other background variables such as educational level or socio-economic position. We also look into the issue of preferential voting for candidates of immigrant origin. According to the theory on political opportunity structures, one would expect a lesser importance of ethnic voting in the Belgian context (in which ethnic mobilisation is discursively discouraged). Ethnic voting, however, turns out to be quite important in the Brussels’ context.

Uganda, South Africa and Switzerland, India, Spain, Brazil, etc.

The only major exceptions I can think of to this pattern are countries that are very homogeneous or have no elections.

The ideal of democracy holds that people vote for the ideas and policies they think will be best for the country. Tribalism destroys this ideal, because people start voting for whatever benefits their own group, even if it hurts everyone else. Democracy works if everyone feels like they have a stake in the system; it breaks down if people become convinced that the other side is betraying them or if they won’t vote against an obviously corrupt and incompetent leader just because he’s part of their tribe.

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” –James Bovard

Tribal voting is why you’ve been so stressed since Trump got elected–Trump is your tribe’s enemy.

Now please imagine, for a minute, that you believe a crazy idea like “abortion is murder” or “we should talk about Jesus, a lot, in public.” I know, I know, just roll with it. These are values that really matter to Republicans, just as your values matter to you. Suppose, also, that you live in a Red State where the majority of people vote for conservative policies. This is your culture, your people, and you’re happy with things the way they are.

Now take a look at the maps at the top of the post. What happens when a few million Hispanics move into your state?

It flips from Red to Blue.

That’s what happened to California, homeland of Ronald Reagan.

“Sounds great! I didn’t like Reagan anyway.”

Yes, but put yourself in their shoes and think strategically. If the majority of non-whites vote for the Democrats, why would a Republican want any immigration from any non-white country? The perception that Democrats are trying to rig the system by importing voters only leads to increased polarization and anger on the other side.

We can reverse this thought experiment. Let’s suppose you’re a Democrat. You want Affirmative Action, gay marriage, abortion, and legal protections for trans people. And you live in a Blue State where all of this is pretty much guaranteed. You vote your conscience and you like it here.

Now suppose a few million very conservative Russians immigrate and flip the place Red. No more gay marriage. No more abortion. Affirmative Action for Russians, not blacks.

Even if you love Russians as people, you might come to the conclusion that more Russian immigration is not in your self-interest. You might even come to the conclusion that since America is your country and not Russia’s country, that you have a right to vote for a self-interested immigration policy that limits the number of hyper-conservative Russians showing up in your neighborhood.

And thus we have tribal voting.

“But that’s hypothetical Russians,” I hear you saying. “Who cares if 90% of blacks vote for the Democrats? They’re just voting for their own self-interest. I don’t care about tribal voting.”

For starters, I don’t believe you. I think you care deeply about tribal voting.

90% of blacks voting for the Democrats is usually regarded as fine and dandy. Appropriate. A logical response to white racism.

Yet 53% of white women voting Republican is not fine and dandy. As The Guardian reports:

For the past two years, the American left has been haunted by a number: 53. It is the percentage of white women who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In the sectors of the left where the figure and its implications have become a perennial theme, the number is treated both as disappointing and darkly unsurprising, a reflection of the conventional wisdom that white women would rather choose the racism espoused by the Republican party than join in the moral coalition represented by men of color and other women.

And that’s just women–do you think it is morally acceptable for white men to vote overwhelmingly for Trump? Or is that racist?

Even though his opponent was a white woman?

In reality, everyone is okay with tribal voting for their own side and deeply disturbed by tribal voting by their enemies: tribalism for me, not for thee.

This doesn’t happen because we’re in a democracy–once one side starts voting tribally, the other side will follow. Let’s take the simplified case where our population is 90% whites, who are split evenly between two parties, and 10% blacks, who vote Democratic. In this case, the Democrats capture 55% of the vote and win every time.

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Source Audacious Epigone

Of course, Republicans aren’t going to put up with this–they’ll change their policies to attract more voters from the middle ground. Since even conservative blacks vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats, the easiest group to win over is centrist whites. If 56% of whites vote for the Republicans, then the Republicans win.

In 2018, 77% of Asians and 70% of Hispanics voted for the Democrats. As the white share of the population has decreased relative to nonwhite populations that vote more Democratic, Republicans have had to capture an increasingly larger share of the White vote to remain electorally competitive.

(You are fooling yourself if you think the Republicans can make a more appealing offer to black and immigrant voters than the Civil Rights Act. Maybe they could pass “mass reparations,” but then they would lose most of their white base. Remember, the black voting pattern has been stable for over 50 years–if Republicans could figure out a way to attract black voters without losing whites, they would.)

whiteshare
From: America’s Coming Political Realignment:   “Barack Obama won the presidency despite losing the white vote to John McCain by 12 percent. Four years later, he did even worse, losing the white vote to Mitt Romney by 20 percent. … In the last election, white voters backed Donald Trump by a similar 20-point margin.”

But attracting a larger percent of the white electorate shifts the Republicans to an even more obviously white-favoring party, the Democrats even more obviously to the non-white party: tribalism intensifies.

As the Washington Post reports:

White votes were split between the two parties about 50-50 in the 1970s — but in elections since 2000, that has become closer to 60-40 in favor of the Republican Party.

“But purposefully trying to attract more white voters is immoral! Republicans should act morally–just resign themselves to losing, with dignity, forever.”

This is not going to happen. If you set up the rules for the game so that the only way for your opponents to win is by being immoral, then you shouldn’t act surprised when your opponents behave immorally.

In a multi-ethnic democracy, if you don’t play the tribal voting game, you lose.

“Eh, groups voting their interest all works out for the best in the end.”

Tribal voting is terrible.

Tribal voting makes people anxious. It makes people cranky. It convinces people that if their enemies get into power, they will be slaughtered. We saw this in 2016 when liberals were convinced that Trump’s election meant trans and LGBT people would be dying in the streets. Well, it’s been two years and I’ve yet to see any rivers of blood, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrational to fear your enemies getting into power.

That same anxiety was at play in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, when a white nationalist became convinced that Jews were promoting Hispanic immigration in order to flood the electorate with Democratic voters and responded by murdering 11 people.

Tribalism is ugly.

What happens to multi-ethnic democracies? 

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7-year old Nermin Divovic, a Bosniak child killed by a Serbian sniper during the Siege of Sarajevo, 1994.

Do you remember Yugoslavia?

In 1980, Yugoslavia was a poor but peaceful country in central Europe (Belgrade is further west than Helsinki.) Demographically, it was about 36% Serb, 20% Croat, 9% Muslims (mostly Bosniaks), 8% Slovenes and Albanians, 6% Macedonians, etc.

Then Tito died, ethnic factions began voting, Milosevic road a wave of Serbian anxiety to power, and in a move that still confounds quick summaries, the entire country fell apart.

When countries succeed, they are beautiful. When they fail, they fail on ethnic lines.

One of the worst things to be in such a state is a market dominant minority:

dominant minority is a minority group that has overwhelming political,  economic, or cultural dominance in a country, despite representing a small fraction of the overall population (a demographic minority).

Examples of market dominant minorities include:

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Crosses commemorating victims of South African Farm Attacks, photo by Johnnyhurst

Ashkenazi Jews, 2/3s of whom were killed in the Holocaust.

The Tutsis of Rwanda, 70% of whom were killed in 3 months in 1994.

The Alawites of Syria, who have been under attack by ISIS (of course, ISIS attacks everyone who isn’t ISIS, but the Alawites constitute Assad’s ruling government, so if they fall, they’ll be slaughtered.)

Parsis in Zanzibar, until the locals started slaughtering them, which is how Freddie Mercury ended up in Britain

White South Africans, who are being slaughtered.

You might have noticed a trend. Market dominant minorities do great–until they don’t.

Back to America:

In America today, Democrats are the inner party–the party of the bureaucracy, the party that runs all of the government’s actual day-to-day functions–and Democrats are explicitly “anti-racist“. This is how we know America is not a white-supremacist state.

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Source: Forbes

Republicans are pro-white (in the sense of not being anti-white), but they’re the outer party. Sure, sometimes they gain control of this or that branch of government, but the inner party always thwarts the majority of their agenda. This is why, despite Trump being president and having a Republican-controlled Congress for two years, not a single issue of importance to conservative voters has passed–not Trump’s narrow “Muslim ban,” much less a complete ban on all Muslim immigration; not the wall; not a halt to illegal immigration; no abortion ban. Gay and trans rights have not been rolled back; affirmative action has not been outlawed. No one has been nuked. The Federal government has not been reduced in size until you can drag it, kicking and screaming, to a tub and drown it.

