Month: <span>October 2022</span>

Eschatologist #22 – A Survey

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This is my 300th post. It’s only my 22nd newsletter, but given that it’s 2022, that seemed numerologically significant enough for it to also count as a special occasion. An occasion on which to reflect on the whole grubby endeavor. 

Writing is a weird business. To put out any level of content consistently you have to basically treat it as a part time job. A difficult, lonely, job where you mostly work for free. So why do it? That is an excellent question. As I mentioned in a previous post, I suffer from the silly and conceited idea that I have something important to say. But why do I think that?

All of the attributes I’ve already mentioned make it very easy to get trapped in an individual echo chamber. Constantly regurgitating one good idea until everyone is sick of it. And that assumes that I have one good idea. (I actually fancy I have more than that, but once again why do I think that?)

Numerous people have sent me emails over the years, left comments, mentioned me on Twitter, or done some other form of social media shout out. But while such spontaneous feedback is always appreciated (more than you know), sometimes it’s best to be direct.

Given the numerological significance of this newsletter/post/episode it seemed the perfect opportunity to just come out and ask for feedback. In order to make it easy I’ve created a survey. Which asks all sorts of useful questions including a query about the many things I could be doing better, and even a couple about the many things I might be doing right.

Here’s the link: https://forms.gle/toRzdKPervpygw8MA 

For those who might still be hesitating, there are only 15 questions, none are required, but one lucky person who fills out all 15 will get a $100 Amazon Gift Card. And next month we’ll return to your normally scheduled pedantry.


I’m not kidding about the $100 gift card. In fact depending on the number of responses I get, I may give out two of them! So go, and fill out the survey!


Chip Off the Old Bloc

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

Or download the MP3


I- Setting the scene

A few weeks ago, on October 7, the US imposed a new set of limits on exporting semiconductors (chips) to China. Not only that, but:

The new rules also restrict the ability of U.S. citizens to support the development or production of chips at Chinese fabs [fabricators] without a license.

This new set of rules attracted almost no attention until exactly a week later when those in the know suddenly started posting apocalyptic sounding tweets. (Okay, it probably wasn’t quite that sudden, but that’s what it felt like to me.) 

This is what annihilation looks like: China’s semiconductor manufacturing industry was reduced to zero overnight. Complete collapse. No chance of survival.

(Which might not be an exaggeration, though it sounds like it must be.)

Despite these tweets, the story appears to still be mostly flying under the radar. Searching the daily news roundup emails I get from the NYT I found only one article about it, right next to a piece about the two girls who threw soup on the Van Gogh. And, actually, I’m positive that the soup throwing story has got more attention and is more widely known—particularly to the “man on the street”. I’m sure this won’t be the case forever, but it is an illustration of how important pivot points in history are often only obvious in retrospect. 

Tanner Greer of Scholar’s Stage certainly thinks that’s what’s happened

I cannot foresee what the ultimate effect of this decision will be. we’ve just crossed a threshold, the kind historians decades from now will point to as one of those points of no return.

I don’t see a future now where the US-China relationship is not as dark as the Cold War rivalry.

So we have followed the thread back to its center and declared war on the future of China—its future military capacity, technological advance, and economic dynamism. We are now officially, openly, in the business of making sure China will not rise higher.

Is it really that bad? Have we crossed some sort of Rubicon as Greer maintains? Perhaps. 

Experts are still trying to understand exactly what impact these new limits will have, but the US appears to have used its influence both domestically and with its allies to cut off China’s access to: advanced GPUs of the kind used for AI, the latest generation of advanced general purpose chips, and the equipment and software necessary to make such chips on their own.

Given that computer chips occupy a very special place in the structure of the modern world, and that China can’t construct such chips domestically, it’s very possible that none of the above was an exaggeration. 

Something seemed to be brewing for a while on this front, and in order to understand it better I had started reading Chip War: The Quest to Dominate the World’s Most Critical Technology by Chris Miller, before this happened. It ended up being fortuitous, and as is so often the case, my good fortune is your good fortune, because I’m going to explain everything.

Actually, no, similar to The Princess Bride “…there is too much. Let me sum up.” And I’m probably not even going to be doing much summing up, that will come later when I do my formal review. What I’m really interested in is a brief survey of the potential futures if the US is going to try to cut China off from the “World’s Most Critical Technology”.

If you do want a good summation of things, and you don’t want to read a whole book. I would recommend this piece by Ben Thompson in his newsletter Stratechery. As for me I’m going to hit a bunch of points where I’ll largely be thinking out loud and asking questions:

II- Chips vs. Oil

Interestingly, only a couple of days before the US made its announcement about limits on exporting chips to China, OPEC+ announced that it was cutting oil production by two million barrels a day. This is another example of something that got far more attention than the chip restrictions, but in the long run will probably end up being less consequential.

The timing is interesting because one of the points that Miller makes over and over again in Chip War is that chips are as critical to an early 21st century nation as oil was to an early 19th century nation. And that in fact China spends more each year importing chips than it does importing oil. That will probably change with these restrictions. Which is a big deal both for China and for those nations and companies that are importing chips to China, a point we’ll return to. 

Also, Miller points out that the bottlenecks in the chip industry are considerable:

Unlike oil, which can be bought from many countries, our production of computing power depends fundamentally on a series of choke points: tools, chemicals, and software that often are produced by a handful of companies—and sometimes only by one. No other facet of the economy is so dependent on so few firms. Chips from Taiwan provide 37 percent of the world’s new computing power each year. Two Korean companies produce 44 percent of the world’s memory chips. The Dutch company ASML builds 100 percent of the world’s extreme ultraviolet lithography machines, without which cutting-edge chips are simply impossible to make. OPEC’s 40 percent share of world oil production looks unimpressive by comparison.

You’ll notice that those are all essentially US allies, probably more tightly bound to the US than the nations of OPEC+ are bound to each other. 

Speaking of oil, the nightmare analogy here is comparing Biden’s October 2022 restrictions on chips to Roosevelt’s July 1941 oil embargo against Japan. Roosevelt cut off 88% of Japan’s access to imported oil. Biden has (so far as I can tell) cut off 100% of China’s access to high end chips. In response to the oil embargo, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It remains to be seen what China will do in response to the chip restrictions. Though as it turns out the world’s premier supplier of high end chips, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), is just 100 miles away from China, which brings us to:

III- China and Taiwan

TSMC produces 90% of the world’s most advanced chips, and the majority of production happens just across the strait from China in Taiwan. If there was some way for China to ensure that by capturing Taiwan they could seize that production, I think this would be the moment they tried it. Unfortunately for them, fabs are pretty fragile. The machines require unbelievable precision (which I’ll talk about more in a minute) and thousands of specialized parts. The fabs also require a staggering amount of expertise to operate, so the Chinese would not only have to figure out how to seize a fab without damaging it, but also figure out some way to secure the cooperation of the majority of the personnel. As both things are unlikely to happen, and given that China needs those chips, this setup has been called the silicon shield. China can’t invade Taiwan without destroying the supply of something it desperately needs in order to be the modern country it aspires to.

But, as Thompson points out in his newsletter, “one of the risks of cutting China off from TSMC is that the deterrent value of TSMC’s operations is diminished.” In other words if they can’t access TSMCs high end chips because of the recently passed restrictions then they suffer no harm from destroying those fabs, and there’s the opportunity to inflict significant harm on their global rivals. 

Beyond all this I would add my normal caution that the shadowy future is the natural breeding ground of black swans and that the particular part of the future which lies at the intersection of China, Taiwan, the US and chips seems like exceptional fecund territory. 

IV- China’s Path

In light of all of the foregoing, what will China do? What should China do? I haven’t seen any evidence that the chip restrictions are some kind of negotiating strategy. That the US is putting them out there as the first step in making a deal, i.e. “We’ll lift the restrictions on chips if you stop oppressing the Uyghurs, restore democratic norms in Hong Kong, renounce all claims to Taiwan, etc.” If such demands existed then China, and also we, as observers, could evaluate the ROI, but instead as Greer pointed out, we have “declared war on the future of China.”

 

Obviously, as has already been alluded to, it could escalate to actual war. But if we set that aside for the moment what other possibilities are there? The obvious course of action would be for China to build up their own ability to manufacture these chips. And certainly they’re doing this, but this is a profoundly difficult endeavor, which, even if everything goes perfectly, will take years to pull off. As Miller points out in Chip War:

China’s problem isn’t only in chip fabrication. In nearly every step of the process of producing semiconductors, China is staggeringly dependent on foreign technology, almost all of which is controlled by China’s geopolitical rivals—Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or the United States. The software tools used to design chips are dominated by U.S. firms, while China has less than 1 percent of the global software tool market, according to data aggregated by scholars at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. When it comes to core intellectual property, the building blocks of transistor patterns from which many chips are designed, China’s market share is 2 percent; most of the rest is American or British. China supplies 4 percent of the world’s silicon wafers and other chipmaking materials; 1 percent of the tools used to fabricate chips; 5 percent of the market for chip designs. It has only a 7 percent market share in the business of fabricating chips. None of this fabrication capacity involves high-value, leading-edge technology.

