Month: April 2019

The Cholesterol of a Healthy Society

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A couple of months ago I had breakfast with one of my blog readers and frequent commenters, Mark. At the time he mentioned something interesting, which has been percolating in the back of my mind ever since. He said that medicines get approved by the FDA based on claims that they will accomplish some terminal good. Say, for example, lowering the number of deaths due to heart disease. On top of that they will also probably toss in a general reduction of related adverse health events, like heart attacks. But when they provide data to the FDA in support of these claims it won’t be data on deaths or heart attacks it will be data on how the medicine reduces LDL cholesterol levels.

They do this for several reasons. First, cholesterol is easy to measure, and so that data is consequently easy to provide. Second, the pharmaceutical companies are reasonably certain that atherosclerosis contributes to heart disease, and that high LDL cholesterol contributes to atherosclerosis. Meaning that their claim actually has two parts. They claim that their medicine reduces LDL cholesterol, and that lowering your LDL cholesterol reduces your risk of heart disease. They are able to provide data backing up both claims, but what they don’t provide is data that shows “Our medicine reduces heart disease.” This is all fine, and working as intended, and, in fact, it’s the way I would want it to work. But, and this was the key point mentioned by Mark, after the drug is approved, the company should, at some point prove that it does actually reduce heart disease, not just LDL cholesterol. And the problem is that they generally never get around to that.

From the perspective of a patient, say someone with genetically high cholesterol, say me, for instance. The way this plays out is, you go in for your annual check-up (as I did this week) and get your cholesterol tested (ditto). Upon discovering that it’s high, the doctor prescribes a statin, because he knows that if I take a statin every night before bedtime, that my cholesterol will probably go down. Now, he will also ask whether any relatives have had heart problems, and he’ll look at other risk factors, but mostly he’s reacting to the fact that I have high cholesterol.

This all makes a certain amount of sense, and obviously my wife is very much in favor of me taking the medicine my doctor prescribes. But there’s a lot that the doctor doesn’t know. He’s only making an educated guess at my personal risk of heart disease. And he can’t say that if I decline to take statins that I will definitely have a heart attack. But he’s pretty sure there’s no downside to taking them. Of course, I’m being unfair by talking just about how it works with a single person, but even if we make it more broad, we still don’t fully understood how statins effect atherosclerotic plaques, nor is it clear whether statins do much of anything for someone as young as me, with a low risk of a having a heart attack in the next 10 years. For example this paper:

The current internationally recommended thresholds for statin therapy for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease in routine practice may be too low and may lead to overtreatment of younger people and those at low risk.

The general point I’m trying to get at is that all of us, not just doctors, are quick to substitute something easy, for something that’s more difficult. For doctors it’s substituting reducing cholesterol for reducing deaths from heart disease. It’s easy and cheap to measure cholesterol, it’s expensive and difficult to measure long term mortality from heart disease. Also, remember that the drug has already been approved, meaning even if it wasn’t difficult the pharmaceutical companies have very little incentive to conduct such studies.

Now if these substitutions mostly worked, with only a few minor errors here and there, that would be one thing, but in reality the opposite appears to be true. Health advice is constantly being overturned, or reversed. (As very humorously illustrated by this great Funny or Die Video.) And it’s not improbable to assume that 20 years from now we’ll find out that long term statin use causes some previously unsuspected negative outcome. It’s also possible that the dangers will be more subtle. Perhaps because cholesterol is easy to measure, and change, we’ll ignore paying attention to markers which are harder to measure, but ultimately more meaningful?

As I mentioned this idea has been on my mind since Mark introduced me to it. And just recently I realized that we may be doing the same thing when we assess the wellbeing of society. At the highest level, analogous to deaths from heart disease, we want a society that’s healthy. But of course deciding if a society is healthy is even harder than deciding if an individual is healthy. Right off the bat we run into conflicting standards for what constitutes health. As I’ve mentioned in the past my standard is survival. Just like the doctors don’t want their patients to die, I think it’s reasonable for society to also target deaths, and I extend that to targeting births as well. Other people disagree with this, and claim that we should be aiming for happiness instead. Fair enough, we’ll use that standard for the moment. Let’s assert, for now, that a happy society is a healthy society.

But how do you measure happiness? There are lots of studies which claim that Scandinavian countries are the happiest, but it turns out that it depends on what question you ask. An article in Scientific America claims that there are actually four ways to measure happiness:

Most commonly, you ask people to value their lives on a 0 to 10 scale. This is the method which gives us the aforementioned results of Scandinavian countries on top.

Alternatively you can ask how much positive emotion people experience, in which case suddenly Latin American countries are on top.

On the flip side of that perhaps you’re more interested in preventing negative emotions than you are in encouraging positive emotions, so you look for the country with the least depression. In that case Scandinavian countries do very poorly, but under this measure Australia looks pretty good.

Finally, we can look at the number of people who feel like their life has “an important purpose or meaning” in which case you’ll find countries in Africa at the top of the ranking. And it turns out that religion plays a fairly significant role in the creation of meaning.

Even if we assume that a happy society is a healthy society, it’s still difficult to determine what makes a society happy. In the same fashion that it’s hard to determine exactly how statins effect atherosclerotic plaques, but probably harder. However, and this was my recent insight, in the same way that doctors have decided that targeting cholesterol is the best way to mitigate heart disease, lots of people have decided that targeting material well being is the best way to create a happy society. To put it simply (maybe too simply, but close enough): as long as a nation’s per capita gross domestic product is rising the nation is healthy. Furthermore anything that contributes to that rise is good, and anything which detracts from it is bad.

