Links: Bike lanes, book buying, century-old bestsellers, political darkness, and more!

* Why bike lanes may appear to be underutilized.

* Chicago cops, unaccountable by design.

* How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps.

* “The twilight of the liberal world order,” deeply pessimistic and, I hope, a set of ideas that doesn’t come to pass.

* The top bestsellers of 1916.

* Orwell’s “1984” and Trump’s America:

Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason.

* Bibliomania: the strange history of compulsive book buying.

* “Sex and Art in 1950s Manhattan: Patricia Bosworth’s life was a dramatic saga of ambition, sex, affairs and abortion. She reveals it all in The Men in My Life.” The review is good but makes me feel like I don’t need to read the book itself.

* “Time to take a stand,” by Sam Altman, although I would argue that the time to take a stand was before the election.

* “Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.

* The ambiguities of dual citizenship.

* A clarifying moment in American history.

Automatic, unthinking opposition is bad

Elon Musk actually believes Rex Tillerson could be an ‘excellent’ Secretary of State” strikes a skeptical tone about Tillerson, but so far I haven’t seen a strong explanation about why he wouldn’t be. There is much to dislike and fear about Trump—I in particular worry about the way he raises the risks of global nuclear war—but it is unwise to automatically oppose anyone he proposes for his Cabinet or anything he does.

It is also not impossible that Trump will appoint a good FDA commissioner. It is possible that House Republicans will reform Social Security, which is an unmitigated good for anyone under the age of 40 or so (barring a sudden, unexpected takeoff in growth, the Social Security and Medicare edifices will not provide anything like current benefits when people my age are the age of current recipients; workers my age are paying taxes for the fiscal services old people get that we ourselves are unlikely to get when we are that old, and that ought to affect our voting patterns (it doesn’t)).

One should reserve opprobrium for where it is deserved and not fire it off generically, especially based on innuendo or simple partisan affiliation. Again, that is not to approve of Trump or most things House Republicans favor, but it should contextualize the discussion. As far as I can tell, Tillerson could be an excellent Secretary of State (he could also be a terrible one). I know very little about him and wish to avoid castigating him or anyone else based on automatic partisanship.

Doing so is of course hard, for reasons Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Those books are too long to describe briefly, but both show that most people are partisans first and thinkers about individual issues second, or third, or even fourth. There is much evidence for this case, perhaps the most interesting being the last election: Trump is not a Republican in an ideological or issue-based sense, but he did get the nomination and most Republicans and nominal Republicans voted for him anyway.

I’m also not sure I could enumerate the qualities of a good Secretary of State versus a bad one, and I wonder how many people with strongly stated views on Tillerson could. I wonder how many could say anything useful about his views and background. I can’t.

“David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center”

David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center” is excellent. I may be a small part of that intellectual center, to the point of writing a presidential endorsement post in October—something I’ve never done before, because the climate has never seemed to merit it. But given the potential for catastrophe, it seemed necessary. Some readers have complained about the increasing amount of political content on The Story’s Story, but given the worldwide political darkness that has been descending it seems necessary to attempt to understand it. I would like to go back to mostly ignoring politics apart from straightforward analysis.

And the problem of false equivalence is real, as Chait makes clear at the link: “official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand.” Yet official centrists should do more than triangulate. They (or we) haven’t done that. They (or we) have also been somewhat asleep over the last six or so years.

I certainly have been and am now attempting to make up for that slumber, in part because I’ve been so wrong about what I thought was politically possible or feasible. Though I’ve read The Myth of the Rational Voter, I didn’t entirely internalize its lessons. Though I’ve read about the extent to which irrationality pervades most human cognition, I didn’t think that we’d become so wildly irrational on a large-scale, public basis. Though I understand that most people know little about history, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which “little” really means “nothing.”

But knowing and understanding things may not matter very much, since we may be living in a post-literate age and I’m writing material that may go largely unread, especially by the people who most need to understand what’s happening.

Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse

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. Nuclear war is very bad and could conceivably extinguishes the human race or at least wipe out the United States and one or more other countries. I still view nuclear war as unlikely, but it’s far more likely than I would’ve judged it three weeks weeks ago—and when I’ve mentioned increasing fear of nuclear war I’ve gotten a weirdly large amount of pushback.

Most of that pushback seems like wishful thinking. To understand the danger, Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon is a good book about nuclear policy and history, but Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser is probably better for a first introduction to the subject. Command and Control details the (scarily) short lines between the president and launching, or attempting to launch, nuclear weapons is appallingly short.

To understand why Trump is scary, it is necessary to understand two things: 1. That in theory the president is supposed to be able to order a nuclear launch anywhere, at any time, and have missiles in the air within 30 minutes and 2. The way seemingly minor quarrels among countries have sometimes led to historically catastrophic outcomes.

Let us deal with the first point: while the president is supposed to be able to order an unprovoked nuclear attack at any time, there is at least some precedent for a gray area around nuclear weapons:

[I]n 1974, in the last days of the Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon was drinking heavily and his aides saw what they feared was a growing emotional instability. His new secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or the secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger.

It was a completely extralegal order, perhaps mutinous. But no one questioned it.

“Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command,” Eric Schlosser writes in “Command and Control,” a 2013 book, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

This is at least a little heartening, as it implies that the generals in charge of executing nuclear launch commands simply will not do so unprovoked. The human nuclear bureaucracy and apparatus is itself hopefully not suicidal and homicidal. Still, that is a slender hope, as Alex Wellerstein describes in “The President and the bomb.”

To be sure, it’s also possible that Obama, Biden, and for that matter someone like Paul Ryan is having quiet conversations with the Secret Service and the military about what to do with a rogue nuclear launch order. Those quiet conversations might be unconstitutional, but if the choice is between constitutionality and the death of everyone and everything, one should hope that the few people charged with mechanically carrying out orders will second-guess those orders.

Beyond that, the history of World War I should scare us. World War I was a catastrophe that killed tens of millions of people and it was a war that no one wanted. I doubt most people have the faintest idea how World War I got started, and if you want to annoy your friends try asking them. Hell, I’m not even sure I could give a good answer. Still, consider some background reading:

* This is Tobias Stone’s “History Tells Us What Will Happen Next With Brexit And Trump.”

* Here is one description of “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War.”

* Here is “The real danger,” also about the possibility of direct, great power wars.

* At the same time, see “Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump Will Have Terrifying Powers. Thanks, Obama.” It can be fun to have secret, unchecked powers when your guy is in office, but is incredibly dangerous when the other guy does.

Almost everyone has forgotten about World War I, but in the short prelude to it people acted like it was normal. Check out the sleepwalking into war described in the Hardcore History podcast, around 1:38. In the horrible late July and early August of 1914, people went on holiday and shopkeepers assured their customers that nothing untoward would happen (One sees similar noises in the normalization of Trump). World trade had been expanding for decades; everyone “knew” that war would be suicidal; it seemed implausible that the death of a minor noble would lead to conflagration.

A similar set of circumstances could happen today. The flashpoint could be in the South China Sea, which is a disputed area. It could be the Baltic states. It could be Syria. It could be almost anywhere that the U.S. could pointlessly clash with China or Russia. Trump is obsessed with revenge and in a skirmish or dispute between U.S. forces and Chinese or Russian forces, which escalates rapidly in a tit-for-tat fashion.

Like this scenario: a Chinese ship fires on a U.S. ship in the South China Sea. The U.S. ship flees with a few causalities and Trump orders an attack on a Chinese ship in retaliation. The ship sinks, and China cannot possibly accept disrespect and in turn sinks a sub and imposes trade sanctions. The U.S. rallies to the flag and does the same. Eventually China uses a supercav missile to take out a U.S. carrier.

One could spin out an infinite number of similar scenarios, which may develop very quickly, over the course of days or weeks. Tit-for-tat may be an attractive strategy for small bands of humans or proto-humans in hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies fighting each other. It could end the world in the nuclear age.

