## When events make craziness sane

This post is simply to say the following (and thereby to make it common knowledge that I said it, and that I no longer give a shit who thinks less of me for saying it):

If the pandemic has radicalized you, I won’t think that makes you crazy. It’s radicalized me, noticeably shifted my worldview. And in some sense, I no more apologize for that, than I apologize for my worldview presumably differing from what it would’ve been in some parallel universe with no WWII.

If you suspect that all those earnest, well-intentioned plans and slogans about “flattening the curve” are wonderful and essential, but still, “flattening” is only a desperate gambit to buy some time and nothing more; still, flattening or no flattening, the fundamentals of the situation are that either

(1) a vaccine or cure gets discovered and deployed, or else

(2) we continue in quasi-lockdown mode for the rest of our lives, or else

(3) the virus spreads to the point where it definitely kills some people you know,

—if you suspect this, then at least in my book you’re not crazy. I suspect the same.

If you still don’t understand, no matter how patiently it’s explained to you, why ~18 months is the absolute bare minimum needed to get a vaccine out; if all the talk of Phase 1, 2, and 3 trials and the need to learn more about rare side effects and so forth seems hard to square with the desperate world war that this is; if you wonder whether the Allied commanders and Allied medical authorities in WWII, transported to the present, would agree that 18 months is the bare minimum, or whether they’d already be distributing vaccines a month ago that probably work well enough and do bounded damage if they don’t—I hereby confess that I don’t understand it either.

If you wonder how the US will possibly hold an election in November that the world won’t rightly consider a sham—given that the only safe way will be universal vote-by-mail, but Trump and his five Vichy justices will never allow it—know that I wonder this too.

If you think that all those psychiatrists now doing tele-psychiatry should tell their patients, “listen, I’ve been noticing an unhealthy absence of panic attacks, obsessions about the government trying to kill your family, or compulsive disinfecting of doorknobs, so I think we’d better up your dose of pro-anxiety medication”—I’m with you.

If you see any US state that wants to avoid >2% deaths, being pushed to the brink of openly defying the FDA, smuggling in medical supplies to escape federal confiscation, using illegal tests and illegal masks and illegal ventilators and illegal everything else, and you also see military commanders getting fired for going outside the chain of command to protect their soldiers’ lives, and you wonder whether this is the start of some broader dissolution of the Union—well, I don’t intend to repeat the mistake of underestimating this crisis.

If you think that the feds who literally confiscate medical supplies before they can reach the hospitals, might as well just shoot the patients as they’re wheeled into the ICU and say “we’re sorry, but this action was obligatory under directive 48c(7)”—I won’t judge you for feeling that way.

If you feel like, while there are still pockets of brilliance and kindness and inspiration and even heroism all over US territory, still, as a federal entity the United States effectively no longer exists or functions, at least not if you treat “try to stop the mass death of the population” as a nonnegotiable component of the “life, liberty, and happiness” foundation for the nation’s existence—if you think this, I won’t call you crazy. I feel more like a citizen of nowhere every day.

If you’d jump, should the opportunity arise (as it won’t), to appoint Bill Gates as temporary sovereign for as long as this crisis lasts, and thereafter hold a new Constitutional Convention to design a stronger democracy, attempting the first-ever Version 2.0 (as opposed to 1.3, 1.4, etc.) of the American founders’ vision, this time with even more safeguards against destruction by know-nothings and demagogues—if you’re in for that, I don’t think you’re crazy. I’m wondering where to sign up.

Finally, if you’re one of the people who constantly emails me wrong P=NP proofs or local hidden-variable explanations of quantum mechanics … sorry, I still think you’re crazy. That stuff hasn’t been affected.

Happy Passover and Easter!

### 196 Responses to “When events make craziness sane”

1. D. L. Yonge-Mallo Says:

I’m shocked at the number of people who *haven’t* been radicalised and still think things will somehow return to “normal”. Like… how?

p.s. You still think D-Wave devices fail to achieve any significant quantum speedups, right? Because if you’ve changed your mind about that, then, well, anything goes and I don’t know what’s going on any more.

2. Scott Says:

D. L. Yonge-Mallo #1:

You still think D-Wave devices fail to achieve any significant quantum speedups, right?

I’d say that if they do, we haven’t seen any convincing evidence for it—but that shouldn’t be controversial, as even D-Wave itself hasn’t been claiming quantum supremacy for years.

(As illogical as it might seem to your mind or to mine, D-Wave’s current position seems to be that they can usefully solve their customers’ application problems despite not having quantum supremacy. As evidenced, e.g., by their recent announcement that they’re going to make their devices freely available for covid19 research, which I’d consider a reckless distraction if I didn’t expect that anyone on the critical path with covid will simply ignore it.)

3. marxbro Says:

“If the pandemic has radicalized you, I won’t think that makes you crazy. It’s radicalized me, noticeably shifted my worldview.”

The covid crisis didn’t make me a Marxist, but Marxist analysis has certainly helped me understand the situation. I think now’s a good time for me to re-read the classics of Marxist economics and probably revisit some history stuff too.

https://mronline.org/2020/04/04/why-coronavirus-could-spark-a-capitalist-supernova/

I’m not sure why you think Bill Gates will help things? He seems to have the same underlying neoliberal (or to put it more bluntly, capitalist) ideology as the rest of the American elite.

4. Scott Says:

marxbro #3: I’m only, like, 75% confident that you aren’t a Marx bot. You’re a promising successor to John Sidles, who spammed this comment section for Shtetl-Optimized’s first decade, always circling back to his pet causes regardless of the subject of my post, and who I also often suspected of being a bot.

It might be hard for someone steeped in a particular ideology to understand the extent to which this crisis transcends ideology. The problem is not that our leaders have the wrong ideology (de Blasio is an ideological near-opposite of Trump, yet was nearly as terrible when the chips were down). Rather, it’s that (especially at the federal level) there are hardly any competent leaders at all, or at least not anywhere with actual power.

5. Alyssa Vance Says:

The US government (and the CCP – don’t forget them) royally fucked up, but there is a *lot* of progress being made elsewhere. Some overviews I’ve seen:

Tests being developed (this list is incomplete, the FDA says there are 270 projects that they know about): https://www.360dx.com/coronavirus-test-tracker-launched-covid-19-tests

Vaccines and therapies being developed: https://www.biocentury.com/article/304515

Clinical trials, 736 in the current database: https://www.transparimed.org/single-post/2020/03/27/COVID-19-clinical-trials-information-sources

PPE projects (masks, face shields, etc.): https://srconstantin.github.io/2020/04/03/Comprehensive-PPE-Project-List.html

The FDA’s “Press Announcements” page is now basically a list of regulations that were repealed after people yelled at them: https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-newsroom/press-announcements

6. vzn Says:

hi SA! some thoughts for a pro-science web site. it appears to me that immunity is spreading exponentially nearly as fast as the virus but almost nobody is attempting to measure/ quantify it. at least one govenor of NY is talking about antibody testing. it seems the world and government and experts are ignorant of basic statistics and biological principles. immunity can be roughly be defined as people who have been exposed and their immune systems fought off the virus with any degree of symptoms ranging from none to severe.

the issue is that many immune systems seem to be responding with almost no symptoms. the virus is very tricky that way, but probably that is the basic model of all viral spread. the media is talking about a concept of “herd immunity” but not discussing how it actually works. herd immunity can only be defined in the sense that individuals are exposed and their immune systems learn to recognize/ fight off the virus. in other words the probable scenario is that virtually the entire populace will be exposed to the virus ie come in direct contact with it before a vaccine is discovered (given the long timeline for vaccines/ treatments that you outline).

a metaphor for the immune system is that its actually a biological AI/ computational system designed to recognize “self vs (hostile) invader aka nonself”. the problem we are seeing is that each individuals systems have some (substantial) variability in their response. the “computational pathway” taken by each individuals immune system to fight off infection varies substantially. the immune system basically generates antibodies probably somewhat orderly vs randomly until some match. its something like a built in random # generator except for molecule configurations.

hopefully science will start to figure out why there is so much variability in immune system response across individuals for this virus, and especially why in some cases the symptoms are mild to nonexistent. it seems to be an outlier in that regard.

would like to see some more analysis of the way the immune system creates antibodies, think the study of antibodies created by different individuals in response to the virus will be a big element of understanding the mass variability in immune system response to the virus.

7. Vasily Artyukhov Says:

What do you think of Robin Hanson’s variolation+isolation policy proposal? (Sorry if I missed your discussion of it elsewhere.)

http://www.overcomingbias.com/2020/03/variolation-may-cut-covid19-deaths-3-30x.html

Right now it seems to be somewhat outside the Overton window as far as what policymakers can even mention publicly goes. But by the same token how voting in presidential elections is rational, it appears that signal-boosting a policy proposal that has a reasonable expectation of saving let’s say a million lives to increase the probability of its adoption by even 1/100,000 is still worth 10 lives in expectation.

8. marxbro Says:

“It might be hard for someone steeped in a particular ideology to understand the extent to which this crisis transcends ideology.”

A political crisis can never transcend ideology – for example you’re suggesting putting a capitalist billionaire in charge of things. You would only do this if you were a capitalist ideologue.

You may think that old-fashioned Marxism is something of a “pet cause” but if we’re talking politics, if we’re talking resource allocation, then Marxism is going to be relevant. I’d prefer to continue talking about it rather than have someone try to shame me into silence by accusing me of being a bot.

9. Alyssa Vance Says:

FWIW, it was seven years between the first effective polio vaccine being manufactured (1948) and mass vaccination starting (1955):

https://www.nytimes.com./2013/04/21/us/hilary-koprowski-developed-live-virus-polio-vaccine-dies-at-96.html

10. Eric Says:

I would rather work from home for 18 months than take my chances with a probably-good-enough vaccine. Still, I’m sure there are many people more at risk than me who would like to be added to an early trial. Maybe the vaccine trials should be opened to anyone who wants them, after the animal tests are successful. Is that what you were thinking?

11. Lyle Cantor Says:

This brings to mind Wolf Tivy’s recent essay on the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven: http://wolftivy.com/mandateofheaven/

Before covid, I remember a quant making an off-hand comment about an upcoming bull market in politics. I was not sure what he meant at the time, but it sounded unpleasant. I suspect I will be unfortunate enough to live through such a thing.

12. Scott Says:

marxbro (and others): I think there are thousands or even millions of Americans, besides Gates, who could do a great job as Temporary Coronavirus Sovereign. But Gates seems like the obvious Schelling point for a combination of reasons:

(1) He’s already the closest we have to that—e.g., he helped break the logjam on testing in the US, and is now funding the construction of 7 vaccine factories in advance of a vaccine being chosen. Though both of these crucial steps would be no-brainers in a sane world, it looks like both would’ve happened much later otherwise.

(2) He’s presciently warned about this crisis for years—not as a footnote, but as one of his major activities.

(3) He’s known to every American, and admired by a good fraction of them.

(4) There’s not a question about his managerial competence or ability to assimilate information.

(5) He’s stayed about as aloof from the red vs. blue tribe culture wars as is possible for any public figure—which, regardless of what else one thinks of it, is handy for a crisis manager.

(6) He’s spent the past twenty years giving his fortune away, mostly for public health (and mostly extremely effectively), which serves as a hard-to-fake signal that his motives would be the right ones.

Note that in principle, all six of these reasons could be endorsed even by someone with a negative opinion of Microsoft’s products, the role Microsoft has played in the computer industry, or capitalism itself.

13. vzn Says:

ps just ran across this & want to share with your frequently erudite audience, think Bennet+Liebsohn are a breath of fresh air/ balanced pov/ rational science based in this recent essay which influenced my comments & serves as nice ref (normally “rational science” would be redundant/ pleonasm but these are bizarre times indeed)

14. Doug S. Says:

marxbro: Well, it worked before; a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in mining was directly responsible for the extremely successful famine relief efforts during and after World War 1 – assuming near-dictatorial powers in the process – and saved tens of millions of lives. Unfortunately Herbert Hoover turned out to be a far better administrator than a politician, and he’s now best known for being President at the beginning of the Great Depression and failing to take drastic enough measures to fight it.

15. LGS Says:

Vasily Artyukhov #7:

I have yet to hear any explanation of why variolation might be better than vaccination. If your claim is that we can already do variolation now… well, we already have several vaccine candidates! You could test them on humans this very moment if you wanted (you’d probably be arrested, but there’s nothing scientifically blocking humanity from performing such tests).

The candidate vaccines are (1) probably safer than variolation, (2) will teach us more about how to arrive at a true vaccine than variolation will, (3) will be easier to get volunteers for than variolation, and (4) are being developed by actual experts.

In the tradeoff between “quickly deployable” vs. “definitely safe/effective”, I don’t think variolation is on the efficient frontier. It’s likely to be BOTH slower to deploy at scale AND less safe and less effective (on expectation) than several vaccine candidates, some of which were proposed back in January, and at least two of which are promising enough on animal models that small human trials have already been approved.

If you could publicize just one idea for combatting the coronavirus, it should be human challenge studies for testing vaccines:

https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/42639016

16. marxbro Says:

Ok Scott, you’re basically generating political nonsense. Bill Gates is not going to be Temporary Overlord of the USA. He’s going to continue being an overly influential billionaire capitalist. That’s all. This is a good time to learn about politics in the real world, and politics in the real world is a sloppy mess.

17. Pascal Says:

The example of China shows that strict confinement, testing, etc… does work in a few months only. But they did it in one province; it may be hard or impossible to implement such stringent rules on the whole planet.

18. anonymous Says:

Amen!

19. Daniel Armak Says:

So what does Marxism recommend in the short-term of this crisis? Dismantling existing institutions during a pandemic (and thereby causing extra infighting), except for the few that are actively fighting you, is *probably* suboptimal. Holding safe and fair elections is infeasible.

Scott’s suggestion of “appoint[int] [a] temporary sovereign for as long as this crisis lasts, and thereafter hold[ing] a new Constitutional Convention” sounds quite Leninist to me – just substitute Marxism for “democracy 2.0” at the convention!

20. BLANDCorporatio Says:

irt. LGS (#15):

Indeed.

To paraphrase someone we might know,

“I’d consider [variolation] a reckless distraction if I didn’t expect that anyone on the critical path with covid will simply ignore it.” 😉

Cheers.

21. BLANDCorporatio Says:

irt. vzn (#13):

That article is sooo asking for Taleb’s brand of polite twitter criticism.

Comparing COVID death tolls with heart attacks or traffic accidents is stupid. Neither heart attacks nor car accidents are contagious; preventing a particular heart attack or car accident has no reason to also prevent another. And prevention measures against accidents in general would be different from prevention measures against viral spread.

If this is what passes for “rational science”, “rational science” needs to die.

Cheers.

22. A set theorist Says:

If you’re a mathematician and you no longer feel like working on the problems that you used to love so much (because the world as we know it has ceased to exist, because that only god knows how the TT job market will look like next fall and because what’s the point?), does it make you crazy?

I’m asking seriously, I’d really like to know how many people in our research community are currently going through a similar dysfunctional nihilistic state of mind.

23. Sniffnoy Says:

Man, a constitutional convention sounds like it could easily make things worse. Remember: We’re living in the country that elected Donald Trump as president.

Like, the constitution has a number of problems; what’s more, some of those problems require changing a number of things to fix. And ideally one might, say, throw the whole thing out and try futarchy or something! But, an actual constitutional convention would be shaped by the people of this country, and that does not sound like a good result.

You know how they talk about countries in, say, the Middle East, not being ready for democracy? By which is meant, not ready for liberal democracy; democracy is instituted and they immediately vote themselves into an oppressive dicatorship — an illiberal democracy, as they say. Well. The US wasn’t ready for democracy either.

Now obviously things have been way better here — we avoided that particular fate (at least, in our first 250-odd years). But it sure seems like there is a big difference between the constitution that the founders wrote — one describing a liberal democracy — and what a substantial fraction of the populace actually wants, which is, well, an illiberal democracy (or worse). And this isn’t new; it seems to have always been that way. The constitution turned out comparatively well largely because of the ways in which the founders weren’t representative of the populace. (Remember the uproar around the “no religious test” clause.)

Liberalism (in the classical sense) is obviously much more entrenched in America than in, say, the Arab world, but around some issues this layer of liberalism is quite shallow, with people using its language to support things that are clearly illiberal. (The Republican party claims to be the party of individualism. Ha freaking ha.) And it’s not just the Republicans; there’s a lot of authoritarianism that is consistently supported by both parties, and a lot of it seems to be due to popular demand for such. The politicians are authoritarian because the people are.

Even ignoring this problem that’s always been present, you’ve got the whole two-party thing. Now, this could probably have been avoided from the start had the constitution outlawed the use of vote-splitting voting systems — and I don’t think it’s true that this wouldn’t have been possible at the time, like Condorcet was already writing then for instance — but at this point it’s here and I’m not even sure switching to a better voting system will fix it at this point. The idea, I mean, is that, who would put their vote primarily towards party as incoherent and mashed-together as the Democrats or Republicans (which, they are) when there’s a multitude of competitive choices, and it is no longer strategically incorrect to focus on the ones that actually match what you want, instead of being a horrible mishmosh — like, right?

But with like Fox News and all, it sure seems to me like there’s a lot of people who actually want the Republican party — not grudgingly, as “well at least they’re not the Democrats, wish I could vote for a coherent party though”, but actively. And well… of course that’s the case, because, as they say, Republicans fall in line. (Once again: And they claim to be the party of individualism. What a sick joke.) They really know how to appeal to tribalism, huh? :-/ Which, as I’ve said, there’s a lot of, underneath that often-thin layer of liberal individualism.

And then you’ve got all the revisionism about how the country and its founding documents are based on Christian values (or “Judeo-Christian values”), rather than secular Enlightenment ones…

…yeah. Letting the people, or the current politicians, of this country, rewrite the constitution as they please, sounds like it could easily make things a whole lot worse.

(And of course all politicians regardless of party are going to try to fit their personal hobbyhorses in there. While I imagine the Democrats taking over the process would hardly go as bad, one does have to potentially worry what new “rights” they might attempt to put in there…)

So what is the way to fix things? Man, I wish I had any idea…

(Although, as regards the vote-splitting problem, the old range-voting.org strategy of, first convince the parties to use a better system for their own primaries, sounds like a good one; and the electoral college may eventually fall to the NPVIC. But for a change, like, say, abolishing the Senate — yeah, I don’t see that happening. Especially as that’s basically the one amendment the constitution says you can’t make, so you need two ammendments to do it…)

24. Rahul Says:

Scott:

“(3) the virus spreads to the point where it definitely kills some people you know,”

Virus or no virus, in 18 months some people I know are definately going to be killed.

Given the CFR and the overlap with other cause mortality, how many more people we know will die due to covid as opposed to without.

I think that number would be good to give us all perspective.

25. gentzen Says:

Scott #12: Given that this is a global pandemic, and that Bill Gates had that global perspective when he warned before the next pandemic, it may be a good idea to appoint him to a “Global Temporary Coronavirus Sovereign”. Not sure which sort of power such a “global” sovereign would have. But for the national coronavirus sovereign with more “well defined actual power”, it might make more sense to appoint someone who has shown more explicit concern for the “own people”.

Now you could question whether for Europe, this really means that each European country should look for their own people, or whether there should better be an additional European coronavirus sovereign. But my expectation is that it probably would not work, so the best thing to do is probably that each European country takes its own decisions, and just tries to coordinate with its neighbors using the existing means for such a coordination.

26. Maksim Says:

I believe it isn’t pandemic which radicalized people, but TV and blogs. Dr. Ioannidis who was famous for his criticizm of bad science in medicine says that at present we have almost no data to make rational decisions on covid-19.

27. cmd Says:

> it appears to me that immunity is spreading exponentially nearly as fast as the virus but almost nobody is attempting to measure/ quantify it

Several European countries have been hopefully considering “immunity passports” to allow people to return to work or some semblance of normality. The first problem is lack of a test, the UK actually ordered 17.5 million antibody test kits, only to discover they didn’t work. Another issue is no-one has any idea about how long acquired immunity lasts for. Acquired immunity for the original SARS, for example, lasted less than a year on average.

28. Oleg Eterevsky Says:

One more alternative is having an extremely thorough testing program, like testing all the population every two weeks and isolating just the infected individuals. This seems a more feasible solution than making a vaccine in two months, since we already have working tests, and the only problem is scaling their production.

29. lylebot Says:

“I’m shocked at the number of people who *haven’t* been radicalised and still think things will somehow return to “normal”. Like… how?”

Speaking for myself, I mostly agree with Scott’s post, but my skepticism (pessimism?) about this is that there have been worldwide pandemics with high death tolls *in the lifetimes of people making decisions now*, but no one seems to even remember them.

A 1957-58 epidemic killed an estimated 1-2 million deaths worldwide and caused worldwide recession. My dad then was the same age then as my daughter is now. I keep thinking: will she remember this? When she’s 70, will the world be any different because of this?

Regarding Bill Gates. Sorry, I’m skeptical about him too. My skepticism is based on a long history of rich people saying one thing and then doing another. I’m genuinely surprised so many people are so credulous to be honest.

30. anon Says:

Call me an optimist, but I still think there’s option 4: we lockdown long enough until the statistic probability of this virus returning becomes low enough.
I still think that if we lockdown long enough, and guard the borders properly, this virus can be eliminated locally. But everywhere there’s open travel, the measures must be coordinated, or outbreaks will happen again. I don’t see international travel returning before a vaccine is mass deployed.

However I have zero confidence in the ability of any political figure around the world to understand what it takes, and have the patience to wait until it is really 0 new cases. I also have zero confidence that dumb people will stay vigilant for two weeks when there are 0 new cases.

Some people are eager to reopen because they never believed in lockdown anyway, and these same people also say it will always return no matter what we do. It’s like they are too stupid to realize that if the number of infected goes to 0, the virus dies.

31. Pierre-Yves Gaillard Says:

You write “in my book you’re not crazy”. Don’t you mean “in my look”?

32. Oli Says:

Hi Scott,

This post echoes a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having over the last couple of weeks.

I’m deeply concerned about the fallout from this specific catastrophe, and what it shows about our society’s ability to quickly mobilise to resolve other threats.

Regards,

Oli

33. fxrh Says:

What about people sending you P\neq NP proofs per email?

34. A.G.McDowell Says:

The virus will almost certainly kill somebody I know – I know people of 90 and over, with pre-existing conditions. I suspect that many people do. It is entirely possible that it will kill our Prime Minister, although I very much hope that it does not. The precedent of the Spanish Flu shows that this level of death need not mean the end of civilisation. Meanwhile there is much still in play – we do not yet have information on how many people already have immunity due to asymptomatic or mild infection and recovery. Though bad, the Imperial models did not lead to signs of desperation such as a search for “end run” solutions. I don’t believe the call in https://www.royal.uk/queens-broadcast-uk-and-commonwealth for “self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling” is simply self-deception: I think these are probably the right approaches for most people to take.

(If anybody wants a wild idea I suggested that variolation be combined with anti-viral drugs, since a recent mathematical model suggested that the potency of anti-virals is limited by the delay in noticing the infection and starting treatment, but if you provide the virus as well as the treatment you can control the timing – however it appears that nobody is yet desperate enough to take this seriously).

35. Scott Says:

BLANDCorporatio #20: I now think the right argument against variolation is not that it’s crazy or a total waste of time to talk about (it isn’t). The right argument is simply that, if we were going to do it, then testing some of the existing vaccine candidates would be strictly better.

36. Jelmer Renema Says:

@Scott #4:

With all respect, don’t you think it is a bit of a strong statement to say that others are ‘steeped in ideology’ while in the same breadth literally proposing turning the US into a temporary dictatorship?

