A couple of post-election thoughts

  1. The left has not learned the right lesson.
  2. What the hell is up with Predictit?

Trump was the perfect Madisonian teachable moment. A horrifying figure who I wouldn’t trust to watch my drink while I got up to hang my coat. The lesson should have been clear: scale back the power in the Oval Office. But now that the pendulum has swung the other way, they “are urging him to follow President Trump’s example”. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Meanwhile, in a world where people are putting their own money on the line, people are still holding out hope that Trump will win the election he just lost. The market for predicting the winner of the presidential election has 10’s of thousands of transactions and places the probability that Trump or Biden wins at 103%. As an economist I find it disconcerting that I can still buy contracts of “Biden to win” at 88 cents. The lesson I’m taking away is that (at least when Trump is involved) there’s a wide margin of error on how accurate the prediction market estimate is.

On Joe Biden and America’s relationship with Iran

One of the important foreign policy priorities of President-elect Joe Biden, which will have an impact not just on the US but a number of its allies in the West – such as the UK, Germany, France (the E3), India, and Japan – is Washington’s ties with Iran. 

It will be interesting to see the ultimate shape which Biden’s Iran foreign policy takes place. Days before the announcement of the election result, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, in an interview to CBS news, that Iran viewed the statements emanating from the Biden camp positively, though Iran would have to wait and watch. 

While commenting on the Biden-Harris victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the US to return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Said Rouhani

Now, an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms 

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA – Iran/P5+1 agreement in 2018, had been criticized by allies, including the E3, who were signatories to the agreement. 

President-elect Joe Biden has also unequivocally stated that he is open to the US rejoining JCPOA, subject to the fact that Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement. Biden, who also served as Vice President under Obama (who had fervently backed the JCPOA), has been critical of the Trump Administration’s approach towards Iran, dubbing it as a failure. During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden, along with many US allies, had also advocated that the US relax Iranian sanctions temporarily on humanitarian grounds. 

In recent months, Washington has imposed more sanctions on Iran, the latest instance being sanctions imposed days before the election on Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company, and its oil-tanker subsidiary. The reason cited for sanctions is the financial support provided by these companies to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It would be pertinent to point out that the US was unable to snapback Iranian sanctions which had been removed under the JCPOA – UNSC members blocked US attempts. While there is skepticism with regard to the revival of the deal given that incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself is likely to face elections soon, and there is limited room for manuevre given that hardliners in Iran (whose clout has increased as a result of Trump’s Iran policy), are averse to any engagement with the West. Senior Iranian officials have also stated that they will not accept any conditionalities from Washington.

Biden may have fundamental differences in his approach vis-à-vis the Middle East as compared to Trump for a variety of reasons. 

First, Biden is likely to be less confrontationalist vis-à-vis Iran as has already been indicated by him. 

Second, Donald Trump had a far better relationship with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others like Turkey and Egypt. Trump made no qualms about getting along with authoritarian leadership of these countries, and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.  

Trump touted agreements between Middle Eastern countries Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as one of his major achievements. To be fair, even his critics would grant him credit for the same. What puzzled many was his flexibility vis-à-vis North Korea and his obduracy in engaging with Iran. Former President Obama while commenting on the US withdrawal from JCPOA had remarked: 

Indeed, at a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, walking away from the JCPOA risks losing a deal that accomplishes – with Iran – the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans

Third, a more flexible engagement will prevent Iran from further swaying towards China, something Washington would want to prevent. One of the key factors cited for the Iran-China 25-year agreement (which will bolster economic and strategic relations between both countries) is the approach of the Trump Administration vis-à-vis Iran. 

Apart from this, Biden, who has repeatedly reiterated the point about engaging with allies, is likely to take their advice. The US President-elect has already proposed a global democracy summit where common challenges confronting the world will be discussed and it is expected that the US will seek the views of allies. 

UK, France, and Germany (E3), and Japan and India, are likely to be in favor of a different approach vis-à-vis Iran, given their economic and strategic interests.  

It is not necessary that Biden is likely to follow a policy identical to Obama’s given that global geopolitical dynamics in general and the situation in the Middle East have witnessed a significant shift. Yet a more flexible and pragmatic US approach towards Iran could prevent Tehran from veering further towards Beijing. It is also important for the US to give more space to its allies to strengthen economic linkages with Tehran. Joe Biden has numerous other challenges, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani too has a number of problems to cope with but there is a limited window for at least getting back to the dialogue table and reducing tensions.

