Book Review: The Ethics of Beauty

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This is a review I did for the first issue of American Hombre, a new magazine being published by a friend of mine. I did an excerpt of it back in September, but he’s graciously agreed to let me release it in its entirety. If this makes you interested in the full magazine, the PDF is currently available for free at americanhombre.gumroad.com. But also you should consider subscribing to the print version. This magazine deserves to be held. 

You can use the coupon code ‘RW’ to get 10% off a subscription or $1 off the price of the print issue. The next issue is coming out in January and it will include another review by me. (The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter, if you’re curious.) 

The Ethics of Beauty

By: Timothy G. Patitsas

Published: 2020

748 Pages

Beauty will save the world.

~ Fyodor Dostoevsky

The older I get the more I weep. That statement may sound profound, but the weeping itself often isn’t. I generally don’t weep at the overwhelming tragedies of the world — the wars, the famines, the multitudinous cruelties. No, when I weep it’s mostly brought on by songs and movies. The other day I felt tears coming to my eyes while watching The Martian. NASA had just received the message: “Houston, Be Advised: Rich Purnell is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.” Which was the Ares 3 crew’s way of saying they were committing mutiny and going back to Mars to pick up Mark Watney. 

And that’s a relatively minor example. Don’t even get me started on the ending of The Iron Giant, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

My kids give me a hard time about this, which is kind of annoying (“I’m not crying! You’re crying!”) But what’s even more annoying is that I’m not sure what to call this emotion. What exactly am I feeling when the Iron Giant declares that he’s Superman? Or when the crew of the Ares decides to spend another 500 days in space in order to rescue their friend? What is it about these situations that makes the tears well up?

This might be an example of availability bias, but after reading The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, I’m convinced that what I’m experiencing is beauty.

But what is beauty? (At least according to Patitsas…)

I- Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The Cliffs of Moher, featuring the “Harry Potter Cave” (because it was used in one of the movies.) You might also be familiar with them as the “Cliffs of Insanity” which played such a prominent role in The Princess Bride.

As one must do with any discussion of virtue and philosophy, Patitsas begins with Plato. Plato held that there are three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, virtues that transcend time and space. Patitsas begins by assuming that Plato is correct, that these three values were important then, and they’re still important now. From this starting point, Patitsas argues that, in our hubris, we have put all of our emphasis on the virtue of Truth, while distorting the virtue of Goodness and trivializing the virtue of Beauty. And it is from this perversion of our priorities that many, if not most of the problems of modernity arise. 

But so far we’ve only sketched out a foundation of values which includes beauty. We haven’t done anything to define those values. 

Of course herein lies all the difficulty. To start with, Truth seems straightforward to define, it’s just an accurate description of reality. There have always been debates on how best to achieve that accuracy, and even debates on what should constitute reality—debates which have only gotten more heated over the last few years—but at least we’re putting a lot of energy into it. We have countless institutions, professions, and systems all dedicated to probing reality in search of accurate information.

Science dominates this search, and it would be strange if it didn’t. It is the foundation upon which so much of the modern world has been built. It’s given us planes, computers, and skyscrapers. Perhaps more importantly, it also largely solved the problem of hunger through the Green Revolution. It vanquished diseases like smallpox and polio, and ameliorated diseases like tuberculosis and COVID. Science brought material abundance on a historically unprecedented scale, even if that abundance is unevenly distributed.

But Patitsas argues that this focus on science, what he calls a “truth-first” approach, has actually reduced the amount of truth that’s available to us. That it allows us to access shallow truths, but that deeper truths can only be found by first passing through beauty. These are the sorts of truths provided by philosophy and religion, which have become increasingly marginalized in the modern world. 

To the extent that society has an obsession other than Truth, we also fight a great deal about Goodness. This fight is the most intense in the arena of the culture war. But even here, rather than considering Goodness on its own terms we increasingly want to subsume it into the virtue of Truth. Examining this phenomenon is neither the point of this review nor the point of Patitsas’ book, but it was put on stark display during the pandemic. Most debates over morality, particularly those made by people in positions of authority, start with an appeal to science. This approach contains the implicit assumption that facts and science will tell us which actions are good and which are not. 

Unfortunately, the mere act of describing how things are, no matter how skillfully it’s accomplished, can never tell us how things ought to be. David Hume pointed this out back in 1739, and it has come to be known as the “Is-ought problem”, or Hume’s guillotine. A prime example of this is the recent debate over abortion. Each side claims to ground their morality (i.e. Goodness) in facts and data (i.e. Truth) but despite the similarities in their foundations (both essentially agree on the number of abortions, when the baby’s heart starts beating, etc.) they end up reaching opposite conclusions. Nevertheless, despite the modern tendency to adopt a “Truth-first” approach to defining Goodness, Goodness still has a very prominent place in society. The same can not be said for Beauty.

The phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, despite of, or perhaps because of its status as a cliche, ends up being the perfect illustration of the modern attitude towards beauty. By this people mean to say that beauty is mostly subjective and varies quite a bit from one place to another and from one era to the next. In other words it’s probably safe to say that the majority of people disagree with Patitsas: beauty isn’t a transcendent absolute. But what would it mean for the majority of people to be wrong and Patitsas to be right? We’ve talked about the other two virtues Patitsas places in this category, but how does Patitsas define beauty?

First it’s important to note that Patitsas is a Doctor of Divinity who teaches ethics at an Eastern Orthodox college — the book is very religious, and very Christian. As a consequence Patitsas’ definition of beauty is similarly religious. He believes that anytime we experience Beauty we’re partaking of a mini-theophany, that we are experiencing a bit of the divine. This definition is controversial not merely because it relies on the existence of the divine, but because it’s so contrary to our current, trivialized concept of beauty.

Interestingly enough, despite the controversy, this is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea. There’s a Christian men’s retreat I have attended a couple of times and they will frequently talk about looking for “love notes from God”. Generally these “notes” consist of encountering sudden moments of beauty in nature, but they can also consist of flashes of inspiration, or powerful emotions in general. 

Patitsas also strongly associates beauty with sacrifice, particularly as it is experienced by men. We’ll get into that more in the next section, but perhaps you can see why I might decide that beauty is what’s causing me to weep as I watch the scenes of profound sacrifice I described above. This is not beauty as it’s commonly thought of in the modern world, but beauty as Patitsas defines it. We’ve still barely scratched the surface of his definition, and before the review is over I would like to have at least made a dent in it, but when you’re tackling a 700+ page book one is forced to be selective. So let’s move on to a more concrete example.

II- War and the Associated Trauma

The northern transept of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, which contains battle standards from previous wars in which the Irish fought.

Patitsas starts his discussion of Beauty in an unusual place. He devotes the very first chapter to a discussion of war, specifically how to heal the trauma that pervades modern warfare. He asserts that much of the reason trauma has become so pervasive is that we have abandoned all efforts at healing soldiers with beauty. We focus only on the truth of it. The deaths, the injuries, the horrible things soldiers witness. Essentially we wallow in the awful facts of war, while making no effort to craft a larger, more spiritual narrative of sin and redemption.

Patitsas asserts that in our current, trivialized conception of beauty, there is nothing beautiful about war or its aftermath. It’s all ugliness, and much of modern therapy is designed to dig up and highlight the ugliness. But under Patitsas’ broader philosophy, healing the trauma of war has to begin with a beauty-first approach to war. There’s the beauty of individuals sacrificing for their brothers in arms, which wars inevitably require. There’s the beauty of community and brotherhood, which creates the necessary bonds for that sacrifice. These are perhaps sometimes acknowledged in the treatment of trauma, but Patitsas goes even farther. 

For Patitsas, trauma is the result of anti-theophanies. Trauma comes from experiencing things that occlude the divine, that make you viscerally doubt the existence of God. It seems overly simplistic to describe it merely as ugliness, but for Patitsas that’s basically what it is — a deep, soul destroying ugliness. The only way to heal it is with true-theophanies, or Beauty. How do we give theophanies to those suffering from Trauma? Patitsas mentions things like Alcoholics Anonymous, and the larger 12-step community, with their core tenet (step 2) of belief in a higher power. But, when talking about war, he spends most of his time talking about the Iliad. 

He borrows this approach from the book Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay. Shay argues that reciting the Iliad was a therapeutic act for the ancient Greeks, a way of treating the trauma of war. Patitsas interprets this as healing trauma with beauty. 

Think of how many of our own war movies today tell the story of war in terms of heroics and blood lust. But though the Iliad contains such elements, its larger message is a noble sorrow for the soldiers whose lives are cut short, who experience bad leadership, privation, homesickness, confusion, fear, and pain. The poem was recited to a group of veterans who felt all these emotions again, but on behalf of Achilles, Ajax, Hector, Odysseus, and all the other warriors who in the story go through just what these later soldiers have gone through. The listeners are healed because in grieving for the heroic and ideal combat veterans, they learn to grieve for themselves. 

Patitsas goes on to claim, based on Shay’s work, that this beauty-first approach is more effective than the truth first approach, and leads to better results and fewer military suicides. This makes intuitive sense to me, for reasons I’ll shortly get to, but I haven’t read Shay’s book, so I’m not sure what kind of factual basis he provides for the power of the Iliad. 

For me, this is one of the few weaknesses of Patitsas’ book (the other is its length, it could have been shorter). He largely alludes to other books as providing a factual foundation, which he goes on to interpret using his philosophical framework. So while it’s easy to find statistics about the increase in military suicides, until I get around to reading Shay’s book I’m not sure what kind of evidence there is for treating trauma by reading the Iliad vs. other forms of therapy. 

As I just said though, it does ring true to me, because, as long as we’re referencing other books, Tribe by Sebastian Junger, makes an analogous point. Junger, who does provide hard statistics, points out that the PTSD rate among World War II veterans was far lower than the rate among Vietnam veterans, despite the fact that WWII was far bloodier. And we see the same trend of more PTSD combined with fewer injuries when comparing Vietnam veterans to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The causes of this disparity are not entirely clear, but it seems safe to say that whatever we’re doing it’s not working.

Junger speaks of the same noble sorrows Patitsas does, and explains that these were sacrifices that soldiers made for their tribe, for their larger society—another way of describing a beauty-first approach. War is horrible, even soul-destroying, but at least you were doing it for your tribe. A truth-first approach focuses entirely on the first part, how horrible it is, without the second. Or as Patitsas says, “truth-first methods can take the soul apart, but they cannot put it back together.” 

III- Beauty for the Non-spiritual

The ruined cathedral, or Teampuil Mor of Kilmacduagh Monastery in Ireland. The cathedral was built in the 15th century and is mostly intact except for the roof.

When Patitsas implies that Beauty can put the soul back together, he’s asking us to assume that we in fact have a soul, and that it can be reconstructed by bringing it into contact with the divine, which must also, by necessity, exist. 

At its most stripped down Patitisas is advocating for dualism over materialism, but this advocacy is far from abstract. He wrote an explicitly Christian book from an uncompromising Christian perspective. Should one take from this that if you’re not Christian, religious, or at the very least spiritual, that the book has nothing for you? I don’t think so. Certainly, should you decide to read the book you should be aware of Patitsas’ forthright Christian advocacy, but in the midst of that he makes several points which should be valuable even for committed materialists.

Before we get into a more intellectual discussion of things, take a moment to consider beauty in raw form. Take a look at the picture at the top of this section, and if you want extra credit look at the rest of the pictures in the review as well. If we momentarily put everything else aside, are these pictures beautiful? I suspect if you’re honest you’ll admit that they all possess significant beauty. Why is that? To just take the picture at the top of the section as an example, why would a ruined chapel full of graves be beautiful? If we have a soul and God exists, the answer is straightforward. But what’s the purely materialist/scientific/evolutionary explanation for the beauty of that picture? Shouldn’t evolution want us to avoid ruin, and eschew death? 

Obviously, there are many potential answers to this question, and a comprehensive discussion of the potential evolutionary basis for beauty would take up far more space than we have. But it’s still worth taking a stab at things.

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, is a book about hemispheric differences in the way the brain operates — the old left-brained vs. right-brained idea. But this is not a book about the popular science version of this difference, it’s a 600 page multidisciplinary dive into neurology and culture, art and history and it gives us our dualism without needing to resort to theology. 

McGilchrist asserts that the right brain, the hemisphere that collates information into a cohesive worldview, and the source of our holistic, intuitive understanding of the world, has historically been the Master. This is in contrast to the left brain, the part that breaks things down, that is focused on the minutia, the parts and pieces, which historically was the Emissary — the part that was sent out to return and report. While reading Ethics of Beauty, I couldn’t help but be reminded of McGilchrist’s book, which posits that the Emissary has usurped the role of the master, that modernity has placed too much emphasis on breaking things down into comprehensible pieces. McGilchrist calls this a left-brained approach; Patitsas appears to be describing much the same thing, but calls it a truth-first approach. Both assert that by following this path we have abandoned an integrated, intuitive understanding — a right-brained understanding (McGilchrist), or a beauty-first approach (Patitsas). This obvious comparison is one of the reasons why I found Patitsas’ book to be so valuable, it dovetailed nicely with things I had read elsewhere, but from a new direction. 

Patitsas work also dovetails with the work of Jane Jacobs, and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has been called the single-most influential book written about urban planning and cities. Published in 1961, the book was a searing critique of “urban renewal”, charging that it created unnatural, sterile spaces, in the process destroying older, more organic communities.

This may seem like a somewhat unusual connection, but second only to Patitsas’ status as an Orthodox theologian, is his status as a protege of Jacobs. He worked closely with her for many years, and Ethics is peppered with anecdotes of their interactions. Once made aware of the connection between the two it’s easy to see how Patitsas’ framework fits over Jacobs’ critique. The urban renewal of the immediate postwar period was a “truth-first” approach to city planning, which supplanted the previous “beauty-first” design naturally adopted by people historically — in the absence of top down diktats such as zoning regulations, building codes, and minimum parking requirements.

Patitsas ties Jacob’s insights into a three-tiered progression for science. His first tier is the science of establishing correlation between two variables. His second tier is the science of statistical analysis. And the third tier is the science of complex systems. In this latter tier we have both strictly organic systems, like plants and animals, but also pseudo-organic systems like cities. Jacob’s genius was uncovering the presence of this third tier within the discipline of urban planning. It is also within this third tier that Patitsas locates beauty. But how does one square his initial definition of beauty as the experience of mini-theophanies with this second definition where beauty is located in complexity? For me it helped to pull in the duality described by McGilchrist — complexity and deep intuition are both right-brained tasks — which is why I did it, but Patitsas doesn’t have access to McGilchrist, he only had access to Jacobs so how does she make the connection?

…Jacobs then proposed something much more radical…which was that in studying organic systems it was a scientific fact that you would never understand such systems if you didn’t first love them! 

…Jacobs’ logic was that living systems are so complex, so alive, that you almost have to “win their trust,” or at least have to give patient, sympathetic attention to them, before you will ever come to see their surprising rational structure. This importance of love is very odd for a scientific method, and it is one more way that problems in organic complexity reverse the assumptions behind the first two kinds of science. Cold objectivity is no aid to the science of complex systems, Jacobs insisted.

The way I put it to my students is that organic systems cannot be understood or known unless we somehow let them “know us back.” For example, you won’t know a particular city until it has claimed you for itself, has changed you. This is not a principle of Enlightenment science by any means, but Jacobs says that in organic systems this is what you have to do. You have to love what you are studying, and you have to let it “know” you. You have to let this organic phenomenon you are studying impart to you a new intuition, a new faculty of awareness, appropriate specifically to it. 

You can certainly imagine this “new intuition” he mentions in connection with complexity to be essentially the same thing as the theophany definition we started with. This is also another illustration of the difference between a truth-first approach and a beauty-first approach. Traditionally science, by emphasizing cold objectivity has no room for any emotion, let alone “love”. But as we seek to understand more complex systems, it’s necessary first to appreciate their beauty, i.e. to love them, before we can truly understand them. Reductionism alone is perhaps inadequate to yield comprehension of the whole which as a cohesive entity is something other than a mere sum of its parts.

IV- Tying it all together

The N11: Star Clouds of the Large Magellanic Cloud.

As this is the first book review in the first issue of American Hombre it seems like an appropriate place to have a discussion about the point of reviewing books in the first place.

For most reviews the primary goal is to answer the question: Is this book worth reading? At its most basic this might be accomplished with a simple “yes” or “no”. But generally this sort of accuracy is only possible if you’re reviewing the book for someone you know very well. When you’re reviewing it for a more general audience, the process of conveying that information becomes significantly more difficult. Given these difficulties it might be worthwhile to break the process down into discreet steps:

  1. What is the book about? What is the author attempting to convey to the reader? 
  2. How does the person writing the review feel about the author’s attempt? (As a subset, does he think it’s true?)
  3. What should the person reading the review take from all of this? 

Most book reviews (including this one) spend nearly all of their space on the first step, which is as it should be. The book is the star, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t have anything to add to that. Without some time spent on step 2, a reviewer might as well just list the table of contents.

It’s when we get to step 3 that things get really difficult. The reviewer has to imagine not merely the average person reading his review, ideally he should cast a net that catches all of the readers. Such a thing is of course impossible, but I’d like to give it my best shot.

I’m imagining that like me you occasionally experience powerful emotions around music, art, and stories. There are things that deeply move you without needing to have any connection to your life or your loved ones: Beethoven’s 9th fills you with a sense of triumph; Michelangelo’s Pietà fills you with inexpressible sorrow; and maybe you also, like me, cry at the end of the Iron Giant. You’re not sure why you experience these emotions so powerfully, but sterile explanations of evolutionary adaptation seem inadequate. 

You’re someone who looks at the picture of stars and interstellar dust at the top of the section, and you can feel the beauty of the overwhelming vastness of space. But you wonder why that should be? Such a view has only been available for a few decades, why should it nevertheless feel familiar?

You’ve heard the explanations for why things are or aren’t beautiful. Why certain forms of art inspire emotion completely out of proportion to their impact on your day to day life. But your intuition tells you that something deeper is going on. Perhaps it’s supernatural or divine, or perhaps it’s just some profound connection to the world in its entirety. Whatever it is, it deserves a deeper discussion.

Out of all of this you came to the same starting point as Patitsas. Beauty is foundational, and the world has made it superficial. If you want to leave behind that superficiality, and see what can be built once you truly start with Beauty as a foundation, then yes, you should read this book.


