...Archive for April 2022

Goodwill to all, and that includes China

I have no social science by which I can back this up, nothing that would qualify as “evidence”, no “receipts”. But I think that goodwill is an important force in human affairs, at individual, group, and national levels. I think it is a virtue in an ethical sense and wise as a practical matter to offer and seek to elicit goodwill.

Machiavelli famously wrote in The Prince:

…it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

As usually quoted, the excerpt omits the words that come immediately before:

[W]hether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person…

It is not as difficult in a nation, as in one person, to unite both fear and love. That the military of a country is strong and therefore fearsome does not preclude friendly relations with other countries, whether peer or weaker powers. Indeed, in many contexts, what is in a certain sense fear becomes sublimated into a less caustic attribute, respect, which can be mutual. The logic of ordinary deterrence — perhaps others are stronger than we are, but our will and capacity to defend ourselves is sufficient to deter would-be adventurers from imagining some transgression would be painless — is supportive of mutual respect and goodwill. Riffing on Niccolo, love itself cannot endure when opportunity and advantage tempt our counterparts to break the links that bind us. Love and respect, and therefore to a certain degree fear, are complements not substitutes.

I am terrified by the collapse of goodwill between great powers at the current moment. All I can say about the war in Ukraine is that our priority should be to achieve the most minimal terms all parties can live with so that politics can revert to less terrible means. People who perceive opportunity in war are shortsighted.

Beyond this war — we must pray there is a beyond this war — the collapse of goodwill between the United States and China since 2016 has been a catastrophe. As Scott Sumner very effectively points out, while there’s lots to dislike about China’s government, it is the United States that started the current cold war. We lashed out in hostility, blaming China for what in fact were our own poor choices. We should not have allowed, even encouraged, so much of our industrial base to migrate to China, and we certainly ought to work to restore what we have lost. But we had plenty of policy tools that could have prevented the destructive aspects of the “China shock”. We chose not to use them, because we got high on our own supply of a cartoonishly simplistic neoliberal globalization. Free markets and comparative advantage would lead to interdependence, peace, and prosperity. Any attempt by states to manage the process was “protectionism”. However terrible the effects upon domestic publics, they were to be endured. The market knew best, utopia was close at hand, just around the corner after some “trade adjustment”. We failed to look after our own interests, while other governments did look after theirs and so profited from some of our lapses. Durable goodwill depends upon parties setting and enforcing their own boundaries.

We should not revert to 2015 policy in hopes of recovering a relationship of goodwill with China. 2015 policy wasn’t working for us. But we should absolutely, as soon as possible, eliminate all bilateral tariffs against China. Country-specific tariffs are a terrible tool, because they provoke ill-will. They single out a particular country as a bad actor, and discriminate against its goods. There is no reason to do that! When we are concerned about our trade balance — which we absolutely should be, the insouciance towards international balance of the neoliberal period was sheer idiocy — we should intervene in the capital account, taxing purchases of our debt by foreign entities of any nation, on nondiscriminatory terms, and/or interest payments on our debt to foreign entities. By doing so, we can make unbalanced trade as bad a deal as necessary to achieve whatever balance of payments we deem desirable. I have made this case before (I call it “capital account protectionism”). In their magisterial Trade Wars are Class Wars, Matt Klein and Michael Pettis suggest capital controls as one approach the US might use to manage its imbalance (though they suggest accommodating imbalance by expanding public investment rather than private debt might have been an even better approach, a case I’ve made as well).

For the purposes of this essay, the crucial point is that we have more than sufficient tools that are nondiscriminatory across nations to manage our economic and trade concerns. In order to ensure minimal labor standards and prevent forced labor in our supply chains, we can create regulations and a certification bureaucracy (ideally multilateral) to enforce them uniformly, rather than call out some countries but not others for human rights abuses. When there are domains, such as communications infrastructure, that for national security reasons we insist should be produced domestically, we can regulate to require that, without calling other countries’ manufacturers spies or puppets of their state (whether they are or not). Rather than “friendshoring”, as Janet Yellen recently suggested, we should just make geographic diversification of our supply chains a matter of national interest. There’s no need to divide the world into more and less unfriendlies. The fact that some semiconductors are sole-sourced from earthquake and typhoon-prone Pacific rim nations would be a problem even if there weren’t geopolitical terrors laid on top of natural vulnerabilities.

