Month: <span>October 2021</span>

Government Spending and Skin in the Game

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Last time I talked about some ideas from Nassim Taleb’s underrated book Skin in the Game. These were ideas which I believe had been overlooked by most of the people reading or reviewing the book, ideas which I kept coming back to. What I didn’t cover was his central idea, the one that gave the book it’s title. 

And I had not intended to talk about it this time either. In fact, If I’m completely honest I didn’t even notice the connection until I was most of the way through with writing this post. (And if it seems unusually delayed, that’s part of the reason, that plus travel and book writing.) I had initially organized the post around the idea of inflection points. But once I was nearly done I realized that all of the inflection points I had mentioned were unified by a single phenomena: people no longer have “skin in the game”. In some respects the meaning of this phrase and the effects of this lack probably seems self-evident. In other respects it’s a very subtle idea, and hopefully we will uncover some of these subtleties in the course of the post. 

As a first illustration of what I mean, let’s go back to 2012, when Mitt Romney said the following in the course of his campaign for President:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives… These are people who pay no income tax.

Romney did not intend this for public consumption. He was speaking at a private fund-raiser, but as is so often the case, video of the speech was leaked, and this particular statement came across as being especially inflammatory. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that it was singularly responsible for him losing the election, but it certainly didn’t help. However I’ve always thought that buried in this statement lies a very important point, a point about who has skin in the game and who doesn’t.

To begin with, everyone agrees with Romney’s numbers. In 2011 47 percent of people did not, in fact, pay any income taxes. And while it was unfair (not to mention unwise) for Romney to go on to say that these people “believe that they are victims” and also “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing”. Democracy nevertheless is a numbers game, and to a first approximation, what the majority wants the majority gets. Absent built in protections, like those contained in the Bill of Rights, which to the extent it talks about taxes, is against them, which is why we needed the 16th amendment.

I don’t think it’s outrageous to claim that people don’t like paying taxes, and they do like getting money. If we should therefore find ourselves in a situation where the majority of people don’t pay taxes, i.e. they don’t have skin in the game, then it’s not unreasonable to assume that they will use that majority to prolong that situation indefinitely. And beyond that it is within their power to compel the minority who do pay taxes to pay still more taxes and fund programs which benefit them. This all touches on one of the key things Taleb points out: once people no longer have skin in the game their motives become distorted. He mostly talks about Wall Street investors who don’t suffer the downsides of their bad decisions (see the 2007-2008 crisis) but the same thing applies to tax payers.

Now it is going too far to say that once 51% of people don’t pay income taxes that the system is instantly and irretrievably broken. First off there are other taxes beyond taxes on income. Most of the really big governmental benefits are (supposedly) funded by payroll taxes which are paid by a far greater percentage of people. Also this 51% will not immediately take on the form of a monolithic block with perfect coordination. Some people might vote in such a way to cause them to start paying income tax even if they previously hadn’t. Nor are people very good at accurately assessing and pursuing, to the exclusion of all else, their own self interest. Finally, it’s always possible that their income will rise to the point where they have to start paying taxes.

Nevertheless, in a democracy, whenever you get 51% of the people on one side of the fence something has changed, even if the consequences of that change are not immediately apparent. We have to consider that we might be looking at an inflection point. A democracy where even 47% of people are not paying taxes is potentially a very different one from one in which 51% of people aren’t. Even if, in terms of actual numbers, the difference is not all that great. We passed from a state where some people don’t have skin in the game to where a majority of people don’t have skin in the game.

Fortunately, despite Romney’s ill-considered words, at the time we were still in the 47% world and not the 51% world. We had not yet reached the inflection point. But that was nearly a decade ago. What does the situation look like now? When I started this post I honestly didn’t know, I was surprised to find out that we’re not just a little bit past the 51% mark, we’re a lot past it.

In 2020, 61% of people didn’t pay any income taxes. Which is getting really close to two thirds of everyone not paying taxes. This reminds me of the quote, erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And it graphically illustrates the point I’m trying to make. The wolves have no skin in the game, while the lamb has not merely skin but everything. Even without such stakes, if a minority has something the majority wants, i.e. their money. And they can get it without inconvenience to themselves. Why wouldn’t they? 

As I said I was surprised to find out that we were not only past the 50% mark, but well past it. I would have thought that it would be big news when we passed the 50% mark. Big enough I would have heard about it. But even after searching I couldn’t seem to find out when it had happened, perhaps it just happened in 2020. Maybe the deluge of cash dispensed in response to the pandemic added an additional 11+% to the amount of people who don’t pay taxes. Presumably it will be less that 61% in 2021, and perhaps lower still in 2022, but I’m willing to bet that regardless of what it was pre-pandemic (and if you can find out what that percentage was I’d be grateful) after the smoke clears it will be permanently above 50%. That we have crossed an inflection point and we’re not going back.

All of this might be less worrisome if there wasn’t still another inflection point we appear to have passed recently. The inflection point of worrying about government spending. We’re no longer even pretending to have skin in the game. And while this inflection point is more difficult to assign an exact number to, doesn’t it feel like, between Trump’s profligacy and the firehouse of pandemic money that something has definitely shifted here as well? If nothing else, the sums of money people have been suggesting since the start of the pandemic dwarf those of the pre-pandemic world. I still remember when the $700 billion allocated by TARP was a huge deal. And now the moderate position is to only spend $1.5 trillion rather than $3.5 trillion. (Bernie Sanders was suggesting $6 trillion.) And this is on top of the trillions already spent fighting the pandemic. 

Which is not to say we haven’t been on this path for a long time, but not only are the amounts different but lately politicians appear to have abandoned even the pretense that new spending has to be balanced by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere. Politicians used to at least pretend that there needed to be skin in the game, but now they hardly even mention it. Or if they do, they distort the idea so thoroughly that it ceases to have any meaning

I am not claiming that 51% of people think the government can spend as much as it wants. Nor do I think it’s 51% of the members of congress. In fact, in a recent survey 52% of people said that the national debt and deficit is the biggest economic problem, above inequality, wage stagnation and slow growth. If true, I think it’s fair to say that the average voter is more worried about things than the average member of congress. And while the debate between $1.5 vs. 3.5 trillion is only happening on the Democratic side of the aisle, it’s not as if the Republicans did any better under Trump.

So how do we reconcile the 51% of people who don’t pay taxes with the 52% of people who think that the debt and the deficit are the biggest economic problems? Or rather out of these two majorities which will get their way? On the surface neither of them have much skin in the game. But I think as we dig deeper it will become apparent which side will ultimately triumph.

