It could have been (much) worse

It could have been (much) worse: in 2016, I did something I’d not done prior, and hope not to need to do in the future: I put up a naked political endorsement: “Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president,” and, while that obviously didn’t work, shortly after the 2016 election I wrote “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” which says: “In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war.” While I had the specific disease vector wrong, this basic worry proved correct: “We haven’t even discussed the possibility of a flu pandemic or some other kind of pandemic. The Ebola crisis was much closer to a worldwide catastrophe than is commonly assumed now. At the start of a flu pandemic the United States may have to lead world in a decisive, intelligent way that seems unlikely to happen under Trump.”

To understate things, we didn’t lead the world, let alone do so in a decisive, intelligent way. We bungled, except for the scientific and technical establishment, and parts of the healthcare establishment. Still, from 2016 – 2020, we had three years that mostly consisted of bumbling and theater, then a fourth year of pandemic, along with attacks on the foundations of democracy. But Trump left office today; a president who has basic respect for democracy is in office; and the pandemic, while horrible, is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. In the first SARS-CoV viral outbreak in 2003, “about 9% of patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-1 infection died.” In the 2012 Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, the fatality rate of those infected appears to have been 34 – 37%. To my knowledge, no law of nature prevents a coronavirus from having a 40% or higher fatality rate, along with much higher transmissibility than SARS-CoV-2: the fatality rate of around 1% (assuming developed-world hospital care) is a matter of what appears to be luck. The virus’s transmission is also blocked, relatively easily, via the use of simple face masks: another lucky break. SARS-CoV-2 is highly transmissible, but it’s nothing like measles. Besides coronaviruses, the threat of a flu pandemic remains—although we may be better prepared for a future flu pandemic because of work on mRNA vaccines.

In many ways, the United States hasn’t made important progress in the last four years, but the worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass either. Nuclear war didn’t happen. Democracy still stands, and works. The big question is whether Trump is an aberration we’ll look back on and go, “What a strange time in history,” with explainers on the unique confluence of factors that led to a con man achieving the presidency—or whether he’s the start of the trend. If you think the “explainer,” path is impossible, try learning about the start of World War I; while there have been many stupid wars throughout history, World War I might be the stupidest, and the least comprehensible to a contemporary audience.

I’ve sought to make The Story’s Story minimally political (a surfeit of political material is available online, most of it about reifying identity and little of it about learning or growing), but extraordinary threats to the basis of democracy itself deserve unusual responses. I hope for much more boring politics that lend themselves to being (mostly) ignored. There is too much written about politics and too little written about art, ecstasy, beauty, and ideas.

The margins are narrow; why?

The Left Still Doesn’t Understand Trump’s Appeal:” 2020 should have been a “lay-up” election, as I’ve heard it phrased—but it wasn’t, and it would be useful to more carefully ask why it wasn’t. Moreover, “‘The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,’ says David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who developed the Obama 2012 campaign’s internal election-forecasting system.” Democrats seem to have become reliant on a highly educated elite group, who make a lot of noise in the media and academia but who may not be terribly popular more broadly. As norms between those two groups grow, whose preferences are going to be foregrounded?

Matt Yglesias has a new blog, Slow Boring, and in its inaugural post he writes: “The practical rhetorical function of that choice [to make racist statements], however, was the anathematize the idea of trying to cater to their cultural attitudes at all even though whatever you want to say about those attitudes they were compatible with voting twice for a Black president.” He also says, “The truth is Democrats have started burrowing-in on a very particular style of politics that simply has a limited range of appeal.”

The structure of the United States is biased in favor of certain residents of relatively small states and while those biases are bogus, barring some unlikely changes to the Constitution (I favor those changes), they’re here and need to be acknowledged and dealt with by political parties that want to win elections—even elections unfairly stacked against them. Yglesias says, “The reality is that most people, most of the time, mostly don’t care whether the stuff they read about politics is true or if the ideas they advocate for actually work,” and that’s a good way of describing a version of what I’m trying to do here, and learning how something works is key to making it work better—or to working it better.

