...Archive for January 2022

Dreams and kindness are all we have

In a piece arguing that things aren’t so bad in Europe, Simon Kuper concludes

Instead, in a new version of American exceptionalism, we should recognise the US as a special case, and make plans to cope should its democracy collapse.

Oh well. Living in exceptional America, I agree that we are in collapse. But what does that even mean? The self-regarding story that Democrats like to tell is more petulant than informative. Yes, it’s possible that Republicans will modify electoral institutions — including most dramatically the way Presidential electors are appointed — in ways intended to entrench their dominance. But they are only capable of doing so because Our Democracy is already so crippled. Most Americans aren’t all that alarmed about what we might lose, because most Americans don’t perceive ourselves as meaningfully enfranchised. Yes, we can vote and our votes are counted, but both parties arrange electoral institutions so their insiders and incumbents are protected. As Krystal Ball recently observed, despite “change election” after “change election” our political system seems unmoved, impervious, corrupt, dysfunctional. We are misgoverned, and voting the way we vote has become just a ritual within a stable equilibrium of misgovernance. If Democrats hope to run on saving that, well, good luck. Democracy is supposed to be a source of institutional legitimacy. But most Democrats do not consider the current Supreme Court legitimate, even if they acknowledge that its empanelment was procedurally within the bounds of the law. Most Republicans don’t consider President Biden legitimately or even lawfully elected. Under our current politics, would either party choose to “save” democracy in a manner that wouldn’t supercharge a legitimacy crisis from the other side? Democracy is supposed to inform state action, so that it is performed competently, in a manner that accounts for the interests of the entire citizenry. Ha. The American system of government is decentralized, chaotic, and open to influence. But none of that constitutes democracy.

We do still have a great deal left to lose. The United States is a poor democracy, but it is also very far from an authoritarian or totalitarian state. Democrats fear that under Republican domination, we will revert to some reincarnation of (old-school) Jim Crow, a brutal, genuinely authoritarian, caste system. That’s a serious fear, one I share. Republicans fear that under Democratic dominance, freedom of thought and expression will become eviscerated by obligations to hew carefully to ever changing orthodoxies, at pain of being banished from polite society, denied economic stability, and excluded from a public square manicured by patronizing “experts”. Even our bodies are not safe from Republicans, as they obviously mean to force women, trans men, and nonbinary people to endure the trauma of unwanted pregnancy and childbirth. Even our bodies are not safe from Democrats, as they have arrogated to themselves a capacity to force God-knows-what to be literally injected into your bloodstream when the experts say it’s for the best, or else lose your capacity to earn a living. Democrats now literally regulate how we breathe. With just a bit of charitable imagination, you can see that fears of authoritarian overreach are understandable of partisans on both sides of our political divide. Of course, we all weigh those risks differently, and come to very different conclusions about which side’s partisans are the greater threat. Wherever you land, it’s a bad scene.

That’s not why we’re in collapse, though. Our partisan battles burst in great splendor, these great and garish arguments over totalitarianism and oppression, but quietly beneath sits the simple fact of dysfunction. Our government is incapable. It does not act effectively in real time to meet the challenges that address our polity. In the small, it delivers tests and masks just as the plague wave subsides. In the large, it presides helplessly, even enthusiastically, over decades of decline, a decimation of the ecosystems of production that once rendered us capable of providing for ourselves. We can no longer even arrange efficient operation of the few ports through which we receive the production others now do on our behalf. We continue to maintain the strongest, most expensive, military in the world, but we’ve squandered the far more useful soft power by which we were once able to exercise positive-sum influence. We’ve performed so abominably in global affairs that aspiring powers now threaten the deepest red line of the postwar order we crafted, and our President literally shrugs. The best we can do is counsel (and hope) that it won’t work out for them.

Dysfunctional government is not new in the United States. Arguably the only period we’ve had really functional government was the Roosevelt administration and the early postwar decades. But we always muddled through, right? Yes, we did, but we won’t now. Technology matters. It has changed things. The world is a tightly coupled system in ways that it never was before. “Technolibertarianism” has always been an oxymoron, because as Marc Andreesen tells us, technology gives us superpowers. A world in which everyone has superpowers is a world in which everything we do creates externalities and demands regulation. Techolibertarianism succumbs to its internal contradictions and becomes Peter Thiel selling surveillance to the state and bankrolling strongmen to become buyers. A fast-paced, interconnected world magnifies the power of coordination. A polity that can organize and coordinate the new superpowers of its public can do remarkable, amazing things. A polity that cannot organize and regulate those powers invites vicious internal conflict and collective paralysis. Governance matters more than ever, more than anything now. But since the 1980s the United States has worked to fetter and dismantle the apparatus it once built to develop and coordinate of the capabilities of polity. A hypothetical God, “the market”, was supposed to take care of that, better than any human institution we might instate, superintend, and reform. We chose a golden calf to lead us.

Time and technology have raised the bar on what is required of a functional state. Ours is simply not up to the task. We are out of homeostasis. The systems that are supposed to ensure a functional internal stability cannot meet the challenges presented by current circumstances. That is the nature of our collapse.

