An open letter to populists who talk about the “Lolita Express”

Jeffery Epstein is, to say the least, a scumbag. But recently a chorus of people have been asserting, with no or very dubious evidence, that a whole bunch of people had sex with underage girls in his company or else “knew” it was happening and said nothing. They’ve attacked his prosecutor, his defense lawyer, and even Steven Pinker. The main contingent are the usual suspects egged on by the fakestream media, but they have been joined in by some Right-wing populists. It is an understandable why populists would want an opportunity to attack the elite. What’s the problem here?

The problem is that crap falls downhill. #MeToo started by targeting rich Hollywood Democrats, but didn’t stay there. Soon it began permeating the whole culture. There is a similar danger here. At the end of the day, despite all the angry tweeting, billionaires accused of crimes will be able to hire armies of lawyers to defend them. Who will really suffer when statutory rape is treated as the moral equivalent of forcible rape? When attraction to teenagers is treated as equivalent to pedophilia? It will be the 19 year old kid who has a 16 year old girlfriend, who despite the angry tweeting will remain unable to hire an army of lawyers. Who will suffer when hiring a prostitute is considered morally equivalent to slavery? The middle class schlub. Who will suffer when prosecutors are afraid to go easy on an accused “sex criminal?” The person who can’t afford a drawn-out legal defense. Who will suffer when riding in a car with a man later discovered to be a rapist (the “rapemobile”) is treated as evidence of complicity in his crimes? Contrary to the belief of many people, most rapists don’t look like Jeffery Epstein, or Haven Monahan. It will be the poor man who has poor friends.

If this is all too theoretical for you, read up on the McMartin preschool trial. Just like in the current year, it was thought that the crime was so atrocious, so horrible that normal standards of evidence shouldn’t apply and that anyone who didn’t believe the accusations was a supporter of the crimes. It was part of the whole “Satanic Ritual Abuse” nonsense. I’m sure a lot of Right-wing populists at the time bought into it, thinking they were striking a blow to the “atheistic” elite. But who ended up victimized by it? Ordinary, middle class people like the McMartins.

 

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I don’t buy the Jeffery Epstein blackmail theory

It’s interesting how certain things go from being “conspiracy theories” to just plain theories. For a while there were “conspiracy theories” about how Jeffery Epstein was blackmailing various rich people. It’s not a conspiracy theory anymore, as now it is proffered in mainstream media sources like New York Magazine. The only real evidence the article provides are the claims of Epstein’s former “sex slave,” Virginia Roberts Giuffre. She also claims she was “forced” to have sex with Prince Andrew and Alan Dershowitz, though that part of her claims will probably still be considered Fake News.

The theory is unbelievable for a number of reasons. I have right-wing populist sympathies and I don’t particularly like the elite, but I don’t share the common belief that they are sex perverts. Now if you define attraction by older men to younger women as “perversion” then they deserve condemnation, but that isn’t normally done outside of feminist circles. Do I believe many would risk their positions by knowingly sleeping with underage girls? No. Epstein is anomalous in that respect.

Now what if he tricked his friends into sleeping with underage girls, then tried to blackmail them with the evidence? I don’t think that would work, because the super-rich are very unlikely to go to jail for accidental statutory rape. What about “strict liability?” That’s the kind of crap the peasants have to deal with. If a billionaire were ensnared in it, the legal system might actually start seeing that as an injustice, certainly the maximum penalty wouldn’t apply to that billionaire. And to prove the case, details would have to be provided, the who, the what, the where, and the why, which would implicate Epstein in crimes more serious than the men he was blackmailing. Furthermore, the first guy blackmailed would tell all his friends to stay away from Epstein.