You vote is your voice–but actions speak louder than words

On voting day, with everyone tweeting and yelling and spam-calling you to vote, I want to offer some perspective. Sure, ‘your vote is your voice,’ and those who skip the election will remain unheard by political leaders. Sure, these leaders probably determine much more of your life than we probably would like them to. And if you don’t vote, or ‘waste’ your vote on a third party or write in Kim Jong Un, you are excluded from the discussion of how these leaders control you.

But damn, if that is such a limited perspective. It’s like the voting booth has blinders that conceal what is truly meaningful. I’m not going to throw the traditional counter-arguments to ‘vote or die’ at you, though my favorites are Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and South Park’s Douche and Turd episode. Instead, I just want to say, compared to how you conduct your life, shouting into the political winds is simply not that important.

The wisdom of the stoics resonates greatly with me on this. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, tutor, and businessman, had the following to say on actions, on knowledge, on trust, on fear, and on self-improvement:

  • Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing is ours, except time. On Time
  • Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself. On Reading
  • If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. On Friendship
  • Reflect that any criminal or stranger may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every lowlife wields the power of life and death over you… What matter, therefore, how powerful he be whom you fear, when every one possesses the power which inspires your fear? On Death
  • I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. On the Philosopher’s Lifestyle

Seneca goes on, in this fifth letter, to repeat the stoic refrain of ‘change what you can, accept what you cannot.’ But he expands, reflecting that your mind is “disturbed by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of [this disease] is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted.”

Good leadership requires good foresight, but panic over futures out of our control pervert this foresight into madness. So, whether you think that Biden’s green promises will destroy the economy or Trump’s tweets will incite racial violence, your actions should be defined by what you can do to improve the world–and this is the only scale against which you should be judged.

So, set aside voting as a concern. Your voice will be drowned out, and then forgotten. But your actions could push humanity forward, in your own way, and if you fail in that endeavor, then no vote will save you from the self-knowledge of a wasted life. If you succeed, then you did the only thing that matters.

Election Day

You’ve seen me gripe about the inadequacy of the “Throw the Bums Out Theory of Governance” before. I could make the argument again, but Carlin’s more eloquent.

For the record, I did vote, but only for the sake of domestic harmony. I’m under no illusion that this is the year they’ll finally pick my preferred (least un-preferred) candidate. And I’m still going to complain, because a) causality is more complicated than works for the premise of a joke, b) I need a hobby and complaining doesn’t require special equipment, and c) I think complaining is a more valuable and useful form of civic duty than voting.

If you’re voting today, I hope it doesn’t suck to much. If you’re not, I hope you’ll use your saved time to actually make the world a better place.

A short non-political note

I have not been paying attention to the election news cycle. I have dropped out of that system. I am lucky that I was born in the United States. I marvel at the underpinnings of the American constitutional order (an internationalist order). I understand that self-government and elections go hand-in-hand (if only we were all enlightened anarchists).

But I don’t pay attention to the horse race for the presidency. It makes a mockery of all the good things the republic stands for.

I have been taking advantage of the Covid pseudo-lockdown. (Thanks to Nick for the Zoom lesson in opportunity costs.) I wrote one scholarly essay and six short stories. I submitted them to journals. The scholarly essay was accepted for publication in The Independent Review after going through an unusually thorough peer review process. The short stories were all rejected. I am disheartened because I have been trying (slowly) to leave behind scholarship in favor of literary pursuits. I cannot practice my writing craft because the scholarly article (ungated rough draft here) is also the focus of a Special Issue in an open source academic journal (which also happens to be one of my favorite journals: Cosmos + Taxis).

So, I have another 16 months of challenging scholarly work ahead of me. I love this blog. It’s been good to me. I don’t know if the literary journals rejected me because of my style or my substance. I felt like I was tackling difficult topics, but I also know my writing style is a bit old school. I think maybe the rejections were a combination of old school style and old school substance, both of which are not exactly what literary journals are looking for these days.

Offensive advantage and the vanity of ethics

I have recently shifted my “person I am obsessed with listening to”: my new guy is George Hotz, who is an eccentric innovator who built a cell phone that can drive your car. His best conversations come from Lex Fridman’s podcasts (in 2019 and 2020).

Hotz’s ideas bring into question the efficacy of any ethical strategy to address ‘scary’ innovations. For instance, based on his experience playing “Capture the Flag” in hacking challenges, he noted that he never plays defense: a defender must cover all vulnerabilities, and loses if he fails once. An attacker only needs to find one vulnerability to win. Basically, in CTF, attacking is anti-fragile, and defense is fragile.

