The Blind Invisible Hand

Kevin recently wrote a post that really tickled my brain. It touches on the computational aspect of entrepreneurship. There are a couple points I’d like to follow up on.

First I’d argue that the uncertain entrepreneur is not the analog of the blind watchmaker. This is a minor quibble, but I think it’s good to keep our language tidy and that includes clarifying our metaphors. The Blind Watchmaker is a perfect metaphor for the emergent order in markets. But the watch is the market as a whole. Any one entrepreneur is just a tiny component of the system–potentially an ingenious component, but always dwarfed by the genius of the system as a whole. The watch maker in biology is the process of evolution. In markets, the closest idea we have is the invisible hand–also an evolutionary process.

Second and more importantly, I’d like to poke at the genetic component of the metaphor to show how much harder social evolution is than biological evolution.

Evolution is a process that acts on the substrate of “replicators”. DNA replicates (in genes) and so do ideas/jokes/norms/etc. (in memes). I guess we could just say “a business model is a type of meme!” and be done with it. But even thinking about what Internet jokes spread means stepping away from the abstract genetic alphabet of strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s.

The replicators of entrepreneurial evolution occur at more than one level (as I understand it, the idea of multi-level selection is controversial in biology, but inevitable here): little patterns of behavior make up larger patterns. A burger restaurant is sort of like a buffalo. And the business model (e.g. McDonald’s franchise) is sort of like the species as a whole or perhaps something even broader. All the various ways to market burgers compete across a range of niches, but we don’t have a literal genetic code to analyze. We might, hypothetically, be able to isolate the appropriate atomic unit of economic life, but I’m skeptical it would be terribly useful (at least for human understanding).

Still, what entrepreneurial and biological evolution have in common is that they are, fundamentally, complex sets of computations (in out-of-equilbrium systems) on a non-silicon medium. Entrepreneurs indeed face a different situation than genes, but that’s only because they’re dealing with multiple (tangled) layers of evolution spanning large scale things like:

  • human culture,
  • legal systems,
  • economic patterns and business models,

through medium-scale things like the particular landscape of a particular market at a given time and place, down to micro things like the particular ISO specifications of some particular size of bolt.

It’s true that “unlike evolution, you…are trying to achieve something beyond replication…” as an entrepreneur. But at the end of the day a) your apparently high minded goals are really just their own evolving and replicating memes, and b) your apparently high minded goals are really just setting the stage for the atomic unit of evolution that really matters: the proper size and shape of a paperclip. It’s like Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene: It’s not really the organism (entrepreneur) that matters, it’s the gene (atomic unit of whatever sort of evolution).

The Non-Partisan Movement We Need: Anti-Authoritarianism

Political/ideological debates have a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of timely issues to address. Given the marginal impact of anything we do in this sphere (e.g. voting, sharing a blog post on Twitter, or being a solitary voter in a vast sea of the entire 6200 people in this country), it’s only natural that we have to economize on information and argument and that results. We can’t help but deplete the intellectual commons.

What are some low cost ways to improve the quality?

  1. Value Intellectual humility.
  2. Devalue the sort of behavior that makes things worse.

It bears repeating: value intellectual humility. It’s not easy. I’m as drawn the confident claims as you are. I’ve got a lot of smart people in my bubble and when they boldly declare something, I tend to believe them. But the “I honestly don’t know” posts deserve more attention and are less likely to get it. Let’s adjust in that direction. I’ll try to write more about things I don’t know about in the future (although I don’t know what that’s going to look like).

It’s a statistical impossibility that, of all of the people burned at the stake for heresy or witchcraft or whatever, nobody deserved some punishment received in an unfair process. Don’t get me wrong, witch hunts are a bad thing in general, but we can’t discount them as entirely (maybe just 99.9%) unjustified. But cancel culture is, like good old fashioned witch hunts is doing a lot of harm to the intellectual commons. I’m they catch more bad guys than 17th century Puritans, but lets not leave cancellations up to Twitter mobs. Particularly when it comes to cancelling ideas.

Bad ideas don’t need to be cancelled. They need to be crushed under good ideas.

