NYT and The Atlantic on Killing Baby Hitler


NYT: 42% Yes, 30% No, 28% Not Sure

The Atlantic writer goes on to show how much he knows about history, but it’s really a simply problem: why are you asking me this? Is it to prevent World War II? To prevent the Holocaust? To prevent a specific person’s death? Am I allowed to assume that will be the result or must I weigh the probabilities.

The Atlantic writer gives the Kantian answer, but I think that’s bullshit. Of course we would do it, whether or not some ethical system says so, if we thought we could save more lives. I agree with him that killing Baby Hitler won’t prevent most of the historical wave that came about and people in that alternate universe might be asking whether it’s OK to kill Baby Goring or Baby Himmler.

There’s not enough information to solve this problem and it’s more or less an ethical Rorschach test less than the Trolley problem that the writer suggests. After all, trolley problems usually give you two or more lives versus one whereas here, we don’t know if we’re guaranteed to save millions or if there is only an infinitesimal chance this works.

For people who say “no” to the trolley problem, though, I’d love to see them show on some empirical basis that that answer is better instead of within their own self-referential framework. It’s more or less a form of pacifism.

Left and Right.

From the point of view of the average European, and indeed to many Americans, there must seem to be not much difference in substance between the right and the left these days. Both have more or less surrendered to a finance-heavy, lightly-regulated form of capitalism, only to slightly varying degrees. There is some separation still on the manner and amount of benefits, but usually even from the left benefits are tied to production: free college for a smarter workforce, free healthcare for a healthy workforce. (Not for more healthy soldiers as we might have seen in the past.)

But is this argument really over?

A new round of identity politics has floated its way into the front of leftwing politics despite the fanfare of Occupy Wall Street, Elizabeth Warren, despite the economic crash, despite everything. Just like the old, this supposed quest for justice is just the same old bigotry, done small time, dicing people even further into smaller groups and adjectives, justified by questionable history and sociological theories. Every single racial, gender, or sexual preference issue gets eclipsed into this nonsense.  The result is that well meaning people from other groups simply ignore all of it. This is not progress.

Politicians throughout the developed world are at a loss for a grand strategy. You hear piecemeal solutions to every world event. We will bomb this group in this city. We will evacuate these people here. Events are far outpacing our leaders’ ability to react. It’s too early to say, but it may be that the status quo of international politics that has held since the end of WWII is collapsing. Too many states lack the basic component of sovereignty that is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and worse, many have no legitimacy in the eyes of their populations. Is this too much wailing Cassandra? Perhaps. The old order has done a very good, if not perfect, job of prevent interstate wars. But it has utterly failed at dealing with civil war and the collapse of states, where numerous genocides have occurred such as in Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sudan. It seems incapable of dealing with the collapse of the Arab states, either.

In the US, we have a toxic mix of xenophobia, isolationism, exceptionalism, pacifism, and bleeding hearts. We want to pretend we can stay out of everything until we get carried away with emotion about something and we have to act on that, instead of having a plan. Then when we get there we don’t want to get our hands dirty because we went in to be heroes.

Americans have always known very little about the outside world. But today, we know very little about where our interests lie, and if we do understand those interests we dismiss them. Oil in the gulf? Eh, let’s just get off foreign oil. Nukes in Iran? Eh, we did fine against the Soviets.

Getting into land wars in Asia or invading Afghanistan, or whatever other quote you want to cite entirely miss the point. Never get into any war that isn’t over an important national interest, but when you do, go all in. And once the interest is achieved or defunct, leave. That would have meant withdrawing from Vietnam in 1966 after making it clear we wouldn’t surrender entire regions to the communists cheaply–this containment deterrence was the only strategic justification for that war, though it does exist in contrast to many popular myths about our having no interest at all. This would have meant never invading an Iraq that had no nuclear capacity or connections to al Qaeda and would have certainly meant a departure from Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden was killed.

