Reflections on The Sopranos

I just finished re-watching the entirety of The Sopranos, HBO’s classic Mafia drama. I saw it season-by-season when it originally aired (1999-2007), and I still hew to the allegedly philistine view that the ending was not only bad, but insulting. Overall, though the show’s reputation is well-deserved. Here are the top social science insights I take away. (minor spoilers)

1. Human motivation is overdetermined. For any important action, people usually have several plausible reasons, and pinpointing the marginal factor is nigh impossible. Thus, does Tony kill Ralph because he believes Ralph torched their racehorse? Because Ralph denied doing so? Because Tony had stolen Ralph’s girlfriend, and didn’t believe Ralph was OK with it? Or was it all because Tony never forgave Ralph for murdering his own pregnant girlfriend a season earlier?

2. Humans are unbelievably petty. By providing readers with an array of credible motives, the show leads us to think that small grievances at least occasionally cause massive reactions. When Paulie murders his mother’s elderly frenemy, for example, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done so if the frenemy hadn’t tried to wrongfully appropriate his mother’s dinner rolls. Similarly, Carmela doesn’t try to divorce Tony because he’s a serial adulterer or brutal criminal. She’s known both for years.  Instead, she tries to divorce him because Irina, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, calls Carmela’s home to tattle that Tony slept with Irina’s one-legged cousin.

3. Out of sight, out of mind. In The Sopranos, criminals and non-criminals routinely interact. The non-criminals would have to be fools not to realize that the criminals aren’t merely violent, but murderous. Still, as long as the non-criminals do not witness the violence with their own eyes, they barely care. Even when they discover details that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the horrifying had happened, they look the other way. Thus, everyone except Adriana’s mother gets over her disappearance (murder, actually) with minimal cognitive dissonance. Never mind that her boyfriend was a junkie who repeatedly beat her; Adriana must have just decided out of the blue to leave New Jersey and never talk to her family or friends again.

4. A disciplined organized crime family can act with near-impunity. It’s easy to catch the typical murderer because the typical murderer murders someone he personally wants to murder. A crime family, however, can handily re-allocate its crimes so everyone lacks a personal motive for the crimes he personally commits. Criss cross! When Adriana tries to get Chrissy into witness protection, he doesn’t murder her. Instead, he tells Tony, who delegates the job to Silvio.

5. Organized crime families are not, in fact, disciplined. Criminals are overwhelmingly impulsive, macro males. So even though they have a great social technology for manufacturing ironclad alibis, they routinely fail to use it. Early in the series, Chrissy shoots a random baker in the foot in broad daylight. A great way to get caught… but Chrissy felt slighted, so he shot anyway. Ralphie beats his pregnant girlfriend to death in the Bing parking lot because she insulted his manhood.

6. Hedonic adaptation is mighty. The leading criminals on the show aren’t just filthy rich; they’re very popular with the ladies. Yet these criminals almost never count their blessings or stop to smell the flowers. Instead, they’re deeply bitter – and constantly on the edge of throwing temper tantrums. The wives of the leading criminals objectively have even less to complain about; they enjoy their husbands’ riches without ever facing the danger and brutality of acquiring those riches. Even so, the mob wives spend their days complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. Carmela, Tony’s wife, is the clearest case. Her main happy minutes come when she unwraps new jewels and furs. The rest of the time, she’s crinkling her nose with crankiness.

7. Rooting for the bad guy is easy… as long as he’s got charisma. If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time.  As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? Because the criminals have amusing personalities. My family’s personal favorite is Paulie “Walnuts” Gaultieri; we can’t stop quoting this scene:

Paulie: As far as f***n’ bears are concerned, I say, get rid of them all. They had their turn, and now we got ours. That’s why dinosaurs don’t exist no more.

Dancer: Wasn’t it a meteor?

Paulie: They’re all meat eaters.

Chris: Meteor, me-te-or.

How can we feel such affection for a sadistic killer like Paulie?  Because he’s hilarious, and we’re in no danger.  Oh, and how he loves his mother!

8. Psychiatric language is largely a set of excuses and power-plays.  The Sopranos addresses anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, sociopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, and much more.  Yet in virtually every case, it acknowledges that there is, to quote psychiatrists’ psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg, a reasonable “pre-therapeutic” take on the same situation.  Yes, you can say that addicts are helpless victims of a “disease.”  But you can also say that addicts are people who willfully place their own self-destructive habits over family harmony.  Indeed, The Sopranos standardly insinuates that psychiatric language mostly boils down to Social Desirability BiasIf a character has ADHD, he’s sick and needs help; only a monster would growl, “Man up and work harder.”  But as the plot plays out, attentive viewers will notice that it’s the no-nonsense approach that fits the facts and improves behavior.  Even psychiatrist Dr. Melfi reverts to old-fashioned theories of personal responsibility when she exits her office; if you cross her, she’ll lash out no matter what psychiatric labels you carry.