This crisis does not transcend ideology because nothing in public life does. Politics is the business of making decisions between incommensurate quantities. In this case those quantities are number of deaths, economic growth, individual liberty, privacy, and so on. In order to claim optimality on what is a multidimensional constrained optimization problem, you have to add weights to make these things comparable, i.e. put in some ‘exchange rates’ (ghoulish as that might sound) between, say, deaths and economic growth. These can only come from outside the system, i.e. from a more abstract worldview.

The common assumption in all analysis of public policy is that we are on the Pareto-optimal surface, i.e. that improving one aspect (e.g. reducing deaths) must always decrease some other (e.g. decreasing economic growth). Note that while some quantities are somewhat measurable, usually these problems involve very abstract quantities as well (what is the unit of freedom?). Therefore, and because we assume rationality for all actors, if an actor makes a decision that seems not optimal to us, we interpret their actions as evidence for a different set of priorities than ours, rather than irrationality (this is like the notion of revealed preference in economics).

And I 100% agree with you that the Trump administration has revealed some pretty idiotic priorities, preferring to strengthen the notion of strongman rule over minimizing deaths. But I’m sure some commenter will eventually grace this thread to argue that the benefits of further Trump rule are so great that a few ten thousand deaths are worth it. And that would be a position consistent with Trump’s actions (although one that I find repugnant).

Note – and this is really important – that none of this depends on whether any one given ideology is correct or not, including yours or Marxbro’s. It is simply part of the struggle for self-actualization to think about these things.

As for de Blasio: the median voter theorem, the Overton window, and the narcissism of small differences fully account for that.

And as for Gates: I think it is really symptomatic of how much we are all looking for heroes at this point that he pledges 100M (which on his net worth of 100B is nothing), and then writes an op ed in which he calls on the federal government (!!) to build manufacturing capacity ahead of time at a cost of billions, and that this gets reported as if he is paying for all of it.

37. Corbin Says:

Regardless of your feelings on the (neo-)Marxist critique, your endorsement of Gates reminds me of the petition to install Eric Schmidt as CEO of America [0]. A temporary dictator is not the solution. We already have an elected temporary dictator, and he’s doing a terrible job; installing somebody like Gates or Schmidt would almost certainly be worse, as they would have a mandate and be unaccountable.

As somebody who thinks that Gates has done lots of good in the world with his fortune, I think that Gates was wrong to have ever built up such a fortune, and that he did it as part of a Microsoft executive strategy which deliberately abused a monopolistic market position. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The solution is not to give power to certain people. The solution is to realize that power should be divided up differently. The solution is certainly not to give political power to monopolists.

38. Vasily Artyukhov Says:

LGS #15:

Let me try to recite what I think Hanson’s reasoning is about that, based on skimming the comments on his blog.

Presumably if we take variolation seriously we would first want to run a trial for it (if only to determine a safe exposure dose). There aren’t any fundamental reasons not to run challenge trials for vaccine candidates in parallel if we have the resources for multiple concurrent trials. If we can only choose one, however, a variolation trial is much more likely to work than any given vaccine candidate, and should thus be prioritized.

(From myself, if faced with a choice of which study to participate in, I’d maybe prefer taking a small dose of the virus to that same small dose plus something extra that has a small chance of stopping the virus, but also a comparable chance of causing a serious complication. Of course if one of the vaccine trials suddenly shows promise and safety, do sign me up for vaccination!)

39. Scott Says:

Daniel Armak #19 and Sniffnoy #23: I agree that, as we were dramatically reminded a few years ago, half of America, or nearly half, does not want a liberal democracy. So it really matters to my fantasy that Gates would be the temporary sovereign, and (as sovereign) able to set the terms of the new Constitutional Convention to happen afterwards. Or rather: I think there are thousands or millions of others who’d also be fine (or even better), but the average American would not be fine. And among the ones who’d be fine, Gates seems like a clear Schelling point of maximum mainstream acceptability.

It’s just like how, as Sniffnoy pointed out, it really mattered that the people who wrote the US Constitution were not representative of the population, but rather (by one of the luckiest freak accidents of human history) included some of the most enlightened rationalists to be found in the 18th century.

40. Jay L Gischer Says:

I’m reminded of a quote by Gustave Flaubert, which a co-worker (working on RISC processor design in the 90’s) had taped to his cube:

“Be regular and orderly in your life, that your work maybe violent and original”

Many of us have lost that “regular and orderly” in our lives, and the work is suffering in consequence.

This is a highly disruptive situation. Our lives are disrupted, and some of the disruptions will stick after the virus is gone.

The situation is serious, for sure. Here are some things that might happen:

We might have a lot of C-19 out there in the wild that isn’t actually killing people or sending them to hospitals, and that means we are gaining immunity much faster.

For instance, I, along with a couple of friends I have contact with, had the oddest (and worst!) cold of my life in February. I live in Santa Clara County of CA, which is the hardest hit county in CA. I think it’s the hardest hit because it got here first. I think that’s because there is lots of travel between here and China. Did I have C-19 and, despite my being over 60, I just have a super annoying time. I was sick, no question about it. I spent a couple of nights sleeping sitting up on my couch. Then I was through the worst.

Maybe that’s what happened, maybe not. But there are a lot of unknowns here, some will break in our favor.

We can get ahead of the virus by getting enough testing going that we can isolate all the cases, and trace (and then test!) all their contacts. We aren’t there yet, but that’s something we can do, that will help a lot.

41. John Figueroa Says:

[Hi Scott, I accidentally submitted by comment in an incomplete form; could you do me a favor and delete it from the mod queue, and instead approve this one? Thanks!]

____________________

This worried me a tad. You’re not thinking of becoming some kind of dark-sider, right Scott?

I guess I’d say three things:

* South Korea, which has a form of government *very* similar to ours is doing a fantastic job at fighting this virus [https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-cases-covid-19?country=KOR]. City-states aside and China aside, I’d be willing to bet all of the countries with forms of government radically different from ours are going to do substantially worse—and maybe China too; I really don’t know what’s going on over there.

* I have to say that “appoint[ing] Bill Gates as temporary sovereign for as long as this crisis lasts, and thereafter hold a new Constitutional Convention to design a stronger democracy” sounds like a really terrible idea, and I don’t think you’re being adequately pessimistic if you think it has a good shot of not being much worse than the status quo. (Remember, it’s been *conservative* groups who have been desperately trying to activate the second bit of Article V ever since a black man became president. Give them a scenario where they *don’t* need to convince 3/4 of the states of their amendments, where all they need to do to dictate the rules of the process is convince or replace one person…)

* I think there’s still hope for November. After all, unlike with the Wisconsin Democratic primary, the people who will be disenfranchised the most will be their key voting demographic, right? So maybe they’ll be more amendable to vote-by-mail then. Another reason we might be okay is that not every Republican justice is a complete stooge. Roberts, in particular, saved Obamacare, and based on what he’s said and written he views the legitimacy of the Supreme Court in the public eye above all else (he’s been pretty reluctant to give either Thomas or Kavanaugh the privilege to write politically important majority opinions).

And in the Wisconsin case, I think the SC might have been right on the letter of the law (though obviously this is one of those times where you find whatever loophole you can, and if you honestly can’t, you side against the law and then resign)—the state legislatures have official power over elections, not the state governor. And certainly not the federal government—if Trump tried to ban blue state legislatures from expanding vote-by-mail, I’m 90% confident that Roberts will side against Trump. Of course, red legislatures might not be inclined to expand vote-by-mail, but again, unlike in the primary, the main people affected will be their key constituency. (Though if Congress decides to try and expand vote-by-mail when red legislatures won’t, I expect him to side with Trump.) And if all that proves wrong or irrelevant, I’ll get my hands on a mask and drive to D.C. to protest—not that I expect that that’ll do much good, but I won’t know what else to do.

42. Scott Says:

Maksim #26:

Dr. Ioannidis who was famous for his criticizm of bad science in medicine says that at present we have almost no data to make rational decisions on covid-19.

Even if that’s true, it’s not useful, because we obviously have to make decisions (and we do have some idea of what doing nothing would lead to: namely, millions of deaths, as well as widespread lung damage in the survivors).

43. Shmi Says:

Scott, I agree with you that any proven competent leader would be better as president than what the US has now, or is likely to have in November, no matter who is elected (or, for that matter, has had since probably Nixon or Clinton), be it Bill Gates, Paul Graham, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffet or George Soros, or someone else with passion for “doing well by dong good”. Sadly, if any of the competent people were to run as independent, the SJW/cancel culture/militant left/you name it, would team up with the conservative right to smear and bury them, to fight any potential upswell of popular support for an “entitled white male tech bro billionaire”.

44. embraceambiguity Says:

so you wrote a post that basically articulated why covid-19 caught you flatfooted and it felt like i had written it, just because it was so much like how my thinking went over the same period
and now you’ve written a post that basically ends up where i’m at now, which i guess isn’t surprising given the former but still

45. Jon Tyson Says:

Hey Scott,

There was some talk on “This week in virology” podcast episode 598 a few days ago about using drugs keep patients off of ventilators by using standared drugs to manage cytokine storm (aka sometimes fatal immune system temper tantrum) and keep people off of ventilators. So anyway, there may be some clinical progress during the delay.

Speaking naively, it seems to me that there is another way out of this besides a vaccine. Rapid, cheap, and widely available preferably home-adminstered diagnostic tests that could be adminstered every 3 days to everyone could potentially shut this thing down. I saw in the Harvard newspaper that the folks at the Broad & their Sherlock Bio spinout that they’re developing a cheap (possibly \$10ish) test strip that could detect corona, but it appears to be only a research test for the time being: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/3/23/broad-institute-coronavirus-diagnostic/ https://sherlock.bio/

46. Jelmer Renema Says:

@Shmi 43: you are aware, presumably, that the neoreactionary movement was born from tech culture? You can be sure the left would campaign against such a ticket, not out of any short-sighted dislike of technology, but because it believes (rightly I think) that there is too much overlap between the ideas of the reactionary right and of techno-liberalism.

I must say, incidentally, that our gracious host has done little to disabuse me of that notion in the last few days, by first stumbling on a healthcare version of Atlas Shrugged and then reinventing the ‘CEO of America’ proposal.

47. lewikee Says:

When Trump managed to turn any valid criticism as a dirty partisan attack in the eyes of those in the center, it was over. He was already doing that for his base from the beginning. But he really won the ballgame when he made the center have that perception. This actually happened a few years ago. He can now do and say what he wishes and he is immune from criticism.

His plan was to do so many bad things that the complaints would be numerous and loud enough that those who don’t really care would get tired of the complaints. It worked.

So now what do you do? I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that complaining and correctly pointing out everything he has done wrong will not work. Paradoxically it will hurt. Because your audience is one of these three types of people:

1) People who nod along and agree with you. (me, by the way). Hearing your words may assuage their frustration, but it won’t make them do more than they’re already doing.
2) People who love Trump no matter what and view your words as anti-Trump propaganda. They must counter your propaganda even more!
3) People who don’t care, but are getting quite tired of hearing so much complaining.

No progress will be made with any of these individuals. So what do you do? I don’t know. This is grim. But it won’t be pointing out what Trump has done wrong. Trump already won that dynamic.

48. James Protheroe Says:

Does the course the pandemic has taken in Taiwan [1] and South Korea [2] give you any solace? The evidence seems to suggest that relative normality has been maintained or restored there (compare e.g. Google’s monitoring of changes in activity in the US [3] and Italy [4] to Taiwan [5] and South Korea [6]).

Do you think that the containment strategies in those countries will fail at some point, or that the response to the virus there can’t or won’t be replicated effectively in the US?

It seems to me that the three possible outcomes you list in the post give a good overview of the current situation, but I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

I expect the attempts around the world to limit social interaction will continue for now, but will become less restrictive and more localised over time. This is already happening in some places in Asia (e.g. China and South Korea) and is imminent in Europe (e.g. Denmark and Austria). We will have to wait to see what the effects are, and progress will probably be bumpy, but South Korea’s experience suggests it can be made to work.

In the meantime, better treatment regimes are likely to be developed. Convalescent blood plasma transfusion and its equivalents, and perhaps remdesivir, may be promising therapies, and others are likely to follow. If it gets to the point that the severe form of the disease that some people suffer from becomes readily treatable and rarely causes fatalities, allowing herd immunity to develop will become more practicable.

In the absence of a vaccine, existing medications will probably be repurposed for any prophylactic effects they have. The old and widely-used Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine is currently being studied for this in large trials in Australia and the Netherlands.

49. Vasily Artyukhov Says:

Scott #35: > testing some of the existing vaccine candidates would be strictly better

…better on the assumption of similar chances of working (and to the next order, of not causing its own side effects worse than a carefully controlled small dose of the virus) – but the chances of working for any given vaccine candidate are low, and for variolation they look pretty high. So in a resource-constrained world where we can only run N trials, wouldn’t it make sense to try variolation and the most promising set of N-1 vaccine candidates?

50. Allen Sheep Says:

Honestly, your position does seem crazy to me. China got this under control with maybe 1 month of lockdown plus extended reasonable restrictions: temperature scanning, mask wearing, and contact tracing. South Korea and Taiwan seem to have it under control just with mask wearing and contact tracing.

Singapore and Japan are less under control, but will probably get things under control with just a few extra precautions.

In my opinion, you don’t need to accept anything crazy – you just need to accept a society which balances liberal/neoliberal values with a desire for competency and willingness to accept some amount of central authority. This is a compromise that essentially all of east asia already has and it explains why they’ve been able to handle this crisis almost fully successfully.

51. Nick Says:

Meanwhile, over on a parallel blog, some know-nothing fascist is calling for a constitutional convention to ban shelter-in-place orders…

By the way, I already know somebody who got the vid and died! Not somebody close, sort of a distant in-law. She was an old black woman, the kind of person who thought that being bathed in the blood of Christ would save her.

52. Michael Says:

Scott, calm down. The good news is that the coronavirus will be less bad than expected:
https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/us-coronavirus-death-projection-lowered-but-official-warns-of-second-wave/ar-BB12ktBL
The peak should hit Sunday and “only” 60,000 people will die. Then we just have to wait until the numbers decline and we can keep the coronavirus in check through testing and surveillance until a vaccine is ready.

53. Nate Says:

I think the second bullet point of your trichotomy is a bit overblown:

-we continue in quasi-lockdown mode for the rest of our lives

I think it’s more that we stay in quasi-lockdown that eventually converges to an intensity of lockdown wherein the processing rate of our medical system for covid patients is still large enough relative to the lockdown’s infection rate to not materially impact the local fatality rate, and the length of time is (uninfected-population) / (infection-rate-at-this-degree-of-lockdown) rather than “rest of our lives”.

In other words, we’re gonna let it chaw through people, but not so fast that fatality_rate ~= needs_intensive_care_rate.

But yes, I’m still radicalized nonetheless.

54. LGS Says:

Vasily Artyukhov #38:

I think this is just pretending that variolation is safer because you understand it better. But many types of vaccination are exactly like variolation, except that instead of getting a small viral dose, you get a dead viral dose. There isn’t any scary “something extra” that may cause a serious complication. I mean, serious complications are certainly a possibility, but they are a possibility with variolation too! You see, the main risk from vaccination is antibody-dependent enhancement, which happens when a small amount of immune response is worse than none. I’m no expert, but it sounds to me like variolation also carries this risk!

And I’m also not sure why you and Hanson are so sure variolation will work. The evidence for it comes from (1) smallpox, clearly a special case as they used variolation from patients with mild forms of the disease (many variants of smallpox existed with different fatality rates), and (2) rat studies, where the rats are given giant mega-doses of some diseases and then die more than regular doses. Where is the optimism coming from that small doses will be significantly better for coronavirus? I feel like y’all are just BSing this. It’s *conceivable* that it will work, but vaccine candidates have a MUCH better chance. Remember that for vaccines, “success” is only declared when it’s perfectly safe and effective; if we’d declare victory at only 0.1% fatality rate from the vaccine, then I’d guess 90% success rate for the current vaccine candidates.

And again, vaccines are not all scary and mysterious: some are like variolation except you kill all the virus instead of most of it.

Finally, are we trying to be cute and show off our rationality, or are we trying to make a difference in the world? Variolation for COVID-19 will never happen for political reasons, and you know it. Vaccination tests with human challenge studies *might* happen if we push for it.

55. gentzen Says:

lewikee #47: Even so I have very little insight into US politics or even daily life in the US, I would like to comment on your “So what do you do? I don’t know. This is grim.”:
Blaming others for all the bad things they have done and still do is not that great anyway. It is more effective to highlight the good things you have done and still do. I was initially disappointed that Obama didn’t blame the Bush administration for all the bad things they have done (like Guantanamo). But later I understood that he was right: focus on the things you want to do, fix (or finish) the things your predecessors have done if it is important, but don’t waste your energy blaming them. You object that your enemies will not appreciate all the good things that you do and have done? Perhaps, but do you really need to care? You could try to convince all the people who benefitted from all the good things you have done to strongly support you, so that you are not dependent on the support from your enemies.
I admit that the election system might be a bit unfair to you, so that your enemies have more than their fair share of infuence. But I would not blame Trump for that.

Wait, I guess that was more or less the point you tried to make when you wrote “But it won’t be pointing out what Trump has done wrong. Trump already won that dynamic.” Or maybe not, because my point is that this is independent of Trump: blaming other people might feel right, but it does not really help.

I am a newcomer to your blog. So please excuse the question. Why did you give this blog the name Shetl optimized? I googled for it and found that it means a small Jewish town. Does it? Thanks.

57. arch1 Says:

“So in a resource-constrained world where we can only run N trials, wouldn’t it make sense to try variolation and the most promising set of N-1 vaccine candidates?”

Vasily #49:
This makes sense to me. As a refinement I would suggest that “most promising” for the vaccine candidates consider cross-correlation of success likelihoods in addition to all of the usual things. All else equal, a candidate whose success likelihood is *least* correlated with those of other chosen candidates contributes most to the overall success likelihood.

58. Scott Says:

Eric #10:

Maybe the vaccine trials should be opened to anyone who wants them, after the animal tests are successful. Is that what you were thinking?

I think that would be an improvement over the status quo! But what I really want is:

(1) Human challenge trials to start right now. (It will take some months to build manufacturing capacity for vaccines anyway, so we might as well do challenge trials in the meantime!)

(2) Radically expanded right-to-try—for the duration of the crisis, let licensed doctors prescribe their patients anything they choose, completely bypassing the FDA (an agency that, from the very beginning of the crisis, has been worse than useless). At the very least, let state health agencies overrule the FDA to make experimental vaccines and treatments accessible. Exploit this new freedom to collect huge amounts of data about what is and isn’t working.

59. Scott Says:

Rahul #24:

Virus or no virus, in 18 months some people I know are definately going to be killed.

Given the CFR and the overlap with other cause mortality, how many more people we know will die due to covid as opposed to without.

I think that number would be good to give us all perspective.

I don’t know the precise answer (no one does), but do you realize that if we look on a day-to-day basis, just yesterday covid surpassed cancer and heart disease to become the #1 cause of death in the US? (Not even accounting for what might be a serious undercount of covid deaths, like by a factor of 2 or 3.) And of course, while new cases are finally flattening because of the lockdown, deaths are still on an exponential trajectory.

60. Scott Says:

Oleg Eterevsky #28 (and all other commenters who made a similar point):

One more alternative is having an extremely thorough testing program, like testing all the population every two weeks and isolating just the infected individuals. This seems a more feasible solution than making a vaccine in two months, since we already have working tests, and the only problem is scaling their production.

I was counting that as “quasi-lockdown.” It’s not a full lockdown, but as long as there wasn’t widespread immunity, outbreaks would continue happening and partial lockdowns would need to continue to be imposed on a whac-a-mole basis. Life would not have returned to anything we would recognize as “normal.”

Of course, the more universally you can test, the more life could at least approximate normality—that’s why I strongly support a maximally aggressive program to test everyone everywhere all the time, starting three months ago. But

(1) Given how mightily countries less competent than South Korea have had to struggle to scale up testing (with the US the most pathetic of the pack), testing on the requisite scale doesn’t seem obviously easier than just inventing an effective drug or vaccine!

(2) Think of all the Americans who were partying on crowded spring break trips just a week or two ago. That’s the level of conscientiousness and comprehension that we’re up against. Do you really think these people are going to show up to get tested once every two weeks in perpetuity?

61. Scott Says:

Pierre-Yves Gaillard #31:

You write “in my book you’re not crazy”. Don’t you mean “in my look”?

Sorry, “in my book” is an English idiom for “in my opinion.”

62. Scott Says:

fxrh #33:

What about people sending you P\neq NP proofs per email?

Mostly crazy. The sane ones usually start with “I’m sure there’s a wrong step in the following proof, but I’m having trouble finding it, and I’m looking for someone to help me…”

63. ed Says:

Kashyap #56

https://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=476

64. Stella Biderman Says:

The median person knows around 400 people, so 1 in 400 or 250 per 100k (as deaths are often reported) is about when you should expect people to know someone who has died. In my New Jersey county, the number is currently at 28 per 100k. In Italy the number is 30 per 100k. China claims that the Hubei Provence is at 5 per 100k.

65. Scott Says:

Jelmer Renema #36:

And as for Gates: I think it is really symptomatic of how much we are all looking for heroes at this point that he pledges 100M (which on his net worth of 100B is nothing), and then writes an op ed in which he calls on the federal government (!!) to build manufacturing capacity ahead of time at a cost of billions, and that this gets reported as if he is paying for all of it.

Your information is outdated. We’ll have to make sure he follows through, but Gates has now pledged billions to build the vaccine factories himself, since governments inexplicably weren’t doing it.

66. Scott Says:

Corbin #37:

We already have an elected temporary dictator, and he’s doing a terrible job; installing somebody like Gates or Schmidt would almost certainly be worse

Worse than Trump?!? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

67. Scott Says:

John Figueroa #41:

This worried me a tad. You’re not thinking of becoming some kind of dark-sider, right Scott?

What exactly does “becoming a dark-sider” mean, in your mind? Joining an armed uprising? Risking my family’s safety? Peddling conspiracy theories or quack cures? Voting Republican? No, I’m not planning any of that. 🙂

68. Scott Says:

James Protheroe #48 (and others who made similar points): To have any chance at a response like Taiwan’s or South Korea’s, you’d need to

(a) put competent people in charge, and also
(b) go 3 months back in time.

So no, those responses will not be replicated in the US.

Again, though, even the most competent containment and tracing responses only buy more time until a vaccine or a cure can be deployed at scale—which remains the only real solution to the crisis. So even Taiwan and South Korea will face the challenge of using their time wisely.

69. Scott Says:

Michael #52:

The peak should hit Sunday and “only” 60,000 people will die. Then we just have to wait until the numbers decline and we can keep the coronavirus in check through testing and surveillance until a vaccine is ready.

It’s that second part that I’m skeptical about. Until a vaccine or cure gets deployed, I think life doesn’t return to normal and the economy goes into a deeper and deeper depression. (Where “life not returning to normal” could mean either everyone still in partial lockdown, or millions dead.)

70. John Figueroa Says:

Scott #67:

I guess what I’m talking about is “liberal democracy cannot be fixed from the inside; our only option is to blow it up and start over with something new.” There have been a few people in internet spheres adjacent to this one who have implied or stated outright that we should abandon democracy and replace it with a Hong Kong– or Singapore-style technocracy without meaningful pluralism or popular sovereignty. I concede that people are very dumb; I can read this comment section after all. But still, I say the dark side is both unnecessary (like I said, South Korea is doing just as well (although it’s too late to follow in their footsteps for this disaster)) and insufficient (Singapore-style systems will eventually have Trumps in power, but it will be more difficult to remove them than it will be for us).

