Owning (some) blame.

Saturday night here in Vancouver I went to a screening of the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with live electro-hypnotic-avant-garde accompaniment by the Oliver-Film Ensemble, conducted by Mark Oliver, a grandson of one of the film’s producers. It was excellent. I encourage you, if the Ensemble ever brings its act to your neighbourhood arthouse, to check it out.

Oliver introduced Caligari as the story of a sideshow barker who hypnotizes people to perform wicked acts against their will. He proposed that it remains eerily relevant today – particularly, he added, in light of the events of the past week. It was an overwhelmingly lefty-artistic crowd so he didn’t need to stage-whisper Caligari is Donald Trump for us to get his drift.

At the risk of spoiling the ending of a film that’s closing in on its hundredth birthday, Oliver’s synopsis was a little incomplete. In the final moments we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum, and that the nightmarish tale he’s just finished telling us is a delusion into which he’s woven his fellow patients and the hospital staff, with the head doctor in the role of the sinister puppetmaster Caligari. [1]

I can’t have been the only one thinking, as Mark Oliver returned to the podium for the post-show Q&A, Hang on, doesn’t that ending kind of invert the moral of your Trump analogy? But I wasn’t about to risk the crowd’s wrath by suggesting a different parallel between Caligari and our anxious post-election mood – the possibility that progressives have been kicking and spitting at an enemy partly of their own invention.

***

There’s been a lot of encouragingly thoughtful talk since last Tuesday about media bubbles, epistemic closure, ideological silos…I went with “cocoons” in my last post so I’ll stick with that.

We’re all in cocoons. Some of our cocoons are tight and cozy, while others are roomy enough to permit a degree of shouting back and forth. But all of them muffle and distort outside voices.

We couldn’t stay sane uncocooned. The amount of data in the world is overwhelming. State elections in India, minor disasters in Africa, run-of-the-mill atrocities just one town over – our cocoons filter out all this useless information. We’re aware, dimly, that the five or ten or twenty stories being talked about inside the cocoon are only a tiny sample of all the events that have occurred outside in the last few weeks. But we believe they’re a meaningful sample.

When we run into those weirdos from the next cocoon over, it’s hard to get a conversation going. Inside our cocoon we all share the same basic beliefs, so we can compress a lot into a few words. You and I know what we mean by justice. We don’t have to trace the philosophical threads all the way back to Plato. When we talk to outsiders all our certainties are set adrift. Justice? Diversity? Progress? You can spend all night trying to figure out where your definitions diverged, before you can even begin to argue about how those concepts apply to the latest celebrity tweet crisis.

It’s less stressful to simply avoid awkward conversations with outsiders. And they’re easy to avoid these days, when you can build an ever more exclusive cocoon with far-flung people you meet on the internet. Our cocoons are getting ever cozier, their walls ever thicker. With a little effort, we need never go anywhere there’s a chance of having to converse with someone who doesn’t share our beliefs.

But we still have to share our countries with them. And when they win elections, and threaten to impose policies we think are deranged because we’ve never heard them objectively let alone sympathetically described – it’s terrifying.

***

You sometimes hear progressives arguing that speech isn’t just a right, it’s a responsibility. They say conservatives shouldn’t go around making reckless and dishonest claims and then yelling “Freedom of speech!” when they’re challenged.

I agree one shouldn’t make reckless and dishonest claims. But if everyone agreed on the definition of recklessness and dishonesty there would be no need for speech protections. Person A thinks it’s irresponsible to talk about illegal immigrant rapists and drug dealers; Person B thinks it’s irresponsible to euphemize illegal immigrants as “undocumented citizens”. Okay, each side started out thinking the other was wrong, and all we’ve added with this irrelevant talk of “responsibility” is that each side can now accuse the other of being illegitimate, not even worth listening to. The slim chance of mutual understanding, therefore of intelligent argument, has been made even slimmer.

However, maybe there’s another responsibility that free speech entails – the responsibility to try, wherever possible, to increase understanding. And it occurs to me that, during the just-ended U.S. election, those of us in the broad middle-of-the-road – those of us whose cocoons overlapped supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – shirked that responsibility.

Take my own case. Along with a plurality of anti-Trump opinions ranging from the right to the centre-left, my cocoon takes in a handful of pro-Trump voices of the centre (Mickey Kaus, Scott Adams) and the right (Mark Steyn, Steve Sailer). Which means that I’ve seen some of the more simplistic anti-Trump narratives challenged. And I’ve been exposed to some anti-Clinton narratives that my left-cocooned friends have been shielded from. But most importantly, I got a more accurate picture of what Trump support looked like than most of my friends, who could dismiss it as a remote upwelling of inarticulate white male resentment unlikely to be present in any intelligent lifeform they’d encounter. I learned more about the mood of America from occasionally skimming the comments on Sailer’s blog than I ever did from reading the National Post‘s editorial page – but, primed by the media to regard those commenters as uncouth barbarians who’d soon be slouching back to their wattle-and-daub huts beyond the Rhine, I gave their observations less weight than they deserved.

So I kept my mouth shut even when I heard my progressive friends denounce Trump and his base in ways that struck me as, in either sense of the word, unbalanced. I figured, Ah, what does it matter – he’s gonna lose anyway – why make stress by arguing.

My influence is infinitesimal. I never had the power to sway a single vote. I’m not even American. But there must have been millions of Americans – undecideds and independents and miscellaneouses like me – who felt there was something off about the media’s election coverage, who found themselves questioning the non-stop Madman Trump narrative, and who chose to remain aloof. In retrospect, that was irresponsible of us. In the role of neutral envoys we might have insinuated a few Trump-sympathetic messages into our progressive friends’ awareness, helping to disabuse them of the smug belief that their cocoon encompassed all thinking people. Which might have forced their candidate to come up with a more compelling argument than “Fall in line, losers”.

