Category: History

Post Christianity

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

Or download the MP3


I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

Hearing of this idea you may have several reactions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


How Does the Bloodshed Start?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

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

Status 451’s review of Days of Rage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Solution to Conflict is More Conflict

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


A few weeks ago I read the book American Carnage by Tim Alberta. Alberta is the Chief Political Correspondent for Politico, and the book was a fascinating look behind the scenes of politics since the 2012 election. If you’re like me, you might expect the book to answer the dominant question of the day, which might be stated “Why has politics gotten so nasty recently?” But, to my surprise, after reading it, I ended up wondering about almost the opposite. “Why isn’t it always this nasty? What kept it civil for so long?” As I considered those questions, in the light of everything else I know (or at least suspect) I came up with a theory. A theory that answers those questions and also the question of why it’s gotten so nasty recently. A theory I’m going to share with you in this post, but before I get to it I need to lay some groundwork first.

To begin with, we’re a nation of nearly 330 million people. We have farmers, tech workers, hunters, inner city gang members, entrepreneurs and factory workers. And while we’re unlikely to have 330 million distinct political ideologies it seems equally unlikely that we would end up with just two. This is part of what I mean when I ask, why wasn’t it always this nasty? Or to borrow from Alberta, why didn’t the “carnage” start sooner? 

Coincidently there’s been a couple of different articles written recently which have touched on this very subject, and while I think both has touched on some part of the puzzle, I don’t think either has put things together in quite the same way I intend to do, but reviewing the pieces they have contributed will help provide the foundation for the theory I’m proposing.

To begin with, I’m obviously not the first to question whether something deeper is going on. Whether something fundamental has shifted in the way modern democracies operate. Frequent commenter Boonton pointed me to a story on Vox, The Anti-liberal Moment by Zack Beauchamp which is probably worth reading in its entirety if you have time, but for the moment I want to just review the author’s starting point because it very much describes the same problem I’m seeing.

Beauchamp starts off by talking about the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler. 

One contemporary observer, a legal theorist in his mid-30s named Carl Schmitt, found the seeds of the crisis within the idea of liberalism itself. Liberal institutions like representative democracy, and the liberal ideal that all a nation’s citizens can be treated as political equals, were in his view a sham. Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.

“Even if Bolshevism is suppressed and Fascism held at bay, the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism would not be overcome in the least,” he wrote in 1926. ”It is, in its depths, the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.”

As I mentioned the question I was left with after reading Carnage was not why it was happening now, but why it hadn’t happened sooner, and in effect Beauchamp is offering the same observation, when he says, “Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.” The natural state of politics is not compromise, it’s conflict, and that is precisely what’s happening currently between Democrats and Republicans. Further, as the quote from Schmitt points out there is an “inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.” With that in mind, my question might be reframed as how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently?

As part of the answer to that let’s turn now to the other article I recently read, though in this case it’s more a series of articles. After an exceptionally long hiatus, Tim Urban over at Wait but Why? has started posting what he’s calling the Story of Us. He’s already on chapter six, so I’ll obviously be touching only on a small part of what he says, and once again, I would recommend reading the series in its entirety, but here’s the small part that directly speaks to my theory. 

To begin with, he mentions an old Bedouin proverb (I actually heard that it was a Pashtun proverb, but regardless.) 

Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me against strangers.

This proverb makes frequent appearances across the whole series, and for Urban it speaks to the formation of individuals into tribes and tribes into nations. At each stage order emerges based on external threats. Threats where whatever conflicts you have with your brother are set aside if you end up in conflict with your cousins, and those conflicts are in turn set aside if you end up in a conflict with strangers. He likens this to an elevator which move up to higher levels of cooperation and then back down when those higher levels aren’t necessary:

If you pay attention to the world around you, and to your own psychology, you’ll spot the elevator in action. Ever notice how countries in one region of the world will often despise each other, focusing most of their national dickishness on each other—until there’s a broader conflict or war in play, at which time they put aside their differences? How different sects of a religion in fierce conflict with each other will suddenly find common ground when a rival religion or other outside entity insults or threatens their religion as a whole? How about when rivalries in the world of club soccer become less heated during the World Cup? Or when political factions with differing or even totally contradictory ideologies start marching in the street, arm in arm, during a national election or mass movement? I saw the elevator shoot upwards in the days following 9/11, when millions of New Yorkers who normally can’t stand each other were holding doors for each other, showing concern for each other’s well-being, and even hugging each other in the street. I remember thinking that while an alien attack would suck overall, it would do wonders for species solidarity.

With all of the above in mind, here’s my theory:

The chief reason for the current level of conflict within the nation is the lack of external, unifying threats to the nation. 