A lot of the speculation that Epstein was blackmailing people is based on his alleged lack of Super Special Skills in investing. What’s the Occam’s Razor explanation for this? That he doesn’t have any Super Special Skills in investing and didn’t need any. He just made his clients think he did. Lots of rich people have never heard of the efficient market hypothesis. They think that just as expensive wine must taste better than the cheap wine, the Exclusive Billionaire Fund must deliver returns superior to the Vanguard fund. The New York Mag article considers this possibility:

So what did Epstein do with the money he did have under his management, setting aside the questions of how he got it and how much he had? One hedge-fund manager speculates that Epstein could have just put the client money in an S&P 500 index fund, perhaps with a tax dodge thrown in. “I put in $100 million, I get the S&P 500 minus some fees,” he says, speaking of a theoretical client’s experience. Over the past few decades, the client would have “made a shitload” — as would Epstein. A structure like that wouldn’t have required trading desks or analysts or complex regulatory disclosures.

What’s the moral of the story?

  1. Don’t commit statutory rape.
  2. If you do, it helps to be a billionaire.
  3. Don’t go to work for Blompf. Or be his friend. Or even stand in the same room as him. If you’ve done any of these things, quit your job, disavow your friendship, and condemn him in the harshest manner possible. As Acosta learned the hard way, he will have no loyalty to you; you owe no loyalty to him.

Consistent Histories

Given the same data and consistent application of the scientific method, it should be expected that a field will converge on a “consensus,” whether of the form “hypothesis Y is probably true” or “hypothesis X and Y might be true, but Z is definitely not” or “nobody knows anything beyond fact Z.” Since this is what is expected to happen, when a field can’t reach a consensus, observers will give less credence to the claims of the field, thus, for example, when so-called “fact-checkers” give different ratings to different statements, the credibility of all is undermined. Thus, fields have an incentive to converge on a public consensus even when they privately disagree; once a consensus is reached groupthink and punishment of dissidents will prop it up. This gives people outside the field a reason to distrust it.

Our descendants may not have this problem, if they are all individually so intelligent that they needn’t put their trust in some academic caste. However, they might just use this intelligence to discover even more difficult puzzles, puzzles we can scarcely imagine, just as our ancestors could not have imagined quantum mechanics. In addition, many fields could require our descendants to digest decades worth of information before they can really understand them, decades most would rather not spend. Thus, academic experts may still exist.

However, if spread through the galaxy, their ability to reach a consensus will be undermined due to the vast communication delays. Expanding humans can bring existing consensuses with them, but if two civilizations a hundred light years away independently find some new data which must somehow fit into the consensus theory, they will be unable to collude on a consensus view. Thus, it will be a natural experiment in whether they are really applying the scientific method. The same would be the case in the unlikely event that humans encounter intelligent aliens, who would almost certainly have some idea corresponding to the scientific method.

Our descendants may want to purposely cause this situation, to prevent the possibility of self-deception and increase the trust in their field. For instance, if a human colony finds a primitive extraterrestrial civilization and wants the best theory of how their languages are related, they may decide to demur for a time the broadcasting of their own theory(which would be a natural starting-point for the consensus viewpoint) and instead only broadcast the raw linguistic data, waiting to see what the surrounding human civilizations have to say about it.

Thoughts on the Yang Gang Part 2: What if Everyone Lived like Mr. Money Mustache?

Tyler Cowen asked this question four years ago. I agree with his answer: I don’t think happiness would go up. Mind you: I agree with most of what Mr. Money Mustache says: people spend way too much money on a zero-sum, status game rat-race. A pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. But what if you got rid of it all? What if people were made to pay very high taxes and then retire on a basic income at age 30? The work so you can afford to buy more gadgets rat race would be gone, but what would happen is not that people would stop caring about signalling their social status to one another. They’d just involve themselves in new status-games. Remember high school? Heck, remember elementary school?

There is a difference between the work rat-race and the high school popularity contest rat-race: one generates positive externalities. As a group, the Uber drivers working fifty hour workweeks so they can compete with one another in a zero-sum status game probably aren’t made much happier by all the bling they can buy. But it generates positive externalities for the non-Uber drivers, who get a cheap method of transportation. If they were freed from it, it’s unlikely they’d use their newly freed time to do whatever made them happiest. Instead, they’d just join the latest status game, but it’s unlikely it would have the positive externalities of work in a capitalist economy, as imperfect as it is.

