“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand

The “libertarians” at Reason.com (or one of them, at least) jump on the rightly reviled Nancy MacLean — author of Democracy in Chains — for having said that economist James M. Buchanan (a target of her book) and other early leaders of the limited-government movement “seem to be on the autism spectrum.”

A stopped watch is right twice a day. MacLean isn’t a stopped watch, but she’s right for once.

There’s something about so-called libertarians — at least the ones whose writings I’m familiar with — that led me once upon a time to say following in “The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament” (block quotation format omitted for ease of reading):

[My] migration from doctrinaire libertarian to libertarian-conservative took place in the last decade, that is, since I began blogging in 2004. Why did my political world-view shift at so late an age? Because I came to realize, without the benefit of familiarity with Haidt’s work, that one’s political views tend to be driven by one’s temperament. That struck me as an irrational way of choosing a political stance, so — despite my own “libertarian” temperament — I came around to a libertarian brand of conservatism, one that I have sometimes called Burkean-Hayekian libertarianism (or conservatism).

The typical “libertarian” — the kind of pseudo-libertarian that I refuse to be — is stridently against religion, for “open” borders, for same-sex “marriage,” for abortion, and against war (except possibly when, too late, he sees the whites of his enemy’s eyes). Mutually beneficial coexistence based on trust and respect deriving from the common observance of traditional, voluntarily evolved social norms? Are you kidding? Only “libertarians” know how their inferiors (the “masses”) should live their lives, and they don’t blink at the use of state power to make it so. How “liberal” of them.

What temperament is typical of the pseudo-libertarian? Here’s [Todd] Zywicki [writing at The Volokh Conspiracy]:

Haidt finds that [pseudo] libertarians place a much higher emphasis on rationality and logical reasoning than do other ideologies. But that doesn’t mean that [pseudo] libertarian beliefs are less-motivated by unexamined psychological predispositions than other ideologies. Again, take the idea that [pseudo] libertarians believe that “consistency” is a relevant variable for measuring the moral worth or persuasiveness of an ideology. But that is not a self-justifying claim: one still must ask why “consistency” maters or should matter. So while [pseudo] libertarians may place a higher stated value on rational argumentation, that does not mean that [pseudo] libertarian premises are any less built upon subjective psychological foundations.

Zywicki links to an article by Haidt and others, “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians” (PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042366), which arrives at this diagnosis of the pseudo-libertarian condition:

[They] have a unique moral-psychological profile, endorsing the principle of liberty as an end and devaluing many of the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives. Although causal conclusions remain beyond our current reach, our findings indicate a robust relationship between [pseudo] libertarian morality, a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker, less-binding social relationships [emphasis added].

That’s an uncomfortable but accurate description of my temperamental leanings, which reflect my almost-off-the-chart introversion. As the old saying goes, it takes one to know one. Thus, as I have written,

[p]seudo-libertarian rationalists seem to believe that social bonding is irrelevant to cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior; life, to them, is an economic arrangement.

Elsewhere:

[They] have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society….

And here:

Pseudo-libertarianism …. posits a sterile, abstract standard of conduct — one that has nothing to do with the workaday world of humanity….

That is not libertarianism. It is sophomoric dream-spinning.

Finally:

[P]seudo-libertarianism [is a] contrivance[], based … on … an unrealistic, anti-social view of humans as arms-length negotiators…. Pseudo-libertarianism can be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe-dream….

To the doctrinaire pseudo-libertarian, a perfect world would be full of cold-blooded rationalists. Well, perfect until he actually had to live in such a world.

End of quotation. (I especially like the phrase “introverted myopia”.)

What is my own “libertarian” temperament? This is from “Empathy Is Overrated” (block quotation format omitted again):

I scored 12 (out of 80) on a quiz that accompanies the article. My score, according to the key at the bottom, places me below persons with Asperger’s or low-functioning autism, who score about 20. My result is not a fluke; it is consistent with my MBTI type: Introverted-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging (INTJ), and with my scores on the Big-five personality traits:

Extraversion — 4th percentile for males over the age of 21/11th percentile for males above the age of 60

Agreeableness — 4th percentile/4th percentile

Conscientiousness – 99th percentile/94th percentile

Emotional stability — 12th percentile/14th percentile

Openness — 93rd percentile/66th percentile

End of quotation.

I recite all of this background because I was reminded of my characterization of “libertarians” by Arnold Kling, who today quotes from a piece by Shanu Athiparambath, “Ayn Rand Had Asperger’s Syndrome“:

Ayn Rand, in all likelihood, knew nothing about the autism spectrum. But she could draw from her own life and experiences. The creator of Howard Roark worked obsessively, evening after evening. She rarely went out. Ayn Rand was extremely nervous before public functions, but there was a violent intensity about her. She observed, rightly, that boredom preserves the precarious dignity of people who love small talk. Her sensitivity to cruelty and injustice has largely escaped her readers. All her life, she collected things, and kept them in separate file folders. Her grandmother gifted her a chest of drawers to store her collections, and her mother complained about all the rubbish she collected. She loved ordering and categorizing things, something very fundamental to the autistic cognitive style. Ayn Rand ticks way too many boxes.

Kling, himself, wrote this ten years ago:

In Rand’s study…There were more than two hundred grocer’s cartons, each divided into sections and filled to the brim with colored stones Rand had collected and sorted.

This is from Anne C. Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand. Based on reading Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy, I would view this stone-sorting behavior as a symptom of someone who was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Heller does not mention autism or Aspergers’, but there is much in her biography of Rand to lead one to speculate that Rand was a high-functioning individual with that sort of disorder.

I don’t believe for a second that Rand was unique among “libertarians”. On the contrary, I believe that she was normal (as “libertarians” go), and that her “introverted myopia” drove her political philosophy.

Has Humanity Reached Peak Intelligence?

That’s the title of a post at BBC Future by David Robson, a journalist who has written a book called The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes. Inasmuch as “humanity” isn’t a collective to which “intelligence” can be attached, the title is more titillating than informative about the substance of the post, wherein Mr. Robson says some sensible things; for example:

When the researcher James Flynn looked at [IQ] scores over the past century, he discovered a steady increase – the equivalent of around three points a decade. Today, that has amounted to 30 points in some countries.

