THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

OT109: Opulent Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. The due date for Adversarial Collaboration Contest entries was last week. I now have four entries submitted: TracingWoodgrains + MichaelP, Mark + Mark, Flame7926 + AReader, JohnBuridan + ChristianFlannery. If you submitted an entry and I didn’t get it, please let me know below. If you almost have an entry done and want to beg for more time (no more than a week or so), you can do it below and I might give in. I’ll reserve the first post on this thread for contest discussion.

2. Comment of the week is a reader refining the claim (see eg here) that supposed magical immunity to bullets inspires some warriors to be braver.

3. I’ve unbanned various people whose terms of ban were up or almost up. I know I banned skef a few months ago, but I can’t find the ban in the usual place and so I cannot rescind it. Skef should check if they can comment. If not, they might want to register an alternate account since I can’t figure out how to unban them. Sorry about the inconvenience.

4. Thanks to everyone who’s arranged SSC meetups the past few weeks, including the digital meetup on Throne. As always, you can find upcoming meetups near you on the meetups page. If you hosted or attended a meetup, please comment to let me know how it went.

5. And thanks to everyone who pre-registered for the informal experiment on CO2. Do whatever you’re going to do, and I’ll have another survey up in about a month where you can record your results.

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981 Responses to OT109: Opulent Thread

  1. Scott Alexander says:

    First comment for discussing adversarial collaboration contest.

    • a reader says:

      So the 4 finished adversarial collaborations are:

      JohnBuridan + ChristianFlannery: about Islam and liberal democracy
      TracingWoodgrains + MichaelP: about K12 education
      flame7926 + a reader: “Should transgender children transition?”
      Mark + Mark (don’t know their subject)

      I was lucky to have a good adversary-collaborator like flame7926 – it seems the probability to be abandoned by one’s adversary is really big (it happened also to me, the first time).

      Off topic, of course I feel honored to be mentioned for the first time at “comment of the week with my comment about the magic “dawa” that made the Congolese rebels [feel] invulnerable (but unfortunately only before the battle).

      • sclmlw says:

        Mark + Mark = Vaccine policy

        I thought it was a good exercise. In addition to forcing me to review the best arguments of the other side, it also forced me to defend my own side much more strongly than I think I otherwise might among those who a priori agree with me.

        I suspect the people who dropped out fall into one of two categories:
        1. One side overwhelmingly had all of the peer-reviewed scientific literature behind it, such that the other side had to either rely on fact-free arguments or concede publicly (such that early withdrawal to save face was the preferred response)
        2. After a contentious back-and-forth neither side could agree on common language; likely reflecting significant uncertainty in the scientific literature about the subject.

        I’d be interested to know, from those who collaborated adversarially but did not successfully produce a finished product, what stopped you? 1. Sudden drop-off of communication after sending out a bunch of articles? 2. You gave up because the ‘collaboration’ element just wasn’t there? 3. Deadline issues, such that you didn’t get close enough to turn it in?

        • C_B says:

          I suspect both of those categories exist, but are relatively small in size compared to the inevitable “flaked for non-subject-matter-related reasons when they got busy/lazy/distracted and it was just a random thing on the internet” demographic.

          • flame7926 says:

            I agree that this was probably the reason many people dropped out, though I thought the potential prize money would be an additional incentive to a fair number of people.

          • sclmlw says:

            Unless the sample size is too small, I assume all of the above were motivations behind completion or not of the collaborations. My interest is in two questions:

            1. What are the proportions in each category? (Perhaps “I got too busy” was the majority issue, but was it majority to the tune of 40%, or was it majority to the tune of 80%?) This could give a better understanding of how to better design such a contest in the future. It could also answer the question about how successful this enterprise was. If most people just didn’t finish because of logistical concerns, then future contests might consider ways to boost participant involvement. If many collaborations were abandoned due to an ultimate realization of one-sided support these could be counted in the ‘success’ column – or at least future collaborations could safeguard against generation of one-sided collaborations that will ultimately go nowhere. (No “math is always useless – no it isn’t” collaborations.)
            2. Which specific collaborations were abandoned unilaterally, with suspicions about strength of the counter argument? This could tell us something about which collaborations were too difficult or which ones were so one-sided that the counterpoint was unsustainable.

          • Markus Stoor says:

            I dropped out because of pressing family matters.

            I´m really looking forward to reading the results of the K12 one, which was the one I suddenly left.

  2. mingyuan says:

    Second comment for discussing meetups!

    • YannickM says:

      We had a Meetup in Tuebingen, Germany on August 15 and it went great. A lot more people than I expected showed up (8 people in total). We’ll be meeting again this week and I’m optimistic that there could be a real Rationalist Community here in the future, additional to the already existing EA group.

      • zrkrlc says:

        Same thing! Got an x-rat meetup group started in Manila (yes, that city) and I have 5 people so far. Optimistic about the unique comparative advantages we have here on the kinds of problems we can solve.

    • wong says:

      Hi! The Phoenix Meetup went well. We got new folks who weren’t aware of the existing LW community. Private home seemed to work for everyone who showed up. Decided on a quarterly meetup schedule. Planning on a Rationalist Halloween! Any additional data fields desired, @Scott?

    • Rolaran says:

      Edmonton, Alberta: Group was smaller this time than when we started one last year (three people – two returning including me, one new guy), but I heard from more who were interested, and possibly available if longer notice had been given.

      In any case, had a fun conversation and learned some things. We penciled in the 22nd of September as a date for a follow-up.

      We met in the upper floor of a local cafe (Garneau Remedy), which is where we had met before as well. Good location with not too much ambient noise up top, we will most likely use it again unless an obviously better suggestion comes up. However I didn’t realize until it was too late that I hadn’t specified the upper floor, so I apologize if anyone tried to attend, wandered the main floor and eventually gave up and left.

    • robirahman says:

      Yesterday’s meetup in DC went well! 37 total attendees, including 10 or so newcomers who hadn’t been to one before. Someone traveled >100 miles from Charlottesville and a few came from Baltimore. I also met Garrett Jones, whose book Hive Mind was reviewed on SSC two years ago. There was a lot of food and the weather was great, so we had a nice view of the Washington skyline.

      We’re doing a couple more events in September. I think the newcomers all had fun yesterday and will probably be coming back!

    • will4071 says:

      We had a great meetup in Durham North Carolina (research triangle region of NC). We had about 15 people attend (up from the 4-7 usual suspects) and had a great conversation. Lots of friendly folks!

    • joshuatfox says:

      We enjoyed our meetup in Tel Aviv, hosted by David Katz. 26 people showed up, about 9 of whom I knew from LessWrong. We had some lightning talks and conversion. Good energies, lots of fun.

    • Rm says:

      Kyiv meetup on August 11th went ok, so yesterday we had another one, and it was fine, too… I rather suspect we shall have a third one, in two weeks. These meetup things just keep happening.

      This time we discussed “The Selfish Gene” (in the most general terms), which swalllowed 2.5 hours to everybody’s surprise. Then five Fermi Questions with tea (next time we shall have a competition, but yesterday we were just too tired.) People brought candy and chocolate and apple juice. There were seven of us again, but two people were new (and I was the mod and failed to have them introduce themselves beyond “My name is”.) Next time, I will speak about the very basics of genetics (I hope someday to reach MADS-box genes) and there is interest in having a talk by a real, imported biotechnologist / bioinformaticist / … later on.

      My secret plan on having them buy at least one book (which would endear us to my boss, who is neutral to the meetings but might wake up one day) failed again. People are just unused to reading from paper. Still, one of them picked Wilson’s “Letters to a young scientist” from our communal library of several volumes; I will add more old-ish children’s novels, which they would have harder time of looking for on-line.

      We’re a kind of undifferentiated LW/SSC crowd, so I don’t know where we will go from here, with 1 translator, 1 botanist and 5 or more programmers, and my aim so far is to keep them want to meet at all.

    • jahooma says:

      Our first digital meetup on Throne went nicely with about 13 people discussing interesting topics like our backgrounds, the EA movement, popular web frameworks, Elon Musk, dating, and, because this is an internet meetup, memes and random videos.

      The time flew by since everyone was engaged and posting, with lots of upvotes to go around, and our real-time threading supported multiple concurrent conversations. It was a lot of fun! Thanks to everyone who attended, and thanks to Scott for linking to us!

      If you’re interested in the next digital meetup (we are considering having another), check the link above.

    • b_jonas says:

      I went to the Wien (Vienna, Austria) rationalist and effective altruism (EA) group meetup on 2018-08-18. It was great.

      I traveled by railway from Budapest (a convenient connection). I combined the journey with a full day in the Kunsthistorisches Museum the next day, sleeping the night in a hotel in Wien. I was planning to return to the museum anyway, and this combination pushed me over the edge to do it now. In retrospect, this was the ideal weekend for this, because it’s probably the last hot weekend of the summer, and the museum is cool.

      The meeting itself was mostly outdoors, walking around Wien half of the time. There were about 18 people at the start of the meeting and about 9 at the end. The group waited at the announced starting place for first 40 minutes for late arrivals (such as me). There wasn’t much chance for anyone arriving after that to find us, because there was no announced contact phone number, so only one person joined us after we left the starting point. We first sat in a nice park for a while (most of our group tried the long slide on the children’s playground, some ate snacks). That park was the scene for the only talk scheduled for this meeting: a talk about possible social dangers on the rationalist community. Apparently the Wien rationalist group has been active for about six years, and had much more talks earlier, some based on Eliezer Yudkowski’s “Sequences”, but the topics sort of ran dry now.

      We walked a lot and settled for more than an hour in a restaurant to eat dinner. This was the part I was a bit afraid in advance, since Moses mentioned a “vegan restaurant” in the email, and I hate vegan main courses, but it turned out to be a completely ordinary chinese restaurant with some vegan options on the menu. I ate the special chicken and rice, which was quite popular: IIRC 5 out of the 11 of us ordered that meal. We then walked some more in the inner city, and only stopped at two ice cream places: a vegan one and a non-vegan one. I bought ice cream in the vegan shop, which was a mistake, because the balls were full of air because of the lack of dairy. I tried to follow where we walked, but I’m not familiar enough with Wien, and it’s hard to tell directions after sundown, so I was very surprised when we didn’t end up at Westbanhof. I asked how this was possible, given that we walked most of the way through Mariahilfer Straße (a main avenue of Wien) and started from the East of the Donaukanal, but it turns out we went around the length of Mariahilfer Straße, completely avoiding it (IIRC from the south) until somewhere close to Westbanhof, and we traversed Mariahilfer Straße towards the east. I left the group around 21:00 near Stephansplatz, which means I spent over 5.5 hours with the group.

      Besides the talk, we chatted about various topics, usually in smaller discussion groups. Most of these discussions were in English language, but some were in German, which only half of the group spoke. A few topics I recall are: the practical experience from raising two kids told by one person; the practical plans of starting a new school for kids by another person; politics and how it is apparently less polarized in current Austria; what Slate Star Codex was (explained to one or two EA people who hadn’t seen it); why Windows sucks and specific software recommendations to work that around. There was a lot more but I can’t recall them. I was the only one wearing a nametag, but at least one person gave away printed business cards.

    • WafflesWaffles says:

      San Antonio meetup had 0 attendees.

      One person emailed me to say that they were interested in attending but weren’t able to that weekend. They were also busy this weekend (as am I) due to an anime festival. I’ll probably try to pick things back up next weekend and also invite all the old LW meetup crowd to fill the place up.

    • Nicholas Goldowsky-Dill says:

      Boston meetup went well. There was a bit of logistic trouble — the person who originally set up the meetup and the most common organizer were both out of town, so another person and I jointly took it over. The outside meeting location had to be moved at the last minute because of rain, I think it would have been helpful to have a facebook event as a central place to announce such changes. The actual meetup went super smoothly, and I think everyone even showed up at the right place on their first try. I’d guess 30 people in attendance, though I am not confident about the number.

    • StefanDeYoung says:

      Ottawa

      We had 4 meetups that were publicized on SSC last month, and they were all awesome!

      We’ve been holding weekly meetups since January with a rotating membership and expected attendance of 6.

      Our first SSC meetup had 12 attendees. About 4 new attendees have come to followup events. The meetup was held in a cafe that has since asked up to book their rooms in future, as they have maximum occupancy of ~30. Our pre-arranged discussion topic was modus ponens.

      Second event was a co-opting of the other Ottawa group that said they were going to run an SSC meetup. 3 Ottawa regulars, 2 new members from the first SSC event, and 1 additional new SSC reader attended. Good discussion about teaching from a top-down or bottom-up style and mentorship in the context of the Eternal September.

      Third event was the day after the second event, and was in the park across the street from the first event’s cafe. Attendance was 8 with 2 new SSC readers attending. I tried to centre the discussion on activities we might do other than discussion. People had ideas for how to vary the meetup format. 🙂

      Fourth event was a going away party for two of our members held in a private residence. Attendance was 10, with one new face. Initial discussion was around national identity and the value of international travel. We decided that the quintessential Canadian experience is beer and bbq. We also had a good time with the Wits and Wagers board game. Discussion went late into the night.

      If you’re in Ottawa, check the Facebook group for future events. We’re going to try to be weekly on Friday evenings for the foreseeable future.
      https://www.facebook.com/groups/1756221964428105/

      PS. Big thanks to Claire for all of the reminders to actually do the thing. 🙂

    • Jiri Nadvornik says:

      Report from Prague:
      13 people met. Only 4 of them attended some event in the local rationalist/ea community before. We spent about 4 hours together. After 2 hours we split into two groups of 6 and then regrouped after while. Compared to usual rationality meetups here:
      1) discussion was often about politics
      2) about 75% of participants were psychonauts (without knowing each other previously).
      3) I think the quality of the discussion was better than usual. People were more considerate to quiet people.
      4) everybody was male (usually there is about 25% of girls).
      Future meetups will be under name rationality meetups. Ie together with LW an EA people.

    • liskantope says:

      I made it to the Edinburgh meetup, as I happened to be visiting there for the first time on that weekend. I was quite enthusiastic about going but worried that not many people would show up. I was pleasantly surprised at the result — we had around 8 people and lively discussion that continued for a few hours. There was no particular structure to the event beyond meeting in a bar (no nametags or introductions, for instance), but overall it exceeded my expectations and I was sorry to have to tell everyone I wouldn’t be attending another one since I don’t live in Scotland.

    • fraza077 says:

      I went to two meetups: Tübingen (Germany), and Cambridge (England).

      I enjoyed both. For some reason the Tübingen one was mostly in English, with everybody’s English being better than my German. There was pretty much no culture war discussion present in either meetup, which was also a bit of a surprise for me (although perhaps I spend too much time in the subreddit).

      The level of “Let me show you how smart I am” was also pleasantly low for the most part. I mostly felt comfortable about asking questions about topics which I was ignorant in but which had been presented as common knowledge.

      One guy in Cambridge was clearly inserting himself into conversations too much, but I put that down to neuroatypicality; he was friendly and intelligent, just probably wasn’t reading the social cues very well. I’m sure someone will provide a more accurate estimate later; I think there were about 15 or so people at the Cambridge meetup.

      Considering how many people turned up in Tübingen, I should have organised something in Stuttgart, where I live. Perhaps next year.

    • eric135033 says:

      SSC/LW in Miami, FL

      -First meetup was in April 2017.

      -Monthly meetups began in August 2017. It’s been normal for us to have 3-4 people show up. There are 3 people who consistently come out each month.

      -After the recent SSC blog post about local meetups, the number of members in our Facebook group increased a lot (we’re now up to 23 people). Here’s a quick breakdown:
      April 2017 – May 2017: 8 people joined through this period
      December 2017: 1 new member
      April 2018: 2 new members
      May 2018: 1 new member
      Within the last month: 11 new members

      -Occasionally advertising local meetups through SSC blog posts seems to be incredibly helpful.

      -Most recent meetup was on August 11th and 5 people were there. Meetup was (as usual) unstructured and discussion topics varied based on what people wanted to talk about. The whole thing lasted about 2.5 hours.

      -Next meetup is scheduled for September 8th.

    • JoS says:

      I participated in a Meetup in Zurich and enjoyed it a lot. Due to bad weather we met in a cafe and we were around 10 people. We had some interesting and very varied discussions (about the local EA community, functional programming, fish, etc) and have agreed to try establishing a schedule of one meetup every 3 months.

    • philh says:

      London UK: we had ~30 people, with a big loud room and a small quiet room. Perhaps roughly evenly split between “people I knew”, “people I vaguely knew” and “people I didn’t know”. I think I spent most of my time in the quiet room, so I don’t really know what was happening in the loud room, but I get the impression that a lot of people enjoyed themselves immensely. At least three of the first-time attendees came back to our regular meetup two weeks later.

    • trustacean says:

      Helsinki went well, peak attendance was 19+-2, or triple the normal.

      Being a bar, it was a bit noisy, but taking over two tables instead of the regular one was very helpful for some conversation options.

    • Charles F says:

      Madison meetup went well. 15-20 people showed up, which was something of a surprise since only about 10 even seemed to express interest beforehand. Enough people seemed interested in more regular meetups that I’m trying to plan another for September.

      Event link

    • MirandaGavrin says:

      We just had the Pittsburgh meetup today (9/15) and it went well! 10 people attended for part or all of it; I’ll probably be willing to host future ones every couple months.

  3. sinesalvatorem says:

    I’m doing an extremely broad self-improvement project in which I’m trying to become more effective and motivated, less mentally ill, and just overall happier. A lot of it has involved reading books that gave me an explanation of good mental habits I could then implement. (Getting me to the top quintile of conscientiousness and the bottom decile of neuroticism! It’s been going v v well so far.)

    Examples include Modern Man In Search of a Soul by C G Jung, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson, and Five Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B Burger and Michael Starbird. Knowingless and The Unit of Caring have also been good blogs for this, but in extremely different ways.

    I’m interested in any further recommendations for books or blogs that are useful for mental habits, improved attitudes, instrumental rationality, etc. Audiobooks especially appreciated.

    • gbear605 says:

      Has this project actually been substantially altering your conscientiousness/neuroticism? If so, that’s an amazing result!

      • Anonymous says:

        Unprecedented, even. C rises slowly with age, and N similarly decreases in females (but not males). AFAIK, substantial alterations via conscious intervention aren’t known to be possible.

    • the verbiage ecstatic says:

      I’m slowly working my way through bewelltuned.com and have found it pretty powerful.

      I would be very interested in hearing testimony from anyone who feels that they have mastered one of (or all of) the top-level skills.

    • cassander says:

      have you tried drugs? I don’t mena recreational, but it might be worth trying some variety of adderall if you can get your hands on it.

      • WashedOut says:

        Can vouch for psilocybin for decreasing neuroticism and increasing openness, through personal experience and that of others in my extended social circles.

    • zrkrlc says:

      You’re probably already aware of this thread from old LW, but I’d like to second the rec for pjeby’s Monoidealism.

      It’s not something immediately usable per se, but like nazgulnarsil it dramatically clarified a lot of self-help ideas for me. Nowadays, I can see how The New Trick in this week’s bestseller is just another way of chasing the monoideal state, and this has enabled me to invent my own techniques to do just that.

    • Rolaran says:

      It’s kinda old, a little on the basic/cliche side and by no means perfect, but the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey might be the kind of thing you’d find helpful as part of a larger mental toolbox, if you haven’t already tried it.

    • Armand says:

      Ever thought about doing a 10-day meditation retreat? I highly recommend it.

    • 4thwaywastrel says:

      Congrats 🙂 I have a similar ongoing internal project which is also seeing results. As far as reading material goes:

      – The subtle art of not giving a fuck: Nothing revolutionary but a lot of quality paragraphs to start you thinking about some really core things like actively assessing whether or not you can cull down the list of things you currently care about, personal responsibility, an awareness of death etc

      – Gödel Escher Bach, an eternal golden braid: I’m only a quarter of the way through this book but it’s already given me more *pops* of important intuitions shifting on the nature of information and systems than any other book I’ve read. Highly recommend

      https://meaningness.com: Also highly recommended, it’s a stripped down back to basics assessment of that is meaning, in the sense of “what is the meaning of life”. Like a lot of things once you get the right words and deep definitions it makes things so much easier.

      – Lastly is a book I haven’t read yet but could still recommend checking out from what I know of the content matter: The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. If you’re serious about sharpening your mind and increasing self-awareness I can’t recommend meditation enough.

      Good luck on your project!

  4. Plumber says:

    I’ve seen lots of comments about illegal immigration in the last few open threads, and something that I wonder is:

    If reduced illegal immigration is the goal, wouldn’t it be easier to reduce the demand rather than the supply?

    What I mean is; reward illegal immigrants for turning themselves in (so the reward would have to be great enough to entice), and then jail their American employers.

    This would create fear among “job creators”, reducing them hiring illegal immigrants, and without the chance for paid work less would overstay their Visas/cross the border in the first place.

    Why wouldn’t this work?

    • Matt M says:

      and then jail their American employers.

      The problem with this is that you’d have to prove the employers knowingly hired illegals.

      So you catch an illegal immigrant working somewhere. You go to arrest the employer. Employer says “Hey, he said he was here legally, he even showed me a (perhaps fraudulent) driver’s license and had a social security number. You’re gonna throw me in jail for this?”

      If you don’t care about that sort of thing and say “Zero tolerance, it’s your job, employer, to be absolutely sure about these things” then employers will probably simply stop hiring Hispanics at all.

      • Brad says:

        So you catch an illegal immigrant working somewhere. You go to arrest the employer. Employer says “Hey, he said he was here legally, he even showed me a (perhaps fraudulent) driver’s license and had a social security number. You’re gonna throw me in jail for this?”

        If he’s got the I-9 and you can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he didn’t see a drivers license and social security number, then sure you can’t throw him in jail.

        But the USG rarely tries to bring these kind of cases in the first place. Do you think that’s because there are only a tiny number of winnable cases out there?

        • Matt M says:

          Do you think that’s because there are only a tiny number of winnable cases out there?

          Basically.

          The fact that most business owners are respectable citizens with some amount of local clout, and that they are more likely to be well off and able to afford good lawyers probably dissuades any prosecutors from taking any cases that aren’t airtight.

        • Mark Atwood says:

          You would not believe how shitty and fraudulant I-9 verification was for a long time at most companies.

          I personally have had my I-9 verification done by having some not-employee contractor working for a “onboarding specialist” contracting firm take a black and white photocopy of my DL and my passport, and then send a low-rez 200dpi B&W actual fax, to a yet a different subcontractor, who turned out to be a boilerroom full of H1B contractors from India who would look at the shitty mess of black and white smears in front of them, and “verify” that the DL and the PP were “valid”, and then fax back the the “verification”.

          There are at first glance, at least 5 ways that was illegal. And this was at major tech firms!

          If it was up to me, I would retroactively go back ten years, do a 100% compliance audit of every I-9 verification performed since 2008, and extract the full fine for I-9 compliance fraud, per hire, out of every every single last one of every US firm that did that shit.

          It seems to have been mostly cleaned up since 2016. (Funny that, right?)

      • pontifex says:

        So require businesses to register their contractors with the IRS, and do tax withholding as is done with regular employees. The IRS has a pretty good database and a strong incentive to investigate and correct things that are wrong.

        • Placid Platypus says:

          IIRC the IRS has a pretty strong policy of not going after people for any non-tax-related issues. As long as you pay your taxes they’ll leave you alone, which makes people less motivated to try to evade paying when there’s other shadiness involved.

          • pontifex says:

            That’s a fair point. However, at the end of the day the government can change IRS policy if there is a compelling reason to do so.

          • John Schilling says:

            But then the opposition to your plan would consist not only of all the people who want some level of illegal immigration, but also all the people who don’t want to see a more powerful and more intrusive Internal Revenue Service. That’s going to push it over into the realm of political infeasibility.

            If you don’t care about political infeasibility and collateral damage, meh, there’s lots of solutions that are mechanically workable, but they’re mostly irrelevant and boring.

          • pontifex says:

            But then the opposition to your plan would consist not only of all the people who want some level of illegal immigration, but also all the people who don’t want to see a more powerful and more intrusive Internal Revenue Service. That’s going to push it over into the realm of political infeasibility.

            I don’t think mainstream voters really care about how powerful and intrusive the IRS is any more.
            Look at how little outrage there was over FATCA, the 10 year expatriation tax, form 8854, and the ever growing number of things you have to register with the IRS (internet sales tax, etc.)

            Voters care a lot about how much tax they pay in relation to other people, but only a tiny number of libertarians are opposed to growing the bureaucracy in principle. And under Trump, the libertarians have even less voice in the Republican party than they did under the neocons.

      • Ralf says:

        I’m not an American and understand that there is no national ID. But doesn’t an employer has to register their employees somewhere to pay income tax?

        • Eric Rall says:

          From what I gather, the three common workarounds for this are:

          1. Employers pay cash “under the table” and nobody tells the IRS about it. This is illegal, and the IRS and state tax agencies are actively looking for this. If an employer gets caught, they have to pay back-taxes, interest, and penalty charges and they might face criminal charges for tax fraud. It’s hard to catch, though, since both sides of the transaction want to keep the IRS from finding out.

          2. Employers pay the employees as contractors, not as regular employees. There are restrictions on who can be classified as a contractor, but the rules are fuzzy and there’s plenty of room for employers to fudge them without being blatantly illegal. For a contractor, the employer files a form with the IRS saying “I paid $X to [name]”. The employer is supposed to supply the contractor’s TIN (taxpayer ID number — same as a social security number for an individual as opposed to a corporation or partnership), but employers can leave this blank if they certify that the contractor refused to provide a TIN and withhold estimated taxes (28% of the total) from any payments to the contractor.

          3. The employee provides the employer with forged documents (usually a driver’s license and a social security card) with a made-up social security number, and the employer withholds taxes and reports wages based on the forged documents. The IRS’s policy when they get tax withholdings for an invalid social security number is to cash the check, shrug, and move on.

          • xXxanonxXx says:

            Regarding number 3, not that I don’t believe you, but do you have some further reading where I can verify this? It sounds almost, only almost, too outrageous to be true.

          • Protagoras says:

            Here’s a discussion.

          • Steven J says:

            Here’s some estimates (a few years old):
            https://news.vice.com/article/unauthorized-immigrants-paid-100-billion-into-social-security-over-last-decade

            About 7 million illegal immigrants in the US, of which 3.1 million are paying taxes using fake or expired social security numbers.
            The contribute about $12 billion in social security taxes annually.
            With some exceptions for the those who later legalize their status, the immigrants who pay these taxes will not be allowed to collect social security benefits.

          • Eric Rall says:

            I tried to post a link to an official doc from the Social Security Administration, but the spam filter seems to have eaten it. If you want to search for it yourself, the title is “Status of the Social Security Administration’s Earnings Suspense File”. The Earnings Suspense File being the SSA’s records of income and payroll tax withholdings that came with a missing, invalid, or mismatched Social Security Number.

            From the federal government’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense. On the margins, immigration enforcement conflicts a bit with tax enforcement: cutting off (or at least rigorously investigating) #3 would make it harder for unauthorized immigrants to work in the US, but it would also lead to more of #1. Taking the federal government as a whole, immigration enforcement has generally been a lower priority than tax enforcement for the last several decades. And looking at the IRS and SSA in particular, they have specific mandates to make sure taxes get collected, but immigration law enforcement belongs to a separate agency that reports into a different cabinet-level department: IRS and SSA are part of the Treasury Department, while ICE is part of Homeland Security, and its precursor INS was part of the Justice Department. And the Earnings Suspense File had already existed since the 1930s, so allowing the proliferation of #3 required only inaction, not an active policy to undercut immigration enforcement for the sake of collecting more taxes.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Eric Rall –

            As noted below, there is also a valid reason not to use IRS data to enforce other laws: It makes the relevant tax law unenforceable.

            There are tax codes for all manner of illegal activities, which apparently people do claim. Because the IRS can only enforce tax law insofar as tax law doesn’t get used to violate the fifth amendment – as soon as you start using information from taxes to go after illegal immigrants, you open up the entire tax code to people refusing to file or pay taxes on fifth amendment grounds, and they would probably win in court.

    • shakeddown says:

      How do sectors that hire a lot of illegal immigrants look now? Are they fully dominated by illegal immigrants? Because if they are, suddenly escalating the attacks on their employers could collapse the sector, and in practice punish random business owners who just do what everyone does (which is less politically palatable than punishing random immigrants in the same way, since they don’t vote anyway).

      • Plumber says:

        You had me at “punish business owners” (my memories of my private industry jobs are not pleasant).

    • hash872 says:

      It appears to be politically impossible to enforce, even in states where nativist sentiment is strong.

      Alternative- illegal immigration & legal refugees seeking asylum (two frequently conflated issues) are not even in the top 100 or 200 most pressing problems facing the US right now, and the extreme focus on it is absurd and mostly motivated by nativism (and other bad isms). What problem are we solving here, exactly?

      • DeWitt says:

        illegal immigration & legal refugees seeking asylum (two frequently conflated issues) are not even in the top 100 or 200 most pressing problems facing the US right now

        Some double-digit percentage of people disagree with you. You may or may not think they’re right to, but the idea that immigration is at the least somewhere in the top 100 is very, very popular.

        Alternatively, you can tell me where in your top 100 is the problem of people getting upset about immigration and wanting to deal with it somehow, if that’s more your jam.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I have been waiting for months for some discussion about the real world implications of E-Verify, so thank you.

    • Brad says:

      Why wouldn’t this work?

      This seems like such a no-brainer, that I’m forced to conclude that it’s not really about reducing illegal immigration after all. Kind of reminds me of refusing to teach safe sex despite the fact that doing so would pretty clearly reduce abortions.

      Similarly, in the last thread I alluded to the fact that no one–Democratic or Republican–seems to want to enforce affidavits of support.

      • “Kind of reminds me of refusing to teach safe sex despite the fact that doing so would pretty clearly reduce abortions.”

        It might, but “pretty clearly” is an overstatement. One result of teaching safe sex is that a woman who would have sex anyway uses contraception and doesn’t get pregnant. Another is that a woman who wouldn’t have sex anyway because she feared pregnancy decides it is safe, has sex, and gets pregnant due to contraceptive failure or misunderstanding.

        • Brad says:

          Suppose for the sake of argument that there was great factual uncertainty over whether it would work, you’d still expect to see a significant faction that supported it among those that consider abortion the great moral evil of our time.

          Consider nuclear power and global climate change. It may be true that the majority of people concerned about the latter oppose the former but there is a significant and vocal minority that disagrees. Where’s the equivalent for pro-life and sex ed?

          • Joseph Greenwood says:

            Data point—I am pro life and pro teaching people about contraception and “safe” sex.

          • Brad says:

            Genuinely appreciate the data point.

          • gbdub says:

            I’m in the “contraception is good enough and abortion is close enough to morally bad even though I’m not 100% sure it is, that I want contraception taught and am mostly okay restricting abortion (or at least discouraging / reducing its use)” camp.

          • albatross11 says:

            FWIW, I’m also pro-life and pro-sex-ed[1]. I suspect this combination of views doesn’t show up much in media reporting, because it doesn’t fit well with any existing side of the culture war.

            This 2012 polling report showed a big difference in fraction of people who opposed abortion vs birth control–the only way these results can be correct is if there is a substantial number of people who oppose abortion but think birth control is morally acceptable. That’s not quite the same thing as thinking sex ed is a good idea, but it’s at least somewhat connected.

            [1] Both of these statements probably need long qualifiers about exactly what I mean. But I’m definitely in favor of sex ed programs that ensure that kids know exactly how babies are made and how they’re prevented, as well as giving them some familiarity with homosexuality and transgenderism and such, since a fraction of those kids will badly need that information and the rest won’t be harmed by it.

          • Randy M says:

            the rest won’t be harmed by it.

            I would not be entirely certain of this; though it’s scandalous to speculate about, rapid-onset gender dysphoria could be a thing. But transgender rights is floating around the public discussion so much lately that I doubt anyone in public middle or high school is unaware of the concept, so the point is moot either way.

        • Matt M says:

          Indeed. I think it’s also relevant that a whole lot of people who oppose illegal immigration do so because they believe illegal immigrants mostly don’t work productive jobs. Contra South Park, I literally don’t know anyone whose objection to illegal immigrants is “they took our jobs.” Rather, the objections are always either “they collect welfare and don’t pay taxes” or “they’re more prone to be criminals.”

          You can object and say these things aren’t true, but until you’ve adequately convinced people they aren’t true, saying your solution is “make it harder for them to work” won’t get any interest at all, for obvious reasons.

          • AG says:

            You appear to have a social circle of people with jobs less likely to be taken by illegal immigrants. Try the construction and agriculture sectors, where pay in some areas has necessarily increased because Trump’s enforcement policies has decreased the competition in the labor pool. (I am not opposed to this.)
            There was also that article going around recently about blue collar white people who are now alienated in the workplace because their co-workers are majority immigrant, so replacement evidently has occurred.

            The issue this brings up, of course, is that it’s the “job creators” who oppose immigration reform, and they’re the ones with that sweet sweet donor money.

          • James Miller says:

            In an episode from the popular TV show Roseanne, Dan hired union labor to do simple construction work, but he couldn’t compete with people who hired non-union illegal aliens to do the work. A former neighbor of mine used to hire people to do construction work in Florida, and he told me it was extremely hard to stay in business unless you were willing to hire illegal aliens who, he said, were extremely reliable workers.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            To add an anecdote to James Miller’s I have a friend who owns a landscaping business. He refused to hire illegals and was constantly being undercut by competitors who did hire illegals.

            Just because illegals aren’t going to take your job or mess up your industry doesn’t mean they’re not taking anyone’s job or messing up any industries.

          • Matt M says:

            Okay, but that doesn’t really address my point – which is that large numbers of people who vocally oppose illegal immigration do not believe that illegals are mainly working above-board jobs that would otherwise be available to, or desired by, Americans.

            And to whatever extent that is true, any measures designed to “punish the employers” would have zero effect.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            which is that large numbers of people who vocally oppose illegal immigration do not believe that illegals are mainly working above-board jobs that would otherwise be available to, or desired by, Americans.

            Do they? I vocally oppose illegal immigration and believe there are a variety of illegal aliens, some of whom are welfare leeches and others of whom are hard workers but are displacing or reducing wages for other hardworking Americans. All of them should be deported.

            Basically, “why not both?”

            I’m not sure what the name for this…rhetoric or error mode is but it seems like the same sort as what started the comment thread. Plumber seems to think opponents of illegal immigration are not interested in or have no plans to reduce demand. In fact, “nationwide E-verify” and attempts to go after employers have always been part of the general mish-mash for proposals for reducing illegal immigration. Trump’s initial immigration whitepaper on his website had, in addition to the wall and increased border patrol, “nationwide E-verify” as one of the bullet points. But nobody talks about that. It’s all wall and “mexican rapists” and then “if you really wanted to stop illegal immigration, you’d go after employers but you don’t so it means you’re racists!” or something. No. We want to go after employers. It’s right there on the list. In addition to the wall and the border patrol and ICE and all that stuff. People just aren’t paying attention.

            I’m not sure if it’s an honest cognitive bias or deliberately misleading rhetoric, but it goes like:

            Politician: “X is a problem. I propose solutions A and B.”

            Opponent: “Haha, Politician doesn’t really care about X or else they’d advocate B instead of just A! Therefore they are clearly motivated by [-ism|-phobia]!”

            No. They advocated A and B. They care about X. Opponent is either not listening or lying.

          • RalMirrorAd says:

            @Conrad Honcho;

            It’s also important to point out that it’s *not* as if the alternatives proposed aren’t also subjected to the same congressional resistance. There’s resistance to proposals that would work, but also ones that in of themselves would not be terribly successful only because completing a campaign promise even if it doesn’t have the long-term desired effect is still a short term political defeat [for restrictionist opponents]

          • AG says:

            @Conrad: But then you get into the issue where politicians are burning all of their political capital on the culture war efforts (shooting down budgets or more moderate reforms if wall funding isn’t present, for example), and not making E-verify the core target of their efforts. Which brings up if it’s really a priority for them, and not just a fig leaf. Like a war hawk politician that, of course, wants world peace.

            They advocated A and B. But when B is the one that might actually get passed, but B is the one never getting pushed for a vote, maybe B is just a motte to retreat to.

          • Matt M says:

            Basically, “why not both?”

            I’m fine with saying both are necessary. But I’m sick of people like Brad who keep loudly insisting that “punish the employers” is the obvious correct answer that will quickly and effectively eliminate 100% of illegal immigration with no negative side effects, and that the lack of enthusiasm for such a solution must be indicative of the fact that the opponents of illegal immigration are either unrepentant racists or suckers who are in the pocket of big-business.

            To the extent that people who oppose illegal immigration don’t care about punishing employers, it’s because they don’t believe that will work. That’s all.

          • dick says:

            But I’m sick of people like Brad who keep loudly insisting that “punish the employers” is the obvious correct answer that will quickly and effectively eliminate 100% of illegal immigration with no negative side effects, and that the lack of enthusiasm for such a solution must be indicative of the fact that the opponents of illegal immigration are either unrepentant racists or suckers who are in the pocket of big-business.

            What do you think are the chances of Brad reading this and thinking, “Yup, that’s a fair way to paraphrase what I said”?

          • Dan L says:

            I’m not sure what the name for this…rhetoric or error mode is but it seems like the same sort as what started the comment thread.

            I propose “Ignoring the Motte”.

          • Plumber says:

            ^

            “[….]Plumber seems to think opponents of illegal immigration are not interested in or have no plans to reduce demand. In fact, “nationwide E-verify” and attempts to go after employers have always been part of the general mish-mash for proposals for reducing illegal immigration[….]

             […]No. We want to go after employers. It’s right there on the list. In addition to the wall and the border patrol and ICE and all that stuff[….]

            @Conrad Honcho,

            I’m mostly of the impression that no real  efforts have been made to reduce demand because I haven’t read of any owners or bosses being jailed.

          • Aapje says:

            @Plumber

            Companies are typically fined for law violations. Very serious violations typically result in very big fines, not jail time.

        • False says:

          Another is that a woman who wouldn’t have sex anyway because she feared pregnancy decides it is safe, has sex, and gets pregnant due to contraceptive failure or misunderstanding.

          Statistically, does this hypothetical women exist? It seems to me we are positing an individual who is both a) smart enough to know they have no information, and should therefore abstain due to unforseeable bad circumstances and b) stupid enough to be unable to absorb any of the taught information beyond “safe sex is possible” and through this grand misunderstanding, gets pregnant.

          My bet is that the majority of people fall into the category of those who would have sex anyway (regardless of the dangers of getting pregnant) in the first place. The second largest group is most likely people smart enough to understand the dangers of pregancy, stds, etc. and also be able to absorb and implement information about safe sex. In both of these situations, sex education can only be an improvement.

          I’m sceptical that this third hypothetical group even exists on an actual level, much less a statisitcally significant one.

          • Statistically, does this hypothetical women exist?

            I don’t know. My point was that she could exist, hence the supposedly clear conclusion wasn’t clear.

            Part of that is the past experience with regard to policies wrt sexual behavior that were supposed to have an obvious good consequence. Sex education, legal abortion, and legal contraception were supposed to reduce the number of children born to unmarried mothers–that was regarded as a clear and obvious consequence of those changes. The changes occurred and the number of children born to unmarried mothers went sharply up instead of down.

          • Deiseach says:

            stupid enough to be unable to absorb any of the taught information beyond “safe sex is possible” and through this grand misunderstanding, gets pregnant

            There is no 100% perfect contraceptive measure, and you don’t even have to be stupid for this to go wrong. To quote the WebMD site, “Women take the pill by mouth to prevent pregnancy, and, when taken correctly, it is up to 99.9% effective.” That still leaves 0.1% chance of pregnancy even when taking the pill correctly, and spread that over 43 million women of reproductive age (according to the Guttmacher Institute), you have a theoretical possibility of 43,000 unintended pregnancies. In fact, by the Guttmacher figures, those women using the pill correctly still had 170,000 unintended pregnancies (5% of 3.4 million unintended pregnancies in 2008).

            And it’s easy to not take the pill correctly – vomiting and/or diarrhoea due to gastric infection/some other reason? on antibiotics? missed a day by accident? and of particular interest to people on here, taking modafinil? Congratulations, you are now at risk of getting pregnant!

            Sex ed is helpful but is not going to be the be-all and end-all, and even intelligent capable college-educated women who use contraception sensibly and correctly can get pregnant. I resent your strawman (straw woman?) of the stupid bitch who can’t even figure out how to not get knocked up, because that is not what DavidFriedman and others meant.

          • AG says:

            Brad’s claim wasn’t “pretty clearly” reduce pregnancies, it was reduce abortions.

            More relevantly, Brad’s claim is based on studies that have already shown that safe sex ed is more effective than abstinence ed. Notably, that the “tantalizing forbidden fruit” aspect goes away when they’re taught clinically about sex, whereas hookup culture arguably was partially driven by a backlash against the repression before they had freedom from parental surveillance, shown by how kids raised by more sex positive parents are more sexually conservative.

            So long as the “not 100% perfect” is outweighed by the reduction in the mean/median vs. the counterfactual of the all of the people not using contraception in the absence of sex ed, then “pretty clearly reduce abortions” part has been met.

          • albatross11 says:

            I recall reading some studies in college that said that sex ed wasn’t particularly effective in decreasing unwanted pregnancies. More recently I’ve read some stuff that says that it is effective. Does anyone know whether there’s strong evidence either way? I don’t know enough about this area to have a strong opinion either way, but it’s obviously relevant–if sex ed doesn’t have any effect on teen pregnancies or new STD cases, then it’s hard to justify having it as a requirement.