After reading this you might be wondering why I don’t include more pictures in my post. Mostly it’s because I also do an audio version of the post and pictures complicate that. But as I look at the ones included here, it feels like I should figure out a way to do it anyway. If you’d like to fund that endeavor, consider donating


Finding “The Answer”

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I just finished the book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge. I’ll obviously provide a review of it in my monthly book roundup at the beginning of December. If, for some reason, you need to decide before then whether or not to read it I will say that it spends more time than I would have expected on the history of meritocracy. But if history is precisely what you’re looking for then you should enjoy it.

This post is not going to be a review—though it may end up being one incidentally—rather I bring up the book because it was the inspiration for this post. The book helped illuminate a broader category. A category which contains many possibilities, of which meritocracy is only one. For thousands of years people have been asking, “What is the best way to organize society?” Meritocracy is one of many answers to that question, though up until fairly recently most people thought that it was not merely an answer, but The Answer. As I mentioned this has recently changed and people have started to have doubts, assuaging these doubts is one of the reasons why Wooldridge wrote his book. He still believes it’s The Answer. He even calls meritocracy the “Golden Ticket”. But as I said this is not a review, nor is it the place to dissect Wooldridge, rather I want to fit meritocracy into the broader search for “The Answer”. 

I.

Somewhat hypocritically, after accusing Wooldridge of focusing too much on history, that’s where I’m going to start as well. After all he does have a point, in order to understand current conditions it’s critical to understand how we got here. In order to understand The Answer of the present we need to understand how people answered this question in the past.

The most obvious answer for how to organize a society and the one underlying all other answers is “survival”. You must first organize your society such that it survives, because, as I often point out, if it can’t survive it can’t do much of anything else. 

Closely related to survival is The Answer of “power”. Anyone who has the power to organize society will almost always organize it such that it benefits them. Or to put it another way, imagine that everyone, individually, gets asked, “How should society be organized?” To which everyone naturally answers “To my benefit!” And those who have or can acquire power are the ones who are able to turn that answer into reality. As you have probably already deduced, power is another thing which ends up being foundational to structuring how the world works.

Unfortunately for those exercising power, and perhaps fortunately for those who are powerless, organizing society for the benefit of the powerful often conflicts with organizing society such that it survives—particularly over the long term. Thus, in order for societies to continue, checks on the powerful must necessarily become part of the system by which the society is organized. This can, perhaps, be seen most clearly when it comes to warfare. The powerful can’t win wars on their own, and any society better able to marshal all of its resources will have an advantage in such conflicts. As a consequence of this, societies evolve systems and traditions that work towards these ends. It might be a culture which encourages child-bearing. Or an ideology which inspires people to feel pride in their tribe or nation, and to sacrifice for the benefit of those close to them. Or a hierarchical system designed such that the most powerful can grant power to others in a structured and useful fashion.

Eventually all of this gets packaged up and turned into something that might be called a religion, though one that only loosely resembles modern religions. But for the purposes of our topic the comparison is a useful one, since for modern religions providing The Answer is the whole point. And we see something similar here, though early on most religions were regional, and they didn’t aspire to provide The Answer, just answers. Which is to say that at the time there wasn’t a lot of zeal for evangelization, a point which will become important later on.

Obviously any discussion of religion puts us at the top of a very deep rabbit hole. We’re going to go some of the way down that hole, but in order to keep things manageable I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the civic role played by religion rather than its supernatural claims. 

At this point in our story, the various societies were still mostly focused on balancing power and survival. As they did so each society ended up with its own answers. These answers weren’t all encompassing, but rather very specific—relating to local challenges of geography, resources, and the threats posed by neighboring nations. Out of this attempt to balance power and survival, combined with all of this regional specificity, there emerged an interesting menagerie of systems. As time went on the systems grew more sophisticated, but there was still a Roman answer on how to organize things and a Chinese answer, and both were very different. 

However both were successful enough that it started to feel like their answers to the question of how to organize societies might be The Answer. This is certainly one of the reasons the end of the Roman Empire has seemed so consequential down through the ages. After being in existence for hundreds of years it seemed clear that they had The Answer and when, after centuries, that turned out not to be the case, it was a big blow. Because if the Roman empire wasn’t the answer, what was? Obviously people moved on to a reliance on Christianity, and it clearly provided The Answer to millions of individuals, but from a civic perspective its organizing powers never reached the heights achieved by the empire. More recently, one can see a very similar arc with China, and that’s where I’m going to focus. Rome is interesting, but it was long ago, and if I was going to go down that path at some point I’d have to talk about how Byzantium fits into things, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that.

II.

For China, unlike Rome, The Answer had a label, it was called Confucianism, and Confucianism had a very conspicuous manifestation: the imperial examination system. Now obviously neither the exams nor the underlying ideology turned China into some kind of utopia. There were plenty of bumps in the road, some of them very large, but for over a thousand years— two thousand if we’re liberal in our assessment—even as dynasties changed and wars raged, Confucianism acted as a loadstone for the Chinese, and indeed most of East Asia. Whether it actually was The Answer seems far less important than whether people believed it was the answer. (One detects a significant amount of secular faith in this whole undertaking.)

At some point one would think that Confucianism would inevitably fall out of favor for any number of reasons, very few ideologies survive very long, and in the end it took decades of China being humiliated by the West (part of what the Chinese later labeled the “century of humiliation”) before they officially abandoned the imperial examination system in 1905. And while the examination system has not returned, Confucianism more broadly returned almost as soon as it was able. The first conference aimed at rehabilitating it was held just a few years after Mao died. (Mao having been one of its chief opponents.) Confucianism’s hold was such that it was only out of favor for around 100 years—and that only happened under extreme pressure—before it came roaring back

The abandonment of Confucianism seems to have been largely driven by a sense of survival. During the late 1800s and early 1900s China was facing an existential crisis. Which leads back to one of my original points, if you can’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. But once China’s survival appeared to no longer be threatened it was back in the picture.

This rehabilitation of Confucianism is not my primary focus, though it is interesting evidence of its staying power. I’m more interested in the way people handle things when they think that they have The Answer. That they have unlocked the secret of building a flourishing society. 

The Europeans seemed to also feel that Confucianism might be The Answer for them as well when they first encountered it. As Wooldridge points out in Aristocracy of Talent the Europeans were particularly fascinated by the Chinese exam system and the mandarins it produced. There were immediately attempts to create something similar back home. 

But, to be clear, we’re not interested in any specific answer for how society should be organized, we’re interested in the idea that there should be one answer, The Answer, a system which is better than all the rest. And it may be that hearing about the Chinese system was when this idea started to take root in the modern imagination, though by 17th century, when this was happening, lots of ideas were taking root, and it seems clear that one way or the other Europeans would have started experimenting politically just as they were beginning to be more serious about experimenting in other areas. 

Before we leave China it’s interesting to ask how they felt about this bigger idea. Separate from the virtues of Confucianism, why should it be so important or attractive for them to discover The Answer? Important enough that once the Chinese had it they held onto it for a thousand or more years? Even as conditions, leaders and the external world changed. Attractive enough that even when Confucianism was out of favor, they always landed on another candidate. If it wasn’t going to be Confucianism then it would be something else. Historically Legalism was the primary competitor, and there were also dalliances with Taoism. And we can’t forget the eventual zeal with which they embraced communism. 

One presumes that part of this tendency had to do with effectiveness. They’d seen how transformative having an answer could be, and by “they” I’m mostly talking about the rulers. Clearly if those in power had not noticed some ongoing benefit these various systems wouldn’t have been around for 2500 years. If you’ve read Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott you might be thinking of the benefits which would accrue to them from the legibility it imparted to the population. A population that was always quite massive, generally hovering at around one-fourth of the entire global population as far back as you want to look. If every part of China works the same way, that makes the country as a whole easier to manage. But perhaps the most interesting reason to adopt and seek an answer is that it gives you a goal, something to shoot for. It basically amounts to an early form of political science.

If you have arrived at a system. If you have The Answer. Then you also have a list of things you can try to make the country better. You can implement The Answer more completely in those areas which are lagging. You can refine The Answer, figure out what parts are working and what parts are unnecessary baggage, and then you can do more of the former while jettisoning the latter. You can compare slight differences in implementation and decide which of them works best. At some level all of these things happened in China, particularly with regards to the exams. One of my favorite examples is the procedure whereby all of the exams were recopied by someone else before being submitted to the judges, eliminating any potential bias that might occur if they recognized the handwriting. They also added various features to make cheating more difficult, and the exams as a whole got progressively more brutal.

As you can imagine the importance and brutality of the exam system had obvious side effects. Here’s how Wooldridge puts it:

The examination cult imposed a terrible strain on its devotees – not just on the young but on all those middle-aged and indeed elderly candidates who continued to put themselves forward. The examination halls that littered the country were widely known as ‘examination prisons’ and were sometimes subjected to riots and arson. Many of the greatest works of Chinese literature were devoted to demonizing the system.

Wooldridge even claims that my candidate for the biggest recent event no one knows about, the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, was “driven in part by frustrations with the civil service exam”. Which is a pretty big side effect. 

All of this is relatively easy to identify retrospectively as we look back on China, but is something similar happening today? Have we taken one answer and pushed it too far? Is it possible that it’s the quest for The Answer itself that has gotten out of hand?

III.

The first thing we should consider as we move from an historical examination to the present day is what do we currently think The Answer is? Here, as is so often the case, we turn to Francis Fukuyama. The central claim of his book The End of History and the Last Man was that after centuries of trial and error, and contests between various systems that we had finally, and definitively answered the question of how best to organize society. The Answer turned out to be: liberal democracy. This was in part because of the many advantages of liberal democracy, but perhaps more importantly because, Fukuyama asserted, there were no remaining contenders. 

At the time Fukuyama was making this claim the strengths of liberal democracy were obvious, its weaknesses less so. As an example of one of these weaknesses, liberal democracy is not as well defined as Confucianism. Liberal democracy has no text that compares to the centrality of the Analects, and no activity that is as pivotal as the imperial examinations. Rather liberal democracy is more the assemblage of numerous good ideas, which Fukuyama defines directionally rather than absolutely. Liberal democracy is the endeavor of “getting to Denmark”.  

Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.

It’s less of a definition than a goal, but with that goal to aspire to, and no remaining contenders we should basically be done, right? We’ve got The Answer, the rest is just implementation? 

Unfortunately, no. First implementation has proved to be more difficult than expected, but more importantly, not everyone agrees with Fukuyama. Certainly, as you might already have guessed, the leaders of countries like China and Russia definitely don’t agree with Fukuyama. But nor do all the citizens of the liberal democracies. Meritocracy is a great example of this. While it was not mentioned in the description of Denmark, people like Wooldridge, and many others, would nevertheless argue that it’s a central component of the liberal democratic/getting to Denmark package. But the whole reason Wooldridge wrote his book is not everyone agrees that it should be. The idea is under attack from both the left and the right. 

Nor is it the only liberal democratic idea under attack. Free trade and globalism are similarly under siege, and there are people who feel just as strongly about the centrality of these ideas as Wooldridge feels about meritocracy. Part of the reason people have turned against free trade is that it didn’t work as advertised. Back in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO it was an article of faith for many that this opening would inevitably lead to China adopting the rest of the liberal democratic package. This was even more true when Fukuyama made his initial assertion. It was assumed that if you had true representative government, it would lead to meritocracy and free trade. Or that if you free trade and capitalism, it would lead to liberal speech norms and democracy. As we discovered to our sorrow with China this is not the case. We may have to settle for a world of free trade with illiberal nations. Or choose a system which minimizes inequality, or one which maximizes meritocracy. 

This is why people like Wooldridge have started picking pieces of the package to defend. If liberal democracy writ large is not The Answer perhaps meritocracy is. Or maybe it’s immigration. Perhaps we just haven’t given free trade enough time. Or perhaps it’s none of the above and we need a successor ideology. I’ve even seen more people moving back to communism. (Though because of the connotations they generally identify as hardcore socialists.)

In all of these efforts they are borrowing the evangelizing spirit that came about when people first thought they had The Answer. If you really have uncovered the one true way to organize society, why would you not want to spread it as widely and as deeply as possible? We can see this impulse playing out at least as early as the French Revolution. And down through the decades since then. It’s impractical to list all of the examples, but certainly Wilson, and his call to make “the world safe for democracy” comes to mind. You can also see it in Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, continuing up to and including our support for Ukraine in the current conflict. But this idea of evangelization wasn’t limited to liberal democracy. If anything communism had an even bigger evangelical urge, not only desiring to spread throughout the world, but going farther in their claims that it was inevitable. This was part of what made the Cold War seem so important. It was a contest between two sides that both thought that they had The Answer. 

Now, even as the liberal democratic package is fracturing, the evangelizing, if anything, is getting more intense. It’s proving difficult to be semi-meritocratic, but even more difficult to be completely meritocratic. It’s also difficult to be a semi-protectionists, but free trade has its own large set of issues. And no one says we should be semi-democratic, but everyone has their own definition of what democracy should look like, and oftentimes populism isn’t included in that definition. Don’t even get people started on the idea of being semi-unequal. 

In closing I’d like to include a long quote from a recent post from Ross Douthat. I’ve been talking about the fracturing of liberalism, he’s talking about the prospects for it’s renewal, but the underlying diagnosis is the same:

…liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.

Douthat gets to the heart of the problem, but I don’t share his implicit optimism that liberalism can be reinfused and thereby revived. And one of the sources for the chaos of our time is that people have recognized that. Thus the fracturing. And from that fracturing a landscape where rather than having one answer there are dozens. People aren’t trying to save liberalism, they’re trying to save what they feel is the critical piece. They’re rallying around their version of The Answer. Whether it’s meritocracy or social justice or globalism or Christianity. Personally I lean towards the last one, but I also don’t see any path forward to a workable Christian Nationalism or any path back to the “liberalism plus mainline Protestantism” spoken of by Douthat.

But perhaps the beginning of any path forward is to acknowledge that we haven’t found The Answer, at least not yet.


This post didn’t come together as easily as I hoped. And then there was the whole FTX/SBF explosion in the middle which I spent way too much time reading about. This not only slowed me down, it made me reluctant to give money to anyone. If you had a similar reaction, let me reassure you. If you donate to me I won’t use the money to power an elaborate fraud. I’ll probably just use it to buy a book.


The 7 Books I Finished in October

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


  1. What We Owe the Future by: William MacAskill
  2. The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe by: Michael D. Gordin
  3. Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by: Jonathan Shay
  4. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by: C.C.W. Taylor 
  5. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy by: Mortimer J. Adler
  6. A Wizard of Earthsea by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

 

A couple of months ago I decided that it was time for another survey (I last conducted a survey in 2018.) I figured that my 300th post would provide a good excuse for it, and that the newsletter would be the best place to announce it. Looking ahead I calculated that I would have to do three essays in September and October to get the timing right, which seemed only fair since my output in July and August had been so pathetic.

On top of trying to fit in additional writing, I could have picked better months to do it in. Things have been crazy with my business. I’m enrolled in a sort of a mini-MBA, my biggest client has kept me super busy, and I hired a couple of people (only one of whom is working out, the other I’m going to have to let go.) Beyond that I still haven’t completely unpacked after the move to the new house, and to complicate the chaos, we just barely moved my mother-in-law into the basement.

I bring all of this up because there was a moment in October when I realized that I had way too much on my plate, and something had to give. In that moment I suffered a mini existential crisis where for a brief period (basically the space of an afternoon) I reconsidered everything, including reading. 

Among the many things I recognized in that moment of panic is that reading, which was usually relaxing and enjoyable, had become oppressive. The panic didn’t last, and it was mostly caused by all the other things I was trying to juggle, but I did make a few decisions: I started skimming a bit more. For obvious reasons this happened more with books I read than books I listen to. I also decided that each month I would make sure to have a book or two I actually enjoyed in the mix. Probably something I had already read, where enjoyment was guaranteed. (Thus the Wizard of Earthsea.) Also, I read a lot of recent non-fiction about how the world might be screwed up. Going forward I think I’m going to try to cut back on that, at least a little bit. It’s unclear how successful I’ll be there. The drive that keeps me writing (see the last post) also drives me to read books like that. But I think I should be alel to back off a little bit. 

But, yeah, this all kind of started with wanting to put out a survey, so it would be great if you could spend a couple of minutes filling it out if you haven’t already. I’m giving $100 Amazon gift certificate to one random person. Though some people have told me they didn’t fill it out because they didn’t want to take $100 from me. If that describes you, you can just say don’t enter me in the drawing. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

What We Owe the Future 

by: William MacAskill

Published: 2022

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The ideology of long-termism in particular our responsibility to the potentially trillions of humans who might come after us. 

What’s the author’s angle?

MacAskill is right at the very heart of the effective altruism movement, being not only one of the originators of the idea, but also the co-founder of many of the institutions most closely associated with the EA movement.

Who should read this book?

As someone who’s very familiar with effective altruism and long termism, I’m not sure how much new stuff I really got out of the book. So if that describes you, or if you’ve listened to one of the thousand or so podcasts MacAskill is on you can probably skip this book. But if you’re just now hearing of long-termism/effective altruism then this is a great introduction.

General Thoughts

When one is reviewing a book that has received as much press as this one, it becomes quite the challenge to say something which hasn’t already been said—possibly dozens of times. To this I say, “Challenge accepted!” Though of course you may already see what the problem is. Unless I have watched, listened to, or read every piece of commentary on the book (which I haven’t) and remembered it all (even more unlikely) then I will never know if I was successful in this challenge. But I trust my readers to point out if I’ve failed. 

With that throat clearing out of the way I’d like to expand on an analogy he briefly introduces in his chapter on stagnation. 

We may be like a climber scaling a sheer cliff face with no ropes or harness, with a significant risk of falling. In such a situation, staying still is no solution; that would just wear us out, and we would fall eventually. Instead, we need to keep on climbing: only once we have reached the summit will we be safe.

There is a lot of pressure these days for making things sustainable, and the point of MacAskill’s analogy is that sustainability might not be an option. Not every point in our civilizational trajectory represents a good stopping point. As an example he points to the 1920’s:

[C]onsider what would have happened if we had plateaued at 1920s technology. We would have been stuck relying on fossil fuels. Without innovations in green technology, we would have kept emitting an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. Not only would we have been unable to stop climate change, but we would also have simply run out of coal, oil, and gas eventually. The 1920s’ level of technological advancement was unsustainable. It’s only with the technological progress of the last hundred years that we have the capability to transition away from fossil fuels.

