The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: How to think Page 1 of 22

A Few Words On Prediction

Prediction usually boils down to figuring out essentials.

I’m committed to finding out the 20% which explains 80%. Despite what one might think, that involves quite a lot of work, I’ve read thousands of books over the years, and don’t just get my info on twitter and from news media but I often cover current events and that requires current info, not carefully thought out books. (As an example, I’ve read books on Hezbollah.)

I find a few determined priorities/ideology/power + resource constraints tend to create most apparent complexity (most, not all.) Complexity is mostly in execution, not in ideation or decision.

Much of Fed rate policy from 79 to the 00s, for example, can be explained by a simple commitment to crush wage based inflation. Add in a commitment to increase asset prices and you have two theses which worked very very well predictively at the time and which still have a great deal of utility.

A reading of Bernanke’s academic work showed that much of it boiled down to “how do we avoid an FDR after a major financial crisis?” When the financial crisis hit, he put his beliefs to work.

That the innovation base moves to the place with the manufacturing base is another important dynamic, and that comes from books. (In particular, “Wealth and Democracy” by Kevin Phillips.)

Find the key drivers/commitments. Understand the world view and ideology. Understand historical and group dynamics. Those are my commitments and that’s how I approach understanding the world, groups, nations, and making predictions.

I’ve been working at this since about 1990. I’m not a great writer, I’m someone who’s interested in how societies work.

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Why Human Judgment Must Be Primary Over Metrics (Academic Edition)

So, you’re all probably aware of the replication and fraud crisis in the scientific community. Psychology’s been hit hardest, and the social sciences, but the physical sciences have not been immune.

Retractions have risen sharply in recent years for two main reasons: first, sleuthing, largely by volunteers who comb academic literature for anomalies, and, second, major publishers’ (belated) recognition that their business models have made them susceptible to paper mills – scientific chop shops that sell everything from authorships to entire manuscripts to researchers who need to publish lest they perish.

These researchers are required – sometimes in stark terms – to publish papers in order to earn and keep jobs or to be promoted. The governments of some countries have even offered cash bonuses for publishing in certain journals. Any surprise, then, that some scientists cheat? (my emphasis)

And these are not merely academic matters. Particularly when it comes to medical research, fakery hurts real people. Take the example of Joachim Boldt – the German anesthesiologist who, with 186 retractions, now sits atop the Retraction Watch leader board of scientists with the most pulled papers.

The key paragraph is #2: academics are judged on how many papers they have, and how many citations those papers receive. Getting hired and getting tenure are based on them. Since it’s hard to get a full time real academic job these days, let alone get tenure, there’s a LOT at stake for academics. Publish or perish.

This isn’t how such decisions were always made, however. At one point, human judgment was given a much bigger sway. Hiring committees read the research, looked at teaching, and talked to the academic. Some academics published only a few papers, but they were good papers, and others were considered to have potential.

Such a system was subject to standard human abuse: hiring people who were liked, in effect, so an independent measure of academic excellent was sought, and what was come up with citations: if your research was important, presumably other academics would refer to it.

But any metric which is used to make monetary decisions is quickly gamed. If you must have those citations, many people will cut corners to get them. After spending 10 years to earn a Ph.D. the idea of being part of the large majority who either get no job or become associate profs, badly paid and treated, isn’t palatable.

For a long time this went on and cutting corners worked: the people inside the system were those who had benefited from it, after all. Everyone knew it was occurring but the incentives to prove it were lacking. Then some outsiders started looking, people funded with outside money, and they found a ton of fraud and sloppiness.

We keep doing this: we keep seeking metrics to cut out human judgment, but it can’t be done. It’s not that metrics aren’t useful, but, again, as soon as everyone knows what the metrics are, they game them. (Note how similar this is to Google’s early metric: how many links a webpage received. Remember how good early Google was before everyone started search engine optimization and Google decided to maximize monetization.)

The solution isn’t to find new metrics, and to get back on the treadmill, it is to go back to judgment, and to review the results over time with groups of outsiders and insiders.

You can’t outsource human decisions on who gets power to algorithms. It never works and it never will, as we’re finding out with “AI”.

Just bit the bullet and take responsibility.

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Jewish, Israeli & Zionist Are Three Different Things

There are few people I despise more than those who conflate being anti-zionist with being anti-semitic.

Anyone who does this is a write off to me. Worthy of no respect; moral or intellectual. I only hope they are being paid well to be both evil and intellectually dishonest.

“We are going to emigrate to Palestine until we are the majority, then use force to steal Palestinian homes” is not defensible in any terms except “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.”

And no one who is Jewish should want to live in such a world.

Some Jews are Zionists, but not all Jews are Zionists. This is fairly basic.

One can be against the Zionist project and not be against the Jewish people. It is evil of Israel to wrap themselves in Jewishness, and push their crimes onto people who had nothing to do with them.