Matt Stoller has a piece today which emphasizes the dangers more than the opportunities of China’s economic ambitions:

In May of 2020, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declared its economic strategy, using the phrase “dual circulation.” Dual circulation meant fostering a domestic productive apparatus that is independent of foreign technology and finance, while making sure the rest of the world is dependent on Chinese control of key supply chains, whether it’s shipping, railroad construction, electric batteries, or solar panels. Chinese ‘grand economic strategy,’ in other words, is to operate as a giant monopoly on which the rest of the world must rely.

I’m sure this is right. But don’t we, and shouldn’t we, do the same? That is to say, for the same reasons all countries should maintain some degree of military deterrence of invasion, all countries should seek an “autarky option” that may be expensive to exercise, but that in extremis can be exercised in order to limit foreign powers’ ability to coerce them via trade dependencies. Given the international interdependence required to support modern life, most countries will find it impossible to make reversion to autarky cheap. Which is good, because the traditional liberal case for commerce as a foundation of peaceful coprosperity remains strong, as long as the trade occurs mostly on equitable rather than coercive terms. But occasionally, national sovereignty requires defying trade partners, and enduring what costs they impose, as food self-sufficient Iceland demonstrated during the financial crisis or (much less positively) Russia is demonstrating now.

So the first of China’s dual circulations seems like a good aspiration for all countries (albeit more achievable for large countries, or blocs like the EU, than for small states). The second circulation, the ambition to foster dependence of trade partners, ideally to become a monopolist in critical sectors, is not so nice. But it is hardly a Chinese invention. The country that has most frequently and successfully “weaponized interdependence”, as Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman put it, is the United States with its extraterritorial monopoly over the US dollar financial system. In global affairs as in business, I don’t think it’s plausible to demand that ambitious players unilaterally desist from seeking monopoly. Monopoly, with the coercive power it affords over others, is agreeable. Just as states have to be responsible for military deterrence and managing their trade balance, they must ensure domestic or diverse sourcing of important goods. The US should strive to reduce its dependence on Chinese manufactures, just as China should seek to reduce its dependence on US aviation, not because trade in these things is bad, but because for trade in these things to be good, it must occur on noncoercive terms. Sustainable trade relationships are continually voluntary and mutually beneficial.

The United States has no need to impose discriminatory bilateral tariffs, or to adopt a hostile rhetorical posture against China, or any other country for that matter. We have to tools necessary to see to our own interests, and should seek a warm peace and friendship with the people of every country. China does some terrible things. What it is doing with the Uyghurs is horrid, indefensible. But rhetorical hostility does the Uyghurs no good, and we have no effective means of coercing China to change its policy. The best we can do is try to persuade its leaders that there are better ways of addressing whatever problems they think they are addressing. We are more capable of persuasion and assistance as friends than as adversaries. At the moment, and not unusually, we’re using the issue just to snow ourselves. Our current posture of hostility towards China derives from trade disputes and military rivalry in the Asia Pacific, but we imbue it with moral weight by attributing it to human rights and autocracy, even though we overlooked those concerns, from Tiananmen to Tibet, for decades when our elites perceived the trade relationship as more profitable than threatening.

The current hostility between the US and China is mutual. There is no guarantee that any change of posture on our part would lead to a warm reception on theirs. But goodwill, properly understood, is free. It should be offered unilaterally, whether reciprocated eventually or not. Expressing goodwill does not mean sacrificing ones interests. Indeed, it was failing to look after our own interests that led to the recent collapse of the goodwill. Goodwill does mean, rhetorically, expressing warmth, a desire for peace and fruitful intercourse. It means working diplomatically, assiduously and proactively, to find ways of reconciling our interests where they diverge, rather than relying solely on mutual deterrence. It means encouraging interaction at a cultural and personal level, rather than treating foreign nationals presumptively as spies. It means love unconditional, to all the humans of all the nations, at the same time as we do the hard and necessary work of attending to our own interests. It means persuading, but not coercing, others that there might be something decent in our perspectives and values, while remaining open to what’s good in the perspectives and values that they offer to us. Goodwill is not weakness or naiveté. Our foreign policy should offer and seek to cultivate goodwill, sincerely, ostentatiously, and without apology.

Update History:

  • 27-Apr-2022, 10:10 p.m. PDT: “That the military of a country is strong and therefore fearful fearsome does not preclude” (Thanks @keunwoo!)
  • 2-May-2022, 10:15 a.m. PDT: “Janey Janet Yellin” (Thanks commenter Zack!); “…most countries will find it impossible to make reversion to autarky cheap,. Which is good, because…”
  • 17-May-2022, 7:55 p.m. PDT: “Janet YellinYellen” (Thanks commenter Zack again!)

