Defending the indefensible: Everything is bad and likely to be getting worse

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous post in the series: against development, against government action on climate change, for campus censorship

Anyway, here’s the best case that everything is bad an getting worse that I can write:

This is actually two claims, and we’re going to treat them separately. In terms of everything getting worse, let’s try a thought experiment: suppose you were to ask 100 people, how many do you think would agree with “right now is the best time in world history” or even “right now is the best time in world history you’ve ever experienced”? My guess is about zero. This suggests to me that at least on some timescale, at least in the developed world, things are getting worse. There’s very little, statistically, that you can bring up that can change this assessment. You can’t tell people who are suffering “actually, you’re not suffering!” and expect them to thank or forgive you. Part of it is that nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Like, say, hunger in the US. Very few people in the US die of hunger. But a lot and a lot of people have fear of hunger – they don’t know where their next meals are coming from, and they struggle to put food on the table. People are living very precarious lives, and looking at just those who have fallen off the edge can miss that. Precariousness is probably a difficult thing to measure, but I think this is something that is increasing with time (in part due to globalisation), and it’s making everyone scared.

The counterargument is that maybe no one wants to acknowledge this precise moment as all that great, but over a longer term, things are getting better. The amount of dire poverty in the world is declining, as are the amount of hunger, war, hatred, and disease. This whiggish interpretation of history (“The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice”, etc.) ought to be resisted, for one because it leads to complacency. This would not be a big problem if it were actually axiomatically true, but it’s not. This is like the promised future of Communism which was used to quiet complaints in the USSR. Everything may not be that great now, but just trust us, and over the long term, we’ll lead you to the glorious promised land of everything being good. What evidence do we have that would inspire this trust?

The problem with the claim is not just that in the long run we are all dead. It’s that it’s not at all clear that things actually are getting better. To be able to tell sweeping longterm trends, we need to be looking back over a long sweep of history. Imagine visiting someone in 1938 Europe and trying to convince them “aren’t things getting better? Everyone was just getting butchered in a world war a couple of decades ago, and now they’re not! Why are you complaining?” We may be in the same situation here. We don’t know that any gains are sustainable, even over the short term. And, in fact, everything is leading us to suspect they are not. See the point about precariousness above. Not just job insecurity due to globalisation. Geopolitical instability. Rapid use of resources and the potential for environmental disaster in a system that relies on eternal growth to maintain and improve standards of living. It looks precarious because it is precarious, and people are right to be extremely worried about the future.

So if things aren’t necessarily getting better in the short or long term. The next question is how bad are things right now? For this, take a look at Scott Alexander’s evaluation. The point is: things are a lot worse for people in the US than you (educated upper-middle-class blog reader) may think they are. And that’s in a relatively affluent community in a rich country. The conditions that people live in right now are not good enough for people to have a chance at a good life.

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Defending the indefensible: Censoring campus speakers is a good idea

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous posts in the series: against development, against government action on climate change

Anyway, here’s the best case in favour of “no-platforming” — trying to ensure speakers with opposing viewpoints do not get to make their case in public, that I can write:

It seems that every week, we get another “free speech on campus”-style controversy when a speaker is “no-platformed”. The people who write thinkpieces against no-platforming typically phrase their stance in terms of a defence of free speech. I think free speech is a very important value, and too harsh a set of limitations on what speech is allowed is definitely harmful. I definitely don’t agree with the (really bad) “it’s only a free speech issue if the government punishes you” xkcd viewpoint. However, I think almost everyone on the pro-free speech side would actually agree that some speech has no place in the public sphere, say, at a public lecture on the Berkeley campus.

Free speech for hateful ideas is often defended on the idea that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” or “the best defence against bad speech is more speech” but these seem to me to not be true. They are just cliches, and the reverse cliche of “a lie can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its coat” seems to me much more true. I’m sorry for bringing up the phrase “fake news” but way back before it became a Trumpean punchline, it was a story about how some untrustworthy websites made up news stories out of whole cloth to misinform the public. We’ve seen the “false tweet gets 10,000 likes while retraction and apology gets 2” movie enough times to know that even in today’s information-rich age, true information doesn’t undo the damage of false information.

