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OT72: Commentaschen

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. For Comment of the Week, I know it’s an unusual choice but I want to highlight leoboiko on how Zeus is actually a Machiavellian genius and my portrayal of him as anti-intellectual was unfair. But also, yodatsracist’s defense of Seeing Like A State and speculations on what it means for social science.

2. The raw data for the SSC survey has been put on some kind of data accessbility site. And pnlng on the subreddit has crunched the numbers about everyone’s favorite blogs to read.

3. Congratulations to all med student SSCers who got residencies in this year’s Match Day. Many challenges lie ahead, but don’t forget that there will be rewarding parts as well, like helping others and being able to fully appreciate the humor on GomerBlog.

4. New sidebar ad for Tezos, an upcoming cryptocurrency which is sort of like Ethereum but also sort of like Nomic (?!) Reading about it makes my head hurt, which based on past experience means everyone involved will become multibillionaires before eventually losing everything in some weird form of crime that we don’t even have a name for yet.

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788 Responses to OT72: Commentaschen

  1. loki says:

    I’m pretty sure I found this website via a link from here at some point so I feel like you must have done but have you (Scott and/or commenters who are in or know about the fields of psychiatry and/or abnormal psychology) seen this? The title – ‘evidence of limits of the medical model of psychology’ – exaggerates since its content is limited to psychosis, and pretty much just a specific type of psychosis, but it seems like the sort of Hairdryer Solution-style thinking that might interest you.

    The thing about rates of schizophrenia in Germany is particularly interesting since I felt like we were pretty sure there was a significant hereditary component in schizophrenia.

  2. fossilizedtreeresin says:

    So this is kind of a dumb question, but you all seem so nice and this topic is so far from my real life I wouldn’t know who else to ask, so here goes:
    You know how they did the double slit experiment, but if they put detectors the light won’t behave as a wave?
    Did anyone ever do that kind of experiments with other kind of particles to see if they behave differently when observed as well?

    • Creutzer says:

      The answer to your question would appear to be in paragraphs 3 and 4 of the introduction of the Wikipedia article.

    • Eltargrim says:

      To build upon Creutzer’s answer, the double slit experiment has been carried out for (including but not limited to) electrons, neutrons, protons, Buckyballs, and molecules with more than 810 atoms, with mass equivalent to over 10 000 protons (approximately).

      That last one is the standing record, as far as I know.

  3. Mediocrates says:

    In case anyone’s interested, Gary Taubes’ book is reviewed in the New Yorker this week.

    I mostly link this as an excuse to post this howler from the intro, though:

    Surely it was wiser simply to avoid fats altogether? I wavered, though, in 2013, when The New England Journal of Medicine published an article endorsing the salubrious effects of Mediterranean eating habits. The article detailed the results of a study, the most rigorously scientific one yet conducted on the issue, which showed that following a Mediterranean diet rich in either olive oil or nuts could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes by thirty per cent. I was elated until my wife, an endocrinologist who is an expert on metabolism, pointed out that the headline number of thirty per cent emerged from the complex statistical way that the study’s results were projected over time. If you looked at what happened to the people in the study, the picture was less encouraging: 3.8 per cent of the people consuming olive oil and 3.4 per cent of the people eating nuts suffered cardiovascular misfortune, compared with 4.4 per cent of the group on a regular diet. The true difference in outcome between the two diets was, at best, one per cent.

    Now imagine this review, from an alternate universe.

    The article detailed the results of a study, the most rigorously scientific one yet conducted on the issue, which showed that following a Mediterranean diet rich in either olive oil or nuts could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes by one hundred per cent… If you looked at what happened to the people in the study, the picture was less encouraging: 0 per cent of the people consuming olive oil and 0 per cent of the people eating nuts suffered cardiovascular misfortune, compared with 4.4 per cent of the group on a regular diet. The true difference in outcome between the two diets was, at best, 4.4 per cent.

    • bean says:

      My first response to this would be to remove 1% of that person’s body, preferably their fingers. That way they can’t write any more.

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      So by “the complex statistical way” we mean “fractions” (?)

    • lvlln says:

      I have to wonder if the writer honestly thought that his risk of heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes had thirty per cent to reduce in the first place. Like, did he think that about 1-in-3 people were likely to suffer heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes, and by following the Mediterranean diet, he could cut that to close to 0%?

      I don’t read the New Yorker so I don’t know too much about it, but I would have hoped that a publication with such a good reputation wouldn’t have pieces that display such an obvious misunderstanding of statistics.

      • rlms says:

        Funnily, I think it is just possible that something could reduce risk of death from cardiovascular causes by 30% over the course of a lifetime (according to wikipedia, 29% of deaths are from cardiovascular disease).

      • Brad says:

        They have a reputation for strong fact checking and copy editing. I’m somewhat surprised to see this glaring error made it through.

        The author is apparently a tenured professor at Harvard Medical School, maybe the editors were too intimated to push back on a mathematical topic. I know when I was a 2L on law review, one of my edits to an article a judge had submitted was vetoed by a more senior editor because he couldn’t believe the judge had made that type of error and instead assumed I was mistaken.

  4. kokotajlod@gmail.com says:

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313865859_Therapy_Experience_in_Naturalistic_Observational_Studies_is_Associated_with_Negative_Changes_in_Personality

    According to this study, therapy is harmful. Can someone who knows more about this topic (or who is good at reading papers) weigh in and tell me how seriously I should take this? It’s pretty depressing if true.

    • Spookykou says:

      I believe the preponderance of evidence is that Therapy has a pretty small effect, so if it is harmful, it is probably only slightly.

  5. Well... says:

    Math puzzle I made up but don’t know the answer to:

    What whole number X can be multiplied by 0.75 Y times to eventually yield Z, which is equal to either 1/2, 1/4, or 1/8 of X?

    If so please identify X Y and Z. There might be more than one answer. Or the answer might be “none,” I don’t know.

    [EDIT:] skef has provided the answer: there is no answer. I asked this question because of a musical idea I had, which evidently cannot work. Oh well, still cool. Thanks skef!

    • skef says:

      From the back of my (sometimes inaccurate) envelope …

      X = 0, Y is any number, Z is zero

      X is any whole number, Y is ln(.5)/ln(.75), Z is X/2

      X is any whole number, Y is ln(.25)/ln(.75), Z is X/4

      X is any whole number, Y is ln(.125)/ln(.75), Z is X/8

      • skef says:

        (If you’re looking for X as a non-zero integer and Y as an integer, I don’t believe there will be any solutions. The first equation you’re asking about is X * .75^Y = X/2. X divides out leaving .75^Y = 1/2. That has no solution with Y as an integer. Same goes for 1/4 and 1/8.)

  6. The bill to allow ISPs to sell your browsing history to advertisers has now passed the Senate and House (on party-line votes), and the pesident is expected to sign it.

    * https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/technology/congress-votes-to-overturn-obama-era-online-privacy-rules.html

    * https://www.wired.com/2017/03/vpns-wont-save-congress-internet-privacy-giveaway/

    * http://www.theverge.com/2017/3/28/15080436/us-house-votes-to-let-isps-share-web-browsing-history

    * https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/03/28/congress_approves_sale_of_internet_histories/

    I guess this is the first big legislative accomplishment of Mr. Trump’s first 100 days in office.

    Those of us who didn’t want Republicans to control all three branches are, of course, deploring this enactment, which was entirely predictable.

    I’m curious how those of y’all who did vote for these guys feel about it. If you support it, and you’re not someone who stands to make money from it, what is your reasoning?

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      I’m an ultraliberal but I support this legislation. If people don’t want their browsing data sold they will use tor. This just gives you the option of donating your data to the social scientists of tomorrow, and presumably it will slightly decrease the cost of internet access.

      • Wrong Species says:

        Right. And if you don’t want me peeking through your window, then you should have cut down the tree I climbed to get a good view. Anything else is just negligent.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          I think this might be unfair. Assuming we both agree with the general standard of “reasonable expectation of privacy”, I don’t believe it includes information I willingly supply to the person who wants to share that information with others. If I tell you I like hats, you should have the right to tell other people that I said I like hats. Even if it means I’ll get a lot of hat ads.

          The obvious exception to that is access information such as passwords and credit card numbers, and I expect that to naturally be covered under some sort of confidentiality agreement. (I could even go so far as to say I have the right to sue if they share that type of information even if they didn’t explicitly say they’d keep it secret.)

          • suntzuanime says:

            Yeah it’s worth noting we’re not letting ISPs do anything Google Chrome can’t already do. They still have to follow their own privacy policies, and they can’t do blatantly outrageous things.

          • JDG1980 says:

            The thing is, if you want Internet access, it pretty much has to go through an ISP. That doesn’t mean the ISP has any right to go snooping through the data. They should be treated as a common carrier.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            ISPs were easy enough to set up that one person could do it, and often did during the 1990s. If the big ISPs were sufficiently outrageous, those days could return. People would spend slightly more per month (or maybe less, depending on how competitive the big ISPs are), in return for slower service, slower repair of outages, and a promise of increased privacy.

            Plus, remember hog’s comment above. There are plenty of ways to encrypt your traffic on the way out. They’re even free. Honestly, the fact that more people don’t use such software tells me that they genuinely don’t care that much about Comcast telling everyone they’re into cat pictures.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Browsing the internet is not a social experience. It’s like an extension of your thoughts. You wonder how to build a bomb, you don’t want everyone to know about it. I don’t think people should be afraid to look something up because they are scared it will be used against them.

            As far as Tor is concerned, how many people over the age of 40 know about it? As far as they know, they’re browsing history is private because no one is telling them otherwise. Imagine that someone invented a technology that could see through your house. There’s a special spray you can use that can mask it but you have no idea it exists. I can’t just spy on you and claim that I have the right to do so because you didn’t get the spray.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            You wonder how to build a bomb, you don’t want everyone to know about it. I don’t think people should be afraid to look something up because they are scared it will be used against them.

            This isn’t the only way it has to play out. In a world where sociologists* are allowed to report on how many people looked for information on building bombs, it might turn out that most people do. People would inevitably realize that most people around them are obviously not bomb-lobbing anarchists, and bring up all the other plausible reasons to want to know about bombs (prevention, industrial use, academic curiosity, etc.).

            Over time, it might turn out that most people are caught looking at all sorts of weird things.

            *I don’t see much incentive for Comcast to report this, since there’s no obvious way for them to monetize it. Sociologists are more likely to simply want to answer questions they believe are interesting.

          • Spookykou says:

            I am not up to date on anything, is it weird to trust Google more than, Time Warner Cable® – Spectrum?

          • The Nybbler says:

            I am not up to date on anything, is it weird to trust Google more than, Time Warner Cable® – Spectrum?

            Well, if you’re searching about how to build a bomb, Google will helpfully show you ads for books on improvised explosives and some nonexplosive bomb components. Time Warner will sell your name on a list of people interested in building bombs and you’ll get all sorts of ads for bomb-making components, telemarketing calls from Anarchists Supply, and possibly a recruitment letter from ISIS.

            In either case the US government (and possibly others) will get the information by hook or by crook and put you on a list.

          • Jiro says:

            In a world where sociologists* are allowed to report on how many people looked for information on building bombs, it might turn out that most people do. People would inevitably realize that most people around them are obviously not bomb-lobbing anarchists

            That just means that everyone is guilty. One of the ways the government gets repressive is by creating crimes that everyone commits and then selectively prosecuting when it wants to get someone.

            It’s also easy to deliberately point to random deviations. “Sure, everyone searches for bomb information, but this guy specifically searched for chemical information about the composition of C4, most people don’t do that!” (Because most people search for one or two unusual things and you just picked, post-hoc, the unusual thing that this guy searched for.)

            I am also not as convinced as you that it’s something everyone does. Geeks have a habit of looking for information on lots of random things that non-geeks never would.

            I don’t see much incentive for Comcast to report this, since there’s no obvious way for them to monetize it.

            The “incentive” is a national security letter or other government order, government hacking, etc. Also, note that under US law the government can legally demand without a warrant any information you sent to a third party, and Comcast is a third party.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            [Discovering everyone looked for bomb information] just means that everyone is guilty. One of the ways the government gets repressive is by creating crimes that everyone commits and then selectively prosecuting when it wants to get someone.

            Only if you assume “looking for bomb information” implies “guilty”. My entire point above is that everyone would begin to reject that. And they’d get there pretty fast. I think Americans are more likely to get to “banning reading material means the government is up to no good” than they are to “looking at bombs means $person is up to no good”.

            I sympathize with the failure mode of making everything illegal followed by selective prosecution. But I notice that while that sometimes happens, it sometimes doesn’t. And I happen to believe that looking for bomb information would fall on the side of the line that the government wouldn’t bother with. (In US culture, again.)

            I also don’t think US culture would demonize geeks for being curious. It likes them too much.

            Now, on the other side, I can imagine the government paying a sociologist (or more realistically, some FBI agent) to find out who’s looking for bomb material, finding too many to prosecute, and then filtering on additional criteria. Like your C4 example. Or more nefariously, filtering on who are the undesirables of the moment. (If we’re going to think conspiratorially, I’d say the way to go about this is to find who you want locked up, dig up their search, build a case for why that constitutes a threat, and then haul them in.)

            I think they have the tech to do that kind of thing already, though, so that’s more of an argument to keep the FBI (and USG by extension) honest, than it is to keep search information private. (For the record, I suspect the FBI has a culture of very scrupulously avoiding such targeting, thanks to Hoover.)

            Meanwhile, this is mostly about commercial interests in snooping, not the state. If the state really wanted this information badly enough, this law wouldn’t stop them. The real question is whether a company would want to give it to them. Which brings us to:

            The “incentive” is a national security letter or other government order, government hacking, etc.

            Followed by a leak of said letter or order or hacking to the press.

            Also, note that under US law the government can legally demand without a warrant any information you sent to a third party, and Comcast is a third party.

            If you’re alluding to Smith v. Maryland, then I think we agree here. I believe a third party should be permitted to agree with other parties not to share their information, and to honor that agreement short of a warrant. Which is to say, a warrant ought to be necessary (and I have some concerns with allowing even that).

            But at any rate, I think the right way to work around that problem is to stop browsing in the open, or only through parties that promise not to store search information in the first place. Hoping the law will protect us strikes me too much as wishful thinking.

          • Jiro says:

            I also don’t think US culture would demonize geeks for being curious. It likes them too much.

            Geeks are already demonized. The public likes “geekish things” but not actual geeks. Seeing an Avengers movie is fine, but those people who search for bomb-making information are weirdos and the public would never do such a thing.

            (And have you noticed that social; justice has been going after geeks in recent years?)

            Believe it or not, looking up bomb information out of curiosity is *not* something most people do. Most people don’t have that kind of curiosity. Don’t follow the typical mind fallacy and think that because you’d do it, it must be common.

            then filtering on additional criteria. Like your C4 example.

            I think you missed the point of the example. The government can go after any person by, post-hoc, looking for random fluctuations that make the guy’s search slightly different than everyone else’s, and point to that as something that “proves” he’s a bad guy. The public will think “I may have searched for bomb info but I never did the specific thing they’re stringing him up for” and not worry that the rule makes everyone guilty. (At least if they hadn’t heard of the post-designation fallacy.)

            It’s the same thing that the DEA does when they say that any characteristic the suspect has proves he’s a drug dealer. (See the dissent in http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/490/1.html )

            Followed by a leak of said letter or order or hacking to the press.

            Revealing a national security letter has serious penalties. National security letters have stayed secret until the government gives the target permission or they manage to win a court case to void the letter.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I think you missed the point of the example. The government can go after any person by, post-hoc, looking for random fluctuations that make the guy’s search slightly different than everyone else’s, and point to that as something that “proves” he’s a bad guy.

            How did my parenthetical in that comment not express that exact scenario?

            Don’t follow the typical mind fallacy and think that because you’d do it [search for bomb information], it must be common.

            Umm… I was actually trying to go out of my way to avoid the mind fallacy, since I don’t look for bomb information, either.

            I mean, I guess you could accuse me of mind fallacy because I’m assuming other people would be curious. But does that mean you believe most people aren’t curious?

    • suntzuanime says:

      They have kind of a point that the treatment of ISPs is not very consistent with the treatment of software vendors who put out spyware like Google Chrome and Windows 10. That said, this is not the direction I would have sought to unify treatment in.

    • Wrong Species says:

      I voted Republicans for Congress thinking Clinton would win. Of course, they decided to vote for this law. I guess it’s my fault for not realizing there is no such thing as a reasonable expectation for privacy anymore.

    • Well... says:

      I don’t know that I support it. But if I did, it would be because it’s a way to inspire some significant fraction of people to drastically cut back on their internet use.

    • quanta413 says:

      Not that I voted Republican (I voted Democrat because to some extent I want a divided government that gets as little done as possible and I was afraid the poor democratic party was horrifyingly incompetent and needed my pity vote)…

      But if this is the the most terrible law they pass in the first 100 days, then Praise be to Jesus, let the remaining 2 to 4 years be only this bad and this will be a great four years relatively speaking. Given my political leanings and the dysfunction of U.S. government, irritating but relatively harmless failures are the best legislation I can hope for.

    • JDG1980 says:

      I voted for Trump and I think this is a terrible piece of legislation. I was hoping Trump would be faced with a Democratic Congress, or at least a Democratic Senate, so he could get some popular bipartisan things done (e.g. infrastructure spending) while keeping the Randite wing of the Republican Party in check. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

    • BBA says:

      Like most of the bills passed so far this session, this is a Congressional Review Act revocation of an Obama regulation rather than a new law. In other words, it restores the pre-Obama status quo. And the CRA has a time limit based on the number of days Congress is in session, so only regulations from 2016 are subject to being revoked this way.

      I remember 2015, and it wasn’t a miserable unlivable dystopia regardless of what the Huffington Post tells you. If this was legal back then, so be it.

      At least I keep telling myself this, so I can focus my existential despair on important things.

    • cthor says:

      (Disclaimer: Not American, so it doesn’t directly affect me either way. Consider myself centre-left.)

      Since this is only a repeal of existing (and very recent) legislation, I don’t think it needs any support outside of “the existing legislation does not justify its existence”, which in this case I think is true on an object-level.

      Even the biggest ISPs have far less data, far fewer ultra-smart engineers capable of collecting and synthesising that data into something that can be meaningfully sold, and a much smaller existing relationship with ad networks than Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. Yet the existing legislation singles only ISPs out.

      The argument in favour of this: (1) ISPs can see *all* of your Internet access—contrasted with the tech giants’ need for you to specifically access their websites—and are therefore capable of uniquely in-depth violation of privacy. (2) Many people have no choice of ISP so can’t choose not to use an ISP that will commit egregious privacy violations—whereas you can choose to avoid websites that will.

      (1) Is a concern. It increases the depth of data for a particular person. If someone wants to do a hit job, this data would do a better job than what Google et. al. could do. Of course, there’s not really an existing (law-abiding) market for hit jobs, so the legislation seems to lack purpose on this axis.

      (2) Ignores that someone technically inclined can use a VPN to protect their data. And in the case of people who can’t or won’t use VPN’s, it ignores how hard it is to just “don’t use Google”. *This very page* has a Google Analytics embed on it.

      On a meta-political level, I’m not sure whether the existing legislation staying in place would help bring things closer to having legislation that stops privacy violations not just by ISPs but also Google and friends. I am cynical enough to think that such legislation would be opposed by the same people opposing this repeal because of the influence these tech giants have over blue tribe object-level politics.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Eh, this very page has a Google Analytics embed on it, which I’ve adblocked, so it’s not tracking me. It’s less of a hassle to set up an adblocker in your browser than to run all your traffic through a VPN (which I am not bothering to do).

        Of course, I’m using Google Fucking Chrome, so the game was rigged from the start, but what can you do. They tell me I have to go on living.

      • Jiro says:

        Of course, there’s not really an existing (law-abiding) market for hit jobs, so the legislation seems to lack purpose on this axis.

        The law-abiding market for hit jobs is “the government is the entity doing the hit job”.

      • Gobbobobble says:

        I do feel like this goes against the common carrier designation. If they want to monetize what’s going through their pipes, they can be responsible for it too. We don’t let phone companies analyze our calls and inject ads into them. ISPs & their lobbyists are just trying to eat their cake and have it too.

        • Spookykou says:

          I like the comparison to phone companies, an ISP feels a lot more like a phone company than it feels like Google, to me. What about alternative text apps, do they/can they snoop your texts and sell it to ad companies(does it matter if it is SMS or just going over your data plan)?

    • FacelessCraven says:

      It’s the sort of thing I instinctively despise, but I see several good arguments in this thread that tell me there’s no point getting worked up over it. I too am typing this on Google Chrome.

  7. onyomi says:

    Is the human predilection for stories of good triumphing over evil a result of an evolutionary advantage to seeing one’s own tribe as always in the right?

    That is, if you are a tribe whose minstrels tell the story of how your tribe struggled to throw off the hated oppressor and won a glorious victory, might you not do better, genetically, than the tribe whose minstrel tells the story of how our tribe kind of sort of invaded and raped their women and then they enslaved us and then we rebelled and then…

    The problem these stories might solve is that of accidentally seeing the humanity in members of other tribes and thereby extending your ingroup morality to them: morality is adaptive insofar as it demands good, cooperative behavior within the tribe, but in a pre-division of labor society, empathy for the enemy is probably bad.

    Narratives of struggles of good against evil* are very motivating, emotionally satisfying, and typically viewed as ethically salutary. But I fear this may be a wind blowing against the inevitable movement toward truth Scott describes in the recent post.

    *I would distinguish this from moralizing fables about the rewards of good character and the punishments of bad character; these arguably function to teach the ingroup morality to its own members.

    • JDG1980 says:

      the tribe whose minstrel tells the story of how our tribe kind of sort of invaded and raped their women

      The Romans had origin stories like that. Didn’t seem to hurt them much.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Yeah, is this a cross-cultural thing, or a primarily (Christian) Western thing? Rome’s myths seem pretty uber-menschy to me. And I’m not sure the Bhagavad Gita strikes me as being more about the glory of battle than good vs evil.

      • John Schilling says:

        To be fair, the definition of “rape” at the time encompassed what we would consider elopement, and the legendary version at least has the Sabine Women as willing and ultimately victorious partners in the affair. One may suspect the reality was different, but here what matters is the story the minstrels had to tell to make their countrymen feel good.

        We see the same thing in e.g. the Icelandic sagas, where Norse law may have allowed any red-blooded Viking to contract with a maiden’s father or brother alone for her hand in marriage, but the ones who didn’t also secure the consent of the maiden tended to suffer literary humiliation at the very least.

        Of course, if we’re making up legends, the women will always swoon over whatever we consider to be the manly virtues of the heroes anyway, so this isn’t a terribly big obstacle.

        • JDG1980 says:

          As with most pre-modern societies, the Romans defined rape not as a violation of a woman’s bodily integrity but as essentially a property crime against her father or husband.

          I think it’s absurd to apply a term like “rape culture” to modern-day America, but it seems to fit ancient Rome pretty well. Roman sexual “ethics” basically permitted the powerful to do anything they wanted to the powerless. It seems likely that a majority of all sex acts in ancient Rome meet the modern-day legal definition of rape. This is why I think St. Paul sometimes is judged unduly harshly by people today; he wasn’t spoiling a 1960s-style love-in, he was trying to create some basic rules to prevent gross acts of abuse and victimization in the new Christian community. He may have fallen short at times, but his thinking about sexual ethics is closer to ours than that of his pagan adversaries.

      • cassander says:

        The roman origin stories read like something an angry teenager would write “Our founding father? Awesome dude. Child of a king, of course, but when some rival king tried to get rid of him and his twin brother, they were so hardcore they survived and got raised by wolves. After they grew up, Romulus saved his brother from capture, but the dick still insisted he knew better than Romulus, so Romulus had to put him fucking down.

        Anyhow, after the city got set up, we invited people to come settle, but all we got was dudes! So romulus was like, alright, it’s getting a bit faggy here, but you guys are all hardcore, and those sabine women next door are pretty hot, let’s go take them! And they did, but of course those sabine cucks got all prissy about it. They declared war, and we beat them, and were totally going to murder them all, but but get this, the women liked us so much better than their wussy ass fathers and husbands that they came out to beg them to join us instead. and they did!”

        And I grant you, that looks silly and deplorable to us, but to the Romans, pretty much everything there is virtuous and desirable.

        • onyomi says:

          This was… really funny. Though I think it is also worth noting that most premodern civilizations were kind of teenager civilizations. Not in the sense of being less “mature” on some civilizational level, but in the sense of literally being dominated by 15-25 year-olds (though deferring to the elders of 40+ was certainly a high value).

          • The original Mr. X says:

            but in the sense of literally being dominated by 15-25 year-olds (though deferring to the elders of 40+ was certainly a high value).

            Demographically, maybe, but in terms of cultural influence, it’s arguable that the modern west is the most teenage/young-adult-dominated society in history.

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        I don’t know enough about Deuteronomy to be sure, but I think the Jews have an origin story like that too.

        • Jaskologist says:

          You’re probably thinking of the end of Judges. The Benajminites kidnap a bunch of women after they are nearly wiped out in a civil war. But this is not treated as a good thing. Judges ends on this note: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” This is not a compliment.

        • dodrian says:

          Not Deuteronomy, but the book of Joshua is about the Israelite conquest of Canaan, and the destruction, extermination, or enslavement of the peoples therein. (If I’m remembering right modern scholarship doesn’t agree that the actual destruction was as complete or widespread as claimed in Joshua)

          However, in the Israelite psyche the land was promised by God, and rightfully theirs to begin with, so they may have interpreted their history as a ‘retaking’ instead of an ‘invasion’ (perpetuating the ‘small tribe throws out the big oppressor’ narrative), even if their only prior legal ownership was limited to a small cemetery of one family 400 years earlier. It does help that the occupants were stronger and more technologically advanced, giving the Israelites a ‘plucky underdog’ bonus to the good vs evil aspect.

          • Evan Þ says:

            What’s more, the Israelites were specifically commanded to not intermarry with the Canaanites, lest they be tempted to idolatry.

            They did anyway… but the text treats that as a bad thing.

          • Alejandro says:

            If I’m remembering right modern scholarship doesn’t agree that the actual destruction was as complete or widespread as claimed in Joshua.

            It is more drastic than that: the more-or-less consensus of modern scholarship is that the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are myths. There is no discontinuity in the archeological record in Canaan at the time the conquest should have taken place. It seems like Israelites evolved as a distinct group organically within the highlands of Canaan, and originally had the same gods as the Canaanites. It is possible that a small contingent, perhaps the ancestors of the Levites, came from Egypt and brought Yahweh with them, but there is no evidence for that aside from the need to explain the origin of the Exodus national myth (which may be just as mythical as the Trojan origin of Rome).

          • The original Mr. X says:

            It is more drastic than that: the more-or-less consensus of modern scholarship is that the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan are myths. There is no discontinuity in the archeological record in Canaan at the time the conquest should have taken place. It seems like Israelites evolved as a distinct group organically within the highlands of Canaan, and originally had the same gods as the Canaanites. It is possible that a small contingent, perhaps the ancestors of the Levites, came from Egypt and brought Yahweh with them, but there is no evidence for that aside from the need to explain the origin of the Exodus national myth (which may be just as mythical as the Trojan origin of Rome).

            It’s difficult to tell from archaeology alone. There seems to have been a significant population increase in the central highlands c. 1200 BC, which, whilst there are other ways of explaining it, would be consistent with the immigration of a new tribe of Israelites.

    • carvenvisage says:

      I think they’re an antidote to despair and hopelessness, existential horror, etc. You look around you and you see bullying, abuse, wolves eating sheep, insects laying eggs in their paralysed prey. You might also see starvation in your village, and the slow horror of death more generally. You may have the fear of the aforementioned other tribe hanging over your head, or what your own tribe might do. It’s cold except around the campfire. But when there’s wood on the fire, it’s warm, so gather round and listen, and imagine for a moment what might be. Imagine that one day the light might push back the dark.

      There are seperately stories about confidence, strength, thoughtlessness, etc triumping over those too hesitant or soft. It’s a different genre

  8. Sivaas says:

    When you make tally marks (assuming you do so with four vertical lines followed by a fifth line crossing the group at an angle), which direction do you draw the fifth line, top left to bottom right or top right to bottom left?

  9. JDG1980 says:

    When reading histories of the early modern era, one thing that has never made much sense to me is the popularity of Calvinism.

    Of all Christian sects that ever attained widespread adoption, Calvinism seems by far the most pessimistic, dour, and joyless. If you described it with the serial numbers filed off, it would sound like a straw-man evil monotheistic religion for a YA novel. And Calvin, of course, didn’t even have the first-mover effect going for him. Luther came first, and for all the man’s personal faults, Lutheranism seems a lot more balanced and human than Calvinism. Yet Lutheranism remained largely a local phenomenon, while Calvinism spread across Europe like wildfire. Almost all the up-and-coming bourgeoisie believed in it. Why?

    • Anonymous says:

      Doom and gloom is popular.

    • Aapje says:

      @JDG1980

      You have to keep in mind that the perception by many was that they were ruled by immoral, selfish people. Calvinism fit the times by no longer making salvation dependent on these rulers and by giving people the idea that they could fix the problems of the day themselves, by living a moral life. This is similar to how a lot of Muslims are currently adopting Salafism.

      The motif of ‘live a moral life, get rewarded’ is pretty classic and enticing to many.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Calvinism fit the times by no longer making salvation dependent on these rulers and by giving people the idea that they could fix the problems of the day themselves, by living a moral life.

        Calvinism and pre-destination were tied together, so I’m not seeing how this can possibly follow? Can you expand or explicate?

        • hoghoghoghoghog says:

          I think Aapje’s point is that besides the predestination stuff, Calvinism had a very different church structure that gave the community more influence over the church.

          What I just wrote is unbelievably simplistic: in Geneva there was a major conflict between Calvin and the rulers of the city, and Calvinist churches were not democracies. But I’ve at least given a pointer to a true statement.

        • houseboatonstyxb says:

          I’ve been dipping into some of George MacDonald’s mundane (and perhaps pot-boiling) novels. There are pages and pages from country Scotch preachers’ sermons and their counseling of their country neighbors, and a lot of what the devout country people saw from their hearts.

          There’s a scrap of conversation between a couple of the congregation something like this:

          “In every sermon I think he’s preaching about faith and I should read the Bible more.”
          “I always think he’s telling me to do more works.”

          I don’t recall the words ‘Luther’ and ‘Calvin’, but there’s a line like “God will get everyone to Heaven, no matter how long a Purgatory it takes.”

          But this sort of thing may be what got MacDonald thrown out from his own pulpit for heresy.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I don’t recall the words ‘Luther’ and ‘Calvin’, but there’s a line like “God will get everyone to Heaven, no matter how long a Purgatory it takes.”

            It’s interesting how, historically, universalism sprang from Calvinism. Presumably because it seems like the only way to reconcile God’ universal benevolence with Calvinist-style double predestination.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Did Universalism spring from Calvinism? How do you know?
            Isn’t this historical question controversial?

            I don’t know, maybe it did, but I can imagine a couple of ways of fooling yourself into believing that it did. If you only speak English, you might pay too much attention to the English and miss the contributions of the Anabaptists. Or you might assume than all English dissenters were Calvinist, and miss the contributions of the Quakers. Or the Methodists, who weren’t even dissenters.

            Even if it is true that Universalism sprang from Calvinism, it might be a coincidence, rather than caused by theology. Although Calvin was a theocrat, Calvinism has generally not been an established Church. Moreover, it has been quite fragmented, allowing individuals to stray into heresy experiment with theology.

          • JDG1980 says:

            Belief in some form of universal salvation has a long history in Chrisianity, and is much older than Calvinism. Origen believed something like this in the 3rd century. St. Gregory of Nyssa appears to have held universalist views as well. (Gregory was also one of the first Christian theologians to categorically oppose slavery.)

          • Jaskologist says:

            Do keep in mind that anytime you have to turn to Origen for support, that’s a warning sign that you’re treading on thin theological ice.

            But yes, Universalism does go way back in Christianity. To my knowledge, it has not been thoroughly and officially declared heretical, but it has always been a very, very minority view.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I was thinking of modern universalism, as in Unitarian Universalist Church variety, the UUs having originated, IIRC, in strongly Puritan New England.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            UU is a merger of two Churches. The Unitarians were New England Puritans, but the Universalist Church was more dispersed through the colonies, both south and north. I think it was centered in Pennsylvania, home of the Quakers and Germans.

        • Aapje says:

          @HeelBearCub

          Calvinism and pre-destination were tied together, so I’m not seeing how this can possibly follow?

          The interesting part is that Calvin argued that only the chosen people could live a really moral life, which created the incentive for people to try and live a moral life to prove that they were chosen. It basically reversed the correlation, rather than: live a moral life -> you get rewarded; you get: live a moral life -> proof that you will get rewarded in the afterlife.

          It’s genius, IMO. You get pre-destination, which many people really want to believe in, but without the bad incentives of it not mattering what you do. Furthermore, it basically retcons the biblical teaching that God can forgive the worst sinners, even just before death (the bit where Jesus forgave the other crucified man). Catholicism leveraged this part of the Bible to gain control over people by making the priest the mediator for forgiveness and Calvin dismantled this in an indirect, subtle way.

          It does put people on edge, because any bad behavior can be the final straw that proves that you are not chosen, but what JDG1980 calls joyless, was probably considered a necessary correction to the debauchery of the day by the people to whom Calvinism appealed.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            So Calvinists are the ideological forefathers to people who just love to kick people out of the proverbial PTA?

            In other words, it wasn’t a real or true belief in predestination, so much as means of asserting social dominance?

          • Aapje says:

            @HeelBearCub

            In other words, it wasn’t a real or true belief in predestination, so much as means of asserting social dominance?

            I strongly despair believe in the human ability to strongly hold onto certain ideas and simultaneously, reject them as well.

            When debating people or even when examining myself, I don’t get a sense that either the belief or disbelief is real. Both are real and both are false, like a quantum state.

            People have emotions that come from a mix of selfishness, altruism, a belief in a just world, a need to be loved, a desire for control, etc, etc.

            Any dispassionate moral system is incompatible with this, since human emotions are not dispassionate. As most people are unwilling to admit the true level of their selfishness and needs, they are not willing to believe in a moral system that values themselves over others. Yet emotions cannot be denied.

            We all know the ‘do you push a person in front of a train to save 5 people’ style thought experiments that are used to make people feel the discomfort between their emotions and the outcome of a moral system. AFAIK no one has even been able to come up with a dispassionate moral system for which no such though experiment could be made.

            Nevertheless, we all believe in morals. We all have a ‘system.’ But is the consistency that we perceive in our rationalizations because our system is actually consistent? Or do we make our system complex enough that we can pretend that the inconsistencies do not exist? Gödel might know.

            So the answer to your question is mu / null / not applicable / 42 / both.

          • Jaskologist says:

            If deatheaters have taught me anything, it’s that “true belief” and “means of asserting social dominance” do not differ in any important way.

    • Urstoff says:

      I doubt this explains its popularity, but it always made the most logical sense to me of any of the Christian denominations. Jonathan Edwards’s writing on free will is a pretty classic statement of the determinist position, to boot: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/edwards1754.pdf

    • Jaskologist says:

      Calvin was extremely systematic in his thinking. Institutes lays out positions on basically any doctrine a person would care to ask about, and he took pains to think it all through and make it self-consistent. That’s very appealing to intellectual types.

      Luther was more organic and mass-appeal in his thinking, but that meant he was specifically appealing to the German masses. Great for converting Germans, but everybody else might balk a bit at all the poop jokes.

      • bean says:

        My pastor has said that I’m the only engineer he knows who’s not Calvinist, and my personal view on predestination at least is that since I’m trapped in time, I can’t understand the answer anyway.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Almost all the up-and-coming bourgeoisie believed in it. Why?

      To be fair, it’s not like they had much choice in the matter… :p

    • Well... says:

      I recognize all these different sects, but I don’t really know what distinguishes them. Does anyone know of a visual graphic (ideally, a webcomic!) that lays out what each one is essentially about and how they are different from each other? Bonus points for one that also addresses the different sects of Islam.

      • Brad says:

        It’s very tricky thing to answer.

        Suppose we have two sects: one originally was founded in England in the mid-1600 and the big issue that caused them to split off was how exactly baptism should be done. The other was founded in the United States in the late 1700 and the big issue that caused them to split off was the importance of a second work of grace (what today might be called being born again). Today, the first group permits women to be ordained but not gay men. The second group permits neither. The first group, in many places especially in the South-East United States, is associated with upper class, the second with lower class worshipers.

        Which of these differences — or other categories of differences entirely — should be front and center in the chart of what distinguishes different protestant sects?

      • Deiseach says:

        Like the Emo Philips joke:

        Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

        I said, “Don’t do it!”
        He said, “Nobody loves me.”
        I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
        He said, “Yes.”
        I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
        He said, “A Christian.”
        I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
        He said, “Protestant.”
        I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
        He said, “Baptist.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
        He said, “Northern Baptist.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

        I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Does anyone know of a visual graphic (ideally, a webcomic!) that lays out what each one is essentially about and how they are different from each other?