          • Deiseach says:

            Brad’s claim wasn’t “pretty clearly” reduce pregnancies, it was reduce abortions.

            Point out to me how these are not connected; in the context of “more sex ed and more encouragement of contraception used correctly”, the reduction in abortion is linked to the reduction in pregnancy – you don’t want an abortion if you don’t get pregnant in the first place. Therefore to reduce abortions you must reduce the rate of unwanted pregnancies, and if you reduce the number of pregnancies you will also reduce the number of abortions: say that out of every hundred women who get pregnant, ten want an abortion. If two hundred women get pregnant, that’s twenty abortions. If sixty women get pregnant, that’s six abortions. If you reduce the number of pregnancies – which is the whole purpose of contraception – then you reduce the number (but not proportion) of abortions even without doing anything else.

            Other methods are non-contraceptive linked – adoption, keeping the child (whichever parent wants to take on the child rearing), foster care, etc. But we weren’t talking about those, we were talking about sex ed and contraception.

        • rlms says:

          Consider two groups: group A of n women who would’ve had sex even without sex ed, and group B of m women who wouldn’t have. To get the number of reduced pregnancies from A, we multiply n by the success rate of contraception, whereas to get the number of additional pregnancies from B we multiply by the failure rate. Because the success rate is much greater than the failure rate, for sex ed to increase the number of pregnancies we must have m being greater than n by a factor of several. That seems unlikely — as False points out below it seems more plausible that the opposite is true. An arbitrary study on the issue confirms the intuitive view: page 6 shows sex ed halving the frequency of voluntary interruptions to pregnancy.

          • Deiseach says:

            I think the argument is more that ‘permissive’ or ‘value neutral’ sex ed loosens the taboos around pre-marital sex, so that the increased numbers of people (not just women, men too!) who would otherwise not have had sex outside of marriage offset the gains in people learning how not to get pregnant/catch an STI. The more people having sex, the greater the likelihood of pregnancies, and unless you get people to delay first sexual encounters and reduce number of sexual encounters as well as using contraception correctly, you may have trouble decreasing the rate (teenage pregnancy is the problematic one here, it has been successfully tackled but the reasons for that success are more than ‘here’s how to fit your diaphragm correctly’).

            And with unintended pregnancy, the ‘solution’ there is abortion. Before widespread availabilty of contraception, if you got pregnant even outside of marriage, well, that was about it – you were more likely to have the baby (due to few reliable and safe methods of terminating the pregnancy). But if you are using contraception, you are signalling quite strongly your intent to avoid pregnancy. If you get pregnant anyway, the old attitude of “well, looks like I’m going to be a mother” is gone by the wayside, and you want the implicit bargain of “we guarantee safe sex means no baby” to be upheld, so abortion has to solve that problem (adoption as a means seems to be very disfavoured, because that is seen as forcing women to continue pregnancies they don’t want and as violating right to choose).

            So more sex, even using contraception, means the likelihood of more babies, and contraception means the attitude towards pregnancy changes – now it is seen as an avoidable burden. If contraception fails, the feeling is having been cheated, and abortion as the back-up solution to “but I never wanted to get pregnant, I can’t have a baby, I was using contraception” is the next logical step, and hence liberalising abortion; nobody agitating for more contraception has ever made the bargain “you let us teach sex ed including how to use contraception and we’ll re-criminalise abortion because now it won’t be needed once people know how to use birth control correctly”, since they know this is not going to fly and people who get pregnant while using contraception are not going to agree to ‘no abortion’.

            I often see the argument “why not agree to contraception, religious people, since more contraception means fewer abortions?” but they, while expecting religious to give in on principles, never put their money where their mouth is and say “we are so confident more sex ed and more contraception will solve the problem that we will confine abortion to rape, incest or physical danger to life of mother, no more abortion on demand”. Because they know they couldn’t get away with that.

          • ana53294 says:

            The argument that teaching adolescents about contraception makes them more likely to have sex could make sense if you are part of a religious community that has strict social enforcement of social mores.

            So sure, don’t go talking about contraception to the Amish or the Mormons or the Opus Dei (the Catholic version of the monogamous Mormons). But the thing is, most of those social mores are already broken. When you go to poor neighbourhoods where there is a higher tendency for teenage sex (statistics show that women who go to college usually have sex later than the proletariat), though, there is no social pressure, or it doesn’t work anymore. So you get behaviour like this, and they don’t even do it safely.

            I would be OK with a policy of only having sex ed in communities where the rate of abortions/teenage pregnancies is high, and to leave the communities where they actually manage to enforce abstinence alone. And that would be the most effective way to reduce abortions, also.

            You can think of sex ed as the charming class they give in my University, where they teach students with tendencies to self-harm how to do it safely (disinfect, etc.).

          • rlms says:

            No-one’s saying that sex ed reduces numbers of abortions to zero, merely that it reduces them (and pretty significantly according to that study).

            My point is that even if sex ed causes 100 people who would’ve had sex anyway choose to use contraception but also 100 additional people having sex (with contraception), that doesn’t cancel out to 0 additional unwanted pregnancies. What actually happens is that 70-99 people in the first group avoid pregnancy, while contraception fails for 1-30 members of the second, leading to a net reduction of 40-98 unwanted pregnancies. So for sex ed to not be effective, the second group must have a lot more people than the first.

            But that does not seem plausible. In fact (see my reply to Baeraad below), not only is the first group actually bigger than the second, the second seems to have a negative number of people in it! According to the study I linked, sex ed in fact strengthens the taboos around pre-marital sex (or at least, increases age of first sexual encounter in teenagers and decreases amount of casual sex).

            I agree that increased use of contraception could lead to increased acceptance of abortion, but in practice any effect from that does not seem to outweigh the benefits of sex ed and it overall reduces frequency of abortions.

        • sourcreamus says:

          A more likely result would be that teaching about safe sex would not affect anyone’s behavior. One of Scott’s themes is to beware social science interventions that claim large results.
          https://www.institute-research.com/CSEReport/

          • rlms says:

            The IRE seems to be an advocate for abstinence-based education, and therefore may give a biased perspective on the effective of other kinds of sex education.

      • Baeraad says:

        Kind of reminds me of refusing to teach safe sex despite the fact that doing so would pretty clearly reduce abortions.

        I can’t believe I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but… I don’t see that that’s such an invalid position? If you want there to be less abortions and also less premarital sex, you’re going to be very reluctant to accept the notion that you can have only one of the two. Especially since you can just as easily point out that if we could somehow put a stop to premarital sex, that would definitely reduce the number of abortions, and then you’d have two things you wanted instead of having one thing you want and one thing you hate slightly less than the alternative.

        It’s kind of like when people tell me that I can have either a mercyless capitalist dog-eat-dog world that is murder on the weakest people or complete economic collapse that’s murder on absolutely everyone. Yes, if I accepted that those were my only options, the former is clearly the better one, but I don’t think there’s anything that could convince me to stop looking for a third option, because to me both of those are absolutely awful.

        • rlms says:

          But does teaching safe sex even increase premarital sex? This study claims that students who have had sex education are less likely to have sex “with occasional partners”.

          • Deiseach says:

            I wonder if things are finally changing post-Sexual Revolution? The explosion in “okay, now we don’t have to be married to have sex and even better, we don’t have to have babies!” that resulted may finally be changing now the Millennials are the generation that is growing/grown up.

            Having lived in a liberated society, they don’t have the same pressures around sex (they have their own pressures, but “trapped by marriage when all you want is a fuck” isn’t one of them). So the delay in teenagers having sex/reduction in number of partners may be a result of that, and not so much of better sex education/access to contraception.

          • rlms says:

            It certainly seems plausible that that is an effect, but not that it is the cause of the result in the study which compared people in the same age range.

          • Baeraad says:

            That would seem to be a good study to show to pro-lifers you’re trying to convince, then.

            But, again putting myself in their position, I would point out that for any given claim, there is at least one study out there that supposedly proves it. Beware The Man Of One Study, and all that. So it might take more than just one study to change any minds on the subject.

        • gbdub says:

          This. Many of the loudest voices against abortion are also morally opposed to premarital sex and contraception, for moral reasons. “Contraception is the lesser evil” is not going to be compelling to them.

          rlms, why are you surprised that deontologists aren’t finding your utilitarian arguments convincing?

          • Deiseach says:

            Many of the loudest voices against abortion are also morally opposed to premarital sex and contraception, for moral reasons.

            Yeah, particularly when giving in on contraception means accepting some number of abortions (as someone commented above, they never said more sex ed/contraception would reduce abortions to zero, merely that it would reduce the number).

            Because if you’ve given in on “okay, it’s permissible to have sex without procreation, so contraception is okay” then it’s harder to stand up to “so why do you object to abortion, after all this woman was using contraception because she didn’t want a baby and you were okay with that”. And I think some people do see it as a sneaky way to get that resistance to abortion overcome or downgraded, that contraception is the Trojan* Horse for abortion if you will.

            (*NO THAT WAS NOT A DELIBERATE PUN).

          • AG says:

            The reason to accept abortions will never be zero is because it’s already been shown that puritanical cultural dominance didn’t have that, either. At that point, you have to find the approach that approaches the minimum, and the empirical evidence is against abstinence education.

            You yourself noted that “Having lived in a liberated society, they don’t have the same pressures around sex” appears to be effective. Why the confidence that returning to an era of sexual repression would do any better than Prohibition?

            The actual solution should be putting things in the water that decrease libido in everyone, and then fully fund research into science babies. Procreation without sex, no abortions, no premarital sex, win-win-win!

          • ana53294 says:

            The actual solution should be putting things in the water that decrease libido in everyone, and then fully fund research into science babies. Procreation without sex, no abortions, no premarital sex, win-win-win!

            They seemed to have managed that it Japan. Without any weird chemicals. Except for the procreation part, of course. Sex is a big motivation for procreation.

            Somehow I doubt anti-abortionists would be happy with a society where people choose virtual sex, or no sex at all, over real sex, and where few babies are born.

            I find it interesting that in a society that is so liberal about sex, where all kind of kink is accepted and celebrated, so many people are celibate, whereas in societies where virginity is important, there is an increase in hymen reconstruction surgery.

          • Randy M says:

            The actual solution should be putting things in the water that decrease libido in everyone, and then fully fund research into science babies

            No chance of that backfiring in a manner that wiped out human civilization.

          • Aapje says:

            @ana53294

            It seems to me that Japanese taboos are different, which makes them seem less prudish than they are*. For example, it is extremely taboo to explicitly talk about genitalia and instead it is common to use oblique references, like asoko (“there”). Their porn also pixelates the genitalia.

            I think that many reasons for the decrease in intercourse in Japan are the same as for the increase in the West: individualism, improved alternatives, less pressure to find a partner and the loss of broadly accepted courting rituals.

            * This is a very common ‘grass is greener’ mistake: comparing the downsides of one’s own situation with the alternative, while ignoring the downsides of the alternative, because one does not know how to look for the latter.

      • Jiro says:

        If you go after employers, news articles start appearing (well, probably web articles nowadays) about how we’re just caused hard-working people to lose their jobs and how their family will be starving and we’re forcing them into a life of misery and crime.

    • Thomas Jørgensen says:

      Halting the present flow of migrant labor into the US is trivial.
      You just declare that legal or not, anyone working in the US is covered by the full panoply of labor rights, and has the right to sue for back wages and compensation for damages if their pay was below the minimum wage and their working conditions not up to legal minimums. There, done.

      This is not done because there is no real political will to stop the flow – US agriculture depends very much on large underclass of exploited labor to function.

      • pontifex says:

        Yes, exactly this.

        You probably also want government prosecutors to bring a bunch of cases on their own as well, at first. A lot of illegal immigrants don’t know the law and would never think to sue on their own. Once you prime the pump a bit, you can probably get some ambulance chaser lawyers to get in on the action. And then, bingo, you have a free market solution that neither right nor left can object to.

        Well, except business owners. Which is where the plan falls down in practice.

        • Hmmm says:

          This seems like one of those ‘great ideas in theory’ but horrific in Bastiat unseen terms.

          The basic theory seems to be assume criminality on the part of fraud victim.

          The actual illegal immigrant employment paradigm involves identity theft, where an illegal immigrant uses the social security number of an actual citizen.

          They may take out loans, rent property, etc in someones name. The victim has her credit ruined with no plausible way to correct the record.

          The obvious solution is national ID cards, which specify citizen or legal resident. Only way to get an ID card is to pay taxes and pay a fee to have identity verified. Fee waived for under 50k household income.

          ID determines voter eligibility, kill two birds with one stone.

          • pontifex says:

            For a long time, the American public has had a superstitious fear of a national database of citizens. Of course, databases are necessary, but we can’t call them that or link them together. So the IRS has one database, OPM has another, the various DMVs have another 52 or so, social security has one, each of the 3 big credit bureaus has another, voter registrations are a separate thing handled locally, and so forth.

            So we’re in this weird position where the average middle class drone is tracked more closely than ever, but it’s trivially easy for the bad guys to commit identity fraud. And there’s a lot of “Brazil” (the movie)-like situations where having the same first name, last name as a bad actor can get you in a lot of grief. For example, if you’re trying to fly on a plane. But hey, at least we didn’t cross-correlate the databases. Only the three-letter agencies are allowed to do that.

            And obviously we can’t use drivers licenses or social security numbers to validate that people don’t vote more than once. You would be an extra double Hitler for even suggesting the idea.

          • rlms says:

            If the “fraud victim” is a business that is treating its employees illegally badly I can’t muster too much sympathy for it, and tend to be dubious about whether it is actually a victim of fraud, since breaking the law in your treatment of employees is much more appealing if you know they can’t fight back.

      • John Schilling says:

        There, done.

        Wait, are you giving these people green cards when they file their cases?

        If not, then they won’t be suing their employers, because even crap jobs in the US are better than what they’d have after you deport them. And if you do offer them green cards, that’s a very valuable consideration in exchange for their accusing someone else of wrongdoing, which has problems discussed crossthread and not really improved by the accusation being made in civil rather than criminal court.

        • pontifex says:

          In theory, you only have to find one guy who is disgruntled and thinks “I want a big bonus and a trip back home to see my family.” Being paid a legal rate would probably at least triple the income of most of those guys.

          The bigger obstacle is probably the language barrier and skepticism that we would hold up our end of the deal. But if we publicly did so a few times, I think the floodgates would open.

          • John Schilling says:

            One guy wins one lawsuit for his back pay, etc, which isn’t going to break the average employer’s bank. You aren’t going to get a class-action suit out of it because the class wants to keep a low profile and keep their jobs. And you aren’t going to get bignum punitive damages out of it because trial by jury.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            If you sic your state’s labor department on your employer for things like failure to pay overtime, if the department decides there is a case there they will dig through every thing and make the employer pay it to everyone. No class-action or even individual lawsuit necessary.

            I’m not sure this is a good plan, but this isn’t a good objection to it. We already have labor-enforcement arms that work pretty well (in most states).

            Now I wonder if the departments of labor would even care if you weren’t here legally.

          • John Schilling says:

            If that’s what you’re counting on, then your enforcement mechanism isn’t illegal immigrants suing for back wages etc. That’s what you initially proposed and what I responded to.

            If the proposal is actually to task and empower a bureaucracy to go after all the illegal employers whether their workers complain or not, that’s a different proposal with different problems. The two that come to mind are the difficulty of achieving decisive results in a presumption-of-innocence rule-of-law society (and consequent risk that we weaken that part), and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy as applied to a bureaucrats that you are basically charging with eliminating the thing that justifies their existence.

          • pontifex says:

            If that’s what you’re counting on, then your enforcement mechanism isn’t illegal immigrants suing for back wages etc. That’s what you initially proposed and what I responded to.

            I didn’t intend to suggest that each individual illegal immigrant would file a separate case. I just meant that if someone alerted the authorities, they could take action on behalf of however many illegals they could find.

            In general, I would expect it to go down kind of like a drug bust. The feds hear that someone is employing lots of illegals at a farm or whatever. They scout it out. Then they get one of their agents in there to get hired without the proper paperwork, while the cops are watching from a distance. Then take a bunch of people into a custody and verify that they are, in fact, illegals.

            This isn’t someone’s brother’s sister’s cousin saying that maybe her friend said that you hired an illegal. This is you, hiring an illegal while a car full of cops watches. And then they find that all 1000 workers are illegal, or whatever. At that point, they’ve got an open an shut case. You don’t have to catch everyone– just enough people that farmers decide that following the law is cheaper. And damages don’t have to be limited to just back wages.

            There are arguments against doing this but I don’t think “it wouldn’t work” is one. And I think it would be a lot less brutal and costly than what ICE is doing now.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            This is my third comment on the whole page, so I didn’t make some different prior claim that I since changed my mind on.

            This honest question remained unanswered that I wanted anyone to provide feedback on: Now I wonder if the departments of labor would even care if you weren’t here legally. What happens when someone says “I was working for Joe Farmer illegally, I’m heading for the border anyway, where’s my money?” Does this never happen?

            I found this legal advocate’s page which sites actual court rulings that illegal immigrants are still protected by FSLA laws: https://warshawskylawfirm.com/lawyer/2013/02/04/Employment-Law/Are-Illegal-Immigrants-Protected-By-Labor-And-Employment-Laws_bl6663.htm

            This was the issue in two recent federal district court cases: Solis v. Cindy’s Total Care, Inc., Case No. 10-CIV-7242 (PAE), 2011 WL 6013844 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 2, 2011), and Angamarca v. Da Ciro, Inc., Case No. 10-CIV-4792 (RLE), 2012 WL 5077480 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 15, 2012). In Solis, the court held that an employee’s immigration status was not relevant to his or her claims for unpaid wages under the FLSA. In Angamarca, the court adopted that holding and further ruled that the plaintiff, who had returned to his home country, would be permitted to appear remotely (via videoconference) for his deposition and for trial — thus making it possible for him to pursue his lawsuit from outside the United States.

            New York state courts similarly have held that illegal immigrants are covered by the state wage laws. For example, in Pineda v. Kel-Tech Construction, Inc., 15 Misc.3d 176, 832 N.Y.S.2d 386 (N.Y. Sup. 2007), the court held that illegal immgrants who worked on municipal construction projects were entitled to be paid “prevailing wages” as mandated by state law. Likewise, in Garcia v. Pasquareto, 11 Misc.3d 1, 812 N.Y.S.2d 216 (N.Y. Sup. App. Term 2004), the court held that illegal immigrants could bring an action in court for wages earned but not paid.

            So we already have the tools for illegal immigrants, if they are going to return home anyway, to pursue wage claims against their employers. Maybe this just needs signal-boosted so more illegal immigrants are aware of their rights.

          • John Schilling says:

            I just meant that if someone alerted the authorities, they could take action on behalf of however many illegals they could find.

            But that’s already the case. Minimum-wage laws, etc, already apply to illegals. If someone alerts the relevant authorities, today, that someone is hiring a bunch of illegals and paying them less than minimum wage, they can take action on behalf of however many illegals they can find.

            Yet somehow illegal immigration persists. Why is that, and how does your proposal differ from the status quo?

          • pontifex says:

            That is a really good question. Why don’t we hear about illegal immigrants suing for back wages?

            It might be a legal question– as non-citizens, do they have standing to sue? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe a lawyer could chime in here?

            It also might be our weak to nonexistent enforcement of immigration law. If the government doesn’t send anyone to investigate reports that someone is hiring illegals, then it just comes down to hearsay and rumors. Maybe there’s not enough there to make a case that will stand up in court.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            as non-citizens, do they have standing to sue? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe a lawyer could chime in here?

            Can you read back two comments? They absolutely have standing. They aren’t exempt from deportation, but if they wanted to leave anyway, they can definitely have their state’s labor department do the hard work as they return to their home country.

      • Deiseach says:

        anyone working in the US is covered by the full panoply of labor rights

        Good luck with that, remember the discussion over tipping if waiting staff are getting paid the minimum wage? Now you’re going to extend health insurance and dental plans and the rest of it to burger flippers, even if they are legal native-born citizens never mind being immigrants? Prepare to be argued into oblivion about how this is totally unworkable and would ruin the economy because low-wage workers simply are not worth that outlay by an employer as by definition low-wage work is not productive enough to be valuable.

        • and would ruin the economy

          Not would ruin the economy, would ruin the lives of low skilled workers who were no longer able to get a job because they had been priced out of the market.

          • Thomas Jørgensen says:

            Eh.. paying waitstaff a living wage changes nothing. People currently eat at restaurants with an expectation of tipping twenty percent. Thus, a restaurant with a sign at the entrance saying “No Tipping.” and twenty percent higher prices would be precisely equivalent as a consumer choice, and could obviously afford to pay their waitstaff enough to live on. Thus it is pretty irrelevant to this proposal, which does intent to price at least some workers out of the market.
            Insisting migrant labor get paid as if they were citizens would do that to a large extent, yes. That is rather the point. If a job is only worth 2 dollars an hour, it should either not be done, or at least, be done by a robot. If it cannot be automated, and must be done, well, then it is pretty much by definition worth the minimum wage, and hippies can darn well pay a few cents more for their hand picked fruit.

          • Eh.. paying waitstaff a living wage … pay their waitstaff enough to live on.

            1. If illegal immigrants were not being paid enough to live on they would not be alive. They are.

            2. Average per capita real income in the developed world at present is twenty to thirty times what the global average was through most of history. U.S. per capita income at present is about $50,000/year, so the income at which most people in the past lived was about $2,000/year, corresponding to an hourly wage, for someone who works forty hours a week, of about a dollar an hour.

          • Thomas Jørgensen says:

            … You did not get my point about the wait staff at all.
            The US currently pays wait staff quite a decent wage. There is simply a social pretense that they are tipped.

            If you dine out and do not pay the 20 percent “Waitstaff surcharge”, you are overtly an asshole. Given that eating out is mostly about making a good impression, hardly anyone ever does this.

            So the actual price of eating out is the menu price, +20 %. Restaurants get all the custom they need at this actual price point. So you might as well end the practice of tipping, and roll the cost of actually paying your workers the going rate into the menu price. This then alleviates diners from having to do math just after eating themselves silly.

          • John Schilling says:

            Thus, a restaurant with a sign at the entrance saying “No Tipping.” and twenty percent higher prices would be precisely equivalent as a consumer choice

            Except that the diners have less agency, and the waitstaff has less incentive to provide good service, so not precisely equivalent after all.

          • AG says:

            There has to be accompanying deregulation to allow employers to fire workers more easily, such that they can get rid of workers not offering good service and thus not adequately doing their job. There is no stereotype of waitstaff in non-tipping locations like Europe or Asia not providing good service, and that’s because they’re doing their core job responsibility.

            This is just as how any client-interfacing employees at any company can get fired if a customer complains to their superiors, despite there being no tip service. The cooks in a restaurant don’t get tips (though in some restaurants they switched to a tip pool so they do), but they evidently have incentive to provide good cooking service.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Technically, you wouldn’t need to raise prices 20% to make up for tips.

            First, 20% isn’t universally recognized as the standard tip; many people use 10% or 15% or 18% as the baseline.

            Second, not everybody tips.

            Actually, the interesting thing is that if a sufficient percentage of restaurants shifted away from tips, you might drive the no-tippers to the tipped restaurants, which will then be cheaper for them. This would rapidly break tipping.

          • John Schilling says:

            “Good service” is not a binary, and treating it as such would I think diminish the dining experience. Also, positive reinforcement is definitely a thing.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            positive reinforcement is definitely a thing

            I agree, although I’m concerned it might not be enough. There’s at least one study that suggests it’s not enough to drive quality. (BTMOOS, of course, but I didn’t look that long, and there might be others.) One possible causal factor is that it’s swamped by other factors, such as the customer’s ethics – some customers tip consistently low or high for other reasons. Likewise, some servers might be consistently courteous, or not. Another is that customers might not care enough about service level, because they don’t pay that much attention. (Which seems a bit odd to me, given how much of an incentive money is in most situations.)

            I see definite cases where I tip high and am immediately answered with a great deal more courtesy from drivers and servers, but this might be anecdotal and subject to confirmation bias.

          • Plumber says:

            Just curious, when did 20% become the norm?

            I remember 10% as being for average service, and 15% for above average.

            When was the change?

          • AG says:

            Again, the empirical evidence (entire other nations where there is no tipping) seems to indicate that the incentive structure of tipping has a much lower effect than you think. Or rather, that other non-tipping incentive structures are much more effective.
            For example, paying a higher wage results in the job having higher status, so that workers take pride in doing their jobs correctly as a demonstration of their status. This especially seems to be the case in Japan, where some get offended at tipping, which then implies that they don’t retain the same level of quality for all customers.

            I still fail to see why, if tipping as positive reinforcement is so powerful, it isn’t used for all service jobs. What about waitstaffing is so unique?

          • Aapje says:

            I’ve seen quite a few Americans complain about European waiters, although cultural differences are a huge confounder here. Americans seem to typically enjoy a high level of superficial niceness (not just from waiters), while also being used to being ushered out of restaurants so more sittings can be accommodated. In Europe, the superficial niceness is often considered offensive and people tend to like more inconspicuous service. They also tend to want to be able to stay as long as they desire, rather than be pressured to leave.

          • AG says:

            But we don’t know that that cultural difference is related to the lack of tipping. For example, would tipping make a maid-cafe or host/ess setup better, vs. the “commissions on luxury purchases” model?

          • pontifex says:

            There is no stereotype of waitstaff in non-tipping locations like Europe or Asia not providing good service,…

            Citation needed.

            I thought the stereotype of snooty European waiters not providing good service was a very old one amongst American travellers.

            And in Asia, waitstaff service is generally very bad. It’s a cultural thing, I guess. In China they don’t even heat the restaurants very well. They want you to get in and out, not linger there.

    • What kind of reward are we talking about? Cash? People make a lot more money in the US than whatever country they are from, so it would have to be a substantial sum. Multiply that by the 10 million illegal immigrants and add in the terrible incentives you are setting up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

    • John Schilling says:

      Why wouldn’t this work?

      By the same token, why can’t we end the war on drugs by rewarding drug purchasers for turning themselves in and then jailing their dealers?

      If you offer people a reward for accusing other people of committing crimes, you will get lots of false accusations. At minimum, this is noise clogging your judicial system. And every false positive is an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned. And unlike most victims of mass incarceration, a generally sympathetic innocent man, so what’s the motive for a prosecutor to bring this sort of case again?

      If this nonetheless does lead to a significant number of prosecutions, the obvious response is that legitimate businessmen stop hiring anyone that might turn out to be an illegal immigrant. Which leaves the other sort of businessmen. The legitimate businesses still need e.g. janitors, and those are now more expensive and troublesome than they used to be. But look, here’s a service that advertises cheap janitorial services – looks like they get people to work minimum wage, tack on 20%, and do all the paperwork! Our lawyers have talked to their lawyers, and everything checks out!

      The janitorial service pays 40% of minimum wage, and takes a 200% markup. Nobody ever complains or rats them out, because 40% of minimum wage is still better than they’d get in Guatemala, and because if they do complain their family in Guatemala will be tortured to death. The service’s paperwork checks out because some of that 200% markup goes to unethical lawyers and some of it goes to bribes. And if the Feds ever do manage to make a case against them, the managers disappear and retire in style someplace with no extradition while some of their younger colleagues start over under a new name (but with the same network including the Guatemalan torturers).

      The legitimate businesses don’t even have the option of hiring legal janitors because, hey, nice business you’ve got there, shame if something happened to it, like a dozen illegal immigrants swearing that you hired them as janitors without even checking their papers. The illegal immigrants no longer have the option of doing mostly-honest work, and even some of the legal immigrants and first-generation citizens find themselves being frozen out of opportunities.

      But if you persevere, and if you don’t mind the collateral damage, you could substantially reduce illegal immigration by this strategy. Let’s not.

      • pontifex says:

        If you offer people a reward for accusing other people of committing crimes, you will get lots of false accusations.

        There are lots of cases where the government offers people a reward for accusing other people of committing crimes. Any kind of medical malpractice suit. Accusations about breach of contract. Any kind of OSHA complaint. And so on. Are you in favor of dismantling these systems? If not, why is immigration any different?

        Yes, obviously we don’t want to make companies responsible for cases where someone had a fake ID that looked real. But we can make them responsible for at least scanning the ID and verifying that it comes up in some government database. Then the government can take it from there.

        The legitimate businesses still need e.g. janitors, and those are now more expensive and troublesome than they used to be. But look, here’s a service that advertises cheap janitorial services – looks like they get people to work minimum wage, tack on 20%, and do all the paperwork! Our lawyers have talked to their lawyers, and everything checks out!… The janitorial service pays 40% of minimum wage, and takes a 200% markup. Nobody ever complains or rats them out, because 40% of minimum wage is still better than they’d get in Guatemala, and because if they do complain their family in Guatemala will be tortured to death.

        A shell company isn’t a magic cloak of invincibility that will protect you from all prosecution. Even in Chicago. So the government brings a RICO case and takes down your crime scheme, same as it took down the Mafia.

        The government can and should dismiss cases where there is no hard evidence. This is no different than any other crime. In fact, it’s much easier than most other crimes. Unlike selling drugs or illegal gambling, or whatever, agriculture takes place out in the open. It should be easy for the feds to get detailed pictures of employers hiring illegals.

      • dick says:

        “Your policy could be subverted by a large, well-organized and ruthless international criminal conspiracy” is going to be true of pretty much any set of laws that create a black market, including the immigration policy we have now.

        • pontifex says:

          Also, this is a Fully General argument against any kind of law. If laws against rape exist, then at least one person will be falsely accused of rape at some point. But we cannot therefore conclude from that that laws against rape should not exist.

          In the case of illegal immigration, the government doesn’t have to go after every possible perpetrator. Only the ones that they can catch red-handed. In that case the chance that it is all an innocent misunderstanding is pretty much zero.

        • John Schilling says:

          “Your policy could be subverted by a large, well-organized and ruthless international criminal conspiracy” is going to be true of pretty much any set of laws that create a black market, including the immigration policy we have now.

          “Could be” and “will be”, are two different things. Prohibition of lawn darts did not in fact result in a large, well-organized and ruthless international criminal conspiracy taking over the lawn dart industry, prohibition of alcohol very much did. And this was easily predictable, in both cases.

          You’re proposing to ban a broadly popular commodity – cheap labor – for which there are great profits and in most cases no good substitutes. The people using that commodity are already accustomed to operating on the shady edge of the law. The commodity itself is provided by an oppressed minority group that cannot count on police protection in the US and has family members vulnerable to retaliation in their homelands. There already exist coethnic criminal organizations optimized for exploiting this population in other ways. And those organizations necessarily have a fair chunk of their power base in kleptocratic third-world countries beyond the reach of US police.

          That ticks pretty much every box on the checklist of “will this industry be taken over by a large, well-organized criminal gang?” If you go ahead and do this thing because, well, any industry could be taken over by a criminal gang, then you’re being foolish and I’m going to try and stop you before you hurt anyone.

          • dick says:

            You’re proposing to ban…

            I didn’t propose anything, Plumber did. And he didn’t propose to ban anything, as I think you’ll find that illegal immigration is already illegal. He proposed a different tactic in enforcing it. Is it your position that the Aramark-as-run-by-Gus-Fring scenario you’re describing would be the result of Plumber’s “go after the employers” idea specifically, or just any method of enforcing immigration policy that is more effective than what we do now? Or are we already on the path to a worldwide janitorial mafia that makes the drug cartels look like small potatoes, and we just haven’t gotten there yet?

          • Doctor Mist says:

            he didn’t propose to ban anything….He proposed a different tactic in enforcing it.

            Eh. If something is nominally illegal but said law is completely unenforced, I would think it entirely fair to characterize a proposal to start enforcing it as “banning” it.

            Granted that for illegal immigration the before and after are not quite so stark. It still strikes me that you’re quibbling. As am I, I suppose.

          • pontifex says:

            You’re proposing to ban a broadly popular commodity – cheap labor – for which there are great profits and in most cases no good substitutes.

            What makes you think agriculture is “wildly profitable”? It certainly isn’t for the workers– even legal ones. The median salary is about 66k. This is not Walter White territory. It’s about 1/3 less than an entry-level software engineer would make in the Bay Area.

            Maybe the owners of the huge farms make a lot of money. But it’s not clear to me that they make more than, say, a typical fortune 500 CEO. Especially in relation to the risks they have to take and amount of work they have to do.

            Also, there are a lot of substitutes for the labor of illegal immigrants. Like the labor of legal citizens, which is maybe 2x or 3x more expensive. Or automation.

            The people using that commodity are already accustomed to operating on the shady edge of the law. The commodity itself is provided by an oppressed minority group that cannot count on police protection in the US and has family members vulnerable to retaliation in their homelands. There already exist coethnic criminal organizations optimized for exploiting this population in other ways. And those organizations necessarily have a fair chunk of their power base in kleptocratic third-world countries beyond the reach of US police.

            Again, this is a Fully General argument that I could apply to any sector of the economy. Clearly McDonald’s employees will soon all be illegal slaves from Guatemala because of the super secret mafia.

            Except, they aren’t, and they won’t be. This is not like drugs where people will pay any price for their fix. Nobody really demands illegally picked fruit or illegally sold happy meals. They just want cheap fruit or cheap happy meals. So all the authorities have to do is make it marginally more expensive to use illegal labor than legal labor. This is easy to do with basic law enforcement.

    • arlie says:

      My theory is that there’s no real political will to reduce illegal immigratiion.

      Demonize and harass immigrants, especially those either illegal or non-white or both – sure.

      Stage lots and lots of political theater to show leaders at work addressing the voters’ concerns – sure.

      But actually finding Americans willing to do the jobs currently done by illegals? Or dealing with not being able to find anyone to do those jobs? Or paying a whole lot more to make Americans willing? Not so much. If the work can be outsourced elsewhere, that’s not a problem. But much of what illegals are reputed to do in the US needs to be done in locations where it’s wanted.

      • EchoChaos says:

        You can leave out the casual “Americans are racist” there.

        Americans had tons of anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1800s and early 1900s against European immigrants too.

        New arrivals are disruptive culturally and the people whose wages are suppressed by them always resent them. It’s not a skin color thing.

        • cryptoshill says:

          I would argue that the skin color thing *results from* cultural disruption and wage suppression. Not the other way around. People used to think *very* highly of Hispanics back before 1990 because they were a fargroup that *became* an outgroup. Hispanic-ness is now just a cheap proxy for that outgroup.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Operation Wetback started in 1954.

            This is not to say that “those guys don’t seem to match my in-group” isn’t the root source of the problem, though.

          • BBA says:

            There were also forcible “repatriations” of Mexicans in the 1930s.

            Prior to the 1965 immigration act, the US had close to “open borders” with the rest of the Western Hemisphere. As I understand the law at the time, starting during WW1 immigrants had to get visas before entering the US, and starting during WW2 a green card to remain here, but there were few restrictions and no numerical limitations on visas/green cards issued to Mexicans (and Canadians, Salvadorans, etc.). As long as you weren’t a communist and you didn’t have any infectious diseases, you were in.

            Most of the people deported in the ’30s were here legally. Many of them had been born north of the border and were therefore US citizens. It had nothing to do with “enforcing the law” and everything to do with ethnicity.

          • mdet says:

            The idea that there’s some racist out there who wasn’t xenophobic, they just intrinsically hated certain colors, is really weird. The formula for racism has always been Xenophobia + “You can recognize them by their facial features”. That’s why many people will describe anti-Muslim sentiment as racist. Muslims obviously aren’t a “race”, what they mean to say is that anti-Muslim sentiment is xenophobic and that most people identify Muslims at least in part by looking for people of Arabic or North African descent. (Leave aside for a moment whether those two characterizations are accurate)

          • The Nybbler says:

            @mdet

            It’s weird, but look up ‘colorism’.

          • mdet says:

            I’m aware of colorism. But still, good catch, since colorism is sort of the opposite of xenophobia — it creates division within an existing demographic.

            I guess I’ll say that traditional Jim Crow style racism is xenophobia first & foremost, with the stuff about skin color just being a post hoc rationalization. And colorism between black Americans is what happens when you’ve internalized bits of the rationalization, but are too close to someone to really be xenophobic. So you get the classic example of the black guy refusing to date darkskinned women, despite his own mother looking like Viola Davis.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @mdet:
            I’d argue colorism is likely just in-group social hierarchy stuff.

        • arlie says:

          In my experience as a white immigrant to the US, I’ve never personally been harassed. Indian immigrant colleagues – working similar jobs with similar life styles – have.

          Likewise, while the US has had a presidential candidate claiming all Mexicans are rapists, I haven’t heard one making similar scaled claims about people from Canada, Australia, or any European nation.

          I agree that if you go back far enough, other large groups of immigrants (Irish, Italians, …) were also treated badly. Currently, however, being non-white is a liability, though less so for Asians than most other groups.

          • Matt M says:

            I haven’t heard one making similar scaled claims about people from Canada, Australia, or any European nation.

            I haven’t heard anyone making that claim about Chinese or Japanese either.

          • AG says:

            Illegal white immigrants have been getting rounded up by ICE, though. There was a NPR feature on it, focusing on Irish examples.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Japan makes no sense in this context, as they have been fully developed and industrialized for the entirety of our life times. Japanese scares have been entirely around their industry beating ours (and their moneyed class displacing ours, see high end real estate and art sales).

            China has been, I think, too firmly in control of it’s populace to let mass outflows occur (I’m not solid on this claim, and I’d welcome being proven wrong).

            There was plenty of kerfuffle around the various Indochinese boat peoples, though.

      • gbdub says:

        Where’s the actual political will on the other side to legalize the illegal immigrants?

        Illegal immigration is a handy wedge issue for both sides, but the antis don’t actually have a good plan or the desire to round up 10 million otherwise mostly law abiding people, and the pros don’t actually want to wave a blanket amnesty wand and permanently open the border.

        • You severely underestimate the political will of conservatives to deport illegal immigrants. They would be ecstatic if the government was able to deport them unimpeded by state and city sanctuary laws.

          • gbdub says:

            Then what’s stopping them? Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Presidency, and could probably get what they needed through the current Supreme Court. The border states apart from CA are Red.

            I mean, I don’t doubt that there are hardliners who want to do it. And I don’t doubt there are some liberals who want open borders in all but name. But I’m talking “mainstream GOP”, i.e. the people who tried real hard to get Jeb or Rubio elected, here.

          • Filibustering is still an option for Democrats. And while the Supreme Court is conservative leaning, Trump has run in to problems with lower courts. And Democrat states and cities are also running their own campaign to impede deportation as much as possible. It’s not just about border states but any city that houses illegal immigration in significant numbers.

            I’m sure that the guys who make up the GOP offices doesn’t particularly care but if Trump was pushing for a bill and didn’t have any of the obstacles I mentioned, they would go along with it.

            You also originally said “antis” don’t have the will to do it but are now saying that you only meant the specific minority that wanted people like Jeb.

          • gbdub says:

            Well, I’ve got the “non-Trump GOP” in my minority, who are your conservatives with the political will to do a mass deportation of all, or nearly all, of the current illegal population. Show me a serious proposal to deport 5 million+. You say I severely underestimated it, show me the evidence.

            I mean, heck, this was all riffing on arlie’s original post which took the stronger stance that there is no political will to even “reduce” illegal immigration – why are you selectively coming down on me here?

          • So you originally make a very strong claim(those against illegal immigrants don’t have the desire to reduce illegal immigrants) and then say the burden is on me to disprove your claim?

            This is what I’ll agree with: there are a small but non-trivial number of Republican congressmen, especially in the Senate, who are uncomfortable with mass deportations and it’s possible they wouldn’t sign that kind of bill. But that’s a far cry from what you said, where illegal immigration rhetoric is just a “wedge issue” that none of th actually plan on doing anything about.

            Honestly, this whole thread is filled with what I see as a nonsensical claim but you made the strongest one.

          • gbdub says:

            arlie is the one who said they don’t want to “reduce” immigration at all. I don’t make that claim, and never did. My claim was there are no serious plans to actually deport all 10 million (or whatever the number is) illegal immigrants, nor is there a serious plan for a blanket amnesty. I think the latter is much more likely than the former, but if amnesty does happen it’s basically just going to reset the clock on the status quo.

            Actual political movement, not pundits on the internet but actual politicians with the power to do it, towards “deport everybody” or “amnesty and permanent major increase in legal immigration” seems nonexistent right now. If I’m underestimating that, show me.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            They would be ecstatic if the government was able to deport them unimpeded by state and city sanctuary laws.

            Hello!

            The Republican voters want the illegals gone. Some Republican leaders want the illegals gone and are attempting to make it so, but they are stymied by Democrats and neocon Republicans, some of whom mouth support for deporting illegals but have no actual desire to do so.

            Watch a Trump rally and listen to the “Build the wall!” chants. They are serious about wanting to build the wall.

          • The Nybbler says:

            You can’t go by chants. They chanted “Lock her up”, too, but nobody seems all that upset that Trump made no attempt to do so.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I think a stronger argument of this form is that some people who support the idea of massive deportations and etc. in the abstract, turn out not to be willing to pay the costs in practice.

            There are probably lots of people who chanted “build the wall”, but whose support is partly conditioned on Mexico paying for it, on not having to make any political trade-offs to get funding from Congress, or not having to shut the government down to obtain funding, etc.

            It doesn’t mean they didn’t mean it when they chanted, but it might mean that they failed to see the difficulties standing in its way, and having seen those difficulties, now don’t think it’s worth it.

