Quick placeholder here to identify a concept that comes up repeatedly.
Governing (in the very broadest sense) is partly about principle, and partly about practicalities. You can decide you want something to happen, but it might be easy to act effectively, or difficult. You can pass a law, but it might be easy to enforce, or difficult.
Those practicalities are affected by what the normal behaviour of people is.
One example: if most people are employed by one company or another, government can have a lot of influence by attaching rules to that employment relationship — it can collect income taxes, ensure minimum welfare, regulate safety, etc. The employers can be conveniently be made agents for the govermnent — information-gatherers, or providers or enforcers.
There are many other examples. If goods come into the country through a few ports, government can exert a great deal of control easily by closely regulating those ports. If people all go to the same church, the government can monitor and influence their views by acting through that church.
However, behaviours like this change. In the case of the employment relationship, as one example, it has in the last decade become much easier to work short-term. The canonical example is Uber: Uber can provide a lot of the function of an employer — giving a worker a fairly steady stream of work for different end consumers, doing marketing, payment handling, paperwork — without actually being an employer. Youtube makes TV programmes without employing producers and presenters. The influence that government used to have at that “employment” choke point is gone in those cases.
The most topical example of this wider phenomenon is of course media. If news and entertainment came from a small number of newspapers and broadcasters, those were choke points that allowed government to amplify its control.
When a valuable control point, such as TV broadcasting or long-term employment, dissolves away, government has a serious problem. It has four choices:
- Expend more resources to achieve the same amount of control
- Give up control
- Find new choke points
- Try to force people back into the old choke points
There’s no value judgement here. I’m not an anarchist, government needs to govern, and the optimal mechanisms for governing, at any point in time, are affected by the affordances provided to the government by common patterns of behaviour.
Whenever you see controversy around technology — because technology changes the way people interact and moves choke points — it usually comes down to this question.
Quick summary of some tweets in response to this article about how hard news is moving behind paywalls
The tone of the articles is that journalism is moving to paywalls so the poor underprivileged folks will be denied all this valuable journalism, and suffer as a result.
If the mass population were to be denied access to journalism, that would be about the best thing that could possibly happen, but of course it is not conceivable. They will continue to get what they want to consume; the stuff that is moving behind paywalls is the niche stuff that the profitable mass media no long sees a reason to subsidise.
Nevertheless, that is significant and could have large effects in the long run. I wrote about some of the issues a decade ago, when I reviewed “Flat Earth News”.
Mass-market news is primarily entertainment. Most people watch news to engage their minds and have something to talk about, not because they actually benefit from the information. (see also: Politics as Entertainment).
There is a long tradition, though never dominant and much reduced in recent decades, of including true information in news media. This was a product of paternalism, idealism, and the fact that actual news was kicking around anyway and was easy to throw in.
There has always been a minority of news consumers who actually need true information from the news for practical reasons. They used to be served by the same media industry as the mass market. (Not necessarily the same publications, but the same organisations and meta-organisations of media).
When the same industry produced facts for the minority and entertainment for the majority, that made it cheap to include facts in entertainment. If it bifurcates, the infotainment side will no longer have access to or focus on true information.
It is not clear that “premium news” of the type described in the axios piece is the factual news I am discussing, as opposed to just being a market segment of infotainment. It might be, but “business intelligence” services are more obvious candidates.
The “factual news consumers” I am thinking of are primarily business and government. If you want to know what is really going on in the world today, in order to make business decisions, do you read a daily newspaper or watch TV news? I don’t think so — you read specialised industry analyses.
(This is a minor stream-of-consciousness snapshot)
I watched Moldbug’s recent interview with Michael Malice on YouTube, and noticed a couple of previous ones and watched those too.
In one of them, Moldbug is asked who he would like as King, and he suggests Gordon Ramsay. He does a funny bit about Ramsay looking to see what is in the State Department’s fridge, or something.
That made me think of the funny Japanese woman who was all the rage a few years ago, who got people to throw stuff out of their cupboards.
Why do Gordon Ramsay and Marie Kondo (looked up her name) do the same thing? (I have only seen a few clips of each, but this piece is not about facts).