Far be it from me to peddle unreplicated psychological research (confirmation bias alert!), but I tend to believe that there’s something to the claim that the extreme poles of the ideological landscape exhibit some unsettling traits: narrow-mindedness, authoritarianism, and apparently Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

“Narcissistic psychopath” is not a label I’d like to see bandied about because it’s just too close to ad hominum. But “authoritarian” is a term I’d like to see more widely used as a pejorative, regardless of the position taken by would be authoritarians.

Let’s quit with the shouting, cancelling, flag waving, and blindly taking reactionary positions. Invite debate, and invite holding people accountable. But letting Twitter be the last word is as absurd as letting Helen Lovejoy-esque moral scolding decide how things should be.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong.

Real Decision Rights Theory and Political Coalitions

Libertarians understand these two big ideas:

  1. A system of individual rights can allow widespread cooperation and human flourishing.
  2. The world is full of emergent orders, like markets, with aggregate outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts.

But commitment to the first idea often blinds us to the full implications of the second.

Complex adaptive systems involve an infinity of illegible signals involving cooperation and competition in networks so complex that it would be impossible to replicate their success in any conceivable top-down system. The market is a discovery procedure. But the “it” that is the market is a collective thing. It’s a jointly produced phenomenon and it’s impossible to split it up without fundamentally changing it.

Likewise, a system of rights (including the rights underlying a functioning market) is a jointly produced common good.

Why does it mean anything to say that I own my laptop? Because when push comes to shove (if I’m willing to shove hard enough), other members of my community are willing to act in ways (formal and informal) that enforce my property right. (Interesting aside: If I reported my laptop stolen to the local police, they wouldn’t do anything about it. Perhaps this reflects the median voter’s level of regard for other people’s property rights…)

Ownership is not as simple as “I own this piece of property, period.” Instead, to own something is to have some bundle of rights to make particular decisions. I can decide what to plant in my garden, but I can’t decide to build a nuclear reactor in my front yard. I don’t need to go through some elaborate chain of natural rights reasoning to argue that your negative right to avoid externalities supersedes my positive right to do a thing. Doing so might be a useful exercise to see how (in)consistent our ruleset is. But the real system is much simpler (and much more ad hoc). Rights are as rights are enforced.

What am I driving at here? First, that we should be dealing with property decision rights as they are more than we deal with them as they ought to be. Second, individual rights require collective support. This puts constraints on how we move towards our Utopias.

Debating/convincing our intellectual opponents is necessary, but it’s really just a negotiation tactic. Discounting idiotic opponents is reasonable in the intellectual sphere, but we can’t just overlook the fact that those opponents are part of the environment we’re trying to shape. We don’t necessarily have to throw them a bone, but when we don’t make some group part of our coalition, we have to expect someone else will.

Our normative theories will convince us that group A can’t make group B’s lives worse for the sake of A’s ego. But if A perceives the subjective value of that ego boost to be high enough, and if A has the relevant rights, then B had better look out.

Improving the world isn’t simply a matter of making the right arguments well. We have to be entrepreneurial, and keep an eye out for how others might do the same. Political entrepreneurship means looking for the under-priced voters which is exactly what Trump did in 2016. He found a group A full of low-status voters who had been discounted by the political establishment. And because their rights to shape the collective outcome went unexercised so long, it was that much more disruptive when they were finally brought to the table. Likewise, BLM protests reveal that there is a group B that is ready to throw their weight around.

That leaves a big pile of questions. What is the cost of pride? How can we ensure people have enough dignity that they won’t want to destroy what a functioning (if imperfect) society? How do we account for potential political energy (particularly when we remember that voting is only a tiny part of political participation)?

I don’t know the answers, but I know this: we can’t escape getting our hands dirty and engaging in some political exchange. I don’t like it, but I’m not the only one deciding.

Throwing the Bums out is Insufficient

It’s election season (those quite weeks between October and November three years later) which means a resurgence in political economy superstitions! A particular tempting one is the Throw the Bums Out Theory of Governance.

The theory goes like this: things are awful, awful people are in positions of power, therefore we need to get rid of those awful people.

