Category: <span>History</span>

The 8 Books I Finished in June

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  1. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by: Steven E. Koonin
  2. Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by: Peter Godfrey-Smith
  3. The Start 1904-30 by: William L. Shirer
  4. The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II by: Obmascik, Mark
  5. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by: Robert K. Massie
  6. Tiamat’s Wrath by: James S. A. Corey
  7. What I Saw in America by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Job: A New Translation by: Edward L. Greenstein

It was a little over five years ago that I started this blog. In that time I have written 240 posts, or an average of four a month, which is less than I hoped to write but still pretty impressive. Enough so that I feel like I’ve earned a break, as such other than this entry, and the end of the month newsletter, I’m not planning on posting anything else, though I have a vague idea about updating some of my past posts, so there’s some chance I’ll do that. This is not primarily about taking a vacation, it’s primarily about carving out time to get some momentum on the book I’ve been working on, which I still hope to have out this year. And which has been stalled at 30% for a while. 

Beyond that there’s not much to report, except that June has been super hot, which I hate, but I’ll talk more about that in my first review:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

By: Steven E. Koonin

240 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the media and climate activists distort the facts and science of climate change.

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in steelmanning the case for not being alarmed about the climate, this is the book for you.

General Thoughts

As I just mentioned, June here in Utah has been hot. On June 15th, Salt Lake City hit 107, which tied the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded here. (In the time since I first wrote that Portland hit 115). This is bad enough, but the fact that it happened in June is even worse. July is generally hotter than June, so worse may be yet to come. 

When things like this happen it’s easy to take it as proof that the globe is warming, that record breaking heat is more common, and that super hot days are the new normal. Not so fast, says Koonin. He claims, regardless of how it appears, that we haven’t had more record breaking heat, that the increase in average temperature hasn’t come because it’s getting hotter, it’s come because it no longer gets quite so cold. That the daily low temperatures are not quite so low anymore, but that the daily highs are unchanged. In making this claim he walks you through all the data, almost all of it taken from the official IPCC reports.

Note: The last paragraph was written before Lytton, Canada beat the previous Canadian high temperature record by a full 8 degrees, and then, subsequently burned to the ground. I understand this is just one data point, but viscerally it’s pretty compelling. 

It’s hard to not come across as strident when you’re talking about global warming, if for no other reason than that there’s just so much background contention. Koonin is no exception to this stridency, but insofar as he has an axe to grind it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with politics. It seems to be the exact opposite. What sets him off is when people twist science for political ends. Koonin appears to have a mania for accuracy, for pointing out where things are uncertain. And when it comes to something as complicated as the climate and you’re trying to make predictions about exactly where it’s going to be in 100 years, you’ve got nothing but uncertainty.

You may find it hard to believe that he doesn’t have a partisan axe to grind, but that’s part of what drew me to the book. Koonin was 2nd Undersecretary for Science under Obama. He was also Provost of Caltech. These two together should be enough to convince you that he’s not some unhinged climate change denier, that he may in fact be exactly what he says he is, someone who’s just interested in making sure that the facts are reported objectively. In service of this goal, as I mentioned above, most of his contentions are based on data from the IPCC reports, or from studies by scientists who are part of the IPCC. And the book is full of examples of some media outlet or politician saying something, for example, hurricanes are getting worse, and Koonin showing that this claim is not supported by any of the official reports, nor by the data.

He’s got many suggestions for how to deal with this problem. The one that I found most interesting was the idea of treating climate change science like a war game. In war games you have a blue team and a red team. The blue team represents the friendlies, so if the US Army is conducting a war game the blue team represents the US. One portion of the army is assigned to the blue team, while another portion gets assigned to be the red team. They play the opponents and they’re trying to poke holes in the plan, to show where things have been missed, and where it might be vulnerable. Koonin suggests that we need a red team for climate change science. A group specifically tasked with showing where the science is weak or where the data is unclear. 

It’s an interesting idea, and insofar as Koonin is acting as a one man red team he does poke many holes in things. As one example, it turns out that our computer models are actually getting less accurate. This in spite of greater computing power and all of the insights into modeling we’ve presumably accumulated. Or at least Koonin claims models are getting less accurate… And that’s the problem. I have to mostly take his word for it. Yes, he gives citations and yes, I could look those up, but that’s a rabbit hole of essentially infinite depth.

I will point out that Tyler Cowen took particular issue with Koonin’s claim that “The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.” Saying:

That is presented as a big deal, and yes it would be.  But “minimal”?  The economist wishes to ask “how much.”  The more concrete discussion comes on pp.178-179, which looks at twenty studies (all or most of them bad), and reports they estimate that by 2100 global gdp is three percent less due to climate change, or perhaps the damages are smaller yet.  Those estimates are then graphed, and there is a bit of numerical analysis of what that means for growth rates working backwards.  There is not much more than that on the question, and no attempt to provide an independent estimate of the economic costs of global warming, or to tell us which might be the best study or what it might be missing.  Koonin seems more interested in discrediting the hypocritical or innumerate climate change researchers than finding out the best answer to the question of cost.

So, if I’m not going to spend my time going down the rabbit hole of verifying Koonin’s sources, what am I going to spend my time on? How about…

Eschatological Implications

Global warming is primarily viewed through an eschatological lens. Is it an existential crisis? Will it lead to vast upheaval? Does it represent the end of the modern world as we inevitably harvest the bitter fruits of progress?

Determining the answer to these questions is obviously of critical importance. Certainly when I talk to people, particularly of a more liberal bent, they answer all of these in the affirmative, and while the data I found on this subject is all over the place, anecdotally my impression is that global warming has become the default doomsday scenario, supplanting nuclear war—particularly among people of a certain age and ideology. So what sort of contribution does the book make to answering our questions?

First let’s start with a couple of things he doesn’t cover that I think he should have:

Climate refugees: When I talk to someone who’s actually informed about the issues the thing they’re the most worried about is not rising sea levels, it’s refugees fleeing areas that are no longer habitable because of severe heat and drought. More broadly they worry not that global warming will directly kill people, but that it will create discord between nations, in the form of wars over resources and refugees. And that it is these conflicts we really need to worry about.

Koonin discusses numerous potential harms, but not this one. The closest he comes is pointing out that warming is mostly occurring near the poles, rather than the equator. So while Siberia is getting much warmer (which could potentially be a good thing if you’re worried about food and refugees) the regions where most of the refugees are expected to come from are not experiencing much of an effect from warming. Perhaps Koonin assumes that people will be able to continue to live in these areas because their climate and the associated agriculture will be largely unaffected, if so that’s a pretty big assumption.

Loss of Biodiversity: Among my knowledgeable friends, this is the next big thing they worry about: a mass extinction of species caused by warming. (One of my friends calls it “The Omnicide”.) Here, I suppose Koonin might argue that warming is not the only thing causing the extinctions. Or perhaps he would argue that these extinctions will probably have little impact on us. I’m only speculating because he doesn’t make any arguments, so I have no way to judge whether he could make a persuasive argument along these lines. I suspect not. As to the former argument I’m not sure what the breakdown is between warming and things like habitat destruction, pollution, and other forms of exploitation. As to the latter, I do have some figures. From the latest issue of The Economist:

At least 9% of the 6,200 breeds of domesticated mammals that humans eat or use to produce food had become extinct by 2016, and at least 1,000 more are threatened. 

If you combine those and do the math that’s 25%. Now this is just domesticated mammals, I don’t know what the associated number is for plants, but that seems like a lot. 

Thus from my perspective Koonin completely ignores the two climatic impacts people are most concerned about. Even if you buy the rest of his arguments against climate alarmism, there’s plenty of potential alarmism left just in these two topics.

If we wanted to be more charitable we could just focus on Koonin’s criticism of science and reporting. And here my natural inclination is to be entirely on Koonin’s side. It seems obvious that we should do the best we can to uncover the true facts of the situation, and present them without embellishment. That if we can just nail down the science it will show us the path forward. 

This was obvious and this was my natural inclination — the idealism of my youth. These days I’m a little more pessimistic. First off, worldwide coordination problems, like the one presented by global warming, are extraordinarily difficult. And if you’re thinking that you’re not even sure whether it is a problem, then you’ve just illustrated my point. Agreement is the first layer of coordination and the most difficult. And while demanding additional rigor can produce more certainty, it also embeds inaction while waiting for that rigor, and tacitly opens the option to always demanding ever increasing amounts of rigor. And in a sense that’s what Koonin is doing. Yes, I understand the idea that if we can just nail down the science, the path forward will be clear. But as I’ve pointed out in a couple of previous posts this idea of “follow the science” is far more difficult than most people realize. A subject I’ll go into more in my next review.

I liked Koonin’s book. I’m glad I read it. It was particularly good as a corrective to certain forms of apocalyptic alarmism. That said I do think he missed some of the complexities inherent in the issue—complexities which shouldn’t be overlooked.

As far as the larger issue of global warming, I’ve written about it before and I’ll probably write about it again. In particular I keep coming back to nuclear power as a solution both to this issue and to many other issues. Now I know people disagree with me on this, and there is a nuanced debate to be had over what to do with the waste, and what sort of reactors we should build, and what regulations are overkill and which are not, etc. etc. But I am becoming increasingly intolerant of anyone who is worried about climate change but who refuses to entertain the idea of making it easier to increase the supply of carbon free nuclear power.


Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science

By: Peter Godfrey-Smith

272 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

It’s pretty much right there in the subtitle. The book has everything from Logical Positivism, to Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who’s interested in the Philosophy of Science. Additionally I’ll say I was very impressed by how easy it was to read, unlike a lot of philosophy and a lot of textbooks.

General Thoughts

I probably hang out around rationalists too much because almost from page one I was thinking, “But what about Bayesianism? Bayesianism seems to solve this problem.” Godfrey-Smith did eventually cover Bayesianism, but when he finally got around to it, it felt like he didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked. Possibly this is just a reflection of my biases, probably because Bayesianism, particularly in 2003 when the book was written, was still a relatively new movement. Which brings me to one of the few criticisms I have of the book. I felt like Godfrey-Smith was weaker the closer he got to the present day. (The book covered the progression chronologically.) In particular when Godfrey-Smith was propounding his own philosophy, I found it less interesting and more dogmatic. Which is to say he was better at being a historian than at being a philosopher himself. 

The other criticism I want to bring up is part criticism and part confusion. I had always heard that Occam’s Razor and the principle of parsimony was a critical part of science, since there are thousands of potential explanations to choose from for any given phenomenon which all fit the evidence, and the only way to choose between them is using this principle. But Godfrey-Smith spends very little time on the idea, and when he does he’s very dismissive:

Scientists often support hypotheses via an appeal to simplicity or “parsimony.” …Given two possible explanations for the data, scientists often prefer the simpler one. Despite various elaborate attempts, I do not think we have made much progress on understanding the operation of, or justification for, this preference.  

I’m not sure what to make of this. I’m not sure when or where I heard that the principle of parsimony was a critical part of the philosophy of science, but whenever that was I remember thinking, “Well of course! It’d have to be. That’s obvious.” But when I finally read an actual book about the philosophy of science, the author speaks of it only in passing and dismissively. Have I stumbled into a fight I know nothing about? Is Godfrey-Smith part of some anti-parsimony faction? Is the principle just currently out of favor like some kind of fashion accessory? Or is its importance not nearly so obvious to everyone else as it was to me?

Beyond these two issues the book was enjoyable, easy to read, and a great examination of the essentials of scientific epistemology, but what about its…

Eschatological Implications

I recently went through some theories as to what might have happened in 1971. One of the minor ones I tossed into the mix was the idea that we broke science. This book confirmed that opinion. Which is not to say that it contained incontrovertible evidence of this happening, which I will now reveal to you in a dramatic flourish. No, it just further confirmed the difficulty of doing science, adding another layer of complexity. Before reading the book I was aware of how difficult it is to conduct good science. Having read the book, now I’m aware of all the difficulties involved in even defining what good science is. Which is not to say I had no awareness of these difficulties previously, but that Theory and Reality deepened that awareness.  

The question that confronts us as we move forward is whether these definitional difficulties are going to get worse or better. Whether the problems of science are going to get more complex or less. Well given that nearly everything in the modern world is getting more complex, I’d be surprised if the battleground of defining science ended up being one of the rare exceptions. So if the project of defining good science is getting more difficult, what do these difficulties look like? Well they look like a lot of things, but many of the greatest difficulties seem to be the same as everywhere else. They come down to identity politics.

Godfrey-Smith devotes a whole chapter to “Feminism and Science Studies”, and interestingly in my copy of the book, which I bought used, this is the only chapter to have been marked up. Make of that what you will… Some of you reading this will wonder what feminism has to do with good science, others will probably know exactly where this is headed. Here’s the description from the book:

Feminist thinking about science makes up a diverse movement. It is unified, perhaps, by the idea that science has been part of a structure that has perpetuated inequalities between men and women. Science itself, and mainstream theorizing about science and knowledge, have helped to keep women in a “second-class” position as thinkers, knowers, and intellectual citizens.

Setting aside for the moment whether science is a tool of oppression, you can see that such claims only increase the difficulties inherent in defining what good science is. This book was written in 2003, so before critical race theory and the BLM movement, but adding race to the mix only further complicates things. 

It would be one thing if the issues being raised were limited to certain minor aspects of the scientific endeavor—aspects which could be easily excised—but increasingly it appears that the entire scientific endeavor may be under attack.

Perhaps you remember the kerfuffle when the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture put up a graphic with various objectionable aspects of “whiteness” which included the item, “Emphasis on Scientific Method” as one of these aspects. Yes I understand it’s just one example, but it is a fairly prominent example. And even if you don’t agree that it’s evidence of an assault on the scientific endeavor it is indisputably evidence of an increasingly complicated conception of science. One that will only make it harder to agree on what separates good science from bad.

The long term impact of broken science is hard to overstate. It’s the tool that has powered all of our progress for the last 300+ years. If that tool can no longer be relied on, then we don’t have any other tools waiting to take its place. I was recently pointed at an article that sums up the situation very well, it was titled Silly people vs. serious people. The recent attacks on science risk turning us from the serious people who got us to this point into silly people who are unable to go any farther. This might be okay if everyone was becoming “silly” but they’re not. There are still plenty of serious people out there, and mostly they’re not our friends. 


II- Capsule Reviews

The Start 1904-30

by: William L. Shirer

590 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

William L. Shirer was a journalist best known for his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This is the first book in his three volume autobiography.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who wants an insider’s account of Paris in the 20’s with appearances by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Lindbergh, Woolf, etc.

General Thoughts

I have long intended to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but I have yet to get around to it. This book was recommended to me by the voraciously well-read little old lady of my acquaintance and it was only after I started reading it that I made the connection. Once I did, I decided, for probably biased reasons, that it was smart to read Shirer’s biography first and then read his history. At some point I’ll be able to provide a report on whether that was in fact a wise decision, but it will probably be awhile. 

This book reminded me of The World Until Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, which I talked about the last time I visited the interwar years. Of course Zweig’s book began before World War I, and it’s in this period that the parallels are the most apparent. Which is to say pre-World War I Vienna, kind of resembles pre-World War II America. Both had a sense of optimism. Though it could be said that they were travelling in different directions. Vienna was on it’s way down while the US was on it’s way up.

