Open Thread 161

* Erik D’Amato: 20 Hungarian Lessons the West Is Still Missing

Where Are the Afghanis?

The past is the best guide to the future, so there’s no surprise that there is already a rebellion breaking out against the Taliban. Finding its core in the natural fastness of the Panjshir Valley, which foiled repeated Soviet attacks during the 1980s, the Northern Alliance is reconstituting itself under Ahmad Massoud (the son of the famous mujahideen) and Acting President Amrullah Saleh.

Will they succeed? No idea. People who know more than me are making all sorts of predictions. That said, I allow that rebels will not even be the Taliban’s biggest challenge in the coming months. And it’s something that almost nobody is talking about.

I’m talking about afghanis. Money.

The following figures are from a World Bank report on Afghan finances up to the year of 1397. (No, they don’t touch on financing the campaigns of Timur the Lame. Afghanistan, which I am told is an American puppet state, apparently doesn’t even use the Gregorian calendar in their World Bank reports). What they show is that Afghanistan might well be the single most “subsidized” state in the world.

With a population of ~38M and a GDP of $20B, its total expenditures as of 2018 totaled $11B versus revenues of just $2.5B.

The results in an amazingly large amount of largesse by Third World standards. As a share of GDP, Afghan budget expenditures approximate those of the most expansive First World welfare states, as opposed to its Third World peers. This expenditure is dominated by wages and salaries (“70 percent of recurrent expenditure and around 70 percent of all expenditure growth since 1389“). However, despite the huge budget deficits, debt is very low. That is because “grants” accounted for 75% of its budget. Thanks to foreign infusions*, the Afghans have gotten used to very high wages relative to their extremely low productivity levels, which they get to spend in what is possibly the cheapest country in the world.

Guess what the US and the IMF have just cut off in the past few days.

Loss of subsidies aside, Afghanistan’s official $9.5B in foreign currency reserves have also been frozen.

In Syria, the central government continued paying state salaries and pensions in insurgent-controlled areas (with the help of Iranian subsidies). This helped the Assad regime preserve its legitimacy in territories occupied by jihadists and Islamic State. But where exactly is the Taliban supposed to get the money for financing the Afghan state apparatus?

There is an economic crisis brewing on the horizon. Tax revenues are slated to go through the floor. It has just lost the means to finance its massive trade deficit of $5B / year (25% of GDP). Imports will grind to a halt. (Incidentally, trade with India has already been shut down by the Taliban).

As per above, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had very small amounts of debt (8% of GDP in 2020). So the Taliban will find no relief through  default, as the Bolsheviks did in Russia.

The Taliban will no longer have to finance the ANA. However, they will still have to pay their own soldiers. They are stretched thin. To hold down the territory they conquered in their recent blitz, it will have to expand them in size. Only way to do that cheaply is through conscription, but if approval of the Taliban is anything to go by, it will be mostly through press gangs. Given the underdevelopment of the Afghan economy, which is now on the brink of a hard contraction anyway, there is zero chance of them maintaining the windfall of modern US military equipment that has just fallen into their hands. Their single A-29 Super Tucano will remain grounded.

No private enterprise is going to be investing into a country in the throes of a new civil war ruled by an organization that are recognized as terrorists by multiple countries.

Meanwhile, many of the “smart fractions” who actually have some experience in running the country are trying to hitch a ride out for entirely legitimate reasons of self-preservation. The past is a good guide to the future:

When the Taliban first sacked Kabul 25 years ago, the group declared that it was not out for revenge, instead offering amnesty to anyone who had worked for the former government. “Taliban will not take revenge,” a Taliban commander said then. “We have no personal rancor.” At the time of that promise, the ousted president, Mohammad Najibullah, was unavailable for comment. The Taliban had castrated him and, according to some reports, stuffed his severed genitals in his mouth, and soon after, he was strung up from a lamppost.

It is a bold and perhaps stupid man who would trust the Taliban past the date when the world’s photo cameras are out of Kabul.

And in seems that they will have to navigate all of these challenges – a massive fiscal crimp, urban unrest from the majority of Afghans who don’t want them in charge, economic immiseration, probable lack of international recognition – while battling an insurgency or three.

This is a set of challenges that would test the most ingenious economists and policy-makers.

But while the Taliban themselves might know something about religious scripture and low-tech insurgent warfare, history again suggests that they fall short on the governance front.

I am not necessarily saying they’ll fail. But the challenges before them do seem at least as great as those they faced in subjugating Afghanistan in the first place, and they’re of a nature much less suited to their innate strengths as theocratic militants.

I would even go so far as to say that the one scenario in which their victory (that is, sustainable control over most or all of Afghanistan) becomes close to assured is if China – there’s no other plausible candidate – funnels in billions of dollars to prop them up.

Meanwhile, the world should probably get ready for another great wave of Afghan refugees.

  • To be sure, a significant part of it is surely siphoned off by corruption. However, what actual attempts to quantify corruption in Afghanistan have been carried out don’t suggest it’s massively higher than amongst its peers. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, 29% of Afghans said they paid a bribe in 2013, which is not cardinally different from Pakistan (23%) and India (34%). According to the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys, 47% of Afghan companies reported they experienced at least one bribe request, which is higher than Pakistan’s 31%; however, the value of “gifts” expected to secure government contracts was twice less as a percentage of contract value than in Pakistan (4% to 8%). Corrupt yes, but not cardinally dissimilar from its corrupt neighbors.

Taliban Rule is the Democratic Will of 13% of Afghans

It is true that Afghans probably have the highest “Islamism Quotient” in the world. Support for sharia, as Steve Sailer reminds us, is basically universal. He refers to a 2013 PEW poll, which Razib Khan and I had covered a few years back. Furthermore, 79% of Afghans who support sharia also support the death penalty for apostasy. In between that and its dysfunction and lack of state capacity and unfortunate location next to Pakistan, if any country was to fall to an Islamist insurgency, Afghanistan was the prime candidate.

