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Complexity, the “Do Something” Instinct, and the Sandy Hook Shooting

December 27, 2012 1 comment

I have as yet avoided writing about the Sandy Hook shooting, partly because I dislike rushing to rash decisions, and partly because I believe the narrative has focused on unimportant ideology as opposed to the important ideas underlying the situation and the reaction to it. Now, however, with the benefit of some distance, I will weigh in.

What happened was horrible. There is simply no way around that. On the other hand, frantic reactions, calls to political action, and statements claiming that what happened was “obvious” do nothing but exacerbate the problem.

In reality, while it is easy to deconstruct the event with the benefit of hindsight, it is simply impossible to claim some sort of valid foresight. It is not enough to say “I knew that something like this would happen,” because that is a statement without verifiability until the proof is at hand. And when the proof is at hand, such a statement is already useless. If you had any real knowledge, you would have stopped it from happening. If you had no ability to stop it, you had had no real knowledge – simply baseless speculation masquerading as knowledge.

One can analogize this “foresight problem” to other occurrences. For example, if someone gets in a car accident, he might say later on “if only I hadn’t slept in and left 20 minutes later than I usually do, I would never have been in this mess.” This is the functional equivalent of claiming foresight about Sandy Hook. If either were valid, the problematic situation would never have obtained.

Nor is it possible to claim that, despite the lack of specific foresight, there was enough knowledge to have stopped the tragedy via preventive action. This kind of claim usually follows the “if only we had this law…” form, and it is the functional equivalent of the above. This also fails to account for the foresight problem, and it suffers from a debilitating case of confirmation bias.

The foresight problem can be extended through thought experiment. Consider a chess game.* The number of possible chess games that can be played is somewhere in the order of 10^120, or many multiples of the number of atoms in the universe. Once the chess game is, say, 50 moves in, and the chesspieces are arrayed just so, it is relatively easy to reconstruct what happened. Before the game began, however, there was an infinitesimal chance of predicting just such an arrangement. And remember, this is chess: as complicated as its game-tree complexity is, it pales in comparison to the complexity of an hour, even a minute, of human action.

We have no useful foresight, but neither does our hindsight yield much when faced with the multitude of competing and interacting causes and effects that a chessboard simplifies but real life makes manifest. After all, if the “obvious” solutions were actually obvious in hindsight, this would not be a recurring problem. We would have corrected it after the last time.

For example, getting rid of guns does not solve the problem, as countries such as Russia continue to see mass violence despite heavy gun control, while Switzerland’s rate of gun violence is comparatively miniscule despite enormous rates of gun ownership. Britain found that gun violence increased 40% after its gun ban in the late 1990s. Unlike poorly-informed pundits, I will not speculate as to why. And indeed, a majority of the mass shootings that have occurred in the United States have occurred in states, localities, and even schools that are “gun-free” or gun-restricted zones. Real life does not cooperate with our strictures. (QED.)

Nor is lack of guns an obvious problem, as the just-as-reactive NRA has suggested. What earthly purpose would stationing the equivalent of TSA agents (who, by the way, are not armed) at schools be, when the TSA has shown nothing but incompetence? Why would one expect an armed policeman to stop a shooter when armed policemen are already commonly at schools and haven’t helped? Why would a national guardsman or combat veteran be effective? Remember that one of the worst mass shootings in history took place on a military installation in Texas. No shortage of guns on a military base.

What are we to do with ourselves, then, if there are no solutions to the problem? (And, emphatically, there are none.) We do the best we can to defend ourselves, but we also accept that the real world is a dangerous, messy place and circumstances beyond our control may end our lives abruptly.

Callous? I call it realistic.

Indeed, the possibility of being the victim of a mass shooting is quite similar to the possibility of being in a fatal car accident, except for the fact that the latter occurs with startling regularity by comparison. We seem to have no problem processing the idea that, while our lives might end on the road at any moment, we have balanced the risk and accepted that, dangerous as driving may be, we will carry on. We seem to completely lack the capacity to accept the idea that, while our lives may end in a mass shooting at any moment, we are capable of balancing the risks here too. Apparently, when guns are present, rationality goes out the window. This despite the fact that cars can be at least as lethal as guns.

And capable we are of balancing the risks inherent in life. After all, we do it literally all the time. Short of locking down the entire citizenry in individual padded cells, there is simply no way to prevent the next mass shooting. That may be hard to hear. But think of the risks you take every day that are greater. Driving is a good example, but also note that you are about as likely to be killed by lightning than be killed by a mass shooter. Shall we live our lives entirely indoors?

Or can we accept the fact that there is no solution?

Once we have accepted that the risk is intractable, we can begin to accept that calls to action, proposed laws, gun controls, the “do something” instinct – all are useless in the face of a tragedy like this. We can avoid the rush to judgment. We can avoid the poison of baseless ideology. We can begin the healing process. We can resume our lives.