If Trump had any real power, antifa would be mowed down by tanks.

So we have a situation where whites are hurtling toward market dominant minority status and the inner party is anti-white.

This is a bad combination.

“You’re just afraid that POCs are going to do to whites all of the terrible stuff they’ve done to POCs, aren’t you?” 

I am far more afraid of people whipping up irrational, unfounded ethnic hatred simply because it nets them short-term economic, social, or political benefits than I am of Native Americans accidentally infecting Europe with diseases that wipe out 90% of the population.

You know, like in Rwanda. And Germany. And Yugoslavia.

mongolian-national-park
Genghis Khan

“But whites have it coming,” I hear you saying. “They deserve it for all the things they’ve done to other people. Besides, we’re a nation of immigrants.”

If you’ll excuse me, I’d prefer it not be my head on the chopping block. I don’t think you want it to be yours, either.

The idea that whites are uniquely evil on the scale of human history–that non-whites have never enslaved, conquered, or committed genocide–is ahistoric nonsense. The Mongol invasions killed an incredible 5% of the world’s population, and 1 in 200 people alive today is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan’s immediate family, but Mongolia still builds enormous statues in honor of Genghis Khan, because Mongolia isn’t sorry.

Primitive peoples are NOT peaceful, matriarchal paragons of virtue; they had much higher homicide rates than we do. 

Non-whites did not simply spring from the earth fully-formed in the places they currently reside, sit down, and never move. The Inuit conquered and killed off the Dorset (the “Skraelings” the Vikings met and wrote about.) The Aztecs conquered and ate their neighbors. The Bantus are not the original inhabitants of central, western, and southern Africa–they conquered it, killing the original Bushman (San) and Pygmy inhabitants as they went. The “Taiwanese” are not the original inhabitants of Taiwan–the Aboriginal Taiwanese are, but immigration of Han Chinese since the 1600s has reduced them to a mere 2% of the island’s population.

If America is a “nation of immigrants,” then so is Taiwan, so is Japan and so is India. The Navajo and the Inuit are immigrants. We’re all immigrants because all human groups have moved around in the the past 300,000 years.

That doesn’t mean we want to be conquered.

“Wait. Wait. America isn’t going to descend into anarchy and genocide. Forget what I said earlier. We’re just going to turn into California–the progressive wave of the future!” 

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Source: Business Insider

California is an interesting case.

I assume by “progressive utopia” you mean “a place with social and economic policies that make life better for everyone, especially the poor and oppressed.”

Unfortunately, California has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the nation. In other words, while California does have a lot of billionaires, it also has a lot of really poor people. (This explains LA’s typhus outbreak.)

It’s probably no coincidence that income inequality and immigration are almost perfectly correlated. Speaking of which:

Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest public school system in the country, is more than a sprawling collection of campuses — it’s one of the nation’s largest depositories of child poverty. About 80% of the more than 600,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. When I heard from Supt. Austin Beutner that nearly a quarter of the students at Telfair last year were classified as homeless, I began visiting the school and the neighborhood, hoping to give some human shape to the numbers. …

But the neighborhood has changed dramatically over the decades, said fifth-grade teacher Sandra Tejeda, a former Telfair student who has taught there for 29 years. Tejeda still lives down the street from the school in the house she grew up in.

“Oh my goodness, things were beautiful,” Tejeda told me as we sat in her classroom after school one day. “People had front lawns, everybody owned their house, we knew who was in each house and we knew we were safe.” …

“It used to be single families,” said first-grade teacher Gricelda Gutierrez, another former Telfair student who stopped by Tejeda’s class to join our conversation. “Now you see multiple families in a home, in a garage, in makeshift shanties.”

California wasn’t always divided into the haves- and have-nots. Back in 1977, California (and the rest of the US) was much more economically equal. Today, California is less equal than Louisiana, the least-equal state in 1977.

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Source: California exodus gathers strength, as home prices continue upward march

But perhaps these newcomers are just starting out poor and on their way up, destined for California’s upper class? Some of them are, of course, but overall, California’s economic mobility is only average–the low immigration states of the upper great plains have America’s highest rates of economic mobility. Meanwhile, California has some of the nation’s most expensive housing–cutting its poorer citizens out of the equity game.

And let’s not forget California’s abysmal NAEP (National Assessment of Economic Progress) scores.

The only reason people think California is nice is because as the rich hoard all off the housing, the poor leave:

Over a million more people moved out of California from 2006 to 2016 than moved in, according to a new report, due mainly to the state’s infamously high housing costs, which hit lower-income people hardest. …

Housing costs are much higher in California than in other states, yet wages for workers in the lower income brackets aren’t. And the state attracts more highly educated high-earners who can afford pricey homes.

California is such a paradise that the people progressives are supposedly helping are straight up leaving, but hey it’s great because immigration flipped it Blue and put the Democrats in power.

What happens when we run out of states for people fleeing failed policies?

“Okay,” you say, “maybe there are some potential downsides, but what do you want? Closed borders? White supremacy? An ethno-state?”

Look, I’m just the messenger. I’m trying to warn people. This is like asking what to do about Global Warming. There’s not a lot you can do–besides invest in Alaska.

Even if you close the border today, major demographic shifts are already underway inside the US. Besides, the US can’t get its act together and agree to shut down the border with an actual caravan of people marching toward it.

The demographic trends point to the US becoming Mexico 2.0 within a few decades. A few whites will move to places like Idaho or Montana, but these places will remain unattractive to most because they are not economic powerhouses, and anywhere that does become an economic powerhouse will quickly attract outsiders.

I believe in Aristotelian ethical moderation, and I want neither open borders nor mass expulsions. I want to minimize ethnic tensions. 

Right now, we’re fighting for seats in the lifeboats on a sinking ship when we could just fix the ship.

  1. Recognize that the tension/anxiety you are feeling is a result of democratic voting systems inherently dividing on ethnic lines, not a result of Republicans or Democrats being uniquely evil. 
  2. This is a global phenomenon, not limited to the US.
  3. Recognize that mass immigration cannot continue indefinitely as global population keeps growing–there is a limit to how many people can fit in a country before you run out of food and water.
  4. Let the other side have a little space for themselves, where they can run their lives the way they want without getting in a fight with you.
  5. Promote incentive structures that solve human problems by aligning with good behavior rather than conflict.

“What on Earth does that mean?” 

Democracy incentivizes conflict. That’s how it works. If one political party came out in favor of cute puppies and kittens, the other party would rail against rabies and dog bites. You’d have pundits on TV demanding to know why the president won’t stop the epidemic of pitbulls eating babies. The first party would demonize the other as a bunch of fanatics who want to load unwanted pets into gas chambers at the local for-profit kill shelter.

Now imagine a system where most of the day-to-day running of the local municipality is done by a local for-profit institution, similar to a university.

Most people I talk to’s strongest sense of nationalism is attached not to their country, state, or even city, but to the college or university they attended. I therefore conclude that universities are doing something that appeals to people’s basic sense of tribal identity, even though they are not democracies–maybe because they are not.

Maybe Elon Musk and Peter Thiel buy up a bunch of land, attract investors, build houses and schools, and the next thing you know, you have Irvine, California:

 In 1864, an investor named James Irvine bought a big tract of California land. Over the next century, his heirs formed a group called The Irvine Company to develop it further. They got their big break in 1959, when James’ grandson Myford Irvine cut a deal with the University of California to build a college on the still mostly-empty land, virtually guaranteeing it would grow into a town. The Company planned out their ideal urban utopia, raised some money, and built it according to plan. Now Irvine is the 16th largest city in California, and Irvine Company head Donald Bren has $16.3 billion and is the 80th richest person in the US. Irvine consistently tops various “best city” and “highest quality of life” rankings and manages to balance some density (the listed density of 4,000 is probably an underestimate because of the deliberately preserved wilderness areas; other parts are much denser including a few 20-story buildings) with a very safe, suburban feel. It’s also very good at attracting tech companies: Blizzard, Broadcom, Allergan, and the US headquarters of Samsung, Sega and Toshiba are all located there. It’s also an outlier in new housing construction, growing its housing stock at (informal estimate) 5% per year – twice the rate of Austin, three times that of Seattle, and five to ten times that of San Francisco.

China is doing something that will likely turn out similarly in Africa:

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Map of Chinese Investments in Africa

Universities are nice places. Since people pay to attend them, they work hard to attract students. If students decide they don’t like a particular university, they can leave, or apply elsewhere. The ability to chose your university is powerful–and students at almost every level have many options available.

