The Problem With Solutions

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

Or download the MP3


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)

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

Or download the MP3


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…


Books I Finished in August (of 2020)

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

Or download the MP3


Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk by: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by: Iain McGilchrist

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by: John Coates

Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16) by: Jim Butcher

Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus by: Euripides

Cutting for Stone by: Abraham Verghese

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by: Francis A. Shaeffer 


August was pretty quiet for me, though much hotter than I would have liked. I’m not sure how many days were 100 or above but it was at least a half dozen, and just about every day hit a high of at least 95. I’m hoping we’re done with triple digit days now that September is here, but I guess we’ll see. 

As I said August was quiet for me, but I don’t think the same could be said for the rest of the country. I’m not sure where things are headed, though in general I get the sense that things are escalating. And if they’re escalating now, one can only imagine how much worse they might get as the election draws closer. 


I- Eschatological Reviews

Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk 

By: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

226 Pages

Who should read this book?

This is another book which puts forth a theory for why the current world is so fractious, and as these things go, it’s better than most. It’s not the best I’ve read, but if the premise is intriguing to you at all, I think you’ll be happy you picked it up.

General Thoughts

I’ve read quite a few of these books, and it’s always interesting to consider why so many people are convinced that the modern world is broken in dramatic and fundamental ways. It is of course possible that people are wrong, that modern media and communication is biased towards amplifying negative events and trends, but that in reality things are actually great. We only think it’s horrible. But it also seems possible that Western Civilization in general and the US in particular is suffering from the cultural equivalent of multi-system organ failure.

In the case of grandstanding, it’s the organ of “moral talk” that’s failing. As the authors point out, moral talk is an essential tool for getting others to behave morally, and for bringing about positive social change. Grandstanding is the equivalent of that organ becoming cancerous, of a runaway expansion in moral talk, and unrestricted, ever more extreme versions of it. (The cancer analogy is mine not theirs, but it’s a good one, I’ll have to use it again. Technology and progress as a beneficial process suffering from uncontrolled growth makes a lot of sense.) 

So what exactly is grandstanding? According to the book grandstanding has two parts. The first is the grandstander’s desire to impress others with their moral qualities. The second is their attempt to satisfy this desire by proclaiming these qualities in public, ideally to a large and appreciative audience.

Some of my readers may hear that description, and assume that the authors have just come up with another term for virtue signalling. As it turns out they have been working on this book for so long that the term virtue signalling wasn’t around when they started, and even if it had been they feel that grandstanding is still the superior label, because it’s not politically charged (yet), it’s always intentional whereas most signalling isn’t, and not all grandstanding is about virtue, much of it is about communicating to your in-group. But let’s return to this idea of runaway growth.

In a sense, though the authors didn’t make this connection, grandstanding is to displays of morality as spam emails are to marketing. In the past a far greater percentage of marketing happened in person, in the presence of the product. It’s harder to reach people that way but far more effective when you do because you’re demonstrating features in a tangible fashion. In a similar manner, in the past if you wanted to impress others with your moral qualities you had two choices: Do something moral in their presence or talk about your morality. Before social media came along when you only interacted with a handful of people it was nearly as easy, and far more effective to just do moral things, the people you interacted with were about as likely to see you do something moral as they were to hear you talk about it, and actions are always the more effective signal. But if you suddenly can talk to millions of people for essentially free then that equation changes. Why bother showing off a product in person when you can tell a million people about through an essentially free email. And why bother doing something moral when you can tell a million people how moral you are, thus the runaway growth. Which takes us to the next section…

Eschatological Implications

Anytime you encounter runaway growth, you’re also encountering something with eschatological implications, because there are really only three possibilities. If the runaway growth is positive then we stand back and wait until it reaches some sort of beneficial singularity. If, on the other hand, it’s negative, then hopefully we’re able to arrest it at some point, but the question is how are we able to arrest it? And why didn’t we do it sooner? Perhaps it’s impossible, in which case we’re left with the final option, this negative runaway growth continues until something catastrophic happens. 

The book identifies five attributes of grandstanding, and all five of them have either recently experienced runaway growth because of the internet and social media, or they’re still experiencing runaway growth. These five attributes are:

1- Piling on: This refers to people’s ability to add their voices to some instance of moral talk generated by someone else. The way social media has enabled righteous mobs. Accordingly when a teenage girl in my home town of Salt Lake City posted a picture of her Chinese prom dress, the problem it wasn’t that one person called her out for cultural appropriation, it’s that

hundreds of thousands of other people were able to join in and say, “I agree with what that first person said, ‘you’re a no-good horrible individual.’” Obviously this connectivity and group formation represent the whole point of social media.

2- Ramping up: The story of the Chinese prom dress also represents another aspect where social media has brought runaway growth, and where it still has plenty of room to metastasize. One can hardly imagine that a teenage girl’s prom dress is really the best example people can come up with of cultural appropriation, but when you’re grandstanding, pointing out the same egregious examples of moral harm as everyone else doesn’t get you nearly as much attention as pointing out some new and even more extreme crime. “Oh, you have a problem with cultural appropriation? Well, so do I, and I’m so attuned to that sin that I’m going to target high school girls and their prom dresses!”

3- Trumping up: Closely related to the last item is the concept of Trumping up. While the last attribute was focused on stronger and stronger reactions to smaller and smaller crimes, this is the idea of taking something that historically hasn’t been immoral and pulling it into that sphere. Of taking something that wasn’t a crime and making it one. The example the book provides is when Obama saluted two Marines while carrying a cup of coffee. Military protocol is that you don’t salute when carrying an object, but given that presidential salutes are a recent invention to begin with, this would appear to be a mistake, not a sin. Still as you might imagine the right-wing media spun it into a condemnation of Obama’s patriotism, his stance on the military, and probably his upbringing as well.

4- Strong emotions: As you’re doing all of the above your moral talk ends up having more force if it’s accompanied by strong emotions. One hopes that there’s no infinite increase in how strong these emotions can get, but as the book says, “Where moral outrage gains social purchase, the implicit assumption is that the most outraged person has the greatest moral insight” (emphasis mine).

5- Dismissiveness: Grandstanders generally refuse to engage, and such refusal is offered as proof of the strength of their moral stand. “If you can’t see that police brutality/abortion/COVID is an unmitigated disaster, and the most important issue facing our country than you are beneath contempt and I refuse to engage with you any further.” As you can imagine this attribute, as well as all of the previous attributes are fatal to public discourse. 

With all of this in mind, I think it’s easy to see how social media creates a mechanism for “piling on”, adds in the incentives necessary to reward “ramping up”, “trumping up”, and “strong emotions”, and finally the separation necessary for “dismissiveness”. It’s much harder to tell someone in person that they are beneath contempt, but thousands of people have found it easy to do that and all the rest online. Worse, most of these things continue to trend negative, and as it becomes harder and harder to get noticed, the grandstanding is just going to get more and more outrageous. 


The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

by Iain McGilchrist

588 Pages

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Which is not to say that I think everyone would enjoy it (which is normally what I’m aiming for in this section) more that I think everyone would benefit from it. That said, I am not 100% confident that McGilchrist’s science holds up in every particular, and I’m even less confident about his historical narrative, but I nevertheless think that he has pinpointed something profoundly relevant to any diagnosis of the ills of the modern world. Something that is being almost entirely overlooked.

General Thoughts

I already spent quite a bit of time on this book in my last post, and if you haven’t already read it and you want to get deeper into things I would point you there. My intention this time around is to briefly cover a bunch of other things I thought were interesting, Mostly as a way of piquing your interest, given that I just said that everyone should read it.

To start with, if you’re anything like me, one of the chief hurdles I imagine people running into when making the decision whether or not to read this book is thinking, “Wait, wasn’t the whole pop culture idea of the left brain being logical, and the right brain being emotional and all the stuff that went along with that, debunked, or at least exaggerated?” And the answer to that is yes, but as McGilchrist explains in the preface:

‘Psychiatrist debunks the left brain/right brain myth,’ the headline proclaimed. Always interested to learn more, I read on, only to discover the psychiatrist in question is – myself.

This puts its finger on the nub of the matter. I don’t believe in the left brain/right brain myth: I believe in discovering the truth about hemisphere difference. There can be no question that it would be foolish to believe most of what has passed into popular culture on the topic of hemisphere differences. And yet it would be just as foolish to believe that therefore there are no important hemisphere differences. There are massively important ones, which lie at the core of what it means to be a human being.

With that established it’s time to get into some of those differences, that is, beyond the ones I already covered in my last post. And rather than go into a lot of detail I’m just going to give you a quick list of bullet points:

  • Many languages have two words for knowing. For example in German you have “kennen” and “wissen”. One for knowing someone and one for knowing something. This apparently is a decent way of describing the hemispheric split.
  • The hemispheric differences are exhibited in the size of the hemisphere’s themselves, the right is larger in some areas and the left in others. In fact, every known creature with a neuronal system no matter how far back you go, has a system with asymmetries.
  • You know that thing when you’re trying to come up with a name, and you just can’t remember and then the minute you stop trying it’s there? McGilchrist says that’s an example of the difference between the two hemispheres, the left struggling to pin it down in the first case, and the right easily retrieving it in a holistic manner once the left gets out of the way.
  • McGilchrist asserts that the concept of boredom didn’t arise until the 18th century. That until we “left-brained” time making it a Platonic concept rather than something we inhabited, that boredom was not something people experienced.
  • The book reminded me a lot of Neil Postman’s Technopoly, which I discussed previously here and here. One of Postman’s arguments was that technology requires applying discrete values to everything and that by doing that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. This very closely mirrors the way McGilchrist describes left hemisphere dominance.
  • Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphors, and “metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world”. This was good to hear since I presented my own defense of analogies and metaphors in this space, in particular how they provide a useful secondary framework for understanding the world which can often be more productive than science alone.

Most of these points represent curiosities. The kind of thing that you might see in an end of year trivia game the professor has put together as a reward for reading the book. But this book is not a collection of gee whiz “Did you know?” reveals, it’s a book that claims that Western Civilization is profoundly sick, and it’s this claim which should draw the majority of our attention, which takes me to the next section.

Eschatological Implications

In a sense we’re dealing with the same problem here that we were dealing with in the last review. If you have a positive feedback loop or some other runaway process, how does it come to an end? One of the many assertions McGilchrist makes is once the Emissary starts to displace the Master that this usurpation is self reinforcing, that the focus of the left-hemisphere sees a world in need of yet more focused attention. (This was part of the point I was making in my last post.) In other words it’s another positive feedback loop. And, if, as he said, this is a bad thing then we’re presented with the same questions. How do we arrest this runaway process? And if we can’t arrest it what doom awaits us? 

Let’s take the last part first. Once again, I think there’s so much to cover I’m just going to spit out a bunch of bullet points:

  • First, there are all the harms I mentioned in my last post. A fixation on data and pieces of evidence which creates a very black and white view of the world.
  • While McGilchrist doesn’t deny the many technological advances attributable to a more left-brained view of the world, he wonders if it ends up forcing us to choose either material prosperity or psychological health. A choice that many people are remarking on. 
  • Worryingly, McGilchrist has noticed that without the context provided by the right hemisphere that the left often ends up doing the opposite of what it intends. “How was it that the French Revolution, executed in the name of reason, order, justice, fraternity and liberty, was so unreasonable, disorderly, unjust, unfraternal and illiberal?” 
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, religion seems inextricably linked to culture and civilization, it might even be said to act as a link to right-brained modes of thought. As we concentrate more and more on banishing it from society, does this accelerate whatever problems were already occurring?
  • Finally, McGilchrist claims that an overactive left hemisphere is responsible for a host of psychological issues, including autism, schizophrenia and anorexia. (I may have more to say about this in a future post.)

While you may disagree with some of the harms I just outlined, you might nevertheless be convinced that the world needs to be more “right-brained”. If so, to return to our question, how do we arrest this process? 

McGilchrist doesn’t offer any simple or straightforward solutions, and it would be suspect if he had. It’s hard to claim that something which started at the dawn of civilization could be corrected by some simple tweak we’ve overlooked. That said McGilchrist does mention that the eastern mindset might be more conducive to a balanced approach. He also points out that despite the runaway nature of the problem that hemispheric dominance does appear to pendulum back and forth over long enough periods. It’s to be hoped that we’re experiencing one of those pendulum swings right now. Certainly I see hints of it in the rise of things like the minimalist movement, a greater focus on diet and health, the popularity of meditation, and even psychedelic microdosing. For my part, I spent quite a bit of effort arguing for a greater focus on mercy.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust

By: John Coates

340 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re in a stressful job, and you want to read a neurological examination of how to know when your stress is productive vs. destructive, I think this is a great book. I’ve occasionally mentioned some of my own past work experience (startups, a lawsuit, failed businesses, etc.) and there were many points over the last decade or so when I would have really benefited from this book.

General Thoughts

John Coates was a derivatives trader who worked for some of the big banks during the dot-com bubble, and it was around this same time that he got interested in neuroscience, later leaving trading to train as a neuroscientist. But even after he switched careers he was still interested in trading, particularly the hormonal and cognitive changes wrought in this high stress environment, so that became his area of study and this book represents his conclusions. 

My big takeaway from the book is that the body does really well at dealing with short term stress. When it’s temporarily put into fight or flight mode, but such incidents of stress need to be followed by an extended period of rest and recovery. When these stressful incidents are infrequent, but similar enough that some learning can take place, the body’s automatic response, your “gut”, if you will, gets pretty good at reacting in a rapid and sensible fashion. On the other hand if you get stuck in something of a permanent fight or flight mode — which happened to me for several years (though I doubt my example was at the extreme end of things) and happens to traders when the market is tanking — then not only is the perpetual stress profoundly unhealthy, but all of your decisions get worse as logic and even good instincts get warped by constantly bathing in cortisol and adrenaline. 

Beyond that there are some great “behind the scenes” stories of trading floors from the time when the bubble burst. And some general discussion of managing stress that I found very interesting. Coates ends the book with some recommendations, which may have been the weakest part of the book. As is so often the case there are many ideas which sound great in isolation, but which would require a complete reworking of the industry and probably human nature in order to actually be implemented.


Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16)

By: Jim Butcher

352 Pages

Who should read this book?

I can’t imagine why you would even consider reading this book if you haven’t read the 15 preceding books. But on the other hand if you have done that then it almost feels like you have to read this book, right? Unless you feel like this is the time to write the series off as a sunk cost, and if so, given the length of time between this book and the last, that might not be a bad idea.

General Thoughts

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. Part of the problem is that this is the first Dresden Files novel I really had to wait to read. I came to the series late, and while the book before this one had not been released when I started the series, I think at most I waited a few months for it. If Butcher had kept up his previous pace of one novel a year, this wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but for reasons I never bothered investigating, there ended up being a 6 year gap between this one and the last (the aforementioned 15th book). That gap made my experience of reading this entry into the series very different from my experience of reading past entries.

First off, while I had no problem remembering the main characters, there were numerous minor characters, allusions to past events, plot points, and other miscellaneous references to the previous novels that were completely opaque to me. I can’t imagine I’m the only one suffering from this problem and it really feels like Butcher could have done a better job reminding his readers of things given how much time had passed. Second, and this is going to sound cheesy, I think I’m a different person and a different reader than I was six years ago, and the things that appealed to me back then about the Dresden Files (mostly his world building) are now no longer sufficient. Or at least that’s my theory of why this entry in the series felt flat to me. 

I guess the next obvious question is whether I’m going to read book #17 when it comes out later this year. Probably, I’m kind of a completist and even though I understand the sunk-cost fallacy, I’m not very good at incorporating it into my behavior. Also I thought I’d heard that he was ending things around book 20, and it seems a shame to give it up this close to the finish line. I guess my plan with future books would be to wait a little longer before jumping in. Give it a month or two so that the reviews can accumulate, see how they’re trending, verify that whole “ending at 20” thing and then decide. 

Having talked around the book quite a bit, let me try and quickly sum up some of the good and bad points. I’ve always felt that Butcher’s primary strength is world building, and in Peace Talks that continues to be excellent. Character wise, I think he’s lost a step, or perhaps painted himself into a corner, as quite a few characters have the same, virtually identical quality of being unreasonable hard-headed brawlers. Other than that the plot is pretty good, though it follows the typical Dresden formula of being an unending series of crises, which frankly can get a little bit tiring, also it’s basically only part one of the story. Which I guess means, to tie it all together, that you should wait until book 17 comes out and then read both of them. If Amazon is to be believed you’ll only have to wait until the end of the month.


Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus

By: Euripides

284 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you expect to find yourself transported back in time to a university in the late 18th century, and you’re too lazy to learn Greek, then you should at least read all of the Greek Tragedies in English. If you’re lucky this will be enough for you to bluff your way through things. If this scenario seems unlikely, then you should still read them unless you want to be an uncultured schlub your whole life.

General Thoughts

I have reached the end of the extant Greek tragedies, and it’s time for me to move on to the comedies, though if I live long enough I expect I’ll want to return to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides at some point. 

Having reached the end I’m not sure what overarching statements I can make, or at least what I can say that hasn’t been said in previous reviews. Though I will repeat my assertion that though they were written over two thousand years ago, the tragedies seem surprisingly modern, in a way that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and even the Iliad and the Odyssey didn’t. There’s some recognizable shift between those works and these, and I’m sure other people have done a much better job of identifying what that shift might be, but it’s definitely there and it appears to mark the beginning of a long, long road. One that we still haven’t reached the end of.

