Tag: <span>Meritocracy</span>

The 8 Books I Finished in November

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  1. The Psychology of Totalitarianism by: Mattias Desmet
  2. The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World by: Adrian Wooldridge
  3. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud by: Phillip Rieff
  4. Plato: A Very Short Introduction by: Julia Annas
  5. Jesus’ Son by: Denis Johnson
  6. Tombs of Atuan by: Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. Roadside Picnic by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  8. Purple Days by: Baurus

I finally got a chance to compile all of the survey results. One of the big questions was whether I should move to Substack, and the results there were inconclusive. So if I do end up doing that it won’t be anytime soon, also I can probably achieve most of the same results if I just utilized ConvertKit better, but distribution and promotion have never been my strong suites. Beyond that I did attempt to distribute a couple of $100 Amazon gift cards. One person politely declined, but the other is now the proud owner of more books. (Or more of one of the millions of other things Amazon sells, but I hope they bought books.)

Beyond that another takeaway is that I have been spending too much time on this book review post. Reviewing books is easier than writing essays, but the book review posts have been slowly metastasizing such that frequently they take about twice as many hours to put together as an essay, and while lots of you like my reviews, it’s also evident that they’re not the star of the show. Thus, I’m planning to dial them back a little bit. For example only one Eschatological Review per month, and a greater focus on brevity with the rest of the reviews, shifting the time thus saved over to my essays, or my “always on the horizon”, “will be done someday”, book.  Less “review you might find in a magazine” (though I’m doing some of that, see here) and more “review that you might find on Amazon”. Though I will continue to keep the different sections, unless…

No pressure, but for the few who prefer my essays to my reviews, if you could let me know what you might like to see added to the reviews to make them more appealing. And for those that love the reviews, if you could let me know what parts you would hate to see go, so I don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be great. 


I- Eschatological Review

The Psychology of Totalitarianism 

By: Mattias Desmet

Published: 2022

240 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a very ambitious book, and it covers a lot, COVID, mass formation, mechanistic thinking, etc. but if one were to try to boil it down, the common thread is that increasing technological control (in the broadest sense of that phrase) is no longer the solution to our problems, but rather the cause.

What’s the author’s angle?

Desmet is a professor and a practicing psychologist from Belgium, so the word “psychology” might mean more to him than it means to you or me.

Who should read this book?

I liked this book, but as I said it’s very ambitious, and probably too short to adequately support such ambition. As such, if you demand rigorous support for arguments this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re okay with people creating grand narratives which include a lot of speculation, this is a very interesting book. 

General Thoughts

One of the reasons I’m more forgiving of grand narratives of the sort I just mentioned is that if one is going to explain the dysfunction of the modern world something grand is in fact required. If there was just one small thing wrong then we would have figured it out long ago. Even if there were numerous small things wrong this process would still be effective, and we would notice ongoing improvement. And to be fair that was happening up until say decade or so ago. Only if the problem is deep and complex would we still be grappling with it. Still, in spite of this conclusion, I’m wary of theories, no matter how subtle and complex, which claim to explain everything. Since I think that if there was just one root problem, no matter how intricate it ended up being, that we would have figured that out as well. Though perhaps not, particularly if the problem nestles comfortably within our incentives and biases, which it almost certainly does.

In any event, I found the book interesting, but for most of the phenomena he talked about I didn’t feel like he went deep enough for me to definitively judge whether he was entirely correct, mostly correct, partially correct, or entirely wrong. My sense, which was clearly informed by my own incentives and biases, is that he wasn’t entirely wrong about anything, which means he was at least partially correct about everything. Still the book would have benefited from more depth.

For reasons too lengthy to get into this is the last review I’m writing and I’m entirely out of time, so while I wish I could go into the many subjects Desmet raises, I’m going to limit my focus to just one.

Eschatological Implications

There was one area where I think he was definitely on to something, and this was something new, or at least new to me. We like to imagine that there was this fork in the road early in the 20th century. The fascists and communists went one way, and the liberals and the democrats went another way. The former descended into totalitarianism while the latter group rejected authoritarianism in favor of freedom — free markets, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc. 

The story Desmet tells is a different one. In his telling the Enlightenment and the associated progress both before and after, particularly the increasing importance of science, created a sense of control, a mechanistic view of the world. As a result of this we experienced a constant trend towards increased governmental powers, a trend which eventually ends in totalitarianism. Without democratic norms to slow things down the fascists and the communists got their first, but it’s impossible to have a modern system of government, with a mechanistic viewpoint (which is the essence of technocracy) without following the same trend, and eventually arriving in the same place. Liberal ideas like those embodied in the Bill of Rights and similar documents may slow things down, but ultimately they’re powerless before the appeal of greater control, and the better outcomes that control promises. That, as I said in a previous post, they will have found The Answer.

Lately we’ve seen that science has not quite given us the certainty or control we had hoped. And Desmet illustrates this by opening his book with a discussion of the replication crisis. However these obvious failings haven’t really stopped people. As you might imagine Desmet uses the pandemic as exhibit number 1 for using uncertain science to impose massive, arguably totalitarian, restrictions. The point being, if people think they have or can figure out the best way to run a society (again see my previous post) then it seems immoral to them not run society in exactly that fashion, regardless of who may object or the basis for those objections. 