Hotz’s work centers around reinforcement learning systems, which learn from AI errors in automated driving to iterate toward a model that mimics ‘good’ drivers. Along the way, he has been bombarded with questions about ethics and safety, and I was startled by the frankness of his answer: there is no way to guarantee safety, and Comma.ai still depends on human drivers to intervene to protect themselves. Hotz basically dismisses any system that claims to take an approach to “Level 5 automation” that is not learning-based and iterative, as driving in any condition, on any road, is an ‘infinite’ problem. Infinite problems have natural vulnerabilities to errors and are usually closer to impossible where finite problems often have effective and world-changing solutions. Here are some of his ideas, and some of mine that spawned from his:

The Seldon fallacy: In short, 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable. See my other post for more details!

Finite solutions to infinite problems: In Hotz’s words regarding how autonomous vehicles take in their environments, “If your perception system can be written as a spec, you have a problem”. When faced with any potential obstacle in the world, a set of plans–no matter how extensive–will never be exhaustive.

Trolling the trolley problem: Every ethicist looks at autonomous vehicles and almost immediately sees a rarity–a chance for an actual direct application of a philosophical riddle! What if a car has to choose between running into several people or alter path to hit only one? I love Hotz’s answer: we give the driver the choice. It is hard to solve the trolley problem, but not hard to notice it, so the software alerts the driver whenever one may occur–just like any other disengagement. To me, this takes the hot air out of the question, since it shows that, as with many ethical worries about robots, the problem is not unique to autonomous AIs, but inherent in driving–and if you really are concerned, you can choose yourself which people to run over.

Vehicle-to-vehicle insanity: While some autonomous vehicle innovators promise “V2V” connections, through which all cars ‘tell’ each other where they are and where they are going and thus gain tremendously from shared information. Hotz cautions (OK, he straight up said ‘this is insane’) that any V2V system depends, for the safety of each vehicle and rider, on 1) no communication errors and 2) no liars. V2V is just a gigantic target waiting for a black hat, and by connecting the vehicles, the potential damage inflicted is magnified thousands-fold. That is not to say the cars should not connect to the internet (e.g. having Google Maps to inform on static obstacles is useful), just that safety of passengers should never depend on a single system evading any errors or malfeasance.

Permissioned innovation is a contradiction in terms: As Hotz says, the only way forward in autonomous driving is incremental innovation. Trial and error. Now, there are less ethically worrisome ways to err–such as requiring a human driver who can correct the system. However, there is no future for innovations that must emerge fully formed before they are tried out. And, unfortunately, ethicists–whose only skin in the game is getting their voice heard over the other loud protesters–have an incentive to promote the precautionary principle, loudly chastise any innovator who causes any harm (like Uber’s first-pedestrian-killed), and demand that ethical frameworks precede new ideas. I would argue back that ‘permissionless innovation‘ leads to more inventions and long-term benefits, but others have done so quite persuasively. So I will just say, even the idea of ethics-before-inventions contradicts itself. If the ethicist could make such a framework effectively, the framework would include the invention itself–making the ethicist the inventor! Since instead, what we get is ethicists hypothesizing as to what the invention will be, and then restricting those hypotheses, we end up with two potential outcomes: one, the ethicist hypothesizes correctly, bringing the invention within the realm of regulatory control, and thus kills it. Two, the ethicist has a blind spot, and someone invents something in it.

“The Attention”: I shamelessly stole this one from video games. Gamers are very focused on optimal strategies, and rather than just focusing on cost-benefit analysis, gamers have another axis of consideration: “the attention.” Whoever forces their opponent to focus on responding to their own actions ‘has the attention,’ which is the gamer equivalent of the weather gauge. The lesson? Advantage is not just about outscoring your opponent, it is about occupying his mind. While he is occupied with lower-level micromanaging, you can build winning macro-strategies. How does this apply to innovation? See “permissioned innovation” above–and imagine if all ethicists were busy fighting internally, or reacting to a topic that was not related to your invention…

The Maginot ideology: All military historians shake their heads in disappointment at the Maginot Line, which Hitler easily circumvented. To me, the Maginot planners suffered from two fallacies: one, they prepared for the war of the past, solving a problem that was no longer extant. Second, they defended all known paths, and thus forgot that, on defense, you fail if you fail once, and that attackers tend to exploit vulnerabilities, not prepared positions. As Hotz puts it, it is far easier to invent a new weapon–say, a new ICBM that splits into 100 tiny AI-controlled warheads–than to defend against it, such as by inventing a tracking-and-elimination “Star Wars” defense system that can shoot down all 100 warheads. If you are the defender, don’t even try to shoot down nukes.

