Month: August 2019

Is There a Utopia out There After All?

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For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the time you have to squint quite a bit to see it. Last week I said I was going to talk about how communism might be implemented, which makes this a weird time to remind people I’m a Mormon, since, at first glance, Mormonism and communism would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, if anything, the recent past is full of well known Mormons who were extremely anti-communist. Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church had a particularly strong reputation for being opposed to communism, penning such books as An Enemy Hath Done This as well as being (for awhile) a big supporter of the John Birch Society. But once you go farther back in Church history, the picture looks different.

In the early days of the Church, on and off starting in 1830, but reaching a peak between 1874 and 1877, Brigham Young (the second president of the Church after Joseph Smith) implemented something called the United Order. Now, since that time, the Church has taken great pains to clarify that this was not Marxist communism, and indeed there are many differences, some subtle, some less so. But it was a collectivist arrangement as well as an attempt to practice Christian communalism (the Christian part is one of those less subtle differences), so it had lots of elements in common with communism. But all that aside, it was nevertheless an attempt at creating a society which worked better than the one they already had in place. Of moving from one system to a better system, but whatever its aspirations and whatever its differences, similar to communism, it failed. 

Based on these failures and other similar failures it’s easy to assume that communalism/socialism/communism will never work. Indeed there’s a meme going around, where they take the list of 7 things every kid needs to hear, initially created by Josh Shipp, which is full of advice like telling your kid you love them and you forgive them, and replacing one of the items with “Communism has failed every time it was tried.” And to be fair, perhaps every kid does need to hear that. I’m certainly no fan of Communism. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s worse even than most people realize, but as I have previously pointed out, this fact wasn’t apparent at the beginning. Nor was it apparent at the beginning of our own republic that it was going to be a success, and yet in the intervening years it clearly was.

In all these cases (and there are many more) people were trying to move to a new system, one which fixed some of the weaknesses of the old system. And most of the time when people make this attempt, it fails, somewhat unusually the American Revolution succeeded. A group of people did move to a different system, and whatever your complaints about the founding and the founders it was definitely a better system as well. You might label this system democratic capitalism, and while the United States was the first to try it on a large scale (a point we’ll get to) many nations, though not all, have gone on to adopt it. When one sees how successful it’s been, it’s worth asking why no one did it sooner and why some nations still haven’t done it.

Starting with the first question, people had tried democracies and republics before, but the conventional wisdom at the time of the revolution was that democracy could only work on a small scale, in places like Switzerland or Ancient Athens. This thinking explains why we ended up with a republic and not a democracy and is one of the reasons why the battle between Jefferson and Hamilton was so fierce, but regardless of the measures they took to mitigate the perceived failures of democracy or the passion they brought to the task of ensuring the success of the new country, it was still a huge risk. So why did it work in North America, but not in Afghanistan, or Venezuela, or for that matter Russia in the 90s?

Speaking of that time period in Russia, I just got done reading the book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. (I’m still playing around with how I’m going to do book reviews, so I may or may not end up doing a full review later.) The book discusses the chaotic time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and what came out of that chaos. In a very real sense, the Russians were trying to accomplish the same thing that the early Americans did. They were attempting to transition from one, obviously broken system to a presumably new and better system. In this effort they had lots of people willing to help, and the citizens really wanted to make the transition. Beyond that, there were lots of successful countries to copy from. And despite all of these factors very few people would look at Russia today and consider it a fully functioning constitutional democracy. What happened? Why did they fail?

On one level the failure to successfully transition came from numerous sources:

  • Yeltsin tried to reform the economy too quickly. 
  • The West offered a lot of useless advice, but not much actual help
  • Rather than creating prosperity for everyone the reforms made most people poorer while creating vast wealth for a few oligarchs. 

And if the economic problems weren’t bad enough, there was also:

  • Corruption
  • Terrible infrastructure
  • Weak respect for the law
  • And the general hangover of 70+ years of Soviet dysfunction. 

But considered from another angle the failure was caused by just one problem: Transitioning to a new system requires more than just ideology, it requires an enormous web of systems to support the ideology.

If we consider Russia and Eastern Europe, based on the things I read both at the time and since then, they would have liked nothing more than to have transitioned to mature capitalism, with public corporations, investors and a stock market. Instead they ended up with oligarchs and Ponzi schemes. Why? Because, among other things, they didn’t have a robust legal system, with things like contract enforcement, or a justice system free of corruption. And even if they had possessed all those things the actual logistics of a fully operational stock market are not trivial either. And this takes us to the answer to the second question I posed above, if democratic capitalism is so successful why hasn’t every country transitioned to it?

Certainly there are some countries where it’s not in the leader’s best interest to make the transition. (See my review of The Dictator’s Handbook.) And accordingly they prevent it from happening, but by all accounts Yeltsin and Gorbachev desperately wanted to make this transition yet were unable to because they didn’t have the necessary institutions, customs and attitudes in place. 

Thus far most of what I’ve said is not particularly original, though given how much blood and treasure we’ve spent failing in exactly this fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps these ideas are more obscure than one would think. Or perhaps those people trying to move from one system to the next recognize that supporting institutions are necessary, but feel that they should be easy to create. In any case at some level people have dramatically misjudged things, and as a consequence caused all kinds of problems. But, while that is definitely an interesting subject, it is not the subject of this post. No, in this post I want to approach things not from the perspective of what’s possible now, but from the perspective of what might be possible in the future.

I started off talking about communism and communalism, and asserting that attempts to implement them had repeatedly and spectacularly failed. But couldn’t the same thing be said about large scale democratic capitalism before the creation of the Constitution? What was different in 1788? The argument I’ve presented thus far is that the necessary framework of supporting institutions, cultural systems and laws finally existed which would allow it to succeed. From this it follows that it’s possible that there is a similar combination out there, waiting to be implemented which would allow communism or communalism to actually succeed as a system of government. 

I stole this idea from friend of the blog Mark over at Pasteur’s Blend. Here’s the paragraph where he explains the core idea

But what if there’s another way to look at it?  If it’s true that any system of government requires specific institutions to be successful, we should apply this same understanding to communism.  Certainly the Russian experience demonstrated that capitalism requires certain institutions or it won’t work well. We might look back to attempts at establishing communism through this lens and say, “Of course it didn’t work, they didn’t have the institutions required for making it work.”

To be clear, I’m not asserting that there are definitely institutions out there which would make communism/communalism work. (And specifically work better than democratic capitalism.) Only that there might be. There are still several reasons that such a system of government might be impossible.

For one, while this is an interesting possibility, it’s not even clear that this is how it normally works. The founding of the United States may be a unique exception. As I said above, we have lots of examples of failed attempts to dramatically transition from one system to another and very few examples of where it succeeded. Most of the time when we look through history it seems clear that most systems “evolved gradually” rather than “changed suddenly”. And I see very little evidence that this is the way things are evolving.

Speaking of which it should be pointed out, additionally, that there is no reason to limit this to communism/communalism, if progress and technology are going to create the culture, institutions and systems necessary for a dramatic shift to a new system of government it would seem that libertarianism is at least as likely as communalism, if not more so. 