To begin with we should look at which way the trends are pointed. As we’ve seen, the trend is for fewer people to pay income taxes. Which already puts us in a situation where it’s not the 51% of people who don’t pay taxes vs. the 52% of people who think government debt is a problem, it’s the 61% who don’t pay vs. the 52% who worry. One imagines that the trend would be for the 52% to increase as well, particularly as the debt grows and there’s more reason for worry. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Back in 2012, 69% of people said the budget deficit should be a top priority. Now these 69% of people were answering a somewhat different question, so it shouldn’t be used in a direct comparison with the 52%, but it does show that a lot of people have been worried about it for quite a while without anything really changing.

Why hasn’t anything changed? Why is the majority who worry about the debt so powerless to translate their preference into actual legislation? This is where it comes back to skin in the game, and specifically what economists call revealed preferences. Or to put it more bluntly: people SAY a lot of things. We’re interested in what they actually DO.

Just because people say they want something doesn’t tell us anything about what they’re willing to sacrifice to get that something. One assumes that there are a lot of people who are on Social Security who are also in that 52% who are worried about the debt. As many politicians have found out, regardless of what people say about government spending, you don’t touch Social Security. And numerous pundits have ascribed Trump’s victory in 2016 to his promise to protect that program. One can quibble about how serious he was, but it was a departure from the Republicanism of Paul Ryan and George W. Bush. The point being, people worry about government spending unless it’s government spending that benefits them, and then it’s off limits. And it’s in this fashion that the 51% (or 61%) people who don’t care about taxes will triumph over the 52% (or 69%) of people who worry about the debt.

You might be under the impression that this problem is limited to concerns about the actual money people receive, but as it turns out even asking people to just imagine that they have more skin in the game dramatically reduces their willingness to sacrifice. As an example I offer up this recent poll on climate change:

According to the poll, 69% of Americans – including 56% of Republicans and 71% of independents – believe the United States needs to take “aggressive” action to fight climate change.

Some 78% believe the government should invest more money to develop clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, including 69% of Republicans and 79% of independents…

More than half of Americans either strongly or somewhat support the idea of weaning the United States off fossil fuels entirely within 10 years – the central tenet of the Green New Deal – including a third of Republicans and 57% of independents…

Support for such changes dropped off dramatically, however, when poll respondents were asked whether they would be willing to assume certain costs to achieve them.

Only 34% said they would be very likely or somewhat likely to pay an extra $100 a year in taxes to help, including 25% of Republicans and 33% of independents, according to the poll. The results were similar for higher power bills.

This is an excellent example of the difference between having skin in the game and not having it. 69% believe that we need to take aggressive action to fight climate change. I’m not sure what they were imagining when they heard the word aggressive, but apparently for half of them that word meant something less than $100 a year. If I’m aggressively paying down my debt then I would hope that I’m doing it at a faster rate than $100 a year. But of course I have skin in the game with my debt. It’s obvious that when it comes to climate change and government debt that most people don’t feel like they have skin in those games

And, as I pointed out in the beginning, we’re just asking people to imagine that they have skin in the game, when you get to the actual skin they have in the game it’s presumably even less. Which is to say, out of the 34% of people who said they’d be okay paying $100 extra a year, how many of them are already sending that much to organizations dedicated to fighting climate change? I’m willing to bet the number is a lot closer to “none of them” than “all of them”.

Finally this isn’t an isolated result. Plenty of people have found similar results on a broad range of questions. But if we’re specifically considering replication. The Cato Institute conducted a nearly identical survey which found that 68% of people wouldn’t pay $10 a month more on their electricity bill in order to fight climate change. (The same survey found that 58% of people would pay an extra $1 a month, so that’s something I guess.)

But here we arrive at another mystery. Should the Democrats pass their $3.5 trillion dollar infrastructure bill that would amount to $27,000 per household, which is significantly more than $10/month. And yet most Democrats and even many Republicans seem to be okay with that. Presumably somewhere in that group are people who both support the $3.5 trillion dollar bill and adamantly reject an additional $10/month. How could this be?

Once again the answer is skin in the game. There has always been something of a disconnect between government spending and personal spending, but lately it seems to have really gone off the rails. People can imagine their power bill going up by $10 a month. And having imagined it, decide they don’t want it to happen. They can’t imagine a bill for $27,000 arriving in the mail. People have become completely detached from the actual mechanisms of government. They have no skin in the game.

When you ask progressives what they’re hoping to achieve with this sort of spending, they will talk about a reduction in inequality. They will speak of the good the money might do. They may bring forth an anecdote about someone who had to declare bankruptcy because of medical bills, or who is now homeless after losing their job. On the other side they may speak of the unfairness of Bezos’ billions, and the increasing wealth being accumulated by the 1% as a whole. If you ask them to get more concrete they may mention a wealth tax, or the idea of duplicating conditions in one of the Scandinavian welfare states. 

Here we arrive at perhaps the most interesting place of all. As it turns out one of the features of the Scandinavian welfare state is that there’s a lot more skin in the game at all levels of wealth. The main inspiration for this post actually came from an article by a Swedish doctoral student in economics, and yet somehow despite this article providing the initial inspiration I’m only just getting to it. In this article he mentions several very interesting things:

Sweden doesn’t really tax the millionaires and billionaires—it taxes the poor. In Sweden, it is possible to avoid virtually all capital gains taxes through an investment savings account, which obviously mostly benefits the rich. What about wealth taxes? The Nordic countries have long since moved past them: Denmark abolished its wealth tax in 1997, Finland in 2005, and Sweden In 2007. It’s not about ideological opposition to taxing the rich.  It’s that the wealth tax was completely counterproductive and caused capital to flee these countries. In the U.S., the wealth tax is a novel idea. In the Nordics, it’s the 56k modem of taxation.

Instead, the big difference between the U.S. and Sweden, taxation-wise, is how the poor are taxed. Americans who make less than $12,000 per year pay no federal income taxes.  Many who make more than that still end up paying a net zero in taxes once deductions are accounted for. In Sweden, the equivalent is about $2,300. On any money you make above that threshold, you pay a tax rate of about 30 percent, plus payroll taxes. What about deductions? In the US, the average tax refund last year was $2,707. In Sweden, it was $821. On top of this, Sweden has a national sales tax of 25 percent on almost everything you buy. As the poor spend a greater share of their income, this tax disproportionally hurts them.

