Eschatologist #11: Black Swans

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


February 2020, the last month of normalcy, probably feels like a long time ago. I spent the last week of it in New York City. Which was already ground zero for the pandemic—though no one knew that yet. I was there to attend the Real World Risk Institute. A week-long course put on by Nassim Taleb, who’s best known as the author of The Black Swan. The coincidence of learning more about black swans while a very large one was already in process is not lost on me.

(Curiously enough, this is not the first time I was in New York right before a black swan. I also happened to be there a couple of weeks before 9/11.)

Before we go any further, for any who might be unfamiliar with the term, a black swan is an unpredictable, rare event with extreme consequences. And, one of the things I was surprised to learn while at the institute is that Taleb, despite inventing the term, has grown to dislike it. There are a couple of reasons for this. First people apply it to things which aren’t really black swans, to things which can be foreseen. The pandemic is actually a pretty good example of this. Experts had been warning about the inevitability of one for decades. We had one in 1918, and beyond that several recent near misses with SARS, MERS, and Ebola. And that was just in the last couple of decades. If all this is the case, why am I still calling it a black swan?

First off, even if the danger of a pandemic was fairly well known, the second order effects have given us a whole flock of black swans. Things like supply chain shocks, teleworking, housing craziness, inflation, labor shortages, and widespread civil unrest, to name just a few. This is the primary reason, but on top of that I think Taleb is being a little bit dogmatic with this objection. (I.e. it’s hard to think of what phrase other than “black swan” better describes the pandemic.)

However, when it comes to his second objection I am entirely in agreement with him. People use the term as an excuse. “It was a black swan. How could we possibly have prepared?!?” And herein lies the problem, and the culmination of everything I’ve been saying since the beginning, but particularly over the last four months.

Accordingly saying “How could we possibly have prepared?” is not only a massive abdication of responsibility, it’s also an equally massive misunderstanding of the moment. Because preparedness has no meaning if it’s not directed towards preparing for black swans. There is nothing else worth preparing for.

You may be wondering, particularly if black swans are unpredictable, how is one supposed to do that? The answer is less fragility, and ideally antifragility, but a full exploration of what that means will have to wait for another time. Though I’ve already touched on how religion helps create both of these at the level of individuals and families. But what about levels above that? 

This is where I am the most concerned. And where the excuse, “It was a black swan! Nothing could be done!” has caused the greatest damage. In a society driven by markets, corporations have great ability to both help and harm by the risks they take. We’re seeing some of these harms right now. We saw even more during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. When these harms occur, it’s becoming more common to use this excuse. That it could not be foreseen. It could not be prevented.

If corporations suffered the effects of their lack of foresight that would be one thing. But increasingly governments provide a backstop against such calamities. In the process they absorb at least some of the risk. Making the government itself more susceptible to future, bigger black swans. And if that happens, we have no backstop.

Someday a black swan will either end the world, or save it. Let’s hope it’s the latter.


One thing you might not realize is that donations happen to also be black swans. They’re rare (but becoming more common) and enormously consequential. If you want to feel what it’s like to have that sort of power, consider trying it out. 


The Problems the Past vs. The Problems of the Present

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.

A search of my blog reveals that I’ve never had occasion to mention Gwern, of gwern.net. This is the post where I rectify that omission.

Gwern is a prolific and talented essayist who’s, deservedly, famous across maybe 0.1% of the internet and, tragically, completely unknown in the other 99.9%. Not only is Gwern prolific but his essays are obviously well-researched, carefully crafted and extensively footnoted. So one would expect that the first time I mention him it would be to agree and expand on something he said. But no, I’m doing the opposite of that. In an act of apparent madness, I’m going to come out swinging. I intend to criticize one of his essays. The particular essay I’m taking aim at is titled, My Ordinary Life: Improvements Since the 1990s

The essay is mostly a list of such post 1990s improvements or as Gwern introduces things:

When I think back, so many hassles have simply disappeared from my life, and nice new things appeared. I remember my desk used to be crowded with things like dictionaries and pencil sharpeners, but between smartphones & computers, most of my desk space is now dedicated to cats⁠.

In essence the list is an effort in the same vein with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (which I did a post on back in 2018.) Though Gwern’s effort is more modest and more focused. In particular he worries that we suffer from a sort of blindness because these post 1990’s improvements:

[R]arely come up because so many of them are about removing irritations or creating new possibilities—dogs that do not bark, and ‘the seen and the unseen’—and how quickly we forget that the status quo was not always so. The hardest thing to see can be that which you no longer see. I thought it would be interesting to try to remember the forgotten. Limiting myself to my earliest relatively clear memories of everyday life in the mid-1990s, I still wound up making a decent-sized list of improvements to my ordinary life

After that intro Gwern proceeds to detail around 60 improvements, some of which are very broad (e.g. smartphones) and some of which are comparatively narrow (e.g. movie theater seats), but mostly these improvements are the kind of things you expect from someone who wants to defend progress and modernity. And to be clear I basically agree with him about all the items on the list, they are improvements. Still, despite this agreement I’m left with two observations:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?
  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Before tackling these observations directly, I’m going to start by approaching them obliquely in the form of a story. 

II.

My great-grandmother, Zena, had great difficulty bearing children. Over the course of 6 years she gave birth to five children, and all of them were either stillborn or lived only a few hours. Despite this she wanted to try again. My great-grandfather tried to talk her out of it, but eventually Zena prevailed upon him to try one more time. His condition was that it would be the last time. She was determined that this child would live and so as soon as she found out she was pregnant she went on bed-rest.

In later years my grandfather talked to a woman who lived in the same small Idaho town as his mother-in-law and who attended her during this time. The person said that Zena knew that the baby would live, but that she would die. And indeed that’s exactly what happened, my grandmother was born, but three weeks later her mother died. She was only 31.

My grandmother went on to have 10 kids, and those 10 kids produced 55 grandkids and those grandkids have produced, thus far, over a 100 great grandkids, and there are even a few great-great grandkids.

As you might have already suspected this story has a religious element to it. Obviously there was no way for Zena to be sure that she would die and her baby would live, but I also have no doubt that she had faith that this is what was going to happen. Whether this belief came to her before she got pregnant or while she was on bedrest, at some point she clearly made the decision that this was a sacrifice she was willing to make. 

Why was she willing to make this sacrifice? Here again religion enters the picture. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons) we have people set apart as patriarchs, and their chief task is to give people what’s called a patriarchal blessing. This blessing is only given once, generally in someone’s late teens, and it is a blessing that lays out the future path someone’s life will take. In Zena’s blessing she was promised that she would have a “numerous posterity”. As you might imagine this promise was critical to the decision she made, and from my perspective, as one of her “numerous posterity”, the promise was very much fulfilled. 

It is not my intention to get into theological debate over the reality of faith, premonitions and blessings. I presented the story of Zena because I want you to imagine what would happen if she was given a choice, perhaps presented by a colleague of Clarence in a different version of It’s a Wonderful Life. She can choose that, rather than going through with her sixth and final pregnancy, she will instead be whisked forward exactly 100 years to 2012 where she will enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, all the things on Gwern’s list, but she will never have any children. 

Even without it being a condition of “the deal”, the idea that 2012 Zena would end up being childless is not hard to imagine, an increasing number of women are. Also as I pointed out in a previous post, fertility issues, which Zena was already grappling with, have only gotten worse. 

I admit that there are certainly a lot of factors to consider when deciding to journey to 2012 from 1912 and one might imagine that Zena would refuse just based on her unfamiliarity and the strangeness of it all. But as part of this hypothetical I want you to imagine that “Clarence” imparts information or reassurances, such that this unfamiliarity is not a factor. Zena still has the attitudes of someone born in 1881 but in whatever fashion 2012 has been robbed of its weirdness. I want Zena’s choice to be simple, have a child secure in the faith that this is the realization of the blessing she was given, or remain childless but have access to all the benefits of the modern world.

We know the choice she made in 1912. Knowing the dangers she chose to have my grandmother anyway. But would 1912 Zena have traded that child for all of the wonders of 2012 and beyond? My sense is that, if she had been given this choice, between having the child she so desperately longed for, but also dying in the process, and having no children, but all the conveniences of the modern world, that she would have still chosen as she did.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with me for the rest of my argument to make sense. I brought up the story of my great-grandmother, because it’s a stark example of what I want to talk about. Not because it’s the only example. But what exactly is it an example of? 

III.

Having told my story let’s return to the observations I was left with after reading Gwern’s list, and particularly the questions it evoked. As you’ll recall the first one was:

  • We can agree that smartphones are an improvement over dumb phones, and that movies seats which recline are an improvement over movie seats which are identical to the ones in your school’s auditorium, but what precisely are we improving? Comfort? Is this strictly a hedonic analysis, or is there more to it?

Having told my story and introduced my hypothetical, are we any closer to answering these questions? What sort of improvements are offered to 1912 Zena by 2012? Do any of them amount to anything other than improved comfort? You may review Gwern’s list yourself but I don’t really see anything on it that doesn’t belong in the comfort bucket. But that doesn’t mean that things other than comfort aren’t part of the 2012 package, just that they aren’t on this particular list.

As I cast around for things which might qualify as non-comfort related improvements it occurs to me that most people would consider the Zena of 2012 to be far more liberated, for one thing she could vote! Also, she would have a much better chance at pursuing some sort of fulfilling profession. But I think even if these things were given special emphasis when our hypothetical Zena made her choice, I still think she would choose having a child vs. not having one and being an attorney or doctor. Obviously this choice would be informed by turn of the century attitudes which are much scarcer these days, on top of her deep religious faith, which has also gotten scarcer. But setting aside whether those attitudes are good or bad for the moment. I think the discussion as a whole has revealed another area where 2012 might be an improvement over 1912. In addition to improving Zena’s comfort, the world of 2012 might also increase her influence and impact.