            This is probably especially common among politicians, who actually have to make the compromises and pay the costs.

          • arlie says:

            @gbdub @wrongspecies

            Nope, I didn’t claim they didn’t want to reduce illegal immigration. I claimed lack of political will [to do anything meaningful].

            I want peace on earth, justice for all, and a chicken in every pot 😉 The most I actually do in support of this is once in a while give a bit of money to a relevant charity.

            Same deal – I don’t want it enough to get practical.

      • albatross11 says:

        A shortage of workers can be solved by allowing wages to rise–the long-term result is that labor costs go up, but that some additional Americans get jobs. We may still be worse off overall (the illegal immigrants did the work better for less money), but the crops won’t go un-picked in the fields for long.

  5. Kestrellius says:

    Okay. I’m not sure what’s going on, but my comments don’t seem to be appearing properly. If this is on my end and I’ve accidentally posted the same thing three times, I sincerely apologize. Otherwise…is there a length limit? I think that might be the issue.

    • johan_larson says:

      There’s a filter. It has a problem with some bad language, and some things seem like bad language. You are probably inadvertently triggering it.

      • Kestrellius says:

        Hmm… Damn it. I was really excited about this, too. Well, if it’s the filter, I have no idea what’s setting it off. The thing that made me think it was the length was that when I first posted it, it worked. Then I went to fix the formatting — I’d copy-pasted it from OpenOffice with standard formatting, meaning indents rather than extra lines between paragraphs — and when I did that it disappeared.

        Well, if you guys aren’t seeing tons of accidental multiposts then I guess I’ll keep trying to figure it out.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I saw a comment of yours a few minutes ago. It was the second comment and seemed to be a long story involving a serpent, although I didn’t read it yet. It’s now disappeared and I didn’t delete it. Did you delete it?

      • Kestrellius says:

        I’d split the story into two parts, and posted them both as top-level comments. Somebody asked me to put the second part into a reply so that collapsing the first would collapse both — whereupon I realized I should have done that in the first place for organizational reasons, and I wanted to comply with the request too. So it’s in a reply now.

  6. johan_larson says:

    You have accepted a one-year posting to a community that is small, poor and remote, with harsh weather and no local radio, television or internet service. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to avoid going stir-crazy in this environment. How will you do this?

    • Matt M says:

      The old fashioned way. You see, when a man and woman love each other very much…

      • johan_larson says:

        The advice I got from a pulp & paper engineer who had spent most of his career in small towns in the middle of big forests was to have enough kids that you had no time for anything else.

    • Plumber says:

      If I can bring along a library of books, some cards, a chess set, maybe some supplies for doing sketches, it shouldn’t be too hard, I lived like that for years.

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      How harsh are we talking? If Antarctica, bring a *lot* of books and buckle down to get better at meditation.

      If anything else… it’ll be *possible* to enjoy the outdoors, and along with 3-ish TB of media and an interesting puzzle or two, that’s really all I think I’ll need.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        If you’re at Amundsen Station, it’s typically because you’re doing research (or support), and you’ll be plenty occupied. If for some reason you’re just there because of the Larson project, you’re still likely to have plenty to do, courtesy of the accommodations already there, even if you deliberately avoid the internet.

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          By “Antarctica” I mean “somewhere where going outside is sufficiently dangerous as to be discouraged when not necessary for a good chunk of the time you’re there,” as most stations in Antarctica would seem to violate the “no radio/internet” stipulation. Alternatively, literally somewhere in the middle of Antarctica (and not a station).

    • peterschaeffer says:

      This question has been answered (on the Internet) some number of times. I once saw a post by woman, who as a child was sent to N.W. Territory of Canada. Her father was a meteorologist working for the Canadian government. She mentioned that her family, were the only folks in an area the size of the American state of South Dakota. Apparently, the area had once supported a sizeable Inuit population (thousands), but they had been evacuated by the Canadian government. The family was completely isolated for six months (except by radio).

      Was it hard? Yes, it was very cold outside. However, the Canadian government provided more than enough fuel to last the winter. They always had power and heat. Books, videos, music, etc. more than sufficed as diversions.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      I’ll obviously have to try to befriend the few locals.

      Since they’re poor, I’ll have to research what poor people look for in friendships.

    • The Nybbler says:

      As Worf said unto Q, “Die”.

    • beleester says:

      Well, you’ll definitely need to make some friends while you’re there. That’s the most important part of not going stir-crazy – getting out of the house sometimes. Maybe start a board game club? Scrabble? Poker?

      Also, even if you don’t have internet access, if you bring a computer with a nice big hard drive you can probably pack enough entertainment to last a year. Bring along Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress and build the Taj Mahal out of adamantine. Or start writing a novel – I have a bunch of ideas kicking around that I’ve never bothered to put in the time to expand, and now I’ve got plenty of time and no distractions.

      Lastly, don’t forget to write home regularly. Your friends/family will miss you. This goes double if you have a spouse and you couldn’t persuade her to accept a job working for Johan Larson’s Weird Missions, Inc.

    • toastengineer says:

      I don’t really understand the concept of “stir-craziness.” You adapt.

      I’m still adapting to an environment where time is a precious resource and not an overabundance to be gotten rid of.

    • Well... says:

      How might you make this question more challenging?

      • johan_larson says:

        Just crank up the volume on the isolation and duration.

        You have accepted a one-way trip to Mars. Alone. You will receive periodic shipments of supplies, but you will never return to Earth. After you have cataloged every red-brown rock in sight and faithfully reported same to Earth, how will you keep from going stir-crazy?

        • RavenclawPrefect says:

          I think I could live pretty contentedly for the remainder of my life. I’m very strongly reading- and math- inclined, and given a time-delayed internet link to Earth I could:

          (1) Get access to the full corpus of human knowledge, and read interesting books / blog posts for years on end

          (2) Think about interesting puzzles; I have yet to encounter a state of mind in which I’m not ready to ponder some interesting question or puzzle, and there’s enough good stuff out there to keep anyone happy through the years.

          (3) Engage in online human interaction on medium timescales, like commenting on SSC, engaging with people on Reddit, talking in bursts to friends, or writing effortposts to a blog. Being not particularly meatspace-oriented in the first place, I think this would more than suffice to fill my desire for other minds; I already derive something like 90% of my intellectual interaction quota from words on screens anyway.

          Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if the trip was actually a hedonic improvement; the social costs might well be offset by the lack of otherwise anxiety-provoking concerns like financial issues, drama, administrative obligations, etc. EA considerations aside, if this was actually offered to me I’d have to think about it.

          That said, I could be underestimating the difficulty here? I see lots of people assuming that solitary existences for any moderately long duration of time would rapidly induce insanity if not strenuously combated, which confuses me; I’d assign at least 60% odds to the hypothesis that I could be locked in a featureless white room for a decade with no notable psychological impact upon release.

          • johan_larson says:

            Solitary confinement has both physiological and psychological effects. The issue is difficult to study, because prisoners subjected to it often have mental health problems before being confined and studies with healthy volunteers tend to be much shorter than real terms of confinement.

        • Well... says:

          Dang…so, are a cable machine and full set of dumbbells and easy-bars out of the question? I’m willing to receive them incrementally in shipments over the course of a few months. Otherwise that Martian low-G is gonna be rough on both my skeletal system and my mental health.

          I find my mental health is also pretty closely tied to my ability to build things that improve the usability of my environment. For instance, I got a huge boost in happiness after I built a bunch of nice shelves in my bedroom closet and built huge industrial shelves, plus an 8′ workbench and a treadmill desk, in my garage. If I can have those kinds of projects in my Martian habitat that would be good. So can I also ask for shipments of tools, lumber, and hardware?

          Finally, a few weeks with a tongue injury has confirmed my hypothesis that if I can’t enjoy eating, then life will seem to hold very little value. In this recent case, knowing that the tongue injury would eventually heal has given me a reason to strive on one day at a time. But if I’m stuck on Mars without any hope of being able to cook and enjoy quality food ever again, then putting myself out the airlock without a helmet on will start to look more appealing. So I’d also need a decently appointed kitchen, an inexhaustible source of good potable water, and quality and diverse food ingredients, oils, and spices.

          (BTW this is one of the many reasons I would never sign up to go to Mars like those other freaks did, and why instead I want to go to the South Pole for a year.)

          Finally, I would need some way (augmented reality, maybe?) to experience multiple grandchildren clambering for a place on my lap, since that is one of the highest and most important life-tentpoles I still am looking forward to and would not want to be deprived of.

    • cactus head says:

      Sounds easier to avoid going stir-crazy there than in a lot of other environments. I’m already trying to learn Japanese, so I’d just bring grammar dictionaries, the Remembering The Kanji books by Heisig, some English-Japanese and Japanese dictionaries, and loads and loads of manga. Plus, you didn’t say no electricity, so I could bring a scanner and a laptop, and dump volumes of scanlated manga on the internet when the year is up.

    • Nicholas Weininger says:

      A known-successful pattern for this is:

      — make frequent excuses for parties where you can all get together, drink, sing, play stupid games, etc
      — create an informal lending library out of all books possessed by all members of the community
      — have tinkering equipment on hand (of whatever mechanical/hobbyish type suits your fancy) and tinker a lot

      source: my father, who spent a year at South Pole Station in the mid-sixties.

    • WashedOut says:

      1. Build a rudimentary gym and get absolutely shredded
      2. Bring several basic musical instruments and start a local ‘jam night’
      3. Practice cooking with the constraints of sourcing local/cheap ingredients
      4. Bring an mp3 voice recorder and interview the townsfolk, create a documentary about the community.

    • Mark Atwood says:

      Bring an ereader full of a couple of hundred of the books that “I was going to get around to reading”, 20 reams of good writing paper, a couple of good pens, and about a quart of fountain pen ink.

      And a full weight set and an adjustable bench.

      Done.

      I’ve known US military servicemen posted to very remote one year postings in Alaska who solved this exact problem exactly this way, only they had to do it with paper books instead of a Kindle. Worked pretty well for them.

    • finlay says:

      Easy. Most of my hobbies can be done indoors and without other people.

      I’ll need:
      A violin
      Seven juggling balls
      Three juggling clubs
      A computer with all my favourite music on it, and maybe a couple of dozen films I’ve not seen
      A pull-up bar
      About thirty novels
      A book of crossword puzzles
      Drawing pencils and paper

      I’ll play, juggle, read, dance, draw, watch films, practice calisthenics… if I have time, maybe I’ll try to write some stories. Assuming the weather isn’t so harsh that you can’t go outdoors, I’ll also go for long walks/runs.

    • SamChevre says:

      This sounds like where I grew up, except for the harsh weather–assuming you mean poor and remote by American rather than world standards. And since the Amish-Mennonite group I was part of didn’t allow radio or television or recorded music…

      Books. Books are the key answer. Also board games, conversations, singing…

    • AG says:

      At last I can finally write all those epic fanfiction percolating in my brain…NaNoWriYear

    • davidweber2 says:

      bring a giant pile of books? Seems simple enough. Make sure several of them are math textbooks or some other dense subject I’m interested in mastering. Alternatively, take up cross country skiing?

    • Fossegrimen says:

      I enjoy these challenges and most are really interesting like putting giant battleships on top of mountains.

      Some ‘challenges’ I just don’t get. “live for a year like pretty much everyone I know did until 1990” or “manage to survive in a pleasant climate with ample fish, wildlife and fertile soil” fits this category.

      Possibly it’s a generational thing or possibly the fact that I grew up on a farm, but it’s fascinating to read what people consider challenging some times.

      • fion says:

        it’s fascinating to read what people consider challenging some times.

        I think this might not be one of those times. Of the 17 comments before yours, there were three people saying they’d basically already done it, four saying a well-known solution already exists, eight who seemed not to struggle very much (a few even used words like “easy/simple/Done.”), one joke I didn’t understand and one person specifically asking for a harder version.

        I think all of that is consistent with this being the easiest one of these johan_larson has done.

  7. Kestrellius says:

    The Serpent’s Chains

    Once upon a time, in a valley through which a river flowed, there lived a tribe of people. They were strong and hardy and cunning; but they lived in fear and without a home, for every night a great serpent emerged from its cave in the hills and set upon the people, devouring as many as it could catch.

    Now the people used swords and clubs and arrows, but no weapon could pierce the serpent’s scales, for it was old and cunning. And the people despaired, for the suffering inflicted by the beast was great.

    But great also was the wisdom of the elders of the people; and so they devised a plan to end the tyranny of the serpent. They planted a pole by the river, and prepared great chains of strong wrought-iron. When evening came the men of the tribe fell upon the serpent, and though many were devoured, they seized the serpent’s body and held it to the pole. And then came the women of the tribe; and they bound the serpent with the chains, so tightly and so heavily that its form could scarcely be seen behind them.

    And so the beast was defeated.

    The people of the tribe rejoiced, for no longer would they be hunted; and now they could live and work and eat and bear children without moving from place to place. They cut down trees and built of them strong houses; and around the river, in the shadow of the serpent’s chains, there grew a village.

    Now the men told their sons of the pole and the chains; but they did not speak of the serpent, for the sting of its fangs and the grief of its victims still haunted their minds. They said only that the pole and its chains were a monument to victory, and must never be disturbed.

    (continued in post below)

    • Kestrellius says:

      (continued from post above)

      Sons became fathers, and fathers became grandfathers. When five generations had passed, the village was a grand thriving city, and the people grew healthy and fat and happy upon the prosperity it brought them.

      One day an illness struck the city.

      The people came to the doctors and the healers and the scribes, and they complained of sores and pustules. The healers applied their medicines to no avail, but the doctors and the scribes saw that the sores grew upon the throat; and they sent out men to examine the water supply.

      When the men went out to see the river, they came upon the pole and its chains; and they saw that from the chains there dripped a noxious poison which corrupted the water.

      And so they went to the city chancellor and his advisors, and said: “The monument to victory, which our fathers erected in the day of the birth of our city, now drips poison upon the river, and the people fall ill from its corruption. What shall we do?”

      And there ensued a great debate, for none knew why the great monument would bring destruction, until the chancellor’s chief advisor stood and said to those assembled:

      “Our fathers hated us, and they built these chains as a monument to our ruin. For they knew that chains bring forth poison, and in their malice they planted the seeds of our suffering; lying to us, saying ‘do not disturb the chains, for they are a monument to victory’. Come, let us destroy the monument, and our tribulations will be ended.”

      And so the smiths and the craftsmen brought hammers and chisels, and they began to strike the chains. When they had loosened the women and the children came forth and pulled upon them, saying: “Down with the chains! Down with the chains!”

      When the chains fell away, the people looked; and they beheld the great and ancient serpent, with poison dripping from his jaws. And the serpent fell upon the people and devoured them.

      And now the grand thriving city on the river in the valley is no more; for the serpent never dies, and his wrath is everlasting.

      • idontknow131647093 says:

        Chesterton’s fence.

        • silver_swift says:

          And as with most Chesterton’s fences, the blame here lies squarely with the idiots that didn’t bother to put a note on the fence telling people what it is for.

          I don’t know what point Kestrellius has with the story, but to me the clear lesson is “Don’t tell someone to not do a thing without also making clear why they shouldn’t do the thing”.

          • Jiro says:

            And as with most Chesterton’s fences, the blame here lies squarely with the idiots that didn’t bother to put a note on the fence telling people what it is for.

            Real-life Chesterton’s Fences are generally not created by one person with a purpose and often evolved memetically. There may not be anyone who could write down why it exists (short of having an ethnographer or similar researcher do a study of the society, and that’s probablynot going to work because of politics anyway).

          • Deiseach says:

            And as with most Chesterton’s fences, the blame here lies squarely with the idiots that didn’t bother to put a note on the fence telling people what it is for.

            Because people assume that you know not to stick your hand into the fire because it will burn you. The thing that everyone knows, that is common knowledge, that is as present as air, why would you write it down? Who writes a book where every time the main character gets up to walk over and open the door, you describe in detail how walking is done?

            But of course, over the years and generations, people forget. They don’t explicitly tell their kids because, well, everyone knows. And when the last granny who was there when the thing happened dies and nobody bothered to listen to her rambling anecdotes of “when I was your age”, then the real reason is forgotten and then later on people invent reasons as to why this thing is done/called that/we eat this food/we don’t eat that food.

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            That isn’t how things work. Sometimes things are done/not done not because people know why, but because the people who did/didn’t do the thing lived and those that went the other way died. Its like the old trials by ordeal. People are like, “wtf how could that work?” Well the key is that the priest is a well connected man who hears the confessions of the whole town and also knows all the people and the leaders and can talk to witnesses, thereby determining the guilt or innocence of a person in a vast majority of cases. Then if he thinks the guy is innocent he prepares the water in a way that it won’t burn the hand, and prepares it hot if he thinks the man is certainly guilty. Then when people see men they think are guilty scalded by the water they confess to the crime rather than go through ordeals.

            Other things are similar. Say 2 bridges are built over a river and one collapses because its foundation is one weird soil. The other bridge survives. Then decades later a enterprising youth things the standing bridge is inconvenient and builds one again on the crappy soil causing several more deaths. Reality is its own warning. The fact that you are alive is why the burden of proof is on the mover.

          • Protagoras says:

            An issue with the serpent particularly is that if you tell people what the chains are for, there will be idiots who will think a serpent would be a great weapon with which to eat their enemies, and assume that some half-baked plan to avoid getting eaten themselves will work.

          • Kestrellius says:

            That’s an entirely valid lesson to take from it — if you’re in a position to do so, you should certainly leave warnings! Unfortunately, I don’t think this happens all that often.

            In most of the cases I’m talking about, the binding occurred over the course of millennia and was carried out mostly by people who had no idea what they were doing, as Jiro says. I probably should have communicated this better in the story, but I was concerned about length.

      • toastengineer says:

        Is the reference to a “monument to victory” a reference to relatively-recent events?

        I think I get the point, but geeeeenerally around these parts you’d use that story as a hook before a more grounded essay on what you were actually trying to say.

        • Kestrellius says:

          I don’t think so? I just needed a name for it other than “that thing where we tied up the snake”. I’m curious what you’re referencing — quick Googling didn’t turn anything up.

          I am planning to elaborate, probably (I’m not sure I’m brave enough for politics), but first I wanted to wait a little while — I was curious to see what people would make of it without any further explanation. The point seems super obvious to me…but I came up with the thing, and that tends to skew one’s impression a bit.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I can see two points. One being Chesterton’s Fence, and two being “If you seal evil in a can, and have to leave the can lying around, for crying out loud, at least mark it clearly!”

          • Aapje says:

            I also see this point: “That a system has serious problems is not a reason to destroy it, when there are even bigger problems that the system solves.”

          • AG says:

            Chesterton’s Razor, Hanlon’s Fence

            But also “patching is underrated, overhaul is overrated.”

          • Kestrellius says:

            @Nybbler: Apparently I’m a moron, as I never noticed the connection to Chesterton’s Fence until you pointed it out. There is a bit of a distinction: the idea is that frequently the Fence and the thing the Fence is containing are visually indistinguishable, and damage apparently being caused by the Fence is actually due to the thing the Fence opposes.

            @Aapje, AG: Yeah, basically.

      • Well... says:

        If they’d implemented a rule to only use water from upstream of the chains…

      • phi says:

        Any helpful tips on how to tell which chains are being used to bind serpents and which aren’t?

        • The Nybbler says:

          The ones dripping poison probably have something venomous bound therein.

          • Thegnskald says:

            So any social system which causes suffering is probably critically important, and the greater the suffering a system causes, the more important it is that we should leave it alone?

            I mean… strictly speaking, there is probably an element of truth to this, in that terrible institutions wouldn’t survive if they weren’t important.

            But still.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            [T]he greater the suffering a system causes, the more important it is that we should leave it alone?

            Sounds counter-intuitive, aye. OTOH, consider this phrasing:

            The greater the suffering a stable system causes, the more dire the alternative was, even if forgotten.

            Which is just another way of saying “Chesterton’s Fence”.

            And you still have at least two outs – one, the alternative may have ceased to exist (turns out the snake died), or society’s preferences changed (we have ways of hiding from the snake, but no better way to get clean water).

          • b_jonas says:

            Are you implying that the poor people who still drive old unmaintained cars that emit a lot of air pollution are evil, and their car emits the air pollution because of them?

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        In the spirit of those tumblr posts I saw a while ago with multiple endings to the same story with contradictory morals:

        When the chains fell away, the people looked; and they beheld the great and ancient serpent, with poison dripping from his jaws. And the people summoned the great siege engines they had built, and where the swords and clubs and arrows of their fathers had failed, these mechanical wonders succeeded. The serpent perished, and the city grew ever greater. And the people said, “We should not have insulted our fathers so–they were right to build the chains. And yet we were also right to destroy them.”

        • Jiro says:

          And the people said, “We should not have insulted our fathers so–they were right to build the chains. And yet we were also right to destroy them.”

          Since they didn’t know that there was a serpent behind the chains, they weren’t right to destroy the chains, if by “right” you mean “engaged in an overall beneficial policy resulting from sound reasoning”. They just got lucky.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            True enough, I’d have to retcon in some more sophisticated debate before the chains went down. The point is, you can bend a fable like this to support whichever moral you want.

            In fact, I’ve got a better one for the ‘yay progressivism’ moral:

            “..Come, let us destroy the monument, and our tribulations will be ended.”

            But the chancellor himself rose next, and shouted until the crowd’s clamor ceased. “Think! Did our fathers truly hate us? Those of you who are fathers, do you hate your own sons? The city around us bears witness to their benevolence and wisdom. Let us not undo what they have done!”

            And so the crowd quieted, and the chain was left intact. And the sickness worsened–soon nearly everyone bore the pustules. The very young and very old began to perish. The year’s harvest was lean–some said mere coincidence. But when spring came, the crops, irrigated from the river, would not even begin to sprout.

            And when the people’s panic finally overcame the great faith the Chancellor’s words had inspired, they organized a party to bring down the chains. Yet their fathers’ chains were strong, their poisoned limbs were weak, and one by one they collapsed striking fruitlessly at the heavy links.

            And above them, venom continued to leak out of the corpse of the starved serpent.

          • Jiro says:

            True enough, I’d have to retcon in some more sophisticated debate before the chains went down.

            You can’t do that without ruining the metaphor. The original metaphor says that you shouldn’t change a longstanding tradition. Changing the metaphor in the way you suggest makes it “you shouldn’t change a longstanding tradition unless you correctly understand why it isn’t needed and why we’re better off without it”, which is just Chesterton’s Fence.

          • Kestrellius says:

            “If it’s stupid and it works, it’s still stupid and you’re lucky.”

            But I think maybe I made my point too strongly — I actually agree, in broad strokes, with ADA’s alternate ending; I just didn’t have the space to make it work in the metaphor without going into far more detail than I was willing to.

            The moral of the story is something like “there are things out there that are evil and powerful and ancient and want to kill you, and your ancestors have spent millennia trying to make sure they fail. Unless you fully understand this and are prepared to deal with the evil yourself, don’t fuck around.”

            Of course, I think the siege engines in question would need to be quite a bit more powerful than is perhaps commonly understood. In the case of the most of the things I’m referencing with the story, we don’t have them yet irl — killing the serpent would require directly modifying our biology, because the serpent lives within us.

            Oh, and also — this is outside the scope of the metaphor, but while you should always kill the serpent if able, you shouldn’t necessarily destroy the chains in the process. Again, remember that they weren’t making the poison. Sometimes the chains are nice in and of themselves, even if they’re not needed to prevent evil from escaping anymore.

        • Peffern says:

          >those tumblr posts I saw a while ago with multiple endings to the same story with contradictory morals

          Can you provide a link? This sounds fun.

      • JPNunez says:

        Man, “our fathers hated us” is such a great phrase, haahaha.

    • Kestrellius says:

      Great discussions, guys!

      Okay, explanation time. The specific formulation I had in mind when writing goes something like this:

      Serpent :: nature (ultimately, entropy)
      Chains :: social structures
      Poison :: injustice

      More narrowly, the thing that caused me to develop the metaphor was the idea of patriarchy. Gender issues and feminism are very vexing topics to me, emotionally, so I spend a lot of time considering them. One model I had of feminism was that feminism is the patriarchy — after all, it exhibits many of the attributes ascribed to its enemy: a focus on women as passive objects to be acted upon, whose value is derived from their nature; and on men as divided into heroic ingroup men, villainous outgroup men, and contemptible deficient men, whose value or lack thereof is derived from their actions or lack thereof.

      But in another sense, “patriarchy” as it actually exists often appears to be a good and necessary means of exerting human control over the excesses of our nature. Marriage and monogamy, for example, seem to me to be unambiguously positive inventions, even if they are vulnerable to subversion and abuse.

      So that’s the point of this metaphor: that something like “patriarchy”, apparently a single monolithic construct, may actually be a phenomenon arising from the interactions of two opposing forces: demonic nature, and divine social technology. It’s a war, and an arms race; but it looks like a single thing from the outside, because the war is being fought by memes and not people. And if you try to destroy it, because it seems to be causing problems, then you’ll usually just end up destroying the friendly side of the war and making those problems far worse.

      (If you’re wondering where I stand on gender issues and it’s not already clear, my views seem to align pretty closely with Aapje’s.)

      Now, taken as axiomatic here is the idea that nature is evil. I may at some point write a post explaining this in detail and attempting to prove it. While it seems self-evident to me — the laws of the universe are inherently hostile to conscious existence, as it depends upon order and the universe destroys order — almost everyone appears to want to view nature as some sort of warm friendly mother-goddess, rather than as a monstrously evil death machine.

      This sort of makes sense, because evolution is another serpent in chains. It’s a process that, given long enough, increases order; but its parameters are defined by entropy’s attempts to destroy it, and so evolution is also in a certain sense an evil process — it’s literally just genocide, on an unimaginable scale.

      Actually, I suppose evolution is a morally-inverted chained-serpent, where the “snake” is good and the chains are evil — it’s a seed of self-replicating order, bound up in a billion years of scars and deformations from entropy’s attempts to murder it. I guess this might explain why the prevailing view is inverted as well — evolution is seen as good and social control as evil. It seems like (unless my impression of humanity-at-large’s opinion on these phenomena is just wrong, which is entirely likely) the view of a chained-serpent will be an accurate description of the serpent at the heart, but that the chains will be misidentified as the cause of whatever is happening.

      But, well, I guess that’s the point of the story: that attempts at progress will often simply result in a return to the hellish natural order, because the people trying to achieve progress are fundamentally misunderstanding the situation.

      • Kestrellius says:

        Now, notes on the story itself:

        It’s intended as explanation, not evidence. It is of course contrived to say a certain thing, and thus proves nothing. I wanted to show how such a thing could happen, not necessarily demonstrate that it was happening — that would be the task of a different kind of post, which I am probably not brave enough to write.(ADifferentAnonymous mentioned this above, and I wanted to make clear that I understood.)

        I felt the story, at its current length, was already longer than it really deserved, and so elected not to add more detail even though it could have patched over certain holes (see the discussions of warning people about the serpent, or using water from upstream of the chains).

        I think that’s most of what I had to say, for now. Thanks for the interesting responses, guys — this is pretty much what I was hoping for!

      • Aapje says:

        that attempts at progress will often simply result in a return to the hellish natural order, because the people trying to achieve progress are fundamentally misunderstanding the situation.

        This is a major theme in Werner Herzog’s movies. For example:

        – Aguirre, the Wrath of God; which is about an Amazonian expedition of Spanish conquistadores being ground to dust by the forces of chaos (nature, natives, etc), with the last survivors going insane.

        – Fitzcarraldo; which is about an opera lover who dreams about building an opera house in Peru. To get the money for this, he tries to get a ship to an inaccessible area with rubber trees by dragging it over the mountain. After succeeding in doing the latter and thus having done the hardest part, Fitzcarraldo and his Western crew give themselves over to a drunken celebration. However, the natives wants to appease the river gods who they believe are angered by this defiance of nature and they cut the ship free, resulting in an uncontrollable journey back to where they began. Fitzcarraldo then has an opera performed on the top of his battered ship, in a useless and insane act of defiance.

        – Grizzly man; a documentary about a man trying to live peacefully with grizzlies. This ends…badly, showing the folly of pretending that nature is kind and hospitable.

        – Stroszek; about a street performer who is a drunk and his prostitute girlfriend migrating to the US, dreaming of opportunity, but failing to realize that the opportunity is for people who understand the system and have life skills, so they fail, ending up worse than they were before they migrated. It ends in a bank robbery where they make off with only 32 dollars and then suicide. This is Herzog’s idea of a (dark) comedy, btw.

        Not that Herzog (or I) believe that progress is impossible. However, many attempts at progress are hubris and denial of truths, based on an anthropocentric view of the world that sees mankind as Gods, denying chaotic nature that is around us and within us. Herzog is fundamentally a wise romantic, who recognizes his irrationality in desiring boundless justice, love, beauty, etc.

        The story of Sisyphus is false in that it portrays him as exceptional and the reason for his task to be inhuman and outside forces which torture him. In reality, most of us are Sisyphus and it is not the Gods who force us to roll the boulder up the hill, but our own hearts. To actually make progress (and to find peace) we have to repudiate our own souls, accepting imperfection that can actually be achieved over a Utopian mirage.

        We can choose to not pick up that boulder, but instead to pick up a rock which we can successfully take to the top of the hill. Many such rocks can create a nice perch on top of the hill, which may not be as pretty or high as one made of boulders, but we can actually have the former.

        • AG says:

          It seems that most of these efforts were done singularly, rather than building incremental institutions along the way to sustain the change. It’s a rebuke of the Great Man Narrative.

          Only Conquest fails (the first two examples), you need supported colonization to immediately occupy every inch taken and provide supplies to the frontline.
          Wild animal cohabitation has to occur in a human-controlled and thus human-dominated environment. See Big Cat Rescue, for example, where they never try taming their residents.
          Just watched Grease Live last night, and Stroszek’s story is like Beauty School Dropout Frenchy’s story. Frenchy is caught by the institutional safety net of returning to high school.

          If Sisyphus could build wedges/scaffolds behind him, that would prevent the boulder from losing progress.

  8. peterschaeffer says:

    I went to the SSC meeting in Houston (Agora Coffeehouse). It was quite interesting. Thanks to all the folks who put this together.

  9. Hoopyfreud says:

    Would you mind deleting and posting as a reply to your other post? That makes it collapse both when the first gets hidden.

  10. Plumber says:

    On Monday, August 16th I worked some emergency overtime and consequently I was still in San Francisco after 6PM, and since the SSC/Less Wrong meetup at 855 Brannan Street was only a couple of blocks from my work I decided to drop in and check it out.

    Because my wife and sons were waiting for me I didn’t stay long, but I got a brief impression:

    Cool seeming people, all younger and mostly better looking than me.

    I only really stay in The City in the evenings anymore for overtime and Union meetings, but if I was young and single I can think of far worse places to be.

    I’m told the meetups are every Monday around 6:15PM, so if your inclined it seems good to check out.

  11. hash872 says:

    The end of the US as the world’s dominant military superpower within most of our lifetimes- most likely due to budget reasons, yes? Does anyone think otherwise? Our enormous military budget is driven by projecting power & dominance far away from the continental US- military installations in South Korea, Japan, Germany, Eastern Europe, Africa, Afghanistan and who knows where else. We have a more powerful military force stationed in, say, South Korea than most countries on Earth are able to field even in defense of their homeland. (Apparently three of the wealthiest countries on Earth could barely field one battalion in between them in case of invasion.

    Probably not breaking news that the US faces huge budget shortfalls over coming decades with an aging population & increasing Social Security/Medicare spending on their needs, plus declining population growth (and a homegrown nativist movement intent on preventing bringing in talented foreigners to make up for the low birth rate). The Democrat’s opposition to military over social spending is well-known- the Trump phenomena has shown the populist right sentiment among the average working person is basically the same. Political will to cut spending for the elderly is basically nonexistent. Most importantly, unrestrained deficit spending will likely spike bond financing rates soon- making servicing the debt much more expensive.

    With all of these budgetary headwinds, does anyone think the US won’t start to gradually cut back on overseas bases & force projection? Given the choice between financing Social Security and, say, bases in Asia, I think only neoconservatives & the National Review crowd would choose the latter. I foresee a slow decline in American power projection over the next few decades, overseas base closings, less aircraft carriers being built & put out to sea. Less money to stay on the cutting edge of weapons tech (railguns, lasers etc.) All the while, a rising China slowly fills the gaps- it becomes their carriers patrolling the Red Sea and keeping oil shipments safe instead of us, and so on.

    Am I missing something? Why wouldn’t this state of affairs come about, given US budget issues & the lack of political will to cut benefits- especially for the elderly, the main driver of entitlements?

    • pontifex says:

      We have a more powerful military force stationed in, say, South Korea than most countries on Earth are able to field even in defense of their homeland. (Apparently three of the wealthiest countries on Earth could barely field one battalion in between them in case of invasion.

      Yes, that’s odd, isn’t it? Basically, they are free-riding on the US. And gambling that nobody will try to invade, in a post-nuclear world.

      I don’t agree with Trump on many things, but one thing I do agree with is that Western Europe should contribute something to its own defense, rather than asking us to pick up (almost) the entire bill.

      The Democrat’s opposition to military over social spending is well-known- the Trump phenomena has shown the populist right sentiment among the average working person is basically the same.

      Democrats can be hawks too, and often are. Bill Clinton took us to war in Serbia. Obama intervened in Libya. Hillary was talking about intervening in Syria. Nearly all Democrats opposed the war in Iraq, but most were at least ambivalent about Afghanistan– including Obama.

      With all of these budgetary headwinds, does anyone think the US won’t start to gradually cut back on overseas bases & force projection? Given the choice between financing Social Security and, say, bases in Asia, I think only neoconservatives & the National Review crowd would choose the latter.

      I was just thinking about this the other day. It really does seem like the sun is setting on our empire. But maybe it’s for the better. It doesn’t seem to have brought anyone happiness in a long while. Intervene somewhere, get used as a punching bag for both right and left. Why bother?

      The last intervention that really seemed to go well was the Korean war. And that was the 1950s.

      All the while, a rising China slowly fills the gaps- it becomes their carriers patrolling the Red Sea and keeping oil shipments safe instead of us, and so on. Am I missing something? Why wouldn’t this state of affairs come about, given US budget issues & the lack of political will to cut benefits- especially for the elderly, the main driver of entitlements?

      Well, China has its own problems with an aging population. But they do have a pretty big population with a lot of smart people. I guess time will tell.

      • Brad says:

        We have a more powerful military force stationed in, say, South Korea than most countries on Earth are able to field even in defense of their homeland. (Apparently three of the wealthiest countries on Earth could barely field one battalion in between them in case of invasion.

        Yes, that’s odd, isn’t it? Basically, they are free-riding on the US. And gambling that nobody will try to invade, in a post-nuclear world.

        I don’t agree with Trump on many things, but one thing I do agree with is that Western Europe should contribute something to its own defense, rather than asking us to pick up (almost) the entire bill.

        The EU spends about $230B on defense (at current exchange rates). China spends about $145B and Russia about $70B.

        What’s the issue again?

        • ana53294 says:

          The complete political inefficiency of those armies. For example, in Spain, soldiers are old and fat.

          Greece is one of the countries that spends enough GDP. But they include pensions in that expenditure. And then they spend all their forces trying to defend themselves from their supposed NATO ally, Turkey (and thus Greece would be pretty useless against another enemy).

          And then there are stories, such as the ones told by Elliot Ackerman (I couldn’t find a story in English that wasn’t behind a paywall), where US soldiers were not rescued by NATO allies because of political orders not to enter hot zones, thus leaving injured soldiers in the hot zones.

          To clarify; I don’t think the problem is money. I think we already are spending too much money for the results we are getting. The ways to solve European armed forces’ inefficiencies are through political will, not by spending more money (although budgets will have to be increased, we have to make sure we don’t just spend money to duplicate what other armies have). This isn’t going to happen, though, as war is very unpopular, and most governments prefer to pretend we don’t have armies in Afghanistan.

          • JohnofCharleston says:

            And then there are stories, such as the ones told by Elliot Ackerman (I couldn’t find a story in English that wasn’t behind a paywall), where US soldiers were not rescued by NATO allies because of political orders not to enter hot zones, thus leaving injured soldiers in the hot zones.

            I think you’re thinking of Italian forces in the marshland of Iraq. Rory Stewart was openly critical in his memoir.

          • Brad says:

            The complete political inefficiency of those armies.

            where US soldiers were not rescued by NATO allies because of political orders not to enter hot zones, thus leaving injured soldiers in the hot zones

            Fair.

            (although budgets will have to be increased, we have to make sure we don’t just spend money to duplicate what other armies have).

            Why? You said it, the problem isn’t money.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            It would be more correct to say that the issue isn’t JUST money. Money absolutely plays a role. And I think the part that so many people miss is that you have to look at the difference in spending, as magnified by the amount of time that difference has been going on, and how it’s been spent.

            Even a “modest” 50 billion USD spending gap per year turns into over two and a half trillion dollars over five or six decades. Now think in terms of large capital projects spread over 10-20 years. This is why you get a situation where the US spends “only” 2-2.5x what the EU does per year, but has over an order of magnitude more combat power if push came to shove.

            Now, yes, when it comes to things like manpower issues and training readiness, there are issues that go beyond money. But I think it’s wrong to say “the issue isn’t money”. The really bad part is that the gap is so severe that it’s not something you can simply fix by saying “Ok, we’ll spend 100B more a year.”.

            I sat down once and started to work out how much it would cost the UK to acquire proportional combat power to the US (proportional in terms of both GDP and population), and ignoring issues of force projection like lots of heavy lift aircraft, carrier power, etc. I gave up part-way through because it was clear that it was simply a politically impractical task. Basically, it looked like they would need to double or triple their military budget and -hold- it there for -decades- just to close the gap. I am pretty confident that the same holds true for the EU.

          • Aapje says:

            A major issue is that for the most part, each country wants to have their own fully able army. So there are lots of small, inefficient, not very capable units.

            However, this is understandable as unlike in the US, there is not a true EU polity. France is not going to want to be prevented from intervening by Germany, nor will Germany want to sacrifice their soldiers’ lives on a mission that they themselves don’t believe in.

          • Brad says:

            @Trofim_Lysenko

            Why is the US the correct place to look for a gap rather than China or Russia, or even China and Russia?

          • JPNunez says:

            Well, maybe the solution is just for the US to spend less money on the military.

            But I think America is perfectly capable to let their sick die and their old people without pensions if it means keeping the gates of Janus open.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            @Brad

            Sorry for the slow reply. Cellulitis sucks. The short version is that because the EU is a lot more like the US than it is like Russia or China, and thus it needs a more US-like military in terms of technological sophistication, professionalism, and lethality. Now, that said, I will agree that if we assume that the EU has no interest in geopolitics and wanted to restrain itself simply to defense of its territory, it could avoid a lot of costly items that the US military has (Carrier Battle Groups and MEUs, strategic air bases overseas, etc). But even adjusting for that reduced scope of mission, I think there’s still a gap.

            The first point to consider is casualty aversion and political will. To use Russia as an example, in a hypothetical future where a Russian leader decides to carve off the Baltics and the EU goes to war to defend them, there’s no need for Russia to roll tanks down the Champs Elysees and drive the shattered remains of the old western powers across the Atlantic. All Russia has to do is hurt the EU badly enough that the EU public (and/or factions within its political organization) decide that it’s not worth fighting for and make them come to the negotiating table on Russian terms. Given rough parity in size and effectiveness between militaries, the side that runs out of political will to fight (which in a democracy means popular support) loses.

            So flip that around: If we can’t be confident that the EU can defend its fringes without the coalition fracturing and/or if the public’s willingness to pay the cost in blood is relatively low, we need a military potent enough that it can stand off threats without having much of its blood spilled.

            And right now, while I think the EU could fight off a concerted Russian attack on its territory without US assistance, the combination of its operational readiness issues, logistical issues, organizational issues, and most important (IMO) the deficiencies of training mean that it would be a bloody, costly, drawn out affair.

            I think that an enemy looking to obtain limited goals from the EU, absent US support, might very well look at that calculation and figure that the EU would cave when push came to shove….and even if they’re -wrong-, there’s still that bloody, costly, drawn-out mess, and I think that still means that the EU’s defense doctrine would be a failure on several levels.

          • Brad says:

            Thanks for the response and I hope you’re feeling better.

            It seems like your post implies that a straight comparison with Russia doesn’t make much sense. Fair enough. But nor does the comparison to the US, per your first part.

            I don’t think even Trump would be happy with an EU that muscled in on the US’s world police hobby, so what’s the envisioned end game here? Does anyone really think they’d increase their military budgets 2 or 3 fold and yet still agree to play sidekick?

          • John Schilling says:

            But nor does the comparison to the US, per your first part.

            It does if the goal is to prevent Russia from overrunning the Baltics ,or Poland, Ukraine, Aleppo, whatever(*). Whether it’s the US, Western Europe, or a true partnership of the two, someone whose home is not on the Baltic coast, has to project enough power to stop the Russian Army at a cost Western civilians and politicians will consider acceptable. That’s roughly the same problem no matter who does it.

            There are some asymmetries from the fact that Western Europe is on the same continent as Russia and the Baltics, but they mostly cancel. Western Europe doesn’t need as capable a navy for that mission, just frigates and SSKs to tackle the Baltic Sea under NATO air cover. But they do need the armored divisions and air defenses to block a direct Russian attack on their own homelands, because “Pull back from Riga or we’ll take Warsaw and threaten Berlin” is a credible threat in the way that invading New York isn’t.

