Month: <span>January 2021</span>

Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

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I.

My father spent many years working for himself as a management consultant. He wasn’t one of these people that advised CEOs on vision, instead his specialty was shiftwork. Companies that operated around the clock, 24 hours a day seven days a week. Quite frequently he ended up having to work with unions which was its own special brand of crazy, particularly if layoffs were involved.

During the winter of 1990, after the holiday rush was over, it was my turn to get laid off. Beyond all of the normal annoyances which accompany getting laid off, I was also annoyed because I felt that I had been laid off in favor of people who were worse than me at the job, but had greater seniority. So I asked my dad why companies did it that way. He explained: because it was a system which was easy to understand for all of the parties. Competence is fuzzy, and it can be hard to judge even if you’re not the person being judged, and no one has an accurate view of their own competence, but seniority is a bright line. Even if it has to come down to the difference of a few days, it’s clear who’s been working there longer. It’s clear to management, it’s clear to the person being laid off, and it’s clear to that person’s wife or husband. That last bit may be the most important of all, your significant other isn’t going to get angry about your lack of seniority, but they may get mad if they feel you were slacking off or alternatively if there was some favoritism involved. And, as we’ll get into, managing anger is a pretty important part of any process.

II.

Last week I was reminded of this story by an article Matthew Yglesias posted to the subscribers of his new newsletter, Slow Boring. The article was titled Making policy for a low-trust world. (Fortunately this was one of his public posts so you can easily read the whole thing if you want.) His subject is pretty clear from the title, and it touches on something real and pressing (moreso after the events of the 6th) how do you carry out policy when people don’t trust those in power? 

Yglesias offers up two options:

  1. Layer on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.”
  2. Fewer and far simpler rules or what Yglesias calls “it does exactly what it says on the tin” approach.

Yglesias favors that latter and offers up three steps for doing that:

  • It’s easy for everyone, whether they agree with you or disagree with you, to understand what it is you say you are doing.
  • It’s easy for everyone to see whether or not you are, in fact, doing what you said you would do.
  • It’s easy for you and your team to meet the goal of doing the thing that you said you would do.

The shorthand for these steps might be accessibility, accountability and achievability. (Yeah, I got cute and chose three words that began with “a”.) And Yglesias goes on to show what this looks like when applied to vaccine prioritization (he’s been a big proponent of simply prioritizing by age), the fiscal stimulus/PPP program, quantitative easing, and finally local infrastructure. It’s good stuff, (Tyler Cowen called it the best short essay of the year so far) and as I said it’s not paywalled so you should just go read it.

All that said, I want to take things in a somewhat different, and broader direction. First I should mention that I was saying something very similar in a post from 2017. (Truly I was ahead of my time.) Without getting too deep into the weeds (for that read the original post, I think it holds up really well) I was comparing the book Rationality: AI to Zombies (RAZ) something of a bible for rationalists and bayesians with the actual Bible. And basically arguing that RAZ and rationality in general were examples of Yglesias’ first option for dealing with the world. While they aren’t exactly making a compliance checklist (though I think some of that is in RAZ) they are trying to craft a decision framework for every eventuality. Contrariwise the Bible is an example of the second option. Obviously a totalizing religion is going to have a hard time always complying with all three of Yglesias’ steps, but it is pretty rare for someone to say they don’t understand Christianity (step 1-accessibility). And most people (especially non-Christians) feel perfectly comfortable identifying if someone is being Christian (step 2-accountability). Most of the trouble comes in the execution (step 3-achievability) which does create some unfortunate hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is not actually as bad as people want to claim.

All of the steps are important, but as you might have already guessed step 1, understanding the plan, is the most important not only because the remaining steps build on top of it, but also it’s the chief thing differentiating the two options. And it’s not even all of step one, within that step there is one word that’s more important than all the rest… “everyone”. In my aforementioned post, I pointed out that this was a key difference between rationality and Christianity. As an example of what I mean by this the story of someone in jail converting to Christianity or some other religion (see Malcolm X) is so common as to be a cliche. The story of someone reading the 2300 pages of RAZ and converting to bayesianism is so counterintuitive that I’m sure they could make a TV show out of it. Something similar to My Name is Earl (which was cancelled too soon by the way). In other words it’s not enough that your system is understood by bureaucrats, or people who’ve read the right hundred posts on social media (or 4chan) or the right 2300 page book. It has to be something everyone (or at least a percentage in the high 90’s) can understand.

III.

What’s interesting about Yglesias’ essay is that, despite the timing, he didn’t apply this framework to the election, which, for me, is the obvious place to do so. And you can see that this was basically what I was getting at in my post Voting as a Proxy For Power. I offered up three potential systems for deciding who had won. Which, if we restate them in Yglesias’ framework might look like this:

System 1: Elections as they are supposed to work

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to count up all the votes in the individual states, assign the electoral votes from that state to the one who got the most individual votes, and then whoever got the most electoral votes is president.
  2. Accountability: Each party gets to have observers at critical locations to confirm whether we did the above. (I understand that there are disputes about how well this worked, and in general step 2 in this system is weaker than I would like. But in theory counting votes should be something that can be transparent.)
  3. Achievability: Counting votes is a relatively straightforward exercise, and while it’s not unheard of for people to have questions (see hanging chads) nearly everyone feels confident about their ability to do it, and in fact the people who pushed back most vigorously on accusations that the election was stolen were frequently the election officials

System 2: Voting as a proxy for power

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to have a smooth, non-violent transition of power, as opposed to what happened historically.
  2. Accountability: We’re going to use voting and democracy to grant legitimacy to the person taking, or keeping that power. In a way that’s convincing (particularly to the elites in the media and government who are custodians of the power) even if it’s not perfect.
  3. Achievability: Everyone has done a good job if power is peacefully and smoothly transferred.

