What I’m Doing

1. The U.S. political system is deeply dysfunctional, especially during this crisis.  Power-hunger reigns in the name of Social Desirability Bias.  Fear of punishment aside, I don’t care what authorities say.  They should heed my words, not the other way around.

2. Few private individuals are using quantitative risk analysis to guide their personal behavior.  Fear of personally antagonizing such people aside, I don’t care what they say either.

3. I am extremely interested in listening to the rare individuals who do use quantitative risk analysis to guide personal behavior.  Keep up the good work, life-coach quants – with a special shout-out to Rob Wiblin.

4. After listening, though, I shall keep my own counsel.  As long as I maintain my normal intellectual hygiene, my betting record shows that my own counsel is highly reliable.

5. What does my own counsel say?  While I wish better information were available, I now know enough to justify my return to 90%-normal life.  The rest of my immediate family agrees.  What does this entail?  Above all, I am now happy to socialize in-person with friends.  I am happy to let my children play with other kids.  I am also willing to not only eat take-out food, but dine in restaurants.  I am pleased to accommodate nervous friends by socializing outdoors and otherwise putting them at ease.  Yet personally, I am at ease either way.

6. I will still take precautions comparable to wearing a seat belt.  I will wear a mask and gloves to shop in high-traffic places, such as grocery stores.  I will continue to keep my distance from nervous and/or high-risk strangers.  Capla-Con 2020 will be delayed until winter at the earliest.  Alas.

7. Tyler suggests that people like me “are worse at intertemporal substitution than I had thought.”  In particular:

It either will continue at that pace or it won’t.  Let’s say that pace continues (unlikely in my view, but this is simply a scenario, at least until the second wave).  That is an ongoing risk higher than other causes of death, unless you are young.  You don’t have to be 77 for it to be your major risk worry.

Death from coronavirus is plausibly my single-highest risk worry.  But it is still only a tiny share of my total risk, and the cost of strict risk reduction is high for me.  Avoiding everyone except my immediate family makes my every day much worse.  And intertemporal substitution is barely helpful.  Doubling my level of socializing in 2022 to compensate for severe isolation in 2020 won’t make me feel better.

Alternatively, let’s say the pace of those deaths will fall soon, and furthermore let’s say it will fall by a lot.  The near future will be a lot safer!  Which is all the more reason to play it very safe right now, because your per week risk currently is fairly high (in many not all parts of America).  Stay at home and wear a mask when you do go out.  If need be, make up for that behavior in the near future by indulging in excess.

Suppose Tyler found out that an accident-free car were coming in 2022.  Would he “intertemporally substitute” by ceasing driving until then?  I doubt it.  In any case, what I really expect is at least six more months of moderately elevated disease risk.  My risk is far from awful now – my best guess is that I’m choosing a 1-in-12,000 marginal increase in the risk of death from coronavirus.  But this risk won’t fall below 1-in-50,000 during the next six months, and moderate second waves are likely.  Bottom line: The risk is mild enough for me to comfortably face, and too durable for me to comfortably avoid.

8. The risk analysis is radically different for people with underlying health conditions.  Many of them are my friends.  To such friends: I fully support your decision to avoid me, but I am happy to flexibly accommodate you if you too detest the isolation.  I also urge you to take advantage of any opportunities you have to reduce your personal risk.   But it’s not my place to nag you to your face.

9. What about high-risk strangers?  I’m happy to take reasonable measures to reduce their risk.  If you’re wearing a mask, I treat that as a request for extra distance, and I honor it.  But I’m not going to isolate myself out of fear of infecting high-risk people who won’t isolate themselves.

10. Most smart people aren’t doing what I’m doing.  Shouldn’t I be worried?  Only slightly.  Even smart people are prone to herding and hysteria.  I’ve now spent three months listening to smart defenders of the conventional view.  Their herding and hysteria are hard to miss.  Granted, non-smart contrarians sound even worse.  But smart contrarians make the most sense of all.

11. Even if I’m right, wouldn’t it be more prudent me to act on my beliefs without publicizing them?  That’s probably what Dale Carnegie would advise, but if Dale were here, I’d tell him, “Candor on touchy topics is my calling and my business.  It’s worked well for me so far, and I shall stay the course.”

