When Is Moderation Not Appropriate?

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Over the last couple of weeks a question has been percolating in the back of my mind, in a way that combined both importance and vagueness. It was only just now, as I sat down and weighed which of the many topics I should choose to hold forth on this time, that it finally crystallized into the question I’m using for the title. “When is moderation not appropriate?” One assumes that the application of this question to the most recent election is obvious, but it’s also a far bigger question, encompassing things like war, morality, and existential risk. (We’ll see how much I can actually cover.) Additionally, and perhaps more important to me personally, it’s a question I’m not sure I have a very good answer for, so in part this post will be about working through various situations, hypotheticals, and arguments to see if I can arrive at or at least approach an answer.

First let’s cover the situation which spawned this post, the election outcome. It’s easy to imagine, that as close as it ended up being, that if Trump had been just slightly more moderate on some of the issues, slightly less belligerent on Twitter, spoken a little bit more about the need for unity and a little bit less only to his base, or perhaps if he had just been less combative during that first debate, that he would have won. Or to put it another way it’s hard for most people (including me) to imagine how he could have been less moderate. And I understand all the points about firing up the base, and turnout, but it’s hard to imagine that his most ardent supporters would have stayed home from an election they widely viewed as an existential crisis, even if he had exercised a little more moderation, and there were lots of groups, like Cuban and Veneuzeulan immigrants who held their nose, and voted for Trump. (Without whom he probably would have lost Florida.) Might not even more people have done that if Trump had been just slightly more moderate?

Further, even if you acknowledge that some extremism is necessary to fire up the base, there’s the argument to be made even there that he was too extreme, with the result that now his base can’t imagine a way for him to have lost the election without fraud. Something which will almost certainly haunt the country in the coming weeks and months, if not the coming years. (For a discussion of the actual allegations see my previous post.)

The same case for moderation might be made when it comes to Democrats as well — though one doesn’t want to spend too much time questioning Biden’s strategy, he did win after all (absent something unprecedented happening). But outside of Biden there is plenty of room to question whether the larger Democratic strategy would have benefitted from greater moderation, particularly given that, contrary to expectations, the Republicans are very likely to hold on to the Senate and they did far better than expected in the House elections as well. Suggestions for moderation on the Democrat’s part might include slightly greater patriotism, more nuance in the conflict between police and protestors, less discussion of court packing (recall that Biden refused to comment on it for quite a while before eventually declaring that he was not a fan) and in particular less extremism in the culture war. One common assessment of the election I heard is that even if Biden won, wokeness lost

I suspect that some of my readers might push back on this last point so in an effort to anticipate potential objections let me offer two further points: First, how many people were voting against Trump rather than for Biden? Does anyone think the enormous turn out had anything to do with excitement around Biden? If not, then it matters a lot less what Biden’s positions were, he had the “anyone but Trump” vote locked down. “Okay,” you might retort, “That frees him to take whatever position he wants, but doesn’t mean he should have been more moderate, perhaps he should have moved more to the left.” Are you sure? While we can’t recreate the world, start over in 2018, and choose Sanders or Warren in place of Biden, does anyone imagine that, in what ended up being a very close election, they would have done better? Certainly none of the polls conducted back when all three of them were still in contention bear that idea out. 

All of this leads me to conclude that Trump and the Democrats would have done better with more moderation. Does this mean that moderation is always good? Well, that is my question isn’t it, when is it not appropriate? As I said above I think the case for Biden being more moderate is kind of ambiguous, if the results hold (and I have every reason to suspect they will) then he won, and second guessing success is always dangerous, particularly if you define success narrowly. But as long as we’re on the subject of the most recent election, would the Republicans have done even better in the House and Senate if they had been more moderate? Here we have the same situation we had with Biden.  If we assume that the Republicans don’t lose both senate races in January’s special election then they will maintain control of the Senate. And if we suggest they should have been more moderate we are once again in the position of second guessing success. Though here, when talking about greater moderation among Senate Republicans, the elephant of confirming Amy Coney Barrett can’t be overlooked.

From a Republican/conservative perspective, the nomination of Barrett would appear to be a huge win. Not only is it something which fundamentally tilts the balance of power in the branch of government which increasingly appears to wield the most power — though I have already mentioned I don’t think her confirmation will be as consequential as people expect — it’s a change which will last far beyond the next election, presumably all the way until Justice Thomas retires or dies. I know lots of people who voted for Trump primarily because his Supreme Court picks would be better than Clinton’s, and who were overjoyed that he put in three justices. In the time between the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the election their attitude seemed to be that losing the presidency and the Senate to get that final appointment was a trade they were more than willing to make (I definitely agree about the presidency, I’m less sure about the Senate). 

Of course all of this presumes that the Democrats don’t come along later and pack the court, or otherwise change the rules of game, but by keeping the Senate, that option is temporarily off the table, it’s like eating your cake and having it, and here we get the first example of where, at least from a certain perspective, moderation seems not to have been a virtue, certainly the moderate thing to do would have been to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, and then, presumably the Democrats would have had no room (or at least less room) to object to the replacement of RBG by a more conservative justice. But for the moment it would appear, at least from the Republican perspective, that they were correct to not exercise moderation. That by being extreme they won. It is of course a whole other question whether the country is better off because of their relative extremism, certainly there’s a very good argument to be made that it’s not. Nevertheless we can at least begin to see (if we couldn’t already) the shape of an argument for extremism.

Rather than pick around the edges of this argument let’s go straight to what most people would agree is the clearest example of the benefits of extremism: World War II and in particular the fight against Nazi Germany. Much of Churchill’s deserved reputation is based on the fact that he didn’t have a moderate bone in his body, and during the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood entirely alone, he wouldn’t even consider some kind of peace deal, treaty or accommodation. On the other hand, one imagines that the Germans would have been better off with significantly less extremism, which is to say that Churchill’s extremism was mostly justified by Hitler’s extremism. And there are definitely some people who would argue that the extremism of turfing Garland and shoving through Barrett and before her, Brett Kavanaugh was justified by liberal extremism, like Roe v. Wade, the Bork nomination and Obergefell v. Hodges. And the fact that it was justified is why they weren’t punished for it, why the Republicans seem likely to hold on to the Senate. 

At this point all that’s clear is that much of the time moderation is better, but that sometimes things have gotten so bad that only extremism will save the day, but how do we know in advance which is which? I imagine Churchill would have answered that he didn’t, that it could have gone the other way, but that it didn’t matter because he was following correct principles. That he was determined to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Of course saying that extremism is appropriate when it’s the right thing is just a tautology. If something is the right thing it’s always appropriate. But it also just moves the question deeper from a question of extremism vs. moderation to a question of right vs. wrong.

Questions of right and wrong automatically suggest morality, and from there it’s only a short trip to a discussion of religion. Many people argue that it is precisely the certainty of being right that makes religious extremism so prevalent. These same people often go on to point to the many harms committed in the name of religion, but at least with religion there exist comprehensive rules and commandments designed to carefully control what sort of extremism is and isn’t justified. Do these rules aways work? Are the commandments always followed? No. But I think it’s important to have some kind of measuring stick for determining when to seek a compromise and when to stand fast and refuse to retreat. And before we return to a discussion of the present political moment it might be useful to dig into what religion says about when to be extreme and when to be moderate. 

Obviously the first thing we need to do before we can proceed is select a scope for our inquiry, which is to say we need to choose which religions we’re going to examine. Obviously I have a bias towards Christianity, and an even more specific bias towards The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which is my own brand of Christianity, but given the foundational nature of Christianity to the West and its contribution to the West’s government and institutions I think it’s fair to restrict our inquiry to just Chrisitianity rather trying to be more comprehensive and make a broader survey that might include Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the rest. Beyond all of the foregoing I have an additional bias towards using Christianity because moderation holds such a prominent place in the doctrine. Yes there are times when extremism is urged, but what made Christianity revolutionary was how much it emphasized moderation, with injunctions about turning the other cheek, the critical importance of forgiveness and repentance and mercy, and even bits about separating religion from politics (particularly important in a day where politics increasingly is religion.) 

From this assumption of Christianity as somewhat foundational, I’m going to cut to the chase and condense two thousand years of history, commentary, and practice down into a single observation: when you’re talking about Christian-influenced Western Civ, moderation should be presumed to be the default. Moderation doesn’t need to be justified, it’s assumed to be the best course of action absent a compelling argument to the contrary, but rather it’s extremism which requires special justification. So when and under what circumstances is extremism justified? I think given the tenuous linkage of religion to politics and the aforementioned separation that it’s going to be easier to look at examples of extremism and ask whether they might be justified based on some interpretation of Western/Christian values than to work the other direction and create a set of rules that covers all eventualities.

The first consideration I want to deal with, since it’s already come up, is whether, in our examples, success should have any bearing on whether extremism is considered justified or not. If Trump had won instead of lost (or if he manages, improbably, to still pull out a win) there would be a lot of people celebrating his extremism rather than questioning it. As it was he certainly did better than most professional pollsters predicted. Does this mean that his extremism would have been wholly justified if he had won, but still partially when you consider the results? No, and I think this is where the benefits of drawing on an underlying foundation of religious principles comes in handy, because under that framework “winning” is not one of the acceptable justifications for extremism. To look at the example everyone agrees with, it’s clear that extremism in the war against the Nazis would have been justified even if we had lost. And lest there be any confusion I’m talking about refusing to surrender in the early years of the war, I’m not talking about extreme behavior. For example, I don’t think the fire-bombing of Dresden was justified even if the city was full of Nazis. (Which it wasn’t.)

Now Trump’s extremism might have been justified on other grounds, but it isn’t justified solely on the grounds of getting him what he wants. The ends he’s pursuing have to be justified, i.e. does a Trump victory save lives, prevent disaster or build a better future? Of course his supporters believe he is doing all of those things, and his opponents believe that he’s doing the opposite, and only time will tell who is correct, and I could imagine certain events over the next three years that would lead me to conclude that not only was Trump’s extremism justified but that he should have been even more extreme. Similarly I can imagine events that would lead me to believe that his extremism was incredibly harmful. But “time will tell” is different than, “well it succeeded didn’t it?”

Perhaps some people have been gifted with this certainty, through what that means I don’t know. To return to religion, it’s a least easier to imagine the gift of certainty coming from religious devotion, than coming from Trump, but perhaps those people convinced of the value of Trump’s extremism are just that smart. I am currently watching with rapt curiosity people who claim with exactly that level of certainty that Trump will serve a second term. Perhaps they will be correct, and then I’ll have some new mystery to ponder, but I suspect that they and actually most people who imagine they can predict the future will end up being wrong, and that this represents one of the great achievements of classical liberalism, this realization and the subsequent injection of doubt. This realization that if certainty is nearly impossible and extremism is only justified under such certainty, i.e. that moderation should be the default, is one of the most important intellectual developments of the modern age. 

This takes us back to the other example we gave of extremism succeeding, the Senate’s confirmation of three conservative justices, starting with refusing to hold a hearing for Merric Garland. Depending on your political leanings this is either an example of the worst political extremism in modern memory, of, “well it succeeded didn’t it?” or of “time will tell”. So far the answer is ambiguous. The court has yet to engage in much extremism itself, they have not overturned Roe v. Wade or done anything else the conservatives hoped for and the liberals feared. Meanwhile the whole process has definitely raised the temperature, and while it seems unlikely to result in an immediate reprisal from “the other side”, it certainly could. And here one can’t help but be reminded (if you weren’t already) of the Prisoner’s Dilemma

As I mentioned the last time it came up, if one conducts iterated games of Prisoner’s Dilemma some strategy of mostly cooperating ends up evolving to be the most successful one, with the caveat that constantly defecting can be surprisingly effective, particularly if the rest of the environment is composed of cooperators. At the time, I wondered if that’s what had happened to us. If we had reached a peak of cooperation and in doing so created an environment ripe for success by defectors. Certainly it seems that whatever the short term success of defecting that it leads to a longer term ratcheting effect that can’t help but end badly, even if you’re on the side doing all the defecting.

In this I’m also reminded of my discussion on the dichotomy between mercy and justice. Extremism seems to lend itself naturally to seeking justice, but is a poor fit if what we really need is more mercy, while the opposite could be said for moderation. And if, as I claimed, one of the problems currently plaguing us, is an overactive drive for justice, then this may explain as well the overabundance of extremism as well. This dynamic seems to be playing out in the immediate aftermath of the election. I have seen lots of people express a desire to be merciful in victory. Offering to accept Trump followers back into the fold so to speak (however condescending that my sound). This is oftentimes accompanied by calls for unity and healing. On the other hand, I will also say that I have seen what appears to be an equally large contingent of people arguing that what’s really needed is justice. That Trump and his supporters need to be punished, or at a minimum deprogrammed

These additional connections of moderation to mercy, of which we appear to be running an extreme deficit, and to winning the continual games of Prisoner’s Dilemma we seem to be playing, on top of moderation’s critical role in Western Liberalism and the religion that underpins it, convince me even more of the importance of considering moderation the default. But in such difficult times, when the opposite seems to be happening and extremism is everywhere we look, how do we achieve more moderation? I don’t know and despite growing recognition that more is needed we seem to continually end up with less and less as time goes on.

Here let me put in another brief plug for my preferred Presidential candidate: General James Mattis. The primary reason I decided to write him in was because it was low stakes, there was no chance writing him in would lead to the death of the Republic (and I made my argument at the time for why no other vote represented the salvation of the Republic.) But beyond how low risk it was, he reminds me of Eisenhower to a certain extent. The fact that both were generals is the obvious point of comparison, but the other less well known fact about Eisenhower is that he identified with neither party and the first time he voted it was for himself. He was so non-partisan in fact that the first person to reach out to him about running for President was Truman, who, incredibly, suggested Ike for President, while he would be vice-president.

Mattis is similarly non-partisan, and one imagines that if we’re really going to have a chance of bringing moderation to things that we need someone who hasn’t been fatally tarred by their deep association with one or the other camp. And while admittedly Mattis did serve under Trump, there appears to be no love lost between the two, with Trump blasting him as the “world’s most overrated general” recently after Mattis said he hopes that Biden pursues a foreign strategy that’s not “America First”. 

(As a brief aside, I myself think that we can’t remain the policemen of the world forever, and that Trump’s attempts to extract us from our various overseas commitments is a step in the right direction. That said, American hegemony is so critical to the peace we’ve enjoyed, that there is not only room for disagreement, but I could also certainly be persuaded that it would work better if it was more gradual with greater involvement from other nations.)

If I have any better ideas on how to achieve more moderation I’ll let you know, but beyond being out of ideas, I’m also out of space. When I started this post I had also intended to talk about environmental issues, x-risks and other issues where moderation appears to work worse than extremism, but those are big topics, so I’ll have to come back to them in a future post.


Sometimes things don’t come together in quite the way you hoped. Such was the case with this episode, and then the question becomes is it worth putting it out anyway? Can people listening to it still expect a positive return? I think so, and whether you feel that way about this episode, if you feel that my blog in general provides positive returns, consider donating.


Voting as a Proxy For Power

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A week or so before the election I was listening to an episode of Radiolab, which began by introducing Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown, and someone who is, beyond that, very well connected in DC. The episode begins with Brooks telling the story of being at a dinner party sometime in 2019 (when people still had dinner parties) and posing a hypothetical to one of the other guests, “gosh, you know, what if Trump loses and he won’t step down…” The guest had a ready response, “oh, the military will never let that happen.” This answer surprised Brooks, though in turn I’m surprised that Brooks was surprised, I mean yes, I can understand how the exact mechanics of the military stopping things might be fuzzy, but it’s surprising that a DC insider, and someone, who in fact worked in the Department of Defense for several years, would be so ignorant of how power actually works.

To her credit, Brooks paid attention to the fact that she was confused, and decided to do something about her ignorance. She decided to war game the election. As it turns out this election was uncertain enough, that lots of people decided to do the same thing. You may have heard of Jeffrey Toobin’s fall from grace after he did something he shouldn’t have during a similar “election simulation”. (There are so many jokes that could be and have been made about this situation, but I will forebear.) In any case Brooks’ war games explored four different scenarios, one of which was an ambiguous result and other of which was a narrow Biden victory. Trump supporters seem to be acting as if it’s the first, when it seems pretty clear that it’s the second. Regardless it was while Brooks and the people she had assembled were working their way through the various scenarios that the answer the other dinner guest had offered finally played out:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff…sort of let it be known unofficially through leaks that they had decided that Biden was the legitimate winner and… that he was the guy who was getting the nuclear codes and so on. And that was the thing that proved decisive.

And so in that [scenario], Biden was eventually inaugurated. But in the [ambiguous scenario]… The partisans on both sides were still claiming victory, leading to the problem of two claims to commander in chief power, including access to the nuclear codes, at noon on January 20.

And it was left totally unclear what the military would do.

The possibility that at noon on the 20th, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have to hand the nuclear codes to someone.

Who holds the nuclear codes? They can come in and take them from Trump and hand them to Biden. They can do nothing, which means Trump holds them. But it was sobering as a sort of a non-warmongering, peaceful American citizen to realize that it’s the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military who will decide who the president is.

And that was both amazing and, also, as a strategist – oh, well, then we got to work the military. Those are the refs, and you got to work the refs.

To generalize those conclusions, when everything is stripped away, things are decided by force. The referee is always, when all is said and done, those who have the guns (and the tanks and the nuclear missiles). These rules are unsurprising to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with libertarian thinking, where the central tenant is that all laws are eventually enforced at the point of a gun or historically at the edge of a sword. This is especially the case when you’re talking about who is going to rule an entire country, which is to say who is going to have a monopoly on the use of that force. As Brooks herself was eventually forced to admit at the end of her war games, “I think we collectively put a little too much faith in the law and in institutions as if they exist outside of politics and power, but they don’t.” 

None of this is to say that we haven’t made progress, or that things aren’t better, in fact they’re so much better that people like Brooks, despite their education and experience, have essentially forgotten the fundamental rules, because these rules haven’t been necessary since the Civil War (more or less). Despite how long ago that was, I think the distance we’ve actually travelled is less than people think. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that recently we have reversed course and we’ve been moving closer to the time when those fundamental rules will come into play.

This is not the venue for detouring into a huge discussion of history, but in the pre-democractic era, when power changed hands in a country, the person who ended up with the power was generally the one with the biggest and most powerful army, and if there was some doubt then armies would engage in the true test of power and fight. Of course all of this fighting and uncertainty over the transfer of power wasn’t good for the country and so various methods were arrived at to transfer power peacefully: laws, assemblies, and of course the idea that power could be inherited and passing it from father to son. But in a sense this just made the person who could draw on these various customs, laws and traditions more likely to have the biggest army because those things made power easier to call upon.

Eventually, of course, we arrived at a democratic system. Most people understand that a democracy is supposed to work under the idea that the course favored by the majority of the citizens is more likely to be the right one, but it’s also a way of tallying up the size of each side’s army. Of reminding those vying for power that it’s best to stick with a peaceful transition of power, because, when they’re voted out of power, it was in consequence of the other side having a bigger “army”. So resisting that transfer is less likely to succeed, it’s already been demonstrated that you have the smaller “army”. Obviously this is overly simplistic, both because there’s a lot more that goes into an “army’s” power than the number of people in it, and also because people are not the only source of power. But it has the advantage of being simple, reflecting something real, and being tied into larger principles of civic duty, participation and decision making. 

All of this takes us to the current situation, which is no longer a war game, but a battle which is really happening, and in essence Trump supporters are claiming that they had the bigger army, but that the Deep State used their other forms of power to deny them the victory that was rightfully theirs. But isn’t that precisely what a battle is? Two sides bringing their power to bear, with the one who brings the greater power to bear winning?

