Category: Uncategorized

A New Sort of Monopoly

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Last week I mentioned that certain potential problems could only be solved at the federal level. The example I gave was social media, specifically Facebook, but it’s not just Facebook, traditionally stopping powerful companies in general has been something only the government can do. But before we get to that, in the last post I also briefly mentioned that one, unrealistic, possibility would be for the individuals themselves to cut themselves off from these powerful companies. Well, over the last several weeks Gizmodo reporter, Kashmir Hill, tried to do just that.

Hill decided to live, in turn, without each of the tech giants: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, and on the final week she attempted to live without all of them. And as I pointed out, it ends up being pretty difficult, if not impossible. In fact that’s the title of of the article she wrote about her week without Amazon. I Tried to Block Amazon From My Life. It Was Impossible. So I guess we’ll start there. The Amazon week was particularly interesting because when most people think of Amazon they think, “I could easily go for a week without buying something on Amazon.” But that’s not the hard part of the exercise it’s going for a week without using AWS.

For those who don’t know, AWS stands for Amazon Web Services, it’s the Amazon cloud offering and it’s used by a huge chunk of the internet. (I use it for my business.) She didn’t include many statistics, though her subjective impression was summed up in the title of her article: It was impossible.

When I say a huge chunk, I think the best measure is that as far as cloud services AWS is 42% by revenue, which seems high, but not ridiculous. However when you’re used to 100% of the internet being available 100% of the time, 42% is huge, as people found out when it went down twice in 2017. And as the author found out when she tried to cut it out of her life.

But the title of this post and our eventual destination is a discussion of monopolies and 42% doesn’t sound like much of a monopoly. Maybe not, but one of the first points I want to make is that unlike some of the more traditional monopolies, the current tech monopoly is harder to see. You might notice that all of the oil refineries in your state are run by Standard Oil and sue them as Ohio did in 1892. Or that every single computer in the office is Widows, leading to that Microsoft antitrust action of 2001 but I think far fewer people understand how deeply embedded Amazon is in their life, even if they ignore the actual store. (Also it should be noted that AWS is where most of Amazon’s profit comes from.)

As an illustration of this mismatch in perceptions consider Facebook. If you were going to pick the company from her list which has been subjected to the most criticism recently, that’s who you would choose. And yet when it came time to cut Facebook out of her life it was relatively straightforward, nothing close to as “impossible” as cutting out Amazon. And, insofar as our level of concern should correlate with the difficulty of cutting something out of our life the animosity directed at Facebook might be misplaced.

Obviously Facebook engages in a lot of shady practices like data collection and distorting what people see in their feed. But if you think Amazon and Google aren’t collecting data you may be in for a rude shock. As a matter of fact Google collects more data than Facebook. And as far as distorting information have you ever done a search for “American Scientists” on Google? If you get a chance to do that, look at the images which are displayed along the top. The Google list of American scientists exercises, what I can only describe as, a significant amount of affirmative action. Of the first 10, eight are African American. (Einstein and Fermi are the other two). Compare this to Bing and it’s reversed, of the top 10, two are African American.

This might be a small thing. But I think it shows a clear ideological bias (one you might agree with, but a bias nonetheless) and given that Google has 93% of all search traffic, even small things can add up. And as long as we’re on the subject of what percentage Google controls of certain markets. Hill’s experience with cutting out Google was described as “screwing up everything” because 88% of all mapping applications (including Lyft and Uber) use Google.

In other words despite my sense that Google is less reviled than Facebook (I guess it could be the same, but I doubt it’s more). They’re far more deserving of it. They collect more data, they’re more ideologically biased and they’re more of a monopoly. But, because most of what they do is behind the scenes (similar to Amazon), people don’t notice how ubiquitous they are. Another example of a potential, yet subtle danger. Another example of how monopolies could exist but in a different form than we’re used to.

Okay, so a Gizmodo reporter tried to live without the tech giants and it was super annoying and the tech giants themselves do lots of suspect things on top of that annoyance. And yes they control vast swaths of the internet and by extension our lives, but that’s why they’re tech giants. Does this mean that something needs to be done? If so what?

I’ve already mentioned the word monopoly a few times, and we’ve now arrived at the point where we need to discuss what a monopoly is and why it’s bad. We have not reached the point where we label any of the aforementioned technology companies as monopolies, but we will.

Historically the most famous monopoly, which I already mentioned, was Standard Oil. But more recently, there was antitrust action against Archer Daniels Midland for conspiring to fix the price of Lysine and citric acid. In both cases the worry was that in the near absence of competition they could raise prices, rake in profits and harm the consumer, who would end up paying much higher prices than they would have otherwise. And currently high prices are considered to be the best standard for determining whether something is a monopoly or engaged in antitrust behavior, but Facebook is free, and so are most of the offerings from Google. Amazon charges money, but it’s certainly hasn’t used it’s position to raise prices. Accordingly, many would argue, they’re not monopolies. But it sure seems like they might be headed in that direction. Is it possible that by targeting prices have we mistaken the symptom for the disease? Or that this is too simple a way to look at things?

If the disease is harming customers, then it seems like there are probably many ways that can happen beyond just high prices. At a high level, economic theory holds that capitalism is good because competition works in something of an evolutionary fashion, with new innovative companies replacing old uncompetitive companies, what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”, going on to describe it as “the essential fact about capitalism.” Lack of innovation is another sign of customer harm, but that was covered by price as well. Since price is a signal of innovation, lower prices are a also good indicator that a company is innovative, while higher prices are a good sign that the company is not innovative or colluding to stop innovation. But once again price is just a proxy for what we’re really worried about, innovation, something which is not only good for customers, but good in and of itself.

Still even once we toss innovation in, it’s not clear that the tech giants are monopolies, since most of them got where they are through being innovative, and have largely continued to innovate. In the last post I talked about the life cycle of a democracy, well businesses also have a lifecycle and all of the tech giants are still in the early stages of theirs. Meaning that I would expect them to continue to be innovative for awhile. And once again this would lead many people to the conclusion that they are not monopolies. But is it possible both of these standards are overly simplistic? Is it possible that the tech giants represent new kinds of monopolies? When you read about the experiences of Hill do you come away thinking something unusual and alarming is going on? If so you’re not the only one.

Not that long ago, Lina Khan, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, published a paper, titled, Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox, where she discusses whether Amazon should be examined more closely by antitrust regulators. As you might have guessed the answer is “Yes,” but the route by which she arrived at that answer is the interesting part.

To begin with I didn’t realize that current antitrust doctrine views low consumer prices sufficient, by themselves, to deflect any antitrust accusations. And that this standard is a by product of the influence of the Chicago School of Economics, under whose influence a switch was made in the late 70s early 80s, at least according to Khan. Though when she discusses the individuals, their motivations and actions at the time it sounds believable to me. Specifically, the individuals in question, which included Robert Bork of Supreme Court nomination fame, argued against the idea of predatory pricing. The theory that large companies could use low prices to drive their competition out of business and then achieve a monopoly in the absence that competition. According to Khan:

Ward Bowman, an economist at Yale Law School, argued that the premise of predatory pricing laws was wrong. He wrote, “The Robinson-Patman Act [the prime example of such a law] rests upon a presumption that price discrimination can or might be used as a monopolizing technique. This, as more recent economic literature confirms, is at best a highly dubious presumption.

[Bork] described predatory pricing generally as “a phenomenon that probably does not exist” and the Robinson-Patman Act as “the misshapen progeny of intolerable draftsmanship coupled to wholly mistaken economic theory.”

As the writings of Bowman and Bork suggest, the Chicago School critique of predatory pricing doctrine rests on the idea that below-cost pricing is irrational and hence rarely occurs. For one, the critics argue, there was no guarantee that reducing prices below cost would either drive a competitor out or otherwise induce the rival to stop competing. Second, even if a competitor were to drop out, the predator would need to sustain monopoly pricing for long enough to recoup the initial losses and successfully thwart entry by potential competitors, who would be lured by the monopoly pricing. The uncertainty of its success, coupled with its guarantee of costs, made predatory pricing an unappealing—and therefore highly unlikely—strategy.

As with so many things we discuss in this space, the Chicago School critique was written before the internet changed everything. And it may not have been true even before then. The question of whether Standard Oil engaged in predatory pricing is still hotly debated. But that aside, how did the internet change the theory and practice of predatory pricing?

We’ll talk all about changes actually related to technology, but in the end it always comes down to dollars and cents. And here the key change is that investors in Amazon apparently don’t care about profit. There are lots of examples of this, including Amazon’s stock price going up after reporting a quarterly loss, and the tiny profits Amazon posts even when it is profitable, but I think one commenter put it best. “Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” At its core this is how Amazon can engage in, what was previously considered, irrational predatory pricing. They can afford to. But saying this is a little like an autopsy declaring that a person died from blunt force trauma. That may be so, but the difference between dying from slipping in the bathroom, and being beaten to death by a bat in a back alley is huge. Which is to say, why are investors willing to ignore profitability? Are they stupid or murderous?

In essence what the investors are doing is valuing growth over profitability. There could be a couple of reasons for this, they could be stupid, because five years from now some competitor will come along and Amazon will go the way of Sears or Myspace. Or more likely, they could be counting on Amazon to continue growing and get more and more profitable. Given that Amazon’s price to earnings ratio currently sits around 80 and that as recently as 2015 it was at 741 they appear to think that despite controlling nearly 50% of online retailing, that Amazon still has a lot of growing to do, and that something about that growth will make it largely immune from significant competition. In other words, the numbers indicate that investors are already pricing it as monopoly.

There are at least three reasons for this (and probably more).

First the marginal cost of online retailing is vastly lower than traditional retailing. And also benefits much more from an economy of scale. While not a perfect example imagine the differences in opening a store in a new area. Say that, hypothetically, Utah had a great firewall similar to China and they didn’t allow Amazon in. And then one day they change their mind. This would be a relatively trivial adjustment for Amazon, particularly if all of their shipping companies were already operating in Utah. Now imagine that Walmart had been banned in Utah and that ban had suddenly been lifted. It would take many years for Walmarts to be as common in Utah as they are everywhere else. This same thing applies to individual products, particularly digital ones. Now you might imagine that this would make it easy to compete with Amazon, but that’s not the case which takes us to our second reason.

Amazon like most of the tech giants enjoys a powerful network effect. It may be less obvious than the network effect enjoyed by Facebook, but it’s nevertheless a huge factor. If you’re going to sell something you need buyers, and if you’re going to buy something you need sellers. By creating a platform to connect the two Amazon has a gigantic advantage over someone starting from scratch, even if if the tech is easy, the marketing is fantastically difficult. I understand that if there’s only one seller network effects are not quite so great, but over 50% of items sold on Amazon are from third party sellers. There’s also the vast fulfillment network they’ve created. When Hill was attempting to cut Amazon out of her life she ended up buying something from EBay, only to discover when it arrived, a “Fulfillment by Amazon” sticker.

Finally there’s the customer data, that holy grail of the tech economy, and Amazon has a ton of it. (Though again, probably not as much as Google.) This data gives them an edge against any possible competition that is almost impossible to duplicate. Certainly no startup could duplicate it. Also as an aside it increases the potential risk, not only do customers have to worry about worse quality or higher prices, they have to worry about Amazon protecting their privacy as well. And remember this is all run by someone who’s had trouble keeping pictures of his privates, private.

When all of this is combined, it paints a troubling picture. To quote from Khan again:

For the purpose of competition policy, one of the most relevant factors of online platform markets is that they are winner-take-all. This is due largely to network effects and control over data, both of which mean that early advantages become self-reinforcing. The result is that technology platform markets will yield to dominance by a small number of firms. Walmart’s recent purchase of the one start-up that had sought to challenge Amazon in online retail—Jet.com—illustrates this reality.

The key phrase there is “winner-take-all”. If network effects and control over data self-reinforce, then there doesn’t appear to be any way for real competition to arise. Certainly the Amazon investors seem to be of that opinion, and I see no reason to disagree with them.

There is one objection I should address before we move on. However unassailable Amazon is by other online retailers, there are other tech giants. The competition between Microsoft and Apple is the stuff of legends and is still ongoing, Amazon and Google might not seem like competitors but if you’re looking to buy something, both of them really want you to come to them first. And the list goes on. Perhaps this is all the evidence necessary to dismiss any monopolistic concerns, but it doesn’t seem like it to me. Also as the Archer Daniels Midlands case showed, it’s a lot easier to collude when there’s only a few big players. And lest you think that the tech giants wouldn’t do that, they already did. They colluded to cap the salaries of tech workers. In the end it spread to such an extent that it affected over a million employees. Something to keep in mind.

You may still be unconvinced that Amazon and the rest are monopolies or well on their way to becoming such, but for the moment let’s assume that they are. Why is this bad? There is of course the danger of higher prices, or less innovation, which are non-trivial. But I’m less worried about the lack of tech innovation then I am about idea innovation. Specifically the marketplace of ideas envisioned as the primary reason for free speech. And here while there are some crimes to Amazon’s name, what’s most interesting/alarming is the recent trend of denying payment processing to people on the far right. (That was a Breitbart link, if you prefer here’s a Daily Beast link.) Finally beyond issues of censorship there is the general fragility of having a single point of failure, as people affected by the AWS internet outages and more especially people involved in data breaches have discovered.

Khan offers several solutions, but the one I find the most interesting is to treat the tech companies as similar to utilities and place them under common carrier obligations. And let’s be clear interesting does not mean good or preferable, it just means interesting. In particular I think it would be an interesting answer to all of those people who claim that only the government can restrict free speech and that private individuals and corporations should be able to do whatever they want. That becomes less true if the company is being treated as a utility. But I don’t have the space to go into that again, nor to examine the utility idea in more depth either.

To be clear I am mostly interested in how technology has changed the ways in which a company might discourage competition. And to be clear that’s exactly what every company wants. Companies are not pro-free market. Which is something I probably should have made a point of explaining earlier. I’m also interested in the ways in which technology makes being a monopoly easier, but also less obvious as Hill, the Gizmodo reporter discovered. As far as what should be done about it, here, as I mentioned, there are also interesting ideas, but I’m far less certain about what, if anything should be done. It is however one more piece of evidence for increasing complexity, and it remains an open question whether our institutions can keep up.


I’m hoping to build a monopoly in blog posts related to techno-pessimism with a large heaping of politics, religion, and Fermi’s Paradox. If you’d like to help with that consider donating. At least as long as my payment processing isn’t cut off.


Democracy on the Downhill

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


There are a lot of reasons to write, but one of the biggest one’s for me, above even persuading others (assuming that actually happens) is the way in which it refines my thinking. The work of translating an idea from my head to being written in such a way that other people have some chance of understanding it clarifies it in a way that nothing else can. I experienced this phenomenon in my last post, when I finally articulated the difference between what I’m trying to do and the exhortations of your standard “prepper”. Though, as you may recall, I’m not opposed to that sort of preparation, but my focus is different. I’m focused on the more subtle dangers facing us. Dangers which are harder to see and thus more difficult to avoid.

As I pointed out in that last post some of these dangers are subtle because they come cloaked not as a danger, but as something beneficial. I gave the example of healthcare, which seems entirely unobjectionable but may be crowding out other spending with more long term benefits. In the most extreme case, you may remember a post from not that long ago where I talked about the Galactic Stomach Ache explanation of Fermi’s Paradox which hypothesizes that the reason the universe is silent is that inevitably life extension spending crowds out spending on everything else. And, as I mentioned in my last episode it may currently  be running as high as 100 to 1.

Healthcare spending is of course not the only subtle potential danger we face, there are obviously dozens if not hundreds of them, perhaps thousands if we’re especially liberal with what level of probability counts as “potential”. What are we to do about all of them? It would seem obvious that the first step is to identify them, which I’ve already spent a lot of time doing. But in this post I’d like to focus more on what to do about them once they’ve been identified.

I’ve already talked about preppers and that is of course a very good way of dealing with a certain class of potential dangers. And, to reiterate, I recommend it. But there are other classes of potential dangers where having a multiyear supply of food is not going to help you very much. Let’s take the potential danger of social media. And remember I’m saying potential danger, I think the jury’s still out. But if it does end up being dangerous, having a stockpile of food and ammo, or even a large stockpile of wealth is not going to help very much if your kids are being irreparably harmed by, say, Facebook. Okay, then what would help?

Certainly one option is to withdraw from society completely. Homeschool your kids. Stay completely off the internet. Live like the Amish (or join the Amish, do they accept converts?) But let’s be honest, this isn’t an option for most people. Perhaps it should be, perhaps people just need to be stronger. But it isn’t and they aren’t.

Yet another option is for the companies to police themselves. I know there are a lot of libertarians who not only think that this is the way that it should work, but that it’s the way it will work, after there’s enough outcry from the customers. But there are several problems with this option. One, as was so eloquently pointed out, we are not Facebook’s customers we are Facebook’s product, the advertisers are its customers, and there’s every reason in the world to expect that they like all of the questionable things Facebook does, since Facebook is almost certainly doing it for them.

Two, even if we are Facebook’s customers, they are interested in keeping us happy and healthy only insofar as that makes us more likely to give them money or in the case of social media, attention. If they can get more money or attention by making us less happy and healthy that’s what they’ll do. Witness the tobacco companies. And of course there’s evidence that social media is making us less happy, and that the more you use it the worse you feel.

Finally, even if Facebook and other social media companies were willing to police themselves. If this policing makes them less profitable, which seems like a reasonable assumption, then some other company will come along which foregoes this policing and subsequently out competes them. (This may have already happened. Have you gotten a notice in your email recently informing you that Google+ is shutting down? Or maybe you’ve heard of MySpace?) On the flip side of that, if the current market leaders refuse to police themselves it’s unlikely that more circumspect companies will be able to challenge that dominance. This is not to say there’s not a niche for such companies. DuckDuckGo will certainly survive as a company, but they’re never going to pass Google in search volume.

If withdrawing entirely from society and self-policing are unrealistic then what’s left? As much as it pains me to say this, I think all that’s left is the government. I’m very much in favor of the principle of subsidiarity (i.e. issues should be dealt with at the lowest level possible) but part of the problem with technology is that it increasingly creates problems which can only be dealt with at the very highest levels. Which would be bad enough, but technology also create problems difficult even for experts to understand to say nothing of the average voter.

