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Polycrises or Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

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There are people who are optimistic about the future. I am not one of them. (I do have religious faith, but that’s different.) I am open to the idea that I should be more optimistic, but that doesn’t seem supported by “facts on the ground” as they say.

Some might argue that I have a bias for ignoring the good facts and focusing on the bad ones. That’s certainly possible, but I have put forth considerable effort to expose myself to people making the case for optimism. Here are links to some of my reviews of Pinker, perhaps the most notable of our current modern optimists. Beyond Pinker I’ve read books by Fukuyama, Deutsch, Yglesias, Zeihan and Cowen, and while these authors might not have quite the optimism of Pinker, they nevertheless put forth optimistic arguments. Finally if any of you have recommendations for optimists I’ve missed, I promise I’ll read them. (Assuming I haven’t already. That list of authors is not exhaustive.)

After doing all this reading, why do I remain unconvinced and expect to remain that way, regardless of what else I end up coming across? To understand that we first have to understand their case for optimism. It generally rests on two pillars:

First, they emphasize the amazing progress we’ve made over the last few centuries and in particular over the last few decades. And indeed there has been enormous progress in things like violence, poverty, health, infant mortality, minority rights, etc. They assume, with some justification, that this progress will continue. Generally it is dicey to try predicting the future, but they have a pretty good reason for believing that this time it’s different. Through the tools of science and reason we have created a perpetual knowledge generation machine, and increasing knowledge leads to increasing progress. Or so their argument goes.

Second, they’ll examine the things we’re worried about and make the case that they’re not as bad as people think. That certain groups are incentivized, either because it attracts an audience or there’s money involved, or because of their individual biases to engage in fearmongering. Highlighting the most apocalyptic scenarios and data, while downplaying things that paint a more moderate picture. Pinker is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for his optimism about global warming. Which is not to say that he doesn’t think it’s a problem, merely that he believes the same tools of knowledge generation that solved, or mitigated, many of our past problems will be up to the task of mitigating, or outright solving the problem of climate change as well.

In both of these categories Pinker and the other’s make excellent and compelling points. And, on balance, they’re entirely correct. Despite the pandemic, despite the war in Ukraine, despite the opioid epidemic, and a lot of other things (many of them mentioned in this space) 2023 is just about the best time to be alive, ever. Notice I said “just about”. Life expectancy has actually been going down recently, and yes the pandemic played a big role in that, but it had been stagnant since 2010. Teen mental health has gotten worse. Murders are on the rise. This is a US-centric view, but outside of the US there’s the aforementioned war in Ukraine, but also famine is on the rise in much of Africa. With these statistics in mind it certainly seems possible that as great as 2023 is that 2010 was better. 

Does this mean that we’ve peaked? That things are going to get steadily worse from here on out? Or are we on something of a plateau, waiting for the next big breakthrough. Perhaps we’re on the cusp of commercializing fusion power, or of widespread enhancements from genetic engineering, or perhaps the AI singularity. 2023 does have ChatGPT which 2010 did not. Or are our current difficulties just noise? If they look back on things from the year 2500 will everything look like one smooth exponential curve? This last possibility is basically what Pinker and the others say is happening, though some are less bullish than Pinker, and some, like Deutsch, are more bullish. 

And, to be clear, on this first point, which is largely focused on human capacity, they may be right. I’m familiar with the seemingly insoluble manure crisis of the late 1800s. And how it suddenly was a complete non-issue once the automobile came along. Still, evidence continues to mount that things are slowing down, that civilization has plateaued. That science, the great engine powering all of our advances, is producing fewer great and disruptive inventions, and resistance to innovation is increasing. If it is, that would mark the big difference between now and the late 1800’s. Back then science still had a lot of juice. Now? That’s questionable. And we might be lucky if it turns out to just be a plateau, the odds that we’re actually going backwards are higher than they’ll admit. But this isn’t the primary focus of this post. I’m more interested in their second claim, that the bad things people are worried about aren’t all that bad. 

In general, albeit in a limited fashion, I also agree with this point. I think if you take any individual problem and sample public opinion, that you will find a bias towards the apocalyptic. One that isn’t supported by the data. As an example many, many people believe that global warming is an extinction level event. It’s not. Of course this assumes that people know about the problem in the first place. There’s a lot of ignorance out there, but it’s human nature that those who are worried about a problem, likely worry more than is warranted. And Pinker, et al. are correct to point it out. That’s not the problem, the problem arises from two other sources.

First, and here I am using Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now as my primary example, there’s an unwarranted assumption of comprehensiveness. In the book, Pinker goes through everything from nuclear war, to AI Risk, to global warming, and several more subjects besides. And when it’s over you’re left with the implication of: “See you don’t need to worry about the future, I’ve comprehensively shown how all of the potential catastrophes are overblown. You can proceed with optimism!” If you’ve been reading my posts closely you may have noticed that on occasion (see for instance the book review in my last post of A Poison Like No Other) I will point out that the potential catastrophe I’ve been discussing is not one covered by Pinker.

Of course, if Pinker just missed a couple of relatively unimportant problems then this oversight is probably no big deal. He covered the big threats, and the smaller threats will probably end up being resolved in a similar fashion. The problem is we don’t know how many threats he missed. Such is the nature of possible catastrophes, there’s not some cheat sheet where they’re all listed, in order of severity. Rather the list is constantly changing, catastrophes are added and subtracted (mostly added) and their potential severity is, at best, an educated guess. Some of them are going to be overblown, as Pinker correctly points out. Some are going to be underestimated, which might end up being the case with microplastics. I’m not sure how big of a problem it will eventually end up being, but given that it didn’t even make it into Pinker’s book, I suspect he’s too dismissive of it. But beyond those catastrophes where our estimate of the severity is off, there’s the most dangerous category of all. Catastrophes that take us completely by surprise. I would offer up social media as an example of a catastrophe in this last category.

As I said, the problems of the optimists arise from two sources. The first is the assumption of comprehensiveness, the second is the ignorance of connectedness. To illustrate this I’d like to go back to a post I wrote back in 2020 about Fermi’s Paradox.

At the time I was responding to a post by Scott Alexander who argued that we shouldn’t fear that the Great Filter is ahead of us. For those who need a refresher on what that means. Fermi’s Paradox is paradoxical because if the Earth is an average example of a planet, then there should be aliens everywhere, but they’re not. Where are they? Somewhere between the millions Earthlike planets out there, and becoming an interstellar civilization there must be a filter. And it must be a great filter because seemingly no one makes it past it. Perhaps the great filter is developing life in the first place. Perhaps it’s going from single celled, to multicellular life. Or perhaps it’s ahead of us. Perhaps it’s easy to get to the point of intelligent life, but then that intelligent life inevitably destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust. In his post Alexander lists four potential great filters which might lie ahead of us and demonstrates how each of them is probably not THE filter. I bring all of this up because it’s a great example of what I’ve been talking about.

First off he makes the same assumption of comprehensiveness I accused Pinker of making — listing four possibilities and then assuming that the issue is closed when there are dozens of potential future great filters. But it’s also an example of the second problem, the way the problems are connected. As I said at the time:

(Also, any technologically advanced civilization would probably have to deal with all these problems at the same time, i.e. if you can create nukes you’re probably close to creating an AI, or exhausting a single planet’s resources. Perhaps individually [none of them is that worrisome] but what about the combination of all of them?)

Yes, Pinker and Alexander may be correct that we don’t have to worry about nuclear war, AI risk, or global warming, when considered individually. But when we combine these elements we get a whole different set of risks. Sure, rather than armageddon there’s an argument to be made that nuclear weapons actually created the Long Peace through the threat of mutually assured destruction, but what happens to that if you add in millions of climate refugees? Does MAD continue to operate? Or, maybe climate refugees won’t materialize (though it seems like we’ve got a pretty bad refugee problem even without tacking the word climate onto things). Are smaller countries going to use AI to engage in asymmetric warfare because nukes are prohibitively expensive and easy to detect? Will this end up causing enough damage that those nations with nukes will retaliate. And then there’s of course the combination of all three things: Are small nations suffering from climatic shifts going to be incentivized to misuse new technology like AI and destabilize the balance created by nukes?

This is just three items which produces only six possible catastrophes. But our list of potential, individual catastrophes is probably in the triple digits by this point. Even if we just limit it to the top ten, that’s 3.6 million potential combinatorial catastrophes. 

Once you start to look for the way our problems combine, you see it everywhere:

  • Microplastics are an annoying pollutant all on their own, but there’s some evidence they contribute to infertility, which worsens the fertility crisis. They get ingested by marine life which heightens the problems of overfishing. Finally, they appear to inhibit plant growth, which makes potential food crises worse as well.
  • You may have seen something about the recent report released by the CDC saying that adolescent girls were reporting record rates of sadness, suicidal ideation, and sexual violence. Obviously social media has to be suspect #1 for this crisis. But I’m not sure it can be blamed for the increase in sexual violence. Isn’t the standard narrative that kids stay home on their phones rather than going out with friends. Don’t you have to be with people to suffer from sexual violence? I’d honestly be surprised if pornography didn’t play a role, but regardless this is definitely a case where two problems are interacting in bad ways.
  • If you believe that climate change is going to exacerbate natural disasters (and there’s evidence for and against that) then these disasters are coming at a particularly bad time. Lots of our infrastructure dates from the 50s and 60s and much of it from even before that. But because of the pensions crisis being suffered by municipalities. We don’t have the money to conduct even normal repairs, let alone repair the additional damage caused by disasters. And most projections indicate that both the disaster problem and the pension problem are just going to get a lot worse. 
  • I’m not the only one who’s noticed this combinatorial effect. Search for polycrisis. There are all sorts of potential crises brewing, and most of the lists (see for example here) don’t even mention the first two sets of items on my list, and they only partially cover the third one.

You may think that one or more of the things I listed are not actually big deals. You may be right, but there are so many problems operating in so many combinations, that we can be wrong about a lot of them, and still have a situation where everything, everywhere is catastrophic all at once.

Pinker and the rest are absolutely correct about the human potential to do amazing good. But they have a tendency to overlook the human potential to cause amazing harm as well. In the past, before things were so interconnected, before our powers were so great. Just a few things had to go right for us to end up with the abundance we currently experience. But to stay where we are, nearly everything has to go right, and nothing, very much, can go wrong.

If you’re curious I did enjoy the Michelle Yeoh movie referenced in the title. I’d like to say that I got the idea for this post from the everything bagel doomsday device. But I didn’t. Still I like bagels, particularly with lox. If you’d like to buy me one, consider donating

Dalio vs. Zeihan

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

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

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

I- Is the US Doomed Or What? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might remember this graph from my review of Dalio:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shallow Seriousness Is Crowding Out Deep Seriousness

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With the exception of my newsletters every one of my posts is thousands of words, and yet despite that length I am always left with the impression that I haven’t hit all the points I wanted to or explained things as well as could have. That in some sense I still haven’t quite gotten to the essence of a subject. Normally I just shrug this off as something that comes with the territory. A skill I’ll hopefully get better at, but also a feeling I’ll probably never get rid of because I will always have a certain amount of built in anxiety which is forever intractable. I will also remind myself that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you have to hit publish at some point.

This was certainly the case with my posts on Afghanistan, and initially it just seemed like the standard second guessing that happens after every post. But it didn’t fade, and I found my mind continually drawn back to some of the ideas from those posts, in particular the idea that one of the reasons we failed in Afghanistan is that we are “no longer a serious people”.  


As a brief reminder here’s where I left things:

In my first post on Afghanistan I borrowed an idea from Antonio García Martínez about the idea that we are no longer a serious people, and perhaps I need to amend that. “Digitizing the economy” is a serious topic. It’s the kind of thing serious people talk about. What it wasn’t, was relevant. When the Taliban have conquered most of the country in the space of a few days talking about anything other than how your guys are going to kill their guys is pointless. I’m confident that Najibullah [The president backed by Russia] was an expert in such conversations. Ghani [The president backed by the US] apparently avoided them. 

