Category: <span>Culture</span>

Theories for the 1971 Inflection

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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.


The 9 Books I Finished in April (and something Extra!)

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  1. “Engineering the Apocalypse” Podcast Episode by Sam Harris and Rob Reid
  2. This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World by: Yancey Strickler
  3. The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life by: Boyd Varty
  4. Babylon’s Ashes by: James S. E. Corey
  5. Peter the Great: His Life and World by: Robert K. Massie
  6. Exhalation: Stories by: Ted Chiang
  7. What’s Wrong With the World by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by: Margaret Heffernan
  9. Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice by: Fredrik deBoer
  10. Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical Questions by: Brittney Hartley

In my last essay I was critical of the way Black Lives Matter emphasized some things while ignoring others. Which might have led some to conclude that I’m pro-police. I am not, I am pro what works. And there is clearly a lot about the justice system which does not work. And I got a couple of tastes of it in April. They were small, even tiny tastes nowhere near what some people have been through, but indicative of the perverse incentives we’re currently grappling with. 

The first taste I got was the tinier of the two, but it did impact me directly. I have a friend in prison. This friend is trying to get some education while he’s in there so that when they finally let him out, sometime in his late 50’s/early 60’s, he might be able to get a job. The chief difficulty in this endeavor is getting the books he needs for the classes he’s taking. The prison is very restrictive on books, allowing them from only a single vendor and sometimes not even then. I once tried to send him Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War because it was available through the approved vendor and it was rejected for encouraging violence. (It’s far more a self help book than a manual for gang warfare.)  The approved vendor has a very limited selection and you’d be amazed at the kind of stuff they don’t carry. They don’t even have things like Harry Potter, so as you might guess they’re never going to carry the textbooks he needs. You can get specific books approved but the process is laborious, and ultimately dependent on the whim of the guards.

In an effort to get the required textbooks to him I’ve frequently had to disassemble the books, photocopy them and then gradually mail them to him intermixed with other stuff. As you can imagine this process is also laborious and subject to the whims of the prison mail room. So he decided to actually try getting the most recent required textbook approved. Fortunately it was. So I dutifully sent it down still in the shrink wrap with the approval slip, and this time it was rejected for not being in a white envelope! See that’s another rule they implemented a year or so ago. You can’t use manila folders to send stuff. Why? I have no idea. They obviously open up everything before it gets to the prisoner. Why do they care what color the envelope is? 

The other justice system abuse happened to the friend of a friend. Apparently she was arrested as part of some long running investigation into a drug distribution network. At this point my friend isn’t exactly sure what she may or may not have done. But he expected that she would be released on bail as long as she had a place to go which conformed to the demands of the prosecutors. With no other options my friend had gone to great lengths to make his house that place, which included getting rid of all the alcohol (this is Utah after all). All of this effort was for naught because the federal prosecutors convinced the judge that she had access to a lot of “cryptocurrency” (how much the prosecutor couldn’t say, but “a lot”) and that a sufficient amount of “cryptocurrency” acted like a genie granting wishes and that she could use one of these wishes to disappear. I’m sure he also threw in a reference to the Dark Web for good measure.


I- Eschatological Reviews

Engineering the Apocalypse

An episode of Sam HarrisMaking Sense podcast, Featuring Rob Reid

4 hours

Briefly, what was this episode about?

Bioterrorism by means of artificial pathogens, which Reid considers to be the greatest current danger to civilization.

Who should listen to this episode?

If the pandemic has gotten you interested in pandemics in general and artificial pandemics in particular, and if you want to know what that danger looks like and the best strategy for mitigating it, this is a fantastic resource.

General Thoughts

Lots of people listen to Sam Harris’ podcast, but I have never been one of them. So I’m grateful to friend of the blog Nick deWilde for pointing this episode out to me. (If you’re at all in the tech or entrepreneurial space you should subscribe to his newsletter, The Jungle Gym.) And it should be noted that this episode has far more content from Rob Reid than Sam Harris. Reid has thought deeply about how easy it would be to create an artificial pandemic, but in fairness, lots of people have done that. Where Reid’s analysis shines are in his thoughts on how to mitigate the risk. And there are indeed lots of ways this risk could be mitigated. Hearing them gave me hope, but it also created a little bit of despair as well. Can the techniques he described actually work? Is preventing a version of COVID that’s ten times as lethal and ten times as contagious doable? Even if it’s not easy? The answer to that question presents profound…

Eschatological Implications

I don’t have the space to get into everything Reid talked about so I’m just going to make quick comments on a handful of the points he brought up.

He spent a fair amount of time talking about ways in which RNA strands could be screened and potential harmful strands rejected before being created. Currently the best place to do that is with the companies who create such strands, but eventually someone will be able to buy an RNA printer, at which point Reid suggests that the screening happen at the level of the printer. He indicated that this would force anyone wanting to make an artificial pathogen to use the older more complicated methodology and most would-be bioterrorists wouldn’t know how to do that. What he didn’t speak to is whether these printers could be hacked in such a way to override this screening. I assume Reid is aware of this possibility, and he may not have had the time to cover it. Also maybe such hacking is impossible. Though that seems unlikely. I could imagine it being difficult, but impossible? Given sufficient motivation just about anything can be hacked, and I have hard imagining that these RNA printers would be any different.

As you might imagine the measures Reid wants to introduce cost money. That money is a small fraction of the cost of any potential pandemic, but the amounts in question are still significant. Reid suggests that the military might be a good organization for spearheading these efforts since they have long experience getting money out of the government. This is an excellent point, but just because the military is good at getting money doesn’t mean that they’re good at using it, or at really getting anything done quickly and effectively. It’s interesting that we’re talking about this in the context of future pandemics because their performance during the current pandemic was abysmal. It took the military nine months to develop and approve a face mask. Nine months! For a facemask! And this was an expedited request! This doesn’t inspire me with much confidence that they’re the organization to head up the complicated measures envisioned by Reid for preventing the next pandemic.

Reid’s plans rely on a certain amount of consensus between scientists, businesses and especially countries. Reid goes to great lengths to explain how much easier bioterrorism is than creating a nuclear weapon. And yet despite the best efforts of basically the entire world North Korea was able to acquire nukes. How are we going to prevent them from making a bioweapon? I understand that pathogens are indiscriminate, that the bioweapon you create may end up killing your citizens as well. But playing with nuclear weapons when your opponents have thousands more than you is not especially safe either. And there are various ways to mitigate its effects like releasing it on the other side of the world or having a vaccine already ready to go. I’m not saying this means international consensus is impossible, just that it may not be as obvious an outcome as Reid hopes.

Speaking of spreading it far away, many of Reid’s plans rely on isolating an outbreak quickly, which keeps it from spreading and leaves the rest of the world free to combat it. But there’s no reason why a bioterrorist wouldn’t simultaneously release their pathogen in as many locations as possible. It’s one thing for the US to respond to a single outbreak in New York, it’s another for the US to respond to multiple outbreaks in New York, and yet another for it to respond to multiple outbreaks in multiple cities.

Finally I understand that we should be able to do all or most of the things Reid is recommending, but there’s not a lot of evidence that we will. It’s one thing to talk about what the government is doing right now, when the pandemic is front and center, it’s another to imagine what the government will be doing 10 years from now when the pandemic has faded from memory and other priorities seem far more pressing. As an example of my doubt over government effectiveness, while I was listening to the podcast in my car it was interrupted by a call. Despite not recognizing the number, I was expecting a call from a potential new client so I answered it. It was a recorded voice telling me that my Social Security number had been suspended, an obvious scam. If the government, despite how much people hate them, despite the fact that only a few companies are involved, and despite the fact that all the vectors of the attack are totally controlled by these few companies, can’t stop robocalls, what hope is there for stopping a virus?

To be clear I support everything Reid is calling for (though I hope we can find an organization more efficient than the military to run it) and I’m glad someone has come up with a semi-feasible plan for dealing with this threat, but I think it’s important to realize how difficult the problem is, and that even a straightforward plan is going to face numerous challenges and Reid’s is anything but.


This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World

By: Yancey Strickler

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the ideology of financial maximization warps business and society. 

Who should read this book?

People who agree that financial maximization has a corrosive effect, and are looking for support and evidence.

General Thoughts

Strickler was one of the founders and the CEO of Kickstarter. Which makes this another book by a CEO (see my review of Satya Nadella’s book) talking about why their company is different and how every company would be better if they were more like (insert company name here).

Unlike many such books however this goes into significant detail about how overwhelmed Strickler felt, how stressed and unprepared he felt and how much pressure it is to be the CEO of a successful startup. Having been involved in a couple of unsuccessful startups, and having been an entrepreneur/self-employed since 2007 in any time I wasn’t involved in an unsuccessful startup, I think I have some sense of what he means. And it is pretty bad.

But most of the book is dedicated to diagnosing what is wrong with society, and what needs to be fixed if we don’t want things to get worse and end badly, which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

There are books which posit a general societal and civilizational malaise. A great example is Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, which puts forth the idea that our country is afflicted by a multifaceted decadence which manifests in all sorts of ways, and in nearly all areas. Strickler makes some of the same points, but in his view the problem with society is very narrow, and it all starts with one man. In fact he nails all of the problems of the modern world to one op-ed written by this one man in 1970. That man is Milton Friedman and the op-ed was titled: A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits. And according to Strickler it introduced the concept of financial maximization and this is when it all went south. That the problem with the modern world is business greed, and all other problems flow from that.

Now it is true that something did happen in the early 70’s, there’s a whole website dedicated to it, and I’m getting really close to writing a post of my own about it. But it seems unlikely that Friedman played much of a role in this pivot, let alone was the primary actor. And to be clear, Stickler does not claim that this is the root of all the problems, that’s something of a strawman, but less of one than you might think.