All of this leads me to the true topic of this post: democracy. In the broadest sense democracy is our tool for solving potential problems like social media, and I worry it’s not up to the challenge. This is the point where someone will chime in with the observation that the US isn’t a true democracy, it’s a republic. And insofar as I am making a recommendation in this space (and I’m mostly not) it would be a recommendation to make things more republican (in the system of government sense not the political party sense) and less democratic (ditto), but I’m afraid that even this small adjustment is unlikely to have any traction. In fact I’m worried that America is “over the hill” and that the only question is: how quickly are we picking up speed? Allow me to elaborate:

There’s a famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

This is all true, democracy is a bad form of government, it’s just that unless Christ returns to personally reign, or until we invent the AI equivalent of that. It’s the best form of government we’ve got in this world of “sin and woe”. As it turns out Churchill was not the only person to recognize that, the founders did as well, and they adopted various strategies to deal with the problems of democracy. There are checks and balances, separation of powers, enumerated rights, etc.

I would argue that all of these strategies have worked pretty well, but as I already alluded to perhaps the greatest weakness of democracy is that it is only as good as its citizens/voters. In particular it depends on the knowledge of those voters. This is one of the reasons why we have the aforementioned republic as opposed to a true democracy. The voters only need to educate themselves about the candidate, not about every individual issue. But what happens when the system of voter education breaks? Or changes drastically? Arguably at least one of those happened in the last presidential election and possibly both. The results, according to many people, were disastrous.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. Trump is a joke of a president, but that will end at some point. I still have faith that an election is going to take place next year. And yes, he’s a joke, but I’m a little unclear on what he’s done that’s so cataclysmic. I suppose, particularly if you’re a deficit hawk, which I am, that his tax cuts could qualify, but as someone who’s self-employed and pays what seems like (excuse my language) a shit-ton in taxes it’s hard for me to get too worked up about that. Mostly it seems like Trump hasn’t done much of any lasting consequence other than placing two justices on the Supreme Court. Which brings me to the next point.

As I mentioned the founders were well aware of the various weaknesses of democracy, and the constitution contains systems for mitigating these weaknesses, but it was written 230 years ago, and it’s starting to show its age. And by that I am talking less about the document as written, and more about the ways people have figured out how to route around it. No matter how gifted the founders were, any system is going to have weak points that only become apparent over time as the ebb and flow of politics pushes against the limits of what’s allowed. Returning to Trump’s Supreme Court picks, In our day it’s become apparent that deciding what the constitution means is the most important role in government. This is why the Kavanaugh fight was so contentious. It’s why Justice Ginsburg’s health is constantly in the news. This is why a lot of people voted for Trump who otherwise wouldn’t have. Whatever his failings his Supreme Court nominees would be miles ahead of Clinton’s, for those people at least. There are obviously people who feel the exact opposite.

One would think it would have been obvious that under a constitutional system that the people deciding what that constitution meant would end up wielding considerable influence, but it wasn’t until 15 years after ratification that Marbury v. Madison came along and enshrined judicial review. Also I think it’s clear that the latitude exercised in constitutional interpretation over the last half century has been significantly greater than what was exercised previous to that point. Accordingly it’s not entirely surprising that in Federalist 78 Hamilton described the Judicial Branch as the “least dangerous” branch because it has “no influence over either the sword or the purse” and must ultimately depend on the Executive Branch to make its judgements effective.

I’m not sure what Hamilton imagined would happen if the Executive Branch started ignoring the Supreme Court, but I pretty sure if it happened today that the shit would hit the fan. (I guess it’s like they say, once you start swearing it’s difficult to stop.) Depending on who wins in 2020 we may get a chance to find out.

As I said, it may be that American democracy, such as it is, is beginning to show its age. Norms that have existed for a long time are being eroded. Weak spots in the system are being exploited, and it feels like we’re headed for a crisis. Something very similar occurred near the end of the Roman Republic. And it might be instructive, or perhaps just sobering, to look at that example.

Over the holidays I read The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, the podcaster best known for his History of Rome series. It was a great book about a fascinating time in history, with, as Duncan points out, some possible lessons for our own time. One of those lessons concerned the gradual erosion of the Roman “constitution”, as people repeatedly did things that weren’t technically illegal, but broke with tradition.

What truly bound all Romans together, though, were unspoken rules of social and political conduct. The Romans never had a written constitution or extensive body of written law—they needed neither. Instead the Romans surrounded themselves with unwritten rules, traditions, and mutual expectations collectively known as mos maiorum, which meant “the way of the elders.” Even as political rivals competed for wealth and power, their shared respect for the strength of the client-patron relationship, the sovereignty of the Assemblies, and the wisdom of the Senate kept them from going too far. When the Republic began to break down in the late second century it was not the letter of the Roman law that eroded, but respect for the mutually accepted bonds of mos maiorum.

He goes on to give examples of individuals doing things which were technically legal but in violation of mos maiorum. Things like applying a permanent veto on legislation, serving more than one term as Consul or Tribune of the Plebs, not allowing things to come to a vote, etc. Now hopefully we’ve learned some things since then, like actually writing our constitution down, but given the debate over the second amendment, and the push to interpret the Constitution as a living document, I’m not sure how much it matters. Also the UK has an unwritten constitution and I don’t think they’re significantly worse off than we are on this point.

In any event it’s easy to see current examples of long standing conventions which are being ignored, and with increasing frequency. Examples in our own day include Merrick Garland and DACA, Obama’s executive action for Dreamers. But of course what counts as an example for you will probably entirely depend on your ideology. And it’s possible, even likely, that one side is more guilty of this than the other, but if the Roman example is any guide once one side violates an established norm the other side will quickly follow. I am convinced that if the situation had been reversed that Democrats would have also refused to vote on the Republican version of Garland. And, even if I’m wrong about that, now that it has happened I’m 100% certain they’ll do it in the future.

In addition to exploiting constitutional gaps, and the slow erosion of convention there is another weakness of an aging democracy which is becoming more and more apparent recently. This is one of those subtle dangers I warned about. This particular danger is not subtle because it’s hard to understand, but because it seems like a good thing. I’m talking about compromise.

As an example let’s turn to a recent blog post by a friend of mine. I mentioned this friend in a previous post and at the time he was running for office in British Columbia. He did not win, and, I assume in partial consequence of that, recently announced that he was done with compromising. I’ll let him explain:

In 2001, I decided to give progressive politics a try and for the next seventeen years, I subscribed to a utilitarian political project. By that, I mean that I stood behind organizations, electoral and non-electoral, that made sense in what is called the “hedonic calculus.” Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the authors of a particular theory of liberalism, argued that our choices should be based on choosing the course of action that causes the least harm and the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. So, I joined the NDP and worked to elect candidates who had a shot at winning with the policies that did the least harm and the most good.

[…]

But in 2018, this stopped working for me: the hedonic calculus of progressive politics failed. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I had rejected this calculus, I articulated its inherent problem: progressive politics articulates that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done. Every day that passes, the gap between these things widens. Now, in the second-biggest extinction event of the last four billion years, with human beings having killed half the life on the planet in my lifetime alone, what we can reasonably expect to be done is to kill the planet ten to fifteen years later than our current trajectory will kill it. It is little more than making sure that we pay ourselves $15/hour for murdering all creation rather than $11/hour.

To be clear he doesn’t use the word compromise, that’s my word, but I think it fits. Democracy is all about compromise. All about, as he says, “that which we can reasonably expect to be done, not what needs to be done.” He gives an environmental example, and part of the reason I used this example is that, for those of you who think I’m too conservative, it’s an example from an exceptionally liberal perspective, but which nevertheless illustrates the potential problem of compromise: If something absolutely needs to be done, then compromise forever allows a minority to keep it from getting done. Beyond his example of environmental apocalypse, the right (or at least those worried about the debt) have their own example. It’s clear that continual compromise may have slowed the growth of the debt, but if, in reality, it needs to eventually be paid off, or at least kept below the rate of inflation, that will never happen as long as the sides are compromising. The same applies if you have the opposite view and believe debts don’t matter, we’re never going to go in that direction either if we continue to compromise.

Two posts ago I talked about the metaphor of the transit system, where it doesn’t matter what train you get on when you’re in the main metropolitan area because they all follow the same route and all hit the same stops, but once you leave the central area one route heads north and another heads south. Compromise can be viewed as keeping the trains on the same route for as long as possible but the longer you go the harder it becomes. And as I’ve been pointing out our system has been traveling for quite a while, and it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the routes together. I don’t think it’s impossible, and there are lots of benefits to staying on the same route, but what if we really need to go north? What if any other route other than north “kills the planet” as my friend is claiming. If so then going east is somewhat better than going south, but eventually we still won’t get to where we need to go.

Back in October I told the story of Air France Flight 447 which had essentially the same moral. The plane was stalling and needed to dive to pick up speed, one pilot realized this, but the other pilot thought it needed to climb. The plane was designed to average out the two inputs, and as a result of this compromise the plane crashed into the ocean killing everyone aboard.

Earlier I compared what’s happening in our own very old republic to what happened at the end of the Roman Republic, but there is at least one crucial difference, and it’s one I keep coming back to, technology. And it’s this that makes my friend’s example so interesting. The danger he warns about is something that can only happen at a certain level of technology. The Romans didn’t have to worry about global warming, and while they did have monetary issues they were both more localized and more straightforward. It should go without saying that the worldwide 2008 crisis is unimaginable in ancient Rome. Primarily what the Romans worried about were other Romans, or hostile nations on their border, and in those cases compromise was nearly always a good thing. They could also, and frequently did, go to war.

Turning to our day things are completely different, but only recently so. We have the power to radically change all manner of things for good or for ill. If my friend is right (you can read my own views on global warming here) we have the power to kill the planet, and accordingly compromise, if it allows catastrophe to proceed, just more slowly, is no longer always or even mostly a good thing. And war, that other tactic beloved by the Romans, is now also unthinkable, at least between two countries with nuclear weapons.

Tying all of this together we have an increasing number of subtle dangers which can only be dealt with by government at the highest level, but the government we have is suffering from various weaknesses, some obvious, some due to the gradual erosion of convention and tradition. And even if we could overcome all that and compromise, this may do no more than slow down the apocalypse, and actually work against preventing it. Finally even if we thought war was a good idea (and it might be) that’s not an option either.

The world is in need of some serious repairs and all of the tools we would normally use to fix it are either old and worn down, ineffective, or might actually make the problem worse.


Ancient Rome is a very interesting place, but make no mistake I wouldn’t want to live there. For one thing there was no way to ask for donations to niche but otherwise brilliant blogs.


Start Here

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I’ve noticed a hole recently. More specifically, a hole in my writing. I frequently meet people who I think would enjoy or appreciate my ideas, and yes, occasionally, when I meet these people, I say “Check out my blog!” and give them the URL. But I do it less often than I should, and part of the reason for that is I’m unsure where I should tell them to start. There was the very first post, which was intended as an introduction, but at this point that was two and a half years ago, and in that time things have evolved somewhat. And even assuming they read the first post, where do they go from there? Certainly I can’t expect them to then read everything up to the present day. So this is the post where I’m going to fill that hole. If you’re not its intended audience, i.e. you’re one of the people who’s been faithfully reading since the beginning or at least a long time, then I hope that it will be interesting to you as well, but you have my permission to skip it.

This blog starts with two basic and related questions. “What does the future hold?” And, “What should I be doing about it?” Many people, if not most, don’t think very deeply about the future, and what thoughts they do have assume it will be similar to the present, except possibly with better smartphones. Meaning they should largely continue to do what they’ve been doing. There is another, smaller group of people, who do think deeply about the future and they’ve concluded it’s going to be “Awesome!” That technology will solve all our problems. And beyond working to bring that future to pass as quickly as possible, what they intend to do is sit back and enjoy it.

My answer is different than both groups. It’s taken from a verse in the Bible, the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

This answer is the theme of the blog, and also the origin of the domain name as well. But to properly understand how I arrived at that it I’m going to have to walk you through a few things first. To start with, when people think about the future they usually do so on one of four levels, two of which I’ve already alluded to:

1- Taking the present as a guide: These are essentially the people I mentioned above who don’t think very deeply about the future, and default to assuming it’s going to be similar to the present. To be fair, if you’re just going from one year to the next most years are pretty similar, so this isn’t a horrible strategy. Also thinking about the future is difficult, as we’ll see.

2- Taking the recent past as a guide: Not that long ago, by historical standards, we learned to start “harvesting” technology, and we entered a “summer” of progress. The harvest was bountiful and the summer was bright. As I said above, it’s been pretty awesome. We went from the steam engine all the way to nuclear power. We eliminated slavery and promoted democracy. We experienced exponential economic growth. And, at least in the developed countries, even relatively poor people have it pretty good when compared with the historical average. These people are not so naive as to think that nothing changes, but they feel that the harvest of technology and summer of progress have altered conditions so completely that only recent trends matter.

3- Taking all of human history as a guide: This approach is similar to the last one, but broader, and while no one in this category gives the same weight to 25 AD that they give to last year, when attempting to predict the future, they still give some weight to 25 AD. This obviously makes them less inclined to think that we have permanently banished war between the great powers, and less inclined to cast aside religion and tradition. They also have a greater tendency to think differences in culture are profound, or that technology has not changed things as much as people think.

4- Taking the attitude that the future can’t be predicted: It could be argued that this attitude is undoubtedly true, but not very useful. Perhaps, but just because I said that the future can’t be predicted doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done. The mere realization of its unpredictability makes some actions better than others. For example diversification vs. betting everything on a single investment, regardless of how safe it seems. A lesson some Bernie Madoff investors learned too late.

Of these four levels, the first level is fine probably 90% of the time, maybe even more. Which is part of why most people end up on this level, but when we start talking about how often it works at a societal level, it goes from adequate to hopelessly naive. And I think we can safely remove it from further consideration.

The second level is the “Awesome!” level. The idea that the harvest is going to continue and the summer is never going to end.

The third and fourth levels might seem different, but the difference is less than you imagine. Level four says bad things might happen and we should live in such a way that, if they do, if things turn out to not be awesome, then it won’t be the end of the world (and I mean this literally). Level three says that bad things have happened a lot, and that based on historical evidence the world has generally not been awesome, and that further, religions, traditions and cultural norms have developed to minimize the impact of the bad things when they do happen.

We can combine three and four together into the camp of people who think the future is not going to be awesome versus, level two, the camp of people who think it is going to be awesome. I’m in the non-awesome camp. Though I’m aware that I may be wrong, and when people in the “awesome camp” point out that things are pretty great right now, relatively speaking, they’re not wrong. What we’ve been able to do over the last few hundred years has been truly incredible. But here’s the main point, and if there was one thing I want you to take away from this post, and actually from everything I’ve written it’s this:

If I’m wrong and the future is awesome, then we will have only lost the time and resources that I, and others like me, spent preparing for something that never happened. But if the other side is wrong, if the future is not awesome, if catastrophes happen which could have been avoided, then the cost is the full weight of those avoidable catastrophes.  Which could be millions of people dying, or billions, or everybody.

This asymmetry, when combined with the fact that we cannot predict the future is why I’m on the “non-awesome team”. Without the ability to predict what will happen, it’s best to prepare for the worst.

That phrase “prepare for the worst” may incline you to believe that I’m just another “prepper” who’s going to urge you to stockpile guns, ammo and food. Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you not to do that (if you’ll forgive the double negative) but I also think “the worst” could encompass situations far more subtle and slow-moving than a nuclear holocaust. For all it’s terror, wide scale nuclear war is fairly straightforward. First as I pointed out in a previous post The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope it probably doesn’t mean the end of all human life. Second if it does happen it will reduce everything down to a simple question of survival in very difficult circumstances, and I think despite the conveniences of modern life that it will turn out that we’re still pretty good at that. So, yes it is probably a good idea to prepare for that, but if it happens I think you’ll know what to do. This blog is dedicated to more subtle dangers where the correct action might not be quite so obvious.

The source of these subtle dangers turns out to be the same as the source of awesomeness: progress and technology. In addition to harvesting stuff like representative government and antibiotics, the harvest has also brought us the aforementioned danger of nuclear weapons, and by some accounts the more insidious danger of social media. So let’s talk about technology.

As I said at the beginning my answer to the question of what the future brings is that the harvest of technology is past. But what do I mean by that? Surely technology is still advancing? Don’t new smartphones still come out every year? (Now with three rear facing cameras!) They do, but a harvest implies things that are beneficial, that are life-sustaining, and more and more, new technology is neither. I mentioned social media and just this week a study was released by Stanford claiming a marked improvement in mental health from quitting Facebook. This is not to say there aren’t also stories about potential cures for cancer (though this most recent story is probably bogus) but I’m not sure where the balance between harmful and beneficial technologies sits at the moment. It may on net have tipped to harmful, and even if it hasn’t, as I pointed out in a recent post. It only takes one really bad technology to destroy us while there may be no amount of technology that will permanently save us.

Another thing to consider is how would technology save us? Over a long enough time horizon, to be truly saved we have to leave Earth. Until we do that we have “all our eggs in one basket” so to speak. I was about two years old the last time there was a man on the moon, and growing up I read a steady diet of science fiction stories from the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, Card and Hogan which all naturally assumed that we would soon leave the Earth and journey out into the cosmos. (level two!) But we never even went back to the Moon, and currently we spend about $64/person/year in the US on NASA as compared to the $10,739/person/year on healthcare. Now of course you could argue that we should add the operating costs of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on top of the NASA figure, but even if we did it wouldn’t break $100/person/year, and beyond that the vast majority of that does not go towards anything that would allow us to permanently and sustainably leave Earth. Think of other things you spend more than $100/year on, McDonalds? (I admit I myself suffer from mild addition to sausage egg McMuffins) and you get some sense of how low of a priority it really is.

