Category: <span>War</span>

Afghanistan, or Just Because You Decide to Leave the Party Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump Out the Window

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I- A Brief Meta-Aside

I recently read a post by Tanner Greer over at Scholar’s Stage where he talked about the golden age of blogging, and what was present then that’s missing now. His basic conclusion was that back then people used blogs to think, discuss and react. That it was a conversation where ideas were fleshed out. Additionally blogging was subversive, people frequently blogged under pseudonyms because they often felt like whistle blowers or the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Since then blogging has become professionalized—less thinking and more telling. People publish under their own name because credentials are important if you’re telling people something. Alongside declaiming something from on high they’re also designed as a way to flesh out the author’s CV, another aspect which works against having a discussion. Greer writes mostly in the national security space, and speaking of that space here’s how he describes it:

A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer[s]. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in [a] way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. [Emphasis his]

The whole post is titled “In Favor of Bad Takes”, and while I think its conclusions are less true in the rationality space (which might be the best description of where I’m located, though the relationship is definitely parasitic) it nevertheless rang true for me even so. And it inspired me to try to move my writing at least somewhat in that direction. 

I’m always looking for ways to contribute more through writing, and this seemed like an approach that might work. So I’m going to experiment with splitting up my writing (the non-newsletter, book review stuff) between dialogue/conversational pieces and essays. In my imagination this will allow me to put out more polished (though probably fewer) “essays” while doing more shorter, immediate, thinking out loud pieces. Increasing both my total output and the benefit I provide to the larger world (which I know is slight, but every little bit helps right?)

Also the essay I promised to publish next about environmental chemicals is going slow. At the same time I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I’d like to put in my two cents before it’s old news. 

II- What should we have done with Afghanistan in general?

I think there are a lot of ways to look at the Afghanistan situation and I’m going to try to hit as many as I can. But let’s start with how I think we should have handled things.

It should now be clear to everyone that it was not possible to externally midwife a stable, independent state in Afghanistan. That despite 20 years of working on it, nothing stuck. This is true in two ways. We clearly didn’t create a new military willing to fight, which is unsurprising since we didn’t create a new state either. But neither did we lessen the dedication of the Taliban by a single degree either. As you can see from the swift fall of the country after we left the Taliban’s power is just as great as always and I’m hearing some argue that it’s even greater. This makes a certain amount of sense. For the Taliban it was always a matter of intense personal honor, it is their country after all. While the US public only ever considered it a liability and a hassle, particularly after Bin Laden was killed.

Given that state-building was impossible, we should have never tried. If we needed to punish them, or capture Bin Laden, or prevent terrorist training camps we should have done that. (And I’m not even sure how much of that needed to be done.) But trying to reform the culture of the area was always going to be an ultimately pointless endeavor. 

I understand that while it’s now clear to everyone that state building was impossible that wasn’t always the case, but it should have been. Certainly there were lots of people pointing it out. And in addition to those people there was the example of Soviet and British attempts to do something similar.  It’s not as if the Afghani’s didn’t already have a reputation of being entirely intractable. 

All of this is to say that I disagree with the whole “You break it you bought it” philosophy. We should have tried to break as little as we could—as small a footprint as possible. And not “buy” anything. Terrorism is in any case a flashy, but low impact danger. I think this is another place where the pandemic is very illuminating when you compare the money spent preventing that with how many people died and the money spent on the war on terror with how many people die from terror attacks. And of course there’s the sad fact that more people died from combat just in Afghanistan (2,372 Military 1,720 Civilian contractors 4096 total) than died on 9/11. It gets even worse if you include Iraq. 

III- Given the situation Biden inherited what should he have done?

Let me be clear, I agree that we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever. As illustrated above I would have never planned to “stay” in the first place. And while I don’t intend to talk a lot about Trump (such discussions have a tendency to become all about him) I think his instinct that it was past time to get out was a good one. That said everything that happened since then has been disastrous. The so-called negotiations with the Taliban were a joke, and he and his State Department were either idiots or so eager to get a deal that they decided to ignore the fact that the Taliban didn’t intend to follow through on anything.

Those people who think we could have stayed forever make the argument that we had the country entirely under control. That there hadn’t been a combat death since March of 2020, and this condition was maintained by only a few thousand troops. And as that was the case there was no reason not to keep this going indefinitely. That initially sounded like a compelling argument, but it seems now that it was a gross misinterpretation of the situation. Once it was clear that the long waiting game the Taliban had been playing was about to be over, then there was no reason for them to kill troops anymore, it became all about convincing the US to follow through on their promise to leave while they gathered their strength. Is it a coincidence that:

The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February 2020 that called for peace talks between the two Afghan sides to start in March.

And that the last combat fatality was also in March of 2020? 

There are some people, as I mentioned above, who were and perhaps still are under the impression that we could have stayed indefinitely. But basically everyone else agrees that we had to leave at some point and this was as good a point as any. As such the vast majority of the criticism is over the manner of that departure. Or as Mitt Romney said, “Contrary to [Biden’s] claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”

If we add the assumption that the Taliban are awful, duplicitous monsters to the assumption that it’s time to get out, how does that change things? Well had we known that (and I believe we should have at least known it was possible). We should have prepared for all eventualities. It’s obvious that we didn’t. At a minimum Biden should have decided what was necessary to consider our withdrawal a success, and had the assets in place necessary to assure that. This does not appear to have happened, primarily because everyone appears to have severely underestimated the Taliban. 

As part of the damage control over this debacle Biden seems to be floating the idea that he inherited some timetable he couldn’t mess with, which I don’t buy at all. But this idea also leads into the assertion that they underestimated the Taliban. Also while I’ve been talking about Biden, you should read that to include him and everyone under him. I think the State Department obviously dropped the ball, and the military leadership also has a lot to answer for. I have heard some things that lead me to believe they’ve made Biden’s job harder.

Those caveats aside, what would success look like?

IV- Getting people out of there

I feel bad reading things like this:

Politico granted an Afghan journalist anonymity to write a brief essay on his experience hiding in Kabul over the weekend. “We could never have imagined and believed that this would happen. We could never imagine we could be betrayed so badly by the U.S. The feeling of betrayal … I dedicated my life to the [American] values,” he wrote. “There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance. A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life. … I don’t care if it’s the Trump administration or the Biden administration. I believed in the U.S. But that turned out to be such a big mistake.”

This gets back to my first point on what our initial goals should have been going in, but when Biden decided to follow through on Trump’s agreement to get out, he obviously knew that there were a bunch of people whose lives were going to be made a lot more dangerous. And of course he didn’t entirely ignore this, there was lots of talk about saving interpreters and other people who had worked with US forces. And I don’t know if the journalist quoted above was ever on the list, but at a minimum the US has a responsibility to ensure the safety of American citizens. 

But now we’re hearing that Kabul fell so fast that they might not be able to get people out. I read this morning (in the Dispatch Newsletter) that:

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday. “We are working to do that—first, by securing the airport today. And then, in the days ahead, by taking people out one flight at a time, flight after flight. We fully intend to continue an evacuation process to bring out people who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.”

But reporting throughout the day and overnight suggests this will be a very difficult task. “As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan’s capital continues to deteriorate, thousands of U.S. citizens are trapped in and around Kabul with no ability to get to the airport, which is their only way out of the country,” reports Josh Rogin, a global affairs columnist at the Washington Post. “As Taliban soldiers go door to door, searching for Westerners, these U.S. citizens are now reaching out to anyone and everyone back in Washington for help.”

The US made Kabul the rallying point for people fleeing and wanting to escape the Taliban and as recently as Friday was saying “Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment”. But it turns out that they were wrong, and couldn’t promise that. If only there were someplace that could have acted as a rallying point, some place with an airport that the US could have guaranteed to defend…

I’ve looked into things and Bagram Air Base, which was so precipitously abandoned at the beginning of July, is only about an hour and a half drive from Kabul. Would it have not made sense to maintain that as a refugee camp, have everyone who qualified and really wanted to leave come there as soon as the Taliban started advancing and then they could have flown them out or flown in more troops at their leisure? Instead they waited until the last minute and now they’ve got a situation where they’re trying to hold a commercial airport in a city that’s already fallen, and having to send more troops. Precisely what Biden didn’t want to do.

I understand that staying in Bagram could devolve into getting dragged back in, and it might be hard to leave if you’re surrounded by the Taliban, etc. And it might be hard in the end to not take everyone who showed up. But how is that any worse than what’s already happening?

(And one thing you may not have heard by abandoning Bagram they also essentially turned over the 5000 prisoners held there to the Taliban as well.)

We can talk about the promises made to the journalist about freedom and democracy, but the promise to get people out of Afghanistan was a promise Biden made. Not something forced on him by Trump, and it’s one that now looks like it’s going to be very difficult to fulfill. Obviously this is once again related to being laughably overconfident, but my suggestion of keeping Bagram as a backup does not seem like it would have been particularly difficult to do, and given the vagaries of war and war in Afghanistan in particular, surely someone must have considered the need for a failsafe.

V- Enforcing some kind of standard

It’s my understanding that, inexplicably, the peace deal with the Taliban had no enforcement mechanisms. That’s obviously on Trump and his State Department, but despite what Biden says about his hands being tied, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that Biden couldn’t have delivered some ultimatums or threats. One hardly imagines that anyone would count it against him if he didn’t follow the letter of the agreement given that the other party is the Taliban. Nor was the Taliban particularly good at following their side of the agreement.

 

Again, I don’t have a problem with withdrawing, but it appears that both Presidents were so eager to get out that they took no thought for how to accomplish that in a fashion that didn’t end up as a debacle. 

VI-Politics

Biden is already taking flack from both sides of the aisle over the withdrawal. Whatever blame Trump deserves (and I’m sure it’s plenty) Biden is going to end up most closely associated with the debacle. Setting aside the people of Afghanistan, and whether he should have taken a firmer stance with the Taliban, one has to imagine that Biden could have made the withdrawal less politically costly. And that even if he doesn’t care about the Afghans that he does care about about keeping congress on his side. Here I am less inclined to offer suggestions for what he should have done, but clearly it’s hard to imagine it going much worse than it did. In particular I’ve read articles about members of Congress pressing him for a better plan to get people out as far back as June. Something that reflects my previous point and a refusal by Biden and his team to even listen to criticisms of the plan that were being raised by members of his own party.

Failing to heed the concerns being raised by congress is not the biggest mistake, but it is the most surprising. The biggest long term consequence of the debacle might be on the international stage, and that shows up at several different levels.

First with respect to the Taliban it’s hard to imagine how the US could look more ridiculous, and the Taliban could look better. And I assume that this effect will carry over to similar groups. For example, does what happened in Afghanistan make a group like Hamas more or less scared of the US? I assume less scared and more bold.

Second there are those countries in direct competition with us. Countries like China and Russia and to a lesser extent India and possibly even Pakistan. How does this play out with them? Does this make them more respectful of US power and its demands or less? Certainly there have been plenty of reports about China gloating about our withdrawal, with one headline talking about how the Taliban have “embarrassed” an “arrogant” America. 

Finally there are those countries who have a defensive alliance with the US, alliances analogous to the deal we had with the previous government of Afghanistan. I read a newsletter this morning from Matthew Yglesias, and while we agreed on many points he claimed that the Afghanistan situation will end up having a positive impact on these relationships. That it will encourage countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and all the NATO countries to finally begin spending an appropriate amount on their own defense. Yglesias goes on to recommend:

I think it would be excellent for Secretary of State Blinken to send a memo to Tokyo and Taipei and Seoul and Berlin and say “look you’re right, this Afghanistan thing shows there are limits — the United States can do a lot for an ally but if the ally seems really unimpressive and helpless, we can’t do everything.” Don’t be the next Afghanistan! 

First off I feel relatively certain that if we wanted those countries to spend a greater percentage of their GDP on defense, that there are less costly, more direct ways than precipitously abandoning an ally and all the people who helped us out. Secondly, are you sure that’s the lesson all those countries are taking from the situation? That the US is still the best partner to have, they just need to step it up a little bit? Or are they taking the lesson that under the veneer of the alliance they’re essentially on their own. To put it in more concrete terms, do you think this makes it more likely or less likely that Japan will decide that it needs its own nukes?

VI- I’ve seen this movie before

The 70s were kind of awful for the US. There was the oil embargo. The Iran hostage crisis. Civil unrest and riots. All of this alongside hyperinflation, and of course, most relevant for our purposes, the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

I’ve often wondered how we managed to reverse all of these trends, regain our confidence and get out of this “funk”. I think Reagen deserves at least some of the credit. Perhaps more than the Democrats want to give him, but less than that required for the sainthood the Republicans want to bestow on him. I also think that some things just had a natural lifecycle which eventually reached its conclusion. You can’t embargo oil forever. And as much of the civil unrest was centered around the war, when the war ended, so did the unrest. I also think that at the end of the day our fundamentals were solid. We did eventually win the Cold War, vanquishing our main ideological competitor. We also went through several decades of tremendous innovation with computers, which started more or less in the 70s.

I expect that the debacle of Afghanistan along with the divisiveness of our politics, the increasing inequality, and the pandemic, among other things, will lead to a similar loss of confidence, and I’m not sure our fundamentals are still solid. 

Of all the things I read about Afghanistan over the last few days, the one that really struck with me was a newsletter from Antonio García Martínez titled “We are no longer a serious people”. And I think I’ll end with a long excerpt from it:

This is the true privilege of being an American in 2021 (vs. 1981): Enjoying an imperium so broad and blinding, you’re never made to suffer the limits of your understanding or re-assess your assumptions about a world that, even now, contains regions and peoples and governments antithetical to everything you stand for. If you fight demons, they’re entirely demons of your own creation, whether Cambridge Analytica or QAnon or the ‘insurrection’ or supposed electoral fraud or any of a host of bogeymen, and you get to tweet #resist while not dangling from the side of an airplane or risking your life on a raft to escape. If you’re overwhelmed by what you see, even if you work at places called ‘the Institute for the Study of War’, you can just take some ‘me time’ and not tune into the disturbing images because reality is purely optional at this stage of the game.

