Month: July 2021
The Daughter of the House has developed an attraction to the chauffeur. Her brother wants to become an Actor. Their mother has discovered Krishna and wants to celebrate Janmashtami in the grounds of the House.
For a respectable member of the ruling class1, any one of these would be a crisis. People Like Us don’t do that sort of thing. It’s not fitting, it’s just wrong. What will the neighbours think?
This stuck-up attitude, obsessed with appearances, hostile to “inferiors”, suspicious of difference, has been a target to be opposed for at least a hundred years. For fifty years, it has been worse: openly mocked from all quarters. Today we have a new ruling class, only partly descended from the old one, and identified with Masters degrees and managerial jobs rather than titles and country houses.
The fundmentals of human society haven’t changed though. The members, actual and aspirational, of the ruling class still need to show that they belong there, that they have loyalty to the same principles that the rest of the class does. Luckily, this does not require great effort of calculation2. Fitting in with a clique is a natural instinct. If you speak or act in a way that your peer group will not approve of, you will be very aware of it. You will probably feel nervous, or even nauseous. To break the mores of ones social circle takes a deliberate effort, to avoid doing so is much easier.
Among the mores of the new ruling class, anti-racism has pride of place. Its members are sincerely non-racist, but, in addition, they are terrified of appearing to be racist. Anything that could be construed as or resmbles racism will also produce a gut reaction, as well as a rational concern for one’s social position. Your chauffeur might be a gentle and intelligent young man with good prospects of an engineering career, who could make your daughter happy, but your neighbours won’t understand all that, even if you do.
This semi-rational, semi-reflex attitude is what I was getting at in Fear and Equality. When the coronavirus first appeared, the calls to act to prevent it spreading felt racist. “You must protect yourself from this dangerous thing” makes liberals feel immediately uneasy, and they are conditioned to avoid even digging into that unease. On top of that, coming out on the same side as President Trump and the murky Silicon Valley subculture, felt equally bad.
That was then. Before too long, COVID was blatantly something worth protecting from. It doesn’t seem to me very likely that it could ever have been prevented from spreading across the world, but it was surely worth a try, and even slowing it down by weeks would have been very beneficial.
Today we are not being told not to fear it. On the contrary, the culturally dominant opinion has gone to the other extreme. People should wear masks. Everyone should get vaccinated. More notably, anyone arguing otherwise is basically a murderer who should be silenced, fired, and punished. It’s easy to see how that view fits the ruling class worldview just as well as it’s no worse than the flu, prejudice is the real virus did. We are no longer dealing with an abstract, allegedly-dangerous “other” and Donald Trump’s travel bans. We are dealing with a very familiar enemy: rednecks who like to carry guns and now recklessly go outside breathing. Tucker Carlson. People who think George Soros is conspiring to smuggle slave-children onto secret islands. In last year’s post I said, talking about threats when considering the coronavirus, There is one exception. If the thing you are warning against is rich white people, or if you can at least claim it’s rich white people, you are safe. nobody is uneasy about that. “Rich white people” isn’t quite right; I meant, from the point of view of the UN, “white people in rich countries”, but within the context of Britain or the USA, the acceptable target group is that white outgroup; christians, social conservatives, Brexiters or rural gun-owners. Now if you say that perhaps the benefits of vaccinating children don’t really justify even small risks, or that masks aren’t proved to do much good and people should be allowed to make up their own minds, you might think you have reasonable arguments, but it feels like you are with the “Bill Gates is implanting chips” loonies or the “Assault weapons are a civil right”3 monsters. What will the neigbours think?
Once you start seeing the dominant class of the West as stereotype upper-class characters in an English period drama, it could not be more obvious. While I’ve been writing this, I’ve seen a piece on the blackballing of Amy Chua, and a tweet from Ben Sixsmith referencing the British state shying away from dealing with Pakistani grooming gangs (prior to Nazir Afzal making it OK). All these stories become more comprehensible if, while reading them, you mutter to yourself, “What will the neighbours think?”
