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John Q

Armistice Day

by John Q on November 10, 2023

I’ve been posting on Armistice Day ever since I started blogging back in 2002, arguing against war and lamenting the disaster of the Great War which has cast a shadow over all of our subsequent history, including the terrible wars that afflict the world today. This year, I’m too depressed to say anything more, except to express the hope that peace will come one day.

The big one (updated)

by John Q on October 30, 2023

(14 Nov update) I got this badly wrong. Johnson followed the same path that doomed McCarthy, passing a short-term fix with Democratic votes. It’s hard to see why the Republicans went through all these contortions to end up where they started.

Government shutdowns, and threats of shutdown, have become routine in the US, with the result that no one much worries about them any more. Typically some kind of compromise is reached just as the deadline approaches, and government returns to quasi-normality.. Occasionally, bluffs are called and a ‘shutdown’ actually happens. Civil servants are sent home, public facilities are closed and so on. But the armed forces operate as normal, Social Security checks go out, and IOUs take the place of actual spending for various essential purposes. After a few weeks at the most, that produces enough pressure to deliver some kind of resolution. As far as I can see, that’s what most political commentators think will happen in November, when the next deadline is reached.

I foresee something more drastic and dangerous. It’s hard to imagine the Republicans in the House of Representatives agreeing on any set of demands for a spending bill, short of requiring Biden and Harris to resign and install Johnson as President* . But if they do come up with a program, it will be so extreme as to be totally unacceptable to Biden and the Democrats. And, the long history of blackmail efforts like this seems to have stiffened spines on the Democratic side.
Earthquakes: Facts, Definition, Types, Causes and Effects of Earthquake …

So, there will probably be a shutdown. But how will it end? Leaving aside the fact that Johnson is a far-right extremist dedicated to the overthrow of US democracy, cutting any kind of deal with Biden would be signing his own resignation (but see below). On the other side, capitulation would doom Biden’s presidency.

That means the shutdown has to continue past the symbolic stage of closing national parks and so on, to the point where it is doing serious damage to the US economy and society, with debt downgrades, personal and corporate bankruptcies and so on. That will still not be enough to shift the Republican extreme right, so no deal will be achieved with Republicans alone. What are the remaining possibilities? Here are a few I’ve thought about, roughly in order of probability

  • Johnson cuts a deal with the Democrats, passing a continuing resolution in return for the promise of some abstentions, or even active support, when the Freedom Caucus try to vote him out. This seems the most likely option to me, but it will be very painful on both sides
  • Biden capitulates. I still see this as unlikely, but the pressure to do so will be immense.

  • A handful of Republicans remember that they are supposed to care about the country they govern, and cross the floor, knowing they will lose their seats and face the obloquy of most of their (former) friends and supporters.

  • Biden invokes emergency powers to reopen the government and defies the Supreme Court to stop him. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what these powers might be, but the issue is essentially political. Unless he is impeached or otherwise prevented from acting, emergency powers are what the President says they are, a point made by Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War (a relevant precedent in the current state of the US).

I haven’t seen anyone else predicting such a crisis, so maybe I’m over-estimating the difficulty of reaching a resolution. IIRC, I was among the first to predict a crisis like this when the Republicans retook the House in 2010**, but I couldn’t see a resolution then either, and one was reached in the end.

  • Joking, but not really – I can imagine at least some of them demanding this, with the proviso that Johnson would then resign in favour of Trump.

** There was a debt limit crisis in 2011 and a 16-day shutdown in 2013.

Crossposted from my substack


by John Q on October 25, 2023

(Crosspost from my Substack blog, where post includes links and images)>

I don’t think I’m the only one to notice that Marc Andreesen’s ‘Techno-Optimist Manifesto’ has a curiously dated feel, as if the author had been cryogenically frozen around the time he cashed out of Netscape. Two points particularly struck me.

First, there his paean to market processes, which are represented as “Willing buyer meets willing seller, a price is struck, both sides benefit from the exchange or it doesn’t happen”

This statement might have seemed plausible at the height of the dotcom boom, which coincided with the high point of faith in ‘turbo-capitalism’. But it’s not at all descriptive of the way in which the Internet and the World Wide Web have developed, as Andreesen himself ought to remember.

Until the mid-1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web were products of government funded organizations, developed by academics and other users without a profit motive. The associated software, including Andreesen’s Netscape Navigator were given away free of charge (Gopher, the main rival to the WWW, failed because the he University of Minnesota tried to cash in on it). The Internet rapidly displaced commercial enterprises like AOL (who tried to buy their way back in by acquiring Netscape, and were themselves bought by Time Warner in one of the most disastrous acquisitions of all time). Even after the Web was open to commerce, much of the innovation (blogs, Wikipedia, most recently the Fediverse) came from non-commercial sources.