Of course, you could point out that Mr. Money Mustasche would advise against the other status games as well, but it’s unlikely people will listen. Status games are baked into our DNA. Part of the attraction of bashing the materialistic status game is because you can blame external forces like corporations and the media for it, and tell yourself that if only they didn’t exist then people would be acting reasonably. It’s harder to find a scapegoat for the phenomenon of teenage boys doing dumb stunts to signal how brave they are.

What does any of this have to do with Andrew Yang? His UBI would, if enacted, shift the incentive structure away from paid work. I used to believe in his fourth industrial revolution which will soon automate all the jobs, but I’m now very skeptical. What if it doesn’t come, and this shift of incentives occurs amid substantial demand for labor? I sense an attitude among some Yang supporters that it wouldn’t matter, as people would in any case be happier with less work. I don’t think that would be the case.

Despite those concerns, I intend to vote for Andrew Yang. I could give you a thousand reasonable sounding explanations as to why, which I will indeed believe to be true, but those will not answer why, fundamentally, I support him. The most fundamental reason I will vote for him is “irrational” or “emotional.” I voted for Donald Trump, and when the message from corporate America is “if you vote for Trump you’re fired,” you support raising taxes on them on principle, even if it might result in less widgets being produced.

Now onto the rationalizations. There are a set of scripts that politicians tend to follow, two of the biggest scripts are:

  1. The “us vs. them” script.
  2. The “sexy big thing I’ll build” script.

Neither of these scripts are bad in and of themselves. Unlike the lame centrist, I think that sometimes “us vs. them” is the correct way to look at issues and sometimes you need a sex big thing to be built. But I wish there was a third script heard as often, the “I’ll make this process more efficient” script. Yang is the only candidate with this efficiency mindset. That’s why Yang is the only one to have a plan to control the cost of higher education.

Why doesn’t Trump have a plan? Perhaps because, ever the coward, he’s afraid the media will scream at him if he questions one of their sacred cows. But more likely I think he’s just never thought of it, because, despite academia’s hostility to him, he lacks an efficiency mindset. It’s the same reason it never occurs to him to get rid of the penny.(Another proposal Yang supports) There would be no great ideological reason he couldn’t get rid of the penny, neither his supposed conservative allies or liberal enemies would have a reason to make a fuss about it, it just doesn’t occur to him to propose it. Build a giant sexy bridge, that’s the kind of idea he’s interested in. And he’s not terribly interested in whether that bridge will be an efficient use of resources

A universal basic income will, if implemented, move society more in the direction of an efficiency mindset. Right now, when a bridge to nowhere is proposed, the mindset of a lot of people is “sure, people may not actually use the bridge, but it’ll create a few dozen jobs in our town, and it’s not like we’re going to see the money if we refuse it, so let’s grab it and not let go.” Whenever the libertarians argue against some “inefficient” redistributionist program like protectionism, infrastructure spending, education or healthcare subsidies and propose a UBI in exchange, people aren’t very receptive because they suspect that the program they like will go away and the politicians will never get around to implementing the UBI. They aren’t wrong to think this. But if you actually had one, arguing against the wasteful spending would be much easier.

There’s some wasteful spending proposals and + in Yang’s platform as well, but my hope is that, once he realizes how hard funding the UBI will be, he’ll forget all that stuff. Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking, but it’s preferable to believing in an imaginary wall.

 

 

 

Interstellar travel will most likely be slow

When interstellar travel and colonization of the rest of the galaxy is brought up, the common questions involve whether it’s feasible to go really fast. But why does interstellar travel need to be fast? The obvious answer is that people won’t like being in the ship and will be eager to get the trip over with as soon as possible and start their lives in another solar system. There are many problems with trying to go fast, you need a lot of energy, stuff hits your craft at relativistic speeds, ect. So people say, maybe we could go slow but not have humans have to deal with living in the craft for a long time, through cryonics or sending embryos and having robots raise the children to adulthood. Another method of solving the problem is to simply make your ship a comfortable place to live. Make it like being on a cruise ship. Of course many would still say “no way, I’d never want to be cooped up in such a small place for that long even if it’s a pleasant place to spend a few weeks” but they wouldn’t be the ones who’d volunteer for the mission.

