Tag: <span>China</span>

Finding “The Answer”

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I just finished the book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge. I’ll obviously provide a review of it in my monthly book roundup at the beginning of December. If, for some reason, you need to decide before then whether or not to read it I will say that it spends more time than I would have expected on the history of meritocracy. But if history is precisely what you’re looking for then you should enjoy it.

This post is not going to be a review—though it may end up being one incidentally—rather I bring up the book because it was the inspiration for this post. The book helped illuminate a broader category. A category which contains many possibilities, of which meritocracy is only one. For thousands of years people have been asking, “What is the best way to organize society?” Meritocracy is one of many answers to that question, though up until fairly recently most people thought that it was not merely an answer, but The Answer. As I mentioned this has recently changed and people have started to have doubts, assuaging these doubts is one of the reasons why Wooldridge wrote his book. He still believes it’s The Answer. He even calls meritocracy the “Golden Ticket”. But as I said this is not a review, nor is it the place to dissect Wooldridge, rather I want to fit meritocracy into the broader search for “The Answer”. 

I.

Somewhat hypocritically, after accusing Wooldridge of focusing too much on history, that’s where I’m going to start as well. After all he does have a point, in order to understand current conditions it’s critical to understand how we got here. In order to understand The Answer of the present we need to understand how people answered this question in the past.

The most obvious answer for how to organize a society and the one underlying all other answers is “survival”. You must first organize your society such that it survives, because, as I often point out, if it can’t survive it can’t do much of anything else. 

Closely related to survival is The Answer of “power”. Anyone who has the power to organize society will almost always organize it such that it benefits them. Or to put it another way, imagine that everyone, individually, gets asked, “How should society be organized?” To which everyone naturally answers “To my benefit!” And those who have or can acquire power are the ones who are able to turn that answer into reality. As you have probably already deduced, power is another thing which ends up being foundational to structuring how the world works.

Unfortunately for those exercising power, and perhaps fortunately for those who are powerless, organizing society for the benefit of the powerful often conflicts with organizing society such that it survives—particularly over the long term. Thus, in order for societies to continue, checks on the powerful must necessarily become part of the system by which the society is organized. This can, perhaps, be seen most clearly when it comes to warfare. The powerful can’t win wars on their own, and any society better able to marshal all of its resources will have an advantage in such conflicts. As a consequence of this, societies evolve systems and traditions that work towards these ends. It might be a culture which encourages child-bearing. Or an ideology which inspires people to feel pride in their tribe or nation, and to sacrifice for the benefit of those close to them. Or a hierarchical system designed such that the most powerful can grant power to others in a structured and useful fashion.

Eventually all of this gets packaged up and turned into something that might be called a religion, though one that only loosely resembles modern religions. But for the purposes of our topic the comparison is a useful one, since for modern religions providing The Answer is the whole point. And we see something similar here, though early on most religions were regional, and they didn’t aspire to provide The Answer, just answers. Which is to say that at the time there wasn’t a lot of zeal for evangelization, a point which will become important later on.

Obviously any discussion of religion puts us at the top of a very deep rabbit hole. We’re going to go some of the way down that hole, but in order to keep things manageable I’ll confine myself to a discussion of the civic role played by religion rather than its supernatural claims. 

At this point in our story, the various societies were still mostly focused on balancing power and survival. As they did so each society ended up with its own answers. These answers weren’t all encompassing, but rather very specific—relating to local challenges of geography, resources, and the threats posed by neighboring nations. Out of this attempt to balance power and survival, combined with all of this regional specificity, there emerged an interesting menagerie of systems. As time went on the systems grew more sophisticated, but there was still a Roman answer on how to organize things and a Chinese answer, and both were very different. 

However both were successful enough that it started to feel like their answers to the question of how to organize societies might be The Answer. This is certainly one of the reasons the end of the Roman Empire has seemed so consequential down through the ages. After being in existence for hundreds of years it seemed clear that they had The Answer and when, after centuries, that turned out not to be the case, it was a big blow. Because if the Roman empire wasn’t the answer, what was? Obviously people moved on to a reliance on Christianity, and it clearly provided The Answer to millions of individuals, but from a civic perspective its organizing powers never reached the heights achieved by the empire. More recently, one can see a very similar arc with China, and that’s where I’m going to focus. Rome is interesting, but it was long ago, and if I was going to go down that path at some point I’d have to talk about how Byzantium fits into things, and I’m not sure I’m prepared to do that.

II.

For China, unlike Rome, The Answer had a label, it was called Confucianism, and Confucianism had a very conspicuous manifestation: the imperial examination system. Now obviously neither the exams nor the underlying ideology turned China into some kind of utopia. There were plenty of bumps in the road, some of them very large, but for over a thousand years— two thousand if we’re liberal in our assessment—even as dynasties changed and wars raged, Confucianism acted as a lodestone for the Chinese, and indeed most of East Asia. Whether it actually was The Answer seems far less important than whether people believed it was the answer. (One detects a significant amount of secular faith in this whole undertaking.)

At some point one would think that Confucianism would inevitably fall out of favor for any number of reasons, very few ideologies survive very long, and in the end it took decades of China being humiliated by the West (part of what the Chinese later labeled the “century of humiliation”) before they officially abandoned the imperial examination system in 1905. And while the examination system has not returned, Confucianism more broadly returned almost as soon as it was able. The first conference aimed at rehabilitating it was held just a few years after Mao died. (Mao having been one of its chief opponents.) Confucianism’s hold was such that it was only out of favor for around 100 years—and that only happened under extreme pressure—before it came roaring back

The abandonment of Confucianism seems to have been largely driven by a sense of survival. During the late 1800s and early 1900s China was facing an existential crisis. Which leads back to one of my original points, if you can’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. But once China’s survival appeared to no longer be threatened it was back in the picture.

This rehabilitation of Confucianism is not my primary focus, though it is interesting evidence of its staying power. I’m more interested in the way people handle things when they think that they have The Answer. That they have unlocked the secret of building a flourishing society. 

The Europeans seemed to also feel that Confucianism might be The Answer for them as well when they first encountered it. As Wooldridge points out in Aristocracy of Talent the Europeans were particularly fascinated by the Chinese exam system and the mandarins it produced. There were immediately attempts to create something similar back home. 

But, to be clear, we’re not interested in any specific answer for how society should be organized, we’re interested in the idea that there should be one answer, The Answer, a system which is better than all the rest. And it may be that hearing about the Chinese system was when this idea started to take root in the modern imagination, though by 17th century, when this was happening, lots of ideas were taking root, and it seems clear that one way or the other Europeans would have started experimenting politically just as they were beginning to be more serious about experimenting in other areas. 

Before we leave China it’s interesting to ask how they felt about this bigger idea. Separate from the virtues of Confucianism, why should it be so important or attractive for them to discover The Answer? Important enough that once the Chinese had it they held onto it for a thousand or more years? Even as conditions, leaders and the external world changed. Attractive enough that even when Confucianism was out of favor, they always landed on another candidate. If it wasn’t going to be Confucianism then it would be something else. Historically Legalism was the primary competitor, and there were also dalliances with Taoism. And we can’t forget the eventual zeal with which they embraced communism. 

One presumes that part of this tendency had to do with effectiveness. They’d seen how transformative having an answer could be, and by “they” I’m mostly talking about the rulers. Clearly if those in power had not noticed some ongoing benefit these various systems wouldn’t have been around for 2500 years. If you’ve read Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott you might be thinking of the benefits which would accrue to them from the legibility it imparted to the population. A population that was always quite massive, generally hovering at around one-fourth of the entire global population as far back as you want to look. If every part of China works the same way, that makes the country as a whole easier to manage. But perhaps the most interesting reason to adopt and seek an answer is that it gives you a goal, something to shoot for. It basically amounts to an early form of political science.

If you have arrived at a system. If you have The Answer. Then you also have a list of things you can try to make the country better. You can implement The Answer more completely in those areas which are lagging. You can refine The Answer, figure out what parts are working and what parts are unnecessary baggage, and then you can do more of the former while jettisoning the latter. You can compare slight differences in implementation and decide which of them works best. At some level all of these things happened in China, particularly with regards to the exams. One of my favorite examples is the procedure whereby all of the exams were recopied by someone else before being submitted to the judges, eliminating any potential bias that might occur if they recognized the handwriting. They also added various features to make cheating more difficult, and the exams as a whole got progressively more brutal.

As you can imagine the importance and brutality of the exam system had obvious side effects. Here’s how Wooldridge puts it:

The examination cult imposed a terrible strain on its devotees – not just on the young but on all those middle-aged and indeed elderly candidates who continued to put themselves forward. The examination halls that littered the country were widely known as ‘examination prisons’ and were sometimes subjected to riots and arson. Many of the greatest works of Chinese literature were devoted to demonizing the system.

Wooldridge even claims that my candidate for the biggest recent event no one knows about, the Taiping Rebellion, a Chinese civil war that happened at around the same time as the US Civil War in which 20-30 million people died, was “driven in part by frustrations with the civil service exam”. Which is a pretty big side effect. 

All of this is relatively easy to identify retrospectively as we look back on China, but is something similar happening today? Have we taken one answer and pushed it too far? Is it possible that it’s the quest for The Answer itself that has gotten out of hand?

III.

The first thing we should consider as we move from an historical examination to the present day is what do we currently think The Answer is? Here, as is so often the case, we turn to Francis Fukuyama. The central claim of his book The End of History and the Last Man was that after centuries of trial and error, and contests between various systems that we had finally, and definitively answered the question of how best to organize society. The Answer turned out to be: liberal democracy. This was in part because of the many advantages of liberal democracy, but perhaps more importantly because, Fukuyama asserted, there were no remaining contenders. 

At the time Fukuyama was making this claim the strengths of liberal democracy were obvious, its weaknesses less so. As an example of one of these weaknesses, liberal democracy is not as well defined as Confucianism. Liberal democracy has no text that compares to the centrality of the Analects, and no activity that is as pivotal as the imperial examinations. Rather liberal democracy is more the assemblage of numerous good ideas, which Fukuyama defines directionally rather than absolutely. Liberal democracy is the endeavor of “getting to Denmark”.  

Denmark is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: it is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption.

It’s less of a definition than a goal, but with that goal to aspire to, and no remaining contenders we should basically be done, right? We’ve got The Answer, the rest is just implementation? 

Unfortunately, no. First implementation has proved to be more difficult than expected, but more importantly, not everyone agrees with Fukuyama. Certainly, as you might already have guessed, the leaders of countries like China and Russia definitely don’t agree with Fukuyama. But nor do all the citizens of the liberal democracies. Meritocracy is a great example of this. While it was not mentioned in the description of Denmark, people like Wooldridge, and many others, would nevertheless argue that it’s a central component of the liberal democratic/getting to Denmark package. But the whole reason Wooldridge wrote his book is not everyone agrees that it should be. The idea is under attack from both the left and the right. 

Nor is it the only liberal democratic idea under attack. Free trade and globalism are similarly under siege, and there are people who feel just as strongly about the centrality of these ideas as Wooldridge feels about meritocracy. Part of the reason people have turned against free trade is that it didn’t work as advertised. Back in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO it was an article of faith for many that this opening would inevitably lead to China adopting the rest of the liberal democratic package. This was even more true when Fukuyama made his initial assertion. It was assumed that if you had true representative government, it would lead to meritocracy and free trade. Or that if you free trade and capitalism, it would lead to liberal speech norms and democracy. As we discovered to our sorrow with China this is not the case. We may have to settle for a world of free trade with illiberal nations. Or choose a system which minimizes inequality, or one which maximizes meritocracy. 