As you can imagine there are lots of problems with this approach. First, as I just pointed out, there are various standards of happiness. Increasing material well-being through the mechanism of increasing the money possessed by the average individual, seems to mostly target the first one, while being only marginally connected with the other three. And even there we’re still assuming a chain of causation, very similar to the one I described for statins and heart disease, only longer.

1- Increasing per capita GDP means everyone has more money (i.e. the increase is evenly distributed.)

2- People will use this money to acquire possessions and experiences, they value.

3- Materially valuable possessions will turn out to have psychological value as well.

4- All of the foregoing will produce happiness.

5- Asking people to rate their life value on a scale from 0-10 will produce an accurate measurement of the happiness produced in step 4.

And if we decide to broaden things beyond the first metric for happiness we end up making two more connections which are even more questionable.

5- The quantifiable measurement of happiness from step 4, really is the best way to measure happiness. (Better than the other three.)

6- Happiness is the best way to measure the well being of a society.

In the same fashion as heart disease you would hope that people would move past focusing on whether someone has more or less money (i.e. cholesterol tests) and follow this chain all the way to the very end. But in a similar fashion I don’t know that they do, at least not in any systematic fashion. It’s always more straightforward to stick with things that are easy to measure than it is to figure out what really contributes to a society’s well being. It’s easy to assume that if we’re trying to ensure the well being of society that ensuring each individual’s material well being is probably close enough, particularly if you’re a materialist. (And I realize philosophical materialism is different than the common definition of materialism.) But there’s more and more evidence that material well being doesn’t produce happiness to say nothing of overall well being. In particular I think the connection between material well being and psychological well being is especially tenuous.

I have spent a lot of time in this space covering my concerns about psychological well being, and you might think there’s not much left to say, but I came across an article recently that speaks quite directly to the issue of psychological well-being, and to a lesser extent the larger issue of societal well being. It was titled The Happiness Recession, and it opens as follows:

In 2018, happiness among young adults in America fell to a record low….

We wondered whether this trend was rooted in distinct shifts in young adults’ social ties — including what The Atlantic has called “the sex recession,”…

Human beings find meaning, direction, and purpose in and through our social relationships with others. We’re happiest when our ties with others are deep and strong. And the research tells us that the ebb and flow of happiness in America is clearly linked to the quality and character of our social ties

So we investigated four indicators of sociability among today’s young adults—marriage, friendship, religious attendance, and sex—in an effort to explain the “happiness recession” among today’s young adults.

I’ll get to what they had to say about each of these four areas, but first notice that material well being doesn’t even come up. Possibly because the situation is analogous to a patient who’s cholesterol is fine, so we’re not worried about that risk factor, but it turns out they smoke. Or possibly the situation is analogous to discovering that we’ve been targeting cholesterol all this time and really we should have been targeting four different things, that cholesterol doesn’t matter at all. In any case regardless of whether the recommendations were wrong or just incomplete, it appears that we need to broaden our treatment regimen, and look into different “medicines”.

The first thing they suggest looking at is marriage. It’s interesting that marriage is not an example of a measurement that’s difficult to make, it’s almost certainly easier to tell if someone is married than it is to determine what their financial situation is. Determining the happiness of their marriage is another matter, and I’m sure it’s a factor, but even without accounting for it The Atlantic reports that:

…married young adults are about 75 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married, according to our analysis of the GSS, a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. As it turns out, the share of young adults who are married has fallen from 59 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2018.

As I said, marriage is easy to measure, but perhaps, if there is a problem, it’s less easy to correct. Especially in an age where any suggestion that you’re interfering with someone’s autonomy, particularly in the realm of sex and relationships, is met with violent pushback. As a result it’s one of those things that conservatives talk about all the time, but which gets no attention from the left. (Or perhaps it gets negative attention?)

It can be dangerous to talk too broadly about what a group of people does or doesn’t believe or how they might behave, so in the interest of specificity, at this point I’m going to bring in Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. Which I “reviewed” previously in this space. As you may or may not recall Pinker set out to create the definitive work showing how great things are currently and how they are likely to only get better, and when I talk about an overemphasis on material progress I largely have him and people like him in mind. In support of my assumption I went back to the book to see what he had said about marriage. It was entirely possible that he mentioned its role in wellbeing and had different data showing that it wasn’t decreasing as much as claimed or that the effect of a lower marriage rate was overstated. As it turns out the word marriage doesn’t even appear in the index. (Note that Louis C.K. and Jainism do, lest you think that perhaps it isn’t comprehensive.)

The Atlantic next moves on to religion. Where they say:

Faith was the second factor. Young adults who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40 percent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not religious at all, according to our analysis of the GSS. (People with very infrequent religious attendance are even less happy than never-attenders; in terms of happiness, a little religion is worse than none.) What’s happening to religious attendance among young adults today? The share of young adults who attend religious services more than monthly has fallen from 38 percent in 1972 to 27 percent in 2018, even as the share who never attend has risen rapidly.

I confess that this decline is less than I expected, but it’s still declining and the trend shows no signs of reversing itself anytime soon. And once again the decline of religion is something conservatives worry about obsessively, but which Pinker and company actively celebrate. (“Decline of religion” does appear in the index of Enlightenment Now, where it points to more than a dozen laudatory references under the heading of secularization.)