Of course Shirer himself was on the way up. And in his rise you get a sense of how small the world was for an American with a college degree, even if that person was from a small town in Iowa. Now of course as a foreign correspondent Shirer lucked into a lot of things (meeting all of the people I mentioned above). But he also grew up in the same town as the guy who painted American Gothic, and had numerous well known professors and other breaks before he even made it to France. So Shirer benefited from being an American, but he was also appalled by many aspects of America.

Similar to nearly all intellectuals of the time (I point I brought up in a previous post on the interwar years.) Shirer was deeply disturbed by the inequality of the 20s, and thought that socialism was the best solution. And indeed it’s hard to read of the way capitol treated labor during this period without having similar sympathies. But it leads to this weird contrast particularly in the life of Shirer. As part of his criticisms of these horrible conditions he criticizes the idea of there being a path from poverty to wealth. He basically doesn’t believe in the American dream. For example he calls out the Horatio Alger stories for being borderline propaganda, while never seeming to be aware of the fact that he’s basically living in one of those stories.


The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II 

by: Obmascik, Mark

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Japanese doctor who was educated in America but ended up as part of the Imperial Army that occupied Attu, and the American soldier on the other side.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in World War II, this is a minor story in the whole scheme of things but a fascinating one. And one of the better examinations I’ve encountered of the Japanese side of things.

General Thoughts

Paul Tatsuguchi was living happily in America, having come here to study medicine, and as Obmascik tells it he might have stayed here permanently if his wealthy older brother, hadn’t sold his sister into prostitution, forcing Tatsuguchi to move home and rescue her. This is not the most interesting part of the story, but it’s close, which is why I included it. Though just now I reviewed Tatsuguchi’s wikipedia page and this element of his story is not mentioned, so take it with a grain of salt. 

In any event while he was in Japan he was drafted into the Imperial Army. This posed two problems for Tatsuguchi. One he didn’t want to fight against America, he knew how hopeless it was, and two he was a devout Seventh-day Adventist and therefore a pacifist. But obviously he didn’t have a choice, and was eventually sent to Attu, the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain. When the Americans eventually decided to retake it, a horrible battle ensued, as was so often the case. Tatsuguchi recorded his experience of it in a diary. 

Eventually the Japanese forces decided on a final banzai attack, and during that attack Tatsuguchi was killed by Dick Laird. Laird is the other soldier mentioned in the title, and the book spends about half the time on him. He grew up poor, working from a very young age in the coal mines before finally joining the military. He ended up recovering the journal, and when it was translated and revealed that there had been an American trained doctor on the island it caused a sensation. The translation was extensively photocopied and passed around, becoming almost holy writ for some of the men.


Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by: Robert K. Massie

672 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A biography of Catherine the Great, absolute ruler of Russia from 1762 to 1796.

Who should read this book?

If you enjoy history at all Massie is one of the best. I wouldn’t say this was quite as interesting as Peter the Great, but it was still quite good.

General Thoughts

Catherine did a lot of amazing things, and I obviously don’t have space to cover them all, so I’d like to just focus on Catherine’s aspiration to be an enlightened monarch. These days no one questions the idea that some form of democracy is the best form of government, and that absolute autocracies are the worst. But that was far from clear back then (and I’m not sure it’s quite as clear as we think even now.) Back then many people thought that the only way for progress to occur was under the guidance of an absolute monarch who had adopted enlightenment ideals. 

At the beginning of her reign this is precisely what Catherine tried to be. She corresponded with Voltaire, she bought the library of Denis Diderot, but let him keep it, while paying him to be its caretaker when he ran into financial difficulties.  Diderot ended up living in St. Petersburg for five months, and he and Catherine talked nearly every day. One of her first projects as monarch was to standardize the complicated and confusing set of Russia laws left by Peter the Great. As part of this project she put together a book of instructions containing the underlying principles she wanted the legal code to reflect. This included things like equality before the law for all Russians, greater protection for serfs, and a prohibition on torture and capital punishment. In earlier drafts of her instructions Catherine even proposed entirely freeing the serfs. And keep in mind that she wrote all this stuff a decade before the Declaration of Independence. 

Having put these instructions together she called together people from all walks of life, from nobles to peasants and charged them to use her instructions to come up with a new, more enlightened Russian legal code. These people met for a year and a half. The meetings were rancorous and unproductive. In the end this assembly accomplished basically nothing and after being suspended because Russia had gone to war with the Ottoman’s it was never restarted. By the time the French revolution erupted near the end of her reign Catherine had turned decisively against anything resembling democracy and many of the enlightenment ideals she had previously embraced.

The point of all this being that there was an enormous amount of progress in Russia under Catherine. But as the practical difficulties of making this progress became apparent Catherine became more and more disaffected with actual progressive methodology. As an actual monarch ruling over actual people she soon discovered that the lofty ideals of Voltaire and Diderot were horribly impractical. And when people tried to implement them you ended up with the French Revolution. I’m not sure what the lesson for the present day is, but I’m sure there is one.


Tiamat’s Wrath 

by: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book mostly wraps up the Laconian plotline and sets everything up for the ninth and final book.

Who should read this book?

I will repeat, with a slight modification, what I said last time. It’s book 8 of a series, presumably by this point you should know whether or not you’re the audience for this book.

General Thoughts

I’ve quite enjoyed the Expanse series, and out of all the books, this one has to be near the top. That said I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some quibbles, and interestingly those quibbles relate to the last book. The bad guy in the book (more or less, I’m trying not to spoil things) is an absolute autocrat, similar to Catherine. And as absolute autocrats go, he’s pretty enlightened. Yet, the good guys are not only convinced that he’s going to have a negative impact on humanity’s chances, they’re also convinced that the whole endeavor will inexorably flame out in a couple of years. Beyond being historically illiterate this attitude is also hopelessly hypocritical, because the good guys are basically all autocrats themselves. We never read of one of the main characters being thrown out by an election. Or having to deal with a representative body, or changing course because of public opinion. They’re basically all autocrats, it’s just because they’ve been designated as the good guys that it all works out. While the other guy has been designated as the bad guy so we know it’s not going to work out for him.

Of course I understand that this is a novel, and certain things aren’t entertaining, so I’m not criticizing the writing. In fact I’m convinced that if they had included all those things I just mentioned that I would have enjoyed the series less. I just thought it was interesting to contrast the two books. The one dealing with an actual historical autocrat who was enormously successful, and the other dealing with fictional autocrats who find success entirely based on whether they have been designated as protagonists or antagonists.


What I Saw in America 

by: G. K. Chesterton

159 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A Tocquevillian examination of America written while Chesterton was in the country on a speaking tour.

Who should read this book?

I have a 50 book Chesterton collection on my Kindle. I haven’t decided if I’m going to read them all, but I would say that unless you’re engaged in some endeavor similar to that, you can probably skip this one.

General Thoughts

This is another book (similar to The Start) which focuses on the interwar years. And just like with Shirer, wealth inequality was very much on Chesterton’s mind, though obviously he didn’t think socialism was the solution. He mostly thought that rich people should stop applying the law unequally. He was there during prohibition, and it provides a good example of the kind of thing he was talking about. Despite the ban, rich people basically drank in the same fashion as they did before the amendment. It was the poor people who were deprived of alcohol. Prohibition wasn’t designed to stop all drinking it was designed to stop the drinking those in power disapproved of—low class drinking if you will.

He provides other examples of these sorts of disparities, some involving wealth or living conditions, and in this respect he was very similar to Shirer and others, but whereas those advocating socialism felt that the government was the solution through passing new laws and enforcing them. Chesterton seemed to be advocating that rich people just needed to be more moral, that the right thing to do was clear and they just needed to work on being more righteous. Given his impression that the chief problem was rich people were ignoring the laws already in existence, I can see why he didn’t think more laws were the answer.


III- Religious Reviews

Job: A New Translation 

by: Edward L. Greenstein

248 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the Book of Job from the Bible, retranslated with extensive commentary. Also it’s about how all previous translations got it wrong.

Who should read this book?

If you like reading things that were written a very long time ago, or if you like the story of Job enough to really dig into it, or if reading about the ancients grappling with theodicy is one of your “love languages” this might be the book for you.

General Thoughts

I’ve read the entire Old Testament, once. And I confess that it was more to check off a box than an attempt to deeply engage with it, so it was nice to deeply engage with at least one book. 

Job reminds me a little bit of Gilgamesh, possibly just because of how old they both are. It also reminds me of Plato’s Dialogues (which I’m in the process of working through) because that’s what the book basically is, a series of dialogues.

Of course while these comparisons and observations are somewhat interesting, what you really want to know is what Greenstein thinks other translators got wrong. Well in the introduction to chapter 42 where in most translations Job acquiesces and all of his misery is undone, Greenstein claims that instead:

Job understands the deity to be exactly as he had feared: a purveyor of power who cares little for people. Parodying the divine discourse through mimicry, Job expresses disdain toward the deity and pity toward human kind (and not acquiescence, as has been generally thought;)

I’m always a little wary when someone comes along in the Year of our Lord 2019 and claims to have discovered a new interpretation of a text which was overlooked by everyone else for thousands of years. But I will give him credit for making things interesting, and he may even be correct, I just have an inbuilt bias against such efforts.

But I did enjoy learning about the fact that Job is essentially trying to bring a lawsuit against God, the exact details of how and under what customs he is doing so are not worth getting into, but in the end, as Greenstein summarizes:

…[T]he deity is able to dismiss Job’s testimony about him pro forma—Job lacks the firsthand knowledge of a witness that is required in order to make the claims in his lawsuit. God extricates himself from the lawsuit without having to explain Job’s suffering to him or to his companions.

In a sense this is the perpetual argument atheists have with theists. They feel that this life provides sufficient evidence to prove the truth of their claims, while theists claim that there is evidence outside of this life which needs to be considered. To this Mormons add yet another wrinkle by asserting that we existed before this life and may have made agreements we voluntarily choose to forget. Based on Greenstein’s summary he seems to fall into the atheist camp, and as such suffering presents an insuperable barrier to the existence of God. But I’m totally on God’s side here. Even if we were to assume God’s absence I still feel pretty comfortable assuming that humans don’t have enough knowledge to pass final judgement on reality however it’s constructed.


I keep trying to keep these book review posts short, but I keep failing. If you like them as they are or if you’d like them shorter and have suggestions on what I could cut out, or if you just want to yell at me and hope it makes you feel better please don’t hesitate. But I will mention that my love language is donations to my patreon.


1971 Continued – It’s Energy Stupid!

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I- The Historical Increase in the Amount of Energy Available

This is a continuation of my last post, where I examined different explanations for the way a bunch of things all seemed to simultaneously go off the rails in 1971. In simpler terms in the last post I attempted to answer, as the eponymous website asks, WTF happened in 1971? But I left one explanation out. I saved my favorite for this post. But before we can get to that I need to go much farther back, all the way to 1650.

It was in about 1650, a century before the Industrial Revolution, that the United States (or what would become the United States) started growing and from then until (almost) now it grew at a steady average of 2.9% per year. Despite the passage of decades and centuries this growth was basically constant. Though recently there are signs that it’s started to slow. (Average growth since 2001 has only been 1.7%, 2% if we don’t include last year.) After hearing this one is immediately prompted to ask: What was the long term average growth rate before 1650? Or in any case before the industrial revolution? As it turns out it was all but zero, perhaps a long term average of 0.1%? Based on this one might just as reasonably ask, WTF happened in 1650? 

It was presumably a combination of a lot of things. The mother country was at the tail end of 300 years of fighting the black death with the associated drop in population. (The last great outbreak, the Great Plague of London, ended in 1666.) Such plagues, while being vast, unimaginable tragedies, also end up being great for innovation. Additionally, the U.S. is a vast continent, full of resources, and in 1650 it had been emptied by its own set of plagues, the black death being only one of many. And then of course there was the scientific revolution, which got the ball rolling on all of the inventions that would come to define the later industrial revolution.

This last element was what really made the difference. There had been temporary surges in growth before. Rome experienced one every time they conquered a new territory. But the scientific revolution changed a short-term surge into a long term trend. Growth that continued decade after decade and year after year as the scientific revolution gave way to the industrial revolution. When people think of the industrial revolution they picture the associated inventions: the cotton gin, the telegraph and most of all the steam engine. And while these inventions were all important, what really enabled the ongoing growth was the additional energy our improved ingenuity allowed us to extract. First in the form of coal and then in the form of oil. 

In other words, lot’s of things may have gotten the growth going, but it was the extraction and use of millions of years worth of accumulated energy in the space of a few centuries, that really kept it going. The engine of growth has always been energy, and the big difference between the pre-1650 0.1% growth and the post-1650 2.9% growth was the amount of energy available. And between 1650 and 1950 or 1971 (depending on how you slice it) economic growth and the amount of energy available went up at basically the same rate. In some respects this connection is almost tautological. If you want to make more stuff you need more energy to do it. Economic growth implies a similar growth in the amount of available energy. 

To be fair, having more energy isn’t the only way to increase economic output. You could become more efficient in using the energy you already have. You could also increase output by increasing the number of people — though in essence this is just another form of energy, just not in the way we normally think of it.

II- The Henry Adams Curve

These three things, growth in population, efficiency and the amount of energy being produced in turn created the 2.9% economic growth we’ve been experiencing since the mid 1600s. By predictable I mean that we can fit it to a curve, in this case it’s the “Henry Adams Curve”, a concept introduced in Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall (which I reviewed here, and also reference here and here). From the book:

Henry Adams, scion of the house of the two eponymous presidents, wrote in his autobiography about a century ago: “The coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power…”

In other words, we have a had a very long term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. Let us call it the “Henry Adams Curve.” The optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries can quite readily be seen as predicated on it. To a first approximation, it can be factored into a 3% population growth rate, a 2% energy efficiency growth rate and a 2% growth in the actual energy consumed per capita. 

Here is the Henry Adams Curve, the centuries-long historical trend, as the smooth red line. Since the scale is power per capita, this is only the 2% component. The blue curve is the actual energy use in the US, which up to the 70s matched the trend quite well. But then energy consumption flatlined.

The 1970s were famously the time of the OPEC oil embargo and the “energy crisis.” But major shortages preceded the embargo by a year or two. They were caused by Nixon’s energy price controls, instituted in 1971. The embargo wasn’t until 1973. [emphasis mine]

III- What Happened in 1971? Energy Decoupled from Growth

In 1971 (or thereabouts) energy decoupled from economic growth. Okay, fair enough, but a lot of other things also happened in 1971. Why is this a better explanation than the end of Bretton Woods, or the peak of American power? Why do I think this is the true disease rather than just another symptom? Why is it my favorite explanation? 

First off, one of the points I brought up in the last post was the lack of data for so many of the phenomena that were being highlighted. Half of the graphs didn’t go back farther than World War II, making it impossible to know if 1971 was the beginning of something exceptional or a return to normality. But this is a trend that has been going on since before America was even a country. Making this change, potentially, far more consequential. This isn’t a reversion to the 1920s, as was the case with inequality, this is completely new territory: Modern technology without the associated growth in energy which made the world modern in the first place.

This gets us to the second reason I prefer this explanation. It illustrates the fact that this is completely uncharted territory. Modern society is built on the idea that the amount of energy available on a per capita basis will just keep growing. Perhaps you’ve seen the meme where there’s a picture of the Wright Brothers on one side and on the other side is a picture of Neil Armstrong, and the caption points out that only 66 years separate the Wright Brothers first flight from the moon landing. I don’t know about you, but that fact blows my mind. It’s also the perfect illustration of what it looks like for the amount of available energy to grow at a compounding rate. In the mid-1900s we had been experiencing this sort of growth in available energy for centuries, and in those years, when science fiction was at its height, it’s vision of the future was based on it continuing. Which is how they arrived at the idea of flying cars, moon bases and manned missions to Jupiter. But in 1971, shortly after the moon landing, per capita energy flatlined.