This is why people like Wooldridge have started picking pieces of the package to defend. If liberal democracy writ large is not The Answer perhaps meritocracy is. Or maybe it’s immigration. Perhaps we just haven’t given free trade enough time. Or perhaps it’s none of the above and we need a successor ideology. I’ve even seen more people moving back to communism. (Though because of the connotations they generally identify as hardcore socialists.)

In all of these efforts they are borrowing the evangelizing spirit that came about when people first thought they had The Answer. If you really have uncovered the one true way to organize society, why would you not want to spread it as widely and as deeply as possible? We can see this impulse playing out at least as early as the French Revolution. And down through the decades since then. It’s impractical to list all of the examples, but certainly Wilson, and his call to make “the world safe for democracy” comes to mind. You can also see it in Bush Jr’s invasion of Iraq, continuing up to and including our support for Ukraine in the current conflict. But this idea of evangelization wasn’t limited to liberal democracy. If anything communism had an even bigger evangelical urge, not only desiring to spread throughout the world, but going farther in their claims that it was inevitable. This was part of what made the Cold War seem so important. It was a contest between two sides that both thought that they had The Answer. 

Now, even as the liberal democratic package is fracturing, the evangelizing, if anything, is getting more intense. It’s proving difficult to be semi-meritocratic, but even more difficult to be completely meritocratic. It’s also difficult to be a semi-protectionists, but free trade has its own large set of issues. And no one says we should be semi-democratic, but everyone has their own definition of what democracy should look like, and oftentimes populism isn’t included in that definition. Don’t even get people started on the idea of being semi-unequal. 

In closing I’d like to include a long quote from a recent post from Ross Douthat. I’ve been talking about the fracturing of liberalism, he’s talking about the prospects for it’s renewal, but the underlying diagnosis is the same:

…liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.

Douthat gets to the heart of the problem, but I don’t share his implicit optimism that liberalism can be reinfused and thereby revived. And one of the sources for the chaos of our time is that people have recognized that. Thus the fracturing. And from that fracturing a landscape where rather than having one answer there are dozens. People aren’t trying to save liberalism, they’re trying to save what they feel is the critical piece. They’re rallying around their version of The Answer. Whether it’s meritocracy or social justice or globalism or Christianity. Personally I lean towards the last one, but I also don’t see any path forward to a workable Christian Nationalism or any path back to the “liberalism plus mainline Protestantism” spoken of by Douthat.

But perhaps the beginning of any path forward is to acknowledge that we haven’t found The Answer, at least not yet.


This post didn’t come together as easily as I hoped. And then there was the whole FTX/SBF explosion in the middle which I spent way too much time reading about. This not only slowed me down, it made me reluctant to give money to anyone. If you had a similar reaction, let me reassure you. If you donate to me I won’t use the money to power an elaborate fraud. I’ll probably just use it to buy a book.


Dalio vs. Zeihan

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My last newsletter briefly compared three different visions for the future. The first was laid out by Peter Zeihan in his book The End of the World is Just the Beginning. (See my review here.) Zeihan’s book was in my opinion the most pessimistic of the three, but if all you care about is the US then you might call Zeihan an optimist. Certainly he was more optimistic about the US than the second book, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail, by Ray Dalio (review here). But Dalio was more optimistic in general. However, the crown for the most optimistic take on the future belongs to David Deutsch and his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (review here) which outlined an optimism for the future which bordered on the religious.

As part of the newsletter I discussed how one might respond to these three very different versions of the future, but I postponed discussing the actual details for another post. This is that post. I plan to spend most of my time on Zeihan and Dalio, but I’ll toss in Deutsch from time to time to liven things up. 

Also it’s going to be impossible to avoid repeating some of the things I already said in my review of the books, so for those who read those reviews I apologize in advance for the duplication, but I do hope to spend most of this post comparing and contrasting the various predictions, rather than discussing them individually.

I- Is the US Doomed Or What? 

As I already mentioned one of the biggest disagreements between the two authors is their take on the future of US power. Dalio brings a very cyclical view to his analysis, which is to say his approach involves finding patterns in the past and then looking for those patterns in our current situation. And the pattern he sees when he looks at the US is of a nation that has passed his peak and is on the way down.

Zeihan obviously has a very different approach. He’s a geopolitical analyst, so he’s interested in what resources are where. Who trades with whom and why. Where is the food produced and where is it consumed. Natural barriers and what might make conquering a nation easier or harder. It’s hard to tell how he feels about political and culture cycles. He never mentions them in his book, and he only mentions financial cycles once, in the briefest fashion possible. I suspect he would acknowledge the existence of all those cycles, but would argue that they’re overshadowed by questions of geography. Take this quote as an example:  

Even the biggest and most badass of all those echo empires—the Romans—“Only” survived for five centuries in the dog-eat-dog world of early history. In contrast, Mesopotamia and Egypt both lasted multiple millennia.

First, I couldn’t figure out what he meant by “echo empire”. But if we get past that he’s basically saying that if you have geography on your side there’s almost no limit to how long your civilization can last. Yes, there will be ups and downs, but underlying all that there will be continuity. You won’t have the dramatic and complete collapse that we saw with Rome. But on the other hand if you don’t have geography it doesn’t matter how “badass” you are, your days are numbered. 

This is the source of his optimism about the US. According to Zeihan we have the best geography ever. From this can we assume that Zeihan thinks that the US of A will last for thousands of years? In a similar fashion to Egypt and Mesopotamia? He never explicitly puts a time horizon on the country’s lifespan, but he does assert that whatever our current difficulties are, they will be temporary. 

…the United States will largely escape the carnage to come. That probably triggered your BS detector. How can I assert that the United States will waltz through something this tumultuous? 

…I understand the reflexive disbelief…Sometimes it feels as though American policy is pasted together from the random thoughts of the four-year-old product of a biker rally tryst between Bernie Sanders and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

My answer? That’s easy: it isn’t about them. It has never been about them. And by “them” I don’t simply mean the unfettered wackadoos of contemporary America’s radicalized Left and Right, I mean America’s political players in general. The 2020s are not the first time the United States has gone through a complete restructuring of its political system. This is round seven for those of you with minds of historical bents. Americans survived and thrived before because their geography is insulated from, while their demographic profile is starkly younger than, the bulk of the world. They will survive and thrive now and into the future for similar reasons. America’s strengths allow her debates to be petty, while those debates barely affect her strengths.

Perhaps the oddest thing of our soon-to-be present is that while the Americans revel in their petty, internal squabbles, they will barely notice that elsewhere the world is ending!!!

Let’s assume that Zeihan is right about all of this, that still doesn’t mean that a “complete restructuring of [our] political system” is going to be pleasant. Presumably, one of the seven times this restructuring happened previously was the Civil War, and yes we did survive, and eventually our thriving continued, but for those that experienced the era that stretched from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 through the end of Reconstruction in 1877 those debates didn’t seem petty or temporary. 

Meaning at a minimum while Zeihan might have good news for my great grandkids, it might still be awful news for my children and grandchildren. But also, we shouldn’t discount the idea that his assessment of American durability powered by geography could in fact be entirely misguided, but I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s interesting is that while Dalio and Zeihan disagree about so much else their short term projections end up being very similar.

You might remember this graph from my review of Dalio:

Dalio’s assessment is that history moves in an upward sloping corkscrew pattern. It loops up during the good times and down during the bad times, but the overall trend is positive.  Dalio believes the US has peaked, but according to Dalio that’s okay because Spain, the Netherlands and the UK have all peaked as well and they’re doing fine at the moment. Sure they’re not the biggest dog on the block anymore, but the average living standard for their citizens is still in the top 20% globally. Similarly, there will be some disruption and bad times as the baton is passed to China, but over the long term things in the US will be comparable to things in the UK. We won’t have the superabundance we had when we were at the top of the heap, but we’ll be fine.

Given that the period all of us are most interested in is the next 20-30 years it should be at least a little bit sobering that both Zeihan and Dalio are saying that this period is going to be bumpy. Sure it’s some comfort that both believe after a couple of decades or so of bumpiness that things are going to be fine. But what if they’re right about the bumpiness, but wrong about the “eventually fine” part? Unfortunately I think there’s good reason to believe that they might be. 

The problem, as I see it, is that both of them have decided that a certain period in history, and certain nations from that period can tell us what’s going to happen to the US. That these nations provide an accurate model from which we can draw conclusions. For Dalio it’s recent history because that’s where there’s sufficient data for him to draw some conclusions. As such he’s looking at the UK, and before them the Netherlands, and before them Spain. Those countries were all top dog at one point or another, but he also looks at France and Germany, countries that could have been top dogs. You may be noticing a geographic bias. All of those countries are in Europe. Which is not to say that Dalio didn’t look at non-european countries. But Europe is where the data is best, and where all the recent great powers were located. 

I completely understand why he did it, but I still think it’s myopic, and as a further example of myopia, Dalio spends most of his time examining what it looks like for a country to rise and fall and not nearly enough time on the transitions from one country being on top to the next. In particular how the next transition might be different than the previous ones. As I argued in my review, the most recent transitions have been exceptionally mild. Transitioning from the Netherlands to the UK involved two countries separated by a thin stretch of ocean, that at one point had the same king. Transitioning from the UK to the US happened sometime in the early 20th century when both countries were allies in the World Wars, and both spoke the same language. The situation with the US and China is entirely different. If, as Dalio claims, a transition is happening, it seems unlikely to look anything like the previous two reserve currency/economic/cultural/military transitions he spends most of his time on. 

So that’s Dalio, what about Zeihan? What point in history and what nations within that period is Zeihan using for his model? He doesn’t place a huge emphasis on it, but I really do think that his example nations are Egypt and Mesopotamia. Spots which were safe for empires for thousands of years. And while I think that’s silly, I also kind of get it. Zeihan makes a powerful case for the US having uniquely amazing geography, but geography isn’t the only factor for long term survival. I mean Egypt and Mesopotamia didn’t survive to the present day. Something ended their thousands of years of stability, and that something was new technology. 

The easiest way of illustrating the point is not with either Egypt or Mesopotamia, but with Constantinople. Constantinople lasted a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it did so essentially because of its geography. It had the “geography” of its immense walls, plus it was a port so supplies and reinforcements could generally be brought in by sea. But at some point the technology was developed to destroy those walls, and that was the end of Constantinople. The US has the walls of the Atlantic and the Pacific, along with the fact that there are no credible competitor nations in North or South America. But the question of whether these “walls” could be breached would appear to be a very important one. 

The obvious candidates for such a breach are ICBMs, and as I mentioned both in this most recent review of Zeihan, but also in the review of the book before that, Zeihan seems curiously uninterested in exploring the possible use of nuclear weapons. I’m not necessarily saying that because he ignores nukes that he’s wrong about long term American dominance, there is a fair amount of “nuclear weapons are not that big of a deal” opinions floating around in the internet at the moment. But Zeihan should at least address the issue. He should explain why he’s not concerned about Russia and China using their ICBMs if their “worlds are ending” (see his quote above) and the US is sitting there fat and happy. The fact that he so completely ignores it makes me think I’m missing something. And I will say I did a quick search to see if there was a blog or something where he talks about it, but nothing obvious popped up.

I think Dalio, to a certain extent, also discounts technology. Deutsch, for all the shade I throw on him, at least doesn’t make the mistake of minimizing technology, rather he goes too far in the other direction, and furthermore seems to assume that such technology will be good.