M.

1. Apparently Caligari’s writers protested the insertion of the framing story, which they felt negated the film’s anti-authoritarian message. They had a point – but without that last-minute twist, their one-note plot would scarcely have held filmgoers’ attention for ninety-odd years.

In a post last year I discussed Bertrand Russell’s and G.K. Chesterton’s constrasting takes on ideological cocooning.

Inevitable Trump hangover reflections.

I spent most of election day writing. Two posts in one day! I guess I was keyed up. The internet was emotional – I assume it still is – I’ve been rationing my media exposure since Donald Trump’s victory speech. Even when I don’t share the public’s passions, even when I’m unable to fully understand them, mere proximity can be exhausting.

There’s an incident in Philip Roth’s memoir The Facts that resonates for me. After the release of his first book Goodbye, Columbus in 1960, Roth – who of course is Jewish – was accused by some critics of having portrayed Jews in an unflattering light, of reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes, even of being himself an anti-Semite. Roth rejected these criticisms completely. As he saw it, even setting aside his writerly obligation to accurately observe, it was more sympathetic to portray Jews as fully realized human beings – flawed, complex, often ridiculous – than as wooden icons of persecuted dignity.

He describes a symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University where he was questioned over the supposedly dangerous content of his stories. The moderator set the tone: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?” It only got worse from there:

Thirty minutes later, I was still being grilled. No response I gave was satisfactory and, when the audience was allowed to take up the challenge, I realized that I was not just opposed but hated. I’ve never forgotten my reaction: an undertow of bodily fatigue took hold and began sweeping me away from that auditorium even as I tried to reply coherently to one denunciation after another (for we had by then proceeded beyond interrogation to anathema). My combative instinct, which was not undeveloped, simply withered away and I had actually to suppress a desire to close my eyes and, in my chair at the panelists’ table, with an open microphone only inches from my perspiring face, drift into unconsciousness.

That’s how I feel whenever I’m exposed to online invective. Not just when it’s directed at me – which luckily hasn’t often happened, as no-one cares enough to abuse me – but when I see it anywhere. It makes me feel heavy and tired. I slept a lot today.

***

There was a revealing election-day story in the Vancouver Sun. A reporter went to a downtown bar where a crowd of expatriate Americans and sympathetic Canadians had gathered to watch the returns. After interviewing one Clinton supporter after another, the reporter was reduced to yelling, “Are there any Trump fans in here?” The response was laughter and jeers. Someone suggested she’d have a better chance if she headed out to the Fraser Valley – i.e., to the boondocks where the rubes and rednecks dwell.

I’d guess there were one or two Trump supporters in that bar who decided it would be best for their social standing – maybe even for their personal safety – to stay quiet.

I watched the results streaming online on NBC. Usually election night coverage will include, along with the panel of supposedly unbiased analysts, a representative or two from the competing camps. And although I didn’t recognize most of the faces, it was clear from their conversation that NBC had dutifully drafted a couple Republicans to fill out their bench. But the Republicans weren’t triumphant: the spectrum of opinion ranged from apocalyptic to merely despairing to, at the rightmost fringe, willingness to indulge a faint hope that doom might be avoided.

At one point the now-elderly Tom Brokaw repeated (while running through the litany of groups the president-elect had insulted) the story that Trump had mocked a reporter for his disability. And yet that story is far from clear-cut. (Short version: Trump frequently uses an arms-flailing gesture when he imitates dummies who oppose him. It’s only when you deceptively freeze-frame the clip of him mid-arm-flail that it appears he’s imitating the reporter’s withered arm specifically.) Brokaw didn’t seem to be aware of this – and why would he? Who was there to challenge him? His network couldn’t dredge up a single unapologetic Trump supporter to sit on their election night panel.

Half the American electorate – and they couldn’t find one.

(For reference, here’s Ann Coulter’s refutation of the reporter-mocking story and the Washington Post‘s refutation of her refutation.)

It’s hard to convince people of the intellectual dangers of ideological cocooning. They don’t seem like dangers if you’re convinced you’ve found the correct cocoon. But at least we could reduce our stress levels if we paid a little more attention to transmissions from neighbouring cocoons. We might be setting our hair afire unnecessarily – the opposing candidate might be, while still terrible, not quite as irredeemably terrible as we’ve been led to believe. (And yes, I’d be making the exact same point, with different illustrations, if it were Clinton who’d been elected.)

***

Reason‘s Robby Soave quotes from Trump’s victory speech:

“For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help, so that we can work together and unify our great country,” he said.

It’s a small thing, but it illustrates something I’ve observed throughout the campaign. The line might more helpfully have been transcribed this way:

For those who have chosen not to support me in the past – of which there were [pause, shrug] a few people – I’m reaching out to you…[etc.]

It was a self-deprecating ad-lib that got a knowing laugh from his crowd. But if you read it without the stage directions, it might easily come off as arrogant – as though Trump were unaware or dismissive of the fact that more than a few people have – to put it mildly – chosen not to support him.

I don’t watch much TV, so most of my Trump exposure has come via quotes like this in the written media. On the few occasions I’ve clicked through to the video, it’s been conspicuous to me how much less crazy he seems when you see him actually delivering his “crazy” lines. The media – used to campaigns like Clinton’s that have pre-sifted her every quip for particles of potential offense – gravely take down Trump’s tics and mouth-farts as if they were policy pronouncements. I wonder if the older demographic that still gets its news from TV was inclined to be a bit more forgiving, while younger voters were more easily incited by decontextualized snippets on Twitter.