One of the biggest revelations to come out of Flying Car, for me at least, was the fact that had growth in energy continued at the pre-1971 rate we would have had flying cars and moon bases and probably much else besides. The science fiction writers would have been right. The reason they were wrong had nothing to do with their understanding the dangers, difficulties and desires of and for flying cars. They were wrong because they didn’t foresee that the growth in energy which had so dominated the previous two hundred and fifty years, going all the way back to Newcomen’s steam engine at least, was only a few years away from coming to an abrupt end. 

It’s now been 52 years since that legendary first walk on the moon and 50 since 1971. Not quite the 66 years between that and the Wright Brothers flight, but getting pretty close. Can we point to any comparable achievement? And does anyone imagine that waiting an additional 14 years will change that?

Despite all of the foregoing, the economy is still growing even if it’s doing so in a slightly slower fashion than it was for most of the country’s history (2% vs. 2.9% as mentioned previously). What does it mean for the economy to grow without a corresponding growth in the amount of energy? What does it mean to increase output in a way that doesn’t require any energy? What does that output look like? These questions take us to my third reason for preferring this explanation: energyless output is a credible cause for most of the things people have been complaining about. 

But before we get to that it is necessary to make sure we’re not barking up the wrong tree. There were three components to the curve, growth in available energy, growth in population and gains in efficiency. Before we focus on that first one we need to make sure it’s not one of the other two. As I pointed out in a recent book review, it’s definitely not growth in population. The US population is only growing at 0.3%. But might we be using the same amount of energy more efficiently? 

The math here gets a little complicated, but if we keep it simple, energy output and efficiency were both growing at 2% a year. If energy output stops growing then for efficiency to “take over”, for there not to be an increase in the amount of “energy-less output”, efficiency would have had to double from 2% to 4%. I have not come across anything that leads me to believe this is what happened, nor does it seem very plausible for something like that to suddenly double. Though given the timing — the 1970s was the first big energy crisis, and we’ve been emphasizing efficiency since then — it wouldn’t surprise me to find that it went from 2% to 2.5% or something like that. But it seems very implausible for it to have suddenly doubled, and if you look at the graph,energy per capita hasn’t just flatlined it’s gone down, so efficiency would really have to more than double, at the same time that the other factor, population growth, was also flatlining.

If you’re with me this far and you agree that there has been an increase in the amount of economic output that doesn’t require any energy, or at least far less energy, what would that look like? For me this whole process was put into stark relief in the process of writing my last newsletter. In particular this fact:

During the Trump Presidency the national debt increased by nearly $8.3 trillion dollars. This is enough money, in today’s dollars, to refight World War II twice over.

Here we can clearly see the difference between productivity which is tightly coupled to energy use, and productivity that is not. During World War II the money we spent went into ships and planes and tanks, and the salaries of the 16 million people in the armed forces plus all of the people working on the home front. I would imagine that World War II is as efficient as we’ve ever been at turning “energy” into “stuff”. But at the time of the Trump Presidency when he was increasing the debt by twice the cost of World War II, most of our economy had nothing to do with stuff. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. In 2007-2008 you had Wall Street investors moving around billions of dollars which had no connection to anything tangible. And as early as the 80s, the finances of Wall Street were only tenuously connected to tangible outputs, as illustrated by books like Liar’s Poker and movies like Wall Street. In more general terms the financial sector is growing to be an ever larger slice of GDP (output) but requires very little in the way of energy. And beyond that a huge slice of the economy has moved on to the internet. Which suffers from much the same problem of disconnecting the economy from energy. 

One of my readers pointed out that you probably couldn’t literally compare the $8.3 trillion increase in the national debt under Trump with the money spent fighting World War II. That you needed to do more than just adjust for inflation, you also had to account for the mass mobilization factor and the other extraordinary circumstances associated with World War II. I’m sure that he has a point. If nothing else, a peacetime economy is very different from a total war economy. But even so the difference is stark. We’re not talking about the same amount of money, we’re talking about twice the money, so even if a peacetime economy is only half as efficient we still should be able to point to some accomplishment as impressive as beating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, instead it was swallowed without much to show for.

As one example, look at employment. At the start of the pandemic there 6 million people unemployed, within two months that had surged to 23 million. So an additional 17 million, which is very close to the 16 million under arms during World War II to say nothing of all the civilian workers essentially being paid by the government. Back then we were able to use the money we spent to pay them for years plus provide them with everything necessary to fight a war. Today there’s still 10 million people unemployed and of the 13 million who re-entered the workforce very few were directly employed by the government. In fact if anything the consensus seems to be that government money is keeping people from seeking employment. Meanwhile the stock market has nearly doubled from it’s pandemic low-point. A lot of money has gone into financial instruments and very little into stuff. Near the beginning of the pandemic Marc Andreessen, the famous venture capitalist, made this same point in his much shared post, It’s Time to Build. But building is precisely what you’re not doing if your economy has become disentangled from energy usage.

IV- Nuclear Power

In the past I’ve mentioned the idea of a religion of progress, an almost mystical belief that progress will continue essentially forever — that humanity is on a permanent upward trajectory. Some people believe this is happening with morality, and offer up the ongoing decline of bigotry and racism as evidence of its continuing impact. Or as Dr. King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Some people believe that this is happening with technology, that scientific innovations have lifted people out of poverty, cured diseases and otherwise improved the lot of man. That if we just get out of the way human ingenuity will lead us to the promised land. Some people believe that both things are happening. Beyond the division between moral progress and technological progress, a further division can be made between those who have a primarily humanist interpretation of this progress, and those who think the process is primarily spiritual. With people like Steven Pinker on the first side of the divide and new age spiritualists on the other side. 

I don’t fall into either camp, at least not in any recognizable fashion. But reading about what happened with nuclear power almost changed my mind. Here we are, it’s the early 70s, OPEC has just imposed a petroleum embargo. Things in general are not going well in the Middle East (and will continue not going well down to the present day). Fracking, and the vast supplies of domestic oil and gas it will make available, is still 30 years in the future. We didn’t know it at the time but energy production per capita has already started to stagnate. But it’s at this exact moment, when it seems that we’ve run out of road, when it looks like progress has been derailed, that nuclear power is finally ready for prime time. The way that just as one door has closed that another one opens is almost mystical. 

But it was also at this moment, that for the first time since 1650, we hesitated. We had no problems moving from wood to coal, and from coal to oil, but when it came time to make the transition from oil to nuclear we dropped the baton. And nuclear power, which had been getting continually cheaper, suddenly started getting more expensive. The universe had provided us with the next step in the long march of progress and we refused to take it.

As we get near the end of things, I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming that the world fundamentally changed precisely in 1971. (I fundamentally changed in 1971, but the world didn’t.) But I do think things are different now than they have been. That the 52 years since the moon landing have been very different than the 52 years preceding it. And that the primary (though certainly not the only) cause of this difference was the stagnation in per capita energy availability. 

V- Final Thoughts

Many years ago one of my close friends (we had been roommates in college) died because his liver failed. The question was why did it fail? The doctor’s decided it was alcoholic hepatitis, but I had my doubts. Yes my friend did drink, but I didn’t think he was that heavy of a drinker. But what he did do, more than anybody I’ve known, is take lortab. For those unfamiliar with lortab it’s a pain reliever which is a combination of hydrocodone (an opioid) and acetaminophen. I don’t think the alcohol destroyed his liver, I think it was the acetaminophen. As I was preparing to wrap up I was reminded of this story. We’ve identified the underlying disease, the available energy has stopped going up, but just like with me and my friends doctors, we may not agree on the behavior that’s causing the disease. 

Alcohol is generally considered to be a bad thing, while medicine is generally considered to be  a good thing, so it was easy for the doctors to blame the former rather than the latter, regardless of what was actually at fault. And as we move from identifying our malady to identifying behavior causing that malady I think we need to be careful to consider all possibilities. Even things we thought were beneficial. And here I am reminded of my newsletter from April. I would argue that this disease stems from the entirely understandable desire to maximize safety. 

Clearly in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s understandable that people would be biased against a form of power that used the same mechanism as that used by the bombs. From this an understandable caution developed, but eventually some caution became an abundance of caution which became a super abundance. The chief example of this being the linear no-threshold doctrine of radiation, which holds that there is no safe level of radiation. That in tandem with trying to achieve perfect safety we decided to designate radiation as being perfectly dangerous. That zero is the only safe amount. 

But it turns out that, just like with my friend, it’s actually the medicine that’s killing us, because once this ideology is widespread it’s only natural that the cost of nuclear power would go up, and as the cost rises it becomes even more difficult to take this next step. Accordingly, the amount of available energy stagnated. And economic growth without a corresponding growth in energy is a strange thing — we have yet to appreciate all of the consequences. 

In pointing out the fact that available energy stopped growing, I am not going beyond that to claim that it’s a bad thing. In fact, in another post I pointed out that it was inevitable. Further, I am not convinced that if we had smoothly switched to nuclear we would now be living in a technological utopia. I am sure it would be a very different world, but I’m not sure it would be any better. And as available energy usage had to plateau eventually this is a transition that was coming one way or the other, but just because the transition was inevitable doesn’t mean it’s easy. This is in fact a massive shift from how things have worked for centuries — a shift that hasn’t received nearly enough attention.

Obviously this is a complicated problem, not only is there the disease itself, there’s also the matter of the behavior that got us there: our overwhelming timidity. Things are changing in ways we don’t understand and we’re not prepared for. We’re in a world that’s superficially similar to the one we’ve had since 1650, but under the surface it’s vastly different. Perhaps the best answer to “WTF happened in 1971?” Is that we  entered uncharted territory, and it’s going to take all of our skill and wisdom, and yes, our courage as well, to avoid catastrophe.

One of my readers thought that I spent too much time on my own connection to 1971 in the last post. But clearly blogging is inherently a narcissistic activity, so I’m not sure what they expected. Going beyond that to ask for money to engage in this activity may be the most narcissistic thing of all. And yet, here I am, once again asking you to consider donating


Theories for the 1971 Inflection

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

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

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

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

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

1. I Was Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Nothing, there Was No Inflection Point in 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Long Peace Happened

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

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

Scheidel then goes on to say:

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

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

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

5. It’s All Part of a Historical Cycle

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

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

6. We Broke The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Decadence and the Twilight of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Or download the MP3


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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Reviews

Engineering the Apocalypse

An episode of Sam HarrisMaking Sense podcast, Featuring Rob Reid

4 hours

Briefly, what was this episode about?

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

Who should listen to this episode?

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

General Thoughts

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By: Yancey Strickler

304 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How the ideology of financial maximization warps business and society. 

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

Eschatological Implications

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

By: Boyd Varty

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse #6)

By: James S. A. Corey

544 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The war which follows after the events of Book 5.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

**Begin Mild Spoiler**

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

 

**End Mild Spoiler**

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


Peter the Great: His Life and World

By: Robert K. Massie

910 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The frankly incredible story of Peter the Great.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who loves a good history book.

General Thoughts

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

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

Exhalation: Stories

By: Ted Chiang

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of fantastic science fiction short stories.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


What’s Wrong With the World

By: G. K. Chesterton

201 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Chesterton diagnoses the ills of turn of the century England.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

This book also contains some of his best quotes:

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

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

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


Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future

By: Margaret Heffernan

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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


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

By: Fredrik deBoer

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

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

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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


III- Religious Reviews

Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical 

By: Brittney Hartley

290 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Connecting Mormon theology to classical philosophy.

Who should read this book?

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

General Thoughts

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Vanquished Vaccines and Vetocracies

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I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Aside

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

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

End Aside

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The 8 Books I Finished in February

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  1. The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by: Joseph Henrich
  2. Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition by: Stephen R. Bown
  3. The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by: Thomas Frank
  4. Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt by: Clay Moyle
  5. The Landmark Thucydides by: Thucydides Edited by Robert B. Strassler
  6. The Abolition of Man by: C. S. Lewis
  7. Orthodoxy by: G. K. Chesterton
  8. Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife by: Bart D. Ehrman

My wife was a big Star Trek: Voyager fan, so I ended up watching a fair bit of it myself back in the day. Out of all the episodes I saw, one in particular keeps coming back to me, probably because it seems to speak to the situation we’re in. And more specifically the situation I found myself in last month.

The episode was titled The Voyager Conspiracy and in it Seven of Nine “decides to increase the amount of information she receives from the ship’s database by directly assimilating as much of Voyager’s data as possible”. After doing so she starts to see conspiracies everywhere, eventually deciding that the whole “being lost in the Delta Quadrant” is an intricate plan to capture a borg drone, i.e. her. This causes her to flee the ship. Eventually they convince her that she’s sick and the episode resolves in the usual semi-artificial way. 

This is not a subtle way of saying that I’ve descended into conspiracy theories. What resonated with me is the danger of seeing connections where none exist. I feel like lately I’ve been making a lot more connections between disparate bodies of material and I’m ever so slightly worried that rather than elegantly integrating various strands of knowledge into a brilliant thesis, I’m in the situation of Seven of Nine. The doctor’s diagnosis of her could apply equally well to me:

Seven has downloaded more information than she can handle…

I guess we’ll have to see.

Of course, beyond my own situation, the parallels between that episode of Star Trek: Voyager and the current state of the country are probably too obvious to be worth belaboring. But comparing social media to an out of control Borg implant would not be far from the truth.

Oh, also I turned 50 in February… It’s been a little bit surreal.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The WEIRDest People In the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

by: Joseph Henrich

682 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democractic. Combine that with the subtitle and you actually have a pretty good summary, though it neglects to foreshadow the enormous amount of time Henrich spends talking about the importance of Western Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

I really enjoyed this book. It’s a powerful counter narrative for much of what people believe about the world. Though it’s written in such a way that I don’t think most people realize how radical of a book it is. As such I think just about everybody should read it. Certainly if you’ve ever considered reading a nearly 700 page non-fiction book by a Harvard professor, you should read this one.

General Thoughts

This is Henrich’s follow up to The Secret of Our Success, which I reviewed last month, so obviously, of the many connections I made this month, one was the connection between those two. Though it is certainly not necessary to have read that book in order to understand this one. In fact Henrich doesn’t pull in cultural evolution (the main subject in Secret) until the end of WEIRDest. Probably because in this book he’s going in a different direction. In Secret he was going from the general idea of the importance of cultural evolution, to the specific examples of it in action. While in WEIRDest he’s going from the specific, a detailed history of the development of Western/WEIRD culture, and then only later tying it in to the general subject of how cultures evolve. 

I mentioned in the last post how this ends up being very similar to what Charles Taylor did in A Secular Age, only Taylor approached it from an historical perspective, while Henrich was looking at it from more of a sociological perspective. The other book WEIRDest connected to for me was The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist which I did an extensive writeup of back in August

McGilchrist’s book is all about the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere and WEIRDest starts with a prelude titled,“Your Brain has Been Modified”. It then goes on to list seven changes to the brain which might have been pulled straight from McGilchrist. In particular #7 is almost precisely McGilchrist’s thesis:

Your default tendency toward holistic visual processing [has been reduced] in favor of more analytical processing. You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns. 

You could shorthand all of this to The West = WEIRD = Post-Christianity = Left hemisphere dominance, and there are other connections beyond that. In fact, WEIRDest could act as supporting documentation for the majority of the contentions I’ve made over the last five years. 

Henrich has his own list of contentions which understandably have a different focus from mine. Another way in which we’re different is that he mostly shys away from making strong connections between these contentions and the cultural debates which are currently raging. Which is to say, the books stop short of making any recommendations. I consider this a weakness of his books, though perhaps from Henrich’s perspective it’s a strength. Certainly it’s probably better for him if his books don’t get swallowed into the blood-soaked trenches of the culture war. As evidence of this, while there are connections he doesn’t make, if there are any particularly inflammatory connections which could be made, he does point those out, and makes sure to disavow them. 

So let’s look at the sort of recommendations one might infer from this book, the kind of things Henrich himself might suggest if he were as foolish as me. Though even I’m not foolish enough to cover everything one might infer from the book. In any case, let’s talk about the book’s…

Eschatological Implications

Even though Henrich points out the connection between WEIRDness and prosperity (it’s right there in the title) he doesn’t spend much time advocating for more WEIRDness. This is all part of the lack of recommendations I mentioned, and perhaps it’s just him exercising scientific distance. But not everyone reading this book will be a scientist. What are you supposed to do with this book if you’re a policy maker?

This is not a book for cultural relativists. The strong implication of both of Henrich’s books is that some cultures are better than others at doing certain things. This is the point where Henrich generally stops, but if you’re a policy maker and you want to encourage “certain things” then a logical path to get those things would be to evangelize the culture which is the best at those things. Perhaps this is difficult to determine so, as a policy maker, you have an excuse for not doing it. But then along comes Henrich who writes a 700 page book claiming that Western Culture equals prosperity. He even places a big emphasis on monogamy, and the critical role of religion. So what is one supposed to do with this information? I mean you’re not anti-prosperity are you? In fact if you’re a technocrat of the Steven Pinker school, prosperity is kind of your core metric. So what do you do?

There are lots of things you might do, but let’s start with one of the more obvious areas: immigration. Here you are taking people with very different cultures, cultures which, according to Henrich, are worse at doing all the things we associate with modernity. Do you make them conform to the WEIRD culture? Do you leave them alone? Do you celebrate their culture and disparage WEIRD culture? The answer to these questions are well beyond the scope of this review, but that last option, celebrating other cultures and disparaging the WEIRD culture as being the height of evil seems the very least likely to end up being the right one.  

And then there’s all the religious ideas which are out of fashion like monogamy and the associated sexual continence, to say nothing of religious prohibitions against things like same sex marriage. How important are these things? Can we continue without them? How important is the basis of Christianity to the modern world? Japan and Korea have imported the modern world without Christianity and both have ended up with legendarily low birth rates. Is this a coincidence? 

I’m aware of the criticism of taking the WEIRD/left-brained stuff too far. I wrote a whole post on it, but how do we determine what to keep and what to abandon? My sense is that we’ve largely abandoned the important things and kept the things that seemed nice in the short term. That we have essentially used the stability, progress and prosperity given us by the WEIRD package (i.e. Christianity) and used it as an excuse to do whatever we want.

That we got going so fast we didn’t realize we’d driven off the edge of a cliff, and for the moment the view is amazing, but the bottom is coming up fast.


II- Capsule Reviews

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition

by: Stephen R. Bown

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Two expeditions which were sent out by Russia to explore Siberia, and the northern Pacific. Both expeditions were initiated by Peter the Great and prominently featured Vitus Bering. 

Who should read this book?

If you enjoy other stories of exploration and survival, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s also very interesting as a history of Siberia, and the “discovery” of Alaska.

General Thoughts

As I already mentioned in my first post on technocracies, this book was very interesting as an example of the kind of top down governmental efforts popular during the Age of Enlightenment. And while it’s clearly an overgeneralization to claim that Europeans thought they could will into existence whatever they imagined, neither is such a generalization entirely inaccurate. This includes things like exploring the world, cataloging all the species of the Earth, as well as colonizing and civilizing “primitive” people. Of course, one of the ways they imagined this would happen was just by throwing sheer manpower at the problem. And while there are many differences between such efforts then, and such efforts now, it’s the scale of these efforts that keeps jumping out at me as I read about them.

To illustrate what I mean let’s bring in another, very similar book I read back in November, The Man Who Ate His Boots. In Boots it was the British trying to find the Northwest Passage, in Island of the Blue Foxes it was Russia trying to claim the North Pacific, explore Siberia and connect it’s far flung empire. In both cases it wasn’t small groups travelling light, but rather massive expeditions with huge resources, and an enormous number of people. In Bering’s case it ended up being three thousand people journeying across the length of Siberia, in what almost looked like an invasion, except (as I said when I brought it up before) it was an invasion of interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia.

I say it was an invasion, and in some senses it was, in other senses it would have been more effective had it been planned as invasion, since then they would have expected nothing from the people already in Siberia. By contrast the rulers in Moscow expected those people to do all manner of impossible things, like assemble vast quantities of food and construct housing for thousands of people, and they expected it to be done just because they had ordered it. 

In the case of Boots, it was only after decades of failed expeditions by ships with hundreds of people that the Europeans abandoned the idea of using the large ships to explore, and instead turned to using the ships as a base from which to send out small sled teams. And of course, this culminated in the most famous polar explorer of all, Roald Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole with a team of only five people. 

Of course Amundsen made his journey in 1911, while the massive expedition Bering was in charge of, stretched from 1733 to 1741. So even if it could be argued that people eventually learned it took an awfully long time. Beyond this the case could be made that they still hadn’t entirely learned, since Robert Falcon Scott attempted to reach the South Pole at the same time as Amundsen (only to have Amundsen beat him by 30 days) and ended up perishing. This was due both to bad luck and the fact that his plans were more complicated than Amundsen’s, and included not only more men, but motorized sleds, dogs and horses. As it turns out Bering also perished while returning from America.

I wonder if this is a lesson we’re still learning, not in the realm of exploration, but in the realm of getting things done in general. Even today we often end up throwing more men and resources at things, assuming that that’s what’s lacking. Or we imagine that just by declaring something to be the case that reality will conform to our wishes, similar to how the rulers in Moscow dealt with the inhabitants of Siberia. 


The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism 

by: Thomas Frank

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A defense of populism, mostly assembled by clarifying the origins of populism, and how it operated historically.

Who should read this book?

If you like the idea of populism, but don’t like Trump, this book is for you. Yes, you might in fact say that this is aimed at supporters of Bernie Sanders. 

General Thoughts

This book, as you might have guessed, has very interesting things to say on the subject of technocracies, and since they’ve dominated my thoughts as well over the last month it was good to get this perspective on things. 

Some of the things Frank says are exactly what you would expect. He’s not a fan of technocracies, particularly insofar as they are frameworks for the elites to keep the masses away from the levers of power. He further argues that one of the chief tools technocracy uses to accomplish this has been to turn the term “populist” into a pejorative and use it to reject everything non-elites do that elites don’t like. These are the bits that are unsurprising, the bit that is unexpected is that he argues populist movements throughout history beat the experts when it comes to policy details. That their recommendations are universally better than those made by the elites. What most people would also find surprising is he argues that populist movements were historically not xenophobic or racist. 

There’s a lot going on, and the whole book is delivered in a pretty student tone (I listened to the audiobook which was read by the author) but I’ll try and divide it up into three themes.

First, I would say that the bulk of this book is dedicated to trying to rehabilitate the word “populist” by showing how great historical populists were. How their positions were eventually proven to be correct (particularly with stuff like abandoning the gold standard and fiat currency). And how most of the things populists get accused of these days were not part of the historical platform of populism, and were in fact the opposite of what the populists stood for. As you can imagine he talks a lot about William Jennings Bryan but he also applies the populist label to FDR, mostly on the basis of how united the elites were in the opposition to him in 1936.

He also claims Martin Luther King, Jr under this banner. I’m sure there’s lots of evidence for this, but what stuck in my memory is a speech where MLK argues that populists were trying to unite the southern whites and blacks, but that in an effort to stop populism, the Democrats implemented Jim Crow laws which created special privileges for the poor whites, so while they were still poor at least they could take comfort in the fact they weren’t black.

The second part of the book is showing where things changed. Frank argues that the left’s rejection of populism started as a reaction to Mccarthyism (the book is almost entirely directed at the left, the right is presumably beyond hope). This percolated into academia where it became the perceived wisdom that populism was the problem. The 60s might have been able to reverse that, but most of the campus activists abandoned the American working class in favor of a global proletariat, which was easy to do while the Vietnam war raged. Accordingly by the time the Clintons, and even Obama came along this attitude had hardened to the point we find it today, where Trump could come along and steal white working class voters and win elections because the left had a built in negative opinion of them as irrational xenophobes. (See Obama’s “cling to their guns” remark and Hillary using the phrase “basket of deplorables”. Both examples Frank brings up.) They had in effect abandoned them, a statement which could serve as the book’s thesis.

All of this takes us to the third part. Which was noticeable more by its lack. Certainly you could make an argument that maximum democracy yields the best outcomes if the elites are just smart enough to get out of it’s way. And that, to the extent you think Trump was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake which originated from voters, but one which originated from the elites. But most people would expect that the person making this argument would have the burden of proof. They would expect you to provide lots of evidence. This book is not completely devoid of such evidence, but the impression I got was less of a carefully reasoned argument and more a variant of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. That every time the vast masses of people go awry (Trump, French Revolution, Fascism) it’s not really populism but everytime the masses are correct it is.

In short I really expected a lot more effort to identify what separates mass movements with bad outcomes from mass movements with good outcomes.


Billy Miske: The St. Paul Thunderbolt

by: Clay Moyle

206 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Billy Miske, a boxer from the early 1900s whose promising career was cut short by Bright’s disease

Who should read this book?

There is a fantastic story in this book, the kind of story that should be made into a movie, but I’m going to tell it to you in this review. If after hearing it you want more details you should read this book. You should also read this book if you’re into early 19th century boxing, but I imagine the overlap between that fanbase and mine is pretty small.

General Thoughts

Billy Miske was a fantastic boxer and an all-around great guy. He was considered one of the toughest boxers of the era, though he never held the heavyweight championship. He was, however, a contender, he just happened to not be able to get past Jack Dempsey, who was the dominant boxer of the day. In Billy’s defense it seems pretty clear (though not certain) that he was not at full strength at the time of his fight because of the Bright’s disease. 

As an aside you’ve probably heard the name Jack Dempsey, even if you couldn’t have said where you’d heard it. As long as we’re on the subject of Dempsey. I will mention, despite him being from my hometown, he doesn’t come across as a particularly admirable guy. It’s not horrible, but his tactic of standing over opponents who were trying to get up and immediately hitting them again before they were even back on their feet (which was legal, but frowned on at the time) left a bad taste in my mouth.

So in any case the story. Billy’s illness had progressed to the point where he had stopped fighting, and it was clear that the end was near, but because of some bad business decisions he was, in his own words, “flat broke”. It was coming up on Christmas and he really wanted the last one his family would ever have with him to be a special one. So he told his manager to set up a fight for him. His manager refused, saying another fight would kill him. Billy persisted. The manager offered to get him a fight if he could get back into shape. Billy said that was impossible, but he was going to fight anyway, and he needed the manager’s help. Finally his manager gave in.

A newspaper reporter found out and was going to expose the manager as a despicable lowlife who was only interested in money. So the manager and Billy visited the reporter, the reporter also strenuously objected, but eventually he acquiesced to the plan saying, “I’ll keep your secret. For one fight. And God help us all.”

The fight was on November 7, 1923. And… Billy knocked out his opponent in the fourth round. He took the money, used it to give his family a fantastic Christmas, including buying a baby grand piano for his wife which she had for the rest of her life. 

The day after Christmas Billy woke up in excruciating pain, and after it became clear it wasn’t going away he was taken to the hospital. His health continued to decline swiftly and he died on New Year’s Day. I think it’s fair to say that he was hanging on for that last Christmas, and when it was over, he couldn’t hold on any longer.


The Landmark Thucydides

By: Thucydides

Edited by: Robert B. Strassler

714 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which was waged between Sparta and Athens between 431 and 404 BC. A history written by someone who was there. You may have heard of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition which is the most notable event in the book. 

Who should read this book?

This book is part of my project to read the foundational books of Western culture. If you have a similar project, this book should definitely be on the list. I would highly recommend this edition of the book as well. In between the appendices, the numerous footnotes, and the ubiquitous maps (probably 1 every half dozen pages) it has all the supplementary material you need to jump right in.

General Thoughts

I just spent a couple of posts talking about religion in general and civic religion in particular. And of course this book has a lot of interesting things to say about both of those things, given that Sparta and Athens had the same religion, but different forms of government. Athens was of course a democracy and Sparta was an oligarchy. What I didn’t realize is that Athens abandoned democracy near the end of the war in an effort to curry favor with the Persian Empire. This was after the Sicilian Expedition and the Athenians needed all the help they could get. What was even more interesting is that most of Sparta’s victories came by fomenting revolution among cities dominated by the Athenian Empire with a promise of “Freedom!” Not the playbook you would normally expect out of an oligarchy.

These two forms of government largely resulted in very different civic religions, but these civic religions were not what the war was about. Athens wasn’t trying to make the world safe for democracy and Sparta wasn’t defending slavery (which was extensive in Sparta). And in fact the discussions and disagreements about the different governments seemed to be remarkably civil. Today we can’t even maintain civility when discussing the difference between mail-in and in person voting. I’m not sure if this counts as progress or not. I’m mostly just pointing it out.

As far as the actual religion. You get the feeling it might have contributed to this civility. To offer a couple of examples: After every battle it was just given that you would grant a truce to the other side so they could come retrieve the bodies of the fallen. And then when (*spoiler alert*) the Spartans finally won the war, there was a call by the allies of Sparta to destroy Athens (think of what a loss that would have been) and to enslave all of the citizens. “However, the Spartans announced their refusal to destroy a city that had done a good service at a time of greatest danger to Greece.”

After a very acrimonious 27 year war, Sparta still recognized that they were both still Greek. That’s pretty impressive. I would hope we might make a similar realization should this situation come for us. I fear that it already has and we didn’t.


III- Religious Reviews

The Abolition of Man 

by: C. S. Lewis

116 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The book is a defense of objective value.

Who should read this book?

If you like Lewis at all this is as good as anything he’s written, and short to boot. Why wouldn’t you read it?

General Thoughts

I’ve already told you it’s a book about objective value by C. S. Lewis. I think you have a pretty good idea of what Lewis is going to say and what I’m going to say, but the way Lewis says it, is as always, magnificent. With that in mind I’ll content myself with giving you one quote from the book as representative of my own thoughts as well:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.


Orthodoxy 

by: G. K. Chesterton

168 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is Chesterton’s defense of how he came to believe in Christian Orthodoxy, it is more “measured argument” than Road to Damascus

Who should read this book?

I am not a Chesterton expert, but this is a companion to his book Heretics, and having read both they seem like an excellent place to start with Chesterton. And really everyone should have read some Chesterton! 

General Thoughts

First, as a logistical matter, I would recommend that you not read Lewis and Chesterton at the same time. Their styles and subject matter are very similar, and while, as I’ve been pointing out, connections are good, the connections here were too close, to the point of temporarily confusing me everytime I started reading one or the other.