12. I’ve long believed a strong version of (a) buy-and-hold is the best investment strategy, and (b) financial market performance is only vaguely related to objective economic conditions.  Conditions in March were so bleak that I set aside both of these beliefs and moved from 100% stocks to 90% bonds.  As a result of my excessive open-mindedness, my family has lost an enormous amount of money.  The situation is so weird that I’m going to wait until January to return to my normal investment strategy.  After that, I will never again deviate from buy-and-hold.  Never!

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What Motivates a Billionaire?

Is money the only possible motivation for a politician or politically active individual? Of course not. It can be the main motivation for those who aren’t rich yet, but once someone is rich they still have to be motivated to use the political means against their fellow humans.

Otherwise they wouldn’t.

To pretend that a billionaire only has your best interests in mind since he doesn’t need more money is to ignore all the other factors which could be motivating him. It is also ignoring the fact that being a billionaire doesn’t automatically satisfy the hunger for money.

He might want even more money.

He might want power.

He may have delusions of godhood.

He might actually want to make people suffer.

He might be insane.

He might honestly believe his ideas are good, but be frustrated that people don’t willingly comply, so he cheats and uses politics to force compliance with his idea that’s so great he has to force people to go along.

To imagine that the only explanation is that he’s a wonderful, caring person who only wants to ensure the flourishing of humanity is to ignore that he is using the political means instead of the economic means. That means, no matter what he is motivated by, or what good he believes he is doing, he’s carrying out his plans in the most evil way possible. Even if you like what he’s doing and support him.

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Rebellion is Harder than it Looks

When you watch The Hunger Games, or Braveheart, or think about the American Revolutionaries, it’s easy to see yourself as one of them. Rebellion against a tyrannical power looks inspiring and enticing.

These portrayals are all about the people – of which you are one – against the big nasty government tyrant. You see the price paid by the rebels – physical threat, torture, death – and you see the inspiration they create and the crowd of people behind them. It looks doable.

The problem with these portrayals is they aren’t very realistic. They make it look too easy. A common scene is a crowd of frightened, oppressed people, all of whom hate the tyrants equally but stand still only for fear of physical retribution, until a brave soul defies them. Even if no one says it, the rebel knows they all stand with her in spirit.

In the real world tyranny looks different and rebels rarely get praised.

The thing most often preventing resistance to tyranny isn’t the guns of the tyrants, it’s the people’s love of tyranny. Rebels rarely inspire in real-time. Instead, their oppressed fellows hate them. They call them names. They accuse them of being selfish, ignorant, crazy, dangerous. They heap more shame and derision on the person who stands against the tyranny that oppresses them all than they do on the tyrants.

To defy tyranny does not make one popular among the oppressed, because the oppressed are part of the tyranny.

Our idea of sacrifice for a good cause doesn’t go deep enough. It’s not that you must have the courage to die for what you believe in. It’s that you must have the courage to have your reputation murdered. You have to be willing to not only face physical threats from the state, but to be seen as evil by the majority of people. You will not only suffer for a cause, you will be utterly misunderstood and vilified by the very people you represent. They will view your cause as stupid and your suffering as just.

Why don’t people stand up to tyranny more often? There’s so many more oppressed than tyrants, and the oppressed have so much more power. Except that most of them view resistance to evil as evil.

If you stand for freedom don’t expect to be saluted and thanked by your fellow man. Don’t expect to start a movement. It rarely happens. You’re more likely to lose your reputation at the hands of the masses than your life at the hands of the tyrants.

As I’ve written elsewhere, death is not the ultimate sacrifice.

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Being Forced to Help Not Helping

I want you to hunger for liberty; to crave the freedom to do everything you have a right to do, even if you choose to not do it all. I want you to want liberty as much as I want it.

I also want you to respect the liberty of others. To govern yourself and no one else — this is your primary obligation to others.

I realize some people are scared by the thought of liberty or freedom. I’ve even seen people complain that libertarians want to “force people to be free.” This has become something of an in-joke among libertarians; we want to take over and leave you alone.

No one can be forced to be free, and I wouldn’t if I could. This would defeat the purpose without accomplishing anything.

If liberty isn’t freely chosen, it’s worthless. It won’t be valued and it would be easy to give it up the first time some creepy politician says you need to give up some liberty so you can be safer.

You’ve got to want liberty bad enough to fight for it against those who want to violate it. You’ve got to want it bad enough to do whatever it takes once you discover that protesting and voting don’t work.

If you don’t value liberty this much, you won’t care enough to make an effort to protect it. You’ll never make liberty a priority.

I can’t change your priorities.

What I can do is remind you of everything you’re cheating yourself out of, hint at all you are missing, and tease you with the possibilities you may not have considered. I can also share with you my confidence that you don’t need to be governed or controlled. You can handle life.

To say I’m willing to leave you alone means I wouldn’t try to run your life. It doesn’t mean to leave you without social support. There’s no reason you can’t ask for help; nothing to prevent you from reaching out to help others without being forced to “help” them by legislative threat.

Being forced to help isn’t helping. Complying with a threat doesn’t make you a compassionate or moral person. It shows you can be manipulated and easily scared into doing what someone else thinks you should instead of acting on your own values.

I’m not willing to do this to you. I want liberty and I respect you too much to violate your liberty by forcing it on you.

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Codifying Our Worst Impulses: The Ideas that Started World War II

 

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the deadliest violent conflict in human history.  Death tolls vary, but often reach 80 million souls.  What caused it?  Lists of proximate causes never end, but the only credible “root cause” is simply: ideas.  Three countries started World War II: Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  While popular summaries rarely list the Soviets as initiators because Hitler double-crossed Stalin two years later, Molotov and Ribbentrop’s  so-called Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a Treaty of Aggression Against Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Romania.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What ideas led the leaders of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union to war?  The obvious answer is extreme nationalism – the view any action is morally praiseworthy if it advances the interests of your nation-state.  Heinrich Himmler said it best:

For the SS Man, one principle must apply absolutely: we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood, and to no one else. What happens to the Russians, the Czechs, is totally indifferent to me… Whether other races live well or die of hunger is only of interest to me insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise that doesn’t interest me. Whether 10,000 Russian women fall down from exhaustion in building a tank ditch is of interest to me only insofar as the tank ditches are finished for Germany.

…When somebody comes to me and says, I can’t build tank ditches with children or women. That’s inhumane, they’ll die doing it. Then I must say: You are a murderer of your own blood, since, if the tank ditches are not built, then German soldiers will die, and they are the sons of German mothers. That is our blood. That is how I would like to indoctrinate this SS, and, I believe, have indoctrinated, as one of the holiest laws of the future: our concern, our duty, is to our Folk, and to our blood. That is what we must care for and think about, work for and fight for, and nothing else. Everything else can be indifferent to us.

Almost everyone understands that Japan and Germany grew extremely nationalistic during the 1930s.  Few realize that the same holds for the Soviet Union as well.  Under Stalinism, anything that advanced the interests of the Soviet Union was the moral imperative – starting with the reabsorption of all the breakaway territories of the Russian Empire.

By itself, however, extreme nationalism need not generate war.  Rationally speaking, the best way to advance the national interest is with peace and consumerism.  The leadership of Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, however, all angrily rejected this bourgeois, “shopkeepers’” perspective.  Instead, they equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government – and angrily denounced Western “plutocracies.”

This was most obvious in the USSR, which deliberately eradicated the rich, business, and private property itself in order to build a totalitarian militarized society.  But Germany’s National Socialists had a similar vision.  Their goal was not to build an idyllic consumer society, but a mighty war machine.  Unlike the Soviets, however, the Nazis had the common-sense to harness the rich, business, and private property rather than destroy them.   As Hitler told Nazi defector Hermann Rauschning:

He had no intention, like Russia, of “liquidating” the possessing class. On the contrary, he would compel it to contribute by its abilities towards the building up of the new order. He could not afford to allow Germany to vegetate for years, as Russia had done, in famine and misery. Besides, the present owners of property would be grateful that their lives had been spared. They would be dependent and in a condition of permanent fear of worse things to come.

The same holds for Japan: Its leaders equated the national interest with the power and glory of the Japanese government, not the safety and prosperity of the Japanese people.  So while the Japanese government happily used the domestic rich and domestic business, it truly bled them dry during the war.  As Walter Scheidel explains in The Great Leveler:

Japan was once one of the most unequal countries on earth. In 1938, the country’s “1 percent” received 19.9 percent of all reported income before taxes and transfers. Within the next seven years, their share dropped by two-thirds, all the way down to 6.4 percent. More than half of this loss was incurred by the richest tenth of that top bracket: their income share collapsed from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent in the same period, a decline by almost four-fifths.