        Best I can do is give you a few rough analogies. OTTOMH:

        baseline religion: you like donuts.
        Christian: you like a certain kind of donut, sometimes served in three pieces.
        Roman Catholic: you like a certain kind of donut, but you feel bad about that.
        Orthodox Catholic: you like a different kind of donut. It looks just like the RC donut, but you eat it from the other end.
        Protestant: you like your own kind of donut.
        Lutheranism: you like your own kind of donut, but please read the cookbook.
        Episcopalian: you like your own kind of donut, and you pick your own definition of “like”.
        Calvinism: you were either always going to like donuts, or you never were.
        Methodism: no, dammit, anyone can like donuts if they want to.
        Mormon: don’t swear. But yes. In fact, you can come to like donuts even after you’re dead.
        Anglican: you like donuts, until someone else tries to tell you who you can eat ’em with. …okay, just kidding. You do like donuts, but you insist on calling them biscuits.
        Presbyterian: you’ve got a whole system for baking, shipping, liking, and eating donuts, even for fixing the recipes if you have to. But they’re still basically donuts.
        Adventist: you like donuts, but more importantly, you know a fresh shipment is on the way. Meanwhile, you’re annoyed that some people think you sell hamburgers.
        Baptist: you like dunking donuts.
        Pentecostal: donuts?! *drool*
        Islam: you submit to the greatness of donuts.
        Shiite: …but you disagree about who gets to make them.
        Sunni: …seriously. Who gets to be the Bakr is a *really* big deal. (…what? Baker. The guy who bakes the donuts. …yes, that’s right. The Bakr.)
        Druze: you make your own donuts at home, but you also buy whatever the name brand is.
        Hinduism: you like a really old version of donut, adapted from a lot of even older local recipes. It’s round, but the dough, fillings, toppings, coffee, and bakers are all different. Still, it’s pretty popular.
        Buddhism: your donuts are rounder than everyone else’s. Everyone likes your donuts in addition to theirs. You’re kinda okay with all of this, even though you suspect they don’t actually know what yours tastes like.
        Taoism: you like donuts and tea on alternating mornings.
        Confucianism: people say a lot about your donuts, but you ignore them, and instead just focus on the bakery.
        Judaism: you like bagels (duh). You also like arguing about whether bagels would count as donuts. Everyone makes their own bagels to eat, and makes another that they wouldn’t be caught dead eating.
        Unitarianism: you can like your own kind of donut, as long as you also like granola.
        Scientology: you like this new brand of donuts they came out with, with lots of nuts in them.
        FSM: you say you can stop liking donuts whenever you want, but you can’t stop thinking about them anyway.

    • Deiseach says:

      Yet Lutheranism remained largely a local phenomenon, while Calvinism spread across Europe like wildfire. Almost all the up-and-coming bourgeoisie believed in it. Why?

      I wonder is it tied up with the whole “Protestant work ethic” which really did spring forth from Calvinism/Reformed sects; if you are sober, pious, godly, thrifty, hard-working, not entrapped by vain shows of worldly glory and so forth, you have a good chance of making and keeping money. For a bourgeois merchant, trader or businessman who likes having money in the bank/in his strongbox, and doesn’t so much like the “you cannot serve God and Mammon” sermonising, being told that getting richer isn’t serving Mammon, it’s a sign of godliness, surely is a more appealing view of religion? As well as the ever-appealing to human instinct “if the poor are poor, it’s their own fault (and probably means they’re reprobate and non-elect as well) – it’s not our fault or lack of generosity or charity, God predestined them to be poor!”

      The Reformed tradition was also revolutionary in a way that Lutheranism wasn’t; the German princes were happy to become Lutherans because, while it dislodged the authority of the pope and the church hierarchy, it didn’t touch their authority – Luther told the peasants that they had to obey the kings, princes and nobles (as long as they weren’t Catholics) that God had seen fit to put in authority over them.

      Calvinism/the Reformed took an axe to all that; as in 17th century England when the king was not alone overthrown but executed (Cromwell may have ended up ruling the country in the manner of a king, but they were very stubborn that this was a Commonwealth and not a monarchy). Israel fell into sin when they demanded a king to rule over them as all the other nations had; a noble or king had no right to rule merely because of rank or tradition, governance now depended on the regenerate. A citizen of any order of life could be as good as a king if they were converted and saved. Transition from the guild self-rule to governing by city councils wasn’t that big a leap, and it was the same circle of society – the up and coming bourgeoisie – who were the new self-governors.

      Of course, Calvinism was the nearest thing to a theocracy and this in effect meant you were being judged on your morals by your fellow citizens to see if you were worthy of being a full member of society, but it moved away from the traditional structure of the aristocracy and the church hierarchy to the mindset that gave rise to, amongst other things, the Dutch Republic and its Golden Age of wealthy burghers trading globally and becoming a major naval power.

  10. komponisto says:

    Some folks here may enjoy my setting of the Litany of Tarski for four-part a cappella chorus.

    Some may even appreciate it in the correct notation. 🙂

    (Needless to say, the playback is the same in both cases.)

  11. WashedOut says:

    Can anyone recommend like this something specific to learning Python?

  12. ThirteenthLetter says:

    Okay, so above we discussed why it’s unlikely that there would be a coup in the United States. I still agree that it’s highly unlikely, but there are occasionally things that make me a little nervous.

    In particular, I’m thinking of Clinton partisans who have been talking about how we need to have some sort of do-over in the election due to Russia or whatever. Not just crazy people ranting on Twitter but folks like Clinton advisor Peter Daou, who is admittedly also a crazy person ranting on Twitter but has a lot of highly placed political ears. And, you know, they have every right to be upset over how things turned out but the thing is… there is no provision for a do-over in the Constitution.

    Let’s say you get the video of Trump accepting a bag of cash from Vladimir Putin (it was hidden next to Obama’s long-form birth certificate) and Trump is either badgered into resigning or gets impeached and removed from office — and yes, I could imagine that given genuine smoking-gun evidence you could find enough Republicans to push him out the door. Great, huge success for hashtag resistance, but now you have President Mike Pence and you’re not getting rid of him. As far as I can tell from looking over the Constitution, there is no way to hold another Presidential election before 2020, no matter how far through the line of succession you go. It’s just not a thing. It isn’t.

    So how, exactly, does Daou think this “do-over” is going to happen?

    • cassander says:

      I can’t help but mention this essay on the topic. Not saying it’s what Daou thinks will happen, in fact, it certainly isn’t, but it’s too good not to mention somewhere.

    • Sandy says:

      So how, exactly, does Daou think this “do-over” is going to happen?

      Daou is a deranged sycophant who would sacrifice his children to Satan if he thought it would make Hillary President. I wouldn’t be so charitable as to believe he’s thought this through completely.

    • Acedia says:

      I don’t believe Daou thinks it’ll happen. He’s part of an emerging class of political grifters who say inflammatory things they don’t actually believe on social media in order to get fame and money from unhinged followers. For the democrats/center-left that’s people like Peter Daou, Eric Garland and Kurt Eichenwald, on the right it’s people like PJW, Mike Cernovich and Milo.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Taking him with a whole lot more charity than he probably deserves, the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 (before its amendment in 1886) did provide for a special election the November after the Presidency and Vice-Presidency were both vacant. Assuming a Congress willing to impeach both Trump (for being a Russian agent, I suppose) and Pence (for being found in the company of a Russian agent, I guess), they could hypothetically pass a similar Act.

      All this was done under Congress’s power “to by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.”

      • hlynkacg says:

        Remember they’d have to get rid of President Ryan as well, and if we really are at the point where we’ve gone through 3 presidents in less then 3 years the old joke about “Mattis crossing the Potomac” becomes less of a joke. Hell he’d be next in line anyway, and if he’s marching I’ll march with him.

        • Evan Þ says:

          Under the current Presidential Succession Act, President Ryan would serve until 2021 (unless he resigns or is impeached, and he very well might end up resigning)… but under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, he’d only serve until a special election next November, and whoever’s elected then would serve four years. So, there’d be a special election in November 2017, and then the next Presidential election would be in November 2021 instead of 2020. If Congress wanted to, they could amend the Presidential Succession Act again to bring that back.

          Of course, this probably would lead to a sense of instability…

      • roystgnr says:

        Assuming a Congress willing to impeach both Trump (for being a Russian agent, I suppose) and Pence (for being found in the company of a Russian agent, I guess)

        One count of being a Bear and… one count of being an accessory to being a Bear.

    • christhenottopher says:

      You don’t get a do-over basically. But, if you get your timing right and some luck in the midterms, you could cut the Republican control of the presidency time in half. First, assume that Pence gets equally caught up in the scandal as Trump but given the slow wheels of government, taking two years to complete an investigation and impeachment proceeding isn’t implausible. Then in the midterms due to Republicans being tied up in this mess, Democrats re-take the House in what would have to be a landslide to give even minor control for them. Nancy Pelosi is Speaker again. Hearings conclude, Trump and Pence are simultaneously kicked out, and Nancy Pelosi rules for at least 2 years until 2021.

      Is that implausible? Hell yes. Do Republicans have ways to prevent it even if they agree with dumping both Trump and Pence? Yes, just push forward the votes before any hand over in 2019 and give Democrats the choice of getting rid of Trump or letting him walk (I’m not certain since it hasn’t happened before but I bet you could get a Supreme Court ruling that since impeachment is a trial no double jeopardy applies so if you don’t get him for the crimes the first time you’re SOL unless you find new ones). So is kicking the Republicans out of power through Constitutional means really plausible? No. Would a civilian led coup be plausible? No, the military if anything leans conservative and wouldn’t back it. End result: no matter what happens to Trump, Republicans are probably in the White House for the next 4 years.

  13. Wrong Species says:

    Elon Musk’s Neuralink wants to boost the brain to keep up with AI

    Is a version of this tech that actually works well feasible in the next 10-15 years?

    Is there any reason for concern compared to the other intelligence amplifiers((AI, genetic engineering, mind uploads)? It seems like the best option to prevent killer AI and technological unemployment and probably would be easier to deal with politically than designer babies.

    • Well... says:

      Neuralink isn’t going to be focused on upgrading ordinary human brainpower at first, however, according to the WSJ report. Instead, it’ll explore how brain interfaces might alleviate the symptoms of dangerous and chronic medical conditions.

      Hm. I don’t like transhumanist bio-tinkering, but I do like technology that is designed to make sick people whole again when other methods haven’t worked well. How might we keep the latter from smuggling in a landing strip for the former?

      • gbdub says:

        Why should we want to? What’s the justification for limiting our capabilities to “what an average late 20th century person can do”?

        We already vastly augment our raw human capabilities with technology. Nueralink would basically just improve the interface.

        • Well... says:

          The difference between “human” and “cyborg” is in most ways scalar, not categorical. I get that: I wear prosthetics on my face to help me see, I interface with a little gizmo to help me communicate long distances, I get into a wheeled machine that becomes like an extension of my body so I can move around quicker, etc. Even the language I speak is a kind of open-source technology. In fact, you could argue the non-cyborg end of that scale probably extends past humans to some primordial ancestor who lacked tool use or sophisticated language.

          But I did say “most ways”. There are milestones along that scale on the way from human to cyborg, and the world that fits my values contains technology on one side of certain milestones. Beyond those milestones the world is sure to change in unpredictable ways–some negative and some positive–and things I value are sure to be lost. (I’m using a general “I” here; lots of people are uncomfortable with technological transhumanism for roughly the same reason. Bad guys in movies are so often part machine because it is a Schelling point with which to convey to the audience the bad guys’ soullessness.)

          Neural nets that allow you to interface with computers, potentially without any sensory awareness of even initiating the interaction, strike me as one such milestone.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            But if the effect is scalar EDIT: and reversible then people can choose what they want, and can dial it forward or back incrementally. That’s what makes mind-machine interface such a relieving thought.

            Compare to a world where you need to be a product of genetic engineering to compete, or you need to be a computer to compete, or you need to be an upload running at 200x speed to compete.

          • Well... says:

            But who says it’s reversible? Maybe it’s somewhat reversible within milestones, but I don’t see much evidence it’s easily reversible across them. Not without a major catastrophic event or something.

          • hoghoghoghoghog says:

            If the neural lace is just an interface to a computer, attached to a normally-grown brain, you can unplug the computer. The maybe-irreversible version is if you put it on a child and let their brain develop around the lace, maybe learning neural pathways that only make sense if there is also a machine pathway. I don’t know enough neurology to say if this is plausible.

            In any case there is a business case for making a reversible version – don’t want to freak out your customers.

          • Well... says:

            Oh, I meant the irreversability of the technology’s impact on society.

          • Fahundo says:

            Bad guys in movies are so often part machine because it is a Schelling point with which to convey to the audience the bad guys’ soullessness.

            Counterpoint: Robocop

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Or Terminator 2.

          • Nornagest says:

            Luke Skywalker post Empire Strikes Back. Tony Stark. Ash Williams. Imperator Furiosa. Captain Picard has an artificial heart, though it rarely comes up.

            I would hardly know where to begin if we pulled in anime, although Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the more famous ones.

          • John Schilling says:

            Captain Picard has an artificial heart, though it rarely comes up.

            And Picard barely takes third place for obvious cybernetic enhancement on the Enterprise-D bridge crew.

            Also: Steve Austin (Colonel, not Stone Cold) and Jamie Sommers

          • The Nybbler says:

            Luke isn’t a counterexample; the point of his artificial hand is “You’re starting to take after your father, boy!”

          • Randy M says:

            Is Data a cyborg? Is that skin alive like the Terminator? I thought he was squarely in the distinct android category.

            (Obviously Geordi is another one, although an annoying pedant would argue whether he is bridge crew–not me, though.)

          • suntzuanime says:

            Luke isn’t a counterexample; the point of his artificial hand is “You’re starting to take after your father, boy!”

            Ditto Fullmetal Alchemist; his mechanical limbs are a symbol of his inerasable sin.

          • Spookykou says:

            I don’t think Data has any organic components, the terminator is technically a cyborg, in that the skin is organic material, but I don’t think the terminator fits the spirit of the definition as it is being used in this thread, to refer to something ‘losing it’s soul’ I would think you would need to have more significant organic parts(brain, or maybe a heart if we are being romantic).

            Geordi is a helmsman in season 1 for the pedantic few.

            More recently, almost all the bad guys in Logan have cybernetic prosthesis, but I think that is more of a call out to future ex military. I think some video games or something set in the near future give all the military people cybernetic prosthesis, but I don’t play shooters so I am not sure which one.

          • John Schilling says:

            The claim was,

            Bad guys in movies are so often part machine because it is a Schelling point with which to convey to the audience the bad guys’ soullessness.

            100% machine Good Guys With Souls are not inappropriate as counterexamples, they are the strongest possible counterexamples.

          • Spookykou says:

            Bad guys in movies are so often part machine because it is a Schelling point with which to convey to the audience the bad guys’ soullessness.

            John, you are correct.

            I got hung up on the ‘part machine’ bit and assumed it was talking about the process of becoming mechanized causing soullessness, rather than it just being the state of mechanized things to be soulless.

            I would add to the list of charismatic robot characters two of my favorite, Johnny five, and WALL-E

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Any schmuck can be trained to use external tools. When you build the tech into individuals, you’re engineering actual ubermenschen. Which generally does not have good implications for society.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            When you build the tech into individuals, you’re engineering actual ubermenschen.

            I’m more concerned that companies will use this tech as a way to beam ads directly into our brains.

          • you’re engineering actual ubermenschen. Which generally does not have good implications for society.

            We haven’t had any engineered ubermeschen, so have no evidence on whether they would be good or bad for society. But we have had quite a lot of examples of people much smarter than the average, which would seem like the closest equivalent. Do you think society was worse off due to the existence of Von Neumann? Newton? Shakespeare? Ricardo?

          • rlms says:

            Those are übermenschen in intelligence only. Übermenschen in areas like charisma (Washington, Hitler etc.) seem less clearly positive.

          • quanta413 says:

            Those are übermenschen in intelligence only. Übermenschen in areas like charisma (Washington, Hitler etc.) seem less clearly positive.

            An interesting point that I’d be interested to see you elaborate. I think I largely agree, but I can’t help but feel vaguely suspicious that since intelligent people tend to be the writers of history, there may be an accidental bias. And my personal bias would also love it if uber intelligence was ok but uber charisma was not. Would a propaganda genius be an ubermenschen of intelligence or charisma?

          • rlms says:

            I’m interpreting “übermensch” as meaning someone with once-in-a-generation level talent in something, which enables them to do things that seem “superhuman” (Newton invented the foundations of a huge amount of modern maths and physics, Shakespeare’s plays are still regarded as brilliant in completely different cultures centuries later, Hitler and Washington inspired incredible loyalty and persuaded people to do really weird things).

            Literal writers of history (books) are usually intelligent, but I can’t think of any who are über-intelligent. And likewise for metaphorical writers of history (politicians). I can’t think of any über-propagandists, but I think they’d probably be über in propaganda writing skill, separate from both intelligence and charisma. They aren’t the only two categories (indeed I’d be inclined to subdivided intelligence; Shakespeare’s genius isn’t the same as Newton’s).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @rlms:
            I’m not sure if you are familiar with the fact that Übermensch is a term now indelibly linked to Nazi Germany?

            If you are (which is probable, I am guessing), perhaps be clearer about the distinction you are trying to draw?

          • rlms says:

            I don’t think the association between Nietzsche and Nazis overwhelms other senses of the word (the section on the wikipedia page about anarchism is longer than the one about Nazis). I am interpreting it in they way I think David Friedman did, referring to someone who has extreme talent and power, but is not necessarily amoral. I was probably unclear in my last comment by using “übermensch” to refer both to someone with extreme talent in one thing, and someone with extreme talent in many things. I’m interpreting Gobbobobble as talking about the latter.

            Gobbobobble stated that creating extremely capable people would be bad for society. David Friedman argued that the nearest analogue, extremely intelligent people, don’t seem to have negative effects. I’m arguing that extreme intelligence is only one facet of extreme power/capability in general, and that people with extreme charisma do sometimes (but not always) seem to have significant negative effects. Hence you can’t just argue that general übermenschen would be safe and positive like extremely intelligent people tend to be.

          • Protagoras says:

            I tend to think it’s also relevant that the association between Nietzsche and the Nazis is a mistake; Nietzsche was very clearly and explicitly anti-Nazi. The ways in which people have managed to get confused on that issue are too complicated to go into here, but enough people seem to mean Nietzsche’s ubermensch (or some entirely different thing) rather than the Nazi ubermensch to make me disinclined to cede the word to the Nazis.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            “übermensch” to refer both to someone with extreme talent in one thing, and someone with extreme talent in many things. I’m interpreting Gobbobobble as talking about the latter.

            Correct. I was agreeing more broadly with Well…’s distaste for “transhumanist bio-tinkering” than to Neuralace in particular. I should have made that more clear.

            Gobbobobble stated that creating extremely capable people would be bad for society.

            Eh, loosely. Having a cabal or class of augmented people who know for a fact that they’re designed to be better than everyone else does not bode well for the rest of society. Especially when (either due to influence in developing the tech or due to the capabilities granted, probably a feedback loop of the two) they’re the gatekeepers of who is allowed to be augmented.

            Like, to address David Friedman’s point: did any of those individuals really consider themselves ubermensch? For a counter-example, we can look at the social engineering of an ubermenschen class: the antebellum South. (Related: HBC points out the connotations of my deliberate word choice of “ubermensch”)

            And those groups weren’t even factually superior to those they oppressed. Imagine the damage they could have done if they were.

            I’m having difficulty coming up with the right words… there’s just something qualitatively different about being naturally gifted than biomechanical enhancement or genetic supremacy (either mythical or engineered). Extreme capability is fine as long those individuals still relate to and identify as Human (Like The Rest Of Us).

            Societies have persistently drawn the wrong lessons from HBD. I just don’t see updating that to “human bio-mechanical diversity” as leading to anything different.

            Does this make any sense? Like I said, this is an area where I’m having difficulty putting my thoughts in writing. Hopefully someone more eloquent can back me up 🙂

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Gobbobobble:

            Have you seen the movie Gattaca?

            I was sure that was based on a famous short story or novel, but I can’t find any reference, so perhaps it merely drew on the general well of dystopian future eugenic ideas.

          • rlms says:

            I agree that übermenschen could be dangerous, but in a different way. I’m not particularly worried about a static superior cabal, but I am concerned that the übermenschen could compete against each other and deal a lot of damage to everyone else in the process. There are two main reasons I’m not worried about a cabal. Firstly, in any vaguely hierarchal society (whether the people on top are elected politicians, CEOs or monarchs), you *want* very capable people in charge. Being ruled by übermenschen is a feature not a bug, and it doesn’t require anything dodgy on their part: it’s what you’d expect in any society with social mobility. I think it would be difficult for them to restrict augmentation tools; useful knowledge has a way of spreading despite government efforts to stop it (see e.g. encryption).

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @rlms:

            it’s what you’d expect in any society with social mobility.

            But if capability is literally determined by access to expensive technology, how long will social mobility last?

            Thing about this in terms of relative ability, and I think you will start to see the issue.

          • Nornagest says:

            Having a cabal or class of augmented people who know for a fact that they’re designed to be better than everyone else does not bode well for the rest of society.

            I suspect we already have that, minus “augmented”, and in fact that this is true for every identifiable group minus a few irrelevant exceptions. I further suspect that this would keep being true even after we bioengineer people that really can run faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound; the rest will just invent a concept of Organic People or something.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            But if capability is literally determined by access to expensive technology, how long will social mobility last?

            Precisely!

            And yes, I’ve seen Gattaca. Considered referencing it in my longer post there but it felt jumbled enough already 🙂

          • The original Mr. X says:

            @ Gobbobobble:

            For a counter-example, we can look at the social engineering of an ubermenschen class: the antebellum South.

            We could also look at the scientific racism of the 19th/early 20th centuries. Lots of people then believed that whites, or a subset thereof (Ango-Saxons, Aryans, whatever), were naturally superior to all the other races.

          • rlms says:

            Social mobility means two things. Firstly, it means the existence of movement between levels/classes. Secondly, it means the possibility for competent people in lower classes to move up to higher ones (and the opposite). The two are intertwined currently, because being born in a lower class doesn’t preclude you from being able to succeed in a higher one (and the highborn people aren’t necessarily competent). So the second meaning implies the first in the current world.

            But with sufficient genetic engineering, that isn’t necessarily true. It can be theoretically perfectly possible for a competent lowborn person to rise to the top, but practically impossible, as good genes cost too much. Then you can have the second meaning without the first. I don’t think a world like that would necessarily be bad. Most of the usually problems with lack of social mobility (it is inefficient and unfair on competent lowborn people) don’t apply.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Gattaca always struck me as kind of unconsciously classist. The big injustice that we were supposed to see as dystopian was that a guy was working as a janitor. That’s it, that’s the dystopia. Friends, the world needs janitors, it needs more janitors than it needs astronauts. There is nothing wrong with being a janitor.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I think you’re all missing something. I don’t see any reason that augmenting people is necessarily an inequality enhancing technology. Tech is expensive at first yes but it generally flows to the masses. After all, the internet is not just restricted to rich people. If anything, it will make the world a more level playing field. Right now, without any intelligence enhancements, the world is headed down a path where a few smart people are going to profit off their skills with information technology while the masses are useless. Neural laces give those people a fighting chance.

          • Creutzer says:

            Plus, the parents of the fellow in Gattaca were just grossly irresponsible for egotistic sentimental reasons. It’s almost like blaming society for not giving a child the chances everyone else has when they have brain damage because their mother got drunk regularly during the pregnancy.

          • John Schilling says:

            But if capability is literally determined by access to expensive technology, how long will social mobility last?

            Are you old enough to remember when cellular telephones were an expensive technology that marked their user as a One Percenter with a very, very important function that they needed to be in constant contact to carry out?

            We seem to have avoided the dystopia of the Permanent Blackberry Aristocracy.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            You can buy a blackberry without undergoing elective brain surgery.

            Healthcare is already such a hotbutton issue, want to add whether insurance should cover cybernetics into the mix?

            LASIK might make a decent counter-example but as the old saying goes, “it’s not brain surgery”. I’d need some convincing that a similarly invasive procedure can be made affordable.

            (And on the genetic engineering front, I’m curious if anyone has data on how affordable things like IVF are to the lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. I genuinely don’t know whether it’s fair to expect the real world’s parents to be able to afford a Gattaca system)

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            @suntzu

            Gattaca always struck me as kind of unconsciously classist. The big injustice that we were supposed to see as dystopian was that a guy was working as a janitor. That’s it, that’s the dystopia.

            I think the dystopian element was that he never had the opportunity to be anything else…and in general, people in that world didn’t have much of a choice about what they became, because it was all written into their genes.

            I mean, I guess you could say that’s not much more dystopian (or even any different) than our world. But in our society these things are randomized; talents arise unpredictably rather than being programmed into people, and those who don’t have opportunities and choices at least theoretically have opportunities and choices, or are told that if they work hard enough they can overcome their disadvantages. Which does happen, at least occasionally. I mean, you could argue that willpower/work ethic is just another genetic gift and that the idea that people have a choice about this stuff at all may be mostly an illusion, but people having at least a sense of choice is still an important psychological need.

            Though, yes, it is kind of ironic that the horrific fate he’s trying to escape is “having a normal-ass job.”

            I think whether Gattaca is really a dystopia is debatable, anyway. It always struck me as a setup with both pluses and minuses.

          • John Schilling says:

            Though, yes, it is kind of ironic that the horrific fate he’s trying to escape is “having a normal-ass job.”

            IIRC, he wanted to be an astronaut, was smart enough to be an astronaut if he gave it 110% (do not bother me with your puny Earth math!), but had a heart defect that was going to kill him by the time he was thirty.

            So, unless we take this as the sort of silly fantasy where you can just will your heart to keep beating until the happy ending, then A: the protagonist’s parents doomed him to an early grave for their Twue Wuv, and B: the protagonist probably doomed his fellow astronauts to find their way home from Saturn without a navigator for his selfish and suicidal ambition.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            I feel that this conversation would benefit if more people read “The Abolition of Man”. Tl;dr: when we talk about cybernetic enhancement, genetic engineering, etc., what we’re actually talking about is giving some people (the engineers) near-absolute power over others (the engineered). Given how poorly people have historically reacted to being given absolute power, the awesomeness of this development is open to question.

          • John Schilling says:

            Healthcare is already such a hotbutton issue, want to add whether insurance should cover cybernetics into the mix?

            LASIK might make a decent counter-example but as the old saying goes, “it’s not brain surgery”. I’d need some convincing that a similarly invasive procedure can be made affordable.

            Yeah, I’m pretty certain that if I had told you in the days of the Motorola Brick your children would be able to buy 20/20 or better vision via flesh-searing laser fired into their eyeballs, as an outpatient procedure charged to an average credit card at a storefront in a local shopping mall, you’d have dismissed that as science fiction.

            And on the genetic engineering front,

            On that front, I remember when sequencing a single human genome was a billion-dollar multinational research project. From the graph, I’m going to guess someone asked the “hey, can we make a profit from this?” question in about 2008.

            I’m curious if anyone has data on how affordable things like IVF are to the lower rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. I genuinely don’t know whether it’s fair to expect the real world’s parents to be able to afford a Gattaca system)

            Since you ask.

            So, OK, the Gattaca approach was just genetic screening on steroids, not actual genetic engineering. Assuming the Belgian research pans out, we should be able to do a round of IVF ($260) with a full genetic sequence on both parents ($1245 each) and genetic screening on a hundred of the father’s sperm to find the best match ($6759) for under $10,000. And most of that is in the repeated screening, which can probably be made much cheaper with automation and experience.

            We certainly ought to be able to find a way to finance that to put it in reach of anyone who can afford to raise a child in the first place, and whatever insurance company or whatnot is going to be charged with paying to treat any congenital conditions ought to be highly motivated to make it happen.

            Rich families will of course insist that their Extra Special Babies come from a very thorough screening process that found the best genotype out of a Thousand sperm, no Ten Thousand!, but that’s likely to be well into diminishing-marginal-returns territory. And the automation will catch up soon enough.

          • Spookykou says:

            @The original Mr. X

            I don’t see how the engineers get any ‘power’ over the engineered in a scary sense of the word, unless we assume an incredibly wide spread conspiracy of very patient genetic engineers.

          • Nornagest says:

            be able to buy 20/20 or better vision via flesh-searing laser fired into their eyeballs

            When you put it that way, it sounds so metal that I almost regret having perfectly fine natural vision.

          • John Schilling says:

            When you put it that way, it sounds so metal that I almost regret having perfectly fine natural vision

            Look on the bright side. There’s still one chance in four that you’ll someday develop cancer.

          • Lots of people then believed that whites, or a subset thereof (Ango-Saxons, Aryans, whatever), were naturally superior to all the other races.

            That doesn’t require any belief in HBD and long predates modern genetics. Many societies, probably most, believe they are superior to others. Aristotle talked about natural slaves a couple of thousand years before Darwin.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Yeah, I’m pretty certain that if I had told you in the days of the Motorola Brick your children would be able to buy 20/20 or better vision via flesh-searing laser fired into their eyeballs, as an outpatient procedure charged to an average credit card at a storefront in a local shopping mall, you’d have dismissed that as science fiction.

            This seems pretty uncharitable considering I bothered to include a potential counterargument for myself, pointed I still have concerns with it, and you’ve basically just said “yeah, that thing” without expanding on it all.

            For a more pertinent example to a brain implant, how about pacemakers? From what I can tell from a quick look at Wikipedia (don’t have time now to go in-depth, certainly open to better sources), those were available as more than experimental since the 60s/70s, and still require fairly invasive surgery to install the electrodes. There’ve been experiments toward eliminating this, with so far mixed results.

            So it may eventually get to an outpatient level, but it’s not there yet and isn’t guaranteed it ever will be.

            I still maintain that, as impressive as it is, using a laser to push parts of your eye back into place is qualitatively different from sticking bits of metal and silicon into a major organ. If an eye operation accidentally breaks it, worst case you turn out blind. Breaking the heart or brain kills the patient. Implants come with extra problems, too, since we still haven’t figured out a way to get the body to stop rejecting them (or even transplanted human organs).

            Maybe it could one day be as simple as going in to the doc and getting a CAT-5 port stapled to the back of your neck, but at this point I consider that a pretty extraordinary claim. (ETA: even when you adjust for the obvious exaggeration. I know no one is literally claiming a CAT-5 interface will happen)

          • Aapje says:

            I know no one is literally claiming a CAT-5 interface will happen

            It would be Bluetooth, of course.

          • CatCube says:

            @Aapje

            Bluetooth would be a requirement for a smart mouth, but I don’t know if I’d use it for brains.

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        I’m not sure “helping the sick” versus “improving the hale” is the right distinction. Take a memory prosthesis, designed for Alzheimer’s victims. Suppose it gives them constant reminders: wearing one feels like having an “oh yeah…”-type thought every 3 seconds. Maybe it also tracks what you were just thinking about, so you don’t lose your train of thought.

        This gets more creepy as the person gets more sick. On a healthy person it is like a refrigerator note; on a very sick person it is a mind transplant.

        • Machina ex Deus says:

          This would make a good science fiction / horror story: the narrator’s thoughts in roman type, the implant’s in italics; by the end of the story, everything’s in italics and obvious core values of the person are being violated.

          And to think I was just complaining today about Outlook failing to remind me of a meeting….

          • Wrong Species says:

            If I was writing that story, I would switch it up halfway through so that sometimes the narrators thoughts were in italics and vice versa until the end where you can’t tell which is which.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          This kind of reminds me of the debate over the ethics of curing autism; a “cure” would change the way a person’s mind worked so completely that you’d effectively be destroying the person.

          As technology and different ways of fine-tuning the mind become more advanced, we’re going to be dealing with a lot of these types of questions.

  14. Brad says:

    Bakkot:
    I’m continuing to get the “Cheatin’ uh?” on every post I report since about a week ago. Did something change?

  15. Le Maistre Chat says:

    At least in the Anglosphere, the Francophone counterrevolutionary philosopher Joseph de Maistre is most remembered* for the line “Every country has the government it deserves.” Agree or disagree? If some countries have governments they don’t deserve, how does one recognize that?

    *In second place would be “accused of founding fascism by Isaiah Berlin”, an accusation that there’s something of a movement in the Anglophone academy to discredit, to the academy’s credit.

    • Wrong Species says:

      No one deserves Kim Jong Un.

    • cassander says:

      this is certainly true of democratic countries.

    • suntzuanime says:

      There’s a sense in which it’s trivially true, in which nations have the responsibility to ensure good outcomes for themselves and there’s no one they can cry to if they fail. (Or, more accurately, the crying should be considered as part of the ongoing attempt to ensure good outcomes.) There’s a sense in which if the British come from overseas and install a viceroy over you, you’re supposed to get gud and overthrow him and replace him with a Cincinnatus.

      There’s also the less literal sense, something like “the civic virtue of the nation is strongly correlated with the quality of its government”. I think this is mostly true, barring cases of outside interference. Which I guess means it’s mostly false.

      The problem with the statement is, desert isn’t real. So you can’t recognize a country that deserves a better government, because the only meaningful arbiter, Gnon, clearly thinks they don’t. At best you can identify countries where foreign meddling has led to particularly bad outcomes. I wonder if there are some countries that have better governments than they deserve? Foreign meddling isn’t uniformly negative, right? Britain was trying to civilize the savages, the US has been spreading democracy, have these ever made anything better?

    • blacktrance says:

      That’s too strong, but the quality of a government does seem to be correlated with the virtue of a country’s citizens.

    • Anonymous says:

      Taken literally, it’s rather obviously false.

      OTOH, there is a tendency of the governments of countries to be recruited from its citizens, and therefore the citizenry tends to determine the quality of government it has. Dr Gregory Clark makes a compelling case that throughout all known history, regardless of the government type or prevailing ideology, the talented will strongly tend to end up among the elites, even if lowborn.

    • onyomi says:

      I would disagree to the same extent I would disagree with the statement “a city has the violent crime rate it deserves.”

      On the one hand, the crime rate of a city is nothing but the cumulative result of actions of people in that city. As a group, they will have a city no more nor less safe than their own actions make it.

      But I don’t think I believe in collective guilt (or credit). The peaceful people of a city deserve to live among other peaceful people; the violent people deserve to live among other violent people. In the case of any city inhabited by both peaceful and violent people, the peaceful people are getting worse than they deserve while the violent people are getting better than they deserve. But I don’t think it makes sense to say that “injustice in one direction+injustice in the opposite direction=justice.”

      Another good reason for ancap: a well-informed car buyer is more likely to get the car he deserves than an informed voter in a democracy (to say nothing of a well-informed resident of an authoritarian regime) is to get the government he deserves.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        That objection only makes sense if you view a city or country as reducible to the individual citizens, a very individualistic assumption with which de Maistre would presumably disagree.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Indeed. De Maistre viewed ethnic groups as irreducible to their individuals. “I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc… one can even be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.”

          As he also supported multi-ethnic kingdoms as an legitimate alternative to nation-states, this does however complicate the possibility of collective guilt or merit in “each country.”

    • Jaskologist says:

      The people set an upper limit for how well-regulated (in the old sense of “being in proper working order”) the government is. The leaders set a different upper limit.

      The lowest upper limit wins.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I think the word “deserve” is misplaced. William Muny probably has the right of it.

      But I think the statement points at something that is deeply meaningful. Civil life grows out of the citizenry and feeds back into civil life. Government grows from the people and contributes to the growth of the people.

      It is well nigh impossible to impose good government from on high. The system has to work as a whole, and requires the cooperation of the vast majority.

      Thus, incrementalism is the only true solution.

    • Machina ex Deus says:

      Every country has the government it deserves.

      So a country that has an unhealthy obsession with wealth, celebrity, and television deserves a leader who’s a rich TV celebrity?

      That sounds unduly harsh.

  16. Le Maistre Chat says:

    So in the last open thread, I was accused of trolling for saying that there are institutional disincentives for Blue people to espouse heresy.
    So what about a case like Rachel Dolezal, who at this point may be homeless after claiming to be “transracial”? Rather than heresy, one could justly frame the issue as a selfish woman gaming institutions for personal gain, but OTOH, isn’t it both orthodox leftism that A) transsexual is a real thing and B) race is more of a social construct than sex/gender?

    • 1soru1 says:

      Pretty sure the orthodoxy is race is that more of a social construct than sex, but not more than gender.

      In any case, ‘tax payable’ is more of a social construct than either, but millionaires don’t get to claim to be ‘trans-poor’.

    • cassander says:

      A and B are both true, but it is not an uncommon argument to say that setting up a system that rewards people for identifying as a certain race will encourage people to identify as members of those races. This argument is usually dismissed as utterly absurd. but if people can just identify as black, or whatever, the whole system will come crashing down. Rachel Dolezal has gotten the treatment to encourage the others.

    • James Miller says:

      Allowing anyone “born white” to declare themselves black and get treated as black would destroy affirmative action, and the left cares a great deal about preserving affirmative action. As a Republican who dislikes affirmative action I think that Republicans should support “racial identity freedom” in which everyone has the right to pick their race.

      • Brad says:

        the left cares a great deal about preserving affirmative action

        Are you sure “the left” cares a great deal about it and not, say, “the upside down”?

        Do you perhaps have survey data on political self identification, ideological positions, and saliency?

        • rlms says:

          As a proud upsidedownist, I dispute this characterisation of my position.

        • James Miller says:

          Elite colleges are huge supporters of affirmative action and are controlled by the left. I don’t understanding what you mean by “the upside down”?

          • Brad says:

            If all men are mortal and all men support affirmative action does it follow that all mortals support affirmative action?

          • James Miller says:

            @brad

            I’m still confused by what you mean and don’t see how your last comment relates to “the upside down”. Just to be safe, if you do respond to this comment please do so under the assumption that I’m not very bright.

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            This seems a bit no-true-Scotsman-y. It is indisputable that affirmative action is very popular on the left; yes, there are leftists who don’t like it, but no political position has 100% support.

            There are right-wingers who don’t like tax cuts or guns, too, but it’s a good bet that the average right-winger you come across is in favor of cutting taxes and opposes gun control.

          • Brad says:

            @James Miller
            Okay, I’ll stop hiding the ball. Relying on nothing more than your own authority to deliver broad pronouncements about what “the left” believes is worse than useless.

            If it is common knowledge than no one needs you to state it and if it isn’t common knowledge than you should provide some evidence.

          • Brad says:

            Upon re-reading the original post in this thread, and further reflection, my objection should have been aimed at Le Maistre Chat rather than you, James Miller. You were just responding to his prompt.

            My apologies.

          • quanta413 says:

            Okay, I’ll stop hiding the ball. Relying on nothing more than your own authority to deliver broad pronouncements about what “the left” believes is worse than useless.

            If it is common knowledge than no one needs you to state it and if it isn’t common knowledge than you should provide some evidence.

            If you’re going to bother disputing facts like group support for a policy, could you kindly actually dispute it?

            http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/22/public-strongly-backs-affirmative-action-programs-on-campus/ (78% of Democrats polled here supported affirmative action on campuses to increase the number of minorities)

            http://www.gallup.com/poll/163655/reject-considering-race-college-admissions.aspx (the title is deceptive, it really just shows that Americans often hold schizophrenic beliefs, 53% of Democrats say to college admissions should only be on merits not race, but 80% of Democrats support affirmative action in general)

            And you can find more links if you like. Roughly, it appears that as a group republicans slightly disfavor to moderately disfavor affirmative action. For Democrats, it depends exactly how you word it, but they are largely in favor of “affirmative action” but split more evenly on “racial preferences”.

            Of course, you’re free to argue that Democrats are not the American left or something. Would you prefer surveys of green party voters?

            EDIT: nvm, brad responded in meanwhile apologizing.

    • Protagoras says:

      I don’t know that Dolezal even claims to have racial dysphoria. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a common thing, and as a result there isn’t much research regarding it. I don’t see any inconsistency in being reluctant to rush into claiming it definitely exists and should be treated exactly the same as gender dysphoria, even if there seem to possibly be a couple of superficial similarities.

      • gbdub says:

        Based on articles and interviews surrounding her upcoming book, I would say she does claim racial dysphoria or something very much like it.

        • Protagoras says:

          Perhaps. Doesn’t affect the rest of what I say. Gender dysphoria seems to be different from, for example, BDD or BIID, and different responses to it seem to be appropriate. It seems entirely likely that racial dysphoria would again be different, and so unreasonable to draw conclusions about how we should respond to it without understanding the phenomenon better.

    • Bugmaster says:

      The difference between a person claiming to be transgender, and a person claiming to be transracial, is that the latter dilutes a well-established victimhood category which is based (mostly) on appearance.

      Given that black people are oppressed, they deserve additional social support; and there are many organizations and social norms that have been built up over the years to provide this support. But how can you tell who is black enough to qualify ? Generally, you do so by judging an applicant’s appearance. If you allow anyone to identify as black regardless of appearance, then blackness loses its power, and policies such as affirmative action stop working.

      Transgender people, on the other hand, mostly look like everyone else. Modern transgenderism is based on self-identification (in the past, it used to be based on a gender dysphoria diagnosis, but this opinion appears to have fallen out of favor). Thus, restricting people from self-identifying as transgender would be a self-defeating proposition. This situation may change when the proportion of transgender people grows to be sufficiently large; but for now, there are so few of them that any policy which will allow their numbers to grow is seen as beneficial.

      • Jiro says:

        People on the left would argue that just like black people are oppressed, women are oppressed too.

      • Nornagest says:

        the latter dilutes a well-established victimhood category which is based (mostly) on appearance.

        You could say the same for gender issues, and there’s a fairly large category of people (TERFs) who do. They aren’t winning, though.

        I think the bigger issue with “transracial” identity is the lack of a body of research behind it. Most political bodies on the left are of course quite happy to ignore research that doesn’t suit their needs, but it’s pretty rare to see a concept like this being given much time in those circles if there aren’t at least a few social science papers floating around for it; making identity categories up out of whole cloth and demanding they be taken seriously is Tumblr’s thing, not the mainstream left’s.

        • The Nybbler says:

          it’s pretty rare to see a concept being taken seriously in Democratic circles if there aren’t at least a few social science papers floating around behind it; making identity categories up out of whole cloth and demanding they be taken seriously is Tumblr’s thing, not the mainstream left’s.

          *sigh*, so much credentialism.

        • ThirteenthLetter says:

          Tumblr is getting its way, though. Facebook did go ahead and add their fifty-six gender categories, and newspapers are revising their style guides.

          This feels like how we’re always told that most college students don’t support political correctness and “roll their eyes” at the crazies who no-platform speakers and so forth. Maybe they do, but all that eye-rolling doesn’t stop the crazies from getting their demands met.

          • Nornagest says:

            Facebook’s target audience, not to put too fine a point on it, is emotionally fragile millennials. (As a millennial myself, I mean this descriptively, not pejoratively.) Making gender a drop-down field costs them a couple days of developer time and gets good press where they want it. And every newspaper in the world right now is desperate to keep looking relevant while it’s getting its lunch eaten by online media.

            It’s far less clear if the same tactics will keep working when they come up against people who aren’t incentivized to cater to their carriers’ every whim.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Nornagest, how do you square the facts of Facebook and Twitter’s eagerness to do/ban things for emotionally fragile millenials and their reluctance to help ban/combat ISIS and other Islamic terrorists?

          • suntzuanime says:

            Adding gender categories is only a tiny inconvenience to those who do not need them, it doesn’t have any major downsides, it’s a cheap sop. Twitter already has a huge problem with randomly banning innocent people, trying to step up their censorship would just make things worse. And that’s something that really costs them, it’s hard to get invested in a platform if you don’t know if your investment will be wiped out by a capricious ban at any moment.

          • Nornagest says:

            “Doing more” here seems to consist of decrypting user data on demand. That’s far more technically involved than changing the gender options (anytime you do anything with your crypto architecture, you risk compromising the system, so you need to do architecture reviews and lots of testing; depending on the details of that architecture, too, server-side interception might not even be possible without redesigning the whole thing), and has far more far-reaching implications as well. I don’t blame them for stonewalling.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Nornagest, how do you square the facts of Facebook and Twitter’s eagerness to do/ban things for emotionally fragile millenials and their reluctance to help ban/combat ISIS and other Islamic terrorists?

            Emotionally-fragile millennials are part of Mark Zuckerberg’s in-group, so if he can see some low-effort way to (as he sees it) help them, he’ll do that. ISIS and Islamic militants are his far-group, so he doesn’t really care about them one way or the other.

            (Cf. the university students’ unions which pass all sorts of motions against homophobia, hate-crimes, etc., but can’t bring themselves to condemn ISIS.)

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Nornagest: “‘Doing more’ here seems to consist of decrypting user data on demand. That’s far more technically involved…”

            No, I think there’s more to it than that and find your explanation unsatisfying. The technical side and slippery slope are part of it, but there’s also the part where ISIS can successfully recruit through members’s Facebook pages while the people Facebook employees talked about banning (during election season) were Trump supporters.
            I think Mr. X gets that with “out-group”/”far-group”.

            A corollary of this is that while Zuckerberg’s tribe* has one outgroup, Red Westerners, we Red-blooded Americans have two. You can see the same thing in India, where Red Indians complain about “Muslims and Marxists”.

            *Not meant to sound anti-Semitic! I clearly mean leftists.

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            It’s far less clear if the same tactics will keep working when they come up against people who aren’t incentivized to cater to their carriers’ every whim.

            Like who? Who’s going to stand up to them at this point? Besides, Facebook has literally 1.86 billion monthly active users. I don’t think it’s useful to just wave it away as a meaningless toy for fragile millennials so it doesn’t matter what silly things they do.

            I also have to echo LMC’s comment. Decrypting terrorist communications would be nice, I guess, but maybe FB/Twitter/et cetera could start by not letting terrorists recruit and spread propaganda on their networks, and we can work up to it from there?

          • rlms says:

            What makes you think Facebook aren’t banning terrorists and censoring their content? Presumably they are doing something, if they are accidentally banning people called Isis. Twitter had banned 360,000 extremist accounts as of August 2016.

            @ThirteenthLetter
            Decrypting communication between terrorists and stopping propaganda are two separate issues. Twitter and Facebook are clearly putting a significant amount of effort into the latter. Disregarding general free speech arguments, perhaps they should be putting in more, or are putting disproportionate amounts of effort into banning other people. But it’s difficult to say what is the case without detailed statistics.

            Decrypting communication is a very different situation. It would be nice for the government to have an oracle that lets them decrypt the messages of those who actually are terrorists, but that isn’t possible. The actual choice is between security for everyone and security for no-one.

          • Controls Freak says:

            @rlms

            The actual choice is between security for everyone and security for no-one.

            There is no such thing as perfect security, and security is not a binary. Lots of people use Facebook, Gmail, etc. right now, even though their communications on these products are accessible to those companies. Everyone determines what is “good enough” security for their particular application.

            If you’re really bound and determined to increase your security, you’re not going to run anything through any service like Facebook/Google without encrypting first, whether it’s with PGP or Mujahedeen Secrets. Higher levels of security are less and less convenient to the individual, which is why the vast majority of consumers will use a convenient product that has “good enough” security, even though it might be accessible to law enforcement under certain conditions.

            Finally, the digital ecosystem is filled to the brim with NOBUS methods and layers of trust which are subject to exactly the same criticism. Do you trust Apple to protect the digital signature they use to sign updates? Do you trust Intel to protect the digital signature necessary for their Active Management Technology? Do you trust every employee at the foundry to not slip an undetectable charge pump into your processor? Do you trust the certificate authorities who tell your browser which servers to trust? Do you trust the small group of people (no different from a ‘company’) to protect the one key that secures the entire internet? How come this is the one super special time when it is absolutely unacceptable for you to trust anyone else? Why is this one thing inevitably doomed, while all those others have some magic aura protecting them from the same inevitability?

            It would be nice for the government to have an oracle that lets them decrypt the messages of those who actually are terrorists, but that isn’t possible.

            It would be nice for the government to have an oracle that lets them search the houses of those who are actually terrorists, but that isn’t possible. Nevertheless, we still let judges issue search warrants for houses, and we have since approximately ever.

          • rlms says:

            @Controls Freak
            I don’t see why the first part of your comment is relevant. Some people sometimes choose to use insecure services, but they have the choice to use secure ones. You can’t take that choice away from terrorists without taking it away from everyone else.

            The analogy with search warrants isn’t accurate, for various reasons: getting a search warrant is costly and battering down the door of an innocent person is even costlier; there is no grey area of non-contraband things that the government would nevertheless like to abuse search warrants to find; and if someone uses a warrant to search your house you’re going to know about it. A better analogy is the government having keys to all homes (and the ability to invisibly sneak around inside them).

          • Controls Freak says:

            Some people sometimes choose to use insecure services, but they have the choice to use secure ones.

            Again, security is not a binary, so this sentence doesn’t even make sense.

            A better analogy is the government having keys to all homes (and the ability to invisibly sneak around inside them).

            But literally no one has proposed such a thing. I really important feature of all serious proposals is that it would be a process which necessarily runs through courts and companies. No government agency would have any key to anything. The example concept starts from the point that Apple is good at doing security. They already protect NOBUS methods. The gov’t would require Apple to protect this type of NOBUs method and be responsive to lawful government warrants. As you point out, getting that search warrant is costly, and convincing Apple’s legal department that the search warrant is t’s-crossed-and-i’s-dotted unassailable can be costlier.

            there is no grey area of non-contraband things that the government would nevertheless like to abuse search warrants to find

            This again hits all search warrants.

            if someone uses a warrant to search your house you’re going to know about it

            Search warrants already come with a receipt requirement. Even Title III wiretap requirements (which come with obvious reasons why the target can’t be informed at the time of the search) come with post-execution notification requirements. Do you have some reason to believe that we’ll just suddenly abandon our long-standing policy of requiring notification?

          • rlms says:

            Security (in terms of cryptography) isn’t a binary in the sense that plaintext < rot13 < PGP, but practically speaking it is. Encryption is winning the arms race against cryptanalysis, so it's feasible to encrypt something in a way that can't be broken. So there is a binary of "can be read by powerful adversary" vs "can't be read", and there is very little reason to choose the former unless you don't care about someone reading your messages. It's not like the 1600s, where differing levels of difficulty and time requirements meant there were real tradeoffs between the unbreakable Vigenère cipher, a breakable substitution cipher, and plaintext. But if you'd prefer, imagine I said "drastically less secure" rather than "insecure".

            I think what Amber Rudd (UK home secretary) is proposing is unclear. It seems likely that she doesn't know anything about any technical details, and is just telling WhatsApp to find a way of giving her terrorists' messages, with no regard to how practical that is. She's certainly not proposing any NOBUS methods, it would have to be NOBUK! This reveals one of the problems with NOBUS: if you have a backdoor that the UK can access, the US (and China, Russia etc.) can too. And in practice, often much smaller organisations of ordinary criminals can.

            "This again hits all search warrants."
            To clarify what I mean: a government can abuse costless surveillance to spy on people doing things they don't like but that aren't illegal (e.g. organise antigovernment protests) or things that are illegal but that they couldn't get a warrant for. In comparison, if they get a warrant to search your house, they either find some evidence of illegal activity or they don't.

            "Do you have some reason to believe that we’ll just suddenly abandon our long-standing policy of requiring notification?"
            There is evidence that the NSA occasionally ignores this policy.

          • Controls Freak says:

            She’s certainly not proposing any NOBUS methods, it would have to be NOBUK! This reveals one of the problems with NOBUS: if you have a backdoor that the UK can access, the US (and China, Russia etc.) can too. And in practice, often much smaller organisations of ordinary criminals can.

            This may be different from what the only serious US proposal was.

            It seems likely that she doesn’t know anything about any technical details, and is just telling WhatsApp to find a way of giving her terrorists’ messages, with no regard to how practical that is.

            Nevermind. This is the standard accusation leveled at the Burr-Feinstein draft, too. Anyway, just to bring multiple points together, let’s add:

            if you’d prefer, imagine I said “drastically less secure” rather than “insecure”.

            …and then read this. It’s a practical concept. It’s a NOBUS held by the company. No government agency has access to it. It certainly does not qualify as “drastically less secure”. If we propose that any NOBUS method held by any company is automatically accessible to all countries and all criminals, then we’re back to my paragraph above about digital signatures, AMT, charge pumps, certificates, and the entire internet.

            a government can abuse costless surveillance to spy on people doing things they don’t like but that aren’t illegal (e.g. organise antigovernment protests) or things that are illegal but that they couldn’t get a warrant for. In comparison, if they get a warrant to search your house, they either find some evidence of illegal activity or they don’t.

            Distinguish this from the current ability of the government to acquire a Title III wiretap warrant.

            “Do you have some reason to believe that we’ll just suddenly abandon our long-standing policy of requiring notification?”
            There is evidence that the NSA occasionally ignores this policy.

            That’s because most people fail to distinguish between two vastly different things: law enforcement and intelligence/counterintelligence. In particular, they freak out about things that are limited to FCI and imagine that we’re going to suddenly use them for LE. There is good reason to require notification for LE. There is good reason to not require notification for FCI. Unlike LE investigations, FCI investigations rarely end up with indictments and prosecutions. Instead, you determine that Boris (it’s always Boris) is running espionage operations on the US embassy in Cairo from his station at the Russian embassy there. You try to mitigate the damage or exploit your knowledge of this operation in some other fashion. You certainly try to tap all of his communications. Ten years later, Boris is still an agent of the FSB, but now he’s back in Moscow. Do you seriously want to require NSA to send him a letter, “Dear Boris, ten years ago, we spied on your communications while you were running espionage in Cairo. Sorry ’bout that. Sincerely, The Good Spies”?! It’s utterly ridiculous.

            That being said, there is one ‘tweener’ domain – international terrorism. Following 9/11, Congress basically slapped international terrorists into the same category of foreign spies for the purposes of FISA. There are some arguments for this… and some arguments against it. I personally think it’s worth pulling this category out and reworking more careful language for it. Nevertheless, those two domains are specifically called out by FISA, and it’s a massive error to think that the rules we apply to these foreign operations are at all likely to be imported into domestic law enforcement.

          • The Nybbler says:

            That’s because most people fail to distinguish between two vastly different things: law enforcement and intelligence/counterintelligence. In particular, they freak out about things that are limited to FCI and imagine that we’re going to suddenly use them for LE.

            Because “we” do. 9/11 and USA PATRIOT destroyed this distinction; they weakened it de jure and eliminated it de facto, with “parallel construction”. Now the foreign intelligence agency tips off law enforcement, law enforcement comes up with a plausible way it _could_ have gotten the information, and provides that to the court. The wall between intelligence/counterintelligence and law enforcement has been knocked down; the DEA was a client to XKeystore.

          • In particular, they freak out about things that are limited to FCI and imagine that we’re going to suddenly use them for LE.

            Correctly.

          • Controls Freak says:

            9/11 and USA PATRIOT destroyed this distinction

            It actually didn’t. Sure, they did a lot to encourage more information sharing across the wall, but there are still lots of really important distinctions between the two domains. Namely, in one of them, we have strong notification requirements for search warrants. In the other, we don’t.

            “parallel construction”

            …is a boogeyman that has been illegal for decades.

            the DEA was a client to XKeystore.

            First, most people don’t have a very good idea of what XKEYSCORE is. Money quote: “XKEYSCORE is not a thing that DOES collecting.” Second, DEA has a Special Operations Division tasked with narcoterrorism. That division likely has the international terrorism hook into products of FISA. This is a good point to note that some larger organizations have subcomponents which are part of the intelligence community, but that doesn’t mean that every part of the larger organization has access to intelligence products for just any old reason. My favorite example of this is that Treasury has an Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

          • Controls Freak says:

            @David Friedman

            We were talking about what the law actually says, and what future law is likely to say… not whether someone thinks one particular portion of the government has broken the law at some time. Even if one particular portion of the government has broken the law by performing parallel construction for law enforcement, that has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not future search warrants that compel decryption through a company will come with a notification requirement. It’s apples and kumquats.

            EDIT: For both of you, I should note that various portions of FISA still allow for sharing of information and use in prosecutions if there is an indication of a threat of death or serious bodily harm. The various details are complicated, and I encourage you to spend more time reading the actual law (and comprehensive reviews from groups like PCLOB) rather than breathless reporting and anonymous sources.

          • The Nybbler says:

            First, most people don’t have a very good idea of what XKEYSCORE is. Money quote: “XKEYSCORE is not a thing that DOES collecting.”

            XKEYSCORE provides access to data already collected. Which means the DEA has access to intelligence data. Which means the wall between law enforcement and intelligence/counterintelligence is gone.

            Parallel construction (perhaps better termed “perpetrating a fraud on the court”) may be illegal but the DEA was caught teaching agents to do it in 2012, and I see no indication they’ve stopped. Certainly no indication they’ve been prosecuted for it.

            At this point, the only reasonable conclusion is that any technique or method developed for intelligence/counterintelligence purposes can and will be used for law enforcement purposes.

          • Controls Freak says:

            XKEYSCORE provides access to data already collected. Which means the DEA has access to intelligence data.

            You’re better than this. I know you are. I’ve seen you comment here a lot. As I pointed out explicitly, a component of DEA has access to intelligence data. That component is the one with the international narcoterrorism mission. That does not mean that the wall between law enforcement and intelligence/counterintelligence is gone.

            If you have any suggestions for how we can better enforce the law and prevent anyone in DEA from performing parallel construction, I’m all ears. However, the one thing I won’t even entertain is simply banning intelligence activities.

            At this point, the only reasonable conclusion is that any technique or method developed for intelligence/counterintelligence purposes can and will be used for law enforcement purposes.

            …and it sounds like the conclusion you’re really trying to draw is that the only thing we can do is ban intelligence activities. That’s not an acceptable solution.

          • The Nybbler says:

            and it sounds like the conclusion you’re really trying to draw is that the only thing we can do is ban intelligence activities. That’s not an acceptable solution.

            Either the wall between intelligence and law enforcement has to be rebuilt, or intelligence activities have to be evaluated as if they will be used for law enforcement purposes as well. Because they will. If the intelligence activities are so essential, then the wall needs rebuilding. Even if that means more tractor-trailer loads of heroin coming into the country and not being stopped at a “random” checkpoint.

            Pretending the wall is there when it’s not (or rather, has holes in it that you could send an army through) only fools some people until the next Snowden-style leak.

          • Controls Freak says:

            So, we both agree that the wall is not quite as Trumpean (if we can use that as an adjective to mean “total”) as before 9/11. Still, that has approximately nothing to do with whether search warrants will come with a notification requirement. If you can agree to that (and that a hypothetical encryption law requiring decryption for normal law enforcement purposes is almost certainly to come with a notification requirement), then we can begin a discussion of what exactly the wall/fence/impenetrable-hyperplane-of-separation should look like.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Controls Freak

            Search warrants are pro-forma under the current scheme.

            A law requiring decryption as a result of a warrant is a problem only if it (by analogy with CALEA) requires making that decryption possible; that is, it forbids communications which cannot be decrypted by the provider. Because in practice, anything which can be decrypted by the provider may be decrypted also by the NSA (and WILL be so decrypted if the NSA has anything to say about it), which is likely to pass anything juicy onto law enforcement, which will concoct a reason to get a search warrant, completely vitiating the whole warrant requirement.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Search warrants are pro-forma under the current scheme.

            My bad. I was under the impression that search warrants issued by an ostensibly independent judiciary were a meaningful check on government investigative powers (and is the core of the Fourth Amendment). I suppose I could be hallucinating various cases where this resulted in suppression of evidence.

            A law requiring decryption as a result of a warrant is a problem only if it (by analogy with CALEA) requires making that decryption possible; that is, it forbids communications which cannot be decrypted by the provider.

            Good news! No one thinks this is possible. For example, under Burr-Feinstein, you could still download PGP and encrypt your communication before sending it through a channel. It targets widely-used and easy-to-use systems. In the real world, people value convenience a lot, which is why they’ll use Gmail, Facebook, and Apple products… even if those products are potentially subject to warrants.

            in practice, anything which can be decrypted by the provider may be decrypted also by the NSA

            Facts definitely not in evidence, because we could substitute anything in place of “the provider”. In practice, this entire line of argument is rather pointless, because it’s only held back by how infinitely powerful we imagine NSA is (and there’s no limitation on your imagination). We’re cut off at the pass before we even get to your concern about the wall.

            Anyway, let’s use that analogy to CALEA. Do you think that it has completely vitiated the whole Title III wiretap warrant requirement?

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          There are plenty of social science papers floating around behind “race has less basis in biology than gender”, surely, if not the specificity of “racial dysphoria”?
          Perhaps more to the point, things are taken seriously in Democratic circles if they have hard science papers floating behind them (eg, transsexual brain scans), not just sociology/humanities woo?

          • Nornagest says:

            Sure, that’s a trope, but “non-biological” doesn’t mean “arbitrary”. National borders are a social construct but I’ll still get shot if I cross the wrong one in the wrong place.

    • BBA says:

      Compare Johnny Otis, a son of Greek immigrants who passed as black for his long, storied career as an R&B musician and producer. Of course, he had actual talent, which makes up for a lot.

  17. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    On Tumblr, Scotty did some self-confessed wild speculation on foreign policy, to the effect that we should ally with Iran and Assad. I also don’t grok foreign policy, so anyone care to explain why this is a bad idea?

    (And as a bonus, evaluate Scott’s generally rosy view of Iran?)

    • bean says:

      The other side can always choose to not play along. We’ve spent the past 8 years trying to make nice with Iran, and they don’t seem interested. (Obama’s Middle East plans sounded a lot like Scott’s do.) They’ve spent decades demonizing us, and I don’t see that changing soon.
      The Middle East is a mess. Always has been and always will be. If there was only one person left there, he’d develop some form of psych condition that would have him fighting himself.

      • The Middle East is a mess. Always has been and always will be.

        I found this article interesting. It claims that ASEAN has brought peace to South East Asia; and that this should be regarded, a priori, as having been a harder problem than bringing peace to the Middle East.

        • christhenottopher says:

          I think there’s some merit to the point about SE Asia being a good counter-example to “areas with lots of violence over long periods of time can’t become peaceful,” but the article is a bit light on details as to how ASEAN accomplished this feat. I realize that’s just an excerpt from a larger book trying to make that argument, but they could have at least included a few bullet points for successes.

        • bean says:

          I’m not really buying it. Yes, there have been several wars in Southeast Asia, but there’s not the massive historical tensions that you see in the Middle East. And what did ASEAN have to do with it, anyway?

          • rlms says:

            Has the Middle East had much more historical tension than, say, Western Europe? This is a non-rhetorical question, I don’t know enough about the history of either to be that confident it hasn’t. But the history of Europe before 1945 seems to be mostly alternating tension and war.

          • 1soru1 says:

            what did ASEAN have to do with it, anyway

            In short, Singapore:Malaysia::Kuwait:Iraq

            ASEAN allowed sharing of wealth and prestige between small prosperous states and larger poorer ones. So the large ones were less tempted to invade and loot the smaller ones. No-one found it worthwhile to fund insurgencies in their neighbors ahead of developing their own economy.

            In theory, the Arab Union could have done the same across most of the Middle East. But the Arab Union always excluded Israel, and so there was always at least one player with an incentive to press the ‘defect’ button.

          • Gobbobobble says:

            Real shocker that a body named after its favored ethnicity did not bring stability to a multi-ethnic region. The ones that actually worked (EU, ASEAN) had the good sense to name themselves after the region as a whole.

          • Sandy says:

            ASEAN largely ignores authoritarianism in the region in favor of stability and the maintenance of good relations. They’re not exactly working overtime to push notions like “democracy” or “rights” in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines. And most of the worst problems in the region were resolved before ASEAN was formed or before the respective members joined the association (Singapore’s split from Malaysia and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, for example).

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        I think it’s a stretch to say we’ve spent 8 years making nice with Iran. Obama could not credibly promise peaceful policy in the future when you’ve got people like McCain running around. Just like the years of them demonizing us means we can’t trust their assurances, they can’t trust ours either.

        • bean says:

          That’s rather my point. Whatever forces foiled President Obama’s plan for a grand US-Iranian alliance to bring peace to the Middle East would also foil President Alexander’s.

          • herbert herberson says:

            Still worth emphasizing. Read Twitter today and you’d think the entire left save a few scattered Commies was in lockstep hatred of Russia and her allies, when, in actuality, the Obama wing of the Democratic party (opposed by the now-inexplicably-pre-eminent Clinton wing) was in favor of at least some detente.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      (((He))) is only wrong in one thing: the Al Saud and the Israelis love each other (see: Syrian Army vs. Islamic State under the Golan Heights, Israel watching – obviously they bomb the Syrian Army), so it’s not going to be Mossad that finishes the Sauds when it happens (all families will end someday, though I do hope the Sauds end before the sun explodes). Still, (((Scott))) is largely right, unlike most (((others))) (at least most of the vocal ones – though check out Max Blumenthal’s work, it’s good and it’s been costing him his friends). Hezbollah needs to stay armed (via Syria) to defend Lebanon from (((invasion))). Economic integration/growth and a measure of safety should be the things to normalize Iran – right now there are atheists saying the theocracy is what currently works to defend the country. Your other Sunni ally Pakistan loves killing Shiites too, ideally Shiite girls going to English and informatics classes. Iran has the best relationship with its own Kurds among the countries with chunks of Kurdistan (Turkey has a loving relationship with the Kurds *of Iraq*, but is at war with its own).

      MIGA!

      • herbert herberson says:

        Unironic parenthetic echoes. Very nice.

        For the record, America doesn’t support Israel because of (((reasons))), it’s because it recognizes the shared culture and interests of a fellow imperialist settler state. You should stop spoiling the barrel of your otherwise correct view on the region with poisonous bigotries.

        • ThirteenthLetter says:

          “imperialist settler state”? Is that being ironic, too? There are so many layers going on right now that I can’t tell.

          • herbert herberson says:

            Nope, I’m being 100% serious. When Israeli apologists defend the occupation by saying “well is it really that different from what America did to its natives,” I’m one of the guys who say “not at all, and in both cases it is an ugly, bloody stain on not only our histories, but our cultures through the present day.”

            And as an opponent of Israeli’s occupation, I love to tear down the theory that we Americans support it because of AIPAC and Hollywood and whatever. Not only is fighting antisemitism (much-needed) good optics for me and mine, and not only is it worth opposing for the same reason other bigotries are worth opposing, but it’s also ignorant as hell and serves to whitewash the US (which has far more to answer for). From the perspective of the monsters who run our foreign policy, the money and political capital spent on Israel’s behalf isn’t charity or a concession. It’s worth every single literal-and-metaphorical-penny.

          • @Herbert Herberson:

            The history of Israel vis a vis Palestinians is not all that similar to the U.S. vis a vis Amerinds. In the Israeli case, large numbers of Jews immigrated peacefully to Israel and bought land there. Conflicts between them, the Muslim inhabitants and the British rulers arose, violent on both sides. A civil war developed into an invasion by adjacent Arab states in support of the Palestinians, the Israelis eventually won the war. Arabs who did not choose to leave during the fighting remained in Israel and continued to own whatever land they had owned before.

            Not very much like what happened to the Amerinds.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          I don’t even know if it is unironic – it’s certainly the first time I can think of having seen it here on SSC. But if genuine, I confess to finding it baffling that people do it, because it’s so annoying that it’s got basically zero chance of persuading anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

          Antisemites gonna antisem, I suppose, but if you think someone’s Jewishness is relevant to the argument you’re trying to make against their position, then for goodness’ sake explain in words why it is relevant.

          • xXxanonxXx says:

            When dealing with head-in-the-sand types I find the echoes somewhat amusing. It’s a way of trolling people who deny facts that are possible challenges to their worldview (you really should be able to mount a rebuke of anti-semitism that consists of more than just getting angry at someone for pointing out the disproportionate number of Jews in various spheres of power). But I agree. Since the entire ethos of SSC is to do the exact opposite sticking one’s head in the sand, it is surprising and annoying to see the practice here.

          • hlynkacg says:

            To reiterate what Winter Shaker said above. The onus is on you to explain why it matters in the first place.

          • xXxanonxXx says:

            Having asked unironic users of the parenthetic echoes to explain the relevance of someone being Jewish, I can promise you they’re happy to answer.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Yeah, given that this blog is woke on HBD and specifically argues that racial disproportionality is not necessarily indicative of racism, there doesn’t seem much point in using the parentheses. Other than as whatever the opposite of a shibboleth is, the one that gets you killed.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            A sibboleth?

      • Machina ex Deus says:

        Thank you for your valuable public service: until now, I had no idea Scott was a LISP programmer!

    • Wrong Species says:

      Say what you will about Assad but he’s certainly better than ISIS and probably better than the “moderate” democratic Islamists.

      Saudi Arabia has one advantage over Iran and it’s really important: they don’t have a nuclear program. If we could trust that Iran was completely done with nukes I would agree that we could be friends but until then…

      My foreign policy would basically be stop nuclear proliferation and stop terrorists. Those are the most important issues right now.

      • herbert herberson says:

        To the extent that Iran is seeking nukes, though, it is an (at least moderately) rational reaction to the incessant threats from the West. In 2002, the U.S. dubbed three nations that had nothing to do with 9/11 as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Five years later, one of those nations was a nuclear state and another was in ruins. Can you really blame the third one for learning the obvious lesson?

        • Wrong Species says:

          Ok but at least two of those countries were run by tyrannical maniacs. And Iran didn’t exactly have its hands clean.

          • John Schilling says:

            Yes. The lesson is, if you are a tyrannical maniac, you must acquire nuclear weapons or die. If you are not a tyrannical maniac but your hands are dirty enough that you might be mistaken for one, you must acquire nuclear weapons or die. If you imagine it is possible to shed your tyrannical past and your nuclear weapons, you will die.

            We used to be more flexible in dealing with tyrannical maniacs. We may look back at those as the Good Old Days.

          • herbert herberson says:

            BTW, anyone who doesn’t know the details contained in Schilling’s first link needs to learn them. Ever wonder why Assad has hung onto his power so relentlessly? I mean, there’s undoubtably lots of reasons (such as the high possibility of an anti-Alawite genocide), but the particular fate of that particular Arab Spring scalp has gotta be on the list.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I did not know that Putin acted in Syria because of Libya. Reminds me of how that was supposedly the good war, a shining example of “leading from behind”. Makes me even more skeptical of regime change. Even ones that are relatively cheap can have political fallout.

          • suntzuanime says:

            You gotta kinda feel bad for Gaddafi, playing the frog to our scorpion. It’s a shameful thing.

          • cassander says:

            @suntzuanime

            I shed no tears for Gadaffi. Given his much improved behavior from 2003-11, doing him in like that was a poor geo-political move, but the man was a socialist dictator and terrorist. His behavior from 1970-2003 earned what he eventually got.

          • John Schilling says:

            [Gaddafi’s] behavior from 1970-2003 earned what he eventually got.

            True, but it also earned the Syrian people what they are currently getting, and the North Korean people what they are perhaps going to get. Payback’s a bitch, yes, but an indiscriminately promiscuous one.

          • cassander says:

            @John Schilling

            I agree completely, but I reserve my concern for the Libyan and Syrian people, not Qaddafi himself.

          • PedroS says:

            “[Gaddafi’s] behavior from 1970-2003 earned what he eventually got.”

            The problem is that, by attacking him even after his getting rid of his top secret WMD program, a very strong message regarding the unreliability of the West was cast to anyone who might think of “repenting and joining the fold” of the international community.
            I understand that there were NO good options at the time, and diplomatically it would be a no-win situation: the West had to decide on whether to close its eyes to atrocities made by “their (newly-aquired) son-of-a-bitch” or to intervene. Maybe we should go back to the Westphalian concept of “total non-intervention on the affairs of sovereign states”, but it is very hard to really accept that status quo after the Holocaust, Rwanda, etc. Any state/coallition of states who is powerful enough to stop such atrocities can only do that with military interventions which cause huge amounts of suffering and will always be deemed either imperialist warmongering or as useless when viewed with 20/20 hindsight from timelines where the full brunt of the original atrocities was checked.

          • herbert herberson says:

            The verified atrocities boil down to “used land mines and shot <100 unarmed protesters, possibly in self-defense."

            Which isn't to say nothing more happened. "Verified" does a lot of work in that sentence, the fog of war was particularly thick in Libya. Nor is it "okay" to shoot dozens of protesters. But it was definitely no Rwanda. Even if you believe in R2P, applying it to 2011 Libya was a stretch.

          • PedroS says:

            @herbert herberson

            You are right… Fog of war will make it hard to distinguish genuine atrocities from hyped accounts, and I have indeed read some analysis (in Vox, I guess) arguing that the information “known” at the time was compromised since it came from the same rebel groups which wanted Western help for their own ends. I honestly thank God I am not in a position to make such decisions because of the difficulty of even knowing what is really going on.

    • I would love to see a detailed analysis by knowlegable people of the options for a foreign policy in which we do not pretend to like the Saudis, including the ramifications for other foreign relationships once the dust has settled. I wonder whether the UK Foreign Office or the US State Department have ever done this as a contingency plan; if so, I presume that they would keep it secret. But perhaps some think tank or some university team has done such an analysis and published it. Has anyone here heard of such a thing?

      • cassander says:

        Let’s say we stop making nice to the Saudis, how do they respond? They’re already pretty paranoid, having fewer friends is likely to make them even more paranoid. They’ll start casting about for friends, and land in bed with people that we don’t like, pretty much by definition. Whatever restraints we’ve imposed on them will vanish. They might very well exercise their option to acquire nuclear weapons, and if there’s one thing that’s bound to make the middle east a more comfortable place it’s nukes!

        • John Schilling says:

          Saudi Arabia already has a force of modern ballistic missiles, of a sort that isn’t really all that useful without nuclear warheads. The claimed role is to allow them to conduct at least a token retaliation to ballistic missile attacks against Saudi Arabia. The reasonably suspected role is to enable Saudi Arabia to roll out a nuclear deterrent as quickly as possible if they feel the need, with only the warheads to be procured from Pakistan.

