Why so Angry?

After the meeting with Kilo, I went back to my room and reviewed the paper. I went through the logic and the arguments, and everything seemed to hang together pretty well for me. It was an anti-socialism argument, based on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom that said the Soviet Union had failed because of the flaws inherent in economic planning. That is, there just isn’t enough information and expertise available to plan or control an economy. And even if there is enough data, there’s not enough cognition or computing power to process and make sense of it, which is what makes it a rationality-based argument. Even worse is, once one goes down the route of planning, propaganda and totalitarianism — the forced acceptance of only one opinion, viewpoint, or perspective – follows naturally

Kilo’s published work on democracy, which got him tenure at MIT, argued that instead of having centralized control of the economy, people would vote on how the economy would be controlled. Of course, this democratic socialism, which is just a small variation on socialism, would still suffer from the weaknesses of socialism with a few additional problems added for good measure.  First, how would the voters know what they would be voting on? California has tried this with its democratic referendum system, which is super confusing and could never result in a unified, workable plan. Second, people learn about issues from the media, which again opens democracy to a range of influences and untruths. Third, with the people being informed and influenced by the media, this increases the power of the people who control the media, which is essentially the point of the whole socialist project.

Socialists know that socialism will be a disaster for the population, but it would greatly benefit them. In fact, this is their one shot at having power, wealth, and status — so it is important to them. To be specific, Kilo had put years of his life into this concept constellation, so he was emotionally invested in democratic socialism. Extending beyond Kilo, socialism is the logical conclusion of making politics one’s primary consideration. If you value politics above all else, as most political scientists do, then that places you far down the road of being a socialist. In contrast, I was an engineer and computer scientist, so political science was kind of a sidelight for me — an indulgence of intellectual interest because if everything went wrong, I could always fall back and be engineer. Kilo did not have that as a fallback; he had gone “all in” on socialism.

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I figured Kilo was a tenured MIT professor because he wanted to teach and was looking out for his students. I thought of myself as a conservative back then, but I only had a vague notion of what that meant in a Burke, Tocqueville, Buckley kind of way. I was basically a patriotic American engineer who felt comfortable with my academic background. I figured most conservatives didn’t have my engineering, math, and physics background and that, so long as I stuck with that — especially at MIT — I would be safe. I was also studying politics of the environment, not Besides, I thought that if it did turn out to be a problem, it would be interesting to find out how that manifested itself. I was about to find out.

I  made an appointment with Kilo and returned to MIT Building 20, the temporary WWII building that was still standing 50 years later with its basic wood construction, off kilter angles, and assortment of odd smells. I knocked on his door, was admitted to his office, and sat down with Kilo’s desk between us. He knew I was there to talk about the paper. I started, “Professor Kilo, the argument I was trying to make in the paper–”

“Your paper meant nothing — NOTHING!” shouted Kilo, interrupting me.

I was quiet because, like the F he gave me last time we talked, I was not expecting to be shouted down. However, Kilo’s interruption told me three things. First, my paper did mean something, because why else would he have raised is voice? Second, his problem with it was emotional, not logical. His angry outburst pointed towards something more elemental and fundamental. Third, I knew further conversation with Kilo was pointless, so I said that I understood his perspective and maybe we could talk about this another time. Then I got up and left.

As I made my way across the MIT campus though, I felt much better than the previous time I walk out of Building 20. Last time, I thought I had made a horrendous error that I didn’t understand, which might be pointing out more fundamental problems. This time, after having reviewed my arguments, I felt going in that they were correct, or at least defensible. Kilo’s over-the-top reaction indicated that they were indeed sound because he was unwilling and afraid to talk about them. I still had a big problem though — I had alienated an important professor, but I was pretty sure I was correct, and for that evening, that was enough.


Design and Politics

I attended Course 17 because I thought exploring the relationship between engineering and politics was important and that MIT was the ideal place to do it. It turns out that the relationship was a bit more political and twisted than I could have imagined.

