Whatever Hits the Fan is Never Evenly Distributed

Consider a bullet. I had one sitting on my dresser as a kid – a Civil War Minnie Ball. Toss it into the air. It tumbles. It hovers, for a split microsecond, pointing at you as it falls. Consider that same bullet in 1862 (I found it on a farm near Antietam). Consider standing in front of the line of Blue (it was clearly a Yankee bullet) with your fellow Virginians. Consider that same bullet again. Fired from a Springfield, heading your way. Take a split microsecond, same length of time as before, and focus in on only the bullet. The situations are almost indistinguishable if looked at on a short enough time scale. The 1862 bullet points at you in the same way the modern one does. In that split microsecond, an observer who happened to just drop in and observe only the bullet would be hard pressed to decide which situation he or she’d rather be in. Practically the same mass of metal. Same shape. But look closer. The 1862 bullet should be warm – evidence of the kinetic energy stored in it. The present bullet should have a coat of oxidation. But there were bullets fired in 1862 that had been dropped in the crick the month before they were fired, and the modern bullet might have been sitting in the sun for a while. There’s always something for the naysayer to latch on to. But take another snapshot a couple of milliseconds later, and the difference between the two situations is instantly clear – the bullet in 1862 has traveled a lot further – and in a much straighter line than the arc of the falling bullet tossed from your hand. Now which situation would our hypothetical observer rather be in?

Trajectories matter. Real world systems are dynamic, not static. Especially human societies. But in the timescale we can measure with our fleeting consciousness and hazy grasp of both history and the present, many times we are measuring the health of our society at time intervals that are too short to determine our own trajectory, especially considering that I would model societies more as a hot-air balloon tossed by the wind, rather than as a bullet swiftly passing through the air. Humans tend to project the present situation forward indefinitely, rendering useless even our current rudimentary ability to determine how the winds of history can blow societies temporarily off course, pointing, for a moment, in a different direction from the vector of long-term progress. David Foster is fond of pointing out that humans have a much easier time discerning and predicting patterns that vary in space, rather than ones that vary in time. And he’s right. The person well-versed in history can overcome this somewhat by studying the past, but only somewhat, because history is a set of experiments in which too many variables have been fixed, so that general theory of human progress is difficult if not impossible to formulate. But at least a good historian understands that taking a single snapshot of today does not do much to help map the path to the future.

In this respect, I think that people in the past who held the idea that the past was better than the future, who held the religious view that revealed wisdom was clearer to those to whom it was directly revealed, and gets muddier through the ages – in some ways those people’s world view had an advantage over the modern view of continuous forward progress in understanding the full range of potential societal behavior. A Japanese Colonel, talking about how the WWII generation wasted the gains of the Meiji and Russo-Japanese war generations expressed it this way:

When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”

—- Alvin Coox interview with Colonel Sumi in Nomonhan p.61

So the third generation gambles away the wealth, and the fourth or fifth has to start all over again. In medieval times this was called the wheel of fortune. I think that this phenomenon repeats itself on larger social scales as well. If you convolve the function describing this behavior with the linear technological progress that science has been able to achieve (by making everyone be their own first generation through the process of obtaining a degree), you can begin to see a model that  might explain a good deal of modern history – cyclical and linear at the same time.

Zenpundit described the debate surrounding cyclical versus linear historical models. The ancients, especially the ancient Chinese were indeed fatalistic in part because they saw history as only cyclical. Their pace of technological progress was so slow that generations could pass by without seeing a major innovation. We lived in charmed times. It is only 100 years since man first escaped the surly bonds of Earth, and in that time we have walked on our moon and sent machines to another planet. That linear technological progress has insulated us a bit from the cyclical nature of history in a society that does not experience a steady increase in material wealth – the world the ancients lived in.

But the ancients didn’t see everything as cyclical – the concept of a social trajectory is an old one. Let me wax Old Testament here:

… for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me …
Exodus 20.5

I believe this verse to be quite literally true, and have done so throughout both the agnostic and spiritual periods of my life. The truth of it does not depend on any spiritual point of view. The ancient Israelite text expresses a simple reality: actions put a man and his heirs on a certain trajectory.  Actions have consequences, and actions that are witnessed by small children tend to be repeated by them as adults. Being the great-grandchild and grandchild of people who were obviously alcoholics, I watch my own intake very carefully, to make sure that my father really was the fifth generation. Surely some of this dynamic on the small social scale, at the level of the family, is genetic. But it’s really, really hard to separate nature from nurture with any certainty. People are capable of learning – it’s our great advantage as a species. But as long as there’s no feedback loop to forcibly beat negative behavior out of us, we can learn stupidity as well as useful skills, and that is our species’ Achilles Heel.

One thing Jared Diamond got right in Guns, Germs and Steel is that he recorded the violent life of the primitive tribes that he studies without glossing over the barbarity. All of mankind lived in this kind of perpetual state of low-grade warfare for many, many thousands of years before recorded history. How could that not make for self-perpetuating, self-defeating behavior over and over again? “They” killed your uncle – go kill “them”. The amazing thing to me is not that civilized man has been so brutal and uncivilized over recorded history, but that we managed to rise out of the muck at all.

But somewhere, somehow, some Near Eastern genius-king at the beginning of the age of metal stood up and made up a social code good enough to allow men and women to live together in a densely populated, walled defensive space and not murder and / or rape each other back into the stone age. That had longer downstream consequences than the founder(s) of that social system intended: agriculture, division of labor, metalworking. Ever since then copy-cats from that king’s son to Hammurabi on down to our generation have been modifying this code to suit local conditions. And the societies who adopt codes that work better, tend, over the long run, to outperform societies that don’t.

But the old habits die hard. In ancient times, the City people continued to rape and pillage. Sacking other cities and setting back the overall cause of civilization was a major vocation in ages past, especially with their scarce resources. But then Empires began to build larger confederations of peoples, and civilization advanced more quickly in those areas, and social trajectories began to make themselves apparent to the careful student of history. Even before Empires came on the scene, a crude snapshot of a particular point in time does not tell the observer much about where any society would be in 100 years. Temporal snapshots are really only good for describing the likely future of extremely primitive societies not in contact with modern man.

