“The Storm Before the Storm” and parallels to modern American history

The Storm Before the Storm is a history of ancient Rome, and it’s explicit about its purpose: to draw parallels between then and contemporary American history. For obvious reasons, “how democracies die” is a salient question right now. The book is successful in its task and, beyond being good in itself, it makes a nice companion to Helen Dale’s Kingdom of the Wicked.

Still, I’m going to do the opposite and look at ways the current United States is not like ancient Rome. For one thing, ancient Rome was a largely agrarian society and we’re not agrarian today and haven’t been for a long time. For another, passages like this are common: “Norbanus instigated a riot that physically drove the rival tribunes out of the Assembly. Caepio was duly prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to exile. Violence once again proved to be the last word in Roman politics.” In recent decades political violence has been mostly absent from American life, and that’s good. Political violence was very bad in ancient Rome and is very bad in many circumstances; consider, for example, “Rule by Fear: A new one-volume book offers an updated history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich:”

Childers is absolutely clear that this tactic was combined at all times with intense and pervasive violence on the streets, particularly from the brown-shirted stormtroopers, the strong-arm wing of the movement.

Right now there are many bad things happening in American politics, with widespread efforts at voter suppression of particular and underappreciated importance, but violence in the streets and private goon squads aren’t yet among them—and, one hopes, they never will be. But so many things have happened that I never thought would happen that I’m reluctant to say this one never will.

Ancient Rome was also relentlessly at war; after Hannibal invaded Italy, “the great hero of the war, Scipio Africanus, led an invasion of the Carthaginian homeland in North Africa.” The last time the U.S. all-out invaded a country, it did not go well, and American military leaders are notably absent in politics or political power. The current president is notable mostly for draft dodging, not effective command.

The U.S. is also not currently seeing problems based on slaves; “the continuous run of successful foreign wars brought slaves flooding into Italy by the hundreds of thousands.” Many were then made to work “growing estates.” If anything, the biggest problem the U.S. faces is too few people, not too many. Bryan Caplan may write books like Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but most people do not take his advice. Articles like, “The historically low birthrate, explained in 3 charts.”

There are others, but the absence of violence in American politics is likely the most significant. I’m not writing this piece to argue for complacency—the Roman Republican saw a long period of declining democratic norms, and the U.S. is also seeing just that—but it’s tempting to follow Duncan’s narrative and think the abyss is near. Whenever one looks at a metaphor or other comparison, however, it’s useful to ask, “How are these things alike, and how are they not alike?” Many forget to ask the latter questions, including me.

We have no or very few political murders; the article on the history of the Third Reich notes that “Childers’s view of the ill-fated liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic is correspondingly gloomy, stressing the continuity of political murders (376 from 1918 to 1922 alone).” We have many problems, but, again, it’s worth stressing the problems we don’t have—and why it’s important to oppose violent rhetoric when it is used. Violence, once unleashed, becomes practice by precedent, and even those who would think to use it for temporary advantage do not have the foresight necessary to understand where it will go.

It is notable, too, that the Third Reich seized the machinery of the state and then deployed it to terrorize the rest of the population, which was too cowed, disorganized, or simply inattentive to do anything. Is there any doubt that, today, the many ground-level aspects of the security and police apparatus wouldn’t resist decrees to do horrible things in the United States? Watching the response to some of the awful decrees coming out of the capitol now makes the answer clearer than I once believed.

Duncan writes that, “If history is to have any active meaning there must be a place for identifying those interwoven elements, studying the recurring agencies, and learning from those who come before us.” I agree, but it appears many voters do not. In 2016, “about a quarter of people said they read zero books, in any format.” One out of four. Contemplate that as you go about your day. The same survey finds the median “American has read 4 books in the last 12 months.” Can history have much active meaning in our situation?

Links: Threatened democracies, “Friends” and Western Civ, Robin Hanson, campus zealots, and more!

* Actually, American democracy has faced worse threats than Donald Trump: The golden age of American politics was illiberal, undemocratic, and bloody. Still, success in the past is not a good reason for complacency in the present. There is a good essay collection Tyler Cowen contributed to, Can it happen here?, that I’ll write about at some point.

