Category: <span>Culture</span>

The Tails of the Cultural Bell Curve

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.

As you probably all know, a significant number of inborn human traits, when plotted, turn out to form a bell curve, or something very close to that. This distribution is so common that it’s just called the “normal” distribution. Height is often used as the classic example, but it goes well beyond that to things like strength, shoe size and blood pressure. Nor is it limited to physical attributes. IQ and the big five personality traits can also be graphed as a bell curve. This list is by no means exhaustive, and in addition to things which are easy to plot, like height, there are probably things which are less amenable to measurement which are nevertheless normally distributed.

We’ve been talking a fair amount recently about culture, is there some sense in which it might also follow a normal distribution? Perhaps, but if so what would that mean? Or if it doesn’t follow a normal distribution, what sort of distribution does it follow? The reason I’m curious doesn’t have much to do with the peak (or peaks) of the distribution. The tails of a distribution is generally where all the action is, and you can see the beginnings of this idea scattered among my last few posts: What do these cultural “tails” look like for a culture that’s deep into involution? What does it look like if tail behavior is forbidden by super strong taboos? Finally, which behavior is in the middle of a distribution and which is tail behavior, dads or cads? Or are they on opposite ends? 

But of course, unlike the genetic traits we mentioned at the beginning, where the graphs move very slowly, culture can evolve quite quickly. What would that movement look like if you graphed it? Should we want it to move in some directions rather than others? If there is a peak how is it determined? Furthermore, inward behavioral preferences would seem to have different graphs and peaks than outward behavioral reality. The broader society would seem to have a reasonable chance of changing outward behavior through incentives, but a more difficult time altering preferences. Though, as a further complication, much of the focus on modernity has been on eliminating the differences between preferences and reality. Is that bad or good?

In order to get our head around these questions and the topic more generally let’s move on to an example:

II.

I’ve already alluded to my review of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, by Louise Perry, so let’s start there. In 1970, when the sexual revolution was just getting started, 80% of people aged 25-50 were married. Now it’s around 50%. I couldn’t find any post-pandemic figures, but the consensus appears to be that the pandemic would have driven it even lower. Clearly in 1970 if you drew a graph depicting the culture of marriage, you would have a large peak which represented monogamous marriage. But that’s a map of outward behavior. It’s unclear what a graph of inward preferences would look like, though one assumes it would be different from their outward behaviors, but that societal expectations and incentives caused people to act in ways that weren’t directly aligned with their individual preferences.

As we can already see, it’s obvious that some graphs are easy to draw because we have the data, while some are far more difficult to plot because all we have are anecdotes. Unfortunately those are the one’s we’re most interested in, and one of the goals of this post is to try to infer what those graphs might look like and how they might have changed. Perhaps gaining some insight in the process. Such an endeavor is necessarily very speculative, but in spite of this I hope it will be useful. 

In any case, while it’s straightforward to chart how many people were married, what’s less straightforward is charting inward preferences. And then there’s the question of whose preferences are we talking about? One of the central claims of Perry’s book is that men and women have different preferences. So when the sexual revolution came along and started eliminating the gap between behaviors and preferences, was it eliminating the gap between male behaviors and male preferences or between female behaviors and female preferences? Sex positive feminists argue that it was the latter, while Perry argues that it was the former. That in fact the 1970’s graph was closer to the preference of the majority of females than the current graph. 

There’s obviously a huge debate to be had there, and rather than go back down that rabbit hole, let’s examine something which is hopefully more straightforward: marital contentment. Yes, there are going to be some marriages where one spouse is far more or less content than the other. But my assumption is that it’s hard for one spouse to remain happy if the other is miserable and vice versa (though to a lesser extent), and as such we can meaningfully talk about the contentment of the couple rather than just the individuals. I’m going to make the further assumption that historically marital contentment was normally distributed, that most marriages clustered around the middle, with a few that were much less happy and a few that were much more happy than normal. In other words that previous to the sexual revolution, and indeed for most of history, marital contentment resembled a bell curve. 

So far, my assumptions have been unremarkable, and my conclusions ordinary. But as I said at the beginning all the action is at the tails. What effect did the sexual revolution have on the tails of the contentment distribution? Well, the divorce rate skyrocketed, and given that marriages which end in divorce are almost exclusively located at the bottom of the distribution, it seems fair to say that the sexual revolution put more attention on the lower tail of the distribution. But why? I intend to argue that this shift in focus is one of the attributes of modernity, and it’s not limited to marital contentment.

(I actually think it put more attention on both ends of the distribution. That when more focus was placed on bad marriages, that it automatically generated more focus on trying to create really good marriages as well, articles, books, and behavioral changes. But in this post I’m going to restrict things to the lower tail of the distribution.)

This focus on the lower tail was a big change, I would argue that historically most of the attention was given to the middle of the marital contentment distribution. People expected marriages to be average (as indeed most of them were). If you had an average marriage you talked about it, if you had an unhappy marriage you didn’t. Average marriage was the assumed default. Average marriages were generally what got depicted in fiction. Beyond this societal forces pushed people towards the middle. For much of history people didn’t even consider getting a divorce. Men were expected to be dads not cads, regardless of their preference. Taboos existed against caddish behavior and against other behavior at the lower end of the distribution. If your marriage was unhappy you nevertheless pretended that it was normal or average. And as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, in his under-rated novel Mother Night. “We are what we pretend to be.” 

III. 

You may think that the Vonnegut quote is a weird tangent, but in reality it represents the crux of the issue. There’s every reason to believe that the graphs of inner preferences and outward behavior do not match, so for hundreds of years we decided to pretend to be something we’re not. In the “land of pretend” 80% of us are married. The divorce rate is 1 per 1,000 (or 0.3 per 1,000 if you go back far enough). And everyone pretends that their marriage is problem free. And as Vonnegut observed, if you pretend hard enough it becomes difficult to distinguish the pretense from the reality.

But at some point in our journey toward enlightenment and rationality we decided that it was wrong to pretend. That our outward behavior should match our inner preferences. And now we’re in the real world where only 50% of us are married. The divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000 (down from a peak of over 5, but that doesn’t mean much if the marriage rate doesn’t stay constant.) And no one has to pretend anything about their marriage anymore. Yes, people still do pretend, but it’s not expected. As a concrete example of what I mean, prefacing something with “I’m going to stop pretending,” justifies almost any statement. 

If pretending is so bad. If we’re well rid of it, why did we pretend in the first place? Here we return to the graph. Most of our pretenses, and our taboos, and our obfuscations were designed to push the distribution towards the middle, towards the average. And what was so special about this average? Presumably it was a point of stability; a point that the culture had arrived at after a great degree of trial and error, a point of safety. But even if this average represented a point of stability in an ocean of chaos. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bell curve also resembles an island.) And something that was beneficial to the society as a whole, it wasn’t something that all members of that society benefited from. All this pretending in order to coalesce around a mean masked a bunch of unhappiness, shame and guilt. 

In the past, when survival was more tenuous, the advantages of having a strong cultural center were probably so great that no one cared about the tails of the distribution. But as abundance of all sorts increased, and cohesion no longer spelled the difference between success and ruin, those on the bottom end, who had to pretend the most of all, demanded that they should no longer have to. At the same time as demands were flowing from the edges to the center, charitable impulses were flowing from the center to the edges. As the need to marry and reproduce lessened (say in order to have kids to work the farms)  then being unmarried becomes a harmless choice, not a matter for societal scorn. And surely everyone has friends and family who never managed to get married providing first hand knowledge which further inclines them to be charitable.

The combination of all these factors led to the focus moving from the center to the edges. And this applied to nearly all aspects of culture. Rather than worrying about whether the society was still centered on longstanding cultural practices it became more important to ensure that people weren’t excluded. That if someone would prefer not to get married, or prefer to only get married should everything go perfectly. Then they shouldn’t have to. 

At first glance this sounds like a good and charitable change. Why would we not want to allow people to express their preferences? Why would we want to make people pretend to be something they’re not? Also if our abundance allows us to accommodate all sorts of behavior why shouldn’t we let people behave in whatever fashion they choose.

The whole endeavor promises a better, happier world, but was that promise fulfilled? As time goes on, and we focus more and more on those who were previously shunned and looked down on, what happens? To return to Perry. She admits that in the beginning the sexual revolution and the introduction of the Pill, and all the rest of the changes did go a long way towards making people on the tails happier and more content, but these sorts of situations are never static, there are always trade-offs.

We can see this play out in the cads vs. dads situation. Historically there was always an oversupply of cads, such that we had to pretend that the demand was basically zero to just keep the supply manageable. Since we’ve opened up the floodgates to cads the supply has gotten so great that now women (according to Perry and others) are in the opposite situation. They have to pretend to demand cads (or at least tolerate them) just because the supply of dads is so low. We have clobbered the peak of the distribution and moved a huge amount of behavior to the tails. 

As I have already alluded to, this is not just taking place in the marriage market. This focus on the tail is taking place nearly everywhere:

  • We see it with depression and mental health. This is another area that used to look like a normal distribution with the bulk of people mentally healthy (or pretending to be so) and unmedicated. The situation has flipped, and now rather than hiding illnesses and pretending to be healthy we lean into them. As a result, the number of people in the lower tail of the distribution has skyrocketed. Now to be clear I am not saying that it’s all a matter of societal attitudes. Depression could be increasing for any number of reasons, modernity has brought with it a lot of strangeness. My argument would be that this change in focus from the center to the tail is one of these strange things.
  • In addition to mental illness we see it with physical illness. We have expanded the number of people who are sick and disabled, and significantly reduced the people who are considered to be healthy. Again I’m not claiming that all the new sick people are pretending. (Though some clearly are, for some definitions of the word “pretend”.) Rather, I’m saying that in the past these people would have pretended to be well. And that the distinction between being well and pretending to be well is not as clear as one would think.
  • Perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon is found in the area of gender identification. Up until very recently it’s hard to imagine something more normal, more in the center of the distribution than being cisgender. So much that the word didn’t even exist until 1994 and didn’t appear in any dictionaries until 2015. And yet now a staggering amount of attention is being paid to what was previously an invisible tail in the gender distribution.

If we allow ourselves to get more speculative there are a few other areas which are also worth considering:

  • Ideology and beliefs are becoming increasingly dominated by the tails. In times past the idea that a presidential election had been stolen would have been out there, but only the outermost fringes would have gotten really worked up about it. Now it’s practically a plank in the Republican platform. On the left I already mentioned gender identification, but things like defunding the police also fall into this category.
  • Closely related you can also see this in the area of practical politics. And here we actually have a graph. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It always has two peaks, but in 1994 the two parties were so close together that it just about looked like a classic bell curve. It was much the same in 2004, but by 2014 there were clearly two graphs and they were racing to the right and left. I can only imagine what it looks like now. (What’s interesting is that during times of crisis, the graph gets pushed back together, think back to my argument about safety.)
  • Gambling, and other addictions may initially seem like the opposite of what we’ve been talking about, but I think the dynamic is very similar. The vast majority of people do not develop a gambling addiction, so you might think that up until now we would have allowed everyone to gamble and written off the minority at the tails who ended up harmfully addicted. But recall that the center of the distribution got to be that way because it was an island of safety. A spot of low fragility. To do that societal norms create behaviors which are different from natural preferences. People like to gamble, but at some point we decided it was harmful enough that we placed it under significant restriction. Most people barely even cared, but some people decided that it was an unacceptable restriction on their freedoms. Perhaps in this case the focus is on the other tail of the distribution, those who really wanted to be able to gamble. In any case, there’s been an enormous expansion in the availability of gambling recently, particularly sports gambling. 

Having reached the end of this post, I’m not sure how convincing I was. I expect that some people are going to come away thinking. “Well that was a tortured path to saying something that was already entirely obvious.” While others may be thinking the exact opposite, that all I ended up doing was spouting a lot of nonsense. Ideally these reactions represent the two tails of the distribution. That actually most of you form a peak in the middle. The people who think that the idea was both novel and useful.


There’s a lot you could take from this post, but if you were only going to take one thing it should be this. We should all be reading more Vonnegut. So in lieu of a donation check out some Vonnegut from the library. And if you don’t like Vonnegut then you should definitely donate, as penance for your poor taste. 


The Involution of Everything

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

Or download the MP3


I.

A couple of weeks ago, over on his Astral Codex Ten newsletter, Scott Alexander posted, A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures, which posits that movements go through four phases: precycle, growth, involution, and postcycle. 

In the precycle phase people join the movement out of love, and it’s probably inaccurate to label it a movement, it’s just something a few people do. But at some point the excitement felt by those initial people starts to spread to the wider world. And because it’s new it’s naturally exciting, there’s “a vast frontier, waiting to be explored”. As a consequence of this early entrants receive disproportionate payouts. To continue the territory metaphor, imagine buying a lot of land… in San Francisco… in the 70’s. But in the case of a movement, imagine the first few people to start a blog, or get hired by Amazon.

As the movement grows it takes on the characteristics of a “status Ponzi scheme”. As long as there’s new people joining the movement and territory still to be claimed there’s plenty of status for everyone, and no reason to compete. But like all Ponzi schemes eventually you run out of new people. All the people granting status expect to receive status and there are no new entrants to provide it. Accordingly, things start to collapse. This is when involution sets in. As Alexander describes it:

Thanks to the Chinese for teaching me this lovely word, which I think works better than Turchin’s term “stagflation” in this context.

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

And the movement already has most of the infrastructure it needs. Want to hold a conference? There are already five top-notch conferences about the movement; unless you’re a hard-working genius, yours will never be as good. Want to start a newsletter? Maybe instead you should beg for an internship at one of the ten newsletters that already compete for readers – too bad a thousand other people are begging equally hard for that same position.

In other situations, everyone would lower their expectations and be fine. But the subculture is used to being a status Ponzi scheme. This is the stage where the last tier joins the pyramid, realizes that there won’t be a tier below them, and feels betrayed.

Eventually, after all the status seekers get culled, the movement settles down into the postcycle, where people once again mostly join the movement out of genuine interest and not a desire for status, and so the cycle goes.

II.

My initial reaction is that this description applies to more than just subcultures. It also seems like a reasonable description of what’s happening to Western Culture as a whole. This conclusion seemed so obvious to me that I assumed it would dominate the comments on the post, or at least there’d be a thread where it was mentioned and masticated on. But as near as I can tell, after searching for various terms (I didn’t read all the comments, no one has time for that) only one person made this point, UKResident said:

This is a pretty perfect description of our current western ‘civilisation’.

Innovation ––> bureaucracy ––> dogmatism ––> anti-innovation

To which Erusian responded that it might describe our politics, but not the entire civilization. I’m not sure why UKResident felt it necessary to rename the steps. It doesn’t appear to have added any clarity. Nor am I sure why he was the only one to make the connection, or why the one person who did respond dismissed it as purely a political issue. If I was going to try to center it anywhere it would be at the level of the university, but I’ll get to that. Before doing so I need to consider the idea that if hardly anyone else is making this connection then perhaps the connection doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s only my numerous biases that lead me to a conclusion no one else seems to be arriving at. 

Certainly I have a bias for large, overarching narratives and explanations. Additionally, I have demonstrated repeatedly that I think there is something wrong with the world and I’m always on the hunt for what that might be. But perhaps the most salient admission of bias I could make is that I just barely finished reading The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason by Douglas Murray, which seems very clearly to describe a civilization in the middle of involution.

But I didn’t call out all of the foregoing biases for nothing. You should certainly take them into account, and if that means you stop reading here then I suppose that’s what I get for attempting to be intellectually honest. Though before you bail, I would pose one final question. If you accept that something like this happens with subcultures, what prevents it from operating at a larger scale? Certainly each phase in the cycle would take longer if you’re dealing with an entire culture rather than just a subculture (another point I’ll return to) but beyond that why wouldn’t we see a similar progression? 

If you’re still with me, and you’ve decided that there might be something worthy of discussion—some useful knowledge to be gained, both from the observation more generally, and from the specific application of it to Murray’s book—then we should move on to discussing what that knowledge might be.

Before coming across Alexander’s post, I had already decided that War on the West reminded me of the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an 1841 book by Charles Mackay. (I only just discovered that Douglas Murray has also written a book called Madness of Crowds, make of that what you will.) Mackay’s book is best known for his discussion of financial bubbles, but he also discusses various other episodes of crowd psychology including things like witch hunts and alchemy. Mackay’s book is basically a collection of episodes of peak mania. I had a similar sense when reading Murray. Or at least I hope what Murray is describing is the peak, that in 100 years when people want to understand just how crazy it got that they’ll be able to pick up War on the West, in the same way we now pick up Mackay’s book to understand how crazy the Mississippi Scheme got in France.

Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether Murray was describing maximum craziness—whether wokeness has peaked as some have predicted. Certainly I hope things are getting a little more sane, but that’s not what I’m claiming. My claim is that Murray is describing an involution. One that has all the same characteristics Alexander describes with respect to subcultures, but that it’s an involution involving the whole of Western culture. Also, you’ll see that as we dig further there appear to be reasons to doubt that we’re at the end of that involution.

III.

