09 June 2020

Fine consumer products

If you want to buy things, I like these resources for finding good things to buy:

  • Wirecutter has exceedingly in-depth reviews explaining what the best version is of numerous key products — especially electronics — including why that thing is the best and what difference it makes if you go for the best cheap or best spendy alternative
  • The Sweet Setup is a guide to applications for Apple devices, including not just the best solutions but a lot of advice about using them well
  • The MacRumours Buyers' Guide will help you guess where an Apple product is in its release cycle, to reduce the odds that you buy something and then discover a few weeks later that a major upgrade was released right afterward
  • Cool Tools is a huge collection of quirky, interesting reviews of a vast range of useful things
  • The Ones is a site maintained by some hip but (mostly) practical industrial designers listing their favorite, rock-solid products
  • Some things that are really quite good: “it’s just amazing how good the quality end of manufactured goods is, particularly compared to the landfill-fodder which is the norm”
  • Buy Me Once is a web store for very well-made stuff

Ender's Game is bad

People often ask how such a warmongering asshole as Orson Scott Card could write a beautiful, humane, anti-war novel like Ender's Game. I have come to believe that he did not. Which is not to say that Card did not write the book; rather, it is not the beautiful, humane, anti-war novel which people think they have read.

The book people experience when they read Ender's Game is very different from what the book contains, because the book which Card intended is so morally disgusting that it simply does not occur to most readers that it could possibly mean what it does. People cannot help but radically misread it.

John Kessel's Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality makes the horrible truth clear.

We see the effects of displaced, righteous rage everywhere around us, written in violence and justified as moral action, even compassion. Ender gets to strike out at his enemies and still remain morally clean.  Nothing is his fault. Stilson already lies defeated on the ground, yet Ender can kick him in the face until he dies, and still remain the good guy. Ender can drive bone fragments into Bonzo’s brain and then kick his dying body in the crotch, yet the entire focus is on Ender’s suffering.

The Rock, for President

An uncanny thought experiment:

Proposal for a book
to be adapted into a movie
starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson

Here is the meager gift tucked into the disaster that is Donald Trump: now, anyone can be elected president, so anyone will be elected president. We might never have another lawyer in that office again. Donald Trump broke the seal, but Dwayne Johnson will fulfill the prophecy.

If he runs, he will win, and he will run, so the question isn't, will Dwayne Johnson be president; rather, it's: what kind of president will Dwayne Johnson be?

"Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth," said Archimedes, maybe. With this book, we'll set our feet and push.

Street activism index

The quick and dirty tear gas primer
What's in the Bag? — A Guide To Packing A Protest First Aid Kit

Again, just getting started assembling an index

Social justice index index

An index of resources

Antiracism resources
This document is intended to serve as a resource to white people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now. Feel free to circulate this document on social media and with your friends, family, and colleagues.

Antiracism resource guide
Focused on action, from funds to contribute to through grand projects

Split a donation between 70+ community bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizers

Transform Harm
TransformHarm.org is a resource hub about ending violence. It offers an introduction to transformative justice. Created by Mariame Kaba and designed by Lu Design Studio, the site includes selected articles, audio-visual resources, curricula, and more. You can use what is here, and submit recommendations to be added to the focus areas listed here. We hope you will use these materials to foster your own education and also share them with your communities to build something new. Only together can we transform our relationships to each other and society. We hope that this site helps in this effort.

Reclaim The Block
Reclaim the Block began in 2018 and organizes Minneapolis community and city council members to move money from the police department into other areas of the city’s budget that truly promote community health and safety. We believe health, safety and resiliency exist without police of any kind. We organize around policies that strengthen community-led safety initiatives and reduce reliance on police departments. We do not believe that increased regulation of or public engagement with the police will lead to safer communities, as community testimony and documented police conduct suggest otherwise.

A Running List Of Hoaxes And Misleading Posts About The Nationwide Police Brutality Protests

Mutual Aid, Trauma, and Resiliency

07 May 2020

Person Of Interest

One of my favorite television series is Person Of Interest. This is my pitch for watching it.

What it is

On the face of it, the show is just a pretty good Detective Procedural With A Twist. But it turns out to be playing a deeper game.

Our heroes are a Reclusive Nerdy Billionaire Hacker and a Haunted Former Military Badass. Together, this odd couple fight crime!

The hacker gets messages from a government computer system which taps into phones, security cameras, and so forth to predict terrorist attacks; it also predicts ordinary violent crimes in New York City, and our heroes use their combined talents to prevent those. The clever conceit of the show is that the predictions they get are incomplete: they don't know what the crime will be or when it will happen. All the machine tells them is the identity of a person who will be involved ... without informing our heroes whether that person will be the victim of the crime or the perpetrator. So each episode depicts our heroes detective-ing in a race against time to figure out what is going to happen and how they can stop it before it is too late and someone gets murderized, all while dodging police who think of these heroes who operate from the shadows as vigilantes.

This is a fun idea and it allows for some classic genre TV pleasures: twists as we turn out to have misjudged who the bad guys are or what they are up to, nicely choreographed fights as our Haunted Former Military Badass stops bad guys from bad-guy-ing, banter between our regular characters, colorful guest characters, et cetera.

This alone supports interesting themes. Our heroes use a powerful surveillance machine, and in the course of investigating they spy on people; this makes us uneasy in the audience, raising questions about the technologies which now pervade our lives. Our heroes piggyback off of government institutions, hide from them, and unearth examples of how those institutions are inadequate or corrupt.

Which leads us to the show's deeper game.

As it makes the turn from the first season to the second, Person Of Interest violates a law of genre TV. Instead of just accepting the conceit of the show, it looks straight at it, saying oh by the way, did you notice that this show is about a nearly omniscient superintelligent artificial intelligence? And so the show unfolds from a straightforward genre show into an increasingly smart and strange work of science fiction, until by the end of its fifth and final season it is one of the smartest, most subversive things ever put on broadcast television while also delivering great popcorn entertainment.

As the series proceeds, it becomes clear that — unlike too many convoluted TV shows these days — it had a plan all along. It will get under your skin and into your head. Watch enough and you will never stop wondering if maybe the Machine is listening. You may even start hoping that it is.

Watching the show

A few tips to help you get into it and get the most out of it.

  • The back half of Season One drags a little, making it tempting to skip ahead or drop out. Hold fast. That stretch lays some important track, and the doldrums will not get bad, nor will they last long. As the show wraps up the first season and makes the turn into the second season, it starts getting weirder and gutsier and better and really takes off.
  • Always watch the title sequence. The show wants Finch’s explanation of the show's story to sink in ... and the show will occasionally use the content of the titles to good advantage.
  • Actor Jim Caviezel’s gruff performance as Reese, our dapper vigilante badass, is so dryly comedic that you might miss at first that it is funny at all, so it is good to have permission up front to recognize the gag.
  • The show is in dialogue with The Wire; the crime drama aspects of PoI are often like a fantastical, melodramatic version of The Wire, and if you love The Wire you will enjoy PoI's little winks toward it, including Wire actors turning up. I count myself lucky to have watched The Wire first, but it is hardly necessary. (Check out my enthusiastic pitch for The Wire for more about it; I am among the chorus who think it is far and away the best TV series ever made, as well as an important window into the American condition.)
  • The show is also heavily influenced by a little-known 1970 science fiction movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, which is about a different super-intelligent AI. Forbin is a movie decades ahead of its time and worth tracking down for its own sake, and if you see it you will find its fingerprints all over PoI.
  • If you find that, like all right thinking people, you take a liking to the glamorous fixer Zoe Morgan, you might want to check out the film Inside Man, which is a terrific movie and features Jodie Foster in a role which obviously inspired Zoe.
  • A couple of important characters are introduced without much fanfare, and it is good to have the small spoiler to know to keep an eye on them:
    • Kevin Chapman as salty, dirty cop Lionel Fusco
    • Amy Acker, who is a miracle worker of an actor wherever she appears

At the time I write this, the complete series of Person Of Interest is streaming on Netflix. Binge like the wind, Gentle Reader, and drop me a line to let me know how you liked it.