It’s a pleasant LARP, with self-reinforcing loops of hashtags, New York Times puff pieces and Psaki ‘circling back’, until one day the Taliban roll in and everyone is running for the helicopters. It’s like US elites finally had the VR headset knocked from their faces and actually had a look around. And what they saw was a roomful of men with faces out of an illustrated bible looking like they’d just pillaged a Cabela’s—that’s how much top-shelf, modded-out AR hardware they captured—sitting down for a super-awkward Zoom meeting announcing a sudden change of plans for American foreign policy.

This might seem flip and ‘too soon’, but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.


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Theories for the 1971 Inflection

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

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

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

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

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

1. I Was Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Nothing, there Was No Inflection Point in 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Long Peace Happened

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

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

Scheidel then goes on to say:

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

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

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

5. It’s All Part of a Historical Cycle

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

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

6. We Broke The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Decadence and the Twilight of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Missing Piece of the Present Moment Is Religion (But Not in the Way You Think)

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I.

This post is a continuation of the last post, but it’s okay if you came straight here without reading my previous post. When you’re writing you always have a destination in mind, and sometimes that destination seems pretty close, and you figure you have time to take a detour, so when you pass a sign that says, “World’s Largest Ball of Twine! 25 miles!” You think, “Sure we have time to go see that,” but the next thing you know you’ve not only spent hours traveling back roads, but you’re deep into the competing claims over which ball of twine really is the biggest, and you decide to travel to all of them, and… Well you get the picture. 

With that introduction, if you understandably decide not to go back and read the last post, here is a distillation of the three claims I made: 

  1. Uniting large groups of people is very difficult, and it’s a project that ultimately comes down to your foundational epistemology. How does a system construct the truth which goes on to inform its policies?
  2. When looking at these foundational epistemologies technocrats would seem to have an edge because in theory they arrive at the truth, they don’t construct it. But not only does their method have some notable blind spots, it’s also not very good at uniting the masses. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. 
  3. Religion is something that is both very good at constructing a truth framework and uniting people, and that is what we used to have in this country in the form of a patriotic civic religion, but that recently we had abandoned it, and the hole left by its absence is large contributing factor in the current unrest. 

To give you an example of what I mean here, let’s take something smaller than an entire theory of government. The above is also essentially the point I’ve been making when it comes to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the alternative macroeconomic theory that’s been much discussed recently. It may be that the MMTers have genuinely figured out some more accurate model for how government debt works. (Though I doubt it, even Krugman has referred to it as Calvinball.) But more important than the accuracy of the idea, is how it ends up getting translated when it filters down to citizens/voters. The average voter has no interest in the actual wonky policy debate. They have no understanding of monetary supply or inflation or the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Consequently they’re either going to ignore the whole debate, or it’s going to get translated into something they can understand. The most likely candidate for the latter is a conviction that deficits don’t matter and the government can spend whatever it wants, and so what possible reason could there be for not spending money? Particularly if people are in need.

Now of course it’s going too far to say that this conviction would be equivalent to a religion. It may be easier at this stage of things to view such an idea as a myth. A myth which is a distortion of MMT, but which arises out of it in a fairly natural fashion. And even if we imagined that people could understand all of the ins and outs of Modern Monetary Theory, you can see how the myth is much more appealing. Not merely is it simple and straightforward, but it appeals to their self-interest. When given a choice between doing the hard work of understanding the in-and-outs of things, listening to the experts, or believing a simple and compelling myth. Most people are going to go with the myth. Technocracy imagined that most people even even if they’re reluctant to do the hard work, will still go with believing the experts, but that’s simply not the case, 

What’s actually happening is that people are choosing between two myths. The other myth is a myth about debt. It is also simple and compelling. It says that debt is bad. As it turns out that’s not the case, governments need to be able to borrow. This is what makes it a myth, but it’s nevertheless a simple and straightforward idea that people can organize around. Experts, such as they are, may direct people towards one or the other myths, but essentially they’re a side show. 

II.

As I mentioned in that last post there are lots of books that speak to the importance of religion, but since we’re starting with myths and working our way up to religions, let’s start with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In yet another stab at explaining the uniqueness of humans Harari puts forth the idea that our uniqueness comes from our ability to craft these myths. That through myth-making we can create imagined orders and frameworks, which allow us to exceed the limits set by the natural order. You might notice that this is very similar to the other candidate for “human uniqueness” I recently mentioned in my review of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. For Henrich it was culture, for Harari it’s myths, but as you can imagine the two end up having substantial overlap.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s been awhile since I read Sapiens, and my note taking back then had not reached its current heights. Fortunately I did come across a blog post where someone had summarized the book. Accordingly, for convenience, I’ll be referencing that rather than Harari’s book. 

In doing so let’s review what we’re trying to do. Our overarching question is how do we beneficially unite large groups of people. Well setting aside the “beneficial” bit for the moment. Historically, uniting people above the level of a tribe has always begun with the application of force, or at least a form of power which was ultimately backed up by such force. I’ve talked about this before at some length, but as it turns out, even though in that last discussion I peeled away the veneer of democracy, I didn’t go deep enough. There was at least one more layer. From the Sapiens summary:

A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion.

To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

To maintain an imagined order, we need people who believe in it – the military, the elites, and the peasants.

In other words behind the threat of force is a myth that makes the force cohere into something useful, and beyond that myths are ultimately responsible for all cohering even if you’re not talking about the military—as our recent myth-induced chaos bears testament to. But if all power structures are ultimately built on a foundation of belief in some myth, then what myth forms the foundation of a modern technocracy? I suspect the answer is that there isn’t one, and as I concluded in my last post, this lack represents its fundamental weakness. But it’s only fair that we consider some possibilities before definitely concluding that.

III.

A technocracy is rule by technical experts. So perhaps the foundational myth is in the power of experts. Like all good myths this would be one with quite a bit of truth behind it. But is that all that’s required for a good myth? That it be a simplification of some more complicated truth, designed for easy ingestion by the masses? Probably not, at least as I consider examples of unifying myths, the amount of truth they contain seems mostly incidental to their success. What really seems to determine how successful they are is the emotional appeal of their core idea. To return to the other two frameworks I talked about in my last post: national greatness and Trumpism. The former’s emotional appeal is right there in the name. The powerful idea that the United States is a nation with a destiny! While the latter both borrows the appeal of the former—Make America Great Again—and the age-old appeal of unifying around a single, charismatic figure. In this case the idea that Trump is a transformative figure in his own right, something of a Moses who will set his people free. Do you see any similar appeal around the idea of “listen to the experts”? I don’t. It sounds more hectoring than inspiring, as I think recent events have shown.

What if we take it back a step and make our unifying myth the myth of science. Well we’re immediately faced with an oxymoron, since science is all about puncturing myths, or at least getting to the bottom of them. Which is to say the great strength of science, that it is self-critical, is exactly what we don’t want in this situation. It prioritizes doubt, but unity requires at least some degree of certainty. You can neither imagine someone storming the Capitol in the name of science nor facing down such a mob in the name of science either. You can imagine both happening in the name of justice or duty, but not science. 

Perhaps technocracy can unify people using the myth of progress? This seems like the best candidate, and to the extent that technocracy has been successful this is probably the unifying myth it has drawn on. But I think there are several reasons to think that this myth isn’t really capable of “going the distance” as they say. First off, while progress doesn’t come embedded with quite the same level of doubt as science it still invites a certain amount of criticism and reflection. All of which is to say that people feel they should be able to measure progress, and that, because it’s “progress” every time they measure it, there should be more of it. This gives progress a certain fragility. As long as progress is obvious it makes a great unifying myth, but if it stalls or reverses or takes a form that’s difficult to quantify, it’s utility as a myth quickly disappears. Also what if you end up with progress in some areas, but not in others? And what if some groups are doing great while things are getting worse for other groups? Suddenly progress isn’t unifying, it’s divisive. Which, once again is something we’ve seen play out in recent events. 

Perhaps the key problem with all of these myths is that in order for a myth to be useful it has to inspire people during both the good times and the bad. It has to not merely unify people when things are going great—nearly anything will work for that. No, it’s when times are tough that a unifying myth is put to the test. Does it continue to function when unity is both important and difficult? In order to do this there has to be something about the myth which encourages sacrifice, or at the minimum naturally assembles people into teams. One could argue that a great nation shouldn’t have to sacrifice, but at least that myth encourages everyone to want their nation to win, and from there the necessity of making sacrifices becomes pretty obvious.

In the final analysis technocracy may be antithetical to both unity and sacrifice. Under the idea of national greatness we’re all citizens, all part of the vast arc of destiny that has carried the United States from a hall in Philadelphia, through numerous wars against evils like slavery and facism, all the way up to walking on the Moon. Trumpism is not nearly so majestic, but it nevertheless formed people up into teams and gave them a goal to strive for. Even democracy at its most vanilla puts forth the idea that every voter has a part to play in government. But a technocracy contains none of these elements. The average citizen isn’t part of something grand they’re just a piece in a puzzle the technical experts are trying to solve. Through their behavior they may make the puzzle easier or more difficult to solve, they are not the prime movers in the story. They’re not the people playing the game of chess, they’re the pieces on the board. (I can’t decide if using the word “pieces” in two different contexts is clever or confusing…)

There is one other important point to be made in this discussion: unity can either be something which is cultivated internally or it can be imposed externally. I’m not going to spend a lot of time going down this path since I covered it in a previous post, but I would argue that the long period we’ve experienced without any wars has also contributed to our lack of unity. War’s have rarely been truly existential threats for the United States, but even so, knowing that great harm will befall you unless you pull together with the rest of the country is a powerful motivation to do just that. And as I mentioned in the last post, it is during such times as war, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the feeling of national greatness always reached its peak. 

At this point you may agree that myths are useful, you may even agree that technocracies are bad at cultivating unifying myths, but you might still think that they’re more effective, by virtue of the fact that they’re based on science, evidence and data rather than conspiracies (Trumpism) or a history which has been white-washed of all the bad things (national greatness). That in the long run technocracies will be a better framework for beneficially unifying people than any framework which relies on simplifying myths. This would appear to be the contention of a lot of people, and one of the great debates of the age. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.

IV.

To start with I’m going to jump ahead somewhat. I’m going to go straight from talking about myths to talking about religion. Ideally I would carefully build that progression, but I think it’s pretty obvious that religions are collections of myths. Myths which happen to be based on eternal truths if you’re a believer, or myths which may nevertheless be useful even if you’re not. But clearly everything I said above about myths—that they are coherent, easy to understand, and inspiring during both good times and bad—also applies to religious beliefs. It might even be useful to think of religions as mythplexes—aggregations of useful myths. 

If we accept that religions are the preferred framework for managing people via myths, then that’s what we should be measuring technocracies against. And unless I’ve completely missed the point, its supporters make the fundamental claim that technocracies are better than religions at unifying large groups of people. Regardless of whether we’re comparing it against traditional religions like Hinduism or Christiantiy. Or comparing them against civic religions, like the ideology of patriotic national greatness which held sway in the US until very recently. Though calling this a “fundamental claim” may give an inaccurate impression of how much attention technocrats pay to this comparison. I think most of them consider this superiority so blindingly obvious as to be unworthy of discussion, not something people are still fighting over. If this is the case, where are technocracies superior? What standards are we using for our comparison, and how does one even make the comparison? If we have a modern Scandanavian technocracy on one side, and, say, Christianity on the other, what are we looking for?

Obviously this is a big subject with a lot of potential areas where one could focus. Also it’s one where my opinion by itself isn’t worth very much. Fortunately, as I mentioned in the last post there are numerous books that have weighed in on this subject. Though before I dive in, it’s obvious I’m biased on this subject, and it’s almost certain that this bias extends to the selection of books I’ve read. So the fact that I can come up with far more books making the case for religion, than making the case for secular technocracies, may say more about me than about the state of scholarship on the subject. Accordingly if you know of any books making the case for technocracies which I haven’t read please let me know. The chief one I’m aware of is Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, and I’m not going to spend any time with it, because I already did a whole post on it, and this post is focused on the religious side of the debate. 

With those biases noted, let’s take a look at what we’ve got. I’ll be covering a lot of books, so by necessity I’m going to be brief, but in nearly all cases I’ve reviewed these books already and I’ll link back to those, more extended discussions. And in the one case where I haven’t discussed the book I’m about to so you’ll just have to tune back in at the beginning of March. 

Let’s start with the book in this last category, a book I just finished The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich. This one has a particularly interesting contribution to make on the topic. First off it makes the claim that just about everything you might think of as attributes of a modern technocracy is the result of Western Christianity’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). That this MFP produced WEIRD people, an acronym which stands for:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

These five words are also among the first words someone might think of when describing a technocracy, which would mean that technocracies aren’t in competition with religions; they are in fact only possible after hundreds of years of religious influence! Now this still leaves open the argument that technocracies are the stage of evolution past religion, that they are an improvement, which we will get to in a minute, but at a minimum I think anyone making this sort of argument would carry the burden of proof.

Beyond this WEIRDest People also spends a lot of time pointing out the enormous changes religion was able to make through the MFP, taking thousands if not tens of thousands of years of kin based organizational structures and remaking them into structures capable of much greater cooperation across a much larger number of people. Exactly the sort of beneficial organization I keep referring to.

As long as we’re on the subject of Henrich, his other book, Secret of Our Success, makes the strong case for the power of cultural evolution to organize societies as opposed to the method of rationally arriving at solutions and policies. Does not the former essentially describe the development of religion? While the latter is nearly an exact description of the technocratic mindset?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, makes much the same point as WEIRDest People, though from a very different angle. In Taylor’s case he spends 900 pages disproving the idea that secularization is a story of subtracting the bad bits of religion (for our purposes, if we equated “bits” to “myths” that’s pretty close to the mark). In place of this he argues that secularization has been an additive process, that everything associated with it was built on a vast foundation of progress that was driven by religion in all of its aspects. 

Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, makes the comprehensive claim that civilization is impossible in the absence of religion. That all civilizations have to be built around the framework of a common system of myths and beliefs. 