Second as long as we’re on the subject of objective values it’s interesting to tie things back to The WEIRDest People In the World. Because in a sense Henrich is arguing both sides of this. First he’s arguing that what we used to think were objective values are really just Western values, but on the other hand he’s arguing that these values are objectively better at accomplishing certain things, that together the values form a cultural package which has led to nearly everything we associate with modernity. In a sense Lewis and Chesterton are arguing the same thing, the three are even united in recognizing the importance of Christianity. 

But having spent a lot of time on the values part I’d like to turn to look at the package part of things, because Chesterton has something very interesting to say about that. Most Christian writers express their dismay at the vices which have been let loose, but Chesterton points out:

[T]he virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. 

One of the things I keep coming back to in this space, is that many people will acknowledge that there is some good in religion, but then go on to think they can easily identify which parts are good and which parts are bad, and thereby excise the latter, and keep the former. But it’s really the whole package that got us to where we are. 


Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife 

by: Bart D. Ehrman

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The historical evolution of our concept of the afterlife. That initially there was no afterlife, no heaven, and no hell in Judaism or Christianity. 

Who should read this book?

This book tries to do two things. First, it’s a historical overview of the evolution of concepts like resurrection, heaven and hell. Second, it’s sort of an anti-apologetic book, attempting to show that modern Christians don’t know what they’re talking about. If you’re interested in the former it’s fascinating. If you’re interested in the latter I would skip it.

General Thoughts

As is so often the case this review post is pretty long, so I’ll just end with two final connections:

Ehrman, like so many working in the anti-apologetic space (I just made up the word “anti-apologetic”, there’s probably a better one) seems to feel that uncovering the evolution of religious doctrine acts as something of a slam dunk for refuting that religion. But here’s Chesterton writing on exactly that subject from Orthodoxy:

It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods. We must have a long historical experience in supernatural phenomena—in order to discover which are really natural. In this light I find the history of Christianity, and even of its Hebrew origins, quite practical and clear. It does not trouble me to be told that the Hebrew god was one among many. I know he was, without any research to tell me so. Jehovah and Baal looked equally important, just as the sun and the moon looked the same size. It is only slowly that we learn that the sun is immeasurably our master, and the small moon only our satellite.  

One of Ehrman’s claims is that hell is something evil men made up as a form of religious abuse, but then we read in The WEIRDest People In the World:

Based on global data from 1965 to 1995, statistical analyses indicate that the higher the percentage of people in a country who believe in hell and heaven (not just heaven), the faster the rate of economic growth in the subsequent decade. The effect is big: if the percentage of people who believe in hell (and heaven) increases by roughly 20 percentile points, going from, say, 40 percent to 60 percent, a country’s economy will grow by an extra 10 percent over the next decade… believing in just heaven (but not hell) doesn’t increase growth… Since many people seem keen to believe in heaven, it’s really adding hell that does the economic work…

As I keep saying it’s all part of the package…

The theme of this post was tenuous connections. But that’s always the theme of this bit at the end, the tenuous connection between writing and asking for money.  So now I’m making a tenuous connection between tenuous connections. If making ever slighter connections appeals to you, consider donating


The 7 Books I Finished in January

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

Or download the MP3


  1. Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts by: Ilya Shapiro
  2. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by: Joseph Henrich
  3. Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) by: Brandon Sanderson
  4. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by: Margaret MacMillan
  5. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by: Steven Pressfield
  6. The Minuteman by: Greg Donahue
  7. There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days by: Hyrum Lewis

January started off with a bang, and I was worried that there would be more bangs in between the 6th and the 20th, but fortunately things were pretty quiet. Also, as far as that subject goes I think I’ve already said quite a bit, and other people have said quite a bit more than that, so I thought I’d talk about something lighter. Since this is my book review post it always feels appropriate to talk about books and reading, so let’s do that.

January is a weird month for me when it comes to reading. Every year I have a big annual goal, plus I’m motivated to beat the previous year’s page count (last year it was 37,215, a new record). What this means is that I generally push to finish any book I’m in the middle of by December 31st, so when January dawns I’m not in the middle of any books I’m starting fresh with everything. Since some books may take me several months to finish, I end up doing a significant amount of reading in January I don’t get credit for, i.e. it’s not reflected in the books that show up as being finished that month, it shows up in subsequent months.

At this point you’re all thinking that this is exceptionally boring, and more than you wanted to know, but I do have a point, and as is so often the case that point is that I screwed up. Knowing that this is how January always goes, instead of focusing on some shorter books, I decided to read the latest 1200 page monstrosity from Brandon Sanderson. Which was so huge and started off so slowly, that there was a small chance that when it came time to do this, that would be the only book I would be reviewing. Fortunately, I was incredibly disciplined in January, and I managed to finish just slightly less than my average number of books. Though I will say that as of the 28th of last month, I had only finished three of them, the other four books were all finished during the last three days of the month…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts 

by: Ilya Shapiro

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Supreme Court confirmation battles throughout history, with some additional emphasis on the more recent battles (This was written after Kavanaugh but before Barrett.)

Who should read this book?

People who want historical context for the current battles over nominations. Or people who want a deeper dive on what happened during those battles, along with opinion on the same from a moderate libertarian perspective.

General Thoughts

The look back through history was very interesting, and I recommend the book just for that part. Obviously contentious politics was not invented in 2016, or in 1987. It’s been around for a lot longer than that, and that goes just as much for the Supreme Court as for anything else. But it is clear that the post war years were unusually calm, and when we compare something happening today to how it’s “always been done” we’re comparing today to that post war period, if you go farther back most of the things that are happening now happened at some point historically. That said, though the fights look similar, Shapiro argues, and I agree, that the stakes are different, but before we get to that some random notes I made while reading the book:

  • Early on in the country’s history they were less concerned with the ideological balance of the court and more concerned with regional balance. It was felt that one member needed to be from Virginia, and one member had to be from New England, etc. So that regional concerns were properly protected. Interesting to think about this in the context of how balanced the current Supreme Court is on specific dimensions, for example: Ivy League vs. Non-Ivy League. (Spoiler: It’s currently 9-0. And arguably worse than that, all current justices went to law school at either Harvard or Yale.)
  • Shapiro puts forth the theory that if Reagan had nominated Bork first, and then Scalia, rather than the other way around, that he probably would have gotten both nominations through. Scalia was charming and would have gotten through regardless, and Bork, who was frank to the point of being combative, would have had an easier time if he hadn’t been the second conservative nominee.
  • Shapiro spent a lot of time praising Clarence Thomas, particularly his work ethic. (I myself have often thought that Thomas is unfairly maligned.)
  • With that partiality in mind, his take on Anita Hill and the nomination of Thomas to the bench was interesting. I had always had the impression that it came down to his word against hers, and they went with him. But Shapiro seems to indicate that there was almost no evidence to support Hill’s accusations and significant evidence contradicting it. That at best she was exaggerating incidents, and at worst she was outright lying.
  • As you might imagine, after the controversy over Merrick Garland not receiving a hearing, Shapiro spends quite a bit of time talking about nominations near the end of a President’s term. He calls it the Thurmond Rule, after it’s first invocation in 1968. And it turns out that not a lot of justices have been nominated and confirmed near the end of a President’s term. Of course having been written between Garland and Barrett he doesn’t cover the full impact of its presence in modern times. But overall the book gives an interesting history of the idea without either dismissing it or advocating for it.

Eschatological Implications

I have often talked in this space about the way in which the Supreme Court has increasingly become the de facto rulers in America, and even the way that this transition somewhat mirrors the end of the Roman Republic. This is increasingly why presidential elections are often decided by what sort of justices the president will nominate. (Would Trump have won in 2016 without this consideration?) A President’s later success is judged by what justices they did nominate. And the nomination of those justices have become far more contentious than any potential legislation because the Supreme Court will be the ones who ultimately decide whether that legislation will take effect. 

Various ideas have been offered for how to reverse this trend including getting rid of lifetime tenure, giving each president a set number of nominations, expanding the number of seats, etc. Shapiro reviews several such proposals in the book, but in the end he contends that none of the proposals is going to work as long as the Supreme Court continues to wield such enormous power. That there is no way for the nominations to become less contentious if you’re fighting over the ultimate power to decide the course of the country. Now obviously, as a well known libertarian, Shapiro is going to make this argument, but at the same time it seems self-evident to the point of being tautological. People are going to fight for power, and if ultimate power is vested with the Supreme Court, that’s what they’re going to fight over. 

The historical stuff in the book is all important because it illustrates that the Supreme Court didn’t always wield such power, and so perhaps they can return to that state. In this endeavor Shapiro praises the idea of textualism, and in particular Scalia’s championing of it. And he is very critical of Roe v. Wade, pointing to it as the point when things went off the rails. Now it is not my intent to relitigate Roe v. Wade, I have said that I don’t think it will be entirely reversed, even after Barrett’s nomination. (Though certainly if it were ever going to happen this would be the time.) Also it’s worth pointing out that even the Ginsburg thought it was a bad ruling from a legal standpoint.  All that aside, I think there’s a credible argument to be made (which is what Shapiro does) that this is when the court took a decisive turn in the direction of absolute power.

I see some similarities here to how the Gracchi brothers used their near absolute power as Tribune of the Plebs to implement their reforms. Reforms which were sorely needed. (This is what the pro choice crowd also argues.) However in the end the only response to such absolute power was for one of the brothers to be clubbed to death (the first such political violence in 400 years) and the other to commit suicide before he could be clubbed to death.

I keep bringing Rome into things because I feel like there’s this similar process happening where loopholes and legalistic interpretations are being invoked more and more rather than relying on the initial understanding of how things are expected to work. The Tribune of the Plebs was not supposed to threaten to veto everything. The Supreme Court was not supposed to invent rights from “penumbras and emanations”, the minority party in the Senate was not supposed to filibuster everything, and the Vice President is not supposed to have the power to change the counting of the Electoral Votes in such a way that it reverses the election. And yet all these things have been attempted. It’s interesting that only the last one failed.


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

by: Joseph Henrich

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another answer to the age old question of what separates humans from animals. Our contender this time is the human ability to transmit knowledge in the form of culture. That we don’t just adapt to our environments through genetic mutations but through cultural mutations as well.

Who should read this book?

Similar to Seeing Like a State, a book I reviewed last month, this book was also the subject of a Slate Star Codex review. Both reviews were so good they just about obviate the need to read the actual books. The one for Secret was thorough enough that I used it as the basis for a podcast episode of my own which, even after having read the book, I still stand by. That comparison aside if you felt the need to read one of the two books I would recommend this one over Seeing Like a State.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I already wrote a blog post about this book. In preparation for this review I re-read that post and I think it still mostly covers my thoughts on the subject of cultural evolution. But, as not all of you will read it, and as it is pretty long. I’ll summarize my previous point.

Cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution in that it can lead to things which take up a lot of resources, but which don’t actually provide a survival advantage. The classic example from biological evolution is peacock feathers. They may be useful for convincing peahens to mate with you, but they don’t do much to help you get away from predators, i.e. it’s an adaptation which is good for the genes but bad for the individual carrying those genes. From the standpoint of cultural evolution you can imagine funny memes occupying a similar position. Being funny helps the meme to propagate, but spending all of your time on reddit consuming memes may have a negative impact on the survival of the person engaged in the behavior. As memes, and culture more broadly, can be created with less time and effort then developing six foot long feathers, one expects that maladaptive examples of the former should be more common. Accordingly, anytime we examine things that have evolved culturally whether they be traditions, taboos, flourishes, art or what have you, we are faced with two questions. Was this bit of culture useful? That is, did it help people with that cultural package survive? And is it still useful? That is, could it help us survive?

At one point the knowledge of how to make stone weapons was fantastically useful, but these days even if you could somehow acquire it, it would have no value other than as an object of curiosity. To see how we might apply it to the debates of our own day: historically there has been a strong tradition of monogamous heterosexual marriage (MHM) among nearly all cultures, especially larger ones. When we ask our two questions about stone tools the answers are obvious, “yes, it was useful” and “no, it’s not still useful” respectively. When we ask our two questions about MHM, the answers are not nearly so clear. In my previous post I gave some standards for how to answer the first question, and concluded that MHM probably had been useful, but it’s possible that it’s not still useful.

Eschatological Implications

While there is and will continue to be lots of debate over whether a particular bit of culture was useful in the past, there are vast implications for the future of any culture in figuring out what traditions and practices are still useful. I think people want to imagine that the forward march of technology has changed everything, but I strongly suspect it has changed far less than people think. While Henrich doesn’t directly address MHM, or, probably wisely for him and his career, really any of the hot button cultural issues of the day, he does address, and at significant length, how difficult it can be to determine what utility a particular cultural practice has. Things that seem clearly to be nothing more than primitive superstitions like reading animal remains to determine where to hunt, turn out to play a critical role. And as both this book and Seeing Like a State point out the negative effects of abandoning a particular tradition or practice can take decades or even centuries to manifest. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) 

by: Brandon Sanderson

1232 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The fourth book of a planned 10 (supposedly two five book series) in Sanderson’s epic saga of the world of Roshar, and the return of the Knights Radiant. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first three and enjoyed them you’ll probably enjoy this one, though it was my least favorite of the four.

General Thoughts

Sanderson has the life I dreamed of when I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’m bitter about that, but I might be, so you should take that into account with this review. With that potential bitterness in mind let’s start with the bad stuff:

  • As already mentioned this was my least favorite of the four books.
  • Sanderson is great at writing action and there just wasn’t very much of it in this book.
  • I’ve had the impression since book two, but particularly after book three, that whatever character progress was made in the last book gets undone at the beginning of the next book. This is particularly true with Kaladin and Shallan.
  • I don’t have any problems with characters dying, but in high fantasy you expect characters to die in a noble fashion. Sanderson seems to do the opposite of that. (I’m thinking in particular of a specific death at the end of the previous book, but a similar thing happens in this book.)
  • There’s some big developments right at the end that feel like they came out of left fied.
  • There had to be some way to make this book shorter.

And now for the good:

  • While I can’t stand Moash and cringe every time he shows up, some of the other bad guys were really good in this one.
  • Adolin continues to be one of my favorite characters and I really liked his arc in this one.
  • Despite what I said above, this book’s resolution of Shallan and Kaladin’s arc was more satisfying than I expected. Though I fear in book five we’ll be back to square one or at least several squares behind where we ended in this book.
  • As usual Sanderson’s world-building is top notch and the way in which he expanded on the “physics” of the world in this book was both cool and interesting.

If you’re interested in having a spoiler filled discussion feel free to email me. In particular if you’ve also finished the book. I’m curious what other people think.


The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 

by: Margaret MacMillan

744 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Events in Europe leading up to the start of World War I

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned I have read a lot of books about World War I recently. I think I would put this at the bottom of the list. Even if your interest was specifically the pre-war years I would read Dreadnought by Robert Massie before this one, despite Massie’s narrower focus. 

General Thoughts

This was the final book of my year long dive into World War I. From the previous section you may come away with the impression that I thought that it was bad. This is untrue. It’s more that the other books were all so good. This book did have lots of details about the various crises leading up to the war, particularly those centered in Austria-Hungary’s relationship to the Balkans. This included the Bosnian Crisis and the Balkan Wars.

I’m sure these events were mentioned in the other books I read, but it wasn’t until this book that I quite realized how close in time they were to the actual war. The Bosnian Crisis was 1908-1909 and the Balken Wars happened from 1912-1913. Despite this 1914 started relatively peacefully.