10 April 2020


I keep thinking that I don't need to say this any more ... and it keeps coming up. So for my own convenience if for no other reason, here is my take on whether Hillary Clinton was a “good candidate” in 2016.

I am not talking here about Clinton's merits as a potential actual President. Nor am I talking about the tactical particulars of her 2016 campaign. Just whether she was a fundamentally strong candidate.

I submit that she would have been a great candidate for the race everyone thought 2016 was going to be, but the worst possible candidate for the race we actually got.

The lesson of the George W. Bush era was that a Democrat running for President has to face a movement conservative slime machine which can find bullshit to sling at anybody. After they slimed Bill Clinton for a real estate investment where he lost money, they perfected the art and slimed Al “Most Square Democrat” Gore for being a “liar” and slimed John “Sliver and Bronze Star” Kerry for being a coward.

Barack Obama slipped that punch by getting unprecedented Black turnout. But there is no going back to that well; even if Fredrick Douglass and Martin Luther King came back from the dead and ran on a ticket together, I don't think you could get the same numbers Obama brought out for his historic first.

So the Democrats needed a candidate who could counter the slime machine.

On that basis, Hillary Clinton was the best possible candidate. She had been facing the full force of that machine, under the most intense possible scrutiny, for decades. She knew all of their moves; she had already made every mistake you can and taken every punch they had and lived to tell the tale. Recall that they ground away at the Benghazi pseudoscandal for years, with Congressional subpoena power in their pocket, and couldn't make it stick.

Any other candidate was a risk, might turn out to have some unforeseen vulnerability which the conservative media machine would exploit. Not Hillary Clinton. She was the most thoroughly vetted candidate for oppo research of all time; no conservative was going to come up with new dirt on her, they had already tried everything.

If the Republican candidate for President in 2016 had been a movement conservative — Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or one of those guys — she would have crushed him like a bug.

But that was not the race we got.

Instead of a movement conservative, the Republicans had Donald Trump, buoyed on the enthusiasm of conservative voters disgusted with (or at least tired of) the movement conservatives whom Clinton had spent half a lifetime learning to fight.

To fight Trump, the Democratic candidate had to peel away a few conservatives and conservative-inclined “independents” who were unenthusiastic about Trump. They didn't even need those voters to switch sides, just to stay home.

Any other candidate could have done it. They could have played left, reaching for “conservatives” who actually like liberal policies but have a taste for conservative rhetoric. They could have played right, promising that they were moderate enough that four years of their Presidency wouldn't be too bad.

But Hillary Clinton could not. For two decades “President Hillary” had been conservative media's metonym for götterdämmerung, the worst nightmare imaginable. Anyone who gave the least bit of credence to conservative politics could not sit out an election with the Devil Herself on the slate.

That didn't make Clinton's loss a sure thing; recall that the race was a squeaker. But it did make Hillary Clinton a uniquely bad candidate for running against a unique Republican candidate named Donald J. Trump.

30 March 2020

Unknown Armies on violence

Unknown Armies is the single tabletop roleplaying game dearest to my heart, not least because the writing is self-aware about how the nasty thrills of the noir horror stories it facilitates are actually ... nasty.

One of the designers, John Scott Tynes, wrote my favorite critique of violence in tabletop roleplaying over a decade before the “murderhobo” critique came along, and I am told that he is responsible for this introduction to the rules for combat in the first edition of the rules:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels, dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Six ways to stop a fight

So before you make a grab for that knife, you should maybe think about a few things. This moment is frozen in time. You can still make a better choice.

Surrender. Is your pride really worth a human life? Drop your weapon, put up your hands, and tell them you’re ready to cut a deal. You walk, and in exchange you give them something they need. Sidestep the current agenda. Offer them something unrelated to your dispute, and negotiate to find a solution.

Diasarm. Knife on the table? Throw it out the window. Opponent with a gun? Dodge until he’s out of bullets. Deëscalate the confrontation to fists, if possible. You can settle your differences with some brawling and still walk away, plus neither of you has to face a murder charge or a criminal investigation.

Rechannel. So you have a conflict. Settle it a smarter way. Arm wrestle, play cards, have a scavenger hunt, a drinking contest, anything that lets you establish a winner and a loser. Smart gamblers bet nothing they aren’t willing to lose. Why put your life on the line?

Pass the Buck. Is there somebody more powerful than either one of you who is going to be angry that you two are coming to blows? Pretend you’re all in the mafia and you can’t just kill each other without kicking your dispute upstairs first. Let that symbolic superior make a decision. You both gain clout for not spilling blood.

Call the Cops. If you’ve got a grievance against somebody, let the police do the dirty work. File charges. Get a restraining order. Sue him in civil court for wrongful harm. You can beat him down without throwing a punch.

Run Away. The hell with it. Who needs this kind of heat? Blow town, get a job someplace else, build a new power base. Is the world really two small for the both of you? It’s a big planet out there.

Oh Well

Still determined? Backed into a corner with no way out? Have to fight for the greater good? Up against someone too stupid to know this is a bad idea? Or maybe just itching for some action? So be it. The rest of this chapter contains rules for simulating the murder of human beings. Have fun.

The rules which follow are rich in scary randomness, by design.

19 March 2020

Public option

This should be handy to have in my pocket: a blog post on the evidence that the Obama administration scuttled any hope of a public option in the Affordable Care Act behind closed doors.

This exemplifies how lefties like me read Obama. He dogwhistled progressive values, but did not actually fight for progressive policy because he does not believe in it — which his boosters attribute to the hard limits imposed by Republican opposition, but which lefties read as him deliberately leaving opportunities on the table.

16 February 2019

Long work trips

A friend of mine is plotting a long work trip where they will be hopping from city to city for about a month. They know that I have done work travel like that and asked my advice.

On that kind of long work sojourn, the temptation is to travel Well Prepared because you are going to be On The Road For A While. But I recommend traveling as light as one can. This kind of trip in particular means packing and unpacking a lot, maneuvering through airports, loading in and out of cars. You don't want to bring more than you can carry for a distance ... because at some point you will have to.

I keep my travel kit packed all the time, and bring the same stuff whether on an overnight or hitting the road for a month, whether staying somewhere for a long stretch or roving around. That makes me ready to stay on the road indefinitely, because on a few occasions I have had to extend my trip by a day or three ... or a week ... and I want to always stand ready for that.

One of these days I will have to write about my whole travel kit in detail. For now, an overview relevant to this type of travel, with links to products I recommend.

I have a sub-maximum carry-on for the overhead plus a comfort bag for under the seat in front of me on the plane. I actually own two different carry-on options — a rolling pullman case for work travel and a backpack-able soft case for most personal travel — but I pack the same stuff either way.

The comfort bag contains everything I need to have available for my animal needs on a plane or elsewhere, plus my laptop, tablet, and Kindle. I always keep it close enough to grab, and it fits on my lap if necessary. It has my neck pillow, blindfold, dorky mouth-and-nose mask, noise cancelling headphoneswater bottle and electrolytes — convenient-format caffeine, melatonin, drugs, spices, and wipes — a plain white shemagh — and all my cables, batteries, and power converters. With a mini extension cord which turns one plug into two outlets, I can ask someone to let me cut in if they have taken the only available power outlet somewhere. Plus I leave a little room to tuck in some snacks: manage that blood sugar!

The carry-on has my clothes and other stuff that I only unpack on arrival. At this point my entire travel wardrobe is made of technical fabrics or merino wool that hold up to a beating and wash & dry easily. That makes it easier to travel with a small wardrobe with confidence.

(Update: a friend was surprised that I did not mention my enthusiasm for packing cubes. Packing cubes are a godsend. They make it easy to pack tight without your bag exploding when you open it. I usually take the cubes out of the bag and just lay them in the hotel dresser, still packed. I am particularly fond of two-chamber cubes that pack clean and dirty clothes into the same tidy space.)