I compared NASA spending to healthcare spending just now for a reason, because healthcare spending represents one of the subtle and slow-moving dangers I was talking about. A big part of what makes it subtle is how unobjectionable it seems. What kind of heartless person (other than me I suppose) would have a problem with spending money on health? But why do we spend so muchmoney on it? If technology and progress are so great why are they making us less healthy? Why has the rate of diabetes increased by eight times from 1959 to 2015? Why has there been a worldwide increase in obesity? And why is it more pronounced in “more advanced” countries? Why has there been a large increase in mental illness, particularly among teens? And why does it appear to correlate with social media use? (All level four) Considering all of this, I stand by my assertion that the “summer has ended.” And, to bring it back to the original point, it’s going to be hard for technology to save us if we’re spending 100x as much on the problems technology creates as we are on the salvation we hope it will provide.

Reasonable people may disagree with my figure of 100x or the entire argument, but what you can’t disagree with is the enormous amount of change progress and technology has wrought. To return to the two original questions. Given this massive amount of change, “What does the future hold?” And “What should we be doing about it?” Thus far I’ve mostly focused on the first question but now it’s time to turn our focus to the second. As I mentioned if you believe, because of progress and technology, that the future is going to be awesome (level two) then your main goal is to bring that awesome future to pass as quickly as possible. This means adopting new technology and new morality as quickly as possible. The problem is, if we have decided that we don’t know what the future will bring (level four) and by extension what effect new technology will ultimately have, then rapid adoption just hastens the arrival of an unknown, but potentially negative future, and gives us less time to adapt to any potential harms. So what should we do about this?

The answer is: “Be antifragile.” What does that mean? Antifragile is a word coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book of the same name, to describe things that get stronger when they’re subjected to stress. Of course, this can only be true up to a point, nothing is infinitely antifragile, but, as you probably guessed, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. In other words, if you’re antifragile then even if the future isn’t awesome you’ll be okay, in fact you may even be better off. Of course you might also add in slow down the adoption of new technology and morality, but as an individual that’s something you have very little influence over. Also having an antifragile mindset give you an intellectual backing for the what, the how and the why of slowing things down.

Of course, it’s easy to say, “Just do that thing where bad stuff makes you stronger.” But what does it actually look like in practice? Allow me to turn to one of my favorite quotes from Taleb:

If you have extra cash in the bank (in addition to stockpiles of tradable goods such as cans of Spam and hummus and gold bars in the basement), you don’t need to know with precision which event will cause potential difficulties. It could be a war, a revolution, an earthquake, a recession, an epidemic, a terrorist attack, the secession of the state of New Jersey, anything—you do not need to predict much, unlike those who are in the opposite situation, namely, in debt. Those, because of their fragility, need to predict with more, a lot more, accuracy.

This example perfectly illustrates the point I made above. If you’re wrong and there are never any difficulties (but how likely is that?) then you’re just that somewhat eccentric guy with spam in his basement who could have had a boat, or a bigger house instead. But if the guy in debt is wrong and difficulties arise then he ends up bankrupt with possibly no house.

Additionally this doesn’t just apply to cash. If you’re married, and in a strong religious community, than difficulties are a lot easier to face than if you’re single, or have no large community to draw on. This is most apparent when you’re speaking of single parent families which are much more fragile than two parent families.

Early on I grouped the historical view (level three) and the skeptical view (level four) together. It’s now time to separate them again because the historical view has a lot to teach us about how to be antifragile. First it’s important to realize that things are either fragile or antifragile. They are either harmed by stress and disorder or they are helped by it. There is a third category, robust, things that are neither harmed nor helped, but in practice very few things are truly robust so I’m going to ignore it.

As it turns out the amount of stress and disorder something has been subjected to is, to a good approximation, equal to the amount of time it’s been around. Meaning that long standing beliefs including culture, religion and tradition are almost certainly antifragile, because the only other option is for them to be fragile, and if they were, they would have disappeared at some point. Broken by the stress and disorder which inevitably occurs over a sufficiently long period of time.

This makes sense, the past contained all sorts of difficulties and uncertainties and it’s only to be expected that people would have developed tools to soften those difficulties. One of these tools was obviously religion, which encouraged things like having kids only if you had two people to raise them, a spare parent in case something happened. And it’s why a taboo against premarital sex didn’t just exist in Christian Europe, it existed in the Muslim Middle East, and even Ancient China.

Accordingly this blog spends a lot of time defending traditional beliefs and religion, because I think they’re still the best strategy for dealing with an uncertain future. This is contrary to the more common refrain that we no longer need religion and traditions because things have changed so much, but if things are changing so much and so fast how do we know what we need? To know that we would have to know what’s going to happen, and we can’t. And if that’s the case, the best strategy is to be antifragile and the best way to do that is using the tools which have been developed over thousands of years for exactly that purpose: traditional religion.

There is, of course, another reason for religion, one I personally subscribe to. Unlike, progress and technology, which I have argued don’t offer salvation, religion does offer that hope. I agree it’s a hope not a certainty. I agree that it requires faith, but I still think it gives better odds than us being saved under our own power.

To tie everything together, I think we should prepare for a future which is not-awesome. That technology and progress are moving things into unknown territory, and bringing with them the potential of subtle and slow moving catastrophes. But that despite these changes the best way to prepare is the same as it’s always been, follow traditional values, because they’re traditional for a reason.

For those encountering my writing for the first time, if any of this resonates with you I urge you to keep reading, I put out a new post every week. (Here’s a link to my mailing list if you’d like to be notified.) And if you’re ready for more right now here are some other posts you might find interesting:

If you’d like to read more about the subtle ways that technology is making things worse check out my post on supernormal stimuli. Examples include things like twinkies and pornography.

One reason to be pessimistic about the ability of technology to save us is that it doesn’t appear to have worked anywhere else. The universe is silent. This is called Fermi’s Paradox and I’ve written lots of posts about it, including what it might say about the existence of God.

As I mentioned above the “awesome camp” has a lot to recommend it, if you’re interested in a deeper examination of why I’ve decided to bet the other way I’d recommend the post where I review Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.

I’ve just barely scratched the surface of antifragility, to say nothing of Taleb’s other ideas like Black Swan events. If you’re interested in learning more see my post on The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The idea I’m perhaps best known for is the realization that proposals for ensuring the morality of god-like AIs strongly resemble the LDS Plan of Salvation.  If you’re interested I did a whole three part series on it. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Finally, remember this: The world is in a state of flux. Things are changing more rapidly than people realize. The future is not guaranteed to be awesome. Religion is not a useless relic of the past and we are not saved.


If this is the first post of mine you’ve read then another thing I do is come up with a clever (or not so clever) way to ask for your donation at the end of every post. But I’ll forebear this time. Just as there as some things you shouldn’t do on a first date, it’s probably inappropriate to ask for money on the first post.


Technology, Transit Systems and Uncharted Territory

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Long time readers (and probably even people who just started last week) know of my admiration for Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. An admiration which extends to doing the same thing for his blog that I do for mine, i.e. record it and syndicate it as a podcast. Which is not to say that I don’t also, on occasion, disagree with him. I bring all this up because there’s a metaphor of his that I’ve been meaning to discuss for quite a while, probably since he first introduced it near the end of September, but somehow I never get around to slipping it in. This is despite it being directly applicable to much of the stuff I’ve been writing about, particularly over the last couple of weeks. This feels like it was partially a factor of size. That this metaphor has ended up being too big to just use as just one more example of my point, but too small to carry an entire post. Well, we’re about to see if this is the case because I have decided to delay no longer and devote an entire post to Alexander’s The Tails Coming Apart as Metaphor for Life.

He starts off by pointing out that even if you have two variables which are strongly correlated, the most extreme example of one will only rarely be the most extreme example of the other. As an illustration he offers up arm strength vs. grip strength. Certainly you would expect someone with really powerful arms to have really powerful hands, and there would appear to be no reason why you couldn’t have both, but apparently there is enough of an edge to focusing on either arms or grip that different people will end up on the extremes of either measure. Rather than one person being the strongest in both.

You can certainly see this kind of specialization at the highest levels of athletics. Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive at the 100 m dash, but when people started wondering how fast he could run a mile his agent clarified he’s never run a mile in his life. And it turns out that at 2:10 even his 800 m speed is entirely uncompetitive (to be in the top 10 of Utah HS Athletes he would need a time of at least 1:53). On the other side of things, we have the less well known, Eliud Kipchoge, the current holder of the marathon record, who I’m sure would be slaughtered in any competitive 100 m dash (though unlike Bolt, he’s definitely run that distance). In other words, they’re both runners but it turns out they’re very different kinds of runners.

At this point we could go off into a discussion of fast-twitch vs. slow-twitch muscle fibers, and other factors, but that’s not really where I want to take this. Because as much as Bolt and Kipchoge are specialized, there’s a limit to that specialization. People try to push these limits with performance enhancing drugs, but even if those were allowed no one is going to run a five second 100 m dash, or complete a marathon in less than an hour. But once you add technology all of those things are easy. Take the worst car in the world, and as long as it actually still runs it should be able to do both trivially. But then on top of just doing most things better technology vastly increases our ability to really crank up the dial on specific things.

Of course when we do this we have to make sacrifices in other areas. More so even than the elite athletes. Regardless of how much someone focuses on being a sprinter or alternatively being a marathoner, they’re never going to lose their ability to walk. Perhaps even more to the point nothing about sprinting or endurance running precludes learning how to swim. But despite technology allowing us to make a car that is better at both sprinting and endurance, outside of a James Bond movie it’s never going to be able to pass through water deeper than it’s exhaust.

To jump to a more extreme example, let’s discuss airplanes. On the sprinter side we have the SR-71 which had a 56 foot wingspan; was 107 feet in length; had a loaded weight of 76 tons and a maximum speed of Mach 3.3. Of course to achieve that speed it burned 22 tons of fuel every hour, meaning it had to be refueled about every 90 minutes. On the endurance side we have the Rutan Voyager which had a 111 foot wingspan; was 10 feet in length; had a loaded weight of five tons, and a maximum speed of 122 mph. This required it to burn 32 lbs of fuel every hour. On its record setting flight it did the first non-stop, non-refueled circumnavigation of the globe that involved crossing the equator twice. It was aloft for 216 hours.

Yes the SR-71 and the Voyager are both airplanes, but beyond the fact that they both fly there’s not much resemblance. And what resemblance there is probably comes down to the fact that they both have human crews. Eliminate the crews and the how fast can we propel something through the air and how long can we keep something aloft diverge even more. Russia claims it just tested a hypersonic missile that hit Mach 27. On the other side you have the Airbus Zephyr which can, as an unmanned solar-powered UAV (drone), stay aloft essentially indefinitely, at a cruising speed of 35 mph. For comparison to above it has a 74 foot wingspan and weighs 117 lbs.

Returning to Alexander he points out that we end up with two zones, and borrowing some terminology from Taleb he labels them Mediocristan and Extremistan. In my examples Mediocristan is everything where just humans are involved. The speed at which Usain Bolt can travel 100 m is only about 7x as fast as the average person can walk 100 m. And it will never go to 8x. Once you start introducing technology, you enter Extremistan. The hypersonic missile travels 582x as fast as the Zephyr (which coincidentally travels about the same speed as the Wright Brother Flyer). And we already have space probes which have traveled 5000x as fast.

But Alexander isn’t solely focused on technology, the central point of his post is to talk about morality.

The morality of Mediocristan is mostly uncontroversial. It doesn’t matter what moral system you use, because all moral systems were trained on the same set of Mediocristani data and give mostly the same results in this area. Stealing from the poor is bad. Donating to charity is good. A lot of what we mean when we say a moral system sounds plausible is that it best fits our Mediocristani data that we all agree upon. This is a lot like what we mean when we say that “quality of life”, “positive emotions”, and “meaningfulness” are all decent definitions of happiness; they all fit the training data.

The further we go toward the tails, the more extreme the divergences become. Utilitarianism agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because Utility, but take it far enough to the tails and we should tile the universe with rats on heroin. Religious morality agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because God, but take it far enough to the tails and we should spend all our time in giant cubes made of semiprecious stones singing songs of praise. Deontology agrees that we should give to charity and shouldn’t steal from the poor, because Rules, but take it far enough to the tails and we all have to be libertarians.

I should point out that the ultimate expression of my religion is not spending “all of [my] time in giant cubes made of semiprecious stones singing songs of praise”. But I can’t speak for everyone.

He actually immediately follows this up with a graph. On one axis is “How good something is according to hedonic utilitarianism.” On the other axis is “How good something is according to Christian teachings on morality”. Then he plots various events/actions such as, “The Holocaust” (very bad for both). “Donating to a Charity” right in the middle. “Starting a Catholic Hospital” high for Christians, middle for utilitarians. And so on. All of these things are in morality Mediocristan, where everyone basically agrees what’s good and what’s not. Then he gives two examples from Extremistan. At the very top of the Christian axis (but lower than the holocaust on the utilitarian axis) is “One thousand year reign of Christ over the Earth with unbelievers thrown into the bottomless pit”. (Once again I should point out this isn’t exactly what I believe though he’s getting closer.) And at the very top of the utilitarian axis (but lower than the holocaust for Christians) is “Entire mass of the universe converted into nervous tissue experiencing raw euphoria”.

This is an excellent observation and you can see where I’ve alluded to it in several previous posts, like my last post on the conflict between happiness and survival. Historically the overlap between survival and happiness has been nearly total, so it didn’t really much matter which we were prioritizing. We were firmly in Mediocristan. But I would argue that the two spaces are starting to diverge; the overlap is getting less and less. As we saw with flying, technology allows us to make radically different planes depending on what we decide to prioritize. I don’t think it’s to much of a stretch to say that we’re entering a period where we can make radically different societies depending on what we decide to prioritize, and if we prioritize happiness we may end up with a society that isn’t great at survival, just like the SR-71 is great at going really fast, but isn’t great at staying aloft for long periods.

To use Alexander’s term, there’s a danger that the “tails are coming apart”. Which takes us to his best metaphor, the Bay Area transit system. But, before we get into that I want to point out something about his two examples of Extremistan. People are inclined to declare that religious fanaticism and technological fanaticism are both equally alarming. In fact, to a point Alexander himself does this. But let’s return to his two very extreme examples. Christ reigning over the earth and nervous tissue experiencing raw euphoria.  Outside of the Mormon Transhumanist Association no one thinks that we can bring about Christ’s return by creating sufficiently advanced technology. But the technology to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain directly already exists, and we should also include designer drugs, and other supernormal stimuli in this category as well. You may of course argue that this is a long way from “the entire mass of the universe”, or that it’s not exactly “raw euphoria” but there’s nothing necessarily stopping us from heading in that direction and the steps we’ve already taken are disturbing and unlikely to get less so. Whereas all the space between where we are now and “Christ reigning on the Earth” largely consists of people trying to master the morality of Mediocristan. Which is precisely where most people, including Alexander, want to remain.

The key point being that we can bring about a utilitarian pleasure maximization nightmare, but we can not make Christ return. Either God exists or he doesn’t and if he does, there’s not a lot we can do to change his plan except perhaps by working out our own salvation, and certainly nothing we can do with technology to change it. In the more immediate sense I know that lots of people worry about religious fanatics, and I would argue that we should worry more about technological fanaticism. Religious fanatics have existed for a long time, and as yet they haven’t seriously endangered the world, nor do they have the power to. Technological fanatics are both potentially more powerful, and also a lot less well understood.

This takes us, finally, to the Bay Area transit system metaphor. Though you could also use the Salt Lake City Trax system. In both cases there is a densely populated area through which all of the lines pass, but once you leave the more densely populated area the lines start to diverge. I’ll let Alexander explain the metaphor from here:

Mediocristan is like the route from Balboa Park to West Oakland, where it doesn’t matter what line you’re on because they’re all going to the same place. Then suddenly you enter Extremistan, where if you took the Red Line you’ll end up in Richmond, and if you took the Green Line you’ll end up in Warm Springs, on totally opposite sides of the map.

Our innate moral classifier has been trained on the Balboa Park – West Oakland route. Some of us think morality means “follow the Red Line”, and others think “follow the Green Line”, but it doesn’t matter, because we all agree on the same route.

When people talk about how we should arrange the world after the Singularity when we’re all omnipotent, suddenly we’re way past West Oakland, and everyone’s moral intuitions hopelessly diverge.

For myself I’m not sure it will take the singularity, we might have passed our metaphorical West Oakland already. But I do agree that technology is a big part of the problem. Of course, as people will often point out technology has no inherent morality, it’s just a tool. I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with that, but it is important to note that it’s mostly human desires being given a more perfect expression by technology that’s causing the divergence. To extend the metaphor, in the past it was difficult to get much farther than West Oakland, just as arguing whether we should build a plane that goes really fast or one that stays aloft forever was pointless before the Wright Brothers came along. But now we can have arguments about all sorts of things that were previously unthinkable, or at least only discussed in the realm of science fiction. Some examples:

  • The recent story of the Chinese scientist who used CRISPR to genetically modify babies.
  • The new tactic of large groups of people publicly shaming private individuals.
  • The question of whether Facebook is using their 10 Year Challenge to improve their facial recognition software.
  • The changing face of war and deterrence in light of the new hypersonic missiles I described above.
  • Elon Musk’s plans for a million person city on Mars.
  • The epidemic of anxiety among teenagers and college students and how much of it is due to social media.

A future of ubiquitous designer babies, a la Gattaca, is very different from a future where we decide that such technology should be entirely off limits, and the rest of the examples are similar, particularly if we imagine how far we could travel if we take one side of the argument all the way to the “end of the line”.  

If you push on the metaphor enough you realize that it’s entirely too certain and clean to actually represent reality. A rider of the Bay Area transit system can tell which line they’re boarding, and know where they’re headed, but such is not the case with humanity. Even if we all decided we wanted to take the hedonic utilitarian train all the way to “raw euphoria” town, we might not get there. And of course we don’t all agree. And it’s not like there’s multiple trains, there may only be one train, with a bunch of people all fighting for control of the speed and direction, which brings up another point, forget about tracks, or even roads, those don’t exist either.  And the landscape passing by on either side of us? Completely new.

