Explain Your Extremists

No matter how controversial your political views are, there are always people on “your side” who hold a more extreme position than you do.  How do you account for such people?

Top scenarios:

1. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are “politically impossible.”  It’s better to ask for half a loaf and get it than demand a totally unattainable whole loaf.

2. The extremists are actually right, but their proposals are politically unstable.  Even if the extremists prevailed in the short-run, the long-run effect would be a mighty backlash, leading to a crushing defeat for your side.  It’s better to ask for half a loaf that you can actually keep than demand a whole loaf that will soon be confiscated.

3. The extremists would be right, except that foolish and/or knavish resistance to their proposals would be extremely costly.  As a result, it’s better to pursue your more moderate approach, which is inferior in principle but elicits less strident opposition.  It’s better to peacefully obtain half a loaf than to fight a bloody battle for a whole loaf.

4. The extremists are wrong because they take a good idea too far.  A moderate move in your preferred direction makes the world better; an extreme move, however, makes it worse.  It’s better to eat half a loaf and remain at a healthy body weight than to eat a whole loaf and become morbidly obese.

5. The extremists are wrong because they take your side’s rhetoric too literally.  Yes, moderates like you often exaggerate and oversimplify, but you know you’re doing it.  Your extremists, in contrast, naively believe your side’s exaggerations and oversimplifications, leading them to advocate ineffective or even dangerous policies.  Just because your slogan loudly proclaims that “Bread is the staff of life” doesn’t mean you should follow an all-bread diet.

6. The extremists are wrong because they fail to grasp the intellectually sophisticated position held by moderates such as yourself.  If they would just patiently listen, they’d discover the intricacies of your worldview.  Alas, they rarely bother.  Thus, you derive the value of a half a loaf of bread from a detailed examination of human nutritional requirements – and the extremists childishly fixate on getting “all the bread.”

The meta-point, naturally, is that there are also always people on your side more moderate than yourself.  So when you dismiss your extremists, you really should wonder: How confident am I that people more moderate than myself couldn’t rightfully dismiss me?

All of which leads to three questions for discussion:

1. Where do your extremists go wrong?

2. Where would your moderates say that you go wrong?

3. What makes you think you’ve discovered your side’s “Golden Mean”?

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Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner

On November 29, FBI agents arrested hacker and cryptocurrency developer Virgil Griffith. His alleged crime: Talking.

Yes, really.

The FBI alleges that Griffith “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Griffith, a US citizen who lives in Singapore, gave a talk at conference on blockchain technology in April. Because that conference took place in North Korea, the US government deems him guilty of violating US sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime.

But last time I checked, the First Amendment protected Virgil Griffith’s right to speak, without exceptions regarding where or to whom.

And last time I checked,  the US Department of Justice’s jurisdiction didn’t encompass Singapore (where Griffith lives), China (which Griffith traveled through), or North Korea (where Griffith spoke). The charges against him include traveling, while outside US jurisdiction, to places the US government doesn’t like.

In what universe is it the US government’s business where an individual travels to or what that individual says while he’s there, inside or outside the US itself? Certainly not any kind of universe in which America remains a free society.

What kind of state arrests people for going where they please and saying what they choose without that state’s permission? A police state.

Griffith’s arrest is wholly illegal under the US Constitution and wholly unacceptable to anyone who holds freedom as a cardinal value.

Virgil Griffith is just the latest political prisoner of the US government to come to public notice.

The US government imprisoned US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, journalist Barrett Brown, and others for telling us the truth about that government’s conduct, and would love to do the same to Julian Assange,  Edward Snowden, and others for the same reason.

The US government imprisoned Ross Ulbricht for running a web site on which people bought and sold things that government didn’t want them to buy and sell.

The US government has held, and continues to hold, too many political prisoners to name in a single column.

The US government increasingly attempts to dictate where all of us may go, and what we may say while there, on pain of arrest and imprisonment.

That’s not right. That’s not freedom. That’s not America.