To put it more concretely there are basically three options:

  1. The election was broadly legitimate. There might be some fraud, but if so we’re looking at something on the order of a few ballots here, or a few ballots there. Nothing even close to the 14,000 ballots which would be needed to tip even Georgia, which has the narrowest margin. And even if Trump could prevail there that would just make the race 290 to 248. Trump would need at least two other states on top of that to actually win the election. Two states where the gaps are even larger.
  2. The election was stolen by the Deep State. Either through some massive, unheard of level of fraud or through actually messing with counts at the level of the voting machines. The battle was joined and the anti-Trump forces were able to bring a huge amount of power to bear and quite frankly whether they beat Trump fairly with votes, or unfairly with power that Trump and his followers couldn’t match, they won, it’s over. And in the final analysis it doesn’t matter if the war was fought in the manner Trump supporters expected or if it was fought with dirty underhanded tactics they never saw coming. The war is over and Trump and his supporters have lost.
  3. The same as 2, but Trump and his supporters have power of their own, that they are in the process of bringing to bear. The power of being on the right side of the law, because there really was massive fraud. Or the power of a 6-3 Supreme Court which will eventually rule in Trump’s favor despite the prima facie vote totals. Or the power of the military, who, when January 20th rolls around, won’t take away the nuclear codes. Or we’ll find out that there’s enough hardcore Trump supporters in the military that there will be a bona fide violent coup. Or the power of a violent and bloody revolution, with armed Trump supporters (of which there are many) rising up and storming the Bastille. 

To be clear, I have seen very little evidence that it’s not option 1 (I’ll get to the “very little” part of that in a minute.) Because of this I’m very confident that it is option 1, I don’t think there’s some massive coverup, some huge source of undetected fraud. I do think that the mail in balloting which was implemented in response to COVID which was always going to result in the slow counting of urban ballots which were, additionally, always going to be heavily Democratic, happened at the worst possible time. That it provided fertile soil for people to plant conspiracies in. But not only do I not believe any of the election related conspiracies, even if I did, I still think it would be best to ignore them. Which brings us to option 2. What I’m trying to get across by having you consider this option is that once you start from the premise that the election was stolen (which by the way is a significant filter that will distort all subsequent reasoning) then you have already admitted that we’re not playing the game of “count the legitimate votes”, we’re playing the game of “exercise power in whatever way you can” and if that’s the game we’re playing you’ve not only lost, you’ve lost so comprehensively, that continuing to play the 2020 round of the game is only going to make you look foolish. That you should regroup, realize how inadequate your own power has been and start preparing for the 2024 round of the game.

Now I understand that, despite labelling it as a game, that this is a dark view of the world and to reiterate, it’s not my view, I’m just saying that once you’ve accepted that view, then you’ve ceased to think of the election as the legitimate and law-abiding counting of votes, and you’ve moved to thinking of it as an exercise of raw power, and my point is, that even reframing it in this way, you’ve still lost. But perhaps this part of the post is unnecessary, you’re already comfortable with the idea that we’ve moved into the realm of raw power, you just think that whatever power the anti-trump forces have mustered, the pro-trump forces can match. Which takes us to option 3, and the various ways the pro-trump side might exercise their power, given that this is the game you’ve decided we’re playing. I already listed several, let’s go through them in more detail:

The power of the law: This is what Trump’s defender’s claim that he’s doing. I personally think that he has moved beyond this, but we’ll start here. First as I already mentioned Trump has to change the results in three of the close states, and his arguments for doing it in even one are extremely tenuous. I went to a friend of mine who’s very intelligent, and who has a far greater tolerance for conspiracies than I do. (As a side note I’ve gotten far more benefit out of respectfully engaging with this friend than I ever would have by dismissing him.) And I asked him for the single most compelling evidence of fraud he had come across. He gave me a few, and so I looked into them. At first glance they were all pretty compelling, but after digging in deeper, (see the afterword for a dissection of one of them) none of them represented the kind of clear evidentiary smoking gun necessary for courts — which by the way should be less susceptible to accusations of bias having recently received an influx of Trump appointees — to exercise enough power to overturn the results of the election in three different states. 

Mechanically, it’s not even entirely clear what Trump supporters imagine is going to happen.  A full audit of results would be ideal, but so far unless I missed something that’s only taking place in Georgia. And I am willing to bet substantial real money, at favorable odds to whoever takes me up on it, that this audit will not change the results of Georgia. But even if it did that wouldn’t change the results of the election. Also even if people wanted to do audits in all the states that are close, we’re running out of time. Recall that in Bush v. Gore the decision came down to the idea that they couldn’t do a full recount in Florida in the time remaining. That was one state where only a few hundred votes separated the candidates, here we’re talking about thousands of votes across a minimum of three different states. Though, speaking of Bush v. Gore, that takes us to the next form of power the Republican’s might be able to exercise:

The power of the Supreme Court: These options are basically in order of how damaging they would be to the long term civic health of the country, and mostly that maps to their probability as well, but not in this case. The idea that the Supreme Court, because of its conservative majority, would hand Trump the election, given the evidence as it currently stands, is insane. There is zero chance of it happening, even more so after the lukewarm reception the justices gave to the recent Obamacare case

A decision by the military: I’m trying to be somewhat comprehensive here and as one of the war games I mentioned in the beginning was finally resolved by the Joint Chiefs using back channels to indicate their support, I thought I should cover that option, but it seems even more disruptive and more improbable than the Supreme Court deciding the election. I know that there’s a common perception that the military is strongly Republican, but a quick review of recent stories on the subject seem to indicate that this is not the case with Trump, and I see no reason to suspect that it’s different at the highest levels. In the situation we’re in, I agree we may see exactly the scenario mentioned in the war game played out. And by “exactly” I mean we may see backchannel support for Biden. We won’t see it for Trump.

An actual military coup: Of course historically, those times when a country’s military decided to intervene in an election generally took a more dramatic form than subtly making it know who the next leader should be. Typically, if the military intervenes in the transfer it’s to seize power through the use of force and at the point of the sword. This is another thing which is incredibly unlikely to happen in 2020 as a way of Trump “winning” the election. But as an option it’s always going to be lurking in the background because as I’ve been trying to explain, power is ultimately implemented through force, and there is a lot of force in the military.

The power of a popular uprising: It seems clear that Trump is already trying to access this power, and while I don’t see too many problems with him doing that if it just takes the form of some peaceful protests like the Million MAGA March that happened over the weekend (what’s good for the goose, and so on), there’s a very fine line between 1st Amendment Freedom of assembly and violence. Also as I have repeatedly urged people to consider, “What if you’re wrong?” What if you rise up in anger over a fraudulent election and it wasn’t? What if you’ve been misled? And even if you’re 100% sure you’re right, not only is this exercise of power fraught with danger for the country, it’s also unlikely to go the way you expect. To use a quote I’ve used several times before in this space, from a post by David Hines:

Political violence is like war, like violence in general: people have a fantasy about how it works.

This is the fantasy of how violence works: you smite your enemies in a grand and glorious cleansing because of course you’re better.

Grand and glorious smiting isn’t actually how violence works…

I’ve worked a few places that have had serious political violence. And I’m not sure how to really describe it so people get it.

This is a stupid comparison, but here: imagine that one day Godzilla walks through your town.

The next day, he does it again.

And he keeps doing it. Some days he steps on more people than others. That’s it. That’s all he does: trudging through your town, back and forth. Your town’s not your town now; it’s The Godzilla Trudging Zone.

That’s kind of what it’s like.

Everyone imagines that they will rise up in a grand and glorious smiting, but that’s never how it works. Let me repeat: that’s NEVER how it works. As a consequence of this mismatch between expectations and reality, everyone vastly underestimates the value of stability. And here I’m going to lay my cards on the table. I’m a huge fan of stability. Which is to say at this point even if I was convinced that the election had been stolen on behalf of Biden (I don’t think Biden himself is capable of stealing it) and even if Trump was and will be every amazing thing his supporters claim. It would not be worth taking up arms. It would not be worth a violent insurrection. It would not be worth bloodshed. 

I think it’s clear from my record that I am not an apologist for the left or the Democrats. Headlines like “Biden Fills Economic Posts With Experts on Systemic Racism“ fill me with unease. But discrediting and denying the results of the 2020 election is not the place to have the ideological fight. Whether through legitimate voting (by far the most likely scenario) or through an enormous exercise of vast and unmatched conspiratorial power, Biden won. And the longer it takes people to admit that and the more they fight that the greater chance there will be that we’ll all end up losing.


I’m trying something new, adding a brief appendix/afterword. Let me know what you think. If you like it (or anything I’ve written) the easiest way to show it is by donating. Even if you hate it, I think you’ll have to admit that softening the criticism with money is the right thing to do.

Afterword

First I’d like to refer you back to my deep dive on the ADL’s numbers on extremism for a reminder that going deep into something is rarely as productive as one might hope. It can take an enormous amount of time to verify even one claim and I think at this point there are thousands. Still, it’s a useful exercise.

In looking through the claims my friend sent me, the one that jumped out as both incredibly damning if true, but easy to verify was one that said that in Georgia, on those ballots where people only voted for the president (and presumably no one else) those ballots went 818 for Trump and 95,801 for Biden. While those ballots which had votes for more than just the president went 2,456,915 for Trump and 2,376,081 for Biden. You can see an example of this on twitter here, and Donald Trump Jr. retweeting it here

Well the first question is why would people go to the effort of creating approximating 95,000 votes for Biden, and not also create 95,000 votes for the two Democratic senate candidates in Georgia. Arguably when it comes to frustrating the Democrats, particularly over the long-term, Mitch McConnell and his Senate majority have been far more effective than Trump. Did the conspirators think that they had the Senate locked up but they needed all the help they could get when it came to Trump?

The next obvious question would be whether there are even 95,000 more votes in the Presidential vote pool than in any of the other pools. Taking the Ossoff-Perdue race (this will be important later) we find that there were a total of 4,945,704 votes, and in the Trump Biden race there were 4,992,004, for a difference of 46,300. Only half the number required for just the math to check out. (The numbers are from Fox News and include third party candidates.) But of course the question is where are these numbers coming from in the first place? Is there some official site I can look at? Some dusty corner of the Georgia state election office where I can find the paperwork? 

Nope, the data the person making the claim is relying on, is right out there on every election website. It’s all based on the fact that Biden received 99,922 more votes than Ossoff and Trump received 785 votes less than Purdue. I’m going to assume that it was 95,801 and positive 818 respectively at the time the information began spreading, and that the late arriving votes which skewed Democratic are what moved it into the current position. So, in the end, I guess the mistake is not realizing that people don’t have to vote straight party?  

Fortunately, this time around, the explanation was straight forward. It didn’t reflect anything extraordinary, and there’s no reason to suspect shenanigans. In fact when it comes down to it, it’s kind of embarrassing for the people making the claim once you realize what they’re doing. But at first glance it was something that seemed really damning. If anyone out there still thinks they have some smoking gun, let me know, I don’t have time to look into everything, but I’d be happy to look into something else you think it’s particularly convincing.


Books I Finished in October

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October definitely felt like the calm before the storm. COVID numbers were rising everywhere, but with death’s lagging (and apparently a lower CFR in general) it was still possible to think that we could get through it without doing anything extraordinary. But as the numbers continued to remain high it became more and more apparent that something major would happen. Hospitals would eventually fill up, laws would be passed, things would close back down, etc. 

And as if that weren’t bad enough there’s the election. I have obviously said quite a bit about it already, and I suspect following the “there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation” maxim that we still have quite a bit of ruin left before things get truly apocalyptic (though I also think we’re still on a course towards that which is going to be hard to reverse) but our “ruin reserve”, even if it exists, doesn’t preclude all manner of short term black swans which could end up haunting our lives for quite a while. And the election certainly falls into the category of a short term black swan.

The former two paragraphs were written before election day, and since this is being posted after the election I thought I’d slip in my initial reaction to the last few days:

Even if Biden ends up winning, once again the polls and projections were very misleading. Note I didn’t say wrong. Perhaps when all is said and done, they will have been less wrong than they were in 2016. But just like 2016 I doubt that anyone will remember that “National polls ended up falling within the margin of error” when they remember 2020. And what will be even more memorable (or damning if you prefer) is the fact that both times they were wrong in the same direction.

The clearest example so far is Florida, 538 gave Biden a 69% chance of winning Florida with an expected 2.5% margin. In the end Trump won it by 3.3% and it’s not like Florida was sparsely polled or that no one paid attention to it. Also, remember that if the bias was random then in theory it should have been possible for it to have been wrong in either direction. Conceivably if Trump can win it by 3.3% then Biden could have won it by 5.8% and the whole thing would have been over by 9 pm on election night. 

I think from the perspective of healing the nation and unifying the country we ended up with the worst possible outcome, a narrow one… And this is part of why I’m so annoyed at the polls. Once again we were promised a potential blow-out, something way more certain than 2016, and in fact the uncertainty people expressed in 2020 mostly only came about because they were so wrong in 2016. One imagines that If we hadn’t had the huge mistakes of 2016 to teach pollsters humility, the predictions about 2020 would have been even more fantastically wrong. As it was they were merely about same amount wrong as they were in 2016 and in the same direction. All of which feeds into the general impression held by Trump supporters that the system is rigged, which is one part of the fuel feeding the fire which is gradually consuming us.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

By: Geoffrey West

482 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’ve tried to be better recently about taking notes, and tagging them into categories for later retrieval. One of my categories is “This Explains Everything” which I apply to books and other theories which seek to explain why the world is the way it is. This is one of those books, and if you’re looking for grand theories, and in this case even math, which can be used to explain the world, this is a great book for that. West does an admirable job of connecting biological rules for scaling, which were interesting all on their own, to a large number of things, including, most notably, cities and companies.

General Thoughts

I had really hoped that as part of his discussion of scale that he would end up explaining how scaling works with respect to nations and governments. Give something of a mathematical basis for the principle of subsidiarity, or at least some analysis of what the tradeoffs are between larger and smaller governments. Unfortunately the book did not end up going in this direction, which was too bad. I think it was a missed opportunity. That said it was still pretty thought provoking. To begin with here are some interesting bits of trivia that I thought were worth passing along:

  • Once the generalized growth of the entire market is factored out (which I assume is different than inflation) all large mature companies have stopped growing. (Understandably “mature” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.)
  • History is full of examples where someone successfully tweaked something by 5% in some direction. And also numerous examples of where they tried to change it by 30% or 40% and it ended in disaster.
  • On average our bodies go through 170 lbs of ATP every day. Obviously it’s not all in existence at the same time.
  • For those people interested in immortality, it should be noted that entirely eliminating heart disease would only increase average life expectancy by six years, and entirely eliminating cancer would only increase it by three.
  • Unlike animals, companies, and countries, cities apparently last forever.
  • Following from that last point, it’s interesting to speculate if the combination of the internet, virtual meetings and COVID might finally put an end to that. Certainly James Altucher has argued that New York is done. As they say, “Big if true.”

Finally, something that requires a little bit of backstory. A month or so ago I was listening to an episode of the Podcast Radiolab that was all about fungal infections, and as part of the discussion they brought up that fungi can’t stand heat, so one huge advantage mammals have, dating back all the way to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, is that being warm-blooded makes them mostly immune to fungal infections. But obviously maintaining a temperature higher than that of your surroundings requires calories, accordingly it would be inefficient to maintain a higher core temperature than was necessary. And so some scientists ran the numbers looking for the sweet spot where calories were minimized and fungal protection was maximized and found out that the perfect balance was… wait for it… 98.6 degrees! Which honestly seems too good to be true and I want to dig into that some more before I fully believe it, but then, in this book, West mentions that If our body temperature was cooler we’d live longer, which tied into his discussion about life spans (and relates to scale because bigger mammals live longer). 

As an inveterate pessimist, I can just imagine that one of the things people will try to do to extend life spans is reduce body temperature, either unaware of the danger from fungi, or thinking that the danger is manageable, and indeed whether it’s related to human intervention or not, our average temperature has been falling for quite awhile. This has recently led to a big increase in fungal infections, which was one of the main points of the Radiolab episode.

Eschatological Implications

Like many of the books I review this book ended up making some predictions about the future. As I already mentioned West contends that cities don’t die, and that as they grow bigger they bring numerous advantages. Particularly in the realm of innovation. But they also bring about various disadvantages. Innovation comes with a cost. Some of these costs appear relatively mild, like an increased pace of life, or lowered trust among members of the community. Others are obviously bad, like an increase in crime. But increasingly even those costs which appear to be mild initially, are blamed for causing a greater and greater share of the ills of the world. In fact it might even be argued that the internet could be viewed as something of a giant city, with yes, far greater innovation, but also much lower trust, higher crime and something which results, inevitably, in lives which are ever more frenetic. To put things in more general terms, it’s unclear whether the advantages “scale” faster than the disadvantages, nor is there any reason why they necessarily should.

At the same time I was reading this book I was working through a long essay on cultural evolution. The first full post from Sachin Maini’s newsletter Living Ideas. And it provided an interesting counterpoint to some of the points being made by Scale. Maini’s post was all about the importance of cultural evolution, going back tens of thousands of years. And in essence, when West is talking about innovation he’s talking about speeding up cultural evolution. But as I pointed out, the last time I discussed the rate of cultural evolution, greater speed, particularly if it’s coupled with greater conformity, is not necessarily a good thing. Maini pointed out that if you have too few people collaborating you can end up with negative innovation. That you can actually go backwards as was the case with the Tasmanians. West examines what happens if you just keep increasing the number of people collaborating and the speed at which they can do so.

On the one hand if things go well, then the terminal point would appear to be something similar to what was described by Robin Hanson in his book  The Age of Em. Where sped up emulated minds cluster in server-farm cities and experience hundreds of years for every actual year. Or in other words taking the features and advantages of a city and scaling them up essentially to infinity. On the other hand, things don’t actually scale to infinity very well. Generally they hit some sort of bottleneck. West recognizes this (and in fact frequently mentions Malthus in this context) and posits that the bottleneck might be energy, and as I’ve pointed out, our energy usage can’t scale exponentially forever. But these days it seems more likely that it might be trust, or social cohesion, or some other thing that gets worse as the environment for innovation gets better. 

In the end, one of the central themes of the book is that when it comes to biology there are limits to how big things can get. Presumably, over the billions of years life has been evolving, bigger things have been “tried” only to eventually fail. Presumably something similar might also be true with respect to cultural evolution, that things can only get so big, or so fast, or so connected. I guess we’ll find out.


II- Capsule Reviews

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By: Pankaj Mishra

356 Pages

Who should read this book?

It is said that history is written by the victors, this book attempts to reverse that trend, and tell the history of the Middle and Far East from the perspective of those who were colonized and humiliated by the West, particularly in the 19th century. If that sounds appealing this is a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

I always had a sense that the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in which the Japanese fleet all but obliterated the Russian fleet, was a big deal, but I confess I had always viewed it from a Western perspective. As a demonstration of the decline and decadence of Russia rather than the arrival of Japan. Of course I have the benefit of knowing how well the Japanese navy fought in World War II, so the idea that they might come off the victor in a naval battle a few decades before that doesn’t seem particularly surprising. And, I also know what happened to Russian in World War I, so their defeat a few years beforehand is also unsurprising. Finally, I’ve always felt that there’s something darkly comic about the Russian Fleet travelling 18,000 nautical miles only to suffer one of the worst losses in the history of naval warfare. An outcome that seems all but foreordained to anyone familiar with Murphy’s Law. In any case, however it was viewed by me or the larger Western world it was a very big deal in the East, and Mishra uses it to open the book. Claiming that it was the first time the many countries subject to European colonization and domination thought that they might be able to throw off their yoke. That this battle marks the start of the East asserting itself and stepping into the modern world.

In using the phrase “stepping into the modern world” I am aware that I’m over-simplifying a very complex project and doing so from essentially a Western point of view. What constitutes the modern world? Is that what the people in the book were trying to do? (Certainly it wasn’t really Gandhi’s goal.) Is the modern world inherently a secular one? Does it have to take the same form it does in the west, i.e. liberal democracy in the mold of what Fukuyama keeps talking about? Etc. To be fair the book does lend support to Fukuyama’s idea about it being necessary to wage modern war. But it also lends support to the idea that people in the East were also trying to do something different and better. 

It’s clear that they were envious for a very long time of Western technology and military prowess, and most of the people Mishra profiles start off wanting to emulate the enlightenment, but eventually, and without exception, at some point they all end up talking about the moral bankruptcy of the West, and it’s lack of spirituality. In other words the history Misthra tells contains numerous intellectual currents and inevitably lots of contradictions, some of which he acknowledges and some of which he seems to ignore.