But even the for-profit Internet doesn’t fit Andreesen’s description. Google, Facebook and other platforms don’t rely on exchanging their services at an agreed price. Rather, they provide a service that is free of charge, and make their money by serving ads and harvesting user data for other marketers. At a stretch, one might say that advertisements in traditional media represent an agreed price “watch 20 minutes of our sitcom, and consume 10 minutes of ads”. But cookies and trackers are surreptitious – no one can really know how much they are paying. We are seeing a gradual shift back towards subscription models, both for traditional media outlets and for new entrants like Substack. But these are the exception rather than the rule.

Hardware vendors like Apple come a bit closer to the traditional market model. But even they rely critically on ‘intellectual property’, that is, laws preventing competitors from supplying equivalent products.

The result of all of this is that, in the Internet economy, there is almost no relationship between contribution and reward. Andreesen is a billionaire while Tim Berners-Lee drove a used car for years (more recently, though, he has been reported as having a net wealth of $50 million). As Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow have pointed out , the crucial thing is to establish a choke-point at which wealth can be extracted. These choke points do more to hinder innovation than to promote it.

Then there’s his pitch for nuclear fission. Again, this made sense in the late 1990s. The reality of global heating, and therefore the need to stop burning coal was becoming undeniable. Alternatives such as wind and solar were prohibitively costly. So, the risks of nuclear accidents and the problem of managing waste were outweighed by the certainty of climate catastrophe under business as usual.

But in 2023 nuclear power is a dead duck, a C20 technology with a string of failed revivals in C21. New additions have barely kept pace with closures of old plants.

By contrast, solar PV is the biggest single example in support of techno-optimism. From essentially zero, it’s reached the point where annual additions are around 400 GW a year, almost as much as the total installed capacity of nuclear. Costs have plummeted and, after some generous initial support from government, most of the process is being driven by markets. There is no better case of creative destruction than the rise of solar PV

Andreesen’s failure to recognise this illustrates two points

• He’s ignorant and doesn’t choose to inform himself, instead gullibly following sources that pander to his confirmation bias

• He’s driven not by rational belief in the progress of technology but by rightwing culture war politics

Finally there’s Andreesen’s rejection of the precautionary principle, which has been endorsed by quite a few generally sensible people, including Daniel Drezner . The precautionary principle has been interpreted in all sorts of different ways, from the common sense of “look before you leap” to the absurdity of “don’t do anything that might go wrong”.

But the most sensible interpretation, and the one relevant to the current debate is that of a burden of proof on innovators (I wrote about this with Simon Grant, here). That is, the precautionary principle, as applied to any particular domain, says that innovators should have to demonstrate in advance that their proposed innovation will not be harmful.

The opposite view, summed up by aphorisms like “move fast and break things” and “better to seek forgiveness than permission”, is that innovation should not be constrained. Negative consequences can be dealt with after the event, and, if necessary, rules can be adjusted to prevent a repetition.

The precautionary principle isn’t universally applicable. There’s widespread (maybe not universal) support for applying it to new medicines, whereas not many people would want to apply it to new restaurant menus (assuming they complied with existing health standards).

Looking at Andreesen’s manifesto, three cases come to mind. First, since he’s now a financier, there is the case of financial innovation. The default here is to allow any innovation that complies with the rules covering existing financial instruments. In my view, this has turned out very badly, most obviously in the leadup to the GFC, but also with more recent innovations like Buy Now, Pay Later, not to mention cryptocurrencies, in which Andreesen is heavily invested.

Then (not mentioned in the manifesto) but maybe in the background there’s the case of genetically modified crops. Here the precautionary principle was applied early on, following the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. This process allowed research that established, fairly convincingly, that food produced from GM crops was just a safe as that produced using crops developed by traditional breeding and selection (also a form of genetic modification). That finding didn’t end controversy over issues like corporate control, or debate over specific innovations like Roundup-Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) crops, but it gave pretty good assurance that the nightmare scenarios floating around at the time of the initial discoveries would not materialise.

Finally, of course, there are recent developments in Artificial Intelligence, from which Andreesen hopes to make a lot of money. I’m not convinced by the apocalyptic scenarios put forward by people like William McAskill (and linked in some obscure way to the idea of ‘effective altruism’). But I also haven’t seen a clearly convincing counterargument to say that such an apocalypse can’t happen, or, at least, is less of a concern than other risks it might tend to offset, for example by generating enough prosperity to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. And that’s also true of risks that aren’t existential such as the possibility of large-scale fraud through techniques like voice replication. Following the logic of the precautionary principle, I’d prefer (if possible) to slow down the pace of development and try to understand the consequences before they are irreversible.

