MIT (3): Rationality

One of the lessons one learns from studying political philosophy is which philosopher to start with, and the answer is anyone. Reading one philosopher leads to another and another so that after a few years, you’ve read enough to actually know something have a feel for the subject. I find the same is true for rationality or human cognition and politics:  considering rationality deeply leads to question after question so that after a few years, one looks at the whole field of politics, government, and political science through the lens of rationality and human cognition.

I came to MIT with a Course 6 background in electrical engineering (EE) and computer science (CS). I had studied artificial intelligence (AI) at the graduate level, so I knew something about rationality and human cognition from a computational perspective, and I thought it would be helpful and important to understand how Course 17 political scientists thought about cognition so I signed up for a course with Professor Charlie, a purported superstar within the department. It was a small course that met in the main building at MIT, not too far from the Infinite Corridor, the 825 foot hallway that is at the heart of the Institute. Every time I walked there, I wondered who was walking by and felt privileged to have the opportunity to study there. However, I read the assigned material, but it just didn’t feel real to me. There was a great deal of emphasis placed on probabilistic reasoning, but I wondered how that translated to actual decision-making. There was a great deal of reasoning placed on microeconomic rational choice theory, but that felt like it made heroic assumptions to achieve closed-form solutions. There was a week when we got to read Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s prospect theory, which I liked because it matched up to what I knew about the real world, or at least what I knew about the real world from an CS/AI perspective.

Part of the reason for my intellectual agitation concerned my experience with my master’s thesis project. I wrote 10,000 of computer code in a summer, which is something I don’t recommend if you want to keep your sanity. However, what’s interesting is how I worked with treated the code. That is, I was very careful with the code because when I changed it, I didn’t really know how it would change the code’s behavior. So I made sure to change only one thing at a time, test it, and go to the next thing only when I was sure the code was working properly. One might ask, what does this have to do with political systems? Good question because, even though this code was 10,000 lines long, I reasoned that political systems were far more complex and irregular than that. Moreover, I was the world’s foremost expert on this code, by far, because I created it — nobody knew more about that complex system than I did. So how could MIT professors propose radical — which is to say large and significant — changes to political systems and have any hope of predicting their outcome when I was making small changes to a far simpler and logical system and often being significantly surprised?  Because this was based on my actual experience, I took it to be, as the philosophers say, “the truth,” or as they say at Harvard, “Veritas.’

I went to Prof. Charlie’s office hours in an old temporary WWII barracks, Building 20, with my concerns and questions, but the discussion didn’t go well. Charlie was an Ivy League educated political scientist, philosopher, and legal scholar who, as far as I could tell, even though he was a tenured MIT professor, had even less background in Course 6 than I had in Course 17, which wasn’t much at all. Moreover, while I had great appreciation and desire to learn Course 17 materials, he appeared not to think much of Course 6. So there were a host of interesting questions that spanned the two fields, such as does computational theory, which is based on logic, apply to political science and philosophy? How was the rationality we were studying different, and why didn’t it match up? Charlie quickly got exasperated with me and told me to, “Just write something” and shooed me out of his office.

MIT (2): Settling in at Course 17

When I arrived at MIT to study political science or Course 17, I was a bit unusual. My background, unlike my fellow students, was primarily technical. I had an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering (EE) and a master’s in computer science (CS), which at MIT is called Course 6. But I thought MIT, of all places, would be able to help and guide my transition from Course 6 to Course 17. I knew it would be difficult, but I felt it was something that I had to do. It just seemed to me that, based on my previous political experience, addressing the hard policy problems of the future could benefit from a Course 6 perspective.

I took four courses my first semester, and three of them — foreign policy, political philosophy, and American politics — went well. My grades had previously been based on technical problem sets, projects, or papers, but this was my first experience being graded on my ability to read and express myself in written English. Needless to say, it was pretty stressful, but at this point I was committed.

