Month: December 2016

Reframing Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

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The title of this blog is “We Are Not Saved”. I just got done reading a book by Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard professor, which easily could have been titled “We Are Saved”. Obviously reading a book with a conclusion so different from my own required a blog post. Pinker’s book is actually titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But before getting into it, if I’m going to keep my recent resolution to avoid the curse of knowledge, it’s necessary to give a brief summary.

If you’ve heard of the book at all, it’s probably from the standpoint of the decline of war. And most of the criticism of the book has been in that vein. Perhaps the key question on that front is whether the Long Peace, the absence of conflicts between major powers since World War II, is just a random lucky run, like a winning streak in sports, or whether it represents a new and improved era for humanity. On this point Pinker comes down on the side of it being a new era, while Taleb is of the opinion that it’s random, and as we saw in the last post, Taleb knows how easy it is to be fooled by randomness.

That’s the big headline, but the book is much broader than that. Pinker covers the decrease of violence in all forms, the general march of civilization, increases in humanitarian impulses, and the rights revolution. I said that it could easily have been titled “We Are Saved”, and in Pinker’s opinion things are not only getting better but will continue to get better. As an explanation he offers up the march of technology, reason and the values of The Enlightenment. With reason and technology taking a center stage, his view of religion is mixed to say the least. To be fair, even though he’s a self-admitted atheist, he’s not as bad as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens. But the book is full of shots at religion and he has nothing but disdain for religion in its ancient form, particularly the Old Testament.  

Hopefully that’s enough of an overview get our discussion started. The book is over 800 pages and I’m obviously only going to be able to talk about a small part of it in the few thousand words available to me in a blog post. And further I’m going to use some of those words to introduce the concept of the motte and bailey argument. This idea was popularized by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex (though not his idea originally) and I can’t really improve on his description, so I’ll just quote it.

[The motte-and-bailey was] a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Instances of this tactic abound, and if you were paying attention there were numerous examples of it during the recent election. As in when Trump starts off by saying he’s going to round up all of the illegal aliens (the bailey), but when pressed, he says he’s only going to deport the criminals (the motte). He whips up his base with the bailey, and then retreats to the motte when closely questioned.

I bring up the motte and bailey tactic because it’s woven all throughout Better Angels, and accordingly makes a good framework for my criticism of the book. With respect to numbers and data, the book is very solid. In every area he covers, he can show a clear trend of things getting less violent. Whether it’s a decrease in deaths due to warfare from prehistory to the present day, a decrease in English homicides since the 1600, or decrease in domestic violence since 1970, things have clearly been getting better. This is his motte. His bailey is to extrapolate that trend forwards in time. But when someone accuses him of that, of claiming the age of war is over, he falls back to the motte and claims that he has made no predictions about the future, he’s just assembling statistics from the past. For example:

I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them….The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and present, not to augur the hypotheticals of the future…The truth is, I don’t know what will happen across the entire world in the coming decades, and neither does anyone else.

As I said the motte is the unassailable part of the argument, and I think largely Pinker has succeeded in this. But even here he uses some slight of hand. As I mentioned above, we can extrapolate warfare deaths back thousands of years, with archeological data all the way back to 10,000 BC in some places. This gives a pretty clear trendline for violent deaths due to war. But it’s a trendline with big gaps in it. We have data stretching back thousands of years, but if you go back more than a few centuries that data is really sparse. What this means is that it’s hard to know if the decrease in deaths from warfare is the trend a thousand years in the making or a only a few hundred. And even if it is a thousand years in the making the sparsity of data means that we don’t know how smooth the trend is. How many giant peaks of violence are there? And how many valleys of peace?

Whether or not it was intentional, by pulling in data going back thousands of years and comparing hunter-gatherer society to modern civilizations Pinker appears to be making the case that the decrease in violence represents a trend that’s thousands of years old, which is much more impressive than if it’s just a few centuries old. And this is the first example of the bailey, the impression that decreasing violence of all types is a trend stretching thousands of years into the past and therefore likely to continue indefinitely into the future. Even though from the perspective of data we can only talk about warfare deaths and even then the data is spotty.

