Posts Tagged 'slate star codex'

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.


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.



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.

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.


The Know-Nothing.

If I had to choose a passage to introduce you to Scott Alexander’s terrific blog Slate Star Codex, this isn’t the one I’d go with. But it happens to be one I want to riff on, so here it is…

Imagine a space-time rift brings a 19th-century Know-Nothing to your doorstep. He starts debating you on the relative merits and costs of allowing Irish people to mix with the rest of American society. And you have a hard time even getting the energy to debate him. You’re like “Yeah, there are some Irish people around. I think my boss might be half-Irish or something, although I’m not sure. So what?” And he just sputters “But…but…Irish people! It’s not right for Irish and non-Irish people to mix! Everyone knows that!” And not only do you not think that Irish people are a Big Deal, but you’re about 99% sure that after the Know-Nothing spends a couple of months in 21st-century America he’s going to forget about the whole Irish thing too. There’s just no way someone seeing how boring and ordinary Irish-Americans are could continue to consider worrying about it a remotely good use of their time.

The rest of this old post (from 2013) has nothing to do with the Irish. Alexander is a practitioner of polyamory, you see, which is some kind of modern offshoot of what used to be called free love, and he’s making a point about how unthreatening polyamory is, once you get to know the people who practice it. That subject doesn’t interest me at all – I endorse wholeheartedly his title (if not necessarily his argument): Polyamory Is Boring. But his analogy got me wondering. Would the Know-Nothing really come around as easily as Alexander imagines?

Let me extend the scenario. After your fruitless conversation with the time traveller, you part ways. A few months later, after he’s had time to settle in, read the newspapers, catch some TV, strike up conversations with cab drivers and strangers in bars, you run into him again. “Well, what do you think now?” you say. “The Irish aren’t so scary, are they?”

He shakes his head sadly. “You poor fool,” he says. “Everything we warned you about has come true. Irishness has completely overwhelmed the country. It surrounds you. And you can’t even see it.”

Of course, you ask the Know-Nothing to elaborate. But here my imagination fails – I have no idea what he’s observed in the intervening weeks to make him so depressed. I, like you, grew up in a culture so marinated in Irishness that its effects are totally invisible to me.

If you or I were to shimmer across the invisible space-time boundary that separates us from the alternate-history 2016 where the Know-Nothings successfully kept out the Irish, who knows what we’d find. I suspect we wouldn’t much care for the place. We’d find it stuffy, and exclusionary, and most importantly, in some indefinable way, insufficiently Irish.

But the fact that we prefer having been brought up in our own universe doesn’t mean that our side’s arguments (I mean, the arguments of the 19th century folks who took what we interpret to be “our side” in this long-dead dispute) were correct.

It just means our side won.


A few years back, in a post about cratering American birthrates (which I somehow tied in with a discussion of Robert Heinlein’s 1950 sci-fi novel Farmer in the Sky), I wrote that

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers.

I then went on for a few paragraphs about the downsides of large-scale immigration – problems of assimilation, mainly. But, I brightly concluded,

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves.

Recently I re-read that passage and I thought – wait, what? Do I have any empirical reason for believing that we will be “fortified” by new immigrants? What does that even mean?

I suppose I was making the same assumptions that underlie Scott Alexander’s parable of the time traveller. Strength in diversity! A nation of immigrants! The cultural mosaic! Irish, Ukrainians, Jews, Chinese – they’ve all successfully integrated, so why shouldn’t the next batch?

Only…if I were to extend the above list of immigrant ethnicities I would pretty quickly arrive at a few that have, as yet, integrated noticeably less well. (Depending where you live, you probably have a different unsuccessfully-integrated group in mind.) Maybe these groups aren’t to blame for their exclusion; maybe they’ve been discriminated against by the native-born. Maybe “integration” isn’t even a desirable goal. I’m not interested in arguing those points right now. I only mean there are differences between Irish immigration in the 1850s and Jewish immigration in the 1910s and (say) Syrian immigration in the 2010s. Differences in “them”, obviously, but just as importantly, differences in “us” – how many of us there are, what kinds of communities we live in, what jobs are available, and perhaps most of all, what we believe.

Some of those differences should make integration less painful. We’re certainly less overtly racist than we used to be, and we pay lip-service (sometimes without knowing exactly what we mean) to tolerance and diversity and so forth. On the other hand, we’ve adopted views on things like public displays of sexuality, and sacrilegious speech, and gender norms, that increase our cultural separation from some of the immigrants we’re welcoming. The observant Muslim parents of a teenage girl in 1950s Toronto might have worried about their daughter being picked on because of her headscarf, but they wouldn’t have had to worry about her being exposed to Snapchat or Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the new Ontario sex ed curriculum.

People who demonize conservative immigration skeptics like Mark Steyn and Steve Sailer as racists and Islamophobes and so forth tend not to actually read what they write, so it doesn’t register that their skepticism might be rooted in a concern for the fragility of our common liberal values – basic things like freedom of speech, religious toleration, and the right of uncovered women to go for a walk without getting harassed. Perhaps their paranoia is overheated, but at least it acknowledges that integration works both ways. The Irish didn’t just come to America and become more American; America became more Irish. And the same will happen with today’s immigrants.