That’s four books, to these we could easily add four more: Marriage and Civilization by William Tucker, together with Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin which (along with WEIRDest People) all make the point that monogamous marriage is critical to civilization as we understand it. Perhaps technocracies share religion’s dedication to this subject, if so I’ve yet to come across any evidence of it. There’s also Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, which is yet another indictment of technocracy’s ability to plan and manage complex societies, with illustrations of how long it takes for such failures to manifest. Finally there’s Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which speaks to the deep dissatisfaction and the lack of unity so many people experience while living in modern technocracies. 

To these eight I could add still more, but that’s enough for now, and as I said, my own studies of this subject may be biased, and if so I welcome correction. But, as far as I can tell, religion has been absolutely critical to developing the society we currently have and we abandon it in favor of a secular technocracy at our peril. Though as I said perhaps technocracy is a natural evolution from where we were. Either an advancement which eliminates the need for religion or one which ushers in some new quasi religion which will fill the hole left by traditional religions.

V.

Even the most cursory review of the state of the world would have to conclude that technocracies are not doing well. This is not their moment, and it’s hard to discern any sense in which they have allowed us to transcend the need for myths and religions. They have not demonstrated any permanent and unshakable advantage over previous forms of government. In fact, at the moment they seem very shaken. But even more than their current distress, we get the best evidence in favor of my thesis when we look at what has shaken them. 

Obviously, I am most familiar with the US, and here, when you dig into what’s happening to shake the foundations of the technocratic order, it’s myths as far as the eye can see. There’s the myths underlying Trumpism, which were powerful enough to rally 74 million voters. There’s the myths of police violence against minorities, but particularly blacks, which were powerful enough to give us a whole summer of protests. There’s the myths of a socialist revolution sweeping away late-stage capitalism in an environmentally friendly way, which have provided enduring support for Bernie Sanders and The Squad. And somewhere in there, there is still the myth of national greatness, and American exceptionalism.

Like all good myths these are all based on a significant body of truth, but that’s not what makes them powerful. Technocrats who come along and point out Trump’s flaws, or that the circumstances of some of the police shootings were not quite as egregious as has been claimed, make very little headway against these myths. More facts are not what the people crave. They obviously crave something the technocrats have a difficult time providing. 

To these observations we should add the point that technocracies have not been around for very long, and while perhaps this means we should give them more time—that they have not been given a fair chance. I view it in the opposite fashion. Whatever success they have had, has been during a brief period of exceptional peace and stability. This has provided the illusion that they work, when, as I already pointed out, in good times nearly every system works. 

Taken together it seems pretty clear that technocracies are not an advancement which have allowed us to abandon myths and religion, that we still need them as much as ever and technocracies cannot fill that hole. So what about the idea that we might be transitioning to a new civic religion? 

I first encountered this idea in the Slate Star Codex post, Gay Rites Are Civil Rites, which right off the bat is a very clever title, particularly given the subject matter. In the post he argued that the old civic religion of national greatness and patriotism, which I’ve spent so much time talking about with its emphasis on patriotism, American History, and a parade on the 4th of July might be getting replaced by a new civic religion which emphasizes tolerance, progress towards the future, and a parade celebrating Gay Pride. For a label you might call it Wokeism, or the Religion of Progress, but regardless of what you call it or what you think about it’s chances for success, it’s a fascinating idea. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts I would urge you to read that post, because I’ve only scratched the surface. But I do see several issues with the idea:

  1. As I keep pointing out, one of the key features of a religion is that it works during good times and bad. How does wokeism encourage sacrifice? And not just the sacrifice of advantaged groups for those that have been disadvantaged but the sacrifice of all of its adherents in exchange for something they believe to be the greater good?
  2. And while it’s possible I could have made this clearer, it’s not that we need a religion, it’s that we need a religion that can unify us all, in the way that national greatness used to unify the nation or the way Christianity unified the West. At least so far whatever Wokeism is, it’s been pretty divisive.
  3. Even if we grant that it’s a new and better religion which has arrived just in time to replace the old and make us an even better nation. Transitioning to a new religion is not something to be undertaken lightly. Look at everything that went into the creation of the civic religion of patriotism: a revolution, a war, the creation of a new nation built exclusively around the religion, not to mention the extraordinary people. Just George Washington’s contribution as the first president was a huge factor. One that would be difficult to replicate. 

Put all of this together and the best case scenario is a tumultuous and contentious transition to a new set of myths with unknown efficacy, and it could end up being something far worse than that. The American Revolution was the best case scenario for transitioning to a new religion. If you want the worst check out the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Still it’s fair to ask what our actual options are.

That’s a tough question. I still think it might be easiest to retreat back to a religion of national greatness, but I’m worried that Trump has rendered that idea permanently toxic to at least half the country. There are of course traditional religions, and perhaps that’s a closer destination, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the path to that destination has been lost for a long time.

I wish there was a simple answer. But I think the overarching lesson here is that, in our hubris, in our certainty that we could just sit down and invent the perfect system, we ended casting aside the only thing that really could have saved us. 


People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge. (No, really!) And I’d probably do something both silly and petty. Like make everyone sign-up for my patreon. Click here if you want to get in on it before it’s mandatory. 


What’s to Be Done About China?

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I.

With all that is going on currently, from the pandemic, to civil unrest, to an incredibly contentious political climate, even those who were alive at the time find it hard to remember how much optimism there was at the end of the Cold War, particularly around the subject of China. It’s easy to grasp now why there was optimism about the Soviet Union and the accompanying collapse of communism, but people forget that there was almost as much optimism about the Chinese communists. The Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989, which actually happened before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union officially dissolved, seemed like the first shudder of the massive earthquake of democracy and liberalization that would eventually come for China in the same way that it came for all the countries of the former Soviet Bloc.

It was this optimism that spawned things like The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama a book which has occupied a prominent position in my last two posts. And even though, as I mentioned, it holds up better than I would have expected, it’s equally obvious that Fukuyama was very wrong on China, but it’s starting to look more and more like everyone was wrong. 

The example of this “wrongness” that’s gotten the most attention recently is what happened between China and the NBA. It all started when Daryl Morey, the owner of the Houston Rockets tweeted, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The backlash from China and Chinese companies was swift, and presumably surprising. It’s not worth going into everything that happened but it was quickly apparent to the NBA that billions of dollars were on the line and everyone, including Morey backtracked, apologized, and, in keeping with the theme, basically kowtowed. From this example it might not immediately be clear what “everyone was wrong” about. But I think it can be best summed up by the idea that doing business in and with China was going to be the same as doing business in and with other countries. This is not to say that there aren’t difficulties in doing business in Russia or Saudia Arabia, but not only does the Chinese reaction seem more extreme than what you might expect out of those other two countries, there’s also so much more at stake. Whatever broadcast deal the NBA has with Russia or Saudia Arabia, I’m sure it’s a small fraction of the $1.5 billion they’re getting out of China. In other words China is different, more different than I think the NBA expected.

This post is all about exploring how they’re different, because I don’t think that’s quite clear yet. Also, since a discussion of differences could fill several books, I’m going to restrict my discussion to examining very high level differences between nations and cultures. Even with this restriction there are still numerous competing explanations of how China is different, or what the “wrongness” might be, so we’ll spend a little bit of time with each of them.

II.

To begin our examination I’d like to turn back to the book, What’s Wrong With China? by Paul Midler, which I reviewed here, since, based on the title, it should provide an almost direct answer to our question, and Midler doesn’t just provide one answer to this question he provides lots of them, but most of his explanations and the stories which illustrate them operate at a level lower than the one we’re interested in. That said he does have two very important insights. First, that in China the rules and expectations surrounding business and agreements in general are very different from Western rules and expectations, and second, and perhaps more importantly from our perspective, he has some very interesting things to say about the motivation of the Chinese leadership. 

According to Midler, it’s very important to understand that the Chinese think dynastically. They don’t imagine a smooth upward curve where they’ll be in power forever, but rather they imagine that they have a limited window when times are good and that they need to take advantage of that window. (Sometimes this is referred to as the Mandate of Heaven.) Accordingly, Midler asserts that one of the keys to understanding their actions is to recognize that they’re in a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends. Some quotes from the book:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

Of course, more than helping us understand China, what we really want out of an explanation is a guide for what to do about China, what actions we should take. 

How does this explanation do on that front?  Well it does supply the somewhat counterintuitive guidance that the more pressure we bring to bear upon China the more aggressive they’ll be. But more interestingly it seems to suggest that we can just wait China out. That just like we expected in the early 90s eventually the Communist Party will be removed from power or suffer some other calamity, and the problem will go away. Unfortunately, in the meantime, this does nothing for the Hong Kong Protestors, or the Tibetians or the Uighurs. Nor is it clear even if we can wait them out how long that might take. Certainly the Chinese Communists themselves are determined to hold on to the Mandate of Heaven for as long as possible.

The final question which we need to ask of this explanation and of all our explanations is how much weight we should give it, and here, I’m inclined to say quite a lot. Of all the people I mention Midler is the only one who has spent decades living in China, and so while it might be possible to argue that others understand the Chinese leadership better (possible to argue, not definitely true) I don’t think anyone I’ve come across has a better grasp of the people.

III.

In his book The Accidental Superpower. Peter Zeihan puts forth an even more pessimistic view about China’s prospects:

The reality of China is considerably different from the conventional wisdom. There are many reasons to doubt the strength of the Chinese system, but let’s focus on those relevant to things geographic and demographic. Individually, any of the raft of concerns I’m about to detail would be enough to derail the Chinese rise. Collectively they are more than enough to return China to the fractured, self-containing mess that it has been for most of its history. 

I don’t intend to spend much time on Zeihan’s concerns, but it’s worth being aware of what they are:

First, Zeihan’s primary focus is geography and this might be the area he feels the strongest about. Specifically he thinks China is actually three nations (or perhaps four). This may be the least obvious of his concerns, so I’ll include his explanation:

This tripartite system—northern China as the stable-as-glass political core, central China as the nationally disinterested economic core, and southern China as the potentially secessionist territory (and the interior being largely ignored)—holds to the present day. Even contemporary China’s political system reflects it: All of the critical military branches of the government are headquartered in the north, the north and central regions trade of the premiership every decade in order to balance security and trade interests, while the south is not even represented on the Politburo.

Such a geographic look at the country lays bare the greatest myth about China: that it is united. I’m not talking here about the concept of the mainland versus Taiwan, but rather the idea that the mainland itself can ever truly be a unified entity. Taking a closer look at history indicates that China’s past periods of “unity” are anything but.

Second, that as deep as their rivalry/conflict runs with the US that their rivalry/conflict with Japan is a hundred times deeper.

Third, that the only reason they’re unified right now is because of the US. We neutralized the rivalry with Japan, we cleared the oceans of predatory navies (Ziehan also makes the point that China is not a natural naval power), enforced freedom of navigation, and created and invited them to participate in a global market.

Fourth, their financial system is a mess, and is more a system of subsidization, than a system of credit. Leading to lots of projects that are technically possible but economically ridiculous. (This is something Midler touches on as well).

Fifth, demography, China is getting old faster than it’s getting rich, which is bad for all kinds of reasons, but particularly because their economy is entirely driven by exports, which requires new cheap workers. And even if they wanted to switch to internal consumption, demography makes that hard as well.

Finally, and I had to include this because it seems to be the opposite of what everyone else is saying. Zeihan claims that Taiwan, in concert with Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, “Form a line of islands off the Chinese coast that block any possible Chinese access to the ocean blue.”  

If anything this assessment of what’s wrong with China (everything) and what we should do about China (wait and/or exclude them from the international system) is even more optimistic than Midler’s. Though I should also point out the book was published in 2014, so it’s possible that the last few years have made a huge difference, though you wouldn’t think so. As far as how much weight we should assign to Zeihan, I would say over the long run, particularly when it comes to geography, quite a bit, but in the short run I think he misses a lot of subtleties. Perhaps the most interesting part of his analysis is the part about the rivalry between China and Japan. A subject I’ll be returning to. 

IV.

One more “we don’t need to worry about China” position came to light while I was composing this post, it’s a set of remarks delivered a couple of weeks ago by Chas Freeman, a noted American Diplomat, and Nixon’s chief translator during his 1972 visit to China. The article is titled The Struggle with China is not a Replay of the Cold War. Some key quotes:

  • To analogize [the conflict between China and the US] to the Cold War of 1947 – 1991 is intellectually lazy… China is both a much less inherently hostile and far more robust rival than the Soviet Union was.
  • China is a threat to American global primacy, but mostly in economic and technological rather than political or military terms, in which it remains decidedly inferior.
  • China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” is an order-setting geoeconomic strategy with no Soviet parallel that dwarfs the nearest American equivalent – the Marshall Plan.
  • American military intervention in the Russian civil war lasted only two years (1918-1920). Overt U.S. intervention in China’s ongoing civil war, sparked by the Korean War, began in 1950.  Seventy years later, U.S. support for the heirs to Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Chinese regime not only continues but is escalating.
  •  During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested leader of a bloc of dependent nations that it called “the free world.” That bloc is now in an advanced state of decay.
  • If the contest were military and didn’t go nuclear, the United States, with its battle-hardened and uniquely lethal military, would enjoy insuperable advantages. (emphasis mine)
  • Asking countries to choose between China and the United States, when China is clearly rising and America is simultaneously stagnating and declining, practically guarantees the progressive eclipse of American prestige and power. 
  • For the first time in our history, we Americans must decide how to deal with a country that not only has the capacity to surpass us but is actually doing so. 

This seems to answer the question of what’s wrong with China with “nothing”. The question you should be asking is what’s wrong with the US, and I guess the answer there is that we’re attempting to replay the Cold War with China, and that’s not going to work. Which is also a prescription for the actions we need to be taking. As for my opinion on this advice, certainly I think he’s correct about China being a more “robust rival” than Russia. But I have reason to suspect that our military advantage is not insuperable. Certainly not in the area where hostilities are most likely to break out. Which brings us to the next view of China.

V.

Thus far the people we’ve discussed have either had no opinion on China’s military (Midler) or have asserted that it’s far inferior to the military of the United States. In The Kill Chain by Christian Brose which I reviewed in my last post, and to a lesser extent in Trump vs. China by Newt Gingrich, the exact opposite position is put forth, both authors are convinced that we would probably lose a war against China, particularly one that was fought over Taiwan or the South China Sea, and didn’t involve nuclear weapons. 