As instincts go, it’s not the worst. But it’s Twitter level thinking. Yeah, it’s worth celebrating the regression to the mean that will be the end of Trump’s presidency. I’m looking forward to the “regular” amounts of corruption and embarrassment. But those “regular” amounts are still problematic. The lesser of two evils still sucks. The mean we’re regressing to is the real problem.

In other words: the political outcomes we get reflect the underlying political reality (give or take). As Mencken said: we get what we want good and hard. Political outcomes involve (mostly bad) luck, but Trump wasn’t some utterly random accident. He happened because enough American voters wanted that (more than the next best alternative, anyways).

Throwing the bums out is cathartic, but there’s no shortage of bums to replace them.

The problem is not the bums, it’s the system as a whole. Trump was able to screw things up so badly because we’ve set up ground rules that a) gave him the ability, and b) required more competence than he was ready or able to apply. But elections don’t choose the qualified candidates, they choose the popular candidates. And if one thing is obvious in 2020, it’s that we can’t count on magically educating our political opponents into having the enlightened views necessary for us to make sure the best candidates are always the most popular.

In the long-run, the task is to make incompetent morons less important–something I hope everyone can agree is a worthwhile goal (#neverHillary, #neverTrump). The current system means ideological tribes have to be constantly warring with each other to make sure presidential power doesn’t get into the wrong hands. Can we please agree that this is a terrible system?

We can lower the stakes. We can push power back to the state and local level (and give people an incentive to actually pay attention to local issues!). Let’s take a break from partisan entertainment–as fun as Project Lincoln is, let’s face it, they’re not convincing anyone–and get to the hard task of being a self-governing society. Let’s ask how we could set things up so we don’t have to worry about the next Clinton or Trump.

Until we change the system, we’re going to keep seeing more of the same. Let’s shift the conversation away from “that candidate’s terrible, how can we defeat them?” and towards “this setup attracts terrible candidates, how can we fix that?”!

From the Comments: Nationalism, conspiracy theories

Isn’t nationalism itself a sort of conspiracy theory?

This is from longtime reader (and honored guest) Jack Curtis.

From the comments: All of the Bad Things that democratic governments do

My general point has to do with this anti-democratic argument:

[…] where are the masses to stand up against war, bank bailouts, taxation, police aggression etc?

These are all Bad Things that democratic governments do, but they are also Bad Things that all governments do. And, in turn, these Bad Things are much less prevalent in democratic societies than they are in non-democratic societies.

In fact, it is only in democratic societies that you can complain about these Bad Things. It is only in democratic societies that you can do something about these Bad Things (even if it’s just blog-ranting).

This simple observation leads me to conclude that anti-democratic libertarians have it back asswards when it comes to democracy. Democracy is a byproduct of liberty. Maybe anarchy would lead to even less “war, bank bailouts, taxation, police aggression etc,” but as of now it is in democracies that these Bad Things have been made less prevalent.

Anti-democratic libertarians aren’t thinking on the margin when it comes to democracy. (Hence the dogmatism you find in certain anarcho-capitalist circles.)

This is from yours truly, in another dialogue with Chhay Lin on democracies, anarchies, and meritocracies. Read it from the top!

From the comments: Microstates and military protection

I took a look at the table Easterly & Kraay provided in the paper that you cited (here is an ungated pdf; it’s on pg 22) and all of the rich small states save for The Bahamas (which is 50 miles away from Florida) enjoy military protection from larger polities.

Bahrain and Qatar have the US Navy looking after them, Iceland is in NATO, Bermuda is a Crown Colony, and Luxembourg is nestled comfortably in between France and Germany (and people say the EU is worthless!). If you throw Macau and Hong Kong into the mix you’re looking at a well-protected group of microstates.

It’d be very interesting to see how empirically robust this observation is, but I suspect it won’t be done because most people who focus on microstates tend to have a soft spot for them. To acknowledge the deep intertwinement that successful microstates have with larger polities is to acknowledge the prominence that incoherence and messiness enjoy when it comes to existence of states and the issue of sovereignty.

This is from yours truly, in a dialogue with Chhay Lin on microstates and economic development. Read the whole thing from the top!

