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A comic about non-sequitur debates. Drawing by Brady Dale, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

Weirding or just decadent?


A lot of people are angry at T-Mobile right now because there has been a rash of SIM jacking incidents against its customers, but what these whiners don't realize is that trying to get anything done in the age of fixed line phone calls and postal mail was vastly harder than it is today. They should be happy mobile companies built the infrastructure for texting and mapping on the go, y'know?

Okay! If you're a normal person, that opening paragraph inspired no small amount of fury. If someone gets robbed you don't remind them that they could have just lived in one of those parts of the United States where people don't lock their doors.

The counter-argument is a non-sequitur. It's related, but there's no direct clash.

But these days statements can't be made about how things tend to be or are likely to be; any observation that doesn't cover everyone is "problematic."

The trouble is, there are very few observations that can accurately be made of all humans. The world is fuzzy! We need to be able to talk about the world in fuzzy ways.

I'm going to give a controversial example: Ribbonfarm has a series of essays that came out this year called The Weirding Diary. I would argue that you can get most of what you need to get from it by reading the last post. He gives a mechanistic description based on the concentration of wealth that he expects to define everyone's choices over the next several decades.

The fundamental decision everyone will have to make is picking a fucking side.

The posts' author, Venkatesh Rao, writes of two political sides that have been driven so far apart that it is impossible for them to even communicate, even tho at each one's very extremes they start to come to the same conclusions for wildly opposite reasons. Life comes at you fast!

Yet the near extremes dominate the global conversation. This is, in no small part, because anyone who takes more moderated positions from which compromise might be possible are largely silenced by the people they primarily agree with.

He describes a situation where wealth and globalization has just thrown everything off kilter. WEIRD. But the question in my mind is: is it weird or is it decadent?

(It can also be both)

I've been thinking about our age as decadent because long before we realized just how fucking rich we are here, before it became clear that the world was suddenly dominated by the corporate equivalent of a gang of school age kids (Amazon, Facebook and Google), a scholar named Jacques Barzun finished his greatest single work (at the age of 93). I think it took me two years to read, but I did: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.

A lot of the book stuck with me. I think the crux of the book is this: We've gone from a young innovative culture to one that has descended into decadence, that is, one that's doing so well that it doesn't know how to deal with a life of plenty.

So has the world gotten weird or are its people just confused by plenty?

'Plenty, eh? That's fine for you to say...'

To whom much has been given

I believe that politics has become bloodsport because the two sides don't have much to fight over.

Back in 2015 there was this gun shop in Florida who marked 9/11 by offering Twittter followers a discount on guns if they used the discount code 'muslim' on its website. The owner made a video where he talked about freedom and war and an apocalypse probably.

On Google Maps, though, the town of this freedom fighter's HQ looked like a middle class, working man, community of people who keep their yards in good shape. While I doubt this guy has to reasonably worry about much of anything to be honest, I actually don't think it's surprising that he's so exercised.

We just aren't wired to live in comfortable times!

If our lives are pretty okay and peaceful and safe then we look beyond ourselves until we reassure ourselves, yes, Things Are Very Bad™. I don't know if it's because we get bored or we feel guilty, but we just can't handle the idea that maybe we live in a pretty okay time.

Problems remain. Bad ones. Very unfair ones. But America's problems are pre-enlightenment Europe's aspirations, know what I mean? And [I submit] we'd better address those challenges that remain if our starting place were shifted to We Have Worked Many Things Out Quite Well Thank You™.

Be irate on time

ANECDOTE: Some of my fellow journalists came across a commentator who made a contention about people governed by "animal spirits." One of them said that was "definitely racist" and another eagerly agreed.

Now, I knew what the writer was referencing because I took intro Econ in college and I've been listening to Planet Money basically ever since.

I had to ask them: Why is the phrase "animal spirits" racist? They weren't sure. They couldn't point to any specific reason, but it made them uncomfortable.

If you aren't familiar with the term "animal spirits" either, let's recap. It was made famous in modern times by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, who used it as a short hand for people acting against their own interest or over-indexing for the short term or hedonistic, but it goes back much further in philosophy. It does not refer to any specific group of people but it does refer to our universal nature as animals. I hope this isn't controversial.