Given the colossal amount of money the US spends on its military, an amount which is still significantly more than that spent by China, this may seem hard to believe. And a full explanation would involve describing a host of new weapons systems, hypersonic and anti-carrier missiles, autonomous drones, cyber warfare and misinformation campaigns like those conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. And if you really want to get into that I would highly suggest reading Brose’s book. But I have several reasons for finding his description of things more credible than Freeman’s or Zeihan’s (though to be fair Zeihan’s argument isn’t quite as strong as Freeman’s).

To begin with I think it’s clear Brose, and obviously Gingrich to a certain extent have a far more insight into the condition of our military, and how well it’s likely to perform in any potential conflict. The perfect string of war game losses mentioned by Brose seems particularly applicable here. Also I don’t get the sense that Freeman or Zeihan are as familiar as they should be with some of the weapons systems China has or is developing, and that’s really what the outcome of any future conflict will hinge upon. What sort of impact will newer weapon’s systems have, and who will best take advantage of them? When considering this question the last few major conflicts are very instructive. In every single one, the dominant weapon of the previous war was rendered obsolete by new weapons. In World War I it was the cavalry being rendered obsolete by the machine gun. In World War II it was the battleship being rendered obsolete by the aircraft carrier and the defensive line being rendered obsolete by the tank. (And I realize that the true picture is somewhat more complicated than this.) 

In any potential war against China there’s numerous candidates for game-changing weapons, and China is ahead of us on basically all of them. We’re focused on things that make big juicy targets, like aircraft carriers and bases on Guam and Okinawa, they’re focused on what they call the “assassin’s mace”, cheap, numerous, and, frankly, sneaky weapons that are designed precisely to take out those big targets. Additionally all of our recent military experience has come against opponents where we’re overwhelmingly more powerful. Where we can count on our satellites and our communication and having an AWACS hanging around. And yes, the Taliban can’t do anything about those systems, but China can.

VI.

The foregoing discussion of a potential military conflict is pretty meaningless if a war never happens. Though the one thing nearly everyone seems to agree on is that China will not rest until it has reabsorbed Taiwan, and if America remains committed to preventing that, then war would appear to be inevitable. And this is another area where many people like to flip things, and rather than asking what’s wrong with China that they would want to do that, they ask what’s wrong with us that we think it’s our job to stop that? 

Probably you’re not merely worried about the liberty and continued independence of Taiwan, you’re also worried about freedom for the citizens of Hong Kong, or perhaps you feel that the US has some moral responsibility to stop the ongoing abuse of the Uighars and Tibetans. And there’s no denying that great harms are being committed, and perhaps it is the role of the US and the other free countries of the world to stop such harms wherever they might be happening. Certainly it would be nice if we could, but if there is such a path it almost certainly doesn’t involve war with China, which would very likely cause more harm than it prevented. (For a taste of what I mean consider Iraq and Afghanistan, and then factor in China’s vastly greater capacity to fight back.)

Beyond outright war, which we didn’t resort to even with the Soviet Union, there is the option of a very aggressive and confrontational stance that stops short of outright war. But there are arguments to be made that even this might be a mistake. A few examples:

First there’s the position of Freeman which appeared earlier in the post. He doesn’t mention the Uyghurs at all, and he doesn’t offer much of an opinion on Taiwan either. But his position that the US needs to avoid another cold war with China has a certain logic to it, if for no other reason than that China has an economic strength the Soviet Union never possessed.

Next there’s the position of Samuel Huntington and his book Clash of Civilizations, which I talked about here. Huntington contends that Southeast Asia has and always will be part of the Chinese sphere of control and that in the long run there’s not much we can do about it. Interestingly Fukuyama was a student of Huntington but in this area he disagrees with his former professor, not in claiming that they aren’t civilizations, or that they’re not important, but rather in putting forth the idea that progress has spawned a universal civilization. As such, rather than abandoning most of Asia to the dominion of China we should instead be encouraging China to join the universal civilization. 

Beyond these two America has always had a streak of isolationism, perhaps best represented currently by Pat Buchanan. Who recently pointed out in reference to the rising tensions between China and India that:

Exactly what kind of “ally and partner” the U.S. is to be “in the fight” between India and China over disputed terrain in the Himalayan Mountains was left unexplained. We have no vital interest in where the Line of Control between the most populous nations on earth should lie that would justify U.S. military involvement with a world power like China.

I understand that Buchanen is something of a pariah among some, but it’s hard to find fault with this statement.

Underlying all of these arguments is the question of US hegemony, and what the ongoing value of that is. From where I sit, it would appear that the biggest value is slowing down nuclear proliferation. To speak more directly to the subject at hand, Japan has the technology for nuclear weapons, they don’t possess them (that we know) because the US is shielding them with its nuclear umbrella. Should the US make a significant withdrawal from Asia, effectively ceding it to China, there’s good reason to suspect that Japan would decide that “now” would be an excellent time to start possessing such weapons. 

The foregoing would appear to leave us with three choices:

  1. Accept that our power and influence is or will be declining and attempt to create a new hegemony, perhaps something involving the creation of a significant international coalition, or perhaps just an international order that focuses on nonproliferation, but doesn’t try and solve all of the worlds problems (i.e. something that keeps Japan from feeling the need for nukes, but does nothing to prevent China from annexing Taiwan.)
  2. Accept that our power and influence are declining and decide that any attempt to replace the US hegemony with something else is destined to fail, so why bother making the attempt. Perhaps this comes about from deciding that any effort spear-headed by the US is bound to have too much baggage, and hope someone else will step up.
  3. Hang on to our current role for as long as we can, and do everything possible to extend this period. In the meantime, hope that something changes, perhaps China will embrace liberal democracy, or China and Russia will go to war or some weird technological singularity will come along (this is exactly the plan laid out by Ian Morris in his book War! What Is It Good For? Which I reviewed here.)

VII.

Finally we arrive at what is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frightening possibility of all. I’ve frequently mentioned Fukuyama and his book End of History and the Last Man in the course of this discussion, and I think it’s fair to say that the book is very Hegelian. Of course as Fukuyama also points out, Marx essentially ruined Hegel, but if you can strip that away and look at what Hegel was actually saying, it’s all pretty interesting. When talking about Hegel everyone mentions the “dialectic”, but essentially, as Hegel saw it that mostly amounted to a conversation between civilizations, a conversation that generally starts with two opposing viewpoints (thesis and antithesis), but eventually through dialogue, ideas, experimentation, and yes, even war, the two ideas eventually combine into one better idea (synthesis).

As an example you might start out with security on one side and freedom on the other, eventually synthesizing the two into a system with both significant policing, but also significant protection for individual rights. As that example makes clear, it’s not always as clean and straightforward as Hegel would lead you to believe, but he nevertheless claimed that this process also operated at the level of nations and brought us liberal democracy. Whether this was in fact “the process”, and whether it was not only “the process”, but the end point of “that process” are separate issues. I think there’s a good case to be made that the process was something like that, but the idea that we’ve reached the end is less certain, despite Hegel’s and later Fukuyama’s claims to the contrary. 

With an understanding of that framework, we’re now in a position to discuss the interesting/frightening possibility I alluded to at the beginning of the section. What if the Chinese government is the next level of Hegelian synthesis? What if they have synthesized market capitalism, with communism (or if you prefer just straight authoritarianism)? As you may recall from some of my previous posts on the book, Fukuyama isn’t making the claim that liberal democracy is some sort of obvious utopia, and he mostly tries to minimize claims of whig history, rather what he’s saying is that only liberal democracy has both the legitimacy necessary for internal health and the access to science and industry necessary to win a modern war, that is external threats to a nation’s health. But so far threats to the legitimacy of the Chinese government have been pretty anemic, and, if Brose is correct, their war making capability is at least sufficient and it may be superior. 

In both cases there are other elements which have contributed to China’s success. Turning first to legitimacy, there was a time when it was expected that technology and particularly the  internet would be a huge boon to political freedom, and the longer things go the more it looks like it might be just the opposite. China’s great firewall has proven to work a lot better than people expected when it was first mooted, things like China’s social credit system wouldn’t be possible without recent technology, and finally advances in machine learning/AI promise to make the tools available to the government more effective still. All of this works to shore up the authoritarian side of the synthesis. It also makes it easier to disentangle market capitalism from other elements of liberal democracy giving China an engine of economic growth the Soviet Union lacked.

On the war-fighting side of things, the Chinese seem to have managed to avoid the bureaucratic inertia that, according to Brose, currently plagues the US military. I assume that there are a lot of things which have contributed to this, but it’s easy to imagine that being authoritarian helps out quite a bit. Another simplifying factor is the fact that the Chinese have well-defined goals for their military, unlike the US which, in addition to trying to maintain its hegemonic position, also has a tendency to get into endless wars of occupation.

To be clear in putting this possibility out there I am not arguing that this is in fact what has happened. I’m not a Hegelian, I’m a Christian, but for those who do see history from a Hegelian viewpoint, like Fukuyama, or those who just have a general belief in progress, like Pinker, what’s the counter argument? And if there isn’t a definitive counter argument what does that mean for the history of humanity? Will all nations end up converging to this new endpoint? Or does it only work for China? 

VIII.

This post ended up being longer than I expected and rather than making it much longer, on the one hand, or on the other, cutting out anything genuinely interesting, I thought I would dump it all in the last section as a collection of miscellaneous rapid fire thoughts, so here goes:

I didn’t really touch much on trade, but obviously that’s been one of the biggest areas of contention between the US and China over the last several years. Despite this trade restrictions are still controversial and my sense is that they’re unlikely to continue under Biden, though honestly neither side is really spending much time talking about China at this point, so it’s difficult to tell. As far as whether they should continue, that’s always difficult to say, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that the trade war was a bad idea, which hurt us more than it hurt them. However the one study I came across estimated that China lost $35.2 billion as a result of it while the US only lost $15.6 billion. Indicating that we have more bargaining power than we think, that if it is necessary to confront China this is a good place to do it, that Trump probably deserves at least some of the credit, and that Biden should continue the policy.

It’s really amazing all of the different venues where China is causing problems, or at the very least distorting the way things have traditionally been done. We’ve already talked about the NBA, but they also exercise a significant influence on how Hollywood makes movies. They’ve got significant influence in developed countries, and they’re influencing technology in major ways as well, particularly when it comes to 5G. And because of the way their influence works, these distortions don’t get reported on to nearly the extent you would expect, meaning that the news is yet another area of distortion.

Everything I read portrayed China as being almost entirely machiavellian, willing to ignore agreements, skirt treaties, conceal their intentions, and outright lie if it served their purpose. As examples they’re actively trying to subvert the UN, the agreements they have made on autonomous weapons are obviously designed with huge loopholes, and they’ve got a secondary naval militia disguised as a fishing fleet. And while I understand the caution that we shouldn’t enter into another cold war with China, they’ve deliberately closed off nearly all avenues short of force. This is part of why a trade war is appealing because as bad as it might be it’s still orders of magnitude better than outright war.

As China gets closer and closer to the point where they feel ready to annex Taiwan, the Taiwanese people, particularly the younger segment of the population are less and less likely to want to be reabsorbed. In particular the recent crack-down in Hong Kong has only increased their reluctance. 

Finally, one of the books I already finished in October is From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. I had intended to talk about it more in this post, but it’s one of the things that didn’t fit in anywhere else. In the book, the point Mishra emphasizes repeatedly is the level of humiliation felt by the Chinese as a consequence of colonialism. A humiliation they still feel. I’m not sure exactly how that translates into a policy prescription, or what we can really do about it at this point, but it does suggest that underlying everything I’ve talked about is less the normal desire for a people to improve their circumstances and more a straight up hunger for revenge.


As my posts gradually get longer they also get less frequent. I guess I could have split this in two, but I feel like it’s better to get it all out at once. If you have an opinion on that I’d love to hear it. You know what I also love? Donations. Mostly because of the warm fuzzy feeling they give me. 


Traffic Lights and Modern Epistemology

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The other day I was on Hacker News, and someone had taken advantage of the Ask HN feature  to inquire where they could go for dispassionate discussion now that Slate Star Codex was gone. I have tried to go back and find that post, and I couldn’t, so I may be misrepresenting some of the details here, but if my memory is correct the top comment was by someone who made the point that a dispassionate discussion of something could only occur if it didn’t involve the people affected, which was exactly the wrong way to have a discussion and what has been happening with too many social issues up until this point. Implied further in this comment was the idea that dispassionate discussion was the wrong way to solve a problem.

This comment brought up an important and necessary point… Up until the moment where it started talking about solutions. Certainly you wouldn’t want to exclude the people affected by an issue from a discussion of that issue. Even if, and perhaps especially if, the issue made them angry, and the discussion ended up not being dispassionate because of that anger. But at a certain point, what we really want to do is solve the problem in the best fashion possible, which requires objectivity, and yes, some dispassionate discussion. In other words it may be perfectly justifiable for people to be angry; it may be and probably is important for them to have their say, to explain exactly why they’re so angry; but in the end anger is rarely the best strategy for solving the problem. In fact, if you allow the most angry to dominate the discussion, you’re far more likely to end up with a really bad solution than the best solution.

Perhaps an analogy would help to illustrate what I mean. To leave my neighborhood and head south I nearly always have to stop at a particular traffic light. On occasion I end up waiting at this light for what seems like forever, because it’s heavily biased in the other direction. As the minutes drag on (full disclosure: I believe the longest I’ve ever waited is a hair under three minutes) I get understandably annoyed, and sometimes, if I’m already in a bad mood, by the time the light changes I’m pretty angry.

The other morning that’s exactly what was happening, I was waiting at this light for what seemed like a very long time and getting increasingly annoyed at it. But this time I noticed something, after all that time when it eventually turned green, there were only two cars waiting, me and another guy opposite me, while during the time I had been waiting many cars had passed in the other direction. Which led me to wonder if perhaps, when considering all the traffic that passed through that intersection, if the system made sense. This was actually not the first time I had had this thought (though it was the first time I noticed how meager the traffic was on my street) but it’s easy to forget the system as a whole when you’re being inconvenienced by one part of the system. 