The logic was relatively straightforward from an engineering perspective – and more precisely, computer science. When I was programming a lot, I had created a large body of code – well over 10,000 lines – and when I changed that code to fix a bug or create a feature, I thought I knew what was going to happen. However, I frequently guessed wrong and what happened was very different than what I thought would happen. I started adapting my behavior to account for my inability to correctly predict the consequence of my code changes. First, I would make once change at a time because, if I made 2 or 3 and there was an error, then I wouldn’t know which change caused the error. Second, I would test the code to ensure it was working properly. Third, I kept backups of the old code so I could return to a working state if my proposed changes didn’t turn out as intended.

Thinking about social systems, it is easy to say that they are not the same as computers, so these lessons and insights don’t apply. However, policies are proposed to solve problems in social systems, and people argue about policy changes and make careers and out of arguing about policy. The came fundamental principles apply though because people make policy changes to social systems.

There are, however, some fundamental differences. First, I created the code that I was changing, which made me the world’s expert on that code. Nobody knew more about that code than I did, and yet, I didn’t know what was going to happen. In fact, computer science theory supports this conclusion – that is, you can’t tell if a problem is going to stop or halt without actually running it. But in the policy realm, policy makers did not create the systems they are changing, so how do they know what they are doing? That is, they know far less about political than I knew about my code, and if I didn’t know how my code was going to change, how do they know their policy changes will be successful? They might collect data and test to ensure their policy changes are successful, but in the political world that seldom occurs. In fact, because the reputation of senior decision makers is at risk, this creates a disincentive to collect a data. To the contrary, it creates an incentive to declare victory and fight anybody who contradicts that conclusion. Finally, in the engineering world it makes sense to implement small changes to systems that can always be backed out if they don’t work out. In politics, the exact opposite occurs when senior policy makers implement large, grandiose, and impossible to reverse changes – that is, radical changes – that play well in the media but may play less well in the real world.

I tried discussing these ideas in a class called Rationality. I had taken an introductory class in artificial intelligence and knew that brains were “boundedly rational” – that is, limited in their computational capability. Human brains were excellent at pattern recognition, but less excellent at performing multiple calculations accurately and quickly. In fact, when creating computer functions, we were advised to stick to 7 plus or minus 2 input and output parameters, which is the working limit of the human mind.

These ideas, while helpful in the engineering world, become somewhat more controversial in the political world. Not helping my case was my trying to articulate these concepts using the freshly failed Soviet Union as an example. I argued that while the Soviet policy makers may have been well intentioned, they long-term consequences of their policies indicated failure. The problem was, their policies were implemented in a system that was far more complex than my computer code, and their bounded rationality couldn’t accurately predict the unintended consequences of their policies. I argued that bounded rationality and unintended consequences were two sides of the same complexity code. I concluded that political policies used on complex social systems should be evaluated like computer code changes: incrementally, tested, and potentially reversed.

I had done will my first semester, but the Rationality class with Professor Kilo wasn’t going so well. There was a pervasive sense that we homo sapiens sapiens were super smart (so smart we named ourselves smart twice), and these political policy problems were simple, but this didn’t make any sense to me. If comparatively constrained computer code was so unruly and hard to improve, how could complex social systems about which these policy specialists knew less be easier to change? This smacked to me of arrogance and hubris, though I was careful not so say so directly. Not careful enough apparently.

To be honest, Kilo had written a book on democracy, which when I read it seemed more to me like democratically camouflaged socialism. Kilo’s argument was, instead of having a central committee decide on policies, we would have people vote on them instead. This to me seemed even worse because, how could voters ever know enough to implement effective improvements to complex social systems? I figured he must have thought through these issues and that if I was clear with my arguments, this would lead to a conversation and I would learn something.

The first indication was that Kilo didn’t return my paper in a timely manner, and then he wanted me to meet him in his other office across campus. The building was this old wooden building  of temporary offices build after WWII that had become curiously non-temporary. The out-of-kilter building was starting to creep me out, and while I was hoping for an A, because that would give me four A’s for the semester, I was getting increasingly less confident that was going to happen. I got to the correct hallway which was crooked with unfinished wood floors and had faculty offices on either side. I found Kilo’s office, knocked, and went in. It was sunset, the one window was orange with the last few rays of winter sun streaming in, and he took time to kill a fly before speaking to me. He was short, bald, and very scholarly, and he told me that this was the worst paper he had ever received and that I deserved an F, but he was going to do me a favor and give me an incomplete. The paper was so bad that it could not be rewritten. I sat there stunned, my emotions were running high, and I couldn’t collect my thoughts because this was so outside the what I thought could possibly happen. Kilo sensed this and suggested that I leave, think about it, and we could talk in  a few weeks. This seemed like the most graceful way forward, so I got up and walked out of his office. I walked down the crooked hallway, out of the old temporary office building, and made my way across the MIT campus. The December night was cool and cold, which helped me regain my composure. I was calmer, but I had a problem, and I had no idea what I was going to do about it.

