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Open Thread 79.25

This is the twice-weekly hidden open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit, the SSC Discord server, or the Cafe Chesscourt forum.

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778 Responses to Open Thread 79.25

  1. skef says:

    Something I’ve been wondering for a while about weight management:

    The old picture was that one’s weight is proportional to calorie intake. Eat a little less and over time, you’ll weigh a little less.

    The new(er) picture that the old picture is false, in that people seem to have weight “set-points” — weights that their bodies are “trying” to maintain. A number of factors might change that set point, but it’s not clear exactly what they are, and how much they change it. (Although there is at least some evidence that dieting can increase it.)

    There is a good deal of evidence that people who achieve a negative energy balance lose weight. They burn the fat they need to survive rather than keeling over. So: if you want to lose weight, and have the will power to do so by a combination of eating less and exercising, you can. And many people do this, only to eventually gain the weight back.

    What people who lose weight and gain it back are typically told is that they can’t just diet, but need to “change their lifestyle” so that they eat less. I’m sure anyone who is vaguely aware of (at least) U.S. “health culture” is familiar with this advice. And in comparison so-called “yo-yo” dieting has the worst reputation as an approach.

    However: Isn’t the “change your lifestyle” based on the old model of proportional weight, which is now discredited? If people do have set points, then maintaining a weight is not just an issue of willpower, but a huge and probably unsolvable cognitive problem. Calorie counts on foods, for example, are notoriously approximate. That’s fine for creating a deficit, but what if to maintain their weight a person has to skirt the calorie deficit/surplus line almost exactly, as the set-point evidence suggests? Isn’t that just intractable?

    If someone who has a higher set-point wants to maintain a lower weight, isn’t a slow yo-yo the only way to do that? That is: figure out a level that is your deficit, and one that is your surplus by not too much, and switch from one to the other as your weight reaches certain thresholds (using, say, a 7 pound range)? I don’t think I’ve ever run across this advice in a standard or medical context (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s out there), even though it seems like the only way to maintain a lower weight-range in the face of a set points.

    • Loquat says:

      If the “set point” theory is correct, then what determines set point and how can one change it? We know it’s not set in stone at birth; if it was, how would we explain the substantial increase in obesity over the last few decades? The answer I usually see is that your set point can be affected by diet and/or exercise and/or staying at a different weight for a long enough period of time – and by diet/exercise, I mean actually changing habits long-term, like deciding to cut your sugar intake or exercise half an hour every day and then actually doing that more or less permanently.

      • Brad says:

        As I understand it the set point is supposed to be the highest weight you’ve ever been. Your body considers that the healthy state and when you go below it goes into lean times mode.

        Don’t have any idea if it is true or not.

        • skef says:

          According to this, the original conception of “set point” was of a single target weight that an individual is stuck with. That’s probably how the term is still used in research contexts, but in the popular press it just seems to be an individual’s equilibrium target at the moment. Under that interpretation, your understanding would be a particular theory of set point.

      • skef says:

        I’ve come across a similar claim, along the lines of “some people, when they maintain a lower weight for a long period of time, wind up with a set-point around that weight.”

        The claim you’re making/repeating is stronger — that set point is mostly determined by these factors. It’s also not very helpful, in this sense specifically: Suppose that set point is set by staying at different weight for a long enough period of time. That doesn’t address the problem of how to maintain a different weight for a long enough period of time, given that one’s point hasn’t changed yet. (It also risks getting the correlation wrong, by picking out those people who happen to get a different, better set point after a simple diet change, and calling them typical.)

        If you take out the “maintain a different weight for a long enough period of time”, you’re left with “affected by diet and/or exercise … for a long enough period of time (regardless of one’s weight over a shorter period of time).” I’m sure there are people who make this claim, but I’m not sure if there’s much evidence for it.

    • Brad says:

      Re: slow yo-yo vs maintaining weight
      I don’t think anyone ever means literally maintain the same weight. Your weight varies in the single digit pound range over the course of a single day. A seven pound range over the course of, say, six months is effectively maintaining a weight.

      • skef says:

        Yeah – that’s basically why I picked 7 pounds out of the air. It seems small enough to count as maintaining but large enough that (assuming a level of consumption reasonably close to balance) you can shift strategies on the order of weeks or months rather than days.

        I basically never lose weight without paying specific attention to energy balance, and then I gain it back slowly once I’ve stopped paying attention. So i’m also relating personal experience — I don’t know how I would/will do it otherwise.

        (If the evidence that sticking to food that bores you will lower your weight is right, then there’s that option. I think I would need a substantial shift in other areas of my life for that to make sense to me, though. I’m already being a good little boy in a lot of ways. Even if I am a cog in an indifferent machine, I don’t really want to cultivate that feeling in myself.)

    • Aapje says:

      @skef

      that people seem to have weight “set-points” — weights that their bodies are “trying” to maintain.

      I think that this theory is still way too simplistic. The set point is only what drives hunger, but people don’t just eat when they are hungry. They eat to release endorphins, for social reasons, because of the taste, etc.

      Furthermore, the body can also create specific cravings for missing nutrients.

      I think that various measures can be taken to reduce what you eat for non-hunger reasons.

      • skef says:

        The various theories of set points are definitely not just based on hunger. One of the consequences is that two people of the same height, sex, and approximate muscle mass may tend to weigh very different amounts given the same calorie intake. Some people have a hard time putting on weight, including fat. Not only do bodies vary in the extent of nutrients they absorb, but there can be significant differences in average calories burned.

        • Aapje says:

          A currently popular theory is that gut flora has a major impact on how efficiently you extract nutrients from food. Another theory is that some people are naturally more fidgety and thus burn more calories.

          This should be mostly irrelevant for set point theory though, since those people would then just be more hungry, so they would eat more to get to their desired weight, as their as their body weight was under the set point.

          Anyway, the major problem I have with set point theory is that it seems unfalsifiable, as any weight can be argued to be the set point and any permanent change in weight can be argued to be an adjustment of the set point due to things that change the set point. So it seems to be able to explain every outcome.

          • Brad says:

            It seems like you should be able to design an experiment that would show either:
            1) There are no set points, or
            2) New points can be set fairly rapidly

            by measuring calories burned at various weights (all other things held the same) and seeing if there is a consistent place where the curve changes direction.

            A set point that can be changed quickly enough is effectively not a set point. So proving that one of those two things is true should enough to discredit the general idea.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Aapje, there needs to be some explanation for why people’s weights are mostly fairly stable without them paying attention to weight maintenance.

          • Aapje says:

            That people tend to go back to a set weight after dieting can be explained by the body fearing a long term lack of food and binging when restrictions are lifted, until back at the original weight.

            Of course, that would be sort of a set point, but only until the bounce back happened; not a long term set point. It’s hard to distinguish this from a permanent set point because if you starve the person again, their body would go back into panic mode again.

            The normal stability of weight can be explained by unconscious mental processes or the body desiring less food when the glycogen stores are full(ish). The latter is especially plausible, as athletes are known to engage in carb-loading for endurance events, where they increase their carbohydrate substantially for three days before an event. So it seems that the carbohydrate->fat process takes quite some time and thus that it is very plausible that overeating on one day can result in the body still feeling that the next couple of days and having less hunger as a result.

            You might be able to test this by forcing one group to overeat one day and then having two days where they self-choose their meal size (and repeat this pattern) vs another group that overeats for some days in a row and then has a longer period of self-choosing. If each group has an equal number of days of forced large meals, then if the above theory is correct, you’d expect the latter group to gain much more weight than the former group.

            Note that in practice we see that many people have slow and steady weight gains, which seems to disagree with the set point theory, but of course that can be blamed on certain foods messing with the set point. But then we are back at the non-falsifiable aspect again.

            I’m not saying that set point theory is necessarily wrong though, just that it seems mostly useless for self-improvement when there is a lack of research into how to change the set point.

            If you can prove that people with one kind of diet always keep oscillating around one weight, but people with another diet either increase or (even better) decrease their weight, and stop doing so when you change the diet, you can make actual predictions based on the theory (rather than now, where the theory seems to merely be used as a post-facto just-so story).

    • rahien.din says:

      > Isn’t the “change your lifestyle” based on the old model of proportional weight, which is now discredited?

      I think that “change your lifestyle” is necessary but insufficient. Most people trying to lose weight will go on a temporary crash diet, but once they lose the weight, they go back to the habits that put the weight on in the first place. So, if you don’t alter your long-term habits, you are unlikely to change your long-term weight.

      I am skeptical that we can entirely discard the idea of energy-in-energy-out. The whole hope of set point theory is that your body (your hypothalamus) will respond to inputs in a constructive way. Does anyone really believe that caloric intake is not a hypothalamic input? That sounds like a free lunch. CMWIW.

      > If someone who has a higher set-point wants to maintain a lower weight, isn’t a slow yo-yo the only way to do that?

      I have found this to be true. I was 280. I got down to 265 with some habit change and weight training. But everyone falls off the wagon, so I crept up to 272 but not above. Then I worked a little more, and got down to 255. If I ate badly, my weight would creep back up to 265 but not above. Then I worked a little more and got down to 243. I crept back up to 253 but not above. I’m on my way back down again.

      Three things I have found to be helpful
      1. Building muscle mass. Muscle burns calories at rest, and having more muscle makes it more fun to be physically active. Check out You Are Your Own Gym.
      2. Sleep. Sufficient quality, sufficient quantity, appropriate timing.
      3. Cheater days. Being a better weight is not really worth it if you can never eat anything fun, ever again. Having a planned cheater day is less damaging than trying never to eat anything fun and inevitably crashing.

      • Eric Rall says:

        Building muscle also helps because most of the benefits sought by losing weight are more about body composition (fat vs muscle vs other) than absolute weight: reduced risk of heart problems and type 2 diabetes (less fat), increased mobility and endurance (more strength and less dead weight), less joint and back pain (stronger muscles near a joint better balance stresses around it, reducing strain on the joint itself), and aesthetics (love handles aren’t made of muscle).

        If the weight set point theory is more-or-less correct, then gaining muscle (in addition to the benefits you mention) lets you achieve your underlying goals while remaining closer to weight set point than if you had tried just dieting off fat.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        “I think that “change your lifestyle” is necessary but insufficient. Most people trying to lose weight will go on a temporary crash diet, but once they lose the weight, they go back to the habits that put the weight on in the first place.”

        This sounds plausible, but last I checked, there is no research on what people actually do to lose weight and what the outcomes are.

        • Corey says:

          Sure there’s research – unfortunately it says no method works long-term and any method works in short-term if you do it hard enough, which is not a very satisfying answer.

          (The “no method” bit is a bit approximate; surgery seems to sort-of work long term, though there’s usually some back-slide from minimum attained weight).

      • Charles F says:

        Most people trying to lose weight will go on a temporary crash diet, but once they lose the weight, they go back to the habits that put the weight on in the first place. So, if you don’t alter your long-term habits, you are unlikely to change your long-term weight.

        It’s even worse than that. When you lose weight with a temporary crash diet, you lose some muscle and some fat. When you gain the weight back, you tend to gain fat. So if you do yo-yo dieting without taking steps to make sure you keep building muscle, you can end up significantly worse off than when you started. This is apparently pretty common in the US. (anecdata from dietician friend)

    • The Nybbler says:

      Your “slow yo-yo” diet exists, one version is _The Hacker’s Diet_; it’s based on feedback using your weight measured daily and exponentially smoothed. If you’re gaining, cut back, if you’re losing, eat more.

      I don’t think “change your lifestyle” means much more than “It’s not enough to cut calorie intake, you have to keep it low indefinitely”. But it’s more depressing when you put it more explicitly.

      • Jiro says:

        I don’t think “change your lifestyle” means much more than “It’s not enough to cut calorie intake, you have to keep it low indefinitely”. But it’s more depressing when you put it more explicitly.

        Does that actually follow? Losing weight means burning more calories than you eat; keeping it steady means burning as many calories as you eat. So losing weight should require a lower calorie intake than keeping the weight off

        • dodrian says:

          Maintenance at a lower weight may be more calories consumed than when on a diet, but still fewer than were being consumed for maintenance at the higher weight.

          If the person was making a specific effort to exercise when losing weight if they don’t keep that up that has to be compensated by eating less.

          After few months of tracking food and aiming for a 500 calorie deficit I’ve found that I can now regulate hit my target fairly close without explicitly tracking everything as I eat. But I’ve also found that if I take a day off from normal dieting (to enjoy a family celebration or go to big party or whatever) I need to go back to explicitly tracking for a few days because I’ve a much bigger urge to continue overeating.

        • The Nybbler says:

          The lower the weight, the lower the calorie intake required to maintain it. So in a ludicrously oversimplified model where the only changing factors are calories in and body weight, equilibrium weight is a function of calorie intake, and to lose you can reduce calorie intake to a given level and keep it there.

    • J Mann says:

      Observation: People do in fact change their weight when they change their lifestyle. Everybody knows someone who became seriously into running or biking or something and slimmed down, and everybody knows someone who stopped playing sports and bulked up. So “change your lifestyle” might be easier said than done, but it’s not wrong.

      As for “set points,” I guess the question is whether the set point is enforced through hunger signals, or whether it’s enforced through metabolism. So if you get below your set point, does your weight go back up because you get hungrier and eat more calories or do you get weaker and burn fewer? Either way, you can hypothesize a lifestyle change that gets you past that. Give up alcohol, refined sugar and flour, and you’ll probably lose some weight.

    • onyomi says:

      A couple thoughts about set point:

      1. I know of at least one, and probably many more examples where someone lowered their set point. It tends to be something fairly dramatic which does it–a surgery, a change from couch potato to cardio evangelist, a change from pizza-lover to health nut. One such case: a friend’s father had prostate cancer and had to have surgery. Prior to the surgery, at the behest of the surgeon’s, he went on a strict diet and lost something like twenty pounds. After the surgery, I think a combination of necessity/not feeling good/inertia allowed to him lose another twenty or so over the next few months. I spoke with him recently and he said (without my asking about set points or anything, merely telling him he looked good), “yeah, my body seems to have just accepted that this is the new normal, so I don’t really do anything in particular anymore.”

      So the body can accept a lower “new normal,” but it’s pretty loathe to; seems to me you have to either kind of shock it or wait it out with a long period of very different lifestyle choices.

      2. A counter-point to the “set point” is the “food density” concept I sort of alluded to here. Jeff Novick also has some good youtube videos on it. Basically, some research supposedly shows that there’s a strong tendency for your body to want to eat the same quantity of food before it will feel satisfied, but not necessary the same density of food. This could be a different sort of set point, which, even if immutable, could still be used to achieve weight loss: if your body needs 4 lbs of food a day to feel satisfied, give it 4 lbs of brown rice, beans, fruit, salad, etc. instead of meat and cheese.

      I think this is probably true to an extent, though I’m convinced my body is also sensitive to calories or nutrient ratios and not just bulk: if I eat a giant bowl of oatmeal with no butter or other fat added, for example, I may feel physically “full,” like I can’t comfortably fit more food in there, but I may still feel somehow unsatisfied, because I’m accustomed to a certain level of fat in my diet and if my body’s not getting it it will demand I eat something else as soon as the oatmeal’s moved along and made a little room.

      This is probably where 1. comes in: changing the set point may be not be (just) about changing the body’s expectation of food bulk (at least not so much), but it may be about changing its expectations for food composition. And that may take a while: like if you have gastric bypass, you probably not only get used to eating small meals, you probably have to eat lighter and/or experience gut microbiota changes which result in you desiring different foods. That is, it may be a matter of waiting out/starving out the “give me x number of fat calories a day” bacteria living in your gut, and, for most people that takes something pretty dramatic, as those bacteria are persistent.

      • skef says:

        A number of comments in this thread have (understandably) focused on the relationship of set-point to the problem of losing weight, and expressed skepticism based on one or another examples that suggest weight is ultimately just a function of energy balance.

        What about people who can eat what they want and not gain weight?
        There are some people out there who are distressed at how thin they are, eat more specifically to weigh more, and fail.

        • onyomi says:

          Seems they could reverse the directions, no?

          If set point is more about food quantity, then increase the density of the food you’re eating: add sugar and butter and cream to everything. Liquid calories of any kind would especially be your friend, as apparently they don’t contribute much to satiety at all.

          If it’s more about the body’s perception of nutrient ratios, etc., then it may be a bit tougher, though directions may be the same: gradually accustom the body to processing a higher proportion of its daily food bulk from high-density sources like processed grains, sugars, and oils.

          For some, I imagine, exercise, especially weight training might be a good weight gain tool as well. Personally, I find exercise increases my appetite so much it’s not a very good weight loss tool. I do it more for cardio fitness and to improve body composition. People skinnier than they want to be may find that more exercise, especially of a more HIT-variety, I’d imagine, might give them the stronger appetites they need.

          • skef says:

            For some, I imagine, exercise, especially weight training might be a good weight gain tool as well.

            This isn’t really the point.

        • Corey says:

          “What they want” is modulated by a complex neurochemical feedback system to be appropriate. It also has much better defenses against starving than it does against overeating, which makes sense.

      • Corey says:

        “The Hungry Brain” says we detect food’s protein content fairly rapidly and that feeds into feelings of satiety. That’s one of the reasons low-carb was working a bit better than other diets; low carb and low calorie more or less means high protein, giving a better satiety/calorie ratio.

    • Cheese says:

      I’m not sure it is particularly useful to talk about a set-point theory as being opposed to a calories in vs. out model. We know that fundamentally the latter is true, the question is more around practical applications of dieting.

      Long term diet+exercise studies do show considerable weight re-gain and the popularised notion of dieting doesn’t really seem to be producing much population-level impact. Okay, so what do you do about it? There is very good experimental evidence around some sort of hypothalamic set point, although if I was describing it it’d more be a ‘we have been quite satiated for the last little while and now you’re trying to starve us so here are some more hormones to increase your hunger levels’ signal that is relatively stronger or weaker based on the qualitative and quantitative nature of the reduction (and genetics) rather than, say, an 80kg “set point”. The objective is still calories in vs calories out, it’s just your brain is now actively fighting you in more ways. See: https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/16285/2/Sainsbury_Obes.Revs_2012.pdf

      What you’re talking about in your last paragraph is actually an idea that’s been floating around in the research field over the last few years – intermittent fasting. Not the 5day/2day intermittent fasting (although comparison wise the studies i’ve seen suggest it’s as good as continual restriction and might be practically easier), but 2 week fast/2 week normal. The theory there is that you trick your hypothalamus into calming down and thinking everything is fine before going back to calorie restriction. I was across a clinical trial that included the group of the above paper there that was supposed to look at that approach, but I haven’t seen anything new in a couple of years so i’m not sure what happened there. There’s certainly no really good human or animal data currently published on it, which is pretty disappointing really but overall not really surprising given the general state of ‘hard’ research around weight loss strategies (i.e. lacking).

      • skef says:

        The problem I was trying to get at is simpler.

        People lose weight all the time. They frequently gain it back. There seems to be an assumption that the latter happens mostly because people “give up”.

        Even if losing weight requires more will power than maintaining it, it requires less thought. A deficit is far easier to achieve than a balance. Right now the main long-term advice we give to people is “change your lifestyle”. That’s … incredibly vague, and often has nothing to do with how people wind up losing the weight.

        My point is that quite a bit of that “giving up” may simply be people who reach a target weight and then, because they’ve been given no further strategy, gain it back.

        • onyomi says:

          I don’t think I agree with the premise that most weight loss advice doesn’t work equally well as weight maintenance advice. First of all, once someone’s lost weight, they’re going to need to keep eating less than they were used to at the old level, because the number of calories needed for maintenance of weight 180 will be a number of calories sufficient for weight gain at 160.

          And most weight loss advice is something like “eat more fruits and vegetables; eat less fat and processed sugar; exercise more; drink less soda.” All that works just as well as weight maintenance advice as weight loss advice.

          Of course, if your weight loss advice is “eat nothing but cucumbers for a month,” then that cannot work as a healthy maintenance plan. But I don’t think most diet advice falls into that realm.

          It may be true that people hoping to lose weight and keep it off are not as aware as they should be of the fact that maintenance of a lower weight is going to mean basically eating less than they were used to at a higher weight on an ongoing basis. Getting used to that psychologically and visually may be as hard as getting the body to physiologically feel sated (like, let’s say you’re accustomed to eating a full bowl of pasta, but having gone on a diet for the past month, your body starts sending satiation signals after 3/4ths a bowl of pasta; you may simply finish out of habit, especially once you’re off the diet and resuming “normal eating”; it’s just that your conception of “normal eating” hasn’t caught up to the lower physiological needs of your smaller body).

          • skef says:

            I don’t think I agree with the premise that most weight loss advice doesn’t work equally well as weight maintenance advice.

            How literally do you mean this?

            Say I go to a gym nutritionist and we arrive at a diet and exercise plan, including target calories eaten and burned, and more specific info about what to eat, with a goal of my losing half a pound a week. Are you saying that if I follow this plan indefinitely, I will naturally reach a healthy weight, at which the same calories consumed and burned are now a maintenance plan? What if the target is a pound a week?

            (I suspect there is a sense in which every plan like that within a certain range would have a corresponding equilibrium weight. But I doubt it would be a healthy weight across that range. For example, some would likely have significant cognitive effects, such as being tired all the time or unable to think clearly.)

          • The Nybbler says:

            Are you saying that if I follow this plan indefinitely, I will naturally reach a healthy weight, at which the same calories consumed and burned are now a maintenance plan?

            In all but the most extreme of plans, you will naturally reach a weight at which you no longer lose. This may or may not be a healthy weight.

        • Cheese says:

          Fair enough. If you’re talking about weight loss maintenance in the context of a ‘set point’ theory, then you are kind of talking about the influence of weight loss on the hypothalamus and consequently changes in circulating hormone levels. So if that particular process turns out to be the dominant one in preventing maintenance, then it is probably equally significant to look at the process of weight loss as maintenance behaviours.

          With respect to the influences of various factors on weight loss maintenance, i’m not at all familiar with the literature, but a quick search suggests there’s a reasonable amount of reviews on the topic so I can’t really comment insightfully without reading through it to be honest.

          I’m not really sure ‘change your lifestyle’ is so vague though. Most people would be well aware of the changes required to lose weight if they have done so. I suspect it is a combination of all things – physiological adaptions, loss of a defined goal, lapse into former habits, etc. If you’re talking more about psychological strategies rather than food/exercise habits, then yeah sure maybe there’s some scope there for improvement. But I don’t know the extent to which that’s been looked at.

    • johnjohn says:

      I’ve managed to change my setpoint twice. Once from 91 to 86 kg, By losing 15 kg via extremely strict calorie counting for 3 months, and bouncing back to 86 (where I stayed for 3 years) and the second time from 86 to 81, by losing 9 kg in 6 weeks via a lchf diet and bouncing back to 81 where I’m sticking around for now, even though I’m eating junk food 5 days a week

      So from personal experience, I definitely buy the setpoint theory, and that the setpoint seems to be adjustable through drastic measures.

  2. Eric Rall says:

    Following up on last thread’s discussion of a hypothetical crash truck-building program for the German army in World War I, I did some additional poking around today and turned up a Master’s Thesis from the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but it has some interesting tidbits I found surprising.

    It looks like both Schleiffen and Moltke the Younger had an awareness of the value of motor transport for logistics, with the former proposing and the latter implementing motor-transport supply companies. During the war, these were supplemented with requisitioned civilian cars and trucks, and there were enough to effectively saturate the truck-supporting road network in the operational area. They had an absolutely atrocious reliability record (I suspect due to a bleeding-edge tech being put to hard use), and were appallingly-poorly coordinated. But even with that, they appear to have been critical to the German invasion of France going as well as it did. It sounds like without trucks, the German army would have run out of ammunition at the front well before the Battle of the Marne.

    My initial conclusion: the desirability of a crash truck building program was more apparent to pre-war German leadership than we’d assumed, but they’d already done it to the extent it could have helped. With hindsight, the missing pieces were detailed planning of logistics beyond the initial mobilization, C&C capability for the trucks (not sure how), stockpiling spare parts, and having plans for moving the spare parts and relief drivers where they were needed.

    [Discussion of the development of the war plans] In Schlieffen’s personal essay known as the Der Krieg in der Gegenwart published in 1909, he stresses the value of motor transport for ammunition supply

    [Discussion of Moltke the Younger’s logistical preparations before the war] Moltke made a number of changes in the German Army during his time as the CGS including; promoting the study and training of officers in the technics of warfare, creating a previously non-existent supply system, and creating and establishing heavy motor-transport companies, which allowed the German armies to move as far as they did

    [Discussion of the 1914 invasion] With the railways unable to keep up with supply requirements, and both the heavy and organic motor transport clogged on roads attempting to conduct the throughput of supplies and equipment, the ability to support and sustain the German armies would rely on horses. […] To compensate for the shortfalls of ammunition being dispensed, a small number of German transport trucks, which were cobbled together with requisitioned motor vehicles, were able to minimally provide the required ammunition to the front line armies. For the most part, however they proved wholly inadequate, due to negligible command and control of the convoy’s and frequent mechanical failures. […] Due to the lack of communications capability in 1914, many times, the only way to contact these motor vehicle convoys was to send out hordes of staff officers to find and redirect them. Vehicle drivers would work around the clock to keep up with demands, but fatigue, accidents and a shortage of repair parts was common. The end result was that by the time of the Battle of the Marne on 9 September 1914, only thirty-six days after the war began, nearly sixty percent of the motor vehicles had broken down, and were the casualties of hard usage

    • cassander says:

      Sounds to me like it was desirable in the way that modern US Air Force considers a successor to the A-10 desirable. That is, it’s something that would of course be nice to have, but it’s not something that they were going to sacrifice core institutional priorities to get. Given the choice between the trucks and the same amount of money spent on more men with horses, they’d take the men with horses.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I found it while trying to come up with a reference for a claim I’ve heard multiple times, that there’s a fairly short hard limit on how far horse-drawn wagons could get from their depots before you needed 100% of the cargo capacity to feed the horses during the round trip. I couldn’t find anything concrete, and thinking about it I suspect the claim is oversimplified: in other contexts, I’ve heard of that problem being solved with a staged depot system, where you build up a cache at maybe 50% of your theoretical radius and set up a smaller supply train for the next 50%, and so on. With a staged depot system, your throughput declines exponentially with distance, and it takes time to set up, but it’s doable with enough resources.

        My impression is that they were screwed either way: they were well beyond the one-stage range of their wagon trains and seem to have been relying heavily on locally foraged/looted food and fodder, so adding horses probably wouldn’t have helped much. And the trucks they did have were saturating the roads that were good enough to carry them, so more trucks wouldn’t have helped either. The only real options I can see for large-scale German investment to improve logistics throughput would be:

        1. Handing over big piles of money to France on the condition that they use it to improve their road network.

        2. A massive PR campaign in Belgium to build up popular support for allowing Germany uncontested passage on their way to attack France in the event of war.

        Both of these strike me as implausible in the extreme.

        • that there’s a fairly short hard limit on how far horse-drawn wagons could get from their depots before you needed 100% of the cargo capacity to feed the horses during the round trip.

          For a detailed and interesting discussion of this sort of issue in a much earlier context, I recommend Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army.

          • Sfoil says:

            Logistics of the Macedonian Army is great. I think the author determined that an ox-driven supply train could move for six days one-way, but I don’t remember how far that was.

        • cassander says:

          there is such a limit, and it’s fairly close. the math is something like a hard working horse will eat 5% of its weight per day and can pull a load to half its weight, so once you get out two and a half days (i.e. 50 miles max, probably less), half your load is going to be horse food.

          That calculation, however, leaves out the ability of horses to go without supplies, at least temporarily, by living off the land or running down their health. And trucks face a similar set of calculations when it comes to spare parts and gasoline.

          Also, more and better trucks do help the problem despite limited roads. individually larger/more capable trucks can carry more cargo on the same amount of road, trucks with better off road performance can use a wider variety of roads and road like routes, more reliable trucks require burn through less gas, fewer spare parts, and don’t break down and cause traffic jams as much.

          That all said, given the combination of the limits of the technology of the day and a world where paved roads were still a novelty outside of cities, the maximum returns were probably limited.

          • Civilis says:

            Also, more and better trucks do help the problem despite limited roads. individually larger/more capable trucks can carry more cargo on the same amount of road, trucks with better off road performance can use a wider variety of roads and road like routes, more reliable trucks require burn through less gas, fewer spare parts, and don’t break down and cause traffic jams as much.

            I missed the previous thread, so I apologize if this was mentioned and missed.

            It’s also apparent from what I’ve read on the second world war that a limited number of standardized truck designs is a lot easier to maintain than a fleet of whatever trucks you can throw together. Also, designs built to military priorities often emphasize ease of maintenance and suitability for field use. Even if the German army couldn’t use more trucks, that the after action reports specify the difficulty maintaining the trucks they had suggests that a truck-building program could have had a lot of military benefit.

            In retrospect, it’s a good thing the Germans didn’t really learn that lesson by the time of the second world war, or if they did, they forgot it amidst the hectic pace of advancing technology.

          • Eric Rall says:

            For WW2, Germany’s pre-war rearmament program had been a house of cards, basically borrowing to the max to pay for ramping up production. They didn’t have the resources to build a large run of standardized military trucks, not if they wanted to keep building guns and tanks and planes. Their trucks were a mismatched mishmash of civilian models because they were mostly obtained by looting defeated enemies (mostly France for the trucks), a practice they also followed for tank procurement. The Panzer 35(t) and 38(t) were Czech designs: Germany seized the Czech army’s tanks and kept operating their factories post-takeover, and together the Czech tanks were 12% of German tank strength during the invasion of France.

            Looting conquered territory is a thrifty military procurement strategy, but it’s not particularly conducive to standardization of equipment.

        • Gobbobobble says:

          2. A massive PR campaign in Belgium to build up popular support for allowing Germany uncontested passage on their way to attack France in the event of war.

          Think Bismarck could have pulled it off? Y’know, setting aside the part where a world where the Kaiser keeps him around is not a world where WWI happens when and how it did.

  3. James Miller says:

    One credible threat the U.S. and South Korea could make towards North Korea would be to temporary evacuate the population of Seoul during join military exercises. Much of North Korea’s deterrence power comes from its ability to devastate Seoul with artillery and so North Korea would be terrified of such an evacuation. We could, perhaps, use the threat of such an evacuation to reach a deal with North Korea.

    • Wrong Species says:

      That might have worked 15 years ago but they have nukes now. Is South Korea going to evacuate the entirety of the country? Even if they managed to escape with minimal causalities, the economic effects of a nuked city would be a deterrent on its own.

    • ThirteenthLetter says:

      I don’t think an evacuation would be very practical. There are ten million people in Seoul. And even if it could be done, the economic and social disruption would be enormous.

    • Sfoil says:

      I think you’re not comprehending the scale of such an evacuation. A North Korean attack on Seoul would kill a lot of people, but the serious medium-term effects of a strategic attack — even with nuclear weapons — would be in the disruption of trade and transportation networks, which virtually all converge onto Seoul. A wholesale evacuation would cause most of the disruption without even requiring the North to go through the trouble (and casus belli) of actually attacking.

      You’re basically proposing the South Koreans do this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_JOGmXpe5I

      • Matt M says:

        They won’t want to bomb us out of our city

        *meme of man pointing to forehead*

        If we just abandon our city

        • James Miller says:

          It’s more that the cost to us of them bombing our city is a lot lower if we are not in it. The Athenians would have probably surrendered to the Persians in 480 BC if they did not have the ability to evacuate Athens.

      • James Miller says:

        Either Seoul must be evacuated for a week for X residence of Seoul will die. For what values of X do you evacuate?

    • Matt M says:

      To add one more objection, what do you propose be done with the people who refuse to leave?

      In America, we couldn’t get people to evacuate New Orleans even under the threat of “THIS PLACE IS ABOUT TO BE UNDERWATER AND WE WILL NOT COME SAVE YOU”

      • The Nybbler says:

        It’s easy to evacuate Seoul, though; you just announce that it’s the Lunar New Year. Place will be deserted in no time. (OK, at least it was many years ago, maybe now not everyone leaves)

      • James Miller says:

        I’m trying to greatly reduce, not eliminate, the cost to South Korea of the U.S. launching a decapitating attack and this goal would be accomplished even if some Seoul residence didn’t evacuate.

        • Aapje says:

          Until the people who evacuated come back and find that the remaining residents have looted and pillaged (which they are extra prone to do, given that the shops would presumably be closed/not supplied).

    • Civilis says:

      In addition to the other points mentioned, any such evacuation would have to be planned and announced in advance. A paranoid North Korea could easily take such a move as a prelude to war, and choose to attack before or during the evacuation.

      In any situation where the current peace is based on mutual deterrence offense is defense, and defense is offense.

      • James Miller says:

        The North Korean leadership doesn’t have the ability to launch a large scale attack and hope to survive.

        • random832 says:

          Which means the last thing you want to do is take away their ability to hope to survive otherwise.

        • Civilis says:

          The whole point of Mutual Assured Destruction is that you know you don’t expect to survive.

          Anything which would reduce the cost of launching an attack against North Korea naturally incentivizes North Korea towards launching an attack before those preparations are complete.

          • gbdub says:

            Of course, MAD assumes not only the capability but also the willpower to launch a strategically hopeless retaliatory strike after you’ve already lost and all your leaders are dead.

            Does Kim loyalty (and military coordination) really go deep enough for that to happen after a decapitation strike?

          • Civilis says:

            Does Kim loyalty (and military coordination) really go deep enough for that to happen after a decapitation strike?

            The problem is that you’re not going to know how much of the command structure is gone until well after the war is over, because the decapitation attacks remove the source of your information. That might not matter if you’re an armored unit commander, trying to determine when to move out for the border, but it does matter if you’re an artillery or rocket forces commander able to strike back immediately.

            Any decapitation strike which interferes with communication lines leaves some question up in the air whether Kim is alive, and leaves it up to commanders whether to obey whatever orders they have in the event of an attack. If even one commander decides to launch an attack in response (and I’d bet they have orders to do that), you’ve started a war, and those commanders that don’t choose to fire initially will almost certainly end up doing so when the South Koreans fire back.

            I think about the only way you could remove Kim without triggering a war would be if he had some kind of ‘health issue’, like a sudden ‘stroke’ or ‘heart attack’, which allows someone else in the power structure to step in immediately, and hopefully when the dust settles they’re less competent at securing their power and hence more susceptible to influence by China.

    • John Schilling says:

      South Korea already conducts exercises in which it temporarily evacuates the surface of Seoul, relocating the population to hardened underground shelters. IIRC they do this eight times a year, with varying degrees of seriousness depending on the level of political tension. Not sure what more can be accomplished along those lines.

      Also, the extent to which North Korean strategy is based on killing or threatening to kill the civilian population of Seoul, is vastly overstated. Mostly, that’s the strategy of hack western journalists who want to scare people into clicking through their stories about the North Korean Menace. Actual Menacing North Koreans have not deployed their artillery in a manner that suggests broad devastation of Seoul is their plan, have released propaganda films which depict a bombardment of Seoul focused specifically on government and military targets, have invested heavily in ballistic missiles capable of striking across the whole of South Korea and Japan, and have conducted training exercises in which those missiles are targeted on specific military targets in South Korea and Japan.

      The North Korean regime is, ultimately, a Korean regime. They see themselves as Korean nationalists and patriots. And so they want, in one respect, approximately the same thing that we and our South Korean allies want – the Evil Illegitimate Korean Regime brought down with a minimum of bloodshed, its civilian population liberated and united under the enlightened rule of the Good and Rightful Government of Korea.

      • Matt M says:

        The North Korean regime is, ultimately, a Korean regime. They see themselves as Korean nationalists and patriots. And so they want, in one respect, approximately the same thing that we and our South Korean allies want

        Is the “they” here referring to the regime generally, or the Kim dynasty specifically? Because I’ve also heard things like “The #1 priority for the Kim dynasty is retaining power at all costs,” which would imply that, if they thought nuking Seoul would be the best way for them to retain power, then that’s exactly what they would do.

        • Eric Rall says:

          If they nuke Seoul (or Tokyo or Honolulu for that matter), they’ve already lost and are making their enemies pay a high price for defeating them. Convincing South Koreans that they have the capability to destroy Seoul and are willing to do so if pushed could help them maintain power, but actually doing it courts nuclear retaliation from the US (probably tactical nukes targeting senior leadership and remaining strategic weapons capability rather than just leveling Pyongyang, but that’s even worse from House Kim’s perspective) from the US, and House Washington’s family atomics are quite a bit scarier if unleashed than House Kim’s.

        • John Schilling says:

          Because I’ve also heard things like “The #1 priority for the Kim dynasty is retaining power at all costs,” which would imply that, if they thought nuking Seoul would be the best way for them to retain power, then that’s exactly what they would do.

          Probably so. But having put more than fifteen minutes’ thought into it, they seem to have come up with much better strategies for staying in power than “Let’s Nuke Seoul!”.

      • Sfoil says:

        The ROK civil defense drills don’t even come close to “clearing the surface” of the city. At most troops take positions at their assigned locations and rehearse what they would do to enable an evacuation to whatever extent they can without too much commotion.

        I think the legitimate concerns about how many people would be killed have more to do with mass panic and the anticipated accuracy of North Korean munitions. Even if it wasn’t, Seoul is so enormous that even tens of thousands of shells and a few conventional missiles would be hard pressed to kill 1% of the population. You’re not looking at Grozny levels of devastation.

        • John Schilling says:

          The ROK civil defense drills don’t even come close to “clearing the surface” of the city. At most troops take positions at their assigned locations and rehearse what they would do to enable an evacuation to whatever extent they can without too much commotion.

          What years were you in Seoul? That sounds about right for the late ’90s, not so much for 2015. Again, how seriously people take the drills and how strictly they are enforced depends on the degree of tension at the time.

        • James Miller says:

          I think the point of North Korea killing their dictator’s half brother with VX nerve gas was to signal that many of those shells would contain VX gas. I’m not sure how many people could be killed in an attack on Seoul with VX, but might it be well over 1% of the population?

        • Sfoil says:

          It was around 2015 when I last saw them. Maybe we were in different portions of the city.

      • Aapje says:

        @John Schilling

        South Korea already conducts exercises in which it temporarily evacuates the surface of Seoul, relocating the population to hardened underground shelters.

        During WW 2, underground shelters turned out to be ineffective when firestorms removed all the oxygen from the shelter. N-Korea seems to have used thermobaric shells in the past against S-Korea, which also kills people in shelters by causing a rapid vacuum.

        In the theoretical case where N-Korea would use a large number of these on Seoul, would that not kill a large number of people hiding in shelters?

        • John Schilling says:

          Thermobaric weapons may be qualitatively similar to firestorms, but there are too many orders of magnitude worth of difference. It would, BOTE, take about twenty million tons of thermobaric munitions to cause lethal oxygen depletion over the city of Seoul proper, or fifty million tons for the metro area.

          With firestorms, you get the “advantage” of the victims spending a few decades trucking in fuel by the megaton. But what I’ve seen of Seoul doesn’t look to be conducive to firestorms, so that’s not likely to be an issue.

        • Trofim_Lysenko says:

          Different mechanisms. Firestorms like the one created in Dresden killed via asphyxiation, carbon monoxide poisoning (also asphyxiation) and good old fashioned heat.

          Despite the talk about “vacuum bombs” (which isn’t really accurate), thermobaric weapons destroy structures and kill personnel through rapid changes in air pressure that leads directly to organ and soft tissue damage (in addition to the traditional blast/heat effects at closer ranges).

          Generally speaking in order to do that they need to penetrate -into- the structure you want to destroy so that the fuel mix is distributed inside. So it would depend on exactly how deep and how hardened the Seoul shelters are.

          Thing is, my understanding is that any such rounds are probably going to be coming from something like a BM-21: Great for area saturation, not great for punching through a single hardened target.

    • James Miller says:

      The goal would be to credibly commit to reducing (not eliminating) the cost to South Korea of the U.S. launching a decapitating strike and so scare the North Koreans into accepting a worse bargain (from their viewpoint.) Yes, this evacuation (which hopefully would never occur) would be extremely costly, and having Seoul devastated even when 90% of its population had been evacuated would be really extremely costly, but these costs are still tiny compared to the difference between Seoul being attacked pre- and post devastation.

      • John Schilling says:

        The goal would be to credibly commit to reducing (not eliminating) the cost to South Korea of the U.S. launching a decapitating strike and so scare the North Koreans into accepting a worse bargain (from their viewpoint.)

        “Accept this bargain or we will kill you all and it won’t even cost us too much!’, is not a very strong negotiating position when the enemy already believes you plan to kill them all no matter what they do (so long as it doesn’t cost you too much). It certainly doesn’t give you leverage to convince them to stand down the weapons that still can hurt you dearly even if you do evacuate Seoul.

        There is, at this point, absolutely no threat that we can make to the North Korean regime that will convince it to weaken its defenses. Only the Lord God Almighty and/or a Basilisk could threaten them with worse than we already have, and they don’t believe in either of those entities. They do believe that their defenses are keeping us from carrying out our threats, and they aren’t wrong about that.

        Threats have failed. Try something else, or do nothing.

        • The Nybbler says:

          What else is there? Seems to me that if there’s no way out and their capabilities keep getting better, it might be best (for the US and the world in general) to start a nuclear war with them right now, to avoid the inevitable much larger nuclear war later. But I doubt Japan, China, or South Korea would like this plan much.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            Not to pick on you, but this comment is a testament to how uniformly bellicose the conversation is. We could commit to not attack or destabilize North Korea. This occurs to almost no one.

          • The Nybbler says:

            We could commit to not attack or destabilize North Korea.

            And they wouldn’t believe us. Not that I’d blame them.

          • James Miller says:

            I wonder if Trump and Mattis would agree?

          • James Miller says:

            @hoghoghoghoghog

            My guess is that one of the solutions Trump has proposed is for China to guarantee the security of North Korea in return for North Korea freezing/eliminating its long-range missiles / atomics. The worse the alternative for the North Korean leadership, the more likely it is that they will accept this deal.

          • Aapje says:

            @The Nybbler

            The N-Koreans will never have a rational reason to start a nuclear war, if we avoid certain situations where game theory forces their hand. So it might be best to wait them out.

