“Socialism”: The Provocative Equivocation

The socialists are back, but is it a big deal?  It’s tempting to say that it’s purely rhetorical.  Modern socialists don’t want to emulate the Soviet Union.  To them, socialism just means “Sweden,” right?  Even if their admiration for Sweden is unjustified, we’ve long known that the Western world contains millions of people who want their countries to be like Sweden.  Why should we care if Sweden-fans rebrand themselves as “socialists”?

My instinctive objection is that even using the term “socialism” is an affront to the many millions of living victims of Soviet-style totalitarian regimes.  Talking about “socialism” understandably horrifies them.  Since there are plenty of palatable synonyms for Swedish-type policies (starting even “Swedenism”!), selecting this particular label seems a breach of civility.

If this seems paranoid, what would you say about a new movement of self-styled “national socialists”?  Even if their policy positions were moderate, this brand needlessly terrifies lots of folks who have already suffered enough.

On reflection, however, this is a weak objection.  Yes, if a label’s connotations are – like “national socialism” – almost entirely horrible, then loudly embracing the label is uncivil.  “Socialism,” however, has long had a wide range of meanings.  Even during the height of Stalinism, plenty of self-styled “socialists” were avowedly anti-Communist.  The upshot: Even if you were a victim of Soviet oppression, assuming the worst when you hear the word “socialism” is hypersensitive.  And hypersensitivity is bad.

Yet there’s a much stronger reason to object to the socialist revival.  Namely: It’s far from clear that the latter-day socialists do mean Sweden.  While some (like John Marsh) plainly say so, others (like Elizabeth Bruenig) are coy indeed.  Which raises deeply troubling questions, starting with:

1. Are latter-day socialists unaware of the history of the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Given widespread historical ignorance and the youth of the new socialists, we can hardly rule this out.  A troubling thought; isn’t it negligent to champion a radical idea without investigating its history first?

2. Are latter-day socialists ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Do they look on the Soviet Union as a noble experiment with unfortunate shortcomings?  How about Chavez’s Venezuela?

3. Do latter-day socialists think of Sweden as a starting point, and something more radical as the ultimate goal?  Are there outright crypto-communists among them?  If so, do their comrades know?  Care?

4. Do latter-day socialists realize that being coy raises the preceding concerns?  Do they care?  Or is the raising of these concerns a “feature, not a bug”?  I.e., they enjoy making people wonder if they’re secret Leninists?

What’s the truth?  While I don’t personally know any latter-day socialists well, I do read a lot of articles in The Nation, which publishes a wide range of modern socialists.  So here are my best guesses about the preceding possibilities.

1. Older socialists (age 50+) know a lot about the actual history of socialism.  The younger ones (age 40 and under), however, know little and care less.  They’re negligent romantics.

2. Most historically-literate socialists are indeed ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name.  Very few will defend Stalin, but they just can’t stay mad at Lenin, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh.  Even the historically-naive socialists feel pretty good about Cuba today and Venezuela in 2015.

3. Yes, most avowed socialists have a more radical ultimate goal than Sweden.  In our Capitalism-Socialism debate, even the reasonable John Marsh mused about a future that realized radical socialist dreams without degenerating into a typical socialist nightmare.  How extreme, then, are ultimate goals of the unreasonable socialists?  While I really don’t know, videos like this make me strongly suspect that Bernie Sanders is literally a crypto-communist.  Even if I’m wrong, how many latter-day socialists would care if Sanders was a crypto-communist?

4. Latter-day socialists really do enjoy making people wonder about their ultimate agenda.  When you read The Nation, for example, authors almost never specify exactly what policy should be.  Instead, they focus on radical movement in a desired direction, with minimal discussion of their ultimate objective.  In particular, they almost never say what would be “too far.”  Of course, this describes most political movements; they want to rally the troops, not provide blueprints of an ideal world.  But when you cultivate a “radical” image but withhold specifics, you should expect critics’ minds to go to dark places.  Rather than try to calm the critics, the latter-day socialists court their disapproval.  In fact, most seem to positively enjoy the imagined intellectual trauma they’re inflicting on the unbeliever.

On reflection, then, the return of the self-styled socialist is indeed a travesty.  The reason, though, is not that the word is offensive, but that it is deliberately confusing.  If you really thought Sweden was a model society, you would just praise Sweden.  The “socialist” label, in contrast, is a provocative equivocation.  Latter-day socialists adopt it because they would rather insinuate their possible support for totalitarian horrors than earnestly promote an intellectually defensible position.

To what end?  In modern parlance, the latter-day socialists could just be trolling.  This is bad enough, but some socialists probably sincerely believe what they’re insinuating.  Or worse.  If all you want is Swedish social democracy, making common cause with such socialists is a grave mistake.

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The Small Death in First Steps

You’ve got a big giant dream. You decide to pursue it. This is exciting.

The planning is done. You start to get down to those first few steps. How do you actually execute and move forward on your big sexy vision?

By doing something so small and stupid it’s almost embarrassing.

I want to learn to beat people up, why am I waxing cars?

I want to learn to shred a face-melting solo, why am I playing scales?

I want to build a house, why am I cutting wood?

I want to own a worldwide bakery and cookbook franchise, why am I doing a bake sale?

The first step never looks like the big vision. It’s kinda boring. It’s very small. It’s not unique. It’s not going to impress anyone much. It’s easy to get mad and try to cram the first fifteen steps into one. But you can’t. You’ll lose. You need to take the first, smallest possible step by itself. Then the second. Then the third.

Taking that first small, unglamorous step feels like a kind of death. You have to let your awesome reputation for your big sexy leap idea die in order to ship the first little step. People will praise your awesome vision. They won’t be impressed by your first concrete step.

The difference between big results and small isn’t the size of the steps, it’s how many are taken.

The difference between fast growth and slow isn’t the size of the steps, it’s how quickly they’re taken.

And some steps will always be missteps. The smaller they are, the easier to re-take them properly. You’ve got to do this a lot and fast too. And never stop doing it.

Take the smallest possible step. Get it right. Take the next. Do this as fast as possible as many times as possible adjusting to bad steps as ruthlessly as possible. That’s the way. There’s no cheating the small steps.

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Reviewing Paranoia

We often hear about “movies that are better than the book,” but rarely of “book reviews that are better than the book.” Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh has just published one such book review.  Here’s Nowrasteh on Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders:

The gap in quality between the book described by reviewers above and the actual book Melting Pot or Civil War? is wider than in any other book that I can remember reading. Descriptions of “calm” and “reasonable” are the most perplexing. True, he appeals to Americans “who are willing to meet others halfway” to solve the problems that he’s identified. On the other hand, he also argues that we need to follow his policy recommendations or face a racialized civil war. That is the very opposite of a “calm” or “reasonable” argument. A better description would be “hysterical” or “paranoid.”

Hysteria and paranoia aside, what’s wrong with the book?  Salam engages in extreme reverse engineering, where even the most favorable facts about immigration somehow become extra reasons to oppose it:

For example, Salam disagrees with himself over whether the goal of immigration policy should be to increase wages and employment for low-skilled immigrants and their descendants, or per capita productivity growth in small sectors of the economy. He rightly claims that immigration barely affects wages in the United States, but then argues that a major benefit of stopping low-skilled immigration is higher wages for native-born and immigrant dropouts. Salam correctly points out that low-skilled immigrants today compete mostly against other low-skilled immigrants, so he wants to help low-skilled immigrants here by stopping more from immigrating in the first place.

Much of the book, moreover, is simply odd:

Forgetting everything that he wrote about labor markets, Salam praises a science fiction-esque scenario of “virtual immigration” where workers would work remotely by operating robots in the United States from their home countries — even though the labor market effects of that would at best be economically identical to allowing them to immigrate and work here. Salam argues that “virtual immigration will do more good than harm for U.S. workers, provided we have the right safeguards in place [emphasis added].” Salam does not explain what those safeguards are, how they would prevent competition in labor markets, and why the government couldn’t just apply those same safeguards to prevent labor market competition between low-skilled immigrants and low-skilled natives.

And:

Salam mentions the enormous economic cost to those foreigners who would be locked out of the United States under his preferred immigration policy. He proposes a package of U.S. foreign aid to bribe foreign governments to establish charter cities so that low-skilled immigrants can go there instead of the United States. Oddly, he predicts those charter cities will become “fonts of entrepreneurship and public policy solutions” and that excellent new ideas developed there will enrich America. If low-skilled immigrants are entrepreneurs who will create fantastic new ideas in these charter cities that will eventually make it to America, why not just let them come here in the first place? Why spill so much ink supporting a utopian scheme of charter cities as a solution to global poverty when immigration is a tried and true method?

You might think the “civil war” stuff is just hyperbole on the book cover, but no:

To his credit, Salam does admit that there is no private political violence in American today that is comparable to the chaos before the Civil War, but that “it is hard to shake the feeling that our luck might soon run out.” Civil war is a deadly serious topic and perhaps this reviewer is being too nitpicky, but I require more than Salam’s difficultly in “shaking a feeling” to take his worry seriously. He should have done more to show that the choice is really between his “melting pot” or a “civil war.”

Better yet, Salam should have proposed a bet.  I say that America – indeed, the entire First World – is not only too rich, but too electronically sedated, to physically fight about much of anything.  The risk of civil war in the First World is small enough to make even the trivial danger of terrorism look big by comparison.

If you think me naive, come take my money.

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What the College Admissions Scandal Reveals

A Tweetstorm.

1/ The signaling theory of education is correct.

Except a degree is not a signal of employability.

It’s a signal of adherence to the dominant social status religion of the day.

2/ Evidence is everywhere.

The mother who pressures her successful, happy, entrepreneur child to get a degree, while she proudly brags about her depressed, unemployed, basement-dwelling degreed child.

3/ The human capital theory of education is clearly bunk. Most people then conclude that degrees are bought because they are an employability signal.

This is also untrue, though it’s easy to see why it can appear that way sometimes.

4/ Not only are there classic correlation problems (e.g people with sports cars/degrees have more money on average), but social status games play a part in other games, like workplace politics, etc.

5/ The signal of social status games has overlap with the signal of employability. Some people prefer to hire other people who play the same social status games.

But employment signal is not the fundamental, causal mechanism for why people buy degrees.

6/ This is proven in so many ways but it’s hard to see until the blinders fall off.

People go into debt and suffer boredom for years “because I have to get a job” without ever asking what it would take to get a particular job.

7/ Imagine someone training for and running a marathon “because I have to to get customers for my artwork”, without every exploring the market to see what customers would need to make it worth buying your art?

8/ That is precisely how 90% of students/parents approach college. They have no idea what they want to do and whether college will help or hinder, yet they go in totally blind to the employment signal ROI, and spend irresponsible amounts of money on the degree.

9/ Why? Because they cannot resist the shame/envy/fear of being outside the dominant social status doctrine.

Again, pride for unemployed degree-holders dramatically exceeds that for successful drop-outs and opt-outs. Not even close.

10/ Multimillion dollar athletes and entertainers go back and buy degrees later in life and get treated as heroes. The employment signaling theory cannot explain any of this, because it’s not the dominant cause of degree buying.

11/ Degrees are a purchase made almost always for other people, not for you. They are made to make those around you feel comfortable with your opting in to their envy games.

12/ If an individual has a career goal and they plan the next few steps to it, if it doesn’t involve a degree, everyone pressures them and tells them they are a loser.

It it involves a degree, no one demands any plan, or any successful outcome at all and they get praise.

13/ Those who opt out of status games are a threat to the herd. They cannot be manipulated, they are unpredictable, they are bold.

They are also the only ones who every create progress and improve the lot of the herd.

14/ Make each step your step, not the step that makes everyone clap and give you cheap praise.

Make your goals about you.

Go build the life you want, don’t seek the badges that keep everyone happy.

15/ Your individual scoreboard is more important to your flourishing than your relative status on the collective status scoreboard.

16/ Fin.

Addendum:

I think it once was primarily an employment signal and status second. That became a religious belief and the social status part flipped to dominant.

Like buying a home was a good investment, that advice became religion, then people bought homes based on status.

(And subsidies and propaganda)

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Some Men Just Want to Watch Mexico Burn

In the introduction to La Vida, famed anthropologist Oscar Lewis unfavorably compares Puerto Rico to Mexico:

But perhaps the crucial difference in the history of the two countries was the development of a great revolutionary tradition in Mexico and its absence in Puerto Rico.  Puerto Ricans sought greater autonomy from Spain during the nineteenth century, but they were never able to organize a revolutionary struggle for their freedom, and the single attempt along this line, at Lares, was short-lived and never received mass support.  By contrast the Mexicans fought for their independence from Spain between 1810 and 1821, drove out the French in 1866 and later produced the great revolution of 1910-20 with its glorious ideals of social justice.  In the course of these struggles great heroes emerged, men who have become symbols of the Mexican spirit of revolution and independence.

La Vida was published in 1965, just 45 years after the end of the Mexican Revolution.  Lewis personally knew many Mexicans who lived through it.  But what actually happened during this “great revolution” with its “glorious ideals of social justice”?  The best paper I could find on the topic is Robert McCaa’s 2003 paper “Missing Millions: The Demographic Costs of the Mexican Revolution” (Mexican Studies 19, pp.367-400).  After a detailed review of earlier estimates, McCaa deploys new techniques to reach a grim conclusion:

The human cost of the Revolution was paid mainly in blood. Of a total demographic cost of 2.1 million, excess deaths accounted for two-thirds,  lost births one-fourth, and emigration considerably less than one-tenth of the total… The best two-sex inverse projection to 1930, taking into account the age and sex distribution of the population in that year,  points to some 3 million missing as of 1921. Census error in the 1921 enumeration reduces this figure by 1 million. Two-thirds of the remainder was due to one factor: excess mortality (1.4 million deaths), with 350,000 more male deaths than female. Lost births were substantially less at 550 thousand. Smaller still, at less than 10 percent of the total loss, was emigration to the United States, with the persisting number of male “refugees,” generously defined, slightly more than 100,000, and females about three-fourths of this figure.

The basic history of the Mexican Revolution, moreover, was hardly “heroic”:

[O]nly six months passed between Francisco I. Madero’s pronouncement of revolution (November 20, 1910) and the overthrow of the old dictator Porfirio Díaz. The resignation of Díaz came in late spring 1911 and was accomplished with little violence or destruction. The fighting scarcely began until 1911… Victory at Ciudad Juárez came to the revolutionaries on May 10, 1911, after a siege lasting only a couple of days… Although the fall of Díaz was achieved due to uprisings throughout the republic, the cost of the Revolution, to this point, was probably only a few thousand deaths.

The real fighting began as the revolutionaries trained their weapons on one another over the course of the following six years… Zapata, having waited four months to rebel against the hated Díaz, did not allow four weeks to pass before rebelling against the enormously popular Madero. In late November 1911, Zapata, “tired of waiting” for Madero to carry through an agrarian revolution, according to the conventional view, denounced Mexico’s first democratically elected president by proclaiming the Plan of Ayala. Yet, until 1912, Zapatistas did not pose a serious threat to the Madero government. Elsewhere regional bands (and bandits), some with plans, others without, escalated the plundering of the countryside, hamlets, and towns. As is well known, within two years of Díaz’s resignation the nation slid into chaos…

With the assassination of Madero on February 21, 1913 –- probably on the order of the Madero-appointed commander in chief of the federal army, Victoriano Huerta—civil war erupted. The usurper proved incapable of suppressing the many revolts… [A]fter the failure of the Convention of Aguascalientes to resolve the differences of regional warlords, an even bloodier phase of the Revolution began, as, once again, the victors turned on one another.The year 1915 was the year of hunger. Marauding bands destroyed the few crops that were sown, many before they could be harvested. Destruction continued into 1916, although with the defeat of the northern chieftain Pancho Villa at the Battle of Celaya in April 1915, the violence began to wane, however slowly. Devastation was made worse by the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918/19, to be examined in detail below.

McCaa thoughtfully concludes:

Given the magnitude of the human losses caused by the Mexican Revolution, the silence of some scholars and disbelief by others is surprising…

For the Americas, both North and South, the Mexican Revolution was the greatest demographic catastrophe of the twentieth century. From a millennial perspective,the human cost of the Mexican Revolution was exceeded only by the devastation of Christian conquest, colonization, and accompanying epidemics, nearly four centuries earlier.

How then could as knowledgeable a scholar as Lewis credulously praise the sordid bloodbath that was the Mexican Revolution?  As a Marxist, he was obviously predisposed to positivity.  His gushing, however, would probably resonate with many non-Marxists, too.

What possesses anyone to so gush?  One could say, “You can’t make huevos rancheros without breaking eggs.  The war was tragic, but the results were great.”  Since we’re talking about Mexico, though, this seems absurd.  Sure, it’s a middle-income country, but violence remains a grave problem to this day.  And given its proximity to the U.S., gravity alone should have turned it into a peaceful, First World country by now.  The legacy of the Mexican Revolution is one of the better explanations for why this transformation has yet to happen.

In any case, people who admire revolutions rarely bother with counterfactual history.  What excites them is revolution itself.  Revolution is romantic.  The vision of tearing down the wickedness of the world, serving wrong-doers their just deserts, charging barricades with our brave leaders, and building a better world on top of the ashes is a thrilling story.  Counting corpses and asking, “What was it all for?,” in contrast, is a real downer.

If you share this romantic vision, you might even welcome my analysis: “Yes, I’m inspired by revolutionary idealism.  At least they tried.”  Yet calmly considered, this romantic vision is inexcusable.  Launching a bloody war without even asking, “How likely is this war to improve the world?” is as “romantic” as drunk driving at a playground.  Giving revolutionaries credit for “trying” is ridiculous.  If you combine brutality with wishful thinking about the consequences, your real goal isn’t to make those consequences a reality.  Your real goal is just to exercise brutality.

So why did Lewis gush over the Mexican Revolution?  Batman’s butler got it right: “Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  I’ve learned a lot from Lewis, but the less real-world influence people like him have, the better.

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The First Rungs on the Success Ladder

We live in abundant times. This presents an interesting conundrum when it comes to succeeding.

Success is not the result of pure luck or genetics. Success is a discipline that can be learned. You can deliberately build your ability to succeed. Pick a challenge. One that’s hard but not too hard. Persist until you figure out how to overcome that challenge. It builds confidence that you take with you to the next, slightly bigger challenge. That’s how you learn success.

But what if you begin with a challenge that’s too big?

You can just as easily learn failure. I don’t mean learn from failure, which is what happens while you’re persisting at a challenge that’s big enough but not too big. I mean learn failure as a habit or mindset. If you take on a challenge outside your current capabilities, you will in all likelihood get disheartened, internalize your insufficiency, and extrapolate it broadly.

Thus the conundrum of an age of abundance.

If we accept some form of Maslow’s hierarchy, the most basic human challenges of food, shelter, and safety are taken care of. We’re born into the middle of the pyramid. This is not a bad thing. I don’t want my kids to have to scavenge for food and clothing. But because success compounds, those born into abundance can miss out on the first, most basic forms of success, and then find the rest out of reach.

The extreme example of the kid born into great wealth and status is familiar to us from books and movies. The first challenge that kid is faced with is self-actualization. All the smaller battles have been won on her behalf. That is a really massive challenge. No wonder there are so many dysfunctional trust fund babies.

But it’s not just the uber-elite. A lot of young people feel like failures and struggle to succeed at anything. In the world of careers, with which I am very familiar, you have people in their twenties taking on their first job and experiencing existential trauma because they feel the need to find work that speaks to their deepest calling. They’re starting with self-actualization, which is too big a challenge.

They never had to fight the small battle of just learning to finish a task without praise. They never had to fight the slightly bigger battle of earning their first five dollars. They never overcame the challenge of learning to show up on time and not get fired. They never learned to overcome escalating social challenges like being ignored or misunderstood.

Well-intentioned parents save their kids from all the small, early challenges and point the kid to big ones. The kid who never learned how to cope with not being chosen first in basketball is told “Get into an elite university”, or, “Become a doctor”, or, “Make me proud.”

So a lot of people are wandering around feeling lost because they don’t know how to “make a dent in the universe”. It’s not because they are failures. It’s because they skipped too many steps. Figure out how to walk before you try to run.

Imagine if we tried to help babies out by building mechanical legs and hooking them up to IVs. “Poor kid was crawling on the floor, barely mobile, and totally reliant upon his mother for food. We’ve solved that, now he can move around and tackle bigger, more creative problems!”

It would destroy the development process. The kid would never walk, never bond, and probably have digestive health and psychological issues forever.

When we remove grunt work, low pay jobs, skinned knees, hurt feelings on the playground, and all the small challenges that kids confront first, we remove the first rungs on the success ladder. When we place big epic battles for meaning as the first our kids ever face, we make failure easier to learn than success.

Fight smaller battles. Win them. Then fight slightly bigger battles.

Don’t worry about slaying dragons until you learn to swat flies.

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