Once again the most difficulty comes on step two, but as you can see, this system is arguably actually even simpler and more straightforward than the first. Now let’s look at what Trump and his supporters actually tried:

System 3: Overturn the election by any means necessary

  1. Accessibility: We are going to get to the true winner of the election by uncovering proof, filing lawsuits, creating spreadsheets, tweeting out accusations, spreading innuendo, and crafting conspiracies. As a result of one or all of these plans the election will be given to Trump by the courts, or the state legislatures, or the Insurrection Act, or the military, or Mike Pence, or occupying the capital, or Trump himself in some bold stroke we didn’t even see.
  2. Accountability: Everyone can tell that it’s still working as long as any of the foregoing still has the slightest chance of working, and if all of them have been eliminated, then Trump supporters will provide you with six other possibilities you’ve never even heard of which are the real way to tell that it’s working, and unless every one of these possibilities has been made physically impossible by the laws of nature the plan is still working.
  3. Achievability: People working in this system should: Stop the count (except for a few days in AZ, in which case you should keep counting); release the Kraken; wait for the courts; wait for the state legislatures; watch Mike Pence; disregard everything that happened before January 6th (it’s all happening after that); gather in DC; storm the Capitol; wait for Trump’s instructions on Twitter; realize the video of Trump conceding on Twitter is a fake; and finally pay attention to the Emergency Broadcast System.

As you can see despite cramming this into Yglesias’ framework this is the first option he talked about, the idea of layering on more rules, though in this case they’re layering on every conceivable option so that no avenue for victory is left unexplored. And the point is, it’s so easy to convince yourself that this system has to work. That surely if you just account for every eventuality, mistakes won’t be made. Or if you pursue every possible avenue for victory one of them has to work out. But this is one of those times when no plan survives contact with the enemy. Your rules, checklists, and plans don’t exist in isolation, at some point they have to be understood and implemented. When the rubber actually hits the road, the additional complexity is a liability not an asset.

As we have seen in the days since the election, you can be the biggest Trump supporter there is, firmly believing in both his genius and in the fact that the election was stolen, and it still should be obvious at this point that the third system was never going to work because it entirely ignored the all important task of being something everyone could understand. And not merely does it need to be something your supporters can understand, it needs to be straightforward to understand and implement for all of the organizations you need to have on your side to be President when the smoke clears (regardless of whether it’s an election or a revolution/coup). The military can easily understand systems one and two, but even if you assume that they’re mostly on Trump’s side, how are they going to enact system three? Are you sure they’re not going to be confused by Christopher Miller, the acting Secretary of Defence, the guy Trump put in after the election (according to his supporters as part of the whole secret plan) saying:

I strongly condemn these acts of violence against our democracy. I, and the people I lead in the Department of Defense, continue to perform our duties in accordance with our oath of office, and will execute the time-honored peaceful transition of power to President-elect Biden on January 20.

How is anyone trying to execute on system three not going to be confused by that? Trump and his followers have weaponized complexity, but they haven’t figured out how to target anything with it yet.

Okay, as you might be able to tell I’m a little annoyed. And to be fair complexity has been weaponized for a long time, it might in fact be a serviceable definition of postmodernism. But we’ve certainly reached some kind of landmark.

Before I move on, a few notes about stability and history. First off I think we’ve had stability for so long that most people don’t realize how bad a non-peaceful transfer of power is. So let me be clear, I have strong misgivings about Biden, and Democrats, and progressives, and wokeism, and policies like student loan forgiveness, and reparations, etc. etc. But I would take Biden with a filibuster proof Senate majority composed entirely of Andrea Ocasio Cortez clones over full on civil war which ends up being as bad or worse than the last one. And I’d certainly take what we ended up with (President Biden and Democratic control of the Senate) over a repeat of the violence of the late 60’s/early 70s. For example 1972 when there were 1900 domestic bombings. Now unfortunately we may get both but I don’t think storming the Capitol made either Biden’s presidency or domestic terror less likely. 

On the other side of the coin people forget how difficult it is to actually pull off a coup or a revolution. I think people imagine that the French Revolution, for example, looked similar to last Wednesday’s march on the Capitol. That some people spontaneously rose up, and the next thing you know the whole government had changed. One day there was the monarchy and the next there wasn’t. But in reality the revolution was largely a very gradual process whereby the Estates General was replaced by the National Assembly which was replaced by the National Constituent Assembly which was replaced by the Legislative Assembly, and so forth and so on until eventually ten years later you get Napoleon, and for the first three years of that period the King was still around.

Mostly I point all of this out to add another angle on how dumb Trump’s plan really was. Not only was it very unlikely to work, it would have been horrible if it had.

IV.

Perhaps, despite its appropriateness, you’ve noticed that I’ve avoided using the word “legible”, as in “Yglesias is contending that policies need to be legible”, which I’ve expanded to the idea that “the transfer of power should be legible”. Even though it’s basically the perfect word to describe what he and I are talking about. I’ve avoided using that word because this post unfortunately fell immediately after my review of Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. which is critical of the idea of trying to impose legibility on a natural system. And thus that word, right at this moment, has some baggage, and I wanted to make sure I’d laid the foundation of my thinking before I introduced it. But I do think we should consider Scott and the claims made in Seeing Like a State when discussing Yglesias’ framework, because it’s important to identify when “legibility” is a problem and when it’s an asset. 