Although the cause of the Flynn effect is still a matter of debate, it must be due to multiple environmental factors rather than a genetic shift.

Perhaps the best comparison is our change in height: we are 11cm (around 5 inches) taller today than in the 19th Century, for instance – but that doesn’t mean our genes have changed; it just means our overall health has changed.

Indeed, some of the same factors may underlie both shifts. Improved medicine, reducing the prevalence of childhood infections, and more nutritious diets, should have helped our bodies to grow taller and our brains to grow smarter, for instance. Some have posited that the increase in IQ might also be due to a reduction of the lead in petrol, which may have stunted cognitive development in the past. The cleaner our fuels, the smarter we became.

This is unlikely to be the complete picture, however, since our societies have also seen enormous shifts in our intellectual environment, which may now train abstract thinking and reasoning from a young age. In education, for instance, most children are taught to think in terms of abstract categories (whether animals are mammals or reptiles, for instance). We also lean on increasingly abstract thinking to cope with modern technology. Just think about a computer and all the symbols you have to recognise and manipulate to do even the simplest task. Growing up immersed in this kind of thinking should allow everyone [hyperbole alert] to cultivate the skills needed to perform well in an IQ test….

[Psychologist Robert Sternberg] is not alone in questioning whether the Flynn effect really represented a profound improvement in our intellectual capacity, however. James Flynn himself has argued that it is probably confined to some specific reasoning skills. In the same way that different physical exercises may build different muscles – without increasing overall “fitness” – we have been exercising certain kinds of abstract thinking, but that hasn’t necessarily improved all cognitive skills equally. And some of those other, less well-cultivated, abilities could be essential for improving the world in the future.

Here comes the best part:

You might assume that the more intelligent you are, the more rational you are, but it’s not quite this simple. While a higher IQ correlates with skills such as numeracy, which is essential to understanding probabilities and weighing up risks, there are still many elements of rational decision making that cannot be accounted for by a lack of intelligence.

Consider the abundant literature on our cognitive biases. Something that is presented as “95% fat-free” sounds healthier than “5% fat”, for instance – a phenomenon known as the framing bias. It is now clear that a high IQ does little to help you avoid this kind of flaw, meaning that even the smartest people can be swayed by misleading messages.

People with high IQs are also just as susceptible to the confirmation bias – our tendency to only consider the information that supports our pre-existing opinions, while ignoring facts that might contradict our views. That’s a serious issue when we start talking about things like politics.

Nor can a high IQ protect you from the sunk cost bias – the tendency to throw more resources into a failing project, even if it would be better to cut your losses – a serious issue in any business. (This was, famously, the bias that led the British and French governments to continue funding Concorde planes, despite increasing evidence that it would be a commercial disaster.)

Highly intelligent people are also not much better at tests of “temporal discounting”, which require you to forgo short-term gains for greater long-term benefits. That’s essential, if you want to ensure your comfort for the future.

Besides a resistance to these kinds of biases, there are also more general critical thinking skills – such as the capacity to challenge your assumptions, identify missing information, and look for alternative explanations for events before drawing conclusions. These are crucial to good thinking, but they do not correlate very strongly with IQ, and do not necessarily come with higher education. One study in the USA found almost no improvement in critical thinking throughout many people’s degrees.

Given these looser correlations, it would make sense that the rise in IQs has not been accompanied by a similarly miraculous improvement in all kinds of decision making.

So much for the bright people who promote and pledge allegiance to socialism and its various manifestations (e.g., the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All). So much for the bright people who suppress speech with which they disagree because it threatens the groupthink that binds them.

Robson, still using “we” inappropriately, also discusses evidence of dysgenic effects in IQ:

Whatever the cause of the Flynn effect, there is evidence that we may have already reached the end of this era – with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing. If you look at Finland, Norway and Denmark, for instance, the turning point appears to have occurred in the mid-90s, after which average IQs dropped by around 0.2 points a year. That would amount to a seven-point difference between generations.

Psychologist (and intelligence specialist) James Thompson has addressed dysgenic effects at his blog on the website of The Unz Review. In particular, he had a lot to say about the work of an intelligence researcher named Michael Woodley. Here’s a sample from a post by Thompson:

We keep hearing that people are getting brighter, at least as measured by IQ tests. This improvement, called the Flynn Effect, suggests that each generation is brighter than the previous one. This might be due to improved living standards as reflected in better food, better health services, better schools and perhaps, according to some, because of the influence of the internet and computer games. In fact, these improvements in intelligence seem to have been going on for almost a century, and even extend to babies not in school. If this apparent improvement in intelligence is real we should all be much, much brighter than the Victorians.

Although IQ tests are good at picking out the brightest, they are not so good at providing a benchmark of performance. They can show you how you perform relative to people of your age, but because of cultural changes relating to the sorts of problems we have to solve, they are not designed to compare you across different decades with say, your grandparents.

Is there no way to measure changes in intelligence over time on some absolute scale using an instrument that does not change its properties? In the Special Issue on the Flynn Effect of the journal Intelligence Drs Michael Woodley (UK), Jan te Nijenhuis (the Netherlands) and Raegan Murphy (Ireland) have taken a novel approach in answering this question. It has long been known that simple reaction time is faster in brighter people. Reaction times are a reasonable predictor of general intelligence. These researchers have looked back at average reaction times since 1889 and their findings, based on a meta-analysis of 14 studies, are very sobering.

It seems that, far from speeding up, we are slowing down. We now take longer to solve this very simple reaction time “problem”.  This straightforward benchmark suggests that we are getting duller, not brighter. The loss is equivalent to about 14 IQ points since Victorian times.

So, we are duller than the Victorians on this unchanging measure of intelligence. Although our living standards have improved, our minds apparently have not. What has gone wrong?