Neocameralism is a proposed political system (coined by Moldbug) in which states are essentially corporations; to the extent there is voting, it is done by shareholders to elect the CEO. There are many potential problems with such a system, I admit, (mostly the difficulty with getting the federal government to let people try it, which is why such states are most likely to be founded outside the US,) but there are also many upsides–chiefly, clear ownership.

When a thing is jointly owned by many people with no clear ownership, we end up with tragedy of the commons; in many neighborhoods, we have the Tragedy of the NIMBY.

The Tragedy of the NIMBY states that when ownership spread widely and authority is unclear, people default to doing nothing because they see themselves as more likely to suffer from wrong decisions than to benefit from good ones. If no one derives a direct, obvious benefit from development, then everyone demands the ability to veto new development–and nothing gets built. Infrastructure crumbles, new housing gets nixed, liability looms on every corner.

Neocameralism proposes to fix this problem by giving people–investors–a clear ownership stake and thus clear benefits from local improvements.

Not all neocameralist states need to look like Irvine or your local college. Some might look like Singapore, others like Vermont. There are thousands of potential state designs. Nor do neocameralist states need to be entirely independent–some sort of mutual defense pact seems very reasonable. The point is just to align people’s incentives so they provide good governance–good roads, excellent hospitals, clean air, etc.–not exacerbate ethnic tensions.

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The Death of all Cultures 

 

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credit WrathOfGnon

Modernity was named “Westernization” in honor of the first cultures it devoured.

There were once more than 400 languages spoken in Europe. Today there are only 250–and some of these have fewer than a hundred speakers. Ume Saami has only 10 speakers. Manx has a robust 50 speakers–none of them native. 90% of Europe’s languages are endangered, soon to be replaced by the languages of commerce.

Westernization has absorbed traits from the cultures it devoured, not the cultures themselves. English is the language of Westernization, but Westernization doesn’t make you English. It doesn’t give you a love of tea and crumpets, double-decker buses and Queen Elizabeth, Rudyard Kipling or William Shakespeare. England was just one of the first countries devoured.

As it spreads, it morphs, but one thing remains constant: the old culture dies. My culture, your culture, every culture.

Is modernity evil?

Probably not. Agriculture destroyed hunter-gathering. It also fed far more people.

Culture contains the collective wisdom of a people, their solutions for dealing with the problems they encounter in their daily lives. Agricultural peoples develop harvest festivals. People who must constantly defend their territory develop war dances.

Modernity changes not just the means of production. It changes how we communicate, how we get our news, the stories we consume and the food we eat. It changes how we spend our leisure and interact with our families. It changes how we move, sleep, and sit, creating physical problems.

When people have the choice, most chose modernity, for modernity produces a great deal of food and rather little material hardship. But it strips their culture and leaves them adrift, for modernity has had very little time to accumulate solutions to the new problems people face. The result is “degeneracy“:

The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.

Akhivae on Twitter reflects:

“Woke” minorities, especially East, South, & Southeast Asian ones, have a misguided attitude towards undoing colonialism. In most cases, they’ve totally internalized Western values and are often hostile to traditional ones, only seeking to guard things like food and music.

Bring up traditional Indian attitudes towards family and hierarchy and the desi intersectionalists are against it. They are backward values with no redeeming qualities, who cares if they’ve guided Indian civilization for thousands of years? But if a white girl wears a sari…

Because if the White people are doing it too, then who are we? This is also why people back in Asia and Asian immigrants (the parents of these activists) have no problem with cultural appropriation as their cultural identity is based on core values and not garments and recipes.

It’s an important insight, but who’s correct? The elders, who value the old ways? Or the youngsters, who’ve absorbed modernity but are clinging to the form of kebabs and saris? Are modernity and the old ways compatible, or will young Indians–Desi or not–have to forge something new?

I am reminded here of a joke that I can’t find anywhere on the internet:

A Sami man once lived far in the north of Norway, herding reindeer. He had three sons. The first son was very smart and became the first person in his family to go to college. After many years, he became a doctor. The second son was very hard working, went off to college, and after many years became a successful lawyer in Oslo. Then the third son grew up.

“What would you like to be?” asked his father? “A doctor? A lawyer? An engineer? An astronaut?”

“Well,” said the son. “I would like to stay here, and herd reindeer.”

“Finally,” said his father, “A son I can be proud of!”

Most cultures will not simply morph or adapt to modernity; they will die. Cornwall was once a distinct culture with its own language; today it is just part of Britain. Native American hunter-gatherers now struggle with drug use and depression as their entire lifestyle has been rendered moot by mass-production factory farming. The core of life in Inuit and Eskimo communities has been gutted and replaced with canned food and cinderblock housing.

Today, people all around the world eat at McDonald’s, shop at Ikea, and play Nintendo games. Clothes and electronics are mass produced in China and calories in Kansas. Everyone gets absorbed into mega cultural zones; the future will look a lot more like China than Tibet.

How and to what degree any culture will survive the transition to modernity remains to be seen. China went through multiple shattering cataclysms in the 20th century, but seems to be entering the 21st strong. Japan appears to have integrated its cultural values and modernity with only one attempted world-conquering hiccup. The rest of the world, I’m not so sure about.

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The biggest issue modernizing countries face is cratering birth rates. The causes are many, but may be chiefly reduced to the existence of birth control, the need for extended schooling into the breeding years, requirements that families set themselves up independently before reproducing, increased living standards, and distractions like TV and the internet.

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Total Fertility Rate by Country

Every “modernized” country–except Israel–has a fertility rate below replacement, and the higher tech the country, the lower the fertility rate. The US has a TFR of 1.8 children per woman (replacement is just north of 2, since some children die.) Japan has 1.4. Singapore has 1.2. Iceland has 1.8.  South Korea: 1.17. Poland: 1.3. Canada: 1.6.

(This is a problem when your Social Security and pension benefits are calculated based on the assumption of an expanding workforce.)

800px-National_IQ_per_country_-_estimates_by_Lynn_and_Vanhanen_2006
Meanwhile, in IQ by country

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has a TFR of 4.6 children per woman. Niger: 7.2. Mali: 6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: 6.1.

(Interestingly, Iran fell from 6.5 children per woman in 1982 to 2 per woman in 2002. I’ve said it elsewhere before, but Iran is a more modern country than people realize. A few thousand years of Persian Civilization weren’t for nothing.)

tfr-us-by-lib-cons-44-551
Fertility by political ideology

Since most modernizing countries also go through a massive population boom as infant mortality declines, this wouldn’t be a problem if the fertility shift were distributed equally among all parts of society. It’s not.

On top of that, fertility isn’t distributed equally through all groups on the planet, and groups with high fertility now face increasing resource pressures at home and therefore find moving to areas with lower fertility attractive. As long as these two groups keep up their fertility differences, the net result will be the continued growth of one group while the other shrinks–eventually, one group will disappear or be absorbed entirely.

iq
Source: Audacious Epigone

Modernity itself is a recent invention, dependent on the “smart fraction” of society–those with IQs above 120 or so and therefore capable of understanding things like “electrical power grids” or “why society works better if you cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Modernity works a lot worse if you get more folks in the 80-85 IQ criminal sweet spot–just smart enough to plan and execute crimes, not smart enough to care about the consequences.

The transition to modernity will ultimately work itself out–perhaps over several centuries–if smart moderns can have enough children to keep it going. It will collapse like the Roman Empire if less-modernized people move in, out-reproduce you, and eat your seed corn. (And as the third world continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure for countries with low TFRs to let in migrants from those with high.) It will collapse if your own less competent people out-reproduce your more competent, and it might also collapse if people get the idea that some of the other folks in society are conspiring against them to keep their numbers down.

If modernity collapses, first will come hunger, then war, then epidemics, then famine. Death rides a pale horse; maybe that Fermi Paradox is onto something.

But modernity need not collapse if countries can prevent childlessness or delayed childbearing from becoming high-status markers and ride out the wave of those who aren’t very interested in reproducing removing themselves from the gene pool without panicking. (Note an unfortunate trend: European leaders Macron, Theresa May, Merkel, and Lofven all have no children at all.)

Whatever the future holds, it will be different.

Book Club Pick: The 10,000 Year Explosion

5172bf1dp2bnl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Our next Book Club pick is Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. From the book’s description on Amazon:

Scientists have long believed that the “great leap forward” that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews’ rise to intellectual prominence. …

I just received the book, so I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a big fan of Greg and Henry’s blog (now Greg’s blog, since Henry passed away,) for a long time. I expect to finish reading and get the relevant discussion posts up, therefore, in about two months–I’ll update the time frame as we get closer.

Please let me know if you prefer short form discussion (like our discussion of Kurzweil’s How to Build a Mind,) or long form discussion (like Auerswald’s The Code Economy,) or something in between.