Some Jews are Zionists, but not all Jews are Zionists. This is fairly basic. One can be against the Zionist project and not be against the Jewish people. It is evil of Israel to wrap themselves in Jewishness, and push their crimes onto people who had nothing to do with them.

In the long run, the crimes of Israel, because Israelis wrap them in “Jewishness” do more damage to Jews than perhaps even to Palestinians.

Being Jewish and being Israeli and being Zionist are three different things.

Conflating them is wrong.

There isn’t much of a real opposition left in Israel; of people who genuinely oppose stealing other people’s homes. But they exist. That’s why being Israeli /= being Zionist.

Being Zionist means believing you have a right to take other people’s homes. Being Israeli is citizenship

This is similar to the fact that both Russia and the US have done a lot of evil shit, but that doesn’t mean all Russians or Americans are evil, just the ones who support doing evil shit.

Likewise, there were Germans who opposed the Nazis. They were not evil. They were good.

You don’t get to choose if you’re German, or Jewish, or American, or Russian. You do get to choose whether you’re a Nazi, a Zionist, a Neocon or a Stalinist.

You get to decide whether you support doing evil or oppose it.

Apartheid is evil. Are you for it, or against it?

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Some Acts Are Always Evil

This is a post a lot of readers will misunderstand or refuse to understand, because our society requires us to do evil regularly and we want to pretend it isn’t evil.

Some acts are always evil.

To understand this you need to make the correct division between an act and the consequences of that act.

The act and the consequences are two different things.

Let’s take something which is, I hope, universally agreed among my readers. Rape is always evil. It is always an evil act. Even if someone comes up with a convoluted scenario under which some good came as a consequence rape is always an evil act.

We start here to show something simple: that some acts are evil.

This is necessary because our society has gone too far in cultural determinism. “Evil and good are completely social constructs.”

No. They are human, but they are not constructs. We understand that slavery is an evil act. We understand that murder is an evil act. We understand that torture is an evil act.

It may be that on some occasions the results of an evil act are good, but that does not make the act itself good. I don’t believe in torture for getting information, but even if it did work, torturing someone to get information which saves people is still an evil act. The act is evil, even if the consequences are good.

In debt-slavery, common in the ancient world, you would sell yourself into slavery to settle your debts and get money. Let us say you did so and it saved your family from starvation because master now feeds you and your family.

The slavery is still evil, even if some of the consequences of it are not.

This is at the heart of just war theory. All wars are evil. There are no exceptions. Sometimes the consequences of war are better than not fighting the war. That does not, however, make the war itself not evil. (I can think of very few wars which were worth the evil of the war itself. WWII is the only recent major example.)

Some years ago I wrote an article on what the Tao teaches those who want a better world.

I’m going to quote it at length here:

In the Tao Te Ching there is a famous passage, as follows:

When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

What is appropriate isn’t always what is good, but what is good makes up the vast majority of what is appropriate.

When one no longer knows what is appropriate, one devolves to the good and is still doing most of what should be done.

Kindness makes up most of what is good, so when one loses what is good, one devolves to kindness and retains most of what is good.

Losing kindness, one retreats to justice. The loss here is steep. Justice is maybe half of what is kind, because justice without kindness is about balance and tends to not restore people, but punish them: “an eye for an eye” and all that.

And then there is ritual, and ritual, in this context, is without any of the higher virtues, and thus leads to injustice, cruelty and evil, because it has lost almost all of appropriateness: it simply accepts that action A should lead to action B, and that will often be the wrong action, unguided by appropriateness, goodness, kindness or even justice.

I would add that when even ritual is lost; when people no longer obey the rules and are guided by no sense of ethics, that all chances of a good society and good results are lost.

The problem with “ends justify means” is that means are most of what we do. If you do evil acts all day, all week, all year, all life because they are part of how your society runs, then the amount of evil you do usually overwhelms all the “consequences”. This is why only someone who “has the Tao” should ever do evil, and since 99.9999% of us don’t have the Tao and don’t have the judgment to know when evil is justified, we should avoid evil actions like the plague. Certainly our leaders, who are the worst of us, shouldn’t be allowed to do evil.

But that’s consequence talk. You don’t not do evil acts because of the consequences, you don’t do them because they are evil. If you start engaging too much in consequence talk, then pretty soon you’re justifying all sorts of evil action.

Don’t rape. It’s always evil, no matter who does it or why. Don’t mistake whether an act is evil and with the questions “are the consequences of this act evil or good.”

And tamp down your social constructivism and moral relativism. Some things are always wrong.

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Justice, Law and Norms

Last week I wrote an article on the indictment of Trump in New York. I argued that charging trump had broken an elite norm: there is no question Trump broke the law, but ex-Presidents don’t get charged with crimes and senior politicians rarely do, though as a couple commenters pointed out, there’s already been some erosion of that norm.