The kind of taxes that the poor are forced to pay in the Nordic countries would be completely unacceptable to the majority of the American public. It does not matter whether polls claim Americans support Nordic welfare programs—it’s utterly meaningless unless you also agree to pay them the only way they can be paid for: By taxing the average citizen. [all emphasis original]

To begin with the author rejects the idea of a wealth tax. (I particularly like the idea that it’s the 56k modem of taxation.) But more tellingly he points out that a far greater share of the tax burden is borne by “the average citizen”. This gives them skin in the game. In more concrete terms, to use the examples already given. You don’t have a situation where a majority of people don’t pay taxes and can therefore raise the taxes which do exist as a strictly democratic exercise. You also presumably have much more engagement with how the government spends the money, given that just about everyone is on the hook for it, not merely the top 39%. All of which is to say, if you’re looking to duplicate Scandinavian welfare states you’re essentially going in exactly the wrong direction. Even The Economist recently pointed out that America will never have a European style welfare state without a VAT. 

However, as near as I can tell, there’s been hardly any discussion of a VAT, which is a major pillar of the Scandinavian welfare states, and quite a bit of discussion of a wealth tax, which is something they’ve tried and rejected. There’s also a big push to make the US tax system more progressive, when it’s already more progressive than the European tax codes and in fact according to the OECD it’s the most progessive system in use by any nation. (Something which also surprised me.)

Okay, apparently progressives are going the wrong way on all of these issues if their destination really is a Scandinavian-style welfare state. But despite this the goal isn’t an impossible one, right? Well setting aside the greater percentage we spend on defense, and our differing cultures. The author of the article makes one final point about the need for skin in the game.

Building a welfare state is a boom-time endeavor. The Nordic welfare states were built during the postwar expansion. In Sweden’s case, we got the best of both worlds: We avoided becoming involved in the war, and afterward, demand for our industries spiked. With that, so did salaries. This made building a welfare state easy for two reasons: First of all, as salaries boom, so do tax revenues, even if tax rates are unchanged. This revenue boost allowed the government to add additional safety nets and government programs without raising rates or having to cut any other budgets.

Secondly, it is politically much easier to raise taxes when salaries are rising quickly. Most people don’t pay close attention to their tax rates, but rather to how much they get paid. If taxes are increasing, but real wages are increasing at an even faster rate, then most people will be fine with it because their paychecks keep getting bigger over time and they are able to purchase more stuff. Relative change is king. 

Thus far we’ve mostly been talking about the “skin” part of having skin in the game. Here we’re talking about the “game” part. The Scandinavians were playing a much different game than we are. And while I think rising wages was a huge factor, I would argue that it’s something he didn’t mention that mattered even more. The nation was unified. This is easy to do if there’s plenty of money to go around. And I’m sure the fact that the war was over helped out as well.

But the key thing is that they were all playing the same game. I don’t think the various sides in the US are even playing the same sport.


The easiest way to have skin in the game is for there to be money at stake. I’m not entirely sure what game I’m playing, and I imagine neither are you, but if you want some skin in whatever this is, consider donating.


A Deeper Understanding of How Bad Things Happen

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As long time readers know I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is best known for his book The Black Swan, and the eponymous theory it puts forth regarding the singular importance of rare, high impact events. His second best known work/concept is Antifragile. And while these concepts come up a lot in both my thinking and my writing. It’s an idea buried in his last book, Skin in the Game, that my mind keeps coming back to. As I mentioned when I reviewed it, the mainstream press mostly dismissed it as being unequal to his previous books. As one example, the review in the Economist said that:

IN 2001 Nassim Taleb published “Fooled by Randomness”, an entertaining and provocative book on the misunderstood role of chance. He followed it with “The Black Swan”, which brought that term into widespread use to describe extreme, unexpected events. This was the first public incarnation of Mr Taleb—idiosyncratic and spiky, but with plenty of original things to say. As he became well-known, a second Mr Taleb emerged, a figure who indulged in bad-tempered spats with other thinkers. Unfortunately, judging by his latest book, this second Mr Taleb now predominates.

A list of the feuds and hobbyhorses he pursues in “Skin in the Game” would fill the rest of this review. (His targets include Steven Pinker, subject of the lead review.) The reader’s experience is rather like being trapped in a cab with a cantankerous and over-opinionated driver. At one point, Mr Taleb posits that people who use foul language on Twitter are signalling that they are “free” and “competent”. Another interpretation is that they resort to bullying to conceal the poverty of their arguments.

This mainstream dismissal is unfortunate because I believe this book contains an idea of equal importance to black swans and antifragility, but which hasn’t received nearly as much attention. An idea the modern world needs to absorb if we’re going to prevent bad things from happening.

To understand why I say this, let’s take a step back. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, technology has increased the number of bad things that can happen. To take the recent pandemic as an example, international travel allowed it to spread much faster than it otherwise would have, and made quarantine, that old standby method for stopping the spread of diseases, very difficult to implement. Also these days it’s entirely possible for technology to have created such a pandemic. Very few people are arguing that this is what happened, but the argument over whether technology added to the problem in the form of “gain of function” research, and a subsequent lab leak is still being hotly debated

Given not only the increased risk of bad things brought on by modernity, but the risk of all possible bad things, people have sought to develop methods for managing this risk. For avoiding or minimizing the impact of these bad things. Unfortunately these methods have ended up largely being superficial attempts to measure the probability that something will happen. The best example of this is Superforecasting, where you make measurable predictions, assign confidence levels to those predictions and then you track how well you did. I’ve beaten up on Superforecasting a lot over the years, and it’s not my intent to beat up on it even more, or at least it’s not my primary intent. I bring it up now because it’s a great example of the superficiality of modern risk management. It’s focused on one small slice of preventing bad things from happening: improving our predictions on a very small slice of bad things. I think we need a much deeper understanding of how bad things happen.

Superforecasting is an example of a more shallow understanding of bad things. The process has several goals, but I think the two biggest are:

First, to increase the accuracy of the probabilities being assigned to the occurrence of various events and outcomes. There is a tendency among some to directly equate “risk” with this probability. Which leads to statements like, “The risk of nuclear war is 1% per year.” I would certainly argue that any study of risk goes well beyond probabilities, that what we’re really looking for is any and all methods for preventing bad things from happening. And while understanding the odds of those events is a good start, it’s only a start. And if not done carefully it can actually impair our preparedness

The second big goal of superforecasting is to identify those people who are particularly talented at assigning such probabilities in order that you might take advantage of those talents going forward. This hopefully leads to a future with a better understanding of risk, and consequent reduction in the number of bad things that happen. 