I’ve gotten continual pushback for discussing falling birthrates as a proxy for survival priority, some of which is certainly fair, but given that we’re in completely new territory, what landmarks can we rely on? A lush countryside tells us one thing, a barren one another. Both may be temporary, but how can you tell? Take I-80 west out of the Bay Area and once things start looking like a desert they’re going to look that way for a long time.

One argument that’s been made for the falling birthrates is that it’s a rational response to population pressure. That in essence someone sitting in the front of the train can see approaching catastrophe, and they’re braking to avoid it. And, if there was a central authority telling everyone to have fewer children, similar to China’s One Child policy, that might make sense, but instead everyone seems to have made this decision just about regardless of where they are on the train. In fact it should be noted that total fertility rate (TFR) seems to be mostly uncorrelated with population density. Consider Nigeria and South Korea, both countries have similar population density (Nigeria is slightly higher) but Nigeria is 8th in total fertility while South Korea is 206th (out of 209).

Probably a better argument is that the declining TFR has nothing to do with rationally making a choice to avoid Malthusian catastrophe, or rationally choosing happiness over survival. But is rather a mostly unconscious following of incentives, some hidden, some obscured, and some right out there in the open. The point I’m getting at is that technology allows us to pursue those incentives in previously unimagined ways. In the example above, when the incentive was speed, engineers built a terrifyingly fast plane that burned 22 tons of fuel every hour.

What incentives are we maximizing with technology? What plane have we built and does it also have a voracious appetite for fuel? Stated in that way the current culture war seems to qualify and at the risk of mixing metaphors, it’s definitely clear we’re way past West Oakland with one side speeding towards Warm Springs and another headed just as fast to Richmond. Gallons of virtual ink has already been spilled on this subject, (perhaps that’s the fuel?) but can anyone look at controversy over the smirking MAGA kid and not see this split?

Despite the emphasis I have placed on technology, in the end Alexander is right and this is primarily a split in morality. Between two competing visions of what ultimate morality is, once you get past things we can agree on like the evils of murder and the benefits of being charitable. At this point I could interject that one side wants to stay in West Oakland, or at least reduce the speed at which we pull away. And maybe that has some validity, and maybe it doesn’t. Regardless I think humanity as a whole is definitely headed into uncharted territory, and I’m not sure what we’ll find when we reach the end of the line.

I can’t improve upon Alexander’s closing statement, so I’m going to go ahead and steal it:

When Lovecraft wrote that “we live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far”, I interpret him as talking about the region from Balboa Park to West Oakland on the map above. Go outside of it and your concepts break down and you don’t know what to do. He was right about the island, but exactly wrong about its causes – the most merciful thing in the world is how so far we have managed to stay in the area where the human mind can correlate its contents.


Speaking of Lovecraft, last year I worked my way through his complete works. I’m not sure I’d recommend it. It may have affected my sanity. If you would like to help with the inevitable cost of therapy stemming from that and many other things, consider donating.


How Do We Win?

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Last week I compared life to a video game. A video game where the number of players continues to increase, meaning that our collective knowledge of how best to play the game should also be increasing, except that at the same time the version of game we’re playing is also changing. As an aside I also mentioned that it’s becoming harder to know if we’re winning. This week I’d like to take that thought and expand upon it. What does it mean to be winning the video game? Or, to go a step further why are we even playing the game?

Coincidently at around the same time as I was thinking about this issue I saw the following on the Slate Star Codex subreddit:

I have been thinking a lot about life lately and reached to some disturbing conclusions. Basically, I can see only 3 good reasons to live:

  • External meaning – worship god, raise your kids help the poor etc…
  • Fun and joy – Just plain hedonism.
  • Fear of death and instinct

I’ve come to the conclusion that for me (And I would guess for many others) the only reason I’m alive is reason number 3. For reason 1: I would say that kids are a reasonably good external meaning, all the rest seems somewhat ridiculous to me, I don’t believe in god or religion – and it seems the end game of it all is heat death of the universe in the super long future or just human replacement by AI or another type of species very far from humans in the near future, and I don’t see the point of bootstrapping it. But I don’t want to have kids because it seems pointless and cruel (See reason 2).

Looking at the second reason: It just seems that life is full of suffering and that suffering is greater than pleasure for most people in most situations throughout history…

This is not a bad list of reasons for playing the game, and by extension ways to win it. And I’ll be returning to it, but first it’s worthwhile to look at why this individual and perhaps others have decided that the game might not even be worth playing. He takes pains to clarify that he’s not depressed, and that his mental health has been confirmed by a professional, he just thinks that on net he and most people are suffering.

One of the more interesting responses is a link to a chart showing the percentage of people in different countries who rate themselves as “very happy” or “rather happy”, vs. their guess for what percentage of their fellow countrymen give that answer. It turns out that most people think they’re happy while thinking that far fewer of their fellow citizens are. Perhaps the most extreme example is South Korea where 90% of people consider themselves “very happy” or “rather happy”, but when asked to guess the percentage for the country as a whole they think it’s only 25%. (If you’re curious the numbers for the US are 90% and 49%.)

Accordingly the individual is probably wrong about how widespread suffering is, but he’s not the first to jump to the conclusion that it is. In a previous post we talked about the antinatalists who are basically arguing the same thing.

Beyond the idea that this despair may not be widespread, or at least not as widespread as the individual imagines, it’s nevertheless real enough for him and presumably many others. Given that one of the major questions from my last post was how behaviors change and how much weight we should give to history it’s interesting to ask if this sort of despair existed historically? My assumption would be that it wasn’t completely unknown, but that it’s far more common now. Maybe not, perhaps the rate hasn’t changed, but given that conditions are generally acknowledged to be much better now than they have been historically, you would expect it to be far rarer, and I definitely don’t think that’s the case. In other words, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s evidence that what should be making us happy isn’t.

It’s interesting to speculate why that might be. Is the relative lack of historical despair due to more intense and widespread religiosity? Was there just not enough time for it? If all of your attention is being directed towards survival, then you may not have the energy for an existential crisis. Or perhaps this brand of despair is something which occurs much more frequently at certain tech levels. Certainly people have been talking about the alienation produced by modern life since at least the time of Hegel, and obviously Marx made much of it. It could be that they had a point.

It is not my intention to delve too deeply into Marx and Hegel, but if winning is becoming more difficult to define even as more people play the game, that does lend support to the idea that the speed at which the game is changing is at least as important as how many people are playing it.

Of course defining what it means to win is exactly the problem this individual is expressing. He doesn’t see any way to win, which leads him to question why he’s even playing the game in the first place. As I said, his list of the various reasons for playing the game represents a reasonably comprehensive summary of the various ideologies, and as we dive into his (and others) specific complaints we might as well start with them.

He starts off by talking about external meaning, mentioning God, children and helping the poor. As I mentioned above it’d be interesting to know how many people used their religion to stave off this sort of despair historically. If we imagine that there was less despair back then how much of that was due to religion? It’s not inconceivable that much of the difference was due to religion. But regardless of whether it was used in that way in the past it doesn’t appear that this individual could use it to that end now. And there’s an increasing number in the same position. Sure, there are certainly people who go from unbeliever to believer even now, but the opposite direction, particularly if you take observance into account, is far more common. If religion was a significant source of historical meaning what do we tell people who feel their life has very little meaning (or is a net negative) and who will never be religious? That’s a good question that I don’t really have an answer for. Several people respond by suggesting the individual take up effective altruism in place of religion, and perhaps that works for some people, but he said he had tried it and it didn’t make him feel any better. The only thing remaining from his list is children, which I’ll get to in a bit.

One thing he didn’t mention in his “external meaning” list was patriotism, or anything related to finding a reason to live in your nation and culture. It’s entirely possible that more so even than religion this has been the reason many people have had for playing the game. Though as Huntington points out in Clash of Civilizations religion may be be inseparable from culture. Which all leads to the thought that if there has been an increase in existential despair (or even if it’s just stayed constant in the face of prosperity and riches) that it might be a mostly Western phenomenon. And reflects both the decline of religion and a decline national identification. Which I suppose, Huntington might argue, marks the decline of the civilization as a whole.

In any case for this individual I’m sure that the idea of finding a reason to live in his nation or culture is even less practical than the idea of finding it in God and religion. Perhaps in recognition of this fact it doesn’t come up in the 121 comments that were left on the post.

But all of this does lead into a discussion of external meaning more broadly. Historically most people have played the game as a team, and that team not only provided external meaning just by existing, but its existence was dedicated to some further external meaning. Religion is the best example of this. People gain external meaning just from being in a group of their co-religionists, but they also receive external meaning from a belief in God and the hereafter when they would be judged by their actions.

Historically, I would argue, not only were more people on teams, but team cohesion was higher. I just finished listening to an episode of the Hardcore History podcast about the Japanese during World War II. And if you ever doubt the existence of cohesive cultures all working towards a specific end, then World War II in general and Japan in particular should disabuse you of that doubt. But in our specific example, how much of the existential despair being experienced in the reddit post comes from not being on a team? And what place to teams have in the latest version of the game and how does it relate to the greater number of people playing the game?

You might assume that a greater number of people would mean more teams, or larger teams, but the opposite seems to be happening. All the way back in 2000 Robert Putnam came out with the book Bowling Alone, which documented the decline of social capital and civic engagement. His major theory was that technology was individualizing people’s leisure time, and if anything, since 2000, individualization appears to be getting worse. A search on the exact phrase “epidemic of loneliness” brings up 100,000 articles. As far as I can tell the majority written after Bowling Alone.

Tying all of this together it would appear that external meaning definitely can work as a motivation to play the game. And that, historically, many people even felt that it provided a good way of winning the game. Despite all this something about the latest version has made it more difficult to find meaning externally. In part this is because of a decline in religion and patriotism, and in part because, despite there being more people in total playing the game, there’s less playing as a team, one of the major tools for generating external meaning.

His next point was finding external meaning through hedonism. Given that I am mostly approaching things from a historical perspective it’s worth looking at the history of hedonism. It would of course be inaccurate to say that the philosophy of hedonism is of recent vintage. One of the very earliest philosophies we’re aware of. Epicureanism, was based around hedonism. But if you look into it you’ll find that it was less The Wolf of Wall Street and more Little House on the Prairie. From Wikipedia:

Epicurus believed that what he called “pleasure” (ἡδονή) was the greatest good, but that the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one’s desires. This would lead one to attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear as well as an absence of bodily pain (aponia). The combination of these two states constitutes happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from “hedonism” as colloquially understood.

Indeed I don’t think anyone, even now, is really advocating for “‘hedonism’ as colloquially understood.” So what sort of hedonism are they advocating? I think the most common form of hedonist philosophy currently, might be called Pinkerian Hedonism (though I’m sure Steven Pinker is not the first to notice it and I’d be happy to change the label if someone points me to someone earlier than him.) Pinkerian Hedonism, which I discussed at length in several previous posts, claims that everything is much better objectively than it ever has been, and that we basically just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Well we have at least one example of this not being a persuasive argument, and I’m sure many thousands more beyond that. And If your argument is that this is meaningless besides the billions of people it is working for then that’s a pretty good argument.

All that said, what’s interesting is that despite the quality of the argument, and the disparity in numbers, that’s not the argument most people make when they respond. Sure, as I already mentioned people point out that he’s wrong to claim that the majority of people are unhappy. But I think I saw only one individual who was attempting to convert him to happiness. If anything most people appeared to be trying to convert him to suffering. Allow me to explain what I mean.

You can easily imagine someone trying to convert him to Christianity, “Well your problem is that you just haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” You can imagine someone trying to talk him into having kids, or just surviving (which we’re about to get to) because survival has value, but the one attempt to convert him to happiness was more a story of overcoming depression (which the original individual claimed not to suffer from) and involved no references to Pinkerian Hedonism. On the other hand, as I mentioned, lots of people said, “Of course you’re suffering. Suffering is the whole point and that’s where you need to find meaning.”

What I think everything but happiness has in common is that they all have standards attached. If you belong to a religion there’s a standard attached to that religion, and you can measure how well you’re doing against that standard. Same with kids, either you have them or you don’t, and they’re either doing well or they’re not. Surviving has the easiest standard to measure of all.

As far as measuring suffering it has some similarities to happiness, in that it’s subjective, but because of the way we’re wired if we expect suffering and we get it then everything’s going according to plan, but if we expect suffering and don’t get it then that’s fine too. Also, unlike happiness suffering is easy to create, whereas, for most people, including the individual from reddit, you’re either happy or you’re not, and if you’re not, making a Pinkerian argument of, “Well you should be, you’ve got a great car, a huge TV, and a low chance of dying!” Has no effect whatsoever and may in fact make the problem worse.

Of course this being the Slate Star Codex reddit, people inevitably mention that once the singularity happens this won’t be a problem and we will be able to create happiness, so the person should lash his external meaning to hastening that.

I think we’re ready to turn to his last point. He calls it “Fear of death and instinct”. I think I’ll label it a just “survival”. We play the game because that’s what we’re supposed to do, that it is in fact what we’ve been programmed to do (which makes the game metaphor suddenly a little weird.) As I’ve mentioned I’m becoming increasingly convinced that many if not most of the fundamental ideological battles of modernity come down to a difference of core values, with one side valuing happiness/pleasure/hedonic utility and the other side valuing survival. And here again we see the same dichotomy, this individual is essentially valuing pleasure, and since he feels that he’s suffering, on net, then there’s no point in playing the game.

It should also be noted here that while he separates things into three points that the first point is largely about survival as well. Certainly historically most sources of external meaning gave meaning because they related directly or indirectly to survival. Children being the most obvious example of this, but group membership (tribe/religion/culture) being a very big one as well.

In the battle between pleasure and survival, I obviously think the core value should be survival, and for a detailed examination of why you should read my past posts on the topic, though in short if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else. Which means that the reason to play the game and the win condition are both very simple. We play the game to keep it from ending and the win condition is to have children. Or as I saw it phrased in a book I just read (The Righteous Mind by Haidt).. The point of the game is to “turn resources into offspring”. Now there is an argument to be made that humanity has too many offspring, which I’ve also covered in the past. But in that post I also pointed out the wisdom of Tommy Boy, “You’re either growing or you’re dying there ain’t no third direction.” And if that’s the case we appear to be dying.

To put it plainly, if survival is the point of the game, technology and modernity seems to have made us a lot worse at it. At least at the individual level. The individual who made the original post is a great example of this. He has thousands of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce, and yet despite all of the accumulated genes and experience, he has decided not to. I’m not holding it against him. I’m not saying it makes him objectively a worse person. Certainly it doesn’t seem malicious, in fact he claims he’s doing it for altruistic reasons because he thinks his children will, on net, suffer. But somehow after thousands of individuals being driven to reproduce this person has decided it ends with him.

This is obviously only one data point, but insofar as having children, and upstream of that, sexual activity, are proxies for survival, the society-wide view is not great either. Just in the last couple of weeks new numbers were released for the US birthrate and only Utah and South Dakota are at above replacement rates. On top of this we have articles asking “Why are young people having so little sex?” Which might be welcome news if this predilection suddenly reversed itself somewhere in the 20s but it appears to continue into adulthood. (See “epidemic of loneliness” above.) If there’s no third direction, then we appear to be dying.

This post was designed as a continuation of last week’s post. And to put it back in those terms, my argument is that the point of the game is and always has been survival, but that something in the latest version of the game makes us think that a different way to win has been introduced, and I don’t think that’s true. I think we may have hacked the game to make it more pleasurable, and convinced ourselves that’s “winning!” but we’ve only changed how the game plays, not its ultimate goal.

In addition to the metaphor of the video game I also talked about same sex marriage (SSM) in last week’s post. After which a long discussion ensued in the comments over whether SSM might be a bad thing. Many interesting arguments were made on both sides, but I’m not sure that anyone really captured the argument I’m trying to make: That SSM whatever it’s other benefits and downsides is clearly playing the game to make it more pleasurable, not in order to “turn resources into offspring”. It is true that modern technology has finally introduced a way for same sex couples to eat their cake and have it. Passing on their genes without having to do anything heterosexual, but how many of them take advantage of that really? And is it more than the number of people who used to do it while remaining closeted? And given the larger trends mentioned above is this number going up or down? Finally how does it affect the game-playing strategy of everyone else?

It’s entirely possible that SSM is just a symptom of the larger underlying problem of prioritizing pleasure over survival. That it carries with it no inherent harm. I might even go so far as to say that this is my prefered explanation. But it is an explanation which makes the problem harder not easier. One can conceive of the Supreme Court eventually reversing Obergefell v. Hodges (though I’m on record as predicting they won’t). It’s much more difficult to imagine, short of some giant catastrophe, a wholesale rejection of happiness/pleasure in favor of survival.

As is so often the case, I hope I’m wrong. I hope that humans are just as concerned with survival as they always have been. Or that if they’re not it won’t require some giant catastrophe to change things. Or that our prowess has grown to the point where we don’t need to worry about survival, that that problem has been solved once and for all. That we can survive without having to prioritize survival. But, if I didn’t think the evidence was against all of these hopes I wouldn’t have written this post.

To reiterate I think we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re playing a new game with different rules, but that’s not the case. The game is the same as it’s always been, and the only way to win is to keep playing.


I’ve convinced myself that the only way to win is to keep writing. If you’d like to help with that, and you don’t mind backing an underdog, consider donating.


The Data of History (Years vs. HEYs)

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Frequently, in this space, I will talk about some aspect of modernity which has only been a feature of the world for the last few decades, and then contrast it with the way things were done for thousands of years prior to that. Making, what I feel to be the obvious point, that thousands of years of doing things one way should make us doubt whether we have suddenly stumbled on the correct way of doing things in just the last 20-30 years, particularly if the new way is the exact opposite of historical norms. I don’t think I have ever argued that it absolutely proved that modern ideology was wrong, more that it was a piece of evidence which people give insufficient weight to, as in no weight at all, when it probably should be one of our weightiest considerations.