Consensus not censorship

We’ve become obsessed over the past few years with the problem of misinformation. And for good reason. “Flood the zone with shit” is now standard operating procedure for a variety of interests and factions. Groups who pretend to be above that kind of thing let confirmation bias do the same work, elevating conjectures they find convenient to believe far beyond the evidentiary basis for believing them, and transmuting concurrence among prestigious groups whose biases are aligned into “authority” to which they demand deferrence. Casual information consumers become divided into two camps, the “do your own research” types who imagine, mistakenly, that they are capable of seeing through all this (and so succumb to their own confirmation bias), and those who more accurately understand that they cannot reliably distinguish truth from bullshit (and so opt out of democratic deliberation with a shrug, other than perhaps to vote for the candidates whose political party they distrust less).

“Combatting misinformation” has, understandably, become a prominent matter of public concern. I want to argue, however, that it’s the wrong approach. One way or another, trying to eliminate or suppress or deamplify misinformation amounts to a kind of censorship, It begs the question of who decides what qualifies as misinformation and why we should defer to their understanding of true and false, fact and fiction. If we all were comfortable that sources branded “Harvard” or “The Washington Post” or “CDC” were capable of doing the job, and that they would always “play it straight” with the public rather than triangulating interests of various stakeholders and insiders, then misinformation wouldn’t be a problem. We’d all happily defer to high quality information from trusted sources. Unfortunately but not incorrectly, we are now sharply divided over whether and when traditional authorities can be trusted, and over how much or little epistemological deferrence they merit. “Combating misinformation” as defined by these authorities amounts to letting sometimes untrustworthy and corrupt factions censor information that might be correct and important.

So, we are in a pickle. Our current information environment is dysfunctional. It divides and paralyzes us, and leaves us ill-informed. Our leaders, who are responsive to public opinion, make bad mistakes in order to flatter errors of constituents who have “done their own research” or who trust unworthy authorities. Suppressing misinformation could in theory lead to a correct consensus, but the very foundation of free-speech liberalism is that we have, in general, no certain basis for distinguishing information from misinformation, and therefore attempts to suppress “falsehood” are likely to repress important truths.

Free speech liberalism used to seem compatible with a functional society in a way that it now does not. Why is that? By virtue of the physical architecture of information, sources of broadly important information were much more centralized, prior to the emergence of the internet and social media. In the network television age, it was a free country, you could say whatever you want, you could publish subversive ‘zines and stuff. But unless and until your perspectives were adopted by some gatekeeper of centralized media, they would struggle to be relevant in any systemic and politically effective way. However, unlike in, say, contemporary Russia, the gatekeepers of traditional media were themselves fairly decentralized. There were three TV networks, plus many important newspapers and mass publishing houses, each marinating within some ungated local avant-garde. Politics and culture were genuinely contestable, to a degree. Meaningfully distinct publishers competed to form the mainstream. But they were mostly corporate actors with similar interests and vulnerabilities to state and advertiser pressure, and with a shared stake in maintaining something like the status quo. The struggle in that era was to get from margin to center, and that could never be a viewpoint neutral struggle.

Nevertheless, we had a functional polity in that era, with dissidence, yes, but also with broad consensus about what was true, false, and subject to reasonable contestation. As someone who often felt dissident, I can tell you that it sucked. Lots of important values and ideas got no meaningful hearing outside of very ghettoized information spaces. At the same time, it was a much more livable society beyond the frontiers of ones own dissidence. There was a lot one could get away with just taking for granted, as an individual trying to make sense of the world. Collectively, politically, we were a much more capable society, we had a stronger shared basis for action in the common good. The church of network television was consistent with an era of bipartisanship, and with experiments in policy—which were often mistaken, in part due to the narrow and blinkered information environment that framed them! But at least things could be tried, which is more than we can say for our polity at present.

We cannot, and I would not, go back to the church of network television. For all the confusion and outright nightmarishness of contemporary social media, I cannot help but score as a blessing the fact that a much wider range of voices can permissionlessly publish themselves over media capable of reaching large and influential audiences. However, the lesson we should retain from the equilibrium we have left behind is that a wild-west of free speech can coexist with a functional epistemological cohesion, if there are institutions via which a widely shared consensus can somehow rise above the din.

As Martin Gurri has pointed out, the internet can be understood as a kind of solvent of authority, and of the capacity of traditional institutions to sustain the trust that undergirds it. One way traditional authorities might counter that effect is by suppression and control, limiting the internet cacophony to a chorus reinforcing the messaging and goals of those authorities. That is the approach China and Russia have taken, and it has not been ineffective. “Combatting misinformation” can be understood as a variation of that approach, an adaptation of it to the formally liberal West. If internet forums can be persuaded to suppress as misinformation speech that is most at variance with traditional authorities, and to shape reach so that speech aligned with traditional authorities diffuses more quickly and more widely than alternative views, perhaps consensus around traditional authority can be sustained.