I guess, just like with the last review, that I should say something specific about this book, rather than opining on the series in general. Continuing the subject of how modern these tragedies are, The Bacchae is either the precursor of the modern horror movie or an example of how “primitive” they still were. It ends with a mother killing her son using her bare hands and carrying the head into town unaware of what she’s done because Dionysius has made her insane. On the other hand Iphigenia in Aulis has a scene that just breaks your heart

Agamemnon has been told by a prophet that the only way for the Greeks to make it to Troy is if he sacrifices his eldest daughter to Artemis. So he decides on a plan of sending for his wife and telling her to bring Iphigenia using the lie that she’s going to be wed to Achilles. But then he has a change of heart and sends another message telling his wife to turn back, but of course the second message never gets there.

This might not have been a problem except Odysseus knows about the prophecy, and in typical Odysseus fashion when it looks like Agamemnon might have a change of heart, he tells the entire army knowing that if they realize that the only things standing between them and Troy is Iphigenia, they will demand that the sacrifice proceed. In any event the scene that broke my heart is when Iphigenia arrives and joyously runs to meet her father, and it’s revealed how close the two of them have always been. The scene continues, with Agamemnon undergoing the severest torture as he talks to his daughter, knowing about what’s going to happen if he follows through on the prophecy, but also what will happen to his whole family, as they sit in the center of the army, if they refuse.

For my money it’s one of the greatest tragic scenes I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. And a fitting end to the whole series.


Cutting for Stone 

by: Abraham Verghese

658 Pages

Who should read this book?

This book was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and it sold over a million copies. Obama put it on his summer reading list. I’m sure it’s been read by thousands of book clubs (including my wife’s). It isn’t the Great American Novel it’s more like the great Ethiopian/Indian/surgical novel, but it is pretty great. If any of that entices you, you should read this book.

General Thoughts

You can easily find a plot summary for this book if you wish, as well as thousands of reviews. So doing much of either seems kind of pointless. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you’re looking for a great novel to read, I feel pretty confident in saying you won’t be disappointed by this one. Still, once can’t help but wonder what kind of legs this book will have. Will people still be reading it 100 years from now? Is it an actual classic? I’m not sure, I kind of suspect that it won’t be. But maybe I’m wrong, it feels like it’s right on the edge of things. That fate could easily consign this book to the ash heap of history, or alternatively it could still be on whatever passes for a bookshelf decades from now.

As a final note I will say that personally my favorite characters were Hema and Ghosh. Forget the main character I would read it just for the parts featuring those two.


III- Religious Reviews 

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture 

By: Francis A. Shaeffer 

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. It comes across as pretty dated, but if you’re interested in a fairly simple defense of Christianity told through the lens of history, then that’s what this is. It also has an accompanying TV series which is available on Amazon Prime, which has some surprisingly high production values. Apparently the whole package was a big deal in the 70’s among evangelicals.

General Thoughts

For the moment imagine that you had someone who had their doubts about the importance of Christianity in the formation of Western Civilization. And you found out that the TV series, which was based on this book, was playing at some church, so you took this person to go see it. I can imagine that you would spend most of the time cringing, because in 2020, the arguments made by this book and its accompanying show look pretty simplistic. 

In saying this I don’t mean to imply that the arguments are wrong, more that they are the product of a simpler more straightforward time, when people cared more about the overarching narrative than getting the details of every last particular correct. But things are different now, and probably the first thing a modern academic would do is point out all the mistakes Shaeffer makes, all the factual errors, large and small. For example these days historians are pretty sure that the Roman persecution of Christians has been greatly exaggerated, and barely happened at all. And while people might be right to point out these mistakes (or not, see my last post) what’s interesting is that Shaeffer’s central point, as far as I can tell, is still true. A Secular Age (which I reviewed last month) and Francis Fukuyama’s books on the origins of the state (reviewed here and here) don’t simplify things, and are otherwise punctilious about the facts. You might even say the level of detail they engage in is excruciating, and yet they both still arrive at the same fundamental conclusion about Christianity’s importance that Shaeffer does.

A few posts ago I talked about epistemology, and I mentioned that in the past people adopted an epistemology of national greatness. In this book Shaeffer is pushing an epistemology of Christian greatness, and while the negatives of this epistemology are obvious to nearly everyone these days, reading this book once again reminded me that there are probably some positives to this approach as well, particularly from the standpoint of keeping a civilization and a culture unified and happy. And it would be one thing if this epistemology were untrue, if America actually was horrible, or if Christianity had nothing to do with the development of the modern state or Western Civilization. But it’s not untrue, America is a great nation relative to essentially every other nation you can think of, and Christianity was central to what we think of as the West. Which means, in the final analysis, if I found the TV Series cringe worthy maybe the problem isn’t with it, maybe the problem is with me.


As I’ve mentioned in the past I frequently forget who recommended a book or how it ended up on my list. The last book was a great example of that, but starting now, I pledge to write it down! If you want to help me with the purchase of a pen and a pad of paper so I can do that, consider donating. (Okay I’ll actually probably use a computer but those are even more expensive.)


Justice, Mercy, Data, Evidence, BLM and QAnon

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

Or download the MP3


On occasion, if you read blogs written by rationalists, you’ll come across posts that start with a notice about their epistemic status. This is particularly the case when such status is still fluid, i.e. the post is highly speculative. Given that this might be the most speculative post I’ve ever done, perhaps I should follow suit:

[Epistemic status: wildly speculative, mixes religion, science, and neurology in a way that is almost certainly overly simplistic, and furthermore advances a “this explains everything” argument which obviously overlooks much of the subtlety and complexity of our moment. All that aside I think there’s something to it….]

Many things came together to create the theory I’m about to expound. And I’m hoping that if I lay these things out as sort of a foundation, that you might see the same connections I did. So let’s start with that.

I.

I just barely mentioned religion, and we might as well get that out of the way. For the non-religious out there who might be worried, I assure you that the religious element is not necessary for the rest of the argument, but there’s a specific parable I heard long ago that encapsulates what I think is one of the central insights. This parable was given in a speech all the way back in 1977, by Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon). It went something like this:

There once was a man who wanted something very much, and went into debt to get it. Under the terms of the debt, payment was due in its entirety many years later. And while the debtor didn’t entirely ignore the debt, when it eventually came due he had paid off only a small faction of it. And it was only then he realized that if he couldn’t pay the debt in full that the creditor would send him to prison. In deathly fear of being imprisoned, he pleads for mercy. In response the creditor demands justice. Both justice and mercy are important principles, but it’s clear that in this case you can’t have both, if the creditor forgives the debt, that’s merciful, but it would ignore the justice of his claim, on the other hand if the creditor throws the debtor into prison this would be just, but no one would say that it is also merciful. 

Fortunately a friend of the debtor intervenes. He pays off the creditor, thus fulfilling the demands of justice, while also rescuing the debtor from prison, and thus also fulfilling the demands of mercy. In the process he restructures the debt into something the debtor can conceivably pay. (This being a religious parable the friend represents Jesus, and his paying off the debt is analogous to the way in which Jesus paid for our sins.) For our purposes I want to take away three things:

  1. The conflicting demands of justice and mercy.
  2. The need for a third party to resolve this conflict.
  3. The idea that mercy doesn’t eliminate the debt, but it does restructure it into something that can be paid.

The next piece in my foundation is the play Fences by August Wilson. I first saw it at the nearby Pioneer Theater a few years ago, and I remember, at the time, expecting it to be about a noble black father and his family who had been thwarted by 1950s racism. And to a certain degree it was, but the main character, Troy, was also a deeply flawed individual, and at the time I left with mixed feelings. It was hard to take the side of someone who *spoiler alert* had cheated on his utterly faithful wife, Rose, only admitted to the affair when his mistress got pregnant, refused to stop seeing his mistress even then, and finally, when his mistress died in childbirth, asked his wife to help raise a child that wasn’t hers. But then, a few weeks ago, I watched the movie adaptation with Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose (btw I cannot praise the acting highly enough, they were both beyond amazing) and I finally realized that rather than marring the play, Troy’s “sins” were what made the play a masterpiece.

This realization had an interesting impact on the way I view the current BLM protests, and while I understand trying to make this connection might get me in trouble, I think it nevertheless might be an important one. That first time around I wanted Fences to be a straightforward tale of injustice, of a black family and a black father that could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. In a similar fashion I think the people protesting also see things as a straightforward case of injustice, of black families who could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. Not only is that narrative attractive, it’s simple, probably too simple, because just like the story of Troy in Fences, the story of race and racism is a complicated mix of justice and mercy, of things that should have been done much better, and other things where people did the best they could. In the play Rose knew that despite all the wrongs which had been done to her, that it was still important to keep her family together, and that justice for Troy would have meant injustice for the daughter, and so she raised the daughter of her husband’s mistress, but in the process declared to Troy, that “you’re a womanless man.” Thus mercy and justice were both served but it took the sacrifice of a third person.

Unfortunately, no straightforward policy recommendations fall out of this observation. Though I think the need for more mercy among all the parties to the current unrest is self-evident. I also admit that it’s not entirely clear who the third party is that needs to make a sacrifice so that both justice and mercy can be served in this situation. But despite that it does serve as another point towards my claim that perfect justice is not only unattainable, but in conflict with many other important values, especially mercy. 

The final piece of the foundation is a book I’m reading, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. It’s a book about hemispheric differences within the brain, and it’s yet another one of these very dense, massive books, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and as I alluded to I’m not done, but for the purposes of this subject McGIlchrist makes two very important points. First that hemispheric differences are real, though much more nuanced than popular culture has led us to believe. And that the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere is responsible for much of what makes Western culture unique, but also responsible for much of what ails it as well.

As I said it’s a massive and densely argued book, and I’ll get into it more in my month end round-up, but for our purposes the key difference between the two hemispheres is that the left is the half that focuses in on something, and breaks it down into parts, while the right is the half that assembles discrete things into a coherent whole. The title of the book comes from a story Nietzsche told about a spiritual master who manages a large domain, and while his concerns must be for the whole domain, and everything associated with it, he does occasionally need to focus on specific places, and urgent issues. To do this he appoints an emissary who can act in his name and go forth to deal with localized problems, or perhaps gather the knowledge the master needs. In this analogy the right brain is the master, and the left brain is the emissary, but McGilchrist contends that the emissary has usurped the authority of the master, and it’s this imbalance, this perversion of the way things should work that’s causing many of our modern problems. 

It’s at this point, in an attempt to ground my theory in actual neurology, that I make my biggest conceptual leap. And believe me I’m aware that I’m doing it, but I’m hoping that you’ll at least stick with me to the end of the post before you pass judgement. That plea in place, my core observation is that we are currently suffering from an overactive drive for justice, and that at a larger level this overactive drive for justice is part of a dangerously ascendant left hemisphere. That to a certain extent we have a neurological problem. More controversially, I’m going to make the claim that it is useful to equate left hemisphere attributes to the concept of justice and right hemisphere attributes to the concept of mercy. 

It’s not my intention to give a full review of McGilchrist’s book at this point. For the moment I just want to bring him in as a buttress for my theory, but in order to do that, some additional context would be helpful. McGilchrist places the start of this trend of leftward ascendence at the start of Western civilization and philosophy, especially Plato, and in bringing his book to bear, I’m not willing to go that far, but we don’t have to in order for this theory to have some predictive power. You can even imagine that the left and the right hemisphere’s are in perfect harmony up until the end of the last century, all you have to accept is that the left hemisphere is all about the specific. It’s the half of the brain that reaches out to grasp something. And my argument is that even if this “grasping” nature is unchanged since our first ancestors descended out of the trees, that modern technology, and social media in particular has led to a sky-rocketing in the number of things available to grasp. That a profusion of stories, and anecdotes, and data, and hypotheses and accusations rather than being our salvation is proving to be our doom.

II.

While the three things above proved to be the theoretical foundation of my hypothesis, the practical expression of it hit me while I was putting together my last post. For those who may have missed it, I spent nearly 5000 words examining just one tiny set of data: police officers killed since 1965 by left or right wing extremists as reported by the Anti-defamation League. It is possible that I exhausted what could be said about those numbers, but I suspect not, and even if I did, I reached no unassailable conclusion. At best I demonstrated that the ADL had incorrectly interpreted the numbers to emphasize right-wing extremism, but that was about the extent of it. So I spent 5000 words on a very focused examination of a small set of data, and ended up without much to show for it, and as I went through this laborious exercise, it hit me, data isn’t the solution, it’s the problem

That’s a pretty bold statement, and many people are going to start by questioning not the last half of that statement but the first half, the idea that the bulk of people have an ideology driven by evidence and facts, so let’s start by tackling that. Obviously the scientific revolution happened centuries ago, but I would argue that it didn’t percolate down to the “masses” until after World War II. As just one data point, the number of people graduating from high school doubled between 1940 and 1970 going from around 40% to around 80%. As a consequence of this and other trends just about everyone absorbed some part of the scientific method, with all of its associated recommendations: backing up arguments with data, the way in which biases can influence data, etc. And not only was the importance of the scientific method impressed upon the minds of nearly everyone, more importantly, they also had revealed to them the great reward this methodology could provide. If it were followed it would spit out the (blog) Truth. And once you had the (blog) Truth, you could use it to pursue (blog) Justice! Furthermore, and most distressingly, if your Justice was based on objective, data-driven, verifiable (blog) Truth, there would be no need for mercy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This state of things was already pretty well developed when the internet, and later social media arrived on the scene, and their advent only served to make things worse. First by creating an even greater emphasis on data and evidence. (I know that the internet seems like a cesspool of biases and baseless insults, but it’s also equally full of people challenging and/or providing evidence for every assertion.) And second by vastly increasing the amount of data available. 

This is the world we live in. For what still seem like very good reasons, we have spent decades emphasizing the values of science, testing, experimentation, data, etc. And we expected this sanctification of data to lead us to an evidence based progressive and technological utopia. But it hasn’t happened and for the longest time the feeling has been that we’ve just needed to push harder. Place an even greater emphasis on evidence and rationality, but I would say that among the many “gifts” 2020 has brought us, one would have to be a realization that this approach is definitely not working. Why? 

Well after reading McGilchrist, one theory would be that this whole drive is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of it. That an emphasis on evidence, and discrete bits of data has not come about because we’re all committed scientists, but because it’s the perfect tool for an out of control left hemisphere trapped in a positive feedback loop. In other words, and I want to be very clear about this, what we’re seeing is not a failure of science but a perversion of it. Certainly the behavior we’re seeing is exactly how McGilchist describes what happens when the emissary usurps the master. From the book we read that:

  • The left hemisphere offers simple answers.
  • The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.
  • The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.
  • The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 
  • The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.
  • And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I assume that at this point most people would like to see these points applied to something specific. Something that’s happening right now. So let’s take that most infamous of all current conspiracy theories: QAnon

III.

It’s possible that you are entirely unfamiliar with the QAnon theory, or that you only recently heard about it after Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the theory, won the Republican primary for Georgia’s 14th Congressional district, putting her on a probable path to win the election in November in heavily Republican Georgia. And to be clear I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert but I think I know enough about it and have interacted with enough people who believe it to explain how it fits into the framework I laid out above. 

To begin with I need to start by clearing up some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. The most common being that the conspiracy is baseless. And before you unleash on me, allow me to explain what I mean by that. When talking about QAnon people will mention that it’s fringe, or crazy, or something else essentially synonymous with the sentence immediately following the initial description in the Wikipedia article, “No part of the theory has been shown to be based in fact.”

I fully agree with all of these statements, but the problem is that this leads people to misunderstand the phenomenon, to assume that QAnon supporters are ignoring data and evidence, when in fact it’s the opposite they’re fixated on the data and evidence. This is not to say that the evidence and data would not be more properly characterized as a collection of anecdotes, or that it fits into anything resembling a broader model of the world, or that it’s not entirely circumstantial or that the evidence doesn’t follow from the theory rather than the theory following from the evidence. But rather to say they’re fixated on data and evidence in exactly the fashion you would expect from an overactive left hemisphere after reading McGilchrist’s book. Returning to the attributes I pulled from McGilchrist’s book:

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

The whole point of conspiracies is they offer simple answers. The idea that there’s a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running things, and that Trump is the only person who can stop them, is a pretty simple tale of good and evil. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this world, and whatever else may be said of QAnon, it’s a worldview that’s far simpler than the real one. Further it allows people to justify their support for Trump. He wasn’t the best out of two bad options, he’s the only thing standing between us and Satanic pedophiles. And voting for him was the right thing to do.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

Trump has made numerous mistakes as president. With QAnon it’s easy to avoid responsibility for those mistakes because they were all in service of a much more important goal. It’s everyone else that needs to be held responsible for tolerating the worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

Certainly among some groups being a QAnon supporter is being a conformist, but obviously being indifferent to discrepancies is the attribute that really applies here because there are lots of discrepancies.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

This may be one of the best descriptions of what QAnon looks like that I’ve come across, it’s a narrow focused beam of attention which has all the time in the world to think about Epstein and the people who associated with him and very little time for anything that doesn’t fit the theory.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

Replace reductionism with QAnon and the statement remains just as true.