            It’s not like they have an expansionist policy, so they presumably won’t force our hand.

            Some of the elite N-Koreans seem to get educated in the West (Kim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland). It’s quite plausible that some future leader will have an attitude like Gorbachev and/or will get fed up with a permanent shitty economy.

          • Civilis says:

            Not to pick on you, but this comment is a testament to how uniformly bellicose the conversation is. We could commit to not attack or destabilize North Korea. This occurs to almost no one.

            The risk is that North Korea could destabilize on its own. Some general gets uppity or the harvest fails for several years in a row and someone might decide to try to remove Kim internally. Remember, he wants to stay in power. He might not be able to tell that the US / South Korea / Japan / China had nothing to do with it.

            In 2004, a train exploded in Ryongchon, North Korea, reportedly several hours after Kim Jong-il had traveled past the railroad juncture by train. It probably was an accident, however if it had been closer to when Kim was traveling past, he might have treated it as an assassination attempt.

            The way to reduce the chance someone is going to risk assassinating you or supporting your ouster (and probable execution) is to make it obvious you’ll hurt them if they try, and a nuclear ICBM armed North Korea is far more dangerous in that regards. Accepting that risk might be our best bet, but we should at least look at other risk mitigation strategies.

          • Matt M says:

            It’s quite plausible that some future leader will have an attitude like Gorbachev and/or will get fed up with a permanent shitty economy.

            To the extent that the west has a strategy in dealing with North Korea, this seems to be it. Basically just hope that western influence will work its magic on some combination of the leadership and the peasants until such time as they decide to replace the Kim dynasty with something more tolerable to us. Hope the whole thing just collapses under its own weight the same way the Soviet Union did. Recall, everyone believed an eventual nuclear standoff with them was “inevitable” too…

          • James Miller says:

            Civilis, good point.

            Also, to deter assassination attempts the NK dictator might reasonably put in place a system that launches nuclear weapons in the event he suddenly dies.

          • bintchaos says:

            Then we probably should start a nuclear war with KSA and dar ul Sunni Islam before they get nukes.
            Iran and A-stan too I guess.

          • Civilis says:

            Also, to deter assassination attempts the NK dictator might reasonably put in place a system that launches nuclear weapons in the event he suddenly dies.

            Such a system is called ‘putting the people you trust the most to be loyal to the regime in charge of your nuclear weapons’.

            Kim is eventually going to die. He’s probably planning to pass control of the country to a chosen heir. No need to accidentally lose your country because they battery in your airport-spy-novel deadman switch accidentally ran out or you went into your heavily shielded fuhrerbunker and the signal got cut off.

          • James Miller says:

            @Civilis

            What if the dictator reasonably fears that regardless of his precautions the United States could assassinate him (with, say, a drone that looks like a bird and shoots a tiny poison dart) possibly in a way that mirrors having a sudden heart attack.

          • Civilis says:

            What if the dictator reasonably fears that regardless of his precautions the United States could assassinate him (with, say, a drone that looks like a bird and shoots a tiny poison dart) possibly in a way that mirrors having a sudden heart attack.

            Setting aside the airport-spy-novel absurdity of that plan, if he keels over suddenly, be it from natural or unnatural causes, somebody in his entourage will have plenty of time to call up the North Korean NORAD-esque command bunker and either tell them to find a heir or to push the Big Red Button (and if his entire entourage drops dead from food poisoning and you can’t reach them, that’s a signal to push the Big Red Button NOW). There’s no situation where making it automatic makes it less risky for Kim than making it manual.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            There is near-infinite economic leverage we can apply to China, without whom NK couldn’t exist. Trump already wants to impose tariffs to make manufacturing more competitive in the US. “Hey Xi, get your dog on a leash or we start slapping 35% tariffs on your imports.” Trump wins either way.

            Trump looks at the world through the lens of business and deals. Not only would that be his go-to solution, but on military matters he defers to Mattis, and Mad Dog is already on record on how awful a renewal of the Korean War would be.

          • Matt M says:

            Trump already wants to impose tariffs to make manufacturing more competitive in the US. “Hey Xi, get your dog on a leash or we start slapping 35% tariffs on your imports.” Trump wins either way.

            But surely China knows (even if Trump doesn’t) that this would hurt us about as much as it would hurt them…

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            But surely China knows (even if Trump doesn’t) that this would hurt us about as much as it would hurt them…

            And? What’s that to China?

            And remember, Trump isn’t bluffing. He wants tariffs, and believes it will not be bad for America, but ultimately very good (I happen to agree, I do not like free trade). So it’s not like they can call Trump’s bluff. This is what he wants to do anyway.

          • Matt M says:

            China doesn’t have to stop him. Congress will never agree to 35% tariffs for all Chinese goods. And even if they did, some court would throw it out because it’s probably racist. It’s not happening. Therefore, it’s a hollow threat. Therefore, the Chinese won’t take it seriously.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            All right, well, remember this thread. We’ll see what happens, shall we?

          • BBA says:

            There are already punitive tariffs on Cuban and North Korean goods, and those haven’t been struck down as “racist.” (There used to be more countries in that category, but now we’re down to two countries that are already under embargo, so I don’t see the point of the tariffs, but they’re there.) If we put China in that category, it would probably violate the WTO treaties, but it wouldn’t create any constitutional or statutory issues.

          • Matt M says:

            And we already had certain immigration restrictions too, didn’t we?

            You really want to compare the effects of a tariff on North Korean goods versus one on Chinese goods? Seriously?

          • BBA says:

            Who said anything about effects? I’m talking about the principle. The immigration act says “no discrimination by national origin”, the tariff act explicitly does discriminate by national origin. There’s your legal distinction right there.

            Now I agree it has absolutely no chance of getting anywhere, barring some unforeseen incident, but don’t think the courts will strike it down just because it offends the literati. They need a little more than that.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            BBA, you are being baited. I would be amazed if Matt truly thinks that the immigration ban was struck down for being racist.

            In any case, China’s interests are already aligned with ours, so there is no need to pressure them to do anything. If they think putting the screws on NK is a bad idea, we should defer to their superior knowledge (and imho superior judgement).

          • Matt M says:

            I apologize if I wasn’t sufficiently clear. Racism is not the actual issue here, I was just using one example. My point is that the other components of the government have already made it pretty damn clear that they aren’t about to just sit back and let Trump do whatever the hell he wants. Congress is reluctant, at best, to attach their name to anything related to him. The courts will find some reason to strike down whatever he proposes that they don’t much like. Supposedly racist tweets were the reason in one particular case, but something else could just as easily be the case in the future.

            In any case, I am confident that if the “deep state” or whatever else you want to call it was able to stop him from temporarily reducing travel for Somalians, they will also stop him from implementing a tariff policy that would just about instantly raise everyone’s cost of living by 30% (and will probably be even more painful in the short-term, as we have to rebuild the industrial capacity required to produce the things the Chinese used to produce for us much more efficiently).

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            That makes sense, sorry for assuming malice. For what it’s worth I agree with you (although I don’t think it would even come down to the deep state, I expect that good old-fashioned plain-spoken lobbying would be enough to prevent serious tariffs).

          • BBA says:

            “Deep state” or no, my point was that the rule of law still exists. It may not be as strong as you or I want it to be, and it’s implemented by flawed human beings, but it’s still there. The courts have to give some justification for their actions beyond “we hate you so everything you do is unconstitutional.”

          • Matt M says:

            The courts have to give some justification for their actions beyond “we hate you so everything you do is unconstitutional.”

            Sure. But over the years they’ve shown to be pretty creative at doing this. I don’t doubt that they can cine up with plenty of plausible-sounding excuses to derail anything Trump-related that they don’t like.

        • John Schilling says:

          We’ve gone sixty years and three generations without a war so far, so where is the alleged “inevitable” part? The North Korean regime doesn’t want to fight a nuclear war. We don’t want to fight a nuclear war. We genuinely would like to kill them all(*), but not to the extent of fighting a nuclear war for the privilege. South Korea and Japan don’t want to fight a nuclear war. There’s no reason to expect we can’t continue this whole don’t-fight-a-nuclear-war thing pretty much indefinitely.

          It would help if we made that official. It would help if we dialed down the “…but we really want to kill you all” stuff, even if it’s still mostly true.

          But mostly, it would help if we understand that there’s no going back. Whatever we do to lock in “no nuclear wars, no killing them all”, the North Korean regime will correctly understand that it is their current level of deterrence and/or warfighting ability that got them to that point. Last year, we had the opportunity to secure a lasting peace with a North Korea that had nuclear weapons but no ICBMs. This year, we have the opportunity to secure a lasting peace with a North Korea that has a handful of crude and minimally-tested ICBMs. If we don’t take that opportunity, then next year we will have the ability to secure a lasting peace with a North Korea that has a more capable ICBM arsenal. The year after that, they’ll have a ballistic-missile submarine as well, and won’t that be fun?

          * or at least see it done for us by rioutous North Koreans who we can then chide for their excessive but understandable revolutionary zeal

          • The Nybbler says:

            We’ve gone sixty years and three generations without a war so far, so where is the alleged “inevitable” part?

            Where was the inevitability of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1981?

            If we don’t take that opportunity, then next year we will have the ability to secure a lasting peace with a North Korea that has a more capable ICBM arsenal.

            And if we do take that opportunity, we’ll have a bunch of ceremonial signings of various treaties and agreements, and they’ll develop more capable ICBMs anyway.

          • gbdub says:

            This year, we have the opportunity to secure a lasting peace with a North Korea that has a handful of crude and minimally-tested ICBMs.

            How exactly? What would entice the North Koreans to end their capabilities at “where we are today, but no more (or less)”? What’s the benefit to them vs. the status quo, where they can continue developing nukes to their heart’s content and we’ll do nothing concrete to stop them, because it is too costly?

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @gbdub,

            I’m not John, obviously, but my best guess is the following:

            1. Officially recognize the North Korean regime and establish formal diplomatic relations.
            2. Sign a peace treaty and officially end the Korean War.
            3. Open negotiations for a trade deal a la China during the cold war.

            In exchange get them to renounce claims to South Korea, barring a referendum to re-unify, release all American / western prisoners and sign a nuclear arms reduction treaty.

            That said it might be worth waiting them out rather than establishing peace. They could still collapse under continued pressure.

          • John Schilling says:

            A short-term proposal that I’m seeing from a number of sources is a mutual freeze on high-profile tests and training exercises. No more long-range missile launches or underground nuclear explosions, but also no Foal Eagle or Key Resolve. That addresses key concerns of both sides, it is easily verifiable, is superficially fair and symmetric, and it does effectively freeze North Korea’s programs at least qualitatively because anything they can’t test, they can’t expect to work.

            From their point of view, they are deeply afraid of the allied conventional warfighting capabilities as demonstrated in e.g. Operation Desert Storm. But the US alone doesn’t have the numbers to do that to North Korea, and the ROK alone doesn’t have the full range of capabilities. And two armies that don’t regularly train for joint operations, aren’t going to conduct a seamlessly integrated offensive on short notice. Those exercises are something Pyongyang has called out as being as threatening to them, as nuclear-tipped ICBMs are to us, and ending them would be more valuable to North Korea than a marginal increase in ICBM performance or warhead yield.

            Longer term, we’d want more substantial numbers like quantitative limits on North Korean missiles, and as Nabil notes they are going to want a formal peace treaty and diplomatic recognition. Ongoing trade between North and South also obviously reduces the taste for war on both sides. But those aren’t going to be negotiated this year.

            Denuclearization isn’t going to be negotiated in the forseeable future. North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons about the time Israel does.

          • bintchaos says:

            Better hurry up before USA aircraft carriers are obsolete.

            … most weapons platforms are effective for only a limited time, an interval that gets shorter as history progresses. But until the past few years, the carrier had defied the odds, continuing to demonstrate America’s military might around the world without any challenge from our enemies. That period of grace may have ended as China and Russia are introducing new weapons — called “carrier killer” missiles — that cost $10 million to $20 million each and can target the U.S.’s multibillion-dollar carriers up to 900 miles from shore.

          • cassander says:

            @bintchaos

            Your source is trying it have it’s cake and eat it too. the sort of technology they are talking about using to kill carriers simply does not exist yet. The best Chinese missiles dedicated to that purpose have not even been tested against moving targets and certainly are “old, well-understood, and already inexpensive”. Finding and hitting a moving target at sea from 1000 miles away is actually a very hard task, and claims of the impending obsolescence of the carrier are vastly overstated.

          • bean says:

            @bintchaos
            Oohh.. Naval warfare. Let’s take a look.

            1. US carriers are very vulnerable to *conventional* Russian and PRC missile (cruise, ASBM) weapons.

            They’re a lot less vulnerable than they were in the 80s. And not all that vulnerable in absolute terms.

            2. Within ~10y (i.e., well within projected service life of US carriers) I expect missile systems of the type currently only possessed by Russia and PRC to be available to lesser powers.

            Really? What basis do you have for that? And in what numbers will they be available?

            I expect that a road-mobile ASBM weapon with good sensor/ML capability, range ~1500km, will be available for ~$10M.

            Now you’re just being absurd.

            Given a rough (~10km accuracy) fix on a carrier, this missile will be able to arrive in that area and then use ML/sensors for final targeting.

            Can anyone spot the massive assumption that was smuggled in here? The initial fix of the carrier? Correct! That’s an absurd thing to wave away, but typical of amateurs.

            There is no easy defense against such weapons.

            Number of DF-21D tests: 0.
            Percentage of successful SM-3 tests: ~50%

            Cruise missiles which pose a similar threat will also be exported.

            The crew of the Mason would probably disagree with this.

            Imagine a Mach 10 robot kamikaze with no problem locating a carrier from 10km distance (on a clear day there are no countermeasures against visual targeting using the equivalent of a cheap iPhone camera — i.e., robot pilot looks down at the ocean to find carrier), and capable of maneuver.

            So if we load the dice heavily in my favor, and ignore the fact that at Mach 10, you need a really good camera to see a target, AI will kill all the carriers!
            This guy’s faith in AI rivals that of LessWrong.

            One only has to localize the carrier to within few x 10km for initial launch, letting the smart final targeting do the rest.

            Only. Right. Because that’s not surprisingly hard to do.

            The initial targeting location can be obtained through many methods, including aircraft/drone probes,

            And the bit where the carrier and her escorts are shooting back?

            targeting overflight by another kind of missile,

            And how big is this missile? How much sea can it search? What sensors is it using? What about countermeasures?

            LEO micro-satellites,

            This is hard enough to do with full-sized satellites that the Soviets still needed to localize for their strikes using aircraft. I’ve worked on cubesats. They have their uses, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to solve sea surveillance to the level required to declare carriers obsolete.

            or even (surreptitious) cooperation from Russia/PRC (or a commercial vendor!) via their satellite network.

            While TerraSAR-X is impressive, I’m sure there are a bunch of ways to mess it up. Starting with the fact that you’re going to waste a bunch of missiles unless they’re over the target within 10-12 minutes.

            That was fun! Got any more amateurs for me to tear apart?

          • bintchaos says:

            You could be right–
            My Trusted Source is Dr. Hsu, and while he is pretty much unimpeachable on cognitive genomics, Strong AI and Machine Learning, the perfect understanding of US mil tech maybe out of his wheelhouse.
            Thanx Bean…that was lovely.

          • Charles F says:

            @bean
            Complete novice here, mind clarifying a few things?

            2. Within ~10y (i.e., well within projected service life of US carriers) I expect missile systems of the type currently only possessed by Russia and PRC to be available to lesser powers.

            Really? What basis do you have for that? And in what numbers will they be available?

            What sort of pattern does the availability of weapons usually follow? Do major powers build new things and eventually sell the outdated ones, then lesser powers reverse engineer them? How often do USA/Russia/PRC come out with a new set of weapons?

            I expect that a road-mobile ASBM weapon with good sensor/ML capability, range ~1500km, will be available for ~$10M.

            Now you’re just being absurd.

            How absurd is each part? (And also how important? Is “road-mobile” really important if the rest is accurate? Seems at first glance like it would be reasonably affordable to guard a coast with stationary ones.)

          • bean says:

            What sort of pattern does the availability of weapons usually follow? Do major powers build new things and eventually sell the outdated ones, then lesser powers reverse engineer them? How often do USA/Russia/PRC come out with a new set of weapons?

            The Russians and Chinese will sell to anyone who has cash, although the customers don’t always get the latest model. And they often don’t get the important bits to make it all work together. Up until the 90s, most export combat direction systems didn’t have datalinks, even though those are really important to operational effectiveness, for instance. I suppose there’s nothing stopping Enemyistan from buying some missiles, but the idea that they’ll have enough to stand off a carrier group is a real stretch, and it’s even more unlikely they’ll be able to use them effectively.
            The US sells irregularly, and a lot of people prefer to buy from Europe, because they’re less likely to attach weird conditions to the purchase. Weapons in general are evolutionary. The USN’s primary electronic warfare system uses the same name as it did in the 80s. It’s not the same system by any stretch of the imagination. This is often to get money out of Congress. The Russians often do the opposite, putting a new name on a minor upgrade for propaganda reasons.

            How absurd is each part?

            They’ve never run an all-up test of the DF-21D. I think Hsu vastly underrates how complicated improving military targeting will be. The sensors themselves are already bleeding-edge, and I find it hard to credit AI with great effectiveness when you’re dealing with bad conditions. The price seems rather low, too, once you consider all the other bits besides the missile you have to buy. I get the feeling that he’s fallen in among one of the ‘the US military is full of idiots’ camps, and that’s just not true.

            (And also how important? Is “road-mobile” really important if the rest is accurate? Seems at first glance like it would be reasonably affordable to guard a coast with stationary ones.)

            Road-mobile is important. Otherwise, the US deals with the problem with a couple of submarines firing Tomahawks. We might be able to do that anyway, but it’s harder if the launchers can move.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @John Schilling

            If we make a treaty with North Korea to limit their nuclear missiles, why should we trust them to uphold their side of the bargain? It’s not like we have any reason to trust them, even if we give them goodies.

            Another thing to think about is the impact on world order. If we allow North Korea to fully integrate in to the world community while killing off dictators(directly or indirectly) that don’t have nuclear weapons, why wouldn’t every single country that has the capability try to obtain nuclear weapons? That includes Iran, Saudi Arabia and a never ending list of countries that see no downside. Is that an incentive we want to promote? While attacking North Korea would have devastating effects, they aren’t even an existential threat to South Korea. It might be better to suffer a little pain now for less pain later.

          • John Schilling says:

            If we make a treaty with North Korea to limit their nuclear missiles, why should we trust them to uphold their side of the bargain?

            Because the last time we made an agreement, not even a formal treaty, to limit their missile testing, they did in fact observe an eight-year moratorium on missile testing?

            It’s not like we have any reason to trust them, even if we give them goodies.

            It’s not like any great level of trust is required in the first place. Really, an agreement to not test missiles is trivially easy to verify, what with the GIANT FLAMING ARROW IN THE SKY pointing to any violation.

            Is your model of arms control really one where complete morons (presumably all Democrats or at least RINOS) hand giant money bags to Evil Supervillains, ask them to promise to be good, and then go stick their heads in the sand? Because that’s not how it actually works in practice. Most arms control treaties, even the ones with Evil Supervillains, both sides pretty much abide by the terms of the treaty. You get things like 10,000-ton “treaty cruisers” that actually come in at 11,000 tons under the rules, but not Secret Battle Fleets.

            And when someone is going to exceed the treaty limits in a significant way, they usually start by giving notice of the circumstances that would cause them to do so, then at the last resort formally announce that they are leaving the treaty.

            Yes, even the North Koreans. There’s not much point in violating arms control treaties in the age of satellites.

            Another thing to think about is the impact on world order. If we allow North Korea to fully integrate in to the world community while killing off dictators(directly or indirectly) that don’t have nuclear weapons,

            We could perhaps try not killing off dictators, even indirectly. Otherwise, you’re far too late.

            Unless the plan is to wage preemptive nuclear war to make sure the world Respects Our Authority. On the subject of human rights and the awfulness of dictators, apparently. Because I don’t think you really appreciate the effect that will have on world opinion.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @John

            I never once said anything about nuking North Korea. I obviously understand that there is a difference between invading and nuking. And yes, invasions are messy and involve a lot of dead people. But that doesn’t mean iniating one against another country automatically makes you a bad guy. As far as other countries, yes we could just stop killing dictators but it’s too late for that. Even if we stopped now, the dictators without nukes would still wonder if they were secure. I believe two thing:

            1. That nuclear proliferation is in general a bad thing that should be limited.

            2. That lifting sanctions would send a message that having nukes will pay off and should be obtained.

            I don’t think these are ridiculous things to believe. Limiting nuclear proliferation is probably the most significant foreign relations challenge of this century. If we can’t contain it, then it’s only a matter of time before a full nuclear war is launched between two or more countries.

          • John Schilling says:

            I never once said anything about nuking North Korea. I obviously understand that there is a difference between invading and nuking.

            Then you do not understand. An invasion of North Korea results inevitably in nuclear war. And I am quite certain that, especially if it is people like you who cause us to invade North Korea, when they launch some of their nukes at us and our allies, we will be “forced” to nuke them back. Because world opinion something something set an example.

            I am also certain that you will then piously respond with some variety of “they started it!” with a side order of “look what you made me do!”, and imagine your team are the Good Guys.

            Limiting nuclear proliferation is probably the most significant foreign relations challenge of this century. If we can’t contain it, then it’s only a matter of time before a full nuclear war is launched between two or more countries.

            And if we put you in charge of containing nuclear proliferation, then in no time at all a full nuclear war will be launched between two or more countries. By you, in the name of preventing nuclear war.

            I understand what you are trying to accomplish, but you are too late, and what you propose would now only make a bad problem very much worse.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @John

            And what would you do to limit nuclear proliferation? And how likely do you think it is that it would work?

          • John Schilling says:

            Something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done, eh?

            I have made suggestions elsewhere, and so have others. But we aren’t obligated to propose a solution, particularly where there may be no solution. The moment you ask the the “and what would you do…?” question, and acknowledge that you have no better justification for your plan other than that it is a plan, you’ve lost the debate.

            Doing LITERALLY NOTHING AT ALL would be megadeaths better than following your plan.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Short term, yes. It would be worse. But I don’t see how it’s worse in the long run. If doing nothing leads to more nuclear weapon states, then that just raises the probability of a catastrophic war. Sure, attacking North Korea would invite a nuclear strike but that’s not nearly as bad as a Saudi-Iran nuclear war. And yes, attacking North Korea might not on its own be enough of a deterrent. But it would definitely lower the probability that a country would feel it’s necessary to have nukes. Right now, if you try to go for nukes that significantly raises your chances of facing conflict with the US. But once you have them, you’re good to go. But if having a few of them isn’t enough then suddenly the costs to obtaining nukes goes up.

          • rlms says:

            Eh, it’s possible that nuking North Korea and starting a relatively small nuclear war might discourage nuclear proliferation and have enough of a chance of preventing a larger nuclear war to be worth it. I doubt it though.

          • Wrong Species says:

            If we did that and not a single potential nuclear state was deterred, then obviously it would be a failure. If we did it and all of them were deterred, then I think most people would agree it was worth it. So how strong of a deterrent does it need to be to be worth it?

          • John Schilling says:

            If we did it and all of them were deterred, then I think most people would agree it was worth it.

            The track record for actual nuclear powers other than the United States is, so far they have waged an average of 0.0 nuclear wars per nation-century. If the United States wages 1.0 actual unprovoked nuclear wars in the name of “we must stop other nations from having nuclear weapons, lest they maybe start nuclear wars”, I’m not sure that would be worth it even if it dissuades a hundred potential proliferators.

            But you’ve already indicated that you understand it will probably take more than just invading and then nuking North Korea to get the job done. Can we get an indication as to what other nations you are prepared to wage “preemptive” nuclear wars against, in the alleged cause of not having nuclear wars happen?

            Iran, I’m guessing.

            India and/or Pakistan? If there’s a difference, why?

            Israel? Love to hear your justification there.

            France and China, when they say that their nuclear weapons are now explicitly devoted to stopping the United States from going around nuking people?

            Germany and Japan, when they join France and China on that one?

            Who’s next?

          • Wrong Species says:

            I don’t know what image you have of me but I’m not Dr. Strangelove. Nuking China or Russia would be suicidal. There’s a few reasons why North Korea would be a better target in a first strike compared to other countries:

            Their number of nukes is limited.
            They might be able to hit the United States but probably not. The fact that we would prevent them from being a threat to the United States mainland is a really strong consideration.
            They are the most hostile country to us.
            They are so diplomatically isolated, that any damage could be contained. We could potentially have an issue with China but I think as long as we didn’t try to annex the country, that would be mitigated.

            And we don’t have to nuke them. Even if they nuke South Korea, we have more than enough conventional power to demolish their military. You keep using this an argument against me. It makes me sound like I’m being hypocrite but I never once said that we needed to nuke other countries to stop nukes from being used. Don’t misrepresent my position. Maybe a president would use that as a pretense but there is no logical reason it has to happen and I don’t think it would be wise.

            I think we should prevent nuclear proliferation, not roll it back. That’s not feasible in the short term, maybe in the long term. So the only country on your list I would consider attacking is Iran. Even then, there’s the problem we had in Iraq so I would need a lot stronger evidence that Iran is on the verge of having nukes. But if I was 100% sure that it was either invade Iran or they get nukes, then yeah, I think invasion would be the lesser evil. A nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be far more terrible than another Iraq.

          • Loquat says:

            If we pre-emptively invade North Korea:
            – large numbers of Koreans on both sides will definitely be killed
            – a not insignificant number of American soldiers will also definitely be killed
            – given the regime’s paranoia about and preparation for just such an invasion, there’s a serious possibility that a functional remnant of the current government, possibly including Kim himself, will survive and maintain lines of communication from somewhere we can’t easily blow up, and manage to drag out the war several years longer than one might expect
            – considering how China reacted last time American soldiers were seen in North Korea, I am not at all convinced that they’ll be content to sit back and let us do as we please as long as we promise not to actually make North Korea an American territory

            Meanwhile, while we’re bogged down in NK, everyone else who has reason to think they’re next on the USA’s shit list scrambles to get themselves into a position where invading them will look like a really bad deal, which probably means “get more nukes than North Korea had”, or possibly “sign an agreement with Russia or China where they promise to defend us if the US invades”, maybe even both.

            All of this, just to try to reduce – but not eliminate – the possibility that other countries might get crazy enough to have a nuclear war in the future?

          • Wrong Species says:

            will survive and maintain lines of communication from somewhere we can’t easily blow up, and manage to drag out the war several years longer than one might expect

            That just seems ridiculous. First, regime change isn’t the main goal. The goal is getting rid of nukes. We don’t need to go through every nook and cranny. Second, how are they going to survive for years to come with any considerable power? We’ve presumably destroyed their main infrastructure. Are they going to get couriers like Bin Laden did? This just doesn’t seem like a serious concern.

            considering how China reacted last time American soldiers were seen in North Korea, I am not at all convinced that they’ll be content to sit back and let us do as we please as long as we promise not to actually make North Korea an American territory

            A nuclear war is higher stakes than the Korean War was. And the two countries aren’t as close as they were 60 years ago. If we were trying to annex North Korea they might consider that enough of a provocation but I don’t advocate that. Maybe when we’re done they could set up their own puppet government. It would sure beat the one North Korea has now.

            everyone else who has reason to think they’re next on the USA’s shit list scrambles to get themselves into a position where invading them will look like a really bad deal, which probably means “get more nukes than North Korea had”,

            I don’t think it’s a trivial task to go from no nukes to more nukes than North Korea. In the meantime, it’s an awfully risky proposition.

            “sign an agreement with Russia or China where they promise to defend us if the US invades”,

            I don’t see that as that bad of a deal. That’s essentially what was happening in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It’s better than a bunch of rogue nations.

            And even if I’m wrong that it would have strong enough deterrence, at the very least North Korea wouldn’t be a threat to the United States itself anymore.

        • James Miller says:

          @Aapje

          “The N-Koreans will never have a rational reason to start a nuclear war”

          The leadership might not be rational. Also, they might. Imagine they say give us $100 billion a year or we will hit Japan with 20 atomic weapons. They don’t get the money, so to make their threat more believable they hit Japan with a single atomic weapon in an unpopulated area.

          • John Schilling says:

            That’s not actually rational, which is why there is a conspicuous absence of anyone actually doing it since the invention of nuclear weapons. Game theory left as an exercise for the student.

            It is the sort of thing that James Bond nemeses and comic-book supervillains get up to on a regular basis. Treating the North Korean leadership like a bunch of comic-book supervillains is childish and stupid, and makes me suspect you are really just looking for an excuse to fight a nuclear war with someone you think you can easily defeat.

          • James Miller says:

            Well, I do love doing game theory.

          • baconbacon says:

            Blackmail is almost always a losing proposition in game theory.

            1. Give us 100 billion doctor evil dollars or we nuke Japan!
            2. Nope.
            3. Nuke Japan 20x over
            4. How many nukes do you have left now?
            5. None…. er ALL OF THEM!
            6. So now you have made mortal enemies of every country in the world and made yourself defenseless. I guess we just leave you alone?

          • Salem says:

            “Blackmail” is a morally loaded term. But lots of things that look very like blackmail, from economic sanctions to gunship diplomacy to threats of invasion have been very successful over the years.

            Right now, Qatar is arguably being blackmailed by its neighbours. It’s not obvious that this is a losing proposition, nor obvious that they are alienating the international community.

          • baconbacon says:

            “Blackmail” is a morally loaded term. But lots of things that look very like blackmail, from economic sanctions to gunship diplomacy to threats of invasion have been very successful over the years.

            Economic sanctions and gunboat diplomacy are employed from a position of strength, and in general are the withdrawal of something (though not always). Refusing cooperation is very different from “give me this or I do that” morally, economically and from a game theory prospective. Blackmail generally relies on the notion that one party has more to lose than the other and is strictly either zero or negative sum. NK threatening to nuke Japan has the undercurrent of either “we have nothing to lose” or “you won’t retaliate for this”, because neither is likely true it ends up being very dangerous. Contrast this to sanctions on a country like Qatar, there is at least some expected loss from not trading with them, as such they carry a different weight. “we are willing to incur a loss to prevent a larger loss” is a different signal than what NK would be showing.

          • Salem says:

            Let’s take as an example the Anglo-Zanzibar War, famous as the shortest war in history. “Resign as Sultan or we’ll shell you” is classic blackmail. In that case, they had to make good on the threat, but frequently they didn’t.

            I do agree with you that being in a position of strength is key to a successful blackmail.

          • baconbacon says:

            The Anglo-Zanzibar war had the British at a dominant position, and they set the conditions of power. Calling this blackmail still puts it in an entirely different category from NK with respect to the world and also broadly expands the definition of blackmail from most people’s baseline. A stronger party threatening a weaker party is typically called extortion, which fills a different category in terms of behavior in game theory.

          • Salem says:

            As I say, I agree with you that you need a position of strength for a successful blackmail.

            Successful blackmail from a position of weakness is much rarer, but not non-existent. I think the active/passive element is also likely part of it. The weaker your position, the more important it is that the blackmail be successfully accomplished by doing nothing, because that way you have the strategic advantage.

          • baconbacon says:

            @ Salem

            I think we agree on principle, but disagree on terminology.

  4. entobat says:

    Content tags: 2/3 of sex, books, and drugs

    This summer I’m interning in the Bay Area, and I have a few Bay Area-adjacent things to talk about. How convenient!

    Several years ago I discovered the book Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. It’s a post-apocalyptic piece following an ecology graduate student and the tribe he eventually founds, though the Earth is arguably as much of a focus as its people. Stewart was a Berkeley professor who enjoyed writing such books; his novel Storm has a hurricane as its main character, and (fun fact!) is the reason we give hurricanes people-names today. Stewart was himself a Berkeley professor, and most of the book’s action takes place in the general vicinity of the city.

    Given my newfound proximity, I’m going to make a bike trip one of the next two weekends to see (at the very least) Stewart’s old house on San Luis Road and the nearby Indian Rock Park, both of which are notable sites in the novel. I am amenable, if there’s anyone else in the area who’s interested, to bringing a friend along for my bike ride into Berkeley.

    Earth Abides came around at the right time in my life to really speak to me. Rereading it has not quite brought me the same sense of rapture as the first run through did, but some of the same fascination is still there. I think on both counts this has to do with how I related to Ish, the somewhat autistic narrator who finds himself bereft of intellectual friends after the apocalypse. Earth Abides is a surprisingly little-known book, and the SSC comments section seems like a fine place to be looking for like-minded people who might have also read it.

    Uuuuuuuuunrelatedly…and I do hope I’m not breaking any rules by saying this…

    I’ve become interested in trying out modafinil recently, though I am somewhat queasy about ordering large amounts of a controlled substance through the mail to a temporary address. I am led to understand that there is a sizable Rationalist community in the Berkeley area. So if I’m making a trip into Berkeley anyway…

    • S_J says:

      I read Earth Abides as a teen. Never re-read it, but it was very memorable.

      The story was…unexpected, but interesting. The practical aspects of living in a post-apocalypse world were given a lot of attention.

      Some details made me wonder. The early section of the book contains some musings that most species have some sort of increase-and-decrease cycles in population. At least one of the examples is the Bison of the Plains, which was hunted heavily by humans.

      This annoyed me at first. Then I realized that the author is including humans among the natural forces that might cause a species to go through one of those cycles.

      • entobat says:

        Yeah. And, well, we are. It’s not as though the game of biology has to be cancelled once a species becomes self-aware.

        I think in the same aside he reasons that “man must soon fall, for he has for too long been rolling an uninterrupted run of sevens.”

        Bad Gambler! Bad!

    • zz says:

      Re: modafinil

      Adrafinil, which metabolizes to modafinil, is unscheduled in the US and has very similar effects. Our host has previously recommended purchasing from Nootropics Depot, which r/nootropics still has listed as a reliable supplier.

      • entobat says:

        Huh… thanks for the info.

        I consider myself a medium-term regular reader. Why don’t I remember these product posts? Why wasn’t there one last year? What is Scott hiding from us‽

      • entobat says:

        I will poke around some more about this when I get home from work.

        Does anyone have experience taking 300mg of Adrafinil? I thought the recommended starting dose for Moda was 100mg. Of course the active compounds can have different molar masses, the pills on the Depot could have large amounts of filler stuff to make them look like pills, etc.

        Should I worry less about such things?

        • Eric Rall says:

          I tried taking 300mg/day of Adrafinil for a couple months a few years back. I’ve currently got a prescription for 200mg/day of Modafinil, and I often (with my doctor’s approval) only take half a pill (100mg) if I don’t feel like I need the full dose that particular day.

          100mg is indeed the standard starting dose for Modafinil, but Adrafinil isn’t metabolized into Modafinil on a 1:1 basis (a lot of it is metabolized directly into modafinilic acid instead), so 300mg Adrafinil is considered to be roughly equivalent to 100mg Modafinil. My experience was that I got less effect out of 300mg Adrafinil than 100mg Modafinil, but it will depend on your metabolism and on the quality of the Adrafinil (I was buying a no-name supplement brand off Amazon, which was the only source I could find at the time).

          • entobat says:

            Okay.

            I anticipate crossing the border into Canada via plane in the near future, where Adrafinil appears to have the same status as in the US (don’t need a prescription, no official endorsement of health effects). I don’t see any obvious problem with carrying a bottle of such pills through the TSA line. Do you?

          • Eric Rall says:

            I’m not a lawyer or any sort of expert on customs and immigration, but I believe you have to worry about both American and Canadian Customs (the latter going there and the former coming back) as well as the TSA and its Canadian counterpart.

            By my readings, the TSA should be fine if they recognize it as an OTC drug or as a supplement, but they have some packing guidelines for medications.

            US Customs should also be fine, so long as they recognize it as a legal OTC med and you’re bringing back what they consider to be a reasonable quantity for personal use (link).

            Canadian Customs sounds like they’re fine with up to a 90-day supply for personal use (link) and Canadian TSA sounds pretty similar to their American counterparts (link).

            Obligatory disclaimer: I’m a random person on the Internet. Double-check before relying on me for anything important.

    • From Earth Abides:

      This we do, not hastily; this we do, not in passion; this we do, without hatred.
      This is not the battle, when a man strikes fiercely and fear drives him on. This is not the hot quarrel when two strive for place or the love of a woman.
      Knot the rope; whet the ax; pour the poison; pile the faggots.
      This is the one who killed his fellow unprovoked; this is the one who stole the child away; this is the one who spat upon the image of our God; this is the one who leagued himself with the Devil to be a witch; this is the one who told the enemy of our secret places.
      We are afraid, but we do not talk of fear. We have many deep thoughts and doubts, but we do not speak them. We say, “Justice”; we say, “The Law”; we say, “We, the people”; we say, “The State.”

      • entobat says:

        That part of the book was one of several times I got a sense of values dissonance. (No one is upset by the glaring problem that Evie is incapable of consent?)

        (Your quote is particularly apt given recent events in England.)

        • That part of the book was one of several times I got a sense of values dissonance. (No one is upset by the glaring problem that Evie is incapable of consent?)

          (Your quote is particularly apt given recent events in England.)

          Okay, I’m puzzled. Could you be more explicit?

          • entobat says:

            The second part is a bad joke about death sentences (legal or metaphorical) given to men named “Charlie”.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’ve read Earth Abides. Lived close to the sites it described when I lived in Berkeley, too; I used to walk up to Indian Rock Park once a week or so. It’s a nice park, though it tends to get crowded around sunset and on the weekends; if you want a quieter scene, you can go just up the road to Mortar Rock Park.

    • Is it Earth Abides that has a scene where some of the teens are throwing .22 cartridges into the fire as firecrackers, not appreciating the fact that these are all the ammunition they are ever going to have? It’s a scene I remember from a novel that sounds similar.

      • entobat says:

        My gut reaction was “absolutely not”, but now I’m not sure, which may or may not be because you’ve successfully implanted the memory in me. There aren’t very many teens until the end of the novel, shortly before the narrator goes senile, but on reflection I don’t think such a scene would be out of place.

        Would it help if I told you that Earth Abides is the one with the hammer fetish?

  5. knownastron says:

    I’ve recently moved to the south of China (splitting time between Guangzhou and Hong Kong) and it’s really given me a unique perspective on Western society.

    June 1st, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. There was a march for democracy in Hong Kong on that day which was met with a lot of pro-Beijing demonstration also.

    When I talk to any of my (mainland) Chinese about anything to do with Western values like democracy and freedom, I am met with some very simple but fundamental questions that I’ve never needed to confront in the west. Speaking with a Western audience, it’s easy to fall back on arguments like “but freedom of speech!” and usually the other person will begrudgingly accept it.

    One time I was talking to my Chinese friend about the guy who is always camped outside the White House with the “FREE TIBET” sign and my friend innocently asks “why do they care?” We in the west take for granted that you should be sympathetic and support independence movements, even movements outside your in-group, because “freedom is a good.”

    My Chinese friends don’t share the same assumptions as I do, I feel like I have to make the case for liberalism and democracy from first principles. I’d like to ask if anyone has recommends for good essays or books that would argue for Enlightenment principles from a fundamental standpoint. I have On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, anything else to add to the reading list? Essays are preferred due to length.

    • cassander says:

      I, Pencil as a modern update/supplement to the Use of Knowledge in Society if you want something short and punchy.

    • Anon. says:

      I don’t know, I think Europeans tend to be quite skeptical of independence movements based on their experience with groups like ETA. Catalan independence, Walloon independence, Scottish independence…support for these is mixed at best.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        support for these is mixed at best

        Is there a difference in how much the larger society is trying to forcibly assimilate the minority culture? I don’t know much about China, but I get the impression that it has a far stronger ideology of ‘Stop being Tibetan, start being Han’ than any of your European examples (at least, post-Franco). Plus with the case of the Walloons, I understand they’re about a third of the population – they’re not likely to be forcibly Flemified any time soon, and are matched by a comparable Flemish independence movement on the other side.

      • knownastron says:

        You might be right, maybe the general support for independence isn’t as widely held as I made it out to be.

        Support for independence movements wasn’t the the key here. The key here I think might be that she finds it unusual that an American would care for Tibet at all. I imagine she would think it weird we care about Palestine also.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          How much of “Free Tibet” activism in the west is slacktivism or virtue signalling though? It seems like the sort of thing to advocate that shows you deeply care about far, far removed strangers…in a way that no one will object to, no sacrifices will be asked of you, and will never succeed, meaning it will also never fail and the movement never end.

          • Tibor says:

            I have the same exact impression. I respect people who actually engage themselves in this, send money to support the Tibet independence movement or something. But most people just wave the Tibetan flag one day a year (I forgot which one) and post that on facebook. Done, I’m a Good Person and it did not cost me anything.

          • knownastron says:

            @ Conrad

            I actually agree that most of it is slacktivism and virtue signalling. But I don’t think that matters here. If we Westerners work under the assumption that it isn’t slacktivism (there is at least some genuine activists), then we would commend the act of compassion and support. Like @Tibor does.

            The key difference here is that the more conservative thinking of the Chinese would find even genuine support for the freedom of a far away place unusual and impractical.

            This is just one example of a difference in thought that has led me to rethink and reexamine Western ideas and beliefs.

    • dodrian says:

      The Niskanen Center (Libertarian Think Tank) has a good short essay The Future of Liberalism and the Politicization of Everything.

      It argues from a historical basis that a small, liberal government is the most effective way of uniting groups of people with widely varying beliefs and views. It specifically applies this argument to the current situation in the US, where smaller factions are attempting to grab power, but you can ignore those bits for the historical arguments in favor of liberalism.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Honestly, judging from the reaction I’ve seen of Chinese people living in America, I think it might be a question of a lack of familiarity with American freedom rather than of a preference not to have it.

      The most vivid example I can give is when I brought my Chinese ex-girlfriend (not ex then obviously) to the World Trade Center memorial. When we were coming out I saw a Truther with his signs camped out right outside of the entrance. I was grinding my teeth because of how insanely disrespectful it was but she took a totally different and much more hopeful message from it. She said something along the lines of “this is something that can only happen in America. If this was Shanghai the cops would have picked him up immediately.”

