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An Epidemic of Bad Ideas

From Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The USA Today, Social media threat: People learned to survive disease, we can handle Twitter:

Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

Maybe there are some lessons for us here. We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

Better nourished minds are likely more resistant to social-media contagion.

HKO

An excellent and creative piece.  A creative writer can find illumination in seemingly unrelated ideas.  Read the whole piece.

Trend Illusions

by Henry Oliner

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli (highly recommended) is a compilation of biases and psychological barriers to clear and rational thinking. Dobelli warns of “trend gurus who see trends in everything”.  He contends this is “one of the most idiotic ways to see the world.”

This is like our tendency to see shapes in clouds and to see patterns in data and numbers. Given our ability to amass vast quantities of data and our desire for order in the universe, this is a seductive pattern. It is unsettling to believe we are pawns in a casino.

The danger in these delusions is that we believe it enables our power to predict.  This “gambler’s fallacy” of seeing order where there is none causes financiers to make bad investments, pundits to make bad predictions, and politicians to enact bad policy.  This delusion causes less damage in business and investment because the damage is usually limited to the fools (often some very credentialed fools) and the mistake is rectified relatively quickly.

One of the reasons that government solutions should be a last resort is because political decisions are as subject to these errors in thinking as private sector decisions, but there are greater blocks to recognizing and correcting the error in judgment. Politics is part rational but also part tribal.

For some experienced yet biased investors, it was inevitable that Trump’s election would result in a market sell off. It didn’t. It resulted in the one of the sharpest market advances after an election in recent history.

When Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914 few would have predicted it would have led to World War One, the inept Armistice and soon after, World War Two and the Cold War.  If Princip had done the same deed a few months before or a few months after we could not be certain it would have had the same results.

The trend fallacy seems to work in hindsight.  Some movements go to extreme and invite countertrends.  After 50 years of expansive progressivism culminating in the stagnation of the 1970’s,  Ronald Reagan won claiming that government is more of the cause than the solution. A similar exhaustion may have provided some wind to Donald Trump’s sails.  But we should not confuse the power to describe with the power to predict.

While a complicated world may be unpredictable, that does not mean that behaviors are irrelevant. Excessive debt makes a family or a corporation or a government vulnerable to unpredictable events.  We may confuse talent and success for a mere regression to the mean, but predicting the timing of these outcomes or how they will become actualized is a fool’s game.

What appears to be a difference in political ideology may be a mere difference in time frame. Long term outcomes may be ignored for the short-term payoff of a vote or a campaign contribution.  We may lament the failure of policy after the first act of the play, only to see it succeed wildly after the third act, if we choose to stay for the entire play.  Patience is not a popular American virtue.

The first step to honesty is clarity. Good decision making is already difficult to achieve. To cloud it further with unnecessarily complicated systems designed to hide and cross subsidize costs is not likely to lead to better outcomes.

Transitional Politics

by Henry Oliner

Both parties are fragmented, trying to assemble a consensus from groups that do not want to concede.

Populist movements are defined by their demons. It is why they are prone to seduction by saviors.  They would settle for benevolent dictators; but when they are no longer benevolent they remain dictators. The framers of our Constitution understood this well and built a magnificent firewall against this option.

When they are unable to slay their main opponents, they will seek smaller dragons. This is when they turn on each other. Purity tests are used to express the narcissism of minor differences.

Having lost to Donald Trump in a defeat that is as illuminating as it is humiliating, the Democrats have splintered and doubled down on their costliest errors.  Instead of correcting the liabilities of identity politics, political correctness, and contempt they have relied more on them.  They are still silent on the economic issues that drove the working-class whites to Trump. They are still confounded that Trump did better with blacks and Hispanics and women than Mitt Romney.

They have resorted to the same sort of conspiracy theories the Republicans floated about President Obama. If the Russian collusion does not pan out then they will resort to his pathologies and unfitness for office. So far it seems as if the Russian investigation may entrap as many Democrats as Republicans.

Meanwhile the Republican are in in what Jonah Goldberg calls a Trump-22;

Republicans are stuck in a Trump-22 for as far as the eye can see. They cannot afford to alienate the core Trump base by being too critical of the president, and they cannot afford to alienate the Trump-critical elements in the party by being too supportive. So, like House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, they have no choice but to focus on the policies that unite both constituencies. The problem, of course, is that absent a president who knows how to move an agenda through Congress, Congress is left looking both ineffectual and opportunistic at the same time.

Meanwhile the Democrats, who have their own populist challenges, see GOP dysfunction as an excuse not to remedy their own shortcomings — many of which made Trump’s victory possible.

These are confusing times where logical analysis is surrounded by opposing parties with no clear path of retreat. Trump is effectually a third party in Republican clothing. He has exposed a political diversity that always lay beneath the fragile consensus of the mythical two party system. It is Trump that has built the winning consensus that Peggy Noonan describes by being Lucky in His Enemies:

That most entrenched bastion of the progressive left, America’s great universities, has been swept by . . . well, one hardly knows what to call it. “Political correctness” is too old and doesn’t do it justice. It is a hysteria—a screeching, ignorant wave of sometimes violent intolerance for free speech. It is mortifying to see those who lead great universities cower in fear of it, attempt to placate it, instead of stopping it.