From a later post:

The Flynn Effect co-exists with the Woodley Effect. Since roughly 1870 the Flynn Effect has been stronger, at an apparent 3 points per decade. The Woodley effect is weaker, at very roughly 1 point per decade. Think of Flynn as the soil fertilizer effect and Woodley as the plant genetics effect. The fertilizer effect seems to be fading away in rich countries, while continuing in poor countries, though not as fast as one would desire. The genetic effect seems to show a persistent gradual fall in underlying ability.

Woodley’s claim is based on a set of papers written since 2013, which have been recently reviewed by [Matthew] Sarraf.

The review is unusual, to say the least. It is rare to read so positive a judgment on a young researcher’s work, and it is extraordinary that one researcher has changed the debate about ability levels across generations, and all this in a few years since starting publishing in psychology.

The table in that review which summarizes the main findings is shown below. As you can see, the range of effects is very variable, so my rough estimate of 1 point per decade is a stab at calculating a median. It is certainly less than the Flynn Effect in the 20th Century, though it may now be part of the reason for the falling of that effect, now often referred to as a “negative Flynn effect”….

Here are the findings which I have arranged by generational decline (taken as 25 years).

  • Colour acuity, over 20 years (0.8 generation) 3.5 drop/decade.
  • 3D rotation ability, over 37 years (1.5 generations) 4.8 drop/decade.
  • Reaction times, females only, over 40 years (1.6 generations) 1.8 drop/decade.
  • Working memory, over 85 years (3.4 generations) 0.16 drop/decade.
  • Reaction times, over 120 years (4.8 generations) 0.57-1.21 drop/decade.
  • Fluctuating asymmetry, over 160 years (6.4 generations) 0.16 drop/decade.

Either the measures are considerably different, and do not tap the same underlying loss of mental ability, or the drop is unlikely to be caused by dysgenic decrements from one generation to another. Bar massive dying out of populations, changes do not come about so fast from one generation to the next. The drops in ability are real, but the reason for the falls are less clear. Gathering more data sets would probably clarify the picture, and there is certainly cause to argue that on various real measures there have been drops in ability. Whether this is dysgenics or some other insidious cause is not yet clear to me.

My view is that whereas formerly the debate was only about the apparent rise in ability, discussions are now about the co-occurrence of two trends: the slowing down of the environmental gains and the apparent loss of genetic quality. In the way that James Flynn identified an environmental/cultural effect, Michael Woodley has identified a possible genetic effect, and certainly shown that on some measures we are doing less well than our ancestors.

How will they be reconciled? Time will tell, but here is a prediction. I think that the Flynn effect will fade in wealthy countries, persist with fading effect in poor countries, and that the Woodley effect will continue, though I do not know the cause of it.

Here’s my hypothesis, which I offer on the assumption that the test-takers are demographically representative of the whole populations of the countries in which they were tested: The less-intelligent portions of the populace are breeding faster than the more-intelligent portions. That phenomenon is magnified by the rapid growth of the Muslim component of Europe’s population and the rapid growth of the Latino component of America’s population.

(See also “The Learning Curve and the Flynn Effect“, “More about Intelligence“, “Selected Writings about Intelligence“, and especially “Intelligence“.)

An Antidote to Alienation

This much of Marx’s theory of alienation bears a resemblance to the truth:

The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers)….

[T]he generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for “a job well done.”

These statements are true not only of assembly-line manufacturing. They’re also true of much “white collar” work — certainly routine office work and even a lot of research work that requires advanced degrees in scientific and semi-scientific disciplines (e.g., economics). They are certainly true of “blue collar” work that is rote, and in which the worker has no ownership stake.

There’s a relevant post at West Hunter which is short enough to quote in full:

Many have noted how difficult it is to persuade hunter-gatherers to adopt agriculture, or more generally, to get people to adopt a more intensive kind of agriculture.

It’s worth noting that, given the choice, few individuals pick the more intensive, more ‘civilized’ way of life, even when their ancestors have practiced it for thousands of years.

Benjamin Franklin talked about this. “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

The life of the hunter-gatherer, however fraught, is less rationalized than the kind of life that’s represented by intensive agriculture, let alone modern manufacturing, transportation, wholesaling, retailing, and office work.

The hunter-gatherer isn’t a cog in a machine, he is the machine: the shareholder, the co-manager, the co-worker, and the consumer, all in one. His work with others is truly cooperative. It is like the execution of a game-winning touchdown by a football team, and unlike the passing of a product from stage to stage in an assembly line, or the passing of a virtual piece of paper from computer to computer.

The hunter-gatherer’s social milieu was truly societal:

Hunter-gatherer bands in the [Pleistocene] were in the range of 25 to 150 individuals: men, women, and children. These small bands would have sometimes formed larger agglomerations of up to a few thousand for the purpose of mate-seeking and defense, but this would have been unusual. The typically small size for bands meant that interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing the name and something of the reputation and character of everyone else. Though group members would have engaged in some specializa­tion of labor beyond the normal sex distinctions (men as hunters, women as gatherers), specialization would not have been strict: all men, for example, would haft adzes, make spears, find game, kill, and dress it, and hunt in bands of ten to twenty individuals. [From Denis Dutton’s review of Paul Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom.]

Nor is the limit of 150 unique to hunter-gatherer bands:

[C]ommunal societies — like those our ancestors lived in, or in any human group for that matter — tend to break down at about 150. Such is perhaps due to our limited brain capacity to know any more people that intimately, but it’s also due to the breakdown of reciprocal relationships like those discussed above — after a certain number (again, around 150).

A great example of this is given by Richard Stroup and John Baden in an old article about communal Hutterite colonies. (Hutterites are sort of like the Amish — or more broadly like Mennonites — but settled in different areas of North America.) Stroup, an economist at Montana State University, shared with me his Spring 1972 edition of Public Choice, wherein he and political scientist John Baden write:

In a relatively small colony, the proportional contribution of each member is greater. Likewise, surveillance of him by each of the others is more complete and an informal accounting of contribution is feasible. In a colony, there are no elaborate systems of formal controls over a person’s contribution. Thus, in general, the incentive and surveillance structures of a small or medium-size colony are more effective than those of a large colony and shirking is lessened.

