Archive for the 'Arguments' Category

The Gell-Mann Amnesiac’s guide to Canadian penal statistics.

Earlier today I was doing some research for an essay I’ve been working on. I was trying to answer what I thought was a straightforward question: what percentage of Canadians have served time in prison?

Turns out it’s not that easy a question after all. (If you happen to know the answer, I encourage you to leave a link in the comments.)

As a starting point I took the dummy route and simply typed into Google.ca the phrase, “Percentage of Canadians who’ve been in prison”.

The #2 result was a page from Statistics Canada – a pretty dependable source – and while it doesn’t quite answer my question, it does at least tell me roughly how many adult Canadians are in prison right now. Here are the daily average prison populations for the year 2014-15:

Remand: 13,650
Sentenced (provinces and territories): 10,364
Sentenced (federal): 15,168
Total: 39,182

I had to extract these numbers from a somewhat confusing table, and they require a little glossing:

“Remand” means that the prisoner is being held awaiting trial. (In the United States, the phrase “pre-trial detention” is more typically used.) These prisoners are in the custody of the provincial or territorial justice systems.

Upon conviction, prisoners sentenced to any term under two years will remain in the provincial or territorial system, while those sentenced to two years or more will be transferred to a federal prison. (Hence a term of “two years less a day” is common in Canadian sentencing.)

As you can see from the above numbers, within the provincial system, in 2014-15 more prisoners were in remand than had been convicted of any crime. But in the justice system overall, unconvicted prisoners were about 35% of the total.

(The 2015-16 stats are also available, showing that the share of prisoners in remand has since risen to over 37%.)

Going back to my internet search, the #6 result was a 2015 editorial from the Globe and Mail – Canada’s equivalent of the New York Times – with this headline:

Most of Canada’s prisoners have never been convicted of anything. Why are they in jail?

The second paragraph proclaims that:

Across the country, 55 per cent of prisoners in provincial and territorial jails are not behind bars because of a conviction.

And the editorial ends with the question:

Is there a politician in Canada with the courage to take up the cause? Someone who won’t pander to fears whipped up by the tough-on-crime crowd, but will instead build a better system based on evidence, enlightened self-interest and a genuine respect for the right to liberty? Or will we continue to be a country where two out of three people behind bars haven’t been convicted of anything?

There’s no explanation, by the way, for how the anonymous editorialist managed to get from 55% at the top of the page to “two out of three” at the bottom.

In any case, neither the headline nor the closing peroration is in any conceivable sense accurate. And the second paragraph, while technically true, leaves out the important information – probably unknown to the majority of readers – that there are separate federal and provincial jail systems. With federal prisons included, “most” Canadian prisoners – in 2014-15, just under two out of three – have indeed been convicted of something.

I read this deceptive editorial in “Canada’s newspaper of record” and shook my head. “Well, that’s why I buy the National Post,” I thought, resuming my research.

Oh, wait:

More than half of Canadian adults in jail awaiting trial rather than serving sentences in 2014 and 2015: StatsCan

For over a decade, jails across Canada have held more adults awaiting trial than convicted offenders serving sentences…

Thus begins the National Post’s version of the same story. Once again, the lede is technically true – but the phrase “jails across Canada” misleadingly neglects to mention the difference between provincial and federal prisons.

At least – small comfort – the very final paragraph of the Post’s article acknowledges that:

The numbers do not include the approximately 15,168 prisoners who were serving sentences of two years or more in federal custody over the same period.

***

At a talk he gave in 2002, author Michael Crichton introduced the concept of Gell-Mann Amnesia (named in honour of his friend, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, with whom he had formulated the idea):

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Unlike Murray Gell-Mann on physics, or Michael Crichton on showbiz, I’m not an expert on the Canadian penal system. If I hadn’t happened to be researching the subject when I came across these articles, I would have assumed their numbers were accurate. Our most respected national news sources wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

But what’s particularly galling about these misleading articles is that the number of people in Canadian jails is pretty easy to count. There is little argument about what constitutes a “prison” or a “prisoner”. Accurate figures aren’t hard to find – they’ve been made available on the internet by our government. The National Post article actually links to the Statistics Canada website that was my source for the table above.