I’m not too worried about Trump and domestic policy. He is likely to do some bad and foolish things, but they are unlikely to be existential threats. I am worried about Trump and the end of the world. 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.

Maybe nothing catastrophically bad will happen. I hope so and think that will be true. But to pretend he is a “normal” politician (or to vote for him) is to be willfully blind to history and to the man himself. In darker moments I wonder: maybe we don’t deserve democracy or freedom. Those who will not even vote for it—and half the potential electorate didn’t vote—don’t deserve it. Maybe institutions will resist Trump for the next four years, or resist his most militaristic and dangerous impulses. Maybe they won’t.

Again, I think the likely scenario is that Trump bumbles for four years and gets voted out of office. But nuclear war is too far outside most people’s Overton window, so they won’t even consider it, much as the total destruction that preceded World War I was inconceivable by any of the belligerents—had they realized it they would not have marched off to war, and many of the soliders themselves would have dramatically resisted conscription; they marched to their own deaths.

If you are not scared you’re not paying attention.

We are one black swan event from disaster. The last worldwide, negative black swan event was arguably World War II. Perhaps the 71 years separating us from then is long enough to have forgotten how bad bad really is.

I don’t expect this post to change any minds. All of the information in it was available three weeks ago and that didn’t change shit. We’re surrounded by what political scientists politely call “low-information voters.” This is a post based on logic and knowledge and logic and knowledge played little role in the election. Maybe, outside of elite spheres, it plays little role at all in human life. I only hope that the apocalyptic scenario doesn’t come to pass. If it does, “I told you so” will be no comfort, as it wasn’t in the aftermath of World War I. In that war the prophets and historians were ignored, as they were in the 2016 election. Let us pray that some of the prophets and historians are wrong.

The end of democracy?

It is scary to think that I may be watching the end of democracy in the United States, live.

At the very least this election demonstrates frightening weaknesses in the structure of the democracy itself. The Constitution may deserve less reverence than it is commonly accorded. And voters may be even less rational than even I thought. Brexit showed as much. Tonight may be worse, much worse, than that.

The education system—of which I am a small part—has also failed, at least in a mass sense. Maybe real education really isn’t plausible for the majority of people. A dark thought, but one that seems more plausible tonight than it was yesterday.

The number of people who really learn anything from history is small. We really art apt to repeat our past follies. We came through the darkness of the 1930s and 1940s only to flirt with a different form of it today.

Here is my maybe futile October 10 post, “Clinton or Johnson for president.”

EDIT: Here is Krugman asking, legitimately, whether we are a failed state.

Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president:

If polls are to be believed the presidential race was much closer than it should have been; they are widening now, but their previous narrowness is a travesty because Trump is unfit to be president. There are longer explanations as to why Trump is such a calamity and so unfit for office, like “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, Or Stein” or many others, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read on Trump is “The question of what Donald Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer” (it came out before this weekend’s fiasco and I started this post before this weekend’s fiasco—I wish I’d posted this sooner). The “really believes” article is too detailed to be excerpted effectively but here is one key part:

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.

Most of us are simultaneously trying to say something about the state of the world and trying to raise our place in it (or raise the place of our allies or lower the place of someone else). Particularly fact-based enterprises like science and engineering are notoriously averse to strongly positional-based enterprises like marketing and sales, where belief matters more than truth (or where belief is true, which is not true in engineering: It is not enough to believe that your bridge will remain standing). But Trump takes the basic way virtually all people signal their status to such an extreme that his speech and, it seems, mind are totally devoid of content altogether.

The number of people who would ordinarily be politically silent but who cannot be silent in the face of ineptness combined with cruelty is large. LeBron James endorses Clinton. Mathematician Terry Tao writes, “It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America” (he’s right: it ought to be).

I’m not famous but will note that you should vote for Clinton or Johnson. This is not like any presidential election I’ve been alive for. The risks are real and the difference between Clinton and Trump is not one of policy. It is one of basic competence.

