Tag: <span>Sebastian Junger</span>

Job Automation, or Can You Recognize a Singularity When You’re In It?

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Over the last few months, it seems that regardless of the topic I’m writing on, that they all have some connection, however tenuous, to job automation. In fact, just last week I adapted the apocryphal Trotsky quote to declare that, “You may not be interested in job automation, but job automation is interested in you.” On reflection I may have misstated things, because actually everyone is interested in job automation they just don’t know it. Do you care about inequality? Then you’re interested in job automation. Do you worry about the opiate epidemic? Then you’re interested in job automation. Do you desire to prevent suicide by making people feel like they’re needed? Then you’re interested in job automation. Do you use money? Does that money come from a job? Then you’re interested in job automation. Specifically in whether your job will be automated, because if it is, you won’t have it anymore.

As for myself, I’m not merely interested in job automation, I’m worried about it, and in this I am not alone. It doesn’t take much looking to find articles describing the decimation of every job from truck driver to attorneys or even articles which claim that no job is safe. But not everyone shares these concerns, and whether they do depends a lot on how they view something called the Luddite Fallacy. You’ve probably heard of the Luddites, those English textile workers who smashed weaving machines between 1811 and 1816, and if you have, you can probably guess what the Luddite Fallacy is. But in short, Luddites believed that technology destroyed jobs (actually that’s not quite what they believed, but it doesn’t matter). Many people believe that this is a fallacy, that technology doesn’t destroy jobs. It may get rid of old jobs, but it opens up new and presumably better jobs.

Farmers are the biggest example of this fallacy. In 1790, they composed 90% of the US labor force, but currently it’s only 2%. Where did the 98% of people who used to be farmers end up? They’re not all unemployed, that’s for sure. Which means that the technology which put nearly all of the farmers out of work, did not actually result in any long term job loss. And the jobs which have replaced farming are all probably better. This is the heart of things for people who subscribe to the Luddite Fallacy, the idea that the vast majority of jobs which currently exist were created when labor and capital were freed up when technology eliminated old jobs, and farmers aren’t the only example of this.

More or less, this is the argument in favor of the fallacy; in support of the idea that you don’t have to worry about technology putting people out of work. And people who think the Luddite Fallacy still applies aren’t worried about job automation. Because they have faith that new jobs will emerge. And just as in the past when farmers became clerks and clerks became accountants, as accounting is automated, accountants will become programmers, and when at last computers can program themselves, programmers will become musicians or artists or writers of obscure, vaguely LDS, apocalyptic blogs.

The Luddite Fallacy is a strong argument, backed up by lots of historical evidence, the only problem is, just because that’s how it worked in the past doesn’t mean that there’s some law saying it has to continue to work that way. And I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it won’t continue to work that way.

Recently the Economist had an article on this very subject and they brought up the historical example of horses being replaced by automobiles. As they themselves point out, the analogy can be taken too far (a point they mention right after they discuss the number of horses who left the workforce by heading to the glue factory.) But the example nevertheless holds some valuable lessons.

The first lesson we can learn from the history of the horse’s replacement is that horses were indispensable for thousands of years until suddenly they weren’t. By this, I mean to say that the transition was very rapid (it took about 50 years) and the full magnitude was only obvious in retrospect. What does this mean for job automation? To start with, if it’s going to happen, than 50 years is probably the longest it will take. (Since technology moves a lot faster these days.) Additionally, it’s very likely that the process has already begun and we’ll only be able to definitely identify the starting point in retrospect. Though, just looking at self-driving cars I can remember the first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 when not a single car finished the course, and now look at how far we’ve come in just 13 years.

The second lesson we can learn concerns the economics of the situation. Normally speaking, the Luddite Fallacy kicks in because technology frees up workers and money which can be put to other uses. This is exactly what happened with horses. The advent of tractors and automobiles freed up capital and it freed up a lot of horses. Anyone who wanted a horse had access to plenty of cheap horses. And yet that didn’t help. As the article describes it:

The market worked to ease the transition. As demand for traditional horse-work fell, so did horse prices, by about 80% between 1910 and 1950. This drop slowed the pace of mechanisation in agriculture, but only by a little. Even at lower costs, too few new niches appeared to absorb the workless ungulates. Lower prices eventually made it uneconomical for many owners to keep them. Horses, so to speak, left the labour force, in some cases through sale to meat or glue factories. As the numbers of working horses and mules in America fell from about 21m in 1918 to only 3m or so in 1960, the decline was mirrored in the overall horse population.