No one doubts that China is willing to throw money and resources at the problem, the question is whether that’s enough. Can they be certain that given long enough they will eventually be able to make chips as good as TSMC? What is “long enough”? Is it reasonable to expect it in a year? Five years? Ten? Never? We will cover this last possibility in the next section, but it would seem that there’s also some time horizon past which it might as well be never. If it takes them 10 years to catch up, then at a minimum the state of the art is 10 years farther on. Plus everything that uses chips is 10 years behind. All of which is to say it’s hard to imagine that—if it were really going to take this long—that China would just sit back and decide to be patient.

On the other side of the equation, if it were merely 1 year, then they probably would try and wait it out. But no one thinks that China is one year behind TSMC. Intel is 4-5 years behind TSMC and everyone pretty much agrees that China would love to be where Intel is at the moment. 

Now to be fair, China’s chief chip manufacturer, SMIC, has apparently produced some 7 nanometer chips, which is exactly where Intel is hoping to be at the start of next year. But can China scale this process up? It’s not enough to make one chip or even a thousand chips, you have to be able to make hundreds of thousands. TSMC is making 150,000 5 nm chips a month. Most people believe that even if SMIC managed to put together a 7 nm chip, it could not produce tens of thousands of them a month. Also it’s not clear if they can still make them after the imposition of the export limits. 

To return to the question of “how long”, it’s hard to say, but if they really are cut off from high end Western chip  technology, then I think the answer is longer than they are willing to wait. And maybe never, which takes us to our next section…

V- Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography

Out of all the components that go into making the most advanced chips, the scarcest and most expensive are the extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) machines. They are made by a single Dutch company, ASML. According to Chip War, the technology “took tens of billions of dollars and several decades to develop” and the resulting machines have “hundreds of thousands” of components from “thousands of suppliers”.

In the beginning a silicon chip might have had a few thousand transistors. But as Gordon Moore famously observed, the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years. The technology for placing more and more transistors on a single chip involved using light of lower and lower wavelengths, thus the “extreme ultraviolet” designation. But as the wavelengths got lower the challenges mounted. Chip War gives an overview of the precision required:

If the mirrors in an EUV system were scaled to the size of Germany, the company said, their biggest irregularities would be a tenth of a millimeter. To direct EUV light with precision, they must be held perfectly still, requiring mechanics and sensors so exact that [the company] boasted they could be used to aim a laser to hit a golf ball as far away as the moon.

Before ASML finally put all the pieces together in 2018 the two biggest companies, Nikon and Canon, had given up. Beyond that several people publicly declared that it was impossible. One could make a credible claim that the EUV machines produced by ASML are the most technically advanced thing that humans have ever done. Each machine costs $150 million dollars and ASML has said that it’s not particularly worried about trade restrictions because their backlog is already so great. 

It’s hard to know exactly how long it would take China to create their own EUV machines, but I’ve seen estimates of at least ten years, and this assumes that they throw everything they have at it: unlimited money, the smartest people, all the tech their spies can steal, etc. That sounds right to me, possibly even optimistic. 

For the sake of argument let’s say that China is able to produce 7 nanometer chips at scale in a reasonable timeframe. Soon enough that they don’t end up doing something rash. Will it matter that EUV is still out of their reach?

Of the many battles being fought here, one of the biggest revolves around military capability. It’s possible that if AI becomes a big part of waging war, that the difference between an AI that can be built with TSMC/ASML 3 nm chips and the AI that can be built with Chinese 7 nm chips (assuming they can be built at scale) is like the difference between an F-22 and an F-15, or it could be that the difference is really not that great. Since military AI of the sort that will be used on autonomous drones is still in its infancy (and subject to numerous moral concerns) it’s not clear which it will be. But clearly if you could choose you’d want the more advanced chip. 

The estimate of ten years could end up being never, given how much could change in that time. Also it’s possible that even if China had all the time in the world that they might never be able to create their own EUV machines. Certainly lots of countries are incapable of producing tech above a certain level. (Russia would have dearly loved to have its own high tech chip industry, but despite massive effort during the Cold War they just fell farther and farther behind.) Perhaps in order to get an ASML you need the innovation, liquidity, and drive of the entire western developed world. And China just can’t duplicate that by itself.

VI- The Economics of Things 

We’re still at the very beginning of the US restrictions. Not only is it far too early to see how they’re going to play out, but also China has yet to retaliate with restrictions of their own—which they presumably will. In addition to waiting for China’s reaction there are also numerous other players whose reactions we’re still waiting on, collectively we call these players “The Market” and in the end their reactions might be far more decisive than China’s. 

First let’s talk about where these two categories overlap. China is definitely part of “The Market”. Not only do they import a lot of chips, they import a lot of everything. They also export a lot of everything, including chips. We’ve been entirely focused on high-end chips, but what about low-end chips? China has traditionally done pretty well at competing at the lower end of things and chips are no exception. From Thompson’s Stratechery post:

In the end it was China that picked up a lot of the slack: the company’s [sic? I think this should be “country’s”] commitment to building its own semiconductor industry is not a new one (just much more pressing), and part of the process of walking the path I detailed above is building more basic chips using older technologies. China’s share of >45 nanometer chips was 23% in 2019, and probably over 35% today; its share of 28-45 nanometer chips was 19% in 2019 and is probably approaching 30% today. Moreover, these chips still make up most of the volume for the industry as a whole…

I’m not exactly sure how this will affect the “Chip War” but it at least demonstrates that China has some chip-making leverage of its own which it may use. We saw what happened during the pandemic when there were supply chain disruptions with chips. 35% and 30% are pretty big chunks of those supply chains should the Chinese choose to disrupt them.

Second, it should be noted that the US is mostly fighting this war through proxies. We’ve already mentioned that ASML and TSMC are foreign companies, but it goes deeper than just two companies, our own chip industry is in disarray. See for example this article from The Economist: The American chip industry’s $1.5trn meltdown, which points out that we’re suffering from a supply glut already. Or this article from Foreign Affairs: How Silicon Valley Lost the Chips Race. Meaning that while we don’t need ASML and TSMC as much as China does, we do need them, and it’s not clear how long they’re going to go along with the US throwing its weight around. Certainly they’ll play along for a while, but at some point one has to imagine that they’re going to run out of patience. 

Of course there’s also the broader reaction companies and countries will have to these restrictions. We’ve recently seen pushback against similar attempts to shape international markets, for example the Saudis reneging on the secret deal the Biden White House thought they’d made to increase oil production. Chip restrictions would seem to fit into a similar narrative. 

Obviously a full discussion of all the potential market distortions and other reactions these restrictions might engender is outside the scope of this post, but I would be very surprised if there weren’t large and unexpected negative second order effects from this policy. 

VII- Longer term

As we saw in Part I, some people are framing this as a new cold war. When considering the long term implications of the war over chips, that’s probably a good way of looking at it, because it basically boils down to a competition between two systems. On the one side we have the globalized Western economies. On the other side we have a semi-planned, semi-communist, semi-facist authoritarian economy, which has been able to grow at a truly staggering rate over the last several decades. 

Both systems are showing signs of weakness. As much as the Western world appears to be holding all the trump cards, they have historically been reluctant to really push that advantage. A trade war with China is going to be painful, particularly when the economy is already hurting. Globalism works best when it’s global, and China was already very tightly integrated with that system.

On the other side of things, China seems to be falling into the same trap most authoritarian regimes fall into, of centralizing power, which leads to myopia, which leads to bad policies. Consider China’s continued increasingly draconic and misguided efforts to maintain zero covid. Though it’s worth noting that the Chinese chip industry is so important that rather than shut it down, people are just living at the factory.

In general it boils down to a lot of things I’ve been talking about recently. Is Peter Zeihan right and China will wither if deprived of globalism? Is this the first step in that? Or is Ray Dalio right, and China is on its way up, and our chip restrictions will end up being too little too late? Both think that the Far East is going to end up being a very different place in the future. Zeihan thinks Japan will be the regional hegemon, Dalio thinks it’s going to be China. In either case an awful lot of the chip making capacity we depend on is in Taiwan, Korea and Japan. If the US loses its influence in the region then one could imagine the tables turning, with the US being the one cut off from high tech chips. 

Francis Fukuyama, who’s enjoying a moment in the sun right now, would say that liberal democracies are better at science and science makes you better at war. And maybe it will come to that, and we’ll see which of the two systems is better. Right now China appears to be on the ropes, but I’d like to leave you with one final thought. TSMC is not on top because Taiwan is a model liberal democracy. TSMC is on top because the Taiwanese government gave them a huge amount of assistance, and US companies made some bad decisions. China is more than capable of providing similar levels of assistance, and we are still capable of making very bad decisions. 


Now that I’ve shared my good fortune with you, it’s time for me to ask for you to share your good fortune with me. You know the drill… 


The Midterms: Biases and a Lack of Moderation

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

Or download the MP3


I.

The midterms are just about here, and while I generally stay away from the daily scrum of politics, I do think it’s worth trying to understand which way the wind is blowing when elections roll around, particularly national elections. This is even more important these days, when politics just keeps getting stranger.

There was a time when predicting what it would look like if the Republicans took control of both houses was pretty straightforward, perhaps even a little boring. That is no longer the case, the universe of possibilities is much broader. Which is not necessarily to say that there is the potential for crazy laws to be passed. Whatever happens in November the Republicans are not going to end up with a filibuster proof majority to say nothing of a veto proof majority. But there is plenty of potential for crazy behavior. 

