A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Links, February 2016

It's been ages - well over a year possibly more than two - since I last did a links post. But my folder of interesting things on the internet has continued to grow and needs to be partially cleared, so here are a few things which may be of interest. Hopefully, since many of these were accumulated many moons ago, they will not be the same things which float around all the links posts and therefore have already been seen by anyone reading this.

Political cynicism is nothing new. A nineteenth-century painting entitled "Avant et Apres le Vote" (right).

Nervousness is a problem for many people, and this guy has a solution: Rejection Therapy, in which he goes around asking for odd things with the aim of being rejected for something every single day and so desensitising himself.

I have in the works a long essay about how I see mating patterns going in the future (spoiler: if I'm right, most people probably won't like it). Until then, here's a Vox essay on dating in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Cast yourself back into the dim mists of 2014. The music charts are full of songs from kids' movies, Facebook is dominated by #NekNominate and the Ice Bucket Challenge, and everyone is reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the summation of French economist Thomas Piketty's research into historical income and wealth distributions. Except they're not, as this WSJ article of dubious methodology suggests. Relatedly, here is a review by someone who hadn't read the book.

Let it never be said that you can't apply intelligence and rigour to understanding the Bible. To prove it, here is an exam in Theological Engineering.

Various weird musical instruments. And another.

One of the most interestingly evil business plans I've seen.

People who claim to be the world's fastest guitarist. This guy "only" gets up to 350 beats/minute, but maintains clear musicality. This one claims to reach 2000 BPM, but I'm somewhat sceptical about whether, if you slowed down the recording, you would find him having actually played all the notes. (For one thing, a difference of 7x between some of the world's fastest guitarists hardly seems plausible - surely there just isn't that much variation in how fast people can move their fingers?)

The kind of government that I hope we never lose: five-year-old boy loses his bid for a third term of office as local mayor. That said, the candidates for this mayoralty seem worryingly white and male.

Another portion of North America in desperate need of feminism: the Alaskan outback, where low population density, backward institutions, and a high male-female ratio have combined to give the state a rape frequency three times the US average.

"You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

ISIS wins the Turner Prize.

The Wikipedia page for Daniel Lambert (left), who was slightly shorter than me and five times the weight. He seems to have been a stand-up fellow indeed.

Another interesting person, though rather more recent: RIP Stephen Masty.

Women: is waking up on time a struggle? Worry no more: the vibrator-cum-alarm-clock (pun tolerated though not intended) has arrived!

Monday, 1 February 2016

A Modest Proposal for Upper-House Reform

One perpetual complain in British politics relates to the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords. This House has very considerable power within our supposed democracy, and yet its members are mostly appointees of the Prime Minister. Surely it ought to be reformed so as to genuinely reflect the will of the people?

The counterpoint to this is that the House currently plays an important role of review. Very few current members inherited their positions; rather, they were appointed on account of their expertise in particular topics important to our politics. Making them elected would turn them into simply a body of puppets of the party leaders.

Here's a suggestion for how we might attempt to combine these concerns: make the House of Lords into an epistocracy. Maintain universal suffrage for the House of Commons, but also introduce a test which one must pass in order to gain the right to vote for the membership of the House of Lords. The questions would be a mixture of reading comprehension, numeracy, and factual knowledge about a range of topics (geography, the nature of the British constitution, uncontroversial things from economics - comparative advantage, definitions of various things, the current UK GDP per capita). In order to vote, you would have to achieve a particular score - say, 70%. In order to stand for election to the upper house, you would have to achieve an even tougher score - say, 90%*. Upon taking the test you would be informed if you had passed to a sufficient level to vote or stand for election, and if you had then you would receive a right which would need to be renewed every five years.

Every citizen would be entitled to take this test, free of charge.

* Alternatively, perhaps we might say that in order to vote one would have to be in the highest-scoring 10%, and in order to stand one would have to be in the highest-scoring 2%. I'm not committed to any particular formulation of this idea, I'm just throwing it out there.

On Democracy

(Partly inspired by reading Richard Arneson's "Democratic Rights at the National Level")

Democracy is not magic. It does not make political action virtuous, it has no inherent superiority to other forms of government. The right to vote is not itself a morally important freedom. But given the indelible association in many people's mind between freedom and democracy, democracy is nevertheless an inevitable result of people being made free.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What Should We Learn from Wilt Chamberlain?

Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia is full of thought experiments which have become classics. Though the libertarianism which is central to the book has been less influential than the left-liberalism of his then-Harvard-colleague John Rawls, it is hard to name much - if anything - from Rawls' magnum opus A Theory of Justice which has been reused outside of a Rawlsian context. Nozick, however, has furnished us with The Experience Machine, The Utility Monster, and a whole host of ideas besides.

