Where Do We Go From Here?

Previously: Frankenstein Delenda Est | Roll for Sanity | The Great Project
Or perhaps: Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the 21st Century | An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia



Joe Biden will in all likelihood be the next American President come January. You can practically feel left-leaning elites the world over unclench their weary paranoia. Much remains to be dealt with as the last few votes are counted and legal challenges get addressed by the courts, but the climax is past. The denouement, of course, will last decades. It always does.


The pandemic rages on. More than a million people are dead, and thousands more are dying every day. Imagine a medium-sized city, slowly crumbling as every last inhabitant dies over the course of a single year. Only the bones remain. And yet we adapt: deaths per thousand cases continues to fall. The world’s most populous country, more than a billion people, has reported only a single COVID-19 death since April. The rest of the world is slowly learning, through trial and terrible error, which parts of the economy can be reopened or adapted, and which cannot.


Technology rushes on, heedless of the rest of the world. Competitive satellite internet. Virtual reality. Self-driving cars. Newer, faster, stronger, better. The pope is praying for friendly AI.

I just finished re-reading A Canticle for Liebowitz. [spoilers follow] A monastic order tries to preserve human knowledge for hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse. They succeed, civilization is reborn, and their reward is a second nuclear apocalypse, far worse. Humanity is not to be trusted with great power, nor great responsibility.



America is increasingly divided. Biden may have won, but those hoping for a repudiation of Trump must be bitterly disappointed. The long future is violently uncertain. Healing? Secession? Civil war?

Beliefs are not isolated things. The human brain is remarkably adept at ignoring inconsistencies, but doesn’t necessarily resolve them correctly, even when forced to. Whichever side you take in this battle, your enemies believe in gravity. They believe in food, and air, and airplanes which fly. Their epistemology is intact.

Where people on both sides go wrong is that their priors create a self-reinforcing web of false beliefs that are too far removed from immediate empirical evidence to be emotionally falsified. The media could report that hotdogs cause COVID-19. Whether you believe that hotdogs cause COVID-19 has nothing to do with your beliefs about hotdogs, or COVID-19. The only way those beliefs could actually be related in your mind is if you see someone eat a hotdog, and then become deathly ill moments later. Instead, whether you believe in hotdogs-causing-COVID-19 has everything to do with whether you think the media lies. Fake news?

The next time the media reports something, you remember. Didn’t they run that hotdogs-cause-COVID-19 story? Your priors have shifted. The gyre widens.

Rationalists believe that demanding consistency from your beliefs raises the sanity waterline. I believe that consistency, on balance, would give us more false beliefs, not fewer. Too much of the world we believe in is disconnected from direct observation. Science, democracy, journalism… all merely webs of hearsay becoming webs of heresy.


The ocean depths are a horrible place with little light, few resources, and various horrible organisms dedicated to eating or parasitizing one another. But every so often, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. More food than the organisms that find it could ever possibly want. There’s a brief period of miraculous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first encounter the whale feed like kings. Eventually more animals discover the carcass, the faster-breeding animals in the carcass multiply, the whale is gradually consumed, and everyone sighs and goes back to living in a Malthusian death-trap.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

The printing press. The New World. Machines. Electricity. Computers. Internet. We feast on these whales, and for a time, we flourish. But whales are finite beings, and their corpses must eventually return to the dust.

Some Republicans view Donald Trump as a sign of the apocalypse, and long for the return of Mitt Romney. I view Mitt Romney as the unwitting sign of a far worse apocalypse; not because he is a Republican, but because he is a Mormon. Low first-world birth rates in the last fifty years are a blip, a memetic aberration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, by all indications, a decisive first-mover advantage among the next wave of Malthusian population-promoting memeplexes. The birth rate will recover when America is mostly Mormon. Evolution requires it.

We can hunt new whales, new technologies, new vistas, and prolong our civilization one flickering light at a time. This is a worthy goal. But we are Ahab, and the whales we hunt will surely destroy us in time.

We can coordinate, cooperate, and create a world where consuming the whale does not consume the world. This is also a worthy goal. It is, in fact, part of the goal; step two of The Great Project.

But we cannot compromise with our enemies, and so our enemies must become our friends.


And yet? And yet nothing. There is no one else. If civilization is to flourish, it must survive, and it must grow so mighty that even Moloch trembles before it.

So go, live your life, dream your dreams, hunt your whales. But to save civilization we must unite it, and to unite it we need a shared belief that unity is important.

Spread the good word.

This Means War – Is Trudeau Ready?

(Betteridge’s law says “no”.)

Last week, American president Donald Trump announced two major tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel. This was a watershed moment in the relationship between the two countries, who have long shared a highly cooperative diplomacy and a tightly integrated economy. We are now in the midst of a trade war, and that requires a major shift in perspective. In the upper echelons of business, much is made of the difference between a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. The analogy is drawn from politics of course, and now we have an opportunity to see the original essence of that analogy in practice, as Canada shifts diplomatically from peace to war. The question of the moment then, is whether Justin Trudeau is ready for it?

Trudeau’s first two years as Prime Minister have been characterized by positivity, just like his campaign. He continues to talk about opportunity, growth, and inclusion every chance he gets. He is, in other words, the very picture of a peacetime leader. But peacetime leaders tend to get crushed in times of war; just ask Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister leading up to World War Two. Like Trudeau he talked a good early game, pushing back against Germany when possible but also accommodating them in the name of a broader peace. Like Trudeau, Chamberlain combined calculated displays of strength and resolve with a general flavour of good will. His policies were widely popular among the electorate. And like Trudeau, Chamberlain was not ready for war.

Barely nine months in to the second world war, after a string of disasters culminating in a wholesale retreat from Norway, Chamberlain resigned. His replacement was none other than Sir Winston Churchill, a war-time leader if there ever was one. Churchill was everything that Chamberlain was not: one of the world’s greatest orators, direct, focused, and completely unwilling to back down. Where Chamberlain was diplomatic, refined, and heavily invested in keeping the peace, Churchill was a leader with only one goal: to win the war. He stuck to his guns even when his choices were massively unpopular, which in fact they were at the time. He was appointed Prime Minister on Chamberlain’s resignation, not elected, and lost the post at the very next public election.

So what does this mean for Canada today? I suppose it is possible that Trudeau will be able to pivot, transitioning from a peacetime role to a wartime one. If he can pull that off then he will likely go down in history as one of Canada’s greatest leaders. However, it seems unlikely. The required shift in perspective would be very much out of character, and his initial response to the tariffs has been… tepid. Retaliatory tariffs, yes, but dollar-for-dollar; literally a call, not a raise, and one that (per Coyne) will harm Canada far more than it has any persuasive power over the United States.

If Trudeau cannot pivot, then we are in for a rough couple of years. Barring a true catastrophe, Trudeau is unlikely to resign before next year’s election, but there is no-one currently on the ballot with the necessary capabilities. The NDP have always been a peacetime party, and Jagmeet Singh is no exception. Andrew Scheer was elected leader of the conservatives as a direct response to Trudeau, in an effort to win back some of the voters turned off by Harper’s determination and negativity. Ironically for them, (and for me, as somebody who voted against him in the 2015 election) Stephen Harper is now the Prime Minister we need.

Up until this moment, I have been generally happy with Trudeau as Prime Minister; he was a welcome breath of fresh air after so many years of Harper, and is generally closer to my positions on policy. Today, I wish we’d given Mr. Harper one more term.

Donald Trump Redux: Evil, Stupid, or Crazy?

It seems I’ve managed to strike a chord. Over the last few weeks, my post Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid? has been receiving a steady stream of visitors, which has basically never happened before. Additionally (based on referring search terms), a lot of people who end up on that article are also wondering whether or not Trump is crazy, a question my original post did not address. Since this is something people are interested in, and since the original was fairly specific to the time it was written, here’s an update.

Let’s start with the possibility that Trump is crazy. That depends heavily on what we mean by “crazy”, which tends to be a pretty broad term. If we take it to mean anything clinical or medically formalized then he’s pretty unambiguously not crazy. He may not be the most well-adjusted person in the world, but he’s a far far cry from that kind of crazy.

Another more colloquial definition of crazy that might fit is that he believes some things which are not true. While he certainly has some weird beliefs, I would tend to be lenient on this point as well. After all, 260 million people believe in god – and if you don’t think that’s a crazy belief, 28 million do not. One of those groups must be wrong. Maybe on this definition he is crazy, but if so he’s hardly alone.

A third definition of crazy that tends to come up a lot is simply as a synonym for “foolish” or “stupid”. So let’s revisit my previous post. This was my effective conclusion in that piece, however uncertain I was:

Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

I like to think that the last month or so has borne me out on this point. While the Trump administration has still had more than its share of bumps and weird decisions, there has not been nearly as much of the breakdown of order that seemed so plausibly like the intentional dismantling of the United States.

So, again, I encourage you to take heart from the most likely explanation: Trump is a lucky moron. The US will in all probability remain a democratic republic and will head into the 2020 election scarred, but alive and kicking.

In the mean-time, liberals have a lot of work to do.

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid?

It’s been quite interesting to see two competing narratives emerge in the liberal media in the past few weeks. The seeds of this split have been present since the Republican primary last year, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have thrown it into sharp relief. His first acts and executive orders might have been expected to “pick a winner” and prove out one of the two theories, but instead we are left with still more questions.

What is the million dollar question then? It’s simple: is Trump (or Steve Bannon, or whoever is whispering in his ear most of the time) evil, or just stupid?

Jake Fuentes makes a reasonable argument for “evil”, and the same sentiment can be found less clearly expressed in a number of places advocating for violent resistance and protest. Others, such as author John Scalzi, view the last week of chaos as the product of stupidity, not “11-dimensional super-chess political moves”. Scott Alexander spends a lot of time dumping on Trump and then concludes that despite his other short-comings, “he does not… take marching orders from the KKK”.

I find a lot of the arguments on both sides unconvincing. Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, probably since there is a lot more stupidity than malice in the world) suggests that stupid should be our default assumption. From that perspective it is hard to see the Trump administration’s actions as anything more than bumbling incompetence. However the argument baked into this position is that because Trump is incompetent, he can’t also be evil. He’s greedy and lazy, sure, and a garden-variety racist, but not actually a true-believer Nazi.

This isn’t really convincing to me because it doesn’t appear to adequately explain the sequence of events surrounding e.g. the DHS’s organized defiance of a federal injunction. When layed out one after the next, it seems like an awfully extreme coincidence for bumbling incompetency to have sent the United States so cleanly down the path to a fascist coup d’état. On the other hand, pretty much everything else Trump and his administration have tried has seemed like one gross mis-step after the next, and it would be weird for them to be so methodical with their fascism and so sloppy with everything else.

So which is it? It could, I suppose be both. Trump (or more likely Bannon) is a legitimate fascist planning a coup and kind of a moron, one who just happens to have gotten lucky on all the things that really matter. But this still seems unlikely; a better explanation would be that luck is running the other way: Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

In the end, it may not matter. Contrary to popular aphorism, this is a case where the destination matters a lot more than the journey we took to get there. Even on the still-decent odds that the US remains a liberal and democratic republic, the rule of law will continue to be sorely tried, and from those stress fractures will bleed human rights.

Take heart from the most likely explanation: if Trump is just a lucky moron, then at least nobody in power is actively trying to dismantle the United States. Who knows, there’s a tiny chance somebody in the inner circle might actually realize the effect their policies are having and put a stop to the madness.

And even if they don’t, nobody’s luck lasts forever.

Edit: I wrote a follow-up post here.

Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century

With the recent Brexit vote, and with Trump the presumptive Republican nominee, there have been a number of comments and op-eds comparing the two and talking about the apparently inarticulate rage being expressed by the “unemployed working class” through this political process. The underlying assumption seems to be that sure, maybe these people have the right to be angry at the way they are being failed by the current economic/political system, but isolationism and nationalism are not the answer. It’s not like it actually kind of worked to pull the German economy out of the Great Depression.

But still, let’s take a closer look at why so many people are feeling disenfranchised; maybe by understanding the problem we could, for instance, come up with a damned workable solution. I dream small. This project, of course, takes us right into the arms of Thomas Piketty’s landmark economic work Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The book’s central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability.

I disagree with this thesis, at least in part. It did, however, make me think about the problem in a different way. So let’s take a look at capital again, but from a more micro-economic perspective, and with a more Bourdieu-ian twist.

Personal Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Personal Capital, as I will use it here (not a standard definition, I know), is all the inputs to the function defining an individual’s earnings expectations in the short and medium term. This includes mostly obvious things like labour, education, and money-in-the-bank. Also note that there is a “break-even” level for this capital (kind of a natural poverty line) at which point the individual becomes financially self-sustaining within the economy. Individuals above this line are in a positive feedback loop; they earn more than they need, and since money is a form of personal capital, that increases their expected earnings even more.