If our national media can make such a hash of readily calculated, easily accessible statistics, how badly are they scrambling the statistics that aren’t so easy to pin down?

And what about me? The next time I read an op-ed piece confidently quoting reams of numbers at me – will I remember this incident?

M.

Anti-demons.

In my little suburb not long ago, some local leftists organized an “anti-fascist” demonstration. Or, as the flyers put it:

ANTI-FASCIST AND ANTI-RACIST
DEMONSTRATION

The flyers were decorated with a cartoon of a masked thug stomping on a giant swastika. The demonstration must have gone down without any actual Nazi-stomping, because I didn’t hear anything further about it. Later the posters disappeared, except for one near my apartment which had been affixed to a transformer box with some kind of glue. The city worker assigned to remove it had only managed to peel off a vertical strip, leaving:

ANTI-
DEMONS

***

In the wake of the white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a demonstrator on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, I noticed a bunch of articles in the popular press more or less openly celebrating physical attacks on Nazis. Here for instance is the AV Club describing a Nazi-punching video game as “constructively violent”, and here is Comics Alliance approvingly quoting the left-wing comics writer Warren Ellis on one’s moral obligation to punch not only Nazis but those who support Nazis’ right to go out in public without being punched. (If I’m understanding the purport of the comic excerpted at the bottom of the page, Comics Alliance endorses the tossing of Nazis off balconies, too.)

Many articles of this type were illustrated with the famous cover of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America #1, with Cap braving a hail of bullets to sock Hitler in the jaw – a tad more glorious than the reality of a thug in a mask sucker-punching an unprotected private citizen then darting off into the crowd. My own apparently quaint view is that physical assault is a crime for very good and very obvious reasons, and that people who commit that crime ought to be prosecuted, and their actions condemned, however outrageous the speech they claim to have provoked them. I guess this makes me a reactionary nowadays.

***

Toward the end of his recent, widely-shared review of the book Days of Rage, about left-wing anti-government terrorism in the 1970s, David Z. Hines speculates about whether the current glamorization of anti-fascist street brawlers might mark the start of a new cycle of leftist violence:

Lefties said Ted Cruz was a Nazi, Mitt Romney was a Nazi, George W. Bush was a Nazi. I’ve done human rights work that had me working in proximity to the U.S. military, so at a professional meeting a Lefty called me a Nazi.

So if you tell me that I’m a Nazi, and tell me people I respect are Nazis, and tell me you’re in favor of going out and beating up Nazis, guess what? I am suddenly very interested in the physical safety of Nazis.

That was posted (originally to Twitter) a week before Spencer was assaulted. About two weeks later came the outbreak of hooliganism at UC Berkeley over an appearance by the alt-right-orbiting provocateur Milo Yiannopolous. Another month passed between the Milo riot and the mobbing of Charles Murray at Middlebury College, Vermont, where a female faculty member who’d had the temerity to interact respectfully with the visiting speaker wound up in a neck brace. It took the anti-fascists less than a month and a half to expand the circle of Nazidom from the white identitarian fringe to a libertarian who’d endorsed Hillary Clinton in the last election – and to those unlucky enough to be in his vicinity.

Maybe the anti-fascists will stop there. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to start worrying about the physical safety of Nazis.

***

My repulsion over incidents like these has made me take a fresh look at a Nazi-punching scene in a favourite movie of mine. In William Wyler’s post-World War II homecoming drama The Best Years Of Our Lives we find Homer, the armless ex-Navy man, dropping by the workplace of his buddy Fred, a former Air Force captain reduced to pushing sundaes at a drugstore soda counter.