Cyclical History

An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.

I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).

We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.

Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

Paid Sick Leave and Schelling Focal Points

Paid sick leave is something I want more people to have. Of course it’s a good thing. Sick leave is valuable, but it’s not free so we have to ask it it’s worth it.

Right around the 11:30 mark is a tragic and hilarious line: “Dildos are not essential items. Books for kids, yes, but dildos? … No!” Good for John Oliver noting that deciding what is essential isn’t straight forward–apparently frivolous things might keep people inside and so serve the public health.

This is a classic Austrian point: prices (are supposed to) communicate information about how urgently people want a product. We run into trouble trying to prevent prices from reflecting the underlying economic crappiness of a crisis. Price gouging should be allowed for toilet paper and especially for grocery/Amazon workers. And the price of grocery workers should be passed on to consumers.

What we’ve got now requires each of us to not only ask “am I willing to pay this price?” but also engage in a moral calculus that is hard. I have to ask (as a person striving to be moral) if it’s really worth ordering X, Y, and Z from Amazon. But as a person who has to strive to be moral, it’s entirely too easy to fall for bad rationalizations.

So how do we help these essential-yet-replaceable* workers? Paid sick leave sure sounds good. And given the externalities involved in a pandemic, there’s a strong argument for mandating it.

But it’s worth remembering (particularly as a long run policy) that if we push on one part of a compensation bundle, something’s going to give. If we require employers to provide a company car (or simply encourage company cars through preferential tax laws), we shouldn’t be surprised to see monetary compensation fall. The same logic applies to paid sick leave.

But I’m my own devil’s advocate, so let me make a counter argument. I rarely use my sick days. I think I’ve taken 2 or 3 in the last 6 years. (I’m absolutely reevaluating that position now!) There’s this idea floating around in the back of my head that tells me to just tough it out and keep working. This isn’t because I carefully weighed pros and cons, it’s just received “wisdom” picked up by osmosis from the broader culture.

American culture values work over value. There’s no shortage of bullshit work because we’re in a work-too-hard equilibrium. This is not to say that hard work doesn’t have benefits. I’m happy when ambitious entrepreneurs work “too” hard to provide greater value. But there are a lot of cases where we create work for its own sake (especially in the higher ed racket, but apparently we’re not alone).

Essentially, we’re all playing a coordination game where we choose between “[appear to] work to make things better” and “stay home instead of passing your illness to other people.” Given American work culture, the Schelling focal point is <work, work>.

On the compensation end of things employers have to decide between offering more sick leave or some other compensation (like money). In this end, there is some benefit to zigging where other employers zag. If I’m running the only business to offer paid paternity leave, I get my pick of the best family-oriented workers while my competitors have to outbid each other to get the best of the other workers. But any mid-level HR manager is more likely to play the risk-averse strategy of following “best practices.”

So we’re in an equilibrium that underrates sick leave. We want to be in an equilibrium where it’s just good business sense to offer sick leave during a global pandemic. But coming from our current equilibrium, offering sick leave is a costly decision to privately provide a public good; it’s unlikely to happen unless the culture already promotes it.

I think we can get that equilibrium. I think we’re already moving towards it (ask yourself: would the board of the East India Company be more likely to offer sick leave than Amazon?). But we’re not there yet.

Paid sick leave should be good business sense right now**. But it depends on a culture where such behavior is widespread. I’m not convinced we could flip a switch and get that culture over night. Given that, I’m at least somewhat okay with contradicting my libertarian priors and calling for emergency mandates for paid sick leave. 2020 America isn’t likely to coordinate on the “right” short-term solution and coercion is probably the most efficient*** way to deal with this common pool problem. But outside of a public health emergency we shouldn’t allow top down mandates about the mix of compensation offered in markets (certainly not with the sort of people we elect to be on top).


(A couple rhetorical points: First, John Oliver isn’t speaking the language of those on the right. They won’t even be convinced that the issues he’s talking about are important. I think that’s a shame. Second, this is a tough time to try to argue against paid sick leave. In 2020 America, mandatory paid sick leave is probably required because we’re at the wrong Schelling point. Again, I don’t think conservatives or right-libertarians will find Oliver’s motivations convincing, but I believe that they could be persuaded. But that’s another blog post.)