From this sequence I think we can draw three potential lessons:

First, each crisis depleted the “crisis handling reserves” each nation possessed. Everytime they backed down they looked weak. Everytime they peacefully resolved a crisis only to have a new one erupt a couple of years later, the tactic of peaceful resolution suffered. And after each crisis their views inevitably shifted from, “we avoided war” to, “we should have ended up in a better position or gotten more concessions”. Essentially the whole idea that peace was better gradually eroded, and it had been so long since the last war that the idea was never that strong to begin with.

Second and somehow working in the opposite direction, with each crisis that didn’t end in war, it seemed more obvious that such crises would always be peacefully resolved. And therefore (following the above) we can demand more and be more intransigent. (See the demands Austria-Hungary made of Serbia right before the war started.)  

Finally, and perhaps most troubling. In the end it would have been better for Germany to have started the war sooner. Had they begun things in 1908 Russia’s position would have been much worse, and even France would have not been quite as prepared as they were in 1914.

And of course there’s the lesson one takes away from all books on World War I. The Kaiser really made things much worse. 

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to draw parallels between all of the above and our own time, but there are a lot of them.


Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t 

by: Steven Pressfield

210 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How to write well, with a particular look at the various genres of writing (Advertising, screenplays, novels, etc.)

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who wants to be a better writer could benefit from this book. It’s short, dense with information, and entertaining to boot. 

General Thoughts

There are many self-help books out there, though sometimes they’re disguised as autobiographies. And there are many examples, particularly in that latter category of people who claim to give you the secret to success, but what their story really boils down to is, don’t be lazy and get lucky. “I worked really hard while I was at Harvard and had the good fortune to meet <Fill in name of famous person>.” The idea being that the numerous things which had to happen in order to get admitted to Harvard were not the lucky bits, it was developing a relationship with the professor while you were there.

On the other hand, occasionally you come across a book by someone who really struggled, who spent decades failing before they finally started to get a little bit of success. Who really did have to figure out how to do something, they weren’t just handed it. Steven Pressfield is in this latter category. And I find books written by such people to be both far more enjoyable, and far more useful. 

If you have any interest at all in writing I would recommend this book.


The Minuteman

by: Greg Donahue 

Only available on Audible 1 hr 54 minutes

Briefly, what is this book about?

Domestic Nazis and the Jewish gangsters who beat the crap out of them in the years before World War II.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a domestic predecessor for Antifa, or you really like stories of Nazis getting punched. This is your book.

General Thoughts

During prohibition Sidney Abramowitz, aka Nat Arno was an enforcer for the Jewish mob. When prohibition ended that job largely ended as well. Fortunately for Arno shortly thereafter Hitler came to power and with that came the rise of Nazism in America. This book is the gleeful recounting of how Arno organized former enforcers like himself and other New Jersey Jews into a band of vigilantes dedicated to disrupting American Nazi rallies by throwing in stink bombs and then ambushing the attendees as they ran away—beating them with baseball bats and brass knuckles.

At least it came across as gleeful, also vigilante is my term. I don’t recall it ever being used in the book.

Everyone who reads this book understands how bad Nazis are. And I admit there is a certain pleasure at hearing how Jews “fought back” in America. But before lionizing Arno it’s important to remember that this is pre World War II. Most of the evidence we draw on for how horrible Nazis are is based on what happened during World War II, so the people beating the crap out of German Americans couldn’t use that as justification. Also Arno did it in opposition to the police, and to many leaders of the Jewish community, who thought he was making things worse. Also it’s not clear how much of this was actually fighting back. The stories of the Nazis beating up Jews are relatively sparse, but this book has lots of stories of the reverse.

All of which is to say that I think, particularly based on what was known at the time, that Arno was the bad guy. And I’m not even sure his actions are defensible even in retrospect. Certainly I don’t think Arno should be used as a role model for anyone operating today. And this book rather than dealing with any of these issues, mostly came across as a celebration of vigilantism.


III- Religious Reviews

There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days 

by: Hyrum Lewis

162 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re expecting to have a debate soon with a New Atheist this is a great book to help you prepare for that debate. Similarly if you’re wondering what sort of arguments you might make against a New Atheist even if you never plans to ever use them, you might also want to read this book.

General Thoughts

This book is a pretty good collection of arguments against New Atheism. I keep qualifying that we’re talking about New Atheism and not atheism in general, because as we saw in the book The Seven Types of Atheism, which I reviewed back in October, New Atheism is only one of several types of atheism. And even John Grey who felt compelled to write a whole book on the many different types of atheism doesn’t think much of it. Which is to say the book is focused on only a narrow slice of atheism, and not a well regarded one at that. The book’s utility grows more narrow still when you consider that there is much more to winning an argument than logic and reason. It’s entirely possible that Lewis’ arguments are all but ironclad. (And indeed, particularly when paired with Grey’s, they do seem pretty solid.) Despite this I still very much doubt that if I gave this book to someone who was deeply atheist that reading it would turn him into a Christian. 

This outcome is what we would expect no matter how carefully crafted the book, but I still think that Lewis could have done better. His tone is pretty combative. A weakness he admits to in the introduction. Beyond that the book is long on argument and short on persuasive rhetoric. My own son considers himself to be an atheist, and while there were moments when I thought about trying to get him to read this book, by the end I felt that the experience would be counterproductive. 

None of this is to claim that writing such a book would be easy, merely that knowing he was being too combative it should have been possible for Lewis to tone it down more than he did.


A better writer would have taken Pressfield’s book, used the tactics therein to combine the themes of combativeness, preemptive action and Germans into some wisdom for the ages. Unfortunately I am not such a writer, if you want to help me become such a writer, consider donating.


The 10 Books I Finished in December (Along With One I Didn’t)

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

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  1. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by: James C. Scott
  2. Status Anxiety by: Alain de Botton
  3. Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World by: Chris Wallace
  4. Enemy At the Gates by: William Craig
  5. Necroscope by: Brian Lumley
  6. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by: John McPhee
  7. Bang For Your Buck by: Stefan Gasic
  8. The Darkest Winter by: Nick Johns
  9. C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Book of Mormon Made Harder by: James E. Faulconer
  11. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion by: Sterling M. McMurrin

Thanks to all the people who reached out and offered their well wishes about my mother. That was exceptionally kind. She’s doing much better, and has been home for awhile, though she’s still on a feeding tube because the doctors aren’t convinced that her pancreas has completely calmed down yet. But everything still seems headed in the right direction, so that’s good. And thus far she’s been able to avoid getting COVID which may be the most important thing of all. 

It’s the New Year, which is the generally accepted time for making resolutions. If you caught my last post you saw that I’m making some changes to the blog in general, but this seems the space to talk about changes I’m making to my reading ambitions. My first goal is to not start any new series until I’ve finished some of the one’s I’ve already started. Second, I’ve realized that, when studying history, it’s useful to really immerse yourself in a particular time in history or a particular historical thread. That it’s by really diving deep that you finally see patterns and people. And so while this resolution won’t preclude reading other history, I thought it might be nice to choose a historical focus for each year, something to really sink my teeth into. Last year basically ended up being World War I. This year I was thinking about doing the Romanovs. In particular, Robert K. Massie, has a four volume series running from Peter the Great up through the revolution that looks quite fantastic. I really enjoyed his books Dreadnought and Castles of Steel about the British and German naval rivalry up to and through World War I, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this other series as well. (And yes I’m aware that this is a new series which contradicts my first resolution, but this is one of those cases where the specific overrides the general.)


I- Eschatological Reviews

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

by: James C. Scott

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book about “high modernity”, the idea that through the powers of pure reason we can figure out the best way to do things like: build a city, grow food, or manage the citizenry. In particular how these ideas and tasks are implemented via state power.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dry book, and while the content is super important, I’m not convinced it’s necessary to read the whole thing in order to absorb that importance. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex did a fantastic review and I would recommend reading that, and hopefully my review, and only then if your curiosity and passion have not yet been quenched go on to read the entire book. 

General Thoughts

This book, with its descriptions of the various methods governments have applied to manage an essentially chaotic world, seems to follow naturally from the hypothesis that the modern world is suffering from an overactive left hemisphere, which appeared previously in this space, when I discussed another book, The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. That book and the associated hypothesis are not mentioned by Scott, though if you keep that hypothesis in mind when reading it, Seeing Like a State ends up looking very much like a catalog of symptoms to go along with McGilchrist’s underlying disease. An exhaustive description of the damage that has been wrought by an overactive left hemisphere in the form of social engineering. Such social engineering is generally implemented through the mechanism of the state, and can be broken out into four parts:

  • A desire for legibility: This desire mostly comes because the government needs to raise money, and that’s much easier to do if you know what money there is and who has it.
  • The faith that you can make things legible: This is the essence of High Modernism, which Scott defines as “a muscular confidence in science and technical progress”.
  • The ability to enforce legibility: The existence of a strong state is necessary to even start the process.
  • A society which is too weak to resist the foregoing: Which seems like a repeat of the last point, but these efforts still work best if you have a thoroughly exhausted or cowed population, say after a big war.

The problem with all of these efforts, beyond just the violations of liberty they entail, is that it drives people to focus on those areas which can easily be made legible, i.e. measured, while ignoring those things that can’t. At its most arrogant, this is because the architects of these solutions are convinced that no measurement is necessary because through the powers of pure reason all of the problems have been solved. Those who are more humble recognize the need for measurement, but still fail to recognize both the limitations of their measurements and the way in which those measurements distort the endeavor.

All of these factors are illustrated in the example Scott opens with: scientific forestry, as practiced by Prussia and Saxony in the late eighteenth-century. At the time timber was of surpassing importance, and used for all sorts of things from fuel to ship-building. Recognizing this importance the government felt that they could increase the supply of timber by making the forests more scientific, i.e. legible. To do this they reduced everything about the forest to a single goal: “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood”. (Emphasis original) This focus resulted in clearing the old forest and replacing it with neat and orderly rows of Norway spruces or Scotch pines—since those trees (naively) best met their metric. As you can imagine this system ignored all of the many other things the peasants used the forest for: grazing, food, raw materials (like thatch for roofs) and medicines. 

Eschatological Implications

But more importantly it ignored and disrupted the ecology of the forest. This disruption didn’t happen immediately. In fact, it took about 100 years for the full extent of the disruption to manifest. Initially, the whole thing appeared to be a resounding success. The first generation of these “scientifically” planted forests did amazingly well, as they benefited from all of the nutrition and none of the competition. But by the second and third generations, the lack of new nutrients, along with a host of other problems, ended up fatally undermining the forests, in some cases outright killing them (they had to coin a term for it, Waldsterben). In the end, “scientific” forestry proved to be a disastrous idea even when judged by the narrow standards they had set, to say nothing of all the broader effects. All of this didn’t surprise me and it probably didn’t surprise you, but there are a couple of points that deserve particular emphasis: first that it initially worked, and second that it took so long for the ultimate failure of the idea to become apparent.

Are we currently attempting any similar experiments in imposing rationality on some natural system? Almost certainly, though a lot of what we do is difficult to classify, particularly when you’re talking about changing human behavior. How much is natural and how much is learned? If we are engaged in any such efforts, it’s probably very important to keep in mind the two points I just mentioned: It might initially look like our efforts are a great success, and it might take a long time to find out that we’ve actually made the problem much, much worse.

It might help to have an example, so I’ll wrap things up with one that occurred to me. I am not saying this is what’s happening only that if it is what’s happening this might be how it played out:

We are engaged in an effort at managing the citizenry. In particular we want to reduce racism. Those people who aren’t racist represent the clean well planted lines of Norway spruces. While those people who are a little bit racist represent the old growth forest. Initially it’s easy to clear the forest, broad laws are enacted killing the biggest offenders: businesses and institutions, but getting all of the underbrush proves difficult. Initially, just accusing someone of being a racist generally works, but after a while it becomes apparent that certain species of planets have developed a tolerance to this “herbicide”, and more and more drastic measures need to be taken. Meanwhile with less competition from other plants, the nastiest plants start spreading, but also the spruces don’t seem to be doing so well either. Rather than being naturally healthy and productive it takes greater and greater effort to fertilize them and keep them healthy. And in the end, not only do you end up with two divergent monocultures, but both are at the extreme ends of things

This may not bear any resemblance to what’s happening, and to truly extend the analogy we’d have to add in elements like social media, and politics, but as analogies go, this one has a lot to recommend it.


Status Anxiety

by: Alain de Botton

306 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The pivotal importance of status in human society. How recent developments have upset the previous status equilibrium and how that equilibrium might be restored.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty short book on a pretty important topic. If the description of the content resonates with you at all I would recommend reading this book. 

General Thoughts

De Botton starts his argument by asserting that our perception of poverty, failure and inequality has changed. That the stories which formed the dominant narrative of status in the Christian West from the moment it became Christian, all the way up until the middle of the 20th century, have recently completely flipped, such that poverty, failure and inequality are viewed exactly the opposite of how they once were. And while it was only in the last century that these new narratives became ascendent, de Botton asserts that the change began in 1776. That’s the first time status went from being based on a fairly rigid class structure to something you could earn, largely through the possession of money but also merit. And it started us on a path of rejecting the old stories and substituting the new. Those old stories were:

  1. The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  2. Low status has no moral connotation
  3. The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor. (A view most prevalent between 1754 and 1989)

The three old stories were replaced by three new stories, where the exact opposite is claimed:

  1. The rich are the useful one’s not the poor (a position commonly associated with Adam Smith)
  2. Status does have moral connotations (i.e. the concept of a meritocracy)
  3. The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity (the idea of prosperity gospel, and, for a time, Social Darwinism)

Now I think reducing everything to these three new stories overlooks a host of complexities. Obviously some people still believe in the old stories, and even those people who are accused of believing the new stories will still put a farmer ahead of Jeff Bezos in their moral hierarchy. But as an explanation just of status, it explains a lot. Particularly how each of these new stories end up maximizing our anxiety around status.

To put it another way, status, self-esteem and identity, now rarely depend on the role you were born into and the community you grew up in. Instead all three depend on your “performance in a fast-moving and implacable economy.” And that dependence is multi-faceted. Your success requires a combination of:

  • Talent, which is fickle
  • Luck, which is random
  • Your employer’s whim’s
  • Your employer’s profitability
  • The global economy

As a way of quantifying these factors along with the influence of the modern “stories”, de Botton offers the following formula:

Self-esteem = Success/Pretension

Out of all this we can start drawing some conclusions. First, while I definitely think we still need a generous helping of the first set of stories, I’m not sure that the second set of stories were all bad. In fact it seems that if pretension stays relatively constant, and success is manageable, tying it to self-esteem may be a good thing. It may in fact be argued, as many people have, that the way capitalism harnesses our drive for status and self-esteem has led to enormous increases in the standard of living, and to significant progress in general. But as I said this is easier to pull off if pretension is kept constant and success is within reach. However, as is so often the case, social media has completely changed that equation. Our pretension is fueled not just by our local community, but by everyone social media allows us to interact with from the high school classmate that’s moderately more successful than we are, but who we wouldn’t be aware of in a previous age, to instagram influencers showing us the inner workings of lives we previously wouldn’t even have been able to imagine, but to which we now have ring side seats. 

On the other side of the equation, the level of success any given person feels has also decreased. The mechanisms are similar, though I think they somewhat predate the rise of social media. There was a time when you were considered a success if you had just graduated from college, but this turned into needing to go to a good college, and then one of the best colleges, and then getting a great job, etc. This is also a huge topic with lots of additional complexity that I’m just glossing over, but it seems clear that over the last few decades success in a relative sense has become far more difficult to achieve.