Regardless of the force with which Strickler makes the claim I think it has several problems. To begin with I don’t think the companies were just waiting for permission to maximize profits, or that CEOs had previously kept their salaries reasonable, but then they read Freidman’s op-ed and came away thinking, “Pay myself more? That never would have occurred to me.”

What seems far more likely to me is that the post-war period was an aberration. That America, as really the only country left standing after the war, was able to create a peculiarly nice business environment. That there was enough demand from rebuilding world that everyone could have a nice job and businesses could afford to be generous. And that what started in the 1970’s was more a reversion to the mean, than some unique evil brought on by a specific economic philosophy.

None of this is to say that the problems he talks about aren’t real. I do think, based on the data, that CEO salaries are excessive, that they generally have less of an impact on the company’s profitability than people imagine.  I do think Wall Street is kind of out of control, but I also think their sins are hard to disentangle from the enormous amount of money the government has injected into the system and the perverse aftermath of the 2007-2008 crisis.  And I’m becoming increasingly convinced that technology and network effects have allowed some companies to become monopolies in ways which are pernicious in new and subtle ways. But when all is said and done I don’t think financial maximization is the disease, I think it’s just one of the many symptoms of a far more widespread malise. 


II- Capsule Reviews

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

By: Boyd Varty

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How getting back to nature is the cure for much (perhaps even all?) of what ails us.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s into anything paleo, or paleo adjacent will probably love this book. It draws a direct contrast between what humanity is doing now and an activity which is literally thousands of years old.

General Thoughts

Varty’s family owns a wildlife preserve in South Africa, as part of that it’s necessary to find lions so that the guides have something impressive to show people on safari. Finding these lions involves tracking them. The book is the story of a morning Varty spent tracking with his two older, more experienced companions. The events of the morning are intermixed with observations about life and the world. 

The last book offered a candidate for the one thing that was wrong with society, this offers up an idea for the one thing that will fix all the problems. Both are pretty unreasonable. In the case of this book we can’t send all 7.7 billion people to South Africa to track lions, but I nevertheless found this book far more compelling.  


Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6)

By: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The war which follows after the events of Book 5.

Who should read this book?

The events of book 5 and 6 are tied together so closely that I can’t imagine reading the one without reading the other.

General Thoughts

Lot’s of science fiction requires a certain suspension of disbelief. This suspension is expected and generally not particularly onerous. These suspensions can be wide but not particularly deep — it’s something a little bit unbelievable but it permeates everything about the story. They can be deep, but not particularly wide — the book asks you to accept something truly extraordinary, but it’s effect on the story is limited. And then of course the suspension can be both wide and deep in which case it might make the book unreadable. Babylon’s Ashes required me to suspend my disbelief in a way that was reasonably narrow, at least narrow enough that I enjoyed the book as a whole and am eager for the rest of the series, but at a depth that may have exceeded anything I’ve previously encountered in a fiction novel. 

**Begin Mild Spoiler**

Basically in the books there is an oppressed minority with legitimate grievances. And so, as sometimes happens, this minority resorts to violence, but it’s violence on a scale that beggars the imagination. Despite the truly unprecedented scale of the violence, it’s treated in the book as more of a mild overreaction which is mostly justified by the way in which the minority had been treated.

 

**End Mild Spoiler**

What’s unfortunate is that in the current environment this suspension immediately gets translated in my head into a political statement. And to be clear this says more about me than the authors, but this dash of politics, even if unintentional, diminished my enjoyment somewhat.


Peter the Great: His Life and World

By: Robert K. Massie

910 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The frankly incredible story of Peter the Great.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves a good history book.

General Thoughts

Massie might be my favorite author of history, and while I don’t think this quite reaches the level of Dreadnought, it’s nevertheless a fascinating book about an amazing individual. Rather than trying to go deep on any individual event, I thought I’d just list some things I found interesting:

  • The Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia takes up a large part of the book. I didn’t know basically anything about it going in, but it was crazy, particularly from a modern perspective. Everyone expected Sweden to win.
  • Related, the Swedish King, Charles the XII, Peter’s antagonist during the war, is almost as fascinating a character as Peter. Young and impetuous but also a brilliant and effective general.
  • Peter’s second wife also had an incredible story. She was born a Latvian commoner, taken as a spoil of war by one of Peter’s generals, then passed to Peter’s best friend who eventually passed her to Peter. It’s unclear how sexual these first two relationships were, but she married Peter, saved his army from the Ottoman’s and was Tsaress after his death.
  • Unlike the vast majority of Russians Peter loved ships and the sea. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was his journey to Europe. First off he was trying to journey incognito which was impossible, not only because he was the Tsar, but also because he was 6’7” which is conspicuous even now, but back then he would have stuck out like Andre the Giant. Second, the whole point of the trip was that he wanted to learn shipbuilding in Holland. Consequently he spent four months training as a carpenter in the private shipyards of the Dutch East India Company. In the end they gave him a certificate declaring him to be a shipwright, which Peter was immensely proud of.
  • It’s hard to describe how curious Peter was. It wasn’t just shipbuilding he was interested in, it was nearly everything. In many respects this curiosity was what led Peter to be the ultimate modernizing technocrat, building his capitol, St.  Petersburg, from nothing. Reforming Russian money, the Russian army, and of course the Russian fleet. Constantly looking to every detail of the realm. But in all of his affection and admiration towards Europe, it never occurred to him that Russia should be anything other than an absolute autocracy, led by him. 

Exhalation: Stories

By: Ted Chiang

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of fantastic science fiction short stories.

Who should read this book?

Everybody? Or at least anyone who’s ever enjoyed short science fiction.

General Thoughts

This was an excellent recommendation to me by one of my regular readers, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to get to it. Every single story was good and some were fantastic. My favorite might be the very first, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, but perhaps it was just nice to be reading something so atmospheric, it’s been awhile since I’ve done that. I definitely need to go back and read his other collections (there aren’t many).


What’s Wrong With the World

By: G. K. Chesterton

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Chesterton diagnoses the ills of turn of the century England.

Who should read this book?

To me it felt somewhat dated, so probably only if you are already a fan of Chesterton.

General Thoughts

I’ve talked in the past about how people can have an excellent grasp of how the world got to this point, but when they attempt to turn that into a prescription for what we should do in the future their ideas end up being horrible. There is something of that in this book, though I would argue that by preceding from a traditional foundation that Chesterton comes much closer to an accurate view of the future than people taking a more academic approach. And of course say what you will about Chesterton’s opposition to female suffrage, I think it’s more than made up for by his early and quite vocal opposition to eugenics. And in this respect his warnings were incredibly prescient. This book mentions eugenics in only a few places, but it’s clear that he could see the danger of that path when everyone else was hugely in favor of it and several decades before the rest of the world acknowledged the horror of it.

This book also contains some of his best quotes:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

…washing is a virtue in the rich  and therefore a duty in the poor. For a duty is a virtue that one can’t do. And a virtue is generally a duty that one can do quite easily.

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with the little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.


Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

By: Margaret Heffernan

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The way that recognizing the ambiguous nature of the future helps, paradoxically, to navigate it better. 

Who should read this book?

No one. I came really close to not finishing it. It’s not so much that it’s a bad book, it’s that there are so many better books. 

General Thoughts

In this reviewer’s humble opinion Uncharted is a poor collection of ideas from so many better books. It lays out the idea of black swans like Taleb, but without actually naming them as such or offering any advice for dealing with them. It’s littered with business advice like Good to Great, but with far fewer anecdotes or evidence. It seems to aspire to offer personal advice as well, with the long story of an Irish Catholic priest who fell in love and left the church, and advice about aging as well. For good measure Heffernan mentions stuff like Superforecasting, Aubrey de Grey, (an anti-aging guru) and the frequently told anecdote of how London Cab Drivers have larger hippocampuses. This would all be useful and interesting if it was used to construct some larger philosophical foundation. But at best it was loosely woven into an extended meditation on ambiguity, but it wasn’t a particularly coherent meditation, and even if it was, one doesn’t build a path to the future on extended meditations. 

Out of it all, I did come across one interesting point. She claimed that businesses with a strong culture weather crises better. Perhaps that’s applicable to nations as well?


Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

By: Fredrik deBoer

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A refutation of blank slate ideology, focusing on education, from a marxist perspective. 

Who should read this book?

If you think the idea that “any person can grow up to do anything they want” is one of the most pernicious lies ever told, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

Some people are talented, and smart, and some people are not. Some people can learn long division in an afternoon, some people, such as one young man deBoer mentions, can spend weeks being privately tutored on the subject and still not get it. The book makes three points with respect to this talent gap:

  1. It’s largely genetic (but only on an individual level, deBoer emphatically rejects racial differences).
  2. It’s not fair to condemn people to crappy lives of poverty based on something they have no control over, i.e. their talent. 
  3. This is exactly what both parties are doing by espousing the idea that children are blank slates, and that given the right education system anyone can succeed, and if they don’t it’s on them.

I enjoyed the book, it was well written, and deBoer is passionate and informed. I disagree with a lot of what he says but not his central point, that blank-slateism is a society wide delusion that is warping the nation in profound ways. In particular it’s made the job of teacher virtually impossible. Being married to one teacher and the son of another teacher I can see this playing out. They’re somehow expected to solve all of our nation’s problems by ensuring that everyone learns algebra. And no one dares question whether everyone, in fact, can learn algebra.