Which came first, the City or the Code? (book club Code Economy Ch 2)

The Code of Hammurabi

Writing, which is itself a form of code, enable humans to communicate code. Cities grow as code evolves. –Auerswald

Welcome to The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History, by Philip E. Auerswald. Chapter Two: Code looks at two epochal developments in human history: writing and cities.

One of the earliest pieces of writing we have uncovered is the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi, Goddess of Beer, which contains, yes, a recipe for making beer (translation by Miguel Civil):

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Sumerian tablet recording the allocation of beer

You guys requested beer or wine with your books, so here you go.

The hymn contains two layers of code–first, there is the code which allows each symbol or character to stand for a particular sound, which let the author write down the recipe and you, thousands of years later, decode and read the recipe; and second, there is the recipe itself, a code for producing beer.

The recipe’s code likely far predates the hymn itself, as humans had begun brewing beer at least a couple thousand years earlier.

Writing and cities go hand in hand; it is difficult to imagine managing the day-to-day need to import food (and water) for thousands of people without some ability to encode information. As cities grow larger, complexity grows: one man in the woods may relieve himself behind a tree; thousands of people packed into a square mile cannot.

Each solved problem, once routinized, becomes its own layer of code, building up as the city itself expands; a city of thousands or millions of people cannot solve each person’s problems anew each day.

Gobekli Tepe, Turkey

But which came first, the city or the alphabet? Did the growth of cities spur innovations that improved agricultural output, or did agricultural innovations spur the growth of cities?

For example, settlement and construction appear to have gotten underway at Jericho (one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities) around 9 or 10,000 BC and at the mysterious Gobekli Tepe site began around 7-9,000 BC, before agriculture emerged in the region.

Writing developed a fair bit later, developing from clay shapes to shapes impressed in clay between 8,000 and 4,000 BC.

Amphitheater, Norte Chico, Peru

Others of the world’s earliest civilizations had either no or very little writing. The Norte Chico civilization of Peru, for example; by the time the Spaniards arrived, the Inca had an accounting system based on the quipu, a kind of string abacus, but appear to have not yet developed a true writing system, despite their palaces, cities, roads, emperor, and tax collectors. (Here is my previous post on Norte Chico.)

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro

The extensive Indus Valley civilization had some form of symbolic encoding, but few of their inscriptions are longer than 4 or 5 characters–the longest inscription found so far is 26 symbols, spread over three different sides of an object. Not exactly an epic–but the Indus Valley Civilization was nevertheless quite large and impressive, supporting perhaps 5 million people. (Previous post on the Indus Valley.)

Auerswald documents some of the ways cities appear to drive innovation–and to “live”:

The Santa Fe team found that cities are like biological organisms when it comes to “metabolic” urban processes that are analogous to nutrient supply and waste removal–transportation, for example, ha a branching structure much like veins or bronchi–but that cities differ fundamentally from biological organisms when it comes to indicators reflecting the creation and transmission of code. measuring the size of cities based on population and on the urban “metabolism” using metrics such as wages, GDP, electric power and gasoline consumption, and total  road surface, the team found a systematic relationship between city size and indicators of the supply of “nutrients” and waste removal… However, while metabolic indicators do not keep pace with the size of cities as they grow, indicators relating to the creation and transmission of code increase at a greater rate than city size. … In short, the creation of ideas accelerates with city growth, whereas the cost of new infrastructure is minimized.

This intriguing macro-level departure from the inverse relationships that hold for organisms ends up risking more questions about the evolution of cities than it answers: What mechanism enables larger cities to produce disproportionately more innovation and wealth than smaller cities?

Data Economy has a fascinating article in a similar vein: Street Smarts: The Rise of the Learning City:

The city as a brain

An amalgam of terms that have been used for parallel conceptions of the Smart City among them cyberville, digital city, electronic communities, flexicity, information city, intelligent city, knowledge-based city, MESH city, telecity, teletopia, ubiquitous city, wired city.

However the one I would like to propose, with population movement in mind, is The Learning City.

The term is based on a combination of two theories The Ego City and The Flynn Effect.

In 2009 Neurobiologist Mark Changizi from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute released a paper entitled Ego City: Cities Are Organized Like Human Brain.

Changizi sees strikingly real similarities between the brain and a city.

The central idea being that they organise and evolve similarly due to the need for efficiency.

As brains grow more complex from one species to the next, they change in structure and organisation in order to achieve the right level of reciprocity.

This is analogous to the widening of streets in cities.

The research team found mutual “scaling laws” for brains and cities.

For example, as the surface area of a brain or city grows, the number of connectors (neurons or highways) increased at a similar rate for each.

Likewise, a bigger city needs more highway exits in the same proportion as a bigger brain needs more synapses connecting neurons.

“The brain is like a city.

Cities develop and grow bigger and may get problems with roads and infrastructure, which is similar to what happens to our brains when we get older”, notes Håkan Fischer, Professor of Biological Psychology at the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University.

 The learning city

This is curious when taken in the context of The Flynn Effect.

Intelligence Researcher James Flynn found that every decade without fail the human population scored higher on IQ tests.

An average increase of 3 points per decade.

His thesis suggests that the more information we as humans have to absorb and compute leads to an increase in IQ.

In this instance the increased information is data collected within the city.

As cities gain more data they adapt and in turn get smarter.

Human brains faced with a busier world filled with more information brings about an increase in IQ from generation to generation.

As people migrant to cities creating a more complex environment for the city it to must gather this data, learn and raise its Smart City IQ.

This is The Learning City.

On the other hand, the data Auerswald cites–from the “Santa Fe Team”–only looks at cities from the US, China, the EU, and Germany. How would this data look if it incorporated other megacities, like Manila, Philippines (the world’s densest city); Sao Paolo, Brazil; Bombay, India; Caracas, Venezuela; Karachi, Pakistan; or Jakarta, Indonesia? Of the world’s ten biggest cities, only two–Seoul, #1, and Tokyo, #10–are in the first world. (#9 Shanghai, is well on its way.)

#2 Sao Paolo might be more energy efficient than villages in the Brazilian hinterland (or it may not, as such towns may not even have electricity,) but does it produce more innovation than #11 New York City? (No American city made the top 10 by population.)

If cities are drivers of innovation, why are so many of the biggest in the third world? Perhaps third world countries offer their citizens so little that they experience a form of extreme brain drain, with everyone who can fleeing to the most productive regions. Or perhaps these cities are simply on their way–in a century, maybe Sao Paolo will be the world’s next Shanghai.

The city, by definition, is civilization–but does the city itself spur innovation? And are cities, themselves, living things?

Geoffrey West has some interesting things to say on this theme:

“How come it is very hard to kill a city? You can drop an atom bomb on a city, and 30 years later, it’s surviving.”

Here’s a transcript of the talk.

Hiroshima in 1945:

Hiroshima today:

Hiroshima montage

Detroit, 1905:

Belle Isle Park, Detroit, 1905–h/t Photos of Detroit’s Golden Age

Detroit today:

Detroit Book Depository

“Bombs don’t destroy cities; people destroy cities.”

Book Club: The Code Economy pt 1

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

Welcome to EvX’s Book Club. Today we begin our exciting tour of Philip E. Auerswald’s The Code Eoconomy: A Forty-Thousand-Year History. with the introduction, Technology = Recipes, and Chapter one, Jobs: Divide and Coordinate if we get that far.

I’m not sure exactly how to run a book club, so just grab some coffee and let’s dive right in.

First, let’s note that Auerswald doesn’t mean code in the narrow sense of “commands fed into a computer” but in a much broader sense of all encoded processes humans have come up with. His go-to example is the cooking recipe.

The Code Economy describes the evolution of human productive activity from simplicity to complexity over the span of more than 40,000 years. I call this evolutionary process the advance of code.

I find the cooking example a bit cutesy, but otherwise it gets the job done.

How… have we humans managed to get where we are today despite our abundant failings, including wars, famine, and a demonstrably meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination? … by developing productive activities that evolve into regular routines and standardized platforms–which is to say that we have survived, and thrived, by creating and advancing code.

There’s so much in this book that almost every sentence bears discussion. First, as I’ve noted before, social organization appears to be a spontaneous emergent feature of every human group. Without even really meaning to, humans just naturally seem compelled organize themselves. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, riding motorcycles, living like an outlaw, and the next thing you know you’re using the formal legal system to sue a toy store for infringement of your intellectual property.

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

At the same time, our ability to organize society at the national level is completely lacking. As one of my professors once put it, “God must hate communists, because every time a country goes communist, an “act of god” occurs and everyone dies.”