As you can see I was already hinting at the idea that people mean different things when they talk about being serious. And that perhaps if we’re going to say that we failed in Afghanistan for not being serious we need to unpack that word. What does it mean to be serious, particularly in this context?

As the word is used day to day it generally comes as an injunction to dispense with frivolity, to set aside extraneous matters and focus on what’s important. The word also carries a connotation of consequential, as in a serious heart attack vs. a mild attack. 

If we look around at what’s currently happening, on certain measures we are very serious. Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed over a week ago, and it would seem to meet all of the above criteria. We have set aside the extraneous concerns of politics and the back and forth accusations of one party vs. another to focus on something truly important. Additionally it’s consequential, even in an age where deficits don’t seem to matter, $1.2 trillion is, as Biden would say, a big f’ing deal. 

This would seem to be an example of serious people doing serious things, and yet on the other hand it’s exactly the thing I complained of when talking about Afghanistan. President Ghani was obsessed with digitizing the economy, which is essentially also an infrastructure initiative, albeit a virtual one. But if he really cared about the country as a whole (and there’s reason to suspect he didn’t) what he really should have been obsessed with was the defense of his country.

As I sat down to grapple with this issue again, I was reminded of one of my very earliest blog posts, as a matter of fact, it was only the sixth thing I’d posted. The post was titled Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election. In particular I was reminded of this passage:

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

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

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

I’m surprised I never thought to reference this in the previous posts on Afghanistan, because, more or less, Kabul ended up being a mirror of Baghdad. To be clear, we have to adjust things for modern sensibilities. But in both cases the most critical task was making sure the capital wasn’t conquered, and in both cases the rulers failed. The only reason the rulers weren’t killed this time is because of the existence of air travel. (Though I would also argue it was an issue of courage as well.) Also, and unfortunately for the Taliban, there wasn’t much treasure to be carried off. (Which I guess is one good reason to digitize the economy.) Apparently Ghani carried off quite a bit of the treasure before they got there. Finally I suspect that many women were raped when Kabul fell, and we know for sure that many were given to Taliban fighters in forced marriage


From all of this we are left to consider our own situation: Are there any Mongols or Taliban fighters on the verge of sacking our capital?  I think it’s clear that we have neither steppe horseman nor Islamic fundamentalists outside our gates. But it’s a mistake to take things too literally, what we’re really looking for is patterns. Who are our enemies? Are we focused enough on the dangers they pose? Or have we perhaps been distracted by something else? All of which is to say, are we paying attention to the right thing?

The genesis of this post and the beginning of me revisiting things, came early last month when one of my loyal patreon subscribers pointed me at a story which had run in the New York Times.

Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants…being captured or killed…

The message, in an unusual top secret cable…highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

While we don’t have Mongols outside our walls we do have other countries who would like nothing more than to destroy us and carry away our treasures. Espionage is the field on which the battle is taking place, and if the NYT is to be believed, we’re not doing very well in this battle.

Perhaps our situation is not as dire as that of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 or of the Afghan government in August. But when it becomes that dire it will probably already be too late. So is this an issue of seriousness? One requiring serious people? Are we failing because we lack such people?

There’s a lot to unpack in the Times article, and I obviously only quoted a portion. One of the explanations given for the problems the CIA has been encountering is technological: 

The large number of compromised informants in recent years also demonstrated the growing prowess of other countries in employing innovations like biometric scans, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and hacking tools to track the movements of C.I.A. officers in order to discover their sources. 

This part is certainly interesting, and it relates to themes I’ve touched on a lot in this space. But it’s not what I want to focus on right now. Rather my eye was drawn to point about the deterioration of the craft, particularly the drive to “quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks”.


Recruiting new informants, former officials said, is how the C.I.A.’s case officers — its frontline spies — earn promotions. Case officers are not typically promoted for running good counterintelligence operations, such as figuring out if an informant is really working for another country.

In other words the CIA has turned recruiting spies into a numbers game. And as you may recall from my last post, when I reviewed The Tyranny of Merit. There are a couple of adages about this, one of which asserts that: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

But how does all of this relate to whether or not we’re serious people? Do I mean to suggest that if we stopped tracking the number of new informants a case officer recruited that the whole situation would be reversed? Or, to draw on another concept from my last post, do we just need to implement a few nudges? Perhaps we can give the “Add New Informant” screen a red background to remind them of the blood that will be spilled if they don’t consider the quality of their informants in addition to the quantities? Or maybe we should conduct a follow-up survey, with questions like, “Did the informant turn out to be a double agent?”, followed by: “How many Americans did they end up getting killed?”

I assume that these suggestions seem ridiculous or flippant, but why? Certainly many governments are enamoured by the idea of nudges, perhaps the red background nudge wouldn’t work, but how do you know? Have you tried an A/B split test? And if in the past we based promotion on job performance metrics, why is it bad to refine those metrics and add additional ones to plug the gap? Are these not the sort of things which serious companies do? 

But it would seem once again that there is a level of seriousness beyond this when we consider matters of national security—matters of life and death. And that even things which are normally plenty serious, something which wouldn’t feel out of place in a boardroom of a Fortune 500 company, becomes downright frivolous when applied to things that are truly serious. 

This gets us quite a bit of the way to what we’re looking for when we describe the qualities of a nation of “serious people”. Those who are familiar with life and death situations and who also perform well in them. The reason we are no longer a serious people is that by and large we don’t deal with life or death situations—certainly not with the same frequency or intensity as our forebearers. And when we are called to do so, as in the case with CIA case officers, we bring in tools from our unserious existence, and wonder why they don’t work.

But why? What’s the difference? What differentiates  a serious tool from an unserious one? 


A little over a year ago I published what many have declared to be my best post. (Though one reader declared it to be the closest I’ve come to insanity.) It was an extended meditation on the book The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist, which itself is an extended look at the way modernity leans into a left-brained view of the world, resulting in the perpetuation of various damaging distortions. 

After I published that post I expected to reference it frequently, but mostly I haven’t returned to the subject. I think largely the reason can be boiled down to the idea that if you’re a fish it’s difficult to comment on water. That said, I think this is finally a subject where the connection seems obvious.

As I have pointed out there seem to be two levels of seriousness. The more shallow form of seriousness is the one that tracks the number of informants recruited, but overlooks the fact that most of them are killed or turned. The shallow form spawns leaders who are obsessed with digitizing the economy of their country, but have no desire to make any plans for the defense of that same country. And then there is a deeper level of seriousness which considers not only the quantity of the informants being recruited but their quality, and indeed the way in which this recruitment effort contributes to the struggle between nations in its entirety. A seriousness which empowers someone to hang on as the President of Afghanistan for years rather than days.

When considering these two levels, I would argue that the more shallow form corresponds to a predominantly left-brained way of thinking, while the deeper form is predominantly right-brained. 

It is not my intent, nor do I have the space to go into all of the attributes of right vs. left brained modalities. But whatever your preconceptions about the difference you should probably cast them aside as pop science oversimplifications. The difference of left vs. right is not a matter of logic vs. emotions or facts vs. imagination. It’s best described as a difference between trying to turn the whole into parts vs. binding parts into a whole. And yes, this is also another oversimplification. But I think it’s good enough to give us a basis for the point I want to make. Particularly if we include a couple of examples. 

Coincidentally, speaking of espionage and Afghanistan, at this moment, I’m reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk. This is the story of the British efforts to secure the northern approaches into India against the expanding influence of Russia. These efforts involved a lot of spying, and the story of these spies provides an interesting contrast to the NYT story. To give but one example, consider the story of Arthur Conolly. I don’t have the space to give a full account of his exploits and life, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Was the person who coined the term “The Great Game”
  • Went undercover into Muslim Central Asia for years at a time
  • Was eventually captured and later beheaded while on a daring solo mission trying to rescue another British officer.
  • One of six brothers, three of whom, himself included, suffered violent deaths while “playing” in the Great Game.
  • Finally, Conolly was motivated in all of these efforts by his Christian beliefs and his patriotism.

Now let us contrast this list with a list of presumed qualities possessed by one of the CIA officers mentioned in the NYT article:

  • Has very little concept of the struggle they’re engaged in right now. Not only have they not labeled it, no one has labeled it yet.
  • They expect to have a mostly normal life.
  • Would never set out on a solo mission to rescue a fellow agent, nor even need to.
  • Setting aside how weird it would be for one of these officers to even have five brothers, it’s inconceivable that half of them would die because they all passionately believed in the importance of American interests in Central Asia.
  • Primarily motivated in their efforts by what will get them promoted.

It’s the contrast between the last points of both lists where we really get to the heart of the matter. It’s impossible to imagine a modern CIA officer being motivated by Christianity. And really being motivated by any ideology, even patriotism, would get him funny looks. No, he’s motivated by considerations that are largely material, and individualistic. Calculations of what actions are required to get the numbers necessary for promotion. His perspective is essentially a left-brained one.

Now I’m probably overstating the individualism of our hypothetical CIA officer a little bit. I mean to begin with he’s in the CIA, he could probably have chosen a profession that was both safer and more lucrative. But I would argue that, at a minimum, there is a trendline and it’s pointing in a left-brained direction. In part this is illustrated by the fact that even if he wanted an overarching ideology on which to base his efforts there isn’t one available, certainly not one which would be shared by his fellow officers, not one that could animate the entire enterprise.

On the other hand Conolly understood the problem from a right-brained perspective. As evidence of this more holistic perspective, he was able to give the entire conflict a label which was so on point that we continue to use it down to the present day. Still just because he approached things from a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean it was a better perspective. Most educated Westerners would be horrified if modern spies talked about the civilizing mission of Christianity and the benefits of British rule in the same fashion as Conolly.

It’s possible that the two different levels of seriousness are useful, but in different contexts. I’m happy to grant that the shallow form of seriousness is great if you’re in a mature and stable democracy. While the deep form of seriousness is useful if you’re in a desperate struggle for existence.

(This all reminds me of Scott Alexander’s Thrive/Survive Theory of politics, which I expanded on in a post of my own.) 

However, even if the shallow level of seriousness is more useful, most of the time, it should be clear that it’s less important than the deep level of seriousness, because as I have pointed out on numerous occasions: if you can’t survive you can’t do anything else either. This means it’s a problem if the shallow form of seriousness starts to crowd out the deep form, such that it can’t be called on even when needed, as appears to be the case with the CIA and Afghanistan. 

To close out I’d like to offer up a second example I came across recently, this one from the Vietnam War. From a left-brained perspective this was a war we should have easily won. We had the numbers. We had overwhelming might. The math was entirely in our favor. We even had computers which told us we were going to win. But as you may recall, we didn’t. Why? Well I would opine that one of the reasons was we had different levels of seriousness. We were mostly conducting the war from a shallow level while for the North Vietnamese it was deeply serious. 

I encountered the example in an episode of the Radiolab Podcast. This particular episode told how, at some point during the war, partially in response to fears of Communist brain-washing, the Army decided to look into psychological operations or what came to be known as psyops. As a first step, they decided that the best people to consult for such an operation were advertisers from Madison Ave. There’s even a quote from the episode along the lines of “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective, maybe you can teach us how to get someone to lay down their weapons.” If that isn’t an example of using shallow methods on a deep problem I don’t know what is.