Anyway, it was a great example of people erring on the side of ascribing malicious intent lest they be the last to detect non-enlighteneed behavior (thereby raising suspicion that they are not, themselves, adequately enlightened).

What about Bob? [LOL — it's never about "Bob"]

That anecdote is mostly a digression but not entirely.

There's a new fallacy in contemporary discourse that I like to call The Fallacy of But-This-One-Guy.

Background: The problem with public policy is that we can never solve for every edge case. We generally have to satisfy ourselves with reaching the last person up to the reasonable marginal cost.

The best example here is public transportation. Any time a subway line gets built the entrance has to go somewhere. Wherever it goes, it's a windfall to any property owner who lives very nearby.

It's no accident that subway systems always originate in the most densely populated areas and they dwindle out as populations become less dense. If the first stop on the line reaches a million people easily, we probably won't tolerate building a last stop that only reaches 100 people. Our will to pay for the next user will give out long before it reaches everyone.

No one is gonna fight me here. No one cares about subways in a gut way.

But let's talk about this in another way. When you look at the data on global violent deaths, it's pretty stunning how much safer the world is now than it was, yet this fact is not widely understood. War, in particular, has dropped precipitously.

But under the The Fallacy of But-This-One-Guy it's not okay to point that out, because we can always point to places in the world that are unfit for humans to live in, where there's too much violence and probably a dictatorial strong man. If anyone were to publicly say: "The world is the safest it has ever been" someone would reply with, "What about Syria?" or "What about Libya?" or "What about Afghanistan?" Etcetra.

The counter argument to a statement about data supported broad trend lines tends to begin with the words: "That's fine for you to say, but..."


But my heart! Oh, my heart!

Logic doesn't win arguments these days (though maybe no one is even attempting to use it in good faith?).

If it's a true example of The Fallacy of This One Guy, then whatever counter-example is given, it won't be logically incompatible with the broad statement it countered.

It can both be true that the world as a whole is safer than it's ever been and Syria — to pick an example among several — can still be unsafe. In fact, the world as a whole can be safer than it has ever been and Syria can be less safe than it has ever been at the same time. It's the difference in sample sizes. There is no logical contradiction.

But there is an emotional contradiction, and in a world baffled by decadence (or a world gone weird — your call) an emotional contradiction is more salient than a logical contradiction. No one wants to be yelled at. No one wants to face off against defensiveness. Or tears.

But aside from the fact that policy is generally best made in a fairly coldly logical way, one that takes the long view and doesn't assume maliciousness, there's a more pernicious land mine here.

The Fallacy of But-This-One-Guy can really be stated another way: The Fallacy of Utopia.

See underlying the idea that any argument falls if it doesn't work for absolutely everyone has an underlying assumption that there is a way to solve a problem for everyone. In fact, I'd take that even further and say that it assumes that a perfect world is possible, a world that makes everyone happy.

This idea only works if you believe that there is one overall life trajectory that is best for all people, and of course there isn't. The simplest example here is that some people like excitement and some people like safety. All kinds of policy grapples with this question: everything from food safety rules to guard rails to speed limits. Adventure or safety? Which life do you want?

There's no way to argue between the two, you just have to draw the line through democratic discussion, and no one is ever really happy with the final decision. Play this out against a thousand other sets of values around which there is no right answer and you're on your way to seeing how we can never come up with a fair system for everyone. We can't solve all the problems. There will always be gaps and edge cases unless we just impose life outcomes on everyone, whether they like the prescribed trajectory of not.

A great philosopher once said, "All utopias are tyrannies."

And yet, and yet, scratch any given firebrand of any political persuasion in the modern world and you're likely to find a utopian dream driving him.

Either our firebrand has been driven there by decadence: he or she really thinks there's a world where everyone can (and should) have it all (what is more decadent than that?). Or they are a literate person in an overwhelmingly literate society who still thinks a utopia is feasible.

And that's just weird. But what do we expect?

In an age where an arguments wins without logic that follows, why shouldn't a plurality of the populace feel entitled to a political condition that doesn't follow from history? From any of history?

—Brady Dale
July 7, 2019

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