It can be hard to grasp that radio waves, deadly radiation, and the light we can see are all the same thing. How can electromagnetic (EM) radiation – photons – sometimes penetrate walls and sometimes not? How can some forms of EM radiation be perfectly safe and others damage our DNA? How can radio waves travel so much further than gamma rays in air, but no further through concrete?
It all comes down to wavelength. But before we get into that, we should at least take a glance at what EM radiation really is.
Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of two orthogonal waves. In one direction, you have an oscillating magnetic field. In the other, an oscillating electric field. Both of these fields are orthogonal to the direction of travel.
These oscillations take a certain amount of time to complete, a time which is calculated by observing the peak value of one of the fields and then measuring how long it takes for the field to return to that value. Luckily, we only need to do this once, because the time an oscillation takes (called the period) will stay the same unless acted on by something external. You can invert the period to get the frequency – the number of times oscillations occur in a second. Frequency uses the unit Hertz, which are just inverted seconds. If something has the frequency 60Hz, it happens 60 times per seconds.
EM radiation has another nifty property: it always travels at the same speed, a speed commonly called “the speed of light”  (even when applied to EM radiation that isn’t light). When you know the speed of an oscillating wave and the amount of time it takes for the wave to oscillate, you can calculate the wavelength. Scientists like to do this because the wavelength gives us a lot of information about how radiation will interact with world. It is common practice to represent wavelength with the Greek letter Lambda (λ).
Put in a more mathy way: if you have an event that occurs with frequency f to something travelling at velocity v, the event will have a spatial periodicity λ (our trusty wavelength) equal to v / f. For example, if you have a sound that oscillates 34Hz (this frequency is equivalent to the lowest C♯ on a standard piano) travelling at 340m/s (the speed of sound in air), it will have a wavelength of (340 m/s)/(34 s-1) = 10m. I’m using sound here so we can use reasonably sized numbers, but the results are equally applicable to light or other forms of EM radiation.
Wavelength and frequency are inversely related to each other. The higher the frequency of something, the smaller its wavelength. The longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency. I’m used to people describing EM radiation in terms of frequency when they’re talking about energy (the quicker something is vibrating, the more energy it has) and wavelength when talking about what it will interact with (the subject of the rest of this post).
With all that background out of the way, we can actually “look” at electromagnetic radiation and understand what we’re seeing.
Wavelength is very important. You know those big TV antennas houses used to have?
Turns out that they’re about the same size as the wavelength of television signals. The antenna on a car? About the same size as the radio waves it picks up. Those big radio telescopes in the desert? Same size as the extrasolar radio waves they hope to pick up.
Even things we don’t normally think of as antennas can act like them. The rod and cone cells in your eyes act as antennas for the light of this very blog post . Chains of protein or water molecules act as antennas for microwave radiation, often with delicious results. The bases in your DNA act as antennas for UV light, often with disastrous results.
These are just a few examples, not an exhaustive list. For something to be able to interact with EM radiation, you just need an appropriately sized system of electrons (or electrical system; the two terms imply each other). You get this system of electrons more or less for free with metal. In a metal, all of the electrons are delocalized, making the whole length of a metal object one big electrical system. This is why the antennas in our phones or on our houses are made of metal. It isn’t just metal that can have this property though. Organic substances can have appropriately sized systems of delocalized electrons via double bonding .
EM radiation can’t really interact with things that aren’t the same size as its wavelength. Interaction with EM radiation takes the form of the electric or magnetic field of a photon altering the electric or magnetic field of the substance being interacted with. This happens much more readily when the fields are approximately similar sizes. When fields are the same size, you get an opportunity for resonance, which dramatically decreases the loss in the interaction. Losses for dissimilar sized electric fields are so high that you can assume (as a first approximation) that they don’t really interact.
In practical terms, this means that a long metal rod might heat up if exposed to a lot of radio waves (wavelengths for radio waves vary from 1mm to 100km; many are a few metres long due to the ease of making antennas in that size) because it has a single electrical system that is the right size to absorb energy from the radio waves. A similarly sized person will not heat up, because there is no single part of them that is a unified electrical system the same size as the radio waves.
Microwaves (wavelengths appropriately micron-sized) might heat up your food, but they won’t damage your DNA (nanometres in width). They’re much larger than individual DNA molecules. Microwaves are no more capable of interacting with your DNA than a giant would be of picking up a single grain of rice. Microwaves can hurt cells or tissues, but they’re incapable of hurting your DNA and leaving the rest of the cell intact. They’re just too big. Because of this, there is no cancer risk from microwave exposure (whatever paranoid hippies might say).
Gamma rays do present a cancer risk. They have a wavelength (about 10 picometres) that is similar in size to electrons. This means that they can be absorbed by the electrons in your DNA, which kick these electrons out of their homes, leading to chemical reactions that change your DNA and can ultimately lead to cancer.
Wavelength explains how gamma rays can penetrate concrete (they’re actually so small that they miss most of the mass of concrete and only occasionally hit electrons and stop) and how radio waves penetrate concrete (they’re so large that you need a large amount of concrete before they’re able to interact with it and be stopped ). Gamma rays are stopped by the air because air contains electrons (albeit sparsely) that they can hit and be stopped by. Radio waves are much too large for this to be a possibility.
When you’re worried about a certain type of EM radiation causing cancer, all you have to do is look at its wavelength. Any wavelength smaller than that of ultraviolet light (about 400nm) is small enough to interact with DNA in a meaningful way. Anything large is unable to really interact with DNA and is therefore safe.
Epistemic Status: Model. Looking at everything as antenna will help you understand why EM radiation interacts with the physical world the way it does, but there is a lot of hidden complexity here. For example, eyes are far from directly analogous to antennas in their mechanism of action, even if they are sized appropriately to be antennas for light. It’s also true that at the extreme ends of photon energy, interactions are based more on energy than on size. I’ve omitted this in order to write something that isn’t entirely caveats, but be aware that it occurs.
 You may have heard that the speed of light changes in different substances. Tables will tell you that the speed of light in water is only about ¾ of the speed of light in air or vacuum and that the speed of light in glass is even slower still. This isn’t technically true. The speed of light is (as far as we know) cosmically invariant – light travels the same speed everywhere in the galaxy. That said, the amount of time light takes to travel between two points can vary based on how many collisions and redirections it is likely to get into between two points. It’s the difference between how long it takes for a pinball to make its way across a pinball table when it hits nothing and how long it takes when it hits every single bumper and obstacle. ^
 This is a first approximation of what is going on. Eyes can be modelled as antennas for the right wavelength of EM radiation, but this ignores a whole lot of chemistry and biophysics. ^
 The smaller the wavelength, the easier it is to find an appropriately sized system of electrons. When your wavelength is the size of a double bond (0.133nm), you’ll be able to interact with anything that has a double bond. Even smaller wavelengths have even more options for interactions – a wavelength that is well sized for an electron will interact with anything that has an electron (approximately everything). ^
 This interaction is actually governed by quantum mechanical tunneling. Whenever a form of EM radiation “tries” to cross a barrier larger than its wavelength, it will be attenuated by the barrier. The equation that describes the probability distribution of a particle (the photons that make up EM radiation are both waves and particles, so we can use particle equations for them) is approximately (I say approximately because I’ve simplified all the constants into a single term, k), which becomes (here I’m using k1 to imply that the constant will be different), the equation for exponential decay, when the energy (to a first approximation, length) of the substance is higher than the energy (read size of wavelength) of the light.
This equation shows that there can be some probability – occasionally even a high probability – of the particle existing on the other side of a barrier. All you need for a particle to traverse a barrier is an appropriately small barrier. ^
Neil McDonald’s new column points out that Trump’s low-income supporters voted against their own economic self-interest. This presents a fine opportunity for Mr. McDonald to lecture those voters about how bad Trump’s policies will be for them, as if they couldn’t have figured it out themselves.
I say: some of Trump’s supporters voted against their own self-interest? So what? Hillary Clinton’s well-off supporters, from Sam Altman, to many of my friends in the Bay Area did as well.
Back in Canada, I have even more examples of people who voted against their self-interest. They include myself, Mr. McDonald (in all likelihood), a bevy of well off technologists and programmers, and a bunch of highly educated students who expect to start high-paying jobs before the next election.
Just like Trump’s lower-income voters, we knew what we were getting into. We understood that we were voting for higher taxes for people like us. We voted for higher taxes because we like the things taxes buy – infrastructure, social services, and science funding, to name a few.
I have no doubt Mr. McDonald would understand this. But when it comes to low-income voters putting their aspirations for their country above their self-interest, he’s flabbergasted.
Americans are raised to believe that anything is possible in America if you are pure of heart and willing to work hard, which is nonsense, and that anyone can become president, which is even more foolish, and that free markets always make the right decision, which is nuts.
They are told that rugged individualism is the American way, which it isn’t, and that government is never the solution, which it sometimes most definitely is.