And who are the people objecting? What power do they have to reverse this trend? Not much. They’ve been labeled as populists and largely ghettoized. Which is to say the greater libertarian streak of Western Democracies has slowed down this trend, but it hasn’t arrested it. Whatever libertarianism there once was is draining away at an alarming rate. 

Desmet’s basic assertion is that “The solution to our fear and uncertainty does not lie in the increase of (technological) control.” On this we agree. Unfortunately it appears to be the only tool we know how to use anymore.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

By: Adrian Wooldridge

Published: 2021

504 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The history of meritocracy, how it contributed to the modern world, why it has recently come under attack, and how to renew it.

What’s the author’s angle?

Wooldridge is a member of the global elite and a beneficiary of meritocracy (he worked at The Economist for more than 20 years.) It’s also clear that he finds populism to be distressing

Who should read this book?

I found this book to be far more a history of meritocracy than a defense of meritocracy, though it certainly tries to do both. If you’re looking for just the latter then I would skip this book, if you’re looking for both, or just the former, then I would pick it up.

General Thoughts

Part of the problem with doing a deep historical dive into a subject in order to defend your interpretation of that subject is that in the process of laying out all the facts you give people all the tools necessary to arrive at a different interpretation than the one you’re defending. This is the experience I had with Wooldridge’s book. But it may take me a moment to get there. 

I already spent a lot of time on this book in my post, Finding “The Answer”, but that was a higher level view of the entire process of organizing society, now it’s time to examine the specific methodology of meritocracy. In his historical survey Wooldridge examines several cultures and societies. As you might imagine he spends a lot of time on the Chinese mandarins and the imperial examination, which I also spent a lot of time on in that previous post. As an additional example he spends quite a bit of time discussing the Jewish rabbis, and the vast system of Talmudic education. 

…the Jewish people played a prominent role in developing the meritocratic idea. They didn’t develop meritocracy in the narrow sense of selecting people for positions on the basis of their intellectual powers, as Plato did in theory and the Chinese did in practice. But they did so in more indirect ways. They led the world in emphasizing intellectual success as a way of securing the survival of the group. They heaped honour on people who could perform demanding intellectual feats, from rabbis to scholars. They embraced objective measures of intellectual success – particularly examinations – as ways of establishing their credentials and combating anti-Jewish prejudice. Jews played a prominent role in both developing IQ tests and opposing affirmative action: think of Hans Eysenck in the first category and Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer in the second.

After giving these two historical examples along with mentioning Plato (which will be important in just a second) he goes on to discuss how Europe adopted the Chinese exam system and the Jewish mania for learning and went on to dominate the world. Ideologically things started with the renaissance, but practically it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that we start to see large scale movement from aristocracy of birth to aristocracy of talent. As you can imagine the biggest practical changes came with the revolutions. First the American, but most notably the French. 

The French Revolution injected the question of meritocracy, like a shot of adrenalin, into the heart of European politics. Article VI of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (1789) provided the most concise statement of the emerging meritocratic idea:

Law is the expression of the general will; all citizens have the right to concur personally, or through their representatives, in its formation; it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal before it, are equally admissible to all public offices, positions, and employments, according to their capacity, and without any other distinction than that of virtues and talents [Emphasis by Wooldridge].

This contains echoes of the Chinese idea that the mandarin elite should scour the population for potential mandarins or the Platonic idea that embryonic guardians can be found in every class. But it goes further: it suggests that all citizens are equal before the state and can push themselves forward as potential decision-makers. The onus is on individuals to compete for political positions on the basis of their talents and virtues rather than for the state to micromanage things from on high.

This is very strong evidence for the presence of meritocracy. But I don’t think it does as much to explain European dominance as Wooldridge imagines. For one thing Europe was already pretty dominant by the late 1700’s. It’s not as if Europe and America had these revolutions and only then did they proceed to make their presence felt around the world. That had been going on for hundreds of years. Perhaps you might argue that while this was the full flowering of meritocracy, that other forms of meritocracy were at work in the background. The best candidate for this background meritocracy would be schooling, in particular the universities, but even there it took a long time for full meritocracy to arrive. For example Trinity College, Cambridge, which “led the way”, only introduced written examinations for admittance in 1744 and they didn’t introduce anything resembling scholarships until 1786, which seems pretty important to the operation of a true meritocracy. And as late as 1837 when the future 10th Earl of Wemyss was admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, he was asked just one question: “How’s your father?” From all this one gets the sense that while meritocracy was one of the many useful tools a confident Europe grabbed onto as part of their rise that by the time true meritocracy arrived Europe was already near its peak. 

Of course it is possible that I’m creating a strawman, that Wooldridge is not claiming that meritocracy was responsible for the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and all of the other progress which took off in Europe. However his book is subtitled “How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” so if it is a strawman it’s not much of one. 

Of course there are numerous theories for why things “took off” in Europe, with not only numerous different mechanisms, but wildly varied starting points. And I doubt that Wooldridge is claiming that meritocracy is the sole explanation. (Though it seems fair to say he’d put it in the top 3.) But even if we just limit ourselves to the data presented in his book, I think there’s a different, better explanation for the success of the Chinese, the Jews and the Europeans than the one Wooldridge provided. 

