Selection Bias in the Quarry


towards a positive view of politics

(epistemic status: really, overly vague attempt to connect a few things. doesn’t really succeed. you should read this instead.)


So you’ve managed to Solve The Problem.

I assume the grand theory has data and pie-charts, likely a bunch of Fraternity-Sorority mixers, maybe a prediction or two. I’m already sold, give me thirty solutions yesterday. Still, your friend reads the manifesto and spins around like the exorcist girl. Only when he starts cackling “God is dead” do you recall that he dropped Phil 101 two weeks into last semester and hasn’t been the same since. Just your luck; in the quest to formalize humanity (working title: “Melpomenometrics“) you ran into a “philosopher” who “theorizes” by calling himself a “Nietzschean” (working title: “Foucault”).

“But are people rational?”

Philosophy starts debating the nature of human consciousness. Sociology was already  Exploding Brain, but now it’s ascended. Economics hides and starts repeating the Invisibly Handed Lord’s prayer (just the word “marginal” over and over).

To the first approximation: no.

People put sunscreen on their eyeballs to guard against the eclipse. Is the claim that those same people consume products with full knowledge of their influence on a demand curve? “Yes, but those are marginal eyeballs.” What a helpful way to think about it, really opens my margins.

Sticking just with econ: Maybe people have bounded rationality and are limited by their information (obvious but trivial). Maybe everyone is naturally greedy and zero-summing their way to the truth (less obviously true). Maybe humans are just utility-calculators with digestive tracts (doubtful). Any of these could be right, presumably something is right, nihil ex nihilo and all that.

I understand why people respond this way, but it’s the wrong response. It’s responding to what the question thinks it’s asking, and the question isn’t actually asking what it thinks it’s asking.

Sorry, too convoluted, let me rephrase that: humans are rocks, which is why we have reason and free will. Continue reading “Selection Bias in the Quarry”

Propositions on Immortality

a fable

a fable


He talks with his hands but the timing is off and the motions are grotesque. It would be an undignified tic did it not appear so composed. I consider first that he’s punctuating a different speech, some previous lecture that stayed too long and makes its presence known in the extremities, the way ghosts haunt attics and basements. I then wonder whether it evidences something more ominous, some vestigial character trying to break free of his current intellect, hostile to it, pantomiming the man he never became. Last, I allow myself to picture a lamp behind him and a sheet before him, that these instruments discover a perfect shadow theater in his gestures, that the shadows illustrate what the naked hand doesn’t, that only our dim light conceals the hieroglyphs.

Right now there are no lights and there are no shadows. There is a weak sun, and whatever puppets it casts are swallowed by a monolithic black table before the professor. At the other end students watch his hands open and close and dart around his hair, digits trying to savage the content of his thought.

He says, “Matter’s nature is interaction. The decomposing body feeds other organisms, supernovas build planets, energy leaps from body to body. The world is continuous. Consciousness refuses to conform.”

He says, “It is isolated,” and his hands burst into frantic activity. He says, “Certainly, we talk about our inner states, we can relay them through speech acts, we can name them and categorize as desired. But that’s only sound, and each party experiences even the loudest sound differently. We can never penetrate the experience of another. We cannot communicate, we can only translate; the experience is neither given nor received.”

The hands are all wrong and he says, “Death is thought to resolve its own problems, but the living should worry. Without some grounds for interaction, it is not clear how we might even die.” One hand closes into a fist and the other opens its palm. He says: Continue reading “Propositions on Immortality”

The Thresher



“We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.”
Darwin, On The Origin of Species


I wrote a brief summary of the books and terms and the way they interlock. I’ll assume you read it or the series itself and ignore recap.

I don’t think this is even close to a description of modernity (much less a full political theory). I’m personally committed to calling this the Uruk Machine inasmuch as some of these issues are just civilization itself. The only book tied to our era is Lasch, because narcissism is tied to nihilism and those are only possible with a certain amount of tech. Still, if what makes “modernity” modernity is partially in technology, then the Uruk Machine will be updated and whirring at unfathomable speeds, the thresher to Gilgamesh’s sacred club. In other words, all of that but more. And I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what we see.