Finally, you’ll notice that when I talk about the “web of support” required to make a certain system work, that I go farther than Mark’s original idea and toss in culture as well. Certainly culture played a huge part in the successful formation of the United States, and equally it has always been the biggest problem with the successful implementation of any form of communalism. Or as Madison put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

All this said, it is possible that a communist utopia will arrive as soon as we have the appropriate institutions and the right attitude. But, more broadly, it has to be acknowledged that even if we’re unlikely to transition to some dramatically better system of government after the fashion of the American Revolution, technological innovation is continually providing us with lots of tools to make our current system better. And this is the point where, finally, as promised, this post ties into the last post. This post is an argument against my last post. On one hand, as we saw in that last post, if system goes on long enough, it starts to accumulate deviations and those deviations end up being normalized. This leads to cycles where greater deviations eventually lead to catastrophe followed by retrenchment around improved norms. On the other hand technology gives us ways to mitigate system deviations, and may in fact provide a completely new and better system which will replace the old system before it fails catastrophically. Which would have the effect of breaking the cycle.

As a brief example, the last post spent quite a bit of time talking about plane crashes. One of the key methods for preventing these crashes is the checklist, and while the core technology for maintaining a checklist has been around since the invention of writing, it’s clear that even in the case of a simple system like this that technology has made things easier to implement and maintain. Consequently, there is less incentive for deviation because not-deviating requires only minimal additional effort. All of this then presumably pushes back potential catastrophes.

As is so often the case, all of the above takes us back to the same question we return to again and again, “Will technology save us?” And as usual, my answer (and I believe the safest way to bet) is, “We are not saved.” Nevertheless, as I repeatedly point out, I could be wrong. (That’s why I mention betting.) 

There is no way to know how the future will turn out, but I think it is safe to say, as I did in my very first post, that we’re in a race between technological salvation and technological catastrophe. Meaning that, at least at first glance, there’s nothing particularly new about the topic of this post. I’ve been talking about this exact issue since the very beginning. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what this latest twist adds to the discussion. To begin with, I spend a lot of time in this space discussing different ways for catastrophe to occur, but not very much time on how it might be avoided. How the cycles of civilization, which have been present throughout all of recorded history, might be broken. Part of the reason is that there are always more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But part of it is also probably a genuine bias on my part. Thus, when I encountered this idea I thought it was worth investigating as a counterweight to that bias. 

Beyond that, the key difference between this discussion and what I’ve written before, is that lots of people imagine that technology alone might save us. Particularly something like fusion, or superintelligence. I think there were a lot of people who thought the internet might even fill this roll. In contrast, the current discussion involves things which are helped by, but don’t require technology. Just institutional and cultural changes which might be brought about by sufficiently motivated individuals, allowing us to imagine “salvation” in a form which doesn’t hinge on one dramatic technological development. Technology is still very important, perhaps the most important element of the modern world, but many of the most impactful systems, as we saw with the checklist example (but also democratic capitalism) don’t necessarily require any specific technology. And, with technology appearing ever more destructive to systems, particularly political systems (think the polarization brought on by social media) this sort of salvation starts to appear more and more like our best hope.

However, in order to take this hope seriously you have to assume that we’re going to break out of the cycles and patterns that have defined human existence for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, that this time really is different. That, despite recent evidence to the contrary, technology will assist rather than hinder setting up the institutions and culture required to finally make the leap to a dramatically better system, a communist or a libertarian or a “something else” utopia. Or that, at a minimum, we’ll create something less earth shattering, but which nevertheless manages to save humanity from itself. Because that’s looking like an increasingly difficult task.

In my next post I’m going to finish out the series by examining that challenge, in particular the practical difficulties of implementing new systems, the historical cycles such systems would have to contend with, and the conflict between the new and better ways we’ve developed for managing those systems and the inevitable temptation to deviate from them, and to call those deviations “normal”.


Perhaps we will push through to a communist utopia where money is meaningless, but until that time we’re stuck with the next best system, democratic capitalism, which requires exchanging money for things you want to see more of. On the off chance this blog is in that category consider donating.


Normalization of Deviance and the Modern World

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I recently read an article titled How I Almost Destroyed a £50 million War Plane and The Normalisation of Deviance. The article opens with the story of a multinational military exercise, which the author, Tim Davies, participated in back in the mid 2000s. As part of this exercise, everyone was assigned to a specific jet, and if your jet was having problems you couldn’t switch. This is, unfortunately, exactly what happened to the Davies.

Our jet had a problem with the undercarriage or landing gear – it wouldn’t lock up under normal flight conditions; the wheels couldn’t be stowed away.

The engineers had found significant and unfixable wear to the mechanical uplock. It would only lock up under 0g and this would mean that I would have to bunt the aircraft, nose down, towards the ground whilst selecting the gear ‘up’.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, a bunt is half an outside loop, meaning you start out straight and level, then dive in a curve, eventually ending upside down.)

With this “solution” in hand and not wanting to be grounded for the remainder of the exercise Davies (and his Weapons Systems Officer) decided to try it out. And lo and behold, it worked. They’d have to do it every time they wanted to fly, right after takeoff, at the point when they had the maximum amount of fuel (five tons), but they had figured out a way to keep flying. So that’s what they decided to do. And this, if you haven’t guessed, was a deviation from the normal guidelines for safely flying a £50 million war plane.

Despite comments from other pilots, and the concerns of their Programme Director, who Davies managed to avoid, they continued performing this maneuver, and everything went great until the last day of the exercise when the weather was worse than expected. It was then, while performing the maneuver, that they entered a cloud, and when they finally emerged from that cloud Davies realized he was in a very bad place.

We were low on energy and the nose was rising too slowly to recover the aircraft before we would hit the ground.

The Ground Proximity Warning System sounded.

‘WOOP, WOOP – PULL UP, PULL UP!’

‘7, 6, 5 – that’s 400 ft Tim!’, called my WSO.

The jet was shuddering against my demands, it just didn’t have the performance to pull out of the dive.

The cockpit was silent. To make things worse, due to our high rate of descent, we were well outside of any ejection option.

I quickly selected full flap and slats to increase the lift over the wing.

The sudden increase in lift meant that the nose started to pitch faster towards the horizon.

A bad picture was starting to look better.

Eventually I levelled the jet at around 2-300 ft above the ground and gradually I climbed us back up into cloud.

The gear had never locked up. It was going to be a long, and a very quiet, journey home.

Why had all this happened? How had it come to pass that in addition to almost destroying a £50 million war plane, he had almost killed himself and his Weapons Systems Officer? It happened because they had taken that initial deviance and normalized it.

I was an experienced pilot but in the bracket where my over-confidence could well have been my downfall. The longer we’d continued performing the manoeuvre the more confident we’d become at doing it.

We had convinced ourselves that the rule breaking was for the benefit of the exercise and that what we were doing was essential.

But I’d almost destroyed a £50 million aircraft.

My actions in performing a zero ‘g’ bunt after take-off, in order to secure the gear, as outside of the rules as it was, had become the normal way to get airborne – I thought that what I was doing was right.

But I was wrong.

Knowing what happens it’s obvious he was wrong, but it’s also easy to see where it might not have been quite that obvious the first time he tried it. And it’s equally obvious where this problem might not be limited to flying. Life is full of very important rules for how things should be done, but it is also full of situations where it would be convenient and seemingly harmless to violate those rules. The initial violation almost always appears to be minor and in any event it will obviously be only temporary, but once we’ve done it the first time it becomes even easier to do it again and again and again… Until, before you know it, we’ve “normalized the deviance”. 

That article offers this formal definition for the normalization of deviance, from Diane Vaughan:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.

Vaughan coined the term “normalization of deviance” in the course of reviewing the organizational and management failures which lead to the Challenger and Columbia disasters. This is yet another example where it’s easy to identify which choices were wrong in hindsight, but apparently more difficult to avoid making those ultimately fatal decisions in the absence of such foreknowledge. And while there is some utility to identifying the problem after it’s happened it’s vastly preferable to identify it before the disaster. With that in mind I’m going to attempt some identification in advance. Also while the examples I’ve offered thus far, and most of the examples you’ll find, deal with small scale “deviance normalization”, as you might imagine I’m far more interested in whether we have any deviance normalization going on at a societal level.

Let’s take the last point first, what would it look like to normalize deviance at the level of a whole society? 

Let’s start by dipping back into the article. One of the things Davies mentions is how it can be very difficult to define what deviant behavior is at the extreme ends of things. While he admits that his take off maneuver was very obviously deviant, what if you’re trying to perform that evaluation on one of the military’s flight demonstration squadrons? In America we have the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, in the UK they have the Red Arrows, and Davies was involved in an inquiry after two of his friends were killed. As part of that he spoke to other people tasked with assessing the standards of the Red Arrows, one of them:

…told me that, when assessing a Red Arrows pilot, he found himself upside down at 100 ft over RAF Scampton’s runway in formation with two other jets only a couple of feet away.

How on earth was he supposed to know if this was normal?

How indeed? Davies doesn’t say except to point out that no organization is ever so specialized that it’s beyond needing external assessment. But the question of evaluation at the extremes is an interesting one, since that appears to be where modern society has ended up. In the same way that there’s not a lot of flight data for going hundreds of miles an hour, 100 ft off the ground with other aircraft only a couple of feet away, there’s not a lot of historical data about being able to form ideological echo chambers with anyone on Earth, with the ability to instantly communicate to any of those people, all while having less and less ability to know if that communication is actually truthful. That seems kind of abnormal or deviant, but how do we know?

To take another more recent, and perhaps more concrete example. News recently broke that Facebook paid contractors to transcribe it’s user’s audio chats. (Most of the other tech companies have been similarly accused.) Is this just a cool thing we can now do which well help Facebook deliver content people will appreciate more? Or is it a horrible invasion of privacy? Regardless of your answer to that question, it shouldn’t change when we get to the point where the transcription doesn’t require contractors; when there’s an AI that can do it. But I think it will. Perhaps more importantly, to get back to Davies’ point about needing external assessment, what do you think Facebook’s answer would be to these questions? (Spoiler: They think it’s awesome, particularly if they could get an AI to do it.) Pulling all this together, my first stab at spotting a normalization of deviance before it happens it to point out that technology is going to create a lot of “deviance” and that it’s going to be difficult to recognize, particularly if we don’t demand external assessment.

From there let’s move on to politics. To start, one imagines that deviations from the norm accumulate the longer an organization is around, and that this would apply at least as much to governments as it would to corporations, and probably much more so. As I have pointed out in the past, the United States and its government is older, relative to other nations, than most people think. All of this means that there should be plenty of examples of accumulated political deviations which have been normalized, and indeed I can think of several. I intend to provide a couple of examples of what I mean, but before I do, it’s important to point out that each could easily be the subject of its own post, and that by necessity, I am going to be leaving a lot of things out. Also, I’m sure that whether you view something as a deviation which has been normalized depends on your core political leanings.

With those caveats aside let’s start by talking about criminal justice. There are lots of things I could talk about in that space, but I’m going to focus on plea bargaining. Currently over 95% percent of federal cases end in a plea deal rather than a trial, and it’s not much better at local level. My sense, when I first thought of this as a potential deviation that has been normalized, is that it had only gotten this high recently, but when I looked into it I discovered that as long ago as 1945 it stood at 70%, and that it actually dipped to 63% in 1982 before starting a steady rise to where it is now. 

(I just gave two links to what appear to be the same statistic from the same governmental report, but while they agree on the general trend there’s a lot of variation in the statistics. For example, the Washington Post has it at 85% in 2000 while Albany University has it at 95% in 2000. Strange, but it doesn’t matter very much to the point I’m trying to make.)

Despite the fact that I was wrong about the increase in plea bargaining being a recent phenomenon, it was nevertheless definitely not a part of normal jurisprudence at the time of the Constitution. Once you start to dig into the history of it, it turns out that it wasn’t practiced with any frequency until “well into the nineteenth century“ and it didn’t come to the “attention of the public” until the 1920s. When “the general reaction-of scholars, of the press, and of the crime commissions themselves [which had publicized the practice]-was disapproval.” On top of this, apparently as late as 1958 it looked like the Supreme Court might declare the practice to be illegal, and while it didn’t, it didn’t formally sanction the practice until 1970. And while it seems normal now, this is all a deviation. The original guidelines for “safe jurisprudence” (similar to the rules for safe flying) included lots of rules about trial by jury, how the jury should work, the rights of the accused, what was and wasn’t permissible evidence, etc. But, at some point, after the system had been working well for possibly as long as a century, someone came along and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we skipped the trial and you just agreed to plead guilty to X, and in exchange we’ll make sure that your punishment is only Y?” And it was easier that once. In fact it was probably eminently sensible. But now, a century or more later, the original concept of trial by jury is used, at most 5% of the time (here’s yet another set of numbers from the NYT saying it’s 3% of federal cases and 6% of state cases) and the deviation has been made into the norm.

Why hasn’t this deviation been corrected? Probably because it only harms (or is perceived to harm) the powerless. Insofar as plea deals (and the associated practice of charge stacking) are bad they’re only bad for potential criminals. Not necessarily a coalition which is essential to anyone staying in power (see my review of The Dictator’s Handbook) and possibly a coalition whose support you would actively avoid.

The question of who the deviation harms is an important one, and comes up again when discussing my other example, though in a more complicated way. What is this example, you ask? It’s the current and growing practice of ignoring immigration laws. As with plea bargaining it’s somewhat difficult to tell exactly when or how this deviation started, but it’s easy enough to imagine why. Immigration enforcement is difficult, with lots of areas of questionable morality, and hard choices that have to be made. Still the current state has not existed for all that long. While the first sanctuary city was Berkeley in 1971, and a few other cities adopted that designation in the 1980s, most cities and states didn’t get serious about it until the 2010s. Meanwhile in the 90s there was serious concern about the state of US immigration policy. From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, ran from 1990 to 1997. The Commission covered many facets of immigration policy, but started from the perception that the “credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in, are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave”. From there, in a series of four reports, the commission looked at all aspects of immigration policy. In the first, it found that enforcement was lax and needed improvement on the border and internally. For internal enforcement, it recommended that an automated employment verification system be created to enable employers to distinguish between legal and illegal workers. The second report discussed legal immigration issues and suggested that immediate family members and skilled workers receive priority. The third report covered refugee and asylum issues. Finally, the fourth report reiterated the major points of the previous reports and the need for a new immigration policy. Few of these suggestions were implemented.

The yardstick mentioned in the article could be used in a Trump campaign ad, and indeed last year Trump put out a presidential message honoring Barbara Jordan, which upset numerous people since Jordan was a black female Democrat. It would certainly be hard to imagine someone similarly situated today being a Trump supporter, or even making similar recommendations. Indeed these days, many people consider it inappropriate to even use the word illegal. But, beyond what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it’s worth going into a deep dive on how this is a deviation which has been normalized, since I suspect you either already entirely agree with me or are never going to agree, but I would like to look at who it harms.

I said earlier that the harms of this normalization are more complicated. In particular there are a lot of fairly powerless people who are helped, and indeed that’s a good argument for the continuance of the practice. But beyond that there are also a lot of powerful people who benefit as well, and that, more than the powerless people it helps, is why it continues. As I pointed out in a previous post, other than Trump and a handful of other politicians, the lax enforcement of immigration is something which is supported by nearly every member in congress despite a majority of actual voters being against it.  The harm, or perceived harm, all falls, once again, on a group of people who have largely been without power, that is until Trump came along. Which is to say even if you don’t see any other harms from this particular normalization of deviance, it probably pushed Trump over the top in the last election…

Finally when we’re talking about deviations being normalized it’s hard not to turn our minds towards behaviors formerly classified as deviant. The entire culture war revolves around this process, and obviously there are quite a few people who believe that quite a few activities should not have been normalized. That “progress” is just another word for the greatest “normalization of deviance” of all. There are of course an equal if not larger number of people (depending on the country) who think this is ridiculous. It would be nice if sheer numbers could decide the issue, but I don’t think they can. All of these issues remain contentious, but, for the moment, let’s assume that in addition to being (at one point) labeled as deviations, that they are actual deviations. What would this mean? In the story I started with, that deviation almost led to a fatal crash. Is that also what we should be worried about here? Perhaps, perhaps not. The modern world is very different from the world of even 50 years ago, accordingly I would never claim that the normalization of these particular deviations will inevitably result in a “crash”. They may in fact be desirable in our current situation. Still, as I have repeatedly pointed out, there just might have been a reason for declaring these behaviors “deviant” beyond just massive historical bigotry. 

If we were to systematize all of this, you could imagine that things might operate in a cycle. Some “bad thing” happens, and as a result rules are put into place to ensure that particular “bad thing” doesn’t happen again. Initially, when the memory of the “bad thing” is still very fresh, those preventative rules would carry a great deal of weight, people would be eager to follow them, and they certainly wouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Gradually, however, the connection between the rules and the “bad thing” would fade in the minds of those forced to follow the rules. These rules would start to appear more onerous and less necessary. As this process continues, eventually rules start being broken. Initially this rule breaking wouldn’t cause any harm, and the longer things went without any harm the more the process of rule-breaking accelerates. All of this would continue until eventually, the “bad thing” the rules were trying to prevent, happened again. Naturally the rules would be reimplemented (and perhaps strengthened) and the cycle would begin anew. 

I’m obviously not the first nor the last to suggest that history, behaviors, and events might be cyclical, but my particular suggestion would be that while this is certainly true, it is also horribly complicated. Yes, history does move in cycles, many, many cycles which overlap, feed on one another and are weak or strong at various times and places. For the next couple of posts I’m going to examine a couple of other cycles and look at which might be strong or weak in our own day and age. As a teaser, in my next post I’m going to talk about how a nation would successfully implement communism. 


There might be some who argue this entire blog is a normalization of deviance! 

*Something*

*Something* 

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The Rise of a Civic Religion

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I.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you know that I live in Utah, a state which has a number of interesting qualities, particularly when it comes to politics. To begin with, as you’re all probably aware, Utah is not a swing state, its electoral votes have gone to the Republican Presidential candidate in every election since 1968. Now, Trump may change all of that (though based on the current crop of democractic nominees I’m guessing that he won’t) but Trump’s standing in Utah is a topic for another time. As an additional peculiarity, and something that most people don’t know, Utah is the only state where Clinton came in third place to Perot in 1992. But of all the political oddities peculiar to Utah, the one I want to focus on is lawn signs.

If I’ve done my job right, you are now overcome with curiosity and wondering what possible peculiarity there might be when it comes to Utah and lawn signs. Well to begin with, after considering everything I’ve already said, one would naturally assume that if there was any place where you would expect to see lawn signs for the Republican Presidential Candidate it would be in Utah. And yet, at least in Salt Lake, I not only don’t remember any signs for Trump in 2016. I very clearly remember there being no signs for McCain in 2008 when he was running against Obama. Why, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, would there be no lawn signs for the Republican Nominee? 

One possibility is that I’m just wrong, there were lawn signs and I just didn’t see them or don’t remember them.

Or perhaps, knowing how solidly Republican Utah was, the campaign didn’t bother to send any lawn signs to Utah. But if that’s the case why were there plenty of Obama and Clinton lawn signs? Wouldn’t the same not-worth-fighting-over logic apply?

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in Salt Lake, which is actually pretty blue. Sure, the state is pretty Republican, but perhaps Salt Lake City might as well be San Francisco. Well, if we look at the actual numbers we find that Obama did in fact win Salt Lake County, by the massive margin of 0.1%, 49.2% to 49.1%. In 2016 the margin was greater, 41.99% to 32.96% but that’s still a fair amount of Trump supporters, for there to not be a single yard sign.

As you can tell, none of these three theories seems very compelling, at least to me, but there is another theory that I like better. A theory which combines signalling, with what it’s acceptable to signal. If we start from a very naive view of things, we might expect that the number of yard signs would be proportional to the percentage of eventual voters, but this is obviously not the case. In San Francisco, of those who voted for either Clinton or Trump, one in ten voted for Trump, but I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money that one in ten election signs in San Francisco were not similarly in support of Trump.

If visible signs of support are not proportional to eventual vote totals what does determine people’s desire to signal and the acceptability of such signalling? You might think that if each candidate will eventually get a roughly equal number of votes, that the visible signs of support would also be equal, and that from this point of rough equilibrium, visible support would drop off faster than actual support as one candidate ended up in the minority. That basically, as one candidate’s majority becomes greater and greater, signalling support for the minority candidate has less and less utility. But in the example I just gave from Salt Lake City, McCain and Obama’s eventual support was as close to even as you can get, and yet I would swear that I didn’t see a single McCain campaign sign. Is it possible that it’s disproportionately beneficial to signal support for a Democratic candidate and disproportionately harmful to signal support for a Republican candidate? 

I’m well aware that this is mostly based on a single observation, so one point of this post is to see if anyone else has a similar experience to mine, where you live in a city with lots of Republican voters, but very little visible evidence of these voters? I suspect there are a lot of examples of this. I would even go so far as to say that I’d be surprised if anyone’s experiences didn’t match my own. That is, the percentage of visible support being less than the percentage of actual support given as votes. Beyond the reluctance of people on the right to visibly signal, even while in the majority, as I described above, I have also noticed the opposite situation with those on the left, actual eagerness to signal, even while in the minority, and I would be curious to hear about other people’s experiences. Assuming that all of the foregoing is correct, why might this be?

II.

As part of my answer I’d like to start by relating yet another observation, this one much more recent. As I mentioned in the post just before this one I spent the first few days of August at a gaming convention. (Which convention is probably easy enough to figure out, but I shall leave it unnamed for a variety of reasons.) I’ve been attending the same convention for many years, and for as long as I can remember people have been attaching ribbons to the bottoms of their badges. Generally these ribbons represented one or the other niches at the convention. As an example, a fan of Settlers of Catan might have a ribbon each for brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. Last year I noticed some new, rainbow colored ribbons. (You can probably already guess the nature of the ribbons.) One said “Gaymer”, and for those who weren’t actually gay, there was an “Ally” ribbon. Somewhat subconsciously I added these as another niche. There were fans of Settlers of Catan and there were people who wanted to combine LGBT advocacy with their gaming. 

When I attended this year, I quickly realized that I had been wrong. Last year, I saw just a few people wearing these ribbons and while I hesitate to put forth any hard numbers, my guess would be that, at most, 5% of badges had one of these ribbons last year. And, as I said, I subconsciously added it as another niche.

This year, the number was much higher, again I’m reluctant to put forth a hard number, but it could have easily been 25%, and perhaps higher. Also this year a new variety of ribbon had been added which allowed people to announce their preferred pronouns. (I was surprised by the number of They/Them ribbons I saw.) Once again I’m dealing with only a small amount of data, but at a minimum I’m already curious about what this percentage is going to look like next year. 

