I am on record as saying COVID-19 is bigger than 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis put together. It is probably the biggest thing that’s happened since the end of the Cold War. In terms of intensity and impulse, I think COVID-19 is a bigger compressed shock, as the “end of the Cold War” really occurred over five years or so.
So if I think COVID-19 is such a big deal, what has it made me change my mind about? I do believe that the free-trade globalization of the late 20th-century went too far. I am aware of comparative advantage, and the reality that trade makes us all richer in myriad ways. It is quite persuasive. But I think richer isn’t always the best because the gains in efficiency come at the expense of robustness.
In The Human Web McNeill and McNeill argue that the multipolarity of civilization allowed for there to be redundancy over time. While the late Bronze Age collapse was extended, and to some extent resulted in total cultural erasure (the Classical Greeks were unclear that their own ancestors had created the great cyclopean citadels of the Bronze Age), later civilizational regressions were not as catastrophic because “not all the lights went out.”
The problem in the current globalized era is that specialization has gone so far as to remove redundancies in the supply chain in a “just-in-time” world. Specialization and economies of scale in China mean that our inputs and materials are extremely cheap, allowing us to purchase other things, but if China’s “lights go out” as they did in early 2020 it cascades through the system, we experience a major “supply shock.” In some cases, it is really hard to find alternatives to China, as they’ve cornered the market in all the requisite skills.
Also, to be entirely frank I think we need to revisit the neoliberal idea that trade and engagement allow for liberalization over time. I still support engagement in particular, because I dislike war a great deal, but it seems quite clear that free trade works best between regimes which are ideological in sync on the fundamentals.
For the United States, a move toward more autarky won’t be that difficult. Most of our economy is “internal” already. Unlike small nations like the Netherlands, or, export-driven economies such as China’s, trade is not necessary, it is a bonus. I don’t think it’s a bonus we can afford anymore. When exogenous shocks hit us, nations can only rely on themselves. Ask Italy.
Recently my wife asked me how stupid Republicans were. I made a comment to the effect that Republicans weren’t that stupid compared to Democrats. But…I hadn’t checked in a while. So I decided to look at the WORDSUM results in the GSS.
I crossed WORDSUM with PARTYID and merged the different Republican and Democratic groups together. I looked at Republicans and Democrats, and then also filtered it by just non-Hispanic whites. The date range goes from 1974 to 2018.
As you can see, on the whole, Independents are less intelligent than Republicans and Democrats. This makes sense, as moderates are less intelligent than conservatives and liberals. Though there are plenty of bright people “in the middle,” many times Independents and moderates are just not very smart and don’t have any strong views and principles.
The pattern for Republicans and Democrats makes historical sense. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Republican party was the party of the upscale. This began to change in the 1990s, and in the 2000s a realignment began as many very educated individuals tended to become strongly identified with Republicans. But, there was still parity between non-Hispanic white Republicans and non-Hispanic white Democrats into the early teens. But over the last few years among non-Hispanic whites, the vocabulary scores of Democrats have been increasing and that of Republicans has been decreasing.
None of this is entirely surprising. I simply hadn’t bothered to check the GSS in many years on this topic. But the Republican party’s shift to being the downscale faction is clearly being reflected in these results.
As you surely know, deontology is the idea that you always have a duty to do the right thing, whether that right thing is convenient for you, or even for the world. To me, this is most evident once you become a parent. You can make a contrived utilitarian explanation for why you behave selflessly in relation to your children in a proximate sense (as opposed to ultimate evolutionary one), but really it’s that in their bones most people feel they have a duty to their children. As far as consequentialism, for Americans, I think we’re often told that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima hastened the end of the Pacific War.* The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Though the author doesn’t frame it this way, I think the deontological and consequentialism framework map onto the liberal and democratic strains of our republic. Liberalism is about rights, liberties. Humans as ends in and of themselves. Democracy is about the body politic, the aggregate will as opposed to individual preference. If you emphasize deontology too much in a democratic contest, I predict you’re likely to lose more often than not. If you emphasize consequentialism to the total exclusion of deontology, you lose the human dignity which democracy is supposed to safeguard.
