Category: History

Are Modern Deviances Innovative or Catastrophic?

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The last couple of posts (not counting my monthly book review post) have covered the evolution of systems over time, though, as I’m sure you’re aware, the word “systems” covers a lot of territory. Over the last several decades and perhaps longer, there’s been a lot of attention paid to small interpersonal systems. This has led to whole industries devoted to ensuring safety in the workplace, or productivity in the office, and my first post drew on that side of things. But while I’m interested in these sorts of systems, I’m worried (like most of the rest of the country) about much larger systems. Particularly our system of government. 

Certainly we can hope and maybe even expect that improving our system of government should be similar to improving any other system. That the same tactics which work to improve airplane safety might also work to improve government effectiveness as well. But despite whatever optimism we might bring to the process it’s clear that improving a system of government is going to be vastly more difficult than improving any other system. Let’s start with a simple example:

In both of my past posts I used the example of a checklist. A checklist is one of the simplest ways for preventing deviance in a system and it requires a few things to be effective.

First, you have to have some idea of actions which need to be taken or items which need to be reviewed. And ideally, these are things where the answer is a definite “yes” or definite “no”. Either the gust-lock has been removed or it hasn’t. Either the oil is above the fill line or it isn’t. And if the answer is “no” the process for rectifying it should be straightforward. For example removing the gust-lock or adding oil, respectively. 

Second, the process for creating and updating the checklist has to be straightforward, and not prone to disagreement or ambiguity. Everyone should basically agree what goes on the list and what doesn’t and it shouldn’t take large amounts of time to reach agreement or to add the item.

Third, checklists should rectify the mistakes of the past. If a plane crashed because a cargo door was incorrectly secured, then a checklist item saying “Ensure cargo doors are correctly secured” should be added. This way at least you’re not making the same mistake again.

Looking over this list it’s obvious that each of these things becomes much more difficult when you’re talking about a government. If we go back through the list:

First we need a list of actions and the actions need to be definitive. There’s problems on both sides of that mandate. You can imagine an action item “Is there a healthy debate about the issues affecting the nation?” Probably most people agree that that item should be on the list, but even if that’s the case answering the question with a straight yes or no becomes very difficult. If by some miracle there is a consensus, for example if we can definitively answer “no”, as increasingly appears to be the case at the moment. At that point, we still have a problem with the other side of the mandate. Adding “healthy debate” is not as straightforward as adding oil. It doesn’t come in convenient containers at any gas station.

Second on the list was the process of adding to our checklist. Once again this is (understandably) difficult when you’re talking about a system of government. For example, some people feel very strongly that giving women an absolute right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy should definitely be on our checklist. But there are a lot of people who think it’s equally important for that item not to be on the list or for it to be on the list, but in a limited fashion. As we have seen coming to any certain conclusion has been very difficult. And this difficulty pervades everything about systems of governments, from making necessary changes to recovering from deviations, as we will soon see.

Third on our list was rectifying the mistakes of the past. Here we have at least two problems. To begin with, there’s a real lack of data. Nations and systems of governments don’t fail nearly as often as planes crash, and even if we’re talking about minor failures like financial crises they’re still relatively rare events. And when failures do occur the causes of an economic crash are much more difficult to pinpoint than the causes of a plane crash, which is the other problem. Take the Great Depression as an example. Despite decades of study, there’s still considerable disagreement about what caused it, and whether FDR’s policies helped or hurt. It would certainly be nice if there was some “secure cargo door” equivalent we could add to our economic checklist that would prevent the economy from crashing in the same way it did in 1929, but I don’t think there is, or there are many items, and not everyone can agree on them.

The point in going into such depth on this one example is that it’s the simplest example, the one most easily understood and implemented, and yet even this most basic method for preventing  deviance in a system of government ends up being riddled with potential problems. But perhaps having a governmental checklist seems silly to you or perhaps it’s hard to imagine how it would work, so let’s turn to something more concrete, the Amendments to the US Constitution. 

In essence the amendments are a checklist, or at least as close as we’re likely to get when you consider a governmental system in its entirety. And if you consider them in this fashion then the failures I listed above are immediately obvious. To start with, while the amendments are admirably clear, particularly when compared with previous attempts at this sort of thing, they’re not unambiguously clear. What does “freedom of the press” mean in an age of social media. What precisely constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment? 