As I said it might, but right off the bat I’m doubtful. The question which confronts us is whether it’s possible that a childless Zena in 2012 would end up being more influential than the real Zena with her nearly 200 descendents (and counting)? Your answer to this question probably hinges a lot on the value you ascribe to my grandmother, and her numerous descendents. For my part I place a lot of value on those descendents, seeing how I’m one of them. And I think anyone who’s not an antinatalist would have to agree with me. To be sure it’s not inconceivable that 2012 Zena might have more influence. For instance she could end up marrying and then divorcing Jeff Bezos leaving her with billions of dollars with which to make an impact. But absent such improbable circumstances, I think it’s clear that the real Zena ended up being more influential. Particularly since her influence has had so long to operate.

If we decide that 2012 does not offer Zena more influence in the world, then once again we’re back to the idea that the difference between 2012 and 1912 is strictly one of comfort. Which is not to say that comfort is meaningless, but I for one have always believed there had to be more to life than that. And yes, there are all the things religion considers to be important, and certainly that’s a big part of this story. But even if we ignore that in deference to all the irreligious people out there, I believe there is one last measurement we should examine: From the cold and clinical calculus of evolution and genetic fitness, the actual Zena was an enormous success. 

From this standpoint if you survive long enough to reproduce, then you’ve won, and if you don’t reproduce, then it doesn’t matter what else you’ve done, you’ve lost. Now, to be clear this metric isn’t necessarily any more important than the previous metrics we examined of comfort or influence, but it’s yet another area where the actual Zena did much better than the hypothetical 2012 Zena. 

IV.

It may be argued that I’m putting too much weight on this one, somewhat unique example. And I agree, we will be broadening things out shortly, but first I want to extract as much wisdom as possible from Zena’s story, before we broaden our investigation. In particular now it’s time to examine our second observation/set of questions. 

  • As long as we’re talking about the seen and the unseen, everything Gwern puts on his list is very tangible, and easy to measure. What about things which are less tangible and harder to measure? What has happened since 1990 in those areas? Is it possible that by putting so much focus on improving our material world that we’ve neglected or even damaged less material aspects of our life?

Gwern brings up a very valid point: we have mostly forgotten (or in my kids’ cases never known) the inconvenience of looking up something in an encyclopedia, of having to tie up the phone line to use the internet, or of not having GPS when traveling to an unfamiliar location. And because we’ve forgotten about them they are unseen. But presumably the idea that something might be unseen doesn’t just apply to gadgets? If we’re really worried about overlooking something then those worries should mostly focus on things which are more distant in time and more immaterial in nature—things like the emotions, and mental health, and the drives and religious beliefs of people in the past. Yes, many people no longer remember not having wikipedia, but far more people not only can’t remember, but can’t even imagine having the kind of faith Zena did when she decided to get pregnant for a sixth time. Is the fact that they can’t, a sign of one of these unseen improvements Gwern should add to his list? Or is it an unseen setback? A way in which the modern world is worse than the world of the past?

At this point we will start to broaden things. But let’s start very slowly, with Zena’s husband. In the course of his life he lost his first wife and their first five kids. On top of that he lost his oldest son from his second marriage in a tragic accident when the boy was only three. My other paternal great-grandfather also experienced significant tragedy. Two wives, and eight of his children preceded him in death (out of a total of three wives and eighteen children). All of these events are clearly awful, and the fact that such things mostly no longer happen is a major selling point for many of the people who declare the superiority of the modern world. Which is as it should be. 

Given the tragedies I just mentioned, surely even if Zena wouldn’t come to 2012, her husband, and my other great-grandfather would, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. To begin with, I think there’s a similar chance that they might end up childless, and possibly unmarried. But beyond the tangible trades like kids vs. no-kids, there are almost certainly less tangible things that would be part of the deal as well. I think if they were presented with this choice, they would want to know about these less tangible things as well.

In my initial hypothetical I said that I wanted Zena’s choice to be simple, a choice between having a child in 1912, or remaining childless but getting all the benefits of the modern world. I didn’t mention all of the disadvantages of the modern world. My guess is that you didn’t notice that omission, because most people imagine the story of the future as one of beneficial progress, not one of uneven progress. But clearly there are some disadvantages, and anyone choosing the present over the past would want to know about those as well. But what are they? Is there some list, similar to Gwern’s, which discusses all of the unseen disadvantages of modernity? 

Before moving on to discuss these disadvantages, let me be clear, I am not blind to the problems of the past. I have put a lot of weight on having children in 1912 vs. not having them in 2012, but of course there were millions of people in 1912 (and earlier) who died without ever having children, or who died while they were children themselves; millions of people killed by tuberculosis, smallpox, or the plague; and finally, there were all the people killed by the wars we have hopefully abandoned. I’m not saying that the past wasn’t full of tragedies, rather my point is that by vanquishing the visible tragedies we have been lulled into the false belief that we have vanquished all tragedies. Not only have we failed to vanquish all tragedies, but with our focus on dealing with what can be seen and measured we have created tragedies in areas that are harder to see and measure. What might those tragedies be?

V.

In some sense the whole point of the blog is to explore the unseen tragedies of modernity, so I’m not going to spend very much time rehashing all of the various candidates. Rather I want to examine things in light of Gwern’s list.

The list provides a useful contrast because it’s basically the opposite of my efforts, it’s a list of the unseen benefits. But what’s interesting about it, what sparked me to write this post in response, is that the vast majority of the list is composed of material benefits. Benefits that are actually very tangible even if people have a tendency to discount them. 

There’s the stuff I’ve already mentioned like smartphones, movie seats, and always on broadband. On top of that there are dozens of other things which boil down to the idea of “Yay! Better technology!” But the thing is, no one disagrees with this, with the idea that we’ve recently gotten some really cool gadgets. They may not realize how fast these gadgets have arrived, in just the last few decades, and for that reason Gwern’s post is still useful. But when people talk about the unseen effects of the modern world they’re not talking about the fact that they no longer have to rewind VHS tapes (another item on the list). They talk about unseen societal problems. But never fear, Gwern does have a section for societal improvements. Though perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t included it. 

Without this section it would have been a perfectly interesting list covering a very narrow, but still interesting topic. But by including it, and I guess if you’ve made it this far I can be blunt, the whole thing comes across as hopelessly naive. Technology’s effect on society is the whole debate, the thing everyone worries about. It’s where the battle is being fought and where casualties are happening. Some of these casualties, perhaps the majority, are unseen. They’re casualties of mental health, of functional sterility, of loneliness and despair. Though not all of the casualties are intangible, even if it may be argued that they’re still unseen. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, what does Gwern have to say about such things in his “Society” section?

As I mentioned, it’s underwhelming, and it probably would have been better if he’d left it out entirely. About half the word count concerns stuff that seemingly didn’t fit neatly anywhere else. Things like better board games, faster shipping, and IP law. That leaves just five items which are:

  1. Lower Dysfunctionality
  2. War on Drugs Lost
  3. War On Smoking Won
  4. Nicotine gum & patches 
  5. Environment

Whether the environment has, on net, improved since the 1990s I will leave to others. I have no problem granting that we did win the war on smoking, though one could make the case that the modern world made smoking a problem in the first place. (Sales of cigarettes in 1912 averaged ½ a cigarette per adult per day, which rose to 11 in 1963 before falling to 3.5 in 2012. Which is still well above the 1912 rate.) Also, as Gwern himself admits, there has been some retrogression in the form of vaping. If we put nicotine products in with smoking that just leaves “Lower Dysfunctionality” and the “War on Drugs Lost”. 

Let’s take the second one first, and since we’ve narrowed things down to a single point we can afford to include the entire text:

  • War on Drugs Lost: with the gradual admission that the War on Drugs was never a good idea, marijuana has been medicalized or legalized in many states, and psychedelics research is enjoying a renaissance; other drugs are increasingly treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.

I don’t really have strong feelings on the issue of marijuana and psychedelics. I think it’s possible that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, from the idea that they’re horribly dangerous to the idea that they’re the cure for everything. But as I said, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. Which just leaves us with the bit about “other drugs” being “treated in a more appropriate medical/​​rehabilitative framework.” So I guess the entirety of the opioid crisis is covered in this one phrase?

If you ever read my previous posts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones, you may recall that the medicalization and normalization of opioids sort of kicked off the whole crisis. In fact there was just a paper released that tied the crisis to the introduction of OxyContin in 1996. (Should it have been on Gwern’s list?) Unfortunately that wasn’t the biggest recent news on this subject. That belonged to the news that overdose deaths from May 2020 through April of 2021 reached 100,000 which was a 30% increase over that same period the year before. Anyone want to place a bet on whether more people will die from overdoses than COVID in 2022 or 2023? What about whether it will get more coverage in the press? As I alluded to earlier, even tangible casualties sometimes get less attention than they should. 

Before I leave the subject of drugs I need to include a statistic I came across recently in The Economist:

There are 50% more injection drug-users in San Francisco than there are students enrolled at its public high schools.

I thought that was a particularly trenchant summation of a lot of our current “unseen” problems.

VI.

This just leaves us with “Lower Dysfunctionality”. Again I’ll quote Gwern in full:

  • Lower Dysfunctionality: crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and abusive drug use in general kept falling, benefiting everyone (even those not prone to such things) through externalities
    • URBAN LIFE: it is now reasonably safe and feasible to live in (most) big cities like NYC, Chicago, or DC—we’re a long way from Taxi Driver and annual summer urban riots (outside California). This is a large part of why urban living has become so much more desirable (with the unfortunate consequence of urban inelasticity driving up rents, as the increases in desirability outpace the non-increases in availability).

To begin with he’s trying to cover an enormous amount of ground with this one point. Furthermore it’s interesting that Gwern, who’s the king of links and footnotes, would have none for this point. Perhaps you can start to see why I think he should have just left it out. It’s both insanely ambitious and woefully inadequate. The point acknowledges the many intangibles of modernity but leaves most of them off of the list (both the list within the point and the larger list) and those it does mention it dismisses in four words, that they: “in general kept falling”.