What is Conservatism?

I’ve spent a lifetime being a conservative and a lot of time studying conservatism – like years of my life – but I don’t know that I could come up with a tight definition of what exactly a conservative is. Other political systems are put forth by political philosophers that are judged by their attractiveness and internal consistency. Quite frankly though, they have come up short in that they never quite deliver the benefits originally intended. I just tried to watch some YouTube videos that defined conservatism, and they were all awful – terrible. I remember Gilpin’s International Political Economy provided much better definitions of liberalism, socialism, and nationalism, but nationalism didn’t really get at conservatism as I understood it.

Beyond nationalism, I have approached conservatism from several different perspectives. This notion of multiple perspectives comes from Prof. Oscar when I was studying at MIT Course 17, political science. In his Theories of International Relations (IR) course, Oscar introduced us to alternative views of IR. He began by introducing the notion of secondary literature – that is, the writing about a significant piece of writing. For us, we read articles about Thucydides Peloponnesian War. Every week though provided a different take on international relations, and three weeks I particularly remember were computer models, political geography, and nationalism. Of course, I was learning about alternative perspectives before learning about the standard perspectives – after all, I was an engineer undergrad, not a political science major – but weird stuff like that was always happening to me. It seems most people in the class were baffled, but Oscar was a math major, so I would ask questions that seemed to me felt correct, and Oscar seemed to appreciate that. The class met once a week was a full three hours that met once a week, so we had a break halfway through. At this point, one of the other students approached me and asked, “You seem to understand what Oscar’s saying – uh – what’s he saying?” I felt we were resonating because of our similar math background, but beyond that, I didn’t really know.

I say this though because conservatism is, in important ways, the opposite of ideology.  With an ideology, you can know when you’ve captured an argument or theory completely, and there is a premium placed on its being internally consistent. These concepts of completeness and consistency are absent when thinking about the “real world” because it is so complex, but the complexity of the “real world” is at the core of conservatism. Nobel economics prize winner Friedrich von Hayek wrote about complexity in 1964 in a piece called, “The Theory of Complex Phenomena,” years before computers were generally available and complexity was well understood — well, better understood. However, what Hayek understood was that the Marxist conceit that socialism was scientific was deeply problematic . I had this epiphany when studying computational theory and realizing how quickly unsolvable problems could appear. Complexity wasn’t some far away, remote possibility but something that computer scientists faced almost every day. Trying to solve an unsolvable problem can be a tremendous waste of time, so they trained us not to do it. Marxists, in contrast, still seem to be having that problem.

So, what’s the takeaway, the conclusion? Complexity, for me, is at the core of conservatism. Marxists, socialists, and political scientists seem to have this idea that the study of politics, policy, and government can be made scientific, but these days I claim it can, without a deep understanding of complexity, only scientistic — that is, the language of science is used to sell political agendas and programs without having the true discipline and truth underlying  science. There are multiple ways to address this issue, which I plan to do here.

On Conservatism and Complexity

I’ve spent a long time thinking about liberalism — that is, socialism — and conservatism, and while I can argue for a long time about it, I haven’t yet taken the time to define conservatism. For example, looking at great conservative books like God and Man at Yale by William F. Buckley or other classic conservative tombs by Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmunde Burk, Russell Kirk or a host of other modern writers, they tend to take the form of criticizing liberal projects such as the French Revolution or Soviet Union. While there is much there to criticize, these descriptive works can be intellectually unsatisfying because they criticize liberal projects rather than articulating a core conservatism.

Here my argument is that conservatism is rooted in the complexity of social systems, which merits some explanation that I will pursue as an initial foray in three steps: (1) long v. short-term trade offs; (2) mathematical complexity; and (3) science.