Wooldridge’s preferred explanation is that all three used meritocracy to replace rule by inheritance with rule by the most gifted, and that naturally led to better outcomes. This explanation makes sense, better rulers create better rules. Under this interpretation all we have to do is keep our focus on merit and everything will turn out great. But I think Wooldridge overlooked the truly critical component to the story of the Chinese and the Jews and later the West. And here at last we return to where I started. 

Yes, the imperial examination system sought out the most talented and made them mandarins, but it also created cultural homogeneity around a set of very pro-civilizational ideas: the civic religion of confucianism. It wasn’t just that the mandarins thus selected were smart, the system also forced them to rigorously study ideas like: righteousness, sincerity and propriety. Confucianism also includes a set of five relationships, the first of which was prince over subject. (Which fell under the principle of righteousness.) Not only was all of this part of culture. It was the subject of the most intense studying imaginable as part of the preparation for the imperial exams.

We see something similar with the Jews. There it was the rigorous study of an actual religion but with a similarly civic minded and cohesive ideology. For example the idea that Jews were a special people who had been chosen by God. In both of these cases, was it the fact that they were led by proto-technocrats that allowed them to survive as a nation for thousands of years, or was it the fact that they used meritocracy as one part of an intense effort to imbue the upper class with a strong and united national identity?

All of this takes us to Europe and the West. As I mentioned, if you’re looking for evidence of early attempts at meritocracy you need to look at the schools and universities, where giving education to the talented as opposed to those who were just well-connected started as early as the 14th century. But what sort of education was it? Western universities were basically religious institutions, where the Bible was studied maniacally, and when students weren’t studying the Bible they were immersed in the Classics, Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Virgil. Up until relatively recently an intense study of Christianity and the Classics was a university education. (I uncovered an article in the Atlantic from 1917 arguing that it was finally time to dispense with mandatory Latin.) 

Again we’re forced to ask the question, did the West succeed because of meritocracy? Or did it succeed because it created a unified ideology — a civic religion — among its upper class. You might point to the Protestent Reformation as a time of disunity, but does fighting over Christianity make you less devoted to Christianity or more?

It could be argued that the focus on Classics and Christianity was not as intense as the Chinese study of Confucius or the Jewish study of the Talmud, but then we still have a long way to go before we last the thousands of years both of them did, and it kind of feels like we’re not going to. 


The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud

By: Phillip Rieff

Published: 1966

325 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

That the modern world has embraced a “gospel of personal happiness, defined as the unbridled pursuit of impulse, and yet we remain profoundly unhappy.” 

What’s the author’s angle?

Rieff started as a huge fan of Freud and did his doctoral dissertation on him, declaring that he had written “the masterwork of the century”. But gradually came to see that Freud’s ideas heralded the beginning of the end. To understand this transition it’s useful to compare Freud to Marx. Rieff was a fan of both, and both seemed to provide visions of a much better future. But when it came time to implement these visions, the actual result was misery for millions.

Who should read this book?

Those who are really interested in the decline of Western culture and believe that it’s primarily an issue of narcissism… otherwise, probably I would pass on it, it’s super dense and academic.

General Thoughts

There are lots of people who think that the woke have gone too far. Who see the excesses and acknowledge that things have gotten crazy, but despite this craziness they’re not worried. It seems reasonable to argue that the craziness is limited to a few individuals, and that beyond that it’s a temporary condition, similar to the campus unrest of the late 60’s and early 70s which seemed apocalyptic at the time, but which are now only dimly remembered. You might be able to talk them into the idea that it’s widespread (particularly with the advent of woke capital) but if so they will fall back to the idea that it’s transitory. A short blip before we settle into a new normal. 

I think Rieff is a valuable counterbalance to this optimism because he shows that, for those who were far sighted enough, this situation could be seen from as far back as the early 60’s (I know the book was published in 66, but books don’t spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.) In other words all of the really deep and insightful criticisms of modernity were being made by Rieff decades ago.

I won’t be doing much of a review because I’m still digesting the book. It’s dense, and important. If you’re still looking for a review other people have done a good job of distilling it. And you might want to check out my review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl R. Trueman, which is the book that pointed me at Rieff. Accordingly, rather than try to do my own, lesser, distillation. I thought I’d just toss out a half a dozen amazing quotes to give you a sense of his prescience. These are taken largely at random, there are dozens more.

…our presently schizoid existence in two cultures—vacillating between dead purposes and deadly devices to escape boredom.

Psychological man may be going nowhere, but he aims to achieve a certain speed and certainty in going…he understands morality as that which is conducive to increased activity. The important thing is to keep going.

…clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct.

As new religions are constantly being born, so psychotherapeutic faiths are constantly breaking out of their clinical restrictions.

In Jung’s interpretation, the trouble with Freud was that he had remained a Jew who had merely exchanged ritual obedience to the laws of the Hebrew God, for intellectual obedience to the laws of sexuality. 

If yesterday’s analytic thrust is to become part of tomorrow’s cultural super-ego, it must take on an institutional form, defend itself not only as true, but also as good and dig into personality as a demand system. Yet it is precisely this that the new arts and social sciences, in their very nature, cannot accomplish. They cannot create the ardent imaginations necessary to the forming of new communities.