III- Religious Reviews

Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical 

By: Brittney Hartley

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Connecting Mormon theology to classical philosophy.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants to get into the philosophically unique theology of Mormonism without trying to tackle someone like Sterling McMurrin

General Thoughts

The world “simplified” is right there in the title and Hartley does a great job of exactly that. The book is an easy read but still manages to hit all of the important points. I would say that at times it seems too simple, and there is the occasional foray into current culture war territory (the book is more aspirational than apologetic) but if you’re looking for an easy entry point into the subject this is a great place to start.


Speaking of entry points, supporting this blog has a very easy entry point: $1/month. At $12 a year that’s like the cost of one person eating out. If this blog brings you as much satisfaction as that, consider donating.


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

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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

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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)

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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?

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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


Parenting, Wildfires, and Politics

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I- The Last Psychiatrist

For many years, in various contexts and in various forms, people have been recommending I read The Last Psychiatrist. A blog that ran from 2005-2014 before suddenly stopping. It was rumored that the sudden end was because someone had threatened to get the author in trouble with his work, or perhaps he did get in trouble at his work, but was able to negotiate leaving up the archives. In any event, I recently added it to the list of tabs I open every morning to start the day and, finally, I’ve gradually been working my way through it. It is quite good, and I can see why people have been recommending it for so long. Thus far I have particularly liked his three part series, The Most Important Article On Psychiatry You Will Ever Read. Perhaps, since I brought it up, you’re wondering what makes this article so important? Well it’s all about how adding more of a drug frequently doesn’t increase whatever that drug’s initial effect was. That in fact adding more might produce entirely different effects, because the drug will have saturated the initial receptors and adding more causes it to bind to different receptors causing, correspondingly, different effects. As a more simple example: doubling the dosage does not double the effect it may give you a completely different effect. 

However important and fascinating that subject is, for this post I’d like to use a different observation of his as a jumping off point for expanding on some of the themes I’ve explored in my last couple of posts. This observation of his concerned parenting, particularly parents who are psychiatrists. 

SOME psychiatrists think/try to do something noble (criticize behavior and not the child itself) but they are HUMAN, and get tired. They will eventually get angry, and, from a kid’s perspective, when the parent gets angry is what matters. What did I do to piss Dad off?

The opposite of this, call it the non-psychiatrist parent, is calm, then gets a little angry, a little more angry, a little more angry, then yells, screams. There’s a build up. A few years of this and you realize that there are some things that make Dad a little angry, and other things that make him really angry. There’s normal, varying levels of human emotion to different situations.

But the child of a psychiatrist doesn’t get that. He gets binary emotional states. “Lying is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Yelling loudly is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Picking your nose is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Stealing is not acceptable behavior.” What’s the relative value? A kid has no idea– he thinks the value is decided by Dad, not intrinsic to the behavior. “Eating cookies before dinner is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Kicking your brother is not acceptable behavior.” 

Ok, now here it comes:

After seven or eight or twenty five “not acceptable behavior” monotones, Dr. Dad can’t take it anymore; he explodes. “Goddamn it! What the hell is the matter with you?! What are you doing?!!” All the anger and affect gets released, finally. The problem– the exact problem– is this: the explosion of anger came at something relatively trivial. Maybe the kid spilled the milk.

So now the four year old concludes that the worst thing he did all day was spilled the milk– not kicking his brother, or lying, or stealing. Had he not spilled that milk, Dad wouldn’t have gotten angry. 

I imagine most people understand that this sort of radically inconsistent parenting is bad. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not just the explosion at the end that’s bad; to recognize that the answer is not to be calm all the time. And it’s not merely because it’s impossible (though it is). It’s because the calm, in the end, is just as bad. The explosion is misleading because it lays far too much emphasis on the spilled milk. The calm is bad because it doesn’t lay any emphasis on anything. Picking your nose provokes exactly the same response as stealing.

If this problem were isolated to just some portion of parents who also happen to be psychiatrists it wouldn’t be worth bringing up. But I think such attitudes are found among a large number of parents in general. And even beyond that the ideas and practices motivating these parents have seeped into institutions, policies, behavior, and culture. That it’s a deep ideological vein running through modern western culture at large. Despite this ubiquity there’s no easy label for it. However, despite this difficulty, that’s precisely what this post sets out to do. To help with that, let’s turn to another example, one that would initially appear to have nothing to do with parenting.

II- California Wildfires

Last year was so full of catastrophes that the California wildfires, which might normally have dominated the news, now seem largely forgotten. Perhaps not by people in California, but with everything else that’s been happening, I doubt many outside of the state have given them more than a moment’s thought over the last few months. But, again, that’s just a measure of how relatively bad everything else has been. The California wildfires were objectively terrible, even if they did produce some truly spectacular pictures. Generally, when something is that bad you look for ways to stop it from happening. Which takes us to the subject of wildfire control and suppression.

This is not the first time we’ve covered that subject in this space. It’s come up a few times in the past, including most recently in December of 2018 at the end of modern California’s  deadliest and most destructive fire season. (2020 was twice as big in terms of acres burned, but lower in terms of damage and fatalities.) In that post I mostly looked at the debate over whether more logging would have helped, a subject which, even after 2020, is still very controversial, but what seems less controversial is the idea of controlled burns. 

As most people who’ve paid any attention to the subject are aware of, the problem of wildfires, while multifaceted, can actually be made much worse by the process of fighting those same fires. This seems counterintuitive and indeed for many years, the U.S. Forest Service had a very aggressive approach, unofficially known as the 10 a.m. policy, which directed that wildfires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As you can imagine, throughout most of history, forest fires were not extinguished by the next morning, and moreover forests have not evolved with Forest Service policy in mind. Predictably, at least with hindsight, this approach resulted in many second order effects, similar to those created by the discipline of scientific forestry I mentioned at the beginning of the month in my review of Seeing Like a State. In both cases it’s clear that when you start to mess with the way forests operate naturally you end up with numerous unintended consequences. In this case aggressively fighting fires ended up creating at least two consequences of note: First, it resulted in an accumulation of deadwood because there were no fires anymore to periodically burn it out. Second, the population of the forest changed from a small number of large trees (30 or 40 per acre) to a large number of small trees (1000 to 2000 per acre) because fires used to periodically clear out smaller trees as well.

Both of these together mean that fires, when they do happen, can end up being extraordinary destructive, with both far more fuel available from the accumulated deadwood than would normally be the case and smaller trees which catch fire more easily and burn hotter (as anyone who has started a fire with kindling can attest to.) Additionally large trees which have spent hundreds of years surviving normal fires are no match for these super fires fueled by the proliferation of smaller trees and accumulated deadwood.

Obviously there are many ways to deal with this problem. There’s the logging I focused on in my previous post. Also you can be less aggressive in fighting fires. For example, if fires start naturally, you could let them burn. There are, however, several problems with this. To begin with we’re long past the point where we are dealing with “natural” fires. Most fires are going to be too hot and destructive to just leave alone. Also people find it extraordinarily difficult to not intervene. (Which is one of the first hints to where all this is headed.) Which takes us to…

III- Controlled Burns

As an alternative to just letting the fire burn as it naturally would you could try and manage the burn, not immediately put it out, but not let it get out of control either. All of the same difficulties present themselves along with a host of additional difficulties. By the time you discover the fire it may already be too late. It’s probably fire season and there are numerous fires to fight and we can’t spare the manpower to carefully manage them, but rather we need to extinguish them as soon as possible. Also fires are most likely to happen when conditions are dry and there’s more than the average amount of fuel which is the worst time to attempt any management of them.

The final option is scheduled, intentionally set, controlled burns, and in the wake of 4.4 million acres burned, $12 billion in property damage and 31 fatalities in 2020 (on top of 2 million acres, $26 billion and 103 fatalities in 2018) most people are asking why we don’t do more of them. Or as this article from ProPublica puts it, They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

This article contains a lot of interesting and frustrating observations, but let’s start with the answer of why there aren’t more scheduled, controlled burns. To begin with the article mentions how lucrative and exciting seasonal firefighting is, but:

By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

Of course it’s worth pointing out that the impact to air quality from what actually happened last year is vastly worse than whatever would have resulted from a controlled burn (and the reason the pictures are so breathtaking). Which presumably means that in the end, those who are worried about clean air made the wrong call. 

I mentioned at the beginning that I was going to be drawing on my two previous posts. I’ve already made a connection to my discussion of Seeing Like a State, now it’s time to draw on my last post, Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler. In that post I described three hierarchies of systems:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

Let’s go through each of these with respect to wildfires:

Most people, including myself, are kind of fuzzy on how wildfires worked in a “state of nature”, and in retrospect I was negligent in not paying more attention to it when I last visited this issue. At the time I assumed, now that the problems of being too aggressive with wildfire suppression were blindingly obvious, that things have gotten better. That we had switched to focusing just on fires that were going to threaten houses. But the ProPublica article claims otherwise:

We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures.

Well that seems misguided, but of greatest interest was the gap between where we are and where things were in the “unspoiled” past.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres.

So not only has the acreage of prescribed burns been going down over the last couple of decades, but also, even as bad as last year was, it was on the very lowest end of the estimate for the number of acres which burned historically. 

I assume that comparing last year’s fires with historical fires is something of an apples and oranges comparison. Since last year’s fires were burning in areas with the aforementioned accumulation of fuel, while historical fires would have presumably been milder. Though if we’re trying to look on the bright side, we should at least be able to say we met our historical fire budget last year. But it’s also clear that it would be unthinkable to do that every year. Which is to say, even if we hadn’t drastically altered the makeup of the forests, the idea returning to the natural system is ludicrous. 

