Financial crisis

This book seemed written just for me, what with all the references to fires.
The three authors – Tim Geithner, Bob Bernanke & Hank Paulson represent Democrats, Republicans and career scholars/civil servants. They are the men more than any others who saved our economy and they tell their story very well.
Learning from history
The economic crash that started at the end of 2007 and ended early 2009 could have been a lot worse. The Great Depression started like that. Fortunately, this time some people had learned the lessons and the Treasury Dept, the Fed and even politicians did mostly the right things. The authors thought it useful to document some of what happened in hopes of making the lessons available for the next time we have a panic – and there will be a next time.
Metaphors explain
The authors use a few metaphors that make sense. They describe the spread of economic panic like an e-coli scare. There is some tainted meat or lettuce. Most is just fine, but people avoid all of the products, good and bad. As the panic spreads, it gets worse because unlike e-coli, which is a identifiable pathogen, financial markets depend on confidence & trust. When confidence & trust are lost, perfectly good securities can become toxic, leading to more loss of confidence.
Value is only what others are willing to pay
Nothing has intrinsic value. The labor-value of goods, i.e. something value depends on the work that went into it, makes intuitive sense, but it is a false concept. The only thing that gives anything value is what somebody else thinks it is worth. Housing was the basis of the collapse. People had confidence that home prices could go only in one direction – up. So, people bought more house than they could afford, assuming the value would grow, and they would make money. It seemed risk-free. They did make money for a long time. But your home did not get to be worth more unless somebody else is willing to pay more. In fact, the home we bought in 1997 should be worth less, since some things have worn out. Yet the value increased because people were willing to pay. When this stopped, the economy went down. The home that was “worth” $500,000 when you bought it, suddenly was worth half that. Even if you still owed $450,000.
The conflagration consumes good, bad and neutral
The other set of metaphors the authors use is fire. They use it in two related but separate ways that I think reflects Bernanke and Paulson. Bernanke talks about house fires. He gives the example of moral hazard. If a person smokes in bed and sets his house on fire, he may be blamed for the conflagration. But it doesn’t do any good to punish him by letting him burn, if your house will also catch fire. He used this metaphor to explain why we had to bail out some people who made bad, or even dishonest decisions.
Paulson is an environmentalist, who has exposure to prescribed fires and forest fires. His fire analogy is that of a wildfire. Whatever sparks the actual fire is less crucial than the presence of dry material ready to burn. Trying to identify the people or thing responsible for the ignition is a useless exercise, and trying to protect the only by stopping ignitions is worse than useless, since the task is impossible but might lead to complacency about address the kindling conditions.
Anyway, the fire was burning and destroying good as well as bad assets.
Bush & Obama did the right things but got little credit …
The authors describe the actions taken, much of it by the Fed and Treasury to shore up assets. They remind us how controversial all this was at the time, but our leaders showed courage. TARP (Trouble Assets Relief Program) was passed by a Democratically controlled congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush and they did this in the middle of an election campaign. And it was George W Bush who bailed out the auto industry. All this worked out. In fact, the government actually made money on these transactions.
… and a lot of blame from their own folks
Activists on both sides of the political spectrum hated the programs, however. People on the right didn’t like the idea of spending government money to bail out firms because they feared the expansion of government. People on the left didn’t like the government bailing out firms because they wanted more government and wanted to punish private firms. In the end, the more moderate middle saved the county.
The authors praise both the Bush and Obama Administrations for going against the power of their base. Bush embraced greater government. He also took many of the hard decisions in the lame-duck part of his presidency, sparing the Obama folks the opprobrium and the attacks they would have suffered from opponents opportunistically blaming the new guys.
The Obama folks, for their part allowed the Bush team the room they needed AND carried on similar policies when they took office. This is less surprising when you recall that Geithner, part of the triumvirate fighting the economic fire, became President Obama’s Treasury Secretary and Bob Bernanke stayed on at the Fed until 2014.
Obama did not follow the sirens’ song of his own base that wanted to make a clean break with Bush policies. In fact, this was a rare case of a nearly seamless transition, as 2/3 of the leadership team and most of the professionals remained on the job after the election.
This is how it is supposed to work. It is not how it worked at the start of the Great Depression and we got … the Great Depression. This time we got a severe downturn, but by summer of 2009 we were swinging back, even if that was not immediately evident to most Americans.
The future is uncertain.
The authors give advice on how deal with future panics. They warn that while legislation and regulations in place make the ignition of panics less likely, the mechanism to deal with them are less robust. They say it is like vaccinating people against deadly diseases, but at the same time closing hospitals.
It will happen again, and we will not be ready.
There will be other financial panics. By definition, they will come from unexpected sources, since we expect the expected ones and have covered those bases.
There is a kind of Stoical aspect to this book. Misfortunes will come. We will need to deal with them, but we cannot really say how. And there is an irony. Sometimes our preparations CAUSE the problem. We prepare for or regulate against one thing, and it creates incentives to do others. Making the system safer, for example, encourages more risk taking, making it more dangerous. We need to maintain a robust system, not one that is immune to all the troubles we can imagine, since the trouble of the future will be those beyond our imaginations.
Still encouraging
I was encouraged by this book and comforted, despite its rather gloomy recognition that something will happen, and we will not be fully prepared. I was encouraged by the competence and commitment of our leaders. They don’t get much praise these days, but when they chips are down, they step up.
Another lesson. It takes human judgment and courage to deal with unexpected big problems. The routine rules are set up for routine situations. When we go beyond that, somebody must decide when to go beyond in response.