It’s a mystery why God hates communists so much, but hate ’em He does. Massive-scale social engineering is a total fail and we’ll still be suffering the results for a long time.

This creates a kind of conflict, because people can look at the small-scale organizing they do, and they look at large-scale disorganization, and struggle to understand why the small stuff can’t simply be scaled up.

And yet… society still kind of works. I can go to the grocery store and be reasonably certain that by some magical process, fresh produce has made its way from fields in California to the shelf in front of me. By some magical process, I can wave a piece of plastic around and use it to exchange enough other, unseen goods to pay for my groceries. I can climb into a car I didn’t build and cruise down a network of streets and intersections, reasonably confident that everyone else driving their own two-ton behemoth at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from me has internalized the same rules necessary for not crashing into me. Most of the time. And I can go to the gas station and pour a miracle liquid into my car and the whole system works, whether or not I have any clue how all of the parts manage to come together and do so.

The result is a miracle. Modern society is a miracle. If you don’t believe me, try using an outhouse for a few months. Try carrying all of your drinking water by hand from the local stream and chopping down all of the wood you need to boil it to make it potable. Try fighting off parasites, smallpox, or malaria without medicine or vaccinations. For all my complaints (and I know I complain a lot,) I love civilization. I love not worrying about cholera, crop failure, or dying from cavities. I love air conditioning, refrigerators, and flush toilets. I love books and the internet and domesticated strawberries. All of these are things I didn’t create and can’t take credit for, but get to enjoy nonetheless. I have been blessed.

But at the same time, “civilization” isn’t equally distributed. Millions (billions?) of the world’s peoples don’t have toilets, electricity, refrigerators, or even a decent road from their village to the next.

GDP per capita by country

Auerswald is a passionate champion of code. His answer to unemployment problems is probably “learn to code,” but in such a broad, metaphorical way that encompasses so many human activities that we can probably forgive him for it. One thing he doesn’t examine is why code takes off in some places but not others. Why is civilization more complex in Hong Kong than in Somalia? Why does France boast more Fields Medalists than the DRC?

In our next book (Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration,) we’ll discuss whether specific structures like legal and tax codes can affect how well societies grow and thrive (spoiler alert: they do, just see communism,) and of course you are already familiar with the Jared Diamond environmentalist theory that folks in some parts of the world just had better natural resources to work than in other parts (also true, at least in some cases. I’m not expecting some great industry to get up and running on its own in the arctic.)

IQ by country

But laying these concerns aside, there are obviously other broad factors at work. A map of GDP per capita looks an awful lot like a map of average IQs, with obvious caveats about the accidentally oil-rich Saudis and economically depressed ex-communists.

Auerswald believes that the past 40,000 years of code have not been disasters for the human race, but rather a cascade of successes, as each new invention and expansion to our repertoir of “recipes” or “codes” has enabled a whole host of new developments. For example, the development of copper tools didn’t just put flint knappers out of business, it also opened up whole new industries because you can make more varieties of tools out of copper than flint. Now we had copper miners, copper smelters (a  new profession), copper workers. Copper tools could be sharpened and, unlike stone, resharpened, making copper tools more durable. Artists made jewelry; spools of copper wires became trade goods, traveling long distances and stimulating the prehistoric “economy.” New code bequeaths complexity and even more code, not mass flint-knapper unemployment.

Likewise, the increase in reliable food supply created by farming didn’t create mass hunter-gatherer unemployment, but stimulated the growth of cities and differentiation of humans into even more professions, like weavers, cobblers, haberdashers, writers, wheelwrights, and mathematicians.

It’s a hopeful view, and I appreciate it in these anxious times.

But it’s very easy to say that the advent of copper or bronze or agriculture was a success because we are descended from the people who succeeded. We’re not descended from the hunter-gatherers who got displaced or wiped out by agriculturalists. In recent cases where hunter-gatherer or herding societies were brought into the agriculturalist fold, the process has been rather painful.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Harmless People, about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, might overplay the romance and downplay the violence, but the epilogue’s description of how the arrival of “civilization” resulted in the deaths and degradation of the Bushmen brought tears to my eyes. First they died of dehydration because new fences erected to protect “private property” cut them off from the only water. No longer free to pursue the lives they had lived for centuries, they were moved onto what are essentially reservations and taught to farm and herd. Alcoholism and violence became rampant.

Among the book’s many characters was a man who had lost most of his leg to snakebite. He suffered terribly as his leg rotted away, cared for by his wife and family who brought him food. Eventually, with help, he healed and obtained a pair of crutches, learned to walk again, and resumed hunting: providing for his family.

And then in “civilization” he was murdered by one of his fellow Bushmen.

It’s a sad story and there are no easy answers. Bushman life is hard. Most people, when given the choice, seem to pick civilization. But usually we aren’t given a choice. The Bushmen weren’t. Neither were factory workers who saw their jobs automated and outsourced. Some Bushmen will adapt and thrive. Nelson Mandela was part Bushman, and he did quite well for himself. But many will suffer.

What to do about the suffering of those left behind–those who cannot cope with change, who do not have the mental or physical capacity to “learn to code” or otherwise adapt remains an unanswered question. Humanity might move on without them, ignoring their suffering because we find them undeserving of compassion–or we might get bogged down trying to save them all. Perhaps we can find a third route: sympathy for the unfortunate without encouraging obsolete behavior?

In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson wonders why the systems (“code”) that supports our society appears to be degenerating. I have a crude but answer: people are getting stupider. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to run a piece of code. Even a simple task like transcribing numbers is better performed by a smarter person than a dumber person, who is more likely to accidentally write down the wrong number. Human systems are built and executed by humans, and if the humans in them are less intelligent than the ones who made them, then they will do a bad job of running the systems.

Unfortunately for those of us over in civilization, dysgenics is a real thing:

Source: Audacious Epigone

Whether you blame IQ itself or the number of years smart people spend in school, dumb people have more kids (especially the parents of the Baby Boomers.) Epigone here only looks at white data (I believe Jayman has the black data and it’s just as bad, if not worse.)

Of course we can debate about the Flynn effect and all that, but I suspect there two competing things going on: First, a rising 50’s economic tide lifted all boats, making everyone healthier and thus smarter and better at taking IQ tests and making babies, and second, declining infant mortality since the late 1800s and possibly the Welfare state made it easier for the children of the poorest and least capable parents to survive.

The effects of these two trends probably cancel out at first, but after a while you run out of Flynn effect (maybe) and then the other starts to show up. Eventually you get Greece: once the shining light of Civilization, now defaulting on its loans.

Well, we have made it a page in!

Termite City

What do you think of the book? Have you finished it yet? What do you think of the way Auersbach conceptualizes of “code” and its basis as the building block of pretty much all human activity? Do you think Auersbach is essentially correct to be hopeful about our increasingly code-driven future, or should we beware of the tradeoffs to individual autonomy and freedom inherent in becoming a glorified colony of ants?

Come read “The Code Economy: A 40,00 Year History” with us

I don’t think the publishers got their money’s worth on cover design

EvX’s Book Club is reading Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy: A 40,000 Year History looks at how everything humans produce, from stone tools to cities to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, requires the creation, transmission, and performance of “code,”  and explores the notion that human societies–and thus civilization–is built on a mountain of of encoded processes.

I loved this book and am re-reading it, so I would like to invite you to come read it, too.

Discussion of Chapter 1 Jobs: Divide and Coordinate, will begin on May 23 and last as long as we want it to.

Here’s Amazon’s blurb about the book:

What do Stone Age axes, Toll House cookies, and Burning Man have in common? They are all examples of code in action.

What is “code”? Code is the DNA of human civilization as it has evolved from Neolithic simplicity to modern complexity. It is the “how” of progress. It is how ideas become things, how ingredients become cookies. It is how cities are created and how industries develop.

In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from the invention of the alphabet to the advent of the Blockchain, Philip Auerswald argues that the advance of code is the key driver of human history. Over the span of centuries, each major stage in the advance of code has brought a shift in the structure of society that has challenged human beings to reinvent not only how we work but who we are.

We are in another of those stages now. The Code Economy explains how the advance of code is once again fundamentally altering the nature of work and the human experience. Auerswald provides a timely investigation of value creation in the contemporary economy-and an indispensable guide to our economic future.

Re: Eurozine’s How to Change Human History

Some of you have asked  for my opinions on Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s recently published an article, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened):

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

The article is long and difficult to excerpt, so I’m going to summarize:

The traditional tale of how our idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian, small-group hunter-gatherer past gave way to our warlike, sexist, racist, violent, large-city agrarian present gives people the impression that hierarchy and violence are inevitable parts of our economic system. However, the traditional tale is wrong–the past was actually a lot more complicated than you’ve been told. Therefore, there is no historical pattern and the real source of all bad things is actually the family.