In these classes, the papers started coming due, and I wrote them, and when I received the papers back, I was doing well! It was a revelation! I worked on length, structure, and organization on 5 to 8 page papers that were due about every couple of weeks to once a month. Thinking back, foreign policy was very historical, so we worked through American foreign policy with lots of supplementary readings. Once secret about MIT is that the undergraduates are just as smart and hardworking as the graduate students, so I attended the undergraduate’s foreign policy lecture, did some extra reading, and wrote some extra papers for graduate credit. The reading was pretty intense but fun. Later on, I taught foreign policy at a small college and dialed back the reading to adjest for the school. After giving the class, I had to dial it back the reading load again because MIT is as advertised — they pile on the work.

In the American politics class I read a bunch of stuff that I never would have read any place else. I especially remember our readings on prairie politics, which bordered on socialism. As an aside to our study of prairie populism, free silver, and agrarian radicalism, we spent a little bit of time looking into the political interpretations of The Wizard of Oz. The farmers of the day were being exploited by the banksters, who were putting them in a no win situation. Williams Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech was an argument for people and against the banks. When I heard Donald Trump speaking after the Iowa Caucuses and saw the connection he had with middle America, I thought back to these issues and arguments.

Political philosophy, once again, was at the undergraduate level, and we read Hobbes, Locke, John Stewart Mill, and Nietzsche. I had always liked political philosophy although I had never studied it very much and, truth be told, I didn’t know very much about it. This class was excellent because it provided a good foundation by reading four classic modern authors. A short biography discussed how brilliant Nietsche was as a young scholar but how he eventually suffered a complete mental collapse. Such concerns seemed quite remote and distant at the time. I was quite surprised at the end of the semester when I cracked with three A’s in Course 17. I was happy and confident.

Political philosophy had one other graduate student, a guy from Oxford, the first I had met after going to a big state school as an undergraduate. However, my Oxford friend stayed at Course 17 for only a year because he understood what a healthy department looked and felt like. My antenna weren’t quite so sensitive, so I lurched headlong into the quirks and idiosyncracies of the department. Recall that I said that I took four courses my first semester, and so far I’ve only mentioned three. They say that at the higher levels of politics, being naive is worse than being malicious, and that was certainly the case in my fourth class.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior as Socialism Cautionary Tale

There is a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow called Christ the Savior, and I often share its story as a cautionary tale of socialism. I’m going to tell its story because I believe that recounting it can reveal some lessons about historical socialism, modern socialism, and Christianity. The story takes place in three sections: detonation, delay, and rebuilding.

Everyone knows that socialists and communists are famously atheistic: they are so scientific and rational that they don’t need religion, which no less a communist than Karl Marx said was, “an opiate to the masses.” So to help prove their point, the communists generally in the form of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Stalin particularly detonated the Cathedral in 1931 even though it took nearly 40 years to build. It was a nice building, which hosted the first performance of the 1812 overture, but it was standing in the way of progress, so it had to go. Allow me to make a couple of observations. First, as with most thing communist and socialist, it’s easy to destroy but hard to build and create, and leftists excel at the former. In this way, communists and socialists are like ISIS and Muslim terrorists who aren’t very good at creating and building but are magnificent at destroying.

The Soviets didn’t detonate the Cathedral without a plan though — oh no! It was detonated to make room for a colossal Palace of the Soviets to house the USSR’s legislature, the Supreme Soviet. Construction started in 1937 but there were some flooding problems from the nearby Moskva River. Then World War II started, and a few million people were killed, by Stalin and Hitler, so the Palace never got built. Instead Nikita Khrushchev turned the flooded foundation of the Palace of the Soviets that never got built into the world’s largest open aired pool — like I said, it’s easier to destroy than to create as any communist or terrorist can tell you. Instead,

Eventually the communists and soviets ran out of other people’s money, and the flag of the USSR was lowered for the last time on Christmas 1991. The good thing is that the Russians, after having lived through the horrors of communism, socialism, and totalitarianism, had a deep understanding of their cultural heritage that was lost, and so the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt between 1995 and 2000, with much of the funding coming from ordinary citizens, the purported beneficiaries of communism and socialism.