Plato: A Very Short Introduction 

By: Julia Annas

Published: 2003

144 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is one of those books where “it does exactly what it says on the tin”.

Who should read this book?

It’s marketed towards those who don’t want to read Plato’s actual writings, but really Plato is pretty readable, and there’s really no reason to read this instead of say “Crito” (which is only 4300 words). But if you’ve read a lot of Plato and you’re looking for some context and some synthesis this is a pretty good book.

General Thoughts

This is my second “Very Short Introduction” book, and so far I think they’re useful. My sense was that this was better than the one on Socrates, but neither was particularly elegant. Fitting everything into a short space, where comprehension is at a premium necessitates a pretty dry style. Which is not to say that it was annoyingly dry, more that it provides no opportunity for the book to be delightfully discursive, witty or allusive.


Jesus’ Son 

By: Denis Johnson

Published: 1992

133 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of vaguely autobiographical short stories about Johnson’s time as a druggie and lowlife among other druggies and lowlifes. The title comes from the song “Heroin” by Velvet Underground which was written by Lou Reed

Who should read this book?

This book is close to being an “everyone” book, but I resolved to be more parsimonious. It’s short and it has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever encountered. I will say that the audio version is particularly compelling. Like the saddest, most broken down person you know telling you the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. 

General Thoughts

I read this as part of Freddie deBoer’s book club. Which as of this writing is still occurring, so if you’re interested in the book, and participating alongside someone would make it better, you can still get in on that. Beyond that I’d heard people rave about this book for a long time, and I should have picked it up sooner. Johnson is an amazing writer. Though as you can imagine from the description it’s definitely for mature audiences.


Tombs of Atuan 

by: Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 1971

208 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is the second book of the Earthsea Trilogy, telling the continuing adventures of Sparrowhawk/Ged. But he’s not the main character, Tenar, a young priestess to the “Nameless Ones” is. She’s supposed to be the latest reincarnation of all the previous priestesses, and thus the most important priestess to the most important gods, but she’s still just a teenage girl. This tension makes for compelling reading.

Who should read this book?

I will say the same thing I said about Wizard of Earthsea: Everyone. (I know I said I was going to be more sparing.) It’s a fantasy classic that’s the whole package: great plot, characters, writing, worldbuilding, everything. Plus it’s short. I guess if you hate fantasy, maybe not, but even then I’d give it a try. 

General Thoughts

Despite what I just said, the lack of breadth makes this, for me, the weakest of the original Earthsea trilogy, though it’s still really, really good. And as I said this was just me personally, it’s my wife’s favorite of the three, she really loves Tenar, and her whole story. So she was shocked when I told her the audiobook had a male narrator (Rob Inglis who also did the Lord of the Rings) and I can see her point. 


Roadside Picnic 

by: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Published: 1972

224 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Aliens have visited the Earth, but rather than conquering humans or even communicating with us they just left “Zones”, areas full of mysterious artifacts and dangerous forces. Humans are compared to insects emerging after a roadside picnic, examining: ”Old spark plugs…rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind.” (This was published in the Soviet Union in 1972; apparently picnics in the Soviet Union involved a lot of car repair.) The zones are super dangerous and off limits to all but the government. Stalkers are people who illegally enter the zone in search of artifacts to sell. The novel is the story of one of these stalkers, Redrick “Red” Schuhart.

Who should read this book?

I think if you like science fiction at all you should read this book. Particularly if you like the older stuff or if you’re trying to broaden your horizons. This is one of the best known examples of Soviet science fiction, and it’s worth reading just for that.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, though I confess that I expected the book to have more of a “Soviet feel” than it actually did, but this violation of my expectations turned out to be a good thing. The differences between this book and other old science fiction I’ve read were subtle, it was less optimistic to the point of being grim, but not dystopian. It also featured a lower class of people than most English science fiction, at least what I’m familiar with. These differences helped the book to be a great story without being either weirdly foreign or heavy-handed propaganda. 


Purple Days

By: Baurus

Published: 2021

2200 Pages (According to Goodreads, and my rough Kindle calculations)

Briefly, what is this book about?

Game of Thrones fanfiction where every time Joffrey dies his life starts over again — Groundhog Day like — at the beginning of the series. After numerous deaths he starts becoming a better person, eventually saving the world almost in the fashion of a superhero.

Who should read this book?

I thought it was pretty good. But at 2200 pages it’s difficult to recommend to anyone. Though I guess if you view it as a series it’s not that bad, though it’s not written as a series, it’s basically one enormous book. 

General Thoughts

A couple of months ago I was at a Slate Star Codex meetup, and someone mentioned that they were into ratfic (which is short for Rationalist Fiction). The best known examples of this genre would be Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) and Unsong. I had read both of those so I asked him what else he would recommend. This book was his recommendation. I’m not sure if I would classify it as rationalist work, but he did, and people have posted about it in the rationalist subreddit, though the posters there share my uncertainty. 

If I had to classify it, the book spends more time exploring humanism than rationalism, but it spends most of its time just being a straight fantasy novel. I would have actually preferred it if it had been more strictly a rationalist morality tale. All of the added fantastic elements and the discursions into Joffrey recreating the renaissance, distracted from the interesting growth that just comes from trial and error. Which is the heart of rationality.  Also there was a missed opportunity to explore the overwhelming importance of X-Risks. Baurus does some of this, but by the end it’s seriously melodramatic. Those are kind of the negatives. (In addition to the length obviously.) 