Given that, and the swiftness of the Taliban takeover, it certainly feels weird to write a post against the idea that Taliban rule enjoys broad-based support across Afghanistan.

But that is precisely what one can conclude from a comprehensive series of surveys of Afghan opinion by an outfit called the Asia Foundation during the 2010s, which showed that popular “sympathy” for the Taliban was both low and in decline.

The last report was from 2019:

This year, the proportion who say they have no sympathy with the Taliban has grown by almost 3 percentage points, from 82.4% in 2018 to 85.1% this year. The proportion of respondents who have a lot or a little sympathy for the Taliban is 13.4%, similar to 2018. But among respondents who express sympathy for the Taliban, the proportion who say they don’t know why they feel this sympathy has increased four-fold, from 6.2% in 2018 to 28.6% in 2019.

You can explore the detailed data for yourself here.

Note from the outset: The Asia Foundation, was originally founded in 1954 as a CIA-backed outfit. Personally, I think it’s quite hard to get dozens of researchers to closely cooperate in inventing polling data, especially at such a granular level, and in any case the CIA has produced a lot of useful and non-partisan material (e.g. the CIA World Factbook was one of the few easily-accessible and comprehensive sources of comparative national statistics during the 1990s). Apart from seeing the raw results to various questions, many of which actually don’t reflect all that well on the results of the occupation (e.g. only 44% of Afghans say they have access to main grid power), you can also break it down by multiple variables including region, age, sex, and ethnic group. The results stay internally consistent, adding up to and closely tallying with what one might “expect” to see based on anecdotal data (e.g. the Pashtuns, who have a number of colorful sayings about women, are systemically more “conservative” than Hazara). Nor have I seen it cited almost anywhere; if it’s actually meant to be used for Western propaganda, then it seems that Western journalists haven’t gotten the memo. That said, if the CIA connection is a deal-breaker, I suppose you might as well stop reading this now.

According to the poll, Taliban support peaks in the Pashtun heartlands of the South-West (27%), but is much lower in the territories of the old Northern Alliance (10-11%) and in Kabul (8%). In Bamiyan, the Hazara-dominated province famous for the eponymous Buddhist statues blown up by the old Taliban – and where yet another statue, to a local leader who was tortured to death by the Taliban in 1995, was blown up just today – Taliban sympathy plummets to just 0.8%. Across ethnic lines, 21% of ethnic Pashtuns are sympathizers, falling to 14% amongst Uzbeks, and 7% amongst Tajiks and the Hazara. Incidentally, this reflects a general conservative/”liberal” (by Afghan standards) skew across those ethnic groups, with the Pashtuns being systemically more “conservative” and the Hazara being the most “liberal” groups across most social issues. Finally, the mainstream narrative that the Taliban are bad for women, and that women want even less to do with it than men, is borne out by the numbers. Only 10% of women sympathize with the Taliban vs. 17% of men. Unsurprisingly, given its evolution from a war-torn ruinscape of 0.5 million people in the mid-1990s into a cosmopolitan megapolis approaching 5 million people, the gap is widest in Kabul itself (3% women; 12% men).

Conversely, though – and this is where media caricatures of the Taliban actually are wrong – there are no major differences between age groups, and Taliban support actually goes up with income (at least until you get to the very rich):

This is unusual in the modern world, where “progressive” attitudes tend to go up with income and education (though a necessary caveat is that in Afghanistan, “progressive” = not a religious zealot, as opposed to the connotations it has taken on in the West). But this is perhaps not too surprising in light of the core of the Taliban (lit., “students”) having been educated in Pakistani madrassas, some of which had extremely stringent acceptance rates. Incidentally, this immediately answers one obvious criticism of the poll – namely, given that it was conducted by cell phone, that it would leave out a large chunk of the more illiterate and non/cell phone using population. But the assumption that these more “backward” people would be greater supporters of the Taliban seems wrong, both according to the responses themselves and to logic. After all, it would make sense for illiterate peasants to care less about the Koran than students who had studied it for years; conversely, they may feel they missed out on many opportunities in life on account of their illiteracy, and wouldn’t wish the same on their daughters. This is not a supposition – close to 90% of Afghans say that women should have the same opportunities as men as regards primary and high school education

Furthermore, when Taliban sympathizers were asked why they sympathized with them, the most common answer by far was that “they are Afghans” (45%). The second most popular answer (29%) was “I don’t know”. Only something like 5% gave answers touching on “Islamic law” and the like. My interpretation of this is that, to the extent that some Afghans do support the Taliban, it was primarily for quasi-nationalist reasons (getting rid of what they viewed as a puppet regime) as opposed to installing a totalitarian theocracy. One thing that many people seem to elide over is that the pre-Taliban polity is (or was) called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and that sharia played a major role in its jurisprudence. Its not as if it was ruled by apostates forcing secularizing policies on a recalcitrant peasantry, as happened under the Soviet policy of “unveiling” (Hujum) and emancipation of women in Central Asia from the 1920s, and as was briefly attempted in Afghanistan itself in the 1980s, and is now being attempted by China with respect to the Uyghurs. But that doesn’t describe the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. If it did, it would have seen some of the world’s highest immigration rates during the 2000s as Afghans displaced by the Soviet-Afghan War repatriated.