The Pharsalus counter: What, then, can a defender do? Hotz says he never plays defense in CTF–but what if that is your job? The answer is never easy, but should include some level of shifting the vulnerability to uncertainty onto the attacker (as with “the Attention”). As I outlined in my previous overview of Paradoxical genius, one way to do so is to intentionally limit your own options, but double down on the one strategy that remains. Thomas Schelling won the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” for outlining this idea in The Strategy of Conflict, but more importantly, Julius Caesar himself pioneered it by deliberately backing his troops into a corner. As remembered in HBO’s Rome, at the seminal engagement of Pharsalus, Caesar said: “Our men must fight or die. Pompey’s men have other options.” However, he also made another underappreciated innovation, the idea of ‘floating’ reserves. He held back several cohorts of his best men to be deployed wherever vulnerabilities cropped up–thus enabling him to be reactive, and forcing his opponent to react to his counter. Lastly, Caesar knew that Pompey’s ace-in-the-hole, his cavalry, was made up of vain higher-class nobles, so he told his troops, instead of inflicting maximum damage indiscriminately, to focus on stabbing their faces and thus disfigure them. Indeed, Pompey’s cavalry did not flee from death, but did from facial scars. To summarize, the Pharsalus counter is: 1) create a commitment asymmetry, 2) keep reserves to fill vulnerabilities, and 3) deface your opponents.

Offensive privacy and the leprechaun flag: Another way to shift the vulnerability is to give false signals meant to deceive black hats. In Hotz’s parable, imagine that you capture a leprechaun. You know his gold is buried in a field, and you force the leprechaun to plant a flag where he buried it. However, when you show up to the field, you find it planted with thousands of flags over its whole surface. The leprechaun gave you a nugget of information–but it became meaningless in the storm of falsehood. This is a way that privacy may need to evolve in the realm of security; we will never stop all quests for information, but planting false (leprechaun) flags could deter black hats regardless of their information retrieval abilities.

The best ethics is innovation: When asked what his goal in life is, Hotz says ‘winning.’ What does winning mean? It means constantly improving one’s skills and information, while also seeking to find a purpose that changes the world in a way you are willing to dedicate yourself to. I think the important part of this that Hotz does not say “create a good ethical framework, then innovate.” Instead, he is effectively saying do the opposite–learn and innovate to build abilities, and figure out how to apply them later. The insight underlying this is that the ethics are irrelevant until the innovation is there, and once the innovation is there, the ethics are actually easier to nail down. Rather than discussing ‘will AIs drive cars morally,’ he is building the AIs and anticipating that new tech will mean new solutions to the ethical questions, not just the practical considerations. So, in summary, if you care about innovation, focus on building skills and knowledge bases. If you care about ethics, innovate.

The Seldon Fallacy

Like some of my role models, I am inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision. However, for years, the central ability at the heart of the Foundation series–‘psychohistory,’ which enables Hari Seldon, the protagonist, to predict broad social trends across thousands of galaxies over thousands of years–has bothered me. Not so much because of its impact in the fictional universe of Foundation, but for how closely it matches the real-life ideas of predictive modeling. I truly fear that the Seldon Fallacy is spreading, building up society’s exposure to negative, unpredictable shocks.

The Seldon Fallacy: 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable.

The first part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of assuming reducibility, or more poetically, of NNT’s Procustean Bed. As F.A. Hayek asserted, no predictive model can be less complex than the model it predicts, because of second-order effects and accumulation of errors of approximation. Isaac Asimov’s central character, Hari Seldon, fictionally ‘proves’ the ludicrous fallacy that chaotic systems can be reduced to ‘psychohistorical’ mathematics. I hope you, reader, don’t believe that…so you don’t blow up the economy by betting a fortune on an economic prediction. Two famous thought experiments disprove this: the three-body problem and the damped, driven oscillator. If we can’t even model a system with three ‘movers’, because of second-order effects, how can we model interactions between millions of people? Basically, with no way to know which reductions in complexity are meaningful, Seldon cannot know whether, in laying his living system into a Procustean bed, he has accidentally decapitated it. Using this special ability, while unable to predict individuals’ actions precisely, Seldon can map out social forces with such clarity that he correctly predicts the fall of a 10,000-year empire. Now, to turn to the ‘we can predict social, though not individual futures’ portion of the fallacy: that big things are predictable even if their consituent elements are not.