First, conservatism, as with all politics, is an exercise in long- and short-term micro-incentives with conservatism tending towards the long-term and liberalism the short-term. This is a well-known philosophical concern as Spinoza said sub specie aeternitatis, which is Latin for “under the aspect of eternity” or essentially, “take the long-term view.”  Complexity here because people naturally take a short-term view such as, “I want something, so I’ll take it.” The causal chain is short and easily traceable. The longer-term view, “I want something, so I’ll train and work to earn it,” has more causal steps, which adds to the indeterminacy and confusion.

Second, this complexity is addressed more directly in Spinoza’s second dictum, Deus sive Natura, which means “God or nature.” That is, both are complex systems that span that natural and social and are beyond human understanding, which gave rise to Herbert Simon’s term “bounded rationality.” There are two aspects of complexity that I want to talk about here. First, Marxists will argue until they reveal an “inconsistency” and then declare victory. Computational theory has revealed that only simple systems are completely consistent and that complex systems always have some form of inconsistency. Secondly, dynamically complex systems feature negative causal feedbacks of the form, “A increases B” and “B decreases A”, which seems internally inconsistent but is in fact a basic feature of complex systems, including complex social systems. These are 20th century technical discoveries that have only partially been acknowledged and accepted in the social sciences.

Third, these simple observations bring into question the very possibility of a political or social science. Remember that Marxists believe political and social science could or should be as predictive as the physical sciences. But the most predictive of the physical science results derive from experiments in which the number of causal factors has been significantly reduced. The exemplar is Newton’s “perfect” planetary motion in which precise orbital predictions were made using simple equations for two bodies or planets. However, these predictions fall apart for three bodies. Initially this was thought to be an edge case, but it is in fact the usual case. This recognition is embodied as wicked problems that cannot be “solved” in a closed-formed sense but instead must be managed, or as Simon put it, “satisficed” — a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”. Needless to say, “satisficing” does not give senior decision makers the deity-like powers that they tell their followers they have, so “bounded rationality” is not very popular because it doesn’t sell. Instead these decision makers who are really political entrepreneurs use the language of science to gussy up their pronouncements in a process called “scientism.”

To conclude, I thought for years that figuring out how to analyze the complexity of social  and natural systems would be a worthwhile and commonly accepted goal. However, after fighting with liberals, progressives, and socialists, they like people believing and following them, and pointing out that they may not know as much as they portray themselves as know is not a very popular position, regardless of how true to may be. In fact, there is a fundamental tension between complexity, which is fundamentally unclear, uncertain, and doesn’t sell. Leaders become leaders by seeming to be strong, certain, clear, and infallible. As the tools to analyze complexity become more sophisticated, those who master those tools will find themselves at an advantage with more rhetorically-based political actors, but demonstrating this advantage will be a long-term process with lots of bumps, arguments, and bruised egos along the way.

Superstitions of Science

You know that when a field of academic has to call itself science — like computer science or political science — then it isn’t going to be very scientific. Physics, chemistry, and engineering don’t need the word “science” because it’s just so darn obvious. However, the reason why the term in inapplicable doesn’t mean it’s not important, and the reason why it’s both inapplicable and important — that is, complexity — isn’t obvious. We think we can deal with complexity, but we can’t, and we’re just now waking up to that fact after being lied to by deceptive political entrepreneurs for many decades.

I’m going to talk about complexity in terms of my experience at MIT Course 17, Political Science, were I studied international relations and political philosophy before getting kicked out. It was pretty exciting because the socialist who kicked me out called me “repugnant” and a “coward” on my way out. This was before I learned about 0bama’s mentor, Chicago “community organizer” Saul Alinsky, who advises socialists to accuse others of the activities that they themselves are performing on a regular basis. I then finished up at a less-prestigious university in flyover country, Kansas Polytechnic near Lebanon (KPL), where I studied, graduated, and experienced no problems whatsoever.

In writing about this, I don’t intend to be maudlin and self-pitying because I worked through those emotions years ago. I do however intend to tease apart and articulate a number of political themes that at the time didn’t make sense but have revealed themselves to be increasingly relevant and potent over the years. Discussing them in terms of a constrained and confined academic department helps to place limits on the discussion an place these larger themes into sharper relief and contrast.

