Elite Certification: A Good Thing?

Pondering our certification culture. We certify everything from doctors and lawyers on one end to cosmeticians and astrologers on the other. All of this certification is putatively to protect us from ourselves, which, in itself, cannot but infantilize us. Certification also is supposed to enforce standards, such that, if I go to a certified accountant or licensed surgeon, I expect some basic standards to be met.

It should be clear that certification in itself tells us nothing about the desirability or wisdom of those standards. Both chiropractors and medical doctors are certified and licensed, yet they hold to often contradictory and antagonistic principles and practices – they can’t both be right, although they can certainly both be wrong. Certified astrologers are held to standards as well, one supposes, although one also supposes those standards have nothing to do with anything happening in the real world. But then, we Pisces tend to be skeptical…

Let us leave the fringe cases and turn to the strongest. One things doctors and lawyers share historically is low public esteem.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 

Luke 8:43-48

The unfortunate woman in Luke is not an exception. The poor could not afford doctors; the desperate rich were reliably cured of some or all of their wealth, if not their physical disorders. Where I live, there’s a park preserving the large house of one of the earliest settlers to the area. He had allegedly received some 19th century medical training back East, making him the closest thing to a doctor for many miles around, and so he became the go-to guy for health issues in that rough and tumble period. He charged 1 cowhide, upfront, before he’d look at a patient, and was not apparently very much inclined to pro-bono work. He ended up with a nice big house on a nice big ranch. I doubt he had a sterling reputation among the many.

Keep in mind that these were not modern people, who seem to believe the medical profession can and should save them from every sickness and danger. No, before the last 50 years or so, people seemed to understand that bad things happen, everyone dies, and doctors can be hoped to help, but there are no guarantees. It is only since the 1950s, for example, that going to a hospital when seriously ill would generally improve your chances of survival. Before that? Pretty much hit or miss. Before 1900, pretty much miss. When our not too distant ancestors heard of somebody undergoing treatment at a hospital and coming out alive, let alone cured, that was a sensation. When somebody went to a hospital and died, that was just life – especially since all but the rich wouldn’t even think of going until they were on the verge of death anyway.

Then, confirmation bias kicks in: the stories of cures at the hands of doctors are given great weight; the inevitable deaths are dismissed as just the way things go. The point here: it is only in modern times that being a doctor became a generally respected occupation. In the middle ages, surgery was something the local barber did; the distinction (if any) between medical care and witchcraft is a fairly modern thing, and, sadly, not clear to much of the population even now. Through most of history, an experienced doctor was a big help in setting bones and treating wounds. Check this out, for example. Otherwise? Big maybe. The general impression one gets when reading literature or history from anywhere: doctors are most often portrayed as money grubbing shysters.

The low esteem in which lawyers are even now held by the public needs hardly be mentioned. It has always been thus. The sophists of the golden age of Greece were training up what we might call lawyers – masters of rhetoric and public speaking, who used their skills to gain power and manipulate people and institutions. Socrates and Plato loathed such men; I would imagine common citizens could be counted on to loath them as well. (1)

Obviously, individual doctors and lawyers can be good people. I’m here describing what might be called a marketing problem: enough people have bad enough experiences with doctors and lawyers, historically, at least, that doctors and lawyers are held at least in suspicion, if not out and out distrust.

Enter certification and licensing. From a strictly business point of view, it is important for doctors and lawyers to calm public fears about their competence and trustworthiness. As late as the 1870s, few US doctors were licensed; as late as the 1930s, medical ‘diploma mills’ were still in operation. Gradually, doctors became one of, if not the, most highly regulated profession. Today, a doctor must get a degree from a highly regulated med school, pass a state licensing requirement, and then pass boards in any specialties he’d like to practice.

It is amusing – to me, at least – to note that all this regulation and training requirements trails overall improvements in public health. In 1900, a man could expect to live about 49 years, on average, up about 10 years from 1860. While medical care may have improved over those 40 years, that period also corresponds to a massive move from the country to towns and cities. By 1900, about 50% of everybody no longer lived on farms. Farm work, especially when using animals as muscle, is very arduous and dangerous. Horses, cows, pigs can kill you. Having to perform the brutal physical labor to plant, plow, and harvest regardless of health takes a toll, a toll expressed in a much lower life expectancy. Life expectancy has increased in America as safer, less physically demanding work has replaced farming, and machines have replaced animals for farm work.

Medicine has been bringing up the rear on these trends, for the most part, for the last 150-200 years. Vaccines and antibiotics extended the lives of many millions, but would hardly make a difference if sufficient food, water, and sanitation were not also available. Heart and cancer treatment advances largely apply to the elderly, who are the majority of the sufferers and who simply weren’t there in comparable numbers 100 years ago. Medicine, like formal education, seems to be a result rather than a cause of increasing wealth.

Many people profoundly mistrust conventional medicine. (Note: I personally don’t so much mistrust modern medicine as I like to take a look at the evidence for myself. In general, I’m willing to go with what my doctors say I ought to do almost all the time. It’s not automatic, though.) That’s why homeopathy, chiropractic, and other practices have their millions of devoted followers. These are not stupid or unusually gullible people – the medical profession has earned their mistrust, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these practices. (2) No science, as far as I can tell, but that matters little to people when somebody they know personally tells them of their wonderful experiences.

From a purely business point of view, the willingness of people to try all sorts of cures and to distrust doctors is a major problem to be solved – for the highly-trained doctors. If I’m going to spend years and a fortune getting through medical school, I’m going to need to convince people to pay me, and not that snake oil salesman! I must assume and defend my professional dignity, and find a way to denigrate the competition. Licensing creates the desired division: respectable, trained, competent doctors are *certified*; all others are frauds. That’s the marketing message, at least.

In a similar way, a lawyer wants to claim the aura of respect surrounding the never-went-to-law-school lawyer Abraham Lincoln, while at the same time embracing a licensing scheme designed to keep the likes of Honest Abe out of the profession. Both lawyers and doctors tend to be rather fiercely protective of their professional designation – doctors want to be called *Doctor*; lawyers insist on being treated with the respect presumed to be due to an *esquire*.