Mr. McDonald forgot to wonder if the people voting for Trump might desperately want these things to be true. What if the people he’s talking about really wanted everything he listed to be true and saw voting for Trump as their best chance to make them reality? What if they understood what they might lose and chose to vote anyway? Why should he believe they’re less likely to evaluate the consequence of a vote than he is? If any of these are true, are these voters still sheep led astray by right-wing politicians? Or are the politicians just responding to a real demand from their constituents?
These are the sorts of questions I’d like to see journalists who want to write about people – especially low-income people – voting against their economic self-interest grapple with.
It’s certainly unlikely that Mr. Trump will be able to deliver everything his supporters hope he will or everything he’s promised. That makes him a liar, or more charitably, overambitious. It doesn’t make his followers worthy of scorn for the simple act of voting for the type of society they wanted.
I would like to note that I view many of Trump’s policies as wrong-headed and profoundly lacking in compassion. I have no objections to someone scorning Trump voters because those voters seem to prefer fear to compassion and division to equity. I simply object to the hypocrisy of journalists mocking low-income Republicans for the same actions for which they lionize well-off Democrats (replace with Conservatives and Liberals if you’re in Canada and it still holds).
Why should people vote for their economic self-interest anyway? Sure, studies show that money totally can buy happiness, but it’s not the only thing that can. You can also become happy by living in a place that embodies your values. What left-wing think pieces criticizing the poor for voting against their interests miss is that this is true no matter how much money you make.
Here’s one theory of political consensus: if everyone votes for the policies that will be most to their own economic benefit, we’ll end up with compromise policies that tend to economically benefit everyone reasonably well. Here’s a different take: if everyone votes for the type of country they want to live in, we’ll end up with a country that fits everyone’s preferences reasonably well.
If you look at the exit poll data, it looks like people are pursuing a mix of these two strategies. Hillary Clinton won among people making less than $50,000 per year and Donald Trump won among people making more. While this may look like people are mainly voting in their economic interest, all of these margins were remarkably thin and notably much smaller than they were in the last election cycle. This could be indicative of more and more people voting aspirationally, rather than economically.
One interesting tidbit for Mr. McDonald though – if you look at the exit poll data, it turns out low income voters are the ones least likely to vote against their own self-interest.
Imagine that you’re a young teenager who really loves red jellybeans. You love them so much that you unabashedly call them your favourite food. It’s only the red ones though – you find all other jellybeans disgusting. For the purposes of this extended metaphor, you will have a sister. Like you, she loves one colour of jellybeans, but unlike you she only loves the green ones.
Your parents are stingy. They long ago realized that they could save a lot of money by paying you for your chores in jellybeans, instead of with an allowance. To prop up this system, they’ve forbidden both you and your sister from buying jellybeans in any store. Both of you can only get jellybeans from your parents. You each get a few jellybeans of your preferred colour each time you complete a chore.
You keep a small horde of jellybeans in a jar in your room. Chores are irregular and you don’t want to risk having a jellybean craving but no way to get jellybeans. It’s pretty inconvenient that you and your sister like different flavours of jellybeans. If this wasn’t the case, you could use jellybeans as a sort of currency, trading them back and forth for various small things. For example, if only you liked the same jellybeans, she could give you jellybeans in exchange for using your new Nintendo Switch for a bit, while you could give her jellybeans to help you sneak out at night. You do this sometimes already, but only when you both want something of the other at the same time.
One day your sister takes the bus to a friend’s house. On the way, she happens to sit next to an economics professor. She complains to the professor about her plight and the professor offers a solution. Your sister comes home that night with a large grin splitting her face.
The scheme she proposes to you is simple. When you don’t have two things to trade at the same time, you’ll use jellybeans as your currency. If you agree to accept her jellybeans as payment, she’ll accept yours. You’ll both have the understanding that someday your sibling will trade those jellybeans back to you for some other thing. As the first trade, she offers you fifteen of her green jellybeans for one hour on your Nintendo Switch.
You think about it for a few minutes. It’s true that the fifteen green jellybeans are worthless to you. But they aren’t worthless to your sister and she will probably eventually want them back. As long as you trust that she’ll be around in the future and will still want green jellybeans, you may as well accept the trade. You’ve now realized that green jellybeans are useful to you even though you can’t eat them to feed your jellybean cravings.
You and your sister successfully trade like this for a few weeks. There are some wild fluctuations in your horde of jellybeans – some days it’s mostly red, other days it’s almost entirely green – but over the long run it tends towards red and you get to enjoy all of the benefits of trading with your sister. You’ve successfully snuck out to see your friends three times, while she’s made it halfway through the new Zelda game. It’s at this point where she comes to you with a discovery.
She’s invented a chemical that she can mix with a jellybean to double its size. She can’t make very much of it, only enough to make thirty new jellybeans a day. She makes a deal with you: she’ll use the chemical on your jellybeans in the proportion that they appear in her stash, but she’ll still own them afterwards and they’ll be worth twice as much in future trades.
Slowly the trading relationship changes. Your sister does fewer favours for you – although she doesn’t stop completely. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of your wealth of jellybeans end up with her, despite her playing your Switch very often. You don’t mind this arrangement, because you end up with many more jellybeans than you would have without her. Your sister doesn’t mind either, because it’s made playing the Switch much more accessible to her. That said, there are some negatives for her as well. She’s gotten noticeably weaker without the exercise from chores.
Eventually your parents catch on to this and confiscate your sister’s chemistry set. Furthermore, they punish her by cutting her jellybean allotment in half. Now, she’ll make half of what you do for the same chores. Worried about the effect of video games on her, they also limit the total screen time either of you is allowed (they ignore you whining that this is totally unfair) and demand that you each do one chore per day.
You still trade after this, although now things swing in the other direction. Your sister has to scrimp and save to afford time on the Switch, whereas you have an easier time hiring her as a lookout.
A few weeks later, your parents go on vacation. While they’re gone, they want you both to record the chores you do. When they get back, they’ll question you separately about the honesty of the chore log. If you both agree that it’s true (and they can see the chores actually got done), they’ll give you jellybeans for all the chores recorded on it.
They also switch up the compensation a bit. You’ve been spending more time inside these days, now that you’re lending the Switch to your sister less often, while your sister has gotten strong from all the yard-work she’s been doing. Your parents don’t really approve of this, so they’re changing the rewards that chores give.
Under the new rules, your sister still makes generally less than you, but it isn’t evenly distributed; she makes almost as much as you for chores inside of the house and much less than you for chores outside it. This is crappy for you, because now you’re the weak one. Your sister can do chores outside in half the time it would take you.
You and your sister immediately hatch a plan to do each other’s chores and later divide the spoils evenly. Your parents are too clever for this though. They tell you they’ll be watching your jellybean transactions for the next little bit. If you two split the difference and lie, they’ll know and they’ll ground both of you for a week. You’re both dejected, doomed to doing chores you aren’t good at. In a last-ditch effort to find something more palatable, your sister emails her economist friend from earlier.
She comes back a few hours later, contemplative. The economist offered a solution, but it seems odd.
The economist recommended that you lie about the chores; your sister will do all of the ones outside and you’ll do all of the ones inside. To get around your parent’s crude attempt at lie detection, you’ll do something simple. You won’t split the difference; you’ll accept payment in full for the chores you claimed to do and get to spend it as if it were yours.
Even though this seems unfair, it leaves both you and your sister better off overall. By focusing on the chores you’re both quickest at, you can maximize the number of jellybeans you earn for each unit of time you spend working. You both agree to this plan.
When they get back, your parents are suspicious of your sister’s muscles and the deep impression you’ve worn in the couch. They monitor your transactions for quite some time. But they never find any evidence that you averaged your take with your sister and eventually they give up and leave you alone.
In the fall, your sister plans to leave for the annual mother-daughter fishing trip your extended family does. The trip lasts two whole weeks. In the weeks leading up to the trip, you begin to panic. While your sister is gone, you won’t be able to get any of your jellybeans from her. Combine this with your worry that you will have fewer chances to earn jellybeans for chores with only one parent home and you start to have a problem. What if you run out of jellybeans because a bunch of the red ones are hoarded by your sister?
To counter this, you stop accepting your sister’s green jellybeans in trade for favours and only trade green jellybeans back to her when you need something done. Eventually you run out of green jellybeans. Now you can’t get her to do anything. You won’t risk your red jellybeans so close to her trip.
Unfortunately, you don’t get all of your jellybeans back this way. Your sister begins to hoard them, knowing that they’re the only thing she can use to really get you to do anything for her. Despite you trying to get all your jellybeans back, you’ve made her hold onto them even tighter.
She’s pretty annoyed with all of this, because she wants to trade with you like before. In desperation, she emails her economist friend. Once again, the economist comes through for you. Your sister offers you a deal. She currently has 100 red jellybeans. At the end of every day, you can convert up to twenty green jellybeans for red ones at a rate of one to one. Normally you wouldn’t bother with this (and sometimes one of you lacks the means to), but she’ll give you this option for the next week so that you can accept her jellybeans with confidence.
This works quite well. Your mutually beneficial trades resume. When your sister leaves for her fishing expedition, she only has ten of your jellybeans left. You’re not going to run out in her absence.
Everything that was observed between the two siblings trading with jellybeans can be observed (in one form or another) between countries trading.
