“Eat The Babies”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held a town hall on October 3 at which an ostensibly mentally ill woman demanded, as a solution to climate change, “we got to start eating babies”. AOC, who has always handled adversity and difficulty with poise, addressed legitimate concerns around climate change and, while visibly disturbed by the spectacle, did not resort to ridicule or immediate denouncement, as lesser people would be wont to do. I think she handled the situation as well as anyone could have. Bravo, Ocasio.

I usually wake up between 3:00 and 5:00. At 3:27 this morning, I found #EatTheBabies trending on Twitter, and I had the distinct displeasure of reading right-wing tweets about how “leftist” climate change “hysteria” is triggering dangerous mental-health crises. According to the right, Ocasio-Cortez’s choice not to immediately denounce infantivory represents leftist endorsement of the notion. That is, of course, absurd.

Take note of this. The right wing, which has already labelled this woman a “climate activist” rather a person likely in need of psychiatric health, is testing out a false equivalency. Americans are fed up with the stochastic terrorism and bad-faith argumentation used by our society’s reactionary, authoritarian, and upper-class elements to stoke the nation’s right-wing, racist, paranoid counterrevolution (designed to be “populist” in a way that is no threat to the upper class, because it cannot help but punch down). The conservative and pro-corporate elements of our society want nothing more than to associate AOC’s moderate socialism with baby-eating, as if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road were a leftist how-to manual.

We live in a strange time. I’ve seen enough strange stuff to have a sense of the nation’s politics, and I’ll try to answer the question, What the hell is going on? There are three possibilities.

The first possibility for what happened on October 3 is that a woman in poor mental health had an outburst. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for security reasons if nothing else, had to operate on this assumption and respond to the woman with compassion while not confirming her assertions. Here’s the thing to remember: AOC is not your typical bourgeois liberal who preaches compassion but avoids conflict with the afflicted or poor. She’s seen real shit. She’s worked with the public– as a waitress in Manhattan. She knows that ridicule is not how to handle a volatile situation.

The second possibility, because of the time we live in, and because of the exceedingly low character of the corporate upper class and today’s political right, is that this spectacle was created to humiliate the left. Several right-wingers are claiming that climate change activism is triggering “hysteria”. Others are arguing (in bad faith) that because Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately denounce infantivory and the bombing of Russia, that leftists and liberals are secretly cozy with these terrifying ideas. It is possible (although I don’t consider it likely) that this woman was an actor commissioned to damage the image of the left, of the environmental movement, and of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal.

The last thing I want to do is accuse an ostensibly mentally ill person of acting in bad faith. As I said, I don’t consider it likely that she’s a “troll”, but the possibility requires discussion insofar as the the right has already used the event as an opportunity to argue in bad faith. Yes, people are actually saying that intelligent moderate socialists are on the fence about cannibalism.

Again, this is all an effort to create a false equivalency between leftist non-denial of climate change and the deranged right-wing conspiracy theories (like “white genocide”) that lead to violence.

So, while I don’t think it’s likely, I consider it possible that certain upper-class, conservative, or pro-employer authoritarian elements in our society have arranged this spectacle.

A third possibility, a more likely variant on the second, is: it’s a mix of both. It’s possible that this woman was a mentally ill person (not a bad-faith “troll”) but also that she was directed to Ocasio-Cortez’s town hall for the purpose of having a mental health crisis in public, harming the left. Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps, but it’s the Silicon Valley playbook. It’s only a matter of time before the entire alt-right begins to use it.

For several years, it has been a common practice in the venture-funded technology industry (“Silicon Valley”) to recruit the homeless to harass guests as, for example, a rival’s launch party. I don’t think this is done to disrupt business operations, because I don’t think it’s very effective; it’s more of a mechanism to threaten and annoy one’s adversaries. I bring it up not because it’s underreported, and also because it’s in extremely bad taste.

I know about this tactic from personal experience. Some of my readers know that, since 2011, I’ve had to deal with fascist attacks on my career and reputation. I’m at least half a million dollars poorer (and that’s a conservative estimate) than I would be, had I not been fending off assaults from literal fascists my entire career. I’ve had written job offers rescinded, more than once, when a fascist sympathizer (and, likely, actual fascist) discovered online that I have said positive things about antifa (which literally means no more and no less than antifascism). We live in a time when to be rational and humane (both of which stand in opposition to fascism) is to be political; but we also live in a time where to “be political” upsets proudly and self-assertedly “apolitical” entities like corporate employers.

I’ll share just one example. A few years ago, I interviewed for a machine learning engineer position at a reputable Chicago trading firm. The team wanted to make an offer; an executive blocked it. Why? He discovered my mild criticism of an unethical (and, likely, illegal) corporate practice unrelated to trading or finance. He formed the opinion that if a publicly “political” person were discovered to work at the firm (even in a non-executive role) it would be a publicity risk. Here’s the kicker, though: this fascist assault occurred in June 2013, long before fascism was part of the national conversation. In 2013, a right-wing takeover of this nation (already well into progress, but through private employers rather than government) seemed unthinkable.

Authoritarians do not have an ideology in the classical sense. It is not about “free markets” for them; it is not about tradition or philosophical conservative. They are the win-at-all-costs players. They will gladly weaponize our society’s most vulnerable people.

I have stood in vocal opposition to Silicon Valley’s coziness with fascism– before 2016, the employer-nucleated fascism-lite our society tolerated because it was not overtly racist, misogynist, or warlike; after 2016, the expressed literal fascism that is killing people– and, as a result of this, I’ve endured considerable harassment. I was banned from Hacker News and Y Combinator–owned Quora in the summer of 2015 on false pretenses that, if the claims were true, would cause embarrassment. I’ve been harassed on the streets by deranged, ostensibly homeless, people. In many cases, it’s been clear that they “knew” (or, more likely, had recently been told) my name and affiliations. I’ve been ordered by people I’ve never met to stop writing about certain topics. There was a period of time when I could not go to San Francisco– I feared for my life.

I bring this up because it is not a new tactic for the right wing to weaponize our society’s most vulnerable and unfortunate people. Is that what happened at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s town hall, which the right is disingenuously using to equate moderate socialism with infantivory? I don’t know. We’ll probably never know. But it happens, and it will happen more in the future as our society’s corporate, fascist, and authoritarian interests gear up for the fight of their lives– which happens to be, as it were, the fight of our lives as well.

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A Killing in Menlo Park: Qin Chen’s Death and the Need for Justice

Qin Chen, a 38-year-old software engineer working at Facebook, jumped to his death from a high building on September 19, 2019. One might say that, in proximate terms, the death was a suicide. I’m averse to that word in this case– it seems highly likely, given the evidence, that it is far more appropriate to say: he was killed.

It’s important to get this right. The word “suicide”, in our culture, implies personal failure and individual fault. It’s not appropriate, therefore,  o say that someone who leapt from the World Trade Center on 9/11, preferring impact over immolation, “committed suicide”, even if the mechanism of death was chosen by the deceased. A fox that chews off its own leg to escape a trap is not engaging in self-harm. Likewise, I don’t think it’s appropriate to present Aaron Swartz’s death as a suicide, without mentioning the malicious prosecution that led to his demise. As Quinn Norton said, “the old world killed him.” We tend to be quick to focus on the mechanism of death– far too quick to call an event an aberration and blame it on “mental health”– out of a misguided desire not to hang blame on the living.

If Patrick Shyu’s account is accurate, Qin Chen’s was killed, and his survivors have a right to justice. He was killed by his manager’s petty retaliation over his desire to do something else at Facebook. He was killed by HR officials who refused to override the libel of a rogue manager, who refused to let an employee acting in good faith restore his reputation. He was killed by his employer’s indifference, allowing the institution of a cruel system under which he could not transfer to a team more appropriate to his skills and interests.

The account linked gives a credible narrative. First, it alleges that Qin’s manager enticed him to stay on a project he disliked, in exchange for a guaranteed positive performance review. Having worked in large technology companies, side deals pertaining to “perf” scores are remarkably common. (It is also not uncommon for people in the HR office to accept side payments in order to fix an internal record.) That number means everything– it is one’s total human worth as assessed by the organization. It is also not uncommon for managers to break these arrangements, and they do so without consequence.

Though I don’t know whether Qin Chen’s story is true, I’ve encountered so many people with stories just like it that I see no reason to disbelieve it. Here’s the thing: managers running less desirable teams have chips on their shoulders and are quick to punish “disloyal” employees who deign to seek transfer. It’s disgustingly common for a naive software engineer, assuming good faith on the part of his manager and company, to make known his interest in internal mobility– and be shocked when he slagged with a negative “performance” review, often without explanation.

I’m getting old. I’m 36, which is 0x7F in software years. I’ve seen people repeat the same stupid mistakes over and over. Investigations into Enron’s culture of mendacity found responsible a style of high-stakes performance review notorious for creating a culture of suspicion, politicking, dishonesty, and widespread cheating of all forms on all levels. Funny thing is, Enron’s widely-hated performance review system (“stack ranking”) wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in a technology company. The buzzwords change every five years. The behaviors don’t, and as fascism– both the public nation-level variety, and its more contained private corporate form– becomes normalized, we should only expect this to get worse. We have to fight back. We have to crush fascism, and we have to bring unlawful killers to justice.

Facebook’s HR, by the account that has emerged to this point, did not repair the damage done to Qin Chen’s internal reputation by a malicious manager. They did not restore his right of internal mobility. As a result of their criminal negligence, Qin’s professional situation and reputation deteriorated to the point where he saw death as the only option.

This should not be pinned on a “difficult” or “tough” or (gag) “high-performance” company culture. Qin Chen was killed. His manager literally killed him. The HR “business partners” who did not intervene on his behalf are, at best, accessories and, at worst, killers themselves. Although a situation of intentional murder seems unlikely to be, these malefactors put a man in lethal danger– and he died.

Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant. The public has a right to know who Qin Chen’s managers were, and which HR officers were involved in his case.

I am available as michael.o.church on Google’s email service. If I am furnished reliable information pertaining to the identities of Qin Chen’s managers, as well as HR officers involved in his case, I will publish it here. Furthermore, it is the public’s right to seek justice not only for this death but in future cases like it. Therefore, any personal or contact information about guilty individuals, I will also publish– after review and verification.

I do this without condemning nor condoning specific approaches to public justice. Whatever justice the affected portion of the public chooses to seek, it is not my call to make.

Projected Release Dates for Farisa’s Crossing

I’m serializing Farisa’s Crossing. Conceptually, the story divides neatly into five segments: The Forest, The City, The Road, The Dead; and The Lovers.

The first segment will be available on Amazon for the lowest possible price (99c) and for free elsewhere (stay tuned) in April 2020. As of now, my intention is to make each segment (at the time of release) free; a short reading comprehension quiz (designed to be easy for anyone who has read the previous segment) will be used to make availability of each segment conditional on having completed the last.

When the last segment is made available, the intermediate segments will no longer be available for free, but the complete book will be accessible at a reasonable price (between $5 and $8).

The planned release dates, which I’d give a high degree of confidence (85+ percent) I will make, are:

  • April 26, 2020: “The Forest”
  • July 3, 2020: “The City”
  • September 4, 2020: “The Road”
  • November 15, 2020: “The Dead”
  • January 17, 2021: “The Lovers”

I intend to release the complete book on January 17, 2021, unless further editing is (for some unforeseen reason) necessary. I’ll be encouraging early readers to discuss the book and form theories on the reddit r/antipodes.

How I Would Fix (and End) Game of Thrones [Spoiler Warning]

My first novel, Farisa’s Crossing, is on track for serialization beginning April 26, 2020, with the full book available by January 17, 2021.

(Minor editing for clarity was made on the morning of May 19.)

Pre(r)amble

I hope I’m wrong about this, and a brilliant last episode could change everything. That said, it appears so far that the final season of Game of Thrones has failed on account of hasty writing. The Night King plot seems to have been under-explained in service to a Long Night–inspired prequel; the ending of Season 8 feels more like a homework exercise, designed to hit plot points without much attention to craft, than it does a story.

Let me remark that it’s entirely possible that what appear to be lapses in story craft are, in fact, artistic debt. With every word of a reader’s time the writer uses, the author incurs such debt; only when a story is complete can a final judgment be made about whether the debt is paid off. It is a possibility that the last episode, to be aired on May 19, fixes the apparent problems. As of now, though, I see so many issues that it’s hard to me to picture a resolution of all of what, so far, appear to be frank artistic errors.

What are those flaws?

To start, stupidity has been used far too often as a plot device. Rhaegal is Daenerys’s son (in spirit) and a prime military asset. Thirty seconds of thought, by any of her allies, would have prevented him from dying in such a facile way. War is hard to write, sure, and no one’s asking for (or, in fantasy, wants) perfect realism, but stupidity’s utility as a plot device has been overdrawn. I suspect I know why this error was made– it, and other apparent failures of craft, derive from changes made by HBO to Euron Greyjoy– and I will analyze that further, below.