If I take a step or two back and look at recorded history with a macro view, I get the feeling that the fact that mankind has an extremely short recorded and civilized history relative to our species’ past is extremely important. Each generation of a successful society (prior to the modern world) wasn’t quite sure what parts of its culture contributed to its success, so it clung to tradition like a security blanket. That kept society going, but it perpetuated some ugly habits, too. We cling to some counter-productive habits, such as racism and sexism, but in their day, when other automatically meant danger, and when large numbers of women who didn’t produce lots of kids meant societal death, those were survival traits.

We are slowly casting off the bad habits of millennia, habits developed to defend against societal death in an age of scarcity, famine, and unpredictable natural and man-made disasters. Some of those habits are retarding progress in our modern world, and some are part of the over-stressed glue that holds us together. Trouble is, because of our limitations in making dynamic models that include a temporal dimension, we can’t always predict the effect of eliminating a habit of thought.

So, as Zenpundit pointed out, the opposite of progress can happen, too, when societies get to the third generation outlined by the Japanese Colonel, and decide to do away with all those notions to which the old fogies cling, forgetting that the experiences of the previous generation shape the next one – change the experience of your kids’ generation, and the grandkids may well grow up wild. The modern West, especially the generation of ’68, has assumed that the material success it enjoyed was either accidental or inevitable, and so set about dismantling social constructs that did not meet the approval of the avant garde, sometimes finding out the forgotten reasons for creating those ancient constructs when things fell apart.

Here’s Jane Galt on the dynamic institution of marriage:

Marriage, it turns out, is an incredibly important institution. It also turns out to be a lot more fragile than we thought back then. It looked, to those extremely smart and well-meaning welfare reformers, practically unshakeable; the idea that it could be undone by something as simple as enabling women to have children without husbands, seemed ludicrous. Its cultural underpinnings were far too firm. Why would a woman choose such a hard road? It seemed self-evident that the only unwed mothers claiming benefits would be the ones pushed there by terrible circumstance.

This argument is compelling and logical. I would never become an unwed welfare mother, even if benefits were a great deal higher than they are now. It seems crazy to even suggest that one would bear a child out of wedlock for $567 a month. Indeed, to this day, I find the reformist side much more persuasive than the conservative side, except for one thing, which is that the conservatives turned out to be right. In fact, they turned out to be even more right than they suspected; they were predicting upticks in illegitimacy that were much more modest than what actually occurred–they expected marriage rates to suffer, not collapse.
How did people go so badly wrong? Well, to start with, they fell into the basic fallacy that economists are so well acquainted with: they thought about themselves instead of the marginal case. For another, they completely failed to realize that each additional illegitimate birth would, in effect, slightly destigmatise the next one. They assigned men very little agency, failing to predict that women willing to forgo marriage would essentially become unwelcome competition for women who weren’t, and that as the numbers changed, that competition might push the marriage market towards unwelcome outcomes. They failed to forsee the confounding effect that the birth control pill would have on sexual mores.
But I think the core problems are two. The first is that they looked only at individuals, and took institutions as a given. That is, they looked at all the cultural pressure to marry, and assumed that that would be a countervailing force powerful enough to overcome the new financial incentives for out-of-wedlock births. They failed to see the institution as dynamic. It wasn’t a simple matter of two forces: cultural pressure to marry, financial freedom not to, arrayed against each other; those forces had a complex interplay, and when you changed one, you changed the other.

The generation of ’68 thought that they had invented a new morality. But the biology that Ginny just wrote about can not be denied, and a lot of that biological imperative was captured in the traditional ways of doing things. My personal private morality is traditional Judeo-Christian. However, I do feel that there should be some room for experimentation, and I do not necessarily believe that my morals should be etched on society’s stone tablets, which is why I call myself a libertarian (small “l” deliberate). But I have a really bad feeling whenever reformers want to go to fast in changing mores that have developed over millennia. As Megan said elsewhere in the article I linked to above, if you don’t know why the fence was put there, you should not be allowed to knock it down.  David Foster also said something very wise on this topic here :

“In an aviation publication somewhere, the author wrote: “If you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”
Leaders of modern society must, to a great extent, be test pilots–it would be nice if they, and us, recognized that fact.”

The reason I believe that you shouldn’t be able to easily knock down a social habit you don’t agree with is that many of the freedoms from ancient mores that we have allowed ourselves in the past century have been, like it or not, predicated on material abundance. And far too few people have any idea how tenuous is our grasp on the modern world. How quickly the EM pulses from a few atomic bombs could wipe out our communications networks, how some engineered virus could wipe out our food supplies or cause an epidemic to send us back to small community life with world travel banned or severely restricted. Not only could a doomsday scenario (and I’m not even including comet strikes or anything weird like that) happen, given the cycle of human history up to now, I’m pretty sure some sort of doomsday will happen in the next few centuries. I see it as a moral imperative to raise kids that can not only survive and thrive in the modern world, but who would also make a contribution in a world crippled by disaster.

Most modern people take material progress for granted. Many on the Left see something wrong, and they want it corrected right now. They rarely ask more than rudimentary questions about how things got to be this way, and their mental models are usually lacking a time dimension. This is why I have such a huge problem with the historical revisionists who want to emphasize the slave-holding hypocrisy of many of the founding fathers or this or that other historical habit that offends modern sensibilities. It’s a form of temporal bigotry. American society of 1789 produced the children who became abolitionists of 1859. Why? Because those later generations had been given enough of a material advantage to be able to consider questions of morality. But they also carried on the traditions of their fathers, making them better. They had been given language in their political documents such as “all men are created equal”, and it fell to that later generation to begin to question the definition of “man”. But facing the slavery question head-on in 1789 would have destroyed the nascent confederation before it had time to grow abolitionists. I can celebrate the achievements of the generation of 1789 without buying in to their entire worldview.