Another customer notices Homer’s prosthetics and extends his sympathy: “It’s terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself. And for what?” Homer, good natured but none too bright, doesn’t grasp what the stranger is driving at. “We let ourselves get sold down the river,” the guy elaborates. “We were pushed into war.”

The only people pushing for war, says Homer, were the Japs and Nazis. But the stranger tells him no, the Axis powers had no quarrel with America: “They just wanted to fight the limeys and the Reds. And they woulda whipped ’em, too, if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington. Just read the facts, my friend,” he says, thumping his newspaper for emphasis. “Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands.”

Homer takes issue with this guy’s interpretation of the “facts”, leading to the fight. Now, in my recollection of the scene, it was the stranger who struck the first blow. But watching it again, I observe that the guy grudgingly complies when Fred, overhearing their conversation, leans in to tell him to take a hike. It’s Homer who escalates things by tearing off the stranger’s American flag lapel pin. Then Fred leaps over the counter and floors the man with one punch, knocking him into a glass display case. When the manager scurries over to attend to his customer moaning in a pile of broken glass, Fred preemptively hands over his apron. “Don’t say it, chum. The customer’s always right, so I’m fired. But this customer wasn’t right.”

I’ve only seen this movie on home video, never in a theatre, but I suspect in the current climate the punch would draw a round of applause. Serves ‘im right, that loudmouth so-and-so, riling up the good citizens with his anti-American B.S.!

But rewatching it, it occurs to me how the loudmouth with his anti-government paranoia sounds an awful lot like the left-wingers I used to hear spieling in coffeeshops around the time of the invasion of Iraq. Radicals in Washington. Pushed into war. Just read the facts.

And it occurs to me how an older Fred could easily be the right-wing galoot who gets into a scuffle with disillusioned Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July.

born on the fourth of july bar scene

Why, that lousy hippie, undermining our patriotic resolve with his anti-American B.S.!

Of course, Ron Kovic was a good guy, while that America Firster in the drugstore was a bad guy, so the situations are totally unrelated.

***

As the Days of Rage review indicates, we’re still a long way from the kind of chaos that emanated from American campuses a half-century ago. In his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom, a professor at Cornell during the last outbreak, describes how his colleagues were beaten, held hostage, and intimidated into compliance with the demands of student radicals aroused by a moralistic fervor:

But what was meant by morality has to be made clear. There is a perennial and unobtrusive view that morality consists in such things as telling the truth, paying one’s debts, respecting one’s parents and doing no voluntary harm to anyone. Those are all things easy to say and hard to do; they do not attract much attention, and win little honor in the world. … This was not the morality that came into vogue in the sixties, which was an altogether more histrionic version of moral conduct, the kind that characterizes heroes in extreme situations. Thomas More’s resistance to a tyrant’s commands was the daily fare of students’ imagination. … It was not, of course, the complexity of such cases that was attractive but their brilliance, the noble pose. Somehow it was never the everyday business of obeying the law that was interesting; moreso was breaking it in the name of the higher law.

Bloom’s thesis – which I can’t claim to fully understand, but indulge me for a moment while I pretend – is that the root of this anarchy was a “cheapened interpretation” of Nietzche’s critique of Enlightenment values, transmitted and distorted via Heidegger’s acolytes on the European left. This critique had earlier been associated mainly with the right, until Heidegger had embarrassed himself by embracing Nazism in a period of German campus disorder not unlike the later American one:

The fact that in Germany the politics were of the Right and in the United States of the Left should not mislead us. In both places the universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide. … The unthinking hatred of “bourgeois society” was exactly the same in both places. A distinguished professor of political science proved this when he read to his radical students some speeches about what was to be done. They were enthusiastic until he informed them that the speeches were by Mussolini.

