All posts by kingharis

The Coordination Problem of DJT

I haven’t written much about Trump because, mostly, it upsets me that he matters. (The frequent reader knows that one of the things I hate the most are people who feel good about themselves when they have no reason to.) Unfortunately I have to care a little because we’re entering Super Tuesday with Trump mattering, which leads me to wonder “why?!”

It’s hard to remember now, but the Republican field was actually quite solid at one point, representing multiple strands of conservative thought – even my favored libertarianism was represented – and a solid mixture of successful legislators and executives. Then Trump entered and everything went to hell. It wasn’t until the 10 debate in late February that some of the front runners finally attacked Trump, and very effectively, too. Why did it take so long to make the move?

Mostly, I think, it was a coordination problem. As I tweeted earlier today:

Tweet re Trump

Trump was the proverbial guy with 6 bullets and something like 16 enemies – 10 if you limit it to the main stage. At the time he ruled the polls because he had name recognition, not because he had any policy ideas (still doesn’t). Any combination of sustained attacks would have taken him down with relative ease then. Why didn’t anyone go after him?

Well, why would they?

Six bullets will protect you from ten enemies because none of them want to be one of the first six. There was no incentive for any individual candidate to go after Trump and draw his attention.* Better to wait for others to take the hit, or let Trump fade away on his own, rather than risk one’s candidacy to take Trump down for the good of all. If you rewatch the early debates (and I suggest you don’t) you can see an air of “it might be dangerous; you go first” among the non-Trumps, especially as Trump rebuffs the occasional uncoordinated attack.

*”Never argue with a fool. People might not know the difference.”

Of course, coordination problems can lead to disaster. Trump now has more ammunition than enemies and is now on a level playing field with legitimate candidates. Whatever the benefits of his unmasking the press for the weak partisan wannabe elite that they are, the mainstreaming of populist nationalist authoritarianism is too high a cost to pay.

Now pardon me as I go dust off the Mad Dog chapter from my Game Theory class.

Book Review: Here & There

Here & There, by Joshua V. Scher

While reading Here & There, I had the feeling that the author was hoping for a movie or TV deal, and wasn’t shocked to find out that the author is also a screen writer. The story is filled with digressions that may work on screen but not in the book.

The novel is a type of “found footage” story: a briefcase filled with original notes annotated by a second narrator and sent yet to a third person. The original writer, Hilary Kahn, was a psychoanalyst for an agency far more secret than the CIA (you know it from all the movies) and analyzing a scientist working for the Department of Defense in the field of teleportation. Reidier (the scientist) and his family disappeared during an important test of his theory, and Kahn was sent surveillance footage and such to analyze the man and help figure out what happened. Her son Danny, a grating self-important hipster, finds her draft report after she disappears and tries to figure out if the story can lead him to her. The science story really sets up much of the suspense here and fails twice: not only is the first big reveal obvious from the start, but the second big reveal never comes. (There’s a medium twist between the two I didn’t anticipate, but it also goes nowhere.)

I didn’t find the science to be difficult – a lot of it iffy but only in the sense that science fiction has to take some liberties, and it’s not like you need to understand quantum physics to accept a claim about teleportation. What was far more difficult was sticking through Danny’s myriad pointless digressions into his drunken escapades, sexual fantasies, and mommy issues. I won’t lie: I started skimming a lot of his commentary, and wouldn’t miss it if it were cut entirely.

Not recommended.

McArdle on Scalia

Blog-favorite Megan McArdle has a column on replacing Justice Scalia, which largely tracks what I wrote yesterday. The reason she’s a blog-favorite, though, is the insight she adds about the political process:

But [getting your way through the court rather than legislature] doesn’t fix the political problem. It only moves it to the question of how the justices are picked, a question that is about to catapult our political system into a new, and more dangerous, level of crisis. For if you leave people no way to work through the system, they are apt to start working against it instead.

I failed to point this out yesterday, but she’s right that the fights you would normally have in the legislature through voting and lobbying (on abortion, gay marriage, campaign finance, etc) are now fights about stacking the federal courts. Getting your way on an issue here or there is nice for the people involved, since it’s difficult to pass constitutional amendments on a contentious issue, and also rare that SCOTUS overrules an important precedent quickly. However, The same goes on issues you lose on, so for most people in the political mainstream it’s a wash. (Worse, making something constitutional law is an inflexible approach, while democratic legislating is at least adjustable.)