In any case, the idea they came up with was to drop coupons on the North Vietnamese troops. (Perhaps you can see the advertising connection?) These coupons were good for safe passage across US lines, where they were promised a warm cup of coffee, safety, and an end to all their privations. Unfortunately for the military, these coupons ended up having very little effect. I imagine that most of my readers are probably not too surprised to discover this. But why not? Here you have a country that’s slightly smaller than the average US state, and we end up dropping twice as much ordnance on it as all of the ordnance dropped in all theaters during the entirety of WW2. Why wouldn’t you be grasping for any excuse to get out of there, no matter how flimsy. During the episode they play an interview with a North Vietnamese soldier and they ask him about this, and as I recall, after explaining how awful things were, and how impoverished he was, he still declares that the “coupons” never even tempted him. That he felt like he was participating in something larger than himself. That it was his country, and he didn’t care how bad it got; he wasn’t going to stop fighting until the invaders had been driven out. 

That’s someone who’s serious. 


Perhaps when I talk about US seriousness with respect to the CIA, and Afghanistan and Vietnam, I have selected too narrow of a focus. Perhaps if our country was truly threatened we would discover that we’re a deeply serious people after all. Certainly there was something of that feeling after 9/11, but it’s been in short supply since then. Also it should be pointed out that I’ve focused entirely on the seriousness we’ve displayed when dealing with other nations. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about seriousness as it relates to the culture war. But here again many of the proposed solutions involve breaking things down into parts that we can understand and measure, when we should really be trying to unite the various parts into a larger whole.

Once upon a time we were “one nation”, perhaps that next phrase, “under God”, or at least under some unifying ideology, was more important than we realized.

My uncle was in the CIA. He generally doesn’t talk about it all that much. But at one point he said that the reason he left was that his next job was going to be in a foreign country, presumably recruiting informants. If you want to hear the rest of that story, consider donating. I’ll use it to buy him lunch and see if I can’t pull some details out of him.

The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope

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Every so often someone reads one of my posts. And sometimes this same person will even talk to me about it afterwards. Most often this happens with something I wrote recently, but every so often it happens with something I wrote quite a while ago. This makes the discussion somewhat difficult because whatever I wrote is fresher in the mind of the individual I’m talking to than it is in my own mind. That difficulty aside I’m delighted that something I wrote several months ago is still being consumed, and I’m overjoyed when they point out an idea, or a refinement or even a criticism that I hadn’t considered. Which is what happened a couple of days ago.

As it turns out, the actual episode he listened to doesn’t matter that much, because the discussion ended up covering a topic which appears in many if not most of my episodes. And while it’s a topic that has made a lot of cameos in previous episodes, after this recent discussion I think it has at last solidified to the point where it’s finally ready for a starring role.

The subject is endings. Whether it’s the ending of death or the ending of civilization, or even the ending of all life on the Earth. But my subject is also to a certain extent about extreme thinking in general. We might even give it the title “Thinking About the Middle is Difficult.” We might, but we didn’t because, whatever it’s accuracy, that title is kind of lame. The actual title I choose is cooler as evidenced by the fact that it actually has “cool” in the title.

To begin with, bad events come in different forms. I have, on many occasions, talked about various cataclysms, catastrophes and disasters. All of which are bad, but not equally bad. I’ve talked about a peaceful dissolution of the United States into fiefdoms; I’ve speculated about a jobless future where people have lots of time, but little meaning; I’ve spoken about how hard it is for a nation to remain intact; I’ve dissected global warming; sounded the alarm about nuclear war, and examined the probability of earth being struck by a comet. All of these are significantly different in their impact, (no pun intended) but if you’re a fan of the status quo, and are happy going to a job, collecting a paycheck and binging The Big Bang Theory on the weekend, then it’s easy to lump all catastrophes into a single category of, “Well I sure hope that doesn’t happen!” Those who are a little bit more sophisticated might have two categories, catastrophes which are survivable and catastrophes which aren’t survivable. But even here things get fuzzy. Many people automatically equate lots of people dying with everyone dying, but when you’re talking about humanity’s extinction the difference between most and all is entirely the point.

And it is here that I would like to introduce one of the major themes of this post. People want their catastrophes to be simple. They don’t want cataclysms that require numerous demanding sacrifices, but which, for someone with sufficient resources who makes all the right choices, are ultimately survivable. They want cataclysms where it doesn’t matter what they do. They want to be able to sit on the couch and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones secure in the knowledge that TV, or something better, will be around forever, or, alternatively, they want to know that one day it will all end suddenly and they’ll be dead and free of care without ever having to actually exert themselves in between those two points. Perhaps this portrait of the average individual is a stretch, but if it is, it’s not much of one.

As an example of what I mean by this, let’s look at global warming, if it’s going to be a disaster people want it to be a true apocalypse. Something which scours the Earth of the wickedness of humanity. Though actually, as I already pointed out, this vague longing for global warming to wipe out humanity is really not about whether people are wicked or not, it’s about the fact that it’s far easier to toss up your hands and say, “Well we’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then it is to really figure out what you should be doing and then do it.

John Michael Greer, who I reference frequently, described the state of people’s thinking about global warming in this way:

It’s a measure of how drastic the situation has become that so many people have fled into a flat denial that anything of the kind is taking place, or the equal and opposite insistence that we’re all going to die soon so it doesn’t matter. That’s understandable, as the alternative is coming to terms with the impending failure of the myth of progress and the really messy future we’re making for those who come after us.

All of which is to say that people don’t really like doing hard things. And they don’t want to consider a messy future, they want a simple future or no future at all, which, as it turns out, is pretty simple. As I have already pointed out, any plan for preventing global warming is ridiculously difficult, meaning, as Greer said, most people default to one of the two extremes. Specifically, there’s no plan which grants the truth of global warming, but also allows us to prevent it, while still continuing to live as we always have. Lots of things are going to continue, just about regardless of what happens, but sitting on the couch, enjoying the bounty of technology: watching TV, being cooled by central air, and distracted by your iPad, is not necessarily one of those things.

What will continue? Or, to frame the question in a form closer to my subject, what won’t end? To begin with, life, almost regardless of the catastrophe, will continue. From the simplest microbe to most complex water flea (31,000 genes as compared to humans 23,000), life is remarkably tenacious. The poster child for this tenacity is the Tardigrade, also known as water bears. Allow me to quote from Wikipedia:

Tardigrades are one of the most resilient animals known: they can survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms. They can withstand temperature ranges from 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) (close to absolute zero) to about 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C) for several minutes, pressures about six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 30 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.

You may be thinking that this is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t matter, how tough the tardigrade is, if the Earth itself is destroyed like Alderaan in Star Wars, or more realistically by some giant comet, the tardigrades will perish like all the rest of us. While that would certainly slow things down. It by no means guarantees the end of life. To illustrate my point, one of the big worries about any trip to Mars is contaminating it with earth-based bacteria. Given how tenacious life is, most scientists think Earth-life gaining a foothold on Mars is more a matter of when than if. There are some, in fact, who will allege the exact opposite, that life started on Mars and then spread to Earth. Either way, the point is, many scientists think that life spreading from one planet to another is not only possible, but very likely, particularly when you consider that it has had billions of years in which to do so.

Before leaving this topic, it’s instructive, and interesting, to describe how this sort of thing happens. The details are fascinating enough that they could easily form the basis for completely separate post. But, essentially, every time there’s a large enough impact, material is flung into space, and if the impact is big enough things can get flung all the way out of the Solar System. You might be skeptical at this point, and that would only be natural. I mean even if material from Earth gets ejected all the way out of the Solar System, how much material is it really and how much of it would actually end up on an exoplanet as opposed to floating in the interstellar vacuum forever? Because unless you can show that a significant amount actually ends up on another planet, then you’ve just moved the extinction of life from the end of the Earth to the end of the Solar System.

Well, as it turns out some scientists decided to run the numbers, with respect to the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And what they found was very interesting.

The scientists wanted to know how much of the ejecta from this impact would have ended up in various locations. Among the locations they looked at were the Jovian moon Europa (a promising candidate for life) and a super-earth orbiting Gliese 581.

For the answer to the first they discovered that almost as much material would have ended up on Europa as ended up on the Moon, because of the assistance Europa would get from Jupiter’s gravity. The scientists estimated that 10^8 (100 million) rocks would have traveled from Earth to Europa as the result of that explosion. But what was more interesting is what they discovered about the Gliese 581 exoplanet. According to their calculations 1,000 Earth rocks would have ended up there, though after a journey of a million years. A million years is a long time, and astrobiologists generally think even the most hardy life can only last 30,000 years, but given all of the above do you really want to bet that life is confined to the Earth and nowhere else?

That ended up being quite the tangent, but the impact/ejecta stuff was too interesting to leave out. The big thing I wanted to get across is that whatever the cataclysm it probably won’t wipe out all life. Also given its frequent appearance in this space I should also point out that this is another reason why Fermi’s Paradox is so baffling. (Well not for me.) All of this is to say that even if all life on the Earth is completely destroyed, whether in 5 billion years when the Sun expands or in 7.5 billion years when it engulfs the Earth or whether Earth’s surface gets completely sterilized by a high energy gamma ray burst, life will find a way, as they say.

But when people imagine apocalypses what they are mostly worried about is the end of all humans, not the end of all life, and admittedly humans are not as resilient as the tardigrades. Unlike them we can’t handle hard vacuum, or temperatures from 300 °F to −458 °F. Even so humanity is a hardy species, with lots of tools at its disposal. Humans have survived ice ages and supervolcanoes and that was when the most technologically advanced tools we had were fur clothes and flint spears. Now, we have vast amounts of knowledge, and underground bunkers, and seed vaults, and guns and nuclear power. Of course the last item is a double edged sword, because in addition to (relatively) clean power it has also given us very dirty weapons.

In the past I have used nuclear war as something of a shorthand for THE apocalypse, as an event which would mark the end of current civilization. And consequently you may have gotten the impression that I was saying that nuclear war would mean the end of humanity. If you did get that impression I apologize. What I intended to illustrate was that large enough disasters are just singularities of another sort.

As you may recall when people started to use the word singularity, in this context, they were borrowing an idea from astrophysics, specifically the idea that you can’t see past the event horizon of a black hole, singularity being another word for black hole. And this is mostly what nuclear war is, something, past which, it’s impossible to predict, but while it’s the case that a post nuclear world would be difficult to imagine, there are some things we can say about it, and one of them is that humanity would survive. It might be only a small percentage of humanity, which makes it an inconceivable tragedy, but nuclear war all by itself would not mean the end of our species. As I said, you may have gotten a different impression in previous posts, and if so I apologize, mostly I was just using it as shorthand for a very, very bad thing. In fact if you only take one thing from this post it should be this, nuclear war would not mean the end of humanity.

Why is this important? Because it’s another example of the same thing we saw with global warming, people assume that it’s either not going to happen or that if it does they’re going to be dead so it doesn’t matter.

Though, there also seems to be a third group who feel like if it does happen and they do survive that it will be awesome. That it will be one long desert chase scene involving impossibly cool cars with flame throwing double-necked guitar players attached to the front, like in Mad Max. Or that it will involve lots of guns and zombies like in the Walking Dead. Or perhaps that it will be some sort of brutal, all-encompassing dictatorship, like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But if it is, they always imagine that they would be part of the resistance. What they don’t imagine, as part of any apocalypse, is slowly sinking into despair and eventually overdosing on heroin. Or standing in long bread lines, waiting for a small amount of food, with no guns or glamorous resistance fighters any where to be found. Or unemployment at above 20%, and being homeless and hungry. And of course all of these things have already happened or are happening in decidedly non-apocalyptic situations. It’s sheer madness to assume that things would be better during an actual apocalypse. But once again, people assume it either won’t happen or they’ll be dead, not that they’ll have to wake up every day with an empty stomach, not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.