Let’s take another look at one of the paragraphs I quoted earlier:

The movement has picked the low-hanging fruit of their object-level goals. Artistic movements have created enough works that it’s hard not to seem derivative. Intellectual movements have explored most of the implications of their ideas. Political movements have absorbed their natural base and are facing organized opposition. It’s still possible to do object-level work, but unless you’re a hard-working genius, someone will have beaten you to most good ideas.

Does this perhaps sound like the place Western culture is at the moment, that we have picked all the low-hanging fruit? Obviously when you’re talking about an entire culture, it’s going to play out over a longer time period, but perhaps you can see the progression. For example, let’s consider the subject of rights. Universal male suffrage was declared in 1870 with the 15th amendment (though just in theory, not in practice). Female suffrage came in 1920 with the 19th amendment. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and gay marriage was legalized in 2015. Now the big fight is over transgender rights. When that’s all you have left I think it’s safe to say you’ve picked all the low hanging fruit in the territory of expanding rights. The other things Alexander mentions seem equally applicable. At this point it seems nearly impossible to create art that’s not derivative, and philosophically, we’ve done it all as well. When was the last time there was a genuinely new ideology?

Moving deeper into Alexander’s post, this section seems even more on point:

During this phase, a talented status-hungry young person who joins the movement is likely to expect status but not get it. The frontier is closed; there’s no virgin territory to go homesteading in. The only source of status is to seize someone else’s – ie to start a fight.

I’ve talked about this more in other places, but we’ve turned up the knob on basically everything described in this paragraph. We’ve convinced every young person that they’re talented, vastly enlarging the pool of people who expect high status, and then gone on to place an even greater priority on status with the current trend towards self-promotion and “influence”. And if we dig a little bit deeper, historically the vast majority of people were too worried about survival to worry about status, these days it’s the exact opposite. And all of this is happening at the same time that the frontier, i.e. potential sources of status, is almost entirely exhausted. Leaving the young with no choice but to either start fights or check out entirely. Conveniently we’ve also made both of those activities a lot easier as well.

Continuing on:

Sometimes these fights are object-level: the movement’s art is ugly, its intellectual arguments are false, its politics are unjust. But along with the object level disagreements, there are always accusations that accurately reflect status-famine, ones like “the leaders of this movement are insular and undemocratic” or “the elites don’t listen to criticism”. These accusations may or may not be true. But during the Growth phase, nobody makes them, even when they are true; during the Involution phase, people always make them, even when they aren’t.

That last point is particularly critical: the truth of any accusation matters far less than its efficacy. The youth who are scrambling for scraps of status, who’ve been promised that they’re members of the elite, are going to say whatever works. As it turns out saying “The current elites are racist!” has worked remarkably well at moving status from one group to another, which is almost certainly a better explanation of its prevalence than any inherent veracity it might possess. 

As such, whatever else it might be describing Murray’s The War on the West is basically a chronicle of these fights for status. A description of the entire culture reaching the involution stage of the cycle. Now of course there are exceptions, such fights aren’t happening everywhere all the time, but it’s remarkable how comprehensive this phenomenon is.

I was discussing this idea with a group the other day and I offered up Medievalism as a disciple that was in the postcycle stage, because it was long past the time when there was any new territory to stake out. One of the people in the conversation laughed out loud at this, and proceeded to describe the cutthroat Twitter fight that was happening between medievalists at that very moment. This is presumably an example of the commonly noted modern phenomenon of everything becoming political. Which would appear to be another way of saying that the lack of new territory is not isolated to a few areas. It’s widespread and pervasive. Afflicting nearly every part of Western culture all at once. The medievalists realize there’s no point in writing the fifteen thousandth paper on Chaucer. Politicians know that the era of the grand bargain is over, that congress is mostly a performance space and not a legislative body. And millions of twenty-somethings have gone to college, only to realize that they’re the “last tier” of the pyramid. Yes, some areas of technology and science might still have some interesting territory left, but less than people like to imagine. 

Instead the medievalists fight over whether the term Anglo-Saxon is unforgivably racist. The politicians fight over everything and encourage their base to do the same thing. You might think that it’s impossible to have a fight more all-encompassing than “everything” but students have managed it. They’re having fights about epistemology and ontology, i.e. they’re fighting over what “everything” even means. 

A lot of ink has been spilled over the craziness taking place at modern universities. Many people have defended the craziness with the idea that the students will grow out of it. But if we’re looking at a large-scale involution of the entire culture, then academia is just the tip of the spear, and it’s probably not just a phase young people are going through. The fact that it has spread to businesses with the phenomena of woke capital would seem to be evidence for how broad this cycle really is. 

It would make sense that academia is the tip of the spear. One of their traditional roles has always been to distill culture and transmit it to the next generation. One very obvious example of this effort was the idea of designating certain books to be foundational. Establishing a list and a curriculum around the “Great Books of the Western World”. (As you may recall, if you’ve been following my book reviews, I’ve been quite taken by the idea myself.) Numerous universities required students to become familiar with this canon as part of their undergraduate experience. Some universities still do, though these days they inevitably include books from outside of the West. And even with that adjustment, the practice is controversial enough that Roosevelt Montás, the director for Columbia’s version of the program, wrote a whole book defending the endeavor: Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (reviewed here).

Beyond being an example of the way academia distills culture, I want to talk about the “Great Books” effort for another reason: I think it’s a useful marker if we’re going to try to determine where we are in the cycle. There are many questions worth trying to answer as part of this discussion, but perhaps the most important is: how long can we expect the involution to last? (if we’re ready to entertain the idea that that is indeed what’s happening.) While Alexander didn’t say anything about this in his original piece, you can imagine that somewhere along the growth curve, indeed probably near the top, the subculture would want to catalog and compile all of the progress they’ve made. We might even call this process canonization. I could also see an argument that this canonization process would represent the first signs that the movement was past its peak and beginning a descent into involution. If there’s no status to be gained for originality anymore then cataloging the originality which has already occurred would seem an obvious next step.

Even if the “Great Books” programs of the post war period give us some sense of when the cycle peaked, we still need at least one other point before we can have any chance of fitting things to a curve, and from there arriving at the durations of each of the four periods. Fortunately history gives us a pretty good idea of when the precycle period occurred and when things transferred from that, to “growth” and Western Culture really took off. Which is not to say that we can specify a precise year or anything like that, but what we can say with certainty is that it happened at least a couple of centuries ago. Personally I would nominate the American Revolution as a very conservative estimate for the transition from precycle to growth. As in, I definitely don’t think you can place the transition any later than that. 

For the sake of argument let’s run with these two data points. First off they give us a growth period of around two hundred years. Which we can use as an initial, depressing estimate, for the length of the involution. Though of course nothing says that each period has to be of equal duration. But as I said it’s a place to start. Can we make any guess as to the length of the precycle? If we assume that it was also two hundred years, and once again take the American Revolution as the end point then two hundred years before that puts us around the birth of Galileo and the end of the Renaissance. Three hundred years puts us in the middle of the Renaissance, right on top of Da Vinci. Again, precision is basically impossible, but if we were to say that each period lasts at least a couple of centuries, that feels like we’re in the right neighborhood.

Accordingly, unless the involution period is significantly shorter than the previous periods, this methodology would seem to indicate that it’s far from over. That it’s only just getting started. I would hope I’m wrong, but this methodology would seem at least as good as people who search their feelings or read the tea leaves in an attempt to determine whether wokeism has peaked or not. And it is possible that wokeism is just one of the initial phases of the involution, that there are other phases yet to come. If that’s the case I have no idea what these subsequent phases will look like. Perhaps something akin to a counter-reformation? But I’ve already engaged in enough crazy speculation today, so it’s probably best to step back from that cliff.

V.

Alexander mentions Peter Turchin, the current sage of historical cycles, in his original post, and gives him credit for inspiring the idea, but beyond that he doesn’t spend much time on him. However, if we expand the cycle to the whole culture, as I am attempting to do, I think it takes us to some interesting places vis-à-vis Turchin.

One of the central mechanisms for Turchin’s cycles is the process of elite overproduction. Obviously you can see exactly how that plays out in the subculture cycle. During the growth phase there’s plenty of room and status for all the potential elites, things transition to the involution phase when all the elites that were attracted to a movement that was growing arrive to find that all the easily acquired status has been claimed. The cycle naturally leads to elite overproduction. Once things tip over into involution some of the elites, or potential elites, will stick around and fight over the shrinking pool of status, but some will decide that it’s not worth it and either go looking for some other subculture which is still in the growth phase, or they’ll abandon their ambitions and accept some low status position. This is how it works for subcultures, but what happens if you’re talking about the entire culture?

If you’re talking about the entire culture then each of those three options plays out differently. Those who lack ambition have a more difficult time finding some arena that isn’t swept up in the, near-ubiquitous, involution. This means that comfortable, if boring, positions in postcycle subcultures are much rarer. Instead, if you lack ambition you frequently end up forced out of the culture entirely. Certainly we’re seeing an increase in this sort of disengagement. And whatever its charms there’s very little evidence that it’s beneficial for the people who end up choosing it. (Or perhaps more accurately, forced into it.) 

Transferring to some other culture that’s still in the growth phase is also not really an option. I suppose you could go to China, which is experiencing growth of a sort, but I’m unaware of any significant number of potential elites who have decided to take that option. Historically moving to a different culture was an option. I’ve only managed to read one of Turchin’s books, Secular Cycles, and in that book he covers eight historical examples of elite overproduction, but each one is limited to a specific country. Which means when England descended into involution people could leave and go to other countries, particularly if they were elites. To give you a specific example, in the days of Peter the Great, and later Catherine, there were an enormous number of British and Dutch expats that came to Russia seeking their fortune, precisely because their own country had a surfeit of elites. This is also the story of the early days of America and later the American West. 

Unfortunately these days there’s nowhere for elites to go. There is no Russia-equivilant that’s attempting to rapidly modernize, or frontier waiting to be tamed. There are places like Africa and South America I suppose, but again I am not aware of a large exodus of elites towards either of these places. Also one part of our strange cultural involution has been to place these locations off limits with the negative connotation of neocolonialism. 

Finally you can choose to stay and fight it out, and there would appear to be a lot of that going on, but when things are reduced to a single arena, and this arena encompasses nearly every aspect of life it’s inevitable that fights will become more vicious. Which is also, unfortunately, something we’re seeing more and more of.

VI.

The test of any model is its utility. Does it allow us to explain things we previously couldn’t, does it make useful predictions, and do those predictions come to pass?

It’s my hope that the preceding sections did some of that first bit, that you encountered a few ideas that explained or at least clarified things which were previously opaque. As to the second bit, I definitely made some predictions, and in the interest of clarity I’ll gather them here:

  1. The entire culture is going through a period of involution.
  2. This period of involution is a long way from ending.
  3. Wokeism has not peaked, but we should expect other methods of status subversion to emerge.
  4. The methodology we’re currently employing for raising teenagers, and children more generally is making the problem worse.
  5. Consequently the number of young adults who decide to disengage entirely will continue to increase. 
  6. Fights over what status remains will become ever more vicious.

I am aware that these predictions are not particularly amenable to being graded. But then again I’m not a particular fan of short term predictions with attached confidence levels. My goal is to help you prepare for black swans, and ultimately my claim is that during periods of growth we see an increase in positive black swans, and during periods of involution we see an increase in negative black swans. And if we have switched from one to the other on a culture wide basis, that’s something worth paying attention to.

That just leaves us with the question of whether these predictions will come to pass. Obviously we can’t know that yet. But I’ll add the list above to my annual prediction roundup, so I will continue to check in on things. 

Finally, while we’re doing a round-up of “the model”, it’s worth spending at least a little bit of time examining the last of the four periods of the cycle. If our entire culture is going through this process, what will the postcycle period of Western culture look like? 

Given that I’m predicting we’ve still got decades left in the involution period. I’m not sure there’s much utility in trying to envision the postcyle period. Will liberal democracy eventually end up with the same cultural cache as feudalism? Will we all end up trying to claim status in a new American monarchy? Will we all end up as Confucianists? Will the singularity make all of these questions moot? 

I know that some of my readers will immediately answer “Yes!” to that last question and wonder why I took so long to get to it. And perhaps that is the solution to everything we’ve been discussing. But as I am on record as doubting that the AI singularity is just around the corner, I don’t think we should punt on these questions. In particular I’m interested in how Fukuyama’s “End of History” plays into discussions of a postcycle. 

As you might recall Fukuyama claims that liberal democracy is the ultimate system of government (in both senses of the word ultimate) that there is no better system we can switch to. Meaning that if we expand our horizon back by a few thousand years we can imagine numerous previous cultures going through the precycle, growth, involution and postcycle stages, dimly iterating, via the proxy of status, towards the science and progress that finally reached it’s full flowering in the system of liberal democracy. But now that we’ve finally reached it, it’s a dead end. What do we do now? Is the obvious answer that we have to figure out some way of abandoning the pursuit of status all together? Perhaps, but if that’s the case, then out of all the things asked of us by modernity, that may be the most difficult request of all.


I like to think the sort of techno-pessimistic, religiously tinged, Taleb-adjacent, pseudo-eschatological blogging I do is still in its precycle phase, ready to break out as the next revelatory ideological trend. If you want to get on that rocket before it blasts off, consider donating


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


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.

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?

II.

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.


Theories for the 1971 Inflection

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


Many months ago I came across the website wtfhappenedin1971.com. The website is a collection of around 60 charts. All of the charts show some aspect of the modern world going haywire in 1971.

Some of the charts show that certain things were tightly connected for many decades before suddenly decoupling in 1971, with one thing continuing to go up while something else flatlined. An example of this would be compensation and productivity. Productivity continued to rise while compensation flattened off. Other charts show a single line that was trending more and more positive, up until 1971 when suddenly the trend flattened out. An example of this would be black income as a percentage of white income. Still other charts just show that things worked one way before 1971 and afterwards they started working another way. Examples in this category include global currency crashes but also incarceration, obesity and divorce rates.

As the last set of examples illustrates, while most of the charts deal with economic concerns, with particular emphasis on inequality and inflation, 1971 is also the inflection point for many of the other things we worry about, like political extremism. The two parties had been in pretty tight agreement for several decades, but in 1971 you see both start to veer off towards the extremes. After seeing dozens of inflection points, all occurring at the same point in time, one has no choice but to join the website in asking WTF happened in 1971?!?! 

Unfortunately rather than just coming out and offering an explanation the website prefers to use something of a socratic method. They hope that the graphs will generate questions which will lead people to reach the correct conclusion on their own, and that the conclusion will have a better foundation because they arrived at it independently. However, if you make it all the way through the graphs there’s a link to a “Discussions” page which features some videos and podcast appearances by the guys behind the site. If you follow one of these links you’ll find that they blame it all on the end of the Bretton Woods system under Nixon. The biggest effect of this change was to end the gold standard. The 1971 guys think we should go back to a non-fiat currency system and in place of the gold standard we should have the bitcoin standard. I’m not sure what all or even most of the effects would be if the U.S. switched to backing their currency with bitcoin, but I can guarantee at least one effect. It would be very lucrative for early bitcoin investors, which is to say I’m not entirely sure we can count on these guys to be objective.

As I mentioned I came across the website several months ago, and at the time I made it the subject of one of my rare tweets (or perhaps I retweeted it, I forget which). In response some of my readers asked me to take a stab at answering the question. Of explaining what exactly did happen in 1971. Was it the end of the gold standard/Bretton Woods or was it something else? My curiosity had been piqued, and it seemed like something that might be in my wheelhouse. Accordingly in the months that followed I’ve been keeping my eyes open, on the lookout for evidence of big changes in the late 60’s early 70’s. Some grand explanation for WTF happened in 1971? Since that time here are the potential explanations I’ve come across:

1. I Was Born

It would be irresponsible of me to write a whole post on what happened in 1971, and not disclose that I was born in 1971. Perhaps the answer to: “WTF happened in 1971?” Is: “Jeremiah was born.” And of course if you’re going to have a Jeremiah he needs subjects for his jeremiads, so everything started going wrong the moment I was born.

Consider also that from a position of extreme solipsism I can’t even be sure that anyone other than me exists. Perhaps this reality is just my simulation and when I was born the creator of the simulation changed a bunch of the settings in order to craft the precise reality he wanted me to experience. 

I’m not sure of a lot, but I am sure that we can’t rule out the possibility that it’s entirely my fault.

2. Nixon Ended the Bretton Woods System and the Ability to Convert Dollars to Gold 

Next we might as well get the preferred explanation of the 1971 guys out of the way. For those that still aren’t sure exactly what happened, I don’t have the space to get into all the implications (and believe me, depending on who you listen to there are thousands of interpretations). But here’s the short description from Wikipedia:

On 15 August 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated convertibility of the US dollar to gold, effectively bringing the Bretton Woods system to an end and rendering the dollar a fiat currency. At the same time, many fixed currencies (such as the pound sterling) also became free-floating.

Certainly this is a big change to the way both the U.S. and the world economy operated. Also the timing does seem suspicious. Finally this is the explanation the website wants you to arrive at, which has to carry some weight.