In theory one can do ultralight travel and get it down to One To Wash And One To Wear but that means never ever skipping a day from being too tired or whatever. Better to have a buffer, but not too much because that means traveling with more kit and facing the dangerous temptation to not Always Be Laundering. Handwashing laundry in a hotel room it is hard to do more than two changes at once, so one can easily end up with a dirty laundry deficit that is hard to pay off. I pack four days of clothes and wear one, which gets me through a normal work week. But my kit always contains a clothesline, washbag, and soap. One can just do laundry in a hotel sink but having a Scrubba bag helps a lot. The instructions show a person agitating the bag with their hands but it is a million times easier to set it in the shower and stomp it for a few minutes with your feet.

One travel garment I strongly recommend is a middleweight zipper cardigan that zips all the way open or all the way up into a turtleneck-like arrangement. You can wear that under your jacket and be warm enough in pretty cold weather and it is easy to regulate temperature with the zipper. If real cold weather is a possibility, a light hooded puffer jacket layers nicely and covers a lot of situations while packing small. And whatever the weather I always pack a light rain jacket / windbreaker.

Aside from kit, you have to get your head right. When doing this kind of travel it is very easy to succumb to FOMO. “I have this one chance tonight to see a little of Chicago!” But on the long sojourn, the enemy is Creeping Exhaustion. Your first priority must always be taking every opportunity for rest you can get. It is 100% legit to hide in a hotel room or a host’s guest room. You will see and do more in the long run if you jealously guard your energies.

Getting to sleep in a strange bed, fighting jet lag, can be tough. I knock myself out with a cocktail of Benadryl and sublingual melatonin; melatonin forces the body clock but I find that if I don't fall asleep when it first makes me drowsy I end up with insomnia, so the Benadryl forces me to zonk out enough that the melatonin can take hold.

And never forget the ABC of travel: always be charging.

10 February 2019

Are people equal?

I think the most fundamental political question is: are people equal, or not?

Having looked at what divides liberals from conservatives, that is my shortest summary of my own read on the distinction.

Conservatives think some people deserve more than others and a good society sorts out who deserves what and gives it to them; liberals think all people are equal.

Recently in a bout of insomnia I succumbed to the temptation of a long Twitter exchange with a quasi-libertarian “conservative”. It supported my read of the conservative sensibility, and supported including the “anti-statist” libertarian impulse as conservative.

Consider first this thread starting with a wacky version of the political spectrum which purports to show that communism and fascism are both aspects of the left.

Many historians have no understanding of economics so they lack the understanding of the American economic spectrum

The European spectrum is inaccurate. Equating economic nationalist to a racist ideology is extremely mistaken

Social ideologies and economic platforms are different

Yes, I am aware that you think that your assertions trump historians' and political scientists understanding, and you have the esoteric little-known TRUE political spectrum.

Then tell me what the spectrum measures....

How does an ideology like fascism that likes heavy social programs like universal Healthcare and state control over the free market with heavy intervention Is opposite of Socialism.

Where does anarchy sit?

How do small government...

Libertarians and right wing people fall on that spectrum?

Are they near anarchy or on the opposite side?

Please explain......

I have a whole collection of writings on what distinguishes left from right.

Understanding American Politics: The Two Tribes

My own offering:

Liberal vs Conservative

The ultimate distinction between left and right is: are all people equal? Really? Or are some people more deserving?

The right says that we must sort out what different people deserve. The left says that all people are equal in rights, liberty, and dignity.

Holy fk... No wonder you're views are so strange.

I can't explain to you how far off you are.

If you're open I can try to help you understand how they view the world and even tag some so you can see that I'm not just making it up...


I understand that conservatives do not put their case that way directly.

But how would you summarize conservatism such that conservatives of 2019, 1999, 1969, 1939, and 1909 are all covered?

Conservative and liberal can change meaning.

I prefer using individualist vs collectivist.

You have a very flawed understanding of the other side....

I hope you become humble enough to challenge these views as I know for a fact you're completely wrong.

If you prefer to use the terms “individualist” vs “collectivist” then I encourage you to do so. Would you care to define those terms clearly?

An individualist believes that the three most important minority is the individual.

They believe that each individual's liberty must be protected as each man owns himself. (or herself)

Collectivist believe the individual lives to serve the collective.

They will sacrifice the...

Rights of the individual in order to benefit the collective.

A great example of this would be taking from the rich to give to the poor regardless of the wealthy person worked for their wealth.

If you want to steal their factories then you're a collectivist.

Okay, so an individualist believes that we have no obligations to each other, and that property rights are natural, fundamental, and inviolate.

A collectivist is anyone who will violate those values.

Is that correct?


We don't have obligations to each other except to respect each other's rights.

Thru this system we will flourish as we are all trying to make the best of our lives. Which is why capitalism fosters so much innovation.

When humans become wealthy they care for other humans.

Then this thread:

Unlike you, I do not think that property rights are the same kind of fundamental rights as things like freedom of speech.

The Declaration Of Independence says “among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Property is not on the list.

I DO think that legal protections of property rights can be a VERY useful instrument in securing prosperity, comfort, and dignity. But property rights are an instrument of achieving something more fundamental; they are not fundamental in themselves.

This is very revealing!

If you don't own your property, you don't own your body or your own labor.

You're a communist.

You don't respect the individual and you're 100% ok with slavery.

You're a collectivist and that's scary....

If you cannot distinguish taxation from slavery, then I submit that you are the one who is confused.

You just told me that property rights aren't as important as free speech.

What's the point of having the right to say what you want if you can't defend yourself?

I'm sure you're angry gun if you don't even think people own themselves.

Self ownership means you own your labor...

And you own your own property.

You can't separate these.

If I'm a free person then if I create something then I own it.

If I use your capital and your factory and your raw materials then I don't own the good.

I own my labor which is what I invested and you pay me for it.

Yes, I am familiar with the argument that property rights are direct logical consequence of self-sovereignty.

I do not find them convincing.

Our wealth and productivity are not only a consequence of our labor. They also result from a multitude of common resources: infrastructure and knowledge (much of them inherited from before we were born), the network of people indirectly contributing to what we create.

If I am paid a wage for making a car, what of the web of people who contributed to making that car? The people who mined the ore, the people who designed the engine, the people who maintain the roads which brought the necessary supplies to the factory?

Yes, most of those people were paid in some way. But the pay they received was not some fundamental truth of their value as people. It was contingent on circumstances, systems of power.

If they were worth more than the pay they were earning they should quit.

Could they build a motor if they weren't trained while on the job... Being paid!!?

What risk is involved in that?

They should revolt by not getting a job and learning while taking pay from an owner.

Some people are paid little enough that though they work full-time they can only afford to live in their cars.

Is that all they are worth?

Who's fault is this?

Their job has so much competition because they have very little skills.

If they were the only person that could do the job the wages would be higher.

You also have to consider how much revenue their job creates...

I am not asking you an economic question.

I am asking you a MORAL question.

Is living in a car all those people are worth?

The reason people live in cars is due to their flawed economic system.

For example people in San Francisco live in their cars.

This is because of high rent prices, the high rent prices are due to bad policies like rent control and government intervention in building.

If these terrible left wing policies didn't exist there would be an excess of houses which would lower the price of rent substantially to the point where no one would need to live in their car.

The supply would need to compete for the demand vs the current situation.

I happen to agree with you significantly about housing in the SF Bay Area.

But I asked you a more a fundamental moral question, because you insisted that property rights are a fundamental moral question.

Is living in a car all some people are worth?

Yes. If you live in a free market system and rent is affordable and you simply choose to not work then your value to society is minimal.

Therefore it would be your decisions and abilities that lead to your situation.

No one likes to hear it but it's the truth.

So you believe a homeless person that does not work adds as much value as the person that sorrento their entire life studying to be the best in their field and now works 60+ hours a week?

If you can agree that there's a difference then you understand that not everyone is equal.

You have made my point

The ultimate distinction between left and right is: are all people equal? Really? Or are some people more deserving?

The right says that we must sort out what different people deserve. The left says that all people are equal in rights, liberty, and dignity.

People not being equal is not the same as people not being deserving.

If you're saying that a person that doesn't work vs a person that does is about one person not deserving something... Nothing is deserved, it's earned.

So you're starting from flawed logic.

So everyone has the same rights, dignity, and liberty.

What you do with your life is up to you after that.

If you're saying that a person that doesn't work simply "deserves" money because they breathe the same air as Elon Musk but didn't do half the work or create value for...

Society then that ideology has failed countless times and has lead to people being murdered.

Why would I work in that society? It's children's logic.

This is exactly my point about how we define left vs right.

I, on the left, start from the assumption that everyone deserves a life of comfort and dignity. Everyone. Whether they “create value” or not. Just for breathing.

And you, on the right, have made clear that you do not.

Yes. If you don't work I should not be your slave.

28 January 2019

Tabletop roleplaying for kids

A friend recently asked what tabletop roleplaying games I recommend for getting kids into the hobby. I replied:

Fate Accelerated is pretty good for kid games. I have a play report that is amazeballs:

So me, sitting there listening to them start to form their characters, I already I like where this is going. There's plenty of variation in character types, and it's easy enough to say they're childhood friends who hang out and have adventures, and I'm getting ideas for what we might do for the next 90 minutes.

It was around here when they started saying “This is so fun!” They're not even playing yet.

Because this was their first time playing anything like this, they didn't bring any gamer-baggage to the table. This included, but was not limited to, second-guessing my every move. Nothing would be cliche to them! So I started things out in a tavern.

Another great Kid Game Play Report:

“We're warning them of a battle!” Sebastian said.

“But not a bad battle,” Elliot said.

“A bad battle!” Sebastian said.

Elliot looked worried. Uh oh, a bad battle. Those kids are so cool I can't even tell you.

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is a game specifically designed for kids with much of the flavor of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Golden Sky Stories is a kind of Miyazaki style game. I have not yet looked at it closely but it is nifty.

I bought Cat a while back because I love this story the designer tells:

I never need to pitch this game.

Standing behind my booth at a game convention, I have to pitch everything. Houses of the Blooded, Thirty, Discordia ... everyone asks, “What’s this game about?”

I give them the standard pitch for those games. I’ve got them down to thirty seconds. A catch phrase and some follow-up to anticipated questions.

But Cat? No pitch necessary. When someone asks, “What’s this about?” I always say the exact same thing.

“It’s about house cats who protect their owners from Monsters they can’t see.”

And that’s it. That’s all I need. I’ve got the money in my hands and they’re walking away with the game.

Plus the character attributes are claws, coat, face, fangs, legs, and tail. Of course tail, is used for magic!

There's a similar game for Fate, my favorite game engine, called The Secrets of Cats.

And I have heard good things about Little Wizards but have not really looked at it.

Last but not least, this reminds me of Puppetland:

The players take the roles of puppets — finger puppets, hand puppets, marionettes, or shadow puppets in a horrific world ruled by the bloodthirsty Punch.

That one is not for children.

And if you are an adult running a game for kids, @SixHitPoints has some advice:

My encounters, by typical standards were totally cliche: fight dinosaurs, cross a rope bridge, kill pirates. Guess what? They LOVED it.

Why? B/c fighting dinosaurs is AWESOME. Crossing a rope bridge is just like in the movies only YOU'RE DOING IT. Fighting pirates? YES PLEASE

23 January 2019

An open letter to an anti-Zionist


Some things you said a few weeks ago have given me an itch. This itch feels familiar because your comments rhyme with other critiques of Zionism I have encountered many times on the left.

I do not count myself a Zionist. The Zionist project implicitly endorses the whole order of nation-states in a way that does not sit right with me.

Nor do I hold Israel apart from criticism. Contemporary Israel stands on policies of morally indefensible para-fascist apartheid. The brutal oppression of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is wrong, illegal, and merits inter- and trans-national effort to correct. To that end, I support the international BDS movement to pressure Israel to change its policies.

And yet.

The way you have expressed your opposition to Zionism troubles me. As a Jew, there are ways in which it frightens me.

I don’t know you but I recognize the commitment to justice which animates your words and actions, so I come to you with an open hand. I want solidarity in pursuit of justice, not a fight.

I invite you to consider how you sound to me.

What you are saying and doing

You have sponsored a series of protests against a business in your community because the owner is a Zionist. The business, and the project it represents, are not Zionist, but the person behind it is.

Though you also have other objections to his project, you have said that you find cause enough just in him being a Zionist that the community should reject all of his works.

I’m down with running any business owner that is a Zionist out of FRISCO.!!!!

Indeed, you say that you want not just to disrupt his project but to drive him entirely out of your community.

We don’t hate Jews, We just don’t want Zionist in our community.

Are you objecting to an Israel hardliner who supports the worst policies of the state of Israel and advocates for Israel doing even worse things? Evidently not. You have named the rhetoric and actions to which you object:

He posted on Facebook congratulating Israel on 68 years (which is now 70) of independence. He also asked (on Facebook) could anybody recommend any Bay Area Zionist groups he could join.. There’s more, but that’s enough proof for me..

So you have said that simply identifying as any kind of Zionist, and celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, justify running him out of the community.

This is strong stuff.


Zionism emerged at the end of the 19th century. European Jews saw Europe moving toward the political order which today shapes the whole world: nation-states with crisp borders holding absolute sovereignty over the people within them. People were talking about how the citizens of a nation-state needed to be a single people: France and the French people, and so forth.

As a diaspora people spread across many countries who had experienced repression and worse for centuries, European Jews worried that these trends meant that Jews would find themselves left without a chair when the music stopped. So in 1897, when Palestine was not a nation but a region within the Ottoman Empire (corresponding to what is now Israel and Jordan combined) the First Zionist Conference declared:

Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.

This original definition of Zionism deliberately says nothing of borders, policy, or even the creation of a nation-state.

What does it imply over a century later, in a world which has the state of Israel? It means that at its core, Zionism is not defined by any of the particulars of Israel — not any specific borders or policy or governance.

Being a Zionist today means neither more nor less that one supports Israel’s existence. I know many liberal and leftist Zionists who believe in the Zionist project … and who at the same time work for a dramatic transformation of Israel’s policies and society, in pursuit of justice for Palestinian Arabs who live in both the Occupied Territories and within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

How I hear you

Given this understanding of what the word “Zionism” means, given that calling for the dissolution of Israel is the explicit position of countless anti-Zionists, in your anti-Zionism I hear rejection of the very existence of Israel.

Would you look a Kurdish nationalist in the eye and tell them not to yearn for a nation of Kurdistan? Would you tell a Pakistani nationalist that Pakistan should still be part of India? Would you tell a White South African that the historical horrors of apartheid mean that their citizenship should be revoked? Would you harass a US citizen for celebrating our Independence Day?

Perhaps you might. But since I have not seen you attack other national projects in the same way you attack Zionism, I hear a unique animus just toward Zionism.

What is so special about Zionism?

I want to underline the gravity of your reaction here. You have not made a statement of principle about Zionism as an ideology. You have not opposed a Zionist project. You have not attacked a public advocate of Zionism. You have not just discouraged people from working with someone who is a Zionist in their private life.

You have gone beyond all that, working hard to try to purge from the community someone who privately supports Zionism.

What is so special about Zionism?

This effort to expel this person from your community rhymes with the long history of Jewish expulsion which gave rise to the Zionist movement in the first place.

What is so special about Zionism?

What am I to think? The obvious answer is: Jews are what make Zionism so special.

And I must mention one more thing.

Around the same time that you were tweeting the things I quote above, you also shared this:

The conspiracy theory that the banks are secret masters who control the government and the media is only millimeters away from the longstanding antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jewish bankers are secret masters who control the government and the media.

Seeing this together with with your vigorous harassment of a Zionist? It troubles me.

So when you say “no, no, I don’t have a problem with Jews, I just have a problem with Zionism” it has the same ring to me as someone who says “I am not a racist, but …”.

In this moment when we have literal Nazis on the march in America, I am touchy.

It does not have to be this way

I believe that your effort to distinguish between standing for justice and standing against Jews is sincere. I do not believe that you are driven by antisemitic bigotry.

I respect how the worst of Israel’s history — and the worst of Israel’s present — whets a hunger for justice.

I respect how hard it can be to gauge one’s response to those injustices when pro-Israel boosters attack anyone who offers even modest criticism of Israel.

I respect how difficult it can be to understand the context of Israel-Palestine when there are propagandists on all sides actively trying to confuse things.


