Ask Zompist: Second thoughts on religion

One of the first pages I read after I had discovered zompist.com , back in 2000, was the introductory page on Almean belief systems. And it made an enormous impression on me back then. I know that it is technically about your conworld, but IMO almost all of it works very well as an essay on belief systems on Earth, too. Back then, that essay changed the way I look at things. For instance, ever since, even when I share some of the beliefs in a belief system, a part of me still prefers to look at the belief system from the outside rather than the inside.

But all of this makes me wonder how more than 20 years of additional learning and experiences have shaped your own views of the topics that essay deals with. Any thoughts?

—Raphael

I would add more today, but not really change what I wrote there.

Looking over it, I can see a few writers who influenced me greatly: Marvin Harris, G.K. Chesterton, Eric Hoffer. And C.S. Lewis, though he’s not mentioned there. I’ve read quite a lot since, but ironically the first thing I’d add is more Harris— the etic/emic discussion discussed here, which relates to what you say about looking at belief systems from the outside. Many aspects of belief systems simply make no sense on their own terms (emically), and have to be looked at etically. On the other hand, I’d caution against trying to use etic analysis as a weapon. It irritates the people involved, and you really have to make sure you get your facts right. (A heuristic: if the analysis makes the people look stupid, it’s probably more partisan than scientific.)

I purposely talked about “belief systems” under the belief that religions and political ideologies are aspects of the same phenomenon. (There’s a lot of Hoffer in that.) That’s one thing I’d maybe modify today. Now, on one level it’s true— see the previous blog entry, on Orwell’s observations of ideologues. I do think we can best understand the wars of religion in the 1600s, and the wars of ideologies in the 1900s, with the observation that people used to understand their national and political fights in terms of religion, and now understand them in terms of ideologies. The mental habits of the religious and the political partisan are nearly identical.

On the other hand, the functional yield of this grouping, so to speak, seems to be low. Religion encompasses quite a few features— theology, ritual, personal spiritualism, recourse to supernatural aids— that are largely lacking in politics. Political ideologies, meanwhile, tend toward authoritarianism in a way that doesn’t shed much light on religion. (Religious authorities can be oppressive, oh yes. But I object strongly to viewing any religion as “nothing but oppression.”)

There’s also the present-day relationship between religion and politics, which is complicated. Very old-style religions can be political— cf. political Islam, or the disgusting Evangelical love for Trump, or the nationalism of Modi in India. If anything, the expectation that politics has replaced religion now seems overblown. We still have fascists and communists, but to get tens of millions of people excited, the smart money is now back on religion.

As I said, I’ve read a lot more about religion in the last two decades, mostly while researching my books. So I could talk quite a bit more about Dàoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Middle Eastern polytheism. But a lot of that wouldn’t come up in an overview of belief systems. Though an alert reader on Twitter had a great idea— a Religion Construction Kit— so you may see a long-form treatment of the subject in a few years. (My current book, on the ancient Middle East, will have quite a lot to say about the origins of monotheism and state polytheism.)

One more thing I might emphasize more now is the buffet nature of religion. Not all religions have all the elements I described. And even when they do, individuals may take what they like and ignore the rest. Outsiders can concentrate too much on what the priests do, or what the scriptures say. I’ve always wanted to know what the ordinary believer does, and what the range of possible behaviors is.

On a personal level, I’ve moved over the last 35 years from being an energetic Evangelical, to being a Christian very disappointed in the church and the Church, to being an agnostic. All this without developing the disdain and hatred for religion (especially Christianity) that some people indulge. I’m still fascinated by religion— or parts of it, and by the character of God. And I’m irked by conworlds which take the easy trope of making religion All Oppressive All the Time.

Ask Zompist: What just happened?

You’re probably very busy right now, but would you mind writing a kind of overview of the current election situation, perhaps for the benefit of foreign observers who don’t know that much about US politics, and other people who might be easily impressed by Republican talking points?

–Raphael

As someone pointed out on Twitter, when we look at this in a few years, it’s going to look very simple: at every point this year Joe Biden looked like he was going to win, against a historically incompetent and unpopular president. And he did. And he won by a decisive margin: currently 74 to 70 million votes, and probably by 306 to 232 electoral votes. And thus did the realm of Sauron fall.

Edit: As of the 25th, the margin is now 80 to 74 million votes.

Of course, the devil is in the details, which is why this year has felt like it’s a decade long.

(This post will be a bit rambling, as I am writing for that hypothetical foreign observer, and guessing at what they might find puzzling.)

First, there’s what the pundits call the fundamentals. If you looked from January 2020, you’d have to say: incumbents usually win (6 won, 3 lost from FDR to Obama), and presidents in good economies usually win. The election was Trump’s to lose.

Then there’s the Trump factor itself. Trump has been remarkably, consistently unpopular: since Jan. 2017, his favorability never rose above 46%. But since 2018, it hasn’t fallen below 40% either. Nate Silver’s site has comparisons to past presidents, where you can see that this sort of consistency is rare. Obama’s line is almost as flat, which suggests that both lines are consequences of our new polarization. People stick with their leader because they are terrified of the opposition.

US political parties used to be coalitions, where Republicans had some liberals and Democrats had some conservatives; that made the parties increasingly resemble each other, and made the most effective strategy a fight for the center. Since the mid-1990s the GOP has instead moved far right, and in response the Democrats have moved left, though not nearly as far. Generalizations base on the mixed-coalition era are thus no longer accurate.

Popularity is not voting: Trump got (at current reporting) 47.7% of the vote. We don’t have exit poll analyses yet, but it’s been clear for a long time that Republican voters, even if they have reservations about Trump, will still vote for him. So his unpopularity was a negative, but GOP loyalty in general was a plus. (In 2016 we could hope that there were a bunch of “Never Trumpers” who wouldn’t vote for him. That didn’t happen, and his standing in the party was obviously better this year.)