By looking at what stuff you are keeping, both of them can get objective evidence towards the same question: are you in control of what is happening here? If you are in charge, then what is in your fridge and in your cupboard is what you think should be there. If stuff just somehow ends up in your fridge or your cupboard and you let it happen, then you are not in control. Whether you are in control is a much bigger and more important question than what you believe. Gordon Ramsay and Marie Kondo are both telling you that the first thing you have to do is take control.
Moldbug’s whole point is that in our system of government, nobody is in control. The fridges are full of expired ingredients and rubbish.
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 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.
More history dredged from my Twitter backup
Democracy, like all conventions of limited war, is fragile. It’s hard to establish and easy to destroy. One of my main concerns is that I think the principal check that keeps the US from degenerating into actual violence is the 75-year-old informational dominance of “responsible” broadcast and newspaper journalism. This system is dying. It is being replaced by people like Amanda Marcotte and Michelle Malkin. And their followers, if not them personally, seem to have enough pure, 24-karat hate stored up for ten or fifteen really juicy civil wars.
Without “Informational Dominance”, you get civil war.
In case anyone doesn’t recognise it that’s from Unqualified Reservations, 2007, The BDH–OV conflict.
NRx is anti-journalist, in that it identifies journalists as part of the ruling system. Without informational dominance of responsible journalism, the Modern Structure falls.
My last main post was coming to grips with that informational dominance being restored. I was reflexively against it, and the post was merely adjusting to the fact it is inevitable. Good thing, Bad thing? What does that even mean. it is a thing.
Obviously a key question for the future is, will the reestablishment of informational dominance succeed? I have been anticipating that it will — the deplatforming of Trumpism is going swimmingly. It will be curious if major Trumpist figures attempt to publish via non-US internet resources, and if the establishment is willing to reverse its principles to impose a “Great Firewall of America” to block it, and if large numbers of normies are willing to use VPN or related technologies to reach them anyway.
But Moldbug was right 14 years ago: if they cannot reestablish dominance, the system will fall.
This is just an addendum to the previous post — a few tweets from three years ago
My tweet reads,
Early 20th century politics was organised around printing presses. To be a party, you needed printing equipment. Today’s establishment is the group of people who got control of television. There’s no other worthwhile definition.
An earlier Tweet from Carl Miller said
Whatever the ‘mainstream’ is, it’ll never again have a monopoly on an ability to raising large amounts of money quickly, reaching millions of people, coordinating logistics on the ground. The money, experience and machinery of the political mainstream matters a lot less now.
Half my timeline is now trying to fight to keep that true. I think they’re going to lose.
I’ve been off Twitter for a couple of months. I’m bored with coronavirus, and more irritated than interested in aggregate. I expect I’ll be back, but not imminently.
This is another matter. We are promised twice-monthly fragments of a new Moldbug book. I am in.
As a bit of random context, here’s a bit of 2008 Moldbug, from the Open Letter (part 7). You might judge that it doesn’t add up to accurate prediction. But you can’t deny that recent events have validated its underlying model.
Second, let’s observe the relationship between the Cathedral and our old friend, “democracy.” Since 1933, elected politicians have exercised minimal actual control over government policy. Formally, however, they have absolute control. The Cathedral is not mentioned in the Constitution. Power is a juicy caterpillar. Maybe it looks like a twig to most of us birds, but Washington has no shortage of sharp eyes, sharp beaks, and growling bellies.
We can see the answer when we look at the fate of politicians who have attacked the Cathedral. Here are some names: Joseph McCarthy. Enoch Powell. George Wallace. Spiro Agnew. Here are some others: Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon. Margaret Thatcher.
The first set are politicians whose break with the Cathedral was complete and unconditional. The second are politicians who attempted to compromise and coexist with it, while pulling it in directions it didn’t want to go. The first were destroyed. The second appeared to succeed, for a while, but little trace of their efforts (at least in domestic politics) is visible today. Their era ends in the 1980s, and it is impossible to imagine similar figures today.
What we see, especially in the cases of McCarthy and Powell (the recent BBC documentary on Powell is quite good) is a tremendous initial burst of popularity, trailing off into obloquy and disrepute. At first, these politicians were able to capture large bases of support. At least 70% of the British electorate was on Powell’s side. This figure may even be low.