I’ve spent longer than I intended talking about the US, but I do have three final points I’d like to squeeze in, mostly related to Zeihan’s take. First off, just because an area is secure from external threats, and doesn’t need external help doesn’t mean that it’s internally stable. Egypt may have lasted for over 3000 years, but a quick check of Wikipedia shows that during that time there were 31 dynasties with a mean length of 103 years. So what does it really mean for the US to be dominant? That for the foreseeable future North America will be the power base for the world’s most powerful country? Okay, but that says nothing about what sort of country it is, or even whether it’s a great deal for its citizens. Being a powerful country is only loosely correlated with keeping the country’s citizens happy and fulfilled. If you’re interested in preserving American culture, you’d almost have to say that Dalio is more optimistic despite his more pessimistic take for the country as a whole.

Second, Zeihan is very emphatic that we’ve been living through a moment that’s historically unprecedented. I am in total agreement with that, but Zeihan seems to mostly be focused on just one area in which it’s unprecedented: unrestricted, safe global trade. I think it’s unprecedented in at least a dozen other ways which makes predictions of the sort Zeihan is making particularly difficult. Both Zeihan and Dalio seem to think we’re at the end of an incredible historical run. (While Deutsch thinks we’re just at the beginning of one.) But is it possible they’ve misidentified exactly what it is that’s ending? Part of my problem with Dalio is that he’s predicting the decline of the US, but that would also mean the decline of the West, and since so much of his data comes from the West, if it’s also declining his data may be misleading rather than illuminating. Another thing that’s unprecedented is how democratic the US is. When you’re thinking about ancient empires and monarchies a lot of what was going on was churn at the top, while the bulk of the population kept doing what they were doing. These days any churn is going to be society wide. To return to the quote I mentioned earlier, Zeihan asserts that it was never about the political players, but these days everything is political and everyone is a player. What then?

Finally this idea that the US will retreat back to the Americas, and sit there, unperturbed, while the rest of the world descends into wars, famines and diseases seems way too simplistic. But this is precisely what Zeihan is predicting, and on a massive scale. He asserts that once the US withdraws from the world that a billion people will starve to death and two billion will be malnourished. I’m not sure what we would do if this was happening, but I don’t think it would be “nothing!”.  

II- Okay What About China? Is it the Next Hegemon or a Demographic Disaster That’s One Sunk Ship Away From Starvation and Collapse?

As I pointed out in my review, Zeihan asserts that “everything we know about modern manufacturing ends” the first time some nation shoots at a “single commercial ship”. I was doubtful it happens on the very first shot, but I agree with Zeihan in general. If commercial ships become fair game for violence we are in a completely different world. But it’s not as if a switch gets flipped, Rather we would enter a time of profound uncertainty. Does this uncertainty play out in the fashion Dalio predicts, with China ending up on top? Or does it play out like Zeihan predicts with China, broken, starving, and malnourished? Or perhaps it never happens at all? Which is I guess what Deutsch would predict. Or is there some way for all three of them to be correct? 

There’s a quote from Adam Smith that is appropriate at times like this: “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. Meaning that when a nation has built up wealth, institutions, infrastructure and legitimacy over many decades that it takes a lot of disasters, not merely one, to destroy it. The same can be said for the postwar order. I think safe global trade has been engrained for long enough in people that it’s going to take a lot for things to switch back. That’s the sense and really the only sense in which Deutsch is correct. And I’m stretching to give him even that much credit because it is going to switch back at some point. But as long as it hasn’t, Dalio has made some good points, and Zeihan isn’t even in the game yet. Once the switch is flipped from safe to unsafe seas, well then Zeihan is your man, at least for identifying all of the weaknesses. As far as how those weaknesses play out, who knows. Despite how dour Zeihan’s predictions are, it could actually be worse, we could get all the famine he predicts, plus a full on nuclear exchange. My point, however, is that it’s farther out that Zeihan thinks. So as long as the switch hasn’t flipped, what happens with China?

A couple of years ago (almost exactly!) I examined a half dozen or so “takes” on China. Most of them proceed along lines you’re familiar with, with lots of discussion of Taiwan. But one that has always stuck with me is the assessment by Paul Midler.  Unless it was from reading my previous posts you’ve probably never heard of Midler. He’s English (or American, I can’t recall for sure) and he’s been working in China for decades. His claim is that the key to understanding the Chinese leadership is to understand that they don’t think in terms of perpetual progress, they think in terms of dynasties. They don’t imagine that conditions 50 years ago were worse than they are today, and that they’ll be better still 50 years hence. Their thinking is more cyclical. Dynasties rise and dynasties fall, and while they’re rising you get what you can, and while they’re falling you hunker down and survive. And according to Midler everything the current leadership is doing is an attempt to get what can be gotten while things are good. And if they do it well enough they might even still be in power when the cycle turns. They’re looking to check off boxes: Recapture Taiwan. Build a lot of stuff. Keep the country free of COVID. Etc. 

Looked at through this lens you can start to imagine how both Dalio and Zeihan might be seeing a piece of the elephant. Dalio sees the immense progress. He can see all the graphs going up. And in the past, when that happened in the West it heralded the rise of a new global power. But Dalio is viewing it as someone who expects people to pursue progress for its own sake because of the benefits it provides, not because of the positive PR it gives the leadership. But in contrast to the other countries he’s studied, China is far more of a top down society. Consequently most significant initiatives are driven by the leadership. On the other hand Zeihan sees the immense underlying weaknesses, and knows that things can’t last. But the Chinese leadership is seeing the same thing. Not only are they not blind to it, they expect it. They assume that things are going to come crashing down and they’re desperate to lock in as many accomplishments as they can. 

Pulling all of this together, including all of the stuff about the US, what do we end up with? In the near term we end up with an aggressive and achievement focused China butting heads with an America that is in transition. This transition is definitely happening on a lot of fronts but one of the biggest is ceasing to be the globocop. Willingly if you believe Zeihan. Unwillingly if you believe Dalio. But that transition is not going to be smooth (witness Ukraine). While a lot of this comes from the nature of the transition itself, America also seems to be suffering from serious internal problems as well. (Something which Dalio has a chart for, but which Zeihan mostly dismisses.) This makes the timing of this transition unfortunate.

In the medium term, there’s a lot of “ruin” in China, and they’re not going to go down without a fight. If they go down at all, but here’s where Midler’s take is important. I think even the Chinese expect that this is what’s going to happen, that the good times can’t last forever. Where is the US by this point? I think a post hegemonic America, having also passed through whatever chaos awaits us over the next couple of decades, will be significantly different than the America we’re used to and significantly different than what Zeihan is predicting. Though I agree with him that we’ll still be better off than Europe or China, and probably Africa and South America as well, but better doesn’t mean good.  

Over the long run? Well that sort of prediction is a suckers game, but to bring our third author in one last time, I guarantee that whatever Deutsch says, we are not at the “beginning of infinity”. We’re at the beginning of several very chaotic decades.


With a post like this, covering so much territory, there’s always a ton of stuff I don’t get to. One observation I had is that each author champions a different reserve currency. Zeihan thinks the dollar will continue in that role. Dalio thinks we’re going to switch to the yuan, and while he doesn’t say it. I peg Deutsch as a bitcoin guy. I don’t particularly care, I’ll take any thing


The 9 Books I Finished in May

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  1. The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society by: Azeem Azhar
  2. Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by: Leonard Sax
  3. The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos by: Sohrab Ahmari
  4. The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era by: Liu Mingfu 
  5. Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left by: Ben Burgis
  6. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe by: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 
  7. Paper Heroes by: Steven Heumann
  8. Critical Mass (Expeditionary Force, #10) by: Craig Alanson
  9. Brushfire (Expeditionary Force, #11) by: Craig Alanson

Our house went under contract in mid-May. As I mentioned in previous posts, it was a devil of a time getting it ready, but once we listed it everything else went off without a hitch. We had an offer within four days, and then all the subsequent inspections, along with the appraisal and financing went off smoothly as well. Unfortunately the same could not be said for finding a new house. Which is not to say that things have been disastrous, merely that we are still looking. The rise in interest rates have slowed down the buying frenzy, so there’s actually a reasonable amount of inventory which has been nice. But looking at this inventory has been time consuming. By my count we’ve seen 50 houses so far, and I’m hoping that we’re getting close, but as of the end of May we had not made an offer on anything. 

Unsurprisingly there is something along the lines of a project triangle present in the whole affair. The project triangle can be summed up as “Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.” Only in the case of houses it’s: “Big, close, affordable. Choose two.” I’ll keep you posted. I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seats.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology Is Transforming Business, Politics, and Society 

By: Azeem Azhar

Published: 2021

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The subtitle of the book pretty much covers it, though in the UK it has a different title: Exponential: How Accelerating Technology Is Leaving Us Behind and What to Do About It

Which is probably even closer.

What’s the author’s angle?

Azhar has a whole “exponential” empire with a website, newsletter and podcast, so it was only a matter of time before he added a book to that.

Who should read this book?

People hoping to understand the accelerating pace of technological change outside of just the internet. This includes computing and artificial intelligence, renewable electricity and energy storage, along with biology and manufacturing.

General Thoughts

In the intro Azhar claims that there are two main problems with our “conversation about technology”. The first problem is the idea that technology is neutral, that by itself it’s neither good or evil it just is. That it exists “independent of humanity” in a fashion similar to gold—it’s already out there, we’re just digging it up. Or if there are aliens out there that they would end up with identical technology, despite, presumably, the vast differences which otherwise exist between us and them. 

Azhar rejects this idea, though his examples are not especially earth shattering:

…that means our technologies often recreate the systems of power that exist in the rest of society. Our phones are designed to fit in men’s hands rather than women’s. Many medicines are less effective on Black and Asian people, because the pharmaceutical industry often develops its treatments for white customers. When we build technology, we might make these systems of power more durable – by encoding them into infrastructure that is more inscrutable and less accountable than humans are

I also reject the idea that technology is neutral, but my primary example would be the phenomena of supernormal stimuli. This is the idea that historically it was difficult to get too much of some things—things which were beneficial in small amounts—and as such we have no built in protection against excessive consumption, because it’s not something that ever came up historically. In theory if technology was neutral it could just as easily be used to protect us against excessive consumption, as it could be to encourage such consumption, but as it turns out it’s far easier and more lucrative to do the latter. We see this play out in areas as diverse as junk food and Facebook algorithms, both of which are basically evil. Not EVIL, but certainly not neutral. 

The second problem Azhar points out is that most people make no effort to understand technology. Here he is mostly talking about politicians, but the point could also be expanded to the rest of us. 

Again, I would take issue with Azhar’s claim. Certainly some people make no effort to understand technology, but even for those that do make an effort the task is essentially impossible. To begin with there’s far too much technology for anyone to completely grasp all of it. And beyond that it’s changing so fast that even if one were to “get up to speed” on some aspect of it, by the time you have, it’s changed enough that the “speed” you’re at is no longer the speed it’s going. Even if you somehow avoid this strange version of Zeno’s Paradox there are still dozens of other areas you have fallen behind on while your focus was elsewhere.

Taken together, I think Azhar’s book is interesting, and enlightening. He definitely provides a lot of information about a real problem. I just don’t think he goes far enough in grappling with future disruption.

Eschatological Implications

I have my issues with how Azhar presents the problem and his proposals for dealing with it, and we use different terminology, but at the core we’re both talking about secular eschatology. We are accelerating towards a future we’re entirely unprepared for. 


Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men 

By: Leonard Sax

Published: Originally 2007, Revised 2016

352 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are problems unique to adolescent boys and young men that have been brought on by the modern world and other forms of supposed “progress”.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sax is a psychologist, physician and speaker. One presumes that advocating for this thesis provides the majority of his income. 

Who should read this book?

Parents raising boys should absolutely read this book. And given that we’re talking about something that affects huge swaths of society, probably everyone should read this book. 

General Thoughts

As you might be able to tell from the title Sax’s book is built around five factors, each contributing to various problems being experienced by young men. These five factors are:

  1. The way school has changed: There is less time for physical activity, and things like learning to read have been moved to earlier and earlier in the child’s life. 
  2. Video games: Sax spends a lot of time talking about the violence angle, but I think the way it affects motivation is a bigger story.
  3. ADHD medications: The first factor leads to a greater diagnosis of ADHD, and then while medications solve the immediate problem of lack of focus, over the long term they actually undermine motivation.
  4. Endocrine disruptors: The way that certain plastics, in particular phthalates, have disrupted male puberty while accelerating female puberty.
  5. Abandoning traditional transitions to manhood: We no longer have formalized steps and achievements that mark the passage from boy to man.

I could spend a whole post talking about each one of these (as indeed I have with endocrine disruptors.) And while I think he goes too far in some respects (see my comment about video games above). I would say that he’s 90% correct about both the causes and the scope of the problem. And even if we were to be ultra conservative and say that Sax is only 50% correct he would still be describing a massive problem.

Eschatological Implications

I remember a time when there was enormous attention being paid to Sax’s concerns. When debates over whether boys were in crisis was a major part of the culture war, and single sex education (which Sax is a big advocate of) was gaining significant traction. But these days it’s almost entirely disappeared from the national conversation. Is that because Sax was an alarmist and there wasn’t actually a problem? I wish. No, I think the problem is far worse than that. This crisis has not gone away, it has merely been replaced by crises that are even worse.

The process of replacement was already well underway by the time the pandemic came around, but it was certainly the final nail in the coffin. Preceding that, I would place the crisis of young women identifying as young men as a result of social contagion, and of course closely related to that, is the fact that who even counts as a boy has gotten a little bit slippery with the increase in trans-identifying teens. But I think the biggest thing to overshadow the crisis Sax describes was the crisis brought on by social media. 

Despite the fact that the book was updated in 2016 Sax only mentions “social media” twice, and then it’s basically just to add it to the list of the ways computers can sap your motivation, placing it alongside video games. 

This is the eschatological implication, that we have been experiencing a series of escalating crises, such that the problem with young men, which still exists and is still massively important, now barely rates a mention. As near as I can tell from looking at the numbers and my own experience there are actually more boys adrift today than there were in 2007, it’s just that we don’t have any attention left to spend on them.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos

By: Sohrab Ahmari

Published: 2021

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book Ahmari is writing to his two year old son Max. It’s constructed around 12 questions Max might ask as he grows up, questions about how to live a good life.

What’s the author’s angle?

Ahmari was raised Muslim in Iran, after spending quite a while as an atheist he was baptized into the Catholic Church at age 31 (in 2016). So his discussion of tradition has been said to be motivated by the zeal of a convert. 

Who should read this book?

If you’re not a fan of tradition I don’t think this book will change your mind. I think the book probably assumes too much to be persuasive to those who aren’t already favorably disposed towards tradition. But if you agree with Ahmari’s basic premise, then the biographic examples he gives are very interesting and impactful.

General Thoughts

Each of Ahmari’s twelve chapters (excepting an introduction and conclusion) are built around a title question and the biography of someone who grappled with that question. While I appreciated Ahmari’s reasoning (and in fact used it as the basis of a recent post) I really think the biographies were what drove the book. Consequently I thought it would be a good use of space to list the chapters with their subjects, along with a short blurb:

Part I: The Things of God

1- How Do You Justify Your Life? C. S. Lewis 

A discussion of his conversion interspersed with scenes from his Space Trilogy.

2- Is God Reasonable? Thomas Aquinas

The creation of Summa Theologica and Aquinas’ demonstration of God’s reason.

3- Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

How taking a day off is another example of virtuous freedom.

4- Can You Be Spiritual Without Being Religious? Victor and Edith Turner 

The story of how their studies of African Tribalism led them to realize the importance of religion and their eventual conversion to Catholicism. 

5- Does God Respect You? Howard Thurman

A civil rights leader who knew that even if whites didn’t respect him, God did. He went on to strongly influence Martin Luther King, Jr.

6- Does God Need Politics? Saint Augustine

The story of his role in defending Christianity against the backdrop of a disintegrating Roman Empire when Christianity was being blamed for that disintegration. 

Part II: The Things of Humankind

7- How Must You Serve Your Parents? Confucius 

How filial piety is the beginning of crafting a broader just and humane society.

8- Should You Think for Yourself? John Henry Newman

How “thinking for yourself,” in the modern, liberal sense, undermines the true conscience.

9- What Is Freedom For? Alexander Solzhenitsyn

His famous speech at Harvard, that true freedom is not unlimited license to do whatever feels good. 

10- Is Sex a Private Matter? Andrea Dworkin

Her battle against pornography and sex-positive feminism. 

11- What Do You Owe Your Body? Hans Jonas

“Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” 

12- What’s Good About Death? Maximilian Kolbe

The story of his sacrifice at Auschwitz, where he volunteered to be starved to death by the Nazis in place of another.

As I mentioned, if you want an even deeper dive, see this previous post.


The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era 

by: Liu Mingfu 

Published: 2015

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The necessity for China to rise and become the champion nation of the world—which is different than being the hegemon—and how it will need to deal with the US in order to do that.

What’s the author’s angle?

Mingfu is a retired PLA colonel, and one of the leading America hawks within China. This is a book written for a Chinese audience.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’re on a quest to better understand China, you should definitely at least skim this book. I’ve read lots of books attempting to explain China from the outside. This is the first I’ve read that explains China’s goals from the inside.

General Thoughts

I highlighted 149 passages in this book. Most of them qualified because of how strange they sounded to my, presumably biased, American ears. He goes on and on about how the rise of China will be the most peaceful of all ascensions by “champion nations”. That China is super civilized and peaceful, that:

As China moves toward the world’s leading nation it will struggle to become a new kind of champion nation, the significance of which is that China will never seek to become a global hegemon, and will never seek hegemonic benefits, and will never consider holding hegemonic power as a core national interest. 

Perhaps this is the case. Perhaps if we stand by when they eventually invade Taiwan. And if we stop caring about what they do internally, i.e. the Uighurs (who are never mentioned, as you might expect.) Then China will have no further ambitions. Our relationship with them will be similar to our relationship to Japan in the 80’s: significant economic competition and rivalry, but no real military concerns. 

In support of this possibility Mingfu offers up a theory that competition between nations has gradually softened. He calls it the “Track and Field Model”:

A New and Civilized Competition Model: A track and field competition model between China and America is significant on two levels. The first is that the 21st century will hinge on the competition between America and China, which will be history’s most civilized round of great power competition. It will not be a duel-style great war nor a boxing-match-style Cold War; it will be a track-and-field-style heat. The second is that the competition will be a century-long struggle, a track and field competition between the two nations. Not a hundred-meter or thousand-meter sprint, this will be a marathon that tests courage, will, and patience. The upcoming track and field event between China and America in the 21st century will be notable for two things: the civility and the length of the competition. 

I hope that the competition between the US and China ends up being as civilized as he claims. I guess only time will tell. I think a lot hinges on our different ways of seeing the world, and it was enlightening and a little bit strange to read a book about how China sees the world.


Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left

by: Ben Burgis

Published: 2021

136 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is another author attempting to get the left to be more strategic. To work on building a broader coalition and to focus less on being censorious and more on engaging and debating their ideological opponents.

What’s the author’s angle?

Burgis is a Bernie Sanders supporter who writes for Jacobin. He’s a philosophy professor and he hosts a podcast called Give Them an Argument

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. Perhaps people on the left who are sick of cancel culture and looking for an alternative. But I suspect that if they were actually looking for an alternative they would have encountered it already, and not need this book.

General Thoughts

Only the first chapter of the book talks about comedians, the rest is the kind of thing you might get from Matthew Ygelsias, or Freddie deBoer. To give you an example Burgis talks about when Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders and how the Sanders campaign embraced the endorsement only to get excoriated by people on the far left. Burgis points out that this is really dumb, and that the left does a lot of things like that. He is not the first, nor will he be the last.


The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe 

By: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein 

Published: Originally in 1979, Abridged in 1983, 2nd Edition w/ Afterword 2005

336 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The contribution printing made to the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and to the Scientific Revolution.

What’s the author’s angle?

Eisenstein was a historian, and in 1979 most people didn’t pay much attention to the role printing played in the huge changes which took place in Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century. This book was Eisenstein’s attempt to change that.

Who should read this book?

It is a sign of how successful Eisenstein was, that her thesis has largely become conventional wisdom. As such, most people don’t need a book full of arguments in order to be convinced. But for those interested in the nitty-gritty of how printing impacted everything this is a great resource.

General Thoughts

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press upended religion, society, and knowledge. The invention of the internet appears to be having a similar effect. I picked up this book because I was hoping that it might have some wisdom to provide, that by reading about the last time we had a communication revolution I would get some insight into the current communication revolution. I was largely disappointed in this hope. Eisentstein did add an afterword in 2005, but it was largely a discussion of various criticisms of the original work; she did not offer much if any opinion on the parallels between then and now. 

Despite this it was nevertheless a fascinating book, though to be clear it was not written for a general audience. It was written to advance and refute very specific historical arguments and sometimes the specificity of those arguments can bog things down. For example: Can we use the memoirs of a Florentine manuscript book seller to estimate the number of books produced by scribes? Spoiler alert, we cannot, they are “entirely untrustworthy”.

In any case, the book did give me a greater appreciation for the insights of Marshall McLuhan, who Eisenstein cites as one of her inspirations. But I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what Eisenstein and McLuhan would say about the modern world.  Mostly I’m guessing it wouldn’t be good. Eisenstein herself feels that there is good reason to suspect that the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t have happened without the printing press, and if that’s the case then you probably also don’t get the incredibly bloody 30 Years War, or the Troubles in Ireland which have only recently abated. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

What will be the modern version of the Protestant Reformation? And more frighteningly will there be a modern version of the 30 Years War? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but if you’re interested in a deep dive on all the things that happened the last time around, Eisenstein has you covered.


Paper Heroes

By: Steven Heumann

Published: 2018

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The main character is approached by his billionaire boss and offered the chance to be a literal superhero. He accepts and morality ensues.

Who should read this book?

People who like supporting small, independent authors. Or those who are fans of unconventional superhero tales.

General Thoughts

I bumped into Heumann at a local networking event. When he mentioned he was a science fiction author I asked him which book of his I should read (or, actually, listen to). And he pointed me at this book. I’ll be honest, I have not discovered the next Orson Scott Card or the next Heinlein, but it was an enjoyable book with a lot of heart and a great ending. 


Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 10: Critical Mass

Published: 2020

393 Pages

Book 11: Brushfire

Published: 2020

392 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

Military science fiction about humanity suddenly discovering that the galaxy is full of super powerful warring aliens, and their attempts to avoid being collateral damage in those wars.

Who should read these books?

There was a point when this series was starting to feel repetitive. That point is mostly past. The plot of the series has definitely entered a new phase and so far I’m enjoying it. Also, the complications present in this new phase are more interesting and less likely to become repetitive. As such, I’m looking forward to seeing how Alanson wraps it up. (Supposedly book 15 will be the last one.)