As you can imagine, I would have really liked to have seen links or footnotes, because while the data on property crime looks pretty good, the data on violence shows a huge spike over the last two years. The abusive drug use I mostly already covered, which just leaves us with teen pregnancy and the larger issue of sex in general. This is a huge topic, and this post has already run long, so let me just toss something out there. Why is porn not on his list? 

Recall that it’s a list of the improvements brought about by technology since the 1990s. It’s hard to think of anything technology has done more to “improve” than the availability of pornograpy. And yet, it’s not on the list. Not only does it match well with the technology criteria, I think it matches well with the theme of “unseen” improvements as well. (It’s not as if it doesn’t get any attention, but it doesn’t get much.) So why did Gwern leave it off his list? Is it because it isn’t clear yet if it’s an improvement or not? Or maybe he decided it was one of the few places where technology didn’t improve things, it made them worse. Or perhaps it’s too contentious. Or maybe, he just didn’t think of it. Certainly all of these are possibilities. And while I’m interested in whether Gwern thinks it belongs on his list, in the end one man’s opinion doesn’t make much of a difference. In reality we all need to have an opinion on it, because everyone is walking around with a smartphone or working on a computer where, unless they do have an opinion and have acted on it, it’s never more than five seconds away. 

This is a great example of my point, it is the intangibles of the modern world and our opinion of them where everything of consequence is being decided. Everyone agrees that smartphones are a cool technology. What they can’t agree on is whether the alchemy of that technology and the technology of social media is awful or awesome. Or whether it’s awesome for adults, but awful for kids. Or whether it’s okay if used in moderation but terrible if used to excess. Or whether it’s possible to become addicted to it. Which is to say no one is arguing that there haven’t been improvements in material conditions since the 1990s. And certainly since 1912. What people haven’t been able to figure out is if it also comes with unseen setbacks. And if it does, whether the setbacks outweigh the improvements or vice versa.

In the end Gwern was right about one thing, there is the seen and the unseen. The problems of 1912 are easy to see. People, like Zena, died in childbirth, and other people died while they were still children. Then there were those who went hungry.  Disease was rampant. But I don’t think they had many unseen problems. On the other hand these days any problem we can see has someone working on it, and on many of them, particularly the problems of the past, we’ve made great progress. But I fear that we have accumulated intangible harms, while also losing many of the intangible benefits as well. There’s more to life than the comforts we’ve created and the toys we’ve built. More to appraising whether the present is better than the past than creating a list of material improvements. More to the world than what we can see.

You may think that it’s a tragedy that anyone would want a child so badly that they would be willing to die in the attempt. I think it’s a tragedy that no one can even imagine that level of devotion and faith any longer. 


I should apologize to my relatives for appropriating the story of Zena for my third rate blog. As penance rather than following my usual strategy of asking for money I will instead ask that you do some genealogy. Work on finding and collecting the stories of your own ancestors. Start with FamilySearch.org


Shallow Seriousness Is Crowding Out Deep Seriousness

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.

With the exception of my newsletters every one of my posts is thousands of words, and yet despite that length I am always left with the impression that I haven’t hit all the points I wanted to or explained things as well as could have. That in some sense I still haven’t quite gotten to the essence of a subject. Normally I just shrug this off as something that comes with the territory. A skill I’ll hopefully get better at, but also a feeling I’ll probably never get rid of because I will always have a certain amount of built in anxiety which is forever intractable. I will also remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you have to hit publish at some point.

This was certainly the case with my posts on Afghanistan, and initially it just seemed like the standard second guessing that happens after every post. But it didn’t fade, and I found my mind continually drawn back to some of the ideas from those posts, in particular the idea that one of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan is that we are “no longer a serious people”.  

II.

As a brief reminder here’s where I left things:

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah [The president backed by Russia] was an expert in such conversations. Ghani [The president backed by the US] apparently avoided them. 

As you can see I was already hinting at the idea that people mean different things when they talk about being serious. And that perhaps if we’re going to say that we failed in Afghanistan for not being serious we need to unpack that word. What does it mean to be serious, particularly in this context?

As the word is used day to day it generally comes as an injunction to dispense with frivolity, to set aside extraneous matters and focus on what’s important. The word also carries a connotation of consequential, as in a serious heart attack vs. a mild attack. 

If we look around at what’s currently happening, on certain measures we are very serious. Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed over a week ago, and it would seem to meet all of the above criteria. We have set aside the extraneous concerns of politics and the back and forth accusations of one party vs. another to focus on something truly important. Additionally it’s consequential, even in an age where deficits don’t seem to matter, $1.2 trillion is, as Biden would say, a big f’ing deal. 

This would seem to be an example of serious people doing serious things, and yet on the other hand it’s exactly the thing I complained of when talking about Afghanistan. President Ghani was obsessed with digitizing the economy, which is essentially also an infrastructure initiative, albeit a virtual one. But if he really cared about the country as a whole (and there’s reason to suspect he didn’t) what he really should have been obsessed with was the defense of his country.

As I sat down to grapple with this issue again, I was reminded of one of my very earliest blog posts, as a matter of fact, it was only the sixth thing I’d posted. The post was titled Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election. In particular I was reminded of this passage:

As an example of this, I have a theory of history which I call “Whatever you do, don’t let Baghdad get sacked.” You may think this is in reference to one of the recent gulf wars, but actually I’m referring to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 (Genghis had been dead for nearly 40 years at this point but the Mongols were still really scary.) This incident may have been one of the worst preventable disasters in history. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died. Anyone who loves books always shudders when you bring up the loss of the Library of Alexandria, but in the sack of Baghdad we have an equally great library being destroyed. Contemporary accounts said that “the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.” Even though it happened centuries ago people will say that Baghdad still hasn’t recovered. I don’t know what dominated the thinking of the Abbasid Caliphate in the years before Baghdad was sacked. Perhaps, like us, they argued about taxes, or fought amongst themselves, or worried about foreigners. Perhaps there was even someone who said that they should do whatever it takes to appease the Mongols. If they did I see no evidence of it.

The sack of Baghdad was a black swan, a big one. And the whole course of history is different because it happened. Of all the things that the Abbasid Caliphate did, (or perhaps in this case didn’t do) this is what’s remembered 1000 years later.  Perhaps judging them by that standard is harsh, but what other standard should we judge them by? If the point of government is not to prevent your capital from being sacked, your rulers from being killed, your treasure from being carried away and your women from being raped, then what is its point?

As I said, whatever the Abbasid Caliphate did, it was the wrong thing. Now obviously I’m operating with perfect hindsight, but this takes us back to antifragility. It’s true that you can’t predict the future, but there are things that you can do to limit your exposure to these gigantic catastrophes, these major black swans. And that’s what governments are for.

I’m surprised I never thought to reference this in the previous posts on Afghanistan, because, more or less, Kabul ended up being a mirror of Baghdad. To be clear, we have to adjust things for modern sensibilities. But in both cases the most critical task was making sure the capital wasn’t conquered, and in both cases the rulers failed. The only reason the rulers weren’t killed this time is because of the existence of air travel. (Though I would also argue it was an issue of courage as well.) Also, and unfortunately for the Taliban, there wasn’t much treasure to be carried off. (Which I guess is one good reason to digitize the economy.) Apparently Ghani carried off quite a bit of the treasure before they got there. Finally I suspect that many women were raped when Kabul fell, and we know for sure that many were given to Taliban fighters in forced marriage

III.

From all of this we are left to consider our own situation: Are there any Mongols or Taliban fighters on the verge of sacking our capital?  I think it’s clear that we have neither steppe horseman nor Islamic fundamentalists outside our gates. But it’s a mistake to take things too literally, what we’re really looking for is patterns. Who are our enemies? Are we focused enough on the dangers they pose? Or have we perhaps been distracted by something else? All of which is to say, are we paying attention to the right thing?

The genesis of this post and the beginning of me revisiting things, came early last month when one of my loyal patreon subscribers pointed me at a story which had run in the New York Times.

Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants…being captured or killed…

The message, in an unusual top secret cable…highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

While we don’t have Mongols outside our walls we do have other countries who would like nothing more than to destroy us and carry away our treasures. Espionage is the field on which the battle is taking place, and if the NYT is to be believed, we’re not doing very well in this battle.

Perhaps our situation is not as dire as that of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 or of the Afghan government in August. But when it becomes that dire it will probably already be too late. So is this an issue of seriousness? One requiring serious people? Are we failing because we lack such people?

There’s a lot to unpack in the Times article, and I obviously only quoted a portion. One of the explanations given for the problems the CIA has been encountering is technological: 

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources. 

This part is certainly interesting, and it relates to themes I’ve touched on a lot in this space. But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Rather my eye was drawn to point about the deterioration of the craft, particularly the drive to “quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks”.

Apparently:

Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the C.I.A.’s case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.

In other words the CIA has turned recruiting spies into a numbers game. And as you may recall from my last post, when I reviewed The Tyranny of Merit. There are a couple of adages about this, one of which asserts that: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

But how does all of this relate to whether or not we’re serious people? Do I mean to suggest that if we stopped tracking the number of new informants a case officer recruited that the whole situation would be reversed? Or, to draw on another concept from my last post, do we just need to implement a few nudges? Perhaps we can give the “Add New Informant” screen a red background to remind them of the blood that will be spilled if they don’t consider the quality of their informants in addition to the quantities? Or maybe we should conduct a follow-up survey, with questions like, “Did the informant turn out to be a double agent?”, followed by: “How many Americans did they end up getting killed?”

I assume that these suggestions seem ridiculous or flippant, but why? Certainly many governments are enamoured by the idea of nudges, perhaps the red background nudge wouldn’t work, but how do you know? Have you tried an A/B split test? And if in the past we based promotion on job performance metrics, why is it bad to refine those metrics and add additional ones to plug the gap? Are these not the sort of things which serious companies do? 