You are demonizing Zionism in a way that holds Jews to a troublingly unique standard. You are echoing antisemitic conspiracy theories.

You are doing antisemitism.

I presume that is not what you want to do.

There are resources available for better understanding antisemitism. If you don’t have Jewish friends with whom you can have the necessary hard conversations, I invite you to come to me.

I want solidarity in pursuit of justice, not a fight. I invite you to consider how you sound to me. Please.

Equipto responds on Twitter and we get into a dialogue. I have marked his words for clarity.

Does the Israeli government support Zionism? Are children being murdered every 60 hours by the Israeli military in the name of Zionism? It’s simple. Of course Israel has the right to exist, but at the expense of who? It’s pretty simple. I appreciate your concern. But I’m coo.
Hitler was a vegetarian. That doesn't make vegetarians Nazis.

Not all Zionists support the Israeli government.

Bad analogy. Then those Zionist need to stand in solidarity with those that oppose the occupation. Simple again.
Many do.

Being a Zionist does not mean supporting the occupation. That is just not what the word means.
So why focus on the word & not focus on the atrocities.? That baffles me. Saying that “I do not believe that you are driven by antisemitic bigotry” is 100% on point. Btw, I have Jew friends that work w/ JAZ (Jews Against Zionism) & they’ve broken it down to me. Thanks though.
You focused on the word.

You said that being a Zionist was sufficient cause to drive Manny out of SF.
I’m focused on what’s being done to innocent Palestinians by Israeli military in the name of Zionism. Shouldn’t that be your concern too?
Is Manny doing something to innocent Palestinians?
When proudly celebrating the 70 year occupation of Palestine in public & social media, I would say yes..
Should we try to drive everyone who celebrates US Independence Day out of SF?

Or is the “occupation of Palestine” under a United Nations agreement in 1948 different from the occupation of North America by the United States?
Does the Israeli government support Zionism? Are children being murdered every 60 hours by the Israeli military in the name of Zionism? It’s simple. Of course Israel has the right to exist, but at the expense of who? It’s pretty simple. I appreciate your concern. But I’m coo.
It does not sound to me like you appreciate my concern. It sounds to me like you don't have a problem with doing antisemitism in the eyes of non-Zionist Jews.
Well, if that’s what it sounds like to you, you’re WRONG.. you’re going in circles trying to make me out to be anti-Semitic.. smh..
Do you respond this same way to Black people when they say you did something racist?
Aye, 50cent w/ the 21 questions.
Get at me when you’re in the city & we can talk face to face about it. How bout that?

I would very much like that.

I am out of town for a stretch; I will ping you about raising a glass when I return.

(At the time of this writing I still have not been in town to catch up with Equipto, but I hope to catch up with him eventually.)

Another response:

This is not convincing. Criticism of bankers is too close to anti-semitism...so, we shouldn’t criticize banking? False equivalencies with South Africa? I’ll pass. The Manny’s boycott is about in group/out group poseur radicalism, sloppiness, and xenophobia, but not anti-semitism.
Criticism of bankers is not too close to antisemitism. I am a banker-hater myself.

But saying that BANKERS CONTROL THE GOVERNMENT is reproducing conspiracy theories directly springing from the antisemitic forgery 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'.
What is false about the parallel with South Africa?

Israel's current governance is an apartheid state (roughly) comparable to SA pre-1994. But unlike SA, Israel faces anti-Zionist opposition which denies its right to exist as a state and calls for expulsion of its citizens.
Also, I have to notice that you are telling a Jew what is and is not antisemitism.

I am skeptical that you respond to women that way about sexism, PoCs about racism, LGBTQ folks about homophobia ....

16 December 2018

Talking about talking about social justice

Over on Twitter, journalist David Roberts <@drvox> makes an observation about sexism in American politics:

CNN Breaking News <@cnnbrk>:
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says she is “definitely thinking” about running for president in 2020 and will announce a decision in the near future https://cnn.it/2LhAbZH
I've always thought Gillibrand would be a great choice -- checks tons of boxes, super-appealing. But the speed with which grassroots Dems bought the fucking absurd sexist fairy tale that she “ran Franken out” of the Senate makes me despair for any female running.
Of course it's not background sexism! It's just that Hillary really was shrill! Elizabeth Warren really did screw up the Pocahontas thing! Gillibrand really did take Franken down! We just need to find a perfect female candidate w/ no problems or history or idiosyncrasies.

I saw this on my main Twitter list, since I follow Roberts. I also follow another person who re-shared marisa kabas <@MarisaKabas> quote-tweeting him, saying:

Of course I’m happy when men “get it”, but it is amusing to see them realize things most women have known since we were old enough to have critical thought.
Before you make a proclamation of The Way It Is For Ladies, ask yourself: Is it possible a woman has already said this, and probably more eloquently? And should I just amplify her instead of creating my own content?

This sparked a little dialogue in replies:

And they always get so much credit for it too
marisa kabas:
imagine if they just—and i know this is going to sound crazy—listened to women??
If they just listened to women they wouldn’t get a medal when they proudly exclaim sexism and misogyny exists.
Can’t let the women get credit for talking about it

I'm about to do some grumbling about this. But first let's sit with this critique.

Let's respect how vexing it is when someone shows up late to something you have been saying for a long time. We all know the ambivalence one can feel about that.

Let's remember how best practice for people in positions of privilege is to point to, credit, and amplify the voices of the marginalized, especially those who made the point early.

Let's take the point about “getting a medal” and note how there are certain people in positions of privilege who make a lot of noise about how woke they are and use it to get support and attention.

These frustrations are 100% legitimate. So let them soak in for a moment.

And. Also:

I recognize Roberts' type because I am not so different. Privileged in a number of ways, and while social justice isn't our main thing, we do care about it and we try to show up for it.

There are times when I have caught a thing about sexism or racism or some other systemic injustice — noticed it because I have listened to people hurt by it — and though I am sure that someone better-qualified to speak to it from experience has addressed the thing, I do not have the quote in hand and cannot find it easily. So the choice is whether to speak to the injustice in my words, or to not address it at all. One may object that Roberts is not in the middle of some realtime situation and so could hunt up a quote about this from a woman who said it better, but still: time and energy and attention are limited.

So in practice marisa kabas is saying to Roberts, and me, and all men: criticize sexism less.

This is not about marisa kabas. And again, her frustration and criticism are both legitimate. This is about the pattern. Pressure against the privileged speaking out for social justice coming from proponents of social justice is common and takes a range of forms.

Being a straight White guy who talks about social justice sometimes, I hear from other people who are some combination of straight, White, and male who ask me how I find the fortitude to do it. They tell me they are not deterred by opponents of social justice, but rather by the pushback they get from proponents of social justice any time they engage. They see that I am more skillful and dedicated than they are — which is not necessarily saying much, but is often the best example they have available to them — and I still get a lot of criticism for not saying things perfectly.

Yeah, many of those people are either rationalizing their laziness about addressing social justice, or even speaking in bad faith to rationalize their opposition to social justice. I remind them that getting critical feedback and learning from it is part of the work. Because it needs to be.

But some of these folks are earnest, sincere, and genuinely pained to be retiring from the field. I have no advice for them beyond telling them to grit their teeth and be happy warriors, because no amount of care and diligence they take is sufficient to end the barrage of cutting criticism from the very people whose perspective they value and are trying to support.

Yes, those people should be better. I too should be better.

But I know what will happen.

15 December 2018

DeLong's Principles Of Neoliberalism

I didn't write this, economist Brad DeLong did. Nor do I endorse it, though I do endorse DeLong as smart. I just couldn't stand the eye-bending formatting at the source.

Principles of Neoliberalism

Version 1.23 : 29 March 1999

Neoliberalism is many things. It is:

  • a counsel of despair with respect to the possibility of social democracy today (outside of the global economy’s industrial core).
  • a counsel of hope with respect to the prospects for rapid market-generated economic development outside the global economy’s industrial core — if governments adopt market-conforming policies.
  • a bet that improvements in transportation and communication — the shrinking world — “globalization” — gives us today an extraordinary opportunity to rapidly reduce global inequality by incorporating more and more people and more and more more regions into the global economy.
  • the only live utopian program in the world today.