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that there’s a great deal of difference between efforts to make the citizenry legible to the state as opposed to making the state legible to the citizenry. In the former case the benefits accrue to the state, and in the latter they accrue to the citizenry and I’m almost exclusively talking about the latter.

Additionally, legibility is one of those things where you should apply as much as is needed but no more. In a sense it’s closely related to the idea of subsidiarity, that programs should be implemented as close to the problem and the people affected as possible. Legibility should be as close as possible to the way nature already works. 

It might help to think of there being three possible levels:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

As it says in the Federalist papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Which get’s at the first and third levels. If men could be trusted to behave without any government that would be the best solution, and this is the state of nature as described by Scott, and the philosophy of anarchists and libertarians (though to different degrees). If on the other hand angels were to govern men, then we could give them control of everything knowing that we would never need to second guess them, and it wouldn’t matter how complicated those controls became. But since there are no angels in sight, the middle ends up being the goldilocks spot described by Yglesias where there are rules and policies, but they’re easy to understand. They’re legible but not complicated.

As I was working through this post it occurred to me that Yglesias’ framework can be applied to the recent reckoning on race, though I’m sure he’d probably rather not go there, and even I am only mentioning it as an observation rather than any kind of recommendation. 

What I’ve noticed is that as things have progressed since the death of George Floyd, the complexities of race have become very apparent. A few examples: There’s been a tendency to separate people as being either white or people of color (POC) and yet Asians who would be considered POC have much higher median household incomes than white americans. Affirmative action largely benefits people who are already in the upper middle class rather than minorities that are truly disadvantaged. When it comes to reparations there are all sorts of complexities. Does Oprah get reparations? Do people who recently immigrated from Africa, and have no enslaved ancestors get reparations? And what about the Native Americans?

I’m not saying these problems are insuperable, I’m just pointing out that they lead to exactly the sort of rules layering that Yglesias pointed to as being bad. On the other hand, the old standard of being completely colorblind is legible, straightforward and a perfect example of Yglesias’ criteria. But as I said I’m merely observing, not recommending.

V.

After taking the Yglesias framework up a level, and using it to consider the recent unpleasantness (i.e. from policies to the choosing of people to enact those policies). I think we can take it even one step higher, to the level of values.

As I was working my way through all of this I was reminded of my post on the justice/mercy dichotomy. As usual when I wander this far afield everything I say is pretty speculative, but I once again see a situation where there’s too much focus on justice and not nearly enough focus on mercy. To begin with, while I understand it’s hard for some people to understand, the riot that happened last week, insofar as it had a motive other than “riot tourism” (I forget where I saw that phrase but it seems apt) was motivated by justice. All or nearly all of those people are convinced, deep in their bones, that the election was stolen. That Trump actually won, but the Deep State contrived to make it appear as if he had lost. That if they had been able to sway enough of the senators to change the outcome of the electoral vote counting and give Trump the win, that this would have been just and proper. Now you can go back and read the previous post if you want an explanation for all the reasons why the modern world has made this path particularly easy to follow, and not just for Trump Supporters. So to an extent everyone is obsessed with justice. The problem is that justice and mercy are opposed. You can’t have both. And what we needed last week, and really since the election is more mercy.

Of course calls for the left/Biden Administration/institutions to be merciful to Trump supporters are legion. And while I think that’s an area where we should err on the side of mercy, in this space I’m going to argue that actually it’s Trump and his supporters who need to be more merciful. I understand that some people don’t think that’s possible. They think mercy is something that can only be granted by the people in power to the people who aren’t in power. But in reality mercy can operate even if you’re the weaker party. As long as you have some power you can decide to forgo using it and exercise mercy. Even if you have less power than your opponent, as long as you have any power you can use it to cause harm. Deciding to not to is an act of mercy. As such, conceding is an act of mercy, directed both at the other side (even though they won) and at the nation as a whole. And it’s actually more important if you think justice has not been served. Anyone can be merciful if they think they’re in the wrong, it’s being merciful when you think justice is on your side that poses all of the difficulties. 

So what does all of this have to do with legibility vs. complexity? I would argue that mercy is legible. Forgiveness is easy to understand. On the other hand justice, true justice, is enormously complicated. And I’m not arguing that we should abandon our quest for justice. I’m just pointing out that when Yglesias was calling for a framework that could easily be understood that he was also calling for mercy. 

As I’ve said this is all on the highly speculative end of things. And I can completely understand that in calling for mercy, particularly from the weaker party, I am in a sense calling for people to accept some injustice, and of the worst kind too: that committed by the strong against the weak. But perhaps, by flipping the framing such that Trump supporters are the ones who are being asked to meekly submit to injustices (whether perceived or real) and to do so for the good of the country, those most inclined to object to my conclusion might be induced to see that it contains a sliver of wisdom.


Perhaps the appeals I make at the end of every post also suffer from the weakness of being too complicated, so let me try Yglesias’ framework:

  1. I’m asking for money so I can prove to my wife that I’m not wasting my time.
  2. You’ll know it’s working by my periodic mentions of having a wife in the present tense.
  3. You can execute on this plan by going to https://patreon.com/jeremiah820 and clicking on one of the “Join” buttons.