Nature's Mutiny

This was a disappointing book. I suppose it would have been good in its own right, but it was not really about the subject promised.
It started off right. The author claimed he was going to explore changes in Europe the last time we experienced rapid climate change. But he quickly went sideways with a lot of talk about philosophy & religion only tangentially related to the change in climate. To simplify only a little, he essentially says this happened and that happened and that happened, and BTW it might be related to climate change.
I finished the book because I was listening to the audio book while I was planting trees and had nothing else to do. I think doubt I would have finished otherwise. In other words, if you’ve got nothing better to do, read this book, but I cannot generally recommend it.

Canadian politics

The program was organized by Chris Sands, Johns Hopkins, and featured University of Calgary Professor Ian Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Canadian PM Stephen Harper talking about post-election politics in Ottawa.  The event seemed mostly for Hopkins’ students, who made up almost all the crowd of about thirty and were so much engaged that the program stretched two hours.  I met my old colleague Jim Dickmeyer, Acting Director, The Canada Institute.  Jim came into the Foreign Service a few months before I did.  We got to know each other when we worked in Brazil.
The focus of the program was Professor Brodie’s book “At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power.”  He brought a copy of the book, but unlike many such book events, no books were on sale.  Brodie said that he wrote the book mostly for Canadians to understand their own government but was familiar with the U.S. system and would make comparisons to help us Americans understand.
Most Americans and most Canadians are aware of differences but rarely think about them, assuming presidents and prime ministers have different titles but similar prerogatives.  They do not.
Canada does not have the same system of checks and balances that we have.  In the USA the independent Congress checks the president.  In Canada, the parliament checks the prime minister only by changing power.   Canada expects that governments will change and that disciplines the PMs. Otherwise, they can do much more of what they want than a U.S. president.  This gives more power to career government officials.  Canada is not run as in the famous BBC series “Yes Minister,” he said, but there is some truth in that show for Canada as well as the UK.
There is some talk among political scientists that the provinces are the check on the PM.  There are only ten Canadian provinces, which gives each premier relatively greater weight than the governor of one of the 50 states.  There are some particulars among the provinces.  Alberta has most of the energy and Quebec in unique in many ways, but the provinces rarely get together to check the PM.
Brodie said that most federal governments wisely leave most local issues to the provinces.  The Trudeau government, in Brodie’s opinion, has interfered more and that is causing some tension.
In response to questions, Brodie got into some specific programs.
Canada has been trying to expand the pipeline from the oil and gas fields of Alberta to the Pacific, the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The federal government acquired the pipeline with the intent of modernizing and expanding it.  This has become necessary because of a big drop in American demand, after the development of fracking made so much American oil and gas available.   The oil producers are having trouble selling all their oil and cannot sell much natural gas at all.  The pipeline would connect to international markets.  Likely much of it would still go to the USA, but via the Pacific.
Brodie says that the federal government has run into all sorts of obstacles in getting the pipeline up and running.  This, Brodie says, is a problem much more serious than the already serious problem of shipping hydrocarbons.  It has become a test for federal effectiveness.  If they cannot get this done, it will seriously detract from the government’s reputation for getting things done.  This will affect investment not only in energy, but also in other potentially controversial activities such as mining.  They are also missing opportunities to leverage pipeline construction with other issues, such as the Columbia River Treaty, also a big producer of energy.
Answering a follow up question, Brodie said that Alberta oil producers have learned to produce oil with much less a carbon footprint.  They did this mostly to save money.  Energy is a cost after all, but it has ecological benefits.
Speaking of political issues, Brodie said that Canada has some of the same issues as the USA with social media.  Canada once had a controlled and calm media.  Not anymore.  Brodie worries that the battle of ideas had degraded into a battle of online mobilization.  This is chaotic and beyond the control of the parties.  When asked about political action committees (PACs), Brodie said that they have less power than those in the USA because they are prohibited from spending large sums during elections, elections are call, not scheduled, and the election periods are short.  PACs tend to be used for intra-party discipline rather than to influence elections directly.
Questions and answers also included details about personalities I did not know about. Unfortunately, I do not have sufficient background to put them in context.
Canada’s New Government: The Limits of Power
by The Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Event Information
University of Calgary Professor Ian Brodie, former Chief of Staff to Canadian PM Stephen Harper on post-election politics in Ottawa
About this Event
The Center for Canadian Studies is pleased to welcome distinguished University of Calgary Professor Ian Brodie to discuss the lessons and insights from his new book, At the Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2019). Dr. Brodie served as Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the Conservative minority government from 2006 to 2008, and will discuss the outlook for the newly elected Canadian government. Senior Research Professor Christopher Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies will serve as moderator.