After reframing, the question I started with was how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently? With this theory in hand, the answer boils down to: war.  Or to look at it from the other direction, the Long Peace, the lack of wars between the great powers since the end of World War II and the development so beloved by people like Steven Pinker, has, somewhat paradoxically, led to another kind of war, the current internal political war. Just as Pashtun Tribesmen will stop fighting their cousins in order to fight the Americans, Republicans will stop fighting Democrats in order to fight the Nazis. But go back to this fight once those external enemies are defeated.

You may argue that the problems with unity didn’t start in 1946, and that’s a fair point, but even though the Cold War didn’t feature any direct hostilities between great powers, there were lots of proxy wars and as someone who grew up while the Soviet Union still existed, I can tell you it definitely felt like they were a threat. As further evidence of unity I offer up the Cold War policy that politics stops at the water’s edge. Something which definitely is not in effect now, and which can’t all be blamed on Trump either.

Moving forward in time, even after the Cold War ended there was 9/11 which brought a brief period of unity as well. Though given the relative mildness of that attack (from a historical perspective) and the weakness of the supposed enemy, that unity didn’t last very long. But taken together in the past these threats have necessitated the unity we’re currently missing. That the natural state in politics, as I intuited while reading “Carnage” and as Beauchamp and Urban point out, is deep divisions and in-fighting, but these impulses are periodically checked by external threats, which have the effect of resetting relations between the internal factions.

Once this theory occurred to me several other observations and questions immediately followed. The first was the natural impulse to check it against other instances of historical internal unrest, and of course the 800 lb gorilla in this category is the Civil War. Much has been written about the severe fractures between North and South, including, above all slavery, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any mention that as far as external threats the mid 1800s were unusually quiet. The only countries capable of posing any threat to the US were all in Europe which was largely convulsed by revolution (the numerous revolutions of 1848) or busy in their own backyard (the Crimean War of the mid 1850s) also recall that Germany, the country destined to be the future antagonist in all the major conflicts of the next century wasn’t even unified until 1871. I find it interesting to speculate on whether the Civil War would have happened when it did if the War of 1812 had instead been the “War of 1840”…

Moving closer to our own day there was the political instability of the late 60s, early 70s, and I’ll admit that the connection here is not as clear. That, in fact, not only were we engaged in a war at the time, but most people feel that the existence of that war was a large contributor to the unrest of the time. On the other hand I don’t think that anyone considered Vietnam an actual threat. In fact I would go so far as to argue that by distracting people from the threat of the Soviet Union that the overall perceived threat level may have actually dropped. Additionally while the violence was greater than we’ve seen currently, the unrest as a whole seemed more confined, which is to say that the unrest of Vietnam was deeper, but not as wide as what we’re experiencing now, a non-trivial difference. Finally, I think there’s a case to be made that Reagan brought us out of things by placing a lot of focus on the threat of the Soviet Union, and creating a narrative that we were the good guys and they were the “Evil Empire”, precisely what you’d expect from my theory.

There is of course the other side of the theory. That in addition to telling us how a nation might split apart it also suggests how one comes together. To adapt the Pashtun saying, forging a nation would appear to involve something which turns strangers into at least cousins if not brothers. And once again the theory points to some interesting possibilities. There have been lots and lots of revolutions, and by and large, all of them have failed. Either through being overtaken by another revolution a short while later, or by being co opted by a dictator and losing sight of their original principles. Except the American Revolution. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another successful revolution where the revolutionaries said “these are our principles” and hundreds of years later those principles remain, largely unchanged in the nation created from that revolution. Can you think of any other examples? 

Why is this? Well, the other thing that appears to make the American Revolution unique (again I’m open to counter examples) is that it’s the only revolution which took place in the face of a strong external threat. Based on my theory this is precisely the sort of unique condition that would yield a similarly unique outcome.

To return briefly to Urban, as his metaphorical elevator goes higher it represents cooperation from a greater number of people, he calls these large groups of cooperating people giants, because of their power. We have lots of these giants, though we generally call them nations. Some would argue that reverence for these giants is what we call nationalism, a term that’s pretty controversial at the moment. 

But what if the only way to get the power of a giant is by way of the nation? (It’s true that other ways have been tried, mostly in the form of multinational organizations, but they’ve largely been unsuccessful.) If that’s the case nationalism starts to seem pretty important. 

And what if the only way to get a nation is through putting a group of people into a life or death struggle against some external threat? Then war starts to appear fairly important as well. 

What then happens if there are no more suitable wars or existential threats? 