If there’s any one factor that doomed him, it was his handling of Covid. I don’t mean that it was bad luck that dragged him down. Disasters don’t make leaders unpopular; usually it’s the reverse. George Bush got a huge boost out of 9-11; several leaders, such as NZ’s Jacinda Ardern and South Korea’s Democratic Party, won landslide elections under Covid, when people could see them handling it well. Even Trump got a boost– until April, when his incompetence began to show. He was handed a golden opportunity, and he fucked it up. Letting a quarter of a million people die, creating an economic crisis, and refusing to agree to (continued) emergency measures is not the way to attract the moderates.

Then there’s Biden himself. The Democrats had two ways they could go:

  • Pick someone inspiring, who’d fire up the base and/or the country.
  • Pick someone who just doesn’t mess up the opportunity.

Replaying the 2016 primary is Democrats’ favorite hobby and vice, so let’s just say that Biden is in category 2. Biden has some real virtues, but not many of these had to be put into play: his best move seemed to be to sit there not being Trump and not messing up, and let Trump dig his own grave. Which he did. When he did get attention, during the convention and the debates, he was competent, and compassionate enough to underline the comparison– without really making a strong personal impact. And that was probably fine, especially compared to Hillary, who was widely disliked.

I don’t know if it really matters, but Trump’s campaign didn’t seem to know what to do with Biden. Or with anything really. Trump didn’t talk much about his record (such as it is), nor make any attempt to woo the center. He leaned hard on repressing protesters, which probably backfired as most people sympathized with protests against police racism. He tried to play up Biden as too doddery, which a) makes no sense since the same could be said for him, and b) was exposed as an obvious lie when Biden talked. Trump was reduced to trying to run against Bernie Sanders instead… again, probably not effective with the moderates.

I should emphasize that Trump’s 2016 campaign, for all its chaos, was managed ten times better. He could play outsider, and rile up his own side when he wanted to; and he took enough moderate positions that people of all persuasions could see what they wanted to in him. If he had stuck with his populism, American politics might have looked far different… but he not only governed as a strict conservative, but as a total asshole. His base loved him in both roles, but he was unable to revive his populist side this year.

Biden didn’t do as well as the polls suggested. That’s a big problem for the pollsters, but it also shouldn’t be exaggerated. We don’t know the absolute final results, but they’ll probably make Biden look better than he does right now. It wasn’t the huge blue wave that we would have liked to see. At this point I’d say: take anyone’s explanation of that with a truckload of salt, especially if the pundit opines that Biden would obviously have done better if he had followed the pundit’s favorite policies.

So, the GOP turned to Plan B, which was voter suppression. They knew their policies were unpopular, so the plan was to obstruct the vote as much as possible. This put them in the position of purposely insisting on in-person voting, with its risks of spreading a deadly disease… but they were already in death cult mode; what did they care so long as they won? There were other shenanigans, like removing voting stations in big cities to make it harder to vote.

Next on the agenda was kneecapping the post office, starting in the summer. We don’t know the extent of the damage, except that the mail immediately got slower, and many post offices removed their sorting machines. The big question is perhaps, did they think no one would notice, in an organization that employs half a million people? People did notice, there were Congressional hearings, and the commissioner promised to stop interfering. It’s not clear how much this was a factor… but now that we have the results, it seems clear it just didn’t work. (Though in my household, we made sure to turn in our ballots at the village hall.)

All this was worrisome, but as a coup attempt, a little lame. First problem: elections here are run by the states, not by the President. That meant that blue states couldn’t be corrupted. Second problem: the obvious interference only made Democrats more determined to vote. Turnout is higher than ever this year, and that really paid off in places like Georgia. Third problem: playing tricks is evidently something rank-and-file GOP officials will do; but outright lawbreaking by election officials and judges, not so much. Almost all of them tried to run the election properly.

Foreign readers might wonder, why did it take several days to declare the winner, and why did Pennsylvania flip? Basically: one more bit of Republican games-playing. The state legislature forbid mail-in votes from being counted before the election, as they are in many states. This was obviously done in the hopes that Trump would “obviously win” on Tuesday night, and that counting mail-in votes would somehow look suspicious.

The problem with that “plan”: there was really no point where Trump had “obviously won”. I just scrolled through CNN’s entire election blog, and Biden was ahead in electoral votes at every point, starting from 8:15 p.m. election night. By the next day, he was already a mere 17 votes shy of winning, and he was pretty clearly going to win enough of the outstanding states. So all the Pennsylvania GOP succeeded in doing was in prolonging the process for everyone.

Plan C was to hope for litigation. In particular, the GOP geared up for a repeat of 2000. Trump openly entertained fantasies of the Supreme Court handing him the election, and of course McConnell obliged by fast-tracking Amy Barrett’s nomination. The problem for the GOP is that no Florida 2000 situation recurred. As a reminder, Bush led Gore in the count in that state, by 537 votes, and Florida’s electoral votes alone would decide the election. The Court really only had to freeze the count in place rather than throwing out votes. That’s a pretty narrow scenario, and it didn’t repeat.

Trump is supposedly going to file a bunch of lawsuits. But the ones he already filed went nowhere, and there’s not really a major state that he could likely flip. There are some close states, but recounts and finagling over individual ballots have historically affected a few hundred votes, not the tens of thousands that would be needed to flip (say) Pennsylvania. Trump’s hope that somehow all mail-in ballots could be thrown out is almost certainly going to be laughed out of court even by Republican judges.

The thing is, stealing an election gets harder the longer you wait. The GOP’s best best was to steal it ahead of time by suppressing the vote. That didn’t work. Hoping for Florida 2000 again was not even a plan. Now that there’s an actual vote which Biden solidly won, stealing the election would require throwing out votes already cast, on the scale of tens of thousands of votes. That’s pretty unprecedented in this country. On Dec. 14, the Electoral College meets, and you really can’t reverse the EC vote without getting into hard coup territory– the kind that comes with guns and civil war.

Can Trump do something to somehow steal the election now? Well, you can never count a Sith Lord out entirely. But at this point it seems clear that all he has left is temper tantrums. He was squealing “STOP THE COUNT”… and the count didn’t stop. When even Fox News declares Biden the winner, it’s almost certainly over. We need to pass a few more milestones, of course, but the Trump team’s strategies haven’t worked so far, and if their last trick is “open coup attempt”, the smart money is that it’ll fail.