      • James Miller says:

        If the U.S. stops protecting the Saudi royal family, the monarchy would probably ask the Russians for military assistance.

      • massivefocusedinaction says:

        This trend which allows the US to trade interests in high yield foreign businesses for low yield treasuries, is a key result of the petrodollar system, for which Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin (though the large holdings are by large oil importers).

        Terminating our friendship with them means the US would need to devote more capital to holding government debt (while modest now, that’s likely to change as Social Security begins redeem its own treasury debt over the next 17 years).

        In short, Saudi Arabia keeps its position because their the financial enforcer of the agreement that lets the US run a global empire, while pretending not to be running a global empire.

      • hoghoghoghoghog says:

        I’m not sure this is the relevant question: Scott’s example included gratuitously insulting the Saudis, and we don’t even do that with North Korea. The concrete things we might do are (1) stop selling them arms and (2) stop helping them bomb Yemen. We get money by doing the first, and the second is justified by anti-Iran hysteria. So our concrete actions towards Iran seem not to be about influencing the Saudis anyway.

        • cassander says:

          We told them to start bombing Yemen. I don’t mean we ordered them to, but it was absolutely something we encouraged.

          • herbert herberson says:

            What makes you say that? I had figured it was more genuinely homegrown on the part of the Saudis, about them not wanting a hostile neighbor or anything to inspire their own Shia minority. We certainly benefit from have operations in the area insofar as it makes it easier to carry out the raids against the Yemeni Al Qaeda, but do we have a non-Saudi-supporting reason to be against the Houthis?

          • cassander says:

            I’m not saying the Saudis were opposed, just that it wasn’t something they needed to sell us on. The Obama administration didn’t care about the Houthis, they wanted to be able to say they were doing something, and they didn’t want to actually get involved themselves, so they did what they did a lot of other places, encouraged others to go at it themselves then provided a lot of operational support.

          • herbert herberson says:

            Oh, okay, I’m smelling a tomayto/tomahto thing here.

    • Protagoras says:

      Sounds good to me. I think bean misrepresents the situation between the U.S. and Iran in recent years; we haven’t been trying that hard, and have given Iran all sorts of reasons to be cautious and suspicious. If the U.S. were more realistic in its expectations of what it could get from Iran (paying more attention to domestic political realities in Iran, for example), cooperation with Iran could have gotten a lot further. But that is perhaps incompatible with domestic political realities in the U.S.

    • rlms says:

      It’s interesting to Scott’s foreign policy views independently evolve to coincide with those of a segment of the British left (Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was a presenter for Iranian state TV for a bit) I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t agree with on much else. That’s not to say he’s totally wrong.

  18. Jordan D. says:

    So, there’s still a lot of ongoing hubub in Washington over the impending confirmation of Judge Gorsuch. Despite my antipathy for the process by which Senate Republicans knocked out Judge Garland, it’s pretty hard to raise a lot of anger for Gorsuch. He’s just not an outrageous judge.

    So a lot of the legal discussion now has been about a subject that’s been contentious for a long time- Chevron deference. For those unaware, Chevron deference is a legal principle, established by the Supreme Court in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc.. This principle says that:

    1) Where a statute is ambiguous, and;
    2) The statute tasks an administrative agency with action;
    3) Then courts should accept the agency’s interpretation of the statute;
    4) If that interpretation is reasonable.

    Chevron deference also generally applies to regulations that are ambiguous.

    The basic idea of Chevron deference was that an agency is a subject matter expert and would probably know better how a law they are administering should be read when ambiguity arose. The opposition, generally, is that this is a delegation of judicial power to the executive and gives administrative agencies too much power to decide what laws are.

    Gorsuch is against Chevron, where Scalia was generally in favor of it. I’m curious to see who here is for or against Chevron, and why.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Against. It represents an abdication of judicial review, leaving the power of the administrative agencies unchecked. The bar for “unreasonable” seems to be quite high in practice.

    • CatCube says:

      The problem with deferring to regulations that are ambiguous is that it can create an incentive to write ambiguous regulations and hold interpretation over the heads of the regulated.

      I think that interpretation should always hew close to the written text of statutes, with ambiguity held against the Government. If Congress doesn’t like the interpretation, well, they need to fix the text. Relying on executive agencies and courts to “fix” ambiguity is one of the reasons that our current legal system is an incomprehensible morass that you need a lawyer to navigate for the simplest of tasks–since knowing what something means requires deep knowledge of every court case that’s touched it.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Your first paragraph is about regulation, rather than law. You could support Chevron and oppose Auer. It would be easier for courts to to convince agencies to rewrite rules than to convince congress to rewrite laws.

        Your second paragraph seems to be a complaint about courts, rather than agencies. Chevron directly addresses this problem: it is easier to look up what the centralized agency said than to study the decentralized courts. Rolling back Chevron won’t stop courts from setting precedent, unless you advocate court completely throwing out ambiguous laws.

        Added: Using regulation to resolve ambiguity allows it to be resolved ahead of time, while courts generally only get involved late, increasing risk. But it may be difficult for the court to force the agency to use regulation for the purpose of clarity.

    • Brad says:

      Chevron deference also generally applies to regulations that are ambiguous.

      Does this part have some other name (which is slipping my mind right now?)

      In any event, I think the two situations are quite divergent. The case for deference in interpreting their own regulations is much stronger than for interpreting legislation.

      For the interpreting legislation part, I disagree with Chevron. Although, I concede that such interpretations can sometimes be a useful part of the statutory interpretation puzzle, especially if they embody a contemporaneous understanding or some kind of specialty knowledge, I don’t think that deference as a rule is warranted. It seems an abdication of responsibility.

      I guess I should note for context that, for someone on my general side of the aisle, I am unusually sympathetic to a broad and robust non-delegation doctrine.

      • Jordan D. says:

        Yeah, it’s Auer deference in that case. I tend to lump those together, even though the argument for Auer deference is stronger.

        Actually I sort of like Auer deference less than general Chevron cases. Where Congress writes an unclear provision, the agency is just trying to implement things as best they can. Trying to get a legislature to make even the tiniest changes to law is a real nasty time, I’ve discovered. But where the agency writes an unclear provision, I’d rather see the courts tell them to go back and re-write it than bless whatever they come up with later.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      This issue is considered to align with the left-right axis, right? Why?

      • suntzuanime says:

        Because the bureaucracy is more reliably left-wing than the judiciary, I think?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Yeah, I could see that, or other reasons, so I guess I should have asked a different question. Has there always been such polarization? I feel like it has suddenly appeared, without any explanation. If the reason were what you say, wouldn’t I hear people mention that? I wonder if it actually a consequence of Gorsuch and most people, both left and right, are assuming that if he opposes it, it must be left-wing, even though he is relevant because he disagrees with Scalia.

          • Jordan D. says:

            I think this article gives a reasonable guess at how it started. Chevron was not much-remarked-upon when it came out, but got big under Reagan’s Justice Department when the Democrats got control of Congress. The thesis, then, is whenever the Congress and Presidency are in split parties, the party who controls the Presidency would embrace Chevron as a way to give them power to re-interpret the other party’s legislation. Since we just came from a split presidency under Obama, we should expect liberals to like Chevron right now.

            I’m not actually sure if this is true, since I don’t know much about the legal landscape under Bill Clinton and GWB. I’d also expect the libertarian law professors, who are the most prominent conservative legal scholars, to oppose Chevron more than the liberal professors.

    • Nornagest says:

      What does being against Chevron look like operationally?

      • Jordan D. says:

        Rolling back Chevron would mean that a court would decide, de novo, what the correct interpretation of an ambiguous statute looks like. To get a little more concrete, let’s take the fairly culture-war-agnostic case of Astrue v. Capato

        The Social Security Act provides that a person is entitled to survivor benefits on the death of someone who has paid sufficiently into the SS system if they are a child of that person and dependent at the time of that person’s death. The Act directs the Commissioner to interpret ‘child’ as per the intestate succession laws of the state.

        Now, it’s well-settled that a child who is conceived before the death of the father and born after that death is the ‘child’ of the father. But, for the purposes of the Act, is a child conceived via IVF after the father’s death a “child” of the father?

        The Social Security Administration said no because Florida’s intestacy law had no provision for it. The Third Circuit, on appeal, reversed, finding that the undisputed biological children of a widow and father are his children. The Supreme Court said no, because the Social Security Administration was entitled to Chevron deference.

        If there were no Chevron deference, would the case have changed at all? Maybe not. The case author, Justice Ginsburg, clearly believed that the SSA’s reading of the law was better than the Third Circuit’s. But you would probably have more courts holding contrary to agency decisions, because people disagree about ambiguity in the law all the time.

      • Eric Rall says:

        The Department of Administrative Affairs adopts an official policy of interpreting a statute as meaning X. You would much rather it was interpreted as meaning Y (perhaps because you own a business that becomes much less profitable if it says Y instead of X), so you sue for an injunction to change the official interpretation.

        A judge who supports the Chevron doctrine will rule in your favor only if he’s convinced that X is clearly wrong and Y is clearly right. A judge who opposes Chevron will rule in your favor merely if he believes Y is a better interpretation than X.

        This seems to come up a lot in tariff laws, where the Treasury agency administering the tariffs disagrees with importers over what category (and thus what tariff rate) a particular thing falls into. For example, Snuggies are taxed at 8.5% if they’re classified as “blankets”, but they’re taxed at 14.9% if they’re classified as “pullover apparel”.

        With Chevron, the Treasury wins unless its classification is unambiguously wrong. Without Chevron, the court would decide based on the statute which classification was a better fit, regardless of what the Treasury thinks it should be. Administrative agencies still lose under Chevron (for example, a court recently ruled against the Treasury on the classification of Snuggies), but they’d lose more often without Chevron. More cases would probably wind up in court under any given interpretation regime, but the agencies would be incentivized to stick closer to the most plausible interpretations of the statutes.

    • BBA says:

      This is controversial? I thought the Republicans were all in agreement that the courts should always defer to Chevron’s interpretation of a statute. (Read that sentence again.)

  19. MereComments says:

    I’m pretty impressed with the diversity of favorite blogs other than SSC. If you were to try to map these out to a traditional political matrix there would be no discernible pattern. Granted, statistics and economics, two highly represented groups, are not necessarily political to begin with. But SSC readers really do seem to be coming from multiple different directions.

  20. Vojtas says:

    Speaking of match day, just matched at Henry Ford in Detroit. I have a wife and a newborn, no connections in the city. Any advice on where I should live?

    • stevenj says:

      When my brother and his wife matched to Henry Ford a few years ago, they got a place in Ferndale.
      20 minute commute, nice neighborhood, cheap houses.

    • S_J says:

      I’m a resident of the Detroit Metro area…

      Are you placed at the Henry Ford Hospital on West Grand Boulevard, downtown?

      Or one of the other locations in the Henry Ford Health System? (I think the network has hospitals in West Bloomfield, Mount Clemens, Clinton Township, Ferndale, Wyandotte…)

      Though, come to think of it, housing in Ferndale would be good for most of those, except possibly for the Wyandotte hospital.

      Does the hospital give any references for finding housing?

      • Vojtas says:

        Yeah the one on Grand Boulrvard. The hospital did have some reference material for housing, I’m just asking around before we go apartment hunting and I know there are at least a couple people doing Detroit-area residencies on this site. Thank you both for the replies.

  21. Anonymous Colin says:

    Any recommendations for learning resources on GIS? Ideally platform-agnostic ones. I have a CS/stats related grad degree and want to build applications with geographic data.

    • Fifth says:

      r/GIS is a good start, they have a fairly active community. I mostly use ArcGIS on Windows because of my job, but they’ve got some links on their sidebar to resources.

  22. James says:

    Do we ever talk about our favourite commenters? It seems like it would be a nice comment thread to have (though maybe it has happened/happens and I’ve just missed it). And it seems like a shame for our good commenters not to know how much they’re appreciated. (Yes, there are arguments again having an upvote/downvote system, but I feel like the fact that it lets people know when they’re appreciated is an upside that we’re missing.)

    I’d like to nominate suntzuanime as my favourite. Acerbic but always funny and on point.

    I know there are some others I like, too, but their usernames escape me right now.

    • PedroS says:

      My favourite commenters are Aapje, David Friedman, Douglas Knight, John Schilling, Iain and Deiseach

    • TheEternallyPerplexed says:

      Talking about individual commenters introduces a new incentive (and maybe disincentive to some) into commenting. Some might feel the desire to increase quantity (possibly lowering quality), others, quality. Net result? I don’t know. Maybe a stroll down the reddit popularity lane…

    • Jordan D. says:

      I like that Scott Alexander dude’s comments. He seems to know what’s up.

      Anyway, I’m going for David Friedman, Douglas Knight, Brad and Deiseach.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Alejandro

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I finally figured out how to get a list of most frequent commenters, so if anyone else was wondering:

      David Friedman (6026)
      Deiseach (5528)
      onyomi (4997)
      BearHeelCub (4785)
      John Schilling (4680)
      Scott Alexander (4664)
      Nancy Lebovitz (3390)
      suntzuanime (3017)
      dndnrsn (2705)
      Douglas Knight (2632)
      HlynkaCG (2503)
      Vox Imperatoris (2430)
      Randy M (2293)
      houseboatonstyx (2282)
      The Nybbler (2216)
      Jaskologist (2193)
      Mary (1939)
      Aapje (1882)
      kerani (1860)

      • Deiseach says:

        Oh thank God, I’m only in third place 🙂

        I was feeling bad enough about popping up leaving comments like scattershot all over the place, had I placed higher I’d definitely be slinking off shame-faced to take the lesson of “silence, exile and cunning”!

      • rlms says:

        Who are all these people with actual names? It looks like I only started commenting in mid-2015, and I don’t remember lurking for that long beforehand, but if they stopped before I started then they must have been *incredibly* prolific to beat current commenters who started before me.

        • Jiro says:

          Scott messed up and listed actual names, not IDs.

          He really ought to redact the whole thing as fast as possible.

          • rlms says:

            But where did he get actual names? Are they linked with WordPress accounts or something?

          • Scott Alexander says:

            I have no idea how the comment-counter-program got everyone’s actual names, but I’ve removed every actual name that I didn’t recognize as obviously the name they use here.

            I’ve also deleted a few comments below that mention the real names, sorry about that.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            Now I want to know who this mysterious individual is.

        • Deiseach says:

          the comment-counter-program got everyone’s actual names

          Nah, don’t worry. If you got any name associated with me other than “Deiseach”, it’s not my real world on-my-birth-cert name. I only have one (1) email account where I use my real name and that is only for Official Business. Everything else online is under a nom de plume.

      • John Schilling says:

        I feel slightly embarrassed to have out-posted the host of the blog, but if “commenter” is meant literally and does not include the actual posts with which Scott headlines the non-open threads, he edges me out and honor is restored.

      • Jaskologist says:

        A little disturbing that I cracked the top 20, even if this is for the blog’s lifetime. Must learn to resist the siren call of someone being wrong on the internet.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          I’ve grown to accept if someone is wrong on the internet. It’s when someone is wrong on SSC that I grow nervous!

    • Skivverus says:

      Deiseach and keranih remain favorites (possibly for crush-related reasons, which have not abated); additionally, HeelBearCub, Iain, Aapje, John Schilling, FacelessCraven, dndnrsn, hlynkacg, aaaand I’m going to truncate the list here for now because I’m pretty sure the regulars know who they are already.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      In no particular order:

      HeelBearCub
      dndnrsn
      Larry Kestenbaum
      John Schilling
      Bean
      Deiseach
      Aapje
      HlynkaCG
      Keranih

    • psmith says:

      Larry Kestenbaum.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Risking the downside of naming favorites, I think it’s fair to issue more praise for those who choose to effort-post about some relatively esoteric domain of expertise. From memory: John Schilling on North Korea; bean on battleships; Larry Kestenbaum on election processes; Controls Freak on SIGINT and law; keranih on the SadPuppy saga; Aapje on Dutch housing. (I imagine David Friedman must have delivered a treatise or two on economics, but I don’t recall anything long form. Well, he tends to just link to stuff he’s already written, which I suppose is quintessentially economical…)

      There are, of course, a great many more commenters here I enjoy for shorter form posts, valuable insights, good faith participation, and entertaining writing.

    • Spookykou says:

      Philosophisticat, CatCube, Le Maistre Chat, I have a type.

    • carvenvisage says:

      I come here almost as much for Onyomi’s comments as for the blog. Spookykou is amazingly patient and polite. Deiseach is always hilarious. suntzuanime is sometimes ultra-hilarious. David friedman is great all round.

      • onyomi says:

        Makes me feel better about unintentionally becoming one of the most prolific commenters. 🙂

        I think I still think of myself as a Johnny-come-lately who occasionally logs in to throw in his two cents, but it’s time to face up to the fact that I am… a regular. In my defense, I spend more time on SSC by far than any other non-work-related website, and don’t talk about politics, philosophy, etc. hardly anywhere else, online, or IRL. I am very much one of those who finds this place unusual in being a place to receive polite, intelligent, non-echo-chamber feedback on controversial ideas.

        As for myself, I like many of the commenters, but I’ll just give some props to Jaskologist, whom I think of as the poster I’d like to be if I were funnier and more succinct.

        • Wrong Species says:

          It’s really hard to speak freely outside this place. You never know the difference between something that is possibly controversial and something that will make you a pariah for defending.

        • Jaskologist says:

          I appreciate the compliment, but you’re thinking of suntzuanime.

    • Machina ex Deus says:

      Among the commenters I disagree with, I like lvllin (sp?) (especially after a recent display of principle over party), HBC (kind of a perennial favorite), and half of brad.

      Among the commenters who I sometimes disagree with, I like Douglas Knight and Deiseach (for very different reasons), as well as Larry Kestenbaum.

      Among the commenters who agree with me, they’re all 100% correct, so of course I like them.

      And Rookie of the Year goes to…. Spookykou, for really embodying the spirit of SSC.

      • Picking up on the “agree with/disagree with” point. Someone should combine the comments on who people like with data on who is where on the political spectrum, and see to what extent people are liking those who agree with them, to what extent not.

    • cthor says:

      Protagoras, Philosophisticat, CatCube

    • Mark says:

      As a true connoisseur of the ssc comment, I’m going to have to go with Robert Liguori.

      He is always on point.

      There’s a dude from Cambridge who posts really good comments too – Paul? Ian?

      CitizenEarth had a really nice thing he was doing about political/economic checks and balances.

      And I quite liked the (in)dividualist – he really committed to his theme.

      And about once every six months, I ask about German idealism and someone always answers – so that person. Maybe Urstoff ?

      (Something, something, league of non-aligned commenters.)

      • Robert Liguori says:

        Uh. Wow. Thanks. Gosh.

        Seriously. I did not imagine that my commentary here was that memorable.

        Jeez. Now I guess I have to comment more.

        But, to keep things on point, I’ll bring up HeelBearCub specifically as a commentor I appreciate, because while I often disagree with his points, he makes them unfailingly politely and unfailingly cogently.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Well, perhaps not unfailingly. I fail in a very human manner, I’m pretty sure.

          But I greatly appreciate the sentiment.

    • IrishDude says:

      Aapje
      David Friedman
      Glen Raphael
      John Schilling
      Keranih
      Onyomi
      Spookykou

    • HeelBearCub says:

      In no particular order and surely missing some of higher cardinality:
      FacelessCraven – We disagree on so much and yet can easily reach agreement on matters where we do
      onyomi – I find his preferred system completely unworkable, but the conversations about it are interesting and in search of truth. Also easy to come to agreement with.
      Iain – a very welcome addition “in my corner”, but welcome in every sense of the word.
      Larry Kestenbaum – for being a true role model for “correct” SSC commenting when I first showed up, and ever since.

      HOF nominee – Vox I. for knowing his stuff thoroughly and dispensing it eruditely. Would like to see in the annual SSC “old timers” game.

      Special shoutout – James? ??? (Sorry, failing on the name) for being willing to spend exhaustive time debunking various AGW denial and minimization arguments

      Honorable mention – anyone who first came into the comment section “hot” and has worked to rid themselves of all the inflammatory commenting habits learned elsewheres. All of you are appreciated, even the ones who haven’t done it yet.

      • dndnrsn says:

        FYI, she goes by Voxette now, and is on tumblr.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Bummer, I misgendered her. The default is pernicious.

          Not sure if I am willing to venture out onto tumblr. I don’t even look at Scott’s. That comment interface makes me twitch.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Oh, Tumblr’s interface is dreadful for text exchanges of any length. I find it to be mostly a mixture of “this is amusing/cute” (it is the best delivery mechanism for images of small animals) and “I wish this person had a proper blog” for the most part.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @dndnrsn:
            Oh, and btw, your probably belong on that list as well. I consistently find your contributions interesting and cogent.

          • BBA says:

            Vox stopped commenting here before transitioning.

    • hlynkacg says:

      I am somewhat disturbed and humbled to find myself on some people’s list of favorite posters. I don’t know whether I should commend or castigate them for their taste.

      As for myself; HeelBearCub, Larry Kestenbaum, and dndnrsn get the “worthy opponent” award for people who I often disagree with vehemently but still genuinely enjoy their posts, Deiseach and Controls Freak get the “Damnit I wish I’d thought of that” award for being better at arguing my positions than I often am, while Spookykou and hoghoghog get the promising new-comers award.

      Honarable mentions go to llvln, the orginal mister x, Iain, and aapje.

      • Machina ex Deus says:

        @hlynkacg:
        It’s “hoghoghoghoghog”. Please try harder in the future not to misnumber other commenters.

  23. Levantine says:

    I think this commentary on the current Washington needs more exposure:

    Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steve Pieczenik (a psychiatrist) on the
    > creepy Neil Gorsuch, a torture-promoter,
    > neocons finding a home in the DJT administration:
    http://stevepieczenik.com/my-edited-interview-on-alex-jones-3-23/

    • Deiseach says:

      creepy Neil Gorsuch, a torture-promoter

      I can’t read your link because I get this message: “Your public IP address is blacklisted in stopforumspam.com” so alas, I am denied the benefit of Mr Pieczenik’s professional opinion.

      Though if I follow the Youtube link to the edited interview, I get this impartial and balanced production:

      DR. STEVE PIECZENIK Discusses the SLIMEY NEOCONS: TRUMP NEEDS POSITIVE SUPPORT: John Bolton: Neil Gorsuch: TROTSKYITES & JEWS: Avowed Communists: HISTORY is IMPORTANT: “We the People” ARE SCREWED if NEOCONS CONTROL TRUMP: TRUMP PLEASE LISTEN! Produced by INFOWARS, Dr. Steve Pieczenik & Dr. Colette Dowell of CIRCULAR TIMES: Documenting History: News, Educational, Informative: ALL CLIPS FAIR USE: Thank you for watching. Have a Nice Day ! Colette Dowell

      Yes. Well.

      That being said – what the what? I’ve only been aware on the religion side of disfavour about Gorsuch because there are rumours swirling around about him being “conservative” which is taken to be code for “probably would overturn Roe vs Wade if he could”.

      There doesn’t seem to be any basis for that other than some decisions he made; on the religion side, he’s attending an Episcopalian church (he was raised Catholic, but it’s unclear if he still considers himself a Catholic, has converted, or is ‘attending my wife’s church’) which is not a conservative denomination and his particular parish is the averagely liberal Episcopalian parish (woman rector, pro-LGBT rights, etc.) There are other more conservative churches in the area that he could attend if he wanted theological conservatism; that he seems to be happy to attend and be involved with this parish indicates that he’s not against whatever the preaching is there.

      He’s not an Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Born-Again, Southern Baptist, or traditional Catholic, is what I’m saying. So this kind of talk is very weird. Are we sure they’re not mixing him up with Vice-President Pence, who also has been accused of being pro-torture?

      EDITED: Having found a slightly saner site, this appears to be what the problem is: when he worked for/under the Associate Attorney General during the Bush administration in 2005.

  24. barcodeIlIl says:

    So, I guess we’re not getting a new health care bill.

    Question: what should an actual good health care bill look like? Obamacare has some issues; not having it is worse. A lot of people like the “public option” like in Britain, but I hear their health care system is having some problems too.

    (I don’t actually have any great ideas here, but I’m going to throw out some half-baked ideas, in the hope that someone will post a really good idea to show me how wrong I am.)

    Here’s what I’m thinking. The problem with the health care system is that neither the doctor nor the patient cares very much about the cost. The insurance provider cares a lot about the cost, but they can’t do much about it. I’d like to find a health care system that fixes that problem but still provides everyone with basic health care.

    …It’s tempting to just abolish health insurance companies. All the money that we would have spent on health insurance: just give it to the people we would have insured (“basic health care income”?), and let them negotiate their own deals. Pass a law that health care providers have to tell you the price ahead of time. Let people bargain hunt.

    I think this would sort of work for non-urgent care. For emergency services it would fail horribly. But the worst problem is that we’re using “health insurance” for three different things in the US:
    (1) your basic medical care is paid for, like if you get sick and need antibiotics you can see a doctor and get that prescribed
    (2) disasters don’t wipe you out financially, like if you get hit by a car and don’t have tens of thousands of dollars in savings the hospital will still treat you and you won’t go bankrupt
    (3) people who have expensive chronic illnesses can get treatment — this is a lousy bargain for the insurance companies, but through various means people could get insured anyway, and Obamacare actually made it a law that you can’t charge more for preexisting conditions

    I think these problems are solved by different things. For (1) the solution is to not cover that with health insurance — just give people a basic income (or let their employers pay them more money, or whatever) and let them bargain hunt. For (2) the solution is “health insurance” that is like fire insurance, in that you pay a small amount and many people will never get a payout from it. Case (3) is a redistribution-of-wealth problem, and I think we actually have to get the government to do that, with all the inefficiencies that brings.

    This is the point where I start being sad because I don’t have enough data. How much of our health care spending falls into each of the three categories above? Are these three categories actually a fair description of what’s happening?

    • It occurred to me while commenting on the previous post that there may be an important link between two health insurance issues that isn’t being discussed. One is the ban on interstate insurance sales. The other is the problem of pre-existing conditions.

      Pre-existing conditions should only be a problem if you have them when you first come on the insurance market. That’s possible, but I don’t think it is what most people are worried about. Their problem is what happens if something goes wrong and you then have to negotiate a new insurance contract.

      Why would that happen? The point of insurance, after all, is that you make the bet before the dice are rolled. You should be able to buy a policy when you are twenty that guarantees its terms for the rest of your life, priced to allow for the risk that you might turn out to need a lot of medical care.

      But you can’t do that in an insurance market that is entirely intrastate unless you are willing to spend your entire life in one state.

      Another factor with similar effects is the link between employment and insurance, which is at least partly due to the fact that employer provided insurance is bought with pre-tax dollars, privately purchased with after-tax dollars. If your insurance is through your employer, shifting jobs means getting a new policy, which is a problem if in the meanwhile you have developed an expensive medical problem. That could be solved with portable policies, analogous to my TIAA-CREF pension policy, but that runs into the interstate problem.

      Can someone who knows more than I do about these issues tell me if this argument is correct or if I’m missing something?

      • Aapje says:

        You should be able to buy a policy when you are twenty that guarantees its terms for the rest of your life, priced to allow for the risk that you might turn out to need a lot of medical care.

        What happens if the insurer goes bankrupt?

        What happens if you make the wrong choice at 20 and figure that out a decade later?

        What happens if they come up with new medicinal advances during the life of the insured person? Does the insured person get that care? Does the cost of the policy then go up to cover this? When the insured person is locked into a policy and can’t change, can’t the insurer then simply increase the costs a lot as there is no market mechanism that makes the insurers compete with other insurers for existing policy holders?

        Can insurers then drop medical care that they no longer consider effective enough to compensate or that has been replaced by better care options? If not and if you keep adding medicinal advances, you guarantee cost disease. If so, your lifetime policy guarantees nothing and the insurers can just drop a lot of care from their locked in customers and thus make huge profits.

        PS. When you are arguing against capitalism, you might have gone so far into extreme libertarianism that you horseshoed into communism 🙂

        • John Schilling says:

          What happens if the insurer goes bankrupt?

          Reinsurance is totally a thing, and can be used to insure against a primary insurer going bankrupt. And if you are going to have the government meddling in your health care industry, having them act as the ultimate guarantor for health insurance just as they do for pensions is probably one of the better things for them to do.

          At this point it would take more than just an interstate market to provide guaranteed health insurance continuity and portability, but for the reasons Dr. Friedman cites it is a necessary step towards that ultimate goal.

          What happens if you make the wrong choice at 20 and figure that out a decade later?

          Lots of people wind up royally screwed in lots of ways for the bad choices they made at 20; sometimes that can’t reasonably be fixed.

          And sometimes they can, but you need to think about who exactly should be tasked with fixing them. Insurance companies may not be the right tool for this job, any more than EHarmony and OKCupid can be expected to solve the problems of everyone who screwed up their love life in their 20s.

        • What happens if they come up with new medicinal advances during the life of the insured person? Does the insured person get that care? Does the cost of the policy then go up to cover this?

          Legitimate questions. I think you want the contract structured in a way that lets the company raise or lower prices on everyone but not on specific people. Otherwise an increase in the cost of what they are providing could push many of them into bankruptcy.

          Their ability to raise prices is limited by the need to sell new policies and the ability of policyholders who are in good health to switch companies. The last thing an insurance company wants is to have all the healthy customers leave.

      • skef says:

        Accept that policies will be life-time for people with discovered pre-existing conditions, and assume the insurance companies will stay healthy over the period.

        What sort of contract are you thinking would be signed before the discovery?

        If it’s “these are the specific services that will be provided, and the cost basis”, no insurance plans work like that now, and making one work like that in changing circumstances seems at least very difficult.

        If it’s “you’ll treat me the same as the other people on my plan who don’t have the condition”, companies can respond with plans that inflate in price and reduce services over time. Healthy people just switch plans, the pool bleeds those patients, and those who are left will pay higher and higher rates.

      • Brad says:

        @DavidFriedman

        Pre-existing conditions should only be a problem if you have them when you first come on the insurance market. That’s possible, but I don’t think it is what most people are worried about. Their problem is what happens if something goes wrong and you then have to negotiate a new insurance contract.

        Why would that happen? The point of insurance, after all, is that you make the bet before the dice are rolled. You should be able to buy a policy when you are twenty that guarantees its terms for the rest of your life, priced to allow for the risk that you might turn out to need a lot of medical care.

        I think you are allowing a misleading to name to, well, mislead you. Health insurance in the U.S. isn’t really insurance and probably couldn’t be replaced by insurance.

        It’s possible that a healthcare system could could involve some sort of actual insurance + X, Y, & Z but the X, Y, & Z parts are so much more difficult and fraught that it isn’t worth worrying about the details of the insurance part until you at least have those other parts sketched out.

      • BBA says:

        Regulations aren’t the main barrier to interstate insurance sales. It’s entirely possible for an insurer based in state X to get a license to sell policies in state Y. This is necessary for all forms of insurance, it’s just much more common for property and life insurers to get multi-state licenses than health insurers.

        The main issue is provider networks. Much of the value of a health insurer is in the discounted rates they negotiate with hospitals and medical practices, so to expand to a new state you need to have enough bargaining power to get competitive rates from local providers. And for it to be profitable, you need to do enough business in the new state to cover the overhead costs of the expansion.

        Note that this applies intrastate too. The insurance company in the linked example is owned by a Pittsburgh-area hospital chain. Despite being licensed statewide they don’t have much presence in Philadelphia, and expanding into neighboring areas of West Virginia and Ohio is likely to be less of a challenge for them.

        (And of course United Health has subsidiaries in states other than Minnesota, likewise Cigna outside Connecticut, etc. And there’s the nationwide Blue Cross/Blue Shield franchise system under which Anthem and HCSC and various smaller companies share a common brand and network but each has its own territory.)

    • A lot of people like the “public option” like in Britain, but I hear their health care system is having some problems too.

      All healthcare systems and non-systems are facing the problems of demographics and other rising costs. Universal systems manifest the problem more acutely because they can;t take up the slack by just leaving some percentage of the population uncovered.

    • “Public option like in Britain” is not really accurate. In the US discussion, “public option” generally refers to the government providing health insurance, so hospitals etc remain privately run but they send bills to the government. In the UK almost all hospitals are actually operated by the government. The situation with primary care is a bit more complicated, but it is not too far wrong to think of that as being provided directly by the government as well. As far as I understand it, the German system is more like idea of “mostly private health insurance with a public option” that some people have proposed in the US.

      • rlms says:

        I think most developed countries have private hospitals where the government funds a high proportion of treatment. The UK and Canada are exceptions in having publicly run hospitals, the US is the exception in other ways.

        • Tandagore says:

          Austria for example has mostly public-run hospitals too, but even in Germany about a third of all hospitals are run by the government (mostly by states and not on the federal level though).

          • rlms says:

            Yes, I should’ve probably said “mostly national-government-run hospitals”. My impression is that most developed countries have their hospitals divided between locally-government-run, private for-profit, and private non-profit (in widely varying proportions).

    • The Nybbler says:

      Everyone wants a unicorn, and the problem is that unicorns don’t exist. We can’t have a health care law that covers everyone for every treatment with the highest level of safety/regulatory scrutiny for all treatments BUT with all experimental treatments available to everyone who might benefit from them (especially if they’re a young child with large eyes). Oh, and nobody has to pay full cost for this except “the rich”, which is a nebulous concept which doesn’t include the speaker.

      Somethings gotta give, which means someone’s going to die, which means there’s no good health care bill.

      • Murphy says:

        The way the UK handles it is that the NHS covers everyone, whether you have a billion in the bank or a a pocket full of moths. Neither will get a bill in the post no matter what treatment they need.

        Everyone is covered for any treatment which shows an acceptable QALY cost, typically the cutoff is around £30,000 per QALY which isn’t too unreasonable.

        You absolutely can get into experimental trials under the NHS.

        Taxpayers pay but they pay slightly less than american taxpayers did pre-obamacare per citizen already for medicare/medicaid only where americans, for that price got… not very much. For the same price british citizens got universal cover.

        (My theory is that the 2 parties in the US work so hard at sabotaging everything and injecting poison pills into anything the other tries to do that everything ends up costing far far more than it should.)

        It’s definitely not perfect but it’s a hell of a lot better than the existing american system.

        The utter spiteful madness of the american medical system has played a part in deciding yes/no on whether to take a job with an american company.

        But there’s no point trying to mirror it. The americans would fuck it with the other party constantly doing stupid things like injecting requirements that every hospital have 200 years of pension costs in liquid assets at all times or something equally stupid purely to fuck it up and destroy it.

        • Brad says:

          Everyone is covered for any treatment which shows an acceptable QALY cost, typically the cutoff is around £30,000 per QALY which isn’t too unreasonable.

          Is that number set legislatively, or what? It seems to imply potentially unlimited total spending.

          In theory, you’d want to set total spending and then do some kind of reverse auction simulation exercise every year to get a threshold to hit that target.

          • 1soru1 says:

            Roughly, the QALY figures are used to decide what treatment capabilities to have, and then those are operated from a fixed budget. Policy wonks are always saying ‘close this, build that and that, overall it will be a worthwhile improvement’, and occasionally that even happens.

            No-one secretly builds a cancer ward without budget authorization, so the main way to go over-budget is to pay overtime, which is inherently limited. Going a few percentage points over budget happens a lot, but more than that is a career-limiting move for the management team

            http://www.northtynesideccg.nhs.uk/about-us/how-we-work/our-budget/

            Problems come when the overall budget isn’t enough to meet the QALY goals. The ultimate failure mode is waiting lists for facilities become long enough that the budget is only maintained by people dying before receiving treatment.

            Obviously, for something like an epidemic, there presumably would be an emergency budget change to acquire needed treatment facilities immediately.

          • Murphy says:

            Spending only becomes unlimited if people become immortal.

            The 30K number is not set in legislation as far as I’m aware, it is the number that NICE use when assessing treatments to decide to make them part of standard practice and it mainly applies to things like drug procurement. If you’re selling drugs that barely work at all then the NHS won’t shell out for them unless you price them at a point that’s reasonably cost effective.

            They don’t convene a council for each patient and decide if their treatment costs more than 30K per QALY but some treatments may be recommended for pediatric patients that might not be recommended for geriatric patients.

        • gbdub says:

          Taxpayers pay but they pay slightly less than american taxpayers did pre-obamacare per citizen already for medicare/medicaid only where americans, for that price got… not very much. For the same price british citizens got universal cover.

          Medicare and Medicaid together cover a number of people roughly equal to twice the total population of the U.K., at a roughly similar level of care to the NHS. And enrollees to these programs are (obviously) skewed toward the old, the poor, and the disabled – not exactly cheap populations to cover for any system.

          Meanwhile a majority of the nonelderly get covered by employer-provided plans that are by and large pretty good. A supermajority of Americans were happy with their health care pre-Obamacare (and that’s probably still true, personally mine has gotten more expensive but the actual quality of care is still good).

          Really, America has excellent medical care, just with an inefficient hodge-podge of ways to pay for it.

          So one thing I have to give the NHS credit for is doing a bang-up job of demonizing the American health care system. Really, if you’re turning down jobs over it, I’d encourage you to give it a more objective look before making life decisions based on what seems to me, as a person inside the system, to be a quite unrealistically negative assessment of it.