That period’s lack of sustainability is obvious in hindsight. But is our current position similarly unsustainable? MacAskill thinks it is and he mentions that we’re at a point with “easy-to-manufacture pathogens and other potent means of destruction”. But he thinks that if we keep climbing the cliff then we will eventually get beyond these dangers and “reach a point where we have the technology to effectively defend against such catastrophic risks”

This is of course one possibility, that there is some sort of safe summit with respect to technology. That we’re currently in a position where we’ve created the harm but we need to go a little bit farther (or maybe a lot farther?) to create the defense. He mentions defending against pathogens but where does he get the faith that such a thing will ever be trivial? Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that it is and always will be a wickedly difficult problem. I suppose once we’ve spread outside of the solar system it will cease to be an existential risk. (See here for why it needs to be outside the solar system and not merely a Mars colony.) But if so we’ve still got a very long climb ahead of us, and if we’re already tired?

Another possibility is that there is no safe summit, that even if there was a reasonably effective defense against pathogens, by the time we’ve developed it we will have developed a host of other harmful technologies, which require us to develop still more complicated defenses. (Everyone’s favorite example here is AI.) 

This lack of a summit is another expression of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I have talked about several times, most notably here: The idea that technology is like drawing balls of an unknown shade from an urn, and if we ever draw a pure black ball that it will mean the end of humanity. In fact, it’s interesting that MacAskill should use the analogy of climbing towards a summit, because no one climbs in order to reach safety. Summit’s aren’t safe, and in fact the highest summits in the world are in something called the Death Zone. Called this because human life is unsustainable for extended periods, and the vast majority of people need supplemental oxygen. 

There’s a reading of this whole analogy where sometime around the Enlightenment we became obsessed with reaching the summit of a nearby mountain so that we could see the rest of the world, and that we’re going to succeed in reaching it, only to have no idea what to do once we get there. In fact there’s an argument to be made that our confused arrival at the summit is what’s happening at this very moment. 

Beyond the two choices of continuing to climb or falling to our deaths, there are other ways we might extend the metaphor. Perhaps MacAskill is right and we do need to reach the summit, but we’ve picked an impossible route, and if we carefully retreat there’s another route we might be able to take. Or perhaps there’s a ledge where we could rest before we continue with the route we’re already on? And why do we have no “ropes or harness” in MacAskill’s analogy? What reason did we have for creating this exceptionally fragile situation? Perhaps ropes and harnesses represent traditional methods of reducing fragility? Things like religions which encourage high birth rates and prudent behavior. This all makes one wonder why MacAskill would choose for his analogy what may be the least prudent behavior humans engage in. 

There’s another interesting dichotomy to consider here. People like MacAskill, Holden Karnofsky and others believe that we’re at a unique moment in the history of humanity. Karnofsky calls this the most important century. Still others, like David Deutch (who I recently reviewed here) and Steven Pinker think that we’re just walking up the mountain, not climbing, but rather than being alone we are in a group. Also, it’s possible that recently the terrain has gotten more difficult, and some members of our group are starting to complain. And the group as a whole is getting tired. But for them the key danger is that we’re going to end up camping in the least hospitable terrain, or worse start fighting, when in reality the difficult terrain is just a temporary inconvenience.

Eschatological Implications

In the last section I talked about our position on the mountain, in this section I want to talk about our condition. Are we tired as a civilization? Are we beginning to lose our grip? If so, why? Here I think that MacAskill suffers from focusing on the wrong thing. He has a whole chapter on stagnation, which is good, but all of his proposed solutions revolve around technology. He mentions our declining birthrate but mostly in the context of increasing the number of researchers. When he talks about whether biotechnology could help, his example does not involve how it might help with infertility, but that we could clone Einsteins. For MacAskill, stagnation is caused by the slowing of technological advancement and can thus be solved by figuring out how to speed it back up. 

But is slowing technological advancement really the cause of stagnation? I mean sure, tautologically it’s the cause of technological stagnation, but is that really the stagnation we should be worried about? 

In the chapter immediately preceding the one on stagnation MacAskill has one covering collapse. That chapter obviously discusses the potential of nuclear annihilation, and includes the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But those cities, rather than being examples of devastation, are actually examples of resilience, as MacAskill himself is at pains to point out:

Before learning about Hiroshima’s subsequent history, I would have thought that, even today, it would be a nuclear wasteland, consisting of little more than smoking ruins…Despite the enormous loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, power was restored to some areas within a day, to 30 percent of homes within two weeks, and to all homes not destroyed by the blast within four months. There was a limited rail service running the day after the attack, there was a streetcar service running within three days, water pumps were working again within four days, and telecommunications were restored in some areas within a month. The Bank of Japan, just 380 metres from the hypocenter of the blast, reopened within just two days. The population of Hiroshima returned to its predestruction level within a decade. Today, it is a thriving modern city of 1.2 million people.

The Japanese had every excuse to abandon Hiroshima. And even if they didn’t abandon it, it would have been perfectly understandable if it had stagnated, but neither of those things happened. Rather what MacAskill describes is an amazing vitality. This is the opposite of a civilization being tired, and yet it happened at the end of one of the most brutal defeats ever recorded. Technology wasn’t what prevented stagnation or collapse in the example of Hiroshima. It could have caused it, but it definitely didn’t prevent it. Something else was going on. 

The question I have is not whether technology is stagnating, though it might be. The question I have is could we bounce back from disaster as quickly as the Japanese did in 1945? If we can’t, that’s the stagnation I worry about. That’s the weariness that is going to make us lose our grip and fall off the cliff face. You might call it willpower or cohesion, but whatever it is I don’t think modernity has served to increase it. 


The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe

by: Michael D. Gordin

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The controversy over Immanuel Velikovsky’s book Worlds in Collision, and the origins and meaning of the term pseudoscience.

What’s the author’s angle?

Gordin is a science historian who decided to spend a few hours looking at the massive, posthumous collection of Velikovsky’s papers, which had been stored and cataloged at Princeton. He was so taken by what he found there that a few hours turned into a few years and a book.

Who should read this book?

If you’re really curious about Velikovsky then this is a great book. But I suspect that not many people fall into that category. In fact Gordin claims that if you’re younger than 50 you’ve never heard of Velikovsky. For what it’s worth I had. Carl Sagan “rips him a new one” (as we used to say) in his book Broca’s Brain. The book does have some interesting things to say about our current battles, but only in a very broad sense. There’s very little specific advice.

General Thoughts

Many years ago I was stuck at work late. We were doing some kind of server migration which involved a lot of waiting. And somehow we got on the subject of pseudointellectuals. And as we discussed the topic it gradually became apparent that people were using the term differently, to the point where we stopped the conversation and asked everyone point blank to give us their definition of that word. We discovered that out of the half dozen or so people who were there that every single person was using the word differently. I regret that at the distance of nearly two decades that I can’t recall all the definitions, though I do recall that all of them essentially boiled down to “pseudointellectuals are people I don’t like”. 

I was reminded of that conversation for the first time in quite a while by this book. Because Gordin makes a similar claim. He points out that there is no universally accepted definition of pseudoscience. And that much like my coworkers all those years ago, People use it and its synonyms to refer to any intellectual effort which they find objectionable. Or as Gordin memorably says in the very first line of the book:

No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, “I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudo experiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudo-facts.

In light of this Gordin decides to dig into the history of the word, and how one of the most famous accusations of pseudoscience played out by examining the case of Velikovsky and Worlds in Collision. As I already mentioned, if you’re younger than 50 you probably have no idea who Immanuel Velikovsky is. But despite the fact that he’s entirely obscure now, he was so well known and so ubiquitous at one point that if you’re over 60 it’s impossible that you haven’t heard of him. For those who are unfamiliar with him or his book, I’ll going to steal Wikipedia’s description:

The book postulates that around the 15th century BC, the planet Venus was ejected from Jupiter as a comet or comet-like object and passed near Earth (an actual collision is not mentioned). The object allegedly changed Earth’s orbit and axis, causing innumerable catastrophes that are mentioned in early mythologies and religions from around the world. The book has been heavily criticized as a work of pseudoscience and catastrophism, and many of its claims are completely rejected by the established scientific community as they are not supported by any available evidence.

When you hear the description it probably sounds so fantastical you wonder that anyone took it seriously, but it was amazingly popular. The book itself was a huge bestseller. There were, ostensibly, academic (pseudoacademic?) magazines. College courses were taught around this hypothesis. Carl Sagan and Velikovsky gave contending speeches at the 1974 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where Velikovsky supporters, who had flooded the meeting, gave him a standing ovation. The thing that surprised me the most was that Velikovsky even ended up getting to be really good friends with Einstein before his death. So yeah, it was a phenomenon. 

As you might imagine many of the same dynamics are playing out today in the debates over what science is. Despite this, it’s unclear what lessons to take from these past efforts. As this statement from one of the combatants illustrates:

Dennis Rawlins, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, deftly noted the catch-22: “If one simply ignores the crank, this is ‘close-mindedness’ or ‘arrogance.’ If one then instead agrees to meet him in debate, this is billed as showing that he is a serious scholar. (For why else would the lordly establishment agree even to discuss him?) Irksome either way.” So the 1974 experiment [the AAAS meeting] was never repeated. It had been neither success nor failure. It raised the visibility of scientific opposition, but it had resolved nothing.

Currently, the more respectable scientific bodies seem to lean towards not formally engaging with ideas they consider to be pseudoscience. Deciding that it’s better to appear close-minded or arrogant, than to give it any status. I’m not entirely sure that’s the right play. But as the quote points out there is no perfect solution, it’s a catch-22. As such I don’t have many takeaways on what we should be doing. But I am very interested in how the topics we’re fighting about have changed.

Eschatological Implications

Both eras identify certain things as pseudoscience, but outside of that commonality there has ended up being a huge difference in what those things are. The fight over the veracity of Worlds in Collision had no direct impact on people’s lives. Even if it were to be established that Venus was ejected from Jupiter, for the vast majority of people that wouldn’t change anything concrete. People would still send their kids to school in the morning, go to the same job, and eat the same things for dinner. That’s not the case with the things we’re currently debating. Current battles are very different in that they have the possibility of affecting all of those things.  As with so many things the big example here is the debate we had over pandemic precautions. 

Does this mean that it’s more important to stop pseudoscience (whatever that is) cold? Because while believing that Venus dispensed manna thousands of years ago is ultimately harmless, believing that vaccines don’t work gets people killed? Or does it mean the exact opposite, that we should give these ideas as much attention as we can spare? Because lives really are at stake, and locking in the wrong consensus could have massive negative consequences?

I would personally lean towards the latter. At some point you either believe in the scientific process or you don’t. The people who decided to invite Velikovsky to speak to the AAAS, obviously really did believe in that process. They believed that if they honestly grappled with the facts that the truth would emerge, and while it appears that they didn’t consider that invitation to be successful at the time. The influence of Velikovsky arguably started to decline at around the same time and, a few decades on, no one has heard of him. 

I will say that times are very different. And also that there was a localism to solving problems back then which has largely dissipated. (Which, I would argue, is another step in the wrong direction.) But I think if scientists back then were willing to take Velikovsky seriously, that we need to do a much better job of taking current concerns seriously, and not just dismiss anything we don’t like as pseudoscience. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character 

by: Jonathan Shay

Published: 2013

291 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the experience of combat, and the subsequent PTSD experienced by soldiers in Vietnam, parallels the experience of the Greeks and Trojans, and particularly Achilles, in the Iliad.

What’s the author’s angle?

Shay thinks we’re treating PTSD all wrong. In support of this hypothesis he turns to the Iliad as an example of how soldiers used to be treated, and contrasts it with the failed methods we used both during and after Vietnam.

Who should read this book?

I suspect this book might be a little bit out of date, but I’m definitely no expert on current best practices for PTSD. Also I’m curious about data on soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sebastian Junger’s Tribe (which I talked about here) seemed to indicate that PTSD has gotten even more prevalent. 

General Thoughts

I read this book because it featured so prominently in The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas, which I reviewed for the magazine American Hombre. I was particularly curious about whether Shay claimed that studying the Iliad was more effective than traditional therapy at healing PTSD. He sort of does, at the end, but I think Patitsas may have overstated the case. 

Also as I was reading the book I was reminded of a post by Bret Devereaux, ancient historian, and author of the very popular blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, where he claimed that

[T]here is vanishingly little evidence that people in the ancient Mediterranean or medieval Europe experienced PTSD from combat experience in the way that modern soldiers do.

I’m inclined to believe this, nevertheless Shay does draw some remarkable parallels between the experiences of Achilles and the experiences of the hundreds of Vietnam veterans he’s worked with. They really do seem to be describing much the same thing as Homer, and having read the book it’s hard to believe that Shay’s not on to something. But exactly what continues to be elusive.

I already mentioned Tribe by Junger, which covers similar ground. And actually claims that PTSD has gotten even worse since Vietnam. He does speculate that PTSD provides an easy path to getting declared 100% disabled and thereby being eligible to receive around $3300 a month, inflation adjusted, for the rest of your life. This is a non-trivial incentive for veterans to lie about such things. Junger also points out the very counterintuitive fact that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experienced combat are less likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. So there’s a lot about this subject that needs unraveling. 

Another thing that makes me doubt that PTSD is getting more prevalent, is just how bad Vietnam was. Shay includes story after story of truly awful events, and I know such events also took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s hard to imagine that either conflict was as bad as what the veterans in the book say about Vietnam. Still, if you just look at reported rates they’ve gone up.

In the end I’m just some guy who’s read a few books. I have no direct experience of combat and very little experience even of trauma. But I still can’t shake the feeling—a feeling this book only reinforces—that we’ve gotten a lot worse at dealing with such trauma. 


Socrates: A Very Short Introduction

by: C.C.W. Taylor 

Published: 2019

160 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Socrates, the historical man, the character in Plato’s dialogues, and a few other things besides.

Who should read this book?

As an audiobook this was just four hours, and in that time it distilled out a lot of information. I read it to broaden my understanding of classical philosophy, which I’m still trying to work my way through.

General Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned before in this space I’m trying to work my way through the great books of the western world. I kind of fell off the wagon this year, and I’m hoping to get back on, and I figured reminding myself of what I had already read was a good way to do that. Also this was a test of the Very Short Introduction series, a collection of books put out by Oxford on, as of this writing, 754 different topics. If they’re good they would be an excellent resource to be able to draw on. 

I found the book to be very informative, but kind of dry, though I kind of expected that. I’m going to try out the VSI for Plato as well, and we’ll see how it goes.


Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy 

by: Mortimer J. Adler

Published: 1997

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The philosophy of Aristotle summarized for a modern audience.

Who should read this book?

I read this in preparation for reading actual Aristotle (which is the next author on my great books list). It’s another short one, only five and a half hours on audio. I thought it was pretty good, but I’ll know more once I read some actual Aristotle.

General Thoughts

I thought the book was structured well. And flowed pretty easily. Also it was somewhat less dry than the Socrates book. As I alluded to, I mostly read it to lay a foundation before actually reading Aristotle, so that I don’t get too lost. Whether it fulfills that purpose is yet to be seen.


A Wizard of Earthsea 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1968

205 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Ged, a talented wizard who is consumed by pride until that pride leads to a horrible mistake which he spends the majority of the book trying to rectify.

Who should read this book?

Everyone. It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short.

General Thoughts

I suspect most of my readers have heard of A Wizard of Earthsea, so I don’t intend to spend much time discussing the actual book, rather I want to talk about why I decided to read it. I believe Tim Ferris mentioned that the audio version was fantastic, but more than that I realized recently that rather than reading 3-4 non-fiction “This is why the world sucks” books every month (which don’t get me wrong I enjoy, they’re my jam.) I could read 2-3 such books and have time to re-read a couple of books I really love, like A Wizard of Earthsea. So going forward I intend to do that. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to read next, but I’m excited to figure that out.

I will include one quote from the book that struck me on this read through:

[T]he truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.


III- Religious Reviews

Freemasonry and the Origins of Latter-day Saint Temple Ordinances

by: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw

Published: 2012

556 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An apologetic work which examines the temple ordinances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In particular the similarities between these ordinances, the Masonic Ordinances, and what we know about ancient temple ordinances.

What’s the author’s angle?

Over the years the Church has frequently been attacked for copying its temple rituals from the Masons. As an LDS apologist, Bradshaw sets out to show that the rituals have many elements which existed as part of ancient temple rituals, but which were not part of masonic rites. Given that these elements were not known at the time of Joseph Smith, this would imply that they came by way of revelation.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is interested in the connection between LDS temple rites, Masonic rites, and Ancient rites. (Which I assume will mostly be members of the Church, but doesn’t have to be.)

General Thoughts

Surprisingly, I don’t read as many LDS books as you might expect, so I’m not an expert on what sort of books have already been published on this subject, but this one seems pretty authoritative. It’s one of those massive books where it’s only about half primary text, and the other half is bibliography and endnotes.

As you might expect there’s no ironclad proof that the LDS Temple Ceremony was practiced anciently in its current form, but there are a whole host of elements whose existence is confirmed by ancient texts which only appear in the LDS ceremony and not the Masonic rites, and furthermore this ancient evidence was not something that Joseph Smith would have had access to. I assume as per usual, some people will find this very compelling and other people, less favorably disposed to the Church, will think that Bradshaw goes too far in the connection he draws. 

But for anyone genuinely looking for answers to this question of the connection between the Masonic Rites and the LDS Temple Ceremony, there is no better or more fascinating book on the subject.


If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that this is my 301st post. It’s possible I only had 300 of these clever(?) end of post donation requests in me, and that going forward I’m going to just have some boilerplate outro. You know one of those ones where I thank my patreons by name? If you want to see your name on a low-traffic, niche blog, with severe brevity issues, there’s an easy way to make that happen.


Eschatologist #22 – A Survey

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

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This is my 300th post. It’s only my 22nd newsletter, but given that it’s 2022, that seemed numerologically significant enough for it to also count as a special occasion. An occasion on which to reflect on the whole grubby endeavor. 

Writing is a weird business. To put out any level of content consistently you have to basically treat it as a part time job. A difficult, lonely, job where you mostly work for free. So why do it? That is an excellent question. As I mentioned in a previous post, I suffer from the silly and conceited idea that I have something important to say. But why do I think that?