In other words there will certainly be a time when robots will be able to do certain jobs, but humans will still be cheaper and more plentiful, and as with horses that will slow automation down, “but only by a little.” And, yes, as I already mentioned the analogy can be taken too far, I am not suggesting that surplus humans will suffer a fate similar to surplus ungulates (gotta love that word.) But with inequality a big problem which is getting bigger we obviously can’t afford even a 10% reduction in real wages to say nothing of an 80% reduction. And that’s while the transition is still in progress!

For most people when they think about this problem they are mostly concerned with unemployment or more specifically how people will pay the bills or even feed themselves if they have no job and no way to make money. Job automation has the potential to create massive unemployment, and some will argue that this process has already started or that in any event the true unemployment level is much higher than the official figure because many people have stopped looking for work. Also while the official figures are near levels not seen since the dotcom boom they mask growing inequality, significant underemployment, an explosion in homelessness and increased localized poverty.

Thus far, whatever the true rate of unemployment, and whatever weight we want to give to the other factors I mentioned, only a small fraction of our current problems come from robots stealing people’s jobs. A significant part of it comes from manufacturing jobs which have moved to another country. (In the article they estimate that trade with China has cost the US 2 million jobs.) In theory, these jobs have been replaced by other, better jobs in a process similar to the Luddite fallacy, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious, both because of growing inequality and underemployment, that when it comes to trade and technology that the jobs aren’t necessarily better. Even people who are very much in favor of both free trade and technology will admit that manufacturing jobs have largely been replaced with jobs in the service sector. For the unskilled worker, not only do these jobs not pay as much as manufacturing jobs, they also appear to not be as fulfilling as manufacturing jobs.

We may see this very same thing with job automation, only worse. So far the jobs I’ve mentioned specifically have been attorney, accountant and truck driver. The first two are high paying white collar jobs, and the third is one of the most common jobs in the entire country. So we’re not seeing a situation where job automation applies to just a few specialized niches, or where they start with the lowest paying jobs and move up. In fact it would appear to be the exact opposite. You know what robots are so far terrible at? Folding towels. I assume they are also pretty bad at making beds and cleaning bathrooms, particularly if they have to do all three of those things. In other words there might still be plenty of jobs in housekeeping for the foreseeable future, but obviously this is not the future people had in mind.

As I’ve said I’m not the only person who’s worried about this. A search on the internet uncovers all manner of panic about the coming apocalypse of job automation, but where I hope to be different is by pointing out that job automation is not something that may happen in the future, and which may be bad. It’s something that’s happening right now, and it’s definitely bad. This is not to say that I’m the first person to say job automation is already happening, nor am I the first person to say that it’s bad. Where I do hope to be different is by pointing out some ways in which it’s bad that aren’t generally considered, tying it into larger societal trends, and most of all pointing out how job automation is a singularity, but we don’t recognize it as such because we’re in the middle of it. For those who may need a reminder I’m using the term singularity as shorthand for a massive technologically driven change in society, which creates a world completely different from the world which came before.

The vast majority of people don’t look at job automation as a singularity, they view it as a threat to their employment, and worry that if they don’t have a job they won’t have the money to eat and pay the bills and they’ll end up part of the swelling population of homeless people I mentioned earlier. But if the only problem is the lack of money, what if we fixed that problem? What if everyone had enough money even if they weren’t working? Many people see the irresistible tide of job automation on the horizon, and their solution is something called a guaranteed basic income. This is an amount of money everyone gets regardless of need and regardless of whether they’re working. The theory is, that if everyone were guaranteed enough money to live on, that we could face our jobless future and our coming robot overlords without fear.

Currently this idea has a lot of problems. For one even if you took all the money the federal government spends on everything and gave it to each individual you’d still only end up with $11,000/per person/per year. Which is better than nothing, and probably (though just barely) enough to live on, particularly if you had a group of people pooling their money, like a family. But it’s still pretty small, and you only get this amount if you stop all other spending, meaning no defense, no national parks, no FTC, no FDA, no federal research, etc. More commonly people propose taking just the money that’s being currently spent on entitlement programs and dividing that up among just the adults (not everyone.) That still gets you to around $11,000 per adult, which is the same inadequate amount I just mentioned but with an additional penalty for having children, which may or may not be a problem.