General Thoughts

Before starting a new series one should carefully consider what they’re getting into. How many books are there in the series? Is the series complete or is the author still working on it? How many books are there expected to be when it is completed? Is there any chance the author won’t be able to finish the series? You really should carefully consider the answers to all those questions before you make the commitment implicit in starting the series. Of particular importance is that last question. Nothing is more annoying than starting a series and finding out once you’re halfway through that you may never find out how it ends. (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin!)

I confess I don’t always follow my own advice as well as I should. Perhaps if I’d really ruminated on the fact that Expeditionary Force was likely to be 15 books long I wouldn’t have started it, but I did and now that I’m up through book 11, it seems like I might as well see it to the end. And fortunately there does not appear to be any chance that Alanson will “pull a Martin”. He seems to have no problem putting out two books a year (as you can see from the publication dates above) and book 14 was just released which means book 15 should come out by the end of this year or early next year.

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I’m reading the books more because I’m a completionist than because I enjoy reading them. Mostly, that is not the case. I am enjoying the books, the characters, the plot and the gradually unfolding mysteries of the universe Alanson has built, but as I get near the end I would be remiss if I didn’t reemphasize how big of a commitment you’re taking on when starting this series. 


By the time I finished all the reviews we actually had made an offer on a house and that offer was accepted. I’m very happy with the house we ended up with. If you’re the kind of person that gives housewarming gifts, consider donating. I promise I’ll put a post-it note with your name on it on the wall of my new office.


Pandemic: The End of the Beginning

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When people in the US think of World War II, they think of Pearl Harbor, or Normandy or Hiroshima. What most people don’t realize is that the war had been already going on for two years when Pearl Harbor happened. During that time, the UK stood alone against Germany, and the situation looked grim. Even once the US had entered the war things still mostly went badly for them. They were just barely holding their own in North Africa against Rommel, and on the other side of the world there was the disastrous fall of Singapore. But finally nearly a year after the US had entered the war, and three years after it had started, the British finally got their first decisive win at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. (AL-a-main)

Shortly after this victory Churchill was giving a speech, and in reference to this battle and the turning point it represented he said:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I bring this quote up because it feels like a decent description of where we are with COVID. It is not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but I think once the omicron surge passes that it will, perhaps, be the end of the beginning. As a consequence I thought it might be time to do a post about the beginning of the pandemic, both because I think we’re at the end of that beginning, but also because it’s an opportunity bring together some insights about the pandemic I recently gleaned from three books:

Nightmare Scenario by: Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta

Premonition by: Michael Lewis

Viral by: Matt Ridley and Alina Chan

But first, before I forget, back on the 8th I made a prediction about when omicron would peak. I said that it would peak on the 15th, at around 2,500 new daily cases per million people. So how’d I do? 

It did in fact peak on the 15th at 2,409 cases per million. How’s that for an accurate prediction? 

Hopefully now that I’ve verified my expertise you’re ready to listen to me on all the other things I have to say about COVID. Speaking of other things, I obviously can’t cover everything from three books, or even everything I think is important and interesting. Instead I’ve picked five subjects where I think I have something important and interesting to add. Let’s get started with:

I- Schools

With the latest surge there was a lot of pushback from teachers unions, and even students on the fact that schools were not closing this time around. But it wasn’t just right wing governors that refused to close schools, Biden and democratic politicians were also emphatic that schools should remain open. 

For my own part I think going back to remote learning for a week during the very peak of omicron (which, as you may remember, I called) is fine, particularly if it’s a staffing issue rather than overactive risk management. The big question we’re grappling with now is not whether we should continue doing it, but whether we should have ever done it. Increasingly the answer seems to be that, outside of those first few weeks when information was scarce, it was always a mistake, and a huge mistake at that.

Recently shots were fired on this subject by Nate Silver, the noted statistician, who tweeted:

Suppose you think that school closures were a disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision. Shouldn’t that merit some further reflection?

He later clarified that this was not merely a hypothetical, he did in fact think it was a mistake on the magnitude of invading Iraq. As you can imagine responses were all over the map, but I think Jonathan Haidt’s summation of the situation was on the money:

It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace… learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students…a million students functionally dropped out of school…caused a mental health “state of emergency,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage…will be irrecoverable.

 

It is nearly as clear that these measures did little to contain the pandemic… 

 

By the tail end of spring 2020, it was becoming reasonably clear both that remote education was failing badly and that schools could be reopened safely.

 

What happened next was truly disturbing: The left by and large rejected this evidence. Progressives were instead carried along by two predominant impulses. One was a zero-COVID policy that refused to weigh the trade-off of any measure that could even plausibly claim to suppress the pandemic. The other was deference to teachers unions…

 

It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side. You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones.

For me it mostly boils down to that last bit. If we’re faced with the horrible task of apportioning harm, and unfortunately we are. Then it seems logical to not apportion a greater share of it to the young. And not only is it logical, but viscerally I, and I think most people, recoil from the idea of sacrificing the boundless potential of the young for the limited potential of the old. (Which is harsh to say but ultimately true.)

So how did we end up doing just that?

Here’s where I can add something to the discussion, to do that I need to take you back to 2005. President Bush had just read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry about the Spanish Flu and decided the government needed to pursue pandemic preparedness. This was the first big effort taken by the federal government and they had to develop a lot of stuff from scratch. One of the things they lacked was a good model. The Premonition has a whole cute story about how the best model was developed by a child for a science fair project, which only starts to make sense when you realize her dad worked at Sandia National Labs. I don’t have the space to go into that story, the key point is once they started messing with this model they realized that they could significantly reduce transmission through non-pharmaceutical measures. This was the birth of social distancing. And if distance mattered for transmission, then the first places the model said you needed to shut down were schools. Nobody gets packed in tighter than school children.

I’m not sure how much this model drove school closures in the early days of the pandemic. I assume it had to have had some impact, but I don’t remember it ever getting mentioned. And of course even if the model was used to make this decision, it should have been updated as more information came in. Which is to say even if the model was used to justify closing schools I don’t think it could be used to justify keeping them closed.

As one final point as long as we’re on the subject of what sort of things were recommended in the years before the pandemic. When the group President Bush put together went to the CDC and recommended closing down things as per the model the CDC pushed back and said it would never work, people wouldn’t tolerate it. And to a certain extent that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Also the period the group recommended for shutting things down was relatively short. Which is also something we haven’t exactly done (particularly with schools).

II- Republicans vs. Democrats

I’m already a third of the way through the expected length of this post and I’ve only covered 1 of the 5 items on my list. I guess I’ll need to exercise more brevity going forward.

Like so many things COVID became a tribal issue with the blue tribe on the left and the red tribe on the right. And members of each tribe want to know that their tribe was the righteous one, while the other tribe was the wicked one.

Nightmare Scenario was written with the goal of proving that the Republicans, and particularly Trump were the wicked ones. Having also read Premonition as well as countless blog posts and tweets, I think this fixation blinded the authors of Scenario to the even greater failings of the FDA and CDC, institutions which are supposed to be the ones preparing for and dealing with emergencies like this. Which is to say while it would have been nice to have a President who’s great at handling a global pandemic, it shouldn’t be too surprising when we don’t. The president has countless jobs, the CDC only has a couple and the most important of those is handling a global pandemic, and on this count they were abject failures.

This discussion of tribalism and the CDC takes us to the story of Charity Dean, one of the three stars of The Premonition. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Charity was a public health official, a very talented and dedicated one, exactly the kind of person you wanted in charge during a pandemic. The book relates numerous stories about her, but two are germane here.

First, in the months immediately before the pandemic Charity had risen to be the number two  person in the state of California for public health, and when the top position, Director of the California Department of Public Health, opened up in 2019, Charity assumed she would be appointed. She was not, and she discovered later that as a white woman with blond hair she wasn’t even in the running, despite being the number two person. Instead Dr. Sonia Angell was given the job. Her primary qualification appeared to be the fact that she was Latina. In other words it was an affirmative action hire. Had it been a successful example of affirmative action, raising someone with the necessary skills who had previously been overlooked, then we wouldn’t be talking about Dr. Angell, but that was not the case. Lewis described her as being “monstrously incompetent”, so much so that she ended up abruptly resigning in August of 2020.

Republican ideology gave us Trump, and he obviously made some big mistakes (more on that later) but the presidency is not our primary line of defense. The public health bureaucracy is, and Democratic ideology undermined that, and not merely in the case of Dr. Angell. I think one of the biggest hits the public health authorities took was when they backpedaled all their guidance on gatherings when people started to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The second reason I wanted to bring up Charity Dean was to highlight her views on the CDC, since you might need further convincing. Lewis describes how Dean, through her connection with other characters in the book, was finally given the opportunity to put together a plan for how to deal with the pandemic. Someone, in an effort to help, added a small role for the CDC in her plan. Charity wrote back:

No…The single most important part of this plan is IT IS NOT RUN BY THE CDC… The entity/agency/figurehead leading this must be a Churchill not a Chamberlain.”

III- The FDA and CDC

So what made the FDA and CDC so bad? What did they do that they shouldn’t have and what should they have done that they didn’t? 

To explain that I’ll first need to take you on a brief aside. Back in 2014 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex decided to take on the effects of marijuana legalization, in a post titled, Marijuana Much More Than You Wanted to Know. As is usual with his “Much More Than You Wanted to Know” posts he went really deep, looking at the issue from every angle you could imagine. But despite pot affecting everything from IQ to organized crime, one consideration overwhelmed everything else: traffic fatalities. Does pot increase the number of traffic fatalities because more people drive under the influence? Or does it decrease the number of traffic fatalities because people substitute pot for alcohol and while driving under the influence of pot is bad, it’s vastly better than driving drunk? In the final analysis death is so bad, and traffic fatalities are such a big cause of death that even changing it by a tiny percentage one way or the other overwhelms every other consequence the legalization of marijuana has on society.

This is the position the FDA and CDC were in. They probably did a lot of things right. There are probably many criticisms which are unjustified. But in the final analysis the consequences of the few bad things they did were so bad they overwhelmed all the rest.

The reason these things were so bad is that when you’re talking about exponential growth, what happens at the very beginning of that curve has a far more dramatic impact than anything that happens later on, after the curve is established. I’ve seen evidence that they did lots of things wrong at pivotal points where speed was essential, but here are the two biggest examples in my opinion, one from each agency:

For the CDC it was obviously creating the initial test. If you haven’t heard this story Buzzfeed actually has a great investigative piece on it. But basically they refused to rely on tests that had already been created in other countries, they refused to let private companies market tests they had developed, the supply of their test was horribly limited and to top it all off it didn’t work! Certainly even with good testing there was no way for the US to avoid the pandemic, but we seeded it far more deeply and more broadly than necessary because in the very earliest days we couldn’t test for it.

For the FDA it was the vaccine, and in some respects this is less forgivable. The CDC might plausibly claim that, early on, it wasn’t really clear how important the test was going to be, the FDA had no such excuse when it came to the vaccine, everyone knew exactly how important it was. And yet the FDA’s Vaccine Advisory Committee seemed almost leisurely in their approval approach. The vaccine was ready for approval by November 20th, but they didn’t meet until December 10th, nearly three weeks later. What possible reason could there be for not meeting on November 21st or the evening of November 20th? 