Interestingly, according to Stroup and Baden, once the Hutterites reach Magic Number 150, they have a tradition of breaking off and forming another colony. This idea is echoed in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, wherein he discusses successful companies that use 150 in their organizational models.

Had anyone known about this circa 1848, someone might have told Karl Marx that his theory [communism] could work, but only up to the Magic Number. [From Max Borders’s “The Stone Age Trinity“.]

What all of this means, of course, is that for the vast majority of people there’s no going back. How many among us are willing — really willing — to trade our creature comforts for the “simple life”? Few would be willing when faced with the reality of what the “simple life” means; for example, catching or growing your own food, dawn-to-post-dusk drudgery, nothing resembling culture as we know it (high or low), and lives that are far closer to nasty, brutish, and short than today’s norms.

Given that, it is important (nay, crucial) to cultivate an inner life of intellectual or spiritual satisfaction. Only that inner life — and the love and friendship of a small circle of fellows — can hold alienation at bay. Only that inner life — and love and close friendships — can give us serenity as civilization crumbles around us.

(See also “Alienation” and “Another Angle on Alienation“.)

The Learning Curve and the Flynn Effect

UPDATED 09/14/19

I first learned of the learning curve when I was a newly hired analyst at a defense think-tank. A learning curve

is a graphical representation of how an increase in learning (measured on the vertical axis) comes from greater experience (the horizontal axis); or how the more someone (or something) performs a task, the better they [sic] get at it.

In my line of work, the learning curve figured importantly in the estimation of aircraft procurement costs. There was a robust statistical relationship between the cost of making a particular model of aircraft and the cumulative number of such aircraft produced. Armed with the learning-curve equation and the initial production cost of an aircraft, it was easy to estimate of the cost of producing any number of the same aircraft.

The learning curve figures prominently in tests that purport to measure intelligence. Two factors that may explain the Flynn effect — a secular rise in average IQ scores — are aspects of learning: schooling and test familiarity and a generally more stimulating environment in which one learns more. The Flynn effect doesn’t measure changes in intelligence, it measures changes in IQ scores resulting from learning. There is an essential difference between ignorance and stupidity. The Flynn effect is about the former, not the latter.

Here’s a personal example of the Flynn effect in action. I’ve been doing The New York Times crossword puzzle online since February 18 of this year. I have completed all 210 puzzles published by TNYT from that date through the puzzle for September 15, with generally increasing ease:

The difficulty of the puzzle varies from day to day, with Monday puzzles being the easiest and Sunday puzzles being the hardest (as measured by time to complete). For each day of the week, my best time is more recent than my worst time, and the trend of time to complete is downward for every day of the week (as reflected in the graph above). In fact, in the past week I tied my best time for a Monday puzzle and set new bests for the Thursday and Friday puzzles.

I know that that I haven’t become more intelligent in the last 30 weeks. And being several decades past the peak of my intelligence, I am certain that it diminishes daily, though only fractionally so (I hope). I have simply become more practiced at doing the crossword puzzle because I have learned a lot about it. For example, certain clues recur with some frequency, and they always have the same answers. Clues often have double meanings, which were hard to decipher at first, but which have become easier to decipher with practice. There are other subtleties, all of which reflect the advantages of learning.

In a nutshell, I am no smarter than I was 30 weeks ago, but my ignorance of TNYT crossword puzzle has diminished significantly.

(See also “More about Intelligence“, “Selected Writings about Intelligence“, and especially “Intelligence“, in which I quote experts about the Flynn Effect.)

Thoughts about Mass Shootings

The shootings yesterday and today in El Paso and Dayton have, of course, redoubled the commitment of Democrats to something called “gun control”. This is nothing more than another instance of the left’s penchant for magical thinking.

The root of the problem isn’t a lack of “gun control”, it’s a lack of self-control — a lack that has become endemic to America since the 1960s. As I say in “Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown“, that lack is caused by (among other things):

  • governmental incentives to act irresponsibly, epitomized by the murder of unborn children as a form of after-the-fact birth control, and more widely instituted by the vast expansion of the “social safety net”
  • treatment of bad behavior as an illness (with a resulting reliance on medications), instead of putting a stop to it and punishing it
  • the erosion and distortion of the meaning of justice, beginning with the virtual elimination of the death penalty, continuing on to the failure to put down and punish riots, and culminating in the persecution and prosecution of persons who express the “wrong” opinions
  • governmental encouragement and subsidization of the removal of mothers from the home to the workplace
  • the decline of two-parent homes and the rise of illegitimacy
  • the complicity of government officials who failed to enforce existing laws and actively promoted leniency in their enforcement (see this and this, for example).

It is therefore

entirely reasonable to suggest that mass murder … is of a piece with violence in America, which increased rapidly after 1960s and has been contained only by dint of massive incarceration. Violence in general and mass-murder in particular flow from the subversion and eradication of civilizing social norms, which began in earnest in the 1960s. The numbers bear me out.

Drawing on Wikipedia, I compiled a list of 317 incidents of mass murder in the United States from the early 1800s through 2017….

These graphs are derived from the consolidated list of incidents:


The vertical scale is truncated to allow for a better view of the variations in the casualty rate. In 1995, there were 869 casualties in 3 incidents (an average of 290); about 850 of the casualties resulted from the Oklahoma City bombing.

The federal assault weapons ban — really a ban on the manufacture of new weapons of certain kinds — is highlighted because it is often invoked as the kind of measure that should be taken to reduce the incidence of mass murders and the number of casualties they produce. Even Wikipedia — which is notoriously biased toward the left — admits (as of today) that “the ban produced almost no significant results in reducing violent gun crimes and was allowed to expire.”

There is no compelling, contrary evidence in the graphs. The weapons-ban “experiment” was too limited in scope and too-short lived to have had any appreciable effect on mass murder. For one thing, mass-murderers are quite capable of using weapons other than firearms. The years with the three highest casualty rates (second graph) are years in which most of the carnage was caused by arson (1958) and bombing (1995 and 2013).