But it would seem once again that there is a level of seriousness beyond this when we consider matters of national security—matters of life and death. And that even things which are normally plenty serious, something which wouldn’t feel out of place in a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, becomes downright frivolous when applied to things that are truly serious. 

This gets us quite a bit of the way to what we’re looking for when we describe the qualities of a nation of “serious people”. Those who are familiar with life and death situations and who also perform well in them. The reason we are no longer a serious people is that by and large we don’t deal with life or death situations—certainly not with the same frequency or intensity as our forebearers. And when we are called to do so, as in the case with CIA case officers, we bring in tools from our unserious existence, and wonder why they don’t work.

But why? What’s the difference? What differentiates  a serious tool from an unserious one? 

IV.

A little over a year ago I published what many have declared to be my best post. (Though one reader declared it to be the closest I’ve come to insanity.) It was an extended meditation on the book The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which itself is an extended look at the way modernity leans into a left-brained view of the world, resulting in the perpetuation of various damaging distortions. 

After I published that post I expected to reference it frequently, but mostly I haven’t returned to the subject. I think largely the reason can be boiled down to the idea that if you’re a fish it’s difficult to comment on water. That said, I think this is finally a subject where the connection seems obvious.

As I have pointed out there seem to be two levels of seriousness. The more shallow form of seriousness is the one that tracks the number of informants recruited, but overlooks the fact that most of them are killed or turned. The shallow form spawns leaders who are obsessed with digitizing the economy of their country, but have no desire to make any plans for the defense of that same country. And then there is a deeper level of seriousness which considers not only the quantity of the informants being recruited but their quality, and indeed the way in which this recruitment effort contributes to the struggle between nations in its entirety. A seriousness which empowers someone to hang on as the President of Afghanistan for years rather than days.

When considering these two levels, I would argue that the more shallow form corresponds to a predominantly left-brained way of thinking, while the deeper form is predominantly right-brained. 

It is not my intent, nor do I have the space to go into all of the attributes of right vs. left brained modalities. But whatever your preconceptions about the difference you should probably cast them aside as pop science oversimplifications. The difference of left vs. right is not a matter of logic vs. emotions or facts vs. imagination. It’s best described as a difference between trying to turn the whole into parts vs. binding parts into a whole. And yes, this is also another oversimplification. But I think it’s good enough to give us a basis for the point I want to make. Particularly if we include a couple of examples. 

Coincidentally, speaking of espionage and Afghanistan, at this moment, I’m reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. This is the story of the British efforts to secure the northern approaches into India against the expanding influence of Russia. These efforts involved a lot of spying, and the story of these spies provides an interesting contrast to the NYT story. To give but one example, consider the story of Arthur Conolly. I don’t have the space to give a full account of his exploits and life, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Was the person who coined the term “The Great Game”
  • Went undercover into Muslim Central Asia for years at a time
  • Was eventually captured and later beheaded while on a daring solo mission trying to rescue another British officer.
  • One of six brothers, three of whom, himself included, suffered violent deaths while “playing” in the Great Game.
  • Finally, Conolly was motivated in all of these efforts by his Christian beliefs and his patriotism.

Now let us contrast this list with a list of presumed qualities possessed by one of the CIA officers mentioned in the NYT article:

  • Has very little concept of the struggle they’re engaged in right now. Not only have they not labeled it, no one has labeled it yet.
  • They expect to have a mostly normal life.
  • Would never set out on a solo mission to rescue a fellow agent, nor even need to.
  • Setting aside how weird it would be for one of these officers to even have five brothers, it’s inconceivable that half of them would die because they all passionately believed in the importance of American interests in Central Asia.
  • Primarily motivated in their efforts by what will get them promoted.

It’s the contrast between the last points of both lists where we really get to the heart of the matter. It’s impossible to imagine a modern CIA officer being motivated by Christianity. And really being motivated by any ideology, even patriotism, would get him funny looks. No, he’s motivated by considerations that are largely material, and individualistic. Calculations of what actions are required to get the numbers necessary for promotion. His perspective is essentially a left-brained one.

Now I’m probably overstating the individualism of our hypothetical CIA officer a little bit. I mean to begin with he’s in the CIA, he could probably have chosen a profession that was both safer and more lucrative. But I would argue that, at a minimum, there is a trendline and it’s pointing in a left-brained direction. In part this is illustrated by the fact that even if he wanted an overarching ideology on which to base his efforts there isn’t one available, certainly not one which would be shared by his fellow officers, not one that could animate the entire enterprise.

On the other hand Conolly understood the problem from a right-brained perspective. As evidence of this more holistic perspective, he was able to give the entire conflict a label which was so on point that we continue to use it down to the present day. Still just because he approached things from a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better perspective. Most educated Westerners would be horrified if modern spies talked about the civilizing mission of Christianity and the benefits of British rule in the same fashion as Conolly.

It’s possible that the two different levels of seriousness are useful, but in different contexts. I’m happy to grant that the shallow form of seriousness is great if you’re in a mature and stable democracy. While the deep form of seriousness is useful if you’re in a desperate struggle for existence.

(This all reminds me of Scott Alexander’s Thrive/Survive Theory of politics, which I expanded on in a post of my own.) 

However, even if the shallow level of seriousness is more useful, most of the time, it should be clear that it’s less important than the deep level of seriousness, because as I have pointed out on numerous occasions: if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else either. This means it’s a problem if the shallow form of seriousness starts to crowd out the deep form, such that it can’t be called on even when needed, as appears to be the case with the CIA and Afghanistan. 

To close out I’d like to offer up a second example I came across recently, this one from the Vietnam War. From a left-brained perspective this was a war we should have easily won. We had the numbers. We had overwhelming might. The math was entirely in our favor. We even had computers which told us we were going to win. But as you may recall, we didn’t. Why? Well I would opine that one of the reasons was we had different levels of seriousness. We were mostly conducting the war from a shallow level while for the North Vietnamese it was deeply serious. 

I encountered the example in an episode of the Radiolab Podcast. This particular episode told how, at some point during the war, partially in response to fears of Communist brain-washing, the Army decided to look into psychological operations or what came to be known as psyops. As a first step, they decided that the best people to consult for such an operation were advertisers from Madison Ave. There’s even a quote from the episode along the lines of “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective, maybe you can teach us how to get someone to lay down their weapons.” If that isn’t an example of using shallow methods on a deep problem I don’t know what is.

In any case, the idea they came up with was to drop coupons on the North Vietnamese troops. (Perhaps you can see the advertising connection?) These coupons were good for safe passage across US lines, where they were promised a warm cup of coffee, safety, and an end to all their privations. Unfortunately for the military, these coupons ended up having very little effect. I imagine that most of my readers are probably not too surprised to discover this. But why not? Here you have a country that’s slightly smaller than the average US state, and we end up dropping twice as much ordnance on it as all of the ordnance dropped in all theaters during the entirety of WW2. Why wouldn’t you be grasping for any excuse to get out of there, no matter how flimsy. During the episode they play an interview with a North Vietnamese soldier and they ask him about this, and as I recall, after explaining how awful things were, and how impoverished he was, he still declares that the “coupons” never even tempted him. That he felt like he was participating in something larger than himself. That it was his country, and he didn’t care how bad it got; he wasn’t going to stop fighting until the invaders had been driven out. 

That’s someone who’s serious. 

V.

Perhaps when I talk about US seriousness with respect to the CIA, and Afghanistan and Vietnam, I have selected too narrow of a focus. Perhaps if our country was truly threatened we would discover that we’re a deeply serious people after all. Certainly there was something of that feeling after 9/11, but it’s been in short supply since then. Also it should be pointed out that I’ve focused entirely on the seriousness we’ve displayed when dealing with other nations. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about seriousness as it relates to the culture war. But here again many of the proposed solutions involve breaking things down into parts that we can understand and measure, when we should really be trying to unite the various parts into a larger whole.

Once upon a time we were “one nation”, perhaps that next phrase, “under God”, or at least under some unifying ideology, was more important than we realized.


My uncle was in the CIA. He generally doesn’t talk about it all that much. But at one point he said that the reason he left was that his next job was going to be in a foreign country, presumably recruiting informants. If you want to hear the rest of that story, consider donating. I’ll use it to buy him lunch and see if I can’t pull some details out of him.


The 8.5 Books I Finished in October

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


  1. Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by: Michael J. Sandel
  2. Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by: Jesse Singal
  3. Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) by: John Michael Greer
  4. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by: H. W. Brands
  5. Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by: Norm Macdonald
  6. The Silmarillion by: J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by: Carlo M. Cipolla
  8. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by: Roland Huntford
  9. How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion by: David DeSteno

Over the last few months I’ve been enjoying Holden Karnofsky’s newsletter “Cold Takes”. One of his central arguments is that this is the most important century. 

In this opinion we are basically aligned, but whereas I am largely pessimistic about our ability to handle the ramifications of this moment, Karnofsky is more of an optimist. Perhaps I’ll go into his assertions more on some other occasion, but for now I merely wanted to provide some context around Karnofsky before I introduce his deplorable advice on how one should read books. Which, since I’m about to review a bunch of books I’ve read, would appear to be germane

He starts off with the idea that we overestimate how much we retain from reading a book. Which is almost certainly true. Though I think his assertion suffers from never going to the trouble of rigorously defining the word “retain”. Is retention measured by telling someone to write down everything they remembered from the book, and comparing it to the actual book? Or is it measured by being able to summon forth a point from the book when it’s relevant? Or could someone be said to retain something if they can call it to mind after being prompted:

Do you remember that part in Dune when Paul chooses his name?

Oh, yeah. He asks the name of the mouse shadow in the second moon. And they tell him that they call it Muad’dib. And that’s the name he chooses.

