Month: <span>September 2020</span>

Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Problem With Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Books I Finished in August (of 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting for Stone by: Abraham Verghese

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


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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk 

By: Justin Tosi, Brandon Warmke

226 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Iain McGilchrist

588 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

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

By: John Coates

340 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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


Peace Talks (The Dresden Files, #16)

By: Jim Butcher

352 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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


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

By: Euripides

284 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cutting for Stone 

by: Abraham Verghese

658 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


III- Religious Reviews 

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

By: Francis A. Shaeffer 

288 Pages

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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


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