Even if by this measurement we did meet our “burn budget” for 2020, we’re still left with the question of what we’re supposed to do in all the other years? The gap between 13,000 acres and 4.4 million acres (to say nothing of 11.8 million) seems entirely unbridgeable. But we should still try, and this takes us to the other two systems: legible and controlled. Let’s start with controlled.

I would argue that when the ProPublica article describes the system where thousands of dollars can be spent preparing for a burn only to have it stopped because of air quality issues or complaints from local homeowners that this is the controlled system. The system which, as described in my last post, consists of layering on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.” Such a controlled system is exactly what you would expect from California, which leads all other states in the number of regulations it imposes. And also, just as you might expect, this system is not working. So if a natural system is inconceivable and a controlled system doesn’t work, what might a legible system look like?

I don’t know that I have the requisite expertise to answer that, and it’s somewhat tangential to the actual point of this post, but as long as we’re here I might as well offer an opinion. To begin with I think incentives should be better aligned such that more money and prestige is available for prescribed fires i.e. more focus on preventing less on curing. And further that prescribed fires should be exempt from air quality regulations, or at least the bar for preventing them should be much, much higher. Finally I would urge people to remember that a legible system is not the perfectly just system, it’s not even the perfect system, it’s just a system that will get used. But it turns out, somewhat paradoxically, that making things simple can be quite complicated.

IV- Our Other Attempts at Controlling Nature

I have spent so much time on the subject of managing wildfires because it’s fascinating, and also because I assume that many people, after reading my review of Seeing Like a State and hearing about the scientific forestry debacle of late 18th century Prussia, would assume that we can’t possibly be doing something similar, and yet, the management of wildfires would seem to be a failure of almost exactly the same sort, going so far as to also center on controlling the natural life cycle of forests. Does the discussion serve any purpose beyond that? Well while I have already admitted that I don’t have the expertise to talk about a legible system for fighting fires, I am very interested in fighting political unrest. And I sense there are parallels between what’s happening to our country, what the Last Psychiatrist described as happening with parents, and what’s happening with wildfires.

In the case of parenting, interestingly enough, the parent stands in for both those perpetrating the unrest and those trying to control the unrest. You might say that the parent is the country while the children he inconsistently parents are nature, and after attempting to maintain calm for so long, now we’re at the end of our rope, where all it takes is split milk to set us off. That we now suffer paroxysms of rage around mask wearing. And even the other stuff, like the actual pandemic, racial injustice, and election malfeasance are things we dealt with much more calmly in the past, even though it was all happening on a much larger scale. Both parenting and wildfires suffer from trying to impose too much control.

The parent assumes that if they are always in control that they’ll achieve better outcomes, but they can’t always be in control, and on the rare occasions when they’re not it wipes out all the benefits (which were questionable already) of those periods when they were calm. The Forest Service assumed that if they immediately took control of fires that they would have better outcomes, sadly it worked exactly the opposite. Now we’re in a situation where we have some ideas for making it better, but it’s not just wildfires we’re trying to control, we also want to control air quality and public opinion. So what are we trying to control in politics? Well similarly, a lot of things, but foremost among them, it appears that we are trying to control bad opinions, all the way down to the level of microaggressions. We don’t just want to keep our child from stealing we want to keep them from rolling their eyes behind our backs as well. That, as I mentioned when reviewing Seeing Like a State, we’re trying to get rid of all of the awful underbrush and create forests with straight lines of perfect trees.

Now perhaps even though we haven’t succeeded in doing this as parents, or with fighting fires, that we’ll nevertheless succeed at doing this politically. Perhaps, having driven bad thoughts from mainstream media to Fox, and more recently from Fox to OANN and NewsMax, that we are just one step away from driving them out of the country entirely. Perhaps having driven “the crazies” from Twitter to Parler and now having shut down Parler, we can declare victory. We have extinguished the big wildfire and all future wildfires will be small and easily managed. Society has regained its calm and now all issues, including our misbehaving children, will be treated with dispassion. It’s always possible this is how the rest of the decade will go, but this doesn’t seem to be how things are playing out. Merely expressing disapproval for certain opinions doesn’t make them go away. The measures which we have adopted may slow the transmission of such ideas, or peel off individuals whose fidelity was only lukewarm, but as I pointed out, the underbrush that’s left will be of the hardiest and most noxious varieties. And if it gets even the smallest opening it will overwhelm your carefully curated rows of trees. Or start a new fire in some undetected part of the forest that will be raging out of control by the time you discover it.

Trump is the perfect example of this effect. Going into 2016 it seemed that things were calm. And all manner of bad thoughts like racism and being against immigration had been banished from the halls of government, even among Republicans. And when Trump came along the idea that he would win the Republican Nomination to say nothing of the presidency was considered akin to his chances of playing in the NBA Finals. But as it turned out, it was a hot, dry summer in California, and over the years a huge amount of deadwood had accumulated and Trump was not just a match, he was a flamethrower, and more importantly a flamethrower who got 74 million votes. And perhaps we just need to pass more laws, and kick more social media platforms off of AWS, and the calm we hope for will return, and those 74 million people will vote for Mitt Romney in 2024. I doubt it, and is that more likely if Romney runs on the same platform as he ran on in 2012? Or is it more likely if he adopts some of Trump’s policies, like building the wall, but perhaps without Trump’s special brand of flamboyance? Should we prefer this Romney to Don Jr. running? What exactly are we hoping will happen in 2024?

All of which is to say, I’m not arguing that the wildfire currently raging is good. I’m just arguing that it exists, and that previous methods of fighting it have very probably made it worse. And now we need to ask, what represents a prescribed burn in this analogy? What would represent good parenting? This is a vast topic, and deserves more space than I have left, but let me just offer one example. It seems clear to me that in the past free speech has served in this role. And I’m fully aware that this time when we prepared to do our prescribed burn, as we have in the past, we found that Mark Zuckerburg had poured gasoline on all the accumulated deadwood and Jack Dorsey had used a helicopter to scatter cherry bombs in the area. And as a consequence, free speech isn’t looking so hot (get it?). But we still need a system. We have ruled out allowing nature to operate unchecked, and on the opposite side our attempts at a controlled solution, at extinguishing all fires as soon as they appear is even worse.

What we need is a legible system, and as it turns out free speech is legible. Under the three standards I brought up in the last post it is both accessible, accountable and achievable. Though, as with the other systems we looked at, the accountability does need some work. And insofar as the internet has changed things it has strengthened accessibility at the expense of accountability. And yes, free speech is another fire, but the point of all of this is that we need small, manageable fires if we want to keep giant conflagrations from consuming everything. 


Lest there be any confusion, my parents were fantastic. I was a little shit, but they were great and continue to be great. In fact they even donate my patreon. If you want to be as great as they are, consider doing the same. 


Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

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I.

My father spent many years working for himself as a management consultant. He wasn’t one of these people that advised CEOs on vision, instead his specialty was shiftwork. Companies that operated around the clock, 24 hours a day seven days a week. Quite frequently he ended up having to work with unions which was its own special brand of crazy, particularly if layoffs were involved.

During the winter of 1990, after the holiday rush was over, it was my turn to get laid off. Beyond all of the normal annoyances which accompany getting laid off, I was also annoyed because I felt that I had been laid off in favor of people who were worse than me at the job, but had greater seniority. So I asked my dad why companies did it that way. He explained: because it was a system which was easy to understand for all of the parties. Competence is fuzzy, and it can be hard to judge even if you’re not the person being judged, and no one has an accurate view of their own competence, but seniority is a bright line. Even if it has to come down to the difference of a few days, it’s clear who’s been working there longer. It’s clear to management, it’s clear to the person being laid off, and it’s clear to that person’s wife or husband. That last bit may be the most important of all, your significant other isn’t going to get angry about your lack of seniority, but they may get mad if they feel you were slacking off or alternatively if there was some favoritism involved. And, as we’ll get into, managing anger is a pretty important part of any process.

II.

Last week I was reminded of this story by an article Matthew Yglesias posted to the subscribers of his new newsletter, Slow Boring. The article was titled Making policy for a low-trust world. (Fortunately this was one of his public posts so you can easily read the whole thing if you want.) His subject is pretty clear from the title, and it touches on something real and pressing (moreso after the events of the 6th) how do you carry out policy when people don’t trust those in power? 

Yglesias offers up two options:

  1. Layer on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.”
  2. Fewer and far simpler rules or what Yglesias calls “it does exactly what it says on the tin” approach.

Yglesias favors that latter and offers up three steps for doing that:

  • It’s easy for everyone, whether they agree with you or disagree with you, to understand what it is you say you are doing.
  • It’s easy for everyone to see whether or not you are, in fact, doing what you said you would do.
  • It’s easy for you and your team to meet the goal of doing the thing that you said you would do.

The shorthand for these steps might be accessibility, accountability and achievability. (Yeah, I got cute and chose three words that began with “a”.) And Yglesias goes on to show what this looks like when applied to vaccine prioritization (he’s been a big proponent of simply prioritizing by age), the fiscal stimulus/PPP program, quantitative easing, and finally local infrastructure. It’s good stuff, (Tyler Cowen called it the best short essay of the year so far) and as I said it’s not paywalled so you should just go read it.