Recently Boonton, a frequent commenter on the blog sent me an email and pointed out a different way of looking at it. One which deserves to be considered. With his permission, here’s a quote from that email:

Check out The funnel of human experience.   So in terms of human experience 1/2 of all human experience happened after 1309.  This is a consequence of our large population. Leave our population closer to 10B for a while and this date will advance much faster than time.  If you imagine a future where we are spread out among the solar system with, say, a few hundred billion in population and the experience funnel will get even closer to the present moment very fast.

How does this fly with the ideology of conservatism?  Conservatism privileges human experience (Burke I think called it Democracy for the dead) but that only works well if population growth remained roughly linear.  With exponential growth experience becomes newer. It will be the norm eventually that not only will most present living humans live most of their lives connected to global social media, but most of human experience was lived that way rather than not.  What trumps what then? Does a hundred billion human-lives (say of 75 years) living in information rich media count as much as a paltry few million human-lives lived under, say, ancient Greek conditions? Consider the time will come when the majority of humanity will have lived it’s life with SSM as a norm.  Will you deflate present experience and inflate past experience to counter that? Say tell ten billion people living in Asian cities that their experience-years are equal to 1/1000th of the experience years of ancient Egyptians? Or will experience be democratic, making conservatives the least historically oriented of all ideologies?

I had previously seen the article he referenced, but I don’t know if I just skimmed it or if I had read it but not quite recognized the implications. But after Boonton’s explanation I realized that it was a very interesting and also very valid point. A potentially better way of looking at things in the same way that looking at GDP per capita is a better than looking at a countries total GDP if you want to talk about how well off someone is in a particular country. (See for example Nigeria and Norway, similar GDPs, vastly different on a per capita basis.)

To restate what I think Boonton and the original article are getting at, if we want to define what’s normal or what works for human societies, we shouldn’t just look at the length of those societies we should also multiply it by the number of humans in those societies. Thus despite modern humans being around for 50,000 years, half of all human experience, as Boonton says, has happened since 1309. And if we go all the way back to the original article, it claims that “15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.” Because “50,000 years is a long time, but 8,000,000,000 people is a lot of people.”

Let’s say we make this switch from years to “human experience years” (HEYs) when considering how much weight to give something. How does that change the point I’m constantly making about historical deference? Well I think on certain things it actually makes the point stronger. Boonton mentions same sex marriage (SSM), so let’s start there.

This may have been a bad place for him to plant his flag. Yes SSM is now legal/normal in a lot of places, particularly if you include things like civil unions which aren’t quite marriage, but are close enough. It’s legal in most of Europe, most of South and Central America, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. That’s an impressive list, but when you consider that it’s not legal in China, India, almost all of Southeast Asia, or Africa outside of the one country, and further consider the population of all those countries, then switching from years to HEYs doesn’t strengthen the argument for SSM and may in fact weaken it.

At this point, I think it’d actually be interesting to run some numbers. Let’s be as liberal as possible on the number of people who are experiencing SSM as the norm, and say it’s all of Europe, and the entirety of the Americas. Using this liberal standard we have the following populations:

  • North America: 579 million
  • South America: 423 million
  • Europe: 739 million
  • South Africa: 57 million
  • Australia: 25 million
  • New Zealand: 5 million
  • Total: 1.828 billion

The total population of the world is 7.7 billion meaning that there’s just shy of 6 billion people who live in countries where it’s illegal and 1.8 billion who live where it is legal. Which means that currently every year that passes the weight of HEYs where SSM is not normal increases. Now perhaps in the next decade or so that will switch. India just decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, which is an obvious first step towards SSM, but there’s still a long way to go, and while that’s happening the disparity continues to widen, not shrink. Also it should be pointed out that the population growth in the countries where it’s not legal is projected to be greater than in those countries where it is. Meaning we could actually see this gap widen at an even faster rate in the future.

One could argue that putting all the people where it’s legal on one side of things and all the people where it’s still illegal on the other side of things is far too crude, since there are certainly people in India and China who view it as normal, just as there are people in America who still think it’s not normal. Perhaps, but breaking it down further would be difficult. And it’s very unlikely that SSM supporters form a majority in any of the countries where it’s still illegal, recall that as recently as 2008 they weren’t even a majority in California.

Now, of course, when people, particularly educated Westerners, imagine the future, they never imagine that in the great and limitless destiny which awaits us that SSM would still be illegal anywhere. For example, it’s hard to imagine a modern science fiction author writing a book where the illegality of SSM is a “feature” of future. They would only include it if they were imagining a dystopia. And thus most people, like Boonton, imagine that despite HEYs being currently against normalization and despite the weight of this steadily getting greater, that when we eventually spread out through the solar system, and perhaps beyond, the weight of HEYs will be in favor of normalization, thus they’re willing to start backing HEYs over normal years now.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. I understand that if you believe in the inevitability of progress and further believe that the normalization of SSM is an example of that progress, why it may seem inevitable. (Though I have questioned this inevitability repeatedly.) I further understand that on top of this there are many other arguments for the eventual universal normalization of SSM, and I’m not trying to speak to all of them, I am only saying that, thus far, and for the foreseeable future, using HEYs in place of years still points in the other direction.

But can HEYs always be directly substituted for years? In some cases I’m sure they can, and that it’s beneficial to do so, but I think there are also fairly significant differences between HEYs and years which need to be acknowledged. To understand these differences we need to dive into this idea of normality. What does it mean for something to be normal as opposed to abnormal? I can think of four ways to define normality in this context.

First, normality could be descriptive. If we’re saying that it’s “normal” for humans to do X, we could just be describing the fact that a certain percentage of people do X, and that this percentage is above some commonly agreed upon threshold for whether something is common enough to be considered normal, a percentage far less than a majority, maybe even as low as 1%. We don’t think it’s normal for people to stick pencils up their noses because while some people do it, the percentage isn’t high enough or the occurrence often enough for it to pass our normality threshold. But this definition of normality doesn’t help us much in determining whether something which wasn’t normal should be made normal, or whether something which was normal should be made abnormal. It can only give us a normality snapshot, taken at a specific time. Also it leads to questions of whether something like stealing is “normal”, certainly lots of people do it, enough to for it to be above our normality threshold, and yet it’s still illegal. Which brings us to our next way of viewing normality.

Second, normality could describe what works. However high the percentage of thieves is in our community, we don’t consider it normal because if we did, society would break down at least in the realm of property rights. This is the conservative position, we don’t change things because if you do they will stop working. For example every so often people question whether property rights are important, and from that, they try to establish a new definition of normal, which could be less about stealing and more about eliminating the concept of ownership all together. And yes, it all sounds good, but millions of deaths later, it turns out that property rights and ownership were important after all. I know that there are probably a few people who feel that nothing should ever change. But of course some things are going to change. In the dawn of time it probably wasn’t obvious that property rights make things run more smoothly. But that changed. The question is how fast should things change? And also how do we know when a given change will be better? Which all leads to the next definition of normality.

Third, what’s normal at any given time changes through experimentation. Similar to the second definition, normality is our current best guess at what works, but this adds the idea that there’s probably something that works better out there, and eventually we’ll find it and switch. Normality is never static, it changes from one generation to the next, as humans constantly try out new things. As you can see this definition of normality leads naturally to prioritizing HEYs over normal years. The more people there are experiencing “life” the more experiments are being run and the more likely you are to come up with something different which works better. We’ll get back to a discussion of experimentation in a second, but first we need to consider one final way of defining normality.

Fourth, “normal” is what we’ve evolved to accept as normal. If we were bees we would consider it normal that every winter all the males die off, and the rest of the bees stand around and use their wings to create warmth for the queen while occasionally suicide squads of fellow bees are sent off to fetch some stored honey. If we were a male emperor penguin our normal winter would consist of huddling in a circle while we protected an egg and drained down our fat reserves. Instead as a human I consider it normal to light a fire (or its modern equivalent) and stay inside a shelter while I eat stored food (okay the stored food is a stretch, but everything’s close enough that no “abnormal” flags are raised). The question we have to address is does evolution drive normality or is it the other way around? I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around, as external normality changes an organism has to adapt/evolve to survive the new conditions (presumably this involves some shift to experiencing it as normal) or they die. Which takes us back to the idea of experimentation.

Technology is rapidly changing our environment. In the past when change was more gradual we might have been able to rely on evolution to create a new experience of normal to match the new environmental normal. Which is not to say there weren’t sudden changes historically, just that when those happened most of the evolution happened through massive death. I think we’re hoping to avoid that with the current sudden changes. The key point being that things are moving too fast for evolution to provide the answer. All of our experimentation has to be cultural rather than genetic.

This is very important when debating whether to pay more attention to years or HEYs. Seven billion people undergoing all manner of selective pressure is much better than a million individuals in a very narrow environment if you’re hoping to maximize beneficial adaptive mutations. Accordingly, if this is what we’re aiming for then HEYs are superior. Importantly, evolution can operate at the level of an individual (or more accurately at the level of a gene.) So having more individuals (genes) is better. The problem is, I don’t think the same thing can be said of culture. We aren’t seven billion cultures all experimenting with what works best, we’re not even millions of small tribes experimenting with what works best. If anything technology is leading to fewer cultures, not more.

As an aside you may feel that this contradicts my frequent assertion that tiny political niches are proliferating, since what are those tiny niches but small cultures. The problem I see there is that these niches aren’t (yet?) in true competition. There’s no nation of Bernie Sanders supporters competing with a nation of neo-cons which is in further competition with a nation of libertarians. Perhaps there should be. Perhaps there will be. Certainly I could see it as something which fans of HEYs over years might support.

Returning to the idea of there being only a few cultures, let’s once again look at SSM. The very speed of its adoption and how quickly opposition for it went from expected, even for Obama, to a good way to lose your job speaks to the unity of Western culture. This is not what it looks like when one set of behaviors out-competes another set of behaviors, this is what it looks like when an idea reaches a critical mass within a significantly monolithic culture. And if that’s the case then HEYs have not brought us greater knowledge or effectiveness because the “experiments” aren’t sufficiently independent. The years each human experience are essentially identical. Even if you think this claim is overbroad you still have to ask at what level are experiments being performed, at the level of a culture or at the level of an individual? And how do we determine the success of these experiments? To put it another way the triumph of an idea is more likely the beginning of the experiment than its end.

Of course now that we’re firmly in the realm of discussing behavior as experiments we have lots of tools for deciding whether any given experiment is a good one. To begin with a good experiment needs a control. This is exceptionally difficult when you’re talking about reality. As people frequently mention you can’t create a clone of America where everything’s the same except there’s no social media. And it’s even hard to compare one time period to another. As an example the Economist just did a special report on children, and opened by mentioning that 30 years ago children would engage in unstructured play for hours on end, spent most of that time outdoors, largely unsupervised, and there was almost no time in front of computers. But for children today all of that is basically the exact opposite. Now say we are confronted with some distressing (or beneficial) new trend among children, which of the above is causing it? Or are none of them? Or maybe it’s all of them. It’s extremely difficult to tell.

Also note that part of why it’s difficult to tell is that this wasn’t a shift by some children, allowing us to collect data on current children whose upbringing didn’t change, and still behave exactly as they did 30 years ago and compare. The entire culture shifted. What this means is we’re not running a lot of experiments we’re running one and if we’re lucky increasing the N. Which, to be clear, is not entirely without value, but it’s less valuable than people imagine. Of course there are probably some children out there who live as children did 30 or more years ago, but generally for that to be the case there’s something else going on, meaning that their value as a control is limited by all sorts of confounders, they’re probably religious, almost certainly rural, and my guess would be the education level would skew low as well.

Beyond the lack of a good control for these experiments with reality there is a lack of replication, and here is where I take the most issue with privileging HEYs over years, and specifically privileging modern experience over historical experience, because historically conditions changed much less quickly. Back then, if my grandfather “ran an experiment” and my father “ran an experiment” and I “ran an experiment” we’re probably all doing it under relatively the same conditions. Extend that out to 100 generations and we call the experiments which have replicated “tradition”. But these days I can run an “experiment” vastly different from anything my grandfather would have tried and only superficially similar to something my father might have tried.

To put everything in terms of a metaphor, imagine life is like a video game. For a long time you’re playing the same video game over and over again. Sure things change, but new rules for this video game are introduced very slowly. Mostly it’s the same game and you play it hundreds of times. It’s not that crazy of an assumption to imagine that you’d end up with some pretty good optimizations. You’d be as close to winning the game as it was possible to be. (Though remember this video game is crazy difficult.) Now imagine that changes start happening with greater and greater rapidity, until people start to question whether it even deserves to be called the same game. Given this, what’s the best strategy?

That’s hard to say, but it’s not crazy to argue that a good strategy would incorporate skills from previous versions, even if the game is on version 119 and version 120 is going to be released tomorrow. And it’s also not crazy to argue that it’s a bad strategy to ditch all the skills picked up in previous versions and focus entirely on trying out the crazy powers made available in version 119, particularly if it’s about to be replaced with version 120. Yes it’s somewhat helpful that a lot more people are playing these later versions, but as I mentioned there’s less variety to their strategies than one might expect. Also what does it mean to play and win the latest versions of the game? The win condition used to be producing offspring, but people seem to think that’s less important in the latest version of the game. All of which is to say it’s hard to know if something was a winning strategy in version 119 if no one manages to finish it before version 120 is released.

To close, I’d like to provide a concrete example of what I mean. I recently listened to an episode of Planet Money that was about synthetic drugs. You could say that they’re a new feature of the latest version of the game. Perhaps they require a new strategy. Fortunately if you’re looking at HEYs, then all of this should be okay, depending on how you count we’ve got millions if not billions of people playing the latest version. Someone is definitely going to experiment with synthetic drugs, and we’re all going to be provided with the results. Everyone will play the game better, and all of this will be accomplished more effectively because there are so many of us.

Except that’s not what happened. Despite, according to Planet Money, the first overdose being “national news” it keeps happening. (Planet Money includes a further six examples.) And, spoiler, this is just synthetic cannabinoids we’re talking about. If we move on to synthetic opioids (also just made available in the latest version of the game) then the harm goes through the roof. Also, the idea that someone might not know about the danger becomes much harder to argue. This is not because there weren’t a lot of HEYs being dedicated to trying out new ways to play the game. We tried all sorts of experiments including, most notably, OxyContin, where we experimented with making opioids time release. We also experimented with having the government pay for it if you were poor. These experiments didn’t lead to a better way of playing the game they lead to a lot of overdose deaths. But as I pointed out in a previous post, while these new strategies didn’t work, a strategy dating from the very earliest versions of the game still works pretty well, just avoid drugs all together.

In the end it appears that we have two things that are both increasing: the number of people who are experiencing life (players) and the number of things it’s possible to experience (the version of the game) and given that because of a commonality of culture, many people can end up acting like only a few people, but, because of the power of technology, a few people can end up changing things for many people. I’m not at all sure that our ability to play the game is getting any better, and it may, in fact, be getting a lot worse.


I’ll tell you one other thing that’s new in version 119, asking for donations for one’s blog. But fortunately I’m running a different experiment every week. Maybe this is the one that will work, if so donate here.


2019 Predictions and Trends

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It’s the beginning of a new year and this is normally the post when I revisit my long-term predictions. Though “normally” may be overstating things since I made the predictions two years ago and have only revisited them once. That’s not much of a trend. But my sense is that last year not much changed one way or the other, and so while I’ll spend some time reviewing things, I’m going to spend the rest of it looking at potential long term trends, longer in any case than my trend of doing a beginning of the year post about my predictions.

To begin with you can find the initial predictions here, and last years post where I reviewed them here. For those disinclined to go back and review them, I can sum things up for you very simply, I’m a pessimist.

My first set of predictions covered my pessimism about artificial intelligence, and despite the recent news about AlphaZero dominating Stockfish in chess, and more interestingly doing it using the same algorithm it uses to play Go and Shogi. I don’t think much changed on that front over the last year. Even if you wanted to argue that we have developed a general AI for playing games, which is already a stretch (how does it do with Poker? Or more importantly Starcraft II?) it still fails at the venerable “A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing” standard.

From there I have a pessimistic prediction about the difficulties of brain emulation, as championed, most notably, by Robin Hanson. Last year I promised that this would be the year that I read Age of Em and I kept that promise. (Can we call that a successful prediction?) You can find the post I wrote about it here. As I said at the time, it was an interesting book, but in the race between general AI and brain emulation, My bet was that we’re going to get rained out before the race finishes. Nothing that has happened this last year inclines me to change that bet.

My next predictions concern transhumanism, particularly the various ways in which life might be extended. Here the news looks even better for my pessimism, though I suppose worse for humanity in general. We are in the third year of declining US life expectancy. Our quest for immortality appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Also this year like last year I continue to be baffled that there are so few people who have signed up for cryonics. As near as I can tell the number is still less than 10,000 and maybe a lot less. If that’s any reflection at all of the strength of the transhumanist movement in general, then I don’t know that I would be looking to them for the salvation of humanity anytime soon. It sure looks like, despite at least a couple of decades of attention, that people are more interested in reading about transhumanism than actually being transhumanists.

As long as we’re on the subject of life expectancy, I recently came across an article about Jeanne Calment, the current record holder for that, which made the strong case that the person who we thought was Jeanne Calment was actually her daughter. Who had taken her place many decades before hand in order to avoid a fairly punishing inheritance tax which was in place at the time. It was very interesting, but my point in bringing it up here is that if it’s true it’s yet more bad news for those hoping for immortality. Not only is the average person getting farther away from it, but we might have to throw out one of our best data points for what’s possible.

My next section of predictions gets into my pessimism about space exploration and colonization. Here there was a smattering of interesting news:

As of this writing China has a craft orbiting the moon readying to land on the lunar farside (the first such “soft” landing ever) once that side turns toward sun in early January. After this it does appear that China has further ambitious lunar plans. Earlier this year they announced their intention of building a scientific research station on the moon though with no actual date attached. We’ll see how that plays out, and despite my pessimism I’d be as excited as anyone if this happened.

Closer to home Elon Musk and SpaceX’s dreams of Mars continue to chug along I suppose. And just the other day I saw an article arguing that the SpaceX Starlink satellites could end up providing all the money Musk and SpaceX needs for their Mars plans. That said, I don’t think anyone would argue that this was a great year for Musk, I haven’t seen any indication that Musk’s Tesla troubles have bled over to SpaceX, but they might.