As I said, I think these are the biggest mistakes, but they are by no means the only mistakes made by the FDA and CDC. In fact when it comes to the vaccines there may be an even bigger scandal, but for discussing that, let’s turn to: 

IV- Trump and the Vaccine

The same thing I said about the CDC and the FDA could be applied in reverse to Trump, and his team. However many mistakes they may have made, in the final analysis, the speed of vaccine development was going to be the measurement that mattered the most. And in this respect everyone basically agrees that Operation Warp Speed did an amazing job. The obvious objection for those not inclined to give Trump any credit is that he played only a very small part in the operation. That’s a fair point, but in considering it we should remember what Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs, “Victory has 100 fathers while defeat is an orphan.” Lots of people now want to take credit for starting or managing or having the idea for Operation Warp Speed, but if it had failed everyone would have blamed Trump. This being the case, should he not therefore get some of the credit?

Even Nightmare Scenario which was written specifically to savage Trump, admitted that this sort of “hail mary” approach was something the Trump administration was actually pretty good at. The book’s chief criticism of such efforts was not that they were ineffective, but rather that by routing around the normal procurement process, such efforts wasted money. This complaint about the government wasting money made me laugh, a lot.  Other more serious criticisms include duplication and a lack of focus, and there was certainly a lot of that, but in the end we got the vaccine months and months sooner than anyone thought possible. Though we could have gotten it even sooner and therein lies the potential scandal. 

There’s lots of evidence of people working to move the announcement of a successful vaccine from October to November, enough that the fact of it happening really isn’t in question, what’s in question is why?

The most benign explanation is these people were worried about anti-vaxxers and vaccine hesitancy, and they wanted to make sure the safety data was ironclad. 

However, lots of people (including the aforementioned Nate Silver) find the timing to be very suspicious. The fact that moving it from October to November happened to move it from before the election to after the election makes it look like it was largely motivated by a chance to hurt Trump’s reelection efforts.

Other people don’t care about the motivation, they just think that it was a bad trade off, that the delay was never going to have that much of an impact on vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers, but it was always going to have a huge effect on the number of people who died. Who cares what the motivation was, the decision to delay ended up killing thousands of people.

The problem with much of the discussion is that it ends up being broken into a binary. Either it was totally reasonable for the FDA to wait 60 days to see about side effects or it was monstrous and politically motivated. And what’s lacking in both the current discussion and the toolkit of bureaucratic capabilities is any capacity for nuance. Could we have authorized it for high risk old people in October? People who felt that the protection from not dying was worth the potential that there might be unknown side effects?

V- The True Beginnings of the Pandemic 

Here we arrive at the ultimate example of the “traffic fatality effect”. Despite everything that has been said so far, when it comes to the pandemic all other considerations are secondary to the question of where the virus came from, because if it didn’t happen in the first place every other issue is moot. Thus far I have mostly drawn from The Premonition and Nightmare Scenario. This section is going to draw almost entirely from Viral. With a few other quotes here and there. Speaking of which, here’s Matthew Yglesias to start us off with a quote saying essentially the same thing:

(Or not… I had this quote in my notes I thought it was from Yglesias but it wasn’t, and now I don’t know where I got it… That said I still think it’s 100% true.)

I’m not saying it was definitely a lab leak. I’m saying that answering that question is one of the most important tasks of the post-mortem, and anyone who says it definitely wasn’t a lab leak is not trying to answer it they’re engaged in the culture war.

Before we get to a discussion of the actual evidence, this is a perfect example of what I talk about over and over again in this space. You might think that in a situation where something only has a 5% chance of happening that you should act as if it won’t or if it didn’t. But my argument has always been if the consequences of it happening are bad enough, you should act as if it will or that it did. Applying this the lab leak hypothesis they should have never been conducting coronavirus research in a biosafety level 2 lab (4 is the highest) and going forward we should probably stop such research all together, certainly anything that involves gain of function. But that’s precisely what we’re NOT doing. To quote from Yglesias again:

By contrast, on something like Covid-19’s origins, we’ve had a decent amount of coverage of the lab leak controversy but essentially no coverage of what is being done to prevent future lab leaks (basically nothing) or to prevent future zoonotic crossover events (again, nothing). But the reason these are our two contenders is that as far as we know, these are the routes through which new viruses emerge…either way, we’re not doing anything to counter either route for transmission, and that (shocking! alarming! insane!) fact gets way less attention than the latest round of “who’s yelling at whom about masks?”

We should be taking all of these measures even if the chance is only 5%, but having read Viral I would argue that the chance is far higher than 5%. In fact it might be the inverse of that, I might put the odds at 95% lab leak, 5% zoonotic origin. I’m sure you’re interested in the evidence backing up that assertion. As this post is already running long I’m going to steal Scott Aaronson’s list, and briefly offer my own commentary. And if you’re interested in going deeper you should read his whole review. But this is his list of things Viral proved beyond reasonable doubt, a list I entirely agree with:

Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work. 

This gets to the point I was making previously. We were already taking risks we shouldn’t have been. Lab leaks happen all the time, and rather than focusing on the huge negative black swan of potentially creating and releasing a viral pandemic, they were focused on the small gains of having a better viral database. The claim was it would help us fight future pandemics, but:

Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to… useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.

Another point I make all the time, the benefits of technology are almost always oversold while the potential harms are generally entirely invisible. Particularly once we have done all the obviously beneficial things (modern sanitation) and we’re moving on to things of more dubious value (harvesting exotic viruses and studying them).

There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

I had to quote this point in full. It really elegantly encapsulates the whole argument. And what about the wet market?

The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.

My sense is that those who hold on to the zoonotic origin idea, imagine that the wet market was this crazy lawless area where anything could have happened. Actually it was closely monitored, and because of other diseases they were carefully tracking what was sold and when, and as Aaronsson says, none of the potential carriers were even sold at that market.

Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists… They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. 

If that database had been taken offline in November of 2019, this would be the smoking gun, but even September seems very, very strange. But of course the most inexplicable thing is why it has never been made available since the pandemic started. The whole point of the database was to assist people in fighting pandemics, and when an actual pandemic comes along it’s permanently made unavailable. The list of other strange oversights and evasions is nearly as baffling. And of course on top of it all:

The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine.

Sometimes people imagine coverups where there probably aren’t any. Or there is a coverup, but they’re covering for something different than what you imagine. Consequently I try to be somewhat skeptical when an organization or a person is accused of acting in bad faith. The world is complicated, and incompetence is ubiquitious, but for this particular issue there are so many obvious good faiths steps would could be taken but haven’t been:

  • WIV could restore access to the database.
  • China could allow an international team to investigate the cave.
  • Daszak could confirm and explain facts that are already out there.
  • They could stop any remotely dangerous viral research now that it’s been shown that it may have caused significant harm, and it didn’t provide any significant help.

Of course this lack of good faith engagement illustrates the entire problem, not just with finding the actual source of the pandemic, but with everything about the pandemic, and indeed everything about the modern world. We have turned everything into tribal warfare, and the only thing that’s important is that our tribe wins.


Speaking of fracturing into tribes, sometimes I feel like Treebeard, from the Lord of the Rings, when he was asked by Pippin whose side he was on, “Side? I am on nobody’s side, because nobody is on my side…” If you’d like to be on my side with things like the pandemic, and the fragility of modernity more broadly. Consider donating


The Value of Free Speech

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

Or download the MP3


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to watch Sesame Street. As I recall it was in black and white, probably because the entire world was still black and white back then. It could also have been because we were poor. In any case, one of the recurring features of Sesame Street was one of these things is not like the other. It even had a song to go with it, which I can easily recall without any effort, such is the power of childhood indoctrination. I would assume that most of my readers are familiar with the segment, but for those who aren’t, the way it worked is they would show four things and three of them would be similar and one would clearly be different. An example might be a chalkboard with three “2”’s and one “W” or an alarm clock next to a knife, fork and spoon. I assume you get the idea or, like me, saw Sesame Street as a child. If not, it’s too late because we are about to play “One of These Things”!

Of course to start with I need to provide you with the “things” (I’m going to cheat somewhat an only provide three things.)

1- Russia

2- United States of America

3- China

And to really get us in the mood here’s the song:

One of these things is not like the others,

One of these things just doesn’t belong,

Can you tell which thing is not like the others

By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?

Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?

If you guessed this one is not like the others,

Then you’re absolutely right!

Did you guess the USA? If so then, as promised, you’re absolutely right! I know this edition of “One of These Things” was not quite as obvious as the alarm clock and silverware, but also we’re not six anymore either, so hopefully we can expect some deeper thinking. But why is the United States the odd man out? Why is our country the one thing that’s not like the others? On the surface the answer is easy, perhaps even trivial, Russia and China are authoritarian states ruled by a single individual. The USA is a not. (Unless Trump wins and all of the most extreme fears of the anti-trumpers come true.) But why is this? Or more importantly how did it come about?

I think you’ll find that on paper the actual governmental structure of the other two countries is not that different from that of the USA. Russia and China both have elections and they both have legislatures. Russia has the Duma and China has the National People’s Congress. They both have what amounts to a Bill of Rights. Russia has the Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen and the Chinese have their Constitution which has sections on Democracy and Minority Rights. They both claim to have an independent judicial system, charged with impartially interpreting the law. Russia’s is modeled on the German and French system, while China’s contains protections like the right against self incrimination, and the suppression of evidence which was obtained illegally.

If the difference isn’t in how the government is organized perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe the US has a better economy? That’s possible, but China has, or shortly will pass the US as the biggest economy. And if you’re more focused on per capita GDP, Saudi Arabia is basically tied with the US on that measure but they’re actually more authoritarian than China and Russia. The US, China and Russia all have a strong militaries and nukes to boot, so that’s not a difference. It also can’t be the size of the country, or the number of people, or the latitude. So what is it?

If you remember the end of my last episode then you already know where this is headed. I would argue that a large part of the difference comes down to the level of free speech (and free expression in general) in each country. If we look at the World Press Freedom Index we find that the USA is 41st out of 180 countries while Russia is 148th and China is 176th! I think 41st is still disappointing, but it’s obviously a lot better than 148th or 176th.

It is not lost on me that this could be a chicken and egg question. Which came first the authoritarianism or the speech restrictions? Or perhaps more accurately I could be confusing correlation with causation. Restrictions on speech could accompany authoritarianism without necessary causing it. We’ve definitely seen it come about even in situations where freedom of expression was relatively unrestrained. As far as I can tell the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union and Putin assuming power was a time of relatively free expression (unfortunately the index I was using only goes back as far as 2002, at which time Russia ranked 121st out of 139). But even if speech restrictions don’t cause authoritarianism it’s indisputable that they perpetuate it. And that’s what I really want to get into.

As I said, I’m not entirely sure how good freedom of the press and freedom of speech are at stopping bad things from happening. I would argue that they’re a lot better at uncovering bad things once they have happened. Take the current election as an example. I should mention that I try to be objective here at “We Are Not Saved”, but it’s possible I’ve picked on Clinton more than Trump, so we’ll pick on Trump for awhile. At this point there is a large group of people worrying that Trump is going to be bad news if he gets elected. People are using the term fascist and even comparing him to Hitler, and yet as just a few days ago Trump was polling slightly ahead of Clinton in at least one national poll. In other words despite these warnings there are a lot of people who still think he’ll be a better president than Clinton. And you know what, it’s hard to tell what kind of President he’ll be until he actually is President. Campaigning is a lot different than actually being in office and it’s hard to say what kind of president Trump will be (in fact I think it’s particularly hard with Trump.) All the people who are sounding the warning could be right, and he could be terrible, or he could surprise everyone. But if he does become president and he is terrible, we’ll hear about it (oh boy, will we hear about it). But only because we have free speech and freedom of press. In short, you would hope free speech would be some protection from even electing potential dictators, but even if it isn’t, it has a, potentially, still greater role, that of uncovering and deterring the authoritarian impulse after an election has happened.