Now, instead of having to lobby for a law, you have to make sure to elect senators who will approve judges you like. All the issue-specific voting and lobbying is now transferred to the legislative level. This has led to higher and higher polarization as all issues, effectively, are handled this way, rather than one-by-one. Meanwhile, the energy and money spent on lobbying has to go up because each election is so much more consequential.

Basically, this is a stupid system.

Everyone’s An Originalist

It’s no secret to the loyal reader that I’m somewhat of a fan of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who died this weekend. I’ll ignore political implications of this death which began far too quickly after it was announced. I won’t even talk much about the man himself, since others are doing that plenty and I hadn’t met him yet. (We have a mutual friend who was willing to introduce me but we never got around to it. Carpe diem, people.) I’ll say only that he was just imperfect enough to open himself up to some justifiable criticism, though no more so than anyone else I know.

Instead, I’ll spend a few paragraphs defending Scalia’s legacy, the interpretive method known as originalism. You may have seen sarcastic mentions of it on your social media feeds that mocked Scalia for allegedly being stuck in the 18th century.  My point is that originalism is the way everyone interprets everything, and constitutional interpretation should not be different; in fact, there are good reasons to make that presumption even stronger.

The Marriage Analogy

Imagine you’ve been married for 20, 25, 30 years, and your spouse comes to you and says, “I know we’ve been together for a long time, but I’m going to have an affair. When I said I’d be faithful, that was a long time ago. We’re getting bored with each other, and infidelity is very common now, so it would really be better if I could have an affair.” You probably wouldn’t appreciate their living relationshipism. You’d feel betrayed. You wouldn’t care how long ago the agreement was formed or infidelity was really on the rise. You’d interpret your agreement the way it was when you made it. If your spouse wanted a change, he/she should have come to you. Couples make adjustments to stay happy (up to and including sanctioned straying, pop culture tells me), so your spouse had that option available if something needed to be changed.

What if your spouse argued that he/she had the right to cheat all along? “Infidelity was always high, and common in many cultures. You really could never have had an expectation I’d be faithful. It just happens to have come up now.” I imagine you’d fight back on that, too. You’d point to your wedding vows, for example; you’d point to the cliched bachelor/ette party comments about your last sexual partner ever; you’d point to what all your friends and family expected your marriage to be.

Don’t look now, but you’ve just engaged in originalism, which just means that an agreement means what it means until it’s properly changed through whatever mechanism changes it. If your marriage arrangement isn’t working, the expectation is to jointly change it by mutual agreement; if a constitutional arrangement isn’t working, the proper path is to amend the constitution. I contend that most people would be irate if their friends or business partners engaged in constant unilateral re-writing of prior agreements. (Being homo hypocritus, of course, we’d keep doing it, because it’s different when we do things.)

The Real Complaint About Originalism

What’s bothering most people about Nino’s originalism (and mine, I guess) is that it isn’t giving them what they want easily, especially the socially liberal chattering classes. The constitution (and its amendments), written when it was, was not friendly to women, or minorities, or the poor. The fact that we wish it weren’t so doesn’t change the language and the original understanding of it. It’s up to us to change the law in a way that reflects present-day public will, to the extent such a thing exists. People who complain about originalist interpretations are mostly mad that they can’t convince enough of their fellow citizens to make the necessary changes.

Unfortunately for the rule of law, it’s become far easier to get the Supreme Court to declare that something has always been constitutionally required (such as gay marriage) than to convince enough states to permit it. The same is true of almost any contentious issue, where the initial Supreme Court ruling is unlikely to be overturned by majority rule in the near term. As a result, we’ve turned the court into a vehicle for expressing that the law or policy should be rather than what it is.

The Unfairness of Non-Originalist Interpretation

The death penalty provides a good example of why using the court as a policy tool is ultimately unjust. The death penalty is clearly contemplated in the constitution and has been widely used since 1787. There is no doubt that it was a constitutional penalty when the constitution was adopted. There are, however, judges – like Justice Breyer on the Supreme Court – who believe the death penalty to have become cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment.