As Christianity is attacked in the 21st century by all manner of globalists, socialists, and terrorists — though thankfully, blatant communists seem to be quite rare — it is instructive to reflect on the cautionary tale of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior because destroying is a lot easier than building, and only after destroying may one realize what has been lost.


But What About the Poor?

When I was growing up in California, my parents took a newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. Every day, before school, I would read about California Democrats. I remember clearly that their standard response to any and every policy proposal was the same, “What about the poor?” Want to build a road? What about the poor? Want to build a sewer? What about the poor? Want to build a luxury hotel? What about the poor? Regarding the luxury hotel, a certain percentage of the hotel rooms had to be set aside so that poor people could enjoy luxury hotel rooms.

Even as a teenager, this seemed like the dumbest thing in the world. Do poor people really benefit from have a certain number of luxury hotel rooms set aside for them? Really, does that help? Might there be other benefits and efforts that would be more effective? It seemed to me that what was driving the incessant questioning of “What about the poor?” wasn’t so much a real concern about the poor but about politics and political power. Specifically, the question “What about the poor?” was as much about the poor as it was about Democrats achieving political power.

The process by which the question, “What about the poor?” helps Democrats to achieve political power wasn’t clear to be then as this was before I learned the terms, “identity politics,” “political correctness,” “social justice,” and “virtue signaling,” but it was clear that the energy and concern seemed more driven by self-interest than empathy.

Several emotional dynamics drive the Democrat question, “What about the poor?” The first is, in California, intelligent, talented, and cooperative people working with other intelligent, talented, and cooperative people in a beautiful land creates a lot of wealth. The California Democrats, in contrast, seemed not so intelligent, talented, and cooperative, and yet they were very ambitious and not a little envious. The question, “What about the poor?” allows them to insert themselves into the activities and intelligent, talented, and cooperative people and control them, resulting in political power and access to tax dollars.

Moreover, such questioning is difficult to argue against. The for arguments allow the not-so-intelligent, not-so-talented, and not-so-cooperative to be speakers of truth and champions of justice without thinking to hard. And the newspaper articles and glowing TV interviews almost write themselves. Ultimately the California Democrat question, “What about the poor?” is dumb, ineffective at helping the poor, but effective at helping Democrats achieve career success.

For many years, this was just explained away as part of the cost of doing business, even though, as a teenager, I could tell this line of reasoning was effective in the short-term but ultimately dumb. However, the costs of doing business this way seem to have grown while the benefits, as I thought back then, never really obtained. California’s recent flirtations with high-speed rail, impossibly expensive healthcare, and decaying infrastructure all show that these casts cannot be borne indefinitely…


Deep-State Dinner Theater

Mark Steyn coined the phrase, “Deep-State Dinner Theater,” implying that the “Muh Russians” narrative put forth by the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats is an amusing pastime. The phrase captures an essential truth — that is, that the narrative is more fiction than non-fiction. I do not share Steyn’s view. but it is not quite apparent what the most accurate view is, what it implies, and what is likely to happen. There are three likely scenarios that come immediately to mind: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The “good” is that President Trump knows what he’s doing and is more than capable of playing 3-dimensional chess with the Democrats and Republicans In Name Only (RINOs). There are several reasons to believe this story. First, Trump has proven quite capable of dealing with difficult politics after dealing with the Republican primaries, Hillary, and James “Deep State” Comey. However, there is the matter of Robert Swan Mueller III as a special prosecutor, who just happened to be named FBI Director a week before 9/11 by President George W. Bush, the same position coincidentally held by James Comey. Mueller keeps hanging around and hiring old Clinton lawyers, which is more than a little unnerving.

