Ethics, Literature, Philosophy

Book Review: Utilitarianism for and against (Part 1)

Utilitarianism for and against is an interesting little book. It’s comprised of back-to-back ~70 page essays, one in favour of utilitarianism and one opposed. As an overview, it’s hard to beat something like this. You don’t have to rely on one scholar to give you her (ostensibly fair and balanced) opinion; you get two articulate philosophers arguing their side as best they can. Fair and balanced is by necessity left as an exercise to the reader (honestly, it always is; here at least it’s explicit).

I’m going to cover the “for” side first. The “against” side will be in later blog post. Both reviews are going to assume that you have some understanding of utilitarianism. If you don’t, go read my primer. Or be prepared to Google. I should also mention that I have no aspirations of being balanced myself. I’m a utilitarian; I had much more to disagree with on the “against” side than on the “for” side.

Professor J.J.C Smart makes the arguments in favour of utilitarianism. According to his Wikipedia entry, he was known for “outsmarting” his opponents, that is to say, accepting the conclusions of their reductio ad absurdum arguments with nary a shrug. He was, I’ve gathered, not one for moral intuitions. His criticism of rule utilitarianism played a role in its decline and he was influential in raising the next crop of Australian utilitarians, among whom Peter Singer is counted. As near as I can tell, he was one of the more notable defenders of utilitarianism when this volume was published in 1971 (although much of his essay dates back a decade earlier).

Smart is emphatically not a rationalist (in the philosophical sense); he writes no “proof of utilitarianism” and denies that such a proof is even possible. Instead, Smart restricts himself to explaining how utilitarianism is an attractive ethical system for anyone possessed of general benevolence. Well, I’ll say “everyone”. The authors of this volume seem to be labouring under the delusion that only men have ethical dilemmas or the need for ethical systems. Neither one of them manages the ethicist’s coup of realizing that women might be viewed as full people at the remove of half a century from their time of writing (such a coup would perhaps have been strong evidence of the superiority of one philosophy over another).

A lot of Smart’s essay consists of showing how various different types of utilitarianism are all the same under the hood. I’ve termed these “collapses”, although “isomorphisms” might be a better term. There are six collapses in all.

The very first collapse put me to mind of the famous adage about ducks. If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. By the same token, if someone acts exactly how a utilitarian in their position and with their information would act, then it doesn’t matter if they are a utilitarian or not. From the point of view of an ethical system that cares only about consequences they may as well be.

The next collapse deals with rule utilitarianism and may have a lot to do with its philosophical collapse. Smart points out that if you are avoiding “rule worship”, then you will face a quandary when you could break a rule in such a way as to gain more utility. Rule utilitarians sometimes claim that you just need rules with lots of exceptions and special cases. Smart points out that if you carry this through to its logical conclusion, you really are only left with one rule, the meta-rule of “maximize expected utility”. In this way, rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism.

Next into the compactor is the difference between ideal and hedonic utilitarians. Briefly, ideal utilitarians hold that some states of mind are inherently valuable (in a utilitarian sense), even if they aren’t particularly pleasant from the inside. “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” is the rallying cry of ideal utilitarians. Hedonic utilitarians have no terminal values beyond happiness; they would gladly let almost the entirety of the human race wirehead.

Smart claims that while these differences are philosophically large, they are practically much less meaningful. Here Smart introduces the idea of the fecundity of a pleasure. A doctor taking joy (or grim satisfaction) in saving a life is a much more fecund pleasure than a gambler’s excitement at a good throw, because it brings about greater joy once you take into account everyone around the actor. Many of the other pleasures (like writing or other intellectual pursuits) that ideal utilitarians value are similarly fecund. They either lead to abatement of suffering (the intellectual pursuits of scientists) or to many people’s pleasure (the labour of the poet). Taking into account fecundity, it was better for Smart to write this essay than to wirehead himself, because many other people – like me – get to enjoy his writing and have fun thinking over the thorny issues he raises.

Smart could have stood to examine at greater length just why ideal utilitarians value the things they do. I think there’s a decent case to be made that societies figure out ways to value certain (likely fecund) pleasures all on their own, no philosophers required. It is not, I think, that ideal utilitarians have stumbled onto certain higher pleasures that they should coax their societies into valuing. Instead, their societies have inculcated them with a set of valued activities, which, due to cultural evolution, happen to line up well with fecund pleasures. This is why it feels difficult to argue with the list of pleasures ideal utilitarians proffer; it’s not that they’ve stumbled onto deep philosophical truths via reason alone, it’s that we have the same inculcations they do.

Beyond simple fecundity though, there is the fact that the choice between Socrates dissatisfied and a fool satisfied rarely comes up. Smart has a great line about this:

But even the most avid television addict probably enjoys solving practical problems connected with his car, his furniture, or his garden. However unintellectual he might be, he would certainly resist the suggestion the he should, if it were possible, change places with a contented sheep, or even a happy and lively dog.

This boils down to: ‘ideal utilitarians assume they’re a lot better than everyone else, what with their “philosophical pursuits”, but most people don’t want purely mindless pleasures’. Combined, these ideas of fecundity and hidden depths, point to a vanishingly small gap between ideal and hedonistic utilitarians, especially compared to the gap between utilitarians and practitioners of other ethical systems.

After dealing with questions of how highly we should weigh some pleasures, Smart turns to address the idea of some pleasures not counting at all. Take, for example, the pleasure that a sadist takes in torturing a victim. Should we count this pleasure in our utilitarian moral calculus? Smart says yes, for reasons that again boil down to “certain pleasures being viewed as bad are an artifact of culture; no pleasure is intrinsically bad.

(Note however that this isn’t the same thing as Smart condoning the torture. He would say that the torture is wrong because the pleasure the sadist gains from it cannot make up for the distress of the victim. Given that no one has ever found a real live utility monster, this seems a safe position to take.)

In service of this, Smart presents a thought experiment. Imagine a barren universe inhabited by a single sentient being. This sentient being wrongly believes that there are many other inhabitants of the universe being gruesomely tortured and takes great pleasure in this thought. Would the universe be better if the being didn’t derive pleasure from her misapprehension?

The answer here for both Smart and me is no (although I suspect many might disagree with us). Smart reasons (almost tautologically) that since there is no one for this being to hurt, her predilection for torture can’t hurt anyone. We are rightfully wary of people who unselfconsciously enjoy the thought of innocents being tortured because of what it says about what their hobbies might be. But if they cannot hurt anyone, their obsession is literally harmless. This bleak world would not be better served by its single sentient inhabitant quailing at the thought of the imaginary torture.

Of course, there’s a wide gap between the inhabitant curled up in a ball mourning the torture she wrongly believes to be ongoing and her simple ambivalence to it. It seems plausible that many people could consider her ambivalence preferable, even if they did not wish her to be sad. But imagine then the difference being between her lonely and bored and her satisfied and happy (leaving aside for a moment the torture). It is clear here which is the better universe. Given a way to move from the universe with a single bored being to the one with a single fulfilled being, shouldn’t we take it, given that the shift most literally harms no one?

This brings us to the distinction between intrinsically bad pleasures and extrinsically bad pleasures – the flip side of the intrinsically more valuable states of mind of the ideal utilitarian. Intrinsically bad pleasures are pleasures that for some rationalist or metaphysical reason are just wrong. Their rightness or wrongness must of course be vulnerable to attacks on the underlying logic or theology, but I can hardly embark on a survey of common objections to all the common underpinnings; I haven’t the time. But many people have undertaken those critiques and many will in the future, making a belief in intrinsically bad pleasures a most unstable place to stand.

Extrinsically bad pleasures seem like a much safer proposition (and much more convenient to the utilitarian who wishes to keep their ethical system free of meta-physical or meta-ethical baggage). To say that a pleasure is extrinsically bad is simply to say that to enjoy it causes so much misery that it will practically never be moral to experience it. Similar to how I described ideal utilitarian values as heavily culturally influenced, I can’t help but feel that seeing some pleasures as intrinsically bad has to be the result of some cultural conditioning.

If we can accept that certain pleasures are not intrinsically good or ill, but that many pleasures that are thought of as intrinsically good or ill are thought so because of long cultural experience – positive or negative – with the consequences of seeking them out, then we should see the position of utilitarians who believe that some pleasures cannot be counted in the plus column collapse to approximately the same as those who hold that they can, even if neither accepts the position of the other. The utilitarian who refuses to believe in intrinsically bad pleasures should still condemn most of the same actions as one who does, because she knows that these pleasures will be outweighed by the pains they inflict on others (like the pain of the torture victim overwhelming the joy of the torturer).

There is a further advantage to holding that pleasures cannot be intrinsically wrong. If we accept the post-modernists adage that knowledge is created culturally, we will remember to be skeptical of the universality of our knowledge. That is to say, if you hold a list of intrinsically bad pleasures, it will probably not be an exhaustive list and there may be pleasures whose ill-effects you overlook because you are culturally conditioned to overlook them. A more thoughtful utilitarian who doesn’t take the short-cut of deeming some pleasures intrinsically bad can catch these consequences and correctly advocate against these ultimately wrong actions.

The penultimate collapse is perhaps the least well supported by arguments. In a scant page, Smart addresses the differences between total and average happiness in a most unsatisfactory fashion. He asks which of two universes you might prefer: one with one million happy, healthy people, or one with twice as many people, equally happy and healthy. Both Smart and I feel drawn to the larger universe, but he has no arguments for people who prefer the smaller. Smart skips over the difficulties here with an airy statement of “often the best way to increase the average happiness is to increase the total happiness and vice versa”.