Browsing through the polls, one interesting thing I noted – and one which lends credence to the idea that the Taliban wasn’t all that popular – is that normie Afghans seemed considerably less regressive than Taliban 2.0, let alone their predecessors. Close to 90% say that women should have the same opportunities as men for primary and high school education, and 75% hold the same view for university education. Probably this at least as much as “optics” explains why Taliban 2.0 have, at least for now, promised not to roll back progress in those spheres. Regardless of its overall record, one thing that did happen under the American intervention is an increase in primary school enrollment from 21% to close to universal levels (a statistic that is, incidentally, borne out by another poll – 82% of Afghans say all of the boys in their household attend school, and 75% say that all of the girls do so), so at a minimum shutting down girls’ schools would be vastly more disruptive than in the late 1990s, when very few children were going to school anyway. Less than 2% think women shouldn’t be allowed to work outside the home. Again, regardless of their internal views, this is presumably something that Taliban 2.0 will just have to accept as a done deal at this point.

There is an overwhelming endorsement of female suffrage, with only 10% of both men and women opposing it. Even more remarkably, and that is something I certainly did not expect to see, is that there is even net marginal support for women being able to run for the Presidency (49% support, 46% oppose).

This clip from a Vice documentary on the Taliban was widely RT’ed a few days ago by outraged liberal and normie conservatives, as well as Alt Righters fawning over how absolutely BASED and REDPILLED the Taliban are. But the actual reality is that the bearded fellows giggling at Hind Hassan’s question on whether Afghans would be able to vote in female politicians under their rule are actually likely a minority even within their own country (e.g. 55% support for women being allowed to be governors).

I am not going to expound on this much further, though I would note that Noah Carl independently came to much the same conclusions on his Substack:

The Asia Foundation’s survey also asked Afghans about the criteria for an ideal president. By far the most popular response, given by 36% of respondents, was “an honest, just and fair person”. By contrast, only 18% said “a pious, devout Muslim”. When asked about female participation in politics, 59% said “women should decide for themselves”, whereas only 17% said “men should decide for women” (the remaining 23% said “women should decide … in consultation with men”). Although a majority of Afghans identified the burka or niqab as the most appropriate dress for women in public, 87% said that women should have the same opportunities in education as men. On the other hand, a slight plurality said that political leaders should be “mostly men”.

Of course, there could be some social desirability bias in respondents’ answers (i.e., Afghans telling interviewers what they wanted to hear), and this bias may have increased over time, as people became more familiar with the values of their Western occupiers. Hence one might want to adjust the numbers from the Asia Foundation Survey in a more “traditional” direction. However, even if the 85% figure were adjusted down by, say, 15 percentage points, that’s still 70% of Afghans who have no sympathy for the Taliban. Interestingly, the survey also revealed that 97% of Afghans believe corruption is a problem in their country.

Indeed, to the extent that Afghans had grievances with the regime, the poll suggests it largely touch on much the same “boring”, non-ideological issues that worry normies everywhere around the world – things like employment, crime and security, problems with utilities and infrastructure. Tellingly, since 2014, more Afghans have thought things were going in the “wrong” direction, a turn that coincided with a sharp stall in the GDP growth rate after a doubling during the 2000s. Nonetheless, it is telling that “foreign intervention” was only cited as a reason things were going in the wrong direction by 7% of Afghans, while concerns with “morality/religious direction” concerned less than 1% of them (!). Afghans were, at least as of 2019, singularly uninterested in Taliban wedge issues.

Perhaps the single most telling result here is that 13% of Afghans said they experienced “a lot of fear” when encountering the National Police and 11% on encountering the ANA versus 73% on encountering the Taliban (only slightly lower than 83% for ISIS/Daesh). This suggests that whereas normie Afghans did view certain factions in their civil war as occupiers or terrorists, it wasn’t the actual national security services of the supposed “puppet” regime, regardless of their oft-reported deficiencies and venality.

Could Taliban sympathizers have feared to respond with their true sentiments? This general criticism is one I have come across frequently in my career as Russia watcher, observing how Westerners often cope with Putin’s high approval ratings by positing that Russians were simply too fearful to truthfully answer pollsters. This is self-evidently ridiculous both to anyone who lives in Russia or even anyone who has substantive dealings with or experience in Russia. However, as it so happens, that particular theory was demolished by Timothy Frye et al. in 2015, who used a double list experiment – a clever way of gauging attitudes towards a potentially controversial topic without respondents having to answer it directly – to confirm that Putin’s approval ratings as measured by mainstream pollsters were indeed accurate to at least within 10 percentage points. Now most democracy/freedom indices, admittedly for what dubious value they are worth, tend to define Afghanistan as some kind of “hybrid democracy” like Russia. Be that as it may, it was not a crime to sympathize with the Taliban, and in fact in other questions on this poll, the great majority of Afghans supported pursuing a peace deal with them (though almost 70% opposed ceding the governorship of any provinces to them). Furthermore, we should also bear in mind that substantial numbers of people have expressed “incorrect” opinions in places far more extreme and dangerous to have them. In one notable 2012 poll, some 5% of polled Saudis said they were atheists (a position that theoretically carries the death penalty). Substantial numbers of Arabs, most of whom live in illiberal states, have historically expressed support for Islamic State in opinion polls, including those living in dictatorships. According to a Syria-wide poll by ORB International in July 2015, some 25% of the residents of Al Raqqa said that the influence of the Islamic State under which they lived was either “somewhat” or “completely” negative while about 20% of the residents of “core” regime territory (Tartus, Latakia, Damascus) expressed similar sentiments about Bashar al-Assad. So even in literal “Extremistan” territory, it seems that people are surprisingly honest in responding to polls. By extension, there needs to be really good evidence to give us cause to think otherwise as regards Afghanistan.

