URLs du Jour

2020-12-05

  • <voice imitation="professor_farnsworth">Good news, everyone!</voice>: Remy tells the story of Republicans who are Caring Again. About what?

    The federal budget deficit was a record $3.1 trillion in fiscal year 2020, a three-fold increase over 2019. President Trump was able to accomplish that with help from Republicans in Congress, who stopped paying even lip service to fiscal austerity after Obama left office. With a Democrat about to return to the White House, expect GOP lawmakers to remember that—as it turns out—deficits do matter.

    Lyrics (with explanatory links) at the link above.


  • At the Washington Examiner, Timothy P. Carney solves the election mystery. Except: It’s no mystery: Millions of people voted specifically against Trump.

    It's apparently a mystery to the Donald:

    And also to left-leaning columnists:

    Thomas Edsall at the New York Times puzzles over his own mystery. “Honestly, This Was a Weird Election,” is his headline, with his subheading puzzling that “Biden soared among crucial suburban voters. Democrats? Not so much.”

    […]

    What Edsall finds “weird” is that those same congressional districts tended to vote Republican this time around.

    What is weird to Edsall and impossible to Trump has the same explanation (and Edsall, unlike Trump, understands it): Millions of voters find Trump uniquely awful, and they vote explicitly against him and not for a particular party or candidate.

    The corollary to this story is that in 2016, Trump drew perhaps the only politician in the world as off-putting as he himself was: Hillary Clinton.

    As someone who found both major party candidates (and as a one-armed paper hanger) I find this completely credible.


  • OK, here's another "as a one-armed paper hanger" link. As someone who's been, um, conversing with some conspiracy theorists at an ostensibly conservative blog, I'm in sympathy with Jonah Goldberg, who asserts Conspiracy Theories Are Incompatible With Conservatism. First, he notes that he doesn't like "You're not a conservative if…" arguments.

    So why are conspiracy theorists different? Well, for starters, conspiracy theories are almost always offered in bad faith because they are non-falsifiable. The moment you provide evidence disproving a conspiracy theory, the response is invariably to resort to an even deeper conspiracy theory—or to accuse the debunker of being “one of them.” 

    For instance, Attorney General Bill Barr, who has been far too loyal to the president throughout his tenure for my taste, recently told the truth: There’s no evidence for the vast conspiracy theories Donald Trump has belched out to explain his election loss. The response from many of Trump’s most ardent defenders was to insist Barr was in on the “deep state” plot to get Trump. 

    But the incompatibility of conservatism with conspiracy theories is more fundamental. One of the central tenets of conservatism is the idea that society is too complex to be easily controlled by a despot or even cadres of well-intentioned social engineers and bureaucrats, or what Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, dubbed “sophisters, calculators and economists.” 

    I don't have any deep insights into conspiracy theorists, other than the ones you've seen from wiser folks than I. I'll admit it's difficult to keep a civil tongue in my head, though.


  • Joel Kotkin is a smart guy, and he writes on a red-meat topic at the Daily Beast: The Real Fascist Threat Was Never Trump—It’s Corporate Power.

    For four years America has shuddered watching Donald Trump, the poor man’s Benito Mussolini, doing his Il Duce imitation. Certainly, Trump's timely political demise should be celebrated, but we cannot ignore a far bigger long-term threat to democracy—one that may be further accelerated by the new regime in Washington.

    Under the kindly eyes of Uncle Joe, we soon may find ourselves living under an updated version of the fascist “corporate state”— an alliance between political leaders and a handful of ultra-rich, ultra-powerful companies that increasingly dominate the economy and culture. This new American-style corporate state reflects not a conspiracy but the politics of a society with unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power.

    I agree halfway: partnerships between big government and big business do not work out to my benefit, and probably not to yours either.

    I will note that yesterday's "ultra-rich, ultra-powerful companies" are not today's. (See Mark J. Perry: Only 51 US companies have been on the Fortune 500 since 1955, thanks to the creative destruction that fuels economic prosperity). Kotkin writes as if things are different today.