Virgil Griffith and the others I mention aren’t the criminals — their persecutors are. At some point, we must bring them to justice if human freedom is to survive. Until then, resist much, obey little.

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Deludedly Deeming Deregulation a Disaster

I posted this on Twitter two weeks ago.

The results were much as expected.  Housing deregulation could deliver everything its proponents promise.  Housing deregulation could bring back a world where high school grads commonly buy shiny new homes in high-wage regions.  And if my respondents are correct, this seemingly rosy scenario would still outrage a great swath of the population.  Note, moreover, that if a third of Americans would decry deregulation as a “disaster,” then we can safely assume over half would at least deem it a “mistake.”

Most people would probably chalk the disaster rhetoric up to human selfishness, but don’t be hasty.  Consider the myriad ways that homeowners could nevertheless selfishly benefit from deregulation:

1. Homeowners who own little or no equity could walk away from their small, expensive home in favor of a larger, cheaper home.

2. Homeowners who eventually planned to move to a larger, more expensive home could easily find that their losses on their old home are smaller than their savings on their new home.  And they wouldn’t have to wait as many years to upgrade.

3. The grown children of settled homeowners could much more easily afford to live near their parents – and wouldn’t need so much help for a down payment.

4. Yes, higher local population means more congestion.  Yet it also means better shopping, entertainment and employment opportunities.  What’s the net value of all the good effects of more people bundled with all the bad effects of more people?  The very fact that prices are much higher in densely-population areas strongly suggests that the net value is highly positive.  “New York would be great without all the people” is sadly naive, because without all the people, New York would no longer be great.  Upshot: When prices fall in half, established homeowners get at least some offsetting gain in consumers’ surplus.

5. If you’re willing to move, improve, or subdivide, deregulation allows even established owners with lots of equity to readily profit.  If you suddenly gain the right to legally subdivide your lot into three homesites, a 50% fall in the value of the home you own is a fair price to pay.  The same goes if you can now build up.  Replace your home with a 10-story apartment and pocket the difference.  Cha-ching.

Do I seriously believe that many – perhaps most – existing homeowners will profit from deregulation?  Earnestly, I do.

Doesn’t this mean that tens of millions of homeowners are simply confused?  Indeed it does.

Isn’t that an absurd view?  So it might seem – until you realize that much of the population rents, but only a tiny minority of the population sees housing regulation as a problem.  Deeper research confirms that renters strongly oppose deregulation, too!  Since tenants are plainly deluded on this, why is it so hard to believe that homeowners are deluded as well?

Personally, I own a lot of home equity, and hope never to move.  If housing prices fell 50%, it would directly cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Yet even from a totally selfish point of view, I still say deregulation would be awesome.

Why?  Because I want my kids to be able to afford to live in my neighborhood when they grow up.

Don’t you?

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Trump’s Course Correction on E-Cigarettes: Great Idea, No Matter His Reasons

Annie Karni, Maggie Haberman, and Sheila Kaplan  of the New York Times describe US president Donald Trump’s proposed ban on flavored e-cigarette products as “a swift and bold reaction to a growing public health crisis affecting teenagers” that Trump backed away from “under pressure from his political advisers and lobbyists to factor in the potential pushback from his supporters.”

Maybe they’re right about Trump’s motivations, but they’re wrong about pretty much everything else.

E-cigarettes are not a “public health crisis.” That supposed crisis is not “growing.” And to the extent that teenagers are negatively affected by e-cigarettes, the very “bold reactions” the three writers seem to favor are far more culpable than e-cigarettes themselves.

E-cigarettes are, according to all credible evidence, safer than burning sticks of tobacco — sorry, FDA, you don’t get to tell me I can’t say so.

A few cases of lung injury from black market “street vapes” have been reported, the cause (use of vitamin E in the “juice”) seems to have been identified, and that problem is already disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

Who buys “street vapes?” People who can’t buy the e-cigarette products they want legally, either because of content (cannabis) or age (the teenagers the Times authors imply they care about so much).