Not that even the most forgiving interpretation of Trump’s campaign can make all the outrageous stuff go away. I don’t blame people for feeling panicky. But the victory speech, at least, was reassuring. I’m going with measured optimism.

M.

Mid-election afterthoughts.

Rushing to get my Trump reflections on the record before tonight’s U.S. election result made them redundant, I declined to pursue a number of digressions as they occurred to me. But I have nothing else going on today, so I guess I’ll work them up into their own post.

***

Not long ago I was reminiscing to a friend about the time Howard Stern ran for governor of New York. Stern promised to unsnarl New York City’s traffic jams by moving all road construction work to the middle of the night. That was it. Once he’d accomplished that, he said, he would resign.

My friend and I had been talking about how politics doesn’t really offer a mechanism for solving ubiquitous but small irritants. She mentioned crosswalk signals that count down the seconds until the light turns amber – you scurry to get across, the countdown reaches zero – and the light doesn’t turn amber! What is the purpose of those misleading timers? Or of those crosswalk signals that are activated by a button, but if the light is already green when you push it, you’re confronted with a steady red hand. You wait, thinking maybe the light is about to change…and wait…and wait…while there was plenty of time for you to have crossed safely, if the signal had been more intelligently designed. But how do you democratically register your vexation over poor crosswalk signals?

What would be my platform, my friend asked, if I ran a single-issue Stern-style campaign? I said it would probably have something to do with noise pollution. Banning leaf blowers, for instance, which aggravate whole city blocks while barely improving on the efficiency of rakes and brooms. Or getting rid of truck backup beepers, which avert a knowable number of deaths per year at the cost of an unknowable amount of life-shortening stress from the cumulative effect of urban noisiness.

***

Having confessed in the previous post to my deplorable lack of outrage over the offenses of Donald Trump, maybe I ought to spell out, for the benefit of bemused readers, what issues I am passionate about.

It’s a pretty short list. It looks something like this:

1) Free speech (pro).
2) Suburban sprawl, auto dependency (anti), public transit (pro).
3) Democracy (pro).

I’m not saying those are the most important issues. Clearly nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, third world overpopulation – threats that, badly managed, could actually end all life on earth – are far more important. But I have no ready answer for those existential threats, let alone for more parochial questions like how integrated the United Kingdom should be with the European Union, or how the United States should tweak its health insurance system, or whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is on balance good for Canada.

Whereas I am strongly, and probably unalterably, in favour of a more expansive definition of free speech. Not because speech is in itself wonderful – the freer it is, the more of it will consist of horrible hateful ranting, which is unfortunate given the ease with which horrible hateful rants can now reach an audience. But giving governments and institutions the power to suppress “wrong” speech presumes that “wrongness” can be definitively known, and that the powerful can be trusted not to skew the definition to cow their political enemies and perpetuate their own rule. Horrible hateful rants can be endured.

But no party is all that vocal about the free speech issue – besides the Libertarians, whose positions on almost everything else I find dubious. There just aren’t many voters who care.

My concerns about sprawl and auto dependency are generally shared by parties on the left – but those same parties are usually hostile to dense urban development, while being committed to ever-greater levels of immigration – making it impossible for them to devise policies that effectively contain exurban growth. So this issue, like free speech, tends not to drive my voting that much.

Democracy, as I define it, rarely comes up. I know the Democratic Party in the States thinks Republican “voter suppression” tactics are anti-small-“d”-democratic, but as I’ve argued before, there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair. The Democratic coalition takes in the young, the transient, the frequently-incarcerated – it makes sense for Democrats to oppose rules that create barriers to voting, such as having to show your ID, or not be a felon. The Republican coalition, meanwhile, is older, more suburban, more likely to be married and settled. Barriers are easier for them to overcome. The most Democrat-friendly rules would permit anyone to show up at any polling station and vote with no questions asked. Republican-friendly rules would demand that you bring along two pieces of photo ID, plus proof you’ve resided in the district for ten years, and also the poll supervisor recognizes you from his bowling league.

That reminds me of something I came across on Mark Steyn’s website today. (I love and revere Steyn, largely for his corny and erudite celebrations of old-fashioned American songcraft – but he is of course a highly partisan conservative, so skepticism must be calibrated accordingly.) In his election eve post he embeds a video of President Obama being interviewed by the website Mitú – the self-proclaimed “Voice of Young Latinos”. In response to a somewhat muddled question from Gina Rodriguez, the president – well, to quote the title of the video, he seemingly “encourages illegal aliens to vote.” As Steyn parses the exchange:

[T]he question is perfectly clear – the interviewer is brazenly advocating mass lawbreaking of the defining act of representative government – and the principal representative of that government is most certainly not clear in slapping such a provocation down.

Is the question really that clear? For a less adversarial take, Steyn sportingly links to the writer and legal expert Jonathan Turley, who says:

[T]he President clearly states that “when you vote, you are a citizen yourself.” The confusion is over the use [by Rodriguez] of “undocumented citizen” to refer to illegal immigrants.

This flap seems pretty characteristic of the current U.S. political scene. Each side attributes the worst intentions to the other, leaping to the least forgiving reading of any ambiguous or unpolished comment. Republicans, fearful of cheating Democrats bussing in illegal ringers to tip the election, push for stricter voting requirements. Democrats, assuming Republican fears are a put-on, accuse Republicans of racistly disenfranchising minorities. Speaking as an outsider, it all just makes me sort of tired.

