Friday, July 3, 2020

The social justice steamroller: a pervasive and profound attack on citizenship

Political scientists Eric Kaufman and Matt Goodwin, in a recent online dialogue, discussed how centre-right parties have not found a language to deal with the current woke surge. There is language available: it is the language of citizenship. For the woke surge is, by its nature, a profound attack on citizenship.

Do you belong to an organisation that passed a crucial motion at the end of the meeting with very little debate? Was such a motion cast in such a way that dissent was treated as immoral or otherwise contemptible? Did the motion pass itself off as anti-racist, a matter of social justice, or something similar?

Congratulations, you have experienced the social justice steamroller in its most complete form, the critical social justice steamroller.

The basic premise of the critical social justice steamroller is that any pushback to social justice is itself just replicating oppression, and the discourses of oppression, and so is inherently oppressive and illegitimate. As error has no rights, not only should such discourses of oppression not be given any expression, things should ideally be arranged so they have no chance of being expressed.

And everything that does not endorse social justice is a discourse of oppression.

All versions of error has no rights are profound attacks on citizenship. All of them: hate speech, political correctness, wokeness, critical race theory, critical social justice ...

They are all profound attacks on citizenship because citizenship rests on the status to speak.

From the status to speak we build the social and political bargaining that makes democracy work.

Bargaining requires voice, and democracy requires bargaining
People think that democracy is about elections. They are half right. Democracy is about social bargaining where elections make the social bargaining matter.

To engage in social bargaining one has to be able to express one’s concerns. That is the crucial element of citizenship: the status to speak, to discover common voices, to cohere with the like-minded. It is the status to speak, and to discover common concerns, plus a vote that (collectively) matters that generates the ability to bargain about the future of one’s community and society.

Without the status to speak, elections just become rituals.

Bargaining plus elections creates democracy: 

democracy = bargaining + elections.

Social and political bargaining require voice, it requires the status and ability to speak in public and in private. To seek to drown dissenting voices is to block the ability to bargain, to block participating in the political life of your community and society in any open and effective manner. Without the ability and status to speak, politics is just a game of approved insiders and elections are just rituals.

Elections without bargaining are just rituals: 

elections - bargaining = ritual. 

That’s how the ritual elections of totalitarian societies work. Official propaganda drowns out any other public discourse,* and forces public acquiescence to the supporting narratives the dominant regime wants to push. Only approved organisations or groups are permitted in the public and political space. All bargaining is blocked and all one is left with is the legitimating ritual of elections that express the dominance of the regime.

No voice = no bargaining.

No bargaining = no effective citizenship.

No effective citizenship = no democracy.

We are in the midst of a pervasive campaign to deny citizens their voices. People are afraid of getting sacked if they say the wrong thing. This fear of losing one’s job is a form of job terror. It is a profound denial of your status as a citizen and of your ability to be an active citizen.

If you can control what people feel able to say, you can control the public spaces, and even private spaces. You stop the ability of people to express their concerns, to find and cohere with other people who share their concerns.

Such conformity, enforced by Twitter mobs, and other social media pile-ons, seeks to replace citizenship with social dominance by mobilised conformity.

The public rage by so many progressive voices at the Brexit vote in Britain, or the election of Donald Trump in the US, is the rage of frustrated social dominance.

The logical next step, of course, is attempt to block the ability to vote the “wrong” way. For votes “in error” have no rights either. But blocking the ability to express concerns is more easily managed. Online media can and is used to block online access by those deemed not to possess the status to speak.

The apologists for political correctness claim it was just about being kind to people when you speak. Just as the apologists for wokeness say it is about protecting the vulnerable.

Except, in both case, it is the PC and the woke who get to define what counts as kind, what counts as protecting the vulnerable, and who counts as vulnerable, who counts as people to be kind to.

The entire approach, in whatever form, harnesses the wish not to hurt others, the care/harm moral foundation, as a mechanism of social dominance by enforcing the boundaries of what counts as care/harm and when.

All of it, even the it-would-be-nice-if-everyone-was-nice-version, is an attack on citizenship.

No social reform worth having was built on just being nice, on not offending. Which is why the wielders of PC and wokeness reserve the right to be shreikingly offensive to anyone they disagree with.

Other citizens have the right to tell fellow citizens when they are being an obnoxious jerk. Even when they are being a stupid obnoxious jerk. (Lots of people on all sides of politics can be amazingly obnoxious jerks.)

A right to speak is not the demand to be agreed with. That is what the enemies of citizenship push.

It is the denial of the legitimacy to speak that is the attack on citizenship. It is the claim to set the boundaries of legitimate discourse, of legitimate talk, which is the play for social dominance.

It is an attack on citizenship because it is an attack on the status to speak. Not the status to be agreed with, or not to be criticised, but the status to speak.

The new taboo-and-dominance Brahmins
In his very revealing assembly of data (pdf) on postwar elections in the US, the UK and France, French economist Thomas Piketty writes about modern politics having become a contest between the Brahmin Left and the Merchant Right.

The term Brahmin Left is brilliant, because what did the original Brahmins do? They organised rituals, systems of taboos and they sought to grant and deny legitimacy. What interactions were legitimate, what were not. What foods were legitimate for whom to eat, or not, and when. And so on.

This, in new forms, is exactly what the modern Brahmin Left, the Brahmin progressives do. They seek to grant and deny legitimacy. To say what concerns are legitimate to express and what are not and how they it is legitimate to express them and how it is not.

That is why modern political talk has become so full of -phobe and -ist terms. It is all about granting and denying legitimacy under the guise (above all to themselves) of protecting the vulnerable.

It is an attack on citizenship, on denying the status to speak to anyone who dissents in what they say or how they say it. On maximising the level of vulnerability of anyone who dissents.

The social justice Great Awokening is not a fight for social justice. That is just a legitimating story they tell to themselves and that they present to us, and themselves, as an approved public narrative.

We can tell it is not a fight for social justice by all the things the shrieking modern Brahmins ignore, downplay or obfuscate.

Such as the surge in homicides in African-American urban communities that followed the 2014 Ferguson riots, the surge in anti-police activism and the surge in highly selective media coverage over which deaths by violence get covered and how and which do not.

Or the failing to notice, the failing to get outraged over, the serial rape and sexual exploitation of thousands of underage girls in Britain, the Netherlands and Finland by overwhelmingly Muslim gangs, and the priority given to discourse management to avoid noticing that they are overwhelmingly Muslim gangs.

Or that we are supposed to believe in white supremacy when people with low melanin counts have become just about the only racialised group one can safely denigrate. Or in the pervasiveness of patriarchy when men have become the only sex one can safely denigrate.

The social justice steamroller is a fight for social dominance, and it is a fight for social dominance that represents, and requires, a profound attack on citizenship.

It is by the language of citizenship, and the defence of citizenship, of the status to speak, to express concerns as citizens and to, bargain over them, that an effective counter-attack against the self-righteous drive for social dominance using the guise of social justice must be mobilised.

* Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to. Theodore Dalrymple.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The toll in black lives is why the BLM movement is not worthy of anyone’s respect

African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be poor than Euro-Americans. African-American males are more than twice as likely to be shot (not necessarily fatally) (pdf) by police than Euro-American males and perhaps 3.5 times more likely to be unarmed and killed by police. Are these results because the colour of their skin or because of the consequences of poverty?

There is no difference between the male rate of death by homicide between Euro-Americans and African-Americans in rural US (pdf). The more urbanised the locality, the greater the disparity in their homicide rates. Is that because of their skin colour, or because of social dynamics in different types of localities?

Obviously, when it comes to death by homicide, locality counts far more than ancestry.

The shooting of Michael Brown, and the riots that followed, in Ferguson in 2014 led to a massive increase in anti-police activism and police pulling back from urban African-American communities. What were the consequences of that?

Source: CDC Leading Cause of Death reports.

Source: Health US 2017, Data Finder, Table 29.

The consequences were thousands of extra deaths, extra violent deaths, as African-American males killed each other in increased numbers. Those lost black lives were many, many times greater than the number of African-Americans killed by police. Especially they were many, many times greater than the number of unarmed African-Americans killed by police.

Is there a problem with police violence in the US? Absolutely, and it affects people, particularly poor people, of all ancestries. It also varies enormously by region, far more than by ancestry of the person killed (or of the police who killed). The way to tackle it is to build a coalition of citizens to have better trained, more accountable police.

For every egregious case of an unarmed African-American man killed by police there is an equivalent case of an unarmed Euro-American man killed by police. The problem is with police procedures, police training, and police accountability.

To turn it into a problem of race is to turn these issues into a posturing falsity, a matter for performative outrage not remotely based on the truth. Effective solution can only come from working what is the case, not posturing falsehoods about what is going on.

Urban African-Americans have reason to be angry with police forces that fail to protect and serve them. The real police failing is all those unsolved homicides (pdf) in those urban localities which lead to more (pdf) homicides. But that is a failure of police to effectively connect with those communities. To have enough detectives, enough forensic services, enough police who know the local area.

The police are not the great danger. The lack of effective policing is what costs thousands of black lives every year.

It is precisely because black lives matter that the BLM movement is not worthy of our respect. For what they do is not based on taking the violent deaths of thousands of African-American males in the cities of the US seriously.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The World's Taiwan Problem

The current pandemic has somewhat elevated Taiwan's standing on the world stage, as it was both early in warning of the dangers of what became the Covid-19 pandemic and remarkably effective in dealing with it. The latter apparently because of previous experience with SARS, having good information flows from China and pervasively not trusting the Beijing regime. Having a Vice President and former Minister of Health who was a epidemiologist probably also helped.

The New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, has suggested that perhaps Taiwan should join the WHO, given its excellent performance in dealing with Covid-19 and (it turned out) accurate early warning. The Beijing regime has responded in what is increasingly familiar style, that New Zealand should "stop making wrong statements". The Beijing regime had previously threatened Australia's trade with China when Morrison Government ministers suggested an open enquiry into the origins of the virus was a good idea. Threats that have been at least partly followed through with. Revealingly, it has done so despite itself ending up voting for such an enquiry at the World Health Assembly.

The Beijing regime's long-term strategic policy is to, in effect, re-establish an updated version of the longstanding Zhongguo (Central State aka Middle Kingdom), tributary systems. In the various iterations of this system, the ruling regime in China is acknowledged to be of the highest status, the Chinese realm is the central realm, and all other regimes and realms are of lesser status and defer to the Chinese regime and realm. Trade operates within a framing that confirms and upholds this formal hierarchy.

Australia and New Zealand are each being admonished, and Australia punished, for failing to conform their proper place as tributary trade partners in such a structure. A structure that is, of course, very much under construction. But these rather remarkable diplomatic performances by the Beijing regime and its representatives are part of building such a structure. 

The Belt-and-Road initiative is the infrastructure arm of this long-term strategic aim. 

The existential shock of Soviet collapse
The Beijing regime's self-maintenance is deeply tied in with this strategic policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the existential shock for the Beijing regime. Its entire domestic and foreign policy is built around avoiding a similar outcome. The sought dominance within (Afro-)Eurasia both displays the vigour of the regime and will allow it to quash any embarrassing or threatening external pressure or example.

In effect, the Beijing regime's policy is that the US can have the Americas, China will be the hegemon everywhere else, the hegemon of Afro-Eurasia. Of course, in a globalised world, how unthreatening open and democratic states in the Americas would be long term is an interesting question. But that is more where the long-term logic of the Beijing regime's strategy of self-maintenance might lead, not a matter of its existing strategic aims. 

These strategic aims also entail that the US give up its alliance structure outside the Americas. Something of a sticking point, perhaps.

Taiwan as contradiction
But there is a much more direct sticking point. Taiwan. The entire logic of the Beijing regime's self-maintenance strategy, and wider strategic aims, entail the actual (rather than merely notional) incorporation of Taiwan within the control of the Beijing regime. Since it is clear that this is not going to happen voluntarily, the entire logic the Beijing regime's self-maintenance strategy, and wider strategic aims, entail (at some point) attacking and conquering Taiwan.

The People's Republic has a history of border wars. With the Soviet Union, with India, with Vietnam.  One could perhaps put its intervention in the Korean War in the same pattern. A history that includes incorporating "historical" China by force, with the conquest of Tibet following a border conflict.

If you do not understand that, whatever your view of proper policy towards "China" (i.e. the Beijing regime) is, it involves taking a view on the proper response to the overwhelming likelihood of the Beijing regime attempting, sooner or later, to militarily conquer Taiwan, you are deluding yourself.

There are two circumstances likely to trigger such an attempt. First, the Beijing regime perceives itself to be in some imminent or chronic existential crisis and uses some event to trigger the attack, rallying nationalist sentiment behind it. This is the Danubian monarchy attacking Serbia in July-August 1914 scenario, except with added coherent nationalism.

Second, the Beijing regime is sufficiently confident in its strength, and ability to face down the US, that it uses some event (perhaps manufactured) to trigger the attack as a way of firmly establishing its hegemonic position and unravel the US alliance system.

Either way, the logic of the Beijing regime's self-maintenance and strategic framework is that such an attack will happen sooner or later. (If the Beijing regime does not collapse first: not a likely scenario, it currently has, despite similar signs of institutional sclerosis in its politics, nothing like the stress points the Soviet Union had in the mid 1980s, not least because its economic growth prospects are so much better.)

Those who think strategic thinking is just some silly, dangerous game, and everything is ultimately driven by economics, are the most common adherents to the path of "what, we worry?" self-delusion. In 1914, Britain and Hohenzollern Germany, aka the Second Reich, had far more in common and were far more economically, socially, culturally and familiarly intertwined, than the US and the People's Republic currently are. How did that work out for them? 

Folk in the US, insulated by two huge oceans from any other potentially threatening states, may deem Taiwan to be dispensable. It is, after all, still formally part of China.