Of course, licensing is inevitably presented as something done, not to suppress competition and aid the professions in their quest for prestige and money, but to help and protect ‘the public’. The public is treated as a bunch of children, unable to look after themselves. While this may be true – that many people are gullible rubes – it’s not clear that a) lawyers and doctors are not equally likely to be gullible rubes themselves, and b) that the practice of licensing, especially when the state gets involved and is used to suppress competition, isn’t an ultimately irresistible temptation to abuse. In other words, I’m assuming doctors, lawyers, and other high-end professionals remain of the same species as the rest of us, subject to the same temptations and failings.

I expect that many, if not most, people would by now be horrified: I’m suggesting we might be better off without licensing requirements for doctors and lawyers? Am I a madman? First off, what I would suggest is separation of professions and state: the guilds can do what they want, as far as creating all sorts of merit badges and participation trophies – and the public get to decide how much weight to give them. If an individual want to only hire doctors who have all the approvals of the guild or not, or hire a certified lawyer or rather base his decision on whether or not that lawyer has a track record with the issues that made him want to hire a lawyer in the first place – OK. Newsflash: this is what people are doing anyway. On the doctor side, there are many homeopaths and chiropractors doing solid business; Whole Earth panders to those who think probiotics and organic food is going to heal them. Lawyers get hired by reputation or recommendation.

I repeat that I’m using lawyers and doctors as examples here, because they represent the most elite certified professions. This argument applies even more so to the more pointlessly certified. If you got the state out of the certification business, and instead let the guilds develop their own practices however they like but unenforced by the state, then people would be treated like grown-ups who can make up their own minds, rather than children who need to be protected from themselves.

The underlying problem here is the inversion of cause and effect: a world increasingly set up on the assumption that we need to be protected from ourselves creates children who never grow up. Before this eternal infantilization can be changed, we must stop reinforcing it. It is good to remember that people remain people – a situation no amount of certification can change. If we need protection from ourselves, so would doctors and lawyers. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Appendix (ha!) – While searching around for some materials on this topic, came across this article from Stanford:

Licensing boom: In 1950, 73 occupations required licenses in one or more states. By 1970 that number had grown to more than 500. | Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

from the cation to a picture accompanying the article

It’s illegal to practice medicine without a license, and that piece of paper is exceedingly hard to come by. Would-be doctors face more than a decade of training and must pass rigorous board exams. Thanks to that high bar and the steep up-front ante, there are almost no quacks in American medicine today. That’s a comforting thought when you’re sick and need to see an unfamiliar physician.

So, naturally, we take it for granted that licensing requirements — now common in skilled professions, including law, architecture, and accounting — exist to protect consumers. Indeed, that’s more or less what Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jonathan Berk assumed when he began a theoretical study of licensing and certification in the labor market.

Instead, he and coauthor Jules van Binsbergenopen in new window of the University of Pennsylvania found exactly the opposite. As they report in a new working paper, “Regulation of Charlatans in High-Skill Professions,” their model concludes that licenses enrich the incumbent providers of a service and hurt consumers — not sometimes or in certain scenarios, but every time.

Now, to be sure, if any barber could hang up a shingle and call themself a doctor, and you unwisely decided that would be a good option for hernia surgery, you might wish there’d been more stringent regulations in place. What the analysis says is that consumers as a whole are worse off under licensing — the gains to those who benefit are far outweighed by the burden on the vast majority, who don’t.

“This result was as much a surprise to me as it is to anybody,” says Berk, the A.P. Giannini Professor of Finance. “To be honest, this is not the paper we set out to write.”

  1. It’s telling that Plato, in his Academy, would filter out candidates for his highest training – training for the gold-souled, the would-be philosopher-kings – by math skills: he believed mastery of math was solid evidence of real intellect. He attempted to filter out the glib posers, in other words – who would be perfect pupils for the sophists. I’ve gotten to know a bunch of lawyers over the years; exactly 2 were good at math. Both came to law later in life – one was in fact an elite mathematician, the other an engineer who got into patent law. Others ranged from ‘not exactly terrified of math’ to ‘cringy math-phobes’. Plato might be amused. (aside: how would I come to know their level of comfort with math? See: my career.)
  2. My oldest sister, with a master’s in chemistry and a JD, and a career chasing patents for a Big Pharma company, saw her chiropractor regularly. Whether there’s anything to the theory, there’s a lot to be said for the power of human concern and human touch. Her visits with her chiropractor were one of the few regular, positive interpersonal experiences she, house-ridden with health problems, had. Unfortunately, as she was dying and we were settling the estate, we discovered he was a major shyster. But that’s another story.

Fun (by which we mean ‘terror’) With History

People who don’t read Scripture are missing out on a lot of good stuff, from a merely historical/political perspective. Want to know just how vile and violent people can be? It’s all there in 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles. Consider this little bit from 2 Kings 10. Jehu was a military commander in Israel who managed to kill both Jehoram, the king of Israel and the son of Ahab and Jezebel, and Ahaziah, the king of Judah, whose mother was Jehoram’s sister Athaliah. Both of the slain kings were of the house of Ahab more or less directly, a son and grandson.

Back in Samaria, where Jehoram had reigned, there were living 70 sons of the house of Ahab. Those sons had legitimate claims on the throne and were therefore a threat to Jehu. Thus:

Now there were in Samaria seventy sons of the house of Ahab. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria: to the officials of Jezreel, to the elders and to the guardians of Ahab’s children. He said, 2 “You have your master’s sons with you and you have chariots and horses, a fortified city and weapons. Now as soon as this letter reaches you, 3 choose the best and most worthy of your master’s sons and set him on his father’s throne. Then fight for your master’s house.”

4 But they were terrified and said, “If two kings could not resist him, how can we?”

5 So the palace administrator, the city governor, the elders and the guardians sent this message to Jehu: “We are your servants and we will do anything you say. We will not appoint anyone as king; you do whatever you think best.”

6 Then Jehu wrote them a second letter, saying, “If you are on my side and will obey me, take the heads of your master’s sons and come to me in Jezreel by this time tomorrow.”

Now the royal princes, seventy of them, were with the leading men of the city, who were rearing them. 7 When the letter arrived, these men took the princes and slaughtered all seventy of them. They put their heads in baskets and sent them to Jehu in Jezreel. 8 When the messenger arrived, he told Jehu, “They have brought the heads of the princes.”