Religion is also something which has next to nothing to do with material well-being, and may in fact be the exact opposite. Once again, in our attempts to improve societal well being are we sure we’re measuring and treating the right thing?

From there The Atlantic moves on to friendship. And here the news is actually good:

The third factor was friendship. The effect of seeing friends frequently is less clear than that of marriage or religion, but young adults who see their friends regularly do seem to be about 10 percent more likely to report being very happy than their less-sociable peers. Friendship among young adults, though, is not on the decline; in fact, since 2006, contact with friends is up. Lack of friendship, then, is not likely to play a role in declining levels of happiness. Indeed, it may be that rising social time spent with friends in recent years could be buffering young adults from the declines in institutions such as marriage or religion, as friends stand in place of other relationships or forms of community.

As I said the news is good, but there are a host of caveats here. First as compared to the 40% increase in the number of people reporting they were happy attributable to religious attendance and the 75% increase from marriage, friendship provides a bump of only 10%. Thus whatever the “buffering” effect of friendship it would appear entirely too small to make-up for the other trends. Also even if it was up to the task, it then becomes a single point of failure. Where previously most people had marriage, religion and friendship in their life, and therefore two things to fall back on if any one of these three failed. Now, by relying solely on friendship, which appears unequal to the task in any event, we risk having nothing to fall back on if friendship should happen to fails. If this failure mode was unlikely, then perhaps we wouldn’t worry, but instead, on top of everything else there’s an epidemic of loneliness, with millions of men reportedly having no close friends.

I should also mention that once again that the word “friend” does not appear in the index for Enlightenment Now.

The final element covered by The Atlantic is the sex recession. Of which much has been said both here and elsewhere, probably because it’s so alarming, and this article was no exception. As part of their coverage they built a counterfactual to see if they could tell how much each element contributed to the reduction in happiness, as far as sex they found:

…changes in sexual frequency can account for about one-third of the decline in happiness since 2012 and almost 100 percent of the decline in happiness since 2014.

This is another illustration of how steep the trend is and how recent in origin, which makes me hope that it’s very temporary because if it continues for very long at all the impact will be nothing short of catastrophic. Also, though at this point it probably goes without saying, there is no reference to sexual frequency in Enlightenment Now.

The point I want to leave you with is that there are a lot of people like Steven Pinker, who think society is healthy, and point to material well being (essentially per capita GDP) as the best measure of that healthiness and also the best thing to target if there’s a problem. But it’s worth asking if that’s all there is to it. To ask how solid the links are between the various steps I listed above. If perhaps there’s some other measurement of happiness, like marriage rate, or religion or even frequency of sex which might be a more accurate measure of societal well being? Or at least need to be considered as part of a more holistic assessment. Now I know I’m simplifying Pinker’s argument to a certain extent, but also remember that in over 500 pages on how great things are going he never mentions marriage or sexual frequency, or for that matter loneliness and he only mentions religion in a negative context, despite the apparently powerful influence all of those have on people’s happiness.

To return to comparing societal health to individual health, which is actually easier to understand? I can only assume the answer has to be individual health. And yet how often have doctor’s ended up giving the wrong advice? Should that not make us more humble when it comes to making declarations about what makes a society healthy? Especially when we’re discussing the long term effects of some new, entirely unprecedented norm? Norms which seem to be proliferating at a truly staggering rate?


I not only have high cholesterol, I have high blood pressure, though they both appear to be mostly genetic. Nevertheless they could mean my early demise. If that happens and you haven’t donated, you’ll feel bad. If you want to avoid that click here.


2020 and the Quest to Defeat Trump

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It’s been nearly five months since I last did a post about the current political landscape. I’m not sure if that represents admirable restraint or if that’s five months when I could have been building my audience by hitching my wagon to the tasty and never-ending Mueller gravy train. But Mueller illustrates a big reason why I didn’t do any posts on current politics. I didn’t have the time or energy to feel satisfied that I truly understand what’s going on, and as things become increasingly polarized it becomes harder and harder to do that in any event, and that’s assuming that I’m satisfied with calling my subjective opinion the truth. It’s basically impossible to get at The Truth.

That said the end of the Mueller Investigation and the delivery of the report was interesting. I got the feeling that there were a lot of Trump haters out there who really felt like it would finally provide the stake they could drive into Trump’s chest which would, at last, kill him for good.  When it didn’t, when the report (or at least Barr’s summary, see what I mean) concluded that there had been no collusion, and when no indictment of Trump was forthcoming, there were a lot of people who were very disappointed. And even more people who refused to give up. Including people like Rachel Maddow, who was actually called out by Slate for her descent into increasingly feverish paranoia:

The Howard Bealeization, or Glenn Beckifaction, of Rachel Maddow is a reminder that partisan paranoia has bipartisan appeal. Maddow is right to question the summarizing of a 300ish-page report into four measly pages, to insist on transparency, to challenge the motives of the Trump-friendly AG—and she’s not alone in doing so. But for Maddow, every piece of information remains a clue that might take down the Trump empire. There is no adjustment for how the report has been widely received, no skepticism about what the report might actually contain, just cockamamie connections, the feverish belief that every single thing we don’t know is the all-important fact, that the smoking gun of collusion is out there, and that, yes, Robert Mueller is still going to swoop in and save us.