You may have noticed that this post has been largely free about discussions of specific apocalypses or catastrophes. And in that way I have contributed to the problem I’m trying to solve, though in my defense I’m going to say that it was done intentionally to illustrate the point. Also there are so many potential unforeseeable disasters, that the one’s we can name and describe might not be the ones to worry about. But perhaps, as we’ve been discussing it, you can see that visions of the future end up in one of three categories. Either the future will be awesome, or it will basically be the same (TV, couches and central air will all still exist) or the world will end, and we’ll all be dead. What this post is trying to point out is that far more likely than the world ending suddenly and irrevocably, is the world continuing, but going through some kind of crisis. Whether that’s temporary or long term, whether it’s nuclear war, or something like the 2007 crisis, in all of these situations there would be a good chance you would survive. Even in a nuclear war you would have a better than even chance of surviving. The question is not would you survive, but how long would you survive. My go-to disaster book, Global Catastrophic Risks, illustrates the point, in a quote about the effects of an all out war on America.

In addition to the tens of millions of deaths during the days and weeks after the attack there would probably be further millions (perhaps further tens of millions) of deaths in the ensuing months or years. In addition to the enormous economic destruction caused by the actual nuclear explosions, there would be some years during which the residual economy would decline further, as stocks were consumed and machines wore out faster than recovered production could replace them… For a period of time, people could live off supplies (and in a sense, off habits) left over from before the war. But shortages and uncertainties would get worse. The survivors would find themselves in a race to achieve viability… before stocks ran out completely. A failure to achieve viability, or even a slow recovery, would result in many additional deaths, and much additional economic, political, and social deterioration. This postwar damage could be as devastating as the damage from the actual nuclear explosions.

Notice that this assessment is not just a repeat of Private Hudson’s quote from Aliens. “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”, but rather a very sober assessment which points out that a lot of people would live and it would be really horrible.

In bringing this up, my primary point is not that people are inadequately prepared for the eventuality that they might survive a nuclear war, preferring instead to believe that they would be instantly killed, though that statement is certainly true. My primary point is that people are equally unprepared for smaller catastrophes.

I started this post off by mentioning a conversation I had had with a friend, and a desire to talk about endings in general. In that conversation we didn’t talk about the end of life, or the end of humanity, we talked about the eventual end that comes to us all, death. Which even more than the end of life or the end of humanity is an end everyone should be worried about.

Specifically the conversation was about how non-religious people dealt with death, and he, being a non-religious person, claimed that they don’t ignore it, that most of them have come to terms with the fact that they are eventually going to die. I replied that I was unconvinced. That if this was really the case, how many had taken some concrete action to illustrate that fact? If I were to survey the non-religious and ask them whether they had come to terms with their mortality, how many would say yes? If I then asked all of those people whether they had life insurance, or a graveyard picked out, or if they had a living will? How many of the group who answered yes to this first question would answer yes to the second? And maybe that list is too bourgeois for my non-religious friends, particularly those who don’t have any dependants to worry about, but if they don’t like that list what other concrete evidence would they offer to show that they had really grappled with death other than them just saying that they had?

It’s easy to say, whether it’s the possibility of our own death, or the possibility of global warming or nuclear war, well it won’t matter, I’ll be dead. And perhaps with the first that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you’ve come to terms with it. But also, there are of course lots of catastrophes and mini-apocalypses which could happen which won’t kill you, and if your view of the future is limited to: its going to be awesome, it’s going to be the same or I’m going to be dead. I think there’s a good chance you’re going to be very alive, and very disappointed.

You know what’s not disappointing? Donating to this blog. I can personally vouch that several people who’ve done it have described it being followed by a warm satisfied glow. Though It may have been indigestion. Apparently my blog causes both.

The Derbyshire Standard and the Stability of Nations

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If I were to make a list of my favorite political pundits, John Derbyshire would be very near the top, perhaps even number one. For those whose knowledge of punditry stops at Stephen Colbert or Rush Limbaugh (or even for those whose knowledge extends to encompass George Will and Paul Krugman) that name is probably unfamiliar to you. And if you have heard the name it was most likely in connection with his 15 minutes of fame after he was defenestrated from the National Review for thoughtcrime back in April of 2012. As someone who aspires to be a thought criminal, I immediately sent him some money when that happened and have continued to religiously read his stuff ever since. Including his 1068 page novel, Fire From The Sun, which was excellent, and Prime Obsession, his book on the Riemann Hypothesis. Which must make him some kind of triple-threat.

This long introduction is necessary because I’m going to base most of this blog on an observation The Derb had back in 2006, and in properly giving him credit the question would inevitably emerge as to what side of the fence I was on vis-à-vis the aforementioned defenestration, and I wanted to make it clear right up front that I’m on Derb’s side of the fence. As last caution, I would urge you to make neither too much nor too little of that.

With that out of the way we can turn our attention towards Derbyshire’s observation. As I said, he made it all the way back in 2006, which means that it was interesting enough and surprising enough and most of all counterintuitive enough that it has stayed with me during the intervening decade and made a significant contribution towards informing my worldview and skepticism since then. He begins things by pointing out that his 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica lists 152 countries, he then asks:

How many of those countries made it from 1911 to today, nearly a century later, with their systems of government and law intact (allowing for minor constitutional adjustments like expansion of the franchise), without having suffered revolution, civil war, major dismemberment, or foreign occupation?

Before we get to the answer let’s examine what is meant by these four categories, or perhaps more properly these four calamities along with some examples:

  1. Fundamental change to the system of law or government – As Derb mentioned, he’s not talking about giving women the vote, or merely passing a Constitutional Amendment. This would be more something like a military coup, or if some president decided to skip an election (as the far-left fears of Trump and as the far-right feared of Obama). Of course sometimes this sort of thing is not that obvious. Did Russia change from a democracy to a dictatorship in 2008 when Putin went through the charade of having Medvedev assume the Russian presidency for four years? Putin obeyed the letter of the law by not serving more than two consecutive terms, but no one had any doubts that he was and still is in charge.
  2. Civil war or revolution – This is one of the items on the list the US has definitely experienced, though it was before 1911. When people offer up the worst case scenario of our current political climate this is it. More recently, if you’re looking for an actual civil war there is of course the Syrian Civil War, which if nothing else shows both how bad civil wars are, and also that it is not something which only happened in the past.
  3. Significant loss of territory –  This category is at least as fuzzy as the change of government category, and perhaps moreso. Obviously if one of the states successfully seceded I think that would count, but looking farther back in history would it have applied to Russia when they sold us Alaska and to France when they sold us Louisiana?  What about Ukraine’s recent loss of Crimea? (Particularly given the fact that Crimea’s status has always been all over the place.) Do we count the UK losing most of Ireland in 1922? I’m inclined to say no, yes, and yes, respectively, but that could depend on the day you ask me. But if Texas or California seceded I think that would fit the definition of a calamity for the US.
  4. Foreign occupation – This is one area in which the US has been exceptionally lucky. There are only a few instances where there has even been a foreign attack on US soil. And there’s never been an occupation. If you want to find modern examples of this happening then you just have to flip things from the US being occupied to the US being the occupier. In this case there’s been quite a lot of it recently. As I’ve pointed out it’s worthwhile to occasionally view things from the other side. It’s difficult to imagine the US being occupied, but it would obviously be humiliating if it happened, just ask the Iraqis and the Afghanis.

It should be clear that if any of these things happened to the United States that it would be a big deal, or a catastrophe, if you prefer. And here we finally turn back to the original question. How many of the 152 countries listed in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica avoided all four of these catastrophes over the last 100+ years? I think, based on what I’ve already said, that we can feel fairly confident in saying that the United States did, but who else?

Mexico? Nope, the Mexican Revolution lasted until 1920, with the main coup d’etat in 1913.

Turkey? The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1922, after the Turkish War of Independence.

How about Uruguay? There was a Coup d’etat in 1933, and a 12 year long military government from 1973 to 1985.

France? Oh yeah, the Nazis. And, of course, it wasn’t just France. World War II eliminates a lot of countries from contention. Basically everyone in continental Europe, and all of southeast asia.

Obviously I’m not going to cover every country. The point is after all is said and done, by The Derb’s calculations (and mine as well) only six countries escaped all four of these catastrophes: The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland.

Part of the inspiration for this post was an email I got from one of my readers who took issue with an assertion I made in a previous post that all civilizations eventually collapse. Specifically he mentioned China, and argued that it had never collapsed. And while it’s true that there is still a nation called China, just as there has been for four thousand years (depending on how mythical you want to get), the current nation of China has very little in common with the Chinese nation of a thousand or two thousand years ago, other than the name. Thus saying that China has never collapsed is true only if your definition of collapse is very narrow, but I will grant that by using generic words like “collapse” and “catastrophe” I open myself up to criticism from people whose definition of the word is less (or more) strict than my own. As I reflected on this criticism it reminded me of the 2006 article by Derbyshire, and his standard of whether a nation has survived intact.

For my purposes this is a better standard anyway. What any given person is interested in, is not whether in 500 years the country calling itself the United States is the same country that exists today, or whether it collapsed in 2256 when the Quebecois sacked Washington DC and made everyone start speaking French. No, what people are, or should be worried about are the calamities which might occur in their lifetime, or to put it another way what negative black swans should we be worried about? Any of the four calamities I mentioned above would be large negative black swans, the kind of thing that would make everyone nostalgic for the peace and harmony which reigned during the early days of the Trump administration. Which means that yes, there might be some very narrow standard under which you could say that China has existed continuously for 4,087 years since the reign of Yu the Great, but under the Derbyshire standard, the current nation of China has only been intact since 1949 when the nationalists retreated to Taiwan, which actually makes China younger than the NBA.

Before we go too much further with the Derbyshire standard it should be noted that it is also open to interpretation. Even one which was very narrow would have to include the Communist Revolution, but a broader interpretation might go so far as to count the restructuring undertaken by Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao as a change in systems from communism to capitalism (albeit a limited and very Chinese version) as something which violated the Derbyshire standard (i.e. after Deng the Communist China of Mao was no longer intact.) And of course I already pointed out how the various large land purchases undertaken by the US in the 1900’s are in a grey area. The point being that there’s always going to be some wiggle room with something like this, the real question is whether it’s a black swan, especially a negative black swan. I would say the Deng’s reforms were definitely a black swan but a positive one.

All of this is to say that whether or not a civilization will “collapse” under some arbitrary definition of the word, is less useful than knowing whether a major political upheaval is likely and what form it might take. And if we’re using the Derbyshire standard for that, we can say, at least in the past, it’s been exceptionally rare for a country to go 100 years without some sort of upheaval.

We might, at this point, try and do a survey of the 152 countries which existed in 1911, or of the 190 countries with undisputed sovereignty which exist today, and attempt to come up with a figure for the average time a nation remains intact. And from there arrive at some estimate of how overdue the US is for something like this. But of course lumping all 152 or 190 countries into a single data set only works if you assume that Sudan and Syria, which both suffered disruptive events in 2011, are just as stable as the US. Such a calculation would also assume that 2017 is as chaotic and disruptive as 1917 or 1945. And at first glance both assumptions seem pretty ridiculous, and for that reason the exercise is probably pointless. But even if it’s not worth doing, I still think it’s worth examining those two assumptions I just mentioned because they may not be as ridiculous as they first appear.

Starting with the first assumption, even if we agree that some countries are more stable than others that doesn’t get us anywhere unless we understand why that is. If stability is based on sunspot activity or astrology than the US might be stable only as long as Jupiter is retrograde in Virgo, and Syria might only be unstable only for as long as we’re in Sunspot Cycle 24. This would make predicting things a lot easier, but unfortunately it’s obviously not either of those things. However, this does illustrate the point that whatever it is, it could change, and unless we know what it is we don’t know how likely it is to change.

I touched on this briefly in a previous post, but for the purposes of this discussion all we need to determine is whether the cause of the instability is something people take with them when they emigrate from unstable countries to stable ones. If they do, if stability is not 100% a function of the location of the unstable country, then immigrants are going to bring the remaining percentage with them. And remember that on top that instability there’s the additional instability created in the interaction between immigrants and the population which is already in place.