While the complexity of the world denies us the ability to see into the future, we can see that the fruits of the “do something” instinct, be they legal or otherwise, are poisonous to liberty. We are faced with a choice. We can keep our liberties and our dignity intact, and live with a future where mass shootings are possible. Or we could pass laws taking away fundamental individual liberties, making the people servile and impotent, and thereafter live with a future where mass shootings are possible anyway.

These are our only two choices. We should choose wisely.

 

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*I have previously used the chess example to illustrate complexity here.

Explaining California “lifers,” or why people stay in a failed state.

November 13, 2012 3 comments

I have been a resident of several states across the United States, but two in particular stand out. One is California, to which I moved when I was ten, left at fifteen, and returned to for college. The other is Minnesota, where I was born, but to which I did not return until after college.

Just recently, my total time spent as a Minnesota resident surpassed my time as a Californian, capturing a plurality of my life’s years. Many have found it remarkable that I left a tropical paradise like California for the frigid tundra of Minnesota, but if you can look past the weather, California simply isn’t a great place to live. As I have been saying for years, “it’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to die there.”

Many of my friends disagree with me. One has spent nearly 70 years (aside from higher education back east) in the same beach community. Another calls himself a California “lifer,” which I find eerily similar to how prisoners with life sentences describe themselves.

In any case, while California has many things acting in its favor, it is nevertheless a failed state that I simply cannot find attractive as a home. To be fair, Minnesota is also heading in the wrong direction, but if California is just about to break the tape, Minnesota is still putting its running shoes on.

Victor Davis Hanson at the City Journal recently attempted to explain why he is a California “lifer,” in an article entitled “California, Here We Stay.” Many reasons he cites make perfect sense. Family heritage is one, and it is perfectly understandable. Indeed, it is the best reason I can think of for why I live in Minnesota and not Texas. There is the weather, of course. And there are certain cultural and educational institutions that are very attractive.

On the other hand, hegemony and inertia cannot prevail forever – just ask Britain, Rome, Greece, even Akkad. The general rule is that it is better to be present for the incline phase than the decline phase, and I can’t help but think that even the best of California has hit its peak. If UC Berkeley were a stock, it’d be Pets.com.

Hanson is honest about California’s shortcomings. Finances built on rainbows-and-unicorns accounting methods; poor primary and secondary education; hostile business climate running the productive out of state; environmental extremism – all of these things are conspiring to choke off the best of what the state has to offer the world.

On the other hand, he makes a point that I simply cannot get behind:

Another reason to feel hopeful about California is that it’s reaching the theoretical limits of statism. To pay for current pensioners, the state simply can’t continue to bestow comparable defined-benefit pension packages on new workers, no matter how stridently the public-sector unions claim otherwise. And as public insolvencies mount—with Stockton, Mammoth Lakes, and San Bernardino seeking bankruptcy protection a year after Vallejo emerged from it—public blame is finally shifting from supposedly heartless state taxpayers to the unions. The liberal unionism of an aging generation is proving untenable, as we saw in recent ballot referenda in which voters in San Diego and San Jose demanded that public-worker compensation plans be renegotiated.

California is reaching the theoretical limits of statism? This strikes me as remarkably naive, and it sounds hauntingly similar to things like “it couldn’t happen here,” or “it can’t get any worse.” Or perhaps “there are no black swans.”

I for one prefer not to underestimate the statist impulses of a polity that has consistently pushed the once-bright beacon of hope that was California back into the dark ages of economic and social thought. And they did it in less than a century and a half to boot.

In my personal opinion, the decay in California is not over, and it is not close to being over. I know that making predictions is the easiest way to be proven wrong, but here goes nothing.

I think that California will continue to be held in a chokehold by statists until the situation becomes completely untenable on a state level. At that point, the citizens of California will become enraged – not at their elected Judas goats, but at the federal government for not bailing them out. Seeing the practical importance of California’s electoral votes to their parties, the statist kindred spirits in Washington will forge a bipartisan grand bargain to bail out California, complete with all the crony capitalism and blatant corruption that entails. California will then double down on its failed policies and things will get worse. Another bailout will happen in quick succession, and while token gestures may be made to restore fiscal sanity, the damage will have been done.

California’s future is not bright. Perhaps California “lifers” have a reason to stay if they are already wealthy or comfortable enough to avoid the worst of the coming catastrophe. But if you’re a common person, your odds are poor.  I fully expect to see the middle class, whose livelihoods are far more likely to hinge on the day-to-day health of the economy than the wealthy, to continue to flee.

My only hope is that they don’t bring the politics of old California with them when they go.

Why Government Debt Blows Up

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Here is a link from the Daily Reckoning of Australia, showing why government debt blows up. It has a liberal dose of Bastiat (pun intended), and it draws some interesting parallels between Japan and the United States.