Megan McArdle writes, “The ‘highly educated elites’ are stuck in a nightmare of their own making.” The word “internet” doesn’t appear in her column, but that’s what it’s really about: the Internet makes talking back to authority (“highly educated elites”) easy, and it makes pointing out hypocrisy both easy and, often, viral. Not all allegations of hypocrisy or bad behavior are true, but some are, and, if you make enough casual claims on Twitter, some of them will likely turn out to contradict each other. The “highly education elites’s” views on race as the most salient feature of “diversity” may also not map onto normal people’s views: it may instead be that “Liberals Envisioned a Multiracial Coalition. Voters of Color Had Other Ideas: Democrats may need to rethink their strategy as the class complexities and competing desires of Latino and Asian-American demographic groups become clear.” The gap between media/academic discourse on this subject and how normal people seem to view it seems very wide, and it seems like a gap that doesn’t get a lot of play in the media or academia—perhaps because we’re all caught in our own little bubbles. To be sure, something is broken in the Republican party, and that brokenness should be acknowledged, liken a broken bone should, but if the left can’t get away from unpopular (and borderline racist) identity politics, that’s going to reinforce the problems on the right.

It would be very nice if the alternate, fact-free world facilitated by parts of cable news and talk radio didn’t have an audience, but for whatever reason they do. If we’re lucky, it turns out that Trump is the biggest problem, and the right will feel itself forced back towards a reality-based universe. If we’re unlucky, Trump really is the symptom, not the problem.

Overall, trying to learn more is good, and elections are also information machines.

Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis” uses the word “crisis” in the headline, but the “crisis” cited seems imaginary: is there an actual crisis, outside the media narrative? Has Facebook seen a fall in monthly, weekly, or daily active users? That data would support a crisis narrative, but the best the article can do is, “its pell-mell growth has slowed.” Slowing growth makes sense for a company with two billion people using it; all companies eventually reach market saturation.

“Delay, Deny and Deflect” reads like a media narrative that has very little to do with users’s actual lives; I’ve been reading variations on “Why Facebook sucks” and “Why Facebook is doomed” for at least a decade, along with predictions of Facebook’s decline. These kinds of stories are like “Why this is the year of Linux on the desktop,” but for media companies.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m barely a Facebook user and I agree with much of the criticism. You can argue that Facebook is bad for reasons x, y, z, and I will likely nod along—but what I do, individually and anecdotally, is less significant than what users as a whole do and want to do. “Revealed preferences” matter: every time someone uses Facebook, that person shows they like Facebook more than not—and find it valuable more than not.

Aggregate those decisions together, and we see that there is no crisis, because Facebook continues to grow by most metrics; if their growth is slowing, it is because virtually everyone with an Internet connection is already on Facebook. I personally think people should read more books and spend less time on Facebook, but I’m a literary boffin type person who would also say the same of television. Lots of literary boffin type persons have had the same view of TV since TV came out—you should read more books and watch less TV—but, in the data, people didn’t watch less TV until quite recently, when Facebook started to replace TV.

Why is the media so vociferously anti-Facebook right now? The conventional media sources, including the NYT, don’t want to confront their own role in the 2016 election—the relentless focus on Clinton’s email server, for example, was insane. That minor story only got the relentless play it did because most big media sources worried about being accused of “bias” and wanted to find a “both sides” narrative. What should have been a footnote, at best, instead saw ceaseless wall-to-wall coverage. Bias concerns meant media sources felt they had to keep pushing the email server as a story. At the same time, we don’t want to acknowledge that most people’s epistemological skill is low. Why look at ourselves, when we have this handy scapegoat right… over… there?

Facebook is a Girardian scapegoat for a media ecosystem that is unable or unwilling to consider its own role in the 2016 fiasco. With any media story, there are at least two stories: the story itself and the decision behind working on and publishing and positioning that particular story. The second story is very seldom discussed by journalists and media companies themselves, but it’s an important issue in itself.