All that said, I want to take things in a somewhat different, and broader direction. First I should mention that I was saying something very similar in a post from 2017. (Truly I was ahead of my time.) Without getting too deep into the weeds (for that read the original post, I think it holds up really well) I was comparing the book Rationality: AI to Zombies (RAZ) something of a bible for rationalists and bayesians with the actual Bible. And basically arguing that RAZ and rationality in general were examples of Yglesias’ first option for dealing with the world. While they aren’t exactly making a compliance checklist (though I think some of that is in RAZ) they are trying to craft a decision framework for every eventuality. Contrariwise the Bible is an example of the second option. Obviously a totalizing religion is going to have a hard time always complying with all three of Yglesias’ steps, but it is pretty rare for someone to say they don’t understand Christianity (step 1-accessibility). And most people (especially non-Christians) feel perfectly comfortable identifying if someone is being Christian (step 2-accountability). Most of the trouble comes in the execution (step 3-achievability) which does create some unfortunate hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is not actually as bad as people want to claim.

All of the steps are important, but as you might have already guessed step 1, understanding the plan, is the most important not only because the remaining steps build on top of it, but also it’s the chief thing differentiating the two options. And it’s not even all of step one, within that step there is one word that’s more important than all the rest… “everyone”. In my aforementioned post, I pointed out that this was a key difference between rationality and Christianity. As an example of what I mean by this the story of someone in jail converting to Christianity or some other religion (see Malcolm X) is so common as to be a cliche. The story of someone reading the 2300 pages of RAZ and converting to bayesianism is so counterintuitive that I’m sure they could make a TV show out of it. Something similar to My Name is Earl (which was cancelled too soon by the way). In other words it’s not enough that your system is understood by bureaucrats, or people who’ve read the right hundred posts on social media (or 4chan) or the right 2300 page book. It has to be something everyone (or at least a percentage in the high 90’s) can understand.

III.

What’s interesting about Yglesias’ essay is that, despite the timing, he didn’t apply this framework to the election, which, for me, is the obvious place to do so. And you can see that this was basically what I was getting at in my post Voting as a Proxy For Power. I offered up three potential systems for deciding who had won. Which, if we restate them in Yglesias’ framework might look like this:

System 1: Elections as they are supposed to work

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to count up all the votes in the individual states, assign the electoral votes from that state to the one who got the most individual votes, and then whoever got the most electoral votes is president.
  2. Accountability: Each party gets to have observers at critical locations to confirm whether we did the above. (I understand that there are disputes about how well this worked, and in general step 2 in this system is weaker than I would like. But in theory counting votes should be something that can be transparent.)
  3. Achievability: Counting votes is a relatively straightforward exercise, and while it’s not unheard of for people to have questions (see hanging chads) nearly everyone feels confident about their ability to do it, and in fact the people who pushed back most vigorously on accusations that the election was stolen were frequently the election officials

System 2: Voting as a proxy for power

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to have a smooth, non-violent transition of power, as opposed to what happened historically.
  2. Accountability: We’re going to use voting and democracy to grant legitimacy to the person taking, or keeping that power. In a way that’s convincing (particularly to the elites in the media and government who are custodians of the power) even if it’s not perfect.
  3. Achievability: Everyone has done a good job if power is peacefully and smoothly transferred.

Once again the most difficulty comes on step two, but as you can see, this system is arguably actually even simpler and more straightforward than the first. Now let’s look at what Trump and his supporters actually tried:

System 3: Overturn the election by any means necessary

  1. Accessibility: We are going to get to the true winner of the election by uncovering proof, filing lawsuits, creating spreadsheets, tweeting out accusations, spreading innuendo, and crafting conspiracies. As a result of one or all of these plans the election will be given to Trump by the courts, or the state legislatures, or the Insurrection Act, or the military, or Mike Pence, or occupying the capital, or Trump himself in some bold stroke we didn’t even see.
  2. Accountability: Everyone can tell that it’s still working as long as any of the foregoing still has the slightest chance of working, and if all of them have been eliminated, then Trump supporters will provide you with six other possibilities you’ve never even heard of which are the real way to tell that it’s working, and unless every one of these possibilities has been made physically impossible by the laws of nature the plan is still working.
  3. Achievability: People working in this system should: Stop the count (except for a few days in AZ, in which case you should keep counting); release the Kraken; wait for the courts; wait for the state legislatures; watch Mike Pence; disregard everything that happened before January 6th (it’s all happening after that); gather in DC; storm the Capitol; wait for Trump’s instructions on Twitter; realize the video of Trump conceding on Twitter is a fake; and finally pay attention to the Emergency Broadcast System.

As you can see despite cramming this into Yglesias’ framework this is the first option he talked about, the idea of layering on more rules, though in this case they’re layering on every conceivable option so that no avenue for victory is left unexplored. And the point is, it’s so easy to convince yourself that this system has to work. That surely if you just account for every eventuality, mistakes won’t be made. Or if you pursue every possible avenue for victory one of them has to work out. But this is one of those times when no plan survives contact with the enemy. Your rules, checklists, and plans don’t exist in isolation, at some point they have to be understood and implemented. When the rubber actually hits the road, the additional complexity is a liability not an asset.

As we have seen in the days since the election, you can be the biggest Trump supporter there is, firmly believing in both his genius and in the fact that the election was stolen, and it still should be obvious at this point that the third system was never going to work because it entirely ignored the all important task of being something everyone could understand. And not merely does it need to be something your supporters can understand, it needs to be straightforward to understand and implement for all of the organizations you need to have on your side to be President when the smoke clears (regardless of whether it’s an election or a revolution/coup). The military can easily understand systems one and two, but even if you assume that they’re mostly on Trump’s side, how are they going to enact system three? Are you sure they’re not going to be confused by Christopher Miller, the acting Secretary of Defence, the guy Trump put in after the election (according to his supporters as part of the whole secret plan) saying:

I strongly condemn these acts of violence against our democracy. I, and the people I lead in the Department of Defense, continue to perform our duties in accordance with our oath of office, and will execute the time-honored peaceful transition of power to President-elect Biden on January 20.

How is anyone trying to execute on system three not going to be confused by that? Trump and his followers have weaponized complexity, but they haven’t figured out how to target anything with it yet.

Okay, as you might be able to tell I’m a little annoyed. And to be fair complexity has been weaponized for a long time, it might in fact be a serviceable definition of postmodernism. But we’ve certainly reached some kind of landmark.

Before I move on, a few notes about stability and history. First off I think we’ve had stability for so long that most people don’t realize how bad a non-peaceful transfer of power is. So let me be clear, I have strong misgivings about Biden, and Democrats, and progressives, and wokeism, and policies like student loan forgiveness, and reparations, etc. etc. But I would take Biden with a filibuster proof Senate majority composed entirely of Andrea Ocasio Cortez clones over full on civil war which ends up being as bad or worse than the last one. And I’d certainly take what we ended up with (President Biden and Democratic control of the Senate) over a repeat of the violence of the late 60’s/early 70s. For example 1972 when there were 1900 domestic bombings. Now unfortunately we may get both but I don’t think storming the Capitol made either Biden’s presidency or domestic terror less likely. 

On the other side of the coin people forget how difficult it is to actually pull off a coup or a revolution. I think people imagine that the French Revolution, for example, looked similar to last Wednesday’s march on the Capitol. That some people spontaneously rose up, and the next thing you know the whole government had changed. One day there was the monarchy and the next there wasn’t. But in reality the revolution was largely a very gradual process whereby the Estates General was replaced by the National Assembly which was replaced by the National Constituent Assembly which was replaced by the Legislative Assembly, and so forth and so on until eventually ten years later you get Napoleon, and for the first three years of that period the King was still around.

Mostly I point all of this out to add another angle on how dumb Trump’s plan really was. Not only was it very unlikely to work, it would have been horrible if it had.

IV.

Perhaps, despite its appropriateness, you’ve noticed that I’ve avoided using the word “legible”, as in “Yglesias is contending that policies need to be legible”, which I’ve expanded to the idea that “the transfer of power should be legible”. Even though it’s basically the perfect word to describe what he and I are talking about. I’ve avoided using that word because this post unfortunately fell immediately after my review of Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. which is critical of the idea of trying to impose legibility on a natural system. And thus that word, right at this moment, has some baggage, and I wanted to make sure I’d laid the foundation of my thinking before I introduced it. But I do think we should consider Scott and the claims made in Seeing Like a State when discussing Yglesias’ framework, because it’s important to identify when “legibility” is a problem and when it’s an asset. 

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that there’s a great deal of difference between efforts to make the citizenry legible to the state as opposed to making the state legible to the citizenry. In the former case the benefits accrue to the state, and in the latter they accrue to the citizenry and I’m almost exclusively talking about the latter.

Additionally, legibility is one of those things where you should apply as much as is needed but no more. In a sense it’s closely related to the idea of subsidiarity, that programs should be implemented as close to the problem and the people affected as possible. Legibility should be as close as possible to the way nature already works. 

It might help to think of there being three possible levels:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

As it says in the Federalist papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Which get’s at the first and third levels. If men could be trusted to behave without any government that would be the best solution, and this is the state of nature as described by Scott, and the philosophy of anarchists and libertarians (though to different degrees). If on the other hand angels were to govern men, then we could give them control of everything knowing that we would never need to second guess them, and it wouldn’t matter how complicated those controls became. But since there are no angels in sight, the middle ends up being the goldilocks spot described by Yglesias where there are rules and policies, but they’re easy to understand. They’re legible but not complicated.

As I was working through this post it occurred to me that Yglesias’ framework can be applied to the recent reckoning on race, though I’m sure he’d probably rather not go there, and even I am only mentioning it as an observation rather than any kind of recommendation. 

What I’ve noticed is that as things have progressed since the death of George Floyd, the complexities of race have become very apparent. A few examples: There’s been a tendency to separate people as being either white or people of color (POC) and yet Asians who would be considered POC have much higher median household incomes than white americans. Affirmative action largely benefits people who are already in the upper middle class rather than minorities that are truly disadvantaged. When it comes to reparations there are all sorts of complexities. Does Oprah get reparations? Do people who recently immigrated from Africa, and have no enslaved ancestors get reparations? And what about the Native Americans?

