conventional wisdom, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Graham, and how shit is about to get real

Conventional wisdom changes over time.

There are two ways to discuss this, the crude, and the technical.

If you're crude, it's fun to discuss things the technical way; if you're technical, it's fun to discuss it crudely. I'm a a bit crude and a bit technical, so I'll share my thoughts on how convention wisdom changes in both ways.

The crude first.

There are two folks sayings (one is actually a Gandhi quote, but that makes it sound a bit high-falutin', so let's just ignore that weird old sexually hung-up dude and call it a folk saying). Anyway:

Science doesn't advance when minds are changed; it advances when old scientists die.


First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

The point being contrary to the nice crisp models of the scientific process, (a) the more data you get to support your side, the more vehement the other side gets, and (b) there's no amount of data that can convince some people. You just have to wait until they get somewhat less attractive, and corpsified, and gross, and then continue the conversation over their age-whithered remains.

Now the technical:

Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of those books that everyone with pretensions to intellectualism should read.

For that matter, so is C.P. Snow's essay "The Two Cultures".

The difference is that I've actually read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It's not quite as deep – nor as original – as its reputation suggests, nor could it be. The name of the book has become something of a totem – loaded (not "freighted". I hate that term. Unless there are actual, literal forklifts or cranes involved you can stick your "freighted" right next to your "fraught" in your hipster-pretentious-J-school three ring binder, and shelve it next to and the NYT style pages).

Uh…where was I?

Right, right. "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". "Freighted". "Hipsters".

Anyway, the name of the book is loaded with a lot of cultural signifiers and baggage, because that's what pretentious intellectuals do, and because the book is a convenient stick in the dirt and thus its title is as good a phrase as any to label that patch of ground.

The patch of ground being the social process by which conventional wisdom changes.

Kuhn argues (to simplify) that at any given point in time there is a dominant theory. If the theory is hugely dominant, and there are no observed problems with it, there's little action, and no one much cares.

Had any rousing debates about electron shells, the mass of a neutron, of the photovoltaic effect recently?

Nor have I.

However, from time to time, a theory that was dominant gets some countervailing data piled up against it.

…and then a bit more.

…and then a bit more.

In theory there's no difference between the model of the scientific process and the actual practice of science.

…but in actual practice there is.

In theory academics of whatever stripe – physicists, chemists, economists, political scientists – would welcome contrary opinions and contrary data.

We all know what we really see, though: anger, fear, and outrage.

This is because the theory of the scientific process oversimplifies: it forgets that academics are first and foremost humans, and humans are the end product of a whole butt-load of tribal living.

…and when it comes to tribal living, the powerful get first choice of meat and first choice of nubile hunter-gatherers-of-the-curvy-variety.

Thus we humans can be fairly prickly about power, status, and signaling (you can Google up Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson on your own). When it comes to power dynamics in the nerd – ah – academic set, there's something a lot worse than being challenged by the first-row, second-seat sax player, or having your rook snatched by the kid with an Elo score one notch down from yours. These challenges will just have you lose one or two ranks. The thing that's a lot worse is being kicked out of the group all together: being made a laughing stock and mocked as utterly, entirely wrong.

And, of course, this is exactly what the scientific process – as it's SUPPOSED to work – threatens to do to non-ideal actual-human-meat academics.

So the Old Guard fight as hard and as long as possible…and they get more and more angry as the evidence piles up against them.

…and eventually the expire and the old much-hated ideas are allowed to be spoken in public.

Paul Graham touched on this in his essay What you Can't Say:

To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn't need taboos to protect it. It's not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo.

Anyway, having quoted two bumper stickers, one philosopher of science, and one start-up millionaire (as well as mocking a universally-beloved 20th century saint), I arrive at my point:

After almost 150 years, the idea of the universal welfare state may be crumbling before our eyes.

The welfare state – at least the American version of it – is like a shark that must constantly swim forward or die. It's like an embezzling employee who must not only show up at work every day to cover her tracks, but must steal more and more to cover the old debts plus new expenses. It's like a Ponzi scheme.

In fact, it's not like a Ponzi scheme, it is a Ponzi scheme. Both at a concrete level and at a conceptual meta-level.

The American welfare state must constantly grow because it is as much a social system of outrage, signaling, and demonstrated "compassion" (those damn dirty apes – uh, I mean "humans" – again). If you're a good progressive and you're born into a system that already has emergency health care for the poor, welfare, free schooling for all, etc., etc. ad nauseam, then how do you demonstrate to the 20th century version of the hunter-gatherers-of-the-curvy-variety that you're a good person with all the right opinions and thus deserve a bunch of crazy monkey sex worthy of a Dan Savage column?