But beyond all of this, and most important for my purposes, QAnon is a search for justice. To the extent that Epstein and his many crimes serve as the kernel of QAnon, you could say that justice obviously wasn’t served. Epstein was a very, very bad dude. And while I’m not certain he didn’t kill himself (how could you be) I don’t think we can discount it either. But they have taken this kernel and allowed their left-brained thirst for justice to grow so large that it encompasses incidents and individuals who almost certainly were guilty of no more than being naive or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe even nothing whatsoever. But I would still argue that justice is a huge part of it. It’s a simple theory where they end up in the position of both being the only ones who are right, and also the heroes. And in addition to bringing to justice all the pedophiles they also get to reverse the grave injustices which have been done to Trump, who really has been the target of an enormous amount of hate. How much of that hate is deserved or whether hate is ever appropriate I leave for the listener to decide.

Now, lest you think that this is only a phenomenon of extremists on the right, I would argue that if anything the list is more widely applicable to what’s currently happening on the left. At the risk of making this post ridiculously long (too late?) Let’s go through the list again and apply it to the current protests. 

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

“White Fragility” and “Systemic Racism” are all pretty simple and straightforward answers to what is actually a devilishly complex problem. To this you might add assertions like, “Race and Gender don’t exist.” A statement that simplifies things almost to the point of ridiculousness. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

Obviously as I go through this list, the observations being made are my observations. But when I see the protesters chanting and yelling, the overwhelming impression I come away with is their absolute certainty in the justice of their cause, and their unassailable moral correctness.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

George Floyd had a large amount of fentanyl in his system, but to even suggest that he might have been the tiniest bit responsible for what happened to him is essentially inconceivable. (Which is why, to be clear, I am also not suggesting that.) And in a broader context any discussion of responsibility that doesn’t involve racism by white people is also inconceivable. 

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

The degree and speed to which people pledged their support to Black Lives Matter was frankly astonishing. It would be difficult to find something post 9/11 which had greater public support. Nor is there much tolerance for discrepancies, for example the inconvenient discrepancy in the narrative illustrated by the Ferguson Effect. Something I keep bringing up.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

As many people have remarked on, it was amazing how fast attention shifted from COVID to BLM. And how long that beam has been focused on a single killing, when killings of one sort or another happen nearly every hour of every day in the US.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I believe I covered this one in my post, Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM) and also several of the posts that followed it. 

After applying this list to both sides, I feel like McGilchrist’s theory has a lot of explanatory power. That people are looking at the data and evidence, but in a monomaniacal fashion which throws away the actual world which is messy, nuanced and complicated and replaces it with a simpler world of good guys and bad guys, of righteous acts and heinous atrocities. That, in other words people have dispensed with mercy, and are interested only in justice. They have beheld the world and passed absolute judgement upon it.

IV.

We covered a lot of territory in those first three parts so I’m going to try to bring it all together, but let’s take a different path. This time around let’s start with people doing things we disagree with and consider stupid. Let’s assume that we’re even correct, that these things are stupid, that we’re not suffering from our own biases, our own overactive left-hemisphere. How do we get these people to stop doing these stupid things? One method, which has been drilled into us since we started school is to prove that these things are stupid. How do we prove that these things are stupid? With evidence and data!

But we immediately run into several problems with this approach.

  1. There are mountains of data out there, and not only is that mountain growing it’s growing faster than it ever has.
  2. Even if the majority of the data supports one position there is always going to be data that supports the opposite position. Plus point 1 makes it even more difficult to survey enough data to determine what constitutes a majority.
  3. The only choice left is to focus in on a selection of data or to prioritize certain pieces of evidence over other pieces of evidence.
  4. But as I showed in my last post, not only can a narrow focused reading of the data back up nearly any position, but it becomes a positive feedback loop of validation and the push for more focus. This is particularly dangerous if McGilchrist is right about the prevalence of overactive left hemispheres.
  5. Even if McGilchrist isn’t right, we still have to grapple with things like confirmation bias, selection effect, echo chambers and the memefication of discourse.

As I went through that list I kind of ended up lumping together both sides of things. As in the side where you dispense wisdom and the side where you receive (or gather) wisdom. But both suffer from the same problems. Whatever knowledge you’ve received through this method is bound to be fragmentary and biased, but in spite of this it also ends up laden with certainty, both because of its perceived scientific basis, but also because, as we’ve seen, that’s how the left hemisphere operates. And then when you turn to the project of dispensing that info, of explaining what a just world looks like, you run into the same problems, and that’s even if the person you’re dispensing it to is a blank slate. It’s actually far more likely that they have followed this same procedure and ended up with their own completely different vision of a just world, also imbued with the certainty that comes from focused but fragmentary evidence.

This idea that people don’t respond to facts and evidence is well covered territory (though hopefully I’ve approached it from a very different angle) and is so often the case, Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex’s contribution to the discussion is particularly brilliant. He argued that rhetoric and other similar tools are available to both sides and indeed any side of a debate, and thus the side you’re on accrues no inherent advantage by using these tools. But if the tool you’re using is the truth, then it does give you an advantage over those without it, even if that truth is hard to communicate, and percolates outward only very slowly. I have no strong disagreements with this view and indeed I’ve forwarded that post to many people, but I think it needs to be amended to include everything I’ve mentioned above.

More specifically I would argue that there’s a way of getting at something which feels a lot like the (blog) Truth, through a method that looks a lot like Science! A way that comes naturally to us, probably because we’re dealing with an overactive left-hemisphere, but that this is exactly the path that helped to get us into this mess. And that the most natural takeaway of a post like Alexander’s is to put people on this same path. I would amend it to guide people towards a path that is more subtle, and less certain, but that ultimately leads to deeper truths. If McGilchrist is correct it’s because this would be a more right-brained approach, but even if he’s not, I think it’s clear that we’ve been way too focused on data and evidence, and not enough on a broader picture of the interrelated nature of the world. Or to put it even more simply, that Alexander’s rationalism is best applied in service of mercy not justice. (For awhile that last bit was going to be the title of this post.)

This post is already 50% longer than one of my normal posts, and those were already too long. So I’d better wrap it up. Though I had a lot more thoughts on this subject. Some of which will hopefully appear when I review The Master and His Emissary, some of which may be developed in future posts. (This post should be considered a very rough draft of these ideas, a first pass on a collection of topics that’s pretty complex.) And some of which I’m going to quickly spit out here at the end.

  • I’m not sure how well it worked to frame all of this as a conflict between mercy and justice, but if this idea is to have any impact, it has to eventually take a form that’s easy to understand. Mercy and justice was my stab at that.
  • To put this in context with some of my other recent posts. One of the most important developments of classical liberalism is the creation of mediation and the rule of law, which acts as the third party I mentioned at the very beginning the party required to balance the demands of justice and mercy which are otherwise incompatible.
  • One problem with a more right brained approach is that if the right brain is The Master in charge of the entire empire, that empire is vastly greater today than it was for our hunter-gatherer/agrarian/medieval-village-dwelling ancestors. And it might be that it’s too big and too complex to allow for a return to a “right-brain” mode.
  • I think there’s an interesting connection between this topic and the discussion of theodicy that I mentioned in my review of A Secular Age. Theodicy deals with the evil in all of us, and mercy and justice are ways of coming to terms with our own evil. I mentioned that lately an alternative has come to the fore whereby if someone takes on the mantle of victimhood they can claim absolute innocence while placing 100% of the guilt on their oppressor. This is both, justice taken to its extreme, as I’ve discussed, and also a pretty left-brained view of things as well.

If you’ve made it this far I appreciate it. This ended up rougher and more scattered than I had hoped, that said I think I’m on to something here, and I’d love to know if you agree, and love to know even more if you disagree, and particularly what part you disagree with. If you take away nothing else I hope that in some respect I demonstrated, however strangely, the importance of mercy. Something that seems like a quaint and outdated concept, but perhaps that just means that it’s needed now more than ever.


There was a time when people were paid by the word. This is one of those posts where I wish that was the deal I had. Instead I get paid by my patrons, if that’s you, thanks! If it’s not, perhaps consider it? These long posts are even harder than they look.


Digging Into the Data on Right Wing Extremism

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

Or download the MP3


This might be a weird post. I have an idea for what direction I want to go in, but it’s also something of an exercise in thinking out loud as well. This whole exercise got started during a conversation with a friend of mine. I forget how we got on the topic, but he mentioned that from a domestic standpoint right wing extremism was a far worse danger than left wing extremism. In support of this statement he offered up the figure that 90 police officers had been killed by right wing domestic terrorists. My immediate reaction was to call “BS” on that figure, mostly because I could hardly imagine that the deaths of 90 police officers would have “flown under my radar” when the best known instance of right-wing violence, the murder of Heather Heyes by James Alex Fields Jr. when he drove his car into a crowd after the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017, had gotten so much attention.  So I challenged him to produce his source.

Eventually he pointed me at a report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) titled Murder and Extremism 2019 which includes a chart (page 21) showing that 59 police officers had been killed by right wing domestic extremists between 1965 and 2019, as compared to 44 who were killed by left wing extremists. (Fun exercise: See if you can spot the math errors on the chart…) As you might imagine 90 is more than 59, still as these things go it’s close. Actually the biggest discrepancy between the impression I received when having the conversation and the actual numbers was the time scale. At no point in our conversation did my friend mention that to arrive at the figure one had to go all the way back to 1965. I assumed he was talking about in the last few years, or the last decade or at a stretch maybe since 2000. And to be fair to him it’s difficult to be completely precise in off-the-cuff conversations like that, so I don’t blame him for misremembering the number or not ever mentioning the time frame. Also if we were to restrict ourselves to the period since 2000 things actually look worse for the right. With 36 deaths on that side vs. 10 on the left. In any event I’m going to admit that I was partially wrong, the claim wasn’t complete BS, but it was substantially different than what I understood his claim to be.

Of course the accuracy of that number is not what anyone is really interested in, it’s just a way of trying to get at the answer for our true question, which is: should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism? Knowing that 59 police officers were killed by right wing extremists over the last 55 years, as opposed to 90 over a shorter period of time has some utility in arriving at that answer, but that utility is surprisingly small. Primarily because the information we lack is still vastly greater than the information we have. To have any kind of confidence in an answer to our primary question of which side should worry us more, we would ideally have answers for all of these secondary questions:

  • How does violence against police compare to violence against everyone else?
  • If those are the numbers since 1965 what do the numbers look like more recently? Which way is the trend headed?
  • When the numbers are tallied how are people and incidents bucketed into left and right?
  • Out of all the harm caused by ideological extremism, what percentage of it is due to violence by extremists of that ideology, and what percentage of it is due to other factors?
  • Let’s take these questions in turn and see what we can glean from that initial paper, and maybe a few other sources besides.

How does violence against police compare to violence against everyone else?

From our initial paper we read that in 2019 there were 42 deaths from extremist violence (of which 22 came from the El Paso Walmart shooting). And that out of those 42 deaths 81% could be attributed to white supremacy. And, finally that only one death was a police officer (not part of the 81% by the way, for the first time the ADL put a police killing in the category of “other extremists”.) 

Expanding the time horizon, for the period 2010-2019, the ADL counts 330 deaths due to extremism of which they say that 78% were attributable to white supremacy. Out of that 330 deaths 21 police officers were killed (or close to that, the police numbers start in 2011 not 2010) and 11 were attributed to right-wing extremists, or 52%. So the answer, according to the paper, is that as a percentage, right wing violence against everyone else is worse than their violence against police. Though a lot then depends on how the ADL decides to classify something as right wing or left, a point we’ll get to. 

If those are the numbers since 1965 what do the numbers look like more recently?

Whenever you’re talking about numbers in this fashion, there is the temptation to shift them in your favor by choosing an advantageous starting (or ending) point for your count. As far as the police shootings, they probably start things in 1965 because the numbers aren’t available any earlier than that, but given that the left wing numbers are much higher in those earlier years it’s worth asking if the percentages would tilt even more towards the left if we went back to 1955 and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, or to 1920 for a full century of data, or to the turn of the century when the Propaganda of the Deed was at its height and numerous governmental officials were being killed by anarchists, including a President. And note that I’m still talking about killings of police, nor am I attempting to pass any kind of judgement on what oppression may or may not have been happening, it would just be interesting to see the ADL apply the same methodology to a much bigger data set.

That speculation aside, let’s look at some things we can do with the numbers we do have by declaring different start points. Fortunately for this endeavor I was able to find some other ADL reports on extremist violence, some from previous years, and one that was sort of summation, as you’ll see these additional reports ended up being both illuminating and confusing. I’m still going to stick with police killings just because it’s more manageable, and I’m guessing the data is cleaner as well. I’ve already talked about pushing the start date back, but what if we bring it really close? What if we look at the number of police killed in the period 2016-2019? 

Fortunately the 2016 ADL report on extremism has the same chart of police killings (it was missing from the 2015 version.) So how did things stand in 2016 as compared to 2019? As I mentioned 11 cops had been killed by right wing extremists over the last decade, as it turns out 10 of the 11 were killed before 2016. The left’s number for the decade was 8, and as it turns out, all of those deaths happened in 2016. What this means is that if we decide to just look at the most recent three years, eight times as many police officers have been killed by left wing extremists. 

To be clear, I’m not saying that this is the right way to look at things, but it is what happened during the “Trump Era”. And of course we could reverse things, if we wanted to do the same thing for the “Obama Era” and look at the period from 2011-2015 when right wing extremists had killed 10 cops and left wing extremists had killed zero. You can certainly imagine the ADL screaming about the dangers of the right wing in 2015, not knowing that in 2016 things would almost equalize. Picking start and end points matters a lot.

Moving back a little bit farther, as I’ve pointed out things are pretty close to equal for the most recent decade at 11 to 8, it’s the two decades before that where right wing extremism really looks scary. If we go all the way back to 1991 the ADL numbers climb to 52 deaths from extremists on the right vs. only 11 for those on the left. But here’s also where things get confusing. When you’re engaged in any project like this, you really want to see the underlying data, so you can independently check the numbers. I was particularly interested in the 2001-2010 period where the ADL is saying that 25 police officers were killed by right wing extremists. Especially since the ADL was only showing 16 police officer killings in the 90s which contained the most dramatic example of right wing terrorism, the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. What had happened in the 2000s that was even harder on law enforcement than the bombing of a federal building?

Fortunately I found another report on their website A Dark and Constant Rage: 25 years of Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States. This report covered the period 1993 to 2017 and included a section called: Right-Wing Terrorism Inventory, 1993-2017. This section detailed the separate incidents which went into their numbers. As you go through them you see a lot of cases where people were arrested based on their intent to commit some act of terrorism, but it never actually came to pass. A few quick examples:

  •  a plot to murder Muslims in upstate New York using a “death ray” device that would emit lethal radiation.
  • Schmidt possessed a large cache of weapons and a notebook with evidence that Schmidt was targeting Detroit-area Jewish and African American leaders. 
  • on federal firearm charges after receiving information that he was plotting to kill Governor Gary Locke. 

Given the inclusion of these numerous unsuccessful plots I assumed that if someone actually killed a police officer it would definitely make the inventory, and yet after combing through the 2001-2010 list, I could only come up with eight incidents where police officers had been killed:

For obvious reasons I would really like to know where they’re getting the other 17 killings from. I have no doubt that 17 police officers were killed between 2001 and 2010, and ended up being counted by the ADL, but why were their deaths not considered noteworthy enough to be included in the inventory? Is their right-wing connection more tenuous? To be honest I’m not entirely convinced that all of the incidents which did make the list should be considered examples of right-wing terrorism Poplawski was a domestic dispute that went horribly wrong, and the Turnidges were trying to rob a bank to pay off their debts. Regardless of whether you agree with me, I think you’d concede that it’d be easier to decide if those other 17 deaths also belonged on the list if you knew the details behind them.

Turning to the other side, the big decade for the left was 1971-1980, when 25 police officers were killed by left wing extremists. How does the ADL do in accounting for those deaths? Well, I already mentioned the eight police officers that were killed in 2016 by left-wing extremists, in the report covering that year, here’s what the ADL had to say: 

None of the police officers shot by Long or Johnson [the two 2016 perpetrators] were themselves involved in any controversial shootings; they were blameless. The killings were acts of indirect retaliation aimed at local law enforcement officers because of earlier officer-involved shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. These killings represent the worst spate of black nationalist-related murders of police officers since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when more than two dozen police officers, and several more corrections officers, were killed by black nationalists, particularly from the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party (no relation to the New Black Panther Party). 

This is immediately followed by the same chart of police officer killings we keep referencing, and as I mentioned it shows 25 killed by left-wing violence in the 70s, and 3 who were killed in the late 60s, so 28. The “more than two dozen police officers and several more corrections officers” would seem to get us to that figure. Meaning that while 17 right-wing murders were left unspecified by the ADL in the 2000’s, when supposedly things were at its peak, we have a basic description for all of the left-wing murders when they had their peak. Now I admit that this description still lacks specifics, but at least we have some idea of where to look, I have no idea where to go to find the missing 17 on the other side of things.

This section went longer than I expected, and illustrates what I mean by thinking out loud, so to sum things up: Deciding where to draw your line can make a big difference. There are points at which right-wing extremists are way ahead and points at which the left-wing extremists are. Again this is just if we look at killings of police officers, but one assumes that you’d find much the same thing with other measurements of extremist violence. A picture that looked very different depending on where you drew the line and what you expanded your search to encompass. And that the numbers and circumstances surrounding any additional incidents you decided to bring in would be even more ambiguous than the police killings we’ve been talking about. Which takes us to:

When the numbers are tallied how are people and incidents bucketed into left and right?