Trump has refused to concede… but this has no legal meaning. He doesn’t get to decide whether to accept the results, and he’d do well to avoid the indignity of being tossed out by the Secret Service. Again, his intransigence is going to look even more ridiculous after the Electoral College vote. There are already reports that advisors or powerful GOP figures are telling him– as nicely as they can, undoubtedly– to stand down.

Finally, for those foreign observers and not a few domestic ones: the Senate is not yet decided, and that affects whether Biden can pass his legislative agenda. It’s 48-48 right now, but the GOP is ahead in two of the remaining states. Note that a 50-50 Senate would be Democrat-controlled, since the Vice President is the tiebreaker. The last two seats are both in Georgia– and those are both close enough that a runoff election will need to be held in January. So we actually won’t know what happens in the Senate till then.

Ask Zompist: Common sound changes

The Language Construction Kit explains that sound changes are usually regular, and provides a few examples. Advanced Language Construction adds information on where in a society sound changes tend to start, how they tend to spread through society, and how morphosyntax tends to change over time. But what kinds of sound changes are generally how common? Are there any rules about that? What kinds of sound changes tend to happen together with what other kinds of sound changes? When sounds change, are there usually any rules about that aside from “Sound A, under B conditions, becomes Sound C”?  And what resources are there on all these topics? 

–Raphael

First, the easy part: the LCK has a list of common sound changes (p. 169, in edition 1.2). You won’t go wrong with any of them.  In particular, the ones identified as lenitions occur just about all over.

If you’re going to be doing this a lot, you might look at another book on historical linguistics— I like Theodora Bynon’s or R.L. Trask’s books, both called Historical Linguistics.  If those are not readily available, any intro from a university press is probably good.

The old ZBB has an enormous thread full of sound changes.  It’s tedious to browse but it does have ideas from around the world.

http://www.incatena.org/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=1533

You can also, informally, look through my numbers list, especially in families with a proto-language listed. You can see a lot of sound changes at a glance. (Admittedly many are obscured by different romanizations.)

I don’t know if anyone has catalogued which are the commonest sound changes, but I’d say not to worry about it too much.  Choose sound changes you like, and which twist the source words in an interesting way. You can’t really criticize a sound change for being weird, especially if at least one natlang does it!  Weird things do happen in language.

Try to think about changes affecting categories of sounds.  E.g. it’s better to have a change that affects all voiced consonants between vowels, rather than one that affects just /d/, or different ones for each consonant.  Especially with lenitions, or simplifications of consonant clusters, your people are likely to approach similar sounds in similar ways.

With vowels, sometimes you can build a chain of changes, such as the Great Vowel Shift in English. Think of it as one vowel moving into another’s territory; that one then moves to escape it, triggering more changes.

Adjoining languages may share sound changes, even if they’re unrelated. E.g. it’s presumably not entirely coincidence that French and German, unlike most of their neighbors, developed ü ö and the uvular R.  Vietnamese has developed tone, like Chinese, though most other Austro-Asiatic languages have not.

Finally, your next question is probably going to be “How do I know when I’m done?” My answer is roughly “When your sound changes affect every word in your sample.” You can also try to impressionistically compare your family to natlangs of a similar time depth. E.g. Latin vs. French is a good example of 2000 years of change; Old vs. Modern German is a good example of 1000 years.  (Or look at written vs. spoken French— written French is a pretty good phonemic representation of the 12th century spoken language.)

 

Ask Zompist: Alphabetical order

Is there a good methodology or series of questions one should ask themselves when determining what the “alphabetical order” will be of one’s alphabet or other writing system? Is there any particular reason why “A” should be before “B” and that before “C”?

—Colin

Great question— the answer may be a bit disappointing. The obvious thing to do is to look at natural language alphabetical orders. Only…

  • The alphabet was really only invented once— by the Canaanites, some time after 2000 BC. Everyone else, including the Jews, Arabs, Greeks, and Romans, adapted their system and kept their order.
  • We really don’t know why that order prevailed. No one even seems to have any good guesses. The World’s Writing Systems never, so far as I could see, covers the topic.

(There are actually two attested ancient orders, you can see a comparison here.)

(Also, technically, the Canaanite writing system was a consonantal alphabet, or abjad. Later, partial vowel symbols were used. The Greeks were the first to represent all their vowels.)

So far so disappointing, but we also have the example of the Brāhmī script, which is the ancestor of Devanāgarī and other Indian and SE Asian scripts. This arose around 300 BC, and the interesting thing about it is that its order is phonetically motivated. Letters are grouped by point of articulation (it starts क ख ग घ ka kha ga gha), and the secondary order is from the back of the mouth to the front: ka…, ca…, ṭa…, ta…, pa… Finally there’s semivowels and then sibilants. A linguist couldn’t have done a better job. The Brāhmī order very likely influenced the order in Korean and Japanese.

(The a‘s aren’t just part of the letter— in these systems a symbol has an inherent vowel. So क alone is ka. You add diacritics for other vowels: कि ki, कु ku, etc.)

There’s one other scheme that might appeal to you: mnemonics. A real-world example is the iroha order for the Japanese kana. It’s a poem which includes every character in the syllabary just once, and still serves as an alternative order for the kana.

Since there aren’t many real-world examples, I think a conlanger is also entitled to use any crazy system they can come up with…

Ask Zompist: How much do individuals matter?

In your first essay on Asimov’s Psychohistory, you wrote:

Discussions of psychohistory usually turn into debates on the role of the individual: can one person significantly affect the course of history or not? We all have our pet cases proving one point of view or the other. I have a strong opinion on the issue– but I’m going to suppress it.

Ok, now what if you don’t suppress your strong opinion on the issue? What’s your take?

