Author: <span class="vcard">Jeremiah</span>

Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why By: Amanda Ripley
  2. The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7) By: Jacqueline Winspear
  3. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution By: Francis Fukuyama
  4. The Odyssey By: Homer
  5. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
  6. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life By: Jen Sincero
  7. Ayoade on Top By: Richard Ayoade
  8. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business By: Neil Postman
  9. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology By: Neil Postman
  10. Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1) By: Ben Aaronovitch
  11. Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound By: Aeschylus

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

By: Amanda Ripley
288 pages

Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers after I published the reviews of the books I read in September, which included quite a few survival books. As is usual with these books the content is basically evenly divided between survival stories and commentary on those stories. 

On the story side of things this one focused a lot on plane crashes and 9/11, and she had some great interviews with survivors. In both cases people froze up a lot more than you would have expected. Apparently playing dead is not an old wives tale, and most of these disasters are so huge that it’s not uncommon for that response to trigger. There were also a surprising number of people who would essentially act as if nothing had happened. Executives who stayed on their phone on 9/11 or more commonly people who stopped to shut down their computers. Other people would grab their carry-on luggage before getting off a plane that was already on fire.

As far as practical lessons there were a few good ones. She urged people to pay attention to the high probability/low visibility catastrophes like house fires and car accidents. Also, she mentioned the reluctance of people to evacuate. In particular, people who are old and settled are less likely to want to leave or do anything dramatic. As a consequence they were particularly likely to die during something like Katrina. Finally, if you’re interested in surviving, visualization and practice helps a lot before the catastrophe happens, and apparently yelling helps a lot during it. 


The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, #7)

By: Jacqueline Winspear
352 pages

Thoughts

The first weekend in November my wife, my youngest daughter, my mother and I all went on a road trip. For me a road trip is a great chance to catch up on my reading by listening to an audiobook. For my wife it’s a great chance to talk. On this trip we decided to split the difference somewhat. We would start by talking and when the conversation flagged we would switch to an audiobook, and not just any audiobook, the book she was supposed to be reading for her upcoming bookclub. And so it was that I ended up listening to the seventh book in the Maisie Dobbs series. (Once again I’ve started a new series of books without finishing any of my previous series.) 

The book was a reasonably good murder mystery. Not quite as good as the best stuff, but done very well with lots of atmosphere, and some pretty good characters. But the real revelation of this experience was how much fun it can be to listen to a murder mystery with other people. Everytime some hint was dropped we’d stop the book and discuss it. Was it a red herring or a legitimate clue? My wife was pointing out stuff that I missed and vice versa. As a tactic for amusing oneself during a road trip, it worked marvelously. I will definitely be trying it again on future road trips.


The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

By: Francis Fukuyama
608 pages

Thoughts

I’ve been critical of Fukuyama in the past, particularly his End of History theory, but I’ll say up front that whatever else I may have said, this was a great book. I believe I came across it on one of those lists of “books that everyone should read”, and, having followed that advice, I would have to agree.

The book is massive, and sprawling, and almost certainly deserves its own post. Also, as is so often the case with me, it’s actually part of a two book series, so rather than finishing any of the 20 series I’ve already started, I once again began a new one. It would therefore seem obvious that I should do a full post once I’ve finished the second book. Which is what I intend to do. Until that time here are a few, brief thoughts:

Fukuyama claims three things are required to have a modern state:

  1. A Strong State
  2. Rule of Law
  3. Accountability

As an example of the first, he directs our attention to China. They’ve had strong states going all the way back to the Qin Dynasty. But just because they had strong states did not mean they had stable states. There were frequent coups, rebellions and other violent transfers of power as one government or another lost the Mandate of Heaven (a fascinating subject all on it’s own, which I wish I had more time to explore.) And while everyone in China agreed that a strong state was important, they never went on to recognize the need for accountability or the Rule of Law, both of which remain problems down to the present day.

Similar to China, England was also an early example of one of the elements required for a modern state, in this case it was the Rule of Law. Common law and property rights were in place well before the Norman Conquest, and everyone has heard of the Magna Carta. You might imagine that Rule of Law would be sufficient all by itself to eventually lead to a modern state. But it turns out that Rule of Law can actually retard the development of a strong state. For example, Hungary had the Golden Bull, a document very similar to the Magna Carta and which similarly granted significant rights to the nobility, but it turned out too grant them too many rights, leaving the Hungarian King relatively powerless.

Finally, there’s accountability. To achieve this in the modern sense it seems that it was easiest if it emerged organically from the Rule of Law. But, accountability also manifested in other ways as well. Historically, the biggest challenge was to make the people who ran the nation accountable to the nation as a whole rather than their families. Many nations were able to develop a strong state, but as these states developed they needed a larger and larger bureaucracy, and the minute someone ended up with any power they were naturally inclined to use it to benefit their tribe or family, which then undermines the state they’re supposedly working in service to. Accordingly, several states came up with methods for eliminating these attachments. China had eunuchs and to a lesser extent, their system of examinations. While the Ottoman Empire had the devshirme system, whereby Christian slaves acted as the bureaucracy. This sat alongside the system of Janissaries, which was the same thing but for the military. Additionally, to a certain extent this idea also ends up describing clerical celibacy in Catholicism. 

I’ve considered the tension between the state and the family before, but never quite from this angle. And as someone belonging to a religion that puts a lot of emphasis on the family, the dichotomy brings up a lot of interesting issues:

  • To begin with, it’s obvious that loyalty to family is probably at an all time low. Is this because loyalty to the state is at an all time high? If not what has replaced loyalty to the family?
  • Even if loyalty to the family is low, it does seem like there’s been a recent increase in tribal loyalty, if we consider the rise in identity politics to be essentially a tribal thing.
  • It’s been centuries since the modern state has had to deal with strong tribal affiliations, are they still capable of doing so? I’m not sure they are, and if Fukuyama is to be believed that could be very bad.
  • Finally, I mentioned Catholic celibacy, and it turns out that this, plus rules against marrying first cousins did a lot to loosen familial linkage in early Europe and many people, including Fukuyama, believe that this is a large part of what set Europe apart from the rest of the world.

All this stuff is fascinating, but most people are looking for more than the mere satisfaction of their curiosity from observations like these. Ideally, they want wisdom applicable to the current situation, and even better, some guidance for the future. And regardless of whether we grant that some nations have permanently and irrevocably implemented Fukuyama’s three elements, there are still many nations which haven’t. I assume that Fukuyama might cover this more in the second book in the series, but I was left wondering what to do about these nations. I got the distinct feeling that none of the three elements were the sort of thing that was easily transmissible. And, consequently, their lack will not be a simple thing to rectify.


The Odyssey

By: Homer Translated by Emily Wilson
582 pages

Notes on this translation

As I recall, I first heard about this translation though Marginal Revolution. But after that I started seeing it mentioned everywhere. For a long time I’ve had the goal of reading the great works of Western Literature starting at the beginning, and hearing people rave about this particular translation was a large part of the catalyst for taking another run at it. Comparing this translation, which was very modern, with the more traditional Lattimore translation of the Iliad, which I finished back in August, was very illuminating. I wouldn’t have expected it going in, but I think I preferred the more modern approach. Certainly it went down easier, but that could, in part, be due to differences in the original works. I think it’s widely agreed that the Iliad is the weighter of the two.

Representative passage:

Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,

he leapt upon the threshold with his bow

and quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped

out in a rush before his feet, and spoke.

“Playtime is over. I will shoot again,

towards another mark no man has hit.

Apollo, may I manage it!”

He aimed

his deadly arrow at Antinous.

The young man sat there, just about to lift

his golden goblet, swirling wine around,

ready to drink. He had no thought of death.

How could he? Who would think a single man,

among so many banqueters, would dare

to risk dark death, however strong he was?

Thoughts

Once again I’m not sure how to review a work of literature that’s nearly 3000 years old. In addition to giving a feel for Wilson’s translation I selected the passage above mostly because of the phrase, “Playtime is over.” I can even imagine it on a list of quotes:

Playtime is over.

—Homer

But also I choose it to illustrate the realism with which combat is handled. I know I’ve seen a movie version of the Odyssey where Odysseus, after shooting an arrow through all the axes, turns and proceeds to immediately kill everyone with one rapid shot after another, before any of the suitors can react. 

In the actual story, he has to hide all the weapons, arm his son and two of his servants, lock the doors and engage in some very tense hand to hand combat after running out of arrows. To add further to the realism there’s a whole scene where he has to deal with the angry relatives of all the suitors he killed. As the book says, “Who would think a single man, among so many banqueters, would dare to risk dark death, however strong he was?”

It’s interesting that the Iliad is considered the more dramatic of the two works, and also the more realistic. There is no Scylla and Charybdis, no sirens, no lotus eaters, and no one is turned into a pig, so in many senses that’s true. And yet, when it comes to the actual fighting I think the Iliad was less realistic. 

I realize that’s a pretty slim observation to take out of a 3000 year old classic, but it’s what I’ve got.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By: Harriet Ann Jacobs
176 Pages

AND

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

By: Jen Sincero
244 Pages

Thoughts

I’m going to try something different. I’m going to review two seemingly unrelated books at the same time. We’ll start with Incidents in the Life.

I mentioned to my daughter in college that I was behind on my reading goal for the year (104 books, or two a week) and she suggested that I read Incidents. Not only did she think it was a great book that should be read by everyone, but it was also short. I have to agree with her, it was great. It was also pretty depressing and awful, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should that be a reason not to read it, in fact I should probably read more books like this. That said I was initially not sure what to do with it. My normal shtick is to engage in some light commentary or criticism, but this is not the sort of book you criticize and even commentary of it could be fraught in this day and age. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Jen Sincero.

I don’t recall who recommended it, but someone said I should read YAAB. (I really should keep better track of recommendations going forward.) I do recall that whoever it was, they were very effusive in their praise. Now by and large I’m aware that most self-help books are a waste of time. In general they either repeat things you’ve already heard, or they’re so vague you don’t really end up with any actionable suggestions. Occasionally, however, spending a few hours reading a self-help book can boost your productivity by a couple of percentage points (and maybe more in the short term) and if it does, then that easily makes up for the time you spent reading it, and even makes up for the time you spent reading other self-help books which didn’t have that payoff.

But, as I said, this process is hit or miss, and the misses out number the hits. As a general rule, any self help book will make you feel good while reading it, but if you were to do an experiment where half of your subjects read the book and half didn’t, in a year there would be no discernible difference between the two groups. Fortunately YAAB, is not such a book. I am convinced that the group which read the book would be measurably worse off.

I say this because at its core YAAB is a repackaging of The Secret, or if you’re lucky enough to never have heard of that book, it advocates for the Law of Attraction, the idea that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative consequences. That by thinking about what you want in a positive fashion, it will automatically manifest in your life. Perhaps now, you can see where I’m going with this: I’m going to juxtapose quotes from these two books, which, coincidently, I read within a few days of one another.

First YAAB:

When I’m connected with Source Energy and in the flow, I am so much more powerful, so much more in tune to my physical world and the world beyond, and just so much happier in general. And the more I meditate and the more attention I give to this relationship with my invisible superpower, the more effortlessly I can manifest the things I want into my life, and I do it with such specificity and at such a rapid rate that it makes my hair stand up. It’s like I’ve finally figured out how to make my magic wand work. 

Now from Incidents a partial description of the torments Jabobs suffered during the seven years she hid in tiny attic in her grandmother’s shed. An attic with a 3 foot high ceiling at its peak!

I suffered much more during the second winter than I did during the first. My limbs were benumbed by inaction, and the cold filled them with cramp. I had a very painful sensation of coldness in my head; even my face and tongue stiffened and I lost the power of speech… I was restored to consciousness by the dashing of cold water in my face…[My brother] afterwards told me he thought I was dying, for I had been in an unconscious state sixteen hours.

YAAB again:

In order to create wealth, you must bring yourself into energetic alignment with the money you desire to manifest.

And Incidents:

My children grew up finely; and Dr. Flint would often say to me, with an exulting smile. “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”

I thought to myself that, God being my helper, they should never pass into his hands. It seemed to me I would rather see them killed then have them given up to his power. 

It seems clear to me that if Jacobs had just had a copy of YAAB to teach her how to bring herself into “energetic alignment with the money [she desired] to manifest”. I’m sure that she could have specifically and rapidly attracted the money necessary to make an offer for her children that was so extravagant that Dr. Flint couldn’t possibly refuse! If only Jen Sincero had been born 200 years ago! I’m positive she could have ended slavery without the civil war!


Ayoade on Top

By: Richard Ayoade
256 Pages

Thoughts

Richard Ayoade played Maurice Moss on the British workplace comedy The IT Crowd. Which if you haven’t watched it you should, it’s one of the best comedies of this or any decade. Apparently, in real life Ayoade is fairly similar to his IT Crowd character, or which is to say a very eccentric nerd. He has turned his eccentricities to things other than acting, including writing. On Top is his most recent book and it’s difficult to describe. Running the length of the book is a blow by blow critique and commentary on the 2003 Gwenyth Paltrow movie View from the Top. An obscure movie which you might have never even heard of let alone watched. It’s hard to know how much of his affection for this little known film is sarcastic and how much is sincere, but it’s definitely some of both. On top of commenting on the movie he tosses in personal stories, weird asides, and frequent meta-commentary on how strange it is to write a book about a little known Gwenyth Paltrow movie…

I listened to the audio version, which he narrated, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it’s weird enough that other than my wife, I’m not sure who else I would recommend it to.


Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

By: Neil Postman
208 Pages

AND

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

By: Neil Postman
240 Pages

Thoughts

I mostly reviewed these books in my last post, so I didn’t intend to spend much additional time on them, but I did want to spend a small amount discussing Postman’s suggested solutions to the problems he identified, which he included at the end of Technopoly. Though, as he accurately points out, it’s far easier to identify a problem then it is to offer solutions for solving it, which is why he spends most of his time on the former. A crime I’m also guilty of. However, since invariably the first thing people want to know after hearing about a problem are ideas for solving it, he decides to take a crack at it, and his proposal is a doozy.

I say that because it’s crazy, not crazy insane, just crazy ambitious. He starts out by quite reasonably suggesting that a solution should involve changing the way we educate our children. This is where a lot of people choose to intervene, and so it makes sense that Postman would propose it as well, but that’s where the reasonableness ends. 

When I was young I came across the Great Books of the Western World series which had been put out by the Encyclopædia Britannica. This is where I first got the idea to read all the major works of western literature (see my previous review of The Odyssey and my upcoming review of Aeschylus.) It’s also where I first encountered the idea of The Great Conversation, the idea that writers and thinkers are listening to, and building on, all of the works which came before them. I bring all this up because that’s the educational model Postman proposes for solving the problem of cultural degradation brought on by TV and technology. And It’s a great idea, but it’s also, as I said, crazy ambitious. A few selections to give you a sense of what I mean:

Let us consider history first, for it is in some ways the central discipline in all this…history is not merely one subject among many…every subject has a history, including biology, physics, mathematics, literature, music, and art. I would propose here that every teacher must be a history teacher. To teach what we know about biology today without also teaching we we once knew, or thought we knew…is to deprive students of a sense of the meaning of what, and how we know. To teach about the atom without Democritus, to teach about electricity without Faraday, to teach about political science without Aristotle or Machiavelli…is to refuse our students access to The Great Conversation. 

I would propose that every school—elementary through college—offer and require a course in the philosophy of science. Such a course should consider the language of science, the nature of scientific proof, the source of scientific hypotheses, the role of imagination, the conditions of experimentation, and especially the value of error and disproof.

On the subject of the disciplined use of language, I should like to propose that, in addition to courses in the philosophy of science, every school—again from elementary school through college—offer a course in semantics—in the process by which people make meaning…Every teacher ought to be a semantics teacher, since it is not possible to separate language from what we call knowledge. Like history, semantics is an interdisciplinary subject: it is necessary to know something about it in order to understand any subject. But it would be extremely useful to the growth of their intelligence if our youth had available a special course in which fundamental principles of language were identified and explained. 

I think the foregoing should be more than sufficient to illustrate my point. I totally agree that if we could reconstruct our educational system along these lines that it would be far better than the system we have, I just don’t think that 1 child in 1000 could keep up with and absorb everything he’s suggesting. (Also, my selections didn’t cover anywhere close to all of his proposals.)

Perhaps this is why people like Postman (and myself) are loathe to suggestion solutions…

Midnight Riot (Peter Grant, #1)


By: Ben Aaronovitch
320 Pages

Yes, once again, I’ve started another series without making further progress on any of the series I’ve already begun. I’m starting to think there’s something legitimately wrong with me. In any event this is an urban fantasy series, and if you’ve heard of the Dresden Files this one aspires for a similar feel. The main character is one Peter Grant, who becomes the first English apprentice wizard in over seventy years, and from there you get the typical, “everything is the same except some of the weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic which has existed all along”.