But what does it mean for the system to “make sense”? Or to consider my specific case, I was angry at this light because it was constantly causing me discomfort, but I had never really engaged with the question: what system should be used to calibrate that light? 

Some possibilities:

  1. Would you calibrate it based on time of day? (Indeed if you show up before 6:30 the light just automatically changes as soon as someone approaches the intersection, and I definitely prefer the system in operation before 6:30 to the one after.) 
  2. Would you base it on what the city council felt was fair? Perhaps take a vote on the calibration of every intersection? Maybe even expand that vote to everyone? 
  3. Perhaps, rather than try to optimize every intersection you might just place every street into one of three buckets based on the level of traffic, perhaps high, medium and low, and then categorize intersections based on a matrix. The intersection of two high traffic streets would get one setting, while the intersection of a low traffic street with a high traffic street (my intersection, presumably) would get a different setting.
  4. Would you measure traffic in each direction? Track the time each car had to wait, add it together and try to make the two directions equal? (i.e. If I have to wait for three minutes then that’s fair if it equals 6 cars waiting 30 seconds in the other direction).
  5. Similar to the foregoing but with a different metric, you might be trying to minimize the pollution generated by idling cars, and while time spent waiting would be part of it there might be other factors as well, like managing how many cars are accelerating after being stopped.
  6. Finally, we might use anger as our guide for adjusting the light. Perhaps the method just mentioned of aggregating the wait times in both directions never makes the people going the other direction annoyed, but makes the people going my direction furious. You might try to optimize for lowest aggregate anger, and find that you could make people going the other direction stop more often without an appreciable increase in their anger but with a significant reduction in my anger.

Beyond the methods mentioned above there are still other standards I didn’t mention, for example I had a co-worker many years ago who was convinced that businesses paid the city to increase stoppage at nearby intersections as a form of advertising. The point being that, while it would certainly be unfair if I had no say in how this traffic light worked, the problem of calibrating even a single traffic light is pretty complicated one. It may be that when you really dig into things, the best system might end up being one which causes me quite a bit of delay. And as you can see, even deciding on the system to decide if a delay is justified is complicated.

All of the foregoing falls under the heading of epistemology: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Am I justified in believing the traffic light is unfair, or is that just an opinion, how do we define what’s fair? I might prefer it if the light just changed as soon as I approached it, but that system is almost certainly not optimal during rush hour. I might accept that total aggregate time is a good way of determining fairness without necessarily being happy about it, and depending on the evidence, I’m sure I could be talked into a road classification system of three categories, on the basis that the measurements required for other systems are difficult to make. In fact, I’d probably be okay with any of the methods I mentioned (not the businesses paying for stoppage one of course, and the aggregate anger one probably leads somewhere bad as well). Of course, part of being this magnanimous is that this issue is very low stakes. 

But what if the stakes were much greater? What if I was convinced that one method for determining the length of a traffic light increased the chances of me dying at the intersection? Or that another method might cut economic growth in half? I might be far more invested in how this decision was made, and far less likely to accept any old system. And it gets even worse when all methods have seriously bad outcomes and we’re being asked merely to choose which bad outcome we prefer. I might choose a small increase in the fatality rate over halving economic growth, whereas someone else might make the opposite choice, and assume I’m a horrible person for putting people’s lives at risk.

Of course this is not a new problem, rather it’s a very old problem, and in the past intractable problems have been solved by things like war, enslavement, dictatorial powers, and just about any other injustice you can imagine. But over the last several centuries we developed some tools for avoiding the worst of those injustices. Things like freedom of religion and speech, widespread democracy, rule of law, etc. Now I’m not suggesting that any of these things are free of flaws, they are in fact riddled with them, but before we cast them aside it’s important to remind ourselves how bad it was historically.

At this point it would probably be beneficial to talk about epistemology using examples of things people are actually getting worked up about, rather than the example of a nearby traffic light. In doing this I hope to pick topics where the differences in opinion are easy to see, but not so great that they overwhelm the discussion, I’m not sure I’ll succeed in this, so I ask for some patience as I proceed. With that said let’s look at some current events through the lens of a few different epistemological frameworks.

One well known framework that seems to be getting a lot of attention these days is the one Scott Alexander described in his post Conflict vs. Mistake (link goes to an archive.org version since SSC is still deleted, and the NYT still hasn’t published its article). It’s a pretty good post and you should probably just read it, but for those that don’t. It describes two ways of viewing political struggles, mistake theory and conflict theory: 

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Clearly my description of the traffic light issue is a description from the perspective of mistake theory. (Though the aggregate anger methodology comes close to conflict theory.) That there is some optimal way to time traffic lights, and we just need to figure out what it is, that there is no war between people traveling north and south at the intersection and those traveling east and west. But of course when you scale things up, things become a lot more muddy, which takes us to the subject of statues. 

As I believe I mentioned, one of the statues which got torn down was that of an abolitionist who fought and died in the Civil War. People operating from mistake theory will describe that as a mistake and go on to identify similar mistakes on both sides of the issue. It was a mistake to put up statues to Confederate generals. It was a mistake (a very bad one) when George Floyd was killed, so if we can identify what statues are mistakes and which are not, we’ll take the former down and leave the latter alone, and if we can identify the policies and training and culture which lead to Floyd’s death we’ll fix those too and eventually we’ll be able to put the whole issue to bed.

On the other hand, from the conflict theory side of things focusing on mistakes is just a way of getting back to the same crappy status quo as soon as possible. Of deflecting the discussion away from systemic racism into a discussion of whether people went too far when they tore down the statue of Frederick Douglass. Of a path that leads to a few tiny reforms, but that basically keeps the same corrupt police around doing the same awful things. Conflict theory would go on to say that TV networks didn’t do dumb things like remove episodes of Golden Girls, Community and 30 Rock, because they’re combatting racism, they did it because they’re obviously on the side of the elites, and doing that deflects attention away from real grievances to trivial ones. And finally, that it doesn’t matter which statues get torn down, because tearing down statues is a great way of showing passion, and passion is the only thing that’s going to sustain the unity of the oppressed long enough for them to get what has long been denied them. 

When considering this dichotomy of mistakes vs. conflicts, it’s hard for me not to see the world through the lens of mistake theory, and I think most of my posts, including this one, naturally proceed from that epistemology. But in my more pessimistic moments it seems obvious that at some fundamental level it’s all about conflict, and always has been, and that the enlightenment tools I mentioned earlier, like freedom of speech, etc. were just exceptionally clever ways of masking the conflict, or that they contained the conflict, but only temporarily. Or perhaps they represent a Noble Lie, an ideology that is fundamentally untrue, but which works to maintain social harmony.

As something of an aside, it’s interesting to note that you can see this epistemological split in the political parties, and it appears to be widening. On the right clearly the Trump/alt-right branch are the conflict theorists, and the Mitt Romney/Neo-con branch are the mistake theorists. While on the left Obama/Biden/Clinton are largely mistake theorists, while Sanders and the people currently protesting are conflict theorists. I couldn’t say what this means for the country as a whole, but it’s probably bad.

Mistake vs. conflict is not the only way of looking at things, though it covers a lot of territory, and the next framework I describe may just be a subcategory of it.

There was a time, and I’m old enough to remember it, when the history of the country was pretty sanitized. People who talked about Washington didn’t mention his slaves, and when discussing JFK you didn’t mention his mistresses. Manifest destiny was the obvious next step in the progress of the nation, and the cowboys were always the good guys. I want to call this an epistemology of national greatness. That what was true, or at least what was emphasized were those things that made the country and its history look noble, and of course this took in all the things that led to the formation of the US, so Columbus is obviously a great figure with statues and holidays, not the first in a long line of bad Europeans. 

Of course this way of determining truth or what to celebrate and emphasis isn’t particularly scientific, or empirical. And so at some point in the last century (almost certainly before I was in school, but these things take a while to trickle down) that narrative switched to an emphasis on not only uncovering the bad things, but emphasizing them to make up for lost time. Of making sure that when you talk about Jefferson his affair with Sally Hemmings has a prominent place. That when talking about westward expansion you discuss the Native Americans and broken treaties for at least as much time as you discuss the settlers, and so forth.

What’s interesting about this, and really why I’m talking about this framework at all, is that it turns out it’s much more difficult to achieve agreement and unity under this system than using the national greatness system. You would think that by really emphasizing facts, that it would be easier to get people on the same page, but it’s actually harder. Under national greatness, if someone or something was important in the history of the country then they’re worth celebrating. It’s a narrative that’s self reinforcing. We celebrate important events and people. How do we know they’re important? Because we celebrate them! But once you pivot to facts you can generate all manner of narratives. 

How does the fact of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings relate to the fact that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence? Oh, and are you 100% sure Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemmings? Under the standard of national greatness the narrative is easy, Jefferson was important in the history of the country so we celebrate him, and put up statues and monuments to him regardless of his failings, which we either ignore or mention in some footnote. Under a standard of using the facts to determine whether we should celebrate Jefferson, we can come up with at least a dozen narratives, and each one has a different recommendation for what to do with the Jefferson Memorial. And to be clear I’m not saying this is bad, I prefer to get the facts out, but when you compare the America of today with the America of, say, the 60s one of the big differences is the shift from a patriotic, national greatness epistemology to this one.

As one final thought before we move on, I’ve never quite understood why the North was so willing to spend massive amounts of blood and treasure to prevent the South from seceding. But just now I reconsidered it through the epistemological framework of national greatness and it clarified things in a way that nothing previously had, which is not to say I don’t still have questions, but viewing it through that lens was very illuminating.

The final framework I want to consider is the one I mentioned in my previous post, If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now? And rather than rehashing it in its entirety, I’m more interested in taking another crack at answering the question what are we doing now? For those that haven’t read that post it was a discussion of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, published in 1985. Postman’s thesis is an extension of Marshall Mcluhan’s observation that the “medium is the message” and boils down to the idea that there is a “connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.” For Postman, culture was of a higher quality when communication largely took place via print (newspapers, books, etc.) and that it took a dive in quality with the introduction of the TV. From the book:

[U]nder the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; …under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

One can grant that the dominant medium of communication strongly impacts epistemology without necessarily granting Postman’s further claim that it’s all been downhill. Indeed I find it hard to imagine how anyone could deny the effect of the medium of social media on our current epistemology. The question I continue to grapple with, is what are those effects? I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable declaring that they’re, on net, bad but the specifics of their “badness” is something I’m still working through. I have high hopes for the grandstanding theory, which I encountered the other day on a podcast, but I’ve yet to read the associated book. I’ll report back when I do. However, it does seem certain that if nothing else, social media has fractured epistemology and discourse. That under national greatness there was obviously only one thing to do with the Jefferson Memorial, that as people started focusing more on Jefferson’s failings you can imagine the options splitting into three, to be decided by congress, leave it alone, add some additional plaques to explain things, or tear it down, and to be honest the third one would never get serious consideration. But currently I’m sure there are at least a dozen proposals, ranging from ringing it with an alt-right militia, to replacing it with a statue of Sally Hemmings, and everything in between.

There’s a quote I keep coming back to in this blog, from Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

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

I’d like to think that this statement is actually not true, that over the last few centuries we have developed other remedies besides force. Freedom of conscience (of which freedom of speech is a part) was, I believe, particularly successful. (We’re not immediately going to go to war over differing beliefs.) Solving things by voting on them was also a major step forward. But it’s interesting how, beyond all of the other ways in which these tools are under attack, they just don’t work nearly as well when you end up with more than two or three sides. When the narrative has fractured into dozens of pieces, as appears to be the case at the moment, these tools become more difficult to use. Taking free speech as an example, even if sensible suggestions are being made somewhere by someone how do you find them amongst all the yelling? And this is without the additional problem of free speech increasingly being seen as outmoded and a tool the majority uses to silence the oppressed. 

As far as voting, that works pretty well if there are only two sides. Making deals involves only two parties, and even if you can’t make a deal your side will eventually be in power and waiting your turn seems preferable to bloodshed, that’s not the case when you’re a member of one of 30 factions, also how much voting do we actually do on the most contentious issues of the day? Certainly the vast majority of social issues have never been voted on. Voting can be a tool for remedying inconsistent worlds, but you have to use it first. And added to all of this, everything increasingly seems like a zero sum game

I feel like it’s safe to say that no one is clear on where things are headed, or that it will inevitably be bad because discourse has moved to social media, but when you tie all of it together, toss in a profusion of conspiracy theories, and an exceptionally divided country, I think what can be said for sure is that from an epistemological perspective, we’re in a very weird place.

It’d be nice if things were as simple and straightforward as agreeing on a system for the traffic light. They’re obviously not, but nor do I think they necessarily need to be as complicated as we’ve made them. I think it’s easy to forget how much progress actually has been made over the last several centuries, and it’s even easier to forget how fragile that progress is.


Is it true that you should donate to this blog? What standard would you use to decide whether it’s a justified belief as opposed to just my opinion? Well, there is another framework I didn’t mention, that you uncover the truth of something by doing it. Maybe you should give it a try.


Churchills, Hitlers, and Hedonists

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I.

In August of 1941, near the beginning of World War II, before the US had even entered the war and during one of its bleakest periods, George Orwell penned an essay. This was an essay written in response to some things being said by another famous author, H.G. Wells:

Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and [yet] Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood…What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the “sacred soil of the Fatherland”, etc etc), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered form. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions–racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war–which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

(h/t: Bruce G. Charlton)

Wells was a science fiction writer who spent his days imagining a better or at least a different future, and Hitler and the Nazi’s represented neither. Instead they were depressingly primitive and retrograde. Because of this Wells imagines that the German war machine is going to fizzle out any minute now. Orwell strenuously disagrees. In hindsight, we can see that Wells was not merely mistaken, but very mistaken. 