None of this makes me a techno-pessimist. But, having seen lots of glowing visions of the future crumble into dust, I’m not impressed by Andreesen’s revival of 20th century tech-boosterism. Scientific progress provides us, collectively, with a range of technological options. The choice between them should be made wisely and democratically, not by the whims of venture capitalists.

Given the latest catastrophe in Israel/Palestine, it’s time for me to repost my comprehensive plan for US policy in the Middle East, just as applicable now as it was when I suggested it back in 2011.

As usual, it’s over the fold.

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Lucy and the football

by John Q on October 3, 2023

It’s a movie we’ve seen over and over again in US politics. Centrists engage in respectful discussion with a thoughtful conservative[1], only to discover they are actually talking to a dishonest troll. Yet, just like Charlie Brown lining up to kick Lucy’s football, they keep coming back for another try.

Examples include Paul “policy wonk” Ryan, JD “voice of the heartland” Vance, and most recently Richard Hanania, for whom I can’t come up with a suitable nickname. Hanania’s public writing has always skirted the edge of outright racism, so it was no surprise when it turned that he had published far worse stuff under a pseudonym. That was enough to lead Bari Weiss to cancel him, but the majority reaction among his interlocutors was to accept a redemption narrative.

Hanania rewarded his backers with a tweet so breathtakingly dumb it’s still hard to believe. Challenged on his opposition to aiding Ukraine, he asserted that the US was spending 40 per cent of GDP on such aid, and laid out some of the alternative ways the money could be spend (years of funding for social security, for example).

This claim was so absurd that lots of people looked for an 11-dimensional chess explanation. Sadly, the prosaic explanation appears to be that US aid is equal to about 40 per cent of Ukraine’s GPD. Hanania must have read this number and misinterpreted it. That could only be done by someone utterly clueless about economics and public policy, but Hanania hasn’t needed a clue to become a big fish in the small pool of rightwing intellectuals.

Why do centrists keep falling for this? The answer, to paraphrase Voltaire is that, since no-one like the imagined intelligent, honest conservative exists, they have to be invented. In reality, intelligent honest conservatives, are either ex-Republicans (for example, David French and the Bulwark group) or open enemies of democracy (Adrian Vermeule).

But once they recognise that there is no serious thought to their political right, centrists would have to recognise that they themselves are the conservatives. That would entail an intellectual obligation to engage with the left, which is the last thing they want.

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Balance or both-sidesism

by John Q on September 22, 2023

It’s time for me to have my final say on a dispute with Matt Yglesias that has been going at a fairly slow pace.

A couple of weeks ago, Matt put up a post (really a Substack newsletter, but I still think in blog terms), headlined Polarization is a choice with the subtitle, “Political elites justify polarizing decisions with self-fulfilling prophesies”

I responded with a snarky but (I thought) self-explanatory note, saying “Peak both sidesism here. Republicans want to overthrow US democracy, while Democrats stubbornly insist on keeping it. Surely there is some middle ground to be found here

A few days ago, Matt came back to ask “I’m curious what actual things the article says you believe are wrong. You clearly didn’t like it since you choose to mischaracterize it in a mean-spirited way, but I’m not sure what you didn’t like about it.”

So, here’s my response.
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That was my suggested headline for my latest opinion piece, which ran in Australian online magazine Crikey under the sub-editors (blander IMO) choice of “We don’t need a nuclear renaissance. We need a solid plan on renewables”

The idea of the piece was to respond to Exhibit A in the case for nuclear power, the successful French construction program of the 1970s and 1980s, under the Messmer Plan. I’ve previously written about the way this program depended on the power of the French state at the time, which can’t easily be replicated today. A little while ago, I was suddenly struck by the thought that the Messmer Plan would have been much more effective if it were applied to solar and wind energy rather than nuclear. It’s over the fold (I’ve removed the lead, linking to current Australian politics)

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Europe’s Bradbury moment

by John Q on September 15, 2023

One of the iconic moments in Australian sport occurred in at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Australians are strong in most summer sports, but we don’t have much in the way of a winter, so it was considered quite an achievement for Steven Bradbury to make the finals of the speed skating event. He was given little chance of winning, and was trailing the pack until the final seconds, when all four skaters ahead of him crashed spectacularly. Bradbury cruised past them to claim the gold medal, one of only six in Australia’s winter olympics history.