Let’s think about how that works in the context of public lectures. Consider as a hypothetical someone who is just gonna read from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Not historical commentary, not interpretation, just a reading. They’re not calling for violence. They shouldn’t be prosecuted for doing this. But I think it actually wouldn’t be legitimate to invite someone to Berkeley to do this reading. It’s because there is absolutely nothing worthwhile that can come of this, and a lot of harm. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” isn’t a point of view that you need to think about and contend with. It’s actively misinforming people in a way that is likely to lead to evil. Maybe some pro-free-speech people disagree about the Protocols specifically. But I’m pretty confident that almost any free speech advocate can think of an opinion worthless and materially harmful enough that it’s not worth sanctioning with a public university lecture (Larouchism? DPRK propaganda? Phrenology? Pizzagate-exegesis? Alex Jones?).

So I don’t buy that for those who protest “no-platforming” it’s a case of Voltaireian largesse.  They don’t disagree with everything said but “defend to the death the right to say it”. Instead, those who defend speech to some extent agree with the content. That is, they think it would be useful to hear this information, since it has a chance of teaching something useful. Once you realise that these are the contours of the debate, it becomes a lot less categorical, and a lot more case by case. In some cases, no-platforming is a good idea. In other cases (in my opinion, most cases), it’s not. Drawing the boundary around what speech is within the acceptable realm of public discussion is hard work that we have to do as a society, but it seems to me there’s no shortcuts here. “Allow any kind of political speech anywhere” is not a useful deontological rule except insofar as government persecution goes. We need gatekeepers, and we have to discuss what the criteria for that gatekeeping is. There’s no getting around it. Should the campus make space for Milo Yiannopoulos and exclude, say, Jonathan Higgins? Maybe! But I don’t really think it’s outrageous or surprising that some people see it the other way.
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The Two Hypocrisies

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Thanks, Obama. I mean, Trump.

I want to thank Donald Trump for playing so much golf as president. Not because I think it’s a good idea for him to do this, obviously. The Rated Zed editorial line is that golf is stupid, and people should find hobbies that comport more exactly with Rated Zed aesthetic preferences. Have you considered scrambling and/or translating bossa nova songs? I hear it’s really fun. But Trump’s golfing has helped me understand something that I’ve struggled to understand a lot.

Which is this: why do people hate hypocrisy so much? I am generally OK with hypocrisy for La Rochefoucauldian “the debt vice pays to virtue” reasons. Hypocrisy is treated as an incredibly stinging accusation, whereas for me, it’s obvious that no one can live up to their ideals, and so hypocrisy is an entirely toothless thing to claim about a person. I’m obviously a hypocrite, and that’s OK. I would rather be a hypocrite that aspires to be a person doing good than a nihilist that says any claim about what is moral is just posturing.

However, in the case of Trump, it really does bother me that he talked on and on about how bad it was that Obama was golfing all the time, and then as president goes and golfs an order of magnitude more or whatever. And I think the reason that it bothers me is that it’s totally transparent that it’s not a case of him failing to live up to his ideals. It’s not that Trump thinks presidents shouldn’t golf but just can’t stop himself. He just didn’t at all believe what he was saying to begin with. Which is annoying, because usually you use what people are saying as a guide to what they think.

So I think I should make a habit of distinguishing “direct hypocrisy” a-la golfing Trump, where the obvious implication of your actions is that you don’t believe in your stated principles and “indirect hypocrisy” a-la Kim Davis or Al Gore, where you act in a way (that might be construed as) inconsistent with your principles, but it’s still totally plausible that you actually have those principles.