However, this approach brings two practical problems:

  1. It forfeits any opportunity to use the broader conversation as a means of informing and improving what becomes deemed authoritative. Our crisis of authority owes something to the cacophony of voices, sincere and disingenuous, that now outshout and dilute traditional authorities, but it also owes a great deal to the (reasonable!) perception that traditional authorities have performed poorly and so merit less deference. A soft censorship approach to restoring authority does nothing to remedy the sources of poor performance, while buried in the zone flooded with shit may be perspectives that are important and could contribute to wiser authority.

  2. Judging by the behavior of the Chinese and the Russians, soft censorship — encouraging important forums to suppress misinformation without actually banning it — may not be sufficient to restore consensus and then trust. "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” John Gilmore famously wrote, and there is some truth to that. Relying upon suppression to sustain state authority creates a dynamic under which predictable challenges encourage ever more coercive and expansive restriction, abandoning free speech liberalism rather than saving it

Rather than suppress or censor, it would be better if we could build new institutions of consensus, whose authority would be based on stronger, more public, and more socially dispersed evidence than the institutions that are now flailing. This may sound naive, and it may prove impossible. But it seems to me we’ve done very little that could be accused of meaningfully trying.

I don’t have a silver bullet, of course. I don’t have anything more than half-baked ideas. But half-baked is better than not baked at all, or not even attempted. Let’s actually make a concerted, society-wide effort to design new forms of authority that would be more resilient to the cacophony of an open internet.

Some half-baked ideas:

  • We could dramatically expand our use of “citizens juries” or “deliberative minipublics” to help authoritatively resolve factual disputes. Much of the reason why traditional authorities are so distrusted is because publics and factions reasonably perceive them having particularities of interest that come unbidden with their roles and expertise. A Harvard professor may be more than qualified, may be “smart” enough, but if her interests and values are very different from yours, why should you accord any authority to her policy advice? The very expertise on which her claim to authority is based might well be used to snow you! We expect that politicians’ views will be colored by their electoral (or post-electoral) career interests, but jockeying for votes (or sinecures) and crafting policy well might call for very different choices. A citizens jury makes use of expertise (just like “expert witnesses” are called before legal juries), but vests the authority to make determinations in a “minipublic”, a group of citizens selected by lot, and so statistically likely to be representative of the public not-mini-at-all. Their role is to elicit evidence and probe experts, then deliberate directly and interpersonally in order to produce findings on behalf of the public at large. There are a lot of potential devils in details. If a competent prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, can we come up with procedures that genuinely empower the minipublic, rather than leaving it subject to manipulation and capture by its organizers? If participation in citizens juries is not compulsory (probably it should be!), will self-selection leave us with unrepresentative, and therefore unauthorative, minipublics? I don’t have answers to all of these questions, except to say that the more we try, the more likely we’ll learn how organize citizens juries effectively. I encourage you to read my friend Nicholas Gruen, and the wonderful Equality by Lot blog for more on the subject. (See also a recent piece by Michael McCarthy in Noema on using minipublics to make investment decisions.)

  • We could integrate the community college system much more deeply into the public epistemology side of academia, reducing the degree to which academic expertise is attached to the socially narrow class of elite research faculty. Community colleges should be a bidirectional bridge — helping communicate and explain current academic consensus to America’s plural communities via direct interaction with locally trusted experts, but also ensuring that the diverse experiences and perspectives of American communities are taken into account when forming academic consensus on policy-relevant questions, which necessarily touch upon values as well as potentially objective fact.

  • We could use “permissioned blockchains” (which involve no speculative financial tokens or environmentally destructive “mining”) ubiquitously in important institutions to notarize almost everything, generating public evidence of institutional history that would be difficult to hide, repudiate, or tamper with ex-post. This wouldn’t be an anticorruption panacea. Premeditatedly corrupt actors would try to circumvent a panoptic notary by falling back upon informal communication channels, the bureaucratic equivalent of turning off the bodycam. Or they might plan in advance paper trails of falsehoods, sequences of lies properly timestamped and notarized. But most corruption is not that smart, not that careful. In science class when I was a kid, I was taught that nothing should be crossed out in a lab notebook. Instead, mistakes should be struck through with a single line, permitting a reader to see both the mistake and the correction. This doesn’t prevent premeditated fraud, but it does reduce the temptation to “fix” or “fudge” things after the fact. Cryptographically attributing and notarizing everything as a matter of routine (which would not require making document contents universally public) strikes me as a similar structural encouragement of integrity.