While I only recently dived into the discussion section of the website and uncovered their fascination with bitcoin, the Bretton Woods angle was obvious just by looking at their charts, and one of the reasons I delayed writing about it is I wanted to better understand the linkage between going off of the gold standard and all of the things that had happened since then. And while I came across many other explanations for what happened in 1971 the “leaving Bretton Woods” explanation didn’t really get any clearer to me. And yes I understand that when you allow your currency to float freely ungrounded from any hard reality that it seems only logical that it would be easier to spend (government debt has exploded since 1971) and hard to keep the value stable (inflation has also skyrocketed). But despite this it’s rare to find even defenders of the gold standard claiming that we could ever go back to it. (Though such advocacy is becoming more common.)

I certainly understand the argument that the answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is, “We went off the gold standard”, but it feels too pat. It doesn’t explain everything else that inflected in 1971. It’s hard to find anyone arguing we should go back to the gold standard and even harder to find people saying we shouldn’t have left it in 1971. (Though if you have come across any great arguments please forward them.) 

As far as moving to a bitcoin standard, tackling that would be a separate post, one I’m in no position to write just yet.

3. Nothing, there Was No Inflection Point in 1971

One of the big problems with the previous explanation and indeed all of the explanations is that there exists a reasonable possibility that despite all the charts nothing really changed in 1971. One of the points I’ve made before in this space is that anytime we talk about modern trends, we’re almost always dealing with very limited data. We didn’t really come up with the idea of tracking societal statistics until pretty recently. So when you’re looking at a graph charting the rise of real GDP per capita compared against median male income, the data for that graph was only collected starting after World War II. We don’t know what the comparison looks like before then.

This turns out to be a big issue. If we review the charts on the website, nearly half of them (27) only show data after World War II (with many not starting until 1960, and a few actually starting in 1970). If we were to divide the time since 1945 into two parts, the part before 1971 and the part after, two-thirds of that time has come after 1971. This makes it difficult to argue that the time before 1971 should act as some sort of “normal”, or control on our experiment, while the post 1971 period is the aberration. It seems just as, if not more likely, that the immediate postwar period — when the US stood alone as the only nation unscathed by the war, and furthermore at the peak of its power — was the aberration, and that the post 1971 period represents a return to normal. 

Of course there is the other half of the graphs, the ones that go back farther than World War II, what about those? 

Well the rest of the graphs are a mixed bag. There’s a fair amount of duplication particularly in the graphs showing the growth of federal spending and the debt. Of those that do go back farther back than World War II, most only go back as far as 1900 or maybe 1880. And some of those, particularly the ones dealing with inequality show that World War II and its immediate aftermath really did represent an aberration, that from 1900 to 1940 inequality was similar to what we’re seeing now. That 1971 wasn’t when things broke, it’s when things were “restored”. When inequality returned back to its usual level.

Related to the foregoing I should include a comment made in response to a post over at Astral Codex Ten. The post asserted, “Around 1970, something went wrong.” In response the commenter said: 

This is semimythology. The richer the region within the U.S. you look at, the less growth there was between 1930 and 1970. The 1930s-early 1970s was mostly a process of poor regions catching up with the rich, not faster growth in the richest regions, which is what matters.

Combining these two explanations together I think we’ve gone a long way towards explaining what happened in 1971. But I don’t think they explain everything, and even if the postwar period was an aberration, it was apparently a particularly nice one, and it’s entirely reasonable to ask how we could return to those conditions, now that we know that it’s possible. Nevertheless I think it’s clear that at least in some respects the answer to the question of “WTF happened in 1971?” is that the auspicious conditions the U.S. had been enjoying since the end of the war finally came to an end.

4. The Long Peace Happened

As I mentioned many of the charts on wtfhappenedin1971.com concern rising inequality. This reminded me of the book The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel, which I read and reviewed several years ago. Scheidel’s contention is that in normal times inequality is constantly increasing, that it’s only during times of great disruption that we get drops in inequality. Quoting from the book:

Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality but did little if anything to bring it under control. Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks.

Scheidel then goes on to say:

State collapse served as a more reliable means of leveling, destroying disparities as hierarchies of wealth and power were swept away. Just as with mass mobilization wars and transformative revolutions, equalization was accompanied by great human misery and devastation, and the same applies to the most catastrophic epidemics: although the biggest pandemics leveled mightily, it is hard to think of a remedy to inequality that was dramatically worse than the disease. To a great extent, the scale of leveling used to be a function of the scale of violence: the more force was expended, the more leveling occured. Even though this is not an iron law—not all communist revolutions were particularly violent, for example, and not all mass warfare leveled—it may be as close as we can hope to get to a general premise. This is without any doubt an exceedingly bleak conclusion. (Emphasis mine)

This conclusion fits the data that shows that inequality was bad up until World War II and then started to get bad again a few decades later. But what about the rest of the charts? What about the other things that changed starting in 1971? To answer that, let’s turn to another book, The Worth of War by Benjamin Ginsberg, which I also reviewed several years ago. In this book Ginsberg points out that war is the ultimate test of rationality. When you’re experiencing a time of peace and prosperity, as we obviously are, then you can get away with doing things which are suboptimal. This is not the case when you’re involved in a fight to the death. In that case every dumb thing you do has a chance of opening you to the punishment of it being the last dumb thing you do. To put it in a milder form, we’re more tolerant of inefficiencies during times of peace than we are during times of war, and we have accumulated a lot of inefficiencies since 1971. 

At best this would represent a partial explanation, and I know a lot of people would be inclined to deny that it should be extended even that far. Also the cure of re-engaging in existential warfare is almost guaranteed to be worse than whatever our post 1971 disease happens to be. Nevertheless this all touches on a larger point. One that I’ve made repeatedly in the past and which will come up again in this post. We’re in historically uncharted territory. 

5. It’s All Part of a Historical Cycle

Peter Turchin, the leading proponent of historical cycles has gotten a lot of attention for predicting the unrest we’re currently seeing. His cycles have a period of 50 years, meaning the last period of unrest was in the late 60’s early 70’s but as I understand it spikes of unrest and violence bookend the different periods of expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression. 

I am not a Turchin expert. I’ve read one book of his so far and it was entirely concerned with identifying historical cycles. It had nothing to say about what period we’re currently in, but if 2020 marks the transition between the stagflation period and the crisis period, and 1970 marked the transition from the period of expansion to the period of stagflation that would certainly seem to explain WTF happened in 1971. As I mentioned when I reviewed the last book, I do intend to read more Turchin. Perhaps I should start by following his blog? If anyone out there has been following it and can recommend any posts which bear on this as a potential explanation I’d be grateful.

6. We Broke The Country

As I’ve already alluded to, the late 60’s early 70’s certainly represented a political inflection point. Among the things that happened we have:

Extreme Violence: I’ve used this quote from FBI agent Max Noel before, “People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” This is also suspicious timing, and while the violence itself might not have inaugurated the long standing trends we’re still seeing today, you could certainly imagine that in the face of that violence you might be willing to implement all sorts of changes. And while they might be in response to something which later goes away, the changes could prove harder to reverse. 

Watergate: While Nixon didn’t resign until 1974 the actual break-in and the ensuing political circus happened in 1972. And since that time the ability of the government to get things done, particularly across party lines has steadily decreased. In particular while it’s easy to continue to spend money and kick the can down the road, it’s much harder and requires more coordination to exercise fiscal discipline. It’s hard to keep the train from driving off the cliff if you’re still fighting over the controls.

Roe v. Wade: Closely related to the above, this is when many people feel like the Supreme Court broke. And when I say many people I’m including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who felt the decision represented judicial overreach and subsequently caused a lot of problems further down the road. Roe wasn’t decided until 1973, but it was argued in 1971.

The Age of Entitlement: In his book of the same name, which I reviewed last year, Christopher Caldwell makes the argument that the U.S. has two constitutions. The first, created in 1787, is the one we all think of when someone mentions the US Constitution. The second, created in 1964, and commonly called the Civil Rights Act, is not generally viewed as a constitution, but one of Caldwell’s central arguments is that it is, and that from this much of the current political landscape follows as a conflict between the original, de jure constitution, and the new de facto constitution. That, rather than being a natural extension of the original constitution, the Civil Rights Act is in fact a rival constitution, not complementary but actually opposed in most respects to the values of the original. 

You may wonder how something which seems primarily cultural works to explain a phenomenon that’s largely financial, and moreover how something which happened in 1964 didn’t actually break things until 1971, but for Caldwell this is largely a financial argument. His claim is that passage of the Civil Rights Act opened up the floodgates of entitlement spending. While this spending was still in its infancy it was possible to imagine that things could be stopped or reversed, and indeed, that appeared to be the way things might be headed under Johnson, and even more so under Nixon, but Nixon ended up getting impeached. (I’m only now noticing the parallels between this description and the arc of Obamacare.)

This basically put the issue in the hands of Carter. Who actually tried to cut entitlements, and furthermore proposed lean and tight budgets. Whether his efforts contributed to the stagflation of the 70s or not, the timing of that was against him. All of this meant that by the time it got to Reagan entitlements were too entrenched to do anything about, and there was really only one thing he could do: Spend like crazy, cut taxes, and shift the burden of entitlements to future generations. 

One could argue that 1971 comes into play because that’s basically the point at which entitlement spending passes from being contentious to part of the landscape. Which seems kind of a stretch, but at the same time it’s easy to imagine that a sense of entitlement combined with massive spending on entitlements could lead to many of the trends documented on the website. Similarly it’s also clear that we have been entirely unable to slow spending on entitlements, (indeed recently such spending has skyrocketed, see my last newsletter) which is why these trends have continued for so long.

Taken together these four political inflection points seem at least as much a symptom of an underlying disease rather than the disease itself, but it is interesting how many such inflection points were clustered right around 1971.

7. Decadence and the Twilight of America

Closely related to the previous point is the idea of decadence. This argument was recently put into book length form by Ross Douthat in his book The Decadent Society. I did a review of it back in March of last year, and I would direct you there for the full discussion. In this space I just want to see how well his arguments map to our 1971 timeline.

As is the case nearly every time someone makes an argument for modern decadence Douthat begins his tale with the moon landing. This is his very first paragraph:

The peak of human accomplishment and daring, the greatest single triumph of modern science and government and industry, the most extraordinary endeavor of the American age in modern history, occurred in late July in the year 1969, when a trio of human beings were catapulted up from the earth’s surface, where their fragile, sinful species had spent all its long millennia of conscious history, to stand and walk and leap upon the moon.

After that first historic landing we did it five more times. The last of those was December of 1972. If the moon landing represents peak America, then there’s a credible argument that 1971 was the summit of that peak. By 1973 we had withdrawn from Vietnam in embarrassing fashion. Which was also the year OPEC announced their oil embargo. Oil prices didn’t make it onto wtfhappenedin1971.com, but I found another site which pointed out that the early 70s was also when oil prices went from “stable to unstable and never looked back”. We also suffered blows to our prestige in areas like car manufacturing. By 1970 foreign car makers had started to flood the U.S. market with cheaper, more reliable cars. The big three responded by introducing more compact models, but none of them was very well regarded and to the extent people remember Gremlins, Pintos and Vegas it’s as punchlines to jokes. Compounding their problems they had to deal with numerous union/labor issues.

To put things in more general terms Douthat argues that decadence can be broken down into four different components:

The first is stagnation. In the book Douthat borrows a thought experiment from economist Robert Gordon. Where he asks people to choose between having no technology invented since 2002 or all current technology except indoor plumbing and toilets. Everyone always chooses the former. When I reviewed the book I speculated you could go back farther than 2002, and I wonder at what point you’d get 50 percent of the people saying I’d give up indoor plumbing rather than give up all the technology after year X. Is that year 1971? Almost certainly not, but I would bet that it’s in that general neighborhood if not actually earlier than 1971.

The second component of decadence according to Douthat is sterility. As in the fact that we’re literally not having kids. You want to take any guesses as to the last year the USA’s birthrate was above the replacement level of 2.1? Did you guess 1971? If so you get a gold star, because in yet another example of the 1971 inflection that is precisely the case. And it’s an inflection point I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else. 

The third component is sclerosis which Douthat mostly uses to cover political inaction. For most of us the filibuster has become emblematic of this inaction and indeed we see an inflection point in the early 70’s there as well. It got so bad so fast that in 1975 it was reduced from a 2/3rds majority to the current 60 votes we see today. 

Finally there’s repetition, the stagnation of art and culture. Where, for example, a 2010’s movie looks like a 2000’s movie looks like a 1990’s movie. I think it would be very hard to pin the beginning of this to a specific year, and perhaps it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Once again we may be describing the symptom more than the disease, but taken in its entirety you can certainly see a narrative where around 1971 the US went from being vibrant and expansive to tentative and self-absorbed. Where we accomplished one final amazing thing — landing a man on the moon — and then there were no other frontiers left. Probably because I just read that book, it puts me in mind of Shackleton and the great British explorers, which of course coincided with the heights of the British Empire. I think to be vibrant a country needs a frontier or an enemy or something to strive for and perhaps in the early 70s after the moon landing and our defeat in Vietnam we had run out of both. 

8. Less Likely but still Interesting contenders
So what’s my favorite explanation? It’s actually none of the above. And because it’s my favorite, it won’t appear here. I’m going to devote the whole of my next post to it. But before I end this post here are a few miscellaneous contenders:

Healthcare: Another area that looks more like a symptom than a disease, but it’s easy enough to find graphs that show not only that we spent next to nothing on healthcare in 1971, but that we spent the same amount as other developed countries. That 1971 is when spending started to go up and to diverge from other developed nations.

Sexual Revolution: The timing is more or less right, and there are books that have made this case like Sex and Culture and Primal Screams. I doubt that it’s at the top of anyone’s list, but I suspect that the sexual revolution and other cultural changes have had a much greater impact than most people suspect. 

Science broke: With the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis getting lots of attention, along with all of the things science did right and wrong over the last 18 months, added on top of the replication crisis, and the fight over climate change. Lots of people are asking if science is broken. If for the moment we assume that it is, then the next question would be when did it break? I haven’t dug into this as much as some other stuff, but one potential answer is 1971. That’s when peer review really took off, and it couldn’t have been too long after that that “publish or perish” became the law of professorship. 

End of the Malthusian Cycle: If birthrates flatten and agriculture becomes more productive then we have reached a state in human development we very rarely see, a state where population is not limited by the food supply. This is not the first time this has happened, but previously it’s always been because of horrible catastrophes like the Black Death. The reason I didn’t give more space to the explanation is that it appears to have happened closer to 1960 than 1971, and other people have already spent quite a bit of time on it. But in essence one possible answer to the question of what happened is that after thousands and thousands of years humanity finally escaped the Malthusian trap.

Tune back next week when I cover my favorite explanation (hint: I’ll once again be talking about nuclear power.) There’s very little chance I won’t be back next week, but if you’re concerned at all, the best thing to do is to donate.


Dragging History Into the Present Moment vs. Dragging the Present Moment Into History

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


One of the earliest podcasts to gain widespread attention, and still one of the best podcasts even now is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. I’ve always been interested in history, but I think listening to Carlin really changed something for me, and made me connect to it in a way that had been rare previously.

At the time I started listening Carlin was in the middle of his series on the Mongols, Wrath of the Khans. If you haven’t listened to that series, and especially if you haven’t listened to any Hardcore History I would definitely recommend that podcast and that series in particular. Wrath of the Khans was easily the equal of the best history books I’ve read.

As everyone presumably knows, the Mongol conquests were kicked off by Genghis Khan, who became Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1206 when he united the tribes. Having accomplished that, he wasted no time in proceeding to ravage Eurasia. I imagine nearly everyone has at least heard the name Genghis Khan, but that beyond that most people don’t know very much. Though, if the average person was pressed for some fact about the Khan, I imagine the most common one they would come up with is his staggering number of descendants. And it is truly staggering, it has been estimated that out of all the males currently living, half a percent are direct patrilineal descendents of the Khan. (They have his y-chromosome.) Using current figures for world population that translates into just shy of 20 million men, which is about the same as the number of males in California. 

Another bit of trivia, one which is significantly less well known, is that the conquests carried out by Genghis and his immediate successors killed an estimated 11% of the world’s total population. At the time that amounted to somewhere between 37 and 60 million people, but today that figure would be 844 million people. If even the low estimate is accurate the Mongol Conquests would represent the largest act of mass killing ever perpetrated. So how is it that, at least as far as I can tell, (and google auto-complete bears this out) there is far more interest in his staggering number of descendents than there is in the staggering scale of his destruction?

I assume that most people would answer that it’s because those killings happened a long time ago. This is a perfectly reasonable answer, and it’s the answer that first occurs to me as well, but just because it’s the first answer that comes up doesn’t mean it’s the whole answer. I think the history that gets emphasized and the history that gets ignored is a complicated and interesting topic, one that’s worth digging into deeper. For example, while historical distance may be a great answer for people’s ignorance of the Mongol destruction, it’s less applicable to something that’s happening as we speak. To illustrate I’d like to pull a quote from my review of Age of Entitlement by Christopher Caldwell:

[I’ll] start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that [the opioid crisis has] gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises.