      There’s obviously a selection effect in who chooses to come here in the first place. But it seems like a lot of Asian people who come for economic reasons end up appreciating our civil liberties.

      Edit: I didn’t answer your question at all did I? I guess my unhelpful suggestion would be that intellectual arguments aren’t as compelling as experience.

      • knownastron says:

        You’re likely right that I won’t be able to convince anyone of the greatness of the Western world via intellectual argument.

        However, convincing others is but secondary to my own desire to understand my world better from this new perspective. So if you do have any good sources to recommend, I still welcome them!

      • Tibor says:

        It might indeed be the case. I know some people from Hong Kong. Ethnically, they are the same as the people from Canton, they even speak the same language, but their worldview is obviously a lot more “western” (not completely but a lot) than that of the mainland Chinese I met. The same seems to hold for the Taiwanese.

        Mainland China is a very unique country in that it is now relatively capitalist in its economy, which means that it functions reasonably well, but is nowhere close to being free. Most other dictatorships are not nice places to live (and China was just like that only 20 years ago), but in China you see the economic progress on a yearly basis, so people tend to question the Party less.

        The Hong Kongers, who have enjoyed western standards for decades and who got to the Western (and very high even compared to the West) standard by laissez-faire and personal (if not political, but that’s not as important IMO if you can somehow gurantee the rest) freedom, have different views. They’re not western culturally, but freedom of speech is something they find important.

        On the other hand, in many European countries (most perhaps) you have so called “hate speech” laws which make saying certain things illegal. Particularly Scandinavian countries seem to be very bad in this respect. So I am not that sure Europeans value the freedom of speech as much either. And of course then you have the various radical left-wing activists at the US universities who don’t seem to care about free speech much either, although they are obviously not the majority.

    • skef says:

      How do/would they explain the importance of first-born sons?

    • Anonymous says:

      Are you sure they’re wrong, and you are right?

  6. Aapje says:

    One of the things that I haven’t seen a discussion of before here is what the Dutch call an autonomous administrative authorities, what seems to be called QUANGO (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation) in English.

    These are very common in The Netherlands, where an organization gets a legal mandate (and usually a budget). It is not under full control of the executive though, although they can replace the managing board, set salaries, veto decisions and reject the budget.

    Examples of Dutch QUANGOs (out of a total of 122):
    – the Cadastre
    – the Electoral Council, which oversees the elections
    – the Dutch Central Bank
    – the Authority for Consumers and Markets which deals with competition oversight, sector-specific regulation of several sectors, and enforcement of consumer protection laws.
    – Air control
    – Social Security
    – Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers

    Dutch law requires that three conditions are met to institute a QUANGO, although it requires that reasons exist beyond just these three:
    1. There is a need for independent judgments based on specific expertise.
    2. It involves strictly rule-based decision making for a large number of individual cases.
    3. It’s important to have participation of civil society.

    Advantages of QUANGOs include:
    * Depoliticized, so if the executive changes, you don’t get sudden changes in policy (the law usually has to be altered to change the mandate)
    * The executive can’t be held responsible for each individual decision, reducing the chance of unfair decisions (or pork) based on who can influence the executive better
    * Separation of concerns. The QUANGO can really focus on their tasks, instead of being part of a hierarchical organization that has a lot of fairly unrelated tasks.

    Disadvantages include:
    * Less transparency, so there is less parliamentary oversight
    * The QUANGO can form an island, where they optimize their own task at the expense of other parts of the government
    * No competition

    A QUANGO is a intermediate step between the government being doing a task completely vs letting a private organization perform the task (after a bidding process). It can be preferable over the latter when you really don’t want to have certain information in the hands of a private party or when a profit motive gives bad incentives.

    • Civilis says:

      Wikipedia defines a QUANGO as an ‘ostensibly non-governmental organization performing governmental functions, often in receipt of funding or other support from government’ and lists ICANN as an example of a US QUANGO. I think the US tends to farm out things which might be governmental responsibilities to government-sponsored corporations rather than NGOs, and so the term has relatively limited use on a blog which is sometimes US-centric. As examples (all referenced via Wikipedia, which is good for picky details):

      The United States Postal Service is officially a part of the US government (a status explicitly spelled out in the Constitution), but is supposed to be revenue-independent.

      The Federal National Mortgage Association (often referred to as Fannie Mae) is a government sponsored enterprise, a publicly traded corporation created by and regulated by the government.

      The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, also known as Amtrak, is responsible for most US passenger rail service, and is partially government funded yet theoretically operated as a for-profit company.

      [Edited] I’m still not 100% sure on the difference between an NGO and a non-profit organization.

      • Eric Rall says:

        Yeah, I’m pretty sure QUANGO is a British term. As an American, I’ve only encountered it from British sources (the sitcom Yes, Minister and a few nonfiction books).

        The regional Federal Reserve banks are also examples of government-sponsored corporations. The claim you sometimes hear in libertarian circles that the Fed is a private corporation is oversimplified and incomplete, but there’s a basis to it. The mistake is that the Federal Reserve System is a network of organizations that work together but have distinct purposes and organizational character. The Board of Governors and the Open Market Committee (which oversee banking regulations and set monetary policy) are independent agencies of the federal government. The Regional Federal Reserve Banks (which implement the policies of the federal agencies and which perform the “banker’s bank” functions of the Fed) are government-sponsored entities. And Federal Reserve Member Banks are private businesses (regular banks like JP Morgan Chase, BofA, etc) which own shares in one or more regional Feds, giving them a vote in the leadership of the regional Feds (a choice that the Board of Governors has veto power over), and giving them the right to do business directly with the regional Feds rather than having to go through an intermediary.

        In addition to Government-Sponsored Entities, a lot of regulatory systems set up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are based in part on delegating regulatory authority to industry and professional associations. The American Medical Association is probably the most conspicuous example, but there are a bunch of others.

        • Brad says:

          Independent agency of the federal government is also a category with comparing to QUANGO. The rules are different for each one, but many of them have staggered terms that cross Presidential administrations. They tick a lot of the boxes listed in the definition.

      • cassander says:

        NGOs are a subset of non-profits. The best definition I’ve ever found of an NGO is “a bunch of people who aren’t technically part of the government, but think that they should be.” Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but it accurately sums up their quasi-governmental role.

    • Randy M says:

      It is not under full control of the executive though, although they can replace the managing board, set salaries, veto decisions and reject the budget.

      This sounds like full control. Is it just precedent and social disapproval (and time constraints, of course) that prevents the government from micromanaging it or countermanding anything that they disapprove of by threat of replacement or veto?

      • Aapje says:

        It would defeat the entire purpose of the construct and it would make a lot more sense for the executive to then (try to) change the law to make the QUANGO fully part of the government.

        But technically you are correct.

        • Randy M says:

          It would defeat the entire purpose of the construct

          If it were an American construct I’d venture that the purpose of it is plausible deniability–the executive isn’t technically responsible for anything the agency does, but if he wants anything from it, he can get it, and they know it, so he doesn’t have to actually exercise the privilege in practice.

          • Aapje says:

            Sure, but that they gives the QUANGO the power of (threatening) publicity, so it you’d expect a balance of power that is not total control.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I had never heard that acronym until just now. I don’t think it’s common in English but rather a piece of obscure polisci jargon.

      The most important organization which fits that bill here in America would be the Federal Reserve. The Fed is our central bank, whose seven-member board of governors are appointed by the President in 14-year terms to keep any one administration from being able to appoint more than four governors.

      The Fed also has one of the lowest approval ratings of all branches of the government, with only the IRS to challenge it for the bottom. There’s a certain sense in which being universally hated means that you’re depoliticized but it’s probably not what people mean. As an allegedly technocratic body its track record of crashing the US economy once a decade doesn’t convincingly justify the lack of public accountability it enjoys.

      • Brad says:

        The public not liking the federal reserve is kind of like Rick Perry not liking the Department of Energy five years ago. It’s foolish to take opinions that have nothing but ignorance behind them seriously.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          There’s a good argument to be made that the US needs a central bank. And an even better argument that any attempt to change how the Fed works would lead to a catastrophe.

          But the argument that people should ignore the evidence of their own eyes that the economy is falling apart because it conflicts with the predictions of macroeconomic theories beloved by the Fed… that is an astonishingly poor argument.

          People hate the Fed because we have to live with the consequences of their mistakes. If a supposedly expert body consistently fails at it’s stated goal then that calls either their competence or their motives into question. That’s the opposite of ignorance.

          • Brad says:

            I don’t know that anyone understands the economy well enough to know if the fed has made mistakes in recent decades or not. Certainly the overwhelming majority of people with absurdly strong opinions given their near absolute ignorance of the matter, don’t.

            This ‘wisdom of the common man’ piety is one thing when it comes to something like judging character, but macroeconomic policy–come on. Might as well take the masses’ opinion on the P v NP problem seriously.

            As for failing it’s stated goals, both inflation and unemployment have been in very reasonable ranges for more than 30 years. That doesn’t look like constant failure to meet their dual mandate to me.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Brad,

            The problem is that the Courtier’s Reply applies here.

            I don’t need to know more about macroeconomics than the Fed Chairman to know whether or not he’s full of shit. I just need to observe that his predictions are unreliable.

            As for failing it’s stated goals, both inflation and unemployment have been in very reasonable ranges for more than 30 years. That doesn’t look like constant failure to meet their dual mandate to me.

            And the five year plan was completed within four years!

            Come on. Just drive an hour or two upstate, look at the burnt out post-industrial cities. The official unemployment rate is down because it’s been defined to exclude the growing population of long-term unemployed and never employed. And actual cost of living has been climbing relative to wages despite the low official inflation rate.

            Again, if the official figures disagree with what you can see with your own eyes that’s not a sign that your vision is faulty. It’s a sign that the books have been cooked.

          • Matt M says:

            Nabil,

            I think one problem is that “what you can see with your own eyes” varies significantly from person to person and place to place, partly as a subset of how pointlessly huge and diverse the country is.

            If you live in the Bay Area, I can totally understand pointing to statistics and saying “What are these dumb hicks in Ohio so worried about? Look at the numbers! We’re doing fine!” And even if the books AREN’T cooked, it’s still reasonable for the people in Ohio to say “Well it’s lovely that Silicon Valley is growing at 10% per year, but that doesn’t do a whole freaking lot for me, here, as I watch my once-proud family slowly slide into government dependence on welfare and crippling meth addictions”

            The U.S. figures look reasonably good because they include stuff like silicon valley, and growth in Texas, and (in previous years, not as much anymore) fracking in North Dakota. But if the rust belt was considered as its own economic entity, I’m not sure “unemployment is down!” is as solid of a statistic as you might think…

          • Brad says:

            @Nabil
            There are 315 million people in the country. It’s perfectly compatible with rosy economic picture that some non-trivial portion of them in geographically concentrated areas are doing terribly. That may be a political or ethical failure, but it doesn’t at all change the facts of the matter or mean there’s some conspiracy to cook the books.

            Misery doesn’t give people mystical epistemological powers. Just because you are being stomped on by the elephant doesn’t mean you have any better insight than the blind man that feels his trunk.

            If you want someone to blame take a good hard look at the people those living in burnt out hellholes are sending to Congress. It’s their responsibility to turn Kaldor-Hicks into Pareto, the Fed’s job is to keep the pie growing.

          • baconbacon says:

            I don’t know that anyone understands the economy well enough to know if the fed has made mistakes in recent decades or not. Certainly the overwhelming majority of people with absurdly strong opinions given their near absolute ignorance of the matter, don’t.

            If the Fed itself doesn’t understand the economy well enough to know if they are making mistakes with years to decades worth of hindsight then the fed is clearly, and obviously making mistakes.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Brad,

            Just to be clear, personally I’m doing fine. I’m living in one of the wealthiest parts of Manhattan and anticipate going into a well-paid job in a growing industry once I get my PhD from a the prestigious institution I’m at now. I’ve even got a dual citizenship in a western European country with a generous welfare state to round out my rootless cosmopolitan bonafides.

            The issue I’m pointing at is that if you’re talking about a geographically isolated economic situation, well, that’s not the rust belt it’s me. I can go out of the city in pretty much any direction and see ruins. Most of New York state north of Westchester county is a ruin, most of Pennsylvania is a ruin, big chunks of New Jersey are in ruins, and Michigan has been in ruins since my parents were kids.

            And from what I hear, that’s not unique to the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. So you have, what, a few islands of economic growth in a sea of devastation? That’s not a “healthy economy,” it’s the sign of a dying country.

          • baconbacon says:

            most of Pennsylvania is a ruin

            It is? Doesn’t look that way living here.

          • Brad says:

            @Nabil
            First, I dispute that all those places are ruins. There are thriving parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and even here and there upstate. Second, your metrics are screwy. It’s people that matter not acres.

            N.B. the ‘you’ in the second paragraph was the abstract you, not you personally. Sorry if that was unclear.

            And from what I hear,

            This is the whole problem. Going on to far right wing websites and listening to people bitch isn’t data collection.

            This entire conversation is basically you rejecting contemporary ways of knowing in favor of some kind of atavistic belief in the wisdom of the common man. It’s frankly bizarre. The kind of thing you expect out of someone working towards a Phd in “Indigenous Studies”.

            @Baconbacon

            If the Fed itself doesn’t understand the economy well enough to know if they are making mistakes with years to decades worth of hindsight then the fed is clearly, and obviously making mistakes.

            I don’t see how that follows. Everything off the omniscient view optimal path isn’t a mistake. Or at least that’s not how the word is generally used.

          • baconbacon says:

            I don’t see how that follows. Everything off the omniscient view optimal path isn’t a mistake. Or at least that’s not how the word is generally used.

            The Fed interprets the outcomes of its previous actions and uses them to guide future actions. If they can’t assess accurately* if their previous actions were correct then they are making mistakes by most definitions. You can argue that the fed is far less influential than the average opinion and so the mistakes could be inconsequential, but that isn’t how the Fed views itself.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            @Brad,

            This entire conversation is basically you rejecting contemporary ways of knowing in favor of some kind of atavistic belief in the wisdom of the common man. It’s frankly bizarre. The kind of thing you expect out of someone working towards a Phd in “Indigenous Studies”.

            You can distrust government reports without rejecting the scientific method. I should know.

            The difference is that, in my field at least, if someone makes a model and doesn’t experimentally validate it then they’re laughed at. And while we’ve been hit by the replication crisis the response to prior findings not holding up has been to tighten our standards rather than blaming people who notice the discrepancies.

            If people in my field routinely failed in our predictions the way mainstream macro does, we’d all be out on the street. Hell we’re still taking it on the nose for overly optimistic predictions made after the human genome was sequenced. But then again, no lobbyist can wave a genetics white paper around to justify pork barrel spending so we have to stand or fall on the merits of our research.

            The whole point of science is skepticism. If the Fed really knows anything then they need to show that their knowledge has predictive value. Put up or shut up.

            Edit: For the sake of clarity, here’s what I believe.

            Science is our best way of understanding the world. We can make observations about the world in a rigorous way, build scientific models which are provably logically / mathematically sound, and validate them through experiments to a high degree of confidence. At every step anyone who doubts your conclusions can attempt to replicate them. And scientific conclusions will tend to agree with one another even if they’re arrived at through different means.

            The best part is that applied science means that laymen don’t need to understand any of that. If a scientific conclusion is correct then it will still be correct whether you believe in it or not. Passengers can infer that aerodynamics is well understood because they can see the plane they’re in soaring through the sky.

            All of these things fail when applied here. Laymen can’t trust the theories based on their results because the results are abysmal. And the more you understand of the scientific method the worse the field generating those theories looks.

          • baconbacon says:

            As for failing it’s stated goals, both inflation and unemployment have been in very reasonable ranges for more than 30 years. That doesn’t look like constant failure to meet their dual mandate to me.

            Actually their mandate is

            The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

            Which is different.

          • John Schilling says:

            …promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

            So, two out of three, and the other one was pure wishful thinking?

            The idea that Recession = Fed Screwed Up, Unemployment = Fed Screwed Up, is laughable. The Federal Reserve is a bank, not a cornucopia. The most that can reasonably be demanded of it is a stable currency and a stable lending market, and not screwing up anything else along the way. But there are many people and institutions with the power to screw up the other things, so if someone’s argument is “look at the shattered Rust Belt cities, obviously the Fed screwed up”, I know that they don’t actually have an argument and that the Fed probably didn’t screw up.

          • Brad says:

            @Nabil
            Anecdotes about people in Ohio that can’t find a job don’t constitute a discrepancy. The model never made any claims about every last town in Ohio.

            You haven’t offered any proof of your assertions that the numbers are off. Just second and third hand “lived experience”.

            @baconbacon
            Since it isn’t an exact quote, sure it’s different. But what is materially different about that vs what I said?

          • baconbacon says:

            The idea that Recession = Fed Screwed Up, Unemployment = Fed Screwed Up, is laughable

            The fact that you would put up such a lame straw man is laughable.

          • baconbacon says:

            Since it isn’t an exact quote, sure it’s different. But what is materially different about that vs what I said?

            shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.

            The bold is the closest thing to a mandate the Fed actually has. There is a substantial difference between “your job is to stabilize E and P” and “your job is to stabilize monetary aggregates because we thing they will stabilize E and P”. A dual mandate of “stabilize E and P”, can cause conflict if one can be traded off for the other, where as the Fed’s actual mandate is (probably) best read as “worry about long term monetary aggregates, let the market sort out the trade offs”.

          • Aapje says:

            Alan Greenspan admitted to using a wrong model. So you only have to believe the former Federal Reserve chairman about his own job.

            The OECD has also admitted to being wrong.

            IMF admits to making major mistakes in their predictions for Greece.

            Sure looks like a systemic problem to me…

          • Nornagest says:

            Do we have to have this exact stupid argument in every thread?

          • @baconbacon

            There is an important difference between a mistake someone else wouldn’t make, and a mistake anyone could make.

  7. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    If you wanted to do math which would be unlikely to have any practical use in the reasonably near future, what strategy would you use?

    • biblicalsausage says:

      I’d calculate progressively high powers of two by hand: 2, 4, 8, 16 . . .

      But I’m guessing that’s not what you’re asking about. 🙂

      • Charles F says:

        There’s also the option of just working your way through project euler (or old putnam problems), if you want something basically equivalent to that, but a little bit more fun.

    • Orpheus says:

      Do a degree in mathematics? I am not sure I understand the question. Quite a lot (maybe even most?) of the reaserch in math lacks any kind of practical application.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        The question was inspired by hearing about someone who was disappointed to find that his work on high-dimensional sphere-packing had applications in cryptography.

    • bintchaos says:

      In mathematical physics it would be time crystals– no practical use for those yet.
      In theoretical mathematics, anything to do with Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe probably.

    • rlms says:

      Hardy was famously wrong when he claimed “Nothing I have ever done is of the slightest practical use.” and “No one has yet discovered any warlike purpose to be served by the theory of numbers or relativity, and it seems unlikely that anyone will do so for many years.”, but I think you could easily find a specific area of number theory that is unlikely to ever have practical implications.

    • Erasmus Kradle says:

      Andrej Bauer’s recent, free-as-in-freedom survey “Five stages of accepting constructive mathematics” (Bull. Amer. Math. Soc., 2017) is an accessible introduction to a fascinating mathematical discipline that has a unblemished track-record of demonstrating no practical utility whatsoever.

      From a psychological point of view, learning constructive mathematics is agonizing, for it requires one to first unlearn certain deeply ingrained intuitions and habits acquired during classical mathematical training.

      In her book On Death and Dying, psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages through which people reach acceptance of life’s traumatizing events: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

      We shall follow her path.

      (emphasis as in the original)  Kudos to Doron Zeilberg’s Opinions weblog for drawing attention to Bauer’s work, albeit Zeilberger’s review is not uncritical:

      I just finished reading (parts of) a fascinating, beautifully written, sermon, by Constructive Mathematician Andrej Bauer, preaching the merits of constructive mathematics, and showing how one can get almost everything dear to the classical mathematician without the pernicious law of excluded middle.

      While I admire the eloquence of Bauer, I, being an ultra-finitist, could not relate to it. It read like Martin Luther’s critique of Thomas Aquinas. Suppose that you an atheist, or agnostic, or Jewish, or Buddhist, then they are both wrong, and their quibbles over minutiae are at best amusing.

      Fun! 🙂  In greater breath and depth, Michael Harris’ book Mathematics Without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation (2015), in particular the discussion of the crucial role of intention in mathematical practice — per Harris’ chapter 7 “The habit of clinging to an ultimate ground” — provides an accessible sociological / cognitive deconstruction of mathematical / philosophical constructivism.

      SSC readers who appreciate literary-mathematical-philosophical puns, aphorisms, and heresies — e.g., “All Hilbert spaces are alike; every variety has its own ulterior motives” — will enjoy Bauer’s, Zeilberg’s, and Harris’ surveys of constructivism.

      Is there good mathematics here? One central intention of constructivist mathematical formalisms is eminently respectable: to more clearly understand, and more constructively delineate, the mysterious boundary that separates provable from unprovable mathematical propositions.

      Caveat  The US military does fund constructivist mathematical research, in support of the stated objective:

      The computational proof assistants being developed … will facilitate the large-scale formalization of logic and mathematics, with far-reaching practical implications for mathematics and information science. …

      As this new foundation becomes better understood and better implemented, it has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the relation between mathematics and computation, and to underlie the development of powerful, practical tools for the working scientist in fields farther removed from pure mathematics such as hardware and software verification, cyber-security, artificial intelligence, robotics, and human-computer interaction.

      Needless to say, these mathematical objectives are of central concern to the broader rationalist / MIRI / LW / transhumanist (etc.) community. Conversely, a precondition of the mathematical community’s respect is reciprocal evidence of respect for the mathematical literature. The above works — with their extensive contextual references — present a helpful start! 🙂

      • Iain says:

        This is somewhat covered by your caveat, but I feel the need to emphasize: in the context of the Curry-Howard correspondence, which demonstrates a one-to-one relationship between formal proofs and computations (“A proof is a program, and the formula it proves is the type for the program”), constructive mathematics could turn out to be very practical indeed.

        • bzium says:

          Example application of proof assistants: CompCert.
          Even if somebody thinks that proof assistants in themselves are still pure math toys, you can hardly get more down to earth than a C compiler.

    • Charles F says:

      I think the strategy I would take is to work on a really hard problem. Probably the Riemann Hypothesis. Considering how many smarter people are putting time into it, it’s vanishingly unlikely anything I do will be of practical use. And if I do happen to solve it, I at least get a $1M consolation prize. The problem, of course, is accidental useful discoveries that fall short of solving it, but hopefully those are being picked fairly clean by the other people working on the problem.

      • bintchaos says:

        Oh I misunderstood Nancy’s question…she was really asking if there was a branch of theoretical mathematical research that couldn’t ever be used for war or to dominate other humans with opposing views.
        I dont think that is possible– even Dr. Bar-Yam spends most of his time scheming up ways to create artificial emergent systems to “defeat terrorism”.
        Its what caused Alexander Groethendieck to exile himself.

        Grothendieck’s first lectures – which he describes as “general orientation talks” – were given in Hanoi. But because of intensified bombing of the capital, a high-level decision was made tomove everyone to the secret location of the Faculty of Mathematics of Hanoi University. Grothendieck writes: “I then spent a week and a half at Hanoi University in evacuation outside the city (about 100 km from the capital); this time was largely devoted to a more specialized seminar on categories and homological algebra, with thirty to forty listeners, most of whom had followed me from Hanoi after attending the general orientation lectures.” It was a remarkable event in the history of mathematics: one of the giants of 20th-century mathematics delivering a short course on homological algebra in a remote forest hideout in a desperately poor country that was being “bombed back into the stone age” (U.S. Air Force General Curtis Le May’s phrase) by the most powerful military force the world had ever known.


        He left the IHES in 1970 after he discovered that some of their funding came from military sources. He discovered this in 1969 and, along with the other professors at the IHES, he persuaded the director, Léon Motchane, to take no further funding from the French military. However, when a few months later the IHES budget was very tight, the director went back on his word. Grothendieck tried to persuade all the professors to resign in protest but the others refused to follow his example. Grothendieck’s letter of resignation was dated 25 May 1970. However, Grothendieck had other problems for he wrote that at this time he was suffering a “spiritual stagnation”. He abandoned mathematics as the main focus of his energies and turned to political protest, particularly against nuclear proliferation. However, in contrast to the amazing impact of his mathematical work, his political campaigns were rather ineffective. In 1970-72 he held an appointment as visiting professor at the Collège de France, then a similar appointment at Orsay for 1972-73. In 1973 he accepted an appointment as professor at the University of Montpellier. He lectured and has some graduate students in Montpellier. He lived in Villecun near Lodeve from 1973 to 1980, then he moved to live in Mormoiron near Carpentras. He took leave during 1984-88 to direct research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He retired at age 60 in 1988 and the publication [2] was produced to honour that 60th birthday. In contrast to his acceptance of the 1966 Fields Medal, Grothendieck declined the Crafoord Prize in 1988.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          “Oh I misunderstood Nancy’s question…she was really asking if there was a branch of theoretical mathematical research that couldn’t ever be used for war or to dominate other humans with opposing views.”

          No, that’s not it, but you’ve supplied some angles which makes the question clearer in my mind.

          I believe the desire to do useless mathematics isn’t about avoiding complicity in dominance so much as it’s about wanting to get away from tiresomely complex, ill-defined, and painful world of ordinary experience. Mathematics (at least for those who have that sort of love) is beautiful, clean, and solid by comparison.

          This means that such a person wouldn’t just be avoiding military applications, they’d be avoiding commercial applications, too.

          I have no idea whether the use of Penrose tiles in toys and quilts would be practical enough to be annoying.

          It wouldn’t necessarily be a matter of finding a whole branch that couldn’t be applied, just an area of research.

          There wouldn’t be a problem with taking military money, I think, so long as the mathematician is sufficiently sure that the results won’t be applied.

          It seems to me that I see more about unexpected applications of discrete(?) mathematics (number theory and geometry), but that might be more a result of that sort of math being easier to write about for a general audience.

          Question for utilitarians: The desire to do useless mathematics is anti-utilitarian except to the extent that people enjoy the mathematics. Still, some of that mathematics turns out to be useful, and might not be discovered if it weren’t for people who don’t want their math to have applications, or at least they want to work in territory that doesn’t have applications.

          Should utilitarians support useless math?

          • bintchaos says:

            It seems to me that I see more about unexpected applications of discrete(?) mathematics (number theory and geometry), but that might be more a result of that sort of math being easier to write about for a general audience.


            Oh…pardon–something like the Bourbakians maybe?
            But instead of teaching math, relating math to general audiences?
            But Number Theory and Geometry do already have practical applications. Fractal geometry modeling is common today.
            Maybe the theoretical mathematics of MUH like I said before.

            In physics and cosmology, the mathematical universe hypothesis (MUH), also known as the Ultimate Ensemble, is a speculative “theory of everything” (TOE) proposed by the cosmologist Max Tegmark.


            Or maybe M-theory.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            The “ravelry” (pun!) of mathematician Daina Taimina’s Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes — the book that won the coveted Diagram Prize for 2009 provides pretty much exactly the relief-from-reality that Nancy’s comment requests.

            For visually oriented SSC readers, there’s a TedX talk by Taimina too (video here, transcript here).

            Bill Thurston wrote an entirely impracticable yet widely quoted Preface for Taimina’s book (page 9 of this PDF).

            Many people have an impression, based on years of schooling, that mathematics is an austere and formal subject concerned with complicated and ultimately confusing rules for the manipulation of numbers, symbols, and equations, rather like the preparation of a complicated income tax return, where there are myriad unexplained steps, rules, exceptions, and gotchas.

            Good mathematics is quite opposite to this. Mathematics is an art of human understanding. …

            Our brains are complicated devices, with many specialized modules working behind the scenes to give us an integrated understanding of the world. Mathematical concepts are abstract, so it ends up that there are many different ways they can sit in our brains. A given mathematical concept might be primarily a symbolic equation, a picture, a rhythmic pattern, a short movie — or best of all, an integrated combination of several different representations.

            The non-symbolic mental models for mathematical concepts are extremely important, but unfortunately, many of them are hard to share.

            Mathematics sings when we feel it in our whole brain. People are generally inhibited about even trying to share their personal mental models. People like music, but they are afraid to sing. You only learn to sing by singing. …

            I hope this book gives you pause for thought and changes your way of thinking about mathematics.

            From the above Taimina-Thurston perspective, there’s scant difference between the objectives of mathematical practice and the objectives of (at least some varieties of) psychiatric practice, is there?

            Aside:  in high-tech / high-IQ / analytic communities, a psychiatric practice explicitly centering upon “Dialectic Mathematical Therapy” (DMT) — conceived as a rationalism-friendly Taimina-Thurston-inspired variant of Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) — might well be oversubscribed from the get-go! 🙂

            More broadly, if it is true that “strategy is about radical cognitive transformation; everything else is tactics”, then the objectives of Taimina’s work, as perceived through Thurston’s cognition-centric lens, are strategically transformative in both their mathematical and therapeutic aspects.

            ————

            Q (from Nancy)  Should utilitarians support useless math?

            A To the degree that radical cognitive transformation, both individual and social, is a desirably “utilitarian” outcome, the Taimina-Thurston answer is “yes, definitely”.

            Conversely, alt.conservatives should sustain their present-day tactics, of deprecating and/or minimizing the practice of “useless” mathematics — e.g. by mockery, personal abuse, doxing, and quenching of mathematical research resources — on the grounds that an enhanced capacity for useless mathematics is inseparably associated to progressive cognition. We mustn’t tolerate that, surely? 🙂

            The broader point of this comment is that any variety of mathematics whatsoever, to the degree that it is creatively fun, will foster modes of human cognition that oppose alt.boeotian social objectives.

          • bintchaos says:

            But by Erasmus own argument even “mathematical whimsy” serves a practical purpose…psychotherapy and pleasure?

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            Yes.

            Nancy opined (in her comment above) “The desire to do useless mathematics isn’t about avoiding complicity in dominance so much as it’s about wanting to get away from tiresomely complex, ill-defined, and painful world of ordinary experience.”

            Countless human quests — including both psychotherapy and creative mathematics, and also life-adventures like romance, marriage, parenting, religion-embracing, professionalism, and even the thoroughgoing embrace of innumerable ideological “isms” (including rationalism) — are motivated by the same innately creative human desire, namely (in Nancy’s well-conceived and well-turned phrase) “to escape a world that is tiresomely complex, ill-defined, and painful”.

            Hence, Gryffindor forever! 🙂

          • Nornagest says:

            Alt.boeotian? You’re not even trying, John.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

              alt.Boeotian   … instead, maybe alt.Slytherin? 🙂

          • Nornagest says:

            alt.anything would be a tell, to be honest.

          • Erasmus Kradle says:

            “Tells” play different roles in different games (notably, Blind Man’s Bluff Poker) 🙂

          • Nornagest says:

            If you’re trying to say that you don’t care about being identified as John Sidles, I figured that out about a dozen bans ago.

            You are not welcome here. Please go away and never come back.

          • random832 says:

            @Nornagest

            I haven’t been around long enough to know the whole history, but I do remember that the last time he was banned there was substantial discussion, and no real conclusion (except in the sense that it’s Scott’s blog and therefore nobody else’s decision, either on tolerating when he comes back or finally banning him again when he crosses some threshold), on the proposition that maybe he shouldn’t be.

    • Brad says:

      If you wanted to do math which would be unlikely to have any practical use in the reasonably near future, what strategy would you use?

      String theory 😉

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      Set theory is super useless. Homotopy theory is probably useless (it describes real things but is too sensitive to approximation errors, and is mostly interesting in very high dimensions). Finite group theory is surprisingly useless; those intricate symmetries don’t show up in nature I think.

      Many big conjectures (above all the Hodge conjecture) seem very useless but who knows what will be involved in solving them.

  8. Frequently, in conversations about universal healthcare, the hypothetical of “so why don’t you call for nationalizing the food industry then?” is raised, but the real reason that universal healthcare is superior to private healthcare is because the private healthcare market will never ever ever ever be as free as the food market is.

    With food, you need to make sure that it meets hygeine standards, but apart from that, it’s not really difficult to make, discounting the occasional bad cook, but the point is; it’s not exactly open heart surgery to bake a tray of cookies. The range of failure allowed for food is also wider, and we’ve all just sort of accepted that we might eat something that upsets our stomach sometimes, but there are other markets which can be even freer than the food market, such as the market for cheap gadgets. As the inherent risk of something goes down, and the skill needed to keep it safe goes down, the more willing human beings are to accept price vs quality trade-offs.

    We can accept that a cheap toy will be crappy whereas an expensive one will be high quality, and to a lesser degree we can accept that cheap food will be unhealthy for us, but we cannot accept the idea that a cheap doctor will kill us, whereas an expensive one will save us.

    Imagine a true free market, in which there were services that required credentials where doctors had to go to medical school and get a degree after 7 years or however long, and then there were services where a guy who looked up brain surgery on wikipedia could operate on you for the price of a coffee. Foolish and/or risky people in dire straits would die all the time.

    Back to the real world, and we see that most of the people who support a private system who are conservative, outside of the libertarian fringe, still support the credentialism necessary to avoid cheap and deadly doctors, and the bureaucracy needed to minimize the risks involved in medical practice. A true free market has a price vs quality scale, which in this case is a price vs risk scale, and the vast majority of people, including the right, wish to cut off the bottom end of that scale with state action.

    Libertarians are correct that the government makes healthcare more expensive than it would be in a free market, but this is because the rest of humanity, ideologically speaking, will not accept trade-offs when it comes to healthcare. This means that instead of people risking themselves with cheap doctors, they get into massive medical debt instead. Then healthcare becomes an issue of the poor missing out altogether, and being uninsured, rather than the poor having the opportunity to take a gamble when they’re sick as they would in a truly free market.

    As soon as you have this state of affairs, it is better for the government to step in and make the rich pay for the healthcare of the poor (or the healthy pay for the care of the sick as in the insurance pool based schemes). You may have the kind of mindset in which you can accept price vs risk trade-offs just so that the poor are able to afford care at all, but since that will come at the cost of lives, the rest of humanity (including the mainstream right) cannot accept it, and likely never will. Arguments could be made that general improvements to the field of medicine caused by absolutely free competition would lead to medicine being so advanced that even an idiot could successfuly perform surgery, but that would not happen overnight, and the trial and error involved would claim many lives before we come up with the EazyGeneralSurgeryBot5000™, so it’s way too much of a gamble.

    So, to re-iterate, the real reason healthcare should be free at the point of use is because healthcare is ridiculously expensive, and the reason it’s ridiculously expensive is because most ordinary human beings cannot accept the idea of trade-offs in medicine. Most ancap type arguments require a fundamental change to our risk profile, so we can accept massive short term risks (the trial and error of the free market) for massive long term improvements (free market utopia of flying bitcoin taxi services and nanobot bacta tanks that can heal all illness). I don’t think most people dispute that free experimentation leads to a greater potential for discovery than restricted experimentation, but that’s a long term gain for potentially unlimited short term disarray. Instead of arguing that things like healthcare will be more “efficient” in a free market, ancaps/market anarchists should be trying to promote a cultural change in risk priorities, since that’s what is actually preventing people from taking their ideas seriously on a fundamental level.

    • Anon. says:

      most ordinary human beings cannot accept the idea of trade-offs in medicine

      Hanson has a nice paper that tries to explain why this is the case: https://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/showcare.pdf

      Spoilers: it’s signaling

    • rlms says:

      Empirically, I don’t think healthcare needs to be free at the point of use. Japanese healthcare (for instance) has regulated, subsidised prices, but patients still have to pay 10-30% of them. It seems to work fine. More generally, I think the evidence suggests that “be a rich country and do anything other than what the US does” gets you a sensible healthcare system; nationalised systems are in the minority and don’t perform notably better (or worse) than the various insurance systems most developed countries have.

      • maybe_slytherin says:

        Yes, paying some small amount at the point of use is a pretty common strategy to reduce moral hazard. Both doctors and patients are likely to get quite a lot of debatably-necessary care if it’s free.

    • Salem says:

      1. Air travel is also an area where the inherent risk is high, the skill needed to keep it safe is high, and customers find it hard to assess the hidden risks. Does your thesis apply there too? Are consumers better off now, or in the past when air travel was more regulated? Indeed, many countries had government monopoly airlines – the airline equivalent of your proposal. Were consumers better off then?

      2. You seem to take it as given that loosening regulations in healthcare will lead to more deaths, and view it simply in terms of a price vs risk trade-off. This is an incomplete story. For example, many people think that loosening regulations to bring more drugs to market will save lives on net. Similarly, it may be that allowing more people to become doctors will save lives on net. It is possible (but by no means certain) that the marginal additional doctor will be lower quality than the average of present doctors, but it may well be that a patient treated by him will still be better off than going without treatment at all.

      3. You point out a number of drawbacks to a free market in healthcare. Your comment would be more persuasive if you contrasted them with the drawbacks of a government-run healthcare system. Surely, both have advantages and disadvantages. Many SSC readers, including me, live in countries with government-run healthcare systems, and it is not utopia!

      4. There are lots of markets for complicated and risky goods. Nationalisation is rarely proposed for them. Nationalisation is frequently proposed for simple and safe goods, such as the water supply or the train network. How confident are you that public desire for heavy regulation/nationalisation of healthcare has anything to do with your thesis, as opposed to, say, Hansonian reasons?

      • rahien.din says:

        The point of the original post is : inherent to each industry is a risk:benefit ratio, a degree to which it is essential to life, and a resource cost. Health care is the trifecta of essential, dangerous, and expensive. If the consumer has no choice as to whether they engage with that industry, their choice is either between expensive-and-safe or cheap-and-dangerous. This is microeconomics at its most basic.

        Nationalization can make things expensive for everybody, but it guarantees a certain level of safety, and it allows for distributed costs. When we think of other things that are essential, dangerous, and expensive, they are often nationalized : the military, the police force, fire companies, foreign intelligence services…

        2.

        many people think that loosening regulations to bring more drugs to market will save lives on net.

        it may be that allowing more people to become doctors will save lives on net.

        Non-sequitur. The original post pertains to nationalization of healthcare. You can have a nationalized health care system that employs more doctors and brings more drugs to market, too.

        4. … Hansonian reasons?

        Hanson. Hanson is skeptical that medicine even works. He thinks it’s merely signalling on the level of the selling of indulgences. In service of this aim, Hanson is willing to discount the very idea of expertise.

        Did you know that bathwater is even less potable if it contains a baby?

        • Salem says:

          The OP is making a far more subtle point than your distillation. You’re obviously wrong that the cost/benefit ratio, necessity or resource cost of an industry are inherent to it – they’re functions of available technology, the state of other industries, etc, and as such are subject to change. If you nationalise/privatise/de/regulate the industry, you change those factors.

          > If the consumer has no choice as to whether they engage with that industry, their choice is either between expensive-and-safe or cheap-and-dangerous. This is microeconomics at its most basic… Nationalization can make things expensive for everybody, but it guarantees a certain level of safety

          No, it doesn’t guarantee anything. But let’s steelman. Perhaps you mean it in fact achieves better safety levels. Do you have statistics demonstrating that, say, medical negligence is comparatively rarer in the NHS than in private medicine? (My understanding is the reverse, but maybe you’ll surprise me).

          You’re also confused about the microeconomics. Your seem to be assuming that medical costs come from the need to achieve safety, hence your purported trade-off. In reality, the most expensive medicine is the most risky. What’s good about the NHS is it makes dangerous treatments available. People don’t go with BUPA because they think the NHS is too risky, they go because they don’t want to spend a year in a waiting list, they want the consultant’s full attention, and they want their own room. That’s expensive, but the effect on the risk is marginal.

          > Non-sequitur. The original post pertains to nationalization of healthcare. You can have a nationalized health care system that employs more doctors and brings more drugs to market, too.

          Again, the original poster is far more subtle. He says that a free market system needs so much regulatory intervention for safety, that a nationalised system winds up as better. If in fact those regulations are counter-productive, then his argument seems far shakier.

          If the theory works, why don’t you engage with the examples I offer? Did national airlines work well? Was deregulation a disaster? OK, but maybe medicine is a special case. Is the NHS actually safer than private medicine? Are the tradeoffs worth it?

          The funny thing is I rather like the NHS, in a not-broke-don’t-fix-it kinda way, and because I assume there must be good arguments in its favour, but reading the arguments of people who support nationalisation make me incline more and more towards privatising it.

          • rahien.din says:

            Eh, I just think you straw-manned the original post. I’ll let its author correct me if needed.

            Your seem to be assuming that medical costs come from the need to achieve safety, hence your purported trade-off.

            Medical costs are dizzyingly multifactorial. Safety is a major factor, but notably, there are non-risky treatments that are expensive purely because the patient is in medical extremis. Consider ACTH for the treatment of infantile spasms.[1]

            I think that the risk:benefit ratio and the cost of a treatment are major drivers of the patient’s decision. The patient’s decision is the fundamental unit of health care.

            We must consider the patient’s options in comparison. Medical treatment on the whole has demand inelasticity, but, different treatment options for a particular disease may have positive cross-elasticity.

            An example from my practice : I have a patient with bad epilepsy and want to start clobazam. In my experience it is very effective and well-tolerated, but it can be very expensive. If the patient’s insurer will not pay, it is thousands of dollars every month out-of-pocket. Clonazepam is less effective and less well-tolerated, but it is pretty cheap. Sometimes my patients will opt for clonazepam instead of clobazam. They are usually worse off – less seizure control, more sedation – but that’s the best they can afford.

            [1] $28,000 a vial for a byproduct of the meatpacking industry. We now use the much-cheaper and just-as-effective prednisolone, thanks in large part to research performed by employees of a nationalized healthcare system in the UK.

            If the theory works, why don’t you engage with the examples I offer? Did national airlines work well? Was deregulation a disaster? OK, but maybe medicine is a special case.

            I don’t know much about nationalized airlines. I don’t consider them germane -and seemingly you allow that they are not germane. Thus, I feel justified in ignoring them until you explain why you think they are relevant.