A few days ago I came across an article about Marjorie Taylor Greene. One of the more radical of Trump’s supporters in the House. In February of 2021 she was removed from all committee assignments because of these radical views and “endorsements of political violence”. But rather than sinking into obscurity, as many people predicted, her clout has actually increased. I thought this bit was particularly interesting: 

Early last year, House Republicans met to discuss whether to remove Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from a leadership position after she voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack. (They eventually did.) In that meeting, Greene justified her support for QAnon and other conspiracy theories — and about a third of the conference stood up and applauded her.

“The headline tonight is that we tried to kick out Liz Cheney, and we gave a standing ovation to Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina warned at the time.

Now this is not to say that there’s not craziness on the other side. There’s plenty. The Democrats should be very glad that Joe Manchin was around to keep them from doing anything truly stupid like eliminating the filibuster, or packing the court. As a reward for this he got a lot of hate from those Democrats, who seemed not to realize that if they didn’t have Joe Manchin they wouldn’t have control of the senate period. Since he’s the only Democrat that could conceivably win in West Virginia, and if he wasn’t around they would have sent a Republican in his place. 

II.

Of course control of the Senate is the number one question for those watching the election. And at this point most people are betting that the Republicans won’t manage to pull it off. Scratch that, in the time between now and when I wrote that, now most people are betting that they will pull it off. Sill there are several interesting wrinkles to this question. The biggest is polling bias

When people make these predictions they rely heavily, though not exclusively on polls. As you may have heard, over the course of the last few elections, polls have underestimated Republican support, oftentimes by quite a bit. You would think that after such misses that they would make adjustments and that after these adjustments you would see polls get more accurate, or you might even start seeing an overcorrection, with polls overstating support for Republicans. But that hasn’t happened. Before we get into why that might be, it’s interesting to examine the last 13 federal elections. (Data taken from this 538 article which looked at the “generic ballot”.) 

  • In those 13 elections going all the way back to 1996, there was a Democratic bias ten times, a Republican bias two times and the polls were dead on one time,
  • The one time they were dead on was 2018. 
  • 2020 was not the worst miss, (at least using this metric) but you have to go back to the very beginning (1996) to find a worse miss in a year with a presidential election. (Also it’s my impression that we’re polling more, but I couldn’t find a source to corroborate that.)
  • The average bias across all 13 years was 2.5 in favor of Democrats 

This isn’t necessarily the best data for understanding what’s been happening, but I think it illustrates a key point. The Democratic bias has been around for a long time. If it is just a methodological error, 26 years is a long time for pollsters to still be working on a fix. And of course it hasn’t been gradually getting better. It appears to be steadily getting worse.

This was the conclusion Richard Hanania drew when took a more fine grained look at polling data from four categories of races. He looked at races for President, Governor, Senate and the House, and there was the same consistent Democratic bias, but it was much worse in the 2014-2020 period. He then went on to argue, which was the claim which got the most attention, that this bias could not be corrected.

But what if the problem is that Republican voters are the type of people that don’t talk to pollsters? And the few Republicans that do talk to them are unrepresentative of the party itself? If this were the case, then there would be no clear fix. A recent paper by Vanderbilt University professor Joshua Clinton and two colleagues called “Reluctant Republicans, Eager Democrats? Partisan Nonresponse and the Accuracy of 2020 Presidential Pre-Election Telephone Polls” indicates that this is exactly what is happening.

I’m not sure that this is exactly what’s happening, let’s turn to the section of the Clinton paper Hanania chooses to quote:

In the worst case of Wisconsin, likely Republicans according to the voter file were less likely to cooperate with the survey, less likely to self-identify with the Republican Party, and nearly 50 percent reported having voted for Biden. While some of this seems likely to be measurement error in the partisanship measure of the voter file being used, it also raises the possibility that the likely Republicans who cooperated with the poll were much more likely to support Biden than the likely Republicans who did not respond.

For me what jumps out is the figure that 50 percent reported having voted for Biden. Truly this is a strange batch of Republicans. Hanania thinks that:

Of course, given that Biden only won Wisconsin by 0.6%, there is no way that Trump only won half of Republicans in that state. What this paper is saying is that either the Republicans that the pollsters were reaching were highly unrepresentative, or maybe they weren’t any good at imputing partisanship in the first place.

I want to suggest a third possibility. Maybe these people are lying about who they voted for. You might call it trolling the pollsters, or you might imagine they’re doing it for the lulz. The point is that there is increasingly an anti-authoritarian streak among Republicans (nor can I say I entirely blame them) and is there any reason to suspect that they’re going to trust pollsters when they don’t trust any other authority figures? And certainly the most likely thing to do if you don’t trust pollsters is to ignore them, but lying to them also seems entirely plausible. 

I could go on, but the central point Hanania makes, which I would echo, is that there’s no easy way to fix the problem. And this is even more true if I’m right and there is some significant percentage of voters who are just outright lying to pollsters. 

III.

More than polling and what happens at the midterms the bigger question is what happens in 2024. But of course the midterms will definitely provide a preview of that. And one of the biggest things people will be looking at is how those candidates closest to Trump do in the general election. Obviously given the aforementioned problems with polling predicting outcomes at this point seems particularly pointless. As an example take the race between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. Warnock is up by at least 3 points over Walker in Georgia, and it does feel like Walker is in trouble more generally. If this were 20 years ago I think the outcome would be clear (and Walker probably wouldn’t have been the nominee in the first place.) But these days? Who can say. Certainly polls have been wrong by more than 3 points in the past. So I guess we’ll have to see. But as a more general matter it’s hard to see a situation where Trump backed candidates do so poorly that Trump’s power is broken within the Republican party. 

If it’s not (or even if it is) everyone expects Trump to run in 2024, and possibly announce his candidacy shortly after the midterms, though more likely he’ll wait until 2023. Lots of people further assume, or perhaps just hope, that Desantis will challenge him in the primary. I expect this to happen as well. Beyond that things get less clear and mostly I just have questions. What does a Desantis/Trump primary look like? Presumably other people will throw their hats into the ring as well, will that make any difference? Despite the fact that elected politicians just keep getting older and older, age has not really been a factor. Will that finally change? Assuming Desantis does enter the primary against Trump, I expect it to get pretty ugly, with the possibility that it could develop in alarming directions.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether Garland will indict Trump, and if so what effect that will have on things. Several people are very confidently predicting that he will, while other people seem less sure. I think if he’s just going to indict him for obstruction of justice then he probably shouldn’t, but I haven’t been following things all that closely. I’m more of a mind with Matt Taibbi: We’ve had six years of the “We’ve definitely got him now!” show. But yet:

The Endless Prosecution not only failed to win Trump’s accusers the public’s loyalty, it apparently achieved the opposite, somehow swinging working-class and even nonwhite voters toward Republicans in what even Axios this week called a “seismic shift” in American politics.

Democrats six years ago were presented with a unique opportunity, one so obvious even Donald Trump figured it out. The electorate was angry, beaten down, and willing to listen to anyone with a real plan, and instead of providing one — the obvious project would have involved throwing over some key donors for a while, then ripping off the populist politics of Bernie Sanders to re-sell them with slicker packaging — party leaders spent all their currency trying to sue, indict, impeach, remove, or jail Trump.

So yes, who knows if Garland will indict Trump, but I think it’s madness to assume that if he does that this will be the thing that finally brings him down. In any case, despite my questions I think the arc of the Republican party at least through 2024 is pretty easy to imagine. We’ve seen Trump in action. We even have a pretty good read on Desantis. We’ve had six years of the “We’ve definitely got him now!” show, and I expect that years seven and eight of the show will be much the same even if there’s a late series actor swap where Desantis steps into Trump’s role. But what about the Democrats? Is Biden really going to run in 2024? Or perhaps the better question is who’s going to run if it’s not Biden?

It is a source of continual amazement to me that the Democrats don’t have a deeper bench. I get that there is in fact a long list of names (Harris, Newsom, Buttegieg, etc.) , but none of them seem particularly presidential. And I suppose that they might seem more presidential once they’re the actual nominee. That foreseeing whether someone is presidential is difficult to actually do, but easy to imagine having done in hindsight. Which is to say my memory is that Obama appeared presidential even when he was a long shot, but it’s possible I’m suffering from hindsight bias.

I suppose the clearest example of what I mean can be seen if you look at Bernie Sanders. The guy is 81 years old, clearly he should have some kind of designated heir. Someone people can look to as the obvious head of his movement once he’s gone. And yet no such person exists. Why is that? And it feels like you could basically say the same thing for Biden. Sure there’s Kamala Harris, but they’re sure not treating her like the heir apparent. And what about Obama? Who’s carrying on his legacy? Because it’s not Biden. Not only is Obama going to outlive Biden, but it’s clear that Obama was lukewarm, at best, about Biden’s candidacy. It’s possible that I’m being too critical, but it is telling that when people put together lists of potential non-Biden candidates they end up scrapping both ends of the age distribution. See for example this list of seven which includes Saunders and Warren (who have already tried to get the nomination) and AOC, who if she were a month younger wouldn’t be old enough to actually run for president. And of course there’s Biden himself…

There’s probably a whole discussion to be had about how we’ve turned into a gerontocracy. But I’m not sure that I have anything novel to add. Though clearly the incumbency advantage is far larger than would be ideal. Finally, I should also mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that none of the potential Republican candidates seem particularly presidential to me either, but I no longer trust my ability to identify successful Republican candidates.