(Two important counterpoints to the above: first, price increases hurt the poor. The way to solve that is to give charity money to the poor, not to try to make markets communicate information about relative scarcity and act as charity–that’s half-assing twice and it’s bound to be more inefficient than the charity would be costly. Second many people categorized as “essential” aren’t in a position to demand higher wages*. I don’t have an easy solution to this issue. Let’s talk about it in the comments.)

*Which is to say, workers who are in the same position as water in the diamond-water paradox.
**Not to say it would be cheap or easy.
***There you go. Now my friends on the left can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for opposing paid sick leave in general, and my friends on the right can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for supporting

Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

Human Capital Diversification vs Pancake Mix

I went to the grocery store yesterday (late morning) expecting either business-as-usual or empty shelves. I was surprised to see both. I’m currently regretting not taking photos because it probably will be business-as-usual by the time I go back.

Some shelves were empty, and others were full. What I saw was a direct visualization of what my neighbors don’t know how to cook.

Going through my store I could see that my neighbors know how to put jarred sauce on pasta. But I saw the opportunity to blend some canned whole tomatoes and make my own sauce. “International” foods were largely untouched, but anything in the local culinary lexicon was sparse.

The whole Baking Needs aisle was basically fine, except for the pancake mix which was all gone. This is really the whole story. Who buys pancake mix? Culinary illiterates.

(Disclaimer: I’m a biased source when it comes to pancakes. I take pancakes as seriously as 75th percentile Bostonian takes the fact that the Yankees suck.)

It takes a modest amount of skill to make pancakes, but the ingredients are cheap and YouTube wants to help you. Now is a great time to up your pancake game. But even if you just follow the directions on any random pancake recipe you’re stirring together flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, eggs, oil, and milk.

The mix will either give you a crappy shelf-stable replacement for the eggs and/or milk (yuck!) or hold your hand as you stir together some powder with eggs, oil, and milk.

Thinking back to my career as an omnivore, I can recall a time when I’ve bought ingredients I really should have made. I’m not judging people who don’t know how to cook, because I’ve been there.

What I’m pointing out is that those people are always going to have the hardest time when it comes to food shortages. I’d be in the same boat if I was shopping at a store that didn’t sell the limited set of ingredients I know how to use.

There’s a tension in economics that we don’t pay enough attention to: gains from specialization vs. gains from diversification. At a system level (and in a Principles class) the two go together. But at the level of individual there is a lot to be said for diversification–you’re more robust to change, resilient in the face of problems, and perspectives gained in one domain may have lessons to apply to others.

I’m grateful I haven’t taken my own human capital specialization so far that I can’t make my own pancakes.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Generic Thanksgiving Post

Addendum: I wrote this post this morning, hit post, and returned to my oven. The apple pie was pretty good, the pecan was better. The stuffing and gravy were great.

While my oven pre-heats, let me give my top(ish) three things I’m thankful for:

  1. My dog Lola. This sweet little pooch entered my life this January and she’s absolutely melted my heart. Here we are on her first camping trip:

2. Capitalism. Yeah, you knew what you were signing up for when you came to this URL. For all the problems with giving any humans any authority at all, even our half-assed American capitalism does a pretty decent job of allowing me the opportunity to have a literal feast every Thanksgiving.

3. The little Internet. Not all that’s online is Google, Facebook, or Amazon. There are still cool little pockets of the Internet where a few dozen weirdos get together and make something beautiful.

I recently learned about the tildeverse a community of communities of people sharing a common web-connected computer like in ye olden days of pre-Google internet. Back before it was the Information Super Highway. Back before it ruined democracy by allowing humans to act like humans at scale. Playing around on an under-powered server is a pretty niche hobby, but there are tons of these long tail groups out there.

The friendly communities that create forums, the weird projects, the sync-tubes; the beautiful bubbles: these are the places that keep that old spirit of the Internet alive. The Internet giants are scary, but they’re not the only game in town; I’m deeply thankful for that.

Also stuffing. And gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving! Be excellent to each other!