One assumes that the number of people willing to cooperate would steadily decrease. That the giants would become more numerous, but also smaller. Resembling less vast colossuses, bestriding the Earth with the power to do amazing things, and more squabbling children. Which, unfortunately, is what appears to be happening, at least in the West.

I realize this all boils down to a defense of war, but this would not be the first time I’ve come to its defense. And certainly, as I pointed out then, it’s not inconceivable, given it’s historical ubiquity that things might have adapted to benefit from the presence of war and that nations might be included on that list. It is worth noting that in most civilizations and even the US until very recently it was expected that leaders would have served in the military and even better fought in one of these wars. Thus not only were nations forged by the external threat of wars, but it was presumed that leaders were as well.

If I’m correct that external threats are necessary to maintaining cooperation, for maintaining the alliance of cousins and brothers against strangers than you would expect that actual politicians would have figured this out as well, even if they don’t end up stating it in the same terms, and indeed I think we can see that happening. There are of course two ends this effort could be conducted from. You could either try to strengthen the feeling of brotherhood, or intensify the perception of threats. I want to say that in the past the former was more common (probably because there were already plenty of threats and they didn’t need any artificial boost) but these days it’s all about intensifying perceived threats. As you might imagine based on their ideologies this intensification takes different forms depending on that ideology.

To begin with, arguably the neo-cons vastly intensified the threat posed by radical Islam in the wake 9/11, and as I already said it did have the effect of, temporarily at least, uniting the country. However, when one considers the toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that it was worth it.

Moving to more recent examples, the Republicans are clearly working to intensify the threat posed by immigration. How much you think they’re intensifying it probably depends on your own ideology. I would personally argue that while there is definitely some exaggeration at play, that there is also an actual threat underlying it all as well. Also, at least the Republicans have chosen to focus on a threat external to the country. I’m going to argue that the Democrats are also intensifying perceived threats, but in their case the threats they’ve chosen to focus on are largely internal e.g. racism and inequality (among others). 

I’m sure your own ideology will provide a ready answer as to the actual threat level these things pose, I’m more interested in the consequences of deciding to focus on internal as opposed to external threats. At first glance it would appear to be very, very bad, particularly in light of the theory I just put forth. If it’s impossible to maintain cohesion and cooperation with the lack of external threats how much more difficult will it be to maintain cooperation if, on top of that lack, you also decide to focus on threats coming from within the entity you’re expecting on cooperation from!

None of this is to say that the Republicans aren’t also engaged in intensifying internal threats, or that the threats the Democrats point out aren’t real, most of them are real and potentially very serious. Neither am I suggesting, if this focus on internal threats does result in the nation breaking up into small factions, that this is necessarily a bad thing. But if for some reason you are trying to maintain national togetherness and cooperation, I am suggesting that you should take all of the above into account as you decide what sort of things are going to help or hinder you in that effort. 

I am one of those people who think we should try to maintain as much togetherness and cooperation as possible, and my big worry in all of this is that if, in the forge of a life and death struggle, we can go from strangers to brothers, then it’s also possible to go in the other direction as well, particularly in the prolonged absence of any such struggle. And this is precisely what appears to be happening. Now I know that the Pashtuns go back to fighting their cousins as soon as the strangers are gone, and maybe that’s just what we’re seeing with Republicans and Democrats, and that if a sufficient threat emerges they will once again join forces, but such a threat might not emerge, at least not soon enough, because it also seems possible that if things go long enough and get bitter enough, that reconciliation will no longer be on the table. That, past a certain point, the ties of nationhood could be permanently severed. That it doesn’t matter how big some future threat ends up being, the many sides in the country will never again be one. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that we may already be past that point.


Not many people are brave enough (or foolish enough) to make an argument in defense of war, if that sort of bravery (or idiocy) appeals to you consider donating


Are Modern Deviances Innovative or Catastrophic?

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


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?

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


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.


Worrying Too Much About the Last Thing and Not Enough About the Next Thing

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

Or download the MP3


As I mentioned in my last post one of the books I read last month was Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory, by Michael Korda which covers the beginnings of World War II from the surrender of the Sudetenland up through the retreat from Dunkirk. As I mentioned one of the things that struck me the most from reading the book was the assertion that before the war France had a reputation as the “world’s preeminent military power”. And that in large part the disaster which befell the allies was due to a severe underestimation of German military might (after all, hadn’t they lost the last war?) and a severe overestimation of the opposing might of the French. 

As someone who knows how that all turned out (France defeated in a stunning six weeks) the idea that pre-World War II France might ever have been considered the “world’s preeminent military power” seems ridiculous, and yet according to Korda that was precisely what most people thought. It’s difficult to ignore how it all turned out, but if you attempt it, you might be able to see where that reputation might have developed. Not only had they grimly held on for over four years in some of the worst combat conditions ever, and, as I said, eventually triumphed. But apparently the genius and success of Napoleon lingered on as well, even at a remove of 130 years.