More From Less

The free market system works & all successful societies today are free market democracies. Free market democracies vary from the social democracies like Denmark and the less government involved democracies like the USA or Australia, but they are of the same species.
The bright line is between social democracy and socialism. It is unfortunate that they share the same root word, since it causes confusion. The difference is that in socialism government owns or controls major means of production.
Andrew McAfee is not a stickler for what people call themselves, but whether or not the systems feature what he calls the four horsemen of optimism – tech progress and capitalism combined with public awareness and responsive governments. The first two created and continue to advance the prosperity that they started around 300 years ago. The other two introduce values of the societies.
A way to look at tech & capitalism is that they are tools and methods. Just as you cannot build a house, a bridge or car w/o tools, you cannot build a prosperous society w/o tech and capitalism. They are necessary to a good society but not sufficient. To extend the tools analogy, we can use tools to build a home or a prison. Those are choices.
The tools of tech and capitalism have done so much good that we sometimes do not notice. The book goes into history of how we cured diseases, created widespread prosperity, greatly reduced deep poverty and enabled accelerated scientific advances. I fast-forwarded through this section, but I am aware that most people are unaware of the history so it must be included.
All of the above is common knowledge, if not always widely appreciate. The thrust of the book, implied by the title “More from less” is that market democracies have turned the corner in using less resources despite growing populations and more consumption.
Capitalists are always seeking to cut costs. This means they have the incentive to use less. Tech progress working in this incentive system gives the choices. A simple example is aluminum cans. An aluminum can today used only a fraction of the aluminum a can used decades ago. Even a greater example is what you & I are doing here. I wrote this and you are reading this with no need to print or distribute. We can all have a library of thousands of books with no need to for the resources to make and hold them.
Capitalism and tech progress do an outstanding job making new products. They do not do well with “externalities”. This is where the public awareness & responsive governments come into play. They are the democracy part of market democracy.
The obvious example of this is pollution. We need regulation and public awareness to identify and remedy externalities. There is a constant dynamic in this, but experience here is clear. Market democracies enjoy much healthier environments than others. If you look at the Index of Economic Freedom, you see that economic freedom is clearly related to better environments.
The big challenge today is climate change. Many people think that meeting the challenge will require radical changes. History is not on the side of this interpretation. Puritanical austerity will not do the job. The tools of tech and capitalism can be directed to address this problem too.
Let me give an example of how this worked earlier in my lifetime. I graduated HS into the “energy & resource crisis”. This was called an existential threat and experts told us that our way of life would need to change radically. They made dire prediction of famine, pestilence, deprivation. We were supposed to run out of oil, metals, wood … Scared the crap out of me when I was young. We adapted and overcame so well that it has become easy to dismiss those concerns as baseless. While there was exaggeration and hysteria, most concerns were real and overcome.
The system works. We can and often do change course, but there are no viable alternatives.   More from Less: How We Learned to Create More Without Using More

The Invention of Nature

Humboldt is the most “famous” guy you have never heard of. His influence is big. Alexander von Humboldt influenced Thoreau, Darwin & environmentalists generally in the most recent centuries. More thing are named for Humboldt than probably for anybody else. There is the Humboldt current off the west coast of South America. Mountains, a species of willow, counties in the USA, even one of the seas on the moon. My neighborhood park in Milwaukee was named for Humboldt, although I didn’t know anything beyond the name when I was a kid So … who was Alexander von Humboldt? He was a great naturalist in the era just before specialization dominated the sciences. His monumental work was called “Cosmos” where he describe everything, the last person ever to credibly do undertake such an endeavor.
Humboldt explored lots of the world, but mostly he is known for his exploration of South America, where he mapped the land and documented thousands of new species.
The book I just finished was called “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” It might seem strange that nature needed inventing. Isn’t it just there? Not really. Sure, something is there, but it is just chaotic, so much beyond human understanding that it is as meaningless to humans as the compete works of Shakespeare might be to your cat.
Humboldt’s contribution was to see nature as a whole, greater than the sum of the parts, as a complex of relationships. Our whole science of ecology comes from this understanding.
I bought this book because of this promise. I am interested in concept like this – the invention of nature, the creation of wilderness, do historians report or create history? This book was a bit of disappointment in this respect. It was a good biography of this extraordinary individual, but not so much a discussion of the invention of nature or to what extent we can call nature an invention.   The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most…       2