For this metaphor to work, the medium of exchange (jellybeans of different colours) had to be something that was so similar as to be essentially the same thing while being treated as vastly different by the participants. This is how people in different countries treat each other’s money.
As a Canadian, I need Canadian Dollars to pay my expenses. If I walk into a grocery store or get on a bus and try to pay with Swiss Francs or Japanese Yen, I will be refused service. Because I want to eat and take the bus, if I were sell goods or services outside of Canada, I would only accept as payment:
Something else I know is trivially convertible to Canadian Dollars at a stable rate
People in other countries are in the same boat as me. Even if there’s something they want to sell me, they can’t unless I can provide them something that holds stable value for them. Canadian Dollars are only valuable to them insofar as they can use them to buy things they want in Canada or, if they don’t want anything in Canada, trade them for something they want with someone who wants something in Canada.
You can’t get something for nothing. For someone to send me goods (that aren’t simply a gift) from outside of Canada, they must want something in Canada or know about someone who does. This is the principle that allowed you to trade with your sibling. Her jellybeans weren’t inherently useful to you, but they were stably convertible into things that were, which made it reasonable for you to accept them as payment.
The ease of currency conversion often hides this from us. To see it, you need to look at exchange rates. Exchange rates are nothing more than a measure of the relative demand for goods and services produced by countries and debts denominated in their currencies.
When America was in financial crisis and Canada was raking in huge oil profits, people wanted Canadian Dollars just as much as they wanted American Dollars. Now that America has recovered, people would prefer to have American Dollars (USD) and so the Canadian Dollar is only worth about $0.75 US. Had either you or your sister been able to offer much more valuable services, you might have seen an exchange rate other than 1:1, with it favouring whoever offered the better stuff.
If I’m right about this, we’d expect to see countries import as much as they export. Trade deficits shouldn’t exist. As Donald Trump might be happy to remind you, trade deficits do indeed exist. What’s going on? How is this possible?
Trade deficits can occur when trade is financed via debt. A country might borrow money denominated in another currency (which has a more stable value than its own) and use that borrowed money to purchase things. This is essentially a country promising that it will have exports of value to the lender at some point in the future. This is how developing nations can have trade deficits, but it isn’t generally how developed nations pull them off.
We can view America (and other developed nations with a trade deficit) as similar to your sister when she had the tools to create more jellybeans out of otherwise worthless chemicals. She was definitely doing less things of direct value for you than you were for her (e.g. she was standing lookout for you much less often than she was borrowing video games from you), but she was able to do this sustainably because she had a way of making the jellybeans to pay for it.
Developed nations can have a trade deficit in a sustainable way because other countries will give them raw materials or physical goods simply for the privilege of holding debt denominated in their currency or being able to buy property within their borders. The sophisticated financial systems of developed countries allow them to reliably and safely (most of the time) create money for anyone willing to invest. How do you get money to invest if you don’t live there? You trade for it!
Developed countries are still providing goods and services to their trade partners, even if they aren’t tangible or recorded on balance sheets as exports. Sometimes this does mean that trade is funded by loans, but crucially, the debt is generally denominated in the currency of the debtor country. This makes repayment much, much easier.
Countries have many more options for repaying debts denominated in their own currencies. Japan can safely have a government debt of several times its GDP because the debt is denominated in Yen. Japan controls the means to print more Yen, so is able to pay its debt just by printing more money. There are obviously problems with just printing money (i.e. inflation), but these apply less to Japan because of its overall economic situation (i.e. deflation). On the other hand, Greece’s debt burden was so bad specifically because it can’t print the Euros its debt is denominated in itself. It needs to produce things other countries want in order to raise the cash it needs to pay down its debt.
There are certainly ways that funding trade via financial products can go sour. If the financial system that provides for the trade deficit relies on high consumer debt, then a financial shock could make it all come crashing down and deprive a country of the exports they’re used to receiving. But when trade deficits are based on the security and sophistication of a nation’s financial institutions (or the value of its real estate, or something else that is relatively stable), that nation stands to benefit enormously. It can receive tangible goods just by letting other countries invest or loan with its currency.
Seen this way, Canada’s trade deficit with China (as an example) is caused because many Chinese people have been willing to ship us manufactured goods in exchange for the ability to invest in our companies, buy real estate in Toronto and Vancouver, and make loans to us.
There are trade-offs here. On one hand, foreign investment in housing has probably made living in Toronto and Vancouver less affordable. On the other hand, it has made electronics and manufactured goods available at lower prices than they would otherwise be. Whether this is good or bad for you personally depends on where you live and how often you buy manufactured goods.
There are also trade-offs around employment here. It’s not a simple matter of trade with developing nations costing us manufacturing jobs. It probably has! But I’d like to point out if trade has cost us jobs in manufacturing, it has certainly created jobs in construction and in finance. Houses aren’t built without workers and investments can’t be made without investment assistants and portfolio managers. These may not be manufacturing jobs, but they’re still jobs.
This shades into the next example from the jellybean world. When you and your sister could both work jobs at very different rates of compensation, you weren’t made worse off by letting you sister do half of the chores. You weren’t really in competition with you sister. Despite much of the rhetoric about trade being a competition, trade with another country isn’t a competition with that country.
When split up between two countries that are trading, jobs don’t get done based on who had the competitive advantage. Since trade cannot happen unless both parties benefit (remember, if no one outside Canada wants anything Canada produces, I will be unable to buy anything outside of Canada with Canadian dollars) the fact that trade is happening at all means that each country has something the other wants. Given this, what gets traded will be determined by the relative advantages industries in each country have over the industries within that country. This is the comparative advantage theory of trade.
China has the advantage of relatively cheap labour but has the disadvantage of relatively high corruption. When you compare China with Canada, China’s manufacturing sector is advantaged over their financial sector, so they will tend send Canada manufactured goods in exchange for Canadian financial instruments.
Even when your sister was making less than you for every chore, you and her were still able to trade for mutual benefit. You got to do only the chores you found easiest while still gaining enough jellybeans to trade for things you wanted from your sister. People (and countries) don’t act blindly to maximize the amount of money they make. They have other desires as well. You would have only been in competition with your sister if you wanted to blindly maximize your total haul, without a thought for how much leisure it would cost you.
Competition would also come up if your parents were looking to minimize the amount they paid for chores. In this case, your sister would have had a competitive advantage. But this isn’t a competition within your trading relationship with you sister! Here you would be competing for the business of some third party (your parents).
You are never competing with your trade partners within the context of the trading relationship. It would be impossible for the whole American economy to move to China (no matter how often Donald Trump claims it is happening) because if this happened China would refuse to sell America anything and America would again require indigenous industries. If industries get outsourced and aren’t replaced by something else that adds value, you’ll see them pop right back up in their original country. Outsourcing is only cheaper when you have things of value to buy the outsourced products with.
You can be competing with your trade partners for third party business, but the answer here isn’t to raise tariffs and abandon trade. Instead, you can reap the benefits of an integrated supply chain and the overall lower costs you see when countries focus on their comparative advantages. For example, Apple has become one of the largest companies in the world by marrying American business expertise, stability, and engineering know-how with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing, which allows them to compete with Samsung, a Korean company (which also makes use of Taiwanese/Chinese manufacturing).
Apple products would be more expensive if manufactured solely in the United States. They wouldn’t be a global luxury brand if they were designed and marketed from China. Apple wouldn’t be a global behemoth without trade. When the CEOs of companies stand up for international trade, they’re doing so because they understand this.
It is possible for a country to be in a state such that basically no one wants to trade with them, often because they produce very little of value to anyone else. Take North Korea as an example here. They’re able to trade some coal to China (in exchange for manufactured goods) and managed to make a one-off trade with Pakistan (swapping missiles for atomic bomb designs and materials), but by and large the rest of the world doesn’t want to trade with them. Since the government is pursuing a policy of juche (“self-reliance”), North Korea isn’t much bothered by this.
Unfortunately, lack of trade doesn’t always happen by choice. Venezuela spent more than a decade squandering oil wealth on everything but productive infrastructure. When oil prices were high this was fine. Venezuelans could trade oil to other countries and in return they received all of the food, medicine, and manufactured goods they could want. This worked while global oil demand outstripped supply. Now that demand for oil has considerably lessened, Venezuela is facing serious difficulties importing necessities.
Because there’s little of value in Venezuela, no one wants to hold on to the Venezuelan currency (the Bolivar). Currently about all its good for is buying sub-par oil. This would suggest that Venezuela should be unable to important much of anything and indeed that’s what we’re observing.
In the jellybean world, we saw something similar. When your sister was about to leave on her trip, you didn’t want to trade with her, because her currency would soon be worthless. She was able to convince you to trade by using her reserves of your jellybeans.
Venezuela is currently able import goods via a similar mechanism. During the oil boom, the government of Venezuela was able to amass a significant number of American Dollars. It is now using this stockpile to pay for imports. Venezuela actually has three official exchange rates. If you are importing key goods, the government will turn your Bolivars into USD at a very preferential rate, 10 Bolivars for 1 USD. If you’re importing less critical goods, you’ll get fewer dollars per Bolivar. If you’re just a private citizen, the government will give you a much worse deal, something like 190 Bolivars to the dollar. It will also limit the amount you can exchange at any one time.