When we combine increased pretension with decreased success we end up with low self-esteem, which is essentially status anxiety.

Eschatological Implications

Nothing about current trends gives me much hope that this problem will get better in the future, which means the best course of action is to figure out how to mitigate this status anxiety. What tools are available to make us care less about success and be less pretentious. The book explores five possibilities:

  1. Philosophy
  2. Art
  3. Politics
  4. Religion
  5. Bohemia

Let’s quickly examine each of them:

Philosophy: As de Botton says, “Philosophy is what allows you to interpose reason in between other’s opinion of you and your self image.” And certainly I think status anxiety has been one of the things driving the renewed popularity of Stoicism. That said, I don’t think people cultivate a philosophy as such or really any philosophy at all.

Art: Here de Botton claims that, “Art is what reverses the new stories of failure back to the old stories of failure.” Once again this is useful, but I think for art to be an antidote to status anxiety it can’t be superficial, and I’m reasonably certain that at the moment superficial art is outcompeting the kind of art de Botton is recommending.

Politics: It seems clear that whatever power politics once possessed at reducing status anxiety, it has that power no longer. 

Religion: Religion seems to take all of the best aspects of the first three options and combines them into the perfect anti-status anxiety package. Religion is philosophy, but of a form that’s palatable to everyone. It’s art, but only of the profoundest sort. It’s politics, but with a focus on service rather than competition or power. None of which is to say that religion doesn’t have all manner of issues, but when compared with the other options it seems clearly superior. Nor should the supernatural elements of religion be overlooked. As de Botton says in the book:

But when belief in an afterlife is dismissed as a childish and scientifically impossible opiate, the pressure to succeed and find fulfillment will inevitably be intensified by the awareness that one has only a single and frighteningly fleeting opportunity to do so. In such a context, earthly achievements can no longer be seen as an overture to what one may realize in another world; rather, they are the sum total of all that one will ever amount to.

Bohemia: If religion is the best option, bohemianism seems to be the one that’s the most popular. But while it appears reasonably effective at rejecting pretension and conventional definitions of success, it doesn’t strike me as being very good at creating something to take their place. Meaning, as far as I can see, while there are a lot of casual bohemians, I think there are very few true bohemians. Certainly far less than the number of true believers. And my sense is to really reduce status anxiety being a casual bohemian doesn’t cut it. On the other hand religion would appear to have some utility at nearly every level of belief.


II- Capsule Reviews

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World 

By: Chris Wallace

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The final days of the Manhattan Project and Truman’s decision to use the bomb.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the story behind the dropping of atomic bombs at the end of World War II then this is a pretty good book for that, though if you were only going to read one book I would recommend The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes instead. The advantages of this book would be that it’s shorter and has more details on Truman and how he grappled with authorizing the use of the bomb.

General Thoughts

As you can see from the title this is a book about the 116 days immediately preceding the bombing of Hiroshima, and all the people whose efforts contributed to that event: the amazingly skilled pilots, the women working at the Oak Ridge plant refining uranium, the scientists who were worried about whether it would actually work, the little girl who was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and above it all, Truman. Who went in a very short time from not even knowing the bomb existed to having to decide whether to use it. While at the same time trying to fill all the other huge holes left by FDR’s death.

It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, and Wallace crafts it into a compelling narrative. Though the aspect that resonated with me the most was how much the Manhattan Project ends up being a microcosm of the entire American experience of World War II, and the wars since then. It is not my intention to argue that the US had it easy during the war. Obviously lots of people died and many sacrifices were made. But it was still a very different endeavor for the Americans than for any of the other belligerent nations, and the Manhattan Project is the prime example of that. In the course of the project whole towns were constructed, and then, in the case of Los Alamos, staffed by the most brilliant minds of that, or really any other era. Billions of dollars were spent, and tens of thousands of people were employed. As one example, to make sure everything went smoothly they took some of the very best pilots and put them into a special unit dedicated just to dropping the atomic bomb, and then gave them months of practice time to perfect that one mission. No other belligerent could have done any of these things, let alone all of them. 

I bring all this up because of another book I read this month, Enemy at the Gates, which is the story of the Battle of Stalingrad. The contrast between the two stories, though both took place during World War II, couldn’t be more stark, and it occurred to me that if the Manhattan Project is an analogy for the American experience of war, that Stalingrad is the analogy of the war for just about everyone else, certainly the Germans, Russians and Japanese, but even, though to a lesser extent, the British.

Countdown 1945 is in many ways a book about how lucky we’ve been, and how easy we’ve had it. The question is can our luck continue to hold? Either through the absence of war or being lucky with wars that are far away, and against opponents where our technology and industrial strength are overwhelmingly superior. I’ve always thought that the answer is probably no, our luck won’t continue forever. And at its core what Countdown 1945 is mostly about is a different era. One we won’t ever see again.


Enemy At the Gates 

by: William Craig

460 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Battle of Stalingrad. You might be familiar with the 2001 movie of the same name about a sniper duel during that battle, but if that’s what you were expecting, the story of the snipers is only a very small part of a horrifically bloody battle.

Who should read this book?

This is another great historical book about an amazing historical event. The kind of book that makes me wonder why I read anything but history. If you like history at all you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

The Battle of Stalingrad represents part of World War II and indeed part of war in general that the US has never really experienced. At least not since the Civil War, and probably not ever, particularly when you’re talking about the civilian experience of war as opposed to the military experience. From the book:

As for the civilian population of [Stalingrad], a prewar census listed more than 500,000 people prior to the outbreak of World War II. This number increased as a flood of refugees poured into the city from other areas of Russia that were in danger of being overrun by the Germans. A portion of Stalingrad’s citizens were evacuated prior to the first German attack but 40,000 civilians were known to have died in the first two days of bombing in the city. No one knows how many died on the barricades or in the antitank ditches or in the surrounding steppes. Official records show only one stark fact: after the battle ended, a census found only 1,515 people who had lived in Stalingrad in 1942.

Those are pretty staggering numbers particularly when viewed as a percentage. No matter how optimistic you are about the initial evacuation and other mitigating factors it seems hard to imagine that more than about 20% of the pre-war civilian population survived the battle, and it could easily be as low as 2%. As bad as Stalingrad was it was only a small part of the overall horror of the eastern front. Again just speaking of civilian fatalities it’s estimated that 13.6 million died on the Soviet side. Perhaps the actual number is lower, but no one thinks that it’s much lower. 

Now, compare all of this with US civilian fatalities during World War II, which amounted to 12,100 people. Which is less than the documented civilian deaths in the first day of Stalingrad. And of those 12,000, three-fourths were in the merchant marines, so not exactly the women and children people generally imagine when they think of civilian casualties. As traumatic as Pearl Harbor was for the nation, only 66 civilians died in that attack. 

From a military perspective the US was not quite so lucky, and some of the beach landings, particularly in the Pacific were especially horrific, but even here the disparity is stark. The US had 400,000 military deaths. Germany (a nation significantly smaller than the US) had 4.4 million and the Soviet Union had 8.8 million deaths. And the latter two numbers are on the low end of the estimates.

In addition to the two books I read last month which touched on this subject I also heard a talk in church which tied into things. It was an older gentleman and as part of the talk he told the story of his father’s experiences during World War II. As part of his story he read a letter from his father which had been written on Christmas 1943. His father, an anti-aircraft specialist in the Pacific Theatre, was bemoaning the fact that his Christmas gifts had not yet arrived. The gentleman said that as he considered this story about his father he was moved to ask, “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” 

That question is actually the same question I have as well, though on a much larger scale. How much suffering could we as a people endure? What would Americans do if we are ever confronted with war as terrible as that waged by the Germans and Russians in the streets of Stalingrad? Could we endure it? Would we rise to the occasion? Or would we collapse?

The year before this man’s father wrote that letter, Christmas of 1942, the Germans at Stalingrad had been encircled and their Italian, Romanian and Hungarian allies were already being carted off to brutal Siberian POW camps where cannibalism would become the norm. Long before Christmas of 1943 the Germans would have joined them, and they’d have a lot more to complain about than tardy gifts. Out of three million German POWs, 1 million would die, and 1 million would still be in these camps as of 1946. So the answer to the question “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” I don’t know, but for lots of other people in World War II the answer was a nearly unimaginable amount. 

I suspect that his father and the rest of the US military would have been able to endure that suffering. Fortunately the Manhattan Project meant that we never found out. That we don’t have stories of the horrible Battle of Tokyo to set alongside stories from the Battle of Stalingrad. The question is not whether 1940’s USA could have endured it, the question is whether 2020’s USA can. Let us hope we never have to find out.


Necroscope

By: Brian Lumley

400 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young man who can speak with the dead gets entangled in the cold war battle between British and Soviet paranormal espionage agencies.

Who should read this book?

I don’t know that I’m the best person to comment on this. Necrosope was first published in 1986, and is the first book in a series which ended up at 18 volumes. So I would not be offering advice merely on this book, but in a sense commenting on the whole series which I am ill-equipped to do. I will say that reading this book did not immediately fill me with the need to read the next book in the series.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t blow-away by it. There was too little urban fantasy and too much urban horror for my tastes. Also the best part of a book like this: one in which a young person discovers that they’re different, that they have powers that most people don’t, that they’re part of an ancient and secret world, etc. Is getting to be inside their head and experience their amazement as this world is revealed. Necroscope more or less entirely skips that part of the story, which ends up being my biggest criticism of the book. I guess the only additional thing I have to add is that the book is supposed to be vaguely Lovecraftian. I only came across this information after finishing the book. I think, had I gone into it with that knowledge, it would have improved the story.


Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 

by: John McPhee

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Draft No. 4 is a series of autobiographical essays about the process of writing. 

Who should read this book?

Not me, I didn’t finish it. I suppose if you’re a big fan of McPhee you’ll probably enjoy the various vignettes, but I found it to be heavy on the memoir and light on the practical advice.

General Thoughts

From time to time books get added to my list because I hope they’ll improve my writing. This was one of those books, and it’s possible that if I hadn’t expected it to fulfill such a specific role that I might have enjoyed it. But after getting pretty far into things and discovering very little practical writing advice, my initial expectation had already hardened too much to switch to considering it as a delightful collection of stories about writing. Consequently I ended up setting it aside.

Lest there be any mistake, he does talk at great length about how he writes. But he doesn’t put much effort into generalizing his writing methodology into usable advice. And in fact some of his writing methodology is so specific that it would be impossible to implement. For example he spends an entire chapter talking about KEdit. An ancient program that was heavily customized for him by a now deceased colleague, which apparently has a user base of McPhee and maybe five other people. I guess if you squint, this does translate to a general lesson of “customize your tools”, but following his advice any more closely is essentially impossible. Which is to say lots of people are looking for advice on writing tools McPhee’s is, “Well I recommend a piece of software you’ve never heard of, can’t get, and which is only really useful with a ton of customization I can’t even talk you through because someone else did it for me and they’re dead.” 

I’m sure all of this will come across as some talentless amateur being too stupid to recognize the genius of one of the greatest writers of our age, and perhaps it is. Mostly what I’m trying to get across is that should you decide to read it, it’s best to go in thinking it’s a charming collection of anecdotes on the subject of writing. Not a how-to book.


Bang For Your Buck 

by: Stefan Gasic

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a collection of comics about investing inspired by the attitudes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Who should read this book?

If you like Taleb’s stuff or if you just have a general disdain for conventional investing and economics you’ll probably enjoy these comics.

General Thoughts

Nothing in this collection was uproariously funny, but there were bits that were clever, and he does really accurately nail the idiocy of some of the usual suspects like naive economists and brain-dead investment bros. I would go on, but this post is already huge and I still have four books left.


The Darkest Winter

by: Nick Johns

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A massive foreign hacker attack takes down power to the eastern seaboard in such a way that it will be weeks if not months before it’s restored.

Who should read this book?

I like fiction about potential future catastrophes, and for a first time author (which is what Johns is) this is pretty good. (Make what you will of the fact that I finished this, but not the McPhee book.)

General Thoughts

As I said this was a decent book, but the fact that Johns is a first time author is pretty apparent. The book drifted a lot into cliche, both in plot and characterization. You had the computer nerd who doesn’t know how to survive without his tech, the battered but defiant female. Some prepper red neck types. On the plot side society decides into anarchy surprisingly quickly, and yet in the midst of this anarchy the protagonist is constantly worried that when the smoke clears CSI is going to come in solve all of the crimes he ends up committing and put him in jail. 

In short, it had some great scenes and some decent characters, but taken as a whole it was pretty uneven.


III- Religious Reviews

C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces

By: C. S. Lewis

894 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of short pieces by C. S. Lewis. Mostly with a religious angle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all a fan of Lewis this is a great collection. It’s pretty expensive in print, but it is available on Audible, and the narrator is fantastic.

General Thoughts

I listened to this once on Audible and was impressed enough that I wanted both to re-read it and have a physical copy. My wife shelled out the $100 to get it for me a couple of Christmases ago, and this last year I selected it as one of the books I would read a few pages of every day (see the quote collections from my last review post). 

On this read through I was impressed by how prescient he was. He foresaw the danger of ideological echo chambers, the debates over the utility of prisons, the tension between justice and mercy, and attacks against liberal education:

Democratic education, says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy. Until we have realised that the two things do not necessarily go together we cannot think clearly about education.

If you have ever read any of Lewis’ essays—or seen them, the CSLewisDoodle channel on YouTube is fantastic—then this is all of them wrapped into one glorious package.


Book of Mormon Made Harder 

by: James E. Faulconer

384 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is a collection of penetrating questions about the Book of Mormon designed to be used during a year-long course of study.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’ve studied the Book of Mormon many times over the years and you’re looking for a new way to approach it this is a pretty good way of getting that.

General Thoughts

This is the last of the four books I read over the course of the whole year, but out of all of them this is the only book specifically designed to be read that way. It has chapters corresponding to the old set of 48 weekly Book of Mormon lessons which was recently changed with the Come Follow Me curriculum. But as it turns out the divisions didn’t change that much, so on a week by week basis things still match up pretty well.

Faulconer doesn’t cover every chapter, and some he covers in far more depth than others, and, this is the big part, he doesn’t really give you much in the way of new information, nearly all of the content consists of questions for you to ponder as you read. Thus the title of the book. He’s not trying to smooth out the road and make things easier he’s trying to get you to work harder at really engaging with the text. I confess personally that I could have done better with that. Many days reading this book was just something to check off my to-do list, but on those times where I did really engage it was very rewarding.


The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

by: Sterling M. McMurrin

184 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book that goes through most if not all of the big questions in theology—original sin, salvation by grace, the problem of evil—and shows how Mormon theology provides particularly satisfying answers to all of them.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dense book, and to fully appreciate it you either need a decent background in Mormon Theology and philosophy or a really deep knowledge of general Christian theology. But if you have one of those, or the discipline to look up what you don’t understand (something I resorted to on occasion) then this is a very interesting and illuminating book.

General Thoughts

In the book’s introductory essay, by L. Jackson Newell, the story is related of McMurrin being asked whether he was an atheist. McMurrin responded by quoting Bertrand Russell, who when asked a similar question, responded that he leaned towards atheism. McMurrin then went on to say, “I’m on that knife edge with Russell, but I lean toward theism.” I bring this up to point out that McMurrin was not some hardcore Mormon apologist. I would characterize him more as a sober student of philosophy and religion who happened to have an intimate acquaintance with Mormon theology having grown up in the religion and nominally continuing to belong to the church, though definitely as more of a gadfly than a leader. He was also Commissioner for Education for a couple of years under Kennedy, so he possessed at least enough mainstream credibility to be selected for that post. Bottom line for those who may fall into the later category of potential readers, someone with a general background in theology, but no specific experience with Mormonism, who may be on the fence about picking up this book, I predict it will be more objective and more scholarly than you think.

