Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A few guidelines on when not to use “feminist”

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The word (and, by implication, the associated concept) “feminist” and its variations are extremely overused. A few, likely incomplete, guidelines for when not to use it:

  1. Never use the word to refer to someone who does not self-identify as feminist.

    Note particularly that many (including women, including those who see men and women as equal) see the word as an insult. For this reason, particular care should be taken with those who are already dead or will be otherwise unable to defend themselves against what can amount to an accusation.

    Even among those who do not, the use is often too speculative or commits the fellow-traveler fallacy (which I recommend keeping in mind through-out this post).

    A fortiori, never use the word about someone who died before the word was coined (preferably, became mainstream with a stable meaning)*. This is particularly important, because by associating it self with successful or important women from the past, many of which might have viewed it as absurd, feminism can create an unduly positive perception of it self.

    *The earliest mentions, in a somewhat current sense, appear to have been in the 1890s. A more reasonable cut-off might be the 1949 publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which arguably brought a change of character in the women’s right movements; and at which time there had been considerable changes in women’s opportunities and rights through e.g. WWII and various law changes in various countries, and the word had reached a greater popularity than in the 1890s. Beware that the spread of the word necessarily progressed differently in different countries.

  2. Be cautious about applying the word to someone who does self-identify as feminist, but is unlikely to be fully aware of the implications. Notably, every second young actress appears to self-identify as feminist, without having any actual understanding, instead being “feminist” because it is what is expected of the “enlightened” or because they have fallen into one of the traps of meaning discussed below. To boot, they give reason to suspect me-too-ism.

    More generally, a disturbing amount of supporters of feminism fall into the category of “useful idiots”, e.g. through declaring themselves supporters after uncritically accepting faulty claims by feminist propagandists. Obviously, however, a significant portion of these do qualify as feminists. (By analogy, someone who follows a certain religion based on flawed evidence should still be considered a follower, while someone who has misunderstood what the religion teaches often should not.)

  3. Never use the word because someone supports equality between the sexes. Very many non-feminists do to; very many feminists do not*.

    *Contrary to their regular self-portrayal, which has even lead to some grossly misleading dictionary definitions. Notably, the red thread of the feminist movement has been women’s rights, which only coincides with a fight for equality in a world where women are sufficiently disadvantaged. The inappropriateness of this self-portrayal is manifestly obvious when we look at e.g. today’s Sweden, where men now form the disadvantaged sex and feminist still clamor for more rights for women—but hardly ever mention rights of men or equal responsibilities for both sexes.

    Notably, I believe in equality and very clearly identify as anti-feminist. Cf. e.g. an older post.

    Equating “wanting equality” with “feminism” is comparable to equating “wanting freedom” with “liberalism” or “wanting [socio-economic] equality” with “communism”. (However, there is an interesting parallel between feminism and the political left in that both seem to focus mostly on “equality of outcome”, which is of course not equality at all, seeing that it is incompatible with “equality of opportunity”, except under extreme and contrary-to-science tabula-rasa assumptions.)

  4. Never use the word because someone believes in strong women, takes women seriously, writes fiction with a focus on women or showing women in power, or similar.

    None of this has any actual bearing on whether someone is a feminist or not. Indeed, much of feminist rhetoric seems based on the assumption that women are weak, in need of protection, unable to make their own minds up*, unable to make sexual decisions for themselves, and similar.

    *Or, make their minds up correctly, i.e. in accordance with the opinion that feminists believe that they should have. (For instance, through not professing themselves to be feminists, or through prefering to be house-wifes.)

  5. Never use the word because someone agrees with feminists on a small number of core issues, even if these have symbolic value within the feminist movement.

    For instance, it is perfectly possible to have a very liberal stance on abortion without otherwise being a feminist. (And feminists that oppose abortion, e.g. for religious reason, exist too, even though they might be considerably rarer.)

Addressing the issue from the opposite direction, it would be good to give guidelines on when the word should be applied. This, however, is tricky, seeing that there is a considerable heterogeneity within the movement. An indisputably safe area, however, is that of gender-feminism, which has dominated feminist self-representation, reporting, politics, …, for decades, and likely has the largest number of adherents once non-feminists (per the above) and useful idiots are discounted. The use can with a high degree of likelihood safely be extended to variations that are otherwise strongly rooted in quasi-Marxism, a tabula-rasa model of the human mind, and/or de Beauvoir’s writings.*

*With the reservation that we, for some aspects, might have to differ between those who actually apply a certain criticism or whatnot to the modern society and those who merely do so when looking at past societies.

I personally do not use it to refer to e.g. “equity feminism”, which is so contradictory to gender-feminism as to border on an oxymoron—and I strongly advise others to follow my example, for reasons that include the risk of bagatellizing or legitimizing gender-feminism through “innocence by association” and, vice versa, demonizing “equity feminists” through guilt by association. However, the case is less clear-cut, in either direction, than the cases discussed above.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 10, 2018 at 1:02 pm

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The fellow-traveler fallacy

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I am currently writing a shorter post on the use of the word “feminism”. As a result of my contemplations, I suggest the existence of a “fellow-traveler fallacy” (based on the originally Soviet concept of a fellow traveler and its later generalizations):

If a group of travelers take a ship from London to New York, can we assume that they share the same eventual destination? No: One might remain in New York indefinitely. Another might go back to London a week later. Yet another might take a different ship to cruise the Caribbean. Yet another might travel across the continent to Los Angeles. Yet another might move on to Anchorage. For some time, they are fellow travelers, but not because they wanted to reach the same destination: They merely had a part of the road in common, before their paths diverged.