One of the currently popular philosophical underpinnings of the “change it now” school of thought is the “Veil of Ignorance” concept developed by Rawls, which I first encountered in an MBA business ethics class. It’s based on a principle of fairness that is hard to disagree with at first, but the shortcomings of which should be apparent to anyone after a little careful thought. It is my own view that society should be as fair as possible to those low on the totem pole, but society should not completely arrange itself around people who are doing more taking from than giving to the cause of  advancing civilization. It took me about 30 seconds to see the problems of applying the Veil to business. If you think you have the same shot at being the CEO or the janitor, and you were the jealous type, you might opt for a more Japanese system where the pay differential is about seven-fold, even if incenting the CEO more meant that the firm as a whole did better. A person interested in job security over magnitude of pay might also opt for such a system. But the janitor at the strongly pay-for-performance firm will probably make more than the janitor at the Japanese firm, and is much more likely to be offered educational opportunities to rise above his or her station – it’s a big reason why low level Japanese employees and talented women come to work for a foreign firm in Japan. And the firm that sees its first goal as profit-making, rather than job creation will do better when faced with adversity (see the Japanese economy right now), even if a few janitors get laid off. Janitors are not the only employees in most firms. The vast majority of people tend to have one main term in their mental model, which does not always make for good decision making.

Before I thought a little harder, the Veil still sounded like an interesting concept out in society, though*. Educated people make better decisions, right?  But soon after I encountered the concept, I ran into a former Russian lit teacher. Listening to her made me realize that single-issue blindness might actually increase with educational level. As a professional, she evaluates literature from pre-modern times from a feminist perspective. Pre-modern societies were all evil to her because of their treatment of women. Taking her simple-minded approach, bring her back to 1918 and put her behind the Veil. In Russia, the Bolsheviki have just given women the right to vote. Ergo, women are better off over there, right? At least they will be once they get that little Civil War thing ironed out.

But twenty years later I don’t think any woman in the world would have chosen the USSR of Stalin’s terror over Roosevelt’s USA, better equality on paper or not**.

Single-issue blindness isn’t the only dynamic argument I have against Rawls. Hayek’s information theory is also another good stick to beat it with. At the general block of history where modern civilization began (a block of several thousand years, in fact) the Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Chinese were all experimenting with societal arrangements and building Empires, although not simultaneously – this is a big block of history we’re talking about here. If one were to take the Veil of Ignorance seriously, the Empire was the place to be: the least citizens of those empires had a better life than the hard-scrabble existence of the barbarian tribes around them – especially when you consider the practice of human sacrifice with the many of the “barbarians” such as the Celts, even if it’s largely apocryphal, it only needs to be true once or twice to make Celtic society barbaric in my point of view.

However, let’s pick on the civilization from that general point in history that’s still around today: China. Let’s see how our hypothetical person fares from behind the Veil of Ignorance. The Chinese had a pretty good patriarchal system going to take care of their peasants. Sure, it tended to crash and burn now and then, but it always built itself back up. So it’s very likely the choice from behind the Veil in 476 CE could be China based on available information.  But I’m damn glad my ancestors were Celts and Franks, and not peasants from Anhui. Chinese civilization stagnated, until cruelty and authoritarianism became ingrained and enervated the society to the point that it fell apart in the face of the modern world, a disaster from which it has not yet fully recovered.

It’s possible to add a time dimension to the Veil of Ignorance by asking what society the person behind the veil would want his or her descendants to grow up in. But that assumes a level of certainty about future events that we can not attain when we apply the Veil to moral arguments in the present. The best we can do is look at the current trajectory and try to figure out where society is going without relying too much on present trends extrapolated forward. Good luck with that.

We do have to be careful in constructing our models, though. I’m acutely aware that the Soviets used a crude dynamic argument to motivate the first generation after the Revolution. Hardships now, but we are building Socialism for the children! And then the children got there, grew up, and a “according to your need” Utopia was still nowhere in sight: money still hadn’t been eliminated by the late 1930s. Zoshchenko did a great job defending why money was still necessary:

Just think what would happen if tomorrow the streetcars were suddenly free: without a doubt many citizens would be denied access to this inexpensive mode of transportation. Of course, one must say that even now the trams are not that pleasant to ride, but then the situation would become unthinkable. Not only would people be riding on the stairs and floorboards, they would be up on the roof with the pantograph.

But that kind of blew a hole in the expected rate of progress towards Communist Utopia as outlined by the State. And so it went, until by the 1960s it was clear that the whole model suffered from GIGO. It’s very easy to twist a dynamic model to fit an “ends justify the means” mindset or to use it to justify never changing anything. People like Fred Phelps will seize on an argument such as Jane Galt’s to indefinitely postpone the question of civil unions for gays. Those same people forty or fifty years ago would have opposed my own inter-racial marriage.

Despite those hazards, I guarantee you that any model that does not take into account the effects of systems interacting over time is going to have nothing to do with reality in very short order. The trajectory of the bullet matters.

The West has been progressing by any rational definition of “progress”, and it’s not always easy to spot the drivers of that progress. We make attempts here with our Anglosphere arguments, but sometimes our discussions give me the feeling of a post hoc statistical analysis on a large experiment – the pitfalls of both are probably similar. 

On the other side of the political spectrum, the reformers of today forget that they can be reformers because their parent and grandparents set  up a society in which it is possible to be a reformer.  Shannon Love recently wrote about how many atheists reach back 400 years to talk about Christian religious excesses, neglecting the positive impacts of Christianity, such as the eradication of slavery. In such arguments, I also think about the experiment excluded by history – how bad would the Europeans have been to each other and everyone else without the brakes that Christianity provides – if there had been no Assissis or Augustines telling rules that they were too prideful or bloodthirsty – how much brutality would have been unleashed in the absence of those aspects of Christianity (not to mention not having a place to put power-hungry second and third sons of the nobility). Simplistic arguments about the negative impact of religion in Europe do not consider the dynamic range of that society. Hitler might have occurred much earlier in history without Christianity.