            I don’t think even Trump would be happy with an EU that muscled in on the US’s world police hobby, so what’s the envisioned end game here?

            To the extent that Trump has an end game in mind, I suspect it’s either that Western Europe flatly refuses and Trump can keep scoring cheap “I’m calling out the selfish cowardly Europeans on not paying their fair share” points with his base, or Europe deciding that it would rather pay protection money to the US than try to raise an effective army of its own. I’m not terribly thrilled with either of those plans.

            But the next US President, whoever that is, would do the world generally and the US specifically a fair bit of good if they were to make the defense of Europe and its periphery a true partnership rather than a US burden.

            (*) Really, “whatever” is going to extend to e.g. the Pacific Rim where Europe is never going to be an equal partner, so we should also be talking about shared defense spending among ANZAJ, Japan, the ROK, etc.

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            If the faction within EU politics who dream of a “United States of Europe” get their way and the EU transitions into a single federal nation with single foreign policy, international trade policy, etc., I think that not only is “sidekick” out of the picture, “ally” is probably going to go by the wayside too, though we might well settle down on “cordial strategic rivalry”, with limited cooperation where it suits both parties and competition the rest of the time…which to be honest is where I think we are most of the time anyway. The major economic and military powers of the EU now that the UK is leaving are France and Germany, and neither have been particularly enthusiastic partners with us when it comes to geopolitical affairs in the past 50 years or so.

            To be clear, Brad, when I say that the EU should have a US-like military, I want to say again that I am not saying that they should adopt the “world police” role, or invest in the sort of power projection capabilities the US has. I am saying that they should adopt US standards of operational readiness and technological sophistication. And I’m making this argument from a hypothetical EU perspective.

            I think the end game for the EU military should be, on its own terms:

            1) the ability to deploy 1-2 brigade strength military units with air support and 1-2 naval task forces and sustain them for up to one year within their sphere of influence (Baltic, North Sea, Med, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden for naval units. North Africa, Balkans, Crimea, Turkey, etc for Army units, Air force able to support both as needed). Maybe they could get by with less than this, but there are going to be some times the EU is going to want to deploy military force to protect its interest.

            2) The ability to accomplish 1) while maintaining sufficient strength to stop the sort of threat a worst-case Russia would pose circa 2030-2040 without having to give a lot of ground or take massive casualties (10-20% casualties instead of 50+% casualties). Preferably the ability to stop any plausible threat cold at the border. The ability to stop a threat with minimum loss of territory is important because of the lack of defensive depth and increased density. The EU just doesn’t have a lot of room to fall back and regroup if it can’t initially defend its territory. I use Russia here because, well, worst case. They -are- steadily improving their military capabilities and reforming their own maintenance and personnel issues. I think a EUFOR that can stand off Russia at its borders with confidence is a sufficiently strong deterrent that A) they wouldn’t have to and B) they’d be sufficiently strong to counter any other plausible threat the EU is likely to face.

            Those two capabilities, taken together, could be accomplished with a unified military no larger than the one the EU has today, in purely numerical terms. But at the very minimum, the levels of operational readiness and personnel experience and training need to be addressed. And those -are- expensive. Honestly, the readiness is probably the most expensive short term just because it’s been left to fester so long. Much like any other sort of maintenance, the longer you ignore it, the more expensive it gets.

      • MrApophenia says:

        I don’t agree with Trump on many things, but one thing I do agree with is that Western Europe should contribute something to its own defense, rather than asking us to pick up (almost) the entire bill.

        This is probably too subtle for Trump, but there’s a reason the US doesn’t usually push on this question- yes, we wind up paying the cost of military defense.

        And in return, we get a bunch of rich countries that are our potential competitors to voluntarily stop having armies that are any threat to us, and instead cede military dominance over the globe, and thank us for the trouble.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          and thank us for the trouble

          Except when they forget, and denigrate us as warmongers because why else would we need such an outside military budget?

          • MrApophenia says:

            Sure, but that’s still just salty rhetoric to keep their voters happy. At the level of actual policy, they still very much want America to continue acting as the global military hegemon.

            We have managed to convince most of the rest of the world’s most powerful nations that it is actually in their best interest to not even try to contest our total military dominance, and they even chip in a bit for it!

            Imagine going back in time and explaining that state of affairs to Rome, and then telling them that we have a president who wants to throw that away and get all of these countries to build up their own armies again, because they are not contributing as much as we would like to pay for our military forces stationed in their countries.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Rome would certainly expect to be paid for its military presence.

          • Randy M says:

            Yeah, they tended to make out like bandits.

          • James C says:

            Rome operated like a mafia crime syndicate as much as it did a nation, I wouldn’t go to them for diplomatic advice.

          • DeWitt says:

            Except when they forget, and denigrate us as warmongers because why else would we need such an outside military budget?

            This is the inverse of Americans whinging that European nations aren’t paying for their own defence, so it would seem that people are terrible everywhere.

          • Garrett says:

            Sure, but that’s still just salty rhetoric to keep their voters happy.

            It could be. But Americans can now see that rhetoric and some have decided to respond in kind by voting in Trump.

          • engleberg says:

            Ostpolitik wasn’t just salty rhetoric to keep West European voters happy. It was the Good Euro Cop to our Bad Yankee Cowboy Cop in the Cold War, and the combination worked. Gorbachev called off the cold war because Russia was safe without going full Stalin, and because his generals knew they couldn’t safely roll through Europe without risk. Okay, three decades after the Wall came down, there’s no great will left in Europe to have a big expensive military that would cut into their welfare state and get in morally dubious fights.

          • Brad says:

            It could be. But Americans can now see that rhetoric and some have decided to respond in kind by voting in Trump.

            If I had a nickel for every distinct reason I’ve seen someone confidently claim for why Trump won I could retire.

          • albatross11 says:

            The great thing about just barely winning is that there are honestly a hundred “reasons” that explain your victory, in the sense that any little change to the world might well have changed the outcome of the election.

      • DeWitt says:

        I don’t agree with Trump on many things, but one thing I do agree with is that Western Europe should contribute something to its own defense, rather than asking us to pick up (almost) the entire bill.

        I agree, if likely for different reasons. And I’m sure the US’ attempts at squeezing a little more money out of the states it has bases in are nice. But on the whole? It may reek of tinfoil a little, but I think a Europe able to take care of its own defence isn’t in the US’ interest, and that one reason more bases in Europe aren’t closed is because the US benefits by Europe remaining dependent.

        The reason for why it benefits the US seems rather clear: for as long as Europe doesn’t foot its own defence bill, it has to keep acting the part of the good vassal state. There’s some minor nitpicking at the margins, but the EU follows suit with the US’ foreign policy far more than I think is good for it. I’m not sure there’s any numbers to run, but the exchange rate the US gets here doesn’t seem all that bad.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          [A]s long as Europe doesn’t foot its own defence bill, it has to keep acting the part of the good vassal state.

          What if it stops being a good vassal state, due to its being able to spend all that extra money on other things, and then being used as example of how much better Americans would be if they adopted European systems?

          My point being: people seem to lose sight of the tradeoff between defense and welfare spending. Coupled with my own curiosity about whether that’s actually enough of a thing, and wondering if anyone else on SSC has a counterargument.

          • Aapje says:

            As someone else noted elsewhere, the savings are so small that they have no meaningful impact on welfare spending.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I honestly don’t see how that’s the case (and I doubt I could find your reference – I didn’t see one above?). US defense spending is famously large – about half as much as SS / Medicare, IIRC. If that’s accurate, then if any EU country spent commensurately, it would mean cutting its domestic spending by a third.

          • Aapje says:

            Yeah, it seems that I’m wrong. Never mind what I said.

    • JohnofCharleston says:

      Disagree for the simple reason that the US Military does not cost that much, and on net probably buys us more GDP than it costs.

      Yes the US military is huge, but we’re a large country with an overpowered GDP. Defense costs as a percentage of GDP are high compared to the post-Cold War Western World, but relatively low by global and historical averages. Even granting the World Bank’s methodology, military spending as a percent of GDP has averaged less than 4% since the end of the Cold War. That’s a lot of money, but it’s not enough to close the budget deficit, not enough to pay for Medicare-for-all, and would barely be enough to pay for Scandinavian-style free college. Any plausible gradual cuts would be a drop in the bucket.

      It’s worth noting that the military is not a pure cost, a fair portion of the total is investment. Most obviously, the Defense Department funds a large portion of scientific research in the US, with huge spillover effects (i.e. GPS). The Army Corps of Engineers is included in military spending even though they mostly build civilian transportation infrastructure. The Navy led all but eliminated Somali piracy on a key shipping route, conservatively worth several billion dollars each year. Also, those foreign bases are heavily subsidized by the locals. It’s not cheaper to post a serviceman overseas, but the host governments in rich countries defray the additional cost.

      There are places we could cut. Falling behind on new disruptive technology is always a risk, though if anything our spending overreacts to that risk. Reducing the stock of nuclear weapons while modernizing the warheads we keep could buy the same deterrence at lower cost. We could tweak the funding formulas and ask for a greater contribution from host governments. So there are ways to reduce spending, or at least reduce spending growth, while buying the same protection.

      The US Military costs ~$700B per year. That’s about $2,000 per person. That’s meaningful, for sure, but at the end of the day it’s a manageable amount. With some foresight and planning, we can keep the growth of military spending to less than GDP growth.

      I’m happy to flesh out any of these points if unclear.

      • ana53294 says:

        Also, those foreign bases are heavily subsidized by the locals. It’s not cheaper to post a serviceman overseas, but the host governments in rich countries defray the additional cost.

        Considering that having a US base in their territory is an insurance policy against their neighbour (on the premise that the US would intervene) I am pretty sure some nations would be happy to pay for the entire cost of the base.

        Also, about cutting costs. If cutting costs really became a priority for Congress (although it never is) couldn’t they close some of the bases? I have heard that plenty of bases are completely unnecessary from a military standpoint and are there to provide employment in economically deprived areas. The same for plenty of military contractors.

        • JohnofCharleston says:

          Considering that having a US base in their territory is an insurance policy against their neighbour (on the premise that the US would intervene) I am pretty sure some nations would be happy to pay for the entire cost of the base.

          Agreed. Qatar in particular is a touchy issue at the moment. But every 21st century president has pushed to get our allies to pick up more of the cost. Some have been gentler than others. But these discussions are constant, and productive. Note my link below on Japan increasing its contribution in 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if South Korea offered to increase their contributions in exchange for trade concessions.

          Also, about cutting costs. If cutting costs really became a priority for Congress (although it never is) couldn’t they close some of the bases? I have heard that plenty of bases are completely unnecessary from a military standpoint and are there to provide employment in economically deprived areas. The same for plenty of military contractors.

          Yes. Struggling to find specific citations, but DoD has estimated about 10-20% of US bases are unnecessary and can be closed. We keep asking Congress for permission, they keep saying no.
          (One example from last year)

          That’s probably less true for defense contractors. It’s true that Congress has instructed the DoD to buy some items we didn’t request (notably more M1A2 Abrams), but we ended up using them. There’s also a very plausible argument for keeping production lines open as an insurance policy against future conflict. So you could get some savings from squeezing the contractors, but not nearly 20%, probably not even 10%.

          • FLWAB says:

            There’s a good (political) reason why bases are almost impossible to close: if they are on US soil nobody in congress stands to gain much by closing them and a few particular members of congress stand to lose a lot by closing them. I live in a city that has a joint Air Force/Army base right next to it, and a couple years ago there was talk that it might be closed or at least the number of soldiers stationed there reduced significantly. At the clinic where I work about a third of our clients are from the base (easy to calculate because Tricare pays their bills), and I was fairly concerned about what would happen to our bottom line if the cuts came through. I wasn’t the only one: business leaders across the city started lobbying our congresscritters to stop any cuts from happening. They did their job nicely, calling out the cuts as being dangerous to our national security, blah blah blah, calling in favors, etc. Sure enough, no cuts. Good for my business, good for my city, bad for the Federal Budget.

      • hash872 says:

        I guess I’m saying that general budget belt-tightening will lead to gradual cuts over time. $700 billion becomes $650 billion, then $600 five years later etc. If you’re casting around some extra money in your budget, that base in faroff Asia looks like a good place to cut. Plus I feel like the populist right has joined the left recently in being opposed to foreign wars (another Trump phenomena that is poorly understood/discussed)- if the majority of the population feels that way, what’s the point of defending South Korea or Japan (or Montenegro, as Trump famously said recently)? It’s actually more dangerous to have the troops in harm’s way without the willingness to take casualties. Just seems like the public attitude is shifting away from willingness to fight & die overseas- we could lose 1000 soldiers overnight in a bad battle in WW2, now even one death is headline news & endlessly dissected. Public willingness to tolerate casualties is definitely a thing.

        Those unnecessary domestic military bases are basically a type of social spending, whether people frame it that way or not. Their Congresspeople actively advocate and horsetrade for those unnecessary, government-subsidized local job creators, especially in poorer & rural Red states. The military has been or always contained elements of the now-popular Federal Jobs Guarantee- public sector jobs for the poor & uneducated. So, tough place to cut

        • JohnofCharleston says:

          The military has been or always contained elements of the now-popular Federal Jobs Guarantee- public sector jobs for the poor & uneducated. So, tough place to cut

          Totally wrong. People dramatically underestimate how much the military has changed since ending the draft. Only a quarter or so of each year’s 18-year-old cohort even meet the current qualifications. To enlist you have to finish high school, pass an IQ test, pass a drug test, and meet pretty strict physical requirements. To get promoted past E-4 you’ll need a college degree; if you don’t get one you can’t stay longer than 8 years or so.

          Even on the civilian and contract sides the qualifications are strict. The reason these bases are hard to cut is they’re by-and-large good jobs, held by intelligent, politically engaged people. Cutting welfare was easy by comparison.

          • Chipsa says:

            There’s no requirement for a college degree to become an NCO. In the USAF, you can get promoted to MSgt (potentially) and retire without recieving a degree. It does depend on what the promotion board is looking for, but the education section is known to be masked sometimes.

    • JohnofCharleston says:

      We have a more powerful military force stationed in, say, South Korea than most countries on Earth are able to field even in defense of their homeland. (Apparently three of the wealthiest countries on Earth could barely field one battalion in between them in case of invasion.

      Challenge. That link talks about sustaining operations in the Baltics. Expeditionary operations are an order of magnitude more challenging than defending one’s own territory. The British, French, and German armies are designed to be supplied in Germany. Supplying them in the Baltics, down a single road and rail line that would be immediately attacked, is a very different problem. The author notes that the French army is overstretched with its current internal anti-terror mission, that is a real problem. It’s a little odd that the successor to Napoleon’s army is barely able to occupy its own capital. But Britain and Germany could easily repel any plausible Russian attack on their own territory.

      And note the issue of host governments defraying the cost of having US bases in their territory. We don’t make a profit from this, but they pick up the additional costs, and revise the formula when asked. See:
      Popular coverage (LA Times)
      RAND Corp study
      Popular coverage of Japan increasing its contribution in 2015

      • hash872 says:

        I mean, power projection is a basic function of modern militaries. The US is capable of projecting extreme force into most corners of the Earth- three of the richest countries in the world can’t go a few hundred miles to the East? I would certainly hope that they could do the bare minimum and protect their homelands, but I think this issue of mobilizing troops to go the US equivalent of a few states over is showing atrophied basic skills in the face of the superpower protecting them for decades. I say this as a guy who would like an assertive, muscular EU to protect certain core Western values (including from the US at times, such as now)

        • JohnofCharleston says:

          You’ve seized on the one nightmare scenario in Europe: defending the Baltic states while routing all supplies down one railroad and four lanes of road. When you assume away US support and just look at what the Europeans could do on their own, it’s not much. All granted.

          To send troops to Lithuania in a conflict situation, you have to assume the land connection through the Suwalki Gap is severed. Even if it’s not, it’s one railroad (that’s on the Soviet gauge, not the German) and four lanes of road. European armies weren’t built with overseas deployment in mind, when they do travel they tend to use US airlift/sealift. Any conflict in the Baltics without US support would be a nightmare, European forces would have to spend all of their time defending their supply route. This problem goes away if NATO counter-attacks Kaliningrad and reestablishes a land connection, but the plans for countering an asymmetric “little green men” attack can’t assume that.

          So there’s projecting power, and there’s projecting power. Given time, reasonable logistics, or US support, the Europeans would be fine. It is possible that you could loose all three at once, which is why people are nervous. But that’s a very different problem than “Europe could barely send three brigades anywhere.”

          See:
          https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-building-up-military-base-in-kaliningrad-near-suwalki-gap-2018-7
          https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/20/this-tiny-stretch-of-countryside-is-all-that-separates-baltic-states-from-russian-envelopment/?utm_term=.17eb08cab0be

        • cassander says:

          I mean, power projection is a basic function of modern militaries.

          It really isn’t. there are only about a half dozen or so countries in the world that have a military capable of meaningful power projection. The vast majority of countries are organized around the principle of defending their territory against their immediate neighbors and maybe contributing a very small proportion of their to an international coalition where someone else will do the logistics.

          The US is capable of projecting extreme force into most corners of the Earth- three of the richest countries in the world can’t go a few hundred miles to the East?

          That’s mostly accurate. The NATO campaign against Gaddafi is a good example. It was almost entirely dependent on US ISR assets. On the first day of combat, there were something like 112 tomahawk missiles launched, and IIRC, 106 of them were from US ships, which is not all that bad an assessment of the ratio of US ability to project strength to the british.

          is showing atrophied basic skills in the face of the superpower protecting them for decades. I say this as a guy who would like an assertive, muscular EU to protect certain core Western values (including from the US at times, such as now)

          It definitely is. And not just skills, but organization, funding, manpower, everything. The British managed to deploy a full division for the invasion of iraq, doing a lot of their own logistics. They probably couldn’t do that today, and they’re ahead of almost everyone else.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        But Britain and Germany could easily repel any plausible Russian attack on their own territory.

        I don’t doubt the first, but the second actually makes me nervous. Can Germany repel a Russian attack on their soil? I understand the Russian military has degraded in capability from 1979 days, but Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria all make me think that Russia can rather easily deploy a couple of brigades practically anywhere near its border, with enough ammunition to fight an intense hot-war for 4-6 weeks, with very little effort.

        Germany….not so much?

        Not my area of expertise, please share your thoughts!

        • Registered says:

          Intense hot war for 4-6 weeks then what?
          Germany has a buffer of US forces throughout Eastern Europe. As I see it, these US forces are playing a game of chicken, sitting astride major logistically necessary routes, staring Putin’s men down. These forces probably could not prevent an initial Russian success.
          The response to significant US casualties after an initial encounter, would result in a small (because logistics) brutal, but winnable war. One backed by the political will generated by dead American Soldiers.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            Probably, but that seems like a big qualifier to saying Germany can easily repel a Russian attack on its own soil, if you’re only saying it is possible because US (and Polish) forces act as speedbumps. I don’t disagree, just trying to tease out what the statement implies about the current state of German and Russian military readiness.

          • Registered says:

            I am saying the forces deployed are more or less the ones needed to avoid a little war in the first place. So actual military readiness plays a backseat to perceived capability/response.

            Tactical calculations are easy to make about who will win the next battle. Sometimes you know you will lose the next battle, but will win the war. So it appears to me, Germany has exactly the proper force to repel an invasion. Of course this appropriateness is a moving target so things will change based upon what everybody else does.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          One thing that makes Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria different than Germany is there are Georgians, Ukrainians, and Syrians who want the Russians there.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Are there any polls on how many Germans want the Russians there? 57% of Germans in former East Germany say East Germany “had more good sides than bad sides” or that “Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany today.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them would welcome a hypothetical Russian invasion.

          • Matt M says:

            Yeah, I also wonder whether any of these groups “want the Russians there” or whether a more accurate statement might be “slightly prefer the Russians to the West/EU/US”

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            According to Pew, 85% of Ukrainians want Donbas to stay in Ukraine, only 2% want it to go to Russia. I think you can probably find 2% of just about any country that wants more or less anything.

            For example, 34% of Americans support amnesty for illegal immigrants. I am pretty sure I have seen you object to illegal immigration on legal grounds, so if the 34% of Americans who want illegal immigrants there don’t get to override the laws or impose their view, it’s not clear why you think the 2% of Ukrainians who want Russia in their country should dictate to the rest of the country that an illegal invasion is okay.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Are the 57% of East Germans who miss the DDR nostalgic for being a Soviet satellite, or for something else? It could be that they don’t like the way they are now part of the same state as the richer West Germans, who they see as arrogant. It could be that the various quasi-mandatory-to-mandatory state-run groups created community. It could be simple nostalgia for stuff where there’s correlation but not causation, like the joke:

            It is the USSR in the late 70s. A little boy asks his grandfather what life under Stalin was like.

            The old man says “it was great!”

            The little boy is shocked, because he has been taught a rather anti-Stalin line. He asks, “why?”

            “Back then, I could get erections!”

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I’m not saying the minorities in this places should decide anything. I’m saying it’s easier to put troops in a place where there exist locals who want you there for aid and support. For example, Assad’s forces in Syria want the Russians there to aid their side in their civil war. If Russia were to simply invade Germany, in order to subjugate the Germans, they would get little material support and much sabotage.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Fair enough

          • Eric Rall says:

            I want to see age-bracket splits on the German poll. Someone who was 18 when the Berlin Wall fell would be 47 now (38 when the poll was conducted, it looks like), so an awful of those Germans in former East Germany never actually lived under the East German regime as adults.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Eric Rall, I could see either way. Perhaps people who never saw the DDR and don’t like the present regime are idealizing it in their minds. Or, perhaps older people who might not be doing well in the present economy are remembering it with rose-colored goggles. I’d be interested in seeing what’s actually the case.

          • I wonder if part of it is concern with status rather than real income. East Germans ended up becoming the lower status part of the German population rather than the higher status part of the satellite population.

    • John Schilling says:

      The end of the US as the world’s dominant military superpower within most of our lifetimes- most likely due to budget reasons, yes?

      I could swear I have heard, from many people who claim to understand economics better than I, that the United States Government faces zero budgetary constraints and can buy literally anything that exists or can be made at any price, because it can print and/or borrow as much money as it needs with no consequences. Of course, the US Government is run by Evil Meanies and so won’t buy things like decent health care for their people even though they could totally do so at any price and without consequence, but surely Evil Meanies will recognize the need for a powerful army? Right?

      OK, sarcasm off. Three percent of GDP one way or another isn’t going to break the US government or the US economy. And the US government is for a variety of reasons not going to willingly surrender its superpower status even in the threat of fiscal apocalypse. Everything else will be cut first. If you’re facing any sort of apocalypse, that’s when you especially want a strong army at your back.

      So, for the US government to stop being the world’s superpower, either A: someone richer than the United States has to make a bid for that status, or B: the fiscal apocalypse has to actually happen, or C: some other sort of apocalypse or black swan event has to happen.

      For A, China is the usual suspect, but such a bid would be out of character for the Middle Kingdom and is mostly a projection of American fears rather than Chinese policies. However, that’s not a sure thing and it does stay on the table.

      For B, I consider fiscal apocalypse to be likely but not certain, and maybe it doesn’t happen. If it does happen, then we have to ask who goes first? Breaking this down, I see four major possibilities in no particular order:

      B1. The fiscal apocalypse happens in the US first, and the US military disintegrates for lack of funding.

      B2. The fiscal apocalypse happens in Europe and/or Asia first, in which case lots of wealth flees to the relative stability of the US.

      B3. The fiscal apocalypse threatens the US first, whereupon the US decides to use its supremely powerful military to demand tribute to prop up its economy.

      B4. The fiscal apocalypse threatens the US first, whereupon Europe and/or Asia decide that a reverse Marshall Plan is better than facing an expansionist Russia/China/whatever without US help.

      For C, Reply hazy, try again later. The bit with the United States Army against the Paperclip-Maximizing Killbot Apocalypse is fun to think about, but let’s make sure it’s Lee Adama and not Zapp Brannigan in command. Either way, I want a really cool big spaceship first.

    • bean says:

      Apparently three of the wealthiest countries on Earth could barely field one battalion in between them in case of invasion.

      I think you’re reading too much into the report. It’s specifically looking at their ability to place armored forces in the Baltics. This is as much a matter of force design as it is of raw strength. If they were to get invaded, they could probably do somewhat better because the logistics problems are a lot easier. And if they wanted to put more armor into the Baltics at short notice, they could at the cost of some capabilities elsewhere that are probably less than you’d think.

      That said, China is no more immune to the laws of economics than the Soviets were before them, and I suspect that their economy is going to implode before ours does.

      • hash872 says:

        I mean, the EU is supposed to be a quasi-political unit, and all of the mentioned countries are NATO members, along with the Baltics countries who would be invaded in this scenario. A Russian invasion of the Baltics is literally the single most likely threat Europe/NATO faces right now, it’s hundreds of times more likely than whatever option 2 would be. It’s a pretty damning statement about Europe’s military & frankly political weakness.

        On the plus side, as US power declines hopefully this will motivate the EU (the world’s largest economy!) to grow a spine and enhance their capabilities, possibly allied with but outside of a NATO framework. Unifying commands so that they’re not 30+ separate militaries would be a huge step. I say this as an American who’s rooting for a strong Europe (I already support the direction they’re going on tech regulation, multinational corporate taxes, Iran, Israel etc.)

        • Michael Handy says:

          Not sure that’s true, I’d say a Turkish Brushfire war/chaos/NATO leaving is a far more likely flashpoint.

        • cassander says:

          On the plus side, as US power declines hopefully this will motivate the EU (the world’s largest economy!) to grow a spine and enhance their capabilities, possibly allied with but outside of a NATO framework. Unifying commands so that they’re not 30+ separate militaries would be a huge step. I say this as an American who’s rooting for a strong Europe (I already support the direction they’re going on tech regulation, multinational corporate taxes, Iran, Israel etc.)

          I think meaningful change in this direction is extremely unlikely. It’s an incredibly touchy subject popliticall, and the different perceptions of national interest in the EU are enormous. Can you imagine german politicians signing up for sending german troops to fight post colonial wars in francophone africa? Because I can’t, and france will never agree to a military unification that doesn’t offer them reasonable assurances that that is what is on offer. There will be perpetual noises made about european military cooperation, but they will be sound and fury signifying nothing.

        • sfoil says:

          That article says one battalion each, not altogether, and even that’s not small thing. Armored/combined arms battalions and brigades are both very expensive and generate tremendous logistical demands (volume & weight) as they move away from their support areas; these are the crown jewels of land warfare, equivalent to a capital ship at sea. One tank company costs somewhere between $50-100 million dollars, weighs about 1,000 tons, and can consume 10,000 gallons of fuel per day when attacking — about what your local gas station has in its reservoir. Anything reasonably defined as a “combined arms battalion” will be twice that, at least. Also, your armored soldiers require specific long-term training to be effective at all — you can shove a paratrooper into a truck to go fight in Lithuania or your cooks for that matter without much fuss but you can’t do that with a tank or self-propelled artillery.

          The US has one armored brigade available on short notice in Europe and could probably get two more over in a month or two. According to that article Germany, France, and England combined are about the same. Perhaps they ought to be doing more, but they’re about up to par with the US in that theater and capability right now.

        • bean says:

          You miss my point. It’s a force design issue, and that design can and does change as the situation evolves. That report explicitly says “This report, based on research conducted in 2016 and information valid at that time”, which sort of suggests that this has changed. I know the British have been increasing their capabilities on that front.

          To use a slightly different example, take the “So you want to build a modern navy” stuff I’ve been doing at Naval Gazing. If someone asked me as Secretary of the Navy there how quickly I could put an armored battalion in the Baltics, the answer would be “Never, because I don’t have any of those. But I can get you a medium infantry battalion anywhere there’s salt water basically as soon as I can get the ships there, and they’re already at sea. Oh, and they have a carrier group in support.” So if all you’re asking is deployment time of armor to the Baltics, I fail completely because I spent my money on other things.

          The British and French militaries aren’t run by idiots, and they will react to increasing threats from Russia. Germany, maybe not. So beware of how fresh your information is.

        • Tenacious D says:

          On the plus side, as US power declines hopefully this will motivate the EU (the world’s largest economy!) to grow a spine and enhance their capabilities, possibly allied with but outside of a NATO framework.

          Macron seems to agree: link

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        You’re right about the difference between power projection and sustainment at distance vs. fighting a defensive war closer to home, but I don’t think he’s reading too much into the report. If anything, the report doesn’t fully cover the weaknesses of the EU militaries if faced with a no-shit force-on-force war (as opposed to the occasional peacekeeping deployment in penny packets).

        For one thing, most EU nations have miniscule (and in some cases no) reserve munitions stockpiles for their militaries, to include not just bombs and missiles but naval gun rounds, tank rounds, artillery rounds, and so on. The UK hasn’t had the capability to produce Challenger main gun rounds for over a decade, and what (very) few modern rounds it does have are produced by a single small factory in Belgium. Can you say single point of failure boys and girls? That sort of story is repeated again and again.

        For another, because the assumption has been for a very long time that these nations will never actually need to mobilize their entire military for defense of their homeland, they haven’t worried about operational readiness levels. A good mini-portrait of Germany’s current state from a recent Financial Times article:

        Not one of Germany’s six 212A-type submarines, for example, is able to leave port. Of the Bundeswehr’s 244 combat tanks, only 105 are operational (during the cold war, Germany had more than 4,500 combat tanks). The Luftwaffe’s fleet of A400M transport aircraft is so unreliable that soldiers are sometimes forced to wait days for a ride home. The navy’s new frigates are another weak spot. Even battlefield food packs are running low.

        …….

        “This touches on very practical things that have nothing to do with big shiny weapons systems. Our railway operator, for example, is no longer able to load and transport tanks. We no longer know which of our bridges is strong enough to support tanks.”

        • Aapje says:

          Indeed. There has been a lot of cutting corners on munitions and reserve components (and repairs), to preserve unit size at the cost of not actually being able to use those units.

        • bean says:

          I’m aware of the issues with European military readiness, and I’m certainly not claiming they don’t exist. I’m pointing out that the numbers produced by that study, taken in isolation, are at least somewhat misleading because they’re looking only at one specific task, and if that’s not a task the military in question is prepared for, it’s not going to do well.

          That said, I really hope this spurs Europe to invest in its military once again. It’s sad to see once-mighty powers fall so far.

          • albatross11 says:

            It’s striking to me how much this reflects our earlier discussion here about an anarchocapitalist military–the idea that rich people would sponsor some big flashy stuff, but nobody would sponsor the boring-but-critical logistics and training and maintenance that make the big flashy stuff work. In this case, I suppose it’s politicians instead of rich people doing the sponsoring, but with the same incentives and the same results.

          • baconbits9 says:

            That said, I really hope this spurs Europe to invest in its military once again. It’s sad to see once-mighty powers fall so far

            By fall so far do you mean enjoy decades of relative peace and prosperity?

          • bean says:

            @albatross11

            That’s a really interesting insight. Thank you.

            @baconbits9

            I’m speaking relative to the Cold War, not the bits where Europe tore itself apart every few decades.

          • DeWitt says:

            Apart is very generous of a word. Into one another terribly seems much more appropriate.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ bean

            The Cold war had Russia in charge of large chunks of Europe under pretty terrible conditions, the French retreating from their colonies, Germany split into 2, and Britain getting the hell out of India. Outside of the Falklands what is there to be proud of militarily during that time period?

          • bean says:

            The bit where they deterred the Soviets from invading for 50 years springs to mind.

      • People have been saying that China is going to crash since before the last recession. Their economy is closer to the US than the Soviet Union. How long is going to take for this crash to happen?

        • bean says:

          No clue. I’m pointing out that China hasn’t solved the problems of their economy, any more than we have. And given what I’ve heard about potential structural issues there, my money is on us surviving. But not particularly strongly, as this is outside my field of expertise.

          • China is a market economy. The comparison to the Soviet Union just doesn’t make any sense. When people go on about the “structural problems” holding China back, it’s mostly just wishful thinking. The better comparison is to all the East Asian countries that are now developed.

    • cassander says:

      The end of the US as the world’s dominant military superpower within most of our lifetimes- most likely due to budget reasons, yes? Does anyone think otherwise?

      Depending on your definition of “dominant” then I do agree. our lifetimes is probably a decent good minimum for the chinese military achieve anything comparable to the global reach that the US has.

      The Democrat’s opposition to military over social spending is well-known- the Trump phenomena has shown the populist right sentiment among the average working person is basically the same. Political will to cut spending for the elderly is basically nonexistent. Most importantly, unrestrained deficit spending will likely spike bond financing rates soon- making servicing the debt much more expensive.

      “Soon” is doing a lot of work in this paragraph. there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. We have no real idea what sort of debt load the US can carry before it starts having problems. Other countries tend to run into trouble around 100% of GDP, but they aren’t the world’s reserve currency. that status gives the US a lot more room to run, and while I wouldn’t want to put out a number, “further than you think” is probably a pretty good answer in the absence of a competing currency, and it’s unlikely than any currency can come to compete in less than the timeframe above.

      Am I missing something? Why wouldn’t this state of affairs come about, given US budget issues & the lack of political will to cut benefits- especially for the elderly, the main driver of entitlements?

      Not so much missing things as (A) understating the power of inertia and interest group pressure in keeping up US force projection, (B) overstating the difficulty of other countries (all of whom have similar issues with aging populations) assembling a similar level of power, and (C) understating the carrying capacity of the US government. US advantages will almost certainly diminish, but absent a very large catastrophe I don’t think they’ll be topped in the next few decades.

    • Simulated Knave says:

      Because you can slash the US military budget to a truly huge degree and still be the world’s largest military. If the US halved their military budget, they’d still be first and be spending about 30% more than China.

      Additionally, a lot (though certainly not all) of those overseas bases will NOT want the US troops leaving and China becoming locally dominant. And everyone other than the Chinese spends less than 50% what the Chinese do.

      If the US military is smart, it will move away from big fancy (but extremely explodable) toys and lots of personnel toward a leaner but still high-tech and effective military. That said, I think pretty much every service would object to the things that would be effective but cheap actually being done. And, of course, there’s lots and lots of patronage to be concerned about. Given the US military’s historical tendency to prevail in spite of itself, I’d be worried.

    • Education Hero says:

      a homegrown nativist movement intent on preventing bringing in talented foreigners to make up for the low birth rate

      Is the movement primarily intent on preventing the immigration of talented foreigners, or of foreigners that not only lack talent, but also represent a net cost?

    • Protagoras says:

      The article you link to discusses the ability to deploy fully armored units to the baltics, not any units at all for homeland defense, and seems to think that combined them they could field a brigade (one battalion each) in reasonably short order, eventually reinforcing to a division (one brigade each) after a couple of months (though France would apparently likely have trouble keeping their brigade going for the long term). Not terribly impressive, but not “one battalion between them.”

    • baconbits9 says:

      Military defense (that is literal defense of the nation) is pretty cheap when you have good relationships with your immediate neighbors and don’t have colonies to support/defend. Who exactly should France fear in terms of invasion? If Germany, England, Spain and Italy aren’t going to invade then the only way they are fighting a battle on their home turf is if someone invades through one of those countries or if those countries act in openly hostile ways to France (ie letting armies march through their territory or completely ignoring Russia invading through a series of smaller European states to get at France). Without distant territories to defend the need for projection is low, the chances of invasion are low and nukes make up the “we are a world power” status as well as making sure you aren’t totally vulnerable.

      Additionally not having fought a major conflict in 40+ years has some serious benefits. The VA budget at 80+ billion is larger than Russia’s entire defense budget by some lists. This is an area where spending begets spending, equipment requires maintenance, personnel require feeding, housing and training, and distant military bases carry all kinds of costs.

    • proyas says:

      The end of the US as the world’s dominant military superpower within most of our lifetimes- most likely due to budget reasons, yes? Does anyone think otherwise?

      I think by the second half of this century, China could have a stronger military than the U.S., but that will only mean that there will be two dominant superpowers instead of just one.

  12. RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

    Scott recently put up another post on the subject of “effective altruism.” My knowledge of this project is limited, but I have a reservation about it based on my highly limited knowledge. I’d be interested to hear any reactions. (I’m confident, incidentally, that none of this is novel, except to the extent that it’s really dumb, so I’m not in any way claiming that all these smart EA people have missed an obvious point. I’m just not steeped in the discussion and curious how this is addressed.)

    The reservation is that, if the bottom-line goal of the movement is to maximize the efficacy of charitable donations, there would seem to be much more room to improve by (a) increasing and maximizing the total sum of eleemosynary dollars given rather than (b) working to funnel existing donations to marginally more effective recipients. Yet my casual impression is that the overriding focus of the movement seems to be to work hard on (b), while (a) is relegated to a secondary consideration (or perhaps sometimes ignored altogether).

    The amount of charitable giving is obviously not a fixed, zero-sum amount. And figuring out how to increase the actual amount of such giving seems to have a much higher up-side than shuffling existing donations around among beneficiaries. So why shouldn’t the focus here be on working much more on altering societal conditions in a manner that facilitates voluntary charitable giving? There are some obvious variables to work with. The biggest one is simple economic growth. I haven’t done any historical research but it would not surprise me if the quantum of charitable giving has been highly correlated with individual wealth in the society. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this applied on an individual level, i.e., that, other things being equal, wealthier individuals within a society are ceteris paribus likely to give more dollars than poorer people. If true, wouldn’t this suggest that EA should focus much more heavily on advocating policies that facilitate economic growth rather than devoting it’s limited resources to evaluating which charity offers a marginally bigger bang for your buck? There is obviously a lot of room for controversy over which economic policies are best suited to maximizing economic growth, but there’s probably little reasonable question that there was a significant relationship between the unprecedented explosion of wealth that coincided with a period of greater free markets and free trade and emphasis on individual liberty and individual responsibility (i.e., less government role in seeing to the needs of individuals). Should EA be working along these lines, to advocate market policies that aim to maximize growth, if the end goal here is to maximize the effect of charitable giving, and the welfare of the needy?

    On the other side of the coin, I would expect that there are some cultures that produce more charitable donation even holding wealth constant. Why not focus hard on instilling cultural mores that are better conducive to charitable giving? I have heard, for example, that Christian societies tend to be unusually charitable. If so, then that would seem to supply a powerful argument for scaling up cultural support for Christianity and reducing a cultural attitude stigmatizing that worldview as dogmatic and ignorant.

    Also, human psychology being what it is, it would not surprise me if the quantum of charitable giving increased where it was focused on “local” recipients, with locality being defined by some combination of geographic proximity and sameness of community. I have the impression, for example, that there was a lot more per capita charitable giving in the United States per dollar of wealth during a period when local communities routinely took care of the needs of those within their own groups. The local Jewish community, for example, might view itself as having primary responsibility for helping needy Jews within the local community, and similarly for other social groups. My unstudied impression is that the per capita amount of charitable giving was much higher per dollar of total wealth back when these informal institutions prevailed. Should EA become more focused on restoring this sort of “federalist” approach to charity, delegating primary roles to geographically or conceptually “local” communities in the first instance as a means to increase charitable giving?

    The foregoing particular examples are obviously tentative and subject to disagreement, but I guess the basic point is just to ask whether too heavy a focus on what I would view as a casual outsider as the primary focus of EA, the allocation of moneys among charitable recipients, really ought to be made secondary, with a substantially greater focus on increasing the amount of charity.

    One answer to that could be that it’s just a different project from EA, and asking EA to do that wouldn’t be to improve EA but rather to abandon it. But if the real goal here is to improve the effectiveness of charity and maximize the welfare of charity recipients, then couldn’t such an answer be subject to a meta “EEA” argument, to the effect that EA’s own premises demand that its work should be devoted to those projects that would produce the maximal amount of utility for charity recipients? If so, then it might be hard to justify continued work on an EA project if there was an alternative enterprise with a better expected payoff.

    • gbear605 says:

      A large focus in Effective Altruism is “Earning to give.” It is strongly encouraged by 80,000 Hours, an EA charity, so EA is thinking about the general topic of increasing giving quantities, although not to the extreme that you’re advocating.

      Regarding local charity: I don’t think anyone doubts that people are in general willing to give more to local communities. However, donations to poorer regions are assumed – and calculated – to be worth more than the value lost by giving locally. For example, perhaps people are willing to donate twice as much to local charities, but that same money goes ten times as far in Africa than it does in the local communities. Then it would make sense to encourage donations to African charities. I don’t have sources on hand for the actual numbers, but I have seen estimates before and they work out this way. I could definitely be persuaded this weren’t the case though.

      • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

        That’s a fair point about locality, except it would seem you would want to supplement that analysis with an argument why the differential could not better be redressed by encouraging greater local charitable giving by the non-poor within those African communities rather than abandoning the locality principle altogether. But like you, I could definitely be persuaded by a contrary view on this empirical question.

        • gbear605 says:

          Frankly, I’m doubtful that there are significant numbers of people in those African communities who are both wealthy enough to provide donations and plausibly persuaded to donate.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            Things are getting better in Africa and will probably continue to do so.

            There are middle class and wealthy people.

            Working on promoting EA ideas in Africa strikes me as at least reasonable, but it isn’t EA because it’s new and can’t yet be evaluated for effectiveness.

      • cassander says:

        I’ve often said that the hard part of getting institutions to innovate isn’t getting them to try new things, they try new things every day. the trouble is getting them to stop doing old things that don’t work anymore. United could set up Shuttle, GM could set up Saturn, but having an innovative subsidy doesn’t do them a whole lot of good if they can’t use its success to reform the other 90% of their business .