The piece above brings up the cases of Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, both of whom could be argued to have been party to and/or directed war crimes. Both these individuals have been associated with or had connections to contemporary members of the liberal-Left (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). Of more timely relevance, it is curious to me how neoconservative hawks such as Max Boot and William Kristol are now accorded some (often grudging) acceptance on the moderate Left. Not only did Boot and Kristol support the Iraq War, but they went along without too much objection to the economic positions of the Right up until recently. The question we have to face then is why is Joe Rogan such a problem, while these reformed conservatives are not?
It seems to me that the key here is that liberalism, the deontological impulse, has limits and scopes. Parents may act in a way that is governed by deontology in relation to their children, but the same people can be coldly utilitarian when it comes to strangers. American foreign policy is nasty and brutish. But the policies which Powell acceded to, Kissinger architected, and Kristol and Boot cheered, resulted in the death or misery of foreigners. Obviously even people on the center-Left object to the killing of foreigners, but operationally their empathy and identity are with people in their own nation-state (even if they espouse the rhetoric of no borders). Similarly, many of the loudest voices in “cancel culture” are from the middle-class and above. Though these people favor redistributionist policies, they may not concretely be familiar with people who have dealt with inter-generational poverty (as opposed to a stint as a ‘starving artist’ in one’s 20s). Offensive comments by a famous influencer are more impactful for such individuals than the removal of social services which few of their intimates use in any case.
One final thing in relation to deontology and consequentialism is that many on the moderate Left who are behaving in a deontological manner in relation to Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders also assert that Donald Trump’s reelection in 2020 is an existential threat to the republic. If that is true, then I am curious about their deontological tendencies here, where they make the case that one shouldn’t give on some principles to gain votes. Perhaps the revealed preferences show that they don’t actually believe Trump to be an existential threat?
Currently, there is a mini-controversy of sorts related to antisemitism, Louis Farrakhan, and some organizers of the 2017 Women’s March. The main problem seems to be that these three co-chairs of the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory, are balking at denouncing their association with and tacit tolerance of Farrakhan. In particular, the focus is on Tamika Mallory.
Personally, histrionic demands of denunciation usually leave me cold.
But in this case, there are strong grounds. Louis Farrakhan and his small splinter sect, the Nation of Islam, have a long history of very extreme perspectives on Jews, and whites more generally. The racism isn’t a minor idiosyncrasy with the Nation of Islam. It’s a constitutive part of their ideology. The Nation of Islam believes that white people are a race of mutants designed by a malevolent black scientist. There are some similarities fundamentally with white nationalist Christian Identity, which dehumanizes non-whites in a literal manner. And, both the Nation of Islam and Christian Identity operationally share very similar and stereotypical views of Jews as evil puppet-masters.
In reaction to this much of the media has taken to writing long analyses. This piece in The Atlantic, The Women’s March Has a Farrakhan Problem, meanders over an enormous amount of territory. Frankly, it seemed a bit much.
First, the co-chairs of the Women’s March are not the marchers themselves. The marchers are to the Left of center, but many of them are quite moderate and mainstream and conventional. I know some personally who aren’t even very liberal and self-identify as centrists. And many are Jewish. The point is that leaders and organizers can have very different politics and associations from the movement they lead. Tamika Mallory has a problem. The Women’s March, not so much.
Second, there was a theme in The Atlantic piece about the fraught and cooperative relationship between blacks and Jews in the United States. Impressionistically there’s something to this, especially considering the Crown Heights riot. But part of me wonders if there really is such that much antisemitism among American blacks that’s out of the ordinary.
The GSS has a variable, “JEWTEMP”, which measures respond attitudes toward Jews on a scale of 0 to 100 (0 being cooler and 100 being warmer). I binned the results into quartiles. You can see that black Americans are less warm toward Jews than white Americans, but the difference is very marginal.
Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are clearly antisemitic by any definition. But black Americans are not particularly antisemitic at all. Farrakhan is as representative of black American attitudes toward Jews as those on the “Alt-Right” who obsess over the “JQ”.