And maybe my imagination is overactive, but it seems to me that the worst-plausible-case scenario of going down that road is *much worse* than the horrific catastrophe we’re going to live through over the coming months/years.

I don’t think you’ve gone that far—you said the point of appointing King Bill Gates or whatever would be to strengthen democracy. But you also, ya’ know, recommended appointing a King Bill Gates. Adding up to me being a bit worried about this post.
_______
Your recent post “On ‘armchair epidemiology'” hit hard. You put really well emotions that I’ve also been feeling recently. I’m ashamed of the mistakes that led me to not react properly to this—I was two months behind where I should have been when it came to being familiar with the facts, and even then my actual reactions and emotions lagged what I claimed to know for another week or two. There are pieces of my worldview that I’ve had to abandon, and patterns of thought that led me to be confident in those pieces that I need to unlearn.

But to lay all my cards on the table, I think that the most extreme parts of this post—namely, the “appoint Bill Gates sovereign and change the essence of American government in an open-ended process not bounded by Article V”—is making a mistake in the other direction.

71. Scott Says:

John Figueroa #70: On reflection, I suppose what I’m asking for is that one final amendment to the Constitution get ratified by 3/4 of the states: something like, “The rest of this Constitution, having served its purpose nobly for 240 years, is hereby rendered null and void. Gates is now temporary sovereign, except for the following inalterable rule: if there is still community transmission of coronavirus among humans four years from now, then Gates is beheaded and this Constitution is back in force, except that the first new President shall be whoever won the popular vote in the last election before this Amendment was adopted. If, on the other hand, the coronavirus has been stamped out, then Gates shall appoint seventy citizens of his choice to write a new Constitution, which will hereinafter supersede this one, with the following procedure for ratifying it…”

This final Amendment to the Old Constitution would be signed in a ceremony with American flags (the original 13-star kind), portraits of the Founders, and speeches explaining how the New Constitution will be written not to rebel against the Old but rather to fulfill it (this move has been pulled off before).

72. Scott Says:

I am a newcomer to your blog. So please excuse the question. Why did you give this blog the name Shetl optimized? I googled for it and found that it means a small Jewish town. Does it?

Yes. As for why I called it that, there’s no one-sentence answer, but for a longer answer see e.g. my interview with John Horgan.

73. marxbro Says:

What exactly is the mechanism behind Bill Gates taking over here? Does he have an army behind him? Does he even have a political party behind him?

If you have no path to power you’re not really thinking politically.

74. Alyssa Vance Says:

Since the beginning of April, the US has been running more tests than South Korea, both absolutely and per capita:

https://covidtracking.com/data

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_coronavirus_pandemic_in_South_Korea

When the disease is everywhere, testing is less useful, but when numbers come down post-lockdown it will be essential.

75. John Figueroa Says:

Scott #71:

Okay, that sounds better (assuming the execution thing is hyperbole!). I guess I still don’t understand the point of throwing out all of the Constitution, as opposed to just the parts that are bad. If we’re already postulating that 3/4 of the states agree that our system of government needs major reworking, what benefit does throwing King Gates into the mix get you? It seems to me that that makes it worse—I’m kind of allergic to plans that proceed like democracy –> non-democracy –> better democracy. I don’t see why that middle step makes things better, and I’m terrified of what happens when things don’t go according to plan.

Like, it seems to me that an outcome *at least* as good as what you described is Trump & Pence getting impeached, Pelosi becoming president with Bill Gates as Chief of Staff, McConnel getting seduced by the light side, competent policies put in place, and then a round of Constitutional amendments to make this sort of thing less likely in the future (since 2016 I’ve been thinking a lot about what a redesign of American governance could look like). You can’t throw that out on grounds of plausibility, because while it *is* ridiculously implausible, it seems more probable than your scenario. And I honestly think the biggest difference is that my fantasy-world plan seems to run a smaller risk of a greater disaster.

I am afraid of what happens when popular people or groups amass large amounts of mostly-unchecked power in the midst of a severe crisis. I do place stock in the notion that power corrupts (though to be fair if I had to trust someone, Gates would be a hell of a lot better than average). And to borrow my favorite phrase from Other Scott, I think a good “Schelling fence on a slippery slope” here is *not suspending liberalism & democracy, even temporarily*.

(Though it’s not like this discussion matters a ton. Neither of our fantasy scenarios have any chance of playing out, and the greatest thing to be afraid in the coming ?? months is our president and his cronies. I don’t know what else I can do about that other than being sanitary, voting blue, and trying to persuade everyone I know to do the same.)

76. JimV Says:

I’m in general sympathy if not agreement with the post but I think you left out the possibility mentioned in a recent xkcd cartoon: by isolation and social distancing and mask-wearing we”lock the virus in” (within as small a number of infected people as possible) so that after their immune systems kill it (or we bury those whose immune system couldn’t), the virus is gone. Well, it happened with smallpox.

However, then the next mutated virus could appear. I watched “The 12 Monkeys” again while isolating myself and recalled Gene Siskel’s review on “Siskel and Ebert” which included the complaint, “Why is that most science-fiction films depict a grim, dystopian future?” It occurred to me that if he were still alive, he would now know.

Thanks for taking the time to blog more frequently. On behalf of us shut-ins, we appreciate it.

77. uhoh Says:

Talking about Bill Gates leading the country is fantasy, and hence a distraction and a complete waste of time.

78. Harry M Johnston Says:

Rahul#24, there are some modelling reports for New Zealand at this site and the potential worst case impact document (right at the bottom) suggests that, if I am interpreting the figures correctly, and subject to the assumption that the health care system is not overwhelmed, the mortality rate from COVID-19 (that’s deaths per thousand people) would be something like 5.7 as compared to the usual annual mortality rate of 7.6.

That means that here, if our lockdown measures manage to flatten the curve to some extent but otherwise fail to contain the virus, we might expect the death rate from COVID-19 to be roughly the same as the annual death rate from all other causes, or to put that another way, we might expect about twice the usual number of people to die over the next year.

… except that in that scenario the COVID-19 deaths wouldn’t be spread out over a year, so comparing it to an annual figure is meaningless, but I’m not sure what else to do.

79. myst_05 Says:

Is there a detailed breakdown somewhere explaining why exactly a vaccine takes at least 18 months, as well as coherent explanations for what the risk is if a given step is skipped or accelerated? No hand waving, just a straight up explanation of where that number comes from and why it’s physically impossible to optimize it.

I’ve been searching a lot and cannot find such an article anywhere.

80. Antoine Deleforge Says:

Have you heard of pool testing?

This idea is both genius and simple: instead of analysing individual patients’ samples, mix a bunch of samples together, say 8, and run the test on this cocktail. If the result is negative, you can reliably conclude that none of the 8 patients were infected, from one single test. If the test is positive, just divide your samples into two groups of 4 and repeat, until either a negative result is reached or a single sample is left.

A pool-testing procedure for SARS-CoV-2 has recently been tested by German researchers: https://aktuelles.uni-frankfurt.de/englisch/pool-testing-of-sars-cov-02-samples-increases-worldwide-test-capacities-many-times-over/. There is also this recent paper from Israel: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.26.20039438v1

This could multiply by 5 ore more the testing capacity of any country, right now, without the need for extra equipment.

It seems to me that the idea has received very little attention as of yet. It would be great to make it gain momentum! For those interested, I just wrote a blog post about the maths behind it: https://members.loria.fr/ADeleforge/the-maths-of-pool-testing-mixing-samples-to-speed-up-covid-19-detection/

81. Tamás V Says:

In case somebody is interested in a recent crazy but entertaining talk about local hidden variables, here is one, from one of the B’s in BB84 🙂

82. James Protheroe Says:

Scott #68:

To have any chance at a response like Taiwan’s or South Korea’s, you’d need to

(a) put competent people in charge, and also
(b) go 3 months back in time.

So no, those responses will not be replicated in the US.

With regard to (b), this is presumably what the restrictions on social activity are supposed to achieve, in effect.

Your concern seems to be that this won’t work in the US, partly because you do not think it will be administered competently enough, and partly because once the virus has spread widely, you think containment would be futile in the long term because it would not lead to a return to normality, and would only serve to buy more time, even if done well (the “whac-a-mole” scenario).

I agree that in the medium term the whac-a-mole strategy is probably what will be deployed in most countries, but the course of the initial outbreak in Taiwan suggests that something closely resembling normal life can co-exist with that strategy. Face masks are worn widely, and travel restrictions are in place from affected areas, but employment, education, commercial activity etc. all continue largely as usual.

Perhaps Taiwan will face more outbreaks in the future, but the examples of South Korea, Wuhan and — in the coming weeks, as seems likely — European nations, demonstrate that even severe outbreaks with widespread community transmission can be ended. I am sceptical about the data published by the authorities in China, but even acounting for that, the situation in Wuhan has clearly improved substantially.

I agree that the crowded spring break trips you point to are evidence of the difficulties with securing compliance with restrictions on social activity, but I don’t think the US is uniquely bad at this (I am not American and have never lived in the US, so I hope I say this as a disinterested observer). People will recall that in South Korea, it was members of a large religious group known for its intimate mass gatherings who were criticised for spreading the disease.

With regard to testing, although you’re in favour of a thorough system and think it would improve the situation, you don’t think the effort it requires is dissimilar to the effort required to develop effective treatments, like a vaccine. I do disagree on this point. Although there are already promising candidates for treatments, and many more will probably emerge in due course, vaccines and therapies nevertheless remain speculative for now and developing them further will take time, regardless of the intensity of the effort. Thorough testing, in contrast, is achievable in the short term, and the resources required are trivial for an economy like the US once efficient systems are in place.

Even accounting for incompetent administration, it should not be too difficult for a testing regime comparable to South Korea’s or Germany’s to be established in the US fairly quickly; the infrastructure, expertise and resources are already present (Germany’s testing is highly decentralised, largely based on GPs requesting tests for their patients from a variety of laboratories, and apparently didn’t require much central direction).

One of the upsides of this pandemic is that we can know relatively soon which of the perspectives on its future course turned out to be prescient, assuming we survive it.

I think your concerns are justified Scott, but I’m obviously more sanguine about the prospects; assuming you’re still around (I hope and trust you will be!), will you promise to reflect back on this post and the responses to it in, say, six months or a year or two, and see how your and others’ prognostications panned out?

83. Mutant Says:

I used to think that following the news was almost entirely a waste of time, but now I have obviously been proven wrong.

Do you have any thoughts on what news consumption should look like at a minimum for someone who tries to maximize productivity by working in batch-mode (like Knuth, only more a bit more extreme)? Without reading emails, it would be hard not to miss important events. Reading rationalist blogs and following some good Twitter accounts would be my current approach, but I would like to hear some suggestions.

84. jonathan Says:

I do want to disagree with your “citizen of nowhere” comment. I’ve always felt a fairly high level of (for lack of a better word) patriotism, but this crisis has definitely reminded me that I care greatly about my country. Despite our governments’ many failures, we’re still Americans and in this together. And I certainly haven’t given up hope that the US will lead the world through this (say by developing a vaccine, or discovering an effective treatment).

While I share your overall assessment of Trump, I do wonder whether his bull in a china shop mentality and disregard for experts will end up *helping* on the vaccine front. Particularly with his reelection on the line, it’s hard to see him sitting on his hands while an effective vaccine goes through an 18-month approval process.

Also, while it’s easy to think our response is unusually bad, we’re actually doing better than most European countries on a per capita basis. And I suspect the crisis only seems to hit the West harder than many other parts of the world because we are testing widely and have greater transparency.

85. Robin Hanson Says:

Scott, Vasily, yes the idea is that we can be pretty confident that variolation should work, much more than even the best vaccine candidates. So we should speed as many trials as possible, but variolation deserves to be one of them.

86. Patrick M. Dennis, MD Says:

“Exploit this new freedom to collect huge amounts of data about what is and isn’t working.”
If providers are prescribing whatever they want, willy-nilly, won’t we rather be deluged by huge amounts of confirmation bias about what is and isn’t working?

87. Scott Says:

John Figueroa #75 and others: At a bare minimum, we’d want to get rid of both the Electoral College and the Senate, and also ban gerrymandering and have House districts chosen by an algorithm. Those are just the obvious things—the things you could tell the Founders about and many would be like “yeah, we totally screwed that up.” (In the case of the Senate, they’d plead that it was an ugly compromise needed to get the Constitution ratified at all; in the case of the Electoral College, they could justly plead that it had evolved to something totally different from its original purpose as a deliberative body, and ridiculous.)

But we could also consider more radical changes. The question we should be asking ourselves is: what new democratic institutions would Franklin and Jefferson have wanted to try out, if they’d known about the Internet? About Wikipedia and Reddit? But also, if they’d known about the rise of Trump and his yes-men, stacking the courts with apparatchiks (and building an alternative media ecosystem) in order to keep themselves in power forever with minority support, and how that finally unravelled the original design?

In one sense, of course there’s no difference between
(1) writing a new Constitution, and
(2) passing a giant slate of 30 or 50 amendments, one for each difference between the new Constitution and the old.

But in another sense, my whole point is to channel what the Founders would’ve wanted to do, if they’d known all the science and technology of 2020; and all the history, of how their creation rose to heights beyond their imaginations but then ultimately failed (as the Roman Republic ultimately failed, and as the Founders were terrified would happen); and of course all the moral evolution (e.g., women are now equal; we now eschew not merely slavery but also culturally appropriative party costumes). And it seems likely that, faced with that charge, and knowing better than anyone the ugly compromises that went into the original Constitution, they’d simply want to start over with a clean slate!

Finally: yes, I’m well aware that we’re now deep into the realm of fantasy. I may have become crazy, but not that crazy!

But sometimes radicals can be strategic as well as moderates; sometimes they actually succeed in shifting the Overton window. Think of all the ideas that will be seriously discussed over the coming years and decades, for preventing what’s happening now from ever happening again. And think of how moderate and reasonable most of them will seem, compared to my proposal of deprecating the entire Constitution and starting afresh. 🙂

88. John Figueroa Says:

Scott #87:

You make some good points, Scott. Hmm…

You know what, I’m starting to think you’re right that ideally we’d write a new Constitution from scratch, with an amendment #28 rendering most of the rest of it null and void, like you said. Barring a miracle, this is hardly going to be a “light and transient” offense. (Though if I were in the convention, I wouldn’t vote for #28 until we had already hammered out a better replacement—I want continuity.) You *might* even be right that ideally we’d do it illegally (which is how we’d have to do it to get rid of the Senate—the Constitution makes it clear you can’t do that without *unanimous* consent from the states; it’s literally the one exception to the amendment rules).

But I still have to firmly oppose the Sovereign Gates intermediate step.

You talked earlier in this thread about how lucky we got that the founders “included some of the most enlightened rationalists to be found in the 18th century”. I think you’re right. I think that one classic example of that is how, although some wanted to make him king, Washington staunchly opposed that, and similarly refused to run for a third term (still amazing to me that everyone else voluntarily followed that precedent until WWII).

In other words, we got lucky that our first leader, the guy that singlehandedly held together the colonies throughout the war, wasn’t the kind of guy who would accept kingship. If Bill Gates would accept your proposal, in my mind that’s proof we can’t trust him. Which, incidentally, is why I strongly suspect he’d turn you down.

The uninterrupted continuation of liberal democracy, of a limited government with oversight and distributed power, is important to me, and I don’t think your proposal for a few year gap in that would actually improve things much. Like you said, we did pull a stunt like this before when it became clear that the original structure of American government was insufficient—but we didn’t have King Washington for a gap between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and I’m glad we didn’t. And if I remember correctly from Zach Weinersmith’s brother’s webcomic, the Convention itself was at least nominally sanctioned by the government of the Articles, though they ended up going far beyond the light editing that was the official reason for it.

____

(Historical note: In the case of the Senate, I’m not sure they would have agreed that the Senate was an ugly compromise. After all, every country in the world gets exactly one seat at the United Nations. If it were proportional, I think Lichtenstein would be right to complain that the whole thing was too swamped by China and India. And the states were originally a lot more like individual nations than what we have now. So I’d say that the compromise of the Senate was a perfectly reasonable compromise, not an ugly one, with respect to their vision—but that vision has certainly been rendered irrelevant now!)

89. fred Says:

Tamas V #81

Thanks!

Similarly, Eric Weinstein finally released the video of his Oxford lecture on his unified field theory proposal (with an opening rant on the virus situation):

90. Sniffnoy Says:

Scott #87: You left out instituting requirements for voting methods as an obvious win (e.g.: all voting systems must be monotonic and cloneproof).

Also worth noting the electoral college didn’t really evolve towards its current form; aside from the question of how each state allocates its electors (winner-take all vs proportionally vs district-based; originally it wasn’t the case that nearly all states were winner-take-all), it has always acted like it does now. While there may have been some intention of it acting as a deliberative body, there was never a time since its institution when it actually did that.

91. Scott Says:

myst_05 #79:

Is there a detailed breakdown somewhere explaining why exactly a vaccine takes at least 18 months, as well as coherent explanations for what the risk is if a given step is skipped or accelerated? No hand waving, just a straight up explanation of where that number comes from and why it’s physically impossible to optimize it.

I’ve been searching a lot and cannot find such an article anywhere.

I also searched for such an article and couldn’t find one. As I read more about this, the suspicion grew and grew that no one could explain it because there’s no scientific reason after all why the 18 months couldn’t be 3 or 4 or 5 months, if we had a WWII mentality (i.e., the mentality I think appropriate to the situation). With that mentality, we’d just go ahead mass-manufacturing all the promising vaccine candidates that we now have, while simultaneously launching huge volunteer challenge trials; we’d then distribute whichever vaccines had done the best in the challenge trials. And if better vaccines came along as we were doing that, we’d switch midway. Of course, if a given vaccine killed or maimed a significant fraction of the volunteers we gave it to, then we’d stop that trial as soon as we observed that. Just like the Allies would’ve done in 1943!

(Incidentally, if anyone is worried about the specter of Dr. Mengele, we simply need to adopt a ground rule never to do anything that even the Allies would consider horrifying.)

The problem, I think, is just that some medical experts have really, genuinely internalized the constraints of their processes—the Phase I, II, and III trials, etc.—to such a degree that they no longer distinguish them from the constraints of physical reality. Meanwhile, many other medical experts are perfectly capable of making the distinction, but they consider it imprudent to say so too openly—if they did, they’d be denounced and sneered at just like Robin Hanson has been for openly discussing variolation. And then there could be a backlash against any vaccine trials that were pushing the envelope, and the development might (tragically for humankind) go even slower than before.

92. Scott Says:

Antoine Deleforge #80:

Have you heard of pool testing?

Not only have I heard of it, it’s a standard topic in combinatorics and theoretical computer science! (Always introduced with the example of how they used it for blood testing during WWII.) There’s even a 2013 paper about quantum speedups for pool testing. 🙂

Pool testing is one of many, many clever ideas that could help in this crisis. Alas, I think our problem right now is not a dearth of clever ideas, or of people who understand those ideas. Rather, it’s a deep rot in our entire civilization, its institutions, and its leaders, which creates a terrifying bottleneck that prevents any of the clever ideas from being implemented.

I mean, the mighty United States can no longer manufacture paper masks, even when there’s a desperate need for them to protect frontline medical workers. So how the hell will it get it together to do something even slightly clever like pool testing??

93. Scott Says:

Mutant #83:

I used to think that following the news was almost entirely a waste of time, but now I have obviously been proven wrong.

Even before the crisis, I was in the habit of reading the news every day, even if it wastes 45 minutes that I no longer have. The tragic irony is that, the one time this habit could’ve really helped, the news (or at least the sources I was reading) let me down!!

94. Scott Says:

John Figueroa #88: Well, I’m not wedded to the intermediate step where Gates becomes king. 🙂 What I’m wedded to is the proposition is that, as a literal matter of life and death, smart and competent and public-minded people urgently need to be placed in charge right now, and the craven incompetents (Trump, Pence, Kushner, the Senate yes-men, Robert Redfield…) urgently need to be flushed out. And if there were some plausible path to doing that today, even one in tension with the basics of America’s democratic system, I’d probably throw my support behind it. And I think America’s founders would’ve done the same.

95. Michael Says:

@Scott#91- I don’t think you get why people denounced Robin so harshly over variolation. If Robin had suggested curing coronavirus by setting off a nuclear weapon in Zimbabwe, few people would have complained, since 99.999% of the population is incapable of acquiring a nuclear weapon and smuggling it into Zimbabwe. It’s so far beyond the capabilities of most people that they won’t attempt it. OTOH, idiots that read Robin’s blog might attempt to try variolation on their own.

96. Sniffnoy Says:

John Figueroa #88:

You *might* even be right that ideally we’d do it illegally (which is how we’d have to do it to get rid of the Senate—the Constitution makes it clear you can’t do that without *unanimous* consent from the states; it’s literally the one exception to the amendment rules).

Not relevant to any realistic discussion, but FWIW, I believe you can just get rid of the Senate with two amendments. 🙂 (One to get rid of the part that says you can’t get rid of the Senate, the second to get rid of the Senate.) I mean, not that there’s any case law on this obviously — and in reality it would obviously depend on the Supreme Court’s OK — but it certainly seems like it ought to work…

97. fred Says:

Scott #91

Vaccines are typically given to a very large portion of the population.
So any effect on fertility and fetus viability could be really catastrophic for the future of the entire population.

So maybe it really makes sense that you need at least 9 months to study the effects of a new vaccine?

98. fred Says:

Also, this is the US, so liability is always a big component.

“The Cutter incident had an ambivalent legacy. On the one hand, it led to the effective federal regulation of vaccines, which today enjoy a record of safety unmatched by any other medical product’. On the other hand, the court ruling that Cutter was liable to pay compensation to those damaged by its polio vaccine—even though it was not found to be negligent in its production—opened the floodgates to a wave of litigation. As a result, vaccines were among the first medical products almost eliminated by lawsuits’. Indeed, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was introduced in 1986 to protect vaccine manufacturers from litigation on a scale that threatened the continuing production of vaccines. Still, many companies have opted out of this low-profit, high-risk field, leaving only a handful of firms to meet a growing demand (resulting in recent shortages of flu and other vaccines).”

99. Jacob Says:

Not an epidemiologist or following this that closely but isn’t it possible we move to a level of lower transmission without being completely locked down? Or is the consensus really that we will be on full lockdown until the vaccine? Hasn’t South Korea and China (I know take China numbers with a big grain of salt) basically flattened the curve and are moving back to normal?

I was under the impression that once the curve has flattened from the extreme quarantine, we can slowly move back to normal and quickly quarantine and track all new cases (isn’t this is the more traditional way we fight these outbreaks?).

100. Filip Says:

Antoine Deleforge #80

Have you heard of pool testing?

I posted your article on Facebook, and got messaged that a local clinic is using this method (commonly known as group testing). They do it for their staff with 15 samples per test.

I didn’t know about this and I love the idea, but I’ve been wondering how non-perfect tests affect the predictive value of each branch in the tree (especially since RT-PCR has like 70% sensitivity, depending on how the swab test was taken). A false negative in the root node is disastrous. Do you double the amount of repeated/validation tests as you go from leaves up to the root? Do you need coding theory?

If you see any US state that wants to avoid >2% deaths

+1 For Stella Biderman, 64
Serious question, what numbers or models are you guided by ?

Even if all the deaths in Italy were limited to Lombardy they would be at 0.18% today, if they are for the entire country they are 0.03%. Granted neither Lombardy nor Italy itself are in the clear or very close to it yet but the numbers for new daily deaths are declining there so we should probably not expect over three more doublings to occur in Lombardy.