Additionally his measurement of retention is just a percentage—what portion of the book was retained using the various methods (skimming, reading slowly, re-reading, etc.) And beyond the fact that his percentages are ridiculous, which I’ll get to, certain parts of a book are far more valuable to retain than other parts. The first 10%, the stuff that everyone knows about the book, is likely to be in such common circulation that any interesting insights will similarly be widely available. Whereas the 10% you extract after reading the whole thing, or reading it multiple times is likely to be the most valuable, or at least the rarest.

But I’m sure you want to know why I think his percentages are ridiculous. You should check out his post if you want to see his entire table but to give you a couple of examples. He asserts that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but I’m particularly flabbergasted by his contention that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title. 

Beyond his exaggeration of the importance of reading titles, he contends that in general it’s a far better use of your time to read what other people are saying about the book then it is to read the book itself. And this is where we return to the idea of the varying quality of retaining some parts of the book vs. retaining other parts of the book. As an example if you were to compare my book reviews to the reviews found on Amazon you would find that I’m frequently talking about the book in a way that no one else is. Which means my insights can only come from reading the actual book, not reading what other people say about the book, because no one is saying what I am. Now this still leaves unaddressed the question of whether my insights have any value, I could just be insane. I’ll let you be the judge of that:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

by: Michael J. Sandel

342 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

As meritocracy has become more deeply entrenched it has begun to take the form of a system of morality, where being successful equals having moral worth.

Who should read this book?

At any given moment some books are part of the larger conversation. This is one of those books, and if you want a better understanding of the conversation around meritocracy you should read it. 

General Thoughts

The book opens with by recounting the admissions scandal which ensnared people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Sandel chooses this story because it’s a clear example of merit-seeking corruption. But beyond this it illustrates that it’s not actual merit the parents were seeking—I haven’t come across anything indicating these parents were “tiger moms” obsessed with making their children practice various skills—no, what they were buying was the appearance of merit. While he didn’t reference it, Sandel essentially wrote a book length treatment of Campbell’s law (and also the closely related, Goodhart’s law) as it applied to merit:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

This is also closely related to the discussion from a few years ago when Bryan Caplan published his book, The Case Against Education, which argued that college was not about knowledge and increasing human capital, it was about signalling intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. The book also reminded me a lot of Freddie deBoer’s book, Cult of Smart, which I read back in April. As I mentioned already there is definitely a robust conversation around this topic. 

If I were to try to distill out Sandel’s contribution to the topic, I would say he really leans into the moral angle of the whole phenomenon. The idea that if we assume this is a meritocracy, then we further have to assume that positions are earned. That the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. And gradually the definition of deserve creeps from an evaluation of economic worth in a capitalist system to moral worth in a more transcendent system.

In large part this happens because those in charge are incentivized to move the definition in this direction. Not only that, but it only takes a little bit of bias to believe this narrative. Meritocracy has made it so that at least some hard work is required to succeed, people are no longer born to positions. Therefore those at the top of the meritocracy will emphasize their hard work while overlooking outside help and luck.

It’s the dash of hard work with the ratcheting effect of the bias that, in Sandel’s account, differentiates meritocracy from previous social systems. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

Meritocracy is a relatively new invention. Previous to it’s introduction religion and nobility were the primary systems for deciding who was in charge. In both cases people quite obviously ended up in positions of power without any hard work. One might think that this is a bad thing, and it almost certainly was for the people who were subject to this power, but it was a good thing for the system as a whole because it forced a certain amount of humility to be present. It didn’t force every individual to be humble, but the system as a whole necessarily created some humility. 

As Sandel points out:

[T]he more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.

The meritocratic concept of being self-made is also something which wasn’t present in the past systems. Under a system of nobility you were always answerable to some higher noble. Unless you were the King, and indeed that was also generally the failure point in the system. Under a system of religion you were always answerable to God. Or rather the actions of people in power would be circumscribed by the perception of their righteousness. You could only ratchet your own importance so much.

Now I understand that this overview of past systems has overlooked all kinds of nuance and exceptions, and been largely written from a Western, Christian perspective. But I think Sandel is right in pointing out that the incentives of meritocracy have produced some weird, and pernicious outcomes. None of which is to say that Sandel is advocating for a return to earlier systems. And, while I think the world needs more religion, neither am I.

For all the harms caused by meritocracy, I’m still glad that doctors, pilots, and politicians (mostly) are selected by merit. And it may be that meritocracy is similar to democracy. The worst system except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time. Let us hope that this continues to be the case. But there is an argument to be made that the harms of meritocracy are multiplying at the same time that its benefits are diminishing.


Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills

by: Jesse Singal

334 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the popularization of psychology has incentivized scientists to produce “quick fixes”, even if they have to ignore the scientific process in order to do so. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve noticed the parade of techniques that are supposed to be the solution to everything, from improving self esteem, to positive psychology and emphasizing grit. Techniques that flare in a blinding fashion before fading into irrelevance, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

For anyone who’s been following the replication crisis this book will not be surprising. Though I’m sure you’ll still come across stuff that you hadn’t heard. For myself I had forgotten about the panic over super predators and I had no idea that positive psychology had essentially taken over the military. 

But of course this latter example illustrates the point, these concepts have, when ascendent, penetrated nearly everywhere. Even power posing, which always seemed a little bit silly, ended up being prominently featured in the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg which spawned a whole movement around women in the workplace. Nor has power posing been entirely abandoned, it still has it’s defenders.

But eventually after this moment in the spotlight the principles fade, the results don’t match the hype, and (hopefully) the science eventually catches up Though, rather than being abashed that they fell for yet another fad, people immediately start looking for the next fad, the next golden bullet to solve all the problems.

Interestingly, though Singal approaches with caution, his book ends by speaking approvingly of nudges. Targeted, and limited interventions designed to accomplish very narrow aims. The classic example is the idea that people donate more to their 401k if you make them have to opt out of it, rather than opting into it. I get this, but whatever his caution I think Singal may be falling for some of the same faddish adulation he’s decrying everywhere else. 

I think the nudges that work best are just people exercising a little more intelligence when they design systems, like the 401k example. I think other nudges will appear to work initially, but then the effectiveness will fade with time. My power company tries one of the classic nudges with me every month. They show my power usage with respect to my neighbors. And initially, when I saw that I used more power I tried various things to use less, as intended, but then when it kept coming in high I realized that there were (at the time) six people in my house. And two retirees in most of the houses I was being compared against. And now even though there are fewer people in my house I haven’t looked at those comparisons in months, nor do I care much what they show. 

All of which is to say that individual nudges may have a small effect but the concept of nudges as a new tool that will change everything (particularly divorced from any larger concepts, a point I’ll get to it a bit) is yet another fad that will fade. Which Singal allows for, but maybe not enough.

Eschatological Implications

I think most of the implications here are one’s I’ve already spent a lot of time covering in this space. For the last few centuries progress and science have given people a reason to be optimistic about the future. But it’s been apparent for a while that we were running out of things for science to revolutionize. However there was always one thing left on the list, and it’s been on the list of things to improve for at least the last century and probably longer than that. Of course I’m talking about humanity. Quick Fix is both valuable and depressing. Valuable for the truths it points out, depressing in that one of those truths is that humanity is becoming more intractable rather than less. Meaning that if you want to be optimistic about the future, science no longer provides that. If you want optimism you have to find it in the perfectibility of humanity which every day seems more impossible.


II- Capsule Reviews

Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) 

by: John Michael Greer

247 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young girl who reconnects with her extended family who are worshippers of the Elder Gods. Only unlike most novels of this sort, such worshippers are the good guys.

Who should read this book?

Greer mostly writes non-fiction and I think his fiction writing somewhat reflects that, thus you should read the book only if you feel intrigued by its unique premise.

General Thoughts

After reading the first book in this series I was kind of underwhelmed. I had enjoyed it, but I felt it hadn’t crossed the line into being exceptional. I intended to finish the series, just because that’s what I always intend, even if it never happens, but I wasn’t particularly excited for the next book. 

But, as the months went by I found myself unable to stop thinking about it, and more and more eager to find out where Greer was going to go with this unique “worshipers of the elder gods are the good guys” premise. So I picked up the second book, and once again the writing was a little dry, and the characters were a little bit flat, but the premise continues to be endlessly fascinating, and I’m really interested to see what happens in the rest of the books.


The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

by: H. W. Brands

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The post World War II career of General MacArther, and in particular his conflict with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. 

Who should read this book?

If you like history and biography at all this is one of the better examples I’ve come across. Also if you feel like you have a blindspot when it comes to the Korean War this is a great entry point.

General Thoughts

The book starts out by talking about how much the Japanese revered General MacArthur. I’m curious to know if that’s still the case. (I have a friend in Japan I’ve been meaning to ask but I haven’t gotten around to it.) It’s nice that it starts out that way because the remainder of the book is increasingly hard on him, and by the end he doesn’t come out looking very good. Which I think is the impression I absorbed of him growing up in the 70s and 80s. (Certainly the show M.A.S.H. didn’t help.) Obviously I had heard about Truman firing him, but it always felt more like a piece of trivia than a national scandal. This book definitely made me feel the magnitude of the act. And the magnitude of the Korean War, which is another thing which doesn’t carry the weight it deserves, stuck as it is between Vietnam and World War II.

If you’ll forgive me for going on a brief eschatological tangent, one of the really interesting things about the Korean War is how pivotal it was when it came to the question of nuclear weapons. At this point it was still an open question whether nukes were going to be just another weapon in a countries arsenal or whether they were going to be treated as being on a whole, separate, almost unthinkable level. It’s a credit to Truman that it was the latter not the former.

One of the things I did in October, which didn’t get mentioned in the intro, was I took a trip to Albuquerque to visit family. While there I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. I highly recommend it, particularly for those who have any doubts about the unclear status of nuclear weapons in the 50’s. You’ll see all manner of things including nuclear artillery and the infamous nuclear bazooka

To the extent I have a criticism and it’s a very small one, this book, despite its subtitle, might have been even better if Brands had spent more time examining this inflection point in the use of nuclear weapons.


Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir

by: Norm Macdonald

242 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A somewhat surreal pseudo-memoir of Norm Macdonald. About 99% untrue, but 100% of his essence. Perhaps if Vonnegut had written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is what would have come out.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who REALLY liked Norm Macdonald already has. But if, like me, you only truly recognized his genius once it was gone, this is a great way to both bask in it and pay homage to it.

General Thoughts

I was not a hardcore Norm Macdonald fan. He was rather someone I wanted to hear more from, but never got around to it. When he died, that snapped me into action and I picked up his book. It was the audio version and he did the narration which was great. 

I think the comment I made about Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson sums it up pretty well. This book is not for everyone, and it’s pretty crass to boot. But if you felt like Macdonald was taken too soon this is a great way to celebrate his comedic genius. 


The Silmarillion 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

If the Lord of the Rings is the New Testament, The Silmarillion is the Old. It’s a record of all the things that happened beforehand which were only alluded to in the trilogy. It’s also far more tragic.

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone who likes The Silmarillion, who doesn’t already like the Lord of the Rings, but liking LotR is no guarantee that you’ll like this book. I only know a few people who love it. 

General Thoughts

I am one of those who love The Silmarillion. My favorite scene from the trilogy is when Gandalf confronts the Lord of the Nazguls at the gates of Minas Tirith. The Silmarillion is full of scenes like that. It can do this because it covers thousands of years, and it basically only includes these scenes. As a consequence of this there is very little in the way of character development. And while there is something of an overarching plot the book is not a novel, it’s a collection of myths. And as such it’s not for everyone. But after reading it this time, I think I actually like it better than the original trilogy. 

On this read through one scene in particular really moved me. It concerns Húrin, a mighty warrior, who ends up being imprisoned in the dungeons of the dark lord for 28 years before he is finally released. Wandering about, old and bowed down he comes across his wife, sitting at the graves of his children:

But Húrin did not look at the stone, for he knew what was written there; and his eyes had seen that he was not alone. Sitting in the shadow of the stone there was a woman, bent over her knees; and as Húrin stood there silent she cast back her tattered hood and lifted her face. Grey she was and old, but suddenly her eyes looked into his, and he knew her; for though they were wild and full of fear, that light still gleamed in them that long ago had earned for her the name [Morwen], proudest and most beautiful of mortal women in the days of old.

‘You come at last,’ she said. ‘I have waited too long.’

‘It was a dark road. I have come as I could,’ he answered.

‘But you are too late,’ said Morwen. ‘They are lost.’

‘I know it,’ he said. ‘But you are not.’

But Morwen said: ‘Almost. I am spent. I shall go with the sun…

…and they sat beside the stone, and did not speak again; and when the sun went down Morwen sighed and clasped his hand, and was still; and Húrin knew that she had died. 


The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by: Carlo M. Cipolla

64 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The 5 Laws of human stupidity.

Who should read this book?

The introduction is by Nassim Taleb. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, you should read this book. Also it’s super short (this is my ½ book for the month.)

General Thoughts

Here are the five laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and Inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. Stupid people are the most dangerous kind of people. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The rules are interesting, but it’s the idea of the bandit that’s going to stick with me. Cipolla divides people into four quadrants:

  1. The Intelligent: Those who act in such a way that it benefits themselves and others.
  2. The Bandits: Those who act to benefit themselves while causing harm to others.
  3. The Helpless: Those who harm themselves while benefiting others. (I feel like there should be a better term for this than helpless.)
  4. The Stupid: Those who cause harm to both themselves and others. 

He further divides the bandit in two. Bandits who help themselves more than they harm others— so on net they benefit society. And bandits who harm others more than they help themselves—someone who breaks a $500 car window to steal the $5 in change sitting in the center console. Obviously, just by the nature of banditry the latter type is far more common than the former. But I think the former has an interesting place in the capitalist structure. Particularly when you start to consider harms that are more diffuse.


The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

by: Roland Huntford

640 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The lives of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen and their race for the South Pole.  

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes stories of survival and exploration, but it also works as a business book.

General Thoughts

To start with I’m glad I read The Man Who Ate His Boots before reading this. The foundation it gave me on the previous era of arctic exploration was very helpful particularly at the beginning of this book.

As far as the book itself, my sense of Scott was developed in a similar fashion to my sense of MacArthur. I had evidently picked up some stuff by osmosis. Before reading this book I had a vague sense of Scott’s heroism and a vague annoyance with Amundsen, but if you had asked me to explain where I got those impressions I would have been unable to point to anything specific. Having read the book I’m not surprised by those opinions, they’re basically the opinions which suffuse the anglosphere. Though the fact that I was unaware of this osmosis might bear further examination. Particularly since the impressions I had were entirely wrong. Everyone should strive to emulate Amundsen, while Scott should be a cautionary tale for anyone engaged in any high risk endeavor.

So how is it that the conventional wisdom is lukewarm towards Amundsen, while Scott is still thought of with reverence? There are three factors: first, whatever other faults Scott may have had he was a gifted writer, and when his journal was published posthumously (and also after some extensive editing) it gave the whole enterprise a heroic narrative, which bore only a passing resemblance to reality. Second, Scott died. Objectively this can’t help but count against him, but emotionally it ends up providing a huge boost to someone’s reputation to die young. Also there’s this sense that Amundsen, by being close and winning the race, somehow contributed to it. Third, Scott’s journey was more exciting.

It’s this last bit that I want to focus on in particular, and what makes this something of a business book. How often do we judge people’s efforts by how many near death experiences come out of it, rather than how safe and effective it was. Certainly the near death stories are more exciting and get retold more often. In this case Scott was heroic because he died, while Amundsen was not because his expedition was meticulously planned and executed. Of course what we should want is not excitement and heroism, we should want things to be meticulously planned and executed. But that’s often not the way people think. 

I wonder if movies have made this problem worse? Something to chew on.


III- Religious Reviews

How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

by: David DeSteno

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How most of the stuff scientists think of for improving humanity is already being done by religion and in a more effective fashion.

Who should read this book?

People who want their support of religion confirmed or people who think that religion is entirely valueless.

General Thoughts

This book makes the argument I’ve long made. That religion isn’t a harmful batch of superstitions that idiots waste their time with, but rather a rigorously evolved package of beneficial behaviors. So in a very broad sense it’s supportive of one of the core missions of the blog. But as I’ve spent a lot of time already on that subject I’d like to talk about the interesting addendum it provides to one of the previous books I reviewed, Quick Fix.

To begin with, DeSteno’s point is very similar to Singal’s. There are no quick fixes. If you want to change human behavior it takes something massive and integrated; something that has been developed over centuries. Nor are these changes massive, mostly they are small improvements, but there are improvements which last, they’re not transitory. 

But then interestingly DeSteno ends up in the same place as Singal, talking about nudges. And there’s this sense that for DeSteno that’s all religion is. (DeSteno himself is not a believer.) That it’s a collection of nudges. For example, we know meditation is good, religion tells you to pray which is a nudge to meditate. And indeed that’s probably all that DeSteno’s data can tell him, but I think he’s only scratching the surface on the benefits of religion. That nudges are just what can quickly be measured, that the benefits of religion are mostly felt over the span of decades. This is also the scope for the harms of its absence to be felt as well. Harms which every day seem more and more apparent.


I guess this end bit that I always do is also a nudge. Let’s hope it’s one that is bundled up into a larger system of value rather than one of those nudges that fade with time. Either way if you have felt the nudge to donate, give into that impulse, it’s what science would want you to do. 


Eschatologist #10: Mediocristan and Extremistan

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


Last time we talked about mistakenly finding patterns in randomness—patterns that are then erroneously extrapolated into predictions. This time we’re going to talk about yet another mistake people make when dealing with randomness, confusing the extreme with the normal.

When I use the term “normal” you may be thinking I’m using it in a general sense, but in the realm of randomness, “normal” has a very specific meaning, i.e. a normal distribution. This is the classic bell curve: a large hump in the center and thin tails to either side. In general occurrences in the natural world fall on this curve. The classic example is height, people cluster around the average (5’9” for men and 5’4” for women, at least in the US) and as you get farther away from average—say men who are either 6’7” or 4’11”—you find far fewer examples. 

Up until relatively recently, most of the things humans encountered followed this distribution. If your herd of cows normally produced 20 calves in a year, then on a good year the herd might produce 30 and on a bad year they might produce 10. The same might be said of the bushels of grain that were harvested or the amount of rain that fell. 

These limits were particularly relevant when talking about the upper end of the distribution. Disaster might cause you to end up with no calves, or no harvest or not enough rain. But there was no scenario where you would go from 20 calves one year to 2000 the next. And on an annualized basis even rainfall is unlikely to change very much. Phoenix is not going to suddenly become Portland even if they do get the occasional flash flood. 

Throughout our history these normal distributions are so common that we often fall into the trap of assuming that everything follows this distribution, but randomness can definitely appear in other forms. The most common of these is the power law, and the most common example of a power law is a Pareto distribution, one example of which is called the 80/20 rule. This originally took the form of observing that 20% of the people have 80% of the wealth. But you can also see it in things like software, where 20% of the features often account for 80% of the usage. 

I’ve been drawing on the work of Nassim Taleb a lot in these newsletters, and in order to visualize the difference between these two distributions he came up with the terms mediocristan and extremistan. And he points out that while most people think they live in mediocristan, because that’s where humanity has spent most of its time, that the modern world has gradually been turning more and more into extremistan. This has numerous consequences, one of the biggest is when it comes to prediction.