So, what next? I sure don’t know. One of the first books on finance I read was The Misbehavior of Markets, by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard Hudson. Financial markets are famously unpredictable, but we can characterize and discuss them in terms of statistical distributions. Classically, financial theory models returns as drawn from normal distributions. Mandelbrot and Hudson point out that while there are periods during which that may be a serviceable approximation, there are periods during which it is not. During “storms”, returns are better described as drawn from Cauchy distributions. I’ve graphed the densities of those two distributions, normal and Cauchy, below.

Normal and Cauchy PDFs, looking kind of similar

At first blush, they don’t look all that different. Both are bell-shaped curves, centered around a clear mode. The Cauchy distribution, plotted in red, just has somewhat fatter tails. Let’s draw the same distributions again, this time showing 95% confidence intervals around the mode.

Normal and Cauchy PDFs, with crazy different confidence intervals

While superficially the distributions look quite similar, I had to dramatically expand the graph to fit the Cauchy distribution’s confidence interval. Where 95% of the normal distribution’s draws are within ±1.96, on the Cauchy, events as far as ±12.7 fall within the 95% interval. With the normal distribution, you can expect a series of draws to converge, on average, to the mode. Not so with the Cauchy, for which no stable mean exists. Even on average, you can’t say what will happen.

I believe we are right now in a political storm, in the way that Mandelbrot and Hudson described financial storms. That is how I interpret “collapse”. If you ask me to predict how things will be in 2022 or 2024 or whenever, if I’m to provide a point estimate, a specific guess, I’d say be we muddle through and our institutional forms remain the same and broadly intact. That’s still the mode, the peak at the center of the distribution. But it is now much more likely than in ordinary periods that “something breaks”, that we deviate dramatically and land someplace that would not have been conceivable during tranquil, more normally distributed periods.

The Cauchy distribution is symmetrical. If we interpret positive deviations from the mode as good outcomes and negative deviations as bad, the two would be equally likely. Common sense suggests that’s an overly optimistic view of our social predicament. When deeply invested political arrangements rupture, intuitively that suggests pain as immediate cause, effect, or both. Nevertheless, I think there is at least the potential for opportunity in this crisis. Even if it’s not quite as stout as the lower tail, a fat upper tail exists, and we can make it fatter by dreaming in public.

Nothing is broken in the world without something else being born. Any creature’s death at the very least yields a corpse, which yields succor for some other’s hungry mouth, or soil upon which new life may grow. If we do slip the chain of our outworn institutions, perhaps it triggers civil war, famine, holocaust, or autocracy. But it is also possible that we jump to something hopeful, a revision of our constitutional order that is more capable, more democratic, both. As things go awry, the range of what’s possible grows wide, and where we land to a certain degree becomes just a Schelling point, a self-fulfilling prophecy, one possibility that somehow gains currency as the status quo loses its hold on our imagination and we grope to coordinate to something else. The cyberpunk of the 1980s largely foreshadowed our present dystopia. The solarpunk of today may portend some refuge from our catastrophe. Much of what I do as a writer is propose speculative blue-sky social arrangements, on the theory that with the passage of time or in a time of crisis things that once seemed ridiculous or unthinkable become possible, even inevitable. Please consider joining me. It’s fun! There has never been a better time to imagine and promote any of the huge variety of arrangements that would be more virtuous and functional than our own, but that for reasons of practicality and inertia seem unachievable. We need to build a portfolio of dreams, each one unlikely, but from which some few will perhaps draw us away from cataclysm and destruction as familiarities unravel.

If dreams can thicken the right-hand tail of our quasi-Cauchy future, then perhaps kindness can wither the leftward tentacle. In the circus that is our mediasphere, unkindness is rampant, celebrated, and remunerated. But even when, behind masks, we are deprived of the comfort of one anothers’ smiles, in person the humans are mostly shockingly kind and decent. Last summer, my family roadtripped back to California from the East Coast where we spent much of the pandemic, through the heart of Red America, and the humans were… lovely. People in South Dakota on motorbikes wearing MAGA merch stopping to offer to take a photo of the three of us on Needles Highway. When you juxtapose the shit people talk — lock him up, lock her up, let them die, send them back — against the presence of real humans sharing space, exchanging kindnesses, it makes you nauseous. No one who wishes to live should be let to die. We all belong, just where we are in the company of one another. Locking up anyone is at best sad necessity, justifiable only in the context of a system of accountability that meets a very high burden, that the incentives it creates or the harms it prevents outweigh the first-order miseries of punishment.

Unmediated, outside of the temptations of commerce, the humans are mostly remarkably good to one another. It’s people being awful that goes viral on the apps, but those videos are absurdly unrepresentative. When our imaginations and conversations are dominated by salacious, mediated events, we become tempted to override our own gentleness, to prosecute cruelties in the service of an imagined cause with little connection to actual humans here and now. The result is rarely just. If we do start killing one another en masse, the killers will be electric with self-righteousness. Don’t be. Be kind. That left tail of catastrophe is made of social and political currents that would thrill us with unkind virtues that are only viciousness in drag. Be kind.

This is my delayed, belated New Years post. Happy New Year. May this 2022, may our vast, unsettled future, bring us breathtaking and wonderful surprises.