* How Friends Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization; I think this essay is satire.

* “Jordan Peterson Is Not the Second Coming.” Seemingly everyone now has a Jordan Peterson thinkpiece and this is Reason‘s.

* Excellent NYT reporting on why NYC’s subway is so terrible.

* Scott Aaronson on the Robin Hanson brouhaha that ought not to be a brouhaha. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s principle that we ought to look “at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue.” If someone calls an idea or person something other than “untrue” or “mistaken,” the person or idea labeled is often worth a second look (“often” is not always!).

* “‘It Was Cataclysmic’: Can Snapchat Survive Its Redesign?

* “The Lights Have Gone Out in Caracas.” #socialism.

* How the 50mm lens became normal. Almost anyone who becomes interested in photography buys a cheap-but-good “nifty 50.”

* Is the United States becoming too big to govern? Related to link #1.

* “How my lame joke saw me fall foul of the campus zealots.”

* “College may not be worth it anymore,” a point that I’m amazed it’s taken so long to propagate.

SoHo Forum debate: “All government support of higher education should be abolished?”

Last night I went to a SoHo Forum debate on education, with Ed Glaeser supporting government-funded education and Bryan Caplan opposing; I already knew most of Caplan’s case, from reading The Case Against Education.

By far the most interesting piece of (then unknown to me) data came from Glaeser, citing a paper or set of papers the examine national income growth from 1960 to the present (or 2010 or thereabouts) that find education seems to explain income growth but income growth doesn’t seem to explain education. I didn’t catch the names of the authors, but that sounds like one of the better pieces of evidence against The Case Against Education. I’ve been following reviews of the book and so far the critical arguments haven’t been good; most have already been addressed in the book, and the authors just missed them—or their pro-education worldview prevents them from reading and understanding.

To be sure, I’m sympathetic to criticism of Case; having worked for a long time in education I want Case to be wrong. But I cannot find any good arguments against it, either on my own or that others have put forth. Many people don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, despite the way that particular skill is fetishized in the education system. At the very least, putting forth more intelligent apprenticeship options is a good place to start.

Furthermore, I’ve long complained to friends that most of school is tedious and boring. For a while I’ve thought it’s boring because of whining risk:

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

But if education is really about signaling regarding conformity and conscientiousness, then boredom almost becomes a feature, rather than a bug. If one is willing to conscientiously do even very boring work, that’s a great labor market signal. If Caplan is correct school has been boring and will continue to be boring because no force pushes it not to be, except perhaps for the occasional idealistic teacher.

Still, I have a pet theory that education may really be about very high achievement among elites (who become scientific or artistic innovators) more than about mass education, the intellectual results of which Caplan does show to be… dubious. I don’t know how to test this theory and it is not original to me, although it takes new salience in light of Case.

There’s an analogue to research here: most research is “wasteful,” but that’s because no one knows the answer till after it’s conducted; that’s why it’s called “research.” Most education may also be wasteful, but no one knows who is a waste to educate until it’s too late (up until I hit age 16 or so, I probably looked like a waste of scarce educational resources).

It’s always of interest to see someone in person who is only known on the page; I love, and often cite in propsals, Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City, and in person he seems like one of those dapper titans of industry or now-extinct northeast, country-club Republicans of the ’50s.

Caplan posted his debate opening statement.

I didn’t think going in (and don’t think going out) that all forms of government support for education, higher or otherwise, ought to be abolished.

bryan-caplan-ed-glaeser

Everybody Lies — Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Stephens-Davidowitz is right:

One more important point that becomes clear when we zoom in: the world is complicated. Actions we take today can have distant effects, most of them unintended. Ideas spread—sometimes slowly; other times exponentially, like viruses. People respond in unpredictable ways to incentives.

Yet we seem to like simple stories and seem to believe that our actions will have simple, easy-to-understand consequences. Data complicates or invalidates many of those stories, so we ought to seek it whenever we can. Stephens-Davidowitz does just this in Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. An alternate sub-title could be, “Why most of us are full of shit.” You may suspect, intuitively, that most of us are full of shit, but it’s nice seeing it confirmed. The miracle of aggregation gives us a lot of new tools to look at human nature.