***

I put “democracy” on my issues list because it actually influenced my decision in the last Canadian federal election. My ideal outcome for that contest was a minority government for either the Conservatives or NDP, with the Liberals humiliatingly crushed and Justin Trudeau chased out of politics forever. Not because I have anything particularly against Trudeau, who seems like a nice enough guy, in that grating progressive confident-he’s-on-the-right-side-of-history way. But the monarchical principle should be resisted in democracy whenever it arises. (I excuse actual constitutional monarchs as harmless tourist attractions.) The point of democracy isn’t that it provides good government, but that it guarantees regular, non-violent opportunities for self-correction. Dashing looks and famous names throw off the electorate’s judgement and delay necessary electoral corrections – so that the reaction, when it finally comes, is more extreme than it need have been. Which is why Peripheral Bushes and Lesser Kennedys and, yes, Distaff Clintons should be held to a stricter standard, not a laxer one, than those who rose to prominence under unstoried names.

Not that anyone really cares what I think. Happy Election Night, America. Try to stay chill.

M.

Last-minute Trump risk calculations.

To quote the scuttled first draft of what was meant to be my election-eve blog post:

While I’m generally pro-trade and pro-immigration, I’m in partial agreement with Donald Trump on this, at least: to tolerate uncontrolled low-skilled immigration into your country, while simultaneously signing trade deals with low-wage countries that will accelerate the departure of low-skilled jobs, is self-evidently self-sabotaging. One or the other, maybe. Not both.

This was to be the beginning of my argument that, in spite of all the sound and oft-aired reasons not to vote Trump, it was defensible for an American (which I’m not) concerned about the disappearance of well-paid manual-labour jobs (which I am) to consider voting Trump anyway. But I abandoned it because A) I was afraid it would make my progressive friends mad at me, and B) I discovered that Mickey Kaus had already said pretty much exactly what I wanted to say (but better) in his election-eve blog post:

Trump opens up a different path, where we are willing to give up a few points of GDP – slowing trade, controlling the influx of eager new workers – in order to have the kind of society we want, where communities are displaced more slowly and “we are equal in the eyes of each other.” We could still let in plenty of newcomers, of course. But we would democratically choose to do so.

Add to this Trump’s seeming intention to protect entitlements from Ryanesque plans that subject them to market-like uncertainty, and his resistance to regime-changing military adventures, and you’ve beneficially transformed the Republican party along four major axes.

Kaus is a Democrat, a centrist ex-Slate blogger, who in 2010 ran a no-hope primary campaign for California senator Barbara Boxer’s seat. (He got 5%.) His number one issue – the issue he’s been banging on about for a decade or more – is enforcement-first immigration reform. He argues that until the inflow of new illegal immigrants is stopped, granting amnesty to existing illegals is irresponsible, as it will only incentivize future millions to enter the U.S. in hopes of qualifying for the inevitable next amnesty, a couple decades down the road. (The previous amnesty, remember, was in 1986, ten or twelve million illegals ago.) Only once numbers are stabilized should Americans move on to deciding whether and how to grant permanent status to those already in the country.

It would be a stretch to try and smear Kaus as a racist or demagogue. Even if you disagree with him, you can’t say that his manner is aggressive or that his rhetoric is extreme. He builds his case around the traditional left-wing theme of egalitarianism – that while illegal immigration increases the supply and thus undercuts the price of unskilled labour, driving down wages for Americans who work with their hands, those who work with their brains are becoming ever richer, losing all connection and sense of social obligation to their unluckier fellow citizens.

One predictable outcome of this separation is that figures like Trump will arise to channel the inarticulate anger of the unlucky. Those who are comfortable under current arrangements dismiss the plebs’ champion as a crude buffoon – fairly enough, in this case – but their offered alternative, the globetrotting, Hollywood-hobnobbing, million-dollar-speechgiving wife of an ex-president, seems to have been consciously designed as a living totem of everything her foes are resentful about. Her only memorable comment of the entire campaign was to dismiss those foes – well, half of them – as a “basket of deplorables”.

Anyway, after a decade hammering away at his enforcement-first message – reasonably, sanely, non-scarily – Kaus has gotten nowhere. It’s forgivable for him to conclude that Trump, an ugly and overloaded vehicle, is the only ride into town.

***

I won’t try and predict which way the vote will go. Trump thinks he’s in good shape because polls don’t capture his true strength. A lot of his supporters, he claims, are “shy” – embarrassed to admit, even anonymously to pollsters, that they’re thinking of voting for him.

I think this is a real phenomenon. Why? Well, look at me: I’m reluctant even to publish this non-pro but not-exactly-anti-Trump post. I find myself compelled to throw in phrases like “crude buffoon” and to include the caveat that I expect Trump, as president, would be a disaster. Which is truthful, but when I say “disaster” I’m thinking in recent-historical terms: he could be a George W. Bush-scale disaster, a Lyndon Johnson-scale disaster, maybe even a Richard Nixon-scale disaster. But a lot of people – serious, intelligent, non-crazy people, including some who are good friends of mine – believe Trump will destroy one or both of A) American democracy, and B) the world.

Normally I’d write that off as election-season hyperbole, but I think they’re sincere. Which might explain why so many middle-of-the-road voters – non-pro-but-not-exactly-antis like me – proved immune to the yearlong eruption of scandal that inescapably infected our Facebook feeds with the tangerine hue of Trumpish scowls. Because, look: if you believed it was the only thing preventing The Next Hitler from coming to power, you’d go on TV and say The Next Hitler had grabbed your pussy. Wouldn’t you? If you believed this wasn’t just a race between two deeply flawed but basically well-meaning candidates, but in fact a struggle for the survival of liberty, of the United States of America, of humanity itself – what skulduggery would you refuse to stoop to?