In so doing, I’m thinking about Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM, 1974) in which a philosophy student goes a little too deep, comes out on the other side, and writes about it. ZAMM is described as a work of “fictionalized autobiography,” which is what I’m about to undertake. That is, people may ask, “Did that actually happen?” in which I will reply, “maybe.” I readily admit that I use the tools of fiction — per Tom Wolfe’s “New Journalism” — so the names, places, and temporal ordering may be changed to make the story more engaging and comprehensible, like the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Additionally, like ZAMM, there will be philosophy interspersed with events in a way that is helpful to understand both. That is, we live in a media age in which too often fiction is reduced to a screenplay. Here though, I intend to reveal the underlying detail, the hidden complexity that underlies reality that is not only not talked about, it isn’t even acknowledged. This reality goes back to Plato’s cave but also was talked about by William Blake who said,

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern..” — William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

While complexity itself isn’t immediately visible, is consequences in the form of “policy resistance” make themselves felt in every government. The basic problem is that political “leaders” today aren’t leaders in the traditional sense of the word. Today’s politicians are instead salespeople for corporate conglomerates who extract resources from governments, which is really messed up, but that’s they way modern economics works though you won’t learn about it in school.

Part of the root of this lies in the genesis of international relations. Until World War I (WWI), warfare was seen as an almost noble enterprise. However the horrors of WWI were so terrible that war was something to be avoided at almost any cost. This utopian birth led to a number of problematic consequences because “reality” was associated with the failed balance of power politics that lead to WWI as well as the technologies that made WWI so horrible. But the problem is, isn’t an understanding of reality necessary to formulate the effective policy to avoid war? Moreover, isn’t acknowledging reality necessary to support claims to science? Richard Feynman defined science as: 1) guessing the answer; 2) testing the answer; and 3) if the guess doesn’t square with the test, then you’re wrong. This is not the current understanding of political science in the academy or policy in the world’s governments, which will be, of course, the subject of my upcoming posts.

The Washington Consensus

The Washington Consensus is a set of 10 economic policy prescriptions considered to constitute the “standard” reform package promoted for crisis-wracked developing countries by Washington, D.C.-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and United States Department of the Treasury.

  1. Fiscal policy discipline, with avoidance of large fiscal deficits relative to GDP;
  2. Redirection of public spending from subsidies (“especially indiscriminate subsidies”) toward broad-based provision of key pro-growth, pro-poor services like primary education, primary health care and infrastructure investment;
  3. Tax reform, broadening the tax base and adopting moderate marginal tax rates;
  4. Interest rates that are market determined and positive (but moderate) in real terms;
  5. Competitive exchange rates;
  6. Trade liberalization: liberalization of imports, with particular emphasis on elimination of quantitative restrictions (licensing, etc.); any trade protection to be provided by low and relatively uniform tariffs;
  7. Liberalization of inward foreign direct investment;
  8. Privatization of state enterprises;
  9. Deregulation: abolition of regulations that impede market entry or restrict competition, except for those justified on safety, environmental and consumer protection grounds, and prudential oversight of financial institutions;
  10. Legal security for property rights.

Understanding Socialist Motivations

I must confess that, despite studying socialists, leftists, and Democrats for a long time, I still don’t really understand them. What’s particularly revealing about socialists is their certainty, energy, and commitment to doing something that, to me, makes no sense and is certain to fail. But for the socialists, the consequences seem opaque and of little matter, probably because something else seems to be driving them. However, it is clear that the emotional and intellectual drivers of socialism are so widespread that they must have some fundamental and thus understandable basis. This essay will enumerate and explore what these psychological causes might be.

So to start out, it has been observed — by the late Charles Krauthammer I believe — that conservatives think that liberals and socialists are dim, but liberals and socialists think conservatives are evil. This observation resonates with the timeless philosophical distinction between facts and values, which is also described as ‘is’s and ‘ought’s. That is, liberal think the world ought to work the way they think it should work, while conservatives are more comfortable dealing with the world as they find it, or as it is. In Course 17, Kilo deals in the world that, in his opinion, aught to be, while Oscar deals, or at least tries to deal, with the world as it is. 

