America and China Can Work It Out

Tensions between America and China are as predictable as they are, well, stupid.

Their tensions are predictable for two reasons:

  • The United States and China are rival world powers, vying with each other for status and influence in the world.
  • Some of their economic conflicts are zero-sum games. If one side wins, the other loses.

Stop acting like chimpanzees

The first reason amounts to a chimpanzee-level dispute: Who’s going to be the alpha chimp in the neighborhood? It’s a real factor that’s hard-wired into human nature. We ignore it at our peril, but it’s still stupid.

The Chinese — meaning the Han, who make up 91.6 percent of China’s population — are a distinct ethnic group. Like almost1 all such groups, they are inclined by evolution to help other members of their group and to oppose non-members.2

Non-members include not only Americans, but the 50 or so minority groups in China. To the Chinese, we are the outsiders to be opposed. Conversely, we perceive the Chinese as the outsiders to be opposed.

Group bias is a well-known problem in human relations. Intelligent people should be able to work around it. Human history is not encouraging, but we should at least try.

Resolve zero-sum games for mutual benefit

The second reason is rationally defensible but not insoluble. China has gained economically at America’s expense.3

Advocates of unlimited international trade often argue that we give China dollars and they give us consumer goods, so we are the winners of the exchange. They get paper and we get actual stuff. But after we pay China for all the stuff we buy, China uses the money to buy up American companies and productive resources. We’ve been selling long-run control over our country for short-run enjoyment of cheap consumer goods. That’s unsustainable.

It’s not hopeless

I don’t claim to be a China expert, but I know a little. I read their media and watch their television shows. I meet twice weekly on Skype with a language tutor who lives in China. We don’t talk about politics, but the Chinese are proud of their country and their people.

They don’t hate America, but they think that China is better than America and they intend to beat us. They’ll take the best deal they can get from us and then try to get a little more. In competition, that’s perfectly normal. We need to be just as competitive as they are. It’s in China’s best interests to get along with us, and our best interests to get along with them.

Mutually beneficial compromise is at least possible. Even if we’ve all got a little bit of crazy, we can act rationally if we try. It can be done.


  1. It’s very unusual for groups to hate their own people and their own country. As Zach Goldberg observed in Tablet Magazine, “white liberals [are] the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias — meaning that among all the different groups surveyed, white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own.”
  2. America had a similar advantage until 1965, when it had an 88 percent majority of highly assimilated European-Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act changed things by encouraging immigration of unassimilable people from incompatible cultures.
  3. As developed by economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the idea that “free trade” is always mutually beneficial has several flaws. First, it assumed that trade was only between countries with similar cultures and legal systems. Second, it assumed that capital investment would not move between countries, so companies would not “offshore” jobs and production. Ricardo, who identified comparative advantage, explicitly stated that assumption. Third, it did not consider how trade would affect inequality within the trading countries. In the United States, it has enriched the richest people and (in relative terms) lowered the incomes of everyone else.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Too Centralized to Fail?

Google Cloud went down yesterday, and it took a big piece of the internet down with it.

Large areas of the United States, Europe, and South America lost internet services until Google fixed the problem.

But Google is just one company. How could it take down such a big portion of the internet?

After all, the internet was designed to survive a nuclear war. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) created it in the 1960s so that the government could still communicate even if most of America’s infrastructure had been destroyed.

It now turns out that the internet is nuclear-war-proof but not Google-proof. Why?

The short answer: Google has become a single point on which a complex, worldwide system depends. If that point fails, then all the other parts of the system that depend on it will fail along with it.

Like big New York banks after the crash of 2008, Google has become “too big to fail.” After 2008, the Obama administration bailed out the banks instead of letting them fail. Then, instead of breaking up the big banks to reduce the risk of future crashes, the government let the big banks buy smaller banks and get even bigger. You don’t need to be a genius to know it was a bad idea.

But back to Google. What now? Yesterday’s internet outage showed that Google is a point of vulnerability for all the systems, companies, and people who depend on it. Yesterday’s outage was fixed quickly enough to avoid causing huge damage. But what about next time?

Do we make the same mistake with big tech companies in 2019 as we did with big banks in 2009? Or do we break them up to reduce the systemic risk?

There used to be something called “antitrust law” that promoted competitive markets by keeping companies from getting too big and too powerful. Actually, antitrust law is still on the books but it’s barely enforced anymore. Maybe it’s time to get serious about it again.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Some Comforting Thoughts

Life can be troubling, especially during periods of heated social conflict.