I remember when I was much younger I was also entranced by “cockamamie connections” though back then the connections all involved the Clintons. And, as recently as the last election, I was unsure what would come out of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails or whether she was in as good a health as she claimed. Which is to say there’s a lot of unknowns out there, all with some potential to excite wonder and suspicion. And it’s very easy to take those unknowns, run them through you biases and come out the other side with some potential theories, some of which probably sound pretty reasonable. In fact it may be that one of the larger problems of our era is how much easier it is to make and disseminate these theories. But that’s a topic for another time.

While the reaction to the end of the Mueller investigation was interesting and probably worth much further discussion, the true reason for bringing it up is that I think the feverish paranoia it illustrates is going to be a large factor in the run up to the 2020 election, which is the true subject of this post.

As usual, it’s a pretty safe bet that the winner of the 2020 election will be either Trump or whoever ends up with the Democratic nomination. Accordingly I’ll be spending most of my time discussing the current and potential Democratic candidates, but before I get to that I’d like discuss some possible long shot options where the next president isn’t Trump or the Democratic nominee.

First off, it seems highly likely that Trump will end up with a primary challenger. Bill Weld, the former Governor of Massachusetts, and libertarian Vice Presidential candidate in 2016, has formed an exploratory committee (if announcing your candidacy is the wedding, an exploratory committee is the engagement). And several other people, including John Kasich have expressed interest. Though the list of people who have publically declined is far more extensive.

I have long predicted that Trump would face a primary challenger, but that doesn’t mean I think they’ll succeed. At the moment the political prediction markets are giving Trump an 85% chance of getting the nomination, and the next most likely candidate after him is Mike Pence at 6%. Which, I assume, represents people who think Trump will be impeached? (If so it didn’t drop as much as I would have expected after Mueller.) But beyond the prediction markets, though it’s something I’ve never entirely understood, Trump has the Republican base pretty well locked up, or at least locked up enough that it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to beat him in an election composed entirely (or mostly) of Republicans. Based on all of this I have very little hesitation in predicting that Trump will be the Republican nominee for 2020. In other words a primary challenge to Trump would be very interesting, but I believe ultimately unsuccessful.

Another possibility, once again a long shot, would be a serious third party contender. So far, for example, it looks like Howard Schultz is likely to run, though it’s unclear at this point how successful we should expect him to be, so far his polling numbers are pretty low. But he is a billionaire, which counts for a lot, and has Democrats worried enough that they’re apparently begging him not to run. This is understandable, not only does his money allow him to mount a significant challenge, but perhaps more importantly, some polling (albeit asking about a generic independent vs. a generic democrat) suggests that he could pull away five Democratic votes for every vote he pulls from (presumably) Trump. One might wonder why Shultz, who identifies as a Democrat and mostly has very similar positions, would run for President. Particularly knowing that one very likely outcome would be to throw the election to Trump? That’s a great question and it bears a lot on the discussion of the Democratic field in general, but before we get to that I’d like to example one final longshot possibility.

Potentially the most worrying possibility would be if Trump were able to mess with the election in some fashion. You could imagine a variety of ways for him to use the executive branch to do this, ranging from voter suppression of varying legality all the way up to an emergency declaration which postponed the election. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of the paranoid left, but my sense is that there’s a fair amount of worry about something like this. If, as Slate claims, Maddow is descending into feverish paranoia, then one can only imagine what’s happening among truly hardcore leftists.

Whatever their fears, I imagine they’re almost certainly overblown. Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to build the wall will be a good preview of what he can and can’t do with the power of the presidency, and so far nothing much seems to be happening. Also it’s instructive to look at what leaders in far more repressive countries can get away with. Which is to say, even in places like Turkey and Russia they still hold elections. No, if Trump is still going to be president in 2021, I don’t think it will be because he manages to rig the system. It might be because of a third party spoiler, but I’ve already predicted that won’t be the case either. No if Trump wins it will be because of who the Democrats nominate. So let’s finally turn our attention to that discussion.

According to Wikipedia there are currently 19 people who have either declared or formed exploratory committees (see above) who have also either held public office, been included in at least five national polls, or who have received substantial media coverage. That seems like a lot, now to be fair, there were 17 Republican candidates in 2016, but we’re still over a year and a half from the election, and there’s still plenty of time for more people to toss their hat into the ring. In fact as I write this a new candidate, Eric Swalwell, announced his bid, just last night. I’m not entirely sure why there are so many candidates, perhaps because there’s no clear front runner? The 2016 Democratic primary offers some proof of that. Back then, Hillary was the presumptive nominee and we only ended up with six candidates. Though one would think that Biden would be the front runner. Speaking of Biden…

I’m guessing that if I asked you to list all 19 candidates or even 12 of the 19 that you’d probably have a hard time (without cheating) but I’m pretty sure you’d come up with Joe Biden. But this is all a trick question, Biden isn’t one of the 19. He hasn’t officially announced his candidacy or formed a committee. He’s listed, along with seven other people, as having expressed interest. (All eight are presumably a big enough deal to be taken seriously.) Meaning we could end up with a field of 27! But you can be forgiven if you thought Biden had already announced his candidacy given the amount of attention he’s getting. Or course most of that attention has been around accusations that he “inappropriate touched” certain women.

Thus far seven women have accused Biden of making them feel uncomfortable. One question which always comes up in these situations is, “Why now?” I imagine that part of the reason is that once the first accusation is made it becomes easier for other women to come forth, because they know they’re not alone. That still leave us with the first accusation. Why did Lucy Flores come forward at this point in time? The incident she described (which as far as I know Biden has not denied) happened in 2014 and even if it took the #MeToo movement to make it acceptable to call out such behavior, that’s been going on since October of 2017.