This book can be read as part of a series, as it’s congruent with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and especially Jon Birger’s Date-onomics, which doesn’t discuss data from porn, as Stephens-Davidowitz does, but it could have (albeit at the risk of making it longer and perhaps turning off some of its readers). We’re going to see a lot more books like Everybody Lies as the Internet allows us to aggregate huge amounts of data that tell us something about what we do—as opposed to what we say. What we say seems to be a very poor guide to understanding what we really think; while this has been obvious on some level for a long time, it’s useful to see the specific ways action and speech are mismatched.

Take one sensitive area:

Somewhat surprisingly, porn data is rarely utilized by sociologists, most of whom are comfortable relying on the traditional survey datasets they have built their careers on. But a moment’s reflection shows that the widespread use of porn—and the search and view data that comes with it—is the most important development in our ability to understand human sexuality in, well . . . Actually, it’s probably the most important data ever.

“Ever” might be an overstatement (what about Masters and Johnson’s live observations?), but calling it “very important” and perhaps most importantly “novel” is legitimate. While the observation is useful, it’s also useful to remember that what people want in a fantasy setting may be different from what they, or we, want in a reality setting. Many people like watching people get shot in movies without thinking we should shoot more people in real life.

Or, in the same domain, there is this, with the data from the General Social Survey:

when it comes to heterosexual sex, women say they have sex, on average, fifty-five times per year, using a condom 15 percent of the time. This adds up to about 1.1 billion condoms per year. But heterosexual men say they use 1.6 billion condoms every year. Those numbers, by definition, would have to be the same. So who is telling the truth, men or women?

Neither, it turns out. According to Nielsen, the global information and measurement company that tracks consumer behavior, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year. So everyone is lying; the only question is by how much.

A meta lesson may be, be very wary of survey data.

(If you recognize some of these ideas, you’ve probably read A Billion Wicked Thoughts or my essay on it.)

Other problems, this time outside the realm of sexuality, include estimation:

When relying on our gut, we can also be thrown off by the basic human fascination with the dramatic. We tend to overestimate the prevalence of anything that makes for a memorable story. For example, when asked in a survey, people consistently rank tornadoes as a more common cause of death than asthma. In fact, asthma causes about seventy times more death. Deaths by asthma don’t stand out—and don’t make the news.

Still, I wonder what would happen if researchers paid survey respondents for right answers. In surveys, people have little incentive to try to be right. In some other parts of life, they do.

Much of the data comes from Google, and we should remember something important: “Google can display a bias toward unseemly thoughts, thoughts people feel they can’t discuss with anyone else.” Which makes sense: before Google or the Internet more generally, many of those thoughts would never have left the mind in a way that in turn left a residue on the rest of the world. Now they do. Perhaps one lesson of Everybody Lies is that more of us should use Duck Duck Go, the search engine that famously doesn’t record its users’ search terms. I infer, from the prevalence of Google search and Gmail, that most people don’t give a damn about privacy—regardless of the numerous article about privacy one sees in the media. People’s revealed preferences seem to indicate they want convenience and familiarity far more than privacy.

Then there is this, which may be most useful for people doing Internet marketing:

The lesson of A/B testing, to a large degree, is to be wary of general lessons. Clark Benson is the CEO of ranker.com, a news and entertainment site that relies heavily on A/B testing to choose headlines and site designs. “At the end of the day, you can’t assume anything,” Benson says. “Test literally everything.”

By the way, the school(s) you attend also seems to matter little for any measurable life outcomes. The money spent on expensive private schools seems to be largely wasted, or, if not wasted, then at least should be considered a consumption expense, rather than an investment expense. The entire education industry has worked hard to convince you otherwise, but the papers Stephens-Davidowitz cites are convincing and congruent with similar research I’ve seen on the issue.

Stephens-Davidowitz ends by saying that data from the Amazon Kindle indicates that few people read to the end of books. This one is worth reading in full.