—Raphael

king-court-cards

That refers to the Great Man theory, most clearly articulated by Thomas Carlyle. the opposite poles of the debate:

  • History is made by  Great Men, and all you need to study in history is the sequence of great men– mostly kings and religious leaders, though to appear cultured we can throw in a writer now and then.
  • History is made by grand social forces, from the raw and specific (who has the oil or the silver) to the abstract (a widespread desire for national rebirth). Looking at Great Men is simplistic hero worship; social forces produce them, and if one dude didn’t come forward, another would have.

Very roughly, we might call these “old-fashioned” and “modern” ways of writing history. An old-style history was the story of one king after another. A modern history looks at a far wider range of actors, tries to find underlying causes, concentrates not on how leaders differ but on how societies do.

My position isn’t very exciting after all; it’s that both poles are obviously wrong. Or both true, if you prefer.

In general, the Great Man theory is silly. If you have a question like “Why did Europe spill out over the whole globe after 1500?”, then looking at key figures is virtually a waste of time. Even key abstract factors are subject to furious debate. But it’s hard to seriously maintain that that whole process would have proceeded entirely differently if a different set of leaders had won out.

In science and invention, it’s especially evident that very often an idea is just in the air, and we over-fetishize the question of who got it first. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus; the steam engine was a collaboration of a whole series of British and French inventors; the US and USSR were both in a position to develop atomic weapons and spaceships. The development of the Roman Empire, of capitalism, of the industrial revolution, of anti-colonialism, of the civil rights movement, would have gone about the same even if some of their particular founders were hit by a bus.

Plus, I do prefer modern histories! If I read about Ming China, I’d feel cheated by an account of the lives of each of the Zhu rulers.  I want to know about how the laws changed, why they sent out treasure fleets and why they stopped, how well the examination system worked, how the economy was developing, why Neo-Confucianism was so attractive, how administration differed from previous dynasties, how the environmental situation was growing more serious, how women and minorities were faring.

Yet, it still seems obvious to me that certain people change history. Most of Carlyle’s list— Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, Wagner— I’d actually throw out, except for one: Muhammad. Though he had intriguing forerunners, notably Zaid ibn Amr, there was no historical inevitability to a monotheistic religion appearing just then, uniting all of Arabia, and then bursting out to take over territory from Spain to Indonesia.

People can and have speculated endlessly about the US Civil War. I think an excellent case can be made that the Northern victory was not inevitable, but was largely due to three men: Henry Halleck, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. To wit: the war showed that in post-Napoleonic war, defense was far stronger than anyone imagined. The North had far more resources, but struggled for years to put them to effective use. The public, and most generals, believed in huge victories won by frontal assault, something that was simply not possible. Most generals could not comprehend or implement Halleck’s “anaconda strategy” of strangling the South’s production capacity, till Sherman and Grant did. If the plan had taken two or three years more, very likely the North’s will to pursue it would have faded. Lincoln’s assassination, of course, put the country in far less wise hands. It can be doubted if Lincoln could have charted a far more progressive path, but it seems likely that he’d have done better than Johnson.

In science, I’d suggest Albert Einstein. He was by no means the only thinker who could have come up with relativity and quantum theory, but no one else was likely to have come up with all this by 1905. Plus, his and Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb must be one of the most consequential documents in history.

I’m writing about syntax right now, so I have to mention Noam Chomsky. Again, his ideas weren’t unprecedented— Morris Halle had some similar approaches. It’s hard to explain, especially if you’ve actually read Chomsky’s books, but something about his work simply galvanized people. He created a whole field of syntax and has dominated it, for good and ill, for sixty years.

In short… the broad sweep of history would probably be the same without any particular individual. But the identity of entire empires, the spread of entire religions, the success of this or that nation, would be quite different. The timing of scientific discoveries could differ by decades or more.

And of course, once an individual has changed things, that creates a momentum of its own. Once an Islamic empire existed, that had immense impacts on Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and that affected everything from the rediscovery of Aristotle to the spread of coffee drinking.

Stories, of course, can hardly avoid the Great Man syndrome. Probably no one wants to hear how Sauron was defeated by the superior industrial resources of Gondor and the greater appeal of elven ideology. They want to hear about how Aragorn and Gandalf and Frodo did it.

Asimov, whatever he was trying to do, couldn’t help reinforcing the Great Man theory although psychohistory was, in principle, its refutation. He keeps building up Hari Seldon and later R. Daneel Olivaw; he manages to capture the inevitable failure of the Empire without making the rise of the Foundation similarly inevitable.

 

 

 

 

Ask Zompist: Replacing CEOs

In your blog you mentioned that “the CEO system for running corporations is a dangerous anachronism.” I was wondering what you would replace it with – in your perfect world, what system would you design for building and running a global business and ensuring its continuity from one generation to the next? What other cultural or economic changes would go along with the new system if it were implemented throughout society? (E.g. would there still be brand-name identification of consumer products?)

—Geoffrey

zorg

Not the ideal

Great question; I’m not sure I have a great answer. But that’s because we need a whole lot more experimentation. Anti-monarchists couldn’t necessarily describe parliamentary democracy in 1700, either.

First, let’s review the problem. In that post, I pointed out Trump as the epitome of the terrible CEO. He’s a lazy, incurious person who’s used to unquestioning obedience for his terrible ideas, and takes every reverse personally. But he’s not much of an outlier. I’ve met plenty of much smaller-level CEOs, who have the same arrogance and inability to understand their own business. The good CEOs I’ve met are generally the ones who know when to get out of the way of their own workers— the people who actually know the work and know what needs to get done.

Many people are in love with the idea of the strong leader of uncompromising vision. We’re not so enamored of the Louis XIV or the Napoléon these days, but Americans, at least, still admire the entrepreneur who builds up a company from nothing: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller.

I don’t necessarily want to touch that.  On the whole, society benefits when these people build something new.  They should obey labor laws and such, but we don’t need to throw out this part of the system. What we should throw out is the notion that their heirs, or some guy with an MBA, deserve the same deference. If you worship wealth and never address inequality, as Piketty demonstrates, what you get very soon is an aristocracy of rentiers, people who never created anything yet sit on all the accumulated wealth, and whose primary incentive is the maintenance of their own comfort.