I’m not entirely sure this statement is true. How would one go about proving it?

Certainly, average happiness seems to miss out on the (to me) obvious good that you’d get if you could have twice as many happy people (which is clearly one case where they give different answers), but like Smart, I have trouble coming up with a persuasive argument why that is obviously good.

I do have one important thing myself to say about the difference between average and total happiness. When I imagine a world with more people who are on average less happy than the people that currently exist (but collectively experience a greater total happiness) I feel an internal flinch.

Unfortunately for my moral intuitions, I feel the exact same flinch when I image a world with many fewer people, who are on average transcendentally happy. We can fiddle with the math to make this scenario come out to have greater average and total happiness than the current world. Doesn’t matter. Exact same flinch.

This leads me to believe that my moral intuitions have a strong status quo bias. The presence of a status quo bias in itself isn’t an argument for either total or average utilitarianism, but it is a reminder to be intensely skeptical of our response to thought experiments that involve changing the status quo and even to be wary of the order that options are presented in.

The final collapse Smart introduces is that between regular utilitarians and negative utilitarians. Negative utilitarians believe that only suffering is morally relevant and that the most important moral actions are those that have the consequence of reducing suffering. Smart points out that you can raise both the total and average happiness of a population by reducing suffering and furthermore that there is widespread agreement on what reduces suffering. So Smart expects utilitarians of all kinds (including negative) to primarily focus on reducing suffering anyway. Basically, despite the profound philosophical differences between regular and negative utilitarians, we should expect them to behave equivalently. Which, by the very first collapse (if it walks like a duck…), shows that we can treat them as philosophical equivalents, at least in the present world.

In my experience, this is more or less true. Many of the negative utilitarians I am aware of mainly exercise their ethics by donating 10% of their income to GiveWell’s most effective charities. The regular utilitarians… do the exact same. Quack.

As far as I can tell, Smart goes to all this work to show how many forms of utilitarianism collapse together so that he can present a system that isn’t at war with itself. Being able to portray utilitarianism as a simple, unified system (despite the many ways of doing it) heads off many simple criticisms.

While I doubt many people avoided utilitarianism because there are lingering questions about total versus average happiness, per se, these little things add up. Saying “yes, there are a bunch of little implementation details that aren’t agreed upon” is a bad start to an ethical system, unless you can immediately follow it up with “but here’s fifty pages of why that doesn’t matter and you can just do what comes naturally to you (under the aegis of utilitarianism)”.

Let’s talk a bit about what comes naturally to people outside the context of different forms of utilitarianism. No one, not even Smart, sits down and does utilitarian calculus before making every little decision. For most tasks, we can ignore the ethical considerations (e.g. there is broad, although probably not universal agreement that there aren’t hidden moral dimensions to opening a door). For some others, our instincts are good enough. Should you thank the woman at the grocery store checkout? You probably will automatically, without pausing to consider if it will increase the total (or average) happiness of the world.

Like in the case of thanking random service industry workers, there are a variety of cases where we actually have pretty good rules of thumb. These rules of thumbs serve two purposes. First, they allow us to avoid spending all of our time contemplating if our actions are right or wrong, freeing us to actually act. Second, they protect us from doing bad things out of pettiness or venality. If you have a strong rule of thumb that violence is an inappropriate response to speech you disagree with, you’re less likely to talk yourself into punching an odious speaker in the face when confronted with them.

It’s obviously important to pick the right heuristics. You want to pick the ones that most often lead towards the right outcomes.

I say “heuristics” and “rules of thumbs” because the thing about utilitarians and rules is that they always have to be prepared to break them. Rules exist for the common cases. Utilitarians have to be on guard for the uncommon cases, the ones where breaking a rule leads to greater good overall. Having a “don’t cause people to die” rule is all well and good. But you need to be prepared to break it if you can only stop mass death from a runaway trolley by pushing an appropriately sized person in front of it.

Smart seems to think that utilitarianism only comes up for deliberative actions, where you take the time to think about them and that it shouldn’t necessarily cover your habits. This seems like an abrogation to me. Shouldn’t a clever utilitarian, realizing that she only uses utilitarianism for big decisions spend some time training her reflexes to more often give the correct utilitarian solution, while also training herself to be more careful of her rules of thumb and think ethically more often? Smart gave no indication that he thinks this is the case.

The discussion of rules gives Smart the opportunity to introduce a utilitarian vocabulary. An action is right if it is the one that maximizes expected happiness (crucially, this is a summation across many probabilities and isn’t necessarily the action that will maximize the chance of the happiest outcome) and wrong otherwise. An action is rational if a logical being in possession of all the information you possess would think you to be right if you did it. All other actions are irrational. A rule of thumb, disposition, or action is good if it tends to lead to the right outcomes and bad if it tends to lead to the wrong ones.

This vocabulary becomes important when Smart talks about praise, which he believes is an important utilitarian concern in its own right. Praise increases people’s propensity towards certain actions or dispositions, so Smart believes a utilitarian aught to consider if the world would be better served by more of the same before she praises anything. This leads to Smart suggesting that utilitarians should praise actions that are good or rational even if they aren’t right.

It also implies that utilitarians doing the right thing must be open to criticism if it requires bad actions. One example Smart gives is a utilitarian Frenchman cheating on wartime rationing in 1940s England. The Frenchman knows that the Brits are too patriotic to cheat, so his action (and the actions of the few others that cheat) will probably fall below the threshold for causing any real harm, while making him (and the other cheaters) happier. The calculus comes out positive and the Frenchman believes it to be the right action. Smart acknowledges that this logic is correct, but he points out that by the similar logic, the Frenchman should agree that he must be severely punished if caught, so as to discourage others from doing the same thing.

This actually reminds me of something Hannah Arendt brushed up against in Eichmann in Jerusalem while talking about how the moral constraints on people are different than the ones on states. She gives the example of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian exile who assassinated one of the triumvirate of Turkish generals responsible for the Armenian genocide. Arendt believes that it would have been wrong for the Armenian government to assassinate the general (had one even existed at the time), but that it was right for a private citizen to do the deed, especially given that Tehlirian did not seek to hide his crimes or resist arrest.

From a utilitarian point of view, the argument would go something like this: political assassinations are bad, in that they tend to cause upheaval, chaos, and ultimately suffering. On the other hand, there are some leaders who the world would clearly be better off without, if not to stop their ill deeds in their tracks, then to strike fear and moderation into the hearts of similar leaders.

Were the government of any country to carry out these assassinations, it would undermine the government’s ability to police murder. But when a private individual does the deed and then immediately gives herself up into the waiting arms of justice, the utility of the world is increased. If she has erred in picking her target and no one finds the assassination justified, then she will be promptly punished, disincentivizing copy-cats. If instead, like Tehlirian, she is found not guilty, it will only be because the crimes committed by the leader she assassinated were so brutal and clear that no reasonable person could countenance them. This too sends a signal.

That said, I think Smart takes his distinctions between right and good a bit too far. He cautions against trying to change the non-utilitarian morality of anyone who already tends towards good actions, because this might fail half-way, weakening their morality without instilling a new one. Likewise, he is skeptical of any attempt to change the traditions of a society.

This feels too much like trying to have your cake and eat it too. Utilitarianism can be criticized because it is an evangelical ethical system that gives results far from moral intuitions in some cases. From a utilitarian point of view, it is fairly clearly good to have more utilitarians willing to hoover up these counter-intuitive sources of utility. If all you care about are the ends, you want more people to care about the best ends!

If the best way to achieve utilitarian ends wasn’t through utilitarianism, then we’re left with a self-defeating moral system. In trying to defend utilitarianism from the weak critique that it is pushy and evangelical, both in ways that are repugnant to all who engage in cultural or individual ethical relativism and in ways that are repugnant to some moral intuitions, Smart opens it up to the much stronger critique that it is incoherent!

Smart by turns seems to seek to rescue some commonly held moral truths when they conflict with utilitarianism while rejecting others that seem no less contradictory. I can hardly say that he seems keen to show utilitarianism is in fact in harmony with how people normally act – he clearly isn’t. But he also doesn’t always go all (or even part of) the way in choosing utilitarianism over moral intuitions

Near the end of the book, when talking about a thought experiment introduced by one McCloskey, Smart admits that the only utilitarian action is to frame and execute an innocent man, thereby preventing a riot. McCloskey anticipated him, saying: “But as far as I know, only J.J.C. Smart among the contemporary utilitarians is happy to adopt this ‘solution'”.

Smart responds:

Here I must lodge a mild protest. McCloskey’s use of the work ‘happy’ surely makes me look a most reprehensible person. Even in my most utilitarian moods, I am not happy about this consequence of utilitarianism… since any injustice causes misery and so can be justified only as the lesser of two evils, the fewer the situation in which the utilitarian is forced to choose the lesser of two evils, the better he will be pleased.

This is also the man who said (much as I have) that “admittedly utilitarianism does have consequences which are incompatible with the common moral consciousness, but I tended to take the view ‘so much the worse for the common moral consciousness’.”

All this leaves me baffled. Why the strange mixture? Sometimes Smart goes far further than it seems any of his contemporaries would have. Other times, he stops short of what seems to me the truly utilitarian solution.

On the criticism that utilitarianism compels us always in moral action, leaving us no time to relax, he offers two responses. The first is that perhaps people are too unwilling to act and would be better served by being more spurred on. The second is that it may be that relaxing today allows us to do ten times the good tomorrow.