You agitate for even more welfare statism.

(I note that I could have merely referenced the hedonic treadmill to explain all of this, but that wouldn't have allowed me to use the phrase "crazy monkey sex", and I bet Ken two free hours of dental-expert-witnessing that I could work that phrase into every single post for the remainder of the year. I won't even tell you what I get if I win.)

And thus we run into the problem we see today: the economic meltdown.

As Margaret Thatcher famously said "the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money".

Bush bought an election or two by buying off the votes of elderly with prescription drug benefits.

Obama's been trying to buy himself a second term since Day One buy buying GM from its creditor/owners and handing it to the unions…along with a thousand other equally stupid schemes.

…but the moment of reckoning that many of us have seen since the 1980s has finally arrived.

We've run out of other people's money.

You can see the graphs everywhere in the economic blogosphere: expenditures racing far beyond revenues and never ever ever being caught.

This leads us to the second shoe drop, which is only a few years away: the point where the government is not just spending wildly more than it takes in, but the point where it becomes physically impossible to even keep up with the interest payments on the debt.

And then the – uh – gripping foot drops a third shoe: as the market sees this point coming, it gets more and more leery of lending any more money to the government, thus bidding up the interest that the government must pay in order to borrow additional dollars.

This is basically a tripwire: as soon as the apocalypse can be seen on the horizon we're rapidly accelerated towards it.

So, back to Kuhn and others: this has all been clear to some folks for a quarter century or more, but it's finally becoming more and more clear to the average man in the street.

In a better world the Krugmans and others would say "hmm…this isn't how I expected things to play out; perhaps my theories are wrong".

…but the Krugmans and others are afraid of losing their status and their access to crazy monkey sex (although I think the NYT still pays in dollars and suggests that columnists go procure on their own…although I admit that that may change as the dollar devalues).

Over the last few decades libertarianism / governmental minimalism / the night watchman state has gone from being a term that most folks had never heard of, to being a concept that just a bunch of low status geeks and freaks chatted about in between rolling the d20, to being a virulent / arrogant / hateful / racist concept.

The welfare state is dying, the evidence is becoming more and more clear, the Chief Monkeys are losing their power, and the world is about to undergo the kind of intellectual revolution and tumult that it only sees once every few centuries or so.

Punctuated equilibrium – it's not just for meatspace evolution any more.

P.S. Hi. I'm Clark. Nice to meet y'all.

Last 5 posts by Clark


  1. VPJ says

    Nice article. Good writing style. Hard to beat "crazy monkey sex."

    "And then the – uh – gripping foot drops a third shoe"
    And bonus nerd points for the Motie reference.

    I approve. Mom? Can we keep him?

  2. Patrick says

    A fine debut post Clark. We look forward to more. Don't fade on us.

    But: Since you bring up the New York Times, what would a stalwart defender of the welfare state, let's say a Paul Krugman, say about your thesis? He'd tell you, like a university marxist speaking of communism, that the true welfare state hasn't been tried. Or that it hasn't been tried in America, then he'd tell you about the wonders of Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

    You'd reply that Sweden, Norway, and Finland are homogeneous societies with populations smaller than some of the world's larger cities of course, and so they're not representative of anything.

    But they are: They're representative of Sweden, Norway, and Finland, and he'd tell you that if making America, or Mexico, or China, more like Scandiwhovia is required to have a successful welfare state, that's not even a price to pay: it would be a positive boon to the people who don't enjoy a working welfare state. From my own experience, I've been to New York and I've been to Helsinki. I'd rather live in Helsinki any day of the week.

    But then I'd rather live in Austin than in either New York or Helsinki, which is where the analogy falls apart.

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I would suggest that some of what you observe stems from the difference between Scientists and Academics. Confronted with anomalous data the Academic's instinct is "Oh, God, there goes my Endowed Chair", whereas the Scientist's is "That's funny. I wonder if it will do it again?". Scientists tend to be young. A Scientist can (all to often) turn into an Academic, but (with rare exceptions, none of which come to mind at the moment) Academics do not turn into Scientists.

    This explains why PhD's tend to re-state whatever new insight was in their doctoral thesis for the rest of their career.

  4. says

    If you’re crude, it’s fun to discuss things the technical way; if you’re technical, it’s fun to discuss it crudely.

    Is that a William Gibson reference?

    Edit: Dammit. Missed your comment.

    So where's the sawed-off in the duffel?