IV.

As you may remember I live in Utah, and the Senate race here is definitely interesting. The Democrats, knowing that they had no chance of getting one of their own elected, nominated Evan McMullin, a Never Trump Republican who actually ran for president in 2016. He’s unlikely to win, but he has been polling better than people expected (though of course see part II). I would love to see a situation where the Senate ended up with 49 Democrats, 50 Republicans and McMullin. I don’t think it would save the country or anything like that, but it would be interesting and also pretty unprecedented. Also, though I’m sure I wouldn’t like everything McMullin would do, he’d be positioned to be a moderating influence and I think we need more of that, at all levels. 

The Washington Post appears to agree with me and calls the “Evan McMullin scenario” “intriguing”. On the other hand MSNBC worries that it’s a “dangerous new trend”, worrying that if he were elected it would lead to more “Manchin-esque machinations”. I already talked about Manchin and I continue to be perplexed that Democrats are so opposed to this sort of thing. Would they really rather have Mike Lee in the Senate over Evan McMullin? Or Joe Manchin over a generic Trump Republican? Perhaps they imagine that if the Utah Democrats had nominated an actual Democrat rather than a Never Trump Republican that this hypothetical Democrat would have won? Or that there’s some value to ideological purity which exceeds the value of actually being in power?

All of these leads into a topic I’ve discussed before on several occasions. A question I’ve been asking all of my adult life: Are we ever going to see a viable third party? (To be clear this would have to be along the lines of the Republicans replacing the Whigs, not significant legislative representation from three separate parties. The US just isn’t set up in such a way for that to ever happen.) If we did get a third party, where would its support come from? With both the Republicans and Democrats becoming increasingly radical there would appear to be a lot of space in the center, and neither of the parties seem very interested in that space. My impression is that it’s more common to talk about the intransigence of the Republicans, but the venom being unleashed on Manchin, and to a lesser extent McMullin illustrates that there’s a similar level of intransigence present among the Democrats as well. 

What’s particularly interesting is that this intransigence operates in both directions—against their allies and their enemies. For many Republicans, any Democrat, no matter how moderate, is essentially indistinguishable from a Communist, and any Republican who doesn’t think the 2020 election was stolen is a traitor. And on the Democratic side, Republicans are all literal fascists, while all Democrats are expected to be unwavering in their support for several, pretty extreme, issues. I thought Matthew Ygelsias put it well in a recent newsletter:

So to tempt voters away from literal fascism, have they been given candidates in the purple districts (D+4/R+4) who disagree with progressives about gun control? Who support banning late-term abortions? Who have qualms about trans women competing against cis women in college sports? Who favor changing asylum law to try to cut off the flow of migrants arriving at the southern border? Who think it’s a problem that college admissions offices discriminate against Asian applicants and low-income whites? I’m not saying every candidate in every swing district should dissent from party leaders on all those subjects, but how many dissent on any of them? [emphasis mine]

I don’t know the exact answer, but my sense is very few. This is one of the reasons why I find McMullin so fascinating. Yet another publication called his nomination a hail mary. Are we going to start seeing more such hail marys? Is he the start of something new? A sign that parties are actually serious about defeating those they identify as extremists rather than fail nobly as they dogmatically cling to their ideology? At the moment, given that the Republicans are strongly favored to win the house, and it’s starting to look more and more like they’ll take the Senate as well—RCP has them gaining 3 seats, while in that same newsletter I already mentioned, Yglesias gave them a 70% chance of taking at least 1 seat—this question is mainly directed at Democrats. I think they should be trying more hail marys of the kind they tried in Utah, or there’s always the option to become more moderate en masse. 

It’s my impression that one of the things that’s preventing this kind of moderation is that Democratic politicians end up in something of an ideological bubble. The only people willing to work for a campaign are young kids who are either in college or fresh out of college. And perhaps you’ve heard, but this demographic happens to be especially radical. At least radical enough to believe the exact opposite of all those things Yglesias listed. This would seem to have some effect on the positions of the candidates they’re working for. I’m sure the people working for Biden skew older, which is one of the reasons he’s been able to position himself as something of a moderate. But there’s evidence of this effect even in his case. Exhibit #1 would have to be the way he ended up completely undermining his post-Dobbs, Inflation Reduction Act bounce by announcing a completely misguided policy to forgive student loans. You know who loves the idea of student loan forgiveness? Young Democratic staffers…

If the Democrats aren’t going to moderate, and the Republicans have no incentive to moderate (particularly if they take the House AND Senate.) That leaves a couple of options. The first, which is fascinating, but incredibly unlikely, is that we get an actual third party. The last time this happened was also during a time of severe civic discord, but other than that the situations are hardly comparable. The Whigs had only been around for a little over 20 years. Also the new Republican party had a couple of very concrete ideas to rally around (anti-slavery and anti-polygamy) that were the opposite of moderate. And however bad it is at the moment, the 1850s were far worse.

The only remaining option I can think of would be the one we’re already pursuing: abandoning the center. But is it just the politicians who are abandoning it, or is it being abandoned by everyone? Certainly the moderate middle is getting smaller. People are becoming more radical. But are we on course for a moderate middle that’s so small that it no longer has the power to swing elections? Where even if the parties were to be wiser than they are now, that there still would be no point in trying to take a more moderate stance because there are not enough moderates left for whom that’s appealing?

That seems like a pretty dark view of the future, but is there any reason to believe that’s not where we’re headed?


I’m just realizing that I had intended to do this whole section about the longer term outlook for both parties. They’re not great. Kind of like these end of post appeals for donations


Dalio vs. Zeihan

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My last newsletter briefly compared three different visions for the future. The first was laid out by Peter Zeihan in his book The End of the World is Just the Beginning. (See my review here.) Zeihan’s book was in my opinion the most pessimistic of the three, but if all you care about is the US then you might call Zeihan an optimist. Certainly he was more optimistic about the US than the second book, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail, by Ray Dalio (review here). But Dalio was more optimistic in general. However, the crown for the most optimistic take on the future belongs to David Deutsch and his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (review here) which outlined an optimism for the future which bordered on the religious.

As part of the newsletter I discussed how one might respond to these three very different versions of the future, but I postponed discussing the actual details for another post. This is that post. I plan to spend most of my time on Zeihan and Dalio, but I’ll toss in Deutsch from time to time to liven things up. 

Also it’s going to be impossible to avoid repeating some of the things I already said in my review of the books, so for those who read those reviews I apologize in advance for the duplication, but I do hope to spend most of this post comparing and contrasting the various predictions, rather than discussing them individually.

I- Is the US Doomed Or What? 

As I already mentioned one of the biggest disagreements between the two authors is their take on the future of US power. Dalio brings a very cyclical view to his analysis, which is to say his approach involves finding patterns in the past and then looking for those patterns in our current situation. And the pattern he sees when he looks at the US is of a nation that has passed his peak and is on the way down.

Zeihan obviously has a very different approach. He’s a geopolitical analyst, so he’s interested in what resources are where. Who trades with whom and why. Where is the food produced and where is it consumed. Natural barriers and what might make conquering a nation easier or harder. It’s hard to tell how he feels about political and culture cycles. He never mentions them in his book, and he only mentions financial cycles once, in the briefest fashion possible. I suspect he would acknowledge the existence of all those cycles, but would argue that they’re overshadowed by questions of geography. Take this quote as an example:  

Even the biggest and most badass of all those echo empires—the Romans—“Only” survived for five centuries in the dog-eat-dog world of early history. In contrast, Mesopotamia and Egypt both lasted multiple millennia.

First, I couldn’t figure out what he meant by “echo empire”. But if we get past that he’s basically saying that if you have geography on your side there’s almost no limit to how long your civilization can last. Yes, there will be ups and downs, but underlying all that there will be continuity. You won’t have the dramatic and complete collapse that we saw with Rome. But on the other hand if you don’t have geography it doesn’t matter how “badass” you are, your days are numbered. 

This is the source of his optimism about the US. According to Zeihan we have the best geography ever. From this can we assume that Zeihan thinks that the US of A will last for thousands of years? In a similar fashion to Egypt and Mesopotamia? He never explicitly puts a time horizon on the country’s lifespan, but he does assert that whatever our current difficulties are, they will be temporary. 

…the United States will largely escape the carnage to come. That probably triggered your BS detector. How can I assert that the United States will waltz through something this tumultuous? 

…I understand the reflexive disbelief…Sometimes it feels as though American policy is pasted together from the random thoughts of the four-year-old product of a biker rally tryst between Bernie Sanders and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

My answer? That’s easy: it isn’t about them. It has never been about them. And by “them” I don’t simply mean the unfettered wackadoos of contemporary America’s radicalized Left and Right, I mean America’s political players in general. The 2020s are not the first time the United States has gone through a complete restructuring of its political system. This is round seven for those of you with minds of historical bents. Americans survived and thrived before because their geography is insulated from, while their demographic profile is starkly younger than, the bulk of the world. They will survive and thrive now and into the future for similar reasons. America’s strengths allow her debates to be petty, while those debates barely affect her strengths.

Perhaps the oddest thing of our soon-to-be present is that while the Americans revel in their petty, internal squabbles, they will barely notice that elsewhere the world is ending!!!