Because of this reputation, at various points both the British and the Germans, though on opposite sides of things, made significant strategic decisions based on the French’s perceived martial prowess. The biggest effect of these decisions was wasting resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. In the British case they kept sending over more and more planes, convinced that, just as in World War I, the French line would eventually hold if they just had a little more help. This almost ended in disaster since, later, during the Battle of Britain, they needed every plane they could get their hands on. On the German side, and this is more speculative, it certainly seems possible that the ease with which the Germans defeated the French contributed to the disastrous decision to invade Russia. Particularly if the French had the better reputation militarily, which seems to have been the case. Closer to the events of the book, the Germans certainly prioritized dealing with the French over crushing the remnants of the British forces that were trapped at Dunkirk. Who knows how things would have gone had they reversed those priorities.

This shouldn’t be surprising, people frequently end up fighting the last war, and in fact the exact period the book describes contains one of the best examples of that, the Maginot Line. World War I had been a war of static defense, World War II, or at least the Battle of France, was all about mobility. Regular readers may remember that I recently mentioned that the Maginot line kind of got a bad rap, and indeed it does, and in particular I don’t think that it should be used as an example for why walls have never worked. But all of this is another example of the more general principle I want to illustrate. People’s attitudes are shaped by examples they can easily call to mind, rather than by considering all possibilities. And in particular people are bad at accounting for the fact that if something just happened, it’s possible that it is in fact the thing least likely to happen again. The name for this, is Availability Bias or the Availability Heuristic, and it was first uncovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Wikipedia explains it thusly:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, “if you can think of it, it must be important.” The availability of consequences associated with an action is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of the consequences of that action. In other words, the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater we perceive these consequences to be. Sometimes, this heuristic is beneficial, but the frequencies at which events come to mind are usually not accurate reflections of the probabilities of such events in real life.

As I was reading Alone, and mulling over the idea of France as the “world’s preeminent military power”, and realizing that it represented something of an availability bias, it also occurred to me that we might be doing something similar when it comes to ideology, in particular the ideologies we’re worried about. From where I sit there’s a lot of worry about nazis, and fascists more broadly. And to be fair I’m sure there are nazis out there, and their ideology is pretty repugnant, but how much of our worry is based on the horrors inflicted by the Nazis in World War II and how much of our worry is based on the power and influence they actually possess right now? In other words, how much of it is based on the reputation they built up in the past, and how much is based on 2019 reality? My argument would be that it’s far more the former than the latter.

In making this argument, I don’t imagine it’s going to take much to convince anyone reading this that the Nazis were uniquely horrible. And that further whatever reputation they have is deserved. But all of this should be a point in favor of my position. Yes they were scary, no one is arguing with that, but it doesn’t naturally follow that they are scary now. To begin with, we generally implement the best safeguards against terrifying things which have happened recently. Is there any reason to suspect that we haven’t done that with fascism? It’s hard to imagine how we could have more thoroughly crushed the countries from which it sprang. But, you may counter, “We’re not worried about Germany and Japan! We’re worried about fascists and nazis here!” Well allow me to borrow a couple of points from a previous post, where I also touched on this issue.

-Looking at the sub-reddits most associated with the far right the number of subscribers to the biggest (r/The_Donald) is 538,762 while r/aww a subreddit dedicated to cute animals sits at 16,360,969

-If we look at the two biggest far-right rallies, Charlottesville and a rally shortly after that, in Boston. The number of demonstrators was always completely overwhelmed by the number of counter demonstrators. The Charlottesville rally was answered by 130 counter rallies held all over the nation the very next day. And the Boston free speech rally had 25 “far right demonstrators in attendance” as compared to 40,000 counter-protestors.

Neither of these statistics makes it seem like we’re on the verge of tipping over into fascism anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’m guessing there are people who are going to continue to object, pointing out that whatever else you want to say about disparity and protests or historical fascism. Donald Trump got elected!

I agree this is a big data point, 62,984,828 people did vote for Trump, and whatever the numbers might be for Charlottesville and Boston, 63 million people is not a number we can ignore. Clearly Trump has a lot of support. But I think anyone who makes this point is skipping over one very critical question. Is Trump a nazi? Or a fascist? Or a white supremacist? Or even a white nationalist? I don’t think he is. And I think to whatever extent people apply those labels to him or his supporters they’re doing it precisely for the reason I just mentioned. All of those groups were recently very powerful and very scary. They are not doing it because those terms reflect the reality of 2019. They use those labels because they’re maximally impactful, not because they’re maximally accurate. 