I say “aspires” because it definitely wasn’t as good as Dresden. In particular it could have done two things better. It could have taken longer to ease the reader and the main character into the world of magic. (Something J.K. Rowling did extraordinarily well.) And it could have done better at the whole “weird stuff turns out to be the hidden world of magic” angle. 

All that said, I am a sucker for Urban Fantasy (probably why I picked this book up, rather than continuing one of the other series I’ve left languishing) so I suspect that someday, despite my criticisms, I’ll continue the series. 


Aeschylus I: The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens, Prometheus Bound

By: Aeschylus
243 Pages

As mentioned, this is part of my ongoing project to read all the great works of Western Literature, in chronological order. This is not the first time I have made it this far, I actually read all of the extant greek plays when I was 18, I don’t think I got much out of them, which is why I started over. 

As with my previous reviews of the great works. It’s not entirely clear what one can say about something that was written nearly 2500 years ago. Or what the point of reviewing it would be. But I guess I do have a few remarks to make:

  • I didn’t realize that the reason there were Seven Samurai (and later the The Magnificent Seven) was that there were Seven Against Thebes, or so the book claims.
  • If you were going to read one of these plays I would read Prometheus Bound
  • It’s strange to me how all Greek literature is concentrated around retelling just a handful of stories. I’m not sure if that represents a paucity of imagination, a paucity of stories, survivorship bias, or whether it’s all religious in some way.

Also, as far as the whole great books project, I would recommend it. It is going much slower than I would have thought (particularly since I first had the idea sometime in the late 80s) but it’s enriching in a way that I can’t entirely put into words. Which may be something that could be said about all reading. Well, except You Are a Badass. That was just crap.


Speaking of books, my plan for 2020 is to focus on writing one. I’m hoping that this won’t affect my posting schedule that much. That, rather, posts will just be shorter and pithier. On the other hand shorter posts may actually be harder. To paraphrase Pascal, “I have only made my posts longer because I have not had the time to make them shorter.” But I’d be willing to see if money would help. If you’d also be willing to experiment with that consider donating.


If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now?

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When I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day. 

(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)

An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.) 

Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.

I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak

All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.

McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:

I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]

From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”

The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:

With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.

When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? 

For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. 

All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.

I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:

…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.

Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?

Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.

That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation. 

Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.

As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.

Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.

Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.

There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant. 

In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth. 

So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:

Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!


I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.


Immigration, Caplan and Buckets

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One of the books I read and reviewed in October was Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan. In that review I asserted that it was possible completely open borders is a great idea, when you consider the world as a whole. But that you’ll never get people to agree to it because, like Communism, it requires a level of selflessness which most humans simply don’t possess. There are actually lots of reasons for this, but I paid particular attention to the idea that almost no one would vote for unlimited immigration if they thought it was going to reduce what they got paid. And that further, this wasn’t just some irrational fear (although that would probably be sufficient by itself), but that even using Caplan’s own numbers, this was likely to happen.

When I posted that review in various places, including to Caplan’s Twitter account everyone accused me of being an idiot (okay maybe the language wasn’t that strong) and ignoring the Arithmetic Fallacy. In the interest of full disclosure I did understand the Arithmetic Fallacy, but I admit to not fully understanding the totality of their argument. Now that I do, I’d like to revisit things. 

To begin with one thing that no one seems to argue about is that the average GDP of the US would drop. Most scenarios have it being cut in half. The Arithmetic Fallacy comes into play when you assume that this means that the average salary of current workers would also be cut, though perhaps not by half. In reality the salary of current workers could go up. Here’s the example Caplan uses in the book:

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

I never questioned this math. I always understand how the fallacy works. But this is a fairly simplistic version of it. For example it assumes an equal number of current workers and immigrant workers, but it could be a lot more or a lot less. Caplan seems to imagine that the more the merrier, because the secret of mass consumption is mass production, but it’s not clear how those numbers affect things in practice, particularly if they increase very rapidly. But that’s a minor quibble, my big issue is with the way that he sticks current workers and new workers into two entirely separate buckets. Because, while the Arithmetic Fallacy illustrates that the incomes can go up for everyone, while having the average go down at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. Caplan argues that we don’t have to worry about that possibility because current workers will always be ahead of the new immigrants. That’s the part I didn’t fully absorb when I read it through the first time. 

Let’s take his example of NBA players and preschoolers. He starts the example by asking us to imagine a room full of NBA players with an average height of 6’7”, and then asks us to imagine that a class of preschoolers enter. The average height of the room drops, (say to 4’10) but the pre-schoolers aren’t making the NBA players shorter.

This is obviously true, but if the NBA players represent current US workers, (which they do) and the preschoolers represent immigrant workers (which they also do) and height is a proxy for GDP (again, that seems to be what he’s going for) then while the preschoolers don’t make the NBA players shorter, he is claiming that the presence of the preschoolers metaphorically makes the NBA players taller, and vice versa, just by being in the same room. I understand his argument for saying that this is the case for GDP even if it’s not the case for height, but you can already see where the analogy breaks down pretty quickly. But it is useful because it illustrates one of his central assumptions, that under open borders there will be two buckets of workers: the original workers and the new workers or the NBA players and the preschoolers. 

NBA players aren’t threatened by preschoolers, that would be ridiculous. Even if we’re just talking about height and not ability with basketball, the preschoolers are never going to be called on in place of an NBA player, the very thought is risible. And certainly an NBA player is never going to be mistaken for a preschooler. Accordingly it would be just as ridiculous for the current workers to be worried about being interchangeable with the new workers. Just as NBA players will always be in a separate category as far as height, current workers will always be in a separate category as far as income. Current workers will definitely be in the bucket with the average income of $60k, not the bucket with the average income of $20k.

This assumption of there being two buckets is what I have a problem with, because it seems entirely too neat and clean. “The average salary of the US is going to go down, but don’t worry because as a current worker you’re always going to be above average.” But why would this necessarily be so? Certainly it’s not a law of nature. Caplan offers a few reasons for why this would be. Current workers are more skilled, have a better grasp of the modern world, and above all they are native English speakers. To this I could also see adding a better network, and more beginning assets. But however great these advantages are it doesn’t feel like they’re unassailable or permanent. It would appear to me that the buckets are more permeable than Caplan lets on. 

One reason for thinking this is the book itself. While from an income perspective Caplan seems to regard the divisions as relatively unchanging and immutable. From every other perspective his argument seems to be the opposite, that immigrants aren’t that much different from the people who are already here. That within one generation their English is almost as good as the people who were born here, that culture takes centuries to “spread by persuasion, but only one generation to spread by immersion”, and that “the average immigrant is [only] microscopically more liberal than the average native.” So if they’re so similar on most of these metrics, why would the be so dissimilar in the salaries they can command? Why would the immigrant average be ⅓ that of the native worker? And how is that none of the natives, no matter how low-skilled, never end up in the lower paid bucket? Actually, I’m not suggesting that this is Caplan’s claim, but before I get to that discussion let me propose a different metaphor. 

Imagine that instead of talking about NBA players, preschoolers and their differing heights, that instead we use the example of adults and teenagers and their relative earning potential. Say we have a company that only hires people over 18, and after a policy change they’ll hire anyone 14 and older. And that after this change, the company can use teenagers to double its workforce.

 

This would appear to be a much better analogy than Caplan’s. To begin with I imagine that there are two very clearly defined buckets when you’re talking about teenager salary vs. adult salary. And it’s also possible to imagine that mostly Caplan is correct, that the teenagers make more by working in an adult workplace, and the adults are more productive if they have teenagers around to offload stuff to. But the gap between the two is far more permeable than the gap between NBA Players and preschoolers. You can imagine right out of the gate that at the lower end of the adult skill range that you might have lots of teenagers that also have that level of skill. That 17 year olds are pretty similar to people between 18 and 21. But, perhaps most importantly, teenagers grow up and with each passing year the difference between the teenager bucket and the adult bucket narrows.

I suspect there’s also issues of supply and demand at the lower level of skill. That if you have a janitor making 30k a year, that adding a bunch of teenagers, all fighting for the same low-skilled jobs, lowers that to maybe 15k a year, even if the teenagers increase the salary of the engineers at this company by quite a bit. 

I also suspect that it increases the salary issues at the upper end as well. If you have some high paid developer making twice as much as a younger developer, but who’s actually less productive (say more skills, but less willingness to work 60 hour weeks) the fact that you’ve now got a deluge of young people all looking to be developers has to factor into that.

Perhaps I’m wrong about the last two points, Caplan would seem to be arguing that I am, fair enough, but what he does argue, unmistakably, is that the average salary of the company will be cut in half. Is he also saying that despite this massive reduction in average salary that none of the adults currently working at the company will end up in the same bucket with the teenagers? Will end up with one of those salaries that caused the average to be cut in half? Even if we look ahead five years? Or ten? 

(One mechanism whereby this could happen is ageism. The parallel for immigration would be racism, which I assume Caplan is against.)

I assume that this is not Caplan’s claim, if it is, well then I guess the math works out, but I think he’s wrong. If it’s not his claim, then the question becomes how many adults end up in the “teenager bucket”, or rather how many current workers end up in the immigrant bucket. Let’s review his numbers. 

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

Is there a cohort of low-skilled American workers who were in the $50k bucket, but, after immigration, end up in the $20k bucket? Is there a cohort of current workers whose salary is going to drop in an open borders world? Caplan talks about how current workers are “normally going to be managing and training the new arrivals.” How many adults do you know that aren’t fit to train or manage anybody? Could that be the cohort I’m talking about? If we’re agreed that there are some people who are, unfortunately, going to be below average, and when the average salary drops their salary drops as well, then the next question is how many? 

The answer to that is unclear, but I’m willing to bet that the number would be significant, and more importantly, even if the number isn’t significant, that a huge number of people are worried about this very thing, and probably understandably so. If you doubt this latter assertion I direct your attention to the 2016 election.

Pulling all of this together, if someone is opposed to immigration because they think they might make less money, then it’s only reasonable to call them irrational if that never (or very rarely) happens. Otherwise I think it’s a rational fear. If a reduction in salary happens to some people, but is unlikely to happen to him you may call him a pessimist. But once again, he is not being irrational. In his own way, he’s hedging against the small chance of a very large harm. Particularly in light of the fact that we still live under capitalism where money is pretty central to everything.

None of this is to suggest that open borders isn’t a terrific, world changing idea for the vast majority of people. Or that it isn’t a fantastic moral good which all men aspiring to any degree righteousness should support. But I am suggesting that it would not be unreasonable for some people to conclude that they would be voting against their own interests by supporting it. 

This is where the selfishness I talked about in my original review comes into play. And the reason I connected it to communism. In both cases people are promised a world much better than the one they currently live in, if they can just abandon their baser emotions of greed and selfishness. Now it’s reasonable to ask whether communism failed because of these baser emotions or whether it failed because it lacked the means to effectively produce the right goods and services, or whether it failed because Stalin and Mao were particularly ruthless tyrants. But the fact that it expected people to abandon their baser emotions certainly didn’t help. 

It’s also reasonable to ask what degree of abandonment is required. In theory you might argue that communism requires a complete and total abandonment of the baser emotions of greed and selfishness, while open borders only requires a small abandonment of these emotions, which are in any case irrational. And perhaps this difference will be enough for Open Borders to succeed where communism didn’t, but I suspect that it won’t be, and I suspect that Caplan’s keyhole solutions (restricting benefits to citizens, delaying citizenship, charging people to enter) have a much better chance of changing people’s mind that telling them that they’ve fallen prey to the Arithmetic fallacy. But given that this is the territory we’re fighting over it is worth trying to get to the bottom of the question: how many people are legitimately entitled to that fear, and how many people are truly being irrational?

As far as I can tell from the book Caplan is arguing that all or very nearly all of these people are being irrational. That if everyone in the US knew the facts that they would embrace open borders, both on humanitarian grounds but also because it would add trillions of dollars to the economy and raise everybody’s wages.

My argument has been laid out in this post. Are there other people arguing that Caplan is wrong as well? As it turns out there are. 

Garett Jones, Caplan’s colleague at GMU, published a working paper arguing more or less the same thing I am.

How would Open Borders—a policy of unlimited immigration—change the wages of current residents of the United States? To answer this question, I begin by running the same quantitative experiment that Caplan runs on page 131 of his graphic novel Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. This experiment presumes that the only two drivers of national income per capita are national average IQ and an unexplained productivity residual.The unexplained productivity residual plays a key role in the case for Open Borders, and I critique that residual. I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities:because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I was going to essentially end with this but I just barely saw Caplan’s rebuttal. And here’s where it gets a little bit tricky. Wading into any long standing argument, let alone an argument between two colleagues, runs the risk of missing all manner of important points which by this point are part of the assumed and unspoken foundation of the argument. Nevertheless despite this risk I’m going to dip my toe into things, mostly because I think it reveals some very interesting things about Caplan’s argument and my problems with it, but first Jones’ argument.

As was mentioned in the quote I included, Jones wrote a book in 2015 called Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. (If you’re curious, here’s a review.POST) And as you can tell from the title of his book, his argument concerns the IQ of the entire nation, which, Caplan conceded, would probably be lowered under Open Borders. And since, according to Jones, the income of individuals depends almost entirely on the average IQ of the nation as a whole, this leads to his claim that the “per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%”. I’m sure I’m vastly over-simplifying his argument, but since I’m mostly interested in Caplan’s response to that argument, I don’t feel there’s much point in getting deeper into the complexities. 

Caplan’s has an interesting response. First he points out that Jones largely agrees with him about the overall increase to global output, pegging it at 80%, but that in order for this to happen, while still decreasing the income of current residents by 40%:

Garett argues that more than 100% of the gains will go to immigrants! So even though open borders nearly doubles the production of mankind, it reduces living standards of the current inhabitants of rich countries by a massive 40%. [Emphasis original]

First off, and maybe I’m missing something. Is there any possibility that the gains and losses are distributed unequally? That, as I argued above, some of the current workers will drop from 50k to 20k, a reduction of 60%, which is more than Jones’ 40%. While many or maybe even most will see their salaries actually go up? This seems like another example of Caplan having two very well defined buckets. With gains being distributed equally to each bucket. But gains could be unequally distributed to the buckets and within the buckets. But beyond all that, here the debate takes a surprising turn. Caplan continues:

How is this possible?  Drawing on earlier work, Garett insists that the personal payoff for IQ is modest.  1 IQ point raises earnings by about 1%. Since current U.S. IQ is about 11 points above the world average, the current citizens of rich countries will end up earning roughly 60% of what they now earn.  In other words, Garett’s concern is that under open borders, income will be too equal for current residents of high-IQ countries to maintain their standard of living.

The surprising bit, is that as a retort to Jones, Caplan starts arguing for the importance of individual IQ and that gains from it are probably significantly higher than 1%. If you think that the natural consequence of this is greater inequality across the board, then you’re not alone, that was also the thought that occurred to me and Caplan agrees:

Would IQ have a big effect on personal economic success under open borders?  Would there be high inequality under open borders? If you answered Yes to both questions, you should be on my side. [emphasis original]

I would answer yes to both of those questions, and as hard as it may be to believe I am largely on Caplan’s side, but having answered yes, I then have to wonder if there’s large amounts of inequality and IQ has a large effect on success then why does it not follow that some of the current workers with below average IQ would end up in the below average/immigrant/20k salary bucket rather than the 60k average salary bucket?

I realize that it’s really way too late to bring in the idea of a normal distribution, and that also salary isn’t a normal distribution. (Though it’s more of one at the low end than the high end.)  But to put it another way, if someone is three standard deviations below the mean, and the mean drops, it’s conceivable that their salary is going to drop as well.

To conclude what has ended up being a much longer and more rambling post than I initially intended. My argument was never with Caplan’s moral or economic claims, and I am personally in favor of revising immigration policy around the keyhole solutions Caplan advocates. It is probably politically impossible even so (and definitely impossible without such measures) and one of the things that makes it difficult is that, similar to communism, it’s advocates expect that people will be able to shed a host of baser emotions like greed and selfishness. The argument that such baser emotions are irrational, is going to be largely ineffective even if it were true, but I’m not sure it is. There’s certainly ample room for uncertainty.


Perhaps you’re also uncertain about whether to support this blog? Well may I suggest a keyhole solution? Start with a dollar a month. You know donation is the humanitarian thing to do.


The End of Productive War

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As I mentioned in my last post I just finished War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris. As I mentioned in the review he ends up combining a lot of other books I’ve read into another history of progress and at times it seemed like he wasn’t covering much in the way of new territory, but he did introduce me to one new idea, which I thought was pretty interesting: the idea of productive war. Though I should also mention here, at the beginning, that he also acknowledges the existence of destructive wars as well. He doesn’t think all wars are productive

In Morris’ view productive war is war which consolidates nations and people into larger units with greater scope for cooperation, and, according to the central claim of the book, less chance of violent death. Morris’ assertion is that the chances of someone dying violently is in large part based on the size of the community they belong to. And that it’s an inverse relationship, the bigger the community the smaller the chance. So, for a member of a small tribe of hunter-gatherers their chances of dying violently was between 10 and 20%. If, on the other hand, they were a citizen of the Roman Empire or Han China then their chances of dying violently were in the 2-5% range, and for someone living in a modern, developed nation their chances are around 1%. 

