Cancel Culture

First of all, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been finding most recent developments in the world more depressing than thought provoking.

It’s been quite frustrating witnessing all of the divisiveness online regarding Covid-19, masks, lockdowns, etc. Somehow rather than coming together to battle a common enemy we have continued to divide up into tribes and make everything about signaling our membership in the right group.

Another thing that’s been happening has been the protests following the terrible death (murder) of George Floyd. Again, somehow rather than getting together to think about how policing and the laws around it should be reformed, most people have managed to divide up into those who support the police and those who don’t.

But, the topic of this post is Cancel Culture: the phenomenon of responding to speakers of “unacceptable” ideas, not by criticizing those ideas, but by attempting to silence the speakers either by removing them from their platforms or ruining their careers, or shaming people who associate with them, etc.

As should be obvious from my previous posts, I view this as a terrible development. Of course, I agree that this kind of response should be legal. It’s not a first amendment issue if private people are persuading others to shun people, but it’s also very unhealthy for individualism and the growth of knowledge. I would very much prefer a culture of toleration and criticism.

But, rather than me opining about this, I think we’d all be better off listening to Jonathan Rauch (author of the excellent Kindly Inquisitors and signatory to the Harper’s Open Letter), who is one of the clearest thinkers around on this topic, and he spoke elequently about all of this recently on a reason podcast with Nick Gillespie.

I’ll try to embed the audio here as well:

Coronavirus Overraction?

Most of the people whom I read, and respect, seem convinced that COVID-19 will almost certainly be a national and global healthcare disaster that justifies just about anything that governments are willing to do to control it and mitigate its effects.

Richard Epstein, who I also read and respect, thinks they’re wrong.

He thinks that these doomsday predictions are based on worst-case estimates that have lots of problems, and they do not take into account the evidence we have from this and earlier novel viruses, or the mitigation that will come from the human action that will reduce the speed and extent of the harm.  He thinks the economic harm caused by overreacting to the threat will cause more harm.

I’m not sure who is right. 

I do know that my natural bias is to believe the Epstein story, because it takes into account the power of widespread, local, solutions and the limitations of top-down draconian measures.  It argues against huge government power growth, which is likely to have many bad effects that will persist long after this incident is over.  It’s the story that I really prefer to believe.

Because of this bias, I’m trying to discount the Epstein analysis and assume the real threat is probably worse than he thinks, but possibly not as bad as the most extreme alarmists claim.

I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that whatever I think the truth of the matter probably is will have no measurable effect on what ultimately happens.

I guess we’ll see who turns out to be right.  But, it could be the case that Epstein’s estimates turn out to be more accurate, but only because most people believe in the more extreme estimates and alter their behavior enough to slow things to a more manageable pace.

We’re living in interesting times.


Reduction In Force

It looks like I’ll be having more time to blog now, if I can think of anything interesting to say.

Today I learned that I’m part of the one third of the company’s workforce that has been cut for the necessary “Reduction In Force”.

A pandemic wasn’t bad enough, it seems.

I’m still trying to be optimistic, but the world is making it harder and harder to do.


I just listened to an Econtalk podcast between Russ Roberts and Joe Posnanski about Posnanski’s recent book about Harry Houdini.  It was very enjoyable.  They discussed fame and self-promotion and other interesting things about art and artists.  You should give it a listen.

The thing that most interested me was the idea of “wonder”; something Posnanski realized had been a theme through all of his books (the others have been about sports).

There’s a great anecdote about the meeting between Houdini and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.  Bernhardt asked Houdini to use his magical powers to restore her amputated leg.  Houdini explained that he didn’t really have magical powers and what she was asking was impossible.  She said that he did the impossible all the time.

Posnanski wrote:  There is the amazing. And, there is the impossible.

In the interview, Posnanski says:

Yeah. The original title of this book was “The Amazing and the Impossible.” That was the original title. And then, as you well know with publishing houses, they were like, ‘You’re really going to write a book about Houdini and not have his name in the title? You’re not going to do that.’ So that goes.

But yeah; there is a very small but incredibly important line between what is amazing and what is impossible, and the greatest magicians–but I think also the greatest athletes and the greatest performers, the greatest musicians, the greatest singers and actors and–they walked that line. So that you see what Mike Trout does and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s impossible. It’s impossible for somebody to be this good at this game, with that ball coming at him 100 miles an hour and this and that the other.’ And it’s not. It’s amazing, and it’s just right at that line between amazing and impossible.

That line (between the amazing and the impossible) is something that I love.

I really enjoy watching incredibly skilled athletes do things that are amazing.  I also like to see magic tricks that I can’t figure out.  I suppose that there might be an instant of “wonder” at how this could be possible, but that’s immediately followed by appreciation of how much talent and work and ingenuity went into preparing for the moment of being able to perform such amazing feats.  I want to be enthralled by human excellence, not fooled into a bad model of the universe where the supernatural is possible.

Again, I admit, that a small aspect of the charm might be in spending a short while thinking about what the world would be like if it didn’t obey the laws of physics as we understand them, and there were other ways to cause things to happen.  This is probably part of the charm of fantasy books (which aren’t my favorites).  I like an instant of this kind of wonder, but I don’t want to live there.  I want to live learning about the best theories available (at the level of interest to me) about how things really work.

I was reminded of the Penn & Teller “Honor System” trick, which involves Teller doing an escape and getting to another part of the stage.  The audience is invited to keep their eyes open and see exactly how it’s done, or to close their eyes and then only open them when told to, and leave the mystery intact.  I always wanted to look (and I did).  I can understand and respect people who preferred to close their eyes, if they believed that keeping the mystery was their preferred way of appreciating the trick.  To each his own.

But, I don’t respect using the mystery in order to make it easier to maintain a false belief about how the world works. Some people prefer to do that, or to exploit others by causing them to do that.  To me, that’s a sub-human way to want to live.

I don’t think we have to (or should) sabotage our models of reality in order to enjoy life.

We can love the amazing without confusing ourselves about what is possible.





Tribal Tweeting

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted this yesterday:

I agree with her that nativists mischaracterize the drain that undocumented immigrants put on government resources.  They actually contribute quite a bit, and it’s unclear to me what the net fiscal impact is, but it could very well be positive. But, the most important reason that I support a much more open immigration policy is not the fiscal impact on the government, but the social impact on the people involved.  That’s a huge net benefit.  It greatly promotes human flourishing.

It’s also not true that “Amazon” and “Facebook” do not contribute much to the treasury, or society.  These corporations are collections of thousands of individuals who pay a tremendous amount of taxes.  The corporate entities themselves also try to minimize the additional corporate income taxes they face by complying with laws designed to incentivize them to invest their profits in socially useful ways.  And, they do that very well.  But, not to the extent of the “no taxes” claim that many people have been making.  See this recent blog post from Amazon.

What struck me about this tweet was that she didn’t just make a point to correct those who think that these immigrants pay no taxes.  She felt obliged to add on an attack on some big corporations, making similarly misleading allegations.

I’m impressed by how economically she demonstrated that she’s just as much of a tribal bad actor as those she opposes.

It looks to me like she’s saying:

I’ll see your ignorant, misleading, vilification of a group of people that your tribe hates and mine likes, and raise you more ignorant, misleading, vilification of a group of people that my tribe hates and yours likes.