You may argue that just not having to worry about food and death diminishes the instability carried over from the initial country. I’m sure that’s true, and it falls under the general topic of how well immigrants are at assimilating the stability of their destination country. But if any of that instability remains unassimilated then we have a situation where assuming that France and Syria have the same levels of stability becomes less ridiculous as France becomes more Syrian. We have in fact seen a fair amount of instability in France, but I assume that only a tiny amount is due to France becoming more Syrian, but when you combine all of the instability generated by immigration in general and the imported instability of dozens of countries, not just Syria, it becomes reasonable to ask if France’s stability might be changing. We can only hope that the answer is no.

The second assumption I mentioned and one which is often used to dismiss overdue political upheaval in the US, is the assumption that 2017 is less chaotic than 1917 or 1945 (or even 1848 for that matter.) But in making this assumption people have a hard time restricting themselves to 2017, which, to be fair, is reasonably calm, by historical standards and, also, half over. No, instead they want to extend the calm which exists in 2017, and which has existed for the last few decades, forward into 2018 and 2020 and even 2030. It is certainly possible that those years will be as calm if not calmer than 2017, but there is of course no way to know, and given how rare it is for a country to go 100 years, as we have, without any of the four calamities, (remember just 6 out of 152!) Are we really that sure this time it’s different?

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that as the question I refer to over and over again. Are we different in some ongoing and fundamental way from the past? Do people, particularly in the US, no longer have to worry about revolutions or foreign occupation, or sessession or dictatorship? I would say no, and I suspect that more people worry about it now than worried about it two years ago, or twenty years ago. Also I hope that this time around as I ask these questions, that by keeping in mind the tiny number of countries which have avoided upheavals, that we might approach the subject more soberly. I think it’s also helpful to take the discussion out of the somewhat ambiguous realm of collapses and catastrophes into the more concrete realm of the Derbyshire standard.

As I already mentioned, I think the election of Trump, and specifically the political infighting and instability which attended the election has definitely increased the worry for most people. And in closing I’d like to examine each of the four calamities (as I’ve been calling them) from both sides: first why it won’t happen, and second how it might happen and how likely that is. Though as a general note I think all of them are more likely than they were in 2006 when the original article was written.

1- Fundamental change in our the system of government

In modern times the most common tactic for turning democracies into dictatorships, or at least oligarchies, is to mess with the elections. You can prevent certain parties and individuals from running, or you can rig the election, or you can put up puppet candidates like the aforementioned example of Putin and Medvedev. But in the end what you want to create is the illusion of choice while maintaining the same power structure which existed before the election. You can say many things about Trump, but no one is going to claim that he represents business as usual in Washington and you’d have to be insane to think that he’s a continuation of the Obama or even the Bush presidency.

On the other hand, these days, systems of government change gradually, and it may be that we have been imperceptibly migrating to a new one in the same way that the frog is boiled, slow enough not to be noticed. If I had to pick a candidate for this change I would say that we are gradually transitioning to a system where we’re ruled by the judiciary. Certainly they’ve already stopped Trump from doing many of the things he wanted to do, and just yesterday there was an article in Slate pointing out that as the swing vote, the success of Trump’s travel ban basically comes down to a single individual, Justice Kennedy. Just in case it’s unclear, when a single, unelected individual has the final say on everything that’s not a democracy…

2- Civil war or revolution  

For most people this seems more likely than the last item. Though once again it’s hard to see how things come to violence, which is the defining characteristic separating this calamity from calamity number three. In evaluating this possibility it’s helpful to review past civil wars and revolutions. Fortunately, I’ve been a regular listener of the Revolutions Podcast since it’s inception and he recently covered the July Revolution (one of the many French Revolutions) and what’s interesting about earlier revolutions is the relative parity in weapons between the revolutionaries and the military, a parity which definitely wouldn’t exist now, no matter how many NRA members you have. Of course this doesn’t stop irregular organizations like ISIS from putting up a pretty good fight, but it’s hard to see anyone in the US adopting the tactics of Assad, but maybe I’m just not imaginative enough.

However, when we turn to the other side, perhaps the examples of the various revolutions (French or otherwise) are closer to our own situation than we want to admit. One thing we see over and over again are students in the forefront of past uprisings and revolutions. When one looks at current campus climate it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that something similar might happen again.

3- Significant loss of territory

There’s been a lot of noise about secession, and not just in the US. Many people think that Scotland might secede from the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote. Or that Catalan may break away from Spain. Inside the US there are of course worries about Texas or California seceding. In assessing the likelihood of a state seceding it’s important to acknowledge the differences between the positions of, for example, Scotland and Texas. Scotland had hundreds of years as an independent nation, Texas was independent for only 16 years, and that’s if you count the Civil War. The UK has already gone a long way towards making Scotland into a separate entity by devolving power. Nothing of the sort has happened with Texas. Scotland’s biggest political party is a specifically Scottish party whose primary goal is independence. Texas is still mostly Republican. Despite all of this, the last time Scotland held a vote they voted against independence. All of this would seem to indicate that Texas still has a long way to go before it’s truly in danger of seceding.

Still, it’s hard to deny the spirit of secession and fragmentation which appear to be in the air. And unlike the UK, which has bent over backwards to devolve power and keep Scotland in the Union, the US federal government has done very little to accommodate the individual states and federalism appears to be dead. It may be just as Princess Leia foretold, that the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

4- Foreign occupation

I would hazard to say that despite my normal habit of hedging my bets and searching for calamities that others might overlook that on this final count we probably don’t have to worry about foreign occupation (Red Dawn notwithstanding). In this one case I will admit that the world is different, I think our enemies wouldn’t bother to invade, they would just nuke us.

And so, whether or not you agree with my assessment on how likely any of these scenarios are, I hope that I’ve at least given you a better idea of the kind of calamities I’m worried about and the nearly unique position the US occupies in having avoided all of these calamities for the last 100 years when most countries have not. A position I hope that we continue to enjoy, but one which I think is more precarious than people suspect.

Of course I didn’t cover the greatest calamity of all, if this blog went away. You can help make sure that calamity doesn’t come to pass by donating.

Time Preference and the Survival of Civilizations

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In my ongoing quest to catch up on those topics I promised to revisit someday but never have, in this post I’m turning my attention to a statement I made all the way back in July of last year. (As I said I’ve been negligent about keeping my promises.) Back then, as aside on the topic of taboos, I said:

Of course this takes us down another rabbit hole of assuming that the survival of a civilization is the primary goal, as opposed to liberty or safety or happiness, etc. And we will definitely explore that in a future post, but for now, let it suffice to say that a civilization which can’t survive, can’t do much of anything else.

Well, this is that future post and it’s time to talk about Civilization! With a capital C! And no, not the classic Sid Meier’s game of the same name. Though that is a great game.

To begin with though, in timing that can only be evidence of the righteousness of my cause (that’s sarcasm by the way.) I recently listened to several interesting podcasts that directly tied into this topic. (By the way, you all know that you can get this blog as a podcast, right?) The first was a podcast titled Here Are The Signs That A Civilization Is About To Collapse. I confess it wasn’t as comprehensive as I had hoped, but their guest, Arthur Demarest, brought up some very interesting points. And if he had had a book on civilizational collapse I would have bought it in a heartbeat, but it appears that his books are all academically oriented and mostly focused on the Mayans. In any case here are some of the points that dovetail well with things I have already talked about.

  1. Civilization allows increasing complexity and connectivity, resulting in increased efficiency. But this connectivity and complexity increases the fragility of the system. Demarest gave the example of a slowdown in China causing pizza parlors to close in Chile.
  2. This complexity also leads to increased maintenance costs, and overhead. And eventually maintenance expands to the point where there’s very little room for innovation and no flexibility to unwind any of the complexity.
  3. When civilizations get in trouble they often end up doubling down on whatever got them in trouble in the first place. Demarest gives the example of the Mayans who built ever more elaborate temples as collapse threatened, in an effort to prop up the rulers.
  4. A civilization’s strength can often end up being the cause of its downfall.
  5. As things intensify thinking becomes more and more short term.
  6. Observations that the current period is the greatest ever often act as a warning that the civilization has already peaked, and the collapse is in progress.

As you may notice we already check most if not all of these boxes and I’ve already talked about all of them in one form or another, but more importantly, what he also points out, and what should be obvious, is that all civilizations collapse. Now you may argue that all we can say for sure is that every previous civilization has collapsed; ours may be different. This is indeed possible. But I think, for a variety of reasons which I mention again and again, that it’s safer to assume that we aren’t different. If we do make this completely reasonable and cautionary assumption, then the only questions which remain are: when is the current civilization going to collapse and is there anything we can do to extend its life?

I mentioned that I had listened, coincidently, and by virtue of the righteousness of my cause (once again sarcasm), to several podcasts which spoke to this issue. The second of these podcasts was Dan Carlin’s Common Sense. In this most recent episode he spent the first half of the program talking about the increasing hostility that exists between the two halves of the country and specifically the hostility between the Antifas (short for anti-fascists) and the hardcore Trump supporters. Carlin mentioned videos of violence which has been erupting at demonstrations and counter demonstrations all over the country. I would link to some of these videos, but it’s hard to find any that aren’t edited in a nakedly partisan fashion by one or the other side. But they’re easy enough to find if you do a search.

This is not a new phenomenon, we’ve had violence since election day, and I already spent an entire post talking about it. But Carlin frames things in an interesting way. He asks us to imagine that we were elected as president, and that our only goal was to heal the divisions that exist in the country. How would we do it? What policy would we implement that would bring the country back together again?

Carlin accurately points out that there’s not some anti-racist policy you could pass that would suddenly make everything all better. In fact it could be argued that we already have lots of anti-racist policies and that rather than helping, they might be making it worse. In my previous post I pushed for greater federalism, which is less a policy than a roll-back of a lot of previous policies. But as Carlin points out this is probably infeasible. First off because that’s just not how government works. Governments don’t ever voluntarily become less powerful. And second there’s not a lot of support for the idea even if the government was predisposed to let it happen.

Carlin spends the second half of the podcast talking about the Syrian missile strike. And in a common theme this discussion flows into his criticism of the ever expanding power of the executive. As you probably all know, only Congress has the power to declare war, and it last used that power in 1942 when it declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Since then it hasn’t used that power, though generally the President still seeks congressional approval for military action, what Carlin calls the fig leaf. He points out that Trump didn’t even do that. These days if someone dares to mention that this all might be unconstitutional, they are viewed as being very much on the fringe. But Carlin, like me, is grateful when people bring it up because at least it’s being talked about.

As I said executive overreach and expansion is a common theme for Carlin and one of the points he always returns to is that whatever tools you give your guy when he’s President are going to be used by the other side when they eventually get the presidency back. And this idea touches on the central idea that I want to explore, and the idea that unites the two halves of Carlin’s podcast, the idea of short term thinking. Both the current political crisis and the expansion of the presidency are examples of this short term thinking. And exactly the kind of thing that Demarest was talking about when he described historical civilizations which have collapsed.

As an extreme example of what I mean let me turn to one final recent podcast, the episode on Nukes from Radiolab. In the episode they examine the nuclear chain of command to determine if there are any checks on the ability of a US President to unilaterally launch a nuclear strike. That is, launch a nuclear strike without getting anyone else’s permission. And the depressing conclusion they come to is that there are effectively no checks. This is not to say that someone couldn’t disobey the order in that situation, but it’s hard to imagine such insubordination would hit 100%. In other words if Trump really wants to launch an ICBM, ICBMs will be launched.

But, for me, this is an issue which goes beyond Trump, and it’s scary basically regardless of who’s president. But it’s also a classic example of short term thinking. At some point it became clear that in the event of a Soviet first strike that there would be no time for a committee to assemble or multiple people to be called, and in that moment and based on this very narrow scenario, it was decided that sole control of the nuclear arsenal would be given to the President. If I remember the episode correctly this policy really firmed up during the Kennedy administration (and if you couldn’t trust Kennedy who could you trust?)