Actually, that is not correct. There are two states who both claim to be the legitimate state of China who both agree that Taiwan is part of that state but do not agree that they are members of the same state. Taiwan is not, and has never been, part of the People's Republic, and has armed forces to defend and maintain that not-being-part-of.

A vibrant democracy off the coast of Asia
Apart from that, abandoning Taiwan means tossing away a vibrant and successful democracy, Taiwan is, in practice, part of the US alliance structure and seen to be such. Abandonment of Taiwan could easily unravel much of the US alliance structure, especially in Asia. Both because of the example to other allies and because of the geographic shift in Chinese power projection involved. 

As a citizen of a vibrant and successful democracy of over 20 million people on a large island(s) off the coast of Asia, I am in favour of defending Taiwanese democracy. 

The logic of the self-maintenance and strategic aims of the Beijing regime entail the unravelling of the US alliance structure and the conquest of Taiwan. That the latter would likely be a huge step to the former raises the risks, but also the opportunities, from the military conquest of Taiwan. (And to not see such as being "territorially expansionary" is engaging in contemptible word games.)

Military conquest of Taiwan is inherent in the strategic aims of the Beijing regime, given that voluntary incorporation of Taiwan in a state (the People's Republic) that it has never been part of, is unlikely. No amount of economic entanglement or interchange with the US specifically, or the rest of the world in general, is going to change that. Especially as most of such entanglement strengthens the Beijing regime, by giving it more economic growth to play with and more people and institutions with incentives to defer to it. 

The Soviet case
It was not economic entanglement or interchange that brought down the Soviet Union. It was institutional sclerosis combined with increasing economic stagnation.

Gorbachev had to spend so much to pay off institutional interests that blocked much of his economic reforms (reforms very much driven by the example of China) that he was forced to use glasnost as a weapon to achieve perestroika. Given the constraints Gorbachev faced on taxing, cutting spending or borrowing, the yawning budget deficit had to be paid by printing money at accelerating levels in an economy where prices could not respond, so people stopped producing for the formal (taxable) economy. With the resulting economic and fiscal collapse, there were no levers left for the Soviet government, the military having been discredited by the attempted coup, and the constituent Republics simply left.

Part of Gorbachev's problems was that his economic reforms did not work as intended. Likely because people misunderstood the Chinese economic reform process. It was not a top-down process, but a bottom-up process with things that worked in one locality being tried out elsewhere, which meant that discovery processes were built into it. Something that is much less a feature of top-down reforms.

Beijing's dilemmas
The Gorbachev scenario is not the situation that confronts the Beijing regime. It got its economic reforms without needing to politically open up. On the contrary, it uses economic growth as a regime-supporting strategy and technological advance to improve its mechanisms of control. Yes, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party has an increasing internal institutional sclerosis problem, as can be seen by the continuing high level of capital wastage.

President Xi puts himself forward as the indispensable manager and spokesperson of those institutional interests. But such institutional defence feeds the aim of self-maintenance through Afro-Eurasian hegemony, through the creation of a new tributary system that establishes Xi and the regime as the dominant centre surrounded by layers of protective insulation. 

A functionally independent democratic and successful Taiwan is an affront to the claims, to the pretensions and to the survival dynamics of the regime.

Hence the world's Taiwan problem. The logic of the regime's outlook on the world makes a military attempt to conquer Taiwan close to inevitable, the longer the regime persists. One can accept such a military incorporation or seek to frustrate it but, either way, the only coherent positions regarding "China" have to be based on taking one or the other position. Failing to think that through will just mean sleepwalking into the crisis when it comes, though plenty of the great and good seem to be adopting precisely such attitudes.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic epistemology: discovery, feedback, ideological pomposity and banana peels.

I was going to forbear from posting on the Covid-19 pandemic, but this post by Arnold Kling prompted some more general observations about social dynamics.

He refers to a podcast by biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein where they, in his words: 
... cite instances in which odd corners of the Internet are outperforming mainstream science and mainstream journalism. This comes through most in the last few minutes of [t]he podcast.
Those most against federalism or free speech (and there tends to be overlap in antipathy to each) tend to systematically under-rate the importance of discovery processes. This includes under-rating the dispersed nature of effective discovery processes. 

People are not all one thing. Someone can be batshit crazy in one area of life (a colloquialism with a bit more bite nowadays) and incredibly perceptive in another.  Sir Isaac Newton was deeply interested in alchemy and the weirder end of biblical exegesis. This does not stop him being a source of amazing breakthroughs in physics and mathematics (and, for that matter, coin production). 

Not only does one not preclude the other--being so wrong about X does not preclude being highly perceptive about Y--being willing to consider wild and wacky possibilities may actually help one be brilliantly creative, provided there is the requisite attention to evidence and careful reasoning (or whatever effectiveness constraints operate in the relevant domain). 

The discovery value of gentiles
So, those alienated from the mainstream whatever, for good or bad reasons, may well be more inclined to pick up things that the mainstream is blind to or weak on. In his excellent Nobel memorial lecture (seriously, if you haven't watched it, you really, really should) on how to do social science, Paul Krugman talks about the importance of "talking to the gentiles". Yes. (See also his essay here.)

Which is why the current penchant for identifying the gentiles, the "evil" infidels, and driving them out of public spaces is so dangerous. Our global civilisation is in utterly uncharted waters for our species and the last thing we need to be doing is seriously damaging our discovery processes, which is precisely what this penchant for cancelling the heretics does. Such burn-the-witch hunts are patently prestige-and-dominance plays but they are profoundly dangerous and destructive prestige-and-dominance plays. 

As an aside, I very highly recommend the online lectures available via the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) at the University of California. Top scholars in the various fields germane to the study of our origins as a species lecturing to other scholars as cross-disciplinary exercises (so easily followable by a lay audience, because very discipline is a lay audience to other scholarly disciplines). It is fascinating, and profoundly informative. 

Problems with models
Arnold Kling also observes that:
... I bristle when someone says that based on a computer simulation, a certain policy for dealing with the virus can save X lives. I presume that there are some key causal assumptions that produce the results, and I want to know what those assumptions are and how they relate to what we know and don’t know about the virus.
The most widely-used models don’t differentiate the population by age. Blinded by these models, policy makers focus excessively on maintaining hospital capacity and inadequately on protecting the elderly.
We tend to selectively over-rate models. That their assumptions are often opaque helps with this process and can make their use rather too close to using maths and computing to replicate what previous ages did with sheep entrails.

Models in themselves are very weak discovery processes, as they discover the implications of the assumptions of the model, not reality. They have their uses, in working out what our assumptions imply and making our thinking more systematic. Alas, it is very easy to see them as doing something in themselves, without the testing against reality. Genuine discovery power always comes from exploring reality, which models do when they are tested against reality. If used for that, models can be profoundly useful, by forcing us to be consistent and systematic in our thinking. (Krugman discusses the importance of models for clear thinking in this essay.)

[A nice discussion of the performance of the Imperial College and University of Washington models is here.]

We know a lot more about the Covid-19 virus in late April than we did in late January. It is perfectly reasonable  to question whether decisions made early in the pandemic are still valid given what we now know. Particularly, how well the models used in those decisions have stood the test of reality. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of status considerations now built into those decisions, which may well be inhibiting effective use of the expanded knowledge. 