Politicians and the media are no help. Most now devote themselves to fomenting hatred and division.

Schools are no help. Most now devote themselves to replacing knowledge with superstition.

Giant corporations are no help. Most now just want you to shut up.

Here are some comforting thoughts. They have the merit of being true:

  • “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
    — Nobel laureate physicist Niels Bohr (often attributed to baseball player Yogi Berra)
  • “What future bliss, [God] gives not thee to know, But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.”
    — Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”
  • “Most things are neither as good nor as bad as they seem at the moment.”
    — Traditional wisdom
  • “A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation.”
    — Isaiah 60:22

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Tolerance or Violence?

A friend and I recently had a rational debate about abortion. Yes, rational debate is possible, even about touchy subjects.

Neither of us convinced the other, but we understand each other better. Perhaps even more important, we confirmed that disagreement does not imply evil. Rational, well-meaning people can have clashing beliefs.

The abortion issue is difficult to resolve for two reasons:

  • First, it inflames emotions on both sides. Strong emotion makes it harder for people to think straight. That’s why politicians and the media constantly incite it. Enraged people are easy to deceive and manipulate.
  • Second, even without emotional incitement, the abortion issue is complex. Neither side wants to admit the fact, but it is.

Paying a debt

Consider an analogy. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

You take the money. You’re satisfied that I’ve paid my debt.

The reason you’re satisfied is that we agreed about:

  • How much I owed you, and
  • The procedure I used to count the money.

A visit to Threetown

Now consider a variation. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table, just as before: one, two, ten.

“Wait,” you say. “You gave me three dollars, not ten!”

“It’s only three dollars in base-10,” I explain. “Base-3 is much better. That’s ten dollars in base-3. I’ll prove it to you. Watch.” I re-count the money: one, two, ten.

We’ve got a problem. You define “10” in one way and I define it in a different way.

Neither of us is simply making it up. Both definitions are legitimate in their own terms. (Check the links if you want the background info.)

You’d prefer to be repaid in base-10 dollars. I’d prefer to repay you in base-3 dollars.

You could argue that almost everyone uses the base-10 number system. But we’re currently within the city limits of Threetown, where the law requires everyone to use base-3. If people want to use base-10, they must go outside the city limits.

It’s a bizarre situation. You should probably just wait until we leave Threetown to demand payment.

Neither of us can prove our definition of “10,” so our only other alternative is to fight. That would cause more than $7 (base-10) worth of damage to both of us.

We could do it, but the costs would exceed the benefits. It seems unwise to cause a bigger harm to redress a smaller harm.

A visit to Alabama

We left Threetown, whereupon you insisted that I repay you in base-10 dollars. Lacking any further excuse, I did so. We’re square.

But we’re now having lunch in Alabama, where they define a fetus at any stage of pregnancy as a legal person. Under a recently-enacted law, abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother. To get an elective abortion, a person must travel across the state line to a more permissive state.

Some people who live in other states don’t define the fetus as a person, though they don’t care if it’s a person or not. To them, the only thing that matters is what the mother wants.

Here we are again: two conflicting definitions. One side says the fetus is a person, the other side says it isn’t. One side says the fetus takes priority, the other says the mother does. Neither side can prove its claims.

Do we fight, or do we live and let live?

If someone’s coming at you with a bayonet, the situation is very clear. But if some state has a law that makes it slightly more difficult to get an abortion, that’s a lot less clear.

When a situation is morally and/or factually unclear, I believe in a policy of “live and let live.” It minimizes harm and maximizes freedom.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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X Marks the Spot


What the heck is that? I see the word a lot lately.

I finally figured out why media people have started using it. A Latino is a male Hispanic. A Latina is a female Hispanic. The words look like they apply only to Hispanics from Latin America, not from Spain. Dunno. Maybe.

So “Latinx” is an English word that means Hispanic. It’s used when you either don’t want to specify the person’s sex or you believe in the reigning orthodoxy that sex doesn’t matter (Fallon Fox undoubtedly agrees). It’s very chic.

