Love the Very New and the Very Old

I love old farms and skyscrapers under construction, old cars and Elon Musk’s newest spaceships. I think my ideal way of living would consist of working on a farm (or hunting/gathering out in nature) during the day and working on a high-tech project at night (call it “Jeffersonian futurism.”)

I love the very old and the very new. I see no conflict in that – but I do see a necessity.

Futurists seem to miss the fact that old things contain worthwhile wisdom and usefulness. Traditionalism seems to miss the fact that static institutions become corrupt without change. Meanwhile, the modernists are so tied up in the recent past as to be blind to both tradition and innovation.

But in the years ahead, it’s the futurists who will deliver us interplanetary travel, life-saving medical cures, and clean and renewable nuclear energy in the years ahead. It’s the traditionalists who will help us to remember the human values of fidelity (marriage, etc), individual dignity, self-reliance, and honesty are the foundations of a society that can enjoy technological progress properly (i.e. without self-destructing).

If we’re to appreciate and encourage this outcome, we need a way of thinking that embraces the dialogue between the old and new*. We need to understand that the only conflict is between the life-enhancing and the life-destroying, and that either force can be found in our newest inventions or our oldest customs.

Author Ross Douthat recently summed up the interesting fusion he posits will lead us out of the current “age of decadence” – a combination of old-time religion and high-tech futurism:

“So down on your knees – and start working on that warp drive.”

I dig it.

*Credit to Jordan Peterson for first (in my experience) formulating this yin-yang interplay of liberalism/openness and conservatism/orderliness.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Being Your Own Man Doesn’t Have To Mean Rejecting a Legacy

People leave the family farm. Sons go to college instead of going to work into the plumbing business. It has a thousand faces, but there’s this American idea that inheriting a vocation is “settling,” so you’d better go off and find a new one.

I know I feel it. It’s why I probably couldn’t have been satisfied just taking over the reins of my father’s successful landscaping business – and why indeed that wasn’t even something he tried much to encourage.

This same idea has killed many multi-generational businesses – and seems to have killed much hope for this one kind of intergenerational wealth transfer possible to most people. The result? Each new generation of men are poor and alone, and therefore at the mercy of the lenders and the mercy of the state.

Ironically, the mythos of dreaming-big and independence may be contributing to the destruction of both.

But “being your own man” doesn’t have to mean rejecting the legacies people try to leave you – including the legacy of training, capital, and vocation. Indeed, accepting a good legacy in these things can help to ensure that you remain as much your own as possible.

I’d look at the character of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies* as my model. He comes from a long line of kings yet struggles with his legacy – particularly with the less than wonderful parts (like when Isildur keeps the Ring of Power for himself). So he wanders the north alone, fighting bad guys. Yet he only comes fully into his own when he accepts his legacy – but also transforms it through rejecting the evil of the Ring and Sauron for himself.

Aragorn becomes “his own man,” yet not from traveling footloose and fancy-free and deciding he doesn’t want to be king. His individuality established, he comes back and accepts and redeems his legacy.

We live in a mythos right now of “leave and never come back” – from a lot of things – family, life, work. This may be better than the ethos of “never leave” – certainly for some people it is. But the right ethos is “leave and then come back different.”

*It’s worth noting that (to my knowledge) this is not a conflict or at least not a major conflict for Aragorn.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Moral Approximates

 “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” – Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” Speech

During the Cold War, folks like Ronald Reagan accused their domestic opponents of believing in the “moral equivalence” of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Having lived through the era, I am confident that believers in moral equivalence existed.  Knowing the relevant history, I agree that this was an absurd belief.  However bad the United States was, the Soviet Union was vastly worse.

If you want to nitpick, admittedly, we never find literal moral equivalents in real world.  Why?  Because in a continuous world, one side in any conflict is bound to be at least a little worse.  Still, careful examination of real-world conflict does occasionally uncover not moral equivalents, but moral approximates.  Though the two sides’ moral status is not precisely equal, they are morally more-or-less the same.