The only clear-cut exception to this psychiatric skepticism is Uncle Junior’s dementia.  Even here, he starts out as a faker, feigning dementia to delay his trial.  By the end of the show, however, Junior’s run out of money – and can’t remember where he stashed his emergency funds.  Indeed, he barely knows who he is anymore.  The lesson: Dementia, unlike the other mental problems characters face, is a hard constraint rather than an exotic preference.

9. Despite ubiquitous ambiguity, right and wrong is fairly obvious if you calm down and detach yourself from your society. In season 3, a lone righteous character, psychiatrist Dr. Krakower, sees through a web of wrong-doing and lame excuses in a matter of minutes.  Carmela Soprano goes to Krakower for help, and he delivers The Moral Answers.  Highlights from one of the greatest scenes of all time:

Carmela: […] [Tony’s] a good man, a good father.

Krakower: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger. Serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?

Carmela: I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to be judgmental.

Krakower: Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament. Because of events that occurred in their childhood. That’s what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade. Witness the results.

Carmela: What we say in here stays in here, right?

Krakower: By ethical code and by law.

Carmela: His crimes. They are, uh, organized crimes.

Krakower: The mafia.

Carmela: Oh so, so what? So what? He betrays me every week with these whores.

Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.  You can leave now, or you can you stay and hear what I have to say.

Carmela: Well, you’re gonna charge the same anyway.

Krakower: I won’t take your money.

Carmela: That’s a new one.

Krakower: You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice.

[…]

Carmela: So . . . You think I need to define my boundaries more clearly. Keep a certain distance. Not internalize my–

Krakower: What did I just say?

Carmela: Leave him.

Krakower: Take only the children, or what’s left of them, and go.

[…]

Carmela: I’d have to, uh, get a lawyer. Find an apartment. Arrange for child support.

Krakower: You’re not listening. I am not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.

10. Dylan Matthews and Tyler Cowen notwithstanding, the Columbus Day episode was hilarious and wise.  The veneration of this murderous slaver isn’t just shameful; it exposes the shameful essence of identity politics of every description.  And what better vessels for these truisms than a gang of self-righteously aggrieved mafiosi?

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Scott Adams Doesn’t Understand “Plant Food”

Scott Adams says the observation that “carbon dioxide is plant food” is a terrible argument– an “embarrassing opinion”– for AGCC skepticism.

He’s wrong. Here’s why:

When plants “eat” CO2 they take it out of the air and turn it into plant matter. Even if carbon dioxide raises the climate’s temperature as the AGCC activists claim, once a plant removes it from the air, it isn’t available in the atmosphere to raise the temperature anymore. That’s how “eating” something works. It is removed from availability in one form (in this case, atmospheric gas) and turned into a different form (leaves, wood, flowers, stalks, roots, seeds, fruit, etc.).

And, yes, each individual plant might be able to only use a limited amount of carbon dioxide, but plants reproduce. If you improve their growing conditions with more “food” (and sufficient light), they can reproduce more. If you’ve ever had an aquarium or a pond experience an algae bloom you’ve seen the conditions result in more plantlife. And one of the most effective ways to end the algae bloom is to add other plants which will use up the “plant food” available in the water until it is reduced to a level where it can’t encourage excess plant growth.

But to say that the addition of CO2 will raise the temperature and kill the plants so that they can no longer “eat” the CO2 is overlooking the main effect of plants taking CO2 from the air and using it to make more plant matter. More plants = less CO2 in the atmosphere available to warm the climate.

Now, when those plants rot or burn, that CO2 will be released into the air again. But, more CO2 could result in more plant mass overall, trapping the CO2 in a form which can’t contribute to “climate change” at least for a time. Coal is plant matter, made of atmospheric CO2 removed from the air long ago (~359 to 299 million years ago, in fact) and stored in a fairly stable form. Once that carbon dioxide was in the form of plant matter– living plants or coal– it couldn’t help heat the world until it burned.

Sometimes a person tries so hard to look unbiased and “scientific” that they fall into a reality trap. This seems to be one of those times for Scott Adams.

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This Skeptic is Skeptical

I am skeptical of everything. In fact, I’m skeptical of my own claim that I’m skeptical of everything. I’m probably wrong; there’s most likely something I’m not skeptical of… but I need to be.

You’ve probably seen my skepticism come out on topics of statism and the “necessity” of political government, AGCC (politicized “climate change”), government “borders“, and politicized “gender” issues, but I’m also still skeptical of other stuff. Even libertarianism.

I test all these things constantly– in my mind, in my experience, and in the “thought experiments” and experiences of others– looking for ways they might fail. One failure tells more than a thousand successes.