Hispanics often have more common sense than norteamericanos, so I’ll be surprised if they abandon gendered pronouns in Spanish such as “él” (he) and “ella” (she). They do have some gender-neutral words: you can say “alguien” to mean “someone” if you don’t want to specify the person’s sex, and use “alguno” or “alguna” if you do. However, nouns are gendered: a doctor is still un médico if male and una médica if female. A policeman is un policia and a policewoman is una mujer policia (a woman policeman).

I can hardly wait for more gender-studies true believers to find out about the Hebrew language. It not only has different pronouns for male and female, it’s got different verb forms that depend on whether the speaker is a man (“hu medaber,” he speaks) or a woman (“hi medaberett,” she speaks). That argument will be quite a show. Grab some popcorn.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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War is the Second-Worst Thing

“Give peace a chance” was what they said back in the Vietnam War era of the 1960s.

And what reasonable person could argue with it? War is something to avoid — unless the alternative is even worse.

Those thoughts are prompted by two events this weekend.

First — and for the first time — I went back to my old high school for commencement.

At the alumni luncheon, a graduating senior gave a speech about the most important things he had learned at the school. His main point was that life will knock us down over and over. Sometimes, each of us will feel utterly hopeless and defeated. In those moments, we must get up and go on. Get up and go on.

It was an impressive speech by an impressive person. Afterward, I shook his hand and told him “¡Buenísimo! ¡Buena suerte!” (Outstanding! Good luck!) because though he had only a slight accent, he came from Mexico City.

And where will he attend college?

West Point: that is, the United States Military Academy at West Point. He will graduate as an officer in the U.S. Army.

The second event was that the U.S. Army posted a Memorial Day question on Twitter:

“How has [military service] impacted you?”

Many of the replies were heartbreaking. Some people told of family members who were wounded, killed, or had psychological problems. Others told of bad experiences during their own military service.

Even though most veterans (including three members of my family*) are proud of their service, there’s no denying the horrors of war. When possible, it must be avoided. When unavoidable, it must be won.

If exemplary people like my school’s luncheon speaker are to be put in harm’s way, it cannot be simply to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” We must not get involved in other people’s wars just because we can. War is serious. It is neither a punchline nor a prop for political campaigns.

I’ll give the last word to John Stuart Mill, the British economist and philosopher:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature, who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

* I tried to get in, but the military wouldn’t take me because my eyesight was so bad (20/600 before Lasik).

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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What’s at Issue in the Abortion Debate

Abortion isn’t exactly a “third rail” of American politics, since people yell about it all the time.

But it is a third rail of rational discussion. Many people have dogmatic beliefs about it and they react with blind rage to any heretical disagreement.

The question of who provoked the latest American rage-fest (May 2019) depends on who you ask. Pro-choice partisans say it was state legislatures that passed draconian limits on abortion. Pro-life partisans say it was abortion supporters who finally revealed their true intentions by embracing infanticide.

Each side’s choice of what to emphasize or ignore is dictated by the needs of its argument.

Pro-choice advocates emphasize the mother’s autonomy, arguing — in summary — that:

  1. A fetus isn’t a human life and therefore has no human rights.
  2. Even if it is a human life, no person can have an unchosen duty to support another person, particularly in her own body.
  3. Therefore, any woman can morally get an abortion at any time.

Pro-life advocates emphasize the fetus’s humanity, arguing — in summary — that:

  1. A fetus is a human life and therefore has human rights.
  2. As a result, abortion violates the fetus’s human rights and is tantamount to murder.
  3. Therefore, abortion is a grave moral wrong that can be justified only in extreme circumstances.

Thus, the opposing sides argue past each other. Each tends to ignore or dismiss the other side’s key contentions.

Both sides also see their beliefs as a sign of their own morality and enlightenment. Disagreement then seems like a personal insult, denying their status as good, thoughtful people. Dissent turns into “fighting words.”

Hence, we get screaming instead of argument. Instead of trying to convince people, each side hardens its dogmatic viewpoint and tries to impose it on the other side.

Even if both sides calmed down and tried to discuss the issue rationally, two very tricky problems would remain:

If a fetus is human, that fact by itself doesn’t tell us what to do.

  • Biology isn’t the same thing as morality, and it provides no moral rules.
  • We need to get the moral rules from some other source.

If neither side can convince the other, then how can we live together in a way that minimizes harm?

  • Federalism is one answer: some states would permit abortion, some would outlaw it, and others would take a middle position.
  • The democratic process is another answer, but that requires the losing side to accept the validity of democracy. Would it? We can hope.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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