This classical cleavage leads to several other distinctions. First, that between immaturity and maturity, or as William Blake put it, innocence and experience. If we consider the socialist oughts to be immature and the conservatives to be comparatively mature, that would help to explain the aforementioned asymmetric anger. That is, the mature have been immature, so there’s a certain amount of understanding and sympathy, but the immature have not been mature, which helps to explain socialist anger.

The immaturity also helps to explain the parasitism of socialists. They have, over the past several decades, learned to place their dependent supporters where they and their families can vote for leftist parties whether they are called Democrats, Labour, or something else. Humans are unique in that their children take decades to become mature, and that timeframe keeps extending. During this period, they are not expected to earn their own keep or make their own  way in the world, so they must, by necessity, live off others. Conservatives believe this should take place in a family relationship, but institutionalizing welfare means that professional bureaucrats distribute wealth, and the more of a nation’s wealth they distribute, the more power they have, and bureaucrats live for power. 

Another systemic resonance centers on media and technology, which leads to selective reporting and exposure. That is, some stories sell, while other stories don’t, so the media have an inherent incentive to report a certain type of story. Socialism is one of those stories, and to be specific, let’s focus on Marx’s description, “from each according to their ability, and to each according to their need.” While this has an inherent “ought” feeling of equality and social justice, the world is a complex place and the implementation of Marx’s policy seems to result in severely negative consequences. The detail of this policy argument will be left for another time, but for now, it’s enough to say that the media has a socialist bias. In the 60s and 70s, Marshall McLuhan said, “the media is the message.” Tom Wolfe wondered, “What if he’s right?” Decades later, it appears that he was right insofar as the media leans left. 

This would all be fine if the socialist enterprise resulted in beneficial consequences, but it doesn’t. Selective reporting and exposure results in information reduction and simplification. The social and natural environments, as well as their interaction, are in contrast, complex. Consequently, the media’s reporting biases result in an impoverished understanding that results in problems, including environmental degradation. Recently Camille Paglia observed that the Marxist worldview is severely constricted and cannot incorporate nor comprehend the complexity of the natural world, indicating that the roots of global environmental degradation rest in an overly narrow philosophical perspective, which presents an opportunity for philosophy, policy, and complexity modeling.

Tree and its fruits

One of the great philosophical antipathies is between Christianity and Marxism, socialism, communism, globalism, or whatever new word they concoct to camouflage their revolutionary enterprise. When I was studying at MIT’s Course 17, I read an essay on democracy by Professor Kilo that was doubtless based on his Ivy League dissertation. Kilo was held in high esteem by the department, and I was impressed by his Ivy League pedigree, so I was looking forward to reading his work. I was sorely disappointed because what he had done was merely substitute the word “democracy” for “socialism.” And another Kilo “innovation” was instead of having experts make decisions about the things in which they are expert, like investment decisions, Kilo proposed instead having people vote on those decisions because that would “increase justice” by being “more fair.”

At the time I reasoned that this would increase the power of the media who would format and transmit the information voters would use to make the decisions. From a post-Obama presidency perspective, we see now that the so-called impartial media are in fact Democrat-Marxist operatives, like George Stephanopoulos who pretends to be an ABC News journalist but who in fact was an inside member of the Clinton administration. Rather than pointing out the obvious political issues, I made the more subtle argument that if Hayek’s critique of command and control economies was true — that central committees could never control an economy because they could never collect and process enough price information — then that same critique would apply to Kilo’s proposed democracy policy because the media would never be able to adequately format and transmit enough  information to inform voters adequately.

This seemed to be a pretty obvious argument, so I figured Kilo must have thought this through and was interested to hear his reply and reasoning. Kilo said he couldn’t believe I wrote this, gave the paper an F, and shouted me down when I tried to explain my reasoning saying, “Your paper meant nothing! NOTHING!” As William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “The lady protests too much, methinks,” but of course, instead Queen Gertrude, I refer to Professor Kilo. In retrospect, it was obvious that my reasoning was correct and Kilo had no response. He had committed his career to articulating and selling this repackaged socialism, so allowing my argument to stand was clearly unacceptable. Moreover, Kilo had the support of his Ivy League colleagues, who were collectively committed to selling repackaged and camouflaged socialism to an unsuspecting, too trusting, and altogether too trusting American people.