It’s important to understand that a norm is a cultural rule. It’s not a law, usually, it’s something you just do or don’t do because your social group requires it or forbids it. For elites, a norm is that elites don’t get charged with most crimes, especially non-violent ones, unless that crime harms other elites in large numbers. Every senior executive at a bank or brokerage broke fraud laws and the Rico statute (they conspired) in the run up to the 2008 election, for example, but who was charged? Bernie Madoff. Why? Because Madoff targeted other elites.

Likewise senior politicians regularly get away with breaking election fundraising rules and various other white collar crimes (like bribery). They don’t charge each other, because almost all of them do it. What they do is against the law, but it isn’t against elite norms.

We all know what laws are, but justice is different from law. A law can be unjust. Everything the Nazis did was legal by German law, as a friend of mine loves to point out.

Another principle of justice is that laws are applied equally. The same crimes that elites commit without being charged for are laws that are usually enforced against non-elites. This is not justice. Likewise fines that are fixed rather than relative to income or wealth or a combination of both are unjust—they hurt people with less money more than those with more money.

Bringing this back to Trump, he is being charged for crimes that while illegal do not violate the elite norm of elite impunity for crimes that are normal among elites. If elites wanted to maintain their norms, he should instead have been charged with treason or sedition, for the Jan 6th attempted insurrection, because that violates an elite norm.

Justice, norms and laws are three different thing and understanding the difference matters.

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Know Thine Enemy

I want you to ask yourself this question: what makes someone your enemy? Really think about it for a bit before continuing. Have an answer.

An enemy is someone who is doing you you harm, or intends to do you harm. If they have the ability to do you harm, they will act on it.

Note what this definition does not include. It says nothing about hate or anger or emotional state. It does not matter why someone is or wants or intends to harm you, all that matters is that they do.

It does also not matter if you are collateral damage: if they don’t even know you personally exist. If they’re willing to harm you to get what they want, without caring one way or another about you, they’re your enemy.

If a political leader passes a law or regulation which takes away your health care or your house or your food or your life, it doesn’t matter that they weren’t thinking about you, specifically, when they made that decision. They deliberately harmed you, and they were OK with it. They certainly knew, if they thought about it all, that it would harm some people, and that wasn’t a problem for them.

When healthcare execs raise the prices of medicines like insulin or care, they know that means some people who need that medicine or care will do without, and they know some people will die. If they don’t need to make the decision “If we don’t do this, we’ll go bankrupt and no one will get care” then they’re good with a bunch of people suffering or dying. They are, therefore, those people’s enemies, and they are a potential enemy for anyone who might one day not be able to afford care.

Your greatest enemies, that is the people who are most likely to make decisions which harm you, are almost always your politicians and corporate leaders. These are also the people who could be your greatest allies, if they chose, as FDR did for most Americans (though he was an enemy of the rich, and both he and they understood that.)

If you are thinking about politics this is the most fundamental concept you need to understand and emotionally internalize. People with power are your greatest enemies or your greatest allies, and your job is to make them your allies. If they are your enemies, and almost all of them in the current world are, then you must treat them as an enemy, and never think of them as a friend or ally.

For about 50 years, politicians and private wealthy individuals have deliberately pursued policies which have impoverished you. If your income had increased at the same rate as productivity, you’d have about twice as much income. Think about that. The reason you don’t is they took all of that (and more) and made sure it went to people who were already rich.

People who intend to or do harm you are your enemies.

This means, by the way, that unless you are a Ukrainian, Putin is not much of an enemy to you. Your own politicians and rich people are almost always the greatest threat to you if you live in a developed country, and if you live in an undeveloped country it’s sometimes leaders of foreign nations, the IMF, foreign corporations and so on.

It isn’t any more complicated than that. At the World Economic Forum at Davos, everyone gets a Covid test and all rooms have HEPA filters and UV light to destroy viruses. That’s how they treat themselves. Our societies could afford to do that for everyone, but our leaders, and the media they control pretend that Covid is “over”, while protecting themselves.

Your enemies. (Well unless you’re reading this and in the charmed circle, in which case they’re your allies. Just remember, in 50 years your class will be reviled and hated more than we revile and hate Hitler today.)

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Why The American Radical Right Is Powerful And The American Left Is Meaningless

Watching “left wing” reactions to the Speaker’s election in the US House was instructive. Too many people were appalled when I pointed out that the left, the “Squad” specifically, could have done the same thing to get concessions in 2024.

If you were appalled at the idea then you are not a member of the left in any useful way.

(That statement and this post will occasion another torrent of abuse in the comments for me to throw into spam, and laugh about. If you think that after 30 years online, most of it moderating comments, you can insult me in a way I haven’t heard before, you are a fool as well as a piece of human garbage.)