At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate was 3014 Bolivars per USD. You can make a lot of money if you bring USD into Venezuela, convert it to Bolivars on the black market, then use the government to convert it back to USD. The only loser here is the Venezuelan government (and you if you’re caught – please don’t actually do this).
Propping up the value of a currency this way is very expensive. If the Bolivar loses no more purchasing power, then Venezuela can limp along like this for two more years. If oil becomes cheaper or Venezuela becomes less able to export it, then Venezuela will lose purchasing power and that grace period shrinks. Once Venezuela exhausts its currency reserves it will be essentially unable to import anything and this story will end the same way every story about socialism ends: with a horrific famine.
This of course assumes that Venezuela doesn’t attempt to seize what it needs from its neighbours using force. Throughout this post I’ve assumed that trade has been undertaken freely for the mutual benefit of all participants. This hasn’t always been the case.
Colonialism is perhaps the best example of trade where one participant was compelled to participate. In colonies Europeans used force to extract resources and labour from non-Europeans. The colonizing Europeans would then ship these raw goods back to their home country in exchange for manufactured goods they couldn’t get from in the colony.
Trade was only ever disastrous for the colonized. They were forced to produce cash crops or mine until they were nearly dead from exhaustion, all in exchange for goods that they would never receive and had little use for even if they had.
There’s one last concept to cover. Let’s return to the jellybean metaphor!
Your sister gets deeply addicted to a game on your Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, she’s still getting far fewer jellybeans than you are. She has to do a lot of chores just to get to play it at all, many of which aren’t particularly fun or pleasant. Because of your control of the Switch, you don’t have to do any chores; you always have some of your sister’s jellybeans to trade for whatever you need. While your sister might be happy while playing her game, she’s deeply peeved about all the chores she has to do in order to be able to play it all.
Eventually, your sister’s desire for video games overcomes the number of jellybeans she can earn. You allow her to pay you in IOUs. Soon she’s racked up hundreds of them. When she finally beats the game and has free time for other things, she realizes that she’s going to have to spend weeks working and giving you all the jellybeans just to pay off the debt she owes.
She tries to default, but you go to your parents. They decide that she can’t be trusted to pay off the debt on her own, so they’ll give you red jellybeans for every chore she completes until she’s settled the account. Now your sister is stuck doing all the chores without any benefit to herself. It takes her weeks to dig herself out of her hole and start receiving green jellybeans again.
Even when trade technically makes people better off, it can be a devil’s bargain. The benefits of modern medicine and technology (like smartphones) are so overwhelming that many developing economies must set aside a significant amount of their potential productivity creating products that aren’t locally useful so that they have something developed countries want and will trade medicine and technology for.
This can lead to vast monocultures of cash crops grown only for foreign export, stifling unsafe textile factories, and vast poisonous open pit mines.
It’s not just modern necessities that cause countries to give over vast portions of their economies to export. Poor (one might even say predatory) lending practices by world financial institutions have left many nations with unsustainable foreign debts, denominated in foreign currencies.
Remember, the only way to get foreign currencies is by having something foreign countries want and being willing to sell it to them. As long as a country has foreign debts to service, it must leave aside a chunk of its productivity for foreign rather than domestic priorities. If the pie is big and the slice set aside for other countries is small, this is sustainable. But when a small pie requires a big slice, disaster can strike. Debt relief for struggling countries remains an urgent humanitarian priority.
In real life, the IMF and the World Bank have taken a role not unlike that of your parents in the metaphor. They threaten poor debtor countries with dire consequences unless they continue to pay down their (often) ridiculously large debts. This occurs even when debts were racked up by dictators, or are for money that was stolen from the public purse by corrupt administrators.
All serious advocates of international trade need to acknowledge and grapple with the negative consequences trade can have.
But I’m hopeful. I refuse to believe that there exists no way we can make essential generic medicine and essential modern technology available to all of the people of the world except through unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction. Debt write-offs can fix some of the problems, but other reforms can only occur once the narrative around trade changes.
Framing trade as an adversarial process allows business interests to push for the rollback of worker and environmental protections where they exist and fight their introduction where they don’t. Protectionist rhetoric, whether it comes from Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, is wrong and hurts workers the world over. Trade isn’t a competition. Framing it that way may be useful for politicians when they are competing for votes, but it won’t improve the material situation of anyone, at home or abroad.
As prosperity increases, all of these problems become more tractable. International trade remains one of the best ways we have of increasing prosperity. We can’t afford to go without it. Trade is something people should be able to agree on, whether they want to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a just global society, or just plain get rich.
My primary source was Joseph Heath’s wonderful economics book, Filthy Lucre (subtitled Economics for People who Hate Capitalism). It systematically dismantles 12 common economic fallacies, 6 beloved of the left and 6 beloved by the right. Trade is covered in Chapter 5: Uncompetitive in Everything.
The rest comes from reading too many articles on Wikipedia and too many news think pieces. Some things only became clear to me as I was writing this, like the difference between Japan’s debt and Greece’s. I’m also indebted (heh) to Tessa Alexanian, who explained to me why trade can be bad for developing countries. She influenced most of the ideas laid out in that section (that said, I should get all the credit for any errors).
As usual, this blog post should only be taken as an accurate account of my own views, not the views of anyone else.
These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but once you clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.
When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here it’s best to start with plausible near future events and let those give your timeline a momentum, carrying you to where you want to go on a chain of reason. No link has to be perfect, but each link has to be plausible. If any of them leave your readers scratching their heads, then you’ve lost them.
Predicting the future is also vulnerable to the future happening. Predictions are rooted in their age and tend to tell us more about the context in which they were made than about the future.
I think Pump Six is a book where we can clearly see and examine both of these problems.
First, let’s talk about chains of events. The stories The Fluted Girl, The Calorie Man, The Tamarisk Hunter, and Yellow Card Man all hinge on events that probably seem plausible to Bacigalupi, but that feel deeply implausible to me.
The Fluted Girl imagines the revival of feudalism in America. Fiefs govern the inland mountains, while there is a democracy (presumably capitalist) on the coasts. This arrangement felt unstable and unrealistic to me.
Feudal societies tend to have much less economic growth than democracies (see part 2 of Scott’s anti-reactionary FAQ). Democracies also aren’t exactly great at staying calm about atrocities right on their doorsteps. These two facts combined make me wonder why the (Coloradan?) feudal society in The Fluted Girl hasn’t been smashed by its economically (and therefore, inevitably militarily) more powerful neighbours.
In The Tamarisk Hunter, the Colorado River is slowly being covered by a giant concrete straw, a project that has been going on for a while and requires massive amounts of resources. The goal is to protect the now diminished Colorado River from evaporation as it winds its way into a deeply drought-stricken California.
In the face of a bad enough drought, every bit counts. But there are much more cost effective ways to get your drinking water. The Colorado river today has an average discharge of 640m3/s. In a bad drought, this would be lower. Let’s say it’s at something like 200m3/s.
You could get that amount of water from building about 100 desalination plants, which would cost something like $100 billion today (using a recently built plant in California as a baseline). Bridges cost something like $3,000 per m2 (using this admittedly flawed report for guidance), so using bridges to estimate the cost, the “straw” would cost about $300 million per kilometer (using the average width of the Colorado river). Given the relative costs of the two options, it is cheaper to replace the whole river (assuming reduced flow from the drought) with desalination plants than it is to build even 330km (<200 miles) of straw.
A realistic response to a decades long California drought would involve paying farmers not to use water, initiating water conservation measures, and building desalination plants. It wouldn’t look like violent conflict over water rights up and down the whole Colorado River.
In The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man, bioengineered plagues have ravaged the world and oil production has declined to the point where the main source of energy is once again the sun (via agriculture). Even assuming peak oil will happen (more on that in a minute), there will always be nuclear power. Nuclear power plants currently provide for only ten percent of the world’s energy needs, but there’s absolutely no good reason they couldn’t meet basically all of them (especially if combined with solar, hydro, wind, and if necessary, coal).
With improved uranium enrichment techniques and better energy storage technology, it’s plausible that sustainable energy sources could, if necessary, entirely displace oil, even in the transportation industry.
The only way to get from “we’re out of oil” to “I guess it’s back to agriculture as our main source of energy” is if you forget about (or don’t even consider) nuclear power.
This is why I think the stories in Pump Six tell me a lot more about Bacigalupi than about the future. I can tell that he cares deeply about the planet, is skeptical of modern capitalism, and fearful of the damage industrialization, fossil fuels, and global warming may yet bring.
But the story that drove home his message for me wasn’t any of the “ecotastrophes”, where humans are brought to the brink of destruction by our mistreatment of the planet. It was The People of Sand and Slag that made me stop and wonder. It asks us to consider what we’d lose if we poison the planet while adapting to the damage. Is it okay if beaches are left littered with oil and barbed wire if these no longer pose us any threat?