Can you blame pro-Trumpers, then, for suspecting that anti-Trumpers would do anything to take him down? When you hear liberals’ dark prophecies of vengeful white mobs descending on innocent Mexicans, of Commandante Trump teaming up with Vladimir Putin to drop atom bombs on Aleppo, of David Duke and Pepe the Frog roaming the West Wing arm-in-arm – if they sincerely fear these things, all preventative measures must be on the table. Mustn’t they?

Paranoia is infectious.

***

This seems like the place to mention Scott Alexander’s anti-Trump piece, by far the most clear-eyed I’ve come across. His argument is that Trump is the high-variance candidate. We know what to expect from Hillary Clinton: roughly the same stuff we’ve gotten from Obama – the measured expansion of the nanny state – with an uptick in petty corruption of the email-deletion variety, maybe a sex scandal or two courtesy of the First Gentleman. Nothing to get excited for, but nothing to be terribly scared of either.

Whereas with Trump, the likeliest outcome is four years of incompetent flailing enlivened by the occasional entertaining temper tantrum – but, there’s a non-negligible risk of him doing something really stupid and destroying, if not the world, then at least the American economy.

Is he that reckless? Who knows. He seems to have been a quite successful real estate developer, which I assume requires a great deal of skill – but he’s had an entire lifetime to learn that skill. Whereas he would have to pick up the knack of being president in just a couple months. Judging by his rambling stump speeches and debate appearances, he doesn’t appear to have much – or really any discernible – grasp of policy. But then, he’s not concentrating on being the president right now, he’s concentrating on running for president. And he’s doing pretty well at it, despite having had his chances written off over and over by the know-it-alls in the media. So it’s possible to hope that, safely elected, he might buckle down and figure out how to be successful at the presidency the same way he’s been successful in business – presumably, by setting broad policy goals and delegating the details to capable minions.

I’m not expecting this to happen. However if, per Scott Alexander, Trump is the high-variance candidate, his range of potential presidential outcomes would encompass not just world-destruction but also the possibility of surprising competence. Or, to put it another way, if it’s not crazy for his opponents to fear that Trump will destroy the world, neither is it crazy for his supporters to hope he’ll do a decent job.

Just a few more hours for pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers to indulge their hopes and fears. Tonight, very probably, Hillary Clinton will eke out her long-predicted victory and restore us to boring, comfortable stasis.

***

Later in his election-eve post, Kaus tries to calculate whether, given his plentiful reservations, it’s still justifiable to vote Trump. He concludes that since he lives in California – whose 55 electoral votes are guaranteed to go to Clinton regardless – he can risk a Trump vote to send a message to future, less-hysteria-inducing candidates that a firmer stance on illegal immigration can find support even in an immigrant-heavy state.

Of course – and Kaus doesn’t mention this – if Trump wins, he could misinterpret the message as “I’m 100% behind you, Donald! Follow your most reckless instincts!” That’s the problem with trying to send a message via ballot. The nuances tend to get lost.

I don’t think I could vote Trump, even as a throwaway protest in a safe state. My preference is for the narrowest possible Clinton victory both in the popular vote and the electoral college, with the Senate and House staying in Republican hands to constrain her. Right now this seems like the likeliest outcome anyway, so rather than dirty my hands with a Trump vote that I’d probably regret if he actually won, I’d vote Libertarian, or spoil my ballot. If I lived in a competitive state the calculation would be different. But luckily I’m Canadian, so it doesn’t really matter. Don’t worry, Democrats, there’s little chance of me moving to the States anytime soon.

M.

Andrew Coyne and the lump of labour.

A while back I went to a movie on a weekday afternoon. As usual I bought my ticket at the automatic kiosk. As I crossed the lobby I noticed that there was nobody else around, neither patron nor employee. Even the snack counter was unattended. Ordinarily there’s an usher waiting to tear your ticket at the far end of the lobby, but this checkpoint was also unmanned, so I shrugged and made my way down the hall to my theatre, where I took my place among the half-dozen other lonely mid-afternoon moviegoers. After a few minutes the lights dimmed, the doors automatically swung closed, and the ads started. “Holy crap,” I realized. “We’re in a giant robot.”

Presumably there were two or three people working at the theatre that afternoon, and I happened not to run into any of them. But it’s easy to imagine how the handful of remaining jobs for humans could be turned over to machines. The ticket-tearer could be replaced with a barcode scanner and a swinging door. The snack counter could be replaced with a bank of vending machines. The only person that’s probably non-replaceable, in the near term, is the poor schlub who cleans the bathrooms. But we’ll figure out how to put him out of a job eventually.

Andrew Coyne, writing in the National Post, isn’t worried for that out-of-work toilet scrubber:

Artificial intelligence, we are told, if it does not altogether enslave us, will at the very least make us economically obsolete. Already it has started to replicate tasks previously thought the preserve of the human mind, from legal drafting to investment advice. Call it the Robots Will Take Our Jobs theory.

Where the RWTOJ thesis falls down is not in the idea that there will be jobs lost, but in its unstated corollary, that there will be no jobs created in their place.

Coyne calls this the “lump of labour” fallacy, as in, there’s a lump of jobs that needs a-doin’, and if part of that lump is handed over to machines, the workers presently doin’ those jobs will be left with nothing to do. Here’s why it’s a fallacy:

[I]n fact there is no fixed amount of work to be done. There is no permanent list somewhere of all the goods and services consumers might want or the jobs that might be filled providing them. Consumers’ wants are limitless, as is human ingenuity: not only do we generally prefer more of what we already want, but entrepreneurs are constantly thinking up new wants we didn’t know we had. Much of today’s workforce is engaged in making goods and services that not only did not exist a century ago, but had not been imagined.

Likewise, Coyne tells us, future displaced workers will find new jobs providing goods and services we can’t even imagine yet. Maybe not the exact same workers – he acknowledges that the individuals thrown out of their jobs might be irreparably hurt. But overall, the number of new jobs created will more than compensate for those lost. It’s happened before and we can count on it happening again.

He might be right. By definition we can’t imagine the things we can’t yet imagine. But I don’t find Coyne’s reassurances all that convincing, probably because I don’t think the “lump of labour” fallacy accurately describes the pessimists’ main concern about the prospective obsolescence of human labour. Because, you see, it’s not labour that we think of as an inflexible lump. No, we’re much, much more pessimistic than that! Our fear is that we humans are the inflexible lump.

It probably helps to put this argument in the form of a diagram. Here we have a visual representation of every thing a human can do:

human capabilities

The diagram, obviously, is incomplete. The list of unique things contained within this circle is infinite – we could, for instance, say a human is capable of writing a novel, or we could get more specific and say a human is capable of writing Lucky Jim, or we could get more specific still and say a human is capable of pecking out Lucky Jim one-handed on a typewriter while simultaneously sipping whiskey and smoking a cigarette.

Some of those refinements add value – if you can write Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire instead of Lucky Jim, you can earn a half-billion dollars instead of a few paltry million. Most of the refinements, like typing one-handed, or in your underwear, or in a pressurized dome at the bottom of the sea, add no value at all. While one can imagine an endless number of refinements to any conceivable human activity, nearly all of them are economically worthless.

Furthermore, while the number of unique things in the circle is infinite, the circle is not all-encompassing. Undoubtedly in the future people will be employed doing things we don’t currently have words to describe – amphibiating the sensoid bits on tri-dimensional metadroms, maybe. But whatever as-yet-inconceivable things we may someday do, they all lie within the set of things humans are capable of doing. That set is limited not by the human imagination, but by human biology. Our lifting capacity is constrained by having only two arms which can exert only a certain amount of force. Our ability to do mental calculations is limited by the number of figures we can retain in our short-term memories. As for amphibiating those sensoid bits, whatever the job entails we can be pretty sure of certain things it won’t entail, like breathing sulfur dioxide, or seeing frequencies outside the visible spectrum.

I foresee your objection. With the assistance of machines, you say, we can augment our lifting, calculating, breathing, and seeing capacities. That’s why we invented machines in the first place, starting with the simplest tools – like the sharp-edged stones our proto-human ancestors used to tear the flesh of animals. I suppose an apeman who subscribed to the “lump of labour” fallacy would have complained that sharp-edged stones were putting able-bodied apemen out of work – where once three or four workers would have used their nails and teeth to dismember a hartebeest, now the job could be done by one hairy fellow with a stone. Brighten up, Andrew Coyne would have told those unemployed apemen, now you can spend more time hunting and gathering. And he would have been right!

Let’s put, right next to a circle representing proto-human capabilities, a second circle representing all the things technology could do, circa 1 million BC. We’ll have to zoom in to see it:

proto-humans-versus-technology

I’ve made the little circle overlap the big circle, because right from the start, technology is impinging on the previously exclusive domain of proto-humans – the sharp-edged stones are displacing manual labour. But that’s all right, because there’s literally an infinite number of other things the displacees can do with the time freed up by the invention of the sharp-edged stone. Learn to make fire, for instance.

You can probably see where I’m going with this, so let’s fast forward:

machines versus humans

You’ll notice that the circle of human capabilities hasn’t expanded since the arrival of Homo sapiens. Better nutrition and education may have made us a little stronger or smarter, but the child of one of our Neolithic forebears, transplanted to modern times and raised as one of us, would be well within current mental and physical norms – perfectly capable of manning the snack counter at the local multiplex.

It’s not greater innate intelligence that has enabled us to make machines of a sophistication that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s the fact that new technologies are built on top of existing technologies. You can’t invent a self-driving car unless you’ve already invented a car, which depends on the earlier invention of the internal combusion engine, and so on back to the discovery of fire.

Human capabilities, unfortunately, don’t accumulate in the same way.

So, with every passing year, the expanding circle of technological capabilities takes a bigger bite out of the static circle of human capabilities. Every year the number of jobs for which humans and only humans are qualified diminishes. There are still, to be sure, an infinite number of options within the narrowing crescent of skills exclusive to humans, but among those infinite options it becomes harder and harder to conceive of an as-yet-untapped skill that can be turned into an economically viable career. And the crescent keeps shrinking.

And since it takes a fairly high degree of imagination and inventiveness to think up an entirely new career that won’t immediately be at risk of being taken over by machines, the many, many humans who aren’t particularly imaginative or inventive – I count myself among that number – are left to compete with robots in the penumbra of activities where our capabilities overlap. How do humans compete? Since we can’t work more quickly, or more reliably, or put in longer hours than machines, we have to work more cheaply.

This is a great outcome for employers. You don’t have to actually bring in machines to replace your workforce of fragile, clumsy, illness-prone, emotionally unpredictable humans. The mere hint that they’re replaceable should be enough to subdue their uppitiness. And every year the machinery gets faster, cheaper, more reliable…

I imagine to a guy like Andrew Coyne, who probably hangs out with other high-IQ types capable of dreaming up new goods and services and turning them into profitable businesses, the limitations of the human lump are less apparent than they are to us middling-IQ proles out here in lumpenland. “Don’t worry,” he tells us, “I read in Fast Company that the tri-dimensional metadrom industry is going to need tens of thousands of trained amphibiators.”

“But what kind of education will that require?”

“Just a two-year diploma.”

“But I’m a thirty-nine year old long-haul trucker.”