A counsel of despair…

After World War II in Latin America, and at the achievement of independence elsewhere outside the global economy’s core, there were high hopes that social democracy (or something further to the left) could be successfully instituted. And there were high hopes that such social democratic or socialist regimes would enable peoples living outside the core to cut a generation or more off of what had been a lengthy, bloody, and cruel three- or four-generation process of industrialization and democratization in northwest Europe and its settler colonies.

Social democratic or socialist governments would from the beginning establish strong redistributive social insurance states to severely reduce the income and wealth inequalities that had been characteristic of Bismarckian Germany or the Gilded Age United States. They would put into place the physical infrastructure to reduce infant mortality and disease that the aristocracies and bourgeoisies of northwest Europe had not thought profitable. They would spend money like water on education.

Moreover, they would use Keynesian policies to make sure that growth was free of the recessions and depressions that characterized industrialization in the industrial core. They would carefully manage their connections with the global economy — choosing the level of the real exchange rate, controlling imports so that imported goods were those of high social utility, preventing artificial drives for export success from raising the prices of necessities to the people, and establishing national independence from imperial capital.

They would nationalize at least the monopolistic commanding heights of the economy (if social democratic) or nationalize far more of the economy (if socialist) in order to take full advantage of the massive economies of scale in industry, and to make sure that investments in capacity and productivity that made sense from the social point of view were made — as they would not be if large-scale industry remained private, and if it proved difficult for the private monopolists to make a profit off of such investments. And all these economic decisions would be made by democratically-elected governments responsible to an electorate that had learned by exercising power what the trade-offs were and how to choose the best path forward that led by the quickest way to utopia.

By the end of the 1970s, however, it was clear to all except blindered ideologues that something had gone very wrong with social democracy at the periphery. (And that even more had gone wrong with really-existing socialism at the periphery.)

Stable political democracy proved far more to be the exception than the rule. Authoritarian rule by traditional elites, dictatorship by impatient army officers, and charismatic populist politicians ruling by virtue of carefully-prepared and carefully-staged plebiscites were much more common than were stable parliamentary or separation-of-powers democracies. Those aspects of social insurance that were installed seemed to do more to redistribute income from (poor) rural peasants to (richer) urban workers and (rich) urban civil servants than to moderate income and wealth inequalities. With some exceptions (many of them among really-existing-socialist countries) high government spending on education and on physical infrastructure seemed to produced less in the way of actual education or infrastructure — and more in the way of sweetheart contracts to the Minister of Regional Development’s nephew’s cement factory — than one would have hoped.

The nationalized commanding heights of the economy turned out more often than not to become employment bureaus for the politically well-connected: under Juan Peron in Argentina the number of employees of the (newly nationalized) Argentinian railroad system close to tripled, while the number of trains and the volume of goods carried fell. It seemed that while the state was superior as an instrument of social evolution, it was not very good as a bank, or as a stock exchange, or as a nursery for inefficient enterprises.

Too-great a reliance on Keynesian policies of demand stimulation turned out to generate high- and hyper-inflation, with the recessions that came with the crash of the monetary system proving arguably larger than the booms-and-busts Keynesian policies were supposed to avoid. Import restrictions turned out to limit imports not to those of social utility, but to those profitable to the import companies owned by the son-in-law of the Vice Minister of Finance — and to the Vice Minister himself. High real exchange rates turned out to do less to amplify the purchasing power of the country abroad than to artificially shrink exports, and to divert employment and investment away from sectors of comparative advantage.

There were exceptions: places outside the core where the social-democratic program was a stunning success. India managed to hang on to political democracy (albeit with disappointing economic growth). East Asia managed to limit corruption and maximize investment in infrastructure and export capacity, achieving the fastest economic growth rates ever seen in world history (albeit with disappointingly slow progress toward political democracy, and civilian blood on the hands of the military in massacres ranging from the thousands (in South Korea) to the tens of thousands (in Taiwan) to the hundreds of thousands (in Indonesia). In Brazil rapid growth in measured GDP was associated with the most hideous income distribution ever seen. Southern Europe alone managed to “converge” to the industrial core of northwest Europe, its ex-settler colonies, and Japan.

It seemed that the key was political democracy. With stable political democracy — in France, in Italy, even in Spain after the fall of Franco — social democracy could work and achieve great successes. Without political democracy it seemed that the chances of success were low (unless somehow the poorly-understood foundations of East Asia’s low corruption could be duplicated). And it also seemed that the prospects for achieving stable political democracy on the periphery were rather low. After all, France experienced its first democratic revolution until 1789, yet depending on who you talk to it was not until 1871 or 1958 or 1981 that France truly achieved stable democracy.

Hence neoliberalism as a counsel of despair. As Marx wrote, the executive branchy of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the affairs of the ruling class — meaning, among other things, that a democratically-elected legislative branch turns the state into something better. But the prospects for stable political democracy in the periphery are slim. And thus the government becomes the tool of the ruling class—a ruling class that may be made up of army officers, or landlords, or urban elites, or those who profit as middlemen from the traditional channels of trade and exchange — who are not terribly interested in the success of social democracy or in rapid broad-based economic growth.

Hence the policy advice of neoliberalism as a counsel of despair: get the state’s nose out of the economy as much as possible. When the state is neither an instrument of positive redistribution nor an instrument of growth-boosting investment, its interventions in the economy are likely to go strongly awry. And to the extent that a reduction in the economic role of an elite-controlled state can be required as a price for rapid incorporation of an area into the global economy, such a reduction should be required.

A counsel of hope…

Yet neoliberalism is not just a counsel of despair, it is a counsel of hope. The hope is that the prospects for rapid market-generated economic development outside the global economy’s industrial core are very bright.

The prospects for rapid market-generated economic development are very bright for three reasons. First, the productivity gap between the periphery and the industrial core has never been larger. Second, governments now have a large number of positive examples to copy (as well as negative examples to avoid) in planning market-conforming development strategies. Third, investors in the industrial core now have the confidence and the resources to materially assist in peripheral development.

First, because the productivity gap between the periphery and the industrial core has never been larger, what Alexander Gerschenkron called the “advantages of backwardness” are now uniquely great. In 1870 an Indian or a Chinese textile-making entrepreneur could perhaps quadruple labor productivity by importing the modern capital goods of the British industrial revolution. Today any entrepreneur on the periphery has the prospect of being able to amplify labor productivity tenfold or more by investing in latest-generation or latest-but-on-generation capital equipment and factory organization. The stunning multiplication of productivity in Mexican automobile manufacture gives a clue to how quickly productivity can be amplified — if the capital is there to do so.

Second, all governments everywhere are now aware — from the examples of northern Europe, southern Europe, and East Asia — of those government interventions and policies that appear to be powerful boosters of growth. They are aware of the centrality of education (especially female secondary education) in accelerating the demographic transition. They are aware of the importance of making it easy for domestic producers to acquire industrial core technology (embodied in capital goods or not). They are aware of the importance of administrative simplicity and transparency. They are aware of the value of the transportation and communications infrastructure that only the government can provide. In those areas in which the government’s nose should and must stay deeply embedded in the economy, even those states controlled by elites that have only a limited interest in growth and development now have many positive models to imitate.

Third, improvements in communications and transportation have made investors in the industrial core more willing than ever before to consider placing their capital in the periphery. The pre-World War I wave of international investment was largely limited to regions in which there were lots of white guys — guys who could play polo (never mind that polo in its original form was a sport played by central Asian nomads using a goat carcass as a ball) — plus the French geostrategic commitment to Russia as an ally against the Second Reich. The U.S. benefited enormously from Britain’s willingness to lend capital to industrializing America in the years before 1900. The inflow of capital cut a decade or two off of the time it took the U.S. to industrialize (and crony capitalists like Jay Gould, Colis Huntington, and Leland Stanford took British investors to the cleaners as well). Now that investors in the industrial core are willing to commit their money to regions in which there are not lots of white guys, an opportunity to speed industrialization that used to be limited to a relatively narrow part of the non-European world is now open to many more — if their governments undertake the steps needed to reassure industrial-core investors, and if those who make economic policy in the G-7 can limit the destructive effects of the financial crises generated by the manic-depressive swings of opinion in Manhattan, London, Frankfurt, and Tokyo.