But Powell—Radio Enoch aside—never had the tools to preserve these numbers and convert them into power. Similar majorities of American voters today will tell pollsters that they support Powellian policies: ending immigration, deporting illegals, terminating the racial spoils system. These majorities are stable. No respectable politician will touch them. Why? Because they cannot afford to antagonize the Cathedral, whose policies are the opposite.
Oops — a few paragraphs later. If this is accurate, we might be in trouble
Devotees of the Inner Party and the Cathedral are deeply convinced that the Outer Party is about to fall on them and destroy them in a new fascist upheaval. They often believe that the Outer Party itself is the party of power. They can be easily terrified by poll results of the type that Powell, etc., demonstrated. There are all kinds of scary polls that can be conducted which, if they actually translated into actual election results in which the winners of the election held actual power, would seriously suck. That’s democracy for you.
But power in our society is not held by democratic politicians. Nor should it be. Indeed the intelligentsia are in a minority, indeed they live in a country that is a democracy, indeed in theory their entire way of life hangs by a thread. But if you step back and look at history over any significant period, you only see them becoming stronger. It is their beliefs that spread to the rest of the world, not the other direction. When Outer Party supporters embrace stupid ideas, no one has any reason to worry, because the Outer Party will never win. When the Inner Party goes mad, it is time to fear. Madness and power are not a fresh cocktail.
Holy shit. Still re-reading Open Letter. There is a lesson in this: if you are paying attention to current affairs, your time would be better spent reading Moldbug, even if you’ve read it before. 2008, remember:
there is another way to succeed in the Outer Party. This might be called the Huckabee Plan. On the Huckabee Plan, you succeed by being as stupid as possible. Not only does this attract a surprising number of voters, who may be just as stupid or even stupider—the Outer Party’s base is not exactly the cream of the crop—it also attracts the attention of the Cathedral, whose favorite sport is to promote the worst plausible Outer Party candidates. As usual with the Cathedral, this is a consequence of casual snobbery rather than malignant conspiracy, but it is effective nonetheless. It is always fun to write a human-interest story about a really wacky peasant, especially one who happens to be running for President.
I recently wrote “if [a thing] is not under some central control, then there is nobody who can make it other than what it is”, talking about Decentralised Monopolies.
I just remembered that three years earlier I wrote, “To change the action of a collective, some more significant force than an individual impulse normally has to act on it”, talking about Personal and Collective Power.
Around the same time, I described the collective of shareholders of a company as “a single non-human ‘virtual’ decision-maker, the shareholder-value maximiser“, in Checked Power.
It seems to be an important idea to me, that I haven’t previously isolated as something worth thinking about directly.
There is a slight connection to Asimov’s (fictional) “psycho-history” — the idea that while individual humans are hard to predict, collectives can in principle be predicted reliably. But while I wrote “In many cases, we can predict the action of the collective with virtual certainty”, I don’t think that is generally the case, and I never have. In 2012, I wrote “Predicting herd behaviour, contra Isaac Asimov, is probably the hardest thing there is.”, in The Unthinkable. Maybe, compared to individual behaviour, collective behaviour is subject to fairly simple rules. But even things subject to fairly simple rules are not always predictable, but can instead be chaotic.
On those lines, I wrote while considering voting in the 2010 election that “A butterfly’s wings might affect the path of a hurricane, but it’s not possible to aim a hurricane at a particular target by strategically releasing butterflies.”
Just to emphasize how correct that was: The result of that election gave enough seats to Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties together to form a government, but did not give Labour enough seats to form a government even with Lib Dem support. This produced a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, but one in which the Lib Dems had little influence, because they had no other choices of coalition partner. This produced a 2015 campaign in which the Conservatives felt safe to offer a referendum on membership of the EU, which they could later renege on by blaming the necessity of future coalition with the Lib Dems, but on unexpectedly winning an overall majority in 2015 — in part because the lack of influence that the LDs had over coalition policy meant they failed to satisfy their voters and lost votes — they had to go through with it, but Cameron, in his second term as PM and with an increased vote, was overconfident he could win it. How predictable was all that when I blogged about releasing butterflies in April 2010?
Anyway, this is supposed to be a “mini”, I’ve noticed the link between all these references I’ve made previously to “collective behaviour”, and it needs more focus.