During their time together, they might very well have enjoyed each others company, they might have helped each other, they might have even have collaborated to survive a ship-wreck. This, however, does not imply that their destinies and interests are forever bound to each other. Those who did not intend to remain in New York would have been grossly mistreated if forced to do so. The one heading for the Caribbean could hardly have been expected to be pleased about going to Anchorage instead. For the one to entrust his suit-case to the other (and not to collect it again in New York) would be silly. Etc. Even this does not directly consider the underlying reasons for the respective journey: What if the one was returning from a vacation and the other just starting his? What if one was going to a conference, another visiting a relative, and a third taking up a new position? With factors like these in the mix, even people who are fellow travelers through-out the journey might have so different objectives that grouping them together becomes misleading.

By analogy, it is a fallacy to assume that people who at some point have the same current goals and/or strive in the same current direction will continue to do so, will remain allies, can be permanently grouped together, whatnot—and, above all, to allow one of the temporary fellow travelers to permanently speak for the entire group. Similarly, if there is disagreement about methods, a status as fellow traveler is not necessarily a good thing: If the one buys a plane ticket to Cuba and the other, even for the exact same reason, forces a plane to go to Cuba at gun point, are they really the same?

An easily understood example is how the U.S. and the Soviet Union were close allies during WWII, only to become bitter enemies for the rest of the latter’s existence—they traveled together for a short span, forced by external circumstance, and then went their own, very different, ways for more than four decades. Ideologically, they were as night and day; but as long as they had a common all-important goal (i.e. defeating the Axis powers) they still fought on the same side. Those naive or uninformed enough to commit the fallacy by expecting a post-WWII friendship were severely disappointed; those who actually saw the alliance for what it was, an unnatural union of natural enemies to defeat a common enemy, were not surprised. (This is also a good example of why the saying “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” (a) is at best a semi-truth, (b) gives no guarantees once the common enemy is defeated.)

Most examples, however, are likely to be less obvious (and, therefore, more dangerous). Consider e.g. how the goals of feminism might be almost identical to those of a true equality movement when women are considerably disadvantaged, only to grow further and further apart as female disadvantages are removed or supplanted by new privileges, while male disadvantages remain or are increased and privileges removed, until, eventually, they are on opposing sides. Similarly, a classical liberal or a libertarian might have a considerable overlap with feminism in the original situation, only to end up on opposing sides as the situation changes.

Other potential examples include stretches of classical liberals and social-democrats or social-democrats and communists going hand-in-hand at various times and in various countries, as well as many other political cooperations or “common enemy”/“common goal” situations—even groups like vegetarians-for-health-reasons and vegetarians-for-animal-rights-reasons could conceivably be relevant. I am a little loath to be more specific and definite, because “fellow traveling”, in and by it self, does not automatically imply that the fallacy is present. To boot, even when the fallacy does occur, it will not necessarily affect the majority. (Feminism, in contrast, is an example where the fallacy is extremely common.)

As a sub-category of this fallacy, the temporary fellow travelers who fail to understand that later destinations will diverge, or who are apologetic for misbehavior by their current fellow travelers, are an ample source of “useful idiots”. (Feminism, again, provides many examples.) This becomes a great danger when apologeticism extends to methods, not just opinions, as when lies, censorship, or even violence is tolerated because “they are on our side”, “it helps our cause”, or similar, by someone who would condemn the exact same actions from a group that is not a current fellow traveler.

Another potential sub-category is those that identify some group as fellow travelers, fail to consider the fallacy, and then start to adopt opinions that they “should” have in order to conform further with the fellow travelers, leading themselves astray through committing a second fallacy. (Cf. parts of two older posts: [1], [2])

Written by michaeleriksson

June 9, 2018 at 6:47 am

A higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

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I have recently read James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—and unlike my last excursion into “Trump literature”, I find this book worth the reader’s time.

Above all, it provides a very important message on leadership, in particular in the “Author’s note”*, including the value of ethics, humility, the willingness to be open to input from others, …—and how such characteristics are all too often missing. Indeed, their weaknesses in such areas strongly contributed to my own feeling that the choice between Hillary and Trump was between two of the worst (realistically electable) candidates on record. (Cf. e.g. [1].)

*For those who do not want to read the book as a whole, do go by a bookstore and just read this part.

As a whole, the book is engaging with many interesting discussions of stations of his life. Unfortunately, parts are poorly written* and/or formulaic, as seen e.g. by how again and again a short paragraph is spent on describing someone and then spending just a few paragraphs on interactions with that someone, leading to situations where the description is too short to bring any value to the text and making it self redundant—these should either have been left out or expanded to such a point that they would have brought something to the context. This type of description does not appear aimed at actually bringing information to the text, but rather at “human interest” or similar cheap entertainment. To boot, they are potentially dangerous by giving his abbreviated view of someone else.

*Possibly ghost written: Apart from the high proportion of ghost-written works, the text often seems too polished (but not in a good way) and (again) formulaic for this to be the work of someone who is not simultaneously a professional writer, lacking in artistic drive, and not having a true connection to the material.

For the below items on and around the book, I will largely assume that the text is true or close to true. However, I stress that, as with any such text, warnings have to be raised with regard to its accuracy and fairness, e.g. due to memory lapses, subjective estimates, misunderstandings, and other human weaknesses. Worse, a text of this type and by an author coming from such hot weather could easily be an apologia or an attempt to position the author for a political career (see excursion at the end). To the degree that the text is not true, the items can need corresponding adjustment.