Historically, there is nothing unprecedented with more fanatical groups overrunning much bigger states with bigger armies (at least on paper), even if their denizens don’t particularly want them in charge. The Bolsheviks, who only gained 24% of the vote in their only free and fair elections in 1917, imposed themselves on the rest of Russia by the use of force (largely with the help of Latvian riflemen in the critical early months). Still, the question remains – if the Taliban really were unpopular, why did ANA crumple so quickly?

James Thompson cites low Afghan IQ. This is probably a factor. Lower IQ people, some of them illiterate (recall that universal primary enrollment was only achieved quite recently), can’t use complex weaponry, which annuls their main advantage against insurgents who make up for material inadequacies with zeal. Still, Afghan IQ was no higher in the late 1980s, and yet Najibullah’s regime managed to last a bit more than three years, mounting multi-division offensives against the jihadists so long as Soviet aid continued pouring in.

But there were many other factors to this:

  1. President Ghani and his circle being convinced that the US would never leave. When Biden called their bluff and withdrew anyway, they were caught with their pants down.
  2. The US never actually trained ANA to operate independently as an Army, so they were left in the lurch when the US abruptly cut out air support.
  3. The Big Brain idea of spreading your military across the entire country, as opposed to concentrating it around Kabul and the north, where anti-Taliban sentiment was highest.
  4. The Taliban appear to have reached behind the scenes deals with some of the generals or even members of the government. There are widespread rumors that many troops were ordered to stand down and not offer resistance.
  5. Whereas the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan fielded a conscript army, the ANA was an army of volunteers  scraped from the bottom of the barrel of Afghan society. You’d have to be pretty desperate to sign up, given its lack of prestige and poor (and unreliable) pay.
  6. Conversely, the Taliban forces were volunteers and self-selected for ideological zeal. Given their madrassa background and the positive correlations between income and Taliban support, their human capital was very likely higher than that of the ANA.
  7. The ineptness and cowardice of President Ghani himself, who spent most of his career in the academic/NGO “democracy promotion”/Peace Studies circuit. Highlights include a TED talk called “how to rebuild a broken state” and the book Fixing Failed States. However, his ideas failed when they clashed against gritty reality, as he was unable to satisfy the most basic function of a state – maintaining the loyalty of the armed men defending it. It is said that many of the ANA soldiers hadn’t been paid in 6-9 months, though on the plus side, was at least successful with making good his escape (with wads of banknotes if Russian accounts are to be believed).

Even all these factors aside, it does seem fair to say that the vast majority of Afghans didn’t identify strongly enough with their state to offer up serious resistance to the Taliban. Still, this isn’t grounds to claim that Afghans wanted the Taliban in charge, much less that they deserved the Taliban, and to dehumanize them on this account. There has been a fair amount of that across distinct ideological clusters. One of them are the anti-interventionists who view this as an opportunity to discredit the neocons and future wars of choice by extension, which at least is a good and legitimate cause. Others are less wholesome, such as knee-jerk anti-Americans who are using the opportunity to troll the US on account of a PR humiliation but one that is actually not even all that relevant to its world power status. And then there are some which are actively misanthropic, such as a subset of the Alt Right who, enraged by their powerlessness in Western society, seem to be getting a kind of vicarious self-satisfaction from anticipating the brutal punishment that Taliban “thot patrols” are about to mete out to blue-haired feminists and GloboHomo agents (never mind that SJWs as such practically don’t exist even in Kabul, that the people who are most closely associated with the targets of their rage in Washington D.C. are first in line to be evacuated, that the great bulk of Taliban oppression will befall the most culturally Europeanized Afghans, and that it will provoke a new wave of Afghan immigration into their country which they supposedly oppose).

Anyhow, even if history doesn’t repeat, it does rhyme. Afghanistan is an extremely fractious country, and the fact that not that that many Afghans like the Taliban means that it only has a very limited window to reach a national consensus before it begins to face challenges to its authority across the country. Two days in, there is already a counter-Taliban insurgency starting up in Panjshir, and it will probably neither be the only one, nor the last. So long as the Taliban’s authority is disputed, it is unlikely to be widely recognized by the international community; its “brand” is near globally toxic. As a country heavily dependent on foreign aid, where budget expenditures exceed revenues by a factor of three, its hard to see how Afghanistan can avoid economic collapse (at least short of China funneling in tens of billions of yuan). Afghanistan’s population has quadrupled since the late 1980s. The world should prepare for refugees flows rivaling or exceeding those of the 1980s.


Panjshir Addendum (08/11)

Many people have predictably been dismissing the results from this poll, reasons ranging from good (“can you successfully poll Afghans”) to bad (“but outfit in question got money from the CIA… half a century back”).

Yet even so, it is displaying predictive power even as we speak.

Panjshir . I just looked up Taliban sympathy in Panjshir. 96.3% no sympathy (84 people), 2.8% little sympathy (2 people), one person who “didn’t know”), and nobody with “a lot of” sympathy.

The single most anti-Taliban province in Afghanistan minus a few lightly populated central regions largely populated by Hazaras has become the focal point of a spreading anti-Taliban insurgency. I wonder why, and not, say, neighboring Nuristan – which is just as mountainous and even more inaccessible.

Afghanistan: 20 Years, $2 Trillion, 20 Days

First thought is that the US spent 20 years and $2 trillion trying to build a democracy in a half-literate country of goatherders that disintegrated within 20 days.

Think what you could have done with that (dependent on your preferences).

  • “Green New Deal”.
  • Free college.
  • 335 ship Navy.
  • Mars base.

This adventure must have set some kind of anti-ROI record. Just a singularly total waste of time, money, and energy (if relatively light on blood compared to other conflicts).

