Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Vision Of The Anointed

The people in power need a reason why they are in charge. It used to be birth. The nobility were elevated over the rest of society because of their superior breeding, and they handed down authority from generation to generation. The US, at least in theory, is a meritocracy. Our elites weren’t born into their positions. They earned them. They went to better schools where they learned more about the latest advancements in human knowledge, giving them the wisdom needed to rule the country, if not the world. That’s what most people in Washington D.C. believe, regardless of political party. In The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell paints a disturbing picture of how that mentality has impacted our society, and what it means for the future.

The US government has gotten steadily more powerful over the last century, and it’s hard to see that dynamic changing anytime soon. At this point, it doesn’t matter all that much which politicians are placed at the top. They are the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of an imperial bureaucracy whose tentacles stretch far beyond our own borders. What Barack Obama and Donald Trump have found out, to varying degrees, is that the tail wags the dog in D.C these days. That’s why there’s such a continuity of policy between the last few presidents, despite how differently they were sold to voters. If there’s a common thread running through most public policy, it’s increasing the importance of decision-makers in the federal bureaucracy over everyone else.

Justifying that power is easy when you believe the people wielding it are wiser, more knowledgeable and more virtuous than the unwashed masses. Eight of the nine current Supreme Court Justices went to either Harvard or Yale Law. The ninth went to Columbia. The tools to educate yourself have never been more accessible in human history, yet the pathways to the top are narrowing. While the internet and social media connect people from every corner of the globe, they also allows them to build echo chambers of like-minded people where they never have to listen to those who disagree with them. During the height of conservative opposition to Obama, liberal thinkers accused their opponents of “epistemic closure”, meaning they had created a belief system that didn’t have the capacity to acknowledge outside criticism. Of course, it’s a charge that can just as easily be turned back on the ones making it.

Political debate has become a stage where people try to prove their moral superiority. My favorite example from the book is the criticism of the Mercator projection, the world map most people used in school. It exaggerates the size of land masses near the top and bottom of the globe, making Greenland look nearly as big as Africa. It didn’t become controversial until modern times, when people criticized it for a Eurocentric approach that minimized the relative size of countries along the Equator. However, the reason those distortions exist is because the projection keeps latitude and longitude lines straight to make navigation easier. Practicality, not prejudice, is why it became popular. No mapmaker can represent every part of the globe accurately because they are trying to fit a 3-dimensional object on a 2-dimensional space.

Public policy, like mapmaking, is a series of trade-offs. Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to go to jail. The harder it is to convict an innocent man, the easier it becomes for a guilty one to get off. There are no right answers: how much additional crime will those 10 guilty men commit once they are released back into society? At some point, whether it’s 100 guilty men or 1,000, the trade-off no longer becomes worth it. The only question is where, as a society, we decide that point is. There is no way to create a perfect criminal justice system. That’s where the saying “hard cases make bad law” comes from. Focus on one circumstance which highlights the worst problems with a particular law and you can miss all of the situations where the law works well.

The problem is that not seeing the forest for the trees is the easiest way for a politician to get elected. They campaign as if trade-offs don’t exist, and there are cost-free solutions to societal problems. One great example is Obamacare, which was supposed to increase access to health care while also making it more affordable. However, there’s a basic tension between affordability, accessibility and quality that exists at the heart of any health care system. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to insure more people, but any dramatic change to the current system will have wide-ranging consequences, intended and unintended. “If you like your plan, you can keep it” was never an option, and a few years after Obamacare was passed, no one pretends otherwise. It may take decades before we know whether or not Obamacare was successful.

The ultimate effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, the education reform bill signed in 2003, and NAFTA, a free-trade agreement passed in 1993, are still hotly debated among scholars. For a politician, though, the long-term results are almost beside the point. They need something tangible they can sell to voters as proof they should stay in office, and they are always looking for accomplishments that will build their legacy. There’s a bias towards action over inaction, even though doing something can often be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Saddam Hussein was a problem for the US, but the power vacuum in Iraq created by removing him was ten times worse. Just because a problem exists doesn’t mean trying to fix it is necessarily a good idea.