    • Aevylmar says:

      Scott wrote a post addressing a sort-of-adjacent topic, here:

      http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/09/22/beware-systemic-change/

      It isn’t directly about your question, but I think the answer he gives there is the same one I would give to your posts: there are already a lot of groups trying very hard to persuade people of all possible political goals; all generally-accepted methods of improving economic growth (other than, as gbear says, ‘earning to give’) are currently political. Similarly with regards to changing culture; we’re in the middle of a culture war right now. On the other hand, trying seriously to find out which charity is the most effective is something that there’s very limited resources being spent on, outside EA; they therefore have a competitive advantage at it.

      Moreover, they can get support from both sides of political/cultural issues, since ‘cure malaria’ is comparatively under-politicized. If they started saying ‘the best way to improve the welfare of the poor is to encourage immigration’, then even if that was true, nobody who was strongly opposed to it would give them money.

      So, in other words, I think the answer boils down to ‘they’re focusing on their competitive advantages.’

      Hope this helps!

      • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

        It is helpful. I actually think these are kind of hard issues. As a matter of principle I’m ordinarily sympathetic to arguments from comparative advantage. But there seems to be some degree of tension between that angle of response and the (I think) standard EA line that there is a simple hierarchy of benefit among charitable recipients. The argument that hey, we’re all doing important work here and we’re just focusing on a particular piece of the puzzle seems in tension with the idea that donations to charity shouldn’t just go to a wide variety of beneficiaries, each advancing its own parochial comparative advantage. If EA proponents were really somehow uniquely well suited to advance the allocation question relative to anyone else then maybe there would be a stronger argument. But if what’s going on is really just that this is under-evaluated then I worry that the answer may be that we should leave it under-evaluated while we devote our energies to the aspects of the problem with a larger expected payoff for the time invested. Again — I do think these questions are difficult and it’s entirely possible I’m coming at this all wrong.

        • brmic says:

          The solution to the problem of ‘get more money’ is usually ‘get people to donate more’ and a wide range of charities (and other organizations) have spent decades refining their approach to doing so. The chance that some latecomers can add anything substantial here is remote.
          Conversely, the question which charities are effective has received far less attention, so there is (was) room for a dedicated group of people to bring about change.
          And EA proponents are uniquely suited to address the allocation question because they care deeply about getting it right, are fairly neutral and had most of the toolset already developed. Imagine, if you will, a country government setting out to do such an evaluation, getting the heads of national charities togehter in a sort of comittee …

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      My impression (possibly wrong) from reading your post is that you’re underestimating the differential in effectiveness that’s out there. If cost-benefit analyses revealed that Charity A is 5% more effective at getting utils per dollar than Charity B, this is very much a reasonable criticism, but the actual numbers are more like 50,000%; a middle-class effective altruist who takes the Giving What We Can pledge could easily have more impact than a multi-millionaire who gives their entire fortune away to something with a poor altruistic return on investment.

      Re: local charity norms, I think this is a reasonable point, and if one were structuring a set of social norms from the ground up it might well make sense to have community members work to support their neighbors, relying on a better knowledge base of which interventions are most needed in the area. But effective altruists are currently a vanishingly small minority of almost any geographic population, so the rationale for actions taken is much less of a deontological “do that which is best universalized” and more “which actions create the most marginal good in the world, conditional on its current state?” And relative to that perspective, $100 to improve the local library’s selection of Russian literature is pretty dismal compared to keeping an entire school’s worth of children in subsaharan Africa free of schistosomiasis for the next year.

      • RC-cola-and-a-moon-pie says:

        Your impression is correct. Those are bigger differentials than I would have guessed. Interesting.

    • rlms says:

      EA does focus on increasing levels of donations: the Giving What We Can pledge is the big thing here but I believe there are also some other organisations like the Founders’ pledge. Increasing economic growth could also have this effect, but I think it has several problems from an EA perspective. Firstly, it’s much less tractable than increasing donations in several ways: it’s more difficult to know what would increase growth; it’s difficult to predict side effects of policies; even if we did know optimal policies it would be difficult to implement them; and there is already a lot of effort being put into this project (I assume) so EA would likely have a minimal additional impact. Secondly, I think it would be difficult to achieve increases in growth large enough to match potential increases in giving. An individual committing to the GWWC pledge could increase their charitable donations by two orders of magnitude, so even popularising the pledge in a small proportion of society would have a large effect. I don’t think increases in growth of a similar size are plausible; developed countries are all fairly tightly clustered.

      As has been said, you are probably underestimating the differences in effectiveness between charities. One of the standard examples is the charity Scared Straight, which took kids into prisons in an attempt to prevent them becoming criminals. A study showed that it actually made them more likely to commit crimes; donating to them would be worse than just burning money! In comparison, donations to e.g. anti-malaria charities in Africa can be orders of magnitude more effective than spending on healthcare in developed ones.

      EA definitely is focused on instilling cultural mores conducive to greater giving! But focusing on specific existing mores that have baggage (for instance performing da’wah because zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam) seems like it would alienate people.

  13. CatCube says:

    Structural Engineering

    After some discussion about an energy storage device that @Nancy Lebovitz posted back in 108.5, I did a quick series of analyses on how it would behave under certain loads. After I posted those, some people expressed interest in an effortpost series on structural engineering.

    The intent of this series is to give a qualitative overview of how the structures in our built environment function, and what considerations go into their design. I may give some equations from time to time, but for the most part I will avoid them whenever possible, since I want to keep this accessible to people who are not mathematically inclined.

    For example, I’m not going to try to teach how to calculate forces from, say, wind, but I do want people to understand that doubling wind speed will impose about four times the force on a building, and to be able to visualize how that force is carried by the building. One critical piece of feedback that I ask for as we go is how I’m doing on that front.

    For some background on me, I am a structural engineer in government service and work in major civil works–dams, navigation locks, some flood control, and bridges necessary to service these. My organization is no longer doing new start megaprojects in these areas, but there is plenty of work in inspecting and maintaining the existing infrastructure, as well as major incremental improvements, primarily for environmental purposes. I am still very junior, with about four years of true design experience.

    Nothing that I say is official policy from my organization, and I am doing this on my own time. I will avoid commenting on current work or whether particular things the government is doing are “good” ideas–I want to avoid political or culture-war-type controversy directly related to my job, more or less. The biggest reason is that I have a responsibility as a member of the civil service to not undercut my superiors, both permanent employees and political leaders, nor to bring scandal. Also, though I’m publishing pseudonymously, unmasking me would be trivial.

    I bring this up, however, because my intent is to give an understanding of structural engineering as a field, with as wide a view of the field as I can. However, the nature of my day-to-day work does mean that my experience is sort of oddball compared to what the “average” structural engineer does, primarily because of the economics of the projects I work on (I’ll explain what I mean by this in the overview of structural engineering). I also want people to know what lens I view the world through, so they can correct for biases that I may have. One rule of bureaucracy is “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” and I would be remiss to not let people know where I sit.

    I plan on covering several topics. I’m going to start with a quick overview of “What is structural engineering?” I’m then going to cover basic statics and mechanics. These topics will probably not be interesting to engineers, but most of the rest of the series will be incomprehensible to non-engineers if I don’t cover them. I plan to then discuss building codes in general, including some topics outside of structural engineering. I’m still thinking through the order of the next topics, but they will be material-specific design (steel, concrete, maybe a little timber), and extreme load events (wind and seismic).

    I don’t have a specific timeline for posting, but I want to try to stay on a once-a-week timeline to avoid losing interest and drifting off. I will generally post once I have the next topic complete, however. Today, I’ll post one more threaded under this one, since it’s already done.

    • CatCube says:

      What is Structural Engineering?

      There are a couple of ways to define structural engineering. One way that I like to tell people when they ask is “Structural engineers design things that are big, stand up from the ground, and don’t move.” For getting people to visualize the job, this doesn’t do a bad job. Bridges, the structural elements of buildings, dams (concrete dams, specifically), towers, oil derricks, etc.

      More formally, the International Building Code, used throughout the US, requires that the structural engineer provide “a complete load path capable of transferring loads from their point of origin to the load-resisting elements.”

      There are a few things to unpack here. The first is “loads”. These are any forces that may be imposed on a structure. This is everything from the permanent weight of the structure (dead loads), you and the chair you’re sitting in resting on the floor (examples of live load), wind, snow, earthquakes, etc.

      The other thing is “load path.” This is a continuous and identifiable collection of structural members that transfer the loads from where they are placed on the structure down to the foundation, and ultimately into the ground where they become the geotechnical engineer’s problem. These structural members must ultimately be positioned and proportioned so that they do not fail.

      Note that I said the load path must be continuous and identifiable. For example, you and your chair are (probably) sitting on a floor. Your weight is placed on the floor diaphragm. That weight is transferred to one or more floor beams, the beams land on girders, the girders transfer the weight to columns, the columns down to footings, and the footings to the ground. The continuous part is pretty obvious, but the identifiable requirement can be a little more subtle. A structural engineer should be able to figure out which members will receive a particular load and how much of it.

      This is rarely a problem in today’s buildings, both because of the formal requirements for a definite load path and because of the economics of the design process. However, older buildings may not meet this requirement. Structures that have been designed via traditional methods (by this I mean built using tradition, rather designed with mathematical analysis) may not have an obvious load path, especially for lateral loads. Obviously something is carrying the load, since the building hasn’t blown over yet, and we can sometimes you can make a pretty good guess as to which members are being loaded up, but there may not be enough information about the structure or its construction to determine in what proportion they’re carrying the load. This can make analysis difficult, since if you don’t know how much load an element is carrying it’s tough to say if it’s capable of carrying it.

      I’ve mentioned the economics of structural engineering a few times so far. The biggest overriding economic concern is one that is shared by all civil engineers: You Get One (1) Bite At The Apple. You do not get to test your product in service and iterate on the design. While you do iterate during the design process, individual elements and products are certainly tested, and for very large projects you can conduct scale-model wind tunnel tests, the whole completed structural assembly will never be tested together (except by the people using it). Nobody has ever built a complete full-size Applebee’s and put it on a shake table.

      Compare this to airplanes, where you can put it in a frame and crank on it until the wings break off, and you have a testing program using the first couple completed, or to cars where crash testing is performed. And once those are done you’re constructing many nearly-identical copies.

      This means that designs need to be more conservative. It also is often more economical in total to build more conservatively, because you don’t get to amortize the design cost over a large number of products. If an engineer working for GM making $250,000 a year spends a whole year to shave $.50 off of the build cost of a car that has 1,000,000 produced per year, he’s saved GM twice his salary. If I find a way to save $.50 on one of my designs, I’ve saved the taxpayer…$.50. Hopefully I didn’t take more than twenty seconds on it, or it was a net loss. This is also why I said above that economics drives you to have easily-identifiable load paths when doing a design, because that makes the design much more tractable to analyze and requires less of the engineer’s time.

      Another consideration is that labor costs have grown dramatically, so more complex designs that require more labor to build are often less economical than designs that are simpler and just use more material. It has also turned out that more complicated designs can be more prone to failure. For example, it used to be common to save steel in bridges by using the lightest steel section (call them “I-beams” until I can explain proper terms later) for a particular member, then welding reinforcing plates (cover plates) on it to strengthen it where required. Nowadays, we would just use a bigger steel section for the whole member, not only because the cost of the welder’s labor will completely blow the steel savings out of the water, but also because it turns out that cover plates are extremely prone to fatigue and severely limit the service life of the bridge.

      To wrap up, I’ll list the general design process. I’ll cover individual parts in more detail in further posts, and it’s worth noting that there is some iteration between various parts.

      For a design, the structural engineer has to:
      1) Decide what materials and structural system will be used
      2) Decide what loads will be placed on a structure and what load cases will be used.
      3) Construct a mathematical model appropriate to the materials and loads (This can be as simple as hand calculations, or an extensive finite element model.)
      4) Use the model to determine loads at all points.
      5) Proportion members.
      6) Detail reinforcing steel or steel connections, as appropriate
      7) Finalize construction documents.

      Next time: statics!

      • A poem you might enjoy–it uses your field as its metaphor.

      • arlie says:

        Thank you. I look forward to following this series.

      • Nicholas Weininger says:

        A question this fascinating post inspires, which might be out of scope but would be interesting to address if in scope:

        Why *aren’t* more building designs standardized like vehicle designs, so that the kind of design efforts you describe can be amortized/multiplied over many instance of a building?

        Is it site specificity (lot size/shape, climate, geotechnical variation)? Customer preference for distinctness? Both? Something else?

        And: are there illuminating classes of exceptions historically or presently? Prefab housing? Soviet-era standard apartment block designs?

        • CatCube says:

          Mostly site specificity and owner needs. There are significant prefabricated buildings available, and they do get used extensively. I don’t know the statistics, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that most buildings constructed (by raw number) are prefabricated to a single design in exactly the way you mean. These do tend to fall into two groups, though: 1) small shed-type structures like you purchase in a box at Home Depot, or 2) more extensible prefabricated designs. This second group would include things like what you can get from the Metal Building Manufacturer’s Association, or prefabricated precast concrete buildings. This would also include something like a Quonset hut, which once you pick a width, can be of any length you desire. However, even with a prefab building you may still have a fair bit of individualized effort.

          I’m going to get into this in more detail in my posts on building codes and extreme loads, but one other thing that we have to contend with in structural engineering is that we don’t know for sure what we’re designing for. In many fields, the operator will be extensively trained and will have a detailed manual that tells them the maximum conditions under which the product can be operated. For a crane, there are maximum wind speeds and maximum loads that are tabulated, and if they are exceeded, the operator will simply pack up and not do that thing. Or for a plane, there are maximum airspeed and G-limits that the pilot is trained to not exceed. A building just has to take whatever God deigns to throw at it. We do have some statistical analysis tools that we can use to try to divine His wrath, but at the end of the day they do have some uncertainty.

          To use an example from my job recently, we elected to use a prefabricated metal building to cover some equipment. We specified the dimensions, and the contractor selected a manufacturer. However, the dimensions of the building were an odd size, because it had to fit between a parking lot and two existing structures–I’d have to look at the drawings to be sure, but it was something like 29’×31′ C/L to C/L of the columns. It was also a pavilion-type structure, in that it didn’t require sidewalls, because we only needed to keep the rain off. Except that we needed at least two sidewalls because one of the structures it needed to fit between was a channel with water in it, and it developed waves that occasionally surged over the wall and into the space where this building was sitting. So they had to design for the regular wind in the area (to a level of uncertainty), the earthquake (ditto), and this stupid wave crashing into the top level of the structure.

          And that wave is pretty uncertain. I found out about it because halfway through the design one of the people who work on site told me that occasionally a wave breaks over the wall and splashes into the area where we needed these valves, and that it had bucked a prefabricated structure already there (acting as a garage). After discussions with the hydraulic engineer, we did our best guess as to the force from this wave, and put it in the building specifications.

          The building manufacturer gave us the calculations for a building design meeting these requirements, and delivered the building to the site. However, that was just a building shell. We still needed to provide platforms to reach all of the equipment inside. That was also put on the contractor, but they had to engage the services of a structural engineer to design a bespoke platform system to reach all of the equipment inside the building. The locations and heights (some as high as 10′) was all driven by the process this structure was designed for, and could not be changed. By the time structural engineers were involved, it was basically “Figure out how to reach this stuff.” The platform structural engineering firm retained by the contractor had to figure this out (though that was painful enough that I’m rethinking farming that out to a private A/E firm in my next project, and may keep it in my shop).

          This is somewhat outside the norm, but not to the extent that it can be disregarded when thinking about buildings in general. Prefab structures can be great for one-story buildings that are merely keeping the rain out. But when you start getting to two-story structures, especially ones that have specific floor plan requirements, it can still require individual attention from both the building designer and the person designing the guts of the building.

          I wish I could answer some of your other questions, but I haven’t done much other than specify prefab buildings here in the US. I can’t intelligently speak to requirements or construction standards in other countries, or even prefab standards within the US in other than “customer” terms.

        • The Nybbler says:

          A lot of building designs _are_ standardized like that. Tract housing, for instance; there’s reasons those little boxes are all just the same (or variants on a handful of designs), and most of those reasons come down to money. But the fact that they’re standardized means not many structural engineers are needed deal with them. I assume there’s an engineer (not sure which kind) to sign off on the buildings being suitable for the site, but everything from the roof to the foundation is already taken care of.

          • CatCube says:

            Depending on the jurisdiction, one- and two-family homes of less than three stories can be constructed under a different code (often called something like the Residential Code) that permits prescriptive construction. That is, you don’t need a structural engineer, you just have to follow rules about e.g., joist and stud spacing and sizes, wall sheathing thickness and spacing of nails, etc. A carpenter can do this without engaging an engineer. There are limits on heights and stud spacing beyond which design by a registered professional in accordance with the regular building code would be required.

            I know a lot less about the requirements here, since the whole point is that for relatively low-risk structures with a long history of particular construction methods you don’t need to engage somebody like me.

            Tract houses will usually be constructed under something like this.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Do such tract homes include, say, townhomes with two floors plus a basement, where the basement is at ground level on one side? I see a lot of those around. I’m guessing no structural engineer is required for those. Indeed, in some ways, they seem like the best of both worlds, in terms of support, insulation, and living space.

          • CatCube says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            The administration chapter of the International Residence Code is here: https://codes.iccsafe.org/public/document/IRC2015/chapter-1-scope-and-administration, and the exact language says that it applies to one- and two-family detached houses or townhouses with “not more than three stories above grade plane”. Having a basement with a door at ground level is going to be oddball considering that it is a little odd in what counts as “grade plane”. However, the defninition of “story above grade plane” includes any story “…in which the finished surface of the floor next above is… 2. More than 12 feet above the finished ground level at any point.” That seems to indicate that if at your basement door, the first floor is more than 12 feet at that point the basement could be considered a “story above grade”! However, this one may be subject to a judgement call from the Authority Having Jurisdiction, so you’d want to consult your local building official for a determination.

            However, you’re discussing a building with a basement and two stories, so even if the basement is a story above grade, you’re still only talking about a townhouse with three stories above grade so the IRC would seem to apply.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            …you’re still only talking about a townhouse with three stories above grade so the IRC would seem to apply.

            Er, you said “less than three stories” above, so I inferred that three stories => SE needed. Was that incorrect?

            In the houses I see, it might be that the “first” floor is 11.5 feet above the ground level where the basement lets out.

            At any rate, I assume the builders and bureaucrats both know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of housing like this, and I don’t see any lawsuits flying around. And the houses aren’t falling down during storms, either, so the occupants are likely satisfied, too.

          • CatCube says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            You’re right, “less than three stories” was a typo on my part. I crossed it up with “three stories or less” and didn’t notice.

            And yes, having a “first” floor low enough to permit classifying the bottommost floor as a “basement” rather than a “story above grade” will become a design constraint to allow the use of the IRC’s prescriptive design.

            Here’s a document explaining this from the International Code Council, which writes the code, explaining that it’s pretty much what you’re thinking: http://media.iccsafe.org/news/eNews/2013v10n18/2012_ibc_handbook_p42-44.pdf

      • WashedOut says:

        Civil/Geotechnical Engineer here. Enjoyed this post and looking forward to the chapter on earthquake actions!

        Side question: do ‘simply supported’ beams actually exist outside of modelling software?

        • CatCube says:

          The short answer is “yes”, and there are a lot of them. I had a longer answer that I typed out this morning, and hit “Post” on right before heading out the door to work, but it apparently got eaten.

          The vast majority of bridges are simple spans, and the bearings at the ends will often look like rollers. Also, most horizontal members in a steel frame are treated as simple spans, as well. The ones where you have a single tab or a pair of angles connected to the web only are treated as pinned connections in analysis. Obviously, they provide some rotational restraint, but if you were to measure the slope of the beam at the support, it’s going to be much closer to that described by the equations for simply-supported spans than fixed-fixed spans.

      • Matt says:

        Is step 1 generally a trade study, or a lookup?

        • CatCube says:

          This is one area where I’m actually limited by my experience, because in my line of work there’s stuff that’s always steel, and stuff that’s always concrete, because of weight, dimensional, and service requirements. For example, an intake tower will always be concrete, because there are very few weight restrictions and building it out of steel is not safe, due to corrosion concerns. Meanwhile, the spillway gate on a dam would be extremely difficult to even design in concrete, and will blow the pick weight concerns out of the water. So this is pretty much a “by inspection” determination.

          For a building, that decision may have been made by the architect or owner before retaining the structural engineering firm. You can do a basic analysis of how much both steel and concrete office buildings cost per square foot with lookups; the industry standard for this kind of cost estimating is RS Means, which publishes books of costs per unit and factors to correct for different areas of the US.

          I actually don’t know how detailed the analysis is, or if it’s “In this firm, we like concrete construction,” or “Yeah, we determined a couple years ago that steel was the best for this type of construction and we pretty much just do that.”

        • Beck says:

          Concerning buildings:
          The owner will generally have been working with the architect well before the structural engineer is involved. Experienced architects usually have a pretty good idea of what systems work best for different building types (e.g. the classroom portion of a school works really well as cmu walls with steel joists or trusses, the gym will work well as a prefabricated metal building). If there’s some doubt, they’ll often reach out informally with questions to engineers they’ve worked with before. The amount of open space and windows/doors the owner wants can be a big driver in determining a building type.

          At a little later stage, the engineer will do some preliminary analysis and write a short, maybe one to five page, design narrative for the owner and architect to approve describing the proposed structure. It’ll contain a summary of the geotechnical report, a description of foundations and slabs, and a description of support systems and floors (steel frames, concrete wall, etc.). The actual design and drafting begins after the narrative is approved.

          That’s if everything goes perfectly. Sometimes we’ll have to work up a couple of options to some point (maybe 20-35%), let the general contractor price them, and then present everything to the owner for a decision. Luckily that isn’t super common.

          EDIT: The above is based on limited personal experience. Different firms in different regions may have slightly different workflows.

          • CatCube says:

            Thanks! And I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the limitations due to personal experience, so long as you declare them. After all, this is one of those basic questions I didn’t know a whole lot about because its an area I don’t do much with. We’re all just feeling different parts of the elephant.

    • Aevylmar says:

      I want to say that I love these two posts and will be following the series. I want to know more about this topic and this looks like a good presentation. Thumbs up.

    • bean says:

      Thanks for doing this. The second post in particular had some interesting insights in what separates the construction of targets structures from the stuff I’m more familiar with.

      • CatCube says:

        It’s very easy to forget the differing economics for civil works compared to other fields. This is one reason that Elon Musk putting his name on the Hyperloop has soured me on his genius across fields–soured isn’t quite the right word, because the Hyperloop proposal is when I heard of him, but I think it captures it. Aside from the sand-poundingly stupid idea that a bridge would be cheaper than at-grade construction, the proposal seems to think that it’s proposing to build about 25,000 bridges 100 feet long, instead of what it is actually proposing, which is one bridge 350 miles long.

        Now, I’m being a little hyperbolic because the real situation is somewhat between those two extremes. You’re going to have to give individual attention to each pier, because each one is going to have individualized footing and top of concrete elevations. You can’t use literally identical spans because you’ll have to dodge around existing infrastructure and poor ground conditions. However, you can get economies of scale by having similar pier concrete outlines and reinforcement details for similar-sized piers, as well as making use of precast post-tensioned sections. (I mean, even in regular buildings we generally pick standardized sections if at all possible.) It’ll probably be closer to my way of thinking than his, though.

        …construction of targets

        Just remember that your stuff either flees the area or cowers inside of my stuff during a major hurricane.

        • bean says:

          Hey. We survived the typhoon without any help from your stuff.

          • CatCube says:

            According to your link, Typhoon Cobra had a max windspeed of 100 mph. Nowhere in the US are we allowed to design buildings for that low of a windspeed, including the West Coast that doesn’t get hurricanes.

          • bean says:

            I don’t think it was the wind which flipped those destroyers, and I’ve heard many stories of anemometers ripped off ships while showing well over 100 mph. But yes, I do acknowledge the importance of civil engineers to sustaining moving things.

    • stucchio says:

      Let me suggest first of all that this is great, but it would be much better if you blog it yourself (and perhaps crosspost here). Makes it more googleable and improves discovery. I’d also happily subscribe to your RSS feed, whereas unfortunately I’m likely to miss many comments that you post here.

      Medium and Tumblr are easy, though I hesitate to recommend hiding things in their walled garden.

      • CatCube says:

        I did consider that, but I’ve got two issues: 1) I’m doing this because it seems to be interesting to people here, and I’m less concerned with a general audience and 2) I don’t think that I’ll continue this beyond the relatively straitened limits I’ve discussed covering. If I get 15 blog-level posts I’ll be surprised.

        One severe limit that we have here is that equations are more or less unintelligible over a relatively low complexity, which a blog of my own would alleviate. However, the limitation will make it interesting, because I’d like to see if I can engage people without the ability to post complex equations or use anything more than very basic arithmetic to explain what I do.

        This part will also help me in my job. On my last really big project, which was helping fish pass around a dam, we were working with fish biologists who will operate the final product. We sent an interim set of plans to them for comment to ensure that we aren’t doing anything that will scare fish or make it too difficult to do their jobs. After a few rounds of back-and-forth, where they asked us questions that were clearly indicated in the plan set, I realized with creeping horror, “Holy dogshit, these guys can’t read a set of construction drawings.”* I had to learn how to explain things, and help them understand what’s going on. If I can do that same thing here, that’s a victory for my day job.

        I do realize that I’m trading on the goodwill of @Scott Alexander here, since I’m basically running a small time limited blog on his back, and with the audience that he developed. If those of us doing effortposts are exceeding his tolerance for this, I’ll cheerfully find another platform and link here.

        One question I will ask about following the posts here: are you using Bakkot’s autocollapser found at https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/04/09/ot73-i-lik-the-thred/#comment-486219 ? Because that makes it so much easier to follow the comments, since it’s immediately apparent what is new and it’s easy to scan through for things that interest you.

        * I want to emphasize that this is not a slam against them. I would fail just as miserably at their job as they would at mine. If you had me out there handling fish at a passage facility after partway through the first day, you’d have CatCube standing in the middle of a pile of dead salmon with a “dog watching Jeopardy” look on his face and saying in a haunted voice “I don’t know what just happened.” Being able to take a set of two-dimensional drawings that include cross sections in two axes and visualize the final product in three dimensions is a skill that both requires a natural aptitude and practice to develop. People who don’t work with construction drawings on a day-to-day basis are going to be behind on that, and that’s not a poor reflection on them.

        • bean says:

          I do realize that I’m trading on the goodwill of @Scott Alexander here, since I’m basically running a small time limited blog on his back, and with the audience that he developed. If those of us doing effortposts are exceeding his tolerance for this, I’ll cheerfully find another platform and link here.

          He was fine with me talking about naval stuff in every OT for about 8 months, and I left because I was tired of running a blog in wordpress comments, not because of any indication that he wanted me to stop. I don’t think he’ll have any problems with you doing this.

      • rlms says:

        Effortposts like this are a sporadic tradition and I think people generally prefer them to external blogs.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Looking forward to this series! I took a few structures courses in Uni, but work in wastewater treatment process design now.

      material-specific design (steel, concrete, maybe a little timber)

      Which material is your preference?

      • CatCube says:

        I like working with steel better, because it’s a little more “elegant” with much more straightforward equations that flow from theory. However, I do more concrete, just due to the nature of the projects I’ve been working on for the last few years.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Thanks. This is more than a little interesting, and I’m pleased to have instigated it.

  14. Rebecca Friedman says:

    Seeking recommendations: Does anyone know of a good source for very basic nutrition information? I’m not looking for diets or edge theories, just something one step beyond the nutritional labels. For example: according to the Stanford blood center, iron is absorbed better if you consume it along with vitamin C, and worse with (calcium, I think – something in milk). The only reason I know this is that if you don’t have enough iron to donate blood, the blood center gives you a print-out on How To Get Your Iron Levels Up. But that’s fairly basic and only for iron. Anyone know where I can find more of that kind of thing, ideally in more detail and for more vitamins and minerals? Information on what the rarer ones do would also be nice. I have no idea at all what Vitamin K does, except for interfering with some medications.

  15. SouthBayAnon says:

    Hi. I’m looking for help finding a therapist.

    I live California, south bay area, and am suffering from what is or resembles an uncomfortable mixture of ADD, depression, and anxiety, all feeding off each other and making each other worse. My psychiatrist thinks that therapy will help, and I’m looking for recommendations.

    (I have tried one therapist already. I may go back; she wasn’t catastrophic, but I did not feel that the therapeutic alliance was working out. She thought that I might be suffering from scrupulosity, as well as everything else, which seems entirely plausible given my support for EA and my hide-in-a-corner reaction to the social justice movement.)

    My main problems, in terms of how they actually express themselves, are ‘not doing things’, ‘stressing’, and ‘being unhappy’. Naturally, not doing things make me stressful and unhappy, stress makes me not do things and be unhappy, and unhappiness makes me not do things and stress out, and this problem has been going on for years and doesn’t seem inclined to go away on its own.

    My only preferences for therapy styles are that I prefer things that work and are not soul-destroying. I presume that anyone who is recommending a therapist finds that their therapist’s style works and is not soul-destroying, so I think in practice I have no preferences.

    Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated. Very, very greatly appreciated.

    • mingyuan says:

      Try Reflect! It’s a Bay Area service that matches you with three therapists based on a questionnaire you fill out, and the initial matching is free. One of the therapists it matched me with was actually a rationalist, so I think their matching is probably pretty good 🙂

    • sty_silver says:

      More general, but this might be relevant.

  16. ana53294 says:

    This is an post about how vote-counting works in Spain. I am writing this because I was pretty confused about how voting works in the US (why did they use punch cards for paper ballots in FL?), and I would like somebody to tell me how it compares (how did vote-counting work before the electronic ballot? who counted the votes?).

    Voting in Spain is by paper ballot. The ballot forms look like this, and you put them in an envelope. There are two ways to vote: by mail or in person, in the Electoral Table where you are registered (this can be an embassy). When you vote by mail, you have to fill a form in a Post Office. Then they will send you a form to your temporary address, which you take to the Post Office. You put the envelope with your ballot in a bigger envelope, and the post office employee confirms your identity, puts the form that indicates your identity in the big envelope, and sends it. This is completely free, but it can only be done up to 4 days before an election (asking for the forms has to be done 10 days or so before the election; this is approximate, and they give you the deadlines for every election).

    The day of the election is usually on a Sunday, although it can be any day. It is just more convenient this way. Voting places are open between 9.00 and 20.00. There are going to be three people who are going to be manning the table, and they are selected by a random lottery among the people with an education. So, in the morning before the tables open, 3 people (the chair and two other people), have to come, as well as their substitutes. The substitutes are then released, once the table is seated.

    Each party can send two representatives, and an inspector (the “apoderado” can go to different polling places). Usually, this means that, in most of Spain, two parties send their representatives (except for municipal elections, where the two party system breaks and people don’t vote for their party so faithfully). Parties with few voters in the town usually don’t bother sending representatives; exceptions are made for very contested elections, such as the last Catalan one, where nationalist from all over Spain sent their representatives to check everything is OK.

    So, once all representatives and the Electoral Table members are seated, the polling places open. Each voter has to show official ID (expired ID is OK, as long as it’s the original one). Then the members of the ET check that they are on the list, and tick their name. The ballot box is covered, to avoid “pucherazos”, which is when one voter throws in several envelopes. They check that there is only one envelope, and then allow you to put it in the ballot box, which are usually transparent.

    When the polling places close, the postman brings the mail vote. The ET opens the big envelope, checks that they have not voted in person, and are on the register, and then puts the vote in the ballot box. Then the ET members vote, and the counting of the votes starts. The ballot box is opened, and each envelope is opened, and votes are counted, as well as the null ones (putting more than one ballot, or none, or defacing it). The party representatives can ask to examine disputed votes during the counting. At the end of the count (there can be a re-count if it is a very disputed election) the members of the ET fill a form, and the party representatives sign it as well. This form is then given to the official government employee, who the carries it to the official government office. This documents will be re-checked within a week, and official results will be published within a week in the official government bulletin, although temporary results are released to the media the same evening.

    Fraud does not happen during the voting (not now that they check you put only one envelope in the box). Fraud happens with the inscription of who is in the census*. The most corrupt elections are the municipal ones. While not technically ilegal, there are many ways an election can be skewed. One of the most common ones is to have loyal party members who have a house in the town but only come in weekends or summers while they live in the big city still vote in the small town; this is not ilegal, but can be unfair to locals. Another not illegal way is to bring EU migrants (who can vote in municipal elections) to the town. I have heard plenty of stories where some town had a sudden increase in their electoral census when lots of mostly Romanian voters come there (part of the stories may be due to racism; but I think there may be some true in them).

    *In my town, they once caught a 90 year old lady with Alzheimers who had been removed from the census, but whose son still brought her to the polls.

  17. Well... says:

    How long did it take the dinosaurs to go extinct after The Meteor hit? Does anyone know?

    • Machine Interface says:

      Not a direct answer, but relevant to the question, are the various claims of Paleocene non-avian dinosaurs, claims of dinosaur fossils dated later than the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary.

      Notably, a number of fragments of dinosaur fossils have been found in different places at layers dated to 40,000 years after the K-Pg boundary. However, because all those fossils are fragmentary, the majority of paleontologists are of the opinion that those are merely naturally unearthed then reburried fossils, and that dinosaurs were already extinct at that point.

      A possible almost-exception is the Qinornis, whose fossil was found in a layer dating to 5 million years after the K-Pg boundary. The Qinornis is a bird (so not a non-avian dinosaur), but surprisingly, it is not a neornithine – the only group of birds that were thought to have survived the K-Pg boundary.

      I remember hearing that the extinction of dinosaurs was theorized to have happened extremely fast, in most places in the span of two generations, as survival during the immediate aftermath of the Chicxulub impact was closely tied to the ability to seek shelter – apparently the dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous largely lacked the ability to burrow, swim, or dive. Those that did escape immediate extinction then suffered food deprivation, especially as warm-blooded animals.

      Some interpretations of the fossil record also tend to show that dinosaur diversity had already been on the decline for the last 10 million years of the Cretaceous (although this is not a settled conclusion), and, the extinction event may then have merely terminated an already fragilized group .

  18. Scott Alexander says:

    Suppose that you consistently donate $20,000 a year to the Red Cross.

    I want to hire you for some project and pay you $20,000. Normally you’d have to pay taxes on this income and only get some fraction of it. But I cleverly say “Why don’t I donate $20,000 to the Red Cross in your name, and then you don’t have to donate anything this year?” It seems like I’ve successfully hired you without anyone paying taxes on your labor.

    Maybe this is legal in the sense of “nobody can find out”, but if it was ever done explicitly or somebody did find out, would it be legal?

    (attention IRS: I’m not actually planning to do this)

    • RavenclawPrefect says:

      Related idea: Certificates of Impact

      Whenever anyone does anything, they can declare themselves to own an associated certificate of impact. Users of the system treat owning a certificate for X as equivalent to doing X themselves. In the case where certificates never change hands, this reduces precisely to the status quo.

      The primary difference is that certificates can also be bought, sold, or bartered; an altruist can acquire certificates through any combination of doing good themselves, and purchasing certificates from others.

      Here you’re basically trading the certificate of impact of your donation for their completion of the project. (Of course, you need some verifiable and non-duplicable signature of such certificates, so you can’t go pulling this trick on everyone that you’d like to hire who donates to the Red Cross.)

    • Anonymous says:

      Where I live, this would probably get interpreted as you, the employer, having acquired services worth $20,000 for free, and therefore need to pay income tax on that.

    • b_jonas says:

      There was a legal system for this about ten years ago in Hungary, and the employer didn’t even need to do anything about it. People who donated to charities registered in Hungary could reduce the base of their income tax so they don’t pay income tax after the part of their income that they donate. You and the employer still had to pay the taxes other than the income tax, including the social security tax, so this wasn’t as cheap as if the employer had donated directly. This was never possible for charities that were only registered in foreign countriess, so eg. the Red Cross was a target that worked but the Against Malaria Foundation wasn’t.

      After a while (actually shortly before I started to earn my own money and could have started to make use of this tax reduction), the entire income tax system was reformed, and this option is no longer available. It is possible that they removed this option because there were a lot of public scandals about fake charities, so this tax reduction could have been used to help money laundering through such charities.

      I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Ask a lawyer if you want to know for sure.

  19. Douglas Knight says:

    Who would win in a fight, Hunter S. Thompson or Joan Baez?

    • johan_larson says:

      The masculine physique has a big advantage over the feminine one for no-tech or low-tech violence, so Thompson would probably win. He did have one heck of a drug and alcohol habit though, so Baez might win if the fight happened when Thompson was particularly intoxicated.

      • engleberg says:

        Who would tell better lies after the fight? Thompson. Macho blather was his thing. When he got going everyone would believe Joan Baez was ten feet tall, breathing fire and farting flame, a master of Folkie-fu who nonetheless lost to Hunter Thompson after a wild fight full of stuff too entertaining to check.

    • John Schilling says:

      Joan Baez being actually alive would I think give her an overwhelming advantage.

      If we are imagining both of them to be alive and in their prime, then which one has the most friends? I’m guessing Thompson would bring the biggest army to the fight, but it’s not a sure thing.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Hunter S. Thompson liked guns; he even killed himself with one. Joan Baez is apparently a gun control advocate, which doesn’t mean she doesn’t have guns but probably is less familiar with them. So if they were both alive and were to fight, Thompson would win by bringing a gun to a gunfight.

      • John Schilling says:

        Hunter S. Thompson liked guns; he even killed himself with one.

        So, Baez wins by KO in the first round?

        If necessary, some of her ballads were fairly depressing and could help move things toward that conclusion.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Baez is not just a gun control advocate, but more generally a nonviolence activist, raised a Quaker pacifist. But I think she has a nonobvious definition of violence. Like Thompson, she raises Dobermans.

        • Lillian says:

          So the fight gets called off because they’re both too busy gushing over each other’s dogs?

          • b_jonas says:

            That sounds sort of like the plot of chapter 21 of Jules Verne’s ”De la Terre à la Lune”. President Barbicane and Captain Nicholl are sworn enemies due to a disagreement on a matter important to both of them. Barbicane is an engineer developing better and better cannons and believes that modern technology makes cannons so powerful that no battleship can have so much armor that makes it unsinkable in a battle. Captain Nicholl develops better and better armor for battleships and believes that modern technology makes the best armor so unbreakable that no cannonball could penetrate it. Since both of them are American gentlemen, in chapter 21 they’re supposed to meet for a pistol duel (in an eerie forest at dawn) to end their rivalry once and for all. But instead of proceeding with the duel, both of them are so distracted with more peaceful issues that their friends, who don’t like the idea of the pistol duel, manage to convince them to call the duel off. For the rest of the book, Barbicane and Nicholl are reluctantly peaceful rivals who will no longer try to kill each other in a pointless duel, but will instead risk their lives together by participating in a dangerous experiment for science.

          • John Schilling says:

            Captain Nicholl develops better and better armor for battleships and believes that modern technology makes the best armor so unbreakable that no cannonball could penetrate it.

            And therefore all future battleships will need to be armed with that ultimate weapon of the ironclad age, the ram.

          • b_jonas says:

            John Schilling #comment-663743 : Good follow-up. Yes, the ram is on Captain Nemo’s submarine in a Verne novel published a few years later, ”Vingt mille lieues sous les mers”. And just like Barbicane and Nicholl, Captain Nemo is actually a person who would prefer to be peaceful rather than creating weapons, and his conscience haunts him to his death for having had to use the weapon to its fullest power, just once, and sink a ship and kill dozens of crew.

  20. Well... says:

    Imagine a bowling ball resting on a mattress. You set a marble on the mattress, near the bowling ball. The marble is drawn toward the bowling ball.

    This is a typical metaphor used to illustrate how mass distorts space-time to create gravity. For a while now I’ve been dissatisfied with this metaphor, because it’s like defining a word using the word itself. The mattress metaphor helps me understand how space-time is distorted by massive objects, but it doesn’t at all help me understand why an “attracting” force like gravity should be produced by the distortions.

    Can someone explain why the metaphor is complete? Or provide another metaphor that completes the explanation?

    • toastengineer says:

      I always had the exact same objection; the only reason the balls are falling is because the fabric got out of the way!

      I don’t know if it actually works any better, and to be clear I more likely than not misunderstand what’s actually going on, but I always liked the analogy of drawing a line on some paper and then bending the paper. It’s a straight line, and remains a straight line; you didn’t alter the line at all. But it’s a straight line on bent paper, so you can make it curve in to things or even form a circle. Similarly, if you throw a ball in front of you, it ACTUALLY DOES CONTINUE IN A STRAIGHT LINE – but it continues in a straight line through a coordinate system that’s scrunched up towards the Earth’s center of mass, so it appears to curve and meet the ground. Much like Ms. What’s (I think…) skirt in A Wrinkle In Time.

      If you need a visualization of 3D “bent paper,” you could use Jell-O or ideally some more flexible firm gel and somehow draw a line in that and then distort it.

      • Well... says:

        But that’s the same problem. It helps explain what’s going on with the coordinate system, but it doesn’t explain why the ball always wants to travel through the coordinate system that’s scrunched toward the Earth’s center of mass.

    • idontknow131647093 says:

      The metaphor is necessarily incomplete because it is in 3 dimensions when you would need to be able to conceive of at least 4 to understand it.