In this day and age, people like Wells still exist, and though they are no longer so quick to underestimate the appeal of powerful national emotions, or suffer from any difficulty imagining another Hitler (in fact if anything they may be too quick to apply that label to their ideological opponents) they still underestimate the power of those emotions and the dangers of abandoning them. Because I would submit that Orwell was correct about those who’ve settled into an “essentially hedonistic worldview” I think they would “hardly [be] willing to shed a pint of blood” or make many other sacrifices either, in defense of their ideology. 

Recall, it wasn’t just Hitler and the Nazis harnessing those emotions, as Orwell points out nationalist fervor and patriotism was just as necessary to the British and the Russians in beating off the Nazis as it was to the Nazis in the first place. The two went somewhat hand in hand. So what’s the situation now? There seems to be four possibilities:

  1. Nothing has changed. Hitler’s are still possible and if someone like him arose again, and stoked the patriotic fervor of a nation then, in response, we would see the same nationalistic unity among his opponents. That it is still possible for there to be all out war.
  2. Hitlers are possible, but the will to oppose them is not. For example perhaps you could imagine Putin or Xi Jinping mobilizing their country in the same way Hitler did, but you can’t imagine a Churchill ever again arising in Europe or the US.
  3. The reverse of the previous option. Churchills are possible, but Hitlers aren’t. 
  4. We have progressed to the point where Hitlers are no longer possible, but neither is the sort of patriotic sacrifice we saw on the other side either. That these days Churchills are just as impossible as Hitlers. Nowhere in the world will any nation ever again summon the massive and coordinated effort we saw during the World Wars. 

Let’s take those possibilities in order. As the option with the best prima facie backing the first option has to be assigned some likelihood. In other words, unless you have good reasons to believe that something has changed it’s best to assume that it hasn’t. Of course, this wouldn’t be good news. The idea that we might once again see the great powers engaged in total war, only this time with the additional excitement of nuclear weapons, should terrify anyone. But perhaps there are good reasons to believe that something has changed. I think I, along with most people, have a hard time imagining a Hitler or a Churchill emerging out of the modern West. For all his strange popularity among a certain segment of the population, Trump is no Hitler, and finding a Churchill analogy is even harder. Which is not to say that it couldn’t happen, though if it does, it would seem more likely that these individuals would unify only a segment of a particular nation. Currently there seems to be very little evidence that anyone could unite an entire western nation as Hitler and Churchill once did. 

Which takes us to the possibility that Hitlers are possible but Churchills aren’t. This seems the most awful possibility of all, and unfortunately not all that difficult to imagine. Certainly it’s not hard to construct a scenario, where 30 years from now a confident China, united by some charismatic leader, faces off against a disunited and fragmented USA. One unable to pull together as a nation, even assuming that our system could produce someone we could unite around, which it can’t. Or to put it another way, it’s possible that the developed Western countries might be uniquely skilled at producing martially impotent hedonists, unwilling or unable to be roused by national pride, while the rest of the world still maintains that ability, or at least enough of it to come out on top in a fight. 

The third possibility, Churchills without Hitlers, seems the least likely of all. For one I have a strong suspicion that Churchills only arise in the presence of a Hitler. Certainly, if we abandon our use of them as shorthand for a moment and look to the actual individuals, Churchill never would have been chosen as prime minister without the threat of Hitler. And all the other Churchillian figures I can think also only came to the fore in response to a great crisis, even if that crisis lacked an opposing villain (think Lincoln and the Civil War). If a Churchill-esque figure were to arise independent of a crisis, and attempt to enforce their vision on an unwilling populace then I think that flips them into the Hitler column regardless of the initial purity of their motives. 

II.

The final possibility is perhaps the most interesting, but also the one with the greatest number of unknowns. To be clear there are certainly upsides to dispensing with the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” but there are also downsides as well, and the question we have to confront is whether Orwell was right about the rest of his statement. Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world? And have we lost all power of action without them?

Before we proceed to answer these questions it’s important to take a deeper look at where things stand in the world at the moment. To begin with, I’m not familiar enough with Russian and Chinese attitudes to know if there’s enough nationalism still remaining in those countries for a Hitler style figure to emerge, though as I mentioned above, I think it would be foolish to rule out that possibility. But for a clear example of where these sorts of emotions are still present, we need merely turn to the Middle East, with the prime example being ISIS. (Which, it should be noted, is primarily a religious phenomenon.) And it’s worth spending some time on that, because clearly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a modern Hitler-esque figure. Which would seem to be strong evidence in favor of the argument that Hitlers are still possible (possibilities one and two).

The only saving grace in this instance was the vast disparity in technology between ISIS and its enemies, which allowed a strange pseudo-coalition of US backed Kurds, combined with Russian backed Syrians to eventually defeat them. But it’s worth pointing out that neither the US nor the Russians defeated them directly, they had to use “emotional” proxies like the Kurds and Assad supporting Syrians to actually eliminate ISIS as a nation with territory. This would also be the time to point out that the US has been unable to defeat the Taliban. Taken together these two conflicts would appear to provide strong evidence that the emotions Orwell mentioned are still important. And leading us to answer with a provisional “yes” to his first question: “Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world.” Well, at a minimum they have certainly shaped Afghanistan.

Looking at the world as a whole is interesting, but I think it’s instructive to look at just the US. When asked whether our nation still contains people with the sort of emotional energy found elsewhere most people might offer up the example of the ongoing protests against Trump. Or perhaps they might point out stories of street battles between Antifa and the Proud Boys or something similar. And while these may or may not be the sort of thing Orwell was talking about, they lack another characteristic which removes them from consideration even if they are. These individuals represent factions within a nation and not the nation itself. For Churchill to rally the English, it was not enough for him to rally only the football hooligans, or the Londoners, or even all the members of his own party he had to rally the nation as a whole. Now of course he didn’t have to rally every last individual citizen, but he (and Hitler) rallied enough people that the resources of the entire nation were bent towards a single goal. Looking at the factions currently roaming the streets, do you imagine any of them will ever have enough support to unite the entire nation? I don’t.

We should, at this point, consider the possibility that there are plenty of Hitlers, and perhaps even an equal number of Churchills but that the modern world is too fragmented for one of them to ever again rally an entire nation. The causes of this fragmentation have been amply examined elsewhere. (Indeed it seems the media can talk about little else.) And, for the purposes of this post, we’re not concerned with how we got here, but only with what we do now that we are. As to that, it seems obvious that we can have hundreds of mini-Churchills and Hitlers running around, but it doesn’t matter how much power they are able to bring to bear, because when speaking of a nation the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The effectiveness of an entire nation is vastly greater than the effectiveness of any faction within that nation, even adjusted for size, and even if the various factions aren’t actively working against each other, which they generally are.

Does this therefore mean that the answer to Orwell’s second question is also yes? That in the absence of these unifying emotions that we have lost “all power of action”? As you’ll recall he mentioned two groups of people in his essay, those who were susceptible to nationalism and those who thought it a relic of the past. If the first group, those who are still given to emotion, are hopelessly divided, perhaps a new breed of rational individuals will step in and take their place. But of course, Orwell also claimed, speaking of this second group, “for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.” Is this claim true? I’m not sure how to test it, or what evidence to provide for its truthfulness, but perhaps if we consider one of the chief examples and advocates for this second group as an example, it will help give us a sense of things. For this purpose I’d like to consider Steven Pinker, who I admittedly pick on a lot, but he is also probably the foremost example of a public intellectual who rejects “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” while also embracing a “commonsense essentially hedonistic worldview.” 

Given our framework, the first question we might ask is whether Pinker is a Churchill. (Or, I suppose, a Hitler, though that’s not a term to be thrown around lightly.) If he were then the discussion would be over, but I think we can safely say that he is not, at least not in the classic sense of being the charismatic leader of a popular movement. You could make the argument that while he does not have broad popular appeal, that he has had some influence on the rich and powerful. Certainly Bill Gates appears to have been influenced by his ideas. And that’s not nothing to be sure, but we’re not asking if Pinker and people like him can have any influence, clearly they can, we’re asking whether they can take the place of a Churchill and unite a nation when a Hitler shows up with his millions of men and tens of thousands of tanks. And here Pinker’s prospects don’t seem very promising. 

For there to be any hope of someone like Pinker pulling off this sort of charismatic unification you would expect to see some indications of that power already. At least one or two political parties somewhere in the world of non-trivial size dedicated to him (not merely his ideology, remember we’re talking charismatic not ideological unification) or some nation where “Pinkerism” has already triumphed, and posters of the professor are displayed prominently. Unless I’m woefully misinformed, I don’t think any of that has happened. Frankly, it’d be a nice change of pace if bands of rabid Pinkernarians (Pinkertonians?) roamed the streets violently enforcing enlightenment ideals, but as far as I can tell insofar as there are Pinkernarians in the world they are entirely unorganized, and exactly as docile as Orwell predicted they would be.

To be clear, from Pinker’s perspective this lack of rabid followers is more of a feature than a bug. Popular movements are not known for their rationality, nor are the charismatic leaders of such movements known for their restraint. I think what he’s arguing is that you can be effective, that you can generate the energy necessary to shape the world, without such things, without the fiery emotions Orwell mentioned. That you can do it based entirely on rational self interest. Perhaps, but the evidence appears to be against it. 

Previously, I discussed the difficulties of sustaining political unity in the absence of credible threats, and remarked that it seemed a better explanation than most for the current level of political vitriol. And the big question we should have after all of this, is can it be done? In a world without Hitlers and Churchills can nations still unify to get big important things done? We’ve seen Pinker’s argument for how this will happen, what does everyone else think?

III.

As you’ll recall this all started with a discussion of the possibility that the modern West, and in particular the US contains neither Churchills nor Hitlers. And, if that is indeed the case what it might mean. Orwell argues (and I think with some justification) that such a society is going to be incapable of doing anything particularly grand. He specifically mentions shedding a pint of blood, but I think that could be extended to anything which requires significant sacrifice of their “essentially hedonistic worldview” for the “greater good”. If they’re not willing to hazard the shedding of blood (theirs or others) they might also be unwilling to pay higher taxes, receive fewer benefits or put up with small amounts of inequality. 

Pinker seems to be arguing that ongoing progress will mean that they mostly won’t have to, and that whatever inconveniences remain can be calmly and rationally addressed by an enlightened populace full of calm and rational individuals. But Pinker is also one of those rare individuals who believes the only thing we have to fear about the future is fear itself. (Specifically that such fear will cause us to abandon the enlightenment values which got us here.) A far greater percentage of people think that there are lots of things to worry about in the future, and furthermore lots of problems in the present, and being able to bring together millions of people to solve these problems would sure come in handy. The question is how to get those people to bring with them homeless shelters in their thousands, and solar panels in their tens of thousands rather than aeroplanes and tanks.

Most individuals, when confronted with this question, while still opposed to actual war, do not also go on to deny its power. There’s even a phrase that gets used: “The Moral Equivalent of War”. Wikipedia has a pretty good description of its origins:

…this phrase [comes] from the classic essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” derived from the speech given by the American psychologist and philosopher William James, delivered at Stanford University in 1906, and subsequent book, published in 1910, in which “James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat…” and “…sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation.”

(As far as I can tell Pinker is not a fan of this idea, arguing in his book Better Angels that people shouldn’t be lionizing war even metaphorically.)

This description comes from the entry about President Carter’s use of that term in a famous speech about the energy crisis. (It also resulted in people realizing that the acronym for Moral Equivalent of War is MEOW… ) Carter contended that not only was this crisis large and serious, but that it was potentially catastrophic, and accordingly, it would require the united action of all citizens to solve. His solution was to engage in something that was the “Moral Equivalent of War”. An undertaking which marshalled the resources and devotion of the entire nation without the necessity of the usual external threat. He tried to rally the American People to warlike unity and effort without an actual war. He tried to be a Churchill without there being a Hitler.

Carter was president a long time ago, and if your knowledge of that time is a little fuzzy, let me assure you that Carter was no Churchill. Even if he was, by all accounts, a good man in most other respects. On top of that, as it turned out (and this might be part of Pinker’s argument) the energy crisis turned out to be both temporary and somewhat artificial. the part which wasn’t artificial was mostly solved through gradual gains in efficiency. Not through the use of MEOW. 

These days we have people in a similar position to the one Carter faced, they see large problems on the horizon and they want to rally the US and the Western democracies in general to unify and put forth the same level of effort towards these problems that they put forth to win World War II (or start it in Germany’s case). But how do they do that without a war? How does someone become a Churchill in the absence of a Hitler? You see attempts at this sort of thing with Andrea Ocasio Cortez, and the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg and her numerous exhortations, and Bernie Sanders and his crusade against inequality. And while these people have numerous very impassioned followers it’s clear that they’re just very successful politicians and public figures, that they’re FDR before the war, not FDR after Pearl Harbor. 

One would have to argue that someone can’t marshal the resources of an entire nation in a fashion similar to what happened during World War II without appealing to the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war”, as was the case with Hitler. Or without appealing to a close analog, say national pride, inspiring leadership, religious belief and love of country, along with being under an immediate and clear existential threat, as was the case with Churchill.

If this is the case where does it leave us? Let’s return to the four possibilities I mentioned above, but with a more specific focus on the US.

  1. Nothing has changed. It is still possible to unite the entire country using something very similar to patriotism, but there needs to be a credible, and immediate threat. Something on the level of the Cold War might work or it might not. (It did get us to the Moon.)
  2. The US and it’s citizens have forever lost the ability to unite against a common enemy. We can no longer produce Churchills, but our (potential) enemies are still capable of producing Hitlers. 
  3. That we have passed into some new world where war is a thing of the past, there are no more Hitlers to force us to unify, but we figure out some other way of accomplishing grand things. Perhaps people are able to unify around mini-Churchills, like Elon Musk and his vision for a Mars colony.
  4. That all people everywhere are gradually giving way to the “essentially hedonistic world-view”, some nations (for example the US) are just farther along than others. But as we all gradually become lotus eaters it will turn out that there’s very little we’re willing to sacrifice, not a pint of blood, not our material comforts, in fact pretty much nothing at all.

Obviously three, Churchills without Hitlers is the one we’re all hoping for, but as I pointed out, there’s very little evidence that we’ve been able to make that pivot. I mentioned Musk, and he is an interesting figure, but having recently read the biography of Henry Ford the parallels are actually pretty striking. Which is to say I don’t think Musk is another Churchill, I think he’s just another Ford, and also as I’ve said repeatedly establishing a Mars colony is ridiculously difficult.