      • Iain says:

        The information asymmetry of healthcare is significantly higher than the information asymmetry of air travel, and its elasticity of demand is much lower than healthcare. If every citizen could potentially be required to purchase a crushingly expensive plane ticket on short notice, and a large number of planes crashed unpredictably every day despite the heroic efforts of the airline industry, and the process of identifying the best plane for your journey required years of education to perform at a respectable level, then we might treat the airline industry rather differently.

      • beleester says:

        1. AFAIK, airplanes are still as highly regulated as ever when it comes to safety. The deregulation of the industry has mostly been about letting airlines set their own fees and routes and so on. Which makes sense: airplane crashes are vivid and consumers aren’t willing to accept increases in risk there, but that has no bearing on how many planes are flying, where they go, or how much they should charge.

        4. Water and transport get calls for nationalization for a different reason – they’re natural monopolies. It’s impractical and inefficient for two competing water companies to run parallel pipes to the same houses, or for two competing railroad companies to run parallel tracks for their trains. It might even be impossible, depending on how much land there is to build on. For the same reason, nobody complains that the government has a monopoly on building roads.

        • Salem says:

          It’s impractical and inefficient for two competing water companies to run parallel pipes to the same houses, or for two competing railroad companies to run parallel tracks for their trains.

          And yet multiple water companies can supply me through the same pipes.

          nobody complains that the government has a monopoly on building roads.

          ?!?!

          • random832 says:

            And yet multiple water companies can supply me through the same pipes.

            How do they stop their water from mixing together?

          • Brad says:

            I’ve heard of electricity being sold that way, and oil on a commercial basis, but never water.

          • random832 says:

            Phone service is another one, which is interesting because we also really do have parallel communication networks.

            And ultimately the scope of competition in these cases is limited by the real network operator: if they don’t allow it or charge too much, there’s no room for these ‘resellers’ – and the fact that they do is AFAIK largely enabled by regulation in all of these cases.

          • Randy M says:

            @random832: One company supplies the hot, another the cold.

          • Salem says:

            I’ve heard of electricity being sold that way, and oil on a commercial basis, but never water.

            In the UK we also have gas, telephony, internet, etc, sold this way. Yes, including water.

            And ultimately the scope of competition in these cases is limited by the real network operator: if they don’t allow it or charge too much, there’s no room for these ‘resellers’ – and the fact that they do is AFAIK largely enabled by regulation in all of these cases.

            This is largely true.

          • Brad says:

            Is the water treated as fungible? That’s how the electric market works. You aren’t really buying electricity from a specific provider, more like offset credits by ensuring that somewhere on the grid someone is using that amount of “green” energy.

            In the oil case, I believe it is non-fungible but the quantities are very large and so mixing is only an issue at the ends.

            In the telecom case it’s a packet switched network.

          • Aapje says:

            @Brad

            In the telecom case it’s a packet switched network.

            The wireless companies also have their own networks (at least where I live), so it’s like having separate pipes.

          • random832 says:

            The wireless companies also have their own networks (at least where I live),

            As I mentioned, there are parallel communication networks, but there are also resellers of the big four (in the US, AT&T/Verizon/Sprint/T-Mobile) wireless companies’ services.

        • Matt M says:

          For the same reason, nobody complains that the government has a monopoly on building roads.

          Hi, I’m Matt, aka the first libertarian you’ve ever met in your life, apparently.

          • beleester says:

            Okay, “nobody” was hyperbole, but the set of people calling for the government to get out of the road-building business is pretty small compared to the people calling for them to get out of the airline business or the healthcare business. Airline deregulation got through Congress, but I don’t know any city that’s gone for pavement deregulation.

        • baconbacon says:

          they’re natural monopolies

          Luckily not true, but sadly not updated in econ texts.

          It’s impractical and inefficient for two competing water companies to run parallel pipes to the same houses, or for two competing railroad companies to run parallel tracks for their trains.

          Natural monopolies are not defined by impracticality or efficiency, they are defined by the ability to use monopoly power to extract consumer surplus and to prevent competition without government support.

          • beleester says:

            Luckily not true, but sadly not updated in econ texts.

            Can you give me a source, then, since you apparently know better than my econ textbook?

            As for the definition of a natural monopoly, that’s an accurate definition, but the reason a business is able to prevent competition without government support is usually because it’s impractical for a second company to enter the market. For instance, because of the extreme startup costs involved in laying down a second set of power lines or water pipes.

      • bean says:

        Air travel is also an area where the inherent risk is high, the skill needed to keep it safe is high, and customers find it hard to assess the hidden risks. Does your thesis apply there too? Are consumers better off now, or in the past when air travel was more regulated? Indeed, many countries had government monopoly airlines – the airline equivalent of your proposal. Were consumers better off then?

        Sorry, but beelster is right on this one. Deregulation had absolutely nothing to do with safety. My current job is part of the airline safety complex, and things have gotten more strict since the 70s, not less. Customers have definitely benefited from lower fares and more options. They haven’t gotten the opportunity to do safety trades, except maybe in flying Allegiant, and even then the FAA sets fairly strict limits on what can be done. (Of course, unsafe brain surgery is only going to hurt you. A falling airliner might hurt people on the ground, and looks a lot better on the news.)

        • Salem says:

          I’m aware that the US has not yet privatised air traffic control for some reason, but many countries have (over here it’s part-privatised). That’s privatising (part of) safety.

          • bean says:

            Not really. ‘Privatized’ ATC is not run on a competitive basis like privatized medicine might be. Airlines don’t get to chose which ATC provider they work with. There may or may not be competition for the contract to do ATC, but whoever ends up with the contract has a monopoly on whatever services they are providing, and the users of the airspace have to follow their directions.

            And there’s a lot more to the safety work than ATC. My job is basically to write documentation on how to look for cracks in the airframe and what to do if you find them. I work for the manufacturer, but my stuff gets mandated by the FAA. The airlines are free to chose to buy from the other guy, but the other guy also has to appease the FAA, and while I’d say that our planes are a little safer, the difference is very small and dwarfed by noise. Flying within the US or EU, you have very little ability to trade between safety and price. International gives you a bit more flexibility on that, but even then, it’s not something airlines can or do compete on.

          • gbdub says:

            It seems like health care is already at least as privatized as air travel is ever likely to be – most medical practices, insurance companies, drug companies, etc. are already non-government, just that there’s a ton of regulations to meet that tend to set a price floor (just as “deregulation” ended price-fixing for the airlines, but taxes, safety standards, and fuel costs set a hard floor on prices)

            I guess we don’t have the equivalent of Medicare Airlines, but that’s about it.

            So the question is less about “privatization” and more about “degree of regulation”.

          • BBA says:

            I guess we don’t have the equivalent of Medicare Airlines, but that’s about it.

            That would be Essential Air Service. It’s government-subsidized flights on privately owned planes, but then Medicare doesn’t own any hospitals either.

            But I’m generally agreed that if you aren’t going full ancap (and only about ten people want that, and they all post here) then we’re just haggling over the price.

          • cassander says:

            It seems like health care is already at least as privatized as air travel is ever likely to be – most medical practices, insurance companies, drug companies, etc. are already non-government, just that there’s a ton of regulations to meet that tend to set a price floor (just as “deregulation” ended price-fixing for the airlines, but taxes, safety standards, and fuel costs set a hard floor on prices)

            For this to be the case, it would have to be be all but illegal to actually buy tickets directly from airlines on an as needed basis. Instead, everyone would be required by law to buy massively subsidized “airline insurance” that will buy them as many tickets as they need to buy, but which is required to charge 90 year old grandmas on ventilators as much as traveling salesmen.

          • skef says:

            For this to be the case, it would have to be all but illegal to actually buy tickets directly from airlines on an as needed basis. Instead, everyone would be required by law to buy massively subsidized “airline insurance” that will buy them as many tickets as they need to buy, but which is required to charge 90 year old grandmas on ventilators as much as traveling salesmen.

            “all but illegal”: LOL.

            You can walk into any doctor’s office and negotiate a cash price for a service. Whether they can legally provide that service to you is governed by the same medical rules as if you were in an insurance relationship. If they won’t deal with you, it’s likely because they are out-right employed by an organization that doesn’t want to do business this way, or have signed exclusive contracts.

    • Jiro says:

      This argument implies a certain level of nationalized health care, but not necessarily the level we have. For instance, it doesn’t imply forcing people to buy “insurance” that covers routine care (and certainly not calling it insurance instead of taxation and redistribution.)

    • @rlms

      You’re right, actual universal healthcare is a minority. I retract that. In all these cases, health costs are high, so the government steps in to correct that, even if it’s subsidization and insurance pools rather than outright paying for everything, so it’s completely free at the point of use. Mandated insurance is different than universal healthcare, but in both cases the government is trying to ensure that poor people don’t get in massive debt from medical expenses.

      I think universal healthcare in America is inevitable, because the insurance pool shenanigans aren’t going well, and it’s the next rabbit to pull out of the hat.

      @Salem
      1: The risk is high, and the skill needed to keep it safe is high, but the cost of training pilots to attain that skill, and the cost of designing planes to be safe, while very expensive, apparently is not as high a percentage of total costs as the equivalent training is in the medical field, which is why there are more complaints about expensive healthcare than airlines. Airlines can afford (relatively) low prices, whereas the medical industry cannot.

      Consumers were worse off in the past with government run airlines because the eventual lowered costs did not lead to massive increases in fatalities, but lower prices instead. They didn’t throw out all the safety regulations though. It was simply the case that the airlines were privatized and opened up in terms of their ownership structure. They were still subject to safety rules.

      If you completely deregulated the airlines, then there could be terrible pilots flying around in terrible planes for low prices, though there are a number of inherent differences that would intervene in the comparison, such as terrible pilots endangering their own lives and random people they could crash into, whereas a terrible doctor is only endangering the lives of his immediate patients. In addition, there are minimum mechanical and fuel costs to get into the air, which are large, whereas in theory, a doctor just has to get some cheap cutting tools, and some cheap quack medicine pills, as well as it being easier to hide medical mishaps than airline mishaps. Deregulated airlines would be a lot more disasterous as they would introduce an externality element that is less present in the medical case.

      2: I did mention this, but the problem is that it’s a massive gamble. It was a gamble deregulating the airline industry too, but I have to assume they didn’t massively deregulate the parts of the airline industry that had to do with safety when they privatized them.

      For example, many people think that loosening regulations to bring more drugs to market will save lives on net. Similarly, it may be that allowing more people to become doctors will save lives on net. It is possible (but by no means certain) that the marginal additional doctor will be lower quality than the average of present doctors, but it may well be that a patient treated by him will still be better off than going without treatment at all.

      These things are all possible, and I actually think would happen in the long run, but since we live in the short run, what actually matters is the moral saleability of an idea. Your average person isn’t running the statistics on these things. If complete free market healthcare gave us 2 negative outcomes for every 6 positive outcomes, the negative outcomes and horror stories would be seen as more significant somehow. Certain things shouldn’t be allowed to happen at all.

      It’s easier to reduce the horror if the negative and positive outcomes are more abstract. Loosening drug regulations is more abstract than allowing cranks to do surgery and carve people up.

      It’s also possible this is totally wrong, and on net, it’s actually worse! Without doing the experiment we don’t know, and it’s too risky for anyone to want to try. In the long run, the trial and error experiment should walk its way towards better net outcomes, but that trial and error has a human cost.

      3:

      It’s not that government run healthcare doesn’t have disadvantages. It’s more that government run healthcare is less morally fraught, so it’s kind of an attractor for rich enough countries, and as my thesis goes, once we are compelled to make healthcare safe, we make it expensive, and then the government starts to take over more than just liscensing, so that the high costs created by liscensing don’t freeze people out. At the end of this process you either get government mandated insurance, massive subsidization, or universal healthcare.

      This has disadvantages such as increased wait times, slowness to innovate and so on, but people can be assured that no one will accrue life ruining debt after a medical mishap, and that’s all that matters politics wise, which is why all developed countries have these protections, be it universal or other, and will probably have them until the capacity to fund them runs out.

      4: Just to be clear, I’m not saying that people want healthcare nationalized because it’s risky, I’m saying that we wanted healthcare to be regulated heavily because it’s risky, and this regulation in turn made it expensive, and it’s the expense that leads to calls for nationalization at most, or subsidization at least.

      It’s popular to want rail subsidized in the UK because it’s perceived to have been cheaper back when it was nationalized, even though IIRC there’s a big meta-study of studies saying otherwise somewhere (although it could be more expensive relative to other modern expenses).

      I’ve never heard anyone propose water supply subsidization (water is cheap), and it’s certainly not a popular proposal, which is what I’m getting at.

      I’ll read that Hanson article now.

      • Salem says:

        It was simply the case that the airlines were privatized and opened up in terms of their ownership structure. They were still subject to safety rules… I have to assume they didn’t massively deregulate the parts of the airline industry that had to do with safety when they privatized them.

        But it’s more than simply opening up the ownership structure, isn’t it. They removed huge swathes of regulation that were ostensibly about safety, but really about feather-bedding and incumbency protection. And why do you assume they didn’t privatise the safety-related parts? Lots of countries have private air traffic control (here in the UK it’s partly privatised). When I talk to Americans about it they act shocked that we could compromise safety in such a way. But they fly here (or to Canada!) just fine.

        It’s this insensitivity to the evidence that makes people talk mockingly about a National Food Service. There are countries with different safety regimes. Does that evidence not count? Why is deregulation a “gamble” but maintaining the regulations is not? Why is denying patients potentially life-saving drugs not a human cost? Why is it not morally fraught to make me wait a year in agonising pain when I need a hip replacement?

        I mostly agree with you on a descriptive level – people have an anti-market bias and a fantasy of control that makes them think that negative outcomes can be entirely eliminated if only the government decrees it. Any negative outcome is blamed on a “lack of regulation” – even if it happens in a government-run service, such as the Grenfell fire. Because healthcare is seen as a sacred value, this means that the private sector gets bogged down in huge regulation, which makes it super-expensive, and sometimes leads to nationalisation.

        Re-nationalising the water supply is part of the Labour manifesto, and is broadly popular. The original privatisation was very controversial (how dare you make a profit out of selling what’s necessary for all life!) and if you’ve never heard anyone propose that no-one should have to pay for water, you’re a luckier man than me.

        But the difference is that I don’t see this as inevitable. That’s like saying that we’re stuck paying the corvee because people are too blinded by respect for the aristocracy. Ideas change. We were bequeathed a mostly-market system by our forbears, and we need to hold onto as much of it as we can, while trying to educate people so the tide turns. I don’t think we need to change people’s risk profiles – people genuinely think that if we didn’t have government schools, only the rich would be able to afford education. If we could get past the anti-market bias, and make them realise that education would be better and cheaper without government interference, the alleged “risk” wouldn’t be a serious point. I think you are straining too much to explain in terms of risk what is a simple fantasy of control.

        The public don’t support regulation because they’ve noticed that medical negligence is more common in countries with less regulation. They simply think that if you declare that doctors must be super-qualified, everyone will have a super-qualified doctor. Similarly with the minimum wage, affordable housing, etc. We don’t need to change their risk profiles, we need to educate them about systems.

        • bean says:

          But it’s more than simply opening up the ownership structure, isn’t it. They removed huge swathes of regulation that were ostensibly about safety, but really about feather-bedding and incumbency protection.

          Such as? Again, I do this for a living, and have read a fair bit about deregulation, at least in the US. All deregulation here did was repeal the authority of the CAB to set fares and routes. This may not be the case in the UK/Europe, but the airlines are still hugely regulated. I’ve heard that it’s easier to put something in a human body than it is to put it on an airliner. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s not incredible based on my experience.

          And why do you assume they didn’t privatise the safety-related parts? Lots of countries have private air traffic control (here in the UK it’s partly privatised). When I talk to Americans about it they act shocked that we could compromise safety in such a way. But they fly here (or to Canada!) just fine.

          This is one American who is excited that we’re looking at going the same way, but it’s still more like privatizing road construction/maintenance than privatizing the whole network.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I’ve heard that it’s easier to put something in a human body than it is to put it on an airliner.

            Heyooooooo!

          • Aapje says:

            I’ve heard that it’s easier to put something in a human body than it is to put it on an airliner.

            Some people would argue that it depends on your looks, height or social skills.

        • pontifex says:

          The reason why a National Health Service makes sense and a National Food Service does not is simple: healthcare will never be a real market.

          To have a market you have to have at least people choosing freely from multiple providers, and people choosing knowledgeably rather than randomly. Neither of those are true in health care. If you are having some kind of medical emergency, they’re just going to take you to the closest hospital most of the time. There is no choice there. Even in cases where you could theoretically choose, almost nobody has the required information to do so competently. Most people will never do the research to make an intelligent choice between different treatments or hospitals. And even if those two things were met (and they almost never are), government regulations mean that what’s being offered by different providers is pretty similar.

          So you have this fake Potemkin Market and people telling you that it’s “the free market.” Guys, it’s about as free as the election for Comrade Stalin in the USSR. There’s no choices, and even when there are, nobody choosing intelligently. You need some other non-market mechanism. It may or may not be single-payer, but it’s sure not going to look like the market for food.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Those flaws might be serious, but they aren’t always the case.

            Real medical emergencies, where every minute counts, are rare. If I get crushing chest pain, sure, I’ll call an ambulance to go to the closest hospital. But if I’ve got something a little less urgent – say, the time a couple years ago when I broke my collarbone – I can spend fifteen minutes or so to get to one that takes my insurance. I think there’re a lot more cases in the second group than in the first.

            Also, I’d be lost if I tried to compare every detail of medical providers, but there’re a lot of other markets like that. What’s the advantage of whole wheat flour over white? What’s the advantage of this plumber over that plumber? Well, I might look at brief overview articles, or I might ask my friends for recommendations, or I’m lucky enough to know a dietician so I might ask her advice. It wouldn’t be a perfect choice, but I’m glad I can make it.

          • skef says:

            Also, I’d be lost if I tried to compare every detail of medical providers, but there’re a lot of other markets like that. What’s the advantage of whole wheat flour over white? What’s the advantage of this plumber over that plumber? Well, I might look at brief overview articles, or I might ask my friends for recommendations, or I’m lucky enough to know a dietician so I might ask her advice. It wouldn’t be a perfect choice, but I’m glad I can make it.

            If this sort of comparison is valid, doesn’t it extend right through all the diagnostic aspects of medicine? What’s the advantage of this drug over that? Which tests are called for given my symptoms, and what should I do as a result? It’s just a matter of research, right?

          • Evan Þ says:

            It’s very imperfect, and making it better can require taking a lot more time, which is why I almost always defer to the doctor’s opinion on diagnosis and treatment. (The one big exception is that I still apply isopropyl alcohol to pimples and scratches. Despite the doctor saying it probably won’t help, I have the long experience on that one point to know that it does.) However, it’s still better than nothing, and probably better than the government making the choice for me.

            What’s more, I could say the same thing about plumbers, or landscapers, or home contractors, or pillow manufacturers, or any number of other fields where we know the free market works. If my argument is invalid in medicine, why shouldn’t it be invalid there? But if it works in those fields – as we’ve observed it to work – why shouldn’t it work in medicine too?

          • skef says:

            What’s more, I could say the same thing about plumbers, or landscapers, or home contractors, or pillow manufacturers, or any number of other fields where we know the free market works. If my argument is invalid in medicine, why shouldn’t it be invalid there? But if it works in those fields – as we’ve observed it to work – why shouldn’t it work in medicine too?

            With plumbing, landscaping, and home contracting, it can be difficult to judge value for money. But for the most part, it is less difficult to judge what counts as success aside from cost. Not always, but generally.

            With medicine, people outside of the field are often not in a position to accurately judge what a very good doctor could do about their situation, so that they can compare it to what a prospective doctor will do, or what their current doctor has done.

          • Evan Þ says:

            But for customer choice, how important is the difference between “nope, can’t cure your disease” and “sure, we can stop your foundation from slipping, but it’ll cost several hundred thousand that you can’t afford”? In each case, the customer can’t get a practicable solution from this doctor/contractor, but might be able to from a better one.

          • skef says:

            “I am in a maze of generic libertarian arguments, all alike”

          • Evan Þ says:

            Hey, there’re decent arguments against a libertarian approach to healthcare. The big one is unpredictability: I in my twenties have absolutely no idea how much healthcare I’ll require ten years from now, let alone fifty. Any health insurance plan I sign onto now will just be a guess, and if something goes wrong… well, after one broken collarbone, I can get on a better plan for the next one if I need to. But if I get a chronic illness – which IIRC is the majority of healthcare costs – it’ll probably be with me for the rest of my life and excluded as a preexisting condition if I try to get a better insurer, so I’ve no chance to correct errors there.

            I’d love to see any libertarian response to this (Dr. Friedman?). But let’s point to the real market failures, not places where the market is already working in analogous fields.

          • skef says:

            What we were discussing was the potential difficulty with aggregate quality judgments for different doctors or medical facilities, as a result of how things generally go. Someone not in a position to judge what treatment they should receive (the diagnostics argument) may also not be in a position to judge what a good outcome is (unless they can be completely cured, which is often not the case, particularly for problems other than not-too-severe injuries and common communicable illnesses — although with the latter doctors frequently don’t help anyway). This is a potential problem challenge for “Yelp for Doctors” as opposed to “Yelp for Plumbers”.

            In “response” you said a version of “OK, what about this kind of not all that common case”. That isn’t responsive to the earlier concerns. You’re not tracking the debate so much as taking me on a tour of the libertarian Stations of the Cross.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Someone not in a position to judge what treatment they should receive (the diagnostics argument) may also not be in a position to judge what a good outcome is

            Ah, thanks for clarifying! I think I see what you’re pointing to now – are you talking about something like “my hip is hurting; I’ve no idea what’s the problem; my doctor says it’s probably X and recommends Y,” where the patient not only has no idea whether Y is a good idea for X, but no idea whether X is the right diagnosis? Yes, I think I can see a difference between medicine and other things here – everyone can see what foods have whole-wheat flour even if they disagree on what that means, and I don’t think it’s that hard to tell whether a foundation is settling (or, at least, I think contractors will come out to give you a quote.)

            I don’t know what to say, in part because I’m not sure how big an issue this is in healthcare, or how good care people with these tough problems are getting under the current system anyway. Sometimes the pain is due to something doctors really will agree on (e.g. a broken hip or an inflamed tendon) but even there quality can very (e.g. does the doctor need to do an expensive X-ray before telling you your tendon’s inflamed). And if it isn’t (are there any stats on how often?)… maybe you’ll luck into a good doctor, or maybe not, and it seems to me that’s just as true under the current American system as the Canadian or British? But then, I really don’t have any basis for comparison there; I’ve seen someone try to navigate the American system, but never any other country’s.

            Thanks for explaining; it’s a tough question.

          • skef says:

            are you talking about something like “my hip is hurting; I’ve no idea what’s the problem; my doctor says it’s probably X and recommends Y,” where the patient not only has no idea whether Y is a good idea for X, but no idea whether X is the right diagnosis?

            That kind of direct problem, and also the indirect one of “Fred went to this doctor and died, and his wife says he’s a quack and is suing him, so maybe he’s a quack?”

            I don’t know what to say, in part because I’m not sure how big an issue this is in healthcare, or how good care people with these tough problems are getting under the current system anyway.

            Once source of evidence that I find relevant is that there is already (and probably perpetually) a parallel economy of supplements and other forms of alternative medicine that, when studied, seem to be of dubious benefit at best. So one risk of significant deregulation is that the overall healthcare system devolves into something that is much more in that direction.

            One of the libertarian arguments against that happening is that your insurance company is supposed to prevent that. But before people get to their 70s, serious medical conditions (beyond broken bones and the like) are relatively rare, and how are individual members supposed to judge whether Fred died because of an incurable disease or because his treatment was botched. (Not to mention strategies like rescission, which is the private contract version of making sure everyone is always guilty of something and prosecuting whoever becomes inconvenient.) The idea that it’s easy to avoid signing a contract that looks like it includes care in the face of serious illness, but doesn’t, seems naive to me.

          • pontifex says:

            What’s more, I could say the same thing about plumbers, or landscapers, or home contractors, or pillow manufacturers, or any number of other fields where we know the free market works. If my argument is invalid in medicine, why shouldn’t it be invalid there? But if it works in those fields – as we’ve observed it to work – why shouldn’t it work in medicine too?

            I don’t think it’s reasonable to compare the difficulty of figuring out whether your plumber was successful at unclogging the toilet with the difficulty of determining if a doctor’s diagnosis was correct. Or to compare whether a landscaper was successful at trimming the hedges and mowing the grass to evaluating cancer treatments.

            Also regulation is not a binary dichotomy. In a lot of industries we accept some government regulation but not full government control. For example, you are not allowed to sweeten bread with lead acetate, even if the market thinks it’s OK. But we don’t want to buy burritos from USGov (even when the Dems are in power)

          • Evan Þ says:

            @pontifex, unclogging a toilet is easy mode, more or less like giving someone an antibiotic which, after several days, they can see for themselves that it worked. There’re tougher plumbing problems, and tougher landscaping problems that only show up after a few really heavy rains, just like there’re tougher medical problems.

            And then, as skef points out, there’re even tougher medical problems that don’t really fit the analogy.

          • skef says:

            @pontifex, unclogging a toilet is easy mode, more or less like giving someone an antibiotic which, after several days, they can see for themselves that it worked.

            If you’re given an antibiotic for a virus that clears up after several days, you might also “see” for yourself that it worked.

          • pontifex says:

            @pontifex, unclogging a toilet is easy mode, more or less like giving someone an antibiotic which, after several days, they can see for themselves that it worked.

            For hundreds of years people fed each other liquid mercury, applied leeches and hot wax, and consumed literal snake oil because they could “see that it was working.” Of course, what they really saw was the body’s natural healing mechanism at work, plus randomness with sample size = 1, and their own sloppy epistemics. Similarly, no doubt someone could take a completely useless antibiotic and conclude that their doctor was a genius at curing the flu a few days later. Except the flu is a viral infection which is not affected by antibiotics.

            There’re tougher plumbing problems, and tougher landscaping problems that only show up after a few really heavy rains, just like there’re tougher medical problems.

            Plumbing is simply much better understood than medicine. The results of plumbing work are simply easier to inspect and understand than the results of medical work. The market has more useful information to report back from consumers to producers and less misinformation and noise.

            In any case, plumbing is regulated. For example, I can’t just dump my sewage into the local river, even though it would be convient for me. I can’t install new lead pipes even if I have a bunch sitting around and it’s a sunk cost. There are even building codes specifing how downward-sloping sewage pipes have to be.

          • keranih says:

            @ skef –

            With plumbing, landscaping, and home contracting, it can be difficult to judge value for money. But for the most part, it is less difficult to judge what counts as success aside from cost. Not always, but generally.

            With medicine, people outside of the field are often not in a position to accurately judge what a very good doctor could do about their situation,

            Skef, I find this unconvincing. People outside of landscaping have no clue what sort of total transformation a really good landscaper could do, either – vs creating a goddawful mess that dies completely the next winter and invades all the pipes in five years and falls on your house in ten years.

            People keep trying to come up with reasons that customers shouldnt be allowed to make choices for human medicine that they make for all other parts of their lives, and it continues to not make sense.

            I suggest instead that there is perhaps not that much difference in outcomes between really good docs and mediocre, uninspired ones, given the (relatively) high caliber of humans-who-want-to-be-physicians, and the licensing scheme we have in the USA.

            Furthermore, did people *start* discriminating on cost, I think that the various medical centers would come up with ways to offer consumers easily understood quality discriminators in order to convince consumers that paying the extra cost was worth it.

          • Iain says:

            Skef, I find this unconvincing. People outside of landscaping have no clue what sort of total transformation a really good landscaper could do, either – vs creating a goddawful mess that dies completely the next winter and invades all the pipes in five years and falls on your house in ten years.

            If your landscaping invades all your pipes in five years, then in five years you will probably have a pretty decent clue about the quality of your landscaper. If you have back pain five years after surgery for a herniated disk, what does that mean about the quality of your doctor?

            One important difference is the expected frequency of failure. If a landscaping job ends in tragedy, then the landscaper clearly did something wrong; if a cancer diagnosis ends in tragedy, then frequently there was nothing more the doctor could have done.

          • keranih says:

            If we’re talking expectations management, and how difficult it is to convince people that there are limits to what can be done…sure, I agree that’s an issue.

            But the makeup industry seems to chug along pretty well as it promises the moon and leaves most of us looking, well, average. And landscapers really can’t turn deserts into jungles.

            Which trails back around to what do we want from health care – do we want people to be objectively healthier than they would be under another type of care? Do we want them to be able to make more choices? Do we want them to be happier with the care they get? How about giving them the same care that they get now, but it’s cheaper? Something else?

            I suggest that a) we don’t have a common agreement on what the end goal is, b) that what maximizes one goal will not maximize others and c) given the variety of goals, the free market is really the only one that will supply a variety of goods so that most people can get what they most want.

            (Some people have pointed to what they see as a lot of goal post shifting on the part of health care reformers – arguing first for “healthier people” and then moving to “cheaper care” or “more equal access” as the opportunity arises. I think that in reality there are a variety of people with different goals and what sounds conflicting is just a variety of voices.)

          • skef says:

            People keep trying to come up with reasons that customers shouldnt be allowed to make choices for human medicine that they make for all other parts of their lives, and it continues to not make sense.

            I suggest instead that there is perhaps not that much difference in outcomes between really good docs and mediocre, uninspired ones, given the (relatively) high caliber of humans-who-want-to-be-physicians, and the licensing scheme we have in the USA.

            So our regulation scheme is a large part of what neutralizes what would otherwise be bad outcomes of consumer choice, but harnessing market forces within that scheme is the key to cost savings? Usually the market arguments are paired with pleas for deregulation.

          • keranih says:

            @ Skef –

            Regulation creates a floor to decreasing cost, which is why cost reduction efforts generally include a section on reducing inefficent regulation. I am not such a libertarian that I think we should do away with all regulation – I think that at a minimum, a regulation concerning truth in advertising is a good one (the state can’t force customers to make good choices but it can complicate the efforts of the seller to mislead the customer.)

            However, it’s pretty much true that regulations tend to codify a particular response to a quality issue. When other alternatives are invented to improve the quality at lower cost, the regulation may force the industry/seller to keep to the previous method even though better options exist.

            (As an example – in the US, food code sets limits on what is the ‘danger zone’ for food – the temperature zone where (within a set time) pathogens can grow. This temperature range is a cornerstone to food safety. And the regulation has shifted over time because of new data that indicated a better refinement.)

          • John Schilling says:

            If you’re given an antibiotic for a virus that clears up after several days, you might also “see” for yourself that it worked.

            Is this not a thing that doctors routinely do today, even when employer-provided health insurance, medicare, or the NHS is paying the bill? Doesn’t seem so much like a market failure as a universal medical failure.

          • skef says:

            Is this not a thing that doctors routinely do today, even when employer-provided health insurance, medicare, or the NHS is paying the bill? Doesn’t seem so much like a market failure as a universal medical failure.

            I don’t have data for you, but this is one thing I would expect to see less (but not none) of with more centralization. That impression may be based on the corresponding change in educational models, in which students seeing themselves and being seen as customers leads to a lot of practices that cost more and don’t really benefit them. In the end it’s a social change, leading to the question “what am I paying you for”, that is the big motivator.

            But that wasn’t the point. Stipulate that it happens everywhere: it’s still the sort of effect that interferes with accurate patient evaluation of doctor quality. Far more common than unneeded antibiotics is that by the time a person seeks treatment for an infection, including a bacterial one, no treatment is going to make a difference because their immune system is already on it.

          • keranih says:

            Far more common than unneeded antibiotics is that by the time a person seeks treatment for an infection, including a bacterial one, no treatment is going to make a difference because their immune system is already on it.

            Emmm. Could you unpack this? Because when most health types talk about “innappropriate use of antibiotics” they mean wrong drug, wrong dose, wrong duration, wrong patient, wrong indication, the whole shebang – of which “antibiotics for an uncomplicated viral infection” is just a subset.

            (And this goes into how we measure “good health outcomes” – a doc who gives a bottle of pills could make the patient happy, if no healthier, and also (fractionally) decrease the health of the population by increasing pathogen resistance. (He’s also going to save a few lives by stopping a not-yet-apparent bad bacterial sequali to a viral infection, which is why “give antibiotics even when you’re pretty sure it’s just viral” was a thing in the first place.) A doc who sold no bottle of pills is going to protect the population (a little) probably piss off the patient (a lot) and (rarely) lose a life when the (not yet apparent) infection goes nova overnight and the patient is seriously ill by the time they get to the hospital.

            Balancing the various upsides and downsides through this is very tricky. The metrics are not very tight and there is a wide latitude among providers about what “looks” appropriate. As we increase both knowledge and treatable conditions, we develop formal guidelines that help provide the best care for a larger and larger portion of the population while increasing the “looks right” margins of uncertainty for other, more rare conditions. And all of these feed back on each other in conjunction with culture, genes, environment, etc, etc.

          • skef says:

            Emmm. Could you unpack this? Because when most health types talk about “innappropriate use of antibiotics” they mean wrong drug, wrong dose, wrong duration, wrong patient, wrong indication, the whole shebang – of which “antibiotics for an uncomplicated viral infection” is just a subset.

            Once again, the issue I am discussing is the ability for actual or prospective patients to make judgments about the quality of their doctors. The subject of antibiotics originally came up in this context:

            unclogging a toilet is easy mode, more or less like giving someone an antibiotic which, after several days, they can see for themselves that it worked.

            In the reply you’re referring to, I’m not making claims about inappropriate use of antibiotics. I’m referring to the facts that 1) viral infections such as colds generally get better on their own, so whatever the doctor does (such as recommend cold medicine, or prescribe antibiotics) doesn’t contribute, and 2) bacterial infections often would get better on their own on roughly the same time-scale as without antibiotics.

            Prescribing antibiotics in type 2 cases is not using them inappropriately (assuming the selection is reasonable), because of the chance that the patient won’t recover on their own. But that doesn’t mean that if the patient infers a causal effect, they will be right.

          • pontifex says:

            keranih: People keep trying to come up with reasons that customers shouldnt be allowed to make choices for human medicine that they make for all other parts of their lives, and it continues to not make sense.

            I agree that people should have choices. They should be able to get second opinions from other doctors, or even choose to pay for their own care out of pocket if they truly want to. They should be able to refuse “heroic” treatments for cancer in favor of dying with dignity and so forth.

            I just disagree that increasing patients’ choice of doctors would lead to a meaningfully better system than what we have now in the US or to what exists in e.g. Britain with the NHS. You’re asking people to choose between things they don’t understand.

            Of course we should be trying to measure patient outcomes and hold the government / insurance companies / whatever to account. And we should be making this information available to the public. But this more likely to take the form of acadmic studies of various treatments or medical centers. And it’s going to be very hard to interpret. For example, a hospital located in a poor area might have worse outcomes just because more patients are diabetic or drug- addicted, not because the care is any better or worse.

          • You’re asking people to choose between things they don’t understand.

            We make a lot of choices between things we don’t understand. Almost no parent has the information to evaluate different colleges for his kids on his own. Almost no purchaser of a car or computer knows enough about cars or computers to evaluate for himself which to buy. Similarly for many other expenditures.

            We solve that problem by using a variety of intermediaries and reputational mechanisms in all of those cases. They are not perfect. The question is whether that decentralized system works better than the alternative of using a very imperfect political mechanism to make the decisions for us.

            In fields other than health care, I think there is massive evidence that it does, most obviously from the history of the USSR and Maoist China, more generally from the comparison of fields dominated by political provision with fields dominated by market provision.

            If that’s right, then the argument comes down to the claim that health care has some special features that make providing it harder on the market but not through the political system, or at least have a much larger negative effect in the former context than in the latter.

          • pontifex says:

            Heh, you are tenacious!

            I agree that people often make choices they don’t understand. But I’m not sure that proves what you are trying to prove. Arguably we often make bad choices, like voting for political candidates whose foreign policy is bad, or eating foods based on fads like gluten-free, paleo diet, low-fat, etc. And those bad choices have bad results!

            To really prove what you’re trying to show (healthcare should be a free market) you have to either show that the bad choices lead to good results (which you have not shown) or that there is a moral dimension to the choosing. In other words, we have to let people choose to consume mercury pills and get leeches applied because not letting them do so is contrary to their basic human liberty.

            I think getting stuck in a rut of “free market vs. not free market” misses the point that we really ought to be getting to, which is setting up reasonable incentives to make health care better. Some of those will be market-based, but some of them will not. Certainly costs will never get under control until we measure patient outcomes intelligently and get malpractice lawsuits under control– two things I haven’t seen anyone mention in this (at this pint quite long) discussion.

          • Arguably we often make bad choices, like voting for political candidates whose foreign policy is bad, or eating foods based on fads like gluten-free, paleo diet, low-fat, etc. And those bad choices have bad results!

            In the case of voting for the wrong candidates, my bad choice has almost zero probability of producing a bad consequence for me, since if the candidate won he would almost certainly have won without my vote. Your other examples are legitimate. But that one is important, because voting is what ultimately is supposed to control the alternative to the market system, and the same problem exists there.

            To really prove what you’re trying to show (healthcare should be a free market) you have to either show that the bad choices lead to good results (which you have not shown) or that there is a moral dimension to the choosing.

            That is not correct. All I would have to show is that the choices made, some of which will be bad, lead on average to better results than the choices made under alternative institutions.

            Isn’t it obvious that your claim of what I have to show was wrong? The question is not “will these institutions never have bad results,” because we don’t have any set of institutions that we can be confident will never lead to bad results.

          • keranih says:

            I just disagree that increasing patients’ choice of doctors would lead to a meaningfully better system than what we have now in the US

            I don’t think it will necessarily result in better health outcomes (ie, people living longer, more physically capable lives) because I think that we do a *pretty good* job at that.

            (Before people start jumping down my throat, it’s not that I think that people are “healthy enough” in the USA, it’s that I think that there is not that much that “more free health care” is going to do to make people live longer, more physically capable lives. There is room to change/improve, but not a whole lotta room to improve via direct patient care.)

            What I *do* think the free market/greater choice will do is rather drastically reduce the cost of providing the care level that we currently have. Which is the primary distinguishing factor between all facets of the US “national system” – INCLUDING THE GOVERNMENT PROVIDED ONES – and that of all the other nations. Even our government provided care is not cheap.

            People can claim that if the US implements a single payer system that we’ll end up with the NHS. We won’t – we’ll end up with the VA, which doesn’t even provide the entirety of care consumed by vets. And is still crappy and expensive.

            I accept the premise that the cost of US health care needs to come down. I reject the suggestion that we need single payer or anything of the sort to do so.

      • cassander says:

        1: The risk is high, and the skill needed to keep it safe is high, but the cost of training pilots to attain that skill, and the cost of designing planes to be safe, while very expensive, apparently is not as high a percentage of total costs as the equivalent training is in the medical field, which is why there are more complaints about expensive healthcare than airlines. Airlines can afford (relatively) low prices, whereas the medical industry cannot.

        Training pilots is at least as expensive as training doctors, and talking about an industry being unable to afford low prices is nonsensical.

        If you completely deregulated the airlines, then there could be terrible pilots flying around in terrible planes for low prices,

        Who would fly on those airlines? What company, having spent hundreds of millions on planes, would hire such terrible pilots? Your entire argument is premised on the assumption that people are totally un-risk averse.

        2: I did mention this, but the problem is that it’s a massive gamble. It was a gamble deregulating the airline industry too, but I have to assume they didn’t massively deregulate the parts of the airline industry that had to do with safety when they privatized them.

        No it wasn’t. It was an entirely sensible move that had exactly the predicted result, much lower costs. You’re trying to argue that evidence against your point is evidence for it.

        I’ve never heard anyone propose water supply subsidization (water is cheap), and it’s certainly not a popular proposal, which is what I’m getting at.

        If you’re in the US, your water is already controlled by rules that are basically communist, with government controlling the distribution and setting prices by fiat. We’ve already had that debate, and the free marketeers lost.

        • bean says:

          Training pilots is at least as expensive as training doctors, and talking about an industry being unable to afford low prices is nonsensical.

          One pilot’s salary can be spread out across a lot more customers than a doctor’s can. On even the smallest mainline planes, you have 70+ people per pilot. (Smaller regional planes are sort of farm teams for pilots, and the salaries are often low because the pilots are expecting to move up.) Yes, there’s more overhead than a doctor’s visit, but the spread is a lot thinner. (Also, pilot training is cheaper than current doctor training by a fair margin.)

          Who would fly on those airlines? What company, having spent hundreds of millions on planes, would hire such terrible pilots? Your entire argument is premised on the assumption that people are totally un-risk averse.

          Not quite. Allegiant is a pretty good example of people coming as close to this as they can under US regulations, or it was before they started buying A320s. You can pick up old MD-80s or 737 Classics for a few million apiece. Yes, they burn a lot of fuel and they’re noisy, but noise is presumably not an issue any more (with more deregulation), and when you’re paying 10% of what your competitors are for airplanes, the ROI is pretty good. And one of Allegiant’s MD-88s had as many safety incidents as Delta’s entire fleet of 117 did in a 15-month period. Yes, people can and do try to get away with things. I’d point to ValueJet as an obvious example. I’ve heard of several that were even more hair-raising (outside the US), but can’t share details. There are people who will try to fly with big holes in their airplanes, and given the general public’s proclivity to buy tickets only on price, I’m really, really not sure that LibertarianAir wouldn’t make a bunch of money before it killed a plane full of people. And then start up under another name and try it all again.

          • cassander says:

            One pilot’s salary can be spread out across a lot more customers than a doctor’s can. On even the smallest mainline planes, you have 70+ people per pilot.

            Yeah, but you have a lot more than one pilot per plane, a lot more than one per flight, even.

            >the ROI is pretty good

            My understanding is that the ROI in commercial aviation is almost universally terrible,

            >Yes, people can and do try to get away with things. I’d point to ValueJet as an obvious example.

            An obvious example of the market working. They basically went out of business within a year.