In a tweet, Kara Swisher wrote that Zuckerberg is “unkillable, unfireable and untouchable.” I disagree: users can fire him whenever they want, but they haven’t, or haven’t yet. Swisher had a good retort: “Remember aol,” although that’s a retort that rebuts her original tweet. While she has a point about Facebook conceivably following into senescence, as AOL did, large, mature markets behave differently than small, immature markets: in 1900, there were many car companies. By 1950, only a few were left. Market size and market age both matter; as mentioned elsewhere in this post, a substantial fraction of the entire human population uses Facebook. Facebook has survived Google+ and its users have demonstrated that they love wasting spending time online. Maybe current Facebook users will find an alternate way to spend/waste time online (again, I’m not personally a big Facebook user), but if they do, I don’t think it’ll be because of the 5000th media scare story about Facebook.

So far, I’ve read zero media stories that cite Rene Girard and the scapegoating mechanism: I don’t think the media understands itself right now.

Way back when, I read the tech nerd site Slashdot, which for many years declared “year x is the year of Linux on the desktop.” The year people would get tired of paying for Microsoft operating systems and embrace freedom. Normal people didn’t care, and Microsoft was 100 times more monopolative than Facebook. Today, most desktop machines still overwhelming use Windows, Linux is still 1% of the desktop population, and MacOS has grown some in popularity but is still too expensive for most people. What tech nerds and journalists desire is not necessarily what normal people care about.

EDIT: Former newspaper editor Andrew Potter explains succinctly how the media works in “Why everyone hates the mainstream media: Judgements about status are embedded in almost everything aspect of the news. To read the news is to be insulted — which is why people are fleeing the mainstream media in droves.” Since November 2016, the media has been ceaselessly working to lower Facebook’s status. It seems to have succeeded in terms of lowering Facebook’s status among journalists and media pundits, but it seems to have failed to change mass behavior, much as the thousands of essays about how TV is bad failed to change TV habits. Most media pieces attempting to lower Facebook’s status use every kind of rhetoric conceivable except the numbers Facebook cites in its quarterly reports.

The odd salience of older books: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions: Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel? The good guy? These ideas called for a dangerously unstable politician, it seemed to me—a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes’-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way. (Greg Stillson’s campaign tactics as I imagined them twenty years ago were very similar to the ones Jesse Ventura used in his successful campaign for the governor’s seat in Minnesota. Thank goodness Ventura doesn’t seem like Stillson in any other ways.)

On Writing was published in 2000 and in the book King says he wrote it in 1997. When I first read it, nothing about this passage stood out. Today, everything about it stands out. I wonder if The Dead Zone has seen a sales bump in the current political climate.

Millennials “need” to start voting and probably won’t

Millennials Need to Start Voting Before the Gerontocracy Kills Us All” is another one of those articles that, with minor changes, could have been published anytime in the last twenty years. I suspect that the writer will be able to adjust it, with minor changes, and re-publish it anytime in the next twenty years. As far as I know, younger people have always voted in lower numbers than old people, and this election is likely to be part of the trend:

The consequences of that election have not persuaded America’s (predominantly left-leaning) millennial nonvoters of the importance of political participation. A new survey from PRRI and The Atlantic suggests that only one-third of 18-to-29-year-old voters are certain to cast ballots next month. Among Donald Trump’s cohort, that figure is 81 percent.

Voting is more important than most other political behaviors, yet other political behaviors (like posting to Facebook and Twitter) may feel better in the short term. While Grandma and Grandpa may not be tweeting much, they get to the polls and consequently no one is willing to touch the issues they care most about.

There is a book out right now about how women are supposedly mad and that’s going to translate into big political changes. Maybe that’s true, but I’ve been reading similar articles for, again, as long as I’ve been politically aware; I mentally file them next to the articles about how the Democratic Party is going to forge a permanent majority coalition because of the rising number of minorities, who are routinely mocked and alienated by Republicans. I predict that Democrats gain seats in the House and likely take it in 2018; that the Senate remains near parity; and that the 2020 election is highly competitive. The first two predictions are based solely on historical trends: the party in the presidency tends to lose House and Senate seats in mid-term elections. Whatever anger women may feel or not feel, and we’re likely to see continued trends in historical terms.

I posit this: it’s useful to remind myself how many people live in the United States as a whole (about 325 million in 2017, according to the 2017 Census Update). It’s extremely easy to convince ourselves that the bubble we inhabit represents the whole. It’s almost impossible for the human mind to truly grasp just how large 325 million is. At the same time, most people who work in the media and write books live in the California-New-York-DC media complex. The people who live in the media complex don’t fully grasp just how small their world really is (and I would include myself in this group).