All of this is to say that it seems unlikely that the actual number of gay gamers and their allies has quintipled since last year. No it’s more likely that the phenomenon of rainbow ribbon badges and republican candidate lawn signs are actually similar, that both come down to signalling, and what it’s acceptable to signal, or more accurately what it’s unacceptable to signal. As an example of what I mean, imagine that I printed up some ribbons that said “Straight” or “Not an Ally” or “Gamers opposed to Same Sex Marriage”. (That last one wouldn’t fit on a badge, and I think the difficulty of signalling opposition illustrates my point.) But to return to my point can you imagine how unacceptable it would be to signal opposition to LGBT tolerance? And, in fact, I think this leads to the point I’ve already noted, that not only would it be entirely unacceptable to wear any of the ribbons just mentioned, that it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable to not have an “Ally” ribbon showing your support. 

It’s not hard to imagine that this might happen at a gaming convention which mostly skews younger and “woker”, but I believe it’s happening more widely, and that’s why I started out by talking about the lawn signs. This is not only, I would submit, an example of the same thing, but furthermore an example illustrating how long this has been going on for and in places you wouldn’t expect. To be clear, what I’m arguing is that just as it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to not signal support for LGBT issues, that it was already unacceptable for many years, even in very conservative states to visibly signal support for Republican Presidential Candidates. Once again, why might this be?

III.

On one level the answer to this question is that both stories are just examples of the ongoing social progress that has been happening for decades if not centuries, but I find that particular answer lacking. In the first example, it’s not that people are changing how they vote it’s that they’re changing what they’re willing to visibly signal. In the second example, we see a trend (which to be fair, may or may not continue) where once again people expect certain signalling above and beyond someone’s actual behavior. In other words, in both cases, we’re not seeing “progress” in behaviors or progress in what’s allowed, in part because both of these have just about topped out, we’re seeing “progress” through an increasingly unified idea of what attitudes and beliefs it’s acceptable to display openly. That most individuals have moved beyond expecting to be allowed to do and believe certain things, to fashioning a set of attitudes and beliefs which they expect everyone to adopt.

Thus far none of this is particularly new or surprising. Conservatives and other people worried about overactive political correctness have long warned about this transition from allowing people to do certain, previously taboo, things to demanding that everyone enthusiastically support people doing these certain things. But I want to go beyond just identifying the trend, or expressing short-term alarm to categorizing the trend as something specific, consequential and long-term.

A few posts ago I touched on Scott Alexander’s idea that social justice might be a new civic religion. For this to be the case, if social justice is going to supplant the old civic religion of patriotism, it has to be growing. It has to be vibrant and powerful. It has to be able to sweep the old civic religion away. It has to be able to dominate the “signaling space”. In both of the examples I provided this is what appears to be happening. That what people support has decoupled from what people decide to signal. That these examples illustrate not a change in inner beliefs or behavior, but the rise of a different public dogma or in other words a new civic religion.

Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, and certainly there’s a lot of discussion about what makes something a religion, and wading into that is way beyond the scope of this post, but the expectation that everyone will outwardly display specific beliefs has to be a big part of it, particularly in the case of civic religions.

Pulling everything together, I increasingly agree with Alexander that social justice is a nascent civil religion, that the lawn signs and the badge ribbons should be considered as evidence that something new is dominating the signalling space and that these are examples of the presence and growth of this religion, a different, more extreme, and more cohesive phenomenon than the generic social progress we’ve seen previously. 

Before moving on, I should mention that I’m fully aware that just as one swallow does not a summer make, neither does two examples a civic religion make. But my guess is that at this point you’re in one of two categories. Either you can think of a dozen other examples of this and you’re nodding along in agreement, or you’ve completely dismissed my point as conservative paranoia. And in neither case will providing more examples move the needle very much. Assuming that you’re one of the people who’s nodding along, the next question, once we’ve figured out why it’s happening, is to ask what happens next?

IV.

If you are in the “conservative paranoia” camp, and you’ve made it this far. I’ll start off with the possibility you might actually like. It’s possible that what happens next is that, by degrees, we enter a social justice utopia. That all the things people hope for come to pass as people “join” the new religion. That systemic racism is done away with, along with all other forms of bigotry. That gaps in pay and education between minorities and genders vanish. That when everyone is an “Ally” there are no LGBT issues because that distinction no longer makes any sense. That everyone is treated with fairness and kindness and as a result global peace and prosperity will reign. That, in essence, I end up being wrong about everything. This would be great. I could stop writing, buy a nice recliner and finally catch up on all the TV shows people keep recommending to me. Unfortunately, despite my desire to finally watch all six seasons of the Sopranos, nothing about how events are playing out leads me to believe that this possibility has any chance of happening.

Another possibility would be some kind of fusion between the new civic religion and the old, that patriotism and the 4th of July meld with social justice and gay pride to form some hybrid civic religion, better than the old civic religion, or maybe just able to thread whatever needle we’re going through now, and get us to something resembling normality after Trump, but if anything this seems less likely than the previous possibility, given how irreconcilable the differences between the two sides appear to be. Also while I’m not an expert on the rise of new civic religions, I don’t get the sense that “peaceful fusion with the old religion” is something that ever happens. Part of the problem is a relative paucity of examples. I think historically actual religions were the norm and that replacing an actual religion with a civic religion is a relatively new innovation, but insofar as we have examples, most of them have been bloody. Which takes us to the next possibility.

Having talked a lot about possibilities which are unlikely, let’s turn to a possibility that seems more and more likely. Widespread and perhaps even bloody conflict between the two civic religions, old and new. Obviously on some level this is bad, but an argument could be made, that on net, the outcome in its totality might be good. I was having a discussion with a friend recently on this very topic where he made just such an argument. In the course of the discussion, I had brought up previous upheavals which occurred as countries switched civic religions. In particular the decades of revolution that France went through as it, arguably, switched from the civil religion of the monarchy (or the empire) to the civil religion of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Revolutions in which hundreds of thousands of people died (millions if you include the Napoleonic Wars). My friend argued that as bad as all this was that in the long run the French were better off going through all of it than remaining under the monarchy as it stood in 1788. Perhaps this is true, though I’m not the best person to ask. I have a tendency to give fewer points for historical wrongs than other individuals. Also this imagines that there were only those two options, but in reality there were lots of options, and among all the various options I suspect that there were several which would have given them the same amount of liberté, égalité, fraternité with less violence. 

Which is to say, even if conflict is inevitable, it would be nice if we could minimize the actual bloodshed and violence. Given that conflict seems to have already begun this is the course I’m continually advocating for, pointing out that this may require us to end up with two civic religions, which are separated in some fashion. To me this seems markedly better than re-enacting any of the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But in order to do this, I think it’s necessary, first of all, to slow down the pace of change, something the adherents of social justice seem disinclined to consider.

Of course, as I alluded to just now, all conflicts eventually end, and usually (though not always) one side is victorious. What happens if the religion of social justice is eventually victorious? It is certainly possible that conflict, even very violent conflict, could end up being a roundabout way to arrive at the first possibility, the social justice utopia. That in the end, just like the French (if my friend is to be believed) we’ll be better off, despite whatever blood that gets spilt. But we should also consider the possibility that if social justice is triumphant we will end up with something closer to a dystopia instead. Recall that both facism and communism were essentially civic religions. And that communism, at least (but perhaps facism also) promised justice. It wasn’t social justice, it was economic justice, but how sure are we that if the civic religion of social justice ends up triumphing (with or without conflict) that it won’t fail in a similar fashion? In other words, one possibility is that the new religion does wipe out the old one, but that this ends up being a very bad thing.