      So to make it accurate, what you would imagine is that your Marble-Bowling ball universe is a 2-D universe with no depth (which is what depresses the mattress in this case). In the 2-D universe you do not see the bowling ball sinking, you merely perceive it is an object with a certain circumference, inertia, etc. Then you notice it attracts the marble with some force. This picture illustrates what 2D “gravity” would look like in a 2D world, and thus the 3D mattress representation is solving 2-D gravity.

      • Well... says:

        But what is the source of the force?

        • Deiseach says:

          Midichlorians 🙂

          • Randy M says:

            Ba-dum-ching!
            But I think Deiseach’s answer is about as good as we know. The goal of physicals is to reduce every fundamental force down to one grand unifying theory or equation that relates how gravity, nuclear forces, and electromagnetism are related; but even doing so doesn’t answer why any more than we have explanations for the values of fundamental constants.

        • idontknow131647093 says:

          In 2D world the source of the force is the depression caused on the mattress in the 3rd dimension. This is why the mattress metaphor is a solution to 2D gravity. The 2D people cannot see the 3rd dimension. We, being in a 3D world, cannot see a 4th dimension that dimension being space-time. Mass warps that dimension in a similar way that the bowling ball alters the contours of the surface of the mattress.

          • Cerby says:

            “that dimension being space-time” No. A dimension is not synonymous with a reality, a dimension is something that can mathematically be represented with a single line. Space-time is not a “fourth” dimension, it is a set of four dimensions, three of which are spatial and one of which is temporal. You’re right in that applying the metaphor to our reality would require a fourth spatial dimension, but that’s all it would be: a fourth line added onto a graph representation of space (or a fifth line added onto a graph representation of space-time, to-may-to to-mah-to).

          • idontknow131647093 says:

            Right, but I’m just kind of addressing the reason they think the metaphor is stupid. Its not stupid, and it works very well with young kids.

            The only real problem with it is that by the time anyone need bother with relativity there is not really a point of them using metaphors. Newtonian gravity works just fine for everything, and calculating friction is more important.

    • Soy Lecithin says:

      As far as I can tell, it’s just a bad metaphor. The only thing it illustrates is the idea that massive objects curve spacetime. Past that it’s useless. The way the rubber sheet curves is not the same as the way spacetime curves. In fact, as it’s usually presented, the rubber sheet is meant to represent just space, not spacetime, so the curving of the rubber sheet doesn’t involve time at all. In actuality massive objects curve both space and time together. This is a crucial point, because curvature can imply attraction only if it’s a curvature involving both space and time. This makes the rubber sheet picture ill-suited for illustrating attraction.

      • Well... says:

        curvature can imply attraction only if it’s a curvature involving both space and time.

        Whether it involves time or not, why does it imply attraction?

        • dick says:

          There’s no answer to questions like this. Our best set of equations for describing the behavior of gravity (General Relativity) say that gravity always attracts and never repulses, but that’s only because we’ve never seen anything that has negative gravity. Someone could invent anti-gravity doohickeys tomorrow, and then the race would be on to come up with a better set of equations to replace GR.

        • littskad says:

          Essentially because mass gives a positive curvature to space-time (like the curvature of a sphere) rather than a negative curvature (like the curvature of a saddle). If you think of latitude as time and longitude as space on the surface of a sphere, then two particles at rest at time 0 (on the equator) will follow meridians as they go forward in time, and move closer together. (They will also move closer together in backward time.)

          That is, in positively curved space-time, two geodesics which are instantaneously parallel (i.e., represent the paths of two object at rest with respect to each other) will be forced by the local curvature of space-time to start to approach each other as they move forward (or backward) in time, which is gravitational attraction.

          In order to have repulsive gravity, you’d have to have an “anti-mass” which causes local negative curvature of space-time.

          My vague understanding, and I may be wrong, is that the “cosmological constant” essentially represents an inherent negative curvature of empty space-time. So then the universe could have overall positive, negative, or zero curvature depending on whether or not there is enough mass in the universe to give enough positive curvature to balance out the negative curvature of the vacuum.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            The observed cosmological constant is positive (ie, positive curvature). String theorists usually use a negative cosmological constant. The geodesic convergence interpretation of curvature is for space-like paths. People often make mistakes transferring that intuition to time-like paths.

    • entobat says:

      It doesn’t at all help me understand why an “attracting” force like gravity should be produced by the distortions.

      I don’t think you will find any convincing argument “from first principles” why gravity should be attractive. A universally repulsive force is what you’d get if you kept regular gravity but ran time in reverse. I don’t think a universe that was just like ours except with repulsive gravity is a crazy idea, though I imagine we have the privilege of not being in that universe for anthropic reasons.

      • Thegnskald says:

        Er, no. If you run time backwards, gravity is -still- attractive. This is one of the critical differences between gravity as a force, and gravity as a bend in space-time.

        To see why this is important, consider what would happen to our planet if you ran time backwards for a couple of hours.

        ETA:

        Because I realize this is hugely counterintuitive, I think a concrete example is in order. So, imagine a meteor falling into earth. Lots of energy is dropped into the atmosphere, then we pause time right before it crashes, and reverse it.

        Reverse-time doesn’t have the meteor falling up – that would generate even more energy as it crashes through the receding atmosphere. It involves all the energy it originally deposited randomly into the atmosphere, randomly and amazingly collecting to shove the meteor back out of the atmosphere, directly opposing gravity.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Doesn’t the rubber sheet also express the reversibility of time?

        • entobat says:

          D’oh. Yeah, of course. Everything you care about is second-order, so you get two minus signs and it looks exactly the same.

          Now, let me tell you about my alternate universe where everything is the same but the gravity equations are all with respect to imaginary time…

    • Hoopyfreud says:

      Spooky action at a distance. Alternatively, math.

    • fion says:

      I think it’s a combination of a bad metaphor and a mis-told one.

      First of all, it has to be a rubber sheet and not a mattress. Mattresses don’t bend in the right shape. It needs to be pointy, like this, which rubber forms by tension in the surface.

      Second, it skips out the concept of “potential”, which, once understood, makes a lot of physics a lot easier. But the example of potential we’re most familiar with is gravitational potential of test masses a small height from the Earth’s surface. High up things have high potential and low down things have low potential, and it’s linear. So if you were to draw a graph of the potential around a massive body it would be the shape of the image I linked to above. This happens to be the shape a rubber sheet forms when you hold it tight and poke it. It is also the shape a rubber sheet takes when you hold it flat and tight and put a bowling ball on it. But the third dimension isn’t a spacial dimension, but “potential”.

      Third, I might be wrong about this, but I don’t think it’s general-relativistic. I think it models the potential, not the curvature of spacetime, and the fact that the sheet is, in fact, curved is a confusing coincidence. (If it were modelling curvature of spacetime, then it would work equally well for the pointy wells to be going upwards, or without lab gravity, where the marble just sticks to the sheet and follows the closest things to straight lines it can.)

      Unfortunately it takes far more than a two-minute analogy to gain an intuition for gravity. In my experience of teaching people physics, the rubber-sheet-analogy is more unhelpful than helpful. But I’m sure there are some people who found it useful.

      • Well... says:

        OK, fine, rubber sheet. That’s not the important part. The important part is, the rubber sheet metaphor still begs the question, since it assumes gravity. The rubber sheet metaphor doesn’t work in zero-G, after all.

        • Thegnskald says:

          Calvin and Hobbes: Record player.

          The outside of the record moves faster than the inside, because it has farther to go.

          Likewise, gravity warps space such that the farther edge of an orbiting object has further to go, producing a curve in space itself the object follows.

          For a falling, non-orbiting object, same principle, except the motion is in time rather than space. Harder to visualize, same thing.

          • Well... says:

            That doesn’t make sense to me. Why does gravity exist in the first place?

          • Thegnskald says:

            We don’t know yet.

            I can offer my ideas, but they are more on the crackpot end of the spectrum, and beg their own “Why?”s. As, if you reflect on it, any level of knowledge of the nature of the universe must.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Unless you are still on the rubber sheet idea, and wondering why things are pulled “down”?

            This explanation doesn’t have any magic perpendicular force pulling stuff towards the bottom of a rubber sheet.

            Record player, right? So, gravity is literally just “spacial coordinates get further apart, relative to an imaginary Cartesian coordinate system, as gravity gets stronger”. Which is to say – gravity is just space being bent

            For an orbiting object, what this means is that it’s inner edge has to traverse slightly less space than it’s outer edge, over a given distance. This translates into a curve splitting the difference, since the inside can’t actually go slower than the outside. Translating into an orbit.

            For a freefalling object, it is harder to see, because the movement is through time (more or less), but the point is that the edge farther from the planet has to travel farther in the same amount of time, creating a curvature.

            There is no force – things are moving in straight lines, nothing is pulling them “down”. It is just that the straight lines aren’t straight from an outside perspective.

        • fion says:

          No, it’s not assuming gravity, it’s drawing a graph of potential as a function of position in space. It so happens that a rubber sheet in a uniform gravitational field with some heavy objects sitting in it draws a potential function that looks similar to the one caused by massive objects in space. And test masses on the rubber sheet in a uniform gravitational field behave as test masses in space would.

          Unfortunately it takes far more than a two-minute analogy to gain an intuition for gravity.

    • Thegnskald says:

      It isn’t complete. It isn’t even close to correct, it just sort of feels correct, and conveys the idea of “straight line looks curved”.

      Gravity moves space-time coordinates around. From an orbit perspective, you can kind of imagine it as “Car where the wheels on one side are farther apart than the other”. This doesn’t convey “straight line” as well, but does a slightly better job conveying what is happening.

      For falling, both analogies fail, because both analogies require relative motion to make sense. For falling, the metaphor is more like pressure; space is squeezing one side of the object more than the other. (Still not right, mind, but close enough.)

      ETA: The first analogy, of wheels, also requires the wheels to be on a curved line. The second analogy leads to the wrong understanding of how spacial coordinates are changed. Not sure there is a good analogy.

    • Thegnskald says:

      Okay, after thinking about it for a while, I remembered another metaphor that is useful in describing what is going on.

      So, the other metaphor is, in relation to describing why time “passes slower” when you approach the speed of light, the idea that you have a constant total velocity of C, the speed of light. (Note: This is wrong and misleading in important ways vis a vis relativity. But it conveys an idea better than adding relativity to the description, so bear with me.). So the faster you move in space, the slower you necessarily move in time.

      We can use this metaphor to describe why things “fall” when stationary: They are still in motion, just at an angle orthogonal to directions we are accustomed to thinking in. It is still caused by geodesics – caused by the fact that the space its wheels occupy is curved – but now we have a sort-of metaphor for freefalling objects, in addition to orbiting objects.

    • Garrett says:

      VSauce video on the subject. As usual, he meanders until he gets to the interesting parts, but is worth the watch.
      Which Way Is Down?

    • dick says:

      The mattress metaphor helps me understand how space-time is distorted by massive objects, but it doesn’t at all help me understand why an “attracting” force like gravity should be produced by the distortions.

      There is no attracting force in General Relativity. The whole point of general relativity is that, if you assume spacetime is governed by Einstein’s field equations, then some of the behavior we ascribe to “gravity” is a natural consequence of that assumption and doesn’t require any further explanation. So, I think the more complete metaphor would just be Einstein’s field equations, and the bowling-ball-on-a-sheet analogy is not really an attempt to explain how gravity works, it’s more like the answer to the question, “Hey, those field equations are pretty complicated, can you explain what they predict about how objects should behave in a way that doesn’t require higher math?”

      Separately from that, it sounds like you’re rankled by the idea of an analogy used to explain gravity also contains gravity. That can be “solved” by saying that the force pushing the bowling ball on to the bed is something other than gravity (like acceleration or electromagnetism or something) but I don’t know if that helps much.

    • Gerry Quinn says:

      As somebody said, the rubber sheet can define potential, but that is similar for both Newtonian and Einsteinian gravity. As for the effect of curvature, most texts are very misleading. However I think you can get something of the concept by first forgetting about mass and thinking only about energy. And as the exemplar of energy we will use light.

      Imagine a wave (e.g. light) moving on the rubber sheet. On the side nearest the attracting mass, i.e. towards the funnel shaped hole, there is *more* rubber sheet to cover because of the way it bends down. So the wave has further to travel on that side, and therefore it bends its direction of movement towards the centre of the funnel (the attracting mass).

      Now let’s make an approximation of matter by making a box with zero mass and perfect mirrors on the inside, inside which light bounces about. It is an odd sort of matter, but by the principle of equivalence all matter should work the same. If the light bends towards the gravitational attractor – and also if it has more momentum when it hits the blue-shifted side of the box – the box should also be attracted towards the gravitational source.

      Note that this works just as well if the rubber sheet is turned upside down, as it should. There is more space nearer the attractor, or equivalently, time is slowing down. And that is why the light bends.

  21. bean says:

    Today, Naval Gazing concludes its look at underwater protection.

    Also, a reminder to everyone (including non-readers) that you’re invited to the meetup at Iowa on 9/8.

  22. toastengineer says:

    Let’s say you’re a person with a small but significant amount of influence over a large group of people, like a relatively popular YouTube/Twitch personality or… well, Scott, for example. To quantify things, let’s say you have enough influence, if you made announcements well ahead of time and showed up in person, to able to get ~1,000 random people in most major U.S. cities to show up and sorta-try at something for a few hours in the evening or from noon til’ 5 PM on a Saturday.

    How much good could you do with that ability, in an EA sort of sense? Seems like if you could get a thousand people to show up and do Habitat for Humanity or something for a few days in a row… well, that would probably do no good at all due to them not being prepared for 1000 people to show up and only being able to get them to put in half an effort for a short time.

    How much could you accomplish in a semi-arbitrary goals sort of sense? Not in a johan_larson mission sort of sense but more like Saul Alinsky getting a bunch of guys to fart in a theater for civil rights sort of sense.

    … although, how much COULD you accomplish in a Larson mission sort of sense?

    What I’m thinking here is, say I’m PewDiePie and the New York Times is telling everyone I’m a neonazi, and I’d wish they’d quit. Couldn’t I just say, “hey fellas, if you’re in the area, I’m going to be showing up at their corporate HQ with a megaphone to demand they make a public retraction and apology; come join me and hold up a sign or something.”

    Or, if I want to get a little more dark-side with this; “here’s the home addresses of a couple of executive editors, if you’re with me on this I encourage you to chuck tomatoes and eggs and toilet-paper at their houses until they publicly apologize, I know this is mostly going to make me look like the asshole here but I’m really pissed and at least people will see that a lot of people think they’re doing something wrong by doing this.”

    Or- what if he said “okay, I’m 100% committed to damaging this organization as much as I can and I don’t care about the long-term consequences; these people are evil and hate you and everything you like and I want you all to grab a ski mask and a sledgehammer, join up at their corporate headquarters, and we’re going to bust in and smash everything that looks valuable until SWAT shows up and tear-gasses us, and if you have an old car you’re willing to smash in to a utility pole to take out the power, or have a backhoe and a map of where to find the underground network cables that connect them to the Internet, or some other idea for how to disrupt their operations, I’d love to hear from you.”

    What if Bernie Sanders did this, asking that everyone figure out where their local Fox affiliate is and see if they can’t smash up the place or ruin the utility access or something?

    To be clear; I agree that this is all very silly. But still, it seems like anyone who is in a position to ask more than a couple hundred people to do something and have them actually listen has a not-insignificant amount of power, and I’m wondering if I’m wrong, and/or what it’s going to look like when they realize that. (EDIT: Or, indeed, in the alternate universe where Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Baez declared open war on each-other.)

    Bonus question: what if the President did this, but also committed to presidential-pardoning all the participants? Could he do that?

    • arlie says:

      *roflmao*

      Fun idea. Lots of fictions could start here. Some of them would be a lot of fun to read – probably also to write.

      But the specifics you got into – asking those you influence to do something seriously illegal – isn’t going to end well. Assuming your ‘friends’ aren’t sufficiently powerful/organized/connected to stage a successful revolution or coup, you’ll have the law on your back. In the presidential pardon case, this looks like the most efficient way to trigger an impeachment I’ve ever heard, short of scenarios involving the president personally commiting random assaults with lethal weapons.

      It worked for Hitler et al., more or less, but this was a case where they were sufficiently powerful to take over the government.

      Also, if you communicate with your friends publically, and there are a lot of them, you can expect opponents to know what you are up to in advance, and do whatever they think appropriate, such as inviting all their friends to turn up and ‘confront’ you and your friends.

      Much better to e.g. encourage them to all wear emerald green garters next Tuesday, if you can’t think of anything that’s actually constructive. And as for Habitat for Humanity – letting its organizers know about it far enough in advance might actually make your collected influenceables useful.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This isn’t really relevant to your question, but I think you might be overestimating how easy this is.

      Based on the meetup results, I seem to have enough “power” to make about five to ten people show up in most major American cities, for something very easy and safe that the participants want to do anyway.

      Google suggests PewDiePie is about twenty to thirty times more popular than I am, but his popularity might not be as deep – eg it’s hard for me to imagine “PewDiePie meetups” going well. So I question if anyone of the level you’re talking about has the clout you’re talking about.

      But maybe the closest example of something like this happening this was G*m*r*a*te, where a few people in a niche cause did go really far in advocating their agenda, sometimes in disruptive or borderline-illegal ways. Empirically, that just starts a giant immune reaction where everyone hates you, hates the entire group you belong to, and hates everybody at all associated with it for years, and you are constantly brought up as an example for why they should never be tolerated or listened to or negotiated with.

      I’m sure someone working for a cause the media agreed with could do better, but if they were popular enough for borderline-illegal protests to succeed, they probably wouldn’t need borderline-illegal protests.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The largest ant-related meetup I know of was the one where Andrew Cardpersons unknown called in bomb threats to stop it. That was about 200 people. I think teenage flash mobs do better.

      • AnonYEmous says:

        “Google suggests PewDiePie is about twenty to thirty times more popular than I am, but his popularity might not be as deep”

        not sure precisely how you’re calculating this – maybe views? But he has, uh, around 60 million subscribers, which is probably way, way more than you do. Not sure how deep they all are though.

        …also your example kind of pisses me off, insofar as it’s mostly just about politics; the group you cite was pre-determined to be hated long before they actually did any of those things (you can tell, since they never actually did any of those things !!!). So maybe it proves that the valence changes depending on political alignment, but what’s the original valence?

      • fion says:

        There’s a difference between a meetup suggested by you and to discus the kind of things you like to talk about and an event hosted by you. I got the impression toastengineer was imagining the latter.

      • xXxanonxXx says:

        I don’t get the comparison as what the ants mostly did in terms of organization was letter writing campaigns to advertisers and crashing twitter hashtags with no survivors. In the real world I was at an NYC meetup with maybe 150 people, but all we did was drink and play arcade games. The most borderline disruptive thing was standing in front of a particular HQ and shouting, “F***k-” I shouldn’t mention names since we’re trying to keep this off the radar.

        Hogan, what is best in life?

        To crush your enemies, see them bankrupted, and to hear the lamentations of their apologists!

      • toastengineer says:

        Based on the meetup results, I seem to have enough “power” to make about five to ten people show up in most major American cities, for something very easy and safe that the participants want to do anyway.

        There’s a difference between a meetup suggested by you and to discus the kind of things you like to talk about and an event hosted by you. I got the impression toastengineer was imagining the latter.

        Yeah, meetup attendance is a useful datapoint, but you’re not actually telling people to go to them. If Scott sent everyone an EMail saying “turns out Moloch is physically real and he’s crawling out of Lake Michigan next Tuesday, here’s some proof that this is happening, bring something stabby,” I know I would drop everything and show up.

        Come to think of it, how many people signed up for cryonics because Scott directly told them to?

        • The Nybbler says:

          I don’t know about cryonics, but the melatonin article caused a shortage at one supplier.

    • Rob K says:

      There’s a framework I used to use for talking about things like this, which basically boils down to transferrable and non-transferrable power. It tends to limit the scope of what you can do with the kind of power that comes from prominence and influence, as opposed to the power that comes from formal leadership of institutions or personal wealth.

      Let’s take as an example the cases of, say, Bill Gates and Bill McKibben. Both have a lot more power than the average person, but Gates’ power is much more transferrable. We could envision a specific purpose – say, turning people out for a climate change protest – for which McKibben has more power than Gates, by virtue of his number of social followers, leadership of organizations with large email lists, etc. (Gates could probably also turn out a bunch of people for a protest with enough TV ads, hired organizers, etc, but I think McKibben’s network is strong enough that he’d do better.)

      McKibben’s power, though, basically only works in that one arena. If he and Bill Gates now, both seeking for some reason to curry favor with PewDiePie, compete to see who can more effectively harass the NYT, McKibben has many fewer tools at his disposal unless they’ve recently done something that angers his followers, whereas Gates could just pay a variety of professionals to make life unpleasant for the NYT, up to the bounds of legality.

      What I take from this is that social power tends to be useable only in ways closely related to how it was acquired. There are exceptions to this – cult leaders, who basically acquire social power by claiming to be right about everything, can get some number of people to follow their arbitrary commands via social power – but in general I think it’s best to assume that a person with a large social following will have some potential to get people to take an action specifically related to the source of their prominence, but little ability to get people to do arbitrary things of the leader’s choosing. And for people like Scott or youtube stars, whose prominence isn’t already tied to the idea of taking action at their urging, even the closely related stuff would require a lot of work to get significant output.

  23. Atlas says:

    Enlightened Area Necromancer Attempts to Revive Dead Argument (1/2):

    Many OTs ago, I posted a polemic making a somewhat Devil’s Advocate case for anti-war, isolationist US foreign policy and questioning whether any of the wars fought by the US historically had genuinely protected American citizens from material harm. (My argument is much more nuanced than that, so go read the whole thing if you’re curious.) I don’t have too much to add what I wrote previously, though I do have a little, but I feel that this is such a shocking claim considering the typical rhetoric around war, US history and the American military that I just want to throw it back in the discussion pot and see what people have to say.

    To wit: I claim that almost none, and perhaps literally none, of the major wars that the United States has fought were defensive wars of necessity or substantially made American citizens safer. This includes the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the “War on Terror.” Furthermore, the United States’ security commitments and alliances in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia do not in any substantial way safeguard the citizens of the United States.

    (The specifics for each conflict are fleshed out in my original post.)

    To be clear, this is not a statement about the morality of US foreign policy or wars. I in fact think that those are debatable as well, but that’s a more complicated question and I think the issue I’ve raised here is controversial and weighty enough without adding more argumentative territory.

    Some extra thoughts I had since my original post:

    1. I think there is almost constant and extremely misleading conflation of the fact of the personal courage and competence of military personnel and the need for those virtues to be exercised in war. That is to say, the fact that US soldiers demonstrate courage on the battlefield and skill in defeating their enemies does not automatically mean that the wars they fight in are necessary to protect American citizens.

    However, many people frankly lack the patience, reflective temperament and detachment to think this through, so political rhetoric in favor of wars tends to emphasize the courage of American soldiers rather than actual logical reasons why wars protect American citizens. For instance, in a speech I believe written (somewhat ironically) by Pat Buchanan, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew said to great applause: “I’d swap the whole damn zoo [i.e. leftist protesters] for the kind of young Americans I saw in Vietnam!”

    While in fact I agree that valorous and competent military service in the face of mortal danger is exceptionally praise worthy, this does not in any way demonstrate that this service was necessary to protect American citizens. However, in the minds of many people it sounds as if you’re saying that you don’t believe Americans soldiers are valorous, which gives them an emotional and argumentative log to grab on to in the otherwise empty sea of “reasons why we actually need to be fighting this war in the first place.” Or perhaps the courage that US soldiers display is in fact the justification for war in many people’s minds. For instance, a writer for the New Yorker perceptively said of the Nixon administration’s highly effective POW propaganda campaign, “it was as if the Vietnamese had kidnapped 400 Americans and the US had gone to war to rescue them.”

    2. To put it crudely, some people like the “toys” and “great game” of war, which leads them to be sympathetic to excuses for using said equipment. Having had a great interest in military history myself as a child—by, say, 6th or 7th grade I think I could have told you who Belisarius was, which major battles (or campaigns) before Waterloo actually led to Napoleon’s downfall and the strategic consequences of the Inchon landing—I certainly understand this temptation.

    War is perhaps the greatest challenge of human potential that a society can face. From engineering to piloting to intelligence gathering to logistics to combat, it demands extreme competence, courage and intelligence. There is something fascinating to many people, myself included, in learning how one side triumphed over the other in such a struggle.

    Yet I feel that many at least popular historians tend to focus heavily on such matters without including much critical reflection on the justifications for such wars. For instance, while certainly the story of the US’ war in the Pacific is a fascinating one, shouldn’t one spare some thought as to why the United States had to go to war with Japan before penning hundreds of pages on the strategic logic of leapfrogging? Of course, for most Americans, the answer was and is very simple: they attacked us at Pearl Harbor, so we had to defend ourselves. One might ask, however, why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor? Did they want to invade and conquer America, like North Dakota and Nebraska, thus leading them to randomly attack us out of a clear blue sky? Or were there in fact important decisions made by the FDR administration, the consequences of which were not made clear at the time to the American public, that played a role in why the Japanese decided to attack?

    Of course, rather than asking such pesky questions, one can always nerd out over the facts and figures of troop deployments on Okinawa or the strengths and weaknesses of the Zero fighter.

    I suppose I may be being a bit unfair here, in that of course many even mainstream historians discuss the causes of wars in depth. Yet I still feel rather justifiably peeved that they don’t seem to consider the rather obvious and important question of, “was this war a defensive war that was necessary to protect American citizens?” In many popular films, such as Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers, the answer is implicitly or explicitly communicated, without elaboration, to be yes—these wars were necessary to protect our liberties and our safety.

    • Atlas says:

      (2/2)

      3. John Schilling posted a comment in reply to my original post that I promised to reply to, but I was busy at the time. However, as promised, I have returned!

      As I saw it, John made two points:

      1) Without US intervention, the Axis would have eventually gained capabilities that would have allowed them to conquer the US, and since “it is the nature of conquerors to keep conquering”, they would have conquered the United States.
      2) While I thought I was making a claim about the security of US citizens, I was actually making a claim about the welfare of US citizens, which includes wanting to go to war to stop genocide.

      I disagree with these points on many different levels. Firstly, even if we grant totally uncritically point 1 (which I most certainly do not) note that this a speculative, long-term argument for why US citizens were endangered by the Axis powers and why World War 2 was necessary to defend the US. So in the case of World War 2, the poster child for a defensive war that was necessary to protect America, the best argument for a threat that someone can formulate is not a clear, immediate, present threat to Americans, but a speculative one about dangers that would manifest in 10 or 20 years after the war.

      Of course, I do not in fact grant point 1. There are two things to consider here: capabilities and intentions. In the original post, I made the case that the Axis powers lacked both the capabilities and the intentions necessary to invade the United States, and I don’t think that anything John wrote convincingly challenged that.

      While intention is always somewhat nebulous, I don’t think it’s quite true to say, as the Duke of Wellington did, that “a conqueror is like a cannonball: once launched, he cannot stop.” While certainly some military leaders, like Napoleon, Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, had simply insatiable appetites for conquest, most countries at most times have been bounded by geography, ideology, practical considerations, and so on, in terms of their appetite for conquest. The US and its allies were themselves conquerors, yet the United States did not try to conquer Indonesia after conquering the Philippines, Britain did not try to conquer Norway after conquering India and France did not try to conquer Portugal after conquering Vietnam. There were many limits on what kind of empires they could, and wanted, to build.

      Thus, I do not see it as obvious that, simply because they were aggressive, conquering regimes, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would have attempted to invade the North American continent at some point simply because, as the mountain climber said of Mt. Everest, it was there. Again, one could use the same open-ended, speculative logic to say the United States should have gone to war against Britain, because if let unchecked the British Empire would simply continue conquering until it decided to conquer the United States.

      Furthermore, if absolutely nothing else, I think that most Americans are probably ignorant of the fact that invading and conquering the US was not actually a serious strategic goal of the Axis powers.

      Whatever the intentions of the Axis powers, the question remains of capabilities. Even if the Axis powers had been Hell-bent on conquering the United States, which I don’t see much evidence for, it still seems to me that even moderate investments in naval and aerial defense forces, and later thermonuclear weapons, and defensive alliances with close US neighbors would have made such an invasion prohibitively expensive. John’s reply claimed that victorious Axis empires would have had a huge advantage vis a vis the US, but I don’t think that the actual history of empires suggests that this would be the case. Empire, especially in the modern world, is often at least as much of a burden as it is a benefit. I think what’s ultimately really valuable for projecting power is a homeland of numerous, loyal and high IQ subjects, not far-flung imperial possessions full of restless natives who can turn on you at any moment.

      After all, in 1939 Britain and France had huge colonial empires in Africa and Asia, with hundreds of millions of subjects, while Germany had no overseas colonies whatsoever. If empires provided huge “human, material and industrial resources” that were easy to leverage, it should have been easy for the British and French empires to crush Germany, without the aid of the US and USSR.

      In any case, the United States is a large country, with abundant natural resources, separated from Germany and Japan by vast oceans. The difficulty that Imperial Japan had in occupying China and that Nazi Germany had in attempting to invade the UK and the USSR does not suggest that it would have been feasible for either nation to invade the mainland US, even if it had completely subjugated all neighboring competitors.

      The English channel is ~20-300 miles long. In 1940, the Nazis were not able to achieve sufficient aerial and naval superiority over this body of water to invade the UK. In 1944, despite total aerial and naval superiority and the fact that the vast majority of German forces were deployed on the eastern front, as well as suffering from shortages of motorized transport, even after years of careful preparation the Normandy landings were considered to be a considerable gamble. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the USSR, with whose possessions it shared contiguous land borders. Despite the complete advantage of surprise, the invasion was ultimately a total disaster.

      By contrast, the distance from New York to London is about 3,450 miles. It simply beggars belief to claim that Nazi Germany could have plausibly secured such extended supply lines in order to invade the United States. Presumably, unlike the USSR, the US would have been fully appraised of a Nazi invasion long before it actually begun, and had time to prepare extensive defenses. In short, such an invasion would have clearly carried a substantial risk of massive, humiliating defeat, which would likely have greatly imperilled the remaining Nazi empire.

      Furthermore, while as bean noted early nuclear weapons aren’t magic, within 30 years or so the development of thermonuclear weapons with multiple means of delivery would make it near suicidal to attack the United States.

      Regarding the point about “welfare”, there are a lot of opposing points I was going to raise, and perhaps I will later, but I realized that they venture into more complicated issues, and this is long enough already. I think there is a clear difference, regardless of the semantics, between material safety/benefit, the criteria I was evaluating US foreign policy on, and the more abstract notion of “welfare”, pursued through altruism, that you raise.

      • Michael Handy says:

        In addition to Cassander’s excellent responses, I’d add WW2 materially benefited Americans by allowing them to easily take indirect control of the resources of the former empires, which they would not have done if Germany had forced a peace in Europe and Japan created its Co-prosperity Sphere.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Regarding whether Americans were threatened in WWII: Hawaiians are Americans.

        (Also, you said “American citizens” but defending territories should maybe get partial credit? The Philippines were US territory and got straight-up conquered, and while you might be able to argue Japan would’ve left Hawaii alone if the US agreed not to intervene against them, no way they were letting the Philippines be)

      • bean says:

        The general rule of history is that it’s best to keep war as far away as possible from your home. The US has done a good job of that, and it’s more important than ever given how interconnected our economy is with our allies.

        By contrast, the distance from New York to London is about 3,450 miles. It simply beggars belief to claim that Nazi Germany could have plausibly secured such extended supply lines in order to invade the United States. Presumably, unlike the USSR, the US would have been fully appraised of a Nazi invasion long before it actually begun, and had time to prepare extensive defenses. In short, such an invasion would have clearly carried a substantial risk of massive, humiliating defeat, which would likely have greatly imperilled the remaining Nazi empire.

        There are a lot of differences between the two cases. Germany wouldn’t have simply sailed a bunch of ships from London to land on Long Island. (Well, probably.) The obvious thing to do is seize forward bases for bombardment and blockade. Newfoundland would be the most likely first choice. Secure your supply lines there, then land on the mainland somewhere without heavy defenses. Note that the Atlantic Wall relied on a fairly high force/space ratio. This is not plausible in America, so the chances of throwing them back on the beaches are not that high.

        Ultimately, the war will almost certainly hinge on control of the sea. While the USN will probably win that one, it isn’t certain, and I really wouldn’t want to live through a world where we had to find out.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          If US foreign policy were to only respond to literal invasions, wouldn’t the obvious German move be to conquer some Caribbean islands, then Mexico, then launch a ground campaign through Texas? Or have I played too much Hearts of Iron?

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            The US is huge, especially Texas and the Midwest. I think New Orleans is something like 800-900 miles along major roads from Mexico, so you’re talking about an invasion that makes the logistics of Operation Barbarossa look like a trip to the gas station.

            Also, if you can manage that invasion, you already assume you can fight and defeat the USN. So if you can fight and defeat the USN, you can launch an amphibious invasion somewhere along the Eastern seaboard, and therefore don’t have to go that route. If you DO try to Operation Barbarossa through Texas without defeating the USN, all your soldiers will wind up becoming POWs, really, really fast.

          • bean says:

            That’s pretty much what I was getting at, although I was assuming that even the most isolationist US wouldn’t be stupid enough to let that happen. But yes, if the US decides “no response to anything except an invasion of us, ever”, that becomes viable. I’d probably go for Canada over Mexico, because of shorter supply lines, but Mexico is a viable second option, and one that deeply worried the US in the early years of the 20th century.

            @ADBG

            The big difference is that you can use the enormous blue highway called the Gulf of Mexico to move stuff forward to support the troops. But I’d base in Canada and go after the Northeast/current rust belt, which is where US industrial strength was concentrated then.

          • John Schilling says:

            Canada is the obvious starting point because, Canada having declared war on Germany in 1939, Germany can “legitimately” invade and conquer Canada without the hypothesized isolationist USA being able to do anything about it. Once Canada is in German hands, the road distance from Toronto to Washington is less than that from Warsaw to Moscow, and Winnipeg to Houston is shorter than Bucharest to Baku. Also, with a spring invasion, the Germans can stay ahead of winter as they march south.

            If Barbarossa is thinkable, so is this. And nobody will be offering the United States any Lend-Lease in this hypothetical.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            The big difference is that you can use the enormous blue highway called the Gulf of Mexico to move stuff forward to support the troops. But I’d base in Canada and go after the Northeast/current rust belt, which is where US industrial strength was concentrated then.

            I’d be scared launching the initial attack. Don’t you have to get as far as Galveston before you have a port that can support an invasion?

            From there, where do you go to take out the US? Up the Mississippi?

          • baconbits9 says:

            But I’d base in Canada and go after the Northeast/current rust belt, which is where US industrial strength was concentrated then

            This is a huge freaking area though. NYC to Detroit is 600+ miles and you have to drive south through all of Upstate NY to get to Pennsylvania by land, and then through large chunks of Pennsylvania to get to their industrial centers. You can send bombers over the great lakes to hit a lot of the industrial centers if you get your airstrips far enough south.

            The more I think about it Newfoundland isn’t a viable staging area at all. The areas physically attached to Canada have extremely low population density due to the climate conditions, and the island portion means doubling your exposure for an invasion, first hitting the island and then transporting again from the island, and you are still a thousand miles (literally) from the nearest major US city (Boston).

          • baconbits9 says:

            Once Canada is in German hands, the road distance from Toronto to Washington is less than that from Warsaw to Moscow, and Winnipeg to Houston is shorter than Bucharest to Baku. Also, with a spring invasion, the Germans can stay ahead of winter as they march south.

            These calculations are putting the cart before the horse, you are going to need a massive invasion just to cut the distance to half the Warsaw to Moscow. Planning to invade the US through Canada is way crazier than Barbarossa unless you are just assuming the Canadian invasion is all peaches and cream.

          • bean says:

            @ADBG

            I’d be scared launching the initial attack. Don’t you have to get as far as Galveston before you have a port that can support an invasion?

            I was thinking of using something like LSTs. You’d load into coastal craft somewhere in Mexico, then send them up to support the invasion.

            From there, where do you go to take out the US? Up the Mississippi?

            I guess. I’d definitely start from Canada instead of Mexico, though.

            @baconbits9 says:

            The more I think about it Newfoundland isn’t a viable staging area at all. The areas physically attached to Canada have extremely low population density due to the climate conditions, and the island portion means doubling your exposure for an invasion, first hitting the island and then transporting again from the island, and you are still a thousand miles (literally) from the nearest major US city (Boston).

            That’s a feature, not a bug. I want somewhere lightly defended and far from the enemy’s centers. The fact that it’s an island makes it easy to defend while you build up your own forces. And it’s a lot easier to go from Newfoundland to Boston than it is to go from London to New York direct. And if it fails, it’s a lot easier to write off from a propaganda front than an attempt to secure New York or Boston directly.

          • baconbits9 says:

            That’s a feature, not a bug. I want somewhere lightly defended and far from the enemy’s centers. The fact that it’s an island makes it easy to defend while you build up your own forces.

            I don’t see how any of this actually works. Yes landing in a lightly defended area is easier, but the goal isn’t to land, its to land, hold and stage. By taking this position you have made your landed troops and equipment completely immobile, painted a large target right on top of them and done no actual damage to Canada’s military condition. If you attack a strongly defended area the initial attack is more likely to fail, but given its success you will have impeded your enemies ability to resist (unless they are defending worthless areas). Controlling a waterway, oil reserves or dominating manufacturing will improve chances of further success. Additionally a strongly defended position that has been overcome is often a position that can be strongly defended by the conquerors, and you get to turn the remaining defenses to your own use.

            Landing a million troops in Newfoundland in the 1940s would mean that there is no infrastructure to handle them, there won’t be the food, water or electrical capabilities to support such a mass of men, and anything less won’t be of practical use in invading the rest of Canada. You will be cramming men, weapons and important support areas into a tiny spot with limited resupply areas (I don’t know how many deep ports there are, but there won’t be enough to stop a determined Canadian air force). Virtually the entire island will be a high value, target rich environment.

            And it’s a lot easier to go from Newfoundland to Boston than it is to go from London to New York direct

            That’s not the question*, the question is how hard is it to land and then stage in Newfoundland and then attack Boston, vs some other plan in its entirety.

            *I also don’t know that it is actually correct given the geography, getting off the island and puttering down to Boston is easier, but it is also the obvious target, making defense easier. If you have a high seas fleet then defense has to be more spread out, and you get to focus an attack on one of several areas. Attacking from Newfoundland and going overland means every man, transport and supply has to be loaded up twice at a minimum, and you have to bring enough supplies to cross hundreds of miles of varying geography with a hard timer on, and you have to consistently push beyond your air support or hug the coast and have aircraft carriers all for the big goal of what, getting troops into Maine so you can restart the whole process again the next spring to get you to Boston?

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Planning to invade the US through Canada is way crazier than Barbarossa unless you are just assuming the Canadian invasion is all peaches and cream.

            We’re talking long-term, though: Invading Canada makes sense on its own, for at least two reasons: it’s likely the site of most revanchist Brits and maybe French, and occupying it would be a deterrent in case the U.S. ever stopped being isolationist. Then a decade or two later, when Canada is fully incorporated into the Reich, the U.S. might look pretty tasty.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Nitpick: Until 1949, Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada; it was its own British colony (as opposed to Canada, which was a mostly-technically-independent Dominion.)

            That said, that doesn’t change at all the situation on the ground, and I expect it would effectively become a part of Canada or the United States in any timeline where the Nazis conquered the British Isles.

          • Tenacious D says:

            The more I think about it Newfoundland isn’t a viable staging area at all. The areas physically attached to Canada have extremely low population density due to the climate conditions, and the island portion means doubling your exposure for an invasion, first hitting the island and then transporting again from the island, and you are still a thousand miles (literally) from the nearest major US city (Boston).

            Agreed. You’d need to take Halifax to have an actual beachhead in North America.

            Edit: Here is a population density map of Newfoundland. The terrain is also very favourable for an insurgency: plenty of small coves for smuggling and the overland route from the Avalon peninsula to the west coast has many points where an effective ambush could be set up.

          • bean says:

            @baconbits

            Yes landing in a lightly defended area is easier, but the goal isn’t to land, its to land, hold and stage. By taking this position you have made your landed troops and equipment completely immobile, painted a large target right on top of them and done no actual damage to Canada’s military condition.

            What do you mean, “completely immobile”? They’re still by the sea, are they not? When I need to move them, I’ll put them back on ships.

            If you attack a strongly defended area the initial attack is more likely to fail, but given its success you will have impeded your enemies ability to resist (unless they are defending worthless areas). Controlling a waterway, oil reserves or dominating manufacturing will improve chances of further success. Additionally a strongly defended position that has been overcome is often a position that can be strongly defended by the conquerors, and you get to turn the remaining defenses to your own use.

            Military operations can either improve your position, harm the enemy’s, or both. I’m pushing hard for number 1, because I don’t think that a transatlantic invasion of the sort of strategic position you are talking about is possible at all. In my plan, I just have to overcome the defenses of Argentia, or build my own base, whichever is easier. I don’t need all of Newfoundland, and I can easily isolate the battlefield to prevent the enemy from pouring in more troops. This requires a couple divisions, max. You’re going to need a couple dozen, and you can’t do shuttle runs with your transports.

            Landing a million troops in Newfoundland in the 1940s would mean that there is no infrastructure to handle them, there won’t be the food, water or electrical capabilities to support such a mass of men, and anything less won’t be of practical use in invading the rest of Canada.