I wish more of the stories had been like that, instead of infected with the myopia that causes environmentalists to forget about the existence of nuclear power (when they aren’t attacking it) and critics of capitalism to assume that corporations will always do the evil thing, with no regard to the economics of the situation.
Disregard for economics and a changing world intersect when Bacigalupi talks about peak oil. Peak oil was in vogue among environmentalists in the 2000s as oil prices rose and rose, but it was never taken seriously by the oil industry. As per Wikipedia, peak oil (as talked about by environmentalists in the ’00s, not as originally formulated) ignored the effects of price on supply and demand, especially in regard to unconventional oil, like the bitumen in the Albertan Oil Sands.
Price is really important when it comes to supply. Allow me to quote from one of my favourite economics stories. It’s about a pair of Texan brothers who (maybe) tried to corner the global market for silver and in the process made silver so unaffordable that Tiffany’s ran an advertisement denouncing them in the third page of the New York Times. The problems the Texans ran into as silver prices rose are relevant here:
But as the high prices persisted, new silver began to come out of the woodwork.
“In the U.S., people rifled their dresser drawers and sofa cushions to find dimes and quarters with silver content and had them melted down,” says Pirrong, from the University of Houston. “Silver is a classic part of a bride’s trousseau in India, and when prices got high, women sold silver out of their trousseaus.”
Unfortunately for the Hunts, all this new supply had a predictable effect. Rather than close out their contracts, short sellers suddenly found it was easier to get their hands on new supplies of silver and deliver.
“The main factor that has caused corners to fail [throughout history] is that the manipulator has underestimated how much will be delivered to him if he succeeds [at] raising the price to artificial levels”
By the same token, many people underestimated the amount of oil that would come out of the woodwork if oil prices remained high – arguably artificially high, no thanks to OPEC – for a prolonged period. As an aside, it’s also likely that we underestimate the amount of unconventional water that could be found if prices ever seriously spiked, another argument against the world in The Tamarisk Hunter.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be a peak in oil production. The very real danger posed by global warming and the fruits of investments in alternative energy when oil prices were high will slowly wean us off of oil. This formulation of peak oil is much different than the other one. A steady decrease in demand for oil will be hard on oil producing regions, but it won’t come as a sharp shock to the whole world economic order.
I don’t know how much of this could have been known in 2005, especially to anyone deeply embedded in the environmentalist movement. As an exoneration, that’s wonderful. But this is exactly my point from above. You can try and predict the future, but you can only predict from your flawed vantage point. In retrospect, it is often easier to triangulate the vantage point than to see the imagined future as plausible.
Another example: almost all science fiction before the late 00s drastically underestimated the current prevalence in mobile devices. In series that straddle the divide, you often see mobile devices mentioned much more in the latter books, as authors adjust their visions of the future to take into account what they now know in the present.
Writing is hard and the critic will always have an easier time than the author. I don’t mean to be so hard on Bacigalupi, I really did enjoy Pump Six and it’s caused me to do no end of thinking and discussing since I finished reading it. In this regard, it was an immensely successful book.
In light of the leaks about Michael Flynn, just about everyone, from America’s allies to its intelligence officers, seems to be reconsidering how much intelligence they share with Donald Trump’s White House. I can’t think of anything more damaging to President Trump’s ability to govern than various domestic and allied agencies (semi-)publicly mulling whether or not to share information with him.
It’s not that I think this will cause irreparable damage to his public image. At this point, you can be swayed by other people’s opinion of Trump or you can’t. Trump’s base doesn’t care what a bunch of intelligence geeks in suits think about him. They just want to see jobs come back.
It’s just that Trump is already beginning to experience one of the most significant failure modes of single-person rule: isolation.
One of the little talked about virtues of democracy is how its decentralizing tendency makes isolation of key decision makes much more difficult. Take Canada as an example. There are 338 Members of Parliament, each based in a different geographic region and expected to regularly travel there and respond to the concerns of the local residents. Each MP also has several aides, responsible for briefing them and keeping them in the loop. Cabinet Ministers have all of this, plus they’ll have one or two MPs acting as their assistants in matters of their portfolio. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is accountable to his constituents, his cabinet, his MPs, and through them, all of Canada.
It is very difficult to influence Mr. Trudeau’s decision making by influencing the information he receives. Government agencies can attempt it, but Mr. Trudeau is broadly popular, which makes this much more difficult. To hide information from a leader, you need a quorum. While this can be accomplished by a vocal minority, it becomes very difficult to gather even this in the face of enthusiastic majority support.
In addition, the diverse information channels Mr. Trudeau has access to mean that he is very likely to hear about any notable news that leaks out a department, even if his chief of staff or one of his cabinet ministers doesn’t want him to.
This has the effect of making power struggles somewhat transparent. In general, power among the elites is apportioned based on the results of elections and measured in terms of Members of Parliament and political capital (or, more concretely, opinion polling and what this means for re-election chances). All of this information is a matter of public record. Anyone who wants to know what elite faction is currently dominant and how much political capital it has left can find this out with a simple Google search.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Vatican. Pope Francis was elected through an opaque process and few Catholics saw his election coming. The power games of the cardinals are hidden from most congregants and their reasons for voting how they do are between them and their god. Francis will reign until he dies or steps down, but the power games of the elites (read: the cardinals) haven’t stopped. Instead of jockeying for position directly, they will jockey by trying to control the flow of information to Francis. If one group of cardinals succeeds (or even partially succeeds), they will wield significant invisible influence.
This same sort of opacity is what makes the “science” of Kremlinology appealing. Without clear information, it takes a hundred subtle hints to figure out who has power (and perhaps even more critically, who is being listened to by those with power).
Right now, it seems like Donald Trump is in a situation that is closer to the Pope than the Prime Minister of Canada.
This normally isn’t the case for presidents. They’re deeply embedded in the fabric of a party and have multiple channels for information – as well as multiple factions they depend on for support. Trump lacks both history and (in his mind, at least) dependency. The route of last resort for information to travel to the president is through donors. Trump has closed off this route by believing he’s entirely self-made.
All of this means that Trump is at serious risk of being controlled by one or two influential advisors. If this happens, there really are limited options for his party to bring him back in line and coordinate on a legislative agenda if the interests of those advisors don’t align with the interests of the Republican party.
This is what should be keeping congressional Republicans up at night. Trump should be staying up at night wondering about what his agencies are refusing to tell him.
Governments have to rely on veritable armies of analysts to keep them swimming in the data they need to act. You want to launch an airstrike on a suspected terrorist? You’re going to need a dozen people to correlate a hundred small tidbits of information to positively identify them with enough time to spare to launch a cruise missile or a drone.
These people tend not to be that loyal to any particular party (at least when it comes to how they do their job). While the heads of departments are often political appointees, their deputies are career men and women who have come up through the civil service. Whatever they lack in loyalty to parties, they make up for in loyalty to the system. This is generally enough to allay any fears about them hiding information or failing to perform their role.
Enter Donald Trump, who seems like he might just try and rip the whole system down around their ears. Do you think they’re going to stand for that? If you can’t believe that they have conviction and a genuine loyalty to the system, at least believe that they have some instinct for self-preservation. Career civil servants rely on the system for a paycheck, after all.
Imagine you’re an intelligence officer, fairly high up. You know how much of a threat Russia is. You’ve been watching them for a decade and you’ve seen how they’re gobbling up territory along their borders, trying to reclaim some slice of their lost empire. You think Trump is going to give some of the intelligence you just collected to Russia, blowing the cover of a source or two. So, you hide it. It’s easy enough to do. All you really have to do is flag it as routine, not pass it up the chain of command. It’s almost the same as phoning it in, really.
Imagine you are Trump. Intelligence is drying up. What do you do? You can go yell at your CIA Department head (who might be loyal to you). He or she can go yell at some subordinates. And they’ll promise to do better. They might, for a week or two, or they might not. Maybe you start getting more intelligence, but it’s all of terrible quality.
What do you do? What can you do?
In the end, Trump is one man. He has maybe a hundred people who are personally loyal to him. If we’re generous, we might call it 150. But I think we have to cap it at Dunbar’s number. He can’t count on an unbroken chain of personal loyalty either, because there is a disconnect between the career civil servants and the political appointees.
Trump and all of his henchmen can rant and rail all they want. But at the end of the day, they can’t compel. They can’t hold guns to the heads of every CIA analyst and demand they tell the administration everything they know. They can’t even fire them all. You can’t solve an intelligence shortage by getting rid of all your intelligence analysts. At a certain point, you just have to give up.
Think I’m exaggerating? Think this couldn’t possibly work on Trump? Read Eichmann in Jerusalem and you’ll learn it worked on the Nazis. Where open resistance failed, obstructionism and carefully cultivated laziness succeeded.
Power is in many ways an illusion and a fragile one at that. Break it and you might not be able to put it back together. If Trump threatens the CIA (or any other agency; you can also image the DoJ taking forever to close an investigation or the EPA having a bunch of trouble finishing an inspection and giving an all clear) and fails to deliver on his threat (likely), then the jig is up. He’s lost all ability to change anyone’s behaviour through threats.
