Silence is Stupid, Argument is Foolish

When I was young, I never backed down in an intellectual argument.  Part of the reason, admittedly, was that I was starved for abstract debate.  Before the internet, anyone who wanted to talk ideas had to corner an actual human willing to do the same.  Another big reason, though, was that I didn’t want to look stupid.  A smart person always has a brilliant riposte, right?  And if you shut up, it must be because you’re stumped.

At this stage in my life, much has changed.  Public debates aside, I now only engage in intellectual arguments with thinkers who play by the rules.  What rules?  For starters: remain calm, take nothing personally, use probabilities, face hypotheticals head-on, and spurn Social Desirability Bias like the plague.  If I hear someone talking about ideas who ignores these rules, I take evasive action.  If cornered, I change the subject.

Why?  Because I now realize that arguing with unreasonable people is foolish.  Young people might learn something at the meta-level – such as “Wow, so many people are so unreasonable.”  But I’m long past such doleful lessons.  Note: “Being unreasonable” is not a close synonym for “Agrees with me.”  Most people who agree with me are still aggressively unreasonable.  Instead, being reasonable is about sound intellectual methods – remaining calm, taking nothing personally, using probabilities, facing hypotheticals head-on, spurning Social Desirability Bias, and so on.

In classic Dungeons & Dragons, characters have two mental traits: Intelligence and Wisdom.  The meaning matches everyday English: high-Intelligence characters are good at solving complex puzzles; high-Wisdom characters have a generous helping of common-sense.

Using the game to illuminate life: Running out of things to say in an argument is indeed a sign of low Intelligence, just as I held when I was a teenager.  A genius never runs out of rebuttals.  At the same time, however, joining a fruitless dispute is a sign of low Wisdom.  You have better things to do with your life than tell hyperventilating people all the reasons they’re wrong.  A really wise person won’t merely break off such exchanges, but stop them before they start – and get back to work on his Bubble.

Here, in short, is wisdom: Be not a hostage to your own intellectual pride.

P.S. How do you know if a person plays by the rules until you actually engage them?  Most obviously, watch how they argue with other people!  If that’s inadequate, give promising strangers a brief trial period, but be ready to disengage if things go south.

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The Uniformity and Exclusion Movement

“The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.” –George Orwell, 1984

Earth houses a multitude of political movements vastly worse than the “social justice” (or “wokeness”) crusade.  North Korean and Chinese communism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Russian nationalism all have far worse intentions and have done far more harm than wokeness ever will.  Even in the United States, anti-immigrant conservatism has unjustly ruined far more lives in the last four years than Social Justice Warriors are likely to ruin in my lifetime.  Still, there is one way in which “social justice” stands out from the competition: Out of all the major political movements on Earth, none is more Orwellian than “social justice.” No other movement is so dedicated to achieving the opposite of what its slogans proclaim – or so aggressive in the warping of language.  While every ideology is prone to a little doublethink, “social justice” is doublethink at its core.

To see what I’m talking about, picture North Korean and Chinese communism.  Their official story is that totalitarian rule by the Communist Party is wonderful – and they impose totalitarian rule by their respective Communist Parties.  The official story of Islamic fundamentalism is that fanatical Muslim theologians should enforce the teachings of a 7th-century book – and when in power they do so.  The official story of Russian nationalism is that authoritarian Russians should rule Russia with an iron hand and sadistically dominate neighboring countries – and they do so with gusto.

In contrast, the official story of the social justice movement is that we should swear eternal devotion to “diversity and inclusion.”  Yet in practice they strive to achieve uniformity via exclusion.   The recent University of California scandal is an elegant example.  In affected departments, job candidates had to write a “diversity and inclusion statement.”  Unless candidates vigorously supported the social justice movement through word and action, the faculty never even got to see their applications.  How vigorously?  To reach “the next stage of review,” applicants needed a minimum average score of 11 on this rubric.  Since a rank-and-file dogmatic ideologue would probably only score a 9, this cutoff predictably causes ideological uniformity of Orwellian dimensions.