          On the other hand my (probably also un-nuanced) view of the NHS is that it’s like the sterotypical stingy HMO in the US system – slow, inflexible, bureaucratic. Particularly for anything not immediately life threatening.

          For example, I tore my ACL a few years ago. Within a span of 3 weeks, I decided I should see someone about it, got a consult from a surgeon (of my choosing, with no need for a referral or even a visit with a GP), got an MRI (again at a location of my choice), had my surgery, and enrolled in physical therapy. And I could have done it quicker if I wanted to. All for a very affordable deductible.

          In the NHS, my understanding is that this treatment would have involved several extra steps and approvals, with much less choice and much longer wait times. If I got approved at all – my surgeon did say that a no surgery, PT only option was possible if I was willing to avoid certain high impact recreational activities.

          Now I recognize that I’m well off by American standards, but not THAT well off that my experience is atypical. My point is just that, for a very big chunk of Americans, the medical care we get is at least as good and in some valuable ways better than the NHS. At a higher price perhaps, but offset by other cost of living considerations if you’re really comparing living in one place to the other. On the other hand an NHS type system would be definitely better if you don’t have steady employment but aren’t quite poor enough for Medicaid. And your drugs are cheaper.

          • rlms says:

            Anecdotal evidence about different healthcare systems isn’t really useful. As far as I can see, the relevant statistics are how much different treatments cost in different countries (comparing health directly is confounded by differences in lifestyle). I’m pretty sure that the US does a lot worse than other developed countries by that measure. The NHS is a bit irrelevant, since most European/developed East Asian countries don’t have national healthcare like the UK and Canada (but still manage to be a lot more efficient than the US).

          • Murphy says:

            “twice the total population of the U.K”

            It looks like you misread my post.

            I didn’t say US citizens pay as much total. I said per citizen. As in take how much the US spent on medicare and medicaid and divide by the total population of the USA. Take how much the UK spent on the NHS and divide by the total population of the UK.

            The number for the US was still **bigger** despite dividing by a number 5 times bigger. Fun side note: the NHS also has some of the duties covered by other US departments that do things like fund research. So that’s erring far on the side of favoring the US and the US still comes off badly.

            Changes in the exchange rate mess with the comparison a bit but it was only a little while pre-obamacare that I ran the numbers.

            The US should have an easier time of it what with economies of scale but apparently they can’t manage that.

            I have no illusion about the numbers. If I act the fool and decide I don’t need health insurance then sure, it looks like I could earn more in the US. If I actually try to get cover half as good as what I’m already getting? I’m way better off over here.

            Add in the worry that even if I pay every premium the insurance company will refuse to pay out over some bullshit reason like having a health kick and losing some weight before starting the insurance or having a cold or something? Get this: I never have to worry about that.ever. I never have to have that sense of “what if” crawling dread. That has significant utility to me. My life is fundamentally better as a result.

            I never have to worry that I could end up tied up in court because an ambulance company and my insurance company are having a fight.

            If I lose my job I don’t have to worry if my kid needs insulin shots.

            hell, I’m vastly more free because my employer doesn’t have that kind of hold on me. They don’t have my life and the lives of my loved ones in their hands.

            The american system sounds fantastic if you’ve fallen hard for the planning fallacy.

            http://lesswrong.com/lw/jg/planning_fallacy/

            If you’re sure that bad things almost certainly won’t happen and if they do they’ll only happen one at a time and you’re sure you’ll cope.

            Get this: If my SO gets cancer and my employer drops me because suddenly I can’t be on call 24/7 or am tired and distracted due to having a near-death loved one and needing to care for the kids, the really amazing stupendous thing that is apparently hard to imagine for americans: my SO can still get cancer meds because her care isn’t tied intimately to my employer (for no sane reason whatsoever).

            The american system is a terrifying joke and people living under it declaring it ok is like that friend who keeps turning up with black eyes saying their boyfriend “isn’t so bad” and “loves me really” and “can be really sweet sometimes”.

            The NHS tends to perform best when the situation is most urgent and the care needed is most critical. It’s almost like a system designed as such.

            And get this super amazing bonus: I can get (by american standards) super super cheap health insurance on top of that if I feel like it so I can go to a private hospital and get private care for things like torn ligaments and do everything you mention. From a quick google such insurance would apparently cost me less than 1/10th what private health insurance would in the US because I’m still covered for anything super-serious(the most expensive things) by the NHS.

            I already pay less as a taxpayer and if I want the fringe benefits of the american system I can get those for a fraction of the price as well.

            Litterally every benefit of the american system for a fraction of the cost.

          • gbdub says:

            Well I was responding directly to someone praising the NHS – I don’t disagree that it’s atypical otherwise.

            “How much does it cost” might be an important measure, but it’s confounded by a lot (average income certainly) so a straight dollar to dollar comparison is poor.

            @Murphy – well, you’ve literally compared me to a battered woman for saying my health care doesn’t suck, so I don’t think it’s worthwhile to engage you further.

          • Brad says:

            @Murphy

            I didn’t say US citizens pay as much total. I said per citizen. As in take how much the US spent on medicare and medicaid and divide by the total population of the USA. Take how much the UK spent on the NHS and divide by the total population of the UK.

            This is really rather remarkable. We could have universal healthcare using only money that we already pay in taxes. All the people that currently pay taxes but don’t receive any government healthcare would necessarily come out ahead.

          • Murphy says:

            @Brad

            I really doubt you could. One party would propose something like it, probably with more pork for their friends, then the other would keep injecting exceptions and requirements into the bill designed to make it unpopular or impossible to run effectively in order to kill or neuter it.

            The UK only managed to create the NHS during the post war years because the country was riding an ideological wave of people pulling together and making things work.

            If you tried it in the US it would probably be a disaster. It’s not impossible but it is impossible for America as it is today.

          • Murphy says:

            @gbdub

            I see a fairly constant stream of horror stories from americans. The “advantages” quoted always seem spectacularly superficial.

            Can you think of a better analogy? perhaps something less emotive.

            perhaps someone born in a pit who can’t even imagine what it might be like to not be in a pit?

            someone who’s so used to an unpleasant boss who threatens them with being fired every day and they literally don’t know what it’s like to live without that stress in a more normal job?

            Just saying “it sucks” doesn’t get across the concept of a constant stressor/danger/worry that simply doesn’t have to be part of your life.

          • Marie says:

            I never have to have that sense of “what if” crawling dread. That has significant utility to me. My life is fundamentally better as a result.

            In the old open thread, I was asked to explain in more detail why I’d said the ACA was a net benefit to me, and in answering I realized that this is one of the main reasons I consider myself better off as a result of it. It’s a harder thing to quantify than net $$ saved, but the peace of mind I gained from having significantly decreased the bets I was having to make about my health is HUGE.

          • dodrian says:

            The US should have an easier time of it what with economies of scale

            I’m not disputing most of the post, but one thing a lot of Brits don’t properly understand is just how rural so much of the US is.

            In the past I’ve tried searching for attempts to quantify this, but other than the obvious[ly flawed] have come up with nothing.

            I’d be willing to bet that if you found the most rural hamlet on the UK mainland (say, in travel time to nearest city of >X residents), a significant percentage of the US would still be more rural (2% at least? That’s 6.5 million people). I’m wondering if someone on SSC clever enough with the Google maps API could come up with some numbers…

            These data over 50% of the population are within 5km of an emergency hospital admission over 70% of the population are within 10km of emergency care. In contrast, 70% of the US is within 30 minutes travel time (40km?) of an emergency clinic (not necessarily a hospital), and you need to allow 60 minutes to get to near 100% coverage.

            So, the US might have an easier time than the UK providing NHS-style public hospital coverage in, say, New England, but it would be considerably more expensive and difficult to get even remotely near the same level of care in the Midwest.

            Of course, these issues are no easier under the US’ current private system (and I’m not saying all this as an argument for the status quo), but when people point to Europe, or the NHS in particular, as shining examples of how cheap healthcare can be when publicly funded I feel that’s an unfair comparison.

          • Brad says:

            @dodrian
            We could choose to provide worse care for people in the middle of nowhere rather than choosing to spend a lot more money to get the last 2% (or whatever). Given the voting patterns of people that live in the middle of nowhere I don’t thing they’d have much ground to complain.

          • The Nybbler says:

            @Brad

            “Benefits for my supporters, no benefits for my opponents, paid for by taxes on everyone” is a somewhat ignoble if popular proposition.

          • Brad says:

            @The Nybbler
            What percent of federal taxes are paid by those 30% that live more than 30 minutes from an emergency clinic?

            Just so we all have an idea of what you mean when you say “paid for by taxes on everyone”.

          • rlms says:

            @dodrian
            I don’t think Canada is significantly more urban than the US, and they have a national health service.

          • dodrian says:

            @rlms
            You’re right, Canada is probably a better parallel. Again, here’s where it would be nice to have a good measure of ‘ruralness’ to properly compare health coverage in US vs CA. A quick glance at this study seems to indicate (albeit 20 years earlier than the UK & US ones) that over 70% of the population is under 10km from a hospital, and 95% under 25km, though the methodology looks much worse than the UK and US ones. If I’m interpreting the data right, a bigger percentage of people in the US live in rural areas, but there are areas in Canada that are more rural than anywhere in the US.

            @Brad
            Inevitably that’s the solution, and of course it’s also the case in the UK. But my argument is that in doing that you’ll mess up the UK has cheaper healthcare per capita than the US comparison even further, because a greater proportion of the US population would fall under the ‘poor coverage in rural areas’ banner than the UK.

            To rephrase things, a common argument in favor of public health care in the US is to compare US health costs per capita with those other countries that do have public care programs. US costs _are_ considerably higher per capita. If the US were to introduce a socialized medicine program, it may ultimately lower costs, but I doubt it would be to the level seen in other countries (without a significant drop in the standard of care) because the US is much more rural (% of population > x miles from a city) than most other comparable nations.

          • Eltargrim says:

            @rlms: while there might be some differences based on categorization and definitions, Canada has a rural population percentage that is roughly the same as the United States.

            We also have a significant issue with delivering medical care to rural populations. This is compounded by the fact that many of our rural populations are indigenous, and hence a federal responsibility, whereas health care is provincial.

            Part of this is addressed by sometimes mandating medical professionals serve in rural areas in exchange for their education (my second cousin spent years in Iqaluit as a dentist under this program). Other options are shipping rural patients to urban centres, which is expensive and has mixed results.

            All this being said, we certainly haven’t solved the issue of providing health care to a rural population, but we’re actively working on the issue, and I don’t think it’s necessarily intractable.

          • Garrett says:

            I see a fairly constant stream of horror stories from americans. The “advantages” quoted always seem spectacularly superficial.

            I grew up in a more rural part of Canada. I now volunteer as in EMT while working as a programmer in a more urban part of the US. There are notable differences.

            The town I grew up in had to have a fundraiser to get an MRI machine because the Province didn’t think we should be allocated one. Once it arrived there were large number of hoops put in place in advance of being able to use it. When my father got a spinal injury, it took nearly 6 months to get an MRI because it wasn’t emergent. We was also required to get an x-ray and CT scan first, despite the doctors involved stating that those wouldn’t help.

            At a smaller town across the border there were 6 MRI machines available. No waiting.

            Part of the problem with single-payer healthcare is that it discounts the value of a person’s time effectively to 0. My dad worked as a middle manager for a local mill. On occasion (usually just before a major sporting event) a worker would claim that they were sick and needed to go home early. The best way to prevent this from happening was to insist that the employee go to the ER by ambulance (all costs paid for by the company) to be evaluated before going home. This was because a low-priority patient could expect to spend 10+ hours waiting to be seen, meaning it would take far longer than working until the end of the shift. Getting to see a doctor with something like strep throat at the local clinic (not ER) would routinely involve me waiting for multiple hours.

            A non-typical example – note that the target ER waiting time was 8 hours. More recent data has resulted in the numbers getting down to 3-4 hours.

            Where I am now, if I have friends or relatives visiting from Canada I’ll simply drop by a random ER, walk in, and show them the waiting room. Rarely is there more than a few patients waiting.

            Growing up, getting in to see a GP for an annual poke-and-prod would require scheduling ~3 months in advance. My PCP down here has never had me wait more than 2 weeks to get in, with additional options for urgent conditions.

            It gets even worse when it comes to specialists. Our local newspaper would occasionally provide a list of all of the specialists we were underserved by, according to the Province’s own guidelines. It was rather impressive.

            Canada: all the free healthcare you are willing to wait for.

          • Tandagore says:

            Requiring workers to go (by ambulance!) to the ER for made-up or at least not very serious ailments seems to worsen the problem a lot. What is the system of family practitioners like in Canada? Because here you would go to a family practitioner in such a case to get a doctor’s note, but it is unlikely and discouraged to go to a hospital if it isn’t something serious or you get transfered.
            Although it seems that our (more or less single payer) system works better than that of Canada, since waiting times at a GP are a lot shorter, especially in rural communities. Probably a mix of a denser population and a somewhat high number of GPs, altough that is declining already.

          • Murphy says:

            @dodrian

            about 81% of Americans live in urban areas, in the UK it’s about 87%.

            you switch between km’s and travel time smoothly but one thing americans rarely get when planning travel over here: short distances can take a long time to traverse. A 10 km trip can take far more than half an hour.

            Speaking realistically it wouldn’t be at all surprising if US healthcare cost a bit more than in the UK. But it seems to be almost an order of magnitude more expensive.

            One fun thing about the NHS is how much they publish so for example you can look up NHS costings and somehow, even on simple things like pints of blood, american hospitals seem to manage to spend dramatically more. Again, not just a bit more but double or triple. Something is completely broken about your markets/system.

            @The Nybbler

            If you choose to live in the middle of nowhere and reap the benefits like low costs to rent/buy and generally lower costs of living why would you expect to also have a personal dimensional rift to give you perfectly convenient access to the countries best cardiac unit?

            People make the same tradeoff in the UK too.

            If you choose to live on Fair Isle in the UK you make do with the medical center. For serious issues you’d need to go to the mainland to a bigger hospital.

            @Garrett

            That doesn’t tend to really mirror my experiences with the NHS, when I needed a scan I more-less walked to the other side of the hospital, showed them the referral and had it done about 15 minutes later.

            But as mentioned above, if you don’t like the public system in the UK you have the option of getting all the private-healthcare advantages with private health insurance which somehow costs about 1/10th the price of the same thing in the US.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            My impression is that a lot of the cost is tied up in phase 3 clinical trials, which drive up treatment costs for Americans while Europeans approve such treatments on the basis of those strong and expensive American safety rules.

            Another part of the cost is tied up in the comparative sizes of the nations. Countries in the EU have on the order of 10-30 million people. The US has on the order 300 million people. If the network effect goes up with the square of the number of network nodes as is widely claimed, one would expect care costs in the US to be over 100 times as high.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            My impression is that a lot of the cost is tied up in phase 3 clinical trials …while Europeans approve such treatments on the basis of those strong and expensive American safety rules.

            I don’t believe this to be generally correct, at least in the case of pharmaceuticals. Large drug companies run their trials in tandem, running both the European and American phases at the same time.

            Perhaps medical devices are different?

          • PedroS says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            “If the network effect goes up with the square of the number of network nodes as is widely claimed, one would expect care costs in the US to be over 100 times as high.”

            I had heard about the value of a network increasing with the number of nodes, and of the implications thereof on gains from scaling. Why do the costs also increase in that way? And if that is so, why do networks grow past the point where the efficiency gains are eaten up by the costs?

          • Brad says:

            That the value of a telephone network goes with the square of the number of connected users is pretty easy to explain, because each telephone user can call each other user. Why would health care costs go with the square of the number of people in the country? I can’t think of any plausible mechanism for that.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Health care typically requires matching a patient up with the right treatment, which often means the right specialist. Health care in the large means matching N patients with M caregivers with varying specialties. Whenever patient #N+1 comes in, they have to be sorted into one of the treatment buckets that already exist, or perhaps be placed in a new bucket, along with any patients 1-N that we didn’t sort quite perfectly before. Along with that, we’re matching those N patients with the K drugs or treatment methods available.

            This smacks of a strongly multiplicative problem, which likewise strengthens my suspicion that other countries get away with it largely because of their smaller population.

          • Aapje says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            There is a lot of standardization there, though. When you have a broken bone, you don’t have to go to the other side of the country to find the one specialist who who is best at that and who tailors a treatment unique to you. You go to the nearest hospital, who does the standard thing (X-ray) and then another standard thing (like apply plaster).

            I don’t see how that necessarily becomes less efficient when scaled up.

            There is an interesting theory I’ve read that the 80/20 rule also applies to medicine, in that 80% of patients are easily treatable and only cost 20% of the overall spending, but 20% have really complex needs and are really expensive to treat. The theory was that the 80% group can be served with a system where specialists work on their own island, but the 20% needs multiple specialists working together. The proposal was to fund these two types of medicine differently, to keep the 20% from getting bad treatment by a system set up for the 80%.

            BTW, this would also explain why a laissez-faire market system works so badly, because the rich then spend tons of money on bad value-for-money treatment (see Steve Jobs), while the poor don’t benefit from very cost-effective treatment.

          • rlms says:

            @Paul Brinkley
            But why would you be matching patients with doctors nationwide? The vast majority of the time people will go to nearby hospitals. And the number of drugs available shouldn’t scale with population.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Sorry for the late reply – like Trofim, I can’t comment during work hours.

            @Aapje: I get the impression there isn’t that much standardization. I wish there were. I believe that in most cases, a broken limb could be treated the same way, using no more than a couple hundred dollars in training, meaning the procedure ought to cost even less. But it doesn’t, according to the experience an acquaintance had a few years back. Between the special cases the doctor has to know about, training for the anesthesiologist, blood work, malpractice insurance, and other things I can’t remember anymore, it ended up costing thousands.

            Every doctor having to know every special case strikes me as another N-squared factor.

            I’ve also heard that a small fraction of patients require the lion’s share of costs, and that it was typically due to multiple ailments all interacting with each other. But the US system seems to be forced to react to that by forcing every doctor to be caught up on every combination of ailments, which is sort of like reacting to the possibility of a car crash by forcing everyone to have $25k saved up. It’s like anti-insurance.

            Maybe I’m missing some detail here that a professional caregiver could shed light on (Scott, perhaps?), but that’s the spiel I seem to get from people in the business.

            A free market would actually suit this fine – even better than the current system. Patients would shop more assiduously for the price they can afford per care they want, meaning that their preference curves would be actually visible, rather than utterly obscured by a combination of insurance companies paying for non-insurancey things and regulations that obscure the signals that patient preference would otherwise reveal.

            @rlms: that’s just it. To me, that locality limitation is what keeps the price from being truly N-squared, and instead breaking down along various lines.

            Another cost I keep noticing involves drug research. Every drug has to be tested against huge numbers of patients before being approved for market. It might be more cost effective to target drugs at much smaller groups, or to let patients decide if they want to assume the risk of a certain drug in return for it costing much less. As far as I know, this doesn’t happen. (Maybe it does, and isn’t widely reported.)

          • Aapje says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            Yeah, I agree that doctors tend to have habits that cause divergent outcomes and costs. For example, some operate on their hernia patients and some don’t (with no difference in outcomes).

            But most patients seem to trust their nearest doctor, it seems to me.

          • rlms says:

            @Paul Brinkley
            But then surely the N^2 effect only applies if Americans can potentially be matched with more doctors than exist in e.g. a single European country. I don’t see why that would be true for common illnesses (for rare, difficult to treat illnesses a European’s pool of potential doctors also broadens, possibly to include Americans).

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            Sorry – I thought I’d replied to this, and then didn’t check back until after the weekend.

            Doctors who want to address a rare illness have to find as many patients with that illness as they can. Patients with a rare illness (or who suspect they do) have to find the doctor that treats that illness. This sort of problem likewise suggests “N^2” to me.

            The fact that most people are probably satisfied with a doctor in their locality is one of the reasons why the costs aren’t actually N^2. The search for the perfect doctor / patient pair breaks down, because the enormous effort of assessing every doctor is large enough that most people give up.

            A regulatory system that promises to furnish this would likely not be able to provide “good enough” in the US. Too many Americans would be able to beat it – they had special enough needs, or sufficient energy, to beat the program’s pick, and would proceed to complain about it. (Most Americans don’t know where the perfect doctor is, but they do know their Congressperson’s mailing address.)

            I suspect, though I cannot prove, that smaller countries avoid a critical amount of this problem because the search space for any given doctor or patient is an order of magnitude smaller, and because they are much more monocultural, meaning there is much less variance between doctors / patients, and so any given individual is likely to assume they’re close enough to par that they self-satisfy.

          • Aapje says:

            @Paul Brinkley

            Rare illnesses are rare, though.

            They aren’t a good example to base your entire model on.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I agree that basing a model on rare ailments is a bad idea. Dunno if you knew that I did.

            But I see that as one of the contributing factors to US health care being so costly. There’s a layer of regulatory burden that’s trying to catch every rare ailment it can, and failing in some places and succeeding in others, but only because some cadre of busy bureaucratic beavers is trying to do that N-squared analysis because by jove, we’ve gotta do it, costs be damned.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        Europe has unicorns. Or so we are told.

        (Remember when they used to come here looking for cities of gold? Pepperidge Farm remembers.)

    • Corey says:

      The rightmost health-wonk-preferred policy (a bit to the left of ACA, and to the right of Medicaid-for-all) is all-payer rate setting.

      It’s a combination of insurer networks and public utility regulation. In an insurer network, the insurer and providers negotiate mutually-acceptable charges for their library of procedures. (That’s why you never ever go out-of-network in the US if you can help it; there’s no downward force on prices without such a thing, and you can’t know the prices before the work is done). APRS is where a consortium of providers and one of insurers set mutually-acceptable rates that apply to everyone. So everyone’s in-network for everything in such a state or nation.

      Maryland has this for hospitals, it works well, and nobody gets stuck with a bill at charge-master rates (the ones you see on EOBs before the insurer network discount kicks in).

      The libertarian-minded will bitch and moan about interference in the market, largely without asking the question “*what* market?”. The American public will never allow a free-ish market to develop in healthcare. Price controls (from APRS through single-payer to direct provision) are it.

      For drugs, when we don’t grant monopolies (like generics) the market works reasonably well – the buyers are largely insurance companies (again) and pharmacy chains, who can negotiate deals, rather than individuals. It also helps that generics are tightly regulated, so we don’t have to worry about substandard ones or really even comparison-shopping on anything but price.

      So the solution for drugs is to make them all “generic” – fund the R&D directly via the government and get rid of patent protection. This saves a bit of money even if you only consider the US government’s drug expenditures and they funded worldwide R&D at current levels. Overall it would save a lot of money.

    • cassander says:

      depends how ambitious you’re being. In the short term, a bill that repealed the ACA exchanges and associated legislation but kept the medicaid expansion would preserve the vast majority of the coverage expansion, repeal most of the cost, and get rid of the parts everyone hates.

      more ambitiously, the McCain plan from ’08 was a pretty good model. abolish the group market and tax subsidies for group insurance, use the money to create a refundable tax credit for purchasing individual care designed to incentivise cheap policies that insure against catastrophic losses, but not much else.

    • Randy M says:

      The insurance provider cares a lot about the cost, but they can’t do much about it.

      How do you mean this? They may not be able to reduce the cost hospitals pay their doctors or equipment suppliers, but they definitely, though bargaining, reduce the cost paid by (and on behalf of) their clients. If you don’t realize this, try looking at the bill without insurance.

      (Of course, if you don’t have insurance, they probably don’t expect your bill to actually be paid, but they’ll certainly try to convince you to do so.)

    • MartMart says:

      A single payer that kicks in once annual expenses exceed a very high mark, say 25% of annual income. Some preferential treatment of HSA to encourage their use, tax employer provided coverage as regular income. Add some sort of death panel of experts who get to decide which ultra expensive treatments are denied under the emergency single payer. Add in some kind of subsidy for the poor.
      I completely agree that there is a porblem with the costs being divorced from their use, thus not allowing for a functioning market that would distribute resources. However, a functioning market needs rational participants. Not 100% rational, but somewhat rational at least. By the time one is really sick, they are not a rational participant anymore. No one is going to shop around for their life saving cancer treatment, and there is going to be a substantial portion that is not going to have the mental capacity to make decisions. So, lets take care of the really and truly sick with single payer. Fund it via a tax, so compliance isn’t much of an issue. Regular insurance has little to fear from death spirals (since the really and truly sick are moved to SP), and if regular insurance does collapse, people can bare the brunt (25% of your income is harsh, and difficult, but should be manageable)
      Since we wont have to worry about people dying due to lack of coverage, we can drastically reduce subsidies and increase the price signal on the non deadly end, where routine care is taking place. There a market should work to better allocate resources, and encourage innovation.

    • herbert herberson says:

      The two things I would do is make it gradual and use our existing institutions. Ergo, my bill would be two sentences long:

      “At the beginning of the next fiscal year, and at the beginning of every fiscal year thereafter, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall promulgate and implement regulations providing for the Medicare age of eligibility to be lowered by one year from the previous year’s eligibility age. Furthermore, at the beginning of the next fiscal year, and at the beginning of every fiscal year thereafter, Secretary of Health and Human Services shall promulgate and implement regulations providing for the income and asset limits relating to Medicaid to be increased by 10% from the previous year’s figures, in addition to adjustments relating to the rate of inflation.”

      • cassander says:

        Where do you come up with the literally trillions of dollars required to pay for that?

        • herbert herberson says:

          Same places they’re coming from now, just absent the various middlemen.

          Which obviously very vague and unsatisfying, but I feel a lot better about handwaving with a plan that, by its nature, would give us lots of time to figure it out (especially if you either dropped the Medicaid part or tweaked it so that you didn’t add most of the country to its rolls during the 2-4 years around where the increase passes median incomes)

          • cassander says:

            Same places they’re coming from now, just absent the various middlemen.

            That money exists, but it’s not going to the government. You’re talking about putting pretty much the entire US medical industry on Uncle Sam’s books. That’s going to require trillions in new taxes in just 5-10 year. That’s not a gradual approach, it’s religious. You’re setting up a massive financial armageddon then praying for a solution to materialize.

    • Spookykou says:

      What bothers me about Health Care reform is the Republican obsession with ‘choice’. Health Insurance is very hard(for me) to figure out. It seems like an incredibly opaque system now, I only got three choices from my employer and I am still not sure I actually picked the ‘right’ plan for me. I can’t even imaging trying to pick a good plan if I got any more ‘choice’.

      It seems to me that insurance companies are in a weird place where their profit maximizing strategy is to offer you the worst product they possibly can(maybe this is true of all businesses? are the just better insulated from negative press? am I just wrong about this?). Ideally ‘markets’ should resolve this issue as people move away from bad insurers, who intentionally obfuscate the workings of their plans, drop coverage for photogenic children with pre-existing conditions, generally dick people around, but in practice the market seemed to be moving too slowly on this one, and the ACA was a response to some of that(well they didn’t deal with the obfuscating).

      • cassander says:

        in a system with actual, meaningful choices, you wouldn’t actually have to work that hard to get something decent, just like you can grab any of the million toothpastes on display and be pretty much assured it will clean your teeth, and for the same reason. relatively small numbers of people who do pay attention can drive market actors to reform their behavior if they’re decidedly worse.

      • Nornagest says:

        It seems to me that insurance companies are in a weird place where their profit maximizing strategy is to offer you the worst product they possibly can(maybe this is true of all businesses? are the just better insulated from negative press? am I just wrong about this?).

        For most businesses, offering you the worst product they possibly can is a losing strategy because you’ll just go to a competitor instead. But there are various special cases that can make this argument weaker; the worse your information is about your options, the more external constraints are placed on the service, and the closer the service provider is to having monopoly power, the more business incentives point away from customer satisfaction. There’s also the question of who the actual customer is that they’re trying to satisfy; it isn’t always you, even if you’re the ultimate consumer.

        Healthcare is probably the most regulated domain in the world, so there’s plenty of external constraints for insurance companies there. You have weak and incomplete information about insurance. And there are relatively few players in the market, with very high barriers to entry. So that’s three strikes. You also aren’t the primary customer for most health insurance companies; employers are, and they want to cut their costs while still looking good to prospective employees. They also don’t want a lot of administrative overhead, so that points in the direction of one-size-fits-all solutions and away from plans that might fit your individual needs at a lower cost.

        • and the closer the service provider is to having monopoly power, the more business incentives point away from customer satisfaction.

          I don’t think that is correct in the general case. As long as the monopoly is free to charge what it wants and the customer free to buy or not buy there is an incentive to aim at customer satisfaction, since a satisfied customer will be willing to pay a higher price.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            One can be extremely dissatisfied with a service that provides something which is perceived to be essential, and still buy it.

            I think this is a case where economists would start talking about “revealed satisfaction” (because people don’t generally die without, say, cable).

            But one could also talk about “revealed esssentiality” and reliable access to certain experiences, like watching one’s favorite sports teams, might be deemed to be this.

            Regardless, these kinds of definitions of, say, satisfaction will be very different for economists than everyone else.

          • @HeelBearCub:

            I assume a monopoly is always charging the price that maximizes their profit. So if you really want something they are charging you a thousand dollars for it. The reason they don’t charge more than that is that if they did you wouldn’t buy it.

            They now improve it in a way that makes it worth $200 more to you and only costs them $100 more and raise the price by $200.

            As long as the improvement is worth more to you than it costs them, that increases their profit.

            I think the problem is in your use of “essential.” Does that mean that the profit maximizing price is equal to your income minus the cost of subsistence? I don’t think that describes anything I buy, not even the internet service that lets me comment here.

            Does that make the argument clearer? You seem to be treating customer satisfaction as a binary category, and including the case where the value of the service is $100 more if it is good enough to satisfy the customer, but it costs the provider $200 more to make it that good. Neither a monopoly nor a firm in a competitive market will make it that good–or should.

            Would it be clearer if I said that it pays the monopoly to make any improvement that is worth more to the customer than it costs them? That’s a mild oversimplification because of some complications I am ignoring, but close enough.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @David Friedman:

            I believe it is you are treating satisfied as a binary, not I.

            Because your measure of satisfied is a binary test, that being “has the customer exercised their right not to receive the service”.

            Whereas, I am (very, very, very roughly) viewing “dissatisfied/satisfied” as a spectrum, where I would need to be at the far end of before I would cancel my service, but I would still be dissatisfied with it, because I am left of the center.

            And what is really going on is that there are some elements of the package I am satisfied with and some I am not, and overall I am not satisfied, but I would be even more dissatisfied if I cancelled the service altogether.

            But as soon as I can get Google Fiber or AT&T Fiber I will likely cancel my cable service altogether.

          • Protagoras says:

            @DavidFriedman, your own math indicates that the customer will not benefit from the improvement in the service; the monopoly will charge enough that anything the customer gains from the improvement will be fully offset by the increased cost.

          • skef says:

            I assume a monopoly is always charging the price that maximizes their profit.

            This assumption only seems safe in a framework without regulation. In a framework with regulation the monopoly will charge either the price that maximizes their profit or the highest price that makes an anti-trust response unlikely, whichever is lower.

          • @Protagoras:

            Correct. I was assuming a monopoly that did a perfect job of pricing–as I mentioned, I was leaving out some complications.

            In practice, the monopoly is probably selling its product at the same price to all customers, since it can’t tell which customers value it more, although there are a variety of tactics for price discrimination to solve that problem. If so, the marginal customer is getting the product for just what it is worth to him, the customers who value it more are getting it for less than it is worth to them, hence a net benefit. The hypothetical improvement might increase or decrease their total benefit (consumer surplus), depending on the details.

            The comment I responded to had

            the closer the service provider is to having monopoly power, the more business incentives point away from customer satisfaction.

            My point was that that was not in general correct. The marginal customer, whether of a monopoly or a firm in a competitive industry, is getting no net benefit–that’s why he is the marginal customer. But both the monopoly and the competitive firm want to improve the quality of their product, as judged by consumer value for it, so long as the improvement is worth more than it costs.

            One of the other factors in the comment was “the more external constraints are placed on the service,” and that is correct. If the price the firm can charge is fixed by some form of regulation at below the profit maximizing price, the firm probably has no incentive to make any improvement that cost it anything, since it can’t charge for them.

      • gbdub says:

        Choice isn’t just on the “which plan do I pick” end, it’s on the “which doctor do I get to see, what treatment do I get, how many hoops do I need to jump through for specialist non-emergency care, etc”. I do think that’s important and something Americans enjoy an advantage in relative to NHS type systems.

        And your employer may only offer 3 plans, but your employer gets to choose which plan to offer to (ideally) best balance the needs of their employee pool against the total cost, and that’s not trivial from the Republican perspective.

      • John Schilling says:

        What bothers me about Health Care reform is the Republican obsession with ‘choice’. Health Insurance is very hard(for me) to figure out. It seems like an incredibly opaque system now, I only got three choices from my employer and I am still not sure I actually picked the ‘right’ plan for me.

        The relevant choice for most Americans is not which insurance policy or provider to sign up with, but which doctor or hospital to go to. Most(?) Americans who are not single young men have an ongoing relationship with a primary physician that they want to maintain even if the bureaucracy decides some other doctor would be more convenient, and most Americans believe that if they develop some serious chronic ailment like cancer they ought to be able to chose the doctor or hospital they feel is best suited to their case.

        Traditionally, American health insurance policies allowed for this; you picked whatever doctor you want (within fairly broad limits), sent the insurance company the bill and they paid it. That’s less true than it used to be, but if your employer is offering three different insurance plans, one of them is probably a PPO with a large provider network that comes reasonably close.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Hahahaha.

          My company was bought. By a $5B valuated, $1B in revenues, west-coast tech company.

          I have a choice of 1 insurance plan. All of our families providers are out-of-network. I should go see an oral surgeon and there is precisely one in network and he works one day a week. I will probably have to pay out of pocket for this.

          • Corey says:

            Narrow networks are often used as a club to beat down overall utilization. As in your example, you can wait in line for this one guy, or go elsewhere and accept unlimited financial liability, so people tend to take the third option of giving up.

            I may have told this story before, but my (non-Scott) psychiatrist was in this situation – she was willing to accept a network’s reimbursement rates, conditions etc., but they didn’t take her, presumably to keep it narrow for these reasons.

        • Spookykou says:

          I can see how I could be blind to this side of the choice question. I have no primary care physician that I have seen more than once, I tend to go to the doctor once a year(with a few exceptions) and just ask for the most convenient time slot without a thought to the name of the doctor I will be seeing.

      • herbert herberson says:

        I agree entirely. I don’t want choices, I want simplicity.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      I’ve given my opinions on what would probably improve the situation, though perhaps not here, or not all in one place. The bottlenecks are political (naturally), and arguably also public consensus. I struggle to think of any logistical obstacles otherwise, though to be fair, these are relatively broad, unspecified opinions.

      1. Reduce regulatory barriers to interstate insurance competition (see David Friedman’s comment above).

      2. Remove regulatory barriers to opening new clinics and hospitals (see Eric Rall’s reply to my comment further above).

      3. Reduce regulatory barriers, if any, to what caregiver can conduct what procedure. (I have this nagging suspicion that a majority of visits involve the RN looking at the patient, knowing what to do within 30 seconds, then waiting 30 minutes for someone with an advanced degree to come in for another minute and then confirm the RN’s finding.)

      4. Reduce the requirements for accrediting new doctors. (Didn’t Scott say Irish doctors had similar performance for fewer course credits a while back?)

      5. Reduce the requirements for approving new drugs – particularly phase 3 clinical trials.

      6. Equalize the tax rates between salary and non-salary benefits paid by employers.

      I’m sure I sound like a broken record with the “reduce barriers” stuff, but I honestly feel the USG could save money by playing care and insurance providers off each other through competition, just like for damn near anything else in the market. Patients won’t angst over whether they’re getting one of the top 1000 anesthesiologists in the country if they’re paying only $100 to set a broken limb. And if employer tax rates are equal for all benefits, employers will no longer have incentive to manage their own insurance plan (unless the work is hazardous), which means employees can get their own plan and take it with them if they change jobs.

    • christhenottopher says:

      One thing that is beginning to irk me a bit with healthcare debates in the US is that it’s all about coverage without ever acknowledging that coverage is primarily a process measure rather than an outcome measure. Ignoring the Hansonian “health care is not about health care” point, what we should really be concerned with is a policy’s impact on QALYs (and if you’re worried about unequal outcomes leading to high divergence between things like average QALYs rising because the rich do awesome and everyone else gets screwed, focus on QALY levels for the poor). Since Quality Adjusted Life Years can theoretically adjust for basically any condition you can even account for how much it sucks to live in bankruptcy and poverty with them. Right now we’re spending over 8% of GDP on government healthcare spending in the US, and have we actually tried seeing if it’s better to spend that money on healthcare directly or to just give it to poor/disabled/chronically ill people directly? I only know of one policy experiment on this in Oregon (if you all know more I’m hungry for more data) where the control group got nothing and the experimental group got free health insurance. The gist of the results were that healthcare usage went up among those receiving coverage (shocker!), financial stability went up (again, shocking that when you give people a subsidy their finances improve), self-reported health and satisfaction with their health went up (this is not something to dismiss, it’s important especially in mental health), but many measured health outcomes failed to improve (things like blood pressure or cholesterol levels). So my question is, how would these results compare with something like a basic income, and what QALY gains are we really getting here?

