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That other 1937 feeling

Paul Krugman has a new piece up called "That 1937 Feeling", in which he advocates ignoring all economic discoveries since 1937, and even ignoring economic discoveries from before that time that were and are politically unpopular.

Or something like that.


War quiz

Quiz: against whom was war declared the last time the US government formally declared war?

EDIT: Without looking it up, of course.


Round 16843854354354: markets beat government

Ex-(left-)anarchist Robert Paul Wolff writes:

When I use Google or Amazon.com, they seem to have no difficulty remembering who I am, identifying sites I might want to visit or products I might want to buy. Netflix knows what sorts of movies I would enjoy renting. And all of this is done with blinding speed, virtually in what is called real time. But the CIA, the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, and the State Department cannot "connect the dots," as the cant phrase has it, despite spending 40 billion dollars since 9/11. Why doesn't the President simply call Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos into the oval office, offer each of them one dollar in salary [an echo of the WW II "dollar a year" men who worked for nothing to contribute to the war effort], and ask them to design and implement, in six months, a system that would allow the integration of every warning, every red flag raised in any embassy or consulate, any question at any airport security gate, all in real time, so that anyone in the entire system anywhere could access that integrated information from any laptop or computer terminal immediately? I mean, this falls under the heading of "solved technical problems."

This isn't really that surprising: Amazon's fortunes rise and fall directly in proportion to its ability to serve its customers. The US Government's, on the other hand, depend on entirely coercive factors, and its contractors have plenty of incentives for making really complicated systems that really don't do that much when they're all put together.


Malthusianism: Theory vs Data

Like Curunir, I found Robin Hanson's post on the "Dream Time" interesting. What struck me most is his prediction that our descendants will fall back to Malthusian economics: as the population grows, there are less resources for everyone, and the average wealth per capita is barely enough to survive.

Briefly, Malthusian economics, which held for all of history prior to 1800, is as follows. Start with the per capita wealth at subsistence levels. As technology improves, wealth grows. This allows people to have more children. Now there are fewer resources for everyone, so average wealth falls back down to subsistence levels.

Since 1800, in the First World, the dynamic has changed. As societies progress and accrue wealth, people generally decide to have fewer children, and the population stabilizes. Technology continues to improve, and per capita, people become richer.

The Malthusian skeptic of today sees all of this as temporary. His argument is:

* Forget the term "people". Think rather of "replicating beings". These beings have a strong tendency to make as many copies of themselves as possible.
* There are limited resources in the universe.
* The more beings there are, the less resources each can have.
* Technology can help us use our resources more efficiently, possibly making more resources available to everyone, but there is a limit to how much technology can do this.
* There might be some--or even a large majority of--beings that decide not to make many copies of themselves, but all it takes is a tiny subset that multiply fruitfully, and soon these fecund rebels will replace their less fertile cousins.
* Sure, we do not currently live by Malthusian economics, but sooner or later, Malthusian economics has to re-assert itself. Our wealth and abundance is temporary.

This is one instance in which the theory seems compelling even if it's counter to current trends. It's also depressing to me since I always thought of progress as a given, with people getting richer all the time. The only arguments I can think of against Malthusian re-assertion are that:

1) Beings could decide to enforce limited replication.
2) We don't know everything there is to know about physics. Resources may not be as limited as they appear today.


The Time of Separation

(Even more than usual, this is something of a rough draft. And way too long.)

A few months ago, Robin Hanson wrote a fascinating post asking what made this time period unique:

When our distant descendants think about our era, however, differences will loom larger. Yes they will see that we were more like them in knowing more things, and in having less contact with a wild nature. But our brief period of very rapid growth and discovery and our globally integrated economy and culture will be quite foreign to them. Yet even these differences will pale relative to one huge difference: our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter. While our descendants may explore delusion-dominated virtual realities, they will well understand that such things cannot be real, and don’t much influence history. In contrast, we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions drove history.