As a more concrete example the book is full of references to racism, from mentions of social darwinism, to the perpetual feelings of superiority possessed by the white Europeans, to efforts by the countries discussed to enshrine racial equality, the most famous of which is Japan’s efforts to get it included in the charter of the League of Nations. But while Mishra wants to make it look like the Japanese and others were way ahead of the curve on anti-racism, the events of World War II (and even these countries current policy on immigration) would show that the nations of the east could be and were just as racist as the Europeans, and arguably, particularly at this point, moreso. 

As a final note, this is not the only way that the book goes too far in it’s Eastern apologetics. Arguably the most glaring oversights in the book are 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, which rates just a sentence in the book. And the Armenian Genocide, which also get’s just one sentence and is described in the book merely as “an act that later invited accusations of genocide”. 

It’s important to read things from the “other side” of history, but finding something truly unbiased is really hard. 


Just Like You

By: Nick Hornby

368 Pages

Who should read this book?

People who like Nick Hornby? I wouldn’t start with this book if it’s going to be your first by him, but if you’ve read other stuff by Hornby and enjoyed it you’ll probably enjoy this one.

General Thoughts

This is the fifth Nick Hornby book I’ve read, and there’s a reason that they keep getting made into movies. He’s a great writer who tells engaging stories. This book was no exception, though it had one big issue. It was trying very hard to be socially conscious, and dare I say, politically correct, perhaps even woke? Now this is not a bad thing, it is in fact one of the great things literature can do, but particularly when you’re writing about something so current, there’s a real danger of laying it on to thick, and in Just Like You it felt like the politically progressive angle was always right on the edge of overwhelming the story. And probably actually crossed over the edge on a few occasions. Even if you were to end up disagreeing with me on this, at a bare minimum I still think you would find it to be distracting.

To give you just a brief taste of what I mean, it’s about a romance between an older educated white woman, and a young black man with dreams of being a DJ. It includes racial profiling by police, ackward dinner parties where the idea of “privledge” is front and center, and if all that wasn’t enough, the whole thing takes place in the shadow of Brexit, which ends up being almost as important to the plot as the romance itself.


Seven Types of Atheism

By: John N. Gray

170 Pages

Who should read this book?

I think anyone interested in atheism, either as an opponent or a practitioner would find this book to be very useful. In particular just knowing that the militant new atheism that has gotten the most attention recently is just one type out of seven proves to be very illuminating.

General Thoughts

As I was getting ready to write this review I checked over at Goodreads to see what others had said about it. One of the reviewers mentioned that he had the sneaking suspicion that Gray wrote the book “entirely out of irritation with the ‘New Atheists’.” Which is the impression I got as well. Not only does he lead with that version of atheism, but he draws attention to the fact that once he’s done talking about it, he’s never going to mention it again.

Lest the new atheists feel uniquely targeted, Gray goes on to mention that he disagrees with the first five of the the seven types he covers, and he labels these five as negative atheism, only being partial to the last two, which he defines as positive atheism. It’s interesting that he should single out the last two, because while all seven categories have significant overlap, and some fuzziness in how they’re defined, the last two are the worst of all. In part this comes from Gray’s definition of an atheist: 

Anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world.

This definition admits the possibility of something supernatural but less focused and with no intentionality. And of course this could end up resulting in some very fuzzy atheism, but it still feels odd to me that some of the types should be so difficult to pin down, particularly since most atheists (as far as I can tell) gravitate to it because they feel it simplifies things, but the types of atheism Gray is most drawn to are the ones which end up being the most complicated. Which takes us to a brief description of each the seven types: 

  1. New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. Basically the people who think religion sucks and is a relic of a primitive past.
  2. Secular Humanism: Gray makes the point that this form of atheism is almost entirely reliant on Christian morality, and as a result has a hard time justifying its morality without that foundation.
  3. Faith in Science: Gray mostly brings up stuff like eugenics to show that science frequently or perhaps mostly doesn’t deserve our faith. 
  4. Modern Political Religions: Think communism, nazis, etc. I assume that atheists don’t like being lumped in with nazis even if communism was explicitly atheistic, but what Gray mostly seems to be talking about is substituting politics for religion, which is a caution more people might need to hear these days.
  5. God-Haters: Certainly there are people who are outright nihilists who hate the world, who think that freedom is a curse, etc. But they’re pretty rare. Still it’s totally fair to include them as a type, but their importance and numbers should not be overstated
  6. Atheism without progress: As I said this one was kind of fuzzy. He seemed to be talking about religion as a valuable social construct, even if there is no “divine mind”, an opinion I can definitely get behind, but he also seemed to be saying that if you assume that there is some sort of implacable drive for progress, some utopia we’ll eventually reach, that you can’t be this type of atheist… 
  7. Mystical Atheism? (which is my title, he labeled this type “The Atheism of Silence”): Again the exact specifics were fuzzy, but he includes in this category Spinozian pantheism (God is the sum total of everything in existence.) And I guess he would probably include James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis in here as well? 

Why Not Parliamentarism? 

By: Tiago Ribeiro dos Santos

146 Pages

Who should read this book?

Really hardcore political science junkies. I mean really hardcore.

General Thoughts

This book makes the case for the superiority of parliamentary forms of democracy over presidential ones. Which seems particularly appropriate right at the moment. In fact I think it’s an idea I’d like to spend a whole post on, not that I think that there’s any chance of the US transitioning to a parliamentary system, at least not without something truly unprecedented happening, but as part of a general overview of different potential political systems which might be better than the chaos we’re experiencing I think tossing it into the discussion could be very interesting. 

As far as this book goes, I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been less technical and data heavy and more philosophical. Obviously data is nice, and he makes a pretty strong case that parliamentary systems achieve better outcomes, but the problem with this approach is twofold. First we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we have anywhere near a sufficient amount of data to make some kind of firm evidentiary claim. Dos Santos hasn’t proved anything, he’s just suggested a lot of possible connections. Second, any potential shift is not going to be accomplished because people have looked at a bunch of numbers, it’s going to happen when they sense that a parliamentary system is the answer to the problems they’re having. Consequently he could have done with a lot more real world examples. Like, under a parliamentary system this person probably wouldn’t have been the leader, or they wouldn’t have been able to do this thing you didn’t like, or, speaking to the present moment, this election would have been far less chaotic.


An Instinct for Dragons 

By: David E. Jones

188 Pages

Who should read this book?

If an examination of why dragons are present in every culture sounds appealing, or if you’re otherwise into cryptozoology, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

As just mentioned this book is all about answering the question of why dragons appear in every culture no matter how much time and space separates them. The answer to the question is given fairly early on, and then the rest of the book is spent defending that answer, so it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal it. Essentially Jones hypothesizes that the dragon is a composite of the three major predators early hominids and primates had to deal with, namely raptors, snakes and big cats. 

The idea is fairly interesting, but Jones takes a strange path with it, at times being very mythic and at times very scientific, though seemingly refusing to go too far in either direction. On the mythic side he gets positively jungian in drawing on the collective unconscious, and also includes relatively modern accounts of giant sea serpents, but if he wanted to go full mythic he could have used such accounts and the many others out there to claim they actually existed. It’s probably good that he didn’t make such a claim, but he gets pretty close.

On the scientific side Jones brings in studies of infant and primate fear responses to buttress his claims for the primacy of the three predators that form the basis of his theory. He further attempts to pull in various neurological concepts to explain the space saving measures which lead to the three predators being collapsed into one. But then the next logical step would seem to be showing pictures of dragons to babies, apes and monkeys to see if they exhibited the same fear response to the dragon as they did to the other predators. And perhaps he didn’t have the money to do his own research, or perhaps it would be difficult to do the experiment using just pictures, but it feels like he could have done a lot more to test his hypothesis.

Beyond all of the above I had a couple of other issues. First, he didn’t spend very much effort at all rebutting the theory that dinosaur bones provided the basis for legends about dragons. He was aware of it, and it was mentioned in the book, but the few times it came up Jones was pretty dismissive. Second he put a lot of effort into showing that dragons were ubiquitous in both time and space, but then does very little with how the dragon is portrayed today, the huge volume of fantasy literature, or the vast popularity of the the game Dungeons and Dragons (of which I myself am a partaker). 

It was a very interesting premise, but the execution could have been a lot better.


Aristophanes: The Complete Plays 

By: Aristophanes Translated by: Paul Roche

716 Pages

Who should read this book?

This was next on the list of great books I’ve been working through. If you have a similar list it might be next on your list as well. I will say that I’m less of a fan of Aristophanes than I have been of previous authors. But I’ll get to that.

General Thoughts

In deciding what classic books to read I’ve been following the Harold Bloom list from the Western Canon. It has never been my intention to read everything on the list, (the man was an classics machine) and as such I didn’t read every extant play, as I had with the tragedies, but rather just the ones on the list: 

The Birds; The Clouds; The Frogs; Lysistrata; The Knights; The Wasps; The Assemblywomen.

In part this is because I realized that I’m going to die long before I finish if I don’t pick up the past a bit, and in part this is because I just don’t like the comedies as much. At least for me the tragedies seem timeless while the comedies seem very specific to a certain place and time, with most humor either being so foreign as to be of only academic interest or alternatively, the kind of thing you might hear in a junior high locker room. (I lost count of the number of jokes about erections, homosexuality and defecation.) To be clear it was fascinating to see how many of these jokes there were, and I really appreciated this translation, which went out of it’s way to clearly present these jokes but also to put them in the common vernacular (there were many f-bombs as they say). 

As far as whether you should read them, I think I have a much clearer picture of ancient Athens, which is good. But on the other hand, I can’t really say I liked any of these plays.


Battle Ground: Dresden Files, Book 17

By: Jim Butcher

432 Pages

Who should read this book?

You might recall that I read the book just before this one in the series back in August. And I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine that you would read it if you hadn’t read the previous 15. That statement is even more true because now there’s 16 previous books, and this book is essentially part 2 of Peace Talks, the book I read in August. 

General Thoughts

As I read this book I think I hit on why I find the series increasingly annoying. It’s very melodramatic, and my sense is that the melodrama has increasingly crowded out the humor that used to be a hallmark of the series. Which is not to say that he doesn’t still include some bits of humor, but they often fall flat because they end up being surrounded by ponderous statements, about the stakes of the conflict, the tragedy of the deaths, or the courageous sacrifice someone just made. And all of it delivered (and this may be a problem unique to the audiobook) with a grave and overwrought sentimentality. On top of that, or perhaps because of it, I find that I like Harry Dresden less and less. He’s always been hard-headed, but as time goes on it seems less rational and more just a way of making circumstances within the book more difficult and annoying.

As a result of this I very nearly put the book down (metaphorically, as I said I was listening to the audio version). But part of me didn’t want to get into the habit of stopping books (which ended up happening last month, though in reality I probably should do a lot more of it) and part of me did want to know what was going to happen. In the end I was glad I continued, the coolest part came right after the moment I most seriously considered stopping, and it redeemed the book. But I don’t know that it redeemed the series. I suspect this will be the last Dresden book I read. 


It may be the last Dresden book I read, but it certainly won’t be the last book I read. I’m going to keep reading and keep reviewing, and if you appreciate it, consider donating. Or just drop me a line at wearenotsaved [at] gmail [dot] com.


What Will and Won’t Change After the Election

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At the moment it’s difficult to think of anything but the election, so while I considered trying to write about something else, I think it would be difficult to find the required focus. (Though for those of you who follow me on Twitter, I am planning a post on the website wtfhappenedin1971.com.) Of course as bad as it is right now, I imagine that a few days after this goes out, i.e. after the election already happened, focusing on anything else is going to be impossible.

People are obviously putting a lot of weight on the outcome of this election, which I think has been the case for a while when it comes to presidential elections, certainly 2000, 2004 and 2008 felt that way. There was perhaps a little bit of a break in 2012. The shine was off of Obama, and whatever Romney’s faults, no one thought he was an existential threat or a potential messiah in the manner of Bush, Gore, Obama, Clinton or Trump in other elections. (I’ll let you decide who thought which of those things about whom.) Despite the seemingly low stakes of 2012 I remember thinking it was a big deal. In particular I was worried about the rising federal debt level, which is laughable looking back, not because the debt has ceased to worry me but because these days I would love to get back to just worrying about spending, but also, however big I was worried the debt would get, COVID has taken my most pessimistic projection and smashed it on the concrete, repeatedly, and then jumped up and down on what was left.

Another issue with worrying about the debt these days is that there’s really no longer any expectation that either party will do anything about it. If you’re worried about too much immigration then you can hold out some hope that if Trump wins reelection it will be reduced. Or if you’re worried about the opposite problem of too little immigration and mistreatment of those who do immigrate, then you have good reason to predict that this might change under Biden, but if you’re worried about the deficit neither of the two major candidates even pretends that they’ll do anything about it. Thus it’s best to adopt a fairly insouciant attitude, and pray that the modern monetary theorists are correct, despite all of your intuitions telling you that they’re not.

This, then, is the point of this post, to take some small stab at identifying what will change, and what won’t after the election. And right off the bat my suspicion/prediction is that less will change than most people imagine. Which is why I started with a discussion of the deficit/debt. Not only is this not going to change, but I think everyone has pretty much acknowledged this fact. However I would also submit that people are suffering from the opposite problem, where they haven’t accepted that the deficit is just one of the many things that aren’t going to change, where they still hold out false hope that when Biden is elected we’ll finally get Scandinavian style socialism or that Trump will actually build a wall. Which takes us to our first scenario, the one where you would expect the least amount of change, Trump getting reelected. We’ll use that as a warm up for eventually discussing how even if lots of things get changed by the election not as much as you might expect will change on the ground.

If Trump is reelected, defying pollsters and predictions once again, then it’s hard to imagine that the Republicans won’t also maintain control of the Senate, though regardless of what happens in those two contests I am confident in predicting that they won’t retake the house. Given that nothing was changed at the macro level by the election, you would expect that very little would change on the ground as well. And this holds true even for the things hoped for by Trump’s supporters. 

As I already said I don’t think Trump will finally build the wall in his second term. In fact, I predict that if Trump is given a second term that he won’t accomplish much of anything. (Certainly he won’t bring a Satanic ring of pedophiles to justice.) But, in saying this I don’t mean to place very much of the projected blame for this on Trump. He’s got numerous things working against him. First, there is a lot of truth to the people who claim that he’s been relentlessly attacked by the mainstream media, academia, and the permanent bureaucracy since he took office. Second, as I mentioned when I reviewed The Decadent Society, there’s a lot of sclerosis in Washington right now (and for the foreseeable future). Consequently it’s just harder in general to get anything done at all regardless of your position and backing. Finally there are the Democrats who won’t give him an inch on anything (and to be fair that’s basically how the Republican’s treated Obama). 

Speaking of decadence and Obama, even without the relentless criticism by the mainstream press, I don’t recall him doing much in his second term either. They had to pull out all the stops to get Obamacare over the finish line early in his first term, and that was basically the extent of the significant legislation he enacted. In a similar fashion the Republicans managed to pass their tax cuts and since doing that there really hasn’t been anything else that was worthy of note. All of this is to say that four more years of Trump will be very similar to the last couple of years. Lots of sturm and drang, but without any real substance. (I am excluding emergency relief packages since they’re reactive legislation that would basically happen regardless of who controls the government.)

Now you might object that at the level of the Supreme Court things have changed enormously, and that Trump deserves the credit. I’ll get to that, but it’s something which has already changed, not something which will change based on the outcome of things on November 3rd. Though it does provide one more reason for people on the left to hope that Trump doesn’t win. Breyer is 82, and yes RBG made it all the way to 87, but after what happened during Trump’s first term I don’t think anyone’s plans should hinge on Breyer remaining healthy for the entire time.

The next possibility we should consider is a Biden victory, but the Republicans somehow manage to hold on to the Senate by the skin of their teeth. Once again, I think less changes than most people think. Certainly, Biden reverses all of Trump’s executive orders, DACA gets reinstated, transgender people may once again serve in the military, etc. And given how powerful the executive order has become he might be able to pull off other things as well. Though I suspect that the 6-3 Supreme Court will temper those powers at least a little bit. So yes there will be some changes, certainly around the edges, but from a legislative perspective I wouldn’t expect much. Certainly there’s the possibility that if Biden proposes something relatively moderate that he might be able to peel off enough Republicans to get it across the finish line, but something moderate enough to get past a Republican Senate also has to be moderate enough to not change things very much. 

Presumably most people would be unsurprised by the idea that not much will change if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate (regardless of how things turn out with Trump). But I imagine that the same could not be said of people’s expectations if the Democrats end up controlling both the presidency and congress. And once again, I would submit that they’re going to be disappointed. I do think that beltway politics will calm down, particularly the permanent bureaucracy. They’ll be in the news less, we’ll go back to a time where there are fewer so-called crises, fewer instances where department heads are called to testify before congress. Of course just because the government calms down does not mean that our problems are solved. I actually think the bureaucracy could use some shaking up, and it’s unfortunate that Trump didn’t do more than that.

It’s obvious why things don’t change if you have “those obstructionist Republicans!” in control of the Senate, it’s less obvious why things don’t change if you have control of both houses of congress and the presidency. A big part of the issue is the sclerosis I mentioned above, an issue which Ross Douthat points out in his book The Decadent Society. And at this point it would be useful to turn to that book for it’s description of the passage of Obamacare, the last major Democratic policy victory:

The Obamacare case study is useful here, not least because it’s a rare example where a meaningful reform, as opposed to just a deficit funded tax cut [see Trump’s one legislative accomplishment] or a spending boost, did ultimately pass—unlike Clinton’s health care fiasco, or Bush’s doomed Social Security reform effort, or the Trump administration’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace effort, or every attempted immigration reform deal…

We should pause here to note the list of all the attempts to change things that failed, and this is before our current hyperpartisanship, and largely with more favorable numbers and support. Of course even with these advantages Obamacare did suffer a huge amount of resistance, though less of it came from Republicans than people remember:

The real reason that Obamacare opposition became so fierce, and the debate so toxic, was that the health care system [is]… a huge sprawl of client populations and powerful interest groups, all of which have a strong financial stake in the existing system, and all of which have spent decades building up the lobbying shops and inner-ring knowledge required to either frustrate or redirect reform.

Of course this doesn’t apply to just the healthcare system, but most areas of government. Including the one that’s getting the most attention right now: the police. I would assume that the police and their unions are equally powerful if not more so, particularly at a local level, though it was not always this way with either the police or with healthcare.

This thicket of clients and stakeholders and interest groups barely existed when Franklin Roosevelt was clearing the ground for the New Deal; it grew far more sparsely when Lyndon Johnson established Medicare and Medicaid. But those president’s achievements fertilized and thickened it, leaving future reformers little choice but to do what Obama ultimately did and rely on inefficient and overly complicated workarounds, disguised or delayed tax increases, and of course, some simple lies…

I’m being hard on Obama, so it’s important to stress that this is what success looks like.

This is the depressing morale of the whole sad story. Obamacare is as good as it gets in terms of making big changes in government. As Douthat says, this is what success looks like. Is there anyone who thinks that Biden is going to be more successful than Obama? That big changes which couldn’t be implemented then, with all the initial goodwill and legislative strength, are going to be implementable now? This is why I don’t think much is going to change. Because of how difficult change of any kind already was, and nothing has gotten easier since Obamacare, rather everything has gotten more difficult.

Fair enough, you may be saying, we won’t get any legislative breakthroughs just because we elect Biden, but I’d be happy if we just had a saner COVID response, or if we got some substantial action on BLM and the protests. But once again, I think people are going to be disappointed. If it’s not clear already it’s important to separate out what things the president (and the Senate) are directly responsible for, and therefore might change if they change, and what sort of things would happen and are happening regardless of who’s in power. I think this separation has become more difficult since Trump was elected because he draws so much attention that it starts to seem like everything is connected with him (And indeed in some respects this is his great talent.) But because of this you forget that, speaking of COVID, other developed countries are not doing that much better than the US. Belgium and Spain are ahead of us in deaths per 100k, we’re essentially tied with the UK, and we’re only about 10% ahead of Italy. Which is to say, while it’s always possible that a different president could have saved thousands of lives, no president could have stopped it entirely or even decreased things by more than about 10-20%. 