If you believe that the death penalty should be abolished – a position to which I’m sympathetic – then you can follow the example of Nebraska, whose Republican legislature recently abolished the penalty. What you should not do is declare that yesterday the death penalty was constitutional but today it’s not.* That means that two twin brothers committing the same crime a day apart could be punished differently, all without a democratically accountable process by which the people (nominally) decide to change the consequences of a crime. This is, in simple terms, unjust.

*One exception that is often made here is that sometimes the facts on the ground change significantly. I’m not sure how much worse the DEATH penalty could be than we think it is, though, so I’ll ignore that here. A possible application of this rule could be solitary confinement; widely used, but only now are we grasping how destructive it is. If we learn it’s qualitatively different from what we thought it was, then the activity was never knowingly adopted as constitutional, and there may be grounds to interpret the activity as never having been constitutional because of a mistake. This is the sort of loophole that may be stretched beyond all reason, but even I could imagine a fact change so large and severe that I’d be reluctant to wait for the legislative process to catch up to it.

If you’ve read this far, you may have forgotten that this post started with the death of Justice Scalia. The above, in a nutshell, is a simplified and somewhat idealized version of his judicial philosophy. You have probably already seen simplifications and distortions of it online. I hope this explained a little just how common-sensical and intuitive the idea really is.

Book Review: Submission

Submission, by Michel Houllebecq

Part 2 (Camp of the Saints being first) of my topical reading list for this fall. By sheer coincidence, I began reading it in Paris the day after the terrorist attack that resulted in hundreds of casualties there.

The novel essentially has two non-traditional plots. Francois, a middle-aged college professor in Paris, goes through a midlife crisis, having recently stopped banging his most recent and favorite student. (That’s one “plot.”) In the background, meanwhile, the real events happen, and we learn about them in bouts of exposition. The Muslim Brotherhood, a new party in France, finishes second in the presidential election, qualifying for the runoff against the far right National Front. The leftist parties, following a disrupted runoff election (but at those behest?) agree to a deal, throwing their support to the Muslim Ben Abbas in a power-sharing deal. (Something similar happens in Belgium, coincidentally the site of post-Paris terror.)

(spoilers below)

French society slows drifts toward a religious conservatism. Subsidies for stay-at-home moms drive women out of the workforce and remove unemployment. Suspiciously, crime in the heavily Muslim banlieus drops precipitously. Ben Abbas uses his influence to invite Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt (for now) into the EU, slowly reconstituting the Roman Empire that he ultimately hopes to rule. Most relevant, the Muslims take control of the educational sector, reforming education in line with Muslim beliefs, and the to plots begin to intersect.

Francois, removed from his post for not being Muslim, is later recruited to come back, and his main concern with his conversion is how many wives he would be allowed under the new practice of polygamy. The dean recruiting him has several, ranging from 15 to 40, while even the nerdiest elderly professor is provided with a young coed.

That, roughly, summarizes the story. Houllebecq spends a lot of time telling us about Francois’ love life, though mostly it reads like an old man’s dirty fantasies. (One fun part is the annual ritual wherein his last year’s fling tells him she met someone over the summer.) The political analysis is somewhat superficial. While Houllebecq admits he accelerated the predicted demographics of the 2040s into the 2020s, so I give him a pass on that, but he misunderstands present-day Europe badly. The sort of leftist elite that would rather elect a Muslim than a far-rightist would also NEVER cede the education of their children to someone else. The political elites that could barely get southern and eastern Europe into the EU would and could not get any Muslim countries admitted except perhaps Turkey. The refugee crisis and the response thereto, if extended into the next couple of decades, would make this resistance stronger, not weaker.

Houllebecq’s strongest talent is showing the Islamic takeover as non-threatening, even welcome for a society whose liberal decadence has left it defenseless from strong convictions. There’s an insidious inevitability to this story that doesn’t hit you until you think about it for a bit.

Mildly recommended. It’s a quick read.

Book Review: The Camp Of The Saints

The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail (full text PDF)

Yes, it’s racist. But we’ll get to that later.