Unintended consequences ought to be a concern for everyone who thinks about morality on a public level. I’m all for social progress, but I do not want our society to run too fast from its primitive roots. I’m willing to extend civil unions to gays at the Federal level (where it counts), but I’m willing to reserve the word “marriage” for the social conservatives. Lets see which camp gets stronger over time, shall we?

I have a name for my own public system: Shit Hit The Fan Morality. At some point, there will be a major societal disaster. Certain types of social systems do better in those circumstances than others.

This fear of a crash is also why I tend to like to preserve things that maintain the knowledge of how things used to be done. I study the history of chemistry in part so that I could do some useful things if electronic instruments were not available to my post-apocalyptic community. I tend to cut other people whose hobbies overlap with this goal some slack. For example, my wife has little patience for Civil War re-enactors, because she thinks that they are socially stunted geeks wasting their money and time. I’m not so sure I agree. Don’t get me wrong, I think that they are socially-stunted geeks, but some of the knowledge that they preserve just might be useful in a SHTF scenario. Not to mention that having the guy I saw towing a Napoleon behind his SUV this summer as a neighbor might help keep the riff-raff at a distance should the SHTF. I also tend to be slower than most Leftists, and an awful lot of Libertarians (an alarmingly large number of whom also seem to be libertines), to want to change societal mores.

I keep asking myself where are we (in the West) going? And while I like where we are, I’m not so sure I like the possibilities when I plot out our potential trajectories. So I stock up on charcoal, sulphur and saltpeter. Metaphorically, of course.


* I think that I am fundamentally Leftist, or at least Populist by inclination, and only Right by virtue of my study of history and innate sense of size of the cohort of shitheads who make up the bulk of the population. But perhaps it is that I am Leftist on the local, almost clan, level, while being right of center on broader civic issues. Hayek would approve of that attitude, I think.

** Fast forward 70 years and watch me, a puzzled outsider, look at the (still) much vaunted equality of the sexes in the USSR from the inside. Equality on paper that admits fewer women in government than the US, where suffrage was followed by decades of women’s lib agitation, causing much chuckling in the Soviet press about how backwards we were in our treatment of women. And women in Russia have never taken anything close to equality in terms of housework from Russian men. Which puzzled the hell out of me in 1989, but doesn’t now because I’m old enough and experienced enough to understand a very basic concept that often escapes the young and reform-minded: that which is taken for oneself is more firmly grasped, better appreciated, and harder to take away than that which is given.

47 thoughts on “Whatever Hits the Fan is Never Evenly Distributed”

  1. “single-issue blindness might actually increase with educational level”…I think it often does, in a way well-captured by the following:

    The root of their difficulty was not, as in Ye Olden Time, simple ignorance, but the sort of university-trained doctrinaire backwardness which seems to result when men with no natural aptitude for ideas are nonetheless obliged to stuff their heads with them.

    The writer (Charles Fair, in “From the Jaws of Victory,” is talking about WWI generals, but the concept has much broader applicability. I do think we have large numbers of people–in business as well as in academia, although the disease is worse in the latter–who aren’t very good at dealing with abstractions but nevertheless spend their professional lives in a highly abstract environment.

    Someone observed that the people who become obsessed with methodology are those who are very intelligent but entirely uncreative, which is a slightly different formulation from the above, but still falls under the heading of “university-trained doctrinaire backwardness.”

  2. This is great – I commented briefly on my home blog on one paragraph, but Lex is correct, this essay is for printing out and digesting carefully.

    Art Hutchinson of Mapping Strategy has some good posts on mental models BTW

  3. “single-issue blindness might actually increase with educational level”

    I was pretty interested in where you were going with this. Would be nice to see some more research in that area.

    “(people) who aren’t very good at dealing with abstractions but nevertheless spend their professional lives in a highly abstract environment.”

    Spending your professional life in an abstract environment would also allow you to maintain faulty philosophies and ideas because in that abstract environment there is a chance those ideas would never have to be put to a test which would show them false.

    Look at Global Warming researchers. These are people that have no hope of modeling even current weather conditions accurately, but they are busy using their models to predict the end of the world with absolute certainty. Even a cursory look at the history of temperature would show them they are wrong, but they don’t have to look at reality, only their models.

  4. “Even a cursory look at the history of temperature would show them they are wrong”

    I probably shouldn’t have said that. I think this is more appropriate:

    “A cursory look at the history of tempature would show that their models are wrong”

  5. Re. predictions and probablities: A 90% chance of being right this year is not too bad a prediction but the following year you only have a 81% chance of being correct ( 9/10 x 9/10 = 81/100) the following year. The chances the 3rd year are similarly multiplied by9/10 and so on each year thereafter.

    .9 raised to the 50th (year) is, well, I’m not going to bother, but we can simply say that the chance of being correct into the future a approximates zero probability.

  6. When I read this I couldn’t help thinking about drug prohibition, then I got to this line:

    “if you don’t know why the fence was put there, you should not be allowed to knock it down.”

    Drug prohibition doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and seems to cause a lot of the problems it is supposed to prevent (as argued very well in Milton Friedman’s open letter to Bill Bennett.)

    Still, I can’t help wondering if there is an angle I’m missing and I don’t know of any historical cases that can be drawn on for reference. Thoughts?

  7. EGG, in the case of prohibition, the default postion was live and let live, It wasn’t until the Brits got all worked up about opium addiction in whites (rather than in Chinese, where it belonged) that the West got hot on prohibition. The US got even more puritanical, but I’d say the converse of that statement is true, too: “You’re not allowed to put a wall across a well-trod path unless you know where people will go once they see the wall.”

  8. Look at Global Warming researchers. These are people that have no hope of modeling even current weather conditions accurately, but they are busy using their models to predict the end of the world with absolute certainty. Even a cursory look at the history of temperature would show them they are wrong, but they don’t have to look at reality, only their models.