          • bean says:

            Yeah, but you have a lot more than one pilot per plane, a lot more than one per flight, even.

            Yes. Which is why I said 70 customers per pilot. A typical load on a small mainline plane is ~140, with two pilots. If we look at customers/hr, a doctor is going to get maybe 4, and a pilot is probably going to average somewhere on the order of 50. Less for longhaul routes, but those have higher ticket prices to compensate, and usually run bigger planes. (Both times don’t count time not spent doing the direct job with the customers, but that’s when the hospital/airline gets paid, so I’m comfortable with the comparison.)

            My understanding is that the ROI in commercial aviation is almost universally terrible,

            Warren Buffet’s jokes aside, the airlines have been making quite a bit of money lately. Allegiant has made the model of old planes cheap work quite well, as have several other airlines before them.

            An obvious example of the market working. They basically went out of business within a year.

            Really? ValueJet did not go out of business. It merged with AirTran and took AirTran’s name. (ValueJet was much larger, but laundered their name to fool people. It clearly worked.) AirTran survived until Southwest took it over to get more 737s. Yes, there were reforms made. But ValueJet’s management also went and started Allegiant, which used a similar business model. And what carrier did I single out as having bad safety practices?

          • Aapje says:

            Yeah, but you have a lot more than one pilot per plane, a lot more than one per flight, even.

            Didn’t you just deregulate? Why can’t they then fly with just 1 pilot? It would usually work out.

          • albatross11 says:

            Why, if they were really careless and evil, they might get down around the same number of fatalities per mile as driving.

    • IrishDude says:

      Libertarians are correct that the government makes healthcare more expensive than it would be in a free market, but this is because the rest of humanity, ideologically speaking, will not accept trade-offs when it comes to healthcare.

      As a keyhole solution, allow people to opt out. Allow people to sign an affidavit saying they accept the risks of using non-government regulated health care and then allow them to do so. Let non-government regulated health care providers then serve the opted-out population. Similar to how I signed waivers at my rock climbing gym and hang gliding school accepting the increased risks of injury and promising not to sue for injuries I’d potentially sustain while climbing or flying.

      This way, the ‘rest of humanity’ can continue to only use government-regulated health care, which they find to be value-added, and the small portion of people who disagree can use their non-government regulated health care.

      • Matt M says:

        If they won’t let us do this for retirement savings, they’re never gonna let us do it for health care…

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Is healthcare a ponzi scheme like nationalized retirement “savings” is?

          • Brad says:

            Medicare looks a lot like Social Security but even worse in that costs per beneficiary are increasing faster than the rate of inflation while for Social Security only increases by CPI.

      • This is what I would personally support. I generally support “government doing stuff”, but allowing stupid/daring people to make intrepid leaps for the sake of the rest of us. Except for areas with massive externalities, or things that I truly think could go almost 100% free market, I support multi-tiered systems. I like this sort of libertarian compromise, as it appeals to my innate moral sense, and also my pragmatic streak.

        I devote my concern and empathy to innocents who have been wronged through no fault of their own. I can relate to that. It’s hard to blame someone for suddenly falling down a sinkhole that appeared under their feet, but easy to blame someone who climbs over 17 fences with barbed wire, warning signs, and blazing sirens in order to toss themselves down an abandoned mine shaft. I have approximately zero concern for Darwin award winners, but I do understand that this makes me a “sociopathic” aberration.

        Normal people have massive objections because they believe that people should be saved from their own stupidity, so it’s not going to happen.

        • Matt M says:

          It sounds nice in theory, but I’m not sure government systems and market-based systems can legitimately function side by side.

          Either the market will dramatically out-compete the government such that nobody will ever use the government version and it will collapse under its own weight, OR the government (in fear of/response to this) will so heavily subsidize the product with tax dollars (you don’t think that just because you choose to not send your children to public school you get out of paying taxes for public school, do you?) that the market can’t possibly compete on real terms and is only viable for the super rich (private school) or super-principled (home-schooling) and will never attract a mass market.

          • rlms says:

            You’re talking about something different to IrishDude. He is proposing to let people use unregulated services; the problem with this is it weakens the power of regulation to pretty much nothing if you can just opt out.

            You are suggesting opting out of using government-run systems, not government-regulated ones. This is perfectly possible (except in certain parts of Canada). It’s not that common, because government-run ones generally work pretty well.

            For the purposes of fixing the US system though (since that is the implicit subject of all discussions of healthcare), this isn’t really relevant. There’s no reason that the US should choose a nationalised system; given its traditional antipathy to the government doing anything (except blowing people up) it would make more sense to go for a German/Japanese/etc.-style insurance system.

          • baconbacon says:

            the problem with this is it weakens the power of regulation to pretty much nothing if you can just opt out.

            Only true if the perceived value of the regulation outweighs the costs.

          • rlms says:

            @baconbacon
            The regulation is weakened regardless. Whether this is a problem does depend on the value of the regulation, but since the people with the ability to change that are assuming it is beneficial that is the only relevant case. If you can persuade them that the regulation is net harmful, they will just scrap it altogether.

          • baconbacon says:

            The regulation is weakened regardless.

            Your statement was that regulation would be weakened to nothing, not that it would be weakened.

          • baconbacon says:

            If you can persuade them that the regulation is net harmful, they will just scrap it altogether.

            This is absurd on several levels. First who am I supposed to convince? The guy enforcing the regulations? The judge ruling on them? The bureaucrat writing them? Congress? The voters? There is no “they”, which is a large portion of the problem.

            “Look I have evidence that a 1 ppt standard is onerous!”
            Guy at the EPA ” Hey, I don’t set the standards, take it up with my boss”
            His boss “I don’t have the authority to alter what is in the law”
            Congress “do you carry 100,000 votes in my district? No? Go fuck yourself”

            Even in scenarios where individual bureaucrats have the power to change the standard you have to convince them not of a new standard but to accept a decrease of their power while simultaneously getting them to admit that the previous one that they had been enforcing is wrong.

            Secondly there is no standard, every situation is different, what is harmful in some scenarios is neutral to good in others.

            Finally proving that a regulation is harmful is basically impossible when the evidence you would need to collect is never created thanks to the regulation itself.

          • rlms says:

            Oh, I didn’t realise that was your issue. Let me justify that claim.
            Consider the three cases for a piece of regulation: it is either significant and beneficial, significant and detrimental, or insignificant. In the first case, it only affects edge cases, because good companies will abide by it anyway. If you can persuade someone to buy snake oil, you can also persuade them to fill out a regulation-opt-out-form. So the existence of such a form makes the regulation basically nonexistent. In the second case, unregulated companies will provide a significantly better service than regulated ones, so customers will flock to them despite having to fill out a form, and they will capture the market just like they would with no regulation. In the third case, the difference between the regulation existing and not is insignificant anyway, regardless of whether it is possible to opt out.

            Edit:
            In response to your second comment: you have to convince the lawmakers. But you seem confused. The difficulty of persuading lawmakers to deregulate is irrelevant. The situation is this: you, a libertarian, want minimal regulation; the government disagree. So you propose an opt-out system, where the government can still regulate most things but you get some of the advantages of deregulation. Given this, logically they must perceive regulation to be beneficial. Otherwise you would be in agreement that it is harmful, and they would already have removed it. So it doesn’t matter if my statement is “only true if the perceived value of the regulation outweighs the costs”; that’s the only case it is logical to consider.

          • Government and private systems already operate in parallel in areas like housing, transport and education. Out competition doesn’t occur because the price/ quality points are different.

        • @Matt M

          Either the market will dramatically out-compete the government such that nobody will ever use the government version and it will collapse under its own weight

          This sounds more like a feature than a bug. If the government version is genuinely needed by the poor, then they’ll use it. If the market is outcompeting the government service to that extent, it’s probably a sign the market has (in the long run) trialed and errored its way to being safe at a low cost.

          Also, there’s no reason for a government program to just collapse so long as it was solvent to begin with, budgetary wise. If we were mad, we could pay public sector workers the exact same amount to just stand around doing nothing, though it would just be a tremendous waste. If they really were standing around doing nothing, that would be a sign that they have become obsolete.

          OR the government (in fear of/response to this) will so heavily subsidize the product with tax dollars (you don’t think that just because you choose to not send your children to public school you get out of paying taxes for public school, do you?) that the market can’t possibly compete on real terms and is only viable for the super rich (private school) or super-principled (home-schooling) and will never attract a mass market.

          The government could crowd out the private sector, yes, but this would be a sign that taxes are too high, or weighted regressive, and is a problem for our regular society where there is a public and private sector, but not a regulated and unregulated sector as in IrishDude’s scheme.

          Most restrictions on the private sector are due to outright regulations and not people having no money left to spend there because it’s all been taxed out of them. At least taxes aren’t crippling for low incomes in the UK, so if the government continues the same fiscal behavior under the new system then things should be okay. I think we are assuming that the government would respond to the opt-out system by trying to create a Super Duper Ultra Hyper NHS or something. I don’t know why they would want to do this, since they are not a company trying to attract demand, and assuming that voters were in the mindframe to support a system of well sign posted opt-in regulation waivers, they are probably in a more libertarian mindset than today to begin with, and massively increasing the funding of government programs isn’t at the top of their checklist.

          There are too many things that would have to change about the current demographics in variations on the human psyche in order to predict what kind of incentives would be created for government. Voters would be very different people in this hypothetical society.

          EDIT: I actually think the biggest barrier discounting psychology would be bureaucracy costs to make sure the deregulated things are well signposted.

    • Corey says:

      Food is also much more substitutable than healthcare.

      If someone’s starving, then (modulo food allergies) you can feed them whatever happens to be cheap and available.

      If someone has advanced hepatitis C, then they need Sovaldi, a liver transplant, or a coffin; it doesn’t matter to them that metformin is $4 for 30 pills.

      • baconbacon says:

        If someone has advanced hepatitis C, then they need Sovaldi, a liver transplant, or a coffin; it doesn’t matter to them that metformin is $4 for 30 pills.

        It matters a huge amount if then entire industry is open to competition or not.

        • Corey says:

          We disallow competition in name-brand drugs intentionally, for policy reasons, to provide funds for their R&D. For generic drugs (e.g. metformin) competition works pretty well, better than in most healthcare fields actually, thanks to the FDA’s high quality floor and that the shoppers are insurers and pharmacy purchasing managers rather than end customers.

          There are other ways we could fund drug R&D but none more market-y than the current temporary-monopoly system AFAIK.

    • baconbacon says:

      Imagine a true free market, in which there were services that required credentials where doctors had to go to medical school and get a degree after 7 years or however long, and then there were services where a guy who looked up brain surgery on wikipedia could operate on you for the price of a coffee. Foolish and/or risky people in dire straits would die all the time.

      This is very dishonest Why in the world would a true free market end up with a choice between a 7 year degree and a guy performing surgery from a wikipedia article?

    • cassander says:

      Imagine a true free market, in which there were services that required credentials where doctors had to go to medical school and get a degree after 7 years or however long, and then there were services where a guy who looked up brain surgery on wikipedia could operate on you for the price of a coffee. Foolish and/or risky people in dire straits would die all the time.

      As opposed to now, where people never decide on foolish medical procedures? Now, if you want to argue that such things will happen more on the margin, then fine, but then you have to look at the marginal befit of overall cheaper care.

      >, but this is because the rest of humanity, ideologically speaking, will not accept trade-offs when it comes to healthcare

      Of course they can, they just don’t want to. How is perpetuating people’s delusions good policy?

      > but since that will come at the cost of lives, the rest of humanity (including the mainstream right) cannot accept it, and likely never will.

      Again, only if you ignore the lives saved by cheaper care.

      >So, to re-iterate, the real reason healthcare should be free at the point of use is because healthcare is ridiculously expensive,

      This is a circular argument. Healthcare is expensive BECAUSE it’s free at point of use.

      • rlms says:

        “This is a circular argument. Healthcare is expensive BECAUSE it’s free at point of use.”
        What healthcare is expensive? The relevant difference to me seems to be US vs rest of developed world, where freeness at point of use seems to broadly anticorrelate with expensiveness (in that it is very unfree and very expensive in the US compared to everywhere else; variation in freeness has comparatively little effect within the “everyone else” category).

        • Corey says:

          Well, in rest-of-developed-world there’s usually price controls of one form or another – Singapore has prices directly set by fiat, single-payer countries use the resulting monopsony power to set prices, UK NHS directly delivers the care so they set the prices they pay themselves, etc.

          We have some patchwork versions of this in the US via Medicare and private-insurer network contracts. This is the major value in using insurance for routine care – you’ll pay much less because of the negotiated network rates. (It doesn’t help that you usually can’t find out or haggle on the rates before the service is delivered, leaving you with no leverage other than the threat of default and/or bankruptcy).

          There are areas where that can’t apply, because the upside to the provider of being in a network is that moire patients will choose them. So for any provider who doesn’t get chosen by the patient (e.g. any service performed in a hospital) they won’t be on a network, because there’s no upside for them.

          • cassander says:

            The major value of using insurance for regular care is that insurance is massively subsidized by the government, not negotiated rates. This is proven by the fact that in no other industry are rates so negotiated.

        • cassander says:

          (in that it is very unfree and very expensive in the US compared to everywhere else)

          Not really. US healthcare is freer at point of use than almost all other countries.

          • rlms says:

            That table says that out-of-pocket expenditure in the US is not abnormally large as a percentage of overall expenditure in comparison to other developed countries. They are the relevant point of comparison, and I don’t think the figures are lower for the US than “almost all” developed countries: the US is higher than some but lower than the Netherlands, France, Qatar, the UK and Luxembourg (and the same as New Zealand). I’m also not sure about the accuracy of that table; a lot of African countries have weirdly low rates. But in any case, freeness at point of use as an absolute value is also a relevant thing to compare, and I think that is a lot higher for the US than comparable countries.

          • cassander says:

            That table says that out-of-pocket expenditure in the US is not abnormally large as a percentage of overall expenditure in comparison to other developed countries.

            No, it says out of pocket expenditure is abnormally SMALL compared to other countries,

            >hey are the relevant point of comparison, and I don’t think the figures are lower for the US than “almost all” developed countries

            We both count maybe 5 developed countries lower than the US. that’s lower than the vast majority.

            >a lot of African countries have weirdly low rates

            .

            I wouldn’t trust those numbers either, but they aren’t relevant to the conversation.

            But in any case, freeness at point of use as an absolute value is also a relevant thing to compare, and I think that is a lot higher for the US than comparable countries.

            Only if you’re considering absolute wealth at the same time.

          • rlms says:

            @cassander
            “No, it says out of pocket expenditure is abnormally SMALL compared to other countries”
            Where are you getting that from? There are 5 reasonably-sized developed countries with expenditure lower than or equal to the US, ranging from 5.2% (Holland) to 11% (New Zealand), and I can see about 20 with higher expenditure. Most of those are clustered around the 13% mark. Granting perfect accuracy of the data, the US is perhaps moderately below average. If you’re calling its expenditure “abnormally small”, you should describe the height of 5 ft 6 men and an IQ of 85 in the same way. That’s not the way I’d use that phrase.

            But in any case, if you’re proposing a causal link where the 2% difference between the US and the majority of developed countries accounts for the >>2% difference in overall cost between the same groups, you need to explain the 5% difference in the other direction between the US and France/the Netherlands.

          • cassander says:

            @rlms

            Most of those are clustered around the 13% mark.

            From italy, 21%; spain 24; german 13; canada, 13; switzerland, 26; south korean, 36; ireland, 17. I deny that “most” are clustered around 13%.

          • rlms says:

            @cassander
            I count ~10 from 11% to 15%, and ~15 above 15% (I missed a few on my earlier look). So I’ll say “a lot” or “about 1/3 of all developed countries” rather than “most”. I don’t think that impacts anything else I said.

    • maybe_slytherin says:

      In my health economics course, we started off by listing differences between healthcare and most market goods. Looking at my notes, our list was:

      1. There is no direct demand for health care. Consuming “health care” is generally unpleasant, and only arises as part of a derived demand for health.
      2. Demand is highly uncertain. You don’t know when or how severely you’ll get sick; you also don’t know if a given treatment will make you better.
      3. There is strong information asymmetry: care providers know much more about the options available than patients do. On the flip side, patients generally have a more comprehensive view of their personal information than their care providers.
      4. On top of that, individuals are vulnerable when making choices; patients and families in crisis aren’t rational agents.
      5. There are huge amounts of externalities. Particularly in communicable diseases, but in public health in general (i.e. social spread of diet/exercise behaviour).

      All of these mean that, while you can talk about health care in market terms, some major assumptions of standard neoclassical economics don’t apply, and they have to be addressed somehow.

      • In my health economics course, we started off by listing differences between healthcare and most market goods. Looking at my notes, our list was:

        1. There is no direct demand for health care. Consuming “health care” is generally unpleasant, and only arises as part of a derived demand for health.

        There is no direct demand for flour, or dried beans, or yeast, or quite a lot of things in the grocery store. The demand for those things only arises because they are inputs to producing things people want. Like health care.

        2. Demand is highly uncertain. You don’t know when or how severely you’ll get sick; you also don’t know if a given treatment will make you better.

        Sounds like demand for the services of plumbers. You don’t know when a toilet will get stopped up or pipes develop a leak, and the plumber might fix the wrong problem (I’ve just been through several days of trying to fix an irrigation problem myself, to finally have it fixed by a professional. It seems likely that the first two things I did involved replacing a working unit with a new working unit in the mistaken belief that it was the source of the problem).

        3. There is strong information asymmetry: care providers know much more about the options available than patients do. On the flip side, patients generally have a more comprehensive view of their personal information than their care providers.

        The second part is a problem for insurers, not care providers. The patient has no incentive to misinform the provider. The first part would be true of many consumer goods. How many purchasers of cell phones have an adequate knowledge of what is available and how it differs? Automobiles?

        4. On top of that, individuals are vulnerable when making choices; patients and families in crisis aren’t rational agents.

        That covers only a fraction of medical care. The obvious solution is to make the relevant decisions in advance–for instance in deciding what your medical insurance will cover.

        5. There are huge amounts of externalities. Particularly in communicable diseases, but in public health in general (i.e. social spread of diet/exercise behaviour).

        Communicable diseases involve a real externality, but since a large part of the benefit of vaccination goes to the person vaccinated it’s not clear that the result is a seriously suboptimal level. The second part extends “externality” widely enough to cover practically anything. Consider the social spread of clothing styles. Automobile styles. Religious and political beliefs. Food fads.

        All of these mean that, while you can talk about health care in market terms, some major assumptions of standard neoclassical economics don’t apply, and they have to be addressed somehow.

        Alternatively, the list means that the professor was trying to justify the policies that exist and/or he approves of, not trying to use economic theory to discover what policies were justified.

        For a much longer and old discussion of the relevant economics with the opposite bias, see this.

        • maybe_slytherin says:

          The list was definitely partly historical, for sure, starting from Arrow. I think much of the bias, if anything, was that she wanted to push more in the direction of behavioural economics.

          More to the point, the list was to indicate that in health care, all 5 of these factors are present, while generally only some of them are for other products.

          You definitely know more econ than I do, so I’ll respond more in the spirit of clarifying what I meant than trying to make a bulletproof argument.

          1. Part of the point of indirect demand, from a policy perspective, is that there things that improve health besides health care, and you can do well by targeting those. I’m not sure that indirect demand is that big a deal, though, because it’s common to a lot of services (though I’m not sure that basic foodstuffs count).

          2. For anticipating future demand, I think the magnitude of uncertainty is higher for health care than plumbing or automobiles. For uncertainty in effectiveness, it is very common to administer the same treatment and get different results —
          which isn’t true of your plumbing example, even though there’s clearly expertise in identifying the correct problem. I think with health care, the expectation/good practice of continuity of care reduces the ability to shop around as you can for, say, plumbers.

          3. Patients’ incentives to misinform providers doesn’t have to be rational, nor deliberate. It’s common to not know that something might be relevant medical information, or be too ashamed to admit it. In the other direction, yes, it’s common for sellers of all kinds to know more about various products and solutions. What’s less common is for them to know more about what the problem is.

          4. “Patients being irrational” isn’t just about crisis situations or emergency procedures; it can also apply to decisions made on behalf of children/parents/spouses, or concerning mental health care, and so on. Yes, the context of insurance does remove some of these factors.

          5. For communicable diseases, this externality is actually enough to get a seriously suboptimal level. In short: if there’s a disease present, and a vaccine against it, then it’s obviously rational to vaccinate yourself. But once everyone has done that, the population has herd immunity, and the disease can’t spread much. So even a trivial inconvenience of getting a vaccine — let alone a major cost, either financially or in perceived risk of e.g. autism — changes the optimal strategy to free-riding. And then the disease can spread again, whereas we could have eradicated it by a few years of getting people to vaccinate. A reasonably good open-source paper is here.

          As for weaker & more indirect externalities: well, yes, they are weaker. I think there’s some useful distinction in externalities that are driven by social signalling versus those that are not, but I’m not sure what it is or that I have good examples for health care.

          I didn’t read all of the linked piece, though the assertion that private markets work better than public ones at absorbing various inefficiencies is an interesting one, and closer to the heart of the matter than arguing to what extent inefficiencies exist. I will say that I find arguments on risk pooling, and selection effects/cream-skimming within risk pools to point fairly strongly towards public healthcare.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            2. Home repair is somewhat more uncertain than you might think. Repair can be based on assumptions about the rest of the house, and it’s possible to be wrong.

          • I think much of the bias, if anything, was that she wanted to push more in the direction of behavioural economics.

            Did the behavioral economics tell you anything interesting, anything more than you would get from “people act rationally plus random error”? Kahneman’s book is fascinating and convincing, but I haven’t yet seen any useful economics come out of the ideas.

            I will say that I find arguments on risk pooling, and selection effects/cream-skimming within risk pools to point fairly strongly towards public healthcare.

            The public involvement in health care, especially but not exclusively since Obamacare, acts to sharply increase the problem, since insurance companies are not allowed to use the information they do have to set rates accordingly. Adverse selection normally happens because one party knows relevant information the other can’t learn, the classic lemons problem. But in this case, one party knows and uses information that the other knows but is forbidden to use–most obviously and simply the relation between age and health care costs.

            In arguing for government provision of health care or anything else, you have to allow for market failure on the political market as well as on the private market, for governments doing what it is in their political interest to do, not what a clever and benevolent economist would advise.

          • Tibor says:

            Ad 2: In the last decade or so my parents had martens in the attic who dug through most of the insulation and made a nest there, there was a really bad fungus growing from the cellar, the walls specifically and at one point it seemed like the house was going to have to be abandoned (it is really difficult to kill something that lives in walls without demolishing your house). Eventually the solution was to dig a bit into the living room floor, get rid of all wooden parts essentially make a new base floor with cement and put a new floating floor over that. So far it looks like they killed it. But had the fungus been discovered even later, they’d probably actually have to buy a new house. Or tear down this one and build another one in its place which would be difficult since it shares one wall with to the neighbouring house.

            Something like that can be financially just as demanding as a major disease and equally unexpected.

            The martens were a smaller problem but it still required removing all of the insulation from the attic. My parents don’t live in the countryside or in the middle of a forest by the way, although it is at the edge of town, almost but not quite a suburb.

            …and my colleague’s fridge here Germany broke down six weeks ago and so far the company that administers that flat for its owner has not replaced it. It is the middle of summer so basically he has to go shopping every day now. Of course this is not that big a deal and also I think it is somehow specific to Germany, everything takes much longer than I’m used to, I had to wait 2 months for a radiology screening (MRT) and I actually had to go to another town about 50 km away since here I’d have to wait 4 months for an appointment. For regular doctor visits which don’t require any special equipment the waiting time is usually about a month, which still strikes me as a lot. Even though the Czech healthcare is socialized (about as much as the German one from what I can tell), you tend to wait about half the time you do in Germany.

      • John Schilling says:

        1. There is no direct demand for automobiles. Aside from a minority of gearheads, driving automobiles (especially in traffic) is a tedious chore and only arises as part of a derived demand for transportation.

        2. The demand for automobiles is highly uncertain. You don’t know when or how severely your current automobile will break down, you don’t know if it can be cheaply repaired or needs to be replaced.

        3. There is strong information asymmetry. Less so in the internet age, but car salesmen traditionally knew far more about the true costs of the options available than the purchasers, and then there’s the used-car market.

        4. Less so than in health care, but irrationality in automobile purchasing abounds and is traditionally exploited by car salesmen.

        5. There are huge amounts of externalities, particularly in pollution, but in public health and safety generally.

        All of these mean that, while you can talk about automobiles in market terms, some major assumptions of standard neoclassical economics don’t apply, and they have to be addressed somehow. Presto, fiat, we must have nationalized public transportation,a market of private automobile sales will never work.

        ETA: Ninja’d in part by Dr. Friedman, of course.

        • Corey says:

          Damn, I better take better care of the family cars, then. Apparently, nowadays prices for cars vary fivefold depending on who your employer is, and you can’t find out the prices in advance, instead every dealer requires you to agree to unlimited financial liability then bills you later.

          The car-buying process was annoying enough before all this. Ugh.

          • Charles F says:

            Apparently, nowadays prices for cars vary fivefold depending on who your employer is

            Literally true though, if you buy into the idea that a certain lifestyle is essentially required for many high-status jobs.

            every dealer requires you to agree to unlimited financial liability then bills you later

            Are we looking at the same industry? If you have insurance, you have a MOOP for the year, so your financial liability is capped at some number you decide on in advance, right?

            (Also literally true, I’ve heard, when you hire a mechanic.)

          • Loquat says:

            @ Charles F

            Maximum Out Of Pocket limits were by no means universal before the ACA, and in fact if you’re on Medicare (the default version from the US government, not a private Medicare Advantage plan) you still do not have one. And if you get some service that your insurance won’t cover, you are of course liable for the full charge, and whether or not your insurance will cover a given service is not always easy to find out. Not to mention, if you can’t know the price up front, you can’t shop around for a better price, and providers then have no reason to compete on price.

            (Also, I don’t know about you, but when I go to the mechanic I can generally expect to be given a list of everything they want to do to the car and what it’ll cost me before they actually do any of the work.)

          • Charles F says:

            @Loquat
            Fair. The part about MOOPs isn’t universal. And I agree that knowing about prices beforehand in advance is at least as important. But I’m not entirely sure either of them could be considered a really important driver.

            Even if people can compare prices, does that affect their decisions about health care much? Sure Joe Healthy and I can see that our provider is charging $150 for a lipid panel and find a walk-in lab in protest. But somebody who was in a car crash is going to the nearest ED, and if there’s just the one dialysis center where I live, I’m probably not going to let my blood go unfiltered on principle. If a policy helps the young and healthy make better healthcare spending decision, that’s nice, but you’re playing with, what, 1-5% of what we spend on healthcare?

            Healthcare providers offering to take care of an insurance companies customers for a capitated payment seems like a better market solution than relying on patients to understand anything about health care. But of course there are some problems with that model too.

            (Forgive my ignorance about mechanics. I’ve never needed one. I’ve just heard a lot of stories of surprise bills.)

          • Loquat says:

            If a policy helps the young and healthy make better healthcare spending decision, that’s nice, but you’re playing with, what, 1-5% of what we spend on healthcare?

            Weren’t we talking about things from the point of view of the individual just now? The bit about “requires you to agree to unlimited financial liability then bills you later” certainly sounds like an individual complaint – no matter how much a given hospital charges me for a service, it’d be a drop in the bucket of overall US healthcare costs even if it’s enough to drive me to bankruptcy.

            Anyway, lots of people who aren’t young and healthy need non-emergency health services for which more than one provider is available, and unless they have a really really good health plan they’re going to be paying out of pocket for most such services. Up to the MOOP, if applicable, but MOOPs are usually several thousand dollars so unless you’re sick enough that you know you’re going to use the whole thing no matter what it still pays to economize. Which is the whole point of having the patient pay a deductible and/or copay to begin with.

            (ETA: You can certainly get a surprise “hey, your car needs $5,000 worth of work” from a mechanic, due to the same asymmetry of knowledge that exists in medicine, but they usually don’t go ahead and actually perform said work without your approval.)

          • The discussion here seems to mix inherent features of the healthcare market, such as uncertainty about what care you will need when, with features observed in that market as presently organized, such as the lack of transparency about prices. I don’t see any reason why the latter should be more a feature of health care than of other services, and I’m pretty sure I have seen a description of a provider who made a point of having explicit prices for services.

          • albatross11 says:

            A good counterpoint to this is to look at vetrinary practices, where insurance is uncommon and there’s nothing like medicare. How many of those features are present there?

          • Charles F says:

            @albatross11
            Related to that, there’s a paper “Is American Pet Healthcare (also) Uniquely Inefficient” that might be worth a read.

          • rlms says:

            I think veterinary medicine is sufficiently different from the human kind that you can’t draw any conclusions from it. A huge proportion of money is spent on humans with terminal or extremely expensive to treat diseases, but animals in the corresponding situation are generally killed. An animal is also much less likely to sue if you mess up its treatment.

          • IrishDude says:

            @David Friedman

            I’m pretty sure I have seen a description of a provider who made a point of having explicit prices for services.

            It may have been the Oklahoma Surgery Center, as I’ve seen them discussed a few times for their price transparency for medical procedures.

        • qwints says:

          I’m reminded of the short story recommended in this comment:

          http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost-disease/#comment-465201

  9. Vermillion says:

    I’m going to start this series of ASD posts talking about the genetics of the disorder, and also about Simon Baron-Cohen’s request for cheek swabs from the last OT. To make things conceptually a little easier let’s start with the genetics of Head Explosion Syndrome (HES).

    Scenario 1) HES is caused by a single gene, with 100% penetrance, meaning if you have the gene, your head will explode. This is unlike say, the BRCA1 gene; women with BRCA1 have an 80% lifetime chance of developing breast cancer, giving it a penetrance of 80%. All the usual mendelian rules of inheritance, dominance and so on apply. Given these conditions, how hard do you think it might be to identify this gene in the human genome?

    Scenario 2) HES is caused by 100 genes, each of which confer a 1% risk of head explosion. Someone with only 5 HES genes might be indistinguishable from normal, aside from some especially vigorous sneezes. Other individual’s heads might not explode until they’re in their 80s, on their death beds, surrounded by friends and family. Or they might succumb to kidney implosion before their heads even begin to throb ominously. Further complicating matters is that HES might be associated with non-genetic causes, e.g. excessive consumption of nitroglycerine. Given these conditions, how hard do you think it might be to identify these genes in the human genome?

    Scenario 1 is something like Huntington’s disease. It was first described in the 1800s and the mutant gene responsible (called Huntingtin, natch) was identified in 1993. A lot of the techniques they used to identify and eventually sequence this gene would be used in the human genome project. Every one of us has genome of about 3 billion base pairs (A-T, G-C), encoding 20,000 genes. Any two individuals would be expected to differ on about 1% of those pairs, but most of these differences will not be in the part of the genome that encodes a gene, or even if it is, not in the part of the gene that gets turned into a protein, called the exome. BP variations can either be inherited or de novo, spontaneously arising in the egg or sperm and present just in that one offspring. Given the size of the human population, and a de novo mutation rate of about 1 BP per exome, every single non-embryonic lethal de novo mutation probably exists, somewhere out there.

    Autism meanwhile, according to resources like the Simons Simplex Collection (the other SSC), has about 800 candidate genes and counting, all of which are associated with various levels of certainty to the disorder. For further reading I’d suggest this review (if you have access) it’s in The Lancet so pitched more to clinicians and maybe a bit more readable than the typical fair.

    Some of the earliest genome wide association studies for ASD were designed under the assumption that there were around 15-30 genes that caused it. They would collect maybe a 100 affected individuals with ‘identical’ diagnoses (an issue I’ll get to later), 100 controls, swab their cheeks and sequence the results. They were also working from the assumption that because this was a relatively common disease it would be the result of common variants (BP differences that are present in >1% of the population). These might be expressed in the general population at a level below diagnoses, but that collectively they’d give rise to autism. Long story short, all these studies were way too underpowered to detect any differences at a genome wide level (because you need to correct for ~20,000 comparisons, and several magnitudes more if you’re sequencing at the level of base pairs, not just if genes are expressed or not), and almost none of the genes they identified were replicated in other studies. This was how things stood around the mid 2000s.

    So researchers turned to non-standard collections processes. I mentioned simplex’s before, these are families with one child diagnosed with ASD, but with two parents and at least one sibling who are all neurotypical. With this kind of sample you’re now enriched for de novo variants that might be rare but have a very high penetrance. Because any mutation you see in the ASD kid, but not in rest of the family, is much more likely to contributing to ASD, and any variation that is shared is likely unrelated. The SSC I mentioned above has 2600 families who’ve all undergone not only gene sequencing but extensive phenotyping, and based on these and other databases they’ve confirmed several dozen genes with high confidence. All together de novo mutations probably contribute between 10-30% of ASD cases.

    So that still leaves quite a lot of ASD that is inherited, and not associated with rare de novo mutation. Fortunately, there are other ways to enrich your sample and increase your chances of finding genes. Let’s say clinicians treating HES notice that a lot of their patients are very attractive, more so than would be expected by chance. And even though HES is quite rare in the general population a lot of models, actors, and so on wind up with exploded heads, again, more than would be expected by chance. By restricting the sample just to models or other individuals who are exceptionally good looking, you may catch a lot of genes that are most likely unrelated to HES, like the ability to pout or walk fiercely, but again, compared to the typical population you’ll have much more power to detect genes that are related. What’s more, by sampling models who don’t have HES, you can narrow down the relevant genes even further. vV_Vv noted that the SBC study of autism and mathematical ability would be confounded by sampling bias, but actually, that bias is kind of the point.

    A final note, Kosmicki in 2017 looked at the largest cohort yet of simplex ASD families (9,246) and controls (60,706). It’s a dense paper with a lot of findings but there are two I want to tease for future entries. 1) There was a very strong, negative association between the number of de novo mutations, specifically those mutations that disrupted vital protein formation, and IQ. 2) The very highest rate of mutation was in females with ASD and intellectual disability, 8.71 times higher than unaffected siblings, compared to 4.45x in males with ASD + ID, or 2.95x in males with just ASD.

    • Zephalinda says:

      Thanks for doing this series, Vermillion! A few things I’ve always wondered re: the methodology of these gene association studies– hope it’s OK if I ask the questions here.

      –I get that the simple additive-probabilistic model of ASD genetics you describe (Gene A=+1% risk, Gene B=+3% risk, with independent assortment) is just a working assumption necessary for this type of investigation. But it seems like there are an unusual number of potential complicating causal factors in this particular disorder (not only gene-environment interactions, but maternal genetics; epigenetics (both generations); maternal environment; gut flora; possible time-dependent factors like a specific viral insult only during a particular critical window of development, etc., all also potentially interacting complexly with one another) that might make this simplified model an unusually bad fit for ASD causation. If the disorder really does end up arising from a complex interaction of like 40 different factors, only ~10 of which are located in the literal genome of the affected individual, then are the studies you describe still powered to tease out the genetic component accurately?

      — Corollary: Are you aware of any other examples of complex developmental disorders whose causal pathways were successfully elucidated using similar methods? Would love to see a case study of this type of investigation working at its best.

      — I feel so very, very dumb for asking this, but… I’m guessing folks are confident in the level of genetic consistency between e.g. cheek epithelium and brain or endocrine tissue? Mechanistically, it seems as though only de novo mutations that occur before the very first cell division would be universally present in all the tissues of the body: with anything subsequent to that, couldn’t you expect some sort of (possibly local or even tissue-specific) chimerism that might further confound this sort of investigation?

      — And finally, it seems like you’re hinting toward a later discussion on this, but… are researchers appropriately certain that “ASD” broadly described is a single disorder and not a cluster of related but causally distinct conditions?

      • caethan says:

        > I feel so very, very dumb for asking this, but… I’m guessing folks are confident in the level of genetic consistency between e.g. cheek epithelium and brain or endocrine tissue?

        You’re talking about germline vs. somatic line mutations. There are definitely somatic line mutations, which would result in some very mild chimerism between different tissues. We don’t generally concern ourselves too heavily with that for a couple of reasons. First, de novo mutations are pretty rare – on the order of a couple of dozen across the genome in each individual. Most of that is due to cell divisions during parental gamete production, particularly the father, since sperm are produced through ongoing cell division throughout the father’s life. Post-zygotic mutations during developmental cell division happen, but are less common than other kinds of mutations. Second, we’re often not as interested in de novo mutations anyway, but instead in more common population-wide alleles, which are much easier to detect.

        We’ve actually found a couple of cases of this kind of chimerism from family testing – parents and two siblings tested for some genetic disorder both children share. Children both test positive for the same allele, parents both lack it. That implies some level of mosaicism in one of the parents where the gametes had the mutation but the blood or cheek epithelium didn’t.

        There’s also an interesting effect when you’re doing blood-based testing thanks to selection among progenitor cells. For blood, you’re sequencing white blood cells that are produced in the bone marrow from a population of stem cells. The mother cell divides and produces a daughter stem cell and a white blood cell. Now, that continuous division of the stem cells can cause mutations that are cell-specific. Part of the noise that you see in sequencing blood samples is likely due to this one-off mutations. It’s not very informative because it’s specific to a particular cell and its parent that you picked up, but you can see a very low allele balance mutation from the sequencing.

        Suppose there was a particular mutation that caused a stem cell to sometimes divide to produce two stem cells instead of a stem cell and a white blood cell? Well, then the population of stem cells with that particular mutation would grow over time, as there would be more and more cells descended from that parent. And when you do the sequencing, now you see a surprisingly common mosaic variant that doesn’t appear to be transmitted in a Mendelian fashion. Neat!

        You can see the same kind of thing happen with spermatogenesis, where it’s more impactful because it can cause higher rates of de novo mutations in children in particular genes.

        • Vermillion says:

          That was a much more complete answer than I was going to offer, thanks!

          I’d just add that absent even mosaicism, there will still be substantial differences in terms of gene expression. This makes sense, a blood cell is not a brain cell and it’s pretty hard to turn the one into the other. But to answer your question in terms of how far apart is the cheek cell, it’s closer than a lot of other easily accessible tissues. According to this review by Loke et al. buccal tissue shares more methylation marks (one of the stronger forms of epigenetic modification to the genetic code) with brain tissue than blood, but honestly the significance of even a small difference might be quite large.

          • caethan says:

            Yeah, I think if you’re interested in methylation and gene expression, you’ve really just got to use the tissue you’re actually interested in. Which presents problems if you’re interested in CNS expression. Not insurmountable ones, though! You can actually sequence the cerebrospinal fluid. There’s RNA there, so you can do some RNA sequencing, and it’s a recognizable tactic for infectious disease diagnostics.

        • qwints says:

          We’ve actually found a couple of cases of this kind of chimerism from family testing – parents and two siblings tested for some genetic disorder both children share. Children both test positive for the same allele, parents both lack it. That implies some level of mosaicism in one of the parents where the gametes had the mutation but the blood or cheek epithelium didn’t.

          I assume the obvious explanation (a different biological father) was ruled out?

          • caethan says:

            Yeah, that shows up very obviously as differences at a lot of loci, as opposed to this, where the children obviously share a haplotype with the father — except at this single locus.

      • Vermillion says:

        @Zephalinda

        By all means ask questions, I’ll do my best to answer them!

        But it seems like there are an unusual number of potential complicating causal factors in this particular disorder (not only gene-environment interactions, but maternal genetics; epigenetics (both generations); maternal environment; gut flora; possible time-dependent factors like a specific viral insult only during a particular critical window of development, etc., all also potentially interacting complexly with one another) that might make this simplified model an unusually bad fit for ASD causation. If the disorder really does end up arising from a complex interaction of like 40 different factors, only ~10 of which are located in the literal genome of the affected individual, then are the studies you describe still powered to tease out the genetic component accurately?

        Each of those things (and a lot more probably) may well be causing a big portion of ASD. That’s where the estimation of “All together de novo mutations probably contribute between 10-30% of ASD cases.” comes in. So these studies are powered to tease out the genetic component for this subset of cases but if you were to add in the 70-90% of ASD cases with unknown etiology, it’s very likely that a lot of that signal would be lost.

        The hope is that by identifying the genetic mutations in this subset you’re also going to be identifying the mechanism that at least some portion of the causes you listed above work through. So while an individual with autism might not have an actual mutation in a gene that was identified as being a de novo cause of ASD, it might be imprinted, or downregulated, or silenced or something else. It’s a place to start looking basically.

        — Corollary: Are you aware of any other examples of complex developmental disorders whose causal pathways were successfully elucidated using similar methods? Would love to see a case study of this type of investigation working at its best.

        I think the realization that early GWAS studies were underpowered is fairly widespread in other disorders too. Studies of schizophrenic individuals are also up in the 10,000+ level now. This meta-analysis of ADHD genetics concluded that the 800 cases 2000 trios and 2400 controls were insufficient, no genome wide associations reached significance (although some were close). It’s possible there have been other studies that have been successful, I don’t do much reading outside of ASD.

        are researchers appropriately certain that “ASD” broadly described is a single disorder and not a cluster of related but causally distinct conditions?

        Oh no, they are the opposite of that. Here’s a direct quote about the research value of an ASD diagnosis, “ultimately a convenient fiction from the biological perspective.” It’s just that not having the label is even less useful. Basically they underline how necessary it is to have very large sample sizes to find all the different clusters within it, and yeah I’ll be getting into this in more depth soon.

        • caethan says:

          Heritability studies can be useful here as well. (Caveats: I am a professional genetics/bioinformatics guy, no specific expertise in autism.) Classic quantitative genetics approaches can give you an estimate of the fraction of variation in a population attributable to additive or overall genetic effects. (Interesting
          article from 2007 on autism genetics
          ) Twin studies, which get you total genetic heritability, come in at around 40-90% heritability depending on how you measure the phenotype. Non-twin studies, which are generally additive only, get lower. That gives you an upper bound of what you can expect to find from GWAS studies, and when you don’t find much (the “missing heritability” problem) that suggest pretty strongly that your GWAS is underpowered and that there’s a lot of loci responsible. It’s funny reading old genetics papers about how there may be as many as ten different loci interacting to cause these phenotype!