The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:

Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

Since “inequality begins in the family” is supported nowhere in the text, we will ignore it.

  1. What about the “traditional narrative”? Did hunter-gathers live in small, peaceful, egalitarian, idyllic communities? Or are the Davids correct that this is a myth?

It’s a myth. Mostly.

While we have almost no information about people’s opinions on anything before the advent of writing, there’s no evidence from any hunter-gatherer society we have actually been able to observe that hunter-gathering leads naturally to egalitarianism or peacefulness.

For example, among the Inuit (Eskimo), hunter-gatherers of the arctic, polyandry (the marriage of one woman to multiple men) didn’t exist because they had particularly enlightened views about women and marriage, but because they had a habit of killing female babies. Too much female infanticide => not enough adult women to go around => men making do.

Why do some groups have high rates of female infanticide? Among other reasons, because in the Arctic, the men do the hunting (seal, fish, caribou, etc.) and the women gather… not a whole lot. (Note: I’m pretty sure the modern Inuit do not practice sex-selective infanticide.)

Polyandry can also be caused by polygamy and simple lack of resources–men who cannot afford to support a wife and raise their own children may content themselves with sharing a wife and contributing what they can to the raising of offspring who might be theirs.

I have yet to encounter in all of my reading any hunter-gatherer or “primitive” society that has anything like our notion of “gender equality” in which women participate equally in the hunting and men do 50% of the child-rearing and gathering, (though some Pygmies are reported to be excellent fathers.) There are simple physical limits here: first, hunter-gatherers don’t have baby formula and men don’t lactate, so the duties of caring for small children fall heavily on their mothers. Many hunter-gatherers don’t even have good weaning foods, and so nurse their children for years longer than most Westerners. Second, hunting tends to require great physical strength, both in killing the animals (stronger arms will get better and more accurate draws on bows and spears) and in hauling the kills back to the tribe (you try carrying a caribou.)

In many horticultural societies, women do a large share of the physical labor of building houses and producing food, but the men do not make up for this by tending the babies. A similar division of labor exists in modern, lower-class African American society, where the women provide for their families and raise the children and then men are largely absent. Modern Rwanda, which suffers a dearth of men due to war and mass genocide, also has a “highly equitable” division of labor; not exactly an egalitarian paradise.

Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and other folks living outside formal states, have very high rates of violence. The Yanomami/o, for example, (who combine horticulture and hunting/foraging) are famous for their extremely high rates of murder and constant warfare. The Aborigines of Australia, when first encountered by outsiders, also had very high rates of interpersonal violence and warfare.

Graph from the Wikipedia
See also my post, “No, Hunter Gatherers were not Peaceful Paragons of Gender Egalitarianism.”

The Jivaro are an Amazonian group similar to the Yanomamo; the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Huli, and Gebusi are horticulturalists/hunters from PNG; Murngin are Australian hunter-gatherers.

I know, I know, horticulturalists are not pure hunter-gatherers, even if they do a lot of hunting and gathering. As we’ll discuss below, the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is complicated and these are groups that we might describe as “in between”. The real question isn’t whether they bury a few coconuts if they happen to sprout before getting eaten, but whether they have developed large-scale social organization, cities, and/or formal states.

The article protests against using data from any contemporary forager societies, because they are by definition not ancient hunter-gatherers and have been contaminated by contact with non-foraging neighbors (I propose that the Australian Aborigines, however, at first contact were pretty uncontaminated,) but then the article goes on to use data from contemporary forager societies to bolster its own points… so I feel perfectly entitled to do the same thing.

However, we do have some data on ancient violence, eg:

According to this article, 12-14% of skeletons from most (but not all) ancient, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups show signs of violence. Here’s a case of a band of hunter-gatherers–including 6 small children–who were slaughtered by another band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago.

Warfare appears to have been part of the human experience as far back as we look–even chimps wage war against each other, as Jane Goodall documented in her work in the Gombe.

Then there’s the cannibalism. Fijians, for example, who practiced a mixed horticulture/hunter-gathering lifestyle (fishing is a form hunting that looks a lot like gathering,) were notorious cannibals when first encountered by outsiders. (Though they did have something resembling a state at the time.)

Neanderthals butchered each other; 14,700 years ago, hunter-gatherers were butchering and eating each other in Cheddar Gorge, England. (This is the same Cheddar Gorge as the famous Cheddar Man hails from, but CM is 5,000 years younger than these cannibals and probably no relation, as an intervening glacier had forced everyone out of the area for a while. CM also died a violent death, though.)

Or as reported by Real Anthropology:

Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism.

The article would like to emphasize, however, that we don’t really know why these people engaged in cannibalism. Starvation? Funeral rituals? Dismemberment of an enemy they really hated? Like I said, it’s hard to know what people were really thinking without written records.

There was a while in anthropology/archaeology when people were arguing that the spread of pots didn’t necessarily involve the spread of people, as a new pottery style could just spread because people liked it and decided to adopt it; it turns out that sometimes the spread is indeed of pots, and sometimes it’s of people. Similarly, certain anthropologists took to describing hunter-gatherers as “harmless“, but this didn’t involve any actual analysis of violence rates among hunter-gatherers (yes, I’ve read the book.)

In sum: The narrative that our ancestors were peaceful egalitarians is, in most cases, probably nonsense.

  • 2. The Davids also argue that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was more complex than the “traditional narrative” claims.

This is also true. As we’ve already touched on above, there are many economic systems that fall somewhere in between exclusive hunter-gathering and pure agriculture. Nomadic hunters who followed and exploited herds of animals gradually began protecting them from other predators (like wolves) and guiding the animals to areas with food and shelter. The domestication of goats pre-dates the beginning of agriculture (and dogs pre-date goats;) the domestication of reindeer was much more recent, (I reviewed a book on reindeer economies here, here, here, and here.) Again, there is no absolute line between hunters like the Eskimo who annually exploit migrating wild caribou and Lapp (Sami) ranchers who occasionally round up their herds of “domestic” reindeer. The reindeer appreciate that we humans kill off their natural predators (ie wolves) and provide a source of valuable salts (ie urine.) The origin of domestic goats and sheep probably looked similar, though the domestication of cattle was probably a more conscious decision given the bovines’ size.

The hunting of fish also looks a lot more like gathering or even farming, as a single resource area (eg, a bend in the river or a comfortable ocean bay) may be regularly exploited via nets, traps, rakes, weirs, etc.

Horticulture is a form of low-intensity agriculture (literally, gardening.) Some horticulturalists get most of their food from their gardens; others plant a few sprouted coconuts and otherwise get most of their food by hunting and fishing. Horticulture doesn’t require much technology (no plows needed) and typically doesn’t produce that many calories.

It is likely that many “hunter gatherers” understood the principle of “seeds sprout and turn into plants” and strategically planted seeds or left them in places where they wanted plants to grow for centuries or millennia before they began actively tending the resulting plants.

Many hunter-gatherer groups also practice active land management techniques. For example, a group of Melanesians in PNG that hunts crocodiles periodically burns the swamp in which the crocodiles live in order to prevent woody trees from taking over and making the swamp less swampy. By preserving the crocodiles’ habitat, they ensure there are plenty of crocodiles around for them to hunt. (I apologize for the lack of a link to a description of the group, but I saw it in a documentary about hunter-gatherers available on Netflix.)

Large-scale environment management probably also predates the adoption of formal agriculture by thousands of years.

Where the article goes wrong:

  1. Just because something is more complicated than the “simplified” version you commonly hear doesn’t mean, “There is no pattern, all is unknowable, nihilism now.”

Any simplified version of things is, by definition, simplified.

The idea that hunter-gatherers were uniquely peaceful and egalitarian is nonsense; if anything, the opposite may be true. Once you leave behind your preconceptions, you realize that the pattern isn’t “random noise” but but actually that all forms of violence and oppression appear to be decreasing over time. Economies where you can get ahead by murdering your neighbors and stealing their wives have been largely replaced by economies where murdering your neighbors lands you in prison and women go to college. There’s still noise in the data–times we humans kill a lot of each other–but that doesn’t mean there is no pattern.