Having good feedback is vital to systems functioning properly. It is likely that much of the chronic health problems advanced societies are increasingly prone to are due to people developing  damaged or suppressed feedback regarding what we eat and drink. Aided and abetted by damaged, suppressed or pathological feedback systems in the provision of health and nutritional information. 

Feedback and incentives are deeply intertwined in human systems. Here is a question to think about: do the revenues of Western health departments go up if we get sicker or healthier? What incentives does that create? Then ask yourself if the answer to those questions, and considering what incentives health departments face, what the actual feedback systems they operate within are, affects how we might think about the response of those same health departments to the current pandemic. Such as what we did, and did not, have stockpiles of. Remembering that in most Western countries, health departments have (much) bigger budgets than defence departments.

Addiction to conflict narratives
The mainstream media sees itself as our central, and indispensable, information system. How well does it perform at that, really? Is mainstream media not somewhat addicted to conflict narratives, as they provide easy and "exciting" framings to present "news"? What does that do to the the signal-to-noise ratio in mainstream news?

Consider two doctors who own and run various clinics in California talking about their experience of* [now available here] the pandemic and what they, as relevant experts, glean from the available data and talking to their colleagues. This is a discovery briefing. The journalists the doctors are briefing, however, are not in discovery mode, as is revealed by the tone and content of their questions. They are in identifying-conflict mode. Discovery is messy, identifying conflict simplifies and excites. They don't want messy discovery, they want simple, exciting conflict.

[ADDENDA: *YouTube took down the video of two doctors briefing journalists and reporters about their clinical experience of Covid-19. There is an obvious irony for such a link in an essay on feedback and discovery.]

Moreover, it is a very easy shift to go from being addicted to conflict narratives to moralising about (and then within) those conflict narratives. It is very easy to turn conflict narratives into goodies-versus-baddies stories, with the journalists and reporters both identifying "the goodies", and identifying with and as "goodies". They then become part of the conflict narratives themselves, and the signal-to-noise ratio gets way worse.

There is a reason why public trust in the media has become so disastrously varied. The Donald's approval rates as US President were rather poor and are now consistently mediocre, in accordance with my view that he is demonstrably an electorally weak candidate. (He seems rather obviously personally high in (dis)agreeability; a wildly unusual characteristic for a senior elected political figure, though rather more common among those highly effective in other spheres of life.) And a disagreeable President makes an unusually potent figure in conflict narratives. Even more so in moralised conflict narratives. The noise-to-signal ratio in mainstream media coverage of The Donald's Presidency has rarely been less than toxically high.

Shifting to US public opinion of the media, the standing of the media as a source of news is relatively good among Democrat voters, poor among independent voters and abysmal among Republican voters. In terms of operation as a shared feedback system, this is a disastrous pattern. Not only is the mainstream media not trusted by large parts of the US populace, but the mainstream media are so often patently participants in their adopted goodies-versus-baddies conflict narratives, which actively encourages them to be generators of more noise and less signal. To be actively hostile to the processes of discovery -- seeking to block information which undermines the goodie-v-baddie narrative they have inserted themselves into while elevating information that feeds it -- against more careful considerations of significance and accuracy. 

Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science provides depressing chapter and verse on how very bad the media can be in reporting science, just from problems of not understanding science and statistics, limitations in human cognitive patterns, and the media's addiction to conflict and 'ghee whiz' narratives. Indeed, the media tend to be particularly bad on nutrition as that combines (1) obvious public interest, (2) deeply vested corporate and other interests, (3) the benefits of publicity for scam artists, along with all the above problems that reporting on science already has.  

The media's self-insertion into goodie-versus-baddie conflict narratives, and already poor performance in science reporting, is not a good pattern in general, and particularly not in a heavily science relevant matter such as a global pandemic. 

Discovery and feedback
Discovery and feedback systems matter. Both in response to short term events and in long term prospects for our civilisation and our species. Does this help or hinder discovery processes?, help or hinder effective feedback systems?, are good questions. And if you are not even asking the questions, that is a problem. Indeed, there is an excellent likelihood you are part of the problem.

If you are asking and answering the questions in terms of a goodies-versus-baddies narrative, you are probably not really asking the questions and are very likely to be part of the problem. As Bret Weinstein observes (at 23minutes), utopianism (which tends to be a goodie-versus-baddie narrative set to a maximum) is perhaps the most disastrous idea Homo sapiens have ever had precisely because it is so intrinsically hostile to discovery and feedback. This is a result of absolutely prioritising a single value (for, as he says, that then creates "incredibly large costs for every other value") and because they "tend to imagine they know what the future state should look like", short-circuiting (indeed, typically blocking) open discovery processes. This combination is compatible with ruthless selection for what works for seizing and monopolising power and disastrous selection in who gains power and how they use it. As a series of tyrannies, and millions of corpses, demonstrate.

The Hurley model of humour says that humour comes out of our cognitive error identification mechanisms. This is why ideologues are so often humourless--they are unable to accept the possibility of error. (Cue that great definition of a fanatic--a person who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.) Extremists have a crippled epistemology that blocks discovery and feedback.

Ideologies tend to be pompous, they inflate themselves beyond the possibility of error, particularly errors of significance. They are the cognitive equivalent of the pompous fat man unable to see the possibility of the banana peel. The slipping-on-a-banana peel joke works so much better if the pompous man is fat because he is less likely to see the banana peel, his pomposity takes up more space, and he is more likely to bounce (boing, boing, boing ...).

Admit it, you laughed.

It was better if he was a man, because when the trope was established, male pomposity had further to fall. And if your reaction is to point-and-shriek "fat shaming!" un-ironically, you just outed yourself as a humourless ideologue.

The more morally grand one's vision of what one is about, the more entitled one can feel to suppress the views of those who disagree. (Herbert Marcuse's iconic essay on repressive tolerance rests on belief that some group reliably has such knowledge.) But such suppression automatically involve suppressing any discovery that might thereby be revealed. One's sense of moral conviction, precisely because it is so emotionally powerful and because moral concerns have inherent trumping value over other concerns, can be a profound barrier to discovery and to effective feedback.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Making sense of the Arab explosion

Pastoralist peoples exploding out of the their lands and conquering farming peoples is a recurring feature of human history.

Likely expansion of the Indo-Europeans
The Indo-Europeans did so with great historical consequences, expanding into Europe, the Iranian plateau and North India. They were the first of a recurring waves of steppe conquerors: Huns, Turks, and Mongols most famously. The Maghreb also generated at least two waves of Berber conquest across the Maghreb and into Spain.

The Arabian Peninsula produced the most startling, and also profoundly historically momentous, such wave of pastoralist conquest, the conquests of 632-750. But it did this only once. Only once was the Arabian peninsula the source of a major wave of conquest.

And the traditional story of how this happened, which is the Muslim traditional narrative, makes remarkably little sense. A story whose surviving textual sources start two centuries after the stated death of Muhammad in 632.