    • bean says:

      I don’t really have any questions, but I figured I’d return the favor by saying that this was very interesting, and thank you for doing this series.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      confirmed several dozen genes with high confidence. All together de novo mutations probably contribute between 10-30% of ASD cases.

      Do those numbers make sense? If ASD is 1%, then 10-30% of ASD is 0.1-0.3%. If I interpret several dozen as 100, and each person has one de novo mutation in a gene, then 0.5% of people have their de novo mutation in one of those 100 genes. But is it plausible that 20-60% of de novo mutations in those 100 genes have such a large effect? If you push it up to 800 genes, that can only help, but when you said “levels of certainty,” it sure made it sound like 800 variants, not 800 genes.

      Why is identical twin concordance only 25%? If that’s because of de novo mutations, then identical twins might be a good place to search for them. But if it’s due to low penetrance, that makes the above numbers even more difficult. (Unless the 25% of concordant ASD is due to high penetrance de novo mutations, while the rest is due to low penetrance common variants. But then identical twins would be useful as a test for penetrance.)

      • caethan says:

        De novo mutations are almost always from the gametes, prior to twinning. You couldn’t use identical twin discordancies to identify de novo mutations of impact.

      • Vermillion says:

        When I said levels of certainty I meant how certain researchers were that those genes were really linked with autism. Those few dozens are associated across multiple studies, they may have animal models that also recapitulate parts of ASD, and so on. The less confident genes might have shown up in a single screen or be linked to just a few cases.

        At any rate a lot of the best guesses are just that. That’s one of the reasons the estimates bound such a large area.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Where do the numbers 10-30% come from? I guess the twin concordance gives an upper bound, but whence 10%? The range is not “a large area”; on the contrary, it is implausibly small.

          The paper you linked says that it is estimated that 25% of cases are estimated to have a single variant that contributes substantially, but that it is low penetrance, and thus probably not de novo. That claim is a lot more plausible.

    • MrApophenia says:

      Side note, I know it wasn’t your actual point, but Exploding Head Syndrome is an actual thing.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploding_head_syndrome

  10. onyomi says:

    So… uh, Hobby Lobby hoarding cuneiform tablets… in preparation for the apocalypse or… sign of the apocalypse? The plot of Nicolas Cage’s next film?

    • massivefocusedinaction says:

      The founder is opening a museum and wants lots of old stuff in said museum?

    • Jordan D. says:

      It’s in preparation for the grand opening of their newest store, where all craft materials are also ancient artifacts. Cuneiform tablet backsplashes for your kitchen! Quilting material made from mummy wrappings! Native American arrowhead beadwork! Tyrannosaur skull Adirondack chair! 50% off everything more than 50 decades old!

    • Civilis says:

      Charitable explanation: wants to preserve old stuff, doesn’t think it can be done legally and aboveboard.

      Uncharitable explanation: wants a really awesome private museum.

      Lizardman Quotient explanation: tablets contain either unrevealed prophecy relating to Armageddon, summoning instructions for a great old one, or instructions to reconstruct the language of Asherah.

      [Added] Hollywood explanation: one founder wants them smuggled out to save them, the other secretly wants them for his own museum… but, secretly, the one that wants to save them is actually secretly a cult leader that thinks they contain a hidden spell with the power to make him a god… but really the spell will summon an ancient entity into the casters body which will destroy the world.

    • skef says:

      Who do they think they are, Murray Gell-Mann?

    • kenziegirl says:

      I’m confused by this story, can anyone clarify? Why do the news reports keep saying it was Hobby Lobby that purchased the artifacts, and not Steve Green or David Green the individuals? Was it really Hobby Lobby the company who is opening a Bible museum? It seems very odd to me.

      • qwints says:

        It was the business entity that actually purchased the artifacts and that will pay the fine. The complaint (amusingly titled UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. APPROXIMATELY FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY (450) ANCIENT CUNEIFORM TABLETS; and APPROXIMATELY THREE
        THOUSAND (3,000) ANCIENT CLAY BULLAE)
        explains that the entity made the purchases starting at paragraph 19.

        • bintchaos says:

          the smuggled Iraqi artifacts need to be repatriated now that Mosul has fallen, as a gesture of goodwill from US.
          This is a long standing practice of christian expropriation of antiquities.
          I immediately thought of the mummy “unwrapping” parties of victorian England.

          • bintchaos says:

            @Kenziegirl
            To answer your question–
            From the linked article:

            Hobby Lobby, the US crafts supply company known for its pro-Christian branding, apparently has a side interest in smuggling rare archaeological artifacts.
            The company made headlines when it won a Supreme Court case in which it argued that the family-owned company should not have to pay for birth control for employees under the ACA, because doing so violated the owners’ religious freedom as Christians. Apparently their Christian values did not extend to concerns about smuggling rare artifacts from the dawn of Western civilization.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Is it more “Christian expropriation” or “Western expropriation”?

      • random832 says:

        Does this distinction really matter for a private company, especially one that uses that private status to gain special privileges (i.e. the right to have religious beliefs and therefore not provide their employees with certain kinds of health care)?

        There is nowhere that Hobby Lobby ends and Steve Green and David Green begin, and they fought hard in court to make that true.

        • qwints says:

          It really does. It provides limited liability – The Greens aren’t personally liable for any debts incurred by the entity. It allows a much cleaner form of collective ownership and control of company assets. Finally it provides the Greens much more flexibility in selling or transferring the business.

          In exchange for these privileges, Hobby Lobby has to pay a franchise tax in its home state of Oklahoma and corporate income tax in some states (assuming it does business in the states that impose an income tax on S-corps). They have increased record keeping requirements over an individual, and are much easier to bring into court.

          • random832 says:

            Okay but none of that is a reason to build a reputational wall between its brand and its owners’ actions. This is a cultural question, not a legal one.

            If being a “closely held” corporation gives you special advantages (like the ability to, turn your religious beliefs into corporate policies that would otherwise be illegal – all of the things you said come with being a corporation at all, not being “closely held”), being subject to scandals for what the owners get up to in their spare time is the special disadvantage that comes with it.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I’m picturing National Treasure meets MacGyver, but with yarn instead of duct tape.

  11. Chalid says:

    A standard piece of career advice here is to learn to code and (either independently or through a bootcamp) and then go into tech. And as far as I can tell that’s good advice for smart young people.

    Is it good advice for smart older people? I know someone who is thinking about reentering the workforce after being out for a few years to raise her children, and she’s not really interested in her old career. She is definitely smart enough and has some impressive credentials demonstrating it, but she’s in her mid-40s, and I wonder if companies would actually have any interest in hiring someone with that background.

    • Brad says:

      If the question is: should she learn Ruby on Rails and then go apply for webdev jobs in SF, the answer is no. Age discrimination is absolutely brutal in that part of the the industry. There’s some sex discrimination too. An older woman married with kids looking for an entry level job will have an extremely tough time on the job market.

      A better bet would be working for a non-tech dinosaur in a programming job. The problem there is that they are much more credentialist than the web-dev shops. Self learning or bootcamp may not cut it. Though she may be able to substitute certificates for a degree to satisfy HR. It depends on the employer. For this market she’d want java or c# rather than ruby or python. (Javascript is unfortunately necessary everywhere.)

      • Chalid says:

        Thanks. Would the outlook be similar in data science too?

        • Brad says:

          Don’t know much about that field. My pretty ignorant impression is that it is a doctors and nurses or lawyers and paralegals type area. If you don’t have a Phd you are always going to be a second class citizen.

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      I have a friend that went to a bootcamp in her mid-thirties and proceeded to get a nice slightly-north-of-$100k job at a bank (doing their website). She’s not pulling $200k at Google, and her employer is kind of frustrating, but the bootcamp paid for itself pretty quickly and she can always look for another job.

      Mid 30’s might be different from mid 40’s, though.

    • rlms says:

      Brad is correct. This situation is slightly odd, because while “learn to code” is good advice in general, the flavour of that advice in the rationalistsphere is “learn to code and do front end web development for a cool company in Silicon Valley” isn’t so good for older people. I don’t think it’s necessarily that good for younger people either: SV is a good place for smart people with strong computer science backgrounds to try and get rich in a startup, and possibly a good place to get certain kinds of entry level job for bootcampees and similar, but I don’t know if it’s the best place to get a decent-paying (relative to cost of living) job in a generic company.

      Older people retraining as programmers isn’t that common, but it’s not unheard of. My father got a part-time job in programming/database administration at that age with a partial distance-learning CS degree and no other relevant credentials (e.g. other science degree) so it’s definitely possible. There is a possible complication that programming aptitude is separate from general intelligence; there are a lot of very smart people who can’t program. I wouldn’t invest heavily in a programming career (e.g. by paying for a bootcamp) without spending a few weeks learning independently first.

      • Nornagest says:

        It might be worth mentioning that of all the CS sub-specialties, front-end web development is the one where knowledge is the most ephemeral, buzzword-driven, and non-transferable, because it’s all about mastering one of literally hundreds of competing technologies with completely different architectures and each one tends to have a relatively short day in the sun. That makes it easy to find a job in if you put a couple of months into buzzword compliance, but it also makes a career relatively hard to maintain.

        Of course, I’m a systems guy, so I have my own bias here.

    • pontifex says:

      A standard piece of career advice here is to learn to code and (either independently or through a bootcamp) and then go into tech. And as far as I can tell that’s good advice for smart young people… Is it good advice for smart older people? I know someone who is thinking about reentering the workforce after being out for a few years to raise her children, and she’s not really interested in her old career. She is definitely smart enough and has some impressive credentials demonstrating it, but she’s in her mid-40s, and I wonder if companies would actually have any interest in hiring someone with that background.

      Ugh. I had a long reply here, which got eaten by the reply grue.

      TL;DR is that she needs to find a way of drawing a line between what she used to do and what she is going to be doing. For example, if she was a mathematician originally, she could go into data science. If she was in journalism, she could go into technical writing.

      Having a certification or going to a boot camp will help, but not fundamentally change people’s idea of what kind of person you are. You say her qualifications are impressive. So figure out what is impressive about them and how they can get her her next gig. At 40 your career is not a tabula rasa. You have to come up with a story about why things happened in the past and how awesome you can be for the company in the future. (Note: the story doesn’t have to be true, but it helps if it is.)

      As far as sexism goes, that’s not only wrong, but the exact opposite of the truth. Most companies are desperate to hire more women. A lot of big companies have internal mandates to do so. I’m tired of the tedious culture wars so I will leave it at that.

      Ageism is… sort of true, in the sense that people expect more of you when you
      are older. And a lot of shitty jobs conflict with having a family or a life, which older people generally do.

      P.S. Don’t go into game development or web development. They are dominated by thoroughly unpleasant slave shops these days

  12. Matt M says:

    Inspired by a conversation in the previous thread. I don’t want to re-hash the same example, but I will keep it general.

    Do you think it is better to have a major problem where you cannot identify the source/root cause, or to have a problem where the source/root cause is known, but you are powerless to fix it?

    • Vermillion says:

      I would prefer the later, but I can’t really offer a satisfactory reason why that is. Maybe because even if I couldn’t fix my problem, the more I knew about the situation the better I could organize my life around it.

      Like if a rhinoceros was charging and I knew it’s acceleration and top speed, that’d tell me if I had time for the lord’s prayer or just a quick sign of the cross.

    • Aapje says:

      @Matt M

      The former may allow you to fix your problem by doing semi-random things, so that seems preferable. You may still not know the cause if a fix works, but then you no longer have the problem.

    • The Nybbler says:

      The former. I have a surfeit of the latter already.

    • Well... says:

      Depends on what you mean by “powerless to fix it”. Do I necessarily feel powerless to fix it, or might I really just be powerless in some cosmic sense?

      A lot of times we feel powerless even when we aren’t. So if I feel powerless to fix a problem, how do I know when it’s one of those times when I really am powerless?

    • carvenvisage says:

      to have a problem where the source/root cause is known, but you are powerless to fix it?

      If you’re truly powerless to fix it isn’t technically a problem, it’s part of the environment. But you don’t necessarilly know that 100% even if it’s 100% true. There’s almost always ambiguity, and imo that’s the only thing that allows for this to be a coherent idea. As phrased I find this thought experiment much too difficult.

      • albatross11 says:

        If you know the problem and know it’s beyond your power to fix, you have three advantages:

        a. You don’t have to spend more resources trying to find the cause of the problem.

        b. You may one day find yourself with the means to do something about the root cause, and then be able to fix it.

        c. Knowing the root cause may give you some idea of how to better mitigate the problem or live with it.

    • Charles F says:

      As a software developer, I’m always going to go with the second one. I’d rather be able to point to what’s broken and explain why we just need to work around it than try to fix something that’s broken for some unknown reason, slowly and irreversibly making everything more fragile.

      In relationships, it still seems better to go with the second option. If I know the problem and know the cause, and I know not to hope it’s going to improve, I can evaluate whether it’s worth continuing and if it is, I’m at least prepared in advance for the problem when it comes up.

      For personal problems, physical and emotional health, problems with skills (writer’s block, weights plateauing, issues focusing, etc.) I think I’d pick the first option for basically the reason @Aapje describes.

  13. gbdub says:

    (Content warnings – transgender transitioning / detransitioning)

    An interesting piece on transgendered people who decided to detransition and return to living as their assigned-at-birth gender.

    And a response to the really over the top blowback for the author of what I thought was a very interesting, well balanced piece.

    This is frustrating: these “detransitioners” are clearly real people who deserve a voice, and yet they are being told to shut the hell up, because nasty people might abuse their stories.

    And there seems to be compelling, if not quite conclusive, evidence that there is a high rate of “desistance” among children/adolescents who identify as trans but ultimately choose to detransition/not transition in adulthood.

    Critics of the piece slammed the author as transphobic, criticizing her inclusion of the “desistance” studies because one of the scientists had been “discredited” and therefore the whole thing was clearly propaganda for transphobes (never mind that the author gave just as many lines to the critics of desistance studies, and said critics could not supply contradicting scientific evidence or actual reasons the studies were discredited, other than criticism by trans advocates).

    I understand there’s danger in supplying evidence to people who want to deny that any transgender people are “real”, or to people who want to deny support for trans youths because it’s “just a phase”.

    But there has to be a better way than to deny the personhood of detransitioners and suppressing scientific inquiry into desistance. Gender transition is clearly an effective treatment for a lot of people with severe gender dysphoria – but the fact that it’s not right for everyone is really important information! In particular, if desistance really is common That seems like a really friggin’ important thing to know before putting a 10-year old on puberty blockers. Suppressing this information is definitely not harmless – if “it’s just a phase” (or really, “it’s gender nonconformity but not of the kind for which gender transition is a good solution) is a distinct possibility, then yeah, it can definitely harmful to make irreversible physical modifications. Draconian “gate keeping” can hurt the people who really do need to transition, but too lax of gate keeping could be equally harmful for those who ultimately would be better off not transitioning. This is an obviously tough balance, but you can’t fix it without admitting there’s a balance to be weighed!

    Critics want to draw parallels to acceptance and support for people coming out as gay, and they have something of a point regarding the harms of “gay conversion therapy”. But at the same time, until we can physically transition bodies between biological sex characteristics perfectly and at will, there’s an irreversible cost to gender transition that doesn’t have an exact parallel in homosexuality.

    Anyway the episode is disturbing for its illustration of purity spirals and how common it is for allies to “eat their own”. Also for another example of being for science until you don’t like the answers it gives.

    • Well... says:

      Your brain and hormones frequently do weird things when you’re an adolescent. How many trans people are adolescents? If it’s a high proportion, there might be a lot of noise to signal.

      I agree with the OP: I don’t want to deny the experience of a trans person if it’s real. But I also don’t want our society to [continue to?] move in the direction of granting lots of authority and gravity to every whim had by teenagers.

      Therefore it’s important to talk about this kind of stuff so that distinctions can be drawn and the general issue better understood.

    • rlms says:

      Interesting stuff from ThingOfThings tumblr:

      “Respondents were asked whether they had ever “de-transitioned,” which was defined as having “gone back to living as [their] sex assigned as birth, at least for a while.” Eight percent (8%) of respondents reported having de-transitioned at some point. Most of those who de-transitioned did so only temporarily: 62% of those who had de-transitioned reported that they were currently living full time in a gender different than the gender they were thought to be at birth.

      Transgender women were more likely to report having de-transitioned (11%), in contrast to transgender men (4%). Rates of de-transitioning also differed by race and ethnicity, with American Indian (14%), Asian (10%), and multiracial (10%) respondents reporting the highest levels of detransitioning (Figure 7.28).

      Respondents who had de-transitioned cited a range of reasons, though only 5% of those who had de-transitioned reported that they had done so because they realized that gender transition was not for them, representing 0.4% of the overall sample.42 The most common reason cited for de-transitioning was pressure from a parent (36%). Twenty-six percent (26%) reported that they de-transitioned due to pressure from other family members, and 18% reported that they detransitioned because of pressure from their spouse or partner. Other common reasons included facing too much harassment or discrimination after they began transitioning (31%), and having trouble getting a job (29%) (Table 7.6).”
      (source is page 111 of this)

      Not that this is detransition from living as non-birth gender, which is a superset of detransition from non-birth sex back to birth sex. The second one is all we really care about (given liberal assumptions) in terms of gatekeeping hormone/surgery access. I think the upper bound of ~5% this gives for permanent biological detransitioners is enough to say that detransition isn’t an enormous problem that necessitates severe restrictions on hormone/surgery access, but it isn’t low enough that it can just be dismissed (although it could be a loose upper bound, in which case detransition might be fairly irrelevant).

      • Aapje says:

        The study seems to have asked people who currently have a transgender identity (which includes genderqueer, non-binary, and crossdresser), so this would surely exclude many/most people who transitioned back permanently and now identify as cis.

      • skef says:

        Transgender women were more likely to report having de-transitioned (11%), in contrast to transgender men (4%).

        That thing where moralized terminology becomes question-begging terminology.

        • BrickLayer45 says:

          I sort of get the impression that the whole point of the new terminology is to obscure obvious truths, and make them hard to talk about.

          Does anyone else dream of a world where “Politics and the English Language” stops being relevant?

          • Charles F says:

            Yeah, seems like a pretty common sentiment. http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=2494

          • skef says:

            I sort of get the impression that the whole point of the new terminology is to obscure obvious truths, and make them hard to talk about.

            These are two very different things.

            I didn’t quite capture what I meant by saying “moralized terminology”, but I suppose that phrase gets fairly close.

            One motivation for the choice of “transgender woman” is that it is supposed to express that people so described are (fundamentally? actually?) women, of a particular sort. Some people dislike the term because they think this is false. But that isn’t my point.

            This is my (narrower) point: Accept, for the sake of argument, that there are such people, and that this is a good, sensitive term to describe them. Now, in that light, consider the phrase “Transgender women were more likely to report having de-transitioned (11%), in contrast to transgender men (4%).” This sentence is either analytically false, or insensitive. To the extent that those people who “de-transition” to male are not (fundamentally? actually?) women, it is false because the descriptor is wrong. So to be true, a number of women must be superficially transitioning to be man-like, and a number of men must be superficially transitioning to be woman-like. That is, the same insensitive implication the terminology is designed to avoid is being imposed by Ozy on the people she cites, without her seeming to be aware of that.

      • gbdub says:

        I read into this a bit more, and it sounds like the “desistance” studies were using as their sample “children who had been diagnosed as gender dysphoric” (but not necessarily children who had already begun transitioning), finding that most did not end up as transgender adults – they mostly were gay or bisexual cisgender people.

        There are some criticisms of the studies – in the largest and most recent, there was a chunk of patients who never came back to the clinic counted as “desisting”, but then again it was apparently the only gender dysphoria treating facility in the country, so not seeking treatment was probably a good indication of no longer having serious dysphoria. There was also critique that the children may have been only “gender nonconforming”, but apparently the diagnostic standard really was stronger than just minor gender nonconformance.

        Anyway there don’t seem to be studies actually contradicting the results, so it sounds like best data is that gender dysphoria as a pre-pubescent is far from a perfect indicator of being transgender as an adult. Then again detranstioning as an adult does seem real but rare. So early-transitioning children may ultimately end up with lower desistance rates.

        So a tough question, but seemingly worth asking.

      • sandoratthezoo says:

        I’m 40 years old.

        When I was in college, in the late 90’s, there was a lot of pressure in the gay communities to conform to being “purely gay.” My bisexual friends were often deeply unwelcome (a friend bitterly recounted a BGLU (they hadn’t added the T back then) meeting in which the leader of the group started the meeting by saying “this is a safe space,” and then following up with a diatribe about how she hates bisexual people, and they’re fake gay).

        The rhetorical and political strategy that gay people took at the time, in order to gain acceptance, was that being gay was a biologically fixed aspect of yourself. In contrast to it being a “choice.” That framing created the possibility that someone who was “sort of gay,” or “might be gay” was a weapon for the other side.

        Eventually, and especially as the gay movement won more acceptance, I think that they’ve largely unwound a lot of that nastiness towards people who are not purely and strongly homosexual. You see a lot more tolerance of bisexuality, you see the addition of “questioning” as part of the spectrum of sexuality, you see explorations of the idea that people might have exceptions to their usual gender preferences and so forth. This is, I believe, to the credit of the gay community.

        One thing that still is maybe a little outside the bounds of acceptable conversation, though, is that of course there is a social component to sexuality. Yes, there are people who flirt with homosexuality in one form or another and ultimately find that they end up in a life that at least from the outside is more-or-less indistinguishable from heterosexuality. It is not clear to every person through simple examination of their feelings where they land in terms of sexuality, and, like literally every other part of your life, it’s hard to separate external influences from internal influences (indeed, perhaps that framing is itself deceptive).

        I feel like the trans movement is in a similar place to where the gay movement was 20 years ago when I was in college. For so long, being trans was so overwhelmingly rejected by society that the only people who really transitioned were the most extremely dysphoric people. Now, as tolerance grows, there are people who previously would have rejected transitioning who will flirt with it, and it won’t be for all of them. And they will become rhetorical weapons for the other side, and will be attacked by the trans community that is, like the gay community before it, trying to win acceptance in large part by claiming that trans identities are purely innate.

    • Björn says:

      I think there are definitely aspects of the current transgender movement that deserve criticism. The most striking aspect is in my opinion that they have a really weird notion of gender. Because on the one hand, they see gender as a social construct, and wand society to move beyond it, but on the other hand, you get many stories of people transitioning where they say “I always knew I was transgender, because I liked the colour pink/wanted to play soccer/wanted long hair/etc.”. The latter are of course aspects of femininity/masculinity that are very much influenced by society.

      So I find it not so surprising that there are people regretting transitioning, who would maybe been better off with learning to accept their non-standard gender expression. I think at the moment, when you present at a clinic with gender disphoria (which btw is a real symptom, the question is more what to do with it), you can start your transition quite fast without a differential diagnosis. So there is definitely room for people transitioning for the wrong reasons. Also, of course, transsexuality has been a big topic in the media for the last 5 years or so, so much more people are having experiences with transitioning right now.

      • Nornagest says:

        Because on the one hand, they see gender as a social construct, and wand society to move beyond it, but on the other hand, you get many stories of people transitioning where they say “I always knew I was transgender, because I liked the colour pink/wanted to play soccer/wanted long hair/etc.”.

        I certainly agree that there are things to criticize in the modern gender discourse, but I think you’re running into some outgroup homogeneity issues here. The people that see gender as a pure social construct are generally not the same people that you see talking about their dysphoria.

        There are political groups encompassing both, but that’s not surprising.

        • Björn says:

          It is correct that the two views of gender I mentioned are often not held by the same person at once, but I would say that is exactly the problem. Because what you get is that on the one hand there is all the scientific theory, from the social sciences stuff to the more psychological oriented things, but on the other hand you get at least some people who don’t fit into those theories, one might even say thay are diametrically opposite. Now when all the counseling and the treatments they get are based on theories that have nothing to do with their experience, I would say the chance is rather high that they are useless or even dangerous.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            This reminds me. I figured out that there is so such thing as dressing like a woman or a man. There is only dressing like a woman or a man of a particular culture. So far as I know, transexuals want to transition in their own culture. I assume there’s imprinting involved.

          • Aapje says:

            @Nancy

            Can Saudi men even cross dress given that the men and women wear similar clothing?

            I guess so.

    • BrickLayer45 says:

      I think part of the problem is that the needs of the political movement are very different from those of the individual sick with gender dysphoria.

      Imagine if the symptoms were easily treated with Gallium or something. It would be great for the individuals suffering, but it would kill the political movement of “Men who pretend to be women are the same as actual women.”

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        It’s an interesting thought experiment. Note that [insert problematic religious minority here] are already in this position; they could simply convert, and yet discriminating against them still seems wrong, even though the cure exists.

  14. dndnrsn says:

    What do people think about modelling addiction as disease?

    • skef says:

      Not a terrible idea for third parties, quite likely a terrible idea for addicts.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I think this is how I feel in large part. It’s bad to model it as exclusively a failure of will (perhaps, in general, it is bad to model will as something that can succeed 100% of the time if you try hard enough). However, overcoming addiction (or keeping it at bay, or however you think of not doing whatever it is you’re addicted to) requires willpower.

        My personal experience is that people who treat their addictions as impositions willpower cannot possibly defeat give into their cravings incredibly easily. To exercise agency (to not do the addictive thing, to not lie about it, etc) one must conceive of one’s self as having agency. To behave responsibly, one must recognize one’s self as having responsibility.

        • Charles F says:

          Huh. What do you think of modeling various mental illnesses as diseases? Would you say it’s similar? It seems to me that it’s possible to understand that your emotions and decision making can be distorted by something beyond your control, while still recognizing that you’re the one doing the feeling and making choices. You can’t just will yourself into not being depressed, but it’s a choice to keep doing the things you (normally) care about. Similarly, you can’t will yourself into not being addicted to something, but you can choose not to indulge in whatever it is.

          Would people be better off if they thought of their depression/anxiety/whatever as largely personal failures while third parties treated it as a disease?

          • dndnrsn says:

            This is the difficult part. How do you walk the line between being too compassionate (which I think is possible) and being too harsh (which is certainly possible)? With mental illness, there’s the whole genre of “can’t believe these neurotypicals saying just to get better”, and that’s highly accurate – “have you tried not being sick” is profoundly unhelpful – but some people really do wallow in a way that is also unhelpful.

            With addiction, people who do not recognize how hard it is – eg, who do not see the problem with placing people in situations where they would be tempted, who enable people, etc – are unhelpful (really, worse). But some addicts adopt a position where they essentially consider themselves free of any obligation to even try – to not do whatever it is, to tell the truth, to not harm others en route to their addiction or due to the effects of alcohol or drugs, etc – and adopt a mindset that, to an external observer, seems oriented around relieving themselves of any feelings of guilt or shame.

            I think you are right to draw a line between not being able to choose not to be affected by something, and being able to try not to respond in a certain way.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          It depends on how the person frames “disease”. Do they think disease=hopeless or do they think disease=can be managed with meticulous care.

        • gbdub says:

          It seems as though we want to treat addiction as either a “disease” OR as a “failure of willpower”.

          But why not both? I say both addiction and mental illness are diseases that require willpower (among other things) to successfully treat.

          For example, most people seem pretty on board with treating schizophrenia as a disease. But certainly, treating it requires willpower to e.g. stay on your meds. Or something like arthritis or a ligament injury – obvious physical disease / damage, but for best results you need willpower to do your PT exercises. Heart disease is an obvious physical degeneration, but you need willpower to stick to a diet that won’t make it worse.

          So addiction is a disease, in that it’s ultimately driven/exacerbated by a root cause you don’t have direct control over. But lacking a magic bullet cure, any successful addiction treatment is going to require substantial willpower on the part of the patient.

          • dndnrsn says:

            This is a good way of modelling it. It seems like a good balance.

          • johnjohn says:

            What about modeling lack of willpower as a disease?
            If you don’t have the willpower to fix your issues, it’s not like you can will yourself to have more willpower

    • HeelBearCub says:

      It’s complicated?

      I think one common thread in most of Scott’s psychiatry posts is how much of a fubar the understanding of what exactly is going on when we look at a cluster of symptoms we then term a “condition”. Because the brain continues to be a black box, one which changes dynamically in response to stimulus, it’s very hard to say for most of these “conditions” what the real, true, one cause is (or, more commonly, that there even is a one, true cause).

      Given the strong genetic links to certain forms of addiction, I’d be very surprised if disease models of addiction were completely wrong, but I’d also be surprised that if every addiction was a disease state and not simply the results of “normal” feedback loops in the brain/body.

    • Zephalinda says:

      Founders on the lack of clear cultural definitions for “disease” and “health”, particularly where mind-body interactions are concerned.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Depends on the addiction. Addictions involving physical dependence certainly seem to fit a disease model. Addictions which are purely psychological not so much; you risk modeling anything people like as a a disease, and while there’s a certain amount of “you know it when you see it” which can divide healthy activity from compulsive, there’s not a lot in the way of objective tests (unfortunately this characterizes many mental illnesses).

    • rahien.din says:

      I would take the same line as the judge in this episode of Radiolab. A man has brain surgery which causes him to have Kluver-Bucy syndrome, a symptom of which is compulsive browsing of child pornography. It is definitely a symptom of his disease because it can be treated with medications.

      At his trial, the judge says that, yes, the behavior was entirely a symptom of his disease and his successful treatment proves that. But the behavior also caused harm. The man had a responsibility to seek help, and given that he was otherwise quite lucid, he had the capability to do so. Because he did not seek help, he was responsible for the harm caused by his disease symptoms.

      So it is both 100% disease, and it is also the patient’s responsibility insofar as they are capable of seeking help.

      I compare it to a person with a cold. Their cold makes them infectious, with runny nose, coughing, and sneezing. No one can blame them for being infectious. But we can still require them to cover their mouth, wash their hands, not sneeze on our food.

      • MrApophenia says:

        Basically that’s the lycanthropy argument, right? Sure, it sucks that you got bitten, but if you don’t lock yourself up every full moon, you are responsible for all those eaten villagers.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      Our host had some interesting things to say about this sort of question.

      • Zodiac says:

        Thanks for the link. That was an interesting read, though its conclusion opens up just more questions.

      • dndnrsn says:

        This is good!

        So here, at last, is a rule for which diseases we offer sympathy, and which we offer condemnation: if giving condemnation instead of sympathy decreases the incidence of the disease enough to be worth the hurt feelings, condemn; otherwise, sympathize.

        The discussion of treating things like alcoholism and obesity (as in medical treatment, not considering) is good too. If drugs or surgery could shore up willpower or replace willpower, that’s great: gastric bypass surgery is different from not keeping chips in the house by degree, not by kind.

  15. The Red Foliot says:

    [cont. from OT 78.75]

    Re: writing advice, Poul Anderson’s essay, and so forth.

    @Kevin C.

    My point wasn’t so much that you should create an adventure serial of your own; rather, the section quoted was for demonstrating aspects of my analysis, showing off the kind of things I might look for if I were wanting to write in the adventure serial tradition. If adventure serials aren’t your thing, you could analyze a different tradition in the same way. That is, making lists of what vital things stories in that tradition have in common, then inferencing some generalized rules on what you would need for your own story to work. You could do the same sort of analysis for ASOFAI, which takes itself far more seriously and would better suit Poul Anderson’s supposed taste (indeed, I did provide a little bit of analysis of it, when I used Jaime’s dismemberment to illustrate my ideas about characterization and character growth).

    But Poul Anderson doesn’t actually use much logical argumentum to support either the idea that fantasy always benefits from historical accuracy or that adventure serials are necessarily bad (the parody at the start of his essay is bad, but it’s bad for more reasons than historical inaccuracy…).

    Obviously, there are stories that require a reasonably high level of historical accuracy, but there are others, like the two series of stories I listed in the quote you bash me for (Conan and Elrik) which have very little of it. And even in the most ‘realistic’ fantasy works like Lyonesse and ASOFAI, you find a variety of anachronisms like knights jousting in the 6th century and expensive castles being maintained in functional condition for hundreds of years regardless of whether the social conditions would actually incentivise such maintenance.

    So the fact that there are successful fantasy stories with astoundingly little in the way of historical accuracy, and others with only a bit, doesn’t really sell his point that historical accuracy is hugely important. Not that he even really argues the point.

    I do think that fantasy benefits a lot by being inspired by history. History and myth are the two main inspirations behind most fantasy. But that’s different from what the essay says, or what you deride me for.

    So overall, neither of your points are sustained. I wasn’t saying you ought to create adventure serials; but even if I was, Poul’s essay doesn’t actually provide any reasons for why that genre is bad.

    • Kevin C. says:

      My point wasn’t so much that you should create an adventure serial of your own; rather, the section quoted was for demonstrating aspects of my analysis, showing off the kind of things I might look for if I were wanting to write in the adventure serial tradition. If adventure serials aren’t your thing, you could analyze a different tradition in the same way. That is, making lists of what vital things stories in that tradition have in common, then inferencing some generalized rules on what you would need for your own story to work.

      And I’m saying your “analysis” looks like nothing more than finding a “tradition’s” most widespread clichés and paint-by-numbers-style replicating them. It’s taking a genre — adventure serials, high-fantasy-masquerading-as-low-fantasy, space opera, whatever — and identifying the most used (overused?) tropes, character archetypes, and so on, and replicating them because it’s What’s Done. It’s saying: Genre A usually contains elements X, Y, Z, and I’m writing an A story, so it must contain X, Y, Z. Do you get what I mean by “paint-by-numbers”?

      And I have no reason that this “method” of yours is at all actually effective. Because, as you admit, it, and all your practice with it, has yet to turn you into a publishable author; why should I belive that it ever will turn you (or me) into one? How do I know that all your “practice” isn’t just you spinning your wheels and going nowhere?

      Plus, when you say that Anderson is wrong, well, why should I believe you over him? He’s the famous author, and you’re a random internet nobody.

      • The Red Foliot says:

        Adventure serials are actually a very special case because they really are a highly formulaic genre. Lester Dent, Frank Gruber and various other successful pulpsters are on the record for having used ‘paint-by-the-numbers’ approaches in their fiction. It can easily be verified through a quick google search. If you look at, say, the character Geralt of Rivia, you can certainly see the similarities between him and other famous pulp characters, most notably Drizzt D’Urdan and Elric of Melnibone. You would be hard pressed to find a pulp hero who isn’t formulaic or highly derivative. So, hypothetically, if you were looking to create a pulp action hero of your own, you would do well to look at what all of these successful characters have in common. It is, to some extent, what each of their creators did, some more than others. It is what you need to do to be successful. Think about things, analyze them. Don’t just say: “it’s all a matter of intuition so if I’m not immediately talented at it I’m just going to give up!”

        But this has no bearing on what I originally talked about. You accuse me of giving you faulty advice for how to create a pulp action hero. Not so. I was only giving you an example of how I, personally, might analyze a genre, as that is what you were asking for. It wasn’t meant to be an end-all method you could copy down and instantly begin turning out short stories with. It was meant to be instructive for how you might spend time practicing your own analysis–if you were so inclined (which I don’t believe you were).

        How far my methods get me is a matter for time to tell. It is more difficult to become published in the modern age, as there’s no longer much of a pulp market for beginners to get their training in. When I look at my own work, however, I see much progress. And when I look at the work of writers such as Jack Vance, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Moorcock, I see they, too, had to progress to become good. Their early work was rather shabby. The obvious deduction: good writing often requires practice.

        The reason you shouldn’t trust Anderson, by the way, is because he provides no evidence or argument to support his idea, and the idea is so vague as to be useless, anyway.

        • Nornagest says:

          similarities between him and other famous pulp characters, most notably Drizzt D’Urdan and Elric of Melnibone

          I’ll give you Elric, although it’s a pretty loose correspondence, but Drizzt? Aside from “white hair, two swords, good at using them”, I’m drawing a blank.

          • The Red Foliot says:

            Elric and Geralt are both morally conflicted anti-heroes loathed by their own people wielding both sword and magic in order to make grim choices that go wrong either way. Admittedly, there are a few notable differences, but I’m pretty sure Geralt was consciously based largely on Elric (and probably some crime fiction heroes, if not someone like Batman). He also fulfills one of Gruber’s rules, that the hero have a really cool job.

            Yeah, I was overly hasty in implying Drizzt as an inspiration. I should have been more clear with my thought, that Drizzt and Geralt both derive heavily from Elric, rather than that Geralt derives from both of them. The point is that there is a lot of honest theft in the realm of literature, especially pulp literature, that you can practically make a genealogy tree of it all.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        I think I see your problem: you figure that if you can’t write like Poul Anderson right out of the gate, it’s not worth doing.

        Everybody starts out writing crap. Cheesy, cliched, tropey, derivative wish-fulfillmenty crap. If you’re just starting now, you’ll write crap. You’re just going to have to put your head down and power through it. Write the crap.

        • Nornagest says:

          They say everyone has a thousand bad paintings in them. Probably a thousand bad stories, too.

          • Charles F says:

            Wildbow’s advice was to just get the first million words out of the way as soon as possible. Though, his first million words were way better than Pact, so I’m not 100% sure what to make of that.

          • Nornagest says:

            I liked Pact, but yeah, Worm was better. And Pact was better than Twig, or at least more engaging for me.

            If the stories about how long Worm was in development are true, though, he might have gotten his million words of bad fiction out before publishing anything.

          • rlms says:

            Yes, I think he wrote quite a lot before starting Worm, and most people would agree that the first few chapters of Worm aren’t as good as the rest (in terms of prose quality at least).

        • Everybody starts out writing crap.

          You might want to look at Heinlein’s first story.

          I don’t think he is the only exception.

          • Matt M says:

            As a random analogy, rappers best work generally appears early in their careers, and tails off from there. I believe the working assumption is that their first album consists of all the best rhymes they’ve written throughout their entire life up to that point, while future albums they have to keep coming up with brand new material in shorter windows of time.

            Not sure if this applies at all to fiction writers or not.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Re: Rappers. I think some of it also has to do with source material. Rappers get started writing about what they know, which is generally life in the underclass. This connects well with the audience. Once they’re rich and famous, well, club songs don’t usually have the emotional impact of rhymes about street hustlin’.

            Sci-fi/fantasy authors don’t have a similar disconnect with their source material and audience as their careers progress.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Okay, Heinlein said that was really the first story he wrote. But with a lot of other authors, their first published work probably isn’t their first written work. Lewis had his Boxen, Tolkien his Book of Lost Tales, Alcott her Flower Fables (which, okay, was published but didn’t receive anywhere near as much success), and other authors other things which we probably never even hear of because they never got so famous.

      • carvenvisage says:

        Plus, when you say that Anderson is wrong, well, why should I believe you over him? He’s the famous author, and you’re a random internet nobody.

        This is beyond braindead. Anderson isn’t the only published author with an opinion.

        • Kevin C. says:

          And how many of those “published authors with an opinion” have the opinion that “the one true key to writing fiction is stringing together nothing but a series of highly-distilled genre clichés and two-dimensional cardboard-cutout stereotypes passing for characters in a paint-by-numbers pastiche adhering strictly to formula”?

          • carvenvisage says:

            A disappointing amount say things like that, but that really isn’t the point.

            You can’t dismiss someone’s opinion based on someone who outranks them having a different opinion, if opinions among people who outrank them vary so wildly. -Obviously it’s not that kind of field.

            And the whole construction of ‘if you can’t prove to me that your approach will be a success, it will certainly be a faiiilure’ is just ultra wrong in itself. Lots of people have thoughts of exactly that kind- “if I can’t prove this will work, it won’t.” “I’m not worthy” etc, so playing the ‘who are you, little fish’ card is fairly serious aggression in most contexts.

            The fact that it’s bullshit (-there is no consensus among the great), and that you don’t have the standing to make it, are really secondary. Status shit tests inherently deserve escalation and retribution.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Kevin C, I’ve read the thread about you and writing here and at the previous OT, and I’ve come up with some advice.

        I think you need advice, not just about how to write, but how to write when depressed. Some writers are very depressed, and yet the drive to write doesn’t get shut down.

        Actually, it might be a good topic generally– depressed people generally aren’t totally paralyzed by it, so they’re able to do some things. How does that work?

        It might help to read some really bad published fiction. Some writers have been motivated by “I can do better than *that*!”.

        Tentative: Think about what you love in fiction. Look at ways to make those features front and center.

        This is extreme, but Olaf Stapledon and Borges write their best fiction without using characters.

        What’s the most popular fiction that has the weakest characters? How did those authors get away with it?

        You’ve got people in your life– if you could tell when one of them behaved out of character, then you’ve got some way of modelling people. Also, do you expect those people to reliably behave differently than each other?

        Tentative: you may be expecting to know with certainty what a character would do. How about coming up with a character, probably a stock character, and several possible but very different actions for the character. Ask yourself whether some of the actions are more plausible than others.

        Write something really bad. If you’re stuck on the idea of writing something good but you can’t figure out what that good story is, then writing something deliberately bad might break the impasse.

        • Aapje says:

          Indeed.

          Also, because he has no job and is unhappy with his current life, there is downside to doing something. It may not work out, but not doing anything is certainly not going to change Kevin’s life.

        • hoghoghoghoghog says:

          Re how to work when depressed: I’ve never been depressed but I have been down enough to accomplish nothing, and I tried using self disgust to motivate myself to work. KC, I suspect you are attempting this strategy, and describing yourself as a failure is part of it.

          It can work but it’s a dangerous game. It’s great for getting yourself to accomplish goals with short deadlines, but it’s crap for projects that require patience.

        • Kevin C. says:

          @Nancy Lebovitz

          You’ve got people in your life–.

          Very few.

          if you could tell when one of them behaved out of character, then you’ve got some way of modelling people.

          That’s the thing: I can’t readily tell what’s “in character” or “out of character” even for people I’ve known most my life.

    • Kevin C. says:

      Also, I asked the original question about how do I “get in a character’s head” and figure out their behavior on another forum I frequent (if only rarely comment) where plenty of people write (if mostly fanfiction, though with some published folks), and the answer there seems to be that I probably shouldn’t be writing.