I am not arguing that opioids have been ignored, but as Caldwell points out it took a long time before they were getting emphasis equal to their fatality level. And while Caldwell was reduced to comparing the attention given to opioids to the attention given to crack and post-Vietnam heroin abuse, we’re now able to compare it to the emphasis placed on COVID, to compare overdose deaths to COVID deaths. West Virginia’s opioid death rate of 50 per 100,000 is greater than the COVID death rates in Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont, and it’s within shouting distance of the 68 per 100,000 rate of my home state of Utah. Since 1999 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose, while only 571,000 have died from COVID. And while there’s reason to believe that COVID deaths will soon bottom out, opioid deaths just keep increasing. The most recent CDC press release on the subject:

Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

I’m not trying to argue that the opioid crisis is worse than COVID, but it appears that the magnitude of the deaths is very similar. On the other hand the magnitude of the response has been miles apart. People are already talking about how to prevent the next disease pandemic, but very little on preventing the ongoing epidemic of opioids. It seems clear that the pandemic has made it onto the list of “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” that we expect every citizen to be aware of. Has the opioid crisis? I joke about such a list, but it seems like a very useful list to have around. What sort of things would we put on it? What standards would we apply before we include things? And is there a standard that includes COVID, but not opioids? And the overarching question of the post, why has the one been emphasized while the other has been comparatively ignored?

Another short historical example. In the course of this blog I’ve been a big proponent of making sure we pay attention to big risks. For example: 75,000 years ago the Toba Supervolcano erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption ever, with an eruptive volume of 2800 cubic kilometers. (Measured using dense-rock equivalent standard.) Of which 800 cubic kilometers was deposited as ash fall. The enormous amount of material which was ejected into the air led to a dramatic climatic shift. The Toba Catastrophe theory holds that following the eruption the number of humans on the Earth dropped as low as 1,000 breeding pairs. Obviously it’s hard to confirm something that happened so long ago, but if it is true this is probably the closest we’ve ever come to extinction. So my question is, how much emphasis should this event get? Does it deserve a place on “the list”?

I initially titled the list “Humanity’s Big Mistakes” but of course the Toba Supervolcano wasn’t a mistake, it was just something that happened. Should the list instead be called “Humanity’s Close Calls”? From a certain perspective the supervolcano is the scariest thing that has ever happened to humanity, but from another perspective, i.e. the distance of 75,000 years, it’s just a curiosity, something to whip out at a dinner party to make some point about x-risks or nuclear war or something like that. Regardless of what list it belongs on, the more general question is how should we relate to events like this? It seems obvious we shouldn’t ignore them, but how much emphasis should they receive? It would seem equally misguided to obsess over them. What is the happy medium?

To take something closer to our modern day, something more firmly in the category of history than the opioid crisis, let’s talk about Napoleon. I find Napoleon particularly interesting because for the longest time I couldn’t really get a handle on him. He seemed clearly to be the bad guy (based on what I was reading at the time). But if so why didn’t the British just outright execute him? Particularly after he had already escaped from exile the first time? Why did the French continue to revere him? These days I understand things a lot better, particularly when I imagine that the French were operating under the ideology of national greatness. Further, while Napoleon was best known for his military conquests, he also instituted a lot of worthwhile reforms. Accordingly when I heard back in 2016 that the French had voted him the second most important Frenchman in history after Charles de Gualle, this felt like an example of that happy medium I was talking about.  He wasn’t being ignored, but he wasn’t being obsessed over. No one is currently worried about the Bonapartists seizing control, nor are people worried about the French trying to conquer the European continent.

Unfortunately I recently discovered from reading an article in The Economist that this happy medium, if it ever existed, exists no longer. Just a few days from now is the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death and apparently his role and the history that surrounds it is, like so much else, being reexamined. Things that were once ignored are now being emphasized and things that were once emphasized are now being ignored. And interestingly enough this change is coming from all sides. We read in the article that:

Alexis Corbière, a deputy from Unsubmissive France, a left-wing party, declared: “It is not for the republic to celebrate its gravedigger.” On the right Jean-Louis Debré, formerly head of the constitutional council, said that “overdoing it” would be “a provocation”. The Black Lives Matter movement has emboldened those who reject any celebration of a leader who reintroduced slavery to the French West Indies in 1802. Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the Socialist mayor of Rouen, says he wants to replace the imposing bronze statue of the emperor on horseback that stands outside his Normandy town hall.

Now, as I pointed out, Napoleon did do a lot of bad things, though all of the bad things he did happened 200 years ago. More recently than that, we had the Civil War, during which the Confederacy did a lot of bad things. More recently still, Hitler and the Germans did unimaginably bad things. But all of these bad things are over and done with, so why have we suddenly decided to go from ignoring them to emphasizing them?

On the other hand the opioid crisis is ongoing and worsening, and yet it arguably gets less attention than either the crimes of pre-Civil War America or the ongoing danger from Nazis. (Hopefully in the US at least this crisis edges out Napoleon, but even here it’s closer than it should be.) Why is that? Why are we spending more time and attention on what happened in the past than what’s happening right now? You may argue that the opioid crisis is not “history” in the same way that the Civil War and World War II are, but what about the COVID pandemic? On most measures it seems very similar to the opioid epidemic, and yet it garners a far greater share of our attention. Nor does anyone doubt it will end up making it into the history books. Why does it receive so much more attention than the opioid crisis? Is it the same reason that World War II is more noteworthy than the Mongol Conquests? Is it strictly an issue of how recent they are?

Perhaps it is. As the Caldwell quote points out, we’ve been dealing with drug problems and overdosing since at least the Vietnam war. So perhaps in some sense the pandemic and the Nazis are recent in a way that drug overdosing and the Mongols aren’t. And I agree that recency should play some role in what we choose to emphasize, but should it always factor in? Should we treat an event that happened 25,000 years ago differently than an identical event that happened 75,000 years ago? Probably not. At that remove I don’t think anyone cares that one event is closer even if it’s three times more recent. If this is the case then at what point does recency cease to play a role? At what point does the degree to which we emphasize something not depend on how long ago it happened? Are the Mongol conquests past that point? If so it might explain why we still care how many people the Khan fathered, but not how many he killed. 

Whatever that line is between deciding whether something should be ignored or emphasized, lately it seems to be moving backward in time. In 2016 Napoleon was on the other side of the line. Safely ensconced as a historical figure and the 2nd greatest Frenchman. In 2021 he’s the man who reintroduced slavery in the West Indies. In those last five years certain acts of Napoleon went from being ignored to being important. This is not to say he didn’t have baggage in 2016, but he appears to have accumulated more baggage in the last five years. Closer to home there were many decades when people didn’t think much about the Confederacy. Now there’s an ongoing project to remove statues, change displays and close down monuments. Finally, anti-nazi fervor is as intense as it’s been in quite some time. Many things that happened before most people were born are suddenly very important. 

So how should we determine importance? How should we decide what gets emphasized and what gets ignored. I’ve talked a fair amount about the difference between recent events (Nazis and the Civil War) and more ancient events (Mongols and Toba). It’s clear that nearness in time impacts importance, but after considering these events from several different angles I think recency is not important by itself, but only as a proxy for our ability to mitigate the negative effects of these events. We don’t pay much attention to the Mongol Conquests because there’s nothing we can do about them. We have a sense that there are many things we can do about the pandemic, but as far as overdose deaths we have the opposite sense, that despite significant effort at reducing those deaths they haven’t budged very much. Whether we have in fact expended significant effort is a different question, but there’s a sense that it’s somewhat hopeless. 

So far so reasonable, but if it’s actually our “mitigation line” that’s been moving back in time, then our question turns into a discussion of why we suddenly feel that our powers of mitigation have increased? Why do we suddenly feel that going from ignoring certain past events and people to emphasizing them will yield a positive outcome? How are we sure that this new focus is the ideal way to treat history instead of the view of Napoleon which prevailed in 2016, or the view of the Confederacy which prevailed during the six year run of the Dukes of Hazzard? (Back when I was 12 I was a pretty big fan). Have our powers of mitigation actually increased? Will not celebrating the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s death actually mitigate the harm he did in 1802, will tearing down Confederate statues help heal the damage caused by slavery? If they will, why didn’t we do these sorts of things sooner? If they won’t why are we doing them now?

I think many people would argue that it’s not mitigation we’re after, but accuracy. That remembering Napoleon’s reintroduction of the slavery results in a more complete picture than just remembering his victory at Austerlitz, or appreciating the modern administrative state he ushered in. But as I look at how this is playing out I don’t see a mania for accuracy. I don’t see an emotionless search for the facts. I see people protesting in the streets over one thing while largely ignoring things that seem objectively just as bad. This new focus doesn’t fit very well into either a quest for mitigation or for accuracy, but it fits perfectly into support for a particular narrative of history. This is not to say that people don’t hope for mitigation or accuracy as by-products, but the main objective is the narrative.

Understanding this illuminates one of the major reasons why the opioid crisis remains largely overlooked despite the huge number of people who have died. It’s a situation that would benefit both from mitigation and accuracy, but narratively it’s not very interesting at all. We can’t blame it on racism, or Democrats, or Trump. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t easily fit into the narrative of Social Justice. It’s ongoing and worsening, but it’s been ongoing for awhile, and there’s no sound bite solution. 

On the opposite side of things we have the most visible recent example of historical changes in emphasis: the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s the perfect fit for the narrative of Social Justice, and it has the perfect sound bite solution, “Defund the Police”. From a historical perspective it has given us the 1619 Project, which put forward a huge change in interpreting the founding of the country, but which was also widely criticized for its ahistorical claims. It has also given us the “Hands up, don’t shoot.” slogan, which emphasizes a very specific modern event, which didn’t actually happen. These two examples should be blows to people pushing the accuracy argument. But beyond these examples there’s the larger shuffling of history which involves tearing down statues, renaming schools, and scattered instances of reparations, along with calls for universal reparations. 

This is not to say that there haven’t been horrible abuses by police and killings that literally make you sick. But it’s important to compare the numbers. Which takes us into the subject of mitigation. According to the Washington Post’s database on police shootings, 985 people were shot and killed by police over the past year. This is a tragedy but as I mentioned previously 81,000 people in the most recent year from drug overdoses. That’s nearly 100x as many. Now not all of those 985 people were unarmed. NPR reports that “Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide”. This is obviously still unacceptable, but in that time 400,000 people died from drug overdose. So about 3000x as many.

Now at this point there are various disclaimers which could be offered. The NPR quote said, “at least 135” it could be more. Of the 400,000 people who overdosed only around 2/3rds overdosed on opioids. Police shootings are in a different category than opioids, they should be more preventable, and state violence is particularly reprehensible. One imagines that police violence can be reduced to fewer causes than opioid overdosing. Furthermore there is evidence of racial bias in police violence whereas overdose deaths are more diverse.

On the other side we could add that while overdosing kills vastly more people, police shootings garner vastly more attention. Even if the opioid epidemic and police shootings got equal amounts of attention, each police shooting of an unarmed Black individual would garner 3000x as much attention per fatality. But given that the problem of police shootings gets at least 10x or maybe 100x as much attention, in this particular case, the shift in emphasis I’ve been talking about, results in an attention rate per fatality ten to a hundred thousand times as great.

You may think, so what? Yes, police violence has been dramatically emphasized recently, but this follows a long period during which it was almost entirely ignored. We’re just balancing the scales. We used to lionize the Confederacy and minimize the issue of slavery. We used to think of Napoleon as a military genius, not a historical arsonist (A fantastic term from Dan Carlin.) We used to give police the benefit of the doubt now we understand the numerous abuses they’re capable of. The problem is that by engaging in such extreme changes in emphasis you end up  weaponizing history. And when you turn something into a weapon people are bound to get hurt. 

As just one example, recently Vox, of all places, drew attention to a study which basically showed that for every police killing that was prevented by BLM protests that city ended up with 10 additional murders. Perhaps that’s a price people are willing to pay, perhaps the math on that works out in the long run somehow. But it’s also important to note that these numbers are probably low. They do not include the surge in murders that happened after George Floyd was killed, so the trade-off could be a lot worse than 10 to 1 which already seems too much. 

Emphasis doesn’t appear to bring greater accuracy, nor does it appear to do much in terms of mitigation, and may in fact have made it worse (depending on how you view the trade off just mentioned). Additionally emphasis is almost always subject to diminishing returns. At some point everyone knows everything there is to know about police violence, and we’ve done everything practical to prevent it. (And I understand definitions of practicality vary.) Whereas those things which have been ignored can often be dramatically improved with just a little bit of attention. To give a more concrete example, if we could reduce the number of opioid overdoses by just 2% then we would have saved more lives than reducing the number of police shootings to zero. 

When I started this post I had not intended to get so far into the weeds of the opioid epidemic and Black Lives Matter. Mostly I wanted to talk about how the trend of emphasizing, and at its most extreme weaponizing, history is a bad trend with bad effects. That it has a negative impact on nearly all of our current discourse and policy making. But how do we deweaponize history? If viewing history through a lens of ideological bias is clearly the wrong way to do things, what is the correct way? How should we view Toba, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, the Confederacy, the pandemic, the opioid crisis and Black Lives Matter? Well to begin with two of the items on that list have not been weaponized. No one is using Toba to decide what should happen on a specific day in May. No one is using the Mongol Hordes to support privileging one group over another. 

I would suggest that instead of bringing history into the arguments of the present that we take the arguments of the present and look at them as if they were history. That we in fact look at them with as much distance as possible. That we try to imagine that we’re historians studying the early 21st century from the vantage of the early 31st century. What would be salient then? And is it salient now? Is their view of what was important more likely to be correct than your view? If that’s the case then that’s the view we should adopt. 

I think this paradigm has several advantages. First off, the past is harder to change than we think. Yes we should attempt to mitigate the murder of George Floyd by trying Derek Chauvin. But when people talk about police evolving from slave patrols, not only is that inaccurate but even if it weren’t what does it contribute to the current debate over policing? I understand that the Nazi’s were scary and did bad things, but does labeling the people who stormed the capitol on January 6th as Nazis really clarify anything about the present moment? Does it lead us to come up with better solutions or worse? It’s unquestionably beneficial for a certain narrative, but that’s precisely the problem I’m talking about.  

If somehow there was widespread defunding of the police would a historian 1,000 years from now view it as the dawn of a truly just society, never before achieved? Or would they view it as another experiment in a long line of historical experiments which all ultimately failed? In other words what we emphasize they might ignore. But in addition, what we ignore, they might emphasize. If the opioid epidemic continues for much longer or gets much worse I could imagine it eclipsing both BLM and the pandemic. What about stuff like falling birth rates? Most people yawn when something like that comes up, but you could easily see how that’s a trend that could define our era for hundreds of years.

In this post I have asked a lot of questions, and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think it’s important to have a longer term view. To understand that dredging up the sins of the past for the arguments of today is neither healthy nor productive. That someday we’re all going to be food for the worms, and everything we’re so concerned about right now will matter not at all. And some of the things we’re not concerned about will matter more than we can imagine.


I often imagine how this blog will age. Will I be one of those writers who was ignored while they were alive but famous after death? Or will I be one of those writers that has his 15 minutes but then is quickly forgotten. Given the choice I’d prefer a third option, just having a few people think my stuff is worth a few bucks once in a while. If that sounds good to you consider donating.


Vanquished Vaccines and Vetocracies

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

Or download the MP3


I.

A friend of mine spent some time as a consultant for the Utah Department of Human Services. Which included things like foster care and child protective services. And he tells the story of a sign which had been put up outside one of the cubicle farms which said, “If we can save just one child it will all be worth it.” Or something to that effect. Upon seeing that sign he thought to himself, “No, if this department, which employs dozens of people, and costs millions of dollars to operate, can only save one child, it will not all have been worth it, it will have been an enormous misallocation of resources. To save only one child would be a failure of epic proportions.” 

We’re seeing another example of strangely mis-aligned government goals playing out in Europe. (By the way, for those who read my last post, just as I finished it I got an email saying that my European river cruise this summer had indeed been cancelled.) This second example concerns the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, which has run into all kinds of problems in Europe and still hasn’t been approved in America which has left tens of millions of doses sitting around, unused. 

Just in the last week the European Medical Agency concluded that there was a link between the AZ vaccine and blood clots. But went on to say that the benefits outweigh the risks. Despite this many countries have suspended the AZ vaccine for people under 60, and suggest they should take a different vaccine. This suspension might seem only prudent, but before making that decision let’s look at the actual risk. I grabbed some applicable quotes from an article in Business Insider (which is a weird mix of horrible ads and decent information)

“The risk of dying in an air crash is just astronomically higher than the risk of clotting after the vaccine dose, and yet we all get on a plane without a second thought,” Johan Bester, director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine, told Insider.

Wednesday’s announcement came after European medical officials reviewed fewer than 100 blood-clotting cases reported among more than 25 million people in the EU who’ve gotten AstraZeneca’s shot. That’s a rate of roughly 4.6 clot cases per 1 million shots — higher than expected, the review found, but still extraordinarily rare. 

Although even a minuscule chance of a fatal blood clot sounds scary, no medicine carries zero risk. After a year of taking birth-control pills, about one in 1,000 women will develop blood clots. (The risk is about 1 in 10,000 for all young women, so it’s elevated nearly 10-fold in birth-control takers.)