It’s easiest to identify examples that are far away in time and place.  During the Wars of Religion, who was worse – the Catholics or the Protestants?  During World War I, who was worse – the Germans or the Russians?  During the War of the Roses, who was worse – the Yorks or the Lancasters?  You could plead ignorance.  Yet even if you studied the history for a year, you would plausibly conclude that the two sides were moral approximates – both sinned so egregiously that it really is hard to know who was worse.

For recent and ongoing conflicts, assertions of moral approximation naturally inspire far more pushback.  If we were rational, however, the opposite would be true.  The very fact that people have strong emotions about recent and ongoing conflicts is a strong reason to discount their judgment.  Furthermore, when a conflict is recent or ongoing, we usually lack a great deal of not-yet-released relevant information.  No one is likely to scare up shocking new revelations about the Lancasters, but in fifty years we’ll have a much better understanding of what the Trump administration actually did.

Those limitations in mind, here are the top three moral approximations I am willing to defend.

1. Communism and Nazism are moral approximates. Why?  Both movements were fanatical attempts to build dystopian societies – and both self-righteously murdered tens of millions of innocent people.  Contrary to much propaganda, Communists did not have noticeably better motives.  Both groups imagined that a totalitarian society would be a big improvement over the status quo – and recklessly embraced the necessity of mass murder to get there.

2. Socialism and fascism are moral approximates.  Why?  Socialism is a toned-down version of Communism; fascism is a toned-down version of Nazism.  As toned-down versions, they aim for much less, and murder far fewer people in the process.  Yet the vision of both movements – society as a big family with a common purpose – remains dystopian.  And while their methods are far less brutal than Communism or Nazism, socialism and fascism both casually advocate pervasive coercion for flimsy reasons.

(My main doubt here is that while I’ve repeatedly publicly debated socialists, I would not so engage a fascist.  Doesn’t that show that I think fascism is markedly worse?  Not exactly.  The main reason I don’t debate fascists is that avowed fascism is now so low-status that its adherents are low-quality and scary.  In a world where fascists were as mainstream as socialists, I would debate them).

3. The Democratic and Republican parties are moral approximates.  Why?  Both are dogmatic, emotional, and demagogic.  Neither party internalizes the maxim that with great power comes great responsibility – or dwells on the possibility that they might be mistreating people who don’t agree with them.  Both parties say they want various radical changes, many of which seem very bad.  The policies Democrats and Republicans actually impose when they have power are similarly mediocre, though that doesn’t stop them from rhetorically making mountains out of molehills.  On immigration, for example, the Democratic-Republican debate basically comes down to whether the border should be 98% closed or 99% closed.  Though I prefer 98% to 99%, it’s approximately the same.

I am well-aware that both Democrats and Republicans will protest angrily being lumped together; in their eyes, the differences between their parties are “huge.”  My question for them: In 200 years, how big will these “huge differences” look to historians?   Yes, during the Wars of Religion, Catholics and Protestants mutually called each other servants of the Antichrist.  Today, however, we can plainly see that both sides were unhinged.

Similarly, if you carefully studied the politics of, say, France in 1970, would you really conclude that the arguments that enraged contemporary French partisans were, in fact, a big deal?

Back in 2016, many Democrats told me that Trump’s election exposed the sheer evil of the Republican Party.  In a way, this understates.  I say that the mere fact that a man like Trump did well in the primaries shows that the Republican Party is rotten.  However, I’d say the same about Bernie Sanders’ success in 2016.  The mere fact that a man like Sanders did well in the primaries shows that the Democratic Party is rotten, too.

You could respond, “Suppose Democrats and Republicans really are moral approximates.  Shouldn’t an economist, of all people, still be eager to discover the slightly lesser evil?”  My answer: If I were America’s kingmaker, then yes.  But when I’m just one voice among tens of millions, no.  While I’m always happy to share my views with curious Democrats or Republicans, I’m too much of a puritan to ever join either party.