The 10 Books I Finished in December (Along With One I Didn’t)

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  1. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by: James C. Scott
  2. Status Anxiety by: Alain de Botton
  3. Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World by: Chris Wallace
  4. Enemy At the Gates by: William Craig
  5. Necroscope by: Brian Lumley
  6. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by: John McPhee
  7. Bang For Your Buck by: Stefan Gasic
  8. The Darkest Winter by: Nick Johns
  9. C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Book of Mormon Made Harder by: James E. Faulconer
  11. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion by: Sterling M. McMurrin

Thanks to all the people who reached out and offered their well wishes about my mother. That was exceptionally kind. She’s doing much better, and has been home for awhile, though she’s still on a feeding tube because the doctors aren’t convinced that her pancreas has completely calmed down yet. But everything still seems headed in the right direction, so that’s good. And thus far she’s been able to avoid getting COVID which may be the most important thing of all. 

It’s the New Year, which is the generally accepted time for making resolutions. If you caught my last post you saw that I’m making some changes to the blog in general, but this seems the space to talk about changes I’m making to my reading ambitions. My first goal is to not start any new series until I’ve finished some of the one’s I’ve already started. Second, I’ve realized that, when studying history, it’s useful to really immerse yourself in a particular time in history or a particular historical thread. That it’s by really diving deep that you finally see patterns and people. And so while this resolution won’t preclude reading other history, I thought it might be nice to choose a historical focus for each year, something to really sink my teeth into. Last year basically ended up being World War I. This year I was thinking about doing the Romanovs. In particular, Robert K. Massie, has a four volume series running from Peter the Great up through the revolution that looks quite fantastic. I really enjoyed his books Dreadnought and Castles of Steel about the British and German naval rivalry up to and through World War I, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this other series as well. (And yes I’m aware that this is a new series which contradicts my first resolution, but this is one of those cases where the specific overrides the general.)


I- Eschatological Reviews

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

by: James C. Scott

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book about “high modernity”, the idea that through the powers of pure reason we can figure out the best way to do things like: build a city, grow food, or manage the citizenry. In particular how these ideas and tasks are implemented via state power.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dry book, and while the content is super important, I’m not convinced it’s necessary to read the whole thing in order to absorb that importance. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex did a fantastic review and I would recommend reading that, and hopefully my review, and only then if your curiosity and passion have not yet been quenched go on to read the entire book. 

General Thoughts

This book, with its descriptions of the various methods governments have applied to manage an essentially chaotic world, seems to follow naturally from the hypothesis that the modern world is suffering from an overactive left hemisphere, which appeared previously in this space, when I discussed another book, The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. That book and the associated hypothesis are not mentioned by Scott, though if you keep that hypothesis in mind when reading it, Seeing Like a State ends up looking very much like a catalog of symptoms to go along with McGilchrist’s underlying disease. An exhaustive description of the damage that has been wrought by an overactive left hemisphere in the form of social engineering. Such social engineering is generally implemented through the mechanism of the state, and can be broken out into four parts:

  • A desire for legibility: This desire mostly comes because the government needs to raise money, and that’s much easier to do if you know what money there is and who has it.
  • The faith that you can make things legible: This is the essence of High Modernism, which Scott defines as “a muscular confidence in science and technical progress”.
  • The ability to enforce legibility: The existence of a strong state is necessary to even start the process.
  • A society which is too weak to resist the foregoing: Which seems like a repeat of the last point, but these efforts still work best if you have a thoroughly exhausted or cowed population, say after a big war.

The problem with all of these efforts, beyond just the violations of liberty they entail, is that it drives people to focus on those areas which can easily be made legible, i.e. measured, while ignoring those things that can’t. At its most arrogant, this is because the architects of these solutions are convinced that no measurement is necessary because through the powers of pure reason all of the problems have been solved. Those who are more humble recognize the need for measurement, but still fail to recognize both the limitations of their measurements and the way in which those measurements distort the endeavor.

All of these factors are illustrated in the example Scott opens with: scientific forestry, as practiced by Prussia and Saxony in the late eighteenth-century. At the time timber was of surpassing importance, and used for all sorts of things from fuel to ship-building. Recognizing this importance the government felt that they could increase the supply of timber by making the forests more scientific, i.e. legible. To do this they reduced everything about the forest to a single goal: “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood”. (Emphasis original) This focus resulted in clearing the old forest and replacing it with neat and orderly rows of Norway spruces or Scotch pines—since those trees (naively) best met their metric. As you can imagine this system ignored all of the many other things the peasants used the forest for: grazing, food, raw materials (like thatch for roofs) and medicines. 

Eschatological Implications

But more importantly it ignored and disrupted the ecology of the forest. This disruption didn’t happen immediately. In fact, it took about 100 years for the full extent of the disruption to manifest. Initially, the whole thing appeared to be a resounding success. The first generation of these “scientifically” planted forests did amazingly well, as they benefited from all of the nutrition and none of the competition. But by the second and third generations, the lack of new nutrients, along with a host of other problems, ended up fatally undermining the forests, in some cases outright killing them (they had to coin a term for it, Waldsterben). In the end, “scientific” forestry proved to be a disastrous idea even when judged by the narrow standards they had set, to say nothing of all the broader effects. All of this didn’t surprise me and it probably didn’t surprise you, but there are a couple of points that deserve particular emphasis: first that it initially worked, and second that it took so long for the ultimate failure of the idea to become apparent.

