Mamet, Feynman, and Conservatism

Recently, Sundance at The Conservative Treehouse (TCT) wrote about liberal playwright turned conservative playwright David Mamet who somewhat famously said:

In order to continue advancing their illogical arguments modern liberals have to pretend not to know things

Mamet is a wordsmith and analyst of human nature, so he says that liberalism must by definition be illogical. An expert logician would say that any system of complex enough to be interesting, which includes social systems, will have a certain amount of internal inconsistency, but Mamet contends that the inconsistency goes way beyond accepted and understandable levels.

A related though stronger argument than Mamet’s is offered by physicist Richard Feynman (MIT ’39, Nobel ’65) who said that, the game he plays is a very interesting one called, “Imagination in a Straightjacket.”  That is, what he imagines must agree with everything he knows, and Feynman knew a lot. If what he imagines doesn’t agree with what he knows, then he immediately gives up. The integration of large amounts of knowledge in Feynman’s brain constituted his theoretical and cognitive straitjacket.

This mental discipline should apply to policy formation, but I can assure you that it does not. 21st century policy is based on the advertising ethic — “the truth is that which sells.” As Sundance points out, the very smart people in the political establishment spend a lot of time figuring out how to benefit from and sell policies, but very little thought goes into ensuring that they’re workable and benefit their intended audience.

This, it seems to me, is a good working definition for conservatism, the consideration and integration of all known knowledge to ensure workable and sustainable policies. This seems to be what Mamet is alluding to. Moreover, this is not what the modern globalist and socialist political establishment does though this is what everyday citizens expect. The new wave of nationalist politicians would do well to formulate policy based on Feynman’s discipline, but doing so will be hard.

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MIT (6): International Relations (IR)

After dealing with the quirks, comments, and concerns of Prof. Charlie, it was off to a big second semester trying to be a conservative at MIT in the belly of the socialist beast. That semester I took a class from Prof. Alpha who had been a math major as an undergrad, which in the vernacular of MIT is Course 18. Being a EE/CS or Course 6 kind of guy, I was looking forward to Alpha’s theory of international relations (IR) class. The only problem was that Alpha was teaching alternatives to the standard theories, and since my back ground in IR or Course 17 political science was somewhat shallow, it was going to be challenging to understand the alternatives without having been taught the standard IR theory, but I was always up for a challenge.

Alpha taught many concepts that were considered slightly “out there.” These include political geography, the idea that there are world centers that change over time, such as from Amsterdam to London to New York, and that what’s nearby matter more than what’s far away. Also, Alpha introduced me to Anthony D. Smith and nationalism studies, which made a lot of sense to me but seemed to politically correct for my fellow students. Alpha had us read James Grier Miller’s Living Systems, because he recognized that political systems were complex social systems. More on that later. Finally, Alpha taught me the importance of the secondary literature by having us read commentaries on Thucydides, which I remember because the précis used the word “navel” as an adjective to describe sea battles, which was not correct — oops. We also took a test to see how Machiavellian we were, which I almost maxed out. One of my classmates said, “I can’t believe I got a higher score than Lowell!”

One thing I noticed about my fellow students was that they often were quiet and didn’t ask questions, while I was always talking, especially in Alpha’s class. He liked that I had a Course 6 background, so we were always alluding to mathematics but I seldom knew exactly what he was talking about. The class had a significant break, and I remember one day several students asking me what Alpha was talking about, but I had to confess that I really didn’t know, I was just trying to keep up. But I was learning lots and even though I was struggling a bit, Alpha was supportive, which was nice.

MIT (5): Meeting With Charlie

I had tried to arrange a meeting with Prof. Charlie several times, but his demeanor was always stand offish, distant, and strange. As a student, it’s easy to take this kind of behavior personally, so I dismissed it initially. But as I walked to Charlie’s office for our meeting, I was hoping for an A, which would have given me four A’s for my first four classes, which would have been an auspicious start to my new career in political science. The meeting was in Building 20, a “temporary building” from WWII that had somehow managed to survive past the cold war. The floors in the hallway outside Charlie’s office were worn, wavy wood and walls were made of decades old plywood. Charlie’s office was spare and dimly lit. I sat in a chair in front of Charlie’s desk, where he told me my paper deserved an F. I was surprised.

He said that he had checked up on my other grades. This was surprising because when he found the three A’s, I expected that this would cause him to think that maybe my paper had a point. Instead, Charlie was just looking for information to support his point, that my paper was flawed and that I was flawed. When the information didn’t agree with his assessment, he immediately discounted it in a process called, “selection bias.”