Suspension of disbelief collapsed utterly, for me, in Episode 5 with the burning of King’s Landing. Don’t get me wrong. Daenerys was always a severely flawed heroine. I could have seen her turning into an antagonist. A war criminal, though? It seemed like a plot contrivance. To use Missandei’s death as cause for her turn toward atrocity is unbelievable. Although she is dogmatic, arrogant, and temperamental, Daenerys has always been principled, and it violates one of her core principles to take that path– it’s not something she’d do lightly. Moreover, Daenerys has seen (and brought) so much death and war that it is unreasonable to suggest that the death of another confidante would lead her to murder tens of thousands.

I’m going to try to give the final season a developmental edit. I will stick to the mostly-tragic sort of ending that I believe both George R. R. Martin and the HBO showrunners intended and that is almost certainly correct for the series. I will have to turn away from this obnoxious and poorly-executed specific bad ending.

What I’m Not Writing About

This analysis is not a criticism of the unfinished book series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The book series is different altogether, and I consider myself unqualified to criticize it beyond the impression of an educated reader. Why so? It’s not what I would write. I intend on keeping my career in technology, so The Antipodes could possibly be the only novel-length fiction I publish. I have no interest in writing grimdark fantasy. As grimdark isn’t what I write, and I don’t much enjoy reading it, my opinion of Martin’s work doesn’t mean very much. It would be a pointless exercise in ego to give a “how I would write it” synopsis of Martin’s work, in which I risk comparing it to some imagined but entirely different piece of work. Instead, shouldn’t I go and write my own book?

I feel more qualified to assess the HBO series because the writers clearly did want to garner increased viewership with the promise of traditional heroism. The arc of platonic affection between Brienne and Jaime– which culminated his knighting of her in Episode 2, and was then trashed to make the woman his one-night stand– does not keep the spirit of grimdark. As the HBO series led us on with promises more in line with traditional fantasy (in which we’ll tolerate tragic endings, but demand traditional value-positive heroism) I feel more equipped to criticize it.

There are a few other reasons why I want to be careful in what I say about George R. R. Martin.

First, I feel that he is often unduly criticized, especially on a personal level, for what he chooses to write. I don’t believe that he’s a misogynist and he’s certainly not a feudalist. I do not assume he is a nihilist or narcissist, simply because he writes about nihilistic, narcissistic people. It is too often assumed that the moral flaws of protagonists reflect on their writers, and although this has been proven true too often for comfort in literary fiction (not to mention Hollywood; see: Woody Allen)– I do not like the stereotype. It limits what people can write. One especially loathsome portrayal of George R. R. Martin– I was physically angry as I watched this– was in the otherwise-enjoyable TV series Younger, focused on the publishing industry. (“Beware the wrath of the sky.”) The character of “Edward L. L. Moore” was sloppily-written and offensive to the fantasy genre as a whole; it was irresponsible. The fantasy genre is no more juvenile, prima facie, than another “literary” novel about a 57-year-old male professor of literature sleeping with undergrads. The only thing we know about George R. R. Martin from his work is that he writes dark fantasy (“grimdark”) and that he writes it well. Speculation about him as a person should stop.

Second: although Martin’s vision of fantasy is different from mine, the author of Ice and Fire has done a great deal for the genre. He is far from the first to write fantasy to an adult standard and he won’t be the last (what up, yo) but he has shown to a massive audience that it can be done. He and I are certainly not competitors in any way. On the contrary, a successful, competent author brings others up.

Third and relatedly, I am not an envious author– but I don’t want that look. As a Bayesian, I judge it far more likely than not that his series will outsell mine, for decades to come. (I would only have a chance of outselling him if the Antipodes were, as well, adapted for the screen. The spring of 2019 has left me under-attracted to that notion.)

Fourth, I respect Martin’s vision. He has created a compelling world that captures late-medieval ideology (Westeros), Renaissance-era politics (Free Cities and the smarter Westerosi), and Lovecraftian horror-fantasy (Essos; the Land of Always Winter). The originality and precision of his worldbuilding are admirable.

Fifth, as I mentioned before: since grimdark isn’t what I choose to write, I can’t possibly give suggestions to the book series without the risk of turning it into something else– which, again, would be an expense of time better used on my own work.

Sixth: in a way, I’m indebted to George R. R. Martin. His work takes what many of us feel to be an extreme position on a spectrum between (a) Tolkein’s brand of fantastic heroism and (b) the moral relativism favored by his “grimdark” as well as by modern literary fiction. (He has, at least in the popular perception, created this spectrum within fantasy.) By doing so, he has opened a dialogue on what the fantasy genre should be. Farisa’s Crossing lives, I would like to think, in the middle of this continuum. My work is quite dark– it takes place in a steampunk world where the Pinkertons won, now control the entire economy, and are fast becoming Nazis– but I strive to give hope that a moral north star still exists and can be seen on the one night out of four that isn’t cloudy. Farisa is not perfect, but she is genuinely good.

George R. R. Martin is not the first to write complex, adult fantasy, but he has shown the world that it is possible, and for that I feel I owe him a great deal.

I don’t see Martin making basic mistakes of craft. The thing I dislike most about his book series, to be honest about it, is his tendency to end on cliffhangers. His ensemble approach, with rotating points of view, worked beautifully in the first two books– it gave us different and often opposing perspectives on shared experiences– but as the plotlines separated (geographically and thematically) I found it to be borderline untenable. I don’t think he wrote with manipulative intent; by the modern standard, it is preferred to end chapters on cliffhangers and push of-the-episode denouement (“sequel”) into the next one. This gives a can’t-put-it-down feel to books with one or two plotlines but it fails when 250 pages exist before a plotline is resumed. But this is a subtle mistake (if it can be called that; arguably, it is not even that but a difference in style) and de minimis compared to the Writing 101 mistakes of the HBO series.

What Went Wrong With Season 8?

I want to make it clear. I believe the staff writers who worked on Game of Thrones, including the ill-fated Season 8, are competent. They are not dumb, lazy, or inexperienced people. On the contrary, I believe they’re excellent at their jobs, relative to constraints. They worked on an ambitious existing series, without source material, under incredible deadlines. Although 20 months elapsed between the end of Season 7 and the beginning of this one, I doubt the writers had more than two or three months of “blue sky” writing time, given the immense complexity of the project.

Also, let’s be real here: great writing takes time. Commercial novels are measured in pages per hour; literary novels in hours per page. Seven to ten rounds of revision (before line and copy editing) is usual when writing to a literary standard. The process takes years even for the most skilled authors. I expect The Antipodes to require 15–25 years. The HBO staff writers did not have this kind of flexibility with their schedule.

In fact, I believe that one major decision caused the story arc of Game of Thrones to fail, and it’s one I don’t think the staff writers had much say in.

I won’t opine on the pacing, either. Pacing is quite subjective. All forms of narrative, whether on stage or in print, speed up as they near the end. Readers demand it. As the anvil falls, the rope at the other end whips around. Role-playing games give the players an airship (or equivalent) in the late-middle for a reason. I don’t fault HBO for the rapid pacing of Seasons 7 and 8. It’s not an artistic failure because it’s what readers and viewers want at this point.

There have been serious omissions (e.g., of motivation) in the late seasons, but those are not pacing problems. In fact, compared to a traditional movie (in which an entire story is told in two hours) the pacing of Thrones remains slow even in the final season. There are plenty of elements that could have been cut to make room for what’s missing.

So, with all of that said: why did Game of Thrones fail toward the ending?

As I said, George R. R. Martin writes dark fantasy (“grimdark”) that approaches the nihilistic. I do not intend to say that his series (which is not yet complete) “is nihilistic” and, again, I make no observation about him as a person. However, he writes about nihilistic, narcissistic, and narrow people. In characterization, he is closer to the MFA-educated metrorealism that is today called “literary fiction” than many in that camp would like to admit. When it comes to characterization, he doesn’t write heroes; for personality traits, he gives us the same middle-heavy bell curve that we encounter in real life.

Robert Baratheon defines the good life as “crack[ing] skulls and fuck[ing] girls”. Illyrio Mopatis, a fat old man, weeps in front of a statue of himself at age sixteen. Plenty of Martin’s characters admit they enjoy killing, although few people (even, if not especially, among those who must do it lawfully in war) actually do. Drinking, food, sex, fighting, and especially power seem to be the things that matter most to the characters in Martin’s world.

The author also indulges a trope that I find tiresome in fantasy: Adults Are Evil. (Arya, in the books, is a prepubescent girl.) As a middle-aged man, I am too old to hate that trope, but I must laugh at its absurdity. (Those over sixty can apply for “wise mentor” slots if willing to die in late Act II. Everyone between twenty-one and fifty-nine must be incompetent or malignant, and usually both.) Living in the real world, I find that age has no correlation with moral decency or value. If anything, one of the major improvements HBO has made on the source material is their aging of the characters: Jon, Sansa, and Arya are adults at the series end. I usually find “Adults Are Evil” to be exquisitely unskillful, but I give Martin a pass for it, because it actually fits his nihilistic, depressing world quite well.

The truth is that Martin’s brand of grimdark nihilism isn’t palatable to a large audience. People make jokes about Cthulhu, but few people actually deign to read Lovecraft. The HBO series, wisely, pulled away from the unpalatable grimdark roots of the book series. It turned true-neutral Arya into the face of chaotic good– and made her an adult with agency rather than an unlucky child. Tyrion and Varys, whose actions in the books were reprehensible, were made into genuine good humans in the HBO series. Between Jaime and Brienne, we got a beautifully depicted arc of platonic affection culminating before the Long Night. The HBO series sold us hope in a series about more than “cracking skulls and fucking girls” and that stupid iron chair.

The Northern Crisis, it seemed, brought a few of the series’s characters to focus on what was truly important in life. Daenerys, for all her flaws, chose to go north and fight in the war that mattered rather than the petty squabble in the south. We saw hope emerging, despite a desolate world. This is something I do with Farisa, too; I think I’m far from alone in that approach. We love it when beautiful, competent people exist despite a horrible world. When it comes to George R. R. Martin, I’d respect him for sticking with grimdark; I will also respect him if he gives us a more traditionally meaningful ending.

The HBO series broke away from grimdark. They seemed committed to the pro-meaning side. So, while we knew we’d get a tragic ending, we expected to be freed from the depressing nihilism of grimdark. Right?

Nopers! Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.

The Walkers were dispatched in a “Long Night” that seemed to last a regular night. Brienne became Jaime’s one-night-stand– because women are totally at their best when used as plot pieces to showcase a man’s moral depravity. Daenerys went on the rag and torched fifty thousand innocent people, because that is totally a realistic depiction of mental illness, and because women are emotionally unstable and that’s why they commit most of the violent crimes. (Oh, wait. No. That’s wrong.) Villains like Euron and Cersei who deserved humiliating deaths got I-die-but-I-win Heisenbergian endings, without the positive character traits that made it acceptable for Mr. White to get such an end.

It would have been fine (as I’ve said) to stick with grimdark and continue on to what appear to be Martin’s depressing plot points. There is no artistic reason why Daenerys couldn’t become a war criminal; it was foreshadowed that she might. It would have also been fine to continue to diverge from the apparent moral nihilism of the early work, and stick with the traditional heroism we saw toward the end. I feel utterly manipulated by HBO, though, for the switchback and the utter repeal of character growth.

The ultra-cynical view of this is that HBO deliberately gave us a more palatable (less nihilistic) series– knowing that high production values and copious nudity would only keep viewers invested for so long in an otherwise nihilistic story– only to swerve back into nihilism, perhaps in order to anger people and maximize buzz for the show.

1 + 1 = -5

Even though there are no rules in writing, there are rules. At least, there are guidelines. Sol Stein famously says, “One plus one equals one-half.” This is an observation of what I call rhetorical non-monotonicity.

To explain the notion, let’s consider that a die-hard logician (or, say, a number-crunching Bayesian) must perceive evidence as only making an argument (stronger). That’s monotonicity. A strong argument followed by a weak argument is strictly more evidence than a strong argument alone.

Of course, that’s not how we respond to real arguments made by real humans, and there are strong social reasons for us to be that way. For example, if I’m trying to sell you on creationism (which I’m not, because while a theist/deist, I believe evolution by natural selection is true) I might point out all the “holes” in evolution. I believe that irreducible complexity arguments are flawed and lead to an incorrect conclusion, but there is enough meat to them to merit further study and (likely) refutation. Now, compare Presentations A and B. Under A, the proponent of creationism focuses on biological arguments alone; under B, he makes all the same arguments and continues on to say, “Evolution is also untrue because it contradicts the Christian Bible, which millions of people believe to be literally true.” Which is more convincing? If we expect logical monotonicity, then B (which presents a stronger argument, then a weak one) is. However, most of us would find presentation A more convincing; B supplements A’s case with an additional social-proof argument– and we know from our history that those are nearly useless in assessing scientific truth. We feel, after Presentation B, that we’ve endured a sales pitch. That’s rhetorical non-monotonicity in action.

Rhetorical non-monotonicity applies to art, as well, and writing in particular. One of the oft-cited “rules” to writing is “Show, don’t tell”. Actually, writers “tell” all the time. Showing one element often involves telling three supporting details. Show-don’t-tell expansions have to end at some point, lest the story ramble on for a million words. What often falls flat is to show and tell.