None of this is to say that things aren’t changing, they are and rapidly, which brings me to the other thing I think people are hoping will improve under Biden, the protests and the associated demands of the BLM movement. Part of this hope has to stem from the nearly ubiquitous narrative that Trump is a racially divisive figure, which is of course true, but also exaggerated, particularly when it comes to blaming him for what’s happening now. As an example of what I mean by that let’s take the recent shooting in Philadelphia, now imagine that it happened in exactly the fashion it did, the same in every particular, only instead of taking place at the end of October it took place at the end of November with Biden confirmed as the winner of the election. Do you think the protests and the reaction would have been any different? More generally do you think that protests are going to go away if Biden is elected president? That either police shootings will stop happening or that people will stop caring about them just because someone else is the president?

You may counter with the argument that November is too soon. That Biden won’t have the chance to implement any policies which will address the concerns of the protestors. But what policies do you imagine he might implement? Certainly the fact that he’s an old white guy with a history of being reasonably tough on crime is going to make it hard for him to calm the nation by the sheer force of his influence and charisma. Nor is the problem particularly amenable to high level solutions. This is a local problem, which let it be remembered, is most apparent in cities which are already controlled by Democrats. Now of course I would love to be wrong about this. I’d love it if Biden came in and single-handedly healed the nation’s racial divisions, if he succeeded where every other president since at least the mid 60s has failed, but I think we can agree that this probably won’t happen.

Lest you think I am being too flippant there is of course a whole discussion to be had about where BLM goes from here, and how the election affects that trajectory, and there certainly is an argument to be made that the reelection of Trump would result in the biggest protests of all, and that this would certainly represent something that changed after the election, but it’s not a change Trump can be held responsible for, but rather something of a heckler’s veto. In essence what I’m saying is that even if you think that Trump winning the election would increase the protests you can’t use that to extrapolate the other way and assume that if Trump makes protests worse that Biden has to make the protests better. At best, he might make them different.

This assertion gets to my central point. Biden is not going to make everything better, there is no return to normal, some dramatic change from the chaos of the Trump years to the mundanity of the Biden presidency. No vast legislative package that will swoop in to save the day. COVID will still be a problem, people will still be mad at the police (and conversely the police will still feel unfairly attacked), China will still be out there doing whatever it is China does, and people will gradually realize that, other than appointing three Supreme Court Justices, Trump had far less of an impact than people think, and that his disappearance (or at least his removal from office, I don’t think he’ll be disappearing anytime soon) is not going to magically heal everything that’s wrong with the country. That in essence he has been unfairly blamed for too much of what’s wrong. 

Some of you may be protesting at this point that by artificially limiting my discussion to things that might change to the narrow category of things that might change based on the election results that I am overlooking a huge source of recent change, Amy Coney Barrett’s elevation to the Supreme Court. And indeed that is a big change and it deserves to be discussed, but even here I think conservative hopes and liberal fears are both equally overblown. I predict that Obamacare will not be judicially gutted or overturned. That Roe v. Wade will persist, though I could certainly imagine that they might give greater deference to state level restrictions and that states might use these to make abortions very difficult to obtain. That the election will not be decided, in Trump’s favor, by the Supreme Court. And that in general the court will be surprisingly deferential to precedent, and particularly to legislative decisions. So if the Democrats do end up in control of the House and Senate they will have the perfect platform from which to create the world they say they want, and I predict that the Supreme Court is very unlikely to completely disregard any decisions they reach legislatively.

In conclusion, as long as we’re on the subject of predictions. I’d like to go ahead and make a few more. Though as a reminder my predictions generally concern black swans (or to be technical grey swans). Either those people fear, but don’t need to worry about (see the predictions I just made about the court) or those which might or might not happen, but the probability is large enough that you should probably worry. Which is what I’ll do now.

I don’t think Biden will die in office, but I do think that he will exhibit increasing mental degradation in speech and behavior. Discussion of the 25th Amendment will begin shortly after he takes office, initially by pundits and people in need of content but increasingly by Republicans and even members of his own party. Depending on how well liked Harris is, it just might happen.

Democrats won’t immediately pack the courts, but they’ll have their finger on the trigger just waiting for an excuse to pull it. This will be one of the reasons why the Supreme Court won’t be as radical as people fear (or hope). If Roberts isn’t able to keep things together and something dramatic does happen, then they’ll try it, and they might very well succeed, if so it will be incredibly destabilizing over the long run.

Calls for various social justice measures will dramatically increase. Biden, Pelosi and whoever ends up with McConnell’s job will have a difficult time placating or even controlling far left elements of their party (another reason why legislative victories will be difficult). While a Trump victory might result in very intense focused protests, a Biden victory will result in broad, long lasting agitation on many separate fronts.

In essence, a Biden presidency will not be notably less chaotic than Trump’s presidency was.


I’m interested in your predictions. Where do you think I’m wrong? What do you think is going to happen with the Supreme Court? Do you think I’m ever going to stop asking for donations


The Obligatory Pre-Election Post (Spoiler: I’m Writing in Mattis)

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It’s time for another presidential election. I’ve actually been blogging for long enough that this is my second, and while presumably not every blog that’s out there needs to comment on the upcoming election, I think mine is one of those where it’s expected. The last time around I was actually more outspoken and perhaps because of that, the feeling that I had already said my piece on several issues, I felt less compulsion to blog about those same issues this time around. But as there is a good chance that someone reading me now was not reading me then, here are a selection of my political posts from 2016:

  • Is It Finally Time to Start Thinking About Voting Third Party? In this post I discussed my voting methodology and why, unless you happen to be living in Florida in the year 2000, your vote for president will have the most impact if it’s cast for a 3rd party candidate.
  • Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election This was a post about the need to account for potential negative black swans when making voting decisions. For example imagine if one candidate was great on everything, except they were almost certain to get into a war with China. The negative consequences to the nation and the world, of that, are so great it might overwhelm all the good things the candidate might do. I’m not prepared to say that one candidate has more of these than the other this time around, in fact I think both candidates bring significant “black swan potential” a subject I’ll be coming back to. Even if you disagree with me on that, I think this is a factor more people need to pay attention to.
  • Hillary Clinton and the Criteria of Embarrassment Paradoxically the information age has made it even more difficult to separate truth from fiction. This post offered up the “criteria of embarrassment” as one way of penetrating the fog of competing narratives, media organizations which can’t be trusted (on both sides), and the government’s predilection for secrecy in general. The criteria states that information which is revealed over a candidate’s objections is the most likely to be accurate, while conversely the information they want you to have is the least likely to be accurate.  
  • I Don’t Know If Everything Will Be Okay: My Thoughts On the Election This post and the next were written after the election. At the time, as you may or may not recall, lots of people were saying that despite the Trump victory things were going to be okay. I countered by saying that it was impossible to know if everything was going to be okay, but gave some reasons for thinking that the worst fears of Trump’s opponents would probably not be realized, an opinion which I think has largely been borne out by subsequent events. 
  • Is This Election Different? It was apparently pretty early on that resistance to Trump’s presidency was going to be significant and sustained, and while we had seen this sort of thing previously during Bush and Obama’s presidency, the level of anger felt different in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election (thus the title of the post). Another phenomenon that, while it has ebbed and flowed, also largely came to pass as I feared, though it took longer and came in a different form than I expected.

In any case, that was four years ago, but here we are again facing some of the same issues, and while much of the advice, maybe even most of it, is still valid, 2020 has a madness all it’s own. But let’s start with the similarities. 

If anything, we’re even more in the grip of the idea that there are only two possible options, Trump or Biden. And if you don’t like either of them you’re told that it’s still your responsibility to vote regardless. And thus you’re forced to choose whoever you feel is the lesser of the two evils and cast your vote for them. And actually this description is being generous. Most people don’t even entertain the idea of voting for someone other than the two major party candidates, or if they do it’s in the category of one of those insane things that only conspiracy theorists and tin-foil hat wearers do. Of course the obvious next question to ask is, if everyone thinks it’s so insane why am I bringing it up? Why would I recommend voting for someone other than Trump or Biden?

To start with the fundamental issue everyone should be considering is “What can I do?” “What power do I possess?” At the local level quite a bit, and if you’re willing to spend a lot of time on it, you might even be able to swing the needle at a state level, but we’re going to restrict things to a discussion of the presidential race. And here the answer is, almost nothing. 

Let’s start with the most obvious case of powerlessness: casting a vote in a state that’s not a swing state. Here your vote (for president) has zero power. You’re another person voting for Biden in California, or another person voting for Trump in West Virginia. It’s meaningless, and as such any vote that had even a little bit of power would be better. Now, it’s your vote so I’ll leave it to you to decide if you’re actually in one of these states, but probably close to 82% of all voters fall into this category.

Turning to those voters who actually are in a swing state, you’re still looking at nearly astronomical odds that your vote for one candidate or the other is really going to be decisive, and honestly if the current election is going to be that close then the country will almost certainly have bigger problems then the fact that you, personally, didn’t vote for Biden or Trump. (I don’t even want to imagine what will happen if 2020 ends up being as close as 2000.) But if, after all this, you’re still worried about it, find someone in a state that’s locked up for one candidate or the other and offer, on their behalf, to vote for Trump or Biden, while they vote for your preferred third party candidate. (It’s called vote trading, and if you look around you can find forums for connecting people who want to do it if you don’t personally know anyone you can trade with.) 

You might argue that “Yes, my individual vote in the presidential election is almost certainly meaningless, and even if I think it might have meaning, I can have my cake and eat it too with vote trading. But focusing just on the one vote I cast overlooks the fact that I can do more than just vote. I can volunteer my time to one or the other of the campaigns.” Of course if you really think you’re choosing between the lesser of two evils, it seems unlikely that you’re going to want to spend a huge amount of time volunteering for a campaign, but let’s assume that you’ve decided one of the choices is so bad — that Trump will use any close vote to destroy the republic and stay in power, or that Biden will get walked all over by the far left and critical race theory will be the law of the land — that you’ve decided to hold your nose and work to elect the other guy. 

In this case your efforts are still likely to be less effective than putting in a similar effort for some lesser known candidate or around an issue you’re passionate about. Though it’s important to define effectiveness. If you think the time you spend is actually going to affect the election, that without your efforts Trump would win, but with them Biden wins, or vice versa, then you’re almost certainly overestimating your impact by an enormous amount. Mike Bloomberg has decided he wants to make sure that Biden wins Florida, so he went to an election consultant and asked him what that would take. The answer was, bare minimum $20 million, but more realistically $40 million and Bloomberg eventually decided to spend $100 million. As rich as he is I doubt he spends an additional $60 million without good reason, he obviously thought it was a difficult problem, and this is in a state where, according to 538, Biden has held a narrow lead since April. 

So, yes, the odds of you affecting an election by volunteering are slightly better than the odds of your vote changing the election, but still infinitesimal, and if altering the actual election outcome is off the table, then all that’s left is creating awareness in the people you talk to. But when you’re talking to people about either of the two major presidential candidates then there are at least two things working against you. First, their awareness is already pretty high, so moving the needle on it is a lot more difficult. They almost certainly already have an opinion and anything you say is unlikely to change it. Second the awareness you create is diluted by the fact that if you’re talking about a candidate the candidates themselves come with a whole basket of issues, and even if you only focus on one it’s going to be difficult to give it the impact you might feel it deserves if it’s also connected with a particular candidate, and all the positions they hold and all the things they’ve done. But if you’re just engaged in issue advocacy, of using your time to hold forth on what you truly believe is important, then neither of those things are true, people are less likely to have a strongly held opinion and your message is less likely to be muddied by other considerations. So yes, if you’re going to open things up to the entire universe of what you could be doing with your time, then there are lots of possibilities, but I still think advocacy for one of the two major presidential candidates is demonstrably one of the worst uses of that time. Also most people are just focused on who to vote for, so let’s return to discussing that.

Hopefully everyone who has gotten this far can at least entertain the idea that voting for either Trump or Biden despite disliking both of them is neither necessary nor effective. Once we can entertain that notion the next question becomes, what should you be doing? Well, as I argued in 2016 you should vote for the candidate that most reflects your values, and before we go any further, in case it’s not clear, if that candidate is actually Trump or Biden then that’s who you should vote for, but if it’s not, then there would appear to be no remaining reason not to just vote for your favorite candidate. Doing so has numerous advantages:

First, and perhaps most importantly you won’t have to hold your nose, there won’t be any complicated justification of why you should overlook this issue or that indiscretion, you can vote with a clear conscience.

Second, and closely related, you will be accurately communicating your preference. Trump got (almost) 63 million votes in 2016, can anyone tell me, how many of those people really loved him, how many just really hated Clinton, how many voted for him because of the wall, and how many because they thought he would bring back jobs? But if someone goes to the trouble of voting for the Libertarian or the Green Party candidate or writing in Andrew Yang, the signal is much clearer. Particularly since they had to overcome so much social pressure to do it.

Third, because of this, your vote is actually more effective. I understand that it’s not very effective, but we’ve already established that being the 1 millionth or 4 millionth or 8,753,788th person to vote for Clinton in California has zero effectiveness, so voting for someone else doesn’t have to be very effective at all to beat that.  But when primary season rolls around the next time, or if the race is close (as all races appear to be these days) the candidates are going to be looking at the people who didn’t vote for either candidate and asking themselves how they can change that. Particularly if there’s a little bit of coordination, a point I’ll be returning to.

Now I understand that there are some who make the argument that it’s not a good use of your time to vote period, and it’s entirely possible that’s true, I’m not arguing that voting for a third party candidate or writing someone in is the best possible use of your time I’m arguing that if you’re going to vote anyway, perhaps because you think it’s your civic duty or perhaps because you think voting in local elections is a good use of your time and as long as you’re there you might as well vote for the president, then you also might as well vote your conscious. 

There is one other reason, and on a larger scale it may be the biggest reason of all, it gives you the opportunity to stand outside of the system. This part probably requires a deeper explanation, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn to World War I, it’s been on my mind a lot recently.

One of the things that happened in World War I is that it descended into a never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals. The Germans did something so that was the justification for the Allied Powers doing some other thing, which made the Germans feel that they needed to do something else. Additionally it was perhaps the greatest demonstration of the sunk cost fallacy the world has ever seen. The combination of these two factors meant that there was no possibility of the two sides being willing to negotiate with each other, certainly not under terms that were remotely reasonable, and as a result it just got bloodier and bloodier as each side became more and more determined that they had to win. 

Of course for most of the war the US stood on the sidelines, though they gave quite a bit more tacit support to the Allied Powers (Britain, France and Russia) than they did to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and the Ottomans) but despite this, it was still possible that being outside of the sunk cost thinking and the dreadful spiraling of death and reprisals that they could have brokered a deal, particularly since without their help the Allied Powers would have had a hard time winning. And by holding onto that chip the US eventually would have been able to prevail. However, once they threw in their lot with one side, they lost most of their bargaining power with both sides. The Allied Powers naturally assumed that they had their support locked up and consequently ended up ignoring the vast majority of Wilson’s suggestions because they had already gotten what they needed out of the US. And Germany wasn’t about to listen to Wilson because he was clearly biased. So rather than achieving any lasting peace, the crushing Treaty of Versailles meant that all of the hostility remained and 20 years later it was the same damn thing all over again with World War II. 

We are currently engaged in something very similar to World War I where each side is becoming increasingly hostile to the other, and increasingly unwilling to negotiate or compromise, and in this election I see a lot of people pointing out all the bad things the Germans have done, or alternatively all the bad things the French have done, and I think what we should really be pointing out is how bad the war itself is. That rather than focusing on killing a lot of Germans, or a lot of French that we should focus on not killing people at all! And it’s apparent from the posts I see on social media that if you’re firmly committed to one side or the other, this task becomes exceptionally difficult. But, in essence, voting for one of the two major candidates is voting for the war to continue.

I’ll end by giving you an example of how it works in practice and revealing what I’m going to do, which is write in General James Norman Mattis. To begin with this carries all the benefits I  mentioned above:

  • It allows me to vote with an entirely clear conscience for the person I’m familiar with who I actually think would do the best job as president
  • I am accurately communicating my preference. I think the system is broken and we need a clearly non-partisan thoughtful individual to come in and help reset it.
  • I believe that, living in Utah, this is a more effective vote than being the 400,000th person to vote for Trump or even the 100,000th person to vote for Biden.
  • In particular, I believe it sends the clearest signal it is possible to send using the mechanism of a single vote in a universe of hundreds of millions of votes, that it’s neither the Republicans or the Democrats that are the bad guys, but it’s the system. It’s not the Germans or the French it’s war itself. 

Beyond that there were obviously at least a few other considerations in choosing Mattis. Ideally you’d want someone who could take the hint and run the next time, and it would be nice if Mattis were younger, though in 2024 he’ll be the same age as Trump is now, and still younger than Biden’s current age. Also following from that you want to choose someone who could conceivably be president. But beyond this it’s a good idea to choose a person other people are likely to choose. It’s nice if there’s actually some coordination. 

I would be overjoyed if there was already a huge write in campaign for Mattis, so that my vote would be joined with thousands of others, and while there is certainly some movement in that direction (I’d be very surprised if I’m the only person who’s going to write in Mattis) it’s probably not big enough to get a ton of notice. In the past, when I considered coordination the most important thing, I voted for an actual third party candidate who appeared on the ballot, mostly Libertarian, though in 2000 I actually voted for Nader, not because I agreed with his policies but because I thought it was the best way to bring about greater third party participation in elections. (Of course in reality Nader probably killed the idea of third party support because the election was so close.) But I’m actually starting to feel like well known third parties have already been factored into the calculations and as such they no longer have the same punch they once did. In any case, above all you want to vote for someone who won’t elicit a “Who?” when people review the numbers.

That’s a lot of advice and a lot of words about something which I also simultaneously concede is pretty inconsequential, but if you’re going to vote I still contend there’s no better way of making it count than the tactic of actually voting for the person you think will do the best job.


I realized only after I started writing this that with all the early voting and mail in voting that it’s possible many of you have already cast your vote, and I’m too late. Well the good news is that it’s never too late to donate!


What’s to Be Done About China?

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I.

With all that is going on currently, from the pandemic, to civil unrest, to an incredibly contentious political climate, even those who were alive at the time find it hard to remember how much optimism there was at the end of the Cold War, particularly around the subject of China. It’s easy to grasp now why there was optimism about the Soviet Union and the accompanying collapse of communism, but people forget that there was almost as much optimism about the Chinese communists. The Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989, which actually happened before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union officially dissolved, seemed like the first shudder of the massive earthquake of democracy and liberalization that would eventually come for China in the same way that it came for all the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.

It was this optimism that spawned things like The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama a book which has occupied a prominent position in my last two posts. And even though, as I mentioned, it holds up better than I would have expected, it’s equally obvious that Fukuyama was very wrong on China, but it’s starting to look more and more like everyone was wrong. 

The example of this “wrongness” that’s gotten the most attention recently is what happened between China and the NBA. It all started when Daryl Morey, the owner of the Houston Rockets tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The backlash from China and Chinese companies was swift, and presumably surprising. It’s not worth going into everything that happened but it was quickly apparent to the NBA that billions of dollars were on the line and everyone, including Morey backtracked, apologized, and, in keeping with the theme, basically kowtowed. From this example it might not immediately be clear what “everyone was wrong” about. But I think it can be best summed up by the idea that doing business in and with China was going to be the same as doing business in and with other countries. This is not to say that there aren’t difficulties in doing business in Russia or Saudia Arabia, but not only does the Chinese reaction seem more extreme than what you might expect out of those other two countries, there’s also so much more at stake. Whatever broadcast deal the NBA has with Russia or Saudia Arabia, I’m sure it’s a small fraction of the $1.5 billion they’re getting out of China. In other words China is different, more different than I think the NBA expected.

This post is all about exploring how they’re different, because I don’t think that’s quite clear yet. Also, since a discussion of differences could fill several books, I’m going to restrict my discussion to examining very high level differences between nations and cultures. Even with this restriction there are still numerous competing explanations of how China is different, or what the “wrongness” might be, so we’ll spend a little bit of time with each of them.

II.