      Yet another thing that’s outside my abilities, another way that I’m a grossly defective specimen of humanity, with my lack of a functional version of the “software”, as Dr. Friedman called it, that other people have. And if I was truly smart enough, wouldn’t I be able to consciously “recreate” that software from the ground up, doing with conscious deliberation and brute computational force what other people do subconsciously and automatically? The fact that after three-and-a-half decades of life I’ve been unable to do much along those lines is yet another demonstration that I’m really not all that smart.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        That’s kind of harsh, innit? The ability to get inside other people’s heads is a special talent that the best writers have; if it were one of the standard abilities of (neurotypical) humans, there’d be a lot less trouble in the world.

        • James Miller says:

          Yes, and knowing that you lack the ability “to get inside other people’s heads” puts you far ahead of the numerous people who falsely think they have this ability.

        • Kevin C. says:

          That’s kind of harsh, innit?

          Not in light of all my other failures as a human being, and present existence as a useless parasite on society, the kind of which no proper, functional society that wants to survive would tolerate.

      • bintchaos says:

        @Kevin
        I imagine I will get shot down on this in your usual hail of bullets, but I think you are excellent at getting inside SOME peoples heads– the heads of your own tribe.
        I just think writing is the wrong medium for for you.
        You are passionate about the endangered species aspect of your own tribe. I know that isn’t a widely held view even among Red Tribers, but there seems to be a consensus on “Cthulu Swims Left” even here.
        So…make a documentary about your passionate belief– show what people like you are thinking. Whole indie films have been done on an iPhone, with really low production budgets. Pitch your documentary to AEI or the Manhattan Institute for fundage. Like the Red Tribe version of Michael Moore.
        Start small– just do Alaska, or just do your home town, or just do your neighborhood.
        Make an exploratory mini-video, a “short” for proof of concept. Or do like Blomkamp is doing with Oats Studio and Steam teaser shorts to drum up interest.
        Take a film class at your local community college.
        You could even meet A. Girl. that shares your interests.

        • Kevin C. says:

          So…make a documentary about your passionate belief– show what people like you are thinking.

          “People like me” don’t appear on camera, because they generally don’t want to be unemployable pariahs. As “NotPaxDickinson” on Twitter put it:

          Being non-anonymous in the Right counterculture in 2017 selects for lunatics and charlatans. Our best potential leaders are still anonymous.
          For our best potential leaders, the costs of namefagging are too high. But if we build institutions worthy of being led, they’ll emerge.

          Whole indie films have been done on an iPhone, with really low production budgets.

          I don’t have a smartphone; can’t afford one.

          Pitch your documentary to AEI or the Manhattan Institute for fundage.

          Pitch it as what, exactly?

          Start small– just do Alaska

          Alaska is far from “small”.

          or just do your home town

          Anchorage has over 40% of the population of Alaska.

          or just do your neighborhood

          From what little I know of my neighbors, “my tribe” they’re not.

          Make an exploratory mini-video

          Exploring what, exactly?

          Take a film class at your local community college.

          Can’t afford to. And even if I could, which one of these classes would be the appropriate one? The one about making outdoor adventure films, the one about “previsualization and preproduction” with a focus on storyboarding, the one about “the technical and aesthetic aspects of nonlinear digital video editing”, or the advanced “hands-on filmmaking research” in outdoor adventure films?

          • skef says:

            “People like me” don’t appear on camera, because they generally don’t want to be unemployable pariahs.

            Oh come on! You’re already convinced you’re an unemployable pariah for other reasons entirely! You’re one of a tiny number of people positioned do this with no apparent negative consequences. You’re free!

          • Kevin C. says:

            @skef

            Read more carefully. I’m not talking about me, but about the people I’d be documenting. Who watches a “documentary” where the filmmaker is the only person who appears on camera?

          • skef says:

            I believe the conventions are silhouette and voice modulation, depending on level of paranoia.

            I haven’t seen any of Dinesh D’Souza’s long-form work, but from what I understand a lot of it is taken up by either him or stock footage and the like.

          • bintchaos says:

            I would take the class with the focus on storyboarding, because that could also help with your writing if you wind up writing. Storytelling is key. I think you passionately want to tell the story of your tribe. Passion is good. I see you here passionately defending a culture that is going extinct– you have strong ideas about how to reverse that– at least, when you aren’t morosely chewing your daily ration of thistles.

            I thought you were on disability…and you live with family? Won’t your case worker help you get a smart phone or enroll in a community college class? Can you borrow a smart phone occasionally? Or could you rent/buy/borrow a video camera? The community college probably has cameras to use for coursework. How do you interact on the web? Desktop? Laptop? Tablet? You could use that for editing and mining stock footage off the web.
            Just do one family– or even just yourself to start– or just do your family, but anonymize them. Do a short introducing yourself and your project. Many documentaries use anonymity for on-camera vignettes.
            You went to college– how did you do that? Scholarship? You were functional enough to graduate– I just dont believe you are as helpless as you make out.

          • One disagreement with Bintchaos’ advice. Writing is easier than making a movie. Kevin already knows how to write–he does it regularly here, although not fiction. So try writing something instead of making a movie.

            You know your mother. Could you write a scene with her or a character based on her? Are there other people in your life you know well enough to have a feel for what they would or would not do? Can you imagine two such people interacting, perhaps ones who don’t actually know each other?

            As an entirely different idea, have you tried writing poetry? Hard for some people, easy for others. There’s essentially no market for it, but if it works it feels good, and there’s lots of poetry online that you can read to learn. My advice would be to ignore contemporary stuff done by other amateurs, read good old poets such as Kipling or Millay or Hopkins, find one you like and see if you could write something similar. And if you eventually write fiction, poetry might be good practice.

            One part of Bintchaos’ advice I agree with is that you have strong feelings linked to your very odd political views. I’m not sure there is a market for nonfiction arguing for them, but fiction that takes them for granted in the background might be interesting precisely because it would be from a different world view, in some sense a different world, than usual.

            Mary Renault wrote about ancient Greece from a world view arguably closer to theirs than ours, and produced some very good historical novels.

          • Kevin C. says:

            @bintchaos

            I thought you were on disability…

            Yes.

            and you live with family?

            No, I live in an apartment by myself, but my immediate family is all in the same town, and I visit my parents about once a week or so.

            Won’t your case worker help you get a smart phone or enroll in a community college class?

            Don’t actually have a case worker at the moment, and have been having to go through all the paperwork to become a patient of the local Community Health Center so that I’ll have someone who can prescribe me more of my psych meds before I run out because the Community Mental Health Services are no longer providing psychiatric/prescription/meds services (they look to be “downsizing” in general).

            You went to college– how did you do that? Scholarship?

            Yes.

            You were functional enough to graduate

            But I had my suicide attempt during my fourth year, and had to return for part of a fifth after a medical leave of absense to finish up my degree and graduate.

            @DavidFriedman

            You know your mother. Could you write a scene with her or a character based on her? Are there other people in your life you know well enough to have a feel for what they would or would not do?

            Not really, no.

            As an entirely different idea, have you tried writing poetry?

            When I was younger.

      • Orpheus says:

        Is it possible you antagonized them, prompting this dickish response?

        You seem to get discouraged quite easily. Just keep at it, surly you will improve at some point?

        • Kevin C. says:

          Is it possible you antagonized them, prompting this dickish response?

          What’s “dickish” about saying that maybe I shouldn’t be writing, which was the response?

          Just keep at it, surly you will improve at some point?

          Typo, or Freudian slip?

          Also, should a kid in a wheelchair “just keep at” trying to walk, because “surely he’ll improve at some point”?

          • Orpheus says:

            What’s “dickish” about saying that maybe I shouldn’t be writing, which was the response?

            Well, usually when someone expresses interest in learning a craft on a forum dedicated to said craft, it is customary to offer encouragement and helpful advice, not to try and turn him off it completely.

            Also, should a kid in a wheelchair “just keep at” trying to walk, because “surely he’ll improve at some point”?

            Yes, it is called physical therapy.
            Unless of course he is physically incapable of walking, but you are clearly not physically incapable of writing, are you?

      • And if I was truly smart enough, wouldn’t I be able to consciously “recreate” that software from the ground up, doing with conscious deliberation and brute computational force what other people do subconsciously and automatically?

        Not unless your “smart enough” makes the claim true by definition.

        I am, on various evidence, unusually smart–I entered Harvard at sixteen and the first math course I took there was advanced calculus. But there are skills other people have that I have been unable to acquire. As an undergraduate I took a course on music, since it was something other people obviously found interesting and enjoyable. That may have been my only C. My reaction to music, now as then, is that it sounds beautiful but basically boring, unless it is being used to support good poetry–I like poetry. Pretty clearly that is not the reaction of other people, including my wife and daughter, to music–they can hear something in it that I cannot.

        For a simple example, I have taken to saying that the real value to me of playing WoW is an exercise in humility, doing something that I am worse at than the people I am doing it with, not better. Different people have different skills, and brute intelligence doesn’t substitute for all of them.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’ve lost interest in a fantasy series before when I got far enough in to realize it was a retelling of Central European affairs circa the breakup of Charlemagne’s kingdom with a thin fantasy gloss, so that’s one data point in favor of the idea that historical accuracy doesn’t always help. I have nothing against historical fiction or dramatized history — I have some on my desk right now, in fact — so I’m not totally sure why I had such a negative reaction; it felt cheaty, though, like the many inferior retellings of Lord of the Rings.

      • The Red Foliot says:

        I once made a list of all the good fantasy epics I had read, and most of them had some kind of ‘cosmic rebirth’ type story at their heart (rather than just some random political dilemma). Karl Marx and the Bible are the same. So I guess to provide an adequate basis for an entire epic, you need a really profound ambition at stake.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Kevin, I was in a somewhat-similar boat. I enjoy writing, but I’ve seen people criticize my characters as unrealistic and dull. I still haven’t totally solved that, but one thing that helped was pulling character traits from other stories and from people I know – e.g. “Let Bob Protagonist have Peter Whimsey’s zen for popular quotations, HPJEV’s sense of heroic responsibility, my sister’s love of animals…” – and then thinking through those character exercise sheets that some writing books show. At first, it can seem like working through logical deduction (“what would someone with Bob Protagonist’s traits naturally do with a free evening…”). Sooner or later, it does seem to me like I’m running a natural model of Bob in my head, even to a greater degree than most of my real-life friends – but that might come with practice writing.

      Another thing that really helped was fanfiction, where I’m working with characters who already have been defined over a long series. Do you feel like you have any sense of characters from a series in your head? When you read some bad fanfiction which has them acting out-of-character, do they seem different to you?

      (And about genre tropes – yes, they’re tropes. But they’re tropes for a reason, because it’s easier to work within them, and because people often like them. Why not write a couple of tropish stories while you figure out how to write?)

      • Kevin C. says:

        I still haven’t totally solved that, but one thing that helped was pulling character traits from other stories and from people I know – e.g. “Let Bob Protagonist have Peter Whimsey’s zen for popular quotations, HPJEV’s sense of heroic responsibility, my sister’s love of animals…” – and then thinking through those character exercise sheets that some writing books show.

        Do you know which writing books you’re referring to here? And again, how do you compute a specific action from something like “HPJEV’s sense of heroic responsibility” (whoever that is)?

        At first, it can seem like working through logical deduction (“what would someone with Bob Protagonist’s traits naturally do with a free evening…”).

        See, what I’m asking is how you do that “logical deduction”. How, exactly, in fine detail, do you figure out from “Bob Protagonist’s” traits what he’d do “with a free evening”?

        Sooner or later, it does seem to me like I’m running a natural model of Bob in my head, even to a greater degree than most of my real-life friends

        See, I don’t really have much of a “natural model in my head” of even my real-life friends.

        Another thing that really helped was fanfiction, where I’m working with characters who already have been defined over a long series. Do you feel like you have any sense of characters from a series in your head?

        Not really, no.

        Edit: On second thought, there is a character who I had a fair bit of a feel for, the titular protagonist of one of my favorite movies of my childhood, D.A.R.Y.L. Of course, said Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform is a robot brain installed in the cranium of a lab-grown human body as a child-sized prototype for an eventual adult sized synthetic soldier project.

        When you read some bad fanfiction which has them acting out-of-character, do they seem different to you?

        I don’t really read much fanfiction, so I can’t really say.

        Why not write a couple of tropish stories while you figure out how to write?

        Because the tropes don’t tell you what specific action a characted takes in a specific situation, or what specific words come out of his or her mouth.

        • Charles F says:

          “HPJEV’s sense of heroic responsibility” (whoever that is)?

          I strongly suspect it was meant to be HJPEV, for Harry James Potter Evans-Verres, from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. And that’s actually a pretty easy thing to compute, it’s basically, Is there a problem? Yes. Is anybody else already working on it? Doesn’t matter, they’re probably incompetent so it’s my responsibility now. Repeat every time any problem comes up.

          My impression of this thread is that it’s an amalgam of the monad burrito fallacy applied to writing, and you not wanting to try. I don’t know if you actually want to write fiction, but if you do, and you’re currently getting nowhere at all on your own, why not make a good-faith effort to try some of the advice before deciding it can’t work?

          And now for my take on writing advice ideas. You don’t know how to model individuals, but you do spend a lot of time thinking about group dynamics, right? Could you write a story where the most relevant entities are tribes, not people?

        • Evan Þ says:

          Okay, it’s possible you don’t have a natural model of your friends in your head. But, I might’ve said the same thing some years back, just because I hadn’t noticed it yet… and also because I’m not as involved in my friends’ lives as in the lives of the fictional characters I’m making up.

          I’m not sure whether to recommend working through a full character sheet where you fill out any number of traits about a character, or picking some traits and running with them for a short story. In general, my inclination would be to say “go ahead and write,” but in general I’m talking to people who’ve already been writing and are just suffering from writer’s block. So, if you want to start with character sheets – IMO, they’re generally interchangeable; pick whichever sort of character sheets work better for you. Here are three from a quick Google that look decent.

          From the character traits I’ve defined, I then think about what a character would do at some point in the plot. For instance, to pick a story I was working on earlier this week: John Protagonist is at college in a fantasy world, he’s enthused by finally getting at so much knowledge, but his little sister’s come along and he’s sort of concerned about her being out of place. So, say he’s got a free evening; what would he do? Well, he might spend it in the library reading (to play out Character Trait #1), he might talk with his friends about the topics a professor was covering in class (another way to play out Character Trait #1), or he might go exploring with his sister (to play out Character Trait #2). (This can vary with the circumstances – e.g. if his sister yelled at him this morning that he never has time for her, he’ll probably pick the last one.) I can then pick from this list which one would be best to move the plot forward. Or, if nothing really works out, I can reach “back in time” and tweak circumstances so that, for example, maybe he doesn’t have a free evening because of some homework.

          Within that, as in exactly what John Protagonist talks about with his friends or his sister, is more complex – but you can approximate it as “what the plot demands, filtered by what he’d be interested in based on those character traits.” And then, once you’ve written a story or two, you might understand it more?

          (Yes, I was talking about Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres in my last post – have you read HPMOR? Or what things have you been reading lately – it might be easier to talk about some protagonist we both know rather than one whose story I haven’t even finished yet?)

          • Kevin C. says:

            IMO, they’re generally interchangeable; pick whichever sort of character sheets work better for you. Here are three from a quick Google that look decent.

            Thank you.

            So, say he’s got a free evening; what would he do? Well, he might spend it in the library reading (to play out Character Trait #1), he might talk with his friends about the topics a professor was covering in class (another way to play out Character Trait #1), or he might go exploring with his sister (to play out Character Trait #2).

            How exactly did you figure those out, from those numbered “Character Traits”?

            Yes, I was talking about Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres in my last post – have you read HPMOR?

            Not just no, but hell no.

            Or what things have you been reading lately

            For fiction? 1636: Mission to the Mughals by Eric Flint & Griffin Barber (from the “Ring of Fire” series), Gone by Johnathan Kellerman (from his “Alex Delaware” series), and Frederik Pohl’s Demon in the Skull.

          • Evan Þ says:

            How do you like the latest 1632 books, by the way? I started the series but stopped somewhere around 1635: Gustavus Adolphus Finally Wakes Up After A Full Book when it seemed like Flint was dragging plot points out for too long.

            Anyway, to return to my unfinished example for a moment… What does John Protagonist want? When I built his character, I said that he wants (1) to learn as much as he can from the university, because he likes learning; and (2) to make his sister happy. Then, when I’m planning a scene, I ask how he might try to achieve these things in this scene. For point (1), he could study, he could talk with friends about the subject, etc. For point (2)… well, that’s more complex, but it basically boils down to what his sister wants, which I’ve defined along with her character.

            For short stories (which is where I recommend you start), it generally works to just pick a list of two or three “Things This Character Wants” for each character. In longer works, though – and for sequels – you want to pick things that tie in, or are at least compatible with, what the character wanted in previous works. Take the 1632 series, for example – whatever Mike Stearns wants in the next book, we already know that he’s not going to want to become dictator. He’s not going to suddenly want to retire, either. He’s going to want to encourage a republican Germany, because that’s what he’s wanted all along.

        • The Red Foliot says:

          Most people who don’t take writing seriously have outrageous pretensions about the craft. They think it is all about being ‘lifted by the wings of inspiration’ and just one day realizing their talent in a sudden burst of passion! (and of course, they all have this raw talent, the pretentious farts!)

          It is an impossible ideal, one that flies in the face of almost all evidence. Those who cling to it are more often than not those bad one-time-novelists from New York who write their one solitary novel set in Brooklyn and then disappear (‘into the night’, because they are poetic). Their novels are sans characterization and sans plot, sans everything that requires practice, because of their disdain. For these untutored dilettantes, anything that can be studied or learned is beneath them. Expertise is not for them, and so into the night they go when their impractical ideas fall short of reality.

          I have already told you the only thing you absolutely need to know about characterization: it is all about consistency. If you are able to define a character as ‘fractious’ and then have him behave in a fractious manner, consistently, then you have created a functional character. How far you go beyond raw functionality depends on other things, but the first step is just to maintain consistency.

          Probably you will be shit at this at first, because even consistency is hard. It is doubtful you will ever become good, as you do not seem inclined to practice. But if you do practice this one concept, and then slowly accumulate other concepts, you can improve your work gradually. That is what I did; but as you deride me, forget about that. It is what Jack Vance did. He progressed from rather drab characters in his first decade as a professional writer, to the wonderful, humourous beings who populated his work in the latter years. It is about gaining expertise so that you can reach greater complexity. Few people can write good characters without knowing anything concrete about the process. And those who do not try, are like those liberal arts college poofters.

          Your idea that you need to model characters in your head for them to be good is stupid. You can already model them, unless you are literally insane (and not even your maudlin tears have convinced me of that). Even if they are absurd (Jack Vance’s characters were absurd) you can still model them. There is no one ‘correct way’ of doing it. What’s lacking is not your ability to model them, but other things. Concrete know-how. Your problem is that you don’t even know what you don’t even know, and you don’t even know that much.

    • JulieK says:

      I’m going to go against the crowd and point out that earning a living from one’s writing is a very risky career choice, even for people with lots of natural talent. If Kevin is looking to make money (as opposed to just writing as a hobby), he ought to focus on field that involves his strengths (e.g. math).

      • keranih says:

        I will back up JulieK. Making money from writing is a Job. One should expect to put Job hours into it – probably salaried Job hours, which is where you work 60-80 hours a week (for 40 hour week pay).

        Starting out working at writing is like no-stipend interning – you’re doing it, but (almost certainly) so badly that no one would actually exchange money for the end product. And once you’ve gotten the basics down, there is still all the others working at the same job, competing for the same customers.

        Having said that – a steady occupation at which Kevin has some talent might be the sort of thing he needs, even if it doesn’t start to earn him a paycheck for most of a decade.

        • Evan Þ says:

          I agree on all points. Here’s a blog post series where a rare successful novelist, who’s said he almost could quit his day job if he wanted, talks about his income.

          • I also agree. Making a living as a writer isn’t impossible but it’s hard, and we have no evidence that Kevin has any particular talent for doing it, some evidence, from him, that he doesn’t. On the other hand, attempting it is virtually costless, many people enjoy writing even though they do not expect to make money doing it, and Kevin, by his account, is unemployed and expects to remain unemployed, so has time to fill.

            And successfully producing fiction, even fiction not good enough to make a living at, even fiction not good enough to get commercially published, would still be an accomplishment that might reduce the sense of individual worthlessness and despair that comes through in his posts.

          • Zodiac says:

            And successfully producing fiction, even fiction not good enough to make a living at, even fiction not good enough to get commercially published, would still be an accomplishment that might reduce the sense of individual worthlessness and despair that comes through in his posts.

            Or it aggravates these feelings by failing and not living up to his standards.
            A minor issue for most, but I’d advise for caution as to not trigger a spiral into another suicide attempt.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Or it aggravates these feelings by failing and not living up to his standards.

            I guess it’s possible – but (N=1) writing’s never made me feel more worthless; I’ve always felt like I’ve accomplished something, even when I’ve been at my greatest despair about commercial success.

            (It’s made me feel really weird once or twice, when I realized I’ve written a piece of two-dimensional message fiction that I energetically disagree with, but…)

  16. baconbacon says:

    Have we had a discussion about the minimum wage studies in Seattle?

  17. James Miller says:

    Confirmation Bias in Action. I recently received an email which reads in part:

    The Massachusetts legislature is now considering raising the state’s minimum wage from its current level of $11 per hour to $15 per hour by 2021, in four annual increases of $1.00. We, along with a few other colleagues, have prepared a letter to be signed by economists working in Massachusetts giving support to this legislation….We hope you will add your signature to this letter…You will probably note that the attached letter makes no mention of the two studies that have recently come out regarding the employment impact of the minimum wage increase in Seattle, one from researchers at the University of Washington and one from researchers at UC Berkeley. The two studies offer very different results regarding the impact of the wage increase on employment…We decided not to include a consideration of these studies in the letter because, first, we think it is too early to draw strong conclusions from the Seattle experience, and, second, because to discuss seriously the differences between the two studies would require a much longer letter. We are, however, persuaded by the Economic Policy Institute’s critique of the University of Washington study that it has serious problems.

    Here is Megan McArdle on Seattle’s minimum wage increase and the two studies.

    • J Mann says:

      Here’s Bryan Caplan’s take.

      I have to admit that I’m predisposed to be convinced, but I’m mostly convinced by Caplan’s a priori argument, which he quotes at the bottom of his post.

      As he points out, the curve for employer demand for low wage workers is assumed to be close to horizontal when judging the effects of immigration, but close to vertical when judging the effects of wage floors.

      It’s pretty astonishing to think both – I can sort of think of a story to explain it, but it hurts my head a little.

  18. bintchaos says:

    @James Miller
    ??? Dr. Hsu was the reference that i cited/quoted.
    can’t you read the link?
    Or is it that you didn’t check the link because I cited it?

    • James Miller says:

      Yes, I didn’t check until after I posted and then it occurred to me that the “Internet is small” and you might be using the same source as I had and I saw and deleted my post shortly before you posted this.

      • bintchaos says:

        Dr. Hsu has been writing about this since February.
        Bean should post a correction over there.

        • bean says:

          I plan to write a fairly comprehensive takedown of the whole DF-21/”the carriers are doomed” thing, because it’s pretty widespread. But that’s going to take a couple of weeks.

  19. bintchaos says:

    I cited Kate Starbird’s work in the Clive Thompson Wired article on social media.

    Consider [redacted], an area where, as scholars have shown, algorithmic analysis could help identify crap. Software created by Kate Starbird, a professor of design and engineering, was able to distinguish with 88 percent accuracy whether a tweet was spreading a rumor or correcting it when analyzing chatter about a 2014 hostage crisis in Sydney. And Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, has found that Twitter accounts posting political fakery have a heat signature: They tweet relentlessly and rarely reply to others.


    Here is another article by Starbird that I found very fascinating.
    Abstract–

    This research explores the alternative media ecosystem through a Twitter lens. Over a ten-month period, we collected tweets related to alternative narratives—e.g. conspiracy theories—of mass shooting events. We utilized tweeted URLs to generate a domain network, connecting domains shared by the same user, then conducted qualitative analysis to understand the nature of different domains and how they connect to each other. Our findings demonstrate how alter- native news sites propagate and shape alternative narratives, while mainstream media deny them. We explain how political leanings of alternative news sites do not align well with a U.S. left-right spectrum, but instead feature an anti- globalist (vs. globalist) orientation where U.S. Alt-Right sites look similar to U.S. Alt-Left sites. Our findings describe a subsection of the emerging alternative media eco-system and provide insight in how websites that promote conspiracy theories and pseudo-science may function to conduct underlying political agendas.


    I’m interested what SSC commenters think of Starbird’s work and the emergence of alternative media ecologies.
    Especially since (as I pointed out) social algorithms developed by social physics researchers now have the capability to alter behavior of social networks and individuals on social media.

    • bintchaos says:

      well…
      I thought Starbird’s description of alt-left as globalists and alt-rite as anti-globalists was an interesting mapping of Blue Tribe/ Red Tribe characteristics.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        In which case you may be interested in this from our host, largely about global culture vs local culture.

  20. rlms says:

    Are there any studies on the extent to which legacy admissions for elite colleges (which benefit white students as elite college alumni are disproportionately white) counteract affirmative action? The Wikipedia page for legacy preferences has one, but it only covers three colleges, doesn’t analyse race of legacies, and presents the results on the scale of the SAT which I don’t think is especially helpful.

    • gbdub says:

      Unless the legacies are really, really, disproportionately white compared to the current applicant pool, wouldn’t legacy admits mostly displace other white students?

      • rlms says:

        According to the Wikipedia page, they are 97.5% white (at Princeton), so I think they can basically be treated as a group of advantaged white students.

        • gbdub says:

          Right, but even if they were 100% white, if the rest of the student body is still 90% white, it takes 10 legacy admits to “displace” one nonwhite student, assuming the displaced students are selected randomly.

          In practice affirmative action exists, so they are likely massaging the criteria such that legacy admits mostly displace white students anyway.

      • Brad says:

        Kids matriculating in September were born in 1998. Their legacy parents mostly graduated in the 80s and early to mid 90s. They in turn was mostly born in the mid to late 60s and 70s.

        Affirmative action was already in place so we should expect some African-Americans but because of democratic shifts since then much lower Asian and Latino percentages in the legacy pool than the current applicant pool.

        • gbdub says:

          So legacy admissions, like other affirmative action, comes down hardest on Asians.

          • Brad says:

            I’d think it would hit Latinos the hardest. In 1998:

            Among students enrolled in college, 70.8 percent were non-Hispanic White, 12.6 percent were non-Hispanic Black, 6.5 percent were non-Hispanic Asian, and Pacific Islander, and 8.8 percent were Hispanic.

            [1]

            Whereas current k-12 demographics:

            Of the projected 50.4 million public school students entering prekindergarten through grade 12 in fall 2016, White students will account for 24.6 million (48.8%). The remaining 25.9 million will be composed of 7.8 million Black students (15.5%), 13.3 million Hispanic students (26.4%) , 2.7 million Asian/Pacific Islander students (5.4%), 0.5 million American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 1.5 million students of Two or more races.

            [2] (percentages added)

            It looks like Asians are actually slightly over-represented while Latinos are underrepresented by a factor of 3.

            [1] https://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/p23-205.pdf
            [2] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372

          • gbdub says:

            In terms of disproportionate relative to the general population maybe, but I believe studies have shown Asian applicants face the longest odds for getting in, at a given level of objective academic performance measured by e.g. SAT scores (that they are still “over represented” in spite of this is of course interesting). That’s what I was referring to.

            But I was also being imprecise by lumping both together. For the particular effect you mention (demographic shift relative to legacy alumni), yes, that’s clearly biggest for Latinos.

  21. bintchaos says:

    @Charles F

    so maybe we should pause the process of making those tools bigger and bigger and focus on the people using them for a while?


    I guess I didn’t make that part clear.
    That’s not an option.

    Related: How does one slay a basilisk?
    Hard to do (without dying) according to Bullfinches.

    “What though the Moor the basilisk hath slain,
    And pinned him lifeless to the sandy plain.
    Up through the spear the subtle venom flies,
    The hand imbibes it, and the victor dies.”


    Subtle venom…thats good. I will try to remember that.

    • Charles F says:

      Related: How does one slay a basilisk?
      Hard to do (without dying) according to Bullfinches.

      Appropriately, we need a wake up call. All these roosters generated by big data and crowd sourcing have to go. The work may seem petrifying at first, but if we plan carefully and don’t cock it up it will be done in a trice.

      • bintchaos says:

        Social algorithms grew out of the business world, not academe.
        There are already commercial programs like Cynefin and Endor out there evolving in the wild amoral frontiers of the businessland. The original algos were designed to sell you stuff, based on your mined data.
        So while I loved your punning, good luck with that.

        Just imagine what governments could do to control their citizens with social algorithms…

        Mal on how the Alliance created the Reavers–

        Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better.

        • Charles F says:

          [Reposting a comment that got ‘et. Slightly more ominous (in multiple directions) in light of your added quote.]

          Just to clarify. In my original (deleted) comment, I was saying that a la “Raising the Sanity Waterline,” the questions that seem most interesting and relevant to this community are about the people using the social networks. Not so much about interesting ways to distort the network and make things better on the margins by hiding bad posts on fb.

          I agree that pausing the business world is a fantasy. But if we could make people saner faster than social networks’ algorithms are getting better, that would be a pretty cool achievement.

          • bintchaos says:

            That what the Math Babe wants to do– I recommend her book– and she has a column at Bloomberg.
            My secret plan is to find ways to educate and/or train people, and spread tolerance and encourage diversity (diversity in the Dr. Pentland sense, not the affirmative action sense) and innovation.
            Also analysis of evolution of social structures and cultural transmission and…
            the Holy Grail– prediction.

          • Charles F says:

            Sounds pretty great. I hope it works.

      • smocc says:

        Holy moly, man, I didn’t even know ‘trice’ was a word.

  22. bintchaos says:

    Also…is Kevin C possessed by the daemon spirit of Eeyore?
    He certainly seems fond of thistles.

  23. multiheaded says:

    Corbyn will never run

    Corbyn will never get elected by the Labour members

    Corbyn will never find any frontbenchers

    Corbyn will never hold on to power

    Haha, Corbyn

    Corbyn will never win re-election

    Corbyn will never win re-election with an increased majority

    Corbyn will never bring the party out of debt

    Corbyn will never sing the national anthem

    Bahaha

    Corbyn will never come back from 25%

    Corbyn will never prevent the LibDems from becoming the new opposition

    Corbyn will never support Article 50

    Corbyn will never support a GE in 2017

    Ahah.. ha..

    Corbyn will never support Trident

    Corbyn will never support hard Brexit

    Corbyn will never pledge to abolish tuition fees

    Corbyn will never fully cost his manifesto

    C-Corbyn?

    Corbyn will never breach 30%

    Corbyn will never win over the working class

    Corbyn will never win over Liberals

    Corbyn will never win over Conservatives

    CORBYN NO

    Corbyn will never win over lost UKIP voters

    Corbyn will never bring his party ahead in approval ratings

    Corbyn will never gain after Manchester

    Corbyn will never rally the North

    Corbyn will never close the gap to 5%

    Corbyn will never breach 40%

    Corbyn will never destroy the Tory majority

    You are now here

    Corbyn will never form a progressive alliance

    Corbyn will never be PM

    AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH

    Corbyn will never reverse tax and spending cuts

    Corbyn will never establish a National Education Service

    Corbyn will never renationalise the rails without compensation

    Corbyn will never federalise the UK

    Corbyn will never provide free heating and solve the ageing population by setting all the old people on fire

    Corbyn will never get a good Brexit deal

    Corbyn will never dismantle the EU

    Corbyn will never cement the channel tunnel

    Corbyn will never abolish the monarchy

    Corbyn will never declare himself Chairman head of state

    Corbyn will never send the SNP to the gulags

    Corbyn will never send Dianne Abbott to the glue factory fuck off /leftypol/ she is secretly ok I think

    Corbyn will never blast mummy May out of a howitzer

    Corbyn will never detach the UK from the sea bed and turn this island into a giant battleship

    Corbyn will never use said battleship to spread the revolution to other countries

    Corbyn will never “nationalise” Europe

    Corbyn will never “nationalise” Russia in the winter

    Corbyn will never “nationalise” the USA and China

    Corbyn will never “nationalise” outer space

    Corbyn will never make anime real

    • bean says:

      Corbyn will never detach the UK from the sea bed and turn this island into a giant battleship

      Obviously not. The UK doesn’t have the heavy gun or armor production facilities any more to make this possible.

  24. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    I’m curious about theories about the availability of jobs.

    It seems to me that jobs require enough capital (tools, knowledge, reputation) for the job-holder to make enough to be self-supporting, and ideally, to live reasonably well. (Vague, I know.)

    It seems to me that education usually isn’t the bottleneck– you can have people with a lot of education (even good education) without jobs for them. What’s needed is something like the right kind of social web.

    The other half is for the job-holder to have enough status to get paid reasonably well.

    What conditions make good jobs more likely?

    • andrewflicker says:

      “What conditions make good jobs more likely?”

      High labor demand / low supply – means employees have better BATNA positions, and can more easily capture their marginal value.

      Perceived high economic growth / industry growth – makes employers hire faster / pay better than raw market conditions demand, because they think they’re setting themselves up for future success.

      Strong competition between firms – drives down profit margins and means employers will pay more attention to the “inputs” that they can micromanage for success (which includes employees). This one is more mixed, since some firms will try to micromanage by reducing labor costs, but I think in general this is usually positive for the labor market.

      Cultural norms of reciprocity and “sharing” – Firms will be more egalitarian, with a higher number of “good” jobs and a lower number of “exceptional” jobs. Firms that don’t play along get shamed or lose good employees due to “bad culture”.

      I imagine you could go on in this vein for some time.

  25. Salem says:

    I would be interested to hear from the regulars here about the Qatar crisis. What do you think?

    From my perspective, the Qatari government have behaved appallingly, but the allied demands are clear overreach.

    What’s the endgame here? A coup? What pressure can they bring to bear?

    • bintchaos says:

      I’m not a regular but its just purely demonstrative of Trump’s inexperience and ignorance of complex situations.
      Trump’s vanity and ego have allowed him to be manipulated into taking sides on a 30 year old slap-fight between Qatar and KSA for control of the GCC.
      State and the military commanders are trying to walk it back without much luck.
      The “endgame” as you so naively put it is likely collapse of a fragile equilibrium system where Pax Americana is eroding really fast in high population growth epicenters like ME and North Africa.
      Heres what the military thinks.
      Heres what State thinks.

      • Salem says:

        Just so you know, you are incredibly boring when you make everything about America.

        I don’t even necessarily disagree with you on the US’s role here, but it’s approximately the least important or interesting part of it.

        • bintchaos says:

          But I’m not incensed about Trump’s domestic policies– I think Trump damage is extremely limited domestically because the Founders built really well. I think liberal hysteria is over the top on this.
          And I think the Heartland has every right to elect their own choice. The pendulum will swing back.
          The Founders feared an elected demagogue so there are plenty of protections built in.

          The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.

          Those then, who resist a confirmation of public order, are the true Artificers of monarchy—not that this is the intention of the generality of them. Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected. When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, … —despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
          Alexander Hamilton

          However, the international damage a stupid and inexperienced man with poor advisors can do as president is pretty much limitless. Consider OIF and GWB.

    • Brad says:

      It’s hard to take the ultimatum parties’ complaints seriously when they have such dirty hands themselves, not just in general, but in many of the same areas that Qatar is accused of bad behavior.

      • Salem says:

        The allied countries may support some dubious groups, but they aren’t friendly with Iran, they didn’t pay $1bn to Iranian-backed militias, and none of their rulers made a speech to the military praising Iran (then ludicrously claim the whole thing was a hack when foreign media picked up on it). It’s hard to have much sympathy for Qatar.

        But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who’s in the moral right here. What matters is how they’re able to exploit their leverage.

        • John Schilling says:

          This argument seems to assume that “Iran” is a synonym for “Evil”.

          • Salem says:

            No, just that Iran is the enemy of the allies. If the Qataris ally themselves with the enemies of the GCC, they should expect the other members of the GCC to take measures against them.

          • John Schilling says:

            If the Qataris ally themselves with the enemies of the GCC, they should expect the other members of the GCC to take measures against them

            What does that have to do with the alleged difficulty of sympathizing with Qatar?

            Again, take Iran=Evil out of the equation, and what’s left? “Qatar is friendly with not-Evil Iran, Qatar paid $1bn to not-Evil militias, and Qatar’s rulers made a speech to the military prasing not-Evil Iran. But the GCC is the enemy of Iran – if tiny little Qatar allies itself with the not-evil Enemies of the GCC, they should expect the GCC to take measures against them. It’s hard to sympathize with Qatar”.

            I find it very easy to sympathize with Qatar under that framing. And that’s before I remember that the bloodiest unprovoked attack on American soil in the past century was conducted by citizens of the GCC’s dominant state.

          • Salem says:

            Hang on, Iran may not be a synonym for evil, but that doesn’t mean its motives in the Gulf are benign from the point of view of Iran’s neighbours.

            “Qatar defected from the defensive alliance against Iran, judging (probably correctly) that this is in its narrow self-interest; that way, Iran will steal the islands and subvert the governments of Qatar’s neighbours and leave Qatar alone. Qatar’s neighbours are therefore giving it a crash course in a broader notion of enlightened self-interest, including such game-theoretic concepts as pre-commitment and altruistic punishment.”

            Yeah, still not feeling much sympathy.

          • John Schilling says:

            Hang on, Iran may not be a synonym for evil, but that doesn’t mean its motives in the Gulf are benign from the point of view of Iran’s neighbours.

            Yes, and neither are the GCC’s motives benign from the point of view of the GCC’s neighbors. So what? We aren’t any of their neighbors; when it comes to deciding who we should feel sympathetic for, why should we prioritize Iran’s neighbors over the GCC’s neighbors or either of them over the ones caught between them?

            Yeah, still not feeling much sympathy.

            Do you have any reason for this other than a world view in which the Saudis are the Good Guys and those who would oppose them, even those who would stand neutral in the conflict between the Saudis and those who would oppose them, must be the Bad Guys?

            Way I see it, there are the Bad Guys and the Other Bad Guys. And in assessing relative Badness, let’s still not forget which of these are the Bad Guys whose government turned a blind eye to some of its high-profile citizens murdering three thousand of my fellow citizens. Also, there’s Donald Trump playing at Middle Eastern Diplomacy. Then there are the Little Guys caught in the middle, trying not to commit to any of the Bad Guys.

            I’m inclined to give Qatar a share of my sympathy.

          • Salem says:

            We aren’t any of their neighbors;

            Well, that depends who “we” are. You aren’t any of their neighbours. I’m pretty sure there are SSC readers living in the Gulf. As an Iraqi, albeit living in Britain, my feelings may be more complicated.

            Do you have any reason for this other than a world view in which the Saudis are the Good Guys and those who would oppose them, even those who would stand neutral in the conflict between the Saudis and those who would oppose them, must be the Bad Guys?

            I never said Saudi Arabia are the good guys. I don’t think this language is remotely helpful. And I explained my reasons, both here and below. Iran keeps trying to steal the islands of the small Gulf countries and become their hegemon, so they need to stick together. Saudi Arabia isn’t a small Gulf country that Iran can easily bully, but it’s decided to ally with them as part of its own desire for self-aggrandisement. Qatar has betrayed its neighbours – no sympathy. That doesn’t mean I have to feel sympathy for Saudi Arabia, which, in a world without Iran, would be the major threat to the independence and territorial integrity of the small GCC nations!

            I guess I’d compare this to the Delian League. The Gulf emirates, like the Greek city-states, have to stick together against the Persian menace. Qatar is Thasos, defecting to Persia – hard to have sympathy. But the maximalist allied demands look like a way to destroy Qatar, much as Thasos was destroyed and made a tributary. And Saudi Arabia, like Athens, would dearly love to establish a hegemony over its neighbours.

            Yet, for now, you’ll note that the “little guys caught in the middle” are all on the side of the Saudis, except for Kuwait which is trying to play mediator.

        • Brad says:

          “At least they aren’t friendly with Iran” presupposes that Iran is much worse than Saudi Arabia to being with.

        • bintchaos says:

          Thats my point– Qatar is just a shiny object to distract Trump and his apologists from the KSA masterplan which is wahhabism for all muslims.
          All soon-to-be nearly 2 billion of them.

          • James Miller says:

            You greatly overestimate how much Americans care about Qatar. I doubt more than 25% of us even know that Qatar is a country.

          • qwints says:

            That is a surprisingly hard question to get data on. There have been a number of different foreign policy and geography surveys of the US population, but I can’t find one that asks about Qatar or an equivalently sized one. I’d guess much lower, but it has gotten a lot of news coverage over the last decade.

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        Actually I’d like to see a steelman of the anti-Qatar side. From a US point of view they seem really nice (funding Al Jazeera, hosting a base for us, keeping channels open with Iran), so much so that I feel I must be missing something.

        • Salem says:

          Not intended as a steelman, but the allied position is roughly:

          1. The small GCC countries are terrified of Iran, because it makes irredentist claims (e.g. that Bahrain is rightfully Iranian), and keeps seizing small islands when no-one is looking. So they need to stick together against Iran. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its rival power, so the GCC was always solidly against Iran.
          2. Since the mid-90s Qatar has been pro-Iran, breaking its unity with the rest of the GCC. This is terrifying for its little neighbours, who need a united front against Iranian aggression, and annoying for Saudi Arabia. And now they have a young emir who has thrown off all restraint. So Qatar is seen as a traitor – in SSC terms they have defected in the prisoner’s dilemma.
          3. The GCC countries have made a bunch of deals with Qatar before, but Qatar keeps breaking them. So there’s no trust, and no hope of getting back to co-operate-co-operate. So instead, they are being punished. In fact, the GCC have made incredibly maximal demands that would strip Qatar of any future leverage. This makes me think that the aim isn’t regime change, but I could be wrong.
          4. The reason it’s precipitated now is Qatar just paid $1bn cash to Iranian-backed militias as a ransom. This appears to have outraged its neighbours for the spendthriftiness as much as anything – demonstrating that the emir is not a serious person.