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Defending the indefensible: conservatives have no heart, liberals have no brain

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous posts in the series: against development, against government action on climate change

Anyway, I’ll get back to doing more straightforward ones soon, but this one is slightly different, because I’m not going to defend the claim as written. Here’s a post about what can be salvaged from “if you’re not a liberal before your 30th birthday, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative after, you’ve got no brain”. I agree with it

We were talking about the aphorism in the title with Boris, and so writing against/in favour of it came up. This is often said with some age bracket (“If you’re not a liberal before x… if you’re not a conservative after x …” Man, the x’th birthday must be a dramatic time). Most often, it’s said by right wing people over age x in the tone of “you’ll understand that being right wing is actually smart when you’re older”. The people who say it may be implying that while it’s commendable to be left wing in youth, it passes with age. Let’s take a look at what that means! Here’s an example: time series of support for gay marriage by age group (this example might be not representative in some ways, but it’s also the easiest one to find the information on, so I’m going to use it). So what’s happened here? One possibility is that younger people changed their minds on the issue more quickly, whereas older ones changed more slowly. Another possibility is that very few people changed their minds, they just changed age brackets, and the oldest people who died were most against gay marriage whereas the people who came of age are most for. As Pew Research notes, in fact it’s a combination of the two mechanisms. You can tease out the information of which is more important from the data given, but we will not do so here. This is because either one is a good argument against the “you’ll grow up and see that my right wing ideas are correct” viewpoint. If the mechanism is “your positions will remain the same but their labels will change” then it’s not a very good argument against your positions. If instead the mechanism is “older people are slower at changing their minds”, then “being slower at changing one’s mind” is equated to “having a brain” and well then that’s just completely wrong.

I am in general greatly annoyed by arguments about that presuppose that conservatives, whether on economics or foreign policy or the environment, are the only “the adults in the room”. I am not going to write a defence of them, because I don’t think it’s an argument that’s ever made in good faith. It’s an attempt to poison the well — rather than discuss specific policy, you imply guilt by association. Are there stupid left-wing proposals pertaining to economics, or foreign policy or the environment? Of course! But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious people making smart proposals as well. I could very easily find a bunch of poorly thought out conservative ideas on any of those topics, which doesn’t in itself mean that conservative ideas on them are worthless. Right wing ideas are often more cruel, of course, and some people see “adultness” in being cruel (“making the hard choice”), but that’s backwards. Being cruel to others is a childish thing that we hope to grow out of with age. There is nothing commendable about “making the hard choice” when it’s other people that have to bear the suffering.

However, surprisingly, I do think there is something to be said for this aphorism if it’s separated from age and right and left wing politics. Don’t think of “conservative” and “liberal” as right wing opposed to left wing, but think of it as incrementalist opposed to radical, and I believe something very close to this. If you look at the world and say “well, things are pretty good, change isn’t needed” — then you need more compassion. However, if you take from that a conclusion like “break everything and rebuild it from the beginning to comport with my viewpoint” then you probably haven’t thought it through. In the words of this Erik Olin Wright essay on capitalism and anti-capitalism, (which I think is brilliant and has guided a lot of my thinking on politics), for example, if you don’t see the problems with capitalism, you have no heart, but if your solution is to “smash capitalism”, you have no brain.

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Defending the indefensible: against government action on climate change

“Defending the indefensible” is a series of posts where I write arguments for viewpoints that normally make me angry. Instead of “devil’s advocacy” style arguments, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry.

Previous post in the series: against development

Anyway, here’s the best case against government action on climate change I can write:

Let’s start with this: that Earth is warming and that human activity is the main contributor to that warming is not in doubt. It is true that many people disagree or argue against these two propositions, and they are wrong. But just because people are on your side for stupid reasons doesn’t do anything to invalidate your side. But what it does do is create an environment where the most extreme global warming alarmists can sound reasonable just by the argument being over whether global warming exists. And thus they have usurped the “reasonable” conversation around global warming. Instead, the question about global warming that should be being discussed is fourfold:

  • how big of a temperature change do we expect?
  • what effect on human life should we expect from that temperature change?
  • what should be our goal in terms of what to do about this potential effect?
  • what are the most effective strategies for achieving that goal?