Mecca is an enormously implausible starting point. There is a dramatic paucity (pdf) of historical references to Mecca. (For the problems of the historicity of Mecca, see herehereherehere and here.) It is a small settlement with a single well and no agricultural hinterland, that was not on any major trade route and well away from any imperial frontier.

Yathrib (Medina) is a bit better, but not much. It is larger, has an agricultural hinterland and is on a trade route. But is still too far away from the relevant frontiers and has no history of major political organisation. The Hejaz generally, particularly the section that Medina and Mecca are in, makes little sense as a breakout centre as there is simply not enough there. The most recent waves of conquest in the Arabian Peninsula, those of the al-Saud, go towards the Hejaz, not away from it.

Building a new history out of contemporary sources
This lecture by Peter von Sivers on the interactions between Christian theological controversies and struggles with what was happening with the Arabs in Northern Arabia, creates a hugely more plausible context. The action moves to the frontiers with the Roman ("Byzantine") Empire and Sassanian Empire. Both Empires had had Arab buffer-client states (Ghassanids and Lakhimids) that had been either much reduced or effectively eliminated by their Imperial sponsors by the start of the last and greatest of the Roman-Sassanid Wars, which lasted from 602 to 628. A decades-long struggle that exhausted both empires and left the Sassanian Empire mired in civil war and instability but the Arabs largely unaffected.

The unification of these former buffer states--areas used to significant political organisation and familiar with the practices, strengths and weaknesses of the exhausted Imperiums--into a single Arab kingdom provides a far more plausible basis for the Arab breakout.

Tom Holland's discussion of the broader similarities between the processes on the borders that saw the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the C5th with the Arab conquest of over half the Eastern Empire in the C7th fits nicely into this picture.

As does Dan Gibson's argument that Petra is the origin city, not Mecca. As indicated by the fact that the Qibla (direction of prayer wall) of all the original mosques point to Petra, not Mecca. (Of course, a self-published scholar does not have the same cachet.)

Nevertheless, Petra (a major trade and religious centre) is in the right place, has the right history and fits the descriptions of the city of the Prophet's birth.

That the Umayyads choose Damascus as their capital, and their successors, the Abbasids, built Baghdad as theirs, also emphasise the far greater strategic importance and value of Northern Arabia.

If we add in Prof. Fred Donner's lecture on trying to contextualise (i.e. assemble a history based on contemporary evidence) early Islam, we also get a picture compatible with what von Sivers and Holland are arguing (and, for that matter, Dan Gibson). Islam becomes a religion assembled out of the needs of imperial control to justify, first the Arabs as a ruling people, and then the Abbasids  ruling as a Muslim dynasty.

A process started by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r.644-705) who builds the original Dome of the Rock in 691-2, which contains the earliest Quran verses and the first explicit reference to Muhammad.

The written-down two centuries later, hundreds of miles away, traditional story of the origins of Islam and the Islamic conquests makes remarkably little historical sense. But we seem to be groping towards a picture, based on contemporary evidence, that makes a lot more sense.

It still leaves the Arab breakout and its consequences as a most extraordinary eruption into history. But not a nonsensical one.

[Cross posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Self-refuting scholarship

[NB: this piece has been updated to incorporate links to further relevant scholarship.]

One of the signs of the increasing intellectual conformity of the academy, particularly the social science and (even more) the humanities, is the rise of scholarship that treats voting the "wrong" way as a pathology, to be explained pathologically.

In the US, analysis of voting Republican is increasingly treated in this way. Even more since Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the Electoral College and so the US Presidency. Brexit has received similar treatment.

A recent paper, Growing sense of social status threat and concomitant deaths of despair among whites, by Arjumand Siddiqi, Odmaa Sod-Erdene, Darrick Hamilton, Tressie McMillan Cottom, William Darity Jr. is a case in point.

The paper starts off well, carefully examining the data and assessing various explanations for the rise in mortality (and so falling life expectancy) about "white" Americans. Then it gets to its own explanation and the intellectual quality rapidly goes downhill.

The abstract sets out their findings and conclusion:
Rising white mortality is not restricted to the lowest education bracket and is occurring deeper into the educational distribution. Neither short-term nor long-term economic factors can themselves account for rising white mortality, because parallel trends (and more adverse levels) of these factors were being experienced by blacks, whose mortality rates are not rising. Instead, perceptions – misperceptions – of whites that their social status is being threatened by their declining economic circumstances seems best able to reconcile the observed population health patterns.
Conclusion: Rising white mortality in the United States is not explained by traditional social and economic population health indicators, but instead by a perceived decline in relative group status on the part of whites – despite no actual loss in relative group position.
To put the finding at its most blunt: they are dying because they're stupid. Or, to put it in a little more elevated way: they are dying because they have a false consciousness of their social position. 

This is a very large claim. So, what have the authors done to test the proposition about (lack of) falling social status? Nothing substantive. Which is remarkable, because a recent study of why people voted for Donald Trump finds no difficulty in identifying a range of status threats (pdf) that motivated voters. While another study founds that falling subjective social status has considerable explanatory power (pdf) for populism rising vote share in Europe.

Let's us put the question in another way: is there any other group, particularly any other racially defined group, that the authors would explain seriously adverse outcomes by arguing they had brought it on themselves because they are too cognitively incompetent to accurately assess their social position?

If they answer is no, as surely it is, then what does that say about the social status of "white" Americans? After all, such things as having various academic fuss over "it's OK to be white" posters are also, in their own way, signs of loss of status.

These authors have the gall to sneer at the reasons people are dying when the way they have "conducted" their own research shrieks sneering condescension towards the people they are studying because those people lack the social status to protect them from said sneering condescension.

This is self-refuting scholarship.  But self-refuting in a revealing way. It is scholarship unable to see itself critically. 

It is revealing that the paper's Fig. 4, which is adopted from a WHO document (pdf), puts in 'race' where the WHO document has 'ethnicity (racism)'. American race talk is typically a clumsy and unfortunate way of talking about ethnicity (i.e. ancestry and culture). For example, disaggregating PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results for the US by "race" is informative, because it disaggregates by ancestral commitment to formal education (with exactly the ranking results you would then expect). 

The only thing race talk is really good for is stigmatisation, as it either strips away a whole lot of relevant factors or reduces them to skin colour. 

Homo sapiens are a group-living, pair bonding species. We are typically good at social cues, especially social cues about status. We evolved to be, because that is how you acquired a mate and successfully reproduced. 

To claim that an entire group of people (who you have defined racially) are incompetent at such a basic human skill is a very big claim. It runs against evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology and sociology. Such a claim requires a lot of supporting evidence. 

The first evidence offered is that "whites" still do better by various health and other indicators, such as median household income, than other groups whose mortality has not worsened. In fact, has improved. Yes, but that is perfectly compatible with a loss of status.