In any event we still have a long way to go before I have to worry about being wrong on my prediction of no extraterrestrial colonies of greater than 35,000 people. My other prediction concerns the resolution of Fermi’s Paradox, and I think I’ve revisited that recently enough that there’s nothing more to add at this point.

The next section of predictions concerns war, and I’ll repeat what I said the last two years. As always, I hope that my pessimism is entirely misplaced.  Though I don’t think any of the events of this year have done much to calm that pessimism. Relations between Russia and the US are widely described as being as bad as they’ve ever been (at least since the end of the Cold War). Iran is testing ballistic missiles. Despite Trump’s claims, North Korea’s nuclear program appears to still be going strong. And, of course, the Middle East is as chaotic as ever.

The next set of predictions were my miscellaneous predictions. Once again not much has changed, though given that one of my predictions is that the US national debt will cause a major global meltdown, it’s useful to look at how much it increased in 2018. At the end of 2017 debt stood at $20.49 trillion and as I write this the debt stands at $21.87 trillion, so it went up by $1.38 trillion. And while that’s a lot of money (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) A better measure is the debt to GDP ratio. Which stands around 104% and has been basically flat for the last couple of years. Once again 104% is not great but the question is where does it go from there?

Some people will point out that it was 119% in 1946 at the end of World War 2 and the world didn’t end (in fact it helped keep the world from ending). Also within 10 years it had halved. If the current debt and deficit was all attributable to a single cause that had some chance of ending, then that comparison might make sense. But I don’t see anything like that. All I see on the horizon are the Trump tax cuts, an aging population and the possibility of a recession starting any day now.

My final prediction is that five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form. And here the news mostly matches my pessimism, particularly the news out of Europe. The Brexit morass continues to ooze along. Angela Merkel, after serving as prime minister for 18 years has agreed that she will not seek another term in 2021. And then there’s France, always on the bleeding edge when it comes to social discontent, with their yellow vests movement which started back in November and appears set to continue well into 2019. Layer that on top of a 26% approval rate for Marcon and it doesn’t look like his government can hang on to power for very long.

Of course none of the things I just mentioned would count as a fulfillment of my prediction, but it does provide a nice segue into the area I do want to spend the bulk of the post on. Current trends. What’s going on in Europe? What are the trends at work here?

Of course the European trend most people have heard about is the trend of nationalism. And that’s definitely at play with Brexit and to a lesser extent Merkel, but when it comes to the yellow vests that’s a bit less clear, and maybe more interesting, so we’ll return to them in a bit.

At this point every country has a nationalist party and one easy, if somewhat crude way of tracking this particular trend is to look at their level of support over the past few years. I think it’s safe to say that it’s been on the rise, though it has definitely played out differently in different nations, but I suppose that’s exactly what you’d expect from nationalist movements. That nations act differently

Somewhat paradoxically, the nation which is experiencing the largest tangible consequence of nationalism, the UK, also has the weakest of all the nationalist parties: UKIP. In fact they seem to have cratered precisely at the point where they had achieved their greatest victory. That’s a phenomenon that may be worth keeping an eye on, particularly given that it appears to be happening to Trumpism as well. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a trend yet, nor do I think anyone is likely to adopt it as a strategy, i.e. letting the nationalists win on the assumption that their support craters afterwards. I don’t imagine any anti-trumpers think the brightest possible future is on the timeline where Trump actually got elected.

Moving on, if we’re looking back at 2018, Italy actually had an election. Italian politics is always messy, and I’m no expert, but everyone seems to be able to agree on one thing. The nationalists did really well. Out of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic Five Star Movement picked up a net 119 seats for a total of 227 and the right-wing nationalists (Motto: Italians First) picked up 109 seats for a total of 125. While the center left party which had been in power up until the election, lost 180 seats dropping them to 112, and in fact the left-wing coalition as a whole lost 223 seats. If we combine the two nationalist parties and assume they represent Republicans and assume the left-wing coalition is the Democrats it would as if the Republicans had picked up 179 seats in the last house election.

Turning to Germany, as I already mentioned Merkel has agreed not to run for reelection. (Though she has given herself until 2021, and a lot could happen in the next couple of years.) And the reason she’s not running has a lot to do with the nationalists. To begin with, one of the key components of nationalism is being anti-immigration. And most people feel that the beginning of the end for Merkel was when she invited in a million refugees back in 2015. Beyond that her own party has been losing ground to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which now polls second in terms of popularity.

Thus far I’ve mostly been using the term nationalist, though there is a strong overlap between nationalism and populism. Which is what finally takes us back to France and the yellow vests movement. Which is definitely populist without being especially nationalist. It would be convenient if it slotted neatly into the same basic space as the Italian election and Merkel’s promised departure, but instead it forces us to consider whether the big trend isn’t anti-immigrant nationalism, but populism more broadly. Whereas everything we’ve spoken about thus far has at least leaned right-wing, as far as I can tell if you were forced to label the yellow vest movement as either left or right, you’d almost certainly label it a leftist movement. But that definitely doesn’t capture the entirety or even most of what’s going on. In fact I think the movement is a great example of the increasing complexity of political ideology, as even the smallest niche is able to use social media and the internet to gather hundreds if not thousands of people together.

This is not to say that the yellow vests are a niche movement, but I think it is comprised of a lot of niches each of which shares a dissatisfaction with the status quo. What this further means is that you can find nearly any form of politics within the movement. There’s people pushing for the very leftists ideas of wealth taxes and increase to the minimum wage. But, on the other hand, the movement actually started as a rejection of increased gas taxes which included a carbon tax designed to fight global warming. And above everything else, there appears to be a definite rejection of the Marcon government, who’s basically just to the left of center, but also definitely a globalist.

Beyond all this is how suddenly the yellow vest movement emerged, at least as far as I can tell. Everyone knew that Marcon was extremely unpopular, but did anyone predict that huge demonstrations were just around the corner? Let alone the worst demonstrations since 1968? It seemed to go from nothing to 300,000 people. I certainly haven’t been able to find anything talking about it before the first protest on November 17th and articles written in the days immediately following speak of it coming “out of the blue”.

Having covered all of this it’s easy to see that Europe is kind of a mess. (Though the current mess still pales in comparison to previous European messes.) But what direction is this mess headed in? What trends can we extract from all of this?

The biggest trend would appear to be the decline of Western globalism, and in fact it may be dead already. Certainly if it can’t be kept alive in America and Europe, it’s not going to be sustained outside of there by countries like Russia and China.

There’s also bad news for people who feel that global warming is the big issue for our times. If you can’t enact a carbon tax in a place like France where can you enact it? This would represent more a continuation of the current trend of inaction. But for those who continually hope for a trend of action it’s obviously disappointing.

There’s also various social media trends in there. Italy’s Five Star Movement wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-internet era. (It’s led by a blogger.) And then there’s the yellow vest movement which sprang up out of nowhere after being entirely organized on Facebook.

Outside of Italy and Eastern Europe the populists haven’t really taken power. Are trends moving in such a way that eventually every European country will be run by nationalists/populists? This seems less likely, but also I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen in at least one or two other countries. Particularly when you toss in left-wing populism. Which would include the UK Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

After going through all of this one question jumps out at me: is the US ahead of Europe or behind them? Perhaps given the specifically national nature of the various disruptions, the question is meaningless. Perhaps, having already elected our populist, we’re ahead of Europe. On the other hand, I would say we’ve yet to have our own yellow vest moment, so perhaps we’re actually behind them.

As I’ve mentioned I have an aversion to making short-term predictions. But I’m going to go ahead and make one now. There will be a US recession before the next election. Given that the yellow vest movement seems primarily economic in nature, and happened despite the economy of France doing okay (thought not spectacular) what happens both here and there if the economy tanks? Perhaps more importantly, what happens if it all comes together in the run up to an election?

I see this trend of populism combined with a generous helping of nationalism as being one of the dominant trends in the West for the foreseeable future. I would add in the additional and related trend of the conflict between nationalism and globalism, but as I said, the latter may already be dead. It seems more likely that going forward the principal area of political conflict will be between different flavors of populism, perhaps national populism and economic populism. Though there can be a fair bit of the latter in the former. But this is in the West. What’s going to be happening elsewhere?

Outside of the West the two countries that get the most attention are Russia and China and in both we see the continued entrenchment of authoritarian regimes that bear little resemblance to the ideals of western liberal democracy. Which is unsurprising given both the nature of the two countries and the perceived decrease in stability offered by the liberal democratic framework. Of more worry is how the competition between authoritarianism and democracy plays out in the rest of the world.

But returning to Russia and China. Russia had an election this year. As expected Putin easily won reelection with nearly 77% of the vote. This takes him through to 2024 when in theory he’s term-limited by the Russian Constitution. Before you start laughing at the idea of Putin voluntarily stepping down, he has in fact said that’s what he plans to do. China went the opposite way this year when, in March, the Chinese Constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits, meaning that Xi Jinping could theoretically rule China until his death (he’s 65, a year younger than Putin). Perhaps the same thing will happen in Russia, Putin still has plenty of time to change his mind. Of course, the longer a country goes with the same leader the more disruptive it is when that leader finally steps down, or dies. But overall I think we’re seeing another trend towards leaders being less likely to relinquish power. Though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this is a return to a very old trend.

I would include in this trend Recep Erdoğan of Turkey (he’s 64). Who also won an election this year. Though of possibly more significance were the constitutional reforms he pushed through in 2017. Reforms which made this year’s election far more significant because they made the office Erdoğan was elected to in 2018 far more powerful. Beyond that this also ties into another trend I think I’ve noticed, a trend towards increasing state-level conflict in the Middle East. We have the war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, and then, or course, there’s the ongoing Syrian Civil War which Trump just announced we were withdrawing from, on top of that there’s the continual wildcard that is Iran. And adding spice to all of this is the recent scandal over the murder of Khashoggi.  

From where I stand this all seems to be part of the decline of US military hegemony, a trend that has been going on for awhile and is likely to continue. While Syria marks the first time since Vietnam where we’ve completely withdrawn from a conflict (also recall that we still have troops in Korea, Japan and Germany) the US has been signaling a reluctance to go “all in” for quite a while. This creates potential opportunities for the regional powers which include the Saudi’s, Turks and Iranians, who are all now jockeying for position, and that jockeying might include war. Russia and Israel should also be included in the list, though Russia isn’t exactly regional (though it’s not that far away) and Israel is probably more interested in surviving than in assuming regional leadership.

You might think that based on this I’m opposed to Trump withdrawing from Syria. But the situation is complicated. I understand that all of what I just said argues for a more robust US military engagement, and that additionally and perhaps unforgivably, we appear to be once again abandoning the Kurds, but if the alternative is a low level war that never ends, like in Afghanistan, than Trump’s call may be the right one. To put it another way if we were really serious about removing Assad we could do it, but we obviously aren’t and if that’s the case why are we sticking around? What is our ultimate objective? If it’s just to stick around wasting money and lives until the locals outlast us, then it’s better to leave now, but that also doesn’t mean that doing so makes everything better.

As a whole this post didn’t end up being as tightly constructed as I would like, so to help with that here’s the summary of things:

  • All of my long-standing predictions continue to hold up, with some getting a little more likely and some a little less, but none in serious danger. (Oh, also China did land their rover.)
  • Populism will be the dominant force in the West for the foreseeable future. Globalism is on the decline if not effectively dead already.
  • Carbon taxes are going to be difficult to implement, and will not see widespread adoption.
  • Social media will continue to change politics rapidly and in unforeseen ways.
  • There will be a US recession before the next election. It will make things worse.
  • Authoritarianism is on the rise elsewhere, particularly in Russia and China.
  • The jockeying for regional power in the Middle East will intensify.

I didn’t get a chance to talk about India, but here at the end let me just toss in Tyler Cowen’s argument in Bloomberg that not only is “Hindu nationalism on the rise, [but] India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicity of directions, few of them familiar to most Americans.” A point which ties in well to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Cowen also talks in the same article about an increase low-level authoritarianism in China.

Finally, did you see that story out of Arizona recently about people attacking self-driving cars? I had kind of hoped it represented some kind of neo-luddite riot, but apparently the cars are just incredibly annoying to have around. I guess they have a long way to go before they’re ready for primetime. Which is to say, despite, or perhaps because of everything I already said above, remember that the future is always farther away than you think.


One future that I hope is not so far away is the future where you donate to this blog. (Is it just me or did that come out sounding like a bad pickup line?)


Five Stories of Enlightenment and Edification from My Misspent Youth

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Story One:

When a was very young I asked my Dad what the fastest route was to some destination. At this point I forget the destination, someplace close as I recall. He responded that it basically took the same time regardless of the route. Of course being a pedantic nerd, albeit a tiny one (some things never change) I immediately seized on this statement. “Are you saying that I could drive miles out of my way and it would still take the same amount of time?!?” I asked incredulously.

Of course that’s not what he was trying to say. He was saying that if there were several obvious ways you might use to go somewhere that they all ended up taking about the same amount of time. But, realizing who he was dealing with, I’m sure that it was clear to him that trying to explain that would just lead to more incredulity so he decided to take the opposite approach, and see if that would placate the snarky little demon he had somehow ended up with. (Though insofar as genetics explain anything he wasn’t entirely blameless.) The other extreme was to give a very precise answer (or at least one that would require a lot of precision) and explained that it depended on how fast you drove, how close you cut corners, and things like that.

This answer was more satisfying to me than the first answer, which is interesting because over the years it’s become apparent to me that it was less useful. Most routes are functionally equivalent and if you accept that, there’s a whole class of decisions you no longer need to worry about. If nothing else, this can help reduce decision fatigue, a non-trivial problem these days. Far more important, the answer also embeds the wisdom that your life is better if you live it in such a way where you don’t have to worry whether one route is two minutes faster than another. My wife would be quick to point out here that I am still a long way away from living that life. She gets particularly annoyed when I ask for updates on the Google Map ETA to see if I’ve shaved any time off. (Though that is more about me speeding than choosing one route over another, though I’m not sure that clarification makes it better.)

Regardless of how good I am at being the kind of person who doesn’t worry about one route being a couple of minutes faster than another, or whether I can shave a minute off my arrival time by going 79 rather than 77 mph, I can at least recognize the wisdom of striving for that state, and the wisdom of father’s original answer. In fact, we might go so far as to say that the two answers demonstrate the difference between useless but obvious knowledge and useful but less obvious wisdom. We might go even farther than that and say that there are numerous people who are acting in the same snarky and pedantic fashion I was oh so many years ago, rejecting wisdom in favor of precise, but ultimately valueless knowledge.

Examples of this are numerous, but most fall into the category of defining grievances with ever increasing specificity. A perfect example is the term “microaggression”. Though when it comes to encyclopedic knowledge of every bad thing the other side has done, the far-right is even or ahead of the far-left.

It reminds me of a book I just got done reading: The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, it’s a history of engineering, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. One of the things that makes it interesting is that he titles each chapter with the tolerances the historical era under discussion was capable of achieving. The first chapter is 0.1 or a tenth of an inch, and in later chapters he goes down to nanometers and in final chapters well past that. The point of this tangent is that I can imagine the same thing happening with grievances. We started with normal aggressions, we are now at microaggressions and soon we’ll be measuring nanoaggressions (if we aren’t already.)

Basically, we’re in a situation where people imagine that there’s a better route out there. They’re already mad that they’re on the route society forced them to take. But then additionally everytime it seems the car is going too slow or taking a corner too cautiously they get angry because this route, which is already not ideal, is taking even longer. And yes this is probably all true, and perhaps it’s very satisfying to point it all out, to identify all the microaggressions, all the times people ask, “Where are you from?” Or to know in excruciating detail all the bad things which have happened in the past. There’s a lot of focus on that knowledge, and very little on the wisdom that most routes end up being pretty much the same, and you’d be much better off if you just focused on enjoying the ride.

Story Two:

Unlike kids these days, I had a job when I was in high school. I worked at the local pizza place. Though, during the summer between my junior and senior year, I took the high school equivalent of a sabbatical, so I could attend the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. When I returned to work I discovered that I had missed out on some high drama. Apparently two of my co-workers Cindy and Howard had sort of had a relationship, and this sort of relationship ended badly, but not in the way you might expect.

Apparently they’d been on a couple of dates and those had gone well and then they kind of got stuck in the transition to the next level. Both of them really liked the other but they were suffering from a lack of confidence and wanted the other person to make the next move. So far so normal, but both choose the tactic of subtly avoiding the other hoping to draw them out into doing something definitive. For example if I walk right by you and say “Hi” and you say “Hi” back that proves nothing, but if I walk around the other way, so that you see me, but I don’t walk past you and then you chase me down and say “Hi” well that means you like me. Such is the insanity of high school relationships. But this isn’t the point of the story.

As I reconstructed it after the fact it seems that this tactic of subtle avoidance had not worked for either of them and had escalated to outright cruelty which both had taken at face value rather than realizing that it was basically the equivalent of having their pigtails pulled. Things had gotten so bad that the pizza place had ended up divided into warring camps, with every employee forced to pick one side or the other. Such was the condition of things when I returned from my “sabbatical” and started working again. I had been friends with both Howard and Cindy, and I missed the heat of the conflict and therefore also missed having to swear allegiance to one or the other. Meaning that when I returned I was the only person, insofar as I could tell, who was still friends with both of them, and therefore the only person who could get both sides of the story I just related. The story of two people who actually liked each other, and should have been very happy together, at least for as long as high schoolers are ever happy together, but who somehow couldn’t figure out that the other person felt the same way they did.

The moral of this story is that two people can want exactly the same thing. They could be in a situation where there exists no impediment to them achieving this thing, other than themselves. And, despite all this, communication and coordination are still sometimes tricky enough that they can fail to get it. In the end my two friends were probably too concerned with signalling “hard to get” and not enough with communicating “I like you”. I haven’t talked very much in this space about signalling theory, and I probably should, but it definitely applies here.

Does this moral extend to the current political crisis? Are the two sides just like Cindy and Howard? Deep down they both love America and want to work together, but a series of ever increasing slights has convinced them that it will never happen because as far as they can tell the other side hates America and will never agree to work together?