The “bad” is that the government will not go after the only crimes that we know were committed, the leaking of classified information and of Trump administration names by the Obama administration, and will instead focus on the Russian narrative put forward by the Obama administration and the deep state because the narrative exists only to protect the Obama administration and the deep state. Just today, CNN and the Washington Post put forward a new, improved, and revised version of the Russian narrative. Note that these are two of the official information outlets of the deep state:

  • When the CIA wants to leak a damaging story they coordinate with the Washington Post and ABC. (and vice-versa).
  • When the State Dept. or FBI/DOJ wants to leak a damaging story they coordinate with CNN and the New York Times. (and vice-versa)

This consistent pattern has NEVER been broken, and it wasn’t broken today either. The Democrat and RINO deep state would not put the effort into the narrative unless there was an endgame and they were working towards an end goal, but it is not clear to me what that endgame is at this time. Is the goal merely and expression of frustration at having lost (and continuing to lose), is it meant to obstruct, or are they really going to try and impeach Trump? At this point, we don’t know.

The “ugly” concerns violence, of which there has been plenty: the anti-Trump violence in San Jose, the silencing of Republican voices, and most recently the shooting of Steve Scalise. The summer of #resistance could be merely expressive but could take a more physical form. The violence would have a political purpose to convince Americans that Trump cannot protect them and would choose an alternative, any alternative to grant a measure of peace and security. Already the idea of President Pence has has been floated, but to what purpose, we shall have to wait and see.

Espionage in the 21st Century

Growing up in 20th century America, it was easy to be a fan of James Bond, who had not just a license to kill but girls and cars, which was far better. Looking back, James Bond helped make the Cold War fun, but all good things must come to an end. The Cold War ended just as I was being exposed for the first time to the security world, and its realities were far more mundane than they looked in the movies. Yet espionage and spying retain a certain allure and relevance in the 21st century. Retired Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said, “There are more spies in the United States today from foreign nation states that at any time in our history — including the Cold War.” That’s quite a claim, but I cannot help but wonder, what are they all doing? Rogers explains, “They’re stealing everything. If it’s not bolted down, it’s gone. And if it’s bolted down, give them about an hour — they’ll figure out how to get that, too.”

The evidence for these assessments isn’t at all clear, and Rogers seems to rely on the professional judgement of the intelligence community (IC). However, the IC’s interest isn’t exactly academic — their professional livelihood is tied up with the continuation and perpetuation of the intelligence game, and at times it really can seem like a game. Recently, it was revealed that the German spy agency, the BND, has been spying on the White House, but of course a few short years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had excoriated the US for spying on her. Game indeed.

But to extract the emotion or affect out of the espionage game for just a moment, spying activities mostly entail simple data gathering so that governments can make informed policy decisions. The data gathered is organized by the processing, exploitation, and dissemination or PED process by which information or intelligence is gathered, made sense of, and put in products that are briefed to and consumed by senior decision makers. The intelligence can come from many different sources such as signals (SIGINT), images (IMINT), or humans (HUMINT). Analysts can specialize in each of these types of intelligence (or INT), which can then be combined by all-source analysts to create products that integrate and combine many types of INT. Simple right?

However, reintroducing affect reveals that a certain emotional satisfaction is derived by the espionage process. Knowing what others do not grants a feeling of being in on a secret, of being on “the inside,” of being “in the know,” a feeling of power. And that’s the key: controlling large armies doesn’t really confer power in the 21st century — though it helps — but having the crucial, inside information does. Of course leveraging that information for power, influence, and money is not always a straightforward process, but once again, it helps.


Finally there is the matter of reaching out, touching, and influencing other political actors, which in the IC is called operations, the fundamental activity of politics. So fundamental is this relationship between intelligence and operations that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has traditionally been comprised of two directorates: the Directorate of Intelligence (DI, now the Directorate of Analysis or DA) and the Directorate of Operations (DO). Of course there are many specialties and variations of the basics of intelligence gathering, analysis, and influence, which only appear to be ever more salient in the 21st century.