“No problem, the government will help pay for your retraining.”

“But how long before they develop robot amphibiators?”

“A decade and a half, at least.”

“And what do I do then?”

“By then tetra-dimensional metadrom technology should be in full swing.”

“And they’ll still need experienced amphibiators?”

“Well, you might have to go back to school again…”

“You realize I became a long-haul trucker in the first place because I didn’t do well in school, right?”

“Or maybe you lost interest in school because you thought you could have a decent-paying career without a post-secondary diploma.”

“Yes, yes, that’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make!”

“I literally can’t understand what you’re complaining about.”

“I can see that. Well, thanks for your pep talk anyway, Andrew Coyne.”

M.

Equality and homogeneity.

I picked up a used copy of G.K. Chesterton’s 1906 biography-cum-critical-appreciation Charles Dickens on a visit to the UK five years ago, but to avoid spoilers I held off tackling it until I’d read all of Dickens’s novels at least once. I finally polished off The Mystery of Edwin Drood last month, freeing me to read the Chesterton book.

One of its major themes is Dickens’s egalitarianism, his “democratic optimism”:

We shall consider Dickens in many other capacities, but let us put this one first. He was the voice in England of this humane intoxication and expansion, this encouraging of anybody to be anything.

Which strikes very comfortingly on the modern ear – but it quickly becomes apparent that Chesterton’s notion of equality is very different from the version now championed. At one point he offers this telling digression:

In one sense things can only be equal if they are entirely different. Thus, for instance, people talk with a quite astonishing gravity about the inequality or equality of the sexes; as if there could possibly be any inequality between a lock and a key. Wherever there is no element of variety, wherever all the items literally have an identical aim, there is at once and of necessity inequality. A woman is only inferior to man in the matter of being not so manly; she is inferior in nothing else. Man is inferior to woman in so far as he is not a woman; there is no other reason. … If everything is trying to be green, some things will be greener than others; but there is an immortal and indestructible equality between green and red.

That is to say, when everyone’s worth is measured by a single criterion – by IQ, by wealth, by physical strength – then equality is an impossible goal. It’s only when people are liberated to pursue their manifold, unpredictable, and often hilarious excellences that true equality – the equality of the human spirit – becomes visible.

***

In 2013 my father died. As his only child and heir I received a sizeable life insurance payout, the sum of various small amounts scattered among his various bank accounts, and a modest monthly pension which will carry on through 2020. This hardly added up to what a middle-class Canadian would describe as a fortune, but it was sufficient to free me, a single person with inexpensive tastes, from the necessity of paid employment for a while.

I used my freedom to write a novel.

…Or that’s the self-glamorizing way to put it. It would be as accurate to say I pissed away my dad’s life savings for three years, during which time I incidentally happened to produce a novel – which, even if I somehow get it published, is highly unlikely to earn back even a tiny fraction of what I pissed away, let alone the money I failed to earn by not working.

I didn’t get here through stupidity. I knew full well that a multi-year gap in the middle of my prime wage-earning years would blow my chances of ever owning a home, or raising a family, or being treated by anyone as a person of importance. It’s not that I don’t value any of those things, but you can see by my choices that I don’t value them that highly.

Meanwhile, given my level of laziness, I knew I was unlikely ever to write a novel while simultaneously working a full-time job. And writing this novel was important to me.

So I’m okay with my decision – for now. Check back with me when I’m a pensionless sixty-five year old starving in a ditch.

***

Assuming I’ve correctly estimated my expenditures, it appears that last year I scraped by at roughly the Low-Income Cut-Off, or LICO – the closest thing Canada has to an “official” poverty line – for a single person.

I don’t think of myself as living in near-poverty. My apartment is mostly bug-free. My budget allows me two bottles of liquor a month, sufficient for my current level of incipient alcoholism. A couple times a year I fly out to see relatives in Toronto, where I make a show of spending liberally so they don’t worry about me.

Of course it would be a very different thing if I’d been grinding out forty hours a week at Tim Hortons to bring home an equivalent income. A LICO-level standard of living is quite comfortable when combined with the freedom to sleep in as late as you like.

Comfortable for me, I mean. Your results may vary.

***

I have this thought experiment that strikes me as so obvious it’s probably not even worth writing down. And yet I haven’t seen it expressed this way anywhere, so maybe it’s not that obvious, who knows.

Suppose all the wealth in a country is redistributed equally among all its citizens. All debts are cancelled, all money and goods are apportioned equally, all the land is divided in such a way that everyone’s share is equally productive.

It’s a wealthy country. There’s more than enough for everyone to live comfortably. No-one has to work at Tim Hortons any more – though they’re welcome to, if they like.

If you leave this egalitarian paradise alone for a while, then check in at the end of, say, ten years to see how things are progressing, will everyone still be equally wealthy?

Perhaps you’ll find that a few wily and unscrupulous operators have fleeced their more trusting fellow citizens of all or most of their wealth. But that wasn’t really a fair test. Those who had been well-educated, well-connected, and well-off prior to the redistribution had an advantage over the previously disadvantaged and downtrodden.

So let’s run the experiment again, only this time we’ll kidnap the young children of our failed socialist state and resettle them in a brand new, unspoiled country, where they’ll all be dressed identically, housed identically, fed identically, and educated to a common standard. When the kids reach eighteen the wealth of their new land will be shared out again, and this time, none of them will have any advantage over the others. Surely when we check back in at the end of ten years…

Huh, there’s still widespread inequality. It turns out the kids have different tastes, different interests. Some enjoy the simple life while others like to decorate their homes with fancy and expensive things. Some are content to hew wood and draw water while others prefer to sleep in late and write unsellable novels. Others enjoy manufacturing things that are useful and necessary, which they can exchange with their neighbours for a small share of their neighbours’ wealth. Still others have discovered that having extra wealth is in itself rather enjoyable, and they’re okay with spending their spare time doing not-very-enjoyable things – even working at Tim Hortons – for the chance of making a little more.