The question then becomes, why is it so important for a professor to censor a student,  which is related to the question of why is it so important for socialists to censor Christians? The answer concerns differential micro-incentives. For political science professors, they’ve committed their lives to the profession and study of politics, and socialism represents that pinnacle of politics. That is, what matters is choosing sides and imposing your will on others, regardless of facts, reality, complexity, and nature. From the socialist point of view, facts, reality, and nature are not something to be studied and understood, they are something to be ignored and overcome because they — the socialist in-group — are the primary beneficiaries of socialism. That commitment as it turns out, overrides all other information and evidence, which helps to explain the ongoing appeal of socialism. Even though socialism fails everywhere and always — Venezuela and Sweden are only its most recent cautionary implementations (with the Soviet Union being the most historically significant) — the political entrepreneur’s desire for power, wealth, and status overrides all else.  The problem is, for the people about whom the socialists purportedly care, they receive crime, poverty, and death, which is a problem. Socialists time and again have proven that there is nothing easier to get used to than another’s pain.

The real problem however is that socialists make all these claims to sell their socialism because it’s good for them, but the consequences never work out in the long-term. Selling however requires describing all the beneficial consequences of what is being sold — in this case socialism — which for socialists is getting harder and harder as the number of failures grows and grows. Rather than play by the rules and defend the consequences of their policy prescriptions, socialists have opted instead for attacking the opposition. An especially useful  tactic  is one recommended by the Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, who recommends attacking the opposition for the strategies and activities that you yourself are doing on a regular basis. Christian Americans, who naively assume that socialists play by the rules and tell the truth, are mystified by these attacks and respond that they have no idea what the socialists are talking about, which may be true but is ineffective in the court of public opinion.

Christians are often criticized by socialists generally and Marxists specifically for being unscientific. However, Christians explicitly embrace tracking and basing one’s decisions on the long-term consequences of one’s actions. Note that policy analysis, unlike science, is explicitly real-world, multi-variate, and long-term, whereas science relies on short-term experiments crafted by scientists that isolate the interactions among a carefully constrained number of variables. So central is this focus on facts, reality, complexity, and nature to Christianity that it it mentioned three times in the four Gospels in terms of the tree and its fruits:

From Matthew 7:15–20 (KJV):

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”

From Luke 6:43-45 (KJV):

“For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”

John 15:5,8 NIV

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

The parable of the tree and its fruits is anathema to socialists because their policies result in crime, poverty, and death, and no political movements wants to be known by those consequences.


Oscar and Kilo: complexity and scientism

I’ve been writing about two of my political science professors, Oscar, who’s an old school, smart and intellectually honest guy, and Kilo, who’s a new school, a not-so-smart and intellectually dishonest Marxist and social justice warrior. I’ve been watching two documentaries by David Malone, Dangerous Knowledge (DK, BBC 2007) and High Anxieties: The mathematics of chaos (HA, BBC 2008), both of which concern the philosophical consequences of mathematics. DK concerns the lives of four mathematicians who delved into the heart of infinity. Malone’s insight is that beneath the surface of the world, are the rules of science, but beneath them are a far deeper set of rules. Cantor, Boltzman, Gödel, and Turing had fundamental insights into these deeper set of rules, but while they had successful careers, these insights ultimately killed them through insanity, suicide, self-starvation, and suicide respectively. Mathematician and computer scientist Gregory Chaitin observed, accurately appears, that their theories are dangerous because not only were they disquieting but at any minute they could bite you.

Reviewing the careers of the DK four (so to speak), reveals a slightly deeper dynamic, a political dynamic if you will in which they undertook their studies with a sense of expectation of and ambition for reward if they were brilliant and correct, and they were, but the rewards never came. Instead, for Cantor, Boltzman, and Turing came criticism and rebuke, and for Gödel, who was rewarded with a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, madness. The question then becomes, what is it about their ideas that caused such problems? Chaitin says that such ideas are inherently self-contradictory, that the scientific community wants power and certainty, but ideas about limitless infinity, ideas that undercut the power and certainty of science — well, they’re not going to endear one to their colleagues even if they are true, perhaps even, especially if they are true.