  • 2. Most hunter-gatherers did, in fact, spend most of their time in small communities

The Davids make a big deal out of the fact that hunter-gatherers who exploit seasonally migrating herds sometimes gather in large groups in order to exploit those herds.  They cite, for example:

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Aside from the fact that they are here citing a modern people as an argument about prehistoric ones (!), the Pacific North West is one of the world’s lushest environments with an amazing natural abundance of huntable (fishable) food. If I had to pick somewhere to ride out the end of civilization, the PNW (and New Zealand) would be high on my list. The material abundance available in the PNW is available almost nowhere else in the world–and wasn’t available to anyone before the First Nations arrived in the area around 13,000 years ago. Our stone-age ancestors 100,000 years ago in Africa certainly weren’t exploiting salmon in British Columbia.

Hunter-gatherers who exploit migrating resources sometimes get all of their year’s food in only 3 or 4 massive hunts. These hunts certainly can involve lots of people, as whole clans will want to work together to round up, kill, and process thousands of animals within the space of a few days.

Even the most massive of these gatherings, however, did not compare in size and scope to our modern cities. A few hundred Inuit might gather for the short arctic summer before scattering back to their igloos; the Mongol capital of Ulan Bator was oft described as nearly deserted as the nomadic herdsmen had little reason to remain in the capital when court was not in session.

(Also, the Davids’ description of Inuit life is completely backwards from the actual anthropology I have read; I’m wondering if he accidentally mixed up the Yupik Eskimo who don’t go by the term “Inuit” with the Canadian Eskimo who do go by “Inuit;” I have not read about the Yupik, but if their lifestyles are different from the Inuit, this would explain the confusion.)

The Davids also cite the behavior of the 19th century Plains Indians, but this is waaay disconnected from any “primitive” lifestyle. Most of the Plains Indians had formerly been farmers before disease, guns, and horses, brought by the Spaniards, disrupted their lives. Without horses (or plows) the great plains and their bison herds were difficult to exploit, and people preferred to live in towns along local riverbanks, growing corn, squash, and beans.

We might generously call these towns “cities,” but none of them were the size of modern cities.

  • 3. Production of material wealth

Hunter-gathering, horticulture, fishing, and herding–even at their best–do not produce that much extra wealth. They are basically subsistence strategies; most people in these societies are directly engaged in food production and so can’t spend their time producing other goods. Nomads, of course, have the additional constraint that they can’t carry much with them under any circumstances.

A society can only have as much hierarchy as it can support. A nomadic tribe can have one person who tells everyone when to pack up and move to the next pasture, but it won’t produce enough food to support an entire class of young adults who do things other than produce food.

By contrast, in our modern, industrial society, less than 2% of people are farmers/ranchers. The other 98% of us are employed in food processing of some sort, careers not related to food at all, or unemployed.

This is why our society can produce parking lots that are bigger and more complex than the most impressive buildings ever constructed by hunter-gatherers.

The fact that, on a few occasions, hunter-gatherers managed to construct large buildings (and Stonehenge was not built by hunter-gatherers but by farmers; the impressive, large stones of Stonehenge were not part of the original layout but erected by a later wave of invaders who killed off 90% of Stonehenge’s original builders) does not mean the average hunter-gatherer lived in complex societies most of the time. They did not, because hunter-gathering could not support complex society, massive building projects, nor aristocracies most of the time.

It is only with the advent of agriculture that people started accumulating enough food that there were enough leftover for any sort of formal, long-term state to start taxing. True, this doesn’t necessarily mean that agriculture has to result in formal states with taxes; it just means that it’s very hard to get that without agriculture. (The one exception is if a nomadic herding society like the Mongols conquers an agricultural state and takes their taxes.)

In sum, yes, the “traditional story” is wrong–but not completely. History was more complicated, violent, and unequal, than portrayed, but the broad outlines of “smaller, simpler” hunter gatherer societies to “bigger, more complex” agricultural societies is basically correct. If anything, the lesson is that civilization has the potential to be a great force for good.

Thoughts on Quantrill

Normally I like to do both the Anthropology Friday excerpts and my own thoughts at the same time, but this time I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative’s flow.

The first thing that struck me in all of this was that Quantrill had a considerable number of followers: he lead 450 men to burn and loot Lawrence, Kansas. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even in the army. We can explain Quantrill’s motivation in the burning by arguing that he was trying to earn himself a commission in the Confederate Army by proving to them that he was a good commander, but what about his followers? Surely most of them could have joined the (Confederate) army the regular way, without detouring through Kansas.

Even after the burning, when it was quite clear that Quantrill was not going to get a commission and most of his followers had left, he still had some. So did many of the other men we’ll meet in this series, from outlaw bikers to mob bosses. (And pirates as we’ve already seen.)

And while most people are not very fond of criminals, folks like Quantrill and Jesse James found plenty of “safe” places where the locals were willing to shelter them, help them, or at least look the other way and not report them to the authorities.

What was the difference, really, between Quantrill and a regular army commander? Or the guerrilla soldiers known as the Red Legs and Jayhawkers?

Although I was familiar with the phrase “Burning Kansas” from history class, I hadn’t grasped the conflict’s full depth until reading Dago’s account. I’ve never heard anyone from Kansas or Missouri speak ill of each other–whatever bad blood there was in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath seems to have worn off. In Dago’s telling, the Kansas/Missouri border was a burnt-out, lawless zone where blood feuds brought men down for decades.

And what was the difference between an outlaw like Quantrill and a conqueror like Genghis Khan? ISIS? The chief of a Yanomamo tribe? Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cúailnge?

(The Tain, if you haven’t heard of it before, is an Irish epic that revolves around the attempts by Queen Medb to steal a particular bull from another Irish king, and the efforts of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to stop her.)

After all, Quantrill, while officially an “outlaw,” had many followers–as did these other men (and woman.)

I propose a simple answer: Quantrill was an “outlaw” because the official powers-that-were declared him one. Had Quantrill been successful enough to attract enough men to his side to not only burn and loot Lawrence, but keep it, he would have been its ruler, plain and simple. Genghis Khan did little more than burn, loot, massacre, and rape, but in so doing he amassed an empire. But Genghis Khan’s enemies were probably much less well-organized and equipped than Quantrill’s–certainly they didn’t have railroads.

War is a universal feature of human society. Even chimps have wars, bashing each other’s brains out with rocks. Early humans had war; pre-agricultural tribes have war. (The horticultural Yanomamo have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.)

We moderns have this odd notion that “war” is an official thing which is officially declared by official governments (and what makes an official government? We could go in circles all day.) We believe that war has rules (or at least that it ought to): that it should be fought only by official soldiers on official battlefields, using officially approved weapons, and only targeting official targets. Anything not by the book, such as targeting women and children, using chemical weapons, hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, or fighting on behalf of a group that doesn’t issue uniforms and pay cheques, just confuses us.

But I guarantee you that Genghis Khan did not conquer one of the biggest empires in history by refusing to slaughter women and children.

Similarly, ISIS is nothing but a bunch of outlaws who’ve conquered some territory, but in their case, they have an ideology that justifies their actions and encourages other people to come join them, boosting their numbers.

While tribal, pre-agricultural life was full of war and homicide, it seems that groups rarely got too much of an advantage over each other. Rather, conflict was nearly constant–every so often a battle would break out and a few people would died. When conflicts were particularly bad, small tribes would band together against larger tribes until they balanced out (or slaughtered their enemies.) When conditions approved, tribes split up and people went their own way (until they got into conflicts with each other and the cycle repeated.) But occasionally one tribe developed (or obtained) a distinct advantage over the others: armies mounted on horseback dominated less mobile units. Armies with guns massacred people who had none. Vikings, Spaniards, and later Englishmen built boats which let them conquer large swathes of the world. Etc.

Our present state of relative peace (compared to our ancestors) is due to the fact that all of this conquering eventually led to the amalgamation of large enough states with large enough armies that we now have few enemies willing to take the risk of attacking us. We have nukes; as a result, few formal states with formal armies are willing to attack us. This state of mutual balance is–for now–holding for the developed world.

This state of peace is not guaranteed to last.

I noticed back in The Walls Tear Themselves Down that borders are ironically places of disorder. As Dago notes, criminals take advantage of borders–and stateless zones–to escape from law enforcement.

On a related note, Saul Montes-Bradley has an interesting post about Islamic terrorist groups raising money via drug trade in Latin America:

The tentacles of Jihad extend further than most people realize. …

In particular in South American countries, long the allies of Middle Eastern Fascism, terrorist organizations find support and, most grievously financing. Indeed, the second largest source of financing for Hezballat[1] is drug trafficking and smuggling between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, often under the protection of local government officials.

This feature of borders will be showing up a lot in the next few Anthropology Fridays.

Decompression

So I’ve been doing a long project on crime/criminals. So far I’ve read about pirates, Angola Prison, horseback outlaws, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and currently, the mafia.