One could potentially understand this rationale for investing all of the power with the President, even if you don’t agree with it. But no thought was given to what should be done if the Cold War ever ended, and indeed when it did end, nothing changed. No thought or effort was even made to restrict this control to just the scenario of responding to a Soviet first strike. As it stands the President can launch missiles entirely at his discretion and for any reason whatsoever.

One would think that if Trump is as dangerous and unstable as people claim that they would be doing everything in their power to limit his ability to unilaterally start a nuclear war. That, at a minimum they would limit the President’s authority over nuclear weapons so that it applied only in situations where another country attacked us first. (I’m not sure how broad to make the standard of proof in this case, but even if it was fairly expansive we’d still be in a much better position than we are now. ) Instead, as of this writing, such a concern is nowhere to be found, and rather the headlines are about another GOP stab at a health bill, or how much the FBI director may have influenced the election or the sentencing of a woman who laughed at Jeff Sessions (the Attorney General).

Perhaps all of these issues will end up being of long term importance. Though that seems unlikely, particularly the story about the protestor laughing at Sessions, and even the story about the FBI director concerns something that already happened, and is therefore essentially unchangeable. It’s even harder to imagine how any of the issues currently in the news have more long term importance than the issue of the President’s singular control of the nuclear arsenal. And that’s just one example of long term dangers being overwhelmed by short-term worries.

You might argue at this point that the stories I mentioned are not unique to this moment in history, that people have been focused on their immediate needs and wants to the exclusion of longer term concerns for hundreds if not thousands of years. I don’t agree with this argument, I do think historically it has been different. And as a counter example I offer up the American Civil War where the focus may have been almost too long term. But even if I’m wrong and historically people were every bit as short-term in their outlook as they are now, the stakes today are astronomically greater.

I wanted to focus on short term thinking because it all builds up to my favorite definition of what civilization is. You may have noticed that we’ve come all this way without even clearly defining what we’re talking about, and I want to rectify that. Civilization is nothing more or less than low time preference. What’s time preference? It’s the amount of weight you give to something happening now versus in the future. As the term is commonly used it mostly relates to economics, how much more valuable is $1000 is today than $1000 in a month or a year. If $1000 today is the same as $1000 in three months then you have a time preference of zero. If you’re a loan shark and you want someone to pay you $2000 next week in exchange for $1000 today then you have a very high time preference, and are consequently engaging in what may be described as an uncivilized transaction, or at least a low-trust transaction, but of course trust is a big part of civilization.

Outside of economics, having a low time preference allows people to plan for the future, to build infrastructure, to establish institutions and perhaps most importantly to rely on the operation of the law, having faith that it’s not important to get justice right this second if you will get justice eventually. Perhaps you can see why I worry about what’s happening right now.

On the other hand it can easily be seen that corruption, the cancer of civilization, is a high time preference activity, people would rather get a bribe right now, because they have no trust in what the future will bring. When people talk about institutions, the rule of law, societal trust, and even the absence of violence they’re talking about low time preference. And let’s all agree right now that it’s a little bit confusing for “high” to be bad and low to be “good”.

Everything I’ve said so far is necessary to show that short-termism isn’t a symptom of the decline of civilization it IS the decline of civilization. But of course things can look fine for quite a while, because of the low time preference which existed up until this point. Meaning that those who came before us invested a lot in the future (because of their low time preference) and we can reap the benefits of those investments for a long time before it finally catches up to us.

Way back in the beginning of this post I stated that if you assume that our civilization is going to eventually collapse then the only question we’re left with is when and is there any way to delay that collapse? I think I’ve already answered the question of “when?” (Not immediately but sooner than most people think.) And now we need to look at the question, “What can we do to slow it down?” A simple, but somewhat impractical answer would be to lower our time preference. But as you can imagine this exhortation is unlikely to appear on a protest sign any time soon. (Perhaps I’ll try it out if we ever have a demonstration in Salt Lake City.) But, if we can’t get people to lower their time preference directly, perhaps we can do it indirectly.

If you were to use the term sacrifice, in place of low time preference, you would not be far from the mark. And restating the entire problem as, “We need greater sacrifice,” is something people understand, and it, also, just might make a good protest sign. But stating the solution this way just makes the scope of the problem all the more apparent. Because the last thing any of the people who are currently angry want to be told is that they need to sacrifice more.

It is, as far as I can tell, the exact opposite. All of the interested parties, left and right, rich and poor, minority and non, citizen and immigrant all feel that they have sacrificed enough, that now is the time for them to “get what they deserve.” Obviously not every poor person or every minority feels this way, but those who do feel this way are the ones who are out on the streets. And once again it all comes back to low time preference. No one wants to wait 10 years for something. No one is content to see their children finally get the rights they’ve been protesting for (if they even have children) and no one wants to wait four years for the next election.

All of this is not to say that people are entirely unwilling to sacrifice. People make sacrifices all the time for the things they want. But what I’m calling for, if we want to postpone collapse, is sacrifice specifically for civilization, which is, I admit, a fairly nebulous endeavor. But I think it starts with identifying what civilization is, and how it’s imperiled. Which is, in part, the point of this post. (In fact, I firmly expect all protesting and unrest to stop once it’s released.)

Joking aside, I fear there is no simple solution even if you have managed to identify the problem, and it may in fact be that there is nothing we can do to delay the end at this point. To return to Carlin’s question about the sorts of policies you might implement if you were made President and your one goal was to heal the country. I do think that creating some shared struggle we could all sacrifice for, would be a good plan, as good as any, and maybe even the best plan, which is not to say that it would succeed. And this hypothetical still relies on getting someone like that elected. Which is also not something that seems very likely. In other words things may already be too far gone.

One of my biggest reasons for pessimism is that I don’t think people see any connection between the unrest we’re currently experiencing (both here and abroad) and the weakening of civilization and more specifically the country. But there are really only three possibilities, the massive anger which exists can either strengthen the country, it can weaken it, or it can have no effect. If you think it’s making the country stronger, (or even having no effect) I’d love to hear your reasoning. But rather, I think any sober assessment would have to conclude that it can’t be strengthening it, and it can’t be having no effect, therefore it must be weakening it. Leaving only the question of by how much.

None of this is to claim that anger about Trump or alternatively support for Trump (or any of the other issues) will single-handedly bring down the country. But it’s all part of a generalized trend towards higher and higher time preference. Towards wanting justice and change right now. And I understand, of course, that the differences of opinion which have split the country are real and consequential. But what is the end game? What is the presidential policy that will make it all better? What are people willing to sacrifice? To repeat a quote I used in a previous post from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

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

It’s a dangerous road we’re on and I would argue that as thinking get’s more and more short-term that the survival of civilization is at stake. And it’s at stake precisely because long-term thinking and planning is precisely what civilization is.

To come back to the assertion that started this all off, the assertion that I promised to return to. A civilization which can’t survive can’t do much of anything else. Of course at one level this is just a tautology. But at another level it ends up being a question of whether certain things can exist together. Can Trump supporters and Trump opponents live in the same country? Can a country give you everything you think you deserve right now, and yet still be solvent in 100 years? Can you have a system which is really good at reducing violence (as Pinker points out) but never abuses it’s power?

It’s entirely possible that the answer to all of those questions is yes. And I hope that’s the case. I hope that my worries are premature. I hope that similar to the unrest in the late 60’s/early 70’s that things will peak and then dissipate. That it will happen without a Kent State Shooting, or worse. But I also know that civilization takes sacrifice, it takes compromise, and however unsexy and dorky this sounds. It takes a low time preference.

You may have considered donating, but never gotten around it. Perhaps because you have low time preference and you assume that a dollar someday is as good as a dollar now. Well on this one issue I have very high time preference, so consider donating now.

Children, Overpopulation and Tommy Boy

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Frequently, in this space, as I’m discussing one topic, I’ll mention another, tangential topic, and declare that it “deserves a post of it’s own.” In order to help me remember, I keep a list of the topics I’ve promised to revisit, and I was looking through it recently when I realized that I haven’t done a very good job of making good on those promises, so for the next few posts I plan to, at least partially, rectify that. I’ve chosen to start with one of my more recent promises, the promise to talk about demography and population growth.

For most people the term “population growth” immediately brings to their mind the dangers and challenges of overpopulation. They may be thinking of the explosion of people which occurred during the last century, or they may be visualizing the graph of world population which looks like a giant, impossibly steep, peak rising up out the flat valley that was the world’s historical population. Or they may remember China’s recently abolished one-child policy and the tragedy of the accompanying gendercide. (Though I recently heard that China’s missing girls are not as missing as we thought and have started showing up in censuses when they get older.)

These people worry about overpopulation despite the fact that the crises predicted in the late 60’s by such books as the Population Bomb and Make Room! Make Room! (the basis for the movie Soylent Green) never came to pass. And also despite the fact that birth rates are falling everywhere and below replacement level in most of the developed nations.

In light of this, are the people who worry about overpopulation worrying unnecessarily? Do we no longer have to worry about overcrowding and famines and being forced to resort to cannibalism? (Soylent Green is people!) It’s hard to say, but this post will attempt to clarify things, with the caveat that, as always, I’m wary about any predictions of the future.

One of the first people to worry about overpopulation, or more specifically the idea that population growth would outstrip food supply, was Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar. In 1798 he published his influential book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. The central idea was that food supply increased arithmetically while population increased geometrically. In the late 60’s, for someone considering a world where the population had all but doubled in the previous 50 years. It certainly must have have appeared that the Malthusian vision of mass starvation was finally about to come to pass.

But at the very same moment as the new Malthusians were predicting doom, the Green Revolution was taking root (no pun intended) all around the world and in developing countries like India and the Philippines, vastly increased food production was keeping the long predicted famines at bay.

When I was in high school I did two man policy debate and one of our topics concerned US agricultural policy. That year my debate partner and I constructed an affirmative plan around food aid to Africa. This was in the late 80’s and the Ethiopian Famine from earlier in the decade was still fresh in everyone’s mind. As we proceeded to debate this topic we encountered a lot of counter arguments involving the dangers of overpopulation. In particular some people actually argued that it’s better to let 10 people starve now than to let them reproduce resulting in 100 people starving in the future. As you can see things get twisted and dark pretty fast when you’re dealing with this issue.

By the end, after spending a year defending against these sorts of arguments I was convinced that Malthus was just wrong, food production could and would keep up with population. Additionally, even back then it was apparent that, on top of increasing food production, the world’s population growth was slowing.

As you can imagine, a high school student in suburban Utah wasn’t the first to put all this together, and while I don’t know if this belief is as widespread as the belief about overpopulation, people were starting to talk about population decline, or what some people call the demographic winter. And several decades on many countries, most notably Russia, Japan and even Germany have seen years where their total population fell. Obviously this is not unprecedented, but in the past when a country’s population declined year over year there was generally some external cause like war or disease. Historically it didn’t decline by choice.

Of course, as they say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and the fact that population has started to decline in a few countries doesn’t mean that world population is declining, but even if it’s not, the proponents of demographic winter point to a time, not far distant, when worldwide population will peak, and after that, start to decline. In other words, when you combine the Green Revolution with the trend towards declining fertility, it’s very reasonable to take the position that we don’t need to worry about overpopulation. And indeed that is the position I myself held until very recently, but over the last couple of years I’ve started to entertain the idea that maybe things aren’t as cut and dried as I had hoped.