The second part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of ‘the marble jar.’ Not all randomnesses are equal: drawing white and black marbles from a jar (with replacement) is fundamentally predictable, and the more marbles drawn, the more predictable the mix of marbles in the jar. Many models depend on this assumption or similar ones–that random events distribute normally (in the Gaussian sense) in a way that increases the certainty of the model as the number of samples increases. But what if we are not observing independent events? What if they are not Gaussian? What if someone tricked you, and tied some marbles together so you can’t take out only one? What if one of them is attached to the jar, and by picking it up, you inadvertently break the jar, spilling the marbles? Effectively, what if you are not working with a finite, reducible, Gaussian random system, but an infinite, Mandelbrotian, real-world random system? What if the jar contains not marbles, but living things?

I apologize if I lean too heavily on fiction to make my points, but another amazing author answers this question much more poetically than I could. Just in the ‘quotes’ from wise leaders in the introductions to his historical-fantasy series, Jim Butcher tells stories of the rise and fall of civilizations. First, on cumulative meaning:

“If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: Large things are made of smaller things.

Drops of ink are shaped into letters, letters form words, words form sentences, and sentences combine to express thought. So it is with the growth of plants that spring from seeds, as well as with walls built from many stones. So it is with mankind, as the customs and traditions of our progenitors blend together to form the foundation for our own cities, history, and way of life.

Be they dead stone, living flesh, or rolling sea; be they idle times or events of world-shattering proportion, market days or desperate battles, to this law, all things hold: Large things are made from small things. Significance is cumulative–but not always obvious.”

–Gaius Secundus, Academ’s Fury

Second, on the importance of individuals as causes:

“The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual. The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals. Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come. If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms rests upon the actions of one person. In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.

But history can be quite the slattern. One never knows who that person is, where he might be, or what decision he might make.

It is almost enough to make me believe in Destiny.”

–Gaius Primus, Furies of Calderon

If you are not convinced by the wisdom of fiction, put down your marble jar, and do a real-world experiment. Take 100 people from your community, and measure their heights. Then, predict the mean and distribution of height. While doing so, ask each of the 100 people for their net worth. Predict a mean and distribution from that as well. Then, take a gun, and shoot the tallest person and the richest person. Run your model again. Before you look at the results, tell me: which one do you expect shifted more?

I seriously hope you bet on the wealth model. Height, like marble-jar samples, is normally distributed. Wealth follows a power law, meaning that individual datapoints at the extremes have outsized impact. If you happen to live in Seattle and shot a tech CEO, you may have lowered the mean income in the group by more than the average income of the other 99 people!

So, unlike the Procustean Bed (part 1 of the Seldon Fallacy), the Marble Jar (part 2 of the Seldon Fallacy) is not always a fallacy. There are systems that follow the Gaussian distribution, and thus the Marble Jar is not a fallacy. However, many consequential systems–including earnings, wars, governmental spending, economic crashes, bacterial resistance, inventions’ impacts, species survival, and climate shocks–are non-Gaussian, and thus the impact of a single individual action could blow up the model.

The crazy thing is, Asimov himself contradicts his own protagonist in his magnum opus (in my opinion). While the Foundation Series keeps alive the myth of the predictive simulation, my favorite of his books–The End of Eternity (spoilers)–is a magnificent destruction of the concept of a ‘controlled’ world. For large systems, this book is also a death knell even of predictability itself. The Seldon Fallacy–that a simplified, non-chaotic model can predict a complex, chaotic reality, and that size enhances predictability–is shown, through the adventures of Andrew Harlan, to be riddled with hubris and catastrophic risk. I cannot reduce his complex ideas into a simple summary, for I may decapitate his central model. Please read the book yourself. I will say, I hope that as part of your reading, I hope you take to heart the larger lesson of Asimov on predictability: it is not only impossible, but undesirable. And please, let’s avoid staking any of our futures on today’s false prophets of predictable randomness.

Amy Coney Barrett is the start of the rise of the Left

The Left has long been weak. It dominates elite circles, but not much else.

Amy Coney Barrett earned her law degree from Notre Dame. The other 8 justices earned their degrees from Harvard or Yale. President Trump’s ideological shake-up of the Supreme Court bodes well for diversity, which in turn bodes well for a resurgence of the American Left in the civic, intellectual, and moral life of the republic.

The stranglehold that the two schools had on Ivy legal thought has meant that the American Right would always be stronger ideologically as well as civically and morally.