Possessed by Memory

The Closing of the American Mind” was a great book that correctly called out identity politics and the tension between excellence and inclusion, so I thought I would look at his newest book called “Possessed by Memory.” I did not looks closely at the description. I should have done.
His last book is a work of fantastic erudition. He refers to works and thoughts that are just way beyond my comprehension.
I stuck with it for about an hour on the audio book while Bloom talked about the mysticism of the Kabbalah, what it means and its origins. It was interesting to learn that Kabbalah may be based on Gnosticism and hear about the discussion about whether Gnosticism is based on older Judaic tradition so that Gnosticism is based on the ancestor of Kabbalah. But the details of this do not interest me. I was listening to the audio book while cutting brush. When I brush cutter ran out of gas, I gave up on the book. Maybe it gets way better, but I will never know. The first hour or so is okay, but not worth the trouble. I cannot recommend this book unless you are deep into theology.

The Washington War

Just lucky they did not have Twitter in those days. We think of Roosevelt time and just after World War II as a golden age of American diplomacy and cooperation, and it really was probably the best time ever, but like most good times, it is a better story today than it was lived.
The “Washington War” covers the rivalries and sometimes the outright hatred among the men we nevertheless cooperated enough to win the greatest war in human history.
I have read dozens of books about this period. Most of them are Roosevelt-centric. It is hard not to be. He is the sun around which all the others orbit. But others also had agency. Roosevelt was the decider, but others set up his choices. This book does an excellent job of talking about the complexities of the relationships. Another think the author does well is to convey the contingency of history. We won the war and now it seems inevitable. In 1942, however, is sure was not a done deal. Things could have happened to produce a different result.
The thing that struck me most, however, was his discussion of the Morgenthau Plan. Of course, I studied it in history classes, but I thought of it mostly as a plan to partition Germany. I was only vaguely aware of its harsher aspects. It was a fatalistically cruel proposal, that would have resulted in the starvation or forced removal of tens of thousands of civilians. It is good to be reminded of the great hatreds that war engenders.
What saved Germany, and probably Europe was, maybe ironically, the Soviet threat. Decision-makers understood that destroying all German power would essentially invite Stalin into the middle of Europe. Stalin was ostensibly an ally, but most informed people understood already that he was a bloodthirsty tyrant on par with Hitler. It would not do to destroy one horrible totalitarian only to strengthen another.
“The Washington War” complemented the biography of George C Marshall that I finished a couple weeks ago. In fact, I got this book because it was recommended by Amazon as “readers also liked”. It is an interesting time to study.
As I said up top, it is lucky they did not have Twitter. FDR and lots of these great men had lots of hare-brained ideas. Fortunately, they floated them among themselves and they never got into the general circulation. Today’s leaders rarely have an unexpressed thought. Not good.   The Washington War: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Power That Won World War II