It’s interesting that not just the ADL, but everyone wants to classify violence as being either the fault of one side or the other. That the ADL spends so much effort talking about the evils of right wing extremism and not the evils of violent political extremism in general.

Alternatively, if you’re really trying to target ideologies that lead to violence, I think you’d want to get as specific as possible. As I mentioned, if you just look at the last three years not only are left-wing extremists responsible for more police officer killings, but all of those killings were carried out by black nationalists, furthermore, and as we saw from the quote, according to the ADL, the last big spike in police killings by the left, in the late 60s early 70s, were also carried out by black nationalists. Meaning that one fairly compelling interpretation of the numbers would be that the left in general is very good at eschewing violence, but we should spend a lot of resources specifically to prevent violence from black nationalists. Once again, to be clear, none of this is to deny the many grievances blacks currently have, or to say that oppression doesn’t exist, but if we’re looking for patterns in the numbers, which seems to be the whole point of these reports I’ve been referencing, this pattern of violence from black nationalists does seem like one we should be paying attention to, and in fact it’s the dominant pattern if we just look at the last few years and also a very significant one if we go back as far as we have numbers.

As long as we’re on the subject of black nationalists, the character of those incidents is different as well. The two incidents from 2016 (and many of the incidents from the 70s) were ambushes that were specifically designed to target and kill police officers. From that years ADL report:

Eight police officers were killed in two incidents this past year in which extremists deliberately targeted police officers for murder. In July 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson, who had ties to black nationalist groups such as the New Black Panther Party, killed five police officers (and injured nine others) in Dallas, Texas, in an ambush attack aimed at police maintaining public order at a Black Lives Matter protest. That same month, Gavin Eugene Long ambushed and shot six police officers, three of them fatally, in Baton Rouge. Long was an adherent of black nationalism as well as the anti-government sovereign citizen movement.

Contrast this with Richard Andrew Poplawski who I mentioned above. He also killed three police officers, but under very different circumstances, Wikipedia says that the shooting:

…stemm[ed] from a mother and her 22-year-old son’s argument over a dog urinating in the house. At approximately 7:11 a.m. EDT, 22-year-old Richard Poplawski opened fire on two Pittsburgh Police officers responding to a 9-1-1 call from Poplawski’s mother, who was attempting to get the police officers to remove her son from the home. Despite Poplawski’s mother telling the 9-1-1 operator that Poplawski had guns, the police officers were not told. Three police officers were ultimately confirmed dead, and another two were seriously injured.

It later came out that Poplawski frequented right-wing web-sites and voiced racist views online but nothing about the actual killings was ideological in nature, and yet these three killings get counted and reported as being fundamentally identical in the chart we keep going back to, despite being very different. Long and Johnson ambushed the police officers they killed, Poplawski only killed them after they showed up at his house. Additionally it sounds like if the dispatcher had not neglected to tell the police that Poplawski had guns perhaps the killings wouldn’t have happened at all. This suggests that there might be a continuum when it comes to the circumstances of the killings as well, and more importantly another place where a line is being drawn. What characteristics does an incident have to possess in order to classify it as right-wing or left wing extremism?

I’ve provided a comparison related to our primary focus, police killings, what about if we widen it to other killings? Turning back to the 2019 ADL report, we see that it also has a section for incidents. These include people targeting synagogues or, the most horrible one from last year, when Patrick Crusius went into a Walmart intending to kill Hispanics and ended up murdering 23 people. These unquestionably are acts of violence in the service of extremist right wing ideology. But many of the incidents on the list seem less clear cut. This despite being listed under the heading, “The 2018 extremist-related murders preliminarily documented by ADL include:” (side note: 2018 is obviously a copy and paste error, all the incidents are from 2019) 

For example some incidents which also appear under that heading:

Anthony Voight, a member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, was arrested for the shooting murder of a man who accompanied Voight’s ex-girlfriend to retrieve her belongings from Voight’s home.

White supremacist Travers Proulx was arrested on first-degree murder charges after he allegedly stabbed his mother to death following an argument.

Keeton Waring, a reported member of the Southwest Honkeys, one of several Missouri-based white supremacist prison gangs, allegedly shot and killed another man during an argument over a missing cellphone. He has been charged with second-degree murder.

These three sound far more similar to the Poplawski murders than the Johnson and Long murders. 

Is it possible that the ADL has a bias? For many people the fact of their left-wing bias is so obvious that they wonder why I’ve wasted so much time quoting from them. For myself, I would expect that, if they were unbiased, that somewhere in that accounting of the incidents which occurred in 2019 that I would find reference to a marxist, or an anarchist or a black nationalist who stabbed their mother, or got into a violent argument over a cellphone. In the absence of that I’m inclined to believe that their statistics probably do have a left-wing bias, if that’s the case then using their biased numbers to answer our original question, “should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism?” leads to a biased answer.

Of course the idea that the ADL is biased shouldn’t be surprising. Everyone has biases. I’m sure you’d be quick to point out mine. But as a result of these biases any categorization of one murder as being a right-wing murder, while another is left wing murder (or bereft of ideology entirely) is bound to depend on where the person making that categorization drew a subjective line. But as I reflect on it, I think drawing the initial line separating the world into just two teams: right and left, may be the most damaging line of all. Rather than having everyone on the same team against all extremist violence, or indeed against all violence period, or, on the other hand, attempting to narrowly define the source of the problem so that our accusations against the innocent are minimized, we’ve got the worst of both worlds. We bind up half of everyone in our accusations, which must surely include some innocent people, while also just as surely overlooking some violence in the half we’ve declared to be “our team”.

To return to the question that started this section, “When the numbers are tallied how are people and incidents bucketed into left and right?” The answer is: subjectively.

Out of all the harm caused by ideological extremism, what percentage of it is due to violence by extremists of that ideology, and what percentage of it is due to other factors?

I’m already running long on this post, so I’ll try and keep this section much shorter than the previous two. I think the obvious answer to this question is that only a tiny fraction is due to violence by ideological extremists. Allow me to explain what I mean.

In our modern world the only people who identify as Nazis, or indeed as Communists, tend to be pretty radical (though more so in the former case than the latter), but there were times and places when such identification was not only mainstream but expected, e.g. the Third Reich and Soviet Russia respectively, and it was when these ideologies had triumphed, when they had gone from extreme to expected that the really horrific violence occurred. My takeaway from this is that what we’re really engaged in when we ask the question, “should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism?” Is a discussion on what the behavior of the extremists tells us about the direction we’re headed and the potential harm that could be inflicted once an ideology becomes more widespread. 

It’s clear that people want to use evidence of extremist violence to act as a guide for where an ideology and society as a whole is headed. And more commonly, but less acknowledged as evidence to back up their impression of where they think it’s going. But the connection between ideological extremism (even if properly attributed) and the ideology itself and society more broadly is more tenuous than people think. Compare the heights of ideological violence from the reports, with the high points of those actual ideologies. The high point of leftist violence preceded a run of right-wing presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagen, with only Carter thrown into the mix to be really confusing. On the other side the peak of right-wing police shootings happened in the 2000s, and was followed by the election of Obama. The most extreme example of right wing violence, the Oklahoma City Bombing immediately preceded the re-election of Clinton. But people think there’s a connection between that and Trump being elected 20 years later?

Obviously I was being facetious just then. My claim is not that right-wing violence isn’t increasing, it might be, and also people might be drawing the line more expansively when it comes to classifying an incident as right wing vs. left wing, as I pointed out in the examples I quoted of cellphone fights and domestic disturbances. No, my claim is that the waters are very muddy, and I don’t think some of the connections being made by organizations like the ADL are as clear as they would lead you to believe, while on the other hand I think some very clear connections are being ignored entirely, for example the Ferguson Effect. Given that I’ve already talked about it at some length, I’m not going to rehash it, but it is worth looking at what happened in St. Louis last month

Before the Michael Brown shooting, monthly homicides in St. Louis averaged around 13. Afterwards that average went up to around 18. In July they spiked to 54. That’s a marginal increase of 36 deaths, over something that was already elevated, or in other words more deaths in one month, in one city, than the worst decade of police shootings from the right and left combined. If we assume that these deaths are due to left-wing ideology, which is at least a hypothesis that can’t be rejected out of hand, then, to refer back to the question that began the section, this would be an example of where the harm caused by violent extremists is a tiny, essentially negligible fraction of the violence caused by the ideology as a whole. And of course, as I see it, the whole point of this blog has been to map out the wider and less visible harms caused by technology, progress and yes, ideology.

Conclusion

I hope this post has been interesting for you, it was very interesting for me to deeply comb through a very small set of statistics, and it led to a major epiphany, though you’ll have to wait for my next post to discover what the epiphany was. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that this post was just a vast exercise of my own biases, which is okay, that’s part of my epiphany. But to the extent we can look past my biases I think there are still a few objective principles we can take away:

  1. Even with a very narrow focus (i.e. just police shootings) you can still pull out numerous different interpretations of what we should “really be worried about”.
  2. One way to change the interpretation is to change the start or end date you’re using for the statistics on which that interpretation relies. 
  3. Interpretation and subjectivity operate at all levels of the discourse, from the classification of individual incidents all the way up into deciding that there’s really only two kinds of extremists. 
  4. This bilateral division might be the worst possible way to divide things, maximizing both the innocent people who are declared guilty and the guilty people who are declared innocent.
  5. A point I ran out of space for, but can be seen both from the Oklahoma City bombing and from the ambushing and assassination of police officers in 2016, violence is very much subject to tail events, or black swans as they are sometimes known. Where a large part of the harm comes from only one or two incidents.

Pulling all of this together and returning to that original question, “should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism?” I think there’s plenty of reason to worry about both, that in the process of declaring something as part of one side or the other lots of bias is brought to bear, and that all of our worries or alternatively all of our assurances could look silly in the face of some future extreme event. This is one of the points I’ve made again and again. That the future will be shaped by unforeseen, extreme events, that someday, probably sooner than we expect, some ideology will be responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions and it will make our comparison of 59 right wing police killings to only 44 left wing police killings look both quaint and naive. But this is not all, running underneath these extreme events, are broad, implacable currents, which are ultimately just as impactful, but largely dismissed or ignored by people who want to talk about whether extremism was up or down in 2019. Together these two factors combine to determine the shape of the future, and we’re not paying enough attention to either of them.


Where you draw the line makes a big difference. I have decided to draw the line at never charging for my blog, but really hoping that other people will decide to draw the line at: worth supporting anyway!


Books I Finished in July

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

Or download the MP3



In July I took what passes for a vacation during these unusual times. I was gone for a week and a half, and I ended up stringing two vacations together. (This is the big reason this post is a little bit late.) The first was a family trip down to Georgia. It was an interesting trip, essentially 116 years ago my Great-Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandmother were buried on a small family plot near Augusta but their graves were never marked, for reasons too complicated to get into. And over the years we even lost track of where the family plot was, once again for reasons too complicated to get into. Finally, to make things even more difficult, the land was purchased and incorporated into a nearby military base. But after a lot of hard work by my Aunt, and one of my cousins, the graves were finally located, and July 24th (a day of special importance to Mormons) was designated as the day when the graves would finally receive a monument. 

Of course all of that was decided at Thanksgiving of last year, and when the day finally arrived the pandemic had made things considerably more complicated, and it required a special dispensation from a general for us to even get on the base, but that dispensation was granted, and the whole thing was pretty awesome. 

While in Georgia I stopped by Stone Mountain to get a look at the giant bas-relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson before it’s inevitably dynamited, or something similar. I actually predicted all the way back in 2017 that it was no longer a question of if the Confederate monuments would come down, but when, so I’m not surprised that Stone Mountain is in the crosshairs, but I did think it was worth making an effort to see it before that happened. As part of it’s inevitable destruction they already seem to avoid any mention of who’s depicted in the carvings. The tram guide didn’t bring it up, and I saw no plaques with that information either.

The second half of the vacation was what passed for GenCon this year. It consisted of spending a week at my friend’s house, and doing a mix of in-person and virtual gaming. I hope things are back to normal by next year, but that’s by no means certain. 

Finally, a bit of meta commentary, someone mentioned that they liked the “Who should read this book?” Section of my reviews, which I had actually discontinued, but since it isn’t something that would be hard resurrect, I thought I’d go ahead and give the people what they want.


I- Eschatological Review

Super Cooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behavior (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) 

By: Martin Nowak

330 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the game theoretical case for cooperation, then this is a very comprehensive book, covering the research of one of the major figures in the field, but if that doesn’t describe you, you can probably skip it.

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned my interest in cooperation from an evolutionary/game theory perspective. I have a great deal of respect for this friend’s opinion and so when he recommended it, I ordered it and began reading it without bothering to do much research on either the book or Nowak, so I was completely surprised when I came across this:

The phone rang one day, when I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Within a minute or two I found myself explaining my research to a stranger who had introduced himself as Jeffrey Epstein.

Nowak goes on to describe how he and Epstein immediately hit it off and from there it goes on to talk about how he visited Epstein’s “tropical island” and how Epstein was the “perfect host”. In fact everything he says about Epstein is laudatory. Of course, once I read about all of that, I did start looking into things, and discovered that I was not the only one concerned by this connection. That Harvard had placed Nowak on academic leave in May of this year because of his association with Epstein. In bringing all of this up, I’m not looking to discredit Nowak’s work, or even saying that Nowak is a bad guy, there’s always the possibility that he’s just incredibly naive. No, the reason I bring it up, besides it being newsworthy, is that it’s an interesting real world example of what Nowak is talking about.

This book is about how a naive assessment of Darwinian evolution would lead one to believe that organisms should never cooperate because cooperation imposes an expense on the fitness of the organism choosing to cooperate while giving another, competing organism a benefit. And yet we see cooperation in nature all the time. This presents something of a paradox and Nowak’s life work has been creating mathematical models which illustrate how this cooperation actually makes sense. 

The ur-model/example in this field is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two “prisoners” are presented with a choice of either staying silent (i.e. cooperating with the other prisoner) or turning on the other prisoner and blaming the crime on him (i.e. defecting). If both defect, both are punished. If one defects and the other stays silent the former is rewarded and the latter is punished, but if both cooperate (stay silent), both get rewarded. Though the reward for being a sole defector is greater. Civilization is based on creating systems that encourage people to cooperate, not only because that’s what works best for society as a whole but because even for the individuals it’s better than the possibility that both end up defecting. But despite this there’s always going to be a temptation to defect, particularly if you can count on the other party to cooperate.

Bringing it back to Nowak’s relationship with Epstein. I imagine that after studying the benefits of cooperation for years and years that Nowak has a strong impulse to do just that, whereas I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Epstein a defector, someone who preyed upon the strong desire to cooperate in society to get away with some absolutely horrible crimes.

Of course it’s possible I’m wrong and that Nowak was just as much of a defector as Epstein, which wouldn’t surprise me either, defectors are always going to be with us. But the more important point made by the book is that the stronger the expectation of cooperation, and the larger the number of cooperators, the better defection is as a strategy, and the greater the temptation for an individual to defect. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I said that prisoner’s dilemma was the model everyone starts with, but a single game doesn’t tell you much, so when someone like Nowak wants to model things they generally run iterated games of the dilemma where every agent has a particular strategy and they see what strategy dominates over the long run. This better models a population over time, and in this case, if the agents play a sufficient number of games cooperation comes to dominate, which is the point of the book, but it’s precisely when the population has reached this height of cooperation that a strategy to always defect works the best, and if allowed to crop up via a simulated mutation it promptly becomes the most successful strategy, e.g. defectors cause the most harm when cooperation is at its highest.

Combining this observation with our own situation creates a host of questions. Was Epstein able to get away with so much because he was operating in a society where cooperation is the norm? Are his crimes a modern phenomenon or the sort of thing that’s been happening forever? Have we reached some peak in cooperation which makes defection more successful? Is that what civilization is, peak cooperation? If so, should we be expecting widespread defections? Is that what Epstein was doing? Is that what Trump supporters are doing currently? Is that what the protests are? Is this baseless speculation or am I on to something here? 

Going down this path opens up a whole can of worms. Obviously society is more complicated than a game of prisoner’s dilemma, for one thing the benefits of cooperation could be asymmetrical. Poor people could get less out of it than rich people, making it understandable that they might want to defect. But that doesn’t change the fact that defection on a massive scale would be very bad, and according to the models, it’s exactly the sort of thing which should eventually happen. Is it? Is modern politics a massive shift from a policy of default cooperation to default defection? Maybe? I think all that can be said conclusively is that this possibility deserves a deeper discussion than what I was able to provide here.


II- Capsule Reviews

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

By: Satya Nadella

304 Pages

Who should read this book?

I guess if you were the CEO of a mid-tier company looking to mimic Microsoft’s culture, this might be a good book for you, otherwise, unless you’re some sort of CEO-book completist, I don’t think I would recommend it.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I’m not entirely sure who recommended it, or why I decided to add it to my Audible library. It is short, which probably had a lot to do with it. 