In terms of the first, we have the IPCC estimates. There is good reason to believe that they are over-estimates. They rely on a direct relationship between greenhouse gas concentration and warming. Absorption is sublinear in greenhouse gas concentration (it is only linear in the strict 0 concentration limit), and energy balance is sublinear in absorption. Add in the sociological effect that climate research scientists care a lot about the climate [citation needed], and so are more likely to see threats to the climate as dire. However, I agree that in the presence of uncertainty, it’s sensible to be pessimistic, and so let’s split the difference say that the “current path without any changes in technology” gets us to +3-4 degrees C by 2100.

So, if we did less than nothing (i.e., prevented new technology from dealing with the issue), we’d get an Earth that is 3-4 degrees warmer by the end of the century. That brings us to the second question of effects on humans. I think it’s telling that the most talked-about global warming effects are disappearing glaciers and dying polar bears. These things are, of course, bad. But people aren’t glaciers, and don’t live on ice floes. Most of the world’s landmass is located at temperate or extreme latitudes, where an increase in temperature and precipitation is likely to lead to improvements in agriculture, and where people die from cold much more so than they do from heat. That is, much more of the Earth is currently “too cold” from the human perspective than it is “too hot”, and so there are a lot of potential positives from warming if it is managed right. At least, it doesn’t need to be the global catastrophe that is assumed. The main issue from the human perspective is rising sea levels, and the ability to migrate from places which are becoming less habitable to places that are becoming newly habitable. We have the technological means to address this. If you told someone in the Netherlands, say, that they are living in the hellscape of the global warming future, they wouldn’t be particularly impressed. Of course, the issue is that the Netherlands is rich and has good technologies for dealing with the sea, and other places don’t. But I think that also points us to the proven solution of how to deal with the human consequences of global warming: rapid technological advance and broadly shared economic growth.

The solution I believe in is in engineering and research, as well as in economic progress, rather in a project of social engineering to change peoples’ way of life. That last is not only morally wrong, but is also doomed to fail. Yet this is the tack taken by global environmental diplomacy such as the Kyoto protocols or the Paris accords. David Victr’s  Vox explainer on the US’ withdrawal from Paris brands Trump’s mention of the costs as “implausible and misleading” — not because they aren’t the real costs, but because the idea that the US’d actually try to honour its pledge is apparently nonsensical and “rejected by all the experts”. But if the US doesn’t honour its pledge, what was the point of the pledge? And so I ask, what use are these accords? If instead you invested that money in making Bangladesh a richer country, you would have done much much more to allay human suffering in general, and from global warming in particular. If you actually care about human flourishing in an era of global warming, then most “environmentalist” activity is ineffective to counterproductive.

So why are environmentalists engaging in it? My suspicion is that some are motivated not by a desire to prevent climate catastrophe, but by an aesthetic judgement about which ways of life are good. They are actually against cars, suburban life, consumerism. The thing is, I agree: I don’t like these things either! But those are all things that many people do like, and so they bring the world a lot of happiness. We shouldn’t be looking for excuses to try to get rid of them. On balance, don’t randomly take away people’s choices of doing what makes them happy, even if your choices are very different. But again, the existence of bad reasons to support a certain argument doesn’t mean the argument is wrong. I am not saying that this motivation renders what environmentalists say about global warming untrue. I just want to amplify the point that if we actually care about people, we should be trying to save the way of life that people would prefer to have in the face of global warming, rather than using global warming as an excuse to change it. And environmentally-coded actions done by governments, corporations or individuals are doing the latter. Investing more in science and technology, and reducing inequality in the world is what would actually do the former.

Posted in politics, The future, The weather | 3 Comments

Defending the indefensible: anti-development

We used to write that this blog has a tradition of defending the indefensible, where we quibbled with attacks on Paul Ryan, Satoshi Kanazawa, and other people we found unsavoury.