Let’s assume that Zeihan is right about all of this, that still doesn’t mean that a “complete restructuring of [our] political system” is going to be pleasant. Presumably, one of the seven times this restructuring happened previously was the Civil War, and yes we did survive, and eventually our thriving continued, but for those that experienced the era that stretched from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 through the end of Reconstruction in 1877 those debates didn’t seem petty or temporary. 

Meaning at a minimum while Zeihan might have good news for my great grandkids, it might still be awful news for my children and grandchildren. But also, we shouldn’t discount the idea that his assessment of American durability powered by geography could in fact be entirely misguided, but I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s interesting is that while Dalio and Zeihan disagree about so much else their short term projections end up being very similar.

You might remember this graph from my review of Dalio:

Dalio’s assessment is that history moves in an upward sloping corkscrew pattern. It loops up during the good times and down during the bad times, but the overall trend is positive.  Dalio believes the US has peaked, but according to Dalio that’s okay because Spain, the Netherlands and the UK have all peaked as well and they’re doing fine at the moment. Sure they’re not the biggest dog on the block anymore, but the average living standard for their citizens is still in the top 20% globally. Similarly, there will be some disruption and bad times as the baton is passed to China, but over the long term things in the US will be comparable to things in the UK. We won’t have the superabundance we had when we were at the top of the heap, but we’ll be fine.

Given that the period all of us are most interested in is the next 20-30 years it should be at least a little bit sobering that both Zeihan and Dalio are saying that this period is going to be bumpy. Sure it’s some comfort that both believe after a couple of decades or so of bumpiness that things are going to be fine. But what if they’re right about the bumpiness, but wrong about the “eventually fine” part? Unfortunately I think there’s good reason to believe that they might be. 

The problem, as I see it, is that both of them have decided that a certain period in history, and certain nations from that period can tell us what’s going to happen to the US. That these nations provide an accurate model from which we can draw conclusions. For Dalio it’s recent history because that’s where there’s sufficient data for him to draw some conclusions. As such he’s looking at the UK, and before them the Netherlands, and before them Spain. Those countries were all top dog at one point or another, but he also looks at France and Germany, countries that could have been top dogs. You may be noticing a geographic bias. All of those countries are in Europe. Which is not to say that Dalio didn’t look at non-european countries. But Europe is where the data is best, and where all the recent great powers were located. 

I completely understand why he did it, but I still think it’s myopic, and as a further example of myopia, Dalio spends most of his time examining what it looks like for a country to rise and fall and not nearly enough time on the transitions from one country being on top to the next. In particular how the next transition might be different than the previous ones. As I argued in my review, the most recent transitions have been exceptionally mild. Transitioning from the Netherlands to the UK involved two countries separated by a thin stretch of ocean, that at one point had the same king. Transitioning from the UK to the US happened sometime in the early 20th century when both countries were allies in the World Wars, and both spoke the same language. The situation with the US and China is entirely different. If, as Dalio claims, a transition is happening, it seems unlikely to look anything like the previous two reserve currency/economic/cultural/military transitions he spends most of his time on. 

So that’s Dalio, what about Zeihan? What point in history and what nations within that period is Zeihan using for his model? He doesn’t place a huge emphasis on it, but I really do think that his example nations are Egypt and Mesopotamia. Spots which were safe for empires for thousands of years. And while I think that’s silly, I also kind of get it. Zeihan makes a powerful case for the US having uniquely amazing geography, but geography isn’t the only factor for long term survival. I mean Egypt and Mesopotamia didn’t survive to the present day. Something ended their thousands of years of stability, and that something was new technology. 

The easiest way of illustrating the point is not with either Egypt or Mesopotamia, but with Constantinople. Constantinople lasted a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it did so essentially because of its geography. It had the “geography” of its immense walls, plus it was a port so supplies and reinforcements could generally be brought in by sea. But at some point the technology was developed to destroy those walls, and that was the end of Constantinople. The US has the walls of the Atlantic and the Pacific, along with the fact that there are no credible competitor nations in North or South America. But the question of whether these “walls” could be breached would appear to be a very important one. 

The obvious candidates for such a breach are ICBMs, and as I mentioned both in this most recent review of Zeihan, but also in the review of the book before that, Zeihan seems curiously uninterested in exploring the possible use of nuclear weapons. I’m not necessarily saying that because he ignores nukes that he’s wrong about long term American dominance, there is a fair amount of “nuclear weapons are not that big of a deal” opinions floating around in the internet at the moment. But Zeihan should at least address the issue. He should explain why he’s not concerned about Russia and China using their ICBMs if their “worlds are ending” (see his quote above) and the US is sitting there fat and happy. The fact that he so completely ignores it makes me think I’m missing something. And I will say I did a quick search to see if there was a blog or something where he talks about it, but nothing obvious popped up.

I think Dalio, to a certain extent, also discounts technology. Deutsch, for all the shade I throw on him, at least doesn’t make the mistake of minimizing technology, rather he goes too far in the other direction, and furthermore seems to assume that such technology will be good.

I’ve spent longer than I intended talking about the US, but I do have three final points I’d like to squeeze in, mostly related to Zeihan’s take. First off, just because an area is secure from external threats, and doesn’t need external help doesn’t mean that it’s internally stable. Egypt may have lasted for over 3000 years, but a quick check of Wikipedia shows that during that time there were 31 dynasties with a mean length of 103 years. So what does it really mean for the US to be dominant? That for the foreseeable future North America will be the power base for the world’s most powerful country? Okay, but that says nothing about what sort of country it is, or even whether it’s a great deal for its citizens. Being a powerful country is only loosely correlated with keeping the country’s citizens happy and fulfilled. If you’re interested in preserving American culture, you’d almost have to say that Dalio is more optimistic despite his more pessimistic take for the country as a whole.

Second, Zeihan is very emphatic that we’ve been living through a moment that’s historically unprecedented. I am in total agreement with that, but Zeihan seems to mostly be focused on just one area in which it’s unprecedented: unrestricted, safe global trade. I think it’s unprecedented in at least a dozen other ways which makes predictions of the sort Zeihan is making particularly difficult. Both Zeihan and Dalio seem to think we’re at the end of an incredible historical run. (While Deutsch thinks we’re just at the beginning of one.) But is it possible they’ve misidentified exactly what it is that’s ending? Part of my problem with Dalio is that he’s predicting the decline of the US, but that would also mean the decline of the West, and since so much of his data comes from the West, if it’s also declining his data may be misleading rather than illuminating. Another thing that’s unprecedented is how democratic the US is. When you’re thinking about ancient empires and monarchies a lot of what was going on was churn at the top, while the bulk of the population kept doing what they were doing. These days any churn is going to be society wide. To return to the quote I mentioned earlier, Zeihan asserts that it was never about the political players, but these days everything is political and everyone is a player. What then?

Finally this idea that the US will retreat back to the Americas, and sit there, unperturbed, while the rest of the world descends into wars, famines and diseases seems way too simplistic. But this is precisely what Zeihan is predicting, and on a massive scale. He asserts that once the US withdraws from the world that a billion people will starve to death and two billion will be malnourished. I’m not sure what we would do if this was happening, but I don’t think it would be “nothing!”.  

II- Okay What About China? Is it the Next Hegemon or a Demographic Disaster That’s One Sunk Ship Away From Starvation and Collapse?

As I pointed out in my review, Zeihan asserts that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I was doubtful it happens on the very first shot, but I agree with Zeihan in general. If commercial ships become fair game for violence we are in a completely different world. But it’s not as if a switch gets flipped, Rather we would enter a time of profound uncertainty. Does this uncertainty play out in the fashion Dalio predicts, with China ending up on top? Or does it play out like Zeihan predicts with China, broken, starving, and malnourished? Or perhaps it never happens at all? Which is I guess what Deutsch would predict. Or is there some way for all three of them to be correct? 

There’s a quote from Adam Smith that is appropriate at times like this: “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. Meaning that when a nation has built up wealth, institutions, infrastructure and legitimacy over many decades that it takes a lot of disasters, not merely one, to destroy it. The same can be said for the postwar order. I think safe global trade has been engrained for long enough in people that it’s going to take a lot for things to switch back. That’s the sense and really the only sense in which Deutsch is correct. And I’m stretching to give him even that much credit because it is going to switch back at some point. But as long as it hasn’t, Dalio has made some good points, and Zeihan isn’t even in the game yet. Once the switch is flipped from safe to unsafe seas, well then Zeihan is your man, at least for identifying all of the weaknesses. As far as how those weaknesses play out, who knows. Despite how dour Zeihan’s predictions are, it could actually be worse, we could get all the famine he predicts, plus a full on nuclear exchange. My point, however, is that it’s farther out that Zeihan thinks. So as long as the switch hasn’t flipped, what happens with China?

A couple of years ago (almost exactly!) I examined a half dozen or so “takes” on China. Most of them proceed along lines you’re familiar with, with lots of discussion of Taiwan. But one that has always stuck with me is the assessment by Paul Midler.  Unless it was from reading my previous posts you’ve probably never heard of Midler. He’s English (or American, I can’t recall for sure) and he’s been working in China for decades. His claim is that the key to understanding the Chinese leadership is to understand that they don’t think in terms of perpetual progress, they think in terms of dynasties. They don’t imagine that conditions 50 years ago were worse than they are today, and that they’ll be better still 50 years hence. Their thinking is more cyclical. Dynasties rise and dynasties fall, and while they’re rising you get what you can, and while they’re falling you hunker down and survive. And according to Midler everything the current leadership is doing is an attempt to get what can be gotten while things are good. And if they do it well enough they might even still be in power when the cycle turns. They’re looking to check off boxes: Recapture Taiwan. Build a lot of stuff. Keep the country free of COVID. Etc. 