You have power in electoral politics when you can deliver or deny votes and money and get people elected or un-elected. That’s the bottom line.

Usually when a House member tries to vote in a way that the party leadership doesn’t like, they are threatened with the cut off of money or votes.

Right wing Republicans have power because they can deliver votes and money. Right wing Republicans who chose to get concessions in exchange for the votes in the House Speaker election (which is an entirely democratic thing to do an in line with what the founders intended) have their own, largely small money, donor networks. They don’t need the Republican money machine. Furthermore their voters expect them to act on their stated beliefs.

The difference with the Squad is instructive. They claim to have left wing beliefs, but won’t vote them when it matter. Either they are scared of the threats made by leadership, or they don’t really believe their beliefs, or they know their supporters don’t really believe and won’t hold them to account. If you won’t do something when you have the power to do it, you don’t really believe in it.

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This, by the way, is why the Netroots movement failed. For a while we had influence and were a rising power in the Democratic power.

Why? Because we could raise money from sources Democrats couldn’t; we could deliver votes and we threatened incumbents with primaries.

The Netroots lost because Obama figured out how to bypass us to get the money and votes without us and our primary threat proved weak.

The radical right has succeeded to a large extent because the institutional Republican party has not been able to bypass them and their primary threat is real. They stand a good chance of winning many primary challenges and they will make an incumbent’s life miserable if crossed.

The voters are loyal to their beliefs and, while not perfect, do have an expectation that their representatives will represent those beliefs. You may laugh at them for supporting even Trump, say, but if so you’ve missed the point: Trump gave them what they wanted most, control of the Supreme Court and an end to Roe vs. Wade. Those of you old enough will remember when Bush Jr. was forced to back down on his preferred Supreme Court nominee because she was too moderate and nominate someone acceptable to the pro-life movement.

No political movement has power if its “supporters”” do not actually vote their beliefs; donate based on their beliefs; volunteer based on their beliefs and hold their elected and un-elected representatives responsible when they violate those beliefs. (This doesn’t mean you expect reps to be perfect, but on whatever matters most — say abortion for right wingers — you hold them accountable.)

If you can be peeled off because of appeals to lesser evildom or some-such, you make your movement weak and your beliefs are worthless. Without solidarity and accountability there can be no movement which matters.

I don’t agree with radical Republicans about almost anything (except that the world and America would better off if the US interfered a lot less in other counties business). They are, essentially, my ideological enemies, though so are mainstream Democrats and Republicans.

But they have power because they have solidarity and they expect and get results from their representatives. The American left refuses to use power when it has it, and its members just want performative leftism from the likes of AOC. They don’t want or expect results and they display little solidarity, and that why for over 50 years the left in the US (and the UK) has staggered from defeat to defeat.

(There’s some conflation in this article between Republican groups, that’s unavoidable. But basically the bleeding edge, wherever it is, has been winning internal Republican party battles for about 50 years. The left edge has been losing those battles and that’s why America has become an authoritarian dumpster fire with soaring inequality which is in possible terminal collapse.)

We’ll talk a little more about real belief and the use of power soon.


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Imagine A World Where Violence Or Need Are Impossible

There are two main types of coercion in the world.

The first is violence. If you don’t do what someone else wants, they will do something physical to you.

So, imagine if that was impossible. Imagine that if you chose no physical object could affect you. Bullets don’t work, fists don’t work, no one can grab you or put you in handcuffs, and that’s true of everyone.

What would change about society if this were true? What would change about how individuals act?

The second is need. What if you didn’t need to eat or drink and you cold and heat didn’t bother you or harm you and you didn’t get sick? You might still want shelter or a home or objects like books or computers, and objects like cosmetics would exist, but not medicine. But you would need nothing.

(This is half the conception of a pagan God: they can be harmed, even killed, but they don’t need anything. Except they can also, usually, create what they need without other Gods or people.)

Banquet of the Gods by Jacques de Gheyn II

What would you be like, and what would the world be like if you; if people, didn’t need anything?

These are serious questions. Think about them.

Now, question 3 is what if both of these things were true?

These questions matter because they tell you what you put up with because of need and fear. They tell you what other people; what society does that it couldn’t do if people weren’t, in effect, vulnerable.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating. Alas, I’m neither God nor Beast.)

It’s also important to do them separately. The first is about violence, in effect, and that’s not the same as the human need for cooperation, which is much (but not all) of what the second question is about.

This is what what Donne was getting at with “no man is an island.” It is also what is related to Aristotle’s observation “But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god…”

There are things I want to say about these questions, but I’m not going to do so in this article. Instead I want you to think about them. Think about them in general and in particular: think about what you would and wouldn’t do in these three cases.


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