To begin our examination I’d like to turn back to the book, What’s Wrong With China? by Paul Midler, which I reviewed here, since, based on the title, it should provide an almost direct answer to our question, and Midler doesn’t just provide one answer to this question he provides lots of them, but most of his explanations and the stories which illustrate them operate at a level lower than the one we’re interested in. That said he does have two very important insights. First, that in China the rules and expectations surrounding business and agreements in general are very different from Western rules and expectations, and second, and perhaps more importantly from our perspective, he has some very interesting things to say about the motivation of the Chinese leadership. 

According to Midler, it’s very important to understand that the Chinese think dynastically. They don’t imagine a smooth upward curve where they’ll be in power forever, but rather they imagine that they have a limited window when times are good and that they need to take advantage of that window. (Sometimes this is referred to as the Mandate of Heaven.) Accordingly, Midler asserts that one of the keys to understanding their actions is to recognize that they’re in a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends. Some quotes from the book:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

Of course, more than helping us understand China, what we really want out of an explanation is a guide for what to do about China, what actions we should take. 

How does this explanation do on that front?  Well it does supply the somewhat counterintuitive guidance that the more pressure we bring to bear upon China the more aggressive they’ll be. But more interestingly it seems to suggest that we can just wait China out. That just like we expected in the early 90s eventually the Communist Party will be removed from power or suffer some other calamity, and the problem will go away. Unfortunately, in the meantime, this does nothing for the Hong Kong Protestors, or the Tibetians or the Uighurs. Nor is it clear even if we can wait them out how long that might take. Certainly the Chinese Communists themselves are determined to hold on to the Mandate of Heaven for as long as possible.

The final question which we need to ask of this explanation and of all our explanations is how much weight we should give it, and here, I’m inclined to say quite a lot. Of all the people I mention Midler is the only one who has spent decades living in China, and so while it might be possible to argue that others understand the Chinese leadership better (possible to argue, not definitely true) I don’t think anyone I’ve come across has a better grasp of the people.

III.

In his book The Accidental Superpower. Peter Zeihan puts forth an even more pessimistic view about China’s prospects:

The reality of China is considerably different from the conventional wisdom. There are many reasons to doubt the strength of the Chinese system, but let’s focus on those relevant to things geographic and demographic. Individually, any of the raft of concerns I’m about to detail would be enough to derail the Chinese rise. Collectively they are more than enough to return China to the fractured, self-containing mess that it has been for most of its history. 

I don’t intend to spend much time on Zeihan’s concerns, but it’s worth being aware of what they are:

First, Zeihan’s primary focus is geography and this might be the area he feels the strongest about. Specifically he thinks China is actually three nations (or perhaps four). This may be the least obvious of his concerns, so I’ll include his explanation:

This tripartite system—northern China as the stable-as-glass political core, central China as the nationally disinterested economic core, and southern China as the potentially secessionist territory (and the interior being largely ignored)—holds to the present day. Even contemporary China’s political system reflects it: All of the critical military branches of the government are headquartered in the north, the north and central regions trade of the premiership every decade in order to balance security and trade interests, while the south is not even represented on the Politburo.

Such a geographic look at the country lays bare the greatest myth about China: that it is united. I’m not talking here about the concept of the mainland versus Taiwan, but rather the idea that the mainland itself can ever truly be a unified entity. Taking a closer look at history indicates that China’s past periods of “unity” are anything but.

Second, that as deep as their rivalry/conflict runs with the US that their rivalry/conflict with Japan is a hundred times deeper.

Third, that the only reason they’re unified right now is because of the US. We neutralized the rivalry with Japan, we cleared the oceans of predatory navies (Ziehan also makes the point that China is not a natural naval power), enforced freedom of navigation, and created and invited them to participate in a global market.

Fourth, their financial system is a mess, and is more a system of subsidization, than a system of credit. Leading to lots of projects that are technically possible but economically ridiculous. (This is something Midler touches on as well).

Fifth, demography, China is getting old faster than it’s getting rich, which is bad for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because their economy is entirely driven by exports, which requires new cheap workers. And even if they wanted to switch to internal consumption, demography makes that hard as well.

Finally, and I had to include this because it seems to be the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Zeihan claims that Taiwan, in concert with Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, “Form a line of islands off the Chinese coast that block any possible Chinese access to the ocean blue.”  

If anything this assessment of what’s wrong with China (everything) and what we should do about China (wait and/or exclude them from the international system) is even more optimistic than Midler’s. Though I should also point out the book was published in 2014, so it’s possible that the last few years have made a huge difference, though you wouldn’t think so. As far as how much weight we should assign to Zeihan, I would say over the long run, particularly when it comes to geography, quite a bit, but in the short run I think he misses a lot of subtleties. Perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis is the part about the rivalry between China and Japan. A subject I’ll be returning to. 

IV.

One more “we don’t need to worry about China” position came to light while I was composing this post, it’s a set of remarks delivered a couple of weeks ago by Chas Freeman, a noted American Diplomat, and Nixon’s chief translator during his 1972 visit to China. The article is titled The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War. Some key quotes:

  • To analogize [the conflict between China and the US] to the Cold War of 1947 – 1991 is intellectually lazy… China is both a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.
  • China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it remains decidedly inferior.
  • China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel that dwarfs the nearest American equivalent – the Marshall Plan.
  • American military intervention in the Russian civil war lasted only two years (1918-1920). Overt U.S. intervention in China’s ongoing civil war, sparked by the Korean War, began in 1950.  Seventy years later, U.S. support for the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese regime not only continues but is escalating.
  •  During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay.
  • If the contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages. (emphasis mine)
  • Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, practically guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power. 
  • For the first time in our history, we Americans must decide how to deal with a country that not only has the capacity to surpass us but is actually doing so. 

This seems to answer the question of what’s wrong with China with “nothing”. The question you should be asking is what’s wrong with the US, and I guess the answer there is that we’re attempting to replay the Cold War with China, and that’s not going to work. Which is also a prescription for the actions we need to be taking. As for my opinion on this advice, certainly I think he’s correct about China being a more “robust rival” than Russia. But I have reason to suspect that our military advantage is not insuperable. Certainly not in the area where hostilities are most likely to break out. Which brings us to the next view of China.

V.

Thus far the people we’ve discussed have either had no opinion on China’s military (Midler) or have asserted that it’s far inferior to the military of the United States. In The Kill Chain by Christian Brose which I reviewed in my last post, and to a lesser extent in Trump vs. China by Newt Gingrich, the exact opposite position is put forth, both authors are convinced that we would probably lose a war against China, particularly one that was fought over Taiwan or the South China Sea, and didn’t involve nuclear weapons. 

Given the colossal amount of money the US spends on its military, an amount which is still significantly more than that spent by China, this may seem hard to believe. And a full explanation would involve describing a host of new weapons systems, hypersonic and anti-carrier missiles, autonomous drones, cyber warfare and misinformation campaigns like those conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. And if you really want to get into that I would highly suggest reading Brose’s book. But I have several reasons for finding his description of things more credible than Freeman’s or Zeihan’s (though to be fair Zeihan’s argument isn’t quite as strong as Freeman’s).

To begin with I think it’s clear Brose, and obviously Gingrich to a certain extent have a far more insight into the condition of our military, and how well it’s likely to perform in any potential conflict. The perfect string of war game losses mentioned by Brose seems particularly applicable here. Also I don’t get the sense that Freeman or Zeihan are as familiar as they should be with some of the weapons systems China has or is developing, and that’s really what the outcome of any future conflict will hinge upon. What sort of impact will newer weapon’s systems have, and who will best take advantage of them? When considering this question the last few major conflicts are very instructive. In every single one, the dominant weapon of the previous war was rendered obsolete by new weapons. In World War I it was the cavalry being rendered obsolete by the machine gun. In World War II it was the battleship being rendered obsolete by the aircraft carrier and the defensive line being rendered obsolete by the tank. (And I realize that the true picture is somewhat more complicated than this.) 

In any potential war against China there’s numerous candidates for game-changing weapons, and China is ahead of us on basically all of them. We’re focused on things that make big juicy targets, like aircraft carriers and bases on Guam and Okinawa, they’re focused on what they call the “assassin’s mace”, cheap, numerous, and, frankly, sneaky weapons that are designed precisely to take out those big targets. Additionally all of our recent military experience has come against opponents where we’re overwhelmingly more powerful. Where we can count on our satellites and our communication and having an AWACS hanging around. And yes, the Taliban can’t do anything about those systems, but China can.

VI.

The foregoing discussion of a potential military conflict is pretty meaningless if a war never happens. Though the one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on is that China will not rest until it has reabsorbed Taiwan, and if America remains committed to preventing that, then war would appear to be inevitable. And this is another area where many people like to flip things, and rather than asking what’s wrong with China that they would want to do that, they ask what’s wrong with us that we think it’s our job to stop that? 

Probably you’re not merely worried about the liberty and continued independence of Taiwan, you’re also worried about freedom for the citizens of Hong Kong, or perhaps you feel that the US has some moral responsibility to stop the ongoing abuse of the Uighars and Tibetans. And there’s no denying that great harms are being committed, and perhaps it is the role of the US and the other free countries of the world to stop such harms wherever they might be happening. Certainly it would be nice if we could, but if there is such a path it almost certainly doesn’t involve war with China, which would very likely cause more harm than it prevented. (For a taste of what I mean consider Iraq and Afghanistan, and then factor in China’s vastly greater capacity to fight back.)

Beyond outright war, which we didn’t resort to even with the Soviet Union, there is the option of a very aggressive and confrontational stance that stops short of outright war. But there are arguments to be made that even this might be a mistake. A few examples:

First there’s the position of Freeman which appeared earlier in the post. He doesn’t mention the Uyghurs at all, and he doesn’t offer much of an opinion on Taiwan either. But his position that the US needs to avoid another cold war with China has a certain logic to it, if for no other reason than that China has an economic strength the Soviet Union never possessed.

Next there’s the position of Samuel Huntington and his book Clash of Civilizations, which I talked about here. Huntington contends that Southeast Asia has and always will be part of the Chinese sphere of control and that in the long run there’s not much we can do about it. Interestingly Fukuyama was a student of Huntington but in this area he disagrees with his former professor, not in claiming that they aren’t civilizations, or that they’re not important, but rather in putting forth the idea that progress has spawned a universal civilization. As such, rather than abandoning most of Asia to the dominion of China we should instead be encouraging China to join the universal civilization. 

Beyond these two America has always had a streak of isolationism, perhaps best represented currently by Pat Buchanan. Who recently pointed out in reference to the rising tensions between China and India that:

Exactly what kind of “ally and partner” the U.S. is to be “in the fight” between India and China over disputed terrain in the Himalayan Mountains was left unexplained. We have no vital interest in where the Line of Control between the most populous nations on earth should lie that would justify U.S. military involvement with a world power like China.

I understand that Buchanen is something of a pariah among some, but it’s hard to find fault with this statement.

Underlying all of these arguments is the question of US hegemony, and what the ongoing value of that is. From where I sit, it would appear that the biggest value is slowing down nuclear proliferation. To speak more directly to the subject at hand, Japan has the technology for nuclear weapons, they don’t possess them (that we know) because the US is shielding them with its nuclear umbrella. Should the US make a significant withdrawal from Asia, effectively ceding it to China, there’s good reason to suspect that Japan would decide that “now” would be an excellent time to start possessing such weapons. 

The foregoing would appear to leave us with three choices:

  1. Accept that our power and influence is or will be declining and attempt to create a new hegemony, perhaps something involving the creation of a significant international coalition, or perhaps just an international order that focuses on nonproliferation, but doesn’t try and solve all of the worlds problems (i.e. something that keeps Japan from feeling the need for nukes, but does nothing to prevent China from annexing Taiwan.)
  2. Accept that our power and influence are declining and decide that any attempt to replace the US hegemony with something else is destined to fail, so why bother making the attempt. Perhaps this comes about from deciding that any effort spear-headed by the US is bound to have too much baggage, and hope someone else will step up.
  3. Hang on to our current role for as long as we can, and do everything possible to extend this period. In the meantime, hope that something changes, perhaps China will embrace liberal democracy, or China and Russia will go to war or some weird technological singularity will come along (this is exactly the plan laid out by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I reviewed here.)

VII.

Finally we arrive at what is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frightening possibility of all. I’ve frequently mentioned Fukuyama and his book End of History and the Last Man in the course of this discussion, and I think it’s fair to say that the book is very Hegelian. Of course as Fukuyama also points out, Marx essentially ruined Hegel, but if you can strip that away and look at what Hegel was actually saying, it’s all pretty interesting. When talking about Hegel everyone mentions the “dialectic”, but essentially, as Hegel saw it that mostly amounted to a conversation between civilizations, a conversation that generally starts with two opposing viewpoints (thesis and antithesis), but eventually through dialogue, ideas, experimentation, and yes, even war, the two ideas eventually combine into one better idea (synthesis).

As an example you might start out with security on one side and freedom on the other, eventually synthesizing the two into a system with both significant policing, but also significant protection for individual rights. As that example makes clear, it’s not always as clean and straightforward as Hegel would lead you to believe, but he nevertheless claimed that this process also operated at the level of nations and brought us liberal democracy. Whether this was in fact “the process”, and whether it was not only “the process”, but the end point of “that process” are separate issues. I think there’s a good case to be made that the process was something like that, but the idea that we’ve reached the end is less certain, despite Hegel’s and later Fukuyama’s claims to the contrary. 

With an understanding of that framework, we’re now in a position to discuss the interesting/frightening possibility I alluded to at the beginning of the section. What if the Chinese government is the next level of Hegelian synthesis? What if they have synthesized market capitalism, with communism (or if you prefer just straight authoritarianism)? As you may recall from some of my previous posts on the book, Fukuyama isn’t making the claim that liberal democracy is some sort of obvious utopia, and he mostly tries to minimize claims of whig history, rather what he’s saying is that only liberal democracy has both the legitimacy necessary for internal health and the access to science and industry necessary to win a modern war, that is external threats to a nation’s health. But so far threats to the legitimacy of the Chinese government have been pretty anemic, and, if Brose is correct, their war making capability is at least sufficient and it may be superior. 

In both cases there are other elements which have contributed to China’s success. Turning first to legitimacy, there was a time when it was expected that technology and particularly the  internet would be a huge boon to political freedom, and the longer things go the more it looks like it might be just the opposite. China’s great firewall has proven to work a lot better than people expected when it was first mooted, things like China’s social credit system wouldn’t be possible without recent technology, and finally advances in machine learning/AI promise to make the tools available to the government more effective still. All of this works to shore up the authoritarian side of the synthesis. It also makes it easier to disentangle market capitalism from other elements of liberal democracy giving China an engine of economic growth the Soviet Union lacked.

On the war-fighting side of things, the Chinese seem to have managed to avoid the bureaucratic inertia that, according to Brose, currently plagues the US military. I assume that there are a lot of things which have contributed to this, but it’s easy to imagine that being authoritarian helps out quite a bit. Another simplifying factor is the fact that the Chinese have well-defined goals for their military, unlike the US which, in addition to trying to maintain its hegemonic position, also has a tendency to get into endless wars of occupation.

To be clear in putting this possibility out there I am not arguing that this is in fact what has happened. I’m not a Hegelian, I’m a Christian, but for those who do see history from a Hegelian viewpoint, like Fukuyama, or those who just have a general belief in progress, like Pinker, what’s the counter argument? And if there isn’t a definitive counter argument what does that mean for the history of humanity? Will all nations end up converging to this new endpoint? Or does it only work for China? 

VIII.

This post ended up being longer than I expected and rather than making it much longer, on the one hand, or on the other, cutting out anything genuinely interesting, I thought I would dump it all in the last section as a collection of miscellaneous rapid fire thoughts, so here goes:

I didn’t really touch much on trade, but obviously that’s been one of the biggest areas of contention between the US and China over the last several years. Despite this trade restrictions are still controversial and my sense is that they’re unlikely to continue under Biden, though honestly neither side is really spending much time talking about China at this point, so it’s difficult to tell. As far as whether they should continue, that’s always difficult to say, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that the trade war was a bad idea, which hurt us more than it hurt them. However the one study I came across estimated that China lost $35.2 billion as a result of it while the US only lost $15.6 billion. Indicating that we have more bargaining power than we think, that if it is necessary to confront China this is a good place to do it, that Trump probably deserves at least some of the credit, and that Biden should continue the policy.

It’s really amazing all of the different venues where China is causing problems, or at the very least distorting the way things have traditionally been done. We’ve already talked about the NBA, but they also exercise a significant influence on how Hollywood makes movies. They’ve got significant influence in developed countries, and they’re influencing technology in major ways as well, particularly when it comes to 5G. And because of the way their influence works, these distortions don’t get reported on to nearly the extent you would expect, meaning that the news is yet another area of distortion.

Everything I read portrayed China as being almost entirely machiavellian, willing to ignore agreements, skirt treaties, conceal their intentions, and outright lie if it served their purpose. As examples they’re actively trying to subvert the UN, the agreements they have made on autonomous weapons are obviously designed with huge loopholes, and they’ve got a secondary naval militia disguised as a fishing fleet. And while I understand the caution that we shouldn’t enter into another cold war with China, they’ve deliberately closed off nearly all avenues short of force. This is part of why a trade war is appealing because as bad as it might be it’s still orders of magnitude better than outright war.

As China gets closer and closer to the point where they feel ready to annex Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, particularly the younger segment of the population are less and less likely to want to be reabsorbed. In particular the recent crack-down in Hong Kong has only increased their reluctance. 

Finally, one of the books I already finished in October is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. I had intended to talk about it more in this post, but it’s one of the things that didn’t fit in anywhere else. In the book, the point Mishra emphasizes repeatedly is the level of humiliation felt by the Chinese as a consequence of colonialism. A humiliation they still feel. I’m not sure exactly how that translates into a policy prescription, or what we can really do about it at this point, but it does suggest that underlying everything I’ve talked about is less the normal desire for a people to improve their circumstances and more a straight up hunger for revenge.


As my posts gradually get longer they also get less frequent. I guess I could have split this in two, but I feel like it’s better to get it all out at once. If you have an opinion on that I’d love to hear it. You know what I also love? Donations. Mostly because of the warm fuzzy feeling they give me. 


Books I Finished in September (with one I didn’t)

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September ended up being kind of crazy meteorologically, particularly the first 10 days. The month opened with only the third 100 degree day in September we’ve ever had (as measured at the SLC airport). This was followed a few days later by hurricane force winds (100 mph, perhaps higher) as a massive cold front moved in. The high one day was 90 and the next it was 54. As you might have surmised, we don’t get hurricane force winds very often in Utah. I think most of the houses were okay, but the winds brought down hundreds if not thousands of large trees, leaving over a quarter of a million people without power. I was one of those people, and our power was out for 33 hours, which was pretty annoying, but people directly across the street from me were without power for 96 hours!

As an (aspiring, largely secular) eschatologist I try to be on the lookout for impending cataclysms, but also careful to not overreact to things. Catastrophe’s happen all the time, and sometimes they even happen in clusters, and most of the time this doesn’t translate into serious long-term chaos. Still sometimes your emotions go places you don’t expect. Such was the case the Saturday before the windstorm. I had left the house early and I was driving east. The Sun had risen, but I could look straight at it, because with all the smoke it was nothing but an angry red orb, almost Sauron-esque in its appearance. And I was suddenly overcome by a sense of dread and impending doom. I can only imagine what sort of emotions people were experiencing this month when they looked at the skies in California. All of which is to say, despite my apocalyptic interests I don’t think the world is going to end any time soon, but 2020 is sure doing everything in its power to make me doubt that belief.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress

By: Christopher Ryan

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone interested in a rebuttal to modern optimists like Steven Pinker will find that this book does a pretty good job of exactly that.

Beyond that if you agree with Jared Diamond that “Agriculture the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” Then you’ll definitely enjoy this book.

General Thoughts

I already took aim at this book in a previous post and I’d rather not repeat too much of what I already said, so if you want more discussion of Ryan and his book than what’s provided here, I would recommend reading that as well (if you haven’t already). 