For the moment let’s assume Trump is the second coming of Hitler. Or that he at least aspires to be. How does he go from wanting to be Hitler to actually being Hitler. The first step is getting elected President. And while it would have been nice if free speech had prevented that, for the purposes of our argument we’re assuming that it didn’t. But just being made President doesn’t make him Hitler, he has to start doing evil things, and if he starts making all the Muslims wear crescent moon armbands, we’ll hear about it, and presumably do something. The best way for him to get away with doing evil stuff is if we don’t hear about it.

It may be overly simplistic to say that free speech is all that prevents Trump (or anyone) from becoming Hitler, but that’s only because speech itself is so complicated. Setting aside the difficulties of keeping people from finding out about Trump’s Hitlerish acts, if it were possible and people actually could be kept in the dark it would be very effective in suppressing dissent. It’s true that in addition to the protection of free speech that we also have Congress and the Supreme Court to protect us. But as I mentioned above Russia and China also have legislatures and courts and it hasn’t prevented Putin or Xi Jinping from being authoritarian. Also, closer to home, we’ve discovered that it’s relatively trivial to gridlock Congress, and with the next President possibly appointing four new justices, I’m not so sure the Supreme Court will be of much help either.

Additionally don’t forget the vast expansion of executive power which has happened over the last century or so, and the President’s unique influence over the military. (Particularly since congress was cut out of the process of declaring war.)  You may be thinking that I am saying that Trump could stage some sort of military coup. While anything’s possible that seems pretty unlikely, but I have much more confidence in the ability of free and open speech to keep him in check than relying on every member of the military to remember their oath to the constitution, or in Trump’s inability to use the military in some other way to boost his popularity. Recall that Putin boosted his approval ratings both by using the military in Chechnya and in his recent annexation of Crimea.

Perhaps the example of the aspiring Hitler has convinced you of the importance of free speech, or perhaps you were convinced already. However, it is almost certain that however important you think speech is that it you don’t believe that it should be entirely unrestricted. Most people, at a minimum, would argue for a ban on child pornography, and I am no exception. But this still leaves us needing to draw a line somewhere between speech that prevents a second Hitler, and child pornography. Where should that line be drawn? A lot depends on the value provided by certain forms of speech and expression. Child pornography provides zero value and causes incalculable harm (to be honest it makes me uncomfortable even typing the words.) While preventing a second Hitler is one of the more valuable things that we can do, as it prevents incalculable harm.

At first glance one straightforward way to approach the problem would just be to figure out at which point the net benefit of speech is negative and draw the line there. Unfortunately while that may appear to be a straightforward solution it is anything but. For one thing, as I already mentioned, logistically it’s very hard to do, particularly in the age of the internet. That said, it’s not impossible. I think censorship by the Chinese government has been more effective than the Information Wants to be Free Crowd would like to admit. Of course that effectiveness has only been possible through a huge degree of centralization, something most Americans would strenuously object to if for no other reason than its potential for abuse (which the Chinese have more than adequately demonstrated.) But for the moment let’s move past the logistical difficulties and just focus on the thorny problem of determining the ultimate value of any given bit of speech

I hear a lot of people arguing that as the internet has increased the quantity of speech that the quality of speech has declined. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows that you’re a dog and all opinions seem to carry equal weight. People like to point to the good old days when Walter Cronkite would soberly report the evening news in an objective and dispassionate fashion, with none of the fear-mongering, conspiracy theories, speculation or innuendo of the internet. And yet, this doesn’t seem to have worked all that much better. To put things in context, Walter Cronkite became the evening anchor at CBS in 1962 and yet in 1964 we had the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one of the more egregious examples of the government misleading people, a cover up with arguably very serious consequences. And yet as far as I’m aware no major news outlets of the day managed to uncover the truth, which was that no attack had occurred and that Secretary McNamara had distorted the evidence in an effort to get Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

I can’t say for certain how the Gulf of Tonkin would have played out in this day and age, but I think it’s safe to say that an accurate assessment of what happened would be out there somewhere. And it might even have been pretty easy to find. On the other hand there would have been a lot of false and misleading speculation as well. And even if an accurate description of events had been out there and easy to find, you still would have to recognize that it was the truth, sifting it out from all the other theories which would have emerged. My sense of the situation, therefore, is that we are more likely to have access to accurate information, but only because we have access to more information, both true and false. Therefore one question we need to ask ourselves is whether it is better to have the truth out there somewhere, but buried in a thousand blogs and a million Facebook posts, or is it better to not have access to the truth at all?

Let’s turn from examining how free speech played out (or didn’t as the case may be) in the age of Cronkite to examining how it played out in the age of the internet, using the example of the Clinton email controversy. You may from this assume that I’m done picking on Trump, but in reality you could use any scandal or controversy as an example. I use the email controversy because it’s the biggest item of news at the moment and it represents a real free speech issue with some people arguing that FBI Director Comey is a hero and other people casting him as a villain.

For the purposes of our thought experiment let’s further assume that the email controversy would not have come out in the age of Cronkite. Obviously I can’t say that for sure (though they didn’t have email, so that’s one argument) certainly Watergate came to light and resulted in the resignation of Nixon, but I think the fact that Johnson and McNamara were able to cover up the Gulf of Tonkin, arguably far more serious that anything people have even imagined Clinton doing, leads me to believe that there is a good chance that Clinton’s email issues would not have come out at all. Plus, once again if you can’t imagine a scenario under which Clinton’s email issues would not have eventually seen the light of day, pick one of the other dozens of controversies and scandals that have come out in this election and surely out of all of them one or more would not have come out in the pre-internet era. In other words if you’re uncomfortable with using Clinton’s emails, then use the scandal of your choice as an example.

This leaves us with four possibilities with respect to Clinton’s email controversy, and more particularly their impact:

1- The accusations will cost her the presidency but they shouldn’t.

2- The accusations will cost her the presidency and they should.

3- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

4- The accusations won’t cost her the presidency but they should have.

When we examine these possibilities it becomes clear that only the first reflects a situation where too much free speech was the problem. Here the accusations should not have kept her from the presidency and yet they did.

The second possibility is a triumph of free speech. This is free speech working as intended, the accusations reflected something bad enough that she shouldn’t have been president. And that’s what happened.

The third possibility would have to be taken as evidence that people can handle all the free speech we have and then some. That despite the enormous coverage given the controversy, people correctly intuited that it shouldn’t keep her from being President.

The fourth possibility is hard to view in any other way than as a failure caused by too little free speech. If the accusations should have cost her the presidency but didn’t, then why didn’t they. Probably because the true extent was never known.

Of course speaking of never knowing, while we will know on November 9th (unless something crazy happens) whether Clinton is President, we may never know if the accusations flowed from something serious enough to disqualify her from the presidency.

Out of all these possibilities only number one is an example of there being too much free speech, but of course that’s also the one that Clinton supporters probably find most alarming. In fact if Trump does win this will almost certainly be the explanation that many people offer. That the email controversy and in particular the latest revelations, cost her the presidency and they shouldn’t have.

For many of these people the true tragedy will not be that Clinton lost, but that Trump won. And given their fear and loathing of Trump it will appear, in retrospect, that restricting his speech and the speech of his supporters would have not only been justified, but patriotic, particularly if they think that too much free speech was the problem. Of course as always we have to ask who would have implemented these restrictions? And how can we be sure that they wouldn’t be abused, either now or later? To return to the subject of my last episode, Facebook and Twitter could have applied speech restrictions and it would have been legal, and it may, if Trump ended up as bad as they feared, have saved the country. Surely this justifies a few restrictions?

But look back to where we started this episode, to the key difference between Russia, China and the USA. Free speech is our best protection against authoritarianism and that includes Trump’s. Any weakening of it, even in service of what appears to be noble goals, makes it that much easier to get rid of free speech entirely when it becomes inconvenient. The fact that censorship and authoritarianism go hand in hand is not some weird coincidence. It’s only by eroding free speech that authoritarianism can flourish. Therefore any erosion, however legal, however justified, can make it that much easier to do away with free speech entirely when the time comes. Also it’s important to remember that whenever one “side” uses a tool they make it that much easier for the other “side” to use that tool when the end up in power.

To phrase it another way do we want to mangle free speech to prevent Trump from becoming President, and risk having him become president anyway? Only now in addition whatever harm he causes as President we’ve given him a precedent of free speech restrictions to use on top of that. Or do we want to keep the principle of free speech as strong as possible knowing that it’s our best defence against whatever shenanigans he might try to pull? Even if in the short term our defence of free speech makes it more likely for him to be elected?

This is an important point to emphasis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the New York Times and any other newspaper you care to name could pull out all the stops and refuse to give Trump any positive coverage (they may already be doing that) and this could not only fail to stop him from becoming President, but make the situation worse if he does become President. In fact they may already be making the situation worse. Any accurate assessment of Trump’s popularity would have to take into account that a huge amount of his support comes from people who are angry at the censorship they already perceive. As an example, it’s entirely possible that things like shadowbanning Scott Adams help Trump more than they hurt him.

At the end it boils down the ancient trade-off between short-term and long term gains. It’s entirely possible that certain restrictions on speech would be beneficial, as this most crazy of all elections nears its end. (Okay 1860 was probably crazier, but who remembers that.) I certainly don’t claim to be wise enough to know what those restrictions would be or even which side to apply them to. But, I do know, that free speech occupies such an important defensive position that any long term weakening in service of short term goals is a potentially fatal mistake.

We’ve gone so long without any serious censorship (certainly nothing to rival Russia and China) that I think we no longer worry about it. For many people the idea of the United States descending into authoritarianism appears as probable as Elvis being found alive (he would be 81, nearly 82), but I assure you that it’s not. Free speech isn’t free, it’s costly, and yes, with things like child pornography (there’s that phrase again) there should be restrictions, but we should be very careful about those restrictions, even, if not particularly, when it comes to stuff we hate. As expressed so memorably by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

…if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.


Taboos and Antifragility

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As I mentioned in my initial post, this blog will be at least as much as about me being a disciple of Taleb as it is about me being a disciple of Christ. That probably overstates things a little bit, but I am a huge admirer of Taleb. And it is to his idea of antifragility that I’d like to turn now. My last post was all about the limitations of science. And as I pointed out, there are many ways in which people have placed too much faith in the power of science. True science is fantastic, but also very rare, and thus we end up with many things being labeled as science which are only partially scientific. Of course as I also pointed out much of the problem comes from using science to minimize the utility of religion. This does not merely take the form of atheists who believe that there is no God it also takes the form of people who feel that the principles of religion and more broadly traditions in general are nothing more than superstitions which have been banished by the light of progress and modernity. These people may believe that there is “more to this life” or that life has a spiritual side, or in the universal and unseen power of love. But what they don’t believe in is organized religion. In fact it seems fairly clear, that at least in the U.S., that support for organized religion is as low as it’s ever been. But I’m here to defend organized religion, and not just the Mormon version of it.

So what is the value of religion and more broadly traditions in general? In short it promotes antifragility.