Looked at through this lens you can start to imagine how both Dalio and Zeihan might be seeing a piece of the elephant. Dalio sees the immense progress. He can see all the graphs going up. And in the past, when that happened in the West it heralded the rise of a new global power. But Dalio is viewing it as someone who expects people to pursue progress for its own sake because of the benefits it provides, not because of the positive PR it gives the leadership. But in contrast to the other countries he’s studied, China is far more of a top down society. Consequently most significant initiatives are driven by the leadership. On the other hand Zeihan sees the immense underlying weaknesses, and knows that things can’t last. But the Chinese leadership is seeing the same thing. Not only are they not blind to it, they expect it. They assume that things are going to come crashing down and they’re desperate to lock in as many accomplishments as they can. 

Pulling all of this together, including all of the stuff about the US, what do we end up with? In the near term we end up with an aggressive and achievement focused China butting heads with an America that is in transition. This transition is definitely happening on a lot of fronts but one of the biggest is ceasing to be the globocop. Willingly if you believe Zeihan. Unwillingly if you believe Dalio. But that transition is not going to be smooth (witness Ukraine). While a lot of this comes from the nature of the transition itself, America also seems to be suffering from serious internal problems as well. (Something which Dalio has a chart for, but which Zeihan mostly dismisses.) This makes the timing of this transition unfortunate.

In the medium term, there’s a lot of “ruin” in China, and they’re not going to go down without a fight. If they go down at all, but here’s where Midler’s take is important. I think even the Chinese expect that this is what’s going to happen, that the good times can’t last forever. Where is the US by this point? I think a post hegemonic America, having also passed through whatever chaos awaits us over the next couple of decades, will be significantly different than the America we’re used to and significantly different than what Zeihan is predicting. Though I agree with him that we’ll still be better off than Europe or China, and probably Africa and South America as well, but better doesn’t mean good.  

Over the long run? Well that sort of prediction is a suckers game, but to bring our third author in one last time, I guarantee that whatever Deutsch says, we are not at the “beginning of infinity”. We’re at the beginning of several very chaotic decades.


With a post like this, covering so much territory, there’s always a ton of stuff I don’t get to. One observation I had is that each author champions a different reserve currency. Zeihan thinks the dollar will continue in that role. Dalio thinks we’re going to switch to the yuan, and while he doesn’t say it. I peg Deutsch as a bitcoin guy. I don’t particularly care, I’ll take any thing


The 12 Books I Finished in September (One of Which I’m Not Allowed to Talk About)

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  1. The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization by: Peter Zeihan
  2. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by: David Deutsch
  3. Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by: Anne Applebaum
  4. Post-Truth by: Lee C. McIntyre
  5. Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be by: Steven Pressfield 
  6. A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest by: Robert Bell and William Dowling
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by: Agatha Christie
  8. Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1 by: Jack Campbell
  9. Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2 by: Jack Campbell
  10. Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3 by: Jack Campbell
  11. Outland by: Dennis E. Taylor

As mentioned in the title, one of the books I finished this month I’m not allowed to talk about because it hasn’t been published yet. This is not the first time someone has handed me a preprint, but in the past, I either never got around to reading it, or by the time I did it was about to be printed anyway, and so I didn’t need to delay my review. But this time around the book is a long way from being printed, and I only read it because a friend of mine was eager to get my thoughts on it. I found that not being able to review a book I was reading was very frustrating. I suppose that’s a good thing. It means on some level that my book reviewing habit has been firmly established. And not being able to immediately hold forth on a book is annoying. I’m hoping to still write the review while it’s fresh, but as I’m not under any kind of a deadline I may end up procrastinating, which would be bad.

Other than that I was really looking forward to September after the awful heat of the summer, but I ended up being cruelly disappointed. The month started by smashing all of the daily records and September 7th ended up tying the record for the hottest day ever at 107. And while October has been better, it’s still supposed to hit 80 degrees today and tomorrow. I know some people hate winter, but not me. I can’t wait for it to arrive.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization

by: Peter Zeihan

Published: 2022

498 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The catastrophic consequences which will attend the coming end of American Hegemony, or what Zeihan calls the “Order”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Zeihan’s major focus is on geography, as such he’s very focused on how that will help and hinder some nations. Also this book is something of a culmination of his previous books.

Who should read this book?

If you read this blog you should probably read this book. That said, I think Zeihan is wrong about a lot of things.

General Thoughts

I have a love-hate relationship with Zeihan. I think he’s fantastic at identifying the numerous fragilities the modern world has accumulated. But when it comes to predicting how these fragile things are going to break, and what the world looks like afterwards, I think he seriously overestimates his predictive ability. I agree with him that serious Black Swans are on the horizon, but Zeihan is confident enough about the nature of these swans to assure his readers that the US will be fine, Japan will be okay, and China will end up as a warring collection of 18th century warlords. I am less confident about these precise outcomes. Let’s take each in turn.

The US: In the aftermath of WWII the US created what Zeihan calls the “Order”. Zeihan describes it thusly:

[T]he Americans offered their wartime allies a deal. The Americans would use their navy—the only navy of size to survive the war—to patrol the global ocean and protect the commerce of all. The Americans would open their market—the only market of size to survive the war—to allied exports so that all could export their way back to wealth. The Americans would extend a strategic blanket over all, so that no friend of America need ever fear invasion again.

There was probably a little bit of benevolence involved in the establishment of the Order, but it was mostly a way of containing and confronting the Soviet Union. (Presumably when Zeihan speaks of “wartime allies” he’s not including them.) Without having to start yet another war. 

But of course as we all know the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1990, but the Order continued, why? Zeihan argues that it was largely out of inertia, and the fact that it was still working pretty well. Also, after the Soviet Union fell, America was still on top and it could afford to be magnanimous, but such magnanimity can’t last forever. This is in large part because, according to Zeihan, it brings very few benefits and numerous costs. Which is to say, the US doesn’t need to be magnanimous. It doesn’t need international trade, it can feed itself, and since the fracking revolution it could pretty easily be energy independent as well. So it doesn’t need to maintain its costly “strategic blanket” over the seas. This situation of absolute security on the oceans was always incredibly anomalous, though we don’t think of it as such. As Zeihan puts it:

What we all think of as normal is actually the most distorted moment in human history. That makes it incredibly fragile.

So far he and I mostly agree, but let’s move on.

Japan: Ever since reading his book The Accidental Superpower (review here) I’ve been mystified by how bullish Zeihan is about Japan. Though it’s possible that it’s less being bullish about Japan and more being bearish about China, and we’ll get to that, but let’s first consider Japan by itself. Japan cannot feed itself (it produces only 39% of its food locally) nor is it energy independent, and it’s an island. So we’re already in a situation where Japan is very dependent on ocean going trade. So why is Zeihan so bullish? Apparently it all comes down to the Japanese Navy. If the chief cause of the coming disaster is the withdrawal of the global protection of the US Navy, then the only way to avoid disaster is for countries to have their own blue water navy, and according to Zeihan, Japan already has one of the best in the world. And to be fair to Zeihan, the Japanese Navy is pretty good, but is it really that much better than China’s navy? A quote from the book might give you a sense of Zeihan’s optimism:

Japan would seem set to inherit [Asia’s First Island Chain], but the future isn’t going to be nearly that tidy. Sure, Japan’s superior naval reach means it can strangle China in a few weeks and choose the time and place of any blue-water conflicts, but even in weakness China has the ability to strike targets within a few hundred miles of its coast. That doesn’t simply include portions of the Japanese Home Islands, but also most of South Korea and all of Taiwan. Anything short of a complete governance collapse in China (which admittedly has occurred several times throughout Chinese history) will turn the entire region into a danger zone for any sort of shipping on the water.

To be fair he doesn’t discount the idea that it’s going to get hot, but this idea that the Japanese navy could easily blockade China does not match what I’m seeing anywhere else. I couldn’t find any source which ranked the Japanese Navy as being better than the Chinese Navy. Mostly what I’m seeing are discussions of whether even the US Navy could match China, at least around Taiwan. And remember for all of this to work out for Japan, they have to beat China, and still have enough of a navy left to guard their shipments of food and oil. And all of this while their population plummets

China: Of course China also has serious demographic problems, but given that they start out with 10x the population of Japan, their situation is quite a bit different. Zeihan puts quite a bit of weight on demography, but despite China’s rapidly aging population he seems to think that their biggest source of weakness is that their growth is backed by truly staggering levels of debt. As in a corporate debt load that’s 350% of GDP, and a monetary supply that, since 2006 has increased by eight hundred percent. Zeihan draws this comparison between all the big economies:

So, have the Americans played a bit fast and loose with their monetary policy? Perhaps. Will that have consequences down the line? Probably. Will those consequences be comfortable? Probably not. But it is the Europeans and Japanese who have gone off the deep end, while the Chinese have swum out to sea during a hurricane and dived headfirst into the Texas-sized whirlpool that serves as Godzilla’s front door. Scale matters.