The authors agree that perceived status threat is the most powerful explanation for the mortality results. They then cite various studies of "white" Americans having inaccurate view about the situation of African-Americans ("blacks"). As they say:
These findings suggest whites perceive that blacks are economically catching up to them, even though this is not the case.
But status is not merely a matter of income. The authors note that "whites" show declining happiness and their sense of class status has generally fallen, particularly among the less educated. This is revealing, since class is a rather different metric than race. The authors state:
In other words, absolute declines in economic status of whites may produce a hyper-vigilance of sorts. This explanation would suggest that the short-term and long-term economic circumstance hypotheses forwarded by Case and Deaton (2017) are in some ways integral to the explanation of white status threat, rather than true competing explanations. However, we do not have sufficient evidence to test the veracity of this claim.
But on they march:
Put differently, given our modeling strategy, if county-level changes in the share of Republican voters is associated with changes in county-level white mortality, then it is highly likely that this association is indicative of a link between rising white perceptions of racial threat and rising white mortality, rather than traditional economic and social population health indicators.
So, if we treat voting Republican as a racially-based pathology, our modelling will demonstrate our case, despite the fact we have made no serious attempt to determine:
(1) How important "racial" identity is to the target group.
(2) What components of status matter to the target group.
(3) How good humans tend to be at rating social status, particularly their own.
(4) What it takes to misperceive status.

Scholarship often uses racial resentment as measured by answers to a particular set of survey questions as a measure of racism. Yet those questions do not correlate with any tendency to discriminate against African-Americans. Moreover, conservatives do not give different answers on such questions between ethnoracial groups while liberals do, but only more sympathetically to African-Americans. Finally, warmness to your own group does not correlate with negative feelings to other groups. This area is somewhat riddled with scholarship that does not show what it purports to show.

Donald Trump won the Electoral College because a whole group of counties that had twice voted for Barack Obama voted for Donald Trump. Obama was much more electorally successful than Trump, winning in 2008 (53% to 46%) and 2012 (51% to 47%) by absolute majorities of the popular vote while Trump famously lost the popular vote (46% to 48%). 

Given the nature of the Party coalitions, Obama did less well among "white" votes (43% in 2008, 39% in 2012). Trump got 54% of the "white" vote in 2016, but since 1976 among Republican nominees, only Gerald Ford (1976), Bush Snr (1992) and Bob Dole (1996), got a lower share of the "white" vote than Trump. So, if rallying "white" voters was Trump's thing, he did a comparatively bad job of it. Every other Republican elected President since 1980 did a better job.

But the author's analysis is concentrating on particular counties. There they find that:
Of all covariates, change in share of Republican voters (r = 0.24) and college degree attainment (r = −0.24) were the most strongly correlated with change in white mortality, suggesting that counties that became more Republican and that did not experience much change in college attainment also had increased rates of white deaths.
Folk in those counties changed votes because they perceived their situation deteriorating. At no stage have the authors demonstrated that white/black relations or standing is crucial to the target population. Yet the authors find that:
Rather, we hypothesize that the anxiety of whites is coming from a perception – a misperception – that their dominant status in society is being threatened, which is manifesting in multiple forms of psychological and physiological stress. While stratification economics suggests that this misperception may actually be quite functional for preserving relative group status, it may have health consequences. Indeed, the empirical test we provide of our hypothesis suggests this to be the case.
Yet, there is lots of public comment on how "whites" will become a minority in the US in the next few decades. The US as majority-minority country. Does that not constitute a threat to "white" Americans "dominant status in society"?

Let's put it another way: if you already think you are facing declining economic circumstances and various levels of cultural dislocation, with limited ability to influence events, how does no longer being part of the majority group sound? Not enticing. A loss of status. A basis for rational concern. Yet, migration is not mentioned as an issue once, except to bring up Trump's infamous comments about migration. Comments which, we might note, were not directed to African-Americans. 

The authors continue:
To be sure, this is a startling finding. The social status threat mechanism clearly has emerged as a way to explain the election of a presidential candidate who espoused highly racist views (Green, 2017), but we are now suggesting that this mechanism also explains the highly unusual phenomenon of worsening white mortality – and worsening white health more generally. Moreover, we are suggesting that the perception of racial threat among whites is occurring in the absence of substantive evidence of a decline in their relative social status, since both whites and blacks are experiencing parallel economic declines (Badger, 2017).
It is a startling finding that is derived only by carefully not enquiring about things that might get in the way and not noticing that Trump's infamous comments were not directed about African-Americans but about Mexican migrants. Nor are the areas of the study notable for their African-American population.

What they are generally notable for is rapid ethnic change, particularly increased Hispanic population. In Europe, experiencing, or being adjacent to, a locality experiencing rapid ethnic change is a strong predictor of votes for national populists. Indeed, the rate of change is a much more powerful predictor than the level of ethnic diversity.

Besides, think how many progressive narratives would be upset if the study concluded that the sense of loss of status was rational. The study reaches the progressively acceptable conclusion by progressively acceptable scholarly tropes.

This is bubble scholarship: we are going to characterise things racially, we are going reduce complexity to (literally) "black" and "white", we are going to treat voting Republican pathologically and we are going to say "white" people have rising mortality, and so declining life expectancy, because they are cognitively incompetent. A finding we would, almost certainly, not dare to make about any other racially-defined group. And then we have the gall to say that any sense the racially-defined group have of a loss of status is a misperception as we demonstrate in our own analysis how little status they have.

Self-refuting scholarship. A prime example of why more cognitive diversity is so needed in contemporary academe.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer and at Medium]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Working class alienation as a driver of political polarisation

This is based on a comment I made here.
The US has a legislated two Party system. (Left-cynics say that if the Soviet Communist Party had divided itself into two wings who disagreed on abortion, it would still be in power.) 
The UK has working class voters who will never vote Tory, so the Labour Party can take them for granted (but we will see how well the Brexit Party does in such seats on Dec.12). 
Political economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out (pdf) that politics has become dominated by a struggle between an educated (human capital) elite on the centre-left and a business (commercial capital) elite on the centre-right. Which often leaves working class voters trying to work out which side of politics will betray them least.
In Australia, compulsory voting and preferential voting means you cannot drive groups away from voting, but must aim for 50%+1. So working class voters can’t be ignored.
In Canada, class voting is a lot weaker than in the UK, and the Conservative/Liberal/NDP/Quebecois struggle also means that significant slabs of voters cannot be left out.
Australia and Canada have high migration policies whose content minimises any costs, and maximises any benefit, to local working class voters. Migration is a peripheral issue in politics, provided there is border control.

Remembering that the benefits of migration go first overwhelmingly to migrants and then to the holders of capital with local providers of labour being, at most, marginal beneficiaries and, if factors not normally included in the current economic literature regarding migration are included (disruption of local networks, pressure on culture and institutions, notably from physical and institutional congestion), are much more likely to be net losers, even over the longer term. 
UK and US have much lower levels of migration than Australia or Canada, but there is very little effort made to ensure migration minimise costs, or maximises benefit, to local working class voters. There are much higher levels of alienation and polarisation in US and UK politics compared to Australia and Canadian politics. This presentation, for example, documents the alienation of working class voters in the UK.
The polarising/alienating effect is particularly likely to kick in, given that evidence suggests, the less control voters have over matters of concern for them, the more likely they are to take refuge in some congenial identity.