The key principle in all of this is our understanding of risk. When people end up equating risk with simply improving our assessment of the probability that an event will occur, they end up missing huge parts of that understanding. As I’ve pointed out in the past, their big oversight is the role of impact—some bad things are worse than others. But they are also missing a huge variety of other factors which contribute to our ability to avoid bad things, and this is where we get to the ideas from Skin in the Game.

To begin with, Taleb introduces two concepts: “ensemble probability” and “time probability”. To illustrate the difference between the two he uses the example of gambling in a casino. To understand ensemble probability you should imagine 100 people all gambling on the same day. Taleb asks, “How many of them go bust?” Assuming that they each have the same amount of initial money and make the same bets and taking into account standard casino probabilities, about 1% of people will end up completely out of money. So in a starting group of 100, one gambler will go completely bust. Let’s say this is gambler 28. Does the fact that gambler 28 went bust have any effect on the amount of money gambler 29 has left? No. The outcomes are completely independent. This is ensemble probability.

To understand time probability, imagine that instead of having 100 people gambling all on the same day, let’s have one person gamble 100 days in a row. If we use the same assumptions, then once again approximately 1% of the time the gambler will go bust, and be completely out of money. But on this occasion since it’s the same person once they go bust they’re done. If they go bust on day 28, then there is no day 29. This is time probability. And Taleb’s argument is that when experts (like superforecasters) talk about probability they generally treat things as ensembles, whereas reality mostly deals in time probability. They might also be labeled independent or dependent probabilities.

As Taleb is most interested in investing, the example he gives relates to individual investors, who are often given advice as if they have a completely diversified and independent portfolio where a dip in their emerging market holdings does not affect their silicon valley stocks. When in reality most individual investors exist in a situation where everything in their life is strongly linked and mostly not diversified. As an example, most of their net worth is probably in their home, a place with definite dependencies. So if 2007 comes along and their home tanks, not only might they be in danger of being on the street, it also might affect their job (say if they were in construction). Even if they do have stocks they may have to sell them off to pay the mortgage because having a place to live is far more important than maintaining their portfolio diversification. Or as Taleb describes it:

…no individual can get the same returns as the market unless he has infinite pockets…This is conflating ensemble probability and time probability. If the investor has to eventually reduce his exposure because of losses, or because of retirement, or because he got divorced to marry his neighbor’s wife, or because he suddenly developed a heroin addiction after his hospitalization for appendicitis, or because he changed his mind about life, his returns will be divorced from those of the market, period.

Most of the things Taleb lists there are black swans. For example one hopes that developing a heroin addiction would be a black swan for most people. In true ensemble probability black swans can largely be ignored. If you’re gambler 29, you don’t care if gambler 28 ends up addicted to gambling and permanently ruined. But in strict time probability any negative black swan which leads to ruin strictly dominates the entire sequence. If you’re knocked out of the game on day 28 then there is no day 29, or day 59 for that matter. It doesn’t matter how many other bad things you avoid, one bad thing, if bad enough destroys all your other efforts. Or as Taleb says, “in order to succeed, you must first survive.” 

Of course most situations are on a continuum between time probability and ensemble probability. Even absent some kind of broader crisis, there’s probably a slightly higher chance of you going bust if your neighbor goes bust—perhaps you’ve lent them money, or in their desperation they sue you over some petty slight. If you’re in a situation where one company employs a significant percentage of the community, that chance goes up even more. The chance gets higher if your nation is in crisis and it gets even higher if there’s a global crisis. This finally takes us to Taleb’s truly big idea, or at least the idea I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The one my mind kept returning to since reading the book in 2018. He introduces the idea with an example:

Let us return to the notion of “tribe.” One of the defects modern education and thinking introduces is the illusion that each one of us is a single unit. In fact, I’ve sampled ninety people in seminars and asked them: “what’s the worst thing that can happen to you?” Eighty-eight people answered “my death.”

This can only be the worst-case situation for a psychopath. For after that, I asked those who deemed that their worst-case outcome was their own death: “Is your death plus that of your children, nephews, cousins, cat, dogs, parakeet, and hamster (if you have any of the above) worse than just your death?” Invariably, yes. “Is your death plus your children, nephews, cousins (…) plus all of humanity worse than just your death?” Yes, of course. Then how can your death be the worst possible outcome?

You can probably see where I’m going here, but before we get to that. In defense of the Economist review, the quote I just included has the following footnote:

Actually, I usually joke that my death plus someone I don’t like surviving, such as the journalistic professor Steven Pinker, is worse than just my death.

I have never argued that Taleb wasn’t cantankerous. And I think being cantankerous given the current state of the world is probably appropriate. 

In any event, he follows up this discussion of asking people to name the worst thing that could happen to them with an illustration. The illustration is an inverted pyramid sliced into horizontal layers of increasing width as you rise from the tip of the pyramid to its “base”. The layers, from top to bottom are:

  • Ecosystem
  • Humanity
  • Self-defined extended tribe
  • Tribe
  • Family, friends, and pets
  • You

The higher up you are, the worse the risk. While no one likes to contemplate their own ruin, the ruin of all of their loved ones is even worse. And we should do everything in our power to ensure the survival of humanity and the ecosystem. Even if it means extreme risk to ourselves and our families (a point I’ll be returning to in a moment.) If we want to prevent really bad things from happening we need to focus less on risks to individuals and more on risks to everyone and everything.

By combining this inverted pyramid, with the concepts of time probability and ensemble probability we can start drawing some useful conclusions. To begin with not only are time probabilities more catastrophic at higher levels. They are more likely to be present at higher levels. A nation has a lot of interdependencies whereas an individual might have very few. To put it another way, if an individual dies, the consequences, while often tragic, are nevertheless well understood and straightforward to manage. There are entire industries devoted to smoothing out the way. While if a nation dies, it’s always calamitous with all manner of consequences which are poorly understood. And if all of humanity dies no mitigation is possible.

With that in mind, the next conclusion is that we should be trying to push risks down as low as possible—from the ecosystem to humanity, from humanity to nations, from nations to tribes, from tribes to families and from families to individuals. We are also forced to conclude that, where possible, we should make risks less interdependent. We should aim for ensemble probabilities rather than time probabilities. 

All of this calls to mind the principle of subsidiarity or federalism and certainly there is a lot of overlap. But whereas subsidiarity is mostly about increasing efficiency, here I’m specifically focused on reducing harm. Of making negative black swans less catastrophic—of understanding and mitigating bad things.