I linked above to Rod Dreher’s discussion of the Middlebury College uprising because along with Charles Murray’s first-person account it includes a link to this op-ed in the campus newspaper articulating the anti-speech position:

Indeed, when I first arrived at Middlebury I was clueless to the systems of power constructed around race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, and found that when I talked about these issues as I understood them – or rather, as I didn’t – I was met with blank stares and stigma rather than substantial debate. As a young bigot, I can recall thinking: “I thought at Middlebury I would get to have intellectual discussions, but instead it feels as though my views are being censored.” However, as a first-year I had failed to consider a simple, yet powerful component of debate: not all opinions are valid opinions. I had fallen into the trap of false equivalence.

False equivalence is simple: just because two sides are opposed does not mean they are equally logically valid.

Having embraced the Truth, you see, this student can’t risk repolluting his mind by engaging with what he now knows to be falsehoods. Furthermore, it’s his responsibility as a possessor of the Truth to shout down those falsehoods to protect other, weaker-minded people from being influenced by them.

As it happens, the Truth the student has newly embraced is the truth of what we currently call Progressivism, or Social Justice, or the Right Side of History. It might as easily have been Mussolini’s truth, or Mao’s, or Mullah Omar’s. One more quote from Allan Bloom:

Rousseau noted that in his time many men were liberals who a century earlier would have been religious fanatics. He concluded that they were not really reasonable, but, rather, conformists.

But the student would no doubt say that Rousseau and Bloom were themselves only conforming to the “systems of power” designed to keep women and minorities in their places, so why should anyone listen to them?

Now, it’s possible this kid with his Middlebury education really has sussed out the eternal, immovable, logically unanswerable truth about race, class, and the heritability of IQ. But the moment he steps off campus he runs the risk of finding himself in a crowd of less enlightened souls, equally committed to suppressing what they see as falsehoods, who might mistake his empyrean proclamations for the blitherings of an anti-democratic kook.

I can picture him now, thumping his student newspaper like that drugstore noodge in The Best Years Of Our Lives – “Just read the facts, my friend” – while the good citizens watch him through narrowing eyes.

M.

PS. In naming this post I had in mind Dostoevsky’s Demons – translated previously (and better known to old-timers like me) under the titles The Possessed or The Devils – which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read. I was going to delay publishing this until I’d finished the novel, but I thought I’d better stay ahead of events. How many others might get punched between now and then?

I haven’t read Dostoevsky’s The Devils but in 2010 I was confused by a remark in Tolstoy’s The Devil. In 2012 I blogged about Allan Bloom as remembered by Saul Bellow as related by Martin Amis. It appears I’ve name-checked Charles Murray once before, in this 2015 post about Bertrand Russell’s prescriptions for overcoming conformism.

Sooner or later: Cost disease and Canadian transit.

Back in 2015, in the wake of Metro Vancouver’s failed referendum campaign for a 0.5% sales tax to fund an ambitious list of regional transit upgrades, I argued that the big-ticket items on the list should be scaled back or postponed while we focussed our limited dollars on improving bus service. Subways and LRTs are great, I said, but a couple big rail projects will eat up all the money we could instead use to make the whole network faster, less crowded, and more enticing to commuters.

I still think my argument makes sense. I occasionally take the bus during rush hour, and I seethe at being stuck behind lines of idling cars when I can see how a simple bypass lane, costing a paltry few million bucks, would save thousands of straphangers five or ten minutes out of their commute each way, every day. Many roads wouldn’t even have to be widened – simply sacrificing a few on-street parking spots would do the trick. There must be dozens of such chokepoints around the region, and they could all be unchoked for a fraction of the cost of putting a subway down Broadway. Though I’d like us to build the subway too.

But a post last month on Slate Star Codex – Scott Alexander’s estimable blog, to which I lately find myself linking with unseemly frequency (see here and here) – makes me wonder if my sensible, fiscally-prudent argument was in fact completely wrong.

Alexander discusses something called Baumol’s cost disease, a phenomenon in economics where increasing efficiency in one industry counterintuitively leads to increasing costs in an entirely unrelated industry.