As you can imagine there are some objections to this plan. If you think the government already spends too much money then this program is unlikely to appeal to you, though it does have some surprising libertarian backers. But there are definitely people who are worried that this is just thinly veiled communism and it will lead to a nation of welfare receipts with no incentive to do anything. That while this might make the jobless future slightly less unfair that in the end it will just accelerate the decline.

On the other hand there are the futurists who imagine that a guaranteed basic income is the first step towards a post-scarcity future where everyone can have whatever they want. (Think Star Trek.) Not only is the income part important, but, as you might imagine job automation, plays a big role in visions of a post scarcity future. The whole reason people worry about robots and AI stealing jobs is that they will eventually be cheaper than humans. And as technology improves what starts out being a little bit cheaper eventually becomes enormously cheaper. This is where the idea, some would even say the inevitability of the post scarcity future comes from. These individuals at least recognize we may be heading for a singularity, they just think that it’s in the future and it’s going to be awesome, while I think it’s here already and it’s going to be depressing.

All of this is to say that there are lots of ways to imagine job automation going really well or really poorly in the future but that’s the key word, the “future”. In all such cases people imagine an endpoint. Either a world full of happy people with no responsibilities other than enjoying themselves or a world full of extraneous people who’ve been made obsolete by job automation. But of course neither of these two futures is going to happen in an instant, even though they’re both singularities of a sort.  But that’s the problem, singularities are difficult to detect when you’re in them. I often talk about the internet being a soft singularity and yet, as Louis C.K. points out in his famous bit about airplane wi-fi we quickly forget how amazing the internet is. In a similar fashion, people can imagine that job automation will be a singularity, but they can’t imagine that it already is a singularity, that we are in the middle of it, or that it might be part of a larger singularity.

But I can hear you complaining that while I have repeatedly declared that it’s a singularity, I haven’t given any reasons for that assertion, and that’s a fair point. In short, it all ties back into a previous post of mine. As I said at the beginning, it has seemed recently that no matter what I’m writing about, it ties back into job automation. The post where this connection was the most subtle and yet at the same time the most frightening is while I was writing about the book Tribe by Sebastion Junger.

Junger spent most of the book talking about how modern life has robbed individuals of a strong community and the opportunity to struggle for something important. He mostly focused on war because of his background as a war correspondent with time in Sarajevo, but as I was reading the book it was obvious that all the points he was making could be applied equally well to those people without a job.  And this is why it’s a singularity, and this is also what most people are missing. The basic guaranteed income people along with everyone else who wants to throw money at the problem, assume that if they give everyone enough to live on that it won’t matter if people don’t have jobs. The post scarcity people take this a step further and assume that if people have all the things money can buy then they won’t care about anything else, but I am positive that both groups vastly underestimate human complexity. They also underestimate the magnitude of the change, as Junger demonstrated there’s a lot more wrong with the world than just job automation, but it fits into the same pattern.

Everyone looks around and assumes that what they see is normal. The modern world is not normal, not even close. If you were to take the average human experience over the whole of history then the experience we’re having is 20 standard deviations from normal. This is not to say that it’s not better. I’m sure in most ways that it is, but when you’re living through things, it’s difficult to realize that what we’re experiencing is multiple singularities all overlapping and all ongoing. The singularity of industrialization, of global trade, of fossil fuel extraction, of the internet, and finally, underlying them all, what it means to be human. As it turns out job automation is just a small part of this last singularity.  What do humans do? For most of human history humans hunted and gathered, then for ten thousand more years up until 1790 most humans farmed. And then for a short period of time most humans worked in factories, but the key thing is that humans worked!!! And if that work goes away, if there is nothing left for the vast majority of humans to do, what does that look like? That’s the singularity I’m talking about, that’s the singularity we’re in the middle of.

As I pointed out in my previous post, as warfare has changed, the rates of suicide and PTSD skyrocketed. Obviously having a job is not a struggle on the same level as going to war, but it is similar. As it goes away are we going to see similar depression, similar despair and similar increases in suicide? I think the evidence that we’re already in the middle of this crisis is all around us. There are a lot of disaffected people who were formerly useful members of society who have stopped looking for work and who have decided that a life addicted to opioids is the best thing they can do with their time. This directly leads to the recent surge in Deaths of Despair I also talked about in that post, which we’re seeing on top of the skyrocketing rates of suicide and PTSD. The vast majority of these deaths occur among people who no longer feel useful, in part for the reasons outlined by Junger and in part because they either no longer have a job or no long feel their job is important.