Ironically, the USSR’s creation lasted three years. Despite the mujahedeen receiving much more in the way of foreign support, Najibullah’s government managed to independently mount multi-division offensives against the jihadists after the Soviet withdrawal and survived for a bit more than three years, when Soviet aid dried up. In contrast, it appears that the Americans were simply uninterested in building an actual army that could operate independently without their oversight. These are some interesting remarks on this from a former Afghan major on Brown Pundits. Even the South Vietnamese regime lasted for two years. (Has American nation-building capacity declined? Though of course Afghanistan and Vietnam aren’t really at all comparable).

The US failure in this respect is all the more total in that, at least according to the most comprehensive poll on the matter, most Afghans did not actually sympathize with the Taliban. The percentage of Afghans who said they sympathized with the Taliban in 2019 was just 13%, shrinking to 8% in Kabul. Even amongst ethnic Pashtuns, this percentage was just 21%. If this poll is accurate, it would imply the Taliban had less popular support than Islamic State in its heartlands of Al Raqqa. (Incidentally, the fact that many Western commenters believe that Taliban support was broad-based is a testament to Taliban PR). And yet, even so, the Taliban went through the ANA like a hot knife through butter, strolling from town to town in their sandals, firing their rifles from the hip without aiming, like you can see in combat videos from Sub-Saharan Africa. It seems that normie Afghans are not Islamist enough to want the Taliban, but nor are they motivated enough to stick their necks out for a highly corrupt government that few saw as “theirs” and which confirmed their intuitions by fleeing to Dubai as the Taliban closed in. Individually, it was not the incorrect decision, even though it collectively doomed them to an outcome that a majority probably saw as suboptimal.

Finally, it’s certainly a major PR defeat for the US, and some of the most regressively kneejerk anti-American elements, running the gamut from domestic Islamist interlopers crowing over the “defeat of colonialism and imperialism” to their newfound groyper allies slavering over putting women in cages and banning vaccines, are certainly savoring the moment. However, I would imagine Biden has good reasons for going through with the withdrawal. It gets rid of a major strategic liability and money sink, especially at a time when the US needs to devote more and more resources to keeping ahead of China. I would guess that in many cases, even the supposed benefits of staying in Afghanistan might have been overstated. For instance, some have touted it as a “live fire” training base. But the soldiers there operate in conditions of total air and EW supremacy, which will not be forthcoming in a military clash with a real peer competitor. Consequently, the “lessons” that the US military has been learning from Afghanistan may be dubious and even counter-productive in a serious conflict.

At the end of the day, if 20 years wasn’t enough time to stabilize the situation, probably 30 wouldn’t have been enough either. It is good not to succumb to sunk costs fallacy. Certainly the withdrawal might have been better managed. Gifting a newfangled Islamist regimes with tons of advanced weaponry doesn’t strike me as an excellent idea (though, happily, the Taliban Air Force will be barely any more adept at using them than ANA). Perhaps the strategy should have been to hold on to core areas; for instance, if ANA had been concentrated around especially anti-Taliban Kabul and the north, as opposed to being spread out all over the country, then it could have held at least those territories. But those are speculative counterfactuals. At the end of the day, perhaps Biden looked at Trump’s experience, and decided that a sharp and quick withdrawal was only way to avoid it being sabotaged by Pentagon bureaucrats.

Conversely, the conventional wisdom is that this is a minor “win” for China, which has been sending out feelers to the Taliban for months; on July 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Taliban commander Abdul Ghani Baradar, who is to imminently become Afghanistan’s new President. Probably Chinese investment into infrastructure and mining will be sufficient enticement to make the Taliban honor their commitment not to support Uyghur separatists in response to China’s reciprocal and long-standing policy of not meddling in the governance of other countries. But there’s no way to be sure. Russia is now put into the awkward position of having to negotiate with an organization which its official news media, by law, has to remind its readers/viewers is “banned in the Russian Federation” while at the same time having to respond to inane and recurring American claims that it paid that same Taliban to kill American soldiers; allegations that I now half expect to resurface in force to explain away the humiliation of the past three weeks. Since the current Taliban as I understand is in significant part a confederation of regional warlords, and the Tajik north feels like breaking away again – for instance, on account of resurgent Pashtun nationalism – this could create a refugee crisis that overspills into Tajikistan and from Tajikistan into Russia itself (non-ethnic Russian immigration from Central Asia is dominated by Tajiks). And will the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan continue to recognize Crimea, as Hamid Karzai did? So many questions! The Taliban’s triumph in Afghanistan will also be discomfiting, if not catastrophic, for Iran. During its previous lease on power, the two nearly came to blows in 1998 when the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats and journalists in the northern city of Mazar-i Sharif (the date is marked as “Journalist’s Day” in Iran). As with Tajikistan/Russia, there might also be a flood of Hazara refugees into Iran if the Taliban overreaches.

In fact, the only clear winners and losers, respectively, would appear to be Pakistan and India, respectively. India’s project to build a logistics route through Afghanistan down to the Iranian port of Chabahar is now dead in the water.

It’s a Zoomer’s Market

Like them, hate them, or consider them genderfluid TikToking herbivores, but one thing the zoomers undoubtedly get right is that they know the value of their labor and aren’t afraid to spell out their conditions to seething boomers.

Isn’t this, like, the free market at work? Why would a supposed “libertarian” have a problem with this?

The combination of Corona gibs, forced savings (fewer vacations, dining out, etc.), and zoomers being much more financially literate relative to previous generations means they have lots of cash at their disposal. Safety net = more room to negotiate –> employee’s market.

It’s also very good for the economy. Can’t find someone to “stand there and ensure safety on a 1 lane dirt road” for a pittance? Well, perhaps such a joke job shouldn’t exist in the first place>?