If democratic politics becomes dominated by the interests of capital (human or commercial) in a way that leaves working class voters largely frozen out, politics becomes increasingly dysfunctional. A process that, in the US, the dominance of donor class and interest group preferences in policy outcomes (pdf) intensifies. Indeed, political rhetoric tends to become more febrile the more intense the gap between donor (and activist) preferences and the voter base becomes, in an attempt to cover that gap. (The Republicans and British Labour being cases in point, though the Democrats seem to be more than catching up.)

Show me a country with high levels of polarisation, and the chances are that working class voters are not having their concerns and interests addressed by mainstream politics.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Firms, Cities, States: who has open borders and why?

This is based on a comment I made here.

Econblogger Robin Hanson notes that firms and cities have open borders and argues that:
So if nations act differently from firms and cities, that should be because either:
1) there are big important effects that are quite different at the national level, than at firm and city levels, or
2) nations are failing to adopt policies that competition would induce, if they faced more competition.
My bet is on the latter.
This comparison is more complicated than it at first appears, but still (it turns out) revealing, if you consider how state behaviour has changed over time.

Firms (at least as employment entities) have highly controlled borders--they have to hire you, you can be fired. They also have expansionary tendencies and can operate across jurisdictions. That is not really open borders as such. Indeed, the harder it is to fire people, the more cautious they tend to be about who they hire (i.e. "let in"). You can buy your way in to a firm as a shareholder, but then you become a risk guarantor. It is a particular form of commercial exchange to which you commit capital.

Cities are ambiguous between jurisdictional entities, which are generally not allowed to control movement of people across their borders, or as some (territorially contiguous) level of density of population, in which case it is not clear exactly what one means by "borders" and who would "control" them.

City governments do tend to control land use, often in considerable detail, and that has sometimes been used to block the residence of certain groups (pdf). Politicians such as James Michael Curley and Coleman Young have used city policies to drive away folk in order to make their own ethnicity dominant, what economists Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer called the Curley Effect (pdf). The returns to controlling land use are much higher than any returns to controlling population movement as such, so there seems no reason for cities to demand the right to their own border control from states that are not likely to grant it.

States are the only one of the three (firms, cities and states) with hard territorial borders. That is, borders that are policed, that separate entire legal systems, that have no overlapping political authority. (Obviously, some arrangements, such as the European Union, pool a certain amount of sovereignty, but they are exceptional to the normal pattern.)

Leaving aside labour bondage systems (serfdom, slavery, Communism) which, by their nature, have to control exit-movement, states have historically not sought to control inward movement. Indeed, attracting more people meant more tax payers. 

What states have had strong controls over is who gets to control the state. Historically, that has been bitterly defended. It is conspicuous that border controls over inward movement start happening when states start acquiring broad electorates. In particular, working class voters have tended to be strong supporters of various forms of border control. Indeed, generally they still are.

Ceuta border fence.
So, the question is not "why do states control borders?" in the sense of movement across borders, because historically many have not, but "why do working class voters support border control?". That is not a hard question to answer. Especially when the vote is their only significant political leverage and they are the group (unlike migrants and holders of land and capital) who do not gain significantly from migration, indeed, can be net losers from migration, and who are much more reliant than more educated voters on local networks for support and risk management that can easily be disrupted by migration.

So, once we have worked through the what do you mean by borders? question, yes it is about competition pressures and how much capacity working class voters have to push back. But it is the comparison with state behaviour over the long run that is the most revealing, not the comparison with firms and cities.

[Cross posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Montesquieu and the US: explaining the US's Presidential aberration

That pioneer political scientist Montesquieu's theory of the separation of powers was both a very odd take on the English system of government (which he claimed it to be) but also very influential in the drafting of the US Constitution.

Listening to a paper on considerations of Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws by Louis Althusser and Albert Hirschman, a plausible reason for the appeal of Montesquieu to the US Founding Fathers occurred to me. The notion of executive, legislature and judiciary as separate and balancing branches of government solved a problem the separating US colonies had: what to do with the office of governor in each of the revolting colonies.

The 13 colonies that revolted against British rule had the normal government pattern of British colonies. There was a governor, appointed by the Crown, and a locally elected/selected legislature.

Separation from Britain was separation from the Crown. So, how was the governor to be appointed and what did his office mean and do? Having the governor elected by the local populace and heading the executive branch of government was an obvious solution, one that Montesquieu's theory gave an intellectual framing to.

Hence, the governor-and-local-legislature pattern leads to gubernatorial/presidential government in the US but parliamentary government everywhere else that began as British colonies, because they either do not separate from the Crown at all (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc) or do so after an initial period of still having the crown (India, Pakistan, Malta, etc) and so, in the latter cases, ended up with a figurehead President and a Prime Minister with the real power--provided they have a majority in the lower house of the Parliament.

A late C19th newspaper wrote:
Great Britain is a republic, with a hereditary president, while the United States is a monarchy with an elective king.
The notion being that in Great Britain, the Parliament is the seat of power and members of Parliament run the government while, in the US, voters elect a ruler who has a status approaching that of ruling monarch. (And the dynastic principle keeps popping up.)

The English Parliament
Montesquieu's notion of the separation of powers was not a very sensible analysis of British government. (Historian David Starkey is characteristically rude about Montesquieu and even more so here.) The office of Lord Chancellor, who was the presiding officer of the House of Lords, head of the judiciary and a member of Cabinet, was as great an offense against separation of powers as can be imagined. 

Moreover, the notion of the separation of powers gets quite wrong why the English Parliament survived when most of the comparable medieval legislatures were eventually abolished. It was precisely because in England, the executive and the legislature were not separated. The members of Henry VIII's Privy Council were members of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. The Parliament was where the political nation met the government and therefore operated as a central instrument of government. A pattern that continued. It was the breakdown of that pattern under the first two Stuart monarchs, but particularly Charles I, that led to the (English and other) Civil Wars in the British Isles.

In the C12th century, Song Dynasty China had one imperial official per 15,000 people. In 1750, Qing China averaged one civilian official per 11,250 people while there was one per 10,000 people in Tsarist Russia.

C16th England could manage an official per 4000 people (pdf), making it by far the most intensely governed of contemporary territorial states. It could have such a level of official penetration because the information flows from the society, and about such officials, was strong enough to make it work, and the deep involvement of the executive government in the Parliament was the essential capstone of that. British colonial governments replicated the pattern (albeit initially with appointed members of the Legislature Councils) because those information flows were so central to making the system work,

The American Revolution
Only 13 of 35 British colonies in the Americas revolted in 1775-6. The 13 colonies that revolted were the 13 that least needed the Crown--that is, they least needed the protection of the Royal Navy against French or Spanish aggression. 

Island colonies did not revolt, as, without the protection of the Royal Navy, they would be desperately vulnerable to French or Spanish naval power. The Canadian colonies did not revolt, as they needed the Crown to arbitrate between British and French settlers. It was the "in between" colonies who revolted.