In my reviews from last month I mentioned that White Fragility was an interesting snapshot into a certain moment in time, but that I doubt that it would be remembered at all 10 years from now. I could say the same about this book. It’s a very optimistic book, sort of Enlightenment Now if it was written by a tech CEO, and of course this book was written by a tech CEO, nor is it the first such book. In fact if we expand things to include all books written by CEOs there end up being so many they’re almost a genre unto themselves. And the question is always how much is a book by a CEO marketing for his company, and how much is it an instruction manual you can follow to duplicate their success?

Looking back on previous entries in this genre I would say that they certainly want you to think that it’s the latter. That they’re giving you the formula to run a successful company, but that it’s always at best an exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie. How much of whatever success Nadella has achieved is contained in his unique management style which he explains in the book, and how much is a pivot any reasonably competent CEO could have made if they had $22 billion in annual profits to throw around? 

That’s a really hard question to answer. I don’t deny that there are great CEOs. I just also know that there’s an awful lot of luck involved and even for those that have real skill I don’t know how much can be passed along. Look at Jack Welch and GE. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and now 20 years later GE has been delisted from the Dow, and most people think it’s all but dead. To be blunt one assumes that everyone that followed Welch as CEO read all of his books, to say nothing of being personally mentored by him. And yet…

Also, I’m not convinced there’s much unique to Nadella’s book. If Sundar Pichai had written a book about Google, I’m guessing it would read pretty much the same. There seems to be ideology that technology is the eventual answer to all of our problems common to these companies, and I’m not entirely sure how well that belief is going to survive 2020. 


The Chronicles of Prydain

By: Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three 

190 Pages

The Black Cauldron

208 Pages

The Castle of Llyr

208 Pages

Taran Wanderer

256 Pages

The High King

272 Pages

Who should read these books?

If you like YA fantasy novels, or fantasy in general, or coming of age stories, or Wales, or just literature in general, you will like these books.

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned my recent goal to do more re-reading, and in a moment of nostalgia I decided to re-read this series. I first read them in the 5th grade, and while that wasn’t the last time I revisited Prydain, the last time I read them was probably 15 years ago. As is usually the case with stuff like this, you forget how delightful it is. I believe that these books are the equal of anything J. K. Rowling has put out and deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

This is not to say that these books are the equal of the Harry Potter series in every respect. In some ways they are worse, but in many they are better. For example, I would say that some of the supporting characters are kind of one note (for example Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam), but, on the other hand, Taran (the protagonist of these books) is miles ahead of Harry Potter as a character. In particular his growth, experiences, and overall arc are both more serious and more satisfying. I will admit that the movie adaptation of Harry Potter was handled much better than Disney’s adaptation of The Black Cauldron, which I’m sure has probably harmed the series in the long run, or at least not helped.

Speaking of The Black Cauldron, I think that book offers a good comparison between Taran and some of the other bildungsroman heroes in fantasy novels (including Harry Potter). Taran does some decidedly dumb things, like all of such heroes, but the growth from these mistakes is both obvious, and believable. In so many of these books the hero’s character is mentioned but they’re either inherently good or their growth is done in a kind of hand wavy fashion. Also in other books so much of the hero’s status comes not from their character, but from powers or a destiny inherent to them. Taran is not destined, and not special, and in the Black Cauldron, he actually acquires some powers, but by the end of the book he chooses to give them up for something more important. 

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed these books. And I would definitely recommend them, particularly if you’re looking for something to give your child to read.


Euripides IV: Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes 

by: Euripides

290 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re desperately trying to recreate the classical education you missed as a youth (or from being born in the 20th or 21st century) like me, then you should read Euripides, and frankly all of the Greek tragedies. But if you’re content to continue your vulgar plebeian lifestyle, I suppose you can skip them.

General Thoughts

What struck me while reading this latest collection of Greek tragedies was how focused the Greeks were on the stories of just a few families and events. Out of curiosity I decided to go back through all the books (and forward into the final book) and count it up. Here are the numbers I came up with:

Trojan War: 8 plays

The Family of Oedipus: 6 plays

Agamemnon’s Family: 8 plays

Hercules: 4 plays

None of the above: 8 plays

Does it seem interesting or remarkable to anyone other than me that over 75% of the extant plays are about four subjects? (And it might even be worse than that, the Trojan War looms pretty large in all of the plays about Agamemnon’s Family.) Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this, but I don’t recall coming across any in-depth discussion of this quirk. Of course, I did use the word “extant” just then, and it’s possible that what I’m actually noticing is a selection bias present among the people preserving the plays, but that doesn’t change the strangeness it just moves it to a different location. Someone thought these few events and families were particularly important or story worthy, why was that? 

I don’t expect to offer any sort of satisfactory answer to that question in the space of a few paragraphs, but is it possible that we’re the outlier, not them? That most cultures and civilizations latch on to just a few defining events and stories, and that by having thousands of stories, we’re the weird ones? In support of that it would appear that this situation is relatively new historically. That before the advent of the TV, Americans were similar Greeks. Most of our stories were about the Founding or perhaps the Civil War. And before that stories from the Bible dominated things. 

As is so often the case in this blog we’re led to ask, has modernity made us better off or worse? What are the pros and cons? When there are only a few stories it’s easy to see how that might translate into a more unified culture, or even a religion. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods, and Christianity generally acted as a unifying force in the history of Western Europe. Finally the stories of the founding were unquestionably a large part of American civic religion. What happens if we don’t have stories to unify us? Does it indicate an inevitable fracturing of culture? If so is it a cause of the fracturing or a symptom?


A Secular Age

By: Charles Taylor

896 Pages

Who should read this book?

Someone who has many, many hours to spare and is deeply interested in modern secular behavior as compared to historical religious behavior, and how the latter led to the former.

General Thoughts

I mentioned this book in my last post, and it’s going to be impossible to do it justice in the space I have, not only is it long, but there are great insights on nearly every page, something illustrated by that last post when the whole thing derived from a single page of content.

Moving from the specific to the general, the book starts with the question, how did we go from a world in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which it’s just one choice among many, and not even a particularly high status one. The most common story told about this transition, particularly among unbelievers, is the story of subtraction. The idea that long ago the world was full of irrational ideas and behavior, but that progress and science gradually swept those things away, leaving only knowledge and morality until eventually all that was left was the enlightened state we’re in now. 

Taylor spends 800 pages comprehensively disproving that idea, if you’re lucky I may spend 8 paragraphs covering the whole book, but to give you a taste of the argument here’s one brief selection:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal, nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

The key point Taylor is making is that our modern concept of human welfare isn’t what remains after we’ve eliminated religion, or even just once we’ve eliminated the “bad” parts, like superstitions and authoritarian tendencies. But rather religion is foundational and necessary. That even those parts people view as horribly backwards were important and necessary building blocks. That modern enlightened values would look very different if they didn’t start from a foundation of Western Christianty (and indeed such values are very different elsewhere in the world). 

I found this explanation interesting both for what it had to say about religion, but also what it had to say about progress in general. We see this same sense that subtraction is the answer in so much of the current social justice movement, for example the push to defund the police. With people claiming that if we just strip away the power of the police, that we’ll have less violence, but so far there’s good reason to believe that it’s the exact opposite. That modern policing has a lot of problems, but that it’s build on centuries of experimentation, that it’s not the last gasp of a racist past, but rather, as I said in another post, “it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

All of this ties into the deeper subject of human evil in a very interesting fashion. How do we deal with the fact that everyone is at least a little bit evil and some people are a lot evil. One answer, the one that people are protesting against, is that we set up a state, that state has a monopoly on the use of force and they grant that monopoly to the police, who then go around trying to prevent evil. But what Taylor points out is that the ideology of victimhood has a different answer for where evil resides and how to deal with it:

Then there is the victim scenario. This can colonize the Left. All evil is projected onto the others; they alone are the victimizers; we are pure victim. The liberal self feels relatively innocent, because (a) it sees the whole picture clearly, and (b) it is part of the solution. But this is compatible with recognizing some degree of one’s own fault in the disorder of the world. The victim scenario, on the other hand, a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them.

I, for one, feel like he gets at something deep and important there, something entirely overlooked by other commenters. And also something that deserves a much fuller treatment than what I’m able to provide. Particularly since I still want to talk about the book from a religious angle. But I’ll put that in it’s own section. 


III- Religious Reviews 

A Secular Age (Continued)

Any discussion of a decline of religion, must inevitably touch on the place of religion in society. Is it, as atheists claim, the barbaric relic of an uncivilized past, something that should be dispensed with as soon as possible? Or is it a useful social construct, a piece of what it means to be civilized? Or is it a manifestation of something actually transcendent, whether that be God or some more nebulous universal force? Taylor himself is a believer, though I was hundreds of pages into the book before I was sure of that because his discussion of things was so objective. (Or so it appeared to me, I imagine others may quibble.)  And it was only at the end of the book that he really started to discuss the place of religion in society. And given that I can’t cover everything he discussed I’m going to focus on just a little over one page from the book, which has the added advantage of demonstrating how dense the book is. 

He starts by contrasting our belief in God to leaving the house without an umbrella:

I may leave the house without an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable, and it predicted fair weather. But the difference between this kind of case and the issue we’re dealing with here, is first, that the weather, beyond the inconvenience of getting wet today, doesn’t matter to me in anything like the same way, and second that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s weather than the forecast.

These two considerations are quite different when it comes to the existence of God. First, the answer to this question matters quite a bit, it may even be argued that the answer is the most important detail of our existence. Second, the whole promise of religion is that faith and the practice of that religion allows us an alternative and independent means of getting at the answer. Taylor points out that if we ignore these other means, and rely entirely on “science” to provide us with the answer that we are much like Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. What makes Othello a tragedy, and not just a tale of misfortune, is that we hold its protagonist culpable in his too-ready belief of the evidence fabricated by Iago. He had an alternative mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself, if he could only have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. The fatal flaw in the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this…

The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted God”, without any supplement, as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is that we are on this issue like Othello, rather than the person listening to the forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. We can’t just explain what we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources, without seeing what we made of the internal ones.

[And so] the question remains: if the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive, why do they seem so convincing, where at other times and places God’s existence [seemed] just… [as] obvious? 

I latched on to this analogy because I have the same question as Taylor. I understand people who have queried these internal sources and in return have gotten nothing but silence. Who realize the importance of the question, just as Othello should have, and have done everything in their power to get information from Desdemona only to find her evasive or unavailable. It is the people who have never bothered to “question Desdemona” that I find so baffling. 


Let’s be honest I’m a pretty small fish, in a massive pond, but the advantage of that for you is that I’m actually very responsive to feedback. For example reinstituting one of my book review sections based on an off-handed remark on Twitter. But of course what I respond the best to are donations.


Picking an End Point for the Revolution

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

Or download the MP3


For the moment let’s assume that things need to change in the US, and probably the entire world. That we have serious and urgent problems which need fixing. For most people I imagine this assumption isn’t particularly controversial, though before we proceed with it, it’s probably worth at least mentioning the idea that this assumption could be wrong, that perhaps the problems we experience are neither serious nor particularly urgent. To at least entertain the notion that things are actually awesome and all of the current turmoil is self-generated drama. That, as Steven Pinker says in the opening to his book Enlightenment Now, a “bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.”

Of course as anyone who has dealt with self-generated drama knows, it can cause quite a few problems without necessarily being based on anything concrete. Which is to say even if we factor Pinker’s assertion into our calculations I still think it’s pretty safe to assume that things need to change. From here we can imagine two ways that this might happen. We could work within the existing system, and make gradual changes to the framework that already exists. Or we can ditch the old system and replace it with a completely new and presumably better system. 

In my last post I examined a proposal that fell into the latter category, one that proposed a completely new system of racial justice, and found that it suffered from a distressing lack of pragmatism. In this post I want to examine the general idea of completely replacing a system rather than gradually modifying the current system. And right off the bat I want to make the bold claim that a complete replacement never works, or if it does it takes so much longer than anyone ever thought it would when things began that the effect is the same.

To be clear when I’m talking about a complete replacement I mean nothing less than a revolution. Something which clearly separates one form of government and ideology from another. In the interest of full disclosure I draw most of my knowledge about revolutions from the excellent podcast of the same name by Mike Duncan, and out of the modern revolutions he covers I think three are worth discussing here: the American, French and Russian.

To begin with you may already be thinking, “But the American Revolution worked! I thought you said revolutions never worked?” I actually didn’t say that, I said a complete replacement never works. And, while it’s impossible to completely replace your system of government without a revolution, it is possible to have a revolution without completely replacing your system of government. To illustrate what I mean it’s instructive to contrast the American and French Revolutions. Why was one successful, while the other was largely unsuccessful? (Unless you consider Napoleon some sort of win condition…) This disparity would make sense if the unsuccessful revolution had occurred first. You could imagine that the second time someone attempted an “enlightened” revolution that the revolutionaries would have learned from all the mistakes of the first, and as such it would be more likely to be successful, but in fact it’s the reverse.  Another factor that might have played a role in things was the fact that the Americans were rebelling against an external power, while the French were largely rebelling against themselves. Certainly this disparity has to be taken into account, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it. The Revolutionary War was more loyalists vs. patriots than it was colonists vs. England, and it was much closer to a civil war than an indigenous rebellion. So why did the one fail while the other succeeded?

I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, how is it that these two revolutions, so close in time and goals, had such different outcomes? Just recently I read something which seemed to answer it. It was a passage in the book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It’s a massive, incredibly dense tome which clocks in at 874 pages. And I’m going to attempt to do some justice to it in the July book review round-up, but for now I just want to focus on one little part of it: a section comparing the American and French Revolutions:

The [American] revolutionary forces were mobilized largely on the basis of the old backward-looking legitimacy idea. [The revolution] will later be seen as the exercise of a power inherent in a sovereign people. The proof of its existence and legitimacy lies in the new polity it created. But popular sovereignty would have been incapable of doing this job if it had entered the scene too soon. The predecessor idea, invoking the traditional rights of a people defined by its ancient constitution, had to do the original heavy lifting…

…this projection backwards of the action of a sovereign people wouldn’t have been possible without the continuity in institutions and practices which allowed for the reinterpretation of past actions as the fruit of the new principles. The essence of this continuity resided in the virtually universal acceptance among the colonists of elected assemblies as legitimate forms of power. Popular sovereignty could be embraced because it had a clear and uncontested institutional meaning. This was the basis of the new order. 

In other words the American Revolution worked because of the things it modified rather than the things it dispensed with. The various legislative bodies present in the colonies and in the mother country formed the foundation for the new system they ended up with. Without that foundation already in place they would have found it impossible to build something new. On the other hand:

Quite different was the case in the French Revolution, with fateful effects. The impossibility remarked by all historians of “bringing the Revolution to an end” came partly from this, that any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support. Part of the terrifying instability of the first years of the Revolution stemmed from this negative fact, that the shift from the legitimacy of dynastic rule to that of the nation had no agreed meaning in a broadly based social imaginary. 

[Edmund] Burke’s advice to the revolutionaries was to stick to their traditional constitution and amend it piecemeal. But this was already beyond their powers. It was not just that the representative institutions of this constitution, the Estates General, had been in abeyance for 175 years. They were also profoundly out of sync with the aspiration to equal citizenship…That is why virtually the first demand of the Third Estate in 1789 was to abolish the separate chambers, and bring all the delegates together in a single National Assembly. 

Even more gravely, outside of [the] educated elites, there was very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.

In both revolutions they had the idea of popular sovereignty, the difference was that for the American Revolution popular sovereignty had a “clear and uncontested institutional meaning” whereas in the French Revolution, there was “very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.” And consequently any “particular expression of popular sovereignty” could be supplanted by any other “expression of popular sovereignty”. The American Revolution had a logical endpoint, the French Revolution didn’t. That was why one was a success and one wasn’t and it’s also the key difference between making changes within a system and trying to implement an entirely new system, as long as you keep the old system you also keep an endpoint, but once you abandon it, you also abandon any obvious markers for declaring the thing finished. 

I leave it for the reader to judge whether the current political unrest represents an example of something where the radical changes being demanded will nevertheless ultimately use the current system as a foundation, i.e. is there in fact an obvious stopping point. Or whether it falls into the category of revolutions which entirely reject the old system. Or whether it should be considered to be a revolution at all. What I’m more interested in at the moment is the historical perspective. Which takes us to the other revolution I said I was going to cover, the Russian Revolution.

There is an argument to be made that this was both a successful revolution and a revolution that thoroughly and comprehensively rejected the previous system. For myself, I would certainly agree with the last half of the argument, Russian communism was clearly something entirely new, it’s the first half that I take issue with. Yes, if your sole criteria is whether a new ideology took power, and held onto that power, it was a success, but when you consider the millions and millions of people who died in the course of making that happen, it’s not a success I think that anyone should want to emulate. And in any consideration of the Russian revolution that would be the lesson I’d want people to come away with. But if you assure me that you have absorbed that lesson, I think the lessons that came from how that revolution ended are valuable as well.

To pull all three revolutions together, and restate things: in order for the revolution to end there has to be a point where most people admit that it has ended. For the American Revolution that end point was independence and a revised system of elected assemblies. For the French Revolution they had the supposed end point of achieving popular sovereignty, but no one could agree on precisely how they would know when that was achieved. The end point of the Russian Revolution was more complicated, there was the overt and widely proclaimed goal of total economic leveling, but this was combined with the more covert endpoint of a select group of people seizing power. In making these comparisons I’m hand waving numerous very complex situations, but distilled out, I think the Russian Revolution provides two additional examples of how things might end, 1) the ideology motivating the revolution could provide a clearly defined endpoint. Or 2) the revolution could be led by people powerful enough to call a halt to things when they’re satisfied. Out of these two it is unclear if either is sufficient to end things by itself, but if one of them is, it would have to be having strong leaders.