To begin with, predictions that world population will peak rely on fertility rates continuing to decrease, especially in Africa as the continent becomes more developed. All of this results from projecting the declining birth rates experienced by most of the developed world into underdeveloped places that still have high fertility rates. And indeed fertility rates in developing countries had been following that trend. But that trend has slowed recently, as evidenced by this quote from The Economist:

Alarmingly, population growth in Africa is not slowing as quickly as demographers had expected. In 2004 the UN predicted that the continent’s population would grow from a little over 900m at the time, to about 2.3 billion in 2100. At the same time it put the world’s total population in 2100 at 9.1 billion, up from 7.3 billion today. But the UN’s latest estimates, published earlier this year, have global population in 2100 at 11.2 billion—and Africa is where almost all the newly added people will be. The UN now thinks that by 2100 the continent will be home to 4.4 billion people, an increase of more than 2 billion compared with its previous estimate.

So which is it? Is overpopulation still a concern? Or is the population in decline? If it is in decline might that also be a problem? (Particularly when you consider that the modern world was built around an expectation of an ever-expanding workforce.) Where do things really stand at this point?

Of course so far when speaking of overpopulation I’ve mostly focused on whether we can feed everyone, but there are obviously a lot of people for whom the problem of population is much greater than just whether or not people are going to starve. For example many environmentalists are desperately concerned about the ecological impact of the people we already have without even factoring in whether world population is going to continue to increase. (Fun fact, the most extreme example of this is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.) Once you turn to looking at the environmental impact you quickly realize that there are a lot of contradictory dynamics in play.

It is widely agreed that the trend of falling fertility is powered by modernization, development, urbanization, etc. Thus, people have speculated that one of the reasons birthrates, in places like Africa, haven’t fallen as much as expected is that development has slowed. From this it seems logical that we should do what we can to speed up development, but development comes with a large environmental toll. For starters more developed countries emit significantly more CO2 on a per person basis than less developed countries. This creates something of a Catch-22. We can have a lot of people whose individual impact on the environment is low, or we can have fewer people whose environmental impact is a much greater.

To show you what I mean let’s take the country of Kenya as an example. If we look at the graphs provided by the United Nations, we see that, taking the low estimate, the Kenyan population starts leveling off around 2100 at slightly more than 100 million people. Up from approximately 50 million right now. If we assume that in order to keep Kenya’s population at the lower end of the estimate that Kenya has to become at least as developed as, say, Brazil, then in the process of doubling its population it will also end up increasing its per capita emissions by eight times the current level.

In other words, following these assumptions, emissions for the entire country of Kenya will increase to 16x their current level, even though the population only doubles. If on the other hand it’s per capita emissions remain constant then it’s population can increase by 16 times without the actual level of Kenyan emissions being greater in this scenario than in the more developed, lower-population scenario. The actual high-end estimate is that Kenya ends up with 220 million people by 2100 which means the population would only be about four and a half times its current level, so well below the 16x increase required for this option to have the same emissions as the lower population/higher per capita emissions scenario.

Of course this is a crude estimation and doesn’t take into account the fact that better technology should hopefully lower carbon emissions across the board. But even these back-of-the-envelope calculations show that if carbon emissions were your only standard then it’s better for Kenya to be fecund and poor than barren and rich. The colonial overtones of this section have probably already gotten me in trouble. But I wanted to illustrate some of the competing priorities that come into play when you talk about this issue. And this is part of what I was aiming for in my post on global warming. That there are a variety of complex situations facing us in the future and they’re all interconnected. But despite all of the complexities. Everyone agrees that population growth is bad. And that while implementing repressive programs to curb the population, like China’s one-child policy (which I mentioned earlier) are also bad. That, if people, naturally, and of their own choice, start having fewer children that’s great.

But does everyone truly believe this? Or are there some people who actually believe that population growth is good?

I think there is such a group. A group that speaks frequently about the importance of having children. A group that further might even use the word “multiply”, when speaking of child-bearing, as in the phrase multiply and replenish the earth. And while I am loath to speak on their behalf, I don’t think I’m stretching things to claim that they strongly support bringing more children into the world. (Though they get hung up on wanting to make sure these children have two parents who are married.) If you haven’t already guessed I’m talking about the leadership of the LDS Church.

If you do a search on this topic on you’ll find that there are numerous talks which reemphasis, what is often called, the first commandment. The command to multiply and replenish the earth. A commandment given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Elder Boyd K. Packer gave particular emphasis to this commandment in the last talk he gave before his death:

The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth has never been rescinded. It is essential to the plan of redemption and is the source of human happiness. Through the righteous exercise of this power, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy, even godhood. The power of procreation is not an incidental part of the plan; it is the plan of happiness; it is the key to happiness.

A very similar phrase is found in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. So, as I said, I don’t feel like I’m stretching anything to call this the official position of the Church.

Interestingly as I was going through the talks I came across one given by Elder Joseph W. Sitati titled Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Subdue the Earth. Elder Sitati is from Kenya, which is the reason I used Kenya in my example above. Whatever colonial overtones may be present in my discussion of these issues, I hope you’ll agree that he suffers from no such handicap.

Now does all this mean that the leaders of the Church are advocating for unchecked population growth? What might essentially be called “the more the merrier philosophy”? I don’t think so, though I did find a quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks where he said, back in 1993, that you should have as many children as you can care for. That aside I don’t think LDS Leaders are pushing to have as many people as possible. I think rather that they understand that not wanting to have children is a sign of an unhealthy society.

What do I mean by this? Well as usual the answer can be found in that greatest of all American movies, Tommy Boy. At one point in the movie the advisers are urging Tommy’s father (played by Brian Dennehy) to wait it out, and he tells them that he can’t because, “In auto parts, you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As it is in auto parts so it is with humanity. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there ain’t no third direction. Perhaps you think I’m being flippant, but let’s take a moment and break it down.

As we have seen it’s fairly easy to have a growing population. Such has been the case for all of human history up until a few years ago, and is still the case in much of the world. Apparently it’s also fairly straightforward to get to a level of progress and development where your population falls. In fact, it’s alarmingly straightforward. There doesn’t appear to be any special trick or policy, nor do you have to be especially advanced. Countries from Azerbaijan to Brazil have below replacement fertility. Even though one’s a post-soviet, 98% Muslim, central European country of 10 million people and the other is a religiously and ethnically diverse, Latin American country of 210 million people. Evidently we’ve mastered growing and dying, but what about the holding steady. Is there a number of people such that when we reach it we’ll just start having kids at exactly the replacement rate?

I don’t know that there is. Certainly countries who are experiencing a declining population and below replacement level fertility rates have tried various policies to encourage people to have more kids but these policies have largely been ineffective. The most extreme example of falling birth rates is Singapore which has a total fertility rate of 0.82. (Replacement rate is currently 2.1.) They have tried a number of policies aimed at increasing their birthrate including sponsoring a National Night party in which Singaporean couples were euphemistically encouraged to “let their patriotism explode” in order to give their country “the population spurt it so desperately needs.” (The party was sponsored by Mentos: the Freshmaker!)

Some of these tactics have been modestly successful, but none have come even close to raising fertility to the point where the population would be stable. And as you can imagine going from 0.82 to 2.1 is going to be very, very difficult, and involve huge societal changes in everything from marriage, to work, to the underlying culture. If Singapore is the future (and many people think that it is) then the challenge humanity faces is not that of bumping a 1.9 total fertility rate up a few points to 2.1, it’s a matter of taking a world that “naturally” wants to be at 0.82 (or even lower) and then somehow figuring out how to increase that by two and half times.

To return back to the LDS leadership, they encourage people to have children because they want society to be healthy, and a society that stops having children is unhealthy because it’s dying, and by definition that’s unhealthy. As I said above, I’m generally loathe to speak for the Church and it’s leadership, but I’m certain they think that poverty and starvation are bad. And insofar as those follow from overpopulation I imagine that they think that overpopulation is bad too, but there are lots of people who are worried about that. It’s well covered territory, even now, when fertility is falling. What isn’t being talked about is the myopia and selfishness present in a society that has stopped having kids. Perhaps that accusation seems unfair, but I don’t think that it is.

The accusation of myopia, interestingly enough, relates back to last week’s post. For those that need a reminder, I talked about human happiness deriving from being part of a community of sufferers. Beyond the obvious jokes about children causing suffering to their parents, traditionally this suffering has centered around raising and providing for a family. We suffered because we wanted a brighter future, and without children there was no future. These days the future seems pretty well taken care of, and suffering has largely been eliminated (at least in those countries with low birth rates.) Thus there’s no need to worry about the future, and certainly no need to undergo any suffering for it.

As far as selfishness, in countries with a below replacement level fertility, what have people traded their children for? I understand that childless adults get to travel more. I hear from my friends who are childless that they’re able to play more video games. Not having children obviously increases your disposable income and it also unquestionably increases your discretionary time. Both the additional money and the additional time can be used by individuals to pursue personal fulfillment. How is all of this not selfish? I understand that I am simplifying things enormously, but I also think that being selfish is more clear-cut than many people want to admit.

Returning to overpopulation, I am not blind to the potential problems, but neither am I convinced that a society which is still growing is less healthy that one that is atrophying. The more I dig in and discuss these issues the more convinced I am that there are some deep malignancies present in modern society. And that in our pursuit of material comfort that we have profoundly damaged our souls.

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

I mentioned that kids are expensive, well I have four, so consider donating. And if you don’t have any kids, and I this post upset you, you should also consider donating, I mean think of all the money you’ve saved.

Infrastructure, Trump and the Hoover Dam

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In 1912, over the course of 11 months, the Anderson Memorial Bridge was built over the Charles River in Boston, connecting Boston with Harvard Square. 100 years later, in 2012, the government decided to repair the bridge. Those repairs have so far taken four and a half years and cost $26.5 million at last count, and that is not a final tally, they are still working on the bridge. In other words, repairing this 232 foot long bridge has taken at least five times as long as building it in the first place, and while I couldn’t find the original cost, I’m confident it’s also costing more as well (even if you adjust for inflation). This is not an isolated example. You don’t even have to leave the city of Boston to encounter another legendary example of cost and time overruns, the Big Dig, which took twice as long and was three times as expensive as originally planned. Is Boston just bad at infrastructure, or is this a problem the entire nation is grappling with? There’s certainly reason to to believe that it’s a nationwide problem, not just something unique to New England. On top of that there’s evidence that our infrastructure costs much more than similar infrastructure in similar countries.

But I’m jumping ahead, there is actually another question we should be asking first. You may be wondering what that question is. But more likely you’re wondering why we’re talking about infrastructure at all. Well, sometimes we have to put on our big boy pants and talk about stuff that, while mundane, is actually super important. We can’t spend every blog post talking about cool stuff like nuclear apocalypse, or artificial intelligence. Sometimes we have to look at the boring stuff. Though I’ll do what I can to make it less boring.

But back to the questions. Before we ask whether we’re any good at building infrastructure these days, we should be asking how bad our current infrastructure is. If our current infrastructure is fine, and we don’t need to build much in the way of new infrastructure, and the need for repair is infrequent, then it may not matter how good we are at building and repairing infrastructure. But of course this is a trick question. All right thinking people believe that our infrastructure is horrible and we should spend lots of money on it. In fact, despite not agreeing on nearly anything else, both Trump and Clinton (not to mention Sanders and Rubio) had plans to rehabilitate the American infrastructure. Of course Trump won, so whatever infrastructure improvements that actually happen will be carried out along the Trump model, which has some interesting quirks, but before we get into that, it might be useful to look at how bad the infrastructure really is.

One of the most commonly cited measurements for the quality of our infrastructure is the Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. For some reason the last report is for 2013, but in it the US got a D+. This sounds pretty bad, though to be fair that’s up from the last report which gave the US a D. There’s also the question of what that D+ really means, if it gets down to an F does the country’s infrastructure spontaneously collapse into rubble and dust? I hope not.

The story of how the infrastructure got to this point is one of those fascinating tales where a lot of factors ended up working in combination. I can’t possible cover all the factors, but there are a few that I find particularly interesting.