Still, “modernity” is not exactly the point. When I started this series, I claimed that all of these books were about the same thing. That thing is power, and all of them are about facets that someone else has and you don’t.


I’m going to separate “individual power” and “mass power”.

Individual power is self-determination. Power is always over something, and this is “yourself” and also “the outcome of your actions”. It’s incredibly hard to find the right term for it, but everyone knows it when they see it. The best words for it are “agency” and “self-possession”, and those are the ones I’ll use. Of those, “self-possession” might actually come closest, because it implies ability, self-control and political power. It’s the ability to do something on your own, with all the knowledge and confidence that implies. No matter how much external power you have, it’s your foundation. You need to know how to accomplish something to actually accomplish it. On a slightly larger level, it’s the power of a community for self-determination. I still connect this with agency, though, because those smaller communities are self-governing. I associate it with metis, but it’s not limited to that, and episteme provides plenty of agency (depending on context). I think that individual power is pretty obvious up close, but it’s much harder to see from a distance (everyone in a disaster knows who to turn to, but that’s not always the person who actually has a prestigious or political position in the society).

Mass power, on the other hand, is obvious from the outside. I don’t think this is epistemic power (again, there are plenty of people who use episteme for agency), but it tends to rely on it. Mass power is always power over another, the power to make someone do something. I’m going to call it “command”, but bear in mind that that’s imperfect shorthand. Someone with command might be a king, a CEO, an elected official, a [bleh], but they might also be as part of a mass movement. In fact, I’m pretty that command is precisely what mass movements give, and also why most of them fail to cure frustration. (Even moreso if you have some kind of voice over the mass.)

These two things go best together, and when I talk about “real power” I mean both. It doesn’t matter how self-possessed you are, without any mass power a larger entity will prey on you. On the opposite side, being incompetent in a position of command just means that actually-competent people use the slightest weakness to pounce.

There are entire libraries devoted to the observation, “Overpowered people sometimes do bad things.” That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it really interests any of these authors. They’re making a different argument: power imbalance isn’t just an issue because the Crown abuses it. It’s an issue because power is a positive good for the populace. The Man could be a lecher or a saint but if he has all the power and the community has none, then it doesn’t matter.

For Scott, power is good because metis is much more adaptive to local conditions and the people who live there. It’s more efficient and generally “pleasant”, while providing people with a more interconnected and “vibrant” world. For Polanyi, power is good because it allows people to maintain communities and enjoy the not-really-priceable goods that that involves. It allows for a kind of certainty, a sense of meaning, and a general traditional safety. For Hoffer, power is good because it allows people to engage in meaningful labor, to avoid frustration and the subsequent madness of the mass movement. For Lasch, power is good because it makes you a full human, and it makes you much less likely to demand the kind of “pleasures” that only entrench you further in the entire epistemic catastrophe. As a bonus, it makes the elites with command more likely to be competent.

The problem here is that “power” has to include both types, and a whole lot of nation building is a trade between agency and command. That’s not bad or good, it just is. I suspect that a lot of political arguments are basically translation issues between these two kinds of power. So Alice says: “The people have no power to do [thing they want to do].” Bob responds: “They live in a democracy! Was it better under kingship?” Both of them agree on centralization being a key feature of modernity (globalization included, inasmuch as it’s one central economy), which is bizarre because that fact alone shows that both of them are right. Even Rome passed out citizenship to save the empire, but that doesn’t mean that the provinces had more autonomy under Rome. Having power over the central authority is different from being your own central authority and really? We’re still arguing about this?