As I said, I’m not ready to declare what sort of revolution is taking place right now, or if it even is a revolution. But if it is, then it would appear to be in danger of falling prey to the phenomenon I’ve been talking about, the lack of any obvious endpoint. The clearest way this manifests is in the lack of leaders, something which has been brought up a lot in this space particularly in the comments, but which seems to pass mostly unremarked upon everywhere else. Or at least I haven’t seen any really serious grappling with what this might mean in the mainstream press. Which is surprising because it represents a huge difference between past protests and now. And even if I’m over-reaching when I argue that this lack of leaders is going to make it harder to bring things to a close, I can’t see anyone arguing that it doesn’t significantly alter the dynamic. 

The effect of ideology is more nebulous, but as I argued in previous posts, the protesters seem to have a whole constellation of demands, none of which are particularly pragmatic, or even well-defined. But from a high level view, and at the risk of being too simplistic, it feels like if the French Revolution was motivated by popular sovereignty that the current protests are motivated by the idea of justice. And if anything it seems even tricker to decide when justice has been achieved than it was to establish when popular sovereignty had been. As Taylor pointed out, “any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support.” Couldn’t we adapt that, and with equal accuracy say, “any particular demand for justice could be superseded by some other, with substantial support”?

You might assert that simplifying things down to the idea of justice goes too far, that they are not demanding some form of unreachable platonic justice, for all people and for all times, that their ideology is more complicated, but if anything doesn’t that make it even worse? If the French couldn’t agree on the meaning of popular sovereignty, and the Russian revolution only stopped after millions of deaths, and the imposition of a dictatorship, what makes you think, should this actually be a true revolution, that having lots of competing ideas about what needs to be accomplished will make declaring an end to things easier?

Lest you think I’m overstating the complexity of things here is just a half dozen points from the website blacklivesmatter.com:

  1. We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.
  2. We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege.
  3. We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.
  4. We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.
  5. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.
  6. We embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace.

I’m not necessarily saying that any of the above is bad (though I think some points bring a lot of negative second order effects) nor am I necessarily claiming blacklivesmatter.com speaks for all of the protestors (though that takes us back to the lack of leadership) I’m saying that these points are nebulous (what has to occur for us to be sure that cisgender priviledge is dismantled?) and also numerous. 

As I mention, I’m not sure how this is going to play out over the next few weeks and months (or years). What I am saying is that if the protests are expected to continue until every item on the list is checked off, then the expected duration starts to approach infinity. Of course, no one is patient enough for an infinitely long process, which is why people want to speed things up. And that’s how we switch from gradually remaking the existing system into violently imposing an entirely new system. 

In the end, the caution I’m urging here is closely related to the caution I’ve been urging in all of my recent posts:

  • Don’t panic so much over the first mistake, that you make a second bigger mistake. While I’m not saying the excesses of the French Revolution were worse than the abuses of the Ancien Régime. It should have been possible to do something about those abuses without The Terror.
  • If you are going to try something radical, try it on a small scale rather than at the level of the entire nation. In 1900 it was reasonable to argue that Communism would be a better system of government than market capitalism, but rather than start with a modest experiment, they imposed it at the point of a gun in two of the biggest nations in the world, Russia and China, and it led to millions of deaths.
  • Things are more complicated than you think. At the time of the French Revolution, (particularly in light of the American Revolution) it may have seemed straightforward to implement something completely new, but there are always all manner of complexities and systems you’re almost entirely unaware of.
  • There are lots of different ways of viewing the world, and getting everyone on the same page is more difficult than you think. If you’re creating chaos in an attempt to disrupt the current system, how do you turn that chaos off? For the French it was essentially Napoleon. For the Russians it was Lenin or possibly Stalin. For the Americans it was elected assemblies. Who or what turns off the current chaos?
  • And of course the last post where I directly address the lack of pragmatism in the ideology of Critical Race Theory.

To all of that I would like to repeat my caution from the beginning of the post, trying to completely replace the system never works. So if we want to succeed, if we want to address the problems of police brutality and income inequality and the rest, we need to build on what we have. I know that this is not what people want to hear, but before you dismiss it, take a minute to consider the differences between the American and French Revolutions, and in particular the horrors of the Russian Revolution. I know it seems impossible to go from what’s happening now, to either the French or Russian Revolutions, but had you asked the French in May of 1789 or the Russians in January of 1917 I’m sure that what actually happened would have seemed impossible to them as well…


This is actually my 200th post. I thought about doing something meta, or special, but in the end I decided not to. However, if you wanted to give me a gift, becoming a patreon would be at the top of my list…


Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory (A Distressing Lack of Pragmatism)

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

Or download the MP3


As you may or may not have noticed one of my primary intellectual projects since the death of George Floyd has been an attempt to understand the underlying issues (some might say the underlying corruption) which lead to his death, and to further understand the various proposals being put forth for fixing these issues (or uprooting this corruption). I will say that in the beginning, my lack of understanding led me to avoid the subject, or at least approach it very gingerly, which was almost certainly the best course of action, and it might still be the wisest course of action. But given that the debate which ensued shows no signs of fading away and, added to that, recent developments like the Harper’s Letter and letters written in opposition to that letter, and violent clashes between BLM and Blue Lives Matter protesters, ignoring things seems increasingly a form of abdication, particularly when I see very important points apparently getting overlooked by everyone.

This time around my attention was drawn to these “overlooked things” by an article in the Economist: Enlightenment liberalism is losing ground in the debate about race, by Diane Ejaita. This article was sent to me by a friend who has, himself, followed a trajectory of growing disenchantment with “Enlightenment liberalism” and who appreciated this article:

I like the way this article balances the issue. The author clearly leans towards enlightenment liberalism but frankly acknowledges the fact that it has failed to bring about adequate solutions to the problems of race in America.

To begin with, he’s correct. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better attempt than this article at explaining the conflict between these two ideologies, a conflict which has gotten increasingly heated, particularly among those traditionally on the classically liberal left. And yet despite this article being as good as it gets, I believe that it contains a number of egregious assumptions that need to be pointed out. It’s perhaps arrogant of me to think that I’m the man to do it, but it really feels like someone has to. 

Before getting to that, it’s possible that you’re not clear on what the two competing ideologies are. From the article:

To understand all this, it is worth going back to the battle of ideas. In one corner is liberalism, with its tarnished record, and in the other the anti-liberal theories emerging from the campus to challenge it.

It is indeed worth discussing this battle of ideas, in fact while other things might be more important in the short term, ten or twenty years from now the results of this ideological debate will be the element that had the greatest impact on the world.

As I said, on the whole, the article was a great discussion of the tensions currently in play and why liberalism is “on the ropes”. It’s not it’s general point, but rather the assumptions and evidence used to buttress that general point that need to be reexamined. Yes there is a conflict between these two ideologies, and there should be, but Ejaita makes several points which serve to understate the strengths of liberalism and overstate the case for anti-liberal alternatives. Accordingly the rest of the post will largely be me quoting a specific passage and then pointing out what’s wrong with it. As I do this it’s possible I’ll read too much into these individual statements, that I’ll miss some of the nuances, or that my objections will veer towards stridency. Feel free to call me out on that, as I said this debate is important, and I genuinely don’t want to strawman the other side.

With all that out of the way, here’s the first statement that jumped out at me:

But [liberalism’s] poor record on race, especially with regard to African-Americans, stands out. Income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree. True, great steps have been taken against overt racial animus. But the lack of progress means liberals must have either tried and failed to create a society in which people of all races can flourish, or failed to try at all.

This paragraph manages to be contradictory, and overly simplistic at the same time. In one breath it mentions the “great steps” which have been taken against “overt” racial animus, and then goes on to speculate that liberalism might have failed to try “at all”. Which is it? Because it clearly can’t be both. Or does all of this hinge on the overt part? Is it that liberalism has failed to make any attempt at eradicating inner racism? First, efforts were being made to police language, jokes and attitudes as far back as the 70s. So, secondly, it seems clear that the answer is that they tried and failed, because third, it’s an exceptionally difficult problem, and it’s not as if “anti-liberal theories emerging from campuses” have stumbled on a fool-proof way of accomplishing it which people have just refused to adopt. If anything they seem equally clueless, a point I’ll be returning to.

Ejaita goes on:

And although slavery is a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies, the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.

This is a very strange sentence. Is she actually implying that enlightenment societies, which she admits are the only societies where slavery ended up not being “nearly universal” should nevertheless share equal (or perhaps greater?) guilt with pre-Enlightenment societies because the slavery of those societies wasn’t racist? First I’m not entirely sure it’s as clear cut as she claims, every civilization had an out-group that they considered worthy of enslavement, and while I’m no expert on this, I’d be surprised if there weren’t other examples of enslavement based around race. And there was certainly enslavement based on nationality and religion. Also even if the Atlantic slave trade was uniquely bad because it was based on racial superiority, do the enlightenment societies not get any credit for being the first societies to put and end to it? And in the case of the US, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives?

The article then spends a few paragraphs talking about colonialism, and insofar as The Economist is a UK publication that makes sense, but even in the UK, I don’t think it does much to illuminate the problem, and it’s a particularly weird tangent when you turn to a discussion of the United States. I haven’t heard any reports of Filipino grievances being part of the recent protests, and while the Puerto Rican independence movement was a big thing in the middle of the last century, including an attempted assassination of Truman, the last time a vote was taken on independence 60% wanted to be a state and only 5.5% wanted independence, and that percentage has been stable going all the way back to 1967.

After this detour into colonialism, Ejaita makes her way into the 60s and discusses the civil rights era and affirmative action. Shortly thereafter is also when the main competitor to liberalism enters the story:

As the gains of the civil-rights era failed to translate into sustained progress for African-Americans, dissatisfaction with liberalism set in. One of the first to respond was Derrick Bell, a legal scholar working at Harvard in the 1970s. “Critical race theory”, which fused French post-modernism with the insights of African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, then emerged.

Over the decades other concepts like intersectionality (“A black woman could lose a case of discrimination against an employer who could show that he did not discriminate against black men or white women”) have been added to this package, until eventually:

[C]ritical race theory has flourished, spreading to education, political science, gender studies, history and beyond. HR departments use its terminology. Allusions to “white privilege” and “unconscious bias” are commonplace. Over 1,000 CEOs, including those of firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Walmart, have joined an anti-racism coalition and promised that their staff will undertake unconscious-bias training (the evidence on its efficacy is limited). Critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”.

There’s a lot to unpack here… First off, if critical race theory is ubiquitous, why is it also largely ineffective? We come to this conclusion based not only on the fact that injustice is still ubiquitous (should we not be able to point to someplace as a success story? Perhaps academia?) but also the admission of the article itself, which offers one concrete recommendation and then goes on to say, “the evidence on its efficacy is limited”. Are you beginning to see a thread? Critical race theory (CRT) seems big on rhetoric, but short on practical solutions. Secondly she makes this incredibly sweeping claim in the last sentence, that the “aim of journalism is not ‘objectivity’ but ‘moral clarity’”. If clarity is not objective it can only be subjective, and subjective clarity seems at best an oxymoron and at worst the sort of thing that proceeds all of the worst revolutionary excesses throughout history. Beyond this, attempts to achieve “moral certainty” stretch back at least to the Greeks, so I’m inclined to doubt that we’ve suddenly solved it in the last few decades with the invention of CRT. 

In fact, that last sentence actually reminds me a lot of the most striking passage from Bari Weiss’ resignation letter:

Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else. 

Weiss offers it up as a criticism but Ejaita seems to be offering up a functionally identical statement, and touting it as a strength. It can’t be both, and it seems far more likely for it to be the former than the latter. Moving on: 

The philosophical mechanics that bolt together critical race theory can be obscure. But the approach is elegantly engineered into bestselling books such as “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

I have not read Kendi’s book, but I did read DiAngelo’s and it was anything but elegant. Not only is her argument undermined by the paradox I mentioned in that previous discussion. (Racism is fantastically evil. All white people are racist. But white people are fragile if they ever react negatively to being accused of racism.) But she frequently admits as part of the book the same thing mentioned in the article, that her trainings don’t appear to have any noticeable effect on people’s attitude, to say nothing of actually solving the problem. 

I think you’ve probably long ago been able to see where I was going with all of this, but before we get there, one more quote from the article:

The appeal of critical race theory—or at least its manifestation in popular writing—is partly that it confidently prescribes what should be done to fight injustice….

Liberals have no such simple prescription. 

Here we see, spelled out, my central problem with CRT. From everything I can see the situation is exactly the opposite of the section I just quoted. Enlightenment liberalism has a whole host of pragmatic techniques and suggestions which have been tried and tested over hundreds of years. CRT is the side that appears completely lacking in pragmatism.

Let’s compare, liberalism’s first great idea for fighting injustice was very straightforward, let’s end slavery. Which they did. No only is this a “simple prescription” but it’s very important to remember that before liberalism, as the article itself admits, slavery was nearly universal. Liberalism is essentially the first system to come up with this idea and implement it on a large scale. 100 years later when that didn’t work liberalism next recommended passing laws that further outlawed discrimination, while also allowing for positive, “rectificatory justice” (a phrase from the article) like affirmative action. Finally, underlying all of this was the commitment to a free and open exchange of ideas so that if there were any areas where we hadn’t arrived at the truth, we eventually would. I bow to no one in my criticism of the idea that enlightened liberalism is some sort of unstoppable force. I think there’s all sorts of reasons why it’s force might be spent, but it should at least get credit for what it already accomplished!

In the other corner, critical race theory, which as far as I can tell has three major practical, policy recommendations: unconscious-bias training, defunding the police, and reparations. We’ve already discussed how evidence for the effectiveness of the first is limited. Defunding the police is an interesting idea, which I’ve expressed support for trying on a limited basis, but I have yet to see someone offer up a community or nation as an example of where this is already working (most examples I’ve seen of better policing involve giving the police more money) which makes it less a practical suggestion than an untested hypothesis. Finally there’s reparations, which again, is an interesting idea, but from the standpoint of practicality, it’s a nightmare of genealogy, logistics, history and ideology.

Now to be clear, here is what I’m not arguing. I’m not arguing that liberalism is fast. I’m not arguing that there are no blind spots. I’m not arguing that eventually liberalism will fix everything if we just wait long enough. I’m not even arguing that CRT doesn’t have anything useful to add to policies and behavior. Rather what I am arguing is that most of the criticisms of liberalism which have gotten so much attention over the last few weeks share a distressing lack of pragmatism. And that people don’t even seem to be aware of this weakness. Arguing, as for example in this article, that it’s in fact the other way around, that CRT has “confident prescriptions”, that it’s possible that liberalism has “failed to try at all” and that CRT brings a “moral clarity” which has somehow been overlooked for centuries. 

Pulling everything together, it’s not entirely clear what the article’s point is. There are lots of parts (like the ones I’ve quoted) where Ejaita frames things as a contest between liberalism and anti-liberal theories, in particular CRT, and indicates that the latter has the edge in this contest. But then in the concluding paragraph there’s no mention of the competition or of anti-liberal alternatives:

Plenty of people are trying to work out what [putting right past failures] entails, but the practicalities are formidable. Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one.

I couldn’t agree more that the “practicalities are formidable” and that the “political moment…demands an agenda that is both practically and politically feasible.” What I don’t understand is what Ejaita means by that very last sentence. I see three possible interpretations:

  1. The “risk” being discussed is a risk to the project of liberalism. If it can’t come up with an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible”, it and its supporters will be sidelined, similar to what happened to, say, communists, but the world as a whole will pivot to anti-liberal theories and be fine. 
  2. Despite significant discussion of alternatives to liberalism, Ejaita understands that it is really the only game in town, and the risk to us all is that if it can’t figure out how to fix racial disparities there’s nothing concrete to take its place and we’re all doomed.
  3. That despite only mentioning liberals in the concluding paragraph, the point of the article is that all ideologies find themselves in this same political moment with the same demands for an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible” and the “risk” is that no ideology will find itself adequate to the task, and we’re all doomed. 

You can see how the text seems to point strongly in the direction of the first interpretation, which in my opinion is naive to the point of being dangerous. Because as far as I can tell a practical and politically feasible agenda is precisely what CRT and anti-liberal theories lack. My own opinion would be closer to the second interpretation, and it is possible that’s what she’s saying, certainly if you consider the final paragraph in isolation, that seems like the most straightforward reading. 

But if we grant that CRT or something similar is a viable alternative (frankly, I’m not convinced that it is) then it should be held to the same standards of practicality and political feasibility as liberalism, or what I pointed out as the final interpretation. But neither this article nor the many supporters of anti-liberal theories seem to be demanding that standard or putting forth this interpretation of our “political moment”. But the risk that no ideology will find itself equal to the task is very real.

I understand the concerns of my friends and of this article and others like it about the weaknesses of liberalism, but if the choice is between something which has been working (albeit nowhere close to perfectly) for centuries, and something entirely unproven, with recommendations that are either vague, radical or both, I choose to be a defender of liberalism.


Savaging articles from The Economist requires me to subscribe to The Economist, which costs money, so if such savagery appeals to you, consider donating. 


