Belmont Club

In Certificates We Trust

Google’s rejection of Symantec’s SSL certificates never made the major headlines but illustrates the role trust plays in society. If you’re connected to a bank or the Belmont Club chances are you are reassured by the little lock icon and https indicator in the address bar certifying you are logged into the real McCoy. The site sends your browser its SSL certificate, signed with the private key of a trusted certificate authority and the browser uses public key of the authority to verify if the certificate is real. Then it displays the lock.  If the browsers mistrust the certificate it emits a warning instead. When Google determined Symantec’s Latin American partners had issued 30,000 certificates without proper verification Chrome developers degraded the certificates, potentially displaying “not secure” instead of a lock and a big red slash drawn through the “https”. Within days Symantec sold its business.  Lose the trust, lose a billion dollar business.

The collapse of Symantec’s trust certificates underscores the weakness of authority systems. Who guards the guardians? Google checked Symantec but who checks Google? Today authority is under question as never before.  When authority systems are mistrusted even the physical facts become doubtful. The Independent cites authorities who claim “climate change could soon make it fatal to even go outside in some parts of the world.” A billion people could die says a Guardian article:

Extreme heatwaves that kill even healthy people within hours will strike parts of the Indian subcontinent unless global carbon emissions are cut sharply and soon, according to new research. Even outside of these hotspots, three-quarters of the 1.7bn population – particularly those farming in the Ganges and Indus valleys – will be exposed to a level of humid heat classed as posing “extreme danger” towards the end of the century. …

Their previous research, published in 2015, showed the Gulf in the Middle East, the heartland of the global oil industry, will also suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked, particularly Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and coastal cities in Iran.

But if we people don’t believe these authorities there will be problems.  For instance voters may refuse to support the Paris Agreement. A global system needs “settled science” and “real news” to reach consensus in the same way SSL trust certificates are required for online banking. Without trust interactions freeze up.  The hidden cost of allowing the media to issue dubious credentials to charlatans is it has raised the costs of political transactions to prohibitive levels.

That’s not the only cost the complex One World has unconsciously imposed. Theodore Dalrymple argues the rules — even for physicians — are now so complicated a kind of lawlessness is breaking out. “Where there are so many laws that even highly specialized lawyers have difficulty in keeping up with the provisions in their own area of specialism, the rule of law declines … This superabundance of laws exists in many places around the world today …  It makes them the arbiters of our existence. It also makes the rest of us wards of the court.”

Dalrymple’s argument is simple.  If a doctor can be in unknowing violation of the law because the law itself is mutable and incomprehensible, action becomes risky and expensive.  “Since what is ethically monstrous today is ethically required tomorrow, and vice versa, with every stage of development in between, the case for endless meddling is made out.” But Dalrymple was only worried about the future changes to law.   Naseem Taleb found that risk can be retroactive.  The Atlantic described Taleb’s recent clash with Cambridge classicist Mary Beard over ethnic diversity in the Roman Empire.

In December, the BBC released on YouTube an old animated video about life in Roman Britain, which featured a family with a dark-skinned father. This depiction recently caught the ire of an Infowars editor, who tweeted, “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?”

To which Mary Beard—best known as a classicist at Cambridge, and more recently known for taking on internet trolls—replied, “this is indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” To which Nassim Nicholas Taleb—best-known for railing about epistemic arrogance in The Black Swan, and recently known for arguing on Twitter—replied: “Historians believe their own BS. Where did the subsaharan genes evaporate?”

Taleb went on to tweet several charts of DNA variation among modern Europeans that he presented as “data” as opposed to Beard’s “anecdotal reasoning.” And so Taleb and Beard went back and forth, back and forth.

This is as amusing as the debate over why there so few women are portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s movie “Dunkirk” because Taleb is economically secure.  If he were an academic clinging tenuously to a position he might be trembling in fear.  Instead Taleb gloated that “the smearing mob can’t get that 1) They can’t get me to lose a ‘job’ or affect my income … 2) They can’t sue me over here (recall, America).”  But those without independent means must toe the line.  A ideological uniformity is flowing like heat death over intellectual life. To avoid risk one must avoid saying anything controversial or new.

Cumulatively the breakdown of trust, rising regulatory complexity and the demand for ideological purity are the unrecognized costs imposed by current political systems on a world it is no longer able to efficiently govern.  Though they are unacknowledged the costs are real.   So are their effects.  The paradox is that after a brief period of opening at the end of the 20th century society appears to be closing down, driven by a need to escape aggressive ideology and cascading complexity.

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The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency , by Chris Whipple. The book offers an essential portrait of the toughest job in Washington. Through extensive, intimate interviews with all seventeen living chiefs and two former presidents, Whipple pulls back the curtain on this unique fraternity and revises our understanding of presidential history.

The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President, by David Aaron Miller. The book explores the concept of greatness in the presidency and the ways in which it has become both essential and detrimental to America and its politics. Miller argues that greatness in presidents is a much overrated virtue, too rare to be relevant in the country’s current politics and, driven as it is by nation-encumbering crisis, too dangerous to be desirable. The preoccupation with greatness consistently inflates people’s expectations, skews the debate over presidential performance, and drives presidents to misjudge their own times and capacity. The book helps readers understand how greatness in the presidency was achieved, why it’s gone, and how they can better come to appreciate the presidents they have, rather than being consumed with the ones they want.

The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East, by Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon. Foreign policy experts Takeyh and Simon reframe the legacy of US involvement in the Arab world from 1945 to 1991 and shed new light on the makings of the contemporary Middle East. Cutting against conventional wisdom, they argue that, when an inexperienced Washington entered the turbulent world of Middle Eastern politics, it succeeded through hardheaded pragmatism, and secured its place as a global superpower. Amid the chaotic conditions of the twenty-first century, they believe that there is an urgent need to look back to a period when the US got it right.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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