For example, consider this snippet: “It was a beautiful day. The sun shone, the clouds were brighter than clean linen, and the faint golden cast of the October wood suggested treasure within.” In most cases, one of those two sentences (the first tells; the second shows) ought to be cut. Which one? It depends on context. But, together, they weaken each other. That’s a case of one plus one equaling one-half.

Intensifying adjectives and adverbs function the same way. Overselling only works with ironic intent; when a serial killer narrates, “It was a beautiful day”, he is not commenting on the weather. There’s nothing wrong with the sentence, “We knew we were totally safe here.”, so long as the POV character is not safe there.

It is, in my view, extraordinarily difficult for a writer to know when one plus one is one-half and when it is two. In the second book of a series, the writer must offer a “reboot” that repeats details of book one. And to offer exactly three details (“rule of three”) in escalating power seems (although it is arguably repetitive, to suggest the same principle in three ways) remarkably effective.

There are times when one plus one equals one-half. “It was a very beautiful day” is a weaker sentence than “It was a beautiful day”. There are times, though, when one plus one equals minus five. Unskillful writing draws attention to itself. Metafictional elements and fourth-wall breaks can spice up the middle of a story, but toward the end they approach the sin of bathos. Most readers or viewers aren’t aware of the specific artistic sin; they just have a sense that the work “feels off” or is bad. Although Daenerys’s turn toward irrational evil is not bathos, and although it has been foreshadowed that she may become a destructive force or an antagonist, her turn feels “off” because of writing that has called too much attention to itself.

M. Night Shyamalan is infamous for his overuse of plot twists– his twists often call so much attention to themselves that they feel forced, like they exist for the sake of plot and are not organic. In general, twists follow a “zero, one, or many” principle. A straightforward story with no twists can work; a story with a single twist can work. Thrillers use frequent twists as a matter of course. What rarely works is to have two major twists– especially when the second negates the first. In that case, plot will always draw attention to itself and “feel off”. One plus one will equal minus five.

That’s what we got with HBO’s Game of Thrones. The show diverged from apparent nihilism and toward a more traditional heroic epic. A character we hated from the first episode, Jaime Lannister, showed his nobility in the Northern Crisis. And then, to hit what appear to be Martin’s original plot points, the show swerved back into grimdark nihilism, leaving us as viewers to feel cheated.

Let me propose one fix to the plot of Thrones.

The Rules of the Fix

I don’t want to add personal touches. I’m playing the role of a subordinate editor whose job is to make the product better. So I’ll aim for minimalism in my fixes. In particular, I’ll keep the plot mostly as-is, including the burning of King’s Landing by Drogon. The characters who die will still die, and around the same time.

I will, however, attempt fix the egregious flaws of craft, without making major changes to the story as made.

Here goes.

Euron (and Rhaegal)

Of all the characters the showrunners changed for the worst, Euron Greyjoy ranks at the top. They seem to have gotten him and his purpose entirely wrong.

Sure, he’s evil; but Euron of the books isn’t “just evil”. We’ve already grown tired of regular evil: Joffrey, Ramsay Bolton, and Cersei Lannister. We’ve endured horrible people for eight seasons.

In the books, Euron steps beyond petty sadism and bland ambition; he has something the TV series has written out of him: magic.

In the books, he’s not just a bad guy. He’s a menace equivalent in threat level to the Others (in the show, White Walkers). He has a magical horn that is believed to control dragons. He’s been to Valyria, a dangerous ruined city that has become Ice and Fire‘s version of hell; and he’s been trained in Asshai, the ultra-Lovecraftian capital of magic. He could probably teach Melisandre a thing or two.

The Others seem to use inhuman ice magic; Euron brings the opposite: fire magic, with the distinctly human elements of narcissism, cruelty, and ambition.

However, for some reason I’ll never understand, HBO took away his magic. The showrunners turned him into a dopey pirate and a dirtbag pickup artist. Epic fail.

Stripping Euron of his magic broke other bits of the show. For one thing, it required Daenerys’s stupidity to bring about the death of Rhaegal. (I think it was right to have Euron kill Rhaegal, as he is the ice/fire dual of the Night King and therefore ought to kill one out of symmetry; but it should have been better executed.) Furthermore, since the bad guys lost their mage, Bran had to be rendered mostly useless, lest the good side be over-powered.

I would have killed and abused the dragons in a different way.

Two of the dragons (Viserion, Drogon) were named after bad men. It made sense for them to be put to evil purposes, one way or another.

Rhaegal, though, was named after a good man who died with a bad reputation. Most fitting, I think, would be not to let Euron control that dragon, but to allow Euron the image of a dragon. For Euron to use Rhaegal’s visage for illusionism would fit the theme of the series (“power resides where men think it resides”). Euron could become a tyrant of King’s Landing on the hologram of a dragon alone.

There’s more to say about fixing Euron; I’ll get to that later on when I cover Daenerys and Drogon.

Brienne

I like that HBO made Brienne interesting. In the books, her chapters are a boring slog. The series put life into an underutilized character. Good on them for that.

Unfortunately, a genuine arc of platonic affection and mutual respect was trashed in favor of supernumerary on-screen sexing. We ought to be beyond the point in time where writers use female characters as props to showcase a man’s moral failures. It’s the current year, people.

I would rip out everything that happens after the Long Night. Brienne deserves better and so, for that matter, does Jaime.

Brienne has a new home in the North and, certainly, a role to play in rebuilding society after the catastrophe. If Sansa becomes Queen of the North, she can be Queensguard.

Cersei

Don’t get me wrong: it’s painful to be crushed by rocks. In prose, that could be written as the sort of death we feel Cersei deserves, with her screaming in the darkness until she runs out of oxygen. Slow carbon dioxide poisoning is (quite likely) worse than mere strangulation; it’s a terminal panic attack that can go on for hours. Burial alive is a frightening way to go.

Still, Cersei’s death isn’t cathartic on camera. It’s far too impersonal. We feel let down; we deserve more.

Moreover, the “emotional” reunion between the ex-twin/lovers was unskillful beyond description. I am more moved by an average fart than I was by that scene.

To get Cersei’s death right is challenging. I believe I know what the “perfect death” for that character is, but before I get into that, let’s consider what doesn’t work.

First, an ultra-violent death (meaning, one that exceeds the regular violence of the show) would fail; the gore would get in the way of catharsis. If we took joy in Cersei’s torture (or worse) we’d be as bad as she is. We don’t actually want to see her get the same treatment she and “Robert Strong” gave Septa Unella. That would make us the bad guys.

Second: Cersei can’t get the “villain dies laughing” death (that was unskillfully given to Euron) because that only works for chaotic evil. A true chaotic-evil villain is like a rabid dog that must be destroyed. There’s no joy in seeing such a villain suffer. But when the villain is humanly evil– neutral evil– we demand that she suffer. The ending need not be violent (and it is most skillful, often, when it is not) but it must tear her apart, psychologically, like the Bastille was dismantled brick by brick on July 14, 1789.

Public shame can work, but in Cersei’s case, it was already done (Sept of Baelor) and she came back from it. So that’s not enough, when it comes to Cersei’s death.

Noting these challenges, I believe the perfect death for Cersei is… to die at the hands of King’s Landing’s street children.

Her death ought to repay debts (as Lannisters do) to the poorest of the poor– and the orphans her wars have made. I’ll leave the level of violence to the writers. It could be an off-camera clubbing, where the viewers only get one terrified scream. Or it could be a bloody, protracted slicing-apart with dirty seashells, one that leaves her flesh in ribbons. It doesn’t matter, from my artistic perspective, whether it’s a painful death or a regular (by Thrones standards) one that she gets.

This death is perfect for Cersei. To start, she hates the common people and they hate her. Moreover, her conceit is that her evil is all done for her children. (Side question: why did viewers hate Skyler on Breaking Bad, even though she saw through that conceit, when they love Tyrion, who fell for that lie?) Thus, she ought to be killed by children among the millions of other peoples’ kids that she didn’t give a damn about.

That notion of justice is satisfying, too, in the context of today’s world. Consider that the entire global-corporate-capitalist system is powered not by otherworldly evil (Euron) or stupid sadism (Joffrey) but by those who do not think of themselves as evil, but nonetheless do evil things to acquire and preserve zero-sum advantages for their own progeny. I’m not an anti-natalist, but the kibbutzniks who disavowed the purported “virtue of family”– the narcissistic tendency to humans to care only about the future in the context of a tiny number of its citizens– were on to something. More crimes are committed to keep corporate executives’ children in private schools than for the “evil” reasons more typical of narrative. To have Cersei killed by Flea Bottom urchins offers the same poetic justice as does the humiliation of parents who participated in the recent college admissions scandal.

Cersei ruined the world for everyone else’s children, so her children could rule. I can think of no better death for her.

Cleganebowl

Some people said this fight was “fan service” that didn’t belong. I disagree.

Sure, it was an over-the-top, comic-book battle, set against a background of fire, on a stairway to nowhere. It served little narrative purpose, but that’s OK. In fact, the irony of Sandor’s quest to kill (again) what is already dead and repulsive, I appreciate. It fits Sandor’s style of dark humor.

No changes. Cleganebowl stays.

Arya

We’ll probably see Arya assassinate someone in the last episode of Thrones, but I would have used her in a specific way that makes sense in the context of Ice and Fire.

Arya’s chaotic good, so she must assassinate someone who deserves it. She killed the Night King, the “big bad” of ice magic. Who deserves to die, and furthermore functions as a “big bad” of fire magic? Euron, if his original powers were restored.

Jaime killing Euron makes little sense. That was a useless fight. If its purpose was to demonstrate the value of the prize that is Cersei, through the social proof of two failed men fighting over her, well… the whole device failed. Throw that out. Jaime doesn’t kill Euron at all; they never meet.

Arya kills Euron. Whose face does she use? Cersei’s, after the street children are done with her. It fits Cersei, too.  The queen cared about her image; for Arya to (literally) rip her face away from her is (once again) poetic justice.

After that, I like the idea of Arya retiring from killing, and going out for a more nonviolent sort of adventure. Though Thrones ought to remain a tragedy, not everyone needs to get a miserable ending.

Gendry

I would have Arya and Gendry end up together. The scene between the two, under belief that it will lead into a romantic relationship, was a an example (rare in Thrones) of positive sexuality. I don’t know why anyone would have a problem with it. Don’t get me wrong; I’d be furious if an author explicitly said I could name my daughter after a character, then paired her with a bad boy. Gendry, though, is about as far from a bad boy as it gets.

Arya’s initial rejection of him (or, more precisely, her rejection of the role as a traditional lady) makes sense and is not unusual by the standards of a romantic arc. The characters ought to be able to make it work. Gendry seems like a genuinely good human; I don’t think he’d force her to choose between adventure (whatever that means in her next phase of life) and romantic love. He should want for her to have both. And she should be able to have both. Again, it’s the current year.

Daenerys

The diablo ex machina of the penultimate episode made this woman’s arc a joke.

I expected Daenerys to become, if not a villain, an antagonist toward the end of the series. There was plenty of foreshadowing for that. What I find absurd and a bit offensive is the suggestion that “madness” causes principled people to snap and sic their nuke lizards on cities. That is not how actual mental illness works. It sets on gradually, and people with it are no violent, in general, than the rest of the population.

We also endure the “bitches be cray” trope; a woman proves herself unfit to rule by committing a war crime, just because she can.

There are contexts in which I would believe Dany would make the wrong decision. Game of Thrones did not provide one. Daenerys appeared to snap because the plot needed her to snap.

Furthermore, there’s nowhere to go from this terrible plot point. What can really be done with Daenerys? She can be killed; we can watch her die; that’s about it. The penultimate episode’s twist traded an interesting heroine for a villain whose defining traits are (a) that she was once semi-good and (b) that she has a dragon. Boring.

She deserved better. I don’t mind heroes becoming villains over time. I don’t mind twist antagonists. I don’t mind Daenerys taking a tragic turn. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

The twist in her character was implausible. Yes, the beheading of her confidante was terrible, but this woman has seen (and brought) war. If she had pure evil in her, we would have seen it long ago. We saw a principled but ruthless character that it was hard to root for, but we did not see pure evil.

Moral mystery characters, like Snape in Harry Potter and Rhaegar in this series, are easier to turn for good than evil. To do the latter takes far more skill and setup time than we saw.

As I would edit the final series, I’d make Daenerys innocent of the major crime (which still occurs). That’s not because I love the character. I don’t. I think she’s immature, dogmatic, and (like Jon, and unlike Sansa) unfit to rule. However, I don’t buy her sudden change into a war criminal. Antagonist, sure. Person who makes a bad decision under pressure, sure. Villain, maybe. Psychopath; no. We have already seen that she is not one.

The Burning of King’s Landing

The burning of King’s Landing is thematically necessary. I’m not going to shoehorn Thrones into a happy ending. It is a tragedy and it does not shrink from the horrors of war, including its morose effects on the common people. Millions were going to starve already, because of the dreadful conflict; but starvation isn’t nearly as cinematic as for a city to go up in flames. The Sack of King’s Landing stays.