Of course when you hear this idea that we should push risks from tribes to families or from nations to families you immediately recoil. And indeed the modern world has spent a lot of energy moving risk in exactly the opposite direction. Pushing risks up the scale, moving risk off of individuals and accumulating it in communities, states and nations. And sometimes placing the risk with all of humanity. It used to be that individuals threatened each other with guns, and that was a horrible situation with widespread violence, but now nations threaten each other with nukes. The only way that’s better is if the nukes never get used. So far we’ve been lucky, let’s really hope that luck continues.

Some, presumably including superforecasters, will argue that by moving risk up the scale it’s easy to quantify and manage, and thereby reduce. I have seen no evidence that these people understand risk at different scales, nor any evidence that they make any distinction between time probabilities and ensemble probabilities, but for the moment let’s grant that they’re correct that by moving risk up the scale we lessen it. That the risk that any individual will get shot, in say the Wild West, is 5% per year. But the risk that any nation will get nuked is only 1% per year. Yes, the risk has been reduced. One is less than five. But should that 1% chance come to pass (and given enough years it certainly will, i.e. it’s a time probability) then far more than 5% of people will die. We’ve prevented one variety of bad things by creating the possibility (albeit a smaller one) that a far worse event will happen.

The pandemic has provided an interesting test of these ideas, and I’ll be honest it also illustrates how hard it can be to apply these ideas to real situations. But there wouldn’t be much point to this discussion if we didn’t try. 

First let’s consider the vaccine. I’ve long thought that vaccination is a straightforward example of antifragility. Of a system making gains from stress. Additionally it also seems pretty straightforward that this is an example of moving risk down the scale. Of moving risk from the community to the individual, and I know the modern world has taught us we should never have to do that, but as I’ve pointed out it’s a good thing. So vaccination is an example of moving risk down the inverted pyramid.

On the other hand the pandemic has given us examples of risk being moved up the scale. The starkest example is government spending, where we have spent enormous amounts of money to cushion individuals from the risk of unemployment and homelessness. Thereby moving the risk up to the level of the nation. We have certainly prevented a huge number of small bad things from happening, but have we increased the risk of a singular catastrophic event? I guess we’ll find out. Regardless it does seem to have moved things from an ensemble probability to a time probability. Perhaps this government intervention won’t blow up, but we can’t afford to have any of them blow up, because if intervention 28 blows up there is no intervention 29.

Of course the murky examples far outweigh the clear ones. Are mask mandates pushing things down to the level of the individual? Or is it better to not have a mandate? Thereby giving individuals the option of taking more risk because that’s the layer we want risk to operate at? And of course the current argument about vaccination is happening at the level of the state and community. Biden is pushing for a vaccination mandate on all companies that employ more than 100 people and the Texas governor just issued an executive order banning such a mandate. I agree it can be difficult to draw the line. But there is one final idea from Skin in the Game that might help.

Out of all of the foregoing Taleb comes up with a very specific definition of courage. 

Courage is when you sacrifice your own well being for the sake of the survival of a layer higher than yours. 

I do think the pandemic is a particularly complicated situation. But even here courage would have definitely helped. It would have allowed us to conduct human challenge trials, which would have shortened the vaccination approval process. It would have made the decision to reopen schools easier. And yes while it’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t have moved some risk up the scale, it would have kept us from moving all of it up the scale.

I understand this is a fraught topic, for most people the ideal is to have no bad things happen, ever. But that’s not possible. Bad things are going to happen, and the best way to keep them from being catastrophic things is more courage. Something I fear the modern world is only getting worse at.


I talk a lot about bad things. And you may be thinking why doesn’t he ever talk about good things? Well here’s something good, donating. I mean I guess it’s mostly just good for me, but what are you going to do?


The 9 Books I Finished in September

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

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  1. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by: Carl R. Trueman
  2. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by: Elizabeth Kolbert
  3. Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t by: Julia Galef
  4. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by: Mike Duncan
  5. This Is How You Lose the Time War by: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  6. Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism by: Sharyl Attkisson
  7. Plato: Complete Works by: Plato
  8. Stillness Is the Key by: Ryan Holiday
  9. The Sorrows of Young Werther by: Goethe

I’ve been watching a lot of Big Bang Theory. As something of a sacrilege I watch it at 2x, so a normal 20 minute episode ends up being a 10 minute break. Which takes it from an irresponsible indulgence to a perfectly acceptable “10 minute break”. I guess having given you an insight into my strange little world I shouldn’t hesitate to reveal the full extent of my madness. Episodes of the show actually range in length from 18 minutes to 22 minutes. So I set the speed increase such that it always takes 10 minutes—1.8x for the 18 minute episodes and 2.2x for 22 minute episodes. I’m not taking a break of about 10 minutes, I’m taking a 10 minute break!

I bring this up because Chuck Lorre, the creator of the show, always ends each episode with a message on his vanity card. In the course of reading each of these cards you gain a glimpse into his life (for example you find out more than you might expect about his love life). As I sat down to write this intro I realized that it’s sort of similar to what I do here. Once a month I briefly pause in my jeremiads to give you a brief glimpse into what’s going on in the world outside of my writing. I get the feeling that Chuck Lorre found it therapeutic. That’s probably one of the reasons I do it as well.

As far as what happened in September, it was busy. I went to Gencon and my son got married. The marriage was excellent and beautiful. The convention was enjoyable but also a glimpse into the impact and the weirdness of COVID. My favorite restaurant in Indy is St. Elmo’s, but I can only afford to go there once. My second favorite restaurant, Claddagh, which I sometimes went to 3 or 4 times, did not survive the pandemic. This was surprisingly heartbreaking. Though it would have been less so if my third favorite restaurant, The Ram, hadn’t also succumbed. And then there’s the weirdness of the pandemic theater. As just one example they set an attendance cap at 60% of normal. Implying that there’s some level of transmission which happens when you gather in groups of 50,000 which doesn’t happen when gather in groups of 30,000

But of course the most important news of all is that I didn’t catch COVID, which was good, because if I had, I would have missed the wedding, and my wife would have killed me.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution

by: Carl R. Trueman

426 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The trend, starting with Rousseau, of people deriving truth from an inner sense of authenticity rather than an external sacred order.

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who’s interested in a better understanding of the modern world. 

General Thoughts

I heard Trueman give a presentation about his book at an LDS apologetics conference I attended back in August. (Trueman himself is not LDS.) Even just based on the limited information he was able to pass along in his 45 minute presentation I knew I wanted to read the book immediately. It did not disappoint, and the cursory overview given by his presentation did in fact accurately foreshadow a deep philosophical treatise I’m still trying to process. As a result my “general thoughts” are still coalescing, but I’ll see what I can do. 