Traffic Lights and Modern Epistemology

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

Or download the MP3


The other day I was on Hacker News, and someone had taken advantage of the Ask HN feature  to inquire where they could go for dispassionate discussion now that Slate Star Codex was gone. I have tried to go back and find that post, and I couldn’t, so I may be misrepresenting some of the details here, but if my memory is correct the top comment was by someone who made the point that a dispassionate discussion of something could only occur if it didn’t involve the people affected, which was exactly the wrong way to have a discussion and what has been happening with too many social issues up until this point. Implied further in this comment was the idea that dispassionate discussion was the wrong way to solve a problem.

This comment brought up an important and necessary point… Up until the moment where it started talking about solutions. Certainly you wouldn’t want to exclude the people affected by an issue from a discussion of that issue. Even if, and perhaps especially if, the issue made them angry, and the discussion ended up not being dispassionate because of that anger. But at a certain point, what we really want to do is solve the problem in the best fashion possible, which requires objectivity, and yes, some dispassionate discussion. In other words it may be perfectly justifiable for people to be angry; it may be and probably is important for them to have their say, to explain exactly why they’re so angry; but in the end anger is rarely the best strategy for solving the problem. In fact, if you allow the most angry to dominate the discussion, you’re far more likely to end up with a really bad solution than the best solution.

Perhaps an analogy would help to illustrate what I mean. To leave my neighborhood and head south I nearly always have to stop at a particular traffic light. On occasion I end up waiting at this light for what seems like forever, because it’s heavily biased in the other direction. As the minutes drag on (full disclosure: I believe the longest I’ve ever waited is a hair under three minutes) I get understandably annoyed, and sometimes, if I’m already in a bad mood, by the time the light changes I’m pretty angry.

The other morning that’s exactly what was happening, I was waiting at this light for what seemed like a very long time and getting increasingly annoyed at it. But this time I noticed something, after all that time when it eventually turned green, there were only two cars waiting, me and another guy opposite me, while during the time I had been waiting many cars had passed in the other direction. Which led me to wonder if perhaps, when considering all the traffic that passed through that intersection, if the system made sense. This was actually not the first time I had had this thought (though it was the first time I noticed how meager the traffic was on my street) but it’s easy to forget the system as a whole when you’re being inconvenienced by one part of the system. 

But what does it mean for the system to “make sense”? Or to consider my specific case, I was angry at this light because it was constantly causing me discomfort, but I had never really engaged with the question: what system should be used to calibrate that light? 

Some possibilities:

  1. Would you calibrate it based on time of day? (Indeed if you show up before 6:30 the light just automatically changes as soon as someone approaches the intersection, and I definitely prefer the system in operation before 6:30 to the one after.) 
  2. Would you base it on what the city council felt was fair? Perhaps take a vote on the calibration of every intersection? Maybe even expand that vote to everyone? 
  3. Perhaps, rather than try to optimize every intersection you might just place every street into one of three buckets based on the level of traffic, perhaps high, medium and low, and then categorize intersections based on a matrix. The intersection of two high traffic streets would get one setting, while the intersection of a low traffic street with a high traffic street (my intersection, presumably) would get a different setting.
  4. Would you measure traffic in each direction? Track the time each car had to wait, add it together and try to make the two directions equal? (i.e. If I have to wait for three minutes then that’s fair if it equals 6 cars waiting 30 seconds in the other direction).
  5. Similar to the foregoing but with a different metric, you might be trying to minimize the pollution generated by idling cars, and while time spent waiting would be part of it there might be other factors as well, like managing how many cars are accelerating after being stopped.
  6. Finally, we might use anger as our guide for adjusting the light. Perhaps the method just mentioned of aggregating the wait times in both directions never makes the people going the other direction annoyed, but makes the people going my direction furious. You might try to optimize for lowest aggregate anger, and find that you could make people going the other direction stop more often without an appreciable increase in their anger but with a significant reduction in my anger.

Beyond the methods mentioned above there are still other standards I didn’t mention, for example I had a co-worker many years ago who was convinced that businesses paid the city to increase stoppage at nearby intersections as a form of advertising. The point being that, while it would certainly be unfair if I had no say in how this traffic light worked, the problem of calibrating even a single traffic light is pretty complicated one. It may be that when you really dig into things, the best system might end up being one which causes me quite a bit of delay. And as you can see, even deciding on the system to decide if a delay is justified is complicated.

All of the foregoing falls under the heading of epistemology: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Am I justified in believing the traffic light is unfair, or is that just an opinion, how do we define what’s fair? I might prefer it if the light just changed as soon as I approached it, but that system is almost certainly not optimal during rush hour. I might accept that total aggregate time is a good way of determining fairness without necessarily being happy about it, and depending on the evidence, I’m sure I could be talked into a road classification system of three categories, on the basis that the measurements required for other systems are difficult to make. In fact, I’d probably be okay with any of the methods I mentioned (not the businesses paying for stoppage one of course, and the aggregate anger one probably leads somewhere bad as well). Of course, part of being this magnanimous is that this issue is very low stakes. 

But what if the stakes were much greater? What if I was convinced that one method for determining the length of a traffic light increased the chances of me dying at the intersection? Or that another method might cut economic growth in half? I might be far more invested in how this decision was made, and far less likely to accept any old system. And it gets even worse when all methods have seriously bad outcomes and we’re being asked merely to choose which bad outcome we prefer. I might choose a small increase in the fatality rate over halving economic growth, whereas someone else might make the opposite choice, and assume I’m a horrible person for putting people’s lives at risk.

Of course this is not a new problem, rather it’s a very old problem, and in the past intractable problems have been solved by things like war, enslavement, dictatorial powers, and just about any other injustice you can imagine. But over the last several centuries we developed some tools for avoiding the worst of those injustices. Things like freedom of religion and speech, widespread democracy, rule of law, etc. Now I’m not suggesting that any of these things are free of flaws, they are in fact riddled with them, but before we cast them aside it’s important to remind ourselves how bad it was historically.

At this point it would probably be beneficial to talk about epistemology using examples of things people are actually getting worked up about, rather than the example of a nearby traffic light. In doing this I hope to pick topics where the differences in opinion are easy to see, but not so great that they overwhelm the discussion, I’m not sure I’ll succeed in this, so I ask for some patience as I proceed. With that said let’s look at some current events through the lens of a few different epistemological frameworks.

One well known framework that seems to be getting a lot of attention these days is the one Scott Alexander described in his post Conflict vs. Mistake (link goes to an archive.org version since SSC is still deleted, and the NYT still hasn’t published its article). It’s a pretty good post and you should probably just read it, but for those that don’t. It describes two ways of viewing political struggles, mistake theory and conflict theory: 

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Clearly my description of the traffic light issue is a description from the perspective of mistake theory. (Though the aggregate anger methodology comes close to conflict theory.) That there is some optimal way to time traffic lights, and we just need to figure out what it is, that there is no war between people traveling north and south at the intersection and those traveling east and west. But of course when you scale things up, things become a lot more muddy, which takes us to the subject of statues. 

As I believe I mentioned, one of the statues which got torn down was that of an abolitionist who fought and died in the Civil War. People operating from mistake theory will describe that as a mistake and go on to identify similar mistakes on both sides of the issue. It was a mistake to put up statues to Confederate generals. It was a mistake (a very bad one) when George Floyd was killed, so if we can identify what statues are mistakes and which are not, we’ll take the former down and leave the latter alone, and if we can identify the policies and training and culture which lead to Floyd’s death we’ll fix those too and eventually we’ll be able to put the whole issue to bed.

On the other hand, from the conflict theory side of things focusing on mistakes is just a way of getting back to the same crappy status quo as soon as possible. Of deflecting the discussion away from systemic racism into a discussion of whether people went too far when they tore down the statue of Frederick Douglass. Of a path that leads to a few tiny reforms, but that basically keeps the same corrupt police around doing the same awful things. Conflict theory would go on to say that TV networks didn’t do dumb things like remove episodes of Golden Girls, Community and 30 Rock, because they’re combatting racism, they did it because they’re obviously on the side of the elites, and doing that deflects attention away from real grievances to trivial ones. And finally, that it doesn’t matter which statues get torn down, because tearing down statues is a great way of showing passion, and passion is the only thing that’s going to sustain the unity of the oppressed long enough for them to get what has long been denied them. 

When considering this dichotomy of mistakes vs. conflicts, it’s hard for me not to see the world through the lens of mistake theory, and I think most of my posts, including this one, naturally proceed from that epistemology. But in my more pessimistic moments it seems obvious that at some fundamental level it’s all about conflict, and always has been, and that the enlightenment tools I mentioned earlier, like freedom of speech, etc. were just exceptionally clever ways of masking the conflict, or that they contained the conflict, but only temporarily. Or perhaps they represent a Noble Lie, an ideology that is fundamentally untrue, but which works to maintain social harmony.

As something of an aside, it’s interesting to note that you can see this epistemological split in the political parties, and it appears to be widening. On the right clearly the Trump/alt-right branch are the conflict theorists, and the Mitt Romney/Neo-con branch are the mistake theorists. While on the left Obama/Biden/Clinton are largely mistake theorists, while Sanders and the people currently protesting are conflict theorists. I couldn’t say what this means for the country as a whole, but it’s probably bad.

Mistake vs. conflict is not the only way of looking at things, though it covers a lot of territory, and the next framework I describe may just be a subcategory of it.

There was a time, and I’m old enough to remember it, when the history of the country was pretty sanitized. People who talked about Washington didn’t mention his slaves, and when discussing JFK you didn’t mention his mistresses. Manifest destiny was the obvious next step in the progress of the nation, and the cowboys were always the good guys. I want to call this an epistemology of national greatness. That what was true, or at least what was emphasized were those things that made the country and its history look noble, and of course this took in all the things that led to the formation of the US, so Columbus is obviously a great figure with statues and holidays, not the first in a long line of bad Europeans. 

Of course this way of determining truth or what to celebrate and emphasis isn’t particularly scientific, or empirical. And so at some point in the last century (almost certainly before I was in school, but these things take a while to trickle down) that narrative switched to an emphasis on not only uncovering the bad things, but emphasizing them to make up for lost time. Of making sure that when you talk about Jefferson his affair with Sally Hemmings has a prominent place. That when talking about westward expansion you discuss the Native Americans and broken treaties for at least as much time as you discuss the settlers, and so forth.

What’s interesting about this, and really why I’m talking about this framework at all, is that it turns out it’s much more difficult to achieve agreement and unity under this system than using the national greatness system. You would think that by really emphasizing facts, that it would be easier to get people on the same page, but it’s actually harder. Under national greatness, if someone or something was important in the history of the country then they’re worth celebrating. It’s a narrative that’s self reinforcing. We celebrate important events and people. How do we know they’re important? Because we celebrate them! But once you pivot to facts you can generate all manner of narratives. 

How does the fact of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings relate to the fact that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence? Oh, and are you 100% sure Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemmings? Under the standard of national greatness the narrative is easy, Jefferson was important in the history of the country so we celebrate him, and put up statues and monuments to him regardless of his failings, which we either ignore or mention in some footnote. Under a standard of using the facts to determine whether we should celebrate Jefferson, we can come up with at least a dozen narratives, and each one has a different recommendation for what to do with the Jefferson Memorial. And to be clear I’m not saying this is bad, I prefer to get the facts out, but when you compare the America of today with the America of, say, the 60s one of the big differences is the shift from a patriotic, national greatness epistemology to this one.

As one final thought before we move on, I’ve never quite understood why the North was so willing to spend massive amounts of blood and treasure to prevent the South from seceding. But just now I reconsidered it through the epistemological framework of national greatness and it clarified things in a way that nothing previously had, which is not to say I don’t still have questions, but viewing it through that lens was very illuminating.

The final framework I want to consider is the one I mentioned in my previous post, If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now? And rather than rehashing it in its entirety, I’m more interested in taking another crack at answering the question what are we doing now? For those that haven’t read that post it was a discussion of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, published in 1985. Postman’s thesis is an extension of Marshall Mcluhan’s observation that the “medium is the message” and boils down to the idea that there is a “connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.” For Postman, culture was of a higher quality when communication largely took place via print (newspapers, books, etc.) and that it took a dive in quality with the introduction of the TV. From the book:

[U]nder the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; …under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

One can grant that the dominant medium of communication strongly impacts epistemology without necessarily granting Postman’s further claim that it’s all been downhill. Indeed I find it hard to imagine how anyone could deny the effect of the medium of social media on our current epistemology. The question I continue to grapple with, is what are those effects? I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable declaring that they’re, on net, bad but the specifics of their “badness” is something I’m still working through. I have high hopes for the grandstanding theory, which I encountered the other day on a podcast, but I’ve yet to read the associated book. I’ll report back when I do. However, it does seem certain that if nothing else, social media has fractured epistemology and discourse. That under national greatness there was obviously only one thing to do with the Jefferson Memorial, that as people started focusing more on Jefferson’s failings you can imagine the options splitting into three, to be decided by congress, leave it alone, add some additional plaques to explain things, or tear it down, and to be honest the third one would never get serious consideration. But currently I’m sure there are at least a dozen proposals, ranging from ringing it with an alt-right militia, to replacing it with a statue of Sally Hemmings, and everything in between.

There’s a quote I keep coming back to in this blog, from Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world[s] I see no remedy but force.

I’d like to think that this statement is actually not true, that over the last few centuries we have developed other remedies besides force. Freedom of conscience (of which freedom of speech is a part) was, I believe, particularly successful. (We’re not immediately going to go to war over differing beliefs.) Solving things by voting on them was also a major step forward. But it’s interesting how, beyond all of the other ways in which these tools are under attack, they just don’t work nearly as well when you end up with more than two or three sides. When the narrative has fractured into dozens of pieces, as appears to be the case at the moment, these tools become more difficult to use. Taking free speech as an example, even if sensible suggestions are being made somewhere by someone how do you find them amongst all the yelling? And this is without the additional problem of free speech increasingly being seen as outmoded and a tool the majority uses to silence the oppressed. 

As far as voting, that works pretty well if there are only two sides. Making deals involves only two parties, and even if you can’t make a deal your side will eventually be in power and waiting your turn seems preferable to bloodshed, that’s not the case when you’re a member of one of 30 factions, also how much voting do we actually do on the most contentious issues of the day? Certainly the vast majority of social issues have never been voted on. Voting can be a tool for remedying inconsistent worlds, but you have to use it first. And added to all of this, everything increasingly seems like a zero sum game

I feel like it’s safe to say that no one is clear on where things are headed, or that it will inevitably be bad because discourse has moved to social media, but when you tie all of it together, toss in a profusion of conspiracy theories, and an exceptionally divided country, I think what can be said for sure is that from an epistemological perspective, we’re in a very weird place.

It’d be nice if things were as simple and straightforward as agreeing on a system for the traffic light. They’re obviously not, but nor do I think they necessarily need to be as complicated as we’ve made them. I think it’s easy to forget how much progress actually has been made over the last several centuries, and it’s even easier to forget how fragile that progress is.


Is it true that you should donate to this blog? What standard would you use to decide whether it’s a justified belief as opposed to just my opinion? Well, there is another framework I didn’t mention, that you uncover the truth of something by doing it. Maybe you should give it a try.


Books I Finished in June

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

Or download the MP3


The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder By: Peter Zeihan
The Good Soldier Švejk By: Jaroslav Hasek
The Diaries of Adam and Eve By: Mark Twain
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism By: Robin DiAngelo
Guns of August By: Barbara W. Tuchman
Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies) By: Euripides
Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow
The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories By: Don Bradley


Over the last few months I’ve taken the opportunity to put a little bit of personal news into the beginning of my monthly book review round-ups. But of course what’s been happening to me personally is completely overshadowed by what’s been happening in the wider world. The biggest event being the killing of George Floyd of course. I said quite a bit about this in my last post, which amounted to, “This is a really complicated situation.” With that in mind I don’t think I’ll try to do any simplification in this space

I will say that I was very surprised by what happened at the beginning of the week in Provo. For those that don’t know, Provo is the home of BYU and often considered to be one of the most conservative towns in America. Accordingly I was a little surprised to discover that protests were even a thing there, more surprised to find out that they were still happening, still more surprised to find out that the protestors were numerous and aggressive enough to be blocking traffic, and outright flabbergasted to discover that while one of these cars was being blocked from moving, someone walked up and shot the driver

Fortunately it looks like the driver is going to be okay, but in order to get out of there he had to push through the protesters with his car and some who didn’t get out of the way were knocked aside. Honestly I think I would have behaved very similarly if protestors were blocking my car and then someone shot me. Particularly given that the gunman ran after the car and fired a second shot! (I mean what was this guy thinking?!?)

Of course, as you might imagine there was a lot of focus on the driver knocking people down, with much of the early focus on protestors who had been knocked down, and interviews where they emphasized that this was a peaceful protest. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you’re blocking an intersection and banging on cars, that on the continuum between Gandhi and riot that you might be closer to the riot end of the spectrum

Beyond that I’d like to wish everyone a happy Independence Day. Apparently national pride has fallen to a record low. I know some people would suggest that this is a positive development, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.


I- Eschatological Review

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

By: Peter Zeihan

384 Pages

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. So much fascinating discussion of geopolitical trends, the strengths and weaknesses of every country, predictions for the future, etc. It really felt like a peek behind the curtains of power, into the deep underbelly where the true engine of the world creaks away.