In fact, could it simply be that black Americans exhibit a demographic profile that is correlated with somewhat less positive feelings toward Jews, as opposed to something distinctive about black American culture? To check I played around with a multiple regression.
Changing variables around I found three traits that were robustly predictive of warmer feelings toward Jews:
1) The biggest effect was vocabulary score, which is correlated with general intelligence (r=0.7). If you don’t put this variable in, education matters. But once WORDSUM is in the equation the effect of education disappears.
2) Being a woman.
3) Being younger.
Being black as opposed to white is associated with being somewhat more antisemitic in many regressions, but it’s very weak as an association, and, it’s not statistically significant (this is probably due to sample size).
What’s the point of this post? Not to sound too much like Steven Pinker, but there isn’t a looming threat of antisemitism in the United States from any large demographic. Rather, there are small old groups like the Nation of Islam and white nationalists, which remain resolutely antisemitic. And, the Israel-Palestine issue does loom over campus politics in a way that blurs the line between being anti-Zionist and antisemitic. A small number of campus radicals and students from Muslim backgrounds do step pretty clearly from anti-Zionism to antisemitism in my opinion. In the latter case, it’s from personal knowledge, as when I was a graduate student a few kids approached me during controversies related to BDS from Islamic backgrounds expressing their strong reservations about Jews and taking courses from Jewish professors. These conversations were not welcome by me, but because of my physical appearance and name, they assumed I’d be sympathetic.
The problem here is simple, and it’s the indulgence that the black intelligentsia (that includes you President Obama) and some of the radical non-black Left, have given the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan for decades. Remember, he was on Arsenio Hall‘s show in 1995. The issue isn’t the Women’s March (whose politics I somewhat disagree with), nor is it antisemitism in the black community. And most of the public doesn’t even know what BDS stands for.
I just listened to the authors of How Democracies Die on NPR. First, the book might well have been titled “The necessity of liberalism.” Basically, democracy without liberalism is clearly not democracy in their judgment.
But second, I was struck by their emphasis on the role of elites in dampening and diminishing the passions of the masses in a functioning modern democratic system. To a great extent, the authors were simply warning about what Fareed Zakaria termed “illiberal democracy” in The Future of Freedom over ten years ago.
Without elites acting as structural guardrails on the atavistic passions of the masses charismatic figures who channel their basest impulses can arise and gain popular approval of their autocratic behavior. The ancient Greeks could have told you that. Some things never change.
A few weeks ago a very Left-wing (I believe Marxist?) reciprocal follow on Twitter quoted Sebastian Gorka. I couldn’t see what was being said, so I assumed Gorka had blocked him. I clicked the link only to find that I was blocked by Gorka!
This really confused me because to my knowledge I have never spoken about Gorka. My working assumption is that I was on a “block-list” that Gorka had subscribed to. But what sort of block-list was I on? Honestly, the most likely conclusion is that I probably follow or am followed by someone blacklisted by Gorka’s block-list. The strangest thing is that some people who are literal Communists (with substantial followings) were not blocked by Gorka!
The criteria I use to follow people is probably pretty strange. If they follow me and work in a scientific field close to my own professional interests I will usually follow them back (e.g., I pretty much follow back every evolutionary and population genomicist and geneticist, but not every genomicist or geneticist). Since the vast majority of this group are vocally liberal, or keep their politics to themselves (there is a non-trivial minority of libertarian-leaning scientists who are closeted), I see a lot of tweets I disagree with.
After that, I will follow people I interact with a lot or post interesting stuff outside-of-my-field. For example, I often, but not always, follow back economic historians. Then there are science journalists who focus on biology with some following and who I interact with or know personally. I don’t like following people who have no information on their profile.
Finally, there are libertarian and conservative pundits. They often follow me, and I follow back since I respect that they actually bother to follow someone who often tweets about abstruse and technical topics. After the recent hit piece that was written about me in a well respected science journalism publication* (which has really updated my priors as to what I think about journalism and how much, or honestly little, I respect the profession) there is really no point in engaging with any prominent liberal that is outside of science because their minds are made up. I am honestly OK with that since I’m not liberal, and I still retain influence and following on the Right, where people are more open-minded about the world in my opinion (basically I think anyone who has sympathies that they have the courage to make vocal with classical liberalism will end up on the Right eventually; I’m looking at you, Bret Weinstein).