In closing, much of what I write is very long term, though based on some of the feedback I get that’s not always clear. To be clear I do not think the world will end tomorrow, or even soon, or even necessarily that it will ever end. I hope more to push for people to be aware that the future is unpredictable and it’s best to be prepared for anything. And also, as we have seen with job automation and the corresponding increase in despair, in some areas the future is already happening.


I am reliably informed that the job of donating to this blog has not been automated, you still have to do it manually.


Tribe by Sebastian Junger and the Strange Diseases of Progress

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The subject of unsolved mysteries is one of those topics which can be reliably counted on to spark people’s interest, making it ideal for clickbait lists, questionable cable programs, and, in our own case, blog introductions. Though the unsolved mystery I want to start with does not involve pyramids, or Atlantis, or the identity of Jack the Ripper, you’re probably not even aware that it is a mystery. But not only is it one of the most profound mysteries of our age, but unlike the pyramids, Atlantis, and Jack the Ripper this mystery has serious implications for the future of society.

I first encountered this mystery when I read a review of Empire of the Summer Moon. The review was written by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (though it appeared in his previous blog.) The review mentions a curious fact:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

This is the mystery. If modern society is so awesome why did it hold no appeal for the American Indians? At the time, I just filed this fact in the bin, unsure at the moment of what to do about it. Then, a couple of months ago I read the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. And he also mentioned this same mystery. Of course Alexander and Junger are not the first people to notice this, and both of them end up quoting from Benjamin Franklin who witnessed this phenomenon first hand:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Junger also quotes from a french émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur who was writing in 1782:

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

What made the American Indian tribes so appealing to the Europeans, and made the Europeans so unappealing to the Indians? And does this imbalance hold any lessons for us today? Junger’s book tries to answer that question, and it ends up being one of the few books where I wish it had been longer, but what he did write about was so great that I immediately knew it deserved a post.

Before I get into the book, however, I want create a framework for things first. I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that the vast majority of people feel like 2017 is a lot better than 1917 or 1817 and it’s certainly a lot better than 1017. I would probably count myself among those people. But how do we know that the past was worse? And what standard are we using to decide that it was worse? We can use things like deaths, or disease, or caloric intake, or maybe percentage of people in slavery to estimate what things were like, but when it really comes down to it we don’t know. Especially as we begin to consider more subtle topics like life satisfaction or the ideal way to build a community.

As an example of what I mean, let’s go back to a book I frequently reference, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. One of the big themes of the book is that deaths from warfare have declined dramatically over the last few centuries. And that consequently the world is a better place. In support of this Pinker provides lots of graphs, one of which looks at various archaeological digs, and extrapolates the percentage of violent deaths in different eras. If you look at this graph you’ll see that by far the highest percentage of violent deaths was found at an archeological dig in South Dakota dating to the 1300s. This event has come to be known as the Crow Creek Massacre. And it might be an outlier, but even if it is, everyone pretty much agrees, Pinker especially, that American Indians experienced violent death at easily 10 times the rate  present in any modern society. But yet these are the same American Indians Benjamin Franklin and Crèvecoeur were talking about, whose society was so attractive that no one ever voluntarily left it. If violent death is a one to one proxy for unhappiness then this would have never been the case. We all assume that a lower chance of death leads to greater unhappiness, and yet this is evidence that that’s not the case. That we might not understand the past as well as we thought.

If American Indians provided the only example of this counterintuitive result, it would still be a mystery, and it would still be interesting, but I wouldn’t be writing about it. But as Junger shows in his book, this is not the only example of things being the opposite of what we might expect. And consequently the topic deserves a closer look because something similar is happening even today.

For a look at more recent examples of this Junger turns to his experiences during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 90’s. As you can surely imagine the conditions were terrible. Junger described it thusly:

Over the course of the three-year siege almost 70,000 people were killed or wounded by Serb forces shooting into the city–roughly 20 percent of the population. The United Nations estimated that half of the children in the city had seen someone killed in front of them.

Violence on that scale is scarcely imaginable for most people in a developed country. And the natural assumption is that all of the people who lived through the siege must have been scarred for life, particularly the children, and yet when Junger returned there 20 years later he found that people missed the war, that “they longed for those days. More precisely they longed for who they’d been back then.”