The Meritocracy Trap

I have been a true believer and beneficiary of meritocracy, and I am hesitant to question it, but I am increasingly questioning what meritocracy has become and the outcomes it has created. It is not just me. In his new book, “The Meritocracy Trap,” Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, lays out the case that meritocracy, as positive as it has been, has now created and perpetuates a privileged class, as entrenched at the old aristocracy it displaced, and perhaps more pernicious precisely because it is based ostensibly on merit. It is a tall order to face down merit, which is a core American value, but very much depends on what we mean by the term. We rarely stop to think about that, time we did.
A new order
First a story of the passing of the old order. It is a story I have told before. When I was a young officer, I had frequent social contact with a woman who really disliked me. I finally asked her why and she explained that her family had been in America since before the Revolution. For more than 200 years, her family had contributed thinkers, leaders and diplomats. In her generation, however, her brother was denied the opportunity. He wanted to go into the Foreign Service but could not pass the test. He was qualified in every way she knew. He has the right breeding, manners and a superb education, but that test kept him out. Meanwhile, upstarts like me, none of whose ancestors had been nearly as eminent as hers or his, we got the jobs. This is a personal example of the conflict of the old and the new order. Most of us can think of something like this, and most of the time we think it is good. Merit rewards effort and competence and most people applaud this.
The difference between a life-giving medicine and a deadly poison often depends on the dosage
The middle of the 20th Century was the almost golden age of meritocracy. Previously excluded individuals got ahead and the whole country was moving ahead. Colleges were full of first-generation students. Veterans using the GI-Bill went to college almost for free. It was not hard to get into college. People got lots of chances and they could earn their expertise, their places in the growing economy. Nothing is ever perfect, and this was also only an almost golden age, most of the economy and schools, however, were open to general merit.
But as the Greek historian Polybius said more than 2000 years ago and others have repeated since, every system contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. As people got positions because of merit, they started to want to perpetuate their status. The judgment of merit became more formalized and less practical, while those already established learned to game the system for themselves and their children.
The meritocratic system was open to all, but some were in much better positions to play the game
Let me share again some personal experience. I was on my HS swim team. I held the Bay View school record for the 400 freestyle and the joint record for the 400 relays. I was a champion swimmer in the context of my high school and the city of Milwaukee. However, I was at best mediocre compared to kids in the rich suburbs. They were not naturally bigger or stronger, nor did they work harder, but they had been training competitively since they were little kids; city kids like me started when we got to HS. They did not have to cheat to win. They were clearly and consistently faster because of their superior preparation. A swim race is not something open to interpretation. Judged strictly by their merit, they merited better. Was it fair for them to win all the time? Was it fair to set up a system where the better performers didn’t?
Who works the most?
In the past and still in TV and movies the poor work while the rich play. This stopped being true a few decades ago. Today the poor have a lot more leisure time, while the rich have enslaved themselves to work. When they used to talk about bankers’ hours, it meant working only a few hours a day, not even 9-5, i.e. 9am to 5pm. Today hours for top bankers still 9-5, but the joke is 9am to 5am. One reason it is hard to compete with the elites is that it is hard to match their ferocious work habits. And these habits start young.
In the swimming world guys like me can never catch up. It would be possible in theory for us to get training to catch up, but by the time we did our bodies would be too old. This is not necessarily true in most other aspect of life. Someone could well learn form experience and/or take remedial training. This is what used to happen often in the recent past but is increasingly precluded by the formal meritocracy and this is indeed the unfair aspect.
Credentials up the wazoo
It has to do with credentials. Credentials are a proxy for merit and the contest for them starts when participants are very young. They get the right credentials to get into the right schools which give them the better credentials to get the better jobs … In this respect, I was reminded of a book I finished a couple months ago called “Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement.” The author of this book advocates the opposite, but laments that the world is often moving the other way.
Bigotry acceptable and not
Markovits makes some observations about the meritocracy in practice, and he ought to know given his position deep inside. He says that the meritocracy is not prejudiced on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity. In fact, meritocrats celebrate this sort of diversity are puritanical about sanctioning any transgressions in thought, word or deed. The easiest and really the only way to get chucked out of the elite is show or even imply bigotry in any of these areas. However, there is a strong prejudice against those seen less deserving, the perceived losers in the meritocratic game. This group often includes Southerners, working class folks, residents of rural areas and generally what the elite refer to as “fly over country.” Markovits attributes much of the anger against elites to this.
Who does meritocracy oppress?
So, who does meritocracy oppress? Everybody. The winners have to work all the time and never feel secure. The losers … well they lose. But the system hangs on and gets stronger because nobody can come up with viable alternatives. Anything except merit seems immoral and measurements become more and more precise. So what can we do?
Markovits suggests that we start with elite schools and induce them to let more students in and to recruit more of them from the less elite parts of the population, maybe even “fly over country.” This sounds a lot like affirmative action, but it would broaden beyond the usual race and gender groups. But the key is not only to change the composition of the student body, but also to expand the total numbers. There is no good reason for the top institutions to be exclusive. The “best” universities could double or triple their intake w/o a diminution in quality.
It is a myth that the selection process works so well. In fact, the results reflect more precision than the underlying data justify.
When I was State Dept Fellow at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy I was asked once and only once for my opinion on admissions. They told me that there were maybe five times as many qualified applicants as there were places. I asked what they meant by qualified. I am qualified to play quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, if qualifications are so basic as to include the ability to run across the field and toss the ball. I was assured all these potential students were highly qualified and would thrive in the program. I suggested a lottery. Numbers are unbiased, and if we recognized the basic uncertainty and randomness, we can use it. They were unenthusiastic about my proposal and never invited me back. I still think it is good, however. It would be simpler, make the kids less crazy and weaken the hierarchy.
Schemes to lessen inequality are often ineffective because they chop at the branches w/o getting at the roots. Markovits does suggest a sort of income redistribution by raising the limit on Social Security, making it less regressive. But the more effective course would be to address the systemic problem. And the systemic issue is that high performing individuals have aced out the medium ones. This is not always to the good. We all know of great individual performers who do the work of five people but essentially destroy the work of ten. If we are beguiled by the great performance, we miss the loss to the total system. We really do not need more great performers. What we need is more competent others.
It all depends
Markovits makes a good point about the rules of the game. Whether or not a performance is good depends on circumstances. He gives the example of a great pitcher in major league baseball. His skills are dependent on rules of the game. Change the height of the mound, size of the ball or any of myriad other things and the skill set changes. The pitcher’s skills may not be appropriate to other aspects of life, other sports or even other aspects of baseball. The highest paid people today often work in finance. Finance has become much more competitive, but has it really become better? Could it not be handled by lots of less ferociously competitive people rather than the fewer high-flying ones?
Markovits does not use the example, but I have heard the analogy of one set of doctors injecting people with diseases that the other set can cure. Both groups might hone their skills to wonderful art and science, get better with each turn of the screw, and still produce nothing useful.
This book sure is worth the effort. The issue is topical and the author handles it extremely well.   The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours…1