So, if the burning still happens but Daenerys isn’t responsible, then who is?

We return to Euron.

His magic makes him far more menacing than the Golden Company. The Golden Company is easy to hate. People who’ll fight for Cersei’s money are like hit men in Sin City: no matter what you do to ’em, you don’t feel bad. They serve two purposes. One is (as mentioned) as mooks to get blown up or burned. Two: Cersei’s resorting to mercenaries shows that she has lost the respect of her people.

Machiavelli, though, gave us the final word on mercenaries: they don’t fight during winter, and it’s winter.

The Golden Company gives us the right to cheer when some people are burned alive, but they’re not that scary– especially given that HBO took away their elephants, because mahouts plus dragons right-facing-angle-bracket budget. Euron, as a magician, is terrifying.

Make him a warg.

After Arya kills Euron, he uses his last to warg into Drogon. Bran knows it’s coming, so he wargs in as well. Now we get a mind fight, inside a dragon, between two of the most powerful mages in the world: a Stark warg (ice mage) who has been north of the Wall, and a fire mage who’s been to Valyria and Asshai.

Daenerys fights to pound sense into her child. Drogon (while Euron is in control) ruins King’s Landing. Bran wins the warg-fight but the dragon ends up dead (as well as Euron). Daenerys lives.

She’s innocent, but the world doesn’t know that.

HBO appears to have turned this heroine into a war criminal. It’s possible that Drogon was warged by some evil mage, but that hasn’t been foreshadowed. It appears that Daenerys has broken bad and it’s a fait accompli. There’s nothing left to do but kill her, and there’ll be little emotion or catharsis because people have died for far less. By Westerosi logic, to execute Daenerys-the-war-criminal is the only thing that can be done. There’s no choice and, when there’s no choice, there’s no drama.

Daenerys-the-innocent, who nearly died riding a warged dragon, and who appears to have done something unforgivable… now she’s a source of drama. An innocent who appears to the world to be guilty? That’s painful to watch, sure, but good writers make it hard for the heroes.

Tyrion

Tyrion’s bright and he loves to argue. We’ve seen him argue for himself. He sometimes loses, but he’s good at it. Now, in the past, he’s been competent– but a competent person becomes heroic when she uses her strength not for herself, but toward another’s benefit.

The best lawyer in all of Westeros ought to be the first to believe Daenerys’s account– that something outside her comprehension happened, and she lost control of Drogon. We’re putting Tyrion into 12 Angry Men. All of Westeros thinks she’s guilty; he thinks (knows) she’s innocent.

We’ve learned that Tyrion’s brilliance was of the old world, when reputation and the throne mattered most. He’s not very competent in the new one. Considering that, and the fact that Ice and Fire is almost certainly a tragedy and will hold Daenerys accountable for bad decisions in the past (including the burning-alive of Dickon Tarly); I have to conclude that Tyrion is unsuccessful and Daenerys must die.

Personally, I’d put Samwell Tarly on the tribunal that must decide on Daenerys’s innocence, and although I like that character, I’d have him get it wrong (just as he was a liability in the Battle of Witnerfell.) His vote for her guilt, in (say) a 4–3 decision, dooms her.

Tyrion, as Daenerys’s advocate, does not die; in fact, his reputation improves in the following years as Westeros learns of her innocence. But he lives out the rest of his life in the Free Cities. Tyrion’s tragic turn, in the series, began when he rejected the opportunity to flee with Shae (who genuinely loved him, unlike in the books) to the Free Cities. His exile from Westeros (possibly self-imposed) must atone for this.

Jon Snow

Jon Snow, as interim ruler of Westeros, recused himself from the vote on Daenerys’s innocence, and he does not want to kill her, but by honor he must. “He who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

After killing Daenerys, Jon is in no emotional state to rule and installs in power a man with a weak personality who has as many reasons as the others to be disgusted by the game of thrones: Edmure Tully. He’s the interim leader of the Seven (or Six?) Kingdoms while a constitution is drafted.

Jon goes home to rebuild the North. Samwell Tarly goes with him.

He (or Samwell) demands to know, from Bran, whether Daenerys was innocent. They find out that they were wrong. Jon and Samwell, stricken by grief and guilt, decide to honor Daenerys’s memory by building a better Westeros. Jon offers his services to the north and reconstitutes the Night’s Watch, this time focused on protecting rather than warring against the Free Folk. He strives for positive relations with the Children of the Forest and (if relevant) the Others/White Walkers.

Alternate, darker possibility: the White Walkers aren’t dead. In fact, the dragons’ death has made their spooky and possibly malignant ice magic stronger. Jon Snow enlists their aid for the purpose of reviving Daenerys. As in “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, it doesn’t end well.

Sansa

Edmure, as interim ruler of (southern) Westeros, is largely ineffectual. Jon is an emotional wreck after (a) killing his lover-aunt and (b) learning she was innocent of the crime for which he killed her. Though both men have the wish to build a better Westeros, Sansa must take the lead at rebuilding society.

(This assumes that HBO doesn’t erase her character growth, as it has done far too often, and make her a naif again.)

Sansa would be good at this. She’d probably enjoy it, too. Sansa might be elected the first president of the Constitutional Republic of Westeros.

Davos

Davos began the series illiterate, but he was always smart. He should become a maester. Perhaps he is the one (rather than Samwell) who writes the final account of what happened in Westeros. Having seen war and the unnecessary death of an innocent girl (Shireen), Davos writes an account of the myriad Westerosi disasters so they never occur again. Samwell may play a role in this effort, but I don’t see him taking the lead in it; he is too shaken by his role in Daenerys’s death.

Bran’s ending

It’s hard to give Bran a satisfying ending. In my series, Farisa (if she lives) presents a similar problem. After a “happy ending”, banal human evil must still exist; what role is there for an ultra-powerful but good mage? Does the mage intervene (and thereby deprive humans of autonomy) or retire from practice? I don’t want to self-spoil Farisa (although I have not fully decided on an ending, being several books away from it) so I’ll tread carefully.

With Bran, we assume that he’s “a good guy” because of his family name, but we know (a)  that he no longer considers himself a Stark, and (b) from the books that many historical Starks were not good. Bloodraven was a morally complicated character before he became the Three-Eyed Raven and there’s no reason to assume he “became good” after his transition. So, Bran’s moral status remains opaque, and what did Old Nan say? “Crows are liars.” (And what does the name Bran mean?) Perhaps Bran’s agenda is darker than we expected.

Still, little foreshadows Bran turning evil, and it seems unlikely that ultra-good characters such as Jojen and Meera Reed would traffic him to a destiny they knew to be malign. So, it seems more likely than not that Bran should end as a force for good.

Perhaps Bran is the first to recognize that the Northern Crisis (from Walkers, or the Children of the Forest, or something new like those ice spiders we were promised) isn’t over. He uses his magic to rebuild the wall… like Bran the Builder.

There are darker possibilities, too: I find the theory that Bran accidentally created and in some sense “is” the Night King to be (in some form) fairly credible. Without such a tragic element, the affliction of Hodor seems a bit of a boondoggle. This being said, I think it would take several episodes to properly service this element of the story. Under the six-episode constraint, I’d use Bran to support the political happy ending (as Westeros’s memory, he helps the world heal) rather than giving him a personal tragic turn.

The Prophecies

I’m not going to focus on “the Prince who was Promised” or any of those other prophecies. I don’t much care about them. The view I take of Martin’s work is that all the gods are equally nonexistent. If prophesied plot points can be hit, great; I don’t find it worth it to bend the story out of shape to service those, though.

Jaime

Jaime, as I would end the series, still returns to King’s Landing– but to kill Cersei, and not because she sent Bronn to kill him, but because she sent him after Tyrion. Still, when Jaime sees the street children killing his twin sister, he considers this too cruel a death for her and tries to intervene. But he’s an aging knight whose power (like Tyrion’s old-world learning) is no good these days, and cannot.

After being unable to protect her, he either kills himself or (more hopefully) returns to the North to build his new life.

Qyburn

No changes. That man was (I believe) heavily inspired by Dr. Mengele, and I’m all for that sick fuck being killed by his own morbid creation rather than dying in South America or Pentos.

The Iron Throne

The true villains of Game of Thrones are outmoded ideas: a “true king” (divine right) or, in Daenerys’s case, a true queen. If anyone sits on the Iron Throne, we perceive Westeros as getting a thousand years of (to quote Jon Snow) “more of the same”.

No family (Tyrion excepted) represents “more of the same” as much as the Lannisters. Gold, greed, and extreme conservatism are their trade. They are the nihilism of Tyrion’s alcoholism as well as modern-day corporate America. Ice and Fire is about many things, but one among them is the delicious fall of the Lannisters. Tywin wanted a “dinn-a-stee” that would last a thousand years; well, nope.

So who gets the Iron Throne? Well, we could put it in a museum, but someone should still get to sit on it. It just seems right.

There is one living Lannister who is innocent: King Tommen’s cat, Ser Pounce.

Illyrio Mopatis, the slave trader who started all of this, is captured and lives out his days as “The Paw” (or, alternately, “The Scoop”) and cleans out the litter box.

Image result for ser pounce iron throne

A Computational Understanding of ZFC Set Theory

When I first encountered the ZFC set theory axioms, the notion that they in particular should be the foundation of mathematics struck me as not making a great deal of sense. What was this Axiom of Foundation:

∀x (∃y (y ∈ x)) → (∃z (z ∈ x) ∧ (∀w ~((w ∈ z) ∧ (w ∈ x))) 

and why would anyone care? What do we learn about practical mathematics from this logical sentence? What makes ZFC the mathematics we care about?

Further study in mathematics tells us: not all that much. ZFC isn’t special. Set theorists study all sorts of axiomatic systems, some strong and others weaker; ZFC happens to be a point of comfort, a level of mathematical proving strength which comfortably gives us the mathematics we want (and, arguably, strange mathematical results that a few might not want). It is not so strong as to be sufficient to prove all that is true, because no logical system is. It also cannot, without appealing to a stronger system, prove that it is without contradiction. and it cannot, without appealing to a stronger logical system, prove that it contains no contradictions.

So, why ZFC? The axioms suffice to construct a mathematics that does not seem to diverge in a meaningful way from the “real world mathematics” (to be discussed later) that power the sciences. A point in space, it seems, requires three real numbers to define it. We do not actually know what is the fine-grained nature of physical space, but it feels like a continuum.

The truth is that ZFC isn’t “the foundation of mathematics” but the foundation of a mathematics, one that (a) arguably suffices for real-world purposes, (b) allows us to reason about infinite objects far beyond what seems to exist in the real world, while (c) being small enough for its axioms(*) to fit on a blackboard.

(*) Except, of course, for the need to introduce two axiom schemas, but that shall be covered.

What is ZFC?

Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory with Choice is a first-order logic with equality. Its syntax includes:

  • The connectives of propositional logic: ~ ∧ ∨ → ⇔.
  • An equality symbol: =.
  • Grouping symbols ( and ) are used to specify order of operations. Spaces are used for clarity but have no meaning.
  • As many variable symbols (lower-case letters x, y, z, and so on) as are needed.
  • The universal and existential quantifiers: and .

All of which are called logical symbols, and a domain-specific non-logical symbol .

The logical symbols’ meanings and corresponding axioms are not included among ZFC’s axioms. All propositional tautologies are considered theorems of ZFC, but we shall not discuss them further. The same holds for first-order sentences that can be proven without using any set theory, like:

(x = y) → (y = x)

which is invariably presented as an axiom attendant to equality

∀x (x = z) → ∃x (x = z)

which follows from the quantifiers being defined in the standard way (if something is true of all x, it must be true of at least one x by definition.

When we discuss ZFC, we’ll present the axioms that define for us:

  • what things are and are not sets.
  • how they relate to each other, using the added non-logical symbol, .

When we speak of formal logic, we do not need to interpret . Formal logical systems do not describe what is “true” or “false” in any real world, but what is provable (a theorem) from the axioms. Which statements are theorems and which are not is derivable syntactically (or “typographically”) from the symbols themselves, without caring about their meaning. A machine could do the job.

All we know is that:

  • Some sentences, like ∃x∀y ~(y∈x) (there is an empty set) are theorems of ZFC.
  • Some valid sentences, like ∃x (x∈x), are non-theorems of ZFC. They may be negations of known theorems, or they may be unprovable.
  • Some strings of logical symbols, like ∃∈∈x→~, are not valid sentences and shall not be considered further.

Our lack of commitment to interpretations of these symbols– using only that logical symbols have the familiar axioms, with  to be introduced and applied according to ZFC’s axioms to-be-given– is necessary because, from first principles, we don’t know anything yet about the collection of values over which variables– the x‘s quantified over by existential (∃x) and universal (∀x) quantifiers, is. We haven’t built a model that tells us that.

In set theory, these variables always range over sets. But what is a set? We haven’t determined that yet.

Equality has a special meaning: if x = y, they are the same object and perfectly interchangeable with one another. That is, they are elements of the same things and have the same elements or, more formally:

(x = y) → ∀z (x ∈ z) ⇔ (y ∈ z), and

(x = y) → ∀z (z ∈ x) ⇔ (z ∈ y)

Now that we’ve done this work, let’s introduce ZFC’s axioms.

Axiom 0: Sets Exist

In fact, we’ll make a stronger claim: the empty set exists.

∃x∀y ~(y ∈ x)

Literally, “there exists a set that all sets are not in”; more legibly, there exists a set with nothing in it.

We could derive the existence of this set from the Axioms of Infinity (which declares that an infinite set exists) and Comprehension (using a logical formula that is always false). We technically do not need it. So, why include it? From a programmer’s perspective, it helps. What’s the first thing one wants to know about a data structure K? It’s, How does one create it? We now have the empty function (or method) of the Set class. Furthermore, since sets are immutable values, we can treat empty as a value.

Axiom 1: Extensionality, which lets us prove things equal.

We have an empty set. How many do we have?

It would be annoying if we had to keep track of a myriad of empty sets, all of which had differing “personalities” irrelevant to the theory. Computers can handle this extraneous detail; they must keep track of equivalent data structures if those are mutable. In set theory, though, we deal with objects that never change.

Two sets are equal if they contain the same elements. This is not innate to logical systems; we must make it an axiom of our set theory.

∀x∀y (∀z (z ∈ x) ⇔ (z ∈ y)) → (x = y)

This, in essence, gives us an equals function– or, at least, the notion required to build one. We also know everything about a set if we know its elements.

So, there is only one empty set, and we know all we need to know– there is nothing in it.

By Extensionality, there is no meaningful distinction between {x} and {x, x} or between {x, y} and {y, x}. We’ll discuss how to handle that with our next axiom.

Axiom 2: Pairing, which lets us build sets.

The Axiom of Pairing gives us the unordered world’s equivalent of a cons cell; given two sets, we can always create the set containing both.

∀x∀y ∃z ∀w (w = x) ∨ (w = y) ⇔ (w ∈ z)

This will have one or two elements; one, in the special case where x = y.

We shall later see that Pairing is redundant. It could be proven using Infinity, Comprehension, and Replacement, to be discussed below; but that would be monstrously inelegant. From a computational perspective, we would not construct an ordered pair by constructing an infinite data structure, then choosing two elements.

Pairing upholds the notion of sets as containing more than one thing. It also indicates that there is only one set universe; there are no x and y that live in disjoint universes, because ZFC will always contain {x, y}.

From this, we can build the notion of an ordered pair: we interpret {{x}, {x, y}} as <x, y>.

So far, though, we can only build sets with zero, one, or two elements. We’re quite limited in what we can do.

Axiom 3: Union, which flattens set structures and yields bigger sets.

The Axiom of Union allows us to collect all the sets that live in a given set into one.

∀x ∃u ∀y (y ∈ u) ⇔ ∃t (y ∈ t) ∧ (t ∈ x) 

So, from {{x, y}, {z, w}} we can make {x, y, z, w}. We can think of this as a flatten function that removes (or interprets) one level of set structure, or as set theory’s natural notion of what functional programming calls a reduce.

The binary union operator (∪) is a special case of this axiom: x ∪ y is the set that must exist by applying Union to {x, y}, which must exist by Pairing.

This gives us the ability to generate the fundamental objects of arithmetic, the natural numbers.

0     := {}

x + 1 := x ∪ {x}

It may not be meaningful to say, in an absolute sense, that the natural number 3 is the set constructed in this way; but we can interpret that set as 3. (Building the rest of arithmetic, such as addition and multiplication, can be done in the first-order logic of ZFC; but it is tedious and will not be done here.) Note that this 3 is defined as the set {0, 1, 2}; this practice continues with infinite ordinals: for example, the smallest infinite ordinal ω is identified with the set of all natural numbers.

Axiom (Schema) 4: Comprehension, the filter of sets.

We’ve developed tools for making sets larger. Comprehension gives us a tool for making them smaller. A definable subset of a set ought also to be a set.

For any well-formed logical formula with one free variable, F, we have:

∀x ∃y ∀z (z ∈ y) ⇔ (z ∈ x) ∧ F[z]

In other words, given a set x and a definable logical property F, the y containing all elements z for which F[z] is a set. This corresponds to filter in functional programming, with the F taking the role of the function argument.

This is not, technically speaking, an axiom. It’s an axiom schema. It represents a countably infinite set of axioms, one for each of the F that can be defined. In this way, ZFC doesn’t have have nine (or so) axioms but infinitely many. That turns out to be no problem in practice. As long as a computer can check within finite time whether a sentence is or is not an axiom, we’re okay.

We do not need Filter (or Replacement, to be discussed) in the hereditarily finite world– the world where all sets (including the sets within sets) are finite. Nor do we need the Axiom of the Power Set. We will need these axioms if we want to wrangle which infinite sets, which of course we do.

Axiom (Schema) 5: Replacement or map

One of the most subtle axioms of set theory is that of Replacement. It seems less powerful than it is. In fact, the largest infinities known to ZFC can only be constructed with Replacement. This is counterintuitive. In the finite world, the Power Set Axiom generates “much larger” sets (from size n to size 2n) but Replacement does not; used alone, it creates a set no larger than an existing set.

The Axiom Schema of Replacement gives us, for every logical formula F with two free variables, if F[a, b] is true for exactly one b per a, this sentence.

∀x ∃y (∀a ∀b  (a ∈ x) → F[a, b] → (b ∈ y)) ∧ (∀c (c ∈ y) → ∃d ((d ∈ x) ∧ F[d, c]))

The F described behaves likes like a function the elements of x to those of y. It says that if {a, b, c, …} is a set, then so is {f(a), f(b), f(c), …}.

You can get a simpler formulation if you demand that F be one-to-one; then you have:

∀x ∃y (∀a ∀b F[a, b] → ((a ∈ x) ⇔ (b ∈ y))

In ZFC, both presentations– the simpler one mandating a one-to-one F, or the more complex one without that restriction– generate the same sets, and result in the same theory.

In computational terms, this is akin to that crown jewel of functional programming, map.

Axiom 6: Power Set

The axiom of the Power Set is stated thus:

∀x ∃p (∀y (∀z (z ∈ y) → (z ∈ x)) ⇔ (y ∈ p))

In other words, for every x, there is a larger set p that contains all of x‘s subsets y. In the finite world, this is strictly larger: we jump from n elements to 2elements. That turns out to be true in the infinite world, where size is a more complicated matter, as well. There is always a bigger set. Since there is no largest set, there is no “set of all sets”. We’ll get more specific on this when we discuss foundation.

Axiom 7: Infinity, where the fun begins.

We have the tools to build up (and tear down) all the natural numbers, and all finite sets of natural numbers, all finite sets of finite sets of natural numbers, and so on.

We don’t yet have infinite sets. None of our axioms provides that one must exist. By the tools we have, we can’t get to the infinite world from what we have.

We have infinitely many sets already. We have the natural numbers. That’s an outside-the-system judgment about what exists in our world thus far. We don’t yet have that {0, 1, 2, …} is itself a set. Since the purpose of set theory is to wrangle with notions of infinity, and since we need an axiomatic statement that one exists, we add:

∃n ∃z (z ∈ n) ∧ (∀x (x ∈ n) → ∃s ((s ∈ n) ∧ (x ∈ s) ∧ (∀y (y ∈ x) → (y ∈ s))

What does this say? It says that there exists some set n that is not empty (that is, it contains at least one element z) and that, for every x in it, contains the s(x) defined as  x ∪ {x}. This will be a larger set than x, so long as we never have x ∈ x, which we’ll establish to be the case when with Foundation, next.

We could, alternatively, make it an axiom that N, the set of natural numbers exists. This is achieved by setting z to the empty set. In that case, we don’t need to use ∀x ~(x ∈ x), which we haven’t yet established. In ZFC, it is irrelevant whether we use the weaker “an infinite set” exists or construct specifically the set of natural numbers; with Replacement, they are equivalent.

We’ve now reached a space beyond what we can compute. We can conceive of the infinite and we can write programs that never terminate (using a while loop) but we cannot store a completed infinity in a computer. As infinities get larger, and sets more complicated, the divergence between what “exists mathematically” and what we can realize, computationally, grows.

An aside on Replacement, massive infinities, and “ordinary mathematics”.

We define two sets x and y to have the same size (or cardinality) if we can define a function from x to y that is invertible (one-to-one) covers all of y (onto). It turns out that for every set x, the power set P(x) is larger. So from the smallest infinity of the natural numbers, N, we get the larger infinities P(N), P(P(N)), P(P(P(N))), and so on.

If we exclude the Axiom of Replacement, we still have a mathematical universe that contains:

  • the natural numbers,
  • negative, rational, real, and complex numbers, which can be constructed using set-theoretic tools,
  • sets of (and sets of sets of, and sets of sets of sets of) mathematical entities above,
  • algebraic entities like groups, rings, fields, and vector spaces,
  • functions on the mathematical entities above (e.g., functions C8 → C),
  • and higher-order functions that can accept as arguments or return the entities above.

So, even bizarre mathematical objects like {7, 3.14159…, 3+4i, {(λx → x + 3), -17, {}}} exist in our universe. We have ordinary mathematics– almost all of mathematics excluding set theory.

What don’t we have, without Replacement? We don’t have this thing as a set:

{NP(N), P(P(N)), P(P(P(N))), … }

or its union; both of which, most of us feel, deserves to be a set. That massive infinite set, bigger than anything we encounter in ordinary mathematics, may be not be something we need in daily math… but it seems that it should deserve to exist in the mathematical universe.

Axiom 8: Foundation, the limiter.

So far, we’ve discussed axioms that create sets. We have the tools to create the sets we want. How do we avoid calling things sets that we don’t want?

First-order logic can’t limit size. We can’t say that our mathematical universe is “only yay big”. For example, ZFC without Replacement could not generate the large set described above, but it also cannot prove that entity not to be a set. So, there will always be more things in the heaven and earth of our first-order logic than are dreamt-of in our philosophy; but, we can limit undesirable behaviors.

In programming terminology, we can impose a contract that sets must follow.

The Axiom of Foundation is the only one to place limits on set-ness, the only one to prevents us from making sets.

I put it toward the end because its formulation is the most opaque. It is:

∀x (∃y (y ∈ x)) → (∃z (z ∈ x) ∧ (∀w ~((w ∈ z) ∧ (w ∈ x))) 

To which an appropriate response might be, What the hell does that mean?

The answer is: For every set x that is not empty (that is, has a y in it), there is a z in it that is disjoint from x.

We know what it means; the question, then is, Why the hell do we care?

The most important consequence of this might be that no set contains itself. Therefore, we cannot define the set x = {x}. In computer science, self-containing data structures are admissible. (To paraphrase Trump, when you’re a *, pointers let you do it.) Mathematicians, however, don’t want their foundations be self-referential. (There are mathematical structures, like graphs, that allow such recursion and self-reference, but sets themselves should not be.) Why? Russell’s Paradox. If sets can contain themselves, and all collections are sets, then define a “Russell set” as any set that doesn’t contain itself. Is the set of all Russell sets a Russell set? If the set of all Russell sets is a Russell set, then it contains itself, so it’s not a Russell set; if it’s not a Russell set, then it  is. Mathematics becomes inconsistent and the world blows up. Clearly, mathematics can’t afford to confer set-ship on just anything.

The more general result of foundation: there is no infinite descending chain of sets a b c ... It is a consequence of this that there are no self-containing sets or set-membership cycles; e.g., there are no x, y, z for which  x ∈ y, y ∈ z, and z ∈ x).

An alternate way to think of this is that one can always “get to the bottom of” a set, even if it’s infinite. Or: imagine a single-player game like Nim, but instead of stones on a table (from which a player takes some, each turn) there is a set X “on the table”. Each turn, the player selects an element a of X and “places” that a on the table, unless a is the empty set, in which case the game terminates.

For example, letting N be the set of natural numbers, we could have the following state evolution:

Table: {3, 17, {4, 29, {6}}, P(N)}
... player chooses P(N)
... Table : P(N) = {{}, {0}, {1}, {0, 1}, ... }
... player chooses {2, 3, 5, 7, 11, ...}
... Table : {2, 3, 5, 7, 11, ...}
... player chooses 173
... Table:  173 = {0, 1, 2, ..., 172}
... no more than 173 steps later...
... Table : 0

Foundation means that this game always terminates in finite time. It can take an arbitrarily long time– the player could have chosen 82,589,933, or the first prime number larger than TREE(4,567), instead of 173– but there are no infinite paths, assuming that what’s on the table is a well-founded set.

Axiom 9: Choice, the controversial one.

I’ve saved the “controversial” Axiom of Choice, the namesake for the “C” in ZFC, for last.

Is it controversial? Well, let’s understand what a mathematical controversy is. Mathematicians do not, by and large, get into arguments about whether Choice is true or false; it is neither. There are valid mathematical systems with it, and others without it. It is subjective, which systems one prefers to study. But no mathematician will say that the Axiom of Choice is “wrong”.

Although I have worked entirely in the bare language of first-order logic plus equality and the “non-logical” , I will, to make notation easier, include the ordered-pair notation <a, b> = {{a}, {a, b}}. Extending the alphabet of a logical language can be done in a principled, conservative way (that is, one that does not produce new theorems) but I will skip over the details. One who wants them can read Kenneth Kunen’s 2011 book, Set Theory.