A bet on globalization…

And this is where the neoliberal view of the world is weakest: in its bet on globalization — its bet that a tightly-integrated global economy, with large flows of capital and goods (and, to the extent industrial core governments permit, of labor) is a richer and faster-growing global economy. John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White would disagree with the proposition that large flows of capital are good: they would call them too dangerous to be risked.

Nevertheless, neoliberals today are more impressed with the gains from capital flows than the risks. The quadrupling of real wages in Indonesia from 1965 to 1997 would have been significantly lower without capital inflows which carried technology and enabled higher domestic investment (even though real wages in Indonesia have fallen by at least a quarter since 1997). Lowered transportation and communications costs have amplified the gains from expanded international trade by an order of magnitude over the past generation. And it is next to impossible to have large international flows of goods while excluding the possibility of large international flows of capital as well. Small changes in the timing of payments and in the extension of trade credit add up to large swings in the capital account.

Thus neoliberalism is not only a bet that increasing economic integration is a good thing — that an integrated global economy will see much more levelling-up than levelling-down — but that successful stabilization policy can be pursued by the G-7 on a global level. It is thus a claim about the economic environment (that the gains from globalization are large) and about the state capacity of the G-7 (that they can successfully carry out global-level stabilization policies).

The only live utopian program…

Perhaps not all of the principles of neoliberalism are correct.

Successful development in East Asia suggests that the counsels of despair are perhaps somewhat overstated: East Asia is an example if not of successful social democracy at least of a successful developmental state. On the other hand, as Lant Pritchett has observed, there is nothing worse than state-led development led by an anti-developmental state. And pending a better understanding of what has gone right in East Asia or much greater success in institutionalizing political democracy, the risks of a government turning away from the neoliberal path and attempting to duplicate East Asian developmental states appear very high. The belief that the opportunities for market-conforming development are now uniquely great appears to be almost certainly correct. But the jury is still out on whether the free-capital-flow part of “globalization” is a good thing: the odds are 80% that the G-7 do have the state capacity to successfully manage a world economy with large-scale capital flows, but there is a 20% chance that they do not.

Nevertheless, the neoliberal program is the only live utopian program in the world today.

Opposition to neoliberalism on the left seems to call for a return to effective autarchy. But if there is one lesson from economic history over the past hundred years, it is that there has been one decade — the 1930s — when economic autarchy was the road to relative prosperity, while there have been nine decades in which the more open to trade a country’s economic policy, the faster has been economic growth. Opposition to neoliberalism on the left seems to call for a return to state control of the economy — to the pattern of Peronism or of the PRI — in the hope that this time the state will be not the tool of elites with little concern for development and growth but instead the faithful servant of the interests of the masses.

That is not very likely. The state can be the servant of the people only if political democracy is well-established, and not always then. To place one’s chips on the maximization of the power of a not-very-democratic and not-very-developmental state does not seem a promising path for either democratization or successful industrialization. It seems to embody a remarkable unwillingness to learn from world history since the end of World War I, and an ideological-blinded refusal to ever mark one’s beliefs to market.

Opposition to neoliberalism on the right seems based on a fear that neoliberalism will bring with it a breakdown of social order: peasants will no longer fear landlords, workers will no longer be the clients of bosses or of the leaders of government-sponsored puppet unions, and voters will no longer respect the views of notables.

All the rest of us certainly hope that the right-wing opponents of neoliberalism are correct, and that neoliberalism this generation will begin structural transformations that will make social democracy on the periphery possible next generation.

29 October 2018

Cuban missile crisis

I'm snipping out the meat of an article ostensibly about Donald Trump and John Bolton because it delivers a crisp telling of how Americans' collective memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis is wrong.

There is a standard story about the Cuban Missile Crisis, at least for those who remember it at all:

The perfidious Soviet communists, bent on intimidating the U.S. into submission via the superior power they wielded as a result of the missile gap, sent nuclear weapons to Cuba, from where they could strike the U.S. in minutes. But John F. Kennedy stood tall, refusing to make any concessions to the Russian bullies. JFK went toe to toe with the Soviets, and demonstrated he was tough enough to risk nuclear war. Finally, the other side blinked first and surrendered, taking the missiles out of Cuba. America won!

The hard reality, however, is that everything about this is false, both in its specifics and implications. It is, as James Blight and janet Lang, two of the top academic specialists on the crisis, have put it, “bullshit.” The even harder reality is that October 27 was a far more petrifying moment than U.S. and Soviet participants understood at the time — and they were terrified. Blight and Lang estimate that if the crisis were run under the same conditions 100 times, it would end in nuclear war 95 times. We are living in one of the five alternate universes in which humanity survived.

The roots of the Cuban missile crisis can be found in three main factors: America’s overwhelming nuclear superiority; the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961; and the stationing of U.S. intermediate nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey early on during the Kennedy administration.

During the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy attacked the Eisenhower administration for allowing the development of a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There was indeed an enormous gap in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles possessed by each country — but in favor of the U.S. As of 1962, the Soviets only had 20, and they were of such poor quality that they might not have managed to accurately reach the U.S. The U.S. had hundreds. This made the Soviets believe a nuclear first strike by the U.S. — something genuinely supported by factions of the U.S. military and hard right — could leave them unable to retaliate. The Soviets did have missiles, however, that could reach the U.S. mainland from Cuba.

The Soviets were also motivated to send the missiles to Cuba because they believed they would deter another invasion attempt.

Finally, the Soviets reasonably saw it as leveling the playing field. The American nuclear missiles in Turkey could hit Moscow in 10 minutes. Now, the Soviet missiles in Cuba could do the same to Washington, D.C.

The U.S. did not perceive it this way when American reconnaissance discovered the Cuban missiles on October 14. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended an immediate invasion of Cuba. Kennedy instead chose to blockade the island. But by October 26, he had come to believe that only an invasion could remove the missiles. The administration began planning for a replacement government in Cuba. All the while the U.S. was acting in the dark, with the CIA concluding that Soviet nuclear warheads had not yet arrived in Cuba to arm the missiles. They had.

Shortly after midnight, in the early morning of Black Saturday, the U.S. informed NATO that it “may find it necessary within a very short time” to attack Cuba. At noon, a U-2 flight over Cuba was shot down, killing the pilot. On all sides, war — potentially nuclear war — seemed likely, if not inevitable.

But that night, Kennedy made the most important presidential decision in history: He accepted an offer from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove the U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey in return for the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. But the U.S. part of the bargain was kept secret from Americans. The administration maintained that Kennedy had forced the Soviets to give in, giving them nothing.

That was, of course, more than frightening enough. But here’s the rest of the story.

On October 27, A U.S. Navy ship participating in the blockade dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine. It was only discovered years later that not only was the submarine armed with nuclear torpedoes, but also was out of radio contact with the Soviet government and believed that the war had begun. The captain wanted to use the torpedoes, which almost certainly would have led to the U.S using nuclear weapons in response. However, according to Soviet protocol, the torpedoes could only be launched with the approval of all three officers aboard. One of them refused.

The U.S. also had no idea that in addition to the missiles, the Soviets had brought tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba and the troops on the ground had received permission to use them against a U.S. invasion without further authorization from Moscow. This, too, would have led to a U.S. nuclear response and Armageddon. McNamara first learned this when attending a Havana conference organized by Blight and Lang in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the crisis. McNamara had also come to believe by Black Saturday that an invasion might be necessary. Blight and Lang report that McNamara turned pale and was temporarily speechless as he listened to an aged Soviet general describe the existence of the tactical nuclear weapons. When he spoke, it was to ask the translator to repeat himself.

Castro, too, had his preconceptions shattered at the conference. He had come to believe that the Kennedy administration was determined to invade Cuba again, nuclear weapons or not, and this time crush its young government and society. Cuba’s only choice was either to accept its destruction, or be destroyed and take America with it. Castro had therefore written a telegram to Khrushchev that arrived on October 27, beseeching him to use the Soviet Union’s full nuclear might against the U.S. if an invasion took place. But this was all wrong, McNamara told Castro: After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had decided that another invasion attempt was foolish.