      I know that scrapping all government payments to health care and replacing with a targeted basic income to the groups previously getting the health subsidies is politically infeasible in the shot-, medium-, and probably pretty long-terms. The idea that health benefits are a great benefit to have is heavily ingrained. But a lot of what makes a huge difference in health is lifestyle things that healthcare systems only have limited capacity to impact. Improving diet, doing moderate regular exercise, and not smoking are huge QALY improvers that a twice a year check up isn’t going to impact much. And there’s plenty of waste in the rest of the disease fighting health care system (at least waste in terms of QALY improvement). I fully admit it’s possible that health care spending beats passing out checks to those in need, but I see a lot of talk about how to expand coverage without even checking that expanding coverage is the best way to help.

      Thus I reach out to this community! Does anyone know of any data on how much healthcare coverage tends to improve QALYs? Has any short of comparison been made with Give Directly type no-stings-attached checks to people? What research is out there on whether or not all our subsidies are actually helping people relative to other forms of support we could be doing?

    • Urstoff says:

      1. Price transparency
      2. Change compensation structure for doctors (patients can pay per service, but doctors should be salaried)
      3. Subsidized HSA’s for the poor or chronically unwell
      4. Some deregulation of doctor licensing, what services NPs and PAs can provide, etc.

  25. Password says:

    Scott: I just registered this account locally (as opposed to on WordPress) and had some trouble doing so. The security code presented to me had 5 characters in it, but the field in which I had to enter the code had a maximum length of 4. Fortunately I know how to edit the html to fix that and was obviously able to register, but unless I’m the only person encountering this issue you may be losing some other potential posters.

    • Montfort says:

      That’s pretty unfortunate, but would make a great registration requirement for some more selective and technical forum.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Okay, after looking into it for a while I’ve found the problem…

      …there’s an editable field in the WordPress control panel determining how many characters you’re allowed to enter to solve the five-character CAPTCHA, and for some reason, even though I swear I didn’t touch it, it seems to have switched itself from 5 to 4 some indeterminate amount of time ago.

      What even are computers? Seriously, how do you programmers deal with them every day without going insane?

      • Aapje says:

        At least computers do exactly what you tell them to, you can read the source code and make very targeted fixes, etc, etc.

        I would counter your statement with:

        What even are humans? Seriously, how do you psychiatrists deal with them every day without going insane?

      • hlynkacg says:

        As an embedded systems engineer I find that sacrificing a goat on the full moon before a quarterly code review will keep your code clean and free of bugs. Smaller sacrifices or supplications to Finagle and his Prophet prior to calibration tests are also recommended as a way to encourage compliance from individual machine spirits. You can typically find ritual instructions in chapter 36 of your organization’s coding standards and best practices guide. 😉

        • The Nybbler says:

          Indeed, one reason prototype hardware often doesn’t have the sharp edges removed is to promote the necessary blood sacrifices on the part of the engineers.

        • sov says:

          As a fellow embedded, just blame it all on electrical noise.

      • roystgnr says:

        Proper revision control of source code allows us to take even the most maddening and infuriating bugs, reduce them to the precise instructions which spawned them, and find out which programmer was responsible for writing those instructions, at which point the computer is quickly recognized to be the logical element of the system and not the blameworthy part of the problem.

        Fortunately, “which programmer was responsible” turns out to be “ourselves” so many times that, when exceptions to that fact occur, we’re already inclined to treat such irresponsibility with mercy rather than with the cleansing vengeance which might otherwise naturally follow hours of frustrating bug-hunting.

    • Deiseach says:

      The security code presented to me had 5 characters in it, but the field in which I had to enter the code had a maximum length of 4.

      There are four lights! 🙂

  26. Wrong Species says:

    Which political entity is more of a state: Palestine or Taiwan? Palestine is recognized by 136 UN members(out of 193) and is officially recognized by the UN as an observer. However, it is under the control of Israel. Taiwan can be said to be autonomous but it’s only recognized by a mere 33 countries and is forced in international events such as the Olympics to be placed under the name of “Chinese Taipei”. So what’s more important for statehood, recognition or control?

    • ThirteenthLetter says:

      Depends on if you’re actually interested in governing or not.

    • tmk says:

      Well, Taiwan in de facto independent, but not de jure. Palestine is (in some ways) a de jure independent state but not in practice. Which is more “real” depends on specifics, and how important the two aspects will be in the future.

      It could be interesting to compare to US laws on immigration and marijuana. In both cases the federal laws are far stricter than the de facto implementation. It gives conservatives an argument of “we just want to enforce the existing laws”, but changing the de facto situation is harder than you might think.

    • Jiro says:

      The Gaza Strip is certainly acting like an independent country, even if “Palestine” isn’t.

    • Izaak says:

      This is a purely semantic question; all this question depends on is the definition of statehood, and not about any actual facts in the real world.

  27. Odovacer says:

    Allegedly Trump presented Merkel with a $300 billion bill for NATO. Regardless of the veracity of the claim, it’s true that in 2006 all NATO members pledged to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense, but only five countries do so (US, Poland, Greece, UK and Estonia). My questions are:

    1) Is this a problem and why or why not?

    2) What’s your general opinion of NATO?

    • skef says:

      The alliance had established the 2 percent guideline at its Riga summit in 2006, yet did not include the goal in the official summit declaration endorsed by all member states. Before the Riga summit a NATO spokesman even explained, “Let me be clear, this is not a hard commitment that [member states] will do it. But it is a commitment to work towards it.” [link]

      Source goes on to state that the 2014 Wales summit was a bit more of a thing, if still non-binding.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      1) NATO countries not spending at their target for defense is more of a political problem than anything else. They do need to maintain sufficient competent military force, and the 2% target simply makes for a concrete goal thereby ensuring “sufficient”. You don’t set your goal right at sufficient, for obvious reasons.

      2) NATO is a good treaty. Playing footsie with Russia right now is destabilizing, for many reasons, although I think the odds of Russia trying to push tanks into, say, Poland are very, very low. But break-up NATO? The odds rise.

    • tmk says:

      In international politics it’s quite common to agree on one thing and then not really do it. For example the US is not paying it’s full UN membership fee, but nobody an do much about it.

    • bean says:

      It’s a problem, in that them not spending 2% sends the wrong message to a wide variety of people, some of them US taxpayers, others their potential enemies.
      (As an aside, the 2% of the UK includes a lot of stuff like service pensions that probably shouldn’t count. They need to increase theirs as well.)

      Overall, NATO is one of the best-functioning of international organizations, and I’d hate to see it fall apart because some members aren’t willing to fund it properly.

    • beleester says:

      1. Not a problem – even if you see it as an essential commitment (and there are arguments that it’s not, that the real thing that most NATO members “pay” to the US is the ability for us to base our forces in strategic locations), the pledge was to hit 2% by 2024. It’s too early to start yelling at people over it.

      2. Pretty good. I’m a fan of deterrence, even if it does lead to a lot of saber-rattling and brinkmanship, it’s better than an actual war.

    • cassander says:

      1) Yes, it’s a problem. IT makes it more difficult for NATO to be a credible alliance when it’s known full well that most NATO militaries can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

      2) The problem of shirking NATO members has been with us for almost as long as NATO. Back in the cold war days, it was hard to get the Spanish to get too excited about defending Germany. Today, it’s hard to get the Germans excited about defending Poland. Such is the nature of international coalitions.

    • Brad says:

      2) What’s your general opinion of NATO?

      NATO did its job, it won the Cold War. It should have been dismantled in the late 90s, or at the very least not expanded.

    • dndnrsn says:

      1. NATO countries should do their best to reach the 2% target. It sends a signal to allies and foes that it’s being taken seriously, it keeps there from being resentment in the US for having to foot the bill for other people’s defence (let’s not pretend a whole bunch of countries aren’t saving on their military by letting Uncle Sam do the heavy lifting), and it means that the US reducing spending or NATO involvement or whatever is less of a problem.

      Not that there is a direct link between spending and performance – Canada spends 1% of GDP on the military; Germany spends 1.2% – by all accounts I’ve seen the Canadian Forces performed better in Afghanistan than the Bundeswehr.

      2. NATO is, on the whole, a good organization. It seems to work adequately, it was necessary when first brought about, and having coordination between the major Western powers is important.

    • John Schilling says:

      NATO needs a clearly-defined mission, and it needs a commitment from all of its members to perform that mission. Without those two things, there’s no point – the US and UK don’t need anyone else’s permission to e.g. send a hundred thousand men to fight and kill and die to defend Poland from Russian aggression if we want, just Poland’s, and twenty other nations sending token contingents so they can say “We’re helping!” isn’t actually all that helpful.

      The 2% GDP target is a mediocre proxy for commitment, but it is at least something. Setting and then not meeting the 2% target, is a very strong signal for lack of commitment. Nations which won’t even come up with the promised money, when only money is required, cannot be trusted to pay in blood.

      But even with the commitment, what’s the mission? Defending Europe from Russian aggression by putting a powerful army in the path of that aggression was NATO’s core mission once upon a time, and it seems disturbingly topical now. But is that something that NATO’s members are really up for? Is Spain going to send men to die for Latvia, if Putin pulls that trigger? We need to be absolutely clear on that, and we’re not.

      We also need to be clear on whether NATO is about sending an army to protect doe-eyed waifs from Evil Murderous Dictators in regions with only vague and tenuous connections to the NA, and if so, who gets to decide. A treaty in which e.g. France and Belgium get to decide who the US and UK go to war with, is not in our interests.

      If true (and even Mother Jones has doubts), sending Merkel a $300E9 invoice for services rendered is an absurdly crass way of addressing these problems. But the problems are real, and if they aren’t resolved then we need to start thinking about either American Isolationism or a more explicitly asymmetric Pax Americana.

      • Alex says:

        We also need to be clear on whether NATO is about sending an army to protect doe-eyed waifs from Evil Murderous Dictators in regions with only vague and tenuous connections to the NA, and if so, who gets to decide. A treaty in which e.g. France and Belgium get to decide who the US and UK go to war with, is not in our interests.

        With the possible exception of Libya and the Kosovo the predominant narrative in my country is that the US explicitly wanted to go to war with the Evil Murderous Dictator de jour. Is this not true?

        • John Schilling says:

          Libya and Kosovo are the only two cases where NATO went to war with an evil murderous dictator(*), so, yeah. When the United States wants to wage war against a dictator, murderously evil or otherwise, we just do it – and we invite our most trusted allies, some of whom happen to be NATO members, but it’s done outside of the NATO framework. When NATO goes to war against evil murderous dictators, that’s basically a way of dragging the United States into a European fight that Europe can’t win. So, yeah, absurdly crass but I can see the appeal of sending a bill.

          * NATO’s other military operations were against non-state terrorists and pirates, which is generally less controversial.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Wasn’t NATO involved in the war in Afghanistan too?

          • Iain says:

            NATO was involved in Afghanistan. Indeed, it remains the only time that a NATO member has ever invoked the mutual defense aspect of the treaty. It’s one of the reasons I find Trumps’ comments about NATO to be particularly tacky; the single largest NATO action this millennium involved a bunch of America’s allies coming to her aid.

          • John Schilling says:

            Wasn’t NATO involved in the war in Afghanistan too?

            That would be the war against non-state terrorists, yes. Osama bin Laden was many things, most of them bad, but “evil dictator” isn’t really one of them. We could maybe fit Mullah Omar into that template, but nobody really tried and I don’t think any of the NATO member nations ever recognized the Taliban regime as Afghanistan’s legitimate (if evil) government.

            the single largest NATO action this millennium involved a bunch of America’s allies coming to her aid.

            And that would be, for the most part, the “twenty other nations sending token contingents so they can say ‘We’re helping!’ isn’t actually all that helpful”, part. If NATO membership means pretending not to laugh when the German Army says it is “coming to our aid”, and then sending our real army to fight in stupid European wars, yeah, $300 billion.

          • Alex says:

            Would it have been an option for Germany to not even pretend re Afghanistan? Wouldn’t that have led to diplomatic consequences?

          • Iain says:

            And that would be, for the most part, the “twenty other nations sending token contingents so they can say ‘We’re helping!’ isn’t actually all that helpful”, part. If NATO membership means pretending not to laugh when the German Army says it is “coming to our aid”, and then sending our real army to fight in stupid European wars, yeah, $300 billion.

            Hint: I’m Canadian.

    • Trofim_Lysenko says:

      I’m going to focus this on 1). as far as 2) goes, my opinion is somewhere between Brad and John’s. I would be strongly for it if 1) was addressed, but there is not currently any good faith effort being made by anyone to address it, or to compel our partners to address it.

      Why do I claim that there is no effort? Well:

      To start with, just looking at the differences in spending dramatically understates the difference in operational forces. And even looking at THAT in several countries’ cases understates the even bigger gaps in operational readiness and real world capabilities. And those capabilities are being REDUCED, not increased.

      To use one example, a while back I went through the UK’s Order of Battle and compared it to the US’ with an eye towards seeing just what it would take if the UK decided one day that they wanted to field a US-style military with roughly the same strength relative to the difference in Population and GDP (that’s about 18% the size of ours, troop to troop, tank to tank, fighter to fighter, etc). You know what I found? Being conservative, and completely ignoring the issue of spares/logistical tail/etc, AND treating all operating British equipment as functionally equivalent to first line US equipment? The Brits would have to increase EVERY type of unit by a factor of 2-4x to reach anything like parity. For example, they’d need to buy another 600 or so Challengers.

      I’d have to go back and redo my work if you want it in detail, but give me a few days and I’ll happily show my work on that. And that’s the UK. That’s one of our more serious partners who ARE trying to hold up their end. To their credit, of our European partners they have a somewhat more realistic doctrinal plans and they’ve claimed that the current cuts have allowed them to trade quantity for quality (though right now it’s debatable how much of that is true and how much is posturing and spin around the various cuts). But even there, they have explicitly rejected the need to train or ready themselves to ever face a peer or near-peer threat again, or to engage in large scale combined operations except as a short term tithe of forces attached to a larger (French or US) force. In short as RAND puts it:

      “It will no longer have an army that can deploy or sustain a force anywhere near the size of the British contingents in the Persia Gulf War and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

      That is, a deployment where they literally were able to muster a TITHE of support will be completely beyond their capability.

      Unfortunately for the assumption that the UK can partner closely with France as the larger force for any future large-scale or long-duration European-centric operations (read the paper above), France froze their military budget and slashed their strength as well. With Germany, it’s the same story, and that accounts for the three largest European militaries.

      To sum up, even using the most optimistic projections of readiness and taking at face value all the claims of cuts allowing for increased quality of training and modernization of remaining equipment (which is dubious), European nations cannot individually OR even collectively field a fighting force capable of engaging and defeating a peer or near-peer adversary in a conventional war even on their home turf, and they have no plans to be able to sustain operations for the forces they have except in terms of penny-packet STASO or short-duration, low-intensity contingency operations.

      That is BEST case. But is that case believable?is this talk of trading quantity for quality real? Are they making sure that the forces they DO have are maintained, equipped, and well-trained? Let’s see:

      France? Nope. In fact they’re having to do a last minute volte-face on those planned budget cuts just to keep their military operating at its current (overstressed, undertrained, unsustainable) levels…and they’re finding themselves without the ability to even fund their military to the aforementioned frozen level, so things are actually worse than that!

      Germany? Even worse. When people talk about a “Hollow military” in terms of “First World” nations, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about.

      The UK? Even there, not really.

      To be fair, other partners are somewhat more serious about readiness, but the ones who are aren’t large enough to make up the shortfall and even they aren’t serious enough to contemplate stepping up as something around equal partnership.

      “But Lysenko, you’re citing older studies and white papers! Everyone’s increasing spending in 2016!”

      Yeah, they’re increasing spending by either nominal amounts (1, 2, 3% increases) or temporarily pausing the planned cuts, NOT addressing the ways in which the real world operational capabilities of their forces have been gutted. To use a metaphor, it’s not just a question of the US having a sports car and other nations having a sedan. It’s that the sedan has a rusted out frame, an engine that’s only firing on half its cylinders, blown shocks, bald tires wobbling and out of alignment, and leaky everything. The spending increases amount to getting that car a new set of tires and going “There, fixed it!”…because at this point none of them have the political will to spend the very large amount of money it will take to actually fix the issue. After all, everyone knows that European security and most of their interests (with the exception of France, which is why they have the most deployable capability) are going to be guaranteed and paid for in both blood and treasure by the Americans.

      I don’t want to deep six NATO. I think it’s a far more functional international security organization than the UN. But if the cost of keeping NATO is the US continuing to carry the entire rest of the organization on its back in terms of spending and capabilities (which in turn means carrying the load when it comes to an actual real-world test), then the price is too high.

      I think we need to apply very real, very serious pressure to attempt to convince our partners to BE full-fledged partners. Or else we need to go ahead and pack up our european bases, bring EUCOM home, and let people know that any further security agreements will be conducted solely on a bilateral basis.

      And if not? Then hell, let’s give OUR liberals what they want, start cutting OUR defense spending by 30%, 40%, more.

      • tmk says:

        How is the potential enemy, Russia, doing. It seems they have similar problems, with Russia’s lone old aircraft carrier constantly breaking down and getting towed home. The Russian economy is also rather poor, but I guess their military costs are generally lower.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        Forgive my ignorance, but why is France, specifically, out of the various European NATO countries, less able to count on US military backing?

        • Creutzer says:

          I think that’s a reference to the fact that France likes to meddle in Africa and the Middle East for reasons of its own, while the rest of Europe don’t.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          France withdrew from full NATO for about 40 years. (They rejoined in 2009.)

      • Trofim_Lysenko says:

        @tmk

        NATO is a mutual defense treaty. That means that if the US (via our security obligations with Korea) gets into it with the DPRK, or things go south with China over Taiwan because Trump is a bellicose fool, the US SHOULD by the terms of membership be able to invoke Chapter 5 and expect military assistance there as well. Likewise if France were to suffer a 9/11 scale attack, they could invoke chapter 5 in the context of an OEF-style response against ISIS-controlled territory and reasonably expect not just US, but the rest of NATO to offer support given that the US did that -for- OEF and set a precedent. It would be mistake to consider NATO to be the “No Russia Club”.

        That said, Russia’s military IS significantly weaker in reality than it is on paper. However, their core land forces are significantly LESS hollowed out than the major European powers, and they have been putting rather more effort into addressing the issue with respect to their land forces, though their major complex systems (like aircraft carriers) lag behind. Add in that they started out rather larger to begin with, and even a partially decrepit Russian military is a threat that should not be blown off.

        @Winter Shaker

        France isn’t less able to count on US military backing than the UK relative to NATO-specific issues.

        France, like the US, is more likely to have overseas interests requiring military action for which they cannot count on NATO support in general. Again, I’ll use the metaphor of late 20th century US military actions in the Caribbean and Central America. Unlike, say, Germany or Poland, France still has/had aspirations of acting as a geopolitical mover and shaker with regard to former colonies and the like. The last few years have shown them that their dual desires to continue reaping a peace dividend AND being able to project military power to former colonies in Africa and generally be a major power are mutually exclusive, but so far they haven’t made a hard commitment to one path or the other but are still trying to chart a middle course.

        • Brad says:

          The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

          Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security ..

        • Trofim_Lysenko says:

          @Brad

          Sorry for the pause before replying, I can read SSC at work on breaks, but I can’t post.

          I’m familiar with the text, so to clarify: are you saying you find the idea of a futures wherein China, North Korea, or for that matter any other aggressor launches an attack that causes casualties on US Soil laughably unlikely? Leaving aside continued development of potential adversaries’ conventional forces with or without degradation of our own, John Schilling has made some points in this very thread about long-distance strike capabilities of North Korea within the next decade. Then you have the possibility of cyber-attacks that can cause real-world damage and death. To that you can add state-sponsored terrorism and other asymmetric attacks, all possible ways for someone to attack the US on US soil without having to sink the Pacific Fleet and launch an amphibious invasion of San Francisco, or defeat our Air Force and fill the skies over Calumet, CO with a Mass-Tac drop.

          The Pacific and Atlantic oceans give a lot of strategic options and we have an outstanding Navy, but they are not a magical forcefield. In short, I think you need to elaborate and clarify your position a bit more. As I said above, I actually agree with you that NATO as a check to Russian (and more specifically Soviet) aggression is defunct, but you now seem to be implying that the US in fact shouldn’t be part of ANY defense treaties because we are not and never will be under threat of attack. Am I misinterpreting you?

          For my part, I want allies. Allies who can do more than field a tithe of forces dependent upon us for logistical support and then say “I’m Helping!!”. In part because I think that the ideal level of military spending and force size is below what the US currently maintains but still well ABOVE what the European powers maintain, and a real, functional, meaningful series of alliances makes that possible.

          • Brad says:

            Sorry, I guess I misunderstood you. When you said:

            That means that if the US (via our security obligations with Korea) gets into it with the DPRK, or things go south with China over Taiwan because Trump is a bellicose fool, the US SHOULD by the terms of membership be able to invoke Chapter 5 and expect military assistance there as well.

            I thought you meant we could invoke art 5 to assist us in a situation that was purely in the Asian theater (and even perhaps where we had the first strike.)

            I was making the point that the treaty wouldn’t cover that. But since that apparently wasn’t what you mean, it wasn’t a good point.

            In any event, to your later point, I wouldn’t say we should never do defense treaties but inasmuch as our own defense is at issue I’m skeptical that most of our NATO allies could ever be especially useful. Canada, UK, France, Germany, maybe Italy and/or Spain but what is Lativa going to do for us if China attacks the US mainland even if they spent 5% of GDP on their military?

          • Trofim_Lysenko says:

            Interestingly enough, AFAIK there is no explicit requirement that the NATO member not have started the fight, as long as there is an attack that takes place against it on European or North American soil. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that in reality most NATO members would simply refuse to honor their treaty obligations in that instance, but it would be a violation of the letter of the treaty, if not necessarily its spirit.

            As for the allies you listed, see my comment above and especially that RAND paper. Canada I know less about in detail. My impression is that they have less hollowing-out issues than France and Germany and even the UK, but that’s because they maintain such a -token- military.

            So I agree that they’re not much help, but I would prefer the solution be finding a way to convince them to shoulder more of their own security burden, and more share of joint missions.

          • Brad says:

            But even if we would want Canada, the UK, Germany, and France to be military allies in case we were attacked that still doesn’t answer the question of why NATO, and especially why expanded NATO.

  28. Wrong Species says:

    The reporting about the civilians dying in Mosul is really bugging me. It is talked about like the US is recklessly hitting targets with no regard for civilians, and some are hinting that the military is doing it on purpose because of Trump. But the details suggest otherwise.

    First off, 200 people were supposedly killed but they have only confirmed 61.

    Second, the building that the civilians were in wasn’t directly by coalition air strikes.

    The Iraqi military said in a statement Sunday that the home it examined had been reduced to rubble, but there was no sign of it being hit from the air. The team found a vehicle bomb and detonator in the debris. Those findings, along with witness accounts, led the team to believe that ISIS fighters had blown up the home.

    Third, this is the only report of civilian causalities in Mosul.

    And also, they are now in the old part of Mosul, which has more narrow, winding roads and will be more difficult to get accurate shots.

    Most people only really cares about Iraq and Syria when they have some narrative to push and the last one(the poor innocent moderate rebels being slaughtered by the big bad Syrian army) wasn’t exactly accurate either. At this point, it doesn’t really matter what facts get reported. The seed of an idea has already been planted.

    • John Schilling says:

      Two hundred dead civilians in Mosul is maybe one percent of the total if we’re very lucky; this is all about someone trying to exploit the perception that it is somehow an intolerable evil of any of those civilians were killed by our pure, unblemished American hands.

      Which isn’t going to do much for them. Red Tribe America generally understands that if the Bad Guys own a city and we want to take it away from them, that’s going to cost tens of thousands of innocent lives (preferably not American lives) and doesn’t much care whose bullets do the killing. Blue Tribe America is only OK with American bullets being used to kill Certified Bad Guys, ever. Right now, both tribes are aligned with causing the downfall of ISIS, and that means making at least a token appearance at the Battle of Mosul. This sort of propaganda won’t change that. It will drive yet another wedge between the tribes, but at this point who is going to notice?

    • hoghoghoghoghog says:

      I guess I don’t see the problem with this article? The headline is qualified with “Iraqi official says.” So maybe this is too much stenography, not enough reporting, but to some extent I think CNN sees that as part of their mission (coming from TV, where a lot of what they do is interviews or live coverage of press conferences).

      Incidentally I was under the impression that the battle of Mosul was over and all was quiet, so at least for me the article mostly made my beliefs less wrong.

      EDIT: incidentally, the only mention of Trump in the article is stenography of a White House statement. There is nothing wrong with that, but from your description of media coverage I was expecting something else.

      • Wrong Species says:

        It’s not this article I have a problem with. It’s just the headlines and speculations from other articles I have read.

  29. John Schilling says:

    Last OT, I started talking about my nerdy hobby of Korea-watching, specifically analysis of North Korean strategic weapons. There were requests for more, and I like talking about this, so let’s continue. The last discussion was about the explodey nuclear parts; this time we’ll deal with the missiles that carry them. That’s my particular area of expertise, so this one will be a bit longer. And, yes, North Korea not only has nuclear warheads, they have missiles to carry them. Lots of them, and they mostly work.

    North Korea’s history with ballistic missiles goes back to 1980, when they allegedly bought a few second-hand Scud missiles from Egypt and reverse-engineered them in the spirit of rugged juche individualism. I say “allegedly” because reverse-engineering is a much harder feat than most people understand. There’s speculation that the North Koreans had help. Whether by their own reverse engineering or covert foreign assistance, North Korea moved quickly to not only produce Scud mssiles for their own use, but to establish themselves as an exporter. North Korea sold Iran roughly a hundred Scuds in 1985, for use in their war with Iraq, and they seem to have worked 80-90% of the time under combat conditions.

    You all remember the Scud missile from Operation Desert Storm, right? 1950s technology liquid-fueled rockets, with a range of 300-600 kilometers depending on version and warhead size. Accuracy is indifferent, particularly at longer ranges, but good enough for weapons of mass destruction. They are typically fired from Transporter-Erector-Launcher (“TEL”) vehicles which nominally have high cross-country mobility.

    Locally-produced Scud missiles gave North Korea the ability to reach targets across roughly half of South Korea. But, while they worked well enough for many purposes, they had one critical limitation even then: North Korea’s enemies were not limited to the northern half of South Korea, and could be counted on to put their most critical logistics and command centers safely out of Scud reach. In 1991, North Korea introduced the “No dong” missile to address that deficiency.

    OK, I’ll wait for the snickering to die down. Finished yet? Nodong is our name for the missile. The North Korean name is either “Hwasong-8” or “Hwasong-9”. We think. The missile was first observed in reconnaissance photos of a site near the village of No Dong, so we called it the Nodong missile. That’s actually a well-established naming convention, and we’re going to keep doing it until they tell us what the official name is and probably for a generation or so after. For the most part, I’m going to use our names for North Korean missiles here.

    And one more digression while I’m at it. Most of North Korea’s missiles are at least loosely based on old Soviet technology. We know there were Russian rocket scientists moonlighting in Pyongyang during the Yeltsin administration, not as a matter of Russian policy but because the Yeltsin administration wasn’t very good at meeting payroll. We think a fair bit of cold-war surplus hardware, maybe including some obsolete missiles that were supposed to be scrapped, made its way east as well. That level of collaboration probably began and ended with Yeltsin, but North Korea has always been looking for whatever bits of technology or expertise it can find on the black market. The only actual governments known to have collaborated with Pyongyang in this area are Iran and Pakistan.

    The Nodong looks like a Scud with all of the dimensions increased by about 40%; the astute engineer will realize there has to be more to it than just multiplying dimensions on a set of blueprints, and we can argue about how much Russian help they had in developing the thing. The first Nodong test occurred in 1991, during the Gorbachev era, and the Soviet Union never fielded a missile like the Nodong in any event. So, probably not a matter of Russian engineers selling them the design, but maybe they helped debug the thing after the 1991 test exploded on the pad.

    In 1993, the Nodong started working properly. This is a recurring theme in North Korean rocketry – nothing works the first time, explosions on the launch pad being particularly common, but they take their time working the problems and eventually get it right. The Nodong, in its final form, delivers nuclear-sized payloads to 1500 kilometers. That’s enough to cover all of Korea and most of Japan.

    Later in the decade, North Korea developed something called the Scud-ER, which for a long time we thought was just their version of extended-range Scuds as similarly developed by Russia and Iraq. Stretch the propellant tanks, cut the payload in half, hope the guidance system can handle it as the range goes up to 700 kilometers. Last year, North Korea finally showed us what their Scud-ER is, and it isn’t quite what we expected. A complete redesign of the airframe to wrest the last bit of performance out of the heritage Scud engine, with the ability to deliver nuclear warheads out to at least 1000 km.

    These three are the workhorse missiles of the North Korean strategic rocket forces today. North Korea has about thirty operational Scud-sized TELS and ten larger ones for the Nodong. The number of missiles is harder to pin down, but based on known production capacity is probably between five hundred and one thousand, no more than two hundred of them Nodongs. Obviously, most of these are not going to be nuclear.

    There’s also something we call the Musudan, which is basically an 1960s-vintage Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile modified for land basing and increased range. This is definitely a result of collaboration with Yeltsin-era Russians. The Musudan is about a decade ahead of the Scud/Nodong family in its underlying technology, and should be able to deliver a nuclear warhead about 3500 km.

    In practice, it mostly just blows up its own launch site. The North Koreans appear to have deployed it back in 2004, but never tested it until last year. Same mistake as with their nuclear warheads, deployed without testing and then an embarrassing failure when they did get around to testing a decade later. But unlike the nukes, or most of their missiles, Pyongyang didn’t feel they could take the time to do a proper job of fixing the problem. Instead of coming back a few years later with a reliable system, they rushed through a total of eight tests and at least one design change, with only a single successful flight to show for it. Unclear whether they are going to continue with this line of development.

    All of these are liquid-fuel missiles. Nominally mobile, but if you take a fully-fueled Scud off-roading you probably won’t have a working missile at the end of it and you very likely will have killed your crew with toxic propellant leaks. Normal procedure is to stick to roads or flat open terrain, and even then to carry the fuel in separate tankers. Takes about fifteen minutes to load and fire under ideal conditions, maybe an hour for an average crew in combat. What was sufficient against allied Scud-hunting in 1991, may not be sufficient today.

    To ensure survivability going forward, North Korea has been working on more robust solid-propellant missiles. That path begins in 1996, when Syria sells Pyongyang some ex-Soviet OTR-21 “Tockha” (aka SS-21 “Scarab) short-ranged ballistic missiles which the North Koreans promptly reverse-engineer (yeah, yeah, see above). These are high-end tactical systems, intended to support battlefield commanders by striking key targets just behind the front lines. The original Soviet model had a range of 70 kilometers with high accuracy; North Korea’s KN-02 “Toksa” has had the range extended progressively to as much as 220 kilometers.

    The OTR-21 and probably the KN-02 is built for precision strikes with conventional warheads, though North Korea can probably shoehorn a nuclear warhead into the thing. More importantly, it gave them the experience to build something like the Pukguksong-2, demonstrated earlier this year. And for once, that’s their name – they have finally mastered the technology of the timely press release. The Pukguksong-2 is a Nodong-class missile with a roughly 1250 kilometer range, but carried on a new tracked TEL with high cross-country mobility capable of independent operations and very short launch times. This system is not yet operational, but will likely replace the Scud-ER and Nodong and provide a very survivable, responsive strike capability in the region.

    “Pukguksong-2”, obviously, implies a “Pukguksong-1”. But we saw that one in satellite imagery ahead of the press release, so we call it the KN-11. And it’s kind of scary. The KN-11 is a submarine-launched ballistic missile in the same class as the US Polaris A1 SLBM from the early 1960s. North Korea spent several years trying to develop a liquid-fueled submarine-launched missile, but liquid-fuel missiles and submarines really don’t go together and North Korea’s version kept exploding on launch. The solid-propellant KN-11 works just fine, having demonstrated submerged launch capability with the same 1250 km effective range as its land-based sibling.

    And yes, there’s a ballistic-missile submarine to go with it, but the “Gorae” is an experimental testbed. Circumstantial evidence suggests that North Korea began construction of what will be their first operational ballistic-missile submarine late last year. North Korea used to build oceangoing submarines on a two-year cycle, but this is a new design so it may take a bit longer. And while the missile is comparable to the early US Polaris, the submarine won’t be. We are expecting a 2000-3000 ton diesel-electric boat with 3-5 missile tubes and limited operational range.

    But these are all regional weapons, and no more than 0.3% of you live within range of them. The question everyone wants to know is, when are they going to get an ICBM that can hit all the targets on their Map of Doom? My over/under on that is currently some time in 2021.

    The KN-08 and KN-14 road-mobile ICBMs currently exist only as mockups and ground test hardware, though they have been showing us some of the ground tests to make sure we know they are serious. These are liquid-fueled missiles, so even though they can be carried by a superheavy TEL, don’t expect them to do more than shuffle between prepared sites accompanied by a convoy of support vehicles. I expect that North Korea really want a more reliable solid propellant ICBM and the KN-08/14 are meant to be only an interim system. They’ve got six of the superheavy TELs, and might build as many as a couple dozen ICBMs to launch from them.

    The KN-08 is a three-stage monstrosity kitbashed together out of Musudan engines, riveted aluminum structure, and repurposed commercial electronics for guidance and control. It should have a range of better than 12,000 km and so cover most of CONUS, but is unlikely to deliver better than 30-40% reliability. The KN-14 is a closely-related two-stage system with a more advanced structural design; shorter range (9,000-10,000 km, US west coast) but potentially 60-70% reliability.

    Those are projected reliability figures after several years of testing; as with just about everything else North Korea builds we expect the first one to explode on the pad. That could happen as early as this year. If they panic and decide that Pudgy Leader needs to see a successful test ASAP, as they did with the Musudan, they can burn through a lot of expensive hardware in a hurry. If they take their time and do it right, as they’ve done with everything else, it will likely enter operational service sometime after 2020.

    The bottom line is they have maybe 500-1000 perfectly good short- to medium-range missiles right now. These are old but reliable Scud/Nodong types capable of reaching targets across South Korea and Japan. In the past few years, they have dramatically increased the pace and the transparency of their missile programs, showing us what we have to look forward to. A new class of highly responsive and mobile land-based theatre ballistic missile, a nascent submarine-launched missile force, and soon enough a limited mobile ICBM capability. And won’t that be fun?

    If any of you are wondering how we can know this much about the strategic weapons of one of the most secretive and isolated nations on Earth, that will be the subject of my next installment. Because that part, unlike the doing-anything-about-it part, actually is kind of fun.

    • bean says:

      Thanks again for doing this. What do you think the odds are that any of those TELs will get off second shots? Given what I know of their AD network, I don’t think it’s very good, but I’m far from an expert on these things.

      • John Schilling says:

        Particularly with the new solid-fuel missiles, their odds are looking pretty good. Unlike the Iraqis, who just drove their TELs around in the desert, North Korea can keep theirs hidden underground until they are ready to shoot, and then go back into hiding as soon as they are finished. One of their recent salvo-firing exercises was conducted on a stretch of highway just outside a tunnel, so I expect part of what they were training for was the ability to go into and out of hiding in a hurry.

        We can try to collapse the tunnel exit and trap the TEL, at least, but there’s about twenty thousand known exits from North Korea’s hardened underground sites, and I don’t think we have a good map of how they might be connected. Also, they’ve got no shortage of people who can be commanded to get to work with picks and shovels at need, so we’d need to be willing to follow up our precision strikes against military targets with cluster-bombing work gangs.

    • JDG1980 says:

      Two questions about North Korea:

      (1) Could we potentially assassinate Kim Jong-un by bombing one of those public launch events (or whatever) that he seems to regularly attend? Or do we not have enough intelligence, or adequate logistics, to do so? What would happen if we did that – does the military brass take over, and how do they react?

      (2) If we decided that North Korea was too great of a threat and had to be ended once and for all, then spent a few months or years building up and did a surprise preemptive strike – all out, combined nuclear/conventional hits depending on what would work best to neutralize their capabilities, no fucks given for NK civilian casualties – would they be able to do anything in retaliation? In other words, is our issue that we really can’t effectively do anything, or that we’re too soft-hearted to do what we must?

      • random832 says:

        On what basis “must” we, other than soft-heartedness in the first place? Why is being willing to give “no fucks” for civilian casualties more of an acceptable cost than being willing to let them continue living under the current regime?

        I mean, to be fair, your premise “if we decided that North Korea was too great a threat” is kind of premised on them being a serious threat.. but that’s a vaguely defined counterfactual so it’s hard to know what that would necessarily mean for our capability to deal with them.