However rapid and massive these shifts in the distribution of income, they pale in comparison to the even more dramatic destruction of the elite’s wealth. The declared real value of the largest 1 percent of estates in Japan fell by 90 percent between 1936 and 1945 and by almost 97 percent between 1936 and 1949. The top 0.1 percent of all estates lost even more—93 percent and more than 98 percent, respectively. In real terms, the amount of wealth required to count a household among the richest 0.01 percent (or one in 10,000) in 1949 would have put it in only the top 5 percent back in 1936. Fortunes had shrunk so much that what used to count as mere affluence was now out of reach for all but a very few.

What’s the right word for “equating the national interest with the power and glory of the government rather than peace and consumerism”?  There are many candidate labels  – “statism,” “romanticism,” “populism,” “communitarianism,” “anti-capitalism.”  But none is quite right, so we might as well stick with the label that activists who equated the national interest with the power and glory of the government have preferred throughout the 20th century: socialism.  Obviously, there are many kinds of self-identified socialists – including socialists who unequivocally seek a peaceful, consumerist society.  Historically, however, these are rare – and since I’m not a socialist, I say that “real socialism” equals “what most self-styled socialists do when they have power.” Whatever label you prefer, the key point is that all the regimes that started World War II praised the power and glory of the government to the skies – and brought traditional elites – the rich and business – to their knees.  Or their graves.

Before you join me in blaming World War II on nationalism and socialism, though, there’s an obvious objection: These ideas have been ubiquitous for ages.  My response: The emotional impulses behind nationalism and socialism – impulses like xenophobia and anti-market bias – are indeed long-lived and widespread.  Far more children dream of being warriors than merchants.  But the initiators of World War II turned these knee-jerk feelings into bodies of thought.  They codified humanity’s worst impulses into explicit, militant, self-conscious ideologies.  And they took their ideologies seriously enough to kill for them – and often to die for them.

Does this mean that every latter-day nationalist and socialist is morally comparable to the architects of World War II?  No; that’s absurd.  The reason for this moral non-comparability, though, is disturbing.  The rhetoric of modern nationalism and socialism remains grotesque.  Anyone who says “By any means necessary” is, by implication, saying, “If it takes 80 million deaths for us to win, then so be it.”  The saving grace of latter-day nationalists and socialists is that almost all of them are hypocrites.  They may say, “By any means necessary,” but thankfully few have the stomach for it.  As I’ve said before, if your ideas are bad, hypocrisy makes them less bad.

Still, I am dismayed by the renewed popularity of nationalism and socialism.  I don’t think World War III is coming this century.  If it does come, however, I will blame the nationalists and socialists who take their scary slogans to heart.

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Education Needs Separation From State

Once again we approach that saddest time of the year: when the majority of parents send their kids back to school; back into the local government concentration day-camps.

If you’re someone who mistakes schooling for education you probably believe this is good.

School is a socialist babysitting system funded by your neighbors. If you’re OK with forcing others to fund things you want, then go ahead and support the government schools. I can’t support socialism.

Schooling is also a system where organized bullying is cheered while the freelance competition, provided by the victims’ peers, is officially frowned upon. I oppose all bullying.

I’m not saying education doesn’t happen in schools, but when it does it’s in spite of the schooling, not because of it. Kids are automatic learning machines and it’s almost impossible to short-circuit their hunger to learn. They’ll usually manage to learn everything they need to know, and more, even under the worst conditions.

The fact that many people still believe schools educate — because kids come out knowing more than they knew when they went in — is evidence of this.

The real goal of schooling is to train kids to be useful, and not too dangerous, to politicians. Don’t question too much, and only within approved boundaries. Sit down, be quiet, obey the bells, and be force-fed authoritarian propaganda.

This style of training — called the Prussian Model, after the country America copied — creates adults who are unlikely to break free from this early indoctrination and will largely comply with arbitrary orders from politicians and their attack dogs. This is useful to governments and is why governments everywhere want to control schooling.

They use the unsupportable claim “it’s for the children;” if they can also fool the adult population into believing it’s about education it works even better.

This isn’t to say the teachers are bad. Most have good intentions, they are just saddled with a toxic system. A system that shouldn’t exist. The teachers are victims almost as much as the under-aged inmates, but at least they get paid.

There are good teachers, but there are no good schools. If this claim angers you, congratulations — you are showing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives (and former captives) begin to relate to their captors, even taking their side, defending them from criticism. Stockholm Syndrome makes people loyal to “their” school.

My appreciation for education explains my opposition to schooling. It is essential to separate education from the state before the damage is irreversible.

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