The world is not an ideal place, nor will it ever be. Idealists confuse the difference between what is and what ought to be, and they think believing in an ideal is proof of their moral superiority, regardless of when happens when they apply that ideal to reality. Those who want to make society more equal just tend to accuse their opponents of being in favor of the status quo, even though their proposals often have the exact opposite of their intended effects. There is more poverty in the US today than when the War on Poverty started more than 50 years ago. Maybe things would be even worse without governmental intervention, but that argument is essentially unfalsifiable. If the only two possible outcomes are that a policy makes things better or stops things from being worse, we are assuming it to be true without any evidence.

The other word for that is faith. Modern people pretend we are rational thinkers who only believe what science tells us, but that’s because we assume science confirms what we already believe. No one really bases their worldview on what can be proven by scientific experiments. They start off with their desired conclusions and look for science that backs them up, rather than the reserve. The conclusions of the people in power these days only go in one direction: we are better than everyone else, so we deserve more power. Pundits can’t admit they are wrong because their sense of self-worth is based on being right. The cognitive dissonance is too intense. When reality differs from their beliefs, it’s not their beliefs that have to change, but reality.
The [presidential] aide says that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued, “We’re an empire now, and we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  
-- An aide to George W. Bush to a New York Times reporter, 2004 
Throughout the book, Sowell contrasts the vision of the anointed with what he calls the tragic vision, a more pessimistic outlook on the human condition which questions how much we can truly know and how much we can actually change the world. That idea doesn’t have much appeal to those with the power to shape society in their own image, and they aren’t interested in any belief system that doesn’t flatter their ego or appeal to their vanity. Nor do they have much time for anyone who questions their right to dictate the nature of reality. Our secular priesthood will not tolerate heresy. The March For Science had things backwards. We have been living in a theocracy the whole time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is God A Mathematician?

Pure math does not exist. No matter how abstract the concept, there is always some application to the real world, even if it’s not immediately apparent. Knot theory (the science of telling knots apart) started out as nothing more than an intellectual challenge in the late 19th century, and is now used to help understand how DNA combines and splits apart. Mathematical breakthroughs have long anticipated discoveries in the physical world. From the speed of light, to the normal distribution of probabilities and Einstein’s theory of relativity, the universe is built on math. In Is God A Mathematician?, astrophysicist Mario Livio tries to decipher what that means.

Despite the title, the book isn’t about theology. Livio is more interested in math than God. What he wants to figure out is whether math was invented or discovered. In other words, are numbers, and the relationships between them, something humans cooked up out of thin air, or did they always exist, just waiting to be figured out? Math is the universal language among humans, but would the same hold true for alien species? Would intelligent squids who lived on the ocean floor have any knowledge of prime numbers? It may seem like an absurd hypothetical, but looking for an answer is an interesting window into the long and tangled history of math, which is Livio’s real passion.

The greatest mathematicians all united seemingly different fields of study. Descartes combined geometry and algebra with the invention of graphing and the coordinate system. Newton used math and physics together to create calculus. Einstein’s theories found a way to treat space and time as one. The holy grail of modern scientific research is finding a theory of everything, a single unifying framework which reconciles the effects on gravity on incredibly large objects like galaxies (general relativity) and incredibly small ones like electrons (quantum field theory). Neither theory can explain what happens when a huge amount of mass is confined to a microscopic area, like the center of a black hole or the universe in the second after the Big Bang. The progression of mathematical history seems to point towards one underlying series of equations that determine the very nature of our reality.

The people who think math was discovered point to these natural laws as proof. It doesn’t matter whether or not we know about the speed of light, objects still can’t go faster than it. Just because we can’t perceive the platonic world of mathematical forms doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s the idea behind Plato’s famous allegory of The Cave, where the ancient Greek philosopher imagined a group of human beings chained to the floor, unable to move their heads. The only thing they can see is the wall in front of them, and any shadows cast on the wall by the fire behind them. They see the reflections on the wall rather than the objects that are actually being reflected, in the same way that the objects we see in the world are merely shadows of their ideal forms.

The other school of thought thinks the shadows are all that there is, that there is no ideal world. Our perception is what creates reality. One of the most fascinating discoveries in quantum mechanics is the observer effect: the mere act of being observed will change the ways in which objects behave. When scientists shoot an electron at a wall through a piece of paper with two slits cut in it, which slit the electron goes through (or whether it goes through both) depends on whether or not a measuring device is placed in front of the paper to see. If there’s no device, the electron creates an interference pattern on the wall, as if two ripples of water were intersecting over the surface of the lake. However, if there is a device, the electron is forced to choose one of the two slits, and no interference pattern is created. No one knows why this happens.