Are we currently attempting any similar experiments in imposing rationality on some natural system? Almost certainly, though a lot of what we do is difficult to classify, particularly when you’re talking about changing human behavior. How much is natural and how much is learned? If we are engaged in any such efforts, it’s probably very important to keep in mind the two points I just mentioned: It might initially look like our efforts are a great success, and it might take a long time to find out that we’ve actually made the problem much, much worse.

It might help to have an example, so I’ll wrap things up with one that occurred to me. I am not saying this is what’s happening only that if it is what’s happening this might be how it played out:

We are engaged in an effort at managing the citizenry. In particular we want to reduce racism. Those people who aren’t racist represent the clean well planted lines of Norway spruces. While those people who are a little bit racist represent the old growth forest. Initially it’s easy to clear the forest, broad laws are enacted killing the biggest offenders: businesses and institutions, but getting all of the underbrush proves difficult. Initially, just accusing someone of being a racist generally works, but after a while it becomes apparent that certain species of planets have developed a tolerance to this “herbicide”, and more and more drastic measures need to be taken. Meanwhile with less competition from other plants, the nastiest plants start spreading, but also the spruces don’t seem to be doing so well either. Rather than being naturally healthy and productive it takes greater and greater effort to fertilize them and keep them healthy. And in the end, not only do you end up with two divergent monocultures, but both are at the extreme ends of things

This may not bear any resemblance to what’s happening, and to truly extend the analogy we’d have to add in elements like social media, and politics, but as analogies go, this one has a lot to recommend it.


Status Anxiety

by: Alain de Botton

306 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The pivotal importance of status in human society. How recent developments have upset the previous status equilibrium and how that equilibrium might be restored.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty short book on a pretty important topic. If the description of the content resonates with you at all I would recommend reading this book. 

General Thoughts

De Botton starts his argument by asserting that our perception of poverty, failure and inequality has changed. That the stories which formed the dominant narrative of status in the Christian West from the moment it became Christian, all the way up until the middle of the 20th century, have recently completely flipped, such that poverty, failure and inequality are viewed exactly the opposite of how they once were. And while it was only in the last century that these new narratives became ascendent, de Botton asserts that the change began in 1776. That’s the first time status went from being based on a fairly rigid class structure to something you could earn, largely through the possession of money but also merit. And it started us on a path of rejecting the old stories and substituting the new. Those old stories were:

  1. The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  2. Low status has no moral connotation
  3. The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor. (A view most prevalent between 1754 and 1989)

The three old stories were replaced by three new stories, where the exact opposite is claimed:

  1. The rich are the useful one’s not the poor (a position commonly associated with Adam Smith)
  2. Status does have moral connotations (i.e. the concept of a meritocracy)
  3. The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity (the idea of prosperity gospel, and, for a time, Social Darwinism)

Now I think reducing everything to these three new stories overlooks a host of complexities. Obviously some people still believe in the old stories, and even those people who are accused of believing the new stories will still put a farmer ahead of Jeff Bezos in their moral hierarchy. But as an explanation just of status, it explains a lot. Particularly how each of these new stories end up maximizing our anxiety around status.

To put it another way, status, self-esteem and identity, now rarely depend on the role you were born into and the community you grew up in. Instead all three depend on your “performance in a fast-moving and implacable economy.” And that dependence is multi-faceted. Your success requires a combination of:

  • Talent, which is fickle
  • Luck, which is random
  • Your employer’s whim’s
  • Your employer’s profitability
  • The global economy

As a way of quantifying these factors along with the influence of the modern “stories”, de Botton offers the following formula:

Self-esteem = Success/Pretension

Out of all this we can start drawing some conclusions. First, while I definitely think we still need a generous helping of the first set of stories, I’m not sure that the second set of stories were all bad. In fact it seems that if pretension stays relatively constant, and success is manageable, tying it to self-esteem may be a good thing. It may in fact be argued, as many people have, that the way capitalism harnesses our drive for status and self-esteem has led to enormous increases in the standard of living, and to significant progress in general. But as I said this is easier to pull off if pretension is kept constant and success is within reach. However, as is so often the case, social media has completely changed that equation. Our pretension is fueled not just by our local community, but by everyone social media allows us to interact with from the high school classmate that’s moderately more successful than we are, but who we wouldn’t be aware of in a previous age, to instagram influencers showing us the inner workings of lives we previously wouldn’t even have been able to imagine, but to which we now have ring side seats. 

On the other side of the equation, the level of success any given person feels has also decreased. The mechanisms are similar, though I think they somewhat predate the rise of social media. There was a time when you were considered a success if you had just graduated from college, but this turned into needing to go to a good college, and then one of the best colleges, and then getting a great job, etc. This is also a huge topic with lots of additional complexity that I’m just glossing over, but it seems clear that over the last few decades success in a relative sense has become far more difficult to achieve.

When we combine increased pretension with decreased success we end up with low self-esteem, which is essentially status anxiety.

Eschatological Implications

Nothing about current trends gives me much hope that this problem will get better in the future, which means the best course of action is to figure out how to mitigate this status anxiety. What tools are available to make us care less about success and be less pretentious. The book explores five possibilities:

  1. Philosophy
  2. Art
  3. Politics
  4. Religion
  5. Bohemia

Let’s quickly examine each of them:

Philosophy: As de Botton says, “Philosophy is what allows you to interpose reason in between other’s opinion of you and your self image.” And certainly I think status anxiety has been one of the things driving the renewed popularity of Stoicism. That said, I don’t think people cultivate a philosophy as such or really any philosophy at all.