I don’t want to play the “who was happier or freer at [time]” game. I’m not sure it makes sense to compare modern social-contract freedom to whatever liberty meant in 6th century pre-Burma, and I’m skeptical of how we measure “happiness” (Hotel Concierge does part of the groundwork for me; the rest in another post). It should be clear that pre-modern communities were more independent, if not simply because “walking time” was a meaningful measure of distance and it’s difficult to hyper-centralize by foot.

Modernity isn’t bad, no matter how often people want me to be saying [luddite thing], but everything has tradeoffs. Episteme is also not bad, even if I’ve spent way too much time attacking it. Have you noticed how often I rely on epistemic knowledge rather than communal knowledge? As recompense to the gods of book learning: the First Amendment seems obviously epistemic to me, inasmuch as “freedom of belief/speech/thought” isn’t even a coherent thing to discuss in most traditional societies.

I probably don’t need to point this out, but assume that the Uruk Machine basically wants control and knowledge. What limited it before was travel, distance, safety, and wealth. Now add modern tech, a modern economy, the modern-nation state. But if modernity is the Uruk Machine in overdrive, then it makes sense to assume that much more agency is going to get traded for command. The effects of that trade get very weird. Continue reading “The Thresher”

The Uruk Machine


This is just a recap of everything in the series before. Continued by and paired with The Thresher

Index of the full series here.


Believe it or not, the original plan with this series was to make my writing less dense. These four books are meant to provide early propositions to build on. You need a foundation, after all.

I assumed that would take about a month and be around four posts. Now we’re three months and ten posts on.

To try and recapture some of that original pragmatism, here’s a rough schema of the series as well as the jargon that I use from each book. This isn’t meant to be conclusive, and the linked pieces (obviously) go into more depth. Then again, the series itself isn’t meant to be conclusive. I’m not trying to explain all of politics or modernity or [whatever], much less “solve” it. As always, these are attempts. Continue reading “The Uruk Machine”

That’s Amore


final Lasch. continued from here and then here


Donald Trump wins, so The New Yorker ponders Jason Brennan’s argument against democracy:

Brennan calls people who don’t bother to learn about politics hobbits, and he thinks it for the best if they stay home on Election Day. A second group of people enjoy political news as a recreation, following it with the partisan devotion of sports fans, and Brennan calls them hooligans. Third in his bestiary are vulcans, who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently.

While it’s nice that our future epistocrats are so relatable, that’s exactly what gives me pause. Why is a book about how politics should be cold and calculating trying to sit down and have a beer with me?

If epistocracy is the best system and you can convince voters to elect it using “reason” then you’re proving the inherent reasonableness of democracy, i.e. very confusing reductio there. Either Brennan doesn’t think he’s an epistocrat (dismiss that out of hand), or the book and its article are selling something else. You might say that only the elite will read it, and he’s trying to appeal to them, but why do vulcans need cutesy metaphors? Things get weirder when the New Yorker goes into what exactly makes up an epistocracy:

He sketches some options—extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats with veto power, a qualifying exam for voters—but he doesn’t spend much time considering what could go wrong.

Actually, he does. No, I have’t read the book. No, I won’t. But what he just described is America with extra steps.


Replace “Council of Epistocrats” with “the judiciary” and you’ll see that Brennan’s book is critiquing the exact system that produced the critique in favor of the system that he’s critiquing. This fucking book came from Tlön, it’s so meta that I barely believe it exists in this plane.

I know this so fact checkers at the New Yorker definitely know it. That no one sees fit to mention it is highly suspicious, as is the New Yorker’s ridiculously weak defense of democracy. Not to mention: Jason Brennan is a libertarian. 95% of the readers “compelled” by his “cogent points” actually agree with the non-voters Brennan wants to keep non-voting instead of him.

So this is classic narcissism, from identity protection (New Yorker=elite and liberal; not responsible for 2016) right down to the absurd power fantasies and intense paranoia that “everyone else” is somehow fucking your life up. It’s a defense against change, all the more so because if Brennan gets his system it will look identical to our own. The only difference is that believing this is currently all the plebs’ fault punts culpability somewhere away from you. Fine.