Which of these four options seems to you to be conceptually the easiest to achieve? Thus, which should strike you as the most likely, even considering unpredictable technological advances in the future?

Rebellion

European conversions from paganism to Christianity were, except in the earliest days of the religion, largely elite-driven affairs. Peasants, unable to read the Bible and unconcerned about getting along with foreign Princes, often resisted it, and it would take several generations before the remnants of paganism were stamped out. I’m sure the rulers of those societies could have noticed around the time that was happening that suddenly the peasants were being more rebellious, questioning their teachings when they had previously accepted them without complaint.

It’s been claimed that the public, today, is revolting, supposedly due to technology. A simpler explanation is that elites adopted a form of radical egalitarianism that the people have not yet embraced. If people were becoming more rebellious as a rule, you’d expect to see it in areas other than voting behavior, such as in the workplace. But you don’t.

A Conspiracy Theory

Mutually Assured Destruction relies on a second-strike capacity, that is, even if one nuclear power launches a pre-emptive strike on the other, the targeted nation must be able to respond with a nuclear strike on its own. To not have this capacity would be to invite a pre-emptive strike. But there is the ever present danger of a intentional launch by some crazy. One solution is to prevent any launch without presidential or high military approval with a “permissive action link.”(PAL) But this weakens second-strike capacity, as it makes a “decapitation strike” more likely to succeed.

America and the Soviet Union both nevertheless equipped their weapons with PALs. And it’s here that we get to the conspiracy. I’m not saying I think this happened, just that, unlike most conspiracies, it is plausible. There’s already a debate about whether certain elements in the military ever decided that PALs were a bad idea and thus disobeyed the order to enable them:

For nearly a decade, an awkward debate has raged about the U.S. military’s nuclear force: Did top Air Force officials really choose “00000000” as a code that could enable the launch of a nuclear missile? Ten years later, in a document obtained by Foreign Policy, the U.S. military told Congress that it never happened. But is the Pentagon telling the truth?

Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert and former launch officer , says no. Blair, now a scholar and author at Princeton University, first raised the idea in a piece published in 2004. He accused the Air Force of circumventing President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 order to install extra security codes to safeguard against accidental or unauthorized launch by putting them in place, but making them painfully simple to the missile launch officers who manned underground bunkers. Doing so, Blair said, effectively eliminated the codes’ usefulness.

The U.S. military says that’s not the case. A new wave of media coverage sparked by online media outlets last year prompted the House Armed Services Committee to ask about the issue, and the military responded by insisting “00000000” was never used.

My suggestion is that maybe the generals never “disobeyed” anyone at all. Maybe it was the policy of the government to say that PALs were equipped, but to never actually equip them except in a few specific scenarios.(Such as tactical nukes where there was a fear of enemy capture, as in the American nukes in Germany.) The code really was “00000000,” but this wasn’t defiance of the President, he knew of and approved of the policy. Why go through the trouble? Creating the perception that PALs are enabled will improve the security of nuclear weapons, while somebody in the missile silo has to know the truth, the large majority of the operators can be led to believe the PALs are enabled and thus that it would not be worth trying to force a launch of the weapon. It’s also possible that this policy was agreed upon with the Soviet Union. You see, while the U.S. government would want to create the perception among those close to the weapons that the policy exists, it would certainly not want the Soviet Union to believe this, as it would lead them to believe that a first-strike decapitation attempt would be more likely to succeed. The Soviets, too, would have the incentive. So it’s possible that both met sometime in the 1960s, the Cuban missile scare hanging over their heads, and agreed on a plan to mislead their populations.