To begin with, general infrastructure, and in particular infrastructure maintenance, is one of those things that lends itself to being put off. If you’re looking to cut your budget as a municipality or a state then infrastructure maintenance is an easy place to cut. For one, there’s very little immediate impact. As I joked about above there’s not some point where roads start spontaneously disintegrating, though presumably if you go long enough you might have a bridge which spontaneously collapses. (Though thankfully that’s pretty rare.)

It’s not hard to imagine how constantly putting off or lowering the priority of maintenance could lead to poor infrastructure, but it’s also useful to place it into the larger category of things which increase fragility. Fragility being a major interest of this blog. As I have already pointed out in previous posts, fragility comes from taking small, limited profits. In this case the savings you realize from forgoing annual maintenance. The problem is that forgoing or shortchanging annual maintenance, creates the risk that you’re going to end up with a large unbounded loss. In this case a bridge collapse. Further complicating things, maintenance does not have a large built in political base pushing for more spending. Of course that all changes when something catastrophic actually happens. At that point there will be a huge outcry, but it will be too late. The damage has already been done, and most of the people responsible for shortchanging maintenance will have already retired.

Another thing to consider is the fact that most infrastructure is hidden. When you say the word infrastructure, most people think of roads, but that’s only one of the 16 categories the American Society of Civil Engineers tracks. The other 15 categories consist of areas like ports, levees and dams which the average person has very little opportunity to stress test on a day to day basis, unlike roads. One category which is a particularly good example of this is water. We all expect water to come out when we turn the tap, but some water mains are over 100 years old, and I’m sure we all know someone who has a story of a water main breaking at the worst possible time, for example on Thanksgiving. (I know someone who claims this has happened to him twice.) But even in a situation like that, most people are too busy cursing to think about governmental underinvestment in infrastructure.

It takes something like the crisis in Flint Michigan to make people realize how bad the problem is. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Flint, but to briefly review, Flint switched its water supply, and in the process failed to realize the need to add corrosion inhibitors to the new supply. Without that lead leached into the water leading to the exposure of thousands of people (at least 6000 of them children) to extremely elevated levels of lead. It may have also lead to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease which killed 10 people. In other words it was bad, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but for our purposes I want to draw attention to the role played in the disaster by 100 year old lead pipes. No lead pipes, no lead exposure. Flint had 100 years to fix this problem and they didn’t. But of course this is a problem that no one fixes. It is not unique to Flint. In fact there are vast numbers of 100 year old lead water mains spread out all over the country.

Of course it’s not just water mains that are old, lots of our infrastructure is showing it’s age. The real infrastructure boom in the US was after World War II, which means that many of the bridges and roads and schools and power lines were built 50-60 years ago. Of course just because something was built 50-60 years ago doesn’t mean anything by itself. To take an extreme example the Pyramids were built 4500 years ago and they’re still standing. But this is where we come across one of the more fascinating stories in this whole saga. The story of reinforced concrete. It’s an interesting sidenote to the entire infrastructure crisis. And if you’ll forgive me this slight diversion, I think it’s worth delving into.

Concrete, by itself, holds up pretty well, the Roman Pantheon is made out of concrete and it’s still around after 1,900 years, so why should we be having problems with our current reinforced concrete after only 50 or 60? Well, perhaps ironically, it’s the reinforcement that’s the problem. Reinforced concrete is reinforced by steel. Steel is mostly iron. Iron rusts. Thus you have a situation where buried in every reinforced concrete structure is a slowly ticking time bomb. And it can blow up in a couple of different ways. It’s easy to see how a structure designed around new steel will bear less weight once some of that steel has been eaten away by rust. But the rust also causes the reinforcement to expand (by up to four times) which breaks away concrete, weakening the structure and letting in more water. Yet another hidden weakness in our infrastructure, and one that’s particularly hard to repair.

You may be getting a pretty good sense of why the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ on infrastructure, but beyond saying things are bad it’s hard to know what to do with a D+ grade, obviously it’s subjective to a certain extent. Fortunately in addition to the letter grade they provided a dollar figure which is hopefully more concrete (get it? Concrete… Infrastructure?). The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the estimate that $3.6 trillion needs to be spent before 2020. To give you a sense of scale the entire federal budget for 2015 was $3.8 trillion. So if we could just have one year where we suspend all Social Security payments, temporarily lay-off the entire military, avoid paying interest on any bonds and route all that money to infrastructure we’ll be okay. But if we don’t? Again this is the part that I’m unclear on, but maybe running some numbers will clear things up.

I mentioned the federal budget, but, of course, much if not most of infrastructure spending takes place at the state and local level. If we add in their budgets we get a figure of somewhere in the $6.6 trillion dollar range for annual spending. So it’s not quite as bad, but if we take the $3.6 trillion recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 and divide it up over seven years (2014-2020) we get just slightly more than $500 billion per year. This is about 8% of all government spending for a given year, or to put it in different terms it’s about what the Federal Government spends on the military every year. So it’s a lot of money.

The next step in the analysis would be to look at what we actually are spending. If we need to be spending $500, how big is the shortfall? As best I can tell we’re spending somewhat north of $400 billion once state and local spending are included. Which means we’re missing the American Society of Civil Engineers target by about $100 billion per year.

Hmm… I started this section by wondering if running some numbers would clear things up, and I’m not sure that they have. I can see several different arguments. One might argue that a 20% shortfall is not that big of a deal, and our infrastructure is probably mostly fine. It should be mentioned, since I haven’t already that the American Society of Civil Engineers is not necessarily a neutral third party. They definitely have a stake infrastructure spending. In other words it’s not inconceivable that the $3.6 trillion I started with is inflated.

On the other hand I can see making an argument that the $400 billion we are spending puts out all the short term fires and buys enough infrastructure to keep things from completely collapsing, but it’s the extra $100 billion which would help you get out in front of things. An example of this argument might be the LA freeway system, which by all accounts is constantly under construction and constantly expanding, but you never hear someone say that after this last bit of construction that everything moves smoothly. It’s a constant traffic jam and all the new construction ends up being just enough to keep the entire system from collapsing into a parking lot.

At this point I’ve spent so long talking about how bad the infrastructure is that you’ve probably forgotten the original question: Are we any good at it? But if we accept that the US infrastructure is in bad shape, then the next, obvious question is what should be done about it, and if the answer is, as Trump, and all right thinking people agree, throw a lot of money at it, it’s useful to ask how effective that will be. Interestingly Obama was in a similar position when he was elected in 2008. Before he even entered office he had proposed an $800 billion stimulus package targeted at “shovel ready” projects. In other words, when Trump proposes a big round of infrastructure spending, it’s important to remember that we’ve already been in this position and it might be instructive to look at how it turned out the last time it was tried.

After being elected Obama had no problem getting the stimulus package passed, and it was signed into law in February, shortly after his inauguration. Only after it was passed was it discovered that “shovel ready” was something of an exaggeration, a point that Obama himself admitted later in his first term. So the first lesson we should take from this is that just dumping a bunch of money into infrastructure and getting immediate results is harder than it looks.

Another takeaway from the 2009 stimulus is how underwhelming it was. As I’ve said $800 billion was spent (and to be fair, if you look at the bill it was spread out all over the place) and yet what great infrastructure projects can we point to as a result of this $800 billion? In the past spending on infrastructure got us stuff like the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal, the Three Gorges Dam (no, wait that’s China). But what did we get out of the 2009 stimulus? Or perhaps more appropriately what should we have expected to get? I mentioned the interstate highway system as an example of impressive infrastructure from the past. It had a total cost of $119 billion dollars. This was the finally tally in 1996, so I would assume that those are 1996 dollars (which would be $183 billion today) but it’s possible that since the interstate system took decades to build that those are not all 1996 dollars. Regardless it’s clear that the 2009 stimulus should have been able to build something equivalent to the interstate highway system perhaps several times over. Unless I’m overlooking something massive, I presume that it did not do that. I also mentioned the Hoover Dam, which cost $49 million at the time, and $700 million in today’s dollars. As I mentioned above the 2009 stimulus was spread out over a lot of different areas. But it was the equivalent of well over 1,000 Hoover Dams. I assume that as part of Obama’s stimulus we could have squeezed out at least one project of a similar scope, but yet, I’ve seen no evidence of anything which fits the bill.

Again, I ask the question, are we any good at building infrastructure? I think the answer is we aren’t, though perhaps we used to be. Does this mean Trump’s proposals are doomed? Well perhaps not doomed, but I can guarantee that it’s going to be harder and have less eventual payoff than any of the proponents of the plan think.

And here at last we tie this whole subject into the theme of the blog. Is it possible that it’s not just something wrong with infrastructure, but something wrong with us? Have we lost the ability do really impressive things? Is this evidence of a civilization in decline? For the answer to that I’ll turn to a concept I haven’t mentioned since my very first post: catabolic collapse.

Lots of people imagine that there will be some dramatic event which will cause the complete collapse of civilization. Before the event, normality, after the event and in an instant, a cannibal wasteland where only your stockpile of guns and ammo stands between you and a giant stewpot. Other people imagine that things will go on pretty much as they are, only possibly better. My position is that neither of those is very likely, though both are possible. A full scale nuclear exchange could still result in the former, or, on the other hand, maybe we have reached the End of History and things are just going to get better from here on out. My position is that over the next several decades will experience something in between.

As I said the term for this is catabolic collapse. It uses metabolism as an analogy. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As something of an oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use it as energy. Applied to infrastructure the analogy is that when we’re in an anabolic state we’re building new infrastructure, but in a catabolic state we have to consume some infrastructure (or more accurately stop maintaining it) to support the critical infrastructure. Just as in a famine your body might consume muscle mass to keep your heart working.

This is all straightforward enough, but how does a society go from an anabolic state to a catabolic state? Imagine that a society has a certain level of productivity. A large chunk of this productivity has to go into maintaining what we already have. It’s easy to see this process at work if you look at the federal budget. In any breakdown of the federal budget you’ll see a giant category labeled mandatory spending. This is money we’ve dedicated to fulfilling promises which have already been made, and to maintaining the status quo. Of course even when we look at the, somewhat inaccurately named, discretionary spending, there’s not a huge amount of wiggle room there either. No one’s just going to decide to one day eliminate the Navy. Which means that as far as new stuff goes we either have to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Our resources do have a limit and the maintenance budget just keeps growing. Reduced to the level of infrastructure it’s very similar. We have a certain amount of resources to dedicate to infrastructure and a big chunk of that goes to maintaining what we already have and if there’s anything left over we can build new infrastructure. So far so good, but what if the resources available for infrastructure aren’t even sufficient to maintain what we already have? If that happens we enter a catabolic state. And unless the resource limitation is temporary we start down the road to catabolic collapse.

One of the problems with detecting this and doing something about it is that it can sneak up on you. For example, just because you’re building new infrastructure doesn’t mean that catabolic collapse hasn’t started. As I already mentioned, new stuff can be built at the expense of maintaining the old stuff, until of course the old stuff breaks and then you’re faced with having to conduct costly repairs and find money for new stuff as well. It’s only when that pinch occurs that catabolic collapse really becomes apparent, and even then you can expect a lot of denial.

Are we in catabolic collapse? Are the resources available for infrastructure less than the cost of maintaining what we already have? For the answer to that question it’s important to know what we mean by maintenance. And for this I’d like to turn to the story I started with. The story of the Anderson Memorial Bridge. That bridge repair has taken so long and been so costly in large part due to our expanded definition of maintenance, an expanded definition that brings on expanded costs. This expanded definition includes ordering special bricks to preserve the historical character of the bridge, additional permits, the bureaucracy, safety requirements, etc. etc. All of which didn’t exist when the bridge was first built in 1912. And the trend is to add even more “maintenance” of this type in the years to come. Is all this indicative of a robust and growing nation or more indicative of a nation whose best days are behind it? In other words, when all is said and done we’d all like to put on more muscle, but when you’re old and tired sometimes it’s just easier to sit in your recliner and yell at the TV.