A Thousand Small Sanities

Adam Gopnik is clearly the kind of uber-liberal with whom I would disagree all the time. He is also the kind of guy I think I would really enjoy talking to and having as a friend, and his book – “A Thousand Small Sanities”- is great.
Let me start with agreement on the big issues. He is usually talking about classical liberalism, which is the tradition of the Founding Fathers and the common heritage of American conservatives and American liberals. It is as much an attitude as a set of specific ideas. In fact, the first big think I agreed with was his confession of error. None of us ever gets everything right, which is why we need be tolerant of other opinions, even those we consider stupid. That does not mean that we refrain from arguing strongly for our ideas, but just the we recognize that all our ideas are incomplete.
This leads to the next big idea I share with the author, that of incremental and iterative improvement. Revolutionary big ideas almost always end in grieve and usually horror. We should constantly be remaking our world in little ways, but not think we can understand and anticipate outcomes enough to make the big ones all at once. Gopnik admits that this frustrates a lot of people, but fast changes tend to be bad ones and/or not lasting.
Gopnik says that both left and right hate true liberals and explains the respective outlooks.
The difference on the right is that the right tends to favor stability over justice and order over equality. I think he is correct on the main. I found myself strongly in tune with Gopnik’s attitudes toward free speech, innovation, against the concentration of power and for the primacy of science and reason, not so much when the talked about justice and equality. For example, Gopnik criticizes the U.S. Constitution for not being truly democratic, i.e. people in some states have more voting power and the “will of the people” can be slowed by the various mechanisms of the laws. In fact, the Constitution was designed specifically to slow change, as they said at the time, to let passions cool. This bothers me not at all. In fact, I see it as a very good thing and when I think about why, my answer is that it adds to stability. IMO, it has helped preserve our democracy by curbing its excesses.
When he is talking of “the right” here, he is talking about what he calls “Constitutional Conservatives,” not the authoritarian variety – the blood & soil types – from Europe. He rightly criticizes authoritarianism on the right … and on the left in the next chapter.
The left, in this group he includes those who seek revolutionary or radial change, would include socialists and Marxist, but not only. These guys dislike liberals more than the dislike right authoritarian, since authoritarians have more in common with each other than they do with American style liberals. The left thinks liberals are insufficiently engaged in change. They dislike the moderation. Lately, they have also come to dislike the liberal idea of individual equality.
Identity politics is now the bread-and-butter of leftists. It is anathema to true liberals, who fundamentally believe in the efficacy of dialogue and debate. If someone can pull the trump card, to say “as a — name the group” to stop debate, every discussion is made useless. (This thought was very similar to the views in the other book I recently finished – “The Assault on American Excellence,” also by an uber liberal.) The left lives on identity, so the liberal idea that there really is none that is not changeable makes the liberal not merely an opponent but an enemy. To repeat, or at least rhyme and earlier idea, the authoritarian left and authoritarian left understand each other, since they are both much more identity based than the moderates.
I think Gopnik is fair and committed to a thoughtful process, and the scientific method writ large. I liked that he tried to explain the values of those who disagree with him. As a moderate conservative, someone he might call a Constitutional Conservative, I think he described my general value system fairly.
Gopnik’s frame for this book is him trying to explain Donald Trump’s victory to his daughter. He says that we should accept, even welcome, the periodic changes of power among Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But he thinks that Trump is beyond the usual, in that he seems not to respect rule of laws and the habits of the heart that make democracy work, but he has confidence in the system, that it will be self-correcting.
I find myself in agreement with him in this too. This too will pass, maybe like a kidney stone, but it will pass.