Now I haven’t exhaustively looked into all the numbers I just quoted, so I don’t know if the “fewer than 100” cases (it looks like it was actually 86) they looked at represented most if not all of the cases or if there could be a lot more out there. On the other hand, out of those 86 cases only 18 people died, so the actual confirmed death rate would be less than 1 in a million. Even with this number in hand it can be difficult to compare it to the other numbers they mentioned

One clotting death for every one million shots is certainly less than 1 in 10,000. Which would initially seem to indicate that the risk of blood clots from the AZ vaccine is less than the default risk of clots mentioned in connection with young women. But I’m assuming that the 1 in 10,000 number is over a woman’s entire lifetime or since they say “young women” perhaps it’s over a span of 10-20 years, while the AZ numbers are compressed into the space of a few months. 

Regardless of the default rate what is clear is that taking birth-control pills for a year is probably more dangerous than getting vaccinated. And yes, I understand that the vaccine risks must be balanced against the risks of not getting vaccinated, which for young people is pretty low, so let’s look at another statistic: On a 500-mile road trip, the risk of dying is about 1.2 in 200,000. And yet which young adult would balk at a 500 mile road trip? Or to put it in economic terms, how much additional would they pay to avoid the risk of the road trip and fly instead? Based on my experience with young people and road trips, the answer is, not very much.

I spent so much time on the AZ vaccine both because it’s so interesting but also because we have a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine can prevent, and a pretty good idea of how many deaths the vaccine might cause and it’s clear that the number of deaths it could have prevented is vastly higher than the number of deaths it causes. Nowhere is this more true than in America which has been sitting on at least 30 million doses of the vaccine since at least early March, and almost certainly longer than that. But for some reason the AZ vaccine still has yet to be approved. And here’s where we circle back to that sign. In the case of the Utah Department of Human Services success was saving even one kid. In the case of the AZ vaccine it appears that failure is causing even one death (or more accurately 1 death in a million doses, but you get the idea). 

At first glance it may seem like the two standards are precisely the opposite of one another, the one is about saving a single life while the other is about causing a single death, but they both stem from the same impulse. The impulse I mentioned in my last newsletter, of turning the knobs as far as they can to one side or the other. On the one hand we have the bureaucrats who believe that their job is so important and the value of saving children is so superlative, that even if they can only do it once, it will all have been worth it. On the other hand bureaucrats who believe that causing even one death due to something they authorized is so bad, that even if it only happens once, none of it will have been worth it. But in both cases they’ve turned the dial of individual importance as high as it will go.

Now of course this is something of a strawman for what they actually believe. I’m sure that the Utah Department of Human Services knows that it’s not enough to only save one child, even if that sign did hang in their offices. And the Europeans are still administering the AZ vaccine, even if they have attached restrictions and warnings to it. But the US still hasn’t started, and given what we know now about the blood clots, what’s your bet on whether they ever will? Mine is that they won’t. That best case scenario those doses will be shipped off to some country in need (some already have been) and worst case scenario they’ll languish in a warehouse, before eventually being tossed out. And what sort of trajectory would you project for the administration of the AZ vaccine in Europe? Would you predict that concerns over blood clots will fade, and the restrictions will be lifted? Or would you predict that each instance of someone dying from blood clots will be major news? That people will grow increasingly reluctant to take it and that eventually European governments will stop distributing it? I’m predicting the latter. As usual I hope I’m wrong, but I guess we’ll see. (In between writing this paragraph and finishing the post Denmark banned the AZ vaccine entirely, and the US paused Johnson and Johnson.)

II.

These examples and others tell us something important about the way western governments work these days. And moreover that they are not working as they should. Western governments should not be restricting the distribution of the AZ vaccine based on a handful of deaths, or consider saving only one child a metric for success. I say western governments because we’re not seeing the same thing happening in China or Russia. And I say “these days” because we didn’t see this sort of thing historically. Can anyone imagine a similar fuss over blood clots happening in Russia, China or 1930? 

What is this quality that separates us from these other countries and our past selves? Would you define it as a form of government? Is this what I was talking about in all those posts when I was criticizing technocracies? Perhaps a little bit, but here’s where I pull in the book Where’s My Flying Car by J. Storrs Hall (which I promised to expand on in my last post) because the book convinced me that I had perhaps been too hasty in using the term technocracy to describe what’s going on. I’m not sure technocracy is the right term for the form of government which obsesses over saving children and preventing blood clots. But nor do I think people use it to describe the opposite of that, a government which clears away safety regulations around flying cars and nuclear power, which is what Hall proposes. Which is to say in arriving at this point I may have made some mistakes in terminology, but that’s how these sorts of things work, and at no point in this journey did I claim to have all the answers. So let’s pull back a little bit, and rather than trying to say what a technocracy is let’s look at various problem solving approaches. Since we’re already talking about vaccines let’s continue to use that as an example..

Of course, with vaccines there are several countries that can afford to be as cautious as they want. Countries which stopped the spread of COVID and therefore don’t need to engage in a massive vaccination effort. The most notable of these success stories is China, which suffered the disadvantage of not only having a huge population and giant land borders, but worst of all, it was where the virus started. If their numbers can be believed they have suffered just 4,636 deaths from COVID, which is only about twice the number of my home state of Utah, at 2,159, despite having a population 400 times smaller. The US, as a whole, is currently at 564k deaths. Now I’m guessing that China’s number is low, that far more than 4k people died from COVID. But it’d have to be off by two orders of magnitude for their deaths to be as bad as the US’s and it’d have to be off by a factor of 500 for the per capita rate to be as bad. 

How did China do it? They did it by taking a different approach than we did, one enabled by having a different form of government. They did it through a draconian authoritarianism which allowed them to put into place a comprehensive lockdown of a breadth which was unimaginable nearly anywhere else. This is an authoritarian approach and it’s the first one we’ll put on our list.

The second approach takes us in the opposite direction, but before we can get into the details of the approach, we need to get into the details of the Moderna vaccine. (I got my second shot yesterday.) And the most important of these details is that it was developed in two days. Once this was known people started wondering, what would have happened if we had immediately started using the vaccine as soon as it had been developed? Well obviously inventing something is a long way from producing it in quantity, and presumably, given the nature of the crisis Moderna didn’t wait too long before they started ramping up production. They were presumably building out factories, and putting logistics into place long before FDA approval. But even in the unlikely event that we couldn’t have gotten doses any faster than we did, we still could have started administering those doses a lot sooner. And clearly many people who died between January 13, 2020 when the vaccine was developed and December 18, 2020 when the vaccine was approved could have been saved. And even if you want to argue about how much faster the Moderna vaccine could have been deployed, you can’t argue with the 30 million or more AZ doses which haven’t been used. 

This approach, this system, this world — the one where we started administering doses of Moderna as soon as it had been developed — this is the world of Where’s My Flying Car. It’s a world where we put our faith in technology and plunge boldly forward, not necessarily heedless of the dangers, but convinced that what technology breaks, technology is best at fixing. Now to a certain extent this is also a strawman. I doubt Hall was a proponent of administering the Moderna vaccine on the day it was developed, but I’m sure he was a proponent of going a lot faster than we did, and of doing things we mostly avoided like human challenge trials. And even if he wasn’t there were people who were. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is Alex Tabarrok, who has been a perpetual advocate of all sorts of tactics for speeding up vaccination (e.g. having the US approve the AZ vaccine as soon as Europe did, first doses first, rapid at home tests, and human challenge trials). Essentially pushing for our approach to be closer to the world as described by Hall. We will call this second approach, which mostly doesn’t exist in the wild, technolibertarianism.

The third approach I want to consider might be called the historical. It’s the system we had in place during the last pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and the system we continued to operate under in the decades which followed. Under this system there were masks, and things closed down, but neither intervention was nearly so widespread as it is today. Beyond that the authoritarianism on display by the Chinese was inconceivable back then. Though I know some imagine that things were more authoritarian back then, but at least in this case, no 1918 government had the wherewithal to lock things down to the extent China did in 2020. Nor did they probably ever even consider it.

On the vaccine side of things, would they have waited 11 months between developing a vaccine and trying it out? That’s harder to know. When the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796 he just immediately tested it out on the 9 year-old son of the gardener. On the other hand by 1935 when John Kolmer was experimenting with the smallpox vaccination the fact that five out of 10,000 children died and 10 were paralyzed led to a pretty severe pushback, so severe that it was another 20 years before a smallpox vaccine was approved by the government. (Side note: these numbers are orders of magnitude higher than the AZ blood clot numbers.) Would it have been different 17 years earlier at the time of the Spanish Flu? If the years wouldn’t have made a difference would the speed and the severity of the disease have made a difference? Particularly as compared to the slower more chronic progression of polio? That’s also tough to say, but there is one thing we can confidently say, and it’s something I’ve wondered about before in this space: Whatever the disruption and the deaths caused by the Spanish Flu, in the decades that followed it was largely forgotten. It had almost no impact on the psyche of the nation. It’s hard to imagine the same thing being said of COVID.

An Aside

Why is this? Why did the 1918 Pandemic, which by any measure was far more horrible than what we’re going through now, have such little impact? In the course of writing this post a thought occurred to me. WWI is far better remembered and studied than the Spanish Flu despite fewer people dying (particularly in America). But war is always an existential threat, there is always the chance that the nation itself might perish, and as a result it’s important to the nation that it learn from those times in which it almost died. The Spanish Flu, despite its lethality, was never existential. There was never a chance that it would end nations. WWI might have, it never had the potential to end the US, but it could have been the effective end of France, with whom we have quite a bit of civilizational overlap. This was part of the reason we entered the war. (“Lafayette, we are here!”)

Given that the current pandemic has made far more of an impact on our national psyche, and will be a far greater part of our history, does this mean we view it as an existential threat? That’s a good question, and this whole idea is somewhat embryonic, but if I was going to push it just a little bit farther, historically, people felt the existence of a nation was ensured by subsequent generations, that if they were having children and raising them to carry on their and their nation’s ideals that the existence of that nation was not threatened, but increasingly existence is not about subsequent generations or our children, it’s about ourselves, and while even a bad pandemic has a hard time eradicating subsequent generations, there’s always a chance of it eradicating any given individual. All of which is to pose the question, is COVID more existential because we’re more selfish?

End Aside

All we’re left with is whatever approach we actually did take. The thing I’ve spent so much effort over the last few essays trying to get at. How did we do at fighting COVID?

Now that we can look back on things it seems clear that our approach wasn’t as successful as the authoritarian approach taken by China and it wasn’t as successful as a “caution to the wind” technolibertarian approach would have been. Was it more successful than the historical approach? The one taken by the US of 1918 when they were faced by the Spanish Flu? That’s a tougher question, and it’s going to be awhile before that’s clear. At this point it does seem safe to assert that it has been more damaging to our confidence. Beyond that things are still up in the air. Will the enormous amount of government spending cause any problems down the road? Will we have a tranche of kids who are permanently behind academically? Will we be quicker to draw on our “COVID toolkit” in the future? That is, quicker to throw trillions of dollars at our problems or even more likely to shut things down in whole or in part. We’ll have to see, but from where I’m sitting the early signs aren’t encouraging.

If on an even longer time horizon it becomes apparent that the historical approach would have also been better, then we will be in the unenviable position of having ended up with the worst approach of all. And if so how did that happen? It certainly seemed like we really wanted to do whatever it took to beat COVID, and yet, it’s already clear that we could have done a lot better. It’s understandable that we don’t want to mimic the authoritarianism of China. And it would have probably been impossible for the government to make us. And in a similar fashion I understand why it would have been hard to use the same approach we used in 1918, though I think there were elements there that we should have been paying attention to, but this is not the time to get into that, as I have spent enough time arguing that point, both here and in other posts. The big question I have after reading Where’s My Flying Car is why was it so difficult to take the technolibertarian approach? And is that approach a true technocracy? If not what is? 

Before proceeding to the next section we should give this final approach, the one we actually took, a label. Based on what’s happening with the vaccines, and elsewhere, vetocracy seems appropriate, but I acknowledge that this doesn’t quite cover all of the complexities. Because it’s not like everything gets vetoed. Some things still happen, some laws still get passed. What can we learn from an examination of what does get done vs. what doesn’t.

III.

One of the reasons this discussion has wandered quite a bit is that there’s a lot of ambiguity in defining what a technocracy is. I actually don’t think most people use it to describe Hall’s vision of flying cars, nanotechnology and nuclear power. I think it’s proponents make the claim that it’s the system which “follows the science”. Certainly the proponents of the current administration made that claim — whether or not they label themselves technocrats — and yet this is the administration which hasn’t released the AZ vaccine and just barely “paused” the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. (It’s amazing how things have changed just in the time it took me to write this post.) 

The most consistent definition of technocracy, at least from my perspective, is the idea not of following the science, but of following the macroeconomists. And here I assume that some of my hardcore socialist friends would say that technocracy is just the latest euphemism for the way entrenched capitalist interests always manage to remain entrenched. Or put more simply it’s just the latest way for the rich to get richer. And this point is not without merit, whatever the success of our COVID fighting efforts we have definitely succeeded in adding a lot of wealth to those who already had it.

Socialist critiques aside, it does seem that the term technocracy as it is commonly used is far more likely to concern money and monetary policy than technology. You hear it used to explain the explosive growth of South Korea and the rise of the chaebol’s (which literally means rich family). You heard the term used during the Greek financial crisis to refer to those most committed to doing what the IMF stipulated. Moving forward to our own time and place, even though we never got around to distributing the AZ vaccine (and probably never will) our own politicians had very little problem passing two huge COVID stimulus bills. And nothing is more technocratic than stimulus bills. 

As another example I think people like Matt Ygelsias and Ezra Klein are viewed as current day technocrats, and while they are interested in the Hall/Tabarrok form of technocracy, their primary focus has always been on economic policy — scolding deficit hawks, and pushing for large stimulus bills. But this gets to one of the key questions of the post: 

How is it that we’re so bold when it comes to spending trillions and trillions of dollars, but so timid when it comes to vaccine safety? Or the safety of other technologies?

Here it’s useful to bring in some of these other technologies, since up until this point I’ve mostly been talking about vaccines, but Hall describes essentially the same thing happening with nuclear power. Vaccines are being banned despite clear evidence that fewer people will die if we use them than if we don’t use them, and this is precisely what happened with nuclear power. It’s very easy to show that it’s the power source which causes the lowest number of deaths per unit of energy produced. And that, already low statistic, is based on reactors which were almost entirely built in the 70’s and 80’s. When it comes to next gen nuclear that number will certainly be even lower. So here you have a source of power that’s safer than even wind and solar, doesn’t emit any carbon, and uses as its power source elements which are all but inexhaustible (estimates are that uranium and thorium could power the world for 100,000 years) and yet, according to Where’s My Flying Car:

The startup company NuScale is intent on developing modular reactors, small enough to be built in a factory and thus cutting costs, construction times, and so forth significantly. NuScale has to date spent $505 million dollars just to produce the 12,000 pages of paperwork the NRC requires simply for an application. The company estimates that the regulatory process will delay actual production until 2026.

If that isn’t a vetocracy I don’t know what is.

Of course when it comes to nuclear power people immediately jump to the problem of waste, that we are creating waste which will still be around thousands of years from now. And in a similar fashion people who object to vaccines will often concede that it saves more lives in the short term, but you can never be sure what harms it might cause in a few months, a few years, or a few decades. And this is true, you can never be sure what harms the future holds. (BTW the historical response was straightforward, have as many children as possible.) But what approach or framework or system of knowledge causes us to be so unsure about the future harms and benefits of the AZ vaccine, but yet so confident about the beneficial effects and lack of any harm from massive government spending? It seems very possible that we are bold when we should be cautious and cautious when we should be bold. That in more areas than just vaccination we have ended up with the worst approach of all.

When I originally conceived of this post I thought I would spend most of my time talking about why we are so cautious, and also a lot more space on Where’s My Flying Car, but here we are 4300 words in and the references to the book have been sparse, and the examination of our caution has been almost non-existent. I think some of that discussion will take place in an abbreviated form in my next end of month newsletter, because it was my last newsletter that gave us a framework for understanding it. In that space I talked about the knobs technology had given us for controlling society, and how the temptation is to turn them all the way to one side or the other. And thinking of it this way is very clarifying. Let’s look at some potential knobs and their settings.

One of the first things you might try to get to the bottom of is the enormous disparity between how careful we are with vaccines vs. how careful we are with cars (see the statistics from earlier in the post). Or in a similar fashion why so little effort is being spent to reduce the amount of coal (100 deaths/terawatt hour) and how much effort is spent blocking nuclear (0.09 deaths/terawatt hour). And here we might say that with older technologies that the knob is stuck. Cars and coal are too entrenched for anything to be done.

Similarly you might try to get at the disparity between deaths caused by COVID and deaths caused by the vaccine. Between the deaths we might have caused and deaths nature might have caused. In essence this is the Trolley Problem. Is it better to let some external force kill five people or is it better to save those five people but to directly kill one person? Of course here we’re dealing with thousands if not tens of thousands of people saved for every one who dies. Also I think it’s very easy to count the one, but harder to count the thousands.