Junger interviews one Bosnian journalist who was seventeen at the start of the siege. After being severely wounded by shrapnel, she was eventually evacuated to Italy. But she missed the wartime camaraderie so much that she went back to Sarajevo, crossing the lines to do so. Twenty years later when Junger talks to her he asks her if people had ultimately been happier during the war. Her response was, “We were the happiest, and we laughed more.”

Sarajevo is by no means the only example of this. At the beginning of World War II when the United Kingdom was preparing for inevitable aerial bombardment by Germany, or what came to be called the Blitz, the government assumed that it would cause mass hysteria among the population. But nothing of the sort happened. As Junger describes it:

On and on the horror went, people dying in their homes or neighborhoods while doing the most mundane things. Not only did these experiences fail to produce mass hysteria, they didn’t even trigger much individual psychosis. Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people [roughly 10% of the population], but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down… Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.

That last bit is particularly interesting. It’s not just that normal people pulled together during the Blitz, but more interestingly, the number of people suffering from mental illness and the severity of those illnesses actually declined. And, lest you think this was a particularly English, stiff upper lip response, the same thing happened in Germany which suffered far worse aerial bombardment than England. The Allies expected that this massive bombing campaign would destroy German resolve, and in the end it did the opposite. Industrial production actually rose during the war, and the cities in Germany which hadn’t been bombed ended up being where morale was the lowest.

But of course, as I said in the beginning this sort of thing is the opposite of what we’re lead to expect. We expect war to be psychologically damaging in a way that nothing else is. This expectation certainly didn’t start with Vietnam, but it was arguably popularized by it. Everyone has seen movies depicting Vietnam vets as broken individuals, who were never quite the same after their experiences, and this trend has continued through to the present wars. But how do we reconcile this idea with the stories and examples I’ve already related?

You might not think that it needs to be squared, that everything I’ve said thus far can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence, but this is an issue that has been studied and the results are unequivocal: Large scale disasters improve mental health. The only question is why. For Junger the answer that it re-establishes the tribal societies of the past. This is the link between Sarajevo and the American Indian, between the English and the Germans, and this is where the title of the book comes from. But unlike Junger I’d like to focus more on the disease than on the cure.

If psychological damage due to war and disaster is part of the disease, then the most common symptom of that disease is PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.  And indeed the rates of PTSD among returning veterans has reached an historic high, and yet, combat deaths are as low as they’ve ever been. Junger compares the various wars:

This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite…a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.

If you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets! You may or may not have noticed that I engaged in a subtle flip. We were talking about how warfare improves mental health and suddenly we’re talking about how modern wars appear to do the opposite. But of course these two things are just opposite sides of the same coin. All of things we talked about leading up to this involved intense bonding experiences, which affected an entire community all at once. Creating what one of the people who’s studied this issue called a “community of sufferers”. With that in mind the difference between World War II and Vietnam and the current wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan becomes obvious. At each step war become less of a community effort and more something that some people do in a far away place that has nothing to do with the rest of us.

In fact people who do more fighting end up with fewer psychological issues. As illustrated by the following statistics:

  • During the Yom Kippur War Israeli rear-base troops had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of the frontline troops.
  • 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties in the US Army’s VII Corps came from support units which were never under fire.
  • During World War II, American airborne units, which saw the most intense fighting had some of the lowest psychiatric casualty rates.
  • Returning to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli commanders suffered four times the mortality rate but had only one-fifth the rate of psychological breakdown.

It appears that the more modern and safe the war experience is, the more likely someone is to develop some form of disability. As the final example, Junger reports that, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, but only 10 percent experienced any actual combat. Obviously one possibility for explaining this is that people may be imagining, exaggerating or even faking their symptoms. Junger mentions that possibility, of course, but even after accounting for that the increases in psychological disability remain. Additionally there is another statistic which is also going up and is unlikely to be faked, and that’s veteran suicides.

If PTSD is the most common symptom of the disease then the worst symptom is suicide, and here again the situation is counterintuitive. Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post much of what we know about suicide runs contrary to expectations regardless of whether it’s the suicides of veterans or the suicides of teens. Though this observation does nothing to make it less tragic.