The idea which I intend to discuss is not one which has been, to the best of my (admittedly very limited) knowledge, outside of a libertarian context, but which I shall show has strong implications for how even those who disdain libertarianism ought to think about distributive justice. This idea, known as The Wilt Chamberlain example, comes from as passage entitled "How Liberty Upsets Patterns" and runs as follows. Suppose you have a society which enjoys perfect distributive justice. This might be perfect equality, it might be in exact accordance with some measure of desert - you name it. Nozick's argument is intended to be perfectly general.

Now Wilt Chamberlain, the legendary basketball player, is willing in his spare time to play basketball for the entertainment of other people; a million other people, in turn, are each willing to pay him $1 for the privilege of watching him. If these trades are allowed to happen then Wilt ends up vastly richer than other people in society. Hence either there can be no solid principle of distribute justice, or, in Nozick's words, "an egalitarian society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults". There's a bit more to it than that, but only in order to tighten up the details; the entire essence of the problem is contained in this paragraph.

This is a very persuasive argument. It's hard to argue against the freedom to make trades in which no-one is made worse off, but - suitably idealised - this is the whole process of modern capitalism. Must we accept libertarianism?

No, actually. There's a remarkably simple solution, which I'm amazed hasn't become the mainstream interpretation of where this argument ought to go. In a word: sufficientarianism.

Sufficientarianism is the view that equality per se is not what matters in terms of distributive justice; rather, we ought to care simply that each person has enough. What we mean by "enough" is a matter of some debate - it seems like every sufficientarian theorist has their own definition, none of which I am fully persuaded by. I won't pretend it has no difficultes, either - should we make the poverty of many people direr in order to bring a single person up to the line of sufficiency, as some formulations suggest? But it provides an easy, obvious answer to Nozick's argument. Our original stipulation was that everyone had enough. given that distributive justice had been achieved. Assuming no-one is putting himself below the line of sufficiency by buying basketball tickets, which seems to me a reasonable assumption, there is no reason why the distribution of resources should be objectionable after people have paid to see Wilt playing basketball.

We can have a view of distributive justice which does not hold it to be acceptable for people to be starving in the street, without having to interfere. Nozick's argument fails to establish libertarianism, but it functions as a strong piece of evidence in favour of sufficientarianism being superior to egalitarianism.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

On "Integration" and the Current Migrant Crisis

I'm never quite certain whether, when people refer to integration of immigrants, they mean making those immigrants into full members of our civil society or whether they just mean persuading immigrants not to blow us up or sexually assault women. These correspond to two different views of potential immigrants: as people who look different but otherwise completely like us, or as the products of less advanced societies who hold correspondingly backward views.

The way many high liberals talk about the topic - as though integrating some migrants is the duty of a civilised society, but it is not something we need do with every single person who wants to enter the country - seems like it works far more with the second view of migrants. But these same people would be deeply uncomfortable with the implicit picture of migrants. Say what you like about Steve Sailer and such people: at least their view of immigrants is consistent with their politics.

Given that I'm on record as a supporter of open borders, it would be very convenient for me to hold the second vision of integration but the first view of migrants. This seems to be roughly what most open borders people believe, and with regard to your typical economic migrant I think it is probably the most reasonable view. But the "typical economic migrant" is selected for being relatively ambitious and cosmopolitan; the people fleeing Syria are simply trying to get away from a warzone, and do not appear to be selected for anything much other than being young and male. Obviously the pictures of migrants I presented at the start of this post are both exaggerations, and all actual migrants will fall somewhere between the two, but in general we might expect that the direr someone's circumstances are back in their country of origin, the closer they are likely to fall towards the uglier end of the spectrum. This is an uncomfortable fact for anyone trying to come up with a compassionate immigration policy.

This is rather unfortunate, and I don't really have a good answer to it. One option would be to take the deontological "immigration is a basic right which may never, under any circumstances, be denied" line, but I forfeited that principle long ago when I failed to apply it to Israel. Another option is to suggest that yes, there are costs to taking in immigrants, but ultimately we have to apply a sense of proportion: the benefits to the immigrants, most of whom are entirely law-abiding, vastly outweigh the costs to host societies. This is definitely the option to which I am most inclined, but it is not without its problems.

A photo taken last Thursday in central Budapest. From left to right:
Damjan (Macedonian), Oshadie (Sri Lankan), Nino (Croatian),
Olesya (Ukrainian), myself (British), Puja (Indian), Rachel (US),
Errol and Christy (US, though they met while teaching in Japan).
First is the fairly explicit cosmopolitan worldview. This is not to say that I believe cosmopolitanism to be wrong - entirely the opposite. Rather, it is very easy for me, who grew up in one country, currently live in another, plan on moving to yet another to do a PhD starting in 2017, have no idea where I will eventually end up, and live on a corridor with people of more nationalities than I can count, to endorse this kind of globalist worldview. The average person, if their culture is disrupted by foreigners - something which is distinctly more likely for them than for me - has nowhere else to go.