Thus every potential blood clot caused by a vaccine is rigorously documented, but how many people have any sense of how many people die from natural blood clots (or blood clots from birth control pills)? We rigorously dissect and document and mythologize every nuclear accident, but how many people die from coal mining or pollution? We are obsessed with every child we can save (“if we can save just one it will all have been worth it”) but relatively unconcerned with the millions we can’t save. 

You might say that our knob for counting harms we’ve caused is turned all the way up. And why wouldn’t it be? And our knob for safety is turned all the way up. Again, why wouldn’t it be? But in consequence, the minute we become aware of one death we’re responsible for we turn that knob, the one that caused it, (say the AZ vaccine) all the way to zero. Unless it’s stuck of course. This is the nature of our vetocracy.

I’m aware that this is not caused by a handful of bureaucrats imposing these regulations and restrictions and bans on an unwilling population, that this is a decision society as a whole has taken. That we don’t want the kind of authoritarianism that locks us down so tight COVID has no chance to spread, but we do want the kind of authoritarianism that makes new nuclear plants require a 12,000 page application. That we don’t want a technocracy that actually gives us new cool technology, but we’re fine with a technocracy that gives out lots of money. That we can’t imagine living like we did in the past because that’s terrifying, but we’re fine with a host of new, trivial terrors. That if we can prevent even a single death or save even a single child it will all have been worth it. Even if it has led us to a world entirely geared around avoiding risks rather than taking them.


Of course I often say that if my blog is read and appreciated by even one person it will all have been worth it. If you find that declaration to be similarly asinine and you would like me to read and appreciated by all people in need consider donating


Radical Reform and the Three Kinds of Complexity

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

Or download the MP3


I.

The debate I’ve been engaged in over the last several posts continues. The latest salvo is a post from Scott Alexander titled: The Consequences Of Radical Reform. It opens as follows:

The thread that runs from Edmund Burke to James Scott and Seeing Like A State goes: systems that evolve organically are well-adapted to their purpose. Cultures, ancient traditions, and long-lasting institutions contain irreplaceable wisdom. If some reformer or technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room sweeps them aside and replaces them with some clever theory he just came up with, he’ll make everything much worse. That’s why collective farming, Brasilia, and Robert Moses worked worse than ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Alexander then goes on to disagree with this narrative, and in support of this disagreement he offers up a new piece of evidence, a study from 2009 (which he only recently came across) which compares the European territories where the Napoleonic Code was imposed vs. those where it was not. Basically those territories conquered by Napoleon vs. the one’s a little bit farther along his line of advance which weren’t. The study shows that, in terms of economic growth, urbanization, etc. The former did better. If we then go on to define imposition of the Napoleonic Code to be an example of radical reform, then we have the answer to our perennial question. This is proof that, to adapt Alexander’s original statement:

[A] technocrat who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room [can] sweep [traditional laws] aside and replace them with some clever theory he just came up with [and] he’ll make everything much… Better!

Now to be clear I don’t think Alexander is offering this up as some sort of “game, set, match” for the whole debate. But increasingly he has been taking the position that technocrats, on balance, make things better not worse. This study is evidence of that, and it appears to push him farther in that direction. Of course, if you’ve been following along, my contention has been the opposite: that on balance technocrats do make things worse. Though once again, this is on balance, I have never claimed that technocrats never get anything right or have any successes, and in the course of this post we’ll get to some of those successes. But first…

II.

Let’s establish what we’re talking about. Get a sense of what we’re debating and what the stakes are. In essence this is a discussion about societies, cultures, and civilizations at the highest level. We’re evaluating their success when everything is taken into account, not merely as a snapshot of a single point in time but their success over decades and centuries. Civilizations are enormously complex, and essentially this is a debate about how to manage that complexity. On the one side of our debate we have cultural evolution. (Alexander puts forth  Seeing Like a State, but for me the more pertinent corpus is Henrich’s books, Secret of our Success and WEIRDEST People in the World.) On the other side of the debate we have technocrats and rational planning. (Represented by? Enlightenment Now? Anything else?)

Of course, reducing it to two sides overlooks the possibility of other civilizational-level organizing principles, as well as a blending of technocracy and cultural evolution, both options which are outside the scope of this post. Though the latter is an interesting idea, and worth exploring, particularly if technocrats were content to stick with the things they’re good at, and refrain from interfering in areas where they’re less successful. But I have seen little evidence of such a willingness to forebear particularly recently. 

Having identified the two sides of the debate the next step is to define them. How do we distinguish between the two? While initially this might seem straightforward, once you dig in, the line dividing them is not as bright as one might think. Under cultural evolution a person comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other people, eventually becoming part of the cultural package.

Under technocracy an expert comes up with an idea. If the idea is an improvement on what was being done before it spreads to other governments eventually becoming part of the toolkit of “best practices”.

Stated that way the difference doesn’t seem all that great. I just swapped out a few words, and is there really that much difference between “person” and “expert” or “other people” and “government”? As a matter of fact I would argue that there is, that within these slightly different words lies the entire debate. Let’s start with “government”.

There is of course the standard libertarian argument that governments are different because they use force to get you to do things, whereas cultural evolution is presumably voluntary, or at least more voluntary than a modern state. This may be true, but I don’t think it’s a difference worth spending much time on. Particularly historically, cultures also carried a huge amount of weight. And, for the person experiencing it, the difference between being shunned by an entire community vs. policemen showing up at your door is probably not all that great. 

No, I think the primary difference between how technocracies implement new programs and the way that cultures evolve is a difference of scale and speed. Historically cultural evolution took place in small groups—extended families or tribes—and thus whatever the innovation was, at best it would be adopted by a few hundred people. The success of the innovation would be reflected, in part, by a greater number of offspring, which also provides a mechanism for spreading the innovation. Eventually this gets to the point where the successful culture starts displacing, absorbing or eliminating less successful ones. Beyond the foregoing other things might make the innovation spread more quickly, but at best the whole thing scales up over the course of years if not decades.

On the other hand, with a technocracy, change can be implemented across millions of people conceivably overnight—a speed and scale which is vastly greater. As an example, consider prohibition—a very progressive idea, in a very progressive age. One day booze was legal for 100 million people and the next day it wasn’t. Now there were plenty of scofflaws, but in some respects the battle it created between bootleggers and the police was the bigger story than the fact that alcohol was illegal, and equally a consequence of the technocratic implementation, which came at the stroke of a pen. Now yes, this stroke was preceded by a 394 day ratification process, and that was preceded by decades of effort by the temperance movement, but this is precisely my point. The 394 days the government spent on it accomplished something at a speed and on a scale that decades of attempts to change the culture couldn’t duplicate.

It should also be noted that scale and speed work in both directions. The government is pretty good at changing things, but it’s even better at preventing things from changing. And here we turn back to Alexander’s post, and the way people imagine technocracy will work—when it’s working well. In particular its superiority to vetocracy 

[E]ntrenched interests are constantly blocking necessary change. If only there were some centralized authority powerful enough to sweep them away and do all the changes we know we need, everything would be great.

Vetocracies block the necessary changes. While technocracies presumably don’t allow such vetoes, and are consequently able to make “all the changes we know we need”. Even if we grant that this is a practical description of how technocracies work, rather than just an aspirational one, those words “we know” are doing a lot of work. Who are “we”? And how do we “know”? Which takes us to…

III.

The other key difference between the definitions of cultural evolution and technocracy was replacing “people” with “experts”. This switch presumably comes because most of our problems are problems of complexity. If the world is complicated then it seems logical that we need experts to understand it. But is this in fact the case? I will certainly grant the first part—the world is complicated—it’s the second part I’m not sure about. To put it another way, we’re not debating the existence of complexity we’re debating how best to deal with it. 

Part of the problem is that complexity comes in many different flavors. There is complexity which has existed for as long as humans have (and perhaps longer), like what to do in a given environment so you don’t die. There is complexity which is brand new, like how best to manage social media. And then there is presumably lots of complexity in between that. The kind of complexity that came with nuclear weapons, the invention of the printing press or even the neolithic revolution. So when someone claims that experts are better at dealing with complexity, which sort of complexity are they talking about? All of the above? Just recent complexity? Or some other combination? 

Let’s return to the paper referenced by Alexander. Here’s the abstract:

The French Revolution of 1789 had a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those ‘designed’; that institutions must be ‘appropriate’ and cannot be ‘transplanted’; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.

(I kept thinking I could get away with only quoting part of the abstract, but in the end it was apparent that I was going to end up referencing it all.)

First we can clearly see the speed and scale mentioned in part II. But what about complexity? While not mentioned directly, the complexity referred to by this paper is clearly that brought on by the industrial revolution, so very recent complexity. (If you just do a google search for industrial revolution time period the info box says 1760-1840.) So best case, of the three types of complexity there are, this study represents one point of data for radical reform being better at dealing with new complexity. But there are numerous caveats even to this conclusion.

First it’s pretty straightforward to see that “nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies” are the people most likely to object to anything with the word “revolution” in the title, since they’re almost certainly the one’s benefiting from the status quo. Second it didn’t require visionary reformers or rarified experts to see that the industrial revolution would result in economic growth and urbanization, any unbiased observer could see it. Britain had already shown it could be done, so I’m not sure how radical these reforms really were. In other words, the bits that radical reform got right were not that complicated. This is not to say that the industrial revolution wasn’t complicated. It was horribly complicated. It introduced the complications of child labor, pollution, job losses for skilled workers and all manner of social unrest. (Note the widespread revolutions of 1848.)  

It’s therefore worth asking which institutions did better with the true complications brought on by the industrial revolution. The institutions these countries got from cultural evolution: monogamy, christianity, literacy? (At least according to WEIRDest People in the World) Or the things they got from technocracy: accelerated growth, elite destruction and equality before the law? I would lean towards the former, but at a minimum this question would seem to be a least as important as the one the paper actually addressed.

It might be useful to examine a current situation with several parallels to the industrial revolution, moving jobs over sea and automation. Once again this is something that the experts/technocrats/globalists have been almost universally in favor of. And again the benefits to doing so were obvious, lower labor costs, cheaper goods, etc. While the associated complexities were mostly ignored until they got too big to be ignored. I think there’s a good case to be made that one of the biggest of these complexities is the opioid epidemic which rages among the people who used to do the jobs that got moved out of the country. Admittedly this is probably a third order effect of the initial outsourcing, but it’s precisely second and third order effects that experts are bad at dealing with. Further, rather than helping mitigate the problem of opioids, there’s a strong case to be made that the experts were one of the key factors in exacerbating it. (For the full story on that see the previous post I did on that subject.) 

None of the foregoing is meant to represent my own “game, set, match” in this debate, but rather to remind people that it’s not enough to compare two things on a few selected issues, we have to compare them in their entirety. I’m sympathetic to arguments that cheap goods might help those displaced by offshoring more than they were harmed by the job losses associated with that same offshoring. But it seems apparent that what technocracies and “experts” are really good at is noticing obvious benefits, and implementing changes to capture those benefits rapidly and at scale, of plucking low hanging fruit from the Tree of Recent Technological Progress, but ignoring the pesticides necessary to grow that tree.

Or to use another analogy I heard once, they may be picking up nickels in front of steamrollers…

IV.

We’ve talked quite a bit about recent complexity, which I’m using to cover those things which have shown up in the last several decades or so, but not much about complexity which has been around for longer than that. Earlier, I divided complexity up into three categories, but the divisions are obviously pretty arbitrary, and it might be useful to split them into different buckets, but let’s see where we get with the three buckets I started with.

The oldest source of complexity is the natural world, and human’s relationship to it. One would put things like diet, reproduction, and really anything that impacts evolutionary fitness into this bucket. So what is the best way to deal with this complexity? Well, one imagines that given how long these things have been challenges for humans, we have probably developed genetic adaptations for dealing with this complexity, and it’s probably just best to stand back and let these adaptations do their thing. It’d be nice if it were so simple, and to a certain extent it is, but it’s clear more recent complexity has made the adaptations we’ve built for dealing with long term complexity less effective. 

Diet is a great example of all these factors in action. One assumes that there is a diet we’re adapted to. (Though there is a lot of argument over what that diet might be, an argument I’m not qualified to weigh in on.) But then along comes the USDA (read experts/technocrats) with the food pyramid, which provides an authoritative answer to what diet is appropriate. But I think it’s become clear that this is one of those complex areas where experts were not better, and recently the food pyramid has come in for all sorts of criticism, some probably justified some not. 

Then as an even more extreme example, there’s the story from a few years back about how in the 60’s the sugar industry paid scientists to demonize fat, instead of sugar, a mistake we’re still grappling with. Which is not to say that this is an easy problem, that’s precisely the point, it’s a devilish complicated one which modernity has exacerbated. For example, it’s clear that evolution has all sorts of tools to draw on in cases of food scarcity, but that never having had to grapple with long term food abundance and variety, it’s terrible at protecting us from that. This particular phenomenon has been labeled supernormal stimuli, and I wrote a whole post on it if you want more details, but I could certainly see an argument that this is an area where evolution and even tradition is fairly useless, because the situation is entirely novel. But of course that is the debate: are experts, through the medium of radical reform, better at this sort of thing or not?

Even with something as novel as supernormal stimuli, tradition is not entirely powerless. Fasting is very traditional and there’s good evidence that it helps with this issue. Also I’ve seen very little evidence that top-down interventions have made any impact on obesity. While diets that involve individuals listening to the evolutionary adaptations they were born with seem to work pretty well.

The upshot of all this is that it’s possible radical reform might help with some of the recent complexity which has been introduced. Even in areas where for a long time we were able to just rely on the adaptations evolution had provided us with, but… I haven’t seem much evidence of radical reform being applied in this fashion, and even less evidence of such a reform working.

Next there’s all the complexity which isn’t recent, but also hasn’t been around so long that we expect a solution to have been encoded in our genes. The area where if there have been adaptations they would have been cultural adaptations, and consequently where you would expect cultural evolution to have the most impact. But also the area where it’s possible that semi-random cultural evolution did not come up with a solution as good as what a team of modern experts could come up with. 

Most people have no problem accepting the utility of understanding what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. They may have different answers when asked what food that actually was, but they’re united in thinking that the answer is beneficial. As in there’s quite a bit of consensus that genetic adaptations are generally beneficial. As we get closer to the present day this unity disappears. As in there’s not nearly as much consensus that cultural adaptations are beneficial. Thus the fact that the Catholic Church and indeed most religions have been pushing the idea of sexual abstinence outside of marriage for thousands of years carries very little weight. That all it took was the sexual revolution to decide that was a dumb idea.

I’m not sure why people are willing to give so much weight to one kind of evolution, and so little weight to the other kind. It seems naive on its face, even if there weren’t books like the recently reviewed WEIRDest People in the World which spends hundreds of pages contradicting the idea. But of course some of this thinking seems to operate on separate tracks. People will view the forced imposition of the Napoleonic Code as a successful experiment with technocracy, but not view the sexual revolution as a similar technocratic experiment. And certainly it seems more technocratic to impose something from the top down, but once you account for the policies, legal rulings, and general sympathies of the technocratic class. It’s hard to argue that they are not conducting a similar experiment with modern sexual mores.  

To be fair I’m sure it doesn’t look like they’re imposing something. I’m sure it looks like they’re allowing something, and the distinction is an important one, though the difference between the two is not as great as you might think, particularly if technocrats use the power of government and the speed and scale we mentioned earlier to force other people to allow it. 

V.

Pulling all of the above together, what sort of conclusions can we draw? It would seem to me that the most difficult complexity to deal with is recent complexity, in that it generally disrupts the methods already in place to deal with long term complexity. That said even though recent complexity is where we should be focusing our attention, and where normal evolution and cultural evolution have done the least to prepare us, it’s still not clear that technocracy is obviously better at dealing with these new challenges. 

I’ve already given two examples where this might be the case. First, with the underlying complexities of the industrial revolution and second the way the opioid epidemic connects to the process of sending jobs to other countries. Let’s look at one more that’s probably closer to home for most of my readers. The problems associated with social media, a huge unforeseen complexity brought on by the internet. What have the experts/technocrats done to rein in this problem? What do they propose to do? How will that help the teenagers who suffer from social-media linked depression? The grandmas who fall into echo-chambers of extremism? Or help us restore civility to the public sphere? 

So far if you’re anything like me you’ve been unimpressed with governmental efforts to deal with the complexities brought on by social media. And you may think, given how recent of a phenomenon it is, that traditional adaptations and institutions would be equally powerless to deal with it. But my sense is this is not the case. That having two supportive parents helps out a great deal. That regular church attendance lowers the risk of depression. And that many “primitive” things like sunlight, physical activity, and seeing people face to face (something which has taken a big hit over the last year) work quite well in dealing with negative effects of social media. They also probably increase the chances that social media will be a positive thing. 

My conclusion would be that radical reform might be superior at dealing with recent complexity in certain narrow cases. That occasionally technology opens a new path to some obvious improvement, and in those cases experts/technocrats may be better at hastening the implementation of that improvement. But I think such wins are infrequent. Far more often the improvements brought on by technology are obvious and straight forward but the downsides are complex and opaque, and in focusing on the improvements the experts do nothing to mitigate the downsides. That in these cases—and in cases where we are dealing with long standing complexities—evolutionary adaptations, both natural and cultural, generally perform better. 