In mediocristan one data point is never going to destroy the curve. If you end up at a party with a hundred people and you toss out the estimate that the average height of all the men is 5’9” you’re unlikely to be wrong by more than a couple of inches in either direction. And even if an NBA player walks through the door it’s only going to throw off things by a half an inch. But if you’re estimating the average wealth things get a lot more complicated. Even if you were to collect all the data necessary to have the exact number, the appearance of, the fashionably late, Bill Gates will completely blow that up. For instance an average wealth of $1 million pre-Bill Gates to $2.7 billion after he shows up.

Extreme outliers like this can either be very good or very bad. If Gates shows up and you’re trying to collect money to pay the caterers it’s good. If Gates shows up and it’s an auction where you’re both bidding on the same thing it’s bad. But where such outliers really screw things up is when you’re trying to prepare for future risk, particularly if you’re using the tools of mediocristan to prepare for the disasters of extremistan. Disasters which we’ll get to next time…


As it turns out blogging is definitely in extremistan. Only in this case you’re probably looking at 5% of the bloggers who get 95% of the traffic. As someone who’s in the 95% of the bloggers that gets 5% of the traffic I really appreciate each and every reader. If you want to help me get into that 5%, consider donating.


Government Spending and Skin in the Game

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


A Deeper Understanding of How Bad Things Happen

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The 9 Books I Finished in September

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

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

by: Carl R. Trueman

426 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

For Rieff the psychological man is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

by: Elizabeth Kolbert

256 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

This quote from the book is illustrative:

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

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

by: Julia Galef

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by: Mike Duncan

512 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

Can you imagine anything similar happening today?


This Is How You Lose the Time War

by: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

209 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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


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

by: Sharyl Attkisson

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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


Plato: Complete Works 

by: Plato

1848 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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


Stillness Is the Key

by: Ryan Holiday

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


The Sorrows of Young Werther

by: Goethe

121 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


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


Eschatologist #9: Randomness

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


Over the last couple of newsletters we’ve been talking about how to deal with an unpredictable and dangerous future. To put a more general label on things, we’ve been talking about how to deal with randomness. We started things off by looking at the most extreme random outcome imaginable: humanity’s extinction. Then I took a brief detour into a discussion of why I believe that religion is a great way to manage randomness and uncertainty. Having laid the foundation for why you should prepare yourself for randomness, in this newsletter I want to take a step back and examine it in a more abstract form.

The first thing to understand about randomness is that it frequently doesn’t look random. Our brain wants to find patterns, and it will find them even in random noise. An example:

T​​he famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand. When he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except… there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms will eat other glowworms) each worm had a similar spacing. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.

One of the ways this pattern matching manifests is in something called the Narrative Fallacy. The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite authors, who described it thusly: 

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

That last bit is particularly important when it comes to understanding the future. We think we understand how the future is going to play out because we’ve detected a narrative. To put it more simply: We’ve identified the story and because of this we think we know how it ends.

People look back on the abundance and economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the end of World War II and see a story of material progress, which ends in plenty for all. Or they may look back on the recent expansion of rights for people who’ve previously been marginalized and think they see an arc to history, an arc which “bends towards justice”. Or they may look at a graph which shows the exponential increase in processor power and see a story where massively beneficial AI is right around the corner. All of these things might happen, but nothing says they have to. If the pandemic taught us no other lesson, it should at least have taught us that the future is sometimes random and catastrophic. 

Plus, even if all of the aforementioned trends are accurate the outcome doesn’t have to be beneficial. Instead of plenty for all, growth could end up creating increasing inequality, which breeds envy and even violence. Instead of justice we could end up fighting about what constitutes justice, leading to a fractured and divided country. Instead of artificial intelligence being miraculous and beneficial it could be malevolent and harmful, or just put a lot of people out of work. 

But this isn’t just a post about what might happen, it’s also a post about what we should do about it. In all of the examples I just gave, if we end up with the good outcome, it doesn’t matter what we do, things will be great. We’ll either have money, justice or a benevolent AI overlord, and possibly all three. However, if we’re going to prevent the bad outcome, our actions may matter a great deal. This is why we can’t allow ourselves to be lured into an impression of understanding. This is why we can’t blindly accept the narrative. This is why we have to realize how truly random things are. This is why, in a newsletter focused on studying how things end, we’re going to spend most of our time focusing on how things might end very badly. 


I see a narrative where my combination of religion, rationality, and reading like a renaissance man leads me to fame and adulation. Which is a good example of why you can’t blindly accept the narrative. However if you’d like to cautiously investigate the narrative a good first step would be donating.


9 Days vs. 3 Years

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.

All the way back in 1992, at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published a book called The End of History and the Last Man. This book has come under a lot of criticism (including from me before I read it) for claiming that we had reached “the end of history”. But in reality the book’s claims are far more subtle. And its main claim, that liberal democracy and free markets have no remaining viable competitor, has been the default assumption of basically all politicians and policy makers over the last 30 years. But as we conduct our retrospective on the events in Afghanistan, these events are not merely a reflection on the country and its peculiarities, nor an embarrassment for Biden, they are a test of this assumption, a test of the liberal order. A test I’m pretty sure we failed.

It might be helpful at this point to remind ourselves of Fukuyama’s argument. In my review of the book I provided the following summary of his claims:

  • His strongest claim is that things are different because we can never go back to a condition where we didn’t understand the scientific method.
  • His next strongest claim is that we are unlikely to lose the knowledge we’ve acquired through that method. At this point we can’t go back to a time when no one knew how to make a thermonuclear weapon.
  • In the middle, is his claim that war will continue to exist, and those that use science, and the things science can give them, like the aforementioned nukes, are going to have an advantage in those wars, but that advantage requires significant industry in addition to significant scientific knowledge to take advantage of, and that achieving that industry is only possible under certain political systems. 
  • Finally, his weakest claim is that a western style liberal democracy with free markets/capitalism is the best system for achieving both the science and industry necessary to have this edge.

In the wake of our retreat from Afghanistan these claims must all be viewed in a different light. Yes we are probably better at taking advantage of the scientific method than the people in Afghanistan. But as I pointed out in the last post, science did not provide us with any method for turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy of the kind promoted by Fukuyama. It gave us a tremendous edge in fighting the Afghans who opposed us, but in the end it made very little impact on their desire to fight for themselves. (More on that in a second.) It remains open for debate whether there can be said to be a science of politics in general, but science certainly appears helpless when it comes to the politics of Afghanistan. Afghanistan was often viewed as a battle for hearts and minds, and while our science and industry are great at winning conventional battles, they proved powerless to fight these other battles of attitude and ideology. 

It’s not that the global liberal democratic project ended in Afghanistan, there are still many parts of the world where it (mostly) works. It’s that it didn’t expand into Afghanistan, and this despite an effort spanning 20 years and costing trillions of dollars. Fukuyama never asserted that liberal values were historically inevitable—despite how much he was influenced by Hegel—for him it was a matter of competition. Liberal democratic states would inevitably outcompete nonliberal states economically, intellectually, and militarily. In order to survive, states would have to adopt this ideology, otherwise their defeat was inevitable. Well we spent 20 years trying to get Afghanistan to accomplish exactly that and we appear to have failed. We didn’t outcompete the nonliberal elements either intellectually or militarily. It can be argued that we’re still outcompeting them economically, but that wasn’t enough. 

This is of course related to the point Richard Hanania made which opened my last post: that political science has failed. One of my readers asked why, when we suffered a similar failure in Vietnam, no one declared political science to be dead back then? If they didn’t, why should we do so now? To begin with, it’s possible they did (see numerous criticisms of guys like McNamara). Also, in response, political scientists, rather than all quitting their jobs to manage a McDonald’s, probably defended their profession (as people are inclined to do), perhaps arguing that they had incorporated the relevant criticism and improved things. I bring up this first possibility because I’m pretty sure that’s what is going to happen this time as well. But there’s another angle of his question that I’m more interested in. 

II.

While our exit from Afghanistan certainly reminded people of Vietnam, in many other respects the two wars were very different. The North Vietnamese had powerful backing in the form of the Soviet Union and China. Afghanistan had no such help (or very little). Also, while people have no problem categorizing communism as a true rival ideology, particularly at the time of the Vietnam war, very few people are framing the Taliban’s victory in ideological terms, and no one is anointing any ideology as potential successor to liberalism. (Islam might be considered for that role, but if anything Afghanistan has been a lesson more in its fractures than in its unity.)

Another difference is the history, America’s efforts in Afghanistan were conducted in the shadow of the Soviet Union’s previous disastrous occupation. And I think it’s more instructive to compare the end of our time in Afghanistan with the end of the Soviet’s time in Afghanistan than with the end of our time in Vietnam.

This difference was brought to my attention by Ross Douthat in his column from a couple of weeks ago. 

Only recently the view that without U.S. troops, the American-backed government in Kabul would be doomed to the same fate as the Soviet-backed government some 30 years ago seemed like hardheaded realism. Now such “realism” has been proven to be wildly overoptimistic. Without Soviet troops, the Moscow-backed government actually held out for several years before the mujahideen reached Kabul. Whereas our $2,000,000,000,000 built a regime that fell to the Taliban before American troops could even finish their retreat.

Later in the same article he points out that the US backed government was conquered faster by the Taliban than the Taliban were initially conquered by the US. I understand that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but the speed and lack of struggle accompanying this most recent death suggests something closer to euthanasia than murder. And basically this is exactly how Biden is defending his decision.

It feels like it would be hard to overemphasis this difference: the US backed government lasted 9 days while the Soviet backed government lasted several years. In fact I would argue that this difference speaks to a deep truth about the nature of the American effort and it’s associated ideological foundation. The point of this post is to uncover what that truth might be. Like all deep truths I don’t imagine that I’m going to do much more than scratch the surface in the space of a few thousand words, but I think one entry point would be a comparison of two leaders: 

The Soviet forces started withdrawing from Afghanistan in May of 1988 with the very last troops leaving in February of 1989. At this point Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan was left to fend for himself. The Soviets were still giving him financial aid, but the US and Pakistan were still giving aid to his enemies. Initially things went okay for Najibullah, but by the beginning of 1991 he only held on to 10% of the country. On top of this the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing by this point, finally collapsing for good in December of that year. Despite this, Najibullah fought on, eventually resigning only in April of 1992. A resignation that came about in large part because of the defection of a key general. After being unsuccessful in his attempt to flee to India, he sought refuge in the UN compound where he stayed for the next four years. 