On the positive side the premise was incredibly interesting, and with 2200 pages to work with Baurus does some truly amazing exploration of the more obscure corners of the world of the Song of Ice and Fire. And while the writing isn’t as polished as what you would get from a more mainstream book, it was mostly quite good.

I did feel that it started to drag near the end (so the last 500 pages), as the aforementioned melodrama began to predominate, and I ended up partially finishing it out of the sunk cost fallacy. But also, I wanted to see how it ended, he had at least made it interesting enough for that. And while there were some great moments near the end, It cut off pretty abruptly for a 2200 page book, and I’m not sure he really stuck the landing.

Despite all of this, overall I was left with the desire to read more fanfiction. Which is probably not a great idea. Though if this same person recommends something else I might just take him up on it.


This didn’t end up being as brief as I thought, but I did end up using a lot more quotes from the books, which is content I didn’t have to write, so it is a little bit easier. If you think that paying someone to copy from other books is a worthwhile use of your money consider donating.


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.


The 8.5 Books I Finished in October

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  1. Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by: Michael J. Sandel
  2. Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by: Jesse Singal
  3. Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) by: John Michael Greer
  4. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by: H. W. Brands
  5. Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by: Norm Macdonald
  6. The Silmarillion by: J. R. R. Tolkien
  7. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by: Carlo M. Cipolla
  8. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by: Roland Huntford
  9. How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion by: David DeSteno

Over the last few months I’ve been enjoying Holden Karnofsky’s newsletter “Cold Takes”. One of his central arguments is that this is the most important century. 

In this opinion we are basically aligned, but whereas I am largely pessimistic about our ability to handle the ramifications of this moment, Karnofsky is more of an optimist. Perhaps I’ll go into his assertions more on some other occasion, but for now I merely wanted to provide some context around Karnofsky before I introduce his deplorable advice on how one should read books. Which, since I’m about to review a bunch of books I’ve read, would appear to be germane

He starts off with the idea that we overestimate how much we retain from reading a book. Which is almost certainly true. Though I think his assertion suffers from never going to the trouble of rigorously defining the word “retain”. Is retention measured by telling someone to write down everything they remembered from the book, and comparing it to the actual book? Or is it measured by being able to summon forth a point from the book when it’s relevant? Or could someone be said to retain something if they can call it to mind after being prompted:

Do you remember that part in Dune when Paul chooses his name?

Oh, yeah. He asks the name of the mouse shadow in the second moon. And they tell him that they call it Muad’dib. And that’s the name he chooses.

Additionally his measurement of retention is just a percentage—what portion of the book was retained using the various methods (skimming, reading slowly, re-reading, etc.) And beyond the fact that his percentages are ridiculous, which I’ll get to, certain parts of a book are far more valuable to retain than other parts. The first 10%, the stuff that everyone knows about the book, is likely to be in such common circulation that any interesting insights will similarly be widely available. Whereas the 10% you extract after reading the whole thing, or reading it multiple times is likely to be the most valuable, or at least the rarest.

But I’m sure you want to know why I think his percentages are ridiculous. You should check out his post if you want to see his entire table but to give you a couple of examples. He asserts that the percent you understand and retain after reading just the title is 10%, that skimming it raises that to 12%, reading the book quickly pushes it to 13% and reading it slowly pushes it all the way to 15%. The entire progression is ridiculous, but I’m particularly flabbergasted by his contention that you can get 2/3rds of the value out of slowly reading a book if you just read the title. 

Beyond his exaggeration of the importance of reading titles, he contends that in general it’s a far better use of your time to read what other people are saying about the book then it is to read the book itself. And this is where we return to the idea of the varying quality of retaining some parts of the book vs. retaining other parts of the book. As an example if you were to compare my book reviews to the reviews found on Amazon you would find that I’m frequently talking about the book in a way that no one else is. Which means my insights can only come from reading the actual book, not reading what other people say about the book, because no one is saying what I am. Now this still leaves unaddressed the question of whether my insights have any value, I could just be insane. I’ll let you be the judge of that:


I- Eschatological Reviews

Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

by: Michael J. Sandel

342 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

As meritocracy has become more deeply entrenched it has begun to take the form of a system of morality, where being successful equals having moral worth.

Who should read this book?

At any given moment some books are part of the larger conversation. This is one of those books, and if you want a better understanding of the conversation around meritocracy you should read it. 

General Thoughts

The book opens with by recounting the admissions scandal which ensnared people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Sandel chooses this story because it’s a clear example of merit-seeking corruption. But beyond this it illustrates that it’s not actual merit the parents were seeking—I haven’t come across anything indicating these parents were “tiger moms” obsessed with making their children practice various skills—no, what they were buying was the appearance of merit. While he didn’t reference it, Sandel essentially wrote a book length treatment of Campbell’s law (and also the closely related, Goodhart’s law) as it applied to merit:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

This is also closely related to the discussion from a few years ago when Bryan Caplan published his book, The Case Against Education, which argued that college was not about knowledge and increasing human capital, it was about signalling intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. The book also reminded me a lot of Freddie deBoer’s book, Cult of Smart, which I read back in April. As I mentioned already there is definitely a robust conversation around this topic. 