P.S. Lest anyone misinterpret me, I think the Democratic and Republican parties are markedly better than socialism and fascism, which are in turn markedly better than Communism and Nazism.  Mathematically: D≈R>>S≈F>>C≈N.

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Trump’s First Offer was a Better Deal for Palestine — and Israel

In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced himself “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed pessimism that a deal between the two sides was even possible: “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.”

It didn’t take Trump long to reverse himself — when it was explained to him that $100 million in campaign assistance from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson depended on such a reversal, he re-booted as “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history,” which in Adelsonese means “the most pro-Likud/pro-Netanyahu/anti-Palestinian candidate in the election.”

Nearly four years later — after numerous sops to Likud and favors to save Netanyahu’s premiership amidst his indictment on corruption charges, including moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” 

The deal, in summary: The Israeli regime gets everything it wants; Palestine’s Arabs get to keep some, but not all, of what they already have while giving up quite a bit.

They supposedly get a “state,” but that’s neither Trump’s nor Israel’s to give: The State of Palestine already exists and is already recognized by most other countries.

They get a “capital” in a sliver of East Jerusalem, but Israel will  annex even more Palestinian land.

The new, fake, quasi-state of Palestine will be required to “demilitarize” and trust Israel to defend it, and Israel will exercise veto power over both its foreign policy and its internal security policy.

Trump’s offer is quite a shift from his former “neutrality.” As Lando Calrissian said in The Empire Strikes Back, “this deal is getting worse all the time.” Worse for the Palestinians, obviously, but worse for Israel as well.

US aid and military support have turned Israel into a spoiled child among states. It does what it wants and gets what it wants, not because it deserves to or because it’s able to itself, but because it has a generous and muscular big brother doling out money to it and threatening to beat up anyone who questions its entitlement.

At some point, that relationship will end as all relationships do. The longer that relationship continues, the weaker, more vulnerable, and more over-extended Israel becomes.

If Israel’s regime was interested in peace, or even in its country’s survival, it would unilaterally withdraw to its 1967 borders, begin negotiating administration of Palestinians’ “right of return” to their stolen land, and recognize the existing State of Palestine.

And if Trump was really “pro-Israel,” he’d return to his position of “neutrality” in the matter. Even if it meant refunding Sheldon Adelson’s bribe, eating a little crow, and explaining another change of heart to his confused evangelical supporters.

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Mentoring: The Rationality of Fear

A few months ago, Lean In published the results of a survey by Sandberg and Pritchard showing a dramatic increase in the share of male managers who fear close interaction with female coworkers.  Specifically:

60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. That’s a 32% jump from a year ago.

The survey’s creators were dismayed:

This is disastrous. The vast majority of managers and senior leaders are men. They have a huge role to play in supporting women’s advancement at work—or hindering it…

There’s not a company in the world that can afford to leave talent on the sidelines because that talent is female. But that’s what will keep happening unless all of us—especially men—commit to doing better.

Most commentators found male managers’ reluctance to mentor women especially reprehensible and irrational.  Male managers aren’t just undermining gender equality; they’re paranoid.  How so?  Because innocent men have nothing to fear except false accusations – and these hardly ever happen.  Thus, Prudy Gourguechon remarks:

The implication of the surveys is that men are afraid of being falsely accused.  But false accusations of sexual impropriety are actually very rare.

Mia Brett tells us:

Despite the framing of this story, male managers refusing to mentor women started long before #MeToo. Furthermore, fears of false accusation aren’t supported by statistics.

Andrew Fiouzi:

[D]ealing with men’s unrealistic fears around false accusations will require unfamiliar amounts of self-reflection on the part of the men in question.

Emily Peck:

Some men also like to claim that women are fabricating claims. Those fears are largely unfounded, Thomas said. She points out that the same myth surrounds sexual assault. False accusations make up a very low percentage of reported rapes, according to several studies — in line with other types of crime.