All of the attributes I’ve already mentioned make it very easy to get trapped in an individual echo chamber. Constantly regurgitating one good idea until everyone is sick of it. And that assumes that I have one good idea. (I actually fancy I have more than that, but once again why do I think that?)

Numerous people have sent me emails over the years, left comments, mentioned me on Twitter, or done some other form of social media shout out. But while such spontaneous feedback is always appreciated (more than you know), sometimes it’s best to be direct.

Given the numerological significance of this newsletter/post/episode it seemed the perfect opportunity to just come out and ask for feedback. In order to make it easy I’ve created a survey. Which asks all sorts of useful questions including a query about the many things I could be doing better, and even a couple about the many things I might be doing right.

Here’s the link: https://forms.gle/toRzdKPervpygw8MA 

For those who might still be hesitating, there are only 15 questions, none are required, but one lucky person who fills out all 15 will get a $100 Amazon Gift Card. And next month we’ll return to your normally scheduled pedantry.


I’m not kidding about the $100 gift card. In fact depending on the number of responses I get, I may give out two of them! So go, and fill out the survey!


Chip Off the Old Bloc

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I- Setting the scene

A few weeks ago, on October 7, the US imposed a new set of limits on exporting semiconductors (chips) to China. Not only that, but:

The new rules also restrict the ability of U.S. citizens to support the development or production of chips at Chinese fabs [fabricators] without a license.

This new set of rules attracted almost no attention until exactly a week later when those in the know suddenly started posting apocalyptic sounding tweets. (Okay, it probably wasn’t quite that sudden, but that’s what it felt like to me.) 

This is what annihilation looks like: China’s semiconductor manufacturing industry was reduced to zero overnight. Complete collapse. No chance of survival.

(Which might not be an exaggeration, though it sounds like it must be.)

Despite these tweets, the story appears to still be mostly flying under the radar. Searching the daily news roundup emails I get from the NYT I found only one article about it, right next to a piece about the two girls who threw soup on the Van Gogh. And, actually, I’m positive that the soup throwing story has got more attention and is more widely known—particularly to the “man on the street”. I’m sure this won’t be the case forever, but it is an illustration of how important pivot points in history are often only obvious in retrospect. 

Tanner Greer of Scholar’s Stage certainly thinks that’s what’s happened

I cannot foresee what the ultimate effect of this decision will be. we’ve just crossed a threshold, the kind historians decades from now will point to as one of those points of no return.

I don’t see a future now where the US-China relationship is not as dark as the Cold War rivalry.

So we have followed the thread back to its center and declared war on the future of China—its future military capacity, technological advance, and economic dynamism. We are now officially, openly, in the business of making sure China will not rise higher.

Is it really that bad? Have we crossed some sort of Rubicon as Greer maintains? Perhaps. 

Experts are still trying to understand exactly what impact these new limits will have, but the US appears to have used its influence both domestically and with its allies to cut off China’s access to: advanced GPUs of the kind used for AI, the latest generation of advanced general purpose chips, and the equipment and software necessary to make such chips on their own.

Given that computer chips occupy a very special place in the structure of the modern world, and that China can’t construct such chips domestically, it’s very possible that none of the above was an exaggeration. 

Something seemed to be brewing for a while on this front, and in order to understand it better I had started reading Chip War: The Quest to Dominate the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller, before this happened. It ended up being fortuitous, and as is so often the case, my good fortune is your good fortune, because I’m going to explain everything.

Actually, no, similar to The Princess Bride “…there is too much. Let me sum up.” And I’m probably not even going to be doing much summing up, that will come later when I do my formal review. What I’m really interested in is a brief survey of the potential futures if the US is going to try to cut China off from the “World’s Most Critical Technology”.

If you do want a good summation of things, and you don’t want to read a whole book. I would recommend this piece by Ben Thompson in his newsletter Stratechery. As for me I’m going to hit a bunch of points where I’ll largely be thinking out loud and asking questions:

II- Chips vs. Oil

Interestingly, only a couple of days before the US made its announcement about limits on exporting chips to China, OPEC+ announced that it was cutting oil production by two million barrels a day. This is another example of something that got far more attention than the chip restrictions, but in the long run will probably end up being less consequential.

The timing is interesting because one of the points that Miller makes over and over again in Chip War is that chips are as critical to an early 21st century nation as oil was to an early 19th century nation. And that in fact China spends more each year importing chips than it does importing oil. That will probably change with these restrictions. Which is a big deal both for China and for those nations and companies that are importing chips to China, a point we’ll return to. 

Also, Miller points out that the bottlenecks in the chip industry are considerable:

Unlike oil, which can be bought from many countries, our production of computing power depends fundamentally on a series of choke points: tools, chemicals, and software that often are produced by a handful of companies—and sometimes only by one. No other facet of the economy is so dependent on so few firms. Chips from Taiwan provide 37 percent of the world’s new computing power each year. Two Korean companies produce 44 percent of the world’s memory chips. The Dutch company ASML builds 100 percent of the world’s extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, without which cutting-edge chips are simply impossible to make. OPEC’s 40 percent share of world oil production looks unimpressive by comparison.

You’ll notice that those are all essentially US allies, probably more tightly bound to the US than the nations of OPEC+ are bound to each other. 

Speaking of oil, the nightmare analogy here is comparing Biden’s October 2022 restrictions on chips to Roosevelt’s July 1941 oil embargo against Japan. Roosevelt cut off 88% of Japan’s access to imported oil. Biden has (so far as I can tell) cut off 100% of China’s access to high end chips. In response to the oil embargo, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It remains to be seen what China will do in response to the chip restrictions. Though as it turns out the world’s premier supplier of high end chips, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), is just 100 miles away from China, which brings us to:

III- China and Taiwan

TSMC produces 90% of the world’s most advanced chips, and the majority of production happens just across the strait from China in Taiwan. If there was some way for China to ensure that by capturing Taiwan they could seize that production, I think this would be the moment they tried it. Unfortunately for them, fabs are pretty fragile. The machines require unbelievable precision (which I’ll talk about more in a minute) and thousands of specialized parts. The fabs also require a staggering amount of expertise to operate, so the Chinese would not only have to figure out how to seize a fab without damaging it, but also figure out some way to secure the cooperation of the majority of the personnel. As both things are unlikely to happen, and given that China needs those chips, this setup has been called the silicon shield. China can’t invade Taiwan without destroying the supply of something it desperately needs in order to be the modern country it aspires to.

But, as Thompson points out in his newsletter, “one of the risks of cutting China off from TSMC is that the deterrent value of TSMC’s operations is diminished.” In other words if they can’t access TSMCs high end chips because of the recently passed restrictions then they suffer no harm from destroying those fabs, and there’s the opportunity to inflict significant harm on their global rivals. 

Beyond all this I would add my normal caution that the shadowy future is the natural breeding ground of black swans and that the particular part of the future which lies at the intersection of China, Taiwan, the US and chips seems like exceptional fecund territory. 

IV- China’s Path

In light of all of the foregoing, what will China do? What should China do? I haven’t seen any evidence that the chip restrictions are some kind of negotiating strategy. That the US is putting them out there as the first step in making a deal, i.e. “We’ll lift the restrictions on chips if you stop oppressing the Uyghurs, restore democratic norms in Hong Kong, renounce all claims to Taiwan, etc.” If such demands existed then China, and also we, as observers, could evaluate the ROI, but instead as Greer pointed out, we have “declared war on the future of China.”

 

Obviously, as has already been alluded to, it could escalate to actual war. But if we set that aside for the moment what other possibilities are there? The obvious course of action would be for China to build up their own ability to manufacture these chips. And certainly they’re doing this, but this is a profoundly difficult endeavor, which, even if everything goes perfectly, will take years to pull off. As Miller points out in Chip War:

China’s problem isn’t only in chip fabrication. In nearly every step of the process of producing semiconductors, China is staggeringly dependent on foreign technology, almost all of which is controlled by China’s geopolitical rivals—Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or the United States. The software tools used to design chips are dominated by U.S. firms, while China has less than 1 percent of the global software tool market, according to data aggregated by scholars at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. When it comes to core intellectual property, the building blocks of transistor patterns from which many chips are designed, China’s market share is 2 percent; most of the rest is American or British. China supplies 4 percent of the world’s silicon wafers and other chipmaking materials; 1 percent of the tools used to fabricate chips; 5 percent of the market for chip designs. It has only a 7 percent market share in the business of fabricating chips. None of this fabrication capacity involves high-value, leading-edge technology.

No one doubts that China is willing to throw money and resources at the problem, the question is whether that’s enough. Can they be certain that given long enough they will eventually be able to make chips as good as TSMC? What is “long enough”? Is it reasonable to expect it in a year? Five years? Ten? Never? We will cover this last possibility in the next section, but it would seem that there’s also some time horizon past which it might as well be never. If it takes them 10 years to catch up, then at a minimum the state of the art is 10 years farther on. Plus everything that uses chips is 10 years behind. All of which is to say it’s hard to imagine that—if it were really going to take this long—that China would just sit back and decide to be patient.

On the other side of the equation, if it were merely 1 year, then they probably would try and wait it out. But no one thinks that China is one year behind TSMC. Intel is 4-5 years behind TSMC and everyone pretty much agrees that China would love to be where Intel is at the moment. 

Now to be fair, China’s chief chip manufacturer, SMIC, has apparently produced some 7 nanometer chips, which is exactly where Intel is hoping to be at the start of next year. But can China scale this process up? It’s not enough to make one chip or even a thousand chips, you have to be able to make hundreds of thousands. TSMC is making 150,000 5 nm chips a month. Most people believe that even if SMIC managed to put together a 7 nm chip, it could not produce tens of thousands of them a month. Also it’s not clear if they can still make them after the imposition of the export limits. 

To return to the question of “how long”, it’s hard to say, but if they really are cut off from high end Western chip  technology, then I think the answer is longer than they are willing to wait. And maybe never, which takes us to our next section…

V- Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography

Out of all the components that go into making the most advanced chips, the scarcest and most expensive are the extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines. They are made by a single Dutch company, ASML. According to Chip War, the technology “took tens of billions of dollars and several decades to develop” and the resulting machines have “hundreds of thousands” of components from “thousands of suppliers”.

In the beginning a silicon chip might have had a few thousand transistors. But as Gordon Moore famously observed, the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years. The technology for placing more and more transistors on a single chip involved using light of lower and lower wavelengths, thus the “extreme ultraviolet” designation. But as the wavelengths got lower the challenges mounted. Chip War gives an overview of the precision required:

If the mirrors in an EUV system were scaled to the size of Germany, the company said, their biggest irregularities would be a tenth of a millimeter. To direct EUV light with precision, they must be held perfectly still, requiring mechanics and sensors so exact that [the company] boasted they could be used to aim a laser to hit a golf ball as far away as the moon.

Before ASML finally put all the pieces together in 2018 the two biggest companies, Nikon and Canon, had given up. Beyond that several people publicly declared that it was impossible. One could make a credible claim that the EUV machines produced by ASML are the most technically advanced thing that humans have ever done. Each machine costs $150 million dollars and ASML has said that it’s not particularly worried about trade restrictions because their backlog is already so great. 

It’s hard to know exactly how long it would take China to create their own EUV machines, but I’ve seen estimates of at least ten years, and this assumes that they throw everything they have at it: unlimited money, the smartest people, all the tech their spies can steal, etc. That sounds right to me, possibly even optimistic. 

For the sake of argument let’s say that China is able to produce 7 nanometer chips at scale in a reasonable timeframe. Soon enough that they don’t end up doing something rash. Will it matter that EUV is still out of their reach?

Of the many battles being fought here, one of the biggest revolves around military capability. It’s possible that if AI becomes a big part of waging war, that the difference between an AI that can be built with TSMC/ASML 3 nm chips and the AI that can be built with Chinese 7 nm chips (assuming they can be built at scale) is like the difference between an F-22 and an F-15, or it could be that the difference is really not that great. Since military AI of the sort that will be used on autonomous drones is still in its infancy (and subject to numerous moral concerns) it’s not clear which it will be. But clearly if you could choose you’d want the more advanced chip. 

The estimate of ten years could end up being never, given how much could change in that time. Also it’s possible that even if China had all the time in the world that they might never be able to create their own EUV machines. Certainly lots of countries are incapable of producing tech above a certain level. (Russia would have dearly loved to have its own high tech chip industry, but despite massive effort during the Cold War they just fell farther and farther behind.) Perhaps in order to get an ASML you need the innovation, liquidity, and drive of the entire western developed world. And China just can’t duplicate that by itself.

VI- The Economics of Things 

We’re still at the very beginning of the US restrictions. Not only is it far too early to see how they’re going to play out, but also China has yet to retaliate with restrictions of their own—which they presumably will. In addition to waiting for China’s reaction there are also numerous other players whose reactions we’re still waiting on, collectively we call these players “The Market” and in the end their reactions might be far more decisive than China’s. 

First let’s talk about where these two categories overlap. China is definitely part of “The Market”. Not only do they import a lot of chips, they import a lot of everything. They also export a lot of everything, including chips. We’ve been entirely focused on high-end chips, but what about low-end chips? China has traditionally done pretty well at competing at the lower end of things and chips are no exception. From Thompson’s Stratechery post:

In the end it was China that picked up a lot of the slack: the company’s [sic? I think this should be “country’s”] commitment to building its own semiconductor industry is not a new one (just much more pressing), and part of the process of walking the path I detailed above is building more basic chips using older technologies. China’s share of >45 nanometer chips was 23% in 2019, and probably over 35% today; its share of 28-45 nanometer chips was 19% in 2019 and is probably approaching 30% today. Moreover, these chips still make up most of the volume for the industry as a whole…

I’m not exactly sure how this will affect the “Chip War” but it at least demonstrates that China has some chip-making leverage of its own which it may use. We saw what happened during the pandemic when there were supply chain disruptions with chips. 35% and 30% are pretty big chunks of those supply chains should the Chinese choose to disrupt them.

Second, it should be noted that the US is mostly fighting this war through proxies. We’ve already mentioned that ASML and TSMC are foreign companies, but it goes deeper than just two companies, our own chip industry is in disarray. See for example this article from The Economist: The American chip industry’s $1.5trn meltdown, which points out that we’re suffering from a supply glut already. Or this article from Foreign Affairs: How Silicon Valley Lost the Chips Race. Meaning that while we don’t need ASML and TSMC as much as China does, we do need them, and it’s not clear how long they’re going to go along with the US throwing its weight around. Certainly they’ll play along for a while, but at some point one has to imagine that they’re going to run out of patience. 

Of course there’s also the broader reaction companies and countries will have to these restrictions. We’ve recently seen pushback against similar attempts to shape international markets, for example the Saudis reneging on the secret deal the Biden White House thought they’d made to increase oil production. Chip restrictions would seem to fit into a similar narrative. 

Obviously a full discussion of all the potential market distortions and other reactions these restrictions might engender is outside the scope of this post, but I would be very surprised if there weren’t large and unexpected negative second order effects from this policy. 

VII- Longer term

As we saw in Part I, some people are framing this as a new cold war. When considering the long term implications of the war over chips, that’s probably a good way of looking at it, because it basically boils down to a competition between two systems. On the one side we have the globalized Western economies. On the other side we have a semi-planned, semi-communist, semi-facist authoritarian economy, which has been able to grow at a truly staggering rate over the last several decades. 

Both systems are showing signs of weakness. As much as the Western world appears to be holding all the trump cards, they have historically been reluctant to really push that advantage. A trade war with China is going to be painful, particularly when the economy is already hurting. Globalism works best when it’s global, and China was already very tightly integrated with that system.

On the other side of things, China seems to be falling into the same trap most authoritarian regimes fall into, of centralizing power, which leads to myopia, which leads to bad policies. Consider China’s continued increasingly draconic and misguided efforts to maintain zero covid. Though it’s worth noting that the Chinese chip industry is so important that rather than shut it down, people are just living at the factory.

In general it boils down to a lot of things I’ve been talking about recently. Is Peter Zeihan right and China will wither if deprived of globalism? Is this the first step in that? Or is Ray Dalio right, and China is on its way up, and our chip restrictions will end up being too little too late? Both think that the Far East is going to end up being a very different place in the future. Zeihan thinks Japan will be the regional hegemon, Dalio thinks it’s going to be China. In either case an awful lot of the chip making capacity we depend on is in Taiwan, Korea and Japan. If the US loses its influence in the region then one could imagine the tables turning, with the US being the one cut off from high tech chips. 

Francis Fukuyama, who’s enjoying a moment in the sun right now, would say that liberal democracies are better at science and science makes you better at war. And maybe it will come to that, and we’ll see which of the two systems is better. Right now China appears to be on the ropes, but I’d like to leave you with one final thought. TSMC is not on top because Taiwan is a model liberal democracy. TSMC is on top because the Taiwanese government gave them a huge amount of assistance, and US companies made some bad decisions. China is more than capable of providing similar levels of assistance, and we are still capable of making very bad decisions. 


Now that I’ve shared my good fortune with you, it’s time for me to ask for you to share your good fortune with me. You know the drill… 


The Midterms: Biases and a Lack of Moderation

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

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I.

The midterms are just about here, and while I generally stay away from the daily scrum of politics, I do think it’s worth trying to understand which way the wind is blowing when elections roll around, particularly national elections. This is even more important these days, when politics just keeps getting stranger.

There was a time when predicting what it would look like if the Republicans took control of both houses was pretty straightforward, perhaps even a little boring. That is no longer the case, the universe of possibilities is much broader. Which is not necessarily to say that there is the potential for crazy laws to be passed. Whatever happens in November the Republicans are not going to end up with a filibuster proof majority to say nothing of a veto proof majority. But there is plenty of potential for crazy behavior. 

A few days ago I came across an article about Marjorie Taylor Greene. One of the more radical of Trump’s supporters in the House. In February of 2021 she was removed from all committee assignments because of these radical views and “endorsements of political violence”. But rather than sinking into obscurity, as many people predicted, her clout has actually increased. I thought this bit was particularly interesting: 

Early last year, House Republicans met to discuss whether to remove Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from a leadership position after she voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack. (They eventually did.) In that meeting, Greene justified her support for QAnon and other conspiracy theories — and about a third of the conference stood up and applauded her.

“The headline tonight is that we tried to kick out Liz Cheney, and we gave a standing ovation to Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina warned at the time.