If I were to try to distill out Sandel’s contribution to the topic, I would say he really leans into the moral angle of the whole phenomenon. The idea that if we assume this is a meritocracy, then we further have to assume that positions are earned. That the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. And gradually the definition of deserve creeps from an evaluation of economic worth in a capitalist system to moral worth in a more transcendent system.

In large part this happens because those in charge are incentivized to move the definition in this direction. Not only that, but it only takes a little bit of bias to believe this narrative. Meritocracy has made it so that at least some hard work is required to succeed, people are no longer born to positions. Therefore those at the top of the meritocracy will emphasize their hard work while overlooking outside help and luck.

It’s the dash of hard work with the ratcheting effect of the bias that, in Sandel’s account, differentiates meritocracy from previous social systems. Which takes us to:

Eschatological Implications

Meritocracy is a relatively new invention. Previous to it’s introduction religion and nobility were the primary systems for deciding who was in charge. In both cases people quite obviously ended up in positions of power without any hard work. One might think that this is a bad thing, and it almost certainly was for the people who were subject to this power, but it was a good thing for the system as a whole because it forced a certain amount of humility to be present. It didn’t force every individual to be humble, but the system as a whole necessarily created some humility. 

As Sandel points out:

[T]he more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.

The meritocratic concept of being self-made is also something which wasn’t present in the past systems. Under a system of nobility you were always answerable to some higher noble. Unless you were the King, and indeed that was also generally the failure point in the system. Under a system of religion you were always answerable to God. Or rather the actions of people in power would be circumscribed by the perception of their righteousness. You could only ratchet your own importance so much.

Now I understand that this overview of past systems has overlooked all kinds of nuance and exceptions, and been largely written from a Western, Christian perspective. But I think Sandel is right in pointing out that the incentives of meritocracy have produced some weird, and pernicious outcomes. None of which is to say that Sandel is advocating for a return to earlier systems. And, while I think the world needs more religion, neither am I.

For all the harms caused by meritocracy, I’m still glad that doctors, pilots, and politicians (mostly) are selected by merit. And it may be that meritocracy is similar to democracy. The worst system except for all those other systems that have been tried from time to time. Let us hope that this continues to be the case. But there is an argument to be made that the harms of meritocracy are multiplying at the same time that its benefits are diminishing.


Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills

by: Jesse Singal

334 Pages

Briefly, what was this book about?

The way in which the popularization of psychology has incentivized scientists to produce “quick fixes”, even if they have to ignore the scientific process in order to do so. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve noticed the parade of techniques that are supposed to be the solution to everything, from improving self esteem, to positive psychology and emphasizing grit. Techniques that flare in a blinding fashion before fading into irrelevance, this book is for you.

General Thoughts

For anyone who’s been following the replication crisis this book will not be surprising. Though I’m sure you’ll still come across stuff that you hadn’t heard. For myself I had forgotten about the panic over super predators and I had no idea that positive psychology had essentially taken over the military. 

But of course this latter example illustrates the point, these concepts have, when ascendent, penetrated nearly everywhere. Even power posing, which always seemed a little bit silly, ended up being prominently featured in the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg which spawned a whole movement around women in the workplace. Nor has power posing been entirely abandoned, it still has it’s defenders.

But eventually after this moment in the spotlight the principles fade, the results don’t match the hype, and (hopefully) the science eventually catches up Though, rather than being abashed that they fell for yet another fad, people immediately start looking for the next fad, the next golden bullet to solve all the problems.

Interestingly, though Singal approaches with caution, his book ends by speaking approvingly of nudges. Targeted, and limited interventions designed to accomplish very narrow aims. The classic example is the idea that people donate more to their 401k if you make them have to opt out of it, rather than opting into it. I get this, but whatever his caution I think Singal may be falling for some of the same faddish adulation he’s decrying everywhere else. 

I think the nudges that work best are just people exercising a little more intelligence when they design systems, like the 401k example. I think other nudges will appear to work initially, but then the effectiveness will fade with time. My power company tries one of the classic nudges with me every month. They show my power usage with respect to my neighbors. And initially, when I saw that I used more power I tried various things to use less, as intended, but then when it kept coming in high I realized that there were (at the time) six people in my house. And two retirees in most of the houses I was being compared against. And now even though there are fewer people in my house I haven’t looked at those comparisons in months, nor do I care much what they show. 

All of which is to say that individual nudges may have a small effect but the concept of nudges as a new tool that will change everything (particularly divorced from any larger concepts, a point I’ll get to it a bit) is yet another fad that will fade. Which Singal allows for, but maybe not enough.

Eschatological Implications

I think most of the implications here are one’s I’ve already spent a lot of time covering in this space. For the last few centuries progress and science have given people a reason to be optimistic about the future. But it’s been apparent for a while that we were running out of things for science to revolutionize. However there was always one thing left on the list, and it’s been on the list of things to improve for at least the last century and probably longer than that. Of course I’m talking about humanity. Quick Fix is both valuable and depressing. Valuable for the truths it points out, depressing in that one of those truths is that humanity is becoming more intractable rather than less. Meaning that if you want to be optimistic about the future, science no longer provides that. If you want optimism you have to find it in the perfectibility of humanity which every day seems more impossible.