  5. Todd S. says

    Sir, while I am required by the other authors to welcome you, I am happy to say that I do so quite willingly. An excellent debut.

  6. says

    Sounds like an echo to me.

    How does the 'welfare state' differ from the 'common wealth'?

    Banding together for the common good is historic. Guaranteeing safety, education, and health for the poorest is an investment in my own world, which IS the world – not a personal secluded enclave. You speak of the welfare state growing, but have you metrics? Poverty is growing, so the needs of the poor are becoming an issue. Is that the fault of the welfare state? Does the welfare state initiate its own growth, or is the growth you see really a product of the growth of poverty?

    In all the grumblings, one rarely sees the 'common welfare' cost of government delineated. Our commitment to the military is the biggest part of it. We dare not talk about that. So we talk about the poor people, and the terrible drain they are on our resources.

    Many also complain that our government has become a welfare state for corporations, letting them become hobby businesses that could not survive on their own. Is this a problem for you, or is only the cost of helping people maintain a minimum standard of living a problem?

    LIKE your stuff on the scammers, by the way… you might take a look at McAfee's auto-renewal program. It's hard to escape from – people need to realize that your first payment to them sets up an online account which you need to turn off to stop the automatic charges. A computer of mine that died a year ago was auto-renewed for $53 and the bank sided with McAfee.

  7. says

    The "welfare state" is not what is wrong with our economy, and there's nothing in the article above that in any way proves that it is. The article expresses an entirely unsupported opinion puffed up to grandiose proportions with entertaining writing.
    Not impressed.

  8. Randall says

    You took me by surprise – during your intro, I thought you were building up to superluminal neutrinos. In any case, well done and welcome to Popehat!

  9. Clark says


    > So where’s the sawed-off in the duffel?

    On advice of counsel I'm going to plead the fifth…and/or pad my answer with tennis socks.

  10. Clark says

    @Jonathan Kamens :

    > The “welfare state” is not what is wrong with our economy, and there’s nothing in the article above that in any way proves that it is.

    One core problem is that spending is near 40% of GDP and revenue is under 20% of GDP.

    The recession shows no signs of ending, and even respectable pundits are now joining us wookie-suiters is saying that the double dip is about to arrive. Comparison's with Japan's Lost Decade are rife.

    …which is to say, if you've got a convincing argument for why federal revenue is going to climb from 18% to, say, 23%, of GDP is going to happen any time soon, please put it on the table.

    Further, there's no evidence that the US can EVER collect more than 23% of the GDP.

    …so if you've got convincing evidence that there's some plan to bring US federal spending down from ~40% of GDP to ~%20 of GDP, please also put THAT on the table.

    QED: there is a MASSIVE budget gap that can not be closed any time soon.

    Now, to discuss the proposition that the welfare state is a necessary component of this unsustainable mess:

    National defense is a bit over 50% of the budget. Go far beyond what any democrat is suggesting and cut that in half…to 25%.

    This is not politically achievable, but do it anyway.

    …now all you need to do is cut 50% of the NON-defense budget.

    The vast majority of the non-defense budget is transfer payments.

    QED: the welfare state WILL be cut.

    > The article expresses an entirely unsupported opinion puffed up to grandiose proportions with entertaining writing.

    Well, I see you've grasped the essential nature of Popehat.

    …and of my own humble contribution.

  11. Cloudesley Shovell says


    You state in your comment that national defense spending is a bit over 50% of the budget. I'm curious where you got that number.

    Did you mean 50% of the so-called discretionary budget?

    Most sources say that defense spending (which varies based upon how you define "defense spending") is 20-30% of annual federal outlays, including so-called mandatory outlays like Social Security and Medicare.

    If by "budget" you meant total federal revenues, as opposed to outlays, then 50% is a good ballpark figure.


  12. Patrick says

    The “welfare state” is not what is wrong with our economy, and there’s nothing in the article above that in any way proves that it is. The article expresses an entirely unsupported opinion puffed up to grandiose proportions with entertaining writing.
    Not impressed.

  13. cackalacka says

    The nice thing about Krugman and conservatives, is he seems to perpetually validate Gandhi quotes.

  14. Gaunilo says

    In a former life while teaching microeconomic policy, I expressed the opinion that in business, hard decisions are never made while there is still money in the bank.

    The US government problem is that there is still money in the bank today, even though the bottom of the well is clearly visible. Nothing to see here, move along please.