I have problems with epistocracy, they’re about what you’d expect. Still, this isn’t about epistocracy. This is about pizza. Continue reading “That’s Amore”

Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune


Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. Continued from here, but you don’t really need to read that first. Part one of specifics.


I think we can safely describe Scott and Polanyi as critics of top-down knowledge. Local knowledge is either ignored or mangled by the structure, which is bad for some reasons but also for other reasons. Still, they both understand how these structures perpetuate themselves. Legibility, economic prejudice, etc. Blame it on an ethical failing (“The rulers did x out of malice”) and you ignore the way incentives work. Ignore the way incentives work, and you’ll recreate the same structure.

That makes them critical of top-down structures, period. Without any political power, the ruled can’t even sneak their data into the pile. It’s telling that to get their point across, both Scott and Polanyi rely on explicitly authoritarian forms of government. That’s not “wrong”, but it does muddy the waters for us, because then you can say: “Luckily, we live in a democracy!” Fine. What does that mean?

First definition: “democracy” is what allows different people to take a piece of the pie, i.e. the already-existing power structure decides to share its spoils.

Second definition: “democracy” is only possible, is merely the expression of, equally powerful people.

The first is vertical, power concentrates at the top but you can participate in it. The second is lateral. The second can easily become the first, the first is much harder to change into the second; if someone has to grant you power over and over, you never had it in the first place.

This makes Polanyi, Lasch, and Scott partisans of the second definition of democracy. If the former is simply “giving” you power, it’s always going to be on the government’s terms, i.e. with epistemic knowledge behind it. I know which I side with, but choose your own adventure. What concerns me is not activists of either but their coexistence. In any given protest, one slogan will imply one, and the next slogan will imply two, and the fact that the partisans aren’t garroting each other makes me extremely suspicious that something else is going on.

Note also that the first definition is what our entire political apparatus runs on. Something something American as apple pie. Continue reading “Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune”

A Taylorism For All Seasons

lasch on narcissism part 1; gaddis on modernity, part […]


Christopher Lasch – The Culture of Narcissism, part 1/X, current essay being more of an overview. 


Imagine a kind of masquerade.

It’s an acting contest at first, and everyone is assigned a mask. The guest is to playact the identity of the mask – so the person who gets a werewolf mask howls, the guest with a zombie mask groans, etc. The best actor wins. This being a party, assume that everyone is still vying for status and attention in the interim, but that may not be acting. People talk about all sorts of things at parties, even those with explicit contests. Most people won’t assume that the mask says anything about the person – it’s randomly assigned, after all. Those who do are missing the point. Both the judges and the guests will appraise character based on acting. The contest may not be equal, of course – there are differences in acting ability, perhaps some roles are easier or more prestigious than others – but these still relate to action.

Now imagine that the rules of the game change. There are no longer preassigned masks. Everyone is expected to provide their own. Perhaps this was due to concerns over fairness (easier/harder masks or prestige of role), perhaps there was arson at the mask-factory. It doesn’t matter – the contest remains but the rules change. There’s no longer one contest, but two: making a mask, and acting like it, and all of a sudden it starts making sense to focus on the mask. Pro-social behavior is both performance and making a good mask, but now the mask is more important. For one reason, if roles are easier/harder and this correlates with prestige (it will), people might begin to bring the most prestigious mask that they can still act as, that isn’t beyond their ability. For another, since you made the mask, it shows certain inner aspects previously hidden (desires, self-awareness, whatever). Still: there are limits, and you have to be able to behave in a certain way. You can’t simply gain status by making the most prestigious mask possible – the judges will make you fall on your ass. The opposite is also dangerous, albeit socially: Don’t say “I was too busy to put in the effort”, as though this is a successful social maneuver. This shows us that you’re lazy, or poor, or [thing]. For most people, social opinion is important for their own identity, and of course you’d start to identify with the mask. It increasingly signifies your role. Still: Nothing changes about the original dynamic. Some people are better actors and others are worse actors; some roles are harder (read: more prestigious) and others are easier. Some people still want to win the contest, but “winning the contest” is now a mix of acting talent, pro-social behavior, and proper self-estimation. This may still be unequal, but it’s less random.

