Trump and the mind of the abuser

Is he an idiot or a genius? He is neither, simply a psychological predator

One of the most common dilemmas that Trump watchers must suffer is to ask themselves whether Trump is an idiot or a genius. Arguments for both abound. On one hand, nearly nothing that Trump has done as President (or any other of his business endeavors) suggests anything other than unadulterated, blithering stupidity. According to most inside accounts of his behavior, be it from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or Bob Woodward’s more recent Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump is a man of frighteningly low intelligence who has trouble grasping basic concepts, much less expressing them in coherent form. His unhinged, incoherent rambles that pass as public speeches seem to be testament of this: it would actually take a supreme effort from someone of moderate or above-average intelligence to consistently speak so badly on so many topics.

On the other hand, the way in which he has whipped up such a large support base appears unparalleled in modern US political history. The comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini abound, and it is obvious that despite the hideousness of their policies they were quite intelligent men and crafty statesmen. Is it also common for those of us living in Britain to compare Trump with his British Tory opposite, the buffoonish Boris Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated man born in privilege and who is just as likely to recite the classics as he is to fly on a zip line waving Union Jacks like a clown at a children’s party. Johnson is no fool, he just plays one. Is Trump a master thespian? A genius wearing a cloak of idiocy?

In my view, no, Trump is no genius. He’s merely an abuser. Continue reading

The tale of the immoral cyclist (and CEO, and Republican)

Why pretending to be moral will actually make you a worse human being

Use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel during rush hour at your peril. Every weekday from around 5pm onward (I have not crossed it in mornings), the Victorian-era tunnel that conveniently connects both sides of the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs becomes a shortcut for cyclists who speed through it at full speed from their finance jobs in Canary Wharf to their southeast London homes. The cylindrical foot tunnel, which as its name describes is for pedestrians, is not much more than 2 meters across at ground level. Most annoyingly, it has very large and very clear “NO CYCLING” signs at both entrances and also painted on the ground every couple of meters along the way. Despite this, only a fraction of cyclists who cross the tunnel during rush hour ever bother to dismount from their bikes and cross it by foot. Which by law, they should.

One typically expects reckless, obnoxious behavior in London to be committed by the usual suspects: chavvy youths or wolf-packs of loutish drunk working-class men. Not well-off bankers, most of which are white, middle-aged men. Furthermore, one expects blatantly illegal behavior like riding at full speed in a pedestrian tunnel, where a slight mishap might have them seriously injuring (possibly even killing) someone, to be the domain of cyclists. Cyclists, after all, are the good guys in the story. They don’t burn off CO2 from their cars or from using transportation. Many Western cities now openly encourage people to take up cycling to work.

Why are the most morally-minded, ethical people doing something so wrong? Continue reading

The Spectrum Fallacy

Why all of something good isn’t better than just some of it

The economic rise of China since the 1980s has been one of the most, if not the most, impressive feats of economic progress ever. It has eradicated poverty by the hundreds of millions, created an industrial sector that has dwarfed anything ever seen in human history, and despite the country’s size and maturity, continues to grow at a pace that any Western democracy and even most developing economies can only dream of. This has been largely been achieved by the Chinese government’s adoption of market policies. China is now the world’s greatest trading nation and also a massive receptor and supplier of foreign investment. Capitalism works, and it follows that China is the perfect example of why countries should liberalize their economies and embrace free markets unconditionally.

Except it doesn’t follow.

If you were tempted to draw this apparently obvious conclusion, congratulations, you are a victim of what I like to call the Spectrum Fallacy, possibly the most pernicious flaw of logical argumentation in policy circles. What is the Spectrum Fallacy? It is the flawed premise that just because something is demonstrably better than something else, more of that something is necessarily better than only some of it. It is very similar to a well known logical fallacy, the false dilemma. Like the false dilemma, the spectrum fallacy assumes that there is a false choice, that one must necessarily choose between two mutually exclusive options (statist communism or laissez-faire capitalism). However, here we are assuming not that there are more choices but that either of these two choices can be better when they are applied less extremely across the spectrum of possibilities. Continue reading

When demagoguery comes to your doorstep

How Latin America’s oldest democracy is succumbing to the radical, religious right

The song opens with an funky bassline before the horn section kicks in, inviting you to dance. But this is not your typical Latin song.