The most obvious implication of this analysis is found in the upper graph. The incidence of mass murders was generally declining from the early 1900s to the early 1960s. Then all hell broke loose.

I rest my case.

(See also “Reductio ad Sclopetum, or Getting to the Bottom of ‘Gun Control’“, “‘This Has to Stop’“, and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty“, especially UTILITARIANISM AND GUN CONTROL VS. LIBERTY.)

Some Conundrums

Here are five (my answers are below):

1. Why are killers (too often) not killed for their crimes?

2. Why can some parties suppress and distort the speech of others, yet continue to enjoy the liberties (including freedom of speech) that enable their actions?

3. How is it that some very-rich persons claim to pay “too little” in taxes, yet they (a) do not voluntarily contribute to the U.S. Treasury and (b) want to impose higher taxes on persons who are not very rich?

4. If “climate change” is a problem that causes the governments of some cities and States to impose extraordinary regulations (e.g., extra gasoline taxes, tighter emissions standards), why do those same governments countenance any activity that (supposedly) contributes to “climate change” (e.g., municipal transit, official travel, subsidized arenas, the construction of houses larger than, say, 2,000 square feet)? (And do the officials who push such regulations bother to compute the vanishingly small effect of those regulations on “climate change”, assuming that there is any effect?)

5. Why do so many people choose to live in metropolitan areas — only to complain about crime, traffic congestion, high prices, and stress — when they could be relieved of those woes by moving out? The opportunities are rife:

Answers:

1. The opposition to capital punishment is an exemplar of politically correct (i.e., muddled) thinking. It is epitomized in this common combination of attitudes: aborting an innocent fetus is all right; killing a killer is bad. Why? Because killing is “bad”, regardless of the end it serves.  It is like the PC idea that saying “gun”, drawing one, or owning one is bad because guns are “bad”, no matter what (unless your hired bodyguard carries a gun).

2. Leniency with respect to entities that suppress speech is of a piece with pacifism. It invites the aggressor to do unto you what you should do unto him before he can do it unto you.

3. Some very-rich persons are empty-headed twits who care more about virtue-signalling than they care about the welfare of their fellow citizens (those who pay taxes, at any rate), and they are hypocrites, to boot.

4. Change the preceding answer by substituting “municipal and State officials” for “very-rich persons”.

5. The are many reasons for staying in a metropolitan area, some of them good ones; for example, moving to an extra-metropolitan area would mean the loss of ready access to “culture” (arts, entertainment, dining, organized sports), the abandonment of established social relationships, and very possibly (because of a dearth of suitable jobs) a drastic reduction in one’s standard of living despite lower housing costs. There are, however, some reasons that are merely self-defeating, namely, inertia and pride (e.g., reluctance to give up the Lexus SUV and McMansion). Putting up with crime, traffic congestion, high prices, and stress — while complaining about such things — points to the uselessness of most surveys. Talk is cheap.

Rooted in the Real World of Real People

I am far from nostalgic about my home town. But it’s still my home town, and I often revisit it in my mind’s eye.

The only places that I mentally revisit with pleasure are the first home that I can remember — where I lived from age 1 to age 7 — and the first of the three red-brick school houses that I attended.

I haven’t been to my home town in four years. The occasion was the funeral of my mother, who lived to the age of 99.

I may not go back again. But it’s still my home town.

I think of it that way not only because I grew up there but also because it’s a “real” place: a small, mostly run-down, Midwestern city with a population of about 30,000 — the largest city in a county that lies beyond the fringes of the nearest metropolitan area.

Perhaps I’m nostalgic about it, after all, because “real” places like my home town seem to be vanishing from the face of America. By real, I mean places where (real) people still work with their hands; live in houses that are older than they are, and have fewer bathrooms than bedrooms; mow their own lawns, clean their own homes, and make their own meals (except when they partake of the American Legion fish fry or go to a Chick-Fil-A); bowl, hunt, fish, stroll their neighborhoods and know their neighbors (who have been their neighbors for decades); read Reader’s Digest, Popular Mechanics, and romance novels; go to bars that lack ferns and chrome; prefer Fox News and country music to NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and hip-hop; go to church and say grace before meals; and vote for politicians who don’t think of real people as racists, ignoramuses, gun nuts, or religious zealots (“deplorables”, in other words).

In fact, America is (or was) those real places with real people in them. And it is vanishing with them.

P.S. I have lived outside the real world of real people for a very long time, but the older I get, the more I miss it.

In Praise of Prejudice

The title of this post is borrowed from Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas. John Stuart Mill, who epitomized The Enlightenment, is a main target of Dalyrmple’s book.

Social custom (along with monarchy and religion) was a main target of The Enlightment. Mill’s On Liberty (1869) is an extended attack on social custom, as Dalyrymple explains:

For Mill, custom is an evil that is the principle obstruction to progress and moral improvement, and its group on society is so strong that originality, unconventionality, and rebellion against it are goods in themselves, irrespective of their actual content. The man who flouts a convention ipso facto raises society from its torpor and lets everyone know that there are different, and better, ways of doing things. The more such people there are, the greater the likelihood of progress….

Of radical evil, in which the [twentieth] century was to abound, [Mill] has nothing to say, and therefore he had no idea that a mania for progress could result in its very antithesis, or that some defense against such radical evil, of which the commission was not possible without the co-operation and participation of many men, was necessary. The abandonment of customary restraint and inverted moral prejudice was not necessarily followed by improvement.

(See also “On Liberty“, “Accountants of the Soul“, “The Fallacy of Human Progress“, “The Harmful Myth of Inherent Equality“, “Social Norms and Liberty“, “More about Social Norms and Liberty“, “The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State“, “My View of Mill, Endorsed“, “Suicide or Destiny?“, “O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment“, and “James Burham’s Misplaced Optimism“.)

Organized?

I see ads on TV (with sound muted), at shopping website, and in periodicals for organizing systems and services. And I wonder who buys such things. It can’t be persons who are organized; they don’t need them. So it must be persons who are disorganized, and who benefit from them briefly and then go back to their old ways.