As I said, Better Angels is not just a book about war, Pinker wants to show that the past was more violent on nearly all measurements. In service of his thesis he moves from deaths due to war to deaths from homicides. Here he’s only able to go back to the 13th century (and I think there’s some significant assumptions involved to get back that far.) And again we see a graph that starts high and slopes downward, giving us the impression that we’re dealing with a trend that’s that’s been progressing in the same direction for a hundreds and hundreds of years. The problem once again comes from the data that’s missing. His numbers are largely from Western Europe, this gives him a particularly low endpoint since present day Western Europe is extraordinarily nonviolent by historical standards, and without saying it explicitly, Western Europe ends up as a proxy for the world at large, and by extension the endpoint to which we’re all headed. However once you’re outside of Western Europe the trend is a lot less obvious, for example the current murder rate in Venezuela is as bad as it ever was in Europe even if you go all the way back to the 13th and 14th centuries. I assume Pinker doesn’t think it will take another 700 years for Venezuela to reach the level of Sweden, but since he never mentions Venezuela it’s hard to say. Instead he selects data in a way designed to give the impression that the downward trend in violence is global, and hundreds of years in the making, when, on closer inspection it appears to be both more recent and more localized.

From homicides he moves on to domestic abuse. Once again we see a distinct downward trend, but with each new category of violence his data is restricted to a smaller and smaller time frame. For war deaths he was able to go back thousands of years, for homicides, hundreds of years, for domestic violence he’s only able to go back a few decades to the 1970’s, and nearly all of that data is from the US. A trend that’s thousands or hundreds of years old is impressive, a trend that’s only as old as I am, less so. But the way it’s structured you get the impression that everything from war deaths, to murders, to domestic violence all the way through to spanking is part of a vast arrow of progress carrying us forward to a continually brighter tomorrow.

This is Pinker in his bailey getting rich, it’s this claim of a trend stretching into the future coupled with the triumph of progress that gets people’s attention, it’s this claim that gets Slate to call the book a monumental achievement. Of course, when necessary, Pinker retreats to his motte and claims that he’s not predicting anything, but the whole appeal of the book is what it implies about the future, and the longer he can extend the arrow of progress into the past, the father it appears to extend into the future.

In tying everything together in a single arc, he does two things. First there’s the structure I already mentioned where he anchors your thinking thousands of years in the past by using archaeological data on warfare deaths and then layering the rest on top that base. And then, secondly, he fills in the missing data, particularly in the realm of domestic abuse and rights more broadly, with the use of countless anecdotes. These anecdotes are naturally compelling. As humans we love stories, and Pinker knows that, but he also knows that they’re no substitute for actual data. Still he uses them to construct something that looks like the fortified tower that is the motte, but really isn’t.

Using both of these techniques together Pinker makes it seem like the decrease in violence is a historical juggernaut whose speed is only increasing as both social and technological progress becomes more rapid. He may deny that he’s making any predictions about the future, but once the reader has an unstoppable, accelerating juggernaut in his head, it’s going to be hard for him to imagine it stopping suddenly, let alone going in reverse. I see, and agree with the same data Pinker does, I just don’t see a juggernaut, I see something far more fragile.

In service of his argument Pinker is very committed to painting the past in as violent a light as possible. The first chapter of the book is titled “A Foreign Country” as in the past is a foreign country. Well the future is a foreign country as well, and I see at least six ways in which the decrease in violence is more fragile than Pinker’s book would indicate. Even if we grant a trend in decreasing violence lasting hundreds of years, which, itself, is a shakier thesis than Pinker wants to admit.

First while Pinker offers various explanations for why violence has decreased. One that he comes back to over and over to is the Leviathan, a term coined by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 to describe an all powerful state. In Pinker’s opinion decreases in violence are directly tied to increases in state power. That in fact if you look closely at his data you’ll find that the clearest trendline for a decrease in violence isn’t the length of time which has passed, but the trend from hunter-gatherer to hunter-horticulturalist to full agriculture, with the accompanying increase at each step in the centralization and power of the state. If you have any libertarian leanings, this trend should worry you, but even if you don’t, by tying up everything into a single larger and larger entity we introduce fragility, even if it’s just through the single points of failure we create. You may agree that this is still a great deal, but is it still a great deal if the endpoint of the trend is zero murders, but a 1984 style surveillance state?