I find myself in a spiritual battle
Which is hard to control
This feeling overwhelms me and I want it no more
For I know it’s not against the flesh

The song is called “Batalla Espiritual” (Spiritual Battle) and the singer is Fabricio Alvarado, a former news anchor and later Christian music star, who is currently a few hours away from becoming the next president of Costa Rica, and one of the first evangelical heads of state in Latin America. His unlikely rise from obscurity is a testament to the politicization of the evangelical movement in the region, as well as some deep social conservative undercurrents in what is otherwise one of Latin America’s most progressive countries; one which also happens to be its longest-running democracy. The Fabricio phenomenon has also shown how even countries that have not experienced the traditional Western narratives that have fed right-wing demagoguery in recent years (terrorism, immigration, and economic crisis) are not immune to it. Continue reading

The trickster: dissecting Jordan Peterson

Why the Canadian darling of the alt-right is the most overrated public intellectual of our day

The meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson to the status of public intellectual stardom has been one of the most interesting, if not regrettable, cases of how the internet has created idols out of people who would have best languished in obscurity. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, was a hitherto relatively unknown figure outside of Canada until a number of his videos caught the public attention in 2016. The videos were made in protest of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act (a bill known as C-16), which included “gender identity and expression” to the list of characteristics which would be subject to human rights protection. The bill also included a specific mention to “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” as grounds for discrimination. The bill was clearly seen as a victory particularly for the transgender community. But Peterson, along with many conservatives, decried it as an abuse of free speech. According to Peterson, the law opened the door for anyone to be jailed if they used the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender or non-binary person, even if they were unaware of it. Amid the poisonous atmosphere of identity politics that dominates the West (both on the left and right), Peterson’s objections went viral and a celebrity was born.

Since then, Peterson has become one of the most identifiable members of the so-called “intellectual dark web”, a group of pundits and academics who share two main characteristics. The first is their massive online followings; many of them are regulars on the podcast circuit or are otherwise ubiquitous on YouTube. The second is that regardless of their backgrounds and ideologies, most of them share an opposition to radical progressivism, “social justice warriors” (SJWs), and the campus activism that has become commonplace in recent years, mainly in the US. Not all of them are declared conservatives. Most openly dislike Donald Trump or at least express serious reservations about him. Many of them describe themselves as “classic liberals”, an increasingly used cop-out that seems to be a euphemism for hardline libertarianism but which implies a belief in social liberty. Aside from that, the intellectual dark web comes from all walks of life, be it neo-conservative journalists (Douglas Murray), Bernie Sanders-supporting evolutionary biologists (Bret Weinstein), and more traditional conservative pundits (Ben Shapiro). Even unconventional feminists like Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia occasionally join their otherwise almost entirely male-dominated ranks. And the doors are also open to non-intellectuals, like disgraced Google programer James Damore of the infamous gender memo fame.

Not surprisingly, many of the most prominent members of the intellectual dark web have huge alt-right followings; in Peterson’s case, borderline rabid as evidenced by the commentary in any one of his YouTube videos. But given their academic credentials and their lack of overtly racist pronouncements, many of them (including Peterson) have been labelled the “alt-lite”. They may not be Tikki Torch-wielding white nationalists from Charlottesville but you’ll find many ideas that at best can be described as “hate enabling”, such as spouting contested ideas on IQ differences among race and gender, stringently denying concepts like white privilege, and condemning left-wing activism like Black Live Matters and the #MeToo movement while being remarkably complacent about the activities of the radical right. These views are not unique to the alt-lite or the intellectual dark web but have been spreading even among more respected intellectuals such as the New Atheists and New Optimists (notably Steven Pinker), many of which share an overlapping fandom and can be seen in many of the same online outlets  such as the Rubin Report (arguably the headquarters of the intellectual dark web and the alt-lite), as well as the widely followed Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcasts. Snippets of their media appearances are everywhere on YouTube, usually given provocative click-bait titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS progressive interviewer on gender pay gap” and which in reality are far from the knockout blows their titles claim to be once you actually watch them. Continue reading

Steven Pinker’s dangerous optimism

How to defend the status quo by giving humanity props it doesn’t deserve

Are we high on humanity? Despite the pessimism over the return of right-wing populism, religious fundamentalism, gun violence, and stagnating prosperity in the West, two recent events can give us hope that some degree of optimism about the destiny of our species is not entirely unwarranted. For starters, we recently accomplished the singular feat of sending a car to space, orbiting permanently (and pointlessly) around the globe in order to remind us of the supreme narcissism of its previous, earthly owner Elon Musk. The other, is the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a quasi-sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books follow the same basic plot line: humanity has never had it so good. By every measurable standard of progress, we are leaps and bounds better than any generation before us. Stop complaining.