While it’s dauntingly hard to credibly estimate the rate of false accusation, I suspect all the preceding authors are correct.  Human beings rarely invent bald harmful lies about others.

On reflection, however, this hardly implies that male managers are paranoid or otherwise “irrational.”  For three reasons:

1. You have to multiply the probability of a false accusation by the harm of a false accusation.  Since the harm is high, even a seemingly negligible probability may be worth worrying about.  Consider this passage in Fiouzi’s analysis:

But according to Richard J. Reddick, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, there is, practically speaking, no evidence to justify the Pence Rule [not dining alone with women other than your wife]. “You often hear about men being falsely accused of sexual harassment,” he says. “[But] the University of California, San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health conducted a study recently that revealed that two percent of men and one percent of women had been falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault, so in fact, accusations, and particularly false ones, are exceptionally rare.”

Taking these estimates at face value, it’s hard to see the paranoia: A 2% chance of severe career damage is a serious risk, especially given the low personal benefits of mentoring.  Furthermore, managers are far more tempting targets for false accusation than ordinary co-workers, so their probability of being falsely accused plausibly rises to 4%, 6%, or even 10%.

2.  In any case, a low rate of false accusation multiplied by a long mentoring career could still readily lead to multiple false accusations.  So it’s hardly imprudent for many male managers to respond with great caution.  Remember: The chance you’ll die in a car crash today if you don’t wear a seat belt is a rounding error.  The chance you’ll eventually die in a car crash if you habitually don’t wear a seat belt, however, is nothing to scoff at.

3. As I’ve explained before, truly malevolent actions – such as falsely accusing others – are far less common than misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings are a ubiquitous unpleasant feature of human life.  One common way to avoid this unpleasantness is to avoid social situations likely to lead to misunderstandings.  This strategy is especially tempting if, in the event of misunderstanding, others will presume you’re in the wrong.  So again, it’s hardly surprising that many male managers would respond to changing norms (#BelieveWomen) by playing defense.

What then should be done?  The emotionally appealing response, sadly, is to fight fear with an extra helping of fear: “You’re too scared to mentor?  Interesting.  Now let me show you what we do to those who shirk their mentoring responsibilities.”  If this seems like a caricature, carefully listen to what the authors of the original survey have to say:

Ugly behavior that once was indulged or ignored is finally being called out and condemned. Now we must go further. Avoiding and isolating women at work—whether out of an overabundance of caution, a misguided sense of decorum, irritation at having to check your words or actions, or any other reason—must be unacceptable too.

The problem, of course, is that mentoring is too informal to easily monitor.  Unless someone loudly announces, “I refuse to mentor women,” there’s not much you can do to him.  Mentoring quotas are likely to flop for the same reason.

The alternative is obvious, but unpalatable for activists: Put the frightened people whose assistance you need at ease.  Be friendly and calm, gracious and grateful.  Take the ubiquity of misunderstandings seriously.  Don’t zealously advocate for yourself, and don’t rush to take sides.  Instead, strive to de-escalate conflict whenever a misunderstanding arises.  This would obviously work best as a coordinated cultural shift toward good manners, but you don’t have to wait for the world to come to its senses.  You can start building your personal reputation for collegiality today – so why wait to get potential mentors on your side?

If you’re tempted to respond, “Why should I have to put them at ease?,” the honest answer is: Because you’re the one asking for help.

If that’s the way you talk to others, though, don’t expect them to give you honest answers.  Intimidation is the father of silence and the mother of lies.  If you have to use threats to exhort help, you’ll probably just get a bunch of empty promises.

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On Good Government

Here is the beginning and then end of so-called good government: the adjudication of disputes (torts and contracts) and keeping the peace. If that’s all government was and did, I’d probably have no complaints. The problem arises when government moves beyond dispute adjudication and peacekeeping because doing so necessarily entails the creation of conflict and an end to peace. Nothankyou, and that’s today’s two cents.

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