Given all this, it would only be natural to suspect that it has something to do with the election. It’s always possible that it doesn’t, but that definitely wouldn’t be the way to bet. To be clear, I’m not questioning the truth of the accusation, just it’s timing. But, if derailing BIden’s nomination played any part in Flores’ decision to come forward, she would be part of a large group of people who don’t want Biden to be the nominee. He’s far too moderate.

I spent a long time observing the widening split on the right between centrists, moderates and neo-cons on one side and the tea party, paleocons, nationalists and eventually the alt-right on the other. And just as 2016 was the full realization of that ideological split among the Republicans, it’s really starting to feel like 2020 will see the full realization of a similar split among the Democrats, between centrists and third-wayers on one hand and socialists and progressives on the other. If so perhaps these (true) allegations are part of that.

In the past, on both sides, schisms like this have been put aside in the interests of winning. So why is this different? As far as anyone can tell the Democrats want to defeat Trump more than they’ve wanted anything in their whole lives, and according to the polls Biden is the person best positioned to do that. This may be true, but those polls reveal something else: every democratic candidate beats Trump. While the lack of a clear front-runner goes part of the way to explaining the size of the field I think Trump’s perceived vulnerability is also a major factor. Returning to the 2016 primaries, on the Democratic side of things, back then everyone figured that in order to keep the White House in their hands they were going to have to nominate a well funded moderate. On the Republican side, while Clinton wasn’t necessarily perceived as weak, it was clear firing up the base with a non-moderate was a very viable strategy. Even so all of the early front-runners were also well funded moderates.

Going in to 2020, it appears the Democrats can nominate just about anyone and they’ll beat Trump. Which means there are many, particularly those farther left in their politics, who feel that they don’t need to compromise in order to win. That it’s finally their chance to elect someone with a truly revolutionary vision, someone like Bernie Sanders who coincidentally currently tops betting on the prediction market.

You might dismiss Sanders as an anomaly. Perhaps he’s attracting so much attention because he did well in 2016, but that just moves the question backwards in time. Why is Sanders, who’s been a public figure since 1991 able to drum up all this nationwide support recently? Is it in spite of his radical agenda or because of it? It’s incorrect to say that this split only started in 2016, it’s been around forever, but certainly 2016 was evidence that it was starting to widen in a more consequential way. And once again I see lots of parallels between what happened on the right and what’s happening on the left.

In my first post of the year I predicted that populism was going to an increasingly powerful force in the developed world, and I think it’s fair to say that Sanders is a populist. Further, populism was certainly a factor in the election of Trump. This is the trend that connects them, and as it gets stronger the split between populists and the rest widens in both parties. As we saw in the beginning, speaking of Maddow and feverish paranoia, there are lots of trends which start on the right side of the fence, but most of them don’t stay there. In fact given that populism is naturally more at home on the left than on the right, it’s entirely possible that it will end up being a far greater force when all is said and done. Which takes us back to the Democratic field.

In 2016 there was one Democratic candidate with a truly radical agenda, this time there’s significantly more. Though before we get to the numbers, in the interests of fairness I imagine something similar will happen with the Republican field in 2024. In the same way that the current Democratic field contains lots of individuals with positions very similar to Sanders, the 2024 Republican field will most likely contain lots of individuals with positions similar to Trump. As I said it’s a trend affecting both sides of the aisle.

To quantify that trend: among the Democratic primary candidates at least a dozen support some form of single-payer healthcare. Another 15 support the Green New Deal. Most have not expressed an opinion, but of candidates which have, over 80% support expanding the Supreme Court. Eleven support tuition free public college. Essentially everyone but Biden wants nationwide legalization of marijuana. And finally, there’s the issue of reparations for slavery.

Reparations is something of a microcosm of just about everything that’s going on in politics right now, and is worth examining in more detail. To being with, here again,  Biden is the outlier. He is the only one who is definitely against the idea. Looking at the rest of the field, there are seven listed as unknown, another six who partially support the idea, and finally an additional six who fully support it. In other words a clear majority supports some action on reparations, and while it’s possible that’s as high it will ever go, I’m guessing it will increasingly become an issue where the candidates have to take a stand, and that some of those seven currently in the unknown column will come out in favor of at least partial reparations.

Beyond the striking level of support for the idea there’s the issue of how recent it is. I realize that there were limited reparations during and after the Civil War, and that a bill calling for a committee to study the issue was first introduced in 1989, and has been introduced at every legislative session since. But the idea certainly hasn’t been mainstream. Some people point to a 2014 Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates as reopening the debate, but even Obama didn’t think anything was going to come of it and told Coates, that politically it would be much easier to implement some sort of universal poverty reduction program. But then, starting this year interest skyrocketed.

Much of my worry about new progressive ideas comes from lack of data. When a subject goes from “0 to 60” in the space of 100 days, it’s difficult to know how seriously we should take it an d what kind of legs it will have. It could be a flash in the pan, a slow, but powerful trend, or the dominant issue of our time, surpassing all others. This is important because the range of outcomes is so large. It could end up fizzling out entirely, it could get stuck in a committee, or it could end with actual money being allocated. And here is where it has the potential to get really crazy. Once you’re talking money, estimates can get as high as $60 trillion dollars!