Then Jehu ordered, “Put them in two piles at the entrance of the city gate until morning.”

9 The next morning Jehu went out. He stood before all the people and said, “You are innocent. It was I who conspired against my master and killed him, but who killed all these? 10 Know, then, that not a word the Lord has spoken against the house of Ahab will fail. The Lord has done what he announced through his servant Elijah.” 11 So Jehu killed everyone in Jezreel who remained of the house of Ahab, as well as all his chief men, his close friends and his priests, leaving him no survivor.

2 Kings 10: 1-11

See the little trick there? Scholars say the double meaning in English is also present in Hebrew: the ‘heads’ of the sons could be the men in charge of their upbringing; the leaders who received the letters interpreted Jehu’s demand more literally. The ambiguity allowed him to disavow having ordered the murders of all these sons, many of whom would have to have been children, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ style.

But, of course, that’s what he really meant. He didn’t need a conversation with the men raising those kids – he needed those boys dead. He then follows up by having all those men killed – the sons would have been being raised by ‘all his (Ahab’s) chief men, his close friends and his priests.’ New king with shaky claims to the throne? Everybody associated with the previous regime gets to die.

And it hardly stops there: Athaliah, mother of the late king Ahaziah, Ahab’s daughter and Jehu’s sister, now finds herself in an awkward position in Judah: she’s the Queen Mother of a dead king; everyone of her house in Samaria has been murdered; Jehu would likely want her dead as well. If one of her grandsons – the logical heirs – were to ascend to the throne of Judah, they might kill her off as a gesture of good-will toward Jehu, who has an army. Worse, her own family in Judah has some claim to the throne of Israel, being descendants of the legitimate king Ahab. Jehu might attack Judah and kill them all off just to keep things tidy.

So, you’re the mom or grandmother of a bunch of children, whose very existence puts you in a precarious life or death situation. What do you do?

Kill them all, of course:

11 When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family.

2 Kings 11:1

But she missed some:

But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Jehoram and sister of Ahaziah, took Joash son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the royal princes, who were about to be murdered. She put him and his nurse in a bedroom to hide him from Athaliah; so he was not killed. 3 He remained hidden with his nurse at the temple of the Lord for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.

2 Kings 11:2-3
“Joash is rescued by his aunt Jehosheba”, print by Harmen Jansz Muller, c. 1565–69; the pair are visible at far left – By Rijksmuseum – http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.collect.156988, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84868815

Joash was an infant when his aunt Jehosheba hid him away. Jehosheba happened to be the wife of the priest Jehoiada, which made hiding Joash in the temple more convenient, I suppose.

Of course, after hiding him for six years, the priests along with the temple guard present him as king – and Athaliah gets dragged from the temple and executed. Thus, the Lord’s vengeance (conveniently aligned here with Machiavellian political expediency) is brought to completion: the house of Ahab is destroyed (with the exception, one supposes, of Jehosheba). Also, the line of David, present in Joash through his father, survives.

There’s a lot more political murder and mayhem in Israel and Judah during the time of the two kingdoms – 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles are full of intrigue and assassinations. When history is conceived of as the deeds of great men, it is mostly a lot of political murder and mayhem, everywhere from China to Aztec Mexico, and everywhen from as long as records exist.

We are not like this, no sir! We’re moderns. Ever since the French Revolution, we have improved from murdering all real and potential rivals and putting conquered cities under the ban to rounding up and executing millions of our fellow citizens or starving them to death. Jehu and Athaliah are total pikers, squeamish little girls, compared to Stalin and Mao. Hell, the H-Man himself is not really in the running for G.O.A.T in the ‘murdering you own citizens/subjects’ H.O.F.

The point, if any: don’t ever underestimate the level of violence and horror power-hungry people will be willing to commit, if that’s what it takes to hold onto power. Don’t project your own hesitancy or quaint morality onto the kind of ambitious men who rise to power.

The minor tragedy here: Athaliah is a pretty name! Yet, where outside a Melville novel would anyone dare name somebody that?

An Old Post on Clarissa’s Blog: on Leaving the USSR

Way, way back in 2012, Clarissa, an academic who immigrated from the Ukraine, answered the question: since the USSR was so evil, why didn’t people leave? Seems appropriate, topical, even, somehow. Here is her answer:

The question doesn’t sound in the least stupid to me. The Soviet reality is so different from anything people have experienced or can imagine in other countries that it is, indeed, very difficult to comprehend it.

Leaving the USSR was next to impossible. People who applied for visas (mostly the Jews who had relatives outside of the country) were persecuted, sometimes imprisoned, and sometimes placed in psychiatric wards. The idea behind this was that anybody who wanted to leave the Soviet paradise had to, of necessity, be insane. Such people would be put on massive amounts of powerful psychotropic drugs with the goal of “curing” them of their desire to emigrate.

The only people who could leave the country for a short visit overseas were the ones who were considered “reliable” by the regime. You had to be an artist going on a tour or a very famous scientist traveling to a conference with a group of other Soviet people, many of whom were KGB informants and were following your every move. Of course, if you were a Jew, you wouldn’t be able to travel at all because Jews were considered unreliable by default.

All of this vigilance didn’t always work and some of the artists or scientists did end up asking for refuge in the countries they visited. This meant that they would never see their families again and could not even hope to get in touch with their relatives back in the USSR. People were never allowed to travel with their families, and who could face losing everybody you know and love for good? Single people were not allowed to travel precisely for this reason. If you wanted to work as a diplomat, for example, you had to get married because only then could the government keep your wife and children as hostages whenever it liked to do so.

In Captain Capitalism’s reality, people can just get on a plane and fly to Finland. This is a great, beautiful reality, and I really love it that there are people in the world who think in these terms. A Soviet person, however, could not have imagined such a possibility. Even traveling by train from one city to another in the USSR was very problematic. You needed to be prepared to show paperwork explaining why you needed to travel just to buy a ticket. Getting on a train or a plane to travel within the country was extraordinarily difficult. And when I imagine a poor Soviet citizen approaching the ticket counter at a Soviet airport and asking for a ticket to Finland (Bulgaria, Poland, etc.), I feel bad for that hypothetical Soviet traveler already. This person would have ended up at the police station and then the psychiatric hospital within minutes.