Moving on, perhaps the most obvious issue is that we have largely lost the ability to add to this checklist, at least when it comes to anything important or anything which is the tiniest bit controversial. Instead of adding amendments, the current method for changing the constitution mostly involves the Supreme Court broadening the interpretation of what’s already there. I would assume that we can all agree that this is happening, but once you get beyond the mere fact of its existence, deciding whether or not it’s a deviance or how things were always supposed to work, and further, if it is a deviance, whether it’s been normalized, and whether that might actually be a good thing, probably depends a lot on your political ideology. A subject we’ll return to momentarily

Finally there’s the issue of using the amendments to rectify mistakes. Anyone looking at the list of amendments, will quickly realize that while some of them are incredibly farsighted, others, for example the Third Amendment, are targeted towards rectifying very specific mistakes from the time just before the Revolution. And of course the 21st amendment is the greatest example ever of this process, and when combined with the 19th amendment represent the ideal of how this whole thing should probably work. But, if, as I argued above, the process of adding amendments is beyond repair, how do we go about rectifying mistakes which have only been uncovered more recently? Here again the Supreme Court comes into play but to an arguably even greater extent because now the ideology of the court becomes a factor, with some things viewed as unassailable rights or fantastically awful mistakes depending on which judge is speaking. A situation which goes a long way towards explaining why the last few nominations have been so contentious. And also, in my opinion at least, further evidence that this state of affairs is a deviation from how things were originally intended to operate.

As I have argued all of this represents a deviance in the system, particularly if we use the most neutral meaning of the word, i.e. doing things differently from how they have been done in the past. Given this, what are our options for dealing with a given deviance? Broadly speaking there are two we can correct it or we can normalize it. Unfortunately, as I’ve just spent several hundred words demonstrating, correcting it appears to no longer be an option, absent some fairly sweeping changes (for example a constitutional convention.) Which leaves normalizing it. 

This is where we connect the first post in this series with the last one. If you’ll recall in the first one I argued that the normalization of deviance is generally a bad thing, and something you need to continually guard against because, unless checked, it will gradually creep into whatever system you’re using and fatally undermine it. On the other hand, in the second post I showed that, occasionally, normalization of deviance leads to an altogether better system. Certainly you could imagine that as the English parliament grew stronger in the years before the revolution and things inched towards greater democracy, that this could have also been labeled a deviance from how the monarchy was supposed to work. And that further each time one of parliament’s new powers was solidified through usage that it could have been viewed as normalization of that deviance.

Several points jump immediately to mind. The first and perhaps the most petty, is that based on the events of the last few weeks and months I don’t think the UK parliament is the thing that comes to mind for anyone when asked to summon forth examples of well functioning systems of government.

Next, when you get into the history of these deviations to the English system of government you immediately realize how gradual they all were. I don’t think the same can be said of the deviations we’re currently experiencing. Not only are they comparatively rapid, but they’re numerous. A point I’ll return to.

For most people of a conservative bent it’s the rapidity of the change rather than change itself that raises concerns. It is possible to change a system of government suddenly, but it rarely works and it’s always bloody. Some of my readers have questioned where I expect the blood to come from; who I expect to take up arms. And it is a subject which deserves a deeper dive, and one where they probably have something of a point. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember how civilized everyone thought things were before World War I…

Still, there are many people who are probably not comfortable in using deviance, even in its most neutral sense, to describe what’s happening. Everything is just progress, and the faster we progress the better. That most of our attempts to metaphorically keep planes from crashing is better understood as being equivalent to refusing to move from propellor driven engines to jets. This is a valid point, how do we distinguish between harmful deviance and innovative deviance? How can we tell whether our current course will lead to civilizational catastrophe or a communal utopia?

As I alluded to previously, introducing numerous deviances all at once seems particularly fraught if you’re trying to make this evaluation. As has been pointed out, the modern world is fantastic by most measures, but which recent deviation accounts for the innovations we see? Does science or women’s suffrage explain the current technological bounty? I lean towards the first, but it could easily be both, or neither. And if the modern world has problems, which it clearly does, even if these problems don’t pose an existential risk it would be nice to know their source. Is the current increase in suicide cultural? Entirely the fault of the opioid epidemic? Or something else?

The argument people are making is that we’re now smart enough to only deviate in ways that make sense. We’re not doing the equivalent of going into an upside down loop in order to lock our wheels, we’re only doing things that are clearly good ideas. Well, as both I and the original author pointed out, all deviations seem sensible initially, until you’re 300 feet off the ground and about to crash. And frankly even if we are going to go by that standard, do our current deviations actually meet this criteria? Does having completely open borders make sense? Does the increasing number of transgender people make sense? Does Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) make sense? (Probably not, if even Krugman thinks it’s ridiculous.)

It seems worth spending some time on that last one, since it would appear to be something of the platonic example of normalizing deviance. Under any normal financial system one of the checkboxes would be “Do you spend less than you make?” Now I can certainly see an argument that for the government the standard might be somewhat different, perhaps “Is the budget deficit percentage less than the rate of inflation?” But MMT goes way beyond that to “Is inflation at a reasonable level? This would appear to be both a gross deviation from how things have normally been done, and also, by wrapping it in the MMT ideology, one of the more bald faced attempts at normalizing a deviance I’ve ever seen as well. All that said, as I pointed out in the previous episode, there is some chance (I would argue a very small one) that they’re right, that it will in fact work better. That this is one time when we’re not headed for destruction, but when we’re actually pushing through to a new and better system on the other side. But how likely do you actually think that is? And not just with MMT, with any of the things I’ve mentioned?

Still you may have noticed that while I’ve danced around things, I still haven’t answered the fundamental question of how can you tell? How can you know whether the deviance you’re normalizing will lead to civilizational catastrophe or a communal utopia? And I’ve avoided answering it largely because it’s very difficult to tell. However, in closing I will offer some pointers for some things you might want to consider:

  1. Generally, it’s probably not going to lead to catastrophe, but on the other side, it’s NEVER going to lead to a utopia.
  2. Trying numerous radical changes all at once never seems to work. For example, we seem to be combining radically different immigration norms, with extreme changes in culture and extreme government spending all at the same time.
  3. The best deviations are one’s where the benefits are massive and straightforward. For example ending slavery. 
  4. Related to that, it’s also great if they’re easy to understand. In particular I think MMT, whatever its brilliance absolutely fails this test.
  5. Is there an asymmetry between failure and success? Is failure catastrophic, even if it’s unlikely? Is success only marginally better even if it’s nearly certain?

Should you have any other points you feel I should add to this list, or any considerations you think I’m missing I’d be happy to hear about them. But if we take just this list, I don’t see any reason to consider current deviance as anything other than dangerous.

To end where I began, we’ve got an old broken down aircraft. There’s a checklist for keeping it running, but people can’t agree on what the items on the checklist mean. We can’t change the items on the checklist even if we could agree. And there’s a huge debate on what things constitute mistakes and what things constitute progress. The plane is still flying but increasingly the pilots are focused less on flying and more on debating the condition of the plane, and whether the duct tape on the rudder is a bad thing or the latest in aircraft technology. And as one of the passengers, I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty nervous.


This is not the first time I’ve introduced an extended metaphor involving planes. If you want to ensure that these metaphors continue (and I mean really who wouldn’t?) Consider donating


Is There a Utopia out There After All?

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For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the time you have to squint quite a bit to see it. Last week I said I was going to talk about how communism might be implemented, which makes this a weird time to remind people I’m a Mormon, since, at first glance, Mormonism and communism would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, if anything, the recent past is full of well known Mormons who were extremely anti-communist. Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church had a particularly strong reputation for being opposed to communism, penning such books as An Enemy Hath Done This as well as being (for awhile) a big supporter of the John Birch Society. But once you go farther back in Church history, the picture looks different.

In the early days of the Church, on and off starting in 1830, but reaching a peak between 1874 and 1877, Brigham Young (the second president of the Church after Joseph Smith) implemented something called the United Order. Now, since that time, the Church has taken great pains to clarify that this was not Marxist communism, and indeed there are many differences, some subtle, some less so. But it was a collectivist arrangement as well as an attempt to practice Christian communalism (the Christian part is one of those less subtle differences), so it had lots of elements in common with communism. But all that aside, it was nevertheless an attempt at creating a society which worked better than the one they already had in place. Of moving from one system to a better system, but whatever its aspirations and whatever its differences, similar to communism, it failed. 

Based on these failures and other similar failures it’s easy to assume that communalism/socialism/communism will never work. Indeed there’s a meme going around, where they take the list of 7 things every kid needs to hear, initially created by Josh Shipp, which is full of advice like telling your kid you love them and you forgive them, and replacing one of the items with “Communism has failed every time it was tried.” And to be fair, perhaps every kid does need to hear that. I’m certainly no fan of Communism. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s worse even than most people realize, but as I have previously pointed out, this fact wasn’t apparent at the beginning. Nor was it apparent at the beginning of our own republic that it was going to be a success, and yet in the intervening years it clearly was.

In all these cases (and there are many more) people were trying to move to a new system, one which fixed some of the weaknesses of the old system. And most of the time when people make this attempt, it fails, somewhat unusually the American Revolution succeeded. A group of people did move to a different system, and whatever your complaints about the founding and the founders it was definitely a better system as well. You might label this system democratic capitalism, and while the United States was the first to try it on a large scale (a point we’ll get to) many nations, though not all, have gone on to adopt it. When one sees how successful it’s been, it’s worth asking why no one did it sooner and why some nations still haven’t done it.