So, this is the problem Trump faces. He has the presidency and he intends to use it to make sweeping changes to America. But without close cooperation with lawmakers, his term is going to look a lot like an attempt at one-man rule. Certainly, this should be frightening for everyone who cares about checks and balances in America.
But it should also frighten Trump’s supporters. One man rule is a terrible system of government. If Trump makes a serious go at it, his cabinet and advisors will be at each other’s throats (when he isn’t around) in next to no time and he’ll face persistent (but impossible to end) resistance from almost every Federal department. I don’t know how exactly Trump plans to make America great again, but I bet he isn’t prepared for large scale passive resistance.
The final remaining question then is: will this resistance show up, or are the early rumours exaggerated. On this point, the world is watching and hoping that the ordinary civil servants of America display the requisite moral courage to passively resist Trump’s most damaging requests.
There is an interesting post by Professor Bryan Caplan spinning limited government as an insurance policy against wild swings in political climate. You should go read the whole thing, but I’ll summarize for the lazy.
Professor Caplan makes his case using a thought experiment with an angel. This angel talks to you during Obama’s inauguration and offers you a bargain. The terms are simple If you accept, neither Obama nor Trump will be able to get much done. You trade away Obamacare and in exchange you don’t get Trump’s immigration policies. Professor Caplan frames this as a form of political insurance, a guarantee of mediocracy instead of potentially wild swings.
Professor Caplan points out that this insurance (which might be sounding pretty tempting to you right about now) is actually similar to the concept of limited government, something we already know how to achieve. From his post:
If you want the insurance of limited government, there are well-tested mechanisms to deliver it. You all know them. Supermajority rules require more than a majority to act. Division of powers makes it hard for government bodies to accomplish anything on their own. Judicial review allows judges to invalidate acts of government. Federalism greatly reduces the cost of “voting with your feet.” If you think these institutions aren’t working, the obvious solution is to strengthen them. Impose more supermajority requirements. Divide more powers. Overturn legislation that fails to get support from six, seven, eight, or all nine Supreme Court Justices. Make states pay for their own spending with their own taxes, not federal grants.
Prof. Caplan then briefly remarks on the known difficulties of attaining any of this. I’m actually not going to comment on that part of the post, because that isn’t what interested me.
Instead, I want to talk about limited government.
The thing I find most difficult when discussing limited government is that everyone wants a “limited” government to do different things. Many libertarians take it on faith that a limited government would naturally contain a police force to protect private property and contractual rights within the territory of the state and a military to protect that territory from outside threats. On the other hand, if you ask a centre-left policy wonk (hi!) about limited government, they’ll tell you that a limited government shouldn’t have much in the way of an army but it should be willing to run insurance programs in response to market failures. Radical leftists might want some redistribution without police or moral laws, while Christian fundamentalists might want strict morality laws but limited taxes.
(I want to pause here and point out that “limited government” as a concept must be backed up by a specific set of mechanisms by which it is limited. Throughout this essay I will treat “limited government” as the philosophy that a government shouldn’t be able to do whatever it wants and “checks and balances” or “separation of powers” as some of the specific mechanisms that are used to achieve that philosophical aim.)
With so many different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) ideas as to what a limited government actually means, you can’t just say “we have limited government” and expect voters to leave it at that. No matter how many checks and balances your government must contend with, voters are going to want to see it govern and they’re going to want to hold it accountable.
Voters in general do a good job of holding government accountable to their wants. Because of this, politicians tend to do what the voters want. For all of their reputation otherwise, politicians are actually quite good at keeping their promises. This seems to hold true irrespective of checks and balances. If you click through to the link, you’ll see that politicians follow through on their campaign promises roughly as often in the US (with a lot of checks and balances) as they do in Canada (which gives politicians a “get out of the constitution free” card in the form of the notwithstanding clause) or the Netherlands (which has the character more of a unicameral state than a true bicameral state like the US).
Faced with voters who have made demands and a need to achieve most of those demands if they wish to keep their jobs, politicians need to get things done. Checks and balances don’t change this simple fact. But checks and balances seem to have a lot of influence on how things get done.
During good years, the governments of Canada and America function relatively similarly. Legislation begins in the House, passes to the Senate, and is eventually signed by the Head of State. But during bad years the two countries look nothing alike. When America is wracked by partisanship or crisis, things still get done. But they get done by methods (read: kludges) that erode the very checks and balances that made them so difficult to do in the first place. Take this example (from The Economist): “The job of White House counsel was created to provide the president with sound legal advice; it has ballooned into a battery of lawyers—almost 50 under Barack Obama—whose task is to find legal cover for whatever the president wants to do”. America is a common law jurisdiction. Every justification President Obama made stick has become a permanent weakness in the nation’s checks and balances.
My observation is that both presently and historically, any attempt at checks and balances that makes governing too odious is eventually circumvented, ultimately leading to a government that is much less constrained than if it had instead been kept to less strict limits from the start. As specific examples, I provide Weimar Germany, the Roman Republic, and as we’ve discussed, the United States of America.
If you want durable limited government, then you have to be prepared to define limited government broadly and make your checks and balances effective only against extreme changes. Canada does a good job of it. Our system makes change possible but radical change incredibly difficult. The notwithstanding clause does allow the government to suspend certain parts of the constitution, but it has a deliberate sunset clause – any legislation passed with it lasts only five years, which is conveniently the maximum amount of time between elections. Actually modifying the constitution is prohibitively difficult, requiring the consent of the federal government and at least seven provincial legislatures (compromising at least half of the population).
A lack of serious resistance to reasonable policy proposals means that the Canadian Constitution and its checks and balances is at no serious risk of erosion. Meanwhile, the debate in America isn’t about whether the constitution is eroded, just about whether it is eroded to the point of ineffectiveness.
This is the choice you face with checks and balances. You can make them powerful and try to contend with the inevitable erosion they’ll face as politicians try and get things done in the face of them. Or you can make it easy for politicians to implement enough of their agenda to keep their voters happy and watch as they give up on any part of it that isn’t simple.
Viewed through this lens, Prof. Caplan’s suggestions are supremely harmful. They’re the sorts of things that will incentivize politicians to go hunting for any constitutional workaround they can find. I can’t think of anything that will hasten the demise of the American constitution more quickly than measures that make obstructionism easier.
All this is to say I think the rant I had when I first saw this article was justified:
The problem with checks and balances (as I keep articulating) is that they are fine in good times, but in bad times people need to be able to change stuff and you won’t have a supermajority to agree on what things to change. So you get people going from Point A (where we currently are) to Point B (where they want to be) in a way that is supremely damaging to the norms that we need for stable growth in the remaining 95% of cases.
If 51% of the population want something, they will probably eventually get something in that general area. We can control, however, where in that area they land. Do we want to restrain them temporarily, then have them get it in the most extreme form? Or do we want them to work within the system, be able to easily get it in a watered down form, and then dissolve for want of a remaining common enemy?
My overriding desire is for checks and balances that are reasonably effective over the lifetime of a nation. I support limited checks and balances because I truly believe that in the long run, this leads to governments being most constrained in their actions.
Why? Why the apathy in the face of serious and unethical behaviour?
I’d bet on a decade of scandals.
People aren’t outraged anymore because outrage requires norms to be violated. Unless Mr. Trudeau was doing cocaine off the seats of the Aga Khan’s helicopter, this latest scandal is just more of the same. If I lived in Toronto, even coke would be more of the same.
Rona Ambrose pulled off a passable imitation of outrage in question period (despite spending her winter vacation with a billionaire as well) and Mulcair is as angry as he’s always been, but for all their earnestness, they don’t realize that the Canadians who elected Trudeau aren’t going to turn on him without a truly novel scandal. Sure, he promised to fix Ottawa. But if we get one or two less scandals every four years, that will feel like a fix. For his voters to feel betrayed, Trudeau is going to have to do something really bad. And we just aren’t there yet. I don’t even think electoral reform got us there.
Critics called Mr. Harper “The Teflon Man” after no scandal would stick to him. They assumed that this was because of some aspect of Mr. Harper’s personality. They forgot to examine if the problem was larger than that. What if no scandal stuck to Mr. Harper not because of some strange and sinister aspect of his personality, but because of some failure of ours.
What if the lack of any truly damaging scandal during the Harper years wasn’t because of a deal he struck with Mephistopheles? What if it was because we no longer had norms left around that kind of scandal? What if the sponsorship scandal made petty corruption and favouritism boring and banal? What if we’ve lost the ability to expect better, so accept what we get as all we deserve? The answer to all these hypotheticals looks a lot like what we’re seeing right now.
Certainly getting people to even frown about Trudeau’s scandals is an uphill fight for the opposition. The people who voted for Trudeau like him –his approval rating is relatively high, at 48%– in spite of cash for access, his moving expenses, and the ridiculous hullabaloo about elbows. Trudeau’s supporters don’t seem to want to think bad things about him. Worst of all (for the opposition), a lot of Canadians think Trudeau is on their team.
Some of the time, politics is about teams. Our last election was fought on values, so it is perhaps more than likely that this is one of those times. When politics is about teams, you forget about the bad things your own team does, because you really, really don’t want to give the other team any ammunition.