Do Millennials “need” to start voting in this election cycle? Yeah, sure, just like they did in the last one… and the one before… and the one before that. Are women “angry?” Maybe, but the data I’ve seen indicates that something like 45% of women who voted, voted for Trump, and something like a third to 40% of eligible voters didn’t vote at all—many of them presumably women. Today, Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter remains the best explanation of political behavior I’ve read. Books like the one about how women are angry describe a small set of information-dense persons really well and the majority of the population not so well. I’m one of those infovores and if you’re reading this you probably one too, but you are not like most people and the number of people reading this is totally dwarfed by the total US population and total US voting population.

Media people: Let’s get real!

By the way: I’ve been bamboozled by arguments like the one about Millenial voters or the one about angry women many times. That’s why I’m skeptical. Left-wing anger and dismay seem to have grown more acute from the period going from 1994 to the present, and yet the right seems to have won more elections in that period. What, if anything, should we infer from this?

Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America — Emily Dufton

Grass Roots is about marijuana, yes, but it’s also about what it means to live in society and what it means to be:

The battle over the drug has always been about much more than whether individuals have the right to smoke, eat, or vape it for effect. Instead, questions about marijuana have long been tied to ideas about freedom and liberty, safety and security, and the rights of an individual versus the collective good—themes that are at the core of many other historical debates.

Much of the book is new to me: I didn’t know how much decriminalization happened in the ’70s, when 11 states decriminalized weed. I didn’t realize how much anti-drug hysteria occurred in the ’80s. I didn’t know the specific mechanisms that drove drug policy back and forth. Now I do, but I’ll warn that the book is often more detailed than most readers want. There is a lot of organizational discussion (“Given his former affiliation with the NFP, Turner encouraged the first lady to work specifically with that organization. PRIDE and FIA did good work, Turner knew, but the NFP was led by social conservatives…”); be ready to skip parts, unless you are uncommonly engaged by bureaucratic jousting—you may be. You may also read the book in conjunction with Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. And of course the subtitle of Grass Roots is clever.

Evidence and knowledge play small roles in the periods that see relatively legal weed and relatively illegal weed. Dufton notes:

Despite its popularity, Just Say No did little to actually decrease youth drug use. In 1988 … the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, although rates of adolescent drug use in the United States had dropped over the past seven years, they were still “the highest in the industrialized world.”

The United States is an outlier in many respects, and this is, or was, apparently one of them. I got “Just Say No” drug education in schools and it seems to have been, at least anecdotally, not productive. It’s also not productive to lump all illegal drugs together, as many “education” programs do: drugs vary considerably in their danger and uses. Michael Pollan’s new book, for example, describes the many ways psychedelics may be therapeutic. And thinking about actual danger is important; I don’t know that there are any documented cases of overdosing on marijuana, but the opioid epidemic is well-known and is killing tens of thousands of people per year. Why do we treat weed, LSD, and morphine and heroin similarly? They’re not.

Other aspects of ignorance drove and still drive drug policy. “A 1917 report from the Treasure Department noted that in Texas, only ‘Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites’ smoked marijuana for pleasure and warned that ‘drug-crazed’ minorities could harm or assault upper-class white women.” Then, “films like Reefer Madness, released in 1936, associated marijuana use with murder, miscegenation, and suicide.” Which could only be convincing to someone who has never seen a person high on weed: they are dangerous only to pizza and other snack foods.

Money and sex play major roles in the Grass Roots story. The desire for tax revenue entices some states. And the desire to sell paraphernalia entices entreprenurs. Playboy offers some grants to marijuana-focused organizations; it exists at the nexus of sex and money. And some of the early advocates for marijuana have, uh, personal problems that retard their advocacy:

Two months after moving in with Stroup, Newman and Stroup’s wife took MDA, a powerful psychoactive amphetamine known for enhancing sex, and spent the night together while Stroup was visiting the Playboy Foundation in Chicago to solicit funds.