(Personally, I expect the answer is both. Many people could do more than they currently do, while many others risk burnout unless they relax more. There is a reason the law of equal and opposite advice exists. Different people need to hear different things.)

But take this and his support for rules of thumb on one side and his support for executing the innocent man, or long spiel on how a bunch of people wireheading wouldn’t be that bad (a spiel that convinced me, I might add) and I’m left with an unclear overall picture. As an all-is-fine defence of utilitarianism, it doesn’t go far enough. As a bracing lecture about our degenerate non-utilitarian ways, it also doesn’t go far enough.

Leaving, I suppose, the sincere views of a man who pondered utilitarianism for much longer than I have. Chance is the only reason that makes sense. This would imply that sometimes Smart gives a nod to traditional morality because he’s decided it aligns with his utilitarian ethics. Other times, he disagrees. At length. Maybe Smart is a man seeking to rescue what precious moral truths he can from the house fire that is utilitarianism.

Perhaps some of my confusion comes from another confusion, one that seems to have subtly infected many utilitarians. Smart is careful to point out that the atomic belief underlying utilitarianism is general benevolence. Benevolence, note, is not altruism. The individual utilitarian matters just as much – or as little – as everyone else. Utilitarians in Smart’s framework have no obligation to run themselves ragged for another. Trading your happiness for another’s will only ever be an ethically neutral act to the utilitarian.

Or, I suspect, the wrong one. You are best placed to know yourself and best placed to create happiness for yourself. It makes sense to include some sort of bias towards your own happiness to take this into account. Or, if this feels icky to you, you could handle it at the level of probabilities. You are more likely to make yourself happy than someone else (assuming you’ve put some effort towards understanding what makes you happy). If you are 80% likely to make yourself happy for an evening and 60% likely to make someone else happy, your clear utilitarian duty is to yourself.

This is not a suggestion to go become a hermit. Social interactions are very rarely as zero sum as all that. It might be that the best way to make yourself happy is to go help a friend. Or to go to a party with several people you know. But I have seen people risk burnout (and have risked it myself) by assuming it is wrong to take any time for themselves when they have friends in need.

This is all my own thoughts, not Smart’s. For all of his talk of utilitarianism, he offers little advice on how to make it a practically useful system. All too often, Smart retreats to the idea of measuring the total utility of a society or world. This presents a host of problems and begs two important questions.

First, can utility be accurately quantified? Smart tries to show that different ways of measuring utility should be roughly equivalent in qualitative terms, but it is unclear if this follows at a quantitative level. Stability analysis (where you see how sensitive your result is to different starting assumptions) is an important tool for checking the veracity of conclusions in engineering projects. I have a hunch that quantitatively, utilitarian results to many problems will be highly unstable when a variety of forms of utilitarianism are tried.

Second, how should we deal with utility in the future? Smart claims that beyond a certain point we can ignore side effects (as unintended good side effects should cancel out unintended ill side effects; this is especially important when it comes to things like saving lives) but that doesn’t give us any advice on how we can estimate effects.

We are perhaps saved here by the same collapse that aligned normal utilitarians with negative utilitarians. If we cannot quantify joy, we can sure quantify misery. Doctors can tell you just how much quality of life a disease can sap (there are tables for this), not to mention the chances that a disease might end a life outright. We know the rates of absolute poverty, maternal deaths, and malaria prevalence. There is more than enough misery in the world to go around and certainly utilitarians who focus on ending misery do not seem to be at risk of being out an ethical duty any time in the near future.

(If ending misery is important to you, might I suggest donating a fraction of your monthly income to one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities? These are the charities that most effectively use money to reduce suffering. If you care about maximizing your impact, GiveWell is a good way to do it.)

Although speaking of the future, I find it striking how little utilitarianism has changed in the fifty-six years since Smart first wrote his essay. He pauses to comment on the risk of a recursively self-improving AI and talk about the potential future moral battles over factory farming. I’m part of a utilitarian meme group and these are the same topics people joke about every day. It is unclear if these are topics that utilitarianism predisposes people to care about, or if there was some indirect cultural transmission of these concerns over the intervening years.

There are many more gems – and frustrations in Smart’s essay. I can’t cover them all without writing a pale imitation of his words, so I shan’t try any more. As an introduction to the different types of utilitarianism, this essay was better than any other introduction I’ve read, especially because it shows all of the ways that various utilitarian systems fit together.

As a defense of utilitarianism, it is comprehensive and pragmatic. It doesn’t seek to please everyone and doesn’t seek to prove utilitarianism. It lays out the advantages of utilitarianism clearly, in plain language, and shows how the disadvantages are not as great as might be imagined. I can see it being persuasive to anyone considering utilitarianism, although in this it is hampered by its position as the first essay in the collection. Anyone convinced by it must then read through another seventy pages of arguments against utilitarianism, which will perhaps leave them rather less convinced.

As a work of academic philosophy, it’s interesting. There’s almost no meta-ethics or meta-physics here. This is a defense written entirely on its own, without recourse to underlying frameworks that might be separately undermined. Smart’s insistence on laying out his arguments plainly leaves him little room to retreat (except around average vs. total happiness). I’ve always found this a useful type of writing; even when I don’t agree, the ways that I disagree with clearly articulated theses can be illuminating.

It’s a pleasant read. I’ve had mostly good luck reading academic philosophy. This book wasn’t a struggle to wade through and it contained the occasional amusing turn of phrase. Smart is neither dry lecturer nor frothing polemicizer. One is put almost in the mind of a kindly uncle, patiently explaining his way through a complex, but not needlessly complicated subject. I highly recommend reading it and its companion.

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land

I just finished Professor Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, a book some people are trumpeting as the one that explains Trump.

That wasn’t exactly how I read the book. I think Trump’s win is well explained by some combination of the “fundamentals” and the Comey Letter just before the election. I’m also wary of falling into the trap of drawing conclusions about America because Trump won. The result of the election could have been changed by dozens of random events. I’m following Scott Alexander’s advice and not basing my narratives off of which potential events happened to actually happen.

Besides, Trump is barely even in this book. He only appears in any substantive way in the last chapter and Prof. Hochschild doesn’t devote much ink to him. If you’re using this book to explain Trump, you’re going to have to do a lot of the work yourself.

At its core, Strangers in Their Own Land is an ethnography about a specific group of people with all of the advantages and perils that entails. We get to learn a lot about its subjects, but we have to be careful whenever applying any of its conclusions beyond the small group of people actually profiled.

Like any ethnography, Strangers in Their Own Land lives or dies by the interest the author can evoke in her subjects. Here, the subjects are a small group of Louisiana Tea Party members. Prof. Hochschild certainly managed to make me interested in them by using them as a lens through which to peer at the “Great Paradox” of American Politics: why do many of those who could most benefit from the government hate it so much?

I’ve forayed into discussions of the Great Paradox before. Like Prof. Hochschild, I’m skeptical of the purported “two rungs up” explanation of the paradox. It goes like this: yes, lower income counties tend to vote against government programs, but it is not actually the people on those programs (or their loved ones) voting against them. People relying on government programs rarely actually vote. Actual voters in Republican-leaning counties are better off and are voting solely for lower taxes.

By focusing Strangers in Their Own Land on pollution, Prof. Hochschild was able to sidestep this explanation. Pollution doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor – one of the more heartbreaking stories in the book is about a nine-year-old who died from a rare neuroblastoma, which everyone suspects was caused by pollution. Despite this, his well-off parents and well-off family friends continued to oppose the EPA.

A focus on pollution made Louisiana the obvious setting for this book. It’s one of the most polluted states in America and has some of the weakest and most ineffectually enforced environmental laws. Louisiana also has a very high rate of welfare use, which let Prof. Hochschild compare the two rungs up theory with alternatives (as she could count on finding people who were or knew someone on welfare).

In Louisiana, Prof. Hochschild found no one who was happy about pollution. The Tea Party voters she interviewed loved the outdoors. Many of them grew up hunting and fishing and almost all of them continued to cherish those outdoor pastimes in adulthood. It hurt them deeply to have no game to hunt or to be unable to eat the fish they caught. Yet still they opposed more regulations on pollution.

Reasons for this varied. Some believed that regulating pollution would hurt the oil and gas industry and lead to unemployment. They were saddened by the effects of pollutions on the environment, but they refused to put the environment ahead of other people.

Others believed that the government was (indirectly) responsible for pollution. They saw the government as protecting the worst polluters while coming down hard on any “little guy” who leaked even a tiny amount of gas from his boat. They believed that any additional regulations would be applied to them and their friends, not to the big companies responsible for the real pollution. They figured that the free market would disincentivize pollution well enough if the government could just leave everything alone and let it work.

Yet others were religious and figured that the world would not be around for much longer. They saw God’s commandment in Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth, and subdue it”) as justification for any pollution in the interim. Even justifying pollution wasn’t very important for the faithful though; they cared far more about a rapture they saw as close to hand than they did about any worldly concerns.

No one that Prof. Hochschild talked to said: “yes, the government could fix this, but we don’t want them to”. Instead, she got responses like “the EPA would just use whatever power we gave it to take away our freedoms”, or “the government can’t help, it’s in the pockets of the polluters and hates the little guys like us”; none of the Tea Party voters trusted the government.