The books are good, but this is not light reading. After reading about meth whores abusing their kids for a chapter or two, you find yourself wanting to head over to the nearest church.

And I’ve got two and a half books left to go.

Obviously I don’t like crime. Few people do. I’d like for criminals to go away.

I also don’t want non-criminals accidentally imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. I don’t want petty criminals over-punished for minor crimes that don’t warrant it. I don’t want a system where some people have access to good lawyers and a shot at “justice” and some people don’t.

I wish we could talk about crime, and the police, and the justice system, and how all of that should work, and subjects like “do the police shoot people inappropriately?” without getting dragged into the poison of tribal political bickering. I especially don’t like the idea that as a result of people trying to prevent one form of murder (police shootings), far more people have ended up being murdered by common criminals. (At least, that’s what the data looks like.)

Obviously we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people in which there may in fact be a trade off between level of police / justice system violence and level of criminal violence. If you have 10 suspects and you know 5 are serial killers but you don’t know which 5, imprisoning all 10 will get the killers off the streets but also imprison 5 innocents, while freeing all of them will result in a bunch more murders. It would be nice to be perfect, but we’re not. We’re humans.

I think there are a lot of problems with the way the legal/justice system operates, but I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere with fixing it. People need to be genuinely motivated to make it better, not just tribally interested in taking a side over BLM. And most people really aren’t interested in fixing it.

And then there’s the criminal side. (Oh, and on a related note: Portland Deletes Its Gang List for Having Too Many Blacks)

I’m often reminded of a passage in Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (which I read ages ago) in which he expressed frustration at his fellow academics. You see, Venkatesh was doing street-level, real live research in–I think it was Chicago–by actually going into ghetto neighborhoods and making friends with the people, interacting with them, seeing what their lives were really like. At the same time, Venkatesh was a university student studying “poverty” or something like that, and so would frequently attend lectures by academic types talking about ways to address poverty or fight poverty or what have you, and it was obvious to him that many of these lecturers had no idea what they were talking about.

And really, people do this a lot. They propose a bunch of feel-good solutions to problems they don’t actually understand.

This is pretty much all of politics, really.

I remember a conversation with a well-meaning liberal acquaintance that occurred shortly after I finished Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio. She suggested that better public transportation networks would help poor people get to resources like public museums, which would enrich their lives. I thought this was a stupid response. People trying to make ends meet by acting as lookouts for crack gangs or struggling to find a job after getting out of prison do not care about museums. I said something to that effect, and I don’t think she likes me anymore.

Deep down inside, I wish we lived in a kumbaya-world of happy bunnies frolicking in the forest and children holding hands and singing about how happy they are. I wish people were honest, and pure, and well-intentioned. I wish we could go to the museum, experience beauty, and feel connected to each other and history and culture. I wish none of us had to wear suits and that jobs didn’t grind up people’s souls and spit them out. I wish people could see the humanity in each other, because when we stop seeing that, we stop being human.

And to a large degree, we live in a very nice world. We live in a world with medicines and antibiotics. Where child mortality is low and mothers rarely die in childbirth. Where surgery is done with anesthesia. I have a comfortable home, lots of books, and plenty of food. I spend much of my time reading about times and places where these weren’t the norm, which makes me quite grateful for what I have. It also sometimes keeps me up late at night when I should be asleep.

It’s a good world, but it isn’t kumbaya world. It’s a world with criminals and idiots and mal-intentioned people. It’s a world that got to be good because people worked very hard to make it that way (many people died to make it that way) and it’s a world that doesn’t have to stay that way. We can ruin it.

While researching the previous Cathedral Round-Up, I came across what I think is a professor’s old Myspace page. Suddenly this professor went from “person who wrote really pretentious-sounding dissertation” to “human being.” They were a kid once, trying to figure out their place in this world. They looked sad in some of their pictures. Were they lonely? Outcast? Bullied?

I hate “dissertation language” and hate how simple (sometimes even reasonable) ideas get wrapped up in unnecessarily complex verbiage just to make them sound astonishing. I hate it on principle. I hate how the same people who talk about “privilege” use a writing style that is, itself, accessible to and performed by only an extremely privileged few. Much of it is self-centered drivel, and pretending it has anything to do with uplifting the pure is unadulterated hypocrisy.

All of this internet-driven SJW political signaling is really performative morality. When you are in the context of a real flesh and blood human being in your own community whom you’ll have to interact with repeatedly over the course of years, you’ll try to be faithful, honest, dutiful, loyal, dependable, etc., and you’ll value those some traits in others. Put us on the internet, and we have no need for any of that. We’re not going to cooperate in any meaningful, real-world way with a bunch of people on the internet. Morality on the internet becomes performative, a show you put on for a 3rd-party audience. Here the best thing isn’t to be dependable, but to have the best-sounding opinions. Status isn’t built on your long-term reputation but on your ability to prove that other people are less moral than you.

I noticed years ago that people on the internet often did not debate honestly with each other, but would lie and distort the other person’s argument. Why would they do this? Surely they couldn’t hope to win by lying to someone’s face about their own argument! It only makes sense if you assume the goal of the discussion isn’t to convince the other person, but to convince some other person watching the debate. If you get lots of approval from your adoring Tumblr/Twitter/whatever fans for saying all the right things and accusing your opponents of being all of the wrong, immoral sorts of things, then who cares what the person those remarks are actually directed at thinks of them?

And who cares if you are actually a good, decent, reliable, honest person?

As someone who writes a blog that often discusses other people’s work for the sake of my own audience, I must admit that I, too, am guilty here.

But hey, at least I haven’t put a meathook up anyone’s ass.

So I guess I’ll just end by encouraging everyone to go and be decent people.

Thermodynamics and Urban Sprawl

Termite Mound

Evolution is just a special case of thermodynamics. Molecules spontaneously arrange themselves to optimally dissipate energy.

Society itself is a thermodynamic system for entropy dissipation. Energy goes in–in the form of food and, recently, fuels like oil–and children and buildings come out.

Government is simply the entire power structure of a region–from the President to your dad, from bandits to your boss. But when people say, “government,” they typically mean the official one written down in laws that lives in white buildings in Washington, DC.

London

When the “government” makes laws that try to change the natural flow of energy or information through society, society responds by routing around the law, just as water flows around a boulder that falls in a stream.

The ban on trade with Britain and France in the early 1800s, for example, did not actually stop people from trading with Britain and France–trade just became re-routed through smuggling operations. It took a great deal of energy–in the form of navies–to suppress piracy and smuggling in the Gulf and Caribbean–chiefly by executing pirates and imprisoning smugglers.

Beehive

When the government decided that companies couldn’t use IQ tests in hiring anymore (because IQ tests have a “disparate impact” on minorities because black people tend to score worse, on average, than whites,) in Griggs vs. Duke Power, they didn’t start hiring more black folks. They just started using college degrees as a proxy for intelligence, contributing to the soul-crushing debt and degree inflation young people know and love today.

Similarly, when the government tried to stop companies from asking about applicants’ criminal histories–again, because the results were disproportionately bad for minorities–companies didn’t start hiring more blacks. Since not hiring criminals is important to companies, HR departments turned to the next best metric: race. These laws ironically led to fewer blacks being hired, not more.

Where the government has tried to protect the poor by passing tenant’s rights laws, we actually see the opposite: poorer tenants are harmed. By making it harder to evict tenants, the government makes landlords reluctant to take on high-risk (ie, poor) tenants.

The passage of various anti-discrimination and subsidized housing laws (as well as the repeal of various discriminatory laws throughout the mid-20th century) lead to the growth of urban ghettos, which in turn triggered the crime wave of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Crime and urban decay have made inner cities–some of the most valuable real estate in the country–nigh unlivable, resulting in the “flight” of millions of residents and the collective loss of millions of dollars due to plummeting home values.

Work-arounds are not cheap. They are less efficient–and thus more expensive–than the previous, banned system.

Urban sprawl driven by white flight

Smuggled goods cost more than legally traded goods due to the personal risks smugglers must take. If companies can’t tell who is and isn’t a criminal, the cost of avoiding criminals becomes turning down good employees just because they happen to be black. If companies can’t directly test intelligence, the cost becomes a massive increase in the amount of money being spent on accreditation and devaluation of the signaling power of a degree.

We have dug up literally billions of dollars worth of concentrated sunlight in the form of fossil fuels in order to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure in order to work around the criminal blights in the centers of our cities, condemning workers to hour-long commutes and paying inflated prices for homes in neighborhoods with “good schools.”

Note: this is not an argument against laws. Some laws increase efficiency. Some laws make life better.

This is a reminder that everything is subject to thermodynamics. Nothing is free.