When Harper was in power, the Conservatives didn’t want to hear anything about his scandals. They had a bunch of convincing reasons why they really weren’t that bad. I think they bought their own reasons too. The Conservatives were embattled, locked in what was to them a fight for the nation’s soul. Stephen Harper’s overriding goal was to change the relationship between Canadians and their government. In service of this goal, the Conservatives couldn’t afford to falter. They couldn’t afford to spend any time off of their message of economic stability. They had no time for contrition, not when there were elections to win.
But no time for contrition meant no time for reflection. And as is its eventual wont when out of power, the Liberal party engaged in a lot of self-reflection. They made their whole campaign about ending the nastiness coming from Ottawa. They built up a coalition of people who had been sidelined by Mr. Harper. And on the back of this team, they made their way back to power.
By casting things in terms of a fight for the soul of the country, the Conservatives gave the Liberals their best defense against scandals. They now have the boogeyman of Mr. Harper and his nastiness and cuts to brandish at any member of their coalition who thinks about leaving.
Currently this team is ascendant. So when the Conservatives crow about scandals, they find themselves offside on public opinion. Only the Conservative base wants to entertain the notion of scandals from Mr. Trudeau’s government, because serious scandals would mean the return of the Conservatives. For all who dread that eventuality, scandals must be ignored.
It gets even worse for the Conservatives though. Their earlier willful blindness means they’re just waking up to the fact that Canada is plagued by scandals and it hurts. I don’t know how they do it, but they have an amazing ability to fail to see any of the excesses of the previous government. Watch Rona Ambrose criticize Trudeau. She doesn’t make a single attempt to defend or acknowledge the previous government’s record. She just ignores it, as if it didn’t happen or isn’t worth mentioning.
Maybe this is a rhetorical trick that politicians can do and I’m naively falling for it. Maybe Rona Ambrose knows full well that Stephen Harper was no better than Justin Trudeau, but can’t acknowledge it if she wants her criticism to have teeth. If so, props to her as an actor. When I watch Rona Ambrose, I see a woman who believes that only she can see clearly. As far as I can tell, from her vantage point, Mr. Trudeau is violating a number of norms that the Conservatives resolutely defended for a decade.
But what Rona Ambrose sees as clarity, the rest of Canada sees as myopia. We know that the Conservatives were plagued by scandals for a decade and that the present state of affairs is certainly no worse than the previous one. So the Conservatives come across as sanctimonious. They’re behind the curve. And insouciance will always be almost synonymous with power (and therefore, in popular culture, with cool). The Conservatives care and they care visibly and impotently and a lot of the country can’t help but see this as weakness.
Even worse than being a loser is being a hypocrite and the Tories look like hypocrites as well. We all remember when the Tories were the ones explaining away scandals, not decrying them. Many people are angrier with the perceived hypocrisy than they are about the actual scandals.
Whether the ultimate reason is hollowed-out norms, team-based politics, or rage at Conservative hypocrisy, we’re in a shitty status quo. I didn’t want to find myself completely numb to Canada’s Prime Minister facing an ethics investigation.
Luckily, my partner Tessa still cares about scandals in Canada. And since I spend a lot of time talking with her, she prodded me about my breezy attitude towards scandals. She didn’t quite prod me into caring, but I at least I got to a state of meta-caring. I now care about my lack of care.
We got here because of norms. Political norms are a fragile thing. In Canada, they’re still damaged. We need a decade with as few scandals as possible to give them some time to recover.
I don’t think we’re going to get that. Not like this.
If we can’t count on politicians to police themselves, we have to find ways to make them accountable. We can’t let scandal norms become entrenched. I’ll let David Schraub explain:
There is an extraordinarily narrow range of levers through which one can be compelled to act in Washington: impeachments, being voted out of office, mandatory court orders … it’s not all that large, and it doesn’t cover all that much. Much of what we take for granted our government will do is not legally compelled, but is based on politicians following established patterns of political culture. Among those patterns is that a major scandal will lead to an investigation and some measure of accountability. But nobody forces Congress to launch an investigation, and nobody forces administration officials to resign or even acknowledge scandals reported in the media.
David is writing about America where the situation has become particularly dire. But Canada is also seeing norms deteriorate. That’s why we have to fight for them. Even in mild-mannered Canada, accountability can’t exist without a public outcry.
We have to call or write to politicians and tell them when we’re displeased. We have to press them to acknowledge their mistakes and promise not to repeat them. And we have to be prepared to vote against politicians who won’t desist, even if we like them, even if it means our side losing sometimes.
I’m not at the point of committing to vote against Mr. Trudeau. I think it’s still amateur hour with the Liberals and that they deserve some time to get over their learning curve. I think a lot of Canadians are in the same boat. I bet that Trudeau’s approval rating stabilizes or bounces back over the next few months instead of continuing to fall .
So the Liberals have some time, but they don’t have all the way to 2019. You get your first election on promises. The second has to be backed up by results.
Even though I think Trudeau and his Liberals deserve some time to sort themselves out, I don’t think they deserve my complacency. I’m going to post about every scandal, whether it’s on social media or on my blog. I’m going to talk with my friends about the importance of political norms and my displeasure with scandals. When I feel important norms are being violated, I’m going to write to my MP. I’m now committed to actively standing up for our norms, no matter who is in power.
Yonatan Zunger has an article in Medium claiming that the immigration executive order from last Friday is the “trial balloon” for a planned Trump coup. I don’t think this is quite correct. While I no longer have much confidence that America will still be a democracy in 50 years, I don’t think Trump will be its first dictator.
I do think the first five points in Dr. Zunger’s analysis are fairly sound. I’m not sure if they are true, but they’re certainly plausible. It is true, for example, that it is unusual to file papers for re-election so quickly. Barack Obama didn’t file his re-election form until 2011. Whether this means that Trump will use campaign donations to enrich his family remains to be seen, but the necessary public disclosures of campaign expenses make this falsifiable. Give it a year and we’ll know.
Unfortunately, the 6th point is much more speculative. Dr. Zunger believes that it is likely that Trump received a large share in the Russian gas giant Rosneft in payment for winning the election and (presumably) lifting Russian sanctions in the future. Dr. Zunger relies on a recently announced and difficult to trace sale of 19.5% of Rosneft, which is close to the 19% claimed in the Steele papers (which should be the first red flag). But the AP article he links sheds some serious doubt on this claim. It makes it clear that it isn’t the whole 19.5%, €10 billion stake in Rosneft that has disappeared, only a “small” €2 billion portion of it. Between this contradiction and the inherent unreliability of the Steele papers, I’m disinclined to believe that this represents a real transfer of wealth from Russia to Trump .
This point, although relatively minor, represents an inflection point in Dr. Zunger’s post, where it shifts from insightful analysis to shaky speculation.
As Dr. Zunger goes into more detail on Trump’s supposed next step, incongruities pile up.
If Trump is planning a coup and building a parallel power structure, why did he pick General Mattis as his SecDef? The military is one of the most popular institutions in America. The military was more popular than the presidency, even when the relatively popular Obama was president. You better bet it’s more popular than Trump. This gives the military moral, as well as practical authority to stop any Trump coup. Given that there’s no way that Trump will be more popular with the soldiers and officers who actually make up the army than Gen. Mattis is, he’s in an excellent position to shut down any coup attempt cold.
Gen. Mattis could stop a coup, but it’s his character that suggests he would. He has a backbone made of solid steel and seems to be far more loyal to America than he is to the president. See as evidence his phone calls to NATO members and support for maintaining the Iran deal.
The DHS isn’t plausible as a parallel power structure. Sure, 45,000 employees sounds like a lot, until you realize that the total staff of the NYPD is almost 50,000. Even in a scenario where the army stays neutral, the DHS would be hard pressed to police New York, let alone the whole country.
I also don’t think preparation for a coup is the only reason to ignore court orders. In Canada, we saw the Prime Minister routinely oppose the courts, culminating with a nasty series of public barbs directed at the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This wasn’t a prelude to Mr. Harper trying to seize power. It was the natural result of a perennially besieged and unpopular head of government fighting to pass an agenda despite heavy opposition from most civil society groups. I would contend that the proper yardstick to measure Trump against here is FDR. If Trump goes beyond what FDR did, we’ll have cause to worry.
All this is to say, if Trump is planning a coup, he isn’t being very strategic about it. That said, if he found some way to ditch General Mattis for someone more compliant, I would take the possibility of a coup much more seriously.
Instead of viewing Trump as a Caesar-in-waiting, we should think of him as analogous to Gaius Marius. Marius never seized power, but he did violate basically every conventional norm of Roman government (he held an unprecedented 7 consulships and began the privatization of the legions). Gaius Marius made the rise of dictators almost inevitable, but he was not himself a dictator.
Like America, Rome in the 1st century BCE found itself overextended, governing and protecting a large network of tributary states and outright colonies. The Roman constitutional framework couldn’t really handle administration on this scale. While year long terms are a sensible way to run a city state, they don’t work with a continent-spanning empire.
In addition to the short institutional memory and lack of institutional expertise that strict term limits guaranteed, Rome ran up against a system of checks and balances that made it incredibly hard to get anything done .