Trueman builds off the work of a lot of other authors including Philip Rieff, and Charles Taylor. I’ve already read a couple of books by Charles Taylor, but Rieff was unknown to me. I may have to add him to my list because he presents a very intriguing framework. 

Rieff imagines four stages of development for civilization. First there was “political man”. This was followed by “religious man”, who was then eventually displaced by “economic man”. Before we finally arrive at our current state which is “psychological man”. I’m not sure how I feel about his first stage, as I said I should probably read some of his books. But the other three stages, and particularly the last one, feel dead on.

For Rieff the psychological man is:

…a type characterized not so much by finding identity in outward directed activities as was true for the previous types but rather in the inward quest for personal psychological happiness.

In Trueman’s reading of Rieff it becomes apparent that the “psychological man” demands a “therapeutic culture”, where:

…the only moral criterion that can be applied to behavior is whether it conduces to the feeling of well-being in the individuals concerned. Ethics, therefore, becomes a function of feeling.

All of this ties into the idea of authenticity, which Trueman pinpoints as starting with Rousseau, but which is then expanded on by a host of other philosophers including Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Freud’s contribution becomes particularly important to understanding the current world as he’s the one who identifies sex as the most important part of psychological happiness and individual well-being.

Pulling all of this together, truth does not originate from a sacred external order or anything external period. Individual preferences become the only source of truth and the deeper the preferences the more truth they contain. Sexual preferences are the deepest preferences of all which is how LBGTQ+ issues (the acronym Trueman uses) become the most important and truest things of all. 

This becomes both an epistemology and a distributed teleology which has profound… 

Eschatological Implications

When I decided to focus on eschatology I said I wanted to expand it to focus on things lower down the scale than just the end of the world. That I wanted to talk about the end of culture. This book is an excellent opportunity to do just that. 

Continuing with Rieff, he asserts that culture is derived from having an external sacred order. He’s not alone in this Samuel Huntington makes essentially the same argument in Clash of Civilizations. That a civilization in its proper sense must inevitably be attached to a religion. 

So what happens to a culture when you dispense with religion and a sacred order? When you start to derive all truth from internal claims of authenticity? In that case you have no culture. Everyone is a culture unto themselves. Rieff calls this an “anticulture”. Trueman asserts that this is exactly what has happened.

He doesn’t spend much time going beyond this assertion into predictions of what will happen to a civilization which ends up with an anticulture in place of a culture, he’s mostly interested in identifying things rather than prognostication. But in the best case it has to be radically different, and in the worst case (the most likely case?) it would appear to be entirely unsustainable. If for no other reason than it’s lack of cohesion.

As I mentioned, Trueman draws the path to our current situation through a lot of different philosophers, including Nietzche. In particular he mentions the madman passage from The Gay Science, which contains the famous assertion that “God is Dead”. I’ve been a big fan of this passage for quite a while. I even wrote a whole post about it. But this time around I was struck with how it ended:

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

Trueman is not the first to complain about the disintegration of morality, the distortion of ethics, or the downfall of civilization. But perhaps all those who came before him came too early. After reading this book it kind of feels like it has all come together. That I finally understand the madman’s warning.


Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

by: Elizabeth Kolbert

256 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

To quote from the book, “This [is] a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” Specifically environmental problems.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a reasonably pragmatic book about the damage to the environment caused by humans and the hard trade-offs faced by people trying to solve those problems, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

Most of the examples in this book follow a fairly predictable pattern. Humans want to do X. X causes environmental issues, but by the time anyone realizes the extent of the issues it’s too late to stop doing X. So they come up with some idea Y which will hopefully allow them to continue doing X only without the issues. Sometimes there’s a chain of such causes and effects. For example:

Back in the 50’s and 60’s people were using lots of pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals were getting into the water and causing issues. This was part of what inspired Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring. As one might have hoped, Carson didn’t merely use the book to complain, she also offered solutions. One of her recommended solutions was that instead of using pesticides and herbicides you could set one biological agent against another. As people looked for ways of taking this advice and furthermore complying with things like the Clean Water Act Asian carp became very attractive “biological agents”. It was thought they could get rid of invasive weeds, clean algae from the water and eat pests. Accordingly the Fish And Wildlife service deliberately brought them over to America… Where they promptly ended up basically everywhere

This quote from the book is illustrative:

“At the time, everybody was looking for a way to clean up the environment,” Mike Freeze, a biologist who worked with carp at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commision, told me, “Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring, and everybody was concerned about all the chemicals in the water. They weren’t nearly as concerned about non-native species, which is unfortunate.”

I said they ended up basically everywhere, that is everywhere in the Mississippi River Basin, but so far they’re not in the Great Lakes Basin. And people are desperate to keep it that way. This wouldn’t be very difficult except, in order to solve yet another environmental problem, Chicago sewage, a canal was dug which connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. And now this canal is the front line in the war against carp. Of course some have suggested that they just reintroduce “hydrologic separation”. The Army Corps of Engineers studied the problem and determined that indeed it would be the most effective solution, but it would also take 25 years to accomplish and cost $18 billion.

Currently they use an electrical barrier and a few years back when they had to shut it down for routine maintenance they used 2000 gallons of poison which resulted in 27 tons of dead fish. Not an ideal solution, but that’s basically the point of the book. There are no ideal solutions.

Eschatological Implications

Of course the biggest X of all is humanity’s desire to burn fossil fuels for power. And the book’s title comes from one of the Y’s which have been suggested for dealing with the environmental damage this has caused. The Y is geoengineering, specifically injecting things like sulfates or calcites into the atmosphere as a way of blocking solar radiation, which would cause the sky to turn from blue to white.

As you might imagine, debate over geoengineering is fierce, and merely exploring it as a potential solution has provoked death threats directed at the scientists involved. And while I don’t at all condone death threats, I do understand why people would be hesitant.

Interventions often backfire, I just provided two examples of exactly that. And it would be hard to make any guarantees that geoengineering won’t have harmful, unforeseen second order effects. That said, not all interventions backfire, some end up saving the lives of millions. If we have a default expectation that they will backfire it’s most likely because those interventions that do, get all of the attention. 

Here’s where eschatology comes into play. It’s as if we’re being offered our choice of dooms. We can allow global warming to proceed without attempting any interventions and hope that climate change skeptics are right. (Though oftentimes that skepticism comes from an assumption that we will do some geoengineering.) Or we can intervene, and assume that the world with intervention will be better than the world without intervention, once everything is accounted for. All that said, the book does point out that it’s much easier to ruin an ecosystem than to run one.