II- Capsule Reviews

Kingsport: (The Weird of Hali #2) 

by: John Michael Greer

247 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young girl who reconnects with her extended family who are worshippers of the Elder Gods. Only unlike most novels of this sort, such worshippers are the good guys.

Who should read this book?

Greer mostly writes non-fiction and I think his fiction writing somewhat reflects that, thus you should read the book only if you feel intrigued by its unique premise.

General Thoughts

After reading the first book in this series I was kind of underwhelmed. I had enjoyed it, but I felt it hadn’t crossed the line into being exceptional. I intended to finish the series, just because that’s what I always intend, even if it never happens, but I wasn’t particularly excited for the next book. 

But, as the months went by I found myself unable to stop thinking about it, and more and more eager to find out where Greer was going to go with this unique “worshipers of the elder gods are the good guys” premise. So I picked up the second book, and once again the writing was a little dry, and the characters were a little bit flat, but the premise continues to be endlessly fascinating, and I’m really interested to see what happens in the rest of the books.


The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

by: H. W. Brands

448 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The post World War II career of General MacArther, and in particular his conflict with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. 

Who should read this book?

If you like history and biography at all this is one of the better examples I’ve come across. Also if you feel like you have a blindspot when it comes to the Korean War this is a great entry point.

General Thoughts

The book starts out by talking about how much the Japanese revered General MacArthur. I’m curious to know if that’s still the case. (I have a friend in Japan I’ve been meaning to ask but I haven’t gotten around to it.) It’s nice that it starts out that way because the remainder of the book is increasingly hard on him, and by the end he doesn’t come out looking very good. Which I think is the impression I absorbed of him growing up in the 70s and 80s. (Certainly the show M.A.S.H. didn’t help.) Obviously I had heard about Truman firing him, but it always felt more like a piece of trivia than a national scandal. This book definitely made me feel the magnitude of the act. And the magnitude of the Korean War, which is another thing which doesn’t carry the weight it deserves, stuck as it is between Vietnam and World War II.

If you’ll forgive me for going on a brief eschatological tangent, one of the really interesting things about the Korean War is how pivotal it was when it came to the question of nuclear weapons. At this point it was still an open question whether nukes were going to be just another weapon in a countries arsenal or whether they were going to be treated as being on a whole, separate, almost unthinkable level. It’s a credit to Truman that it was the latter not the former.

One of the things I did in October, which didn’t get mentioned in the intro, was I took a trip to Albuquerque to visit family. While there I visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. I highly recommend it, particularly for those who have any doubts about the unclear status of nuclear weapons in the 50’s. You’ll see all manner of things including nuclear artillery and the infamous nuclear bazooka

To the extent I have a criticism and it’s a very small one, this book, despite its subtitle, might have been even better if Brands had spent more time examining this inflection point in the use of nuclear weapons.


Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir

by: Norm Macdonald

242 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A somewhat surreal pseudo-memoir of Norm Macdonald. About 99% untrue, but 100% of his essence. Perhaps if Vonnegut had written Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this is what would have come out.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who REALLY liked Norm Macdonald already has. But if, like me, you only truly recognized his genius once it was gone, this is a great way to both bask in it and pay homage to it.

General Thoughts

I was not a hardcore Norm Macdonald fan. He was rather someone I wanted to hear more from, but never got around to it. When he died, that snapped me into action and I picked up his book. It was the audio version and he did the narration which was great. 

I think the comment I made about Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson sums it up pretty well. This book is not for everyone, and it’s pretty crass to boot. But if you felt like Macdonald was taken too soon this is a great way to celebrate his comedic genius. 


The Silmarillion 

by: J. R. R. Tolkien

480 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

If the Lord of the Rings is the New Testament, The Silmarillion is the Old. It’s a record of all the things that happened beforehand which were only alluded to in the trilogy. It’s also far more tragic.

Who should read this book?

I’m not sure. I don’t know anyone who likes The Silmarillion, who doesn’t already like the Lord of the Rings, but liking LotR is no guarantee that you’ll like this book. I only know a few people who love it. 

General Thoughts

I am one of those who love The Silmarillion. My favorite scene from the trilogy is when Gandalf confronts the Lord of the Nazguls at the gates of Minas Tirith. The Silmarillion is full of scenes like that. It can do this because it covers thousands of years, and it basically only includes these scenes. As a consequence of this there is very little in the way of character development. And while there is something of an overarching plot the book is not a novel, it’s a collection of myths. And as such it’s not for everyone. But after reading it this time, I think I actually like it better than the original trilogy. 

On this read through one scene in particular really moved me. It concerns Húrin, a mighty warrior, who ends up being imprisoned in the dungeons of the dark lord for 28 years before he is finally released. Wandering about, old and bowed down he comes across his wife, sitting at the graves of his children:

But Húrin did not look at the stone, for he knew what was written there; and his eyes had seen that he was not alone. Sitting in the shadow of the stone there was a woman, bent over her knees; and as Húrin stood there silent she cast back her tattered hood and lifted her face. Grey she was and old, but suddenly her eyes looked into his, and he knew her; for though they were wild and full of fear, that light still gleamed in them that long ago had earned for her the name [Morwen], proudest and most beautiful of mortal women in the days of old.