102. Scott Says:

Jacob #99 and others: As soon as the lockdown is lifted, there’s a severe risk that the number of cases simply resumes its exponential trajectory. The fundamentals of the situation are that the virus wants to infect ~40% of humanity, and unless the lockdown continues or people can be vaccinated, the fundamentals reasserting themselves seems to me like an excellent bet. The risk is there even for the countries that are managing this the most competently (Taiwan, South Korea), so it’s all the more there for the disorganized third-world hellholes like the US.

Scott 102

The fundamentals of the situation are that the virus wants to infect ~40% of humanity, and unless the lockdown continues or people can be vaccinated, the fundamentals reasserting themselves seems to me like an excellent bet.

Even if it succeeds, for there to be >2% deaths the IFR would have to be around 5% – about 5 to 50 times of its current estimates.

And to keep it in numerical context – about 0.85% of the entire population died in the US in 2019 , probably along an age distribution not radically different from that of COVID19 mortality.

104. Scott Says:

Radically Realist #103: And what about after the hospitals get overwhelmed, as in Northern Italy? (Whatever’s the least effective possible response, that’s my working assumption for what we’re going to see in the US, despite the heroism of many doctors and others struggling against our broken institutions.) No one knows the IFR since they don’t know the base rate, but isn’t it consistent with the data from Northern Italy that it becomes ~5% then? The other issue is that 40% of the population eventually infected might be too optimistic—really it’s a 1-1/R0 fraction, so possibly as high as 70% or 80%.

Regarding the distribution of ages: right, the most useful way to think about I encountered is that catching covid is like getting one year’s worth of risk of dying (whatever the risk is at your current age) packed into a couple weeks.

105. marxbro Says:

“What I’m wedded to is the proposition is that, as a literal matter of life and death, smart and competent and public-minded people urgently need to be placed in charge right now, and the craven incompetents (Trump, Pence, Kushner, the Senate yes-men, Robert Redfield…) urgently need to be flushed out.”

There’s inherent contradictions within capitalism. It doesn’t really matter too much how personally competent this or that bourgeois politician is; they’re still overseeing the same decaying system and there’s very little chance of reconstituting it in the manner you describe.

The capitalist system is built to extract profit (and there’s even contradictions there) – not to best protect people from pandemic.

I really hate to be dismissive about this stuff, but you propose we make Gates god-king. Ok, and how will we do that? Then you’re argued down to the position that we simply need “competent” and “public-minded” people. Ok, and how are you going to do this? Elect them? Are you going to fund these people – or are they going to be outfunded by the same capitalist institutions which already have their finger in the pie of every politician in America?

You need to start thinking about history, about our current liberal system, about how it’s been built and why it exists in it’s current form. It doesn’t exist because stupid politicians just happened to be stupid.

If you propose naive solutions like “make Bill Gates god-king” you’re going to be beaten again and again by cynical politicians who actually know how to manipulate politics, people who how to think politically and how to leverage history and institutions.

106. Scott Says:

marxbro #105: While I stand by my view that making Gates temporary dictator would be an excellent short-term solution to the covid crisis that right now threatens tens of millions of lives—which is no small matter—I agree that it’s not a long-term solution to anything.

Long-term, I favor something so wild, so radical, that I’m embarrassed to say it, for fear that the world will jeer at me:

Pro-Enlightenment liberal democracies, with markets and social safety nets and freedom of speech and high respect for science.

This is a form of government that’s endured in parts of the world for a century (more than two centuries if we omit the social safety nets)—which I’ll note is longer than any Communist regime has endured, before the latter “collapsed from their internal contradictions”! (Or, as in the case of China, evolved to something that was basically Communist in name only.)

So, we now know that Enlightenment liberal democracy is a form of government that can “endure”—in the case of the US, it continued past Lincoln’s four-score-and-seven-year marker for a total of 240 years, from 1776 until 2016. It did collapse eventually, but until then it had a hell of a good run, and I’m optimistic that it can someday be renewed.

If and when it’s renewed, the 2.0 version will of course need to be founded on detailed postmortems of what failed the first time around. But there’s one thing I’m confident about: despite its enormous popularity as an explanation, “lobbyists / the influence of money on politics / fat-cat politicians bought and sold” was at most a minor contributor to the failure. And how do I know that? I know it because Hillary Clinton outspent Trump by like 2:1, and Trump’s primary opponents also outspent him. There were several factors that combined to produce our current nightmare reality, like the blindness of Trump’s primary opponents, Hillary’s weaknesses as a candidate, and the antiquated horribleness of the Electoral College. Notwithstanding those, though, this was not a bought election. Trump was who ~48% of the voters actually wanted—and that was exactly the problem.

107. vzn Says:

re robin hanson variolation proposal, intriguing. wild stuff, but has an air of science/ (cold) rationality/ plausibility/ credibility to it. those who cringe from it should realize that the normal spread of the virus is a sort of darwinian variolation system. controlled variolation just adds human directed shaping of it. hanson is also proposing that virus DOSAGE is a key aspect of severeness of symptoms. its conceivable and maybe backed up by prior studies. at least its a hypothesis. what else is causing so much variation? the big factor is comorbidity/ preexisting illnesses. but among patients who are healthy, is there a wide variation in immune response also? the news reports seem to suggest that.

just ran across two items/ scientific findings that align with some of my thinking outlined previously.

german study is the 1st to look at overall sampling (not just a BIASED sample of people who go in for testing, a basic statistical concept that is really getting lost in all the noise) and suspects/ estimates 15% immunity in a region and suggests around 60% immunity is enough to halt the spread of the virus.

german study estimates that overall reporting of coronavirus is only a very narrow 6% of all cases.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8204167/How-people-REALLY-infected-coronavirus.html

the models to predict death rates and hospital usage increases are very finetuned, but how about some models to predict the spread of immunity in the population? at this point there could plausibly/ literally be MILLIONS of individuals who are PROTECTED based on “acquired immunity” to the virus. it seems there is not even a simple term being used for that.

108. O. S.Dawg Says:

Scott #92: Manufacturing paper masks in quantity, quickly, is difficult. Even governments doing slightly clever things is trivial by comparison. Highly clever ideas are implemented outside of government all the time.
Imagine how difficult (re)opening a cannery, next week, in downtown silicon valley (say anywhere close to the old Libby plant) would be. Nearly impossible. Is this a sign our country is rotting away? Hardly.
Any chance I could return to Shtetl-Optimized sometime soon and read some well informed, yet optimistic, writing by my favorite blogger? I really hope so.

109. Jair Says:

Scott #106: I despise Trump about as much as anyone else, but “RIP Enlightenment liberal democracy 1776 – 2016” seems like hyperbole. If you are going to cut it off at 2016, surely you should at least write 1865-2016. I would far rather live under Trump’s idiocy than in slavery.

110. marxbro Says:

“Long-term, I favor something so wild, so radical, that I’m embarrassed to say it, for fear that the world will jeer at me:

Pro-Enlightenment liberal democracies, with markets and social safety nets and freedom of speech and high respect for science.”

I thought that’s exactly what you have now? And where did it get you? It got you to this state where you’re so wracked with anxiety and loathing for the system you have to anoint Bill Gates as god-king in your mind just to make yourself feel better.

If you just dislike Trump be bold and say so! Just wait things out for another ~58 months tops and then you can go back to never thinking about politics. Or is it the Republican party you hate? If so, then hunker down and start reading about history and politics more formally, because they aren’t going anywhere for a while.

“And how do I know that? I know it because Hillary Clinton outspent Trump by like 2:1, and Trump’s primary opponents also outspent him.”

By the time a politician gets to be in Hillary Clinton’s position they’re already bought.

The idea that you think we can just “go back” actually indicates to me that you’re still working at the level of hegemonic ideology. You’re operating on the Make America Great Again principle, although you wouldn’t put it in those words exactly.

Scott #104

but isn’t it consistent with the data from Northern Italy that it becomes ~5% then?

Obligatory IANAE but hardly so to my understanding – Italy has about 12% CFR, to conclude an IFR of 5% from this is to assume an unreasonably high confirmation rate, like by order of magnitudes so and particularly because the hospitals are so overwhelmed – my locally anecdotal sample in a country that is reportedly yet in very manageable stages of the pandemic at least two unrelated people I know have stayed home during what they believe were mild cases of covid19 not even bothering trying to get tested due to strict testing criterias that would have seen them sent home. Also Lombardy has particularly aging demographics which suggests an even lower overall IFR.

Regarding the distribution of ages: right, the most useful way to think about I encountered is that catching covid is like getting one year’s worth of risk of dying (whatever the risk is at your current age) packed into a couple weeks.

If long-term or even medium-term immunity is conferred by COVID19 then the couple of weeks don’t really matter here, it’s just an additional risk for the age and (mostly) background conditions absent mitigations of which there are plenty beginning with a simple home-made mask, if it isn’t then… well, crap.

112. Petter Says:

> or whether they’d already be distributing vaccines a month ago that probably work well enough and do bounded damage if they don’t

Thing is, the mortality rate for covid-19 is pretty low. We have to make sure any vaccine does not make things worse, since a large fraction of the population needs to take it.

113. alpha Says:

Perhaps P=NP and perhaps Trump wins again?

114. fred Says:

Lockdown is merely resetting the whole cycle.
If 20,000 got infected this time in NYC, it would take dozens of cycles to acquire “herd immunity” (assuming that’s a thing).

The idea is to find ways to flatten the curve without total lockdown, and also make sure the health industry can deal with a steady stream of cases.

A few things will be important:

1) determining who already had the virus and whether this gives some immunity. If so, those people can go back to work. Would it be a good idea to make everyone see who has immunity?

2) faster testing and tracing of new cases.

3) still work from home for all non essential businesses. As a coder, there’s no reason for me to sit for 12 hours a day with coworkers.

4) much much better face masks (along with finally understanding if/how the virus transmits through breathing).
In NYC, you can’t get around taking mass transit, so it’s crucial that everyone be maximally protected.
It’s important the that mask doesn’t hide the face, for social interactions. Maybe something transparent like what they had in Avatar https://diazkiel.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/jake-sully-avatar-tribal-art-tattoo.jpg

I’m wondering whether it’s possible to make a mask that doesn’t require a physical barrier to stop the virus (no filter to replace).
I’m thinking of using a hose which would be engineered to destroy the virus as the air travels along its length.

Does anyone know how fast UV light can destroy the virus? If the virus floats around in the air in tiny droplets, I’m guessing that the water molecules are scattering the UV light and protecting the virus?

Would it be possible to use an alternating electrostatic barrier to repulse water droplets?

115. fred Says:

I want to emphasize that if we had masks that are 100% efficient, even if a bit cumbersome, this would be equivalent to maintaining perfect lockdown, except it’s just our faces that are in lockdown!
This way we could reopen most businesses and restart the economy (except for restaurants).
Eventually the virus would quickly disappear.

116. Romeo Stevens Says:

Wishing you and your family well Scott.

Hanging out with crazies brings interesting perspective. Eg, the value of the Unabomber’s manifesto. One of the interesting bits from the attracts-a-lot-of-loonies ancap community was the usefulness of regarding oneself as living under anarchy already. Or in other words, finding a simple way to fully internalize public choice theory and use it to understand powerful memetic entities like major governments. My friends who grew up under corrupt disorganized regimes are *way* better at running this code natively.

117. Jelmer Renema Says:

Scott 106:

I wish, I really wish, that I could support such a proposal. But there is a big problem that needs to be worked out first, and that is that the Enlightenment has been used to justify some pretty horrible things itself, including eugenics, scientific racism, the second wave of colonialism, communism, and nazism.

This is not to say that the Enlightenment was the strongest contributor to all of these, but it was a significant one in each case. This is also not to say that the Enlightenment has not been a net positive (if I didn’t think it was, I wouldn’t be concerned with rescuing it!), but the tally of failures is long enough to give pause and ask if we can’t do better.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer, but I can give three wrong ones, to show what we should avoid:

1) ‘liberalism of the gaps’, where we say that previous liberal thinkers were perfect rational beings if they did things we now like, and children of their time (or some other excuse) when they did things we didn’t like (like invent the electoral college). If we make this mistake, then we absolve ourselves of their faults, and we open the door widely to making our own mistakes in the future.

We have to recognize that our notion of what ‘enlightenment values’ are has been pretty strongly modified in the past, often in the light of previous failures. For example, the enlightenment value of ‘it is a good thing to categorize the natural world’ had to be amended with ‘but not people’ after we decided racism was a bad idea. The enlightenment value of ‘it is a good thing for man to adapt the natural world to serve his needs’ had to be amended with ‘but not people’ after we figured out eugenics was a bad idea. The enlightenment value of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ got amended with ‘and healthcare’ > 100 years after that line was written. We have to take ownership of our mistakes if we want to improve ourselves.

2) The second mistake is an over-reliance on pragmatism, where we say: ‘well, we’ve made some mistakes in the past, but our record is still better than that of any other way of organizing society, so why should we not just continue as we have done so far?’

This is insufficient for two reasons: first, because (this is your claim) we’ve actually failed; we’ve lost the argument on the ground, which is why we’re discussing how to reconstitute things in the first place. The second reason is that the body count has simply been too high, and it seems callous at best to dismiss them all as a result of failed experimentation.

3) It is also insufficient to postulate that you have some sort of external ability to recognize the ‘good’ people, by some heuristic like ‘is interested in improving society in a pragmatic way’ or ‘can debate politely’ or ‘wants to better humanity as a whole’. Some of the most terrible things were done by honest, diligent, nicely-spoken people who believed they were organizing the world in a more rational way.

The enlightenment produced the modern university professor, and the people who committed genocide on the Herero, and while there is (do I even need to say this!?) no moral equivalence between those, they do both have an equally good claim to be bearers of enlightenment values. And so, the essential question to make any proposal of ‘improving on the enlightenment’ meaningful is: how will we produce more of the former and fewer of the latter?

118. Antoine Deleforge Says:

Scott #92: Nice, I didn’t know this was a classically taught topic in CS. I guess it could be inspiring for many students that it now has very concrete, potentially life-saving applications (although I am not sure about the applicability of the Quantum version of it to COVID-19 :p).

Filip #100: Thanks a lot for sharing and for the interesting feedback from your local clinic. 70% does not sound great… do you know how clinicians increase this sensitivity in practice? I’d like to write a follow up article dealing with the case of imperfect tests using multiple cross testing. It’s a really interesting question, it reminds me of compressed sensing. I am not really sure where to check in the litterature about it?

119. mjgeddes Says:

Not sure that the crisis in the States can all be blamed on Trump. I’m a bit puzzled at the huge variation in death rates around the world, with Europe and the US doing much worse than elsewhere, a dreadful situation in the US in particular.

Here in NZ, we have a grand total of 2 deaths so far, with no increase in daily cases. Yes, the govt here did everything right, taking early aggressive action to lock down, testing etc, but even so, it’s hard to believe that’s the whole reason for the big difference. Australia after all, didn’t even do the full lock-down, and isn’t having a major problem either.

I have to think that there is a seasonal component to this, with Australia and and NZ just coming out of very warm summer weather.

120. matt Says:

The most essential piece of data to making policy is, IMO, what the actual prevalence is, either among the general population or among those specifically with no symptoms. Data already exists by testing blood from blood donors in Seattle. Of course, there is a bias in that these people may be healthier than average, etc… However, they are refusing to release the data!

Frankly, I think that’s ridiculous and irresponsible not to release it. Convince me otherwise. It is, IMO, the most important data point now. See https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/unprecedented-nationwide-blood-studies-seek-track-us-coronavirus-spread#

121. Anonymous Says:

lewikee #47

I think there is an additional failure mode to avoid: People in set 1) should not run an appeasement strategy for people in set 2) or 3). It won’t work. You can’t appease them. They will simply see it as a credible signal of weakness and an invitation to demand more and more concessions. If people in set 1) give up on formulating correct criticism of Trump, 2) and 3) will get to dominate the discourse unobjected. This is equivalent to giving up on democracy, truth and basic accountability of power. Obviously, these should be non-negotiable. Formulating unfair criticisms or using double standards is probably unhelpful. But I’ve seen people buy into the frame that criticism should be suppressed or omitted even if it’s fair and fact-based, out of fear that 2) and 3) will double down on their Trump support. I think this strategy doesn’t work. It rewards people for threatening to double down and makes accountability impossible.

I think a better strategy is for people in set 1) to overcome their differences, set aside minor priorities and more generously cooperate with each other. The left has many failings, but it is opposed to the extremist right, and that makes them valuable allies in the grand scheme of things. Anyone who’s not a far-right or anti-democracy extremist needs to be supported now, even if we disagree with half their other goals.

122. Scott Says:

Jelmer Renema #117: My solution to the problems you point out is, I confess, childishly simple. All the bad things (racism, colonialism…) that you can somehow connect to the Enlightenment, I’ll simply consider not part of the Enlightenment going forward. Whereas all the good things are part of the Enlightenment going forward!

Of course, this wouldn’t be a useful criterion if I weren’t able to distinguish good things from bad things, but I can! Imperfectly, of course, but hindsight makes it easier. It’s like, name any historical figure who I’m familiar with, and I’ll happily tell you whether they I think they were good, bad, or partly good and partly bad (if the last, I’ll tell you which part was which). This means that my entire moral philosophy can be summarized implicitly, as just: “act like the people who I tell you are good, and not like the people who I tell you are bad. And as for the people who are partly good and partly bad, act like them only in the ways in which they’re good.”

Ah, but isn’t this a textbook no-true-Scotsman fallacy? More pointedly: why couldn’t Communists or anyone else do similarly, and say “any Communist regime that descended into evil and dysfunction no longer counts as truly Communist?”

Well, of course that’s precisely what Communists have been saying for a century! But there are two crucial differences between the cases. First, so far there have been zero examples in human history of a Communist regime that didn’t quickly descend into evil and dysfunction—and that’s out of perhaps two dozen attempts. Whereas there have been many examples of Enlightenment liberal democracies that succeeded about as well as any human civilizations ever have, including at recognizing and correcting their own moral failures.

Second, and even more fundamentally, for me “the Enlightenment” is unlike Communism or any other ideology in that it has virtually no fixed doctrine. Instead, the Enlightenment is an adaptive learning process, like science itself is. I.e., I’m no more committed to colonialism because some past Enlightenment thinker or other defended it, than I’m committed as a scientist to the phlogiston theory because some past scientist defended it. Just like with science, the only truly inalterable parts of Enlightenment are the parts needed for the adaptive learning process itself. Those parts include a commitment to reasoned debate, openness, free speech, intellectual honesty, admitting one’s mistakes, and charity to intellectual opponents. (This is also why what terrifies me most in the world are the people who explicitly reject those norms, like Trump or the sneerclubbers.)

123. Nick Says:

Or else:

(4) Remain on quasi-lockdown until we ramp up ICU capacity, then re-open *slowly*.

Maybe my point is just a corollary to your premise (3), but you seem to omit the possibility that we can minimize the number of deaths even if we can’t minimize the number of people who will ultimately get sick.

Some states are quietly using this time to vastly buildout their ICU capacity and stockpile PPE gear for healthcare workers. But national news headlines about subtle success stories in middle America don’t get many clicks.

Not trying to understate the magnitude of the crisis, though.

124. vzn Says:

like marxbro am feeling a lot of cognitive dissonance about gates these days. when younger, idolized him and read biographies on him. hes a geek hero. but theres something off/ fishy about his virus/ epidemic “work”. cant put my finger on it.

this is now circulating in some circles, its a bit eyepopping. apparently RFK jr has some claims. this article has a lot of purported facts with no citations/ refs, but would challenge anyone to refute the supposed facts presented. think it is not easily dismissable even if seemingly largely undocumented. wonder what others think.

https://www.fort-russ.com/2020/04/robert-f-kennedy-jr-exposes-bill-gates-vaccine-dictatorship-plan-cites-gates-twisted-messiah-complex/

re virus stages, further pondering. the media/ terminology seems to be weak. there are words like “herd immunity” to refer to humans. what are humans, sheeple? would like to see the precise scientific terminology on all the following and try to adopt it myself. there are subtle distinctions that are getting lost in the noise/ media. some of this relates to the complexity of the immune system as an ADAPTIVE SYSTEM

1. person who has never been exposed to the (novel) virus.
2. person who has been exposed. virus “reproduces” to some degree. immune system is in various stages of reaction.
3. immune system detects the virus and mounts counteroffense.
4. the counteroffense can involve symptoms or lack of symptoms, symptoms of varying severity.
5. the person is apparently/ presumably infectious during some period of the immune system fighting the virus. but it is not so clear. to what degree? there is a scientific report of a family that was infected but no virus could be found on surfaces in the house (cf my last comment). so transmissibility may be something of a mystery right now. maybe some people are not very infectious at all while their bodies are detecting/ fighting the virus. the opposite, ie people emitting large quantities of the virus, aka highly contagious, are so called “superspreaders”
6. for those recovered, theres a point where the immune system fights off the virus and does “cleanup”. symptoms disappear, virus apparently eventually disappears from person. but maybe not immediately as symptoms disappear. note that testing for the virus (what all the media about “case counts” refers to) misses this case.
7. person is now “protected” with antibodies and apparently cant get reinfected.
8. the alternative case are those whose immune systems are unsuccessfully fighting off the virus. they become more contagious.

what is clear is that science is somewhat blind to how many people are in all these categories right now. some of the categories are well measured, others require antibody testing, unbiased samples, etc, and months have gone by and we still only have a very hazy picture of much of this right now. its a complex system. key factors to consider: (a) degree/ stage of response of immune system (b) “contagiousness” of person (c) prior existing conditions in the person (d) seriousness of symptoms (e) “pre or post recovery”… all these are interacting and overlapping and sometimes independent, and there are not black/white distinctions as the media is blaring it…

some the hardest to wrap ones brain around (re concept of “disease”) is that maybe some superspreaders have very minimal symptoms? and some are recovering with almost no symptoms or maybe also with minimal contagiousness? worlds greatest scientists working on it as we speak, but definitive answers will take a long time, and some others may never come…

125. A. Karhukainen Says:

As for the differences in CFR (somebody wondered above), apart from the statistical illusions (differences between testing percentage), there could also be genetic differences.

E.g., the West-Europeans might be more vulnerable than East-Europeans:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7102561/

https://www.sudinfo.be/id178809/article/2020-04-09/coronavirus-les-differences-genetiques-expliquent-pourquoi-certains-pays-sont

On the other hand, many people in NYC have their roots in Eastern Europe, right?

126. Anonymous Says:

I think being mad at Trump and ineffective politicians alone is overly simplistic.

China has not properly regulated dangerous wet markets where transmission and evolution and species-hopping of viruses can easily occur. There were also scientists jailed and arrested for speaking out.

CDC did not warn against non-essential travel soon enough, and has changed positions on masks, which could have limited transmission since now it’s known that airborne transmission occurs. Over emphasis on hand washing gave false sense of security for going out, for almost a month after it was accepted by the general public that this is not ‘just a flu’. CDC now recommends home-made cloth masks, which could have been done months ago. Since the cost of making and wearing cloth is very low, the asymmetry here makes for an obvious choice. The only evidence against them assumes people not handling and washing masks correctly (by that same logic, gloves are ineffective in biohazard lab settings).

Media downplayed it. I’ve seen “just a flu” type headlines from the Washington Post, NYT, CNN, & more. If you search enough, you can find them. Although, the Washington Post had excellent coverage as well, some of the best I’ve seen, instrumental in explaining some nuanced subjects to laypeople with historical context and great detail and accuracy.

Trump reacted too late, absolutely.

So did the CDC and WHO.