It is perhaps ironic that Donald Trump, in trying to Make America Great Again, has done just that by opening up the avenues of power to diverse modes of thought. Donald Trump’s crusade for diversity has indeed opened up elite American circles to competition. This will only strengthen the Left, as it will now have to incorporate non-professional voices into its apparatuses of power, as the Right has long done with much success.

A strong Left that is not overly reliant on elite opinion bodes well for the republic.

“The only time I’m not thinking about Palantir…”

If you’re not following Palantir, it’s on track to be one of the most important new American firms in geopolitics and security, and it just launched its IPO on September 30. (For what it’s worth, my buy stop is around $12 right now.)

Founded by real-life Ozymandias and California Ideology archon Peter Thiel, and governed by Freud Institute-bloodline parvenu Alex Karp, Thiel has said it will be every bit as important as Facebook is today.

Reading this profile of CEO Alex Karp, in which Karp laments his loss of anonymity and all its hedonistic red-light opportunities, while building a billion-dollar big data company to empower clients like the CIA, reminds me of a quote from Getting Straight.

Why haven’t you learned anything?

It’s all there, it’s all there in Toynbee and those books on the shelf!

Suppression breeds violence!

You’re going to raise the curfew an hour?

Will you look outside?

You see that kid?

Last week he just wanted to get laid.

Now he wants to kill somebody!

New Zealand’s elections and the geopolitics of the Pacific

Introduction 

The convincing victory of Jacinda Ardern is important for more than just one reason. First, the 40 year-old Ardern’s centre-Left Labour party has won convincingly — securing 49% of the vote, and securing 64 seats in the 120 seat assembly. Ardern has delivered the biggest election victory for her party in half a century. The victory gives Ardern and her party the opportunity to form a single party government.  

Second, while there is often talk of a right-wing political discourse being dominant globally, it is important that a center-left leader has won. Many commentators of course would argue that New Zealand is a small country, with a small population of less than 5 million – and that not much should be read into the electoral result.

Third, Ardern’s successful handling of the Covid19 pandemic, along with other women leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen – has been acknowledged globally. A study published by the World Economic Forum and The Center for Economic and Policy Research makes this point and has cited some of the reasons for the success of the these leaders. The success has been attributed to the fact that all these leaders were quick to react to the crisis. 

Fourth, at a time when the world is becoming insular, the New Zealand PM has been firmly pitching for open immigration policies, has taken a strong stance vis-à-vis Islamophobia (something which leaders of other liberal democracies have failed to do), and repeatedly argued in favor of a more inclusive society. In March 2019, shootings at a Mosque in Christchurch by white supremacists had resulted in the killing of 50 people. Ardern, while expressing solidarity with members of the community, donned a head scarve, or hijab, and this gesture was appreciated. In her victory speech the New Zealand PM stated that the world is becoming increasingly more polarized and that “New Zealanders have shown that this is not who we are.” 

The New Zealand PM has her task cut out on issues related to the economy (the economy had shrunk by 12% in the second quarter thanks to the impact of the lockdown). Like other countries, there have been many job losses. Some of the sectors which have witnessed job losses, such as retail, hospitality, and tourism – employ women (according to some estimates a whopping 90% of people who have lost jobs are women). Some commentators also believe that the Labour government has not been able to deliver on key promises related to housing, child welfare, and the economy. There is also an argument that Ardern’s first tenure was not transformational, and after her win the expectations from her will be much higher.

Foreign Policy Challenges  

New Zealand, in spite of being a small country, is important in the context of foreign policy issues. There are two important dimensions: New Zealand’s ties with China, and as a part of the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

As far as New Zealand’s ties with China are concerned, there are various layers to the bilateral relationship. Jacinda Ardern’s government has largely gone along with other 5 eye countries when it comes to the issue of allowing Huawei entry into New Zealand’s 5G network. On issues pertaining to Hong Kong, the Uygurs, and the South China Sea too, New Zealand has taken a firm stance vis-à-vis Beijing. After the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and it also made revisions with regard to its policy on military and dual-use goods and technology exports to Hong Kong, subjecting the city to the same as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

During her speech at the China-New Zealand Summit, Ardern said: 

As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong’s new security law, the situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation.

Like its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has also been taking cognizance of increasing political interference in its domestic politics, via governments, political parties, and universities. There has been bipartisan support for taking measures to check the same. Some policies have been introduced with regard to political donations as well as Foreign Direct Investment. 

At the same time, New Zealand has a close economic relationship with China and this is strong reiterated by figures. In 2019, China accounted for a staggering 33% of New Zealand’s dairy exports, over 40% of meat experts and contributed to 58.3% of international education earnings (it is estimated that in 2019, 87% of New Zealand’s service export earnings from China came from education-related travel and personal tourism).