The post-Corona economy sort of strikes as something of a preview of what UBI would be like. Greater productivity. Labor gets much more negotiating power. Sign on bonuses, once the preserve of highly skilled and sought after technical workers, are now being offered by some McDonald’s outlets. Billionaires might have become richer, but so did most everyone with investments outside gold and fiat. In tech, remote work has become the norm. Shitty employers offering shit jobs whine about the “entitled” ingrates who are driving them out of business.

Meanwhile, as I half suspected would happen at the outset of the pandemic, most everyone else wins.


Grey Skies Ahead for Life Extension

The Woke “Canceling” of Aubrey de Grey Portends Nothing Good either for Life Extension, or for Women in Science

The field of Radical Life Extension has been going from strength. Over the past two years, timelines have moved sharply up, after having stagnated for the first decade and a half since Aubrey de Grey introduced his comprehensive anti-aging theoretical framework Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), which later become an institution of the same name.

This was both confirmed and reinforced by a flood of venture capital into gerontology and senolytics startups; as of 2018-19, smart money is finally interested. Even more recently, the crypto boom has massively enriched its early adopters, who tend to be highly heterodox and contrarian in their views and skew towards libertarianism and transhumanism. This has translated into massive donations towards longevity research. After years of subsisting on $5M/year, a single crypto airdrop from Richard Heart ($HEX) has netted a cool $28M for SENS. Vitalik Buterin personally donated some of his dogcoins. Another group of people in the field created VitaDAO ($VITA), a decentralized autonomous organization to fund anti-aging research through decentralized voting while making money for its hodlers through the patents and IP it accumulates. Its current market cap is $20M.

In short, this space is suddenly and unexpected swimming in a lot of money. And with new money comes drama and hubris.

(h/t Roko for the meme).

Several days ago, a couple of female researchers – namely, Celine Halioua and Laura Deming – made sexual harassment accusations against Aubrey de Grey.

More specifically, Deming says that he send her an inappropriate work email when she was 17 (“told me in writing that he had an ‘adventurous love life’ and that it had ‘always felt quite jarring’ not to let conversations with me stray in that direction given that ‘[he] could treat [me] as an equal on every other level’”), while Halioua made the even more serious allegation that Aubrey hit on her all night at a SENS dinner while plying her with alcohol and suggesting that she should sleep with attending SENS donors so that they would give Aubrey de Grey more money.

On his part, Aubrey de Grey denies the allegations apart from the email, which he has admitted was “ill-advised.”

For what it’s worth, I don’t know de Grey personally, only having ever met him once and fleetingly at that, but he always struck me as an eccentric but endearing English nerd who likes his cider and proving obscure mathematical theorems in his spare time away from seeking the Philosopher’s Stone. One of the most endearing Anglo archetypes, completed by the Gandalf-like beard. Based on the “evidence” – a single quote from an email nine years ago that was mildly inappropriate and certainly ill-advised, but one which can’t even be unambiguously interpreted as a come on – I think it’s much likelier that de Grey simply tends to be awkward in interactions with women as opposed to being a “sexual predator” and/or a rambunctious lothario like Cuomo. But it is precisely the former whom women despise at the hindbrain level. In this case, so much so as to level hyperbolic, near Epstein-tier insinuations against de Grey (“sexual harassment & abuse, including against minors”). In light of this, I hope it’s not too imprudent to note that Halioua has previously blogged about an anonymous harasser who she claims ended her academic career at Oxford, saying that “I see pieces of my harasser in other men.”

Now I’m not saying their accusations are false. However, as I have pointed out in my previous commentary, I would guess that there is less sexual harassment in the Rationalism/H+/Radical Life Extension community – a high IQ community overwhelmingly concentrated in high IQ, civilized countries – than almost anywhere else across time, space, and class. Ironically, it’s those very same features that make this community some of the most obsessed with the topic. That, together with the specifics of this case, suggest to me that it is very likely  that the accusations are substantially and perhaps entirely ungrounded.

Nor is this just my take as a representative of toxic masculinity. At least two women in the life extension community who have frequently interacted with de Grey in a professional setting – incidentally, and perhaps tellingly, both from Russia – have expressed skepticism over Halioua’s claims. Daria Khaltourina, a polymath cliodynamicist and anti-aging researcher, said that Aubrey de Grey never behaved in an appropriate fashion either to her nor to other women that she could observe in comments to a public Russian transhumanist group. In a lengthier comment on Facebook, she said she found the sex-for-SENS-cash allegations particularly incredible: “Also, I find it very hard to believe this particular piece of Celine Halioua “He told me that I was a ‘glorious woman’ and that as a glorious woman I had a responsibility to have sex with the SENS donors in attendance so they would give money to him”. Like really? Recollecting the donors of SENS, they are mostly not this type of people at all. This must have been misunderstanding. I heard no rumor like this particular claim from the Russian H+ community, and we contact with SENS a lot, a lot of H+ women too.”

Anastasia Egorova, who is a co-founder of Open Longevity, laughed it off more boisterously: “Going back to talking about sex with a person you work with. Or even work for. You know how many times I was openly invited to a threesome by a sponsor? Well, not that many, just two. You know what I did? I giggled and was flattered and had an awesome story to tell to my friends.” On a separate note, this is a big part of what I like about Russia, and Eastern Europe generally – this kind of humane, light-hearted liberalism without sexual complexes still exists there, as it did in the US during the 2000s, before it was airbrushed out of existence by that weird neo-Puritan cult that some call the Great Awokening. Egorova also doesn’t pull her punches in questioning the pair’s motives: “Am I ok with sexual harassment? Of course not! But was this the case? Were they harassed or just felt harassed? Or conveniently remembered these stories just after SENS raised $28M to ride this trend? “Hey girl, you know what, I think we forgot to be offended”. And please, let’s not forget the girls are competing for the same funding.