More generally:

1. The diversity and inclusion movement is nominally devoted to fervent “anti-racism.”  In practice, however, they are the only prominent openly racist movement I have encountered during my life in the United States.  Nowadays they routinely mock and dismiss critics for the color of their skin – then accuse those they mock and dismiss of “white fragility.”  Just one prominent recent case:

The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country.

2. The diversity and inclusion movement doesn’t just bizarrely redefine racism as “prejudice plus power.”  Since their movement combines explicit racial prejudice with great power, they neatly fit their own Newspeak definition.

3. A popular social justice lawn sign includes the plank, “Be kind to all.”  Yet the movement greets even mild criticism from friends with hostility, and firm disagreement with rage.  Plus the harshest punishments they can arrange, especially ostracism from high-skilled employment.

4. While we’re on the subject of “being kind to all,” let me point out that making harsh, ill-founded accusations against any large, unselective group – such as a race, gender, or age bracket – is the opposite of kind.*  Yet the “social justice” movement hasn’t just heaped collective guilt on whites, males, and “the old.”  It has heaped scorn on even mild pushback like “Not all men are sexist.”  Basic kindness, in contrast, enjoins you to (a) calmly investigate the validity of your accusations before voicing them; (b) carefully distinguish between misunderstandings and malice; (c) reassure innocent bystanders before you call out the demonstrably guilty.

5. The “Love is love” slogan is comparably Orwellian.  Thanks to #MeToo, almost every person who values his job is now too terrified even to meekly ask a co-worker out on a date.  Where is the love there?  When faced with compelling evidence that male managers were responding to the climate of fear by avoiding mentoring and social contact with female co-workers, the #MeToo reaction was not to mend fences but to make further threats.

6. “Science is real” would also bring a grim smile to Orwell’s face.  The diversity and inclusion movement shows near-zero patience for the pile of scientific research that estimates the share of group performance gaps that stem from discrimination versus other factors.  Instead, they (a) ignore the science; (b) speak as if science shows the share is 100%; and (c) treat people who discuss the actual science as if they’re personally guilty of discrimination.  The same goes for any unwelcome scientific conclusions about gender, sexuality, academic performance, etc.  Either embrace the foregone conclusions of “social justice,” or risk the wrath of the movement.  Just beneath the propaganda lies uniformity via exclusion.

7. What’s the relationship between Orwellian language and the motte-and-bailey fallacy?  Quite distant.  Orwellian language amounts to saying the opposite of the truth.  Motte-and-bailey, in contrast, is about strategically toggling between moderate and extreme versions of your creed.  E.g., sometimes feminism is the moderate view that “Women should be treated as fairly as men”; yet the rest of the time, feminism is the extreme view that “Women should be treated as fairly as men, but totally aren’t in this depraved sexist society.”

8. If all this is true, how come I’m not too scared of Big Brother to write it?  Tenure is a big part of it.  The official point of tenure is to make professors feel free to voice unpopular truths – and I’m all about unpopular truths.  Still, I’m no martyr.  If I were looking for an academic job, I would shut up.  I hope many tenure-seeking readers feel the same yearning to voice unpopular truths with impunity, though I fear your numbers are few.

9. What’s the least Orwellian feature of the “social justice” movement?  Support for illegal immigrants, of course.  First World countries really do treat illegal immigrants like subhumans, and to its credit the social justice movement offers them moral support with the poetic slogan, “No human being is illegal.”  Yet sadly, the volume of this moral support is barely audible, because the movement has so many higher priorities.  If its activists took the immense moral energy they waste on costumes, jokes, and careless speech, and redirected it toward the cause of free migration, I’d forgive their Orwellian past today.

10. Meta-question: Why do Orwellian movements exist at all?  Why doesn’t each movement say what it means and mean what it says?  “Marketing” is the easy answer: When your true goals are awful, you resort to deceptively pleasant packaging to keep forward momentum.  While this story makes sense, it’s incomplete.  The most Orwellian movements actively revel in the contradiction between word and deed – and even in the contradiction between word and word.  The best explanation is that submission to an Orwellian creed is a grade-A loyalty test.  Insisting that all your members admit that “The sky is blue” doesn’t weed out the doubters and fair-weather soldiers.  Insisting that all your members admit that “The sky is green” or “There is no sky,” in contrast, selects for fanatics and yes-folk.  And sadly, those are the sorts of people movements like “diversity and inclusion” appreciate.