Now this is not to say that there’s not craziness on the other side. There’s plenty. The Democrats should be very glad that Joe Manchin was around to keep them from doing anything truly stupid like eliminating the filibuster, or packing the court. As a reward for this he got a lot of hate from those Democrats, who seemed not to realize that if they didn’t have Joe Manchin they wouldn’t have control of the senate period. Since he’s the only Democrat that could conceivably win in West Virginia, and if he wasn’t around they would have sent a Republican in his place. 

II.

Of course control of the Senate is the number one question for those watching the election. And at this point most people are betting that the Republicans won’t manage to pull it off. Scratch that, in the time between now and when I wrote that, now most people are betting that they will pull it off. Sill there are several interesting wrinkles to this question. The biggest is polling bias

When people make these predictions they rely heavily, though not exclusively on polls. As you may have heard, over the course of the last few elections, polls have underestimated Republican support, oftentimes by quite a bit. You would think that after such misses that they would make adjustments and that after these adjustments you would see polls get more accurate, or you might even start seeing an overcorrection, with polls overstating support for Republicans. But that hasn’t happened. Before we get into why that might be, it’s interesting to examine the last 13 federal elections. (Data taken from this 538 article which looked at the “generic ballot”.) 

  • In those 13 elections going all the way back to 1996, there was a Democratic bias ten times, a Republican bias two times and the polls were dead on one time,
  • The one time they were dead on was 2018. 
  • 2020 was not the worst miss, (at least using this metric) but you have to go back to the very beginning (1996) to find a worse miss in a year with a presidential election. (Also it’s my impression that we’re polling more, but I couldn’t find a source to corroborate that.)
  • The average bias across all 13 years was 2.5 in favor of Democrats 

This isn’t necessarily the best data for understanding what’s been happening, but I think it illustrates a key point. The Democratic bias has been around for a long time. If it is just a methodological error, 26 years is a long time for pollsters to still be working on a fix. And of course it hasn’t been gradually getting better. It appears to be steadily getting worse.

This was the conclusion Richard Hanania drew when took a more fine grained look at polling data from four categories of races. He looked at races for President, Governor, Senate and the House, and there was the same consistent Democratic bias, but it was much worse in the 2014-2020 period. He then went on to argue, which was the claim which got the most attention, that this bias could not be corrected.

But what if the problem is that Republican voters are the type of people that don’t talk to pollsters? And the few Republicans that do talk to them are unrepresentative of the party itself? If this were the case, then there would be no clear fix. A recent paper by Vanderbilt University professor Joshua Clinton and two colleagues called “Reluctant Republicans, Eager Democrats? Partisan Nonresponse and the Accuracy of 2020 Presidential Pre-Election Telephone Polls” indicates that this is exactly what is happening.

I’m not sure that this is exactly what’s happening, let’s turn to the section of the Clinton paper Hanania chooses to quote:

In the worst case of Wisconsin, likely Republicans according to the voter file were less likely to cooperate with the survey, less likely to self-identify with the Republican Party, and nearly 50 percent reported having voted for Biden. While some of this seems likely to be measurement error in the partisanship measure of the voter file being used, it also raises the possibility that the likely Republicans who cooperated with the poll were much more likely to support Biden than the likely Republicans who did not respond.

For me what jumps out is the figure that 50 percent reported having voted for Biden. Truly this is a strange batch of Republicans. Hanania thinks that:

Of course, given that Biden only won Wisconsin by 0.6%, there is no way that Trump only won half of Republicans in that state. What this paper is saying is that either the Republicans that the pollsters were reaching were highly unrepresentative, or maybe they weren’t any good at imputing partisanship in the first place.

I want to suggest a third possibility. Maybe these people are lying about who they voted for. You might call it trolling the pollsters, or you might imagine they’re doing it for the lulz. The point is that there is increasingly an anti-authoritarian streak among Republicans (nor can I say I entirely blame them) and is there any reason to suspect that they’re going to trust pollsters when they don’t trust any other authority figures? And certainly the most likely thing to do if you don’t trust pollsters is to ignore them, but lying to them also seems entirely plausible. 

I could go on, but the central point Hanania makes, which I would echo, is that there’s no easy way to fix the problem. And this is even more true if I’m right and there is some significant percentage of voters who are just outright lying to pollsters. 

III.

More than polling and what happens at the midterms the bigger question is what happens in 2024. But of course the midterms will definitely provide a preview of that. And one of the biggest things people will be looking at is how those candidates closest to Trump do in the general election. Obviously given the aforementioned problems with polling predicting outcomes at this point seems particularly pointless. As an example take the race between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. Warnock is up by at least 3 points over Walker in Georgia, and it does feel like Walker is in trouble more generally. If this were 20 years ago I think the outcome would be clear (and Walker probably wouldn’t have been the nominee in the first place.) But these days? Who can say. Certainly polls have been wrong by more than 3 points in the past. So I guess we’ll have to see. But as a more general matter it’s hard to see a situation where Trump backed candidates do so poorly that Trump’s power is broken within the Republican party. 

If it’s not (or even if it is) everyone expects Trump to run in 2024, and possibly announce his candidacy shortly after the midterms, though more likely he’ll wait until 2023. Lots of people further assume, or perhaps just hope, that Desantis will challenge him in the primary. I expect this to happen as well. Beyond that things get less clear and mostly I just have questions. What does a Desantis/Trump primary look like? Presumably other people will throw their hats into the ring as well, will that make any difference? Despite the fact that elected politicians just keep getting older and older, age has not really been a factor. Will that finally change? Assuming Desantis does enter the primary against Trump, I expect it to get pretty ugly, with the possibility that it could develop in alarming directions.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether Garland will indict Trump, and if so what effect that will have on things. Several people are very confidently predicting that he will, while other people seem less sure. I think if he’s just going to indict him for obstruction of justice then he probably shouldn’t, but I haven’t been following things all that closely. I’m more of a mind with Matt Taibbi: We’ve had six years of the “We’ve definitely got him now!” show. But yet:

The Endless Prosecution not only failed to win Trump’s accusers the public’s loyalty, it apparently achieved the opposite, somehow swinging working-class and even nonwhite voters toward Republicans in what even Axios this week called a “seismic shift” in American politics.

Democrats six years ago were presented with a unique opportunity, one so obvious even Donald Trump figured it out. The electorate was angry, beaten down, and willing to listen to anyone with a real plan, and instead of providing one — the obvious project would have involved throwing over some key donors for a while, then ripping off the populist politics of Bernie Sanders to re-sell them with slicker packaging — party leaders spent all their currency trying to sue, indict, impeach, remove, or jail Trump.

So yes, who knows if Garland will indict Trump, but I think it’s madness to assume that if he does that this will be the thing that finally brings him down. In any case, despite my questions I think the arc of the Republican party at least through 2024 is pretty easy to imagine. We’ve seen Trump in action. We even have a pretty good read on Desantis. We’ve had six years of the “We’ve definitely got him now!” show, and I expect that years seven and eight of the show will be much the same even if there’s a late series actor swap where Desantis steps into Trump’s role. But what about the Democrats? Is Biden really going to run in 2024? Or perhaps the better question is who’s going to run if it’s not Biden?

It is a source of continual amazement to me that the Democrats don’t have a deeper bench. I get that there is in fact a long list of names (Harris, Newsom, Buttegieg, etc.) , but none of them seem particularly presidential. And I suppose that they might seem more presidential once they’re the actual nominee. That foreseeing whether someone is presidential is difficult to actually do, but easy to imagine having done in hindsight. Which is to say my memory is that Obama appeared presidential even when he was a long shot, but it’s possible I’m suffering from hindsight bias.

I suppose the clearest example of what I mean can be seen if you look at Bernie Sanders. The guy is 81 years old, clearly he should have some kind of designated heir. Someone people can look to as the obvious head of his movement once he’s gone. And yet no such person exists. Why is that? And it feels like you could basically say the same thing for Biden. Sure there’s Kamala Harris, but they’re sure not treating her like the heir apparent. And what about Obama? Who’s carrying on his legacy? Because it’s not Biden. Not only is Obama going to outlive Biden, but it’s clear that Obama was lukewarm, at best, about Biden’s candidacy. It’s possible that I’m being too critical, but it is telling that when people put together lists of potential non-Biden candidates they end up scrapping both ends of the age distribution. See for example this list of seven which includes Saunders and Warren (who have already tried to get the nomination) and AOC, who if she were a month younger wouldn’t be old enough to actually run for president. And of course there’s Biden himself…

There’s probably a whole discussion to be had about how we’ve turned into a gerontocracy. But I’m not sure that I have anything novel to add. Though clearly the incumbency advantage is far larger than would be ideal. Finally, I should also mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that none of the potential Republican candidates seem particularly presidential to me either, but I no longer trust my ability to identify successful Republican candidates.

IV.

As you may remember I live in Utah, and the Senate race here is definitely interesting. The Democrats, knowing that they had no chance of getting one of their own elected, nominated Evan McMullin, a Never Trump Republican who actually ran for president in 2016. He’s unlikely to win, but he has been polling better than people expected (though of course see part II). I would love to see a situation where the Senate ended up with 49 Democrats, 50 Republicans and McMullin. I don’t think it would save the country or anything like that, but it would be interesting and also pretty unprecedented. Also, though I’m sure I wouldn’t like everything McMullin would do, he’d be positioned to be a moderating influence and I think we need more of that, at all levels. 

The Washington Post appears to agree with me and calls the “Evan McMullin scenario” “intriguing”. On the other hand MSNBC worries that it’s a “dangerous new trend”, worrying that if he were elected it would lead to more “Manchin-esque machinations”. I already talked about Manchin and I continue to be perplexed that Democrats are so opposed to this sort of thing. Would they really rather have Mike Lee in the Senate over Evan McMullin? Or Joe Manchin over a generic Trump Republican? Perhaps they imagine that if the Utah Democrats had nominated an actual Democrat rather than a Never Trump Republican that this hypothetical Democrat would have won? Or that there’s some value to ideological purity which exceeds the value of actually being in power?

All of these leads into a topic I’ve discussed before on several occasions. A question I’ve been asking all of my adult life: Are we ever going to see a viable third party? (To be clear this would have to be along the lines of the Republicans replacing the Whigs, not significant legislative representation from three separate parties. The US just isn’t set up in such a way for that to ever happen.) If we did get a third party, where would its support come from? With both the Republicans and Democrats becoming increasingly radical there would appear to be a lot of space in the center, and neither of the parties seem very interested in that space. My impression is that it’s more common to talk about the intransigence of the Republicans, but the venom being unleashed on Manchin, and to a lesser extent McMullin illustrates that there’s a similar level of intransigence present among the Democrats as well. 

What’s particularly interesting is that this intransigence operates in both directions—against their allies and their enemies. For many Republicans, any Democrat, no matter how moderate, is essentially indistinguishable from a Communist, and any Republican who doesn’t think the 2020 election was stolen is a traitor. And on the Democratic side, Republicans are all literal fascists, while all Democrats are expected to be unwavering in their support for several, pretty extreme, issues. I thought Matthew Ygelsias put it well in a recent newsletter:

So to tempt voters away from literal fascism, have they been given candidates in the purple districts (D+4/R+4) who disagree with progressives about gun control? Who support banning late-term abortions? Who have qualms about trans women competing against cis women in college sports? Who favor changing asylum law to try to cut off the flow of migrants arriving at the southern border? Who think it’s a problem that college admissions offices discriminate against Asian applicants and low-income whites? I’m not saying every candidate in every swing district should dissent from party leaders on all those subjects, but how many dissent on any of them? [emphasis mine]

I don’t know the exact answer, but my sense is very few. This is one of the reasons why I find McMullin so fascinating. Yet another publication called his nomination a hail mary. Are we going to start seeing more such hail marys? Is he the start of something new? A sign that parties are actually serious about defeating those they identify as extremists rather than fail nobly as they dogmatically cling to their ideology? At the moment, given that the Republicans are strongly favored to win the house, and it’s starting to look more and more like they’ll take the Senate as well—RCP has them gaining 3 seats, while in that same newsletter I already mentioned, Yglesias gave them a 70% chance of taking at least 1 seat—this question is mainly directed at Democrats. I think they should be trying more hail marys of the kind they tried in Utah, or there’s always the option to become more moderate en masse. 

It’s my impression that one of the things that’s preventing this kind of moderation is that Democratic politicians end up in something of an ideological bubble. The only people willing to work for a campaign are young kids who are either in college or fresh out of college. And perhaps you’ve heard, but this demographic happens to be especially radical. At least radical enough to believe the exact opposite of all those things Yglesias listed. This would seem to have some effect on the positions of the candidates they’re working for. I’m sure the people working for Biden skew older, which is one of the reasons he’s been able to position himself as something of a moderate. But there’s evidence of this effect even in his case. Exhibit #1 would have to be the way he ended up completely undermining his post-Dobbs, Inflation Reduction Act bounce by announcing a completely misguided policy to forgive student loans. You know who loves the idea of student loan forgiveness? Young Democratic staffers…

If the Democrats aren’t going to moderate, and the Republicans have no incentive to moderate (particularly if they take the House AND Senate.) That leaves a couple of options. The first, which is fascinating, but incredibly unlikely, is that we get an actual third party. The last time this happened was also during a time of severe civic discord, but other than that the situations are hardly comparable. The Whigs had only been around for a little over 20 years. Also the new Republican party had a couple of very concrete ideas to rally around (anti-slavery and anti-polygamy) that were the opposite of moderate. And however bad it is at the moment, the 1850s were far worse.

The only remaining option I can think of would be the one we’re already pursuing: abandoning the center. But is it just the politicians who are abandoning it, or is it being abandoned by everyone? Certainly the moderate middle is getting smaller. People are becoming more radical. But are we on course for a moderate middle that’s so small that it no longer has the power to swing elections? Where even if the parties were to be wiser than they are now, that there still would be no point in trying to take a more moderate stance because there are not enough moderates left for whom that’s appealing?

That seems like a pretty dark view of the future, but is there any reason to believe that’s not where we’re headed?


I’m just realizing that I had intended to do this whole section about the longer term outlook for both parties. They’re not great. Kind of like these end of post appeals for donations


Dalio vs. Zeihan

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My last newsletter briefly compared three different visions for the future. The first was laid out by Peter Zeihan in his book The End of the World is Just the Beginning. (See my review here.) Zeihan’s book was in my opinion the most pessimistic of the three, but if all you care about is the US then you might call Zeihan an optimist. Certainly he was more optimistic about the US than the second book, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail, by Ray Dalio (review here). But Dalio was more optimistic in general. However, the crown for the most optimistic take on the future belongs to David Deutsch and his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (review here) which outlined an optimism for the future which bordered on the religious.

As part of the newsletter I discussed how one might respond to these three very different versions of the future, but I postponed discussing the actual details for another post. This is that post. I plan to spend most of my time on Zeihan and Dalio, but I’ll toss in Deutsch from time to time to liven things up. 

Also it’s going to be impossible to avoid repeating some of the things I already said in my review of the books, so for those who read those reviews I apologize in advance for the duplication, but I do hope to spend most of this post comparing and contrasting the various predictions, rather than discussing them individually.

I- Is the US Doomed Or What? 

As I already mentioned one of the biggest disagreements between the two authors is their take on the future of US power. Dalio brings a very cyclical view to his analysis, which is to say his approach involves finding patterns in the past and then looking for those patterns in our current situation. And the pattern he sees when he looks at the US is of a nation that has passed his peak and is on the way down.

Zeihan obviously has a very different approach. He’s a geopolitical analyst, so he’s interested in what resources are where. Who trades with whom and why. Where is the food produced and where is it consumed. Natural barriers and what might make conquering a nation easier or harder. It’s hard to tell how he feels about political and culture cycles. He never mentions them in his book, and he only mentions financial cycles once, in the briefest fashion possible. I suspect he would acknowledge the existence of all those cycles, but would argue that they’re overshadowed by questions of geography. Take this quote as an example:  

Even the biggest and most badass of all those echo empires—the Romans—“Only” survived for five centuries in the dog-eat-dog world of early history. In contrast, Mesopotamia and Egypt both lasted multiple millennia.

First, I couldn’t figure out what he meant by “echo empire”. But if we get past that he’s basically saying that if you have geography on your side there’s almost no limit to how long your civilization can last. Yes, there will be ups and downs, but underlying all that there will be continuity. You won’t have the dramatic and complete collapse that we saw with Rome. But on the other hand if you don’t have geography it doesn’t matter how “badass” you are, your days are numbered. 

This is the source of his optimism about the US. According to Zeihan we have the best geography ever. From this can we assume that Zeihan thinks that the US of A will last for thousands of years? In a similar fashion to Egypt and Mesopotamia? He never explicitly puts a time horizon on the country’s lifespan, but he does assert that whatever our current difficulties are, they will be temporary. 

…the United States will largely escape the carnage to come. That probably triggered your BS detector. How can I assert that the United States will waltz through something this tumultuous? 

…I understand the reflexive disbelief…Sometimes it feels as though American policy is pasted together from the random thoughts of the four-year-old product of a biker rally tryst between Bernie Sanders and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

My answer? That’s easy: it isn’t about them. It has never been about them. And by “them” I don’t simply mean the unfettered wackadoos of contemporary America’s radicalized Left and Right, I mean America’s political players in general. The 2020s are not the first time the United States has gone through a complete restructuring of its political system. This is round seven for those of you with minds of historical bents. Americans survived and thrived before because their geography is insulated from, while their demographic profile is starkly younger than, the bulk of the world. They will survive and thrive now and into the future for similar reasons. America’s strengths allow her debates to be petty, while those debates barely affect her strengths.

Perhaps the oddest thing of our soon-to-be present is that while the Americans revel in their petty, internal squabbles, they will barely notice that elsewhere the world is ending!!!

Let’s assume that Zeihan is right about all of this, that still doesn’t mean that a “complete restructuring of [our] political system” is going to be pleasant. Presumably, one of the seven times this restructuring happened previously was the Civil War, and yes we did survive, and eventually our thriving continued, but for those that experienced the era that stretched from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 through the end of Reconstruction in 1877 those debates didn’t seem petty or temporary. 

Meaning at a minimum while Zeihan might have good news for my great grandkids, it might still be awful news for my children and grandchildren. But also, we shouldn’t discount the idea that his assessment of American durability powered by geography could in fact be entirely misguided, but I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s interesting is that while Dalio and Zeihan disagree about so much else their short term projections end up being very similar.