V.

In the end, the question of whether we’re witnessing the rise of a new civic religion is an important one. Because if we are then the best historical evidence would indicate that such transitions are rarely accomplished without extreme upheaval. Looking back, I probably should have spent more time discussing historical examples of religious transitions, rather than spending so much time on a couple of marginal examples of the current evidence. (Though I find both examples fascinating.) And perhaps I will dive more into the historical record in some future post. Though I can already tell that it will offer very little comfort.

As one final possibility, there is, as always, a very good chance that I’m wrong, that we aren’t currently in the beginnings of a conflict between the old civic religion of patriotism and a new one of social justice. But if I am wrong about things, my guess is that it’s because I’ve vastly undercounted the number of new civic religions, that rather than one new civic religion we might actually end up with dozens, all in competition. Certainly we’ve seen evidence of that happening in the past when the previous civic religion began to run out of steam. Toss in the internet and social media this time around and we might end up with a lot more of it. And while I personally think that one in particular deserves most of the attention, it’s hard to say what will happen.

I guess the one thing I didn’t spend a lot of time was the weakness of the old civic religion, so let me share one brief, final anecdote. On Sunday I happened to be rewatching The Avengers. (Yes, I know I could be watching the Sopranos instead, but I can rewatch The Avengers while doing something else.) And there’s a scene where Agent Coulson mentions to Steve Rogers that they have a new uniform for him, and Rogers responds by asking, “Isn’t the Stars and Stripes a little old fashioned?” I remember being struck by this question, since it gets to the root of the problem. When even Captain America is questioning the power of the flag you know that the current civic religion is getting near the end of its lifespan. And it’s imminent death leaves us with some very important questions to consider, perhaps the most important facing our country right now:

  • How will it die?
  • Is that death going to be violent?
  • And, what comes after? Will it be a utopia or a dystopia?

As you can probably guess, going to gaming conventions to make sweeping predictions about colored ribbons is not cheap. If you’d care to assist me in that endeavor consider donating.


Books I Finished in July (With One Podcast Series)

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

Or download the MP3


I was off at a gaming convention all of last week, so I’m somewhat behind on things, but here are reviews of all the books I finished in July (with one podcast series). I started the month with:


The Blade Itself (1 of 3 First Law Trilogy)

By: Joe Abercrombie

560 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If fantasy novels are your thing you should check out this series.

If you like George R. R. Martin’s a Song of Ice and Fire, and despair of it ever being completed this is a pretty good substitute.

Representative passage:

I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once. I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.

He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. “There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.

Thoughts

I quite enjoyed this book, it reminded me of all the reasons why I continue to read fiction, despite the fact that it doesn’t help me with my writing at all. In other words, most of my reasons for reading fiction are selfish, things like escapism and enjoyment, that said, I fancy there are some noble or at least productive reasons in there as well, they just escape me at the moment.

This novel inevitably gets compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, or more likely Game of Thrones, since that’s how most people refer to the series these days. I can entirely see why that is. It has a similar feel, though, at least in the first book, there is significantly less sex, and the violence is probably tamer as well. Outside of that though, it has the same great characterization of very flawed individuals set in a gritty fantasy world. I particularly like the character of Sand dan Glokta, the former dashing swordsman, who was captured and subsequently tortured during a previous war and is now crippled, and, perhaps ironically, a torturer himself.

It’s been quite a while since I read Game of Thrones (which is actually just the first book in George R. R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire series) so it’s hard to say which book I actually enjoyed more, probably Game of Thrones, but given that Martin is probably never going to finish his series and Abercrombie is already done with this one, I think I’d be more likely to recommend Abercrombie over Martin to someone who had read neither, even without having finished the second and third books.

And I guess as long as we’re on the subject I should stick in my George R. R. Martin rant…

Since time immemorial, when a book was being turned into a movie, or a tv show. You could read the book and be ahead of the game. Not only would you get to the end faster, but you almost certainly knew about things that would never get included in the screen translation. To be frank, by reading the book you were better than all those poor schlubs who only watched the TV show. And Martin, by allowing the TV show to get ahead of the books, has broken this sacred pact, a pact that has existed since the dawn of time. Now I’m sure HBO bears some responsibility for starting the show before the series was done (much to the detriment of the final season as I understand it) but mostly I blame Martin.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms, what I mostly have are worries. He introduces quite a few mysteries and hints at a far deeper world than what gets shown in this first book. Whenever you encounter something like this you hope that these mysteries are eventually explained, and that when that happens the explanation is satisfactory. While it’s pretty rare for there to be no attempt at an explanation, it’s very common for the explanation to be unsatisfactory. Star Wars is a great example of what I’m talking about, where an amazing and mysterious universe is hinted at in “A New Hope” only to be revealed as kind of lame and boring in the prequels. As far as this series, I guess we’ll have to see. 

Books I would read before this one:

I’m always going to say that, if you haven’t already, you should read Tolkien before reading anything else in the fantasy genre. But beyond that this is a pretty good place to start if you’re interested in seeing what an epic fantasy series looks like.


Hate Crime Hoax: How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War

By: Wilfred Reilly

256 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the people who should read this book won’t. In particular I think college administrators should read definitely read this book.

Representative passage:

Probably the most famous Trump-related “hate crime” took place on December 1, 2016, when a young Muslim student claimed that she was attacked on a New York City subway train by “drunken, hate-spewing white men shouting, “Donald Trump!” As we have already seen, she made the whole thing up.

Thoughts

Interestingly enough this book was evidently written and sent to the publisher before that most famous of all hate crime hoaxes, the Jussie Smollett hoax, but it does a great job of showing that Smollett is just the most famous of recent hoaxes, but not even close to being the first. In fact the list of hoaxes and their description is kind of insane, and you come away with two somewhat conflicting thoughts. First, that the perpetrators of these hoaxes should be punished more harshly, and second, that a significant number of them probably have severe mental problems.

For those who hang around certain corners of the internet the fact that there are hate hoaxes is not news (though if you get your news exclusively from the New York Times, it might be) but still the sheer number of hoaxes Reilly ended up covering was impressive. As you might imagine many of these hoaxes took place on college campuses, and one of the chief morals of the book would be that if some dramatic act of hate is reported on a college campus, you can be almost certain it’s a hoax, and that the perpetrator is either the person reporting it, or that it will turn out to be some kind of art installation. (That’s not a joke several of the hoaxes fall into that category.)

Looking at all reported hate crimes, Reilly estimates that probably 15-50% will turn out to be hoaxes. That’s a pretty big deal, and even at 15% it would make sense to start out skeptical anytime you hear about a reported hate crime. Particularly since it would seem (though there was no data on this specifically) that hate crimes you hear about are more likely to be hoaxes than the set of all reported hate crimes.

As I already said, I was familiar with the fact that many reported hate crimes end up being hoaxes. I was not familiar with how high the percentage was, or much variety there was, indeed the most interesting thing Reilly brought to my attention was that individuals on the right end of the political spectrum are getting in on the action as well. That despite the books subtitle, “How the Left is Selling a Fake Race War” increasingly both sides are selling a fake war. If anything this makes the subject more alarming. If it’s just one side then you would think it would be more easy to identify and counteract. If both sides are doing it, then it begins to appear that this is just the way the game is now being played. Which is not a good development

Criticisms

Reilly has kind of a snarky writing style, and that began to wear after a while. Additionally given that the subject is likely to be controversial, I feel like being snarky is going to give people an easy excuse to dismiss it out of hand as being unserious. This would be unfortunate, because it appears clear that it’s a very serious subject and a very serious trend.