Art: Here de Botton claims that, “Art is what reverses the new stories of failure back to the old stories of failure.” Once again this is useful, but I think for art to be an antidote to status anxiety it can’t be superficial, and I’m reasonably certain that at the moment superficial art is outcompeting the kind of art de Botton is recommending.

Politics: It seems clear that whatever power politics once possessed at reducing status anxiety, it has that power no longer. 

Religion: Religion seems to take all of the best aspects of the first three options and combines them into the perfect anti-status anxiety package. Religion is philosophy, but of a form that’s palatable to everyone. It’s art, but only of the profoundest sort. It’s politics, but with a focus on service rather than competition or power. None of which is to say that religion doesn’t have all manner of issues, but when compared with the other options it seems clearly superior. Nor should the supernatural elements of religion be overlooked. As de Botton says in the book:

But when belief in an afterlife is dismissed as a childish and scientifically impossible opiate, the pressure to succeed and find fulfillment will inevitably be intensified by the awareness that one has only a single and frighteningly fleeting opportunity to do so. In such a context, earthly achievements can no longer be seen as an overture to what one may realize in another world; rather, they are the sum total of all that one will ever amount to.

Bohemia: If religion is the best option, bohemianism seems to be the one that’s the most popular. But while it appears reasonably effective at rejecting pretension and conventional definitions of success, it doesn’t strike me as being very good at creating something to take their place. Meaning, as far as I can see, while there are a lot of casual bohemians, I think there are very few true bohemians. Certainly far less than the number of true believers. And my sense is to really reduce status anxiety being a casual bohemian doesn’t cut it. On the other hand religion would appear to have some utility at nearly every level of belief.


II- Capsule Reviews

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World 

By: Chris Wallace

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The final days of the Manhattan Project and Truman’s decision to use the bomb.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the story behind the dropping of atomic bombs at the end of World War II then this is a pretty good book for that, though if you were only going to read one book I would recommend The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes instead. The advantages of this book would be that it’s shorter and has more details on Truman and how he grappled with authorizing the use of the bomb.

General Thoughts

As you can see from the title this is a book about the 116 days immediately preceding the bombing of Hiroshima, and all the people whose efforts contributed to that event: the amazingly skilled pilots, the women working at the Oak Ridge plant refining uranium, the scientists who were worried about whether it would actually work, the little girl who was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and above it all, Truman. Who went in a very short time from not even knowing the bomb existed to having to decide whether to use it. While at the same time trying to fill all the other huge holes left by FDR’s death.

It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, and Wallace crafts it into a compelling narrative. Though the aspect that resonated with me the most was how much the Manhattan Project ends up being a microcosm of the entire American experience of World War II, and the wars since then. It is not my intention to argue that the US had it easy during the war. Obviously lots of people died and many sacrifices were made. But it was still a very different endeavor for the Americans than for any of the other belligerent nations, and the Manhattan Project is the prime example of that. In the course of the project whole towns were constructed, and then, in the case of Los Alamos, staffed by the most brilliant minds of that, or really any other era. Billions of dollars were spent, and tens of thousands of people were employed. As one example, to make sure everything went smoothly they took some of the very best pilots and put them into a special unit dedicated just to dropping the atomic bomb, and then gave them months of practice time to perfect that one mission. No other belligerent could have done any of these things, let alone all of them. 

I bring all this up because of another book I read this month, Enemy at the Gates, which is the story of the Battle of Stalingrad. The contrast between the two stories, though both took place during World War II, couldn’t be more stark, and it occurred to me that if the Manhattan Project is an analogy for the American experience of war, that Stalingrad is the analogy of the war for just about everyone else, certainly the Germans, Russians and Japanese, but even, though to a lesser extent, the British.

Countdown 1945 is in many ways a book about how lucky we’ve been, and how easy we’ve had it. The question is can our luck continue to hold? Either through the absence of war or being lucky with wars that are far away, and against opponents where our technology and industrial strength are overwhelmingly superior. I’ve always thought that the answer is probably no, our luck won’t continue forever. And at its core what Countdown 1945 is mostly about is a different era. One we won’t ever see again.


Enemy At the Gates 

by: William Craig

460 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Battle of Stalingrad. You might be familiar with the 2001 movie of the same name about a sniper duel during that battle, but if that’s what you were expecting, the story of the snipers is only a very small part of a horrifically bloody battle.

Who should read this book?

This is another great historical book about an amazing historical event. The kind of book that makes me wonder why I read anything but history. If you like history at all you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

The Battle of Stalingrad represents part of World War II and indeed part of war in general that the US has never really experienced. At least not since the Civil War, and probably not ever, particularly when you’re talking about the civilian experience of war as opposed to the military experience. From the book:

As for the civilian population of [Stalingrad], a prewar census listed more than 500,000 people prior to the outbreak of World War II. This number increased as a flood of refugees poured into the city from other areas of Russia that were in danger of being overrun by the Germans. A portion of Stalingrad’s citizens were evacuated prior to the first German attack but 40,000 civilians were known to have died in the first two days of bombing in the city. No one knows how many died on the barricades or in the antitank ditches or in the surrounding steppes. Official records show only one stark fact: after the battle ended, a census found only 1,515 people who had lived in Stalingrad in 1942.