Gosh, folks, you couldn’t even make a phone call to another country. Talking to a foreign tourist in the street would put you in jail. We were completely isolated from the world because the Soviet government knew that the only way to keep people from running away in droves was to lock them down.

It’s true that Siberia is vast and sparsely populated. Obviously, nobody could guard the entire expanse of the border perfectly. However, you have to possess very special training to survive the climatic conditions. Besides, you need to know where exactly to go to have a chance to cross the border. Remember that one thing that you could never ever hope to purchase in the USSR was a map. Of anything. All maps were top secret. Also, a person who tried fleeing the country in that way – even if s/he were successful – was destroying the lives of every family member for generations to come as a result of the flight. How many people can face something like this?

I hate the Soviet Union.

The several hundred comment at the end are also enlightening.

We’re preparing for a trip to attend our son’s wedding, and therefore need to constantly check the ever-changing and utterly arbitrary travel restrictions the airlines and the states have imposed; we are hoping the whole vaccine passport idea dies the quick death it deserves. Our son is – finally! – getting to go on a week-long Boy Scout camping trip – and the insane, ever-changing restrictions and requirements are infuriating. If you dare to resist the siren call inject children with experimental vaccines against a disease that doesn’t affect them, then you will be required to submit recent clean COVID test results on inconveniently short notice prior to travel. Teenage boys healthy enough to attempt a week-long wilderness hike are literally at more risk of getting eaten by a bear than dying of COVID; my son quipped that masks reduce their peripheral vision, thus putting them at increased risk of injury out in the wild.

Yet, here we are. We don’t want to flee, but must be kept terrified and obedient to arbitrary rules so that we don’t gather and talk to each other, thus spreading ‘disinformation’ about what Our Own Lying Eyes see with dazzling clarity.

Middle Management

Penultimate post, mentioned the central role of middle management in enforcing the desires of the hypercompetitive. Especially in enterprises not governed by the desire for money, middle management is filled with people who in previous ages would have been courtiers.

An illustrative scene from the 1966 classic A Man for all Seasons: Henry sails down the Thames to visit Thomas More. More’s manor has no docks; the royal boats run aground in the mud. Henry leaps from the boat and into ankle-deep mud. A hush falls over the boats as the courtiers who fill the boats wait to see what Henry will do. When he laughs it off, they all force laughter and, cringing, jump into the mud as well.

Robert Bolt captures the nature of courtiers in A Man for All Seasons. The central theme can be framed: how Thomas More is not a courtier. To illustrate this, various courtiers at various stages of their climb are introduced and examined.

St. Thomas More, Richard Rich & Chasing the Surrogates for God
“it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”

Sir Richard Rich, who plays his friendship with More into a position as Attorney General for Wales by perjuring himself to get More convicted, follows the near-ideal path for courtier: parlays his relationship to More into a position under Cromwell and betrays More to get the Attorney General for Wales gig. Rich gains Henry’s trust by showing his willingness to do whatever it takes (e.g., after the official torturer had reached his limit, personally torturing a 25-year old woman on the rack to the point where, screaming in agony, all her joints were ripped apart. She had to be carried to the stake upon which she was burned to death, as any attempt to move was agony.).

He becomes the go-to guy for dirty, messy business, such as the dissolution of the monasteries, which he brutally prosecuted. He managed to ride out the change from Henry through Catholic Mary – even helping with the Restoration! – and back through Elizabeth. He was the perfect Useful Man who could survive any mere change in religion or ideology. Under an assortment of Kings and Queens, he held an string of ever more powerful and lucrative positions, ending up as Baron Rich and Chancellor. He died a very wealthy man, of old age in his bed.

The Oracle Wikipedia reports: “Since the mid-16th century Rich has had a reputation for immorality, financial dishonesty, double-dealing, perjury and treachery rarely matched in English history. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called Rich a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word”.

If you are wondering what middle managers of various flavors (*cough* Fauci *cough*) dream of, look at the career of Baron Rich. Relative nobody who plays his cards right, checks his scruples (if any) at the door, his finger constantly in the wind, lips always planted on the correct hindquarters, accumulating power and wealth and destroying enemies along the way, and manages to kept free of any loyalties that might get him killed when the people on the top change.

The reality, of course, is that the bulk of the courtiers end up jumping in the mud with Henry (see first picture) as they attempt to be useful and appear loyal and eager, and just get muddy – no titles and wealth for you! Two scenes later, Henry takes the boats and leaves the uncooperative Thomas in a huff, abandoning all those muddy courtiers to find their own way back to the palace. It’s a very real scene in a movie full of real scenes.

Machiavelli, after describing the murder and mayhem a new prince will need to visit upon hic competitors and potential competitors, tells his padawans they need not be concerned with finding men willing to do things like murder the entire families of his rivals: they will always be at hand. As in almost everything he writes, Machiavelli is letting history be his guide.

So, to tie it all together: the upper echelons of government and business are manned by hypercompetitive people, a disproportionate number of whom are out and out sociopaths; the next level down is people by career bureaucrats, middle managers, modern courtiers. Of course, there is some bleed-over – occasionally, a courtier makes it to Baron; occasionally, a hypercompetitive person gets stuck in middle management. But, in general: we are ruled by sociopaths and courtiers. Thus, it has (almost) always been.

Two notes: first, don’t mistake titles for power. Sometimes, a President or Pope is just a figurehead, sometimes a seemingly unlikely person is the power. You can be a Director of this or that, say the CDC, and still be, essentially, a courtier. Second, the aching eagerness with which courtiers try to anticipate and enact the desires of their lords creates a perfect system for mindless compliance and vigorous enforcement: once the courtiers figure out what they think the boss wants, then anyone who doesn’t go along is an enemy, an existential threat. A courtier wants to be useful to his lord, want to prove that he, more than anyone, is doing what the lord wants.

The sickening power struggles that are characteristic of courts and bureaucracies make concerted actions and brutal repression inevitable – without any sort of conspiracy, as normally understood, involved.