FDA conflated absence of evidence with evidence of absence for some treatments that other countries have been using for weeks (especially India). It could be that there was some profiteering going on. Chairpeople go back and forth between industry and FDA, so this is not some far-fetched conspiracy theory. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/07/hidden-conflicts-pharma-payments-fda-advisers-after-drug-approvals-spark-ethical

Instead of criticizing Trump for discussing hydroxychloroquine, I think a more fruitful use of discussion could have been discussing ways of getting data from patients that were *already being treated* with it and other things, worldwide, a sort of on-the-ground, centralized real time gathering of data that has not been done yet. It wouldn’t be the golden standard of research trials, but it’d be better than no information and delays due to time constraints. It wasn’t just Trump touting it, several renowned doctors explained (albeit much more cautiously) that it is promising in some cases.

I actually think that all the finger-pointing at Trump takes away from more useful discussions.

That being said, it’d be useful if more of the people running these agencies were more like Bill Gates, but they aren’t.

127. A. Karhukainen Says:

As what comes to the radicalization. Yes, I have been radicalized, after realizing how the current neoliberal world system is like a bicycle accelerating in downhill without brakes, which you cannot stop for even a minute without it falling over. There’s something really wrong with that, and a system that cannot handle once-in-century, or once-in-millennium events that are still to come, because it has forgotten the physical and biological reality for the stock rates, doesn’t merit its own survival, in my books.
And no, it’s not Trump that is the main problem, he’s just a symptom, the last desperate attempt to throw a spanner into the gears of the machine gone amok.

BTW, here’s interesting take by Peter Turchin:
http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/coronavirus-and-our-age-of-discord/

128. Anonymous again Says:

Solutions like variolation seem to be more about self-congratulation and intellectually flexing, for being willing to venture so far outside of normal sensibilities. That can definitely be useful. But why waste time, now of all times, on things that we *know* for a fact will not be accepted en masse? Being completely honest, do you really think this kind of discussion right now helps? If it’s purely a discussion for fun, or for some far off future, I get it. I scoured the web for a single epidemiologist who has written about it for COVID-19, and only found Robin Hanson. I know this sounds pretty heavy on appeal to authority, but discussing the use of actual medical treatments without the input of medical specialists seems, well, wrong.

Also, these (below) are some very basic arguments against variolation. I read a lot of Hanson’s work on it and none of it seemed to address them. I also haven’t seen one medical professional argue in favor of it, although I’m open to being humbled and proven wrong.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/04/why-i-do-not-favor-variolation-for-covid-19.html

On the other hand, Naval Ravikant came up with an idea a few weeks ago about an Immune Corps, an army of young volunteers who are immune to COVID to help deal with the aftermath, and it has already launched. And Bill Gates, well, you already know. It’s the entrepreneurs and polymaths proposing and implementing realistic rubber-meets-the-road solutions who will probably save us all.

129. marxbro Says:

“Whereas there have been many examples of Enlightenment liberal democracies that succeeded about as well as any human civilizations ever have, including at recognizing and correcting their own moral failures.”

Liberal democracies only ‘succeed’ in that they extract wealth from the global poor and siphon it to the rich. If you’re committed to this whole ‘charity towards intellectual opponents’ thing, you should be able to critique thinkers like Marx and Lenin who pointed this out many decades ago.

130. Deepa Says:

Speaking of great leadership in these times, I find it comforting to watch the speeches of the PM of Singapore. He is humble, intelligent, almost a bit shy, and comes across as empathetic. He clearly communicates expected behaviors and he exudes a certain moral authority.

131. danx0r Says:

I agree with everything except this: if Bill Gates is the Sovereign, we have to start with version 3.0

132. Scott Says:

Anonymous #126: I have expressed sadness and anger about virtually all the causes you listed—see e.g. my other covid-related posts over the past month and a half and the ensuing comments. Yes, only a few countries (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand) and institutions in the world have covered themselves in glory; the rest have all been somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to terrible. Even in a crowded field, though, Trump still stands out for an unmatched combination of incompetence and callousness.

133. Scott Says:

marxbro #110: One of the great advantages of being a … “neoliberal,” mainstream Democrat, Enlightenment rationalist, or whatever else you want to call me, is that no one can accuse me of wanting an unattainable fantasy. I have a recent existence proof: from Jan. 2009 to Jan. 2017, the US had a president who was >90% of everything I could ask for. If you could replace every president, every member of Congress, and every Supreme Court justice by a Barack Obama clone, then I think the American system could continue well indefinitely. For that matter, replace every official in every country by an Obama clone—slightly modified to suit local conditions—and you’d have peace and prosperity all over the world forever. (There have probably been many other leaders for whom the same statement is true; I’m simply picking one who’s well-known to everyone here and about whom I’m particularly confident.) This observation reduces the problem of worldwide utopia to a different problem that’s still extremely hard but that might be slightly more approachable.

(Incidentally, I’m sure most Americans would be amused to learn how far to the right this opinion places me, in the little bubble where I spend most of my life.)

134. Scott Says:

marxbro #129:

Liberal democracies only ‘succeed’ in that they extract wealth from the global poor and siphon it to the rich. If you’re committed to this whole ‘charity towards intellectual opponents’ thing, you should be able to critique thinkers like Marx and Lenin who pointed this out many decades ago.

Alright, then: assuming empirical falsehood is a sufficient “critique,” this is just about the wrongest theory in the history of wrongness! Despite the huge inequalities that remain, standards of living went up by staggering amounts all over the world (and especially for the global poor) over the past couple centuries—i.e., precisely the time when, in fits and starts, much of the world became liberal democracies. If it’s just a fixed pie, then where did all the new wealth come from?

135. Harry Johnston Says:

mjgeddes#119, realistically, I think our lower population density and relative isolation from the rest of the world played a pretty important role. Looking at tourist numbers, for example, there are far fewer tourists travelling to New Zealand on any typical day than to Britain or to the United States.

136. marxbro Says:

“Alright, then: assuming empirical falsehood is a sufficient “critique,” this is just about the wrongest theory in the history of wrongness! Despite the huge inequalities that remain, standards of living went up by staggering amounts all over the world (and especially for the global poor) over the past couple centuries—i.e., precisely the time when, in fits and starts, much of the world became liberal democracies. If it’s just a fixed pie, then where did all the new wealth come from?”

Nobody said it’s a fixed pie. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Marxism. The new wealth came from labor and is then siphoned to the rich through their ownership of the means of production. Look, if you’re working in the Enlightenment tradition then you should be able to actually critique enlightenment thinkers like Marx who turned that relentless logic onto the liberal project.

Global living standards went up by the most staggering amounts in places like China who have followed a Marxist path.

The transferal of wealth from the third world to the first (i.e. exploitation and imperialism in the Marxist sense) is a fact well documented by academics like John Smith in his book “Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century”.

137. vzn Says:

ps forgot to ask… re bill gates, unmentioned so far, what do people think of the “event 201” exercise carried out/ cosponsored by gates just about a half year ago? seems kind of mindboggling/ eerie how recent/ close it is to reality. simulates a world coronavirus pandemic, with bats one of the intermediate carriers. etc! makes the flesh crawl. almost like a virus… would like to see a summary/ history of Gates work on viruses by a thorough/ skeptical journalist… easily a book, right? o_O

http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/event201/scenario.html

138. marxbro Says:

“is that no one can accuse me of wanting an unattainable fantasy.”

You were just advocating for Bill Gates to be god-king who wipes clean the American constitution, now you’re saying Obama should be cloned and put into every position of power everywhere in the world.

Seems like a fantasy to me.

139. Zoren Says:

Wow Scott, are you trolling or are you really that politically naiive? You don’t actually think utopia is achievable by cloning a “near-perfect” leader who was in office for eight years in one particular country, do you? As if all the world’s problems and their trajectories are measured by that one country, leader and time window? Maybe you’re not serious, but I’ve noticed that people who are very smart in abstract fields like math and physics are often dangerously simplistic when it comes to politics and human society. Is this an aspect of autism, perhaps?

Anyway, you triggered me a little with thread, because for me political wisdomis mostly about realism and avoidance of utopianism and hubris, and what you’re suggesting with world emperor Obama/Gates sounds dangerously unrealistic, utopian and hubristic. It smacks of the same mentality that made a lot of people once think that Stalin should rule the world. Please don’t be so trusting and willing to put so much power in the hands of people who are clearly power-hungry sociopaths, no matter how good their intentions appear to be.

140. Sniffnoy Says:

Scott #122, Jelmer Renema #117:

Scott, aren’t you here falling into exactly the failure mode Jelmer warned you against in their point (1)?

That said, I can’t say you’re entirely on the wrong path. Like, their clearly is a fairly coherent idea, that people like you and me believe in, that we like to refer to as “the Enlightenment” even if it doesn’t actually really match up with the historical Enlightenment in all ways. It’s not based on taking the historical Enlightenment as a starting point and then modifying it based on what we don’t like; it’s its own coherent thing, and we refer to it as “the Enlightenment” because it sure seems like the Enlightenment was trying to point at it.

So, uh, for people like Jelmer trying to understand what’s being talked about, rather than looking at the historical Enlightenment, I guess look at what the ideas people talk about as the Enlightenment now are? (…except you can’t just do that because there are people who are basically freaking neo-Nazis on the internet who will deploy this sort of language as cover (not that they actually believe it). So, uh, yeah, some discernment there is required…)

Anyway, Jelmer, I do have to disagree with substantial parts of your comment. I think many of the things you claim we’ve “learned” — either as things the Enlightenment got right or as things it got wrong — are, in fact, not things we’ve learned at all. Not in the sense that they’re true but society hasn’t learned them, but in the sense that they are not clearly true at all (though in some cases society has learned them, quite possibly incorrectly!).

Specifically:

1. We’ve learned that there needs to be a right to health care?? No. Undeniably, health care is — like any unambiguous good thing — a thing everybody should have, but trying to make it a right causes problems. (Here’s a question: On what principle would you justify a right to health care that would not also justify a right to food? People are generally said to have a “right to life”, but that typically means a right not to be killed; if you want to turn it into some sort of positive right, why one but not the other?)

Like basically you can’t make it a true right without more or less enslaving doctors. One could certainly have a right not to have one’s medical services interfered with, but that’s quite different. One can have government-provided health insurance, which has a lot to recommend it, but that’s not a right to health care — it’s a right to the health care the state deems appropriate. The state deems the only treatment for your condition too expensive? Tough luck! That doesn’t make it a bad idea — any system is going to have to deal with some things just being too cost-ineffective. It just means that identifying it with a right to health care is inaccurate.

Overall, honestly, I don’t think the whole framing of “rights” is very helpful to be honest. It’s a way of turning some things into sacred values that you’re not allowed to trade off, and that doesn’t lead to good thinking. Turning things into rights should be reserved for things where violating the right is so unlikely to be the correct path that even if your moral calculus says you should, the more likely possibility is just that you’ve made an error somewhere, or for things that can go drastically wrong if you mess with them even a little (which is where I’d put free speech, see below). E.g. in the healthcare case above, if you turn it into a right, then it has to be provided even where it’s ruinously expensive and would do very little. Not helpful! Better to just say, it is good for people to have good things, and then admit that unfortunately you’re going to have to make tradeoffs between those things.

2. We’ve learned that you should categorize nature, but not humans, because that’s racism?? No. First I’m going to take issue with the claim that you should categorize nature. You should model nature to understand it, but categorizations are often a crude and insufficent way of doing that. Not necessarily a bad start, but not always appropriate. As we’ve seen more of nature we’ve seen more cases where simple categorizations break down and more detailed models are needed. As for the second part… categorizing people (based on ancestry, I have to assume you mean) isn’t racism? Like, whether it’s produces a good model or not, it it is not by itself racism, unless you then go on to misuse those categories?

3. We’ve learned that eugenics is unacceptable?? No. Coercive eugenics, sure, but what’s supposed to be wrong with non-coercive forms? Either positive eugenics (I have a hard time imagining what the problem with that is supposed to be) or non-coercive negative eugenics (I realize the Leftists will claim that by offering someone money to do something you are somehow coercing them to do that thing, but, well, I really have no interest in engaging with that argument, which remains as stupid as always). The public will go into a tizzy if you mention the word, sure, because it’s widely associated with the Nazis and their horrific version of it, but, well, association isn’t a valid form of reasoning. What’s the argument against non-coercive versions?

But more generally… one point where I’d absolutely agree with Scott is that I think the most important thing, that we have learned (although the Enlightenment basically got this right the first time), is that the most important thing is that adaptive learning process, that negative feedback loop that keeps you grounded in reality. This is why even though I’m wary of speaking of things in terms of rights in general, I’ll always endorse the right to free speech (and, in paticular, free argument), because you go tampering with that, you break the negative feedback loop, disaster predictably ensues. (And since you’re dealing with people, you likely end up not drifting randomly but rather in a positive feedback loop that actively pushes you away from reality.) This is really the one absolutely key thing — you absolutely never attempt to interfere with the negative feedback loop.

Honestly, if I had to summarize all of my idea of liberalism into just two principles — and I realize this may be an idiosyncratic idea of “liberalism”, but hey, I think it’s the right one, I mean of course I do or I wouldn’t be espousing it here — it’d be the negative feedback loop, and orthogonality. (The ideal of freedom is to a large extent just a special case of orthogonality, as I see it. 🙂 ) And uhhhhh I guess what I mean by “orthogonality” might not at all be obvious to everyone but uhhhh yeah obviously not going to go starting on that now! But, y’know… orthogonality — decoupling, unbundling, separation of concerns, relevance, the belief that the genetic fallacy is in fact a fallacy, hugging the query… 🙂

Scott #133:

Really? Barack Obama?

I voted for Barack Obama because — I’m pulling this language from someone else on the internet, sorry, I forget who — he basically campaigned as the anti-Bush. But in reality, not only he did not reverse Bush’s abuses of power — warrantless wiretaps, etc — he often made them worse! (He did try to close down Guantanamo; Congress stopped him there. That one’s not his fault.) Now obviously Obama is way better than Bush because, y’know, he’s just generally more competent, and, y’know, reality-based (that part is pretty important); it’s hard to imagine him doing anything as horrific as invading Iraq for made-up reasons. But, man, the one key thing I voted for Obama for, he not only didn’t do but made worse.
(And the Republicans naturally tried to impeach Obama… but not over any of his actual abuses of power, because those are things they endorse too! They had to come up with stupid made-up shit, that thankfully went nowhere.)

I dunno. Maybe he’s about the best we can expect out of the US. I haven’t been alive long enough to be calibrated there, I’m afraid. But 90% of what you want? Man, aim higher! I think creating a secret extrajudicial kill list, and even extrajudicially killing US citizens on it, should cost more than a mere 10%!

Honestly Scott I do worry that some of your recent posts have gotten a bit hero-worshippy, like with the whole Greta Thunberg thing. That someone does one good thing right should not get you to endorse them so uncritically!

141. Jelmer Renema Says:

@Scott 134:

I don’t think you’ll convince anyone by taking centuries of events and assigning a single cause to them.

Accepted macroeconomic history goes something like this: Europe wasn’t more productive than the rest of the world until 1700 or so. The gains from the colonies Europe had in the Americas at the time (mostly Spanish silver) weren’t translated into economic growth because of poor understanding of how inflation worked, and because of the trade deficit with the far East. Simply said, the Europeans had nothing the rest of the world wanted to buy, so everything had to be paid for with silver.

In pre-industrial times, the most expensive durable goods people owned were fabrics (their clothing and bedding) and so the main trade goods in the world were cotton and its products. The nexus of trade and production was in East Asia, simply because that’s where the vast majority of the world’s population lived.

In the eighteenth century, Europe broke into the cotton market by force. The seizure of Bengal, which was a key trade and production hub, by the British in 1757 is often cited as the watershed moment. Once the Europeans had a foothold, they used aggressive de-industrialization and protectionist measures to make sure their (initially inferior) trade goods had a captive market. They did this mainly by mandating that the colonies bought finished goods that were manufactured in the metropolis.

During this period, GDP in much of what we now call the third world stagnated or even declined as local industries were destroyed (China and India’s GDP per capita stayed constant from pre-industrial times to somewhere between 1870 and 1945, depending on the source you use). We have documentary evidence that this was deliberate policy, and that the Europeans knew the economic cost of what they were doing.

Once they’d broken into the cotton market, they were able to repeat the same trick with opium, metalwork, tea, gin, coffee, and so on. Eventually, this became such a strong effect that de-industrialization extended to places where the Europeans had no direct control, such as West and Central Africa.

I note – with respect – that the above is a standard account taught to first year economics students. Empire of Cotton (Beckert 2014) is a readable account of this process; the GDP data I cite is from the Maddison Project. This account is the jumping-off point for various more political interpretations of these events, but I would say that the interpretation that Europe got ahead by pushing the others down is not at all an unreasonable one.

The main remaining discussion, as far as I can tell, is what we should make of the strong but highly localized economic growth pre-colonization in places like Flanders, Holland, Northern Italy, and later on England. The open question here is whether colonization kicked off the acceleration into what would eventually become the industrial revolution, or whether it merely accelerated a process that would have gotten there on its own eventually.

And as for the role of liberal democracy on a micro level, i.e. did this or that country do better when they became a liberal democracy, there is often no correlation. Much of Central and Eastern Europe started its GDP growth under authoritarian regimes in the late nineteenth century, with growth continuing under communism, and no clear break when democracy arrived (look at Hungary’s GDP, for example, or Poland’s). China is another good example: their GDP growth kicked off in the 1950s, not exactly a place and time known for its liberalism.

142. Aaron G Says:

Scott, while I can understand your sense of frustration and despair at the situation with COVID-19, it is important to note the following:

1. “Flattening the curve” has always been about buying us time – time so that our health care systems don’t become overwhelmed. With the additional possibility of reducing the transmission rate (the R0 value) to at or below 1 so that the number of cases will eventually fall.

2. I’m a biostatistician working in the pharma sector, and I know there are many groups throughout the world conducting research in a COVID-19 vaccine, with many candidate vaccines already in the pipeline for Phase 1 trials. There are some candidates that are already proceeding in combined Phase 1/2 trials through adaptive clinical designs.

3. In addition to vaccines, there are many antiviral candidates for COVID-19, at least 3 of which are already in Phase 3 clinical trials that started in March. We should start to see results there fairly soon, and if promising, those antivirals could be approved by regulatory agencies and made widely available before vaccines. Such availability should be taken into account in terms of us “returning to normal”.

143. Aaron G Says:

mjgeddes #119, I have read preliminary reports (wish I had the link on hand) that does suggest a seasonal component to the novel coronavirus. So it may be possoble that both Australia and New Zealand could see surges in cases as they approach their winter months (corresponding to summer in the Northern Hemisphere, in the months of June-September).

144. Jelmer Renema Says:

Scott #122:

I don’t think what you propose is a coherent or actionable political philosophy. In particular, I don’t see how, without additional assumptions, it addresses my first concern. Even if I grant you that you have an ability to distinguish good people from bad retroactively, that only enables you to avoid previous mistakes. And I’m not worried about current enlightenment thinkers re-starting colonialism or eugenics, I’m worried about them making different mistakes of similar magnitude in the present – like underestimating the negative effects of social inequality, or overestimating our ability to fix global warming with as yet to be invented technology.

The reason I think your philosophy is incoherent is that as soon as you go out of the narrowly-defined scenarios for which historical example gives you guidance, interpretation comes into the picture again, and it is impossible to do that in a neutral way. If your philosophy is ‘what would George Washington do?’, that fails on the fact that even if two people agree he is such a great person as to be worth emulating, they might still reasonably disagree on why that is the case. So not only do you have to lay down a list of people worth emulating, you also have to specify the reasons they are worth emulating. And even more, since most ethical dilemmas tend to involve conflicting values, you also have to specify which aspects of their goodness take precedence in which situations. And at that point you might as well cut out the middleman and come out and say ‘this is what I believe’.

Also, can I point out that you’ve now taken a philosophy that prides itself on being about progress, rationality, and confidence about the future, and turned it into something like the Old Testament, with prophets whose actions we should emulate?

And as for the points regarding enlightenment requiring minimalist commitment: can you really not see the in-group bias here? Every ideology claims that its adherents are the flexible, pragmatic ones, able to take in how the world really is, while the others are the dogmatists. To give an example: the modern far right likes to argue that they are the pragmatic ones because their philosophy accommodates the intrinsic differences between cultures, whereas their ‘globalist’ opponents want to force everyone into the same moral framework. Regardless of the truth of this statement, do you see how the logical structure mirrors your own thinking? What you consider the essential things to be pragmatic about is a central part of your ideological commitments.

Also, every ideology wants to downplay the explicit ideological commitments it asks from its followers. Various ideologies do this in different ways (a political science textbook will spell out for you how they do this). To give you one worked example: conservatism does it by claiming that while others have doctrines, conservatism has tendencies, which are different because they are not learned but natural. As Oakeshott put it in ‘on being Conservative’: “My theme is not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition”. If you read on a bit from that, you can also hear him extolling how even-handed, balanced, well-adjusted (etc etc) conservative people are. Again, do you see how this mirrors your own thinking?

And note: none of this is to say ‘change your political positions’, but it is to say ‘examine the structure of your own ideas’.

And as for selecting on niceness: Even apart from the fact that it massively enhances in-group bias, it is really the worst possible heuristic in politics. I’ve known an honest to goodness Maoist, the absolute caricature of an angry Marxist, who when we has not busy advocating banning ‘reactionary’ literature spent his time volunteering at the local care home. And I’ve known completely unobjectionable local politicians who would spend an evening drinking beer with their colleagues and then stab them in the back with a few quick phone calls.

145. gentzen Says:

There is an open and honest guest comment from Prof. Dr. med. Dr. h.c. Paul Robert Vogt in a local swiss newspaper (8. April 2020). It is a long article (in German), which says many uncomfortable things. Below I pasted a translation of two especially uncomfortable sections:

7. What do we know? What we don’t know

We know,

that it is an aggressive virus;

1. that the mean incubation period lasts 5 days; the maximum incubation period is not yet clear;
2. that asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers can infect other people and that this virus is “extremely contagious” and “extremely resistant” (A. Lanzavecchia);
3. we know the risk populations;
4. that in the past 17 years it has not been possible to develop either a vaccination or a monoclonal antibody against corona viruses;
5. that it has never been possible to develop a vaccination against whatever corona virus;
6. that the so-called “flu vaccination” has only a minimal effect, contrary to popular advertising.

What we don’t know:

1. Whether or not there is immunity after undergoing infection. Certain data indicate that humans can develop immunoglobulins of the G class from day 15, which should prevent re-infection with the same virus. But it has not yet been definitely proven;
2. How long a possible immunity could protect;
3. whether this COVID-19 virus remains stable or whether a slightly different COVID-19 spreads again around the world in the autumn, analogous to the usual flu wave, against which there is no immunity;
4. Whether the higher temperatures in summer help us because the casing of the COVID-19 is unstable at higher temperatures. It must be mentioned here that the MERS virus spread in the Middle East from May to July, when the temperatures were higher than we have ever experienced;
5. How long it takes for a population to be so infected that the R value is <1:
If you test 1 million people in Zurich at a certain point in time, 12% to 18% COVID-19 is said to be positive at the moment. In order to deprive the pandemic of its pandemic character, the R value must be <1, i.e. Around 66% of the population must have had contact with the virus and have developed immunity. Nobody knows how long, how many months it will take until the infection, which is currently supposed to be 12% to 18%, has reached 66%! But it can be assumed that the spread of the virus from 12% to 18% to 66% of the population will continue to generate seriously ill patients.
6. So we don't know how long we'll be dealing with this virus. Two reports, which should not be accessible to the public (U.S. Government COVID Response Plan and a report from Imperial College London) come independently to a "lock-down" phase of up to 18 months;
7. and we don't know if this virus will occupy us epidemically / pandemically or maybe even endemically;
8. We still have no recognized and widely applicable, defined therapy; We have never been able to present one of these in the case of influenza.
Perhaps authorities and the media should put the facts on the table instead of presenting reports of an apparently successful vaccination that is not far away every two days.