Sort of related, and worth a visit if you like trivia, is a post of mine from two years ago: “You Can Look That Up in Your Funk & Wagnall’s“.

Am I a Cockeyed Pessimist?

With apologies to the shade of Oscar Hammerstein II*.

Marteen Boudry, writing at Quillette, describes “Four Flavors of Doom: A Taxonomy of Contemporary Pessimism“. In brief:

The Nostalgic Pessimist

In the good old days, everything was better. Where once the world was whole and beautiful, now everything has gone to ruin. Different nostalgic thinkers locate their favorite Golden Age in different historical periods. Some yearn for a past that they were lucky enough to experience in their youth, while others locate utopia at a point farther back in time, such as the belle époque before the two World Wars, or the simple agrarian life and closely-knit communities of the Middle Ages, or perhaps the distant past of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived “in harmony with nature.”…

The “Just You Wait” Pessimist

Some are prepared to admit, unlike the nostalgists, that the world has improved considerably over the past two centuries. But, they maintain, this cannot possibly last. The hubris of modern man, with his naïve belief in progress, must be punished sooner or later. I call this the “Just You Wait” school of pessimism. For now, everything seems to be going smoothly, but soon we will cross some critical threshold, after which we’ll plunge inexorably into the abyss….

The Cyclical Pessimist

This kind of pessimist will agree that things are going pretty well at the moment, but he doesn’t think our current run of luck is historically exceptional. Humankind has experienced periods of relative prosperity and peace before, but all have come to an end sooner or later. The course of history, for the cyclical pessimist, comes and goes like the tides or the seasons….

The Treadmill Pessimist

The treadmill pessimist accepts the reality of some objective measures of progress (more wealth, less violence, longer and healthier lives), but maintains that—despite everything—we haven’t really made advances where it truly matters. Like Alice and the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we have been running ourselves ragged only to find, when we take a breath and look around, that we are still in the same place where we started.

I am all four kinds of pessimist, to some degree:

  1. America, as something of a united nation, fell apart in the 1960s, and the split grows daily. America might have been unique among nations for a long time, in its combination of economic and social progress and relative liberty. But it has become just another European-style regulatory-welfare state, with an unhealthy admixture of third-worldism (i.e., non-assimilating immigrants and never-assimilating blacks).
  2. Yes, there has been great material progress over the past two centuries, but a man-made cataclysm (e.g., all-out cyberwar) or a natural one (e.g., an asteroid strike) could reverse it and drive mankind back to an earlier stage of economic development. The struggle to survive would be compounded by the unleashing of savage impulses.
  3. This is just a variation of #2, and just as valid (or not) because there have been eras of improvement and decline in the past.
  4. The treadmill theory is about “happiness”, which is impossible to measure objectively and interpersonally. Intertemporal assessments can only be personal ones. I would admit that prosperity generally breeds greater happiness for most people — up to the point where the striving for prosperity (e.g., more work, less leisure, hellish commutes) and non-economic factors (e.g., social discord) tend to make them miserable.

Realism is a more apt word than pessimism, it seems to me.
__________
* Hammerstein was a lyricist whose notable composing partners included Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and Richard Rogers. Rogers and Hammerstein created a string of hit musicals, including South Pacific, the score of which includes “A Cockeyed Optimist“:

When the skies are brighter canary yellow
I forget ev’ry cloud I’ve ever seen,
So they called me a cockeyed optimist
Immature and incurably green.
I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead,
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.
I hear the human race
Is fallin’ on its face
And hasn’t very far to go,
But ev’ry whippoorwill
Is sellin’ me a bill,
And tellin’ me it just ain’t so.
I could say life is just a bowl of Jello
And appear more intelligent and smart,
But I’m stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart!
Not this heart…

The “Candle Problem” and Its Ilk

Among the many topics that I address in “The Balderdash Chronicles” is the management “science” fad; in particular, as described by Graham Morehead,

[t]he Candle Problem [which] was first presented by Karl Duncker. Published posthumously in 1945, “On problem solving” describes how Duncker provided subjects with a candle, some matches, and a box of tacks. He told each subject to affix the candle to a cork board wall in such a way that when lit, the candle won’t drip wax on the table below (see figure at right). Can you think of the answer?

The only answer that really works is this: 1.Dump the tacks out of the box, 2.Tack the box to the wall, 3.Light the candle and affix it atop the box as if it were a candle-holder. Incidentally, the problem was much easier to solve if the tacks weren’t in the box at the beginning. When the tacks were in the box the participant saw it only as a tack-box, not something they could use to solve the problem. This phenomenon is called “Functional fixedness.”

The implication of which, according to Morehead, is (supposedly) this:

When your employees have to do something straightforward, like pressing a button or manning one stage in an assembly line, financial incentives work. It’s a small effect, but they do work. Simple jobs are like the simple candle problem.

However, if your people must do something that requires any creative or critical thinking, financial incentives hurt. The In-Box Candle Problem is the stereotypical problem that requires you to think “Out of the Box,” (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?). Whenever people must think out of the box, offering them a monetary carrot will keep them in that box.

A monetary reward will help your employees focus. That’s the point. When you’re focused you are less able to think laterally. You become dumber. This is not the kind of thing we want if we expect to solve the problems that face us in the 21st century.

My take (in part):

[T]he Candle Problem is unlike any work situation that I can think of. Tasks requiring creativity are not performed under deadlines of a few minutes; tasks requiring creativity are (usually) assigned to persons who have demonstrated a creative flair, not to randomly picked subjects; most work, even in this day, involves the routine application of protocols and tools that were designed to produce a uniform result of acceptable quality; it is the design of protocols and tools that requires creativity, and that kind of work is not done under the kind of artificial constraints found in the Candle Problem.

Now comes James Thompson, with this general conclusion about such exercises:

One important conclusion I draw from this entire paper [by Gerd Gigerenzer, here] is that the logical puzzles enjoyed by Kahneman, Tversky, Stanovich and others are rightly rejected by psychometricians as usually being poor indicators of real ability. They fail because they are designed to lead people up the garden path, and depend on idiosyncratic interpretations.