Suppose new manufacturing methods save an auto plant part of the cost of building a car. Profits rise, allowing the company to boost its workers’ wages by a couple bucks an hour. Meanwhile the meat processing facility across town hasn’t seen any improvement in productivity, but if they don’t offer an equivalent wage hike they’ll lose their best workers to the auto plant. They pass the higher costs along to their customers, and suddenly the price of meat goes up because the cost of manufacturing cars has gone down.

That’s Baumol’s version of cost disease, anyway. Alexander wonders whether it’s a sufficient explanation for the perpetually increasing costs in four different sectors of the U.S. economy – education, health care, housing, and public transportation infrastructure. Even after adjusting for inflation, costs in these four sectors have gone up in my lifetime by factors of two, five, even ten, without commensurate improvements in outcomes. Life expectancy is flat. University grads are as semiliterate as ever. Apartments aren’t appreciably nicer. And subway tunnels are pretty much the same as the ones our forefathers dug for a fraction of the cost.

Alexander is American, and in his brief section addressing ever-pricier subway construction he restricts himself to American data. In fact one of the questions he asks is why the U.S. seems to be more susceptible to cost disease than other countries. So my first question was – does this disease afflict Canadian public transportation infrastructure as well?

Let’s look at the costs – adjusted for inflation – for a half-century’s worth of rapid transit projects in the two big cities I know reasonably well, Vancouver and Toronto:

toronto subway costs

vancouver skytrain costs

(Click on images for data and sources.)

Some caveats and observations:

  • With so few data points to work with, the trendlines are susceptible to being skewed by one or two pricey outliers, like Toronto’s bonkers Line 1 extension to Vaughan.
  • Reported final costs are questionable, since governments tend to find ways to obscure overruns. Vancouver’s 2016 Evergreen extension, for instance, is known to have blown past its budget, but we’ve been assured that the unanticipated costs will be eaten by the contractor. The true cost, therefore, is higher than the figure shown.
  • The graphs are to the same scale, but the cities’ rapid transit systems shouldn’t be compared directly since they use totally different technologies. Vancouver’s light, high-frequency, mostly-elevated SkyTrain permits smaller stations and (for the 20% or so of the system that’s underground) narrower, cheaper-to-build tunnels than Toronto’s heavy-rail subway. (I’ve left Toronto’s SkyTrain-like Scarborough RT and under-construction Eglinton light-rail project out of the analysis for this reason.)
  • Even within each city, these aren’t apples-to-apples. In the Toronto graph there are visible discontinuities between the early cut-and-cover subways in the city core, with stops every 500-600 metres and relatively low per-station costs; the 1970s extensions into suburbia, often at surface level and with fewer, more widely-spaced stops; and more recent bored tunnels where the costs shoot into the stratosphere.

In any case, both graphs show a discernible upward tick since the 1990s or so, suggesting that cost disease may indeed have spread to Canada. But if so, what are the causes?

The libertarianish Megan McArdle waves away Alexander’s data on the rising cost of subways as merely “union featherbedding combined with increasingly dysfunctional procurement and regulatory processes”. Maybe those are worsening the problem – I don’t know enough to comment – but off the top of my head I can think of four other possible contributing factors:

1. The cost of land acquisition goes up at a rate faster than inflation (because they keep making people but they aren’t making more land).

2. The ground beneath and alongside city streets is ever more crowded with pipes, cables, parking structures, and so on, which must either be relocated or awkwardly worked around.

3. An increased emphasis on worker and bystander safety slows and complicates construction. (Some of this probably falls under the definition of “union featherbedding” as mentioned by McArdle.)

4. Projects now include the expenses of mitigating environmental damage, preserving historic neighbourhoods, averting noise pollution, accommodating the handicapped – all that touchy-feely stuff previous generations didn’t give a rip about.