  15. Reed says


    1. What do you mean by a "universal" welfare state? Do you mean to state that all forms of government assistance will be universally subject to "crumbling"? If so, on what basis do you make that assertion? Can you point to a single functioning government anywhere in place or time that has not provided some level of welfare to some segment of its population? Isn't the issue the degree of welfare to be afforded/tolerated rather than the existence of welfare?

    2. "The idea of the universal welfare state may be crumbling before our eyes" is a far cry from "QED: the welfare state WILL be cut", unless by "cut" you mean "eliminated entirely."

    There are changes which can be made to Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare which would dramatically reduce their overall impact on the federal budget but would not constitute the "crumbling" of the "universal welfare state".

    It is far from clear why you believe that it is more likely that the entire structure will collapse than that reasonable changes will be made.

  16. discretionary docket says

    Kuhn is shit; trendy and name-dropped by hipsters. Popper is unfashionable but a far superior philosopher of science.

  17. eddie says

    "The article expresses an entirely unsupported opinion puffed up to grandiose proportions with entertaining writing."

    Indeed. And well done at that.

    Keep it up! It's what I come here for.

  18. Bob says

    Hmm.. but what is the alternative to the welfare state? What do we do with the people who can't or simply won't "provide for themselves"?

  19. tomd says

    "As Margaret Thatcher famously said “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money”."

    Or as Marie Antoinette might have said, "The problem with extracting too much money from the actually-productive poor and middle class and transferring it to a tiny, wealthy elite, and not spending enough on social welfare, and imprisoning a large part of your population and running a bunch of expensive, pointless foreign wars is that once the tiny, non-productive wealthy elite have run out of other people's money, there's a revolution and they cut off your head."

    I love both Libertarian-ism and Communism on paper. It's like playing Dungeons and Dragons – there's this great rules-construct which mediates the interactions of abstract person-like characters who come into conflict with each other and attempt to achieve various ends within the rules-framework. But outside of the game-world, you enter the realm of actual human beings.

    I don't doubt that the current framework of government/marketplace/social welfare has problems and will need to change. I do question the not-explicitly-explained underlying problem in the article, but more importantly, if the author of the article understands the actual underlying problem, then why didn't he present even the vague outline of a solution/resolution?

    The Libertarian loves to sit and yell, "Rules are the problem! Government is the problem!" and his counter-balance the Communist goes, "No! Capital and property ownership and the inherent clueless chaos of the marketplace are the problem!" But when pressed to provide solutions that real human beings can actually implement, they both fall on their face very, very hard. Both the Libertarian paradise of Afghanistan before the rise of Taliban and the Communist paradise of, well, a whole bunch of disastrous failures, seem to prove out that neither fringe theory works very well in application.

    Krugman may be off at one end of the real-world economic spectrum, and I'm sure that all of his actually implementable suggestions are imperfect. But at least he's suggesting actual policies and not just throwing ideological poop.

    Now, let's get some photos on-line of his Dan Savage-shocking Nobel Prize monkey-sex!

  20. Moebius Street says

    Bravo, Clark. And let me introduce myself, too, since I just arrived (by way of a link to the scammer serial).

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. The commentary was good (anything reinforcing one's own prejudices has a head start), I loved the Motie reference, and I even got to learn about "hedonic treadmill" (which I think may be handy to use in argument against those incorrectly stating that the poor are getting poorer). Let me also point out that, in small measure, the fact of your article's existence, and so many others like it, tends to support (in small measure) the thesis of the article itself.

  21. Clark says


    > Bonus points for obscure Firefly dialogue reworking!

    VPJ got the Niven reference.
    Ken got the Gibson.
    Randomscrub got the Whedon.

    All of the Easter eggs have now been collected, folks.

  22. Patrick says

    The Libertarian loves to sit and yell, “Rules are the problem! Government is the problem!” and his counter-balance the Communist goes, “No! Capital and property ownership and the inherent clueless chaos of the marketplace are the problem!” But when pressed to provide solutions that real human beings can actually implement, they both fall on their face very, very hard.

    If you think that you understand the differences, and the alleged similarity, between libertarians and communists you're obviously still in college. Let me tell you the primary difference between libertarians and communists:

    It's that communists kill or imprison anyone who disagrees with them, when they're in a position to do so, and enslave the people they claim to represent.

    Libertarians don't.

  23. ElamBend says

    I was trying to think if there has been any example of a welfare state collapsing, yet; and it occurred to me that we do have one: The Soviet Union's welfare system. The successor state, Russia, took up the Soviet welfare system, but made it affordable by finding bureaucratic ways to pay less and less (including not adjusting for inflation). I think that's the direction we'll eventually head: it won't disappear, it will just fade away.