Today, America is running up against an archaic system of checks and balances . America has fallen to “government by kluge“, a state of affairs that has seriously degraded output legitimacy. From Prof. Joseph Heath on Donald Trump:
In response to the impossibility of reform, the American system has slowly evolved into what Steven Teles calls a kludgeocracy. Rather than enacting reforms, people have found “work-arounds” to the existing system, ways of getting things done that twist the rules a bit, but that everyone accepts because it’s easier than trying to change the rules. (This is why, incidentally, those who hope that the “separation of powers” will constrain President Trump are kidding themselves – the separation of powers in the U.S. is severely degraded, as an accumulated effect of decades of “work arounds” or kludges that violate it.)
Because of this, the U.S. government suffers a massive shortfall in “output legitimacy,” in that it consistently fails to deliver anything like the levels of competent performance than people in wealthy, advanced societies expect from government. (Anyone who has ever dealt with the U.S. government knows that it is uniquely horrible experience, unlike anything suffered by citizens of other Western democracies.) Furthermore, because of the dysfunctional legislative branch, nothing ever gets “solved” to anyone’s satisfaction. All that Americans ever get is a slow accumulation of more kludges (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, the Clean Power Plan).
Most people, however, do not think institutionally. When they see bad performance from government, they blame the actors that they see readily at hand. And their response then is to send in new people, committed to changing things. For decades they’ve been doing this, and yet nothing ever changes. Why? Because the problems are institutional, outside the control of individual legislators. But how do people interpret this lack of change? Many come to the conclusion that the person they sent in to fix things got coopted, or wasn’t tough enough, or wasn’t up to the job. And so they send in someone tougher, more radical, more vociferous in his or her commitment to changing things. When that doesn’t work out, they send in someone even more radical.
A vote for Donald Trump is a natural end-point of this process.
For Rome, Marius was the end-point. He held more power, for longer, than anyone who came before. The crucial distinction between him and those who came after, however, was that he acquired this power through legitimate means. Still, in order to govern effectively, he was forced to apply more kluges to the already disintegrating Roman constitution. It couldn’t hold up.
The end result of Marius was Sulla, who tried to bring Rome back to its “old ways” and repair the damage to the constitution. Interestingly, he did this almost entirely through extra-constitutional means. His reforms failed, although not just because of how he did them. Sulla tried to remove the kluges from the underlying system, but the result was an even more unworkable system.
Sulla was followed by the Triumvirate, a private power sharing agreement that divided up the empire and allowed effective governance at the cost of the constitution. The triumvirate led to civil war and dictatorship. And a bureaucracy capable of running the empire.
Looking back at history, I see three ways forward for America:
It can slowly become an autocracy, which will break the gridlock in Washington at the cost of democracy.
It can abandon its role as the world’s hegemon, retreat to isolationism, and see if its government is capable of handling the strain of this reduced burden.
It can radically change its system of government. A parliamentary system (whether first past the post or mixed member proportional) based on the confidence of the house would probably prove much more responsive to the crises America faces.
I no longer believe in the great man theory of history. Instead, I’ve begun to see history as a series of feedback loops between people, institutions, and places. Geopolitical realities can exert as much pressure for change on institutions as people can.
If we didn’t have Trump this year, we’d have someone like him in four years or eight. The stresses on the American system of government are such that someone had to emerge as the “natural endpoint” of failed reform. But I don’t think it’s this person’s fate to become America’s first dictator. That part is reserved for a later actor and there is still hope that the role can be written out before they steps onto the stage.
 I’m a Bayesian, so I’ll quite happily bet with anyone who believes otherwise. ^  For more information on the transition of Rome into a dictatorship and the forces of empire that drove that transformation, I recommend SPQR by Prof. Mary Beard. ^  I’m certainly not opposed to checks and balances, but they can end up doing more harm than good if they make the act of governing so difficult that they end up ignored. ^
Annoyed with me describing If on a winter’s night a traveller as “very literary” one too many times, my partner Tessa challenged me to explain what I meant by “literary”.
This presented a problem, because I’ve been using literary as a shorthand for “that type of book that people who review books for a living get really excited about but I never seem to like” – basically as a category label, not as a descriptive phrase. Even worse, If on a winter’s night a traveller didn’t really fit into the category anyway; it’s a book that I’m heartily enjoying.
To answer Tessa’s question, I had to abandon using “literary” as a category label and instead treat it as a handle for a concept. But first, I needed a concept.
Levels of Reading
Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
How do you interpret this story?
You could just look at the plot, such as it is. Clearly someone is selling some baby clothes; not very interesting.
Or you could look at it from the perspective of someone who has an idea of the flow of stories. What are the implications of selling baby’s clothes that are never worn? Clearly this is telling us that someone has undergone a tragedy.
Or you could look at it as someone who knows they’re being told a story. What themes seem to be present? Have you read other similar stories? Is this an allusion to them? A deconstruction? Is the author doing something interesting with language?
As a reader, you can expect to fluidly move between these stances. Sometimes, when the action is intense, you will read the book mainly on the first level. But then when you catch a sign that the characters have missed, you might be tossed up to the second level and spend some time contemplating what is being foreshadowed. Or perhaps a chance word will force you to consider the story from a broader social context.
Okay, enough examples. Let’s formalize these reading levels!
I’m positing a model where there are three levels of reading. Any story can be read at any level and most stories are intended to be read at every level at least some of the time. What distinguishes genres like literary fiction from pulp novels is the expected default level and the level at which the reader is supposed to derive the majority of their enjoyment.
Aside: In a perfect world, people could pick whichever books draw them to the reading level they enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I think it is common to attach character judgements to people who have an aesthetic preference for books on a certain level. It’s all too easy to claim that someone who prefers to read at a different level than you do is somehow deficient in some virtue or is aesthetically stunted. Therefore, I’ve attached my estimation of the common judgements made of works that are meant to be read at each level, in the hopes that it will help both me and my readers notice these judgements and avoid perpetuating them.
At level 1, the reader is focused solely on the immediate plot. What is going on? What are characters feeling? How does this make you feel? Here you are using your ability to read to connect words into coherent sentences that immerse you in the story.
Stories read mostly at this level: “Pulpy” fiction, “young readers” books, any science fiction or fantasy that sells a lot of copies but is never nominated for the Hugo Awards.
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “shallow” or “lacking in substance”, not appropriate for adults or appropriate only for reading while travelling or on vacation, indicative of unrefined tastes.
At this level, the reader is focused on the form of the story. What is being foreshadowed? What character growth is being highlighted? Was that just a callback to the first book in the series? Here you are using your memory and intuitions to connect parts of the text to other parts of the text, even those you have not seen yet.
Stories read mostly at this level: “character-driven” fiction, classical tragedies, thrillers that rely on suspense and foreshadowing, most books that win Hugo Awards
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “watered-down”, overly conventional, clichéd/predictable, or pandering.
At this level, the reader is focused on how the story interacts with the wider world. What sort of tone does the author set? What other works are alluded to, deconstructed, or reconstructed. What techniques are used and which techniques are ignored? What flourishes does the author use? Here you are using your knowledge of culture and conventions to understand the place of the work in the context of a larger corpus of related works.
Stories read mostly at this level: “experimental” novels, deconstructions, “literary” fiction, most books that win the John W Campbell Award.
What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: incomprehensible, dense, elitist, snobbish, lacking in plot, or read more for signalling than genuine enjoyment
“Literary” as a handle
With this model, I can now use “literary” in a descriptive sense. If I describe a book as literary, I’m really saying that I view the book as one meant to be primarily read and enjoyed on the third level.
Reflecting on this model has helped me systematize some of the things I get out of books. In general, I prefer works that are meant to be enjoyed and read mainly on the first two levels. I tend to feel that novels that expect me to engage with them primarily on the third level have abrogated their duty to entertain me. That said, I can like works that focus on level 3 when they cause me to ponder areas I’m already interested in.
This helps resolve the question that started this whole mess, namely: “if I generally dislike literary books, why am I enjoying If on a winter’s night a traveller”. It’s now clear that I like it because it engages with the experience of being a reader, an experience dear to my heart. If it spent the majority of its time demanding that I read it on the third level while failing to engage with topics I cared about, I think I’d be much less likely to enjoy it.
Understanding this gives me a better heuristic for making book buying decisions when the only information I have is reviews. In general, I should avoid books that are described with terms that suggest that the book should primarily be enjoyed on the third level, unless the book seems to require engagement with a topic I already care about.
On the other hand, I should look for indications that the book encourages readers to occasionally read on level 3. While I tend to rip through books written to be read mostly on level 1, the books that I come back to again and again spend most of their time on level 2, but use level 3 strategically to highlight themes and really drive their points home.
A final note: this model can be applied to any work of fiction, not just books. For example, Psycho Pass is an anime that exists primarily on level 2, but uses level 3 to great effect. Madoka Magica, on the other hand, is primarily on level 3; it would not be nearly as strong of work without the context of other magical girl anime within which it exists. It may even be possible to extend this model to music or art, but here I must plead ignorance and leave that labour to another.