Starting with the first question, people had tried democracies and republics before, but the conventional wisdom at the time of the revolution was that democracy could only work on a small scale, in places like Switzerland or Ancient Athens. This thinking explains why we ended up with a republic and not a democracy and is one of the reasons why the battle between Jefferson and Hamilton was so fierce, but regardless of the measures they took to mitigate the perceived failures of democracy or the passion they brought to the task of ensuring the success of the new country, it was still a huge risk. So why did it work in North America, but not in Afghanistan, or Venezuela, or for that matter Russia in the 90s?

Speaking of that time period in Russia, I just got done reading the book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. (I’m still playing around with how I’m going to do book reviews, so I may or may not end up doing a full review later.) The book discusses the chaotic time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and what came out of that chaos. In a very real sense, the Russians were trying to accomplish the same thing that the early Americans did. They were attempting to transition from one, obviously broken system to a presumably new and better system. In this effort they had lots of people willing to help, and the citizens really wanted to make the transition. Beyond that, there were lots of successful countries to copy from. And despite all of these factors very few people would look at Russia today and consider it a fully functioning constitutional democracy. What happened? Why did they fail?

On one level the failure to successfully transition came from numerous sources:

  • Yeltsin tried to reform the economy too quickly. 
  • The West offered a lot of useless advice, but not much actual help
  • Rather than creating prosperity for everyone the reforms made most people poorer while creating vast wealth for a few oligarchs. 

And if the economic problems weren’t bad enough, there was also:

  • Corruption
  • Terrible infrastructure
  • Weak respect for the law
  • And the general hangover of 70+ years of Soviet dysfunction. 

But considered from another angle the failure was caused by just one problem: Transitioning to a new system requires more than just ideology, it requires an enormous web of systems to support the ideology.

If we consider Russia and Eastern Europe, based on the things I read both at the time and since then, they would have liked nothing more than to have transitioned to mature capitalism, with public corporations, investors and a stock market. Instead they ended up with oligarchs and Ponzi schemes. Why? Because, among other things, they didn’t have a robust legal system, with things like contract enforcement, or a justice system free of corruption. And even if they had possessed all those things the actual logistics of a fully operational stock market are not trivial either. And this takes us to the answer to the second question I posed above, if democratic capitalism is so successful why hasn’t every country transitioned to it?

Certainly there are some countries where it’s not in the leader’s best interest to make the transition. (See my review of The Dictator’s Handbook.) And accordingly they prevent it from happening, but by all accounts Yeltsin and Gorbachev desperately wanted to make this transition yet were unable to because they didn’t have the necessary institutions, customs and attitudes in place. 

Thus far most of what I’ve said is not particularly original, though given how much blood and treasure we’ve spent failing in exactly this fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps these ideas are more obscure than one would think. Or perhaps those people trying to move from one system to the next recognize that supporting institutions are necessary, but feel that they should be easy to create. In any case at some level people have dramatically misjudged things, and as a consequence caused all kinds of problems. But, while that is definitely an interesting subject, it is not the subject of this post. No, in this post I want to approach things not from the perspective of what’s possible now, but from the perspective of what might be possible in the future.

I started off talking about communism and communalism, and asserting that attempts to implement them had repeatedly and spectacularly failed. But couldn’t the same thing be said about large scale democratic capitalism before the creation of the Constitution? What was different in 1788? The argument I’ve presented thus far is that the necessary framework of supporting institutions, cultural systems and laws finally existed which would allow it to succeed. From this it follows that it’s possible that there is a similar combination out there, waiting to be implemented which would allow communism or communalism to actually succeed as a system of government. 

I stole this idea from friend of the blog Mark over at Pasteur’s Blend. Here’s the paragraph where he explains the core idea

But what if there’s another way to look at it?  If it’s true that any system of government requires specific institutions to be successful, we should apply this same understanding to communism.  Certainly the Russian experience demonstrated that capitalism requires certain institutions or it won’t work well. We might look back to attempts at establishing communism through this lens and say, “Of course it didn’t work, they didn’t have the institutions required for making it work.”

To be clear, I’m not asserting that there are definitely institutions out there which would make communism/communalism work. (And specifically work better than democratic capitalism.) Only that there might be. There are still several reasons that such a system of government might be impossible.

For one, while this is an interesting possibility, it’s not even clear that this is how it normally works. The founding of the United States may be a unique exception. As I said above, we have lots of examples of failed attempts to dramatically transition from one system to another and very few examples of where it succeeded. Most of the time when we look through history it seems clear that most systems “evolved gradually” rather than “changed suddenly”. And I see very little evidence that this is the way things are evolving.