  1. A particular disturbing aspect is the great influence of politics (be it public or interpersonal/office politics) on his work and the maneuvering and compromises that were needed. This theme recurs through-out the book, including e.g. how to handle matters like the investigations of Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton, or how to handle pressure from people in the White House (this not restricted to Trump, specifically, or to members of his team).

    I have already contemplated that some parts of law enforcement might need its own branch or to become a part of the judicial branch, rather than the executive. His problems point further in that direction.

  2. I found his discussions of the mafia and various interactions with its members highly interesting, through depicting a very different world and a very different sense of ethics than I have myself encountered. Even so there are at least some areas of overlap in attitude with e.g. politicians. (With a high degree of likelihood, Comey has deliberately written these parts as pieces of a greater puzzle and in a deliberate attempt to show such similarities.)
  3. Loyalty (as might be suspected from the title…) is another important theme, with the implicit question of what someone should be loyal towards. Comey seems to focus on higher ideals in the general area of truth, justice, and whatnot (which I consider highly appropriate for someone in his shoes); Trump wanted personal loyalty towards himself; others wanted loyalty towards some cause (e.g. national security in the wake of 9-11); others might have* wanted loyalty towards a particular institution or his subordinates; …

    *I do not recall whether this appears in the book; however, it is a quite common phenomenon.

    Loyalty is something that we do well to think hard on: What should we be loyal towards and why? A good example is national loyalty, where people who have sided against their countries have historically been among the worst condemned and/or punished—but why? Should we not rather side with those who share our ideals, plans, visions, … than with our country when they conflict? (This especially since the “country” often amounts to nothing more than the opinion of the country’s current leaders.) Similarly, should we not, in an argument, side with those in the right over those in our family? Etc.

    An oddity is his discussion with Trump, where he consents to give “honest loyalty”: In the context, Comey might have meant “loyal honesty” or “loyalty to truth”, but that is not what he actually, by his own depiction, agreed to. He seems to believe that he dodged a bullet and managed to avoid promising loyalty without upsetting Trump. However, the only reasonable reading of the text is that he did explicitly promise loyalty, the most reasonable involves loyalty towards Trump (as per Trump’s request), and it would be highly surprising if that is not the message Trump took home. Many less egocentric people than Trump would have been upset when this loyalty failed to materialize. The right thing to do would have been to turn Trump down without any possibility of a misunderstanding, or, on the outside, find a way to dodge giving an answer entirely, e.g. by a change of topic. (However, I stress that I have great understanding for someone who does not think sufficiently fast on his feet in a stressful situation.)

  4. Some parts of the book appear a little too self-congratulatory or conceited, especially with regard to his relationships with his subordinates, their feelings towards him, his effect on them.

    Judging such things correctly is extremely hard, and that a boss thinks that he is a beloved source of inspiration does not automatically make him so. Even should he be correct in his assessment (by no means impossible), it would be better to play it down.

  5. An interesting topic is lying under oath, during an investigation, whatnot, which is a recurring theme of the book, albeit always with a simplistic “it’s wrong” as the message:

    Many jurisdictions, including the U.S.*, contain some provisions to limit the requirement to testify, e.g. when self-incrimination is involved or when incrimination of family members could occur. Outside these narrow exceptions there is usually a blanket obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Over the years, I have grown increasingly skeptical whether this is sensible from a “Rechtsstaat” point of view, and I consider it better that anyone acting in a private** capacity would have the right to refuse a statement at will, irrespective of e.g. self-incrimination. Further, there must even be some*** room for legally allowed lying when the witness is also the accused/suspect, especially in those circumstance where refusing the answer could be seen as admitting guilt. Consider, as an extreme example, the question “Did you kill the victim?”, the reply “I refuse to answer!”, and the impression left on the jury.

    *In the following, I discuss the topic in general. I have not studied the exact rules in the U.S., specifically, and I do not rule out that parts of what I say has been implemented.

    **As opposed to e.g. in the capacity of an elected official, a CEO, whatnot, possibly even as a regular employee.

    ***Exactly how much, I leave unstated. A blanket allowance is likely overkill. Lying on behalf of someone else is not included; however, there might be situations when even this might be sufficiently reasonable to warrant a legal exception. (Consider e.g. the question “Is your best friend since Kindergarten a Jew?” posed in Nazi-Germany: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” would hardly have been believed.)

    The difference between lying or refusing a statement on behalf of one self and on behalf of another party should not be understated. Failing to make this differentiation taints some of Comey’s comparisons.

  6. His assessment of Trump as e.g. an incompetent leader is true from one perspective, but not necessarily from all. If we look at the situation from the view point of the led, he does not appear to do well; by implication, he is a poor leader. If we look at the situation from Trump’s perspective, things might be very different*: What are his goals and how well does he reach them? Considering his success at gaining power, he is certainly not incompetent** (but still poor) as a leader. I strongly suspect that Trump is merely continuing practices that have worked well for him in the past—even bringing him the presidency…

    *Looking e.g. at his interactions with Comey, as described by Comey, it is clear that he is attempting something that would weaken the separation of powers within the executive branch as well as the integrity of the FBI. However, he is also doing something that might have been good for himself. Notably, very many would have been swayed to do the wrong thing in Comey’s shoes, being (or appearing to be) implicitly offered the keys to the kingdom.

    **With some reservations for what baseline is used in the comparison. For instance, the average Bundesliga player is extremely competent at soccer by any mortal measure—but that does not mean that he is World Cup material. Similarly, of those who do go to the World Cup, only a fraction make the honorary all-star team.

    In addition, we have to consider that aspects of leadership like e.g. humility and integrity are means to an end, not the end it self. They are needed because it is almost impossible to be and remain a good leader without them. However, they do not automatically make someone a good leader, because this also requires making the right decisions and being able to enforce these decisions. It is also not a perfect certainty that someone without them will be a poor leader—just an overwhelming probability. Now, I very seriously doubt that Trump will get an A+ through such aspects when his presidency is eventually summarized; however, as for now I still remain with my thumb angled slightly upwards when looking at actual policy until now*. More importantly, when judging whether someone is a good or poor leader, in general, it is dangerous to look just at humility et co.—the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    *With reservations for the results of his tax reform: A tax reform was needed, but I have serious doubts as to the one that took place, and it could turn out to be Trump’s biggest screw-up, just like ObamaCare turned out to be Obama’s.

  7. A few areas where Comey loses credibility include diversity*/PC nonsense, including abuse of “they”** as a generic singular, and his disregard for citizens’ rights with regard to surveillance and the like.

    *While some degree of diversity can be good in the FBI, in order to facilitate its work with e.g. immigrants, Comey seems to belong to the more naive brigade that sees diversity (in the racial, cultural, whatnot sense) as a good in its own or even as a fairness issue. Down that road lies affirmative action and other destructive measures: Pick the best person for the job, irrespective of sex, color, and creed, and no-one has a legitimate cause to complain.

    **I have a post in planning on this type of abuse, where I discuss why this is a bad thing and some alternatives. In this specific context, I note that a person of his level of education and accomplishment should know the rules of grammar better, implying that, almost certainly, this has been done deliberately in the highly offensive PC manner.

    To expand on the latter: While he claims to try to see various sides of the issue, he is clearly very set on the advantages that surveillance, lack of encryption, whatnot can bring to law enforcement. He does not appear to understand the technical risks involved and how opening doors for the government also opens doors for criminals; he fails to consider that we must always have regulations based on the assumption of an evil government, because a good government today does not imply a good government tomorrow; that e.g. anti-encryption regulation will hit “small timers” much worse than “big timers”, who have the resources to work around such regulations. Cf. e.g. my previous post.

    Other related issues already discussed on this blog include the uselessness of digital evidence, the danger of tools like the “Bundestrojaner” eventually being used to plant evidence, the risk of legally gathered data (accidentally or through intrusions, cf. my previous post) moving outside the control of the government, …

    An interesting point is his claim that the surveillance of many big timers only became hard in the wake of the Snowden revelations (quite contrary to my expectations). This, however, is not a sign e.g. that Apple should not give end users means of encryption—just a sign that these big timers used to be highly naive about their vulnerability to surveillance when not taking counter-measures: They are not doing things post-Snowden that they could not have done pre-Snowden. It is not even that strong an argument for e.g. encryption backdoors in standard software, because these would simply lead to competing, possible illegal or black-market, products without backdoors that big timers would use—while the small timers, again, are the ones left vulnerable…

Excursion on Comey as President:
On several occasions through the book, I considered the outside possibility that it was intended as a maneuver towards a presidential (or other high position) candidacy of Comey’s own. I note in particular the combination of stress on ethical leadership and other characteristics with how he portrays himself to have them and Trump to not have them.* From another perspective, consider how satisfying it might be for him, should he win an election over the same President that fired him…

*He is probably mostly correct about Trump; whether he is correct about himself, that I cannot judge.

Would Comey be a good choice? This depends to a large part on how serious he is about what he says on leadership and how well his self-portrayal matches reality. If he scores highly in these regards, then he could be a very interesting candidate. Unfortunately, I some fears on matters of policy (cf. the last item above), and I also have some doubts about his suitability in terms of experience: Being head of the FBI or the Deputy Attorney General are not bad qualifications; however, a few terms as e.g. governor would have been much better. (But they could be very valuable for some other position.) Either which way, he would be bound to be better than either of Hillary and Trump.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 6, 2018 at 1:09 pm

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Follow-up II: The German 2017 election

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In October 2017 I wrote:

We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom—however, there is a fair chance that we will be rid of the conservative CDU/CSU and social-democrat SPD coalition.

The current situation is depressing in (at least) two regards:

Firstly, even now, close to five months after the election, the issue has not yet been entirely settled, a renewal of the CDU/CSU and SPD coalition only now being finalized. At this tempo, it would have been faster to hold a re-election and settle the issue properly. Certainly, a re-election would have been a better solution for other reasons (cf. below).

Secondly, the result, this renewal, is the worst case scenario. (Among those with a realistic chance of occurring.) The only positive thing that might come of it is a further weakening of SPD. (Cf. my original post.) Sadly, this situation is partially the consequence of a more natural coalition partner doing the right thing—unlike SPD.

As I have written before, this type of coalition poses a major threat to democracy, grossly violating the trust given to these parties by their voters, and even eliminating the relevance of the voters’ will from the process: Any vote not given to CDU/CSU or SPD is effectively wasted—and any that was given to them only marginally affects who is the stronger party within the government that would have been anyway. At the same time, politicians often complain that too few people vote, sometimes even in an accusatory manner*. Why should people bother voting when their votes have so little effect? When they know that the politicians merely see them as a means to end or, worse, as a mere nuisance? To boot, such extremely long negotiations prior to forming an alliance ignores the will of the voters for an unconscionable amount of time, during which the old government, based on an election long past, continues to rule**.

*Along the lines of the non-voters not doing their civic duty.

**In this specific case, the harm is small, seeing that one constellation of an unholy alliance is replaced by another constellation of the same unholy alliance; however, this would not generally be the case.

Unfortunately, this problem of a Democracy Lost is not in anyway unique to Germany—it is a global phenomenon. It is, however, more tragic in Germany, where the awareness of the dangers rightfully should be larger than elsewhere, seeing both how the Nazi used and abused a democratic process to gain power and how a quarter of the country was stuck in a totalitarian pseudo-democracy for most of the post-war period.

As an excursion, while the current situation proves that the German election system is flawed, it does not necessarily prove the superiority of e.g. the U.S. (republic) or U.K. (parliamentary, first-past-the-pole) systems over an (almost) plain representational parliamentary system. The latter is used with considerably less problems (to-date, knock-on-wood) in e.g. Sweden, due to a small-but-crucial difference: The German system is geared at having a majority government; the Swedish at a plurality government—in rare cases even a (non-plurality) minority. Governing without a parliamentary majority does weaken the rulers, but it has so far worked well (in those case where no majority was reached). Furthermore, a plurality government is more democratic than a forced, unnatural majority of the type currently ruling Germany—it can even be argued that it does better than a majority government, since smaller parties are given more sway and a chance to influence at least some issues through actual voting (as opposed to debating and working on committees). I might even go as far as saying that a weaker government is often a positive in its own right, keeping the politicians (less dis-)honest and preventing too much damage to be caused by those incompetent or too driven by ideological agendas. An exception occurs, obviously, in times of great crises, notably wars, where a strong government can be imperative—but there is no such crisis. (For that matter, a government that does not yet exist, due to lengthy negotiations, is even weaker than a weak government that does exist…)

Written by michaeleriksson

February 13, 2018 at 12:27 am

A few thoughts on the crisis in Venezuela (and the importance of incentives)

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With Venezuela hitting the spot-light again, I decided to read up a little, specifically with the Wikipedia pages on the economy of Venezuela and on the Venezuelan economic collapse of 2016, and at least skimming several other articles, e.g on the Economic policy of the Hugo Chávez administration and Economic policy of the Nicolás Maduro administration.

These are two simultaneously very disturbing and very enlightening reads, especially when combined with e.g. the experiences gathered in the Soviet Union or, more recently, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Extreme government control, lack of respect for private ownership and the rights of the individual, the lack of incentives to create growth, …, appears to lead to economic disaster everywhere it is tried. (As, of course, predicted by many more free-market minded economists for a very long time.) If we want economic growth, it is central to give people a reason to try to build something for themselves or their families, to make their own lives better, to give those who want to work or start business easy opportunity to do so, etc.; at the same time, it is valuable to have a connection between benefit and cost, to avoid waste and poor resource use. The ideas of Ayn Rand are often naively optimistic or simplistic, but the core principles are the right one—and while human nature causes capitalism and free markets to fail to some degree, its effect on strongly socialist, communist, “central planning” societies is far greater. A sad twist is that poverty often breeds an (understandable) wish for e.g. greater redistribution between “haves” and “have nots”, greater government control, etc.—but that these very measures salt the earth and reduce economic growth. (At least when taken beyond some point. See also an excursion below.)

The starting observation is that Venezuela is one of the poorest countries on earth, and currently likely has the worst developing economy—when it should be a very rich country. Indeed, in the mid twentieth century, it was… Why? Because Venezuela is one of the world’s most oil-rich countries, and oil, now as then, is an immense source of richness. (As can readily be seen by some oil-rich Arab countries; or by how Norway went from trailing Sweden to outclassing it in wealth, after beginning to exploit its North-Sea oil.) Today, “poverty” is too weak a word for the problem: Venezuela is suffering the equivalent of a severe heart-attack—and cannot afford a physician…

To detail what went wrong from then till now would require far deeper studies, but much of it can simply be grouped under the heading “unsound politics”, largely of an extreme Leftist character. Partially overlapping, partially not, we have problems like corruption, crime, and violence. A cardinal error is the over-reliance on oil, making the country vulnerable to economic crisis when the oil price falls—and to over-spending when it rises. A strong, functioning economy would benefit considerably from oil, but oil would not be its only leg: Other industries and areas of business, be it cars, electronics, software, various services, …, would be additional sources of wealth and dampen the fluctuations caused by oil.

To look at some more specific issues from the Wikipedia articles*:

*With the obvious reservation that I do not personally vouch for their correctness—and that I do not bring a great prior expertise on Venezuela. The contents do match my previous, more shallow, impressions both during the Chávez era and the last few years very well, however. Further, with the reservation that this is a very incomplete listing with few details; those interested really should read the original articles.

  1. Social programs* like the Bolivarian Missions have reduced incentives for the people to work and caused a massive cost burden, the harder to carry when oil prices were unfavorable.** At least one included land expropriations, disrupting existing production and giving land-owners great incentives to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Others have aimed at e.g. creating more cooperatives in lieu of regular businesses—despite the disputable or outright poor results such have had when attempted elsewhere (largely, in my opinion, due to poor incentives).