Also, this is probably one of those books that could be a long article without losing very much. So much of the content is reciting the details of the individual hoaxes, and while these are titillating, after the first 10 or so, the utility of each additional description starts to go down. But perhaps it takes a mountain of evidence to overcome the default assumption that hate hoaxes are rare to non-existent. 

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

When you hear of some dramatic hate crime, with no witnesses other than the victim, it’s understandable, even rational to be suspicious that it might be a hoax.


The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

352 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all interested in political science, you’ll definitely enjoy this deep dive into the mechanisms of power.

Moreover, if you’re just cynical in general this book is right up your alley.

Representative passage:

The czar fell once there was no one to stop the revolution. Louis XVI suffered much the same fate in the French Revolution. Successful leaders must learn the lesson of these examples and put raising revenue and paying supporters above all else. Consider Robert Mugabe’s success in staying on as Zimbabwe’s president. The economy has collapsed in Zimbabwe thanks to Mugabe’s terrible policies. Starvation is common and epidemics of cholera regularly sweep the country. Mugabe “succeeds” because he understands that it does not matter what happens to the people provided that he makes sure to pay the army. And despite regular media speculation, so far he has always managed to do so and to keep himself in office well into his eighties. He has reduced a once thriving agricultural exporting nation into one that depends on foreign aid. Mugabe is certainly horrible for what he’s done to the people he rules, but he is a master of the rules to rule by. Where policy matters most, when it comes to paying off cronies, he has delivered. That is why no one has deposed him. 

Thoughts

This book is basically a modern day version of Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli holds up Cesare Borgia as an excellent example of someone who embodies the principles he’s espousing. In The Dictator’s Handbook, as you can see from the passage I just quoted, they appear to offer up Robert Mugabe as one of the best examples of someone who understands their principles. Which is tragic, but no less an accurate description of the world, for all its tragedy. The question which follows from all this and which the book attempts to answer and also its subtitle: Why is bad behavior almost always good politics?

The framework which underpins their answer, and most of the book, consists of dividing people into three categories:

The nominal selectorate, or interchangeables: These are the people who in theory have some say in choosing the leader of a country. In the US it’s every person of voting age. And it ends up being a fairly large group in most countries, given that even fairly extreme dictators generally cloak things with an air of popular legitimacy. But this group only selects leaders in theory, in practice they’re mostly powerless.

The real selectorate, or influentials: In the US this is the people who actually vote rather than just being eligible to vote. In China it’s all the voting members of the Communist party. In some countries it’s more fuzzy and frequently shifts.

The winning coalition, or the essentials: This is the minimum number of people the leader needs to stay in power. In the US it’s pretty big, though as we’ve seen it often ends up being less than a majority. In dictatorships where the only thing required to maintain power is to keep a few high level military leaders happy, the essentials may consist of only a small handful of people.

This is a fairly simple framework but from it, all sorts of bad behavior can be described. I can only scratch the surface, but one of the most common examples is the bad behavior enabled by a large supply of natural resources. The Handbook points out that if you have abundant natural resources, it’s easy to extract the money necessary to keep your essentials happy, and you can therefore keep the number of truly essential people small. On the other hand, if you don’t have a source of money that you can easily control you still need money to keep the essentials happy, but in this case you have to resort to taxation, which means you have to have a productive populace, and this is best accomplished by giving them a certain amount of freedom. Accordingly market reforms often happen not because a dictator is particularly enlightened, but because there’s no other way for him to get the money necessary to keep the essentials happy.

This framework is pretty powerful, and as I said, it’s only possible to scratch the surface, particularly in a blog post, but I would argue that, despite writing a whole book about the model, the authors ignore some of its implications, particularly as it applies to modern democracies. Which takes me to the next section.

Criticisms

Having a framework for understanding why dictators behave badly was useful, but mostly in an academic sense, given that you already know they’re going to behave badly even without understanding why. It’s when the framework is applied to our current situation that I think it becomes interesting. As one example, Democrats and liberals are adamant in claiming that they support immigration and oppose voter ID laws for entirely moral reasons, but after reading Dictator’s Handbook it seems more likely that they’re doing it to shift the percentage of “influentials” in a way that favors them. Republicans are fighting these things for exactly the same reason, only they’re trying to protect the percentage of influentials currently in their camp.

Despite that fact that the underlying motivation for both parties is to say in power, the Democrats have, cleverly, made their motives seem pure and altruistic while the Republicans have ended up being labeled as horrible racists.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

People in power don’t care about ruling well they care about staying in power.


Fall of Civilizations (Podcast)

Hosted By: I’m actually not sure

8 hours (so far)

Format: Podcast

Rating: A

Who should listen to this podcast?

Given the importance of the subject material I honestly think everyone should listen to it. Plus it’s fascinating. 

Beyond that if you like tales of disaster and collapse, and imagining the end of civilizations, this is a great podcast.

Representative passage:

A cascading failure can occur in any system of interconnected parts when one part of the system fails. Other pieces of the system must compensate and this in turn overloads them. Nodes throughout the system fail one after another. Until the whole infrastructure grinds to a halt. One bridge leading into the temple complex of Angkor Thom tells a chilling story of what must have happened during that time. The first thing we notice is that this bridge appears to have been hastily constructed. With none of the refinement of the nearby constructions and when we look closer we see that it was built out of building material, recycled from nearby temples. Some of its stones show the intricate carvings of a temple wall, but mismatched and jumbled in this new structure. The fact that the Khmer people had to hastily build this bridge shows that something had gone terribly wrong with their water control system and the fact that they had to reuse stones from their most sacred and revered buildings shows that the situation was desperate.

Thoughts

Thus far the podcast has covered six civilizations. I’ll just briefly talk about the first two:

Roman Britain: I think a lot of people are familiar with the basic outline of this collapse, but it’s a story with a fair amount of surprises. Perhaps the biggest thing people are unaware of is how gradual the collapse was, but then how deep it went before things started turning around. My question is, at what point did people realize that they were on a downward trend, one that was going to last for hundreds of years? I assume that at some point they did, but that it was well after the collapse had started. 

The Late Bronze Age Collapse: This happened around 1100 BC, and if you haven’t heard about it, it’s one of the great mysteries of the ancient world. If you were only going to listen to one episode it should probably be this one. The historical record is tantalizingly thin, we know there was a massive invasion by the “sea people” but why they invaded, and from where continues to prove elusive. But at the time these invasions caused the complete collapse of every nation existing at the time except for two, Assyria and Egypt, and Egypt was badly weakened.

Beyond these first two the podcast has so far covered:

  • The Mayan Collapse
  • The Greenland Vikings
  • The Khmer Empire
  • Easter Island (here he says there was no collapse they were just devastated by European contact.)

Criticisms

This is one of those rare cases where I kind of wish it was longer. Also he seems to mostly be going for an overarching theme that civilizations collapse because of climate change, I would prefer that he either make it less a morality fable about modern problems or that he go in the other direction and make as many connections between the past and now as possible.

If you were going to take only one thing from the podcast:

As civilizations advance they accumulate complexity, and eventually that complexity is their undoing.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By: Mario Kondō

224 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’ve heard of Mario Kondō or the Konmari method, and wanted to try it, but need an inspirational speech before you do, this is that speech.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about you should also read this book.

Representative passage:

One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongs. For example, I urge them to try saying, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, “Thank you for making me beautiful,” and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, “It’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” Express your appreciation to every item that supported you during the day. If you find this hard to do daily, then at least do it whenever you can.

