Egalitarianism explained in a simple YouTube video

As part of my procrastination today from writing my book, I stumbled upon this video by the YouTube science communicator Veritasium.

What’s so lovely about the video is how clearly it explains reams of philosophical debates between liberals and libertarians in twelve minutes, and comes to a more cogent conclusion than most of them.

Basically, situated epistemologies require those most advantageously situated to help other have better luck. Combining social psychology and behavioral economics, this video clarifies through an experimental model how luck always plays some role.

The myth of the self-made man is one of the most destructive ones of our society, and acts as cover for those well-off to not value others who have not been so lucky. The punchline of the entire video is that we have benefited from intergenerational largess, and so those who have benefited the most have a duty to enlarge the ability for others to get recognition, validation, and resources through creating opportunities for other to enlarge the pool of luck – horizontally, not vertically.

Thus, policy implications include:

  1. Getting rid of the possibility for billionaires (using a combination of taxation, demurrage (negative interest rates), taxes on trading financial assets, etc)
  2. Regenerating the welfare state (including a universal basic income)
  3. Social norm changes: quit venerating billionaires or other wealth hoarders as false idols
  4. Not let people like Bill Gates or Elon Musk make public health or climate policy decisions — as these are far out of their expertise — only because they are rich or influencers
  5. Quit using philanthropy as an ersatz for a functioning social democracy.
  6. Return society to science, rather than let the irrationalities of greed eclipse scientific progress, insights, and applications


Review of The Good Hand excerpt

I just read the New York Times excerpt of Michael Patrick F. Smith’s (names don’t get more American, or Irish–his middle, middle name is Flanigan) book The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. What struck me first was how successful this guy is in the liberal darling — rough outsider: he’s story is about working on an oil rig — while still being pro-climate policy. He’s exactly the darling liberals have been waiting to come forward and lavish their praise on, to show that they are right and conservatives are wrong. But Smith aims to short-circuit this narrative with zingers: “Like most Americans I know, I have both strong progressive and conservative values.” This statement is immediately arresting because it is true. The Tweedledee-Tweedledum liberal conservative polarity is simply bunk. Any person, if they look into their own complexities realizes that the ideological camps we’re told we have to camp out in, never really represent our full values.

In reading the reader comments, the reason for the NYT (and Viking press) lauding and promoting this book are obvious, in addition to those described above. What is at stake is the definition of sustainable. Smith says that his conservative rural buddies have lower-carbon impacts than the liberal city slickers. This was the line most attacked by NYT readers. But what is at stake is something greater: liberals want an energy regime that sustains the unsustainable lifestyles of urbanites, tuning out to where there food, energy, water, and infrastructure come from. Cities are the classic reverse-Robin Hood: they rob from the peripheries and funnel resources to the centers. Most cities grow little food, and import almost all their stuff. Meanwhile, growing and sourcing your own food, and knowing your local ecology is something that you have to learn by default living rurally. You have to budget your ecology, live within your limits. Sure, you might burn a lot of wood during winter, but hell, its romantic — and local (if you’re not some rich ski person who buys or imports their wood).

So, the question is: does sustainability mean living off the land, more locally, more simply? Or does it mean technologically-driven and dependent futures that strive to be less impactful? The conceit of the first is that this is available for all — it’s not. We have to drastically reduce the world population to live sustainably like pioneers. The fallacy of the second is that we can have our cake and eat it too: that sustainability doesn’t require drastically re-engineering everything about our habits and lives. We can just surf on clean energy into the singularity. Both views are flawed, and will not get us to avoid collapse; but also have their merits. We must live more simply (without cars) but also in greater connection to the land. Slowing down the pace and scope of life will be necessary. We can choose it, or it will choose us. Global coordination and innovation, the type that cities provide, however, is also crucial for our future. The trick is, as Smith suggests, combining the virtues of both while owning up to their respective dark sides. Are conservatives ready for that? Are liberals?

Preemptive versus post hoc: pandemic decision-making and measuring economic trade-offs

A million tourists or new luxury hotels may sound appealing, he added, “but is that sustainable? Is that going to help us in the long run?”

The Washington Post‘s expose today 18 Dec 2020 on the few island nations that are still 100% COVID-19-free discusses the economic meltdown that has occurred as tourism has collapsed, especially as many of these island nations have imposed what the Post calls “preemptive lockdown” and “most drastic anti-coronavirus travel ban in the world.”

The Post insinuates that this is a bad thing — that had Micronesia been a bit more permissive and welcoming of the pandemic, they would have had less devastating economic losses. But perhaps this framing is backwards. Instead, what it reveals is the unsustainability of exogenously-sustained economies. That islands have become completely dependent on the global business model of travel and tourism. Long term, this is fragile, instead of anti-fragile (in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s description). John Rawls in his Theory of Justice even devotes an entire section on resource sovereignty and not needing external imports to sustain oneself (an implicit ecological argument — for my analysis on this elsewhere, see “The Threshold Problem in Intergenerational Justice“). In a sense, this is the opposite of Kant’s notion of Cosmopolitan Citizenship in Perpetual Peace, where trading makes us all so reliant on one another, that peace reigns because fighting each other destabilizes our economic and metabolic dependencies.

But instead of focusing on retooling these island nation’s ability to provide for themselves, to go back to their permaculture roots, they are given a false gambit: open up and woo biological misfortune, or stay closed and woo economic disaster. This is a great teaching moment.

Biological integrity is a thing. It has been swept under the rug for the last century, as elites, and a trickle down of upper middle class jet setters have drummed up an entirely just-in-time global logistics network where most of the food we eat and resources we use come from far, far away. It’s nice to eat bananas and avocados — I’ll admit. But would I give them (and many other things up) for a healthier world? You betcha.

If the choice is between being a potato-eater and being able to work and hug, versus getting exotic fruits in a closed-down quarantined life, I’ll choose the former any time.

Reviews for Plants in Science Fiction

Last year an edited volume on speculative vegetation that I contributed a chapter to on Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume came out with the University of Wales press in the New Dimensions in Science Fiction series (with a beautiful cover, I might add).

Since then, some nice reviews have surfaced, for example:

Locus listed the volume at the top of their 2020 non-fiction recommendation list: 

Other accolades include:

“Science fiction teaches us to ‘be-with others better.’ This is the core argument of Plants in Science Fiction, captured in one of its chapters and suffused throughout. Readers will come away with a profound and challenging understanding of what it means to be human, as well as a deep appreciation for the critical function of science fiction in a threatened world.”  — Eric Otto, Florida Gulf Coast University

Plants in Science Fiction demonstrates that science fiction and ecocriticism have much to say to each other. By considering ‘speculative vegetation,’ of course, we learn much about our own lives in the present moment on Earth.’ — Scott Slovic, Editor-in-Chief, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment