Tag: <span>Famine</span>

Dalio vs. Zeihan

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

Or download the MP3

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

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

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

I- Is the US Doomed Or What? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might remember this graph from my review of Dalio:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 10 Books I Finished in June Along With Two I Didn’t

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

Or download the MP3

  1. Liberalism and Its Discontents by: Francis Fukuyama
  2. Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World by: Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
  3. Creative Evolution by: Henri Bergson (didn’t finish)
  4. An Introduction to Metaphysics by: Henri Bergson
  5. The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by: Cecil Woodham-Smith  (didn’t finish)
  6. The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery by: Richard Osman
  7. Rising From The Rubble: Buried for hours, changed for life, saved for something greater. By: Williamson Sintyl
  8. The Wind in the Willows by: Kenneth Grahame
  9. Breakaway: Expeditionary Force, Book 12 by: Craig Alanson
  10. Fallout: Expeditionary Force, Book 13 by: Craig Alanson
  11. Match Game: Expeditionary Force, Book 14 by: Craig Alanson
  12. Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives by: Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford

I’m posting this on a Saturday, and the day before I leave for Ireland. Last weekend I moved into a new house. (Actually we weren’t completely done with that until Wednesday.) The combination of the two (mostly the latter) has put me in crunch time and behind on everything. I had ambitions of posting something while I was in Ireland, but at this point I think they were more delusions than ambitions. I am going to try and get some writing done while I’m there, partially because I have some posts I’ve started working on and I’d like to try finishing them before the inspiration dissipates.  And partially because I worry that if I miss too many days of writing I’ll get out of the habit and have to start over, which sounds really bad. Though there is a worse outcome, I could lose the desire to write altogether

I have a friend who never takes more than a week of vacation at a time, because he’s sure in his heart of hearts that if he’s ever gone for longer than that he’ll never go back. That once he’s gone for longer than a week he’ll be enjoying his leisure too much and he won’t be able to bear the thought of returning. All the habits that serve to get him out the door every morning to drive 40 minutes to a job he doesn’t like, will be broken. I like writing, and I don’t have to drive 40 minutes to do it, but I nevertheless worry that something similar will happen. Perhaps needlessly, but everybody has their quirks, and I probably have more than average.

I- Eschatological Reviews

Liberalism and Its Discontents

By: Francis Fukuyama

Published: 2022

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The problems currently plaguing western democracies, particularly the US, and how a return to the moderate, classical liberalism of the past will fix those problems.

What’s the author’s angle?

Fukuyama is one of the heavy hitters in this space, particularly known for his book End of History and the Last Man (which I discussed here). In that book he claims that liberalism is the end point of political development, so its growing weakness is a threat to his theory, a threat he attempts to address in this book.

Who should read this book?

No one. Despite my many disagreements with him, I like Fukuyama, but he’s best when he’s taking his time and going really deep (see for example his two volume Political Order series reviewed here and here). This book is too shallow, and feels rushed.

General Thoughts

As I just mentioned, Fukuyama’s longer stuff is better, you can actually see him working through all the nooks and crannies and really thinking about a subject. I did not get that impression with this book. No, the impression I got was completely different.

Have you ever been playing with a child, and they invent a game or some other imaginary scenario? And as you attempt to participate with them in their invention, you do something that doesn’t match what they had in mind? If this situation sounds familiar, then perhaps you already know what happens next.  They get frustrated and exclaim, “You’re not doing it right!” This was the feeling I got from this book. Fukuyama is the child and liberalism is his invented game.

Obviously Fukuyama did not invent the “game” of liberalism, but he does seem to have his own version of liberalism, where moderation plays a central role. Contending that we could solve all of the current problems liberalism is experiencing if we just just exercise more moderation, ends up being the dominant theme of the book. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by drawing your attention to the book’s final sentence: 

Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival—indeed, to the survival—of liberalism itself.

Despite reading the whole book (technically listening to it) I’m indebted to N.S. Lyons and his Upheaval newsletter for drawing my attention to this final sentence. I had not realized that Fukuyama provided such a convenient summation of how, “You’re not doing it right!”

According to him, none of the three sides is exercising moderation. (Yeah, there are at least three players in this game.) Trump and his followers have gutted institutions and ignored laws. Neoliberals allowed businesses and banks to run amuck, and then bailed them out while shafting the little guy. And the cultural left has elevated individualism to a pathological degree, turning words into violence and inverting the original meaning of tolerance. And in his estimation the answer to all of this is more moderation. The problem is, as Lyons goes on to point out in his excellent review, there’s nothing inherently moderate about liberalism. 

Maybe Fukuyama could argue that moderation is itself the epitome of true liberalism as a political philosophy. I happen to think moderation is one of the greatest of the classical virtues, so would be open to being biased in this direction. However, there is already a system of political thought that emphasizes the risks of extremes and prioritizes moderation, as a principle, over any specific rationalist theory of how to govern – it’s typically called conservatism.

I agree with Lyons (and by extension Fukuyama) about the greatness of moderation. The problem, as he points out, is that liberalism has never prioritized moderation, in fact if anything it’s been the opposite. It was William F. Buckley, the Father of American Conservatism, who pointed out that conservatism is that force which “stands athwart history, yelling Stop…” A statement clearly made as a reaction to liberalism.

Now, to be clear, there’s a separate argument to be had about the state of modern conservatism, and the role Trump does or does not play in it, but that’s not Fukuyama’s point. His point is to heal classical liberalism by the application of greater moderation. But this is definitely not something that liberalism does automatically. It has no built in instinct for moderation. If something is going to heal liberalism via moderation, it has to be something external. 

Fukuyama claims that we need more moderation on both an individual and communal level, but other than being a good idea (which it is) how does following the ideology of liberalism—an ideology of revolution, and social change; an ideology that has always been about acquiring new freedoms for the individual and the markets; an ideology where continual progress has long occupied center stage—suddenly decide to set all that aside in favor of moderation?

Eschatological Implications

In 1992 when Fukuyama published the End of History and proclaimed that liberal, western democracies represented the best form of government, everyone was basically inclined to agree with him. I’m not sure if they realized how profoundly eschatological his claim was. Yes, it’s true that “cure all diseases”, “eliminate poverty”, and “switch to renewable energy” were all still on our to-do list, but being able to check off “discover best form of government” was still a monumental end point to have reached. Of course these days people are starting to think that we may have marked it off prematurely, and in this book Fukuyama expresses some of the same pessimism, but he also reiterates the point he made in End of History, if western liberalism isn’t the best form of government what other contenders are there? 

The problem, both now and then, is that the liberalism Fukuyama is defending is a direction, not a destination. It’s fine for Fukuyama to point at some spot and say we should stop here, but he can’t call that spot liberalism. Liberalism is how we got to the spot, it’s not the spot itself. And it’s unclear from the book what standard he would apply to mark that spot. 

Many people seem to think that liberalism or the progress enabled by liberalism will eventually reach some obvious stopping place. That we’ll eventually reach the top of the mountain, and it will be clear that this was our destination all along. And perhaps Fukuyama is saying something to that effect, but if we are at the top (or if we were in 1992) it’s definitely not self-evident. And given that there are multiple visions for what our destination looks like we could just as easily be about to go off a cliff as reach a summit. Particularly since everyone is fighting over the steering wheel. 

Going over a cliff would also be an end, but one very different from what Fukuyama imagined in 1992, but which he appears more worried about in 2022.

Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World

By: Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross

Published: 2022

288 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

You would think I could just point you at the subtitle, but it’s appallingly misleading. The word “energizer” is never mentioned once within the book. The word “winner” is basically never used in that same sense, and the book doesn’t spend much time on how to acquire talent “around the world”. It is about identifying talent, just not any of those other things.

What’s the author’s angle?

Tyler Cowen has one of the most successful blogs in the world, and Daniel Gross runs a startup accelerator. I’m sure in part they want to pass on their wisdom, but I’m also sure they want to prove that they possess wisdom in the first place.

Who should read this book?

In many respects this works better as a self-help book than as an HR book. There are countless suggestions for activities that will broaden your talents. But as far as finding talented people I don’t think many people are going to have the time, resources, or pool of applicants necessary to implement the book’s recommendations.

General Thoughts

My sense as I was reading this book was one of narrowness. That yes, Cowen and Gross are trying to cast a wide net in an effort to find hidden talent, but the sort of talent they’re interested in finding is very, very specific. Mostly they’re interested in finding people like themselves. People who are smart, creative, self-directed, autodidactic, ambitious, optimistic, and driven. There are not a lot of these people.

Beyond that, everyone wants to hire them. I don’t think that smart, creative, self-directed, autodidactic, ambitious, optimistic, driven people are really having a hard time finding a job. So the key question is: given the extreme level of effort we’re already expending to find and hire these people, what kind of marginal utility are Cowen and Gross actually creating? I’m sure that it’s not zero, but I don’t think it’s huge either. You might think that these people are so useful, and so impactful that any improvement in finding them would be beneficial. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

Inevitably as we put more effort into reducing Type 2 errors, we inevitably create more Type 1 errors. Which is to say the more effort we put into identifying overlooked talent (people who previously would have been rejected, i.e. false negatives) the more likely we are to mis-identify talent, and subsequently give them a lot of money and power (false positives). Examples of this phenomenon include Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes, along with a host of other people you’ve never heard of. (A couple of whom I’ve worked with.)

This might be fine if startups existed in a vacuum, but—as evidenced by all the mini series which have recently been produced—dramatic failures and undeserving founders are part of the culture, and their failures, along with their hubris are having a corrosive effect on people’s faith in the fundamental justice of society. I’m not saying that we should ignore the book’s recommendations, or that we should stop looking for these people. It would just be nice if the book spent more time acknowledging the trade-off; gave more advice on how to separate gifted con-artists from founders of spectacular start-ups. And unfortunately the difference between the two is very subtle.

Eschatological Implications

It may seem strange to place a book on talent in the eschatological section, but, beyond just being a book of HR advice, the book gives one the sense that if we can solve the problem of recognizing and encouraging talent, that this talent will go on to solve all of the problems we’re currently wrestling with. Cowen’s Emergent Ventures is basically an attempt to save the world. 

But before talented people can save the whole world they would probably start by saving part of the world. Perhaps the western liberal part? In other words I thought this book provided an interesting contrast with the last book. Fundamentally, Fukuyama wants people to act more intelligently, and you could certainly imagine that if we had the right sort of talented oligarchy running things that our problems would be solved. 

You could imagine it, though I’m not sure it would actually be true in practice. As I said western governments and businesses are already engaged in a huge talent search, and while I think Cowen and Gross’s ideas could definitely help improve the efficacy of that search, I don’t think those ideas are sufficient to transform the current chaos into a smoothly running utopia. To put it in starker terms, what would an Adam Neumann or Elizabeth Holmes presidency look like? 

II- Capsule Reviews

Creative Evolution (didn’t finish)

By: Henri Bergson

Published: 1907

470 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The idea that there is an underlying force, an élan vital pushing evolution in a particular direction. That things don’t evolve randomly but in a positive direction.

What’s the author’s angle?

A desire to unveil the truth about evolution and philosophy.

Who should read this book?

Possibly people doing graduate work in philosophy or maybe theology. Otherwise, no one.

General Thoughts

Almost exactly a year ago I went to a theology conference. While I was there I spent a lot of time explaining my idea that Fermi’s paradox was best explained by the existence of God along with my thoughts on how methods for dealing with AI Risk resembled LDS Cosmology. One of the attendees, who also happened to be LDS, told me that I had to read Bergson, and that I should start with Creative Evolution. Nearly a year later I finally got around to it, and while I can sort of see what he’s saying, I gave up about halfway through.

Much of what Bergson claims relies on an early 20th century understanding of evolution, and consequently the vast majority of his “evidence” is out-dated, if not outright refuted by our current understanding. Additionally French Philosophy just gets more dense the closer you get to the present day, so while Bergson is no Lacan or Derrida, reading the book was kind of a slog. I was putting in a lot of effort for not much insight, so about a third of the way through I gave up. 

However, in the process I did learn some things. First, while I had heard the term élan vital I did not realize that it originated with Bergson, nor did I make the connection between this idea and the concept of élan which so dominated French military thinking prior to WWI, and which ended up being so disastrous in the first few weeks of the war. 

Also I had no idea how big of a deal Bergson once was. Apparently the first traffic jam to happen on Broadway, in New York, was caused by people clamoring to attend his lecture, despite the fact that it was delivered in French. I looked around a little bit to see if this might be the first traffic jam ever, and it just might be. When I searched for “world’s first traffic jam” I ended up on a site claiming it happened in Washington DC on Armistice day, 1921. Bergson’s lecture was in 1913. Another site mentioned 1895 in San Francisco, but that clearly had to be horse drawn carriages. 

In any case, given how popular he once was I figured I should at least read something by Bergson, so…

Introduction to Metaphysics

By: Henri Bergson

Published: 1903

99 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

There are two ways you can view something: there’s the exterior view and the interior view. Simplified, the exterior view is science, the interior view is metaphysics.

What’s the author’s angle?

Advocacy for his definition of metaphysics.

Who should read this book?

It’s still French philosophy, and it’s still pretty dense, but I quite enjoyed it. Also it’s more of an essay than a book, and only a couple of hours on Audible. 

General Thoughts

Bergson describes the exterior view as a bunch of snapshots. As an example he asks you to imagine a sketch of the tower of Notre Dame in Paris. 

…the artist does not concern himself with [the stones which make up the wall], he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organi­zation of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation. 

He argues that this sketch is a poor and misleading substitute for going to Paris and entering the cathedral itself. But yet when it comes to science and psychology we’re mostly making crude sketches of some aspect of reality, and we need to get into the interior of what we’re studying. We need to visit the cathedral not merely look at sketches, or pictures or other snapshots of a thing. I think we’re increasingly aware of these limitations, so it’s impressive that Bergson was making this point in 1903.

Of course, we have to grapple with the prospect that such an interior view might be impossible. That we don’t even have an interior view of ourselves. Bergson claims that it is possible and falls in the domain of philosophy and metaphysics and comes about through inspiration. Others (including myself) would say that it’s the domain of religion, and that there is such a thing as divine inspiration. Perhaps we’re both right, perhaps neither of us is, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the limitations he brings up. Limitations which are only getting worse as the things we study get more and more complex.

The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 (didn’t finish)

by: Cecil Woodham-Smith

Published: 1962

528 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Irish Potato Famine. The actions taken by the government. The deaths of at least a million Irish, and the subsequent migration of possibly twice that many.

What’s the author’s angle?

To set out the first comprehensive account of the famine and the wholly inadequate effort to provide relief.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the potato famine this is still regarded as one of the best books on the subject. 

General Thoughts

I already mentioned this book in my last newsletter, as a result I only have a few more things to add:

My father was the one who recommended that I not finish the book. That the visit of Queen Victoria and the 1848 rebellion were handled better elsewhere. (Of course now I need to find that elsewhere and complete my study of things.) 

One has to wonder how many similar famines and tragedies happened historically that never made it into the historical record. The potato famine could be said to have taken place at the intersection of history and modernity. History in that widespread famines still happened despite people’s best efforts to deal with them, and modernity, in that we have a record of those efforts, and the deaths, and the suffering. Of course there have been massive famines since then, but the really big ones were all in communist countries and I think those belong in a separate category. 

Speaking of the efforts, there was certainly plenty of apathy, mistakes, and outright misrule to go around. But there were actually people who were doing their best. There were too few of these people, and they were hampered by bad ideas (laissez-faire being the big one) but they didn’t ignore the problem. A million people ended up dying, so I’m not sure how much credit we should give them. But it’s a good example that even in the worst tragedies, everyone is the hero of their own story.

The Man Who Died Twice: A Thursday Murder Club Mystery

By: Richard Osman

Published: 2021

368 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The further adventures of the Thursday Murder Club, a group of four English pensioners, who solve old and new murders. In this one Elizabeth, a former agent for MI5 must deal with her scoundrel of an ex-husband.

Who should read this book?

If you like Agatha Christie style murder mysteries or murder mysteries in general this is the book for you. And if you liked the first book, then I have no doubt that you’ll also like this one as well. 

General Thoughts

This was another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series. As with most mystery novels, there are plot holes, and people sometimes do things merely because that’s what the plot requires, but the same could be said for all modern media. If I had to highlight one aspect of the book for special recognition, it would be the characters. Anyone who doesn’t love these four old retirees, particularly Joyce, has no soul. If you enjoy murder mysteries at all I would pick up this series. Start with the first book

Rising From The Rubble: Buried for hours, changed for life, saved for something greater. 

By: Williamson Sintyl

Published: 2022

202 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

An autobiographical/self-help book about the author’s experience surviving 28 hours trapped in the rubble caused by the Haitian earthquake, and his journey since then.

What’s the author’s angle?

Sintyl is the head of a non-profit which is focused on providing mentors for Haitian children. This book wants to convince you that you should contribute to this non-profit, and you should. I do.

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes inspiring stories, or feels like they should pay more attention to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

General Thoughts

Sintyl attended the same church as me for several years, so I know him pretty well. He’s basically the nicest guy you will ever meet and his story really is incredible. It’s not merely that he survived for 28 hours buried under rubble in excruciating pain with no water, that’s really only the beginning. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happened afterwards is just as incredible as surviving the earthquake.

The Wind in the Willows 

By: Kenneth Grahame

Published: 1908

272 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The adventures of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. The calm and idyllic lives of the first three contrasted with the automobile mania of Toad. 

Who should read this book?

Anyone who likes Tolkein, Lewis or Milne.

General Thoughts

This is one of those books that somehow slipped past me when I was younger. But recently my aunt recommended that I check it out, and I’m glad that I did. It’s one of those books that is endlessly enchanting and delightful. All the characters are marvelous and all the stories are charming.

Expeditionary Force Series

By:  Craig Alanson

Book 12: Breakaway

393 Pages

Book 13: Fallout

556 Pages

Book 14: Match Game

593 Pages

Briefly, what is this series about?

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

Who should read these books?

Supposedly there’s only one book left in the series after these ones. If you’ve made it to book 12 you’re definitely in the home stretch, and I would say that these books are better than the one’s in the middle. 

General Thoughts

I’m a little bit worried that with only one book left that I’m not going to get the payoff I’ve been hoping for on all of the mysteries he’s introduced. Though he has been gradually resolving many of them, so I’m cautiously optimistic. 

Also there is a tendency as series progress for things to get increasingly ridiculous (think the Simpsons). I definitely noticed this happening with XForce, but there’s a large amount of ridiculousness embedded in things from the very beginning, so that makes it easier to swallow. I’ll repeat again, this is a very pulpy series, and you should approach it accordingly. 

The final book should be out by the end of the year, and if you wanted to wait for my review of the whole series I wouldn’t blame you.

III- Religious Reviews

Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives 

By: Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford

Published: 2009

218 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

As you might gather, different ways of viewing the world, but more than that, different ways of succeeding.

What’s the author’s angle?

Both of the authors are Christian, and they want to show that out of all of the worldviews, Christianity is the best, that it doesn’t have the weaknesses of the other eight purely cultural approaches.

Who should read this book?

Even if you’re not Christian the fact that these worldviews are hidden still makes for an interesting discussion of unseen motivations and unstated assumptions.

General Thoughts

The authors profile nine worldviews:

  1. Individualism
  2. Consumerism
  3. Nationalism
  4. Moral Relativism
  5. Scientific Naturalism
  6. New Ageism
  7. Postmodern tribalism
  8. Salvation by Therapy
  9. Christianity

Obviously I don’t have the time to go through the strengths and weaknesses of all nine. Nor to justify, for those inclined to doubt, why Christianity lacks the weaknesses of the other eight. But I would like to touch on the idea of salvation, because in the end that’s what each of these worldviews offers: salvation, albeit in very different flavors and at very different scales. 

Several of the worldviews operate at the scale of the individual. Individualism obviously, but also consumerism, and salvation by therapy. (Also, depending on how you operationalize them, New Ageism and moral relativism are also pretty small scale.) These approaches could, conceivably, save everyone, but there’s no economy of scale, and in fact individualism and consumerism become more expensive as they scale. Either way, each person, independently, has to go through the process. And even if we managed to pull such a thing off, such salvation is temporary. You have to start over every time someone new is born. 

Nationalism and postmodern tribalism both possess the advantage of operating at larger scales. Which is very useful from a pragmatic standpoint, but still insufficient if you’re looking for ultimate salvation. 

Only Christianity (or more accurately religion in general) and scientific naturalism offer the potential of salvation for everybody. And many people, when given a choice between the two, will immediately choose science. Nor is that a bad choice, but it does seem like the bloom is off the rose. There was a time when there was every reason to be optimistic about science’s ability to save, but these days science gets far more attention for its destructive possibilities than for its salvific power.

This week rather than appealing for donations for my work, I would ask you to donate to Arise: Project for Humanity. The Haitian mentoring program I mentioned in my review of Rising from the Rubble. It’s a great cause and I would even say that it should be considered effective altruism. The address to do that is: Ariseprojects.org

Eschatologist #18: Famines and Fragility

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

Or download the MP3

I’m leaving for Ireland in just over a week. The trip is about half touristy stuff and half genealogical. I have many Irish ancestors, but two in particular are worthy of note:

First, there’s John Richey. As best as we can tell, he was a member of the Hearts of Steel, a militant group of tenant farmers. In 1770 the “Steelboys” marched on Belfast to demand the release of a prisoner. After setting fire to a house they were successful in that endeavor, but this made them all wanted men. John immigrated to America in 1772, in some haste, we assume in order to avoid the hangman’s noose.

Second, Charles Conner, who came to America during the Irish Potato Famine. We suspect in 1847. Presumably he traveled in what’s come to be known as a coffin ship, because so many people died aboard them, mostly from typhus.

One of the goals of my trip to Ireland is to understand these ancestors better. Though in fact I do feel that I can understand John Richey fairly well. While they’re not always accurate, and most are not set in 1772, we have plenty of modern representations of people who are one step ahead of the law. What the modern developed world doesn’t have much of is representations of starvation and suffering on the scale experienced during the Potato Famine. Accordingly, as an additional preparation for the trip, I read The Great Hunger: Ireland: 1845-1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith. And yes, it recounts suffering on a scale that I can hardly imagine. The book is one horrific scene after another.

Any sane person, upon reading this book, will be moved to consider how we can stop something like it from ever happening again. Of course in order to do so you have to have some idea of how it came about in the first place. 

In a previous newsletter I talked about the ways in which progress and technology have allowed us to turn the knobs of society. One commonality between John Richey and Charles Conner is that they were both tenant farmers, and in both cases they were suffering under British landlords who had turned the knob of efficiency as high as it would go. At the time of the famine Ireland was as densely populated as it was possible to be. The rents placed on Irish tenants by the English landlords were so high that everything had to go perfectly for tenants to avoid defaulting and being kicked off the land. The land that remained to them after paying their rents was only enough to cultivate the world’s most efficient crop, the potato, which along with some buttermilk, represented the exclusive diet of the majority of the Irish peasants. As such, when the potato blight struck, there was nothing to be done, everything depending on generating a large amount of calories on a small amount of land, a role which could only be filled by the potato, and there were no potatoes.

While I do have some concerns that the big push towards GMO crops has lowered the genetic diversity, making these crops more vulnerable to diseases. I don’t think we have to worry about widespread famine from crop failures. But that does not mean that we are not also busy turning knobs as high as they will go. We have been engaged in our own quest for efficiency with just-in-time delivery and outsourcing things to be made at the cheapest possible price with the cheapest possible labor. The fragility of these systems was illustrated when we faced our own crisis in the form of the pandemic. Supply chains still have not recovered.

This takes us to one of the other lessons from the famine: for a variety of reasons crises often feed on one another. During the Potato Famine, not only did the potato fail, but the winter of 1846-47 was particularly harsh, and on top of all that, relief for the famine involved repealing the Corn Laws, the single most contentious issue in English politics at the time. In our own time, we have the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, high inflation, political turmoil, and technological disruption. And each crisis makes every other crisis harder to deal with.

So far we’re handling things, but maybe, while we still have time, we should consider turning the efficiency knob down just a little bit. Maybe we should consider making things a bit less fragile.

To the extent we know anything about John Richey and Charles Conner it was the result of a lot of hard work. But genealogical work, despite its difficulty, is very rewarding. This time around, rather than ask you for a donation, might I suggest you try some genealogy? Familysearch.org is a good place to start.