Speaking of which it should be pointed out, additionally, that there is no reason to limit this to communism/communalism, if progress and technology are going to create the culture, institutions and systems necessary for a dramatic shift to a new system of government it would seem that libertarianism is at least as likely as communalism, if not more so. 

Finally, you’ll notice that when I talk about the “web of support” required to make a certain system work, that I go farther than Mark’s original idea and toss in culture as well. Certainly culture played a huge part in the successful formation of the United States, and equally it has always been the biggest problem with the successful implementation of any form of communalism. Or as Madison put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

All this said, it is possible that a communist utopia will arrive as soon as we have the appropriate institutions and the right attitude. But, more broadly, it has to be acknowledged that even if we’re unlikely to transition to some dramatically better system of government after the fashion of the American Revolution, technological innovation is continually providing us with lots of tools to make our current system better. And this is the point where, finally, as promised, this post ties into the last post. This post is an argument against my last post. On one hand, as we saw in that last post, if system goes on long enough, it starts to accumulate deviations and those deviations end up being normalized. This leads to cycles where greater deviations eventually lead to catastrophe followed by retrenchment around improved norms. On the other hand technology gives us ways to mitigate system deviations, and may in fact provide a completely new and better system which will replace the old system before it fails catastrophically. Which would have the effect of breaking the cycle.

As a brief example, the last post spent quite a bit of time talking about plane crashes. One of the key methods for preventing these crashes is the checklist, and while the core technology for maintaining a checklist has been around since the invention of writing, it’s clear that even in the case of a simple system like this that technology has made things easier to implement and maintain. Consequently, there is less incentive for deviation because not-deviating requires only minimal additional effort. All of this then presumably pushes back potential catastrophes.

As is so often the case, all of the above takes us back to the same question we return to again and again, “Will technology save us?” And as usual, my answer (and I believe the safest way to bet) is, “We are not saved.” Nevertheless, as I repeatedly point out, I could be wrong. (That’s why I mention betting.) 

There is no way to know how the future will turn out, but I think it is safe to say, as I did in my very first post, that we’re in a race between technological salvation and technological catastrophe. Meaning that, at least at first glance, there’s nothing particularly new about the topic of this post. I’ve been talking about this exact issue since the very beginning. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what this latest twist adds to the discussion. To begin with, I spend a lot of time in this space discussing different ways for catastrophe to occur, but not very much time on how it might be avoided. How the cycles of civilization, which have been present throughout all of recorded history, might be broken. Part of the reason is that there are always more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But part of it is also probably a genuine bias on my part. Thus, when I encountered this idea I thought it was worth investigating as a counterweight to that bias. 

Beyond that, the key difference between this discussion and what I’ve written before, is that lots of people imagine that technology alone might save us. Particularly something like fusion, or superintelligence. I think there were a lot of people who thought the internet might even fill this roll. In contrast, the current discussion involves things which are helped by, but don’t require technology. Just institutional and cultural changes which might be brought about by sufficiently motivated individuals, allowing us to imagine “salvation” in a form which doesn’t hinge on one dramatic technological development. Technology is still very important, perhaps the most important element of the modern world, but many of the most impactful systems, as we saw with the checklist example (but also democratic capitalism) don’t necessarily require any specific technology. And, with technology appearing ever more destructive to systems, particularly political systems (think the polarization brought on by social media) this sort of salvation starts to appear more and more like our best hope.

However, in order to take this hope seriously you have to assume that we’re going to break out of the cycles and patterns that have defined human existence for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, that this time really is different. That, despite recent evidence to the contrary, technology will assist rather than hinder setting up the institutions and culture required to finally make the leap to a dramatically better system, a communist or a libertarian or a “something else” utopia. Or that, at a minimum, we’ll create something less earth shattering, but which nevertheless manages to save humanity from itself. Because that’s looking like an increasingly difficult task.

In my next post I’m going to finish out the series by examining that challenge, in particular the practical difficulties of implementing new systems, the historical cycles such systems would have to contend with, and the conflict between the new and better ways we’ve developed for managing those systems and the inevitable temptation to deviate from them, and to call those deviations “normal”.


Perhaps we will push through to a communist utopia where money is meaningless, but until that time we’re stuck with the next best system, democratic capitalism, which requires exchanging money for things you want to see more of. On the off chance this blog is in that category consider donating.


Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election

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:

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When I created this podcast I decided that I wouldn’t shy away from controversial topics. And when people talk about topics to avoid, the first topics they mention are politics and religion. Having already covered the latter I decided that maybe it’s time to tackle the former. I’m a big political junkie, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’m a big history junkie, and insofar as politics is a subcategory of history I love politics. Conventions and debates, other than a few phrases here and there, are not history, they’re political theater, and so, with some rare exceptions, I don’t bother watching them, so don’t ask me what I thought of Trump’s speech or Obama’s (or Scott Baio’s for that matter). In my defense, I don’t think either conventions or debates have much power to influence the actual election results. I know that some people will argue that the Nixon-Kennedy debate swung things to Kennedy. Perhaps it did, but I was 11 years away from being born so I couldn’t have watched it even if I had wanted to.

People might also mention the 2000 election, arguing, probably correctly, that even a slight push in one direction would have given the election to Gore, and of course a slight push in the other direction would have kept it from being decided by the Supreme Court. And this is where we start to see the difference between history and politics. I’m glad it was close, because the drama and uncertainty that came with that turned it from just another election into history. Election night in 2000 was one of the most exciting nights of my life, and it only got more exciting as it became clear how tight things actually were.

I bring all this up because I think differentiating politics from history is important. For one thing, politics is very short term. Perhaps a metaphor would help illustrate my point, an election is like watching a football game. If you’re political, you really want your team to win and you really want the other team to lose. Passions are high, and it doesn’t matter what your team does, you still want them to crush the other guys, and it really doesn’t matter what the other side does you still really want them to be crushed. As an example, the BYU-Utah rivalry is big in my area, and one of my neighbors is a huge Utah fan. At one point I was talking to him about a recent game and I said I wanted it to be close and exciting. He vehemently disagreed, he wants Utah to win in a blowout. That’s the difference between politics and history. If you’re strictly political it’s all about your team winning, regardless of how uninteresting it is. If your interests are more historical, then, to extend the metaphor, you’re more interested in watching a last minute come-from behind touchdown, regardless which team does it. In other words, something like the 2000 recount.

Another example, also involving football, involves a BYU fan this time. This was back in the early to mid 2000’s when the memory of the Lavell Edwards years were still fresh. As I was talking to this fan, he mentioned, in all seriousness, that BYU fans sometimes called BYU “The Lord’s Team”. I made the joke that it was dangerous to bring religion into things because if the Good Lord did care about college football (and, I added, I was pretty sure he didn’t) it was clear that he was Catholic, not Mormon, since historically Notre Dame was a better team than BYU. I was surprised by the vehemence of his reaction, though in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been. He claimed that BYU was the better program. I said, you can’t just look at the last few decades when Lavell Edwards was the coach. You have to look at the whole history of the program, unless you want to argue that the Good Lord didn’t start paying attention to things until 1972. Despite pointing this out he refused to budget. I sent him a link to a site that declared Notre Dame to be the all time best football program (In the intervening years Alabama has passed them, currently BYU is 66th behind Utah who’s 37th), and he wasn’t swayed. This was politics. BYU was the best program/team/university ever, and nothing was going to change his opinion.

This is where I think we are today. We’ve been on top for awhile. People are really invested in the Democratic-Republican rivalry. They have their team and all they care about is winning. They’re way more fixated on whether someone plagiarized a speech, or said the wrong thing in emails, or seems to be too friendly with Russia (or whether someone threw a punch or dumped beer on the quarterback’s family) than parallels between now and the last time there was a strong populist candidate, or what kind of agreements we made with Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed, or how the situation in the South China Sea may resemble the situation before World War I (or whether it took 20 years for BYU to win their first game against Utah.) Perhaps this is good, perhaps it’s a waste of time to worry about things that happened decades ago. Perhaps you consider examining previous black swans a waste of time when Trump just barely said something ridiculous (again). But whether you worry about black swans and catastrophes or not they’re going to happen. To paraphrase the old quote attributed to Trotsky, “You may not be interested in catastrophes, but catastrophes are interested in you.” And when they are, understanding things beyond just the “Lavell Edwards” era, is going to come in handy.

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

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

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

To put this into terms we can understand. If we end up in a nuclear war with Russia or China whatever else we were focused on, student loans, poverty, Black Lives Matter, etc. it was the WRONG THING. Forget 1000 years from now, all that people will remember in 4 years if the next president gets us into a nuclear war is that. As I said nothing else will matter.

It’s not just nuclear war, there are lots of other things which could end up being a preventable Black Swan that in retrospect makes the petty arguments we’re having about immigration and email seem laughable, if they’re remembered at all. But for the moment let’s focus our attention on nuclear war, because I think some useful ideas might come out that discussion.