Told you so.

Friendship and Personality

This post at Neo made me think about friendship. Or, rather, it led me to collect some thoughts that have been wandering loose in my mind for many years.

I have no friends, other than my wife and my son, who has become a friend to me as we have settled into middle and old age. I had many friends over the years, but I stopped having them in the mid-1990s, when I made my final break from “liberalism”. (And it is hard to find anything but a “liberal” in quasi-intellectual stratum of the D.C. area, where I then lived and worked.)

I am a kind of reverse anti-Trumper. I eschew close affiliations with those who are on the left or who sympathize with its duplicitous agenda, and thus enable the enemies of liberty. (I make an exception for my wife, to whom I am deeply attached by a long life together.)

It is easy for me to do without friends. I can’t remember a friend who became such through casual social contact rather than through school or work. My friends, in other words, have been friends of the moment, and I am still in touch with only two of them — but I don’t consider them friends. All the rest — dozens of them — faded from my emotional radar soon after I ceased to have regular contact with them at school or work.

My lack of friends outside my nuclear family simply reveals an innate psychological condition: emotional self-reliance. It is also seen — and not wrongly so — as emotional aloofness or coldness, which is consistent with assessments of my personality.

It takes all kinds … but I have little time for them.

Is Race a Social Construct?

Of course it is. Science, generally, is a social construct. Everything that human beings do and “know” is a social construct, in that human behavior and “knowledge” are products of acculturation and the irrepressible urge to name and classify things.

Whence that urge? You might say that it’s genetically based. But our genetic inheritance is inextricably twined with social constructs — preferences for, say, muscular men and curvaceous women, and so on. What we are depends not only on our genes but also on the learned preferences that shape the gene pool. There’s no way to sort them out, despite claims (from the left) that human beings are blank slates and claims (from loony libertarians) that genes count for everything.

All of that, however true it may be (and I believe it to be true), is a recipe for solipsism, nay, for Humean chaos. The only way out of this morass, as I see it, is to admit that human beings (or most of them) possess a life-urge that requires them to make distinctions: friend vs. enemy, workable from non-workable ways of building things, etc.

Race is among those useful distinctions for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has actually observed the behaviors of groups that can be sorted along racial lines instead of condescending to “tolerate” or “celebrate” differences (a luxury that is easily indulged in the safety of ivory towers and gated communities). Those lines may be somewhat arbitrary, for, as many have noted there are more genetic differences within a racial classification than between racial classifications. Which is a fatuous observation, in that there are more genetic differences among, say, the apes than there are between what are called apes and what are called human beings.

In other words, the usual “scientific” objection to the concept of race is based on a false premise, namely, that all genetic differences are equal. If one believes that, one should be just as willing to live among apes as among human beings. But human beings do not choose to live among apes (though a few human beings do choose to observe them at close quarters). Similarly, human beings — for the most part — do not choose to live among people from whom they are racially distinct, and therefore (usually) socially distinct.

Why? Because under the skin we are not all alike. Under the skin there are social (cultural) differences that are causally correlated with genetic differences.

Race may be a social construct, but — like engineering — it is a useful one.

The Pretense of Knowledge

Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of science and disciplines that pretend to be scientific (e.g., economics) will appreciate the shallowness and inaccuracy of humans’ “knowledge” of nature and human nature — from the farthest galaxies to our own psyches. Anyone, that is, but a pretentious “scientist” or an over-educated ignoramus.

Not Smart Enough

So-called intellectuals tend to inhabit the left end of the political spectrum. Inasmuch as the spectrum is really a circle, it means that they are at the ultra-statist pole, in proximity to their arch-enemies of the extreme right. All that separates these supposed extremes are differences about the uses to which the state’s power should be put. They are united in their fervent belief that it should be used to force their aims on the populace.

Why do so-called intellectuals adhere to statism? Because they believe (often without justification) that they are smarter than the rest of us. That belief breeds arrogance. Arrogance begets the belief that the details of social and economic intercourse can and should be centrally directed, according to master plans that so-called intellectuals concoct. They concoct those plans in the badly mistaken belief that such produce better outcomes than those tested in the acid of voluntary social and economic intercourse.

“Intellectuals” aren’t smart enough to make the rest of us better off. They are only “smart” enough — and arrogant enough — to make the rest of us worse off.

Not with a Bang

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s also the way that America is ending. Yes, there are verbal fireworks aplenty, but there will not be a “hot” civil war. The country that my parents and grandparents knew and loved — the country of my youth in the 1940s and 1950s — is just fading away.

This would not necessarily be a bad thing if the remaking of America were a gradual, voluntary process, leading to time-tested changes for the better. But that isn’t the case. The very soul of America has been and is being ripped out by the government that was meant to protect that soul, and by movements that government not only tolerates but fosters.

Before I go further, I should explain what I mean by America, which is not the same thing as the geopolitical entity known as the United States, though the two were tightly linked for a long time.

America was a relatively homogeneous cultural order that fostered mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual forbearance — or far more of those things than one might expect in a nation as populous and far-flung as the United States. Those things — conjoined with a Constitution that has been under assault since the New Deal — made America a land of liberty. That is to say, they fostered real liberty, which isn’t an unattainable state of bliss but an actual (and imperfect) condition of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

The attainment of this condition depends on social comity, which depends in turn on (a) genetic kinship and (b) the inculcation and enforcement of social norms, especially the norms that define harm.

All of that is going by the boards because the emerging cultural order is almost diametrically opposite that which prevailed in America. The new dispensation includes:

  • casual sex
  • serial cohabitation
  • subsidized illegitimacy
  • abortion on demand
  • easy divorce
  • legions of non-mothering mothers
  • concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males
  • gender-confusion as a burgeoning norm
  • “alternative lifestyles” that foster disease, promiscuity, and familial instability
  • normalization of drug abuse
  • forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights)
  • suppression of religion
  • rampant obscenity
  • identity politics on steroids
  • illegal immigration as a “right”
  • “free stuff” from government (Social Security was meant to be self-supporting)
  • America as the enemy
  • all of this (and more) as gospel to influential elites whose own lives are modeled mostly on old America.