By 1978, we saw “a flood of additional states passing new marijuana laws and the president decriminalizing the drug at the federal level.” But “the downfall of Peter Bourne and the subsequent downfall of Keith Stroup brought the country’s first experiment with decriminalization to a close.” Sort of like Parnell and Kitty O’Shea in nineteenth-century Ireland. I wonder if anyone has yet written the definitive book on the role of sex scandals in world political history.

Another pro-pot politico working for the Carter administration got in media trouble through sex, or a perceived connection with sex; he was a doctor whose secretary was “struggling emotionally,” and

To help Metsky relax, Bourne wrote her a prescription for fifteen Quaaludes, a mild tranquilizer that, though often used to treat insomnia, was also known socially to enhance sex.

This eventually got to the press. My impression, too, is that, regardless of what is “known socially,” Quaaludes just make people sleepy or lethargic, which would not seem to offer the erotic boost that they apparently did in the popular imagination—another example, maybe, of the small role played by knowledge and evidence in the marijuana saga.

Dufton also writes, “Cannabis was believed to be so safe [in the late 1800s] that the drug was marketed to women through romantic postcard campaigns that showed concerned mothers applying a cannabis salve to soothe the gums of teething babies and relieve children’s colds. As a pain reliever, marijuana worked wonderfully.” Does it work better and more safely than Tylenol (which is extremely dangerous, though not addictive)? I wonder if we know that, today: conducting the research may itself be illegal.

Two things strike me as odd or missing (or I missed them). One is the absence of any discussion of lead in gas in the rise of drug use. This may sound esoteric, but leaded gas has been implicated in “violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic.” Leaded gas may also have led to higher drug use in the ’60s and ’70s. The other is the absence of any discussion of age cohorts. In the ’60s and ’70s, baby boomers were teens and young adults—ages at which drug experimentation is common and favoring drugs is common. By the ’80s, many were parents themselves—and parents are much more conservative, especially about their own children (several chapters of Grass Roots focus intelligently on the role of parent movements), than experimental 21-year olds. I don’t think and wouldn’t argue that either factor is dispositive, and both can coexist with Dufton’s other work.

No one takes the next step

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article, “Thanks for the painful reminder,” that starts, “Six months ago, our teenage son was killed in a car accident. I took a month off from work because I couldn’t get out of bed.” Almost everyone knows someone who was killed, almost killed, or seriously mangled in a car crash, yet no one is thinking or talking about how to reduce reliance on cars. In 2016 34,439 died in car crashes. None or few those parents and spouses start organizations dedicated to reducing car usage. Why not? School shootings keep inspiring survivors and their families to start organizations around guns, but the same doesn’t seem to happen with cars.

The author of the article doesn’t take the next step, either. It’s an omission that almost no one talks about, either. We’ve had the technologies to improve this situation for more than a century.

“Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan”

Today’s Federal Register has an unintentionally funny program from the Department of State: “Increase Citizen Access to Objective Information in Jordan.” Usually this is the sort of program I’d ignore, but I immediately thought: “I’d like to increase citizen access to objective information in the United States.”

(Although, strictly speaking, the access is out there—but we simply choose to ignore it.)

Sounds weirdly like modern politics, no?

“When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents or simply our neighbors, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop being aggressors and become defenders. The envy, greed, or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self defense. . . . The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs.”

That’s a speech given by Andreas Corelli in The Angel’s Game (a great novel, and its English translation came out in 2009).

Oh, and he’s the devil. So we probably ought to be wary of what he says.

Reading such passages is a reminder of why politics in the post-literacy era may not be going so well. It would be hard for a high-literacy person—like most of the “founding fathers” were—to have made some of the recent political choices that voters have made.

 

“How to build an autocracy”

How to build an autocracy” appears in this month’s Atlantic and may turn out to be the most important article of 2017. It’s so important that I’m putting it in a standalone post rather than including it as an item amid others in a link list. One hopes that the future David Frum imagines in it doesn’t come to pass.

But if it doesn’t, it won’t because individual people choose not to let it come to pass. Knowledge is one step in that process. Action is another.

We seem to have collectively forgotten history. We’ve seen authoritarianism before. What’s odd is seeing it again—although Richard Rorty may have predicted it twenty years ago; until the last election I complacently thought, “It can’t happen here.” I was wrong.

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