I’m not saying these problems are insuperable, I’m just pointing out that they lead to exactly the sort of rules layering that Yglesias pointed to as being bad. On the other hand, the old standard of being completely colorblind is legible, straightforward and a perfect example of Yglesias’ criteria. But as I said I’m merely observing, not recommending.

V.

After taking the Yglesias framework up a level, and using it to consider the recent unpleasantness (i.e. from policies to the choosing of people to enact those policies). I think we can take it even one step higher, to the level of values.

As I was working my way through all of this I was reminded of my post on the justice/mercy dichotomy. As usual when I wander this far afield everything I say is pretty speculative, but I once again see a situation where there’s too much focus on justice and not nearly enough focus on mercy. To begin with, while I understand it’s hard for some people to understand, the riot that happened last week, insofar as it had a motive other than “riot tourism” (I forget where I saw that phrase but it seems apt) was motivated by justice. All or nearly all of those people are convinced, deep in their bones, that the election was stolen. That Trump actually won, but the Deep State contrived to make it appear as if he had lost. That if they had been able to sway enough of the senators to change the outcome of the electoral vote counting and give Trump the win, that this would have been just and proper. Now you can go back and read the previous post if you want an explanation for all the reasons why the modern world has made this path particularly easy to follow, and not just for Trump Supporters. So to an extent everyone is obsessed with justice. The problem is that justice and mercy are opposed. You can’t have both. And what we needed last week, and really since the election is more mercy.

Of course calls for the left/Biden Administration/institutions to be merciful to Trump supporters are legion. And while I think that’s an area where we should err on the side of mercy, in this space I’m going to argue that actually it’s Trump and his supporters who need to be more merciful. I understand that some people don’t think that’s possible. They think mercy is something that can only be granted by the people in power to the people who aren’t in power. But in reality mercy can operate even if you’re the weaker party. As long as you have some power you can decide to forgo using it and exercise mercy. Even if you have less power than your opponent, as long as you have any power you can use it to cause harm. Deciding to not to is an act of mercy. As such, conceding is an act of mercy, directed both at the other side (even though they won) and at the nation as a whole. And it’s actually more important if you think justice has not been served. Anyone can be merciful if they think they’re in the wrong, it’s being merciful when you think justice is on your side that poses all of the difficulties. 

So what does all of this have to do with legibility vs. complexity? I would argue that mercy is legible. Forgiveness is easy to understand. On the other hand justice, true justice, is enormously complicated. And I’m not arguing that we should abandon our quest for justice. I’m just pointing out that when Yglesias was calling for a framework that could easily be understood that he was also calling for mercy. 

As I’ve said this is all on the highly speculative end of things. And I can completely understand that in calling for mercy, particularly from the weaker party, I am in a sense calling for people to accept some injustice, and of the worst kind too: that committed by the strong against the weak. But perhaps, by flipping the framing such that Trump supporters are the ones who are being asked to meekly submit to injustices (whether perceived or real) and to do so for the good of the country, those most inclined to object to my conclusion might be induced to see that it contains a sliver of wisdom.


Perhaps the appeals I make at the end of every post also suffer from the weakness of being too complicated, so let me try Yglesias’ framework:

  1. I’m asking for money so I can prove to my wife that I’m not wasting my time.
  2. You’ll know it’s working by my periodic mentions of having a wife in the present tense.
  3. You can execute on this plan by going to https://patreon.com/jeremiah820 and clicking on one of the “Join” buttons.

Review of Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

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For those who read my last post, you know what’s coming, a review of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier. I debated whether I should follow my standard review format, and after much back and forth, I decided to not only follow it, but add a section, so let’s start there:

Briefly, what is this book about?

Shrier is arguing that there has been a huge increase in the number of female teens identifying as transgender, and that this increase is not a result of long standing gender dysphoria, but rather the typical confusion and discomfort associated with puberty combined with a culture that celebrates transgender individuals. That in essence going through puberty is tough and being trans allows them to put that out of their mind while also being cool. Or in words of one of the teenagers she interviewed:

I don’t know exactly that I want to be a guy. I just know I don’t want to be a girl.

Who should read this book?

At the top of my list would be those people who instinctively recoil from Shrier’s argument, And who feel that all, or at least the vast majority of female teens who come out as trans are doing so for good and healthy reasons. BUT who are intellectually rigorous enough to want to be able to steelman the arguments of those on the other side. In saying this, I’m not saying that this book represents a perfectly crafted treatise, free from shortcomings, the book has many. But at the moment it’s the only book length treatment of the argument I’m aware of, and if you want to craft an understanding of the strongest argument being made, this is a critical piece of that. Also I think whatever imperfections it does have are magnified by how contentious the issue is. In my opinion, its mix of data and anecdotes is well ahead of the average Malcom Gladwell book, but he’s saying things people mostly want to hear. The same can not be said for this book, which because of how contentious it is, get’s held to a much higher standard, with any flaws serving as an excuse for dismissing the entire book.  I would urge you not to do that, but to approach the materially charitably. Someone, rather than spewing out 280 character “hot takes” on Twitter, has gone to the trouble of putting together 264 pages of material in support of their point. Isn’t that what we all say we want these days?

Beyond that, I would actually say that everyone should read this book. And yes the people I talked about in the last paragraph are included in the set of everyone, but I don’t know that just saying “everyone” would have been an effective persuasion technique for the aforementioned group. But for those who aren’t in that previous group, who may be wondering, “Why should I read it?” My argument would be that anytime a consensus starts hardening around a simple narrative, that it’s the duty of everyone in a healthy society to make sure that this narrative isn’t too simple, that important complexities and second order effects are not being overlooked and above all that the consensus itself is not mistaken. Because as I have pointed out it’s always worse when everyone makes a mistake than when only a few people make a mistake. And this seems like a situation where the consensus is wrong, and a large mistake is being abetted by this incorrect understanding. And the more people we have thinking about the problem the more likely we are to catch and arrest the mistake, if one is in fact being made.

General Thoughts

That, of course, is the key question, who in all of this is making a mistake? Is Shrier making a mistake? Or are doctors, transgender influencers, psychiatrists, the teenage girls claiming to be trans, and the culture at large making a mistake? Stated that way, Occam’s Razor would suggest that Shrier is making the mistake. But clearly, the fact that I’m devoting a whole post to the issue, would suggest that I don’t think that’s the case. Why is that? What makes me think that all of those groups might be making a mistake? What is it that suggests to me that Shrier might be right and all of those other people might be wrong?

Let’s start with Shrier. First, it’s important to note that her focus is very narrow. I think that many people, myself included, thought that the book would be a general indictment of all people identifying as transgender, but instead Shrier goes out of her way to make it clear that there are people who genuinely suffer from gender dysphoria, and for those people it’s possible that surgical transition might be the right choice. Her focus is not on those people, but rather the book seeks only to examine teenage and college age girls who identify as transgender, and whether they may be under the influence of a peer contagion effect, i.e. the obvious fact that teenage behavior can be influenced by the attitude of their peers. And Shrier’s not even arguing that all girls who “come out” as transgender are suffering from this peer contagion effect, only that many of them probably are, and that if we can identify that segment, we can end up with a better outcomes overall both for those girls and for society as a whole.

(Side note: In this post when I’m speaking of teenagers or teenage girls, I’m also including people in their early 20’s, but it seems cumbersome to have to write out “teenage and college age individuals” every time. Also while the phenomena Shrier is describing continues into the early 20’s it start’s much younger, and if policies, procedures and attitudes need to change that would probably be the place for it to happen.)

Beyond the narrowness of her focus, the other thing Shrier brings to the table is her own set of groups. The labels for the groups on her side of the issue are a little more convoluted, and they lack expert credentialing, but it’s an important list nonetheless. It includes the parents of transgender teens, detransitioners, and even some well known trasgender activists. And yes, also in that mix are some doctors, psychiatrists and a significant, though at this point, not dominant part of the culture.

Beyond all of this, having read the book, I think she has science and data on her side. For some people the idea that doctors and psychiatrists are driven by fads is obvious, to say nothing of how fad-driven the culture at large is. For others the burden is on those questioning the “experts”. I’m unlikely to sway the people in this latter category in the course of a single blog post, let alone in the course of a few paragraphs, but perhaps an example might help. 

In one of my previous posts (a few years back at this point) I talked about the opioid epidemic. I had just read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones (still highly recommended by the way), and the misuse of science in service of prescribing opioids documented by that book was insane. From that previous post: 

[T]he misuse of science, hinged on placing far too much weight on a one paragraph letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 which claimed that opiates only ended up causing addiction in 1% of people. Getting past the fact that the author never intended it to be used in the way it was, to base decades of pain management on one paragraph is staggeringly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible, when the pharmaceutical companies got around to trying to confirm the result they found that it didn’t hold up (to no one’s surprise) and they ended up burying and twisting the results they did get. The number of people that died of accidental overdoses directly or indirectly from this misuse of science is easily six figures, possibly seven, particularly since people are still dying. Of course in addition to the misuse of science there was the over reliance on science. I assume that on some level the pharmaceutical companies knew that they were not being scientific, but countless doctors, who were either naive or blinded by the gifts provided by the pharmaceutical company chose to at least pretend that they were doing what they were doing because science backed them up.