Maybe we’re cool with that, or maybe we’re just confident that the changes in “us” will all be for whatever we define as the better. But in the long run, it hardly matters what we think. The citizens of the future will uncritically adapt to the culture we bequeath them, and find arguments like this one as unfathomable as we find the frettings of the Know-Nothings.


I went off on a bit of a tangent there – I didn’t set out intending to write about immigration, not exactly. What got me thinking about Scott Alexander’s Know-Nothing was this passage in Brave New World.

Early on we’re introduced to Helmholtz Watson, lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. Helmholtz is troubled by an inchoate sense that, despite the state of universal contentment society has achieved in the year 632 After Ford, something vital is missing. He tries to explain to a friend what he means:

He was silent, then, “You see,” he went on at last, “I’m pretty good at inventing phrases – you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you’d sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they’re about something hypnopaedically obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.”

“But your things are good, Helmholtz.”

“Oh, as far as they go.” Helmholtz shrugged his shoulders. “But they go such a little way. They aren’t important enough, somehow. I feel I could do something much more important. Yes, and more intense, more violent. But what? What is there more important to say?”

I shut the book and reflected how in every generation, people complain that things are getting worse – morals are deteriorating, the scope of personal freedom is shrinking, tastes are coarsening, the best and highest works of our culture gather dust while the mob lavishes praise on ephemera. Optimists point to the fact that pessimists have been tolling the same doleful themes since at least Plato’s time as proof that the pessimists can be safely ignored: According to those old farts we’ve been driving off a cliff for two and a half millennia. Yet here we still are!

I share their optimism much of the time. Indeed, here we are! We’ve got it pretty good! Food is cheap, yoga pants are amazing for all sorts of reasons, and it appears euthanasia-on-demand will win the race against my accelerating decrepitude. Go toll your bell somewhere else, Gloomy Gus!

But reading Helmholtz’s report from the distant future, it occurred to me that perhaps the Gloomy Guses have been right all along. Every one of them.

In every generation things are lost. Some of those things are deliberately buried, because manners change, and people will no longer put up with blackface dance routines or teen sex comedies where the boys spy on the girl’s locker room. Often, in an excess of scrupulousness, good stuff gets buried with the bad. But most of the good stuff isn’t even deliberately buried, it just gets left behind and forgotten. And the people who’ve forgotten it don’t even know what they’re missing.

You might say it’s nothing to worry about. Our culture keeps generating new stuff to replace what’s lost, and if that new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff, that’s fine, the culture will just adjust its definition of quality and future folks won’t know the difference.

Assuming, that is, that the conditions enabling us to generate new stuff will always prevail. But what if they don’t? What if historical progress actually has an end point?

Brave New World illustrates one way we could put a stop to history: we could actually bio-engineer creativity out of the human race. Helmholtz Watson, with his vague urges toward individual expression, is an aberration in the world of 632 A.F. – a genetic mistake of a kind society is working to eliminate. Another hundred years of tweaking the mix in the test tubes, and socially destabilizing brooders like Helmholtz might be done away with entirely.

I wish I could say confidently that we’ll never elect to bio-engineer our humanity away like that. But even if the human race remains inwardly human, external conditions might impede our creativity. Overcrowding. Technological dependency. The sheer bulk of our past achievements has already made it impossible to be a generalist in the manner of Newton or Goethe or Ben Franklin; if you want to add anything significant to the corpus of cultural knowledge, you now have to specialize. We might reach a point where the number of ideas you have to know already in order to conceive a new idea is so immense that no human brain can handle it; we’ll have no choice but to turn the process of ideation over to computers. Even demoralizing reflections like this one, the fear that all the good ideas have already been thought up, might increasingly lead to torpor and civilizational paralysis.

In the worst case, humanity might go the way of the famous mouse utopia experiment at NIMH – mouse decadence, then mouse apathy, then mouse barbarism, then total population collapse. But I suspect we’ll settle instead into something not far removed from Aldous Huxley’s prophetic satire – maintained by robots, pacified by porn and marijuana, stimulating the atrophied remnants of our thymos with virtual status-seeking – unlocking special achievements in video games and the like. I mean, we in the West aren’t too far from that already, except that the robots haven’t taken quite all the jobs yet so some of us still have to work. And you know what, it’s not that bad. We can’t regret what we don’t know we’ve lost.

When the Know-Nothing time-traveller arrives on our doorstep, we’ll listen with raised eyebrows to his crazy harangue. “The arts? Philosophy? The struggle for distinction? Geez, it all sounds awful. Why don’t you go for a walk, old man, take a look around. You’ll see how much better we have things now.”


PS. I was re-reading Brave New World to celebrate the recent wrapping-up of my own novel on a similar theme. More about this soon…