        • JDG1980 says:

          North Korea could potentially crater the world economy at any time by attacking South Korea or Japan (think about how many vital U.S. consumer and industrial products come from those countries). In another few years, they may be able to directly murder American civilians en masse. This is a fundamentally different issue from dealing with Soviet/Russian or Chinese ICBMs, because those countries are run by serious people who understand concepts like deterrence, while North Korea is run by the nearest real-life equivalent to Anthony from It’s a Good Life: a petulant child that no one has ever dared to chastise.

          I don’t know enough about the military situation to know whether a preemptive strike is feasible at this point, which is why I asked the question. Maybe it’s too late and we should have done this 5-10 years ago. What I do know is that this situation should be taken far more seriously than it has been, and that the “humanitarian” framework of the past couple of decades (in which we can only intervene if we pretend that it’s for the intervenees’ own good) is a serious hurdle to doing so. We fought WWII with everything we had and with complete disregard for civilian casualties, and won. We fought every subsequent war under the “humanitarian” framework and lost almost all of them. This is not acceptable with an existential threat.

      • John Schilling says:

        We generally find out which events Kim attends about an hour after they post the Youtube video (yes, the North Korean propaganda ministry uses Youtube). There’s no reason for him to post his schedule in advance; if he needs a crowd of admirers for the cameras, one will be arranged on the spot and nobody will be giving “but I’m busy with something important, you should have told me yesterday!” as an excuse for not attending.

        We don’t know whether Kim is practicing Saddam-level paranoia, sleeping in a different building and/or in a bunker four hundred feet underground every night, but South Korea has been all but explicitly threatening to put a cruise missile through his nominal bedroom window if tensions get too high, so I’d bet on paranoia.

        And there isn’t presently a publicly-designated successor to Kim Jong-Un, so while there are probably secret arrangements among the top brass, any actual transition of power is going to be very unpredictable. I like unpredictability, it keeps life interesting, but if it involves a hot war with nuclear weapons on at least two sides that might be a bit too interesting.

        • Civilis says:

          Given the train explosion in2004 at Ryongchŏn reportedly occurred several hours after Kim Jong-Il passed by on his way back from China, you’ve got to assume that there’s at least some level of paranoia built into his son’s travel plans.

    • Montfort says:

      Nice series, I’m enjoying reading along.

      Do you have any recommendations for an English-speaking civilian wanting to understand the current state of NK in terms of politics and everyday life?

      • John Schilling says:

        38 North, a website run by the US-Korea institute at Johns Hopkins, is my usual starting point. It’s where you’ll find most of my writing on North Korean missiles, and people at least as knowledgeable as me writing on the politics, economics, human rights, etc issues.

    • tmk says:

      Interesting thanks! The International Space Station has an unofficial, but well known, purpose: to keep Russian rocket engineers employed and away from North Korea, Iran, etc. It seems to have worked reasonably well. NK does not seem to have access to the really big Russian rocket technology. Instead they managed to get the smaller rockets from the regular Russian army, and are trying to make them bigger.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Is the missile-defense capacity of potential targets going to be a future post? My cursory arms-race understanding was that MIRVs were what tipped the balance against defense, and you haven’t said anything about MIRVs. But feel free to save the answer for another day, if that’s the plan.

      • John Schilling says:

        There are some aspects of that that I’ll save for later. For now, I’ll note that we’ve gotten to be pretty good at stopping standard Scud missiles under combat conditions, provided they come one at a time. North Korea has been explicitly testing salvo launches, and time-on-target launches from multiple sites. Whether a THAAD or Patriot battery can stop a dozen simultaneous Scud launches from three widely-separated sites, is a big unknown. And the Nodong, even when fired at short range, has a terminal velocity twice that of a Scud.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      Nice post. One part threw me:

      The Nodong, in its final form, delivers nuclear-sized payloads to 1500 kilometers. That’s enough to cover all of Korea and most of Japan. […] Later in the decade, North Korea developed something called the Scud-ER, […] with the ability to deliver nuclear warheads out to at least 1000 km.

      Why develop the Scud-ER if the Nodong already went further? Guidance issues? Cheaper? (I guess this makes sense in hindsight, but when I first read the text, Nodong and Scud got too conflated in my mind, and I thought at first that you’d mistyped and the Nodong range was actually 500km.)

      • Nornagest says:

        The Nodong is a substantially larger missile. That probably points to higher cost; it could also mean basing and transportation issues.

        • John Schilling says:

          Correct. The Scud-ER uses the standard Scud engine, which is probably half the cost of the larger Nodong engine. It also uses the standard Scud TEL, which in addition to cost issues provides greater operational flexibility.

    • Humbert McHumbert says:

      Do you agree with Jeffrey Lewis’s analysis that the US and NK are both pursuing plans that destabilize the situation by giving them incentives for a first strike?

      • John Schilling says:

        I’m not so sure about the United States; we’re certainly not ruling out first strike, but we’re not specifically planning for it. Mostly that’s because we don’t ever rule out first strike on general principles, and we don’t have any good plans for first, second, or third strike w/re North Korea – we’re going to make it up as we go along. Fortunately, we have a broad range of capabilities to allow operational flexibility, and at least for the moment we have the strategic depth to give them the first move and still prevail.

        South Korea is definitely moving in the direction of first strike, and decapitation strike specifically. I can understand why, and they don’t have any good options either, but it is destabilizing.

        • Humbert McHumbert says:

          What do you think the US’s response might be in the case of a SK first strike on NK? Would SK be inclined to let us in on the decision-making process about that, or let us know very far in advance?

          • John Schilling says:

            The US military forces in South Korea have very close ties with their ROK counterparts, so any deliberate military operation would almost certainly be known to us and would be stopped if we strongly objected. The South Korean government is another matter; I don’t think anyone has a good handle on the new administration, and apparently nobody understood the last one as well as they thought the did. If some crisis has Hwang Kyo-Ahn calling up the JCS and ordering “Implement War Plan Omega with the Full Decapitation Option(*) in five minutes”, that’s probably going to happen and it’s going to be almost as much of a surprise to us as it is to Kim Jong-Un.

            What happens next is up to Pyongynang, and our options are going to be subject to circumstances and constraints not of our making.

            * We can take it for granted that this war plan exists, that the ROK military staff has at least informally briefed their US colleagues about it, and that they understand we will be rather peeved if they execute it without telling us. But orders are orders.

  30. mrbodoia says:

    In the last open thread, I posted a link to a political orientation quiz I drafted for Tripartisan, my ongoing attempt to build a reddit-like political forum which is resistant to echo chamber effects. I posted the quiz in the hopes of getting some constructive feedback from other commenters (which I did!). But I also promised to report the results in the next open thread, so that everyone could see where SSCers stand on various political issues.

    As of earlier this evening, a total of 40 people had taken the quiz. That’s a fairly small sample size, so I don’t want to read too much into the results. But I think there are still some interesting questions we can answer.

    One thing we might ask is, on which issues are SSCers most divided? We can get a rough sense of this by looking at which quiz questions had the largest standard deviation in response values. (Note that responses for each question were given on a 5-point Likert scale, where 1 means “no” and 5 means “yes”). According to this metric, the questions on which SSCers were most divided were:
    Should it be easier for women to obtain abortions?
    Are our country’s borders too open?
    Do we spend too much of our budget on welfare and entitlements?

    I tried using the standard deviation of responses to identify the questions on which SSCers were most in agreement. The three questions with the lowest standard deviation in responses were:
    Should national security take precedence over individual privacy? (SSC says no/neutral)
    Is most of the racial inequality we see today due to discrimination? (SSC says no/neutral)
    Are police departments currently facing too much scrutiny? (SSC says no/neutral)

    However, a quick eye test suggests that standard deviation might not be the best metric in this case. It ends up ranking questions where a large percentage of respondents gave more neutral answers (2, 3, or 4) over questions where respondents were mostly in agreement on one extreme (1 or 5). By the eye test, I would say the questions on which SSCers were most in agreement were:
    Should recreational marijuana remain illegal? (SSC says no)
    Should the government do more to help students pay for college? (SSC says no)

    Another thing we might ask is, do SSCers tend to agree more on certain categories of political issues? The quiz was divided into three sections of six questions each: social policy, foreign policy, and economic policy. Taking the average of the standard deviations of responses to questions in each category, we get 1.236 for social policy, 1.154 for foreign policy, and 1.266 for economic policy. I have no idea if those differences are significant, but my guess would be no. Also, averaging standard deviations of Likert-scaled responses is probably a questionable approach to begin with.

    If you’d like to see histograms for each question (like in Scott’s 2017 SSC survey post), the full results can be found here. Also, as noted in the last thread, I’d love to hear any suggestions or criticisms people have about the quiz. For those who didn’t see the original post, my goal is to use the quiz as a way of grouping people into three broad categories: generally left-leaning, generally right-leaning, and neither left- nor right-leaning.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      politicaltest.net/en is one I actually like. I didn’t check your quiz because I think your comments have been not only US-myopic (though that too) but myopic even considering only the US. Check their categories, consider what categories (from there or elsewhere) actually exist in substantial amounts; if you end up using a category that does exist but that people in the region in question currently *don’t* label, you’ll be even closer to finding something actually useful.

      • Well... says:

        Taking the “normal version” now. Horribly slow, crappy interface, confusing or vaguely worded questions even after mentally adjusting for bad translation to English.

        …OK it’s been 30 minutes, 95% of that time was me waiting for their spinning wheel. I’m going to quit the test even though I’m 73% of the way through, so I won’t know how accurate it is. The site is nearly unusable.

        • aNeopuritan says:

          … I took the test sometime ago. Now having checked, I can tell you A) I agree with your assessment of the present state (I wouldn’t have finished back then if it was this slow, and the interface was better in other ways too), and B) even the link to a graphic that my saved result has is now broken, so even the result graphics have been moved.

          To give examples of what *was* good (might still be, if people endure going through it …), my summary was

          “You are a patriotic and authoritarian Socialist. 4 percent of the test participators are in the same category and 40 percent are more extremist than you.”

          [An example of “positions held by substantial numbers of people without getting named often” – this is *not* code for Stalinism, as I was *barely* off-center towards authoritarianism and nationalism, but hugely communistic.]

          and that was composed of axes I could find *reading the source code of my saved result*:

          ecological – anthropocentric
          pacifist – militaristic
          communistic – capitalistic
          anarchistic – authoritarian
          visionary – reactionary
          secular – fundamentalist
          cosmopolitan – nationalistic.

          I’ll e-mail them about WTF. In one sense congratulations, in other apologies for your half-hour.

      • mrbodoia says:

        I agree that the quiz, in it’s current state, is very US-centric. I’m planning on making it more applicable to people from other countries but for the first draft it was easier to focus on the politics that I’m most familiar with (American politics).

        What do you think was myopic about it even considering only the US? I tried to include questions for all of the topics that frequently get media coverage here. If you think there are other hot-button issues that should have been included on the quiz, please let me know and I’ll include them.

        Or is your concern that the very idea of grouping people into only three groups (left, right, and other) is a myopic way of looking at American politics?

      • Deiseach says:

        That is a dreadful site. I slogged through it only to get in the end “You are a Social Democrat” which I could probably have told them off the bat if they’d asked me “With which of these European Parliament political groups do you loosely associate?” (though generally I’d lean more Christian Democrat, at least up till they started going loopy and associating with the likes of Forza Italia).

  31. Ivy says:

    What are the mechanisms that prevent a military coup in the US and other liberal democracies?

    Context: I’m in the middle of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The history so far is mostly an unending sequence of the legions being unhappy with pay / work conditions, assassinating the emperor, and electing a new emperor who gives them more money in order to stay in power. This happens on average every 5-10 years for the better part of two centuries.

    And it seems obvious, in retrospect, that this exactly what would happen in a militaristic republic – if your professional army is powerful enough to physically overwhelm your civilian institutions, it will naturally tend to accumulate all wealth and power to itself. If you were designing a republican constitution having read Gibbon, this would be the #1 failure mode you’d try to avoid.

    But the US is a militaristic republic whose professional army seems easily able to win a civil war against all other US institutions. So why aren’t military coups more of a problem? Is there something about the US constitutional design or current political reality that makes them unlikely?

    • Sandy says:

      But the US is a militaristic republic whose professional army seems easily able to win a civil war against all other US institutions. So why aren’t military coups more of a problem? Is there something about the US constitutional design or current political reality that makes them unlikely?

      It goes against the national mythos. “Fighting for your freedom” and so on. Hard to reconcile a military coup with that, the military knows it, and so it’s not something they’re interested in.

      • Ivy says:

        I guess I see people as more incentives-driven than mythos-driven – seems like you can always come up with a plausible story that explains your military coup as defending freedom or promoting justice or what have you.

        But if it is the national mythos, how do you think it’s perpetuated? History classes in school that glorify the American Revolution? Singing the pledge of allegiance at football games? Would you predict a military coup if these continue to decline in use?

        • Trevor Adcock says:

          I mean if it was just about incentives then why didn’t Washington just take over the country with the continental army after the British were defeated. The US has a long history of civilian control of the military. At some point in time most western countries like the US and Britain figured out how to keep the professional armies in line. There were some hiccups like the New Model Army of the English Civil War.

          • Ivy says:

            At some point in time most western countries like the US and Britain figured out how to keep the professional armies in line

            Exactly! And my question is – what is it that they figured out, what is the mechanism for ensuring civilian control of the military? I haven’t seen it spelled out explicitly (unlike the checks-and-balances recipe for avoiding excesses of democracy), and am hoping someone here has – it seems incredibly important to understand that mechanism and keep it working.

          • James Miller says:

            why didn’t Washington just take over the country with the continental army after the British were defeated.

            He was old, had no biological children, and wanted to be remembered as a great man in the vain of Cincinnatus.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @James Miller, with Washington, you also need to keep in mind that he really wanted America to have a stable republican government. That was a terminal value for him.

          • Brad says:

            Why didn’t Washington just take over the country with the continental army after the British were defeated.

            He did, sort of. His unhappiness with the Articles of Confederation system, specifically as it related to the parochial interests of the military, was a big driver behind scrapping it and starting over. Depending on which historian you read his efforts to that end seem to have involved more than just high minded appeals about the ideal form of enlightenment government.

        • hlynkacg says:

          how do you think it’s perpetuated?

          It’s perpetuated through the conscious effort of those who perpetuate it. There is no black or white here, no blue tribe or red, there is only light meat and dark meat, and make no mistake children, we are all just meat for the machine. You left your old identities behind because you craved something more, something better. Know this, just by being here you are a cut above and I want to see pride oozing out of every pore of your body. You represent the spirit of those who have gone before and you will pass that legacy, bright and untarnished, to those that will come after. I will not tolerate anything less that your absolute best, and I expect you to tolerate anything less than the absolute best from myself or your peers.

        • 1soru1 says:

          I guess I see people as more incentives-driven than mythos-driven

          Incentives vary.

          In functioning western-model democracies, people who are driven by a desire for wealth and power mostly don’t become generals. There are a hell of a lot easier ways to get them than a General’s salary, and maybe selling your memoirs and a bit of post-retirement punditry/consultancy. This also means the peer group evaluating you isn’t people like that, and they will be distrustful of anyone who thinks that way. Ref.

          According to the statements of assets and liabilities (SALs) they submitted to the CA, the poorest of the generals is worth P1 million while the wealthiest is worth P13.4 million.

          Which is comparable with dentists, except if it took a 30 year career to become a dentist, there was incredible competition, and you might get shot at.

          Of course, there is a failure mode here. In Rome, Crassus of the legendary wealth was a general. There, and in those modern countries where the rich list can be sorted by military rank, this obviously doesn’t apply.

    • JDG1980 says:

      But the US is a militaristic republic whose professional army seems easily able to win a civil war against all other US institutions. So why aren’t military coups more of a problem?

      Legitimacy.

      Most U.S. soldiers really believe in the Constitution and the Republic. It’s not just boilerplate. More than that, civilians believe in them too – and American civilians have about 300 million privately-owned firearms, more than enough to make a contested military takeover the kind of counterinsurgency nightmare we currently only experience when occupying some Third World hellhole.

      In ancient Rome, Augustus tried to pretend that nothing had really changed and that the Republic still stood (his position of princeps was cobbled together out of various Republican offices), but a bit further down the road it was obvious that the Republic was gone and that the “Principate” was really just a veiled military dictatorship. The most successful emperors were those who were successful generals in their own right (Trajan, for instance). Even so, the son of a good emperor could usually count on the military and the Senate supporting him, unless he went off and did something crazy. At least that was true until about 235 AD, when Maximinius Thrax, a semi-literate provincial commander, seized the purple. At that point it became clear that the number of plausible contenders to the throne was much larger than had previously been assumed, and all bets were off. There were literally dozens of emperors and pretenders over the next couple of decades until Diocletian managed to consolidate power in 284 AD. Diocletian, though personally an unpretentious man (he took to farming cabbages in his retirement), set up all kinds of pomp and ceremony around the emperor to give a sort of divine aura and try to discourage further coups. He also gave imperial status to three of his most trusted colleagues in hope this could help stave off revolt. This “tetrarchy” didn’t work that well, but it did stop the endless barracks revolts, and Diocletian’s successor Constantine established Christianity as the new legitimizing ideology of the empire. Since Constantine’s imperial city stood for a millennium, he must have done something right.

      • aNeopuritan says:

        “Most U.S. soldiers really believe in the Constitution and the Republic. It’s not just boilerplate.”

        Even if true, distinctly not enough. There’s been no shortage of military coups “to defend” “the Constitution”. In the USA, a number that’s probably never been all that small, and seems to be right now growing in both fervor and numbers, believe it’s written in the Constitution that it’s a Christian country – as long as they ardently believe that, it’s perfectly plausible that they could want to topple the existing state to “do things constitutionally”.

        You do supply the substantially more reassuring fact that a counterinsurgency could be a vastly more difficult problem than any the US military tried to solve up to now (and it already failed in Vietnam, and it would be even less willing to commit genocide in its own land). Though: the people who know how to fight already vote Republican. So consider instead: the military elite doesn’t want to reduce its own outgroup to wretched conditions because it’s they who acquire the wealth on which the military depends.

        • nimim.k.m. says:

          Even if true, distinctly not enough. There’s been no shortage of military coups “to defend” “the Constitution”. In the USA, a number that’s probably never been all that small, and seems to be right now growing in both fervor and numbers, believe it’s written in the Constitution that it’s a Christian country – as long as they ardently believe that, it’s perfectly plausible that they could want to topple the existing state to “do things constitutionally”.

          “Not a small number” here isn’t particularly concrete amount. And a successful coup (or even an attempted coup) requires much more than some people with vague opinions about true meaning of constitution. The likeminded officers need to get organized, in secret, and they wouldn’t do that without a reason, and they (either correctly or incorrectly) need to be certain they can do the coup successfully because otherwise they wouldn’t try it.

          And anyway, lots of “nice things” in any organized society run on sheer tradition of decency and public perception of the tradition’s unbreakability.

          For example, in most Western countries police officers and minor bureaucrats don’t, in general, take bribes as a part of ordinary way of doing their jobs because it’s not done and it would not be honorable and it would not be right, not because they fear they would be caught. Most places I shop in don’t have much of security to talk about, and that works because most of the people most of time don’t steal or attempt armed robberies. Most police organizations in any given city could not answer a properly coordinated effort (or even uncoordinated mass riot) that challenges their claim at monopoly of violence, and they would have to call for military for help. See, for example, long history of riots and revolutions. Yet still small police corps can effectively police most of the cities most of the time, because populace, in general, accepts their authority as legitimate.

          Society runs on trust in an illusion of norms, and that’s why public demonstrations of how easily one can break them for ones benefit are so poisonous. Western democracies are self-perpetuating miracles of people agreeing to play along with make-believe rules.

          For same reason, military coups are rare in modern Western societies, despite soldiers seemingly being perfectly capable of overthrowing the civil government with all of their arms and weapons. Without a powerful motivator that breaks the tradition of not doing that, it’s just something people would not do.

      • Protagoras says:

        Yes, it’s kind of the other way around from the way Ivy asks the question. The period of constant military coups came after many generations of steady decline of trust in the established institutions and normalization of civil war as a strategy. Healthier institutions don’t guarantee that there won’t be civil war, but they do mean that civil war will require some exceptional trigger, rather than being the normal course of things.

      • cassander says:

        Adrian Goldsworthy puts forth an interesting theory. HIs argument is that the princeps, rightly, saw the senate as their main rivals. they couldn’t destroy it, but if there was ever going to be a challenge to their rule, that’s where it would come from. So they systematically worked to hollow out the senate, to divorce it from actual power in general and the military in particular, in order to cement their own authority. And it worked, spectacularly well. The trouble is that when the senate staffed large numbers of senior posts, upstarts like Thrax would never have a chance to take over, they just wouldn’t have been accepted. but the hollowed out senate had no ability to resist their like, and so the hollowing out of the senate opened the road to solder generals and the general crisis of authority in the 3rd century.

        I find it a compelling explanation of why the principate fell apart the way that it did.

    • eqdw says:

      I am not an American, so maybe I’m way off the mark, but isn’t this the specific point of the second amendment?

      • random832 says:

        Of all the things that could have originally been intended by the second amendment, this seems the least likely, if only because there was no standing army (or police force) at the time. Any “tyranny” to be opposed by ‘second amendment people’ they might have imagined would have to come from the elected government rather than the military as an institution of itself.

        • JulieK says:

          How would the elected government tyrannize them, without soldiers?

        • I interpret the Second Amendment as a way of achieving two objectives:

          1. Have a large militia to make a large standing army unnecessary.

          2. Have a large militia so that, if a small standing army tries to take over, their superior military competence will be outweighed by the superior numbers of the militia.

          Cromwell had demonstrated what a well run professional army could do, both in winning wars and in taking power.

      • Nornagest says:

        The framers of the American Constitution were suspicious of standing armies, and originally imagined a situation were national defense would be provided by militias — both organized and not — bearing privately owned arms; though a standing army dates back to about the time of the Constitution and certainly the Bill of Rights, it remained relatively small until the time of the American Civil War.

        The amendment has become highly politicized, and anything you hear on it in the mainstream press is likely to be rounded off to “it’s about state militias” or “it’s because the British tried to disarm the colonists” or occasionally even “it’s about the right to rebellion”. All of these are correct to some extent but misleading on their own. It’s probably most accurate to describe it as guaranteeing an individual right in service of collective purposes.

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      But the US is a militaristic republic whose professional army seems easily able to win a civil war against all other US institutions.

      But it’s not a military republic. Do senators leave the senate for officer commissions? What percentage of congress are veterans (18% for the House, 16% for the Senate)? Did they gain prominence through their service? What famous generals are there?

    • James Miller says:

      More than that, the military never even uses the distant threat of a coup in negotiations for what it wants. Q coup could happen in the United States if there is a close election, both sides claim victory, and one side asks the military for help to make it the winner. Then the military could politically wake up and use its power in political negotiations.

      • Protagoras says:

        Even hinting at the possibility of a coup makes a coup more salient in a way that either makes it more likely in the future, or means that steps will be taken to reduce the risk. If military norms are such that the military doesn’t want a coup, then the norms also mean the military doesn’t want to make coups more likely, and certainly the military (like any organization) wants to desperately avoid anything that would lead to more oversight and meddling.

    • skef says:

      I don’t buy the “soldiers love the constitution” angle, not because they don’t but because it’s easy enough to love something while ignoring parts of it, especially “when necessary”. Internally, you stage a coup because of your patriotism, not despite it.

      Instead, I’ve always suspected that the primary mechanism from the 20th century on is the split into separate branches with somewhat overlapping responsibilities that deeply hate each other. On its own the Army might excuse itself a coup under the right circumstances, but then the Navy would call it what it is. (“Isn’t just like those assholes to do that?”) Even if the Army is in an overall better position, it would still be a huge mess, and not at all business-as-usual the way Army-driven coups in other countries sometimes are.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Most countries have formally divided millitaries, probably for this very reason. Do the branches of the American military hate each other more than branches of the Chilean military?

        • skef says:

          It’s more that I think the Chilean Navy is in a worse position to do anything in the event of an Army take-over.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Is that what happened in Chile, the navy went along because it was powerless?

            Are coups usually driven by the army? Don’t they usually consult the other branches ahead of time?

          • skef says:

            With respect to 1973? No, the effort seems to have been coordinated among the branches.

            With putting this particular incident into question we’re into deep sociology. It seems clear from how things went that there was a decision in advance. But from the outside perspective that event started with a failed coup from within the Army and also put down by the Army. Then there was some messy politics, and only then the coordinated successful coup. So it seems like it was less of a “clean” coup for military reasons as a takeover of a possibly failing state (that may have been failing due to outside influences). I took the original question to be more about the former. (“President X does things we don’t feel are in the interest of the country” versus “President X has lost the ability to govern.”)

      • hlynkacg says:

        I think you’re both overestimating the hate, and underestimating the power Joint task force commanders have. I think the better answer is a combination institutional inertia and good old fashioned Enlightenment/Christian doctrine regarding violence aka don’t fight unless you have too, if you do have to, fight to win. For the most part the military does not want to be in charge.

      • Randy M says:

        I’m not military, but I really thought the correct description for relations between branches of the armed forces would be rivalry. Sure, it might make coordination or conspiracy more difficult, but I’d expect more in common between Army and Navy members, say, than two other random Americans. Am I mistaken?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      When you say that you believe that the US has established civilian control of the military, what is you estimate of the rate of military coups in the US? Sure, we can safely say that it is less than 1 per decade. But is it 1 per 1000 years? How can you tell until a coup happens? France had a military coup in 1958. In the 60s, it had several attempted coups. Are France and America very different on this axis, or did they just have different luck?

      • Ivy says:

        Great point. I guess a possible answer to my question is “there’s no good evidence to think we’ve solved this problem, and base rates suggest it’s probably just a matter of time”.

        I personally don’t see any strong mechanisms that prevent military coups, but I don’t usually see it discussed as a serious risk, and I figured I might be missing some well-understood reason for that.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        France is very different. Going back centuries, it has a long tradition of revolutionary governments upending everything based on the idealistic fashion of the day, and that revolutionary mode of thought is celebrated in French history and culture. America’s form of government, by contrast, is old, getting up towards a quarter of a millennium now, and the staid oldness of that form of government is celebrated in American history and culture, even by people who despise whoever the current leadership happens to be.

        The only real risk I can see is if some cultural force grew up that insisted that Constitutional principles were bad and the nation’s form of government fundamentally malign, maybe because many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves or the land was taken from the Indians or they were all white and heterosexual or whatever; if that kind of thinking became common, then a lot of the counterpressure against a coup might melt away, because if the nation’s government was formed by evil slaveowners then there’s no reason to be all that attached to its traditions and mechanisms if you have the opportunity to seize power by force instead.

        The idea is scarily plausible, now that I come to write it down — we’re sure lucky that no such cultural force exists in America today, huh?

        • aNeopuritan says:

          Consider something else: people who despise what the Constitution actually is and love what they think it is. “Murica is Christian” being the prominent example, but “the Constitution protected private property [of blacks]” may also feature.

          (I don’t disagree that the group you mention hates what the Constitution actually is, but I doubt their ability to carry out a c… *anything*, other than maybe as a sockpuppet to someone else.)

        • valiance says:

          America’s form of government, by contrast, is old, getting up towards a quarter of a millennium now

          I think this is a fact Americans don’t realize or appreciate enough.

          The US has a reasonable claim to being the oldest Democracy in the world:
          http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2016/jul/11/paul-ryan/paul-ryan-claims-us-oldest-democracy-world-he-righ/

          And is–counting by date of last subordination by a foreign power– one of the 10 oldest nations in the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_by_date_of_formation

          American history–qua USG–is less than 250 years long; an eye-blink compared to Old World history. But the continuity of that system of government–a democratic system characterized by peaceful transitions of power for over 2 centuries–is quite remarkable; nearly unique. A true bit of American Exceptionalism in an era in which we are inclined to think that term has lost all meaning.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Not that I really disagree, but, for argumentation purposes, do we get to discount the Civil War?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @HBC: Yes. The North continued to exist under the 1788 Constitution, in continuity from the Washington Administration, and soon reabsorbed the breakaway republic in the South.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @LeMaistreChat:
            But there is distinct discontinuity of governance when we examine it from the standpoint of a Confederate state.

            Again, I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that there is a “spirit of the law” that seems not to be quite wholly satisfied.

          • Jaskologist says:

            There was continuity, but that particular transition was certainly not peaceful.

        • Rebel with an Uncaused Cause says:

          The idea is scarily plausible, now that I come to write it down — we’re sure lucky that no such cultural force exists in America today, huh?

          This seems like low-effort sniping. While I agree that team SJ poses a considerable threat to free speech, a military coup is far from their modus and there’s only a tenuous link between “emphasizes the bad things that the Founders did” and “starts un-American armed revolts”. I think that attributing hypothetical bad things that $ENEMY might do if they were only able to adds more vitriol than discussion.

          • random832 says:

            there’s only a tenuous link between “emphasizes the bad things that the Founders did” and “starts un-American armed revolts”.

            Probably a stronger link though for people who say things like (Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, 2010):

            I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around?

            I mean all else being equal I think “Everything I don’t like is tyranny and therefore something the Founders would approve of an armed revolt against” is probably a little more corrosive than anything that’s not framed that way.

      • Evan Þ says:

        what is you estimate of the rate of military coups in the US?

        Less than one per 240 years.

        I can think of perhaps two attempted military coups: the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the quiet agreement between high-ranking officers to refuse any unusual orders from Nixon in the weeks just before his resignation. Though, even there, the second could just as well be described as a preemptive countercoup.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Less than one per 240 years.

          Ah, the straw frequentist.

        • houseboatonstyxb says:

          Fwiw, I was following the news in that decade, and this resonates. Nixon resigned when enough senior Republicans quietly got together and Goldwater went to Nixon and said they had agreed to impeach him if he didn’t.

          “Quietly” means in smoke-filled rooms. The powerful men from all sides laid their cards on the table and came to an agreement. Nobody wanted an open public conflict (least of all the military, I’m sure).

          This may just move the question to a different level: why doesn’t this sort of negotiation work so well in other Western countries? (I have some cynical notions….)

          • The Nybbler says:

            This may just move the question to a different level: why doesn’t this sort of negotiation work so well in other Western countries? (I have some cynical notions….)

            Doesn’t it? I was under the impression this is the way no-confidence votes usually work in a parliamentary system, with the actual vote being a formality (with the occasional surprise when someone betrays, granted)

          • houseboatonstyxb says:

            @The Nibbler

            Thanks for pointing out a flaw in my statement “why doesn’t this sort of negotiation work so well in other Western countries?”

            Mea culpa: my insufficient redundancy. Perhaps I should have said something like: “why do some other Western countries not prevent violent or semi-violent or admitted coups, by this sort of negotiation?”

            I agree with your impression of Parllmentary systems, but I didn’t want either to specify, or to over-generalize.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        France had a military coup in 1958. In the 60s, it had several attempted coups. Are France and America very different on this axis, or did they just have different luck?

        A coup, especially a successful one, tends to make future coups more likely. If the American government was successfully overthrown tomorrow, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more attempted coups over the next few decades.

      • nimim.k.m. says:

        You don’t have to look at the “long history” of coups. Consider the immediate, recent history before the 1958 coup:

        France in 1958: it was not a 15 years since the country was occupied a foreign military and part of it was ruled by puppet government of the occupying force that more or less believably could claim to be the legitimate successor of the pre-war government. Then the Allies landed, replaced the Germans and Vichy with military might, and suddenly the government was a general who claimed Vichy wasn’t the legitimate government (I don’t recall what was the legal pretext Free French had, I think it mostly was based on “Nazis are bad”). And the 1958 coup involved the same general becoming a president.

        And the Second Republic — which came to be in 1870, after the fall of Napoleon III’s empire that was created with a coup in the first place — also had been politically unstable for all of its history. This was still in a living memory, history of nonstandard change of government almost once per generation.

        I think it’s reasonable that coups and other such instability are far more likely in such circumstances.

        • Eric Rall says:

          The legal pretext was that the Vichy government was illegitimate, leaving the provisional government was the most legitimate available successor to the Third Republic, based mostly on de Gaulle’s status as the senior member of the pre-Vichy cabinet who had neither voluntarily resigned nor been part of the Vichy government.

          Vichy had been established in a two-stage process: first, France’s PM and several senior cabinet member resigned after they failed to convince the rest of the cabinet to approve withdrawing to Britain or North Africa and continuing the war; and France’s President (a ceremonial position) appointed Petain (the leader of the pro-surrender faction) as the new PM. Then Petain got the Third Republic’s legislature (the Chamber of Deputies) to enact a law (the French Constitutional Law of 1940) that abolished the legislature and gave full emergency power to Petain.

          There were several arguments for this being illegitimate: that the President didn’t follow the correct constitutional conventions when choosing the Petain as the new PM when Reynaud resigned, the Chamber of Deputies didn’t have the authority to abolish itself, the Chamber of Deputies had been coerced into approving the law, Petain arrogated too much authority unto himself under the law (i.e. it gave him the power to propose a constitution that needed to be approved by popular referendum, not the power to unilaterally decree a new constitution), or just that Petain was a traitor whose actions as PM (and later President of Vichy France) were illegitimate.

          The last argument, combined with de Gaulle’s armies and those of his Anglo-American allies being all over France, was probably the decisive one. And yes, the last argument can reasonably be oversimplified as “Nazis are bad”.

      • John Schilling says:

        France had a military coup in 1958. In the 60s, it had several attempted coups. Are France and America very different on this axis, or did they just have different luck?

        France had a period in which the official government was a bunch of, well, cheese-eating surrender monkeys in league with Actual Nazis, and the opposition that All True Patriotic Frenchmen Supported All Along had out of necessity coalesced around the personal charisma and informal leadership of Charles de Gaulle. Whenever something like that happens, in any nation, you are stuck for at least a generation with a military that knows it is acceptable to pick the patriotic, charismatic general that they are going to follow instead of the official civilian government, and can be tempted to do it again.

        France’s history of postwar military coups ends in 1961 when Charles de Gaulle himself directly (via radio and television) ordered every serving member of the armed forces to knock it off with the coup attempts already, whether aimed at putting him on the throne or some less beloved general. The United States has a similar precedent with George Washington’s double resignation, and as long as we don’t get an interruption in the continuity of our legitimate government we should be pretty safe.

        And since I’m expounding on my nerdy knowledge of all things nuclear this OT, I’ll link to the story whose climax involves France’s one and only atom bomb being secretly driven through Algeria in the trunk of a Citroen 2CV to keep it out of the hands of the 1961 coup plotters. Alas, it is too late for Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers to film this.

    • christhenottopher says:

      Norms and beliefs are the basis, other incentives work because of those norms. So as other commentors pointed out, in the US (and in most modern developed democracies) soldiers sincerely believe in civilian control of the military. They may get annoyed at some of the things civilians make them do or prevent them from doing, but that is tempered by a strong support for the governmental form they live in. So the first hurdle to starting a coup would be the resistance of not only fellow officers, but likely even one’s own soldiers who would rat you out for illegal orders (and treason of course). In order to start a coup, first you need your men to have lost their belief in the government, and anyone who has kept their’s support for the civilian government could get word out if they find out too soon. Beyond that, coups are conspiracies meaning only small groups can really successfully plan them without word getting out. So even if you’ve got a small group of officers on board and you can get yourselves in position to strike at top civilian leadership at once, the belief in democracy is strong enough that the rest of the military would quite possibly just kick you out even if you had somehow managed to kill every plausible civilian leader to rally behind (which is a very tall order in democracies with hundreds of legislators and executive branch secretaries who could theoretically care-taker things until new elections are held, even more so in federal democracies where state governments could act as emergency care-takers), they might just put you up against the wall anyways. You need the rest of the military to at least accept your take over because your chances of both having their active support and keeping the coup quite enough to not get arrested by loyal cops or loyal soldiers first is very low.

      Others mentioned how in the US there are tons of individuals with guns that could form a powerful insurgency. While true, an even stronger potential threat are the state governments that literally run their own armies in the form of the National Guard. Now the National Guard is NOT as well equipped or skilled as the regular army, but combined it has about as many men as the regular US Army. That’s a pretty decent core for a resistance force and some of those units do have combat experience due to their deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq (though I imagine the majority of the men who got deployed are now out of the service). And state governments have A LOT of incentive to not want the military in charge since state office is very often a springboard to national office. If the federal government is gone so is that career path (not to mention their own legitimacy comes under question). Furthermore, even if you convince the national guard to side with the coup in defiance of their state governments, you have in the US’s case, 51 (counting Puerto Rico, I’m not counting the Virgin Islands/Guam/American Samoa due to being too small and distant) governments that could act as focal points for resisting your rule. These governments also control things like the vast majority of law enforcement, schools, infrastructure management, and numerous other things you’ll want to control the populace.

