Posted by on January 1, 2018

Conservatives have become almost completely bimodal.

On the one hand, the movement includes politicians like Ben Sasse (the Republican Senator from Nebraska) and Jeff Flake (the Republican Senator from Arizona, who has announced that he will retire in 2018).  Sasse and Flake are about as close as this country comes to philosopher-kings, both having recently written thoughtful books about the state of America and having commented broadly and intelligently on the subject (including this entirely charming Sasse interview with Tyler Cowen.)

I was recently with a liberal friend who expressed her liking for Sasse and Flake.  The subject then turned to politicians on the other side of the aisle who could command the same type of general respect.  Neither of us could think of anyone.[1]

Likewise, in the commentariat, I cannot think of anyone on the liberal side[2] with the wit, range and writing brilliance of people like Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Williamson and Yuval Levin.  Amazingly, all three write for the National Review, which has quietly amassed three of my favorite current wordsmiths.

And there is another quality to their commentary that I find lacking on the other side.  It is their playfulness.  It is as if they understand, in a way that their opposite parts cannot, that politics is and rightfully should be just a small part of our lives.  It is impossible to listen to Jonah Goldberg’s The Remnant podcast – a strong recommendation – without laughing out loud.

But at the same time, the conservative movement also harbors the biggest and most vicious buffoons on the public stage.  Roy Moore, Sheriffs Arpaio and Clark, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones.  Trump himself, although his conservatism is purely opportunistic.  Although the Democrats also have their malicious clowns – read this piece about Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas if you want to be horrified – in terms of both quantity and quality, I think the Republicans have them beat.

In statistical terms, conservatives are bimodal.  (From the French term mode, meaning fashion:  in a distribution, the mode is the most common, or fashionable, result.)  With the conservative movement, there are two fashionable results: the thoughtful, intelligent, witty result (as personified by Sasse and Goldberg) and the moronic, vicious, small-minded and witless result (as personified by Trump, Moore and Hannity).

Among other things, this distribution means that it is virtually meaningless to talk about an average “conservative.”   The average of a bimodal distribution probably lies between the two humps, and does a really poor job of describing either mode.  An average liberal, conversely, is a more meaningful term.  Liberals tend to be normally distributed[3], the famous bell curve.  Some are smarter, some are dumber, but they are all recognizably drawn from the same population.

The interesting question is how much longer the conservative movement can continue to be bimodal.  I have an image of cell division, which begins with the formation of two nuclei and ends with a total separation.  In this case, though, the nuclei are very different and the resulting cells cannot belong to the same organism.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

I have already written about how many people use statistics the way a drunkard uses a light pole: more for support than illumination.

One of the best people on this subject, and one of the best popularizes of libertarian economic thinking in general, is Russ Roberts from the Hoover Institute and the Econtalk podcast.   Here is the first part of a multi-part series from Roberts on how the middle class is doing economically.  It is eight minutes of Robert’s soothing voice explaining how numbers are tortured to score political points.  It will be worthwhile watching out for the remaining videos in the series.

Roberts also has a lengthy podcast with a statistician discussing the so-called “replication crisis” in the social sciences.  If you haven’t heard of it, you can be forgiven; this is nerdy stuff.  The gist is that a large percentage of the studies in fields such as economics, sociology, psychology and other “soft sciences,” including many studies which have been the basis of government policy, cannot be reproduced by an independent group of researchers.   In fact, the Reproducibility Project, which was launched in 2011 after high-profile reports of fraud and faulty statistical analyses, is finding that less than 50% of studies can be reproduced, even though the project is focussing on papers which have been published in prestigious journals after peer review.  The failure rate for the total universe must be even worse.

My conclusion from all of this is that, if an empirical result seems improbable based upon my prior expectations and theory, there is a very good chance it is.  Particularly if the results are politically charged.  This is not an  endorsement of  confirmation bias but a call for high skepticism.

Before leaving Roberts, I also have a strong recommendation for a podcast he did with Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles discussing their book The Captured Economy.  Judging from the multiple podcasts I have heard on this subject, this must be one of the most important policy books of the year.  It is a study in rent-seeking.  Lindsey and Teles come at the problem from very different political perspectives but both conclude that crony capitalism is a major factor in slowing growth and increasing inequality.  As usual, the best thing the government can do is get out of the way.

As Ye Sow…

While North Korea marches steadily closer to having a deliverable nuclear weapon, the official US policy is denuclearization of the peninsula.

Fat chance.  I don’t often quote Vladimir Putin positively in this blog, but he was right when he said that the North Koreans would “eat grass” before giving up their nukes.

Why such obstinacy?  Although the chances of the Hermit Kingdom disarming were always low, the US government has done everything possible to reduce these to zero.

Under Muammar Qaddafi, Libya ceased its nuclear weapons program in December 2003.  Seven years later, we had a particularly pudgy Hillary Clinton going full-bore sociopath with “we came, we saw, he died” after the gang-rape and execution of Qaddafi.

I don’t think the lesson is lost on Kim Jong Un.

One of the few chances that the US has of achieving its policy objective is convincing China to use fully its economic leverage over North Korea.  A problem with this scenario is the 28,000 US troops based in South Korea, which China would not want to see on the Yalu River in the event of a collapse of the North Korean regime.  Rex Tillerson has acknowledged this in a recent speech during which he gave assurances to the Chinese that US troops would stay away from the border.

But there is a credibility problem with this statement, too, as shown in the recent article by Leonid Bershidsky in BloombergView.  The article is entitled “The Story Behind Putin’s Mistrust of the West” and it details how the US and its allies provided multiple assurances of no eastward expansion of NATO at the time of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the reunification of Germany in 1990 and 1991.  Assurances that the West started to violate in 1997 and which it continues to violate until this very day, including with the recent (and completely pointless – see Montenegro to Join NATO: I Feel Much Safer here) inclusion of Montenegro.

It is one of the imponderables of history what the result would have been had the West been more open, and less threatening and demeaning, to Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.  Or if the West had gone all the way and disbanded NATO.   Perhaps we would not be facing a Vladimir Putin, or at least not the same Vladimir Putin, had the West taken a different tack.  But one thing is for sure: the Chinese will have learned that assurances of this type are not to be taken seriously.

…So shall ye reap.

Roger Barris

Evergreen, Colorado

 

[1] If any of my readers have any suggestions, I would like to hear them.  To me, the Democrats are tacticians but not thinkers.  In short, they are lawyers.

[2] Again, open for suggestions.

[3] A term that has, in this context, no normative significance – just to maximize the confusion of the English language.

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