(This, btw, is why I harp on the lack of a purge after Fred Roti’s conviction – sure, the overt kingpin was removed, but the courtier mechanism he and his predecessors had constructed over decades remained. That mechanism – machine, if you will – then produces – what, exactly? A President and all his key cabinet members? Who can be expected to behave how, exactly?)

Playing to Win in the Real World

Returning to a mundane topic: how competitive people think. Businessmen, particularly high-end salesmen, are my go-to examples based on personal experience, but the same thinking applies to elite athletes and bureaucrats. To sum up: while many, maybe most, people are competitive on some level, the sort of competitive drive which motivates ‘highly successful’ people is different in kind. Such people have so internalized the question: ‘what do I need to do to win?’ that it drives their every action without so much needing to be asked.

An LBJ or a Bill Russel (to take examples that date me!) both had to win. LBJ famously had to get to know every cub reporter who made it to the Capital, and to impress on such a one that he, LBJ, knew who they were. He was their best buddy, at least early on, who would address them by name, slap them on the back, pal around for the required minimum time – and then move on to the next thing he needed to do. LBJ had an amazing memory for faces and names, and knew what role each person played and what he needed out of them to succeed. Bill Russell remembered every play from every game he had been in back through college and beyond, and could instantly recall decisions, tendencies, and outcomes in order to identify what he should do to maximize success. (I could use LeBron and, I don’t know, Rahm Emmanuel? as more current examples. Athletes are more willing to talk about their insane obsessions than politicians, who realize that such talk is a key part of the game they trying to win, and so what you get from them is pure marketing.)

And so on. Current superstar athletes and politicians have the same insane memories and focus – cause or effect? Coaches and, I would imagine, political chiefs of staffs, cannot do, so they teach. They systematize this: ‘watching film’ or ‘charting tendencies’ are the ways the hypercompetitive try to bring the merely normally competitive up to level.

Such coaches and political operatives do not usually see themselves as using people. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie seems baffled by the questions: are you doing all these things just to win? Are you using people? He thinks he is counseling mere thoughtful decency, and that success comes from treating people right. Maybe he is pure in his motivations, but the same approach applied by the sociopaths who are wildly overrepresented in ‘leadership positions’ is not so much malignant as indifferent. The concerns of the people being used is only of interest if it figures into the next goal. People are means, not ends.

Hyper competitive people are obsessed with their goals. They see EVERYTHING in terms of moving them closer or farther from winning. Yet, psychologically, goals are secondary to winning. Such people choose and even change goals, but the need to win is permanent.

Imagine such personality types liberally sprinkled throughout a representative democracy. Here’s the leap: you’ll end up with what looks like a ‘conspiracy’. It may in fact be a conspiracy, but that isn’t strictly necessary: for the hypercompetitive, everything and everyone else are pieces to be used. What those pieces think about being used is irrelevant. If it works to bring them in on the plan – to welcome them into an inner circle – then, do that. If it works to lie – by omission or commission makes no difference – do that.

Like coaches, the immediate goal is to get the team on same page, to get as many people as possible pulling toward the big goal. It’s not important, and may be undesirable, that the team knows what the ultimate goal is. In fact, the creation and promulgation of whatever goal the team would be willing to pull together to achieve is an early part of the game plan.

The first step is to make sure there is a team. Sports and politics are essentially indistinguishable here. I support my team because it’s my team. The other team is evil. Yay, team! It’s a matter of identity, not logic. I was a big Laker and Dodger fan when I was a kid, because… they were the closest teams. No reasoning was involved. It’s delusional to imagine politics is much different. Some people change sports teams when they move; some people change political allegiance, but it’s rare and often traumatic now days.

In the more advanced, evolved state we’re in now, the team members have been trained to pull toward whatever the announced goal is, which can change on a dime. No more consistency is required than in sports: used to hate that guy when he was on he Celtics, now love him because he’s on the Lakers. Today, we’re against the war, because we’ve decided it’s the other team’s fault. Tomorrow, we forget all about it, because now our team is in charge.

Much of this is, of course, basic tribal behavior. I’m here pointing out that such behavior is useful and encouraged by the hypercompetitive. They are not in the least interested in enlightening the masses – they just need the masses to do as they are told.

Young lions will sometimes team up to unseat the current head of pride, two against one. Later, they will try to drive out or kill each other. But step 1 is getting the established leader out. In just such a way, but more complicated as people are more complicated than lions, you don’t need a single leader. A bunch of hypercompetitive people can, while competing with and even despising each other, agree on the next step, the next intermediate goal. Then, promulgate a goal – justice, say – that the team can be made to get behind. Vilify anyone who dares question the goal – he’s a Celtic fan! He’s eeeevil!

Maybe I’ll write next about the middle management. Your career hack doesn’t so much follow orders as he knows his life depends on figuring out what the next level up wants him to do. For the last year and a half, those who have figured out that the top echelon wants a plague, wants a terrified population, have prospered. Those who point out how stupid these claims and steps are have their lives destroyed. They are simply playing the wrong game.

Sociopathic hypercompetitive people might well choose, as the most interesting goal, destroying the current culture. Maybe so that they can lead, or maybe just to watch the world burn. They might take Gramsci as a means to their end. They might even believe in what Gramsci believed, but that hardly matters. What matters is that such people will turn their attention to the destruction of family, village, and church as mere intermediate goals. They would create and promulgate ‘goals’ for the team that achieve their almost certainly unstated personal goals. Thus, all the mores and traditions that uphold the family must be destroyed – you announce to the team that ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ demands some action, making no reference to the ultimate goal.

Recap: the world is full of hypercompetitive people. For such people, psychopathy is not only not a hinderance, but a plus. Thus, the big winners in our world tend to have absolutely no concern for the effects their winning has on other people. Further, at the top levels of any social system, such as our system of representative democracy (RIP) these sociopathic hypercompetitive people will find themselves working ‘together’ at least as a short-term expedient. They will need to get the others to act in ways that further their goals. Because of toady middle management and well-trained team members, this ad-hoc agreement on shorter-term goals will have the appearances of a conspiracy. The ‘leaders’ know what they want; middle management makes an easy guess about what that is and shapes their behaviors and messages accordingly, and the desired behavior is promulgated down to the obedient sheep. No smoke-filled room with thousands of conspirators signing onto an evil master-plan is required.