Second, there are the worries about cultural collapse. Social trust really is an important resource, even though I think conservatives tend to overestimate its volatility, and immigration really can harm it. Especially when the liberal authorities refuse to take genuine complaints about migrants seriously. Having read Haidt I do take this argument seriously, but what it really needs is to be put into quantitative terms. Social trust is, as with everything, the subject of a vast empirical literature, so how about we try to, however roughly, measure (a) the extent to which social capital is damaged by immigration, and (b) the extent to which other things we care about are damaged by loss of social capital? Perhaps we also place an inherent value on social capital, in which case that's also something to be factored into the equation.

In sum: I remain convinced that under normal circumstances, the UK ought to accept vastly more immigrants than it currently does. These are not normal circumstances, and I'm still trying to understand the implications of that. Deporting students - who are especially well-selected for liberal values, SJWs aside - is still stupid. But again, that's easy for me to say.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

More Venting

One of the courses I'm currently taking is a broad overview of political theory, the first half of which is an examination of the alleged duty of obey the law. Today we were discussing Fair-Play theory, and in particular Robert Nozick's counterargument. Fair-Play theory is the idea that "when several people come together and make sacrifices towards a cooperative venture for mutual benefit, they have the right to demand similar sacrifice from those who benefit from their venture." Nozick's objection is that it is quite easy to foist benefits upon someone, and moreover even if you do enjoy benefits from such a scheme it doesn't really seem like you have a duty to comply.

What struck me in the decision was just how emotionally violent some of the defenders of this theory got. It was suggested - not by me - that one could extend Nozick's argument to public order and defence. One girl suggested then that anyone who refused to pay taxes for public order ought just to be murdered - or at the very least, that if they were murdered, they simply got what was coming to them.

Suppose some girls have been on a night out. Most of them decide to get a taxi back home together, but one decides it's not worth the expense. Instead she decides to walk home. On the way back, she is sexually assaulted. Did she "get what was coming to her"?

Monday, 25 January 2016

One Reason to be Glad About Sexism

I don't think many people in the chess world intend to be sexist - much of the more blatant sexism is of the "benevolent" kind - the tournament livestream watcher who, writing in, addresses the commentators as "wise Peter and beautiful Sopiko", for example. But the demographics are very much male-dominated, and the culture surrounding the game reflects that - not helped by the fact that FIDE, the game's international governing body, is one of the last remaining bastions of the USSR.

Perhaps because of this culture, perhaps because of sexism in the communities from which chess players arise, perhaps because men tend to think more analytically, and perhaps simply because men tend to exhibit more variation than women in their abilities, there are vastly more strong male players than female players. Hou Yifan, the strongest female chess player in the world, is the world's 68th strongest player overall. I don't know how many male players are stronger than Humpy Koneru, the female no. 2, but a bit of extrapolation from the ratings at the lower end of the top 100 men suggests she's probably some way outside the top 200.

This means that there are a great many men who could potentially choose to identify as transwomen and compete for the women's world championship. I can definitely imagine some men doing that to become Women Grand Masters, the bar for which is set considerably lower than that which exists for Grand Masters proper, but I think it's unlikely to happen for the world championship.

Firstly, success in top chess tournaments has a lot to do with preparation. Magnus Carlsen, not a player noted for his strength in the opening, had no fewer than four grandmasters helping him on a daily basis during his last title defence - three of them "Super-GMs", members of the elite group of fifty or so of the world's very strongest players. (Only one woman - the great Judit Polgár - has ever been a super-GM). I imagine that it would be easier for someone uncontroversially accepted to be a woman to find willing aides than someone who might be seen as a huckster.

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, people don't really care about the women's events. Judit Polgár was the undisputed greatest female player in the world for over 25 years, and never once bothered to compete for the title of Women's World Champion. Hou Yifan's dominance of the female chess world is not as total as that which Polgár had - though still very solid, even more than Magnus Carlsen's domination of the men's game - and she is a past Women's World Champion, but at the time of the most recent Championship she simply didn't bother to compete. Granted, it was because of a clash with another tournament, but the tournament she went to wasn't especially high-status either. To Kirsan Illyumzhinov and other bigwigs at the Federacion Internationale d'Echecs (FIDE), such events are an extra source of kickbacks. To everyone else, they're just yet another low-level tournament, reports of which tend to include rather more pictures than normal.