Prof. Hochschild was used to people distrusting certain government figures or departments, while still believing that good government was possible, necessary, and worth fight for. Here Prof. Hochschild saw people so used to incompetent, hostile, or distant government that they had given up hope that good government could ever exist for them. Prof. Hochschild immediately wanted to know how this could happen.

She found that religious people tended to see the government as usurping the traditional role of the church. They thought that ensuring the welfare of members of a community should be the responsibility of that community. With welfare, the government was destroying the bonds that held communities together. They viewed the liberal tendency to leave the care of the poor to a central bureaucracy as evidence of a terrible culture of neglect and moral bankruptcy.

Some adherents of capitalism saw the government as the enemy. To them, job creation and economic dynamism came from private enterprise, which the government stifled through bureaucracy, regulation, and taxes.

Other interview subjects saw the government as taking their money and giving it to people who were unlike them, people outside of their communities. They thought they’d done everything right, played by the book, suffered, yet still found prosperity elusive. They worked long hours for scant compensation, while not far away, the government was just giving away money to single mothers – who they viewed as hedonistic sinners who had far more children than was reasonable. Factually incorrect beliefs about the number of children people on welfare had or the percentage of the population that was on welfare were rampant in this group.

This isn’t to say that everyone fell into one of these categories. Many people combined beliefs. It actually reminded me of a point Joseph Heath made in light of the sex education controversy in Ontario – when social conservatives realize they can’t get the regressive solution they want (everyone forced to live by their values), they tend to swing to the other extreme and ask for ultra-liberal solutions. They may most prefer the government forcing everyone to have their values, but absent that, they’d rather the government force no one to do anything, so that it can’t force them to give up their values.

I should also mention that not all Tea Partiers ignored the consequences of pollution. Strangers in Their Own Land also profiles Tea Partiers who cared about pollution, viewed it as a pressing issue, and advocated for the Tea Party to make pollution one of its core principles. They echoed something I heard in some of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debates: “conservation is a conservative principle.”

Still, it was hard to take the anti-pollution Tea Party activists too seriously. They want to solve a collective action problem with the free market. Solving collective action problems with the free market is a bit like doing surgery with a pizza cutter. It’s not that it’s impossible, strictly speaking. It’s just that there are ways of doing it (in this case, via government) that are far less messy and far more likely to give the desired outcome.

It’s hard not to feel like the conservatives in this book are being betrayed by the industries they stand up for. One of the Tea Partiers who actually cared about pollution cared because his house was ruined in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Even as he stood up against pollution, he continued to advocate for a freer market, fear the EPA, and vote Republican. All of this has counted for nothing with Texas Brine, the company responsible for the disaster. It continues to drag its feet on the class action lawsuit launched by residents.

Further to this point, Prof. Hochschild dug up a damning report, prepared at the behest of the California Waste Management Board by some very fancy (and expensive!) consultants. The report identifies communities that won’t complain about “locally undesirable land use” (LULU), with the goal of identifying these communities so polluting (and property value lowering) activities can be more easily sited. Protests are very inconvenient for construction, after all.

Communities identified as ill-suited to resist LULU are:

  • Composed of long-time residents (who are unlikely to want to move away)
  • Small
  • High school educated
  • Catholic
  • Without a culture or history of activism
  • Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” (e.g. farming, ranching, and mining)
  • Conservative
  • Republican
  • Primarily peopled by advocates of the free market

The communities where Prof. Hochschild did her research hit basically every single one of these criteria. This prompted some introspection on her part, as realized that one of the ways that her home of Berkeley is able to avoid substantial pollution is by foisting the negative externalities of modern life (like pollution) off onto communities like those in poor, rural Louisiana.

The back of the book purports to contain an analysis that shows that communities where people are more conservative (and more likely to believe that pollution isn’t a problem) are more polluted. I’m cautious of adopting the conclusions from it though, because conclusions are all it contains. From those, it’s clear that multiple hypothesis could have been easily tested [1] but unclear whether or not this was specifically controlled for. Without being able to look at the raw data or see the analysis methodology, I can’t tell if the correlation is likely real or a statistical artifact.

I will beg the question for a bit though, because Prof. Hochschild treats the correlation as real and spends some time explaining it. I think her explanations are interesting enough to talk about, even if they may be based on a flawed analysis.

Prof. Hochschild doesn’t put willingness to endure pollution down to the poor ignorant workers being deceived by the big dastardly corporations, a change from leftist discourse that I found refreshing. Instead she focuses on stories and teams.

Prof. Hochschild believes that the people of the south are (in general) conditioned to look forward, towards what were historically the planter elite and are now the resource extraction executives. They want to be like the most fortunate people in their communities and so support the same things they do. When liberals tell them they should be looking backwards and trying to help people less fortunate than them, this feels like an attempt to enforce foreign feeling rules. They feel like they are being told that to be respectable or good, they must perform concern or other emotions that don’t feel genuine [2].

I’m using forward and back deliberately here. This is the book that coined the “standing in line” metaphor for the anger of white working class Americans. In this metaphor (called by Prof. Hochschild a “deep story”; a story that feels emotionally true), there is a long line stretching to the top of a hill. Just beyond the brow of it lies the American dream. The line is moving slowly (or perhaps not moving at all) and the people in it are weary from their waiting.

Despite this, they stand there, patiently waiting their turn. But something terrible happens. There are people cutting in line! From the interviews she used to construct this metaphor, Prof. Hochschild identified the line cutters as African-Americans using affirmative action, women taking traditionally male jobs, immigrants working more cheaply than American whites are willing to, and (somewhat amusingly) pelicans, protected by environmental laws that were killing jobs. While the people standing in line expected the government (personified by Barack Obama) to do something about the line cutters, they were horrified to instead see President Obama helping and supporting them.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t something that either Professor Hochschild or I believe is literally happening. When it comes to the actual suffering of the people interviewed in this book, Professor Hochschild is inclined to blame big business interests, while I think the blame belongs more to a changing economy and automation (there is of course significant overlap between these two causes). When it comes to pollution, we’re in agreement that Louisiana would really benefit from tougher environmental laws coupled with more rigorous enforcement of its existing regulations.

Even though I believe there is no real displacement, no cutting in line, this metaphor seemed to resonate with many of the Tea Partiers interviewed in this book. To those people, the government is betraying them, working against them for another team. This makes them utterly incapable of trusting the government (with the exception of the military) and makes them incredibly defensive of people they do feel are on their team, like Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, one of the few sources of jobs that feel ennobling for them in the state.

Like I mentioned earlier, the communities where Prof. Hochschild conducted her research also relied heavily on the government. Nearly everyone Prof. Hochschild interviewed was on some form of welfare, had been on some form of welfare, or had a family member who was currently or had in the past been on some form of welfare. No one was particularly happy about this though. People did what they had to survive, but there was much more honour in going it alone. They viewed work as inherently ennobling and accepting anonymous charity as shameful, the sort of Calvinist curse that seems to be common on the American psyche.

This actually reminded me of a topic that frequently popped up on Freddie de Boer’s now deleted blog [3]. Freddie was constantly worried that conspicuous consumerism was ruining the left. Freddie was apt to point out that there is a class of modern leftist that acts as if the important political projects of the left can be accomplished if they only signal their “woke” views hard enough, signalling primarily accomplished by consuming the correct media. Imagine, as an example, someone who is enthusiastic about Hamilton as if it were a meaningful political or institutional blow for leftist interests.

For both “woke” consumerist leftist cliques and Tea Party libertarians, the best off are able to buy virtue (or at least status), while the less fortunate have the misery of want compounded with the misery of failing to live up to an ideal that is predicated on a certain amount of disposable income (Hamilton tickets aren’t cheap, after all).

As much as the standing in line narrative has gotten air time, I want to caution against believing it as a universal motivating factor in Trump’s voters or working class whites more generally. Because this book is more an ethnography than anything else, it would be improper to take its conclusions, conclusions made about very small group of Tea Party activists and apply those conclusions across a country as varied and vast as the United States.

Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t include polling data; it’s unclear how many of the people who supported Trump share the “deep story” presented by Prof. Hochschild. Remember, many of Trump’s voters decided at the last-minute and many of those last-minute voters voted more against Clinton than for Trump (due to Comey’s letter).

One hint that the views expressed by Prof. Hochschild’s subjects are niche comes from their near complete abhorrence of government programs. Polls of the American public mark this view as an anomaly, even in a country that voted ~46% Republican. In 2015, 83% of Americans said Social Security was very important. 77% said the same thing about Medicare, and 75% said it about federal aid to public schools. A “mere” 73% said the military was very important. It would probably be incorrect to take the views of the Tea Partiers who want to cut these programs and represent them as common.

It’s also important to remember just how much of Trump’s victory came from evangelicals voting solely (or mostly) out of the belief that Republicans stand against abortion. 81% of evangelicals (who comprise a full quarter of the US electorate) voted for Trump. We don’t need some new narrative to explain why groups like this voted for the Republican nominee; they’ve voted reliably for Republicans in every election that Pew has stats for.

Despite my quibbles, Strangers in Their Own Land was a fascinating portrait of the deep divisions in America and Prof. Hochschild was an excellent narrator. She consistently fought to react with empathy, even to people she disagreed with on virtually everything. When a woman named Madonna told her that she loved Rush Limbaugh because he stood up to Femi-Nazis, Prof. Hochschild (the feminist writer who coined the terms “emotional labour” and “the second shift”) invited her out to lunch because “it seemed like it would be interesting”. Nowhere in this book did Prof. Hochschild exhibit scorn or a sense of superiority.