There is of course the idea that we will reverse warming by cutting emissions and sequestering carbon in the atmosphere, but I get the feeling that this author, like many of the people I’ve read, thinks that’s as likely as reimposing hydrological separation between the Mississippi and Great Lakes.


II- Capsule Reviews

Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t 

by: Julia Galef

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An overview and introduction for how to think rationally. A book length defense of mistake theory over conflict theory.

Who should read this book?

This is something of a self-help book written using the framework of rationality. If either of those terms (“self-help” or “rationality”) sound attractive you should read this book. If you’re on the fence I would read Scott Alexander’s review of it (hopefully in addition to mine.)

General Thoughts

Scout Mindset as another work to emerge out of the Bay Area rationality movement. The movement itself is another in a long series of attempts at developing a philosophy for how people should act. With the ultimate goal of making the world a better place.

In order to accomplish this you need some way of spreading that philosophy. Traditionally this has taken the form of a book, something that you could give to someone and say “Here. Read this. It will change your life.” In similar fashion to how those attempting to spread Christianity might give someone a Bible. Scout Mindset is attempting to fill that role for rationality.

Previous contenders for the job were The Sequences (published in book form under the title Rationality: AI to Zombies) and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Both of these contenders were written by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and suffered from many deficiencies, of which perhaps the greatest was that both clocked in at over 1500 pages. In a past post, as a way of illustrating my point, I observed that the idea of someone in prison reading the Bible and converting to Christianity is so common as to be a cliche. The idea of someone reading the Sequences and becoming a rationalist, on the other hand, is so strange as to sound like the premise for a sitcom. 

Scout Mindset gets much closer to this mark than any of the other two contenders. It’s not only short, it’s also well written, and easy to understand. This last point is particularly important because we’re not talking about just improving the way that smart people act, or people who live in the Bay Area. Ideally if any philosophy for improving the world is going to be successful it has to be something that can work with anyone. 

I don’t claim to be an expert on the ideology of rationality, though I have read the entirety of The Sequences, HPMOR, and every last Slate Star Codex post. Out of this reading I would say that in the beginning the focus was on being right (or “Less Wrong”), on identifying and eliminating biases, and on understanding and accurately using probabilities (Bayesianism). But more recently the focus has shifted to being charitable to those you disagree with intellectually and attempting to understand them. This is the whole basis of the difference between what Galef calls the “scout mindset” and the “soldier mindset”—between mistake and conflict theory.

In other words the philosophy of rationality ends up being at least as much about being a good person as it does about how to be rational. But rather than taking my word for it let’s turn to the aforementioned review by Alexander:

I’m mentioning this story in particular because of how it straddles the border between “rationality training” and “being-a-good-person training”. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis…I think Julia thinks of rationality and goodness as two related skills: both involve using healthy long-term coping strategies instead of narcissistic short-term ones.

But all these skills about “what tests can you put your thoughts through to see things from the other person’s point of view?” or “how do you stay humble and open to correction?” are non-trivial parts of the decent-human-being package, and sometimes they carry over…

In one sense, this is good: buy one “rationality training”, and we’ll throw in a “personal growth” absolutely free! In another sense, it’s discouraging. Personal growth is known to be hard. If it’s a precondition to successful rationality training, sounds like rationality training will also be hard. 

Here Scout Mindset reaches an impasse. It’s trying to train you in rationality. But it acknowledges that this is closely allied with making you a good person. 

Here Alexander hits on the point I’ve brought up before. If the difficult part is making people good then perhaps we should just focus on that. And if that’s our focus, is there any reason to believe that rationality is better than traditional religion? 

I understand that religion does not unfailingly produce good people, but neither does rationality (A point Alexander makes at another point in his review.) Making people good is enormously difficult and even the best methods only shift things a little bit. We’re not interested in individual examples of improvement. As I mentioned before we’re looking for something that works with everyone. We’re looking for something that improves society in aggregate. And in this respect, while I think Scout Mindset is a great book with excellent advice, I’m not convinced that it would achieve better outcomes than the way we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. 

Perhaps it would help to present it in the form of a hypothetical situation: Imagine that you can add one book to the curriculum of all the schools in the nation. That you’re hoping to make the nation and maybe even the world a better place. Would you add Scout Mindset or the Bible (or maybe just the New Testament)? Particularly given the facts we’ve just discussed. 1) You want something that works with everyone. 2) Both books are trying to make people good by emphasizing kindness and charity. In this case would it not be better to go with what has worked for thousands of years, then re-inventing the wheel under the heading of “rationality”? 

Given the choice I would recommend that people read both the Bible and Scout Mindset. But as much as I enjoyed the latter I think if you were only going to read one I’d read the former.


Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution

by: Mike Duncan

512 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A biography of Lafayette, a French noble who fought in the American Revolution and then went on to be a major player in the French Revolution and the subsequent July Revolution of 1830.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who enjoys Duncan’s Revolutions podcast. Or who is interested in either Lafayette, or the connection between the American and French revolutions. 

General Thoughts

I quite enjoy the Revolutions podcast and I quite enjoyed this book. Lafayette was a central figure in French politics during its most tumultuous decades. Despite this the French apparently don’t have much interest in him. I was listening to Duncan being interviewed on another podcast. He mentioned that as soon as he told people who he was researching they would nod in understanding. “Of course,” they said, “because only Americans are interested in Lafayette.” Duncan speculated that this was because Lafayette was too much of a royalist to ever be embraced by the hard-core revolutionaries, and too much of a liberal to ever be embraced by the conservatives. This put him in a no man’s land where he wasn’t idolized by either side. But it also makes him something of his own man. And someone like that is always a joy to read about.

If I were going to point out anything specific about the book, it would probably be how much of a family man he was. When he was imprisoned in Austria (which probably saved him from the guillotine) his wife and two daughters, unwilling to be separated from him, traveled to Austria, and finding there was no other way to see him, joined him in prison and remained there for two years. It seems pretty clear that the harsh conditions his wife experienced while in prison contributed to her early death at the age of 48.

Can you imagine anything similar happening today?


This Is How You Lose the Time War

by: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

209 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Two people on opposite sides of a time war who begin sending letters to one another.

Who should read this book?

This novella won the Hugo and the Nebula and a few other awards besides. If you have four hours (the length of the audio book) and you want to read an award winning novella, here’s your chance.

General Thoughts

I expected to like this book more than I did. And I assume that many of the people reading this would enjoy the book, so I don’t necessarily want to do anything to close off the possibility of you doing just that, but this is a review so I have to say something. I guess I can do that in the form of a criticism sandwich:

The writing was gorgeous and to the extent that the book won awards I assume this was a large part of it.