In addition to reforms that might harden some forms of authority against the solvent of contemporary cacophony, there are reforms that might make the cacophony a bit less indiscriminately corrosive of even reliable information.

  • As Lee Drutman has described, a two-party electoral system creates incentives for each party to undermine the authority attached to information presented by officials of the other party, indifferent to the actual truthfulness or quality of the information undermined. Our system encourages partisans to tear down virtuous authority as readily as corruption and lies, indeed to confuse the former as the latter, if the institution whose authority might otherwise be enhanced is identified with the opposing party. Multiparty democracies have much less of this dynamic, as other parties are sometimes coalition partners as well as rivals, there is not a simple zero-sum game where one party’s success is everyone else’s disadvantage. A bit less radically, Jon Haidt, in his excellent article on how the internet has undone us, points to electoral reforms within our two party system that elevate candidates with cross-party appeal over more party-exclusive candidates to whom this zero-sum logic most applies.

  • We could try to reform the internet and social media structurally, in ways that don’t involve some superauthority making judgements about, then playing whack-a-mole with, putative disinformation. The contemporary internet’s encouragement of the divisive and salacious over less entertaining, more constructive speech plausibly has everything to do with most of that speech being hosted by gigantic businesses to whom accuracy or quality is a matter of indifference but emotional engagement drives activity and profit. I think we should seek an online civil society hosted by thousands or millions of smaller sites whose product is quality and curation for users rather than the eyeballs of users for advertisers. I’ve suggested before that we repeal or dramatically curtail Section 230 protections, to clip the wings of the current megaforums. We could pair this with content-neutral public subsidy to people who offer microforums which would actively curate and accept responsibility for the material they host.

  • As human beings, our understandings of the world are tangled up with our interests. Upton Sinclair’s man who can’t be got to understand what his salary depends on his not understanding is, to a first approximation, all of us. We develop sincere beliefs about the world that flatter, or at least are reconcilable with, the preconditions of our own well-being. People with very divergent interests will develop very divergent beliefs. A society that made greater use of social insurance, in which personal outcomes would vary somewhat less across individuals due to political choices, in which we really would be more "all in this together", would have an easier time finding epistemological consensus than one in which a person might make themselves unusually wealthy by accepting and promoting divergent beliefs. We'd have more consensus about climate change if there weren't influential groups of people who benefit materially by believing and arguing it is not a serious concern. If people in the fossil fuel industry only became somewhat better off rather than fabulously wealthy by persuading themselves and others climate change isn't real, we'd have less of such persuasion, and reach a functional consensus more easily. In general, there’d be less incentive to be a “grifter”, as many online influencers are accused of being, if we were a materially more equal society.

Maybe you like my specific suggestions. Maybe you don’t. Regardless, if we want to preserve liberal free speech in form, function, and spirit, we’ll have to develop new institutions for coming to authoritative consensus that rise above a now much louder din.

It’s a very urgent task. As I write, we collectively face a delicate crisis which, if mishandled, could lead to nuclear war, millions or billions dead, the end of modernity. It is not okay that the way we are thinking together is largely via TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MSNBC, and Fox News. These are low quality deliberative institutions.

As Aviv Ovadya put it in a conversation with Julia Galef

We're…living in a world now where, let's say stability isn't quite as quite where it was, where individuals can have far more influence on sort of the overall stability of the world and where you have a whole bunch of really tricky challenges up ahead within the next five to 20 years that could easily derail even a very, very well-functioning civilization. You're in this environment, and now you're making everyone dumber. You're making them less capable of handling it, both at an individual level and at a societal level.

You can think about this as, you’ve got your civilization driving its car down the road. And it's now starting to take LSD, and it's like seeing these hallucinations all over the place. And it's still trying to drive. There's going to be some level, some amount of LSD or some amount of like, of hallucination that you can still sort of drive without crashing. But there's going to be some level where you can't. We're just increasing that.

Hopefully we get lucky and muddle through our current crises. But we won’t get lucky forever. We have to develop the capacity to collectively speak, reason, and act together in ways that keep us free but also wise.

Update History:

  • 23-May-2022, 9:10 p.m. PDT: “…to render the clip the wings of the current megaforums.”
  • 23-Aug-2022, 12:oo p.m. EDT: “the ‘do you your own research’ types”; “…to people who host and curate offer microforums…”