This is not just groupthink, it’s groupthink on steroids because maintaining one’s social position requires following the groupthink.
This is a piece about the ruling class of America, not a piece about COVID-19. I know people who believe that we should take all possible steps to eliminate the virus, and people who think we should have let it run rather than sacrifice any freedom. The people I know in both of those groups have reached those conclusions based on their values and view of the evidence, and been consistent in the face of the partisan reversal that happened in the public sphere. I don’t agree with either (though I’m slightly closer to the second group), but I don’t mean this as a dig at any of them: it’s just that I was writing about the WHO and their reluctance to be racist to viruses last year, and when today they went back to their old ways with a campaign against e-cigarettes, the social mechanisms behind my previous post were made clearer to me.
Tweetable link: https://t.co/FOdxhlIFvw?amp=1
Aleph asked a really good question on Twitter:
What are examples of highly influential things that are not thought of that way? My go to example is birth control pills, which are one of the most influential inventions of the last century.https://twitter.com/woke8yearold/status/1416028831098474498
His example is a little bit off — it was generally understood in the 70s and 80s that we were living in a world that The Pill had created. That that understanding has been lost to the younger generations is notable, but it’s natural that the impacts of major changes in the past get gradually forgotten.
It’s still a great question. My suggestion for a more recent instance is CCTV. Obviously the spread of CCTV has been very much noticed and commented on, particularly here in Britain which has been in the forefront. However I think the impact has been greatly underestimated, because while it has been making the detection of crime much easier, police and the criminal justice system have simultaneously become much less effective and efficient in every other area, and criminality has been spreading and increasing. CCTV doesn’t show in crime statistics, because it has been cancelled out by everything that would otherwise have been causing crime to skyrocket. CCTV hasn’t eliminated crime, instead it has just masked how bad society has got.
If I’m right (this is a casual impression, not a researched thesis), then in Britain today we are actually totally dependent on CCTV for society to continue to function. Take it away, put us where we would have been with the last 30 years of social trends and policing changes, and our cities would become unliveable.
It’s got a lot further to go, too. IP-networked wired or wireless night-vision HD cameras are about £20 and falling. Tiny rechargable cameras recording to flash memory cost less than the Micro-SD cards you put in them. There’s no way these cameras don’t become ubiquitous.
The story is interesting in its own right. Youtube observs responses from users, both to videos being listed in their screens, and to actually watching the videos, runs some Machine Learning models1 over that feedback information, and selects what to list to them next to keep them watching and engaging. (This is widely understood)
(In a tiny, tiny fraction of high-profile cases, it then applies human moderation to advance the company’s interests, its political and social biases, and so on. That’s not what I’m writing about today)
As is known, this feedback loop can lead people in some highly unexpected directions. Recreational lock-picking, really? There are also some less mysterious tendencies — any activity is more watchable if it’s being done by attractive young women. But the particular instance Pargin finds — of an innocuous third-world fishing video getting ten times the views if it mildly hints at a tiny bit of indecency that isn’t even really there — would have been very difficult to predict. Note that it’s not as simple as “ten times as many people want to see the videos with the not-quite-upskirt thumnail”. Because of the feedback, more people get the suggestion to watch that video, and many of them might have equally watched the other ones too, but didn’t get the opportunity. The behaviour of a smaller number of unambitious creeps is driving the behaviour of a (probably) larger number of ordinary viewers.
Pargin makes the wider point that this same system of user feedback and ML-generated recommendation is shaping the content across all digital media. Whatever you have to do to get the views, those are the rules, even though nobody chose those rules, even though nobody knows what all the rules are, if you are in the business you just have to do your best to learn them.
I want to make a wider point still. We can understand, roughly, how this particular mode of media comes to produce some kinds of content and not others. That does not mean that without this particular mode of media, you get “normal, natural” kinds of content. You just get different incentives on producers, and consequently different content.