    *Apparently instituted more to gain political support among the poor than to actually improve their lives. Their effectiveness at the ostensible goals appears to have been limited. My take would have been far more positive, had the success rate been greater.

    **I stress that I do not rule out that there have been positive effects to counter-balance the negative; especially since Venezuela, even then, had people who actually were poor—not the “poor” people of today’s Germany or Sweden. However, this post is specifically about the development of the economy. Apart from those programs focusing on teaching, there is mostly negative or neutral effects to be found or expected.

  2. Property expropriations of various kinds (cf. also above) that give owners, including foreign companies and investors, incentives to leave.
  3. Price controls that reduce the incentives to produce and import (or increase the incentives to export) contributing to shortages and creating black markets. In the case of gas, effectively sold by the government, this also implied a missed income opportunity compared to selling the gas far more profitably abroad and finding other arrangements for the domestic situation. (This especially since the low gas price almost certainly led to wasteful use.)

    Of course, the help for the population is dubious: What good are lower prices when there is nothing to buy? What about the opportunity cost of standing in line, Soviet style, wasting time that could have gone towards earning money (usable to pay for more expensive goods)?

  4. Trying to keep the exchange rate to the U.S. dollar at an unrealistic level, reducing the country’s competitiveness, incurring additional costs, (again) creating black markets, … I also strongly suspect that this, contrary to intentions, has strongly contributed to the degree of inflation: Firstly, this type of dual rates could make the people lose faith in the currency and consider it worthless, rather than worth less. Secondly, it becomes a second choice for currency, seeing how much easier everything goes if one has a few dollars. That a price spiral (in the native Bolivares) then occurs is not the least surprising—and an actually usable currency with a single exchange rate would be preferable, even if this one exchange rate is far less favorable than the government prefers.
  5. Allowing* oil output to fall: This reduced the oil income even at times of high prices and made the fall in prices the more hurtful.

    *The word should be seen with some caution. This was likely a hard-to-prevent side-effect of other policies, and it might not have been in the power of e.g. Chávez to prevent. However, a government take-over certainly did not help…

Of course, these and other factors often interact negatively in vicious circles, e.g. in that poor living conditions and prospects make the best and the brightest leave the country, thereby reducing productivity and the attractiveness of Venezuela as a place of business, thereby worsening living conditions and prospects further. Or consider how poverty leads to more crime, which leads to less incentives to work and to run businesses, which leads to more poverty. There are also very often direct and indirect negative side-effects (in addition to the above), especially through the immense inflation of recent years—as well as, if to a lesser degree, the “merely” very high inflation of the decades preceding them.

What can be done to save the country? Barring a miraculous rise of oil prices followed by a complete turn-around in economic and other policy, I see little hope. The least bad resolution that is realistic might be a complete collapse and a fresh start—to build something new from the ashes, even if it means that the road is that much longer. Superficially reasonable analogies might be found in the German Weimar Republic or possibly the German or Japanese post-WWII economies—all instances of rapid recuperation from a disastrous situation. However, these situations differed in many regards, including that there was a strong tradition of successful industry and a great number of bright and educated people in the country, that the problems were largely caused by external events (own culpability notwithstanding), and that the state of the rest of the world made it far easier to become internationally competitive again. In the latter two cases, considerable external support have to be added.

Excursion on GINI and similar:
I deliberately do not include issues like “income inequality” or a high GINI* value, even though these can be common Leftist complaints. These are not normally problems per se; and might even, within limits, be positive. The real issue is something very different: Lack of social mobility, where our parents’ fortune or lack of fortune do more to determine our fortunes than do our own efforts. When the poor-but-bright-or-industrious can end up being wealthy, they are far more likely to have hope and to realize those hopes; and larger parts of society will strive to build something. On the other hand, when they have little chance of making themselves a good life, why should they bother?** (Be it because there is too little social mobility or because even a middle-class life is not very good, as has usually been the case in e.g. most Leftist dictatorships.) Similarly, I do not put that much stock in complaints about imperialism, foreign ownership, and other ever-recurring examples of Leftist scape-goats: Even if the actual profits were to leave the country, there are still positive effects in terms of local employees earning money, infrastructure improvements, foreigners spending money locally, … All other factors equal, local ownership is better for the locals; however, the factors seldom are equal—and experiences point to it being better to have foreign owners running a well-managed and profitable operation than, like in Venezuela, having locals running a disastrously mismanaged one.

*Another reason to consider GINI complete bullshit is that it is too simplistic a measure, not taking absolute wealth levels into account, potentially giving the same value for very different income distributions, and, above all, not considering why a certain situation has arisen (e.g. politics, demographics, high or low social mobility).

**In a twist, countries like Sweden and Germany can suffer from the reverse problem with the same effect—if someone can have a materially great life without putting in an effort, then why bother with the effort?

Excursion on approaches to raising living standards:
Venezuela well exemplifies an ever-recurring difference between the approaches of the Left and and large parts of the non-Left—the former focuses on changing the division of the pie, even at the risk of making the pie smaller; the latter at making the pie larger, even at the risk of increasing the difference in pie slices. In most cases, even the poor seem to fair better with the second approach…

Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2018 at 12:35 am

Fire and Fury

with one comment

I am currently almost half-way through the controversial book Fire and Fury, discussing the early phases of Trumps presidency. After some internal back-and-forth, I have decided not to bother with the second half:

On the one hand, getting some insight into the Trump administration from someone who has seen it from the inside seems like a good idea, in light of both the extremes of Trump himself and the possible turning point in U.S. politics his presidency could (but need not) be.

On the other:

  1. The book is abysmally poorly written, be it with regard to grammar, style, structure, … My impression is that the author was told to have a certain word count ready by a certain date—and kept far more attention to that word count than anything else. If this is the work of an award-winning journalist, then I see my low opinion of journalists and journalism confirmed.
  2. The information density is quite low, and many of the claims are obvious speculation (including regarding the intents of others) or subjective opinions—often by someone else than the author.

    Much of the rest is off-topic. Indeed, to this point, a disturbingly large portion of the book has simply been very amateurish mini-biographies of various individuals related to Trump’s campaign or presidency. Now, these can have some justification, e.g. in order to understand who is who and what their places in the bigger scheme is, or what might motivate them—but is not justified to fill out most of the book in that manner and with this type of writing. Most of these biographies could be reduced to a single page.

    In the last chapter that I read, “CPAC”, pages are spent retelling events happening on stage…

  3. Much of the relevant information has long been common knowledge or easily predictable based on Trump’s history, making parts of the book less revelation and more reiteration.
  4. Books that fail to be informative can often compensate through being entertaining (and vice versa). This one does not…

The likely most worth-while point, in the parts read by me, is the take that Trump might not actually have wanted to be president, having instead seen the campaign as a publicity opportunity—and that this was something shared by some key figures in his campaign, who thought that they would lose but make themselves a name and improve their future opportunities. While I have heard somewhat similar speculation on a few occasions, it has never been on this scale. In a twist, this puts an earlier post of mine in a new light: What if a poor candidate, deliberately looking lose, is faced with so poor an opponent that he wins anyway?

A lot of the controversy around the book has arisen due to the reactions by Trump (and some other persons concerned) to it. Lacking own insider knowledge, I cannot judge to what degree the book’s portrayals of persons and events are accurate; however, even if we assume that the factual contents, per se, are correct, this book is bound to be seen as an insult: The way the book is written, the way virtually everyone is painted as stupid, naive, amoral, out of his depth, and/or otherwise unsuited for this-and-that, goes well beyond what is warranted in even a highly critical treatment.* Moreover, this must have been obvious to any even semi-qualified author, editor, and publisher. This leaves us with the question why this approach was chosen. In my current estimate, it is likely a deliberate attempt to provoke reactions and debate in order to drive up sales—which has, obviously, been quite successful. Other potential explanations include using existing** anti-Trump sentiments to … drive up sales; and an attempt to increase such sentiments for political purposes.

*A serious book would discuss the actual facts at hand and let them point the way for conclusions—and if the facts are bad this will be enough to achieve the right effect. Here we have a tendentious mixture of slights, speculation, negative angling, …, that falls only an inch short of literally calling people idiots. (In all fairness, my own writings have occasionally included even the remaining inch; however, this is a blog and not a best-selling book on politics—and I would rate the average level of diplomacy in my writings higher.)

**People tend to prefer to read things that confirm what they already believe—and there are millions of disappointed Hillary supporters (and other Democrats, and quite a few Republicans) who have extremely negative opinions of Trump.

Actually, there is one other very important question: Given how the author has proceeded, what degree of credibility can we give his book? It could be truth from cover to cover; it could be a pack of lies; it could be somewhere in between. (If the latter, what parts are true and what false?) Having no way of knowing which, my reasons for reading the book are largely voided: I wanted to gain some insights from within—and I am left with Trump might or might not be (or believe/have said/done/…) X, Bannon might or might not be Y, Kushner might or might not be Z, …

As an aside, Trump and I might share opinions about e.g. privacy and how house-keeping should behave (I have a few posts in the pipe-line that touch related topics), with the book saying things like:

In the first days he ordered […] a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.”

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm

That noble cause

with 3 comments

One of the greatest problems with today’s democracies, possibly societies, is the over-focus on “noble causes” and populist single issues*, while firstly failing to provide a program that is suitable for society as a whole, secondly ignoring the negative effects of the solutions to these causes, thirdly often providing unrealistically easy solutions and measures, fourthly not bothering to truly find out whether these causes are just or at all relevant. To boot, the causes are often misrepresented or presented so simplistically that uninformed voters draw incorrect conclusions.** And, no, I am not talking about populist or one-item upstarts—I am talking about established main-stream parties and politicians.

*I will use “cause” to denote both below, for the sake of simplicity, but without an intended limitation in meaning. This especially since the border between the two can be hard to detect or depend strongly on perspective.

**Be it deliberately or because the politicians’/propagandists’ own understanding is too shallow. Both can apply, but I suspect that in the more strongly ideological movements the latter is the greater problem.

The reason is easy to understand: Such causes are easier to sell to the broad masses, and promise greater gains in votes than a more responsible and nuanced approach. This especially since there is often a cost–benefit distribution that leaves a smaller group considerably better off and/or seeing its demands met, while the rest of the population takes a small hit and/or is unaware of the larger hit it does take: The smaller group sees enough benefit to influence its decision making; the larger group does not see enough detriment to be moved to opposition. Of course, while the cost of one cause might be small, the accumulated cost of a few dozen can be quite large…

In most cases, however, such approaches are at best irresponsible, at worst highly detrimental. A good example is the common “Green” drive to abolish nuclear power at all costs, especially exploiting the fears around nuclear accidents with a mixture of fear-mongering and misrepresentation. Look at what happened in Germany with its “Energiewende”*: At an enormous cost, a government intervention succeeded in considerably increasing the use of renewable energies; but this was all wasted, because the corresponding reductions in use of other sources were mostly limited to nuclear power—with the use of the far more problematic fossil fuels actually increasing**… Exaggerated fear of nuclear power left the environment worse off than before the Energiewende!