    So you know better than climatologists? You don’t even seem to understand that weather forecasting is very accurate for big systems, but doesn’t work so well in very “local” cases due to certain local behaviours falling through the “cracks” of the (numerical) weather grid.

    Who is more prone to holding “faulty” philosophies? The random blogger with no knowledge of climactic modelling or numerical methods, or hundreds of climatologists who, you know, actually understand their field?

  9. This essay puts in words things that I’ve worried about for the past decade. In a SHTF scenario, what happens to cities because of supply-chain management? In the communications industry (specifically TV), what happens to the easily disruptable digital signals after an EMP attack with no analog as a fallback? Makes me just a little bit nervous.

  10. Josh- which climatologists? These? Because most of the scientists involved in the public debate are ecologists, not climatologists, and their expertise is probably more limited than mine, because at least I am skilled in computer models and numerical methods, albeit on the quantum level and not the geological level – but most ecology programs and students are pretty weak in math (I say this as a former TA).

    In the small circle of real climatologists there is much debate – not about warming, but the anthropological contribution to the climate cycle. When publicity-seeking climate scientists cherry-pick their timescales to produce crap such as the hockey stick, the rest of us with half a brain do get to chime in. Scientists do not put much stock in arguments from authority, which is what your comment boils down to.

    “You don’t even seem to understand that weather forecasting is very accurate for big systems”

    You have got to be kidding, right? Not to mention that we are not only talking about large systems, we are talking about long time periods, giving errors a chance to multiply.

  11. “All of mankind lived in this kind of perpetual state of low-grade warfare for many, many thousands of years before recorded history.” Curious what started this. Scarcity? The earth remains a large place – and we still kill without the necessity implied by the word “scarce.” Though I agree we cannot project a future, you have appropriately descibed a cyclic pattern. Here’s to Iran, China, and the third century (*read as generation) of America.

  12. Re: cyclical theories of history:

    Check out the books of Strauss and Howe, starting with “Generations,” for an interesting approach to adding a dynamic component to historical models.

    Their apporach even produces testable hypotheses, which so far seem to be doing pretty well.

  13. >Who is more prone to holding “faulty” philosophies? The random blogger with no knowledge of climactic modelling or numerical methods, or hundreds of climatologists who, you know, actually understand their field?

    Both, if it turns out the field is so complex that a random blogger knows only 1/10,000th of what an expert knows, and the random blogger only has 0.0001% of the total knowledge possible. It’s entirely likely that everyone, expert or not, is essentially making poorly informed guesses.

  14. The issue of marriage and childbearing is more complicated than the treatment here, which presumes that it is constant throughout history and different social organizations.

    Women having children outside of marriage was very widespread in some agrarian societies, and marriage institutions were more loosely organized as well – for example a young couple might start living together in the girl’s parents household once betrothed, with the actual wedding to come a year later. Within a large tribal network every child had a support system and in an agrarain culture women can continue to work while watching the kids and the kids can be put to work very early, i.e. shelling peas or something by the age of 3. So “illegitimate” children are not a burden, they fit in.

    There is more stigma to “illegitimate” birth the farther you go up the class structure and the more urban you get, because social structures become more atomized. The city offers autonomy and anonymity, which are freeing to some but place a burden on others. As name and lineage become more important, children who don’t fit into that system literally “lose legitimacy.”

    You can also examine marriage the same way. Traditionalists sometimes claim that “marriage is between a man and a woman” as though that has been a social constant, when a cursory reading of their own bible shows that is not true. Most societies in fact have had phases when marriage is between a man and two or more women, and some still do. You can argue whether that is good or not, or according to which criteria, but one is not more traditional or “time-tested” than the other.

    What we think is the historical norm that we are loath to tinker with, may not be that much of a norm.

  15. “The issue of marriage and childbearing is more complicated than the treatment here, which presumes that it is constant throughout history and different social organizations.”

    No, there is no such presumption. There is, however, a presumption that there is a Darwinian process at work producing the society we see around us – hence a trajectory. Even in ancient times, only the richest could afford multiple wives. As ancient times were verging on the middle ages, the marriage concept in most of the world was heading towards 1:1 being the norm, and I have a sneaking suspicion that was because that is a stable relationship that does not create packs of unmarried men who stay at the fringe of society and wreaked havoc. The Chinese in particular have suffered from major unrest when the sex ratio is to far off the norm. King David joined such a band of warriors when hiding from Saul. As Empires started to squash that sort of banditry, I suspect that a social pressure 1:1 marriages became more acute, and societies that adopted that code got more done with less interference.

    Due to material prosperity and easy divorce, in the modern world, we may be able to go back to polygamy without reverting to ancient patterns, but I would not count on that being a stable situation. Serial monogamy, on the other hand, seems to be working for a lot of people in the West. At least for a given value of “working”.

  16. Excellent post. You’ve put quite well into words that ideas that have passed through my mind over my life’s journey. Thank you.
    I think that Civil War re-enactors are missing a key skill set for a post-SHTF rebuilding of civilization: basic electronics, something that hadn’t quite appeared the grade back then. But Morse code was used and would be helpful in reestablishing short and long-distance communications quickly. I think that one important part of the ideal preparation for post-SHTF would be the skills taught by the most hated group in Vespucciland, the Boy Scouts. Some of those merit badges require — basic electronics, Morse code, camping, first aid, and so forth –impart skills while the young folks learn a code of conduct that’s useful no matter what happens. The thing about Morse code is that it’s low bandwidth (information capacity), but reliable (even in a noisy electromagnetic environment the pulses can be distinguished) and can be employed at frequencies from DC to light. Could come in handy, no?

  17. You mention China and your commenters mention drug prohibition.

    In the early 18th Century Manchu China was a great monarchy moving towards modernity in ideas and institutions roughly similarly to Europe (not counting Britain, who was always way ahead). A little behind in certain areas, perhaps, but also ahead in many others — well educated, well run, prosperous (for the times), economically diverse.