What I suspect and fear is that the US falls in category two or four. And I’m not sure which is more depressing. At least with possibility two, there’s always hope that in face of an aggressive China, or a resurgent Russia that though things will initially look fairly hopeless, eventually we’ll regrow our spine and summon another Churchill. Though even then it’s still difficult to imagine how things would play out, and should another world war break out the presence of nuclear weapons complicates things enormously. (Ground I’ve also covered.) But even if things went against us, I think most people would prefer if we went down fighting. 

In the end while all of these scenarios remain possibilities, as I look around I’m more and more convinced that it is just as Orwell predicted. That in abandoning nationalism and religious belief, along with other, similar emotions, that we have descended into hedonism and narcissism and thereby also given up the only things that were ever capable of unifying people around monumental tasks and grand visions. That the finale of western civilization will be just as the poet predicted:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.


If you’d like to encourage a little bit of fighting, or at least a little bit of curmudgeonly complaining consider donating. I promise however things end with me it will be bang, not a whimper.


The End of Productive War

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As I mentioned in my last post I just finished War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris. As I mentioned in the review he ends up combining a lot of other books I’ve read into another history of progress and at times it seemed like he wasn’t covering much in the way of new territory, but he did introduce me to one new idea, which I thought was pretty interesting: the idea of productive war. Though I should also mention here, at the beginning, that he also acknowledges the existence of destructive wars as well. He doesn’t think all wars are productive

In Morris’ view productive war is war which consolidates nations and people into larger units with greater scope for cooperation, and, according to the central claim of the book, less chance of violent death. Morris’ assertion is that the chances of someone dying violently is in large part based on the size of the community they belong to. And that it’s an inverse relationship, the bigger the community the smaller the chance. So, for a member of a small tribe of hunter-gatherers their chances of dying violently was between 10 and 20%. If, on the other hand, they were a citizen of the Roman Empire or Han China then their chances of dying violently were in the 2-5% range, and for someone living in a modern, developed nation their chances are around 1%. 

Accordingly as wars of conquest created larger communities, deaths went down, and beyond that as trade and commerce expanded, living standards got better as well. So while empires had to begin with a series of bloody wars in order to be created, in the end, through these productive wars they created zones of stability within the borders of the empire where everything was better. This has progressed on down through the ages until now we no longer have regional hegemons, we have global hegemons (Morris actually calls them globo-cops), first with the United Kingdom and then with the United States. Of course in between those two hegemonies there was the cold war where the Soviet Union and the US vied for dominance. And it is also in this period where we start to see the beginnings of the problem I want to talk about.

Historically, when two civilizations competed, eventually one of them triumphed over the other. When that happened the victorious empire absorbed the losing empire and created a new larger empire. Think of Rome and Carthage or even the United Kingdom and India. But lately such absorption, or it’s less brutal offspring, colonization, has fallen out of favor. When the US won the cold war we didn’t absorb Russia and create a new, expanded empire where cooperation, trade and lower violence flourished. Nope, we basically left them alone (though some would argue we wrecked their economy and then left them alone.) 

This is not how it has generally worked historically. Generally when the victors conquered, they Conquered! And we certainly could have done that, particularly at the end of the World War II. (Though I’m not saying it would have been easy.) But we didn’t. By not doing that was World War II less productive in the sense Morris describes than it could have been? Is it possible that over a long enough time horizon that we might actually put it in the destructive column? To come at things from another direction, if gobbling up vanquished foes is no longer an option, how do we expand the zone of cooperation?

Morris asserts that having a globo-cop/hegemon works much the same way, but does it? Sure, a US hegemony definitely contains some elements of the imperial cooperation of the past, but, first, no one would look at current events and say that things were going well with Pax Americana. And second there’s a big difference between ensuring the continuance of global trade or acting as a policeman when nations get out of line and entirely absorbing a nation and its culture. 

Modern morality has made this sort of absorption unthinkable. The US was the first empire to (mostly) eschew colonies. And since that time the idea of colonies and colonization has only become more taboo. Arguably there has been no shortage of American force projection, but it definitely doesn’t lead to colonies, nor is it practical in places much larger than a small failed state. It’s impossible to imagine the US invading and pacifying China or Russia in the same way that Rome pacified Gaul or the British pacified India. Meaning that, as the tide of US power flows out, it reveals entirely intact nations with more lingering animosity than lingering desire-to-compromise.

And, if some nation did want to go back to the “old way” of doing things and start absorbing other countries into a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, like the Japanese of World War II, then that becomes a lot more difficult in a world where nukes exist. There was a time when you might have imagined India conquering and reabsorbing Pakistan. It was unlikely but not inconceivable, but with nukes as part of the equation that will never happen. Or it will happen, which is even worse. Meaning the good guys won’t do it for moral reasons and the bad guys are welcome to try, but it’s likely to end in mushroom clouds. 

The way productive wars used to work is that there would be an initial, short-term spike in deaths, but that would be followed by eventual assimilation leading to integration and cooperation which raises the standard of living for everyone in the new empire. This sort of thing is no longer possible between two nuclear powers because there won’t be any assimilation after the initial spike of deaths because there won’t be anything after that initial spike.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I suppose it is possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange, where there is still something left of both the conqueror and the conquered, but if this is the best case scenario, we’re in a lot of trouble.

More likely the presence of nukes and the reluctance to colonize might lead to a situation where unity actually starts heading backwards. If a part of a nuclear armed nation manages to secede while hanging on to some of those nukes, is there any scenario where the mother country would go to war to reclaim its lost territory if it knows those nukes might be used? Meaning that if nukes continue to spread we may end up with more countries and less cooperation.

All of this is to say, that the historical process of unification through the means of productive wars which Morris mapped out in the book appears to have stalled. We may have run out of steam right before the final sprint to the finish (a unified world).

Thus far we’ve assumed that achieving unity and cooperation can only be accomplished by means of productive war. And that seems to be Morris’ thesis, but might there be another way?

Certainly most people hoped that international cooperation would grown through peaceful means. That was the goal of the original League of Nations and the current United Nations, but is there anyone who still thinks that the UN will eventually create the level of cooperation we’re talking about? A true world government? Certainly I don’t. From where I sit the UN appears to be getting weaker with each passing year. Indeed, this decline makes a certain amount of sense. In the aftermath of World War II even the most bellicose nations could see the need for an international body to resolve disputes in a less bloody manner. But after 70 years without a great power war, the need for something like the UN is less and less obvious.

In the absence of nations voluntarily unifying, you could imagine that US influence continues to grow until we have a de facto world government. Or at least you could have imagined that at the end of the Cold War. Lately the idea seems laughable. At a minimum we would need some sort of motivation. As I pointed out in a previous post, external threats seem to help. Would Rome have been Rome without Carthage? How much of what the US did was because of the USSR? (space race anyone?) But at this point it seems that regardless of how Russia and China behave our taste for empire is gone, and it’s not even clear that we can keep the “empire” we have, to say nothing of continuing to expand it in the way Morris imagines. 

Which leaves us with a couple of possibilities:

As I mentioned in my review of the book, the possibility Morris favors is that we’ll pass smoothly from an American hegemony to an AI singularity. That Pax Americana will become Pax Technologica. Here’s how Morris describes it:

Everything will hang on the relative timing of the shift from the Pax Americana to a Pax Technologica and the mounting difficulties that the globocop will face—if current economic trends continue—in doing its job. I suggested earlier that in the 2010s and probably the 2020s too, the United States will remain largely unchallenged, but as the 2030s, 2040s, and 2050s go on, it will find it harder and harder to overawe rivals. I also noted that the majority opinion among the futurists is that merging with the machines will reach the Singularity stage in the 2040s. If all of these guesses are right, we perhaps do not have too much to worry about. The world will become increasingly troubled, polarized, and tense as we head through the 2020s, but the globocop will remain strong enough to handle the stresses. As we enter the 2030s, the globocop will be feeling the strain, but it will by then be pulling back anyway as the Pax Technologica begins to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving; and in the 2040s and 50s, just at the point that the globocop ceases to be able to cope, the world will no longer need its services. All will be well.

It would be nice if “all” was truly “well” and things proceeded exactly as Morris describes, but I think he underestimates the number of things that need to go “right” in order for this to happen:

  1. America has to maintain the peace until an AI or something similar is ready to take over. Morris estimates they’ll be able to do that until sometime in the 2030s or maybe a little later. Given current events I’m not sure I’d agree with him that the US is “largely unchallenged” even now, and I’m even more doubtful that will be the case over the next decade.
  2. Pax Technologica, whatever it’s form, has to be ready to step in as soon as the US starts “pulling back”. Morris has said it will “[begin] to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving” in the 2030s. This also seems far too optimistic, particularly since we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. Thus far, our best guess is that machine learning and AI are actually making problem-solving of all strips harder.
  3. Perhaps technology will get better and it will switch to lessening rather than creating conflict. That’s still a long way away from replacing everything that goes into making America the lone superpower. Which includes, among other things, the $639 billion dollars we spend on defense. To replace that we not only need the singularity, we need a rather impressive singularity. 
  4. Morris says that the “majority opinion” is that we’ll reach the “Singularity stage” in the 2040s. This is by far the most optimistic of his predictions. Even Kurzweil, who’s optimistic to the point of being delusional, is saying it won’t happen till 2045. Perhaps in 2013, when the book was written, the majority opinion was the 2040s, but these days most experts are predicting later than that. And these are not predictions of “When will AI be able to take over as the world’s super power?” But more along the lines of, “When will AI be able to replace human surgeons?” (Average answer: 2053)
  5. Which takes me to my final point. What does it mean to “take over”? As I pointed out, Morris appears to have a very specific idea of what that means, and it’s very different from what most people imagine when they talk about AI. But even if we end up with an AI exactly as powerful as Morris hopes, and it happens soon enough to step in for Pax Americana before it collapses. He’s ignoring the whole field of AI risk, which makes the very salient point that we can’t be sure a superintelligent AI will be benevolent. 

If we reject the Pax Americana Pax Technologica transition for the reasons I just listed, and we accept Morris’ thesis. Then that tosses us back into the realm of war. We’ve currently got a globo-cop keeping that war at bay, but many people, including Morris, think we’re getting near the end of that. Meaning that the other possibility remaining to us is actual war. Actual war is bad enough in the short term, particularly since, for all the reasons I’ve laid out, this actual war is unlikely to be one of the ones that’s eventually productive. We’re much more likely to see destructive wars, similar to what followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Morris doesn’t spend much time on this second possibility. Probably because he thinks it’s unlikely to happen. In many senses despite his different outlook he’s still very much in the same school of thought as Steven Pinker. And both appear to believe that the arrow only points in one direction. In particular Morris claims that the 500 years of European colonial expansion from 1415 to 1914 were the most productive wars in the history of humanity. That Hitler was something of an aberration, and that in any case since that time we’ve had the long peace, which is further evidence that we’re in the final act and there will be no more destructive wars. And indeed, the finish line does seem really close, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to cross it. In fact for all of the reasons I mentioned above it feels like the very progress that has gotten us to this point won’t work for the final five yards.

One of the frightening things Morris points out is that a period of destructive wars often follows a period of constructive wars. That a particularly confident nation will conquer all of the surrounding territory unifying it into a larger area where trade and cooperation flourish, but that at some point the nation/empire(/ideology?) runs out of steam. Whether this is because of exhaustion, over-expansion, bureaucratic bloat or something else, the empire can no longer defend all of its territory. When that happens, whatever unity it achieved is lost to the destructive wars which inevitably follow as a consequence of this exhaustion. If Morris is accurate and we just finished 500 years of constructive wars, then even if we didn’t have nukes and an aversion to expansion through colonization it might be time for the pendulum to reverse itself in any case. Also, while it seems difficult if not impossible to have constructive wars if nukes are involved, they’re perfect for destructive wars.

All of this would mean that Pinker and Morris are wrong. (And indeed I’ve asserted that very thing.) And I’d rather not jam a second book in here, right at the end, but I just started reading Only the Dead by Bear F. Braumoeller which was written as a direct refutation of Pinker’s thesis, going so far as to say that it may end up having the opposite effect from what he intended. In support of this claim he includes an excellent quote from one of the reviews of Better Angels:

[T]here is something deeply unsettling about the argument of this book. While I began reading without either smug comfort in my own circumstances or indifference to the violence that remains, by Pinker’s final sentence on page 696 it was impossible to muster any other reaction. Indeed, I want to suggest that Pinker’s book produces the type of reaction that conceivably could stop this important trend dead in its tracks. A world of elites and foreign policy decision makers well-schooled by Pinker in the causes of the decline in violence would be a world unmotivated to work to sustain it.

The logic laid out in the quote seems straightforward enough, but Only the Dead goes on to cite studies which show that as nations become less willing to go to war they actually end up going to war more often. I’ll go into this more when I get around to reviewing it, but add everything together and we seem unlikely to have seen the end of war. And when it does return it appears unlikely to be productive war either, even if we can look past the terrible near term costs.

To be fair to Morris the book was written in 2013, and a lot has changed since then. The election of Trump has made a lot of things written beforehand seem quaint and even naive. Which is not to say that things are that much worse now then they were in 2013, just that we appear to have had significant movement on the catastrophe track without that much movement on the singularity track. This is important, because Morris, unlike Pinker, acknowledges that there will be war. He just thinks having a globo-cop can keep those wars productive. He’s also more realistic than Pinker about how long the US can serve in this role. Where his optimism is equal to or greater than Pinker’s is with what comes after. And it all hinges on the next couple of decades.

Morris hopes that the 2030s will be a decade where the US can still mostly “overawe” its opponents while at the same time “every year will see more [technological] change than happened in the whole period between the 1980s and the 2010s.” And that’s what brings us the Singularity. That rather than descending into destructive war, we’ll narrowly thread the needle between all the potential catastrophes. As I said this is what Morris hopes will happen. I hope it happens this way too, but I would bet a lot of money against it. Anyone want to take me up on that bet? We’ll know who’s right in just 10-20 years.