But, to get back to the basic point, neither the right nor the left seems wiling or able to develop a grand strategy at all, let alone one worth following. This leaves us to chose between the same basic economic arrangement.

As someone who does sweat the details, there is no choice. In the United States, the Republican party is febrile, incapable of non-political decision making, incapable of long-term thinking, disdainful of the middle class, and utterly dominated by antiscience nationalism. For all of the Democrats’ many faults, they can still pilot the ship. They can govern, respond to problems, develop solutions, and sometimes implement them.

Where this distinction doesn’t hold, where the right-wing parties aren’t completely dominated by their loonies, such as in Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Israel, Spain, Finland, and Denmark, it’s worth asking if the nihilistic social agenda of the left doesn’t demand defiance.

The Clash of Civilizations

I’m to the point where I think the burden on proof has shifted from those who deny as alarmist the notion that the west is going to have to fight the Islamic world. Much of the same conventional wisdom that denies this seems to think we’re on a collision course with China, but that seems like the desire to sound visionary more than a cold assessment of what’s going on right now.

Right now it seems like we have a vague strategy of containment, but we seem to be living in denial that each state that turns to Islamism, though isn’t one we need to fight, is at least one more that’s embracing a way of life we reject, something we were much more clear about with communism.

It seems like the cultural logic of the west in 2015 forbids any interpretation of events in this way. Even if all of this turmoil is the result of western colonialism, does that mean we have to accept it as our just deserts? Even if you make that argument, you have to convince me that people will accept that and as long as we live in a democracy that matters. And they won’t. I certainly refuse to die for a mistake that wasn’t even made in my lifetime, or even by own ancestors. Round up Queen Victoria’s children if it’ll make you feel better.


Imagine that the next President and Congress pass a sweeping education reform. Forget how it works. Just imagine that the outcome is the best outcome you can imagine actually happening. It exceeds the upper bound of the sober forecasters by an amazing amount. It’s enough to make this President’s legacy. Yes, I know this won’t happen; bear with me.

There will be magazine covers smugly asking Is Government Back? and all kinds of celebration. This is in a sense a Rorschach test for you, but the point is to stipulate that government has done everything it can do. It’s the best thing they’ve done since the Moon shot.

Then what?

Let’s even grant that this leads to some strong growth in the economy and some nice, productivity gains.

The fact is, even if you conjure massive amount of economic growth from this, you aren’t giving everyone economic security. The point of “fixing” education is, largely, to provide people with skills to earn a living and be good citizens. But when you have a lot of idle labor working “below their station” and political scientist will tell you this is not good.

The truth is until the robot singularity arrives we still need janitors, farm laborers, garbage men, and construction workers. Sure, it might be good for society if all of these people had a well-rounded education that helped them be good voting citizens, but if, at the end of the day, they are only paid $10/hour all of that is for nothing.

Pay teachers more. Break their unions. End testing. More testing. Free college. Charter schools everywhere. Whatever mix of reform and non-reform solution you come up with, no matter how idealized, is missing the product that the system is supposed to deliver, and that it can’t deliver on its own.

If the labor movement can’t deliver this–and there’s no evidence that they can anymore–then the solution is to demand that Americans get a fair deal from the economy. A much higher minimum wage, a stronger safety net, basic healthcare, and preserving and strengthening Social Security would go a long way to fixing these problems.

Would a much higher minimum wage cost jobs? Probably, yeah. My magical pony plan includes a stronger safety net. This would in fact require a slight reconfiguration of the economy, but at least it would do what it supposed to do instead of deluding everyone into thinking they’re going to be a doctor–and even if they were this would only mean doctors made minimum wage.

Education is great. Free education is great. It helps people find jobs and roles that they are well suited for and helps them feel fulfilled in life in the process. But the notion that this is the fix for everything is wrong. It might be an important step in a developing country, but here we have an educated class. What we need is to improve the lot of the working class.