    My only fear is that if we wait too long to fiddle with the system (to lower payments) then the 'lowering' with come in a big spasmodic inflationary shock.

  24. says

    That's the rub, isn't it Elam?

    We can either take steps to make measured and controlled cuts and restrictions to entitlement programs now, or we can make panicked and savage cuts because there is literally nothing left in the wallet.

    The cuts people want now might seem horribly draconian, but they really have no idea what they will be forced to make in a few years when there isn't a single penny left to borrow.

  25. Patrick says

    The Roman Empire was, within the technological, economic, and travel limits of its time, a welfare state. Simplistic readers of Gibbon will tell you that Christianity destroyed the empire. Jared Diamond will tell you that a plague destroyed the empire, but Gibbon and Diamond would concede that when Alaric sacked Rome, the city alone had more able-bodied men than the Visigoth army, not to mention a higher tech level.

    But these were Romans who'd been living on the corn dole since Marius. They weren't going out to fight. Can anyone imagine Alaric defeating the citizen-farmer Romans of the Republic, who won the Social Wars against all of Italy and conquered Carthage?

  26. says

    To be fair, one could be forgiven for thinking that Gibbon laid the blame on Christianity – the man had a serious hate for the faith, and how he wrote of the Byzantine Empire (which one could just as easily call the Roman Empire, since that is how other in that period called it) shows that in spades.

  27. Patrick says

    Oh he did lay the blame on Christianity, in spades, but that isn't the only place he laid the blame. My point in bringing Gibbon into the matter is that the High School Reading List (at least the one I had in the 1980s – nowadays Gibbon has been replaced by "I, Rigoberta Menchu") teaches us that Gibbon's only idea is that Christianity destroyed Rome. In fact, the man had many ideas about what destroyed Rome. He wasn't a one trick pony.

  28. says

    I bless whatever God may dwell in heaven that such an atrocity was also absent from any list of books I was required to read.

    Oddly enough, it was a book I did not seek out.

  29. says

    Love the style, Clark. But.

    I do enjoy watching libertarians blame TEH WELFARE STATEZZ for all our problems, while moaning about how it requires 'taking other people's money'. As if that money could have been made in the absence of an education system, a health system, national security, enforceable laws yada yada yada. Government spending – to some extent – is a prerequisite to private profit, not a hindrance to it.

    I'm from Australia, not the US, so I don't claim to know about your budgetary policy. But I'm quite prepared to believe that many spending decisions in your country are prolifigate, unnecessary and badly thought out. God knows many of ours are. But that's an argument for better – and, yes, generally less – government spending, not a cue to abandon the welfare state altogether. You raise the case of Russia – would you rather live there or the US? Do you really think that the existence of a welfare state is irrelevant to your answer?

    As for the 'crazy monkey sex' bit – you're damn right welfare statists try to outdo each other arguing for more, regardless the evidence. Just like libertarians try to outdo each other in arguing for lower taxes, regardless of the evidence. Both are ideological positions. Both are to be viewed with – ahem – suspicion.

    Anyway: what is it about caring for old people, the disabled and the needy that drives you guys so nuts?

  30. says

    Tim, its not just caring for all those old people that have more money than I do, that drives me nuts. Its caring for all the crony capitalists that get my money handed to them for political bullshit like Solyndra wasting a half a billion dollars on a solar cell faux "green jobs" scam that was known to be unprofitable before it was built.

    Its spending billions to bailout Wall Street cronies of the President even as he delivers speeches full of class warfare crap that drives me nuts. Its a political class that knows it can't keep spending money exponentially but refuses to actually put that knowledge into effect that drives me nuts.

    And its economically-ignorant left wing sots who think that money grows on magic trees labeled "Rich Billionaires" that drive me nuts.

  31. says


    Again, I can't comment on spending decisions in the the US. I can only say that in Australia, most welfare goes to people who have little or no earnings at all, and that welfare here is not enough to live on. Here, we don't give money to old people who have more money than I do. Here, that's a myth believed by people who a) have plenty of money and b) have never been on welfare. Maybe it's different in the US.

    The rest of your post I wholeheartedly agree with.

  32. Jess says

    "…The welfare state is dying, the evidence is becoming more and more clear, the Chief Monkeys are losing their power, and the world is about to undergo the kind of intellectual revolution and tumult that it only sees once every few centuries or so…."

    Scary stuff for most people. Those that love it, fear the loss. Those that despise it, fear the unknown changes. Those that accept the change, wonder how they'll survive.