The Axiom of Choice is:

∀x ∃f ∀a (a ∈ x) → (∃c c ∈ a) → ∃p (p ∈ f) ∧ (p = <a, b>) ∧ (b ∈ a) 

This means that for any set x we have a choice function f– a set of ordered pairs– that for all non-empty a in x contains an <a, b> for which b ∈ a.

In other words, from any set of sets, we can derive a choice function that maps each of its nonempty sets to one of its elements (that is, it “picks” one).

Choice, of all the mathematical axioms, is most flagrant in divergence from the real world. Infinity can be problematic, but physics forces us to grapple with its possibility. We do not know the fine-grained nature of physical space, but it seems to exhibit rotational symmetry (that is, there are no privileged x-, y-, and z-axes, but the basis vectors we choose) which suggests strongly that it is R3. Infinite sets, we need for geometry to work.

Choice, however, is counter-physical. If we agree that choosing an element from a set is computational, and therefore requires energy (or increases the entropy of the universe, or costs in some currency) than to realize a choice function has an infinite cost. In other words, we are calling things “sets” that have no presence in the physical world.

To wit, in a world with Choice, events can be described (in theory) that have no probability. That is not: They have zero probability; rather, it creates a contradiction to assign them probability zero or to assign any positive probability to them. More troubling, a sphere can be decomposed into five pieces and rearranged into two spheres of the same size. While this absurdity cannot be realized with a real-world object, it does establish the behavior of mathematics, with Choice, to be counter-physical.

So, why have it? Well, there are mathematical objects that do not exist in a world without Choice. A vector space might not have a basis, in ZF + ~C. Mathematics isn’t supposed to be about what we can make in the real world, but what exists theoretically.

One source of trouble with Choice, I think, is that as beginning or amateur mathematicians, it’s tempting to think of an agent actively choosing. There’s a quip about the Axiom of Choice: you don’t need it to choose one shoe each from an infinite set of pairs of shoes, but you do need it to choose one sock each from an infinite set of pairs of socks. (The shoes are distinguishable; the socks are not. Analogously, Comprehension and Replacement derive from existing logical formulae; Choice is fully independent of how the choosing is done, and may be arbitrary.) The problem is that Choice is not about “you can choose…” because mathematics exists in an ethereal world where there is no “you” or “I”, nor an energetic process of “choosing”. The real debate is not about “you can…” or “you cannot…” but about what we choose to call a set. If we want to include among sets arbitrary selections, we need Choice.

Mathematical existence, itself, is a slippery and tricky notion. For example, we’ve covered many of the sets that exist and we can build. Now, this is a set:

{n : 2^2^n is prime}

However, which set? Is it finite or infinite? We don’t know. Most likely, it’s the very simple set, {0, 1, 2, 3, 4}. At present, though, we don’t know what it is.

Computational Analogue

To wrap this up. let’s think of Set as a type (or a class) in a programming language. We’ll pretend we have a computer with infinite space, so infinity is no issue. The axioms of set theory support the following interface:

empty :: Set
-- () A set with no elements.
elementOf :: Set -> Set -> Bool
-- (x, y) Returns True if x ∈ y, False if not.
equal :: Set -> Set -> Bool
-- (x, y) Two sets are equal if they contain exactly the same elements.
pair :: Set -> Set -> Set
-- (x, y) Returns {x, y}.
union :: Set -> Set
-- (x) Returns {a : a ∈ t ∈ x for some t}. Or: flattens a set of sets by one level.
filter :: Set -> WFP -> Set
-- Comprehension
-- (x, F) F is a well-formed predicate with one free variable; returns {a : a ∈ x where F[a]}.
map :: Set -> WFF -> Set
-- Replacement
-- (x, F) F is a well-formed binary predicate for which F(x, y) holds for exactly one y per x, corresponding to a function f; returns {f(a) : a ∈ x}.
powerSet :: Set -> Set
-- (x) Returns {y : y is a subset of x}.
infinity :: Set
-- () A set of infinite cardinality.
validate :: Set -> ()
-- Foundation
-- (x) Asserts that x has an element disjoint from itself. If all sets created pass validation, then no infinite descending chains (or cycles) of ∈ exist; every set is well-founded.
choice :: X@Set -> (A@X -> Either () A)
-- (x) Returns a function on x that maps every non-empty a ∈ x to [Right b] for some b ∈ a, and the empty set to [Left ()].

Conclusion

Set theory has a reputation for being painfully abstract and opaque. Much work is required to get from the expression of, say, Foundation, to what it means and why we care about it.

We learn later that the axiom exists because set-theorists did not want to contend with the notion of unwrapping sets ad infinitum; they did not want a theory that wasn’t well-founded or whose subtle imprecisions could destroy all of mathematics (as Russell’s Paradox did naive set theory). What makes for compact formalism is:

∀x (∃y (y ∈ x)) → (∃z (z ∈ x) ∧ (∀w ~((w ∈ z) ∧ (w ∈ x))) 

but without additional context, the formula is calamitously uninteresting. The human element (why we care) and the story behind axiomatic set theory are (as they should be, in formalism) absent.

I bring this up because, for me, Foundation was the hardest of the axioms to understand its motivation. (Replacement was difficult to motivate, until I realized it was just map or, in the Python world, a list comprehension.) Foundation’s often presented early in set theory, and not without good reasons. It is the only axiom that mandates certain possibilities not be sets, ensuring we don’t have to worry about Russell’s Paradox.

An interesting consequence of this is that we can now discuss what the variables in ZFC, a first-order logic, range over. When we say ∀x something, in ZFC, what is the space we’re quantifying over? All sets. But there is no “set of all sets” in ZFC. We need a bigger logical system to think about what ZFC actually means. This does not invalidate mathematics; arguably, this sort of distinction is what saves it.

Set theory’s implications are complicated and abstruse, but most of the axioms on which it’s built have computational analogues that a programmer uses every day.  Comprehension is like filter, Replacement like map.

What about Choice? Well, Choice gives us that weird, hackish hand-written function that may be a giant switch/case block. On many infinite sets, we cannot hope to code it by hand or realize it in physical space. However, it exists in set theory, so long as we want set theory to contain everything that mathematics can imagine.

Set theory, in all its glory, isn’t the easiest subject to comprehend. The simplicity of it, as a first-order logic with only one added symbol (), renders it difficult to reconcile it with the complexities of full mathematics, much in the way that quantum physics is not hard to comprehend but difficult to apply to real systems. The more perspectives we can take to this, the easier it might be to learn. I hope that by focusing on computation and construction, as imperfect as those lenses are, I’ve added one more perspective and that it helps.

Idle Rich Are the Best Rich. Here’s Why.

The college-admissions cheating scandal of 2019 has provided plenty of opportunities for schadenfreude at the expense of the lower-upper class: hangers-on and minor celebrities who needed a bit of lift to get their underachieving children into elite colleges. (The true upper class does not struggle with educational admissions; those are negotiated before birth, and often involve buildings.) The fallout has stoked discussion, internet-wide, about social class in the United States.

I’m 35 years old and don’t have any children, so college admissions are not (at least, not now) my fight. I care quite little about the topic itself because, to be honest, I find all this noise irrelevant. There’s the global climate crisis. There’s the imminent collapse of the wage market, due to automation. I have my own personal projects– I’m a year behind schedule on Farisa’s Crossing, my novel. (This is good lateness, insofar as I continue to discover ways to make the book better, but it is still lateness.) So, with all the things that actually matter, I don’t have a whole lot of cognitive bandwidth for the topic of college admissions. That issue’s mostly one of parental narcissism, and I’m not a parent.

Besides, just as the 1929–45 crisis (“Fourth Turning“, if you will) made irrelevant who went to Harvard versus Michigan in 1923, I believe the near future will find today’s obsessive attention given to minor differences in educational institutions to be absurd.

Still, not all of my readers are in the United States, and so many lack the privilege of knowing how bizarre and corrupt American college admissions are. It’s not that admissions officers intend it to be this way. They don’t. But there are a lot of absurd non-academic factors that go into college admissions, and the rich have far more time to assess and exploit the process than the poor.

Is this our society’s biggest issue? Hardly. Rich parents do all sorts of unethical things– often, completely legal ones– to give unfair advantages to their progeny. It has been going on for centuries, and it will likely continue for some time. College admissions fraud is a footnote in that narrative. I am glad to see the laws enforced here, but there are bigger issues in society than this.

Instead, I want to talk about the problem exposed by this scandal. See, it’s not enough for the American rich to have more money than we do, and all the material comforts that follow: bigger houses, speedier cars, golden toilets. They have to be smarter than us, too. But God did a funny thing: when She was handing out talents, she didn’t even in look in the daddies’ bank accounts. So, here we are. We live in a world where people make six- and seven-figure incomes helping teenagers cheat on tests. This isn’t new, either.

As a society, we suffer for this. Having to pretend talentless people from wealthy backgrounds are much more capable than they are, as I’ll argue, has major social costs. It keeps people of genuine ability in obscurity, and it leads to bad decisions that have brought the economy to stagnation. It would be better if we were rid of such ceremony and obligation.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Idle Rich

I want to talk about “the idle rich”, the aristocratic goofballs who don’t amount to much. They get a bad rap. I don’t know why.

They’re my favorite rich people, to be honest about it.

I don’t much like the guys (and, yes, they’re pretty much all “guys”, because our upper class is not at all progressive) at Davos. They do significant damage to the world. We’d be better off without them. Their neoliberal nightmare, a 21st-century upgrade of colonialism, has produced unwinnable wars, a healthcare system that has exsanguinated the middle class, and an enfeebled, juvenile culture that has lain low what was once the most prosperous nation in human history.

If we as a society decide to do something about the corporate executives who’ve gutted our culture and downsized the middle class out of existence, I’ll volunteer to clean up the blood. These people have a lot to answer for, and the quicker we can stop further damage, the better.

Do I hate “rich people”, though? I’ve met quite a number of them. Billionaires, three-digit millionaires, self-made as well as generationally blue-blooded, I’ve met all kinds. The truth is: no, I don’t hate them. Not really. What is “rich people”? Someone with more money. But, to 99.9 percent of humans who have ever lived, I am (along with most of my readers) “rich people”, just because I was born in the developed world after antibiotics. People born in 2200 may never know scarcity, and live for thousands of years. Good for them. I won’t burden the reader with my own philosophy on life, death, the future, spirituality, or life’s meaning (or lack thereof); suffice it to say, I believe that in the grand picture, material inequalities are fairly minuscule. If I’m still flying “klonopin class” in ten years, I’ll deal. The health of society, on the other hand, is of major importance. We only have one planet and, today, we are one civilization. Getting the big things right matters.

I don’t especially want to “eat the rich”. I don’t even care that much about making them less rich (although the things I do want will make them less rich, at least in relative terms, by making others less poor). I want our society to have competent, decent, humane leadership. That’s what I care about. Eradicating poverty is what matters; small differences and social status issues, we can deal with that later.

American society seems to have a time-honored, historic hatred for “idle rich”. Why? It does seem unfair that some people are exempt from the Curse of Adam, often solely because of who their parents were? It’s hard to accept it, that a few people don’t need to work while the rest are thrown into back-breaking toil. From a 17th-century perspective, which is when the so-called puritan work ethic formed, this attitude makes sense. It was better for morale for communities to see their richest doing something productive.

In the 21st century, though, do these attitudes toward work apply?

First, we can toss away the assumption that everyone ought to work.

We already afford a minimal basic income to people with disabilities, but most of these people aren’t incapable of work, and plenty of them even want to work. They’re incapable of getting hired. There’s a difference. Furthermore, as the labor market is especially inhospitable to the unskilled and young, it is socially acceptable for people of wealth to remove their progeny from the labor market, for a time, if they invest in education (real or perceived).

I support a universal basic income. On a related topic, there’s a problem with minimum wage laws, one that conservatives correctly point out: they argue that price floors on labor result in unemployment. That’s absolutely true. Some people simply do not have the ability to render work that our current labor market values at $15 per hour. A minimum wage is, in essence, a basic income (often, a shitty one) subsidized by low-end employers. They respond by cutting jobs. We can debate endlessly why some work is valued so low, but the truth of wages seems to be a trend toward zero.

As technology progresses, the fate of an everyone-must-work society is grim. The most important notion here is economic inelasticity. Desperation produces extreme nonlinearities in price levels. If the gasoline supply shrunk by 5 percent, we wouldn’t see prices go up by 5 percent; they’d likely quadruple, because people need to get to work. (This happened in the 1970s oil crisis.) We’re seeing it in the 2010s with medicines, where prices are often malignantly manipulated. It doesn’t take much effort to do that. Desperation drives extremity, and people are (in our society) desperate for jobs. Are we at any risk of all jobs being automated by 2030? No. But it takes far less than that to tank wages. No matter how much the technology improves, I guarantee that there will be trucking jobs in 2030. There might be fewer, though. Let’s say that 40 percent of the industry’s 8 million jobs disappear. That’s 3.2 million workers on the market. No matter how smart you think you are, some of those 3.2 million can do your job. And some will. As displaced workers leave one industry, they’ll tank wages where they land, causing a chain reaction of refugee crises. No job is safe. The jobs will exist, yes, but they’ll get worse.