At first glance you might think that there’s not much difference between the two candidates on this issue. In fact you might even give the edge to the democrats particularly since Obama, at least at the beginning of his term spent a lot of time working to eliminate nuclear weapons for which, (along with his ability to not be George Bush) he was given the Nobel Peace Prize. But of course the point is that no one wants nuclear war. No one is going to campaign on a platform of nuking Russia. Consequently if we want to examine the candidates on this issue you have to take a few steps back. Where should we look if we’re worried about nukes? There is of course the possibility of a terrorist nuke, or perhaps in it’s death throes North Korea might set off a nuke or two. Both of these would be pretty bad, but, one there’s not a lot we can do about them and two, while they would definitely be giant black swans I think they would only be really impactful in the short term. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be paying attention to this area, but there’s a limited amount we can do. No, if we’re really trying to prevent the sack of Baghdad we should be looking at China or Russia.

How, then, do the two major candidates (I’ll get to third party candidates later) compare on this issue? Well it’s not something that comes up a lot. At this point in the election there’s been a lot more focus on whether Trump is really as good of a businessman as he claims to be or whether Clinton was being stupid or corrupt when she ran all of her email through a private server, than any discussion of the dangers of a nuclear exchange with the Russians. Of course the Russians do come up. 20,000 DNC emails were released and various people have accused the Russians of being behind it, as part of that they have accused Trump of being too cozy with Putin. This is generally viewed as a negative, but from the perspective of avoiding the big war, this might actually be a good thing.

However, if you dig you can find some illuminating things. No real smoking guns, but it does appear that Clinton definitely leans one way and Trump obviously leans another. Let’s start with Clinton. Clinton appears to be an interventionist. She pushed for intervention in Libya. She appears to have wanted to intervene in Syria as well. On the bigger and scarier issues she is reportedly very hawkish with Russia. She apparently has compared Putin to Hitler. And by the way, on that point, she’s completely and totally wrong. Not because Putin is nicer or better than Hitler but because unlike Hitler, Putin. Has. Nukes. When it comes to China Clinton doesn’t appear to do any better.

Turning to Trump, if anything people feel that he’s too close to Putin, as I already mentioned, but then there are his comments about NATO. And here there is an interesting discussion to be had. A few months ago Trump gave an interview to the new york times and as part of the interview he said that he would be less willing to defend our NATO and East Asian allies at the current level without greater financial contributions from them. The interview rambles a bit, but these appear to be the key quotes:

If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich…

With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

In taking that position would Trump increase or decrease the chances of a nuclear war? In the immediate and unequivocal judgment of many this position dramatically increased the chances of war. The article in Vox was typical of the reactions:

Wednesday night, Donald Trump said something that made a nuclear war between the United States and Russia more likely. With a few thoughtless words, he made World War III — the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in nuclear holocaust — plausible.

I disagree with this assessment. Of course it’s hard to know what will set off a war, and I think World War III was already plausible. But let’s dissect the core idea of whether Trump increased the odds of war with that statement.

The first thing Trump is claiming is that the countries we’re protecting are wealthy countries who can probably pay more for their own protection if such protection is required. This is true. He’s also talking in more broad terms about the US being over-extended. Whether the US is currently overextended or not is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is that being overextended is a significant contributing factor in the falls of all previous great empires.

The second thing to consider is that when he tells NATO nations that they can defend themselves he’s talking about ignoring the collective defense clause (Article 5) of the original treaty. Now in general I’m in favor of following treaties and doing what we say we’re going to do, but NATO has extended well beyond its original purpose, and well beyond its original members, and maybe re-examining it isn’t such a bad idea. But of course the writer at Vox and many others think that questioning it is just the first step towards nuclear war. But is that actually the case, does Trump’s position make war more likely?

At the moment there are 28 members of NATO. If any of them go to war with Russia than the US goes to war with Russia. If we kicked some of the member nations out as Trump seems to be suggesting doesn’t this literally make a war between the US and Russia less likely? Now I’m not saying that it makes a war between, say, Russia and Estonia less likely (Though it wouldn’t be much of a war…) I’m just saying it makes the war we’re trying to prevent, the war the Vox article specifically mentions less likely. Honestly, and I’m sure the author feels like he’s fighting the good fight, it actually just sounds like he’s just looking for any excuse to demonize Trump.

Speaking of Estonia, I’m a big fan of Estonia. I actually applied for e-residency there, but I’m almost positive that if Russia wants it, it’s not worth using nukes to keep them from getting it. Also when you think about Estonia it leads naturally to a thought experiment. Imagine that in the next few years that Texas manages to secede. Now imagine that a few years after it seceded it joined the Russian version of NATO, a military alliance designed exclusively around containing the US. Further imagine that this alliance included nearly all of South and Central America. How would we feel? Well that’s probably a close comparison to how the Russians feel.