From this there would seem to be no question that doctors can screw up in a fashion which is both enormous and coordinated. As far as psychiatrists and therapists, it would appear safe to lump them into this same category of “medical professionals”, particularly given that the litany of their mistakes is just as long if not longer than the doctor’s. From our original list of people opposed to Shrier’s interpretation we still have to address the teenage girls claiming to be trans, transgender influencers, and the culture at large. We’ll come back to those claiming to be trans in a moment. Transgender influencers are probably the least objective actors in all of this, and anyone looking for evidence from that quarter is going to have a very hard separating the facts from the bias. Which leaves only the culture at large, and while their record of failure might be more forgivable than that of the doctors (who are expected to know better) it’s probably more extensive. Also isn’t this what we’re here to discuss? Whether current culture might be wrong on this topic?

It’s entirely possible that you’re still skeptical that all those people could be wrong, if so, let’s try approaching it from a different direction. The one thing we do have a pretty good handle on is the enormous increase of people identifying as trans and seeking treatment. Some statistics from the book to chew on:

  • Previous to the last five years the accepted statistic for the prevalence of gender dysphoria was 0.01 percent.
  • The prevalence of those identifying as transgender has increased by over 1,000 percent.
  • In Britain the increase is 4,000 percent.
  • 2% of highschool students now identify as trans.
  • Between 2016 and 2017 gender surgeries for natal females quadrupled. 
  • As of 2018 there had been a 4,400% rise over the previous decade in teenage girls seeking gender treatment.
  • “Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all.”

Taken together, even if you don’t agree with every point, or the conclusions Shrier draws from this data, the fact that there has been a significant increase in the number of people identifying as transgender and that this increase has been particularly notable among teenage and college age girls is hard to deny. (Nor do I think that many people do.) Something has changed dramatically over the last few years, and it’s worth identifying what that something is. I myself took a stab at this a couple of years ago in a two part post (1, 2) and at the time I came up with seven possible explanations, if you’re curious what they were I would direct you to those earlier posts. (Shrier’s explanation is a combination of my 5th and 7th explanations.) My point this time around is more narrow: If you don’t accept Shrier’s explanation for the increase what explanation are you willing to offer in its stead? And does this explanation fit the available data better? 

Here we return to considering the evidence provided by all of the girls who identify as transgender. One of the chief arguments against the idea that it’s some sort of crazy fad is that no one would go to all the trouble of binding their breasts, or taking hormones, to say nothing of actual surgery, if they weren’t serious. On its face, this argument seems reasonable, but on the other hand it’s important to remember that these are teenagers we’re talking about. A group not known for being exceptionally far-sighted or clear-thinking. A group who has no problem modifying their bodies with tattoos or piercings, which from a long term perspective seems very similar to binding, and at first glance binding probably appears less permanent.

As far as hormones, there seems to be every reason to suspect that teens view them similarly to other drugs they might consider ingesting, with if anything a bias to view them as less harmful than average because they are perceived to be both natural and corrective. Given that teenagers frequently make irresponsible decisions about drugs which are perceived as being neither of those things, anyone who argues that we can count on them to make responsible, well-informed decisions about trans specific drugs like puberty-blockers and hormones has got to be joking. 

When we finally extend this into the category of actual surgery, one would hope that there would be lots of safeguards in place before doing something so potentially life altering, but there are certainly many examples of people who had surgery and later regretted it, including the case of Keira Bell which was recently adjudicated in Britain. We’ll discuss Bell more later, but if we accept the “between 2016 and 2017 gender surgeries for natal females quadrupled” statistic mentioned above, unless we can come up with a better explanation for the increase than the one offered by Shrier it seems like we’re forced to assume that upwards of 75% of surgeries were conducted as part of this trend rather than being conducted on people with actual dysphoria. And that assumes that the 2016 numbers represent a floor, if the trend was already in motion at this point then it may be more than 75%. Finally is there anyone out there that thinks the number of surgeries has gone down since 2017? I wouldn’t bet on it.

You might be willing to grant my general point that teens are dumb, but still not be convinced that they would be dumb in precisely this way, which is certainly a reasonable objection. Out of all the ways for them to misbehave how does it come to pass that they choose this one? At first glance it seems uniquely harmful and misguided, but as it turns out, for reasons still very much in debate, teenage girls seem particularly susceptible to engaging in harmful trends. In modern times we’ve seen significant problems with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and cutting. Go just a little ways back in time and there was a huge fuss around repressed memories, particularly in conjunction with satanic ritual abuse and as far back as the late 1800’s we see this same group suffering from an epidemic of neurasthenia (essentially fainting and weakness). While we don’t have the space for a deep examination of the similarities between all of these conditions and Shrier’s hypothesis, it does seem clear that it’s not unheard of for a large number of teenage girls to engage in irrational and damaging behavior, that there is a precedent.

As I mentioned the debate is still raging on many of these issues, but we do have some pretty good theories for how a trend like this manages to spread. First, the term we’ve already encountered, the idea of peer contagion. If the massive increase was due just culture becoming more tolerant, if peers had nothing to do with it, we would expect the distribution of transgender teens to be fairly random and uniform. Instead we find, according to the book, that the prevalence of transgender identification within groups of friends is more than 70x the rate you would expect.

Also, while the idea that teenage behavior can be influenced by the attitude of their peers is almost the definition of teenage behavior, the modern world has introduced at least a few other things which contribute to and exacerbate the problem. The first, and most obvious is social media. Shrier provides the statistic that 65% of adolescent girls who decide they’re trans do so after a period of prolonged social media immersion. I understand that this is definitely a statistic which is subject to interpretation, for example what qualifies as “prolonged” and “immersion”? But it’s easy to see many different ways in which social media might contribute, first it makes the contagion part of the peer contagion effect worse. Social media does a great job of connecting people who feel different and marginalized. Everyone can easily imagine how this might be a force for good, but it’s clearly also something which can cause a lot of harm, by seeming to pathologize and amplify uncertainty that might otherwise be just a phase. Stepping into this highly connected environment are transgender influencers, who Shrier spends a lot of time discussing. These individuals have all the incentives in the world to make transitioning seem like a wonderful experience that solved all of their problems.

Finally social media allows people to compare themselves with the whole world, amplifying the peer part of the peer contagion phenomena. Currently, if a teenage girl is wondering if she’s “girly” enough, she can compare herself to the top 0.01% of all the girls in the world through the medium of things like Instagram. A situation where it is vastly easier to make comparisons and decide that you don’t measure up.

Related to this, but at the extremes, there is also the ubiquity of pornography to contend with. Shrier theorizes, and I think it’s a theory deserving consideration, that most pornography has the effect of making sexual activity as a hetrosexual female seem pretty unappealing. Not only is there an enormous amount of porn focused on various forms of humiliation, I also imagine there’s a perception that intimate moments are very likely to be recorded, leading to the very real fear that they will be added to the ranks of women being humiliated. Also a greater and greater majority of teenagers have no experience with sex outside of pornography. This quote from the book is too good not to include:

Many of the adolescent girls who adopt a transgender identity have never had a single sexual or romantic experience. They have never been kissed by a boy or a girl. What they lack in life experience, they make up for with a sex-studded vocabulary and avant-garde gender theory.

Finally, the general point I keep returning to over and over in this space, 100 years ago this issue, to the extent that it existed, was entirely different. Most of the things which are now central to people’s perception of what it means to transition hadn’t even been developed. There was no testosterone, no puberty blockers, and definitely no surgeries. If a significant and growing number of people now feel that they need these things which 100 years ago didn’t even exist, it would seem to say a lot more about the current age than some deep biological truth.

If at this point you are at least willing to entertain the idea that Shrier might be right, that some teenage girls are going to decide that they’re transgender for reasons other than actual gender dysphoria, and consequently any transition is going to end up being a mistake, and that the less these girls transition the better. If you’re willing to consider all of this what do you do now?

Certainly one of your first impulses would be to attempt to identify those individuals who won’t benefit from transition, who are using transition to avoid their problems rather than solve them. In these cases you wouldn’t “affirm” their new gender, or call them by different pronouns. You would take steps to keep them from binding, and definitely do everything in your power to prevent them from taking any drugs which might cause, as the title of the book suggests, irreversible damage. 

If you could be sure that you had accurately identified them then such steps would hopefully be uncontroversial. (I’m not sure that this would be the case, but one could hope). No most of the controversy comes over that first step. Even if we are convinced that there are people in this group, how do we identify them? From what was discussed above, and in other places in the book it sounds like there are a few attributes that set this segment apart:

  1. The transgender identification seems to come out of nowhere.
  2. It follows a period of intense social media consumption.
  3. It is closely associated with not fitting in, discomfort with the changes brought on by puberty, or outright depression.
  4. Friends or other peers of the teen have also recently announced that they’re transgender.

Those markers all seem pretty suspicious by themselves, but if all of them manifested together, it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t want to exercise caution. The problem is how do we accurately gauge which of these things might be true in any given case? Particularly if we’ve already decided that the teens themselves are confused and motivated to conceal things? For me the best resource would be the parents, and as a parent myself I am entirely aware of all the things I don’t know about my kids, but most of the things mentioned above should be reasonably obvious to any parent actually paying attention, particularly the first one. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with how things currently work. Even if teachers, therapists and doctors were inclined to push back, which they’re apparently not, parents still appear to be the last to get consulted on how to handle their child’s issues.