Beyond the newness of the issue and the fervor it has generated, it also promises to be incredibly divisive for the country as a whole. I know that many candidates are just proposing that a committee be formed to study the matter, and on its face that sounds unobjectionable, perhaps even laudable. But what are the chances that this committee, if formed, will end up recommending that no money be paid out? I would say that it’s not zero, but it’s very, very close to that. And once some amount of money has been recommended, then people will start arguing that justice demands that it be paid out. Any predictions on how your stereotypical poor white Trump voter will react to that? That’s where the divisiveness comes in. Now to be clear maybe that shouldn’t matter, maybe paying out reparations would be so empowering that no matter how divisive it is we should push ahead. In the same way that it was worth the death of 600,000 soldiers to end slavery, maybe it’s worth anger and even violence in order to correct this latest injustice. But will it? Would it be the end of racism, and racial preferences?

One of the best arguments I’ve heard for reparations is that it’s essentially just a civil lawsuit. If someone does something bad to you under the law you’re entitled to sue them for damages. This is fairly well-trod territory and it’s a system that actually works adequately if not perfectly. But one key feature of the lawsuit process is once it’s been decided and damages have been awarded, you can’t bring the same complaint before the court again. Is that how reparations would work? That once paid out racism and race relations would be solved? If so I am all for it, but I suspect that’s not what would happen. I think we would end up with a country even more divided by racial identity than it is now, without much to show for it.

I’m basically out of space and I still haven’t covered how you would determine who gets reparations and who doesn’t (a problem Native American tribes are struggling with in determining the distribution of casino profits.) Further afield I haven’t talked about the strange power Ilhan Omar seems to be exercising over the Democrats, or my weird excitement for Andrew Yang. And then there’s parallels which could be drawn between the Democrats and the UK labor party, who made Jeremy Corbyn their leader and who still aren’t in power despite the total debacle that is Brexit.

The key point I wanted to get across is that while there is a good chance that the Democrats will select a moderate who will easily beat Trump, I see lots of early signs that they might not. To repeat, the most visible moderate, Biden, hasn’t even entered the race yet! This is obviously what ended up happening to the Republicans and look where it got us. Yes, Trump won, but that’s precisely what I’m getting at, there are currently individuals in the Democratic Primary who I think would be as bad or worse than Trump. Perhaps you don’t think that’s possible, fair enough, but let me put another way. They might not win. In fact, it’s looking like the only way the Democrats can lose is by nominating someone less electable than Trump, and that may be exactly what they end up doing.


When I did a DNA test it came back with 0.01% Sub-Saharan ancestry, which, if accurate, would almost certainly imply that one of my ancestors was a slave, so if you think reparations is a good idea, you could start with me.


What Is Going On?!?!?

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A couple of weeks ago I ended my post Low Doses of Harm with a quote from a concerned dog owner. The owner was voicing their opposition to a proposed halal butchery by arguing that just walking by it would put their dogs in an unsafe environment. Boonton speculated in the comments that I shouldn’t take this concern at face value. That this individual was just “posing”. Which is to say that the argument they were making for pet safety was just a cover for their real concern which was probably more about not liking slaughterhouses or maybe Muslims.

This is certainly one possible explanation for the statement. As shocking as it might seem, people do lie, and furthermore they use those lies in a cunning fashion to disguise their true motivations. Which in this case may have been something other than making their dogs feel safe. Accordingly, Boonton argued, while it’s true that you would not have heard this argument at a city council meeting 50 years ago, that it’s nevertheless not an example of something new and strange, but rather an example of something which has been going on since humans first developed language, and not a cause for any particular concern.

As I said all this is possible, but even if it’s the case that the concern for their dog’s safety is a cover for something else, it’s interesting that this was the lie they choose to tell. A good lie has to sound plausible, it has to fit the expectations of the people you’re telling the lie to. And apparently the idea of their dogs being in an unsafe environment just from walking past the butchery was either exactly how they felt, or close enough to how people are expected to feel in this day and age that it passed without being obviously ridiculous. As even Boonton admits concerns have changed, and change can be good or bad.

Indeed, I have mentioned the quote from the dog owner, and the story behind it, to many people outside of my blog readership. And all of them found it both believable and extreme. Part of why they found it to be believable was that it was an example of a problem they were already concerned about. Now I know I just described confirmation bias. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there’s a problem. What’s interesting furthermore is that several of the people I told had no problem with even fairly controversial examples of so-called “political correctness”, but nevertheless viewed this as “going too far”. When I questioned them more closely it seemed to come down a dislike of treating pets in a fashion similar to children. Also a couple of people brought up the problem of fake service animals.

In other words there are several possibilities:

There’s Boonton who argued that it wasn’t a problem at all.

There’s the people I just described who feel like this story does match a real problem they’re seeing, but that it’s a narrow problem. One that could perhaps be solved by a few additional laws, and a slight change in the culture. Or maybe it’s a problem that will continue to get worse, but other than becoming increasingly annoying, there’s no point at which it becomes catastrophic.

And then, there are people like me, who want to see everything as part of a larger trend. A trend like safetyism, or of people declining to have kids and putting all of their energy and affection into their pets, or of increasing selfishness (it doesn’t matter how many people would benefit from the butchery, it would inconvenience me). I freely admit that there is a failure mode in which people attempt to connect too much together, and that seeing the fall of civilization in a complaint over a halal butchery might be the silliest position of all.

Certainly there are people who see vast conspiracies based on small pieces of evidence. Though I would argue that there is a difference between something requiring the conscious coordination of more than about a dozen people. (Say arguing the moon landing was a hoax.) And emergent cultural trends that move society in a negative direction, but, that aside, it is worth asking am I just a low-grade conspiracy theorist?