To begin with, and I probably didn’t emphasize this enough in that last post, I did enjoy this book, and he brought up all manner of issues which are not only ignored by the cheerleaders of modernity like Pinker and others, but issues which are also ignored by the vast majority of “normal” people as well. And as I mentioned in that last post, insofar as you apply these things to yourself and actions you take in service of your own health and happiness then the book has a lot of great advice. For example, using his description of the horrors of medically prolonging life to encourage you to draft a living will. It’s when the book tries to tackle the bigger issues that problems start to emerge. Speaking of which…

In that previous post I pointed out Ryan’s contention that he is fine trading additional deaths if in exchange we get “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. And by the way his trade didn’t involve a few additional deaths, but rather the deaths of nearly half of everyone before the age of 15 and many more deaths beyond that. Claiming you’re willing to make such a trade is easy enough when it’s hypothetical, or when you’re referring to people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago. Where it gets much more difficult is when you’re talking about the deaths of people right here, and right now. In other words having read the book I was very curious about his views on the current pandemic.

It seems reasonable to expect that having written a whole book on the tradeoff between an increased chance of death and “health, happiness and personal freedom” that he would be eager to explain how this tradeoff works when applied to the biggest news story since at least 9/11, but as far as I can tell he hasn’t undertaken that exercise. Which is too bad, because at first glance, it does kind of seem that most people are trading happiness and personal freedom (and possibly health as well, certainly mental health) for a slightly reduced chance of dying (certainly nothing close to the chances he was throwing out for hunter-gatherers in the book). And this would appear to be the exact opposite of what he’s advocating. I could imagine him offering an explanation for why this seemingly obvious interpretation was in fact not the interpretation one should draw after reading his book, but there’s no evidence of him attempting that. Mostly what I found when I searched his twitter account is the kind of the garden variety exhortations to wear masks, and retweets about how much Trump sucks that you might expect out of any urban liberal. (Which is not to say that’s what he is, merely that his tweets contained nothing to set himself apart from that stereotype.)

Though, in the process of searching, I did find this tweet:

Every time you hear someone say, “We’ll get through this,” remember that they’re denying the existence of those who won’t.

Viewed in light of his own very blase attitude towards the 46% of children in forager societies who “don’t get through it” this statement seems at best oblivious and at worst massively hypocritical. 

Eschatological Implications

A long time ago there were these text only story games. One of which was based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In the game there was a path you could follow which closely resembled the plot of the book. However someone once told me (i.e. this might not be true) that that wasn’t the way to win. To win, very early on, before even leaving Earth, you had to do something completely unexpected and it was that path, completely different from the book, and only available if you made a radical choice right at the beginning which led to victory.

I was reminded of this by a story Ryan told in his book of a man by the name of Brian Stevenson who, in 2003, while attempting to help secure a hot air balloon ended up hanging on to the balloon as it was carried away, and hung on so long that when he finally lost his grip he was hundreds of feet in the air and ended up falling to his death. This story ends up providing one of the central metaphors of the book, that the invention of agriculture was like grabbing on to a hot air balloon as it gets blows away and then despite being in a very bad place (cultivators as opposed to foragers) we get to a point where we can’t let go. Where, like the game, we needed to make a different decision right at the beginning, but now we can’t because we’re hundreds of feet in the air. Perhaps this is so, but telling us we should have let go a long time ago isn’t very helpful. What we really need is advice on how to climb into the balloon and descend safely.

From the standpoint of how things end, e.g. eschatology, this makes Ryan’s book post-eschatological. The end isn’t out there somewhere, rather it happened a long time ago in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, and ever since then we’ve been consigned to a hell of our own making.


The End of History and the Last Man 

by: Francis Fukuyama

418 Pages

Who should read this book?

Anyone who snorted derisively at the idea that history ended at the same time as the cold war (like me) should read this book as penance.

Or, if you’re familiar with the term “Whig history” and you want a modern and sober assessment of it, this is also a great book for that.

General Thoughts

I spent my last post talking about this book, and my next post will talk about it as well, so I’ll try and keep my review on the short side. 

At a more general level, beyond all the stuff I’ve been discussing, Fukuyama’s claims can be reduced into a set of tiers of decreasing plausibility:

  • His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
  • His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. (Certainly it’s not something Ryan’s foragers could do.)
  • Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.

A lot of stuff gets added on top of this framework, but in the end his claim that there are no alternatives left to liberal democracy basically comes down to the idea that no other system of government can beat it in a fight. Which is kind of an interesting way to show that we’re at the “End of History”.

Eschatological Implications

In order to show that we’ve reached some kind of end point (albeit, as we’ve seen a somewhat different end point than most people imagine) you have to assume that history is directional. If we reverse that we find that any claim that history has a direction, like Fukuyama’s, automatically becomes an eschatological claim. However, as you can see from the framework above it’s not a very strong eschatology, Fukuyama predicts neither a utopia (apparently we still have the threat of war and racial animosity) nor an apocalypse, but rather sort of a weird local (or maybe global?) maximum created by the scientific method. The maximum is easy to slip off of, but there are no other heights, at least not nearby, from which it can be challenged. Or is there? China seems to be giving us a lot of problems despite not being a liberal democracy, and this will be the subject of my next post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Siddhartha

By: Herman Hesse

160 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’ve seen this on a lot of lists. And furthermore many people recommend it as one of the best books of all time. On the off chance that it will end up on your “Best of” list you should probably read it. Even if it doesn’t (as was the case with me) it’s still a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This was an interesting book to read in the immediate aftermath of finishing The Master and His Emissary which was all about the need to strengthen the right hemisphere, and in any assessment Siddhartha is a very right-brained book, though perhaps too right-brained. While the quest of Siddhartha is beautiful and simple, his final philosophy ends up being a little too broad, seemingly reducible to the tautology that everything is everything. 

That said I still think there’s a lot a wisdom in here and in particular, like Tim Ferris (who may have provided the recommendation necessary to push me into reading it) I love the response Siddhartha provides when the merchant asks him what he can do: “I can think, I can wait and I can fast.” I would have to say we need a lot more of all three of those in our current world. 

Beyond that, while the book was beautiful and inspiring, I’m not sure how much practical advice there was, or how much you would want to emulate Siddhartha or whether such emulation is even possible. To give one example, which I assume will seem very picky to the many fans of the book, but which I think gets at an important criticism of a lot of books like this. For all of Siddhartha’s enlightenment, for all of his wisdom, he can’t figure out two of the most basic things. How to be a good Son and how to be a good Father. And it’s not as if he decides that those roles are unimportant. In the book, the only thing he wants more than to be a good Father is to achieve enlightenment, and he also realizes, in the process of being a father, how much he has wronged his own father. And yet this thought, rather than prompting him to immediately to make amends, passes with kind of an “Oh, well” shrug. 

The central point being, if enlightenment can’t give you the skills necessary to be even average at some of the most fundamental roles of existence (father and son) what exactly is the point of it? I guess you might say happiness, but clearly his failures as a father make him unhappy and cause him pain, so he doesn’t even get that.

All that said, it’s not inconceivable that I’m missing the whole point of the book…


The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom

By: Slavomir Rawicz

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I couldn’t finish this book, which almost never happens (though it should probably happen more often to be honest) which I guess means that nobody should read this book.

General Thoughts

I assume most people don’t go into books blind, though maybe I’m wrong about that. Speaking for myself I like to at least know what kind of book it is, and a general overview of where it’s headed before I start reading. Wikipedia is usually a pretty great source for that sort of information, and that’s what I consulted before beginning this book. Once there I found out that the book, in addition to being a tale about prisoners escaping a camp in Siberia and making their way to India in the early years of World War 2, might also be entirely made up.

As you can imagine that cast a pall over things, but the book had been recommended to me by the little old lady of my acquaintance who I’ve mentioned in this space before and she normally has pretty unerring tastes when it comes to what makes a good story, so I figured even if it was fictitious I’d get a “ripping yarn” out of it. Accordingly I started reading it (actually listening to it) despite my misgivings.

As I mentioned I didn’t finish it, but I did get around 70% of the way through it, and perhaps the ending is incredible, but the part I did read wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped. Still, given my desire for completeness, I probably would have pushed through if it had continued to at least maintain the veneer of realism. Unfortunately it couldn’t even do that. What finally made me stop was when, in the process of crossing the Gobi Desert, they ended up going without water for 13 days!!! And this wasn’t 13 days without exertion in mild conditions where there would be no need to sweat for temperature regulation, this was 13 days of walking in the heat. By itself, this is a pretty unbelievable claim, but my choice to abandon the book probably had more to do with his description of the events. I’ve read a fair number of survival books, and his version of going without water seemed almost laid back, in comparison to the frantic, insanity inducing accounts of the other books I’ve read.

Lest I give you the impression that the novel was entirely without merit. I thought the first part of the book, which took place before being sent to Siberia, and mostly consisted of different descriptions of Soviet interrogations was actually quite good. But beyond that I wouldn’t otherwise recommend this book.


Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

By: Kevin Peter Hand

248 Pages

Who should read this book?

People interested in xenobiology.

General Thoughts

If you read anything at all about Fermi’s Paradox you’ll encounter the idea of a habitable zone. That place where a planet is neither too close to the sun, nor too far away. Where most of the time water is a liquid. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find discussions of galactic habitable zones, where the solar system itself is not so close to the center of the galaxy to be overwhelmed by supernovas and high energy gamma radiation bursts, but also not so far away that there are no nearby stars, or previous supernova to supply the heavy elements. To these first two Hand adds a third a habitable zone for planetary satellites, where a moon is close enough to a large planetary body that tidal flexing provides sufficient heat to support oceans of liquid water. As it turns out there are quite a few of these moons just in our own solar system. The most promising candidates being Europa and Enceladus, and Hand goes into quite a bit of detail on why these oceans buried under an external layer of ice make such promising environments for life. But he also covers other moons, and even Pluto as part of the book.

For myself I don’t think Alien Oceans did much to increase the probability I would assign to life on one of these moons, which I already felt was pretty high (which in the xenobiology game is probably equates to anything above 5%) but after reading the book I had a much better foundation for my beliefs than previously. All of which is to say I found the book interesting but mostly unsurprising. And something which tied in well to the recent discovery of phosphine on Venus as another reason to have serious doubts about all of the “Rare Earth” answers for Fermi’s Paradox. 


Kansas City Noir

by: Various

240 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned noir short stories this isn’t a bad collection. 

General Thoughts

I’m doing an embarrassing amount of remote role-playing right now. One of the campaigns I’m playing in is an homage to True Detective set in 2016 Kansas City and environs. On a whim, in an attempt to get more material for things I picked up this book and decided to listen to it. In all my reading I have actually not done a lot of noir reading, and so I’m not sure I’m qualified to judge the quality of this book in relationship to other collections of noir short stories, but I enjoyed it, it seemed to largely do a good job of getting the feeling correct. I understand this isn’t a stirring recommendation, but it is a recommendation nonetheless (for those looking for this specific thing.)


Innsmouth: (The Weird of Hali #1) 

by: John Michael Greer

278 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you like the Lovecraftian mythos, and you’re looking for something different, but still within that “world” this should be right up your alley. 

General Thoughts

I like John Michael Greer a lot, which is not to say that I agree with him on everything, in fact I think we have very different world views, but his thoughts on the problems of modernity are spot on, and I’ve referenced him quite a bit in this space. That, however, is his non-fiction, this book is (hopefully) fiction. Though as you might expect his somewhat eccentric worldview does have a big impact here, so big in fact that *minor spoiler* the followers of Dagon, Cthulhu and the rest are the good guys. I say that’s only a minor spoiler because you found out pretty early on that that’s the way it’s going, so yes, if you know this it will eliminate some of the early suspense, but I think it’s the reason you’re most likely to decide to read the book, so I wanted to get it out there.

Beyond this fascinating premise, the rest of the book was quite good, and I tore through it pretty quickly. That said, there were some bits that didn’t quite work when translated from unnamable horror to defender of magic and mystery, and while Greer is a good writer, he’s not a great writer, and his characterization is a little flat. Even so I quite enjoyed it. And I’ll add it to the list of series (there are at least four more books) which I have started, but not yet finished.


The Kill Chain: How Emerging Technologies Threaten America’s Military Dominance

by: Christian Brose

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re a military buff, I would recommend this book. If you’re a military buff who’s also worried about China then you absolutely have to read this book.

General Thoughts

Last month I ended up reading two books focused on the threat of China, of which this was the first. Reading the two together, with some additional pollination by ideas from End of History and to a lesser extent A World Undone (the last book I’ll be reviewing in this post) led to an interesting and hopefully fruitful alchemical combination. Which, as I have extensively foreshadowed, will be the subject of my next post. I hope that the ideas look as good on paper [BLOG] as they do in my head. In addition to stoking your excitement, this is also my way of saying that this review is only a partial exploration of the book, that I’m saving much of it for that next post.

This book is a deep exploration of the emerging areas of weakness in the US military, compared to the emerging areas of strength in the Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian militaries. As a former aide to John McCain and the Staff Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee the thing that Brose brings to the table is an incredible understanding of the relationship between the military and the government. I imagine that it’s possible to get a sense of the danger China poses militarily from lots of sources. (To be clear they’re really only dangerous in their own backyard, no one is saying China is going to invade and conquer the US.) Indeed I think I already had a pretty good sense of the danger just from stuff I picked up on the internet, what I didn’t have a sense of was how hard it’s going to be for the US military to pivot in such a way that they can effectively counter China in places like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

While it’s hard to know exactly how effective the Chinese military is, (though according to Brose over the last decade in war games intended to simulate a conflict with China the US side has lost every single time) or how good they are at acquiring and using weapons systems. We do have a very clear idea of how good the American military is at such use and acquisition. And the answer is not very. 

A good example of how defense acquisition can go wrong is the Army’s attempt to buy a new pistol a few years ago. It issued a request for proposals that ran over 350 pages of cumbersome details and envisioned years of costly development and testing before soldiers would ever get a new sidearm. Even Army leaders were surprised. They learned about it when McCain and I told them, and then they were as outraged as we were. “We’re not figuring out the next lunar landing,” said an outraged General Mark Milly at the time, when he was chief of staff of the Army, “This is a pistol. Two years to test? At $17 million?” he vented. “You give me $17 million on a credit card and I’ll call Cabela’s tonight, and I’ll outfit every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine with a pistol for $17 million. And I’ll get a discount on a bulk buy.”

This example is just the tip of the iceberg. It pretty much doesn’t matter which aspect of the military or its relationship to the government you look at, it’s all bad. And it seems unlikely to get better anytime soon.


Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat 

by: Newt Gingrich

408 Pages

Who should read this book?

Of the two books I’m reviewing that deal with China, if your worry is primarily military in nature, and only secondarily about China read The Kill Chain. But if your worry is primarily China, and only secondarily about their military strength, read this book. Also I’m reasonably certain there are better books about China than Trump vs. China. I’m not certain that there are better books about the current problems facing the US Military than The Kill Chain.

General Thoughts

I feel like this book needed a different title, I think I would have gone with “The US vs. China” rather than “Trump vs. China”, because the problems Gingrich outlined existed long before Trump came into office and will continue to exist long after he’s gone. Nor (and here my biases may be affecting things) did he make a very strong case for Trump being uniquely focused or effective when it came to this problem. Which is not to say that Biden would be better, I don’t think there’s much evidence he would be, but if you imagine that the scale of the problem is 1000, does it really make much difference to have Trump who treats it like a 30 in office vs. Biden who only treats it like a 10? Either way the effort being put forth is completely inadequate to the problem. The thing that Trump should get the most credit for, tariffs, takes up only a small part of the book, and while they’ve probably been better than nothing (for those convinced of China’s perfidy) there impact was pretty small, and there’s ever indication that even Trump might back down before they have the necessary impact. 

Where the book really shone was in crafting an overarching narrative for the Chinese strategy, though even here Gingrich could have done better. He uses the idea that the Chinese treat their international efforts like they are playing a game of go, as opposed to the West which treats it like a game of chess. He also demonstrated how everything China is doing makes sense if you consider it to be part of the high level Belt and Road Initiative. But in both cases he introduced these frameworks well into the book’s second half, which was a weird decision, almost as if he only thought of them after he’d been writing for awhile and rather than go back and introduce them earlier and incorporate them into the stuff he’d already written they just got included at the point at which they occurred to him. Nevertheless their explanatory power was great enough that it was easy to see how they provided excellent analogies for the situation.

The go vs. chess analogy ends up being very illuminating when applied to the situation with Taiwan and the South China Sea. If you view the region as a chess game, then Taiwan is obviously the king, aircraft carriers are the queen and other ways of projecting force are analogous to rooks, bishops and knights. But as a game of go, it’s all about making small incremental moves to take more territory. Building up artificial islands in the South China Sea, moving anti ship missiles to the coast and gradually increasing their range. Getting countries to no longer recognize Taiwan, etc. The analogy is not perfect of course, but in the end I think the Chinese strategy is a better one. Particularly for controlling the area right in their backyard. 

As far as the “Belt and Road Initiative”, I admit to being initially dismissive of the idea when I first heard about it. What do I care if the Chinese build a road that connects China to Rotterdam? I kind of assumed that it was already possible to make that drive and the Chinese were just making it easier, but once you start to view it more figuratively, the initiative becomes a lot more worrisome. What do I mean by that? Well perhaps you’ve heard of the fight over 5G? Well as Gingrich points out the Chinese are well ahead of us on this, and using a spectrum for transmission which the US hasn’t even gotten around to making available yet, and while that’s interesting, I only really grasped it’s true impact when I envisioned 5G as yet another road, one that China is building, one that might be so advanced that a significant portion of the world’s communication ends up on a Chinese road rather than something built using American technology. This same pattern applies to their activities in space, and even the manner in which they work with organizations like the NBA and Hollywood. 

There’s obviously a lot more to things, but as with the previous review I intend to expand on all of these topics in my next post. 


A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 

by: G. J. Meyer

778 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a book on World War I, I would read Guns of August first, but this is a strong contender for second particularly if you’re focused on the actual hostilities. (If you’re looking for a more political angle with a focus on America, Meyer’s other book, The World Remade, is better.) 

General Thoughts

I sort of stumbled into reading several books on World War I. This has given me the idea of choosing some piece of history at the beginning of each year and really focusing on it. Though we’ll have to see how that works out, some periods probably need more than a year, and some probably just need one good book. 

Also I don’t intend to abandon World War I because it’s so fascinating. I know World War II get’s far more attention, and certainly it’s flashier, but WWI was really when the world changed, when old ideologies fractured, when the nature of war was forever unmasked, when the communists took power and the Tsar, Kaisar and monarchs not only lost the war, but lost their countries and in some cases their lives as well. It’s a time that was only 100 years ago, and yet people alive today can’t even fathom doing what those people and nations did. And yet despite this, particularly in the way the nations rushed into war, I still think it holds a tremendous number of lessons.


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Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

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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Sometimes when I sit down to start a post I have something that’s dying to get out, something which I feel must be said, and as quickly as possible. In my assessment of social media I assume that many people feel this same mix of necessity and rapidity, and that it’s probably just as illusory for them as it is for me, but without such illusions no one would ever write anything. At other times I’m not sure what to write about. One might imagine that in these instances that I would decide to write nothing, but that never happens. Perhaps it should, but I tell myself that my writing is as much for my own education as it is for the education of others, and as such I should maintain the habit regardless of whether I feel particularly driven to write at any given moment.

All of this is a way of explaining that when I sat down to write this post I found myself in the latter category, wondering what to write about. Which is not to say there was no subject that seemed important enough to write about, but more that there were too many important subjects at that moment, and I’ve already talked about them, and worry I’m out of anything unique or noteworthy to add. As a further drag on my desire I worry that my own methodology for speaking about things might be getting overused, that is digging into the deeper implications of some book I’m reading, or alternatively exploring the ramifications of the political crisis de jour. But I’ve decided that rather than avoiding this tendency that, at least in this post, I’m going to double down on it, and combine a discussion of a book I’m reading with a discussion of the latest political crisis! I’m sure you’re all very excited.

The book is The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. In the past I have made light of the contention Fukuyama makes right in the book’s title. That we have reached the “end of history”, but my criticisms were probably misplaced and mostly due to me having an overly simplified view of what he was saying. After discovering that his point was more complicated, I vowed to read the book, which I did while at the same time working on this post. 