‘You come at last,’ she said. ‘I have waited too long.’

‘It was a dark road. I have come as I could,’ he answered.

‘But you are too late,’ said Morwen. ‘They are lost.’

‘I know it,’ he said. ‘But you are not.’

But Morwen said: ‘Almost. I am spent. I shall go with the sun…

…and they sat beside the stone, and did not speak again; and when the sun went down Morwen sighed and clasped his hand, and was still; and Húrin knew that she had died. 


The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

by: Carlo M. Cipolla

64 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The 5 Laws of human stupidity.

Who should read this book?

The introduction is by Nassim Taleb. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would appeal to you, you should read this book. Also it’s super short (this is my ½ book for the month.)

General Thoughts

Here are the five laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and Inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. Stupid people are the most dangerous kind of people. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

The rules are interesting, but it’s the idea of the bandit that’s going to stick with me. Cipolla divides people into four quadrants:

  1. The Intelligent: Those who act in such a way that it benefits themselves and others.
  2. The Bandits: Those who act to benefit themselves while causing harm to others.
  3. The Helpless: Those who harm themselves while benefiting others. (I feel like there should be a better term for this than helpless.)
  4. The Stupid: Those who cause harm to both themselves and others. 

He further divides the bandit in two. Bandits who help themselves more than they harm others— so on net they benefit society. And bandits who harm others more than they help themselves—someone who breaks a $500 car window to steal the $5 in change sitting in the center console. Obviously, just by the nature of banditry the latter type is far more common than the former. But I think the former has an interesting place in the capitalist structure. Particularly when you start to consider harms that are more diffuse.


The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole

by: Roland Huntford

640 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The lives of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen and their race for the South Pole.  

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes stories of survival and exploration, but it also works as a business book.

General Thoughts

To start with I’m glad I read The Man Who Ate His Boots before reading this. The foundation it gave me on the previous era of arctic exploration was very helpful particularly at the beginning of this book.

As far as the book itself, my sense of Scott was developed in a similar fashion to my sense of MacArthur. I had evidently picked up some stuff by osmosis. Before reading this book I had a vague sense of Scott’s heroism and a vague annoyance with Amundsen, but if you had asked me to explain where I got those impressions I would have been unable to point to anything specific. Having read the book I’m not surprised by those opinions, they’re basically the opinions which suffuse the anglosphere. Though the fact that I was unaware of this osmosis might bear further examination. Particularly since the impressions I had were entirely wrong. Everyone should strive to emulate Amundsen, while Scott should be a cautionary tale for anyone engaged in any high risk endeavor.

So how is it that the conventional wisdom is lukewarm towards Amundsen, while Scott is still thought of with reverence? There are three factors: first, whatever other faults Scott may have had he was a gifted writer, and when his journal was published posthumously (and also after some extensive editing) it gave the whole enterprise a heroic narrative, which bore only a passing resemblance to reality. Second, Scott died. Objectively this can’t help but count against him, but emotionally it ends up providing a huge boost to someone’s reputation to die young. Also there’s this sense that Amundsen, by being close and winning the race, somehow contributed to it. Third, Scott’s journey was more exciting.

It’s this last bit that I want to focus on in particular, and what makes this something of a business book. How often do we judge people’s efforts by how many near death experiences come out of it, rather than how safe and effective it was. Certainly the near death stories are more exciting and get retold more often. In this case Scott was heroic because he died, while Amundsen was not because his expedition was meticulously planned and executed. Of course what we should want is not excitement and heroism, we should want things to be meticulously planned and executed. But that’s often not the way people think. 

I wonder if movies have made this problem worse? Something to chew on.


III- Religious Reviews

How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

by: David DeSteno

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How most of the stuff scientists think of for improving humanity is already being done by religion and in a more effective fashion.

Who should read this book?

People who want their support of religion confirmed or people who think that religion is entirely valueless.

General Thoughts

This book makes the argument I’ve long made. That religion isn’t a harmful batch of superstitions that idiots waste their time with, but rather a rigorously evolved package of beneficial behaviors. So in a very broad sense it’s supportive of one of the core missions of the blog. But as I’ve spent a lot of time already on that subject I’d like to talk about the interesting addendum it provides to one of the previous books I reviewed, Quick Fix.

To begin with, DeSteno’s point is very similar to Singal’s. There are no quick fixes. If you want to change human behavior it takes something massive and integrated; something that has been developed over centuries. Nor are these changes massive, mostly they are small improvements, but there are improvements which last, they’re not transitory. 

But then interestingly DeSteno ends up in the same place as Singal, talking about nudges. And there’s this sense that for DeSteno that’s all religion is. (DeSteno himself is not a believer.) That it’s a collection of nudges. For example, we know meditation is good, religion tells you to pray which is a nudge to meditate. And indeed that’s probably all that DeSteno’s data can tell him, but I think he’s only scratching the surface on the benefits of religion. That nudges are just what can quickly be measured, that the benefits of religion are mostly felt over the span of decades. This is also the scope for the harms of its absence to be felt as well. Harms which every day seem more and more apparent.


I guess this end bit that I always do is also a nudge. Let’s hope it’s one that is bundled up into a larger system of value rather than one of those nudges that fade with time. Either way if you have felt the nudge to donate, give into that impulse, it’s what science would want you to do.