While there has been a shift in New Zealand’s approach vis-à-vis China, officials have also repeatedly made the point, that it will not blindly toe any other country’s stance vis-à-vis China. 

CPTPP

Another important foreign policy component of New Zealand is as member of the 11-member CPTPP. Along with other countries, New Zealand worked towards keeping supply chains going in the midst of the pandemic. For instance in April, New Zealand sent a first plane load of essential supplies to Singapore. (This included commodities like lamb and beef which were sent by a chartered plane.)

New Zealand and other CPTPP members have also been working to resume essential travel, while Singapore opened a travel bubble with New Zealand on September 1, 2020 (which means that quarantine-free travel will be allowed). 

New Zealand and its neighbour Australia, another member of CPTPP, have opened an air bubble too (though this is one-way as yet only passengers from New Zealand can travel to Australia). The bubble currently is applicable only to two Australian states New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the election result is important not just in the context of domestic politics, but in sending a message that there is space for centrist and inclusive politics and that it is not necessary to have a Strong Man image cultivated by many right-wing leaders. It is also important to bear in mind that liberal democracies, which respect diversity, are in a far better position to provide an alternative narrative to that of China. Apart from this, while the shortcomings of globalization do need to be acknowledged and addressed, inward looking economic and immigration policies need to be firmly rejected.

A short note on Iran and India

Introduction

Ever since the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), or the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018, Iran-India economic linkages have taken a hit. The impact on the bilateral economic relationship between New Delhi and Tehran became even more pronounced after India stopped purchasing oil from Tehran in 2019. The US had ended the waiver from sanctions, which had provided to India and a number of other countries, the continued ability to import oil from Iran.

In 2018-2019, bilateral trade between India and Iran was estimated at over $17 billion (mineral oil and fuel imports accounted for a significant percentage of the $17 billion). In 2019-2020, for the period from April-November, bilateral trade was estimated at $3.5 billion. There was a significant drop in Iran’s imports to India, owing to the reduction of Iranian petroleum imports by India to zero.

Downward trajectory in the bilateral relationship

2019 witnessed a downward trajectory as far as New Delhi-Tehran ties were concerned, with Iran expressing its disappointment with New Delhi for not taking a firm stance against Washington. Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in 2019, while making the above point in an interaction with Indian journalists, also stated that ‘if you can’t lift oil from us, we won’t be able to buy Indian rice.’

Chabahar Port and the India-Iran relationship

The US on its part has exempted the strategically important Chabahar Port Project, India’s gateway to Afghanistan, from sanctions. The Port was earlier touted by many as India’s counter to the Gwadar Port (Balochistan Province, Pakistan), which is at a distance of 70 kilometres and an important component of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Government of India had taken over Phase 1 of the Shahid Beheshti Port in December 2018 (according to an agreement India was to operate two berths within Phase 1 of the project). During the Covid-19 pandemic, India had used the Chabahar Port to deliver relief materials to Afghanistan.

After India’s decision to stop the purchase of oil from Iran, and the souring of ties between both countries, Iran has given indicators that it is keen to get Pakistan (Iran had proposed to connect the Chabahar Port with Gwadar Port) and China on board. Iran has also complained that progress on the Chabahar Port was slow due to India’s cautious attitude towards the project, (as a result of both American pressure and delays in funding).

In the aftermath of the Iran-China 25-year agreement, India has been paying greater attention to ties with Iran in general, and the Chabahar Project in particular, a point strongly reiterated by the back-to-back visits of India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, to Tehran respectively. Connectivity, economic linkages, and issues of regional security (specifically Afghanistan) were discussed during both visits.

There were reports that India had been elbowed out of the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project, an important component of the Chabahar Project, but Iran has categorically dismissed this claim.

Indian exports of Basmati to Iran hit by sanctions

While the India-Iran bilateral relationship is often viewed from the prism of the Chabahar Port and Oil, Iran also accounts for a large percentage of India’s Basmati (an aromatic long grain rice) exports – 34%. There is likely to be a dip this year, due to sanctions, and Iran is already substituting Indian Basmati with Pakistani basmati.

The North Indian states of Punjab and Haryana account for 75 percent of Basmati exports. Indian Basmati exporters and growers have expressed their concern over the likely fall in exports to Iran (which is an important market).

Conclusion

The impact of US sanctions on Iran’s economic ties with India, with Basmati exports being an important example, reiterate the point that the Iran-India relationship is far deeper and multifaceted than is often perceived. While the thrust is on connectivity and geopolitics, the economic links are often overlooked. It is important for New Delhi to seek the views of all domestic stakeholders as far as economic ties with Iran are concerned.