          How “nice” any of these countries are to the USA is not part of the dispute.

          • bintchaos says:

            OMG please stop using the iPD for everything.
            Axelrod’s tournament was based on artificial societies– which don’t actually exist…its far too oversimplified for any existing strategy space.
            The Obama admin was trying to reduce US involvement in MENA because he was smart enough to know we cant win there after 30 years and x trillions of dollars spent.
            The reason we cant “win” is some actual game theory, John MaynardSmith evolutionary games-– Islam is a regional Culturally Stable Strategy which is immune to invasion and mutation.
            That is what the Iran treaty was all about, a tent pole like the French put up in Nam before they skedaddled.
            KSA is pissed off because of Obama FP prioritizing the Iran deal.
            The fight for control of the GCC has been going on for 30 years.
            Enter Trump.

          • Salem says:

            OMG please shut up about the USA whose involvement in this is peripheral at best.

          • cassander says:

            @bintchaos

            The Obama admin was trying to reduce US involvement in MENA because he was smart enough to know we cant win there after 30 years and x trillions of dollars spent.

            How is blowing up Libya, deposing the leadership of Egypt, and doing whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing in Syria “reducing involvement”? I’ll give you that the Obama administration had some instincts in the direction of reducing involvement, but they got more involved almost everywhere, and the one place they objectively got less involved (Iraq) was a disaster that blew up in their faces.

            Islam is a regional Culturally Stable Strategy which is immune to invasion and mutation.

            What on earth is this supposed to mean?

          • bintchaos says:

            @Salem
            OMG please shut up about the USA whose involvement in this is peripheral at best.
            Trump SAID he kicked off the hostilities
            What’s wrong with you?
            Are you really this pig-blinded ignorant of 30 years of US FP history?
            Read Bacevitch.

            The long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union had involved only occasional and sporadic fighting. But as this new war unfolded, hostilities became persistent. From the Balkans and East Africa to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, U.S. forces embarked upon a seemingly endless series of campaigns across the Islamic world. Few achieved anything remotely like conclusive success. Instead, actions undertaken with expectations of promoting peace and stability produced just the opposite. As a consequence, phrases like “permanent war” and “open-ended war” have become part of everyday discourse.

            Connecting the dots in a way no other historian has done before, Bacevich weaves a compelling narrative out of episodes as varied as the Beirut bombing of 1983, the Mogadishu firefight of 1993, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the rise of ISIS in the present decade. Understanding what America’s costly military exertions have wrought requires seeing these seemingly discrete events as parts of a single war. It also requires identifying the errors of judgment made by political leaders in both parties and by senior military officers who share responsibility for what has become a monumental march to folly. This Bacevich unflinchingly does.
            A twenty-year army veteran who served in Vietnam, Andrew J. Bacevich brings the full weight of his expertise to this vitally important subject. America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a bracing after-action report from the front lines of history. It will fundamentally change the way we view America’s engagement in the world’s most volatile region.

          • bintchaos says:

            @cassander
            I’m sorry…explaining EGT is probably just too much heavy lifting for me today.
            Heres the book– JMS: Evolution and the Theory of Games
            The concept of a Culturally Stable Strategy(CSS) is introduced in chapter 5, Learning the ESS.

          • Iain says:

            @Salem:

            OMG please shut up about the USA whose involvement in this is peripheral at best.

            Is that true?

            Most of the complaints about Qatar appear to be about issues that have existed for years. The $1B ransom does not seem like the sort of thing that rationally precipitates this kind of action, although I freely admit that I am not an expert on the politics of the region. To me, the most plausible explanation for this situation seems to be:
            1. The US has interests in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and does not want them to fight.
            2. Previous administrations applied diplomatic pressure to both countries, threatening some sort of consequence for taking their quarrels too far.
            3. Trump went on his tour to the Middle East, engaged in some chummy glad-handing with the Saudis, and left them with the distinct impression (intentionally or otherwise) that he was not interested in slapping anybody’s wrist if the Saudis started pushing Qatar around.
            4. Saudi Arabia decided to take advantage of the opportunity to settle some old scores. A few weeks and one thin pretext later: boom!

            @Cassander

            How is blowing up Libya, deposing the leadership of Egypt, and doing whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing in Syria “reducing involvement”?

            Did you see the previous guy? Not talking about a high bar here.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            So, the US can act as a restraining or enabling force in an existing feud.

            Which could be considered a peripheral role if you’re interested in examining the feud itself, but a critical one if your angle is more concern about what will happen if it is unrestrained?

          • Iain says:

            Yeah. I think the US has very little to do with the feud itself, but (potentially) everything to do with why it is boiling over right now.

            Epistemic status: speculative, and very willing to be corrected.

          • cassander says:

            @iaian

            Did you see the previous guy? Not talking about a high bar here.

            The previous guy at least made an effort to clean up his mess, and did a decent job of it by the end. the Obama guys shat all over the carpet, then praised the result as high art.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            @Cassander: I assume you are talking about Libya. But Wikipedia’s maximum estimate for deaths in the Libyan civil war is 25,000, while for the Iraq war it is 500,000. I don’t mean this to whitewash the Obama administrations mistakes, but it is important to keep a sense of scale.

          • cassander says:

            @hoghoghoghoghog says:

            @Cassander: I assume you are talking about Libya.
            But Wikipedia’s maximum estimate for deaths in the Libyan civil war is 25,000,

            1) the libyan war is not yet over and shows no sign of ending any time soon.

            2) The libyan civil war contributed directly to making syria worse

            3) even were it not for point 2, I am not just talking about syia. The obama administration ran around the Arab spring pouring gasoline on any fire they could find.

            while for the Iraq war it is 500,000.

            that number is wrong
            , especially when you exclude the death that have occured since the obama administration’s disastrous withdrawal.

            I don’t mean this to whitewash the Obama administrations mistakes, but it is important to keep a sense of scale.

            Yes, you should. Syria today is exactly the sort of disaster that people were saying was the worst possible case for Iraq in 2006. The Bush administration averted it from happening in Iraq, the Obama administration has not averted it in Syria. The Obama administration, objectively, made a worse mess of the middle east than their predecessor.

          • bintchaos says:

            @Cassander
            Dear lord…you ARE stupid.
            I was so wrong…my model is so wrong…I assumed parity in IQ and g between tribes.
            We are still paying for OIF…and it will never stop.
            Bush wrote the SOFA– we HAD to leave, because 6 million Iraqis signed a petition for US to go home.
            That is 1/5 of the Iraqi population.
            The tragic flaw of Bush’s dumbass democracy promotion doctrine…was that when muslims are DEMOCRATICALLY empowered to vote, they NEVER vote for secular democracy– they vote for Islam.
            They like Islam.
            I bet you think the US “won” the VietNam war too.
            JKMN

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            bintchaos, please don’t insult people’s intelligence. I don’t think it helps them think better.

          • bintchaos says:

            @Nancy
            sorry for the Unkindness but this is both NECESSARY and TRUE.
            Its appalling that cassander has no idea of the history surrounding the US withdrawal from Iraq.
            Bush wrote the withdrawal conditions– Muqtada al Sadar got 6 million Iraqis (1/5 of Iraq population) to demand US withdrawal. Obama tried to negotiate a force to remain in Iraq– Maliki and Sadr refused Obamas demands that US forces be immune from prosecution.
            US created the ISIS insurgency.

            The arrival of ISIS in Mosul, on 10 June 2014, exposed the fragile state that was established after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The United States and Iraq’s political elite failed for nine years to build a robust political system and adequate security forces that would defend the country against the horrific threat of terrorism, both domestic and foreign. Iraq’s neighbors from all sides of the border meddled to their hearts’ content in the country’s internal affairs and virtually all Iraqi political blocks, each according to its ethno-sectarian background and respective interests, served as proxies for these regional evil-doers.

            After the humiliating fall of Mosul, both Iraqis and Americans started a blame game. The Iraqi leadership blamed their American ‘allies’ for not giving them the military support, training, and weaponry to secure and defend their country, while many Americans who were involved in the re-building of Iraq’s armed forces blamed the Iraqi government, especially former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for weakening the Iraqi military by appointing incompetent and corrupt commanders. The truth is: both arguments were correct. The US has not spent anything close to adequate efforts to build a strong and functional Iraqi military, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies gave the fragile military he received from the Americans a final push into the abyss.


            The reason the truth is NECESSARY is so that this doesn’t happen AGAIN.
            On this very blog I see commenters arguing for a pre-emptive strike on NK.
            This happened in VietNam, in Iraq, in A-stan, and I can see it happening in NK, or Nigeria, or South Sudan.
            So yes, cassander IS stupid if he refuses to learn the history of the US Grand Misadventure in Iraq.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            bintchaos, if someone calls you stupid, does it make their argument more convincing to you?

            I strongly recommend trying to convince people– especially here– that they’re wrong on the facts, rather than telling them that they aren’t thinking well.

          • cassander says:

            Bush wrote the SOFA–

            Yes, and like all SOFAs, it had a time limit. It.was not intended that the US would just leave, at least according to the US ambassador to iraq, the iraqi ambassador to the US, and several other national security officials in office at the time, and the vice president himself, who called it a great achievement. Obama was not forced out of iraq, he chose to leave, and repeatedly bragged about that choice. the “well it was bush’s SOFA” meme only came about once things started going to hell.

            we HAD to leave, because 6 million Iraqis signed a petition for US to go home.

            Ah, yes, silly me, I forgot that iraqi petitions were legally binding on the US government.

            The tragic flaw of Bush’s dumbass democracy promotion doctrine…was that when muslims are DEMOCRATICALLY empowered to vote, they NEVER vote for secular democracy– they vote for Islam.
            They like Islam.

            This is true. It’s also completely irrelevant to what we’re discussing.

            sorry for the Unkindness but this is both NECESSARY and TRUE.
            Its appalling that cassander has no idea of the history surrounding the US withdrawal from Iraq.

            This is false. As discussed, you’re repeating talking points.

            “The arrival of ISIS in Mosul, on 10 June 2014, exposed the “

            Arrival in 2014. Where was isis before 2014? In Syria. Why did the Syrian regime tolerate their existence? because it was engaged in a civil war that the obama administration inflamed and had no choice. the Iraq war did not create ISIS in any meaningful sense, the Syrian civil war did. It was only that war which allowed a bunch of car bombers the physical and political space to literally build themselves into an actual army. To claim otherwise is simply gross ignorance.

            Now, you can be arrogant, or ignorant, but not both. You’ve repeatedly demonstrated your ignorance, stop being arrogant.

          • bintchaos says:

            @CASSANDER

            Yes, and like all SOFAs, it had a time limit. It.was not intended that the US would just leave, at least according to the US ambassador to iraq, the iraqi ambassador to the US, and several other national security officials in office at the time, and the vice president himself, who called it a great achievement. Obama was not forced out of iraq, he chose to leave, and repeatedly bragged about that choice. the “well it was bush’s SOFA” meme only came about once things started going to hell.


            False.

            The U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (official name: Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq) was a status of forces agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the United States, signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. It established that U.S. combat forces would withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and all U.S. combat forces will be completely out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.[1] The pact required criminal charges for holding prisoners over 24 hours, and required a warrant for searches of homes and buildings that were not related to combat.[1] U.S. contractors working for U.S. forces would have been subject to Iraqi criminal law, while contractors working for the State Department and other U.S. agencies would retain their immunity. If U.S. forces committed still undecided “major premeditated felonies” while off-duty and off-base, they would have been subjected to an undecided procedures laid out by a joint U.S.-Iraq committee if the U.S. certified the forces were off-duty.[2][3][1][4]

            the Iraq war did not create ISIS in any meaningful sense, the Syrian civil war did.


            Also false.

            NARRATIVE SUMMARY
            The Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) is a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization in Syria and Iraq whose goal is the establishment and expansion of a caliphate. The group has its origins in the early 2000s, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi began training extremist militants. The group was a major participant in the Iraqi insurgency during the American occupation, first under the name Jama’at al-Tawhid wa’al-Jihad and then, after swearing fealty to Al Qaeda, as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Facing backlash from the community and increased pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces, the group declined until 2011, when it began to grow through its involvement in the Syrian Civil War. In 2013, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Over the course of 2013 and 2014, ISIS quickly took over territory in Syria and Iraq. In addition to its rapid expansion, the group also drew attention for its public beheadings of Western captives and its large contingent of foreign fighters. On the ground, ISIS fought the Assad Regime and allied Shiite forces, Syrian opposition groups, the Iraqi military and militias, and the Kurdish peshmerga. The U.S. began airstrikes against the group in fall 2014.

          • cassander says:

            @bintchaos

            False.

            What part of “Yes, and like all SOFAs, it had a time limit” did you not understand? I know the SOFA expired. In fact, I SAID it expired. pointing out that it expired does not prove me wrong. You continue your habit of repeat talking points and buzz words without understanding.

            Also false.

            do you even read what you post?

            “Facing backlash from the community and increased pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces, the group declined until 2011, when it began to grow through its involvement in the Syrian Civil War. In 2013, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

            your own evidence explicitly supports my claim.

            Like I said, arrogant or ignorant. You only get one.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            @Cassander: I’m not knowledgeable enough to be able to interpret your metaphor of throwing gasoline on the Arab spring. Do you have links to a low level description of what you are referring to?

            In any case Syria is partly a consequence of Iraq – isn’t ISIS officer corps disproportionately former Iraqi nationalists?

            Incidentally, this question isn’t just a tribal spat: Trump claims to support an obama-esque, intervention-without-nation-building policy. If that really is worse than the Bush doctrine it’s relevant to how we should think about the current administration.

          • cassander says:

            @hoghoghoghoghog says:

            I’m not knowledgeable enough to be able to interpret your metaphor of throwing gasoline on the Arab spring. Do you have links to a low level description of what you are referring to?

            the US encouraged the arab spring in pretty much every country it appeared. Most prominantly, we told the egyptian military we bankroll to get rid of Mubarak, armed “moderate” syrian rebels and encouraged our regional allies to do more, and bombed Gadaffi’s army into powder.

            In any case Syria is partly a consequence of Iraq – isn’t ISIS officer corps disproportionately former Iraqi nationalists?

            Partly in the same sense that it’s also partly a consequence of Sykes-Picot or the battle of manzikert. in 2010, isis was a few guys in syria that, IIRC, didn’t even have that name yet. What allowed them to become more than that, something anyone cared about, was the syrian civil war, something the obama administration deliberately and continually inflamed.

            Incidentally, this question isn’t just a tribal spat: Trump claims to support an obama-esque, intervention-without-nation-building policy. If that really is worse than the Bush doctrine it’s relevant to how we should think about the current administration.

            There is a probably apocryphal story about reagan that I like to tell because it makes a good point. When he was briefed on the invasion of Grenada, he listens to the generals tell him their plan, then at the end says “that’s good, do that, but send twice as many men.” The general is confused and asked why, and Reagan says “because we have them, and if you’d sent 12 helicopters instead of 6 to Iran, Carter would still be president.”

            The only thing worse than a war is a war you try to win on the cheap. The US’ biggest advantage over any other country is our massively greater resources, it is foolish not to use them. This is especially the case since, because the US has global interests, any conflict we get in will almost invariably be with people who care more about the outcome than we do. The US, as a matter of course, should over-invest in places it puts its military credibility on the line, because anything that’s not a decisive victory tends to end up looking like a loss.

            One of the few good things I said about trump during the campaign was that I thought that, for reasons of pure ego if nothing else, if he got into a war, he would get in it “bigly”. My faith that he’ll take that approach has diminished a little, but only a little. Syria is now an ongoing problem, not a new problem, which makes a major change in strategy very difficult. but Trump as at least avoided expansive rhetorical commitments, and what mattis has been saying has been focusing on getting rid of ISIS and shoring up iraq, which is encouraging.

            In sum, I agree with your question. If Trump keeps tossing in cruise missiles now and then but not actually doing anything that might be decisive, I’ll absolutely criticize that. It’s too early to tell if that’s going to be his M.O. though.

          • cassander says:

            @hoghoghoghoghog

            If you want a fuller explanation of the strategic calculus I’m describing, see my post here. Sorry, I don’t know how to link to specific comments, but search for “aggressive minimalism” and you’ll find it. It’s nominally about Hillary Clinton, but lays out the issues I discuss here in more detail.

            Edit: Thanks evan

          • Evan Þ says:

            (@cassander, BTW, the timestamp under your username is a link to that specific comment. It’s true on a lot of other blogs too, not just here.)

          • albatross11 says:

            cassander:

            The CNN article you linked didn’t at all say that the US had told the Egyptian military to get rid of Mubarrak. Instead, it said we’d suggested[1] that Mubarrak announce he wouldn’t run for re-election. And my impression (I tried to follow this stuff, but I could be mistaken here) was that at that point, it was pretty clear that Mubarrak wasn’t going to keep power.

            Do you think the US could have put the lid on the Arab Spring? We might have been able to encourage the Egyptian military to replace Mubarrak with someone else while also crushing the popular revolt, but that’s not 100% clear to me. The actual military coup happened later, after the Muslim Brotherhood had been elected to power and had begun to draw large-scale protests itself. (Which meant there was a split between the MB-supporters who had protested Mubarrak, and the more liberal protesters.)

            What do you think Obama should have done w.r.t. the Arab Spring? For example, should he have leaned hard on the Egyptian military to crush the protesters and keep Mubarrak in power?

            [Added]
            Once the Syrian civil war started up, what should we have done? It’s certainly not clear to me that the Syrian civil war would have fizzled out without US assistance to rebel groups. Is there good data somewhere on this? Assuming we couldn’t have prevented the civil war, we’d have had the rise of Isis inside Syria.

            We pulled out of Iraq after more than a decade of occupation. How much longer do you think we should have stayed? If ten years and however many gazillion dollars weren’t long enough to build up a stable country and army, why would another ten years and another gazillion dollars have left things any better?

            [1] It’s not clear how strong a suggestion this was.

          • cassander says:

            @albatross11 says:

            The CNN article you linked didn’t at all say that the US had told the Egyptian military to get rid of Mubarrak. Instead, it said we’d suggested[1] that Mubarrak announce he wouldn’t run for re-election. And my impression (I tried to follow this stuff, but I could be mistaken here) was that at that point, it was pretty clear that Mubarrak wasn’t going to keep power.

            you’re confusing diplomatic niceties with what’s actually going on. I grant you, this particular article doesn’t phase it the best, but “the transition must begin immediately” is state department speak for “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” The US absolutely pushed the rest of the military to get rid of mubarak, and he “graciously” resigned.

            Do you think the US could have put the lid on the Arab Spring? We might have been able to encourage the Egyptian military to replace Mubarrak with someone else while also crushing the popular revolt, but that’s not 100% clear to me. The actual military coup happened later, after the Muslim Brotherhood had been elected to power and had begun to draw large-scale protests itself. (Which meant there was a split between the MB-supporters who had protested Mubarrak, and the more liberal protesters.)

            Egypt is run by its military. The military deposed mubarak in response to American insistence, then it allowed Morsi to come to power, then it decided to get rid of Morsi when he proved to independent. It’s hard to call any of those things a coup because most of the real power has been held by the same group of people continuously.

            What do you think Obama should have done w.r.t. the Arab Spring? For example, should he have leaned hard on the Egyptian military to crush the protesters and keep Mubarrak in power?

            I don’t think it should have leaned on them one way or the other, particularly in public. In private, I would make it clear that the US was indifferent to who was the nominal head of state of egypt but that massacres of civilians would come with consequences.

            Once the Syrian civil war started up, what should we have done? It’s certainly not clear to me that the Syrian civil war would have fizzled out without US assistance to rebel groups.

            Let Assad win. Lament how terrible he is, but let him win. The reason you let him win is that there is no non-assad alternative that’s better for the US. Violent revolution almost never leads to democracy, so whomever runs Syria post-revolution is going to be a nasty dictator. That dictator will face the same wider geo-political incentives that Assad does, and will thus almost certainly continue to ally with Iran and Russia. There was no upside to getting rid of him, and the potential downside of, well, exactly what has happened.

            Is there good data somewhere on this? Assuming we couldn’t have prevented the civil war, we’d have had the rise of Isis inside Syria.

            If Assad wins the war quickly, ISIS never grows, and if it does, is crushed as part of that process. Instead we gave them billions of dollars in weapons and aid, and our allies gave more. Now, you can argue that syria would have fallen apart anyway, but no one can really say for sure. There is not good data.

            We pulled out of Iraq after more than a decade of occupation. How much longer do you think we should have stayed?

            Well, we pulled out of iraq officially at the end of 2011, so that was more like 7.5 years of occupation. We’re still in Germany and Japan. Would you have advised pulling out of either in June of 1952?

            If ten years and however many gazillion dollars weren’t long enough to build up a stable country and army, why would another ten years and another gazillion dollars have left things any better?

            We had built up a relatively stable country and army. It only got unstable after we left. Maliki started firing the non-crony generals and arresting rival ministers AFTER we left, not before, because before, we had a de facto veto over such actions.

            Three US brigades that spent their time training iraqi forces were enough to give us a lot of leverage over the iraqi security apparatus and keep american senior political leadership paying close attention to iraqi politics, and were not an expensive or onerous commitment.

          • bintchaos says:

            @CASSANDER

            Let Assad win. Lament how terrible he is, but let him win.


            yeah, sure.
            Never mind that Assad has killed 500,000 of his own citizens and and caused displacement of 14 million or so more.
            Isnt 500k enough for you? Or is it that it was muslims being killed instead of jews or christians?
            Stuff like this makes the Red Tribe pretty hard for me to empathize with.
            My CCW instructor said several times in class that more people had been killed in Chicago than in Iraq. I said, wait a minute, nearly a million people died in Iraq– he said, oh, I was just talking about Americans.

          • pontifex says:

            Yeah. I think the US has very little to do with the feud itself, but (potentially) everything to do with why it is boiling over right now.

            The Economist seems to agree, for what that’s worth.

            Personally I was hoping for more discussion about the feud itself, and less tedious rants about Trump. These countries are going to be at each other’s throats long after Trump is yesterday’s news.

          • Aapje says:

            @bintchaos

            1. Those deaths are due to the war. A dictator who is secure in power doesn’t kill that many people.
            2. We’ve seen what happens when the kind Islamists that are currently fighting Assad get to power and it’s a lot worse.

          • bintchaos says:

            @Aapje
            I think both of those statements are observably false.
            There is a lot of evidence that Assad is deliberately starving and decimating his Sunni population, much like Assad père killed 40,000 MB dissidents in the Hama massacre.
            And the greatest threat from ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa was always that they governed better and distributed civil welfare better than the extremely low bar set by corrupt and sectarian leaders and militaries.

            A dictator who is secure in power doesn’t kill that many people.


            ??
            This whole thing is happening because the Arab Spring caused Assad gov to destabilize and he’s trying to REMAIN in power.
            The big enduring headache Assad has caused for western civ is the Islamic diasphora. 6.5 million IDP and 3 million external refugees from the Syrian conflict by 2014.

            So what do you have to say about my CCW instructor’s comparison of Chicago and OIF?

          • rlms says:

            @bintchaos
            “There is a lot of evidence that Assad is deliberately starving and decimating his Sunni population, much like Assad père killed 40,000 MB dissidents in the Hama massacre.”
            Could you provide some of that evidence?

            “This whole thing is happening because the Arab Spring caused Assad gov to destabilize and he’s trying to REMAIN in power.
            The big enduring headache Assad has caused for western civ is the Islamic diasphora. 6.5 million IDP and 3 million external refugees from the Syrian conflict by 2014.”
            It takes two to have a civil war (or several in the case of Syria). If the US had backed Assad from the outset, there would have been a very short war, with far fewer deaths and refugees. Then Syria would’ve continued approximately the same way as before the Arab Spring. Obviously the Syrian government of ~2005 was pretty bad by Western standards; nevertheless, the situation was vastly better than the current one. The actual situation is a terrible n-way civil war. If Assad had stepped down, the situation would be a marginally less terrible (n-1)-way civil war. Of these cases, the first one (the US supports/doesn’t oppose Assad and he remains in power) is in hindsight the best (of a bad lot).

          • keranih says:

            @ bintchaos –

            There is a reason CNN reporting on dictators is not completely trusted.

            As for what your CCW instructor said – it’s a regrettable example of the sort of thing that humans do all the time: fail to count the downsides that don’t apply to themselves.

            It’s even easier to discount those downsides when people are ignorant of the very existence of people being harmed.

            One of the best things about the rationalist community, in my mind, is the on-going attempt to base decision-making on “total harm to all involved sides” by both action and inaction. I often don’t agree with specific arguments (both sign and weight), but IMO the overall intent is pretty much the only correct one.

            One of the best things about the SSC commentariant is that there is a vocal enough mix of sides to prevent the group as a whole from being ignant of harm done to “others”. In a more protected bubble, we would have to resort to listening to those ‘others’ breathing silently in the theater.

            And on edit, because you changed your post whilst I was typing (not a knock this time, it was a fast revision) – woops, that was not an edit, it was me getting ninja’d by two posts. My apologies for implying otherwise.

            He doesn’t care a whit about any lives other than American lives, and like Kevin he privileges Red Tribe lives.

            You might well be *astonished* how frequently people in Iraq (and the rest of the world) privilege the lives of their own tribe. To the point where nepotism is not the failure of ethics it is seen as in the West, but instead the idealized version of how proper humans are supposed to act.

            Also – I question your math on the 1 million casualties figure.

          • rlms says:

            @bintchaos
            Were you intending to respond to my comment? Do you disagree with anything I said? If so, what (please quote) and why?

            I’m not particularly interested in what your CCW instructor thinks about Iraqi casualties. Personally, I think the high numbers of civilians killed are horrific, and often use them as a factoid when people criticise Israel’s military actions by facetiously suggesting that based on casualty figures, the BDS movement should be focusing on the US and UK instead.

          • bintchaos says:

            @rmls
            No, I’m just going to delete what comments i can and shut up.
            I have an 800 page book to finish reading today.
            @keranih
            nevermind.

          • Orpheus says:

            @rlms
            Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t the USA founded on the principle that a people have a right to overthrow an opressive government?

          • bintchaos says:

            @rmls
            The more I hang out here, the more I’m convinced that Hoschild is wrong and Rich is right.

            So hold the empathy and hold on to the anger. If Trump delivers on his promises to the “poorly educated” despite all indications to the contrary, then good for them. Once again, all the Trump naysayers will be proved wrong. But if his administration crashes into an iceberg, leaving his base trapped in America’s steerage with no lifeboats, those who survive may at last be ready to burst out of their own bubble and listen to an alternative. Or not: Maybe, like Hochschild’s new friends in Louisiana’s oil country, they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether. Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.


            I should just respect your right to choose.
            According to Sewell Wright we are undergoing speciation anyways.

          • rlms says:

            @Orpheus
            What the founders of the US thought has little bearing on anything.

            @bintchaos
            Is that in response to anything I said? FYI, I can’t choose anything; I’m not American.

          • bintchaos says:

            @RMLS
            No, it really doesn’t. It relates to the original reason I tried to become an SSC commenter– Hoschild’s book, Strangers in Their Own Land.
            I wanted to scale the “empathy wall” for the high IQ high SES cohort of the Red Tribe.
            I’m just saying that I’m giving up on that.
            It isn’t possible to change anyones mind anymore.
            I can’t muster empathy for the Red Tribe, because they are choosing extinction over adaptation.
            Its their choice.
            I have to respect that.

            EDIT:

            Personally, I think the high numbers of civilians killed are horrific, and often use them as a factoid when people criticise Israel’s military actions by facetiously suggesting that based on casualty figures, the BDS movement should be focusing on the US and UK instead.

            Can I assume you are anti-BDS from that comment? Israel is demographically unsustainable in its current environment. Israelis are also choosing extinction over adaptation. I have to respect that too. Just like you have to respect moral push-back on Israeli actions.

          • cassander says:

            @bint

            Just in this thread, you’ve made numerous false assertions, had numerous people tell you they’re false, and have been forced to retreat from them. You’ve repeatedly misrepresented the arguments others have made, and been called out on that. And rather than admit this, you’ve instead gone on some morally superior tirade about how everyone who disagrees with you is an idiot and you’re just trying to understand the monkeys so you can sympathize with them. Pro-tip, it’s not our minds that are refusing to change in the face of facts, get off your damned high horse.

          • bintchaos says:

            Whatever.
            I respect your decision.

          • I wanted to scale the “empathy wall” for the high IQ high SES cohort of the Red Tribe.

            Then you came to the wrong place, unless you were aiming at the small minority of commenters here who are members of the Red Tribe. A lot of people here, including Scott, are critical of aspects of left wing culture. Very few fit the Red Tribe pattern.

            You might learn things from arguing with me, although probably not, but all you could learn about the Red Tribe would be my views of it as an outsider.

          • Mark says:

            I’m definitely not a member of the red tribe, but I think I might be a red-brain.

            But if “red-brain” means something like “feels loyalty to be important and doesn’t particularly enjoy novel experience”, I’m not sure how much you can really predict about the political positions I will take.

            For example, I was saying pretty much exactly the same as:
            “The tragic flaw of Bush’s dumbass democracy promotion doctrine…was that when muslims are DEMOCRATICALLY empowered to vote, they NEVER vote for secular democracy– they vote for Islam.”
            15 years ago when the whole idea first turned up.

            As a red brain, I’m not fond of Bush, Blair, or Trump. My major political gripe at the moment is that I don’t like the attempted gas-lighting involving open borders. Yes, border controls are a possibility, no they aren’t completely insane.

            The most you can probably say is that the red brain reacts against blue brain openness when it may endanger those they love. That the educated are more open to ideas, and are therefore more likely to be infected with them.

            The fact that the current (or perhaps we’ve moved on now?) blue-brain obsession is “red brains are evil/irrelevant/stupid” worries me. It means that they’re even more likely to slip into dangerous territory than usual.

            I think you need a bit of a mixture in a community. You need the soldiers, the explorers, and the guy who says, “wait a sec, what the fuck are you doing.”
            That third guy is a red brain too.

          • Bintchaos wrote:

            I wanted to scale the “empathy wall” for the high IQ high SES cohort of the Red Tribe.

            I have just argued that this isn’t the place to do it.

            What is? If she, or anyone else, wants to observe and interact with a bunch of smart, educated, well off Red Tribe types, where, in particular where online, should she go?

            Nothing immediately occurs to me. The obvious candidates are, like this, places critical of Blue Tribe/left wing ideas, but I can’t think of any where, to take a simple measure, a majority of the participants would be Trump supporters.

          • Brad says:

            I’d say you’d want to find something that is: a) intellectually difficult and b) strongly associated with the red tribe (as opposed to associated with anti-left politics which forums seem to attract as many blue tribe dissidents as it does red tribe folks). Maybe some kind of gun theory forum or something like that.

          • cassander says:

            @Mark says:

            I find this interesting, because I’m sort of the opposite. I was born blue tribe, my ancestry is midwestern and east coast jewish. I was raised blue tribe, I grew up in Palo Alto, spent most of my life in blue tribe institutions, and attended impeccably blue tribe educational institutions. the only person in my life who didn’t go to college is my ne’er do well sister, and she tried a couple times. The only red tribers I know, and they are few, have similarly spent their lives in bluistan.

            My moral instincts are almost pure blue tribe, which is exactly why I can’t stand what they’ve become. I want what blue tribe wants, but I realize that their methods will never get them there, are actually making things worse (by their standards) not better.

            I like Bush and Blair, my criticism of their wilsonianism isn’t that it was wrong, it’s it was implemented poorly (much like Wilson’s was, actually). Had Iraq gotten to where it was in 2010 by 2006, it would have been a great victory. The world is a worse place for that failure.

            @DavidFriedman

            My first thought is to try the industries where red tribers are more likely. Go to industry conferences, or something, though I’d bet that the sales and BD types at such conferences are a lot less red tribe than the line workers, and the conferences aren’t online.

            Maybe the junior officers’ wives forums at various military bases? Enlisted if you want a broader SES swathe. Explicitly Christian, and preferably Protestant, charities?

          • bintchaos says:

            @Mark

            red brains are evil/irrelevant/stupid


            wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!
            Red brains are just non-adaptive to the current fitness landscape.
            Now this non-adaptive behavior gets interpreted as “stupid” by Rich when he presents the argument that

            “Maybe, like Hochschild’s new friends in Louisiana’s oil country, they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether.”


            My sub-argument is it is “stupid” to try to interpret ME current events without accurate history and without excising the seemingly obligatory red brain filter system, yes, exactly.

            The most you can probably say is that the red brain reacts against blue brain openness when it may endanger those they love. That the educated are more open to ideas, and are therefore more likely to be infected with them.


            But the problem is the entire non-American population of the world gets devalued by this trait. That is what pre-emptive war is all about, what VietNam and the Mossadegh coup and Gulf I and OIF and OEF were all about– what drones and bombs and SOF forces in 70 countries in the world are all about. And its what “letting” Assad remain in power is all about.
            But I dont even think racism is evil— its instinct (Tomasello 2006). Institutionalized racism is probably evil. And the Red Tribe is not irrelevant. But it may be soon if it can’t adapt.
            I was raised in a red brain, red phenotype family, in a red brain, red phenotype world– the opposite of CASSANDER. In college I became a blue brain…or at least a blue phenotype. Did my brain biochemistry change? maybe…or maybe it was just my environment.

            Yes I’m sure I would be warmly welcomed at those alternative forums.
            Not.

            EDIT: maybe its not just the non-American population of the world that gets devalued…maybe its the non-Red Tribe population of the world.

          • Mark says:

            So, what’s the argument here? That there is some test of fitness that you can only pass if you, as an individual, possess a global humanitarian impulse?

            The only test I can think of where that would be the case, is a cultural one. In that, our culture *is* blue brain, so if you aren’t, you’re out.
            But, now the question is what is the test or tendency that leads to blue-brain friendly culture?
            And, if red-brain is characterised by dull obedience, is it going to be possible for there to be a culture that selects against them?
            It sounds as if you’re saying that the future will select against culture, against social cohesion and only blue-brains will thrive in the chaos.
            Maybe the red brains should just hide in a bunker somewhere and wait for the blues to transcend themselves out of existence.

          • bintchaos says:

            @ MARK
            You are close.
            The

            only test I can think of where that would be the case, is a cultural one. In that, our culture *is* blue brain, so if you aren’t, you’re out.


            So yes, the contemporary cultural fitness landscape.

            fitness landscape: In evolutionary biology, fitness landscapes or adaptive landscapes (types of Evolutionary landscapes) are used to visualize the relationship between genotypes and reproductive success. It is assumed that every genotype has a well-defined replication rate (often referred to as fitness). This fitness is the “height” of the landscape. Genotypes which are similar are said to be “close” to each other, while those that are very different are “far” from each other. The set of all possible genotypes, their degree of similarity, and their related fitness values is then called a fitness landscape. The
            The idea of studying evolution by visualizing the distribution of fitness values as a kind of landscape was first introduced by Sewall Wright in 1932.


            Now think of a cultural fitness landscape– memotypes instead of genotypes. The original proposal for “meme” was “culture gene”.(EO Wilson I think)
            In visualizing the relationship between memotypes and reproductive success, the Red Tribe/soldier/anti-globalist/etc has reduced reproduction rate (fitness) in a globalist, connected, educated, pop-cultured, coastal-centric environment.
            That is simply– not generating as many reps.
            EDIT:
            pardon, I should have said urban-centric instead of coastal centric.

          • cassander says:

            @bintchaos

            Again Bint, you demonstrate how you’re not listening.

            But the problem is the entire non-American population of the world gets devalued by this trait. That is what pre-emptive war is all about, what VietNam and the Mossadegh coup and Gulf I and OIF and OEF were all about– what drones and bombs and SOF forces in 70 countries in the world are all about.

            You just listed a half dozen conflicts that took place over more than 60 years, every single one of which was launched by different people, for different reasons. You’re basically attributing 60 years of not just US, but global history to “red brains are defective in the modern environment.” Arrogance is one thing, but a monocausal explanation of the entire world? That’s just gross sophmorism.

            And its what “letting” Assad remain in power is all about.

            I support letting assad stay in power precisely because of concern for Syrian lives. When the Syrian revolt first started, I put forth the following question as a discussion topic.

            “Assume that the US can find no reliable partner in Syria, and that anyone who will win the conflict is likely to be an enemy of the US. If that’s the case, should not the US seek to drag out the conflict as long as possible, because it’s better for us if no one is in charge of syria than someone we don’t like.”

            I got some interesting answers, but my answer was that even if you accept that realpolitik calculus, I could not endorse such a strategy, because the gains were too small to justify the suffering such a plan would inflict on the Syrian people.

            Unfortunately for me, the results of Obama administration policies have been precisely that, endless war, chaos, and syrian suffering. Had the US not armed the syrian rebels, Assad would have quickly crushed them. Tens of thousands would have died, and that’s bad. But it’s better than hundreds of thousands dying, which is the result of policies you are supporting. And that’s not a hypothetical here, that is the concrete history.

            If anyone is disregarding lives because of insufficient tribal regard for ‘furners, it’s you, who seems to prefer an ineffectual effort to replace a dictator that has gotten hundreds of thousands killed to “letting the dictator win”. So please, try turning that tribal lense on yourself and your own actions and learn to have some introspection.

          • bintchaos says:

            @MARK
            So now we come to the difference between adaptive and non-adaptive behavior. The population of America is transitioning from majority white to majority grouped minorities. White is projected to be 47% of US population by 2050.
            An adaptive behavior for the Red Tribe could be recruiting hispanics– Bush and Romney both proposed this. But Trump and his wall are a fierce rejection of that idea, and he is truly the avatar of the base– they love him.
            A different adaptive behavior would be the Red Tribe increasing TRF. But Kevin C’s approach of scolding and yelling and trying to bully people into having more children is unlikely to work.
            A way to incentivize larger families would be larger taxcredits, free college, larger parental leaves with pay, free childcare, free reproductive healthcare, etc. But all those strategies are contra the advertised small government– no freeloaders– personal responsibility– austerity policies of the GOP.
            So yeah– I don’t see any adaptive behavior occurring.
            As I see it its a choice between adaptive behavior or extinction.

          • bintchaos says:

            @CASSANDER
            Ugh.
            And if Obama had implemented his red line, Assad would have been toppled by “pinpoint strikes” at the start of the conflict. Assad will fall eventually– he cant kill/displace all the Sunnis in Syria. Alawhite (a Shia sect) are a tiny minority, and even smaller now that many Alawhite officers have been killed in the fighting. UN speculates as many as 1/3 males of fighting age. Keeping Assad has ensured unending unrest and a ceaseless flow of refugees.
            You seem to think Chaos is a bad thing…I love Chaos like the War-Nerd loves War.
            Chaos is how we get Self-Organizing Criticality and emergence of new complex forms.
            This thread is too long.

          • albatross11 says:

            David Friedman:

            Steve Sailer’s blog is probably majority Trump voters and tends to be fairly bright people, often with extremely uncommon worldviews. West Hunter’s comment threads have a similar vibe, but with Greg Cochran willing to tell people they’re idiots when they’re saying factually wrong things.

          • cassander says:

            @bintchaos says:

            An adaptive behavior for the Red Tribe could be recruiting hispanics– Bush and Romney both proposed this. But Trump and his wall are a fierce rejection of that idea, and he is truly the avatar of the base– they love him.

            Given how long you’ve been here, if by now you can’t understand that there’s a difference between the GOP and red tribe, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

            And if Obama had implemented his red line, Assad would have been toppled by “pinpoint strikes” at the start of the conflict.

            First, obama made his red line comment about a year into the conflict, and failed to follow up on it almost a year after that, so your timing is completely off.

            Two, you are attributing downright magical powers to the US military, it’s ability to find and kill assad, and its ability to find and kill anyone who might have taken Assad’s place. You’re also completely denying the agency of any other actors in the conflict, most importantly the Russians.

            Three, even if the US military could do that, killing Assad solves NOTHING. it still leaves you with an ongoing multi-sided civil war. I’d have thought you might have learned that from watching the exact same thing happen in Libya, but that might have been expecting too much. Are you even aware of what happened there? because you’re advocating literally the same foolish strategy used there. Your analysis is, quite literally, “kill the baddy and democracy will break out” something you have repeatedly mocked others for believing.

            Assad will fall eventually– he cant kill/displace all the Sunnis in Syria. Alawhite (a Shia sect) are a tiny minority, and even smaller now that many Alawhite officers have been killed in the fighting. UN speculates as many as 1/3 males of fighting age. Keeping Assad has ensured unending unrest and a ceaseless flow of refugees.

            No, the WAR has caused those refugees. A war you are actively cheerleading. Assad is a party to that war, but he is far from the only one, and your focus on him is myopic. The multiple warring tribes in syria are not going to come together and sing kumbaya once assad dies, but that hope seems to be pretty much your entire plan.

            You seem to think Chaos is a bad thing…I love Chaos like the War-Nerd loves War.

            It’s only a bad thing if you have a problem with dead Syrians. I do. You don’t seem to. But nice of you to flat out admit my point about it being people like you who are disregarding the lives of non-Americans, not red tribe. A wiser woman might learn from that.

          • bintchaos says:

            @CASSANDER

            “kill the baddy and democracy will break out”


            lol, democracy will never break out in MENA majority muslim countries.
            Theres no substrate to support it.
            An islamic government could certainly emerge, or a pluralist government, or something entirely new– but not judeo-xian “secular” democracy.
            And Chaos doesn’t cause dead humans– war causes dead humans.
            Chaos causes dis-equilibriation of periodic equilibrium systems.
            And emergence.

            This thread is too long…end of discussion.
            EDIT:

            if by now you can’t understand that there’s a difference between the GOP and red tribe,


            I dont see any difference.
            At the time of the red line statement, the Russians had not yet gotten involved, and I said nothing about assassinating Assad. I said he would have been toppled by US strikes. That was the cw at the time.
            And why would you report that comment? Its both necessary and true.
            Last thing…I respect your choice for extinction over adaption.
            Its for the best.

          • cassander says:

            @bint

            Chaos causes dis-equilibriation of periodic equilibrium systems.

            Sophistry, but if you prefer, the equilibrium before the chaos spread by your