The debate goes back to the very beginning of math. Euclidean geometry has been around for thousands of years, and it was long seen as proof that mathematical knowledge was based on a solid foundation of universal truth. That changed in the 19th century, when people realized one of its primary axioms could be altered. Axioms are the building blocks of Euclidean geometry, the things assumed to be true without needing to be proven: there’s only one straight line between two points, two parallel lines don’t intersect etc. However, not all of them hold true in every situation. The sum of the angles in a triangle only adds up to 180 degrees on a flat plane. They add up to less than 180 on a curved structure, and more than 180 on a spherical one. Euclidean geometry only works in two-dimensional space. Modifying even one axiom results in dramatically different conclusions about the world.

This became important as mathematicians tried to formalize logic to create a rational framework to analyze the truth of any statement. Here it is as its most basic form: if P or Q, and not P, then Q. What could we prove about the world given these tools? Was math invented or discovered? And if we discovered it, then who invented it? Livio dances around the question throughout the book, but he shows his hand here, when he quotes George Boole, one of the architects of formalized logic:
To show the power of his methods, Boole attempted to use his logical symbols for everything he deemed important. For instance, he even analyzed the arguments of the philosophers Samuel Clarke and Baruch Spinoza for the existence and attributes of God: “It is not possible, I think, to rise from the perusal of arguments of Clarke and Spinoza without a deep conviction of the futility of all endeavors to establish, entirely a priori, the existence of an Infinite Being, His attributes, and His relation to the universe.” In spite of the soundness of Boole’s conclusion, apparently not everybody was convinced of the futility of such endeavors, since updated versions of the ontological arguments for God’s existence continue to emerge today. 
The main logical arguments for God fall under three main categories. There is the cosmological argument, which says that since everything in this world is created by a creator, the universe itself must have been created. The teleological argument says God must exist since the universe itself was not created by accident. Finally, the Cartesian circle says that God must exist because without an ultimate source of truth there is no way to trust in the validity or human reasoning. However, as Livio points out, theists don’t need these arguments to be persuaded in the existence of God while atheists are not persuaded by them.

He is more right than he knows. That’s what the apostle Paul is referring to when he talks about “the mystery of faith”. There’s no way to reason backwards to faith because reason is ultimately built on faith. Every set of logical beliefs about the world is built on first principles. Geometry doesn't work without axioms. You can’t prove anything without assuming something else to be true. Descartes and Newton were devout Christians whose discoveries stemmed from their faith in God. Livio has the search backwards. You can’t reason your way to first principles. You can only judge them by their results:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 
- Matthew 7:15-20

Monday, May 1, 2017

Playing Through The Whistle

A city as small as Aliquippa should not have produced so many great football players. Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Darrelle Revis all grew up in the same steel town in Western Pennsylvania, which, even at its peak, never had more than 30,000 residents. Despite its lack of size, the town’s lone high school annually churns out Division I players, many of whom wind up in the NFL. Manufacturing steel and playing football have a lot in common: they are fields were toughness is prized, discipline is essential and the good of the whole trumps that of the individual. It’s probably not a coincidence that the sons of the factory workers who built the American war machine became some of the best football players in the country. These days, the factories are shuttered and the jobs are gone, but the people left behind in dying towns like Aliquippa still have football, the one constant in a world turned upside down.

S.L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, first visited Aliquippa to report on its football program. He found an even more interesting story instead. Within the span of one lifetime, Aliquippa went from a glittering symbol of the triumph of the New Deal to an urban wasteland that looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off downtown, as one longtime NFL general manager told Price. Its meteoric rise and even more dizzying fall mirrors that of the Rust Belt as a whole. Playing Through The Whistle is primarily about the history of one town and its obsession with football, but it does as good a job as any of explaining how we got to where we are today as a country. The book should be subtitled The Decline And Fall Of The American Empire.