It’s not just media, either. Different structures of organisation and information flow produce different incentives for participants, and consequently different behaviour. Financing a business by selling equity into a highly liquid public market produces certain specific behaviours in management. Running a sport where teams can prevent players moving between them produces certain behaviours in the players. Organisations may be designed to incentivise certain desired behaviours, but many others will arise spontaneously because the system as a whole unexpectedly rewards them.
This is what Moldbug means when he says “The ideology of the oligarchy is an epiphenomenon of its organic structure.” We do not have woke ideology because a deep centuries-long woke conspiracy has taken over. We do not have it because someone sat down and worked out that a particular structural relationship between civil service, universities, and television would tend to promote ideological shifts of particular kinds. We have it because a structural relationship was created between civil service, universities, and newspapers and it turns out that that structural relationship just happens to result in this kind of insanity. You can trace through all the details — the career path of academics, the social environment of civil servants. You can spot historical parallels — this bit Chris Arnade found on pre-revolutionary French intellectuals. Moldbug attributes this epiphenomenon primarily to the separation of power from responsibility. I’m sure he’s right, but it’s a bit like Jason Pargin saying “yes, the internet really is that horny”. The particular ways in which irresponsibility or horniness express themselves in systems are still somewhat unexpected.
The best movie I have ever seen about financial markets is Margin Call.
Unlike anything else set on Wall Street1, the characters feel right. They’re all believable. What they do, and the way they relate to each other, is very realistic. They’re not caricatures, and they are all very different from each other, in realistic ways.
(The one possible exception — and this is important for reasons I will come to — is Jeremy Irons’ CEO. And I’m not so much saying he’s not realistic, as that I have no experience of that level of management at work, so I can’t tell. My other comparisons are from experience).
Great as the movie is — I highly recommend you see it — there’s one huge misunderstanding that nearly everyone has: they think the movie depicts what happened in the 2008 crash.
It has many of the points, but it is not at all what happened. But you can make a good argument that it’s what should have happened.
In real life, nobody panic-sold mortgage derivatives and caused a sudden crash in their prices. Rather, there was a severe sustained decline in their prices over months and months, with occasional bumps and false bottoms.
From the first investment funds based on mortgages going bankrupt, to Bear Stearns failing, was nearly a year. From Bear Stearns to Lehman was another six months. The whole thing happened in slow motion. Margin Call takes place in about 36 hours.
Throughout the whole period, banks were still making the same mortgages, and broker-dealers were still securitizing them and selling them. If a major trading house had panic-sold the derivatives and crashed the market at the beginning of that period, causing the whole crisis to happen sooner, it would have been very much smaller, and the damage would have been very much less.
The drama of the movie is the conflict between Jeremy Irons as the ruthless, heartless CEO who orders the bank to dump everything immediately (“It sure is a hell of a lot easier just to be first”), and head trader Kevin Spacey as the more human, complete man, torn by his relationships with his customers, and the effect of a crash on everyone else. Again, the characters and the acting are first rate.
But from my point of view, having experienced the real history from very close up, Irons is unambiguously the hero, and Spacey is unambiguously the villain. If the Jeremy Irons character had been real, he would quite likely have saved the world. In real life, any time a similar argument came up, the Spacey side must have come out the winner, and so the insanity went on, people continuing to buy and sell what at some level they knew or suspected was worthless, because they couldn’t imagine or couldn’t face bringing it to an end.
The fantasy didn’t end until people at one more remove — the shareholders of the banks and broker-dealers — panicked and dumped the stock. Bear and Lehman didn’t fail because they lost money, they failed because because their stock became worthless and without the confidence that they could raise capital by selling equity, nobody would give them any credit. They couldn’t roll over short-term loans, and died.