Fukuyama’s chief argument is that, at the end of the cold war the hybrid system of capitalism and liberal democracy didn’t have any obvious competitors. That no other ideologies remained which had a credible claim for being the better system. The book was written in 1992, when the Chinese communist system was still looking somewhat shaky in the wake of things like Tiananmen Square. In the intervening years I think it’s made a credible run at providing a competing vision of governance, but a specific discussion of China will have to wait for another post (probably not the next post which will be my September book review post, but the post after that.) However, in 1992 things were very different and there was lots of room for hope. Thus one obvious criticism of the book is that it suffers from being too close to things.

At the time, this idea that capitalism and liberal democracy had won, was treated as great news. The cold war was over. We didn’t have to worry about being eventually overwhelmed by communism or alternatively perishing in a fiery apocalypse brought on by two irreconcilable ideologies. Unfortunately in the midst of all this optimism, a new problem emerged, and this is where Fukuyama’s book is at his best. (Chapter 28, “Men Without Chests”, which discusses Nietzsche’s view of things, justifies the entire book all by itself.) This new problem might be stated: If what we have is as good as it’s going to get, if we’ve reached an ideological dead end, what happens if it turns out not to work either? What if we discover that liberal democracy itself is ultimately fragile in a similar fashion to all previous types of government? (Perhaps the fragility just takes longer to manifest?) If this turns out to be the case, then there’s really no refuge left. To put it another way, since the Enlightenment, people have aspired to a liberal democratic government as an ideal, even more so after 1776 when it was apparent that it was actually possible. And it was felt that if a nation ever managed to make that transition that things would vastly improve But if, as seems to be currently happening, liberal democracy starts breaking down, then what’s left to aspire to?

I know some people still aspire to communism but that carries a host of issues, including it’s record of failure, and the difficulty of assembling a broad enough base of support. Beyond that there are proposals for a variety of untried systems, or for massive changes to liberal democracy, but the proposals seem unlikely to work in anything close to the fashion their advocates envision, and making massive changes seem at best a method of buying more time, not anything that changes liberal democracy from something which can fail into something which can’t.

In examining this question of whether democracy too might fail, or whether it’s already failing, it’s useful to consider why previous systems of government failed. Fukuyama mainly ascribes these previous failures to a lack of legitimacy. In particular the 20th century saw lots of totalitarian states. These states derived their legitimacy from several things, economic growth, stability, and particularly the point of a gun. What didn’t play any part in their legitimacy were big ideas which persisted when those other three things went away. Because eventually all three of those things will go away.  Even rule at the point of a gun isn’t sustainable forever. (Though as North Korea illustrates it can be sustained for a very long time.) To a certain extent communist regimes had big ideas like equality and plenty for all, but these big ideas never panned out, even after decades of effort. Also it’s difficult to combine maintaining something at the point of a gun while also claiming that it’s really the big idea that keeps everything going. Which is to say it’s tough to believe in the utopia of Communism when your country is being run by Stalin.

Previous to democracy and communism, and even well into the 19th century, there were monarchies, which operated under big ideas like heredity and the divine right of kings. (And the fact that the vast masses of people couldn’t do much about the system even if they wanted to.) Whatever their source, according to Fukuyama, these big ideas provide a long-term source of legitimacy, similar to a cash reserve that can be drawn on when things get bad. In the case of the monarchy, even during a revolution, these big ideas were in play, and a relative of the previous king started from a much stronger position than some random individual, or even some random noble. In the same way that someone who won an election (even if that election was suspected of being rigged) has far more legitimacy than the average individual these days. But this isn’t the only source of modern legitimacy. When things were tough for the Soviet Union during World War II they could draw on the idea that they were fighting fascist hordes who wanted to wreck their communist utopia, and probably they drew on their sense of national pride as well. Finally, the point of a gun was almost certainly in there as well. This is still Stalin we’re talking about.

This last example brings up the idea of necessity, which is related, but somewhat different than legitimacy. As I pointed out in a previous post, one possible reason for why we’re so disunited at the moment is that there’s nothing forcing us to be united. No external threat we need to face. Post Pearl Harbor and with literal Nazis in charge of Europe, it was probably pretty easy to be united, and as far as I can tell there were very few questions of where the government derived its legitimacy. And the point that Fukuyama makes in his book, is that while some external threat exists, or alternatively when the economy is booming and times are really good, it’s easy for any form of government to seem legitimate. They’re performing the core tasks that governments need to perform. It’s when times get tough and there’s nothing external to unite against that totalitarian governments end up being more fragile than liberal democracies because there’s no underlying big idea to draw on to keep things together if, say the economy tanks. 

If, as is the case today, the country feels no necessity to unite in the face of an external threat, because there are none. And further, if the economy is not booming and things are not going well, at least for the vast majority of people. And finally, if the government is (hopefully) not being maintained at the point of a gun. Then the only difference between a totalitarian regime on the verge of collapse, say the Soviet Union in 1988, and us, is our big ideas. And if they truly are the only thing standing between us and collapse, then it’s probably a good idea to examine what those big ideas are and see how they’re holding up.

One of the big ideas is permitting free and open debate. The assumption being that if all the information is out there that people will eventually make the right decision. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this particular idea because it’s something which I’ve talked a lot about in the past, and it’s also something that’s being talked about a lot by people other than me, but it seems clear that this is one big idea that’s looking pretty shaky. Not only is it harder and harder to separate good information from bad, but there’s a significant push to restrict speech and information above and beyond that. 

Another big idea is using elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. This isn’t looking that great either. Certainly Trump’s recent statements undermining this idea are alarming, but when Hillary Clinton is saying that Biden should not concede the election “under any circumstances” I’m not sure 100% of the blame can be placed on Trump for the erosion of this idea. My current prediction is that the 2020 election will continue to fulfill this function, but it’s hard to argue that this idea isn’t getting weaker each cycle.

Yet another important big idea is equality of opportunity. Of all the ideas that existed at the time Fukuyama wrote his book, this is the one that has undergone the most sustained attack, particularly from the perspective of the ongoing racial inequalities. Though in Fukuyama’s defense he foresees that this might be the case:

Moreover, even American democracy has not been particularly successful in solving its most persistent ethnic problem, that of American blacks. Black slavery constituted the major exception to the generalization that Americans were “born equal,” and American democracy could not in fact settle the question of slavery through democratic means. Long after the abolition of slavery, long, indeed after the achievement of full legal equality by American blacks, many remain profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American culture. Given the profoundly cultural nature of the problem, on the side both of blacks and whites, it is not clear that American democracy is really capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.

However, having mentioned it as a possibility, he doesn’t seem to think it poses much of a problem long term. Yes, it comes up a lot, but only in very general terms, he definitely didn’t foresee what’s happening now. And of course maybe he’s right, and in the end current unrest may have very little long term impact. Perhaps I’m as blinded by the events of 2020 as Fukuyama was by the events of 1989. In his case it ended up creating too much optimism, perhaps in my case it’s creating too much pessimism. But for the moment let’s imagine that the possibility Fukuyama brings up in the book is in fact a description of our current reality, that American democracy is not “capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.” What then?

Well, insofar as big ideas confer a reserve of legitimacy, to be drawn on when times are difficult (which they seem to be) the disappearance of this idea, perhaps more than any of the other big ideas, may leave us without any reserves of legitimacy. The equivalent of a totalitarian government dealing with a popular uprising. Indeed many people would describe it in just these terms, but I don’t think any of those people have actually ever lived somewhere truly repressive. 

The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg brings up the final big idea I’d like to cover. (To be clear there are lots of big ideas underpinning liberal democracy, but I think even the ones I’ve neglected to mention are passing through a period of unusual weakness.) This final big idea is the rule of law. Now of course Republicans would be quick to point out that in confirming her replacement they aren’t violating any laws, and this is entirely true, nor did they violate any laws when they refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nor did the Democrats violate any laws when they failed to confirm Robert Bork, nor will they be violating any laws if they retake the Presidency and the Senate and pack the courts. But laws, particularly laws as elegantly devised and as pithy as the Constitution aren’t designed to cover every conceivable eventuality. Accordingly part of the “rule of law” big idea is the awareness that laws are surrounded with certain understandings, norms, and even a layer of civility and cooperation which keeps things from descending into a contest of merely seeing who can get away with the most the fastest. 

Despite the existence of these many pressing problems I just pointed out (and the many I didn’t), it’s common to hear people counter that things aren’t as bad as they were in the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly they’re nowhere near where they were on the eve of the Civil War. (I’ve even done it myself on occasion.) But if, as Fukuyama asserts, it’s less about the amount of blood being spilt and more about the amount of legitimacy in reserve, then we might actually be closer to disaster than we were in either of those cases. For example, however intense the violence got during the late 60s/early 70s, all of the “big ideas” were significantly healthier. Free and open debate was taken to be an article of faith by the media and those in power, and it was a particular cause of the left (see for example the Free Speech Movement). I don’t recall any big worries about the peaceful transition of power, but that says more about us than about them, that the subject has even come up. Moving on to equality of opportunity, certainly the Civil Rights act didn’t solve everything, but I would nevertheless argue that people were significantly more optimistic about it solving the problems of racial inequality than anyone is about anything involving race right now. Finally, as has been well documented, despite whatever other unrest was going on, partisan rancor was not nearly so severe. Further, I can only conclude, based on all the people arguing that the Senate has historically “never done this”, or “never done that”, or “always done something else” that this history of greater cooperation they’re referring to includes that period in the late 60s and early 70s. 

As far as the Civil War. Here the case for big ideas is even stronger. So strong, that, speaking personally, I’ve always had a hard time entirely wrapping my head around it. This is a situation where, speaking just of soldiers on the Union side (it being dangerous to say much of anything about the Confederacy these days) 360,222 were willing to die, just for the big idea of preserving the United States. For those with more modern sensibilities it would be easier to understand if you imagine that they were dying for the big idea of ending slavery and indeed that was the thing underlaying the entire war, but for the average Union solider the priority was preserving the country. They were fighting and dying for the big idea of American exceptionalism. This takes on added significance when you recall that the 360,000 who died came out of a far smaller population, about a tenth of what it is today, meaning that would be equivalent to 3.6 million dying today.

If all of the foregoing is correct and legitimacy is really the thing that matters, and liberal democracy, especially American liberal democracy, is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, what can we do about it? The totalitarian governments which had recently fallen when Fukuyama was writing his book were able to shift from totalitarianism to liberal democracy. But as I pointed out at the beginning, if Fukuyama is correct and liberal democracy represents the end point of progression, then there is no system we can switch to. We’re at the end of things, and if that system doesn’t work then there’s nowhere else to go. 

Some people seem to imagine that communism is still an option, and perhaps it is, perhaps it just needs certain institutions, technologies and attitudes which didn’t exist the last time it was tried. An idea I explored in a previous post, despite this it’s still a pretty far-fetched idea. 

Other people think that there’s a way of combining critical race theory with liberal democracy to produce a new system which would finally fully assimilate blacks in a way that actually led to equality of condition. When I say that some people think there’s a way to do this, I’m actually not sure anyone seriously thinks it can be done, the conflicts between the two systems are essentially irreconcilable, but it represents the vague desires of everyone with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard. Which is to say, it’s a great idea, but from the standpoint of this post, even if it were possible, the system would end up possessing neither the big ideas of liberal democracy nor the big ideas of critical race theory. I understand this last bit is a claim that probably needs more support than I’m giving it. But my post Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory covers a lot of that territory.

As perhaps the most radical option of all, conceivably you could ditch liberal democracy entirely, and switch to a system whose legitimacy rested on the big ideas of Critical Race Theory. Fukuyama actually covers this possibility, though not directly:

At one extreme, the Marxist project sought to promote an extreme form of social equality at the expense of liberty, by eliminating natural inequalities through the reward not of talent but of need, and through the attempt to abolish the division of labor. All future efforts to push social equality beyond the point of a “middle-class society” must contend with the failure of the Marxist project. For in order to eradicate those seemingly “necessary and ineradicable” differences, it was necessary to create a monstrously powerful state. (emphasis mine)

Again, I understand that this point deserves more support than it’s getting, and again I would direct you to my previous post

After surveying our various options, it would seem that if our reserves of legitimacy are depleted that there are no good options, of course other than somehow refilling those reserves, of restoring the big ideas enough so that they can once again act as a source of legitimacy. Put that way, there are obviously lots of people working on the project. But unfortunately I’m not seeing many signs that they’ve been at all successful.


There is one other system that seems to possess some reserves of legitimacy, (though how large these reserves are is anyone’s guess) that system is Chinese Communism. But as I alluded to near the beginning I’m saving that for the post after next. If you have any concerns that I might run out of steam before then, consider donating.


The Problem With Solutions

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Some of you may recall my review of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. If you don’t, allow me to summarize. It was a book which contained an enormous amount of insight, assembled during the decades they spent studying historical events and societies, and while reading the book I spent the vast majority of that time in deep appreciation of their scholarship and wisdom. That is until the last chapter when they decided that they would close out the book with some very specific policy proposals. These recommendations were made at the tail end of the Civil Rights Era during Nixon’s presidency, and perhaps times were more different than I imagine. But reading them now, most of their suggestions appear hopelessly naive, combining both insane ambition with a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. As an example I offer up their very first suggestion:

Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.

(And you thought the resistance to masks was intense! How would one enforce this? Compulsory abortions?)

At the time I think I wrote the suggestions off as an artifact of the time in which they were writing, when great big government initiatives still looked like an effective method for problem solving. (I guess some people continue to hold this opinion, but I’d venture to suggest that even hard core advocates of government solutions would still blanche at proposing that people pass tests before being allowed to breed.) Since reading Lessons of History I have noticed a similar pattern in other books:

  • There was Technopoly (reviewed here) where Postman’s solution was to implement education standards so comprehensive and ambitious that no child could possibly be expected to meet them. 
  • There was The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (reviewed here) where the solution was extensive hormone testing of traders and other risk takers before allowing them to continue to take risks.
  • Finally, and the most extreme example I’ve encountered thus far, there was Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan. I’ll be reviewing it at the beginning of October, but the solutions offered were so bad that I was really left with no choice but to write this post.

Before I get into my severe problems with Civilized to Death, let me be clear. All of these books were dead on in bringing to light the subtle problems of modernity we’re currently grappling with. And they were additionally very useful in identifying the source of these problems. Their utility is great enough that I would recommend reading all three books. As examples of my regard, I wrote a whole post in support of Amusing Ourselves to Death and I’ve recommended Hour Between Dog and Wolf to friends of mine who I thought were dealing with chronic work-induced stress. Civilized to Death is very similar in this regard. It’s a great book for countering a certain brand of modern optimism, like that displayed by Stephen Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, an optimism I myself have frequently taken issue with. Civilization does have an enormous number of ill effects, and Ryan does a great job of pointing these out. But in the process of doing this he also makes three big mistakes:

  1. In numerous places Ryan uses examples of a recent increase in some negative outcome in support of his premise that civilization is bad. But given that he basically belongs to the Jared Diamond, “The invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race” school, and defines civilization as everything that has happened since. It seems unlikely that, say, empathy decreasing by 40% over the last 30 years, has anything to do with our abandonment of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
  2. As I’ve said before I bow to no man in my desire to criticize Steven Pinker, but Ryan fundamentally misrepresents Pinker’s argument, and ignores significant sources of pre-agricultural death.
  3. Ryan’s solutions are entirely too small to deal with the size of the problems he points out. If we accept his premise that a hunter-gatherer society is the ideal state for human beings, how on earth do we get from 7.8 billion people being supported by a massive system of agriculture, to some, presumably vastly smaller number of hunter-gatherers?

In this post I mostly intend to talk about this third mistake, though I’ll have to bring in a lot of discussion of his second mistake in order to establish why the solutions are inadequate, so let’s begin there.

Ryan points out repeatedly that hunter-gatherers experienced essentially zero population growth, which he contrasts with the high population growth rate of agricultural societies, at one point describing it as the equivalent of a pyramid scheme, with more and more people needed to support the people already alive. It should be noted that in order to have zero population growth two children per woman have to survive until they themselves can reproduce. Which means that if hunter-gatherers had more than two kids that there was some death happening and if they had a lot more kids than that, then zero population growth corresponds with a lot more death.

Ryan’s own description of how things worked has hunter-gatherer women experiencing a later menses, at around 16, leading to their first child at 17. This was followed by three to four years of breastfeeding which was generally effective in keeping them from getting pregnant again. Once the child was weaned the whole process would begin anew. If, from this, we take five years as the maximum interval between offspring, and assume that they’re having children until their late 30s. (Both of which seem very conservative.) Then that gets us a total fertility rate (TFR) of 5. That’s my back of the envelope calculation, and after a little bit of looking around I found this paper which asserts that the !Kung have a TFR 4.69, which the paper’s authors consider to be on the low end of what they had expected. So rounding it off to 5 to match the other estimate seems pretty reasonable. Contrast this with the modern TFR necessary for zero population growth of 2.1, and we’re forced to conclude that deaths from all causes are 150% higher in hunter-gatherer tribes than in modern nation states.

Now Ryan is not entirely naive, he knows that there’s more death among hunter-gatherers than among modern individuals in a developed society, but he excuses this by pointing out that it’s mostly it’s children under the age of 15 who die:

Lest I be accused of romanticizing prehistory, let me be clear on this point: Foragers pay a very high price for their remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom. And that price is exacted in a most precious currency: dead babies.

Among the aforementioned Hadza of Tanzania, for example, where researchers found amazingly healthy children, about one out of every five infants born dies in its first year, and 46 percent don’t make it to the age of fifteen—rates that reflect the median values for a broad survey of foragers. There’s nothing funny about that.

For the moment let’s set aside the discussion of whether this is a cost people would be willing to pay in 2020 for “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. Because despite his candor, this isn’t the whole cost. Even if we assume, what I feel is a pretty conservative TFR of 5 then 46% of people dying by the age of 15 only gets us down to 2.7 which means that we still have 26% of everyone remaining that’s going to die without reproducing if the population is to remain flat. This remainder is non-trivial, the Black Death is generally assumed to have killed about 50% of people, which means that you’re looking at the equivalent of half of that, for all of the thousands and thousands of years during which humans pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

In comparing this to the Black Death, I don’t mean to imply that they all died due to disease. A study of history and archeology reveals that these additional deaths include every member of the big four: famine, pestilence, plagues, and war. (This despite Ryan’s assertion that war does not exist among hunter-gatherers, a blatant falsehood which could easily be the basis of a completely separate post.) The point being that this lifestyle, in addition to being exceptionally dangerous for the young, was exceptionally dangerous for everyone. Further this wasn’t some ecologically-perfect-in-harmony-with-nature-flat-population-for-thousands-of-years system. Where once you adapted to the occasional death life was great. This was the occasional, but very brutal up and down of feast and famine, where a population might quickly double and then just as quickly be slashed to a quarter of what it once was. Which is to say that once you start to leave the realm of infant mortality many of the deaths were due to enormous catastrophes, not isolated events.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that the mere fact of these deaths completely refutes Ryan’s argument. Certainly he has a point about many things, which is part of why it was so frustrating. Much of what he talked about in the book was important and necessary, but at a minimum he should have done a better job of acknowledging the arguments on the other side. There should have been a whole chapter, or maybe even several on this issue, instead he literally spends three paragraphs on it, all the important bits of which I included above (the first of the three paragraphs is his attempt at lightening the subject by talking about the dead baby jokes which started to appear in the 60s, though I remember hearing them in the 80s. Thus his inclusion of the phrase, “There’s nothing funny about that”.)

Now the choice between the modern lifestyle of a developed nation, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle espoused by Ryan is far more complicated and actually far more difficult than just the trade off between “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom” and nearly half of all people dying before the age of 15 and another quarter dying in some other horrible fashion, but even if we were to restrict it to this vastly simplified construction, it’s still devilishly difficult to imagine a solution to this conundrum that would have any chance of being implemented, but Ryan attempts it anyway, and he comes up with…

  • Greater acceptance of death: Get rid of almost all end of life interventions and implement universal access to euthanasia.
  • Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome.
  • Psychedelics
  • Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter

In contrast to the other three books I mentioned, Ryan suffers from an appalling lack of ambition. Not only are none of these items likely to make the slightest dent in (what he claims to be) an eight thousand year old problem but most of them are not even particularly novel.