I think it’s important to note that Professor Hochschild hasn’t sold this book as a complete explanation for Trump. That’s on a media that desperately wants a single easy story to hold on to. Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t contain that singular story, but it does hold one fascinating piece of it.

One thing that may have helped Prof. Hochschild connect with the Tea Party members she interviewed was her own rootedness. The clash between cosmopolitan (multicultural, migratory, and individualist) and local (homogenous, traditional, and community-oriented) values was every bit as on display as the clash between right and left. Reading the acknowledgments section, I was struck by just how rooted in Berkeley Prof. Hochschild is. She has a small legion of friends and acquaintances and (one assumes) a deep web of interdependency with them.

Prof. Hochschild seems to be neither migratory, nor caught up in the atomization of society. Several of the people she interviewed directly critique this atomization and its corresponding effect on the breakdown of systems of mutual aid and support. Prof. Hochschild, by virtue of her position in a vibrant community (as well as her previous work that has touched on atomization) was well positioned to understand these critiques of the contemporary cosmopolitan.

I know that myself (and many other cosmopolitan-leaning liberals) have begun to feel the pain that can come with our migratory impulses. I abandoned a graduate degree, in part because it took me away from a community I had grown to love. For all that I often found myself completely disagreeing with the Tea Party members profiled in this book, I was glad to find that I might be able to talk with them about the benefits of community. I’m not sure if that would be enough of a starting point to convince them of anything substantial – rootedness and community are just one axis of (dis)agreement, just one part of the story – but it’s where I would start if I ever had to build a bridge to these strangers in their own land.


[1] Specifically, Prof. Hochschild looked for correlations between agreement with the statements “people worry too much about progress harming the environment”, “industrial air pollution is dangerous to the environment”, “the U.S. does enough to protect the environment”, and “Some people think that the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses”, political affiliation (Democrat/Republican), and pollution rates. Her analysis found that agreement with the statement “people worry too much about progress harming the environment” (as well as membership in the Republican party) was correlated with relative risk of being exposed to toxic chemical release. Because I don’t even have the P values these were significant at, let alone knowledge of how they corrected for multiple comparisons and how many comparisons were attempted, I have to treat the correlation as liable to be caused by chance. ^

[2] I think Prof. Hochschild could have done a bit more analysis around feelings rules, because in my experience, they cut both ways. As far as I can tell, there seem to be one set of local feelings rules and another set of cosmopolitan feeling rules. Cosmopolitan feelings rules emphasize charity and welcoming the stranger, while local feelings rules emphasize responsibility to family and community. In both cases, it is grating to feel compelled to pretend to emotions that aren’t genuine. ^

[3] I can’t find any remnants of Freddie’s blog that make the point I’m ascribing to him, but if you want to get an idea of the tone of it, I’ve found an excerpt from the post “Our Nightmare”, which talks about a different way he feels the left is under threat. Freddie is an excellent writer, and I do recommend checking out his current blog, The ANOVA. ^

History, Literature, Politics

Book Review: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan is the second book I’ve read about World War II and culpability. I apparently just can’t resist the urge to write essays after books like this, so here we go again. Since so much of what I got out of this book was spurred by the history it presented, I’m going to try and intersperse my thoughts with a condensed summary of it.

Aside from the prologue, which takes place just after Hirohito’s (arguably) extra-constitutional surrender, the book follows Hirohito’s life chronologically. Hirohito’s childhood was hardly idyllic. He spent most of it being educated. Meiji Era Japan drew heavily from Prussia and in Hirohito’s education, I saw an attempt to mold him into a Japanese Frederick the Great.

I think Dr. Bix is right to spend as much time on Hirohito’s childhood as he does. Lois McMaster Bujold once criticized authors who write characters that pop out of a box at 22, fully formed. It’s even more lamentable when historians do this.

The baby Hirohito

Had Dr. Bix skipped this part, we’d have no explanation for why Hirohito failed so completely at demonstrating any moral fibre throughout the war. In order to understand Hirohito’s moral failings, we had to see the failings in Hirohito’s moral education. Dr. Bix does an excellent job here, showing how fatuous and sophistic the moral truths Hirohito was raised with were. His instructors lectured him on the moral and temporal superiority of the Imperial House over the people of Japan and the superiority of the people of Japan over the people of the world. Japan, Hirohito was taught, had to steward the rest of Asia towards prosperity – violently if need be.

For all that Hirohito might have been a pacifist personally, his education left him little room to be a pacifist as a monarch.

This certainly isn’t without precedent. The aforementioned Frederick the Great was known to complain about his “dog’s life” as a general. Frederick would have much preferred a life of music and poetry to one of war, but he felt that it was his duty to his country and his people to lead (and win wars).

Hirohito would have felt even more pressure than Frederick the Great, because he probably sincerely believed that it was up to him to save Asia. The explicitly racist immigration policies of western nations, their rampant colonialism, and their refusal to make racial non-discrimination a key plank of the League of Nations made it easy for Hirohito’s teachers to convince him that he (and through him, all of Japan) was responsible for protecting “the yellow race”.

It is unfortunate that Hirohito was raised to be an activist emperor, because as Dr. Bix points out, the world was pretty done with monarchs by the time Hirohito was born. Revolutions and First World War had led to the toppling of many of the major monarchies (like Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany). Those countries that still had monarchies heavily circumscribed the power of their monarchs. There were few countries left where monarchs both ruled and reigned. Yet this is what Hirohito’s teachers prepared him to do.

After an extensive education, Hirohito entered politics as the prince-regent for his ailing father, the Taisho Emperor. As regent, he attended military parades, performed some of the emperor’s religious duties, appointed prime ministers, and began to learn how Japanese politics worked.

There was a brief flourishing of (almost) true democracy based on party politics during the reign of the Taisho Emperor. Prime Ministers were picked by the emperor on the advice of the genrō, an extraconstitutional group of senior statesmen who directed politics after the Meiji Restoration (in 1868). The incapacity of Hirohito’s father meant that the genrō were free to choose whomever they wanted. Practically, this meant that cabinets were formed by the leader of the largest party in the Diet (the Japanese parliament). Unfortunately, this delicate democracy couldn’t survive the twin threats of an activist monarch and independent military.

The prime minister wasn’t the only power centre in the cabinet. The army and navy ministers had to be active duty officers, which gave the military an effective veto over cabinets ­– cabinets required these ministers to function, but the ministers couldn’t join the cabinet without orders from their service branch.

With an incompetent and sick emperor, the military had to negotiate with the civilian politicians – it could bring down a government, but couldn’t count on the genrō to appoint anyone better, limiting its bargaining power. When Hirohito ascended to the regency, the army began to go to him. By convincing Hirohito or his retinue to back this candidate for prime minister or that one, the military gained the ability to remove cabinets and replace them with those more to their liking.

This was possible because under Hirohito, consulting the genrō became a mere formality. In a parody of what was supposed to happen, Hirohito and his advisers would pick their candidate for prime minister and send him to Saionji, the only remaining genrō. Saionji always approved their candidates, even when he had reservations. This was good for the court group, because it allowed them to maintain the fiction that Hirohito only acted on advice and never made decisions of his own.

As regent, Hirohito made few decisions of his own, but the court group (comprised of Hirohito and his advisors) began laying the groundwork to hold real power when he ascended to the throne. For Hirohito, his education left him little other choice. He had been born and raised to be an active emperor, not a mere figurehead. For his entourage, increasing Hirohito’s influence increased their own.

I’m not sure which was more powerful: Hirohito or his advisors? Both had reasons for trusting the military. Hirohito’s education led him to view the military as a stabilizing and protective force, while his advisors tended to be nationalists who saw a large and powerful military as a pre-requisite for expansion. Regardless of who exactly controlled it, the court group frequently sided with the military, which made the military into a formidable political force.

Requiring active duty military officers in the cabinet probably seemed like a good idea when the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, but in retrospect, it was terrible. I’m in favour of Frank Herbert’s definition of control: “The people who can destroy a thing, they control it.” In this sense, the military could often control the government. The instability this wrought on Japan’s cabinet system serves as a reminder of the power of vetoes in government.

In 1926, the Taisho emperor died. Hirohito ascended to throne. His era name was Shōwa – enlightened peace.

Hirohito after his enthronement ceremony

As might be expected, the court group didn’t wait long after Hirohito’s ascension to the throne to begin actively meddling with the government. Shortly after becoming emperor, Hirohito leaned on the prime minister to commute the death sentence of a married couple who allegedly planned to assassinate him. For all that this was a benevolent action, it wreaked political havoc, with the prime minister attacked in the Diet for falling to show proper concern for the safety of the emperor.

Because the prime minister was honour bound to protect the image of Hirohito as a constitutional, non-interventionist monarch, he was left defenseless before his political foes. He could not claim to be acting according to Hirohito’s will while Hirohito was embracing the fiction that he had no will except that of his prime minister and cabinet. This closed off the one effective avenue of defense he might have had. The Diet’s extreme response to clemency was but a portent of what was to come.

Over the first decade of Hirohito’s reign, Japanese politics became increasingly reactionary and dominated by the army. At the same time, Hirohito’s court group leveraged the instability and high turnover elsewhere in the government to become increasingly powerful. For ordinary Japanese, being a liberal or a communist became increasingly unpleasant. “Peace Preservation Laws” criminalized republicanism, anarchism, communism, or any other attempt to change the national fabric or structure, the kokutai – a word that quickly became heavily loaded.