Lots of people have pointed out that Trump isn’t Hitler and that the US is unlikely to descend into Facsism anytime soon (here’s Tyler Cowen making that argument.) Though fewer than you might think (which, once again, supports my point). But I’d like to point out five reasons for why it’s very unlikely which probably don’t get as much press as they should.

  1. Any path to long standing power requires some kind of unassailable base. In most cases this ends up being the military. What evidence is there that Trump is popular enough there (or really anywhere) to pull off some sort of fascist coup?
  2. As our prime example it’s useful to look at all the places that supported Hitler. In particular people don’t realize that he had huge support in academia. I think it’s fair to say that the exact opposite situation exists now.
  3. People look at Nazi Germany somewhat in isolation. You can’t understand Nazi Germany without understanding how bad things got in the Weimar Republic. No similar situation exists in America.
  4. Even though it probably goes without saying I haven’t seen very many people mentioning the fact that Trump isn’t anywhere close to being as effective a leader as Hitler was. In particular look at Trump’s lieutenants vs. Hitlers.
  5. Finally feet on the ground matter. The fact that there were 25 people on one side (the side people are worried about) and 40,000 on the other does matter. 

I’d like to expand on this last point a little bit. Recently over on Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander put forth the idea that LGBT rights represents the most visible manifestation of a new civic religion. That over the last few years the country has started replacing the old civic religion of reverence for the founders and the constitution with a new one reverencing the pursuit of social justice. He made this point mostly through the methodology of comparing the old “rite” of the 4th of July parade, with the new “rite” of the Gay Pride Parade. There’s a lot to be said about that comparison, most of which I’ll leave for another time, but this does bring up one question which is very germane to our current discussion: under what standard are the two examples Alexander offers up civic religions but not Nazism? I don’t think there is one, in fact I think Nazism was clearly a civic religion. To go farther is there anyone who has taken power, particularly through revolution or coup, without being able to draw on a religion of some sort, civic or otherwise? What civic religion would Trump draw on if he was going to bring fascism to the United States? I understand that an argument could be made that Trump took advantage of the old civic religion of patriotism in order to be elected, but it’s hard to see how he would go on to repurpose that same religion to underpin a descent into fascism, especially given how resilient this religion has been in the past to that exact threat.

Additionally, if any major change is going to require the backing of a civic religion why would we worry about patriotism which has been around for a long time without any noticeable fascist proclivities, and is, in any case, starting to lose much of its appeal, when there’s a bold and vibrant new civic religion with most of the points I mentioned above on it’s side. Let’s go through them again:

  1. An unassailable base: No, social justice warriors, despite the warrior part, do not have control over the military, but they’ve got a pretty rabid base, and as I’ve argued before, the courts are largely on their side as well.
  2. Broad support: It’s hard to imagine how academia could be more supportive. In fact it’s hard to find any place that’s not supportive. Certainly corporations have aligned themselves solidly on the side of social justice.
  3. Drawing strength from earlier set-backs and tragedy: Hitler was undoing the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles and the weakness of the Weimar Republic. Whatever you think about the grievances of poor white Trump supporters there are nothing compared to the (perceived) wrongs of those clamoring for social justice. 
  4. Effective leadership: This may in fact be the only thing holding them back, but there’s a field of 24 candidates out there, some of whom seem pretty galvanizing. 
  5. Feet on the ground: See my point above about the 130 counter rallies. 

To be clear, I am not arguing that social justice is headed for a future with as much death and destruction as World War II era Nazis. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, perhaps it will be just as all of its proponents claim, the dawn of a never ending age of peace, harmony and prosperity. I sure hope so. That said we do have plenty of examples of ideologies which started out with the best of intentions but which ended up committing untold atrocities. Obviously communism is a great example, but you could also toss just about every revolution ever into that bucket as well. 

Where does all of this leave us? First it seems unlikely that nazis and fascists are very well positioned to cause the kind of large scale problems we should really be worried about. Also, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that our biases would push us towards overstating the danger, on top of that. Beyond all that there is a least one ideology which appears better positioned for a dramatic rise in power, meaning that if we’re just interested in taking precautions at a minimum we should add them to the list alongside the fascists. Which is to say that I’m not trying to talk you out of worrying about fascists, I’m trying to talk you into being more broad minded when you consider where dangers might emerge. 