Let’s examine one very common religious tradition: forbidding pre-marital sex. These days the idea of some kind of generalized taboo on sex before marriage is considered at best quaint and at worst a misogynistic relic of our inhumane and immoral past, at least in all the developed countries. As you might have guessed I’m going to take the opposite stance.  I’m going to argue that the taboo was universal for a reason, it served a purpose and that we abandon it, and other religious principles, at our peril. In this I am no different than many people, but I am going to give a different rationale. My argument will be that regardless of your opinion on the existence of a supreme being, there is significant evidence that religion and other traditions make us less fragile.

Before we get into the actual discussion of religion and antifragility there might be people who question the part of my argument where I assert that the taboo against premarital sex was universal and served a purpose. Let’s start with the first point, was the taboo against premarital sex widespread? For me, and probably most people, the existence of a broad and long-lasting taboo seems self evident, but when you get into discussions like these, there are people who will argue every point of minutia, no matter how obvious it may seem to the average person. To those people, yes there are almost certainly cultures and points in history before modern times where sex before marriage was no big deal, where in fact the concept of marriage itself might be unrecognizable to us, but examples such of these are few in number, and limited in scope. But rather than just hand waving the whole thing (which is tempting) let’s actually look at a couple of very large examples: Western Christianity (the term Judeo-Christianity would also apply) and China. Both of these cultures are successful both in longevity and influence and, as it turns out both cultures, though very different on a whole host of issues, both had taboos against premarital sex. Hopefully the Christian taboo against premarital sex is obvious to readers of this blog, but if you need more information on the Chinese taboo you can go here, here or here.

How is it then that these two cultures, so very different in other respects, both arrived at the same taboo? This takes us to our next point, whether the taboo served a purpose. A few people, somewhat mystifyingly, will claim that two cultures, widely separated in both space and time, just happened to arrive at the same terrible superstition, that it benefited no one and that it arrived and flourished independently in both cultures for thousands of years. This argument is ridiculous on it’s face, and I think we can safely dismiss it.

Other people will argue that both cultures had a reason, and they may in fact have had the same reason, but they will argue that it was a bad one. This explanation generally brings in the evils of patriarchy at some point, and the fact that it was a taboo in both cultures (actually far more than that, but we’ll just stick with those two for now) just means that male domination was widespread. Furthermore, because of our much greater understanding of biology, psychology and anthropology we can now, with the backing of science, declare that it was a bad reason. (Unless of course the science turns out to be flawed…) Furthermore we can not only do away with the taboo against premarital sex but we can also safely declare that it was evil and repressive.

The final possibility, for those who consider the taboo a quaint relic of the past, is to acknowledge it did exist, it was widespread, and there actually was a good reason for it, but that reason doesn’t exist anymore. They might go on to explain that yes, perhaps in the past, having a taboo against premarital sex did make sense, but it doesn’t make sense in 2016 or even in 1970. Historically people weren’t evil or superstitious they just didn’t know everything we know and have access to all of the technology we have access to. Things like birth control, and the social safety net, etc have done away with the need for the taboo. While this explanation sounds more reasonable than the others, at it’s core it’s very similar to those other two views. All three still eventually boil down to an assertion that we’re smarter and more advanced than people in the past. It’s just a discussion of how and by what degree that we’re smarter and more advanced.

The immediate question is how can you be so sure? What makes us better than the people that came before us? And how can you be confident that there was no reason for the taboo, or that there was a reason, but that it was bad?  The most reasonable of the explanations requires us to be confident that whatever purpose a taboo against premarital sex served, that progress and technology have eliminated that purpose. Not only does this throw us back into a discussion of the limits of science, but this also requires us to put an awful lot of weight on the last 50-60 years. By this I mean that if we have eliminated the need for the taboo we’ve done it only fairly recently. The sexual revolution is at most 60-70 years old in the US, and it’s even more recent in China (continuing to stick with two cultures we’ve already examined.) Which means that in that short time frame we would’ve had developed enough either technologically or morally to eliminate the wisdom of centuries if not millennia. And this is what I mean by putting a lot of weight on the last 60-70 years.

To review, as you might have already gathered, I have a hard time believing that there was no reason for the taboo. For that to be the case multiple cultures would have to independently arrive at the same taboo, just by chance. I also have a hard time believing that the reasons for the taboo were strictly or even mostly selfish or misogynist. That discussion is a whole rabbit hole all by itself, so let me just reframe it. If the taboo against premarital sex was bad for a civilization than other civilizations which didn’t have that taboo should have outcompeted the civilizations which did have it. In other words at best the belief had to have no negative impact on a civilization, regardless of the reasons for the taboo, and more likely in an evolutionary sense (if you want to pull in science) it had to have a positive effect. Of course this takes us down another rabbit hole of assuming that the survival of a civilization is the primary goal, as opposed to liberty or safety or happiness, etc. And we will definitely explore that in a future post, but for now, let it suffice to say that a civilization which can’t survive, can’t do much of anything else.

And then there’s possibility number three. The taboo was good and necessary up until a few decades ago when it was eliminated with the Power of Science!™ There are in fact some strong candidates for this honor, the pill being the chief among them. And if this is your answer for why pre-marital sex no longer has to be taboo, then at least you’ve done your homework. But I still think you’re being overconfident and myopic. And here, at last, is where I’d like to turn to the idea of antifragility, in particular the antifragility of religion.  Taleb arrives at his categories by placing everything into three groups:

  1. Fragile: Things that are harmed by chaos. Think of your mother’s crystal, or a weak government.
  2. Robust: Things that are neither harmed nor helped by chaos.
  3. Antifragile: Things that are helped by chaos. Think about the prepper with a basement full of food and guns. Normally speaking he’s just wasted a lot of money, but if the zombie apocalypse comes, he’s the king of the world. It should be pointed out that often things are antifragile only relatively. In other words everyone’s life might get worse during the zombie apocalypse, but the prepper is much better positioned in the new world than he was in the old relative to all of the other survivors.

Like Taleb, we’ll largely ignore the robust category since very few things are truly robust. Though as you can see it’s a good place to be. What remains is either fragile or antifragile. For our purposes time is essentially equal to chaos, since the longer you go the more likely some random bad thing is going to happen. Thus anything that is fragile is just not going to exist after enough time has passed. A weak government will eventually be overthrown, and your mother’s crystal will eventually get dropped. Accordingly anything that has been around for long enough must be antifragile (or at least robust), particularly if it has survived catastrophes fatal to other, similar things. Religion fits into this category. Government’s may fall, languages may pass away, nations and people may be lost to history, but religion persists.

Returning to look specifically at the taboo against premarital sex, I would argue that it’s been around for so long and is so widely spread because it promotes antifragility. How? Well I think it’s longevity is a powerful argument all on it’s own, but beyond that there are dozens of potential ways a taboo against premarital sex might make a culture less fragile. It might decrease infant mortality, better establish property rights, create stronger marriages with all the attendant benefits, increase physical security for women, promote better organized communities, or create better citizens. (That’s six, I’ll leave the other six as an exercise for the reader.)

If the taboo does make the culture which adopts it less fragile, then have we really eliminated the need for that it in the last 50 years? Or to put it another way is our culture and society really that much less fragile than the society of 100 years ago or 1000 years ago? I’m sure there are people who would argue that in fact that it is, but this mostly stems from a misunderstanding of what fragility is, assuming they’ve even given much thought to the matter. As I said in the last post so much of what passes for thinking these days is just a means for people to feel justified in doing whatever they feel like, and they haven’t given any thought to the impact on society, or consequences outside of whether their beliefs allow them to do what they feel like. That said, if pressed, they would probably assert that the world is less fragile, particularly if doing so gives them more cover for ignoring things like religion and tradition. But is it true? Taleb asserts that the world isn’t less fragile, it’s less volatile. Which can be mistaken for a reduction of fragility, particularly in the short term. Allow me to give an example of what I mean, continuing with the example of premarital sex.

One of the problems of premarital sex is that it leads to out of wedlock babies and single mothers. In a time before public assistance (or what a lot of people call welfare) having a baby out of wedlock could effectively end a woman’s life, or at least her “prospects”. On the other hand it could be handled quietly and have little actual impact. The child could be adopted by a rich relative, or it could die in the street shortly after being born.

A great example of what I’m talking about is Fantine and Cosette from Les Miserables. Initially the two of them have a horrible time, Fantine has to spend all her money getting the horrible Thénardiers to take care of Cosette, and instead they mostly abuse Cosette. Fantine eventually has to prostitute herself and dies from tuberculosis, but not before Jean Valjean agrees to take responsibility for Cosette, which he does and while it’s not a perfect life, Jean Valjean treats Cosette quite well. This is volatility. You get the lowest lows one one hand or potentially a great life on the other hand. In this case the outcome for a child is all over the place, and individuals are fragile, but society is largely unaffected, in large part by having taboos and other systems in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place.

That was then, now we have far more single mothers and absent some angry old white men, most people think that it’s not a problem, or that if it is we’re dealing with it. Certainly very few single mothers are forced to the drastic steps Fantine had to take. While I’m sure there are single mothers who resort to prostitution I think that if you were to examine those cases there is something else going on, like drugs. There are also probably fewer children being taken in by wealthy relatives. Most single mothers do okay, not fantastic, but okay. In other words you have a decrease in volatility. As I said, many people mistake this for a decrease in fragility, and indeed the individual is less fragile, but society as a whole is more fragile, because a huge number of those single mothers rely on a single entity for support, the government.

At first glance this seems to be okay. The government isn’t going anywhere, and if EBT and other programs can prevent the abject poverty that characterized previous times, that’s great. But whether you want to admit it or not the whole setup is very fragile. If the government has to make any change to welfare then the number of people affect is astronomical. If Jean Valjean had not come along it would have continued to be horrible for Cosette, but it would only have affected Cosette. If welfare went away literally millions of mothers and children would be destitute. And of course they would overwhelm any other system that might be trying to help. Like religious welfare, or family help, etc.

There’s no reason to expect that welfare will go away suddenly, but it is a single point of failure. I’m guessing that very few people in the Soviet Union expected it to disintegrate as precipitously as it did. Of course there are people who think that welfare should go away, and it may seem like that’s what I’m advocating for, but that’s a discussion for a different time. (Spoiler alert: unwinding it now would be politically infeasible.) That said it’s indisputable that if congress decided to get rid of welfare legislatively it would be less of a shock then if one day EBT cards just stopped working. Which is possibly less far fetched than you think. The EBT system goes down all the time, and people can get pretty upset, but so far these outages have been temporary, what happens if it’s down for a month? Or what happens if it becomes the casualty of a political battle. Thus far when government shutdowns have been threatened there has been no move to mess with welfare, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The point is not to predict what will happen, even less when it might happen, but to draw your attention to the fact that as one of the prices for getting rid of this taboo we’ve created a system with a single point of failure, the very definition of fragility.

In the short term if often seems like a good idea to increase fragility, because the profits are immediate and the costs are always far in the future (until they’re not). We’ll talk in more detail about antifragility, but the point I’m trying to get at is that in the long run, which is where religion operates, antifragility will always triumph. Does the a taboo against premarital sex make society less fragile? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else.

Is our current civilization more fragile than people think? On this I can unequivocally say that it is. I know people like to think it’s not, because the volatility is lower, but that’s a major cognitive bias. The fact is, as I have pointed out from the beginning, technology and progress have not saved us. Religion and tradition have guided people through the worst the world has to offer for thousands of years, and we turn our backs on it at our peril.

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and bejudged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!

Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!

Yea, wo be unto him that hearkeneth unto the precepts of men, and denieth the power of God, and the gift of the Holy Ghost!

2 Nephi 28:20-26