The first part of my thesis, such as it is, is that people in this state tend to be happy. Even if you’re not rich in any absolute or relative sense, if you’re above that break-even line growth occurs, and your life gradually improves. I argue that the current political unrest is due to the fact that more and more people are dropping below this line. The question becomes: why?

The Relative Value of Labour

Consider the different forms of personal capital as goods in a meta-market, trading against each other. From this perspective, what has changed over the last couple of generations since the second world war? The answer is pretty obvious: the value of unskilled labour has dropped precipitously. Technological automation and a glut of supply from third-world countries have conspired to drive the value of unskilled labour into the basement. Additionally, the value of a college degree has also dropped, though not as sharply and hardly at all in some fields.

This makes it pretty obvious why so many people today are dropping below the break-even line of personal capital; it’s not that they have less capital, but that the capital they have (labour potential and education) is simply less valuable.

The Boomer-Millennial Divide

It has become almost tautological on the internet that baby boomers will whine and complain about how kids today would be doing just fine if they were willing to put in an honest day’s work, and how it’s their own damned fault. Millennials of course put the blame on the boomers; they are working hard and would be doing just fine if the boomers hadn’t ruined politics/the environment/the economy/the world. This conflict is actually a fairly natural one.

In the age of the boomers, labour was quite valuable. A confluence of factors drove the value of labour up to the point where individuals could sit comfortably at or above the break-even point, just on the value of their natural labour. Boomers really could make a healthy, happy, constantly-improving life for themselves just by working hard. They see millennials not succeeding and assume that they can’t be working as hard.

Of course in today’s market, that assumption is no longer true. Labour is so much less valuable that without some extra booster shot of personal capital (maybe a trust fund, or an expensive education in certain fields like hard science), the value of an individual’s natural labour is not enough to let them break even. They kill themselves to make ends meet, but with no hope of their situation ever really improving (they don’t have the positive feedback loop of capital growth working for them) it is no wonder they become disenfranchised. Those presently losing their jobs to foreign labour are in the same boat.

Finding Solutions

It seems then, that the solution to this recent unrest would be to bring as many people as possible back above this break-even point, giving them something to work for and hope for the future. But what do potential solutions actually look like for increasing the level of Personal Capital? Well, to me the obvious ones fall into three categories:

  • Drive up the value of the capital that people already have (primarily labour).
  • Provide people with additional capital such as education.
  • Reduce the break-even point so that existing levels of personal capital are sufficient.

With all this as perspective, the isolationist/nationalist solution isn’t actually all that insane. By putting stringent limits on immigration and trade, that greatly reduces the supply of labour, thus driving up the value of labour once more. Labour is the one piece of capital that everybody already has, rich or poor. It’s not really clear to me if this would be sufficient on its own to return us to the boomers’ golden age, but it will certainly move the needle in the right direction. The “hidden” cost, of course, is all the other terrible side-effects which tend to come with isolationist/nationalist policies. Let’s try and avoid a third world war, shall we?

So what other solutions are there that are less likely to destroy the world? Providing people with a basic income is a pretty straight-forward way to provide people with additional capital. No long-term large-scale system has yet been implemented, but the pilots look promising. Reducing the cost of higher education is also an obvious way to distribute additional (educational) capital.

Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to me how to pay for many of these socialist solutions. Since tackling the second point (providing more capital) is expensive and politically infeasible, and tackling the first point (driving up the value of labour) tends to actually hurt the economy globally in the long run, what about the third point? How do we reduce the break-even point of personal capital?

I don’t know.

Inequality, Brexit, and Trump

Bringing this discussion back to the original topics, I want to make a couple of points.

My primary point of disagreement with Piketty and many modern Bernie-Sanders-esque leftists is that it is not unequal distribution of wealth that is driving the present social unrest. It is quite possible for vast inequality to exist in a system where the majority of people are still above the break-even point of personal capital. I predict that such a scenario would be peaceful, and that people would be generally happy.

It is also quite popular among these same modern leftists to look at the people voting for Brexit and Trump and assume they must be insane to be voting for policies which are not in their own best interests. I disagree again. The policies being presented here are legitimate solutions to the problem these voters face. You may disagree with the trade-offs they are willing to make, but until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, judge not.

Finally, what do I propose we do about it? What political and economic stance does this essay actually lead me to endorse? Again, I don’t know. There is no clear-cut winning answer that I have yet found.

I’m going  to keep looking.