You might remember this graph from my review of Dalio:

Dalio’s assessment is that history moves in an upward sloping corkscrew pattern. It loops up during the good times and down during the bad times, but the overall trend is positive.  Dalio believes the US has peaked, but according to Dalio that’s okay because Spain, the Netherlands and the UK have all peaked as well and they’re doing fine at the moment. Sure they’re not the biggest dog on the block anymore, but the average living standard for their citizens is still in the top 20% globally. Similarly, there will be some disruption and bad times as the baton is passed to China, but over the long term things in the US will be comparable to things in the UK. We won’t have the superabundance we had when we were at the top of the heap, but we’ll be fine.

Given that the period all of us are most interested in is the next 20-30 years it should be at least a little bit sobering that both Zeihan and Dalio are saying that this period is going to be bumpy. Sure it’s some comfort that both believe after a couple of decades or so of bumpiness that things are going to be fine. But what if they’re right about the bumpiness, but wrong about the “eventually fine” part? Unfortunately I think there’s good reason to believe that they might be. 

The problem, as I see it, is that both of them have decided that a certain period in history, and certain nations from that period can tell us what’s going to happen to the US. That these nations provide an accurate model from which we can draw conclusions. For Dalio it’s recent history because that’s where there’s sufficient data for him to draw some conclusions. As such he’s looking at the UK, and before them the Netherlands, and before them Spain. Those countries were all top dog at one point or another, but he also looks at France and Germany, countries that could have been top dogs. You may be noticing a geographic bias. All of those countries are in Europe. Which is not to say that Dalio didn’t look at non-european countries. But Europe is where the data is best, and where all the recent great powers were located. 

I completely understand why he did it, but I still think it’s myopic, and as a further example of myopia, Dalio spends most of his time examining what it looks like for a country to rise and fall and not nearly enough time on the transitions from one country being on top to the next. In particular how the next transition might be different than the previous ones. As I argued in my review, the most recent transitions have been exceptionally mild. Transitioning from the Netherlands to the UK involved two countries separated by a thin stretch of ocean, that at one point had the same king. Transitioning from the UK to the US happened sometime in the early 20th century when both countries were allies in the World Wars, and both spoke the same language. The situation with the US and China is entirely different. If, as Dalio claims, a transition is happening, it seems unlikely to look anything like the previous two reserve currency/economic/cultural/military transitions he spends most of his time on. 

So that’s Dalio, what about Zeihan? What point in history and what nations within that period is Zeihan using for his model? He doesn’t place a huge emphasis on it, but I really do think that his example nations are Egypt and Mesopotamia. Spots which were safe for empires for thousands of years. And while I think that’s silly, I also kind of get it. Zeihan makes a powerful case for the US having uniquely amazing geography, but geography isn’t the only factor for long term survival. I mean Egypt and Mesopotamia didn’t survive to the present day. Something ended their thousands of years of stability, and that something was new technology. 

The easiest way of illustrating the point is not with either Egypt or Mesopotamia, but with Constantinople. Constantinople lasted a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it did so essentially because of its geography. It had the “geography” of its immense walls, plus it was a port so supplies and reinforcements could generally be brought in by sea. But at some point the technology was developed to destroy those walls, and that was the end of Constantinople. The US has the walls of the Atlantic and the Pacific, along with the fact that there are no credible competitor nations in North or South America. But the question of whether these “walls” could be breached would appear to be a very important one. 

The obvious candidates for such a breach are ICBMs, and as I mentioned both in this most recent review of Zeihan, but also in the review of the book before that, Zeihan seems curiously uninterested in exploring the possible use of nuclear weapons. I’m not necessarily saying that because he ignores nukes that he’s wrong about long term American dominance, there is a fair amount of “nuclear weapons are not that big of a deal” opinions floating around in the internet at the moment. But Zeihan should at least address the issue. He should explain why he’s not concerned about Russia and China using their ICBMs if their “worlds are ending” (see his quote above) and the US is sitting there fat and happy. The fact that he so completely ignores it makes me think I’m missing something. And I will say I did a quick search to see if there was a blog or something where he talks about it, but nothing obvious popped up.

I think Dalio, to a certain extent, also discounts technology. Deutsch, for all the shade I throw on him, at least doesn’t make the mistake of minimizing technology, rather he goes too far in the other direction, and furthermore seems to assume that such technology will be good.

I’ve spent longer than I intended talking about the US, but I do have three final points I’d like to squeeze in, mostly related to Zeihan’s take. First off, just because an area is secure from external threats, and doesn’t need external help doesn’t mean that it’s internally stable. Egypt may have lasted for over 3000 years, but a quick check of Wikipedia shows that during that time there were 31 dynasties with a mean length of 103 years. So what does it really mean for the US to be dominant? That for the foreseeable future North America will be the power base for the world’s most powerful country? Okay, but that says nothing about what sort of country it is, or even whether it’s a great deal for its citizens. Being a powerful country is only loosely correlated with keeping the country’s citizens happy and fulfilled. If you’re interested in preserving American culture, you’d almost have to say that Dalio is more optimistic despite his more pessimistic take for the country as a whole.

Second, Zeihan is very emphatic that we’ve been living through a moment that’s historically unprecedented. I am in total agreement with that, but Zeihan seems to mostly be focused on just one area in which it’s unprecedented: unrestricted, safe global trade. I think it’s unprecedented in at least a dozen other ways which makes predictions of the sort Zeihan is making particularly difficult. Both Zeihan and Dalio seem to think we’re at the end of an incredible historical run. (While Deutsch thinks we’re just at the beginning of one.) But is it possible they’ve misidentified exactly what it is that’s ending? Part of my problem with Dalio is that he’s predicting the decline of the US, but that would also mean the decline of the West, and since so much of his data comes from the West, if it’s also declining his data may be misleading rather than illuminating. Another thing that’s unprecedented is how democratic the US is. When you’re thinking about ancient empires and monarchies a lot of what was going on was churn at the top, while the bulk of the population kept doing what they were doing. These days any churn is going to be society wide. To return to the quote I mentioned earlier, Zeihan asserts that it was never about the political players, but these days everything is political and everyone is a player. What then?

Finally this idea that the US will retreat back to the Americas, and sit there, unperturbed, while the rest of the world descends into wars, famines and diseases seems way too simplistic. But this is precisely what Zeihan is predicting, and on a massive scale. He asserts that once the US withdraws from the world that a billion people will starve to death and two billion will be malnourished. I’m not sure what we would do if this was happening, but I don’t think it would be “nothing!”.  

II- Okay What About China? Is it the Next Hegemon or a Demographic Disaster That’s One Sunk Ship Away From Starvation and Collapse?

As I pointed out in my review, Zeihan asserts that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I was doubtful it happens on the very first shot, but I agree with Zeihan in general. If commercial ships become fair game for violence we are in a completely different world. But it’s not as if a switch gets flipped, Rather we would enter a time of profound uncertainty. Does this uncertainty play out in the fashion Dalio predicts, with China ending up on top? Or does it play out like Zeihan predicts with China, broken, starving, and malnourished? Or perhaps it never happens at all? Which is I guess what Deutsch would predict. Or is there some way for all three of them to be correct? 

There’s a quote from Adam Smith that is appropriate at times like this: “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. Meaning that when a nation has built up wealth, institutions, infrastructure and legitimacy over many decades that it takes a lot of disasters, not merely one, to destroy it. The same can be said for the postwar order. I think safe global trade has been engrained for long enough in people that it’s going to take a lot for things to switch back. That’s the sense and really the only sense in which Deutsch is correct. And I’m stretching to give him even that much credit because it is going to switch back at some point. But as long as it hasn’t, Dalio has made some good points, and Zeihan isn’t even in the game yet. Once the switch is flipped from safe to unsafe seas, well then Zeihan is your man, at least for identifying all of the weaknesses. As far as how those weaknesses play out, who knows. Despite how dour Zeihan’s predictions are, it could actually be worse, we could get all the famine he predicts, plus a full on nuclear exchange. My point, however, is that it’s farther out that Zeihan thinks. So as long as the switch hasn’t flipped, what happens with China?

A couple of years ago (almost exactly!) I examined a half dozen or so “takes” on China. Most of them proceed along lines you’re familiar with, with lots of discussion of Taiwan. But one that has always stuck with me is the assessment by Paul Midler.  Unless it was from reading my previous posts you’ve probably never heard of Midler. He’s English (or American, I can’t recall for sure) and he’s been working in China for decades. His claim is that the key to understanding the Chinese leadership is to understand that they don’t think in terms of perpetual progress, they think in terms of dynasties. They don’t imagine that conditions 50 years ago were worse than they are today, and that they’ll be better still 50 years hence. Their thinking is more cyclical. Dynasties rise and dynasties fall, and while they’re rising you get what you can, and while they’re falling you hunker down and survive. And according to Midler everything the current leadership is doing is an attempt to get what can be gotten while things are good. And if they do it well enough they might even still be in power when the cycle turns. They’re looking to check off boxes: Recapture Taiwan. Build a lot of stuff. Keep the country free of COVID. Etc. 

Looked at through this lens you can start to imagine how both Dalio and Zeihan might be seeing a piece of the elephant. Dalio sees the immense progress. He can see all the graphs going up. And in the past, when that happened in the West it heralded the rise of a new global power. But Dalio is viewing it as someone who expects people to pursue progress for its own sake because of the benefits it provides, not because of the positive PR it gives the leadership. But in contrast to the other countries he’s studied, China is far more of a top down society. Consequently most significant initiatives are driven by the leadership. On the other hand Zeihan sees the immense underlying weaknesses, and knows that things can’t last. But the Chinese leadership is seeing the same thing. Not only are they not blind to it, they expect it. They assume that things are going to come crashing down and they’re desperate to lock in as many accomplishments as they can. 

Pulling all of this together, including all of the stuff about the US, what do we end up with? In the near term we end up with an aggressive and achievement focused China butting heads with an America that is in transition. This transition is definitely happening on a lot of fronts but one of the biggest is ceasing to be the globocop. Willingly if you believe Zeihan. Unwillingly if you believe Dalio. But that transition is not going to be smooth (witness Ukraine). While a lot of this comes from the nature of the transition itself, America also seems to be suffering from serious internal problems as well. (Something which Dalio has a chart for, but which Zeihan mostly dismisses.) This makes the timing of this transition unfortunate.

In the medium term, there’s a lot of “ruin” in China, and they’re not going to go down without a fight. If they go down at all, but here’s where Midler’s take is important. I think even the Chinese expect that this is what’s going to happen, that the good times can’t last forever. Where is the US by this point? I think a post hegemonic America, having also passed through whatever chaos awaits us over the next couple of decades, will be significantly different than the America we’re used to and significantly different than what Zeihan is predicting. Though I agree with him that we’ll still be better off than Europe or China, and probably Africa and South America as well, but better doesn’t mean good.  

Over the long run? Well that sort of prediction is a suckers game, but to bring our third author in one last time, I guarantee that whatever Deutsch says, we are not at the “beginning of infinity”. We’re at the beginning of several very chaotic decades.


With a post like this, covering so much territory, there’s always a ton of stuff I don’t get to. One observation I had is that each author champions a different reserve currency. Zeihan thinks the dollar will continue in that role. Dalio thinks we’re going to switch to the yuan, and while he doesn’t say it. I peg Deutsch as a bitcoin guy. I don’t particularly care, I’ll take any thing


The 12 Books I Finished in September (One of Which I’m Not Allowed to Talk About)

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  1. The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization by: Peter Zeihan
  2. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by: David Deutsch
  3. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by: Anne Applebaum
  4. Post-Truth by: Lee C. McIntyre
  5. Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be by: Steven Pressfield 
  6. A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest by: Robert Bell and William Dowling
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by: Agatha Christie
  8. Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1 by: Jack Campbell
  9. Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2 by: Jack Campbell
  10. Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3 by: Jack Campbell
  11. Outland by: Dennis E. Taylor

As mentioned in the title, one of the books I finished this month I’m not allowed to talk about because it hasn’t been published yet. This is not the first time someone has handed me a preprint, but in the past, I either never got around to reading it, or by the time I did it was about to be printed anyway, and so I didn’t need to delay my review. But this time around the book is a long way from being printed, and I only read it because a friend of mine was eager to get my thoughts on it. I found that not being able to review a book I was reading was very frustrating. I suppose that’s a good thing. It means on some level that my book reviewing habit has been firmly established. And not being able to immediately hold forth on a book is annoying. I’m hoping to still write the review while it’s fresh, but as I’m not under any kind of a deadline I may end up procrastinating, which would be bad.

Other than that I was really looking forward to September after the awful heat of the summer, but I ended up being cruelly disappointed. The month started by smashing all of the daily records and September 7th ended up tying the record for the hottest day ever at 107. And while October has been better, it’s still supposed to hit 80 degrees today and tomorrow. I know some people hate winter, but not me. I can’t wait for it to arrive.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization

by: Peter Zeihan

Published: 2022

498 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The catastrophic consequences which will attend the coming end of American Hegemony, or what Zeihan calls the “Order”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Zeihan’s major focus is on geography, as such he’s very focused on how that will help and hinder some nations. Also this book is something of a culmination of his previous books.

Who should read this book?

If you read this blog you should probably read this book. That said, I think Zeihan is wrong about a lot of things.

General Thoughts

I have a love-hate relationship with Zeihan. I think he’s fantastic at identifying the numerous fragilities the modern world has accumulated. But when it comes to predicting how these fragile things are going to break, and what the world looks like afterwards, I think he seriously overestimates his predictive ability. I agree with him that serious Black Swans are on the horizon, but Zeihan is confident enough about the nature of these swans to assure his readers that the US will be fine, Japan will be okay, and China will end up as a warring collection of 18th century warlords. I am less confident about these precise outcomes. Let’s take each in turn.

The US: In the aftermath of WWII the US created what Zeihan calls the “Order”. Zeihan describes it thusly:

[T]he Americans offered their wartime allies a deal. The Americans would use their navy—the only navy of size to survive the war—to patrol the global ocean and protect the commerce of all. The Americans would open their market—the only market of size to survive the war—to allied exports so that all could export their way back to wealth. The Americans would extend a strategic blanket over all, so that no friend of America need ever fear invasion again.

There was probably a little bit of benevolence involved in the establishment of the Order, but it was mostly a way of containing and confronting the Soviet Union. (Presumably when Zeihan speaks of “wartime allies” he’s not including them.) Without having to start yet another war. 

But of course as we all know the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1990, but the Order continued, why? Zeihan argues that it was largely out of inertia, and the fact that it was still working pretty well. Also, after the Soviet Union fell, America was still on top and it could afford to be magnanimous, but such magnanimity can’t last forever. This is in large part because, according to Zeihan, it brings very few benefits and numerous costs. Which is to say, the US doesn’t need to be magnanimous. It doesn’t need international trade, it can feed itself, and since the fracking revolution it could pretty easily be energy independent as well. So it doesn’t need to maintain its costly “strategic blanket” over the seas. This situation of absolute security on the oceans was always incredibly anomalous, though we don’t think of it as such. As Zeihan puts it:

What we all think of as normal is actually the most distorted moment in human history. That makes it incredibly fragile.

So far he and I mostly agree, but let’s move on.

Japan: Ever since reading his book The Accidental Superpower (review here) I’ve been mystified by how bullish Zeihan is about Japan. Though it’s possible that it’s less being bullish about Japan and more being bearish about China, and we’ll get to that, but let’s first consider Japan by itself. Japan cannot feed itself (it produces only 39% of its food locally) nor is it energy independent, and it’s an island. So we’re already in a situation where Japan is very dependent on ocean going trade. So why is Zeihan so bullish? Apparently it all comes down to the Japanese Navy. If the chief cause of the coming disaster is the withdrawal of the global protection of the US Navy, then the only way to avoid disaster is for countries to have their own blue water navy, and according to Zeihan, Japan already has one of the best in the world. And to be fair to Zeihan, the Japanese Navy is pretty good, but is it really that much better than China’s navy? A quote from the book might give you a sense of Zeihan’s optimism:

Japan would seem set to inherit [Asia’s First Island Chain], but the future isn’t going to be nearly that tidy. Sure, Japan’s superior naval reach means it can strangle China in a few weeks and choose the time and place of any blue-water conflicts, but even in weakness China has the ability to strike targets within a few hundred miles of its coast. That doesn’t simply include portions of the Japanese Home Islands, but also most of South Korea and all of Taiwan. Anything short of a complete governance collapse in China (which admittedly has occurred several times throughout Chinese history) will turn the entire region into a danger zone for any sort of shipping on the water.

To be fair he doesn’t discount the idea that it’s going to get hot, but this idea that the Japanese navy could easily blockade China does not match what I’m seeing anywhere else. I couldn’t find any source which ranked the Japanese Navy as being better than the Chinese Navy. Mostly what I’m seeing are discussions of whether even the US Navy could match China, at least around Taiwan. And remember for all of this to work out for Japan, they have to beat China, and still have enough of a navy left to guard their shipments of food and oil. And all of this while their population plummets

China: Of course China also has serious demographic problems, but given that they start out with 10x the population of Japan, their situation is quite a bit different. Zeihan puts quite a bit of weight on demography, but despite China’s rapidly aging population he seems to think that their biggest source of weakness is that their growth is backed by truly staggering levels of debt. As in a corporate debt load that’s 350% of GDP, and a monetary supply that, since 2006 has increased by eight hundred percent. Zeihan draws this comparison between all the big economies:

So, have the Americans played a bit fast and loose with their monetary policy? Perhaps. Will that have consequences down the line? Probably. Will those consequences be comfortable? Probably not. But it is the Europeans and Japanese who have gone off the deep end, while the Chinese have swum out to sea during a hurricane and dived headfirst into the Texas-sized whirlpool that serves as Godzilla’s front door. Scale matters.

So out of all this Zeihan’s theory for the collapse of China goes something like this: The US will start withdrawing from its job as globo-cop. This will disrupt supplies of food and raw materials. This will take the rug out from China’s ability to finance continued expansion which will disrupt growth, and growth is the Chinese leadership’s sole claim to legitimacy. Any attempt on China’s part to secure food and raw materials will be blocked by the Japanese Navy, and if that doesn’t do it the Indian Navy is also in the way (particularly if China wants to get oil from the Middle East.) This will all be too much to bear for China’s vast and factious population leading to a China that is a ghostly shadow of its current power—if not to its entire disintegration. 