I have talked to a few conspiracy theorists at some length about the various conspiracies they champion, and without exception they seem especially fixated on a handful of items they just can’t get past. For one 9/11 truther I talked to it was the collapse of WTC 7. Another gentleman, who believes the Moon landing was faked, considered the automated tracking shot of the final capsule liftoff proof positive of shenanigans. It just felt unquestionably fake to him. (I did look into that, it sounds like it wasn’t easy, but nothing about the explanation struck me as implausible either.)

I personally don’t believe in any big conspiracies, which is not to claim that there aren’t conspiracies. I think there are, but to be successful they need to operate at a much smaller scale than the ones that get all the press. That said, despite not sharing any of their beliefs, conspiracy theorists and I do have one thing in common: we see certain things in the world that absolutely convince us there is something deeper going on. These are things I can’t reconcile with a rosy picture of the future. And the point of this post is to examine some of these things. Stories and data I’ve come across recently that convince me that there is something big happening behind the scenes. Things that I can’t get past. Things that make me confident that the narrative that everything is better than it’s ever been is wrong, or if correct, only temporarily so.

As I pointed out in the beginning as I relate these examples you have three options. First, like Boonton in his comment from a couple of weeks ago you can decide that there is nothing especially unusual about the story. That at best it’s a different expression of something which has been happening for a long time (like lying about our true motivation), but definitely nothing to be alarmed about. Alternatively you can decide that the things I’m talking about do point to a real problem, but a minor one. A problem which will either correct itself in time or which is correctable with only small adjustment to customs and/or laws. Finally you may view things in the same light as I do, as strong evidence for a negative trend which seems likely to get worse, and in the process cause severe problems.

I’m going to start with the story that gave me the idea for this post. A couple of months ago I came across an article in Slate about the practice of puppy play. And I’ll put in a warning, if you’re easily offended, you might just want to skip to the paragraph that starts “The next example”.

Here’s how Slate describes puppy play:

When at their leisure, some queer people socialize and sweat it out at LGBTQ badminton games. Others enjoy hearing a reading at the local queer bookstore. And for still others, the best way to spend free time is rolling around on floor mats with each other while wearing puppy masks, collars, and tail-shaped butt plugs, barking and sniffing like real pups. Known as pup play, this is a brand of BDSM role-play where people imitate adolescent canine behavior in order to get off. When done with other pups, it’s considered a “mosh,” and it happens regularly at leather bars all across the country. For some, pup play is just for Saturday nights. But could the fetish lifestyle offer more than just a good time?

As I said, reading this article was the genesis of what eventually became the post you’re reading. Specifically the idea that I could look at something and think, “Well if that isn’t evidence that something is seriously wrong with the world I don’t know what is.” While at the same time not being entirely clear on what made it so alarming. I mean sure it fits into the general category of sexual activities that have nothing to do with procreation. But it’s not like the total fertility rate of homosexual men was all that great to begin with. The angle where they pretend to be dogs is also unusual, but I was already familiar with furries before reading the article, so that wasn’t anything particularly new or shocking either.

I think a big part of it was how matter of fact the article was. You can imagine the same story being written up on Breitbart or some similar culturally right-wing site in a breathless revelatory fashion, with lurid descriptions of:

tail-shaped butt plugs

outfitted in leather puppy masks, which are called “hoods” in the scene

[their] three-page fetish family chart

There are the two alphas…who are the leaders (similar to a drag mother in a drag house…

a handler (a figure who, elsewhere in the scene, typically “owns” and protects his pups).

one omega pup, Pup Arco, a submissive who services the pack in exchange for protection from unwanted attention within the community;

And yet, if you haven’t guessed, those are all quotes from the Slate article. Additionally consider the source. Slate is not some niche LGBT focused publication. It’s basically the internet’s version of Time or Newsweek. I suppose, you could make the argument that it’s a little bit edgier, but it’s still effectively, a general interest magazine.

All that said, I expect that, similar to what happens with conspiracy theorists, that there will be many people who will dismiss the visceral concern I experienced as meaningless, and not see any problem with the activities described in the article. Still others might view it as a minor problem, one which revolves more around cordoning off adult activities from children, than any prohibition of the activity itself. But for me, it is not an exaggeration to say that the article appeared like an Old Testament prophecy come to life and proclaiming that the end was near. It’s safe to say I definitely had a “What is going on?!” reaction.

The next example, which I have mentioned before, is the stunning number of under 30 males who aren’t having sex. (It’s nearly tripled from 10% to 28% in the last decade.) I’m not going to spend as much time on this one because I’ve already covered it, in fact I ended up making a bet the last time I discussed it. But you can once again see the same thing at play. There are certainly people who are going to think that this is no big deal. In particular they may see widespread pornography as a perfectly acceptable substitute for sex. I think this is profoundly misguided, but once again it’s territory I’ve covered in the past. But the point is, there is an argument to be made that there’s no reason to be alarmed by this statistic. Some might even welcome it as a positive step along the lines of defanging the patriarchy. Who knows.

Beyond that there are those who certainly see this as a problem, but not a catastrophic one. My sense, in fact, is that most people would say that the biggest problem is avoiding the radicalization of these involuntary celibates (an issue we’re already struggling with). And if we can avoid that, that there’s very little else about this trend which should cause any concern.