What can you do? Kidnap another generation of imperfectly equal babies, I guess. You’ll just have to brainwash the little suckers.

***

One of the implications of my thought experiment is that the more identical the citizens are in their tastes, interests, and priorities, the more enduring the equal distribution of wealth is likely to be. Which raises the question – did those countries that are celebrated for their egalitarianism get that way because they pursued egalitarian policies? Or are they naturally egalitarian because their citizens exhibit a high degree of homogeneity?

And what happens when homogeneous cultures attempt to assimilate large minorities with very different sets of tastes, interests, and priorities?

…But now we’re getting into the touchy subject of group differences, where you can easily get yourself blacklisted for saying the wrong thing. Better to stay away from specifics.

I’ll only suggest – delicately and humbly – that if you and I can have different preferences about how to spend our time and money, leading to differences in life outcomes, isn’t it probable that different groups, with different histories, different backgrounds, will tend to have different preferences that lead to different outcomes?

The modern version of egalitarianism proclaims that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles, all must be distributed in every profession, in every sphere of activity, at every level of prosperity, in proportion to their overall numbers. Only then will we all be equal.

But the price of that equality may be that women and men, gays and straights, Jews and gentiles – you and I – lose our distinctive identities.

My own old-fashioned view is that we’re equal already, in the Chestertonian sense – “the immortal and indestructible equality between green and red”. But to the modern progressive mind, that sounds like complacency. Greenness may be just one of many possible yardsticks for comparing people and groups, but it’s the one the modern world is built around. To tell the ungreen to be satisfied in their redness, or yellowness, or blueness, while we continue to adulate green above all, is bound to lead to resentment.

I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem, or anyway one that doesn’t involve illiberal attempts to re-engineer human nature – precisely what I’m opposed to. So long as people have the freedom to pursue different paths we’ll tend to group ourselves around common values and interests. And so long as different groups exist, jealousy, suspicion, and hostility will arise between them. The best we can do is try and keep these feelings from breaking out into violence and persecution.

In any case, my complacent prediction is that human variety, and human conflict, will outlive all the clumsy attempts by the modern egalitarians to stamp them out.

M.

True and original…or, why we write (or don’t).

For the last few years most of my intellectual fuel has been burned up in writing my first novel. But since I finished the novel this spring (apart from a few minor tweaks and rearrangements, still ongoing) I’ve had a hard time motivating myself to resume my old habit of blogging. Laziness is clearly a factor, but I don’t think I’m any lazier than I used to be – only more realistic about what I expect my writing to achieve.

Suppose we evaluate every piece of writing, existing or potential, on the following dimensions:

1) Truthfulness.
2) Originality.
3) Effort.

By “truthfulness” I mean, okay, yes, empirical truth: Did this happen in the real world? Can it be relied on, to a reasonable degree of statistical certainty, to happen again? But fiction can also be truthful, if its artifice reveals deep-down truths about humanity, social forces, whatever. When a character in a story does something no human would actually do, “It’s fiction!” isn’t a defense – unless the character is a robot or an alien – in which case “It’s science-fiction!” is a defense, provided that the robot’s or alien’s behaviour points to something true about our own reality. I guess what I’m saying is that truthfulness is a slippery and debatable concept – but that doesn’t free us to knowingly write lies.

“Originality” seems pretty straightforward. The older you get, the more you read, the more you start seeing the same old ideas, the same old arguments, coming around again and again. This doesn’t mean the old ideas or arguments are untrue. Sometimes people need to be reminded of things they already know, or used to know, or would have known if they hadn’t been misled by false-but-original intellectual fashions into believing daft things. Sometimes the old, commonplace ideas are so thoroughly forgotten that they become original again. Which is to say that originality is almost as slippery and debatable as truthfulness.

By “effort” I mean how much effort goes into writing. It’s easy to write something true if you’re not concerned about originality: Japan is a mountainous and densely-populated archipelago off the eastern coast of mainland Asia. It’s easy to write something original if you’re not concerned about truth: Japan was founded in 1949 by lobster people displaced by atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll. Writing something both true and original is exceptionally difficult. So difficult that very few writers ever manage it. To judge by results, most don’t even try.

Suppose you have an idea that’s true, but not very original. Should you go to the effort of writing it down? If you have a fair degree of certainty about its truthfulness, it’s probably worth sharing, if only to help increase the amount of truth in the world.

Alternatively, suppose you have an idea that may or may not be true, but you’re pretty sure no-one’s ever had before. In that case, again, it’s probably worth sharing, albeit at the risk of misleading people with what could be an untruth.

But if you’re only, say, fifty percent sure your idea is true, and fifty percent sure it’s original, is it really worth the effort to write down? Probably not.

One of the nice things about having a novel in progress is you can use it as an outlet for all the ideas you have that might not meet your standards for truthfulness and originality: Okay, I don’t believe this all that strongly, but it’s the kind of thing Katie (or Roland, or Helmut) might believe, so I’ll just rephrase it into that character’s voice and…and you look up from your computer screen and it’s 3 AM and, marvel of marvels, you’ve actually met your day’s quota. You can go to bed without hating yourself.

But a novel can’t be merely a repository for every half-baked idea you’re embarrassed to take responsibility for. Unless those ideas add up to a true and original whole, you’re better off saving yourself the effort.

Does my novel meet that standard? Probably not. But then, very few do.

M.