You have to wonder if there’s any similarity between war and blogging. Is there also a productive phase of blogging? Do bloggers eventually get exhausted? Perhaps running out of things to say? Does the blogging then become destructive? Was my blogging ever productive? If you think it was or still might be, consider donating.


Reframing Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

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The title of this blog is “We Are Not Saved”. I just got done reading a book by Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard professor, which easily could have been titled “We Are Saved”. Obviously reading a book with a conclusion so different from my own required a blog post. Pinker’s book is actually titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But before getting into it, if I’m going to keep my recent resolution to avoid the curse of knowledge, it’s necessary to give a brief summary.

If you’ve heard of the book at all, it’s probably from the standpoint of the decline of war. And most of the criticism of the book has been in that vein. Perhaps the key question on that front is whether the Long Peace, the absence of conflicts between major powers since World War II, is just a random lucky run, like a winning streak in sports, or whether it represents a new and improved era for humanity. On this point Pinker comes down on the side of it being a new era, while Taleb is of the opinion that it’s random, and as we saw in the last post, Taleb knows how easy it is to be fooled by randomness.

That’s the big headline, but the book is much broader than that. Pinker covers the decrease of violence in all forms, the general march of civilization, increases in humanitarian impulses, and the rights revolution. I said that it could easily have been titled “We Are Saved”, and in Pinker’s opinion things are not only getting better but will continue to get better. As an explanation he offers up the march of technology, reason and the values of The Enlightenment. With reason and technology taking a center stage, his view of religion is mixed to say the least. To be fair, even though he’s a self-admitted atheist, he’s not as bad as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens. But the book is full of shots at religion and he has nothing but disdain for religion in its ancient form, particularly the Old Testament.  

Hopefully that’s enough of an overview get our discussion started. The book is over 800 pages and I’m obviously only going to be able to talk about a small part of it in the few thousand words available to me in a blog post. And further I’m going to use some of those words to introduce the concept of the motte and bailey argument. This idea was popularized by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex (though not his idea originally) and I can’t really improve on his description, so I’ll just quote it.

[The motte-and-bailey was] a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Instances of this tactic abound, and if you were paying attention there were numerous examples of it during the recent election. As in when Trump starts off by saying he’s going to round up all of the illegal aliens (the bailey), but when pressed, he says he’s only going to deport the criminals (the motte). He whips up his base with the bailey, and then retreats to the motte when closely questioned.

I bring up the motte and bailey tactic because it’s woven all throughout Better Angels, and accordingly makes a good framework for my criticism of the book. With respect to numbers and data, the book is very solid. In every area he covers, he can show a clear trend of things getting less violent. Whether it’s a decrease in deaths due to warfare from prehistory to the present day, a decrease in English homicides since the 1600, or decrease in domestic violence since 1970, things have clearly been getting better. This is his motte. His bailey is to extrapolate that trend forwards in time. But when someone accuses him of that, of claiming the age of war is over, he falls back to the motte and claims that he has made no predictions about the future, he’s just assembling statistics from the past. For example:

I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them….The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and present, not to augur the hypotheticals of the future…The truth is, I don’t know what will happen across the entire world in the coming decades, and neither does anyone else.

As I said the motte is the unassailable part of the argument, and I think largely Pinker has succeeded in this. But even here he uses some slight of hand. As I mentioned above, we can extrapolate warfare deaths back thousands of years, with archeological data all the way back to 10,000 BC in some places. This gives a pretty clear trendline for violent deaths due to war. But it’s a trendline with big gaps in it. We have data stretching back thousands of years, but if you go back more than a few centuries that data is really sparse. What this means is that it’s hard to know if the decrease in deaths from warfare is the trend a thousand years in the making or a only a few hundred. And even if it is a thousand years in the making the sparsity of data means that we don’t know how smooth the trend is. How many giant peaks of violence are there? And how many valleys of peace?

Whether or not it was intentional, by pulling in data going back thousands of years and comparing hunter-gatherer society to modern civilizations Pinker appears to be making the case that the decrease in violence represents a trend that’s thousands of years old, which is much more impressive than if it’s just a few centuries old. And this is the first example of the bailey, the impression that decreasing violence of all types is a trend stretching thousands of years into the past and therefore likely to continue indefinitely into the future. Even though from the perspective of data we can only talk about warfare deaths and even then the data is spotty.

As I said, Better Angels is not just a book about war, Pinker wants to show that the past was more violent on nearly all measurements. In service of his thesis he moves from deaths due to war to deaths from homicides. Here he’s only able to go back to the 13th century (and I think there’s some significant assumptions involved to get back that far.) And again we see a graph that starts high and slopes downward, giving us the impression that we’re dealing with a trend that’s that’s been progressing in the same direction for a hundreds and hundreds of years. The problem once again comes from the data that’s missing. His numbers are largely from Western Europe, this gives him a particularly low endpoint since present day Western Europe is extraordinarily nonviolent by historical standards, and without saying it explicitly, Western Europe ends up as a proxy for the world at large, and by extension the endpoint to which we’re all headed. However once you’re outside of Western Europe the trend is a lot less obvious, for example the current murder rate in Venezuela is as bad as it ever was in Europe even if you go all the way back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I assume Pinker doesn’t think it will take another 700 years for Venezuela to reach the level of Sweden, but since he never mentions Venezuela it’s hard to say. Instead he selects data in a way designed to give the impression that the downward trend in violence is global, and hundreds of years in the making, when, on closer inspection it appears to be both more recent and more localized.

From homicides he moves on to domestic abuse. Once again we see a distinct downward trend, but with each new category of violence his data is restricted to a smaller and smaller time frame. For war deaths he was able to go back thousands of years, for homicides, hundreds of years, for domestic violence he’s only able to go back a few decades to the 1970’s, and nearly all of that data is from the US. A trend that’s thousands or hundreds of years old is impressive, a trend that’s only as old as I am, less so. But the way it’s structured you get the impression that everything from war deaths, to murders, to domestic violence all the way through to spanking is part of a vast arrow of progress carrying us forward to a continually brighter tomorrow.

This is Pinker in his bailey getting rich, it’s this claim of a trend stretching into the future coupled with the triumph of progress that gets people’s attention, it’s this claim that gets Slate to call the book a monumental achievement. Of course, when necessary, Pinker retreats to his motte and claims that he’s not predicting anything, but the whole appeal of the book is what it implies about the future, and the longer he can extend the arrow of progress into the past, the father it appears to extend into the future.

In tying everything together in a single arc, he does two things. First there’s the structure I already mentioned where he anchors your thinking thousands of years in the past by using archaeological data on warfare deaths and then layering the rest on top that base. And then, secondly, he fills in the missing data, particularly in the realm of domestic abuse and rights more broadly, with the use of countless anecdotes. These anecdotes are naturally compelling. As humans we love stories, and Pinker knows that, but he also knows that they’re no substitute for actual data. Still he uses them to construct something that looks like the fortified tower that is the motte, but really isn’t.

Using both of these techniques together Pinker makes it seem like the decrease in violence is a historical juggernaut whose speed is only increasing as both social and technological progress becomes more rapid. He may deny that he’s making any predictions about the future, but once the reader has an unstoppable, accelerating juggernaut in his head, it’s going to be hard for him to imagine it stopping suddenly, let alone going in reverse. I see, and agree with the same data Pinker does, I just don’t see a juggernaut, I see something far more fragile.

In service of his argument Pinker is very committed to painting the past in as violent a light as possible. The first chapter of the book is titled “A Foreign Country” as in the past is a foreign country. Well the future is a foreign country as well, and I see at least six ways in which the decrease in violence is more fragile than Pinker’s book would indicate. Even if we grant a trend in decreasing violence lasting hundreds of years, which, itself, is a shakier thesis than Pinker wants to admit.

First while Pinker offers various explanations for why violence has decreased. One that he comes back to over and over to is the Leviathan, a term coined by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 to describe an all powerful state. In Pinker’s opinion decreases in violence are directly tied to increases in state power. That in fact if you look closely at his data you’ll find that the clearest trendline for a decrease in violence isn’t the length of time which has passed, but the trend from hunter-gatherer to hunter-horticulturalist to full agriculture, with the accompanying increase at each step in the centralization and power of the state. If you have any libertarian leanings, this trend should worry you, but even if you don’t, by tying up everything into a single larger and larger entity we introduce fragility, even if it’s just through the single points of failure we create. You may agree that this is still a great deal, but is it still a great deal if the endpoint of the trend is zero murders, but a 1984 style surveillance state?

Second, and closely related to the last point, it would appear that Pinker’s juggernaut relies on the continued health and stability of the state. As I said his warfare data had a lot of gaps, even though it went back thousands of years. One of the gaps that seemed particularly noteworthy was the period after the fall of the Roman Empire. Pinker gives the impression that violence has decreased on a smooth line since the Sumerians first planted wheat in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But if the Leviathan collapses, I can only assume that violence rockets back up. Pinker doesn’t touch on this point, but the biggest single point of failure in the Leviathan is the Leviathan itself. And this time around if there’s any collapse of the state we’ll get to add nukes to the mix. In other words we are only saved if the state remains healthy, and I think that at present there’s reason for a lot of concern on that count.

Third, even if the Leviathan remains healthy, the modern world in general is more fragile. Pinker can be right about everything and still have a single bioterrorist bring the entire thing down, illustrating that however peaceful we’ve become that one big difference between the future and that past is the amount of damage a single individual can do. Catastrophes caused by more powerful weapons aren’t just limited to bioterrorism, they include the potential threat of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the grandaddy of threats, nuclear war. Pinker doesn’t spend any time on the first two, but as you might imagine he spends significant time with nuclear weapons. On this count he has some compelling arguments, but I think that he overlooks one big part of the argument. Whether this is purposeful or not I don’t know, but the part he overlooks is the enormous time horizon he’s dealing with. Perhaps it’s true that nuclear weapons won’t be used in the next 50 or the next 100, but what about the next 500? Even if we somehow get rid of them all the technology will still be around.

Fourth, even though I claim that the harvest is past and the summer is ended, I don’t claim that there was no harvest or that there was no summer. There was a harvest and there was a summer, I’m merely saying it can’t last forever, and that it won’t provide permanent salvation. If you look at Pinker’s data, and even his anecdotes, you’ll find that they mostly concern this same summer and this same harvest that I’ve talked about. The period that starts roughly with The Enlightenment and continues to the present day. Where we disagree is how long it can last. As I pointed out in my blogpost about the limits of growth, there are limits to progress, limits we may have already reached. As I said in the last post we may already be out of dragons to slay. The technological progress which has enabled the decrease in violence may be about to hit a wall. Historically the few hundred years of progress we’ve experienced is not in the general scheme of things, all that long, the only difference between this period and previous periods of relative stability is the speed of technology, a speed which is ultimately unsustainable.

Thus far I’ve been focusing on more tangible and quantifiable concerns, but for the last two points I’d like look at a couple of things that are more speculative. Thus far I’ve largely talked about the decrease in violence, but Pinker’s writing reaches out to encompass the entire arc of progress, including what he terms the rights revolution. Under this heading he includes everything from civil rights to gay rights to animal rights and unlike with the other trends, he admits that recognition of most of these rights is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As my fifth point I worry about where it all ends. When speaking of rights I agree with Pinker that there is a trend and the trend is accelerating, but we’re running out of road. We already have rights movements for everything imaginable, from animals, to transgendered individuals, to children (though not fetal rights.) What else is there? It may be too soon to tell but it appears now that the only thing left is to restrict the rights of those who’ve traditionally been privileged, a weird circular progression with strange unknowable consequences (including, possibly, the election of Trump?) It is possible to have too much of a good thing? Antibiotics were a true miracle when discovered, but using them for everything eventually makes them completely ineffective. As bacteria develop resistance. I’ve seen the same argument made about accusations of racism. Initially they were useful and very effective, but we’ve gotten to a point where the accusations have been overused. Once again it may not be a big deal, but there are a lot of times where things work until suddenly they don’t, where violence decreases until suddenly it doesn’t and I wonder if the rights revolution is an early example of that.

Finally, when I have an idea there’s one friend in particular that I always run it by. First off explaining it to him inevitably clarifies my thinking, secondly if this friend sees a hole in my argument he’s going to pounce on it, and most of my discussions with him end up more as low intensity debates. Additionally, in any discussion/debate with this friend he wants to make sure that he understands the core value(s) of the other person. Since it’s hard to have a productive debate if the two people can’t even agree on what’s important. For example a productive debate on whether incarceration rates are too high is going to prove difficult if one person’s core value is maximum liberty, and the other person’s core value is zero crime.

And this takes me to my final point. What is our core value? Pinker’s is the reduction of suffering and violence. This is laudable, and I certainly don’t fault Pinker (or anyone) if that is in fact his core value. But it’s not my core value and it probably shouldn’t be yours. To begin with, if you’re Mormon, you believe we already rejected the plan of zero sin and zero suffering. If you’re not Mormon, but you’re still Christian your core value should be to do God’s will. (A sentiment Pinker finds abhorrent.) But what if you’re an atheist like Pinker? Well then a reduction in violence may be your core value, but I can think of one that’s better. It’s the core value of my friend. His core value is “For Intelligence to Escape This Gravity Well.”

You may not initially agree that this is a better core value. But if this doesn’t happen then we’re definitely not saved. Humanity could end up perfectly peaceful and nonviolent, but if they don’t eventually leave the Earth they’re going to be wiped out anyway, even if it’s several billion years from now when the Earth can no longer support life, but it would probably be a lot sooner than that. Or perhaps you do agree that it’s probably a better core value, but you don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both. I’m not so sure about that. The countries that are the farthest along the Better Angels path spend vast sums of money on the welfare state which is essentially a nonviolent humanitarian project, and very little on making humanity a two+ planet species. A staggeringly difficult project regardless of what Elon Musk says.

I’m glad that we live in a time of unprecedented peace, and I thoroughly enjoyed Pinker’s book. But despite this I think he falls into the trap common to most defenders of modernity: thinking that the recent summer of progress is an eternal summer and that the harvest of technology will last forever.


Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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