Bob the Builder, and the Neo-Puritan Deal

It’s story time, and our protagonist’s name is Robert Moses. He’s responsible for building most of the highways and bridges around NYC, as well as much of the parkway infrastructure in New York State.

Let’s say a new highway was getting built. What would Moses’s job be?

Moses was the guy who oversaw the design work to propose the highway, lobbied the legislature and governor for funds, got the budget passed, oversaw the construction work, and collected any revenues afterwards if there were tolls. He was very clearly the but-for guy.

He personally accumulated massive amounts of political power and funding and responsibility, and used it to force aside political opposition to get things built when no on else could. He built his own fiefdom within the New York State government, that was in practice unassailable by mayors and governors, made himself the natural coordination point for getting funding for things, and leveraged his power to get more power etc, which he used to build more things, setting off several related positive feedback loops:

Robert Moses had credibility because he got credit for everything that got built. Therefore, he could shape the narrative to assign him the lion’s share of the credit for future projects, less he use his moral authority to discredit naysayers.

Robert Moses had power because he controlled ongoing funding sources and political offices overseeing most government construction. Therefore, he could use this as leverage to acquire control over new offices and projects, lest he freeze decisionmakers out of existing construction.

The man was a power-mad maniac. But the interesting thing is how his public persona - and a lot of how he got his initial endowment of power, credibility, and consistent media support - was entirely built around a personal brand of meritocracy, the impression that he was a disinterested, technocratic public servant, above the politics of pull.

Robert Caro found this interesting enough to biograph, and I think he's a good case-study of how narratives of public service, meritocracy, and objectivity can be a sort of elitist self-dealing.

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Estimating COVID-19 Mortality Rates

In the early days of the pandemic, there wasn't great data available, and it wasn't easy to do better than trusting the standard epidemiological estimate that around 2% of people who got COVID-19 would die. My back of the envelope estimate at the time was way higher, but no one else I knew seemed to think that number made sense, so I let the matter drop. But now we have enough data to check.

Recently, my sister reached out to me to check her own thinking on the matter. She used the same method I initially did - simply dividing the number of deaths by the number of resolved cases (deaths + recoveries) - to estimate that in the US, COVID-19 kills around 1 in 6 people who get it.

The problem with using only resolved cases, in a country with an ongoing pandemic, is that if people die faster than they're marked recovered, death rates can be inflated - and if they recover faster, deflated. Ideally, you'd want to wait until all cases have been resolved one way or the other. Fortunately, there are now countries where that situation nearly holds.

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Can crimes be discussed literally?

Suppose I were to say that the American legal system is a criminal organization. The usual response would be that this is a crazy accusation.

Now, suppose I were to point out that it is standard practice for American lawyers to advise their clients to lie under oath in certain circumstances. I expect that this would still generally be perceived as a heterodox, emotionally overwrought, and perhaps hysterical conspiracy theory.

Then, suppose I were to further clarify that people accepting a plea bargain are expected to affirm under oath that no one made threats or promises to induce them to plead guilty, and that the American criminal justice system is heavily reliant on plea bargains. This might be conceded as literally true, but with the proviso that since everyone does it, I shouldn't use extreme language like "lie" and "fraud."

This isn't about lawyers - some cases in other fields:  Continue reading

When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations

A lot of people in my social network have been trying to track news about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, which seems like a global pandemic that's going to kill a lot of people. I've found some of this overwhelming and difficult to figure out how to use, until I sat down with a few friends, over the phone, and worked out a simple analytic framework for thinking about some basic decisions.  Continue reading

Simulacra and Subjectivity

In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, following Baudrillard, Jessica Taylor and I laid out a model of simulacrum levels with something of a fall-from grace feel to the story:

  1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.
  2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity - people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there's a lion over somewhere where I know there's food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.
  3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren't even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. "There's food over there" is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
    But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or "aboutness." For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.
  4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you're trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

There is some merit to this linear treatment, but it obscures an important structural feature: the resemblance of levels 1 and 3, and 2 and 4.  Continue reading

Approval Extraction Advertised as Production

Paul Graham has a new essay out, The Lesson to Unlearn, on the desire to pass tests. It covers the basic points made in Hotel Concierge's The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. But something must be missing from the theory, because what Paul Graham did with his life was start Y Combinator, the apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment. Or it's just false advertising.  Continue reading

Judgment, Punishment, and the Information-Suppression Field

There are a lot of senses in which I or the people around me can be considered unsafe. Many-tonned hunks of metal whiz by us on the same streets we have to navigate on foot to buy our groceries. The social infrastructure by which we have access to clean drinking water is gradually being adulterated. Our country is run by increasingly nasty white nationalists. And, of course, The Bomb. But when I hear people talk about feeling unsafe, they are almost never describing a concrete threat to their physical well-being. (As usual, life may be different for the less privileged classes, who have reason to fear the authorities, and behave accordingly.) "Safety" does not come up as a motive for actions taken or avoided in order to mitigate such threats. Instead, it seems that "safety" nearly always means a nonjudgmental context (the exact opposite of what I would naively expect to be able to ensure clean drinking water or keep the cars from colliding with us), and "feeling unsafe" is generally used to explain only why they're trying to withhold information (mainly "vulnerable," i.e. relevant-to-their-interests, information) in a way that seems out of proportion to actually existing risks and opportunities.  Continue reading

Alarm fatigue vs systematic critique

We suffer from alarm fatigue. Targeted alarm of the kind, "Hey! This person is blatantly lying!" is for finding the occasional, rare bad actor. The kind of alarm that needs raising for self-propagating patterns of motivated reasoning is procedural or conceptual. People are mistakenly behaving (in some contexts) as though certain information sources were reliable. This is often part of a compartmentalized pattern; in other contexts, the same people act as though, not only do they personally know, but everybody knows, that those sources are not trustworthy.

To take a simple example, I grew up in a household with a television. That means that, at various times in the day, I was exposed to messages from highly paid expert manipulators trying to persuade me to consume expensive, poor-quality, addictive foods that were likely to damage my mind and body by spiking my blood sugar and lowering my discernment. I watched these messages because they were embedded in other messages exposing me to a sort of story superstimulus with elevated levels of violence and excitement, but mostly devoid of messages from my elders about what sorts of time-tested behaviors are adaptive for the community or individual.

If you try to tell people that TV is bad for kids, they'll maybe feel vaguely guilty, but not really process this as news, because "everybody knows," and go on behaving as though this was fine. If you manage to get through to them that TV ads are Out to Get You,  this might get their attention, but only by transmitting an inappropriately concentrated sense of threat - or an unproductive general paranoia. Continue reading