When I see tapes of the protests and riots at schools like Berkeley, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna and Yale, it doesn’t have the feel of something that happens in politics. It has the special brew of malice and personal instability seen in the Salem witch trials. It sent me back to rereading Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Heather Mac Donald danced with the devil! Charles Murray put the needle in the poppet! As in 17th-century Salem, the accusers have no proof of anything because they don’t know, read or comprehend anything.

The cursing pols, the anathematizing abortion advocates, the screeching students—they are now the face of the progressive left.

Trump does not have to outrun the tiger, just the other hiker.

The left seems intent to preserve what cost them the election, hoping that Trump will eventually self-implode. They may want to develop a backup plan.

On the other side of this conflict is not a victor but a transition to a new consensus that will share aspects of our constitutional heritage, free markets and progressive commitments.  I remain optimistic that the outcome will be the better features of our political heritage and not the worst.

The Critical Difference Between Good and Bad Regulation

Mark Levin is a rabid right wing radio talk show host.  Because I at least scan about any title with the word progressivism in it, I viewed his latest book Rediscovering Americanism: and the Tyranny of Progressivism and was pleasantly surprised at the depth of his topic. His study of the origin of natural rights, his survey of the philosophers like Montesquieu who influenced the founders and framers, and his review of the changes in our fundamental governing ideas that came with progressivism make this a very worthy read.  Its depth is surprising and at least for me required a slow reading.

Kevin Williamson at National Review wrote an excellent review in Rediscovering Austrianism and focused further on Levin’s distinction between our constitutional heritage and progressivism:

Levin applies the Hayekian standard to the case of regulation. Hayek, a classical liberal who gave a great deal of thought to the mode and character of economic regulation, argued that there were sure to be cases in which the conditions for market competition could not be created or maintained. What economic liberals (funny word, “liberals”) could not accept, in Hayek’s view, was the replacement of functioning market competition with “inferior methods of coordinating individual efforts.” What this means, Levin argues, is that the alternative to progressivism is not doctrinaire libertarianism but political action within the context of government power, particularly federal power, operating within its properly understood role. “Regulations informed by America’s founding principles and instituted for the limited but significant purpose of nurturing, improving, or promoting private property and economic vibrancy are both prudential and essential to safeguarding individual liberty and the civil society,” Levin writes. But regulations organized along other lines — “schemes to fundamentally transform society” as he describes them — are something else, inevitably put forward in the service of “progressive ideology, special interests, crony capitalism, etc.” and constituting “a perversion and abuse of legitimate governing authority.”

Free societies are delicate things, and they are based on complex economic and social systems that are not the design of any single intelligence and not subject to reform or management by any single intelligence. Hence, it is necessary, as EPA administrator Scott Pruitt likes to put it, for regulation to be regular. That means developing rules that are broad, stable, generally applicable, predictable, and oriented toward general social ends rather than toward highly specific political goals. (E.g., “We’ll generate x percent of our energy from solar and wind by year y.”)

HKO

This is an admission that markets are imperfect and necessary conditions may be hard to maintain. But it does not mean than any centrally planned government intrusion is preferable.  If market forces are not delivering what is wanted in an acceptable time frame (patience is rarely a good campaign slogan), then the best alternative is to fund the outcome as directly and as transparently as possible. Even then policy makers should be keenly aware of the consequences of usurping normal market functions and incentives.

The worst solution is to imagine that any centrally planned agency or bureaucracy can engineer or maintain a complex economic system that will serve all needs.

Hayek warned, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

The Perversion of Individualism

Mark Levin is a rabid right wing radio talk show host.  Because I at least scan about any title with the word progressivism in it, I viewed his latest book Rediscovering Americanism: and the Tyranny of Progressivism and was pleasantly surprised at the depth of his topic. His study of the origin of natural rights, his survey of the philosophers like Montesquieu who influenced the founders and framers, and his review of the changes in our fundamental governing ideas that came with progressivism make this a very worthy read.  Its depth is surprising and at least for me required a slow reading.

Kevin Williamson at National Review wrote an excellent review in Rediscovering Austrianism and focused further on Levin’s distinction between our constitutional heritage and progressivism:

Levin quotes Hayek at length on this:

The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement. We meet the same tendency in the field of morals and conventions, in the desire to substitute an artificial for the existing languages, and in the whole modern attitude toward processes which govern the growth of knowledge. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan. They are the results of the same rationalistic “individualism” which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible. Indeed, the great lesson which the individualist philosophy teaches us on this score is that, while it may not be difficult to destroy the spontaneous formations which are the indispensable bases of a free civilization, it may be beyond our power to reconstruct such a civilization once these foundations are destroyed.

(Hayek’s remarks about “artificial language” may seem odd to the modern reader unfamiliar with the Progressive Era political mania for things like Esperanto or the Communist project of “rationalizing” language, hilariously and terrifyingly parodied by Vaclav Havel in his play The Memorandum. But what is the modern project of political correctness if not the creation of an artificial language within English for the purpose of writing politics into the very tool of thought itself? E.g., the biological realities that bedevil women pretending to be men are recast as the curious case of “men who menstruate.” The more things change. . . . )