In our current society where everyone just work to live or-else, the market value of almost everything humans produce (at least, as subordinates) is doomed to decrease by about 5 percent per year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; another way to look at it is that things are getting cheaper. It’s only bad in a world where work is a typical person’s main source of income.

Ill-managed prosperity was a major cause of the Great Depression. In the early 20th century, we figured out how to turn air into food. That advance, among others, led to us getting very good at producing agricultural commodities. Cheap, abundant food. As a result… people starved. Wait, what? Well, it happened like this: farmers couldn’t turn a profit at lower prices, leading to rural poverty by the early 1920s, causing a slowdown in heavy industry in the middle of that decade. It was finally called a “Depression” when this problem (along with “irresponsible” speculation that is downright prosaic compared to what occurs on derivatives exchanges today) hit the stock market and affected rich people in the cities.

Why did we let rural America fester in the 1920s? Because the so-called “puritan work ethic” had us believing poverty was a sort of bitter moral medicine that would drive people to better behavior. Wrong. Poverty is a cancer; it spreads.

Ill-managed prosperity hit us hard in the 1930s; it’s likely to do the same in the 2020s, if we’re not careful.

All else being equal, for a person to show up to work doesn’t make society better. What she does at work, that might. The showing-up part, though… well, that in fact depresses wages for everyone else. It would be better for workers if there were fewer of them. That there are so many workers willing to tolerate low wages and terrible conditions devalues them.

For many workers out there, their bulk contribution to society is… to make everything worse for other workers. It is not their fault, it is not a commentary on them. It is just a fact: by being there, they cause an infinitesimal decrease in wages. And, today, we have this mean-spirited and anachronistic social model that has turned automation’s abundance into a possible time bomb.

Really, though, do we need so many TPS reports?

Obviously, if no one worked, that would be catastrophic. We don’t really need to force everyone to work, though. People work for reasons other than need: to have extra spending power, to gain esteem in the community, or because it gives their lives a sense of meaning. Fear of homelessness, though, doesn’t make anyone’s work better. It always makes things worse.

We could get at least 90 percent of society’s current revenues without forcing people to work. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a generous basic income and a free-market economy. That’s quite possibly the best solution. And, while I say “at least 90”, I really mean “more likely than not, more than 100”. That is, I think we’d probably have a more productive economy if people were free to allocate their time and talents to efforts they care about, rather than the makework they have to do, to stay in the good graces of the techno-feudal lords called “employers”.

It is not such a travesty for a person to remove himself from the labor market; for the rich, who already can, I don’t see it as a reason to shame them.

The second problem with the everyone-even-rich-people-must-work model is that it fails to create any real equality. Let’s be honest about it. “Going to work” is not the same for all social classes. Working-class workers are treated like the machines that will eventually replace them. Middle-class workers have minuscule autonomy but are arguably worse off, since it is the mind that is put into subordination rather than the body. For the rich, though, work is a playground, a wondrous place where they can ask strangers to do things, and those things (no matter how trivial or humiliating) will be done, without complaint. The wizards of medieval myth did not have this much power.

In other words, the idea that we are equalizing society by forcing the offspring of the rich to fly around in corporate jets and give PowerPoint presentations (which their underlings put together) is absurd. It would be better to let them live in luxury while slowly declining into irrelevance. When rich kids work difficult jobs, it’s toward one end: getting even richer, which makes our inequality problem worse.

Third, when we force rich kids to work, they take up most of the good jobs. There are about 225 million working-age adults. Whatever one may think of his own personal brilliance, the truth is that the corporate world has virtually no need for intelligence over IQ 130 (top 2.2%). We could debate, some other time, the differences between 130, 150, 170 and up– whether those distinctions are meaningful, whether they can be measured reliably, and the circumstances (of which there are not many) where truly high intelligence is necessary– but, for corporate work, 130 is more than enough to do any job. I don’t intend to say that no corporate task ever existed that required higher intelligence; it is, however, possible to ascend even the more technical corporate hierarchies with that much or less. So, using our somewhat arbitrary (and probably too high) cutoff of 130, there are still 5 million people who are smart enough to complete any corporate job. For the record, this is not an implication of corporate management’s capability. A manager’s job is to reduce operational risk and uncertainty, and dependence on rare levels of talent is a source of risk.

There are 5 million people who are smart enough, in any corporation in America, to competently fulfill an entire path from the entry level to the CEO. 5 million. For a contrast, there aren’t 5 million people in the U.S. with meaningful connections. I doubt there are even 500,000. Talent is fairly common. Connections are rare, and therefore more valued. The rich and the well-connected get the first dibs on jobs. The rest can’t possibly compete. No matter how smart they are, it doesn’t really matter.

Frankly, it’s of infinitesimal importance that Jared Kushner slithered into a spot at Harvard, causing a more-deserving late-1990s 17-year-old to have to settle for Columbia or Chicago. Whatever 17-year-old got bumped, I doubt she cares all that much. We all know that college admissions are more about the parents, anyway. No one intelligent really believes that American college admissions are all that meritocratic in the first place.

On the other hand, the U.S. corporate world is a self-asserted “meritocracy” (and, should you point out its non-meritocracy, you will soon be without income) despite being thicker with nepotism and corruption than third-world governments. That, I care about. Admissions corruption might lead a talented student to have to take her roughly-identical undergraduate classes from slightly less prestigious professors. In the work world, though, personal health, finances, and reputation are on the line. The false meritocracy of college admissions is a joke; the false meritocracy of the corporate world kills people.

Fourth and finally, when rich kids go to work, what do they do? Damage the world, mostly. A large number of them are stupid and incompetent, the result of which is: bad decisions that cause corporate scandals and failures that vaporize jobs. Most of the smart ones, worse yet, are evil. See: the Koch Brothers, Roger Ailes, and Erik Prince.

We would have such a better world if we convinced these guys it was OK to goof off.

The European aristocrats, to their credit, were content to be rich. Our ruling class has to be smarter than us.

I don’t mind that the corporate executives fly business class and I don’t. I do mind being forced to indulge their belief that their more fortunate social placement is a result of their being (intellectually speaking) what they think they are but are not, that I actually am. That galls me. If these people could admit to their mediocrity and step aside, it’d be better for all of us. The adults could get to work; everyone would win.

I don’t hate “the rich”. In fact, I wish everyone were rich. There may be a time in our future when that is, in effect, the reality. I hope so, because we seem thus far to be an “up or out” creature and, in 2019, we are effectively one civilization. Our current state is unsustainable. In the next two hundred, we either get rich or (at least, as a culture, although we may survive in the biological sense) we shall die. In the former case, I do not forecast utopia. There will always be disparities of wealth and social position. More likely than not, those advantages will be uncorrelated to personal merit– this as true of today’s upper class “meritocrats” as much as it was of medieval lords. On its own, that’s benign. So, to hate “rich people” is like to hate a tornado.

On the contrary, though I do not hate the rich, I hate their effects. I hate living in a society run by morons and criminals– one where housing in major cities is unaffordable for almost everyone; one where people have to buy insurance plans on their own bodies that cost $1,000 per month and provide half-assed coverage; one where bullshit jobs and managerial feudalism are the norm.

Furthermore, I do not think it makes the rich happy that we force them to work. It certainly does not make us happy to be shoved out of important, decision-making roles because the well-connected incompetents (or, far worse, the self-serving and evil) need those scarce jobs.

We, as a society, have reached a point where idleness is the most harmless of vices. We do not need more people hunting on the Serengeti; we do not need more internal combustion engines hauling people around to say “Yes, sir”.

Most so-called “work” has trivial, nonexistent, or even negative social value. The vast majority of corporate jobs exist to perpetuate or enhance private socioeconomic inequalities, rather than to better society. The so-called “protestant work ethic” would have us predict that price signals (salaries) correlate to the moral value of work. They don’t. Anyone who thinks they might needs to leave the 1970s because Studio 54 closed a long time ago.

If rich people stop working, they stop hogging the good jobs. They stop hogging the investment capital and wasting it on artisanal dog food delivery companies. Since they’re enjoying life more, they will feel less desire to exact revenge on society for forcing them to make four PowerPoint presentations per year, which will make them less aggressive in squeezing employees. So they’ll hog less of the damn money, too. People will start leaving their office jobs while the sun is shining, writing their own performance reviews because the bosses are skiing all month, and everyone will be better off for it.

Let’s not eat the rich. Instead, let’s get them fat, and roll them out of the way, so competent adults can take the reins of this society, before it’s too late.

American Fascism 2– Is the United States Fascist?

Part 1 Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed the four political impulses– communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism– that seem to be the base elements of which more complex ideologies are made. Of course, an entire society can be communalist in some ways, but libertarian in others. To ask whether the United States “is fascist” may seem simplistic. The question might be phrased better as, “How established is fascism?”

Upsettingly, fascism is the most limber in its self-presentation. Fascists lie. They will, if it is convenient, use ideas from other ideologies to push their agendas. We’ve seen fascists in leftist, rightist, religious, and anti-religious costumes before. Corporate fascism asserts “meritocracy”. Donald Trump managed to step over his personal elitism to run as a populist. Rarely does one spot a fascist in his revealed ideology; we observe what he does.

We are not at the point yet where the United States has been afflicted by state-level fascism. One hopes that it never will be. Are we under threat? Yes, and to understand the problem, we’ll have to know why fascism has emerged.

Is Donald Trump a fascist threat?

Donald Trump’s victory was the culmination of a bizarre irony: a man running against forty years of economic damage wrought by Boomers, bullies, and billionaires… despite being all three.

Establishment politicians represent, in today’s dysfunctional political environment, the disingenuous, effete, and hypocritical superego of the corporate system. In 2016, people decided to try out that system’s id.

How did this all happen? The mechanics of it deserve another essay, probably not in this series, but the short version is that Trump managed to unify, for a time, the otherwise disparate in-authority and out-of-authority fascisms. Corporate executives and race-war preppers do not go to the same parties, and they express their thuggish inclinations in different ways, but Trump managed to draw support from both crowds.

All of this being said, I don’t think of Donald Trump as a high-magnitude fascist threat to this country. I did not ever support him, did not vote for him, and was displeased (to put it mildly) when he won the election (which surprised me). He has done a lot of damage, especially on the environmental front. He has embarrassed us in front of the entire world. Still, he lacks the image necessary to pull sustained, effortless authoritarianism off.

Donald Trump puts explicitly what is subtle in corporate fascism. He doesn’t think differently from those people; he just can’t filter himself. In general, corporate fascism is effective because of its bloodlessness. Few people notice that it’s there unless they think deeply about it; corporate fascism presents itself as “not political”. (The corporate fascist’s enemies are the ones “being political.” That’s why they were fired. Trump’s authoritarianism, belched out 280 characters at a time, is too flagrant and plain-spoken for either the emasculated robot fascism of the corporate world or the lawfully-masculine (in presentation) inevitability of the brutal dictator.

Donald Trump, though, has an even bigger flaw as a would-be fascist: his lifestyle. He’s been a self-indulgent man-child for his entire life. On-camera fuckery built “the Trump brand”, which he’s cited as his most valuable asset. This was great for him when he was a zeitgeist of unapologetic, gangster capitalism. It’s repugnant, and so is fascism, but the brands of malignancy could not be more different.

For a contrast, the proper fascist dictator appears superficial. He cannot be self-indulgent in public. If he enjoys his power and wealth in front of people, he’ll be seen to have an appetite for comfort, which kills the aura of masculine inevitability that a fascist leader requires. Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a rich man late in life– Mein Kampf was a bestseller– and he likely had several mistresses. To the public, however, he presented himself as a simple-living, celibate man. He was married, he said, to the German people. The fascist’s sacrificial austerity gives credence to the perceived inevitability of his reign.

Donald Trump could not pull that off. He has been a volatile, self-absorbed clown in the public for longer than many of us have lived. His own history destroys him. Trump is the sort that thrives in disorder and damage, but sustained fascism requires a damaging order– and that’s quite different.

If fascism comes to the United States, it won’t come via the self-indulgent, emotionally incontinent septuagenarian in the White House. Instead, it’ll come under the aegis of a 39-year-old Silicon Valley tech founder whom few of us have heard of.

He’ll arrive with a pristine reputation, because (like anyone who succeeds in Silicon Valley) he will have preserved his image at any cost, destroying the careers of those who opposed him. The same sleazy tactics that founders, executives, and venture capitalists use to protect and expand their reputations, he’ll have mastered before he even considered going into politics.

He’ll use his dirty corporate tricks, more subtly than Trump, as well as the resources within his companies to build up an image of centrist, pragmatic, and professional competence. He’ll likely present himself as a bipartisan figure– a unifier “in these divided times”, a centrist capitalist who can also “speak nerd”. He may or may not hold racist views– he’s probably too smart to believe that shit– but when it suits him, he’ll use any racial tension he can to divide people, just as he used factional tensions within companies to build his corporate career.