So, how do we run a company instead? Two basic approaches:

  • Put someone in charge temporarily
  • Put a representative committee in charge

For now, this comes down to your view of human nature. If you think there needs to be a strong leader (even if his power is limited or we can get rid of him), then you pick Option A. If you distrust all single sources of power, you pick Option B.

Perhaps ironically, in theory option B is what we have now, once the founder is dead. Public corporations have a board of directors, and even rules that a good number of these must come from outside the company; and they pick the CEO. In the US, the board represents the stockholders (i.e. the owners), and it is very possible for them to throw out the CEO.

There are two problems with this.

  • One, boards are in practice not very independent-minded. They’re often friends of the executives and only meet for a brief period every few months.  They’re not deeply involved in the business nor inclined to second-guess the CEO.
  • And two, what the stockholders want is basically more money right now.  This may be completely opposed to the interests of employees, customers, the community, and even investors who are thinking beyond the next 12 months.

A minimal reform is to require that some of these other stakeholders get representation. In Germany, up to half of the board represents labor, though stockholders usually get the determining vote. The idea could be expanded by giving other stakeholders representation.

There are many interesting experiments in corporate governance today, such as:

  • Valve, the company behind Half-Life and Portal as well as Steam, is famously run on near-anarchic lines. Employees literally pick which product they want to work on— and if a product doesn’t attract workers it doesn’t get made. (One does wonder if this is why they never seem to get to release 3 with any of their products.)
  • The first company I worked for is now employee-owned.  It works out well for them, and they were able to weather the 2008 recession in part because they didn’t have the huge expense of a CEO’s salary.
  • NFL management is said to be a huge swamp… except for the Green Bay Packers,  owned by a huge mass of individual Wisconsinites. They’re competitive with other teams and the team stays in Wisconsin.
  • The Mondragon Corporation, of Spain, is a remarkable co-operative firm which employs over 75,000 people.
  • We actually have plenty of examples of non-monarchical institutions: churches, universities, co-ops, many arts organizations or activist groups.

We need more experimentation to see what works. The answer to a lot of objections is going to be “Maybe. We don’t know. We need to try things out.”

The obvious worry is that discussion and representation take time, or at worst tie the entity up in knots. Democratic politics is not exactly known for calm, civilized consensus. In response to that—

  • Again, monarchs suck. We put up with the inefficiencies of democracy because one-man rule really is worse. But the inefficiencies are definitely there.
  • People get better at democracy when cultural norms evolve to support it. I’ve been in endless, unfocused meetings— people flounder if they don’t know what they’re doing. That isn’t a condemnation of the system; it just means that the transition is tricky. People who are not used to power do not automatically know how to use it.
  • There are better and worse decision-making techniques. A huge, completely open-ended meeting is one of the worst. People are better at reacting to concrete proposals than they are at coming up with them. If a proposal is rejected, it’s better for a small group to take it offline than for a large meeting to attempt to redesign it. The group needs a way to table arguments, so it is not dominated by a few eristic individuals. And so on. Heuristics will develop to smooth the process considerably.

One big caveat: democracy is not a cure-all. I think we’d be happier if we could vote who runs the company, or at least vote the current bums out. But that’s not the same as saying we’d be happy.

On the other hand, looking at modern representative democracy, we have to remember that it’s optimized for the logistics of 1790. I’m sure we could do better. One big problem, for instance, is the bundling of policies. At the federal level, there’s no way to say that you want (say) more health care and less immigration.  You can only pick between the two major bundles that are offered. Maybe we need to vote on policies more than on leaders.

Your question on brands is just part of a much bigger question: the optimum size of corporations.  I’m sure a bunch of readers are eager to tell me that the problem is not how to fix corporations, but how to get rid of them. But leftists have, to my knowledge, only come up with a couple alternatives, and they’re contradictory:

  • Nationalize them. So the organizations become massive.
  • Have workers run enterprises directly.  So the organizations must be tiny.

In general, the first approach makes the problem worse. (Some public goods should be nationalized; but I do not want a government commissar, or even a People’s Soviet, deciding what books can be published or what crops can be grown.) And the second approach is largely untested, and of questionable utility for a planet of 7.5 billion people.

It might be nice if every firm was only the size of a village— 150 to 200 people.  But there is such a thing as economies of scale. Really big firms can grow corn, build computers or airplanes, and make action movies really efficiently.  A world of small firms is also, very likely, a world of high prices for consumers. There’s also the problem of competing standards. These should never be a monopoly, even a government monopoly.  And yet it’s kind of a nightmare if you have a hundred competing standards rather than two or three. And if you’re eager to break up Google, do you also want to break up Mondragon?  (They’re about the same size.)

Plus, there’s the inconvenient fact that large firms are far easier to regulate, and can be far more progressive.  A corporation with 75,000 employees can have a professional HR department, great worker amenities, and a commitment to diversity. They’d also be far easier to democratize.  Smaller firms are often run by the most conservative, cranky old despots.

Ideally we should be able to choose both options. Restaurants, for example: it’s nice to have a one-chef gem of a restaurant.  It can also be convenient to have a known brand where the type and quality of the food are predictable (and prices are cheaper).  In art, it’s great to have quirky one- or two-person projects; also to have behemoths that require hundreds of people working together.

Anyway, the one thing I’m certain about here is that future economics is going to surprise us. The modern corporation emerged only 150 years ago, with the invention of the telegraph.  (Adam Smith thought corporations were of limited utility.)  As late as the 1960s, the ideal of corporate governance was a class of professional, medium-income managers hired by the owners; the cult of rock-star CEOs paid in the megabillions was a (stupid) innovation of the 1980s. Right now things look kind of dystopian, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck here.

Ask Zompist: Should life be hard?

First of all, I recognize completely how ironic it is that I ask you this a few months after I asked you about the risk that the world might be destroyed. That said…

There seems to be an idea among right-wingers that usually doesn’t get stated directly, probably because it is so unattractive, but that seems to play an important role in the attitudes of many of them. It’s the idea that life needs to suck, at least to some extent, in order to motivate people to achieve things. 