* “Social justice” is of course a selective movement.  You can disaffiliate anytime you like – and if you don’t want to be blamed for poor behavior of your compatriots, you should.

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Comments on Siegel’s “Fewer, Richer, Greener”

Last week, I was part of the Cato Institute’s book forum on Laurence Siegel’s Fewer, Richer, Greener: Prospects for Humanity in an Age of Abundance.  Here’s my commentary on the book.


1. Vast areas of agreement:

a. Until March, the world was getting richer at a marvelous pace. Absolute poverty has been disappearing before our eyes after ten thousand years of apparent permanence.

b. Conventional measures sharply understated the glorious reality, because the environment keeps getting cleaner and the quality of the goods keeps getting higher.

c. Like it or not, global population is leveling off.

2. Overarching complaint: Siegel is so excited to share his conclusions that he rushes through the arguments in their favor. When the arguments are strong, the rushing is harmless. When the arguments are weak, the rushing leads Siegel to embrace errors.

3. Error #1: Leveling off of population now is a good thing. Siegel has no argument for this other than to say that population growth can’t be a good thing forever. But this argument would have been just as true when global population was 8000, 8M, or 800M.

True, Simon dodged the question of when population would start to be a problem.  But he genuinely demonstrated vast neglected upsides of population – especially the effect on innovation.  Almost all innovation really does come from high-population areas – and this can hardly be a coincidence.  Furthermore, the main downsides of population – pollution and congestion – can be easily mitigated with pollution taxes and tolls, rather than fewer births.

Key point: Siegel presents no evidence that extra population has ceased to be a good thing overall yet, so why is he so happy about falling birthrates?  The world is still mostly uninhabited – you could fit the entire world’s population into the continental U.S. at the density of Los Angeles.  So why not hope for a world population of 20B, 50B, 100B, or even a T?  If this seems absurd, imagine how absurd multiplying humanity 25-fold would have seemed 1000 years ago.  Yet this “absurdity” turned out to be awesome.

4. Error #2: We should just live with (or even celebrate) declining birth rates. If you do the math (as I have in an earlier Cato Unbound piece), you’ll discover that large tax credits for births are the holy grail of tax policy: They more than pay for themselves in the long-run. We can reasonably expect a $10k per birth one-time tax credit to increase fertility enough to ultimately yield about $250k in net present value for the Treasury.  A fantastic deal!

Also: Housing deregulation.  City-dwellers have few kids because they’re so cramped for space, but this is largely a product of zoning and land-use policies that grossly inflate the price of housing, especially in the country’s most desirable areas.

5. Error #3: Becker’s economics of the family readily explains declining family size. Reality: Kids were never a good financial investment. As a business model, hiring able-bodied farmers makes far more sense than breeding helpless infants and waiting 15 years for help.  Yes, modern economies offer many extra opportunities for child-free fun, but they also drastically reduce the pain of child-rearing and offer many extra opportunities for family fun.  Why rising wealth causes falling birthrates is a fascinating question that social scientists have still failed to successfully answer.

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Not Even Daycare

The most common misinterpretation of The Case Against Education is that it’s only about college.  In fact, my treatise analyzes not only high school, but K-8 as well.  Where there is education, there is educational signaling.

Whenever I opined K-8 education, though, I made a major concession.  While schools mostly waste taxpayer money and students’ time, they nevertheless provide one indeniably useful service: daycare.  Schools warehouse kids so their parents can work, keep house, and relax.  Until a few months ago, I thought this benefit was inevitable.  No matter how little useful knowledge schools deliver, the most bogus “education” of the young automatically has to provide daycare as a byproduct.

How wrong I was!  How very wrong.  Beginning last March, schools across the U.S. sent kids home – and started “virtual instruction” for kindergarten on up.  What a joke.  Obviously – obviously! – a kindergartener isn’t going to do virtual instruction unless a parent closely monitors him.  Any parent able to do kindergarten-level work might as well just teach the child himself.  The same goes for the vast majority of 1st-graders, 2nd-graders, 3rd-graders, and 4th-graders.  Mature 5th-, 6th-, 7th-, or 8th-graders might do their work without a parent breathing down their necks, but most won’t.  Once schools closed last March, I added my younger kids to my homeschool and haven’t looked back.