In the early 1930s, political criticism increasingly revolved around the kokutai, as the Diet members realized they could score points with Hirohito and his entourage by claiming to defend it better than their opponents could. The early 1930s also saw the Manchurian Incident, a false flag attack perpetrated by Japanese soldiers to give a casus belli for invading Manchuria.

Despite opposition from both Hirohito and the Prime Minister, factions in the army managed to leverage the incident into a full-scale invasion, causing a war in all but name with China. Once the plotters demonstrated that they could expand Hirohito’s empire, he withdrew his opposition. Punishments, when there were any, were light and conspirators were much more likely to receive medals that any real reprimand. Dr. Bix believes this sent a clear message – the emperor would tolerate insubordination, as long as it produced results.

After the Manchurian Incident (which was never acknowledged as a war by Japan) and the occupation of Manchuria, Japan set up a client kingdom and ruled Manchuria through a puppet government. For several years, the situation on the border with China was stable, in spite of occasional border clashes.

This stability wasn’t to last. In 1937, there was another incident, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

When an unplanned exchange of fire between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out in Beijing (then Peking), some in the Japanese high command decided the time was ripe for an invasion of China proper. Dr. Bix says that Hirohito was reluctant to sanction this invasion (over fears of the Soviet Union), but eventually gave his blessing.

Japan was constantly at war for the next eight years. Over the course of the war, Dr. Bix identified several periods where Hirohito actively pushed his generals and admirals towards certain outcomes, and many more where Hirohito disagreed with them, but ultimately did nothing.

I often felt like Dr. Bix was trying to have things both ways. He wanted me to believe that Hirohito was morally deficient and unable to put his foot down when he could have stood up for his principles and he wanted me to believe that Hirohito was an activist emperor, able to get what he wanted. This of course ignores a simpler explanation. What if Hirohito was mostly powerless, a mere figurehead?

Here’s an example of Dr. Bix accusing Hirohito of doing nothing (without adequate proof that he could have done anything):

When Yonai failed to act on the long-pending issue of a German alliance, the army brought down his cabinet and Hirohito did nothing to prevent it. (Page 357)

On the other hand, we have (in Hirohito’s own words) an admission that Hirohito had some say in military policy:

Contrary to the views of the Army and Navy General Staffs, I agreed to the showdown battle of Leyte, thinking that if we attacked at Leyte and America flinched, then we would probably be able to find room to negotiate. (Page 481)

I really wish that Dr. Bix had grappled with this conflict more and given me much more proof that Hirohito actually had the all the power that Dr. Bix believes he did. It certainly seems that by Hirohito’s own admission, he was not merely a figurehead. Unfortunately for the thesis of the book, it’s a far leap from “not merely a figurehead” to “regularly guided the whole course of the war” and Dr. Bix never quite furnishes evidence for the latter view.

I was convinced that Hirohito (along with several other factions) acted to delay the wartime surrender of Japan. His reasoning for this was the same as his reasoning for the Battle of Leyte. He believed that if Japan could win one big victory, they could negotiate an end to the war and avoid occupation – and the risk to the emperor system that occupation would entail. When this became impossible, Hirohito pinned all his hopes on the Soviet Union, erroneously believing that they would intercede on Japan’s behalf and help Japan negotiate peace. For all that the atomic bombings loomed large in the public statement of surrender, it is likely that behind the scenes, the Soviet invasion played a large role.

Leaving aside for a minute the question of which interpretation is true, if Hirohito or a clique including him wielded much of the power of the state, he (or they) also suffered from one of the common downfalls of rule by one man. By Dr. Bix’s account, they were frequently controlled by controlling the information they received. We see this in response to the Hull note, an pre-war American diplomatic communique that outlined what Japan would have to do before America would resume oil exports.

At the Imperial Conference on December 1, 1941, Foreign Minister Tōgō misled the assembled senior statesmen, generals and admirals. He told them that America demanded Japan give up Manchuria, which was a red line for the assembled leaders. Based on this information, the group (including Hirohito) assented to war. Here’s a quote from the journal of Privy Council President Yoshimichi Hara:

If we were to give in [to the United States], then we would not only give up the fruits of the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, but also abandon the results of the Manchurian Incident. There is no way we could endure this… [I]t is clear that the existence of our empire is threatened, that the great achievement of the emperor Meiji would all come to naught, and that there is nothing else we can do. (Page 432)

The problem with all this is that Hull cared nothing for Manchuria, probably didn’t even consider it part of China, and would likely have been quite happy to let Japan keep it. By this point, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria had been a done deal for a decade and the world had basically given up on it being returned to China. Hull did want Japan to withdrawn from French Indochina (present day Vietnam) and China. Both of these demands were unacceptable to many of the more hawkish Japanese leaders, but not necessarily to the “moderates”.

Foreign Minister Tōgō’s lie about Manchuria was required to convince the “moderates” to give their blessing to war.

Hirohito presides over a similar meeting in 1943

A word on Japanese “moderates”. Dr. Bix is repeatedly scornful of the term and I can’t help feeling sympathetic to his point of view. He believes that many of the moderates were only moderate by the standards of the far-right extremists and terrorists who surrounded them. It was quite possible to have an international reputation as a moderate in one of the pre-war cabinets and believe that Japan had a right to occupy Chinese territory seized without even a declaration of war.

I don’t think western scholarship has necessarily caught up here. On Wikipedia, Privy Council President Hara is described as “always reluctant to use military force… he protested against the outbreak of the Pacific war at [the Imperial Conference of December 1]”. I would like to gather a random sample of people and see if they believe that the journal entry above represents protesting against war. If they do, I will print off this blog post and eat it.

Manipulation of information played a role in Japan’s wartime surrender as well. Dr. Bix recounts how Vice Foreign Minister Matsumoto Shinichi presented Hirohito with a translation of the American demands that replaced one key phrase. The English text of the demands read: “the authority of the Emperor… to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers”. In the translation, Shinichi replaced “shall be subject to” with “shall be circumscribed by”.

Hirohito, who (in Dr. Bix’s estimation) acted always to preserve his place as emperor accepted this (modified) demand.

Many accounts of World War II assume the civilian members of the Japanese cabinet were largely powerless. Here we see the cabinet shaping two momentous decisions (war and peace). They were able to do this because they controlled the flow of information to the military and the emperor. Hirohito and the military didn’t have their own diplomats and couldn’t look over diplomatic cables. For information from the rest of the world, they were entirely at the mercy of the foreign services.

One man rule can give the impression of a unified elite. Look behind the curtain though and you’ll always find factions. Deprived of legitimate means of conflict (e.g. contesting elections), factions will find ways to try and check each other’s influence. Here, as is often the case, that checking came via controlling the flow of information. This sort of conflict-via-information has real implications in current politics, especially if Donald Trump tries to consolidate more power in himself.

But how was it that such a small change in the demand could be so important? Dr. Bix theorized that Hirohito’s primary goal was always preserving the power of the monarchy. He chose foreign war because he felt it was the only thing capable of preventing domestic dissent. The far-right terrorism of the 1930s was therefore successful; it compelled the government to fight foreign wars to assuage it.

In this regard, the atomic bombs were actually a godsend to the Japanese leadership. They made it clear that Japan was powerless to resist the American advance and gave the leadership a face-saving reason to end the war. I would say this is conjecture, but several members of the court clique and military leadership actually wrote in their diaries that the bombs were “good luck” or the like. Here’s former Prime Minister Yonai:

I think the term is perhaps inappropriate, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, gifts from the gods [tenyu, also “heaven-sent blessings”]. This way we don’t have to say that we quit the war because of domestic circumstances. I’ve long been advocating control of our crisis, but neither from fear of an enemy attack nor because of the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war. The main reason is my anxiety over the domestic situation. So, it is rather fortunate that we can now control matters without revealing the domestic situation. (Page 509)

Regardless of why exactly it came about, the end of the war brought with it the problem of trying war criminals. Dr. Bix alleges that there was a large-scale conspiracy amongst Japan’s civilian and military leadership to hide all evidence of Hirohito’s war responsibility, a conspiracy aided and abetted by General Douglas McArthur.

Hirohito and MacArthur

The general was supreme commander of the allied occupation forces and had broad powers to govern Japan as he saw fit. Dr. Bix believes that in Hirohito, McArthur saw a symbol he could use to govern more effectively. I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced of a conspiracy – a very good conspiracy leaves the same evidence as no conspiracy at all – but it is undeniable that the defenses of the “Class A” war criminals (the civilian and military leadership charged with crimes against peace) were different from the defenses offered at Nuremburg, in a way that was both curious and most convenient for Hirohito.

Both sets of war criminals (in Tokyo and Nuremburg) tried to deny the legitimacy of “crimes against the peace” and claim their trials were just victor’s justice. But notably absent from all of the trials of Japanese leaders was the defense of “just following orders” that was so emblematic of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg. Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese criminals were quite happy to take responsibility. It was always them, never the emperor. I don’t think this is just a case of their leader having survived; I doubt the Nuremburg defendants would have been so loyal if Hitler had lived.

Of course, there is a potential parsimonious explanation for everyone having their stories straight. Hirohito could have been entirely innocent. Except, if Hirohito was so innocent, how can we explain the testimony Konoe made to one of his aides?