Now, what if that idea is true? It won’t help much to point out that those on the Right who hold that idea are often hypocrites who don’t want their own lives to suck – after all, the statement “murder is bad” is true even if it is said by a murderer.

It does seem to be true, after all, that in wealthy countries with halfway functioning social safety nets, the really unpleasant jobs are usually done by recent migrants from poorer countries without functioning social safety nets. You yourself have pointed out that historically many sons of kings were pretty worthless. And on a personal note, I was raised in the late 20th century in one of the world’s wealthier countries, and I could never imagine myself doing the regular work of, for instance, an average present day Chinese factory worker. 

Saying that similar complaints were heard in earlier times won’t help much, either – as the above examples show, arguably those “warnings” have “come true”. So, what would happen if all countries in the world ended up relatively wealthy? Where would the migrants to do the really unpleasant jobs come from, then?

—Raphael

First, you’re not the only one to have believed that conservatives want the world to suck. George Lakoff covers this in depth in Moral Politics. Describing the conservative worldview: “The world is a dangerous place. Survival is a major concern and there are dangers and evils lurking everywhere, especially in the human soul.” Strict moral discipline (he continues) is required to survive, and harsh punishment is valuable. Without struggle, “there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.” (His book was from 1996; here’s his more up-to-date thoughts on the election.)

Now, this is essentially a millennia-old response to the problem of evil. I discussed it in the context of the Incatena here, stating it as a problem for the social planner and for God. To put it as convincingly as possible: people who get all what they want and more get spoiled. They may be vaguely benevolent, but have little empathy and no idea of sacrifice or heroism. Those who have overcome suffering are not only stronger but have a better moral character. We might well worry if everyone could live like the children of the super-rich, they would be either weak nothings (Wells’s Eloi) or hedonistic simpletons (Huxley’s Brave New World).

There is, by the way, a left-wing version of this view. The communists, especially the ones who actually organized factory labor or peasants, liked to paint the socialists and democrats as soft and weak, and turned “bourgeois” into  slur. This was taken to an extreme by Maoism, which was forged in the ordeal of the Long March, and cheerfully sent millions of students to labor in the fields. (There’s also a much weaker, but much more widespread,  view that people should live in rural communes or something.)

You’re right that it’s not a complete answer to say that those who advocate this worldview don’t want it for themselves or their children. But it is a partial answer. This worldview is congenial to the powerful— it justifies permanent injustice and absolves them of any need to ameliorate it. That’s a strong reason to distrust it.

Not coincidentally, the suffering-is-good view primarily targets the poor, women, and religious or sexual minorities.  If suffering is good, shouldn’t its advocates want it to be equally distributed? And if suffering produces good moral character, isn’t it curious that the advocates believe that they, the non-suffering, are the moral ones? Shouldn’t those who suffer the most be the most moral?

But we can also attack the claim directly. Suffering doesn’t build character.  Suffering just makes people miserable. When we don’t have an ideology that makes us sympathize with the oppressors, we see this clearly: Mao, for instance, twice destroyed the prosperity of his own revolution, killed millions of people, and wasted the lives of an entire generation.

Plus, though it’s an old moral lesson that hedonism is bad for you, it’s an even older and more basic moral lesson that participating in injustice is wrong. Even if it’s morally uplifting to get robbed, that hardly means that a moral person should be a robber. The world is a dangerous place, but a policy of adding to its dangers doesn’t make someone a moral paragon, but a sociopath.

It’s hard to deny that life for most people, not just in the global North, is better than it was a thousand years ago. Premodern agricultural kingdoms really did suck for 90% of the population. Even the strictest conservative doesn’t exactly want to bring back slavery, trial by ordeal, the Black Plague, nomad invasions, foot-binding, and the constant warfare and cruelty favored by kings. (If you’re dealing with a Christian conservative, ask them if they think Jesus should have left the world in paganism.)

But if you’ve conceded that some suffering should be eliminated, you can hardly object to removing more suffering, except by offering a further and better argument. If ending slavery was good, why not eliminate racism too? In practical terms the argument is really not “all suffering is good”, but “the suffering that generally existed in my childhood is the right amount of suffering”.  That could be the case, but such amazing temporal coincidences are not very convincing.

Also, whether or not suffering has good moral effects, we’re not really not on the verge of a great suffering shortage. There’s still plenty to go around. The 21st century is going to be challenging, not least because there is, oh, the prospect of total ecological collapse. So there is really no need to increase local suffering by, say, removing everyone’s health insurance.

But there is a conworlding exercise here, and I’ll take the bait and consider it. If we could solve our ecological problems and the right wing totally imploded, we could create a world that is both prosperous and egalitarian. Should we worry about people becoming spoiled?

As Lakoff would say, this is in part a framing problem. If we’re creating an ideal society, of course we don’t want “spoiled” people. As progressives, we want people to be nurturing and empathetic instead. If they’re not, we didn’t design very well. But it begs the question to suggest that the design solution is “more suffering”. Suffering isn’t the best way of producing empathy anyway; better to model it and teach it directly.

A deeper answer: as people move up Maslow’s hierarchy of need, they develop new and different concerns and disputes. Are Germans of 2016 “more spoiled” than those of 1016? They’re far richer, but surely we couldn’t say that they’re all spoiled like rich children. If anything, a certain level of material ease facilitates spirituality: you can read, meditate, study, give to the poor. In most religious traditions, a simple lifestyle is a virtue— but being born to it is generally not enough. Being a wandering monk is a choice and meritorious; being a wandering beggar is generally neither.

We can call the average German of 2016 “rich” compared to the one from 1016, but that hardly means that she thinks or acts like a rich man of 1016. If our civilization survives until 3016 and attains a general prosperity, the people of 3016 will be “rich” by our standards, but not by their own, and there’s no particular reason to assume that they will act like today’s rich people (or their spoiled children).

As for unpleasant jobs, I don’t see that as an unsolvable problem. In general, tedious jobs are also the ripest for automation. In advanced countries 99% of people don’t work in the fields. But those who really like that kind of lifestyle can take it.