    China was destroyed by opium. Hundreds of tons of the poison, ruining fortunes, families and morals. State authority and ethics were undermined. Corruption was so ubiquitous, eventually the Manchu Emperor could not establish an uncontaminated flow of information, even in secret.

    In one battle of the first opium war, as the British were annihilating his drug stupefied troops, the Manchu general was unaware of what was happening, stupefied on opium himself.

    That’s the future of hard-drug legalisation: total collapse of society.

  18. John wrote:
    “Due to material prosperity and easy divorce, in the modern world, we may be able to go back to polygamy without reverting to ancient patterns, but I would not count on that being a stable situation. Serial monogamy, on the other hand, seems to be working for a lot of people in the West. At least for a given value of “working”.”

    In medieval Europe, Concubinage was a very common practice during most of the middle ages. I believe the social constrains and competition of the industrial and post industrial eras probably erased it from the continent more than any other public conscious effort from society.
    Seems to me both Concubinage and Polygamy worked for societies where the wealthy did not actually work, they were not merit societies but hierarchical.

  19. Quite an Insta-lanche, eh?

    I guess my point was that when you use abstract (and malleable) models to test abstract ideas you have to be very careful making practical changes based on the results of those tests. I was trying to expand on the whole “Don’t remove a fence if you don’t know why it was put there” idea.

    I did a lot of modeling in college to test different control systems. I forgot most of the lingo, but in laymen’s terms, to construct a model you have to break a system down into a finite number of variables. In the real world variables are almost infinite, so when modeling a system you have to decide what goes in and what goes out. You also have to ascertain the type of effect those variables have by assigning powers and coefficients to the system (which is just one big equation or matrix) The quality of the model can vary from completely accurate (like our modeling the trajectory of stellar bodies) to only marginally accurate (like our modeling of hurricanes) so the results of a modeled system aren’t really as important except when combined with the quality of the model.

    My impression of climatology models predicting global warming is that there is incredible variance in their results and a lot of debate about which of the inputs (co2, sun activity, etc.) actually has an effect on the outputs (tempature, storm activity, etc.)

    Last year I was reading about how Leif Ericson and his son “discovered” North America and actually set up a colony during the medieval age. I was surprised to discover that the discovery occurred at that point in time because global temperatures during that period were on average quite high, certainly higher than now, and that the passage through the north atlantic as well as the climate in that part of what is now Canada was much made much easier due to the higher temps. (It’s also why they labeled it “vinland” because it was very green at the time.)

    I’ve since read elsewhere that this period presents a huge problem to those trying to claim that co2 is the primary cause of global temperatures. Such a problem in fact that some are trying to simply eliminate it or find a convenient reason to explain it away outside of their models. (There are links to this subject I may be able to find and post later.) This struck me as a great example of the trouble inherent in applying abstract theory using abstract models, which is what I was pointing out.

    I did overstate my case, which was why I tried to ammend it in a subsequent comment as breifly as I could. Still, I think it’s a good example that abstract theories tested in abstract need to be held suspect, because without real world tests to confirm the model it is very hard say the model is correct and dangerous to take any substantive actions based on it’s results.

  20. There’s a very old joke that ends, “There you stand, so spic-and-span. Where were you when TSHTF?”

    I’ve observed that when the ca-ca hits the wind propulsion device, how you feel about the resultant situation depends on how the distribution of the ca-ca post impact with wind propulsion device directly affected you?\. In other words, when TSHTF, the result is usually not evenly distributed. The more ca-ca you catch, the less you like the event.

    On climate models, even the simplest are pretty complicated and don’t predict the current situation very well when using the past 100 or so years of pretty good data. This strongly implies the models are mis-specified in some important ways. What’s interesting is how vigorously the True Believers on Anthropogenic Global Warming push the ‘consensus’ argument from authority. This is usually indicative of an otherwise weak position.

    I have no doubt that global warming has happened over the past 40 or so years. Since that doesn’t correlate very well with the increases in human-caused CO2 (especially given that we had global cooling for a few decades prior to the most previous 40 years of warming), it is not up the the critics to prove AGW wrong, it is incumbent that AGW proponents decisively prove that it is. Since they appear both unable to do this and unwilling to debate the point, I dismiss their claims pending a better effort on their part.

  21. A leaf that falls out a tree in South America, A tree thrown down by an elephant in Kenya, an explosion at the hearth of the Sun one hundred years ago whose heat waves reached the earth yesterday morning, they all have an impact in the environment and the temperatures, some short term, some long term but they all merge into it.
    I believe predicting the Weather is already a chaotic science, nonetheless defining the causes for the current temperatures on earth.

  22. JorgX–

    There is a long chain of questions that must be answered before one decides that a Kyoto-style remediation attempt makes any sense whatsoever.

    Just a few:

    1. Is global warming measurable on a deeply historical basis? Can tree rings, ice cores and like really provide decent comparable data to Mr. Fahrenheit’s invention? How do you measure oceanic temperatures from 400 years ago?

    2. If warming is measurable, what time period is sufficient for us to draw important conclusions?

    3. Can we project this forward ala Mann’s hockey stick, or is the system to varying degrees self-correcting?

    4. If the planet is warming, is this necessarily a bad thing?

    5. If it is a bad thing, is man to blame? Are we sure it isn’t, say, the sun?

    6. Can this be proven using backtested data?

    7. If man is proven to be the cause, is there a solution that man can undertake that will actually have a material impact on mean global temperatures?

    8. If there is such a solution, can it be implemented equitably and cost-effectively on a global basis?

    Note that the non-linear-thinbking liberal-leftists simply assume the warming and leap all the way to the end of the questions. Some go even further than that and imagine using it as a way to tax the United States and give the money to the United Nations. Their dreams and our nightmares.

  23. Agreed with that last post. This long-winded comment deals with numerical modeling vs policy making, so if not interested please skip.