So out of all this Zeihan’s theory for the collapse of China goes something like this: The US will start withdrawing from its job as globo-cop. This will disrupt supplies of food and raw materials. This will take the rug out from China’s ability to finance continued expansion which will disrupt growth, and growth is the Chinese leadership’s sole claim to legitimacy. Any attempt on China’s part to secure food and raw materials will be blocked by the Japanese Navy, and if that doesn’t do it the Indian Navy is also in the way (particularly if China wants to get oil from the Middle East.) This will all be too much to bear for China’s vast and factious population leading to a China that is a ghostly shadow of its current power—if not to its entire disintegration. 

Zeihan never mentions what role the Chinese nuclear arsenal might play in this process. In fact, as far as I can determine he goes the entire book without ever mentioning China’s nuclear weapons at all. This is a strange omission, and one that was also present in his last book as well. I’m not sure what to make of it. 

But to return to my original point. Zeihan is great at identifying a certain class of modern fragility, and I agree that the world is set to break. But he’s entirely too confident about what the world will look like after it’s been smashed into a thousand pieces.

Eschatological Implications

Eschatology is all about the end. And while the end of American hegemony will not be the literal end of the world. Zeihan is right that it will be the end of the world as we know it. To begin with he argues that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I’m not sure it happens the first time someone shoots at one, but the first time one of them is sunk by a hostile nation? Then yeah, everything we know changes. 

The question is how does this come about? Zeihan assumes that any day now the US is going to realize that it doesn’t need the rest of the world and call its navy home, because that’s the logical thing to do. This assumption is so deeply embedded that Zeihan doesn’t really ever bother explaining the chain of events that would lead up to this withdrawal. For him it just seems so obviously the smart thing to do that it has to happen. It would be one thing if we were trending in an isolationist direction. Instead, if anything, we’ve gone the opposite way. We’re deeply involved in assisting Ukraine against Russia, and on no less than four separate occasions Biden has asserted that we’re going to defend Taiwan. Of course his advisors have tried to walk those assertions back, and no one is entirely sure what happens under the next president, but Biden has the public’s support. The number of Americans who think we should defend Taiwan has been going up, and crossed 50% for the first time last year

I totally agree that American hegemony can’t last forever, and that it’s already starting to fray. And Zeihan’s analysis of the fragility which will be exposed when it does end is more than worth the price of admission. But I think it’s going to last longer than he thinks—that we’re going to try to hold on to it for as long as we can. This will make a big difference because as Zeihan points out, that’s what everyone else wants as well, so if we’re all on the same page it could end up continuing for decades. And as time goes on things will inevitably change, and the elements of Zeihan’s analysis will have to change as well. China’s navy will continue to get stronger. The horrible demographics of the modern world will continue to play out. Elections will happen. China will make a play for Taiwan. Putin will use nukes, or he won’t. But I think the idea that the US will sit back comfortably enjoying self sufficiency while the rest of the world breaks down into regional spheres of influence is too simplistic. I think it’s going to be a lot crazier than that.


The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

by: David Deutsch

Published: 2012

487 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The infinite potential which has been unlocked for humanity by the creation of explanatory knowledge, or what we normally call science. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I thought this description from an article in Scientific America was spot on. Deutsch is a  “quantum theorist [who] thinks we’ll solve war, global warming and consciousness—and that will be just the beginning.”

Who should read this book?

I’m leaning towards placing this in my “no one” category. It is useful as the record of a sort of blind humanistic optimism, which in 100 years will either be held up for extreme ridicule (if it’s remembered at all) or viewed as being so self evident as to be boring.

General Thoughts

Somewhere along the line I came across a list of book recommendations by Neal Stephenson, and I naively assumed that since he wrote such excellent fiction that his non-fiction recommendations would be of a similarly high quality. Unfortunately this has not proven to be the case. I’ve been trying to work through my backlog of audio books, and this is the month I ended up in the middle of all the books I impulsively added from that list. This was actually not the first book from the list. That was The Constitution of Knowledge, but I didn’t make the connection at the time. Though you may recall that I wasn’t particularly impressed by that book either. 

Most of the books on the list (that I read) are pessimistic in ways which I’ll discuss, but not this book. As I already mentioned, this book is overflowing with optimism. His central claim is that humanity, by discovering how to generate explanatory knowledge, has set itself on a path which has no end, that we are at the beginning of infinity. To quote from the book:

[E]very putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either

– impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or

– achievable, given the right knowledge.

That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge. {Emphasis mine]

Most importantly we have figured out how to get that knowledge. Some people disagree, pointing out that monkeys, while intelligent, will never understand calculus, and that perhaps there is knowledge which is similarly situated beyond our intelligence. But Deutsch points out that because we can invent tools which increase our abilities, that we are not subject to that restriction. That yes, there might be some things normal humans can’t understand, but that humans plus computers can. Humans are universal constructors. 

I obviously don’t have time to get into all of his reasoning, but you might be interested in some of his other assertions:

      • The knowledge-friendliness of the physical world
      • Almost all environments create an open-ended stream of knowledge
      • People are universal explainers
      • All interesting problems are soluble by virtue of being interesting
      • The existence of universality in many fields
      • Biological evolution was merely a finite preface to the main story of evolution, the unbounded evolution of memes.

In many ways this book reminded me of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Deutsch is also a big fan of the Enlightenment. But whereas Pinker’s book was full of statistics Deutsch’s book comes across as almost mystical. This despite Deutsch being, as near as I can tell, an atheist. 

Clearly there are people who have a mystical faith in continued progress. You might have heard people using the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But why does Deutsch belong in a similar camp? Because he’s basically saying the same thing. Though he might prefer it if people said, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards knowledge.” And he asserts that it doesn’t require recourse to anything supernatural, that it’s just a matter of understanding the true power of human potential.

Eschatological Implications

When someone claims that we’re at the beginning of infinity, they’re basically claiming that we’re at the end of the finite and static period of humanity. And Deutsch in fact does spend quite a bit of time criticizing static societies, and he holds particular disregard for the precautionary principle. Which is to say Deutsch puts forth an eschatology, it’s just a very positive eschatology. As I mentioned in my last post, it would be great if this were the case, but as you might imagine I have my doubts.

Recently, this book, and a few other things, have reminded me of Nick Bostrom’s Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which I discussed at length in a previous post. As a reminder, Bostrom likens new technology to blindly drawing balls from an urn. Each ball can be any shade from pure white to pure black. The lighter the ball the more beneficial the technology, the darker the ball the more harmful it is. If you ever draw a pure black ball then it’s a technology which is so destructive it means the end of humanity. On the other hand, a pure white ball would mean the eternal salvation of humanity. 

Deutsch not only denies that pure black balls exist, but his essential claim is that we have already drawn the pure white ball sometime during the enlightenment. You could even say that the whole book is a description of this pure white ball. But even if you set aside the fact that Deutsch believes we have already been “saved” by science. He makes further claims about the nature of the balls in the urn. By claiming that the physical world is “knowledge-friendly” he’s basically saying that the urn is set up to deliver white balls. You might retort that just because the world is knowledge friendly doesn’t mean it always delivers good knowledge. If humans will eventually be able to do anything not forbidden by the laws of nature couldn’t they blow up the planet, or eradicate all life? It would seem so, but Deutsch has an explicitly optimistic view of knowledge. In fact he puts forth what he calls “The Principle of Optimism”, which is:

All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.

This means that as soon as humans developed the ability to reliably create explanatory knowledge, that they had it within their power to banish all evil. That sure feels like a mystical eschatology. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism 

by: Anne Applebaum

Published: 2020

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The rising authoritarianism in the West, with a particular focus on Poland. But it also includes significant discussion of Hungary and the UK (think Brexit). 

What’s the author’s angle?

As an international journalist Applebaum has been right in the thick of things, and this is a surprisingly personal account of changing Eastern European politics from the inside.  She’s also married to a Polish politician (Radoslaw Sikorski, who, among other things, was the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2007-2014). And more recently the guy who tweeted “Thank you, USA” in reference to the explosions which damaged the Nord Stream pipelines.

Who should read this book?

You have probably heard of Victor Orban, you might even have a strong opinion about him. You probably haven’t heard of Jarosław Kaczyński, who is sort of the Orban of Poland. If you want the inside baseball of Kaczyński’s rise to power, and the parallel rise of authoritarianism and conspiratorial thinking then this is the book for you. If that all sounds a little bit niche, and of limited applicability, then you should skip it.

General Thoughts

This is yet another book from the Stephenson list. And it suffers from the problem common to most of the other books on that list (though not Deutsch’s): They all do a reasonably good job of describing some of the things happening on the ground, but then their solutions are either laughably naive (as was the case with Constitution of Knowledge) or non-existent as was the case with this book. Applebaum is very worried about the future of democracy, and she wonders if democracy will end up always sliding into authoritarianism. Certainly the Founders worried about that, and Applebaum mentions these worries, she also mentions statistics indicating that a third of the population has an “authoritarian predisposition”. From this her contribution is to point out that even should these people exist that that’s not enough for the rise of authoritarianism. An additional step is needed: 

They need members of the intellectual and educated elite…who will help them launch a war on the rest of the intellectual and educated elite, even if that includes their university classmates, their colleagues, and their friends.