Fumimaro Konoe was the last prime minister before the Pearl Harbour attack and an opponent of war with the United States. He refused to take part in the (alleged) cover up. He was then investigated for war crimes and chose to kill himself. Of Hirohito, he said:

“Of course His Imperial Majesty is a pacifist and he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me: ‘You were worried about it yesterday but you do not have to worry so much.’ Thus, gradually he began to lead to war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more to war. I felt the Emperor was telling me: ‘My prime minister does not understand military matters. I know much more.’ In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and the navy high commands.” (Page 419)

Alas, this sort of damning testimony was mostly avoided at the war crimes trials. With Konoe dead and the rest of Japan’s civilian and military leadership prepared to do whatever it took to exonerate Hirohito, the emperor was safe. Hirohito was never indicted for war crimes, despite his role in authorizing the war and delaying surrender as he searched for a great victory.

Some of the judges were rather annoyed by the lack of indictment. The chief judge wrote: “no ruler can commit the crime of launching aggressive war and then validly claim to be excused for doing so because his life would otherwise have been in danger… It will remain that the men who advised the commission of a crime, if it be one, are in no worse position than the man who directs the crime be committed”.

This didn’t stop most of the judges from passing judgement on the criminals they did have access to. Some of the conspirators paid for their loyalty with their lives. The remainder were jailed. None of them spent much more than a decade in prison. By 1956, all of the “Class A” war criminals except the six who were executed and three who died in jail were pardoned.

The business and financial elite, two groups which profited immensely from the war got off free and clear. None of them were even charged. Dr. Bix suggests that General McArthur vetoed it. He had a country to run and couldn’t afford the disruption that would be caused if all of the business and financial elite were removed.

This leaves the Class B and Class C war criminals, the officers who were charged with more normal war crimes. Those officers who were tried in other countries were much more likely to face execution. Of the nearly 6,000 Class B and Class C war criminals charged outside of Japan, close to 1,000 were executed. A similar number were acquitted. Most of the remainder served limited criminal sentences.

Perhaps the greatest injustice of all was the fate of Unit 731. None of them were ever charged, despite carrying out bacteriological research on innocent civilians. They bought their freedom with research data the Americans coveted.

For all that their defenses differed from the Nuremburg criminals, the Japanese war criminals tried in Tokyo faced a similar fate. A few of them were executed, but most of them served sentences that belied the enormity of their crimes. Life imprisonments didn’t stick and pardons were forthcoming once the occupation ended. And as in Germany, some of the war criminals even ended up holding positions in government. Overall, the sentences gave the impression that in 1945, wars of aggression were much less morally troubling than bank robberies.

I had thought the difficulties Germany faced in denazification – and holding former Nazi’s accountable – were unique. This appears to be false. It seems to be very difficult to maintain the political will to keep war criminals behind bars after an occupation ends, as long as their crimes were not committed against their own people.

In light of this, I think it can be moral to execute war criminals. While I generally oppose the death penalty, this opposition is predicated on there being a viable alternative to execution for people who have flagrantly violated the social contract. Life imprisonment normally provides this, but I no longer believe that it can in the case of war criminals.

The Allies bear some of the blame for the clemency war criminals received. Japan’s constitution required them to seek approval from a majority of the nations that participated in the Tokyo trial. Ultimately, a majority of the eleven nations that were involved in the tribunal put improved ties with Japan over moral principles and allowed clemency to be granted. This suggests that even jailing war criminals outside their country of origin or requiring foreign consent for their pardon can be ineffective.

With both of these options removed, basic justice (and good incentive structures) seem to require all major war criminals to be executed. A rule of thumb is probably to execute any war criminal who would have otherwise be sentenced to twenty years or more of prison. It’s only these prisoners who stand to see their sentence substantially reduced in the inevitable round of pardons.

I also believe that convicted war criminals (as a general class) probably shouldn’t be trusted with the running of a country. To be convicted of war crimes proves that you are likely to flagrantly violate international norms. While people can change, past behaviour remains the best predictor of future behaviour. Therefore, it makes sense to try and remove any right war criminals might otherwise have to hold public office in a way that is extremely difficult to reverse. This could take the form of constitutional amendments that requires all victimized countries to consent to each individual war criminal that wishes to later hold public office, or other similarly difficult to circumvent mechanisms.

This is one area where the International Criminal Court (ICC) could prove its worth. If the ICC is able to deliver justice and avoid bowing to political pressure in any of its cases, then the obvious way of dealing with war criminals would be to send them to the ICC.

The section of the book that covers the war crimes trials and post-war Japan is called “The Unexamined Life”. I think the title is apt. There’s no evidence that Hirohito ever truly grappled with his role in the war, whatever it was. At one point, in response to a question about his war responsibility, Hirohito even said: “I can’t answer that question because I haven’t thoroughly studied the literature in this field”. This answer would be risible even if Hirohito were completely blameless. If there was anyone who knew how much responsibility Hirohito bore for the war, it was the man himself.

In the constitution promulgated by the occupying Americans, Hirohito became a constitutional monarch in truth. Dr. Bix reports that Hirohito was miffed to find that he could no longer appoint prime ministers and cabinets. He adjusted poorly to his lack of role and spent most of the fifties and sixties hoping that he could be made politically useful again. This never happened, although some conservative prime ministers did go to him for advice from time to time. His one consolation was the extra-constitutional military and intelligence briefings he received, but this was a far nod from the amount of information he received during the war.

Ultimately, the only punishment that Hirohito faced was his irrelevance. That is, I think, too small a price to pay for launching (or at the very least, approving) wars of aggression that killed millions of people.

The last section of the book also includes the only flaw I noticed: Dr. Bix cites a poll where 57% of the population (of Japan) thought Hirohito bore war responsibility or were unsure whether he did. Dr. Bix goes on to claim that this implies that Hirohito’s evasive answers were out of step with the opinion of the majority of the Japanese population. I think (although I can’t prove; the original source is Japanese) that this is probably obscuring the truth.

Assuming that a decent fraction of the respondents were unsure, then we’re looking at a plurality (43%) of Japanese believing Hirohito bore no responsibility and smaller fractions unsure and believing he did. If at least 14% of the respondents were unsure (common for polls like this), then you could flip the stance of Dr. Bix’s sentence and have just as much proof. This sort of thing is a common enough tactic of people who want to stretch their data a bit further than it’s worth.

This shades into the larger issue of trust. How much should I trust Dr. Bix? He obviously knows a lot more about Hirohito than I do and he can speak and read Japanese (I cannot). This makes this book more authoritative than previous books by Americans that relied entirely on translations of Japanese scholarship, but it also makes verifying his sources more difficult.

I was able to find critiques of the book by Japanese scholars. That said, skimming through the titles of other works by the scholars has me fairly convinced that they come from the vein of Japanese conservatism that is rife with war apologism and historical revisionism.

On a whole, this has left me somewhat unsatisfied. I’m convinced that Hirohito was more than a harmless puppet leader. I’m also convinced he didn’t wield absolute power. By Dr. Bix’s own admission, he acted contrary to his own wants very often. For me, this doesn’t jibe with autocratic power. My best interpretation of Dr. Bix’s research is that Hirohito was an influential member of one organ of the Japanese state. He wielded significant but not total influence over national policy. I do not believe that Hirohito was as free to act as Dr. Bix claims he was.

I do believe Dr. Bix when he says that Hirohito’s role expanded as the war went on. If nothing else, he became the most experienced of all of Japan’s leaders at the same time as the myth of his divinity and benevolence became most entrenched. Furthermore, Hirohito and his retinue were most free to act when the army and navy were at loggerheads. This became more and more common after 1937.

Dr. Bix actually posits that these disagreements were the ultimate reason that Hirohito could grasp real power. The cabinet (which included civilian, army, and navy decision makers) was supposed to work by consensus. Where there were deep divisions, they would paper over them with vague statements and false consensus, without engaging in the give and take of negotiation that real consensus requires. Since everything was done in Hirohito’s name, he and the court group could twist the vague statements towards their preferred outcomes – all the while pretending Hirohito was a mere constitutional monarch promulgating decisions based on the advice of the cabinet.

This system was horribly inefficient and at least one person tried to reform it. Unfortunately, their “reform” would have led to a military dictatorship. Here’s a quote about the troubles facing one of the pre-war prime ministers:

“Right-wing extremists and terrorists repeatedly assailed him verbally, while the leading reformer in his own party, Mori, sought to break up the party system itself and ally with the military to create a new, more authoritarian political order.” (Page 247)

I’m used to seeing “reformers” only applied positively, but if you’re willing to look at reform as “the process of making the government run more effectively”, I suppose that military dictatorships are one type of reform. I think it’s good to be reminded that efficiency is not the only axis on which we should judge a government. It may be quite reasonable to oppose reforms that will streamline the government when those reforms come at the cost of other values, like fairness, transparency, and freedom of speech.

It’s my habit to try and draw lessons from the history I read. Because Dr. Bix’s book covers so troubled a time, I did not find it lacking in lessons. But I had hoped for something more than lessons from the past. I had hoped to know definitively how much of the fault for Japan’s role in World War II should lie at the feet of Hirohito.

Despite this being the whole purpose of the book, I was left disappointed. It is almost as if Dr. Bix let his indignation with Hirohito’s escape from any and all justice get the better of him. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan tried to pin almost every misdeed during Hirohito’s reign on the emperor personally. In overreaching, it left me unsure of how much of itself to believe. I cannot discount it entirely, but I also cannot accept wholesale.

It doesn’t help that Dr. Bix paints a portrait of the emperor so intimate as to humanize him. While Dr. Bix seems to want us to view Hirohito as evil, I could not help but see him as a flawed man following a flawed morality. As far as I can tell, Hirohito would have been happiest as a moderately successful marine biologist. But marine biology is not what was asked of him and unfortunately, he did what he saw as his duty.