Zeihan never mentions what role the Chinese nuclear arsenal might play in this process. In fact, as far as I can determine he goes the entire book without ever mentioning China’s nuclear weapons at all. This is a strange omission, and one that was also present in his last book as well. I’m not sure what to make of it. 

But to return to my original point. Zeihan is great at identifying a certain class of modern fragility, and I agree that the world is set to break. But he’s entirely too confident about what the world will look like after it’s been smashed into a thousand pieces.

Eschatological Implications

Eschatology is all about the end. And while the end of American hegemony will not be the literal end of the world. Zeihan is right that it will be the end of the world as we know it. To begin with he argues that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I’m not sure it happens the first time someone shoots at one, but the first time one of them is sunk by a hostile nation? Then yeah, everything we know changes. 

The question is how does this come about? Zeihan assumes that any day now the US is going to realize that it doesn’t need the rest of the world and call its navy home, because that’s the logical thing to do. This assumption is so deeply embedded that Zeihan doesn’t really ever bother explaining the chain of events that would lead up to this withdrawal. For him it just seems so obviously the smart thing to do that it has to happen. It would be one thing if we were trending in an isolationist direction. Instead, if anything, we’ve gone the opposite way. We’re deeply involved in assisting Ukraine against Russia, and on no less than four separate occasions Biden has asserted that we’re going to defend Taiwan. Of course his advisors have tried to walk those assertions back, and no one is entirely sure what happens under the next president, but Biden has the public’s support. The number of Americans who think we should defend Taiwan has been going up, and crossed 50% for the first time last year

I totally agree that American hegemony can’t last forever, and that it’s already starting to fray. And Zeihan’s analysis of the fragility which will be exposed when it does end is more than worth the price of admission. But I think it’s going to last longer than he thinks—that we’re going to try to hold on to it for as long as we can. This will make a big difference because as Zeihan points out, that’s what everyone else wants as well, so if we’re all on the same page it could end up continuing for decades. And as time goes on things will inevitably change, and the elements of Zeihan’s analysis will have to change as well. China’s navy will continue to get stronger. The horrible demographics of the modern world will continue to play out. Elections will happen. China will make a play for Taiwan. Putin will use nukes, or he won’t. But I think the idea that the US will sit back comfortably enjoying self sufficiency while the rest of the world breaks down into regional spheres of influence is too simplistic. I think it’s going to be a lot crazier than that.


The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

by: David Deutsch

Published: 2012

487 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The infinite potential which has been unlocked for humanity by the creation of explanatory knowledge, or what we normally call science. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I thought this description from an article in Scientific America was spot on. Deutsch is a  “quantum theorist [who] thinks we’ll solve war, global warming and consciousness—and that will be just the beginning.”

Who should read this book?

I’m leaning towards placing this in my “no one” category. It is useful as the record of a sort of blind humanistic optimism, which in 100 years will either be held up for extreme ridicule (if it’s remembered at all) or viewed as being so self evident as to be boring.

General Thoughts

Somewhere along the line I came across a list of book recommendations by Neal Stephenson, and I naively assumed that since he wrote such excellent fiction that his non-fiction recommendations would be of a similarly high quality. Unfortunately this has not proven to be the case. I’ve been trying to work through my backlog of audio books, and this is the month I ended up in the middle of all the books I impulsively added from that list. This was actually not the first book from the list. That was The Constitution of Knowledge, but I didn’t make the connection at the time. Though you may recall that I wasn’t particularly impressed by that book either. 

Most of the books on the list (that I read) are pessimistic in ways which I’ll discuss, but not this book. As I already mentioned, this book is overflowing with optimism. His central claim is that humanity, by discovering how to generate explanatory knowledge, has set itself on a path which has no end, that we are at the beginning of infinity. To quote from the book:

[E]very putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either

– impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or

– achievable, given the right knowledge.

That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. {Emphasis mine]

Most importantly we have figured out how to get that knowledge. Some people disagree, pointing out that monkeys, while intelligent, will never understand calculus, and that perhaps there is knowledge which is similarly situated beyond our intelligence. But Deutsch points out that because we can invent tools which increase our abilities, that we are not subject to that restriction. That yes, there might be some things normal humans can’t understand, but that humans plus computers can. Humans are universal constructors. 

I obviously don’t have time to get into all of his reasoning, but you might be interested in some of his other assertions:

      • The knowledge-friendliness of the physical world
      • Almost all environments create an open-ended stream of knowledge
      • People are universal explainers
      • All interesting problems are soluble by virtue of being interesting
      • The existence of universality in many fields
      • Biological evolution was merely a finite preface to the main story of evolution, the unbounded evolution of memes.

In many ways this book reminded me of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Deutsch is also a big fan of the Enlightenment. But whereas Pinker’s book was full of statistics Deutsch’s book comes across as almost mystical. This despite Deutsch being, as near as I can tell, an atheist. 

Clearly there are people who have a mystical faith in continued progress. You might have heard people using the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But why does Deutsch belong in a similar camp? Because he’s basically saying the same thing. Though he might prefer it if people said, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards knowledge.” And he asserts that it doesn’t require recourse to anything supernatural, that it’s just a matter of understanding the true power of human potential.

Eschatological Implications

When someone claims that we’re at the beginning of infinity, they’re basically claiming that we’re at the end of the finite and static period of humanity. And Deutsch in fact does spend quite a bit of time criticizing static societies, and he holds particular disregard for the precautionary principle. Which is to say Deutsch puts forth an eschatology, it’s just a very positive eschatology. As I mentioned in my last post, it would be great if this were the case, but as you might imagine I have my doubts.

Recently, this book, and a few other things, have reminded me of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I discussed at length in a previous post. As a reminder, Bostrom likens new technology to blindly drawing balls from an urn. Each ball can be any shade from pure white to pure black. The lighter the ball the more beneficial the technology, the darker the ball the more harmful it is. If you ever draw a pure black ball then it’s a technology which is so destructive it means the end of humanity. On the other hand, a pure white ball would mean the eternal salvation of humanity. 

Deutsch not only denies that pure black balls exist, but his essential claim is that we have already drawn the pure white ball sometime during the enlightenment. You could even say that the whole book is a description of this pure white ball. But even if you set aside the fact that Deutsch believes we have already been “saved” by science. He makes further claims about the nature of the balls in the urn. By claiming that the physical world is “knowledge-friendly” he’s basically saying that the urn is set up to deliver white balls. You might retort that just because the world is knowledge friendly doesn’t mean it always delivers good knowledge. If humans will eventually be able to do anything not forbidden by the laws of nature couldn’t they blow up the planet, or eradicate all life? It would seem so, but Deutsch has an explicitly optimistic view of knowledge. In fact he puts forth what he calls “The Principle of Optimism”, which is:

All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.

This means that as soon as humans developed the ability to reliably create explanatory knowledge, that they had it within their power to banish all evil. That sure feels like a mystical eschatology. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism 

by: Anne Applebaum

Published: 2020

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The rising authoritarianism in the West, with a particular focus on Poland. But it also includes significant discussion of Hungary and the UK (think Brexit). 

What’s the author’s angle?

As an international journalist Applebaum has been right in the thick of things, and this is a surprisingly personal account of changing Eastern European politics from the inside.  She’s also married to a Polish politician (Radoslaw Sikorski, who, among other things, was the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007-2014). And more recently the guy who tweeted “Thank you, USA” in reference to the explosions which damaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

Who should read this book?

You have probably heard of Victor Orban, you might even have a strong opinion about him. You probably haven’t heard of Jarosław Kaczyński, who is sort of the Orban of Poland. If you want the inside baseball of Kaczyński’s rise to power, and the parallel rise of authoritarianism and conspiratorial thinking then this is the book for you. If that all sounds a little bit niche, and of limited applicability, then you should skip it.

General Thoughts

This is yet another book from the Stephenson list. And it suffers from the problem common to most of the other books on that list (though not Deutsch’s): They all do a reasonably good job of describing some of the things happening on the ground, but then their solutions are either laughably naive (as was the case with Constitution of Knowledge) or non-existent as was the case with this book. Applebaum is very worried about the future of democracy, and she wonders if democracy will end up always sliding into authoritarianism. Certainly the Founders worried about that, and Applebaum mentions these worries, she also mentions statistics indicating that a third of the population has an “authoritarian predisposition”. From this her contribution is to point out that even should these people exist that that’s not enough for the rise of authoritarianism. An additional step is needed: 

They need members of the intellectual and educated elite…who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.

The book opens with a New Years Eve party she and her husband threw in Poland at the end of 1999. And then she goes on to detail how so many of the people at that party who she thought were her allies, ended up joining this authoritarian elite.

This is great, and interesting to hear about, but she doesn’t ever offer any ideas for how to prevent this. She gives a very interesting narrative of the process, but she never really gets into why that process starts or how one might prevent it.


Post-Truth

by: Lee C. McIntyre

Published: 2018

116 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Post-truth, which the OED named as their word of the year in November of 2016, and defined as: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

What’s the author’s angle?

This book is part of the MIT Essential Knowledge Series, McIntyre is a professor at Boston University and an Instructor at Harvard. This book has a real “declaiming correct beliefs from the heights of the ivory tower” feel.

Who should read this book?

No one. Yes, this is another Stephenson recommendation, and it’s weak in the same ways that the last one was weak. Also to the extent that it does have something worthwhile to say it’s out of date. A lot has happened in the realm of post-truth since 2018.

General Thoughts

From the very first page McIntyre admits that it’s impossible for him to be neutral about this subject, and to look at it dispassionately. And I agree that there’s really no case to be made that we should abandon truth, but as you read the book it becomes clear that what he’s really attempting to do is cover for his profound political bias. Yes, the left did come up with postmodernism, which is the “godfather of post-truth” but it was only weaponized by the right’s lust for power. All of the science denial comes from the right as well. And then, of course, he talks about Trump incessantly. (Some version of the word Trump appears 222 times, so an average of almost 2 times per page.) I think everyone reading this already has a pretty firm opinion, one way or the other, on Trump. Certainly McIntyre does, so I’d like to focus just briefly on science denial.

McIntyre spends a lot of space talking about climate change, (71 instances) and the science denial on the right about that subject, but you can search in vain for a discussion of gender self-id and the denial of physical differences between men and women, which is clearly science denial from the left, nor is it that the only potential example. Now to be fair it was published in 2018 and a lot has happened in the last four years on that front. But one feels like it would have been possible to come up with a left wing example, even if you wanted to argue that it’s not as bad. 

Finally, like all of the Stephenson recommendations, the solutions on offer are pretty anemic, and consist mostly of more discussion of how awful Trump is. I get it, you guys don’t like Trump. But if he were to die tomorrow your problems would not be solved.


Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be 

by: Steven Pressfield 

Published: 2022

148 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Tough love about how to succeed at the “War of Art”. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Pressfield is well known for his passionate advice on writing and creating in general, and this is an extension of that. 

Who should read this book?

Pressfield gives great motivational speeches for aspiring artists. If you fall into that category and need motivation this is another great (and very short book) from him.

General Thoughts

As I just said this is a very short book. Basically two hours as an audiobook. That’s a large part of its appeal, you get a lot for a short expenditure of time. And if you’ve read any of his other books, you know what you’re getting. If you haven’t read any of his other books, you probably shouldn’t start with this one. I would recommend The War of Art.


A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest 

by: Robert Bell and William Dowling

Published: 2005

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The title pretty much says it all. If like me, you need help reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, then you might want to pick up a book like this.

Who should read this book?

I have not finished Infinite Jest, but this book has been very helpful in keeping me from getting overwhelmed.

General Thoughts

I’m on my third time starting Infinite Jest. I picked this book up in the middle of my second attempt, but then my crazy summer intervened before I could get to it, but it was helpful enough that I decided to start over for a third time. I’m hoping to finish it soon, but man, that is one hefty book!


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

By: Agatha Christie

Published: 1926

312 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. As you might expect someone is murdered and Poirot solves the murder. However, there are several interesting differences: to start with, Poirot is retired.

Who should read this book?

I don’t read a ton of murder mysteries, but I thought this was a particularly fine example of the form. If you do read a lot of them, then you should definitely read this one.

General Thoughts

My daughter set out to read every book ever written by Agatha Christie. She completed this task recently and reported that out of all the books she liked this one the best. Well, with a recommendation like that, I had to read it. I can definitely see why she would place it in the number 1 spot. To say much of anything would spoil things, but I will say that it was very inventive with great characters.


The Lost Fleet Series

By: Jack Campbell

Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1

Published: 2006

304 Pages

Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2

Published: 2007

295 Pages

Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3

Published: 2007

299 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

John “Black Jack” Geary, hero of the Alliance, thought to be dead, is found and revived after spending 100 years in cryosleep. This happens just in the nick of time because the Alliance fleet has just lost a major battle and is stuck deep behind enemy lines, and only Black Jack can get them home.

Who should read this series?

I really like the premise of this series, and it started strong, but after book three I abandoned it. So I would say either read the first book or two and then stop, or don’t read it all. 

General Thoughts

As I said, I liked the premise. Imagine if Nelson or Napoleon returned to their respective countries in the middle of WWI. How would the British Navy and the French Army react to that? The series is also an homage to Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, a group of Greek mercenaries who found themselves deep in Persia and on the losing side of the war. 

Unfortunately, in order for the books to play out in the most dramatic fashion possible Campbell asks us to swallow a lot. The easiest thing to swallow is that the commanders of the Alliance fleet would leave a recently revived Black Jack as fleet commander while every last one of them goes to negotiate a surrender, only to be slaughtered. For one thing, it’s another allusion to Xenophon. But after that things get more difficult to digest.

Black Jack is a hero because of one battle early in the war, after which he disappeared. And yet his fame, 100 years later, is equal to or greater than that of a Nelson or Napoleon who accumulated their fame over the course of dozens of major engagements. 

Additionally, even though 100 years of constant war has taken place, the technology being used has hardly changed.

But the hardest thing of all to swallow is that Black Jack turns out to be the best commander ever because, despite the aforementioned 100 years of constant war, the current Alliance commanders have forgotten how to fight. This is convenient for the story, but the exact opposite of how things work in reality. Campbell tries to explain it by saying that the war is so vicious that no commanders live long enough to become experienced, which implies that they’re incapable of learning from the mistakes of others…

If this had been all there was I probably would have persevered, but it started becoming quite the soap opera with large chunks of the books taken up by the drama of Black Jack’s romantic entanglements, which was not what I signed up for.


Outland

By: Dennis E. Taylor

Published: 2015

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

College students discover a way to open up a portal to a parallel Earth (the eponymous Outland.) This discovery happens to occur right before the Yellowstone Supervolcano explodes, and the students end up being the only people who can save civilization. 

Who should read this book?

This is by the author of the Bobiverse series, and the humor is similar, so if you liked that, or if you like end of the world science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book. But it is Taylor’s first book, so it’s a little rough.

General Thoughts

This is perfectly serviceable science fiction, with an interesting premise, a well crafted plot and okay characters. It pretty much is what it claims to be on the cover. But as with his Bobiverse books Taylor makes some very curious world building choices. (See here for a discussion of his choices in the Bobiverse.) What does he do in this one? Well if you’ll permit me a mostly-spoiler free rant:

As I mentioned the students figure out how to open portals to parallel worlds, but in this book rather than there being one world for every possible choice, the worlds have a tendency to settle into a groove, or perhaps revert to some sort of mean. Consequently they’re only able to open a portal to two different worlds. Outland, which is a world without humans (or at least there are no humans in North America). And a world they call Greenhouse Earth. 

In Outland the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted sometime in the last hundred thousand years, and this is presumably why there are no humans. 

Greenhouse Earth, on the other hand, is only featured very briefly, but the temperature is 194 degrees, and atmospheric pressure is twice that of “Earth Prime”. That all seems pretty implausible, but I suppose some ancient divergence could create an Earth with those characteristics, except apparently the divergence wasn’t ancient because when they look through the portal they can see the ruins of the university. Including a building that was constructed in 2002. The novel gives every indication of being set in the present day. Which means up until very recently conditions were still temperate enough that they were constructing buildings as per usual, and then in the space of a 13 years the average temperature goes up by 100 degrees, and the pressure doubles! 

And yes, given that it’s an alternate dimension the timelines could be different by more than that, but even if it took a century that would still be climatic change at insane speed. Nailing down the actual timeline isn’t the point, but rather the key point is they get two views into what might have been, and in both of those views disaster has struck. But rather than worrying about how a world that was otherwise identical to theirs in terms of tech and progress suddenly became Venus junior, they spend all of their time worried about the possibility of the supervolcano.

Now of course the protagonists of novels have a way of being correct, and the Yellowstone Supervolcano actually does explode on Earth Prime but if you were playing the odds our best guess is that Yellowstone has a yearly probability of blowing up of around 1 in 730,000. While apparently the chances of the insanity of Greenhouse Earth are 1 in 13, or perhaps, if we’re being generous, 1 in 100?

I went on a long rant because this sort of phenomenon—interesting disasters getting all of the attention while likely disasters end up relatively ignored—is something that affects a lot of our thinking around risk. And as with so many things the pandemic is exhibit number one. Not only weren’t we prepared despite the very high priority, we don’t appear to be doing much to increase our preparedness should another pandemic emerge.  


As I mentioned I was disappointed in Stephenson’s recommendations. If you think you can do better feel free to email me at we are not saved AT gmail. Of course if you were an actual supporter I’d have no choice but to read and review whatever you recommended. That’s just how it works! 


Eschatologist #21: But What if They’re Wrong?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I recently finished reading three different books:

I mention these books together because they all make very strong predictions about the future. 

Dalio predicts that the US will continue to decline and eventually be supplanted as the dominant world power by China. 

Zeihan predicts that the US will return to isolationism, which will be fine for them/us, but an absolute disaster for the rest of the world, particularly China. 

Deutsch predicts an amazing future where everything is awesome for everyone. 

These are wildly different visions of the future, and I’ll get into actual details in a future essay. (If you’re interested in reading it you should sign up for the “Everything I Write” newsletter.) But for now I just want to talk about how an individual should approach these very different predictions. Because my advice is going to be different than most. 

Before anything else you might notice that the first two predictions are essentially pessimistic, while the final prediction is super optimistic. After making that determination most people would move on to trying to determine which of them is the most accurate. The methodology isn’t particularly important. 