To be fair, you could say virtual education was an emergency measure, and almost no one treated it as a serious substitute for classroom instruction.  It was a classic, “We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn” situation.  Most parents went along with the farce to let well-liked teachers save face.

Now, however, many school districts are doubling-down on the absurdity of virtual instruction for young kids.  My school district, Fairfax County, initially announced that families would have the option to get two days of in-person instruction per week.  This in turn means two days of daycare per week.  That isn’t enough to let both parents work full-time, but at least it’s something.

Last night, however, Fairfax County Public Schools reversed policy.

Fairfax County Public Schools will begin the 2020-2021 school year with 100% distance learning, due to “worsening national and regional health conditions.”

Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand made the virtual recommendation Tuesday, and the school board agreed to accept his proposal, allowing the superintendent to move forward with his plans.

All instruction will be virtual for a full quarter.  At least.  The schools keep getting full tax funding.  In exchange, they refuse even to provide daycare.  This is poor service even by the low standards of the public sector.  For all practical purposes, parents of virtual schoolers will be de facto homeschoolers, so they might as well cut the red tape and aggravation and homeschool de jure as well.  At least in Virginia, homeschooling law remain lax.  Why be an unpaid employee of your school district when you can easily be your own boss?

You could say, “At least let’s give virtual education a chance.”  I refuse.  I will not even give it a chance.  I have been in school continuously for forty four years, and a parent for seventeen years.  Giving this madness a chance is not worth my time.  Sending my kids back to school to see their friends two days a week was a reasonable option.  “Sending” my kids “back to school” to “see” their friends is at once laughable and sad.  If my kids can’t play with other kids in school, they have no reason to be there.

I’ve been calling for massive cuts in education spending for a long time.  Now, however, the case for austerity is truly a no-brainer.  If schools won’t provide daycare, why on Earth should taxpayers continue to pay over $10,000 per year per child?  Every taxpayer in Fairfax County now has an ironclad reason to say, “I want my money back.”

Of course, since we’re dealing with government enterprises, you might as well save your breath.

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The Diversity Lottery: Some Rough Open Borders Arithmetic

How many people want to immigrate to the U.S.?  In my past work, I’ve appealed to both surveys and black market prices to ballpark the answer.  Another approach, however, is to take a look at the U.S. Diversity lottery.  Every year, the U.S. takes applications from would-be immigrants all over the world.  Countries like Mexico, China, and India that already send lots of immigrants to the U.S. are excluded.  Further requirements:

If selected, to qualify for the immigrant visa, they must have completed at least a high school education or at least two years of work experience in an occupation which requires at least two other years of training or experience. They must also satisfy general immigration requirements, such as means of support, no criminal background, and good health.

The lottery has roughly 125,000 “finalists” and 50,000 actual slots.*  Finalists are invited to apply for a green card, but optimistically only half of applicants actually get the visa.  This implies that about 100,000 out of the 125,000 finalists apply – about 80%.

Since this is an actual lottery, we can plausibly infer that 80% of all applicants would come if they won.  In 2018, there were about 15M applications for a total of 23M would-be immigrants.  If they were all admitted, that comes to 18.4M immigrants per year.  In 2018, non-lottery immigration was roughly 1 M.

Does this mean that open borders would multiply immigration roughly by a factor of 20?  That’s too simple, but complications go in both directions.  An immigrant flow that large might lead to short-run labor market disruptions large enough to keep some would-be immigrants at home.  Similarly, if immigration were that high, U.S.-based relatives would be less willing and able to help new arrivals get on their feet.  This, too, would deter migration.  Note: Even if these effects are initially mild, they would likely build over time.  One year of 20M migrants might not hurt a would-be immigrant’s labor prospects too much, but five years in a row of such immigration probably would.

Furthermore, current Diversity lottery applicants are probably highly motivated to move to the U.S.  A few years of open borders would allow all highly-motivated would-be migrants to come, leading to lower subsequent migration in equilibrium.