            I don’t need a million men all at once. I need maybe a tenth of that to start, and they build the base for everyone else. Once I have enough men there, I move them by short-range craft to somewhere more important. More than that, my turnaround for reusing the invasion craft is now a couple days, not a couple of weeks. This is basically the plan the US used against Japan.

            (I don’t know how many deep ports there are, but there won’t be enough to stop a determined Canadian air force).

            How do you know that if you don’t know how many ports there are?

            Virtually the entire island will be a high value, target rich environment.

            Have you actually looked at a map? Newfoundland is slightly bigger than Cuba, and in no danger of tipping over no matter how many troops you put on it.

            That’s not the question*, the question is how hard is it to land and then stage in Newfoundland and then attack Boston, vs some other plan in its entirety.

            What other plan?

            Attacking from Newfoundland and going overland means every man, transport and supply has to be loaded up twice at a minimum, and you have to bring enough supplies to cross hundreds of miles of varying geography with a hard timer on, and you have to consistently push beyond your air support or hug the coast and have aircraft carriers all for the big goal of what, getting troops into Maine so you can restart the whole process again the next spring to get you to Boston?

            What’s this about going overland? That’s a terrible plan. The whole point is that you’d launch a second amphibious assault at Boston or Halifax or Montreal, but with air support within some semblance of range, and lots of troops and material relatively close by and ready to be shuttled to the front. Seriously, this is me you’re talking to. You expected me to have the troops walk?

            @Tenacious D

            The terrain is also very favourable for an insurgency: plenty of small coves for smuggling and the overland route from the Avalon peninsula to the west coast has many points where an effective ambush could be set up.

            I don’t care about 90% of Newfoundland. I’d just carve out a section, throw everyone out, and announce that nobody was allowed back in. Small boats and airplanes should keep the Canadians from getting serious forces onto the island, and sniping at the guards just means a few more sad families back in Germany, but a lot fewer than I’d have if I tried a direct assault on a major city.

          • Chipsa says:

            Landing site in Newfoundland has the advantage in that it’s directly controlled by the UK in this point in history (WWII). So concievably, they don’t have to be invading, so much as claiming to help their new ally “Vichy England” put down a rebellion. And this could take place well ahead of the actual invasion of Canada/US: they can do it as prep work while consolidating their hold on Eurasia, so you have a sitzkrieg situation for a while, until men are freed up to make the invasion into the mainland.

          • John Schilling says:

            The most likely reason for the initial Nazi invasion of North America, in this hypothetical, is to stop the Free Royal Navy from being a pest in the Atlantic and e.g. harrying German trade with the still-neutral United States. That’s going to mean taking St. John’s and Halifax and holding both, but not any of the surrounding countryside.

            OTOH, Halifax is (barely) on the mainland, so the Canadian (or Free Britannic) Army gets to be a pest to the Halifax garrison rather than the Free Royal Navy pestering Germany’s Atlantic trade. Given the geography, and the limited resources Canada can bring to bear without US aid, that’s probably something a stiff Luftwaffe presence can keep in check.

            Until they get tired of that and decide to put an end to it by conquering or Vichifying the rest of Canada.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Chipsa, that might fly in this hypothetical isolationist United States, but definitely not in Canada, which would probably be playing host to whatever members of the Royal Family had escaped Britain. (They’re the Canadian royal family too.)

            For that matter, even if the legal reasoning is unimpeachable, I think even this United States would start to get nervous at German troops establishing themselves in the New World. It’d probably take a while to actually rebuild a US Army, though; Germany just might have some time.

          • baconbits9 says:

            @ bean

            To reply to several of your posts in the same vein all together:

            1. I don’t think you are improving your strategic position (ignoring the possibility that the Canadians accept the landing as a non invasion because NFL is technically park of GB and let it slide) by landing on an island off the coast of Canada. The effect of landing 100,000 troops and building the infrastructure to support hundreds of thousands if not millions more will simply make it a large target for the Canadian air force. This is a point you have not addressed, how will you manage to make the necessary preparations while being exposed to bombing raids for as long as Canada has planes, bombs and fuel left? How are you simultaneously going to hold onto that small part of the island when Canada has around half a million troops, and has to cross 1/100th the distance that your resupply lines need to?

            2. When I say the troops are effectively immobile I mean that they will have to load up, be transported by one of the slowest methods available at the time and then unloaded to achieve any further gains. Until they get back on the ships they are functionally zero threat while being a huge liability between their exposure to Canadian fire and the long, slow and expensive supply line they need to survive.

          • bean says:

            The effect of landing 100,000 troops and building the infrastructure to support hundreds of thousands if not millions more will simply make it a large target for the Canadian air force.

            Just how strong do you think the Canadian air force is likely to be? Argentia is about 300 miles from the nearest point on the mainland, in Nova Scotia, and St. John’s is even further away (Labrador is probably out for logistical reasons). That’s at the very edge of fighter range, unless the Americans start handing out Mustangs. So if you bounce the enemy early enough, the fighters have to go home before they get all the way over the target. Unescorted bombers are easy meat. And the Canadians have to retain forces to protect the other Maritimes, too. The overwhelming majority of the planes the Canadians built during the war were trainers. While those are vital and often overlooked, they’re useless against the Wehermacht in Newfoundland.

            This is a point you have not addressed, how will you manage to make the necessary preparations while being exposed to bombing raids for as long as Canada has planes, bombs and fuel left?

            Have you heard of aircraft carriers? And please, give me numbers on how many planes you expect the Canadians to have. Because it’s going to be lower than you think.

            How are you simultaneously going to hold onto that small part of the island when Canada has around half a million troops, and has to cross 1/100th the distance that your resupply lines need to?

            I’m going to be praying they dispatch a substantial fraction of that force to Newfoundland. Once it’s safely on the island, I start hitting its supplies hard, then make my actual landing in Nova Scotia. Hello, self-guarding POW camp! Seriously, we’ve already established that I have sea superiority, so they can’t deploy nearly as effectively as I can, regardless of the distances. You’re not thinking like a maritime strategist here. (That said, you might be thinking like a German. Which is probably why they lost the war.)

            You really haven’t thought this through, and I’ve gotten bored.

        • baconbits9 says:

          There are a lot of differences between the two cases. Germany wouldn’t have simply sailed a bunch of ships from London to land on Long Island. (Well, probably.) The obvious thing to do is seize forward bases for bombardment and blockade. Newfoundland would be the most likely first choice.

          This is extremely unlikely to work as the Canadian and US focus would be to push back the invasion there. Sure, technically stopping the first landing might be tough, but stopping the building of bases and resupply lines across the entire Atlantic wouldn’t be complicated (expensive, yes) from a military point of view. Germany would have to control the Atlantic with its navy and the landing sites in Canada with its air force, or they have to commit to shipping more materials than are being destroyed by bombing raids.

          The best (only?) chance for Germany to bring a war to the US would be an alliance with Mexico, where Japan controls/distracts/embargoes major Pacific ports, German does the same in the Atlantic and Mexico takes as many oil producing areas in the South as they can. You could possibly hold Texas with Mexico for long enough to starve the US of oil allowing major invasion preparation to begin.

          • John Schilling says:

            This is extremely unlikely to work as the Canadian and US focus would be to push back the invasion there.

            The US focus, in this hypothetical, is to not fire a shot until a foreign army is actually invading the United States.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Are we talking literally nothing that could be construed as military aid or no engagement? If the US is willing to provide similar levels of aid to Canada that it was doing for England/France/Russia before they entered the war then the invasion should still be doomed. Air control ought to go to Canada, and Germany is going to be landing hundreds of thousands to millions of troops in an area that currently only has a population around a half million. They are going to have to build all kinds of invasion infrastructure while being completely dependent on supplies coming across the Atlantic.

            If you aren’t catching Canada completely off guard then you are sitting back for 5-10 years and building a huge Navy complete with massive amounts of aircraft carriers to support and defend the initial invasion.

            I guess this is plausible if you are stipulating total victory in Europe where the Germans have caused the Soviets to sue for peace and England has been invaded and subdued.

          • bean says:

            The best (only?) chance for Germany to bring a war to the US would be an alliance with Mexico, where Japan controls/distracts/embargoes major Pacific ports, German does the same in the Atlantic and Mexico takes as many oil producing areas in the South as they can. You could possibly hold Texas with Mexico for long enough to starve the US of oil allowing major invasion preparation to begin.

            This doesn’t work any better. Mexico can’t stand against the US without extensive German support, which has to be sustained in the face of the USN trying to stop it. That’s going to be just as hard as going after Newfoundland, if not harder. And I find it hard to imagine a US isolationist enough to not take measures against a Mexico that appeared to be conspiring with Germany to invade Texas.

          • albatross11 says:

            The political viability of isolationism is partly a function of how likely it seems to the public that the country is under threat. As the visible threat increases, the willingness of the public to support a bigger military and more aggressive foreign policy will increase.

          • John Schilling says:

            Are we talking literally nothing that could be construed as military aid or no engagement? If the US is willing to provide similar levels of aid to Canada that it was doing for England/France/Russia before they entered the war then the invasion should still be doomed.

            Per the OP, the United States’ participation in World War II as it happened constitutes an unjust offensive war because of hostile American policies towards the Axis in 1939-1941. We’re exploring the “what if we didn’t do that?” counterfactual, so no lend-lease, no trade embargoes, nothing of that sort.

          • baconbits9 says:

            This doesn’t work any better. Mexico can’t stand against the US without extensive German support, which has to be sustained in the face of the USN trying to stop it

            Which is why you need Japan casuing trouble in the Pacific, Mexico in the south and Germany in the Atlantic. Perhaps you could try a mass landing in New Jersey which would tie up a lot of the US military as they have to protect NY, Philly and Baltimore/DC around the same time as the Mexico invasion of Texas. Perhaps you could try the opposite and land in NJ and try to take a couple of the major cities nearby to convince Mexico that the US was on the brink of being broken, while also drawing the forces needed to defend the initial push up into Texas, but that is a huge gamble.

            I don’t think any of these options are good, traveling thousands of miles to invade a large, prosperous, and populous nation isn’t going to go well in general, which is why my scenario included three belligerent nations causing issues in three different arenas. I doubt that I would assign as much as a 5% chance of victory is such a scenario, but this is the type of outline where you can actually define terms of how the US could be beaten (forcing difficult decisions in where to deploy resources while threatening access to a major necessary resource).

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Let’s drill more into that ‘control of the seas’ question. If the invasion would hinge on control of the seas, control of the seas would presumably hinge on a naval building race. What would that look like? Would Germany’s European empire give it a shot at matching the US?

          Also, are we assuming London is in German hands? Would that be due to Germany being able to devote its full attention to the Battle of the Atlantic?

      • John Schilling says:

        OK, at this point I think we’re going to have to ask you to pin down what constitutes a “defensive war”, and why we should care. Because you’ve shifted the goalposts away from the colloquial definition and towards something that, near as i can tell, reads:

        “Defensive War: A war waged strictly to defend a nation against an actually ongoing attempt to invade and conquer that specific nation, after having pursued a policy of strict isolation to the point of appeasement because even non-violent resistance to conquerors voids any subsequent claim to defense”

        With regard to World War 2:

        Of course, for most Americans, the answer was and is very simple: they attacked us at Pearl Harbor, so we had to defend ourselves. One might ask, however, why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor? Did they want to invade and conquer America, like North Dakota and Nebraska, thus leading them to randomly attack us out of a clear blue sky?

        See, by the common definition of “defensive war”, the thing where you send your army and navy out to do battle with someone who bombed one of your ports for no good reason, most people would consider that a central example of a defensive war. But by your definition, it only counts as a defensive war if Japan’s reason for bombing Pearl Harbor was to invade and conquer the United States. If Japan bombs Pearl Harbor for some other no-good reason, nope, no self-defense for you?

        Or were there in fact important decisions made by the FDR administration, the consequences of which were not made clear at the time to the American public, that played a role in why the Japanese decided to attack?

        I don’t think any of this was any great secret from the American public; it was front-page news that FDR and his administration imposed economic sanctions on Japan in an attempt to stop Japan’s ongoing unprovoked invasion of China and future threat to world peace in general.

        That’s economic sanctions. Non-violent opposition to someone else’s violent armed conquest. But by your standards, that voids any claim to defense. Only appeasement will do – if Japan wants our steel and oil to build and fuel weapons of war against China, we have to sell them what they want or else we don’t get to defend ourselves when they attack us.

        Firstly, even if we grant totally uncritically [that the Axis posed a long-term threat to the United States] note that this a speculative, long-term argument for why US citizens were endangered by the Axis powers and why World War 2 was necessary to defend the US. So in the case of World War 2, the poster child for a defensive war that was necessary to protect America, the best argument for a threat that someone can formulate is not a clear, immediate, present threat to Americans, but a speculative one about dangers that would manifest in 10 or 20 years after the war.

        Well, no, the best argument someone can formulate is that, hey, look someone just wrecked half a dozen of our battleships and killed three thousand of our people for no good reason, and then sent us a note saying “OBTW if you hadn’t noticed we’re at war”.

        The US response to the long-term threat posed by the Axis powers in 1939-1941 was economic sanctions, trade embargoes, lend-lease, and other non-violent measures. When it came to actual war with the United States, they shot first.

        But there’s no requirement that, to claim defensive intent or status, one has to let the other side shoot first. If the US had learned of Japan’s plans and attacked their fleet while it was crossing the Pacific, that would still have been a defensive act. And there’s no time limit on this. When one reasonably believes that an attack will occur and can be prevented only by force, one may use force in defense. At least that’s how most people see it. By your standards, apparently, it only counts if you wait until the enemy actually attacks you. As part of an invasion, following a period of appeasement.

        Also, there’s no requirement that the people being defended be the same as the people doing the defending, or even that they be citizens of the same nation. If I see someone raping a woman in a dark alley, I can order him to stop and shoot him dead if he doesn’t, even if the woman is a complete stranger. Japan, by the time the US entered the war, was raping cities. Germany was doing worse.

        Make no mistake, the United States would have been waging a legitimate, righteous, defensive war if we had invaded and conquered Japan in July of 1937, and then joined Britain and France in declaring war on Germany in September of 1939. We just would’t have been defending the United States against an immediate threat of invasion. We would have been defending the people of China and Poland, defending our own reputation and self-image as people who aren’t chickenshit cowards like the Swiss and the Spanish, and defending the principle of Nation Shall Not Conquer Nation as enshrined in the Kellog-Briand pact and the hope for a peaceful future that it optimistically promised. Those are all things worth defending. Those are all things that we are allowed to defend, and to say we are defending. And we did.

        You’ve argued that even waging war against a nation that has launched an unprovoked attack, doesn’t count as “defense” if the attack isn’t aimed specifically at invasion and conquest.

        You’ve argued that a claim to defense is voided if it is preceded by insufficient appeasement in the form of e.g. economic sanctions against nations waging unprovoked and unjust wars

        You’ve argued that a nation may not defend itself against future assaults, but must let the enemy launch the first attack.

        And you’ve wholly ignored the obvious fact that all of the US “aggressions” of 1939-1941 were clearly aimed at defending the victims of unjust aggression – who happened to not be Americans.

        That brings us back to where we started:

        “Defensive War (per Atlas): A war waged strictly to defend a nation against an actually ongoing attempt to invade and conquer that specific nation, after having pursued a policy of strict isolation to the point of appeasement because even non-violent resistance to conquerors voids any subsequent claim to defense”

        If that’s the definition of “defensive war” that you are using, I’d ask that you use a different term, because I don’t think that’s how most people use the term.

        And w/re World War II, I will note that Atlas-compliant defensive war had I believe a 0.0% success rate against the Nazis. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, all waited until they were themselves invaded rather than fight against “speculative, long-term” threats, and all of them were conquered. The nations which survived, and which ultimately rolled back the Forces of Darkness, were the ones which didn’t wait until their own territory was under attack. And, of course, the one that waged unprovoked wars of aggression of its own to expand its frontier and establish strategic depth. Your brand of “defensive” war, really kind of sucks at actually defending anything – and that’s not limited to WW2.

        And while we’re on the subject of using non-standard definitions to support your argument:

        The US and its allies were themselves conquerors, yet the United States did not try to conquer Indonesia after conquering the Philippines

        The US acquired dominion over the Phillipines as an unintended consequence of a war waged mostly half a world away, over the issue of Cuban independence from Spain. Referring to the US as a “conqueror” on this basis, is a decidedly non-standard usage of the term, and certainly not what I had in mind when I raised the subject.

        More to the point, asserting that one can use US behavior w/re the Philippines to predict Nazi behavior w/re Europe, because the US is a “conqueror” and Nazi Germany is a “conqueror” and so the US is basically just like the Nazis, is both foolish and insulting.

        • When it came to actual war with the United States, they shot first.

          But only because it took the Flying Tigers longer to get into action in China than expected.

        • albatross11 says:

          Which of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece could have realistically fought Nazi Germany more effectively if they’d attacked first? I mean, if they’d attacked early enough, before Germany started rearming, maybe, but it’s not obvious to me that there were *any* good strategies available for, say, Poland or Belgium.

          Any of the Soviet Union, France, and the UK might have been able to benefit some by pre-emptively attacking Nazi Germany, but it’s hard to see that working out for a very small country next to a big, powerful, aggressive country.

          • engleberg says:

            The Poles would have fought Germany more effectively if they’d skipped joining Germany’s invasion of the Czechs and put everything that flew into strafing Germany’s railroads. And still lost, of course.

          • John Schilling says:

            Poland could and should have promised her support to Czechoslovakia in 1938, no matter what Chamberlain and Daladier wanted. There’s a modest chance this would have averted WWII altogether; worst case, Poland falls a few months sooner but inflicts a much heavier cost on the Nazis in the process. Remember, the 1938 Wehrmacht vs Czechoslovakia alone was not going to be a cakewalk, and the German general staff was ambivalent about Fall Grün without a second front in Poland.

            The rest of the minor and belated allies did not share a common border with Czechoslovakia, but there’s no good reason for any of them not to have joined Britain and France in their declaration of war against Germany in September 1939. Their passivity bought them nothing; the Germans invaded each of them in turn exactly as soon as it was strategically advantageous to do so, and on the flip side, did not invade openly belligerent France until the time was right. But, by insisting on neutrality until each was itself directly invaded, each of them was in turn defeated alone, by the focused might of the Third Reich and with no possibility of assistance from the other Allied powers.

    • cassander says:

      Safer, perhaps not, but the population of the US desires things other than safety. The mexican american war, the indian wars, even the war for independence, all brought huge amounts of land into US possession, which was something the population very much desired. On top of that, a substantial part of the reason that the US is so safe is because it’s huge. The effects of a much smaller US are, of course, impossible to predict, but it seems safe to say that the US almost certainly would have ended up more vulnerable.

      On top of that, you’ve left out the largest war the US did fight, the Cold War. Communism absolutely did represent a huge threat to the US, and had it not been confronted, it almost certainly would have become a larger war. You can’t talk about korea and vietnam in isolation, as if they were random events unconnected to the larger struggle. Communism did have to be fought, and sometimes fought violently. If it hadn’t been in korea and vietnam, teh alternatives would have been somewhere else or surrender.

      Responding to part 2:

      Specifically on the point of ww2, You’re absolutely right that in 1939 or 41, or what have you, no one was considering invading the US, but you’re failing to consider the geopolitical outlook that would have resulted from the war.

      Let’s assume that the US doesn’t get involved and the axis win. Whether or not they conquer the US, the result is an ideologically hostile empire stretching across most of the Eurasian landmass. the soviet union was able to pose an existential threat to the US and that was with Germany, the UK, france, Japan, and the smaller europeans as allies. The axis empire would have been almost as large in acreage, would have had considerably more people in it, and would likely have ended up just as ideologically hostile. I can see no possibility that we wouldn’t have gotten into a cold war with an enemy that controlled more people, more resources, and which was geographically better positioned to threaten the US than the USSR and which wasn’t wedded to a self destructive economic model, while the US would have had many fewer allies around their periphery. That’s not a good place for the US to be.

      • Atlas says:

        Safer, perhaps not, but the population of the US desires things other than safety. The mexican american war, the indian wars, even the war for independence, all brought huge amounts of land into US possession, which was something the population very much desired. On top of that, a substantial part of the reason that the US is so safe is because it’s huge. The effects of a much smaller US are, of course, impossible to predict, but it seems safe to say that the US almost certainly would have ended up more vulnerable.

        I agree that wars against Native Americans and the Mexican-American War materially benefited Americans, which I guess is a minor revision of my original claim, but I think the fact that they were aggressive wars of conquest is still clear and important. This actually raises a distinction that Pat Buchanan’s book A Republic, Not an Empire demonstrated to me: American foreign policy for most of the 19th century was about acquiring minimally populated contiguous land possessions on the North American continent, not, as JQA put it, “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” However, that clearly changed with the Spanish-American War.

        Perhaps in the long run it made the US less vulnerable, though perhaps not, but at least in the short run US wars against Amerindians and the Mexican-American War were obviously aggressive wars where to the extent that there was a threat to Americans it was a threat primarily created in response to American desire to conquer land.

        On top of that, you’ve left out the largest war the US did fight, the Cold War. Communism absolutely did represent a huge threat to the US, and had it not been confronted, it almost certainly would have become a larger war. You can’t talk about korea and vietnam in isolation, as if they were random events unconnected to the larger struggle. Communism did have to be fought, and sometimes fought violently. If it hadn’t been in korea and vietnam, teh alternatives would have been somewhere else or surrender.

        Well, the “Cold War” is a broad umbrella, so I focused on specific military conflicts. But, nonetheless, while I am anti-communist and am willing to agree that the Cold War broadly speaking might well have been morally justified, I still do not think that “Communism” in any form posed a material threat to the continental United States, especially not in the actual wars that the US fought. Given both the United States’ oceanic borders and nuclear arsenal, I do not believe that a Red Dawn style invasion would ever have occurred, no matter how little the US did internationally to fight Communism.

        Additionally, I think the USSR was ultimately defeated more by its own internal contradictions rather than by battlefield loss. Generally I think more dovish commentators like George Kennan turned out to have more accurate assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions than more hawkish ones.

        • cassander says:

          American foreign policy for most of the 19th century was about acquiring minimally populated contiguous land possessions on the North American continent, not, as JQA put it, “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” However, that clearly changed with the Spanish-American War.

          to the extent that this is true, and it’s at least debatable, that’s largely because (A) we had “monsters” at home to destroy in the shape of various land grabs, and (B) the ability of the country to go abroad was far more limited by geography, demography, and technology. the US population was smaller than the UKs through about 1860 or so. As soon as we got the ability to start hunting monsters, we did so in earnest. to say that conquers are cannon balls is indeed an oversimplification, but a country’s grasp absolutely does grows with its reach.

          I still do not think that “Communism” in any form posed a material threat to the continental United States, especially not in the actual wars that the US fought.

          communism was backed with the force of tens of thousands of nuclear weapon’s. It is arguably the ONLY thing that has threatened the continental united states since the british burned the white house down.

          >Given both the United States’ oceanic borders and nuclear arsenal, I do not believe that a Red Dawn style invasion would ever have occurred, no matter how little the US did internationally to fight Communism.

          A red dawn style invasion isn’t really the threat that was being fought. It was the threat that the communists would take western europe, then the UK, then canada, and then probably wouldn’t even have to launch a red dawn style invasion because they were such an obviously successful system that by then the US would be riddled with 5th columns.

          Additionally, I think the USSR was ultimately defeated more by its own internal contradictions rather than by battlefield loss. Generally I think more dovish commentators like George Kennan turned out to have more accurate assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions than more hawkish ones

          It absolutely was. But letting it get pulled apart by its internal contradictions was only possible because (A), there was a viable alternative world for states to sign up with that (B) wasn’t allowed to be conquered be conquered out of existence.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Most of them are not defensive, I agree. And yet most, including the most blatantly non-defensive, have made America and/or the world much better off.

      Mexican-American was a blatant land grab, and yet the inhabitants of that land today are undoubtedly better off for that grab having occurred.
      The Confederacy wasn’t much of a threat to the citizens of the Union, but it sure was to the slaves inside it.
      Spanish-American–we didn’t do great by the colonies we got, but ‘better than continued Spanish rule’ is a low enough bar that we probably cleared it.
      WWI I don’t have a detailed case for. My gut says the conventional wisdom that Germany was Bad is substantially correct, but I don’t expect that to persuade anyone. I’d be interested in any good analysis of the counterfactual here.
      WWII has been discussed enough elsewhere in the thread.
      Korea is the reason that today’s South Korea isn’t part of North Korea. I consider this a very good thing.
      Vietnam I’ll give you was a mistake. BUT, it was a mistake committed in the prosecution of the Cold War, which was absolutely both a defensive conflict of necessity, and an enormous net positive for the US and the world.
      Later wars are a different conversation in which I have fewer strong opinions.

      • phi says:

        … the Cold War, which was absolutely both a defensive conflict of necessity, and an enormous net positive for the US and the world.

        I think we need better statistics on how many Everett branches ended in thermonuclear fire before we can claim that the cold war was a net positive for the world.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Also how many branches without the cold war ended up with the remaining starving Americans having to learn Russian to speak to their masters.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Not that many, I think. The US out-missiled Russia for most of the Cold War, so Russia would’ve ended up at least as devastated as America.

          • phi says:

            Yes, that too. 🙂 I suspect not very many, but it’s difficult to be certain about these things.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          It’s come up here before that nuclear war is much less of an existential threat than popularly imagined. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_holocaust#Likelihood_of_complete_human_extinction:

          The United States and Soviet Union/Russia nuclear stockpiles, in total number of nuclear bombs/warheads in existence throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War era.

          Many scholars have posited that a global thermonuclear war with Cold War-era stockpiles, or even with the current smaller stockpiles, may lead to human extinction. This position was bolstered when nuclear winter was first conceptualized and modelled in 1983. However, models from the past decade consider total extinction very unlikely, and suggest parts of the world would remain habitable.

          ETA: Non-existential harm from nuclear war would of course still be severe and quite relevant to our evaluation of the Cold War.

          • albatross11 says:

            Billions dead and most civilization in the northern hemisphere wrecked, yes. Human extinction, probably not. Even a nuclear winter would make things nastier for the survivors, but presumably the New Zealanders and Chileans and such would mostly survive.

          • Matt M says:

            Isn’t that also true about climate change (that the likelihood of significant damages is high, but the likelihood of actual extinction is very very low?)

          • Aapje says:

            Humans are so adaptive that total extinction is very unlikely. See the documentaries about Mad Max for evidence of this.

          • that the likelihood of significant damages is high

            Gross or net?

            The likelihood that there will be significant negative effects is high, as for almost any large change. I don’t think the likelihood that the net effect will be large and negative is large, although that’s certainly the currently orthodox claim.

    • Registered says:

      It is an interesting idea you are proposing, I mostly agree. Upthread posters have responded in particulars. I think wars are driven by more basic human desires than the particulars discussed.

      People rarely reflect critically on justifications for wars. Exactly why these issues are undiscussed is because the answers make us uncomfortable. To do so, you would eventually have to admit, you are hitting someone over the head and taking stuff. Even if they attack first, you still get to take something of value if you win.

      I have always thought this a given. Many others I realize do not. Pre, ad and post hoc fluff/justifications are motivational, to get one’s head right for what will/is/did occur. No one wants to be the individual who dies so the group can get more stuff/money.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yes, some historians’ myopic focus on battle maps and tactics is rather irritating to me. I get that people like these things (though I personally don’t see why), but they can’t exist in a vacuum. It is also interesting to understand the motives of various leaders in comparison with their strategies – did they support the war? What did they want to achieve? What was off limits to them? What did they think of the enemy? Did they change tactics depending on the perceived motivations of another leader? There is a huge systemic and human factor in these things that cannot be separated from the “games.”

      I think I’m largely in agreement with your point, but I also kind of took for granted that most wars are probably not necessary for survival and are done for other reasons. Certainly actual invasions have happened many times, but I’d still say most wars were probably not self-defensive in a strict sense. Power and image are huge drivers, and probably make war more inevitable than actual threats of annihilation. Certain wars are both unnecessary and inevitable.

      • BBA says:

        “Both unnecessary and inevitable” is how I would describe the US Civil War.

        • mtl1882 says:

          Yep, that’s the one I had in mind, and the only one I’ve studied in depth. But I figured I wouldn’t get into that can of worms. The war was could certainly have been delayed, but something was going down. It was such a slaughter that I have wondered if it would have been better to let the South go and then wage a series of smaller battles as the friction continued, but who knows what would have happened then. I certainly think it would have sapped America’s resources and attention for so long that we’d be significantly compromised now. Quick and decisive tends to be better, and freeing the slaves was such a benefit in itself that it may justify it, but boy did it come at a cost.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Harry Turtledove wrote several novels about what would have happened if the USCW had gone another way. His alternate history has flaws, depending on who you ask, but he seems to go out of his way to present historical figures based on their actual history. Consequently, his books contain a lot of food for thought on how this might have gone.

          • mtl1882 says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            Thank you – I will look into it.

          • albatross11 says:

            I’ll admit, I enjoyed the vision of Lincoln as a socialist revolutionary firebrand after losing the civil war.

            OTOH, that series was about as dark and horrible as anything I can remember reading. Particularly starting with basically sympathetic (if flawed) characters like Pinkard and Featherston, and watching them turn into what they turned into by the end of the last book.

          • John Schilling says:

            Yes, if you’re not going to read Arendt, Turtledove gives you the fictional but disturbingly convincing understanding of how basically decent people turn into genocidal monsters.

          • Atlas says:

            I concur with Turtledove recommendation. However, I personally would recommend his Timeline 191 series over his novel the Guns of the South, as far as USCW alternate history goes. Be warned, though, that the quality of the writing does dip noticeably, in my humble opinion at least, in the last 4 books. Still, a pretty good alt-history series overall.

    • Atlas says:

      Many thanks to everyone, especially John Schilling, who commented in reply to this post. I have a lot of thoughts about what everyone has said, but unfortunately I am a very slow and ponderous writer. Since this week is the beginning of the semester for me, I have been absolutely swamped with work and schoolwork, but when I have some time off on the weekend I’ll hopefully try to respond to various things people have said in a later OT, if anyone is still interested in this discussion.

  24. theredsheep says:

    In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis claims that a certain amount of virtue is necessary to make a really terrible villain (the examples he gives are Atilla’s courage and, uh, the fictional evil Jew Shylock’s asceticism, for some reason). This stuck with me, and really came back to me when Trump was elected, because Trump, quite simply, appears to lack all virtue in the classical sense. That is, he doesn’t possess any character trait I can determine that one should be proud of, or which would ordinarily lead to prosperity or flourishing. He isn’t honest, kind, loyal, brave, modest, temperate, prudent, generous, diligent, or anything else like that. And he seems to prove Lewis’s claim in a negative way, in that his vices undercut each other. He’s too lazy to attempt anything really ambitious and stick to it, too vain and insecure to act decisively in the face of criticism, too self-centered to dedicate himself to any kind of grand cause. He appears to be a perfectly failed human being, and content to sit around tweeting inflammatory things and calling for parades. Also a very large amount of otherwise pedestrian corruption.

    Anyway, what about positive examples? What are the virtues of history’s monsters? What were Hitler’s virtues, or Mao’s, or Stalin’s? I’ve read about Hitler’s early life, and the best I’ve got is that he was legitimately idealistic in the sense of really believing that Germany was doomed and anything was justified to save her. Other than that, he was legitimately brave when necessary and could work hard within the limited sphere of touring Germany giving endless rabblerousing speeches. Then again, Trump can do that. He’s just not one tenth as good at it.

    Please, praise monsters for me, or give me an example of a total monster who nevertheless did tons of damage.

    • Bugmaster says:

      Regardless of how you feel about Trump, at the very least you’ve got to admit that he was elected to the highest office in the land, in the face of overwhelming opposition and against all odds. That’s got to count for something. Moreover, he continues to enjoy a reasonably high degree of popularity, despite his enemies’ continuously sustained efforts to undermine that popularity. He has also accomplished a certain number of his stated political goals (however evil those goals might be), though the extent of his accomplishments is certainly arguable.

      I’m more of a consequentialist than a virtue ethicist. If your virtue-based model predicts that Trump should utterly fail at his own goals; and observation informs us that Tump is not utterly failing; then perhaps your model is wrong and virtues don’t matter as much as you think they do.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        If your virtue-based model predicts that Trump should utterly fail at his own goals; and observation informs us that Tump is not utterly failing; then perhaps your model is wrong and virtues don’t matter as much as you think they do.

        That, or perhaps you’ve not properly identified the virtues. I’ve heard a lot of people cite his nativism, for example, and more specifically his protectionism.

        Another factor is that he’s being graded on a curve with effectively two points. He doesn’t have to be “virtuous”, per se; just more virtuous, in the eyes of the voters, than the alternative.

    • cassander says:

      Hitler was, by all accounts far more than a rabble rouser, but a brilliant and charismatic speaker. Stalin was one of the greatest bureaucratic manipulators in history. Mao managed to win a 3 decades long multisided civil war and is widely considered one of the greatest insurgent generals in history. That they used their gifts for evil ends doesn’t mean that they didn’t have gifts. Had they not had those gifts, they never would have gotten the power to do all that evil in the first place.

      As for trump, as bugmaster says, he did win an election that very few people could win against a field of people who were vastly more experienced in the political arena and against the opposition of much of his own party.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Also, wasn’t Hitler a war hero? He got the Iron Cross for bravery and was even gassed.

        • dndnrsn says:

          He was awarded both degrees of the Iron Cross, but this isn’t as impressive as some think it is – millions of the second class and hundreds of thousands of the first class got awarded in both wars. In general, in both wars, the Germans seem to have been considerably freer in handing out medals (eg, over 7k recipients of the Knight’s Cross and variants, issued only in WWII, vs 1,355 recipients of the Victoria Cross over its entire history) and far more likely to hand out the same medals out for command effectiveness as for valour (plus, this being Nazi Germany, medals got handed out for behaviour that was distinctly unheroic – eg, the guy who was in charge of putting the Warsaw uprising down was awarded the Knight’s Cross, medals were handed out to commanders of death squads, etc).

          So, he was a war hero, but of a fairly commonplace sort: he played up his image as a common soldier far more.

          • theredsheep says:

            IIRC he ran messages, sometimes through dangerous ground. There’s no reason to believe he was an actual coward. The beer-hall putsch, asinine as it was, probably took a certain amount of courage. He was up in the front lines when they exchanged fire with the police. Or so I recall. I read that biography months ago.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Yeah, he was a runner, which I think was a relatively dangerous job, and he was willing to get shot at in the putsch attempt. However, it’s a common misunderstanding concerning the Iron Cross – it doesn’t require suicidal bravery like one sees in VC citations or whatever.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I can’t tell if Lewis is just saying that you can’t be a really successful villain unless you’re competent, or something more profound.

      Stalin, Hitler, and Trump are all competent (in different ways!) at getting power, which seems to qualify. I think Trump’s special competence is in getting and holding people’s attention, sort of a very particular type of PR. I agree that doesn’t really match well to “virtue”, but I think the competence framing is probably better than the virtue framing for just this reason.

      • arlie says:

        I suspect that Lewis, given his beliefs, really meant virtue, and reframing as competence wouldn’t have worked for him.

        For me, the framing as competence is somewhat a tautology. Let’s say I’m writing a thriller, or an EOTWAWKI story, and require a villain attempting to exterminate the human race. It’s not even going to be worth reading or writing if they don’t have a plausible plan, within their abilities, or close to it. And they certainly aren’t going to succeed – really life super villain – if they aren’t competent to implement whatever method they settle on.

        Even the most banal of evil generally requires a lot of people doing the same not-so-good thing, to accomplish anything worse than harming a few people local to them.

        • theredsheep says:

          He did have a further example, less explicitly defined: in Out of the Silent Planet, there are two villains. One is motivated purely by greed; the other sees himself as a hero, and wants to colonize the stars for the sake of perpetuating the human race. The latter is, in a sense, more virtuous, since he is driven by a twisted kind of love, and he ultimately winds up being more dangerous. He takes bigger risks to achieve his goal, even to the extent of being willing to die to achieve it if need be. The greedy one limps cautiously along in his wake, seeing if he can exploit interplanetary colonialism for cash but ready to snatch back his hand the moment he sees danger.

          To some extent, I wonder if the same is true of Trump and Hitler; Trump wants to be big and famous just to be big and famous, he doesn’t want to do anything in particular with it. Okay, he wants to crack down on illegal immigrants, I guess that sort of counts–and that is the area where he would seem to be doing the greatest harm, in the sense of breaking up families and detaining children, etc. But Hitler genuinely loved his adopted country, saw it under threat, and wanted to defend it. That drove him to not only attain power, but use it aggressively and decisively. If he’d hated communism and seen democracy as its natural antithesis, he could have done tremendous good with his gifts for mass mobilization.

          • theredsheep says:

            Actually, I just checked in OotSP, and the angel of Malacandra says it explicitly, that Devine (the greedy one) is so degraded as to be basically an animal, and not terribly dangerous even if he is worthless. Weston, the sick idealist, is far more dangerous, but by the same token worth saving because that danger comes from his still having one functioning moral instinct.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            I’m glad everybody is so good at reading Trump’s mind.

            I wonder if there is any chance at all that he genuinely loves his country and sees it under threat. Certainly a lot of the people who voted for him do.

          • Plumber says:

            ^

            “I’m glad everybody is so good at reading Trump’s mind….”

            @Doctor Mist

            I’ve no idea what’s in Trump’s mind, nor do I have a guess, and the man seemed an odious boss on “The Apprentice” with his “Your fired!” shtick, but I do give him credit for his commitment to protectionism, and I confess to being envious of his base because he’s actually delivering a visual crackdown on immigration that they wanted (even though I think he’s being cruel and going after the wrong people, I’d much rather see a crackdown on the “job creators” than desperate migrants).

            If he also showed some commitment to the promised infrastructure projects it might take some of the stench away from the tax cuts he signed.

            Since I just called Trump odious I feel I should be balanced and name a Democrat that I find odious as well, and one comes readily to mind: Gavin Newsom, and for two of the same reasons: personal life, and personal style.

      • raj says:

        It’s more like, a truly evil villain is one that has acknowledged and understood virtue, and then rejected it.

        It is more of a virtue ethics based rather than utilitarian perspective of evil; a fallen hero is more tragic than a born monster.

        See also Christian preference for hot or cold belief both being preferable to apathy (Revelation 3:14-22).

    • LadyJane says:

      @theredsheep: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao all displayed courage, resolve, a strong work ethic, and arguably a genuine concern for the groups they claimed to fight for (though that last one is debatable).

      I would say that Trump has some virtues too, although they’re harder to clearly identity. While he may be lazy, weak-willed, and prone to changing his mind, he still displays a certain kind of stubborn resolve and can work very hard when he chooses to. His raw authenticity and emotional earnestness might also be seen as a virtue, even if he lacks any kind of moral, social, or intellectual honesty (assuming you believe he’s at least being genuine about expressing how he feels).

      Someone with no virtues would be more like some random dude with anger management issues and poor impulse control who sits around the house all day doing nothing but watching TV and drinking beer, making his wife do everything for him and abusing her to make sure she stays in line. Someone completely devoid of physical or moral courage, who’d constantly insult and yell at people he knows are too timid to fight back, but who’d also suck up to anyone who posed a physical or social threat to him. I can’t imagine someone like that getting very far in life, so while he might make life worse for the people unfortunate enough to be in his immediate social circle, he wouldn’t be able to cause any real harm to the world as a whole.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Stalin had a strong work ethic, I don’t know about Mao, but Hitler by many accounts was fairly lazy.

        • FLWAB says:

          For instance, during D-Day the generals wanted to bring an armored division in Paris up to the coast to fight off the invasion, but due to previous meddling the division could only move if Hitler ordered it to directly. That might not have been a big problem…but Hitler liked to sleep past noon, and none of his aides wanted to risk waking him up.

          • Aapje says:

            Both Stalin and Hitler were night owls. In the night before the invasion, Hitler went to sleep at 03:00. I don’t see how going to bed late and waking late makes someone more lazy than a person who goes to bed early and wakes early.

            The D-Day story is complicated by the German belief in a diversionary pre-attack. It seems to me that the issue is not that Hitler was sleeping, but that the generals were afraid to disturb him until it was quite clear that the attack was real.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Aapje

            By most accounts, Hitler spent a lot of late nights not working, but making subordinates watch films and listen to his pontificating.

    • Baeraad says:

      I think what Lewis overlooked was that a lazy person can nonetheless work very hard at doing the things they want to do, which allows them to be effectively diligent while still being morally slothful. Trump is lazy, but he really-really-really-REALLY wanted to become President and show that he was better than everyone else, so he worked hard at it and succeeded. And as President, he really-really-really-REALLY wants to run around and bellow at people, and somehow that’s working out pretty well for him too.

      Also, I suppose that Lewis might have claimed that Trump has the virtue of Conviction? He genuinely believes in himself and in his right to do whatever he wants to, whenever he wants to – he isn’t the sort of wishy-washy small-time sinner that Lewis seems to have despised the most. And certainly I don’t think he’d get away with absolutely freaking everything the way he does, if he didn’t have that one defining virtue.

      • theredsheep says:

        I don’t think he actually does believe in himself; he’s really quite insecure.