Final transformation: hide the contest. It still takes place (somewhere), but is no longer the explicit public aim. Power-dynamics remain among the party-goers and these are more prominent than before. People still gossip at parties, winners and loser still emerge, the new game increasingly revolves around the mask. It signifies how you think of yourself, how you think of others, etc. There’s technically something important about playing the role behind it, but with a hidden contest all social prestige comes from the mask itself. Accordingly, the mask becomes a token of everything you are, even if everyone knows it’s just a mask. Suddenly, the game isn’t fun anymore. Continue reading “A Taylorism For All Seasons”

Without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.

silence 1

It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer


1958 hospitalized Robert J. Biggs. He’d been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. From his hospital bed the dying man wrote a letter to the President, back when that was a thing that made sense to do, right on the cusp of the years when that would be ridiculous. The letter is, in a sense, about that transition.

Biggs was 43 – he’d been born in 1915, and thus entered his terrible twos just as America marched to war. Certain theories place a high premium on those early years; the soul of the man is shaped by the experiences of the child and the adult mere fruition of some deeper, agentless germination. I do not believe these, not really, but I think about them sometimes. I like to imagine what it would mean if they were true. For Biggs, it means that the stage of negativity, the traditional Year of the No, coincided with the United States becoming a truly global power. That is, perhaps, as good a proof as any, for what animates the dying man’s letter is precisely this concern. To become America, these democratic states needed to lose some part of themselves, and a nation of free men had to become something else. It’s the opacity in government that Biggs sees which we most clearly recognize now, followed by the populist reactions. We take this in stride – it’s America, after all – but one wonders about those born when the Shining City on a Hill really was supposed to shine. Opacity, after all, is not friendly to those things that shine. Biggs: “We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth.”

Something else happened that year (fewer things happened per year in the past). On the Road, though published late 1957, came into its own. Think pieces on “Beatnik Philosophy” began to appear, all referencing Kerouac. Then Lawrence Ferlinghetti published A Coney Island of the Mind, and Gregory Corso published Bomb. American counter-culture, which owes its all to the Beats, finally took root.

One more: December, 1958, saw the retirement of a man named Robert Welch Jr. He was magnate of a candy empire, an unimportant fact but one that I find funny. The following is less funny: he’d made the decision to form a politcal pressure group. Its name was the John Birch Society.

1959 killed Robert J. Biggs. It was also an interesting year in American letters. Welch’s founding presentation was published and spread as The Blue Book. It consolidated support and spread the sense of panic. On the other side, William S. Burroughs, an enemy if the Birchers ever had one, published Naked Lunch in July (in Paris, it must be admitted). And Eisenhower, before the death of Biggs, posted a reply:

I think it is undeniably true that the activities of our government have tended to become much more complex, impersonal and remote from the individual, with consequent loss in simplicity, direct human contact and clear guidance by higher authority I believe you to be urging. In good part this situation is inherent in life in the mid-twentieth century–in a highly developed economy and a highly complex society such as our own.


Even if this division in the government did not exist, I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed. Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life. This is to me what Lincoln meant by government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The mental stress and burden which this form of government imposes has been particularly well recognized in a little book about which I have spoken on several occasions. It is “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer; you might find it of interest. In it, he points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems–freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.

Ike, like any good American, was a little too emphatic about “democracy”. What he’s talking about is what Hoffer calls frustration. This is independent of government type, but it might not be independent of era, and our era might be the perfect breeding ground.

Corso seems to have thought so. His creatively titled 1959 begins like this:

Uncomprising year—I see no meaning to life.

Hoffer gave it a name, Ike gave it wary glare, but frustration always takes power for itself. Continue reading “Without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.”

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