Sometimes people present what they believe is a good example of a failure of some idea, but when I dig into it, their example fails instead of what it was supposed to topple. And that’s OK. I still want to see the attempts.

If something I trust is going to fail, I want to know it before I am in a situation where failure would hurt me or someone else.

Generally, I only write about the failures I find, which makes it appear that I am skeptical of some issues but not others. But that’s just because I haven’t found failures in some issues yet. Maybe they are there. If they are, I want to find them. It’s just how I am.

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Social Events No Place For Politics

In spite of how libertarianism is often portrayed, it’s not a middle ground between conservatism and progressivism. It’s not even on the scale with those positions. But during social gatherings libertarians can be a neutral zone between conservative and liberal disagreement.

The silliness of the political right and left is clear to libertarians, yet we have common ground with each, on those few issues where they still support individual liberty. Progressives and conservatives are more similar to each other than they’ll admit. Why should they fight over the minor details on which they disagree?

Cousin Xander might believe government should do something which Cousin Yolanda opposes, while Yolanda wants government to do something Xander feels would be the end of civilization. The libertarian in the room knows that neither cousin’s wish excuses government violence. Pointing this out can distract the factions from being at each other’s throats by giving them a common enemy.

Expressing skepticism about the importance of the issue they value enough to fight over can make them unite against you.

Grandpa Al and Grandpa Bill may revere different presidents and hate the presidents revered by the other. Their libertarian grandkid can see the flaws of both politicians and the ridiculousness inherent in the office of president. To explain there’s no substantive difference between their respective heroes is a sure way to help them forget their disagreement with each other for a moment.

Once you understand that all politics is the search to justify government violence against those who are looking for an excuse to use government violence against you, it’s easy to see why politics doesn’t belong in society. It also helps you understand why those who are arguing aren’t nearly as different as they imagine.

If you find yourself under the boot of government violence you won’t care whether it’s a right boot or a left boot. Libertarians decry the boot while progressives and conservatives argue over which foot ought to be wearing it. Consistent libertarianism is non-political, which is why the Libertarian Party — being political — has such a hard time gaining traction among libertarians.

Personally, I don’t think social occasions are any place for politics. Yet politics will crop up in the most devious ways and in the least appropriate places. Having a libertarian in the mix helps unite all the pro-government people against the one who can’t embrace their government extremism. It’s our sacrifice for the cause of world peace. Happy New Year!

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I’ll Keep My Loopholes, Thank You

In those moments when my skepticism falters, the recent midterm elections threaten to give me a little hope. It doesn’t last long.

A Congress divided between Republicans and Democrats brings the promise of sweet gridlock, but they always seem to find a way to work together more than is healthy.

I am naturally skeptical of those using theft and aggression against the individuals who comprise society — even when they call the theft and aggression “government” or “the law.”

As bad as partisanship’s reputation may be, bipartisanship is far worse. When working together, the old, fossilized political parties make it clear it isn’t “The Right” vs. “The Left;” it’s government colluding against the rest of us.

Back in 1866 Judge Gideon J. Tucker observed: “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” It has only gotten worse since then.

The best hope for the survival of your liberty is eternal gridlock preventing Congress from doing anything. While they are fighting each other they may not be paying as much attention to you.

Those who want government to “do something” are calling for your liberty to be crushed bit by bit until none is left. They consider any remaining islands of liberty in a rising ocean of government to be “loopholes,” which they want closed. In spite of everything they might claim, this is never for your benefit.

I don’t want Congress, or any branch of government, to get things done. There is nothing legitimate for Congress to do.

Laws were discovered; legislation is invented. All real laws were discovered centuries ago; no new laws are needed or even possible. All the real crimes have always been crimes in any civilized society. All attacks on life, liberty, or property are wrong, whether laws criminalize them or not. They are still wrong when laws say they are OK if done by government employees “just doing their jobs.”

Anything Congress imposes on the population will be legislation; fake “law.” These counterfeit laws look like laws to most people. They use legal language and are treated as though they are laws, but they lack the ethical foundation, which distinguishes real law. In fact, they violate real law by endangering your life, liberty, or property.

The last thing I want or need is for the houses of Congress to work together, with the president, to impose more legislation. I’ll keep my loopholes — my liberty — thank you very much.

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On Stoicism

To everyone who gets triggered or offended by words, take some advice from the ancient Stoic philosophy: recognize your own complicity in how you react to what you hear or read other people say or write. The Stoics taught that our emotional reactions to outside stimuli are largely our responsibility. Accepting this basic truth will allow you to take your emotional power back from those who upset you (including your children). No more will you require that trigger warnings be observed by other people, or expect them to condescendingly walk on eggshells around you. You will have more control over your mind and body if you learn that you don’t have to react in negative ways toward other people’s words. Simply observe them as you would observe a loud animal in nature, with curiosity, humility, and skepticism. And that’s today’s two cents.

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