    Going back a few posts in response to Josh’s statement that “weather forecasting is very accurate for big systems, but doesn’t work so well in very ‘local’ cases due to certain local behaviours falling through the ‘cracks’ of the (numerical) weather grid”:

    What’s the confidence level for the predictions? What’s the step-size for each variable? What are the initial conditions? How is smoothing (filtering) accomplished?

    Hurricane prediction amply illustrates the head-on collision between scientific modeling and policy-making. Anyone who’s spent a half-hour reading NOAA’s website will realize that the highest-accuracy hurricane models (wind-speed, storm surge, track) are really only any good for about 24 hours. “Any good” meaning do I pack up and leave 72 hours from landfall or 24 hours from landfall? Katrina, sadly, demonstrated the folly of relying too much on prognosticators and policy-makers instead of gut instinct. As you recall, the heavier localized destruction was in Miss., which was not very densely populated. It was logistically easy for the state authorities there to issue evacuation warnings early on (when the confidence level of the storm hitting their state was still in the 50-50 ballpark). Why? Not that much impact to get a few thousand mainly-rural/small town folks to move out of possible harm’s way–people who are also generally more aware of the weather and their gut instincts when it comes to weather impacts on their day-to-day lives. New Orleans, on the other hand, was a human disaster precisely because the state and local authorities waited until it was too late to issue the “get out of the way!”. They missed the political window of opportunity between evacuating too early (i.e. getting egg on their face if the storm missed) and evacuating people too late–which they obviously did (hence Mayor Nagin’s fleets of sunken school buses).

    The problem that climate skeptics like myself have with the current political debate is that the computer-generated crystal ball is murkier and murkier the bigger the model gets, since ALL models are by nature imperfect. They are usually intended to generate optimized results: optimized for speed of calculation, single- or couple-variable resolution (i.e. micro-scale accuracy), cost, etc. And modeling the earth’s climate is–ooooh, boy–complex. So I have a HUGE problem with how politicized the climate debate has become. The “big system” weather models that your average NOAA weather forcaster uses are “good enough” for what we use them for (navigation and observation-augmented local forecasting). I.e. pilots, high-seas and coastal shipping, trucking, railways are the primary beneficiaries. That’s because the cost-benefit analysis for more accurate models weighs heavily toward low-cost. For instance, as someone who lives along the Rocky Mountains, it would be ridiculous for me to ask the government to sponsor a highly-accurate model for my low-population-density locale. It’s much easier and cheaper for the gubmint to issue a blanket “hey dumbasses, look out there’s a 800-mile-long cold front coming through sometime in the next two to four days and you might get a sh*tload of snow all over your street.” When it doesn’t materialize, no big deal, because you can safely bet your entire savings account that the trend over my stay in the Rockies will be to get hammered with snow much more than, say, Arizona. From a policy perspective, it is very easy to sympathize with the historically dim view toward self-endangerment on a local scale: building stupidly-placed S California foothills subdivisions where wildfires sweep through every 10 or 20 or even 50 years; mudslides and flash floods knocking over homes at the feet of steep, loosely-congomerated hillsides; coastal beach houses on stilts washing away when the wind kicks up some big waves; or a city that’s below freakin’ sea level having a few dikes give way in a Category 5 hurricane.

    If the models are so good, then why did FEMA get heavily criticized, but not NOAA??

    So, count me a heavy skeptic when I hear politically-minded climate scientists spout policy opinion. The global climate models are simply incomplete, and the debate should remain in the journals–NOT in the media or at world economic fora–until the model have been correlated with enough empirical data that the confidence interval is something that venture capitalists are willing to throw money at (say, the 3-sigma level). And what will it take to get there? A heck of a lot more than the dataset we have now. Don’t believe me? Go read the latest articles in Science about things like solar flux input, which is itself highly dependent on current SOLAR models and some (in my very humble opinion) very sparse sunspot data from the last 1000 years. I’m NOT saying that “oh, those dumbasses don’t have their solar model right.” I’m saying, hmm, how confident am I that the astrophysics community has a good understanding of not only the interior workings of the sun, but how the sun’s radiation couples to the earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, and furthermore how the atmosphere couples to the magnetosphere? So I go read those journals and realize that, geez, there’s a heck of a lot we don’t know. So now, can you seriously look me in the face and tell me you think sea level is going to rise by anywhere from X to Y centimeters in the next Z years to even 1-sigma confidence–when they’ve only very recently become cognizant of changes in, say, the polar caps–is comical. I get criticized because I lend serious credence to (in fact, complete trust in) the written testimony of some people who say they saw someone living after he had been crucified, and _I’m_ derided as “religious”? Under those rules, Kyoto adherents should be registered as a cult.

    Summary: do I think the climate is warming? The short-term trend is undeniable. Is this warming trend long term and unprecedented? Don’t know, probably not (geologically speaking). How will it impact humanity? Don’t know, have some guesses, all with decent probabilities of occurring–I’m a natural scientist not a sociologist. Can we refine the model and predict better before the mythical 100-year mark, and furthermore does it matter? Probably not, since if the climate can change very quickly in one direction, with the current poor models who’s to say it can’t cool back down quickly? So what can we do in the interim? Continue to encourage conservation, free the global energy markets, pass out more disaster preparedness kits, and aggressively pursue more transparency and less reactionism on the part of gov’ts worldwide, so that we don’t hyperventilate ourselves into stupor.


  24. Apologies for the above, JorgX and Fresh Air seem to have a penchant for succinctness that I don’t.

    This thread is becoming an anti-Kyoto echo chamber. Opposing views?


  25. Our sun is a variable star with an unknown Fourier Transfom of unknown magnitudes.

    Solar output has increased .5% over the last 100 years. On a strictly radiation basis that accounts for at least 50% and probably more like 2/3s of the estimated temperature increase in that period. The remainder is well into the noise level of variability.

  26. Kip W.,

    We had huge opium use in America between 1860 and 1900. It caused barely a ripple in America. Why?

    This is conjecture but my guess is that the Brits didn’t control the price.