8. What can we do now?

We can only say what is not feasible: an active infection of the non-risk groups with the COVID-19 virus is surely an absolute fantasy. It can only come to mind people who have no idea about biology, medicine and ethics:

1. It is certainly out of the question to deliberately infect millions of healthy citizens with an aggressive virus, of which we actually do not know anything, neither the extent of the acute damage nor the long-term consequences;
2. The greater the number of viruses per population, the greater the likelihood of an accidental mutation, which could make the virus even more aggressive. So we should definitely not actively help to increase the number of viruses per population.
3. The more people are infected with COVID-19, the more likely it is that this virus will adapt “better” to humans and become even more disastrous. It is assumed that this has already happened before.
4. With government reserves of supposedly 750 billion, it is ethically and morally reprehensible to infect millions of healthy people for mere economic considerations.
5. The deliberate infection of healthy people with this aggressive virus would acutely undermine one of the fundamental principles of the entire medical history from pure, short-term economic “concerns”: the principle of the “primum nil nocere”. As a doctor, I would refuse to take part in such a vaccination campaign at all.

146. Jelmer Renema Says:

Sniffnoy #140

I won’t launch another branch of this debate by going into the pros and cons of universal healthcare, so I will restrict myself to this meta-point: I took healthcare as an example because Scott mentioned this, claiming that it is somehow implied in the US’ founding documents (more specifically the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’) that the state should at least facilitate health care, and he simultaneously held up the people who wrote those documents as paragons of his philosophy.

I personally think that such a right is not implied in those words, but that is neither here nor there: my point is that the fact that you and he can (apparently) disagree on whether your philosophical tradition necessitates state-based healthcare, despite the fact that you both claim to be members of that tradition, shows that there is a bit more to the whole thing than asking what the US founders would do.

As for the other ones, I wasn’t arguing for logical necessity, I was pointing out a historical trajectory. That is: we ‘bumped into’ the concept race-based slavery based on the enlightenment drive to categorize, and so on. I’m not saying one necessarily follows from the other, I’m not saying we might not have taken other paths, I’m saying that’s the historical trajectory we happened to follow on occasion: from good ideas to terrible ones. And that aspect of it is all I needed for my argument.

147. Anonymous Says:

Scott #132: You’re right, I guess it’s been longer than I realized since I last read your blog. I wish Robin Hanson wasn’t on your list, and Naval and Nassim Nicholas Taleb were, they are much more on-point and useful in all of this.

148. Scott Says:

Anonymous again #128:

Solutions like variolation seem to be more about self-congratulation and intellectually flexing, for being willing to venture so far outside of normal sensibilities. That can definitely be useful. But why waste time, now of all times, on things that we *know* for a fact will not be accepted en masse?

Speaking for myself, I’ll tell you exactly why: because the only way I know how to approach any question is to first ask myself what would be the right answer in a rational world, where we didn’t have to worry about what could be “accepted en masse,” and only later worry about the latter. If variolation wouldn’t be the right answer even in a rational world, then we should understand exactly why, and eliminate it from further consideration. If, on the other hand, variolation would be the right answer in a rational world, but not in our world, then we’ve still gained extremely useful information. We can then ask, for example, whether there’s some related idea or different version of the idea that would be more socially acceptable. Just like in physics, where you first solve a problem assuming no friction, and only later put the friction back in.

149. matt Says:

gentzen 145 translates a German article to write “If you test 1 million people in Zurich at a certain point in time, 12% to 18% COVID-19 is said to be positive at the moment.” Does this seriously mean that there is sound data that at least 12% of the population has been infected, perhaps based on antibody tests? If so, isn’t that the best possible news you could hope for? I see that there are ~1000 deaths in Switzerland, with a population of ~8 million. I don’t know numbers of cases in Zurich specifically, but if ~10% of Switzerland had it, then the fatality rate is ~1000/800000=1/800. That’s certainly bad but much less than 1%. Further, if 12% is infected, that means it is pretty close to achieving herd immunity, only 5x rather than 100x.

Surely everyone would agree that if 100% of a population had been infected, there is no point in any restrictions. Or if 0.1% was infected, with 1/8000 deaths, conversely, there should be almost total lockdown. So, where is the cutoff in at which point a high enough prevalence means relaxing restrictions? How can anyone meaningfully make policy without knowing prevalence?

150. Scott Says:

Jelmer #146: While universal healthcare is something I support, on the empirical ground that it leads to good outcomes, I agree with you that it’s not implied by the US’s founding promise of inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What is implied, though, what even the Founders would’ve recognized as implied, is something much more basic: that in the event of an enemy invasion, pandemic, or other catastrophe, the state will take at least minimally competent actions to protect the population from mass death. More broadly, what I see as distinctive about the Trump era is that we’re no longer debating the fine points of political philosophy, but rather, what would’ve thought were the rock-bottom fundamentals that any sane person would agree about.

151. Scott Says:

Jelmer #144: I happily accept the charge that my political philosophy is “incoherent.” But only in the sense that a philosopher might say to a machine learning researcher: “you’ve failed to give any coherent, a-priori definition of the word ‘cat.’ All you’ve given is an incomprehensible algorithm that succeeds well in practice at distinguishing cats from non-cats, and that only because you trained it on past examples. But who’s to say that your algorithm will continue to work on all possible future examples?”

I think the machine learning researcher would be entitled to turn the tables and say: “ok then, what’s your coherent definition of ‘cat’? I haven’t heard you present one either! Meanwhile, though, at least I do have a statistical model that correctly classifies the cats and non-cats that we’ve seen in the past, and that’s better than what I’ve seen from you!” 🙂

152. Anonymous again Says:

Scott #148: Your response makes sense, but Hanson seems to have already taken a hardline stance in favor of it without asking questions that are essential to perform any kind of cost/benefit analysis:

Is it true that (as some studies say) that almost half the population has already been infected, that mean transmission began around mid-January and the vast majority of cases presented mild or no symptoms? If that’s the case, then variolation would be a massive waste of resources.

Is it true that reinfection is possible? How is the virus mutating?

How likely is it that young people infected with small amounts of the virus will suffer permanent lung (or other) damage? If that’s the case, then putting all resources towards vaccines is probably the best route.

I actually engaged with him on Twitter and he treated these basic questions with the same contempt as the emotional outrage crowd, leading me to believe that this is mostly stirring the pot to get attention, rather than solving real problems. If I were in his position and sincere, I would be making calls to virologists to see if the solution is viable medically. One of these small facts could deflate his entire proposal.

153. Scott Says:

marxbro #138 and others: My starting point is the famous saying that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the alternatives that have been tried. If we could have a dictator who was guaranteed to be brilliant, public-spirited, responsive to scientific evidence, etc., and whose power was secure and whose commands were obeyed, to me that’s not merely better than democracy, it’s obviously, almost definitionally better! The problem is “merely” that in thousands of years, no one ever managed to solve the problem of how to ensure that the dictator is like that, or (especially) of how the dictator’s successors remain like that. And bad dictators have a tendency to be unboundedly bad, with gulags, gas chambers, deliberate famines, and all the rest. And preventing the latter is so important that it overrides any possible benefit of a good dictator. Ergo, democracy.

The view I’ve advocated here is, I admit, a utopian fantasy in one sense, but in another sense it’s perfectly practical. My view doesn’t call for any superhuman leaders, but “merely” leaders of a kind that the world has already seen thousands of examples of. Obama would be fine, Gates would be fine, plenty of others would be fine. It’s utopian only in the sense that it calls for only these leaders.

The one thing to add is that, during a crisis for civilization, the balance of considerations shifts. If we gave emergency powers right now to someone smart and public-minded and competent, then sure, they might turn around and abuse their powers somewhat, but it would be really hard for them to do half as much damage as the pandemic itself (combined with our existing thuggish and incompetent leadership) is doing already.

154. Zoren Says:

Scott, I guess that makes you a top-down authoritarian, who thinks that a hypothetical benevolent, perfect dictator is better than democracy on principle, and the sovereignty of the common folks has no inherent value. Interesting. So basically it’s not Trump’s authoritarian tendencies that bother you, only his incompetence and lack of interest in science?

Personally I value sovereignty over just about everything. If I live under a dictatorship, no matter how competent and progressive, that’s a dystopia to me. I’d rather have ten thousand tribes worshipping rocks, knowing nothing of science, but in control of their own destinies than a technocratic top-down world order ruled by one ideology and dictator. I don’t know what to say to someone who doesn’t see things that way, except: “when in the course of human events…”. I’m pretty surprised at some of your ideas in this thread, I must say. Is the quarantine affecting you more than you realize?

155. Scott Says:

Zoren #154: What has value to me is good decisions getting made—i.e., decisions that support human survival and flourishing—or, what amounts to nearly the same thing in practice, the unimpeded flow of knowledge about what is and isn’t working. Science is not a democracy, and yet it works (probably, better than any other institution humans have ever designed) in the sense that good ideas can eventually triumph no matter how humble their origin, while bad ideas can eventually be overthrown and their diehard defenders embarrassed. Or for a smaller example, think of the Wikipedia editing hierarchy, which is also open to anyone albeit not a democracy. If the US could work like that, it would be a massive improvement over the dumpster fire that we have now!

In practice, the biggest problem with authoritarians is that they don’t understand our civilization’s error-correcting machinery. They “think with their gut,” sneer at experts, shut out bad news by punishing anyone who brings it, and feel no compunction about telling arbitrarily blatant lies. (Sound familiar?) But a hypothetical dictator who was the exact opposite of that? In ordinary circumstances, I’d still be opposed, because no matter how exemplary the dictator had been in the past, I’d worry about them getting corrupted in the future. But in the midst of a pandemic, and the cataclysmic failure of the US government to respond to it? My questions would be more like: “where is this dictator? can I move my family to their territory to increase our chances of survival? do they have any use for a theoretical computer scientist?” 🙂

156. Andaro Says:

No, the biggest problem with authoritarians is that they don’t represent my interests. The point of liberty isn’t just to error-correct, it’s to allow people larger choice sets from which to select what best corresponds to their preferences. People’s preferences are different and “stop liking what I don’t like” is an inherently antisocial attitude. Authoritarians are much more likely to restrict my choice sets in this way and cut out parts that I care about than classical liberals or libertarians are. This is also a problem with authoritarian voters within a democracy. Could there be a hypothetical dictator that is more classical-liberal or libertarian about this than the median voter? Sure, just like there could be a hypothetical Andaro’s-preferences-maximizer and I’d love *that* guy to be world dictator. But the empirical reality of dictatorship is routinely worse on these dimensions, as far as I can tell.

157. Filip Says:

It’s suspected that John Conway has died due to the novel coronavirus. Regardless of whether that’s the reason, rest in peace John.

These times show us not just how one bat can change everything, but also how one bad presidential vote, or one person not staying home, or one person saying the wrong word can have dramatic consequences.

158. marxbro Says:

“My starting point is the famous saying that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the alternatives that have been tried. If we could have a dictator who was guaranteed to be brilliant, public-spirited, responsive to scientific evidence, etc., and whose power was secure and whose commands were obeyed, to me that’s not merely better than democracy, it’s obviously, almost definitionally better!”

Then you’ll agree that we should have democratic control in the workplace, right? As in, worker control of the means of production. Oh? Not everyone agrees with that? Then you’re still going to have a basic conflict in society and your utopian vision will be wracked with strikes, lockouts, strikebreaking, riots, etc.

If your dictator responds to ‘scientific evidence’ are they gonna shut down the oil/coal industry because it causes climate change? Or are they gonna turn a blind eye because so much of our economy is built around it.

These are fundamental question that your solution of simply putting ‘competent’ people at the helm cannot answer.

159. Scott Says:

marxbro #158:

Climate change – without question, the science-responsive dictator who I was talking about would put their country on a war footing, both in adapting to the disastrous climate change that’s already baked in, and in pursuing technology and international agreements to prevent even worse climate change. Indeed, I’d treat how well they did that as one of the main tests of how science-responsive they actually were.

“Democratic control of the workplace” – if that’s a euphemism for nationalization of industries, then generally no, a science-responsive dictator would realize that that’s been a disaster just about everywhere it’s been tried. I have, on the other hand, recently become a big fan of a generous Universal Basic Income (indeed, as a substitute for a lot of the other stuff governments currently do), which would aid “democratic control of the workplace” by giving every worker some genuine freedom to walk—to take some time off or even start their own business—if they didn’t like their working conditions.

160. marxbro Says:

“Climate change – without question, the science-responsive dictator who I was talking about would put their country on a war footing, both in adapting to the disastrous climate change that’s already baked in, and in pursuing technology and international agreements to prevent even worse climate change. Indeed, I’d treat how well they did that as one of the main tests of how science-responsive they actually were.”

Ok, then you’re going to see a revolt by the oil industry, and any industries in general that rely on cheap energy. You’re might also see a collapse in relations with oil exporting nations who will now sell their product to another country instead. This will fundamentally alter the economic system of capitalism and likely lead to mass unemployment, lockouts, etc.

““Democratic control of the workplace” – if that’s a euphemism for nationalization of industries, then generally no, a science-responsive dictator would realize that that’s been a disaster just about everywhere it’s been tried.”

No – I said democratic control of the workplace, I’m not using any euphemisms. You’re not a mindreader, are you? I write what I mean. Please be charitable to my arguments instead of just dismissing them because I’m a member of the outgroup. Sneering at me is not a good look.

You’ve just made the argument that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the alternatives that have been tried”. So are we going to have democracy in the workplace or not?

“I have, on the other hand, recently become a big fan of a generous Universal Basic Income (indeed, as a substitute for a lot of the other stuff governments currently do), which would aid “democratic control of the workplace” by giving every worker some genuine freedom to walk—to take some time off or even start their own business—if they didn’t like their working conditions.”

UBI would lead to massive labor shortages and decrease the already-low rate of profit, leading to economic collapse.

So far most of your proposed changes will have led to capitalism grinding to a halt, likely causing mass unrest. So much for your “science-responsive” dictatorship, you’d probably cause an army coup within a month or two.

161. Scott Says:

marxbro #160: Given that Marx, who you put in your very name, was the author of some of the most famously, catastrophically failed predictions in human history (and it’s a crowded field), I hope you’ll forgive me for not attaching particular credence to your Marxist predictions for what would happen under my preferred policies! In any case, a science-responsive dictator would be nimble enough to change course once it became clear that something wasn’t working—indeed, that’s pretty much the definition of “science-responsive”! 🙂

“Democratic control of the workplace” is a term that doesn’t entirely parse in a free-market economy, especially not a service economy like ours. E.g., if you hire two people to clean your house, they can certainly refuse, but they don’t get to outvote you 2-1 on a motion to take all your money and not clean your house. Many of the best workplaces are run quasi-democratically—indeed, especially in the tech industry, many employees are part-owners and have a direct stake in the company’s success. Universities, like mine, provide another example where many decisions are made (or at least strongly informed) by votes of the faculty, for better and for worse. Having said that, by far the most important democratic right that workers have is to walk away if they’re not getting what they want, or to threaten to. And UBI would help ensure that that right was not merely theoretical.

162. marxbro Says:

“Given that Marx, who you put in your very name, was the author of some of the most famously, catastrophically failed predictions in human history (and it’s a crowded field)”

Such as? Please specify using quotes from Marx. I wouldn’t want a thinker to be misrepresented here.

“In any case, a science-responsive dictator would be nimble enough to change course once it became clear that something wasn’t working—indeed, that’s pretty much the definition of “science-responsive”!”

What would count as not working here? Because what capitalists want and what scientists want are two different things. Politics is about manoeuvring between different groups like this, and if you’re going to please the scientists then you’re going to anger the capitalists in many cases. Just look at our current situation! Science says we should have all gone into isolation much earlier, but capitalist says we should all work as much as possible. Would you have been prepared to make the call “stay inside” a month earlier if that stock market line was gonna go down more sharply and for longer? There are fundamental tensions in society, and you’re not going to be able to navigate all of them if our economic system says our number 1 prerogative is profit but we have a perfect dictator who says science comes before everything else. Those are two entirely different goals!

““Democratic control of the workplace” is a term that doesn’t entirely parse in a free-market economy, especially not a service economy like ours. E.g., if you hire two people to clean your house, they can certainly refuse, but they don’t get to outvote you 2-1 on a motion to take all your money and not clean your house. ”

Democratic control of the workplace is a relation between workers and their bosses/management (if there are any), not a relation between workers and customers. The test of this democracy would be workers voting not to clean a specific client’s house when their bosses want them to, it has nothing to do with stealing money from customers.

“Having said that, by far the most important democratic right that workers have is to walk away if they’re not getting what they want, or to threaten to.”

We already have that right and I can tell you it doesn’t work out in favour of workers the large majority of time. So if that’s all you’re offering us, then I’m sorry, we’re going to keep going on strike and organising socialist parties. Let’s see how your science dictatorship deals with a rising Communist party.

163. Moran Says:

I believe posts such as this one are highly dangerous. They provoke panic, and give a valid reason for governments to take away basic civil rights. Many of the world’s democracies are in a quick process of becoming dictatorships, and posts such as this help this process.

Regarding the virus itself. If one ignores the craziness of the panic provoking public media, it looks more and more like the alarm has been raised over nothing. Interestingly, more reliable indicators such as all cause mortality seem to raise only in places that have imposed hard lock down and have a very strained health system (such as Italy), indicating that the lock down itself is a significant factor in the raise (for example, in Italy part of the reason for the collapse of the health care system is elderly people arriving with dehydration to the hospitals because their usual (foreign) aid fled the country due to panic and fear of the government’s actions).

If one looks deeper, there are many sources suggesting that the disease is no worse than the already circulating corona viruses, which are considered to be “common cold” despite killing 1-2 percent of the sick in facilities caring for the old (and usually sick). As a source, let me just give the website https://swprs.org/a-swiss-doctor-on-covid-19/, which contains tons of references of this kind and similar; some of which appeared in scientific journals that look legitimate.

164. Sniffnoy Says:

Jelmer Renema #146:

I won’t launch another branch of this debate by going into the pros and cons of universal healthcare, so I will restrict myself to this meta-point: I took healthcare as an example because Scott mentioned this, claiming that it is somehow implied in the US’ founding documents (more specifically the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’) that the state should at least facilitate health care, and he simultaneously held up the people who wrote those documents as paragons of his philosophy.

Ah, I don’t think we’re in disagreement on this then. Agree that the object level point is not relevant to this discussion. I missed that context. Although I don’t think Scott actually said that? Well, see his #150 here, he already said it. Suggestion that you should’ve made your implied context more explicit here because I certainly didn’t get it.

I personally think that such a right is not implied in those words, but that is neither here nor there: my point is that the fact that you and he can (apparently) disagree on whether your philosophical tradition necessitates state-based healthcare, despite the fact that you both claim to be members of that tradition, shows that there is a bit more to the whole thing than asking what the US founders would do.

Agreed, except for the choice of example, since Scott and I don’t actually seem to disagree on this. Except Scott also seems to agree with this statement, even if he’s doing things as history-with-changes, which (like you) I think is ill-advised.

As for the other ones, I wasn’t arguing for logical necessity, I was pointing out a historical trajectory. That is: we ‘bumped into’ the concept race-based slavery based on the enlightenment drive to categorize, and so on.

Again, suggestion you be clearer, because you said “racism”, not “race-based slavery”. Racism obviously is much older. Moreover I’d question the claim that race-based slavery is really due to categorization, except perhaps in a “did you know that criminals escape from crime scenes in cars?” (as Bruce Schneier likes to put it) sense. Also I’d really say that you did indeed imply that categorization of humans does lead directly to it, in that you said that the appropriate fix was not categorizing humans. If that weren’t the case, why would that be the appropriate fix? If you didn’t mean to imply that you’re going to have to be clearer.

I’m not saying one necessarily follows from the other, I’m not saying we might not have taken other paths, I’m saying that’s the historical trajectory we happened to follow on occasion: from good ideas to terrible ones. And that aspect of it is all I needed for my argument.

I’m not really seeing the relevance to be honest. Are you looking at popular development of ideas rather than what they actually imply? Because the one doesn’t have much to do with the other. (Analogous situation: The right-wingers like to claim that the Enlightenment only happened because of Christianity, and that therefore the Enlightenment is really a Christian thing. Thing is, even if they’re right about the first part, that doesn’t make the second part true!)

Anyway, overall agreement with on the point that Scott’s quasi-historical approach is not really workable as a serious approach (but in Scott’s hands it should be pretty decent 😛 Of course, Scott was just discussing the problem of relying on particular people… 😛 ).

Jelmer Renema #144:

And as for selecting on niceness: Even apart from the fact that it massively enhances in-group bias, it is really the worst possible heuristic in politics. I’ve known an honest to goodness Maoist, the absolute caricature of an angry Marxist, who when we has not busy advocating banning ‘reactionary’ literature spent his time volunteering at the local care home. And I’ve known completely unobjectionable local politicians who would spend an evening drinking beer with their colleagues and then stab them in the back with a few quick phone calls.

Again it looks to me like you’re responding to a claim Scott didn’t actually make? Also, uh, that doesn’t sound like a very nice person…?

But agreement with the point there’s nice people all over the political landscape. Still, I can’t help but want to salvage the claim that you’re trying to rebut. I think the archetypical liberal niceness, and the archetypical traditionalist/authoritarian niceness, are different. 🙂 The archetypical trad-auth is going to be nice in the sense of being agreeable; the archetypical liberal is going to be nice in the sense of, like, being opposed to the substitution of shouting for argument.

And I do think this sort of thing is worth noting — as Kelsey Piper points out, there’s a reason communism has always ended up dictatorial despite nominally being opposed to it.

…but, while you might be able to learn something about a group this way, trying to judge individuals this way is a mug’s game. Not the best of heuristics IMO. Best to give up on this salvage probably.

165. Scott Says:

Moran #163: Your comment is dangerous. Have you read any of the dispatches from the hospitals in NYC and elsewhere that are now overloaded with covid cases, storing the corpses in refrigerated trucks because there’s no more room in the morgues? Despite the historic lockdown (imagine if there weren’t one…), covid has already become the leading cause of death in the US, surpassing cancer and heart disease. Denial at this point would be laughable if it weren’t actually the cause of mass deaths—not projected future deaths but right now ones. You should be ashamed of yourself. The only further comment from you that I’ll host is an apology to the sick and the grieving.

166. gentzen Says:

matt #149:

gentzen 145 translates a German article to write “If you test 1 million people in Zurich at a certain point in time, 12% to 18% COVID-19 is said to be positive at the moment.” Does this seriously mean that there is sound data that at least 12% of the population has been infected, perhaps based on antibody tests?

I fear I have to disappoint you. The translation turned “sollen aktuell angeblich” into “is said to be”. The original formulation strongly hints that the statement cannot be relied on. Another hint is the “1 million people in Zurich”: The population of Zurich is only 0.4 million! Let me try to put those 12% to 18% into context by quoting numbers from the COVID-19-Pandemie in der Schweiz Wikipedia article:

Per 1. April 2020 beläuft sich die Anzahl der bisher durchgeführten Tests auf das Virus SARS-CoV-2 auf insgesamt rund 139’330; davon fiel das Resultat bei 15 % positiv aus.

As of April 1, 2020, the number of previous tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus was around 139,330; the result was positive at 15%.

Per 10. April 2020 beläuft sich die Zahl der durchgeführten Tests auf SARS-CoV-2 auf insgesamt über 190’000; davon fiel das Resultat bei 15 % positiv aus; allerdings sind mehrere positive oder negative Tests bei derselben Person möglich.