Aliquippa began as a company town at the end of the Gilded Age, a place where the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company could build a private empire. The invention of the Bessemer furnace had changed steel production from being done by hand to a mechanized assembly line that required huge amounts of manual labor. Waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and black sharecroppers from the South came to work in the massive factories rising up from the ground. Each ethnic group was settled into its own distinct neighborhood in the city, creating divisions within the workforce that still exist to this day. Baseball was king at the time, but the country was changing, and a new sport was emerging that would capture the national imagination:
[Baseball’s] pastoral air, subtle details and gunfighter showdowns between pitcher and batter harked back to an era of artisans and yeomen, its rhythm increasingly at odds with the nerve-racking pace of the machine age. Football channeled frustration, rewarded power. It fed and fed off the ethos of factory, mill and mine. Muddy, bloody and raw, football felt more like the life now unfolding at ground level in Western Pennsylvania: bodies punished in a fight for the slightest edge. 
The Great Depression and the New Deal completed the transformation, and Aliquippa was ground zero. In 1937, a landmark Supreme Court case involving the J&L Steel Corporation effectively ended opposition to FDR’s agenda, expanding the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution to justify almost any intervention by the federal government into private business. Steelworkers were given the freedom to unionize, while World War II created an insatiable demand for their product. After the war, with the rest of the industrialized world in shambles, American manufacturing had no real competition, allowing the newfound wealth to be spread relatively evenly. The unions went on strike every three years like clockwork, and each time they won a new concession, culminating in the thirteen-week vacation that would later become a symbol for bloat and entitlement. It was a golden age, except like all golden ages, it came to a quick end and it wasn’t all that golden either.

The mills provided jobs, but they were brutal jobs that took years off their employees’ lives. And, in some cases, limbs. No one wanted their kids to work there. In that way, the mill is a lot like pro football. Mike Ditka’s dad worked at J&L so that his son could play in the NFL, and Ditka played in the NFL so that his sons could do anything else. He said that he wouldn’t allow them to play the sport knowing what they know now. It’s a blue-collar version of this John Adams quote:
I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics, philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. 
The problem is that a lot more people can earn a living making steel than playing football, and even fewer can make it as artists. For every Aliquippa native who grows up to become a Hollywood composer, like Henry Mancini, a dozen more are struggling to find work in the post-industrial dystopia of the modern Rust Belt. The jobs aren’t coming back, and the only thing that has taken their place is drugs.

Price uses the story of Jeff Baldwin, an Aliquippa High standout who played college football at Pitt before returning home, to illustrate the remaining paths out. One of his sons, Jonathan Baldwin, was a first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. The other was Jamie Brown, a drug kingpin who may or may not (depending on who you ask) have ordered the assassination of a cop that shook what was left of the town to its foundation. Given the state of the school system in Aliquippa, even the players who make it to college have a difficult time rising out of poverty, since they are so unprepared academically. It’s only NFL stars like Ty Law, Sean Gilbert and Darrelle Revis who have the financial stability to uproot their lives and leave the town for good. Aliquippa went from a place that pushed people into the middle class to one that kept them out.

On the field, their biggest rival is Hopewell High, the suburban school comprised mainly of people whose parents and grandparents worked in the mills and then left for literal greener pastures. Price’s reporting, which stretches back to the founding of both communities, covers the beginning of white flight in the 1960’s to the final results a half century later. Aliquippa went from an all-white team, to one that gradually accepted black players, to a program with hardly any whites left. In Price’s telling, Aliquippa in the 1970’s was almost like Yugoslavia, with the police helpless as rival gangs of whites and blacks created militias that partitioned the town. There were daily racial brawls at Aliquippa High, and even the bonds forged from football weren’t immune from being broken. The grandson of Carl Aschman, the coach who turned the school into a football powerhouse, was beaten up in its hallways.

There’s no way to read the book and not wonder what could have been done differently. Things are bad in Aliquippa, and they don’t look like they will be getting better anytime soon. There’s just no money left. Even the football team might be gone in five years. But while the people in charge at the steel factory, whether they were in management or labor, were definitely spoiled by their success, could they have resisted the structural changes that doomed American industry? Once automation made the Bessemer furnace obsolete, mass layoffs were inevitable.

America wasn’t going to be the land of opportunity forever. Nothing ever is. The country that greeted the immigrants who helped found Aliquippa is a lot different than the one their grandchildren live in today. Instead of hoping our kids will have better lives than our own, we just hope they won’t be worse. The only thing harder than reaching the middle class is staying there. If history is filled with the sound of wooden shoes going upstairs and silken slippers going down, as Voltaire once said, we are well into the latter stage. Once civilizations reach a high enough level of prosperity, there’s only one direction left for them to go. Make America Great Again? If only it were that easy.