I suggest that you read the whole thing. (It’s not that long, you whiners!) But here’s an interesting excerpt to pique your interest:

What really happens is this: the private sector gets too deeply in debt (thanks largely to the Fed’s artificially low rates and EZ money policies). Then, it panics. It cuts spending. Lenders – who over-extended credit – should go broke.

Instead, the feds bail them out, shifting the public’s real resources to failed businesses and incompetent managers. The bad debt is transferred to the public. Then, the private sector… attempting to build up savings and improve its financial health… puts its money in the safest possible place – government bonds! Still more debt, in other words.

The government takes the money and gives it to its favourite sectors… its clients… its pets… its campaign contributors and vote-getters. The public would be appalled if it realised how its savings were being thrown around. But it wants safety above all. And it believes the feds will be good for the money; they always have been. After all, if you can’t trust the government, who can you trust?

Who can you trust indeed? I’m not in the business of giving investment advice, but I’d suggest tangible assets. Check out the article to see what the stock market has done relative to tangible assets over the last 15 years or so. It will either shock you or depress you, or possibly both.

Will the Zero Stroke return?

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I was recently made aware of an interesting phenomenon called the “Zero Stroke” or the “Cipher Stroke.” It has an article on Wikipedia, so it must be a real thing.

Zero stroke or cipher stroke was a mental disorder, reportedly diagnosed by physicians in Germany under the Weimar Republic and said to be caused by hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The disorder was primarily characterized by the desire of patients to write endless rows of zeros, which are also referred to as ciphers.

Now that we’re in for the four more years of the Obamar Republic, with Ben Bernanke getting free rein to dump Benjamins out of his fleet of helicopters, I wonder whether the Zero Stroke will return?

Maybe it’s the next big thing in psychology!

Tyler Cowen Elaborates on China

August 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Following up on yesterday’s topic, Tyler Cowen has written a piece in the New York Times called “Two Prisms for Looking at China’s Problems.” He offers a Keynesian interpretation and an Austrian interpretation, and the differences between the two are telling.

Anyone want to take a $100 bet that the aftermath looks more like the Austrian interpretation? I’d be glad to take your money…

Peak China?

August 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Walter Russell Mead, writing at the American Interest, posits “peak China,” a concept much like peak oil. According to Mead:

It may be hard to believe, but it’s been a full four years since China hosted the Olympics. At the time, Beijing 2008 appeared to herald China’s return, after a 500 year hiatus, to great power status. Commentators were falling over themselves to pronounce the inevitability of China’s rise and its implications for American influence in Asia.

But is it possible we will look back on those Olympic Games as the peak of Chinese power, rather than the beginning of its rise?

Yes. There are many reasons why, including demographics, which Mead elaborates upon. I prefer the monetary-governmental explanation.

China will have to confront a series of structural challenges if it is to continue to achieve the kind of dynamic growth that lifted the country from economic backwater to emerging great power in just three decades.

The most obvious challenge is demographics. A RAND study observed that the proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and began slowing this year. The share of the elderly population is rising. Healthcare and pension costs will soar as a result. So will labor costs. Investment and savings will diminish. In short, China may face the prospect, unknown in human history, of growing old before it gets rich.

I think this is probable, mainly because the growth that China has shown has been a classic case of credit-fueled bubble inflation. (I have written about this before; search “China” on the homepage.)

Of course, my interest in this is theoretical as well as practical. On the practical side, the coming China cataclysm is going to toss the world economy into a crisis of similar proportions to Europe’s coming crackup. And the American government, without any changes, is utterly ill-equipped to deal with it, meaning that it may be the final straw. But that may just be me being a pessimist.

On the more theoretical side, I am at the very least worried that we will draw the wrong lessons from China’s coming massacre. The narrative will undoubtedly read: 1) China “adopted capitalism,” 2) China saw some growth, 3) China collapsed, and therefore 4) capitalism is to blame.

This is 180 degrees from the proper interpretation, and I hope to write more about this in the future. A state-controlled economy with capitalist-leaning reforms magnified by cheap credit absolutely does not make a free market.

But I feel like I’m a voice in the wilderness. Some still look to China as a beacon, while others, acknowledging China’s foundation made of sand, offer up the same tired Keynesian platitudes that put America $5 trillion more in debt over the last 4 years, while accomplishing nothing by way of recovery or sustainability.

Perhaps it’s time people starting acknowledging instead that money has consequences. Those consequences are wonderful when the money is sound; they are terrible when the money is ginned up by the state.

Gee, who saw this coming?

June 23, 2012 Leave a comment

“As the Chinese economy continues to sputter, prominent corporate executives in China and Western economists say there is evidence that local and provincial officials are falsifying economic statistics to disguise the true depth of the troubles.”

Read more about it at the New York Times.

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