Confirmation Bias, Cont’d

A few posts back, explored the role Confirmation Bias, or You Find What You’re Looking For, plays in panics, such as the ones (1) we’re experiencing now.

Many thanks to reader Martin Shotzberger, who kindly sent me a link to a transcription of a talk by Irving Langmuir, titled Pathological Science, delivered at the Colloquium at the Knolls Research Laboratory, December 18, 1953, as transcribed and edited by R. N. Hall

Irving Langmuir, according to Wikipedia, was an American chemist, physicist, and engineer, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and wide ranging inventor and just all around brilliant dude. The audience, I presume, are other elite physicists and other scientists, so it took a little time and effort for me to understand a few of the examples, but they’re not too hard to get. Chiefly, Langmuir is noting the insidious and persistent nature of confirmation bias. He give examples where honest, dedicated, even brilliant scientists worked themselves into a state of utter conviction that they’d seen or discovered something, such that any new observations were reflexively explained away – nothing could be seen except for phenomena that confirmed their theories or discoveries. He labels this Pathological Science.

Langmuir goes to some length to say (usually) that he has no reason to doubt the honesty of the researcher, and that the main problem is overreliance on edge cases, observations right at the edge of perception, where it’s oh so easy to see what you want to see. Honest, bright-to-brilliant men letting their legitimate desire to know overwhelm their prudence.

Most telling, perhaps, is Langmuir’s observations that sometimes up to 50% of the specialists who examined the experiments were convinced, and that it sometimes took decades for the skeptics to win out. There was no one moment where everybody went: no, that doesn’t work. Instead, in a manner eerily parallel to the cult described in When Prophecy Fails (4th bullet at the link), people double down at first, then slowly drift away as evidence, or lack thereof, mounts. The theory or claims just sort of die out.

Highly recommended read.

Keep in mind that scientists are supposedly trained to anticipate and take measures against confirmation bias – and, in these examples, despite intelligence and education, fell to it anyway. If education and intelligence are no barrier, if men such as these can fall to it, what hope do we peons have? This brings us back to the Salem witch hunts, and, indeed, the COVID panic and, terrifyingly, the effectiveness of the “insurrection” propaganda campaign. Take confirmation bias, add fear, then stir briskly with a campaign to silence critics and demonize all opposition, and we are so, so screwed.

Prediction: there will never be a general public acknowledgement in our lifetimes that the lockdowns and masks were based on out-of-control confirmation bias fanned by fear-mongering and fraud. Nope, the Doom, if it ever is allowed to go away, will simply fizzle out over many years, and, with any luck, our progeny in a generation or two will stare back at it in wonder and horror at what we did to ourselves.

God help us.

  1. Plural. Not only is every death assumed to be corona-doom until proven otherwise, every act or word by anyone not on board the Blue Train to Paradise is assumed to be a call for bloody insurrection, any dissent from Critical Theory catechism is hate speech, any pushback at all on any point, any failure to accept without question whatever is being promulgated at the moment is eeeevil incarnate. Even noticing the story has changed is condemned. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Writing Update?

Can I talk about my humble writing efforts without bringing in the collapse of Western Civilization? Probably not.

So, been doing work, but not getting enough production – research, writing down backstory and character arcs, thinking through plot points, but not actually writing stuff for other people to read. Trying to not get too worked up over it, because a couple stories and the two (three? Is the White Handled Blade the beginning of a novel? Stay tuned…) sure the heck need some serious thoughtsmithing before the wordsmithing can go anywhere.

I’m going to get 1,000 words down on something before I go to bed tonight. That, I can do.

Been writing out some character details arcs, and, due to the nature of the NTSNBN, some family histories as well. I think some of these people need to kill each other. Seriously, I’m setting up some good guys/bad guys/people in the middle dynamics, but only abstractly so far. My evilest character in particular is, I hope, a little sympathetic, at least to the degree that you get why this person acts the way she does. Not going for the ‘misunderstood’ angle at all, this character is very aware of what she’d doing. But, so far, I haven’t though out exactly how she is going to crush people. It’s a little like: if someone pulls a gun in Act 1, somebody better get shot by Act 3. Yet, at the same time, don’t want to telegraph it too bad – it should be a shock when it happens…

That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking through, multiplied by 100. I want to make these stories good, but I also keep reminding myself that getting them done means accepting some imperfection – good and done beats perfect but never done.

I have this theory that, if I can get the ending to the NTSNBN complete, even just in my head, that everything else will come together. Don’t disabuse me. Part of the thoughsmithing is the realization that I wasn’t thinking big enough – there’s got to 20-25 pages of epic disaster before the denouement or it will seem disproportionate.

I think. Like I’ve done this before? But I have read a lot of books…

Astrophysicist discovers numerous multiple star systems ...

In the middle of writing this, I started wondering: if I want my longship to get anywhere inside hundreds of years, it’s (duh) going to have to go to a nearby system. But, leaving out brown dwarves and other minor objects, all the nearby systems, say, within a couple hundred lightyears, are known to some degree. So, if I say my people go to a nearby system with some easily-identifiable characteristics, I should probably see if there is, in fact, a system passably like the one I describe in our near galactic neighborhood…

…hours and hours later, I’ve now read up on dozens of nearby systems, hoping to find one that will work. You might be amazed at the variety of systems within a few hundred lightyears: single, double, triple, multiple star systems, some doing the dance of death with stars well under 1 AU from each other; others with stars 100+ AUs apart whose orbits take millennia to complete. Red giants, white dwarfs, everything in between…. Yet more pages bookmarked, notes taken, time – wasted?

Sigh.

Anyway, got to find some balance. But at least I’m making something like progress here.

Now, onto business: I’m guessing the right move for me is to a) write under a pen name; and b) set up some sort of account – PayPal? – that’s not so obviously traceable back here. I don’t flatter myself that I’m somehow important enough to bother with, but I do wonder how thorough an automated search for badthink might be, and how I’ve committed a whole boatload of pretty definite badthink over the years, in print, right here. It is impossible to overestimate the petty vindictiveness of our self appointed betters, nor the moral orgasms they get persecuting helpless people.

Better safe than sorry, I suppose, although there’s no way I’m safe if somebody really wanted to go after me. But, as I said, that seems pretty unlikely.