So in the end, we’re not here to think about the 56th anniversary of Black Saturday because of our overweening military might, or because we forced our adversaries to bend to our will. It’s just the opposite, plus an extraordinary run of serendipitous flukes.

17 July 2018

Why I think Trump loves the Russians

It's not just that they bought him, though they did.

It looks like for the last two decades at least, Trump has been a bagman laundering money for Russian mafia & oligarchs (& government, to the degree that this is a distinct category at all). This has enabled him to keep his empire afloat and play Mr. Rich Bigshot despite most of his endeavors being catastrophes.

To a pathological narcissist like Trump, this doesn't mean that they own him. This means that these Russians are really great guys who are smart enough to recognize how awesome he is and help him be awesome.

So he develops an affinity. Russians are great. They tell him Putin is great, so there it is. He learns to parrot all of their ideas, not because he's trying to impress them but because he's a pathological narcissist who doesn't have ideas, he just makes mouth noises which get people to praise him, and when he echoes them he gets his narcissistic supply.

And Putin is a Winner: everybody does what he tells them! That's how you know Winners are Winners. And he knows that Winners are all in the club of telling each other how awesome they are. That's what the Winners he hangs out with do, and so he returns the favor not out of obligation but because they tell him again that he is awesome when he does it.

24 June 2018

Final solution

Last week I tweeted a link to an article in The New Yorker.

The Government Has No Plan For Reuniting the Immigrant Families It is Tearing Apart

In the past two months, under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the government has taken some two thousand immigrant children away from their parents.

I captioned it thus:

I am sure they will come up with a solution, finally

A few people have warily told me that the comparison to the Nazis' genocidal Final Solution is too rhetorically strong. I understand why they would say that; we should keep our powder dry on accusations of genocide.

Let me expand on my allusion.

There are two major schools of how the Nazis came to the point that they were building murder factories.

One is that their leadership fundamentally had mass murder in mind all along, and it only took them time to secure sufficient control that they could implement their designs. Many scholars hold to this view, and it was my own for a long time.

But many others have another read, and seeing events in the US unfold in the last year has me leaning more to it.

The other thesis says that the Nazis effectively painted themselves into a corner. They want to rid the nation of undesirables — Jews, communists, homosexuals, Roma, et cetera — and they hoped that just making life difficult enough for them would mean that the undesirables would emigrate and the problem would solve itself. But that doesn't work, or at least not fast enough. So the Nazis start rounding people up to keep them from poisoning the society: kill off a few along the way, throw some in jail. But we are talking about a lot of people, so that doesn't scale well. The Nazis start building specialized facilities, to pack undesirables in a few areas while figuring out what to do. Hence “concentration camps”: concentrating unwanted people out of the way, in a camp. They use the people in the camps as slave labor, because so long as you are going to the trouble to manage a facility full of monsters you cannot expose to the populace, you might as well, right?

But again, this doesn't scale well. And by this time the Nazis are hard at work conquering Eastern Europe, so the they end up with even more Jews and communists and other undesirables on their hands. All of this gets to be more elaborate and expensive to run. Concentration camps prove not to be much of a solution, they are themselves a problem. They drain resources that should be devoted to winning the war and building autobahns and monumental architecture and developing scientific wonders and so forth. The attempt to get Jews to emigrate has already shown that repatriating millions of people to some other country is no kind of solution, either. Heck, other countries have been sending shiploads of Jewish refugees back for years and you're stuck in this stupid war because the British stubbornly refuse to help you to claim the space you need. Maybe you can quarantine all those undesirables on the island of Madagascar when you're done conquering Africa, but the war is taking a long time, and even that is not a real solution; then you have an island full of Jews plotting to overthrow you.

Golly, you just hadn't thought it through.

These partial, temporary solutions are no good. You need a final solution.

And there you are.

Knowing this, reading this article about the lack of a plan gave me a chill. The architects of this policy aren't thinking ahead. What do they do when they have camps and prisons with millions of undesirables? What do they do next?

03 June 2018

David Brooks

I have been meaning to compile a proper index of critiques of New York Times columnist David Brooks. This improper one will have to do.

Driftglass, who is a master of David Brooks takedowns, sums it up:

I will remain one of those cynical, vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers of the Left who does not trust Republicans like Mr. Brooks as far as I can throw an angel food cake on a neutron star. Because having examined Mr. Brooks' work in detail for more than 13 years now, I can say with absolute confidence that whatever bunting and balloons Mr. Brooks may pick out during any given week to adorn his awful column, the real subject of virtually every single David Brooks column going back to the almost the beginning of recorded history is always the same: Both Sides Do It.

Everything else but his consistent, core message -- that Both Sides are to blame for all excesses and atrocities, and that the entire, well-documented history of his Republican party simply does not exist -- is nothing but Beltway gingerbread and sleight-of-hand.

And not even competent sleight-of-hand!

Driftglass again:

Because when Mr. Brooks' Whig fantasies go all sideways and another one of his beloved elite hierarchies goes horribly wrong or his Crazy Biggit Jebus Party once again decides to smash something precious to make some ludicrous point, David Brooks always, always, always weasels up a way to unload half or all of the blame for the catastrophe onto imaginary hippies or “the 60s” or Al Gore or woman or Barack Obama or some-damn-body else who is a not a member in good standing of Mr. Brooks' Invisible Army of Reasonable Conservatives.

Jonathan Chait:

Note that solving actual problems is besides the point here. Brooks is almost explicit about this. He begins with the need for initiatives that he thinks will lead to happiness and comity between the parties in Washington, and then comes up with policies that might fit the bill. Not surprisingly, viewed from the standpoint of an agenda designed to make life better for Americans in some way, shape or form, Brooks’s proposed agenda is strange.

Me, back in 2005, offering a quote from one of his articles and a set of vigorous takedowns of that one in particular.

We hate him because he has a knack for somehow sounding reasonable, thoughtful, and concilliatory when in fact, if you take a minute and walk through his reasoning carefully, you see that his comments are full of poison.

Brad DeLong (echoing a critique of conservative thought described in John Holbo's long, instructive essay about David Frum)

The worst of all is his closing line: “This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation [for why the tsunami happened].” No. This is not a moment to feel bad for those of us who have no explanation for the tsunami and so wallow in existential despair. This is not a moment for that at all.

Charles P Pierce on Brooks' oblique prose:

David Brooks concocted what may be “The Perfect David Brooks Paragraph.”
Most of the advocates understand data is a tool, not a worldview. My worries mostly concentrate on the cultural impact of the big data vogue. If you adopt a mind-set that replaces the narrative with the empirical, you have problems thinking about personal responsibility and morality, which are based on causation. You wind up with a demoralized society. But that's a subject for another day.

Pierce again:

This may be the most shameless passage of political journalism I have ever read. It contains more of the elements of passive-aggression, self-absolution, historical amnesia, and outright falsehood in the same place than any other single location this side of the author's own frontal lobes.

Corey Robin, who knows as much about the history of conservatism as anybody in the world, on Brooks lamenting the state of contemporary conservatism.

So let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in 30 years ago, in the wake of Reagan. Let’s see how today’s conservatism compares to those loamy vintages of more than three decades past. The bolded passages are all from Brooks’ column.

Jon Schwarz, in The 10 Most Appalling Articles in the Weekly Standard’s Short and Dreadful Life, describing his #1 pick, Brooks' The Collapse of the Dream Palaces.

From the Weekly Standard’s April 28, 2003 issue — that is, a month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — this may simultaneously be the worst, funniest, and most terrifying writing ever published in the English language. For instance, its opening paragraph includes the phrase, “Now that the war in Iraq is over.” You must read it for yourself; it cannot be explained, only experienced.


When you’re finished reading the piece, remember that this was published just five months before the New York Times hired David Brooks as an op-ed writer. In other words, the Times saw this gibbering, so disconnected from reality it is functionally insane, and thought: This is exactly who we want explaining the world to our readers.

The capstone: Brooks lying outright: