Author: <span>Jeremiah</span>

Eschatological Frameworks

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

Or download the MP3

I just finished reading the book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. It’s an explicitly Christian book, and it sets out to discuss eight different modern belief systems—things like individualism, scientific naturalism, or consumerism—and then to demonstrate why these other worldviews are inferior to Christianity. I’ll have a review of it in my monthly round-up, but I found the structure to be very interesting: this idea of explicitly breaking down the different ways one might see the world. It gave me the idea of explicitly breaking down and examining the different ways people have come up with for envisioning the future, of exploring the various eschatological frameworks, some religious, but most of them secular.

As I mentioned in my very first post (which, coincidently, went up almost exactly six years ago) the future can really go in only one of two ways. We could achieve some sort of technological singularity, a development so radical that the world is unrecognizable. This term is most commonly used with AI, but there are other possibilities, for example the internet was a soft singularity. Alternatively, modern civilization could take a sharp downward turn into collapse and catastrophe. There is no middle ground. The world of 2122, or 2100, or even 2060  is going to be very, very different from the world of 2022. I am not the only one making this claim. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWall, has said that this is the most important century ever for humanity. Ian Morris, professor of Classics and author of such books as, War! What is it Good For? (see my discussion here) goes even further and says the same thing but claims it will all be taking place within the next 40 years

To be fair, basically everyone thinks the world of 2060 will be different than the world of 2020, the question is how different? Will it be surprisingly similar to today, just better? Or will it be unrecognizable? If so, will it be unrecognizable in a good way or in a bad way? Will it be an undreamt of utopia or a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’m not sure, I have made some predictions, but revisiting those is not the point of this post. No, in this post I want to look at various frameworks people might use to make such predictions, examine the fundamental embedded assumptions within those frameworks and, most of all, discuss where each framework thinks salvation, or potential destruction, lies. Let’s start with the framework where the least is expected to happen:

Pinkerism/Neoliberalism/Fukuyama’s End of History  

Embedded assumptions: All of the statistics show that things are going great. Poverty is down and living standards are up. Everyone has more rights. Violence has dropped across the board, including that most important category: war, which hasn’t happened between Great Powers for 75 years. Beyond that, as long as we don’t sabotage ourselves, progress and technology will take care of problems like climate change and political discord as well.

What is the source of our salvation: We basically already are saved; people just don’t realize it because the process has been so gradual. But by any objective measure, the violence and want of the past have been left behind.

When Fukuyama declared an end to history in his book of the same name, he was making an eschatological claim. If you’re just going off the title, he appears to be declaring that we have already and permanently been saved. If his critics bothered to read the book they would discover that he is far more nuanced about how permanent things actually are. What he’s more arguing is that we have discovered all the tools necessary for salvation. Tools like science, market economies, free flow of migrants, etc. And there don’t appear to be any better tools out there. This is the end he’s talking about.

Steven Pinker goes even farther and claims in his book Enlightenment Now, that not only do we have the tools for salvation, but that they’re working great. We just need to keep using them, and not toss them away because they’re not working fast enough. That to the extent we have a problem it’s that we don’t have enough faith in these tools, and the minute they don’t work perfectly we immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t work at all. 

Of course, speaking of faith, Pinker has been accused of having too much faith that these tools will continue to work in the future, despite whatever new problems arise. This is why this framework ends up with the least dramatic view of the future, because it asserts that even if something changes, and we have to transition to a new reality, that our current tools are more than capable of smoothing that transition. There will be no hard takeoff due to AI, nor a global catastrophe due to climate change. The scientific method and progress more broadly has everything necessary for success and salvation, we just need to not abandon them.


Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This allows us to change what it means to be human, making them better or develop powerful artificial intelligence, or other amazing things we can scarcely imagine.

What is the source of our salvation: Technology is going to allow us to get rid of all the bad parts of humanity, things like death, scarcity, and stupidity, but also violence and want. Once we’ve gotten rid of all of those things, and added lots of cool things besides, we will have essentially achieved a secular version of heaven.

Once again this framework is based on the tools of technology and progress, only in this case it’s focused not on the tools we already have, but on the tools that are being worked on. It is, of course, always possible that these tools won’t be able to do everything transhumanists imagine. As an example, some people still think that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will prove to be far more difficult to create than people imagine, but to be fair these people are rarely transhumanists. Rather transhumanists are those who believe that such developments are right around the corner. 

Robin Hanson, who doesn’t consider himself to be a transhumanist, and who also believes that AGI will be difficult to create, nevertheless wrote an entire book (see my discussion here) on uploading our brains to computers called The Age of Em. (Em is short for emulated person.) I bring this up both to demonstrate some of the debates within this ideology, but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of transhumanism’s eschatological bent. It combines immortality, a postmortal utopia, and a single salvific event. Hanson doesn’t imagine a day of judgment, the Age of Em will actually last two years in his opinion (the book is remarkably specific in its predictions) but during that time Em’s will experience a thousand years of subjective time. My religious readers may see a parallel between this and the concept of millennialism.

A few people, like our old friends the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), who have not made an appearance in this space for a long time, but who have been on my mind a lot recently, explicitly link religion and transhumanism. Similar to Pinker they believe that technology has reduced violence and want, but they go beyond that to imagine that it will completely eliminate it, and allow resurrection and eternal life as well—that most of the things promised by Christianity (and specifically the Mormon version of it) will be brought to pass by technology.

Despite the foregoing, I don’t want to play up the religious angle of transhumanism too much, but it does rely on two kinds of faith. Faith that the miraculous technology envisioned will actually materialize, and faith that when it does it will be a good thing. For a group that doesn’t have that second form of faith we turn to a discussion of:

Existential Risk

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This acceleration will shortly outstrip our ability to manage the risks that inevitably accompany new technology. Not only will we be unable to keep ahead of the risks, but the more technology advances the bigger the risks get.

What is the source of our destruction: While the possibility exists that we might be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid. It’s far more likely we will be destroyed by the tools we’ve created, whether it be nukes, or bioweapons, or an aggressive AI. 

As you might be able to tell there is broad overlap between transhumanists and people who worry about existential risk. You might say that the former are technological optimists while the latter are technological pessimists. From my limited perspective, I think most of these people have been drifting towards the pessimistic side of things.

For an illustration of why people are pessimistic, and this eschatological framework in general, it’s best to turn to an analogy from Nick Bostrom, which has appeared a couple of times in this space:

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

Bostrom puts forward this analogy as a way of describing the potential benefits and harms of new technologies. Many, perhaps most will be beneficial, but some will be harmful, and it’s possible that one will end up causing the end of humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably impossible to stop the development of new technology, to stop drawing balls from the urn, but we can try and imagine what sorts of technology might be dangerous and take steps to mitigate it in advance.

For most people in this space the thing they worry about the most is AI Risk. The idea that we will develop AGI but be unable to control it. That we will create gods and they will turn out to be malevolent.

Speaking of God…

Christian Eschatology

Embedded assumptions: Christian eschatology comes in lots of flavors, but at the moment the discussion is dominated by the aforementioned millennialism, which assumes that things like the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are right around the corner. 

What is the source of our salvation: God. 

It might seem strange to discuss Christian eschatology alongside things like transhumanism and neoliberalism. On the other hand, as it’s the OG eschatology, it would seem strange not to discuss it.

As the original eschatology, Christian beliefs and language are woven all through this discussion. This is what allows me to discuss Robin Hanson’s version of “heaven”. This is what enables the MTA to imagine that technology will be the means of bringing about the end of the world, but in a good way. This cross-pollination has also gone the other way.

To be a modern eschatological framework, you have to have something to say about progress and technology. For many, perhaps even most Christians the modern world is evidence that the end must be close, that we are essentially building the Tower of Babel. (As you might imagine the MTA disagrees with this.) In this sense Christians are somewhat related to the people who worry about existential risk, though in this case they have faith that while things are going to get bad, that eventually Jesus will return and everything will turn out okay. As I’ve said before, when considering the alternatives, I think this view has a lot to recommend it.

New Age Spiritualism

Embedded assumptions: That the world has passed into a new, more enlightened era. As a consequence, we have left behind much of the evil and selfishness that used to afflict humanity, and we are on our way to embracing universal acceptance, tolerance and love.

What is the source of our salvation: An underlying spirit of progress, paired with a greater awareness of the higher morality brought about by this spirit of progress. 

It is my impression that almost no one uses the term “New Age” any more, so if you have a better term for this framework let me know. However, if you followed the link in the section heading you’ll see that “New Age” beliefs are still very common, as such it seemed worth including.

Whatever you want to call it and whatever its current influence, this framework is far less “in your face” than preceding ones. In part this is because its adherents generally feel that it’s going to be eventually successful regardless of how people act. That love, tolerance, and kindness will eventually triumph. That the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice”.

That said, there does appear to be a lot of frustration—by people who have a vision of what progress entails and where we’re headed—with those who don’t share their vision. It might be too much to declare that “woke ideology” overlaps with modern New Age eschatology, but it does seem to borrow a lot of the same principles, albeit with a more militant twist. But both imagine that we’re progressing towards a utopia of tolerance and kindness, and that some people are dragging their feet. 

I confess that this is the framework I understand the least, but it does seem like the foundation of much that is happening currently. And overall it translates into an eschatology that doesn’t revolve around technology, but around human attitudes and behavior.

Catabolic Collapse

Embedded assumptions: That civilization is reaching the point of diminishing productivity, growth and innovation. As a consequence of this we can’t build new things, and shortly we won’t even be able to maintain what we already have. 

What is the source of our destruction: A slow cannibalism of existing infrastructure, government programs, and social capital. 

Here we have come full circle. This is yet another slow moving eschatology, similar to Pinkerism, but in this case we’re not already saved, we’re already damned. This particular eschatological framework was first suggested by John Michael Greer, who got his start as part of the peak oil movement and has gradually shifted to commenting on late capitalism from kind of an ecosocialist perspective. Which is to say he’s very concerned about the environment and he talks a lot about the discontent of the average blue collar worker.

As a formal framework, it’s pretty obscure, but as a generalized sense of where the country is, with gas at $5/gallon, inflation, all the after effects of the pandemic, and a divided country. I think there are a lot of people who believe this is what’s happening even if they don’t have a name for it. 

The point, as I have mentioned before, is that the apocalypse will not be as cool or as deadly as you hope. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation and it’s going to take a long time for that ruin to manifest. Even if there’s a huge worldwide pandemic, even if there’s a nuclear war. Humans are tenacious. But absent divine intervention I don’t think permanent salvation is in the cards. And I think destruction is going to end up being long and painful. 


In 1939, Charles Kettering, a truly amazing inventor (He held 186 patents!), said:

I am not disturbed about the future. I think it is going to be a wonderful place. I don’t like people to talk about how bad it is going to be, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in the future.

You may have heard the shortened version, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” But what form should that concern take? And will it be a “wonderful place”? These are incredibly important questions, and it is my hope that by going through the various frameworks I’ve helped you develop some answers. 

As to my own answers to these questions, first we should note that the years immediately following Kettering’s pronouncement ended up being anything but wonderful. Instead war broke out on a scale never before seen and never since equaled. And yet I strongly suspect that Ian Morris is right, that the next forty years will be more impactful than the forty years leading up to the end of World War II. Even though those years contained World War I. And more impactful than the 40 years which started at the beginning of World War II, even though we landed on the Moon.

Because of this I think we should have an enormous amount of concern for the future because there’s a significant chance that it won’t be a wonderful place. We’ve never before been in a situation where things are changing so fast on so many fronts. And the faster things change the harder it is for us to adapt and the less likely a “wonderful” future becomes. 

I certainly hope that Pinker’s right, and we have been saved, or we will soon be saved. And certainly that idea deserves a seat at the table, but as you can see there are several other ideologies also seated at the eschatological table. Some are scary, some are interesting, but they’re all dramatic. Which is to say hang on, the next few decades are going to be bumpy.

I considered putting in Marxism as a framework, but is that really still a going concern? If it is let me know. The best way to do that is to send me money, which is both a great idea anyway, but also, if I’m not mistaken, ideologically appropriate. 

Nassar, Uvalde, and the Decline of Responsibility

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

Or download the MP3

As part of my summer of experimentation (really just the summer when I’m super busy) I thought I’d try a more meditative post. Which is to say a post where I’m thinking out loud and I’m not exactly sure where things are going to end up. 

Even more than three weeks out it’s hard to not still be thinking of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And similar to what I said in my recent newsletter where I mentioned abortion. I don’t think I have any particular insight into what we should be doing that we’re not. Fortunately or unfortunately—I’m not exactly sure which—it appears that the debate over solutions for these sorts of shootings has been eclipsed by horror at how long the police took to storm the room. And each time we receive additional details, the behavior of the police, or at least the commander on the scene, just looks worse and worse. 

Of course this horror also comes down to a list of recommendations for what we should do differently in the future. Though in this case all of the experts had already recommended something, and it was even a recommendation that “both sides” agreed to. The police just failed to follow through on that recommendation.

Ever since Columbine the recommendation/doctrine has been for police to engage quickly, even at the risk of their own lives. This did not happen at Uvalde, and it’s clear that there were children and at least one teacher who died from their wounds who would have lived if they had gotten prompt medical attention. The teacher died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and three kids died after arriving at the hospital. In trauma care there’s the concept of the golden hour, that your chances of saving someone’s life are significantly higher if you can get them care within 60 minutes of the trauma occurring. This is particularly true for blood loss. I’m sure you see the connection given that the golden hour was also the same hour the police spent waiting outside the room. Once you take this into account, I’m guessing that four preventable deaths is the bare minimum, that it could have easily been two or three times that number. 

As shocked as I am by this unforgivable delay, it was another story that really inspired me to write this post. This is also a story of law enforcement behaving exactly the opposite from how we would expect, and while arguably the damage was not as great, the officials in this story had far longer to consider their actions. I came across the story in the June 10th daily news roundup put out by The Dispatch

In 2015, the FBI received reports that Larry Nassar was sexually abusing gymnasts in his role as team physician for USA Gymnastics and elsewhere. Instead of sharing this information with local law enforcement, FBI agents delayed victim interviews, fabricated witness statements, and later lied to investigators—one even tried to get a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee during his investigation, according to an inspector general report.

Between the 2015 reports and Nassar’s arrest more than a year later, he abused at least 70 girls and women, the inspector general investigation concluded. “People at the FBI had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last year. “I’m deeply and profoundly sorry.”

But the Department of Justice has declined three times to pursue charges against agents involved in bungling the investigation, noting the third time that its decision did not “in any way reflect a view that the investigation of Nassar was handled as it should have been.”

Both of these stories make me sick to my stomach, and similar to the story of Uvalde, the Nassar story also has the quality that the more you know the worse it looks. This is the opposite of most stories, where the deeper you dig the more sympathy you develop for both sides. Here, the more I dig the less defensible the actions of the Uvalde police and the FBI agents appear.

I’ve uncovered many disturbing details in both stories—for example, while the lawsuit by the gymnasts focuses on the period starting in 2015, there’s evidence that Nassar started abusing Gymnasts as early as 1994! But amidst all these details, the bit that jumped out at me about both stories and the commonality I wanted to discuss in this post is both the lack of responsibility—No one is saying “I screwed up” emphasis on the “I”—and the lack of consequences.

What consequences should there be? Well, with Uvalde, I prefer to let the various investigations conclude before making any definitive statements. And it’s certainly too early to say that consequences have been lacking, though I strongly suspect that that will be how it ends up. However it’s not too early to talk about the Nassar situation.  I dug pretty deep and the only consequence I could uncover was that one FBI agent, Michael Langeman, had been fired over things, but not until September of 2021! The other agent who had been involved in things and who was, in fact, more senior, W. Jay Abbott, retired in 2018 (at 57, we should all be so lucky) and is apparently doing great on his government pension

Of course if I’m going to claim that all of the foregoing was bad, I should be prepared to put forth some alternatives, some suggestions for how things should have gone instead. And yes, I do have some ideas, but as I mentioned at the beginning I’m still thinking through this problem, I’m not ready to make any concrete recommendations. But let’s start the process by considering two things:

First, how is it that someone can say something dumb on social media and the whole world will rush to condemn them—for example, as I write this everyone is piling on James Patterson because he said that white men struggling to find writing jobs is “just another form of racism”—but do something awful like stand by as kids bleed out, or ignore a serial sexual predator, and you can largely remain entirely anonymous and continue with your life as if nothing happened. I’m sure that, from here on out, anytime someone talks about Patterson this assertion will get mentioned, up to and including his obituary, while the police officers and FBI agents will soon be forgotten.

I’m not advocating that everyone involved with Nassar and Uvalde should be tried and condemned on social media. In fact I’m reasonably certain that no one should be tried on social media. No, I’m more pointing out the strangeness of our priorities. To provide a different example consider the story of Justine Sacco. Sacco made an unfortunate joke about AIDS on Twitter just before boarding a flight to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” I’m sure most of my readers have heard this story and that many of you had heard the name, Justine Sacco, how many of you were familiar with the details of the FBI agents incompetence with Nassar? How many of you had heard the names of those agents? I assume far more of you are in the former camp than the latter.

Sacco’s life was ruined by that tweet. She was subjected to brutal online harassment, she lost her job, and for years afterwards she was unemployable. It was so bad that books have been written about it.  Hopefully it’s gotten better, but compare that to W. Jay Abbott, who’s comfortably retired, and even Michael Langeman kept his job for six years before finally being fired for his gross dereliction of duty. The disparity between these two crimes, (if Sacco’s tweet even rises to that level) and their punishments is so egregious that one feels they’re looking at two different realities, or perhaps reading two different novels, written by different authors and in completely different genres. 

To be fair, disparities in punishments were very common historically, but they generally involved wealth and class. The Uvalde police, and the FBI agents—despite Abbot’s comfortable retirement—are not wealthy, so then what class do they belong to that makes them largely immune from consequences?

I’ll get to that in a bit, but before I do, discussing the historical norms takes me to the second point I wanted to examine: How were these sorts of disasters handled in the past?

I have strong feelings about how they should be handled. I think the people in question should accept responsibility, admit that they failed, and resign. In addition to my strong feelings I also have a strong impression that this is how it used to work, but I haven’t been able to find a lot of hard data to back me up. (Perhaps because I’m not entirely clear what sort of data set would cover those events.) Despite this, my sense is that it used to be far more common, when something like Uvalde or Nassar happened, for people to resign, sometimes in disgrace but more often out of a sense of duty. In the latter case the idea was that preventing just this sort of event was so fundamental to their job that the fact that it happened meant that they were clearly unqualified to continue performing that job, and as such they resigned. Here, after spending a lot of time talking about consequences, we return to the question of responsibility. Resigning was an assumption of responsibility. Resigning didn’t mean that you were 100% responsible. As frustrating as the actions of the Uvalde police were, and as incompetent and craven as the FBI agents were, the shooter and Nassar still bear the vast majority of the responsibility. But surely there is some small percentage that should be assumed by law enforcement in these cases, given what we now know.

So then the question is, why don’t we do that anymore? Or if I’m wrong and such resignations never happened, even in the past (which I doubt, though perhaps I have an exaggerated impression of how common they were) we still have to answer the question: why couldn’t it happen now? Why doesn’t Pete Arredondo, (Are-re-don-doe) the commander on the scene at Uvalde resign? (Instead he was quietly sworn in to a position on the City Council.) Why didn’t anyone in the FBI resign? And to be clear, I’m not saying that if they did that it would make it all better. It might be appropriate for there to be additional consequences, but accepting responsibility and resigning would be a very good start.

But it doesn’t happen, and once again we’re reminded of the disproportionate nature of things. Currently, it seems comparatively easy to get people to resign over an ill chosen statement, but somehow it’s inconceivable that someone might resign because they have completely failed at their job. But job failure would seem to be precisely the kind of thing where resignation from that same job would be appropriate. So why doesn’t it happen? And does it give us any insight into the larger problem of law enforcement failure? As you might imagine I have some theories, so let’s go through them:

One obvious factor has to be legal liability. If you admit to any percentage of the overall responsibility then presumably that’s the percent of the damages you’re liable for. If the gymnasts suffered, collectively, $1 billion dollars in harm (which is actually what they’re seeking from the FBI) and by resigning you essentially admit to 1% of the responsibility, then that’s $10 million dollars. And it’s certainly possible that this is the whole of the explanation, that as claims for damages have increased both in frequency and amount that there is a vast disincentive towards anything that might appear to be an admission of guilt. Perhaps that’s all it is, and I should just end here. But I think there’s more going on, and it’s possible that increased litigiousness isn’t the disease, it’s just one more symptom of something deeper.

Obviously one of the great achievements of western democracy has been the concept and gradual solidification of “rule of law”. But of course as I just mentioned, it’s possible that we have gone too far, that we rely too much on defining what exactly is lawful and what exactly isn’t, which often involves lawsuits. One place where this over-reliance is most pronounced, to the point of it being a cliche, is within government bureaucracies, which is precisely where law enforcement sits. Now, you may argue that in both of the examples, the people in question weren’t following the law, but I don’t think that’s the case. The failure in Uvalde didn’t involve rule breaking, they ignored a guideline, but they were scrupulous about following rules, particularly the rule about obeying the chain of command. No officer decided to disobey Arredondo and go in regardless, and officers were equally rigorous about keeping parents away from the school. As far as the FBI situation, given the fact that the FBI has three times refused to prosecute the agents, presumably they didn’t break any obvious laws either, as far as rules, that seems less clear, but my guess is that the agents in question were exquisitely aware of where the law actually drew the line and they were very careful to never cross it. 

This all takes us back to a discussion of responsibility, and I think both of the foregoing points can be traced back to a decline in personal responsibility. And I know that the minute someone complains about something like this they get put in the “grumpy old man” category (which is indeed precisely what I am) but clearly this post has given two examples that are clear demonstrations of a deficit of personal responsibility, the question is whether this deficit is broader than that—if it’s something that’s endemic. I would claim that it is, though I don’t have the time to back up that claim. So, I’m kind of just tossing it out there, but before you dismiss it ask yourselves what incentives are currently in place to encourage responsibility? And what about the opposite, what incentives are there that have the effect of discouraging the acceptance of responsibility? I’ve already provided two examples in the latter category: litigiousness and bureaucracies.

To wrap things up I have two more thoughts, each of which is even more speculative, but despite that (or more likely because of it) I find them to be the most interesting of the factors I’ve discussed.

I have commented before about the current overemphasis on safety, nor am I the first to do so. It certainly was and continues to be a huge factor in our response to COVID, but was it also a factor in the two examples we’ve been discussing? I’m not sure it played a factor in the investigation (or lack thereof) of Nassar, though I could certainly imagine that one of the reasons the agents didn’t try very hard is that they were getting pushback from “entrenched interests” as they’re euphemistically known. And they tried to “play it safe”. This would go a long way to explaining Abbott’s attempt to secure a job with the Olympics. On the other hand, safetyism seems to have clearly played a role in Uvalde. Officer safety was the main reason given for the delay, and while I don’t want to discount that, I am once again of the strong opinion that it would not have been such a large concern had this happened in the past. I am convinced that there was a time, not that long ago, when there would have been officers who would have rather died trying to save those children, then lived with the guilt of standing outside the door for an hour while those children bled to death. Perhaps they still exist and were there, but decided to defer to Arredondo or other officers. If so I have a lot of sympathy for them, I can only imagine what sort of guilt they may be experiencing now.

Finally, there’s the closely related idea of heroes. There were no heroes in either of these stories, nor can I remember that last time someone doing something truly heroic ended up being big news. I assume that this dearth is related to a lot of things I’ve already discussed, but I wonder if it’s also related to the attention one receives for being heroic. There’s a theory that school shootings are all about the notoriety given to the shooter. That’s the reason troubled people commit these horrible acts, it will make them important even if it’s posthumously. Does that work the other way as well? Probably. I assume that someone might decide to do something heroic in a similar bid to feel important. So why did it not happen in my two examples? Why didn’t someone from the FBI, or heck why didn’t someone in all the time since 1994 stand up and make sure Nassar was arrested? And why, out of all the cops on the scene in Uvalde, didn’t one or a dozen step up and decide that they couldn’t wait any longer.

One would think that we would want the world to be set up in such a way that we encourage heroism. But clearly that’s not the case. I think all the things I’ve mentioned thus far serve to dissuade heroes, the chance of a lawsuit, the bureaucratic nature of the world, etc. And it’s possible that it’s even worse, that we have somehow twisted things so that the modern world is excellent at creating villains and awful at creating heroes. It’s easy to imagine this happening as a side effect of social media. If you’re interested in being infamous, then that’s easy to accomplish through social media, but being heroic on social media is a lot harder. If nothing else you have invited people to examine the rest of your life, and somewhere during all the time you spent not being a hero will be something people find objectionable, and you’ll go from being a hero to an object of scorn and ridicule at least for half the country. Beyond all the other things I’ve mentioned this system has to create a powerful disincentive for the average person who stumbles into a chance to be heroic.

I started this post, and the discussion of Nassar and Uvalde with the vague idea that there needed to be more consequences for members of law enforcement who dramatically failed in their duty, But is it possible the problem is the inverse of that? That the problem is not that villains don’t get punished, but rather that heroes don’t get rewarded.

From my perspective this is another late post. I don’t know if you’re keeping track or if you even care. But I do really try to get out four pieces a month. If you appreciate the guilt I feel when I’m not publishing as often as I think I should, or even if you’re just amused by it, consider donating

The 9 Books I Finished in May

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

Or download the MP3

  1. The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society by: Azeem Azhar
  2. Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by: Leonard Sax
  3. The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by: Sohrab Ahmari
  4. The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era by: Liu Mingfu 
  5. Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left by: Ben Burgis
  6. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 
  7. Paper Heroes by: Steven Heumann
  8. Critical Mass (Expeditionary Force, #10) by: Craig Alanson
  9. Brushfire (Expeditionary Force, #11) by: Craig Alanson

Our house went under contract in mid-May. As I mentioned in previous posts, it was a devil of a time getting it ready, but once we listed it everything else went off without a hitch. We had an offer within four days, and then all the subsequent inspections, along with the appraisal and financing went off smoothly as well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for finding a new house. Which is not to say that things have been disastrous, merely that we are still looking. The rise in interest rates have slowed down the buying frenzy, so there’s actually a reasonable amount of inventory which has been nice. But looking at this inventory has been time consuming. By my count we’ve seen 50 houses so far, and I’m hoping that we’re getting close, but as of the end of May we had not made an offer on anything. 

Unsurprisingly there is something along the lines of a project triangle present in the whole affair. The project triangle can be summed up as “Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.” Only in the case of houses it’s: “Big, close, affordable. Choose two.” I’ll keep you posted. I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seats.

I- Eschatological Reviews

The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society 

By: Azeem Azhar

Published: 2021

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle of the book pretty much covers it, though in the UK it has a different title: Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It

Which is probably even closer.

What’s the author’s angle?

Azhar has a whole “exponential” empire with a website, newsletter and podcast, so it was only a matter of time before he added a book to that.

Who should read this book?

People hoping to understand the accelerating pace of technological change outside of just the internet. This includes computing and artificial intelligence, renewable electricity and energy storage, along with biology and manufacturing.

General Thoughts

In the intro Azhar claims that there are two main problems with our “conversation about technology”. The first problem is the idea that technology is neutral, that by itself it’s neither good or evil it just is. That it exists “independent of humanity” in a fashion similar to gold—it’s already out there, we’re just digging it up. Or if there are aliens out there that they would end up with identical technology, despite, presumably, the vast differences which otherwise exist between us and them. 

Azhar rejects this idea, though his examples are not especially earth shattering:

…that means our technologies often recreate the systems of power that exist in the rest of society. Our phones are designed to fit in men’s hands rather than women’s. Many medicines are less effective on Black and Asian people, because the pharmaceutical industry often develops its treatments for white customers. When we build technology, we might make these systems of power more durable – by encoding them into infrastructure that is more inscrutable and less accountable than humans are

I also reject the idea that technology is neutral, but my primary example would be the phenomena of supernormal stimuli. This is the idea that historically it was difficult to get too much of some things—things which were beneficial in small amounts—and as such we have no built in protection against excessive consumption, because it’s not something that ever came up historically. In theory if technology was neutral it could just as easily be used to protect us against excessive consumption, as it could be to encourage such consumption, but as it turns out it’s far easier and more lucrative to do the latter. We see this play out in areas as diverse as junk food and Facebook algorithms, both of which are basically evil. Not EVIL, but certainly not neutral. 

The second problem Azhar points out is that most people make no effort to understand technology. Here he is mostly talking about politicians, but the point could also be expanded to the rest of us. 

Again, I would take issue with Azhar’s claim. Certainly some people make no effort to understand technology, but even for those that do make an effort the task is essentially impossible. To begin with there’s far too much technology for anyone to completely grasp all of it. And beyond that it’s changing so fast that even if one were to “get up to speed” on some aspect of it, by the time you have, it’s changed enough that the “speed” you’re at is no longer the speed it’s going. Even if you somehow avoid this strange version of Zeno’s Paradox there are still dozens of other areas you have fallen behind on while your focus was elsewhere.

Taken together, I think Azhar’s book is interesting, and enlightening. He definitely provides a lot of information about a real problem. I just don’t think he goes far enough in grappling with future disruption.

Eschatological Implications

I have my issues with how Azhar presents the problem and his proposals for dealing with it, and we use different terminology, but at the core we’re both talking about secular eschatology. We are accelerating towards a future we’re entirely unprepared for. 

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men 

By: Leonard Sax

Published: Originally 2007, Revised 2016

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are problems unique to adolescent boys and young men that have been brought on by the modern world and other forms of supposed “progress”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sax is a psychologist, physician and speaker. One presumes that advocating for this thesis provides the majority of his income. 

Who should read this book?

Parents raising boys should absolutely read this book. And given that we’re talking about something that affects huge swaths of society, probably everyone should read this book. 

General Thoughts

As you might be able to tell from the title Sax’s book is built around five factors, each contributing to various problems being experienced by young men. These five factors are:

  1. The way school has changed: There is less time for physical activity, and things like learning to read have been moved to earlier and earlier in the child’s life. 
  2. Video games: Sax spends a lot of time talking about the violence angle, but I think the way it affects motivation is a bigger story.
  3. ADHD medications: The first factor leads to a greater diagnosis of ADHD, and then while medications solve the immediate problem of lack of focus, over the long term they actually undermine motivation.
  4. Endocrine disruptors: The way that certain plastics, in particular phthalates, have disrupted male puberty while accelerating female puberty.
  5. Abandoning traditional transitions to manhood: We no longer have formalized steps and achievements that mark the passage from boy to man.

I could spend a whole post talking about each one of these (as indeed I have with endocrine disruptors.) And while I think he goes too far in some respects (see my comment about video games above). I would say that he’s 90% correct about both the causes and the scope of the problem. And even if we were to be ultra conservative and say that Sax is only 50% correct he would still be describing a massive problem.

Eschatological Implications

I remember a time when there was enormous attention being paid to Sax’s concerns. When debates over whether boys were in crisis was a major part of the culture war, and single sex education (which Sax is a big advocate of) was gaining significant traction. But these days it’s almost entirely disappeared from the national conversation. Is that because Sax was an alarmist and there wasn’t actually a problem? I wish. No, I think the problem is far worse than that. This crisis has not gone away, it has merely been replaced by crises that are even worse.

The process of replacement was already well underway by the time the pandemic came around, but it was certainly the final nail in the coffin. Preceding that, I would place the crisis of young women identifying as young men as a result of social contagion, and of course closely related to that, is the fact that who even counts as a boy has gotten a little bit slippery with the increase in trans-identifying teens. But I think the biggest thing to overshadow the crisis Sax describes was the crisis brought on by social media. 

Despite the fact that the book was updated in 2016 Sax only mentions “social media” twice, and then it’s basically just to add it to the list of the ways computers can sap your motivation, placing it alongside video games. 

This is the eschatological implication, that we have been experiencing a series of escalating crises, such that the problem with young men, which still exists and is still massively important, now barely rates a mention. As near as I can tell from looking at the numbers and my own experience there are actually more boys adrift today than there were in 2007, it’s just that we don’t have any attention left to spend on them.

II- Capsule Reviews

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

By: Sohrab Ahmari

Published: 2021

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book Ahmari is writing to his two year old son Max. It’s constructed around 12 questions Max might ask as he grows up, questions about how to live a good life.

What’s the author’s angle?

Ahmari was raised Muslim in Iran, after spending quite a while as an atheist he was baptized into the Catholic Church at age 31 (in 2016). So his discussion of tradition has been said to be motivated by the zeal of a convert. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re not a fan of tradition I don’t think this book will change your mind. I think the book probably assumes too much to be persuasive to those who aren’t already favorably disposed towards tradition. But if you agree with Ahmari’s basic premise, then the biographic examples he gives are very interesting and impactful.

General Thoughts

Each of Ahmari’s twelve chapters (excepting an introduction and conclusion) are built around a title question and the biography of someone who grappled with that question. While I appreciated Ahmari’s reasoning (and in fact used it as the basis of a recent post) I really think the biographies were what drove the book. Consequently I thought it would be a good use of space to list the chapters with their subjects, along with a short blurb:

Part I: The Things of God

1- How Do You Justify Your Life? C. S. Lewis 

A discussion of his conversion interspersed with scenes from his Space Trilogy.

2- Is God Reasonable? Thomas Aquinas

The creation of Summa Theologica and Aquinas’ demonstration of God’s reason.

3- Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

How taking a day off is another example of virtuous freedom.

4- Can You Be Spiritual Without Being Religious? Victor and Edith Turner 

The story of how their studies of African Tribalism led them to realize the importance of religion and their eventual conversion to Catholicism. 

5- Does God Respect You? Howard Thurman

A civil rights leader who knew that even if whites didn’t respect him, God did. He went on to strongly influence Martin Luther King, Jr.

6- Does God Need Politics? Saint Augustine

The story of his role in defending Christianity against the backdrop of a disintegrating Roman Empire when Christianity was being blamed for that disintegration. 

Part II: The Things of Humankind

7- How Must You Serve Your Parents? Confucius 

How filial piety is the beginning of crafting a broader just and humane society.

8- Should You Think for Yourself? John Henry Newman

How “thinking for yourself,” in the modern, liberal sense, undermines the true conscience.

9- What Is Freedom For? Alexander Solzhenitsyn

His famous speech at Harvard, that true freedom is not unlimited license to do whatever feels good. 

10- Is Sex a Private Matter? Andrea Dworkin

Her battle against pornography and sex-positive feminism. 

11- What Do You Owe Your Body? Hans Jonas

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” 

12- What’s Good About Death? Maximilian Kolbe

The story of his sacrifice at Auschwitz, where he volunteered to be starved to death by the Nazis in place of another.

As I mentioned, if you want an even deeper dive, see this previous post. [POST – PUT IN TITLE OF EPISODE]

The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era 

by: Liu Mingfu 

Published: 2015

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The necessity for China to rise and become the champion nation of the world—which is different than being the hegemon—and how it will need to deal with the US in order to do that.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mingfu is a retired PLA colonel, and one of the leading America hawks within China. This is a book written for a Chinese audience.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’re on a quest to better understand China, you should definitely at least skim this book. I’ve read lots of books attempting to explain China from the outside. This is the first I’ve read that explains China’s goals from the inside.

General Thoughts

I highlighted 149 passages in this book. Most of them qualified because of how strange they sounded to my, presumably biased, American ears. He goes on and on about how the rise of China will be the most peaceful of all ascensions by “champion nations”. That China is super civilized and peaceful, that:

As China moves toward the world’s leading nation it will struggle to become a new kind of champion nation, the significance of which is that China will never seek to become a global hegemon, and will never seek hegemonic benefits, and will never consider holding hegemonic power as a core national interest. 

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps if we stand by when they eventually invade Taiwan. And if we stop caring about what they do internally, i.e. the Uighurs (who are never mentioned, as you might expect.) Then China will have no further ambitions. Our relationship with them will be similar to our relationship to Japan in the 80’s: significant economic competition and rivalry, but no real military concerns. 

In support of this possibility Mingfu offers up a theory that competition between nations has gradually softened. He calls it the “Track and Field Model”:

A New and Civilized Competition Model: A track and field competition model between China and America is significant on two levels. The first is that the 21st century will hinge on the competition between America and China, which will be history’s most civilized round of great power competition. It will not be a duel-style great war nor a boxing-match-style Cold War; it will be a track-and-field-style heat. The second is that the competition will be a century-long struggle, a track and field competition between the two nations. Not a hundred-meter or thousand-meter sprint, this will be a marathon that tests courage, will, and patience. The upcoming track and field event between China and America in the 21st century will be notable for two things: the civility and the length of the competition. 

I hope that the competition between the US and China ends up being as civilized as he claims. I guess only time will tell. I think a lot hinges on our different ways of seeing the world, and it was enlightening and a little bit strange to read a book about how China sees the world.

Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left

by: Ben Burgis

Published: 2021

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is another author attempting to get the left to be more strategic. To work on building a broader coalition and to focus less on being censorious and more on engaging and debating their ideological opponents.

What’s the author’s angle?

Burgis is a Bernie Sanders supporter who writes for Jacobin. He’s a philosophy professor and he hosts a podcast called Give Them an Argument

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. Perhaps people on the left who are sick of cancel culture and looking for an alternative. But I suspect that if they were actually looking for an alternative they would have encountered it already, and not need this book.

General Thoughts

Only the first chapter of the book talks about comedians, the rest is the kind of thing you might get from Matthew Ygelsias, or Freddie deBoer. To give you an example Burgis talks about when Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders and how the Sanders campaign embraced the endorsement only to get excoriated by people on the far left. Burgis points out that this is really dumb, and that the left does a lot of things like that. He is not the first, nor will he be the last.

The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe 

By: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 

Published: Originally in 1979, Abridged in 1983, 2nd Edition w/ Afterword 2005

336 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The contribution printing made to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and to the Scientific Revolution.

What’s the author’s angle?

Eisenstein was a historian, and in 1979 most people didn’t pay much attention to the role printing played in the huge changes which took place in Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. This book was Eisenstein’s attempt to change that.

Who should read this book?

It is a sign of how successful Eisenstein was, that her thesis has largely become conventional wisdom. As such, most people don’t need a book full of arguments in order to be convinced. But for those interested in the nitty-gritty of how printing impacted everything this is a great resource.

General Thoughts

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press upended religion, society, and knowledge. The invention of the internet appears to be having a similar effect. I picked up this book because I was hoping that it might have some wisdom to provide, that by reading about the last time we had a communication revolution I would get some insight into the current communication revolution. I was largely disappointed in this hope. Eisentstein did add an afterword in 2005, but it was largely a discussion of various criticisms of the original work; she did not offer much if any opinion on the parallels between then and now. 

Despite this it was nevertheless a fascinating book, though to be clear it was not written for a general audience. It was written to advance and refute very specific historical arguments and sometimes the specificity of those arguments can bog things down. For example: Can we use the memoirs of a Florentine manuscript book seller to estimate the number of books produced by scribes? Spoiler alert, we cannot, they are “entirely untrustworthy”.

In any case, the book did give me a greater appreciation for the insights of Marshall McLuhan, who Eisenstein cites as one of her inspirations. But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what Eisenstein and McLuhan would say about the modern world.  Mostly I’m guessing it wouldn’t be good. Eisenstein herself feels that there is good reason to suspect that the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t have happened without the printing press, and if that’s the case then you probably also don’t get the incredibly bloody 30 Years War, or the Troubles in Ireland which have only recently abated. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

What will be the modern version of the Protestant Reformation? And more frighteningly will there be a modern version of the 30 Years War? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but if you’re interested in a deep dive on all the things that happened the last time around, Eisenstein has you covered.

Paper Heroes

By: Steven Heumann

Published: 2018

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The main character is approached by his billionaire boss and offered the chance to be a literal superhero. He accepts and morality ensues.

Who should read this book?

People who like supporting small, independent authors. Or those who are fans of unconventional superhero tales.

General Thoughts

I bumped into Heumann at a local networking event. When he mentioned he was a science fiction author I asked him which book of his I should read (or, actually, listen to). And he pointed me at this book. I’ll be honest, I have not discovered the next Orson Scott Card or the next Heinlein, but it was an enjoyable book with a lot of heart and a great ending. 

Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 10: Critical Mass

Published: 2020

393 Pages

Book 11: Brushfire

Published: 2020

392 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

There was a point when this series was starting to feel repetitive. That point is mostly past. The plot of the series has definitely entered a new phase and so far I’m enjoying it. Also, the complications present in this new phase are more interesting and less likely to become repetitive. As such, I’m looking forward to seeing how Alanson wraps it up. (Supposedly book 15 will be the last one.)

General Thoughts

Before starting a new series one should carefully consider what they’re getting into. How many books are there in the series? Is the series complete or is the author still working on it? How many books are there expected to be when it is completed? Is there any chance the author won’t be able to finish the series? You really should carefully consider the answers to all those questions before you make the commitment implicit in starting the series. Of particular importance is that last question. Nothing is more annoying than starting a series and finding out once you’re halfway through that you may never find out how it ends. (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin!)

I confess I don’t always follow my own advice as well as I should. Perhaps if I’d really ruminated on the fact that Expeditionary Force was likely to be 15 books long I wouldn’t have started it, but I did and now that I’m up through book 11, it seems like I might as well see it to the end. And fortunately there does not appear to be any chance that Alanson will “pull a Martin”. He seems to have no problem putting out two books a year (as you can see from the publication dates above) and book 14 was just released which means book 15 should come out by the end of this year or early next year.

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I’m reading the books more because I’m a completionist than because I enjoy reading them. Mostly, that is not the case. I am enjoying the books, the characters, the plot and the gradually unfolding mysteries of the universe Alanson has built, but as I get near the end I would be remiss if I didn’t reemphasize how big of a commitment you’re taking on when starting this series. 

By the time I finished all the reviews we actually had made an offer on a house and that offer was accepted. I’m very happy with the house we ended up with. If you’re the kind of person that gives housewarming gifts, consider donating. I promise I’ll put a post-it note with your name on it on the wall of my new office.

Eschatologist #17: We’ve Solved All the Easy Problems, Only Hard Problems Remain

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

Or download the MP3

With the release of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion is back in the news, so much so that anything I could add to the subject would seem wholly superfluous. And indeed spending a few hundred words advocating for one side or the other would be pointless. (Should you wish for a few thousand words of such advocacy I would direct you to a couple of posts I wrote the last time the abortion debate flared up.) 

No, I am not going to spend any time on whether one side of the debate is more or less moral, rather I am going to discuss moral debates in general—how they’ve played out in the past and how they’re likely to play out in the future. 

The Reformation ushered in the age of large-scale debates on public morality. These debates really took off during the Enlightenment as ideas about individual rights came to the fore. You end up with very different answers to certain questions if everyone gets a say, than if only the priests, kings, and nobles get a say. As these debates intensified, certain subjects, which no one had given much thought to previously, suddenly became grounds for intense conflict, often culminating in bloodshed. The best known of these debates is the one concerning slavery, which was finally decided in the US after the long and bloody Civil War. 

Other debates took even longer to resolve, but in the end they too were resolved no less decisively (and fortunately none with as much bloodshed). An example would be interracial marriage. In 1958 only 4% of people approved of it. These days it’s 94%. One could offer up other examples like child labor, public executions, and smoking—debates where if you just wait long enough the majority switches their opinion from one side to its exact opposite. However, abortion does not appear to be in this category:

As you can see the split was pretty wide in 1995, but since then rather than moving towards a majority being on one side or the other, it has instead just gotten tighter and tighter.

Tragically, guns and the Second Amendment are back in the news as well. Here again, while the graphs aren’t quite as stark, there is no evidence that a majority is solidifying around a particular position. 

Why is this? Who do some questions of public morality eventually resolve into an answer the majority of people agree with, and why do some questions harden into two opposing camps? There are probably many reasons, but I would like to consider two that seem particularly important currently:

First, the passage of time distills out the true weight of arguments. In the time since the Enlightenment, some of them have turned out to be rather shallow, while some have turned out to contain surprising depth. Where deep principles exist on both sides of a question it becomes much more difficult to get a majority to unite behind just one answer. In the centuries since we started examining these questions in earnest shallow positions have fallen by the wayside, meaning that now, only deep conflicts remain.

Second, the modern phenomenon of internet echo chambers would also seem to be hardening opinions, creating opposing camps of passionate believers, which further exacerbates the difficulty of achieving a majority consensus.  

I strongly suspect that abortion, gun control, and several other issues fall into that first category—debates where both sides rest on deep values—questions which are extremely difficult to reach consensus on even without the introduction of echo chambers and impossible now that they’re ubiquitous.

If I’m correct, if we have already reached agreement on all the “easy” stuff, and lost our ability to make progress on hard questions, just as those are the only ones remaining, then the future is bleak. It would mean that there is no end to our current political discord. It would also be a particular problem for our perceptions of progress, as it implies not only stagnation, but stagnation at a particularly contentious plateau. A future where consensus becomes more and more rare, where it doesn’t matter how long we debate the issue, unanimity will never be achieved. A future where the best case is fragmenting the nation into mutual hostile camps, and the worst case is violence and bloodshed.

Did you notice the alliteration there at the end? That’s the kind of craftsmanship I bring to discussions about the collapse of the nation. If you’re one of those people who has always claimed to support quality, made in America products, this is your chance. All you have to do is donate

Conscience, Authenticity, and True Freedom

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

Or download the MP3


I’m currently reading The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by Sohrab Ahmari. Ahmari opens the book by telling the stories of two different people named Maximilian. The first Maximilian, the one representing the “tradition” mentioned in the subtitle, is Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic Priest, and one of the “greatest of modern Christian martyrs.” 

Kolbe’s story, and his martyrdom, took place in 1941. Kolbe had been imprisoned at Auschwitz for a few months when one of his fellow prisoners escaped. As punishment the deputy camp commandant picked out 10 men to starve to death as a way of deterring future escape attempts. 

[Kolbe] wasn’t selected. But when he heard one of the condemned cry out, “My wife, my children!,” [He] took off his cap and quietly stepped forward from the line.

“What does this Polish pig want?” the deputy commandant asked.

“I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place”—here, Kolbe pointed at his fellow prisoner—“because he has a wife and children.”

[The commandant] accepted Kolbe’s offer.

And so Kolbe went on to starve to death in the man’s place. It took two weeks, and Kolbe was calm and prayerful the whole time.

Obviously Kolbe was only able to take this man’s place by virtue of his strong Christian faith. One assumes that his faith in the existence of a hereafter, of Heaven and Hell played a role. Also John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” certainly played a role. And while people have no difficulty accepting that religious faith may motivate people to make extreme sacrifices, Ahmari wants to make sure we understand that his faith didn’t require him to do this thing, it didn’t constrict his choices, it opened them up. Kolbe’s faith gave him the freedom to make that choice.

What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once [The commandant] had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.

This form of freedom is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails in the West today. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. Witness the heroism of physicians, nurses, and other front-line health in response to the novel-coronavirus pandemic. But the animating logic of the contemporary West, the intellectual thrust of our age, if taken to its logical end, renders the actions of a Kolbe insensible.

What form of freedom “prevails in the West today”? If Kolbe is an example of the sort of freedom which emerges from tradition, what sort of freedom emerges from the “age of chaos”—that other part of the book’s subtitle? Or what sort of freedom causes an age to be chaotic?

Here we turn to the second Maximillian, Ahmari’s son. As you might have guessed he was named after the first Maximillian, and as Ahmari considers his son he wonders about these questions. Specifically he wonders what sort of freedom his son will experience:

What kind of a man will contemporary Western culture chisel out of my son? Which substantive ideals should I pass on to him, against the overwhelming cynicism of our age?

The book is Ahmari’s attempt to answer the second question, and if you’re interested in that answer I would urge you to read the book. (And I will of course do a review of it in my monthly round up.) But Ahmari considers the first question as well, and that’s the thread I am most interested in following. This thread of modern freedom vs. traditional freedom. 

As Ahmari considers the answers to these various questions he casts his mind forward and endeavors to imagine his son’s future if Ahmari does not intervene, if his son takes a path similar to other children of recent generations. At the time the book was written his son was two, but Ahmari tries to imagine what sort of person he’s likely to be when he’s in his 20s, or when he gets to be the same age as the first Maximillian.

Fast-forward my bad dream: Max is now forty-seven years old—the same age at which his patron saint laid down his life for a stranger at Auschwitz. Having retired early from his firm with a tidy sum in his investment account, my Max is now touring Europe with his girlfriend in a luxury electric RV. The two of them have been cohabiting on and off for nearly a decade now, yet they have no intention to marry, much less have children.

On the road, they seek out Michelin-starred restaurants for feasting—followed by nights browsing Tinder (theirs is an open relationship). And this is the relatively optimistic scenario. It assumes that Max hasn’t succumbed to opioids or high-end synthetic drugs. It assumes he hasn’t become one of those young men who spend months and years shut in their bedrooms, playing videogames and browsing the Web. The Japanese call them hikikomori, though the phenomenon sadly spans the whole developed world.

“Dad, I’m happy!” he insists, if and when he permits us to talk about his life. And the worst part of it is, he might be telling the truth, by his own lights. He may not even know what he has missed: the thrill of meditating on the Psalms and wondering if they were written just for him; the peace of mind that comes with regularly going to Confession and leaving the accumulated baggage of his guilt behind; the joy of binding himself to one other soul, and only that one, in marriage; that awesome instant when the nurses hand him a newborn baby, his own.

Having kept his “options open” his whole life, he hasn’t bound himself irrevocably to anything greater than himself and, therefore, hasn’t exercised human freedom as his namesake understood it. Maximilian Kolbe dreamt of acquiring the crowns of virtue and sacrifice. The dream—or rather, the nightmare—that haunts me is one in which my Maximilian spends a lifetime reaching for other crowns.

As Ahmari says, this is his nightmare, but why should it be so? Why would he rather that his son starve to death for a stranger at age 47 as opposed to having him childless and touring Europe with his girlfriend? Obviously as you can tell from the excerpts Ahmari is profoundly religious, and perhaps you’re inclined to dismiss his preference precisely because of this reason, as the biased zealotry of a true believer. But I think that would be a mistake. I believe there’s something to this distinction even if you don’t believe in a hereafter. 

You may also have a hard time wrapping your mind around this different definition of freedom, but as it turns out this isn’t the first book I’ve read which makes this point. Patrick Deneen makes it in Why Liberalism Failed. To reuse a quote from my review:

“Liberty” is a word of ancient lineage, yet liberalism has a more recent pedigree, being arguably only a few hundred years old. It arises from a redefinition of the nature of liberty to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. By ancient and Christian understandings, liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by the individual or by a political community. Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty— requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites—the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice.

Deneen uses the term liberty instead of freedom, but his point is the same as Ahmari’s, liberty is self-rule, and in this sense Kolbe was maximally liberated. His self-discipline was ironclad, and his command of his “base but insistent appetites”, in this case literally, was so great that even after two weeks without food he could remain calm and prayerful. 

But as Deneen points out now freedom and liberty have come to mean almost the exact opposite of what they used to mean. And this is why Ahmari is worried for his son. I don’t think Ahmari wants his son to end up in some modern day Auschwitz, nor does he want the world to end up as the kind of place where we have Auschwitzs for people to end up in. He wants his son to be virtuous and to have the self-discipline over his appetites that comes with that virtue. But instead of pursuing this freedom Ahmari is worried that his son will pursue the other kind of freedom, the one which says that being free is being unconstrained. And primarily unconstrained in the pursuit of one’s appetites.

As Ahmari points out, in the best case this pursuit might lead to someone becoming a rich, childless swinger. But there are far worse outcomes, his son could end up wanting nothing more than to spend his days engaging in his appetite for video games, or he could end up dead from an opioid overdose. Obviously this last outcome would be awful, and becoming a hikikomori isn’t great either, but what about the first option, is it really as bad as Ahmari fears/claims? What if Max has always wanted to tour Europe in an RV? That it’s the number one thing on his bucket list, and an expression of his authentic self. Isn’t authenticity an example of a good appetite? Isn’t it a form of virtue, perhaps one different from that espoused by his conservative father, but still important and worthy of pursuit? Is it possible that unlike the baser appetites his father worries about that this is a pure appetite?


The genesis of this post goes all the way back to January when I got an email from a reader. He had read several of my book reviews which touched on the topic of authenticity (He mentioned three in particular, see here, here, and here.) and he wondered about the same conflict I just mentioned. Intellectually he wants to be traditional. He senses he will have a better life if he settles down, raises children and is a good member of a community. But if he searches inwardly for his authentic self, in the fashion of the day, that person would rather travel the world and never settle down. Which, coincidently, is precisely how Ahmari frames the choice that confronts his son Max. This reader figured I might have something useful to say on the subject (we’ll see if he was correct once he reads this post). So here we are.

The topic is obviously a complicated one, and as I’m currently experimenting with shorter posts, let me see if I can cut straight to the heart of the matter. To do so we’re once again going to lean heavily on Ahmari, and consider the story he relates of John Henry Newman

[Newman] was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825. [When he was 24.] Soon, he emerged as a leading light of what became known as the Oxford Movement, a circle of thinkers who wanted to position the Church of England as a middle way, a via media, between what they saw as a tradition-bereft Protestantism and Rome’s “excesses”

As things developed Newman became more and more interested in following traditions, and less and less worried about Rome’s excesses. Continuing with Ahmadi’s narrative:

[T]he most fateful incident of this period…was…the journey he took in 1832 to Sicily and the Italian mainland. The trip granted him a glimpse of religious devotion the likes of which he had never before witnessed.

In the years following this he became more and more critical of the creeping progressive tendencies in the Anglican communion, and at the same time more and more attracted to the Catholic communion. And yet his conscience would not allow him to switch:

Newman’s romance with Rome was heating up by the day, yet still he resisted converting. Why? Because he entertained serious doubts about some doctrines, high among them the Roman devotion to the Virgin Mary. So long as these doubts persisted, “I had no right, I had no leave, to act against my conscience. This was a higher rule than any argument.”

And yet, as we already mentioned he was steadfastly against the progressive liberalization of the Church of England. And what is liberalization but people deciding that their individual sense of right and wrong, their conscience, was more important than the traditional teachings of the church. 

“My battle,” he would insist, “was with liberalism; by liberalism, I mean the anti-dogmatic principle,” the “lawless” notion that every first principle, every dogma, every authority, and every hierarchy was up for questioning. Thus, Newman held in his mind two seemingly contradictory beliefs—first, that the conscience was sacred and inviolable; and second, that unlimited freedom of thought was not a good but rather a wellspring of error and chaos.

How did Newman solve this apparent contradiction? How can my reader solve his dilemma? To begin with Newman believed that behind everything there is an objective standard of truth. For Newman it’s the divine law, which originates from God, and the conscience is this law “as apprehended in the minds of individual men.” Other people dispense with God, but still assume that there are natural laws: rules of behavior that make human lives and civilization as a whole better, rules which have been distilled out over the centuries and embedded into tradition and religion. In both cases you mostly end up arriving at a similar destination. For example both seem to come down strongly in favor of having kids. Authenticity, or “self-will’ as Newman called it, is like a conscience, the difference being that it’s unmoored from either divine or natural law. 

This is not to say that authenticity is entirely unmoored from things. Humans have an intense need to justify whatever they’re doing: “I’m doing this because God commanded it” and “I’m doing this because this is what our people have always done” have been replaced by “I’m doing this because it’s who I am, it’s a reflection of my authentic self.” 

At first glance one would think that this would work extremely well for generating individual happiness and fulfillment, but as it turns out it doesn’t. I don’t have the time to get into all the reasons why, for that see the book reviews I linked to previously (Here, here, and here if you don’t want to scroll back up.) Nor do I have time to get into why modern technology, by expanding the scope of potentially fulfilling things, has made the problem much worse than it was in Newman’s day. We have gone to enormous lengths to allow people to delve as deeply as they want into their authentic selves, but I’m afraid to say that we have yet to reach bedrock. 

Still, at the margins, following your conscience and being authentic are easy to confuse. Are you traveling the world because you hope to learn about other cultures and pass that knowledge along to others? Is this sort of education the best way you can give back to the world? Or are you traveling the world because you have the money, and it’s fun? What about kids? Have you decided not to have kids because it makes vacations harder to take, more expensive when you do take them, and on top of all that you have to go to places they like rather than places you like? Or are you not having kids because you’ve decided to become a Catholic priest and devote your life to the service of others? 

It would seem that a key way to tell the difference is the position other people play in these decisions. If you’re doing something entirely for yourself, then it’s probably authentic, and not in a good way, but rather in a way that will ultimately lead to an unfulfilling dead end. On the other hand if you’re doing something for someone else then there’s a good chance you’re following your conscience. And of course, to tie it back to the story of Kolbe, following your conscience isn’t easy. Following your conscience and the true freedom it brings can only come when we overcome our appetites. Fake freedom, what people call authenticity, is about giving into those appetites. And what no one wants to hear is that in the end everything that’s good in this world is also damnably difficult to do.  

What does your conscience tell you about donating? I mean it’s obviously helping someone out, but the person you’re helping is long winded, full of bad ideas, and generally unpleasant. Clearly it would be more authentic to keep the money yourself and spend it on someone truly deserving. If despite this ironclad logic your conscience still compels you to donate, you can do so here.

Thoughts on Yard Care and the Modern World

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

Or download the MP3

As I mentioned in my last post, we decided to move, but we don’t have a new house picked out yet. The advice we got was that, in this market, you have to sell the old house first so that you have a pile of cash to use when negotiating for the next house. Or in any case that was the advice as of four weeks ago when we made the decision. Now that interest rates are rising precipitously the housing market is changing pretty fast, so I’m not sure it’s quite as important, but it’s what we decided to do nonetheless. 

You may be wondering why we decided to move with interest rates going up and prices (particularly in Salt Lake) super high. Well a little over a year ago my wife told me that it was time for her mother to move in with us. At the same time it appeared that we would shortly be empty nesters, so this seemed to be an ideal time to remodel the house and put in an addition. So I secured the services of a general contractor and then waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could never get him to start the process. I couldn’t even get him to give me a bid. There was always one thing or the other that had to be done first, but he’d promise that next week he’d come out, and then he wouldn’t. 

Eventually after a year of this I decided it wasn’t going to happen and that while it was a terrible time to get the attention of general contractors it was a great time to sell old houses. So we pivoted to that. I never thought I’d sell our house (but I had dreamed of remodeling it for a very long time). As I mentioned in my last post, I have too much stuff. (I’m not a hoarder, but I may be on the spectrum.) But somehow that’s what we ended up deciding to do, and getting that old house full of 22 years of stuff ready to sell has been crazy, but as of posting, my house is under contract, and it was only on the market for four days so it looks like we pulled it off. Of course doing so required a lot of work, which is why this post, despite being short, took forever to put together, but I told you this might happen.

In any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that most of my efforts so far have been geared around selling our old house, the process of looking for a new house has barely begun. As part of that process we’ve obviously come up with some criteria. The two big ones are, my wife wants to have no more than a 15 minute commute to her job, and I don’t want a yard.

It’s not that I mind a yard per se. In my current house I’ve xeriscaped the front yard, and, particularly in the spring, which is right now of course, it looks amazing—if it’s been weeded. See it’s not the yard I mind, it’s all the work I have to do in order to keep it looking nice. Over the decades I’ve lived in the house I’ve tried various things to make that job easier. And while reducing water usage in a desert is nice, lower maintenance was the primary point of xeriscaping. You would think that putting down a weed barrier and then covering it with rocks would reduce that effort. You would be wrong. Somehow life finds a way, and I have spent considerable time weeding my xeriscaped front yard. 

I find this whole business of yard care to be kind of strange. When I’m out hiking I can stop at literally any point on that hike, look to the right or left, pick any spot, and without fail I would be happy if my yard looked like that. I assume most people would feel similarly if they conducted the same exercise, that I am not an outlier. And of course the punchline is, no one spends even a second of work to make that patch of ground look that way, that’s just how it is in a state of nature, in the complete absence of human intervention. Based on this I have long wondered why that isn’t an option for me. Why can’t I just sit back, do nothing, let nature take its course, and end up with a beautiful yard? 

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well that’s up in the mountains, where you go hiking. Sure that’s pretty, with wildflowers and trees, but would you really want the natural look of the dry desert valley with sagebrush and tumbleweed?” And honestly, I’d be fine with that as well, mostly because my primary goal is not how it looks, but how much work it requires, but even so I think that it would look good. And more importantly it would be natural.

Of course if I sit back and do nothing I don’t end up with a beautiful mountain slope, or a rugged and austere desert landscape, and believe me I’ve tried it. A couple times I’ve been in the middle of starting a business and consequently had no time, and even more frequently I’ve just been lazy. During those times I invariably got a lot of annoying, ugly weeds. I don’t get any beautiful native plants, I got thistles and morning glory, and other crap like that. Of course everyone is familiar with this phenomenon, my experience is not unique, you may have tried it yourself or passed by houses where such an experiment was being conducted, but it is worth asking why does it play out this way?

I witnessed a large-scale example of this phenomenon a few years ago. Near where I live there was an old high school. Since the area where I live was aging the school district decided it didn’t need that school any longer and they closed it down. There were a bunch of different ideas for what to do with it. The city wanted to make it into a community center, but that was voted down (by two votes, something I talked about in a previous post). Then supposedly they were going to turn it into a movie set for those times when filming a high school was required, but that also fell through. At some point it wasn’t clear what was going to happen and they stopped taking care of the property all together. This went on for several years. And the end result was not native vegetation, or yellow grass with scattered weeds, but rather a forest of milkweeds that were all about chest high. (If you’re curious they did eventually build a bunch of houses on the land along with a new county library.)

How many years would it have taken for that land to return to the way it looked 200 years ago, before the Mormon Pioneers arrived? And yes I know that they weren’t the first humans in the valley but at the time this area was a “buffer zone between the Shoshone and Ute peoples” so it was about as untouched as you could get. Would it have happened in 10 years? 20 years? Never? I suspect because of invasive species and other changes to soil composition from fertilization and cultivation that it’s the latter. It would never go back, but how long would it take for it to not look awful? 

Of course the high schools’ original lawn didn’t look awful, which is kind of the whole point of lawns, they look nice, and apparently they’re also great for games like golf and as the name suggests, lawn bowling.  But they also require a significant amount of work. Lawns have to be watered and cut and fertilized, with weed killer thrown in there as well, year in and year out, and if that ever stops… Boom! A forest of milkweeds, or something equally awful.

Once I had this realization I thought about it a lot as I was putting forth my own efforts to keep my yard looking nice, but my ruminations were limited to the context of the work I was doing at that moment. Only recently did it occur to me that my landscaping epiphany is also a cautionary tale about the efforts and works of man in general. 

Obviously having a nice green lawn was not human’s first attempt to change the natural world in artificial ways, making it conform to their needs and desires rather than leaving it unmolested. These efforts have been going on for millenia. Even groups that have traditionally been viewed as living in harmony with nature altered the world to make it better conform to their needs. The Plains Indians didn’t merely live on the Great Plains, they helped make them into plains and keep them that way by setting large fires. They wanted to create as much habitat as possible for the bison they relied on.

But as much as this has been going on for thousands and thousands of years, more recently it has accelerated, and the difficulty at this point is trying to find some area where it’s not happening.

When one considers changes we’ve made to the natural world the mind is drawn to the big changes, the massive cities with their skyscrapers, the millions of acres of farmland, or the billions of tons of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. And it’s understandable that people are focused on those changes, because they’re so huge, but it’s also interesting to look at it from the other side, at what happens when we make even very tiny changes. 

I mentioned hiking in the wilderness, and even the disturbance caused by a narrow trail can bring in weeds and other invasive species. I took this from a forest service document:

Most noxious weeds are early successional species that prefer highly disturbed sites such as areas along rivers and streams, trails, trailheads, roadsides, building sites, wildlife bedding grounds, overgrazed areas, and campgrounds… In Glacier National Park, exotic plant species showed a continuous distribution along road and trail corridors… Managing knapweed required preventing roadside infestations from spreading.

Road construction and maintenance activities mix soil layers, increasing soil microbial activity. Weeds exploit these newly available nutrients efficiently. This may be one reason that the density of weedy plants increases as intensity of disturbance increases. 

In other words, the minute we change something we alter the natural balance, bringing in short term opportunistic species rather than the long term sustainable stuff we prefer. So the sad truth is that my house couldn’t have the landscaping I see while I’m out hiking because the mere fact of building the house and living in it would make such a yard impossible. 

One could imagine that if I waited long enough, and if I was careful enough I could get pretty close, but generally that’s not what we do. Our solution to the problems caused by the initial intervention is to follow it up with still more interventions. If our activities create a fertile breeding ground for weeds we don’t wait for the natural species to claw their way back in, we introduce different plants we like better. We then water and fertilize the plants we prefer, while pulling or poisoning all the plants we don’t. Any “natural” plants that might still be hanging around are soon forgotten.

My point is not that this is bad, (though it very well might be) it’s that once we have started down this path there’s no easy off-ramp. The requirement to intervene becomes perpetual, and more often than not the amount of intervention that’s required just keeps increasing. And if for some reason we stop these interventions, or even if we just slacken our efforts somewhat because we’re distracted, or if we have to divert resources elsewhere, things don’t end up reverting to some harmonious natural state, rather we end up in the hellish situation where we have something that’s neither natural nor intentional. A forest of chest-high milkweeds.

Even if we never lose focus, and we always have the resources available to intervene as much or as little as we want, it’s not like intervention is an exact science, where we’re always able to get exactly the results we want. Sometimes we misjudge things and we push too much, sometimes we don’t push enough. Other times nature pushes back. 

The difficulties of intervention are legion, but here are just a few:

  • To start with there’s what I just talked about, nature pushing back. The best example of this is antibiotic resistance, but even closer to my analogy, weeds also develop herbicide resistance.
  • Determining the right level of intervention for a yard might be fairly straightforward, but what about more complex systems? Even hardcore government stimulus advocates agree that we pumped too much money into the economy as part of the pandemic response, and now we’re scrambling to undo the inflation that resulted. (Of course other things contributed to the problem as well, but that’s precisely my point.)
  • At the moment the Western US is suffering from a severe drought, which takes us to the next problem: At some point the resources being used for intervention will end up being insufficient, leaving people in the difficult position of deciding which interventions to continue and which to forgo. Do we use the limited water for hydroelectric power or irrigation?
  • Perhaps the most difficult part of all about intervening is the way in which interventions have unintended effects. In a manner similar to thinking that it would be nice to have green lawns, we also thought it would be nice to have cheap and abundant power. And it is very nice, unfortunately in the process we released billions of tons of CO2 into the air. This is another place where it would be nice to intervene, but the scope of the intervention exceeds our capabilities.

This last point is an important one. I fear that as the level of intervention required to solve our problems continues to scale up, both in size and in complexity, that more and more we lack the resources and the wisdom necessary to continue to intervene successfully. That eventually we won’t be able to maintain (some would say “prop up”) all of the various interventions which go into creating the modern world. And in those areas that we have been intervening it won’t smoothly revert to however it was before, but rather just like the lawn of that old high school, it will fail in ugly and unexpected ways.

As a final thought I find this idea that noxious weeds are the first on the scene when the natural order is disturbed to be a fascinating one. I haven’t had the time to fully process it because I just came across this idea as I was writing this post, but it does seem like new industries, changes in regulations, and even technological innovations have a tendency to attract the “noxious weeds”. But more importantly, beyond a discussion of any particular industry, as the pace of disruption increases, could we end up in a situation where so much of the long term order has been recently disturbed that the entire landscape is opportunistic weeds? Is it possible that this is already the state we find ourselves in?

Lots of tangential stuff at the beginning there, and then lots of wild speculation at the end. With nothing concrete in between, if you think paying for these nothing sandwiches is worth it consider donating.

The 10 Books I Finished in April

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

Or download the MP3

  1. The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracyby: Taylor Dotson
  2. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by: Mark Fisher 
  3. The Age of AI and Our Human Future by: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher
  4. A Confederacy of Dunces by: John Kennedy Toole
  5. Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation by: Roosevelt Montás
  6. Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen by: Steve Sims
  7. The Thursday Murder Club by: Richard Osman
  8. The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands by: John Michael Greer
  9. Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) by: Craig Alanson
  10. Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9) by: Craig Alanson

The next few months are going to be pretty busy. As I mentioned in the epilogue of one of my essays in April, we’ve decided to move. My house is old, we’ve lived in it a very long time, and I like to collect things, particularly books. (At this point we’ve used 80+ boxes just on them.) So getting ready to show and sell the house has already been a pretty laborious process, and will continue to be so for the next couple of weeks. Once the house is sold, which hopefully will be the matter of a weekend since the market, while cooling, is still pretty hot (my timing for selling the house has not been perfect, but I’m hoping it’s close enough) then we need to find a new house, which will also be time consuming. Once a new house is acquired we’ll need to move, unpack, and reconstruct things. Hopefully this will all happen before July 10th, because that’s when I leave for Ireland for two and a half weeks. As I said, the next few months are going to be busy.

I bring all of this up because there’s obviously a chance it will affect the time I have available to write. (It already delayed the second half of my drug post so that it was almost on top of my end of month newsletter.) There’s a chance I just won’t put out two essays one of these months (the best candidate being July) but my plan is to focus on trying to write some shorter essays. These will hopefully take less time, and as my post lengths have been creeping up, it’s probably a good idea to try to exercise some restraint in any case. That said sometimes shorter pieces require just as much, if not more effort than longer pieces. All the way back in 1657 Pascal apologized for the length of one of his letters because he “had not the time to make it shorter”. The more I write the more true I realize this is. 

In any event we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure how much shorter I can make my reviews, but I guess we’re about to find out. Making things more difficult, I’m going to immediately undermine this effort by adding a new section for non-fiction books, and the occasional fictional book: “What’s the author’s angle?”

I- Eschatological Reviews

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy 

By: Taylor Dotson

Published: 2021

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another examination of political polarization. This one focused on pointing out that science is not nearly as prescriptive as people claim, but also neither is “common sense”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Dotson describes himself as a leftist, and his primary thrust seems to be urging other leftists to re-engage with pluralist, discursive democracy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone sick of people telling them that we just need to “follow the science” or anyone who suspects that the value of an epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) has been oversold.

General Thoughts

I found this book to be appealing but flawed. Let’s start with its appeal. I have noticed, particularly since the pandemic started, that the admonition to “follow the science” has gotten ever more insistent. These admonitions preceded the pandemic, but that was what really put the idea to the test and found it wanting. I have previously discussed why this is so. Why determining the correct action is not nearly so simple. But some people imagine that it is precisely that simple, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

Tyson and Nye are not generally at the top of anybody’s list of “people who are destroying the world”, but Dotson is pretty hard on them. This was definitely part of the book’s appeal for me. Not because Tyson or Nye are bad people, but precisely because they’re not. This allows us to clearly identify the bad idea as something separate, not part of other biases which might attach to the person, something which is impossible with people like Biden and Trump. 

So what is this bad idea? Let’s start with Nye:

“On his Netflix program, Bill Nye tackles controversial issues such as alternative medicine, antivaccination, and climate change primarily by presenting one side as in line with science and the other as beset by cognitive biases and ignorance. Yes, people are often misinformed about the issues they care about, but narratives like Nye’s and the others mentioned here portray disagreement as if it were always the result of cognitive deficiencies and conspiratorial thinking on one side or the other. The historian Ted Steinberg describes this tendency to blame political opponents’ opinions on an underlying psychological ailment as “the diagnostic style of politics.”

The problem with the diagnostic style of politics is not simply that it is rude and condescending but that it encourages a fanatical approach to political disagreements. Opponents are no longer people who see the world differently but instead heretics who refuse to think “rationally” or accept objective science.”

Tyson takes this “diagnosis” and runs with it:

In a recent viral YouTube video, for instance, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims that America’s problems stem from the increasing inability of those in power to recognize scientific fact. Only if people begin to see that policy choices must be based on established scientific truths, according to Tyson, can we move forward with necessary political decisions. 


Tyson’s call for a world government called “Rationalia,” whose one-line constitution requires that policy decisions simply be settled by “the weight of the evidence,” went viral on Twitter. 

It’s hard to express how breathtakingly naive these ideas are. Particularly given Tyson’s reputation for intelligence. Which, bears repeating, is not the same as wisdom. But perhaps you think I’m being too hard on him and Nye. I don’t think so, and as I mentioned, that’s the appeal of the book. It points out all the ways these recommendations won’t work. 

  • Collecting evidence has proven to be far more difficult than people expected, leading to a vast replication crisis.
  • Different scientists weigh evidence differently. An ecologist may be concerned about evidence that genetically modified crops are more fragile. While a geneticist may be entirely concerned with evidence of pest resistance. 
  • “Scientizing policy privileges the dimensions of life that are easily quantifiable and renders less visible the ones that are not.”
  • Science as it is conducted is not apolitical. Scientists not only have biases in how they weigh the evidence, they are biased in which studies they conduct, and the recommendations they make. 

I could go on, but perhaps at this point it’s more useful to apply it to an actual problem we’re currently grappling with. I’m sure everyone’s excited that the controversy over abortion is once again dominating the news. What does science say about how to decide that problem? 

Back in 2018 The Atlantic ran an article titled, “Science Is Giving the Pro-Life Movement a Boost”. It talks about ultrasounds, fetal pain, neonatal surgery, and premature babies surviving after earlier and earlier births. I’m sure there is some other science, that weighs in on the opposite side (though I expect it would mostly apply to very early abortions). But my point is not to get into the actual debate, my point is that there is a debate. A debate where there’s significant evidence for the pro-life side. The side Nye and Tyson are almost certainly opposed to. 

To put it another way, forget about the morality of the situation. Forget about bodily autonomy or choice, or anything like that. And just consider, what the “weight of evidence” says about abortion, what science says about it. Using nothing but science would every person arrive at the same conclusion? Obviously not. Of course this gets into the is-ought problem which I’ve mentioned before.  And Dotson’s whole point is that when Tyson advocates for Rationalia and other people advocate for an epistocracy, they have no idea how to overcome this problem. The question we’re left with is, does Dotson?

Eschatological Implications

In any discussion of this topic almost no one questions Dotson’s premise. Everyone agrees that there’s a divide. Furthermore, most people, even Tyson and Nye, would go on to agree that  there’s too much fanatical certitude. (Though they would point to the other side as the one where this is a problem.) Which is to say everyone grants the title/thesis of the book. What they want to know is: what do we do about it? What does it mean for the future of civil society? How will America survive this widening divide? Or will it not survive it? If “following the science” isn’t the solution, what is?

As I mentioned the book is appealing but flawed, and it’s when we get to Dotson’s solutions that the flaws emerge, but as I pointed out at some length in a past post, solutions are oftentimes where great thinkers stumble. I’m not sure that I would classify Dotson as a great thinker, but his proposed solutions are better than most. He doesn’t put together a list, but he seems to offer up three solutions:

1- Better, and more civil discourse: This is something of a free speech argument. That we need more speech, not less. That this is the problem with the left, they use appeals to “science” to shut down discussion, and while I haven’t focused on his criticisms of the right as much, he claims they use appeals to “common sense” in a similar fashion. Dotson is not a free speech absolutist, but he believes we have abandoned the “pluralist process of negotiation at the heart of democracy”.

This all sounds great, but it’s easy to make the case that social media has made “pluralist negotiation” basically impossible. Dotson doesn’t ignore the problems of social media, but he doesn’t have any innovative suggestions for fixing the problem either. Here’s as close as he comes:

It is difficult to imagine exactly what a better net might look like, but a reasonable first step would be to hold information distributors to the same standards we would want information producers to abide by. News aggregators and social media sites should be forced to protect against outright fraudulent claims and libelous speech and perhaps be incentivized or encouraged to prioritize material from multipartisan public media.

2- Demarchy: Dotson spends much of the book advocating for democracy over epistocracy, but when it comes down to what most people think of as democratic he’s against it. He doesn’t like representative democracy because politicians are entrenched and oligarchic. He doesn’t like direct democracy, like California’s ballot proposition system, because it leads to bad outcomes. instead he proposes the creation of a demarchical system. Demarchy is “randomly selecting a representative sample of citizens to serve as legislators.” This is not the first time I’ve encountered this idea, and it was used in Ancient Athens, so that’s something. And in many ways it’s interesting, but it’s a very big jump from where we are to there, and I expect that there are lots of ways it might go wrong that we haven’t even imagined.

As one example, he mentions that demarchy can be thought of as similar to how juries are selected. And they seem to work out okay. That may be true, but other than the random selection part, everything else is very different. They are impaneled to consider a single issue. It’s expected that they frequently won’t reach a decision. And there’s a whole additional process of jury selection after the random selection. Will we have something similar where given sufficient grounds potential legislators could be dismissed or not seated? If so, that puts us back in the same position we’re already in. My favorite version of demarchy imagined that the people selected would remain anonymous. In conclusion this proposal is interesting, but embryonic.

3- Civic religion: I bow to no one in my appreciation for the benefits of civic religion, and you would think that appreciation would extend to anyone else who also chooses to extol it’s virtues, but Dotson’s advocacy is the strangest I’ve come across. Most people who think civic religion is important will pine for a return to the civic religion of patriotism, with its veneration of the founding fathers, the constitution, and the Revolution. Even though our former civic religion did all the things Dotson says he wants, he not only doesn’t wish to revive it, he doesn’t even acknowledge its existence!

It would be one thing if he had a different definition of civic religion, but when he says things like, “For pluralism to blossom, the next generation may need to be brought up within a democratic civic religion.” That sure sounds like the kind of thing I experienced in the 70’s and 80’s, but he never once draws that connection…

I’m not saying that returning to the old civic religion of patriotism, 4th of July parades, and secular saints like Washington and Lincoln will be easy, but if civic religion is going to save the country it will be a heck of a lot easier to return to what we already have, than to invent some new civic religion out of whole cloth.

II- Capsule Reviews

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 

By: Mark Fisher 

Published: 2009

81 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek or perhaps both, said “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This book discusses how capitalism grew to encompass the whole of our imagination, and the brief glimpses one receives of potential alternatives. 

What’s the author’s angle?

Fisher has been described as a Marxist pop-culture theorist, a description I would agree with after reading the book.

Who should read this book?

People looking to steelman communism. In particular the author does a good job of showing how the Marxist concept of ‘Late Capitalism’ foretold much of the craziness we’re currently experiencing.

General Thoughts

I have many thoughts about this book, but I’d rather not go off half-cocked, which is to say, my plan is to re-read this book on my Kindle where it’s easy to highlight things and only then do I intend to opine deeply on what it’s saying. 

As I have mentioned in the past, I’m part of a book club, and one part of my plan to re-read this book is hoping to use my substantial influence (that’s a joke) to convince them to read it along with me. If I’m successful I will return here and report on not only what I thought, but what others thought as well. 

I realize that this is something of a cop-out, so I’ll leave you with a quote. This is from the section of the book where I first was prompted to sit up and think, “Wow, this is powerful stuff!”

In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, [Kurt] Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché. The impasse that paralyzed Cobain is precisely the one that [Fredric] Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum’.

The Age of AI and Our Human Future

By: Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, Daniel Huttenlocher

Published: 2021

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The changes that are likely be wrought by increasingly advanced AI, with a particular focus on near term changes.

What’s the author’s angle?

They’re hoping to bring greater awareness to the geopolitical changes which will be brought by AI and to urge the US to take the lead with AI.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in AI, but all your attention has been dominated what’s happening now (i.e. GPT-3, DALL-E, AlphaGo, etc.) or what may eventually happen (AI risk, Superintelligence, Age of Em, etc.) then this is a great book for covering the territory in between. 

General Thoughts

Yes, the lead author is that Henry Kissinger, who is apparently still writing (or at least contributing to books) at the age of 98. We should all be so lucky.

While Kissinger is well known for foreign affairs in general, his initial interest was “nuclear weapons and foreign policy”, which ended up being the name of his first book. His experience with nuclear weapons is one of several interesting things about this book, because it contends that national AI programs pose similar threats to world peace, and require similar thinking. But in all other respects they are vastly more difficult to manage. They are more difficult to create international agreements around, to defend against, to collect intelligence on—more difficult along just about any measurement you can imagine.

As I already alluded to, another interesting thing about the book was its focus on the near-term. The vast majority of the people working on AI are either fixating on developing or improving something which currently exists, or on being ready for the Singularity. As an example of the latter, my sense is that Eliezer Yudkowsky thinks that we’re already too late. This book spends a lot of time looking at what’s going to happen on a 10-20 year horizon. One byproduct of this, is that the authors seem to largely dismiss the idea that the singularity is going to arrive unexpectedly sometime in that period.

As a follow-up to reading the book I listened to Schmidt being interviewed by Sam Harris, and as you can imagine the question of AI Risk came up. Schmidt confidently predicted that the next generation of AI researchers would be able to come up with a “run amuck” button, as in if an AI starts to “run amuck” you just press that button and it stops them. You could forgive a blasé answer about the future if it came from Kissinger, what does he care, he’s 98, but I expected better from Schmidt.

According to my notes, which are never as good as they should be, Schmidt said he wasn’t worried about AI running amuck, he was worried about them changing what it means to be human. They spend a lot of time talking about this aspect of things, and I think the authors believe that this is really their main contribution to the discussion. Enough so that they included it in the title. Their approach to this question mostly seems curious and neutral, avoiding conclusions of doom and utopia that seem so common in other books of this sort. But I think doom might be warranted. AI can’t really change what it means to be human, too much of that meaning is encoded in our genes, but it can manipulate those built in attributes, and sow an enormous amount of confusion. Which is not only something to worry about happening in the near term, it’s something we should be worried about right now.

A Confederacy of Dunces 

By: John Kennedy Toole

Published: 1980

405 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The misadventures of the overweight, overeducated and overwrought Ignatius J. Reilly, and fleshed out with similar misadventures from other eccentric personalities of 1960’s New Orleans.

Who should read this book?

This is rightly judged to be a modern classic, and you should probably read it just for that reason, but as Ignatius is the original geek who spends most of his time in his bedroom declaiming his superiority into the ether, I think it has a lot to say about our present moment as well. 

General Thoughts

I enjoyed this book. The plot was nothing to write home about, but the characters, dialogue, writing and setting were all fantastic. Also for a book written in the late 60’s it seemed unusually prophetic. But of course there’s an argument to be made that we’re replaying the 60’s only with the addition of the internet, so perhaps that’s why it feels so timely. 

I can’t emphasize enough how eccentric the characters are in this book, but again that’s another way in which it somehow nails the current moment.

Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By: Roosevelt Montás

Published: 2021

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Montás’ journey from poor kid in the Dominican Republic to undergraduate at Columbia, to Director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum and the pivotal and empowering role “Great Books” played at every stage of that journey.

What’s the author’s angle?

Montás’ has been the head of Columbia’s “Great Books” effort for many years, so in part he’s defending his job.

Who should read this book?

Anyone looking for a defense of including great books as one of the foundations of a liberal education, in particular a first person defense. 

General Thoughts

I remember a time when the “Great Books” still had a lot of cachet. I’m sure it was already fading by the time I came along, but it was still there. In the decades since then they’ve taken a beating. The most common accusation is that they were all or mostly written by old white guys, and that privileging them crowds out minority authors and academics. So I was very interested in reading the story of one of those minority academics who claimed that a traditional “Great Books” course dramatically, profoundly, and positively altered his life. 

Of course these days we have expanded the Great Books canon to include books by Gandhi and other non-european authors, but as Montás points out, these new books have not replaced the old books, they are an addition to the canon. All of the books that were great in 1920 are still great today. Montás covers four authors in particular: Augustine, Aristotle, Freud, and the aforementioned Gandhi. He spends one chapter on each of them detailing how they impacted his life in positive ways. I liked the first person aspect of the book, but as this was a book giving a defense of the Great Books as a general tool for educating everyone, it would have been nice if he had included more examples of people benefiting from them beyond just his own story.

Still as someone who is engaged in his own laborious path through the Great Books, it was nice to read someone urging me to continue.

Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen

by: Steve Sims

Published: 2018

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A self-help/business book written by a guy who specializes in making seemingly impossible dreams into realities. 

What’s the author’s angle?

I assume he has enough money, and that he genuinely wants to help people turn their dreams into reality, but I assume the money from the book is a nice bonus.

Who should read this book?

This does not break any new ground in the self-help/business book genre. If you haven’t read the 4 Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, I would read that first, but after a certain point these books are more about motivation than knowledge and this book provides plenty of motivation.

General Thoughts

Sims has an inspiring rags to riches story. He started out as a bricklayer in East London, having dropped out of school at age 15. After landing a job in Hong Kong and getting fired five days later he got a job as a doorman, and kind of stumbled into being a concierge as part of that job. As part of that he kept pushing the limits of what a concierge could do, eventually pulling off some truly amazing requests, like arranging for six people to have dinner at the feet of Michaelangelo’s David. My favorite story from the book is how he had a client who wanted to meet the band Journey, and Sims took that request, ran with it, and in the end the guy was able to get on stage with them and be lead singer on four of their songs at a charity concert. 

As far as how to do stuff like that, as I said I’m not sure that Sims gives away any big secrets in this book. His recommendations are the same as the recommendations from a dozen other books like this. But at a certain point it’s not knowing what to do, it’s being motivated to do what you already know you should be doing, and on that count Sims is a very motivational guy.

The Thursday Murder Club

by: Richard Osman

Published: 2020

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Four people in a retirement community who meet every Thursday to work over old unsolved murders who are suddenly confronted with an actual murder.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. If you like all those things and you’re starting to feel the melancholia of being old then this book is especially for you.

General Thoughts

Every good novel ideally has great characters, witty dialogue, and a good plot. The latter is particularly important for a mystery novel because it’s a genre that not merely demands good plots, they have to be intricate and surprising. Osman manages to pull off all of those features. The characters are delightful, the dialogue is fantastic, and beyond that he manages to pull off not just one intricate plot, but multiple interlocking, intricate plots. I thought it was especially brilliant to set it in a retirement community. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands

by: John Michael Greer

Published: 2019

249 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the fourth book in the “What if the followers of the Great Old Ones were the good guys?” series. (See my previous reviews here, here, and here.) This one is set at Miskatonic University, and the titular Dreamlands.

Who should read this book?

As with all series, whether you read this book depends a lot on what you thought of the books which preceded this one. I thought this was the strongest entry in the series since the first one. So if you’re thinking of continuing I would.

General Thoughts

Greer mostly writes non-fiction, he recently described his career as follows:

Over the years… I watched (and joined in) the peak oil movement as it rose and fell, watched (and kept my distance from) the parallel movement of climate change activism as it rose and fell, watched (and dealt in my own life with some of the consequences of) the slow twilight of America’s global empire and the vaster twilight of Western civilization as a whole.

I bring this up because, for Greer, in both the novel and in the real world, the bad guys are those who think that technology and progress are the solutions to everything. That the modern world with its institutions and ideology is somehow special and different. Of all the books in the series I think this one illustrates the bad guys the best, particularly as they appear in academia. Despite the obvious moral of the story, it’s never preachy or heavy handed, it’s just a very interesting, very different view of how the world works, and of course, as always with this series, how Lovecraftian horror is conceived.

Homefront (Expeditionary Force, #7.5) 

by: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

6 Hours (Only available on audio)

Briefly, what is this audio drama special about?

As you can tell from the title this is an interstitial piece between books 7 and 8 in the main series. It concerns an unforeseen alien threat which suddenly arrives at Earth, which as I think about it, is the plot of the very first book in the series as well.

Who should listen to this audio drama special?

I’m not sure. It is referenced at the start of book 8, and it’s kind of annoying to not know the story, and it’s also kind of annoying to have to go out and spend an audible credit to get the story. They attempt to compensate for these annoyances by bringing in some big names and doing a full cast production, but I found the full cast recording with sound effects to be more annoying than just having the single narrator, so your annoyance is tripled. If you want my advice, you can skip it. 

General Thoughts

This is basically an attempt to turn Expeditionary Force into an old-timey radio drama. Having only listened to a few old-timey radio dramas I can’t say whether they succeeded or not. But as a general rule every full-cast recording I’ve listened to has been disappointing. If someone has one they particularly enjoy let me know. I’d like to find a good one, but so far, in my limited experience, they have all been mediocre.

Valkyrie (Expeditionary Force, #9)

By: Craig Alanson

Published: 2019

398 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As I mentioned in my review of book 8, the Merry Band of Pirates have finally leveled up, this book is about what they do with their new “powers”. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve come this far you should probably continue. By now you will have either given up in annoyance at Alanson’s quirks or come to accept them. I think this book is better than some of the previous books, and ends on a very interesting cliffhanger.

General Thoughts

I’m writing this having already read book 10. And I will say that up until about halfway through book 9 things were getting pretty formulaic. Now it was a good formula, one I mostly enjoyed, but it was still getting old, but about halfway through this book and continuing into the next book, things have been very interesting. I’m hoping they stay that way. 

I also hope my blog stays interesting, which can be tough, since I’ve written at least as many words as 10 novels. This post I started pointing out people’s angles. I have many angles, but certainly one of them is precisely this, to keep things interesting. And obviously another is to try to make you guilty enough to donate

Eschatologist #16: The Right Amount of Danger

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

Or download the MP3

When I was a kid, I had never heard of someone with a peanut allergy. The first time I encountered the condition I was in college, and it wasn’t someone I knew. It was the friend of a friend of a friend. Enough removed that these days you’d wonder, upon first hearing of it, if the condition was made up. But those were more credulous times, and I never doubted that someone could be so allergic to something that if they ate it they would die. But it did seem fantastic. These days I’m sure you know someone with a peanut allergy. My daughter isn’t allergic to peanuts, she’s allergic to tree nuts, and carries an epipen with her wherever she goes.

The primary theory for this change, how we went from no allergies of this sort to lots of them, is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty to keep it occupied, but now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, overreacts to things like peanuts. (Obviously this is a vast oversimplification.)

As the parent of someone who suffers from a dangerous allergy, I feel guilty. I don’t think we went overboard on cleanliness. Certainly we weren’t constantly spraying down surfaces with disinfectant, or repeatedly washing with antibacterial soap. Nevertheless, it appears that we failed to stress her immune system in the way it needed to be—that somewhere in the course of trying to make her safer we actually made her life more dangerous.

Does this idea—that certain amounts of stress are necessary for healthy development—need to be applied more broadly? Do we need to add a psychological hygiene hypothesis to the physical one? I would argue that we do. That it’s not just children’s immune systems which are designed around certain stressors, but that everything involved in their development needs a certain amount of risk to mature properly. 

We see a dawning acknowledgement of this idea in things like the Free-Range Parenting movement, which, among other things, wants to make sure kids can walk, unaccompanied, to and from school, and the local park, without having child protective services called. The free-range argument is that kids need to get out and experience the world. Which presumably means experiencing some danger. If you want to get more technical, the theory underlying all of these efforts is that kids are antifragile and they get stronger when exposed to stress, up to a point. But is having them walk alone to school enough “stress”? When I was 8 I wasn’t just walking to school alone I was wandering for hours in the foothills, and climbing cliffs. These days I’m not sure that would be labeled “free-range parenting”, I think it might still be labeled neglect. It wasn’t, but where do you draw the line? 

In the past a parent could do everything in their power to protect their kids, and they would still experience an abundance of suffering, danger, and stress, enough that no one ever worried whether they might be getting “enough”. But after centuries of progress we’ve finally reached the point where it’s reasonable to ask if we’ve gone too far. Particularly when we have young adults who, historically, would have been raising families or fighting in wars instead declaring that certain ideas are so harmful that they should not be uttered.

For those parenting in a modern, developed country, this problem is one of the central paradoxes of parenting, perhaps THE central paradox. And it’s not just parents that face this paradox, educators and even employers are facing it as well. Unfortunately I don’t have any easy solutions to offer. 

As I mentioned I was wandering in the foothills of Utah when I was 8, but it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still at best only half the man my father is, and he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if this is indeed the trend, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. 

This would leave us with a very difficult problem: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we have the wisdom to bring it back?

The punchline of me wandering in the foothills when I was 8, is that I was nearly always accompanied by my cousin who would have been 5 or 6. So if stories of brave kindergartners is your thing, consider donating, I might have more of them. 

The Drug Crisis (Part 2): Wrapping Up and Maybe Some Solutions?

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

Or download the MP3

I- Why Don’t Other Western, Developed Countries Have the Same Problem?

I generally don’t like breaking posts up into parts, though I’m frequently glad when I do because it often produces the best comments. If I’m in the middle of saying something then it’s more productive to interject a point or a question because it’s easier to incorporate it into what I’m already working on than it is for me to reopen a subject. 

The most interesting comment was left by Zach who pointed me at a tweet, from Max Roser, the founder of Our World in Data, which claimed that the dramatic increase in overdose deaths I talked about in the last post is strictly a US phenomenon. I confess to being embarrassed that I didn’t come across this assertion before starting my examination of the drug crisis. In particular I’m surprised that it was not mentioned in any of the books I read. I think it’s pretty easy to fall into a US centric view of events and issues, which is probably what happened to the authors of the books I read, and it’s definitely what happened to me. Regardless, now that it’s been brought to my attention it deserves a deeper discussion. 

I went to the Our World in Data page the tweet was referencing, and I can’t seem to find the exact chart Roser was using, the one that allows you to compare total overdose deaths by country. If someone else can, let me know. But I can pull a breakdown of the type of overdose deaths (opioids, meth, cocaine, other) by country, and I think the situation is a little bit more complicated than Roser claims. First off when I compare Canada and the US on this website, the percentage increase is pretty similar. Taking the period from 1999 to 2019 (the last year on the site) Canada’s opioid overdoses increased three-fold as compared to a five-fold increase in the US. The US is still worse but it appears more a matter of degree than of kind. 

Roser does include Australia on his chart, which is something, since Australia, unlike the other countries he included for comparison, had a bulge around the turn of the century, but then overdose deaths went down till around 2010 when they started to climb again. But once you look at the breakdown of deaths, Australia appears to have its own unique story to tell, because it’s the only country (as far as I can see) where overdose deaths from “other” drugs are higher than deaths from opioids. I’m not sure what the unique story is behind this phenomenon, but in five minutes of searching it looks like they might have a particularly bad problem with benzodiazepine and antidepressant overdose deaths. 

There are other countries which have seen the same steady upward trend as the US and Australia, but which do not appear on Roser’s chart, these include Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Also all the Latin American countries I looked at had a steady upward trend of overdose deaths. I don’t want to accuse him of cherry picking countries, but I think he has definitely left out some elements which complicate his narrative. This is of course the whole problem with Twitter. But, despite all of this, his central point stands, some countries are doing much better than other countries. Though I would say that the US is not quite as unique as he claims. 

The next step in this process is to determine why some countries are doing better than others and why all countries are doing better than the US. Roser offers up a Vox article which claims that the reason the US is uniquely bad is that drug programs in the US eschew medications like methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone in favor of the 12 step program and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. I’m sure this is part of it, but does this same aversion also exist in Canada and the other countries I mentioned? I don’t have the time to research the various drug treatment regimens in all the different countries, but I’d be surprised if all these countries with their different cultures and medical setups just happened to all have the same aversion to these drugs. That Sweden and Finland have a policy similar to the US, but that Norway, sitting between them, does not. 

One answer a lot of people would give is that it has to do with the US healthcare system, which makes drugs uniquely profitable. While presumably Perdue Pharma could sell Oxycontin everywhere, the incentive to set up pill mills only existed in the United States. But then you still have to explain Canada, which has a single payer system. Certainly proximity to the US was a factor, but part of my point in the last post is that technology and progress have made every every location proximate.

This brings up the possibility that the US is on the leading edge of this trend, Canada is close behind and other countries will soon follow. While we just talked about distribution, “marketing” (for lack of a better term) is also a big factor in this upward trend. We can see it play out within the US, where for a very long time opioids were primarily a problem of white America. But recently black Americans have overtaken white Americans in opioid death rates. With the “white” opioid market effectively being saturated, it was predictable that dealers and distributors would turn to marketing to black Americans. Something similar may be coming for those countries that have thus far escaped the drug epidemic. 

Pulling all of this together, my theory at this point would be that once you’ve lost control of opioids it’s difficult to regain that control. That this is what happened in the US, and in other countries where deaths are rising. Perhaps a related thing happened in Australia, they lost control of benzos and that’s how more people are dying from benzo overdoses than from opioid overdoses. (Of course it could also be an artifact of how they collect statistics.)

I’d like to end this section by talking about China. There are actually two things worth mentioning. The first is their role in the US’s fentanyl problem, which, despite the increase in deaths from all the other drugs, is clearly the drug causing the single biggest problem. And according to the DEA, who’s the primary provider of that drug? China, at least as of January of 2020. This is obviously important for a lot of reasons, but while I was in Vegas hanging out with a friend of mine, he brought up one that I had inexplicably missed. It’s hard to overstate the role the Century of Humiliation plays in Chinese thinking, and of course one of the biggest humiliations during that period was the Opium Wars, when the UK forced China to import opium. For a country that is trying to shake off those humiliations, a reversal of that flow, pushing opioids into the US, is too perfect to resist. I am not claiming that this was a grand conspiracy, more that it was a fortuitous opportunity which was too lucrative to pass up, and is now too symbolic to do anything substantial to stop. And, as we’re seeing, China has significant power to stop things. Which takes us to the next point.

In looking through the charts it does appear that China had their own significant problem with opioid overdose deaths in the late 90’s. Deaths started falling precipitously in 2000 and leveled out at about one-fourth their peak. To get the US death total back to where it was before the epidemic we’d have to decrease the total by an even greater percentage. Do you think the Chinese did it through the use of methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone If not, which seems likely, do you think the methods they did use would work here? I suspect just like Chinese COVID mitigation policies, that we would also be unable to duplicate their opioid mitigation policies.

Speaking of COVID…

II- The Pandemic Made Things Way Worse

Even if the problem is mostly just a US problem it’s still a problem which needs to be solved, and we’ll get to that, but first I want to look at what happened to the problem during the pandemic, because I think it gives us clues to what kind of problem it is.

If you look at graphs of overdose deaths it’s possible to make the case that by 2017 things were plateauing. Roser’s charts conveniently end in 2017, since those were the most recent numbers available to him when he tweeted in December of 2019, which was also conveniently right before the pandemic. As I mentioned in the last post, 2018 was the first year since 1990 when deaths were down from the previous year. And if you adjust for population, 2019 also had a slightly lower death rate than 2017.

Of course, even if deaths were plateauing in 2018 and 2019, it was still a very high plateau, but even a high plateau would be better than having it continue to go up, year after year, which is what it had been doing. And of course one hopes that after it plateaus that it starts gradually coming down. But then 2020 comes along and deaths jump 30%, presumably because of the pandemic. This is the highest increase on record other than the 71%(!) jump from 1998 to 1999. And preliminary numbers for 2021 indicate that it kept going up, though the rate of increase appears to have dropped all the way to 28.5%… I made this point in a previous post, but at growth rates like that everyone in the country will be dead of a drug overdose by 2057, or 35 years from now.  Obviously this rate of increase can’t continue for long, and it’s amazing that it continued for two years.

I bring all of this up for several reasons. First, to give you a sense of the scale of the problem. Obviously it’s bad, but it’s the rate at which it’s getting worse that’s truly alarming. Second, though this is tangential to my primary subject, it’s an interesting but also stark reminder that pandemic precautions were not cost free. I was in favor of most of the precautions that were taken, particularly at the beginning when uncertainty was at its highest, but no one should be under the impression that there are no trade-offs, and some of those tradeoffs consist of people dying, many from drug overdoses, but not all. Third, and most importantly, studying the manner and timing of overdose deaths, particularly when they’re increasing, might help us isolate the cause of those deaths and give us better tools for mitigation. 

Furthermore, as long as we’re talking about the current state of the crisis, I came across one other point that was worth mentioning. A recent paper suggested that up to a quarter of the drop in labor force participation might be due to “increased substance abuse”. So the great resignation might be 25% due to people being addicted to drugs. I don’t have the time to go down that rabbit hole, but it seems like a very big deal. 

I pointed out a lot of reasons in the last section for believing that the problem was not one that was unique to the US, but this is my biggest reason for being cautious. All the numbers I quoted above were from charts that ended in 2019. As I already pointed out all of Roser’s numbers were from charts that ended in 2017. I don’t think we’ll know the true scale of the problem either here or abroad until we have a full accounting of what happened over the last two years. And probably what happened this year as well. Do the pandemic overdose numbers represent a new plateau? Or are they a temporary peak, and we’ll fall back to the numbers of the late 20-teens. Or is it just going to keep getting worse as it has basically every year since 1990? I’d love to be optimistic, but so far the arc of the epidemic has always been worse than I predicted.  

Of course the pandemic was awful, but why did it make overdose deaths so much worse? As in the worst year over year increase since the epidemic started. I assume that there are various possible theories, but I prefer the simple explanation: it was the loneliness. If one could associate any emotion with the pandemic, more than fear, more than frustration, more than anger at the idiots on the other side, the dominant emotion was loneliness. I’ve seen people call these overdoses “deaths of despair”. I’ve also seen people mock this idea, but when deaths go up by 30% one year, and then almost 30% the next year, and those years happen to coincide with a pandemic, I think calling them deaths of despair is probably pretty accurate. I would also accept deaths of loneliness, but I will not accept any explanation which doesn’t include some connection to the pandemic, and I haven’t seen any better ones on offer.

Pinpointing loneliness as the cause of the increase in deaths gives us our starting point for talking about how best to reduce those deaths. 

III- The Best Way to Deal With the Problem 

As I said, all of the information I collected in preparation for this post is from a US perspective. So to the extent that this is or isn’t a problem elsewhere, it isn’t going to enter much into the discussion, though I’m sure there will be some amount of overlap even so. But even should the problem be completely unique to the United States it would still merit serious discussion. Far more than it’s getting now.

To begin with we should talk about what doesn’t work. And it’s clear that top down governmental action is one of those things. Perhaps there was a time when it might have worked, but at this point I think it’s too late. The problem is too big and the addicts are too numerous. In the course of reading several books on the subject it became clear that the federal government, and specifically the FDA, is just too far easy to hack, and beyond that, because the US is the richest country in the world, not to mention the 3rd most populous, the rewards for doing so are enormous. This is similar to the situation that existed in the early days of the internet when there were numerous viruses for Windows machines, but very few for Macs. It wasn’t that Apple machines were significantly more secure, they weren’t. It was the fact that Windows machines were far more numerous. 

Perhaps here we have stumbled on US uniqueness, not that we are uniquely bad at treating addiction, but that we were just the juiciest target for the three factors mentioned in the last post. Pharmaceutical companies were presented with a unique opportunity when the ideology of pain management changed, but where should they pursue this opportunity? Clearly if you were going to start making something like Oxycontin and begin marketing it, the only logical place was the US, and once you had a bunch of addicts, it was also the obvious target for Mexican heroin smugglers (in addition to being next door) and later for distributors of Chinese fentanyl. To reuse our analogy, the change in the terrain of pain management was the internet, and the US is Windows, the biggest attack surface. And as late as 2018 there were still more threats per Windows machine than there were for an individual Mac, but by 2019 that had flipped and there were twice as many threats for each Mac as opposed to each PC. Perhaps eventually something similar will happen, but for now, the US is still the best market for opioids the world has ever known. 

The futility of expecting the federal government and FDA to do anything was brought home most starkly by the story of Insys, told in the book The Hard Sell. As I mentioned in my review, this was a company that started marketing a fentanyl spray in 2012, and did it for five years in the most egregious fashion imaginable before they were finally stopped. If the FDA wasn’t going to pay special attention to fentanyl in 2012, then it kind of feels like they are never going to be the solution to the crisis, nor do other arms of the federal government seem to be doing much better. I’m largely with people who believe that the War on Drugs has been a pretty massive failure. Of course most of these people conclude from this that we should legalize all drugs. 

I had initially planned to spend a fair amount of time talking about legalization, but that time got taken up by dealing with the subject of differential death rates between the US and other western democracies, and given that this post is already late, I don’t have any additional time I can draw on. I will say that when I was young I was a really big fan of legalization. I remember a particular Bloom County comic strip (for those old enough to remember that strip) where drugs were legalized and all the associated drug violence stopped. The punch line was that a drug dealer was out on the lawn wondering what had happened to government price fixing, or something like that (I was unable to find the actual comic). 

I am no longer so idealistic. The problem is how do we keep bad actors from abusing the system in the fashion of Insys and Perdue? One of the arguments has always been that with a legal market at least the drugs won’t be mislabeled or cut with some other, more dangerous drug, but Insys and Perdue produced completely pure product, and that didn’t prevent it from being a gigantic problem. Also the experience we’ve had with marijuana legalization is not encouraging. To take one example California legalized weed in 2016, but five years later 80-90 percent of the market is still underground. The same thing happened in the transition from Oxycontin to heroin, people were addicted to oxy which was available and legal, but expensive, so as a result they turned to heroin which was illegal, but cheap. I would love to hear a credible framework for legalization, even if it were politically infeasible, but I haven’t come across one. Now of course decriminalization is another matter, and I do think that has some real possibilities, which I’ll touch on in just a second.

Okay I’ve talked about all the things that don’t work, it’s finally time to talk about things which might work. Let’s start at the beginning. 

While in Vietnam a significant percentage of soldiers ended up addicted to heroin, and there was widespread belief that upon their return that society would have to grapple with a massive addiction problem, but as it turned out once the soldiers were home the vast majority transitioned back to civilian life and their normal jobs without much fuss. While this was surprising, on a certain level it makes sense. You could imagine that, when faced by the horrors of war, someone might have no other option than to seek to dull things with an opioid, but that once they were home and away from those horrors that they would no longer be dependent on that stuff. 

Despite this, and it’s not clear from the numbers how much of the problem was returning soldiers and how much of the problem was other things, from 1968 to 1969 overdose deaths went up by 19%, and from 1969 to 1970 they went up by 18%. 1971 is when Nixon started the War on Drugs and whether because of this or because of the ongoing drawdown of troops from Vietnam, or because something else, the number of overdose deaths stabilized and even dropped a little bit for the rest of the decade, until 1979 when deaths suddenly more than halved and stayed at that level for several years. (The per capita death rate didn’t surpass the 1978 level until 1993. I have no idea why this happened, and perhaps it’s an artifact of the reporting methodology being changed, but it is interesting to note that when Nancy Reagen was unveiling her “Just Say No” campaign that drug overdose deaths were about as low as they’ve ever been.

The foregoing history of overdose deaths in the 70’s and 80’s was mostly included because it seemed interesting. I’m not sure there are any morals to be drawn, particularly for the sudden drop in 1979, since I have no idea why it happened. Though one might draw the weak conclusion that the initial War on Drugs was not quite the abject failure people claim. No, what I’m mostly interested in, is the lesson of the soldiers returning from Vietnam and the vast increase in deaths during the pandemic, because both phenomena, though directionally opposite, touch on the only thing that seems to be working: being part of an involved community. Soldiers who were addicts in Vietnam were able to shake that addiction when they returned home (clearly not all, but the vast majority did). When people were deprived of community during the pandemic, overdose deaths which were already stratospheric went up even more.

This is a point Sam Quinones returns to again and again in The Least of Us, that what seems to work is when a town, or occasionally something larger decides to really engage with treating the problem rather than locking people up. When they establish special drug courts, de facto decriminalization through suspending sentencing while the defendant seeks treatment, of helping them with jobs, and giving them places to sleep. It’s when an individual addict can draw on the help of several engaged individuals. When, for lack of a better term they have a tribe to draw on. It was when these things were happening that Quinones saw people successfully recovering from their addictions. As he says in the final paragraph of his introduction:

That is what fueled this book—two stories that I set out to tell here. One is the story of an ominous die-off amid a global economy producing catastrophic supplies of dope cheaper and more potent than ever. The other is of Americans’ quiet attempts to recover community through simple acts, guided by the belief—the message of our addiction crisis to those who would notice—that the least of us lies within us all.”

Now I’m not saying this is easy, or straightforward. In particular, I don’t think I can boil it down to something easily digestible in the closing paragraphs of this post. If you’re curious you should probably read the book. Nor am I saying that this is the only possible way to do it. I’d be very interested in trying methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone as part of a treatment plan. But if you have a bunch of different communities experimenting with stuff then presumably some community will try these drugs and if they work as well as has been claimed then they’ll keep using them and more communities will follow. 

IV- Miscellaneous Points I Wanted to Cover but Didn’t Have Time For

This discussion of the failures at the lowest and highest levels, i.e. the failure of the federal government and numerous individuals reminded me of the central assertion of Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen: that we have hollowed out the middle of society. Certainly one could make the argument that that’s exactly what has happened with drugs. The federal government midwifed the problem into existence, individuals operating mostly alone acquire the problem and can’t shake it, and only communities acting in the middle can resolve the problems created by both ends. Problems that would not be nearly so bad if communities had maintained their historic strength.

They screwed up so badly with Oxycontin that, perhaps understandably, the entire medical establishment is now overreacting in the other direction—underprescribing opioids. While I do think that our primary focus needs to be on the harms of these substances, particularly while those harms still appear to be increasing, it’s important not to entirely lose sight of the benefits of opioids. One of my readers pointed me at a presentation made by a libertarian city councilor pointing out how difficult it is even for terminal patients in extreme pain to get Oxycontin and similar drugs now. That now everyone is assumed to be an addict. He also reminded me of Scott Alexander’s piece Against Against Pseudoaddiction which makes some related and very valid points. But, to go back to my argument, you could imagine that this also might be something that a strong middle is better at. It’s much easier to prescribe Oxycontin to someone that has the support of a whole community, a community you might very well belong to, that to prescribe them to someone you just met.

A big part of this whole discussion is the idea of hedonic calculus. You can imagine that people feel much happier when they are pain free, but if that comes at the cost of dying early from an overdose how are we to balance those two things? This is why the question of giving opioids to those who are dying is easy “yes”, and the question of whether we should have given opioids to people who ended up dying prematurely an easy “no”. But what about all the space in between? To illustrate I’ll end with a story.

One of my college friends, actually my roommate, had pretty bad back problems and was put on Lortab, which is ​​hydrocodone and acetaminophen. I don’t know if he was overprescribed Lortab, or if he had problems getting it, but he ended up taking a lot of it. Even today doctor’s are less worried about prescribing it because the acetaminophen is supposed to make it difficult to abuse. Because it will destroy your liver. Well that’s what happened to my friend, he died of what the doctor’s said was alcoholic hepatitis, and while I’m sure alcohol contributed, I think it was mostly the acetaminophen. And as a result he died when he was 40. If he had been taking heroin he might have actually lived longer, and one wonders if, in the final analysis, whether it would have been a better life.

I still think about him, a lot.

That ended on a sad note, and of course the whole subject is sad. But sometimes being sad is good; it spurs you to reflection or even action. I kind of doubt that action will be donating to this blog, but on the off chance that is precisely the action it inspires, here’s a link.

The Drug Crisis (Part 1): The Role of Progress and Technology in Creating the Crisis

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

Or download the MP3

I- COVID Deaths vs. Overdose Deaths

According to Our World in Data, essentially a million people have died from COVID in the United States. Depending on your political persuasion you may think that this is an undercount or an overcount, but as we don’t have the time to get into all of that, this is the number we’re going to use. Not only is it probably about as accurate as one is likely to get without massive effort, particularly if you just want to compare the US with other western democracies, it also happens to be nearly identical to the number I’m going to use to start my discussion of drugs. As it turns out, about a million people have also died from overdosing on drugs in the US since 1999, which is generally when the current crisis is said to have started. Though again you can quibble about that number as well, but I’m going to assume that all different quibbles basically balance out.

So we’re left with 1 million people who died of COVID and 1 million people who died from overdosing, that’s our similarity, but what are the differences?

  • Our overdose statistics go back to 1999, while COVID has only been around since the beginning of 2020. Obviously on a day to day basis COVID is far more deadly.
  • On the other hand, with the exception of a small dip in 2018, overdose deaths just get higher and higher every year, while with COVID we expect the opposite, fewer and fewer deaths as time goes on. 
  • It’s nice to imagine that the United States could have locked down as hard as China and prevented nearly all deaths—though if you’ve seen the news, even China is having problems with that strategy now. But in reality everyone knew that, regardless of what we did, some COVID deaths could not be prevented. On the other hand, in theory, nearly all overdose deaths should be preventable. It’s extremely difficult to avoid getting Omicron. It seems significantly easier to just take fewer drugs.
  • Obviously the previous point is an oversimplification, but we assume at some point (nowish?) that COVID will just be treated like the flu. What is the analogy for overdosing? What is the minimum number of overdose deaths we should expect if things worked as they should? The 17,000 overdose deaths we had in 1999? The 10,000 we had in 1998? The 2,500 we had in 1980?
  • Finally, the biggest difference. COVID has gotten, and probably will continue to get, vastly more money and attention. This is the case even if we compare money and attention for COVID since 2000 with money and attention for overdoses since 1999. Which is not to say we haven’t spent a lot of money on the War on Drugs, much of it misspent, but even critics of the war only put it around a trillion dollars, and this is the cost going all the way back to 1971. While COVID spending is already closing in on $4 trillion

This post is dedicated to considering the drug crisis, and while we have been dealing with this crisis for several decades, I think the pandemic has definitely thrown many of the key issues into sharper relief. People would be very angry if COVID deaths just got worse despite everything we were doing, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening with overdose deaths. With COVID everyone is currently engaged in the exercise of deciding what level of danger is acceptable, are we trying to get it to the same level of the flu? Or is that too ambitious? Or perhaps not ambitious enough? And yet people don’t seem to be doing this with overdose deaths. No one can even imagine that we should be able to drive these deaths back down to their 1998 level or even their 1980 level. But 2022 does not seem all that different from 1998, and yet 10x as many people are overdosing, where does that order of magnitude increase come from? Is it entirely the fault of Purdue Pharma and Oxycontin? Or are there other factors? 

Most of all I want to consider, where do we go from here?

II- How “Technology” Contributed to the Increase 

When considering how the number of overdose deaths increased ten-fold in less than 25 years, I’d like to start by looking at the role of “progress” and “technology” in that increase. You may have noticed that both words are in scare quotes. This is an acknowledgement that I am using them in a more expansive fashion than most people. I nevertheless think that the designation and the grouping is accurate. As the “technology” case is easier to make, let’s start there.

The smoking gun here is fentanyl. To begin with it was first synthesized in a lab in 1960. Using technology which had only been invented in the 50s. Fentanyl is a product of modern technology, which not only didn’t exist, but was impossible to imagine more than 100 years ago. Of course, I understand why it was synthesized. The article I just linked to raves about its utility. Having a super potent opioid is perfect for all sorts of entirely legitimate ends, like anesthesia, and pain relief for terminal patients. But this potency, combined with its ability to be synthesized in a lab, make it perfect for the illegal drug trade as well. The potency makes it easy to smuggle and its ability to be artificially synthesized makes it hard to target the source. 

I’ve been careful to talk about overdose deaths in general, but when most people think about the drug crisis and overdosing on drugs they’re largely thinking of drugs in the opioid class, like heroin and prescription opioids like Oxycontin, or synthetic opioids, like fentanyl. And it is true that deaths from synthetic opioids (mostly fentanyl but excluding methadone) have increased 50 fold(!!) since 1999, with most of that increase coming since 2013. But deaths from cocaine have increased by 4 fold, while deaths from psychostimulants, which mostly refers to meth, have increased 30 fold in that period with most of that increase also coming since 2013. 

Though these latter two categories are less obviously stories of something created by technology getting out of hand, technology has still played a major role. 

If we start by looking at cocaine, it’s not immediately obvious why it’s gotten so much worse. Of course deaths from overdosing on cocaine have not increased at nearly the rate that deaths from meth and opioids have, but a 4x increase is still very significant. I murders or suicides or something similar had quadrupled recently then that’s all anyone would be talking about. And yet you probably haven’t heard anything about this increase. Even the books I read don’t spend any time on it. In part that’s probably because everything is going up. Even deaths from benzodiazepines are rising (a point we’ll return to) and in part it’s because the cocaine crisis started a long time ago, but as it turns out it also involved technology.

In the early 80s there was a glut of cocaine and in order to get rid of it dealers started turning it into crack. From Wikipedia:

Faced with dropping prices for their illegal product, drug dealers made a decision to convert the powder to “crack”, a solid smokeable form of cocaine, that could be sold in smaller quantities, to more people. It was cheap, simple to produce, ready to use, and highly profitable for dealers to develop.

The farthest back I’ve been able to find numbers is starting in 1968, and from then till now the low point of drug overdose deaths was 1980, just before this glut occured. As I’ve said I haven’t read much about the way that crisis unfolded. But what’s interesting is although there was a lot of attention on the “Crack Epidemic” it eventually dissipated, but the actual deaths from cocaine didn’t really go down, and the 90s were worse than the 80’s. In fact in 1999, when all the graphs start, it’s cocaine that’s the leading cause of death, not any of the various opioid categories. 

The important point is that it does appear to be an example of this same process of dealers discovering a new drug, or a new form of an old drug and coming up with innovative ways to sell and distribute it. A story that’s going to get repeated again and again. Which takes us to meth.

If you’ve been following my blog over the last few months I mentioned that I’ve been reading some books in preparation for this post, and The Least of Us by Sam Quinones makes some very interesting claims about meth and technology. The story goes something like this:

Back in the very beginning meth was made using what’s called the P2P method, and it gave off a “smell so rank” it could only be done far away from civilization by biker gangs like the Hells Angels, but sometime in the 1980’s the ephedrine recipe for meth was rediscovered, which was not only less smelly, but also an easier recipe to follow. At the time ephedrine was unregulated, so meth took off. One DEA agent said that between 2000 and 2004 he didn’t remember a single pot or heroin case, it was all meth. (To be clear he was stationed in California, not Appalachia.)

As you might imagine this only lasted for a while before the government responded and started cracking down on the availability of ephedrine. Initially production just moved to Mexico, but in 2008 Mexico banned it outright as well. In a perfect world this would have stopped the meth problem, but we live in a fallen world, and the War on Drugs, though not quite the unmitigated disaster many claim, has nevertheless proven to be an amazingly effective generator of negative second order effects. In this case rather than stop producing meth Mexican producers moved back to the P2P method. Given, by this point, the industrial scale of production, the smell was less of a concern then it had been back in the day, but it turned out that there was a different problem: P2P meth, unlike ephedrine based meth, basically causes people to go insane, or at least that’s what Quinones claims in his book. 

Here’s how one user described it: 

In 2009, out in Los Angeles, a man named Eric Barrera was a long-time user of crystal meth when one night he felt the dope change.

Eric is a stocky ex-marine who’d grown up in Oxnard, not far from Los Angeles. The meth he had been using for several years by then made him euphoric, made his scalp tingle; he grew talkative, wanting to party. But that night, in 2009, he was gripped with a fierce paranoia. His girlfriend, he was now sure, had a man in her apartment. No one was in the apartment, she insisted. Eric took a kitchen knife and began stabbing a sofa, certain the man was hiding there. Then he stabbed a mattress to tatters, and finally he began stabbing the walls, gripped by manic paranoia and looking for this man he imagined hiding inside. “That had never happened before,” he said, when I met him years later.

Eric was hardly alone. The new meth that had just begun to circulate in 2009 was different. Something had changed. Gang-member friends from his old neighborhood took to calling the new stuff “weirdo dope.” “Every bag of dope that I picked up after that,” he told me, “I hoped it would be euphoric like it was before. But the euphoria never came back. Instead I’d be up for days paranoid, wondering, Are they gonna raid the house?”

Obviously the question of what makes this meth different is a big one. And Quinones didn’t have a definitive answer. There seem to be three potential explanations. The first is that the P2P method is prone to contamination from the industrial chemicals used in the process and this contamination is what causes the paranoia. The second possible explanation is that meth comes in two different forms d-methamphetamine and l-methamphetamine. The P2P method produces both in equal quantities. Separating the two is difficult, but according to Quinones, Mexican producers have figured out how to do it. But what if they’re sloppy? It’s possible that if you’re taking a significant amount of l-meth, at the level of an addict, that it might bring paranoia as a side effect. And the third possibility is just some other difference in the P2P process, something we haven’t figured out yet. 

For my part neither of the first two explanations seems particularly compelling. The old ephedrine based meth was made under all sorts of conditions by all sorts of people and yet it reliably produced euphoria? While the P2P meth, now being made on basically an industrial scale, uniformly produces paranoia? Still this is the explanation Quinones seems to lean towards. The other explanation, that the change comes down to an inclusion of the other isomer, makes somewhat more sense to me, given that it’s specific to the new process, but l-meth has been studied a fair amount, and is used as in a variety of medicine and there’s nothing to indicate that it causes paranoia. Though as I pointed out addicts are probably taking a lot more than what any study has used, and there is that old saying that the dose makes the poison. But if I had to make a prediction I think I would assign the highest probability to it being some third thing we haven’t figured out yet, though it would get just a plurality of the probability, not a majority. 

This whole business of meth going from somewhat manageable to causing insanity is not something I’ve seen mentioned anywhere else. So perhaps Quinones is exaggerating the problem. But then again, as I pointed out in the very beginning, lots of things about the drug crisis don’t get nearly the attention they deserve, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that this is a thing and Quinones was the only one dedicated enough to document it. If it is a real thing, it seems like a thing we really ought to get to the bottom of. 

As you can see, technology has done a lot to create and sustain the drug crisis. So much of the story of the crisis is a story of improving technology and distribution methods. Both of Quinones’ books, The Least of Us, and before that Dreamland have large sections that are all about logistics, and improving those logistics, sometimes through better personnel management, sometimes through improved distribution, and sometimes through technology. Though of course in a broad sense improved HR, and improved distribution are also technological advances, ones they’ve borrowed from business. At this point, of course. Mexican drug operations are basically big businesses, ones that are built around taking some chemicals as input and using them to create a profitable output. Businesses that are largely agnostic about which chemicals go in, and which drugs come out. Under this model it made perfect sense to switch to the P2P method for meth. And it made even more sense to replace heroin production and distribution with fentanyl production and distribution. If you were in business and you could replace hundreds of farmers and truckers with a few chemists and just a couple of truckers, you would count that as progress. And indeed it is, which takes us to:

III- How “Progress” contributed to the Increase  

In Quinones’ book Dreamland (see my original discussion here) he puts forth three developments which combined, in perfect storm fashion, to create the opioid crisis. The first, and best known was the introduction of Oxycontin by Purdue Pharma, the second was the development of a sophisticated heroin distribution system running from Northwest Mexico into the US. And the third was an ideological shift in the way the medical profession viewed pain.

As you may have noticed from the title I decided to split this post into two parts, and we’ll discuss Oxycontin and Purdue in the second part. I’ve already discussed the Mexican logistical revolution as much as I’m going to (which is not to say that my coverage has been comprehensive or even adequate, more just that I ran out of time and space.) Accordingly the only thing remaining is to discuss the way the treatment of pain changed. But in doing so I don’t want to just discuss changes in the treatment of pain. I want to look at changes in the way we do everything.

While I won’t be discussing Purdue Pharma, just yet, I do want to spend a small amount of time talking about Arthur Sackler. As I mentioned in my review of Empire of Pain Arthur Sackler was not one of the Sacklers who owned Purdue—those were his brothers—but this fact does not absolve him of all guilt for our current situation, because while Arthur didn’t have any part in the creation of Oxycontin he created the playbook his brothers used to market it. Arthur’s own fortune was made through the marketing of Valium, a benzodiazepine. And what do you know, if we look at our chart of overdose deaths benzos have a category all of their own, and somehow, despite not benefiting from Mexican innovations in logistics, or being involved in pain management, deaths in this category have also increased a staggering amount since 1999: 10 fold, so more than cocaine, but less than meth and fentanyl. Now many of these deaths, particularly since 2014 have involved people who combined fentanyl and benzos, but eyeballing the chart, it looks like benzos went from around 1200 to around 6000 in the years from 1999 to 2011 before combining it with an opioid really took off. Why would that be? We think we know why opioid overdoses increased so dramatically but why did all other categories of overdosing also increase at the same time? I would opine that it all goes back to Arthur Sackler and Valium, and then just a little bit farther still, back to an idea.

Early on Arthur and his brothers worked in an asylum, where the insane languished in appalling conditions. Being reform minded they looked for some way to help these unfortunate people. The story of their various experiments is too long to go into here, but eventually they discovered that, to quote from The Empire of Pain: 

When they injected forty patients who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic with histamine, nearly a third of them improved to a degree where they could be sent home. Some patients who had not responded to any other course of treatment did respond to histamine.

“There was a sense, in their press clippings, that this trio of brothers at a mental hospital in Queens might have stumbled upon a solution to a medical riddle that had bedeviled societies for thousands of years. If the problem of mental illness originated in brain chemistry, then perhaps chemistry could provide the solution. What if, in the future, the cure for insanity was as simple as taking a pill?”

The fact that schizophrenics improved when given histamine was obviously wonderful news. On the other hand, the idea that all mental issues, large or small, could be fixed with a pill, was a dangerous overreach. Nevertheless they took this idea and ran with it. While the Sacklers didn’t do much to discover new cures, like the one they’d stumbled on with histamine, their zeal, and in particular Arthur’s, led them to become experts at marketing chemicals. A strategy which relied on this idea that just taking a pill was all it took to cure what ailed you.

You might imagine that the next step in this story was applying the strategy to Oxycontin. But actually the next step was applying the idea to pain management in general. Oxycontin didn’t create a revolution in the ideology of pain management, a revolution in the ideology of pain management created the conditions necessary for Oxycontin. The revolution in the treatment of pain management is a long story, and this post is already long, but I came across this comment over on Marginal Revolution from a doctor which sums up the situation pretty well:

I’m an anesthesiologist, so I do all my narcotic “prescribing” via syringe these days. Before that, I was an internist, writing lots of prescriptions. I was doing this up til the mid-90’s, when we started hearing about the supposed “epidemic” of untreated, severe pain. Lots of actors involved in that little drama: pharma; Big Nursing looking to demonize “uncaring” physicians for their own ends; inter alia. Anyone remember “pain is the 5th vital sign”? I sure do. There was relentless pressure to make sure that no one, ever, faced a quantum of untreated pain. Suddenly, pain surveys and other forms of government coercion became part of the water we swam in. Getting a reputation as an “undertreater” of pain could have serious professional consequences.

Is anyone surprised that the pharmaceutical industry responded to this milieu? And that government piled on through its enforcement arms in HHS? If you tell the public for a couple of decades that everyone is entitled to a pain-free existence (not the actual message sent, but often the message received), then don’t be surprised at the disaster that results.

Presumably the connection between that original assertion of the Sacklers (and to be fair I’m sure it wasn’t just them) and this situation should be obvious: If you can cure something as obviously bad as pain with a single pill why wouldn’t you? But once you start thinking along these lines, why would you limit it to only things which are legal? If you can take some drug and it makes all your problems go away why wouldn’t you?

I understand there are other factors involved. Drugs are addictive. Wicked companies have marketed them with lies and distortions. There are all the advancements in distribution and logistics I mentioned previously. But along side all of that, and perhaps preceding it, is the idea that we can use progress to solve all of the old problems. Anxious? Take a Valium. In pain? Take Oxycontin. Not enjoying life as much as you think you should be? Take meth. 

Because the thing is, that as much as we might want to blame Oxycontin for creating a drug crisis, which came out of nowhere in 1999, deaths from drug overdosing have gone up every year since 1990. In the last 30 years no matter what drug you look at, and no matter when you decide to start looking, everything is going up. My argument is that this phenomenon is yet another unforeseen side effect of progress, one that’s going to keep getting worse. Can anything be done? We’ll answer that question next time.

I didn’t want to split this in two, but things have been extraordinarily crazy, and to add to the craziness, we’ve decided to move. If you want to help with the expense of that consider donating