On that topic, I now have four protonmail addresses from people who want to be on my mailing list if this blog gets taken down – Thanks. Again, seems remarkably petty and unlikely given my insignificance, but, well, take a look around. I’ll do a general announcement soon.

If Only We Had Known…

CaliforniaProposition8.svg
Green: for . Red: Against. Even L.A. was only pink.

In California, for reasons that date back a century, the voters can enact laws and, indeed, amend the state constitution directly through the ballot initiative process. Thus, when a proposition amending the constitution is passed, the state constitution is changed. The proposition becomes ‘constitutional’ – enshrined as part of California’s constitution.

Back in 2008, Californians were given a chance to vote on the idea that marriage is something that can only exist between a man and a woman, at least as far as state law goes. Prop 8, which amended the state’s constitution to that effect, passed by 600,000 votes.

Yet, as a result of a ruling by a carefully selected (gay) judge on a carefully crafted lawsuit, Prop 8 was declared unconstitutional. So, follow the head-exploding logic here: an actual part of the state constitution, put there by a fairly decisive majority of the voters, expressly amending the constitution, is ruled *unconstitutional*. Now, there could be problems with an amendment that require clarification, because, frankly, the initiative process does put some pretty poorly thought out or poorly worded stuff to the vote. A judge could say: this part here is unenforceable as written, so we will suspend enforcement until it is clarified. Or: I will apply this range of interpretations according to what I believe the spirit of the law intended until such time, if any, these particular issues are clarified. Or something that recognizes the law is the law.

What is not rationally possible is to declare the constitution unconstitutional. The will of the people as expressed with their votes, not to mention the thousands of hours invested by citizens to get this law on the ballot and passed, were simply set aside. It was more than a partisan ruling that defied any concept of the rule of law. It was a flex, a show of force and contempt, where our self appointed betters showed us deplorable little people just how much our votes mattered to them.

It hardly stopped there: in 2014, Brendan Eich, who was well-respected enough to get appointed CEO of Mozilla, was forced out due to having committed the heinous crime of having given $1,000 to Prop 8, a cause that won handily, and for supporting Republicans.

That most voters agreed with Eich at the time means: these people would do the same to most voters. And, indeed, when I get together with Catholic dads, one topic that often comes up is the need to keep your opinions to yourself at work while simultaneously tolerating having the ‘correct’ views rammed down your throat.

So, now we are being treated to a similar insult and flex: Congress is attempting to impeach a private citizen. The way it works in law: government officials can be impeached; military people can be tried by military courts; private citizens get tried in courts of law. These are constitutional rights – guaranteeing the right to a trail when we private citizens are accused of breaking the law is just exactly the sort of thing you bother having a constitution *for*.

If only we had known that our elected officials can simply change the Constitution at will, when they really, really feel like it!

The real point here: if Trump were to be accused of treason and given a real trial in the civil courts according to established legal practice, the prosecution would have to produce coherent charges and produce evidence, there would be a discovery period, and his team would get to present evidence and make counterarguments, witness would be called to testify under oath – in public, on the record, with normal people watching.

Can’t have that. We will instead, if sanity doesn’t miraculously prevail, have an utterly illegal show trial, where senators shout down and threaten each other and anybody testifying ‘wrong’, and where rules are changed as needed to get the desired result and prevent any counter-evidence from being presented (not that the media would allow us to see it even if the Senate slipped up and let it get said out loud). All law is suspended so that we little can be kept ‘safe’ and in our place.

We have the spectacle of elected officials blatantly violating the Constitution in order to ‘protect’ ‘us’ from somebody violating the Constitution. Somebody is trying to incite insurrection, but it ain’t the most recent former president. Got to follow through on the Reichstag Fire Capital ‘riots’ to complete the congressional purge so that the federal and state purge can proceed efficiently. Then it’s reeducation for the little people.

Well, miracles do sometimes happen.

Note: “The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression (see above), freedom of the press (riiiight), the right of free association and public assembly (gone since March), and the secrecy of the post and telephone (let me check with Siri about this… Yep, gone).” Wow, we’re ahead of the curve! Already lost almost all that – to the applause of millions. Boy, are we ‘safe’.

We Have Always Believed in American Exceptionalism

Remember when the belief that America was not like other countries, but somehow especially blessed and protected, was a shibboleth that marked one out for culling at the next round up? Only deplorable people would ever believe such a stoopid fantasy….

Well, forget that. Nope, that went down the memory hole. We are now required to believe that, unlike every other country on earth now and throughout history, we are immune to:

  • A State-controlled media. Nope, not in America! Just can’t happen. All media – real media, that is – agrees on all particulars and the general sweep of current events and history that has brought us to this, a dawn of a glorious new era where 6′ 200lbs men will be playing women’s hockey and paper masks both trap billions of deadly virons AND pose no health threat when you handle them and throw them in the trash. Among a million other absurdities obvious truths every right-thinking person believes.
  • Election Fraud. Nope, not here, not even possible! All the most intelligent, enlightened, and moral people (as they themselves will tell you) roll their eyes so hard at this, you just KNOW it’s true! Only a rube, an ignoramus, a bad person, would even dare bring up Huey Long, or the Chicago Outfit, or Billy Bulger, or Tammany Hall, or… Only someone truly evil would point out that same Europe at whose feet we should sit and learn – not only do they have flawless, perfect socialized medicine with no downsides whatsoever, but they gave the Lightbringer a Nobel Prize – require IDs to vote, because, well, they have much more experience than us in….uh, never mind.
  • Propaganda. What? Not here in America! Impossible! We are the land of free and open expression, and, besides, way too intelligent, educated, and moral to fall for that sort of nonsense! it’s like advertising: Only rubes buy anything because it appears in an ad or the product is placed in a movie we like. Only pork rinds and Coke are sold that way, to people living in trailers and missing teeth. The advertisements in the shows and magazines we consume have NO EFFECT. AT. ALL. We can’t be swayed by stories repeated and repeated and repeated until they are part of the background noise. Only an evil person would suggest we enlightened Americans have anything to learn from the German intelligentsia, professional classes, lawyers, judges, journalists – who, by the way, were objectively the best educated, most enlightened and, indeed, most moral people the world had ever seen up to that point- who fell right in line with Goebbels’s propaganda campaign. Not the rubes, not the farmers – the smart people. But we’re different, because we’re told we’re different.
  • Totalitarianism. Well, THAT almost happened until the good, intelligent, moral people, for our safety as determined by them, put a stop to freedom of association, freedom of speech, and fair trials. Can’t have the rubes talking among themselves. It’s not safe to hear out the other side when we already KNOW who’s right. But that’s the opposite of totalitarianism, which can’t happen here. Only an evil, crazy person would point out the parallels with many, indeed, EVERY democracy that fell into totalitarianism, via some mix of reigns of terror, military dictatorship, revolution, counterrevolution, and so on. Because, you idiot, that simply can’t happen here.