Those are pretty staggering numbers particularly when viewed as a percentage. No matter how optimistic you are about the initial evacuation and other mitigating factors it seems hard to imagine that more than about 20% of the pre-war civilian population survived the battle, and it could easily be as low as 2%. As bad as Stalingrad was it was only a small part of the overall horror of the eastern front. Again just speaking of civilian fatalities it’s estimated that 13.6 million died on the Soviet side. Perhaps the actual number is lower, but no one thinks that it’s much lower. 

Now, compare all of this with US civilian fatalities during World War II, which amounted to 12,100 people. Which is less than the documented civilian deaths in the first day of Stalingrad. And of those 12,000, three-fourths were in the merchant marines, so not exactly the women and children people generally imagine when they think of civilian casualties. As traumatic as Pearl Harbor was for the nation, only 66 civilians died in that attack. 

From a military perspective the US was not quite so lucky, and some of the beach landings, particularly in the Pacific were especially horrific, but even here the disparity is stark. The US had 400,000 military deaths. Germany (a nation significantly smaller than the US) had 4.4 million and the Soviet Union had 8.8 million deaths. And the latter two numbers are on the low end of the estimates.

In addition to the two books I read last month which touched on this subject I also heard a talk in church which tied into things. It was an older gentleman and as part of the talk he told the story of his father’s experiences during World War II. As part of his story he read a letter from his father which had been written on Christmas 1943. His father, an anti-aircraft specialist in the Pacific Theatre, was bemoaning the fact that his Christmas gifts had not yet arrived. The gentleman said that as he considered this story about his father he was moved to ask, “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” 

That question is actually the same question I have as well, though on a much larger scale. How much suffering could we as a people endure? What would Americans do if we are ever confronted with war as terrible as that waged by the Germans and Russians in the streets of Stalingrad? Could we endure it? Would we rise to the occasion? Or would we collapse?

The year before this man’s father wrote that letter, Christmas of 1942, the Germans at Stalingrad had been encircled and their Italian, Romanian and Hungarian allies were already being carted off to brutal Siberian POW camps where cannibalism would become the norm. Long before Christmas of 1943 the Germans would have joined them, and they’d have a lot more to complain about than tardy gifts. Out of three million German POWs, 1 million would die, and 1 million would still be in these camps as of 1946. So the answer to the question “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” I don’t know, but for lots of other people in World War II the answer was a nearly unimaginable amount. 

I suspect that his father and the rest of the US military would have been able to endure that suffering. Fortunately the Manhattan Project meant that we never found out. That we don’t have stories of the horrible Battle of Tokyo to set alongside stories from the Battle of Stalingrad. The question is not whether 1940’s USA could have endured it, the question is whether 2020’s USA can. Let us hope we never have to find out.


Necroscope

By: Brian Lumley

400 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young man who can speak with the dead gets entangled in the cold war battle between British and Soviet paranormal espionage agencies.

Who should read this book?

I don’t know that I’m the best person to comment on this. Necrosope was first published in 1986, and is the first book in a series which ended up at 18 volumes. So I would not be offering advice merely on this book, but in a sense commenting on the whole series which I am ill-equipped to do. I will say that reading this book did not immediately fill me with the need to read the next book in the series.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t blow-away by it. There was too little urban fantasy and too much urban horror for my tastes. Also the best part of a book like this: one in which a young person discovers that they’re different, that they have powers that most people don’t, that they’re part of an ancient and secret world, etc. Is getting to be inside their head and experience their amazement as this world is revealed. Necroscope more or less entirely skips that part of the story, which ends up being my biggest criticism of the book. I guess the only additional thing I have to add is that the book is supposed to be vaguely Lovecraftian. I only came across this information after finishing the book. I think, had I gone into it with that knowledge, it would have improved the story.


Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 

by: John McPhee

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Draft No. 4 is a series of autobiographical essays about the process of writing. 

Who should read this book?

Not me, I didn’t finish it. I suppose if you’re a big fan of McPhee you’ll probably enjoy the various vignettes, but I found it to be heavy on the memoir and light on the practical advice.

General Thoughts

From time to time books get added to my list because I hope they’ll improve my writing. This was one of those books, and it’s possible that if I hadn’t expected it to fulfill such a specific role that I might have enjoyed it. But after getting pretty far into things and discovering very little practical writing advice, my initial expectation had already hardened too much to switch to considering it as a delightful collection of stories about writing. Consequently I ended up setting it aside.

Lest there be any mistake, he does talk at great length about how he writes. But he doesn’t put much effort into generalizing his writing methodology into usable advice. And in fact some of his writing methodology is so specific that it would be impossible to implement. For example he spends an entire chapter talking about KEdit. An ancient program that was heavily customized for him by a now deceased colleague, which apparently has a user base of McPhee and maybe five other people. I guess if you squint, this does translate to a general lesson of “customize your tools”, but following his advice any more closely is essentially impossible. Which is to say lots of people are looking for advice on writing tools McPhee’s is, “Well I recommend a piece of software you’ve never heard of, can’t get, and which is only really useful with a ton of customization I can’t even talk you through because someone else did it for me and they’re dead.” 

I’m sure all of this will come across as some talentless amateur being too stupid to recognize the genius of one of the greatest writers of our age, and perhaps it is. Mostly what I’m trying to get across is that should you decide to read it, it’s best to go in thinking it’s a charming collection of anecdotes on the subject of writing. Not a how-to book.


Bang For Your Buck 

by: Stefan Gasic

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a collection of comics about investing inspired by the attitudes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Who should read this book?

If you like Taleb’s stuff or if you just have a general disdain for conventional investing and economics you’ll probably enjoy these comics.