Now I wanted to try something slightly different. I wanted to write some defences of viewpoints I strongly disagree with. More in the spirit of an “Intellectual Turing Test” than as devil’s advocacy. Of course it’s not a real “ITT” because I’m telling you I don’t agree with the overall viewpoint. However, I am still trying to be honest as possible, and basically this is what is most persuasive to me. What I don’t want this to be is an exercise in being offensive or shitty with plausible deniability. That would be edgelordery, and I dislike edgelordery a lot. Instead, I wanted to give the most honest argument I could for the other side. Partly because I want to do my part to have some viewpoint tolerance and maybe encourage you to do so, too. Partly because I accidentally found that trying to write these actually makes me less angry towards these viewpoints, and I enjoy being less angry. Anyway, here’s the best case against development I can write:

We are often told that Vancouver, Seattle, SF, etc. (pick your city), is growing, and so gentrification is inevitable as new housing needs to be built to accommodate new arrivals. However, I don’t know whether non-availability of housing stock is actually the limiting factor. I kind of suspect it isn’t. There are more dwellings sitting empty in Vancouver than there are homeless people, for example. And that is scratching the surface of housing that is, in effect, misallocated to under-used luxury developments, including the newest things being built right now. Developers say development is necessary to resolve the housing crisis, and then use that argument to get rich off selling multi-million dollar investment-dwellings that sit empty, doing very little to resolve this crisis, which thus persists and needs to be solved with further development. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it sure sounds like a convenient crisis to keep around.

The pro-development viewpoint for how to solve this comes down to “Let developers develop,” to quote Dan Savage’s piece. The claim is that, of course, with development being limited, the developers go for the richest slice of the market first, but opening up development further will help the less well-off as well. This prescription is amazingly broad, and I have less than zero trust that developers will have the interests of the community or of the poor in mind. At this point, a pro-development person will usually say that of course regulations of new development are necessary to ensure that the community as a whole can reap the benefits. And that’s well and good. In principle, with a well-thought-through set of regulations, I’m not against development. But here’s the problem: these regulations have a habit of not actually appearing and all you get is another super fancy condo that stands empty. What this conversation amounts to is that pro-development people are using an “Economics 101” argument that isn’t as applicable to real life as they think. As it is, between two options that don’t address the housing crisis, then, is it really that surprising that I prefer the one that doesn’t destroy the existing community in the process?

The pro-development side often points to places like the Mission and Washington, DC to show the evils of restricting development. And it’s true that the Mission is in an untenable situation. Yet the alternative is something like Yaletown in Vancouver or SLU in Seattle. It’s not the case that new development allowed the community to survive in a different guise. Instead it’s that these places have no sense of community at all. At least in the Mission, the displacement is not total. A person who has been living in the Mission for years may not feel happy about the changes in their neighbourhood. But having to move somewhere else would have been even more annoying. A place like Yaletown resembles a gated development more than anything else. And this gating has terrible effects on what happens in the city more broadly. If you can isolate the poor somewhere away from you, you can pretend they don’t exist and don’t need help.

Savage suggests that instead of worrying about gentrification as such, activists focus on transit politics. First of all, this is a false choice. Activism on one front doesn’t actually do anything to take away from activism from another front. Instead, you often get — ugh, don’t make me say it — “synergy”. I am in general distrustful of “pay attention to this thing not this other thing in your activism” arguments, because they are very likely to be concern trolling (e.g., “why are you feminists concerned with restrictions on abortion in the US when in Saudi Arabia women have no rights at all?”). This also sidesteps the issue that transit politics is itself quite complicated and not decoupled from development politics at all. What do we spend limited transit money on? If we spend it on linking outlying parts of the agglomeration to the centre, we risk not actually doing much to reduce sprawl or commute times or reliance on cars as the suburbs move further out to take advantage of the park and rides. However, spending it inside the urban core while also filling that urban core with luxury developments risks pushing out the poor into underserved banlieues.

Still, you might say, what does protesting development actually get you? Developments or no, the rich are going to be able to afford to outbid the non-rich for the existing housing as well, and gentrification will proceed apace. My view is that it creates a natural coalition to fight for the interests of the community. And this coalition-building is likely to be useful in the future.

Posted in politics | 5 Comments