America is simply different. We make our own rules. We are beyond history, beyond reality, even – everything that is, is spoken into being by our word. Have I mentioned that we are the most intelligent, most enlightened, most moral people the world has ever seen? We are incapable of being fooled, manipulated, herded! We are just the best! America: History’s Chosen People! But totally not in any religious sense – that’s just stupid.

Slow on the Uptake

Although I receive constant reminders of my profound ignorance of almost everything from this little thing we like to call ‘reality’, nonetheless I’m having a bit of a ‘doh!’ moment. My head keeps spinning with frustration over the level of scientific and historical illiteracy evident everywhere, the level of functional innumeracy, when, obviously, those are mere symptoms. People have been screaming the name of the real problem from the rooftops for centuries. I have even heard it, and acknowledged it. Repeatedly.

Few Americans have have any understanding of science or history, no grasp of what a set of numbers might mean, because few Americans have any grasp of reality. Not merely no grasp on the particulars any one of us receives moment by moment through our senses – although even that is clearly lacking – but no grasp of the general principle that there even is an objective reality that doesn’t care how you feel about it.

Somehow, I keep forgetting this grim fact, and waste my time gathering evidence and shaping arguments, as if evidence and arguments will convince anybody except the tiny fraction of people willing to be convinced – OF ANYTHING.

Memento Mori – not just a good idea. It used to be that death, a very real thing that a) happens to everyone, and b) clearly doesn’t care how you feel about it, put some sort of cap or lid on our fantasies. At the very least, even those convinced of their own immortality would (eventually, gratifyingly) die. Reality got the last word, and, more important here, everybody knew reality got the last word.

Now? Death, where is thy sting? Hiding out in nursing homes, hospices, homeless encampments, third world countries – places YOU don’t have to see it or worry about it. This partly explains the freak-out over the d*mn virus: people refuse to consider exactly WHO is dying of this thing. An easily identifiable population sharing one critical trait: they are already dying of something else. That’s why they’re in nursing homes in the first place. But we are not allowed to consider this factor, instead, on the off chance anybody notices the age distribution, it’s sweet, welcoming grandmas who we are killing if we go maskless, or get together with friends, or open a restaurant, or support the wrong political candidate. Which grandma would that be? The comparatively vigorous grandma out gardening in the yard every day? Or, perhaps, the grandma who been stuck in a nursing home, where she will be lying in bed with soaps on the flat screen, drifting in and out of coherence, unable to take care of even her most basic needs, for the last few months of her life?

Have any of these people ever been to a nursing home?

Without any real experience of death in their lives, except as a horrible wrong thing that we need the government to protect us from, the last real tether to reality has been broken.

As I written before (perhaps ad nauseum), I learned a lot from getting to know a large variety of families from very different backgrounds through the school and church. My own families, while closer and experienced in more detail, don’t work as well, in the fish-describing-water sense. One thing that I noticed many times: the family story. Two examples:

I was once having dinner with this ‘blended’ family. The sisters of the mother to two out of the three children were also there. They were discussing an incident from their childhood where one of them got hurt on a trampoline. At one point, they all became, again, little girls: one of them explained that no one was to blame for the accident, and the other two nodded and spoke in agreement. It was clearly a critical part of the story that they all agree on the explanation of where the blame lay, and that this was not the first time this issue had arisen.

This seems, no doubt, utterly trivial, but you had to be there. These three professional women’s whole demeaners and even voices changed, for the brief moment it took to make sure they all agreed to the story. It was clearly very important to them that they agreed, and had been since the time of the incident. This made me wonder what had actually happened. There’s lots more to this picture, mostly centering around how this family also shared a story about how the damage to the children of divorce could be mitigated if not eliminated if all the adults behaved properly. Reality suggested otherwise, in this case.

Next, a tragically more common experience: there was a family with two mutually exclusive stories, one in which divorce was no big deal, and that the one parent acting as if he’d been betrayed was just being a big baby, and that the kids needed to get over it. The other story was, obviously, that this husband had been blindsided and betrayed by an act of wanton, petty selfishness, an act that damaged his and their children’s lives.

Because the stories were incompatible, the kids were forced by the mother to pick one. If they even acknowledged any validity at all of dad’s story, they were cut out of mom’s life. So siblings start by losing their family, then move on to losing each other as they are forced to pick. The price of acceptance was never contradicting the story.

And on and on – once you see this, you can’t unsee it. This buy-the-story-as-the-price-of-membership shibboleth is EVERYWHERE in human lives. At a very base emotional level, we stupid, crazy, damaged humans need our stories, and even more, need our tribes. To belong to the family, and, by extension, the tribe, there are tales we must accept. Comparing those tales to objective reality is suicide in most cases. So we simply don’t – some abstract notion of truth simply can’t prevail over the immediate, visceral need to belong.

The incessant ad hominem attacks on dissenters is exactly this: if you disagree with the story, you are not a part of the tribe or family – and that is problem! No vitriol or imaginative effort is spared in describing the evil that lurks in the hearts of – take your pick: climate change deniers, Trump voters, people who don’t ‘believe’ (note the word choice) that lockdowns are absolutely necessary and are saving millions of lives. Truth? What is that? We just need to know: are you of our tribe, or not?

At least the Yanomami are upfront about it: if you don’t speak our language, you are not human. But we’re certainly gaining ground on this front. Ah, progress!

Brazil's Highest Mountains: The Lone Guards of the Amazon ...
If only our self-appointed betters would embrace Yanomami fashion sense as well. That would be an improvement.