Doubtless there are other causes I haven’t thought of, but I’ll stop at those four because they pair off neatly into two groups I’d like to examine a little more closely. When you think about it, all four are side effects of growing wealth:

  • Causes 1 and 2 – the rising cost of land and the build-up of clutter along possible transit routes – accelerate as a city becomes more populous and its taxpayers demand more and better services.
  • Causes 3 and 4 – worker safety and the mitigation of environmental and social externalities – might be thought of as perks, which previous generations were willing to forego in their pursuit of progress but which we in our prosperity don’t mind splashing out on.

I think the “perk factor” actually explains much of the cost disease in the sectors Alexander identifies. As we’ve grown wealthier we’re willing to spend more on things that are orthogonal to the actual missions of health care, education, housing, and public transportation – things like prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of our workforces, or ensuring that their gender and ethnic compositions are representative of the wider population. These perks require added layers of administration that do nothing to improve the outcomes we’re attempting to measure. Those layers aren’t failing – they’re doing what they’re meant to do – but those things aren’t captured in graphs like the ones in this post.

As a taxpayer I suspect we could afford to do without much of this extra padding. But I don’t want construction workers risking their necks, or rivers recklessly diverted, or noisy trains rattling people’s cupboards, just to save a few bucks. I know next to nothing about health care or university administration or housing construction, but I suppose the people who are familiar with those matters have equally strong objections to cutting what may strike me as frivolous perks.

In any case, sticking to transit infrastructure, there’s no reason to suppose we’re likely to care less about safety, or the environment, or architectural heritage in the future. In fact those concerns will almost certainly grow, making construction ever less affordable.

To return to causes 1 and 2 – land costs and infrastructure clutter – it should be possible to mitigate cost disease through better planning – say, through more farsighted property acquisition, and coordinating with other agencies to ensure that future transit corridors aren’t obstructed. But I assume we’re already trying to do those things, and my suggestion of “Okay, well, just do them better” is not too helpful.

Sooner, or later?

One way to avert cost disease might be by preemptive surgery – building rapid transit today, at today’s comparatively reasonable prices, in anticipation of tomorrow’s needs. Metro Vancouver’s overall outline is pretty well established by geographic barriers like mountains and rivers, and more recently by the imposition of an urban containment boundary meant to preserve nearby farmland.

metro vancouver urban containment boundary

Source: Metro Vancouver. (Click for original.)

Therefore we can assume that the Vancouver of the future will be much the same shape as the Vancouver of today, only a lot denser. We should be able to predict with fair accuracy where future demand for transit will lie, and build in anticipation of that demand.

However, of the four causes of cost disease mentioned above, preemptive surgery really only targets the first one – rising land costs. It sidesteps the cost of infrastructure clutter only by transferring that cost to future generations who will have to spend more to build around the clutter we create today. And while it might seem thrifty to thwart the next generation’s opportunity to waste money on what we consider silly perks – by using construction methods that they’ll see as barbarously unsafe, maybe, or by bulldozing some architectural monstrosity before it’s declared a heritage monument – who are we to say what the future’s priorities should be?

I’m grateful for much of the infrastructure earlier generations of headstrong builders bequeathed me, but I wish they’d been more cautious about what they smashed in the process – like the whole blocks of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood destroyed in the sixties to make room for the Georgia viaducts, which planners are now preparing to remove. Building preemptively means we risk building unnecessarily, as the future evolves new habits of getting around that we can’t anticipate.

Still, being made aware of cost disease has tipped me in favour of building rapid transit now, while it’s still barely affordable, rather than putting it off as demand grows and grows. Spending sooner rather than later may actually be the sensible, fiscally-prudent thing to do.

M.

Realism vs. fatalism, diligence vs. delusion.

I recently answered a wide-ranging reader survey for my current favourite blog, Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. One of the questions was whether I had more of a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset, as defined here. I had to follow the link to figure out what Alexander was asking – I thought maybe it had something to do with economics – but it turns out in this context, “fixed” and “growth” mindset refer to whether you think talents are things you’re naturally born with, or things you acquire through effort.