Ask Zompist: Trump vs Hillary

An alert Twitter user asked me to explain Trump and Hillary. Yes, both of them. I already covered the Republican primaries, but it’s time to update the story and add the Democratic side.

Trump

burns-trumpAs I said in the earlier piece, Trump is not some weird, crazy outlier in the Republican field. Almost all of his rivals were worse. The real extremists in the party hate Trump because he’s not extreme enough.

An old, old piece of GOP strategy, attributed to Richard Nixon, is that to win the GOP primaries you move as far right as possible, and to win the general you move as far left as possible. This is The Pivot.

The summer was filled with predictions that Trump, now exalted as a canny manipulator of press and public, would perfectly execute The Pivot.

It turns out Trump doesn’t pivot.

In the last month Trump attacked a US war hero’s parents, suggested that Hillary should be assassinated by gun nuts, invited a foreign power to hack his opponent, proposed to abandon NATO, picked a petty fight with John McCain and Paul Ryan, and prematurely declared the election fraudulent. Oh, and his just-fired campaign manager Paul Manafort used to work for the pro-Russian party in Ukraine, and the one intervention the Trump people insisted on in the official GOP platform was to soften support for Ukraine against Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, as Clinton is opening campaign offices across the country and spending millions on TV ads, Trump’s campaign staff is less than a hundred people nationwide, and he bought his first TV ad just four days ago. Oh, and he insists on holding rallies in safe Democratic states like Connecticut and California, while key battleground states are starting to lean Democratic.

There’s still over two months to go, and we haven’t seen the debates. But he’s trailing in the polls, he still hasn’t won over all of the party, and he may well not only lose, but make the GOP lose the Senate as well. (Probably not the House: more people will vote for a Democratic Congressman, but thanks to gerrymandering they’ll get a Republican House anyway.)

What went wrong? What happened to the canny manipulator of press and public?

There shouldn’t be any real surprise. Trump didn’t change; he’s always been Trump, acting on the assumption that all press is good press. The thing is, the general election is not the GOP primaries. A strategy of name-calling, provocations, feuds, lies, and general aggression worked to get attention in a large dull candidate field during the primaries; it only turns off the much larger presidential electorate. Plus, a year spent alienating his allies means, well, that he has few allies and even fewer enthusiastic ones.

He’s still going to get a lot of votes and win a lot of states, because of the polarization of American politics. All recent presidential elections have been very close; at least 80% of the electorate will never budge from their parties. And to be fair, a good quarter of the electorate really likes him! And people like Paul Ryan, though pretending to be fair by occasionally criticizing him, will vote for him because he is not apostate on the #1 key element of Republican politics: he will lower taxes on the super-rich.

If he does win, the best we can do is call it Fallout 5 and stockpile bottle caps. If he loses, the interesting question is, what does the GOP do next?

Despite his fascist tendencies, I can’t see him leading an insurrection. If he can’t run a damn election campaign, there’s no way he can run a military operation. It’d be too much work, and too much risk. More likely: TrumpTV.

The campaign has revealed two things: there is a large appetite in the GOP electorate for white populism; and there is nothing the GOP establishment can do to stop it. Of course this is a monster of their own creation— Mitt Romney, the epitome of the establishment, also did his best in 2012 to alienate everyone who wasn’t a well-off, Christian, heterosexual white man. But demographics make this an ever-more difficult strategy— not only are there more and more non-whites, but young whites are turned off by the GOP message. Some of the desperation of current GOP politics is due to their fearful sense that it’s their last chance to get back to the 1950s. Or the 1850s.

But they’re still powerful at the state level, and they’ve got the House. But who are they now? Will there be an organized Trumpist faction, as there is an organized Tea Party far right, and a much less organized establishment? My guess: without Trump, possibly the most heretical Trumpisms will be quietly forgotten, and candidates will simply pander more to the most popular one: anti-immigrant fervor.

(If they’re smart, the establishment will come up with something to discourage Trumps for 2020— but I’m not sure what that is. More superdelegates? Some sort of clever loyalty test? When the whole GOP ecosystem is designed to encourage extremism, it’s not easy to  prepare for The Pivot.)

A bunch of pundits have been worried that Trump has a special appeal to down-and-out white voters allegedly ignored by everyone else. Some responses to that:

  • Most Trump supporters are not working class; their median income is higher than the national figure.
  • Republicans have never ignored poor whites; the whole basis of the Southern Strategy is to forge cultural connections with poor whites in order to advance the interests of the rich.
  • And because the key constituency of the GOP is the 1%, you will never get GOP policies that actually help the working class.

Hillary

As for Hillary, I don’t think there’s much to explain, once you get past thirty years’ worth of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) thrown up by her opponents.

The best article I’ve read on her is this one by Ezra Klein. In brief: there’s a huge perception gap between the general public, who distrust Hillary (though not as much as Trump), and people who have worked with Hillary, who often like her very much.

As a public figure, Hillary has many positives— she’s calm, cautious, hard-working, pragmatic, well informed— but not exactly charismatic. When she’s working with people— and that includes political opponents, or activists she’s only just met— her chief quality is that she’s an excellent listener. She wants to know what you think and what you advise, and she’s likely to turn it into a policy proposal later on. As a Senator, she did surprisingly well with Republican Senators— she didn’t hold grudges from the ’90s and she worked hard to find proposals, however small, that they could both support.

This is a rare quality— Obama doesn’t have it, he comes off to his opponents as what he once was, a professor. And arguably it’s one of the best qualities a president can have. Presidents need to make alliances and motivate people to get a lot done. It’s nothing like being a CEO, where you can just bluster people into submission— yet another reason Trump is spectacularly unsuited for the job.

As for her policies, I’d call her a pragmatic liberal. Despite the animosities of the primary season, she doesn’t have many political differences from Bernie Sanders. (She basically adopted his two biggest policy proposals— free university tuition and a higher minimum wage.) They both come from the more liberal side of the Democratic Party. The big difference is the “pragmatic” part. Sanders seems to have little knowledge about or interest in why big liberal ideas don’t get passed. Hillary has a laserlike focus on what can be done— and she’s willing to take that rather than wait forever for what progressives would prefer. (It also means she doesn’t show much patience with people who want to complain but don’t have any specific proposals for their pet issues.)