As of April 10, 2020, the number of tests performed on SARS-CoV-2 totaled over 190,000; the result was positive at 15%; however, several positive or negative tests can be carried out on the same person.

So one way to get 12% to 18% is to take that 15%, and turn it into 15-3 to 15+3. It may be that the author is responding here to (unreliable) numbers circulating currently for whatever reasons. His point is that even if those numbers were true, it wouldn’t change that “an active infection of the non-risk groups with the COVID-19 virus is surely an absolute fantasy”.

167. Aaron G Says:

Scott #165, you state that “COVID-19 has become the leading cause of death in the US.” Without trying to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic, do you have any objective evidence to this?

I ask because we don’t have a true picture of the fatality of COVID-19 (in the US or elsewhere), nor do we always have a consistent way of determining a cause of death.

For example, suppose there is a woman who has a history of heart disease & high blood pressure contracts COVID-19 and dies of a heart attack. Did she die of heart disease, or COVID-19? It isn’t always clear the causality.

168. Jelmer Renema Says:

Sniffnoy #164:

Okay, I think we agree we’ve successfully cauterized the healthcare branch of this debate :), so I’ll respond to the racism bit only:

I strongly disagree with you when you say that the historical way ideas were used and what they ‘actually imply’ have little to do with each other.

Apart from the fact I’m not even sure there is an ‘actual’ implication of ideas outside their historical context, political science is at a strong disadvantage compared to – say – physics in that there are no neutral terms: it’s possible to talk about an electron without encoding your value system in what you say in a way that is impossible when, say discussing the concept of freedom.

Such concepts are known as ‘essentially contested concepts’, which means that irreconcilable value judgements are encoded into the way different people use them. This makes them difficult to handle. For example, if you want to debate – say – if socialism of capitalism produces more freedom, the answer is encoded into the question ‘what do you mean by freedom?’, and so this is not a very productive debate to have, since entirely depends on how you define your terms.

Therefore, it’s generally recognized that the approach where you ask what freedom ‘actually implies’ is kind of a dead end, and – especially if you’re having the kind of meta-debate we’re having, where the question is not ‘who is right?’ but ‘is this system of beliefs consistent?’ – it’s much better to take a historical approach and ask ‘how did people who professed those beliefs actually use this concept?’. That is, you go and look for cases where that concept played a role in – say – political decision making, and from that you try and figure out an operational definition.

Of course, that brings with it it’s own whole set of problems intrinsic to historical interpretation, not least that the terms of political history themselves are essentially contested, but that is why books that try this tend to begin with 20 pages of definitions along the lines of ‘Throughout, I use the word ‘culture’ as defined in Latour (p XYZ), and the word ‘community’ as defined in….’ Going down this path is a very hard slog (and deep respect to the people who make this their life’s work!), but it’s at least a way of making some sort of progress.

And this is what I was trying to do for the relation between the enlightenment and scientific racism: to make the point of how the enlightenment has failed catastrophically in the past by examining it’s historical role in to justifying race-based slavery.

As I said above, I don’t think an essential relation (‘putting people in categories must cause race-based slavery’) can ever be shown, so we agree there, and I also agree with you that a merely incidental relation (‘putting people in categories happened to cause race-basd slavery’) is insufficient. Instead, what I’m arguing is an affine relation, something like ‘putting people in categories was a major way in which race-based slavery justified its existence’). I note that this is enough for the broader point I was trying to make, namely ‘the enlightenment has made some pretty dramatic mistakes in the past, so how can we be sure it won’t make any more similarly dire mistakes in the future?’

The criterion to evaluate whether there is such a relation should be something like ‘did race-based slavery borrow a sufficient number of justifications from the enlightenment to be legitimately considered an offshoot’? Apart from intellectual overlap, it would also help if we could show some personal overlap, i.e. if key enlightenment figures had something to do with the justification of race-based slavery. In both cases, the answer is yes.

As a side note: I continue to be amazed in this whole discussion how little value people seem to put on historical research as a way of understanding the world of ideas, despite the constant appeals to empiricism that everyone is making. It’s almost as if they have a very, very circumscribed idea of what empiricism means (I’m sure Marxbro will have a field day with this).

And more strongly, I continue to be amazed at how little people seem to realize that people in the past, often not so long ago, walked around in their heads with radically different ways of conceptualizing the world, despite everyone making constant appeals to the past to justify their positions. For example, earlier on there was a claim that the US founding documents give a clear mandate for the Federal government to intervene in the case of epidemics, despite the fact that the Federal government did not make any moves to do so for a hundred years (despite repeated yellow fever epidemics), only definitively establishing its authority on this subject in 1944! ‘Am I making an anachronism’ is really as basic a sanity check for the kind of discussion that we’re having here as is ‘do the units on both sides of my equation match’ for a discussion about physics.

If you forgive that last little bit of venting: I think these ahistoric tendencies are even more on display when discussing racism, since we’re obviously all unconfortable examining the specific ways in which our direct ancestors decided to be awful. So it’s very comforting for us to say ‘racism has always been with us’ as a kind of balm to our own conscience, to dilute our own specific past mistakes in a sea of generality by saying ‘well, everyone was awful to everyone at some point’, while in fact the particular kind of racism that was used to justify slavery in the US had a specific time and place where it was intellectually conceived, and that was very much bound up in the enlightenment.

I did make one mistake: I specified ‘scientific racism’ the first time around I mentioned it, but not the second, which didn’t make things clearer. Scientific racism is the notion that through the scientific process (in practice: cranial measurements and all that) we can scientifically categorize people into racial groups with different inherent, objective characteristics.

This was very much an enlightenment project since it used the basic enlightenment idea of using science solve a social problem (nb: this was a radical new idea at the time!). And it was very closely tied to the enlightenment categorization drive: Linnaeus, the guy who invented taxonomic nomenclature, was also one of the first to introduce modern racial categories, along with some pretty recognizable racist tropes: Africans as lustful and capricious, Europeans as inventive and rational, Native Americans as stoic and righteous, and so on. And I want to emphasize that this was not a fringe intellectual activity: it was a central preoccupation of the early community of naturalists. Apart from Linnaeus, Cuvier, Buffon, and even Thomas Jefferson all participated. The guy who connected the notion of ‘Caucasian’ with a particular skull shape (thereby providing the intellectual toolbox of the Nazi genocidal project, incidentally) was the mentor of Alexander von Humboldt.

And this stuff found its way to the plantations, too. As slavery came under increasing pressure in the early nineteenth century, arguments that African Americans were simply naturally suited to manual labour were very welcome to the plantation owners. There were even claims that African Americans were physiologically less susceptible to pain, and that freedmen had far higher incidences of mental health problems. These kinds of justifications became key buttresses of the institution in the decades up to the Civil War, displacing earlier non-scientific justifications such as the curse of Ham.

169. Scott Says:

Aaron G #167:

you state that “COVID-19 has become the leading cause of death in the US.” Without trying to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic, do you have any objective evidence to this?

See here. Covid has now overtaken the estimated daily totals from heart disease and cancer, although obviously not yet the yearly totals.

Yes, of course there are some deaths mistakenly attributed to covid, and many due to a combination of factors of which covid is only one. But from all accounts I’ve read, those effects are completely swamped by the thousands of people now dying in their homes from covid, who never get tested (even postmortem, because the tests are still too scarce) and are therefore never counted toward the official total. (If you doubt this, look at e.g. the all-cause mortality statistics from northern Italy, which spiked by factors of 3 or 4–way higher than even their already-staggering official totals.)

170. Jelmer Renema Says:

Scott 150, 151: I don’t think you’re responding to the substance of my criticism. For our present purposes, I’m not interested in your opinion on healthcare, I’m interested in the process by which you claim to arrive at that opinion. And I believe I was pretty clear that I think it’s not just incoherent in the sense of ‘not reducible to an explicit set of decision making rules’ or ‘only verified by experience’ but incoherent in the sense of ‘requires additional inputs which largely pre-determine the outcome, thereby rendering the claimed decision making process irrelevant’ and also not actionable, i.e. prone producing contradictory or meaningless output.

Furthermore, I have never denied that your system produces a good answer some of the time (if I have to start a rebellion against the British, I know who to ask); the scope of the debate has always been whether it produces a good answer often enough, and what happens if the system fails. Particularly that last issue is a strong point against you as the consequences have been disastrous in the past.

171. Aaron G Says:

Scott #169, thanks for sharing the link. From the report, at least one of the reasons that COVID-19 has become the leading causes of death in the US is due to the fall in death rates for certain other causes, most notably car accidents (due to the various lockdowns and work-from-home directives in various states).

Now as far as the spike in all-cause mortality in northern Italy that you speak of, yes no doubt some of this may be due to undiagnosed cases of COVID-19. But I also suspect that a significant percentage of those deaths were due to other unrelated causes that were left untreated due to hospitals and the health care system in northern Italy becoming overwhelmed. So that spike shouldn’t be entirely attributed directly to COVID-19.

Btw, the article does give additional news that a number of US states may be reaching their peaks in their infection rates. While we should be cautious about these reports (given the incomplete levels of testing), it does suggest some positive news.

172. Jelmer Renema Says:

Scott 155, Andaro 156

I’m starting to feel like that peasant in the Holy Grail who shouts ‘come see the violence inherent in the system!’ when King Arthur is kicking the snot out of him, but yeah: come see the violence (because establishing a dictatorship of any kind can only be done by violence) inherent in a rationalist belief system. As soon as you’ve decided that the other side is not rational, the only recourse is to bring out the truncheons.

This is why I am not a liberal: for all the talk of prudence and rationality and measured experimentation, liberalism is by far the least self-critical of the major political schools of thought. For all the terrible things the left did in the 20th century, it at least acquired some humility and self-criticism. The left has gone out of it’s way to own its mistakes: even though much of the western left was opposed to the Soviet Union, the subtext of much leftwing thinking since it’s atrocities became known has been ‘where did we go wrong and how do we prevent it from happening again?’

For example, people on the left have it drilled into them that theirs is a political viewpoint, not an absolute truth, since confusing the two is precisely what justified much of the violence. Liberalism lacks even that elementary historical awareness. It is unashamedly hegemonic in a way that can only end in disaster.

173. Sniffnoy Says:

Jelmer Renema #168:

For example, earlier on there was a claim that the US founding documents give a clear mandate for the Federal government to intervene in the case of epidemics, despite the fact that the Federal government did not make any moves to do so for a hundred years (despite repeated yellow fever epidemics), only definitively establishing its authority on this subject in 1944!

I strongly disagree with you when you say that the historical way ideas were used and what they ‘actually imply’ have little to do with each other.

I guess, the thing here is, once you start mixing the two together… well, it kind of seems like the path to the dark side, doesn’t it? It’s the path to “I mustn’t state true statement X, because people with their poor logic will instead take horrible statement Y from it, even though it doesn’t follow”. I don’t think that’s a good road to go down. So, some recognition of the distinction here is necessary.

Of course, that brings with it it’s own whole set of problems intrinsic to historical interpretation, not least that the terms of political history themselves are essentially contested, but that is why books that try this tend to begin with 20 pages of definitions along the lines of ‘Throughout, I use the word ‘culture’ as defined in Latour (p XYZ), and the word ‘community’ as defined in….’ Going down this path is a very hard slog (and deep respect to the people who make this their life’s work!), but it’s at least a way of making some sort of progress.

Good for them! 🙂 Yay for making finer distinctions. 🙂

Regarding race-based slavery:

I guess the key thing to me is, how similar is this to things that have happened at other times? No, as far as I know, race-based slavery in that form never happened elsewhere, but considering:

1. Racism, in these sense of “people who look like me and share recent ancestors with me are our my people and are good, but those other people are outsiders and are bad” — and the categorization of people into us-vs-foreign — has been around since before recorded history;
2. Enslaving of foreigners has been common throughout history;

…it’s pretty hard to believe that the missing component to creating race-based slavery was a more general drive towards categorization. You mention it as having created means used to justify it; but you also mention that there were earlier means used to justify it. So that’s not really the cause then is it? I’d bet its causes can be pretty well explained without reference to such things.

Like, I guess the thing is that I’m really just not interested in what justifications people give for slavery, because, well, they seem like excuses. I don’t want to go making some claim like ideas have no influence and are all just excuses, obviously not, but this definitely seems to be a case of practice-first, justification-second, rather than vice versa. And when the justification comes after the practice rather than before, displacing earlier justifications that already existed… well, yeah. If someone gave these justifications as reasons why there ought to be race-based slavery, before it existed, then obviously it’d be another matter.

But, I’ll admit I don’t really know this stuff. So, this is probably the point where I’m out of useful things to say! Guess I’ll probably shut up now. 🙂

174. Sniffnoy Says:

Jelmer Renema #172:

For example, people on the left have it drilled into them that theirs is a political viewpoint, not an absolute truth, since confusing the two is precisely what justified much of the violence.

People say this all the time but I don’t think it holds up. As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, “If you think that possessing the truth would license you to torture and kill, you’re making a mistake that has nothing to do with epistemology.”

This is why I am not a liberal: for all the talk of prudence and rationality and measured experimentation, liberalism is by far the least self-critical of the major political schools of thought.

I realize this is ignoring the substantial question, but…least self-critical? Really? Surely the obvious least-self-critical is traditionalism-authoritarianism-etc? Not thinking is, like, a key part of it. Thinking would get in the way of feeling the national unity! (To borrow Sarah Constantin’s summary of Hitler.)

(I never know what to call this thing that I’m pointing at; “conservatism” doesn’t work because modern American conservatism contains this weird incongruously-bolted-on element of liberalism; “authoritarianism” doesn’t work because that word has too many meanings and isn’t specific enough; “traditionalism” isn’t quite accurate as it often supports people who notably aren’t traditional at all, e.g. Trump… I typically say “traditionalism-authoritarianism” in the hopes of getting across what I mean but I’m not sure that’s sufficiently clear. Well, I hope you get what I’m pointing at.)

For all the terrible things the left did in the 20th century, it at least acquired some humility and self-criticism. The left has gone out of it’s way to own its mistakes:

I am skeptical of that claim.

even though much of the western left was opposed to the Soviet Union, the subtext of much leftwing thinking since it’s atrocities became known has been ‘where did we go wrong and how do we prevent it from happening again?’

To be snarky: And yet they keep rejecting the obvious answer, do they?

(To be explicit: The obvious answer is that, due to human instinct, every group tends towards tribalism, and once you cross a particular threshold, you’re lost — you’ve entered the positive feedback loop where a thing is justified because we did it, and any attempt to question or course-correct marks you as a heretic to be cast out, and group belief that members are required to affirm gets more and more unhinged as it becomes based solely on what the group belief already is, and not reality. But, with proper tools — specifically, tools from the liberal toolbox, like the negative-feedback loop of free speech — this decay can, if not be totally prevented, at least be held off… sometimes for a long, long time. But if you refuse to use these tools, if you tamper with the negative-feedback loop, things can go bad fast.)

175. fred Says:

How can we stop the coronavirus?

176. Scott Says:

Jelmer Renema: When I think of the people who seem least confident of their own beliefs, I think (among others) of Scott Alexander, who often completely reverses his position within the space of a single blog post. I certainly don’t think of the people who’ve attacked me from the left, like Amanda Marcotte or the SneerClubbers. Like their counterparts on the right, those people seem never to admit that they were wrong about anything.

Likewise, when I think of historical figures who were appropriately non-confident in their own beliefs, I think above all of Bertrand Russell. It took a single visit to the just-born Soviet Union to cure Russell of his previous admiration for Bolshevism. He wrote a book in 1920 that correctly predicted the Soviet horrors that his leftist friends still refused to accept decades later (and apparently, lost some of those friends by writing it). Later, in 1940, Russell abandoned his antiwar stance, conceding that pacifism—a central plank of his worldview, and one that he’d spent six months in prison for—had been rendered irrelevant by events.

I certainly don’t think of leading leftists like Noam Chomsky. Blind to the experience of the USSR, China, East Germany, etc., Chomsky sneered at the people who were trying to call attention to Pol Pot’s mass murder of Cambodians while it was happening. He’s still never apologized in any way for that world-historical blunder. As far as I know, very few of the Western apologists for Communist atrocities ever apologized.

You’re apparently really impressed by Enlightenment figures (which ones??) who reasoned that, since it’s rational to categorize things, therefore race-based slavery must be a good idea. The trouble is, I’ve never admired anyone remotely like that. I’ve admired real historical figures who used reason and liberal moral principles to be right about slavery and female suffrage and Communism and Nazism and much else well ahead of most others around them.

So if we leave out Enlightenment skull-categorizers who were never among my heroes (indeed I’m not even sure which people we’re talking about), your argument seems to be this: despite having been spectacularly wrong about Communist regimes, over and over and over, we should listen to the hard left, because it’s been appropriately humbled by the experience of being wrong about Communism, and taught that no ideology has sole possession of the truth. Whereas Enlightenment liberals and rationalists, who weren’t humiliated by history in that way, were never so humbled and hence remain too arrogant.

Despite how pretzel-shaped and even laughable that logic might seem to many, I’m actually open to the possibility that there’s something in it. But the problem is that I see no evidence that the hard left ever was humbled in this way! Even after Lenin, and Stalin, and Mao, and Pol Pot, and Hoxha, and Castro, and all the rest, within my memory they went right back and cheered for Hugo Chavez until he too was unmasked as a thuggish conman. To an outsider, the impression is of an adaptive learning process that’s totally broken and dysfunctional.

But I regret that this exchange is at an end. Right now, I’m less interested than usual in abstract ideological debates, more interested in mask and ventilator and vaccine production and defeating Trump in November and spending time with my kids. If we agreed on most things but disagreed on one key point, then it might be fruitful to spend hours exploring our disagreement. But you have an entire worldview almost diametrically opposed to mine, wherein almost everything I know to be good is horrible and almost everything I know to be horrible is good. So I doubt either of us will ever convince the other of anything. Thanks for participating at Shtetl-Optimized and have a wonderful day.

177. Sniffnoy Says:

Scott #176:

Bertrand Russell was kind of a leftist, y’know (this has come up before), not sure he’s the ideal choice of example there! I mean I’d call him somewhere inbetween I think? So not the worst example but not the best example either. Regardless, good guy obviously. 🙂

(But agreed on the overall point. I look at the LW-diaspora and I see people constantly admitting confusion and being unwilling to draw a definite conclusion (often, in these days of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting decisive action, but remember, the correct reponse to uncertainty is not half speed!), and being quite willing to discuss things with people who I personally would just give up on; I look at the SJ/leftist internet and I see constant demands for conformity, constant vilification anyone who even dares ask for clarification.)

178. Andaro Says:

Jelmer Renema #172

All political systems are violent, including democracy. It’s kind of mandatory for existence. Rationality is also mandatory, for anyone who wants to get anything done, politically or personally. Nonviolent or irrational people can only exist in niches defended by violent and rational people.

My only political goal: To defend my personal interests, to help those who help me and to harm those who harm me. This doesn’t map very well on “left” vs “right”, but it does map somewhat well on “authoritarian” vs “liberal” (in the classical sense of respecting my personal liberty).

179. marxbro Says:

“within my memory they went right back and cheered for Hugo Chavez until he too was unmasked as a thuggish conman.”

When exactly was he ‘unmasked as a thuggish conman’? Like him or hate him, Hugo Chavez won elections, and if you think democracy is “worst form of government except for all the alternatives that have been tried” then you should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people. Otherwise you’re no better than Trump who recognises the undemocratically appointed Juan Guaido.

If you’re interested in Enlightenment thought then you should be able to point to a single error in Marx – something you have been unable to do thus far. Being charitable to your ideological opponents involves actually reading their words and responding to them. You should be less enthusiastic about making broad strokes statements like “very few of the Western apologists for Communist atrocities ever apologized”.

If you’re so into “reason and liberal moral principles” you should be able to use those principles to critique thinkers like Marx. So far we’ve seen zero of this.

180. Scott Says:

Sniffnoy #177:

Bertrand Russell was kind of a leftist, y’know…

Yes, I’m well aware! Late in life, when Russell was senile, he apparently even let his assistant Ralph Schoenman manipulate him into expressing particularly doctrinaire, tinpot-dictator-loving leftist views. But the younger Russell was someone with a strong leftist orientation, who was nevertheless willing to break with his fellow leftists if he thought that human reality required it. That’s a position with which I have enormous sympathy.

181. marxbro Says:

“Yes, I’m well aware! Late in life, when Russell was senile, he apparently even let his assistant Ralph Schoenman manipulate him into expressing particularly doctrinaire, tinpot-dictator-loving leftist views. But the younger Russell was someone with a strong leftist orientation, who was nevertheless willing to break with his fellow leftists if he thought that human reality required it. That’s a position with which I have enormous sympathy.”

I’m noticing this pattern where when someone disagrees with you they’re doctrinaire, senile, being manipulated, a conman, a thug, a sneerer, a blunderer, broken and dysfunctional, someone ignoring “human reality” and so on.

I would appreciate if you would be specific about what you actually disagree with here, with quotes.

182. Scott Says:

marxbro: Alright, if you read Ray Monk’s biography of Russell, I agree with nearly everything Monk says about Russell’s politics. The only big problem is that Monk lacks his subject’s sense of humor.

Your repeated demands that I identify a single error in Marx’s writings calls to mind a bridge engineer who, after the bridge has spectacularly collapsed in full view of everyone, killing hundreds, and then a second and third and … twentieth bridge built on the same design collapsed in exactly the same way, shoves the design drawings in the critics’ faces and says “haha, none of you have pointed to a single error in these designs! that’s because you’re intellectual lightweights! the designs are perfect!”

Volumes have been written analyzing Marx’s misunderstandings of history and markets and game theory and human nature, but just like with Jelmer Renema, this is a topic for which you have infinite energy and I don’t. And if you (comically) won’t even acknowledge the highest-level, obvious point—that the bridge has collapsed, the parrot is dead, and if the question of Communism wasn’t settled by experience then nothing can ever be settled by experience—then I don’t feel like spending my limited energy to debate with you. This exchange is now at an end. Not because I dislike or am afraid of debates, just because there are more important ones right now. Thanks for coming by and have a hammer-and-sickle-tastic day!

183. marxbro Says:

“Alright, if you read Ray Monk’s biography of Russell, I agree with nearly everything Monk says about Russell’s politics. The only big problem is that Monk lacks his subject’s sense of humor.”

I don’t have access to Ray Monk’s biography. If you can copy/paste quotes here I’ll better be able to analyse them. In any case, I request that you stop using ad hominems to describe anyone and everyone outside your own ingroup.

“Your repeated demands that I identify a single error in Marx’s writings calls to mind a bridge engineer who, after the bridge has spectacularly collapsed in full view of everyone, killing hundreds, and then a second and third and … twentieth bridge built on the same design collapsed in exactly the same way, shoves the design drawings in the critics’ faces and says “haha, none of you have pointed to a single error in these designs! that’s because you’re intellectual lightweights! the designs are perfect!””

Yes, the experts should indeed be able to point to a mistake in this analogy. If the ‘experts’ cannot find a mistake in something which is apparently very mistaken then there is actually something very wrong with the Enlightenment thought that they espouse. Same with Marx. If he’s so obviously wrong, then you should be able to easily find something wrong in his writing.

“Volumes have been written analyzing Marx’s misunderstandings of history and markets and game theory and human nature”

Then you should be able to point me to a single mistake Marx made. Why not pick a single error that you think he made and point it out using quotes from Marx? You can use these “volumes” to help you out if you like. You might find this an academic discussion, but that’s what thinkers who value the Enlightenment do. We look at the argument made, charitably read and analyse it, then point to flaws if you can find them. You have yet to find a single flaw in Marx’s work, or even specificy what this flaw is!