Beyond that as I said it’s a very dense book, and I really need to wrap up this exceptionally long post, so I’ll end with just a couple of quotes that I thought were particularly good:

But it is the task of religion to achieve in men that nobility of character that enables them not only to live through their severest adversity but at times even to accomplish that divine alchemy whereby they transmute loss and sorrow and tragedy into some moral good for the universe. 

My thesis is a very simple one: That the philosopher’s God, who is the explanation of the world, need not be a person; and the sanction of moral virtue need not be a personal God; but that the God of religion is a person.


When I was younger I read a lot of Tom Clancy, and I noticed that everytime a new book came out it was longer than one before. At the time I assumed it was a problem of editing, that the more successful he became the harder he was to edit. But now I notice it happening to me, and I’ve never done any editing other than self editing (at least in this space). Perhaps the length corresponds to my increasingly infantile desperation to be noticed, that it’s a sort of “Look at me! Look at me!” at ever increasing volume. If you want to help me quiet those inner demons, consider donating


Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

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


Sometimes when I sit down to start a post I have something that’s dying to get out, something which I feel must be said, and as quickly as possible. In my assessment of social media I assume that many people feel this same mix of necessity and rapidity, and that it’s probably just as illusory for them as it is for me, but without such illusions no one would ever write anything. At other times I’m not sure what to write about. One might imagine that in these instances that I would decide to write nothing, but that never happens. Perhaps it should, but I tell myself that my writing is as much for my own education as it is for the education of others, and as such I should maintain the habit regardless of whether I feel particularly driven to write at any given moment.

All of this is a way of explaining that when I sat down to write this post I found myself in the latter category, wondering what to write about. Which is not to say there was no subject that seemed important enough to write about, but more that there were too many important subjects at that moment, and I’ve already talked about them, and worry I’m out of anything unique or noteworthy to add. As a further drag on my desire I worry that my own methodology for speaking about things might be getting overused, that is digging into the deeper implications of some book I’m reading, or alternatively exploring the ramifications of the political crisis de jour. But I’ve decided that rather than avoiding this tendency that, at least in this post, I’m going to double down on it, and combine a discussion of a book I’m reading with a discussion of the latest political crisis! I’m sure you’re all very excited.

The book is The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. In the past I have made light of the contention Fukuyama makes right in the book’s title. That we have reached the “end of history”, but my criticisms were probably misplaced and mostly due to me having an overly simplified view of what he was saying. After discovering that his point was more complicated, I vowed to read the book, which I did while at the same time working on this post. 

Fukuyama’s chief argument is that, at the end of the cold war the hybrid system of capitalism and liberal democracy didn’t have any obvious competitors. That no other ideologies remained which had a credible claim for being the better system. The book was written in 1992, when the Chinese communist system was still looking somewhat shaky in the wake of things like Tiananmen Square. In the intervening years I think it’s made a credible run at providing a competing vision of governance, but a specific discussion of China will have to wait for another post (probably not the next post which will be my September book review post, but the post after that.) However, in 1992 things were very different and there was lots of room for hope. Thus one obvious criticism of the book is that it suffers from being too close to things.

At the time, this idea that capitalism and liberal democracy had won, was treated as great news. The cold war was over. We didn’t have to worry about being eventually overwhelmed by communism or alternatively perishing in a fiery apocalypse brought on by two irreconcilable ideologies. Unfortunately in the midst of all this optimism, a new problem emerged, and this is where Fukuyama’s book is at his best. (Chapter 28, “Men Without Chests”, which discusses Nietzsche’s view of things, justifies the entire book all by itself.) This new problem might be stated: If what we have is as good as it’s going to get, if we’ve reached an ideological dead end, what happens if it turns out not to work either? What if we discover that liberal democracy itself is ultimately fragile in a similar fashion to all previous types of government? (Perhaps the fragility just takes longer to manifest?) If this turns out to be the case, then there’s really no refuge left. To put it another way, since the Enlightenment, people have aspired to a liberal democratic government as an ideal, even more so after 1776 when it was apparent that it was actually possible. And it was felt that if a nation ever managed to make that transition that things would vastly improve But if, as seems to be currently happening, liberal democracy starts breaking down, then what’s left to aspire to?

I know some people still aspire to communism but that carries a host of issues, including it’s record of failure, and the difficulty of assembling a broad enough base of support. Beyond that there are proposals for a variety of untried systems, or for massive changes to liberal democracy, but the proposals seem unlikely to work in anything close to the fashion their advocates envision, and making massive changes seem at best a method of buying more time, not anything that changes liberal democracy from something which can fail into something which can’t.

In examining this question of whether democracy too might fail, or whether it’s already failing, it’s useful to consider why previous systems of government failed. Fukuyama mainly ascribes these previous failures to a lack of legitimacy. In particular the 20th century saw lots of totalitarian states. These states derived their legitimacy from several things, economic growth, stability, and particularly the point of a gun. What didn’t play any part in their legitimacy were big ideas which persisted when those other three things went away. Because eventually all three of those things will go away.  Even rule at the point of a gun isn’t sustainable forever. (Though as North Korea illustrates it can be sustained for a very long time.) To a certain extent communist regimes had big ideas like equality and plenty for all, but these big ideas never panned out, even after decades of effort. Also it’s difficult to combine maintaining something at the point of a gun while also claiming that it’s really the big idea that keeps everything going. Which is to say it’s tough to believe in the utopia of Communism when your country is being run by Stalin.

Previous to democracy and communism, and even well into the 19th century, there were monarchies, which operated under big ideas like heredity and the divine right of kings. (And the fact that the vast masses of people couldn’t do much about the system even if they wanted to.) Whatever their source, according to Fukuyama, these big ideas provide a long-term source of legitimacy, similar to a cash reserve that can be drawn on when things get bad. In the case of the monarchy, even during a revolution, these big ideas were in play, and a relative of the previous king started from a much stronger position than some random individual, or even some random noble. In the same way that someone who won an election (even if that election was suspected of being rigged) has far more legitimacy than the average individual these days. But this isn’t the only source of modern legitimacy. When things were tough for the Soviet Union during World War II they could draw on the idea that they were fighting fascist hordes who wanted to wreck their communist utopia, and probably they drew on their sense of national pride as well. Finally, the point of a gun was almost certainly in there as well. This is still Stalin we’re talking about.

This last example brings up the idea of necessity, which is related, but somewhat different than legitimacy. As I pointed out in a previous post, one possible reason for why we’re so disunited at the moment is that there’s nothing forcing us to be united. No external threat we need to face. Post Pearl Harbor and with literal Nazis in charge of Europe, it was probably pretty easy to be united, and as far as I can tell there were very few questions of where the government derived its legitimacy. And the point that Fukuyama makes in his book, is that while some external threat exists, or alternatively when the economy is booming and times are really good, it’s easy for any form of government to seem legitimate. They’re performing the core tasks that governments need to perform. It’s when times get tough and there’s nothing external to unite against that totalitarian governments end up being more fragile than liberal democracies because there’s no underlying big idea to draw on to keep things together if, say the economy tanks. 

If, as is the case today, the country feels no necessity to unite in the face of an external threat, because there are none. And further, if the economy is not booming and things are not going well, at least for the vast majority of people. And finally, if the government is (hopefully) not being maintained at the point of a gun. Then the only difference between a totalitarian regime on the verge of collapse, say the Soviet Union in 1988, and us, is our big ideas. And if they truly are the only thing standing between us and collapse, then it’s probably a good idea to examine what those big ideas are and see how they’re holding up.

One of the big ideas is permitting free and open debate. The assumption being that if all the information is out there that people will eventually make the right decision. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this particular idea because it’s something which I’ve talked a lot about in the past, and it’s also something that’s being talked about a lot by people other than me, but it seems clear that this is one big idea that’s looking pretty shaky. Not only is it harder and harder to separate good information from bad, but there’s a significant push to restrict speech and information above and beyond that. 

Another big idea is using elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. This isn’t looking that great either. Certainly Trump’s recent statements undermining this idea are alarming, but when Hillary Clinton is saying that Biden should not concede the election “under any circumstances” I’m not sure 100% of the blame can be placed on Trump for the erosion of this idea. My current prediction is that the 2020 election will continue to fulfill this function, but it’s hard to argue that this idea isn’t getting weaker each cycle.

Yet another important big idea is equality of opportunity. Of all the ideas that existed at the time Fukuyama wrote his book, this is the one that has undergone the most sustained attack, particularly from the perspective of the ongoing racial inequalities. Though in Fukuyama’s defense he foresees that this might be the case:

Moreover, even American democracy has not been particularly successful in solving its most persistent ethnic problem, that of American blacks. Black slavery constituted the major exception to the generalization that Americans were “born equal,” and American democracy could not in fact settle the question of slavery through democratic means. Long after the abolition of slavery, long, indeed after the achievement of full legal equality by American blacks, many remain profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American culture. Given the profoundly cultural nature of the problem, on the side both of blacks and whites, it is not clear that American democracy is really capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.

However, having mentioned it as a possibility, he doesn’t seem to think it poses much of a problem long term. Yes, it comes up a lot, but only in very general terms, he definitely didn’t foresee what’s happening now. And of course maybe he’s right, and in the end current unrest may have very little long term impact. Perhaps I’m as blinded by the events of 2020 as Fukuyama was by the events of 1989. In his case it ended up creating too much optimism, perhaps in my case it’s creating too much pessimism. But for the moment let’s imagine that the possibility Fukuyama brings up in the book is in fact a description of our current reality, that American democracy is not “capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.” What then?

Well, insofar as big ideas confer a reserve of legitimacy, to be drawn on when times are difficult (which they seem to be) the disappearance of this idea, perhaps more than any of the other big ideas, may leave us without any reserves of legitimacy. The equivalent of a totalitarian government dealing with a popular uprising. Indeed many people would describe it in just these terms, but I don’t think any of those people have actually ever lived somewhere truly repressive. 

The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg brings up the final big idea I’d like to cover. (To be clear there are lots of big ideas underpinning liberal democracy, but I think even the ones I’ve neglected to mention are passing through a period of unusual weakness.) This final big idea is the rule of law. Now of course Republicans would be quick to point out that in confirming her replacement they aren’t violating any laws, and this is entirely true, nor did they violate any laws when they refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nor did the Democrats violate any laws when they failed to confirm Robert Bork, nor will they be violating any laws if they retake the Presidency and the Senate and pack the courts. But laws, particularly laws as elegantly devised and as pithy as the Constitution aren’t designed to cover every conceivable eventuality. Accordingly part of the “rule of law” big idea is the awareness that laws are surrounded with certain understandings, norms, and even a layer of civility and cooperation which keeps things from descending into a contest of merely seeing who can get away with the most the fastest. 

Despite the existence of these many pressing problems I just pointed out (and the many I didn’t), it’s common to hear people counter that things aren’t as bad as they were in the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly they’re nowhere near where they were on the eve of the Civil War. (I’ve even done it myself on occasion.) But if, as Fukuyama asserts, it’s less about the amount of blood being spilt and more about the amount of legitimacy in reserve, then we might actually be closer to disaster than we were in either of those cases. For example, however intense the violence got during the late 60s/early 70s, all of the “big ideas” were significantly healthier. Free and open debate was taken to be an article of faith by the media and those in power, and it was a particular cause of the left (see for example the Free Speech Movement). I don’t recall any big worries about the peaceful transition of power, but that says more about us than about them, that the subject has even come up. Moving on to equality of opportunity, certainly the Civil Rights act didn’t solve everything, but I would nevertheless argue that people were significantly more optimistic about it solving the problems of racial inequality than anyone is about anything involving race right now. Finally, as has been well documented, despite whatever other unrest was going on, partisan rancor was not nearly so severe. Further, I can only conclude, based on all the people arguing that the Senate has historically “never done this”, or “never done that”, or “always done something else” that this history of greater cooperation they’re referring to includes that period in the late 60s and early 70s. 

As far as the Civil War. Here the case for big ideas is even stronger. So strong, that, speaking personally, I’ve always had a hard time entirely wrapping my head around it. This is a situation where, speaking just of soldiers on the Union side (it being dangerous to say much of anything about the Confederacy these days) 360,222 were willing to die, just for the big idea of preserving the United States. For those with more modern sensibilities it would be easier to understand if you imagine that they were dying for the big idea of ending slavery and indeed that was the thing underlaying the entire war, but for the average Union solider the priority was preserving the country. They were fighting and dying for the big idea of American exceptionalism. This takes on added significance when you recall that the 360,000 who died came out of a far smaller population, about a tenth of what it is today, meaning that would be equivalent to 3.6 million dying today.

If all of the foregoing is correct and legitimacy is really the thing that matters, and liberal democracy, especially American liberal democracy, is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, what can we do about it? The totalitarian governments which had recently fallen when Fukuyama was writing his book were able to shift from totalitarianism to liberal democracy. But as I pointed out at the beginning, if Fukuyama is correct and liberal democracy represents the end point of progression, then there is no system we can switch to. We’re at the end of things, and if that system doesn’t work then there’s nowhere else to go. 

Some people seem to imagine that communism is still an option, and perhaps it is, perhaps it just needs certain institutions, technologies and attitudes which didn’t exist the last time it was tried. An idea I explored in a previous post, despite this it’s still a pretty far-fetched idea. 

Other people think that there’s a way of combining critical race theory with liberal democracy to produce a new system which would finally fully assimilate blacks in a way that actually led to equality of condition. When I say that some people think there’s a way to do this, I’m actually not sure anyone seriously thinks it can be done, the conflicts between the two systems are essentially irreconcilable, but it represents the vague desires of everyone with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard. Which is to say, it’s a great idea, but from the standpoint of this post, even if it were possible, the system would end up possessing neither the big ideas of liberal democracy nor the big ideas of critical race theory. I understand this last bit is a claim that probably needs more support than I’m giving it. But my post Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory covers a lot of that territory.

As perhaps the most radical option of all, conceivably you could ditch liberal democracy entirely, and switch to a system whose legitimacy rested on the big ideas of Critical Race Theory. Fukuyama actually covers this possibility, though not directly:

At one extreme, the Marxist project sought to promote an extreme form of social equality at the expense of liberty, by eliminating natural inequalities through the reward not of talent but of need, and through the attempt to abolish the division of labor. All future efforts to push social equality beyond the point of a “middle-class society” must contend with the failure of the Marxist project. For in order to eradicate those seemingly “necessary and ineradicable” differences, it was necessary to create a monstrously powerful state. (emphasis mine)

Again, I understand that this point deserves more support than it’s getting, and again I would direct you to my previous post

After surveying our various options, it would seem that if our reserves of legitimacy are depleted that there are no good options, of course other than somehow refilling those reserves, of restoring the big ideas enough so that they can once again act as a source of legitimacy. Put that way, there are obviously lots of people working on the project. But unfortunately I’m not seeing many signs that they’ve been at all successful.


There is one other system that seems to possess some reserves of legitimacy, (though how large these reserves are is anyone’s guess) that system is Chinese Communism. But as I alluded to near the beginning I’m saving that for the post after next. If you have any concerns that I might run out of steam before then, consider donating.