Accordingly as wars of conquest created larger communities, deaths went down, and beyond that as trade and commerce expanded, living standards got better as well. So while empires had to begin with a series of bloody wars in order to be created, in the end, through these productive wars they created zones of stability within the borders of the empire where everything was better. This has progressed on down through the ages until now we no longer have regional hegemons, we have global hegemons (Morris actually calls them globo-cops), first with the United Kingdom and then with the United States. Of course in between those two hegemonies there was the cold war where the Soviet Union and the US vied for dominance. And it is also in this period where we start to see the beginnings of the problem I want to talk about.

Historically, when two civilizations competed, eventually one of them triumphed over the other. When that happened the victorious empire absorbed the losing empire and created a new larger empire. Think of Rome and Carthage or even the United Kingdom and India. But lately such absorption, or it’s less brutal offspring, colonization, has fallen out of favor. When the US won the cold war we didn’t absorb Russia and create a new, expanded empire where cooperation, trade and lower violence flourished. Nope, we basically left them alone (though some would argue we wrecked their economy and then left them alone.) 

This is not how it has generally worked historically. Generally when the victors conquered, they Conquered! And we certainly could have done that, particularly at the end of the World War II. (Though I’m not saying it would have been easy.) But we didn’t. By not doing that was World War II less productive in the sense Morris describes than it could have been? Is it possible that over a long enough time horizon that we might actually put it in the destructive column? To come at things from another direction, if gobbling up vanquished foes is no longer an option, how do we expand the zone of cooperation?

Morris asserts that having a globo-cop/hegemon works much the same way, but does it? Sure, a US hegemony definitely contains some elements of the imperial cooperation of the past, but, first, no one would look at current events and say that things were going well with Pax Americana. And second there’s a big difference between ensuring the continuance of global trade or acting as a policeman when nations get out of line and entirely absorbing a nation and its culture. 

Modern morality has made this sort of absorption unthinkable. The US was the first empire to (mostly) eschew colonies. And since that time the idea of colonies and colonization has only become more taboo. Arguably there has been no shortage of American force projection, but it definitely doesn’t lead to colonies, nor is it practical in places much larger than a small failed state. It’s impossible to imagine the US invading and pacifying China or Russia in the same way that Rome pacified Gaul or the British pacified India. Meaning that, as the tide of US power flows out, it reveals entirely intact nations with more lingering animosity than lingering desire-to-compromise.

And, if some nation did want to go back to the “old way” of doing things and start absorbing other countries into a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, like the Japanese of World War II, then that becomes a lot more difficult in a world where nukes exist. There was a time when you might have imagined India conquering and reabsorbing Pakistan. It was unlikely but not inconceivable, but with nukes as part of the equation that will never happen. Or it will happen, which is even worse. Meaning the good guys won’t do it for moral reasons and the bad guys are welcome to try, but it’s likely to end in mushroom clouds. 

The way productive wars used to work is that there would be an initial, short-term spike in deaths, but that would be followed by eventual assimilation leading to integration and cooperation which raises the standard of living for everyone in the new empire. This sort of thing is no longer possible between two nuclear powers because there won’t be any assimilation after the initial spike of deaths because there won’t be anything after that initial spike.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I suppose it is possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange, where there is still something left of both the conqueror and the conquered, but if this is the best case scenario, we’re in a lot of trouble.

More likely the presence of nukes and the reluctance to colonize might lead to a situation where unity actually starts heading backwards. If a part of a nuclear armed nation manages to secede while hanging on to some of those nukes, is there any scenario where the mother country would go to war to reclaim its lost territory if it knows those nukes might be used? Meaning that if nukes continue to spread we may end up with more countries and less cooperation.

All of this is to say, that the historical process of unification through the means of productive wars which Morris mapped out in the book appears to have stalled. We may have run out of steam right before the final sprint to the finish (a unified world).

Thus far we’ve assumed that achieving unity and cooperation can only be accomplished by means of productive war. And that seems to be Morris’ thesis, but might there be another way?

Certainly most people hoped that international cooperation would grown through peaceful means. That was the goal of the original League of Nations and the current United Nations, but is there anyone who still thinks that the UN will eventually create the level of cooperation we’re talking about? A true world government? Certainly I don’t. From where I sit the UN appears to be getting weaker with each passing year. Indeed, this decline makes a certain amount of sense. In the aftermath of World War II even the most bellicose nations could see the need for an international body to resolve disputes in a less bloody manner. But after 70 years without a great power war, the need for something like the UN is less and less obvious.

In the absence of nations voluntarily unifying, you could imagine that US influence continues to grow until we have a de facto world government. Or at least you could have imagined that at the end of the Cold War. Lately the idea seems laughable. At a minimum we would need some sort of motivation. As I pointed out in a previous post, external threats seem to help. Would Rome have been Rome without Carthage? How much of what the US did was because of the USSR? (space race anyone?) But at this point it seems that regardless of how Russia and China behave our taste for empire is gone, and it’s not even clear that we can keep the “empire” we have, to say nothing of continuing to expand it in the way Morris imagines. 

Which leaves us with a couple of possibilities:

As I mentioned in my review of the book, the possibility Morris favors is that we’ll pass smoothly from an American hegemony to an AI singularity. That Pax Americana will become Pax Technologica. Here’s how Morris describes it:

Everything will hang on the relative timing of the shift from the Pax Americana to a Pax Technologica and the mounting difficulties that the globocop will face—if current economic trends continue—in doing its job. I suggested earlier that in the 2010s and probably the 2020s too, the United States will remain largely unchallenged, but as the 2030s, 2040s, and 2050s go on, it will find it harder and harder to overawe rivals. I also noted that the majority opinion among the futurists is that merging with the machines will reach the Singularity stage in the 2040s. If all of these guesses are right, we perhaps do not have too much to worry about. The world will become increasingly troubled, polarized, and tense as we head through the 2020s, but the globocop will remain strong enough to handle the stresses. As we enter the 2030s, the globocop will be feeling the strain, but it will by then be pulling back anyway as the Pax Technologica begins to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving; and in the 2040s and 50s, just at the point that the globocop ceases to be able to cope, the world will no longer need its services. All will be well.

It would be nice if “all” was truly “well” and things proceeded exactly as Morris describes, but I think he underestimates the number of things that need to go “right” in order for this to happen:

  1. America has to maintain the peace until an AI or something similar is ready to take over. Morris estimates they’ll be able to do that until sometime in the 2030s or maybe a little later. Given current events I’m not sure I’d agree with him that the US is “largely unchallenged” even now, and I’m even more doubtful that will be the case over the next decade.
  2. Pax Technologica, whatever it’s form, has to be ready to step in as soon as the US starts “pulling back”. Morris has said it will “[begin] to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving” in the 2030s. This also seems far too optimistic, particularly since we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. Thus far, our best guess is that machine learning and AI are actually making problem-solving of all strips harder.
  3. Perhaps technology will get better and it will switch to lessening rather than creating conflict. That’s still a long way away from replacing everything that goes into making America the lone superpower. Which includes, among other things, the $639 billion dollars we spend on defense. To replace that we not only need the singularity, we need a rather impressive singularity. 
  4. Morris says that the “majority opinion” is that we’ll reach the “Singularity stage” in the 2040s. This is by far the most optimistic of his predictions. Even Kurzweil, who’s optimistic to the point of being delusional, is saying it won’t happen till 2045. Perhaps in 2013, when the book was written, the majority opinion was the 2040s, but these days most experts are predicting later than that. And these are not predictions of “When will AI be able to take over as the world’s super power?” But more along the lines of, “When will AI be able to replace human surgeons?” (Average answer: 2053)
  5. Which takes me to my final point. What does it mean to “take over”? As I pointed out, Morris appears to have a very specific idea of what that means, and it’s very different from what most people imagine when they talk about AI. But even if we end up with an AI exactly as powerful as Morris hopes, and it happens soon enough to step in for Pax Americana before it collapses. He’s ignoring the whole field of AI risk, which makes the very salient point that we can’t be sure a superintelligent AI will be benevolent. 

If we reject the Pax Americana Pax Technologica transition for the reasons I just listed, and we accept Morris’ thesis. Then that tosses us back into the realm of war. We’ve currently got a globo-cop keeping that war at bay, but many people, including Morris, think we’re getting near the end of that. Meaning that the other possibility remaining to us is actual war. Actual war is bad enough in the short term, particularly since, for all the reasons I’ve laid out, this actual war is unlikely to be one of the ones that’s eventually productive. We’re much more likely to see destructive wars, similar to what followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Morris doesn’t spend much time on this second possibility. Probably because he thinks it’s unlikely to happen. In many senses despite his different outlook he’s still very much in the same school of thought as Steven Pinker. And both appear to believe that the arrow only points in one direction. In particular Morris claims that the 500 years of European colonial expansion from 1415 to 1914 were the most productive wars in the history of humanity. That Hitler was something of an aberration, and that in any case since that time we’ve had the long peace, which is further evidence that we’re in the final act and there will be no more destructive wars. And indeed, the finish line does seem really close, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to cross it. In fact for all of the reasons I mentioned above it feels like the very progress that has gotten us to this point won’t work for the final five yards.

One of the frightening things Morris points out is that a period of destructive wars often follows a period of constructive wars. That a particularly confident nation will conquer all of the surrounding territory unifying it into a larger area where trade and cooperation flourish, but that at some point the nation/empire(/ideology?) runs out of steam. Whether this is because of exhaustion, over-expansion, bureaucratic bloat or something else, the empire can no longer defend all of its territory. When that happens, whatever unity it achieved is lost to the destructive wars which inevitably follow as a consequence of this exhaustion. If Morris is accurate and we just finished 500 years of constructive wars, then even if we didn’t have nukes and an aversion to expansion through colonization it might be time for the pendulum to reverse itself in any case. Also, while it seems difficult if not impossible to have constructive wars if nukes are involved, they’re perfect for destructive wars.

All of this would mean that Pinker and Morris are wrong. (And indeed I’ve asserted that very thing.) And I’d rather not jam a second book in here, right at the end, but I just started reading Only the Dead by Bear F. Braumoeller which was written as a direct refutation of Pinker’s thesis, going so far as to say that it may end up having the opposite effect from what he intended. In support of this claim he includes an excellent quote from one of the reviews of Better Angels:

[T]here is something deeply unsettling about the argument of this book. While I began reading without either smug comfort in my own circumstances or indifference to the violence that remains, by Pinker’s final sentence on page 696 it was impossible to muster any other reaction. Indeed, I want to suggest that Pinker’s book produces the type of reaction that conceivably could stop this important trend dead in its tracks. A world of elites and foreign policy decision makers well-schooled by Pinker in the causes of the decline in violence would be a world unmotivated to work to sustain it.

The logic laid out in the quote seems straightforward enough, but Only the Dead goes on to cite studies which show that as nations become less willing to go to war they actually end up going to war more often. I’ll go into this more when I get around to reviewing it, but add everything together and we seem unlikely to have seen the end of war. And when it does return it appears unlikely to be productive war either, even if we can look past the terrible near term costs.

To be fair to Morris the book was written in 2013, and a lot has changed since then. The election of Trump has made a lot of things written beforehand seem quaint and even naive. Which is not to say that things are that much worse now then they were in 2013, just that we appear to have had significant movement on the catastrophe track without that much movement on the singularity track. This is important, because Morris, unlike Pinker, acknowledges that there will be war. He just thinks having a globo-cop can keep those wars productive. He’s also more realistic than Pinker about how long the US can serve in this role. Where his optimism is equal to or greater than Pinker’s is with what comes after. And it all hinges on the next couple of decades.

Morris hopes that the 2030s will be a decade where the US can still mostly “overawe” its opponents while at the same time “every year will see more [technological] change than happened in the whole period between the 1980s and the 2010s.” And that’s what brings us the Singularity. That rather than descending into destructive war, we’ll narrowly thread the needle between all the potential catastrophes. As I said this is what Morris hopes will happen. I hope it happens this way too, but I would bet a lot of money against it. Anyone want to take me up on that bet? We’ll know who’s right in just 10-20 years.


You have to wonder if there’s any similarity between war and blogging. Is there also a productive phase of blogging? Do bloggers eventually get exhausted? Perhaps running out of things to say? Does the blogging then become destructive? Was my blogging ever productive? If you think it was or still might be, consider donating.


Books I Finished in October (Including a Graphic Novel On Immigration)

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  1. The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation By: Carl Benedikt Frey
  2. Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age By: Arthur Herman
  3. All Creatures Great and Small By: James Herriot
  4. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian By: Stephen E. Ambrose
  5. War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots By: Ian Morris
  6. The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses By: Dan Carlin
  7. Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics By: Mary Eberstadt
  8. Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration By: Bryan Caplan

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

By: Carl Benedikt Frey

480 pages

Thoughts

As you probably gathered from the title, this book is all about job losses from automation. Something which has been in the news a lot lately, and was the subject of one of my previous posts. This book covers that topic in great depth and can essentially be divided into two parts, an overview of historical automation and its effect on employment at the time, and then an assessment of how much we should worry about the automation that’s happening right now.

As far as the first part, I found the history of automation to be fascinating, and clearly there are some useful parallels to be drawn between past times and this. But there’s one aspect of the history of automation that I was largely unaware of that I’d like to dive into. 

Everyone knows that the technology for the steam engine existed during the Roman Empire, but it didn’t end up going anywhere, and never escaped it’s status as a novelty. And even if you dismiss that example and insist that what we really should be paying attention to is the steam turbine, that existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1551. The point being that the technology necessary for the industrial revolution existed long before that revolution, but that governments discouraged it’s development precisely because they foresaw the massive social unrest which automation eventually brought. After hundreds of years where the technology existed but wasn’t developed, it was only in 18th century Britain that the right combination of factors existed for automation to finally take hold

There are thus good reasons to believe that relatively cheap labor in preindustrial times created fewer incentives to put worker-replacing technologies into widespread use. In fact, Robert Allen has argued that the reason why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain is that at its onset, it was not economical anywhere else… The critical factor, Allen argues, was that British industrialists were fortunate enough to be sitting on a mountain of coal… Facing low energy prices and high labor costs, British industry began to adopt machines that would not have been cost-effective elsewhere…Examples of technological advances emerging from necessity are in fact seemingly few before the Industrial Revolution.

In addition to expensive labor, and cheap energy, Britain had a culture of science and experimentation which appears to have not been present in any previous civilization. Frey even puts in a plug for my favorite religion, Christianity:

The Romans and the Greeks regarded nature as the domain of the gods: any manipulation of its forces by means of technology was considered sinful and even dangerous. This stands in contrast to medieval Christianity, which historians have argued paved the way for future technological progress as it embraced a more rational God. As Lynn White explains, “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asian religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”

It seems like a lot of things had to go right for the industrial revolution to actually take off. Which brings me to my criticisms and a discussion of the second part of the book.

Criticisms

The standard refrain of most economists is that the jobs that are destroyed will be replaced by new, generally better jobs, but even if the jobs aren’t better, at a minimum, automation will not cause long-term unemployment. And yes, that’s mostly been the case since the industrial revolution, but given the enormous number of things that had to go right in order for that revolution to actually happen and to shift into this new reality, how can we be so sure that we’ve arrived at some sort of stable trend that will never change?

In the past if someone had said that automation would never happen because it never had, they would have had far more data to support their conclusion than we have to support this one, and yet, in the end they still would have been wrong. At some point there was a state change, things that had been true for thousands of years suddenly weren’t.

What did things look like before that last state change? I imagine if you had asked a sufficiently observant person what the future held on the eve of the industrial revolution. They might very well have been able to predict that things were about to change and that progress was about to take off like a rocket. But for most people, not only was it a surprise but for seven decades the idea of new and better jobs was not the reality for most people. Their standard of living actually decreased during this time, a period known as “Engels Pause” after the author (with Marx) of the Communist Manifesto. 

Similarly there are people today who are also predicting significant disruption. It remains to be seen whether they’re correct, but situations are similar. One of the issues to keep in mind, as we evaluate the probabilities, is the distinction Frey draws between replacing vs. enhancing technology. During Engel’s Pause, apparently much of the technology was replacing (lots of low hanging fruit like carding cotton) and only later did it get sophisticated enough to be enhancing. In our day we have the opposite problem. Technology has long been enhancing and now machine learning and automation have finally taken things to the point where we can truly imagine a complete replacement. And the question on everyone’s mind is what jobs are in danger of replacement?

As you might imagine Frey spends significant time on this subject, and by his estimation fewer jobs than feared are in danger of replacement. In other words, his estimate is lower than most. In a move that is both ironic and too clever by half, he uses machine learning/AI to decide which jobs are in danger. As I said this procedure produces a low estimate for replaceable jobs, and predictably high status professional jobs don’t end up on this list. For example Frey asserts that doctor’s aren’t in any danger, but is this really the case?

Certainly I can see why he says this, the job of a doctor is very difficult. But isn’t it mostly pattern matching? (Here I’m mostly talking doctors not surgeons). Isn’t this precisely the thing that AI is getting really good at? Don’t we already have things like Deep Patient and aren’t they already better than doctors at certain forms of prediction? And perhaps more importantly aren’t health care costs skyrocketing? Meaning we have both the means and the motive as they say. Accordingly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that doctors are in danger of replacement sooner than Frey thinks, meaning potentially a lot of other things are as well. 

I think the big takeaway is that automation has nearly always brought some kind of civil unrest, regardless of whether the jobs were eventually replaced with better jobs. Meaning that even in the best case, the transition from the current economy to one with far more automation is probably going to be accompanied by significant turbulence. And if people like Frey are wrong, and nearly every job is vulnerable to automation, ‘significant turbulence’ could be a massive understatement. 


Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

By: Arthur Herman

760 pages

Thoughts

I don’t know how much I learned about Churchill, I think I had a pretty good handle on his life and career already, but I learned an enormous number of surprising things about Gandhi. A few, in no particular order:

  • He was married when he was 13 and his wife was 14, and apparently he had an insatiable sexual appetite. He lived in his father’s house at the time and his father had been in a horrible accident, leaving him an invalid. So every night Gandhi would massage his father’s ‘withered limbs’ before rushing back to bed to have sex. And one night in the midst of this his father died.

The thought that he had been having sex at the moment his father died—that his “animal passion,” as he called it, might even have somehow contributed to his father’s death—would haunt Gandhi for the rest of his life. “It is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget,” Gandhi confessed years later

  • Gandhi was perhaps the least progressive leader you can imagine. Not only was he fixated on religion and chastity (as I mentioned above), he was also obsessed with the traditional Indian spinning wheel and would spend hours every day using it. So far, this might be considered only mildly eccentric, but the spinning wheel was also a huge part of his ideology and politics. He would regularly demand that its use be mandated as part of draft resolutions for Indian independence.
  • As part of this very traditional ideology he really wanted India to be self-sufficient and felt that factories and other signs of encroaching industrialization were awful, both for India and the world. One can only imagine what he would think of the modern India. But suffice it to say that he didn’t work for Indian independence so that it could be a center of industry and technology. Rather he envisioned that its independence would lead to a worldwide spiritual awakening, and he was constantly setting up communes as models for the rest of the nation.
  • Finally, Gandhi had an enormous amount of respect for the British Empire. Near the end he became increasingly frustrated with things, but he acknowledged himself, as I mentioned in a previous post, that his campaign of non-violence would not have worked with a less enlightened culture. 

In summary, this was a great book about two very important people and a very pivotal period in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.


All Creatures Great and Small

By: James Herriot

437 pages

Thoughts

This is one of those books that lurks at the edge of your consciousness. A book you know you’ll enjoy, but which is long past its peak of popularly. As you might imagine I burn through Audible credits pretty fast, so I’m always on the lookout for audio books I can check out from the library which will supplement my stock of books without diminishing my supply of Audible credits, which is how I came to read this. I saw it as I was browsing the library, and I’m glad I did.

This book (actually a series of books which has been made into a TV series as well) is a classic for a reason. The writing is great, the stories are excellent, the characters are both enchanting and relatable. The story of the rubber suit is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And yet again I’ve started another series without finishing any of my previous series…


To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian

By: Stephen E. Ambrose

288 Pages

Thoughts

I often say that this blog is primarily focused on Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) apologetics. (Albeit a very strange variety.) Ambrose’s book is essentially the same thing except for America. Among the things Ambrose acts as an apologist for are:

  • Thomas Jefferson, in particular his slave owning.
  • George Washington, same as above, plus Ambrose considers him an amazing person in general.
  • Harry S. Truman, for dropping the bomb.
  • Ulysses S. Grant, for ending reconstruction in order to heal the Union.
  • Andrew Jackson, for a whole host of things, even his treatment of the Native Americans. Also he thinks people severely underestimate the importance of the Battle of New Orleans.
  • And even Richard Nixon, about whom Ambrose wrote a three volume biography.

Beyond being an apologist for American leaders he also acts as an apologist for slavery (in a very limited fashion), segregation, and sexism. In most cases he doesn’t try to justify those actions, but rather points out how relatively well the US did on these issues when compared to other countries. 

The book was published in 2003, at despite 9/11 it is suffused with optimism. But now, less than 20 years later, one wonders if Ambrose would have maintained that optimism. The book itself seems hopelessly quaint, but at the same time important and necessary. Though one still wonders what Ambrose would make of the current state of the country. (Would he also be an apologist for Trump?) 


War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots

By: Ian Morris

512 Pages

Thoughts

My initial impression upon reading this book was that it drew very heavily from several other books I have read. In particular this book incorporates a lot of the ideas from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, especially when talking about the lucky latitudes. And the book is so similar to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature that it feels like a weird non-fiction sequel but written by a different author. (Sort of like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Same characters but entirely different motivations.) It also covers the same territory as a host of other books on history and progress that I’ve read recently. And I’m not sure if all of this was good or bad. On the one hand I definitely had no problem following his argument since it was part of a conversation I’ve been heavily steeped in over the last few years, on the other hand it made the first two thirds of the book seem uninspired and perhaps even a little boring. 

That said, although there was a lot of overlap with Pinker, he did add one element to Pinker’s ideas that was fairly unique. You might be able to guess what it was from the title, the idea that the relative absence of violence Pinker talks about is all due to the ***presence*** of violent war. That short term extreme violence leads to an overall long term lessening of violence. He even goes so far as to take Pinker’s five elements which contributed to lessening violence (Governmental Leviathans, Commerce, Feminization, Empathy and Reason) and says that they can be replaced by just one element: productive war.

This idea is interesting enough, particularly when applied to the modern world that I’m going to spend my next post discussing it, so I’ll leave off for now.

Criticisms

In the subtitle he mentions “Robots” and while it’s hard to talk about the current state of war without discussing robots and AI, not only did the discussion feel tacked on, but it was clear that this was an area where he was out of his depth. I’ll talk about this more in my next post, but as an example his prediction for the near future is that the US hegemony, while fraying around the edges, will hold until the 2030s, or there about, and that since a lot of AI researchers are predicting the singularity will happen around 2040 that what will probably happen is the world will pass smoothly from Pax Americana to Pax Technologica. And that therefore the only thing we really need to worry about is a delay in the singularity, say from 2040 to 2070. 

I bow to no man in predicting that we’re in a race between a catastrophe and a singularity, but Morris seems to be both remarkably calm about the outcome of the race and remarkably specific in exactly what that race looks like. I guess we should hope he’s correct.


The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses

By: Dan Carlin

288 Pages

Thoughts

I love Dan Carlin. I love his Hardcore History podcast and his Common Sense podcast. His series on the Mongols is as good as any history book I’ve ever read. And the latest installment of Supernova in the East which I listened to just before this book was fantastic. Considering all of this it pains me to admit that this book wasn’t nearly as good as even the worst of his Hardcore History episodes.

That is not to say the book wasn’t good. More just that the podcast is so consistently great. To begin with, the book was right up my alley. The unifying theme of the book was a discussion of catastrophes and wars, and in particular the idea that today is not that different from the past. He even had an afterward all about Fermi’s Paradox. It was a book I could have written, and it was full of excellent observations, and interesting history. The section on the Bronze Age Collapse with a discussion of the six possible explanations was particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately…

Criticisms

The genius of Dan Carlin and Hardcore History is that he takes his time and really gets into the nitty gritty of things. For example in the most recent Supernova in the East episode he spent a long time just talking about Douglas MacArthur. In the book he doesn’t do that, it’s much more abbreviated. In fact in audio (which is how I read it) the book is not that much longer than a typical Hardcore History episode. In theory this could have made things tighter, but it didn’t. He admits himself that while the book has a central thesis, more or less, that his examination of that thesis is pretty scattered. Which is why I called it abbreviated. In Hardcore History episodes he wanders into very interesting nooks and crannies. In this book he wanders, but it gets cut off before it has the chance to develop into anything especially interesting.  

Some people are born to excel in a certain medium, and for all that I enjoyed the book, and would even recommend it, it seems obvious that Dan Carlin was born to be a podcaster.


Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

By: Mary Eberstadt

180 Pages

Thoughts

The central premise of this book is that the sexual revolution fatally undermined the family and in doing so it destroyed the source of identity for those individuals born in its wake. That the question, “Who am I?” is central to human existence and that it used to be answered by reference to one’s immediate family, but that the sexual revolution, by creating smaller families, more divorce, and a host of other anti-familial effects has lead to a situation where there is no stable foundation to provide an answer to that question as in times past.

Consequently people are turning to other markers to provide identity, things like being black, gay or female. And of course because identity is at the core of any individuals feeling of self worth, when you attack this new identity they react just as strongly as if you had attacked their actual family, but they also have less to draw upon to defend this new identity. The connection to a family is easy to identify and tough to argue with. And if it is subject to being questioned (“You’re adopted!” Or, “I never loved you!”) then it’s understandably devastating. These new identities are more difficult to substantiate, and thus people are encouraged to go to more and more extreme lengths to do so. 

Criticisms

This idea, that identity politics exists to fill the chasm left by the disintegration of traditional sources of identity, makes an enormous amount of sense, but laying it entirely at the feet of a specific cause seems to go too far. I am certainly no fan of the sexual revolution and I think the invention of birth control is a bigger deal than anybody wants to acknowledge, but I also think the causes are deeper than prophylactics and promiscuity.

To Eberstadt’s credit she gives space at the end of her book for some commentary by Rod Dreher, Peter Thiel and Mark Lilla. Lilla, a liberal, makes the excellent point that most if not all of the negative consequences Eberstadt blames on the sexual revolution: small families, no siblings, delayed marriage, difficulty with sexual relations, etc. Also occur in China and Japan, but without a similar outbreak of US-style identity politics. 

There are lots of reasons for why this might be. And some of them would preserve Eberstandt’s thesis. But I think laying it all at the feet of the sexual revolution was already on shaky ground before Lilla’s observations, and it looks all but dead after.


Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

By: Bryan Caplan

Illustrated by: Zach Weinersmith

256 Pages

Thoughts

This book has gotten a lot of attention, at least in the circles I run in, and probably most of it is well deserved. This book is a masterclass of presentation, persuasion, and crafting arguments. You might think, being a graphic novel, that it wouldn’t go very deep, and that was one of my worries. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that generally wasn’t the case. It actually covers a lot of ground. Including chapters on counter arguments, immigration as seen from all of the world’s major philosophies, and keyhole solutions (which I’ll get to in a minute). While being impressively thorough, the graphic novel format did what it was supposed to do: create a visually stimulating, easy and enjoyable read.

Caplan’s argument may be obvious from the title of the book, but even if it is, it’s worth repeating. Caplan is in favor of entirely open borders everywhere. And he doesn’t shy away from what that means (though he doesn’t really draw attention to these numbers either). He admits that this would mean that hundreds of millions, if not potentially billions of people might immigrate.

Several years ago I did a post on immigration, and I mentioned people like Caplan:

Now, based on that number [hundreds of millions of immigrants] do you think it would be feasible to get rid of all restrictions on immigration? Of course there are all sorts of reasons for it being infeasible… [and] we’re going to talk about all of these issues in just a minute, but let’s imagine that you’ve already considered all of them, and despite that you’re of the opinion that it is feasible. Perhaps you think free market forces and the invisible hand would end up solving all the difficulties. At this point, if, after coming up with a number and considering feasibility, you think it’s doable, then great. Go ahead and advocate for that, go ahead and fight for that solution. I feel that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, but at least there is zero hypocrisy. At least it’s a coherent ideology. And who knows it might be worth trying. In other words you’re done. You can skip the rest of the post. You already have a solution to the immigration problem.

Indeed, this is what Caplan is doing. Most people would consider absorbing hundreds of millions of immigrants to be infeasible, but Caplan doesn’t and this book is his argument for why, and as I said it’s impressive, but I also remain unconvinced. I have three main objections, but before I get to them, a few minor, unconnected thoughts on the book

  • On two separate occasions Caplan mentions that immigrants “rarely vote” as a positive and reassuring thing. This struck me as weird. I understand why it might be reassuring to nativists, but it sounds insulting otherwise. Also, immigrant voting seems like something that could easily increase over time. 
  • Caplan really did dive into the counter arguments, including the very controversial IQ argument. This may have been the most impressive part of the book. (That he tackled it, not the actual counter argument.) 
  • That said, despite claims to the contrary he didn’t tackle every counter argument. In particular he missed that argument that by raising average living standards you also raise average per capita carbon emissions, making potential climate change more severe. 
  • While the book was comprehensive, a 256 page graphic novel does not have time to go very deep on any particular topic. As a specific example he covered Christianity in his section on how the various philosophies view immigration. In the section he retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For me, at least, it came across as something of an, “Aha! Check mate!” But I doubt any Christians are unfamiliar with that parable, and I can’t imagine any who are currently opposed to immigration saying, “Well I never considered the parable that way. Who would have imagined? I’ve been wrong this whole time!”

Objection 1:

Let’s start by talking about the section in the book that might actually change people’s minds: keyhole solutions. This is, not entirely coincidentally, also the part I liked the best. (You might be wondering how this ends up being an objection, but I’ll get to that.) 

Caplan’s argument is not just that open borders would be good, but that it would be fantastic. That it is possibly the greatest wealth-creating, inequality lessening, poverty reducing policy the world had ever known. If that’s the case then it’s supporters ought to be willing to grant significant concessions to their opponents in order to bring it to pass. Caplan is a particularly rational example of such a supporter, and so he not only acknowledges that this is a good trade, he offers some examples of the kinds of things immigration supporters should be willing to offer. 

These are the keyhole solutions I mentioned above. The term comes the idea that rather than performing massively invasive surgery to fix problems as in times past these days they prefer “minimally invasive” surgery, or keyhole surgery. And that this same approach should be taken to crafting policies. Such keyhole policies include: charging immigrants to enter the country, making them pay higher taxes, restricting their access to free or subsidized government services, etc. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think such policies would go a long way towards easing people’s concerns about immigration, but (and this is finally the part where the objection comes in) whatever these keyhole policies end up being they’re going to take the form of laws on immigration, and if we can’t enforce the laws we already have what makes anyone think we’ll be able to enforce these laws. To say nothing about passing them in the first place. 

If some particular candidate runs on a platform of Caplan’s keyhole solutions, then I hereby pledge my support. (Assuming they’re not crazy in some other respect.) But my assessment of the anti-immigrant electorate is that they’ve been burned too many times by promises of new immigration laws that never materialized or were never enforced, to make this same pledge of support, or to trust any promises for how things are going to go in general. In other words I think Caplan has some interesting ideas, I just think the moment has passed when they might be implemented. And this is a problem on both sides.

Objection 2:

One of Caplan’s key claims is that completely open borders would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150%. Well the world’s per capita GDP is $11,355, while the US’s is $62,606. Which means that if everything is spread equally, and the US’s per capita GDP converges with the world’s (which, under open borders, has risen from $11k to between $17k and $28k) you’re still talking about cutting the salary of the average American in half under the best case scenario. I understand Caplan’s point that the vast majority of people will be much better off. But the vast majority of people are not going to be the ones deciding American immigration policy. And for those people who do make those decisions, i.e. vote, the effect I just described is going to outweigh just about every other consideration. And it’s telling that, while Caplan does acknowledge that this will happen, he buries this admission in his defense against the IQ argument. Rather than placing it in a more prominent location.

In other words, Caplan acknowledges that under open borders the average American would see their wages cut in half, and if anything, this decrease would be even worse for the poorest Americans who would suffer the most direct competition from low-skilled immigrants. Not only is it impossible to imagine that American voters would ever go for that, but it’s impossible to imagine what sort of practical keyhole policies could make up that difference. Even if we’re willing to give them a try.

Objection 3:

At a high level, open borders advocacy reminds me of the way people advocate for Communism, particularly the way they used to advocate for it. As I pointed out in a previous post, before World War II, it was hard to find an intellectual who wasn’t convinced that Communism was the wave of the future, that not only was it more moral, but that it’s economic output would, as Khrushchev famously said, bury the West. All that needed to happen was for a certain class of people to realize that cooperation is better than competition. The benefits were obvious and people just needed to be smart enough and kind enough to get rid of the laws and customs which were preventing this obvious utopia from coming to pass. Does this sound at all similar to what Caplan is urging? Perhaps identical? This is not to say that it would end in the same way or to minimize the differences, which are many. But there is one big similarity which is hard to get past. Both of these plans require people to be a lot less selfish than they’ve ever been.

In this sense open borders is not merely similar to communism it’s similar to a host of ideas that sound really good on paper, but which ultimately overlook the messy complexity of the real world. None of which is to say that Caplan underestimates the difficulties involved in passing open borders legislation. Rather I think he underestimates the number of things that could go wrong after those laws are passed. 

All that said, this was a truly spectacular attempt at making an argument for something most people think is impossible. And at the end of the day we could use a lot more such attempts.


As I write this it’s election day. And by reading this you’re in essence voting for my content, and I appreciate that. But what I really need, unlike in a conventional election, is more money in politics. If you would like to, “Corrupt the system!” Consider donating.


The Blind Spots of Atheism

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As long as we’re discussing the decline of religion and the increase in atheism (see last week’s post) this seems as good a time as any to discuss a few interesting arguments concerning the existence of God I’ve come across recently. The first couple are from Miles Mathis. I forget where I got the link from, and as I was writing this up I googled Mathis, and it appears that some people really loathe him. Perhaps there’s a good reason for this, I have no previous acquaintance with his work, but I’d like to think I’m one of those increasingly rare individuals who feels that arguments can and should be judged in isolation without having to consider whether someone has committed a thoughtcrime in some other unrelated domain. I actually doubt that I am quite so pure, but it’s still a worthy goal.

So, what are these arguments you ask? Well Mathis begins by explaining that he is not an atheist, nor an agnostic, nor even a skeptic. As a defense, for eschewing all of these various labels, he points out that all of them depend on having a certain amount of data. Data that people who do adopt these titles simply don’t possess. He illustrates what he means by making the very valid point that commenting on, or in the extreme case, ruling out the existence of God is a very different endeavor from commenting on the existence of, say, Big Foot.

Of course, with the existence of Bigfoot and unicorns and so on we do have a great deal of information. We have made searches. The Earth is a limited environment and we have populated it widely and heavily and long. Even so, the mountain gorilla was not discovered until 1902, and huge populations of lowland gorillas were only recently discovered in the Congo. Which is to say that we may lean a bit to a “no” answer for existence of larger beings in smaller areas we have scoured quite thoroughly, but even then we may be wrong.

But in looking for proof of gods, our search is pathetically limited. By definition, a god is a being whose powers are far greater than ours, who we cannot comprehend, and whose form we cannot predict. This would make our failure to locate a god quite understandable. A very large or small god would be above or below our notice, and a distant god would also evade our sensors. Not to mention we only have five senses. If we are manipulated by gods, as the hypothesis goes, then it would be quite easy for them to deny us the eyes to see them. Only a god of near-human size in the near environs would be possible to detect. [links added by me]

This is not only an excellent point, but it would seem to go beyond being just a clever observation, perhaps Mathis has more properly identified a new sort of cognitive bias. Though it has elements of the ambiguity effect, anthropocentric thinking, attribute substitution and availability cascade, and that’s just in the A’s. Though perhaps we can boil it all down to metaphysical hubris. Mathis himself describes the position of the atheist as being “epistemologically stronger”:

By [epistemologically] stronger, I do not mean that the atheist is more likely to be right, I mean that the position of the atheist requires more proof. The theist does not say he knows that God exists, he says he believes it. Faith is a belief whereas knowledge is a certainty. This gives the religious person some wiggle room. He doesn’t need to talk of proofs, since a belief is never based on proofs. Belief and faith are built mainly on willpower. Atheists will say that such a foundation is quicksand, and I tend to agree, but atheists stand in even waterier mud.

From here he goes on to make another argument, one that’s very similar to the point I brought up in my post Atheists and Unavoidability of the Divine. That when atheists and agnostics engage in even the smallest amount of metaphysical imagination they come up with something very much equivalent to a God. They avoid labeling it as such, but despite this lack of a label they imagine something unequivocally god-like. 

I’m grateful to Mathis for providing yet another excellent example of this phenomena: 

…let us consider Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has been called one of the four horsemen of atheism (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), and knowing him, it is likely a self-naming and self-glorification. Problem is, Hitchens is also famous for saying,

My own pet theory is that, from the patterns of behavior that are observable, we may infer a design that makes planet earth, all unknown to us, a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by a far-off and superior civilizations.

Hmmm. I suspect that the other three horsemen would have preferred he hadn’t said that. Why? Because proof of a superior civilization using the Earth as a dumping ground would be proof of gods, heaven, hell, judgment, and a host of other things. If the Earth is a dumping ground for the unfit, that makes it hell, or very close, and makes the planet of the superior civilization heaven, or very close. It makes the superior civilization a race of gods, since they have powers we do not, are unknown to us, and have long evaded our detection. And to find us unfit, they must judge us, almost as a god does. Since we are born here, not transported bodily here in later life, we are either damned as spirits, which would prove a soul, or we are damned by the lives of our ancestors, which would prove a “sins of the fathers” theory. Regardless, it is clear that Hitchens, no matter his opinion of Christians, has a heavy Biblical residue. Also notice that he believes all this without proof, and without apology for his lack of proof. Clearly, he is allowed to believe what he wants to, while other people can’t, even when his beliefs are shadows of theirs. Why he is allowed when they aren’t is not so clear, but we may conjecture that it is because he is a loudmouthed bully.

Once again we have another piece of evidence illustrating that atheists have no problem imagining a God, it seems to be more that they just find the ones put forth by the various religions to not be to their tastes. I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing my own arguments in this space, but for those without the time to go back and read my previous post, here’s another example:

Richard Dawkins, widely regarded as the poster child for aggressive atheism said the following:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way.

I’m not arguing that the distinction he makes concerning the provenance of gods isn’t an important one. But what if there were a religion that both understands that distinction and comes down on the same side of it as Dawkins? As a matter of fact there is, what Dawkins describes is in all essential respects what Mormon’s believe. Does this mean that Dawkins is on the verge of converting? I very much doubt it. In other words both Dawkins and Hitchens can imagine the existence of god-like beings. They just can’t imagine these god-like beings behaving like the God that all those creepy religious people believe in.

For the final argument I want to revisit Pascal’s Wager, or rather a variant of the wager those in the rationalist community have labeled Pascal’s Mugging. And I’ve always got the impression that the latter was devised in order to make the former seem more silly.

Presumably all of my readers are familiar with the wager, so let me explain what the mugging is. First the scenario assumes that you are a utilitarian, that you “choose those actions with outcomes that, after being weighted by their probabilities, have a greater utility”. As a utilitarian your forced to make any number of difficult choices, where the probabilities are unclear, but in this particular scenario, you’re approached by someone claiming to be able to cause an implausible level of harm unless you give them all your money. You’re being mugged, but in a way that resembles Pascal’s wager.

To make the example more concrete, imagine that the “mugger” says that they are an alien, of god-like power (note the connection to the above) and that unless you give them all of your money that they will use their alien superpowers to destroy the planet Omicron Persei 8 along with its 8 billion sentient inhabitants. As a true utilitarian you’re now forced to calculate the probabilities involved and decide whether to give the person all of the money you’re currently carrying (let’s say it’s $100 to make it easier) or whether, with infinitesimal probability, to refuse, and by so doing doom 8 billion Omicronians to death.

As I said, the probability that the mugger is in fact an immensely powerful alien is infinitesimal, but how infinitesimal? There are various ways to try to judge this probability, but they mostly boil down to the message, the messenger, and your priors. 

One of the first things that jumps out at you is how self-serving his message is. How much incentive he has to lie in order to get the money he obviously needs. And of course the idea that he has the god-like powers he describes and yet still needs you to give him $100 is also a huge red flag. But what if instead he’s offering to help you. Maybe instead of trying to take $100 he’s insisting that he has to give you $100 or they will all die. You would still assign a low probability to the story being true, but the whole character of the interaction has changed. Also you would probably have no problem taking the money “just in case”.

You might recognize that Omicron Persei 8, is a Futurama reference. That would probably also make his threat less credible. But what if, instead of claiming billions of sentients would die, the mugger made the claim that giving him $100 would be a good deed, and provide spiritual benefits, both in this life and the life to come. Suddenly, for many if not most people, the connection is a lot easier to swallow. Finally, what if his message wasn’t limited to the brief threat I outlined above, what is he had a whole book on the subject which you could read? (Perhaps at gunpoint?) And what if the book was persuasive and well written? How does that affect things?

Moving on to the messenger, perhaps it shouldn’t make a difference, but I think most of us would react differently if the messenger were in a suit and spoke with a British accent, as opposed to a messenger who was tattooed, appeared high, and leavened his demands with profanity. What if the messenger wasn’t a stranger at all, but rather your father? Or what if there were more the one person telling you about this event? What if there were millions? What if they included all of your ancestors? (We’ll set aside for the moment how these ancestors communicate with you.) 

Finally, if we’re talking about a bayesian utilitarian (or even if we’re not) we have to consider their prior estimates for there being ultra-powerful aliens, and whether any given individual, particularly one demanding $100, might be one of these aliens. Understandably when all of this combined together the prior probability is going to be very low, but we’ve also show that once you start tweaking the message and the messenger the probability can change pretty dramatically. In fact even if we moderate everything about the “mugging” and leave only the ultra-powerful alien, what’s your prior probability on that?

This is one of the justifications for why I keep bringing up Fermi’s Paradox. It’s a paradox for a reason. Our prior estimate for the probability of other intelligent aliens should by all accounts be very high. And further, we would also be very surprised if they weren’t vastly more powerful than us. Accordingly it’s mostly the implausible threat (plus the Futurama reference) that gives us such low priors. Strip those away and at the very least you would no longer call the probability infinitesimal. 

Obviously there are a lot of moving parts at this point, and just as obviously you probably know what direction I’m headed with all this. As I said, my impression is that lots of people use Pascal’s Mugging as a quick and dirty way to dismiss Pascal’s Wager. But as I’ve hopefully shown, each step one takes towards making the example more closely resemble how religion actually works, makes it less silly and more probable. 

A belief in God and religion does not come from nowhere. It’s not something you’re hearing about from one person with no prior context. It’s something that’s been around for thousands of years. Nor is there a single messenger, not only are there millions of other believers, but for most people there is a long line of ancestors. All of whom thought belief and religion were good ideas to one degree or another. Finally, I know people are going to disagree about money as a motivation and using the threat of harm befalling people in a world outside of this one, but as I and others have pointed out, religion makes the lives of its adherents better. Which is to say, most people are paradoxically better off agreeing to be mugged. 

The point of all of the above is not to talk someone into religion solely by pointing out more problems with some common atheist arguments. Such an endeavor would obviously be futile. Nor is the point to stretch these arguments beyond where they can reasonably be applied, they’re interesting, but the argument over God’s existence has been going on for a very, very long time and these points are only the tiniest additions to that argument. 

Also, if I’m being honest, part of my reason for bringing these points up, is that they make my team look better and the other team look worse. Sort of a Christians rule atheists drool motivation, if you will. But that point aside, what I’m hoping people will take away from this post and all of my posts on this topic is a caution against being overly flippant about the question of God’s existence.

Critics of Pascal’s Wager often ask us to consider it in isolation shorn of emotion, community, history or earthly benefits, reducing it to something shallow and silly like Pascal’s Mugging. That it’s a choice rational people consider once and just as quickly dismiss before moving on with their life. But in reality all of life and all of history is tied up in this choice. 

Perhaps there is no God. I believe that there is, and I’ve bet my entire life around that belief. I freely admit that everyone is free to make that bet however they choose, and that many people are going to make a choice different than mine. What I will not concede is that this choice is silly or trivial, rather I believe it’s the most important choice we’re ever called upon to make.


A far less important choice is deciding whether or not to support this blog. I make light of that choice every time I post, but I consider it neither trivial nor silly. And for those who do support it, my gratitude, much like the reward of Pascal’s Wager, is infinite. Should you want a piece of that, consider donating.


Post Christianity

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I.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

This is not the first time I have used this quote. The last time it came up, I was quick to point out that the horrible nihilism predicted by Nietzsche had not come to pass. That despite the predictions of not only Nietzsche, but many others, it is possible to be an atheist and still be good. But I was also quick to point out that this “goodness” was still largely derived from a religious foundation, and it’s unclear how long that foundation would last in the absence of a belief in God. Or to pull in another quote from Nietzsche:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.

Again, most atheists and even most intellectuals will argue that Nietzsche was once again proven wrong, that the “whole” of morality has not been broken. But it’s worth asking, as I did the last time around, is it possible that he was just premature in his pessimism? Is it possible that as we look at the fights over morality we’re having today, or the culture wars as they’re often called, that we’re finally seeing the realization of Nietzsche’s predictions.

To be clear, we have obviously been able to hang on to large parts of Christian morality, even without faith in God, the question Nietzsche asks and which deserves to be asked again, is have we been able to hang on to the necessary parts? For a while it appears we did, in part because genuine secularization at the level Nietzsche foresaw actually didn’t start happening until fairly recently. As an example, the percent of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated was flat at between 5 and 10 percent in the 20 years between 1972 and 1992 (it was 6% in 1991) before beginning a steady climb to 29% in 2018. It’s easy to maintain Christian morality if you still have a lot of Christians, but around 1992 (end of the Cold War?) it starts suddenly draining away, and it’s hard to imagine this will only affect the unnecessary bits. Christianity is leaving the stage, or being altered so completely that it can no longer fulfill its historical role, whatever that might be.

II.

From here I could go off on a jeremiad about the wickedness of the modern world, and certainly someone with the pen name Jeremiah should never shy away from that sort of thing, but in this post I want to go in a different direction. I don’t think there’s any question that Christian morality has been draining away, and many jeremiads could indeed be written on that topic, but the objective of this post is to point out the lesser known side effects of this decline, in particular how it affects the logistics of governing and of holding nations together.

To begin with, there’s the idea that all civilizations are inextricably intertwined with a specific religion. You may recall my post on the ideas of Samuel Huntington, in particular his book The Clash of Civilizations. At the time, one of the things that stood out to me about his thesis was the idea that you can’t have a civilization without having a religion to define that civilization. Or as he said:

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent. [emphasis mine]

Hearing of this idea you may have several reactions:

  1. You may think Huntington is right and that by losing our link to religion we’re in a lot of trouble.
  2. You may think that Huntington is right about the importance of a religion, but that Christianity is no longer the religion of Western Civilization, and that therefore we don’t have to worry about its disappearance. We have a new religion, that of social justice or something similar, and that new religion might even come with a new, global civilization.
  3. You may think Huntington was right, but that he isn’t any longer. That something has changed recently either at a political, social, or technological level which makes his assertions about religion no longer valid, even if they were at some point.
  4. You may think Huntington is right, but only in a very weak, almost tautological sense. Maybe what he’s saying is something akin to, “A culture needs a culture.” In other words, how does this argument apply in a place like China? Is Confucianism really a religion? And if it is, are the Chinese actually believers in it in the same sense that people in America are believers in Christianity?
  5. You may think Huntington is just plain wrong. This is certainly possible, but he’s got a lot of evidence on his side and the point of this post is to martial yet more evidence in his favor.

Let’s take each of these reactions in order. The first is fairly straightforward. If you believe this then you’re on the same page with Nietzsche and Huntington and for that matter, me, and any further discussion of this would just be preaching to the choir. 

As far as the second possibility, a replacement religion, I’ve already discussed it at some length, and there’s a lot of evidence that this might in fact be what’s happening. For one thing it also mostly follows the thinking of Huntington and Nietzsche. The key problem here is that I don’t think it avoids the “we’re in a lot of trouble” part from possibility one. You can read my previous post for a deeper dissection of this, but I’ve seen zero historical evidence that transitioning a civilization from one religion to another has ever been a peaceful or straightforward process.

For this possibility, the most charitable reading of history is that Western Civilization already abandoned Christianity around when Nietzsche said they would and successfully replaced it with enlightenment values. But as you may recall that transition was anything but smooth. And even optimists like Steven Pinker believe that enlightenment values are under serious attack.  

Possibility three is perhaps the most interesting, that we needed religion, but we don’t any longer. Despite being interesting it has several things working against it. To begin with if you acknowledge that this is how things used to work, you have to come up with a credible mechanism for why things no longer work this way. Why politics and technology have somehow removed culture as a factor in maintaining a civilization. This becomes particularly difficult in light of the culture war we’re currently experiencing which has arguably been made worse by technology. To put it all together, you’re arguing that technology has made culture less contentious when the evidence all points in the opposite direction, and furthermore, in this argument the burden of proof would all be on your side of the argument. 

In discussing possibility number four I offered up China as a counterexample, and I take it seriously. No one would describe China as a particularly religious country even if you grant that Confucianism is a religion, and at first glance this seems to seriously weaken Huntington’s argument (and by extension my own) but I believe there are some additional things to consider here. First and most obviously, no one would say, as protests in Hong Kong enter their 20th week that China is a model of cultural cohesion in the absence of a religion. Second, one would assume that if you have the all-encompassing top down dictatorship like China does, having a strong religion on top of that to fall back on becomes far less important. Or to put it another way, the fight over something like abortion looks a lot different in China. Something we’ll return to in a moment.