One imagines that if Howard and Cindy had come together late one night and confessed their true feelings for each other, heedless of the rain that poured down all around them, like in the movies, that it would have all worked out. Is there some rain-soaked confession of love we could imagine between Republicans and Democrats? Left and Right? Perhaps, there did seem to be some of that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (I guess we’ve arrived at equating terrorism with rain?) but it seems unlikely. Particularly given that politics is getting more multipolar by the day, and the associated signalling is getting more and more intense. Meaning we don’t just need two people to stand in the rain and confess their love, we need hundreds of different ideologies to all confess their love simultaneously. And if you think it’s difficult with just two…

Story Three:

When I was in seventh grade I was a pretty scrawny kid, and a pretty scrawny nerd to boot. Predictably I got bullied. There was one person in particular who kept giving me crap. We’ll call him Mark. As I recall I had first period with Mark, and he would pick on me before class started, and then on the way back from class to my locker. This went one for quite a while, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I threw a punch, and started a fight.

I wish I could say that I won that fight, but I didn’t. It’s not like I was horribly injured or anything, but I definitely got the worst of it. I forget how it ended, if some teacher broke it up, or if it just kind of fizzled out after a few swings. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do that again, and probably even thinking that it was stupid, particularly given that I’d lost, but you know what? It worked. All those people who told me that bullies want easy targets and if you fight back, even if you end up losing, they’ll find someone else to pick on? They were right as far as I could tell. He stopped picking on me, perhaps not entirely, I’m sure he still made a comment here or there, but after the fight it was much better.

What’s perhaps even more interesting is that now, decades later, Mark apparently admires me? For example, he posted his yearbook picture, but not just his picture, it included a few of the pictures around his, of which mine was one, and he said something like, “And the handsome fellow just above me is Mr. Richey.” Now I was not handsome as child, and I couldn’t let such a gross inaccuracy stand, so breaking from my normal policy of never commenting on Facebook I pointed out the inaccuracy of the statement.  He retorted by saying it didn’t matter, that I was focused on the things that were truly important. (I assume he meant academics, though what I was really focused on during that time was Dungeons and Dragons.)

I talked in a previous post about the Coddling of the American Mind, the need for suffering and the difficulty of determining how much suffering was enough. Obviously getting into a fight and losing it caused me to suffer. Though apparently he suffered as well, at least enough to stop bullying me and to later think I was awesome rather than pathetic. In my case, which I understand is just a single data point, and not even a very good one, it seems clear to me that the only possible way to resolve that dispute was through violence, because my willingness to throw a punch was the only signal (yes we’re back to talking about signalling) clear enough for him to understand.

I hear a lot of talk these days about bullying in schools, but I don’t hear much about fighting. Do kids still fight in schools? I assume they must, but one wonders if it’s bifurcated, with rich, suburban schools having almost no fighting but lots of bullying, and poor inner city schools having less bullying, but the fighting they do have being more dangerous? They do say that bullying is on the rise, is there any part of that rise that can be ascribed to less fighting? Does low level fighting of the kind I described in my story, create sort of an informal justice system that’s closer to the source of the problem and thus more immediate? When talking about coddled kids is this one of the ways in which we coddling them? Do we need to allow kids to freely fight in the same way we need to allow them to freely range?

In a larger sense there’s the issue of the signal of violence. Are there some conflicts which can only be resolved when one side signals that it’s willing to inflict more violence on the opposition than opposition is comfortable with? That’s basically what happened in the story, and certainly in the past people commonly felt that some issues could only be decided by the shedding of blood. Many people now feel that we’re past that time, that we can settle our differences without resorting to violence. Let’s hope they’re correct, but it appears to be getting less likely. I have seen no evidence that we’re getting better at settling differences, and lots of evidence that things are heading towards violence.

Story Four:

This story didn’t happen to me, but it did happen while I was young, so I’m tossing it in here anyway.

My grandmother went on an expensive trip to India and Nepal. While in Nepal she had the opportunity to take a helicopter ride and see Mount Everest. I forget exactly what the helicopter ride cost. I want to say somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. She decided that was too expensive and so she declined the offer. Upon her return my father pointed out that if you live in Utah the cost to see Everest is probably thousands of dollars, and that she had just refused to pay the last $80.

I call this the Everest Fallacy and it’s sort of the opposite of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In the one you’re almost to your goal and you abandon it after paying the bulk of the cost. In the other you’re never going to reach your goal, but you refuse to abandon it because you’ve already spent so much.

I wonder if that’s where civilization is. People talk about the enormous effort and expense required to colonize Mars or make it out of the Solar System, and I don’t wish to minimize that, in fact I’ve pointed out at some length how difficult it is, so difficult I’m doubtful we’ll do it. But it’s also important to remember, when people bemoan the cost of a space program, that we’ve already spent the first quadrillion dollars, and the initial 200,000 years, we’re now just refusing to spend the last few trillion dollars. And that’s only if we go back to the first homo sapien. If we consider what it takes to go from a dead planet to life leaving the solar system we’ve spent a lot more than that, and now we’re just refusing to spend that last little bit. And yes it might take a sacrifice, in the same way that my grandmother probably felt that $80 was a sacrifice, but let’s be clear, humanity is in Nepal already and it took a lot of effort to get there…

Story Five:

If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and you’ve served a mission then it’s guaranteed that you end up with a lot of stories from that period. I’m no exception. And I could spend ten thousand more words telling you stories from the two years I spent in the Netherlands, but most don’t have a moral, or rather they do, but that moral is: Have faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of these days I’ll devote an entire post to that, but this post has developed around a more secular theme, and, fortunately, my mission produced some of those stories as well.

I mentioned earlier that I spent two years in the Netherlands, that’s not quite true, I spent two years total on my mission but only 22 months of that was in the Netherlands. The first two months I spent in the Missionary Training Center on the BYU campus in Provo learning Dutch with a group of ten other missionaries. In addition to my group there was another group learning Dutch that was four weeks ahead of us. This story concerns one of the members of that slightly older group. When I was introduced to this particular missionary I asked him where he was from, when he said Canada, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

It was a dumb throw away joke, that kind of thing that’s so obviously untrue as to clearly be a joke and as I said, not a very good one at that. I actually thought it was cool that he was from Canada, as far as I know he was the first Canadian I had met. I didn’t interact with him much beyond that, in the four weeks of overlap we had, and I didn’t think much of him or my comment.

We both ended up serving in the Netherlands (at the time some of the missionaries who had learned Dutch ended up in Flemish speaking Belgium) but we didn’t serve in any of the same areas or even any of the same zones. That is until my last area, where I ended up replacing him. I don’t remember if I noticed any initial cold shoulder or anything like that, but after the local members of the church got to know me a little bit they started to reveal that the Canadian missionary which had preceded me had told them all that I was a jerk. (He may have used stronger language than that, he may have even said it in Dutch, I don’t recall the exact terminology.) When I asked them what evidence he had produced for this calumny, they told me the story of the “I’m sorry” comment from Missionary Training Center. When I asked if there was anything else there didn’t appear to be. He had apparently obsessed over that comment for nearly two years.

Since that time I have met many Canadians and count most of them as good friends. And fortunately I haven’t met any who were as humorless as the Canadian missionary. In fact, the Canadians I’ve told this story to (all of them) think it’s pretty funny that he was offended by the phrase “I’m sorry” given how typically Canadian that word “sorry” is.

With this story we end where we began, with what I suppose is another example of a microaggression, though years before the term first appeared, and not leveled against a group that normally gets brought up in discussions of prejudice and discrimination. And once again it would have been wiser for the Canadian missionary to not have obsessed for two years over a single comment made by a dumb kid. (Notice I’m a dumb kid in both stories, I’m sure there’s another lesson there.) But, of course, the world is trending in the exact opposite direction, with more and more people latching on to smaller and smaller things over a longer and longer time horizon. If this continues it’s not going to end well, for anyone.


Most of these stories allude to my past ignorance. If you want to contribute to the ongoing effort to fight this ignorance, please consider donating.

Note: I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, so I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Fighting Fires the Wrong Way

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If you’re anything like me you probably followed the news of last month’s California wildfires with some interest, particularly the Camp Fire. A name which now seems morbidly ironic given how deadly it ended up being. As of this writing 85 people were killed by the fire and six are still missing. That makes it the sixth deadliest wildfire in US history, and the deadliest since 1918.

I’m not sure how most people feel about that death toll. I saw a lot of posts about the fire, but not many people were reacting to the number of people who died. I get the sense that if you asked, they’d say that 85 sounds like a lot of deaths, but given that it kind of falls in the “Act of God” category, it’s far less tragic than say the Las Vegas mass shooting, even though fewer people actually died in Vegas. I’m not arguing with this, by the way, but it is interesting that there’s clearly a hierarchy attached to how tragic we consider any given death.

Most of the elements in the hierarchy are subjective to the person. It’s obviously far more tragic if someone close to you dies, or even if someone you know loses someone close to them. I think this is entirely as it should be, though there are people who would argue otherwise. Yet another subjective criteria is how the deaths play into your ideology. Gun rights activists probably find Las Vegas less tragic than people who think we should ban all guns. Though perhaps if you’re looking for ammunition (pun intended) to use in your fight over the issue it’s the exact opposite.

The California fires are no exception to seeing events through an ideological lens (is anything these days?) and there are many people who view the deaths as more or less tragic because they fit into a particular narrative. Perhaps, at this point we should broaden the discussion from “tragic” to “important”. The most frequent reason I’ve come across for attaching importance to these deaths, setting aside people actually connected to the victims, is the idea that these deaths are directly attributable to global warming.

I don’t actually want to do another post on global warming, at least not right now. But I think for a variety of reasons it’s not the primary cause of the fires, and even if it were, as I have pointed out in previous posts, it’s the hardest cause to do anything about.

On something of the other side of the issue, there are people who don’t think global warming is the problem, the problem is restrictions on logging. Included in this category is President Trump, which immediately makes the idea completely off limits to a whole host of people. I’m no fan of Trump, but I don’t immediately dismiss everything he says.  And in fact I’m inclined to believe that the right kind of harvesting might have helped. I’m no expert on logging or forestry, and at the level of exactly what sort of logging might help, things get pretty muddy.

You’ll see articles with titles like: Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat, but overlogging them will ruin our forest ecosystems. Though a closer reading of the article seems to indicate that the author is mostly referring to the danger of standing dead trees, or snag, not fallen dead trees.

You’ll see a different point of view in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine. (I mention the source this time because these days it’s always more important to quote your sources if you’re supporting Trump, however indirectly, than when you’re opposing him.) This article details the battles waged by a Forest Service ranger, who wanted to use logging to perform some selective thinning, against the environmentalists who opposed it. This ranger, who always considered herself to be an environmentalist, and did a stint in the Peace Corp, spent three years studying the situation, before eventually submitting an 81 page report, but this was when the environmentalists “pounced”. Three years later (so six in total), while her staff was in the midst of preparing what she hoped would be their final rebuttal, a fire started in the area she was hoping to thin and within a week “the whole area had burned up.”

The purpose of this is not to take sides in the logging debate, or to be exhaustive in describing all the possible contributing factors. For example I haven’t even covered the problem of people building basically in the forest, or what’s called the wildland-urban interface. This led the New York Times to declare that Trump is wrong in part because what we just saw in California weren’t technically forest fires, they were fires in the wildland-urban interface. No, putting the silliness of that aside, my point is to discuss one specific contributing factor, the one which I think has the most to do with the current problem: Decades of fire suppression and a lack of preventative burns. And more importantly to discuss how this ends up being a metaphor for everything that’s currently wrong with the world.

It is interesting that so much of the media is focused on global warming and dry conditions. (Though if you read close enough it’s a wet spring followed by a dry summer that’s really causing the problems.) Though of course this goes back to the subjective nature of prioritizing the importance of deaths. Though I haven’t bothered to look, I am sure that on some website somewhere there is a list of “Deaths Due to Global Warming” to which the 85 deaths of the Camp Fire have been added. All of this is to say that there is definitely also going to some subjectivity in my fire suppression explanation. And the subjectivity will get even greater when I then transition to using it as a metaphor. But this also doesn’t mean that it’s not an accurate description of the world.

In fact it’s telling that even the guy who wrote the article claiming that dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat is the co-editor of a book called: The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix. In other words he may be anti-logging, but he’s pro-fire. In fact the phrase “Mixed-Severity” makes it sound like he’s pro-fire across the board. And, I would argue, for good reason.

It’s past time to explain what I’m talking about when I claim fires are caused by fire suppression, and by not having enough fires, though for many of you it may already be obvious. The Smithsonian article I referenced actually has a great explanation of the history of the problem.

Forests across the west are primed for catastrophic fire, in part by a government policy put in place after the “Big Blowup,” in 1910, a two-day firestorm that incinerated three million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. The fire was so ferocious that people in Boston could see the smoke. The U.S. Forest Service, then five years old, decided to put out every fire in its domain, and within three decades the agency had formulated what it called the 10 a.m. policy, directing that fires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As fire-fighting methods improved through the years, the amount of burned forest and grassland declined from about 30 million acres annually in 1900 to about 5 million in the 1970s.

But the success of fire suppression, combined with public opposition to both commercial logging and preventive tree thinning on federal land, has turned Western forests into pyres, some experts say, with profound ecological effects. The vast ponderosa pine forests of the West evolved with frequent low-intensity ground fires. In some places, land that had as many as 30 or 40 large ponderosa pines scattered across an acre in the early 1900s, in grassy parklike stands, now have 1,000 to 2,000 smaller-diameter trees per acre. These fuel-dense forests are susceptible to destructive crown fires, which burn in the canopy and destroy most trees and seeds.

Now this article was written in 2003, but it doesn’t appear that much has changed since then. We can certainly see the opposition to logging and tree thinning, but it also turns out that recreating the low-intensity fires the trees evolved with, is difficult as well. If you do a search on controlled burns in California you’ll mostly get articles wondering why they don’t happen more often. This one from a local California public radio station published earlier this year is representative: Why California’s Best Strategy Against Wildfire Is Hardly Ever Used. Which explains that controlled burns are costly take a lot of effort and people don’t like the smoke.

However if you don’t do controlled burns, if you fight every fire, then you end up steadily increasing the fuel load because the deadfall never gets burned up, and eventually, even if you wanted to suppress every fire, you’d eventually end up with a fire that’s so hot and so terrible that you won’t be able to fight it.

As you might imagine the idea of a controlled burn is very antifragile, you’re paying a small, known cost (ideally) in order to reap a large unbounded benefit later on (i.e. avoiding the huge out of control fire that kills people.) Of course there’s the cost of the personnel to actually set the fire and make sure that it’s controlled, but there’s also the cost to those who will suffer worse air quality while it’s happening, and the cost of people who don’t like the way the forest looks after it’s been burned, etc. All of these are costs which people have proven unwilling to bear even if it makes things better in the long run. This introduces fragility (as we saw) and here is where we transition to fire suppression as a metaphor for modern society.

Of course, the fight over whether to blame things on global warming or insufficient logging is already a reflection of some of the ills of our society, but the ills I want to talk about run even deeper. I often talk about how technology distorts things and, as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re talking about fire we’re talking about probably the first technology ever developed. Accordingly, whatever benefits can be derived from fire, and whatever it’s harms we’ve been dealing with them for a very long time. The benefits are legion, in the last post I mentioned the alleviation of suffering, but it uses go far beyond using a fire to keep warm at night. Once you discover a great multipurpose tool like fire, you immediately search for as many ways as possible for using that tool.

I recently finished the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. And one of the things he pointed out was the way the indigenous Americans used fire, particularly on the Great Plains, where they used it to create a “prodigious game farm”. And so, similar to our last discussion, we once again have a situation where humans have been artificially controlling their environment, in this case the incidence of fire, for hundreds of years, why are things different now? And once again the answer is we’ve crossed some sort of tipping point, one that may even be more stark than the line crossed by college students in 2013.

1491 doesn’t mention if the Indians ever tried to put out fires, but beyond extinguishing an out of control fire in their actual dwellings I doubt it. This is the stark difference, the difference between setting fires and putting out fires. But why is the latter so different from the former? They’re both meddling in the “natural” cycle. And once again the answer takes us back to the concept of supernormal stimuli, though more particularly the idea that things can be bounded in one direction by reality, and thus ignored by evolution.

Yes, when you set fire after fire to clear trees and encourage grasslands, and by extension bison, then you’re messing with nature, or rather with the way things worked in the time before humans. But wherever plants grow, and whatever form they take, they had to learn to cope with fire. You’re certainly altering things if you set fires more often than they would occur just because of lightning, but in the whole sweep of evolutionary history, I’m sure that multiple fires happened in quick succession even without the intervention of humans, and those plants that couldn’t deal with this didn’t survive. So yes, the Plains Indians may have been messing with stuff, but they were doing it in a way that wasn’t outside of the bounds of what evolution had prepared plants to tolerate. What plants are unprepared for, because it doesn’t exist in anywhere in the historical record are long periods of no fires.

Thus far, this may appear less a metaphor and more a lecture, but we’re getting there. The point I want to make is that everything has adapted around certain natural processes, even humans. And when we mess with these processes, things can change in unexpected ways (and yes I would include in this a precipitous increase in the amount of atmospheric C02). This leads to the questions: What processes have humans adapted around? What’s our version of fire?

The most obvious candidate is war. Humans have more or less evolved in the presence of constant warfare, and it’s only recently that we’ve largely eliminated it. I talked about this in a previous post, but it’s worth revisiting in the light of the fire suppression metaphor. Once we decide to start drawing parallels then it’s only natural to ask what represents the deadwood accumulating on the forest floor? Are there individuals or maybe ideas who are metaphorically dead trees? Where, having a few scattered here and there is fine, even useful, but when half the forest becomes dead trees any fire becomes catastrophic? And, if war is fire, what would a controlled burn look like? Does sports fit the bill or is it closer to being equivalent to someone chopping down a tree for use in heating their home? Yes it’s a controlled burn involving the forest, but not anywhere close to the scale required to do any good.