Here I again wish to make a comparison with Eichmann in Jerusalem. Had Hirohito not been singularly poor at introspection, or had he not had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else” (while Hannah Arendt said this about Adolf Eichmann, I think it applies equally well to Hirohito), Hirohito could have risen above the failings in his moral education and acted as a brake on Japanese militarism.

Hirohito did not do this. And because of his actions (and perhaps more importantly, his inaction), terrible things came to pass.

The possibility for individuals to do terrible things despite having no malice in their hearts is what caused Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”. Fifty years later, we still expect the worst deeds humans can commit to only come from the hands of monsters. There is certainly security in that assumption. When we believe terrible things can only be done deliberately and with malice, we allow ourselves to ignore the possibility that we may be involved in unjust systems or complicit in terrible deeds.

It’s only when we remember that terrible things require no malice, that one may do them even while being a normal person or while acting in accordance with the values they were raised with, that we can properly introspect about our own actions. It is vital that we all take the time to ask “are we the baddies?” and ensure that our ethical systems fail gracefully.

Obviously, Hirohito did none of this. That’s all on him. No matter how you cut the blame pie, Hirohito did nothing to stop the Rape of Nanjing, the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Bataan Death March,  and the forced massed suicides of Okinawans. Hirohito demonstrated that he had the power to order a surrender. Yet he did not do this when the war was all but lost and Japanese cities were bombed daily. He delayed surrender time and again, hoping for some other option that would allow him to cling to whatever scraps of power he had.

For all that Dr. Bix failed to convince me that Hirohito was one of the primary architects of the war, he did convince me that Hirohito bore a large measure of responsibility. I agree that Hirohito should have been a Class A war criminal. I agree that Hirohito escaped all but the faintest touch of justice for his role in the war. And I agree that Hirohito’s escape from justice has made it more difficult for Japan to accept the guilt it should bear for its wars of aggression.

Falsifiable, Literature, Model, Science

Pump Six and the Perils of Speculative Fiction

I just finished Pump Six, a collection of short stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few weeks prior to this, I read Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between them. Ted Chiang writes stories about different ways the world could work. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about different ways the future could happen.

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.

Epistemic Status: The math is Falsifiable, the rest is a Model.

History, Literature

Book Review: SPQR

I just finished reading SPQR, by Professor Mary Beard. As a history of Rome, it’s the opposite of what I expected. It spends little time on individual deeds; there is no great man history here. More shocking, there is very little military history. As part of an audience taught to expect the history of Rome to be synonymous with the history of its military, I was shocked.

This book is perhaps best understood as a conversation with Romans masquerading as a political and social history of Rome. Prof. Beard sums this up in her epilogue: “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans… but I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans.”

Prof. Beard starts her history with the foundational myths of Rome: Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the Seven Kings. She looks at themes of these myths and turns the speculations of ancient historians on its head. Rome was not beset by conflicts between powerful men because of a lingering proclivity for fratricide inherent to the successors of Romulus. The story of Romulus resonated and was passed down because Rome was beset by conflicts with powerful men. She shows us how this story was shaped by current events in every retelling, highlighting the differences in the versions told in the first century BCE and the first century CE.

This isn’t the only relationship Prof. Beard calls us to rethink. Ancient writers praised Romulus’s vision for Rome: somehow he picked the perfect spot for the city. We now know that Rome was not “founded” in the mythological sense, that it did not begin as barren hills colonized by a single pair of brothers. But Rome’s location shaped Rome’s development such that the location was indeed an ideal spot for the city Rome became. The spot seemed perfect in retrospect because it had created a people who would view it as perfect.

Prof. Beard later reminds us that Rome’s expansion wasn’t really planned either. While Hollywood may encourage us to think of Romans as motivated by a manifest destiny that caused them to attempt to rule the whole world, the historical reality was rather different. There was no cabal of senators in 300 BCE with a master plan for Roman expansion. Rome’s early expansion was done piecemeal and by accident. It was always in response to some crisis, to protect the commercial interests of some wealthy Roman, or because some consul wanted to be sure of a triumph when he returned to Rome. Manifest destiny came later, after Rome was already a far-flung empire.

And this far-flung empire was as responsible for shaping the politics of Rome as the politics of Rome were for shaping the empire. Republican institutions could not cope with the challenges of empire. There was a century of chaos as the empire grew beyond its ability to be governed and then a realignment of the government with the emperor at its head that ensured 200 years of stability and (internal) peace.

Of the traditions the emperor usurped, the most interesting was the right to be a voice for the people. Prof. Beard talks about the challenges of representation the Romans faced, challenges familiar to us even today, namely: what is the purpose of legislators? Should they be a conduit for the voices of their constituents? Or should the try and do what is best for their constituents? A source of instability in the first century BCE was populist politicians who cleaved to the first view.

By ending elections, the emperors didn’t disenfranchise the people as much as they broke the bonds between the populist politicians and the people. The emperor (in theory and often in practice) stood up for the common male citizen of the empire. The elites, on the other hand, were left to derive favour and legitimacy solely from the emperor. They lost their connection to the people and therefore lost any ability to challenge the emperor for popular support.

We see a similar thing today in one party rule (where dictators often style themselves “Protector of the People”) or in “democratic dictatorships”. These dictators try and set up a myth that only they will look out for the majority of people. They’ll claim that others can’t be trusted because they are in the sway of special interest groups and economic, racial, sexual, or religious minorities (the Jews are a perennial favourite here).

Speaking of racial and religious minorities, Prof. Beard covers them in some detail. She reminds her readers that Rome was a cosmopolitan and diverse city. Imagining classical people as monolithically white is just as much a mistake as imagining their buildings that way. But Prof. Beard cautions us to avoid swinging our perceptions too far in the other direction. Rome was unusually welcoming of foreigners for a classical culture, but it still had discrimination based on provincial origin. Provincials would never be truly Roman in the eyes of all of the senate. This didn’t stop some of them becoming emperor, including Septimus Sevurus from North Africa, but it did mean they would have faced snide remarks.

I wish I could describe how provincials below senatorial rank were treated, but Prof. Beard has little to say about this. I don’t think it’s her fault. She is explicit that the history we have is largely the history of the elites. It’s their letters and proclamations, monuments and mausoleums from which we gather the majority of our understanding of life in ancient Rome. From the common people, we must make do with far less evidence.

Evidence is a common thread throughout this book. It is in some places as much a work of historiography as history. Prof. Beard cautions us against too good to be true stories (they probably are) and against being too eager to make even simple conclusions, like believing that a certain bust is actually of a certain historical figure. She also drove home in a way that I had never experienced before the sheer paucity of evidence we have for Roman life and deeds before the mid-200s BCE.

Nowhere does evidence and its paucity become as important as understanding the emperors. She describes autocracy as “in a sense, an end of history… there was no fundamental change in the structure of Roman politics, empire or society between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the second century CE”. And given this, she devotes at most a few pages to the combined individual achievements of the first 14 emperors (the book only covers up to 212 CE).

Instead of giving the normal account of the lives of the emperors, their battles and their victories, Prof. Beard focuses on the structure of the empire. She takes advantage of its relatively fixed nature during the rule of the first 14 emperors to go into detail on various facets of life in the empire. What was it like in the provinces? For the urban poor? The provincial elites? The slaves? The women? Many of these people left little historical mark, but Prof. Beard tries her best to give them some voice.

Prof. Beard views the emperors as largely interchangeable. Instead of fixating on “good” and “bad” emperors and turning their lives into moral lessons, she looks at what caused emperors to be described as good or bad in the first place. She believes it is all about legitimacy. When the succession was orderly, the successor could draw legitimacy from his predecessor, so it was in his interest to trumpet his predecessor’s virtues (and imply that as the rightful successor, he too possessed them). When the succession was disorderly (say, as the result of assassination), then this route to legitimacy was closed and the new emperor had to instead frame his reign as a break with a worse past. His predecessor would be smeared to turn the irregularity of his succession to the throne into an advantage.

As evidence, Prof. Beard points out that most of the vices found in “bad” emperors (from infidelity to wanton murder of senators) can also be found in the “good” as long as you read their biographies closely. She contends that this shows a difference in what is focused on, not a difference in behaviour. She points out how imposters to Nero would periodically show up in the provinces long after his death. Hucksters wouldn’t impersonate a universally reviled man.

Even if this isn’t true, Prof. Beard has one final beef with the theory of good and bad emperors: only the senate really cared. We don’t see any historical evidence of incompetence gross enough to touch the empire, it did just as well under Nero as it did under Hadrian. So even if the emperor was as liable to kill senators as talk with them, this was largely a problem for a few of the very wealthiest Romans in Rome.

To the common people in Rome it wouldn’t matter if the emperor was a saint or a psychopath, because they would never interact with him. This was doubly true for the people in the provinces. The plight of the poor was just as bad under Marcus Aurelius as it was under Nero.

Had you told me at the start that the author believed we had nothing to learn directly from the Romans, I probably wouldn’t have started this book. That would have been a grave mistake. I’m left with a deeper understanding of Roman history, the challenges posed in constructing it, and the challenges Roman history poses to us in the present day. I am left prepared to more readily question the beatification of leaders and foundational myths. I am left more alert to the nuances of people power in populism. And I’m left with a colossal respect for Professor Beard’s skill both as a historian and as a popularizer of history.