      OK so to recap, in order to coup in any democracy, you need to change the norms of the military to be at least neutral in the event of your coup. You need to prevent your coup from getting out before your ready or else loyal forces/police will arrest you. And you need a plan to prevent civilian resistance such as protests from blocking your plans. All of this is very difficult in a decently functioning state, and even more so in a democracy where everyone (including the military) feels like they have some stake in the government. In a federal system you then have the problem of dealing with sub-national governments that can be independent forms of legitimacy. In a country like the US where these sub-national governments actually control military forces, you need to neutralize those troops as well. Then in a country with lots of private firearms like the US, Canada, or Switzerland (yes the US’ guns-to-people ratio is way higher than most countries, but even enough guns to arm say 20% of the populace is a lot to deal with, even more so since in Canada or Switzerland the primary weapons are long guns that are more useful in insurgencies), you need a plan on how to deal with the potential insurgency.

      Even dictatorships tend to only fall to coups in a crisis, but the level of crisis needed in a low-legitimacy dictatorship for a coup isn’t that high to get the revolt rolling. Democracies which spread power out more make coups harder both by increasing buy-in by most people and by creating numerous potential rallying points for resistance. Democracies with armed populaces that believe in a democratic system are all but impossible for the military to independently overthrow, and generally don’t even have a military that wants to try.

      Now a civilian coup is potentially another matter. Say one portion of the civilian government is way less popular than another and the more popular portion has military support? Then you’ve got a potential for an air of legitimacy where members of the military and much of the public can convince themselves it wasn’t really a coup. This can still seriously threaten anti-violence norms and lead to lots of long term stability issues, but that could by-pass many if not all of the above problems.

      • Ivy says:

        Thanks for that excellent analysis! You’ve convinced me that mounting a classic military coup – where a general becomes military dictator – is currently extremely difficult in well-armed federal democracies like the US, Switzerland, or Canada.

        Now a civilian coup is potentially another matter. Say one portion of the civilian government is way less popular than another and the more popular portion has military support? Then you’ve got a potential for an air of legitimacy where members of the military and much of the public can convince themselves it wasn’t really a coup.

        Interesting. As other commenters have pointed out, this seems the more likely scenario – rather than overthrowing republican institutions directly, the military could start putting their weight on the scale in more subtle ways.

        Arguably this is what happened in the late Roman republic (though it’s confusing because their politicians were also generals), but as far as I can tell this hasn’t happened in the US at all.

        • christhenottopher says:

          You’re exactly right in pointing out the lack of distinction between military and civilian leadership in the Roman Republic. This creates a very different dynamic where effectively the military is already in charge. In important ways, the Roman Republic was a formalized military junta, with all the potential instability that implies. The early Republic mostly avoided coup and civil war problems because the foot soldiers were all landowners with a lot of buy-in to the exiting system and it’s rules. Effectively they had the “believe in the system” thing most developed modern democracies have because the only people in the army were a) temporary soldiers and b) actually did have a voice. That’s why many Roman historians point to the Marian reforms that brought in tons of landless and effectively voiceless soldiers for much longer time frames under arms (effectively making them professional soldiers) as a key point in the decline of the Republic.

          The lack of separation between civilian and military leadership meant that political disputes could very easily become military disputes since both sides had armies. Furthermore, these soldiers had much less connection to civilian life than modern soldiers. 2-4 year enlistment terms are common in modern countries meaning for the majority of people serving only 1 term (which is most soldiers), being in the military is very temporary. This helps create more incentives to have non-military aspirations which reduces the incentive to want to support greater military power. After all, you’re going to have to live as a civilian under this new military regime you made. Meanwhile, post-Marian reform Roman soldiers had 16 year terms of enlistment (later 20) and shorter life expectancy (even for those who made it to adulthood, think dying in your 50’s if you made it to adulthood). The majority of your career would be in the military and the land grant at the end of your term was basically you’re civilian life once out. So effectively your entire livelihood from start to finish was due to the army. Why not support it having more power when doing so means you can get better pay or a better retirement package? And since if your general wins he controls the civilian side of the government automatically he has a lot of power to get you that better pay or retirement. Finally, the Roman voting system was kind of a hot mess, but the essential part was that wealthy Romans had WAY more voting power than the landless masses. So getting anything from purely civilian means of government influence was out of the question for these later Roman troops.

          So the keys for why western countries, even relatively militarized ones like the US with perhaps inordinate deference to the military, is that a) short enlistment terms means most soldiers have incentive to care about a separate civilian life/economy and b) the separation between military and civilian leadership means that civilians don’t really have access to military forces in their civilian political disputes. In the US, the President may be Commander-in-Chief, but military budgets are set by Congress and theoretically Congress is in control of where the military attacks (in practice this has been somewhat given over to the President in the US).

          So why no civilian coups in the US? Well partly because the US hasn’t been dysfunctional enough for one. Debates happen and dumb political games are common, but we haven’t had anything as bad as the Great Depression in many decades (and the US was far less militarized at that time), and American living standards remain very high. People in the US express a lot of distrust and distaste with the government, but there’s still a lot of support for probably most specific government spending and actions which creates status-quo bias. Finally, there’s a lot of risk relative to the reward for a civilian coup. Such an action if successful would create a precedent for a coup being used against you and if an election throws you out of office there’s plenty of lucrative opportunities for private sector works for ex-politicians in lobbying or consulting. Basically, political defeat is not that personally serious in modern democracies which reduces desperation to stay in power. Even politicians thrown out in disgrace can have perfectly comfortable retirements (for instance Richard Nixon).

      • random832 says:

        Democracies with armed populaces that believe in a democratic system are all but impossible for the military to independently overthrow, and generally don’t even have a military that wants to try.

        Do you think that the use of rhetoric about armed resistance by “second amendment people” against programs that were set up democratically erodes the “that believe in a democratic system” part of this?

        How much of the “armed populace that believe in a democratic system” do you figure would have opposed a coup against Hillary Clinton?

        • 1soru1 says:

          An armed (section of) the populace is a standard feature of modern non-democracies, e.g. the Basij of Iran. You need someone to kill protesters when the military and police won’t.

    • aNeopuritan says:

      There’s something that helps Switzerland on that front: make everyone “military”, and thus nobody the military’s outgroup.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      America and the UK both had a horror of the idea of military dictatorship going back to the Protectorate, and both tried to guard against it by reducing the size of the army and keeping it firmly under civil control. In Britain, geography meant that they could get away with having a very small army and concentrating most of their resources into the navy, which could defend fine against foreign invasion and for obvious reasons would find it difficult to launch a coup. Meanwhile the army was kept under control by means of the Annual Army Acts, which only authorised its continued existence for a twelve-month period; hence, if Parliament thought that the army really was plotting a coup, they could in extremis just refuse to renew the Army Act and the British army would cease to exist. America basically copied this, except that for geographical reasons the Royal Navy analogue was the militia, which was supposed to do most of the fighting whilst being too integrated into the civilian population to want to launch a coup. For most of American history the USA’s main enemies were small Amerindian tribes, so they could get away with a tiny army (16,000 on the eve of the US Civil War, for example) which didn’t have nearly enough resources to launch a successful coup. This changed after WW2 when America ended its isolationist policies, but by then the principles of civilian government had been firmly enough entrenched over the previous three centuries for the army not to want to overthrow the government, even if they might be able to.

    • Civilis says:

      I think most of what I want to say has been said elsewhere in this thread much better than I could phrase it.

      The one thing I want to add is that, for the US, the first group to subvert the normal succession of the presidency (such as through a coup) automatically loses any legitimacy. Once that taboo has been broken, any further attempts can be framed as a reaction to the first attempt, and thus gain legitimacy. An illegitimate succession has no hope of succeeding, so no one’s willing to go first and automatically lose.

      The danger is something which might be seen as an interruption of succession which isn’t would open the gates for a coup to have legitimacy. For example, suppose a major earthquake happened just before election day, enough to totally destroy any chance of a vote happening in one or more major cities right before a heavily contested election. The president in office would almost certainly have to delay the vote and presidential succession, and those that oppose the president currently in power having an extended term in office might be able to frame the president’s delay as effectively a coup, especially if there is an undue delay in getting the election rescheduled. (There’s also the 5% lizardman quotient that would blame the earthquake on the president or HAARP or the Gnomes of Zurich or something). The problem is magnified if the disruption to the succession process is due to human agency, such as a series of terrorist attacks at the polls on election day, the assassination of a president-elect between election day and inauguration, etc.

    • ChetC3 says:

      Even for Rome, it took centuries to go from the first successful military coup to the situation you’re talking about here (over 300 years between Sulla’s march on Rome and Maximinus Thrax, longer than the US has existed as an independent state). The Republic was itself centuries old by Sulla’s time. Your question appears to assume a military will launch a coup unless efforts are made to prevent it, and I suspect the answer is that it’s almost always the other way around – it isn’t naturally in the military’s interests to attempt a coup, and only in extraordinary circumstances do they feel desperate enough to try anyway.

      • christhenottopher says:

        To be fair, with Rome it took centuries before a coup because they didn’t have a professional army for centuries. Almost immediately after the Marian reforms professionalized the army, civil wars and coups started happening. The Roman system was poorly designed to handle having a permanent military class drawn from the lower rungs of society.

        • Randy M says:

          Do you think Rome would have had enough soldiers to repel the tribes in Gaul & Germany without Marius’ inclusion of landless soldiers into the legions?

          • Protagoras says:

            Sure, if they’d carried out some other reforms instead. Perhaps those the Gracchi fought and died unsuccessfully trying to bring about.

          • christhenottopher says:

            The big problem for the late Republic’s armies was less numbers and more getting people to stick around in a region for more than 1 campaigning season. The Marian reforms fixed that and some level of professional army was needed to accomplish this. Rome could likely have kept on raising enough men from landholders for the defense of Italy and nearby Mediterranean islands, but making an empire was another matter. Rome could either have had the Republic as they knew it then or a professional army. Having both was untenable. The Empire only partially fixed that problem as dynasty changes were a pain in the ass long before it came to a real head in the 3rd century AD.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            “Getting people to stick around” wasn’t a problem; the problem was what to do with them when they came back. Theoretically the legions were a citizen militia whose members had the means to support themselves (even after the Marian reforms, which is one of the reasons the Senate were so cagey about setting up a proper system for compensating veterans), but in practice family farms had an unfortunate tendency to go bust while the paterfamilias was spending ten years on garrison duty in Spain, meaning that a lot of soldiers came back home to find their family bankrupt and their land taken over by someone else. So they drifted into Rome hoping to find employment, but since there wasn’t enough work to go around they usually just became part of the underemployed urban mob, feeling angry and resentful and willing to back any demagogue who offered to put them back on their feet.

        • ChetC3 says:

          By the time of the Marian reforms, large scale political violence had been a feature of Roman politics for a generation. The post-Marian Roman military didn’t get involved until the Roman civilian government threatened it directly (a Populares controlled Senate attempt strip an Optimas general of command of an army of his veterans, which, in the larger context, his veterans were justified in interpreting as an attack on their own interests).

        • cassander says:

          The roman military system in the late republic wasn’t poorly designed, it’s trouble wad that the senate was constantly stiffing them on pay, so they turned to their loyalty the generals who would ensure them pay and land.

          • christhenottopher says:

            I didn’t mean the Roman military was poorly designed by itself, it obviously worked very well as a fighting force and generally didn’t need to be as big a percentage of the population in the late Republic and Empire as their neighbors had. But the overall Roman political system suffered greatly by its inability to reign in that army is pretty bad. Sure it’s partially the Senate’s fault (though the stiffing on retirement was the bigger issue than direct pay since it grew increasingly difficult to find decent land to distribute), but it’s also in large part how the Roman system overly mixed military and political office and kept most soldiers and their civilian friends and families politically disenfranchised.

          • cassander says:

            My point was that the design of the army had little to do with the inability of the senate to reign it in. that problem was almost purely internal to the senate and, as you say, stiffing it on land at the end of campaigns. And given how much land the romans conquered, even before caesar, there should have been plenty of land to go around.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            And given how much land the romans conquered, even before caesar, there should have been plenty of land to go around.

            Part of the issue there was that people were worried about spreading Rome’s population over too wide an area; they thought it was better to keep their manpower concentrated in Italy to protect the heart of the Empire than to scatter it in little penny-packets over half the known world. Which, ceteris paribus, it might have been, but in the end the shortage of land in Italy grew so acute that they ended up having to settle people in the colonies anyway.

          • christhenottopher says:

            My point was that the design of the army had little to do with the inability of the senate to reign it in.

            That’s not exactly right. Remember that the guys running these armies were senators. The army system was designed so that by screwing over the soldiers of a rival senator, you were also screwing over an important part of that rival’s political base. Part of the Senate’s not properly giving compensation was because the military was a part of the political system much more deeply than in most modern nations.

            Of course also as noted by another commentor, land grants were best if they could be given in Italy. This is also partially because Romans knew how to farm Italian-like soil in Italian-like climates best. Not to mention many of the newly conquered lands were not particularly secure (Hispania is a great example, very similar climate to Italy but Iberians would fight and raid quite a bit even under occupation for a long time). Roman colonies could be useful for helping secure this territory, but settling down people who had just spent the last decade and half fighting for you in areas they quite possibly will have to fight for in “retirement” is not as popular a move as settling in well pacified Italy.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        Even for Rome, it took centuries to go from the first successful military coup to the situation you’re talking about here (over 300 years between Sulla’s march on Rome and Maximinus Thrax, longer than the US has existed as an independent state).

        Eh, not really. In terms of civil wars, the decades following Sulla’s march on Rome were very similar to the crisis of the third century: in just over fifty years you had Marius’ march on Rome (86 BC), Sulla’s second march on Rome (83 BC), Lepidus’ rebellion (77 BC), the Catilinarian conspiracy (63-62 BC), Caesar’s Civil War (49-45 BC), the post-Caesarean civil war (44-43 BC), the War of the Liberators (44-42 BC), Sextus Pompey’s revolt (44-36 BC), the Perusine War (41-40 BC), and the civil war between Octavian and Antony (32-31 BC).

        • Gobbobobble says:

          Probably would have been more if Augustus hadn’t lived so long, too.

        • ChetC3 says:

          I wasn’t claiming the late Republic was stable, just that its instability didn’t take the form of having a successful military coup every few years like in the third century. And when the military did take part in the civil strife, it was at the command of its generals, not because of a mutiny over pay or a conspiracy among junior officers. In the late Republic it was Senator against Senator, with elements of the military sometimes dragged in to support one or more of the sides.

          PS. Thanks for mentioning Lepidus’ rebellion, I’d managed to overlook it til now, and it seems like a major gap in my knowledge.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Sulla’s two marches on Rome, Marius’ march, and the resolution of the post-Caesarean civil war could plausibly be described as successful coups, I think, and Lepidus’ rebellion was an unsuccessful coup. That’s quite a high frequency, even leaving aside other kinds of civil war.

            And when the military did take part in the civil strife, it was at the command of its generals, not because of a mutiny over pay or a conspiracy among junior officers. In the late Republic it was Senator against Senator, with elements of the military sometimes dragged in to support one or more of the sides.

            We don’t really have enough information on most of the late imperial coups to say whether or not they were genuinely driven by the common soldiers or junior officers, or whether their commanders were just exploiting grievances to get themselves declared Emperor. In some cases it seems that the new Emperors were genuinely reluctant to take power, but the cases where we have actual evidence of this are relatively sparse.

            PS. Thanks for mentioning Lepidus’ rebellion, I’d managed to overlook it til now, and it seems like a major gap in my knowledge.

            It’s often forgotten, possibly because our sources for these decades are very fragmentary and so we don’t know many of the details.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I’d wager any given US military officer has more expected QALYs ahead of them in their current position than in a post-coup scenario, unless they have a Marlo Stanfield attitude towards wearing the crown.

      • John Schilling says:

        What’s the Quality Adjustment for years spent ruling with an iron fist and living like a god, again?

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          No joke, that’s the question here.
          But it’d be like a king, not like a god, the difference being that kings have to work to maintain their power. I’d put the adjustment below one for most people, though generals are probably better suited to being constantly strategic than average folks. It’s still hard to picture getting a critical mass of leaders together for whom it’s high enough.

    • sourcreamus says:

      In the US successful military commanders do not have to stage a coup to grab power. They just have to run for office. The most famous general of each war generally gets to be president if they want to. The Revolutionary War made Washington president, the War of 1812 made Jackson president, the Mexican War -Taylor, the Civil War-Grant, Spanish American War-Roosevelt, WW2-Eisenhower. Pershing could have been president if he wanted it, and so could have Powell. The only general who wanted to be president and could not was ironically America’s greatest military mind, Winfield Scott.

    • Nyx says:

      “But the US is a militaristic republic whose professional army seems easily able to win a civil war against all other US institutions.”

      Because the Founding Fathers knew about it. They didn’t need Gibbon, they could look at the English Civil War (in which a bunch of radical soldiers established a military dictatorship in the aftermath of a war between Parliament and the King) and say well, better not have a standing army. And indeed, the United States didn’t have a standing army for the first few decades of it’s existence, instead being defended by the infamous “well-regulated militia”. Then the war of 1812 happened, and the United States thought that maybe having a professional army was quite good. Also the rule of “the President controls the army and Congress controls the money” seems to help.

    • Salem says:

      In addition to the excellent replies made already:

      It’s worth distinguishing between the two broad ways coups can work mechanically. Let’s call them the Arab coup, and the pronunciamento. The Arab coup involves a small group of officers, normally led by a colonel. In a sudden action, they seize control of the central levers of government authority, and declare themselves the government. Everyone else goes along with them, because the civil service, the police, rest of the army, etc, are used to taking orders from any arbitrary set of rulers. In other words, no-one expects a legitimate government. It should be pretty obvious why the US is immune from this kind of coup – there is enough sense of, and desire for, legitimacy that it wouldn’t work. If a dashing young colonel, no matter how charismatic, seized control of Washington D.C. one Wednesday morning and declared himself President, the rest of the country would say “No you aren’t,” and its institutions (including the rest of the army) would crush him with overwhelming force.

      That is easily the most common kind of coup, so we’ve already gone most of the way to explaining why the US doesn’t have coups. If the US became a dictatorship, or similar, this could change, but it’s unlikely. No coup like that has happened in any Anglosphere country since 1660.

      The other kind of coup is when the army high command, or at least a significant fraction of it, decides to take over. This is a lot harder to pull off, because a 5-star general has no direct connection to the troops being asked to seize Congress, and it requires a much broader conspiracy. As a result coups like this are much rarer. The US doesn’t have coups like this because it has civilian control over the military, not just as a norm or ideology, but as a fact. This could change – I can imagine something like the Honduran or Chilean coup d’etats happening in the US.

      • Evan Þ says:

        I can imagine something like the Honduran or Chilean coup d’etats happening in the US.

        You mean the Honduran “coup” in which the Supreme Court observed that the President was blatantly violating the Constitution and deputized the army to have him arrested?

        (Really. The Honduran Constitution imposes a one-term limit on the President, forbids that point from being amended, and says that anyone proposing or suggesting removal of that term limit automatically loses his office and becomes incapable of holding office in the future. President Zelaya did just that, so he got no more than what was coming to him.)

        I can’t imagine anything like that happening here… but that’s not because of our President or generals, but because our Supreme Court lacks the requisite ties to the military (IIRC the Honduran army has an alternate line of command going right up to the Supreme Court) and also lacks the backbone to create them on the spot.

        • Salem says:

          You mean the Honduran “coup” in which the Supreme Court observed that the President was blatantly violating the Constitution and deputized the army to have him arrested?

          Yes, exactly. The Chilean coup happened in much the same way. Most pronunciamento-style coups have a degree of legitimacy. But only a degree – Zelaya was definitely breaking the law, and the Supreme Court were right to have him arrested. But when the army deposed and exiled him, was that lawful?

          The US is a long way from it yet, but I can easily imagine that at some future point there is an intractable stand-off between President and Congress, with the Supreme Court on one side or another. I don’t just mean deadlock or government “shutdown,” but something more critical – perhaps the majority party in Congress insists it has validly impeached the President, while he insists it hasn’t. At this point, the army steps in to settle the dispute, and permanently inserts itself into politics.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        The US doesn’t have coups like this because it has civilian control over the military, not just as a norm or ideology, but as a fact.

        How can you measure this control? How could someone in 1957 see that France did not have this control?

    • Garrett says:

      There are two things that matter: legitimacy, and being able to use force effectively.

      Legitimacy, as others have mentioned, is basically where the population at-large buys into the collective insanity that is civilization. People buy into the person with the crown/sword/title as the person who’s decisions or actions are to be followed/obeyed. In the event of some catastrophe like a nuclear strike on the Capitol, the military might be able to organize quickly and be viewed as legitimate, but that will quickly vanish if elections are not held in a timely fashion.

      Using force effectively means having the person “in-charge” be able to make what they want to have happen, happen. Assuming, for a moment, that there was a coup attempt where the head of the military walked in and killed the head of government (Prime Minister, President, whatever), you run into a number of problems:

      1) In democratic countries, the military doesn’t have an independent source of funding. In China, I think, a number of major industries are controlled by different branches of the military as a way to have a steady supply of cash coming in. In other countries the military has cornered a market (eg. water) for the same reason. Without that supply of cash the money the military needs to operate would need to be acquired some other way. That’s hard without the whole government supporting you.

      2) Generally, the military doesn’t have any experience operating in the civilian sphere. Sure, the military will occasionally be called out to help in a disaster, shovel snow or quell a riot. But they have limited experience in eg. toll-both operations. So a lot of the required skills are missing, and the idea of the military taking over is seen as out-of-place by the civilian population.

      3) Strong rule-of-law tradition. The Strong Man can possibly direct cronies to commit direct violence. But trying to get the civil service to promulgate changes in law is difficult. There are vast quantities of supervisors, inspectors, lawyers for the government, lawyers for interest groups, independent councils, etc., that the whole system could be brought to a halt under work-to-rule really quickly.

      4) Diffuse power. Related to #3. In the US power is separated between 3 branches of government, plus between the States and the Feds. Anything more than one or two of those rejecting your claim to power and everything grinds to a halt.

      5) Democratic militaries have a high tail-to-tooth ratio. They rely heavily on sophisticated equipment, all of which falls apart and requires replacement or specialized servicing. It’s very easy for the civilian population to take “unannounced vacation” and not be available to service or manufacture the gear. After the Edward Snowden revelations the NSA has had difficulty hiring technical experts. And this is in a case where no direct actual harm has occurred. Some strong-man taking over the government will result in substantial reluctance to help such industries. The military’s going to be spending a lot of time herding workers into making the correct type of tires needed for their vehicles. And not “accidentally” sabotaging them.

      • Machina ex Deus says:

        Now I want to see a story about a “successful” coup in the U.S. which ends up accomplishing nothing because of a quiet work-to-rule / sick-out strike. Now we see the awesome power of the passive-aggressive!

  32. keranih says:

    So one of the things implied in Scott’s last post about the signal of truth/rationality is that this truth engine will be operating in a sea of irrationality/untruth. Which seems to be pretty much accurate.

    Chris Arnade has talked about the difficulty in declining to react to the latest outrage. And I have heard people talk about how glad that they weren’t always and forever judged by the most stupid/mean thing they had ever done. So it isn’t easy.

    Any suggestions/techniques that people have found for tuning into the rational/truth signal, esp that one being broadcast by the side you don’t agree with?

    • Corey says:

      Not reacting to the latest outrage is conceptually easy: just get outrage fatigue, so you can’t get outraged by anything.

      Don’t know how to make it happen though. It happened to me without trying.

      • gbdub says:

        Yeah I’m on the outrage fatigue bandwagon as well. The trouble is it doesn’t “tune you into the truth signal”, it just encourages you to tune out of everything.

    • nhnifong says:

      It’s hard to do controlled experiments that involve people’s lives, so politics is an impoverished field where nobody knows what will really happen when a policy is made. Nobody should be outraged at an engineer from hundreds of years ago who fails to build a GPS system, he didn’t have the scientific foundations to do that. If someone comes along saying they know how to make the world better with this one wierd trick, you say SHOW ME THE DATA.

  33. The Nybbler says:

    This is kind of a downer, but what happens to the unmatched after Match Day? Is it like “Oh, well, I’ve just wasted the last 4-years of my life, maybe I’ll drive a bus?”

    • chariava says:

      Most students at U.S. medical schools don’t have much to worry about. Historically, about 94 percent of U.S. medical graduates match successfully on the first try. An additional 3 percent find a residency during the scramble. A few more students stumble into positions between Match Day and graduation.

      By the time they get their diplomas, about 3 percent of U.S. medical graduates are still looking for a residency position. “Some of them had challenges during medical school with basic science or their clinical years,” says Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges. “But others applied to specialties—orthopedics, neurosurgery, etc.—they were not competitive for against advice they were given. These are students who have always been successful, and they think it can’t happen to them.”

      Although failure to match is chastening, U.S. graduates have an excellent chance at finding a program the next year. In the meantime, many of them get a master’s degree, or they teach or work in a laboratory to strengthen their applications. If they decide not to pursue a residency, it’s almost always by choice. Despite the pressure of Match Day, life is pretty forgiving to U.S. medical school graduates.

      http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2015/04/match_day_for_medical_residency_the_scramble_foreign_doctors_and_a_shortage.html

      So pretty much all students can find a spot somewhere. The few that can’t can usually find a spot the year after.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      In my case I spent a year freaking out, resume-building, and being a bum. Then I tried again the next year with better luck.

      It’s usually hard to not-match several years in a row if you studied in the US and apply to enough “safety schools”. If you studied abroad things are a lot less certain, but you can get “transitional years” and “research fellowships” and other things where you resume-build for a year and try again. If you keep trying for a few years and nothing works, I guess you don’t go into medicine.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        I guess this would be a good time to ask a very naive question: what stops such people from attempting to form their own practice? Assume they have the capital and patients are willing to accept the risk. (Or reject those assumptions, although I’d appreciate some elaboration if you have it.)

        • Eric Rall says:

          It’s illegal. With just medical school and no additional certifications, you’re not allowed to practice medicine at all except under the supervision of a licensed doctor, usually as a Resident at a hospital, but sometimes as an assistant to a private practice doctor (I get the impression that these are mostly residents who are working a second job, usually at a basic walk-in clinic).

          It used to be legal to practice primary care medicine as “General Practitioner” one you’ve successfully completed the first, unspecialized year of your residency. But it looks like this got phased out once Family Medicine became a board-certified specialty in the 1970s.

          Even if it weren’t for this, many jurisdictions in the US have Certificate of Need laws regulating the establishment of new medical practices. Under these laws, before setting up a new practice, you first must obtain certification from your state’s regulatory agency that your practice is necessary to provide capacity to meet under-served demand, as opposed to merely poaching patients from existing practices that would then be below capacity.

          • Nornagest says:

            ou first must obtain certification from your state’s regulatory agency that your practice is necessary to provide capacity to meet under-served demand…

            It’s like they want to keep medical care expensive.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            …yeah. I feel like I’m being asked to prove there is air.

        • Deiseach says:

          what stops such people from attempting to form their own practice?

          Apart from the law? Much the same that would probably discourage patients from going to a dentist who says “Actually I’ve never practiced on a real person before, but I’ve read up on all the theory and how hard can it be?”

          The whole point of sticking them into hospitals is cheap labour gradually unleashing them onto the public under the supervision of experienced and qualified medical practitioners who can tell them (for instance) “Congratulations, you asked everything but the pertinent question when taking that history”. And after they try and fail to take your blood pressure four times*, they learn to stand back and let a nurse do it 🙂

          *Any resemblance to genuine experience as an outpatient cannot be confirmed or denied

  34. Well... says:

    The four Neal Stephenson novels I’ve read, in the order in which I liked them (1 = liked the most):

    1. Seveneves
    2. Anathem
    3. Zodiac
    4. Reamde

    …And I liked Reamde quite a lot by the way.

    Based on this list, can anyone recommend other science fiction books you think I’d enjoy and would likely be able to find at my local public library?

    • Trevor Adcock says:

      I would recommend Stephenson’s other novels, Snow Crash and Diamond Age, which are my favorite of his.

      Also Vernor Vinge’s novels are great A Fire Upon the Deep is a classic. For a more near future story I’d recommend Rainbow’s End by him as well. Both are very relevant to the content of this blog.

      Alastair Reynold’s Terminal World is a pretty good Sci-fi story as well. Similar to a Fire upon the deep, but set on a dying earth.

      • Placid Platypus says:

        The lack of an apostrophe in Rainbows End is… not exactly a plot point but definitely deliberate.

        • sandoratthezoo says:

          There’s even a chapter called “The Missing Apostrophe”!

          I guess, given my username and everything, I should second the recommendation of A Fire Upon the Deep.

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      Hey! Someone else whose favorite Stephenson novels are Seveneves and Anathem.

      Snowcrash and the Diamond Age are both great but not on that level.

      Blindsight and its sequel Echopraxia are both very good.

      • quaelegit says:

        Seconding (thirding?) Snowcrash, Diamond Age, and Blindsight! Also have you guys seen this slightly Cryptonomicon-related short story? https://vanemden.com/books/neals/jipi.html

        Perhap’s Greg Egan’s stuff? I’ve only read his anthology Axiomatic but I really liked it, and found its stories though-provoking in a similar way to Stephenson and Watts.

        Personally, my other favorite scifi writer (besides Stephenson) is Connie Willis. Very different style from Stephenson, but she also goes really into the history of the time period and has a great sense of humor. Look into To Say Nothing of the Dog (Victorian England, comedy) or Doomsday Book (Black death England, tragedy).

        Finally, related to Anathem, definitely check out Canticle for Leibowitz, which did it first. VERY different from Stephenson, but I still think the plot of “monks preserve the knowledge of western civ post-apocalypse” is really cool, plus it presents an interesting view on Catholocism (Canticle’s monks are Catholic).

      • roystgnr says:

        Snowcrash and Diamond Age aren’t as good as Anathem IMHO as well, but they both have a similar style to Zodiac with a better execution.

        I’d also strongly recommend Cryptonomicon to any Stephenson fans who enjoyed Anathem, even though the former seems to be shelved in Science Fiction more out of force-of-habit than out of careful classification.

    • herbert herberson says:

      Embassytown by China Mieville
      Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

      and, if you end up liking those, all the other things those two authors have written

    • MartMart says:

      I liked Snowcrash, and really liked Seveneves, but having recently finished Anathem, still find myself wondering what it was that I just read. Maybe I’m just not smart enough, but having the whole ending be about multiple possible worlds seemed forced, and frankly, stupid.

      • Spookykou says:

        Anathem is easily my least favorite of his, I still enjoyed it, but it just had way too much fluff, the monks are the only part I find compelling and I think you could do something interesting with that idea in a short story, of course most science fiction would probably be better as a short story so meh.

      • quaelegit says:

        @both — I got a LOT more out of Anathem on the second read.

        @Spookykou — if you liked the monks, check out A Canticle for Liebowitz, which did the same thing 50 years earlier with the Catholic church 😀

      • Well... says:

        I think in general Stephenson’s endings (of the books I’ve read so far anyway) are weak. Feel-good, contrived, etc. Awkwardly so! But I don’t mind because that’s not at all what I’m reading him for.

    • Izaak says:

      Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

      Startide Rising by David Brin.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’ve read everything of Stephenson’s except for Seveneves. My favorite of his books is Cryptonomicon, but he jumps between genres so much that which is “best” is going to depend heavily on individual taste. If you liked Anathem, though, The Diamond Age is probably his most thematically similar book not on your list.

      For non-Stephenson SF writers, Vernor Vinge might be worth a go. Charles Stross is also worth looking at, but his early work is considerably more Stephensonian than his more recent — try Accelerando (a portrait of the Singularity through the eyes of a dysfunctional family and their robot cat), Saturn’s Children (hard-SF robot drama, basically a late-period Heinlein pastiche), or Singularity Sky (Czarist Russia meets a sufficiently advanced Burning Man, hilarity ensues). Glasshouse has some interesting concepts too, but its ideas about gender and body image come off kinda clunky and intersect poorly with current politics.

    • rlms says:

      Izaak’s mention of Ancillary Justice reminded me of another book that messes with gender pronouns: Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer. I strongly recommend it to SSC readers in general, but I don’t think it is particularly similar to the Stephenson books you list (I’ve only read Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash though).

    • sandoratthezoo says:

      So I really like Reamde, and I also really like William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History).

      They’re both “science fiction” in the sense that actually they really aren’t science fiction. And, in my view, well-crafted. This view makes me a mild outlier, I think.

    • Cheese says:

      Go Hannu Rajaniemi, specifically the Jean Le Flambeur series. Short stories are very good too (and I usually hate Sci Fi shorts).

      Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon series as well.

      Those two are probably quite close to Stephenson in terms of writing style and idea depth.

      Alastair Reynolds is similar but more variable. His House of Suns, Revenger and Pushing Ice are the most similar to Stephenson out of anything i’d say. The Revelation Space series is a bit darker and more detailed but also not as consistently well written.

      Iain M Banks Culture series is a classic and you should get through all of them. Not specifically similar to Stephenson but still a must. Ditto James SA Coreys’ The Expanse. That is more pop sci fi (but then Stephenson is a lot less hard than many others) but absolutely worthwhile. As usual, the books > the TV show and it’s not close. I’m not even sure if i’m going to keep watching it.

      I liked Cixin Liu’s 3 Body Problem series and Peter Watts’ Firefall (his 2 best books in one). However they are much darker. More on the Reynolds side but even more so. I tend to like more feelgood stuff in the end, that’s one of the reasons Stephenson appeals to me among others.

      I did not like Ann Leckie (really overly simple and narrow focused) and hated David Brin (the man can’t write seriously). I was ‘meh’ on John Scalzi’s stuff (borders on pulp Sci Fi without quite going there). Others may like but I feel they’re a very long way removed from ‘Stephenson-like Sci Fi’. Kim Stanley Robinson is probably also in that basket, he is an absolute slog compared to a lot of others mentioned, so it depends on your patience.

      For a fun detour into fantasy with lots of phalluses try Jacqueline Carey’s stuff. But only read the first two 3-book series. The last one is a clear money grab after she’d run out of (admittedly quite good initially) ideas.

    • Marie says:

      Finally read some Stephenson last year and quite enjoyed him (Seveneves, Anathem, Diamond Age).

      Fourthing/fifthing Blindsight (definitely more pessimistic in tone than Stephenson, but I’m another person here who enjoys both authors. I also really liked Watts’s first Rifters novel, but the Rifters trilogy is more YMMV than Blindsight).

      Canticle for Leibowitz! (fourthing/fifthing this older “monks save the world” novel, as well)

      Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer (hits some of the same alien-value-system worldbuilding notes that I enjoyed in Stephenson, plus it’s just plain awesome on multiple levels).

      Ted Chiang. Writes novellas/short stories rather than novels, but I am scratching my head trying to think of anything by him that wasn’t at least one or two steps above average in thoughtfulness. “Story of Your Life,” “Tower of Babylon,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” are representative of his different styles and some of my favorites. “Exhalation” is also one that folks tend to like a lot.

      I am pretty indiscriminate in my liking of SF, so also enjoyed Leckie, 3 Body Problem, and Quantum Thief, all mentioned above, but these all feel a bit more foreign in tone or execution from the three Stephenson novels I’ve read, and reader reactions among my acquaintances have tend to be more YMMV, so am recommending with that caveat.

  35. Tamar says:

    Forgot to post this but will take the thread title as a cue that it isn’t too late: I’m a religiously observant (Modern Orthodox) Jew, and had been discussing with a similarly observant friend of mine whether Scott realizes that he has a decent number of religiously observant Jewish readers of this blog, as I have at least a few friends who are and do. At my Purim feast that week, this friend (who isn’t a regular reader but has read and at one point followed Unsong), drunk, says, “By the way, regarding your question about Slate Star Kodesh …”

    • aNeopuritan says:

      There’s at least one language in which x’s usual sound is that of English “sh”. Though Portuguese speakers familiar with “codex” recognize the word as foreign and would pronounce “ks” anyway …

      • Creutzer says:

        Basque, too. But it’s rather less funny when a person produces that pronunciation by just following the pronunciation rules of their language, rather than by being jewish and drunk.

        • cmurdock says:

          You didn’t ask, but if anyone’s curious: The Basque spelling was a carry-over from Spanish, which used to write /sh/ as “x” prior to the 16th century. That convention was later adopted for the orthographies of Mayan and other indigenous American languages, so you get names like “Xbalanque” (pronounced /shbalanke/). Meanwhile, in Spanish, that sound merged with /zh/ (spelled “j”), changed to a velar fricative, and later had its spelling updated so that all instances of “x” and “j” were regularized into “j”. Except in certain names, like “Mexico”, which had a /sh/ sound in Nahuatl, has a velar fricative in Spanish, and a spelling-pronunciation of /ks/ in English.

      • Ninmesara says:

        I’m a Portuguese sepaker from Portugal, and I’m not very acquainted with Brazilian Portuguese, or the Portuguese spoken in African countries, so this might apply only to Portuguese from Portugal.

        It might be correct to say that x’s “usual sound” in Portuguese is “sh”, but it can be pronounced in many different ways, even in native Portuguese words. It is pronounced as:

        – “sh” in some words, such as “taxa” (tax), “guaxinim” (raccoon), “enxugar” (to dry), “xadrês” (chess) or “caixa” (box), “puxar” (to pull), “feixe” (bundle), “peixe” (fish), “xenofobia” (xenophobia – ok, this one comes from Greek)

        – “z”, as in “exame” (exam), &#