As one final thought, I want you to conduct a civilization pre-mortem. A pre-mortem is a tactic frequently used by businesses which asks people, at the start of a project, to imagine that it has failed, and then imagine why that might be, so that failure points obvious enough to be summoned up before the project has even started can be mitigated in advance. I want you to take this same methodology and apply it to civilization. If it ends up failing, what will have caused it? Will it have failed because we were too cautious about implementing radical reform? Or will it have failed because we were too aggressive in that endeavor? To look at it from the other side, are long standing adaptations more likely to cause the failure of society or are they more likely to prevent it? 


Asking for patronage is actually a very old adaptation to the problem of supporting writers you like, or at least those whose work you think is important. If you like the idea of solving complex problems with long standing adaptations you should like donating to my patreon


The Missing Piece of the Present Moment Is Religion (But Not in the Way You Think)

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.

This post is a continuation of the last post, but it’s okay if you came straight here without reading my previous post. When you’re writing you always have a destination in mind, and sometimes that destination seems pretty close, and you figure you have time to take a detour, so when you pass a sign that says, “World’s Largest Ball of Twine! 25 miles!” You think, “Sure we have time to go see that,” but the next thing you know you’ve not only spent hours traveling back roads, but you’re deep into the competing claims over which ball of twine really is the biggest, and you decide to travel to all of them, and… Well you get the picture. 

With that introduction, if you understandably decide not to go back and read the last post, here is a distillation of the three claims I made: 

  1. Uniting large groups of people is very difficult, and it’s a project that ultimately comes down to your foundational epistemology. How does a system construct the truth which goes on to inform its policies?
  2. When looking at these foundational epistemologies technocrats would seem to have an edge because in theory they arrive at the truth, they don’t construct it. But not only does their method have some notable blind spots, it’s also not very good at uniting the masses. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. 
  3. Religion is something that is both very good at constructing a truth framework and uniting people, and that is what we used to have in this country in the form of a patriotic civic religion, but that recently we had abandoned it, and the hole left by its absence is large contributing factor in the current unrest. 

To give you an example of what I mean here, let’s take something smaller than an entire theory of government. The above is also essentially the point I’ve been making when it comes to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the alternative macroeconomic theory that’s been much discussed recently. It may be that the MMTers have genuinely figured out some more accurate model for how government debt works. (Though I doubt it, even Krugman has referred to it as Calvinball.) But more important than the accuracy of the idea, is how it ends up getting translated when it filters down to citizens/voters. The average voter has no interest in the actual wonky policy debate. They have no understanding of monetary supply or inflation or the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Consequently they’re either going to ignore the whole debate, or it’s going to get translated into something they can understand. The most likely candidate for the latter is a conviction that deficits don’t matter and the government can spend whatever it wants, and so what possible reason could there be for not spending money? Particularly if people are in need.

Now of course it’s going too far to say that this conviction would be equivalent to a religion. It may be easier at this stage of things to view such an idea as a myth. A myth which is a distortion of MMT, but which arises out of it in a fairly natural fashion. And even if we imagined that people could understand all of the ins and outs of Modern Monetary Theory, you can see how the myth is much more appealing. Not merely is it simple and straightforward, but it appeals to their self-interest. When given a choice between doing the hard work of understanding the in-and-outs of things, listening to the experts, or believing a simple and compelling myth. Most people are going to go with the myth. Technocracy imagined that most people even even if they’re reluctant to do the hard work, will still go with believing the experts, but that’s simply not the case, 

What’s actually happening is that people are choosing between two myths. The other myth is a myth about debt. It is also simple and compelling. It says that debt is bad. As it turns out that’s not the case, governments need to be able to borrow. This is what makes it a myth, but it’s nevertheless a simple and straightforward idea that people can organize around. Experts, such as they are, may direct people towards one or the other myths, but essentially they’re a side show. 

II.

As I mentioned in that last post there are lots of books that speak to the importance of religion, but since we’re starting with myths and working our way up to religions, let’s start with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In yet another stab at explaining the uniqueness of humans Harari puts forth the idea that our uniqueness comes from our ability to craft these myths. That through myth-making we can create imagined orders and frameworks, which allow us to exceed the limits set by the natural order. You might notice that this is very similar to the other candidate for “human uniqueness” I recently mentioned in my review of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. For Henrich it was culture, for Harari it’s myths, but as you can imagine the two end up having substantial overlap.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s been awhile since I read Sapiens, and my note taking back then had not reached its current heights. Fortunately I did come across a blog post where someone had summarized the book. Accordingly, for convenience, I’ll be referencing that rather than Harari’s book. 

In doing so let’s review what we’re trying to do. Our overarching question is how do we beneficially unite large groups of people. Well setting aside the “beneficial” bit for the moment. Historically, uniting people above the level of a tribe has always begun with the application of force, or at least a form of power which was ultimately backed up by such force. I’ve talked about this before at some length, but as it turns out, even though in that last discussion I peeled away the veneer of democracy, I didn’t go deep enough. There was at least one more layer. From the Sapiens summary:

A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion.

To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

To maintain an imagined order, we need people who believe in it – the military, the elites, and the peasants.

In other words behind the threat of force is a myth that makes the force cohere into something useful, and beyond that myths are ultimately responsible for all cohering even if you’re not talking about the military—as our recent myth-induced chaos bears testament to. But if all power structures are ultimately built on a foundation of belief in some myth, then what myth forms the foundation of a modern technocracy? I suspect the answer is that there isn’t one, and as I concluded in my last post, this lack represents its fundamental weakness. But it’s only fair that we consider some possibilities before definitely concluding that.

III.

A technocracy is rule by technical experts. So perhaps the foundational myth is in the power of experts. Like all good myths this would be one with quite a bit of truth behind it. But is that all that’s required for a good myth? That it be a simplification of some more complicated truth, designed for easy ingestion by the masses? Probably not, at least as I consider examples of unifying myths, the amount of truth they contain seems mostly incidental to their success. What really seems to determine how successful they are is the emotional appeal of their core idea. To return to the other two frameworks I talked about in my last post: national greatness and Trumpism. The former’s emotional appeal is right there in the name. The powerful idea that the United States is a nation with a destiny! While the latter both borrows the appeal of the former—Make America Great Again—and the age-old appeal of unifying around a single, charismatic figure. In this case the idea that Trump is a transformative figure in his own right, something of a Moses who will set his people free. Do you see any similar appeal around the idea of “listen to the experts”? I don’t. It sounds more hectoring than inspiring, as I think recent events have shown.

What if we take it back a step and make our unifying myth the myth of science. Well we’re immediately faced with an oxymoron, since science is all about puncturing myths, or at least getting to the bottom of them. Which is to say the great strength of science, that it is self-critical, is exactly what we don’t want in this situation. It prioritizes doubt, but unity requires at least some degree of certainty. You can neither imagine someone storming the Capitol in the name of science nor facing down such a mob in the name of science either. You can imagine both happening in the name of justice or duty, but not science. 

Perhaps technocracy can unify people using the myth of progress? This seems like the best candidate, and to the extent that technocracy has been successful this is probably the unifying myth it has drawn on. But I think there are several reasons to think that this myth isn’t really capable of “going the distance” as they say. First off, while progress doesn’t come embedded with quite the same level of doubt as science it still invites a certain amount of criticism and reflection. All of which is to say that people feel they should be able to measure progress, and that, because it’s “progress” every time they measure it, there should be more of it. This gives progress a certain fragility. As long as progress is obvious it makes a great unifying myth, but if it stalls or reverses or takes a form that’s difficult to quantify, it’s utility as a myth quickly disappears. Also what if you end up with progress in some areas, but not in others? And what if some groups are doing great while things are getting worse for other groups? Suddenly progress isn’t unifying, it’s divisive. Which, once again is something we’ve seen play out in recent events. 

Perhaps the key problem with all of these myths is that in order for a myth to be useful it has to inspire people during both the good times and the bad. It has to not merely unify people when things are going great—nearly anything will work for that. No, it’s when times are tough that a unifying myth is put to the test. Does it continue to function when unity is both important and difficult? In order to do this there has to be something about the myth which encourages sacrifice, or at the minimum naturally assembles people into teams. One could argue that a great nation shouldn’t have to sacrifice, but at least that myth encourages everyone to want their nation to win, and from there the necessity of making sacrifices becomes pretty obvious.

In the final analysis technocracy may be antithetical to both unity and sacrifice. Under the idea of national greatness we’re all citizens, all part of the vast arc of destiny that has carried the United States from a hall in Philadelphia, through numerous wars against evils like slavery and facism, all the way up to walking on the Moon. Trumpism is not nearly so majestic, but it nevertheless formed people up into teams and gave them a goal to strive for. Even democracy at its most vanilla puts forth the idea that every voter has a part to play in government. But a technocracy contains none of these elements. The average citizen isn’t part of something grand they’re just a piece in a puzzle the technical experts are trying to solve. Through their behavior they may make the puzzle easier or more difficult to solve, they are not the prime movers in the story. They’re not the people playing the game of chess, they’re the pieces on the board. (I can’t decide if using the word “pieces” in two different contexts is clever or confusing…)

There is one other important point to be made in this discussion: unity can either be something which is cultivated internally or it can be imposed externally. I’m not going to spend a lot of time going down this path since I covered it in a previous post, but I would argue that the long period we’ve experienced without any wars has also contributed to our lack of unity. War’s have rarely been truly existential threats for the United States, but even so, knowing that great harm will befall you unless you pull together with the rest of the country is a powerful motivation to do just that. And as I mentioned in the last post, it is during such times as war, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the feeling of national greatness always reached its peak. 

At this point you may agree that myths are useful, you may even agree that technocracies are bad at cultivating unifying myths, but you might still think that they’re more effective, by virtue of the fact that they’re based on science, evidence and data rather than conspiracies (Trumpism) or a history which has been white-washed of all the bad things (national greatness). That in the long run technocracies will be a better framework for beneficially unifying people than any framework which relies on simplifying myths. This would appear to be the contention of a lot of people, and one of the great debates of the age. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.

IV.

To start with I’m going to jump ahead somewhat. I’m going to go straight from talking about myths to talking about religion. Ideally I would carefully build that progression, but I think it’s pretty obvious that religions are collections of myths. Myths which happen to be based on eternal truths if you’re a believer, or myths which may nevertheless be useful even if you’re not. But clearly everything I said above about myths—that they are coherent, easy to understand, and inspiring during both good times and bad—also applies to religious beliefs. It might even be useful to think of religions as mythplexes—aggregations of useful myths. 

If we accept that religions are the preferred framework for managing people via myths, then that’s what we should be measuring technocracies against. And unless I’ve completely missed the point, its supporters make the fundamental claim that technocracies are better than religions at unifying large groups of people. Regardless of whether we’re comparing it against traditional religions like Hinduism or Christiantiy. Or comparing them against civic religions, like the ideology of patriotic national greatness which held sway in the US until very recently. Though calling this a “fundamental claim” may give an inaccurate impression of how much attention technocrats pay to this comparison. I think most of them consider this superiority so blindingly obvious as to be unworthy of discussion, not something people are still fighting over. If this is the case, where are technocracies superior? What standards are we using for our comparison, and how does one even make the comparison? If we have a modern Scandanavian technocracy on one side, and, say, Christianity on the other, what are we looking for?

Obviously this is a big subject with a lot of potential areas where one could focus. Also it’s one where my opinion by itself isn’t worth very much. Fortunately, as I mentioned in the last post there are numerous books that have weighed in on this subject. Though before I dive in, it’s obvious I’m biased on this subject, and it’s almost certain that this bias extends to the selection of books I’ve read. So the fact that I can come up with far more books making the case for religion, than making the case for secular technocracies, may say more about me than about the state of scholarship on the subject. Accordingly if you know of any books making the case for technocracies which I haven’t read please let me know. The chief one I’m aware of is Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, and I’m not going to spend any time with it, because I already did a whole post on it, and this post is focused on the religious side of the debate. 

With those biases noted, let’s take a look at what we’ve got. I’ll be covering a lot of books, so by necessity I’m going to be brief, but in nearly all cases I’ve reviewed these books already and I’ll link back to those, more extended discussions. And in the one case where I haven’t discussed the book I’m about to so you’ll just have to tune back in at the beginning of March. 

Let’s start with the book in this last category, a book I just finished The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich. This one has a particularly interesting contribution to make on the topic. First off it makes the claim that just about everything you might think of as attributes of a modern technocracy is the result of Western Christianity’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). That this MFP produced WEIRD people, an acronym which stands for:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

These five words are also among the first words someone might think of when describing a technocracy, which would mean that technocracies aren’t in competition with religions; they are in fact only possible after hundreds of years of religious influence! Now this still leaves open the argument that technocracies are the stage of evolution past religion, that they are an improvement, which we will get to in a minute, but at a minimum I think anyone making this sort of argument would carry the burden of proof.

Beyond this WEIRDest People also spends a lot of time pointing out the enormous changes religion was able to make through the MFP, taking thousands if not tens of thousands of years of kin based organizational structures and remaking them into structures capable of much greater cooperation across a much larger number of people. Exactly the sort of beneficial organization I keep referring to.

As long as we’re on the subject of Henrich, his other book, Secret of Our Success, makes the strong case for the power of cultural evolution to organize societies as opposed to the method of rationally arriving at solutions and policies. Does not the former essentially describe the development of religion? While the latter is nearly an exact description of the technocratic mindset?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, makes much the same point as WEIRDest People, though from a very different angle. In Taylor’s case he spends 900 pages disproving the idea that secularization is a story of subtracting the bad bits of religion (for our purposes, if we equated “bits” to “myths” that’s pretty close to the mark). In place of this he argues that secularization has been an additive process, that everything associated with it was built on a vast foundation of progress that was driven by religion in all of its aspects. 

Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, makes the comprehensive claim that civilization is impossible in the absence of religion. That all civilizations have to be built around the framework of a common system of myths and beliefs. 

That’s four books, to these we could easily add four more: Marriage and Civilization by William Tucker, together with Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin which (along with WEIRDest People) all make the point that monogamous marriage is critical to civilization as we understand it. Perhaps technocracies share religion’s dedication to this subject, if so I’ve yet to come across any evidence of it. There’s also Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, which is yet another indictment of technocracy’s ability to plan and manage complex societies, with illustrations of how long it takes for such failures to manifest. Finally there’s Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which speaks to the deep dissatisfaction and the lack of unity so many people experience while living in modern technocracies. 

To these eight I could add still more, but that’s enough for now, and as I said, my own studies of this subject may be biased, and if so I welcome correction. But, as far as I can tell, religion has been absolutely critical to developing the society we currently have and we abandon it in favor of a secular technocracy at our peril. Though as I said perhaps technocracy is a natural evolution from where we were. Either an advancement which eliminates the need for religion or one which ushers in some new quasi religion which will fill the hole left by traditional religions.

V.

Even the most cursory review of the state of the world would have to conclude that technocracies are not doing well. This is not their moment, and it’s hard to discern any sense in which they have allowed us to transcend the need for myths and religions. They have not demonstrated any permanent and unshakable advantage over previous forms of government. In fact, at the moment they seem very shaken. But even more than their current distress, we get the best evidence in favor of my thesis when we look at what has shaken them. 

Obviously, I am most familiar with the US, and here, when you dig into what’s happening to shake the foundations of the technocratic order, it’s myths as far as the eye can see. There’s the myths underlying Trumpism, which were powerful enough to rally 74 million voters. There’s the myths of police violence against minorities, but particularly blacks, which were powerful enough to give us a whole summer of protests. There’s the myths of a socialist revolution sweeping away late-stage capitalism in an environmentally friendly way, which have provided enduring support for Bernie Sanders and The Squad. And somewhere in there, there is still the myth of national greatness, and American exceptionalism.

Like all good myths these are all based on a significant body of truth, but that’s not what makes them powerful. Technocrats who come along and point out Trump’s flaws, or that the circumstances of some of the police shootings were not quite as egregious as has been claimed, make very little headway against these myths. More facts are not what the people crave. They obviously crave something the technocrats have a difficult time providing. 

To these observations we should add the point that technocracies have not been around for very long, and while perhaps this means we should give them more time—that they have not been given a fair chance. I view it in the opposite fashion. Whatever success they have had, has been during a brief period of exceptional peace and stability. This has provided the illusion that they work, when, as I already pointed out, in good times nearly every system works. 

Taken together it seems pretty clear that technocracies are not an advancement which have allowed us to abandon myths and religion, that we still need them as much as ever and technocracies cannot fill that hole. So what about the idea that we might be transitioning to a new civic religion? 