    Opium is less deleterious than alcohol (which America also consumed in vast quantities).

    So what did China do wrong? In a word prohibition. Prohibition increased the amount of money extracted from the Chinese economy.

  27. The thread is focused on global warming, which seems the least likely SHTF for the near term. Nuclear weapons, biological weapons, religous disputes or even high oil prices have a higher short term likelyhood of causing issues. Iran should have the bomb by 2008. It clearly has the will to use it. Other nuclear powers such as North Korea or Pakistan may be willing to provide nuclear weapons to non-state actors for financial or political reasons. A small nuclear war in the Middle East has the potential to shutting down most of the world’s oil supply for at least a period of time. High prices will kill millions in developing countries, and will cause serious economic disruption in rich countries. Couple that with a few nukes set off in the United States by terrorists, and we are looking at a very different world in the rest of the 21st century.

    By comparison, man made global warming, if it is occurring, will do what exactly? Today’s news is that people living in near desert areas will face desert conditions. Doubtless some will die and some will migrate, but civilization will not be any more affected than it has been by previous such occurances.

    The biggest issue I have with those concerned about global warming is their logic. If man made gases cause global warming, and global warming is bad, then we should stop producing these gases entirely. Otherwise we have delayed the problem, not solved it. To do that the population of the earth will have to revert to abject poverty, or be substantially reduced. See part A above.

  28. One parallel I can draw from your examples of both China and the Soviet Union societies and is that what you call their “Veil of Ignorance” was in part because they both practiced an isolationism/nationalism and perhaps unwillingly stopped their societies’ internal dynamics from absorbing external influencing forces like exposition to new ideas, the arrival of new technologies and knowledge, etc.
    Was this “Veil of Ignorance” self imposed or a natural human reaction to over protect an ideology? Much like the Christians did to themselves during the middle ages?

  29. Joseangel – no, the Veil is a philosophical construct that was the brainchild of an American philosopher and all around idealistic idiot. His claim was that if you were told you were going to be born into a society, but had no idea what class or station in life you would be slotted into, what kind of a society would you want? In effect, it places a lot of empahsis on the people at the bottom becuase of the fear of being placed there, which isn’t necessarily the right strategy over the long haul.

    What you’re refering to is more the Iron Curtain of information flow (or the Bamboo one). I’ll have to write about that sometime, as I was in the USSR as that curtain was starting to crumble.

    I pick on Japan, the USSR and China a lot in my examples because I’ve lived and worked in the former two and I’m married to someone from the latter – so I know them well.

  30. We lefties are just asking WHY. Your essay is sufficiently thoughtful that you must’ve asked that question yourself a few times. Do too many of us stop listening or thinking too quickly? Yes, just like too many of you righties. The media doesn’t help, as it understands that it gets eyeballs if it shows us more extremists. More of us, though, are willing to keep paying attention to new facts as they appear. Who did welfare reform, after all?

    How many non-Christians a day do you generally see raping and murdering? Oh, maybe we have morals, too. In fact, there’s nothing innovative or special about Judeo-Chistian morality – it was copied from first the Babylonians and then the Romans. And said imperials must’ve been following said morality to some degree for it have been observed.

    Hitler is only one of many. We remember him and Stalin because they had big populations to work with. But earlier tyrants have killed bigger percentages of their populations and made them even unhappier.

    > Many on the Left see something wrong, and they want it corrected right now.

    Or like we lefties when the Administration kept infringing our privacy and ignoring that bit in the Constitution about a lawyer for Padilla. Why on earth would we want these things corrected right now?

  31. It’s also referred to as the Original Position:


    “Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice:

    1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;
    2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
    * All offices and positions must be open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
    * Economic inequalities are only permitted insofar as they are to the greatest benefit of the least well off members of society.”

    “a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties”

    I love it!! ‘Adequate.’ I can just picture Hillary drolling that out too.

    “* Economic inequalities are only permitted insofar as they are to the greatest benefit of the least well off members of society.”

    So at the end of the day he’s just a Marxist with lipstick. I don’t see how that can be read any other way.

  32. //
    Hitler might have occurred much earlier in history without Christianity.

    Without Christianity imposing Jews-Hating, Hitler woulkd NEVER occure.
    Though many other nasty(er) things could, indeed.
    I have a name for my own public system: Shit Hit The Fan Morality. At some point, there will be a major societal disaster. Certain types of social systems do better in those circumstances than others.

    Self-Filfulling prophecy. Societies prone to disasters are very likely to cause them if unchecked.

    There is, however, a presumption that there is a Darwinian process at work producing the society we see around us – hence a trajectory.
    Yes, and one point is: what was good before, can be bad now.
    What you miss is the new rules arn’t “enabled” by new situation, they are FORCED by it. If we behave like we are 10000 on Earth, then very soon we WILL be 10000, or zero. Especially, low birth rates are nececcery now we are 6000 000 000 (!) . And unmarried children are also caused by it, as lone mothers are happier with 1 child whereas married want 3.
    Likewise the rule “eat all you can” is crucial in a post-disaster society, but it would be suicidal to live by it now.
    The real problem is exactly the opposite – we must FIGHT our instincts as they draW us back.

    The issue of marriage and childbearing is more complicated than the treatment here, which presumes that it is constant throughout history and different social organizations.

    Women having children outside of marriage was very widespread in some agrarian societies, and marriage institutions were more loosely organized as well…//

    VERY true. Many thing you brand as “tradition breaking” is just return to old values. Surely you consider nudists a “rule breaker”, but in 16th century it was common for men and women to bathe naked… and so on

  33. //
    In the communications industry (specifically TV), what happens to the easily disruptable digital signals after an EMP attack with no analog as a fallback? Makes me just a little bit nervous.

    Again it shows just how low the education level here is…
    In fact is is a digital signal that can be made virtually invincible to EMP, save for total jamming. You can lose 99% and still recover everything; military signals work this way. Not not providing similar to common citizens is INDEED a disgrace.

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