I read this book a while ago but withheld review until I got through Michel Houllebecq’s Submission. I figured they would be topical reads, given the refugee and immigration crisis in Europe (and, more recently, the terror attacks). Now an even more notable coincidence inspired me to finally post the review: a Greek boat allegedly attempted to sink a boat of Syrian refugees, eerily similar to a Greek boat plowing through survivors of a sunk boat in The Camp of the Saints.

The plot of the novel is not a secret, so I’m not spoiling anything by summarizing it here. During a famine in India, the Belgian government suspends its policy of adoption of local children, prompting a riot that ultimately leads a million or so of India’s most backward citizens to seize a hundred ships and set sail toward, ultimately Europe. On the way, they’re redirected by the guns of Egypt and South Africa (who want no part of the Last Chance Fleet) around the Horn or Africa. During the two-month voyage, Europe shakes. The self-proclaimed liberalism of its elites – media, government, church – has left them without a way to say “we don’t want you here” even though no country wants to receive the undifferentiated mass from India. Those opposed are quickly denounced as racists, while the most idealistic on the left actively wish for the arrival of the comers. The non-white underclasses of Europe begin to rise in anticipation of the change, rebelling in France, the US, and the UK against the perceived domination by the white natives. The military, castrated by soft leadership, bails. It’s no secret that the ship arrives, its masses spill onto southern France, and slowly European civilization is destroyed. (No character is worth singling out. They’re all types.)

In many ways, Raspail has correctly predicted many aspects of the current refugee crisis. There is a certain subset of social-justice-warriors that finds Europe guilty and thus responsible for accepting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees. There is a media elite that is quick to denounce as racist anyone who mentions that refugees are Muslim and that ISIS has announced plans to use them to infiltrate the West. There is an imbalance of judgment and moral agency assigned to different groups (“Now, it’s a known fact that racism comes in two forms: that practiced by whites — heinous and inexcusable, whatever its motives—and that practiced by [non-whites]—quite justified, whatever its excesses, since it’s merely the expression of a righteous revenge, and it’s up to the whites to be patient and understanding.”). There is the assumption in public discourse that Western wealth is stolen, not earned or created. There is a softer, nicer Catholic church asking for accommodation.

There’s also a barely-mentioned subplot involving Chinese mass migration into Russia (that didn’t age well) and the story of the white state of South Africa (ditto). Asia, in general, doesn’t get nearly enough attention in this story, and even Africa, which presents the most demographic pressure onto Europe, is an aside.

Most importantly, Raspail has underestimated the European response, as we are seeing the closing of borders, the rise of isolationist parties, and general resistance to increased immigration flows. Those messages filter to potential migrants (not refugees, necessarily, but fellow travelers) and present a bulwark against the unlimited migration that could overwhelm European institution. (Say what you want, but post-Enlightenment European institutions work really well.)

Raspail, however, seems to care much more about the white race than European institutions, which is why I started this post the way I did. His portrayal of the Indians is in parts disgusting, delving into the details of the “monsters” on board the ships, smelly and engaged in a giant orgy with semen flowing freely. It’s an ugly image, and one that undercuts the message of the book. (It’s much easier to resist such a group than a nicer, friendlier group of immigrants that later votes to curtail women’s rights and free speech.)

In a particularly ugly instance, a woman raped by the mob is impressed into sexual slavery with other girls. Raspail hauntingly notes “A guard fed them and opened the door to all comers,” a phrase that I still think about, but Raspail’s main concern is that only a white woman can make a white baby, and once white women lost their racial pride, they’d lose all resistance.

There are important issues raised here – can an open society defend itself to remain open? – and the language is great in parts. If this were a movie, it could use a remake. Then again, we might be watching the remake in Europe right now.

Highly recommended, obviously without endorsement.

Book Review: Reading the OED

Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea

The Old English Dictionary (the unabridged version) is 21,730 pages, and Ammon Shea read all of them in a year. If you’ve never read a dictionary, that may seem like the most boring way to use your life, but having spent plenty of time in dictionaries (out of necessity) I can at least understand why a lover of words could also become a lover of dictionaries. Shea clearly is one and it comes accross. He captures the tension in learning about words, ultimately concluding it’s worth it:

“When I learned that secretary meant “one privy to a secret” … I was utterly delighted. And then I almost immediately began scolding myself for not having already realized such an obvious precedent, and thought that I should feel no excitement at discovering something that in hindsight seems so obvious. But it is excting to make these little discoveries about language, and it shouldn’t matter at all if they are obvious to someone else.”