Supercar Lists

I have an affinity for what Esquire, back when it was good, called “dangerous knowledge.” We’re not talking about the kind of dangerous knowledge described by the BBC documentary in which scientists understand something so complex about the world that being unappreciated by their colleagues drives them to suicide. However, we are talking about an underlying order to the world around us that escapes the knowledge of the average person. Recently I read an article by Bret Berk at Car on Driver on supercar lists, which describes how the super rich buy special edition Aston Martins, McLarens, Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis that are even more expensive and exclusive than the cars that I already can’t afford — like this Porsche.

I could recount the article from my good friend Bret, but he did such a good job that it would be both redundant and hard to do. However let me review my three big takeaways. First, I didn’t even know there were specialty lists for even more exclusive than showroom exotic cars. I remember going to Jim Loose Imported Cars in Palo Alto growing up, which was like the coolest place in the world. But knowing that there are lists of buyers who are available to snap up even more exclusive and limited edition cars — that was a revelation to me.

Second of course is the economics drives the existence of these lists. Making high-end cars for wealthy clients is profitable because buyers will pay a premium for the additional exclusivity. Says Matt Clarke, Aston Martin North America’s director of marketing and communications. “I can be blunt and say the specials, as we call them, they’re profitable.” But mere money isn’t enough to buy one of these cars because there are a number of additional factors at play with these specials. It helps if you have a relationship with the local dealer by having bought cars from that marque previously. Also it helps if the car will be used frequently and shown widely, because it doesn’t make sense to have a beautiful car if nobody gets to see it or ride around in it. Finally it helps if you don’t turn around and sell the car immediately, because they do tend to appreciate, just to make a quick profit because that jeopardizes the relationship and — let’s face it — it just isn’t cool.

Finally, there’s a behavioral economics aspect to supercar lists that I found nonintuitive. When the list of high-end, wealthy clients is created by a manufacturer, they figure that half the people will “flake out” because they’re not liquid enough — that is, they don’t have the cash on hand — or their interest level isn’t high enough. Then the list is halved by the manufacturer again so only half the demand is met. This seems counterintuitive because they could make more money by making even more cars. However, by creating unmet demand, the manufacturer creates  greater satisfaction from the half who received a car and desire in the half who didn’t. This then creates an opportunity to push the desirous half to other products in the short-term or other lists in the long-term. It’s a complex business and a complicated world!


MIT (1): In the Belly of the Beast

Many conservatives want to quit their jobs and become a conservative writer full time. A few years ago, I actually did that in the belly of the liberal beast in Cambridge, MA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which everybody just calls MIT. There I studied political science — what they call Course 17 — and was pretty excited about it because I already had degrees in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) — what they call Course 6 — so I figured MIT was a natural fit.  I knew Cambridge was very liberal, but I figured so long as I kept my arguments logical and empirical and stayed away from quoting Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and William F. Buckley at length then I’d be okay.

Was I wrong! It turns out that Course 17 wasn’t just liberal, it was almost pure socialist. I thought when I was in Course 17 that I was at MIT, but it turns out that the thought processes of Course 17 are fundamentally different from and incompatible with Course 6. Figuring this out took a while though. And part of the reason I wanted to run this particular experiment — being a Course 6 guy in Course 17 — was to understand, “From where would the pressure come?” That is, how would I get in trouble, and how would I find out, and what would happen? Would it be a direct confrontation? Would it be a behind the back stealth attack? And how would I even know?