On the other hand, however, many millions of would-be immigrants currently fail to enter to the Diversity lottery because (a) they’ve never heard of it; (b) the odds seem hopelessly low; (c) people hate filling out paperwork; and (d) they don’t want to separate from their families.  Open borders would drastically mitigate all four problems.

Which factors would dominate?  I honestly don’t know.  Yet if we’re only trying to ballpark immigration under open borders, 20M a year is not bad guess.

* Officially, there are 55,000 slots, but 5000 have been diverted to the NACARA program.

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Coronavirus vs. the Non-Identity Problem

Many people think that if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, the coronavirus crisis would have been less severe.  On reflection, this is a drastic understatement.  If Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, it is near-certain that the coronavirus crisis never would have started.

To see why, let’s review what philosophers call the Non-Identity Problem.  Consider the following statement: “If my parents had won the lottery before my conception, I would be rich today.”  Sounds true, right?  On reflection, however, you should rather say, “If my parents had won the lottery before my conception, I never would have existed.”  Why not?  Because winning a pile of money would have changed when you parents had sex, which would have changed which of your father’s hundreds of millions of sperm impregnated your mother.  Indeed, even if the timing of the sex was unchanged, winning the lottery would have led your father to jump for joy, reshuffling his sperm, and again nullifying your existence.

Philosophers often invoke the Non-Identity Problem when they imagine one of our descendants moaning, “If only our ancestors had stopped polluting, I’d be better off.”  While it’s true we can help our descendants, the very acts of helping them changes who our descendants will be.  If we had cared more about the future, the moaners wouldn’t have been around to moan.

What on Earth does this have to do with coronavirus?  Simple: The birth of a new pathogen biologically parallels the birth of a new human.  A new virus is the result of a perfect genetic storm – DNAs ultra-improbably combine, then ultra-improbably get into a human body, then ultra-improbably infect that body with an ultra-low viral dose instead of being destroyed by the host’s immune system.  That’s why new pathogens are so thankfully rare; the odds are stacked massively against the rise of any specific strain.  If matters were otherwise, virologists would detect what arson investigators call “multiple points of origin” for novel pathogens.  To the best of my knowledge, they almost never do.

Given this knife-edge origin process, it is extremely likely that any major change in the events prior to the rise of coronavirus would have precluded the rise of coronavirus.  Hillary’s election would have led to different Chinese policies, which would have reshuffled human behavior in China, implying no coronavirus.

Doesn’t the same go for thousands of other changes?  Absolutely.  If Trump had negotiated a different trade deal with China, coronavirus would never have happened.  If China had left the Uighurs alone, coronavirus would never have happened.  Indeed, if Avengers: Endgame had been released a week later, coronavirus would have never happened; the movie grossed $614M in China, so it must have indirectly changed the space-time positions of a bunch of people in Wuhan.  If something alters which humans are born, it can also easily alter which pathogens are born.

Wait, does this mean that if Hillary had won, we could have had a worse virus instead?  Absolutely!  Given how bad this virus has been, however, that’s unlikely.  If Hitler had never been born, maybe Germany would have been taken over by an even more bloodthirsty dictator, but smart money says otherwise.  Nevertheless, over the very long-run, the uncertainty becomes great indeed.  Without Hitler, World War II could have been fought fifteen years later… with nuclear weapons.  As Tyler explained a while back:

For small changes to translate into large final effects, we need only postulate that some individuals, or some leaders, play a significant role on the global stage. Even if most individuals do not matter, or most small changes wash out, some of the small changes today will alter future identities, once we look a generation or two into the future. So the argument requires only that a very small number of personal identities matter for the course of history. If Hitler’s great-great-grandfather had bent down to pick one more daisy, many of the effects might have washed out; nonetheless Europe today would be a very different place.

In my experience, non-philosophers stridently resist non-identity arguments.  But that’s their problem.  The arguments are sound.  Whenever the conception of a crucial critter is on the line, small events have massive consequences.  The crucial critter could be a human or virus.  Strange but true: This whole mess could have been avoided if Chris Hemsworth had a minor accident while shooting the latest Avengers movie.

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