Instead asking whether it would be a good idea to back off from guaranteeing Estonia’s independence with the threat of nuclear weapons, Clinton is instead of the opinion that NATO should continue to expand. Whether this expansion would include countries like the Ukraine and Georgia is unclear, but with her general bias towards expansion and her husband’s own expansion into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. (All former Warsaw Pact countries.) It’s unlikely that the Russians would believe any assurances she made on the subject, and would rather expect the worst, were she to become President. And let us pause here for a moment to explain the Russian mindset. It’s not just a matter of feeling encircled, or being unable to deal with the loss of their empire. Whatever you believe about Russia and however you feel about Putin, the last example of war they experienced, World War II, was literally (if you look at deaths) 50 times worse for them than for us. When you consider something like the Siege of Leningrad it’s understandable if they’re a little paranoid.

Of course there are at least two arguments which are going to be raised at this point. One being that we are unlikely to use nukes if Russia just invaded the Estonia, or a similar NATO member. This is certainly true, but once you’re in a war escalation becomes natural (just look at World War I which also involved a large alliance.) Also given how few troops we have, using tactical nukes might seem like a natural option. In other words while we’re not likely to use nukes in a situation where Russia invaded Estonia, we’re certainly more likely to do it than if we had no treaty commitment to Estonia.

The second argument is that if Estonia (or a similar member) is not a NATO member than they are far more likely to get invaded by Russia. This is also certainly true, and yes, I know we have made war more likely, but it is not the kind of war we’re really worried about. It is not the Sack of Baghdad. And here we once again get into a discussion about the difference between volatility and fragility. By taking the vast majority of countries in Europe and putting them under the umbrella of NATO and the US nuclear deterrent we’ve made things a lot less volatile. Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace, but we have made things a lot more fragile. One of the points that Taleb makes is that when you have high volatility the graph moves a lot but not very far. When you have low volatility the graph is largely flat until suddenly you hit a cliff. In this case the cliff would be war between the US and Russia, and it might very well involve nukes.

I don’t think people have really absorbed how different nuclear weapons have made things. Previously it didn’t matter how desperate one of the belligerents became if the other side out fought them and out produced them there was nothing they could do. It didn’t matter how desperate Germany and Japan got, at some point they were going to lose and we were going to win. But imagine if they had had the same number of ICBMs that Russia currently possesses?

I am by no means suggesting that Russia is as desperate as Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany, but this does not mean that they might be feeling angry or backed into a corner. We’ve gone 70 years without another nuke being exploded in anger and after surviving the cold war I think we’re getting complacent and arrogant. These days people don’t take Russia seriously, and they should. Recall that during the Cold War we let the Soviet Union get away with a lot, they installed puppet governments across all of Eastern Europe and when the people of one of those countries, Hungary, had an uprising they crushed it. We let them invade Afghanistan (though this was something of an own goal, a mistake we ended up duplicating) and while we provided assistance to the rebels it wasn’t much, and it was only when they tried to put missiles in Cuba that we really pushed back, and that nearly resulted in catastrophe.

Having said all this you may be wondering what I’m actually advocating for, and you may even get the impression that the whole point of this episode is to declare my support for Trump. That’s actually not the case, and in fact while I was in the process of writing the initial blog post a story came out that Trump had repeatedly asked an advisor why he couldn’t use nukes. Which, if true, is scary. I haven’t had the time to really look into that, and as we saw above it is not unprecedented for people to latch onto things just because they make Trump look bad.

To go back to the very beginning of the episode what I am mostly advocating is to take a historical view of elections rather than a political view. And honestly what that mostly means is getting away from the two major parties because that’s nothing but politics. I know it’s a little late in the game to be tossing in a discussion of third parties, but I have long been an advocate for greater third party participation in American politics. I think we need a whole marketplace of ideas with vigorous and informed discussion. In 1257 the citizens of Baghdad didn’t need to hear a discussion of tax rates, or the latest fashion or whether the laws were too harsh or too lax, they needed to hear from the lone general who advocated everything possible to placate the Mongols. Six months before the sack I’m sure there were all sorts of things which seemed very important which didn’t matter in the slightest six months and one day later.

Steering a nation is complicated, and I’m not saying I know who would do the better job, and even if I did the results are well beyond my ability to influence, but when you’re thinking about these things, spare at least some thought for preventing big negative black swans. Spare a thought for what you can do to prevent the Sack of Baghdad.