Second, and closely related to the last point, it would appear that Pinker’s juggernaut relies on the continued health and stability of the state. As I said his warfare data had a lot of gaps, even though it went back thousands of years. One of the gaps that seemed particularly noteworthy was the period after the fall of the Roman Empire. Pinker gives the impression that violence has decreased on a smooth line since the Sumerians first planted wheat in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. But if the Leviathan collapses, I can only assume that violence rockets back up. Pinker doesn’t touch on this point, but the biggest single point of failure in the Leviathan is the Leviathan itself. And this time around if there’s any collapse of the state we’ll get to add nukes to the mix. In other words we are only saved if the state remains healthy, and I think that at present there’s reason for a lot of concern on that count.

Third, even if the Leviathan remains healthy, the modern world in general is more fragile. Pinker can be right about everything and still have a single bioterrorist bring the entire thing down, illustrating that however peaceful we’ve become that one big difference between the future and that past is the amount of damage a single individual can do. Catastrophes caused by more powerful weapons aren’t just limited to bioterrorism, they include the potential threat of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the grandaddy of threats, nuclear war. Pinker doesn’t spend any time on the first two, but as you might imagine he spends significant time with nuclear weapons. On this count he has some compelling arguments, but I think that he overlooks one big part of the argument. Whether this is purposeful or not I don’t know, but the part he overlooks is the enormous time horizon he’s dealing with. Perhaps it’s true that nuclear weapons won’t be used in the next 50 or the next 100, but what about the next 500? Even if we somehow get rid of them all the technology will still be around.

Fourth, even though I claim that the harvest is past and the summer is ended, I don’t claim that there was no harvest or that there was no summer. There was a harvest and there was a summer, I’m merely saying it can’t last forever, and that it won’t provide permanent salvation. If you look at Pinker’s data, and even his anecdotes, you’ll find that they mostly concern this same summer and this same harvest that I’ve talked about. The period that starts roughly with The Enlightenment and continues to the present day. Where we disagree is how long it can last. As I pointed out in my blogpost about the limits of growth, there are limits to progress, limits we may have already reached. As I said in the last post we may already be out of dragons to slay. The technological progress which has enabled the decrease in violence may be about to hit a wall. Historically the few hundred years of progress we’ve experienced is not in the general scheme of things, all that long, the only difference between this period and previous periods of relative stability is the speed of technology, a speed which is ultimately unsustainable.

Thus far I’ve been focusing on more tangible and quantifiable concerns, but for the last two points I’d like look at a couple of things that are more speculative. Thus far I’ve largely talked about the decrease in violence, but Pinker’s writing reaches out to encompass the entire arc of progress, including what he terms the rights revolution. Under this heading he includes everything from civil rights to gay rights to animal rights and unlike with the other trends, he admits that recognition of most of these rights is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As my fifth point I worry about where it all ends. When speaking of rights I agree with Pinker that there is a trend and the trend is accelerating, but we’re running out of road. We already have rights movements for everything imaginable, from animals, to transgendered individuals, to children (though not fetal rights.) What else is there? It may be too soon to tell but it appears now that the only thing left is to restrict the rights of those who’ve traditionally been privileged, a weird circular progression with strange unknowable consequences (including, possibly, the election of Trump?) It is possible to have too much of a good thing? Antibiotics were a true miracle when discovered, but using them for everything eventually makes them completely ineffective. As bacteria develop resistance. I’ve seen the same argument made about accusations of racism. Initially they were useful and very effective, but we’ve gotten to a point where the accusations have been overused. Once again it may not be a big deal, but there are a lot of times where things work until suddenly they don’t, where violence decreases until suddenly it doesn’t and I wonder if the rights revolution is an early example of that.