And yet because most of the people I follow are science-related I’m exposed to different opinions all the time…and that probably explains how I got on Gorka’s block-list. So I was really curious when I saw Kai Ryssdal, the NPR journalist, tell people to follow “5 people you disagree with.” To me, that was a really bizarre statement. I assume I follow about 500 to 600 people I disagree with. This is pretty much in evidence when people re-tweet stuff about how all conservatives are Nazi’s approvingly (even though they follow me perhaps they don’t notice I am a conservative!). I guess I’ve gotten really good at ignoring smugness and screaming that is the total polar opposite of mine politically (though I agree with the Left on many positions, so it’s not always in disagreement).
Out of curiosity, I decided to put up a poll to survey what my follower’s politics were. Since there were only four options allowed, I allowed for liberal, moderate, conservative, and libertarian. Though I wasn’t surprised by the political diversity, I was surprised by the balance. In a classical “world’s smallest political quiz” my followers are almost equally split across the four quadrants!
As for how this polarization will end, I think it will end with the cessation of politics and the assertion of an old-fashioned authoritarianism. It will be Sulla. Or Caesar. Or Shihuangdi. Liberalism in the classical sense of the Right and Left dies in meekness, and most people are quite meek. Many liberals privately admit to me that they’re terrified of a Spanish Civil War type denouement to our culture wars, while many non-liberals are resigned (the people on the extremes, who are very vocal, of course, are thrilled and anticipatory). Social change is nonlinear, and it would not surprise me if in the coming generation the polarization and dehumanization come to a head and it ends badly for one side. I assume that my children will come to see in their maturity most definitely. Ultimately people will have to pick a side or be persecuted by both groups (also, an international exit plan is probably necessary for many people who have expressed opinions in public). The only way to win and be safe is to have a tribe. My nation right or wrong really expresses something deep in terms of human nature.
But until then life goes and we try to make the best of it. Knowledge and learning existed before liberal democracy, and it will persist after it. As someone who follows a lot of liberals honestly I’m just more and more convinced that there will never be healing because there is so little charity, grace, or humility when it comes to political differences. I really relate to Maajid Nawaz talking to Islamists in unguarded moments in prison realizing how they would give no quarter the opposition if they came to power. My twitter feed pretty much makes me more, not less, Right-leaning. These people hate the idea of the existence of me and want to blot it out! It’s the same on the conservative side, though since I don’t follow too many conservatives I wouldn’t know** Perhaps amusingly most of the crazy conservative stuff I see is hate-re-tweeted by liberals. I guess it would be different if I picked “Salon conservative” type of liberals, but in science, you don’t really have a choice when you are in such a small minority, unelss you are only interested in pharm or applied ag science.
Addendum: When people find out I’m conservative or identify me as such the liberals are often confused and want clarification. First, political quizzes often show me to be a moderately conservative libertarian (if that makes sense). But even if I was a Left-liberal if you are vocal about things which are considered third-rails on the Left it doesn’t matter what the preponderance of views turns out to be. A few deadly sins count more than one thousand mitzvahs. At the end of the day, a pragmatist picks the side which won’t persecute him. I am no longer surprised when a publically very orthodox liberal scientist confides me in thoughts that would get them scourged by their own tribe. It’s my tribe, right or wrong, for most people, and heretics get it the worst. But the disjunction between private and public views really just reinforces that there’s not really as much to preserve as we think, and we’re already extremely far down the path to cultural cognition overwhelming individual reason.
* Several journalists privately DMed to say they thought it was unfair, but of course they can’t break ranks with their peers and say that in public (with very rare exceptions). It’s a guild, and you don’t cross powerful people in the guild who want to shape reality as they see it. I really respect Foucault a lot more than I used to after seeing how journalism works operationally.
** Just because someone is an intolerant screamer on politics doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot of interesting things to say, so I keep following usually. Until the last day of this republic, we’ll have plenty to exchange of value. Even if someone believes you are going to hell they often can treat you decently on the non-abstract level.