The situation is so bad that The Atlantic’s editors have endorsed Clinton—only the third time in the history of the magazine that it has endorsed a candidate for president (the other two were Lincoln and LBJ):

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.

The reviewIn ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue” is only superficially writing about Germany from 1931 – 45. It is really a commentary on Trump, like notes about how “Hitler as a politician … rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses.” That’s part of Trump’s appeal. Or it was part of Trump’s appeal. One hopes that appeal is fading. The distressing thing is watching people fall for it (or did until recently), or view Trump as a way to express other grievances.

We collectively must not be willfully blind and the United States is better than Trump.

It is impossible to be even slightly skilled at close reading and not perceive Trump’s many weaknesses as a speaker, thinker, or human. If nothing else this election may be a test of the United States’ education level and the quality of its educational system. In all the other elections I’ve lived through, major politicians have had strengths and weaknesses, but none have been outright demagogues or dangerous to the fabric of democracy itself. This election is different and that’s why I’m writing this. America is better than this.

I hope to never again endorse political candidates, but when the structure and stability of the country itself is at risk it is a mistake not to say something, somewhere, publicly. Writing this post is itself depressing.

People can believe in madness for surprisingly long periods of time:

I’m re-reading Zero to One, and one of its early points has surprising salience to politics right now. Collective madness is one of the book’s themes; Thiel notes that “Dot-com mania was intense but short—18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000.” During that time, Thiel says he knew a “40-something rad student” who “was running six difference companies in 1999.” Yet:

Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 4o-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But in the late ’90s, people could believe that was a winning combination.

That chapter, “Party Like It’s 1999,” starts with a quote from Nietzche: “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” Is it so rare in individuals? I see people doing insane-seeming things all the time. Going to grad school in the humanities is one (I did that, by the way, although I at least had a well-developed backup plan). Continuing to date transparently bad people is another.  Imagining the world to be a fundamentally stable place is a third, though one that has less immediate interpersonal relevance.

Still, the problem of collective insanity is a real one with lots of historical precedence. Hugo Chavez was originally elected fairly in Venezuela. Putin was originally elected fairly in Russia. Erdoğan was originally elected Prime Minister of Turkey fairly. In all three cases, the people spoke… wrongly. Horribly wrongly, and in ways that were at least somewhat clear at the time. Much as I hate to violate Godwin’s Law, the National Socialists were originally elected, or at least gained legitimate parliamentary seats. Mythologically, vampires must be invited into the home. The greatest danger is not the thing that should transparently be resisted. The greatest danger is the thing blithely accepted to the inner circle.

The U.S. has historically eschewed demagogues. Charles Lindergh never became president. Neither did Huey Long. The closest we’ve gotten in recent memory is Richard Nixon. The U.S. has historically eschewed outright incompetents too. But madness in groups, parties, and nations can persist for surprisingly long periods of time. It can be weirdly persistent, especially because, as Thiel argues implicitly throughout Zero to One, it’s very hard to really think for yourself. I’m not sure I do it well. There is a kind of Dunning-Kruger Effect for thinking for yourself.

That’s the context for why thinking people are scared about Trump as president. He’s manifestly unfit and unqualified, and yet it’s not uncommon for people to elect demagogic incompetents. Andrew Sullivan thinks we’ve never been as good a breeding ground for tyranny as we are now. That’s overstating the case—the 1930s were far more dangerous—but the argument itself is a reasonable one, and that itself is scary. We may be collectively partying like it’s 1999, and not in a good way.

I don’t write this from a partisan perspective or out of partisan animus. This blog rarely deal with direct political issues (though it often touches meta-politics). I’m politically disaffected; neither major party represents me or has the right ideas to move the country forward. Yet the recurrence of collective madness in history scares me. It should scare you too. The next American presidential election should, one hopes, deal such a terrific blow to the forces of madness that have taken over one party in particular that it is forced to re-constitute itself in the next four years.

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