I was caught off guard and off balance. I thought we would discuss the content of the paper, identify what was good and bad, what needed to be worked on, and perhaps be assigned some additional reading. I expressed to Charlie my expectations, and he said that was not possible. My head was spinning, and Charlie sensed that, so he said to come back in a few weeks and we would discuss next steps. I left the meeting, Charlie’s office, Building 20 and walked across the dark December MIT campus with my head spinning. How could I have gotten this paper so wrong?

I went home and reviewed the logic, and it all made sense to me. Hayek’s thesis that over-centralization of information prevented political and economic systems from working effectively was recognized theoretically with a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1974, and fall of the Soviet Union because of socialism seemed to provide a significant and relevant empirical case. This seemed to me to be a highly relevant and applicable argument because it connected human rationality — specifically, bounded rationality — to politics. Moreover, the fact that extreme democracy, having people vote on all important issues, would place a premium on the packaging and transmission of information via the mainstream corporate media rather than Soviet-style planning commissions, seems to have changed the type and form of the informational bottleneck while giving it the appearance of distributed cognition rather than solving the actual information processing cognitive problem.

I made another appointment with Prof. Charles prepared with my argument and sat again in front of his desk. He said that the paper couldn’t be salvaged or rewritten. I said that I disagreed because that I was trying to do was this. Before I could defend my paper, Prof. Charles interrupted me, by raising his voice and shouting, “You’re paper meant nothing — Nothing!” His emotionally reflexive outburst left me a little stunned. Quite frankly I expected more professional behavior from a tenured MIT professor. Charles gathered himself and said that he was going to give me an incomplete for the class, I could not rewrite the paper, and that was final.

I left Charlie’s office for the second time, but for some reason I felt better than last time. First, there was nothing to do but focus on next semester’s courses, so there was an increased clarity of purpose. Second, I wasn’t going to forget about the problem, instead I was going to park the problem because Charlie didn’t actually refute the paper, he ended the conversation with an emotional outburst, which raised several questions. Why was he so upset? And why wouldn’t he talk about it?

 

MIT(4): Democracy

Prof. Charlie had written a book on democracy that I thought would be good to read and comment on with respect to rationality because it would show that I’m interested in Charlie’s work, thereby laying the foundation for future conversions, and it would help to establish connections between individual cognition and group-level politics, which seemed reasonable since I was taking the course for political science credit. Also, according to the rumors among the graduate students in the department, this work was the basis for his tenure decision. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I began Charlie’s book, which was — in a word — terrible. Charlie was an advocate of extreme democracy, which appeared to be part of the “workable socialism 2.0” literature.

Charlie’s primary idea was that tradition socialism was problematic due to an over centralization and an over-reliance on centralized planning due to Hayek’s critique in The Road to Serfdom and his later work on complexity. So his solution was, instead of having subject matter experts or property owners make decision, have people vote on all important issues. The problem was I had just moved from California and had seen the ballot initiative process up close and first hand. There were so many ballot questions that were confusingly worded and there was so much confusing advertising that even an MIT student who was very interested in politics had trouble understanding what to vote for, so what chance did the average voter have? Moreover, the ballot initiatives were not all independent: sometimes they impacted each other, so how to reconcile to ballot initiatives if they passed and worked at cross purposes? Finally, it seemed to me that extreme democracy as practiced in California, given the importance of advertising and media-based information channels, which meant that the illusion of democracy reduced, yet again, to establishment politicians controlling the outcome, the functional equivalent to central planning. This pertains to human cognition because economists assume that people are able to take in almost limitless information, synthesize it, and make informed decision. The problem is that this  view of rationality is flattering but unsupported by evidence. Experiment psychology, in contrast to economics, finds that people are boundedly rational, and there are well-known and predictable limits to the way  people process information, and those limits are in fact reached quite quickly. In other words, the fundamental assumptions of economic rationality were not true.

I figured that Charlie must have thought these issues though — after all, he was an Ivy League-trianed, big time, tenured MIT professor — so he must know what he’s doing, right? So I wrote up a critique of Charlie’s extreme democracy work not because I thought I was correct but because I didn’t understand how he could have reached the conclusions he did, so I could state my argument as clearly as I could, then he could see I was interested and what I was thinking, and he could correct me and suggest some reading and we could go from there. However, while this seemed logical to me, that’s not the way it worked out.

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.