Even then I wouldn’t take the time to write up my experiences. conservatives when they tangle with socialists tend to take their licks and move on, which I understand and sometimes even admire, and I don’t want to be that guy that hangs onto something that would be better left forgotten. But the same socialist attacks I experienced at MIT were pretty severe, turned out to be just plain wrong, and have significant policy consequences. This write-up is being undertaken because I think the story might be entertaining and informative, but there’s just one way to find out — write it up and put it out there. However, there’s a second reason: similar attacks are being used by the political establishment and deep state in the United States Government (USG) to the point that they threaten the effectiveness of the USG and the health of America. So I want to write up what happened because what I experienced at MIT is constrained, defined, and historical. That is, I have the benefit of hindsight, while the current deep-state machinations being directed at the new administration are ongoing.  Experience shows that Course 17 likes the wealth and status associated with being at MIT, which is driven by the Institute’s excellence in EECS (Course 6), Physics (Course 8), and Mathematics (Course 18). The problem with Course 17 is that it doesn’t really stress the “science” in political science — instead it stresses the politics.

I earned by computer science degree at a different school on the east coast, and there I heard rumors of PhD students giving traditional lectures on say history with no leftist content or perspective and receiving phone calls in the middle of the night from rabid socialists who were going to “get them” and “destroy their careers.” Being a computer scientist, this made little sense, and I had to admit that I didn’t really believe the stories. I thought that the conservative students were insufficiently brave and that I was going to show them how it was done. After all, I was pretty smart and an EECS guy at an EECS school, what could go wrong? Besides, I wanted to help: I was a kid from America who wanted to do good. I was also smart enough to realize that one doesn’t go into a top department and start broadcasting that you’re a conservative from the start. So my initial position was to focus on the natural environment because it combined science, quantitative analysis, and policy, which seemed a natural combination that would be appreciated by the professors in Course 17. Understanding the behavior of the global environmental system required the science and engineering of Course 6, but formulating policies that preserved the global environment required an understanding of political science, policy, and Course 17.

In fact, it’s not even clear what being a “conservative” means. Classic works like those from Edmund Burke indicate that conservatism is more a perspective than a field of study, so I will devote some time to exploring that question in this blog. Finally, I realized that becoming a political science professor was a long shot, but I figured I could always fall back on my EECS degrees. It’s good to have a backup plan when doing something fun but not very remunerative like studying political science, and it turned out that backup plan was very much needed and returned benefits that were impossible to predict when I packed up a trailer, got in my car, and headed across country to big, bad MIT.


Spy Fiction

I grew up reading spy fiction, which was wonderful. In fact, so total was my commitment to that literary genre of espionage that I read little else. There were highs and lows — sometimes the quality of the prose wasn’t stellar, and sometime the plotting wasn’t exactly… realistic. My dad often wondered how these spies could keep going for days without sleeping, and indeed they did tend to go on for a while. But most importantly, they introduced the idea to me of how to operate abroad — in fact, spy fiction authors introduced me to the very idea that there was an abroad!

As I think about the current state of the globalized 21st century world, it seems that literary non-fiction or narrative journalism has a role to play in explaining today’s international milieu. That is, the relationship between politics, money, and interconnected global processes is so complex that it seems like there’s an opportunity for spy fiction to tell that story. Sundance at The Conservative Treehouse has done an excellent job showing how politicians are really salesmen for their corporate sponsors, especially those who have grown rich through globalization, trade, and legislation.

Explaining the machinations behind the deep state and the political establishment appears to be an amazing opportunity for a talented writer. Every time I go to DC, it seems like people go there from all over the world to engage in activities that the rest of America gets to pay for and deal with but knows very little about because the unelected deep-state establishment in DC is a society apart. So many espionage books focus on the Nazis of World War II or the Soviets of the Cold War, but the Bourne movies showed how those traditional themes and storylines can be reworked and placed into more modern settings.

And what might those modern settings be? Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels are essentially timeless as they discuss the Kafka-esque theme of the individual within a bureaucracy. I am somewhat more partial to an insight John Le Carre had at the end of his career: specifically that the international action in the 21st century concerned multi-national corporations and economics rather than nation-states and security. I believe the Tailor of Panama was an early attempt, but it still feels dated and stale to me. They say that there are more spies running around now than ever before, so isn’t it natural to wonder what they’re doing?