General Thoughts

Nothing in this collection was uproariously funny, but there were bits that were clever, and he does really accurately nail the idiocy of some of the usual suspects like naive economists and brain-dead investment bros. I would go on, but this post is already huge and I still have four books left.


The Darkest Winter

by: Nick Johns

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A massive foreign hacker attack takes down power to the eastern seaboard in such a way that it will be weeks if not months before it’s restored.

Who should read this book?

I like fiction about potential future catastrophes, and for a first time author (which is what Johns is) this is pretty good. (Make what you will of the fact that I finished this, but not the McPhee book.)

General Thoughts

As I said this was a decent book, but the fact that Johns is a first time author is pretty apparent. The book drifted a lot into cliche, both in plot and characterization. You had the computer nerd who doesn’t know how to survive without his tech, the battered but defiant female. Some prepper red neck types. On the plot side society decides into anarchy surprisingly quickly, and yet in the midst of this anarchy the protagonist is constantly worried that when the smoke clears CSI is going to come in solve all of the crimes he ends up committing and put him in jail. 

In short, it had some great scenes and some decent characters, but taken as a whole it was pretty uneven.


III- Religious Reviews

C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces

By: C. S. Lewis

894 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of short pieces by C. S. Lewis. Mostly with a religious angle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all a fan of Lewis this is a great collection. It’s pretty expensive in print, but it is available on Audible, and the narrator is fantastic.

General Thoughts

I listened to this once on Audible and was impressed enough that I wanted both to re-read it and have a physical copy. My wife shelled out the $100 to get it for me a couple of Christmases ago, and this last year I selected it as one of the books I would read a few pages of every day (see the quote collections from my last review post). 

On this read through I was impressed by how prescient he was. He foresaw the danger of ideological echo chambers, the debates over the utility of prisons, the tension between justice and mercy, and attacks against liberal education:

Democratic education, says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy. Until we have realised that the two things do not necessarily go together we cannot think clearly about education.

If you have ever read any of Lewis’ essays—or seen them, the CSLewisDoodle channel on YouTube is fantastic—then this is all of them wrapped into one glorious package.


Book of Mormon Made Harder 

by: James E. Faulconer

384 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is a collection of penetrating questions about the Book of Mormon designed to be used during a year-long course of study.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’ve studied the Book of Mormon many times over the years and you’re looking for a new way to approach it this is a pretty good way of getting that.

General Thoughts

This is the last of the four books I read over the course of the whole year, but out of all of them this is the only book specifically designed to be read that way. It has chapters corresponding to the old set of 48 weekly Book of Mormon lessons which was recently changed with the Come Follow Me curriculum. But as it turns out the divisions didn’t change that much, so on a week by week basis things still match up pretty well.

Faulconer doesn’t cover every chapter, and some he covers in far more depth than others, and, this is the big part, he doesn’t really give you much in the way of new information, nearly all of the content consists of questions for you to ponder as you read. Thus the title of the book. He’s not trying to smooth out the road and make things easier he’s trying to get you to work harder at really engaging with the text. I confess personally that I could have done better with that. Many days reading this book was just something to check off my to-do list, but on those times where I did really engage it was very rewarding.


The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

by: Sterling M. McMurrin

184 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book that goes through most if not all of the big questions in theology—original sin, salvation by grace, the problem of evil—and shows how Mormon theology provides particularly satisfying answers to all of them.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dense book, and to fully appreciate it you either need a decent background in Mormon Theology and philosophy or a really deep knowledge of general Christian theology. But if you have one of those, or the discipline to look up what you don’t understand (something I resorted to on occasion) then this is a very interesting and illuminating book.

General Thoughts

In the book’s introductory essay, by L. Jackson Newell, the story is related of McMurrin being asked whether he was an atheist. McMurrin responded by quoting Bertrand Russell, who when asked a similar question, responded that he leaned towards atheism. McMurrin then went on to say, “I’m on that knife edge with Russell, but I lean toward theism.” I bring this up to point out that McMurrin was not some hardcore Mormon apologist. I would characterize him more as a sober student of philosophy and religion who happened to have an intimate acquaintance with Mormon theology having grown up in the religion and nominally continuing to belong to the church, though definitely as more of a gadfly than a leader. He was also Commissioner for Education for a couple of years under Kennedy, so he possessed at least enough mainstream credibility to be selected for that post. Bottom line for those who may fall into the later category of potential readers, someone with a general background in theology, but no specific experience with Mormonism, who may be on the fence about picking up this book, I predict it will be more objective and more scholarly than you think.

Beyond that as I said it’s a very dense book, and I really need to wrap up this exceptionally long post, so I’ll end with just a couple of quotes that I thought were particularly good:

But it is the task of religion to achieve in men that nobility of character that enables them not only to live through their severest adversity but at times even to accomplish that divine alchemy whereby they transmute loss and sorrow and tragedy into some moral good for the universe. 

My thesis is a very simple one: That the philosopher’s God, who is the explanation of the world, need not be a person; and the sanction of moral virtue need not be a personal God; but that the God of religion is a person.


When I was younger I read a lot of Tom Clancy, and I noticed that everytime a new book came out it was longer than one before. At the time I assumed it was a problem of editing, that the more successful he became the harder he was to edit. But now I notice it happening to me, and I’ve never done any editing other than self editing (at least in this space). Perhaps the length corresponds to my increasingly infantile desperation to be noticed, that it’s a sort of “Look at me! Look at me!” at ever increasing volume. If you want to help me quiet those inner demons, consider donating