Yes this is only one, and probably reflects my own biases, but there are certainly others as well. At the turn of the last century everyone was worried about anarchists. As well they might be in 1901 they managed to assassinate President Mckinley (what have the American fascists done that’s as bad as that?) And there are people who say that even today we should worry more about anarchism than fascism. Other people seem unduly fascinated with the dangers and evils of libertarianism (sample headline, Rise of the techno-Libertarians: The 5 most socially destructive aspects of Silicon Valley). If there is a weaker major political movement than the libertarians I’m not aware of it, but fine, add them to the list too. But above all, whatever your list is and how ever you make it, spend less time worrying about the last thing and more time worrying about the next thing.


I will say that out of all the things to worry about bloggers carry the least potential danger of anything. Though maybe if one of us had a bunch of money? If you want to see how dangerous I can actually get, consider donating.


How Do We Adapt to Things?

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

Or download the MP3


When I started my last post I had intended to examine the various ways in which humans adapt to their environment. Four thousand words later, and I’d spent all of them on a defense of cultural evolution/tradition, which is of course just one of the ways we adapt to things, and probably (based on the comments) more interesting when considered in connection with other methods of adaptation than when considered in isolation. Though I still think my last post was important because there’s not nearly enough attention paid to cultural evolution as compared to other methods of adaptation, so establishing some kind of grounding there before proceeding will probably turn out to have been useful. But in any event, I didn’t even get to a discussion of other ways in which humans can adapt to their conditions, so I’m going to take another shot at it and see if I can do better this time. That resolution in place I’m going to immediately go in the opposite direction and spend just a minute or two clarifying some things left over from the last post.

I ended up posting a link to the last post in one of the SSC open comment threads. In addition to the link I laid out my four alternative criteria for judging a tradition. In response to this someone pointed out that in addition to being applied to same sex marriage that these criteria could also be applied to slavery: 

  1. The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
  4. The domain of the tradition. Does it relate to survival or reproduction? –> “The Confederacy decided slavery was so vital to their survival, they went to war for it. See again the Spartacus rebellion.”

To begin with, I found his response to the fourth point not very on point, and probably even a little flippant, but that still leaves the other three. Obviously it’s hard to talk about slavery in any fashion other than righteous flaming denunciation without it getting messy, but I guess I’m going to try it anyway. First, we need to remember that cultural evolution doesn’t care about morality, it cares about survival. Essentially what he’s arguing is that nothing immoral could possibly also be important for survival, which doesn’t follow at all. Second, this is precisely why the fourth point is important, I don’t think slavery does have any relationship to survival or reproduction. Finally, if we are going to add morality to the criteria, as this person seems to be doing, slavery has always provoked intense moral debates, while such debates over SSM are very recent.

In fact everything about SSM is very recent, which leads to the other observation I wanted to make before we move on. After finishing the last post, and discussing it a bit with some people, I realized I left out one of my main motivations. Given that it makes me look better (I think) it seemed wise to include it. I imagine that a lot of people would take that last post as evidence that SSM keeps me up at night, particularly if they also know that I’m religious. They might even assume, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I’m an extreme homophobe. But honestly, my interest is largely intellectual. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight on any one piece of data, but I keep coming back to the content disparity present in the Timeline of Same Sex Marriage article on Wikipedia. How is it that evidence before 1970 could be so slim? Not only does it represent a mere 4% of the article, but it’s clear that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get even that. If you haven’t bothered to check out the article here are some examples of evidence for SSM  before 1970.

  • They mention a single marriage in Spain from 1061.
  • There’s a paragraph on it being referred to in a derisory fashion to describe political opponents during the Roman Empire.
  • It appears to have been legal in ancient Assyria.
  • The emperor’s Nero and Elagabalus married men.
  • It was part of the culture of an oasis in Egypt of about 30,000 people (that is its modern population, I assume anciently it was even less).

Reviewing this list you might assume that I cherry picked the least impressive examples, but actually the list I just gave is more or less comprehensive. These are essentially all of the  examples they could come up with. How is it that something which was so incredibly rare in the past has become such a huge deal in only the last few decades? One of my commenters suggested that perhaps it had just not occurred to anyone before 1970. I suppose that’s possible but if anything that just makes things more interesting. We have lots of examples of historical taboos, I can’t think of another example of something never even being considered before the present, certainly not outside of new technology, which SSM is not.

If my interest in SSM is mostly intellectual, you might wonder if I can provide any more visceral examples, reports of traditions under threat where my reaction involves more anger. I can. In particular I remember being very annoyed by the story making the rounds last month about training being given by the New York City Department of Education where things like “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word,” were labeled as “White Supremacy Culture”. This is only one data point, but it was a piece of data that fed into a feeling I’ve had for awhile. While I mostly talk about the erosion of moral traditions because that erosion is so obvious, it feels like there’s something deeper going on. I’ve had the sense for awhile that the attack on traditions might not stop there. And when I hear someone label objectivity as “White Supremacy” it seems to confirm those deeper fears. 