Irreversible Damage is as much a book about the parents of these teens as it is the teens themselves, and given that many (though not all) of these teens were unwilling to talk to Shrier she spends a lot of space on interviews with the parents. And while this does leave her open to charges of bias, there does seem to be a pretty consistent pattern:

Teen decides they’re transgender. They start going by a new name and new pronouns at school. This is not communicated to the parents. Parents eventually find out. None of the parents Shrier included (perhaps for obvious reasons) are hardcore conservatives who kick their kid out of the house, they’re generally the kind of people who vote Democrat and volunteer for Planned Parenthood. The parents are unsure how to react, but decide that they should call in outside help in the form a therapist or psychologist. They expect that this person will “get to the bottom of it” but instead they immediately start affirming the new gender identity and discussing drugs like puberty blockers or testosterone. Again without really involving the parent. Beyond all of this, Shrier points out that much of transgender advocacy has an anti-bullying element to it, following from this parents are oftentimes identified as the biggest bully of all. Which is to say, you’re taking the best resource for identifying that segment that might not benefit from transition and, at best sidelining them, and at worse demonizing them.

Now, as I mentioned this description of things probably has some baises: from the sources, the author and my own attempts to abbreviate it for impact and space, but Shrier did base much of this on responses to a survey of 256 parents of transgender teens, conducted by Dr. Lisa Littman, of Brown University. Here are some of the results:

  • Over 80% female
  • Mean age 16.4
  • Most lived at home
  • Vast majority had ZERO of the DSM-5 indicators of childhood gender dysphoria (six is necessary to qualify)
  • 1/3 had no indications of gender dysphoria even immediately beforehand
  • Majority had a diagnosed psychiatric condition, almost half were engaged in self-harm
  • 41% had expressed a non-hetrosexual sexual orientation before identifying as trans
  • 47.4% had been formally assessed as gifted
  • 70% belonged to a peer group where at least one friend was trans, in some the majority of friends were trans
  • 60% said it brought a popularity boost
  • 90% of parents were white
  • 70% of parents had bachelor’s or higher
  • 85% of parents supported same sex marriage
  • 64% of parents were labeled transphobic for asking the child to take more time to figure it out, etc.
  • Less than 13% believed that their child’s mental health had improved 47% said that it had worsened.

Littman conducted this survey as part of an attempt to quantify what she’s taken to labeling Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD, and I’m realizing I should have introduced that term much earlier in the post, but it’s too late now). Littman is one of the many researchers interviewed by Shrier, and her story might be a whole post on it’s own, but whatever else you may say the book is not composed of data-free rants from the fringe, people have done some actual legwork here.  Nor does the main recommendation of greater parental involvement in decisions of this magnitude seem like too much to ask.

Still even were this to happen it’s clear that debate would continue to rage over how best to tackle the problem. And many people would continue to insist that even if a person has only started identifying as transgender because of peer contagion, that there isn’t any harm in expecting people to switch to a new name and a new set of pronouns. This argument might have some merit, but many people go on to make this same argument about puberty blockers. Similarly arguing that there’s very little downside; that it’s just a way of hitting a pause button while the teenager in question makes up their mind. But here we get to another one of the book’s significant assertions: puberty blockers are not a way of buying time in order to make a decision, they are a decision. Shrier asserts that nearly 100% of teens who are put on puberty blockers go on to transition further. Now compare this to the old methodology which did not affirm the new gender or use any drugs. The methodology used on people who suffered dysphoria from a very young age, those cases which don’t appear to be ROGD, i.e. which didn’t come as a surprise to the child’s parents. Under this methodology 70% of people grew out of their dysphoria, which was not only longer lasting, but arguably more deeply entrenched!

While reading this book I discussed it’s conclusions with several of my friends. Most were open to the idea that Shrier (and Littman and the rest) might have identified a real problem, but they questioned its impact, in particular they felt that the number of teens who engaged in transitional steps beyond just a change of names and pronouns, and perhaps binding was relatively small. And to be clear I too very much wish there was more data on how common these things actually are, but let’s go through each step of transition and see what can be said about it.

Change in pronouns: The friends who I talked to were willing to accept the argument that puberty blockers are probably bad, but see changing names and pronouns as just common politeness, with no chance of doing any lasting harm. Similar to giving the kid a nickname. Well according to Shrier even just doing a “social transition” can be remarkably sticky. I, for one, think this makes sense, what kid is going to want to publicly back down and admit that they were wrong? Even if it wasn’t a matter of great cultural controversy, which teen voluntarily chooses to look foolish about even small things? And this is a great big thing! Plus it’s a well documented psychological phenomenon that once you make a decision various biases kick in to confirm and strengthen it. Accordingly, I think even this step requires serious consideration. Certainly it shouldn’t be taken on a whim.

Binding: This is another place where I really wish there was better data. I got the impression from the book that most teenage girls who decide to identify as transgender go on to bind their breasts. Perhaps this impression is based on the further impression that teens view it as being relatively harmless. But impressions all the way down is not the way to construct a compelling argument. In any case regardless of its prevalence, it’s not harmless, and can cause: “Fractured or bruised ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, shortness of breath, back pain, and deformation of breast tissue.” Though again I don’t have any data on how often these complications occur.

Puberty Blockers: I’ve already mentioned Shrier’s worry with respect to puberty blockers, that they’re not working in the way people expect. Here side effects (other than the gigantic one of stopping normal development) are not very well documented, but appear to include loss of bone density, and interference with brain development which may affect intelligence. But here, at least, I did manage to find somewhat better data on how many of the teens in question end up taking them. An article in The Economist claims that half of all children referred to a gender-identity clinic ended up starting puberty blockers, and that such referrals have increased 30-fold over the last decade. 

Testosterone: Again good data on how many trans people are taking testosterone is hard to come by, but it’s yet another drug where there are clearly some pretty serious side effects. “Heightened rates of diabetes, stroke, blood clots, cancer, and… heart disease.” Because of the side effects to reproduction many women end up having “prophylactic hysterectomies”. And lest people think they can try it for awhile, and then change their mind, even a couple of months can produce permanent changes to facial hair, voice and genitals. 

Surgery: It seems both obvious that this is the rarest step taken by those who are transitioning, particularly phalloplasty or “bottom surgery”, but also that this is where the potential for causing “irreversible damage” is the greatest. Particularly since, as demand has increased it has outstripped the supply of skilled surgeons, leading to even worse outcomes. And certainly there are stories of people who have gone this far, and decided that it was all a horrible mistake. For example Keira Bell, who we’ll get to in a minute.

Doing nothing: I left this for last because after everything that was just mentioned including the 70% of people who grow out of dysphoria under this course of action. It may seem inconceivable that this isn’t the recommended course of action for all teenagers claiming to suffer from gender dysphoria. But there’s one big reason why it’s not. Everyone, but particularly the parents, are terrified that their teenager will commit suicide if they don’t allow them to start transitioning or take puberty blockers. Here Shrier makes perhaps the most important claim of all:

There are no good long-term studies indicating that either gender dysphoria or suicidality diminishes after medical transition.

Lest you think that this claim is unforgivably tainted by Shrier’s biases, in the review of the book which appeared in The Economist, they said the same thing: the research does not back up the claim that failing to affirm increases the risk of suicide. I understand The Economist is not completely free from biases either, but it’s as close as you’re likely to get in this day and age.

In fact, for those who don’t feel like reading the entirety of Irreversible Damage the two Economist articles I already mentioned represent a pretty good summary. In particular their article on the Keira Bell case has some startling quotes, and since it’s already far too late to keep this post from being gigantic and further as a way of reducing the potential bias of relying on a single book, I figured I might as well include some of them:

In 2018 Andrea Davidson’s 12-year-old daughter, Meghan, announced she was “definitely a boy”. Ms Davidson says her child was never a tomboy but the family doctor congratulated her and asked what pronouns she had chosen, before writing a referral to the British Columbia Children’s Hospital (BCCH). “We thought we were going to see a psychologist, but it was a nurse and a social worker,” says Ms Davidson (both her and her daughter’s names have been changed). “Within ten minutes they had offered our child Lupron”—a puberty-blocking drug.

…other transitioners come to see such procedures as a mistake. Claire (not her real name), now a 19-year-old student in Florida, started on testosterone aged 14 because of a loathing for her body. (She was also deeply depressed.) “I felt it was the only option, especially with the insistence that having dysphoria meant you are irrevocably trans and thus you will probably kill yourself if you don’t transition.” Obtaining hormones was easy, she says. “They pretty much gold-stamped me through.” Then, aged 17, her dysphoria disappeared. “I felt extremely lost. I had never heard of this happening.” She came off testosterone, embraced her identity as a lesbian, and is furious. “It is the medical industry and the general social attitude towards dysphoric people that failed me.”

The court concluded that blockers almost always lead on to hormones…

In America intervention was boosted by the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which banned health insurers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In effect, they were thus obliged to cover hormones for people who say they are trans just as they provide contraceptive hormones for women.

In 2018 the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) said that all medical evidence supports the “affirmative” approach. But according to a detailed rebuttal by James Cantor, a Canadian sexual-behaviour scientist, none of the 11 academic studies of the subject reaches that conclusion.

I could go on, but I think it’s past time to wrap this up. I will include one final thing, some predictions:

  1. The number of angry detransitioners will continue to grow, and they’ll be in the news more.
  2. We’ll see more court cases similar to the Keira Bell one, and courts will start imposing age restrictions for various treatments.
  3. Possibly as early as 2021 the doctors, in an attempt to keep the courts from over-reaching will start changing their standards
  4. 20 years from now, and possibly a lot sooner, this phenomenon will be viewed as a cautionary tale of putting ideology before data.
  5. And beyond that this whole thing will be viewed by transgender activists as having ultimately harmed the cause.

I need some feedback here. This went on for a lot longer than most of my posts, was that good or bad? Should I add the “what this book was about” section to all of my reviews? I’m making a few tweaks in 2021 (details to come) and your feedback will help me with that.

Feel free to email me at We Are Not Saved (all one word) at gmail.