If optimism is a religion, the Canadian-born Pinker is its high priest. The religious analogy is not unfounded: Pinker defends his thesis with a zeal that is uncommon outside of theistic circles, admonishing his critics and presenting absurd arguments even in topics where he has little or no academic authority. In a recent article in Popular Science, he argues that we should not fear AI being smarter than humans any more than we had to fear airplanes being faster than eagles because “someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle”. For someone defending the use of reason, an argument like that almost begs ridicule. Sadly, his perennial defense of human progress comes with an unfortunate by-product: it becomes a thinly disguised support of the economic and political status quo. If this makes you uneasy, just remember how much wealthier and healthier you are compared to your great-great-great-grandfather.

End of story, so it goes. Continue reading

Plucked Chicken Award 2017: Aung San Suu Kyi

A Noble Peace Prize winner that allowed a genocide

Aung Suu Kyi

When Plato described man as a featherless biped, Diogenes the Cynic came to his Academy with a plucked chicken proclaiming “this is Plato’s man!”. The Plucked Chicken Award will be awarded every year to the human being that best represents the folly of our idealization of our species.

Plucked Chicken Award 2017: Aung San Suu Kyi

The Plucked Chicken Award is not about identifying the “worst” public figure in the world. Awarding it to a tyrant would be a waste: purely malicious despots are too one-dimensional. They are boring, and not truly representative of the complexities of human behavior (sorry Trump, all in all you’re not really that interesting). Instead, the prize goes to the person who best demonstrated exactly what humans really are: tribalist, murderous hypocrites. And nobody in 2017 did that better than the de facto Prime Minister of recently turned “democratic” Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. Let’s recall what made her worthy of this award. On paper, Suu Kyi was an international darling: a tireless opponent of the military junta that had governed Myanmar (or Burma as it was called) since 1962. After her party won a huge victory in the sham 1990 elections, she was put on house arrest. For these actions, she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and perhaps more importantly (for some), a Bono-written U2 song in 2000 (“Walk On”) as well. But as the junta’s control over the country gradually slipped, she was freed from house arrest in 2010 and later allowed to contest the 2015 elections which she won by a landslide. Continue reading

The battle of beliefs

Why neither side is right in the US campus crisis

I was recently listening to a speech by NYU moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt on the problem of free speech on US campuses. For those who don’t know who Haidt is, he is the author of The Righteous Mind, an excellent book that summarizes his moral foundations theory. The theory has it that morality is a multi-dimensional concept composed of care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty, which he theorizes all have some evolutionary origin. Left-wingers, by and large, have their moral fabric dominated by care and fairness, with much less importance attached to the other four. Right-wingers, however, hold a certain level of importance to all six dimensions, although less than left-wingers on the care and fairness front. When these morals clash, we have it why both sides fail to reconcile their difference, a good example being the burning of the flag which would trigger the right-winger’s loyalty foundation which is absent on a left-winger. Or homosexual marriage, which would trigger their sanctity foundation. In contrast, the support of welfare policies by the left is in line with their care and fairness foundations.

Haidt, however, is also well known on the internet for being one of the most vocal antagonists to radical progressives (disparagingly but not incorrectly called social justice warriors or SJWs) on US campuses. It’s not hard to see why: Haidt himself was embroiled in a major dispute with an oversensitive student who objected to a word used in a video shown in one of his classes. The ridiculously overblown situation can be read about in an open letter to the dean by the offended student, and do note the transcripts of the “homophobic” video as well as Haidt’s apology which seemed to look like he was in front of a student inquisition (complete with applause from the offended masses). In 2015 Haidt co-authored a widely read article on The Atlantic, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” (it’s a long but recommended read), which explains the possible origins and the consequences of radical political correctness on campus. Continue reading

Fellow economists, we’re mostly to blame for this mess

Brexit, Trump. We built the world that let extremism thrive
This is on us

This is on us

Dear world, on behalf of economists I offer an apology. More than anything or anyone else, we are responsible for the clusterfuck that has been 2016.