Again, these are not my words. They are the words of two women, in a country where Wokeism has made fewer inroads than in the West, who know Aubrey de Grey quite well and have interacted with hundreds of men and women in that community. (There may be more testimonies, I wasn’t looking actively). Now even if we categorically accept the #MeToo directive to always and unquestioningly “believe women”, why exactly privilege Halioua and Deming over Khaltourina and Egorova? That said, I consider it very good that it is prominent women in H+ who have taken the lead in raising questions over Halioua’s and Deming’s claims, cutting the ground from actual misogynists who are more interested in stirring up hate and conflict between men and women as opposed to human progress. (I would further note the irony that those misogynists would find good situational allies with Western SJWs who would dismiss their voices as the “internalized misogyny” of Putin’s Russia).

Another point that some commenters have made is that it is not impossible that there are really baser motives at play here. From VitaDAO’s Discord:

Hours after the scandal broke, VitaDAO had removed Aubrey de Grey from its list of Contributors and Partners. Controversially, it was an internal team decision without a vote on the matter on either the blockchain or even its own forum/Discord. This would seem to sort of nullify the entire point of a DAO, with its utopian promise of decentralized decision-making (a cynic might say that it just revealed itself as yet another centralized institution in crypto wrappings). Although the decision was almost certainly primarily driven by the desire to avoid a PR backlash, the timing will mean that residual suspicions about more “pecuniary” motives will remain (indeed, they are widely discussed in the Russian H+ community).

Moreover, as I pointed out to them on Twitter, investors will now be warier of investing long-term into something that folds so quickly to mob pressure. Personally speaking, $VITA is my one coin where I’m unironically “in it for the tech.” Said tech involves not dying this century. It doesn’t listening to Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s future lectures on how life extension will immortalize white supremacy and perpetuate systems of oppression against women and POC. To the extent that DAOs are meant to guard against this, it is not the most auspicious start.

One final point. Aubrey de Grey is a polymath genius who has provisioned original mathematical proofs in graph theory in his spare time from making fundamental contributions to the life sciences. Although he is 58 years old, and people tend to become less productive with age, his inventiveness is such that he might still have many productive results ahead of him – at least if he doesn’t have to waste his time, energy, and emotions on the fallout from his “canceling”. Halioua’s academic pedigree is… somewhat less impressive. Her company specializes in rapamycin trials with dogs, something that is neither new nor particularly innovative. Now certainly no reasonable and fair-minded person would claim that this entitles men such as de Grey to sexually harass women, nor to automatically dismiss claims of such against them. But given the context of the context of the accusations (why after 9 years? conveniently when this sphere is finally flush with money); given that at least two women have stated that Aubrey never even hinted at such behavior in their interactions with them or with other women that they observed; given that the one piece of evidence that has been provided – an email from nearly a decade ago that is a bit edgy but far too ambiguous to even tell if it was flirtatious – is being weaponized to insinuate that de Grey harassed not just women, but minors at that; most of all, given that Halioua has made the truly remarkable and blatantly self-serving claim that “every dollar that goes to Aubrey holds back the field” and actually makes them “complacent in the sexual harassment of minors”:

… why, exactly, are these accusations being taken at face value against not just any man, but the one man who has probably done more than any other to increase the chances that those who live to 2050, also live to 2150?

It’s certainly not a good sign, that’s for sure.

I have previously pointed out that SJWs have already largely destroyed Effective Altruism, up to the point that one of its intellectual fathers, Robin Hanson, was “canceled” from a German EA event in 2020 (whereas four years earlier I did not receive trouble for trollishly parading about in a MAGA hat at one of their conferences in Berkeley). Unfortunately, I think this vulnerability to SJW subversion is highly acute and indeed innate to the Rationalism spehere. Most of them are highly virtuous people, which makes them unusually susceptible to psychopathic virtue maximizers. As a friend wrote to me in an email sometime in the late 2010s, “I think this is how movements like EA die – not with a bang, or with a whimper, but with a sloshing sound from all the cash and normie status being poured into the feeding trough. Still, it makes for entertaining reading.” From a utilitarian perspective, it will be a tragedy of truly unfathomable proportions if rent-seeking entryists, smelling cash and sinecures, are allowed to repeat their hit on the Radical Life Extension community.

The upside, such as it is, is that it will at least make for entertaining reading on your deathbed.

Rainbow Ascendant

I mentioned this Ipsos poll on global attitudes to LGBT in a previous Open Thread, but it really deserves a separate post on account of its significance.

I think it demonstrates three things:

  1. LGBT rights (as in marriage and adoption) have become universalized beyond their Western core, with the Rest sliding into line soon after Red America gave up on opposing it about a decade ago.
  2. This is spearheaded by the younger generations.
  3. PR, or propaganda, works both ways. There has obviously been a huge and increasingly state-directed push for LGBT from the US. But countries that legally discouraged it have become “frozen” so far as attitudes are concerned.

Here’s the graph of countries that now support gay marriage.

Notably, there are solid majorities everywhere for it outside Russia and Malaysia in the polled countries. Turkey is 50/50. The V4, including PiS-ruled Poland, support it. So do China and India, the two most populous countries.

So one might say that this is literally “GloboHomo”, i.e. culturally hegemonic. That is, just as the “gay marriage” culture war was “lost” in America from around 2010, the same is true of the world as a whole c.2020. Again, see China and India.

Whereas Russia made the anti-LGBT campaign the central lynchpin of Putin’s “conservative turn” around the late 2000s, it did not play much of a role in more authoritarian China (except perhaps very recently). Its very telling that in the absence of state repression (via propaganda), it has “won” by default.

And for that matter even in Russia trends might have recently reversed (maybe, the linked poll has a low sample… need to wait for more polls).