He's thinking about the very distant future, to a time when humanity has fallen back into the Malthusian trap through an explosion in human mind uploads. I'd like to instead think a little less abstractly, and a little closer to the present.

Here's one: More than any period in the past, and probably relative to the future, we are more dependent on romantic relationships to fulfill all of our emotional needs. Our other friendships and relationships, such as with extended family, are shallower, and of shorter duration, than they "naturally" are, than they were, and than (I think) they will be.

What do I mean by dependent on romance? The decline of friendships is well-documented:

According to a study documented in the June 2006 issue of the journal American Sociological Review, Americans are thought to be suffering a loss in the quality and quantity of close friendships since at least 1985. The study states 25% of Americans have no close confidants, and the average total number of confidants per citizen has dropped from four to two.

Here's an anectodal, and I think illustrative, example: Last month, the New York Times Style section ran an article about marriage which had this remarkable bit:

Monogamy is one of the most basic concepts of modern marriage. It is also its most confounding. In psychoanalytic thought, the template for monogamy is forged in infancy, a baby with its mother. Marriage is considered to be a mainline back to this relationship, its direct heir. But there is a crucial problem: as infants we are monogamous with our mothers, but our mothers are not monogamous with us. That first monogamy — that template — is much less pure than we allow. “So when we think about monogamy, we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well,” Adam Phillips notes. This was true for us. On our wedding day, Dan and I performed that elaborate charade: I walked down the aisle with my father. I left him to join my husband. We all shed what we told ourselves were tears of joy. Dan and I promised to forsake all others, and sexually we had. But we had not shed all attachments, naturally, and as we waded further into our project the question of allegiances became more pressing. Was our monogamy from the child’s or the mother’s perspective? Did my love for Dan — must my love for Dan — always come first?

This all came pouring out last summer in the worst fight of our marriage. At the time, we were at my parents’ house, an hour northeast of San Francisco. More than food, more than child-rearing, we fought about weekends — in particular, how many summer weekends to spend up there. I liked the place: out of the fog, free grandparental day care; the kids could swim. Dan loathed it, describing the locale as “that totally sterile golf community in which your mother feeds our kids popsicles for breakfast and I’m forbidden to cook.”

For the past few years I dismissed Dan’s complaints by saying, “Fine, don’t go.” I told myself this was justified, if not altruistic: I was taking our girls; Dan could do what he wanted with his free time. But underneath lay a tangle of subtext. Dan wished he spent even more time with his own parents, who were quite private. I felt an outsize obligation toward mine, because they moved to the Bay Area to be closer to us. We’d had some skilled conversations, which helped a bit, as I now knew those weekends with his in-laws made Dan feel alienated and left out of our family decision-making. Yet at root we fought because the issue rubbed a weak point in our marriage, in our monogamy: I didn’t want to see my devotion to my parents as an infidelity to Dan. To him, it was.

It's not my intention to criticize these people (although, for the record, I think they both come out like most people do in the NYTimes Style pages: Self-absorbed and unpleasant). Rather, I'd just like to point out how funamentally strange this approach to emotional monogamy is, historically and (I'd argue) evolutionarily. Stephanie Coontz wrote an interesting article a few years ago about the history of marriage:

In John Adams’s view, a “passion for the public good” was “superior to all private passions.” In both England and America, moralists bewailed “excessive” married love, which encouraged “men and women to be always taken up with each other.”

From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.

The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including physical touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.

By the early 20th century, though, the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage. Under the influence of Freudianism, society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.

Look, I realize some of this was subliminated homosexuality in age of repression. And another part was probably that men had trouble developing emotional relationships with women in separate spheres. Nevertheless, I think it's virtually undeniable that friendship has declined in importance relative to marriage.

But try telling somebody that you're unhappy about the constant dissolving of friendships, unhappy that every couple years you move and everything starts over. You get told, bluntly, that's life, grow up. And it does just sound juvenile, doesn't it? But then there's this, from the always fascinating The Edge:

Women in hunting and gathering societies breastfeed around the clock, eat a low-fat diet and get a lot of exercise — habits that tend to inhibit ovulation. As a result, they regularly space their children about four years apart. Thus, the modern duration of many marriages—about four years—conforms to the traditional period of human birth spacing, four years.

Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.

She doesn't talk about friendship, but I strongly suspect that it's evolved in order to bond tribes. You're more likely to fight with and die with someone with whom you share an emotional connection. And that bond is permanent: Men didn't get a new tribe every four years. They got a new wife every four years. In other words, we're evolved to be fine divorcing, not moving.

My fellow conservative-leaners share some of the blame for this, with their overemphasis of marriage as the apotheosis of human existence. When I was looking for that Coontz piece, I ran across this old Ann Althouse post, where in the comments Coontz is made out to be a radical for wanting people to build deeper relationships. (To be fair, here's a more sensible response, someone who appreciates the deep benefits of real community.)

Coontz attributes the decline to Freudianism. As happy as I am to blame him for the world's ills, I'd like to suggest another possible reason: Economics. Specifically, mobility. As the economy became more dynamic, it became necessary to move often. As people did so, they rationally stopped developing long-lasting, deep friendships. Why bother? The people will simply move away in a few years. The only person you could (barely) count on remaining was your spouse, and consequently, people became emotionally dependent on them, and only them.

So far I've been a downer about things here. I've said friendship has been on the decline, and nothing about why I think this is a transient stage. Here, of course, I'm of necessity vaguer, since I'm looking to the future, but I'll give it a shot.

One reason is the growth of communications technology. The rise of "helicopter parents" is, in my view, a negative. And surely it's partially driven by sociological factors. But it's also a result of technology. Without cell phones, webcams, etc., it's simply not possible to be a helicopter mom. And this development will continue. I IM my brother, 1000 miles away, far more than I would call him. And then what about something like this:

A new Army grant aims to create email or voice mail and send it by thought alone. No need to type an e-mail, dial a phone or even speak a word.

Known as synthetic telepathy, the technology is based on reading electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalograph, or EEG. Similar technology is being marketed as a way to control video games by thought.

"I think that this will eventually become just another way of communicating," said Mike D'Zmura, from the University of California, Irvine and the lead scientist on the project.

Things like this will only continue. Already, I strongly suspect facebook and the like has led to people staying in touch for longer. True, some of these are shallow "reationships", but the technology is new. Imagine what instant, effortless communication, or truly authentic-looking holograms, or whatever would do. Friendships would be cheaper to maintain, and thus more enduring.

Potentially even transportation advances could help. Already airplane flights are far cheaper than they were a few decades ago. What about something like hypersonic transport? I don't think that's as big a deal as communications advances (partially because I view the advances as less radical). Even so, as economic growth continues, expect the time cost (that is, the hours you need to work to pay for something) of moving from one place to another to fall.

Another reason I view this phase as passing is the future of time off. I think I'm probably in the minority here, but I tend to think even highly skilled workers? Why? Because there simply isn't that much that money can be spent on. As Will Wilkinson once wrote, "The difference between rich and poor in transportation used to be feet versus carriage. Now, its a 1988 Escort vs. a 2002 BMW, which, despite our keen sense for the social distinction, is in fact a triumph of equality." This trend will only continue. Sure, people will work hard and compete, but there comes a point where the marginal gains are simply not that high, relative to just sloughing off and playing more golf.

I've noticed an interesting trend in my classmates. I don't have much to compare it to, but many, including myself, seem far less enthused about moving to random parts of the country/world than our predecessors. A huge number have strong desires to move back to the Pacific Northwest, or the South, or whatever. And why not? We have become so rich that we can allow ourselves to be moved by these non-economic considerations. Sure, you might get a few more bucks moving, but so what? Diminishing returns in material possessions kicks in, and being somewhere you want to be becomes more important. (This is, by the way, an excellent reason not to go to graduate school. More than perhaps anything else about the academic lifestyle, I'm distressed by the total lack of geographic flexibility in it.)