Background: I’ve written all this before, on Twitter and elsewhere, in the past. I’m dropping it here now so I have an anchor I can refer to. Incidentally, I’m anonymous, but as I’ve mentioned before, I was there. Any responsibility I bear for what happened is, I would claim, tiny, but then again, who’s wasn’t? It was a collective and structural failure, and I was part of it.
Another non-regular update on the history of the plague.
Again, I’m not much concerned with whatever today’s popular debates are, more in how the last year will look from the point of view of history.
The interesting stuff lately was Dominic Cummings’ 100-tweet account of, particularly, March 2020 in number 10.
It appears my understanding of what was going on was fairly close. The initial plan was to allow the spread with minimal intervention to achieve natural herd immunity, and that plan was changed mid-March due to the expected impact on hospitals.
Where I was wrong was that internally they were explicitly talking about intermittent lockdowns long-term until vaccination was available, which was not what they were saying out loud. From my point of view at the time they did not appear to have any long-term plan.
To me the government actually comes out of the account quite well — they did have a long-term plan, though they appeared not to, and the long-term plan did more or less work.
Obviously the actual choice was between letting everyone get infected or acting to reduce infections, and, if acting, the optimum is to act as quickly and strongly as possible, to reduce the overall pain. Therefore any dithering or half-measures were not optimal. However, given the structures in place, some amount of dithering and half-measures were inevitable, and it could have been a lot worse.
Cummings’ focus is of course the particular ways in which the structures and personnel of HMG fucked up various things. That isn’t a major interest of mine. I was only ever mildly interested in his project to inject some rationality into government, because I saw very little possibility of it succeeding, and after the Sabisky affair I basically wrote it off and forgot about it.
The plague situation today as I see it is that we are expecting it to be around for ever, but with reduced impact because of vaccination and people acquiring some immunity by being infected when young enough to mostly not be too badly affected. Basically (and ironically) it is going to become just like the flu, but probably 2-10 times worse. It will make a noticeable impact on life expectancy but not one that changes society or the way we live.
That’s what it looks like, but it’s not certain. I would be a bit surprised if either we got a new wave of hospital-flooding epidemic, or if it effectively died out — but I’ve been surprised before.
Short term, the winter 2021-22 in Britain looks a bit touch-and-go : it is spreading fast through the younger generation, so we are going to get a huge spike of cases, and a lot of people seriously ill, both the small proportion of the large number of young infectees, and a larger fraction of those who catch it from children and who aren’t protected by vaccination. I would selfishly prefer we just muddle through it, but it’s looking like there’s quite a good case for trying to pinch it down again somewhere about now.
One change the endemic scenario does make is it changes the arithmetic of the health risks of obesity. Where previously it significantly increased your chance of dying prematurely, now it’s going to massively increase it. I expect the existing debates over diet, low-carb vs low-fat, seed oils vs saturated fats, etc. to seriously blow up as the stakes become much higher.
The vaccine controversies worry me. Vaccination is clearly the vital part of handling this, and I got myself done as soon as I could. However, there are sensible people seriously saying that the safety of vaccines cannot and must not be questioned, and in the long run that is an invitation to catastrophe. Even today, giving hundreds of millions of people a vaccine that was rushed through approval is a significant risk — in my view one very much worth taking, but that’s a conclusion that can only be reached by considering all the possibilities. Succeed in making vaccines unquestionable, and you are guaranteeing that within decades unsafe vaccines will be widely used.
As with the details of No. 10 policy-making, I have a strong “not my problem” perspective. The two facts are that popular opinion influences policy, and much of the public has spectacularly wrong opinions. As a result some very smart people are taking the view that the public’s opinion must at all costs be forced to be correct. For me, the answer is that popular opinion should be ignored and not allowed to influence policy. If there’s one lesson from the whole debacle of 2020-21, it’s that it is not possible for democratic governments to loudly lie to the population while continuing to believe the truth themselves. “You might not want a vaccine but that’s tough, you’re fucking getting one” is less bad than “vaccines are always safe and anyone that claims otherwise will be silenced”.