This would also tend to support the “LGBT as fad” thesis.

Curiously, there’s no difference between gay marriage support and gay adoption support (at least with the exception of Russia and Poland).

Another curious observation is that levels of support for LGBT rights correlates with how gay you are on average. Not a clean correlation by any means, e.g. Malaysia is very high, and India is at the very top. Brazil doesn’t surprise me, I recall reading coming across older polls which showed that more of them identified as homosexual or bisexual than the 3% of Americans, before the zoomers broke the charts.

LOL at Russia being literally the straightest country in this sample. One is tempted to conclude that Milonov and Yarovaya were correct about everything.

On that note.

It’s quite stunning. Only 57% of American zoomers identify as totally heterosexual, versus 95% of boomers. There can only be one explanation for such a rapid change in historical time. Genetic explanations of homosexuality are not very convincing as it is (they impose extremely large reproductive costs), but even that aside, there is no way that this could have happened in a couple of generations. Cultural fad is the most succinct explanation.

The main thing that remains to be seen is how “deep” it is and to what extent it impacts on the TFR. The rapid decline in Anglo TFR over the past half decade might hint at the answer, though I suppose there are many factors involved.

And as we can see here this is a global phenomenon. Just 68% of zoomers globally are total heterosexuals versus 87% of boomers. The Americans were actually less gay than the global average at one point but the change has been more rapid.

So what could this be tied to? Well, in countries that are less gay and have less support for gay marriage/adoption, they also tend to be more against pro-LGBT signaling.

They know of fewer people who are gay. This is both a function of gay behavior being more taboo, but also, as per above, there also being fewer gays and more of a closet effect.

There’s also unsurprisingly much less support for things like corporate signaling with rainbow flags and the like.

More of them would prefer that they “stay in the closet” so far as their personal lives are concerned.

PS. This isn’t meant to be a gay-bashing post. I’m primarily interested in how things work and in any case the ~3% of the population that is gay by default has contributed to civilization above its population share (Turing, Tchaikovsky, etc.). But these more recent developments do seem quite significant and with so many zoomers and millennials starting to identify as non-hetero, might provide at least part of the explanation for the sharp falls in TFR observed across some countries in the past 5 years (in the Anglosphere in particular). In the long run, it might not be so relevant, as people more susceptible to such fads will have fewer children.


Open Thread 160

  • Emil Kirkegaard: The ‘Hereditarians bad people’ objection. On the recent spat between Cathy Young vs. Charles Murray, Steve Sailer, and other hereditarians. Ended with Steve being blocked by Cathy.

  • Hungary has become an object in the culture war. Their demographic problems long predate Orban, who was actually more successful on the economy than on the former (at least to date). They are not going to get rich by taking in immigrants. The US tends to attract much higher quality immigrants (or at least an elite “smart fraction” subset that punches way above its weight) that will simply never come to Hungary because it is banally poorer than the US and does not have world-renowned institutions/companies to attract them (as @whyvert points out). Basically, my take is that there’s limited the “lessons: that the US and Hungary can exchange are highly limited.

  • Global Times: “Lithuania is a crazy, tiny country full of geopolitical fears. Its strategy is to cling to the US as tightly as possible. Lithuania will eventually pay the price for its evil deed of breaking international rules.

* Banerjee, I. et al. (2021). Reading Race: AI Recognises Patient’s Racial Identity In Medical Images. In arXiv [cs.CV]. Twitter summary: “We performed many experiments to work out how it does this, but couldn’t pin it down. This is the most ridiculous figure I have ever seen. AI can detect race from images filtered so heavily they are just blank grey squares! …Hi everyone. This thread has been swamped by racists. I’m probably gonna miss your replies, but I’ll still be here in a few days when they move on or you can reach out through other channels.

India in the Olympics

It’s fascinating to think that what is now a solidly lower-middle income country with a population that is on the cusp of overtaking’s China’s has just two medals in the Olympics so far.

It’s a bit less surprising when one considers that the average Indian man might only be about as strong as the average Icelandic woman…

But anyhow.

The other really interesting feature is how even within India a small proportion of states contribute almost all their medal winners. For instance, 30% of the Indian Olympic team comes from Haryana and Punjab, two states with 4% of India’s population.

Moreover, even from within those states, there are areas of strong concentration.


Although it’s tempting to ascribe this to vegetarianism, the problem is that most of the South and East do eat chicken whereas both Punjab and Haryana are very vegetarian.

Looking at the leaderboard, India is right below Mongolia (population: 3 million), which at three medals has one more than India despite a 500x lower population. All three of them are in judo. The Mongols also dominate sumo wrestling in Japan (126 million).

Open Thread 159

Rosatom HQ.

  • RIP. Sam Dickson: William H. Regnery II: A Hero’s Life. A Hero’s Death.  I intersected with him in Moscow in 2018 at the end of a transit of the Trans-Siberian with a friend. Too little to get a know a person, but my impressions were positive, FWIW. On a non-political tone, He remarked that he had visited Moscow three times, once towards the end of the Soviet era, the second time around 2010, and the third time now. Each time it had gotten better. He said that he had been in London about 20 times and that it had progressively degraded since he first visited in the 1960s. In 2018, he felt it had overtaken it in quality and by a large margin.

* Lo, Y.-H., Cheng et al. (2020). Detecting genetic ancestry and adaptation in the Taiwanese Han people. Molecular Biology and Evolution. Spoiler: Admixture happened before the Chinese emigrated to Taiwan.

(1) The Georgian Orthodox Church is autocephalous from Moscow, (2) all polls show Georgians more homophobic than Russians, (3) Georgian nationalists don’t exactly like Russia, LOL.

But it is still Putler & Russia who are repressing their gays.