So far this is all a very non-political argument. All we’ve been told is that Marx is wrong. Why is he wrong? Well, he just is. Look at communism! What do we look at communism for? How does it illuminate or negate what Marx was saying? It just does! Isn’t it obvious that it does!

My bold argument here is; no, it’s not obvious. In a world where China still exists, where Cuba still exists, where North Korea still exists, where Venezuela still exists, where there are still dozens of communist guerilla armies and parties; it’s not entirely obvious that communism has collapsed. Even if you politically disagree with such groups, you still have to actually take what they say and analyse it charitably.

So let’s start with a very simple one. How was Marx wrong about human nature? You’re so sure about Marx’s supposed wrongness, surely you can achieve this simple task using quotes from the source.

184. Sniffnoy Says:

Jelmer Renema #172:

As soon as you’ve decided that the other side is not rational, the only recourse is to bring out the truncheons.

Actually, it just occurred to me… this is kind of the opposite of true, isn’t it?

Like — as I understand it, and I’ll admit my understanding of leftism is a bit shaky — general leftist thought goes that they have to fight (which I’ll use here in the sense not of violence specifically but in a general sense of, all measures other than reason), rather than debate, precisely because their opponents are acting rationally. That is: They believe that their opponents have interests fundamentally opposed to theirs, and are rationally carrying those interests out. Because they are already acting rationally in opposing the left, there’s no means by which one might convince them otherwise, and so instead the only thing to do is to fight them (again, not necessarily in a violent sense).

You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of one thing I’d say the Enlightenment actually did get distinctly wrong. Namely, crime. The Enlightenment view on crime, right, was basically that people commit crime because they’d rationally concluded that the expected benefit to themselves of doing so exceeds the expected cost to themselves of doing so (not that they’d put it in such probabilistic language, hope you don’t mind me updating that a bit). As such, the only ways to deal with crime are deterrence and removal.

But in the real world we’ve learned that’s not true — people often commit crimes for irrational reasons. Precisely because the action was irrational, that means it’s possible to do better in the future. Thus, rehabilitation suddenly appears as an option. (If only the US actually did it instead of just giving lip service to it…)

So, if your opponents are acting irrationally, that’s not a reason for violence, but rather the opposite — if they’re acting irrationally, it means you can show them a better way! If they are acting rationally, as the left claims, then you have to fight.

Of course, all this assumes that they’re acting reasonably (in the sense of, being amenable to reason); if they’re acting not just irrationally but unreasonably, then, yeah, you have a problem. (And if they’re acting reasonably but irrationally but on a mass scale… then you have the problem of how on earth do you show people a better way on a mass scale, which I don’t think we really have any good answer to at the moment. I mean, geez, we can barely teach people basic mathematics on a mass scale, it would seem.)

(Also, as for the preceding bit about violence; well, Andaro already said this, all political systems being violent, the question is how to get the best results for the least violence…)

185. Jelmer Renema Says:

@Sniffnoy 173, 174, 184: I think our gracious host indicated he would like to discontinue this discussion. I think this has been valuable, so I’m happy to continue via email from the next round on if you are.

Anyway, many interesting points. I’ll take them in turn:

Regarding interpretation leading to the ‘dark side’: yes you’re right, this is 100% a risk. And I will immediately grant you that the line between identifying a causative influence and guilt by association is a thin one. And as you pointed out yourself, there are bad-faith actors everywhere (like the neonazis you pointed out earlier). But a causative influence and guilt by association are not the same, and through lots of stating of assumptions and other sanity checks, I do believe you can make that distinction in a meaningful way – this is where a lot of the hard work of academic diligence comes in. Again, there’s people who make this kind of intellectual labour their life’s work.

Incidentally, a major sanity check on this kind of work is ‘are you able to treat ideas as historical entities, rather than things possessing truth or falsehood?’ I head from a friend of mine about a PhD student who was studying the pope’s reaction to modernism in the 19th century. Only, this student was a staunch catholic himself, who believed the pope to be incapable of lies. So whenever he found a historical document in which the pope said he did something for a given reason, that shut down the historical debate for him. His supervisor had to explain to him that ‘repeating things the pope said’ was not a meaningful way of doing historical research.

As for the racism thing: yes, I think you are right on all three counts: the justification followed the initial act, there were other justifications beforehand, and I also believe that if the enlightenment-based justification hadn’t been in place, others would have been found. But why do any of those diminish the culpability? Remember, the larger argument that we’re in here is that the enlightenment did something bad (namely, lend intellectual support to slavery). Why does it diminish the culpability if you point out that other people did the same bad thing before, or that others might have done the same bad thing if the culprit hadn’t done it? As an analogy, if my wallet gets stolen today, it’s little consolation if you point out that my wallet got stolen by a different person last week, or that if my wallet hadn’t been stolen by this person, it would surely have been stolen by someone else.

And on a more historical note: slavery in the US was subject to fluctuations in scope. When the constitution was being written, the best guess was that slavery was on the way out: its moral support was declining, it had been banned in some northern states already, and the first abolitionist societies had been founded. It was improved agricultural techniques and devices, changes in the world economy and the opening of the Mississippi and Mobile river basins that gave an enormous boost to the slave economy in the 1810s and 1820s. Moral justifications for establishing a slave economy in the new states were needed. And that was precisely the time when the enlightenment-based pro-slavery arguments became popular.

As for ‘traditional-authoritarianism’ and self-criticality (I think ‘fascism’ was the word you were looking for) and all that: as I said previously, all ideologies aim to minimize the explicit ideological commitments they ask from their followers, and fascism does it by claiming that those commitments are feelings which you must discover in yourself (e.g. you must ‘feel the innate drive to subjugate’ flow through you) rather than intellectual propositions (i.e. ‘you must believe that subjugating people is a moral good’). Especially if you’re anti-intellectual like fascism is, it strengthens your ideology to hide your intellectual work. It’s a bit like those people who go on Instagram with their perfect I-just-got-out-of-bed haircut: if you buy into their spiel, you believe their hair must have just fallen into place like that, but if you think for a moment, you realize it must have taken at least as much work as an organized haircut. Does that make sense?

Then for the self-criticality bit: apologies, what I meant was ‘self-aware’ or ‘self-consistent’, not ‘self-critical’ (please allow me a mistake in what by now must be thousands of words). What I was gesturing at is that (say) Trump lives life in a way that is consistent with his moral imperatives: he views the world as an alleyway knife fight, and he acts accordingly. He is not failing any of his own moral commitments, because he is living the life of an authoritarian strongman, which according to him is a good life (at least, if we look at what he has said on the subject). My contention was that with liberalism, there is a gaping gap between the moral commitments that are claimed and the actual actions. Obviously this is not to say authoritarianism is preferable to liberalism (as I said before, I think it would be an enormous societal positive if liberalism would be saved from itself, authoritarianism has nothing worth saving)

Then – finally – the left, crime, the gulags, and rationality:

I almost feel embarrassed to have to point this out, but the majority of the left in western, democratic countries, has not been Marxist since the 1880s, when the German Social Democratic Party (which was the largest leftist organization at the time and ideologically leading) rejected revolution and moved towards a more moderate position of gradual improvements in working conditions, pensions, wages etc. This break came at the practical level before it manifested at the theoretical level (so the party paid lip service to Marxist ideas for some time) but it was a significant break nonetheless, and recognized as such by both sides at the time (Engels wrote an angry letter, for example).

It is this tradition which I personally identify with. I am really amazed that an unquestioned assumption in this discussion seems to be that everyone left of (say) the leftmost edge of the US Democratic party must be a Marxist, or even more strongly, must be a supporter of (former) communist regimes. The US democratic party would be a center-right party in almost any other democracy, and while it contains some leftists, there is an enormous empty space between it and the hard left.

The above inpringes on two discussions: the self-criticality discussion and the rationality discussion. In the self-criticality discussion, I mean to say the following: my branch of the left (the majority, mainstream branch, as I pointed out) has incorporated many of the lessons of the mistakes the Soviet Union made (and those of nazism, incidentally) despite not bearing responsibility for those mistakes (we diverged before the Soviet Union even was a thing!). And we have done so on a level that I believe liberalism hasn’t, namely on an ideological level, i.e. by modifying our core commitments. For example, I am committed to democracy as a positive good in itself, rather than as only an instrumental commitment (i.e. ‘a way of making good decisions’).

I think that liberalism (especially of the techno-liberal or libertarian kind) has not internalized these lessons, and still believes that if the chips are down, it ought to prefer securing it’s ideological commitments (mostly capitalism) over democracy, to continue with that example. Peter Thiel has said so explicitly, for example, and that terrifies me. The European banking crisis showed the same problem.

This is – as I have said before – the main reasons why I, for myself, did not draw the ‘obvious conclusion’ you suggested from failed leftist projects and become a liberal: from where I’m sitting, liberalism is much more broken and much more dangerous than it itself realizes. I think that liberalism once did have much deeper commitments, but that these got lost in post-cold war triumphalism (End of History and all that). Also: I am not saying my ideas are perfect (either historically – social democrats were if possible even more into eugenics than liberals – or currently), but I am saying that liberalism as it exists now has a dangerous flaw.

And then finally finally the discussion about rationality, crime, and truncheons. Here, it matters enormously if you are talking about the Marxist left or the non-Marxist left. Also: your mention of crime is very insightful.

The key distinction between the two here is materialism: the Marxist left believes, as you point out, essentially that material forces (more specifically, the ownership of the means of production) completely determine social relations. They also believe in the knowability (in an epistemological sense) of the trajectory of history, and in the inevitability of that trajectory: not just the current situation is determined by material forces, but the trajectory (towards a stationary state of communism) as well. Therefore, there is indeed as little point in being morally indignant about a capitalist squeezing there poor as there is about a wolf eating a sheep: they are under compulsion (economic in one case, biological in the other) to act as they act.

The problem comes if you turn that logic on the communists themselves, and ask how they must act. There was a branch of communists who took materialism to the logical extreme and more or less concluded that they should do as little as possible apart from going outside to check whether communism had happened already, since communism was going to happen anyway. (A friend of mine is doing his PhD on them – as you can imagine, the minutes of their meetings are hilarious)

The more practical solution was invented by Lenin, who came up with the notion of the communist party as a ‘vanguard party’. I don’t pretend to understand this fully, since, as I have mentioned before, I am not a Leninist, but the idea is something like that even though the path is fixed, it might still help to have a guide to get you there, which is the role of the party. And so guide the vanguardists did, through propaganda and exposition (one of the magazines, incidentally, was called ‘enlightenment’), until they reached every village (through things like train-based cinemas, for example).

And this is the point where things become really toxic: if you believe that your group are the guardians of world-historical development, and you believe that everyone in your country has been told about the trajectory world history logically must traverse, you have removed any scope for leniency for anyone. After all, your political opponents cannot be rational or reasonable (since they are attempting to stop a mechanism mandated by logic) and they cannot be ignorant. So, your political opponents have no excuses left: you have removed all intermediate layers of escalation (this is the key point). They must necessarily be driven by nothing but pure malice, and are therefore be completely irredeemable, especially if they are former guardians of the true path themselves. And so, political opposition and criminality coincide, because all crimes in a soviet system are definitionally political. To be against the system is to be criminal is to be insane.

186. Mateus Araújo Says:

Dear Scott,

Nothing to do with your post, I just thought it might cheer you up to know that the Bell bound for three parallel repetitions of the CHSH game is 31/64. I just managed to brute force it.

187. Scott Says:

Mateus #186: Awesome!! I discovered like 14 years ago that 31/64 was achievable, using a brute-force search. But I didn’t show it was optimal. Is that what you’ve now shown?

188. Mateus Araújo Says:

Scott #187: Yes, I’ve shown that it is optimal. Come on, finding lower bounds is trivial.

189. Deepa Says:

We all need a future to believe in and look forward to, to get through this emotionally.

That might be a reason to focus on things that deal with our kids learning important things. Teaching young kids who are eager to learn might be a great way to get through all this. That is why I am happy many parents have suddenly been thrown into homeschooling situations. It might create the motives and opportunities for kids helping their parents (more than the other way around).

190. David Says:

Aaron G #171:

“From the report, at least one of the reasons that COVID-19 has become the leading causes of death in the US is due to the fall in death rates for certain other causes, most notably car accidents (due to the various lockdowns and work-from-home directives in various states).”

The report does not actually say this and this is not the case. The report just says that trauma deaths have decreased, not that they were previously higher than COVID-19 deaths are currently. In fact, heart disease and cancer are the usual leading causes of death, with heart disease in the lead by a bit. You can see here the number of COVID-19 deaths compared to other causes: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/1727839/ (this was also linked to in the article). Mote that the numbers for the other causes are averages (over a year I believe), whereas the COVID-19 numbers are for the specific days in question.

191. Rollo Burgess Says:

Hmm. Realizing that your point is precisely that your views have become radical, I do think that it would be wiser to adopt a calmer tone.

It seems to me that what we are actually doing here is trying to solve an equation for the least restrictive set of rules compatible with the number of people requiring hospital treatment at any one time not exceeding the capacity for such. This needs to be considered very calmly and rationally.

There won’t be a return to full ‘normal’ for a long time if ever (this is not unusal – the definition of ‘normal’ changes continually anyway), but for example where I am in the UK I would think it likely that in a few weeks rules will start being gradually relaxed, e.g. schools opening perhaps, and by the summer proper people will be going to restaurants, work etc. The alternative of prolonged rigorous lockdown isn’t affordable or tolerable and steadily increasing medical facilities coupled with, frankly, higher risk appetites will prevent it taking place.

Re the disjunction of potential outcomes – well obviously it is (3 ): we will all know someone who dies of covid19, probably several people, unless we have very small or atypical circles of acquaintance. I know several people who have had covid19, for the majority of whom it was like a regular flu, and one who sadly died. During this period we’ll also all know people who die of other things unrelated to covid19; I know someone who has died of complications related to treatment for cancer recently and someone else who is very possibly going to do so within the next couple of weeks (about 165k people die of cancer each year in the UK). This is the human condition. I’m not belittling the fact that as a new infectious disease over and above existing causes of mortality c19 is something we need to take seriously and respond to, as we are. But some of the things one reads about fundamental changes to our civilization are overblown and silly.

One of the things that interesting to me is how much more sensible and phlegmatic ordinary people one talks to are than most of the media.

192. Joshua Brulé Says:

In (one of my) social bubble(s), it was common knowledge that, e.g. the FDA’s overly cautious approval process and rotting bureaucracy causes millions of deaths; one of the phrases thrown around a lot is “invisible graveyard”, which, sadly, has become a lot more visible in recent days.

Just yesterday, I was joking with a friend, “Wow. I feel really bad for the people who still believed in an effective CDC or FDA! We’re feeling disappointed; those guys must be having a full-on existential crisis!”

I hope this doesn’t come across as condescending, because I mean this sincerely: I’m really sorry, Scott; COVID-19 is a hell of a way to find out that the institutions you trusted do not deserve it.

That being said, I don’t think “stronger democracy” would work, and I think you are misguided for going down that path (No, I’m not shilling for neoreaction, although I can’t help but laugh that your “put Bill Gates in charge as temporary sovereign” is almost exactly the same as Curtis Yarvin’s “Plan A for the Coronavirus” https://medium.com/@curtis.yarvin/plan-a-for-the-coronavirus-7db3997490c1)

You say, “Trump was who ~48% of the voters actually wanted—and that was exactly the problem.” Consider a nearby parallel universe where that number is 51%; no amount of extra democracy, or “safeguards against destruction by know-nothings” help you then. If you’re committed to the idea that the problem is that those voters are stupid, or evil, or very misguided, or just didn’t respect Science and Enlightenment values enough… well, it seems very bad for you and your values if that percentage of the population ever hits 51%. I’d prefer a system more robust than that.

Another possibility: some non-zero number of those voters are misguided, some of them have genuinely incompatible values with you, but many of them have experience and information that you do not and wanted to try something different. An anecdote:

A little while ago, a relative of mine was trying to put up an orchard on land that they had purchased. However, there was a law that they had to “reforest” a certain percentage of it — the apple trees they wanted to plant didn’t count. There was some grumbling (the law explicitly exempted land that was used for “equestrian purposes”, which was clearly tacked on by some wealthy, well-connected person who didn’t want to have deal with this), but they checked the law, determined where to plant the ‘natural’ trees for reforestation purposes, in accordance with the law, and began planting trees appropriately.

The office responsible for issuing permits (this relative of mine was also trying to build a house on this land that they owned), told them that they wanted the “natural” trees to be in a square plot and that they wouldn’t issue the needed permits if the trees were not replanted accordingly. This would require replanting and destroying part of the existing orchard that they had sunk considerable time and money into — despite the fact that the original “natural” trees were planted in accordance with the law. The office would not budge.

The final insult: as I was helping plant the “natural” trees for the “reforestation” project (in the equally “natural” square grid that real forests often take the shape of), I ended up having to help remove a bunch of existing vegetation. Yes, we ended up literally destroying a (small) amount of actual, natural forest, in order to plant the “natural” trees, in a square grid, for a “reforestation” project. (Funny timing, I had read James C. Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” earlier that year; highly recommended, if you haven’t read it.)

If you’re a small business owner, if you’ve ever tried to do something that required the permission of a government, you’re dealing with this kind of thing all the time. Ordinances written by “experts”; “scientific” guidance that ignores facts on the ground. You can try lodging protests, but then your permits get delayed, weird roadblocks pop up, your ability to get real work done takes a hit and meanwhile, you’re bleeding money.

(In America, you don’t fight City Hall, City Hall fights you!)

Over time, you internalize that ineffective and/or actively damaging institutions are not aberrations: they are the default trajectory of any group that does not have skin in the game. Maybe you understand and respect science, maybe you don’t. Either way, you know that things done in the name of “science” haven’t worked out too great for you, personally.

Trump comes along and promises to “drain the swamp”; maybe you believe him, maybe you don’t. But you start thinking, “What the hell; let’s shake things up a bit and see if something better falls out of the system.”

(n.b. I did not vote for Trump, but I know and respect some people who did.)

Any attempt at a Constitution 2.0, needs to address this problem: how do we hold the (too often, permanent) bureaucracy accountable? If they are to defer to experts, how are they held accountable?

Democracy is a very neat way to legitimize a government and prevent civil war — except for that one hiccup, it’s worked out pretty well for us so far. I’m intrigued by the idea of a Constitution 2.0, I think I share (metaphorically) 85-90% of your values. But when you add “even more safeguards against destruction by know-nothings and demagogues”, I think that translates, in practice, to even more unaccountable, permanent bureaucracy that heads, more often than not, on a trajectory towards the kind of actively harmful flailing about in a crisis that you were railing against in this very blog post.

193. Scott Says:

Joshua Brulé #192: I require no convincing about the idiocy of blank-faced bureaucrats and regulators who prize the enforcement of arbitrary rules over obvious realities—they’ve been among the banes of my life! But if anyone thought that the way to respond to that idiocy was to elect Trump, then I’d call that an even greater idiocy, and I’d say that was knowable at the time.

It’s like this: the colorful, narcissistic, profane, compulsively-lying idiot might look like a completely different creature from the gray, paper-pushing, glazed-eyed bureaucratic idiot. Deep down, though, they’re both idiots. They differ from one another only as Sauron differs from an orc. Often the two work all too well together, as (for example) with Trump and the stony-faced lawyers who dutifully invent pretexts for keeping migrant children in cages, or whatever else is his latest outrage or absurdity.

My “political position,” then, can be summarized in one sentence: we should oppose both types of idiocy with all our strength.

194. Joshua Brulé Says:

> we should oppose both types of idiocy with all our strength.

As doctrine, I’m completely on board! As an operational concept, it seems a bit underspecified.

I don’t want to want to rathole this into a culture war thread; I swear (really!) that I’m not trying to “gotcha” you. But I do want to point out that the “children in cages” dates back to at least the Obama administration:

https://apnews.com/a98f26f7c9424b44b7fa927ea1acd4d4/AP-FACT-CHECK:-2014-photo-wrongly-used-to-hit-Trump-policies

There is a sense in which Trump is doing what some people I know hoped for: his existence as president is so intolerable to so many people that it, indirectly, has brought a lot of previous problems to light.

(It’s also appears to have almost entirely failed to actually change anything, so it’s not exactly a win.)

We (mostly) agree (I think) on terminal values; but I don’t see how “stronger democracy” helps and I’m pretty sure that “safeguards against destruction by know-nothings” translates into even more unassailable beuracrats and regulators.

My handwavy reasoning, given (what I think is) your goals and plan:

More democracy? In any region where the electorate hits 51% against your values, you lose. As you say, if 48% of the people actually wanting a Trump-like president is the problem, because a Trump-like president can cause too much damage, then you’re continually 3% of the way from catastrophic failure.

If you want to somehow deny them the franchise, well, that doesn’t exactly sound like more democracy.

More safeguards against destruction by know-nothings? That sounds underspecified, but I think the likely implementation is a permanent beuracracy that does not have to answer to the elected leadership. I mean, more so than the current situation.

I think we need new mechanisms; I don’t know exactly what they look like, but when a beuracrat/regulator/expert is demonstrably incorrect/harmful there should be consequences.

Without skin in the game, I think your proposed fixes make things worse.

I’m definitely not smart enough to solve this problem; very plausibly, no one is. But I’m hoping we can figure out what (part of) the problem is and maybe we’ll have a chance.

195. John Says:

@Scott: While I do agree that we should definitely be investing huge effort into developing a vaccine, there are reasonable arguments about making sure we take our time to test it properly: https://medium.com/@jamesheathers/hurry-dont-rush-e1aee626e733

After all, the vaccine safety needs to be balanced against how many people would die of the virus without the vaccine. Considering that the case fatality rate is on the order of a few percent at most, this means we need to be confident that the probability of the vaccine inducing serious side-effects is no higher than that range (assuming that the number of people receiving the vaccine is comparable to the number that would be infected without the vaccine), which would require quite substantial sample sizes and corresponding testing effort.

196. James K Says:

Allied commanders and Allied medical authorities in WWII, transported to the present, would … already be distributing vaccines a month ago that probably work well enough and do bounded damage if they don’t

Bounded damage. As an example, perhaps 1% of those treated might be partially paralysed by autoimmune reactions. You vaccinate 100% of the population and save the lives of 2%, most of whom will instead die of other medical conditions or old age within 5 years; but you give 1% of the population a lifetime of suffering.

As a military solution in desperate circumstances it is brilliant, because it keeps 99% of one’s soldiers fit for deployment. It is not such a good solution to our present difficulties.

We are all frustrated by the inability of the relevant authorities to control the epidemic, or even to do apparently simple things like provide facemasks for medical staff.

It is notable that countries without orange-haired leadership have not necessarily fared any better than the USA. Actually American institutions have coped rather well despite the obvious deficiency at the top.

Craziness and panic are no substitute for keeping a clear head and trying to think carefully.

My 2¢ is to add two more options to your list. Either option would be expensive, but much less so than sustaining the lockdown.

(4) We continue under lockdown until we have developed better means to fight the virus, such as mass testing, mass production of protective equipment, temporary hospitals, quarantine facilities, and large numbers of trained contact tracers. If these measures prove effective, partial or full relaxation of the lockdown will be possible in a matter of weeks.

(5) We remove the lockdown, but give people the option to continue in self-isolation voluntarily. We provide a workforce to help the self-isolators obtain supplies etc. Most of the people who choose isolation will be elderly or have risk factors such as heart disease. The rest of the population will continue with life as normal; the virus will spread through most of the population and kill perhaps 0.2% rather than the 2% expected if the vulnerable were not isolated. Many of us would be willing to take our chances at 500:1 if the alternative is house arrest for 18 months without our jobs or our social life.