    He could be right, that this time Walmart/ExxonMobil/Apple/etc have figured out a way to live forever at the top. I have my doubts.


  • If you're not worried about corporate fascism, maybe James D. Miller at Quillette will get you concerned about another menace: The Apocalyptic Threat from Artificial Intelligence Isn’t Science Fiction. After Miller provides a deepfake example…

    While [deepfake] technology may create a bit of social havoc, the truly massive disruption will occur when AIs can match or exceed the thinking power of the human brain. This is not a remote possibility: Variants of the machine-learning AIs that today generate fake pictures have a good chance of creating computer superintelligences before this century is out.

    These superior beings could be applied to wonderful purposes. Just this week, for instance, it was announced that the AI system AlphaFold has been recognized for providing a solution to the so-called “protein folding problem,” which holds implications for our fundamental understanding of the basic building blocks of human biology. If, however, mankind releases smarter-than-us AI before figuring out how to align their values with our own, we could bring forth an apocalypse instead. Even the Pope fears the destructive potential of AI, and he is right to do so.

    Yeah, well, maybe. Steven Pinker devoted a section of his recent book Enlightenment Now to the AI "existential threat" and was complacent about it. For now, I'm leaning that way too, but Miller's take is nonetheless interesting. See what you think

The Stranger Diaries

[Amazon Link]

The second book on my Edgar Award Nominees reading project.

Clare Calloway is a divorced English (as in subject) teacher in an English (as in Great Britain) high school. The school inhabits the old mansion of Gothic horror writer R. M. Holland; in her spare time, Clare is researching Holland's strange life, working on a book project. The school is said to be haunted by the ghost of Holland's wife, who committed suicide by throwing herself down the stairs. Ouch!

But one of Clare's friends and co-workers, Ella gets murdered. And it seems the killer has aped one of the murders in Holland's most famous story.

And then Clare finds that somebody—or something?—has been writing in her diaries: "Hallo, Clare. You don't know me." Oh oh.

The book uses multiple first-person narrators, a technique cutely adapted from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. In addition to Clare, there's the police Detective Sergeant assigned to the case, Harbinder Kaur, a lesbian Indian lady. And Clare's precocious daughter, Georgia. It's amusing to see how their perceptions of each other clash.

There's a lot of spookiness and dread, as appropriate for a Gothic-related novel. And a very good dog.

The Power of Bad

How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It

[Amazon Link]

The Dewey Decimal Code on this book's spine is "158.1", which is "Self Help". I don't usually get self-help books. Haven't read one on purpose since I was in my twenties, I think.

But this one has back-cover blurbs from P. J. O'Rourke, Steven Pinker, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. That shouts out "Read this!" to me. And one of the authors, John Tierney, is a constant source of good stuff at City Journal. So I checked it out. Good move.

The cover is a little gee-whiz, but the premise of the book is provided by a couple pithy sentences right there on page 11:

To survive, life has to win every day. Death has to win just once.

Gulp.

This is a lesson pounded into our genes by billions of years of evolution. We are hardwired to appreciate its truth. This book goes into the broad implications of that "negativity effect". There's a rough rule of thumb: Homo sap. requires the perception of four "good things" to counterbalance one perceived "bad thing". This can lead to irrational, sometimes self-destructive behavior. Writ large, it can cause organizations to stifle innovation and forego valuable opportunities. Writ very large, it can cause an entire society to become overly risk-averse.

But we can learn better, and the book explores possible pathways in numerous scenarios. Some surprising: for example, there's an entire chapter on how a New York hotel deals with negative Trip Advisor reviews. But (for me) the payoff chapter was the public policy chapter. The authors set forth some assumptions:

  1. The world will always seem to be in crisis.
  2. The crisis is never as bad as it sounds.
  3. The solution could easily make things worse.

Covid, anyone? Unfortunately the book was written before that. The authors tick off the implications: The "Golden Age Fallacy" that posits some past era as ideal, our current age in irrevocable decline; terrorism; vaping; the war on drugs; technophobia. And more.

Of course, people can make money and/or gain political power off the negativity effect. Plenty of examples of that too.