A discussion of war as a reset button for humanity, similar to fire being a reset button for a forest puts me in mind of another past post, the post where I reviewed the book The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel. Once again there are very interesting parallels. To return briefly to the book 1491 and it’s section on fire. Mann points out that, “if ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents would be covered by climax-stage vegetation:a world of great trees, dark and silent.” Scheidel makes basically the same point but with respect to wealth inequality, the great trees are the super rich. And in the absence of violence their numbers and the associated inequality increases until all you are left with are those super rich, and the, far more numerous, small forms of life which are able to exist in their shadow, but nothing in between. And just as there are more ways than fire to interrupt ecological succession, there are more ways than war to interrupt the rise of inequality, but none of them are particularly pleasant. Or to put it in terms of my last post, they all involve suffering to a certain degree.

As you can imagine, if very large trees had a say in the matter they would prefer that there be no fires, though just like the wealthy, to whom we’re comparing them, the great trees do fine if there are small fires, it’s only the huge fires from years of pent up resentment, I mean deadwood, that threaten the truly large trees.

It may be easy to see where the metaphor lends itself easily to things like war and revolution, but it’s interesting to extend it in scope and imagine that it applies in other places as well, for example, banking.

Though, to begin with, it needs very little imagination to picture the 2007-2008 financial crisis as an out of control fire. An inferno caused by a lack of liquidity. This fire was put out by an unprecedented injection of cash into the system. Cash that mostly went to those, who by all accounts, started the fire. Incidentally the resentment this cased provided fuel for the other kind of fire we just mentioned. I think thus far most people wouldn’t object to the parallels I’ve drawn, but things get a little more controversial when I start taking about what represents deadwood and water in this example.

First does the continual extinguishing of financial crises create any deadwood? Stuff which should have been beneficially burned out during the crisis but wasn’t? During the most recent of these crises the term “too big to fail” got tossed around a lot. The term implied that a given institution should have failed, but could not be allowed to. That however much failure would have represented the natural consequences for their irresponsible behavior in the years preceding the crash, the short-term damage would have been to great. Just as we have to fight fires in the wildland-urban interface I mentioned earlier, these institutions had become so intertwined with the rest of society that they could not be allowed to burn, however much they might deserve it.

Of course “deserve” is a loaded term, but just as fire represents a natural process which helps to clear and refresh forests, one of the benefits of capitalism, many would argue, is that it has its own inherent checks and balances, among the biggest of these: risk and return should go hand in hand,  When you remove the risk you end up creating strange and unpredictable after effects as you interrupt the natural flow of capitalism.

So what about water? Well if cash in a financial crisis is equivalent to water in a wildfire, then the next question is, do we have unlimited cash with which to put out our financial fires. I talked about the people who believe this is the case in a previous post, and perhaps they’re right. But if we’re accumulating deadwood, i.e. increasing our fuel load, every time we extinguish one of these fires then we had better hope the supply of water is infinite, because if it’s not, the minute we run out, we’re going to end up with a fire/revolution that is going to put all previous ones to shame.

Outside of banking I also think this metaphor has some merit as a description of politics. There are of course many political fires burning at the moment, basically everywhere you look. And people desperately want to “put them out”. I understand the impulse, but I also think that if you put it out too quickly you once again end up in a situation where you’re accumulating deadwood, and increasing the fuel load.

As an example take any of the battles in the current culture war. I have argued in the past that people rushed to “put them out” as quickly as possible, mostly by way of the Supreme Court, rather than using the more laborious method of holding a vote, or the even more laborious method of passing a constitutional amendment. Doing it this way may have seemed like a good idea, but it also certainly came with some costs. Among these costs, I would argue, is that it increased the “fuel load” of a certain class of people. Which is to say, do you get the anger and annoyance necessary for Trump to be elected if you hadn’t been so quick to put out each and every cultural “fire”? To dismiss and shove aside what might have been legitimate complaints?

If there’s a single issue Trump has been associated with, it’s immigration, and for years polls showed that only a tiny minority wanted an increase in immigration, the vast majority wanted it kept at it’s present levels or decreased. At no point since polling started has the percent of people who want it increased been greater than the percent who wanted it to decrease even today when anti-trump pro-immigrant feelings are at their highest. (As excellently documented by Slate Star Codex recently, Trump may be very bad for Trumpism.) Despite this, what we have ended up with is a de facto policy of increased immigration despite support for it being in the teens or single digits up until very recently. Now it may be stretching the metaphor to describe the way the pro-cheap-labor Republicans and the pro-civil-rights Democrats joined together in ignoring the problem as “putting out the fire too quickly” but I have definitely seen a persistent pattern of promising to do something when the election is on, and then failing to do anything once in office. In other words putting out the fire before it removed any of the accumulated deadwood.

We’re seeing it again now. If Trump promised anything he promised a wall, now whether he actually meant it is another discussion. And yet nearly two years in it hasn’t even been started. But imagine, regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, if we decided that elections have consequences and one of those was that we would see this thing out and build the wall. Does this remove some of the “fuel load” of the angriest portion of our population? Does it allow the current fire to burn in such a way that it puts itself out? Is it in fact a controlled burn, something we can manage? (Certainly a wall doesn’t result in the end of all immigration forever.)

Is it in fact a controlled fire that helps us avoid the out of control inferno that might be coming otherwise? Or as they’ll refer to it in the history books of the future when the bloody tale is finally written, the Second American Civil War.


Of course as we learn from Alfred’s advice to Batman, some men just want to watch the world burn. Despite what you might think I am not one of those men, if you’re not either, consider donating.


How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering?

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In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the first Sunday of every month is the fast and testimony meeting. What this means is that anyone can stand up from the congregation, walk up to the pulpit and say whatever they want. They are strongly encouraged to talk about their belief in Jesus Christ, but it’s basically an open mic, and people have used it as an opportunity to air grievances against the church.

This last Sunday during our fast and testimony meeting an older lady got up and expressed how grateful she was that, when she was raising her kids, they were relatively poor and consequently couldn’t give their kids everything they wanted, particularly at Christmas time. Because if they had been wealthy they probably would have, the temptation being hard to resist, but if they had, it would have been worse for the children because they wouldn’t have learned to go without.

This is not an uncommon sentiment. I think adults have been accusing kids of being spoiled since possibly the time of ancient Greece, but I encountered two unusual forms of the argument just recently. The first place I came across it was The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

“Coddling” is mostly about the current generation of college kids, which the subtitle, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”, makes clear. The generation in question is variously call iGen or Generation Z. The authors prefer iGen, after yet another book by Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. This is the generation after Millennials, which is normally defined as everyone born since the start of the millennium, but Twenge noticed a surprisingly sharp generational discontinuity beginning with people born around 1995 and who then went on to enter college around 2013. Lukianoff and Haidt also noticed a change starting in 2013, and, in fact, it served as the genesis of the book. It’s not clear if they noticed it independently of Twenge (or vice versa) but they both feel something significant changed on college campuses starting in 2013.

One change in particular was an obsession with safety, and not merely physical safety, but emotional safety as well, leading many to believe, according to Twenge, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault, but from people who disagree with you.” I don’t think this has progressed to the point of also demanding safety from the disappointment on Christmas morning we started with, though recent stories about protesting in-class presentations would seem to indicate that we may be headed in that direction.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” blames all of this on the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system. This desire for safety stems from the first of these three great untruths:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

On the contray, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, college students (and humans in general) are antifragile. Meaning that exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger. But this stress and suffering is exactly what the various campus movements are trying to eliminate.

That’s the first argument for the benefits of stress, the second comes from last week’s post. You may recall that I mentioned an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox called the “Galactic Stomach Ache” and said I would be talking about it “next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.” It should hopefully be obvious now where I’m headed, but the core of the Galactic Stomach Ache argument is the same as the argument Lukianoff and Haidt are making, that an obsession with safety and reducing harm is paradoxically causing harm. Here’s how it’s explained in, The Great Silence, the book I reviewed last week:

Having removed most of the stress due to our physical and biotic environment, we have with it removed low-level beneficial stress (known as hormesis). Already, the exponentially growing economic costs of maintaining health in the face of these degenerative disorders are huge in comparison to investments in space research and exploration, not to mention utilization of extraterrestrial resources. If such treads continue and are typical, humanity could end up in a state in which almost all material resources and all creative energy are expended on the maintenance of a comfortable lifestyle free of external stressors, leading to a plateau in the development of cognition, and its subsequent diminishing.

Similar to Lukianoff and Haidt, though on a much larger scale, we once again have an argument that at a certain level stress is beneficial, and that the push to eliminate it entirely, while having certain short term benefits, will in the end, on the balance, be harmful. “Silence” doesn’t mention antifragility, but once again that’s the domain we’re in.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a huge advocate for antifragility, and thus it doesn’t take much to convince me of both the danger of the “Untruth of Fragility” or the strength of the “Galactic Stomach Ache” explanation. There are certainly arguments to be made about whether Lukianoff and Haidt are exaggerating things or whether they’ve left some things out. And even better arguments could be made about whether “Galactic Stomach Ache” is the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, but I intend to proceed based on the assumption that both of them describe something that is actually happening, even if the eventual consequences are unclear. If that’s too much for you, then I would hope, at least, that we can proceed under the assumption that humans are antifragile and that stress is important for our development. If you’re still not on board then there’s probably not much point in reading the rest of this post and I would instead direct you to some of my previous posts, or, if you have the time you should just read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the person most responsible for the idea of antifragility.

If we’re all on the same page about the importance of antifragility then the next question I want to address is, “Why is it a problem now?” Certainly technology has allowed us to reduce suffering and stress from the moment hominids mastered fire. Why should it suddenly reach a tipping point five years ago? Lukianoff and Haidt’s answer is that it’s something of a perfect storm. It all starts with paranoid parenting. This front runs into a blizzard of increased polarization. All of that is bad enough and has been going on for awhile, but then coming in from the south, we have the lifestyle hurricane that is social media. This last item is the proverbial straw (to really mix metaphors) and the kids dealing with all three of these factors first arrived at college starting in 2013.

As I said Lukianoff and Haidt could be overstating how sharp this dividing line is, or how bad the problem is in general, and it’s not my intent to dive into the specifics of their argument. Also, this is just the “Coddling” side of things. The increase in degenerative diseases has been going on for a lot longer than five years. But it’s not hard to imagine a common process behind both of those, and an underlying push which gets us both paranoid parents and the rising costs of dealing with degenerative diseases.

This urge to diminish suffering and stress has been around forever, but it’s only recently that we’ve truly been close enough to eliminating it entirely that it began to seem realistic, if not ideal. Where, in other words, people began to expect it. In part this is due to the increasing power of technology, but we’ve also experienced a period of unprecedented peace and affluence as well. In the past when a mother may have lost at least one or two children to infant mortality, it’s hard to imagine that parenting would ever be so paranoid. And if granny had already lived to be 80, it’s equally hard to imagine that a family who was barely getting by as it was would want to spend any money, let alone thousands of dollars keeping her alive to 85. But at some point these expectations changed, and it had to be relatively recently. I think for a lot of things it happened so subtly that we didn’t notice it. What makes Lukianoff and Haidt’s tipping point remarkable is not that it happened, but that it was so stark when it did.

When speaking of the harm caused from eliminating all stress, and recent evidence thereof, everyone, including Lukianoff and Haidt bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which has already made at least one appearance in this blog. The theory is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. In all these cases we see evidence of harm caused by the elimination in low-level stress. The lack of hormesis mentioned in the Stomach Ache explanation, and the embrace of fragility mentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt.

Putting all of this together, the answer to the question of “Why now?” Is that we’re seeing the culmination of several trends which may have started decades ago, but have only recently become problems as a generation reached maturity, or as the impact reached a critical mass of people, or as the trend was finally translated into an expectation. There’s also the element of multiple trends all peaking and coming together at the same time, and probably feeding off each other. As I said we have been using technology to reduce suffering for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last couple of decades has it reached the point where it’s reasonable to expect that we can finally eliminate suffering entirely. And probably more than anything else it’s this gap between our expectations and reality which is causing most of the problems. Whether it’s college campuses or healthcare spending.

The next question is, “What should we be doing about it?” If I’m right, and the problem is essentially one of expectations, then our focus should be on changing these expectations. That’s largely the direction of Lukianoff and Haidt’s recommendations. But that may end up being a lot harder than it sounds.

One recommendation they make is for municipalities to implement “free range parenting” laws, like Utah. Obviously I’m always pleased to see a reference to my home state. And I’m in complete agreement that this is a good law, but I’m not sure it will have much of an effect. The big problem is that the law is unlikely to create more free range parents, it just offers protections for the ones who were already so inclined. For example, is there any mother out there who currently walks her kids to school, who will look at this law and decide, “Oh, I guess I should let them walk themselves to school. I was obviously being too paranoid.” I guess there might be a few, but I think the trend has already have gone too far and is too entrenched, for a new law to change the expectations of parents for how much effort they should put towards ensuring the safety of their children.

Once again, I think zeroing in on expectations is key here, and this is where being able to connect the separate instances of fragility comes in handy. Because one of the key drivers of the rise of healthcare costs has been a rise in expectations. Now this is not the only thing increasing costs, but it may be the biggest. As I already pointed out, it was not that long ago that people expected high infant mortality, and a life, that, on average, ended around 55, with anything past 70 as gravy. As technology got better expectations changed and along with them the cost of meeting those expectations. People have been worried about these rising costs since at least the time of Hillarycare, and yet of all the factors that go into rising costs, perhaps the least effort has been spent on changing expectations. Why? Probably because it’s the hardest factor to address. The small efforts which have been made have not merely been unsuccessful they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. There’s no quicker way to lose an election than to threaten to cut government spending on Medicare. You might also be familiar with “Death Panels”? Another example of a very strong negative reaction to the suggestion that reducing healthcare costs might entail reducing the amount of care someone actually expected to receive.

Some people may argue at this point that it’s not healthcare costs that are going to ultimately doom us, it’s the fact that we’re all turning into the overweight, hover-chair bound humans of Wall-E. And that the expectation we can eat whatever we want while being sedentary is easier to change than the expectation that we should be kept alive as long as possible regardless of the cost. The amount of effort we spend on changing these expectations certainly seems to indicate that we think this is a more pliable problem, but despite all that effort there’s no evidence of that trend reversing either.

Some people may dismiss all of the foregoing as the typical rantings of curmudgeonly old people against the dissipations of youth, and further argue that rising healthcare costs are a temporary problem, and certainly not representative of any long term existential crisis. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing I can say in this short post that will change your mind, and in any case, ultimately,  that’s not the point of the post. No, ultimately, my purpose is to examine what it looks like if we decide the world needs a certain amount of suffering.  And to argue that if we do decide that, it’s going to be very difficult to pull off. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

When I was young the start of the wilderness was a couple blocks from my house, and one of my favorite things to do was to set off towards the mountain. I was frequently accompanied by two of my cousins. Both were younger than me, one by a few months and one by a couple of years. We would be gone for hours on these excursions. A favorite destination was Eagle’s Cave. I don’t recall if you had to do any climbing to get there, but we did engage in climbing while we were out. At one point while we were climbing the older of the two cousins fell, and I have a distinct memory of him falling past me, and into the arms of his brother, who was also climbing but somehow didn’t get knocked off. I don’t know what to make of that memory at the remove of nearly forty years, but I talked to the cousin who fell recently and he remembered it exactly as I did. The “nearly forty years” is a hint, but guess how old I was. 15? 12? No the oldest I could have been was 8 because I moved from that house shortly after my 9th birthday.

This is basically exactly what Lukianoff and Haidt are advocating for right? What the advocates of the free range parenting movement are hoping for as well? You might argue that “suffering” is the wrong word to use for what I just described and what those groups are advocating for. And perhaps it is, perhaps “stressors”, or “challenges” is better, but if you don’t think my aunt would have suffered if my cousin had been injured in that fall or worse yet died, then you don’t know my aunt very well.  

Some will argue that letting kids wander into the wilderness is fine, but 8 (or in the case of my younger cousin, 6) is too young. Or that walking to school is one thing, climbing rock walls is quite another. And I totally see their point, but how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know when we have introduced enough suffering into the environment to avoid the harms Lukianoff and Haidt describe or the more theoretical crisis of the Galactic Stomach Ache? If someone says that 8 is too young they’re not basing it on some comprehensive longitudinal double blind study of outcomes based on childhood activities. They’re saying that they aren’t comfortable with 8 year olds wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, it doesn’t match what they expect, but targeting our expectations at our comfort level is exactly how we ended up in this spot.

In a sense, and this just came to me, otherwise I would have brought it up earlier, this whole problem is a supernormal stimuli problem. Evolution has programmed us to worry about our kids, and to extend our lifespan as long as possible, and to eat as much sugar and fat as we could get our hands on, because nature was such that even if we tried our best, kids were still going to undergo a lot of stress, and people were still mostly going to die young, and we were never going to eat too much sugar. But now technology has allowed us to remove most of the countervailing pressure and scarcity, so that now we can keep our kids too safe, or prolong our lives much longer but at great cost, in the same way that we can now eat way too much sugar. And of course while we can make some guess at how much sugar we should be consuming, it’s a lot more difficult to decide how much suffering we should be experiencing (do we end up setting a daily recommended allowance?)

To return to my example, I assume that today most parents would be appalled at the idea of an 8 year old wandering around in the mountains for hours, however much they were on board with the idea of free-range parenting, or providing kids with more challenges. And yet, it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still, at best, only half the man my father is (I don’t have time to get into his childhood stories, but if you think mine was appalling…) And he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if people like Lukianoff and Haidt are indeed correct about what’s happening, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. In fact, once you combine the scale of the problem with the difficulty of reversing people’s expectations, it starts to look completely intractable. It may be best to hope that I’m wrong, and that the world doesn’t need more suffering.

If, on the other hand I’m right, then we’re really only left with one question: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we also have the wisdom to bring it back?


There is definitely a dearth of wisdom in the world, and this blog is no exception. But I have a plan to create more wisdom, if you’d like to invest in that plan (think of me like an early-stage startup) then consider donating.