I first encountered this idea in the Slate Star Codex post, Gay Rites Are Civil Rites, which right off the bat is a very clever title, particularly given the subject matter. In the post he argued that the old civic religion of national greatness and patriotism, which I’ve spent so much time talking about with its emphasis on patriotism, American History, and a parade on the 4th of July might be getting replaced by a new civic religion which emphasizes tolerance, progress towards the future, and a parade celebrating Gay Pride. For a label you might call it Wokeism, or the Religion of Progress, but regardless of what you call it or what you think about it’s chances for success, it’s a fascinating idea. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts I would urge you to read that post, because I’ve only scratched the surface. But I do see several issues with the idea:

  1. As I keep pointing out, one of the key features of a religion is that it works during good times and bad. How does wokeism encourage sacrifice? And not just the sacrifice of advantaged groups for those that have been disadvantaged but the sacrifice of all of its adherents in exchange for something they believe to be the greater good?
  2. And while it’s possible I could have made this clearer, it’s not that we need a religion, it’s that we need a religion that can unify us all, in the way that national greatness used to unify the nation or the way Christianity unified the West. At least so far whatever Wokeism is, it’s been pretty divisive.
  3. Even if we grant that it’s a new and better religion which has arrived just in time to replace the old and make us an even better nation. Transitioning to a new religion is not something to be undertaken lightly. Look at everything that went into the creation of the civic religion of patriotism: a revolution, a war, the creation of a new nation built exclusively around the religion, not to mention the extraordinary people. Just George Washington’s contribution as the first president was a huge factor. One that would be difficult to replicate. 

Put all of this together and the best case scenario is a tumultuous and contentious transition to a new set of myths with unknown efficacy, and it could end up being something far worse than that. The American Revolution was the best case scenario for transitioning to a new religion. If you want the worst check out the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Still it’s fair to ask what our actual options are.

That’s a tough question. I still think it might be easiest to retreat back to a religion of national greatness, but I’m worried that Trump has rendered that idea permanently toxic to at least half the country. There are of course traditional religions, and perhaps that’s a closer destination, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the path to that destination has been lost for a long time.

I wish there was a simple answer. But I think the overarching lesson here is that, in our hubris, in our certainty that we could just sit down and invent the perfect system, we ended casting aside the only thing that really could have saved us. 


People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge. (No, really!) And I’d probably do something both silly and petty. Like make everyone sign-up for my patreon. Click here if you want to get in on it before it’s mandatory. 


Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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.

I was on a Discord chat the other day and someone exclaimed, “man substack is like too much content”. When he said that I knew exactly what he meant. At the moment when I’m writing this I have three substack newsletters waiting to be read in my inbox. Two are 4500 words and the “short” one is 3900 words. They all arrived today. Given that the average page of a book is 250 words, that’s over 50 pages of material which has arrived just today. 

(Before we get any farther, let me be clear. I realize that I often publish stuff which is that long, and I am infinitely grateful that anyone reads it. But you will notice that my newsletter is always less than 750 words and only comes out once a month. So while I am a hypocrite about many things, this hypocrisy does not extend to newsletters.)

The newsletters are not merely “too much content” they might also be “too much” to digest. Recently the value of technocracies seemed to be having their moment in my corner of the zeitgeist, and these same newsletters were holding forth on the value of that construct. One writer, somewhat in contradiction of previous comments he had made, was saying they were good. Another writer was also arguing that they’re good, but only so long as their policies are legible. And yet a third was saying that the first two have merely defined technocracies as governments that implement policies they like without describing what principles unite those policies. 

As if that weren’t enough I’m reading or have recently finished several books which would appear to weigh in on the topic. There’s: Seeing Like a State, which seems to be on the anti side of the technocracy debate. Secret of Our Success, also anti. The follow up to that book, WEIRDest People in the World, which so far also seems anti. (Representative quote, “What doesn’t happen is that rational parties sit down, put their heads together, and hash out effective institutional design.”) Island of the Blue Foxes, the story of mid-18th century Russia spending 1/6th of their annual budget on the ill-conceived mission of sending three thousand interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia. (Though with that many people invasion may be a more appropriate term than expedition.) Reviews for the latter two books will be coming soon, but once again both seem to make a powerful argument against big top down programs of the sort we imagine coming out of a technocracy. 

Finally on top of all of this, there’s the position I’ve taken on this subject already in my various posts. How do these newsletters (Presumably written by people whose opinion I admire, otherwise why would I subscribe?) and these books serve to update my old beliefs? Is anything I’ve read strong enough to overturn one of my beliefs in its entirety? To make me recant one of my previous posts. Unlikely, though I should be careful not to rule that out. But short of reversing my position I still should be updating my beliefs based on this new evidence, but that requires understanding what all of these multitudinous claims are evidence of. I’m sympathetic to the argument presented by the third newsletter that they don’t really represent arguments for or against technocracy, because no seems quite able to agree on exactly what technocracy is. Still the arguments are probably evidence of something, but already it’s obvious that we’re travelling through a complex intellectual landscape.

Furthermore, if this is the situation I’m in, as a bona fide pseudo-intellectual, imagine the situation of someone without such mastery of facts and reasoning? What are they to make of these various arguments? You may accurately assert that most people, even if they’re familiar with the word “technocracy” have very little interest in debates over its efficacy as a system. But the argument I’ve been describing is taking place as part of a larger discussion, one which they are interested in. A discussion that has been front and center since November 3rd: 

How do we come together as a people and enact long term, beneficial policies?

II.

Years ago, a very wise friend of mine made the assertion that the crisis of modern politics was a crisis of epistemology. His politics are very different from mine (though they appear to be converging in weird ways recently) and I suspect that my bias against those politics made me overlook the prophetic character of his words. But I’m paying attention now because everything he has foretold has come to pass. But before we go any further, we should define epistemology for those few who are unfamiliar with the term. This is not the first time I’ve brought up the topic. The last time around I defined it as: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Which is a pretty good definition (and one I stole from Wikipedia). But recently, I encountered the idea that epistemology can be broken up into three questions. And this may be an easier jumping off point for the discussion I want to have. These three questions are:

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. Can we have knowledge?
  3. How do we get knowledge?

It is assumed that if we can identify knowledge and acquire it, that we can then go on to apply that knowledge to our various problems in the form of policies, and all epistemological frameworks are designed to bridge that gap. But as we’ll see the chasm between facts and policies is wider than people realize, and this even if we assume that we actually can reliably acquire facts, which is by no means certain. 

This is clearly a place where some examples are in order. My first example is from a previous post on the topic. While I included it there as something of an aside—an idea that occurred to me while I was writing, but which I hadn’t given much thought to—it has since grown to seem more and more germane. This is the epistemological framework of national greatness. 

For this example I want you to picture old school patriotism. The kind one would have experienced during World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But also the lower intensity form that was ubiquitous in the 50’s. This is the framework that prevailed in my primary education up at least though High School. It was a civic religion where the Revolutionary War was the creation myth, the Constitution the tablets of Sinai and the Founding Fathers its prophets. With that picture in your mind let’s return to our questions and see how this framework treats them.

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the principles that went into the foundation of this country. The way those principles were used to do good things and improve the world.
  2. Can we have knowledge? We can not only have this knowledge, it is our duty as good citizens to acquire a good civic education. To understand the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
  3. How do we get knowledge? By studying the history of the country. Noting the throughline of principles from the pilgrims to the founders through to the present day. And how all of this makes the United States unique and special.

When it came time to translate this knowledge into policies, that was relatively easy. Not because specific policies are obvious but because it acted as a religion, and in so doing encouraged belief and unity. This provided a foundation for agreement between various policy makers and had the power of creating a united front out of the entire country, for example the one presented to Russia during the Cold War. The benefits of this framework are less about getting everything right than in acting together. 

Our second example is more recent, it’s the epistemological framework of all the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen. While this isn’t entirely accurate, for the moment let’s label this framework as Trumpism. Being more nascent, it’s contours have not quite come into focus, but you have the same process going on:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the things those in power don’t want us to know—the methods the elites use to retain power, and oppress the common man.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but not by listening to the mainstream media. We have to actively seek out the truth, which is only available through people on the fringe, who are constantly being censored.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By diligent search; by looking at the facts behind the scenes; by putting together the pieces of the conspiracy.

When people use this framework, the knowledge thus acquired translates into knowing “what needs to be done”. These are policies but they are necessarily of a desperate and radical nature because this epistemology encodes the idea that we are already at war. Or that in any case if we’re not at war with the elites they are already at war with us. That this is a life or death struggle, an existential crisis, requiring extraordinary measures.

The final example is of course a technocracy, which at least as I understand it, looks something like this:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of things we have uncovered using the scientific method.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but “we” should be construed fairly narrowly. This is not populism. We’re not aggregating the knowledge of the masses. We’re relying on the knowledge of experts.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By funding research; by collecting sociological data; by studying what other countries do. 

Advocates of technocracy assume that their methodology results in purer knowledge than the other two examples, and that the purer the knowledge the better the policies which derive from that knowledge. I think this often leads its advocates to be lazy, to assume that pure knowledge will naturally lead to good policies without much in the way of additional effort, which leads them to emphasize some things and neglect others. But of course the other frameworks do the same thing, each choses something different to focus on. 

III.

Technocracies seem to focus on the input. If we just make sure that we have truth going in the one side, then good policies will automatically come out the other side. This is why I was so impressed when Matthew Yglesias pointed out that policy has to be legible. Impressed enough that I wrote a whole post on it. Because this is one of the key weaknesses of a technocracy, it’s not enough to just work on the inputs into the system you have to polish the outputs as well. Implementation matters. And while I say this is a key weakness it’s not the only weakness or even the biggest weakness, it may just be the most obvious. No, the fatal weaknesses of technocracy are far more subtle, and often in the areas that look like strengths to its practitioners. As the first example of this, they emphasize measurement and accuracy, but by limiting themselves to what can be easily measured it fatally undermines both the inputs and the outputs. But as they emphasize inputs, let’s start there.

It would be nice to imagine that by using the epistemological framework of science that we can extract pure Truth and that having done that we can filter it through the medium of experts, generating perfect policies on the other end. But of course for all it’s strengths science does generate pure Truth, it generates a collection of insights with various levels of confidence, and these insights are only those which can be gathered using certain methodologies, in narrow domains while working under obvious limitations. 

As an example of how this operates we need merely look at how the pandemic was handled. We can measure the number of deaths, hospital capacity, and the rate at which the disease spreads, but we can’t measure the psychological toll of isolation, non-standard schooling, and a hundred other second order effects which will only manifest years later. So we focus on what we can measure, deaths. This is good and proper, but no one should pretend it’s perfect or that we have somehow arrived at an optimal solution to the problem. And of course it’s worse than that. Because as it turns out the technocrats have not even been particularly good at managing the problems they’re supposedly good at. You can blame Trump all you want, but it was technocrats who told people that masks weren’t effective, that travel bans were a bad idea, and possibly the least technocratic state in the country, West Virginia, is doing the best on vaccines (Wait, scratch that, my own home state of Utah apparently passed them recently… But WV is still second.) And don’t even get me started about the slow vaccination rate in Europe

This problem becomes even more difficult when you move from hard sciences like epidemiology to the social sciences. At least with the pandemic you had deaths to track and a virus to sequence. Tracking polarization is significantly more difficult and error prone, and there is no gene we can sequence which will allow us to target the source of the despair and anger which has been on display recently.

All of the foregoing is indisputably true, but proponents of technocracy will still argue that it’s better than Trumpism at solving this despair and anger. But is it? First there’s an argument that technocracy created those problems in the first place. Under a very narrow definition of technocracy it may be possible to argue that it didn’t, but expand it out a little bit and it’s hard not to see a correlation (even if causation is difficult to prove). Perhaps you remain unconvinced, but one still has to ask, “Better in whose estimation?” It would be unsurprising if the technocrats thought it was better, but what about the people actually experiencing the despair and anger?

If we take the people who stormed the Capitol as a representative sample, 60% of them, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, had prior financial troubles. Why would they blame technocrats for these troubles? Well let’s look at other data, this time from the RAND Corporation who found that if the income trends which existed from 1945 to 1974 had just continued to the present day that the bottom 90% would have ended up with $47 trillion dollars more in aggregate taxable income. Instead that money ended up with the top 10%. If you were going to apply a label to the top 10%, “technocrats” is as good a description as anything else. Certainly the voting pattern of the top 10% would skew heavily technocratic.

Interestingly technocracies are very good at taking numbers like this and inputting them into their system. We hear all about rising inequality, but under technocracy how do those inputs turn into outputs which actually end up reducing despair and anger? So far there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that they do.

All of this is not an argument to switch from technocracy to Trumpism. I’m making a point about the blind spots of both frameworks. The blindspots of Trumpism are easy to spot. The blindspots of technocracy are less obvious, but they are even more consequential. Trumpism has really never been the law of the land, even while Trump was president. The same can not be said of technocracies, which are in power all over the world, including the US.

Having covered the problems with the inputs, what about the outputs?

IV.

It’s easy to imagine that if you just have all the information about an issue that the policies for dealing with that issue will be obvious. But it’s also possible that there is no connection between facts and policies. In one sense this is just the old saw that correlation does not equal causation. In a larger sense we’re talking about making a connection between how things are and how things ought to be, what’s often referred to as the Is-ought problem, or Hume’s guillotine. It’s called that because Hume was the first to point out the impossibility of logically deriving a morale system from a starting point completely lacking in morality, for example, raw facts. That no matter how good the inputs into a framework, if they didn’t come with some morality attached, no morality will emerge out the other side. 

Now this is not to say the technocracies have zero embedded morality but, if you think back to the epistemologies of the three different frameworks, it’s clear that it has the least built in morality of any of them and the morality it does have is pretty sterile. On the other hand Trumpism is essentially a moral crusade. I think it’s pretty embryonic and poorly considered, and while Trump himself was able to get it started, and in fact proved fairly adept at it. He seemed unable to hammer it into anything effective. Which is to say, it doesn’t appear that either technocracy or Trumpism has a great plan for getting unity back. This leaves our third framework, national greatness. Thus far I haven’t spent much time talking about it, but it also has quite a bit of embedded morality, which provides interesting lessons for our current crisis, and those lessons are even more pertinent when we contrast it with a technocracy.

It might be most useful to start with a discussion of why we largely abandoned the framework of national greatness. After 200 or so years of using this framework as our default what made us decide that it was inadequate? As far as I can tell it was because of the morality embedded in its epistemology. In putting together its knowledge base it was decided it would be better (i.e. more moral) to overlook some inconvenient facts. For example the treatment of Native Americans; the restriction of suffrage to white, land-owning men; and most of all slavery, including the fact that most of the founders were slave owners. But that was part of the point, whereas technocracy emphasizes increasing the accuracy of the inputs, national greatness emphasized the efficacy of the outputs. This framework sacrificed accuracy for unity. But by embedding moral decisions in the inputs they were able to more easily output morality on the other side. Put more simply they created a civic religion, this is more important than it seems, since historically religions have always been the best place to put moral content.  

Contrast that with a technocracy which mostly eschews morality, and the morality it does put forth is limited to material issues, issues which are unavoidably competitive. (As much as self help gurus might preach otherwise, most people still have a zero sum mindset.) Accordingly not only is it a weaker morality than that put forth by a framework of national greatness, what morality it does contain serves to divide rather than unite. 

This finally takes us to the biggest weakness of a technocracy, it is not a religion. This is obviously a controversial assertion. Particularly since its supporters view this as one of it’s greatest strengths, but it is nevertheless true. 

V.

Even if you accept that some form of religion is the only way out of this mess—even if it’s an ersatz one like the civic religion of national greatness. We’re still a long ways away from anything approaching a concrete solution. And I’m already a couple of days past my self imposed deadline for this post, so we’ll have to explore what that might mean in our next post. But obviously I can’t just leave it here. So allow me to briefly toss out some thoughts to give you a sense of where I’m headed.

I imagine that some of you are still a long way away from believing that religion is the answer, so any post on this subject is going to have to spend at least some time creating that foundation. But I think there are plenty of books that make this exact argument. Just drawing on books I’ve reviewed there’s Clash of Civilizations, A Secular Age, Marriage and Civilization, Sex and Culture, Secret of our Success and the one I’m currently working on The WEIRDest people in the World. 

A quote from that last book seems particularly appropriate at this moment:

…throughout human history, rulers needed religions much more than religions needed rulers.

However important some sort of religion might be, our options are limited:

  • It seems difficult to imagine that we could go back to a unifying ideology of national greatness, and arguably that’s what Trump was trying to do. It’s possible to imagine that someone other than Trump might have been able to pull it off, but now that we’ve had Trump I think he might have burned that bridge.
  • It seems equally difficult to imagine some large scale return to an existing religion, however much some believers might wish for this. 
  • If we can’t retrace our steps is there some new religion we’re travelling towards? This is an interesting idea and one I’ve covered already in this space, and which I’ll certainly return to in the next post. But for now let’s just say that even if we can make such a transition it’s likely to involve serious upheaval if not actual bloodshed. (And perhaps this is what’s already happening.)

Everyone agrees that the country is sick. This might seem like a radical (not to mention underdeveloped) proposal for its cure, and in some respects it clearly is, but on the other hand I’m merely suggesting that we should look another look at what worked for thousands of years. 


I have a framework as well, I input books on one end of things and spit out posts on the other. This is just one of many possible frameworks. Other people input sanctimoniousness and spit out judgement. Still others input hot takes and spit out even hotter takes. If you think my framework is better than those and worth supporting consider donating