The book opens with a New Years Eve party she and her husband threw in Poland at the end of 1999. And then she goes on to detail how so many of the people at that party who she thought were her allies, ended up joining this authoritarian elite.

This is great, and interesting to hear about, but she doesn’t ever offer any ideas for how to prevent this. She gives a very interesting narrative of the process, but she never really gets into why that process starts or how one might prevent it.


Post-Truth

by: Lee C. McIntyre

Published: 2018

116 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Post-truth, which the OED named as their word of the year in November of 2016, and defined as: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

What’s the author’s angle?

This book is part of the MIT Essential Knowledge Series, McIntyre is a professor at Boston University and an Instructor at Harvard. This book has a real “declaiming correct beliefs from the heights of the ivory tower” feel.

Who should read this book?

No one. Yes, this is another Stephenson recommendation, and it’s weak in the same ways that the last one was weak. Also to the extent that it does have something worthwhile to say it’s out of date. A lot has happened in the realm of post-truth since 2018.

General Thoughts

From the very first page McIntyre admits that it’s impossible for him to be neutral about this subject, and to look at it dispassionately. And I agree that there’s really no case to be made that we should abandon truth, but as you read the book it becomes clear that what he’s really attempting to do is cover for his profound political bias. Yes, the left did come up with postmodernism, which is the “godfather of post-truth” but it was only weaponized by the right’s lust for power. All of the science denial comes from the right as well. And then, of course, he talks about Trump incessantly. (Some version of the word Trump appears 222 times, so an average of almost 2 times per page.) I think everyone reading this already has a pretty firm opinion, one way or the other, on Trump. Certainly McIntyre does, so I’d like to focus just briefly on science denial.

McIntyre spends a lot of space talking about climate change, (71 instances) and the science denial on the right about that subject, but you can search in vain for a discussion of gender self-id and the denial of physical differences between men and women, which is clearly science denial from the left, nor is it that the only potential example. Now to be fair it was published in 2018 and a lot has happened in the last four years on that front. But one feels like it would have been possible to come up with a left wing example, even if you wanted to argue that it’s not as bad. 

Finally, like all of the Stephenson recommendations, the solutions on offer are pretty anemic, and consist mostly of more discussion of how awful Trump is. I get it, you guys don’t like Trump. But if he were to die tomorrow your problems would not be solved.


Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be 

by: Steven Pressfield 

Published: 2022

148 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Tough love about how to succeed at the “War of Art”. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Pressfield is well known for his passionate advice on writing and creating in general, and this is an extension of that. 

Who should read this book?

Pressfield gives great motivational speeches for aspiring artists. If you fall into that category and need motivation this is another great (and very short book) from him.

General Thoughts

As I just said this is a very short book. Basically two hours as an audiobook. That’s a large part of its appeal, you get a lot for a short expenditure of time. And if you’ve read any of his other books, you know what you’re getting. If you haven’t read any of his other books, you probably shouldn’t start with this one. I would recommend The War of Art.


A Reader’s Companion to Infinite Jest 

by: Robert Bell and William Dowling

Published: 2005

314 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The title pretty much says it all. If like me, you need help reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, then you might want to pick up a book like this.

Who should read this book?

I have not finished Infinite Jest, but this book has been very helpful in keeping me from getting overwhelmed.

General Thoughts

I’m on my third time starting Infinite Jest. I picked this book up in the middle of my second attempt, but then my crazy summer intervened before I could get to it, but it was helpful enough that I decided to start over for a third time. I’m hoping to finish it soon, but man, that is one hefty book!


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

By: Agatha Christie

Published: 1926

312 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. As you might expect someone is murdered and Poirot solves the murder. However, there are several interesting differences: to start with, Poirot is retired.

Who should read this book?

I don’t read a ton of murder mysteries, but I thought this was a particularly fine example of the form. If you do read a lot of them, then you should definitely read this one.

General Thoughts

My daughter set out to read every book ever written by Agatha Christie. She completed this task recently and reported that out of all the books she liked this one the best. Well, with a recommendation like that, I had to read it. I can definitely see why she would place it in the number 1 spot. To say much of anything would spoil things, but I will say that it was very inventive with great characters.


The Lost Fleet Series

By: Jack Campbell

Dauntless: Lost Fleet, Book 1

Published: 2006

304 Pages

Fearless: Lost Fleet, Book 2

Published: 2007

295 Pages

Courageous: Lost Fleet, Book 3

Published: 2007

299 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

John “Black Jack” Geary, hero of the Alliance, thought to be dead, is found and revived after spending 100 years in cryosleep. This happens just in the nick of time because the Alliance fleet has just lost a major battle and is stuck deep behind enemy lines, and only Black Jack can get them home.

Who should read this series?

I really like the premise of this series, and it started strong, but after book three I abandoned it. So I would say either read the first book or two and then stop, or don’t read it all. 

General Thoughts

As I said, I liked the premise. Imagine if Nelson or Napoleon returned to their respective countries in the middle of WWI. How would the British Navy and the French Army react to that? The series is also an homage to Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, a group of Greek mercenaries who found themselves deep in Persia and on the losing side of the war. 

Unfortunately, in order for the books to play out in the most dramatic fashion possible Campbell asks us to swallow a lot. The easiest thing to swallow is that the commanders of the Alliance fleet would leave a recently revived Black Jack as fleet commander while every last one of them goes to negotiate a surrender, only to be slaughtered. For one thing, it’s another allusion to Xenophon. But after that things get more difficult to digest.

Black Jack is a hero because of one battle early in the war, after which he disappeared. And yet his fame, 100 years later, is equal to or greater than that of a Nelson or Napoleon who accumulated their fame over the course of dozens of major engagements. 

Additionally, even though 100 years of constant war has taken place, the technology being used has hardly changed.

But the hardest thing of all to swallow is that Black Jack turns out to be the best commander ever because, despite the aforementioned 100 years of constant war, the current Alliance commanders have forgotten how to fight. This is convenient for the story, but the exact opposite of how things work in reality. Campbell tries to explain it by saying that the war is so vicious that no commanders live long enough to become experienced, which implies that they’re incapable of learning from the mistakes of others…

If this had been all there was I probably would have persevered, but it started becoming quite the soap opera with large chunks of the books taken up by the drama of Black Jack’s romantic entanglements, which was not what I signed up for.


Outland

By: Dennis E. Taylor

Published: 2015

366 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

College students discover a way to open up a portal to a parallel Earth (the eponymous Outland.) This discovery happens to occur right before the Yellowstone Supervolcano explodes, and the students end up being the only people who can save civilization. 

Who should read this book?

This is by the author of the Bobiverse series, and the humor is similar, so if you liked that, or if you like end of the world science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book. But it is Taylor’s first book, so it’s a little rough.

General Thoughts

This is perfectly serviceable science fiction, with an interesting premise, a well crafted plot and okay characters. It pretty much is what it claims to be on the cover. But as with his Bobiverse books Taylor makes some very curious world building choices. (See here for a discussion of his choices in the Bobiverse.) What does he do in this one? Well if you’ll permit me a mostly-spoiler free rant:

As I mentioned the students figure out how to open portals to parallel worlds, but in this book rather than there being one world for every possible choice, the worlds have a tendency to settle into a groove, or perhaps revert to some sort of mean. Consequently they’re only able to open a portal to two different worlds. Outland, which is a world without humans (or at least there are no humans in North America). And a world they call Greenhouse Earth. 

In Outland the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted sometime in the last hundred thousand years, and this is presumably why there are no humans. 

Greenhouse Earth, on the other hand, is only featured very briefly, but the temperature is 194 degrees, and atmospheric pressure is twice that of “Earth Prime”. That all seems pretty implausible, but I suppose some ancient divergence could create an Earth with those characteristics, except apparently the divergence wasn’t ancient because when they look through the portal they can see the ruins of the university. Including a building that was constructed in 2002. The novel gives every indication of being set in the present day. Which means up until very recently conditions were still temperate enough that they were constructing buildings as per usual, and then in the space of a 13 years the average temperature goes up by 100 degrees, and the pressure doubles! 

And yes, given that it’s an alternate dimension the timelines could be different by more than that, but even if it took a century that would still be climatic change at insane speed. Nailing down the actual timeline isn’t the point, but rather the key point is they get two views into what might have been, and in both of those views disaster has struck. But rather than worrying about how a world that was otherwise identical to theirs in terms of tech and progress suddenly became Venus junior, they spend all of their time worried about the possibility of the supervolcano.

Now of course the protagonists of novels have a way of being correct, and the Yellowstone Supervolcano actually does explode on Earth Prime but if you were playing the odds our best guess is that Yellowstone has a yearly probability of blowing up of around 1 in 730,000. While apparently the chances of the insanity of Greenhouse Earth are 1 in 13, or perhaps, if we’re being generous, 1 in 100?

I went on a long rant because this sort of phenomenon—interesting disasters getting all of the attention while likely disasters end up relatively ignored—is something that affects a lot of our thinking around risk. And as with so many things the pandemic is exhibit number one. Not only weren’t we prepared despite the very high priority, we don’t appear to be doing much to increase our preparedness should another pandemic emerge.  


As I mentioned I was disappointed in Stephenson’s recommendations. If you think you can do better feel free to email me at we are not saved AT gmail. Of course if you were an actual supporter I’d have no choice but to read and review whatever you recommended. That’s just how it works!