In another sense the book is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, but with both a more narrow and more recent focus. Zeihan’s primary focus is geography, which permeates the discussion and informs everything from why Iran is so belligerent (mountainous agriculture leads to feast-famine cycles of aggression) to predictions about what will happen with China (the geography naturally splits the country in three sections, which will become increasingly difficult to hold together). 

I made so many notes about this book, and marked so many pages that it’s difficult to know how to summarize it or what points to emphasis. But I’ll give it a shot:

The post World War II era represents an incredibly unusual period where normal geopolitics was suspended under American hegemony. This hegemony largely relieved countries from the need to focus on military and security concerns and allowed them to turn the attention to economic expansion. It was the perfect time for it because the Americans also decided to enforce free trade. This era is coming to an end because the US doesn’t need the rest of the world, in large part because of shale (though 3d printing factors in as well) and underlying all of it, the US has the best geography in the world. 

After establishing this premise, the rest of the book examines the challenges the rest of the world will face as the US withdraws from things, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been more engaged by a book and its conclusions.

That said, even if the conclusions were engaging that doesn’t mean some of them weren’t inaccurate. I’ll get to my two major complaints in the next section, but for now let’s just focus on the critical place shale holds in Zeihan’s predictions. I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that American shale and the energy it provides is one of the top three components of the world Zeihan predicts. He devotes a whole chapter to it in the book (out of 15). And while in general it’s a very solid and compelling argument, it might entirely fall apart if oil ends up being cheaper than he expected. I’m not an expert on shale, but as far as I can, oil has to be north of $50/barrel in order for shale to be cost effective. As I write this it’s closer to $40, with it being as low as $20 earlier in the year. The point of all this is not to falsify Zeihan’s theory, but to point out that even in the near term, fairly safe predictions like: “the price of oil is going to keep going up” turn out to be subject to unexpected events. Which might point to the overarching weakness of Zeihan’s book. It doesn’t pay enough attention to Black Swans, which brings me to the next section.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

In addition to his assumptions about shale oil, where Zeihan could be wrong, but should that be the case, the consequences are low, there are at least two other areas where I think he might be wrong with far more severe consequences. 

First in predicting American preeminence (which is right there in the title) he seems to be imagining that America will remain a unified, well-functioning state. One that intelligently pursues its global interests and acts as a single entity when it comes to foreign policy. For example when he predicts that the US will absorb Alberta, he points out how entirely sensible such a course is. And indeed from a realpolitik standpoint, it seems obvious. The kind of thing where if Kissinger were on one side and Bismarck on the other, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. But the US is unlikely to be led by anything resembling these two individuals, and in fact it appears increasingly unlikely that the US will be “led” by much of anyone in the coming years. 

In other words, when one sees how big the partisan divide is on something like masks, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be similar turmoil on something as big as annexing parts of Canada. Accordingly, before I’m ready to agree with Zeihan that the US will deftly seize the entire world in the coming decade, I’d like to see some evidence of it deftly seizing anything at all, and at the moment, such evidence is scarce. For America to be preeminent it first has to persist.

Second, while one can imagine the transfer of Alberta happening peacefully, other territorial changes Zeihan imagine seem much less likely to happen without war being declared, and from there it’s not difficult to imagine that a nation in decline might decide to use their nuclear arsenal rather than go down without a fight. As an example of what I mean consider this selection from the book:

[Japan’s] first military target is likely to be Russia’s Sakhalin Island. It is just off the coast of Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido Island, putting it well within Japan’s naval and air force power projection range. It’s infrastructure was largely built by Japanese firms, that infrastructure terminates on the island’s southern tip, the Japanese have the technical skill to keep all of Sakhalin’s offshore energy production running, the Russians do not, and Japanese nationalists still fume that the Russians seized it from Japan in the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Securing Sakhalin would place just under 300,000 bpd of crude production and 3 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day) of natural gas production into Japan’s output column. Seizing Sakhalin will also permanently sever any chance of having positive relations with Moscow, but to be blunt, Moscow is five thousand miles away, so the consequences of breaking that relationship aren’t very high. 

Wait… what? The consequences for pissing off Moscow aren’t very high?! As I said I loved this book, but Zeihan has either completely ruled out the use of nukes, which is something he never even mentions, let alone explains. Or he has a major blind spot on that issue. Certainly no reference to nuclear weapons appears in the index. He does have two more recent books, including one released just this year, so maybe he has since rectified this blind spot. And I enjoyed this book enough that I definitely intend to read his other books eventually, so we’ll find out.  But beyond all that you can hopefully see what I mean. He offers up a very compelling argument based on proximity, infrastructure, history, and most of all geography for things to go a certain way. And if Russia was led by Henry Kissinger perhaps that’s exactly the way it would go. But as you may have noticed Putain is no Kissinger (though he comes closer than many of today’s leaders) and it’s hard to imagine him just rolling over if Japan tried to seize Russian territory by force. 

Perhaps another way of describing the disconnect is that Zeihan looks at the world with piercing and refreshing sanity, but the world itself just continues to get more insane.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Good Soldier Švejk

By: Jaroslav Hasek

752 Pages

This book is what Catch-22 would have been if it was written about Czechoslovakian conscripts during World War I rather than American bomber pilots during World War II. Indeed Joseph Heller said that he never would have written Catch-22 if he hadn’t read this novel first. And I swear to you I came up with that comparison before I knew this fact.

Saying that it’s the World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22 may not give an entirely accurate portrait of the novel, but it’s the best short description I could come up with. There are also bits that remind me of Vonnegut, with maybe even smaller bits of Douglas Adams tossed in there as well. Beyond that it fits into the genre of literature, where a seemingly foolish individual ends up being the wisest character of all. And you can never tell whether these “fools” are feigning ignorance or if they’re genuinely foolish, but perhaps wise because of that rather than in spite of it. I can’t pin down a name for this genre, but it made me think of medieval jesters or maybe Sancho Panza from Don Quixote.

On top of that, it’s very discursive. The main plot is quite short, but Švejk is constantly relating some story about a villager of his acquaintance the situation reminds him of. And every time a minor character is introduced they get a whole sub-story as well. Which reminded me a little bit of Canterbury Tales or The Book of the New Sun or the stories Woody would tell on Cheers. And once again I have no idea what this genre of literature is called. (You would think that if I got nothing else out of my English degree I would at least have a better grasp of the various genres, but no…)

Beyond that, according to Wikipedia, in addition to being the greatest Czechoslovakian novel of all time (or at least the most translated), it has credible claim to being the very first anti-war novel as well. 

Having laid out this menagerie of qualities, you may still be unsure, whether you should read it. To that I would say, if you don’t find yourself in the position of Rene Zwellenger in Jerry McQuire, “You had me at ‘World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22’”, then you probably shouldn’t. I enjoyed it, but I’m weird. Also having read the whole thing, I kind of think this is one of those cases where being a completist doesn’t add much. In fact Hasek didn’t finish the series, so rather than having a well defined plot and a dramatic ending, (though spoiler the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost.) Švejk just kind of peters out. As it’s largely a collection of vignettes, which end up being essentially equal in their satirical delightfulness, I would say that if you selected 50 pages at random you would probably get the majority of what the book has to offer, or at least a pretty good idea if you wanted to read 700 pages more of it. 


The Diaries of Adam and Eve

By: Mark Twain

128 Pages

This very short book was funny, but not uproarious, it was well written, but not a classic, and it was witty but that wit often relied on somewhat antiquated stereotypes. But it’s just slightly over an hour on Audible, and it’s by freaking Mark Twain, one of the greatest American authors. How many mediocre podcasts have you listened to that clocked in at over an hour? Whatever else may be said this book will be better than that. Accordingly, you should listen to this book. It provides a decent glimpse into an America that is all too quickly being forgotten when it is not being actively attacked.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By: Robin DiAngelo

192 Pages

In my last post I already spoke quite a bit about this book, and in particular the paradox it presents. For those that didn’t get a chance to read the last post. DiAngelo makes the claim that racism is ubiquitous among white people, and when accused of it they invariably get defensive, which is understandable if racism is evil, but DiAngelo wants to get past a black and white understanding of the problem, to an understanding that the racism of white people is largely unconscious but if you can bring it up without them being defensive, you can make people less racist. Of course the problem is that everything else in the present moment is geared towards asserting that racism is awful and murderous. Nor does DiAngelo spend much effort refuting that, and seems to want to have it both ways.

Because of this and other issues I would say that the book was mediocre. It certainly has significant value as something of a manifesto for a certain philosophy of racism and how it works. But given, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, that it’s not even particularly vigorous in defense of that ideology, I’m not sure how valuable it is even towards that end. I will say that after reading this book I think I understand racism better from what might be called an HR perspective, but if you’re looking for insight into the problems of policing, this book is essentially valueless.

You may think I’m being unusually harsh, but there’s an argument to be made that I’m actually being kind. Matt Taibbi posted an absolutely savage review of the book just a few days ago. Sample quote:

When one employee responds negatively to the training, DiAngelo quips the person must have been put off by one of her Black female team members: “The white people,” she says, “were scared by Deborah’s hair.” (White priests of antiracism like DiAngelo seem universally to be more awkward and clueless around minorities than your average Trump-supporting construction worker). 

DiAngelo doesn’t grasp the joke flopped and has to be told two days later that one of her web developer clients was offended. In despair, she writes, “I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics.” …(everyone should have such a person on speed-dial)

I include this section because I had basically the same reaction upon reading it. Nor is Taibbi the only person to dislike the book. David Brooks, who’s conservative, but of the most moderate type called the book, “the dumbest book ever written. It makes The Art of the Deal read like Anna Karenina.” And while the book itself has a 4.2 out of 5 star rating on Amazon the top seven(!) most helpful reviews are all one star.

This book is interesting as one snapshot of the current moment, but I can hardly imagine that it will be remembered at all 10 years from now. 


Guns of August

By: Barbara W. Tuchman

510 Pages

If you were only going to read one history book ever, this might be it. I could fill up page after page with a discussion of this book. Tuchman does a truly unbelievable job of eloquently pulling together a whole host of people and events, using prose that strikes you again and again with it’s craft and eloquence.

Given that I could say a whole host of things about the book, but that the space I have is limited, what am I going to say? Upon reflection, I guess the most useful take away, for me, from the first month of World War I is how many incorrect assumptions governments, leaders and people had going into the war. Assumptions which were only proved incorrect in the unforgiving crucible of war and at the cost of millions of deaths. (See one of my previous posts for a discussion of war as the ultimate test of rationality.) What were some of those assumptions? 

  • The whole French plan assumed that the Germans couldn’t field nearly as many men as they actually did.
  • The Germans assumed the Russians would take six weeks to deploy, they deployed in two.
  • Everyone overestimated the Austro-hungarians
  • French war doctrine before and during the initial stages of the war all revolved around going on the offense, and emphasized bravery and guts as the key components.
  • The Germans thought the Belgians would just let the Germany army pass through their country without a fight.
  • The French and British thought that the Belgian forts would hold out for months, they held out for days.
  • The British entirely dismissed the importance of the Ottomans, and did nothing to keep them out of the war and several stupid things to bring them in.

As you can see, just a discussion of bad pre-war assumptions would take up quite a bit of space and the list above is far from complete. But after reviewing that list aren’t you struck with a profound need to know what incorrect assumptions we might be laboring under? And might the biggest one of all be that war between the great powers is a thing of the past?


Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies)

By: Euripides

306 Pages

As I review more and more of these collections of Greek Tragedies, it starts to become harder to come up with things to say. But after saying in a previous post that “trust me, Odysseus was a jerk” one of my readers questioned first, whether he should trust me on anything, which is a fair point, and second whether Odysseus was actually a jerk or if I was applying 21st century morals to the situation. In response I offer up the following exchange between the herald of the Greeks (remember he’s on the same side as Odysseus) and Andromache.

TALTHYBIUS

O wife of Hector, once the bravest man in Troy,

do not hate me. This is the will of the Danaans and

the kings. I wish I did not have to give this message.

ANDROMACHE

What can this mean, this hint of hateful things to come?

TALTHYBIUS

The council has decreed that your son—how can I say this?

ANDROMACHE

That he shall serve some other master than I serve?

TALTHYBIUS

No man of the Achaea shall ever make this boy his slave

ANDROMACHE

Must he be left behind in Phrygia, all alone?

TALTHYBIUS

Worse; horrible. There is no easy way to tell it.

ANDROMACHE

I thank your courtesy—unless your news be really good.

TALTHYBIUS

They will kill your son. It is monstrous. Now you know the truth.

ANDROMACHE

Oh, this is worse than anything I heard before

TALTHYBIUS

Odysseus. He urged it before the Greeks, and got his way

ANDROMACHE

This is too much grief, and more than anyone could bear.

So don’t just take my word for it, It seems clear that even the ancient Greeks thought Odysseus went overboard with this act.


Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS

By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow

296 Pages

I should mention before I dive in, that this book showed up, unannounced, in the mail one day. There wasn’t even a note attached. Someone just decided to send it to me. I assume they wanted me to read and review it, but for future reference, if you’re going to do this, including a note might be nice. 

Also, I debated whether to stick this review in the religious section or keep it in the main section. As a compromise I stuck it at the end of the main section. Because, while this book does have a lot of Mormonism in it, I don’t think that a deep knowledge of the religion is necessary to appreciate it. Particularly if you’re my age or a little bit older (as is the case with the author), and even more especially if you grew up in Utah in the 80s. Because even more than religion, this book is an autobiographical retelling steeped in that time and place. And on that metric I thought Bigelow did a fantastic job. 

The book was strongly nostalgic for me, especially the first few pages, which were so evocative that I almost declared the book a masterpiece without reading any further. (In particular being reminded of the $3.35/hour minimum wage really took me back.)

Unfortunately for me and my desire to read a blow by blow retelling of my own youth, after the first couple of chapters Bigelow’s path diverges fairly strongly from my own (he jumped from new wave to punk, while I stayed with new wave). Despite this, the stories he tells are still very relatable. As I said, while the book has a fairly strong religious component, the story of someone making the transition into adulthood and not knowing what the heck they were doing, is pretty universal, and though Bigelow went a lot farther than I did in his search for meaning, I still think his stories of trying to figure things out can be appreciated by everyone.

Supposedly this is the first book in an autobiographical trilogy, and I’m looking forward to the next two.


III- Religious Review 

The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories

By: Don Bradley

318 Pages

I know Don Bradley, not super well, but I’ve ended up in short conversations with him a half a dozen or so times, and once he was in the group I went to lunch with at the Mormon History Association. I mention this both because it probably impairs my objectivity, but also to just put out there that he’s a super nice guy and I couldn’t be happier that he’s been able to publish this book, which as I understand it represents something he’s been working on for many, many years.

With my prejudices noted, let me say I quite enjoyed this book, in addition to learning a lot. I don’t read as many LDS books as some people I know, but I don’t remember another book length treatment of this subject, and certainly if there was one I can’t imagine that it was nearly so comprehensive. 

For those non-Mormons who may be reading this, I’ll try to briefly summarize the subject. After Joseph Smith had been translating the Book of Mormon for awhile, and had assembled a significant number of pages (116 as the story goes), Martin Harris, a gentleman who had been assisting him both as a scribe and with a significant amount of money, wanted to show these pages to his wife, who was not as excited about things as he was and kept demanding to see what he had been working on. Harris asked Joseph if he could show the translated pages to his wife, Joseph inquired of the Lord who said no. Harris persisted. Joseph asked again, and again the answer was no. Harris pleaded yet again, Joseph asked yet again, and finally the Lord said, yes. Or more likely some version of, “Fine, go ahead, but don’t be surprised if something bad happens.” And indeed something bad did happen. The pages went missing and have never been seen since. Joseph was instructed not to retranslate that section and since then they’ve been referred to as the lost 116 pages. 

One of the first things Bradley points out is that given that the current Book of Mormon is 532 pages, you might imagine that if 116 pages went missing that this represents 18% of the intended volume. But he points out that this almost certainly understates the content that was lost. The figure of 116 is probably just an after the fact estimate which may have been derived from the fact that the section which replaced it happened to be 116 pages in the printer’s manuscript. At other times it was referred to as closer to 200 pages, and also, because of the larger size of the transcribed pages even if it was 116 it would have probably translated to more than that when it was printed.

Beyond that Bradley spends most of the book attempting to reconstruct what might have been on those pages from things that were said at the time. Either by Smith or Harris, or by people they talked to and who then subsequently recorded those conversations. The narrative he pieces together is excellent and painstaking work, and beyond that very interesting. None of what Bradley assembles comes completely out of left field, but I was very impressed by how much he was able to stitch together.

Of course in a reconstruction like this, you walk a fine line between making too many connections on the one hand or on the other, making too few, of being too conservative about filling in the gaps or too liberal. If it were me I might have erred on the side of being a little bit more conserative, but as I said it’s a difficult balance to strike, and if I was writing this review a month from now, maybe I’d say it was just right. 

In any event for those who do read a lot of LDS books, or even those who only read a few, I can unhesitatingly recommend this book.


You know what else I can unhesitatingly recommend? The pot stickers at David’s Kitchen in South Salt Lake. Oh, and also I suppose donating to this blog, although if your excuse is that you need that money in order to buy the pot stickers, I’d be okay with that.