Banning flavored e-cigarette products wouldn’t stop teenagers, or anyone else, from getting flavored e-cigarette products. It would just send even more of them to the “street vape” market for those products.

If Trump reconsidered his proposed ban due to political pressure and the desire to be re-elected, so what? A good decision is a good decision.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told a group of lobbyists, who were pushing a policy change at him, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out and bring pressure on me.”

That’s how politics works. Politicians  appease voters and activist groups who can help or harm their careers. Sometimes that works out well for the public, sometimes it works out badly.

In this case it works out well — certainly for the public, and possibly for Trump. Much of the “I Vape and I Vote” demographic presumably falls outside his existing electoral “base,” and for at least some the issue matters enough to swing their votes.

Now Trump’s Democratic opponents need to decide which they value more: Their desire to run everyone’s lives at the expense of actual public health, or that public health and those votes.

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Nobody asked but …

At the risk of jinxing myself, I will admit that I have never been audited by the IRS.  The interesting thing is that my late father, Kilgore Sr., got audited annually.  The other day, it occurred to me, why was this so?  On the strength of our names alone, it would seem that I should have been a marked man.  After much cogitation, thinking about an associated matter, I came to the conclusion that I was invisible to the watchful eye, statistically speaking.

We are not a statistic.  Each of us is an individual.  Each of us participates in a 1-to-1 relationship with every other person, place, or thing in the Universe, including how the other sees us.  My Dad went to the thoroughbred race track nearly every day of his adult life.  Now, the IRS maintains a presence at gambling establishments, if such entities are statistically significant, because the numbers are big enough to count on corralling a few big winners every day in the meet.  My Dad was never such a big winner.  Instead the IRS watched him on an annual cycle to ensure that he was not getting away with anything.  Their efforts were as economically unrewarding as was his playing the ponies — Dad always claimed that he broke even, and the only value he derived was to be around the equines.

I, on the other hand, have never been a track habitué.  Therefore, in the taxman’s eye, I am of little interest.  I have always played a statistical game, aka keeping a low profile.  For instance, back in the old days, when computers were unsophisticated and the IRS was pinioned by its own technological backwardness, I always filed my taxes only on “Tax Day” — figuring that that was the day on which the most numbers needed to be crunched.  I may be committing the wet sidewalk fallacy, but it seemed to work.

There are billions of tardigrades in a drop of water.  Perhaps you can tell us what you know about any single one that stands out from the rest?  Don’t be embarrassed; individual tardigrades do not statistically matter to us.  Don’t be superior, tardigrades don’t care about us either.

The best part about statistical anonymity is that one is free, at liberty, from the interveners who take no notice.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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The Monsters You Tolerate Will Breed Monsters You Can’t Stand

In the 20th century, the story of European imperial holdings was a story (mostly) of communism.

Do you think Winston Churchill anticipated this? Rudyard Kipling? Any of the other enthusiastic imperialists of the 19th century? They may have seen themselves as defenders of a very different kind of order.

Yet nonetheless in promoting imperialism (bad) the European imperialists created militarized, policed cultures. They created egregious inequalities of authority and status. They created societies more dependent on the state. And of course, they created people resentful at rule from afar.

Is it any wonder with all of these factors considered that the “dominoes” in the former European holdings fell so fast?

The Europeans created the emotional hatred of Westernness and (and therefore anything associated to it that any actual good contributions of Europe were threatened.

The monster they tolerated (imperialism) directly bred the (worse) national socialism/communism that took over throughout South America, Africa, and Asia.

What if the European empires had ended their colonial rules 50 or 100 years earlier? All other things being equal, it’s hard to believe that communism would have swept Africa, Asia, and South America as it did. And it’s possible the countries of the West would not have ended up at the gunpoint of countries which they once held at gunpoint.

It happened slowly, then all at once, but the imperialism that Europe tolerated in its own codes of values led to the communism which the Churchills and Kiplings would never have embraced.

What monsters do you tolerate? They may not torture you as they torture people around you. But they will breed. And the offspring of the evils you tolerate in yourself may become a clear danger to you, too.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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