During those years the Afghan Civil War raged. In 1996 the Taliban eventually came out on top, and were on the verge of taking Kabul. At this point Najibullah was offered one final chance to escape which he turned down for reasons which have been much speculated on since then. As one might imagine, when the Taliban took Kabul they didn’t let anything like the UN stand in their way. Najibullah was abducted from the compound, tortured to death, dragged through the streets, and then hung outside the presidential palace. 

Now let’s turn to consider Ashraf Ghani, the most recent president of Afghanistan, the one backed by the US. I’m taking most of my information here from the excellent Washington Post article, “Surprise, panic and fateful choices: The day America lost its longest war“. In reading about Najibullah one gets the sense that the Soviet installed government wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did without him. In reading about Ghani one gets the exact opposite sense, that he’s the entire reason everything collapsed so swiftly. That once he fled everyone figured the government had lost, and there was no sense continuing the fight. Now to be fair to Ghani, some of his advisors told him, incorrectly, that the militants were already in the palace and looking for him. So without telling most of his other advisors or the US, he immediately fled. Basically people working for him went to lunch, and when they came back his office was empty. There was no explanation. This paragraph seems particularly damning:

Even after they had reached safety, the president and his party never circled back with senior officials who had been anxiously seeking their help. Some of those who had worked closely with Ghani over the years felt betrayed, believing he had left them to die.

Ghani’s sudden flight from Kabul was a disaster for his government, but it was at least understandable. We already saw what happened to the last president of Afghanistan when the Taliban came to town. Certainly we would hope that he was made of sterner stuff. Personally, I can’t imagine Najibullah fleeing so suddenly. But in a sense all of this is beside the point. In a moment of panic lots of actions are excusable, and while I think there are some insights to be gained in considering his flight from Kabul, I’m more interested in what Ghani did when he had time to reflect. What did he do before and after his panicked flight? We have already seen that he didn’t bother to “circle back” to those he had left behind, but what was he doing in the days beforehand, as all the provincial capitals were falling?

As the Taliban continued to accumulate gains, American officials began to see the president’s confidence as delusion.

Ghani’s lack of focus on the threat that the Taliban posed mystified U.S. officials, in particular, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Ambassador Ross Wilson.

In a July meeting with Ghani in Kabul, the two men told the Afghan president that his team needed a “realistic, implementable and widely supported plan to defend the country” and must drop the idea of defending all 34 provincial capitals, said an official familiar with the meeting.

“They had to focus on what they could actually defend,” said the official. “All provinces are important, but some were integral to the defense of Kabul.”

Ghani appeared to agree, but there would be no follow-through, the official said.

“Advice would be given, the right things would be said, and nothing would happen,” the official said. “They never did it. They never came up with that plan.”

Even as a cascade of provincial capitals fell — starting with Zaranj in the far southwest on Aug. 6, and continuing through two dozen others over the nine days that followed — the president appeared distracted.

“Ghani would want to talk about digitization of the economy,” said the official, referring to the president’s plan for a government salary payment system. “It had nothing to do with the dire threat.”

As late as the Saturday afternoon before Kabul fell, Ghani did not suggest any urgency around departure arrangements or the safety of senior staff.

Receiving one adviser in the palace gardens, and speaking in his characteristic soft tones, he made arrangements to shore up the country’s economy. He was supposed to address the nation later that night. But he never did.

The Americans, meanwhile, were suffering their own delusions.

In June, U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that the Afghan government would hang on for at least another six months. By August, the dominant view was that the Taliban wasn’t likely to pose a serious threat to Kabul until late fall.

As you can see the Washington Post doesn’t let the American military off the hook either, but the article does reserve its harshest criticism for Ghani. And perhaps the Soviets and Najibullah were similarly insouciant in February of 1989, as the Mujahideen roamed the country with their American-supplied stinger missiles. But I really doubt it. I suspect that the reason Najibullah lasted so long was not only did he have a plan for staying in power, but he was very good about executing on that plan.  

Beyond the general sense that the post-soviet withdrawal Afghanistan must have been a very different place that post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, the thing that really jumps out at me from the Washington Post account, is the idea that as the country collapses around him all Ghani wanted to talk about was the “digitization of the economy”. I understand that it’s possible, even likely, that in choosing to emphasize the differences in how long the two governments lasted, and then further emphasizing the two leaders, and then beyond that emphasizing one line in an article, that I have put an enormous amount of weight on a very tiny foundation. But for me this seems to encapsulate, in one anecdote, the entire problem. During the 20 years we spent in Afghanistan, we didn’t create Fukuyama’s market-fueled, science-driven, war-fighting powerhouse. We didn’t replace their tribal culture with a progressive culture. All we managed to do was create a small group of elites who worry about things like the digitization of the economy.

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah was an expert in such conversations. Ghani apparently avoided them. 

III.

Reading about Ghani one word comes to mind: “untethered” as in untethered from reality. The US could also be accused of being untethered as well. There is of course the disconnect immediately preceding the fall of Kabul: despite the speed with which the Taliban was advancing everyone thought it would take a lot longer. There was the famous assertion that Kabul was not in an “imminent threat environment” made just two days before it fell. And many of the key people were so confident of things that they went on vacation, for example the Secretary of State and even Biden himself. But one suspects we were untethered from reality during the entire 20 years we were in the country. 

At the beginning of those 20 years I think most people assumed that progress was possible, in fact they probably on some level imagined that it was inevitable. In a sense this is part of a general view of how the future is going to play out. Most people can imagine that in a 100 years that we’ll have colonies on Mars, very few imagine that when that happens the Taliban will still be in charge of Afghanistan. And yet, though it’s not 100 years, 20 years have passed and at least two trillion dollars have been spent, and rather than getting any closer to this imagined future we appear to have gone backwards. As Douthat says:

Now, though, we know that in terms of actual staying power, all our nation-building efforts couldn’t even match what the Soviet Union managed in its dotage.

So is progress possible? Will the Taliban or some roughly similar organization still be in charge of Afghanistan in 100 years or will Afghanistan, to borrow another idea of Fukuyama’s, have turned into something resembling Denmark?

If so, how might this progress actually occur? I’m not sure. I’m not one of the people who think it’s inevitable. I think it could very easily not occur, but if I were going to take some guesses here are a few:

Time: It may just be that it will occur, but that we can’t hurry it. That in fact by trying to intervene we actually slowed it down. By making progress seem to be explicitly foreign it becomes more difficult for people to adopt it.

Economic Necessity: It has long been thought that countries will progress towards liberal democracy out of a desire to be part of the global economy with all of its advantages. This was the major justification behind normalizing relations with China and inviting them to the WTO. That didn’t work out quite the way people expected. Even so, at the moment it looks like the best lever we have with Afghanistan.

War: People will argue that we already tried war. But I’m not sure that we have. The great transformation of Germany and Japan happened after the most brutal war imaginable. Taking such a course in Afghanistan would be horrible, but repeated and violent demonstrations of the military superiority of a western liberal democracy vs. Islamic tribalism might be the only thing that gets people to abandon the latter in favor of the former. At its core I think this is Fukuyama’s argument.

Muscular Ideology: Whatever our plan was for “nurtur[ing] the shoots of Afghan liberalism”, it had some curious holes. The US turned a blind eye to ridiculous amounts of corruption. It’s my understanding that this corruption was a major factor in the ease with which the Taliban took over. The US forces also turned a blind eye to traditional Afghan pederasty. Despite these examples of extreme tolerance it’s not like we didn’t impose any ideology on Afghanistan. Much has been made of the expansion of women’s rights and their subsequent retreat now that the Taliban are back in power. But if you’re an Afghan looking for an ideology to give your allegiance to this combination is a very weird mish-mash to stake your future on.

I think this last point starts to get to the heart of the matter, and illustrates the ultimate difference between Ghani and Najibullah. The former did plant his flag in this vague ideological mish-mash where digitizing the economy somehow took up more of his attention than ensuring the survival of his administration. Whereas the latter was almost certainly laser focused on survival and maintaining power. This is the difference between a regime which lasts 9 days and one that lasts three years. 

Of course the default American regime has lasted nearly 250 years. Why don’t we just use that ideology? Well that would obviously open us up to accusations of colonialism (it’s interesting what sort of things do trigger those accusations and what things don’t.) But also it’s an ideology which was being developed for centuries even before it provided for the foundation of the United States.

Examining this development makes the situation even more baffling. The countries which would go on to become western liberal democracies eliminated wide scale corruption and pederasty fairly early on. I’m not an expert on the level of corruption in 17th century Europe, but by the time of the American Revolution corruption was relatively rare, certainly far more rare than what we saw in Afghanistan. And of course pederasty had been taboo for centuries. On the other hand at the time of the American Revolution women’s suffrage was still more than a century away. And the digitization of the economy was another century or more beyond that. But somehow this is what we ended up focusing on, the fruits of liberal democracy rather than the foundation. It’s as if people think they can skip ahead and go straight to the parts they find attractive while overlooking all the steps that were initially required. We’ve become untethered from the ideology that got us here, and without it our days are numbered. We have more than 9 days our Afghan proteges lasted, but beyond that, I’m certain we have fewer days than we think.


Until writing this I didn’t realize how close we are to the Semiquincentennial (Wikipedia tells me it’s also called Sestercentennial or Quarter Millennial). I hope to still be writing about events when it happens and as that is many days hence I hope it does happen. If you’d like to help ensure that (my writing not the existence of the country) consider donating.