I also generally agree with his take on books: “The computer can only reproduce the information in a book, and never the joyful experience of reading it.”

My point of pride in reading this book was noticing that one word was misused. Shea refers to the “enormity of the English language.” Enormity, however, refers to “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong,” while enormousness refers to something very large. Small win for me. (I grant him a pass on saying “unconscious” when “subconscious” is a better fit.)

The book’s 26 chapters are split into a mediation on words and a list of particularly interesting words from the respective letter. Since there is no way to review that, I’ll leave you with a list of particularly fun words or Shea’s descriptions thereof. One realization you’ll have is one I shared with Shea: “Reading through the dictionary, I am struck again and again by the fact that many words that describe common things are obscure, while many words that describe obscure things are widely known.”

“Even though I do not feel a need to remember these words, I do feel a need to know that someone has remembered them.”

Strongly agree. Recommended for word lovers.

Airling (n.) A person who is both young and thoughtless.

Bayard (n.) A person armed with the self-confidence of ignorance.

Cellarhood (n.) The state of being a cellar. Along with tableity (the condition of being a table) and paneity (the state of being bread), cellarhood is a wonderful example of the spectacular ways English has of describing things that no one ever thinks it necessary to describe.

Desiderium (n.) A yearning, specificially for a thing one once had, but has no more.

Elozable (adj.) Readily influenced by flattery.

Fornale (v.) To spend one’s money before it has been earned.

Gound (n.) The gunk that collects in the corners of the eyes. Gound is the perfect example of a word that is practically useless, and yet still nice to know.

Heterophemize (v.) To say something different from what you mean to say. [I really wish this were more widely known because I do this frequently.]

Impedimenta (n., pl.) Such things as impede progress. Although impedimenta has most often been used in the sense of some concrete thing (such as baggage) that impedes progress, I prefer to think of it when I encounter any of the general things that slow one’s progress through life, such as having a moral code of some sort.

Jentacular (adj.) Of or pertaining to breakfast.

Kankedort (n.) An awkward situation or affair.

Leese (v.) To be a loser. [Learning this could really help Trump fit more into his tweets.]

Matutinal (adj.) Active or wide awake in the morning hours.

Nemesism (n.) Frustration directed inward. …a counterpart to narcissism.

Obdormition (n.) The falling asleep of a limb. Obdormition is the feeling you get just before prinkling (pins and needles).

Paracme (n.) The point at which one’s prime is past.

Quaesitum (n.) The answer to a problem; the thing that is looked for.

Redamancy (n.) The act of loving in return.

Stomaching (n.) A cherishing of indignation or bitterness.

Twi-thought (n.) A vague or indistinct thought.

Underlive (v.) To live in a manner that does not measure up to one’s potential.

Velleity (n.) A mere wish or desire for something without accompanying action or effort.

Well-corned (adj.) Exhilerated or excited with liquor.

Xenium (n.) A gift given to a guest.

Yepsen (n.) The amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also the two cupped hands themselves.

Zyxt (v.) ..”to see” in the Kentish dialect. … [I]i is the very last word defined in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Book Review: The Girl On the Train

The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Constantly compared to Gone Girl because it involves a woman and murder, The Girl On The Train is a very good thriller in its own right. Our main unreliable narrator, Rachel, is an unemployed alcoholic who takes the daily train to town to fool her roommate into thinking she’s still working. On one daily stop she sees into the houses of her old neighborhood where her ex Tom now lives with his new wife and former mistress Anna (and their child), but Rachel forms an attachment to a couple down the street that she builds up in her mind as the perfect couple. The plot is set in motion when Rachel observes Megan (of the perfect couple) cheat on Scott. Shortly thereafter, Megan disappears, and Rachel, still drinking heavily and essentially stalking Tom, wakes up with bloodstains and no memory.  The other women also get a turn narrating, with similarly unreliable accounts and some time-shifting.