        • LadyJane says:

          What I was getting at with my post was that Trump has a certain kind of bizarre integrity to him, where his sense of entitlement and outrage is genuinely real, even if his stated reasons for feeling those emotions aren’t. I don’t think he believes the things he says are true, nor do I think he believes they’re false. I think actual truth is an irrelevancy in his mind, perhaps even something that he can’t conceptualize on the same level that most people can. But when he gets angry about something he hears on Fox News or Breitbart, I do think that anger is legitimate, and that’s what allows him to be so effective at rallying his supporters. When he talks about how he worked hard to get where he is and how he deserves everything he has, I have no doubt that he’s utterly convinced himself of that sentiment, emotionally if not factually.

          Lewis would probably describe his virtue of Conviction as having been so far twisted and distorted in upon itself that it’s completely swallowed up all the related virtues that surround it (like Honesty, Courage, and Rectitude), leaving nothing but a grotesque parody that’s almost but not quite indistinguishable from pure sinful egotism (what Lewis termed “animal self-love”). Yet it’s that millimeter of difference between “I should get what I want because I’m me and that’s all that matters” and “I should get what I want because I’m amazing and I deserve this,” however thin and flimsy of a pretense the latter is, that enables Trump to be so much more persuasive and successful than the abusive alcoholic husband who does nothing with his life.

        • Baeraad says:

          I don’t know – being oversensitive to criticism isn’t the same thing as being insecure. I think, rather, that he sees himself as being so inherently wonderful that any attack against his precious self is a crime against all that is good and right.

          • Aapje says:

            @Baeraad

            A not uncommon pattern:

            Critic: “The pope doesn’t do enough against sexual abuse by priests”
            Apologist: “Why do you hate Christianity?”

            Critic: “These feminists favor policies that discriminate against men”
            Apologist: “Why do you hate women?”

      • LadyJane says:

        As an aside, I don’t think that Lewis despised wishy-washy small-time sinners the most. He thought they were utterly lacking in virtue, yes, but he also considered them relatively harmless. If anything, I would say he had more disdain and fear for the sinners who monomaniacally upheld a single virtue at the expense of all others, to the point where reason and empathy and morality become nothing more than sacrifices to be made at the altar of that one terminal value. Certainly he would’ve considered Hitler and Stalin to be men of virtue, on some level, and all the more diabolical for it.

        He also makes the point in The Great Divorce that people who are simply weak-willed and prone to sins of impulse are more easily redeemed than those who genuinely believe themselves to be righteous. Those consumed by vice can choose to break free of their sinful nature, but those consumed by corrupted virtue will likely have degenerated into something more like a Paperclip Maximizer than a human being, a broken machine on loop forever that would pursue its insane goals for eternity if given the chance. And in Lewis’ version of Hell, that is exactly the chance they will be given (albeit in permanent isolation, without the ability to harm others in the process).

        “If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.”

        • Baeraad says:

          As an aside, I don’t think that Lewis despised wishy-washy small-time sinners the most. He thought they were utterly lacking in virtue, yes, but he also considered them relatively harmless. If anything, I would say he had more disdain and fear for the sinners who monomaniacally upheld a single virtue at the expense of all others, to the point where reason and empathy and morality become nothing more than sacrifices to be made at the altar of that one terminal value. Certainly he would’ve considered Hitler and Stalin to be men of virtue, on some level, and all the more diabolical for it.

          We may be talking at cross-purposes here… I also have the impression that Lewis was more worried about the sort of sinners who were virtuous in a few select ways, because he figured that those were the sinners who could actually get stuff done. But to me, being worried about someone is, in itself, a form of respect; you can hate someone you fear, but you can’t properly despise them. To me, to despise someone implies a form of huffy disdain, a you’re-not-even-worth-the-effort-ness, that is impossible to cultivate against someone who might genuinely do something to harm you or the things you care about.

      • Randy M says:

        Also, I suppose that Lewis might have claimed that Trump has the virtue of Conviction?

        I need to reread some of Lewis, but I am curious now whether he would see (wrong) convictions as being virtuous. I tend to doubt it. Bravery in defending them, sure, that’s courage, but holding tight to falsehood doesn’t sound like something Lewis would admire.

        • Evan Þ says:

          But, look at Emeth in Last Battle, and how Rishda is derided for not even believing in Tash till the end.

          • Randy M says:

            I don’t recall the wording there, but if the goal was to show that conviction qua* conviction is laudable there were many devout priests of Tash that could have been greeted by Aslan, accepting their devout rituals and human sacrifice as pleasing to him on account of the strength of their belief, instead of the man who believed in a $God who valued honesty and duty and kindness and strove to live these virtues in spite of the priests of Tash preaching vice.

            *am I using that right?

          • Evan Þ says:

            That’s a good point about Emeth. However, the protagonists denigrating (if that’s the right word – maybe “ridiculing” is better?) Rishda’s disbelief makes me think Lewis would say your hypothetical devout priests are at least marginally better than other priests who did the same things without even believing in Tash.

          • Randy M says:

            That could simply be because the perpetrators of the Tashlan scheme were knowingly perpetrating a lie in order to achieve power–in addition to the other abuses of that power. And intentionally leading others astray.

            Conviction isn’t a good in and of itself, but at least if you are honestly convinced of an incorrect moral system, you aren’t knowingly committing and coercing others to commit evil. In a legalistic sense, it turns an immoral action into an amoral action.

            But, I don’t know if Lewis would believe that such conviction is possible without some level of purposeful self-delusion. He was a believer in the universality of the self-evident moral law (not in the specifics, necessarily, but at least in the broad strokes), see his discussion of the Tao in, iirc, the Abolition of Man.

          • theredsheep says:

            For comparison, in the Silmarillion Tolkien says that Sauron was only less evil than Morgoth because, for a time, he served someone other than himself. Now, that someone was, of course, Morgoth; nevertheless, it still counted as the faintest sliver of goodness because evil is by nature self-centered. To do the will of one other than oneself is intrinsically good in that sense, though that does not remove our obligation to serve a good master.

    • Aapje says:

      @theredsheep

      I think that Trump’s skills are pretty much the opposite of those appreciated by most people here and certainly are not appreciated by you, evidenced by your claim that traits that lead to “prosperity or flourishing” are being “honest, kind, loyal, modest, temperate, generous, prudent, kind, diligent.” Those skills are good for merely moderate flourishing, while the truly successful tend to not have these traits.

      I would argue that some of the most successful create a perception that is at odds with their actual behavior, allowing them to benefit from unearned trust. So they have an aura of honesty, kindness, loyalty, etc; but their actual behavior doesn’t comport with that.

      Note that the relative difficulty that SSCers tend to have in dating may often also be attributable to a surplus in the traits you respect; and an unwillingness to cultivate a certain duplicity between signalling and behavior.

      Aside from that, Trump is anti-elitist, which many see as a virtuous point of view. I also think that he is quite brave, as he has made many risky choices (like running for president). He is certainly seen as brave by many for standing up to the establishment.

      As for Hitler: he was also a hard working dictator (although one that made bad choices how to spend his time, micromanaging things that he had no expertise in), was quite ascetic (being a vegetarian, teetotaler and non-smoker at a time where that was abnormal) and he correctly judged the communists to be a huge threat to human well-being before the most damning communist crimes against humanity happened. If he hadn’t committed horrible crimes against humanity himself, he might have been well-regarded for this.

      • theredsheep says:

        I think I need to own up here that “flourishing” is somewhat subjective, and thus virtue can be hard to define.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Someone who is both evil and incompetent (having no positives) is likely to do a relatively small amount of damage compared to history’s greatest monsters. Getting into the position where one can kill hundreds of thousands, millions, or tens of millions of people requires being good at whatever enables a person to get into such a position: Stalin did not bumble into leadership of the USSR, for example.

      There are some wires crossed between virtues that are moral and those that are merely practical. Is bravery a moral virtue? People have done brave things for terrible causes. I think though that people tend to view even competence as a moral virtue: there’s a need to view one’s opponents as not merely evil or wrong, but as stupid, cowardly, weak, etc.

    • mtl1882 says:

      These posts are really confusing to me, though they are certainly common and you are articulating the thoughts of many.

      I get why Trump is appalling to many people, especially since he became president.

      But “He’s too lazy to attempt anything really ambitious and stick to it, too vain and insecure to act decisively in the face of criticism.” This baffles me. The guy takes on one fanatical battle after another, never backing down long after he is declared dead. He loves it. He loves acting decisively. He loves criticism. He loves ambition. It is completely bizarre to me that people argue a man lacking ambition and oversensitive to slights got himself elected president with the media and his own party against him, under a torrent of feverish criticism.

      But other people have said this to me.

      When Trump started running, out of curiosity, I read all his books. Yeah, they’re ghostwritten, exaggerated, whatever. Whoever’s voice and life that was, it was interesting and unexpected, and I found it at times admirable. His behavior since has largely canceled that favorable first impression, but it did make me view the campaign very differently than most. He loves conflict, and he loves projects. A ghostwriter couldn’t fake the vigor with which he speaks of construction details and zoning battles. I think even Scott acknowledged this in his review of one of Trump’s books. He’s pretty upfront with his tactics and questionable values, including his manipulation and insult techniques. I find that refreshing, even when I strongly disagree, and I think many other Americans share that stand. People are sick of politicians who allegedly personify virtue but in reality lack all substance for fear they might slip. Ideally, one can be both virtuous and a strong leader, and god knows I’d love to see one of them. But for too long, virtuous has been associated with passive condescension and pandering. And that’s not an attack on virtue itself – those people were simply never that virtuous, or didn’t have the courage to live those virtues publicly. Cheapen virtue for that long, and it looks the same as vice.

      There’s more about this that I could say, but I find it falls on deaf ears. There are many reasons to hate Trump. But for the love of god, being clueless and thin-skinned aren’t options. For better or for worse, the guy has had astounding success in the midst of incredible criticism. What scares me far more than Trump is how many people can’t see that Trump is playing them – he LOVES criticism and a challenge. He relishes it. He invites it. The best thing people can do is to stop playing his distraction/insult game and get real about what skills he used to win.

      I hope this doesn’t sound uncharitable – I truly don’t mean it that way. I am just truly baffled by this incongruity – Trump’s phenomenal and highly contested success, and allegations that he is a nonfunctional human being. Or even harder to understand, thin-skinned. Yes, he reacts to everything with a Twitter tantrum. That’s not being thin-skinned. That’s turning negative attention back towards the audience and manipulating them with it. And it works scarily well.

      Our society has a major problem with insisting on scolding people who aren’t looking for approval, and then being shocked when those people rise up. It is an important life skill to recognize when people are not playing by your particular rules and to adjust accordingly, not yell louder what the rules are. And this is a *crucial* political skill – the lack of which Trump’s campaign exposed to a shocking degree.

      • beleester says:

        The reason people say he’s not ambitious and doesn’t stick to things isn’t because he doesn’t try. It’s because he tries briefly, makes a big media splash about it, and then quietly lets it die when he discovers the actual complexities involved. And nobody notices because actual policy is boring and slow-moving so nobody checks back to see if the things he started actually got completed.

        For instance, the Obamacare repeal. A whole bunch of fanfare about how he was ready to sign a replacement on day one, followed by the Republicans realizing that they couldn’t actually agree on a replacement plan, followed by quietly removing the mandate and hoping that nobody notices they went from “repeal and replace” to “kill slowly and don’t replace.”

        And more recently, we had the North Korea summit. He met with Kim Jong-Un, had a nice photo-op, made some bold statements about how the nuclear threat was no more, we even got some commemorative coins. We’re just missing the part where he gets an actual treaty out of it.

        Trump has tried taking on a number of big projects, but I’m going to hold off on praising his ambition and work ethic until he actually sees one of his projects through to the end.

        • mtl1882 says:

          If you look at his history of construction battles, the guy tries hard, over a period of decades. He also tried hard over a long and brutal campaign in which he was declared dead every day. Now that may not translate to his activities as president – maybe he has gotten lazy.

          But I think your assessment is more accurate – yes, he does make a big splash, and lets it die when it becomes uncomplicated. While his splashes are always bigger than most people’s, is that really so different from other politicians? Big promises that fall by the wayside without a murmur. And no one ever follows up to see what happened. They usually just pick vaguer, more easily “achieved” goals, so it’s not so obvious when it falls apart. But they arguably accomplish nothing more, they are simply less obvious about it.

          You could legitimately say Trump likes hype and dislikes discretion, and you’d be right there. But I don’t think he seems particularly incompetent compared with other presidents dealing with complex issues and an unhappy opposition. I’d rather him announce his intention and then drop it when it becomes clear it is not tenable. That keeps Congress accountable, instead of allowing them to kick the can down the alley. I’m relieved that we can move on from the Republican healthcare plan, instead of having Trump “stick with it” and drag it out as a hope to pacify his base. It’s not feasible, and it was nothing but a distraction. Now we know the Republicans have nothing worth offering.

          I don’t consider that Trump’s fault – the Republicans didn’t take the time to put together a good plan in all the years they yelled about Obama, and a good plan may not exist. So he recognized it and moved on. I don’t want him to stick to that issue.

          The Korean situation is ongoing – and you are completely right to hold off until we see what results, if any, occur. I’m not super concerned about getting a treaty ASAP, as they are easily broken or written as to be ridiculously vague. I think having a relationship with them is the most important thing, and we’ll see what comes out of it.

          The thing he seems to have stuck onto is the tariff issue. Whether or not you agree with the policy, he has stayed committed to it in the face of tremendous criticism from his own party. And that was one of the things most important to him in his books. He brought it up constantly, just like he does now. I think some of the other things are just not his goals – he’s a little more systems-oriented in that he can consider multiple paths on something like healthcare or Korea. He can watch and wait. The frenetic charging at goals that worked in real estate construction just isn’t quite as effective in government. Things are in many ways more complicated. But that’s true for every politician. They just tend to be a bit more quiet or platitudinous about it. Whether he adapts his tactics to meet the situations remains to be seen. I had hoped to get a better read on this by now, but the constant investigations have really made it hard to assess, and it’s hard to see them ever ending. We have got to move away from the distractions and wait for real information to come out.

          • Deiseach says:

            I see by the latest news that despite all the sabre-rattling over he wall, he has successfully signed a trade agreement with Mexico, and NAFTA is ended. Whether Canada signs on or not is still being debated.

            So does this mean the Mexican president has given in on the wall? If he’s the outgoing guy, what will the policies of the incoming guy be? Is the wall not that big a deal after all? (I saw a lot of cheerleading for the Mexican president online when he was perceived as standing up to Trump and threatening not to sign agreements etc. but given that apparently trade agreements have been signed, the posturing was just that).

          • BBA says:

            The new agreement is fairly minor. Nearly all of the NAFTA rules are still in place, the wall isn’t part of the deal, and “NAFTA is ended” only because of Trump’s obsession with branding. It’s like saying that because last year’s tax law ended the individual mandate, Obamacare is repealed and it’s Trumpcare now.

            As for Canada, the USTR (who actually did the negotiating) has been in talks with them too. Trump is blathering about leaving them out, but it’s highly unlikely to happen.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I see by the latest news that despite all the sabre-rattling over he wall, he has successfully signed a trade agreement with Mexico

            Nothing has been signed
            From the article:

            But the administration’s own description calls the deal a “preliminary agreement in principle.” That’s not a finished product, and it can’t become one without clearing the high hurdles of approval from Congress and Mexico.

            As BBA pointed out, it’s not even that big a change.

            This is more Trump puffery, but at least it is puffery with specific numbers attached and some agreement from the other side. We will see if he can actually get that small change across the finish line.

          • Matt M says:

            Agree with HBC that it’s mostly Trump Puffery, although I’d add that as usual, it’s significantly enabled by the TDS-suffering mainstream media.

            Trump incorrectly boasts “I ended NAFTA!” to brag to his base. CNN incorrectly runs taglines of “TRUMP ENDS NAFTA” to outrage their base.

            There isn’t much of a base out there interested in a reasoned discussion of the facts.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            CNN is not actually saying that, at least not exclusively.

          • Matt M says:

            Well, the first I heard of this story was yesterday when I walked by a TV in the office and that was literally the crawl at the bottom.

            If they’ve corrected themselves since, good for them I suppose.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            I guess their TV coverage is probably more sensational, though maybe they just hadn’t had time yet to really review the story.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            literally the crawl at the bottom.

            Surely you have noticed that ANY summation of anything merely points vaguely in the direction of the full story. The shorter the summary, the less reflective it is of the whole. In practice, non-lossy compression is not practicable.

            Honestly, you should not read chyrons as anything more than “there is a story on a certain subject which may merit further consideration”

            The fact that you think they are telling you much past this is on you, not them.

          • Matt M says:

            Eh, if they wanted to communicate “Trump re-negotiated a new trade deal with Mexico that isn’t called NAFTA but is virtually identical” the crawl could easily have read “LITTLE CHANGES IN NEW TRADE DEAL” or something like that.

            Yes, I understand that space is limited and that’s not a great venue for nuanced discussion, but they could at least have made an attempt.

          • albatross11 says:

            Like headlines, I think the news organizations’ editors often phrase the chyrons to create an impression that’s not at all what you’d get if you read / watched the story. Probably some of that is for ideological reasons, but most is for attracting-eyeballs reasons.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Usually the chyrons are heavily weighted towards a) eyeball catching, b) paraphrasing a quote from a source of some sort.

            Trump said he was ending NAFTA, so the chyron will say something like that. It would not surprise me if the chyron you actually read said something like “Trump announces end of NAFTA”.

            Mind you, I would love it if reporting had some sort of objective way of being able to tag things as “BS claims”, but this is a very hard problem to solve, journalists not actually being omniscient, etc.

          • quanta413 says:

            @HeelBearCub

            It’s hard to solve from an institutional perspective, but I don’t think the problem is that it is or would be hard for journalists to understand that many headlines are nonsense.

            Having boring headlines will probably hurt sales relative to your competitors so the nonsense continue.

            Kind of like how some scientists choose titles, give talks, or write grants that aren’t blatant lies but are hyperbolic to the point of being deceptive. They likely know what they are doing to some extent, but justify it as necessary to get attention and secure money that might otherwise go to a competitor.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @quanta413:

            There are two different issues here. The one you bring up is not the same as the one Matt M is complaining about.

            #1 – Headlines are frequently sensational, lurid, or otherwise enticing. “Click-bait” is the current term, but it’s been the same roughly forever. This isn’t going away, so long as people care about whether what the write gets read.

            #2 – Headlines represent what powerful (or popular) figures choose to do or say, without the opinion of the reporting organization as to the validity/impact of said utterance or action. This is a tough one. If the president says he is “eliminating NAFTA”, you are going to need to report he said that. Not reporting it would be a kind of malpractice. Much like Trump threatening to pull out if NATO, it is news when the president says it.

            I don’t think Matt would actually like it if straight reporting mostly ignored the president’s actual statements and actions to instead report what they think he might have meant. I sense he doesn’t even like it now when the editorialize about them.

          • quanta413 says:

            @HeelBearCub

            Granted, there is some distinction between the problems. But I think the choice of title or scrolling news is more the problem I am speaking about.

            It’s not whether or not to report what he said. There is no malpractice in not choosing the most eyecatching title possible and putting things below the headline. Except the potential loss of money. You can report what he said in the body instead of the headline. It’s not even about reporting what he might have meant. Trade agreements don’t revolve solely around Trump. There’s no need to divine what he means or doesn’t. There are negotiators and staff and the actual text of agreements and so on and so forth. And notably, media has no problem with doing divination on whatever Trump is saying or tweeting any given day no matter how asinine. It’s not a random coincidence that they’re more likely to have a headline with quotes that are good clickbait.

            A boring and less in accurate crawl or headline might be “New trade treaty about to be signed between Mexico and U.S.” or “U.S. and Mexico trade agreement soon to be amended” or whatever.

            It all loops back to the monetary incentives all being towards being entertaining and eye-catching.

            When someone says crazy things all the time, that’s great for the media business. But I don’t buy some story about good journalistic practice requiring making every crazy or hyperbolic thing Trump says part of the headline. Rather than page 5 a boring title with a lede “President Trump says [yet another ridiculous thing that he’ll forget about by next week]” or “Things pretty much the same but President says they’re now way YUGER”.

          • Matt M says:

            I sense he doesn’t even like it now when the editorialize about them.

            And my point is, given their long and established history of editorializing against Trump (including headlines that frequently read: “Trump claims X, that’s not true”), your defense of them that it’s reasonable and neutral for them to just parrot his talking point seems absurd.

            They’ve never parroted his talking points before. They haven’t run crawls saying MEXCIANS ARE RAPISTS or MEDIA BIASED AGAINST TRUMP.

            They ran this one, parroting his own bluster, because they believed it served their agenda of making him look bad. That’s the only reason they did it.

            ETA: I’ve seen a million crawls where they make it clear they are just reporting on what was said. These start out with TRUMP: It wasn’t like that on this one. They weren’t reporting that Trump said he was ending NAFTA. They were reporting that Trump ended NAFTA. They aren’t stupid and they didn’t just forget. They did it for a reason.

        • theredsheep says:

          Pretty much. I feel he succeeded largely by happenstance, by a fortuitous conjunction of circumstances including the Obergefell ruling (and the aftermath getting white Evangelicals in an apocalyptic mood), Hillary’s nomination (and subsequent campaigning carelessness), the general tendency of the electorate to want a change after eight years with an incumbent, growing racial polarization, the weakness of the conventional GOP “brand,” and probably a bunch of other things as well. He’d been trying to be the president for some time before 2016; did he suddenly stumble on a magic formula for success, or was it just that the time was right for us to elect a jackass by an ephemerally thin margin?

          When he first got elected, I was paranoid about him becoming some sort of uncanny fascist supervillain, because it just felt abnormal for men of such abysmal character and poor qualifications to reach supreme power. Then I saw his pitiful attempts at governance, and reflected on the sheer number of inept bosses I’ve had, and recalled how, during the leadup to the Iraq War, I’d assumed that there was some secret reason why the invasion was not the abject stupidity it appeared to be, because too many apparently smart people were backing some absurd argument about fuzzy pics of trailers in the desert …

          Sometimes idiocy wins. I’m just happy it was Trump this time, and not an actually effective demagogue.

          • mtl1882 says:

            Timing and political circumstances played a big role; political/communication skill is assessing and using that correctly. Trump’s skill was seizing on it – he may have “run” in the past, but he was clearly way more serious this time. And I don’t think he necessarily thought he had a good shot at winning, but he could see the giant void where authority and trust and substance should be. So he determined to exploit it and see how far he could get. His 2008 book was rather eerie.

            But I don’t understand how it can be written off as *merely* a timing/cultural thing. That’s no small accomplishment – many people get that absurdly wrong. I would say most political leader and analysts read the situation completely incorrectly. They can’t get outside their preconceived notions – Trump’s talent is being able to adjust to meet the situation, and set the terms, sincerely or not. He was taken as a joke long past when he should have been. He stuck to his tactics when the whole world acted like he was committing political suicide. He played people like fiddles. He systematically eviscerated the other Republican candidates. He pulled the strings. He was able to do this because of the times – there was a certain cultural mood and pathetic leadership to take advantage of, not to mention the complete abandonment of everybody in America to outrage/sensation headlines and chatter. He insisted on setting the terms, and we let him do so, and still are. I thought his triumph would invite some rivals onto the stage, who knew how to beat him at his own game. I am incredibly disappointed that he is still so successful at dominating our mental and intellectual resources, and yet hasn’t inspired a fruitful opposition.

            It might seem easy to take advantage of such a prime opportunity, but no one else was doing it, or even seeing how it was working and responding to it. It seems strange to me that we’ve so quickly forgotten how his success was looked at as an impossibility, a hilarious thing. Then he does it and it was “easy” and “lucky.” As you mentioned, what was lucky was that we didn’t get a real demagogue.

    • Ketil says:

      In typical action movies the villains tend to be way more competent than the heroes. Villains are typically cold-headed, intelligent, organized, and goal oriented, while the heroes are violent and emotional with severe social problems, and often even less respecting of rules and law and order than the villains. That we need to throw in some obvious vice in the form of a bit of kick-the-dog sadism, just to make sure we understand who the villains are, says a lot. I tend to root for the bad guys.

      • MrApophenia says:

        This is not an idea original to me, but it has been pointed out in stuff I have read in the past that the role of hero and villain are flipped in modern fiction, particularly superhero and action movie fiction, compared to classical literature.

        The classical hero has some great task or goal they are trying to accomplish, and sets out on that quest. The villain is an obstacle to be overcome.

        The modern hero is usually just trying to stop the villain. The villain is the one on the quest, and the hero is the obstacle.

        Thus it is not surprising that at least in fiction, the best villains are the ones who are almost heroes.

        Consider superhero fiction. Who are the best villains?

        Magneto, who genuinely believes he is doing what he must to save his people from a second Holocaust.

        Dr. Doom, who is a megalomaniac who wants to rule the world but also really genuinely believes the world would be better under his rule, and once he takes over, actually does his level best to be a good king.

        Lex Luthor is maybe the most interesting, because he actually is motivated pretty much purely by greed and envy and ego, but needs to think he isn’t, and so has successfully convinced himself he is the lone hero protecting the Earth from being ruled by an alien god.

        These guys are the ones who set out to change the world according to their heroic ideals – only to be foiled by the super-powered obstacles who always thwart them.

        The only great supervillain who really is just evil for its own sake is the Joker. (Which is also interesting because Batman in a way subverts some of the above tropes too, sometimes stepping more into being the actual force moving the plot forward.)

        • beleester says:

          I think this is more a question of genre than modernity. In fantasy settings, we want the hero to explore the fantasy world, so he has to go out and do things. His motives for doing so can still be reactive – there’s a reason so many heroes start their journey with their hometown getting burned down by the Evil Overlord. In superhero or modern settings, the world is familiar and the status quo is generally good, so the main reason for the hero to go out and do things is because the villains are shaking up the status quo.

          Modern settings where the hero takes an active role usually need the hero to be oppressed by the status quo in some way. It could be as simple as “teenager is looking to escape their normal life” (a YA favorite), but it also includes heist movies and dystopian settings.

          Another place to find active heroes is in mystery stories. The hero has a reactive motive, in that the villain has to commit the crime before they can start chasing them, but their role in the plot is active – the story won’t make progress unless he goes out and finds clues.

          (Batman makes use of both of these elements – the villains tend to have secret plans that The World’s Greatest Detective can uncover, and Gotham is a terrible place where the status quo is “all the crimes, all the time”, unless a hero tries to change that.)

          EDIT: The Odyssey, the original hero’s journey, has an essentially reactive hero, now that I think about it. Odysseus just wants to go home and be with his wife – in other words, he wants to restore the status quo. He only ends up in adventures because the gods keep pushing him into them.

        • John Schilling says:

          The Odyssey, the original hero’s journey, has an essentially reactive hero, now that I think about it.

          Isn’t the Odyssey the sequel to the one where the same hero and his buddies were minding their own business in Greece until they decided to sail off anc conquer another country for no good reason?

      • The Nybbler says:

        In typical action movies the villains tend to be way more competent than the heroes.

        They kind of have to be; they have the harder job. They’re trying to change the world, or at least rob it blind, against large established organizations trying to stop them. If the plan involves kidnapping the World Leader’s Beautiful Daughter (who is probably also engaged to Hero), and the Beautiful Daughter’s bodyguards stop the attempt, question the mooks, and uncover the plot in Act I, you don’t have an action movie, you have an episode from a police procedural. This means you need either really good villains, or really bad bodyguards. And really good villains are much more interesting (unless you’re going for an action-comedy).

        Of course, having the Beautiful Daughter kidnapped allows for some kicking-the-dog or worse; even the most tame action movie will probably have the villain or his mooks slap her around.

        • John Schilling says:

          They kind of have to be; they have the harder job. They’re trying to change the […] against large established organizations trying to stop them.

          Why is that the villain’s job? Are we to presume that the world is now perfect, such that any major change would be a villainous act and every large organization defending the status quo is going God’s work?

          • The Nybbler says:

            Hey, I didn’t make the tropes.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Most specific changes a hero might want to make would be opposed by a significant part of the audience, thus reducing the audience for the movie. One easy way around that is to have the villain be the one to make a change you specifically design to be unpopular.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        The bad guys always seem to surround the good guys, disarm them, and hold them captive. The good guys shoot first and never ask any questions.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Scott Adams is right. We’re watching different movies.

      I don’t know how you look at Trump and get that summation, but there you go. I’m glad his enemies are unable to understand him. Sun Tzu had that bit about knowing your enemies and knowing yourself and Trump’s enemies do not know him.

      • rlms says:

        Which one(s) out of “honest, kind, loyal, brave, modest, temperate, prudent, generous, diligent” would you describe Trump as being?

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Several of them, but only transactionally.

          • rlms says:

            Which? And how?

          • albatross11 says:

            I would say Trump manages to be audacious and self-confident and smart and willing to take big risks. He’s charismatic enough to have spent his whole life in the public eye, to have had a successful career as a reality TV star, and to have outshone a bunch of professional politicians to get elected president. I wouldn’t call him any of your adjectives except maybe diligent.

            I don’t think he’s much good as president, but I also don’t feel like that opinion obliges me to assess him as having no virtues. Anyone who is successful at the level he has been successful has a lot going for him, even if he got some benefits from luck or starting position. And in general, I find the whole pattern of being unable to acknowledge any virtues in your enemies to be pretty dumb. (Hence, the guys who started a war with the most powerful nation on Earth by knowingly going to their deaths to fly planes into buildings get routinely described as “cowardly.”)

        • mtl1882 says:

          This seems like a discussion that I will regret, but I’m interested in hearing my own response.

          He is perceived as honest by many, although they’d probably also agree he’s a liar. While my mom is big on the “if he lies in one thing, he lies in all” warning, if we went by that we’d have no honest people, except for a few who would not be elected due to their lack of social skills.

          At times he has been refreshingly honest, but that is hard to praise in the face of his constant lies. But the reason people respond to it, in part, is because I generally get the sense that most politicians are never honest, even if they rarely (?) outright lie. They evade and virtue signal, and for a long time now most of them have come across as completely insincere no matter what the topic or occasion. People were so relieved to get a clear answer.

          It was a failing of our system that led to an embrace of shameless lying – I’m not in any way justifying shameless lying, but I don’t think it is all that different from evasion and insincerity, which probably mislead people even more harmfully. All three of them are damaging and unacceptable in an effective leader.

          But the fact remains that people just don’t like when they can tell someone gave you a prepared response to every issue, which comes awfully close to chronically lying – it creates a yearning for authenticity that can manifest very badly, with the embrace of an authentically bad person.

          Diligent, absolutely, at least transactionally. He watches his projects and campaigns like a hawk and has unceasing energy towards his goals. He’s definitely hardworking and detail oriented – that doesn’t mean he always pursues the goals and details people want him to.

          Brave, most definitely. The accusations of cowardice baffle me. Does he take on all the right fights? No. But is he afraid of a hard fight? No way – that appeals to him all the more. He’s probably not brave in the sense of physical combat, but what movie were other people watching during this election? When he stood alone at against all advice and amid withering criticism and contempt. With both parties and the media against him? Raising his hand saying he wouldn’t sign the pledge on day one. Now you can argue that is boldness, bravado, not bravery, but I didn’t see anything that looked like bravery from any other quarter of the Republican party. (Kasich and Cruz had their moments of taking strong, sincere stances). It remains to be seen whether that bravery will be used to good ends going forward.

          You’ll laugh, but I consider Trump pretty temperate in many respects. He appears to have stayed away from drugs and alcohol, and I think he’s generally in control of himself. He seems to keep an incredibly strict routine and I do not think his moods wildly fluctuate. The meltdowns are calculated to throw people off, and many things mistaken for emotional outbursts are just him taking a strong stand (this does not just apply to him – the media appears to think any sort of directness indicates uncontrollable rage – look at this memo of JFK and tell me if you the appropriate adjective is “scathing” https://www.rrauction.com/Jacqueline-Kennedy-White-House-Restoration-Archive.html).

          Temperate is probably not the most accurate description, but I agree with @Conrad Honcho about a lot of it being transactional, assuming he means that it depends on the nature of situation. He possesses virtues, he just doesn’t use them in a way that lends itself to a coherent image of a virtuous person.

          Now, maybe that means he isn’t virtuous. But our options aren’t great. I am pretty sure that no currently reasonably electable politician is honest in any appreciable way. Pandering and evading is their whole way of life, and I say this about politicians I personally like and who I think have good intentions. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren don’t raise as many red flags for me as most, but I’m sure now that I’ve singled him out people will cite a million cases of sketchy behavior. The obvious one with Warren is the whole Native American thing, but I think defining her by that is probably not the best idea.

          FDR had his own litany of issues, but whether I agree with his sentiment or not, I would kill for a moment of presidential bravery and honesty on par with this:

          ” We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

          They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

          Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.”

          That is, if he was honest about this, which I’m not 100% sure of. But I think he did welcome their hatred, even if he was pandering a bit.

          Imagine someone saying that now!

          But again, assessing other options: I can grant most of them are at least sometimes kind, some might be generous, most are diligent at least in some areas. Some are probably loyal, but isn’t that almost a vice in politics under current standards? If you try and stick by someone who has fallen out of favor, you will be lambasted for corruption or undue influence. But some are definitely more appreciative of those who have helped them than others. Loyalty to principles is important, but I don’t see a whole lot of that going on anywhere. None are modest, though some fake it better than others, and some at least are willing to acknowledge their limitations. Few of our presidents could be described as temperate in terms of emotions or substance use, but there are a handful. Prudent is impossible to define or assign value to, so I won’t get into that one.

          I’m not trying to portray Trump as a paragon of virtue. He isn’t. But I don’t see him as an alien being among politicians just because he does things in a big way. A strange amount of people seem to think quieter = more moral. It doesn’t. He’s a creation of our own system, holding up a mirror of our values and our conceptions of leadership and virtue. There are aspects about him that are anomalous, but his predecessors and competitors weren’t exactly radiating virtue. Obama made more of an effort than our other recent presidents, and probably possessed more actual virtues. But he didn’t exercise in it such a way as to prevent the 2016 election outcome. He had an almost impossible task in many ways, and I think his temperance, prudence and loyalty outweighed some much needed bravery and honesty.

          ETA: My conclusion is that the current state of things is unacceptable, but this is more the American people’s fault than Trump’s, and even if you choose to assign the fault to him, he will be gone eventually, and I doubt that things will “go back to normal.” We have to choose better politicians, and make sure they get nominated in the first place. We have to make it something people with character want to do. We deserve better, but only we can secure it. My secondary conclusion is that we have to accept that no one is perfect, and that the greatest leaders had their vices. We need to decide what balance is appropriate, but our increasing insistence on blowing up everything into an outrageous headline ensures that the only people who will have a clean record will be utterly devoid of substance, assertiveness, insight, or accomplishments. Or really good at hiding their skeletons, which is not what we want. Of course their records should be discussed, and I’m not saying people should just get over anything, but virtually everyone has at least one highly questionable or just outright bad incident in their past. The constant shock of discovering this really needs to stop.

          • On the claim that FDR was honest … . You do realize that, in his first election, he campaigned on the grounds that his opponent had the government spending too much?

          • mtl1882 says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Circumstances change. I don’t think the issue with that is dishonesty. I think it is foolish and irresponsible to make campaign promise about most things, because it’s not the type of job where most promises are under the president’s control or where consistency is always best. All recent presidents are disingenuous on this level. That is, if FDR made such promises. If he simply criticized the other guy, he probably was being very unfair, but that’s the MO of every presidential candidate. But it is entirely possible that (in his opinion) the government was spending too much for what was happening at the time, but then things changed. I’m also not claiming that any of them were 100% honest. I’m talking relatively, and I’m also talking about how the public perceived the dishonesty. I think the public has shown a preference for boldly stating a new position that is directly contradictory to an old one, without explanation, by choosing Trump. In opposition to making vague promises all the time and then tying oneself in knots to justify how they are consistent. I suppose both are equally problematic, but I understand why the first one can work better.

      • mtl1882 says:

        Yeah, I was going to quote Scott Adams, but I figured it was overdone. He’s right about that one.

  25. Education Hero says:

    Fellow accounting/finance commenters (and any other interested parties), I’d love to get your opinions on the following tax policy proposal:

    Situation: The current approach to corporate financial statements in the United States is to use one set for financial reporting purposes (e.g. SEC filings, raising capital) and another set for tax purposes (e.g. for the IRS). Typically, the financial reporting statements are presented in a manner that overstates the company’s financial position to increase the company’s share prices and access to capital, while tax statements are presented in a manner that understates the company’s financial position to reduce their tax liability.

    Proposal: Require businesses to use the same set of statements for both financial reporting and tax reporting. This would reduce the incentive to over- or understate a company’s financial position due to the mutually opposed incentives.

    Expected Results:
    1. Increased transparency to financial analysts and investors as financial statements would be less optimized to create misleading impressions
    2. Increased corporate tax revenue; depending on your opinion of current corporate tax rates, that can be offset with an accompanying rate cut (smaller businesses would disproportionately benefit since they are likely optimizing their statements less)
    3. Significantly reduced accounting overhead

    I acknowledge that there would be significant rent-seeking pushback against such a proposal, but are there are any other drawbacks (or benefits) that I’ve missed?

    • The Nybbler says:

      If public companies provide different information to the IRS and to the SEC, it’s because the IRS and SEC are asking for different information, or have different accounting standards for calculating it. They aren’t pulling some sort of moustache-twisting fast one; they save that for non-GAAP metrics.

      • Education Hero says:

        I’m aware that the standards are different, but my proposal is to unify them.

        I’m not making any accusations of impropriety here; companies have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder return and minimize tax burden, and the differing approaches to financial reporting and tax reporting properly reflect this.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I know next to nothing about accounting or finance, but I’ll ask you the same question that I ask of every would-be reformer: how are you going to actually implement your policy into practice ? Is there some way, politically speaking, of passing the laws that you propose ? If the answer is “no”, then debating the benefits of your policy (or lack thereof) is pointless.

      • Education Hero says:

        To the general public, this would be a relatively boring special interest matter, so political feasibility depends most upon the three key stakeholders:

        1. Businesses stand to benefit from the reduction in overhead, and can be bought off with the aforementioned rate reduction.
        2. Financial analysts and investors would generally favor greater transparency, though some may currently benefit from opaqueness as a rent-seeking matter because they have a competitive advantage in dealing with reduced transparency.
        3. The accounting profession would probably generally oppose this proposal for rent-seeking reasons, though the growing diversification of the Big Four professional services firms means that they aren’t quite hit as hard as they once would have been.

        All things considered, I would expect that this proposal would be reasonably politically feasible if the implementation details are well thought-out. The relevant stakeholders have accepted many similar simplification pushes in the past, provided they’ve had reasonable transition times and a seat at the discussion table.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Not my expertise, but:
      The only real result is #1. This is a one-way information black hole: the IRS gets to see everything the SEC/Wall Street does and more, and IRS rules require companies to explain any differences between their IRS numbers and their Wall Street numbers. So it’s not as if Uncle Sam is getting jipped on tax revenue, it’s Wall Street getting duped.

      IRS disclosures are also private, so we also can’t really say the IRS is getting duped. Presumably not too badly, because the IRS hires lots of really intelligent people that have lots of time to go over lots of tax returns. Either way, there’s probably two reasons we don’t want public companies to adhere to IRS guidelines in SEC statements:
      1. There is a ton of confidential information in there. My 10-K might detail that I have a factory and some stuff in there. The IRS disclosure probably requires listing out every single asset along with the depreciation schedule. And the asset list is HUGE. I have the binders for our non-taggable assets (like, the floor), and they fill an entire bookshelf. That’s like 10% of our assets, and that’s just one for factory. Our company would not want to reveal that information to the public.
      2. It’s a ton of work to comply with the above, and I don’t want to duplicate work on a quarterly basis to provide “color” on this annual report.

      The above gives a really big incentive to take the whole company private, which just makes the whole situation even worse.

      And I’m not sure the benefit is THAT much? It seems like the big collapses (WorldCom, Enron) are the kinds of things you wouldn’t pick up on regardless.

      But again, this is not my area of expertise. My inclination would be requiring the disclosure of certain high-level items (net income, gross income, gross receipts, net receipts, deprecation, taxes paid and for what years, yadda yadda) but not require the presumably-odious disclosures the IRS requires.

      Also, as Nybbler says, there’s isn’t One Law of Accounting. There are different standards and different stakeholders/agencies might want different reporting according to these different standards.

      • Education Hero says:

        IRS disclosures are also private, so we also can’t really say the IRS is getting duped. Presumably not too badly, because the IRS hires lots of really intelligent people that have lots of time to go over lots of tax returns.

        I’m certainly not suggesting the IRS is getting duped. Current corporate tax rates already reflect the current levels of tax optimization.

        1. There is a ton of confidential information in there. My 10-K might detail that I have a factory and some stuff in there. The IRS disclosure probably requires listing out every single asset along with the depreciation schedule. And the asset list is HUGE. I have the binders for our non-taggable assets (like, the floor), and they fill an entire bookshelf. That’s like 10% of our assets, and that’s just one for factory. Our company would not want to reveal that information to the public.
        2. It’s a ton of work to comply with the above, and I don’t want to duplicate work on a quarterly basis to provide “color” on this annual report.

        Supplemental statements to the IRS can be separate and required only when filing your taxes. The proposed unification is concerned with differences such as taking more depreciation for tax purposes than for financial reporting.

        And I’m not sure the benefit is THAT much? It seems like the big collapses (WorldCom, Enron) are the kinds of things you wouldn’t pick up on regardless.

        One key advantage to unification with respect to fraudulent accounting is that you have an extra set of eyes on the same set of statements. If financial analysts, investors, and the IRS are all looking at one set of statements, fraud has a lower chance of slipping by.