They might compare the predictions of the book vs. what’s actually happening. Particularly if the book has been out for a while. They might “go with their gut”. They might look at the opinions of the experts, though that’s basically how we ended up here in the first place. All three of these authors are considered to be experts, and yet despite that, their predictions couldn’t be more different. What all of this illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter which methodology you use. Predicting the future, particularly with any degree of specificity, is impossible.

Consequently, I’d like to suggest the opposite approach. To suggest that rather than asking what the consequences might be if they’re right, that instead you should be asking, “What if they’re wrong?” Or more specifically what if you decide to follow their advice and it turns out to be wrong? (Of course if you follow their advice and they turn out to be correct then you win.)

But you start by following their advice. If you decided to follow Dalio you might mostly divest from the stock market and put a lot of money into gold. In theory you might move to China, but more likely you’d try to live more modestly where you already are. Perhaps search out a strong community. 

With Zeihan, despite the differences between their predictions, you might do something very similar. Though of course you definitely wouldn’t move to China. 

With Deutsch though, things would be very different. He doesn’t have any specific investment recommendations, but I suspect you’d put a lot of money into crypto. Rather than living in America or China you’d probably live wherever it’s cheapest, and not worry too much about embedding yourself deeply in a community. 

And if you’re wrong? With Dalio and Zeihan, it’s not really a big deal. You probably traveled less than you might have otherwise, and you own fewer luxuries. But if they’re wrong you’re still fine. And it should be noted that despite the very different character of Dalio and Zeihan’s predictions, you’re mostly able to prepare for both at the same time. And beyond that you were probably better prepared for a host of other catastrophes as well. 

However if you decided to follow Deutsch’s advice, and he ends up being wrong then your situation is much worse. You might find yourself trapped either in the new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Dalio) or on the other side of the newly dangerous oceans which are crawling with pirates (Zeihan). You might have lost all your money when the tech sector collapses and with it the value of crypto. Or some other constellation of bad outcomes. (As you’ll recall I said predicting the future was impossible.)

The key point is that you need to consider both if someone is right and if they’re wrong, and how bad both of those things are. Because if you’re okay if either one happens then you can’t lose. But if you need them to be right, because you can’t handle them being wrong, well then you may be in for a very nasty surprise. Because they might very well be wrong.


You might be asking “But what if you’re wrong?” Ahh, I have trained you perhaps too well. I’m never wrong, I’m just misunderstood. I know this because of how often I have to repeat the same appeal. You know the one, “Consider donating”?


The Bifurcation Created by Technology

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I.

I’ve tried to start tweeting more consistently, though not because I like to tweet. As you may be able to tell from the length of my essays, tweeting is the exact opposite of my preferred style of communication. Unfortunately Twitter is where all the action happens, so if I want to be a public intellectual, I have to tweet. I don’t know that I want to be a public intellectual, nor have I ever claimed to be such. But I haven’t found any better label for what I’m trying to do, so I guess that’s the direction I hope to go in however silly and conceited that may sound at this point. 

Of course the consensus is that Twitter is a dumpster fire encased in high level nuclear waste, and that anyone who has the least interest in maintaining their mental health should avoid it like the plague. Though I mostly see that sentiment expressed by people who are already well known enough that their audience will find them regardless, giving them the option of avoiding the radioactive inferno. That does not describe me, though so far the greatest difficulty I’ve encountered is remembering that it’s there. Apparently the deep red of the uranium fire does not hold the same appeal for me as it does for others.  

In any case I digress, I mention the tweeting in case there are readers out there who might be interested in following my infrequent tweets (I’ve gotten pretty good at tweeting at least once a day.) I also mention it because the idea for this post started as a tweet. (I guess I need to figure out how to embed tweets, but until then, I’ll just quote it.)

Technology bifurcates problems. 99% of problems go away, but the 1% that are left are awful. Case in point customer service: 99% of the time you don’t even need customer service from Amazon, etc. but the 1% of the time you do you’re suddenly in a story by Kafka.

I mentioned Amazon in my tweet, completely missing that, contextually it would have been better to mention Twitter, since it basically has the same problem. We probably all know someone who has been temporarily banned from twitter for tweeting something objectionable. The initial choice (as I understand it, remember I’m not a power user) is to delete the offending tweet or to appeal. Nearly everyone deletes the offending tweet because they know that appealing puts them in the aforementioned story by Kafka. And should it happen a second time then appealing switches from Kafka to Dante: “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. All of which is to emphasis my initial point: 99%, probably even 99.9% of Twitter users never need customer service, the platform just runs on it’s own without the users ever running into problems which need special intervention, but in the edge cases where it doesn’t run smoothly the process is completely opaque, unresponsive, and ineffective.

Despite how bad it is, as far as I can tell Twitter does much better than Amazon and Google. The internet is full of stories of people who had their Amazon seller account closed—frequently for things the person never did. (This reddit story represents a typical example.) And you may have caught the New York Times story from last month about the father who took pictures of his toddler’s genitals to send to the child’s pediatrician, who ended up losing everything he had with Google (Contacts, email, photos, etc.) because the pictures he sent were flagged as child pornography by the Google algorithms. And not only that Google also referred him to the police. All of this is bad but from a societal perspective the worst was yet to come. 

Google, despite being contacted by the NYT and having the situation explained to them, refused to budge. You might imagine that this is just a principled stand on their part. That they have zero tolerance for stuff like this. Or you might imagine the inverse, they’re worried that if they did reverse their opinion they would appear soft on the issue. I don’t think it’s either of those things. I think that they’re incredibly invested in the idea that their algorithms can handle content moderation, and that’s the position they don’t want to undermine. Because if algorithms are shown to have holes and flaws then they might have to spend a lot of time and money getting humans to do customer service, which is the exact opposite of the direction they’ve been trying to go since their founding. 

Before moving on, as I was re-reading this story, I came across yet another consequence of Google’s villainy. This one, out of all of the consequences this man suffered, really hit home for me. “He now uses a Hotmail address for email, which people mock him for…” I’ll admit that made me laugh. But also, yeah, I totally get it.

In any case I think the customer service angle is pretty straight forward, the question is how broadly can we apply this observation, where else might it be happening? What other harms might it be causing? In order to answer that I think we need to start by examining the process which brings it into existence in the first place.

II.

Initially everything is hard and time consuming. I own a small custom software company, that’s a million times smaller than Amazon. (Okay, not literally, but pretty close.) But my company also solves problems with software. At this point if one of my customers has a problem then they come directly to me and I fix it (or more likely my younger, more talented, better looking partner does.) There’s a lot of friction and a lot of overhead to that process. Gradually we hope to be able to smooth all of that out. The first step in doing that is to hope that whatever we fix stays fixed. We also hope to be able to nip problems in the bud by reusing proven solutions. Finally, we automate solutions for the most common problems. (Think of the “forgot password” button.) While this represents only a small portion of our efforts, it’s a large part of what the big dawgs are doing.

Through all of these tactics, gradually we move things from the “hard and time consuming” column to the “never have to worry about it” column. Or at least we hope we never have to worry about them but “never” is a very long time, and it’s difficult to implement a solution that covers every possible eventuality. There are always going to be edge cases, unique situations and circumstances which combine in ways we didn’t expect. For problems like these you have to get a human involved, ideally a human with the authority to fix things, who’s also smart enough to understand why the situation is unique. (That’s often the problem I run into with customer service. If I’m calling you it’s not something I could fix just by Googling, and telling me to restart my router again is not helpful, it’s infuriating.) But I’m going to argue that for really difficult problems, it goes beyond even all of these things. You actually need a human who’s wise

It’s unclear whether the gentleman who had such difficulties with Google was even able to talk to an actual human, let alone a wise one. Certainly I don’t know how to reach a live person at Google, though I confess I’ve never tried. (Which is probably exactly the behavior they like to encourage.) The NYT obviously talked to someone, but again, even though they definitely had an actual conversation, there doesn’t appear to have been an abundance of wisdom involved. But to be fair, the amount of intelligence and wisdom required to solve these problems just keeps increasing. Because the problems left over after the implementation of all this technology are worse than they would have been if the technology never existed. To be clear I’m not arguing that the overall situation is worse (at least not yet). I’m pointing out that the top 1% of all problems are way worse when the other 99% is automated than when it’s not. 

How does this happen? Well let’s move on to a different example, one where the stakes are higher than being forced to switch to hotmail.

III.

That initial tweet was followed up with one more. (I was on fire that day!)

Additional thoughts/example: Self driving cars. Tech can take care of easiest 99%. Tosses most difficult 1% back to driver. Driver has no context, just suddenly in deep end, therefore much worse at hardest 1% than if they had just dealt with the full 100% from start.

Let me expand that from its abbreviated, staccato form. If not now, then soon, self driving cars will be able to take care of all the easy bits of driving. All the way back in 2015 my Subaru came with adaptive cruise control, which appears to be the lowest of all the low hanging fruit, and I’m sure many of you have Tesla’s which are several generations further advanced still, but no car can take care of 100% of driving and that driving which they can’t take care of is the most difficult driving of all.

The difficult 1% falls into two categories. First there are the sudden calamities: the car on a cross street running a red light, or debris falling off the pickup truck driving just in front of you, etc. 

The second category is bad weather. It’s my understanding that self-driving cars are not great at handling heavy rain, and are completely stymied by heavy snow. Luckily, unlike the examples from the first category, weather is not generally something that gets sprung on you suddenly. Nevertheless, it requires a whole suite of skills which rely on doing a lot of moderately difficult driving, not all of it in bad weather. In the same fashion that speaking academic English is helped by being able to speak conversational English, it’s clear that lots of normal driving helps one develop the skills necessary to tackle bad weather driving. Which is not to say that driving in snow does not have its own unique challenges. This is why in some municipalities, where snow is rare, when it does come they shut things down entirely. Is this same situation what we have to look forward to? A future where neither humans nor auto-pilots can handle inclement weather, and so when it happens everything shuts down? Perhaps, but that’s not really an option in many places. What’s more likely is that of all the driving humans do, a greater and greater percentage of it will only be done during times of extreme weather, with very little experience outside of that. Should this be the case self-driving cars will have made all the driving that does get done significantly more difficult.

Returning to the first category, those situations where conditions suddenly change are more what I was referring to in my tweet. Times where the self-driving car has lulled you into a state of inattentiveness (something that happens to me just using adaptive cruise control) but whatever the car is doing it’s understood that as part of the deal that it can’t handle everything. So when the light turns green it’s your responsibility to notice the Mustang coming from the left whose driver decided, incorrectly, that they could beat the light if they punched it up to 60. Of course you might not notice it regardless of the level of auto-pilot your car has, but also the chance of you missing it if you’ve been relying on auto-pilot for everything else goes way up. 

Having a car run a red light at high speed is presumably something outside the ability of most auto-pilots to detect, on the other hand there are some things the autopilot has no problem detecting, they just don’t know what to do with them. I mentioned debris falling out of a pickup truck. The car can probably detect that, but is this a situation where it’s better to slam on the breaks or swerve? I don’t claim to be an expert on exactly how every current auto-pilot functions, but I think most of them are not equipped to swerve. And it’s not clear how much you want to trust even those cars that are equipped to swerve. This means that it’s up to the person to immediately seize control, and make the decision. Fortunately the car should sound a collision alarm, but if that’s the first point at which you become aware of the debris you’ve already lost valuable time. 

Ideally in order to know whether to swerve or whether to break, you’d want to have a pretty good sense of where the other cars are on the road, particularly if there’s anyone currently hanging out in your blind spot. All of this is unlikely if you haven’t really been paying attention. Deciding whether to break, or swerve when suddenly confronted with road debris is in the top 1% of difficulty. And of course the decision is more complicated than that, there are some situations where the very best thing to do is run over the debris. The point is that for the foreseeable future, using autopilot would almost certainly make this very difficult decision even more difficult. 

IV.

Thus far we’ve covered the two examples that are the most straightforward (though perhaps you’ve already thought of other, equally obvious examples.) Now I want to move into examples where it’s not quite as obvious, but where I think this idea might still have some explanatory utility. I’m just going to touch on each example briefly, just long enough for you to get a sense of the area I’m talking about. I’m more going for a “what are your thoughts about that?” rather than a “here’s why this is also an example of the bifurcation I’ve been talking about”

Was it a factor with the pandemic? We have used technology to routinize numerous aspects of healthcare, such that with 99% of problems we have a system. There’s a specialist you can go to, a medicine you can take, or an operation which can be performed. But when the most difficult health problem of the last 100 years came along in the form of COVID, and it didn’t fit into any of our routines, we seemed pretty bad at dealing with it. Worse than we had been historically, particularly if you factor in the tools available then, vs. the tools available now. Additionally the bureaucracy we had created to deal with the lower 99% of problems ended up really getting in the way when it came to dealing with the top 1%, i.e. a global pandemic. 

Then there are societal problems like homelessness and drug addiction. We also have implemented significant civic technology in this area. Employment is pretty easy to find. Signing up for social programs is straightforward. Just about anybody who wants to go to college can. We’ve taken care of a lot of things which used to be dealt with at the level of the individual, the family, or the community. But, there was a lot of variability in the service offered by these entities, and oftentimes they failed, spectacularly. This is the reason for the various civic technologies that have emerged, and as a result of these technologies we’ve gotten pretty good at the 99%, but what’s happened to the 1%? As I’ve talked about frequently, drug overdose deaths are through the roof. The systems we’ve created are great at dealing with normal problems like just not having enough food, but with the really knotty problems like opioid addiction we seem to have gotten worse.

Does this bifurcation apply in the arena of war? Since WWII we’ve managed to keep 99% of international conflicts below the level of the Great Powers. This has rightly been called the long peace. And it’s been pretty nice. But as the situation in Ukraine gets ever more perilous are we about to find out what the really difficult 1% looks like? The type of war our international system was unable to tame? Essentially what I’m arguing here is that our diplomatic muscles have atrophied. We’re not used to negotiating with powerful countries who truly have their backs against the wall. Which was fine 99% of the time, but the 1% of the time we need it, we’ve lost the ability to engage in it. 

What about energy generation? We are fantastic at generating power. The international infrastructure we’ve built for getting oil out of the ground and then transporting it anywhere in the world is amazing. We’ve also gotten really good at erecting windmills and putting up solar panels. But somehow we just can’t seem to build nuclear power plants in a cost-effective way. It clearly is in that top 1% of difficulty, and as near as I can tell by getting really good at the other 99% we’ve essentially decided to just give up on that remaining 1%. But of course that 1% ends up being really important.

I think I may have stretched this idea to its breaking point, and maybe even past that, but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss how this idea relates to my last post. Because at first glance they seem to be contradictory. In the last post I said we put too much attention on the tails, and in this post I seem to be saying we’re not putting enough attention there. To be honest this contradiction didn’t occur to me until I was well into things, and for a moment it puzzled me as well. Clearly one explanation would be that I’m wrong now, or that I was wrong then, or that I’m wrong both times. But (for possibly selfish reasons) I think I was right both times, though the interplay between the two phenomena was subtle. 

In our current land grab for status people are racing towards the edges, but that doesn’t mean that the extreme edge, the 1%, gets more attention. In fact the exact opposite, it gets buried by the newcomers. Freddie deBoer has done a lot of great work here and I could pick any of a dozen articles he’s written, but perhaps his newsletter from this morning will suffice. As usual his titles don’t leave much to the imagination: “We Can’t Constructively Address Online Mental Health Culture Without Acknowledging That Some People Think They Have Disorders They Don’t”. As a result of people misdiagnosing themselves you end up in a situation where out of all the people who claim to have a particular disorder a significant percentage, let’s say 80%, don’t have it at all, or if they do it’s subclinical. Then figure an additional 15% of people have very mild cases. And the remaining 5% have a serious affliction. This 5% ends up basically being the 1% I’ve mentioned above, who don’t get the level of help they need because they’re competing for resources with the 95% of people who have mild or non-existent cases. Which takes us back to the same bifurcation I’ve been talking about.

V.

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve neglected a very significant counter argument. Possibly, some of you may be impotently yelling at me through your screen at this very moment. I’ve never discussed the ROI of this arrangement. In other words, this bifurcation could leave all of us better off. To take the example of the self-driving car. Around 40,000 people die every year in automobile accidents. Let’s say that 20% of those deaths come in situations auto-pilots are ill-equipped to deal with. But the other 80% of deaths would be completely eliminated if all cars were self-driving. Unless the extreme 1% ends up being five times more deadly because of overreliance on auto-pilot, we would be better off entirely switching to self-driving cars. Far fewer people would die.

Beyond this most people imagine that eventually we’ll get to 100%. That someday, perhaps sooner than we think, self-driving cars will be better than human drivers in all conditions. And at that point there really won’t be anything left to discuss. While the first point is valid, this second point partakes more of hubris than practicality. Truly getting to 100% would be the equivalent to creating better than human level AI, i.e. superintelligence. And if you follow the debates around the risk of that you know that the top 1% of bad outcomes are existential. 

Still, what about the first point? It is a good one, but I think we still need to keep three things in mind:

1- The systems we create to automate the 99% end up shifting complexity. Complex systems are fragile. We should never underestimate the calamities that can be created when complex systems blow up. I’m not prepared to say that CDOs are an example of this phenomenon, but they very well could be, and their existence took the 2007-2008 financial crisis to a whole new level. Despite the fact that most people had never even heard of them.

2- By focusing on technology we may be overlooking the truly worrisome aspect of this phenomenon. In theory we can turn technology off, or reprogram it. But to the extent we’re seeing this with softer systems (healthcare, diplomacy, energy generation) things could be much worse. The consequences take longer to manifest and are more subtle when they do. It’s far less clear that the ROI will eventually be positive.

3- Even if it’s absolutely true that we have improved the ROI it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep the 1% in mind and attempt to mitigate it. We have a tendency to want to stretch our systems as far as we think they will go. But perhaps we don’t need to stretch them quite so far. It might turn out that the sweet spot is not always maximum automation. That Amazon could afford to hire a few more actual humans. That self-driving systems might work in concert with humans rather than trying to replace them. That rather than ignoring the 1% because we’ve solved the 99% that we can once again decide to do hard things.

This post may or may not have been inspired by an actual experience with Amazon. Though I will say that if you ship something back for a refund be sure to keep the shipping receipt with the tracking number. This experience, which may or may not have happened is why I deal with everything related to this podcast personally. If you appreciate this lack of automation consider donating.