Skeptics & Talking to Strangers

Another of my book pairs is “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” and “Talking to Strangers,” the latest Malcolm Gladwell book. Of the two, “Skeptic’s” is the better book, but “Talking to Strangers” is maybe more entertaining and will sell more copies. Both contain lots of things that people aware of developments subjects like information flow, persuasion and biases already know, but the books do a service by making these things more easily digestible for a general public.
The scientific method
Skeptics is more wide ranging. It does not have a dominant theme, doesn’t claim to have one, beyond the skeptical method, which is a form of the Western scientific method. Always assume that you do not know everything and work to disconfirm what you think is true. We too often fall victim to confirmation bias. The authors talk a lot about this and other informal logical fallacies.
We live in an uncertain and contingent world, but that does not mean we need to question everything all the time. The authors make a distinction between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism.
Scientific v philosophical skepticism
The former is something like Rene Descartes, “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am – you have to derive everything from first principles. As the authors point out, Descartes was living at the very start of the scientific revolution. People commonly believed all sorts of myths and were generally living in error most of the time. Medicine was bloodletting. Chemistry was alchemy. Astronomy was astrology and most lines of true inquiry were forbidden by religion, tradition or generationally developed indifference. In other words, there were few reliable sources. Today we have had science at work for centuries. They have figured out lots of things. Science, of course, continues to develop, but you would be insane to demand a return to first principles for most things. Better to see farther by “standing on the shoulders of giants” who went before.
For all our science, however, people fall for lots of the old superstitions. Some people still believe in ghosts, astrology, alternative medicine, alien encounters and all manner of conspiracy theories. These are not always just harmless story telling. The authors are very tough about this. They think we need to confront these errors all the time. I don’t know about that. You would get pretty tired doing that and your protestations would be unlikely to have the desired outcomes. But I think we have to be vigilant and aware.
Let’s repeat again – scientist agree GMOs are safe
A few places were the errors have serous negative impacts in the triad of truth and consequences – climate change, GMO safety and vaccinations. Scientists are very clear about all three. Climate change is happening with human inputs. GMOs are safe and vaccinations save lives. The interesting thing here is that you get a political division on truth and doubt. People who deny climate change are mostly on the right side of the political spectrum. GMO hysterics tend to be on the left. Anti-vaccination people encompass the cognitively challenged on both ends, but for an unexplained reason attract lots of celebrities, whose physical beauty hides and ugly mind.
Let me talk about the GMOs, since that is the one where scientific opinion most diverges from average man-on-the-street view. Let’s first be clear. Almost everything we eat, or drink is genetically modified. The big ears of corn, large watermelons and fresh carrots do not exist in nature. And the turkeys, cows and chicken we favor would not last a day “out there.” And let’s not even talk about those hairless cats and little dogs that cannot even climb a flight of stairs on their little and barely functioning legs. Pigs would do well if they got out, as evidenced by the fact that they do in real conditions. Most of our crop plants and animals, however, just are not fit enough to survive in the survival of the fittest.
Most scientist think GMOs are safe, at least as safe as plants and animals in general. Most natural and organic plants are full of toxins that the species has been developing over the eons of evolution in a hope to avoid being eaten. We, in turn, have developed ways to tolerate many of them. It is an arms race. In fact, GMOs may be SAFER than organism developed in other ways, since we are reasonably sure of what is in the GMOs. GMOs are heavily regulated. Ordinary plans not.
Misinformed not just ignorant
The public is more misinformed about GMOs than about any other field of science. Worse, the general public is seriously Misinformed not merely uniformed, an important distinction. The public is misinformed because well funding campaigns by various interest groups and professional luddites. More’s the pity, since GMOs can mean LESS not more pesticide and herbicide use. The big and glaring exception to this is round-up ready crops and that is the one anti-science crusaders focus on, with some justification, BTW.
Yes, I take this personally. These science-phobes harm the forest and trees I love.
It leads them and the public to oppose very useful research into oranges that resist “greening,” a disease the is an existential threat to citrus, hemlocks or ash trees that can resist their respective bugs, and my personal favorite American chestnuts that are not killed by the blight. We could be planting those chestnuts today – now – if not for the luddites, but I have written elsewhere about that.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
Some of this is related to the “naturalistic fallacy.” Simply stated, it holds that what is natural is good. There is some kind of plan that we can understand. It is often associated in the popular mind with a concept of sin, and a strong nature philosophy can have aspects of the old fire-and-brimstone religion. Whenever you hear someone imply that humanity will be punished for violating nature, you know you have run into this idea big time.
Yes, I love nature and sometimes fall for the naturalistic fallacy. Then I recall that nature does not love me. Many of the thing, even in “my” own forest are trying to kill me or would do under many circumstances. None of the foods we commonly eat are natural. A possible exception are raspberries and blackberries. I find them wild on the farm and they seem pretty much the same as the ones in Harris Teeter.
The great David Hume identified a version of this, assuming what IS is what OUGHT to be, but you can find antecedents. You can take it all the way back to Lucretius “De Rerum Natura.” Things emerge; they are no ordained. It is very appealing to think we live in a basically friendly world if only us humans would let it be what it should. This just is not true and none of you reading this believe it really. Who would let their toddler wander alone in the woods to do as she pleased and eat what she found? BUT we feel we believe it and it affects our thought.
I could go on about “Skeptics,” but maybe you should just read it. It is worth the time.
Talking to Strangers