With the last post put to bed let’s finally turn to a discussion of the various ways humans can adapt to their environment.

The first and most obvious method of adaptation is evolution through natural selection, which is a large topic unto itself, so for our purposes I just want to point out a few key features. To begin with, it operates through genetic mutations, which occur randomly. Most of the time these mutations are benign, some of the time they’re maladaptive and a tiny minority of the time they’re actually beneficial. (Commentators may notice that I borrowed some of their wording.) Despite the fact that these mutations are beneficial only a tiny minority of the time, the vast majority of what we see when we look are beneficial mutations, because that’s what’s being selected for, and is in fact the definition of beneficial since in this context that just means it makes the organism more likely to reproduce in such a fashion that the gene is transmitted to the next generation. To boil everything down, at this level adaptation:

  1. Is initiated randomly.
  2. Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
  3. Takes a very, very long time.

The next method of adaptation, is the one I discussed at such length in the last post, that is cultural evolution. I obviously spent quite a bit of time on it in the last post, so you would expect there wouldn’t be much left to say on the subject. But I think it’s important to draw some sharp lines about what it is and what it isn’t. To begin with, while evolution through natural selection operates on the level of genes. Cultural evolution operates at the level of practices that can be transmitted by language. Which I shorthanded as traditions, and it makes having a common language pretty important (though being able to translate might get you most of the way.) The first thing that’s interesting about this, is that it makes culture harder to transmit in some respects, but easier in others.

Genes represent a common language for everything, meaning we get them from all over the place, not merely from Neanderthals, but from viruses as well. The same can not be said for traditions. We didn’t get any traditions from viruses, and it seems pretty unlikely we got any from the Neaderthals either. This is where traditions and culture are harder to transmit, but if you speak the same language, they suddenly become much easier to transmit than genes. Which makes it faster as well. So then how is it tested? This is the part of cultural evolution where all the debate is happening, and where I spent a lot of time in the previous post. But certainly survival has to be in there, and not merely survival of individuals, but survival of the whole culture. In fact I would argue that humans being what they are, that if your culture, taken in its totality, can’t survive conflict with other cultures (i.e. war). Then sooner or later your culture isn’t going to be around and there will be no traditions left to transmit.

Beyond survival, if traditions are the unit of evolution they have to be easily transmissible as well. They also have to be sticky, otherwise they wouldn’t be around long enough to have any effect. That makes traditions sound like memes, but I think there is one big difference. I think for a tradition to be considered part of cultural evolution it has to be attached to its host’s reproduction and survival. I think a meme just has to be able to ensure its own survival.  This takes us to the final and weirdest way for humans to adapt. But before we go there let’s summarize the attributes of cultural evolution:

  1. Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
  2. Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
  3. Is much quicker than genetic evolution, but still kind of slow.

At last we reach the final method of adaptation, memetic evolution, and yet again I’m indebted to Scott Alexander of SSC for so clearly identifying it and I would encourage you to read the original post he did on it. But I also think there’s more to the story than what he points out, in particular I think he undersells the role of survival as the key differentiator between cultural and memetic evolution. But before we jump ahead I should explain the differences between the two as Alexander sees them. For him it mostly revolves around the idea of “convincingness”. That memetic evolution is about doing what sounds good (with competition happening around what that is at any given moment) while cultural evolution is about doing what worked in the past. 

As you can see from the previous list, cultural evolution probably starts in very much the same way. Despite this there are at least two significant differences in how this process works for each. To begin with, in cultural evolution, the space of things eligible to be considered “good ideas” is much smaller, both because of greater resistance to change and because, due to technology, the list of things which could possibly be changed is also vastly smaller. The other difference is that at some point or another the “good idea” is going to be tested to see whether it actually improves the culture’s fitness or makes it worse. Neither of these things is true when it comes to memetic evolution. In the first case it’s a difference of degree, resistance to change still exists, but it’s decreased while the list of potential good ideas just keeps growing. But in the second case it’s a difference of kind, and I would contend that with memetic evolution we have reached a point where “good ideas” are completely disconnected from fitness. The test never happens. Accordingly the attributes of memetic evolution are:

  1. Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
  2. Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
  3. Much quicker than cultural evolution, and it can be made quicker still by technology.

While we have mostly covered the first point, the remaining two require further discussion. While I think point two is self evident, it immediately leads to a very important follow-up question, how can we get away with no longer worrying about survival? There are three possibilities:

  1. We have progressed to the point where survival is no longer in doubt, therefore we can safely ignore it. The old rules really don’t apply. Perhaps because everything promised by the advocates of posthumanism is coming to pass.
  2. Survival and reproduction and evolutionary fitness still lurk in the background, but we have managed to make significant progress in lessening their importance, allowing us to profitably focus on other things, perhaps in something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. We can’t get away with it. Survival and reproduction are just as important as ever, but they’ve been completely overshadowed by the variety and speed of memetic evolution. That eventually cultural evolution will still be important.