Suicide is another area where the comparison between modern society and tribal societies is illuminating. Among the American Indians depression based suicide was essentially unknown. And when the Piraha, a tribe that lives deep in the Amazon, were told about suicide they laughed because the idea was so hard to comprehend. Sometimes I don’t think we’re any closer than the Piraha to comprehending suicide, but despite that, no one is laughing.

When examining veteran suicides we see the same things that we saw with PTSD. Specifically that there is no relationship between suicide and combat. Veterans who were never under fire are just as likely to commit suicide as veterans who were under fire, and in fact among recent veterans, “deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan actually lowers the risk of suicide.” As I said at the start this is one of the great unsolved mysteries.

Having spent most of our time looking at the disease through the lens of war and the military it’s time to ask if it’s present in society at large. And the answer to that would have to be yes. In fact the evidence is all around us. If suicide and depression are its symptoms then there is no shortage of examples.

The question we then have to ask is whether these symptoms are getting worse or better, and this is where we come back to one of the subjects I started with. The idea that we can’t, or in any case don’t, know what the past was like. This is particularly true when it comes to a condition like PTSD, which wasn’t even added to the psychological lexicon until 1980 (though there were precursors as early as 1952). Thus, we don’t know if Roman centurions had PTSD, we don’t know if survivors of the Black Death, or of the Lisbon Earthquake had PTSD. And when it comes down to it, we don’t even know much about PTSD outside of richer countries. But as I pointed out what we do know seems to indicate that it might in fact be a modern phenomenon

If Junger is right and the disease stems from not having to struggle, and feeling isolated, then it makes sense that lots of people should be grappling with this disease, since the modern world abounds in both those qualities, in fact you would expect it to be getting worse. But is there any evidence for that?

You may have recently heard that recently there has been a big increase in deaths among the white working class. This was first pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case when they published a paper showing that while every other group was experiencing a decrease in mortality, for white working class individuals the death rate was going up. It’s unclear why it took so long to notice this, but now that it’s been pointed out the trend is an obvious one and it meshes very well into the opiate epidemic which I wrote about previously. As more information has come out about the nature of these deaths and as the phenomenon get’s more attention it’s acquired a label: Deaths of Despair.

I’m going to go a little bit out on a limb here, and engage in some speculation, as well, by declaring that rising levels of PTSD and deaths of despair are just the tip of the iceberg. That we have a real and growing problem and that progress is making it worse. Most people are going to find that hard to believe, and it’s easy to talk about the benefits of progress and modernity if you’re not one of those that progress has left behind. And to be clear its beneficiaries get to do most of the talking, while it’s victims have been largely silent. Thus you end up in a situation where when the half of the country that hasn’t gotten quite as good deal elects someone which, at one point, was declared to have a better chance of playing in the NBA Finals than winning the presidency, it’s doubly shocking. First, that it happened at all, and second that no one saw it coming. But that’s the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We may notice the deaths (eventually) but they sit on top of a huge number of people who are experiencing all of the things that Junger was talking about: They don’t have anything left to struggle for, and they certainly don’t have a community to struggle with.

The drug overdoses, the alcoholism and the suicides all sit on top of a large group of people suffering from the disease, whose symptoms are largely invisible. These sufferers include males who don’t have a single close friend or spouse to say nothing of a community. It includes the millions of people who’ve given up looking for work. It includes some of the 1 in 3 millennials who live at home with their parents, 25% of whom are not working or going to school. And it probably includes the people who have decided that it’s easier to sit at home and play video games all day.

Normally it’s easy to dismiss stuff like this by saying that things are getting better, the world is getting richer, technology is getting cooler, everything is getting easier. But those arguments don’t work in this case, because all of those things are very probably making the situation worse. And if they are making it worse how much worse is it going to get?

Our world is full of assumptions. We assume that eliminating struggle is a worthwhile goal. We assume that an eventual life of leisure is what everyone needs. We assume the past was worse than the present. We assume we know what we’re doing. And we assume that peace is always good and war is always bad. And when we make an assumption with disastrous consequences, we correct it, but what about when we make assumptions that have subtle negative consequences, creating diseases of society that only turn up only years or decades later?  If this is what’s happening, will we be wise enough to examine all of these assumptions and admit that maybe we’re wrong?


If you’re one of those who’ve benefited from progress than surely you can spare a buck a month and donate to this blog. And if you’re one of those who’s been on the losing side, keep your money. You may need it.