New Delhi should also take a cue from the UK, France, and Germany – also referred to as the E3 – which set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV), known as Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), in 2019, to circumvent US sanctions. (During the Covid-19 pandemic, INSTEX was used to provide relief materials to Iran). New Delhi clearly needs to think out of the box, and accord its ties with Iran greater priority given the economic, historical, and political context. The visits of India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Tehran in the month of September clearly emphasize the point that India is doing a re-think with regard to its Iran policy, factoring its strategic and economic importance. There is also a realization that Washington’s approach towards Tehran may witness a significant shift if there is a change of guard in November 2020 (which can not be ruled out).

Pop Epistemology

I believe in gravity. I don’t believe in the flat earth conspiracy. But I haven’t done the work to verify either. Instead, I trust that some social process of “science” has done a reasonably good job of assembling and verifying the knowledge that keeps my house from collapsing or my car from exploding.

There are some areas where I’m qualified to hold an opinion. But honestly, it’s a pretty small set of things and subject to an infinity of caveats. The things I “know” are really things I believe because they were taught to me by sources I trust. It’s an imperfect system, but it works tolerably well and it frees up my time to do things like working, and having a life. I’m not going to “do my research” because that would mean not doing something with higher marginal benefit.

What Trumpians realize is that sowing distrust in sources of knowledge gives them an advantage in the marketplace of ideas. What’s worse is that they’re not wrong about the fundamental ambiguity of knowledge. I haven’t got enough time, energy, or inclination to verify that the sun will in fact rise again tomorrow. I can’t scientifically test the veracity of claims of what sorts of noodley appendages touch us all.

Do I know that Joe Biden is a better candidate than Trump? If I’m being honest, the answer is no. I’m not terribly comfortable with that, so I might decide against being honest. I know enough to verify that at least one of the candidates is a turd sandwich of a human being.

What I know for sure about this mess is that the problems are complex. Even a well funded team of experts with broad powers would have infinite problems sorting things out. And the sorts of people we try to put in power are less capable than well funded teams of experts with broad powers.

As always, I hope we learn a valuable lesson here. Complex systems are always going to confound our simple human sensibilities. Given the complexity of society, we should avoid aggregating so much power into the hands of politicians–especially when “the other guy” sometimes gets hold of that power.

I blame all of you

Here we are, 20 years into the distant future, and the newspaper of record now includes musical opinion pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I love Weird Al, but I’m sure he’d agree that a world where he’s writing songs for the Times is a world that’s broken.

It would be comforting to imagine this is the fault of the Illuminati. But the truth is our society is the collective outcome of all of our actions. There are constraints keeping us away from Utopia (limited time and resources, path dependence, etc.), but within the bounds of those constraints we get the outcome that we want. And apparently the outcome we want (i.e. want enough that we’re willing to work for it) is a dumpster fire.

Get your shit together humanity. It doesn’t have to be this bad. But it’s not going to get better if we keep rage tweeting about how awful it is how the other side keeps rage tweeting.

Forthcoming: Reviving the libertarian interstate federalist tradition

One of my papers was accepted for publication in the libertarian journal The Independent Review. Here’s an excerpt:

This essay aims to fill that gap by making four arguments:

1. Prominent classical liberals and libertarians have long recognized the importance of interstate federalism for not only individual liberty but security for liberal polities in the international arena as well.

2. The American federalists of the late 18th century faced the same problems we face, and the distinct interstate order that they patched together to solve those problems is not an outmoded Leviathan; it is the missing piece of the puzzle to the libertarian and classical liberal tradition of interstate federalism.

3. The piecemeal federation of political units under the U.S. constitution would achieve more freedom for more people, and this interstate federalism should be enthusiastically embraced as the foreign policy principle for libertarians and classical liberals.

4. The American Proposal would solve the security (and cost-sharing) dilemma for liberal polities, but it would also contribute to a decline in the worrisome trend of presidential government in the United States.

I gotta give props to the editors and the referees of the journal. I know they didn’t like my argument, but they were fair, helpful, and a whole lotta fun. I’ll have more on this soon. In the mean time, here’s a sneak peak (pdf).

Wats On My Mind: I for one welcome our Venusian overlords

Reading the headlines, this was my thought process, almost exactly. Is xkcd evidence of alien mind probes? Also, “Venus?? I thought they said Venice!”

https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/evidence_of_alien_life.png