Since the 1980s we said that inequality didn’t matter. That working and middle class people would be fine if their incomes didn’t worsen even as those in the top 10% (and especially 1%) saw their own income and wealth skyrocket to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. We did not see that people did not view their lot in absolute but in relative terms. We expected them to accept our logic, and acted dumbfounded when they didn’t express gratitude for the few tiny drops of prosperity that trickled down. We never imagined that they’d be rightfully pissed. Then we blamed them for living beyond their means to catch up with the Joneses, for being irresponsible for maxing their credit cards and taking out mortgages on houses they couldn’t afford. We never saw inequality as a psychological problem as much as an economic one.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

Around that same time, we said that free markets were a panacea for growth. True, many countries did benefit heavily from globalization and certainly those countries that did not follow certain basic rules of market logic have fared terribly (Venezuela being a case in point). But globalization was not a panacea for the working and middle classes of the developed world. In our smugness, we said that the lost jobs either to China, Mexico, or technology were a necessary evil for continued productivity growth. We acted like it was their fault that they did not have the skills needed for the new economy, and that it was nobody’s responsibility to find them those skills either. In the dog eat dog world of neoliberal economics there are losers, and we could afford not to be those losers becomes economists are still not being outsourced to India or replaced by robots so we had little empathy for those who were less lucky. We applauded that unemployment fell and didn’t care that it was because people lost stable, salaried jobs and became self-employed with zero benefits. We cared more about the Dow Jones than the Gini index.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

We also assumed that everyone was rational. We even had a name for this species of humanity that always took decisions based on all available information, weighed all options, and picked the one that maximized their utility: homo economicus. Since we thought psychology, sociology, and all the other social sciences were inferior disciplines because they could not prove their hypotheses with econometrics, so we never bothered to accept their insights into human behavior. The result is that we thought markets were self-correcting, industries were self-regulated, and markets punished those who took decisions against the public interest. We saw the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com bubble and then did nothing when a bigger bubble, the subprime housing bubble, sprung up almost immediately after the first one popped.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

And finally, we assumed we had all the answers. We took the view of Noble laureate Robert Lucas that the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades”. This was just five years before the global financial crisis. We also poisoned the minds of politicians, who adopted our elegant yet simplistic neoclassical view of how the world worked. We flooded bookstores with titles like Freakonomics and The Economic Naturalist: How Economics Explains Everything to educate the masses on why we knew better. We were conceited, arrogant, and frankly, fucking annoying.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

Then on June 23rd we wondered how the British could be so stupid as to want to leave the EU. On November 8th we were even more perplexed on how Americans could be dumb enough to vote for someone like Trump. From our little intellectual ivory towers, the framework in which we understood the world was perfectly fine. We didn’t get that we didn’t get it.

And now with the twin shocks of a global crisis in 2008-09 and a political crisis in 2016, our world has been shattered. Probably irremediably. But we don’t know it yet. This will still be blamed on people (deplorable as they may be), rather than the structures that conditioned them to be that way. And we’ll be scratching our heads into oblivion by failing to understand why a laid off steelworker from Pennsylvania or miner from Yorkshire won’t be voting with rapturous joy for the man or woman who promises free trade agreements, minority rights, and open immigration in place of the only thing that really matters to them: dignity.

(The author wishes to note that he has stood against everything that has been criticized in this piece since his days as an undergrad. And if you think he is a socialist, well, you’re pretty much the type of person he wrote this for)

The Donald Trump fascist experiment

Think the Trump-Hitler comparisions are exaggerated? Think again
Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Is Donald Trump fascist?

The knee-jerk reaction by his opponents makes this an easy answer: yes. He has made borderline racist comments about Mexicans, black people, Muslims, and as the recently leaked 2005 Access Hollywood recordings have made all but clear, is an appalling sexist as well (although this was pretty obvious back when he said he would date his own daughter who by his own admission is “a piece of ass”). But his defenders would cringe at the idea that he is an American Hitler. Hitler, after all, killed 6 million Jews (among millions of others) and launched a world war. Yes, Trump is a bully, a sleazeball, and a demagogue and seems to not care much about institutions as evidenced by his wanting to jail Hillary Clinton. But there is a pretty big gap between that and genocide. It’s kick the foreigners out, not murder them (at least yet).

Furthermore, even many people who dislike Trump feel uneasy by the fascist/Nazi/Hitler comparison. Godwin’s Law, for example, famously affirms that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1”. Indeed, the left (and also the right) uses comparisons to fascism, Nazism, and genocide to such an extent that in many cases they have pretty much lost their value. It is an argumentative cop out for the simple reason that nobody in the history of humanity has been as bad as Hitler (except possibly Stalin or Mao but they mostly killed their own people which seemingly carries less of a stigma). Trump is not even in power yet, and he has not started a world war or a genocide.

Although Godwin’s Law has its merit, I feel in this particular case it is a very weak defense of what Trump would be willing to do and how far his supporters would be willing to follow. And there’s one very easy thought experiment to find that out. Just ask yourself the following two questions:

Would Trump have behaved any different to Hitler had he been in Hitler’s position in 1933-45?

Would Trump’s supporters have behaved any different to Hitler’s in 1933-45? Continue reading