III.

This takes us to the final possibility, that Huntington is wrong, and refuting this possibility is where I plan to spend the remainder of the post.

As a foundation to that, I’d like to talk about Power Games vs. Value Games, I’m borrowing this labeling from the current series Tim Urban is doing on Wait but Why (which I’ve mentioned before in this space). Though you can find references to the overarching concept all through my work. But Urban’s definitions are more succinct. 

The Power Games basically goes like this: everyone acts fully selfish, and whenever there’s a conflict, whoever has the power to get their way, gets their way. Or, more succinctly:

Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.

There are no principles in the Power Games—only the cudgel. And whoever holds it makes the rules.

The animal world almost always does business this way. The bear and the bunny from the beginning… found themselves in a conflict over the same resource—the bunny’s body. The bunny wanted to keep having his body to use for being alive and the bear wanted to eat his body to score a few energy points from his environment. A power struggle ensued between the two, which the bear won. A bear’s power comes in the form of being a big strong dick. But power isn’t the same as strength. A bunny’s power comes in the form of sensitive ears, quick reflexes, and running (bouncing?) speed—and if the bunny had been a little better at being a bunny, he might have escaped the bear and retained the important resource. [emphasis original]

As Urban points out this is how things are in a state of nature, and it’s mostly how things were historically. People and nations did whatever they wanted as long as they had the power to pull it off. But there is another way to resolve disputes, Value Games:

In the Power Games, people who have cudgels use them to forcefully take the resources they want. In the Value Games, people use carrots to win resources over from others.

The Value Games are driven by human nature, just like the Power Games are. The difference is the Power Games is what humans do when there are no rules—the Value Games is what humans do when a key limitation is added into the environment:

You can’t use a cudgel to get what you want.

If I want something you have, but I’m not allowed to get it by bullying you, then the only option I’m left with is to get you to give it to me voluntarily. And since you’re selfish too, the only way you’ll do that is if I can come up with a “carrot”—a piece of value I can offer—that you’d rather have than the resource I want from you. 

I will add that one aspect of Value Games that Urban doesn’t pay a lot of attention to is that such games are a lot easier to engage in if people have many values in common. It’s one thing to offer people carrots if everyone loves carrots. It’s quite another if they don’t. Or to put it another way, imagine that instead of offering carrots you’re offering pork. Your ability to trade for things you want is going to be very different depending on whether the person you’re dealing with is Catholic or Muslim. Value Games depend a great deal on having common values. This becomes even more important when you’re talking about sacred values, i.e. a religion.

Furthermore, Urban didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked explaining why you wouldn’t be able to use a cudgel to get what you want. In truth the cudgel is always an option. It always hangs in the background. All Value Games have a bit of a Power Game in them. It’s just that you’re unlikely to bring out the cudgel if the carrot is going to be more effective. Also, the more sacred the value the more likely you are to use force to defend it, making shared religious values the most important shared values of all. But once religion goes away, once people no longer have faith that there’s some supernatural source of sacred values, that foundation of morality Nietzsche talked about, then inevitably (though not immediately) Value Games become harder, and Power Games become more likely.

IV.

Let’s look at some examples of this dynamic in action. You have almost certainly heard about the tweet Daryl Morey, owner of the Houston Rockets, sent in support of the Hong Kong protesters and the controversy it caused between China and the NBA. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this is a Power Game. The Chinese can talk about their hurt feelings till they’re blue in the face, but in the end China wants something and they have the power to get it (withholding billions of dollars) so that’s what’s happening. 

This part is straightforward enough. But dig a little bit deeper and a few other interesting points emerge. First, China is still playing Value Games with the protests in Hong Kong, they haven’t yet resorted to the cudgel. One Value Game is with the actual people protesting and another is with the international community. In contrast the way they manage their citizens who live outside of Hong Kong largely takes the form of a Power Game. On the other side of things while the NBA is playing (and apparently losing) a Power Game with China, what was it doing when it boycotted North Carolina in 2016 for the state law which was perceived to be biased against the LGBT community? And is it hypocritical as so many people have accused?

Now I suppose that you could argue that North Carolina’s law was so much worse than what China is doing in Hong Kong that in the one case a boycott was appropriate, but in the other a groveling apology was called for, but I don’t think anyone seriously buys that. No the difference is that in the case of North Carolina, we’re still playing Value Games. The NBA was hoping that by boycotting North Carolina that their values would shift in the direction of the NBAs values. (Or what they saw as the center of gravity for the whole country. The NBA is a business after all). When the NBA caved in to China it wasn’t because of their deeply held values. (Other than their deeply held avarice.) It was because China had the power to compel them to submit. Would the controversy have played out differently if China (or for that matter the US) was Christian? One would certainly hope so. 

Let’s look at another example. I just finished reading the book Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age by Arthur Herman. I’ll do a more detailed review of it at the end of the month, but right now I want to focus on the independence negotiations between the United Kingdom and India. Certainly power played a large part in these negotiations, British military power and the power of the Indian masses which Gandhi was able to effectively marshall, but it’s remarkable to what extent Christian and Hindu values played a part as well. Gandhi was a huge admirer of Christianity and of the British in general. If he hadn’t he wouldn’t have attempted his campaign of passive resistance. If you doubt this just imagine how his campaign would have gone if he had tried it with the Nazis rather than the British. 

But set aside all of that for the moment, the really interesting thing is that the two sides could sit down together. They could negotiate and reach an agreement, and this, in spite of ongoing atrocities that today are barely imaginable. When you imagine politics today, who do you imagine sitting down together? (Certainly not Pelosi and Trump.) It seems that the most alarming sign that Value Games are over and we’re in the realm of Power Games is the fact that the two sides of the current conflict can’t have those negotiations, in fact they can barely watch football together, if the recent dust-up over Ellen and Bush is any indication.

For my final example I want to revisit abortion where we appear to be on the cusp of transitioning from Value Games to Power Games. Let’s begin that examination by looking at how abortion is handled by some of the systems we’ve already touched on. 

Religion- I’m not an expert on how various religions view abortions, but I’m reasonably certain that they all take a stand on it. In other words, to return to my primary point, Value Games work better in the presence of a religion because there is an agreed upon value baseline. 

China- Given that China generally operates in a Power Game space with its population, they can basically dictate whatever abortion policy they want. At the moment it’s legal, but if tomorrow they decided to make it illegal would anyone be surprised? Would you expect massive demonstrations? I wouldn’t.

Switching to Enlightenment Values from Christian Values- What does The Enlightenment say about abortion? Is it pro-choice? I know that many people would argue that it is, but if so, it took a long time to get there. In fact, pro-choice organizations argue that abortion was basically legal everywhere until the enlightenment. After that initial rush of anti-abortion laws, it appears that the first place to make it legal in all cases was the Soviet Union in 1920 under Lenin. I don’t know about you, but I generally avoid using examples from the Soviet Union to buttress my case. After that the next place for it to be made legal was Mexico in 1931 and then only in cases of rape. It didn’t arrive in the US until 1967 when Colorado legalized it in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother. Needless to say it doesn’t sound like it was a big part of the core Enlightenment values.

All of this takes us to the battles over abortion we see today. As I said, up until recently these debates seemed to revolve around a discussion of values, but more and more they’ve moved into the realm of power. Who can do what. So far the Power Games are operating within the framework of laws, which are a form of values, but when you pay more attention to fighting over who can interpret those laws than the laws themself I think some important rubicon has been crossed on the power/value continuum

As further evidence that we have crossed over from arguing about values to exercising power I offer up the venom present in the current debate, where even repeating Bill Clinton’s assertion that abortions should be safe, legal and rare provokes enormous blowback from the pro-choice side of things. Or to frame it another way. Gandhi and the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin were able to sit down and negotiate despite excessive violence on the side of the British and mass uprisings among the Indians. Who can we imagine doing the same today? 

V.

It’s important to note that to the extent that the West is “post-christian” it hasn’t been post-christian for very long, and it’s still unclear what system will come along and replace religion as a civilizational bedrock. Even if you don’t agree that it has to be another religion, I think we can agree that it has to be something, if we’re going to avoid slipping back into power games. And thus far the options do not appear promising:

To complete the circle, it should be noted that Nietzsche had a solution to this problem. It was the Übermensch, but it’s hard to imagine anything less likely to fill in as a core civilizational value in this day and age.

To continue with Nietzsche, people took a watered down version of his ideas, combined it with the ideas of progress more generally and came up with eugenics. And it’s hard to find a major figure who didn’t support it in the first half of the 20th century. Also, it should be noted, abortion was a major component of that movement. 

It’d be nice to say that Christianity was still powerful enough that it put a stop to eugenics. It was not, it had much more to do with the evils of Nazism, but it is interesting to note that when the Supreme Court ruled that state laws requiring compulsory sterilization of the unfit were constitutional, that a Catholic judge was the only one to dissent, and he did so because of his religious beliefs.

For those celebrating the decline of Christianity. This has to provide a cautionary tale, and, further, a strong piece of evidence that abandoning religion is more difficult and error-prone than people think. In any case it is no longer a candidate as an alternative to religion.

Moving on, other people such as Steven Pinker put a lot of stock in Enlightenment values, but they’re not holding up so well either. (Which is part of the reason Pinker had to write a whole book defending those same values.) Certainly, as I pointed out above, they seem unequal to the task of solving the current crisis.

Still other people hold out hope that some entirely new civic religion will come along, and magically solve everything. And perhaps it will, but large failures like eugenics and smaller failures like the blind spots of the enlightenment should make us cautious about the effectiveness of reasoning our way into a cohesive set of effective values. And even if that’s something we can do, the transition might be brutal.

It would appear that a return to Christianity is the only thing that’s left, but of course that’s much easier said than done and I suspect the process is past the point of no return. It part it’s because they were right, all those people who claimed that it was possible for an individual to abandon religion and still be good. The part I think they and everyone else missed is how difficult it is for a civilization to abandon religion and still be unified. 


If religion is important for civilization how much more important is it for blogging? Okay, it’s probably less important, but if you feel it has any importance consider donating.


The Pendulum

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I.

Have you noticed that Stoicism appears to be “having a moment” as the kids say? I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure I understand why. I know this is just my personal observation, but when I was in college, my impression was that someone was as likely to identify an epicurean as declare that they were a stoic. But now, just a couple of decades later, you’ve got people like Ryan Holiday who’ve built their whole careers around evangelizing Stoicism. 

As I said, I’m a little vague on why it’s suddenly so popular. I would assume that the political situation has something to do with it. (Hegel thought that Stoicism is a philosophy for times of de-democratization.) Which makes it interesting that it seems to have started before things got nasty or at the very least well before the election of Trump. I also suspect that it’s a response to the culture of victimhood, or to rephrase it in less loaded terms. Some people put a lot of weight on what has happened to you and your ancestors and the whole point of Stoicism is the opposite. They’re focused on minimizing the importance of external events. Thus one possibility is that it may have become more popular as a way to push back on the trend of victimhood.

Lest there be any confusion, speaking just for myself, I’m a big admirer of Stoicism. Though I know that there are some who will claim that Stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. A point I’ll return to before the end. That wrinkle aside, during a recent period of severe economic distress I took great comfort in the writings and advice of the ancient stoics. I also particularly like their emphasis on moderation, and insofar as stoicism is resurgent because of the current political moment I hope that it acts as a moderating influence on both sides of things. As this recent quote from Holiday’s Daily Stoic newsletter illustrates, moderation has a lot to recommend it.

We often hear people speak of wisdom, justice, and courage, but rarely do we hear people praise moderation. Moderation is the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society. It might not be the most exciting principle, but locating this middle ground—the golden mean—has the capacity to make the largest difference.

II.

The idea for this post came to me a while ago. I was at a dinner party and a debate started over the effectiveness of psychedelics, in particular, how much insight they actually provided. On one side were people who felt like psychedelics triggered a feeling of “insight” without providing any actual epiphanies. On the other side were people who felt that they had received genuine wisdom while under the influence of these drugs. As you might have guessed I was on the first side, and I argued for my side of things with particular vigor, leading someone to ask, “Why do you care? What’s your stake in this argument? So what if the actual insight gained from ingesting psychedelics is less than what was claimed?”

Something about the way the question was stated lead to a genuine epiphany. (Not the fake kind you get with psychedelics. Kidding… sort of.) And I realized that, while I do genuinely care about getting as close to the truth as possible, in this particular case, it was more about where I felt the “pendulum” was on the issue. What’s the pendulum you ask? Well if moderation is “the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society” then the idea of the pendulum is even more secret than that. 

Generally speaking, on any given issue, one side or the other has the momentum, and they use that momentum to push laws and culture and even public opinion as far as they can in their preferred direction. Metaphorically you might imagine the pendulum of a clock. The true believers think that it should be all the way over to one side (or perhaps the other) while the person who values moderation knows that it never stays on one side or the other for very long, and that the harder you push it in one direction the more violent the eventual swing back ends up being. The stoic, who values moderation, wants to keep the pendulum as close to the middle as possible. Doing so also has the benefit of lessening the disruption and violence associated with large swings back and forth. How is this accomplished? By taking the opposite side of the issue from whichever side is ascendant, and switching when the other side is ascendent.

Returning to the debate on psychedelics, we can now break down the many things one should consider when arguing for moderation rather than for a specific ideology:

  1. What’s the truth? I do think that the insight granting powers of things like LSD and psilocybin are overrated and prone to overfitting. I am arguing for the truth, but as I pointed out, my argument had more vigor because I thought the people I was with needed more convincing on this point, not because the argument was more true than other arguments I might make. 
  2. Who are you trying to convince? And what represents a moderate position for them? The dinner party attendees, other than myself, were all late 20s/early 30s (and yes, I worry about being the creepy old man). All of them regularly read Tim Ferris (speaking of stoics) and other individuals who espouse LSD microdosing as being the greatest thing ever. If I were among a bunch of church attending mother’s I probably would have been arguing the other side, that LSD will not cause your child to become a serial killer or act as a gateway to heroin. This is the classic, Devil’s Advocate position, and it’s always useful for someone to take this position, though, I will admit, that people often overdo it.
  3. What direction is the pendulum moving? Obviously in this day and age there’s no one overarching opinion on drugs and the war on drugs. It’s a no man’s land in the cultural war just like everything else. But for people in the demographic I mentioned above, most feel that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, that way too many people are locked up for drug related offenses, and that stuff like LSD should not only be legal, but that it has the power to revolutionize the world. Needless to say I think it’s more complicated than that.

This probably seems like a lot of effort just to justify being a jerk at a dinner party, but of course the difficulty of dealing with drugs and their many positive and negative effects, and the subsequent swinging of the pendulum too far to one side or the other has a long, long history. Perhaps the best large scale illustration of this would be Prohibition. It was and is clear to everyone that alcohol is responsible for numerous harms, and that for the vast majority of people, alcohol consumption is a net negative. But just as clearly, in retrospect, making it entirely illegal was swinging the pendulum too far. More recently it swung too far in the other direction when it came to prescribing opiates. And now, again in retrospect, everyone agrees that we were too lax there.

III.

If you’re with me so far and you agree that moderation is valuable, and that it’s sometimes useful to view things as swinging between two extremes like a pendulum, then where should we go from here? Or stated more directly how do we go from applying this at dinner parties to applying it to the world as a whole? 

Mostly it’s the same list, only massively larger in scale:

  1. It is still important that regardless of what direction you approach things from that your arguments are true. In particular I recommend being up front about the pendulum model. “Oh, I’m not in favor of large scale drug legalization by any means, but I think creating safe injection sites is a way of balancing both justice and reality.”
  2. The terrain is still important. Supporting a Democrat in Utah is very different from supporting a Democrat in California. In the first case you are almost certainly pushing the pendulum back towards the center, in the second case you’re much more likely to be pushing it towards the end it’s already at.
  3. The final point, figuring out where the pendulum is headed, is a lot more difficult when we scale up to the nation as a whole. In 1920 the support for prohibition was pervasive enough that three-fourths of the states in addition to two-thirds of congress voted to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. I assume, though I wasn’t there, that in 1919 it would have been pretty easy to know which direction the pendulum was headed. I think our increasingly fractured society makes that task more difficult. For example, you would assume, based on recent mass shootings, that the pendulum is heading towards more gun control, but also nothing concrete has actually happened yet, and certainly some people have gotten more opposed to gun control recently.

Additionally there’s one other thing that shows up more often at the state and national level than at the dinner party level. At the dinner party level you can take a very nuanced position, even going so far as to mention the fact that what you’re really interested in is moderation, not the ultimate and final triumph of one ideology or another. But at the national level, generally such nuance is not available. Generally you have two, and only two, very blunt options (more if you take my advice and vote third party, but that has its own issues.) There is no option that moves the pendulum exactly as far as it needs to go to return to the center. (And, of course, even if there was such an option, the mere fact of your vote does very little to bring it to pass.) Rather your two options are:

  1. Move the pendulum farther along the path it was already on. Even if it’s not very far.
  2. Move the pendulum back the other way. But perhaps in such a way that you completely overshoot the moderate middle.

Trump vs. Clinton was very much the situation above, but it’s not the only time it’s happened either. Frequently, you only have one choice to move the needle, and it’s not a great choice, but you may feel that the pendulum has swung so far in the wrong direction that if you don’t try moving it back in the other direction the moderate middle may be lost forever, or out of reach for a very long time.

I expect that this explains much of Trump’s appeal. That, as a said before, Trump was a speculative attempt to complicate in a situation where on most issues the pendulum has been traveling left for a very long time. 

IV.

There’s one final benefit to everything I’ve mentioned so far, beyond just greater moderation, and whatever benefits that entails. Arguing from the standpoint of the pendulum is also great practice for steelmanning and passing ideological Turing Tests. Both ideas are closely related, but the first is the opposite of strawmanning, that is rather than putting forth your ideological opponent’s weakest arguments you assemble and put forth their very strongest arguments, even if it’s a position you oppose. On the other hand an ideological Turing Test makes reference to the original Turing Test, where a computer could be said to be intelligent if it was indistinguishable in conversation from a person. To pass an ideological Turing Test you need to be able to explain an ideology so well that you are indistinguishable from a true believer of that ideology.

As you might imagine both skills come in handy when you’re pushing for moderation, when, depending on the position of the pendulum, you may be arguing for two completely opposite positions. In a larger sense, pushing for moderation forces you to think of reasons why the conventional wisdom might be incorrect. Why, in 1919, despite massive support, nationwide prohibition would be a very bad idea. Why the same thing might be true of issues today which also enjoy massive support, and which appear to have the wind on their side. It requires taking all of the criticisms and putting them into the best light, of understanding them as well as the people who advocate them.

V.

Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning, there are some who will claim that stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. As one example of this, I remember expressing admiration for the poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley while I was in the Missionary Training Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) prior to serving my mission, and having one of the other missionaries mention that Orson F. Whitney, one of the early apostles, had penned a response to Invictus pointing out that (at least for the Christian) without Christ it didn’t matter whether you were the “captain of your soul”, you still weren’t going to make it to your destination. Whitney and this missionary have a point, but I still don’t think it’s a bad thing to occasionally reflect on the radical responsibility advocated by “Invictus”. 

No, where Whitney and this missionary have a point is precisely with respect to the topic we’ve been discussing, moderation. Despite some LDS individuals declaring (incorrectly) that “moderation in all things” is part of our canonized scriptures. There are some areas where moderation is not appropriate and in fact the Bible agrees with me:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

I know that a lot of my readers aren’t believers, but if you are going to be part of a religion; working and hoping for ultimate salvation, then moderation is the last thing you want. If God exists, then nothing about our relationship with him should be moderate. That said, it’s certainly not the way the world is going. Instead, more and more I am seeing the opposite: moderation in religion (particularly Christianity) and extremism everywhere else. And that’s perhaps the final lesson: it’s necessary to be moderate even in our quest for moderation.


The pendulum on these closing “jokes” is firmly on the donate end of things. So don’t donate. I don’t need your money. I’m solidly middle class without your money, and retiring on my writing income is a stupid plan. If you’re actually contrary enough that these arguments produce the opposite effect you can donate here.


Books I Finished in September

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It’s once again time for the monthly round up of the books I read:

Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition

By: Shane Lacy Hensley

208 pages

Thoughts

This is the latest edition of a well known universal Role-Playing game system called Savage Worlds. I’m a big fan of the system, but for my money there weren’t enough changes to justify putting out a new edition.

Who should read this book?

If you love, love, love Savage Worlds and run it all the time, it’s probably worth picking up this book. If you’re like me and you collect RPG systems, and you already have a Savage Worlds rulebook in your collection this is not different enough from past editions to be worth picking up.

Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea

By: Steven Callahan

234 pages

Thoughts

There’s a little old lady who used to be in my ward (that’s the Mormon version of a congregation) and in addition to being a voracious reader she’s exceptionally cunning. The first attribute led her to have an Audible subscription, the last bit led her to offer to share it with me when she realized she could have up to five connected devices. I was going through some financial difficulties at the time (a lawsuit) and so I took her up on the offer. I have since gotten my own Audible account, but she still let’s me know when she’s listened to something she particularly likes. She has a fondness for survival stories, and so I end up listening to quite a few of them. (Two this month.) This is good because I am also a fan of them, but they’re not the kind of thing I would seek out normally.

As you can probably tell from the title Adrift is one of these survival stories. Most survival stories get into the mechanics and the logistics of survival, and Adrift is no exception, in fact if anything it may partake of more of this sort of thing than most books in the genre. If that’s your thing you’ll probably really enjoy this book. For me, listening to it as an audiobook I had a hard time picturing everything he was describing. Nevertheless, Callahan was great at surviving, and is mentioned as one of the best examples of a survivor in another book I read in September. 

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence

By: James Lovelock

160 pages

Thoughts

This was kind of a weird book. (There were a couple in that category this month.) Lovelock is best known for his Gaia theory, which basically holds that organic and inorganic matter work together to create the perfect living environment. (Examples include global temperature, seawater salinity, and atmospheric oxygen.) I haven’t ever read that book but I remember being skeptical when I heard about the premise, what about Snowball Earth or the Great Oxygenation Event? I assume that Lovelock would say that despite how hard they were on the ecosystem which existed at the time that both events were necessary stepping stones to the world we have now. He appears to be making a similar argument here, that everything which has come so far has all been in service of the next stage of evolution, what he’s calling the Novacene. From the book jacket:

In the Novacene, new beings will emerge from existing artificial intelligence systems. They will think 10,000 times faster than we do and they will regard us as we now regard plants. But this will not be the cruel, violent machine takeover of the planet imagined by science fiction. These hyperintelligent beings will be as dependent on the health of the planet as we are. They will need the planetary cooling system of Gaia to defend them from the increasing heat of the sun as much as we do. And Gaia depends on organic life. We will be partners in this project.

Wait, what? Maybe I’m overlooking something huge, but there are lots of cooler places in the universe, to say nothing of in the solar system, than the surface of the Earth. (Check out the aestivation hypothesis as an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox.) And even if, for some reason, the coming hyperintelligence were restricted to Earth (say because of the tyranny of the rocket equation) then, however “cool” the Earth is right now, there are probably lots of ways to make it much cooler that require very little human involvement. 

Who should read this book?

As I said, maybe I’m missing something gigantic, but if not this is a seriously flawed book, which no one should bother reading.

Bronze Age Mindset

By: Bronze Age Pervert

198 pages

Thoughts

Around this time last year a friend of mine visited from out of town, and we had a conversation about incels (mostly those who were literally involuntarily celibate, not those who had adopted the label). At the time I thought the conversation was interesting enough to do a post about it.

As part of the conversation we both agreed that there are lots of young men who lack meaning and feel abandoned by society, women or the world in general. What we disagreed on was what to tell these young men, though we both felt it was a very important question. Well Bronze Age Mindset is one answer to that question, and it’s a doozy. (This is the other weird book I read this month.) 

To begin with, at one point this self-published book, which seems to be written in a vague stream of consciousness fashion with little regard for verb conjugation or indefinite articles cracked the top 150 books on Amazon. This is out of all the books on Amazon, not merely in some specific category. Meaning whatever else you want to say about the book it’s an answer to the question I posed that has resonated for a lot of people. 

What about the book itself? Well if you really want a full review I would recommend the one Michael Anton did in the Claremont Review of Books: Are the Kids Al(t)right? For my own part I could sense how the book might be appealing, but it’s hard to point to anything specific, there’s little direct advice in the book. Rather, I think most of the appeal comes from the transgressiveness which suffuses the book. It probably goes without saying that the book is homophobic, misogynist, racist and anti-democratic, but he doesn’t spend much time or speak very strongly about any of these items. They just appear in support of the larger tapestry of transgression he weaves. I think Anton does a great job of distilling all of that into a short description of the book’s appeal:

This book speaks directly to young men dissatisfied with a hectoring vindictive equality that punishes excellence.

These exhortations towards excellence take the form of urging readers to attempt fantastic feats of military prowess to set themselves apart from the vast masses of people, the “bugmen” as he refers to them. Going so far as to say that life appears at its peak in military state, which he feels is inevitable.  Which would be alarming if true (I don’t think that’s the way things are going.)

Having said all that I’m still surprised that it has sold so well. I was particularly alarmed by what Anton describes as:

…the book’s most risible passages, [where] BAP wonders aloud whether history has been falsified, persons and events invented from whole cloth, centuries added to our chronology, entire chapters to classic texts.

But in the age of conspiracy theories it’s entirely possible all of this was an asset rather than a liability. As I keep pointing out we live in strange times.

Representative passage:

The distinction between master races and the rest is simple and true, Hegel said it, copying Heraclitus: those peoples who choose death rather than slavery or submission in a confrontation that is a people of masters. There are many such in the world, not only among the Aryans, but also the Comanche, many of the Polynesians, the Japanese and many others. But animal of this kind refuses entrapment and subjection. It is very sad to witness those times when such animal can neither escape nor kill itself. I saw once a jaguar in zoo, behind a glass, so that all the bugs in hueman form could gawk at it and humiliate it. This animal felt a noble and persistent sadness, being observed everywhere by the obsequious monkeys, not even monkeys, that were taunting it with stares. His sadness crushed me and I will always remember this animal. I never want to see life in this condition!

Who should read this book?

I think the people who are inclined to read this book are going to read it regardless of what I say. For those who aren’t in that category, I would not recommend this book to anyone, except as an anthropological exercise.

Why Are The Prices So Damn High?

By: Eric Helland, Alex Tabarrok

90 pages

Thoughts

This book is an attempt to explain rising prices in health care and education by tying them to the Baumol Effect. Here’s how Helland and Tabarrok describe it:

In 1826, when Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 was first played, it took four people 40 minutes to produce a performance. In 2010, it still took four people 40 minutes to produce a performance. Stated differently, in the nearly 200 years between 1826 and 2010, there was no growth in string quartet labor productivity. In 1826 it took 2.66 labor hours to produce one unit of output, and it took 2.66 labor hours to produce one unit of output in 2010.

Fortunately, most other sectors of the economy have experienced substantial growth in labor productivity since 1826. We can measure growth in labor productivity in the economy as a whole by looking at the growth in real wages. In 1826 the average hourly wage for a production worker was $1.14. In 2010 the average hourly wage for a production worker was $26.44, approximately 23 times higher in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Growth in average labor productivity has a surprising implication: it makes the output of slow productivity-growth sectors (relatively) more expensive. In 1826, the average wage of $1.14 meant that the 2.66 hours needed to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 had an opportunity cost of just $3.02. At a wage of $26.44, the 2.66 hours of labor in music production had an opportunity cost of $70.33. Thus, in 2010 it was 23 times (70.33/3.02) more expensive to produce a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 than in 1826. In other words, one had to give up more other goods and services to produce a music performance in 2010 than one did in 1826. Why? Simply because in 2010, society was better at producing other goods and services than in 1826.

Scott Alexander also did a couple of posts on the book, and as you might expect his posts go into more depth (in fact I borrowed the above selection from one of them.) I largely agree with his general assessment, which is that the Baumol Effect explains quite a bit, but it doesn’t seem to explain as much as Helland and Tabarrok claim. In particular it can’t seem to explain why subway systems cost 50 times as much to construct in New York as in Seoul, South Korea

Who should read this book?

If you have a deep desire to understand the arguments around the why costs in some sectors are growing much faster than inflation then you should read this book. Otherwise, it’s main contribution is to more fully popularize the Baumol Effect which is easy enough to understand without reading an entire (albeit short) book.

An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Religious)

By: John Gee

196 pages

Thoughts

Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) the Book of Abraham is canonized scripture, and members of the Church (myself included) believe that Joseph Smith translated the book from some papyri. Smith purchased the papyri from a gentleman with a traveling mummy exhibition in 1835. Critics of the church feel that that the circumstances of the translation, along with advances in Egyptology which have occured since Smith’s translation, the most important being the ability to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs, all combine to provide a fruitful avenue for attacking the church. Accordingly, a significant amount of criticism has been leveled towards the Book of Abraham. An Introduction to the Book of Abraham designed to examine this criticism from an apologetic basis.

For obvious reasons I am not objective on this topic. Nevertheless I feel that Gee did an excellent and credible job. His approach seemed both rigorous and scholarly. I know that there are many people who feel that some criticisms Book of Abraham are impossible to refute, but this book provided many avenues of refutation, none of them were ironclad anymore than the criticisms were ironclad, but neither did they require any handwaving.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who is even moderately interested in LDS apologetics in general and the Book of Abraham in particular should read this book. I quite enjoyed it, and had the book been twice as long I wouldn’t have minded it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1)

By: Scott Lynch

736 pages

Thoughts

My habit of starting new fantasy/scifi series while completely ignoring series I have already started continues with this book, which is part of yet another fantasy series. This particular book came highly recommended by frequent commentator Mark (see his excellent science/etc blog) and I was not disappointed, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read with a great ending. That said I do have several quibbles.

Criticisms

For some reason, and I’m not blaming Mark, or the blurb on Amazon, I had the impression when I picked up this book (metaphorically, I actually downloaded it from Audible) that it was going to be sort of a fantasy Oceans 11, and there was quite a bit of lighthearted capering in the book, but it was also pretty dark. I don’t recall anyone dying in Oceans 11, but lots of people die in Locke Lamora. The combination of the two made the tone a little schizophrenic.

Additionally, and I’ve mentioned this before, There are a class of fantasy and science fiction authors who write all of their characters as “sassy”. John Scalzi is the worst offender here, and as I think back on my misspent youth, David Eddings may have pioneered the genre, and it turns out Lynch is also an offender but a minor one.

Finally there is one bit of world building that drove me absolutely nuts. I don’t want to say much more than that for fear of spoiling things, but there are implications to this thing which he entirely fails to consider. But if you can overlook this one thing (which is what I eventually decided to do) or if you don’t notice the problems it would cause, then, as I said, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I think going forward I’m going to try to finish some of the series I’ve started rather than beginning anything new. Time will tell.

No More Mr Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex, and Life

By: Robert A. Glover

208 pages

Thoughts

You may recall my review of Wild at Heart. Well one of the things people do after reading that book is go on a retreat with a large group of other Christian men. I was one of those people, and last month I went on just such a retreat, and it was awesome, and not merely because it was in Alaska. In essence, that book, the retreat, No More Mr. Nice Guy and Bronze Age Mindset are all attempting to answer the same question. What advice should you give to men who feel alienated and abandoned, particularly by women? The retreat, in addition to being one of those answers was also where I heard about No More Mr. Nice Guy, and it’s answer to the question should be pretty obvious from the title, though it’s less antisocial and misogynist than you might imagine.

Glover asserts that a large part of the problem is that a significant portion of men have responded to these feelings of abandonment by assuming that if they just make themselves completely subject to the needs of the women in their life that they will be embraced rather than abandoned. As you can imagine, deriving the entirety of your validation from someone else is a disaster basically regardless of the philosophy you subscribe to. 

Beyond that, there are numerous additional details, but there’s nothing in the book which advocates cruelty, which probably puts it ahead of BAM, and if I were to go on from that and rank all four of these vectors on the quality of their answer to “the question” I would put the retreat first, followed by Wild at Heart followed by this book with BAM last of all. But as the first two come with implicit Christian overtones, No More Mr. Nice Guy might end up at the top of the list for a lot of people. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it unreservedly, or blindly. I’d want to know quite a bit about a person’s situation.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

By: Laurence Gonzales

336 pages

Thoughts

As you might have surmised this is another recommendation from the little old lady. Though I guess it must be popular among the 70+ set because I just discovered that both of my parents have read it as well.

This book, rather than being the story of a single instance of survival, collects numerous survival stories, looking for commonalities; for what makes someone good at survival. The book spends a lot of time on Steve Callahan, who I mentioned above (this is the book that declared him to be one of the best survivors). It also includes the incident chronicled in the movie Touching the Void which I talked about previously in this space.

Of course, you’re probably less interested in what stories it includes and more interested in the qualities which are going to keep you alive when the zombie apocalypse comes. If you’ve read the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman then Gonzales’ framework will probably seem familiar. Kahneman talks about things we do more or less instinctually and things we do rationally. Gonzalez has the same basic division, but he further divides the instinctual part of things in two. Giving him three categories:

  1. Built in instinctual behaviors, like trying to grab onto something if you start to fall.
  2. Learned instinctual behaviors, i.e. adrenaline junkies, people with PTSD.
  3. Behaviors you have to think about.