In practical terms, she will almost certainly face the same obstacle as Obama— a House in opposition. On the other hand, the Dems will probably get the Senate back, which means a more Democratic judiciary and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. She might do better than Obama working with the House… but until House GOP members start losing seats because of their obstructionism, they are going to be far more afraid of Tea Party challengers than they are of the President.

(On the meager plus side… though there’s going to be drama, I think both sides have discovered the advantages of kicking the can down the road. So we won’t actually be getting that free tuition, or cap-and-trade, but at least we probably won’t get the Paul Ryan Plutocracy Budget.)

Here too the interesting question is: where does the party go next? Two years ago no one would have predicted that a self-declared “socialist” could almost get the nomination. We’re finally seeing, I think, the long-awaited surge of progressivism after the reactionary turn of the 1980s.

The fervor is there; what’s lacking is organization. The conservatives learned this long ago: you become an influence in your party not by voting for a presidential candidate, but by running candidates locally, wearing down your shoe leather to drum up support, ferrying voters to the polls on election day, and running your own media outlets.  And above all, voting even in midterms.

 

Ask Zompist: Are we all doomed?

The recent wave of terrorist attacks has made me worry if technology will ever, or during this century, advance to the point where regular terrorists are able to destroy the world. Humanity has, so far, survived 71 years when it was possible to blow up the world if you had the resources of a superpower. But what if technology advances further to the point where destroying the world gets within the means of your average, run-of-the-mill doomsday cult? Or even a deranged individual like Ted Kaczynski?

Related to this, I think if we would really live in a world like that of James Bond movies or superhero comics, with supervillains regularly trying to destroy the world, the world wouldn’t survive for long: in order for the world to survive, the James Bonds/superheroes would have to win every single time, while in order for the world to be destroyed, the villains would only have to win once. And eventually that one time would come- if you keep rolling the dice, sooner or later they will come up six.

–Raphael

Man, with Britain voting to screw itself, Turkey going full dictatorship, and Trump promoting fascism here, to say nothing of humans slowly roasting the ecosphere, you don’t have enough to worry about?

For what it’s worth, if the world gets blown up, it’s still more likely to be a superpower that does it. Or at least a medium-sized state. This isn’t meant as a reassurance; it’s a reminder that we’ve escaped from nuclear holocaust by the skin of our teeth several times.  Here’s a Mefi page on near misses.

For non-state actors, a weak consolation is that though they are careless about human life, they are rarely self-genocidal. That is, there’s a rough rationality to extremism: atrocities are cheap and get attention, but the extremists do not actually want their enemies to destroy them all, because of course then their cause is dead. Of course, like any other politicians, extremists can misjudge likely results. Osama bin Laden probably didn’t plan on getting killed in a raid.

It’s always worthwhile to get some historical perspective. Here’s a chart of terrorist deaths over 40 years:

Terrorism_fatalities_1970-2010

That is, outside of three countries (two of which are basically in civil war), terrorism is down worldwide. (Also, for comparison, the annual number of road traffic deaths is 1.25 million.)  Nothing to be complacent about, but we can too easily get the impression from the news that everything is terrible and always getting worse.

If you’re thinking of futuristic threats, it’s also worth remembering that people will have a strong motivation to develop futuristic counters. It’s not great worldbuilding (or prediction) to suppose that some agents get doomsday-in-a-box weapons and the motivation to use them, while their enemies have no clue about this, no similar weapons, and no conceivable responses.

Not that doom is impossible! But terrorists generally have their own enemies, they don’t want to destroy the world, and their abilities are limited. But feel free to be terrified of Trump with the nuclear football.

Ask Zompist: Overwatch accents

In your review of Overwatch, you said that you appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. However, I have read some complaints that the French accent of Widowmaker sounds fake. Since I have heard similar complaints about Leliana of the Dragon Age series, and since both are voiced by French people, I would like to know if this perception comes from actors deliberately exaggerating their pronunciation, or if Hollywood or something similar have misled people into what constitute a true foreign accent.
Cordially,
Antonin BRAULT

Standards are changing, so I think this issue is in flux.

I can tell you what isn’t acceptable any more: mangling foreigners’ accents as in this book.

That is, it would be completely offensive if instead of having a Korean-Japanese-American woman (Charlet Chung) voice D.Va, they’d had a white American attempt a Korean accent.

So far as I can judge, Chloé Hollings, the voice of Widowmaker, pronounces the French perfectly— as she should; she’s French.

Is her French accent exaggerated? Yes, of course; Hollings is bilingual and speaks excellent English. I don’t have any inside knowledge of Blizzard’s production, but one can imagine for many of these voices a scene something like this:

Voice actor: (pronounces a line perfectly)

Director: Great! Only… can you make it sound more French?

And the director does have a point! If they’ve gone to the trouble of hiring bilingual voice actors, they kind of don’t want perfectly unaccented English. The characters are supposed to be cartoony, so they want to reach the sweet spot where the accents communicate the character but remain attractive. (Americans, at least, react negatively to a heavy foreign accent, but find a light accent enchanting.)

With Dragon Age, I saw a page that noted that Corinne Kempa (voice of Leliana) simply didn’t have the type of French accent Americans expect to hear. Again, American viewers aren’t very sophisticated here; few could even identify different varieties of French. (I liked Leliana— it was nice to have a fantasy game that didn’t over-rely on British accents.)

It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I think Blizzard took a pretty good approach. I also like the fact that, except for the two ninjas, the characters aren’t defined by their nationalities. E.g. Mei is a climatologist, who just happens to be Chinese. Zarya is much more defined as “butch power-lifting soldier” than as Russian. They do paint with a broad brush, but they’re nodding much more to media images than to ethnic stereotypes— e.g. McCree is a version of Clint Eastwood; Junkrat refers to Mad Max.  One character they could have done better with, in my opinion, is Pharah, who should speak some Arabic.

Edit: The new character, Ana, does speak some Arabic.