While various taxes and Navigation Acts were definitely irritants to all the colonies, the notion of no taxation without representation was a brilliant formulation of deeper issues. The wish within the seceding colonies to appropriate Amerindian land, blocked by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and to defend slavery, threatened by Somersett's case (1772), generated much more visceral reasons to not defer to authority in London if and only if the need for Royal Navy protection was no longer a constraining factor

But keeping slavery, and seizing Amerindian land, does not make for grand legitimacy--most needed, if one was going to revolt against the Crown. Hence the necessary utility of no taxation without representation, which has the great advantage of being a perfectly reasonable take on the British constitution. The underlying intent might have been to grab land and keep slaves, but the engine of justification used as cover (above all, to themselves) had much greater implications, implications that still resonate through American history down to the present.

Slavery clearly deformed the US Founding, but it did not invalidate it because the Founders were forced to erect this notion of a government by consent to justify (including to themselves) what they were about. The ejection of the US Tories meant there was no substantial internal objection to the Revolution Settlement, an advantage of that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did not have achieve, with resistance to its Revolutionary Settlement still prompting armed rebellion in 1745. Nor did the French Revolution, which parts of France have never reconciled themselves to.

With the status of the American Revolution uncontested within the US, both sides of the US Civil War invoked the Revolution in its defence; the North as defending the Union created by the Revolution and the ideals that underpinned it; the South as defending the right to withdraw consent (so as to, of course, defend the interest of slavery against distressingly natural extension of the legitimating ideas of the American Revolution).

Contemporary slavery posing
The current fascination with slavery is a simplistic narrative designed to feed the arrogance of the progressivist human capital (education) elite by reinforcing how inadequate the past was (and so what we have received from the past) because it was not blessed by such moral and intellectual paragons as themselves. (Folk spouting ideas utterly conventional in their own social milieus pretending to themselves, and others, that they would not been equally conventionally conformist if they had lived back then is a risible sight.)

Canada, Australia and New Zealand had no slavery but ended up very similar societies to the US (though without its enormous geographical advantages for sustaining a prosperous population). The section of the US which had no slavery was much productive than the section that did, something that de Tocqueville remarked upon of 1830s US. The United Kingdom abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the Empire in 1833-4 and proceeded to become much richer.

Mass slavery or serfdom was what happened across human history when labour is much more valuable than land so bondage can eliminate their scarcity premium and force them down to subsistence wages (plus the costs of imposing the bondage). If the population is local, you get some form of serfdom (binding them to the land or the landowner). If the labour has to be imported, you get slavery (turning people into property, so they can be moved around). This pattern of mass human bondage occurs again and again in such circumstances, the only sizeable exceptions to the pattern across the whole of human history being (1) the failure to have re-enserfment in medieval Europe after the Black Death and (2) the abolition of slavery in the C19th. Both achievements of Eurosphere civilisation and no other. [EDIT: Other societies have abolished slavery, but not mass slavery and have not evangelically pursued that abolition, as Britain and the Royal Navy did the slave trade.]

Sub-Saharan Africa was a centre of slavery because it was where humans evolved, so there were many diseases and predators who preyed on humans, which kept the human population down and so labour more valuable than land, leading to pervasive slavery. Something intensified by, first, the Arab-Muslim slave trade and then the Atlantic slave trade that the British Empire, through the Royal Navy, eventually sought (successfully) to suppress. For example, the British forced all the signatories to the Congress of Vienna treaties to agree to the abolition of the slave trade.

The striking thing about slavery and Eurosphere civilisation was not that slavery occurred, it was not even the scale of slavery (that just reflected the expansive capacities of that civilisation), it was the (ultimately successful) campaigns to abolish it. In the UK, it was the first of what became the Emancipation Sequence, which starts with abolition of slavery and ends with queer emancipation.

In the case of the US, abolitionism led to the creation of the Republican Party as an anti-slavery Party and Abraham Lincoln in particular mobilising the rhetoric, and legitimating ideas, of the American Revolution against one of its basic motivations, the preservation of slavery. Those ideas have, admittedly somewhat fitfully, and often far too tardily, continually trumped slavery and its destructive legacies (notably Jim Crow). Which is a remarkable legacy from an enterprise whose founding documents were largely written by slave owners.

As economic historian and Nobel memorial Laureate Robert Fogel pointed out in his Without Consent or Contract: the Rise and Fall of American Slavery, in the US in the 1840s and 1850s, mass migration was adversely affecting the income of resident workers in the US (so seriously it can be seen in declining height of local National Guard recruits), leading to strong support for Nativism. But there were too many immigrants for that to be a viable election strategy, so the Republican Party finessed Nativism by supporting trade protection and focussing hostile attention on "the Slave Power". In other words, the Republicans finessed the pressures of mass migration by demonising (Southern) slave interests and politics. (A very easy target, it has to be said: and just because it was good electoral strategy does not mean the revulsion against slavery was anything other than sincere.)

The most bloody trumping of the legitimating ideas of the American Revolution over slavery being, of course, the American Civil War itself. There are persistent nonsense claims that the American Civil War was not about slavery. It absolutely was, one can tell simply by reading the Confederate Constitution (pdf) and the debates of the various secession conventions of the seceding states.

The Presidential capstone
The normal claim is that the North, the Union, won the Civil War because it had a greater and more productive population (even though it took 4 bloody years to do so). Well, yes, but that obscures the reason why that was so--it was because the North retained the Presidency. Not all the slave states seceded, substantial sections of the Southern population remained loyal to the Union, and a key residue of the armed forces remain loyal to their Commander-in-Chief. If, say, anti-slavery New England had revolted against the Union under a Southern president, then the balance of advantage would have been with the pro-slavery forces.

There is increasing speculation in the US about the possibility of another civil war, given the intense political and territorial polarisation. See, for example, this podcast. Or these YouTubes. The idea being that it would be the urban archipelago up against the ruralist homeland.

A similarity with the lead up to the original Civil War that is not much noted is that, once again, political interests within a Party with their base in New England and the West Coast are demonising the supporters of a Party with much of its base on the South as a strategy to finesse mass migration. They are even using the taint of slavery to do so. History may not repeat, but it can sometimes rhyme pretty strongly.

Both sides in this putative civil war have some clear advantages and disadvantages. The ruralist homeland has better geography, a more armed populace and controls the domestic food supply. The urban archipelago has more economic activity and the march-through-institutions leaves the progressivist side with better organising capacity. If such a war did break out, I would again predict that, again, whoever retained the Presidency would win, though far more slowly and bloodily than people would expect.

But a strong argument can be made that the Presidential system is much of the problem. That putting so much power and status in the hands of a single figure actually helps the polarisation. After all, Clinton Derangement Syndrome has been followed by Bush Derangement Syndrome, Obama Derangement Syndrome and, the most intense of all, Trump Derangement Syndrome (most intense because there are so many legitimate grounds of criticism of President Donald).

There could be a very strong cost for the US Founders using Montesquieu's (daft) theory about the English constitution to give the newly Crownless colonial governors a role and a legitimacy.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]