You can probably guess which possibility I favor, but I’m not the only one to notice that we have developed lots of behaviors that have little to do with ongoing survival. Robin Hanson calls it Dreamtime, and describes it thusly, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” But I’m jumping ahead, each of these possibilities has some interesting and possibly disturbing implications. 

The first possibility represents the most extreme shift. Because, as I said, the old rules don’t apply. Under the old rules it was all about us, the humans, and whether we continued to exist or not. With possibility number one it’s all about ideas, and humans are just a place for ideas to reside, and not even a particularly good place now that we have computers, which takes us to my posthuman reference. If ideas are all that matter what’s to say we even have a role in the world of the future. Certainly there are lots of posthumanists who worry that we don’t.

Under the second possibility, one imagines that, civilizationally, we’re perched near the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the areas of love, esteem and self-actualization, and that this is a good thing. But in this model the bottom level with the physical needs of food and water is still down there. Is there ever a point where we forget how to supply those needs? Certainly on an individual level, almost no one in the US knows how to grow or kill enough food to feed themselves for an extended period. We still possess this knowledge at a civilizational level, fortunately, but it’s unclear how robust this knowledge is. I say this, primarily, because it hasn’t been put to the test recently, There are lots of ways for something like this to be tested, but if nothing else in the past there were frequent wars which acted to test the mettle of a civilization. We haven’t had one of those recently, and to be clear, that’s a good thing, but it also seems like the kind of thing where the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it finally happens. And I’m by no means convinced that there will never be another great power war.

Turning to the third possibility, the first thing we need to do is decide what it means for survival to be “just as important as ever”. From one perspective, of course it’s as important as ever, as I frequently point out, if you can’t survive (and reproduce) you can’t do anything else either. So on reflection, it’s more accurate to say that the third possibility asserts that survival is just as difficult as ever. Stating it this way I assume a lot of people are going to immediately dismiss it as obviously incorrect, since that’s not what the numbers show at all. Rather they show a huge increase in life expectancy and vast decreases to most of the causes of death people had to worry about historically, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. This is a pretty good argument, but let me offer at least one counterargument (there are many).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that technology and progress have not created any decrease in fragility, that rather, if anything, they have increased it, which would mean that, currently, survival is not merely as difficult, it’s more difficult. But what about the numbers? Here Taleb argues that though technology doesn’t decrease fragility it does allow you to dampen volatility, particularly in the short term. I say in the short term because what we’re really doing is postponing volatility and making things that much worse when whatever tools you’ve been using eventually reach the limits of their effectiveness

You can see how this all might play out using the example of nuclear war. It is widely agreed that a large part of the reason for the Long Peace is the horror of nuclear weapons. This is the low volatility. However if war ever does come the eventual volatility will be far greater than any previous war. Additionally, while no previous war ever threatened the survival of humanity, a nuclear war very well might, leading to exactly the situation I described. Survival isn’t just as difficult, it’s actually much more difficult.

The last issue we have to deal with is the speed of memetic evolution. Recall the title question, “How do we adapt to things?’ Or to take it from another angle, what are we adapting to? In the past all adaptation was in service of survival and reproduction, and the fact that cultural evolution was faster than genetic evolution allowed humans to adapt more quickly to a variety of conditions. Certainly I’m not aware of any other animals which have adapted to live nearly anywhere. But if we’re not adapting to survive in changing conditions because our survival is no longer in question than what are we adapting to? And how does doing it faster help? If anything it appears that things are reversed. That the changes brought about by memetic evolution aren’t helping us to adapt they’re what we have to adapt to. In which case, the fact that it just keeps going faster isn’t a feature, it’s a bug…

If we have passed into the era of memetic evolution. And if it has the qualities I describe. Both of which seem very likely. Then there doesn’t seem to be much of a silver lining. It would appear that the best case scenario would be to hope that we have progressed into a new and better world where ideas are the only thing that matters, and then to further hope that we can manage to find a place in that world. The other possibilities all seem to boil down to a rapidly changing world where survival is still important but the conditions we’re trying to adapt our survival to are changing with ever greater rapidity.


These ending blurbs are actually examples of memetic evolution. No, really. I never said they were good examples, in fact they’re more akin to the random mutations of genetic evolution. But maybe this is the random mutation that will work, and you’ll be convinced to donate.


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:

Or download the MP3


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.