*Roughly, “energy turn-around” or “energy revolution” (“revolution” having unnecessarily strong connotations).

**At the time I last looked into numbers, possibly two years ago: In the long term, this will obviously be better. An improvement might or might not already have taken place, but I am not optimistic—and even if it has, it does not change my point: The brunt of the reduction should have been put on fossil fuels to begin with, with reduction of nuclear power being a mere nice-to-have.

Schooling* is another good example, even source of examples: Every now and then some nit-wit politicians insists that more schooling is needed to solve this-or-that societal problem, without considering consequences (cf. e.g. [1]). Every now and then some change is implemented to solve a problem with the current schooling that ends up making things worse (notably in math education). Every now and then disproportionate extra regulations are added (e.g. in that small children are suspended for a triviality, like using a hand as a pretend-gun or kissing someone on the cheek, because there is a fear of real gun use or sexual harassment among high schoolers). Etc.

*The recurring reader is aware that I am highly critical of schooling, as opposed to education, in general. Here, however, I do not deal with this overall problem, just with the additional problems caused by unwise new measures pushed through to solve some (perceived or real) problem in the guise of a “cause”.

Of course, sometimes the cause can be something more trivial, yet still have a downside not appropriately considered. For instance, recent regulations in NRW (my state/Bundesland of residence in Germany) require all apartments to have a smoke alarm; this smoke alarm has to be serviced by a professional once a year. Now, I could easily imagine that the installation of a smoke alarm has a net benefit: The one-time cost is not overly large and it can help with saving lives. However, an annual servicing? This is a recurring cost and forces tenants to take a significant chunk out of their workday*. And: It brings very little benefit… I note that the voluntary smoke alarms of old usually went entirely without service, barring a battery change every few years; that the likelihood of malfunction within a year is so small that the value added through the service is negligible; that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm is not universal, making the service requirement disproportional; that e.g. the chimney inspection for my gas heating (which can actually cause or contribute to a fire) is once every three years; and that the number of apartment fires in Germany has dropped very considerably over time anyway. (I also note that there are many who suspect that even the requirement to have a smoke alarm in the first place is driven mostly by manufacturer lobbyism… Cf. e.g. a German article.) Five years, for instance, might be an appropriate service interval with regard to costs and benefits—one year is not even remotely close.

*Based on my limited experience so far, the service company one-sidedly dictates the time and date, which then naturally tends to fall in the middle of the ordinary work-day. Combine this with a commute…

The problems do not end with the negative side-effects or the lack of benefit, however. Consider the relevance of a cause: For instance, many political causes of today are strongly rooted in the non-negotiable premise that any difference in outcome goes back to a difference in opportunity. With such a world-view, many problems are severely exaggerated or even created out of the blue. Is is a cause for government intervention (e.g. through affirmative action) if the proportion of women on a certain corporate or governmental level, or even within a certain field, is lower than roughly 50 %? No! We have to consider aspects like voluntary choices and life priorities, potentially differing skill sets and levels, differing interests, … Now, if we can determine that the same proportion of men and women want to do or be X, that they have the same skills, that they are willing to sacrifice as much to get there, …, then we might have a cause for government intervention. There is, however, no proof that this is the case—on the contrary, even the attempt to prove it is usually left out: We see a difference in outcome; ergo, it must be discrimination, indoctrination, Patriarchy, structures, …

A particularly insidious problem is that such causes are often insatiable: Once the original goal has been reached, the goal posts are moved further away; with the same thing happening again and again, every time the next goal is accomplished. In many cases, the point is exceeded where a fight for justice/equality/liberty/… is turned into its opposite, because the push has gone too far. Very often, the continual pushing of the goal posts is only possible through (typically intellectually dishonest) re-definitions, deliberate misinterpretation of statistic, “willful ignorance”, or similar means. A good example is poverty, which in modern Leftist rhetoric is usually taken to mean e.g. someone earning less than a percentage of the average—making people “poor”, who have in their lives never gone hungry or lacked a roof over their heads, and opening the doors for vote fishing with “childhood poverty” even in countries like Sweden and Germany.* How absurd such a measure is, is proved by the fact that it is possible for someone to grow “poor” when, all other factors equal, someone else becomes wealthier…

*In these countries, childhood poverty, in any real sense, is almost non-existent. Poverty, in general, does exist, but is rare and is mostly either limited to short times or caused by own negligence or laziness. Even the single mother working a minimum wage job, which is one the worst long-term and non-negligent situations that do occur, would be the envy of many of her ancestors—no matter how unfortunate her situation is compared to the current average. As for her children: I had a similar situation for several years of my own childhood—and grew fat and spoiled. In the roughly 35 years since, things have not changed for the worse.

This cause obsession leads to poor decisions and poor policy, it raises taxes, introduces inefficiencies, limits personal freedom, worsens bureaucracy, … The positive effects are usually considerably smaller. I urge the politicians to be more responsible in their actions; the voters to never support a cause they have not understood.

(Many other examples than the discussed can be found, especially within the Left and the PC crowd, or looking at some charities, that reward the giver with a warm feeling, keep their employees paid, make the chairman and the odd middle-man wealthy, and achieve very little for the needy.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 10, 2017 at 2:01 am