At various times survival requires alternatively ignoring or emphasizing some or all of the above behaviors, depending on the circumstance. You may need to use humor to overcome your instinctive fear of death (category 1). You may need to develop an instinctive love for certain dangerous things (category 2) but not to the point that it overrides your rationality (category 3).

Allow me to illustrate what I mean. First off, it’s interesting to note that some of the best survivors are children under the age of seven. In part because their behaviors are almost entirely from category one. Which means that they sleep when they’re tired, try to get warm when they’re cold, and drink when they’re thirsty. They are also unlikely to use more energy than necessary. Contrast that with the story Gonzalez includes of a volunteer firefighter who got lost while backpacking and nearly died. He had a learned instinct of not wanting to admit when he was lost. As a firefighter he knew it was illegal to light a fire, so he avoided doing so for several days (some from column two some from column three) and he spent lots of time trying to get to the tops of nearby peaks so he could see better. Exhausting himself in the process.

From the preceding it might seem that you mostly want to avoid category two behaviors and even category three, but if soldiers in World War I didn’t learn to instinctively jump for cover when they heard the whistle of an artillery shell than they weren’t going to survive very long. And Steve Callahan only survived by making lots of very rational decisions. As you might imagine surviving requires doing a lot of things right, and some luck on top of that as well.

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned earlier, those aged 70 and over apparently really like this book, probably because they sense the steady encroachment of death, if you also sense the steady encroachment of death (whether because your 70+ or otherwise) then you’ll probably also enjoy it.


If you haven’t guessed that last bit was in part a joke at my parents’ expense. (Hi Mom!) If my blatant lack of filial piety appeals to you consider donating


How Does the Bloodshed Start?

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A couple of posts ago I made something of a snarky aside about violence.

Some of my readers have questioned where I expect the blood to come from; who I expect to take up arms. And it is a subject which deserves a deeper dive, and one where they probably have something of a point. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember how civilized everyone thought things were before World War I…

I was on the verge of putting in another, similar snarky aside in my last post, when talking about violence in the early 70s, but I ignored that urge, not because I don’t like snarky asides, or because the topic isn’t important, but because, as I said, what the subject really needs is a deeper dive. The question of “How does the bloodshed start?” is a complicated one, and not something that can be answered by a few asides here and there. And it’s possible that Pinker and some of my readers are correct and the answer is, “It doesn’t.” In any event, it’s something which definitely deserves a full post. 

This is that post, and any discussion of the potential for future violence has to begin by taking into account past violence. How did it start? How bad did it  get? How did it end? Are there any similarities between it and what we’re going through now?

All of which leads me to the idea of historical cycles, another topic I’ve been dancing around over the last several posts. In fact, in several cases I’ve had long sections about them which I ultimately decided to cut because they didn’t quite fit, but I think it’s finally time to dig into the idea that there might be cycles to history, particularly cycles of violence. And if that’s the case to examine where we are on that cycle. Is our current period of political strife a high point in some identifiable cycle? Or is it something new and different?

As is so often the case, I’ll start with Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex, who spent a few posts recently reviewing Peter Turchin’s theory of secular cycles. In particular I want to focus on his review of Ages of Discord because as part of that review he mentions two previous periods of massive unrest which have largely been forgotten.

The first of these periods was around 1920 and it included bombings by Italian anarchists, racial violence, and the Mine War. To give you a sense of the scale of the unrest, the anarchist bombings culminated with an explosion on Wall Street which killed 38. The racial violence included the Red Summer and the Tulsa Race Riot, two events, which combined to produce 1,300 fatalities and the destruction of entire black neighborhoods. I had heard of some of these things, for example I knew there was a wave of terrorism by anarchists (in particular the assassination of McKinley) and I had some familiarity with the Tulsa Race Riot, but I confess to being entirely unaware of Mine War. From Alexander’s review:

Although it started as a labor dispute, it eventually turned into the largest armed insurrection in US history, other than the Civil War. Between 10,000 and 15,000 miners armed with rifles fought thousands of strike-breakers and sheriff’s deputies, called the Logan Defenders. The insurrection was ended by the US Army. While such violent incidents were exceptional, they took place against a background of a general “class war” that had been intensifying since the violent teens. “In 1919 nearly four million workers (21% of the workforce) took disruptive action in the face of employer reluctance to recognize or bargain with unions” 

The first important point I want to draw your attention to is how unaware most people are of incidents of past unrest, even an extreme example like the Mine War. You might think that this ignorance wouldn’t be as bad with more recent events like those occurring during the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, but Alexander includes a couple of quotes to point out that people are relatively ignorant about these events as well:

People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States. 

— Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

Puerto Rican separatists bombed NYC like 300 times, killed people, shot up Congress, tried to kill POTUS (Truman). Nobody remembers it.

Status 451’s review of Days of Rage

Of course this is not to say that people have entirely forgotten the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s, but it does appear that most people have forgotten just how violent it got. For one thing, I’ve certainly never heard any mainstream pundits bring it up when discussing current violence or future potential violence. 

These incidents are included in Alexander’s review because Turchin is primarily a student (and advocate) of cycles, and in Ages of Discord Turchin makes the claim that these violent periods, with the first around 1920 and the second around 1970, were part of a 50 year cycle of unrest and violence. Which, if true, would mean that one explanation for the “carnage” we’re currently experiencing comes because we’re nearing the next peak in that cycle. Turchin expects this to be a particularly bad peak, so while the idea of a cycle would imply that things will return to normal after the peak, it’s by no means certain that this will happen. In fact, coincidentally (or maybe not?) after I started writing this post I came across the following letter to the editor in The Economist from Paul McVinney in Accokeek, Maryland:

The most compelling explanation for the rise of today’s populism can be found in the sociological study of structural-demographic theory. In the “Ages of Discord”, Peter Turchin described how America is going through a “disintegrative phase”, last seen in the 1860s. In this phase, political fragmentation grows, social democracy declines, elites take greater economic and political power (and seek more positions than the country offers), workers suffer from stagnant wages and inequality, authoritarianism grows, and the state is headed toward fiscal crisis. Mr Turchin’s book fully explains the dynamic factors at work and is supported by much empirical data. You actually described the disintegrative phase without recognising it for what it is. This phase may not be the end of some democracies (or democracy in general), but as Mr Turchin says, there is no guarantee a country will survive it.

Whatever the utility of Turchin’s theory, and whatever it’s specificity as far as time, it doesn’t seem to be very specific on how this unrest will manifest. To be clear, I’m actually a big fan of the idea of historical cycles, and in general I think we should pay more attention to the possibility that something like that is going on, but I don’t think, even if Turchin is on to something, that his theory does much to answer our central question, “How does the bloodshed start?” It may tell us to expect it’s arrival, but it doesn’t do much to pin down what direction it’s arriving from.

The examples from the 20s and the 70s are useful guideposts, even if we end up rejecting the idea of historical cycles, but these examples only get us so far since it’s already clear that the discord we’re currently experiencing is different in many important respects. In both of the past situations you had a lot more violence than we’re currently experiencing but the unrest itself was confined to a much smaller space. You might say the discord was very deep, but not particularly wide, and as I pointed out in my last post, current political unrest appears to be exceptionally wide, but not particularly deep, at least not yet, a fairly large difference.

The other difference which occurs to me might best be understood by referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow imagined that people worked first to satisfy physiological needs like air, food and water before moving on to needs related to safety like shelter, and from there to “higher level” needs like love and belonging or esteem. It appears that throughout history, not merely in the 20s and 70s, that unrest has generally been creeping up this hierarchy. Giving us a difference not only between those periods and our own situation, but between each other

During the unrest of the 1920s, most of the unrest revolved around people who legitimately feared for their lives, or at a minimum were losing access to shelter. For example here’s how Wikipedia describes the Mine War:

Striking miners and their families were prohibited from using company bridges and roads, as well as utilities like running water. Company guards killed several miners over the first few months of the strike, and constructed a machine gun equipped armored train known as the “Bull Moose Special”, which they used to fire upon the tent camps of striking workers.

If we move forward from there to the unrest of the late 60s and early 70s the grievances appear to be higher on that hierarchy. I agree that fear of dying in Vietnam complicates things, but domestic terrorism and Puerto Rican separatism would appear to have very little to do with that, and additionally very little to do with physiological needs or even anything related to safety. Unlike what we saw in the 20s.

This takes us to our own day, and I fear I’ll get into trouble if I spend too much time talking about the relative merits of the injustices underlying whatever current unrest exists, but I will venture to say that by any objective criteria it would fall even higher on the hierarchy than the injustices of the 70s. And much much higher than the injustices of the 1920s

I began by saying that we needed to take into account past violence, and thus far you could be forgiven if you thought my survey of past violence has been overly narrow, but I wanted to focus on more modern violence because that’s the form any violence which might erupt in the near future is likely to take. Also, I don’t think anyone questions that there was a lot of violence historically, but they do seem to forget how recent and extreme some of that historical violence was. Both of which speak to the question of how new bloodshed might start.

With all of the above out of the way I think it’s time to make a list of four possibilities for how things could go in the future:

1- There are cycles of unrest and violence and currently we’re nearing the peak of one of those cycles. However, since it’s cyclical, while there will be problems, they’ll go away (similar to the 60s/70s) and “politics” will go back to “normal”.

2- There are cycles and this one will be a doozy. So much so that things will never completely return to “normal”, and the country might not even survive. (See the letter to the editor above.)

3- There aren’t cycles, but neither is bloody political unrest a thing of the past, and sooner or later we’ll have something similar to the 70s or the 20s or heaven forbid the 1860s, it’s just a matter of time.

4- We have, for the first time in history, passed beyond violence and bloodshed. And either politics and disagreement will never get so acrimonious that people feel the need to resort to violence and bloodshed or somehow everyone has (off the record) mutually forsworn mass violence in pursuit of political ends.

Going forward we’ll spend the most time on possibility four, since that’s the basis of the original question, but the other three are interesting from the standpoint of mitigation.

Starting with possibilities one and two the answer to the question of how the bloodshed starts is the same, it starts because civilizations, in particular the United States, go through relatively predictable cycles and we are nearing the point in the cycle of peak unrest. From a mitigation standpoint the fact that unrest is cyclical is good news. Any trend is easier to deflect if you can see it coming, and if this is truly part of a cycle one might hope that we can use that knowledge and the various elements people like Turchin have identified to lessen the impact of the cycle’s peak. 

This question of mitigation is also why I separated possibilities one and two because while the cause is, in theory, the same, the outcomes are vastly different. One might be considered “tolerable” for the majority of people, while I don’t think the same can be said of possibility two. If we think the country may legitimately end we might be willing to make bigger sacrifices to prevent that, than if we assume the unrest will only be temporary. If the past is any guide you can imagine people adopting the idea that things are cyclical, and then using that as an excuse to not do anything because it will “go away on its own”. I have no strong opinion on which possibility is more likely, but I would like to discourage the idea that we can “wait it out”.  And people will be less inclined to do that if they accept the possibility that the US might not survive this latest round of unrest.

In any case, the point of this post is not to get into whether Turchin’s theory is correct. (If you’re interested in that discussion I would direct you to Alexander’s review of Ages of Discord, which I already mentioned, along with his previous review of Turchin’s book Secular Cycles.) The point is to answer the question “How does the bloodshed start?” And if you think Turchin’s ideas are plausible, then we have our answer. However, I suspect people who are inclined to believe that large scale political violence is a thing of the past are even more inclined to dismiss Turchin’s theories, which is one of the reasons why spending any more time on them is of limited utility, but let me end with this quote from Steve Sailer about Turchin (which Turchin himself approved of.)

I think Turchin doesn’t get much attention because his books are too reasonable to be easily debunked and too enormously detailed to be easily digested and too ambitious to be easily trusted.

Moving on from Turchin and his cycles we have the third possibility. There has always been large scale political violence and there always will be. And anyone arguing otherwise is mistaken, or at the very least should be forced to bear the burden of proof. As the default position, this still seems to be the safest bet and beyond that, I’m not sure what else needs to be added. The advantage Turchin has is that he has all manner of theories for how it happens, and consequently, many recommendations for what should be done. If, on the other hand you’re in the “bloodshed happens” camp, then we probably still have a lot of theories, they’re just less likely to be of any value, particularly when it comes to specific mitigation strategies.

If specific mitigation strategies are unavailable that just leaves general mitigation strategies. And one of the things I want people to take away from this post is that we seem to be undermining these general mitigation strategies right as we need them the most. When mitigation might mean the difference between a temporary state of unrest and the permanent dissolution of the nation. 

Of course it could be that this is precisely why unrest is increasing, that the lack of compromise and civility are both the symptoms and the cause of the unfolding crisis. That people have actually started viewing policies and customs which serve this mitigating function as obstacles. It’s also possible that it’s all part of the cycle I already mentioned. But, regardless, as I said just barely and in previous posts. If people were aware that violence on the order of what happened in the 20s and 70s is still on the table, perhaps they would be more willing to both compromise and exercise civility. That’s my hope at least, but perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m worried about nothing. Perhaps violence isn’t on the table, that I don’t need to be worried about “How the bloodshed will start?” because it won’t. That there is either some upper limit on the kinds of emotions that could lead to violence or some limit on violence itself. Which takes us to possibility number four.

Let’s start off by covering the first half of this possibility, the possibility that there is some upper limit currently on the kinds of emotions which might lead to violence. That externally the government and technology, etc. are no more capable of stopping violence than they were during any previous period, but that people just don’t experience hate and anger to the same level they once did, and therefore would never get worked up enough to be violent. Based on the level of vitriol you see in an average day on twitter this would appear to be false on its face. Perhaps it was true at some point, that there was some historical era of good feelings, but the trend has been moving away from that for a long time, and I don’t think it’s true any longer. At a minimum I would argue that the burden of proof for this claim would be entirely on the other side, with those arguing that there is currently some cap on anger and hate.

After exhausting the other options, all that’s left is the possibility that the modern world has managed to eliminate violence and unrest in some systematic way. And the best candidate for this system would be Hobbes’ Leviathan, or as you and I refer to it, the state. I am not the only one to point out this possibility. As I mentioned in my review of his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker also believes that the modern decrease in violence has a lot to do with the modern increase in the power of the state. As I pointed out in my review, even if this is the case, are we sure that trading political bloodshed for an oppressive government is a trade we’re willing to make? In other words, yes, it’s possible that there will be no bloodshed because one side ends up being able to use the power of the state to completely quash dissent, but is that preferable? Is that somehow success?

I’d be willing to bet that not everyone or even a majority is willing to make that trade. And even if they were it’s still not clear it works over the long haul. Most people, whatever their other feelings about China would have used it as an example of a nation which decided to make this trade, and yet just recently there’s been 16 weeks of protests in Hong Kong, and apparently it’s only getting more violent.

If it is undesirable or unworkable to have the Leviathan eliminate violence, Pinker and his ideological brothers assert that the modern world eliminates violence in other ways as well. In particular conditions in the modern world are so great that there’s really nothing to be violent about. Insofar as this is similar to saying that there will be nothing to be angry about, this is another assertion that would appear to be false on its face. But on top of that, the violence of the 70s does not appear to be that much different than the violence of the 20s, and yet living conditions were dramatically better during the former period than the latter. It has always struck me (and I go into more detail in my review of his book) that the level of violence and the level of material comfort are not as closely correlated as Pinker would have us believe.

All of these issues aside, in the end I always come back to this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world[s] I see no remedy but force.

Whatever else you may say about the modern world it seems obvious that there is no universally agreed upon vision of the future, or of what constitutes morality for that matter. That we have at least two groups and probably a lot more who want to “make inconsistent kinds of worlds” and that their commitment to their particular world is only growing more intense with each passing year, if not each passing day. How do you resolve an otherwise unresolvable conflict? I am aware that to a certain extent this is why we have laws, but when you observe how acrimonious supreme court nominations have become, how confident are you that our laws will continue to serve in that capacity? Recall that Holmes himself was a justice of the Supreme Court, and even he thought the law was inadequate. Or to put it another way, how confident are you that if Ginsburg dies while Trump is still in office (and recall he could be re-elected) that the Democrats will calmly say, “Well Ginsburg died, I guess you get to nominate another justice. We’ll just try to do better in the next election”? 

Yes, it’s true that as of yet, thank goodness, we haven’t had any significant violence, but I am not convinced that this is because there’s something special and different about the modern world. In closing, I want to emphasize that last point one more time. We have multiple ideologies all on a collision course with each other, and at some point that collision is going to happen. And unless we’re very, very fortunate, when that collision inevitably happens, that’s when the bloodshed starts.


I’ve definitely fascinated by Turchin’s theories on cycles, though I have my doubts that it could be so neat and tidy. (I understand that may be the wrong phrase for periodic violence.)  But you know one cycle you can count on? That at the end of every post I’ll make some appeal, of dubious cleverness, for donations.