While the surface story is about what happened to Megan, the true mastery of the book is in the psychological insights it offers. The characters are, for the most part, between flawed and terrible. Rachel’s growing despair that she tries to tame with alcohol, Anna’s jealous paranoia, and ultimately Megan’s loneliness; all of these are shown in subtle but powerful ways. Rachel, for example, explains what it’s like be too drunk to remember an embarrassing incident (“You want to be able to remember it for yourself, to see it and experience it in your own memory, so that – how did you put it? – so that it belongs to you?”) and wants to “scream with the frustration of it, the not knowing, the uselessness of my own brain.” (Ed.: Guilty.)

The women also agree on one point: the pleasure of control they get from being attractive to a man:

“That’s the thing I like most about it, having power over someone. That’s the intoxicating thing.”
“I was enjoying myself too much. Being the other woman is a huge turn-on, there’s no point denying it: you’re the one he can’t help but betray his wife for, even though he loves her. That’s just how irresistible you are.”
“I never meant for it to go anywhere, I didn’t want it to go anywhere. I just enjoyed feeling wanted; I liked the feeling of control.”

It’s an understandable temptation, and it’s particularly interesting to see it framed from three very different women.

Other highlights, sans context:

“Parents don’t care about anything but their children. They are the centre of the universe; they are all that really counts. Nobody else is important, no one else’s suffering or joy matters, none of it is real.”

“How much better life must have been for jealous drunks before emails and texts and mobile phones, before all this electronica and the traces it leaves.”


Book Review: The Dud Avocado

The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

I’m still not sure what to think of The Dud Avocado. It’s highly acclaimed, which always makes me think that I’m missing something when I don’t share the reviewers’ enthusiasm. (Sometimes I get over it.) One thing the consensus gets wrong is how funny the book is: it’s not. It’s entertaining, to be sure, but the practice of calling books “funny” when they display the tiniest bit of wit is not helpful. That said, the book is a fun read, if a bit meandering, with great writing.

Sally Jay Gorce is the prototypical American girl in Paris: eager to check an affair off her to-do list, fascinated by Paris’s literary scene (and impressed by its many self-important bores). Flighty and spontaneous, she’s delightfully unpredictable but also self-aware: “I’m the colorful eccentric all these characters write about.” “God knows there’s no one in the world who’s more a slave to her passions than I am.” “(I have an attention span of about two minutes long.)” She analyzes her own “restlessness of vague desires” and dramatizes her failures (“I wanted to go off quietly somewhere and die.”). Let loose upon Paris with her uncle’s financial support, she seeks love (and lust), adventure and inspiration. A part-time actress, she sees Paris as “the rich man’s plaything, he craftsman’s tool, the artist’s anguish, and the world’s largest champagne factory.” She mingles with writers and wannabe philosophers, spends late nights at fancy restaurants and dive bars, looking for…something. Sally Jay goes through the usual trials of finding yourself, including unrequited love (“the one I loved best … sensationally uninterested.”) and life’s reluctance to play along:

“And I remember a little later wondering why things always turn out to be diametrically opposed to what you expect them to be. It’s no good even trying to predict what the opposite will be because it always fools you and turns out to be the oppose of that, if you see what I mean.”

You know, I think this book is funny after all. The language, as noted above, is fantastic, starting with the opening line: “It was a hot, peaceful, optimistic sort of day in September.” I just wish Dundy had given Sally Jay more space to do things rather than be content with her being places and telling us who was there. I’m not as impressed by learning about the proto-hipsters of Paris, although their parallels to the Brooklyn wannabes are fun enough. (Have to admit, it took me a long time to realize the book wasn’t set in the present.)

Recommended, apparently.

Idaho Legislators And Their Lust For Goats

A little late to this, but a court has (predictably) struck down Idaho’s First Amendment abomination:

Idaho’s so-called “ag-gag” law, which outlawed undercover investigations of farming operations, is no more. A judge in the federal District Court for Idaho decided Monday that it was unconstitutional, citing First Amendment protections for free speech.

This is obviously the correct decision. The Idaho law not only violated the right to free speech, it was shameless about doing so to protect humans from being punished for infliction violence upon animals. Specifically, the law prohibited journalists or activists from filming inside such facilities where inhumane treatment was likely to occur. I often accuse free speech opponents of f**king goats. I think Idaho’s legislature clearly fits that bill. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so eager to ban the filming of what happens to farm animals.