Links: On Chesil Beach, the nature of teaching, the nature of progress, the lack of progress in the humanities, and more!

* “Karley Sciortino: the sex blogger and Slutever presenter redefining sexuality.” My read of the book here.

* “Steven Marcus, Columbia Scholar and Literary Critic, Dies at 89.”

* “Student-Led Classrooms Waste Teacher Skill.” And learning styles seem to be a myth and “direct instruction” is effective.

* “Equality Is a Mediocre Goal. Aim for Progress.” It’s also striking to me how often “inequality” refers to a single metric, when many others also matter.

* “The Redistribution of Sex,” from Ross Douthat, and one of (many) pieces that show the weakness of the Twitter model: there just aren’t enough characters for nuance and development. Which is an old criticism but still true.

* “A Dying Scientist and His Rogue Vaccine Trial.” Cool.

* “The Commodification of Learning and the Decline of the Humanities.” This is congruent with my experience but I also have to ask, awkwardly: Where’s the evidence??

* 50 Pulp Cover Treatments of Classic Books.

* “New York City Street Parking Is Preposterously Corrupt.” Parking in general is crazy: everyone ought to read the high cost of free parking.

* An interesting comment on The Case Against Education.

* The Passion of Jordan Peterson.

* 24,000 Liters of Wine in the Hold: 40 Years of Globalization.”

* The Hyperfragmentation of Retail and Why the Biggest Winners are Digital Ad Platforms. I think of companies like Outlier, which solve specific problems (in this case bike pants) that others don’t or can’t or don’t notice.

* “Sweetgreen Has a Damage-Control Plan for Its New Salads.” Another new (ish?) company that’s underrated.

* “The First Porn President,” which is better than the usual but still about half is incorrect or at least not my view.

* From the NYT, “‘Who Gets to Be Sexy?’ Technology has made it possible for just about anyone to shoot, direct and star in their own porn films. Women are leading the new guard.” Well, it is the NYT, but also the Sunday Styles section.

* Are kids the enemy of writing? Probably not.

* Ian McEwan on On Chesil Beach, the movie version, but most interesting may be this, about his son finding one of McEwan’s books in the school curriculum: “Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy . . . I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said. I think he ended up with a C+.”

Links: The Virgin Suicides, UBI isn’t feasible, Alan Jacobs, and more!

* Why The Virgin Suicides Is Still So Resonant Today.

* Universal basic income is not feasible. I think it’s a cool idea and it could one day be feasible but isn’t now.

* Alan Jacobs: a Christian intellectual for the internet age.

* Bill Gates wants to make a universal flu vaccine.

* California and liberalism’s golden dream. Note especially the part about middle-income people fleeing California, which has largely become a state devoted to the very rich and very poor. And the state is busily pursuing land-use policies that reinforce this divide.

* No, teachers are not underpaid.

* In “What happened to the academic novel?” I quoted the original author as saying, “what happens when reality outpaces satire, or at least grows so outlandish that a would-be jester has to sprint just to keep up?” Now, in “State of Conflict,” we get an absurd story that shows how academic reality outruns academic satire. In it, a nineteen-year-old Nebraska student “set up a folding table on a plaza outside the student union and covered it in pamphlets, stickers, and buttons that said ‘Big Government Sucks!'” In return, “Lawton, a 46-year-old graduate student in the English department… left to make a sign: ‘Just say NO! to neo-Fascism.’ She was so agitated that she misspelled ‘fascism’ and had to start over.” If you are a 46-year old grad student, chances are that something is very wrong. The correct response to a sign one doesn’t like is the typical response: “Most people walked by without a second look.” Lawton didn’t do what typical people do and evidently doesn’t know what fascism is, either, apart from a slur.

* “Learn to Ride: E-bikes are great—as long as people know how to ride them. Here’s how to make sure they’re safe.”

* “Pimps Are Preying on Sex Workers Pushed Off the Web Because of FOSTA-SESTA.” Likely SFW.

* “Why doesn’t the federal government protect access to affordable housing the way it does access to TV?” A great point I’d never really thought about.

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