Greater acceptance of death: I understand that while Granny is dying it’s difficult to make the decision to end life support, and thus at the moment of decision people end up requesting a lot of end of life interventions, but my sense is that outside of that, most people agree with Ryan on end of life care. As far as euthanasia, it’s important to once again reiterate that this is a need that has only developed over the last few decades. If he wants to talk about problems in that time span I’m all ears, as I have noticed the same trend and problems in that category are presumably far more tractable.

Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome: This seems like a weird hill to die on. As far as I can tell the incidence of schizophrenia is just over 1% of the population, and even then, not all schizophrenics hear voices. While I can certainly see where our treatment of the mentally ill could use a lot of work, I’m not sure how this even relates to Ryan’s core topic.

Psychedelics: I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on psychedelics for quite a while but I’ve never gotten around to it, at least I don’t think I ever did. After 200+ posts I’m having a hard time distinguishing between what I wrote about and what I’ve only thought about writing. To be honest psychedelics intrigue me, but the idea that they have any impact at all is still reasonably controversial.  

To preview the post I may never get around to writing, the big excitement these days is around microdosing, and while I think we are getting some interesting data from that, it feels like something that would be really hard to separate from the placebo effect. On the other side I know a lot of people took magic mushrooms or LSD in doses large enough to hallucinate and swear that it changed their lives. When I asked them to get concrete about that, did it make it easier to stay in relationships? Were they more productive, less angry, etc? They normally get pretty evasive. As one example there was someone I knew really well for over a decade, that I worked with and talked to on a daily basis. He claimed that he had had a life changing psychedelic trip, so I asked him, as a close observer of you, what difference should I have noticed? And despite emphatically claiming that it really was an amazing life altering event, in the end he couldn’t come up with anything that I, as a close external observer, would have noticed.  

One final point, while, as I said, psychedelics represent an intriguing avenue, it’s hard to see that it has much to do with why hunter-gatherers had (according to Ryan) such awesome lives. Until they come up as a potential solution Ryan doesn’t even mention them (that I recall and the index of the book bears that out). 

Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter: I understand that I’m being somewhat snarky here. But Ryan appears to be falling into the same trap that those he criticizes keep falling into. (And to be fair he acknowledges this possibility.) That the distributed, less centralized world of the internet will somehow bring about a future Utopia. And I might grant him this if he didn’t provide so much data in his own book that contradicted this. Because every time he made the sloppy mistake of giving data on how bad things have gotten over the last decades (in support of trends spanning thousands of years) he undermined the argument that recent developments have the potential to make anything better. At best one might imagine that these changes have brought some positives (which no one, not even me denies) but these positives appear to be getting completely swamped by the negatives.

To reiterate, Ryan does bring up some interesting ideas in his chapter on solutions, but none of them would make my list of the top 20 things to change about the modern world, nor would the problems he’s focused on make that top 20 list either. From this you may gather that I have multiple top 20 lists, unfortunately not, I was only using the term metaphorically, but we have reached the point where it’s time to put up or shut-up. It’s easy to criticize other people’s solutions as being too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, it’s a lot harder to offer solutions of your own. But having come this far I pretty much have to. Though I am going to wimp out somewhat by offering standards for good solutions rather than specific solutions themselves (though from my standards you can probably infer the solutions.) So let’s finish the post off with some things good solutions should include. Though before I do, one final caveat, these aren’t all the elements a good solution should include but rather, a selection of things which I feel are frequently overlooked.

Solutions should be incremental: This is one of the things that Ryan get’s right in his book. He even brings up the idea that we have a certain rate of change we can manage when adapting to different circumstances and that recently this has been overwhelmed, as things have started to change at a rate faster than what we can adapt to. Of course, it would be inappropriate to let him off the hook completely. He mostly seems to assume, despite granting the presence of gradual adaptation, that we have yet to adapt the changes wrought by agriculture.

Solutions should not overlook the obvious: Any proposed solution is very likely to fail for some unforeseen reason. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and your solution will be the one that finally succeeds, but if it is going to fail, it should at least fail for some subtle and hard to predict reason, not an obvious reason that can be foreseen by nearly everyone. As long as we’re picking on books, Peter Zeihan’s book, The Accidental Superpower (which I reviewed here) fell into this trap. Though he was more offering predictions than solutions it’s nevertheless notable how glaring the absence of nuclear weapons was from his geopolitical assessments. Something very similar happened with the Iraq War. The naivete about how difficult it would be to rebuild the country in the wake of Sadaam’s overthrow is still breathtaking. 

When suggesting solutions, understand the level at which the problem occurs: If many of our problems are due to no longer being hunter-gatherers that’s a problem that operates on so vast a scale as to essentially be immune to solutions. That said, there might be things a given individual can do, and to the extent Civilized to Death focuses on things at that level it’s a great book. To give a more subtle example, the other day I saw a mother on twitter urging people to “raise their sons to be men”. Her daughter had been out on a date where the boy broke down and cried because of the pressure attendant to dating. And then later this same boy provided a pizza dinner at his house despite knowing that the girl had celiac’s disease. Does anyone imagine that this boy’s parents are singularly incompetent? Or that he would have broken down and cried had this been an example of courting in 1880? I think the answer is clearly no to both. But by the same token the daughter almost certainly wouldn’t have had celiac’s if it was 1880 either. While clearly the problem of the weeping boy is somewhat more tractable than the girl with celiac’s. Both problems, the one she was excusing and the one she was condemning, are very much a product of the time and environment we live in.

Understand that every solution assumes a certain set of values: I’ve spoken before about the difference between optimizing for happiness and optimizing for survival. From my discussion of Civilized to Death you can probably guess that Ryan thinks we should optimize for happiness, and that if we could be much happier then it’s worth having nearly half of everyone die before the age of 15. To begin with I’m feeling pretty good right now, so while I can imagine that I would be happier as a forager, how much happier could I be realistically? Even if I could be twice as happy would I trade that for two of my four kids dying? And then of course the real kicker, is that There’s a good chance I wouldn’t exist at all in Ryan’s ideal world. Even if we assume that somehow I wouldn’t have ended up horribly near-sighted and food for tigers. There are a whole host of profound philosophical issues in this discussion, and it’s fine for him to advocate for one side over the other, but he should at least acknowledge that there’s a debate to be had.

If you’re really serious about a solution you should grapple with all of its implications: Closely related to the above, if you want your solutions to be taken seriously then you should make sure to explore all of the potential consequences of those solutions. I was reminded of this recently by an episode of the podcast Planet Money, where they explored how the Black Death had done an unprecedented job of reducing income inequality by killing 50% of all workers. When you break Ryan’s arguments down there would appear to be a lot of parallels between what he’s advocating and this situation. For example as I pointed out above even if you neglect the deaths before the age of 15, hunter-gatherers default to half a black death all the time. Ryan very conveniently gives lots of anecdotes about how awesome the forager life is, while never giving an example similar to the one I just gave, illustrating all of the implications of his advocacy.

And of course this is exactly the problem, it’s very difficult to disentangle your biases from the solutions you choose to offer. I think Civilized to Death is a rather stark example of authorial bias, but all of the other books I mention also clearly have their biases, and I’m obviously not free from bias either. So what’s the solution to bad solutions? What’s the meta-solution? I have already offered a few ideas, but beyond that, I think the most important thing is to exercise humility. I understand that it seems like kind of a cop-out to point out problems and then refuse to offer solutions, but I think it’s equally clear that a bad solution is worse than no solution at all.


There is one thing though, one solution so powerful that it will solve global climate change, bring harmony to US politics, justice for the oppressed and beyond that universal wealth and happiness. What is it? Donating to this blog. Don’t believe me? Well have you tried?


Some Brief Thoughts on Buying Pieces of the Future (Or What Some People Call Investing)

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Recently I’ve had a series of very long posts, so for this one I thought I’d take a break and do something shorter and more straightforward. Of course I start lots of posts with exactly that intention and they still end up being over 3000 words, [If your curious, upon being published, with donation appeal and this message it was 3061 words] but perhaps this will be the exception. I mean how hard can it be to cover all the things you should do with your money plus the stock market and to a lesser extent the entire economy? I guess we’ll find out.

To begin with, long time readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has a lot to say about investing. In particular he recommends a barbell investment strategy, which is to say almost everything ends up at either end of the risk continuum with almost nothing in between. Also the ends are not equal. Taleb recommends that at least 90% of your money should be in things that are super safe, where the risk is well understood and very low. And that 10%, at most, should be in very risky assets with the potential for very high returns.

I could now go on to describe what constitutes something that’s super safe vs. something that’s high risk, and indeed I’ll get to that, but the point of this post is not to give investment advice. Indeed this is explicitly not investment advice, for lots of reasons, but the biggest being that it’s my understanding that I can get in trouble if I say that it is. No, my hope is more to describe how investing is all about using your money to prepare for the future, and consequently a lot depends on what you think the future is going to be like. The reason Taleb recommends the barbell strategy is that he thinks that the future is going to be both unknowable, and volatile.

That last word turns out to be very important. Most people accept that the future is unknowable, but they don’t go on to consider it’s potential volatility. To put it another way they admit that they don’t know which stocks will go up, but they assume that the stock market as a whole will definitely go up over a long enough time horizon and so their strategy is to put all of their money in a diversified stock portfolio. Possibly going so far as to just put it all in an S&P 500 index fund. And to be clear, as investment strategies go, there are worse ones, but it’s important to realize that this strategy only prepares you for one sort of future, one that’s unknowable but mostly boring (low volatility). 

To illustrate how things become not boring let’s look at what might be considered the founding event of Taleb’s philosophy: growing up in Lebanon. Here’s how he tells it:

The mosaic of cultures and religions there was deemed an example of coexistence: Christians of all varieties… Moslems… Druzes; and a few Jews. It was taken for granted that people learned to be tolerant there.

By any standard the country called Lebanon…appeared to be a stable paradise;

The Lebanese “paradise” suddenly evaporated, after a few bullets and mortar shells… after close to thirteen centuries of remarkable ethnic coexistence, a Black Swan, coming out of nowhere, transformed the place from heaven to hell. A fierce civil war began. 

To put it another way, if you had lived in the Levant at any point during those thirteen centuries, you would have been safe assuming the future was going to be boring. (Understanding of course that historically definitions of what constituted “boring” may have been different.) Had there been a Levantine version of the S&P 500 it would have been fair to say that over the long haul it went up, and people use essentially the same language when discussing the stock market. Until one day, when the things that had been true for centuries suddenly weren’t. 

And of course Lebanon has yet to recover, and this is without considering the effects of the recent explosion which has made a bad situation even worse. One assumes that Taleb was powerfully influenced by that experience, and that this included influencing his investment strategy, as well as being one of the things which led him to the idea of a black swan, which he mentioned in the excerpt I quoted.

Hopefully by this point in 2020 we all know what a black swan is (if you don’t I would refer you back to my post, The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.) And each part of the 90/10 split relates to different sorts of black swans. Let’s start by examining the 10% side of things. Taleb’s core assumption (which I agree with) might be stated as follows:

We can’t predict the future, but even beyond that people are particularly bad at differentiating between something with a 5% chance of happening and a 1% chance of happening. Everything is a guess, but the guesses are especially bad starting around odds of 1 in 20 and get progressively worse the higher those odds go up. 

I mentioned that this tied back to black swans, but Taleb would actually say that what I just described is a grey swan. People can see that it might happen, unlike with black swans, but despite considering it as a possibility, they underestimate its likelihood. (Sound like the recent pandemic?) If you can take the other side of this bet, if someone is willing to give you 1 in 100 odds, but the true odds are 1 in 25 then you can make money on the difference. Unfortunately, even if we accept Taleb’s assumption, and assume that this mismatch happens frequently and that the true odds of grey swans are lower than what the market says they are, that they’re 1 in 25 not 1 in 100, you’re still going to be losing a lot more often than you win on these investments. Which is what makes them high risk, but when you do win, you’re not doubling your money you’re increasing it by 100x, and thus the high return. As you might imagine even if things are as straightforward as I describe, which they’re not, this would still require that you make a lot of these bets. But this is also where we’re directing the 10% of our money, not the 90% meaning in order to make this work we have to make lots of bets with the smallest part of the barbell. 

To pull all of this together the 10% part of a Talebian portfolio is designed to give the investor access to potentially lucrative grey swans. And it’s no more than 10% (and possibly less) because “hunting” these grey swans is hugely risky, and you might lose all the money you spend doing it, so we want to make sure that amount is low. To put it in even more basic terms, you’re trying to prepare for the uncertainty of the future by buying a share in as many uncertain futures as possible.

As an aside, the easiest way I’ve found to make these bets is with options, and that’s how Taleb got his start, as an options trader. I assume that this also informed his entire ideology, because the kind of extreme odds I just discussed aren’t even possible through just purchasing stocks. They are, however, accessible to normal traders and I think essentially all online trading platforms provide the ability to buy and sell options. Once again this is not investment advice, just an explanation of investment instruments.

For a while I felt like I had a handle on all of the above, that is the 10% side of things. The bigger struggle has actually been figuring out how to handle the other side, the remaining 90%. And it’s actually the idea I just mentioned, buying a share in different versions of the future that clarified things for me. That and attending Taleb’s Real World Risk Institute earlier this year, and listening to him for a full week. Even so it took a while to gel. Accordingly, the big reason for doing this post now is that I think I finally have a system for the 90% side as well. 

So, you may be asking, if the 10% side is for hunting grey swans, what’s the 90% for? To what are we dedicating the bulk of our wealth? Well, the 10% side is for hunting them, and the 90% side is to keep them from hunting you. And it’s not just the grey swans that are out to get you, the really scary black swans are out there as well. This may seem a little bit paranoid, and it is, but you should be paranoid after the events of the last few months, and probably more than a just a little bit, but if that feels uncomfortably close to being in hardcore guns, gold and spam prepper mode let me frame it differently. 

The 10% is dedicated to buying shares of improbable futures, the 90% is dedicated to buying shares of probable futures. To making sure that whatever the future is, that you have a piece of it, that you’ll have a piece of whatever it is that ends up constituting wealth in the future. Allow me to offer up a few examples:

In Taleb’s earlier books he mentioned that he had at least some of his 90% in government treasuries, and in other very secure bonds. I’m not sure if that’s his allocation anymore, particularly when it comes to treasuries, but the reason he did it, and the reason why you might still do it is that treasuries are guaranteed to keep their value in any future where the US Government remains powerful and the dollar remains valuable. Which is to say you’re making a bet on the USA, and treasuries will continue to count as wealth if your bet is correct.

For another example we can return to the S&P 500. There are some people who have most if not all of their wealth (outside of things like their house) in the S&P 500. Which is a bet that in the future the 500 companies who comprise the index will continue to have value. That the wealth of owning a piece of a large company today will continue to constitute wealth in the future. You can see where that seems like a pretty safe bet, and as I said having most of your money in the S&P 500 is not a bad idea. Of course it’s also more volatile, US treasures have never lost 30% of their value in a month, but for some people that’s precisely what makes it attractive. It’s a bet on a future that is both very likely and a bet that generally pays out better than a bet on the treasuries. You want a slice of a future where companies are still important and the stock market always recovers from whatever history throws at it.

For all my talk about buying a piece of the future, thus far what I have described doesn’t look very different from a standard 401k with a little bit of diversification. So let’s talk about cryptocurrency. Is there a conceivable future where crypto is very important? Sure. Is there a future where crypto is dominant? Where the dollar has collapsed and the US has defaulted? Or some other scenario where Bitcoin or another crypto becomes the de facto reserve currency? I’ll admit it seems unlikely, but what does seem clear is that crypto represents one vision of the future, and a future where crypto is the dominant fungible store of value has the potential to be mutually exclusive with the other visions I’ve mentioned. Should this be the case you would certainly want to make sure you had purchased a piece of that future while it was still cheap.

My next example may be the first one you thought of when I started talking about an asset that would hold its value regardless of what the future brought, and that would be gold (and other precious metals). And indeed it is this quality that it’s many hardcore fans (gold bugs) find so appealing. That regardless of what happens the value of gold is never going to go to zero. Further they foresee a future where it’s the only thing that has any value. The point of the 10% is to chase profits, the point of the 90% is to avoid ruin, and if the future arrives and you’re left with nothing that still holds value, then you have definitely not invested correctly. Gold (or other precious metals) would seem to guarantee that you will always possess something of value.

Beyond the examples I’ve already given there are of course many other possibilities. Lots of people would argue that any plan for avoiding ruin and preparing for potential futures would be woefully incomplete if you didn’t own your own home and the property on which it sits. Still others assume that the best defense is a good offense and their goal is to invest in a class of assets that will not only retain its value, but experience tremendous gains in value. As an example you might decide that one vision of the future is one in which big technology companies absorb a huge chunk of the economy. Accordingly you might allocate a significant percentage of your 90% to the FAANG stocks and indeed over the last decade such a bet would have been very lucrative. (Honestly a barbell of gold and FAANG doesn’t seem that crazy right at this moment.)

From all of this the key insight that I want you to take away, and the insight I believe I had that clarified things for me is that investing is not about making money, it’s about buying a piece of the future. And it’s true that increasing your personal holdings of whatever counts as wealth now (US Dollars) is a pretty good way of having wealth in the future, since what’s valuable now has a very good chance of still being valuable, but that if we broaden our analysis accumulating dollars is only a subset of the larger project of buying a piece of the future.

Once you’ve absorbed this lesson there’s still a lot to be done. There are all manner of potential futures and one needs to strike a balance between casting too wide a net (putting any of your 90% into an individual stock would almost certainly qualify) or alternatively crafting a net that’s too narrow. (In particular if there’s any chance that something will end up being the only store of value, see gold and crypto above, you should definitely have some of that thing.) In theory you would allocate your investments according to their likelihood. If you think there’s a 20% chance that t-bills will continue to be the best store of value, a 5% chance that crypto will grow to dominate the world and a 10% chance that we end up with a zombie apocalypse where gold and silver are king, then you would invest your assets in that same way.

But once you’ve made this decision you’ll quickly realize that there are other decisions to be made, because having decided on an allocation and placed your resources accordingly, things are going to start to gain or lose value, and it may be that your 5% stake in crypto has grown to be 8% of your net worth. What do you do then? This is a little bit tricky. If you still think crypto only has a 5% chance of being the dominant store of future value then you should rebalance your portfolio. This has the added advantage of forcing you to sell high and buy low (because you’ll be moving money out of your winners into your losers). But, you should also consider the possibility that the gain or loss is a signal of that future becoming more or less likely. In which case you’ll want to adjust your target percentages, probably not by exactly the amount of the gain or the loss, but by part of it.

Beyond all of this, as you get older your own future changes. Do you want to make sure you have something to pass on to your children? Do you have some sort of bucket list? A trip to Europe you’ve always wanted to take. I should mention at this point that I’ve always found Tim Ferris’ exercise of dreamlining to be useful when deciding how much money you really need. 

Finally, while it’s not the primary topic of this post (though it may be one of the major topics of the blog itself) wealth comes in many forms. As one example, it would take an awful lot to make me homeless and that’s without considering any of my assets. Why? Because I have my parents, six brothers and sisters, and a bunch of friends and in-laws who’d be willing to let me move in with them long before I ended up on the street. To travel even farther afield this is also one of the reasons I’ve never entirely understood people who decide not to have kids, I mean talk about a sure fire method to buy a piece of the future!

Hopefully this advice (though definitely not investment advice) has been helpful. I understand that it doesn’t have much to offer in the present moment when the stock market has seemingly gone insane. But hopefully over a long enough time horizon it provides some wisdom, and that the time horizon of its usefulness is longer than much of the other advice that’s out there. In any case, good luck, I think we’re all going to need it. 


I feel like there’s never been a more appropriate time but simultaneously a less appropriate time to ask for your money. On the one hand if you’re going to follow this advice don’t you need your money? On the other hand I’ve just demonstrated the great care and wisdom I would exercise if entrusted with your donation…