It strikes me that this is a metaphor for the current position of the EU. It’s long been regarded as an also-ran in the global economy, and geopolitics, trailing behind the US, China and Russia. And (at least 52 per cent of) the UK decided it could do much better outside. The EU has plenty of problems with the climate catastrophe, sluggish economic growth, the rise of the far-right and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But compared to the crash of the others, it looks pretty good. It’s way ahead on decarbonization, has mostly recovered from the disaster of austerity, and has high living standards and (unlike the US) rising life expectancy. The far-right has had some wins, but nothing comparable to its takeover of the US Republican party. And Brexit has served as an awful warning to anyone contemplating leaving. The problem facing the EU now is how to deal with the queue of eager applicants.

Of course, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. The ECB could screw up again, and generate another long recession. The far-right could do better. On the other side of the coin, the Democrats could win convincingly enough in 2024 to put an end to the threat of Trumpism. But right now the EU seems to be dodging the worst of the global trainwreck.

The fragmentation of new media

by John Q on August 19, 2023

Today, I signed up for Bluesky and Threads, taking a brief look at each of them, and announced my final departure from Twitter, to take place when Musk removes the Block feature[1]. Meanwhile I’m still using Mastodon as my main microblog along with CT and my personal blog for long-form blogging. I’m trying to maintain a couple of Substack newsletters and commenting on Substack Notes. And I still post occasionally on Facebook.

This is clearly too much, but it reflects the transition from the Facebook-Twitter era of “social media” (with blogs as a holdover from a more optimistic past) to whatever comes next. I’m going to make the case for a combination of Mastodon and Substack as the way forward.
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Trump indictment open thread

by John Q on August 2, 2023

I don’t have anything original to say, but it seems important enough to discuss. I’m going to pre-emptively rule out Trumpism and bothsidesism: you can take that to X or tell it to Ernst Thaelmann.

Against the Repugnant Conclusion

by John Q on July 30, 2023

In my previous post on utilitarianism, I started with two crucial observations.

First, utilitarianism is a political philosophy, dealing with the question of how the resources in a community should be distributed. It’s not a system of individual ethics

Second, (this shouldn’t be necessary to state, but it is), there is no such thing as utility. It’s a theoretical construct which can be used to compare different allocations of resources, not a number in people’s heads that can be measured and added up.

Failure to accept these points is at the heart of the kind of ‘longtermism’ advocated by William McAskill and, earlier, Parfit’s Repugnant conclusion. The claim here is that the objective of utilitarians should be to maximise total utility, including people who are brought into existence as a result of our decisions. In particular, that means that it is desirable to bring children into existence who will have a miserable life, provided that no one else is made worse off, and the life is not so bad that the children in question regret being born.

As well as being intuitively unappealing, this idea makes no sense in the two main contexts in which it is relevant: families deciding how many children to have, and polities deciding whether to promote pro-natalist policies[1]

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As regular readers will know, CT blogger Ingrid has long been making the case for limitarianism, that is, the idea that there should be an upper limit on the amount any one person can own or consume. As Ingrid has observed, limitarianism is a constraint, rather than a complete ethical principle, so it’s important to consider how it interacts with other principles. In the case of utilitarianism, the answer is surprisingly well, at least in (using Ingrid’s terminology) this and nearby worlds. But understanding this requires a little bit of background and some arithmetic.

Shorter JQ: utilitarianism implies limitarianism. The full argument is over the field (no tricks this time, I promise).

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In view of the apparent end of what passed for democracy in Israel, it’s time for me to repost my comprehensive proposal for US policy covering all aspects of relationships between the US and the Middle East. It’s over the fold.
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How dangerous is the European far-right ?

by John Q on July 25, 2023

As is usual with trends of all kinds, some recent electoral successes for far-right parties in Europe have been extrapolated into a narrative in which the rise of the far-right is just about unstoppable.

That narrative took a blow with the recent Spanish elections in which the far-right Vox party performed poorly and its coalition with the traditional conservative Popular Party failed to secure a majority. Possibly as a result, the leader of the German CDU backed away from a suggestion that his party might go into a similar coalition with the AfD. And a similar coalition government in Finland appears to be on the verge of collapse.

From the other side of the world, it’s hard to know what to make of all this, but important to try to understand it. So, I’ll toss out some thoughts and invite readers closer to the action to set me straight.

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Disaster and denial

by John Q on July 23, 2023

I was looking at this picture of people (mostly tourists, it appears) fleeing massive fires in Rhodes, feeling despair about the future of the world

when I was struck by an even more despairing thought.
Almost certainly, a lot of the people in the picture are climate denialists. And even more certainly, they will mostly remain so despite this experience.
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