And then of course there’s me (though I assume I’m not entirely alone). I find this increase, particularly over such a short time, to be extremely alarming. But maybe it shouldn’t be. The Japanese have arguably been dealing with a similar situation in the form of what they call Hikikomiri. These are individuals who at some point while growing up decide that they’re going eschew all social contact and seek extreme isolation, even confinement. Which one presumes also includes foregoing sex. As of 2010 the estimate was that there was 700,000 of these individuals, with another 1.55 million on the verge of becoming Hikikomiri. Of course there are ways in which this comparison fails. The Hikikomiri have an average age of 31, and are fairly evenly split between the genders, while we were talking about men under the age of 30. On the other hand whatever is happening with the Hikikomiri appears more severe. But the larger point is that so far Japan hasn’t collapsed, and in fact seems to be doing pretty well.

I guess we’ll see. In the past young men with nothing to do have fueled a lot of social unrest and even revolution, but perhaps all of their energy is being channeled into video games. Which once again would seem to be cause for concern, but maybe I’m making too much out of the vast and precipitous increase in sexless young men. Still, this is another case where I think we should all be asking, “What is going on?”

Part of the problem with the increase in involuntary celibacy, is that men seem to be taking it in the teeth on a lot of fronts. And I know that there are valid cases to be made that women and minorities, etc. have been taking it in the teeth for most of recorded history, but one would hope that progress isn’t a zero sum game where for one group to do better another group has to do worse. But you may be wondering what else I’m talking about, where else is something bad happening to men or at least disproportionately to men? Well, to move on to our next example: drugs. The opioid epidemic seems to hit men much worse than women. For instance, if you look at overdose deaths from opioids it turns out that men are twice as likely as women to die from an overdose. But that fact is alarming only because so many people are dying.

Have you seen a graph showing the spike in deaths from synthetic opioids? It’s genuinely insane. Essentially it went from 3,000 in 2013 to 30,000 in 2017. That’s a 10x increase in four years! If that rate continued basically the entire country would be dead less than 15 years from now. Obviously it’s not going to continue at this rate, but what rate is it going to continue at? Even if it leveled of instantly that’s still pretty bad.

This enormous spike in deaths from synthetic opioids would be bad enough if that’s all we had to worry about, but overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids might also still be climbing, or maybe they’ve levelled off at a mere 15,000 deaths a year, each. (And yes I’m being sarcastic.) It’s too early to tell, but on top of the opioid problem, although you can’t overdose on marijuana, the CDC reports that deaths from synthetic cannabinoids tripled in a single year between 2014 and 2015. I couldn’t find more recent numbers, but it does seem like a problem that’s likely to get worse given reports in other sources that synthetic use and associated reports of illness therefrom surged in 2018. Finally it turns out that meth has come roaring back, with overdose deaths from that drug increasing 18-fold in this decade, which is not as bad as the synthetic opioid increase, but it’s not great either. Finally it turns out that there’s been a big spike in overdose deaths from cocaine as well and 15,000 people a year are also dying there as well.

Just as I was putting the final polish on this, I came across a unified chart with overdose deaths from all of the drugs I just mentioned (other than synthetic cannabinoids). Eyeballing the start date in 1999, I’m going to say that there were 10,000 overdose deaths. The number for 2017 is 89,000. That’s a 9 fold increase over less than 20 years, across a broad range of drugs. I ask again, “What is going on?!”

As long as we’re on the subject of drugs, I was actually considering doing a whole post on them, but I have no idea what to do about the problem. Most people agree that the War on Drugs has largely been a failure, though it also feels like it hasn’t been quite as “warlike” since maybe the Obama election? Which corresponds to all the rises I’ve been talking about. So maybe it was working? Sort of? On the other hand there’s the approach of countries like Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs, and redirected resources to treatment. Which has long seemed like a good idea to me, but even so that policy has indisputably increased drug usage, and when you’re talking about drugs like fentanyl and meth, my guess is that usage rate and overdose rate are strongly correlated. Also, there are many ways in which the US is not Portugal.

Thus far we have sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Or rather a lack of sex, drug over doses and a weird fetishished version of rolling around like puppies. Perhaps I’m just an alarmed mother from the early 70s, rather than a low-grade conspiracy theorist. Either way, there is a big collection of potential things to be worried about, well beyond the three I just mentioned. But I understand if, looking at any example in isolation, you decide that it’s harmless; or worrisome, but easily dealt with. (Though there is always the chance that something is actually the tip of the iceberg.) All this said, while I do have some deep worries over isolated phenomenon, it’s really things in combination where I think we end up with a potential for catastrophe.

By way of illustration, as scary as fentanyl is, it’s really the fact that overdose deaths are basically up for all drugs, that worries me. And moving beyond that, drug overdose deaths are just one element in the broader “deaths of despair” category. (Another area where men are being hit particularly hard.) And once you start combining things together in this fashion it’s harder, for me at least, to shake the feeling that something big is going on.  

I suppose the point of this post is to be largely confessional. Specifically a confession that there is an element of emotion and visceral alarm to my worries about technology, progress and modern culture. I hope you believe me when I say I really want the future to be as great as Steven Pinker promises it will be. For that matter I want the present to be as great as people tell me it is, but when I look out on the world I see an increasing number of things that make me ask, “What is going on?!?!?”


As you may gather I feel like some things are moving in the opposite direction from what we would hope and expect. On that theme I’m going to go in the opposite direction as well, rather than asking for your donation I’m going to give away two $10 Amazon gift certificates to the first and last people who email me at wearenotsaved AT g mail and reference this message. How will I determine the last person? I guess you’ll find out.