Malone’s HA tells a similar story about the consequences of chaos theory. While several mathematicians are introduced including Laplace, Lyapunov, and Lorenz (and Leibniz), for the purposes of this essay Poincaré is most relevant. Newton argued for a rational universe in which his celestial calculations showed the orderly movements of the heavens. However, Newton’s calculations were limited to predicting the relative motion of two bodies. More problematic were the calculations of three bodies — that is, the three body problem — in which, Poincaré showed prediction became increasingly difficult and, after a while, impossible. Lorenz later “rediscovered” sensitivity to initial conditions through the help of modern computers. The point is, as has been argued, deeper understanding does does not always lead to greater power and prediction — it can lead to greater realization of humanities limitations which, while true, doesn’t exactly sell.

That appears to be at the center of the dynamic between Oscar and Kilo: Oscar was both more correct and brilliant than Kilo, but in today’s academy, that didn’t matter as Kilo’s lazy scientism is more politically successful.



Talking With Oscar

I remember one day going into the office of my advisor, Oscar, at the department of Course 17, political science, because I heard that Kilo was talking to the other faculty and them that I was too problematic, troubled, and argumentative to be a PhD student. Oscar’s office was filled with books, and by filled, I mean that there were four walls in his office, and each one had floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books. His desk sat in the middle of these books, and on it were papers and even more books. The danger in having Oscar as a thesis advisor was that you were in danger of becoming like him and you would never finished reading. If you came to him with a question, you would come away with 4 new perspectives and 8 suggested books to read about those perspectives. Outside of Oscar’s office was a box he had built to hold his working papers, only some of which had been  published, so he would give you a couple of those as well and send you on your way. I referred to the experience as, “Being confused at a higher level.”This is great if you’re trying to learn everything but can be problematic if you’re trying to complete a thesis and, you know, graduate, but I was up for a challenge.

This day I went in and asked him directly, “Am I going to be admitted into the PhD program?”

Oscar replied, “I wouldn’t count on it.”

I said, “But why? You’re recommending me right?”

Oscar said, “Yes, I am.”

I said, “And traditionally tenured faculty get to work with the students they want right?”

Oscar said, “Usually, yes, but not in this case.”

I said, “I don’t understand.”

Oscar said, “It’s not wholly my decision, and you’ve upset the people whose decision it is. I can recommend you, and I can argue for you, but that’s all. So I recommend making other arrangements in case it doesn’t work out. I’m sorry. I can’t say any more.”

Oscar couldn’t say any more, but then again, he didn’t need to say any more, and the situation was probably embarrassing to him. He was seen within the department as an older professor whose time had passed by, who was no longer central to decision making and direction setting of the department. Kilo, who I had upset, was central to both of those things, and Oscar was intelligent and realistic enough to know that he didn’t have enough influence to overcome his objections. I thanked Oscar for his support and time and left, more than a little dejected.

The way  Kilo went about it was just so underhanded and indirect. He wouldn’t talk about our disagreement, he shouted me down when I brought it up, and now he was spreading rumors behind my back. As an engineer, I suppose I should not have been surprised that politic science was political, but this situation helps to clarify what “political” means, and to do this, we take an MIT Course 6, electrical engineering and computer science perspective. People’s views on particular subjects can be described by frames, a term from MIT artificial intelligence professor Marvin Minsky that describes cognitive shorthand ways the brain looks at complex topics. Frames are necessary due to the complexity of the real world and the limited ability of the brain to make sense of that complexity, what is called bounded rationality. These frames can be shared among groups of people, and the frames themselves can define those groups. Moreover, people who hold different frames come into conflict and one frame seeks dominance over the other. Politics is the competition among groups for power, and that competition — at least withing the department — was driven by frames.

When I showed up at the department, I though competition among frames was what you did. When I criticized Kilo’s democratic socialism frame with my Hayek-based complexity frame, I thought I was just writing a paper and making an argument for a grade in a class. I didn’t realize how serious the frame competition was, how carefully I needed to watch my step, and what the consequences were if I transgressed an invisible and unspoken boundary. Such old fashioned grading criteria as “clarity of argument,” “logic of argument,” or “truth of argument” no longer seemed to matter — it was now a matter of one group versus the other, and I was on the less powerful side. The subtitle to William F. Buckley’s famous God and Man at Yale is perhaps somewhat less famous though perhaps it should not be: “The superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’.” I was about to find out why Buckley included that subtitle, up close, first hand, and personal.