Better communications, transportation, and time off to enjoy them. All of this makes friendship cheaper, and just like with anything else, when things are cheaper, you get more of it. That's what I think the future looks like. I could, of course, be wrong. Perhaps the future is moving ever more often, severing all social ties every time, and having a social circle that consists of a single person, until you divorce. But I'm optimistic that we're seeing a passing phase in civilization, unprecedented and unusual.


Ensiferum Will Rock Your Face Off

New music genre discovery this week! Folk metal: speed metal mixed with folk music. Best band discovered so far: Finnish group Ensiferum. Favorite song: Into Battle. Here is a version appropriately set to scenes from Lord of the Rings:


Scan Me

I've never been very fond of the use of Benjamin Franklin's old aphorism that "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." For one, it reveals the sort of childish refusal to confront the reality of tradeoffs that I usually associate with the most naive of leftwing economists. For another, it's actually a misquote, since what Franklin said is that "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." That is true, but rather uninteresting. Almost by definition it makes no sense to give up something "essential" for something "temporary". As guidance, this is worthless, since it just kicks the problem down the road: What is essential, anyway?

I bring this up because the attempted Christmas airplane bombing has brought these up these issues once again. The TSA, as you would expect, have chosen to fight the last war, first outlawing standing during the last hour of flight, then going to a "follow the crew's directions" standard.

But there are technologies that apparently would have stopped this kind of bombing. Namely, backscatter X-Rays, which produce images like this:

Security scan

Now, according to the people who want to use these, the images wouldn't be kept, and would be viewed by someone in a different room than you. Some people have claimed the images would inevitably end up on the internet. If you're really worried that an image than kinda looks like an outline of you, but can't possibly be identified as you, could end up being viewed by someone, I really think you should find something better to worry about. This hardly strikes me as worse than removing shoes, which I've already declared as a triviality to me. (And honestly, what kind of moron would look at these things instead of good, honest porn anyway? Am I alone in thinking these things are utterly boring as "revealing" images?)

Jonah Goldberg nails it here:

Anyone who flies regularly will tell you, the hellishness of airline travel is not primarily derived from the outrage of lost privacy, it's derived from the outrage of inefficient, time-consuming, idiocy.

He's right. The problem of security is not that someone, somewhere, might get to see something that kindasortanotreally looks like a naked picture. The problem is it's slow, inefficient, and unhelpful.

So let's have two lines. One for people whose irrational hangups lead to nightmarish lines and delays. And those of us who are adults can get to where we are going.

Or, better yet, we could let the market decide what security people want. But I don't see that happening.


Since I don't have a Twitter account

Someone should translate Atlas Shrugged into Pashto so that all these Afghans can realize how it's a moral imperative for the US military to kill them. Also works for Arabic / Palestinians / Israel.


Libertarianism and nerdism

A buddy of mine just sent me a link to a post called "Not all nerds are libertarians, but almost all libertarians are nerds." I'd say that this is true among self-identified libertarians. My leanings have led to numerous conversations with apolitical types who would best fit under the 'libertarian' heading but who just aren't interested in it. These types are not nerdier than average.

Add to it that there are a lot of libertarians, like me for instance, that have nerdy interests (and, frankly, if you're reading this, you're probably guilty as well), but aren't exactly nerds. Some of the archetypcal libertarians (e.g. Rothbard), on the other hand, were nerds extraordinaires.


Distributed Republic Social Network

I created a fan group for Distributed Republic at FR33 Agents (a social network built on top of ning).

FR33 Agents includes chat and private messaging features, allowing DR members to communicate more directly. However, membership at FR33 Agents is moderated by people outside of our control (to layer several collectivist errors on top of each other).

Since I'm a long-time, but not founding, member of Distributed Republic, I'm not really sure what decisions I should be making about the DR "brand". I just went ahead and did this. It seemed like a nice compromise between trying to create something unique to DR, and floundering around trying to find and use each other's email. If anyone has better ideas for extending the conversations here, have at it in the comments below.