State of the States

We can assess our current fascist risk by asking: what keeps fascism at bay? We have a constitutional government. That’s good, but it inevitably comes down to us what that means. Societies can be assessed on several planes: culture, politics, economics, and the social. I’ll cover each of them; doing this gives us a clear sense of how much danger exists, and whether it’s getting worse.

Center-leftists have underestimated the corporate and fascist threats over the past ten years, because they believe that we are winning the culture wars. That’s true enough right now. The religious right is dying out. Marijuana legalization once seemed impossibly radical. Same-sex marriage support is strong among the young. These are all very good signs. So, can’t we let time do its thing, considering our cultural headwinds?

No, we can’t. The cultural is driven, over time, by the economic. The economic and political drive each other; that arrow goes in both directions and sometimes it is hard to tell the planes apart. In turn, the economic and political are driven by the social: who knows whom and in what context, which groups are favored for various opportunities, et cetera. It suits us best to analyze the cultural, social, political, and economic planes separately and, in each, ask, in terms of the four elemental political impulses– communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism– “Are we fascist?”

Culturally, we are mostly communalistic. Division and exclusion are frowned-upon. A center-left coalition won the cultural wars of the late 20th-century. Two-thirds of Americans support gay marriage, and there’s no strong desire to prosecute harmless pot smokers. Racism still exists, but it’s largely detested. It’s more acceptable, by far, to err on the side of inclusivity than otherwise.

Sometimes, the right refers to our culture as being “politically correct”. Our popular culture is, for good and bad, deliberately inoffensive. This is likely tied in to the importance of our popular culture to our self-definition and economic standing; it is the most effective export we’ve ever had. To start, we would be an irrelevant European knock-off without the cultural influences of once-disparaged minorities. More importantly, if our popular culture were racist, misogynistic, or belligerently nationalistic, the rest of the world would be unlikely to buy it.

Culture, however, changes quickly; it did in the German 1930s, when Weimar liberalism fell, like so much else, to the Nazis. Environmental, political, economic, and social forces can crush cultural defenses. That happens all the time.

Politically, we remain a democratic republic. Our elections work. They do so imperfectly, but they work well enough that, when plutocrats cheat, they still bother to hide it. Voters have the power to fire representatives who become unaccountable to their constituents, and although it’s not used often enough, it is used. Though there are issues with our electoral system on account of its age, they’re not so severe that one would call us, at this point, a non-democracy.

For now, we’re on the better side of this one.

Economically, we are a market-driven libertarian society. That is not all bad. Many have argued that this is what should be. Do we need public control of the economy? To some degree, yes; total control is undesirable. Government should prevent poverty; but we can trust markets to, say, decide the price of toothpaste. Command economies are not innovative, they don’t work well at scale, and they’re too easily corruptible. When well-structured, and used in a society that takes care of the big-picture issues (e.g., basic income, job guarantees) so everyone has a vote, markets work.

It is not evil that our economy uses libertarian, market dynamics. It probably should. The evil is the totalitarian influence that economic life (not to mention artificial scarcity( has over everything else. Where people live, how they structure their time, and what careers are available to them, are all dictated by a closed social elite of unaccountable, often-malignant bureaucrats called “executives”.

When an economy functions well, it recedes. Economic life becomes less a part of daily existence as people become richer, freer, and more productive in their (fewer, usually) working hours. We’ve seen the opposite. We’ve seen dysfunction spreading. We’ve seen people sacrificing more of their life on the altar of the economic, without much progress.

It has been said to the young, “You don’t hate Mondays; you hate capitalism”. That’s not quite right. Working Americans aren’t miserable at their jobs because, say, oil prices are set by free markets. They’re miserable because of corruption. They’re miserable because they are forced by circumstance to work for a malignant elite– a predominantly social rather than economic one– that despises them.

We’ve covered the good news: we are culturally communalistic. We are politically republican. We are economically libertarian. Generally, this is how things should be. So what’s wrong?

Socially, we are fascist. On the social plane, we are not “becoming fascist”. We are not “at risk of fascism”. We are there. A malignant upper class has won.

As discussed, is social drives the political; the political often drives the economic; economic forces drive culture far more than the other way around. As we are thoroughly corrupt, in the social plane, we should understand that we are not in danger until there is a radical overhaul of our current upper class. State-level fascism isn’t here yet, but we’re governed by an elite (“the 0.1 percent”) that would make it so, if it were in their personal interests. Everything could fall, and it wouldn’t take long.

For example, we’ve already lost freedom of speech. The federal government cannot bar political disagreement or peaceful opposition. But employers can– and do. Job opportunities are stolen from people based on social media posts but, at the same time, job opportunities can be stolen from people because they don’t use social media.

One of the key revelations of the 2010s is that only one social class distinction matters in the United States: those with generational wealth and social connections (“the 0.1 percent”) and those without. The higher-income supposed upper-middle and middle classes will be just as screwed, if a significant percentage of jobs are automated out of existence, as the poor. In any case, the upper class has all the important land and runs all the important institutions. It decides, monopolistically, what jobs people get: who works on what, when, and where. Some people get to be VPs of Marketing and university presidents who earn $1 million dollars per year for three hours per week of work; others get blacklisted and become unemployable. There are people who make those decisions; most of us are not among them.

Under fascism, the governed compete while power unifies. That’s what we’re observing in the corporate world right now. “Performance” is a myth. “Meritocracy” is a malevolent joke on the middle class (and “middle class” is itself, under our fascist society, a distinction invented to make upper-proles feel better about ourselves, and to divide us against lower-proles). What actually matters, in corporate jobs? Not performance. Not even profits. (I’ll come back to that.) Loyalty to the existing upper class. Corporate do not work for shareholders; in practice, they work for their management.

Corporate executives, in truth, have insulated themselves from meaningful competition. It will occur on occasion that one must be replaced. When this happens, they ensure a soft landing for the outgoing executive, while ensuring another member of their class steps in. Positions are shuffled around, but they keep these overpaid positions confined to a small elite. None of us really have a chance at those jobs; the idea that anyone can make it is just a cruel joke they play.

These people set each other’s pay. They use clever systems to hide the class’s rapacious self-dealing. For example, venture capital allows a rich man’s son to manufacture the appearance of success on a competitive market– he’s an entrepreneur, he says– when, in truth, the clients and resources are furtively delivered by their backers. This ruse and many others make it appear merit-based when their children succeed, at the expense of ours.

There is some competition allowed within the upper class, but there are rules to it. No one can damage the image for fortune of the class. Corporate executives are far more vicious in their competition against their workers than against nominally antagonistic firms: competitors in the classical sense.

Executives self-deal and get away with it, because their bosses are other executives, who are doing the same. Is all this self-dealing good for corporate profits? It’s hard to say. Executive-level fascism reduces performance but it seems to reduce variance. The left is often to quick to assert that social evils derive from “profit motive” when it is, in fact, executive self-dealing that is the essence of the corporate problem. Profit maximizing has its own moral issues, but they’re not the most relevant ones.

Do executives care about profit? They want to make enough profit to appease shareholders, and not a dollar more. If they’re making outsized profits, they could have paid themselves better. They could have hidden money in the company, to be drawn out in bad times. They could have used those profits to push efforts that would improve and expand their personal reputations. To an executive, a dollar of profit is waste, because he wasn’t able to find a way to take it for himself. In Corporate America, no executive works for a company. Companies (and their workers) work for executives.

What about shareholders? Why don’t they step in and drop a pipe on these self-dealing, comfort-addicted executives? The answer is that the shareholders who matter are… wait for it… rich people. How did they get rich? By sitting in overpaid executive positions, peddling connections, and ingratiating themselves to the upper class. They will never quash the executive swindle. That game keeps them rich, and ensures that their children are even richer. Perhaps it would do good for “companies” in the abstract if someone stepped in on executive excess, but it would be so bad for the upper class that it will never happen.

Of course, if returns to shareholders are abysmal– enough for the press and public to take notice– there will be executive shuffling, but it’s engineered so that no one really gets hurt. A CEO can be fired, yes, but with generous severance, and his career will be handed back to him (plus interest) within a year or two. The only thing that would put an executive on the outs would be disloyalty to the upper class itself. That, they would never forgive; he would likely be suicided.

What about when firms compete, as they’re nominally supposed to? Firms will compete for customers; that is true. Sometimes, they do so ruthlessly. It is not bad, from the consumer’s end, to live under capitalism. What firms cannot stand is having to compete for workers or their loyalty. They will ruin the careers of people who try to make them do that. Sure, they whine from time to time about a tight labor market and a lack of domestic talent, usually in order to scam the government into allowing them to hire more indentured servants from abroad, but their incessant whining about competition is a part of their strategy to ensure they never face it. They consider “job hopping” a sin, because they can’t tolerate the idea of having to compete for a subject’s loyalty. They share data on personnel and compensation, often in violation of the law (which they do not care about, since they own the most expensive attorneys). Most companies, before finalizing a job offer, call references: other managers at nominally competing firms. This would make no sense if there were real competition between companies. It makes complete sense if there is not.

Executives are not rewarded or punished based on their loyalty to shareholders, but rather to the upper class. Middle managers (who are not part of the upper class, and have no reason to care about it) are, in turn, rewarded or punished based on loyalty to their superiors’ careers. Workers, by and large, know that in today’s one-chance, fast-firing corporate culture, they don’t work for “companies” at all; they work for managers. The explicit theme of class domination is obscured to some degree, leaving workers unsure whether that their failure to advance may be a personal failure, and therefore avoiding public admission of the otherwise prosaic fact: the game has been rigged against them. Only one in a thousand who tries for corporate entry into the upper class will be accepted, and this will require total moral self-deletion.

I’ve mentioned the loss of one’s freedom of speech under corporate rule and that, at the same time, many people must nonetheless have social media profiles to have a career. It “looks weird” to people in HR not to have “a LinkedIn” or “a Twitter”. Opting out of technological surveillance is not an option for many people. They’ve been tricked and extorted into rendering unto current and future employers– corporate capitalism, that is– information that will only be used against them.

Mainstream corporate employers are not especially tolerant. It is bad to be the office liberal, the office conservative, the office Christian, the office atheist, or the office Jew. To win at corporate self-presentation, one must be prolifically bland. One should avoid excess and abstinence both in profanity. One should avoid the topic of labor rights at all costs. What about our other cultural institutions, though? What about our press, our universities, and our sundry nonprofit organizations? Yes, mainstream magazines will publish center-left views. Universities in particular house more leftist than conservative voices. How much will this protect us? Not that much, I’m afraid. Most people will not be part of those institutions for life, and therefore still rely on the Adversary for their careers. Even outside of the for-profit world, many are trained to turn on those who threaten the hegemony of the generationally well-connected. This is a shame, because that’s our society’s number-one problem right now.

State-level fascism hasn’t arrived yet, but our social elite has been preparing for it for decades. They are in no hurry to make it happen, but they will if they judge it to favor their interests. Why have they been fomenting right-wing populism– using racial resentments, religious bigotry, and the frank irrationality that emerges from stunted masculinity and (economically enforced) permanent adolescence? To ensure that, no matter what else happens during a populist uprising, they’ll have an easy time getting their money out of it. The upper class has convinced the rabble that generational wealth and connections– neither of which the rabble themselves have– are a right; meanwhile, leftists and racial minorities are a source of their misery.

This society is set up so that, if such events come to pass, the most armed and ready militants will be on the right wing. Not only will this support the elite’s economic goals and keep the proletariat divided against itself, but it will also mean that any revolutionary effort is likely to be overcome by people with such repugnant ideological and cultural aims that they will never gain global sympathy. The upper class would rather have a 95 percent chance of a rightist-racist revolt that no one (present company included) would support than a 25 percent chance of a leftist revolt that would quickly gain global sympathy.

Do today’s generationally well-connected want to live under state-level fascism? They don’t care. They wouldn’t be living under it; they’d be running it. I do not think they are, down to a man, ardent fascists. I imagine that the vast majority are individually apathetic on the matter. So long as they live in a world where they don’t have to compete for what they have, they remain disinterested in ideology. If fascism rises, they will quickly support it, not because of prior ideological commitment, but because it is practically designed for them; though fascism presents itself as popular indignation, it is deliberately constructed to keep the powerful (except for a few, who may be scapegoated) out of harm’s way.

Socially, we already have fascism. The generationally well-connected live with impunity. They do not tolerate division within their ranks, and do whatever they can to divide us against each other. This includes the division between so-called “red” and “blue” America, which are allegiances to manufactured brands– bloodless center-leftism and right-wing indignation, both of which are harmless to the entrenched upper class– more than coherent ideologies. Meanwhile, our society is almost entirely constructed so that no one can represent significant harm to upper-class interests and keep his career, reputation, and life intact.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss how we got here. Our turn toward fascism in the social sphere occurred around 1975; it is often blamed (hyperbolically, oversimplistically) on the Baby Boom generation. In truth, the sequence of events that led us there was, if not inevitable, predictable and cannot be blamed on a specific generation. So in Part 3, we’ll get a handle on how our current fascist mess was made– and how it might be unmade.