As the culture has rotted, so have the ties that bound America.

The rot has occurred to the accompaniment of cacophony. Cultural coarsening begets loud and inconsiderate vulgarity. Worse than that is the cluttering of the ether with the vehement and belligerent propaganda, most of it aimed at taking down America.

The advocates of the new dispensation haven’t quite finished the job of dismantling America. But that day isn’t far off. Complete victory for the enemies of America is only a few election cycles away. The squishy center of the electorate — as is its wont — will swing back toward the Democrat Party. With a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a few party switches in the Supreme Court (of the packing of it), the dogmas of the anti-American culture will become the law of the land; for example:

Billions and trillions of dollars will be wasted on various “green” projects, including but far from limited to the complete replacement of fossil fuels by “renewables”, with the resulting impoverishment of most Americans, except for comfortable elites who press such policies).

It will be illegal to criticize, even by implication, such things as abortion, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, anthropogenic global warming, or the confiscation of firearms. These cherished beliefs will be mandated for school and college curricula, and enforced by huge fines and draconian prison sentences (sometimes in the guise of “re-education”).

Any hint of Christianity and Judaism will be barred from public discourse, and similarly punished. Islam will be held up as a model of unity and tolerance.

Reverse discrimination in favor of females, blacks, Hispanics, gender-confused persons, and other “protected” groups will be required and enforced with a vengeance. But “protections” will not apply to members of such groups who are suspected of harboring libertarian or conservative impulses.

Sexual misconduct (as defined by the “victim”) will become a crime, and any male person may be found guilty of it on the uncorroborated testimony of any female who claims to have been the victim of an unwanted glance, touch (even if accidental), innuendo (as perceived by the victim), etc.

There will be parallel treatment of the “crimes” of racism, anti-Islamism, nativism, and genderism.

All health care in the United States will be subject to review by a national, single-payer agency of the central government. Private care will be forbidden, though ready access to doctors, treatments, and medications will be provided for high officials and other favored persons. The resulting health-care catastrophe that befalls most of the populace (like that of the UK) will be shrugged off as a residual effect of “capitalist” health care.

The regulatory regime will rebound with a vengeance, contaminating every corner of American life and regimenting all businesses except those daring to operate in an underground economy. The quality and variety of products and services will decline as their real prices rise as a fraction of incomes.

The dire economic effects of single-payer health care and regulation will be compounded by massive increases in other kinds of government spending (defense excepted). The real rate of economic growth will approach zero.

The United States will maintain token armed forces, mainly for the purpose of suppressing domestic uprisings. Given its economically destructive independence from foreign oil and its depressed economy, it will become a simulacrum of the USSR and Mao’s China — and not a rival to the new superpowers, Russia and China, which will largely ignore it as long as it doesn’t interfere in their pillaging of respective spheres of influence. A policy of non-interference (i.e., tacit collusion) will be the order of the era in Washington.

Though it would hardly be necessary to rig elections in favor of Democrats, given the flood of illegal immigrants who will pour into the country and enjoy voting rights, a way will be found to do just that. The most likely method will be election laws requiring candidates to pass ideological purity tests by swearing fealty to the “law of the land” (i.e., abortion, unfettered immigration, same-sex marriage, freedom of gender choice for children, etc., etc., etc.). Those who fail such a test will be barred from holding any kind of public office, no matter how insignificant.

Are my fears exaggerated? I don’t think so, given what has happened in recent decades and the cultural revolutionaries’ tightening grip on the Democrat party. What I have sketched out can easily happen within a decade after Democrats seize total control of the central government.

Will the defenders of liberty rally to keep it from happening? Perhaps, but I fear that they will not have a lot of popular support, for three reasons:

First, there is the problem of asymmetrical ideological warfare, which favors the party that says “nice” things and promises “free” things.

Second, What has happened thus far — mainly since the 1960s — has happened slowly enough that it seems “natural” to too many Americans. They are like fish in water who cannot grasp the idea of life in a different medium.

Third, although change for the worse has accelerated in recent years, it has occurred mainly in forums that seem inconsequential to most Americans, for example, in academic fights about free speech, in the politically correct speeches of Hollywood stars, and in culture wars that are conducted mainly in the blogosphere. The unisex-bathroom issue seems to have faded as quickly as it arose, mainly because it really affects so few people. The latest gun-control mania may well subside — though it has reached new heights of hysteria — but it is only one battle in the broader war being waged by the left. And most Americans lack the political and historical knowledge to understand that there really is a civil war underway — just not a “hot” one.

Is a reversal possible? Possible, yes, but unlikely. The rot is too deeply entrenched. Public schools and universities are cesspools of anti-Americanism. The affluent elites of the information-entertainment-media-academic complex are in the saddle. Republican politicians, for the most part, are of no help because they are more interested on preserving their comfortable sinecures than in defending America or the Constitution.

On that note, I will take a break from blogging — perhaps forever. I urge you to read one of my early posts, “Reveries“, for a taste of what America means to me. As for my blogging legacy, please see “A Summing Up“, which links to dozens of posts and pages that amplify and support this post.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Voltaire, Candide


Related reading:

Michael Anton, “What We Still Have to Lose“, American Greatness, February 10, 2019

Rod Dreher, “Benedict Option FAQ“, The American Conservative, October 6, 2015

Roger Kimball, “Shall We Defend Our Common History?“, Imprimis, February 2019

Joel Kotkin, “Today’s Cultural Engineers“, newgeography, January 26, 2019

Daniel Oliver, “Where Has All the Culture Gone?“, The Federalist, February 8, 2019

Malcolm Pollack, “On Civil War“, Motus Mentis, March 7, 2019

Fred Reed, “The White Man’s Burden: Reflections on the Custodial State“, Fred on Everything, January 17, 2019

Gilbert T. Sewall, “The Diminishing Authority of the Bourgeois Culture“, The American Conservative, February 4, 2019

Bob Unger, “Requiem for America“, The New American, January 24, 2019

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