Thoughts

I’d be a little bit surprised if you hadn’t heard of this book. It’s been quite the phenomenon, and I’m not sure what I can add to the discussion at this point. Personally I enjoyed the book, but for me reading it was less about learning how the system worked and more about being talked into trying the system out. And indeed the system itself is pretty simple. 1) Gather everything you have in a particular category. 2) examine each item in turn, if the item doesn’t give you a feeling of joy, get rid of it. The rest of the book consists of cheerleading for the system. Which takes me to…

Criticisms

This is another book which probably could have been shorter. As I pointed out the actual system is pretty simple, and the rest of the book is taken up with long passages of minutiae, interspersed with bits that essentially describe Kondo’s spirituality. The top review on Amazon describes it pretty well:

Here’s what the book says: touch every item in your home and if you “love it” then keep it. If you don’t get that warm and fuzzy feeling of love, throw it away. There. Now you don’t have to read it. Seriously, de-cluttering and organizing can have a huge positive impact on life. But the way this book approaches the topic is so silly and juvenile that I don’t understand why it’s a best seller. People: use your common sense and toss the things you don’t use that are cluttering up your life. Ok?

I wouldn’t be that harsh, and I would replace the word “silly” with “simple” and the word “juvenile” with the word “spiritualistic” but beyond that, it’s a decent summary.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Organization and tidying work best when you do everything in a category all at once.


Wild at Heart Revised and Updated: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Religious)

By: John Eldredge 

272 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If people frequently describe you as a nice guy, and you think that might be a bad thing, but you’re not sure what to do instead, then this would probably be a good book for you.

If you’re a Christian male, looking for advice on being a better man, this is a pretty good place to get that advice.

Representative passage:

One more thing, don’t even think about going into battle alone. Don’t even try to take the masculine journey without at least one man by your side. Yes, there are times a man must face the battle alone in the wee hours of the morn, and fight with all he’s got, but don’t make that a lifestyle of isolation. This may be our weakest point. As David Smith points out in the Friendless American Male, “One serious problem is the friendless condition of the average American male. Men find it hard to accept that they need the fellowship of other men.” Thanks to the men’s movement the church understands now that a man needs other men, but what we’ve offered is another two dimensional solution: accountability groups, or partners. Uh! That sounds so old covenant, you’re really a fool and you’re just waiting to rush into sin so we’d better post a guard by you to keep you in line.

We don’t need accountability groups. We need fellow warriors, someone to fight alongside, someone to watch our back! A young man just stopped me on the street to say, “I feel surrounded by enemies and I’m all alone.” The whole crisis in masculinity today, has come because we no longer have a warrior culture, a place for men to learn to fight, like men. We don’t need a meeting a really nice guys. We need a gathering of really dangerous men! 

Thoughts

It seems like everyone agrees that men have a problem. But beyond that the two diagnoses seem to end up drawing exactly opposite conclusions: One side thinks there’s too much masculinity in the world and one side thinks there’s too little. This book is firmly on the side of there being too little, and if you’re not ready to at least entertain the idea that this is in fact the case, you should definitely not read this book. For myself I am not only willing to entertain the idea, I actually embrace it, particularly when it comes to the importance of fathers. 

Beyond that the book says that men need three things:

  1. A battle to fight
  2. An adventure to live
  3. A beauty to rescue

Toss in a strong dose of Christianity, and that’s pretty much the whole book. I imagine most people are either going to love it or hate it.

Criticisms

As you may or may not have gathered, I’m fairly Christian myself, though of a different denomination (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints vs. evangelical) than the author, and despite that I came away feeling that the book may have benefitted from fewer overt references to theology and the devil, but some of that may be because of the differences between my theology and the author’s. 

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

The modern world is at war with masculinity, and that’s a bad thing.


A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

By: Nicholas Wade

288 pages

Format: Audio w/ physical book for reference

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you genuinely have an open mind, I think you would benefit from reading this book. 

Representative passage:

…On the basis of Pinker’s vast compilation of evidence, natural selection seems to have acted incessantly to soften the human temperament, from the earliest times until the most recent date for which there is meaningful data.

This is the conclusion that Pinker signals strongly to his readers. He notes that mice can be bread to be more aggressive in just five generations, evidence that the reverse process could occur just as speedily. He describes the human genes, such as the violence-promiting MAO-A mutation mentioned in chapter 3, that could easily be modulated so as to reduce aggressiveness. He mentions that violence is quite heritable, on the evidence from studies of twins, and so must have a genetic basis. He states that “nothing rules out the possibility that human populations have undergone some degree of biological evolution in recent millennia, or even centuries, long after races, ethnic groups, and nations diverged.”

But at the last moment, Pinker veers away from the conclusion… since many other traits have evolved more recently than that, why should human behavior be any exception? Well, says Pinker, it would be terribly inconvenient politically if this were so… 

Thoughts

This is one of those books that you can get in trouble for reading, and definitely get in trouble for writing. (Just ask Charles Murray.) Accordingly, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. Briefly, this is one of those books that posits a genetic component to racial differences in intelligence. It’s a book that is very critical of the idea that race is a social construct. Beyond that Wade goes even farther to theorize that much of culture is genetically based. Which is not that crazy of an idea if you also accept his assertion that evolution has been recent, copious and regional. But this leads to the distressing conclusion (among many distressing conclusions) that it’s possible that some ethnic groups may be genetically better at things like democracy and the rule of law than other ethnic groups. In just a few sentences I’ve assembled a whole bucket of fairly incendiary claims, so I’ll leave it at that.

Criticisms

I don’t have a lot of criticisms of this book, I’m glad it was written. It was, perhaps, a little dry, but also it’s yet one more work, where I felt it actually could have benefited from being longer, particularly given how controversial the subject is. But for those inclined to criticize it, I doubt even a thousand more pages would make much of a difference.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Evolution has been recent, copious and regional. Also race is real.


The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs

By: Ryan Holiday

224 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for an introduction to Stoicism, you could do a lot worse. 

If you believe in the power of books to change your attitude and you need a better attitude, this book might do exactly that.

Representative passage:

Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph?

Thoughts

From where I stand these days stoicism seems to be very much back in vogue, and Ryan Holiday has managed to maneuver himself into a position of being its chief evangelist. There’s a reason for this, he writes very compellingly on the subject. Also, while I imagine that Holiday, himself, might recommend going to the original sources first, like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Holiday is probably nearly as effective, and a whole lot more accessible. 

Criticisms

All of the above aside, you get the feeling that most of the things Holiday talks about have been well known for quite a while, and appeared in a lot of past self-help books. I think you’d be hard pressed to find something Holiday talks about which wasn’t also touched on in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It just wasn’t specifically labeled as stoicism. All of which is to say that I think what’s going through a surge in popularity is the stoic label, but that stoic philosophy has never really been out of fashion. And that most of the stuff Holiday advocates is less revolutionary than people might think.

Also while the numerous anecdotes are nice, and a good way of imparting principles, I think the book leaned a little too much on the anecdotes, and could have done more to illustrate how someone today would apply stoic principles. I’m a big advocate of the position that ancient philosophy is still useful, but it may not always be immediately apparent how to make use of it in a modern context.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Life is full of difficulties and we can only learn how to overcome those difficulties if we confront them and master them. Avoiding difficulties is the worst way to solve them.


Having tried this experiment for a few months I think going forward I’ll just review some of the books I read each month, rather than trying to review all of them. Also I may play with the formatting as well. If you disagree with this decision, let me know, And if you really disagree with the decision consider donating.