Malcolm Gladwell is both admirable and annoying. I eagerly read his first book – “Tipping Point.” It was very familiar, however, since what he wrote about influence in his book was much how we practiced public diplomacy. The ideas and techniques were well known among those who worked on such things, but Gladwell stated it better and simpler and kind of made is sound like he made it up himself.
Format of many voices
This book is a different. It is very different in format in that he narrates and then has audio recordings of speeches and statements sprinkled in. It makes it seem more like their own words, because it is, but you can tell that there is significant selection bias.
We cannot tell when people are lying, but most of us think we can
Gladwell’s main theme is that we are too can be fooled when we are talking to strangers because we pick up on non-verbal ques that sometimes are inappropriate. This can be dangerous when we are dealing with cross-cultural encounters and it is disastrous when someone is actually lying or maybe believes something that is objectively false.
Most of us think that face-to-face encounters are better. If we look the person in the eyes, we think we can determine honesty. This just is not true. Some people can lie better than others can tell the truth; others convince themselves something is true when it is not. In both cases, they are very credible and most of us are fooled.
Trust is an advantage to you and society
Much of our credulity comes from a perfectly reasonable prejudice. We like to believe that telling the truth is a default option and most of the time it is, at least reasonably so. The clerk at McDonald’s will usually not try to steal your money, and despite the stereotype most people in the professions are honest. This is not to say they are always right or even always honest, but you are probably better off in life if you give the benefit of the doubt, since you will get ripped off less often if you have the better attitude than you will lose friends and annoy people so much that they don’t want to help you. Nobody likes distrustful people. Surly or nasty are the words that comes to mind.
Talking face-to-face does not work better and sometimes it is worse
Because we want to believe people, and because most of the time people are being reasonably honest, we fall prey to those who are not. It is a reasonable trade. Gladwell doesn’t offer any real alternatives beyond the usual checks. He does say, however, that in cases where people are trying to deceive us, we may be better off NOT talking to them face-to-face. Machines using algorithms can often make better judgements by using just the facts of a case.
I have long believed this about of consular visa appointments. This would also go for things like loan applicants, credit checks etc. Applicants need to meet the vice-consul, who talks to the person for a few minutes, often in a language they have trouble understanding and makes a judgment. The judgement is often good. Okay. But it may be that the judgement is not improved and may be harmed by the face-to-face meeting. We love and trust the contact, however.
The Hitler example makes sense this time
Gladwell goes right to the top with the Hitler example. The British signing a “peace for our time” with Hitler is often consider the biggest single prewar mistake. Historians have parsed that over and over. Gladwell brings the trust perspective. Hitler was very charismatic in person. Chamberlin was just fooled by that. Guys who met Hitler face-to-face tended to know him LESS well than those who just read what he wrote and said. Hitler was very clear in writing his goals. People just did not want to believe what he wrote and people who saw him in person were most beguiled.
Gladwell really cannot stick to a theme. This is mostly a good thing. His tangents and stories are fun and often as enlightening as the main them.
You cannot kill yourself by breathing natural gas
In one of them he talks about suicide, taking the famous Sylvia Plath – “The Bell Jar” as an example. Plath was mentally unstable and talked of suicide a lot, so many people assume that her death by her own hands was inevitable. She carefully sealed up her room, put on some nice clothes and turned on the gas. She was dead not long after, and she left a nice-looking corpse. Would she really have killed herself if that method was unavailable? It was important to her that her suicide be painless and “beautiful”. She did not want to be disfigured or humiliated even in death. Gas was an easy choice.
When she committed suicide, they used town gas in UK, where she was living. Town gas is made from coal. It is impure and full of carbon monoxide, which is what did her in. Gassing oneself was a popular way of suicide for women, probably for reasons similar to Plath’s. A few years after Plath’s unfortunate incident, UK switched over the natural gas. Natural gas is much cleaner. It is mostly pure methane, which will not kill you. That is one reason why it burns with almost no soot or carbon monoxide. Of course, it produces carbon dioxide CO2 as a byproduct of combustion, but CO2 is not toxic. If you are in a room with nothing but CO2, you will suffocate, not because the CO2 is killing you, but from lack of oxygen. However, the room must be sealed tighter than most rooms can be sealed by ordinary people. Had she used natural gas as her method, she would have woken up with a headache, but still be alive.
Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse
I didn’t know this about gas, and I didn’t believe it, so I checked. It is true. Of course, it is still a good idea not to leave the gas on and carbon monoxide is produced by incomplete combustion, so you still need good ventilation in your house. And don’t bring the that charcoal grill inside. The incomplete combustion does create carbon monoxide.
So, what happened to the suicide rate? Presumably, if young women were going to kill themselves anyway, they would find ways to do it, even if messier. Well … no. Suicide rates dropped by about 1/3. W/o the convenience and neatness of gas, lots of people just couldn’t be bothered to kill themselves. It is not always futile to take away options. People calculate costs, even in very serious matters and even when they do not know they are doing it.
This goes for crime too. Contrary to popular myth about super criminals, most criminals are stupid, at least dumber than the average guy. Crime really doesn’t pay for most people and stupid people are less likely to figure that out as readily. They are so stupid, however, that they cannot do some figuring, and when it is harder to do a crime, people do less crime.
We sometimes here people questioning simple expedients like locking doors. “If they really want to get in, they will find a way,” they say, and they are right. But the simple precaution deters lots of people. They just don’t bother being crooks if being a crook is too hard. Criminals are lazy too, or at least lazier than the average guy.
I can recommend both books. They are interesting, informative and entertaining. What more can you want in a book?