At the bottom of that gorgeous writing most of the chapters were pretty repetitive. 1) Describe interesting location in the past or the future. 2) Describe elaborate way enemy operative hid letter. 3) Read contents of letter. 

All time travel stories have to have a twist at the end involving the manipulation of time. The twist at the end of this story was pretty good. Not fantastic, mind you, but interesting and enjoyable.


Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism 

by: Sharyl Attkisson

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An insider’s account of the liberal bias in the media, particularly as it is manifested against Trump.

Who should read this book?

Those who want a description of how the liberal media bias actually plays out in the decisions made in newsrooms of the major networks (CBS and CNN in particular).

General Thoughts

There are upsides and downsides to reading insider accounts. One of the upsides is you get to hear the stories first hand. Meaning that in the future you don’t have to argue about the media’s liberal slant based on vague inferences you picked up while watching or reading the news. You can point to actual accounts of news directors exercising ideological censorship over what stories get pursued. One of the downsides is that insiders generally have axes to grind, often with specific people, and it can be difficult to disentangle the biases of the person telling the story from the biases they’re describing. 

I’m not sure how well I have disentangled Attkisson’s biases from the stories she tells, but even if only half of them are true (and I suspect that they’re all mostly true) then the situation is pretty bad, and the neutrality of the press has been severely compromised. 

If we accept that this is the case then what should we do? Attkisson offers some recommendations for outlets and individuals who are still doing good journalism. Beyond that she offers the standard recommendation that there should be no censorship. That if we just allow all the information to circulate that the truth will rise to the top. I used to believe the same thing, these days I’m far less confident in that solution. 

By way of illustration, one of the biases which keeps coming up in the book is a bias in the level of evidence necessary to make a story newsworthy. Attkisson describes many cases where the slightest accusation of a Trump misdeed will make the front page, while much more credible evidence of misdeeds by Biden or Clinton will be judged as being not substantial enough to report on. Attkisson doesn’t want the Trump standard applied to Biden, she wants the Biden standard applied to Trump, but that’s the problem. Social media has allowed us to signal boost slight accusations against everyone. Often without any evidence at all. I think over time the truth might rise to the top, but by the time that happens the “top” has long ago been buried under multiple additional layers of B.S.


Plato: Complete Works 

by: Plato

1848 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The collected works of Plato (including stuff that may or may not be Plato) one of the greatest philosophers ever.

Who should read this book?

I don’t think anyone should read the entire book, certainly I didn’t (see below). But probably everyone should read at least some Plato.

General Thoughts

This is a continuation of my project to read the Great Books of the Western World. Which is a huge undertaking. I did not read every last page of the book. I solicited recommendations and trimmed it down to a little over half of the total content. One assumes you could trim it even further than that. 

As usual with the classics, it’s difficult to know what to say, since so much has been written about them already. But I do have a couple of observations:

First, The Republic. My sense is if you’ve read anything by Plato it’s probably this. Which is interesting because after a strong start where it resembles most of the other dialogues, it quickly descends into offering solutions and plans. As I pointed out in a previous post, for whatever reason you can take the wisest person you know, and the minute they start offering solutions they end up in crazytown. As an example of what I mean: In Book III there’s a whole discussion on what sort of things they’re going to allow children to read. And how they’re going to censor passages from Homer and get rid of tragedies. All of this will allow them to unfailingly raise courageous and noble children.

Now this isn’t the craziest solution he comes up with. (That probably belongs to something like having all wives in common so that no one would know who their father is.) But it is amazing how we’re still grappling with this issue thousands of years later. And despite all that time and effort we have neither managed to keep kids from getting ahold of material we deem unsuitable, nor managed to hit on exactly the right material to give them the education we want them to have.

Second, speaking of modern issues appearing in ancient texts. In reading Plato I was very much reminded of the modern rationality movement, and things like The Sequences (which I already mentioned in another review). There’s this sense in both of discovering a tool which, if used properly, will solve all of our problems. In Plato it’s the dialectic. For modern rationalists, it’s Bayesianism. And of course there are other historical examples which could be added. Now it’s certainly possible that modern rationalists will bring the world to heel with reason despite all the previous failures, but I don’t think that’s the way to bet.

Next I should be reading Aristotle, but in the course of reading The Landmark Thucydides, I discovered that the people who had done that had gone on to give the same treatment to Herodutus, so I think I’m going to go back and read that first.


Stillness Is the Key

by: Ryan Holiday

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Stillness: “To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude—exterior and interior—on command.”

Who should read this book?

Those who have heard of Ryan Holiday and enjoyed his writing in the past. Or potentially anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed.

General Thoughts

This is a self-help book. But if you imagine that self-help books exist on a continuum between those that are almost textbooks, with exercises at the end of every chapter and those that are essentially history, containing lots of stories of people you should emulate. This is definitely all the way on the history end of things. 

I will say that stillness is definitely something I’ve been working on, and this book certainly helped. But it’s also difficult to summarize how it helped. As you may have gathered from the above it’s more meditative than practical—more right-brained than left. Perhaps, befitting its theme, it would be accurate to call it a quiet book.


The Sorrows of Young Werther

by: Goethe

121 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Werther, a man hopelessly in love with Charlotte, who is unfortunately engaged to someone else. Charlotte appears to reciprocate Werther’s feelings, but still ends up marrying the other man. Their chaste relationship continues in spite of her marriage, but eventually Werther can suffer it no longer and takes his own life. It may be the very first emo book.

Who should read this book?

Hard to say, on the one hand the book was immensely popular, and probably has some historical significance. On the other hand Goethe himself all but disowned it later in life. On the gripping hand it’s short…

General Thoughts

I think this book is most interesting for the story surrounding it rather than for the story it tells. To start with there is the aforementioned opinion of the author. This book catapulted him to fame when he was only 24, but as he grew older it turned into an embarrassing example of youthful excess. Then there were the fans of the book. Apparently it was so popular that people dressed up as Werther, and it even spawned associated merchandise, including a perfume. But what’s perhaps most interesting is that the book engendered some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. With people going beyond just dressing up as Werther all the way to dressing up as him and then killing themselves using the same pistols described in the book. 

I’m not sure if all of this strikes me as strangely modern or bizarrely foreign. Maybe a mix of both?


Now that we’re done with September and into October it appears that the weather has finally turned. Yesterday may have been the last day this year where the high was over 80. You would expect that as it gets colder that I would be inside more and thus read more, but as most of my “reading” is audiobooks which I listen to while I walk, cold weather may have the opposite effect. If you’d like to encourage me to power through the cold and “read” as much as always consider donating.