Obviously no-one believes 100% that they’re born with all the talent necessary to play professional basketball, say, or write prize-winning short stories. Some effort must be exerted. On the other hand, despite what they may say to the contrary, no-one really believes 100% that anyone can, with enough practice, play in the NBA or become an acclaimed writer. Some people have physical or mental handicaps that could never be overcome, no matter how much effort they put in. The rest of us fall on a continuum between “could never do it in a million years” and “with the slightest effort could excel”.

I placed myself right in the middle on the five-point sliding scale – because I believe that in most cases both natural aptitude and effort are necessary. But in retrospect, the survey wasn’t really asking “what do you believe, for the range of imaginable talents, is the overall ratio of natural aptitude to applied effort?” It was asking, “where do you stand in the ideological dispute between those who think talent is inborn and those who think anyone can, with sufficient effort and encouragement, become good at anything?” And since no-one – literally not one single person in the entire world – says that talent is 100% inborn, while millions proclaim – at least via their t-shirts and coffee mugs – that the reverse is true, I probably should have answered that, relative to the weighted average of those two positions, I’m on the side of the “fixed” mindset.

Each mindset comes with its own pitfalls. An extreme “fixeder” might conclude there’s no point putting effort into anything, since if he’s not already good at it, it can only be because he lacks the natural genius for it. While an extreme “growther” could squander her life pursuing some futile dream, in the belief that success was just a little more effort away, while neglecting more attainable goals.

The “growther” tragedy is more visible – we’ve all winced at some deluded fool stubbornly flailing away in a pursuit he’s manifestly unsuited for. But we can never know how many invisible “fixeder” tragedies are happening in our midst – how many of our apparently unremarkable friends might have dazzled the world if only they’d put in that extra bit of effort. If “growtherism” seems to be more zealously propagandized than common sense would dictate, it may be because most of us secretly suspect, and some of us with good reason, that if only we’d more diligently pursued our dreams, if we hadn’t been distracted by the need to keep gas in the car and our families fed, we too might have joined the immortals.

M.

 

Update, June 6 2017: I discover that Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler No. 129, addressed this theme – but using the elevated language of 18th-century moral exhortation, rather than the stunted terminology of social science (“growth mindset”, “fixed mindset”) within reach of the modern essayist.

Dr. Johnson believed that thinkers of his time placed undue emphasis on the dangers of over-reaching one’s abilities:

Among the favourite topics of moral declamation, may be numbered the miscarriages of imprudent boldness, and the folly of attempts beyond our power. Every page of every philosopher is crowded with examples of temerity that sunk under burdens which she laid upon herself, and called out enemies to battle by whom she was destroyed.

But if the same attention had been applied to the search of arguments against the folly of presupposing impossibilities, and anticipating frustration, I know not whether many would not have been roused to usefulness, who, having been taught to confound prudence with timidity, never ventured to excel lest they should unfortunately fail.

The cult of self-esteem had not yet been invented; anything-is-possibilism had not yet taken hold. Johnson lived in an extremely fixed-mindset century, when it was mildly provocative to suggest that the barriers imposed by custom, “frigorific wisdom”, and our own over-fearful imaginations, might be surmounted with sufficient effort. Well-intentioned moralists had inculcated a “timorous prudence” in their followers, which restrained them from doing all they might do to further the progress of mankind:

There are qualities in the products of nature yet undiscovered, and combinations in the powers of art yet untried. It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happiness. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope; and of every honest endeavour, it is certain, that, however unsuccessful, it will be at last rewarded.

Those are the final words of the essay. The reward that “every honest endeavour” will enjoy, Johnson implies but feels no need to spell out, might arrive not in this lifetime, but in the life beyond. For non-believers, the danger of unsuccessful, unrewarded endeavour remains daunting.

Last year I used Scott Alexander’s parable about a time-travelling Know-Nothing as a launching point for this discursive post about immigration, Brave New World, and the end of history.

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.