Finally, when I have an idea there’s one friend in particular that I always run it by. First off explaining it to him inevitably clarifies my thinking, secondly if this friend sees a hole in my argument he’s going to pounce on it, and most of my discussions with him end up more as low intensity debates. Additionally, in any discussion/debate with this friend he wants to make sure that he understands the core value(s) of the other person. Since it’s hard to have a productive debate if the two people can’t even agree on what’s important. For example a productive debate on whether incarceration rates are too high is going to prove difficult if one person’s core value is maximum liberty, and the other person’s core value is zero crime.

And this takes me to my final point. What is our core value? Pinker’s is the reduction of suffering and violence. This is laudable, and I certainly don’t fault Pinker (or anyone) if that is in fact his core value. But it’s not my core value and it probably shouldn’t be yours. To begin with, if you’re Mormon, you believe we already rejected the plan of zero sin and zero suffering. If you’re not Mormon, but you’re still Christian your core value should be to do God’s will. (A sentiment Pinker finds abhorrent.) But what if you’re an atheist like Pinker? Well then a reduction in violence may be your core value, but I can think of one that’s better. It’s the core value of my friend. His core value is “For Intelligence to Escape This Gravity Well.”

You may not initially agree that this is a better core value. But if this doesn’t happen then we’re definitely not saved. Humanity could end up perfectly peaceful and nonviolent, but if they don’t eventually leave the Earth they’re going to be wiped out anyway, even if it’s several billion years from now when the Earth can no longer support life, but it would probably be a lot sooner than that. Or perhaps you do agree that it’s probably a better core value, but you don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do both. I’m not so sure about that. The countries that are the farthest along the Better Angels path spend vast sums of money on the welfare state which is essentially a nonviolent humanitarian project, and very little on making humanity a two+ planet species. A staggeringly difficult project regardless of what Elon Musk says.

I’m glad that we live in a time of unprecedented peace, and I thoroughly enjoyed Pinker’s book. But despite this I think he falls into the trap common to most defenders of modernity: thinking that the recent summer of progress is an eternal summer and that the harvest of technology will last forever.


The Ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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At the moment I find myself in the middle of two books by Steven Pinker. The first, Better Angels of Our Nature, has been mentioned a couple of times in this space and I thought it a good idea to read it, if I was going to continue referencing it. I’m nearly done and I expect that next week I’ll post a summary/review/critique. The second Pinker book I’m reading is his book on writing called The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. When the time comes you’ll see that my review of Better Angels of Our Nature is full of criticisms, but a criticism of Pinker’s writing will not be among them. Sense of Style is his book of writing advice, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It continues a wealth of quality advice on non-fiction writing.

One piece of advice in particular jumped out at me. Pinker cautions writers to avoid the curse of knowledge. This particular example of bad writing happens because authors are generally so immersed in the topics they write about that they assume everyone must be familiar with the same ideas, terms and abbreviations they are. You see this often in academia and among professionals like doctors and attorneys. They spend so much of their time talking about a common set of ideas and situations that they develop a professional jargon, within which  acronyms and specialized terms proliferate leading to what could almost be classified as a different language, or at a minimum a very difficult to understand dialect. This may be okay, if not ideal, when academics are talking to other academics and doctors are talking to other doctors, but it becomes problematic when you make any attempt to share those ideas with a broader audience.

Pinker illustrates the problems with jargon using the following example:

The slow and integrative nature of conscious perception is confirmed behaviorally by observations such as the “rabbit illusion” and its variants, where the way in which a stimulus is ultimately perceived is influenced by poststimulus events arising several hundreds of milliseconds after the original stimulus.

Pinker points out that the entire paragraph is hard to understand and full of jargon, but that the key problem is that the author assumes that everyone automatically knows what the “rabbit illusion” is, and perhaps within the author’s narrow field of expertise, it is common knowledge, but that’s almost certainly a very tiny community, a community to which most of his readers do not belong. Pinker himself did not belong to this community despite the fact that the quote was taken from a paper written by two neuroscientists and Pinker, himself, specializes in cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Harvard.

As an aside for those who are curious, the rabbit illusion refers to the effect produced when you have someone close their eyes and then you tap their wrist a few times, followed by their elbow and their shoulder. They will feel a series of taps running up the length of their arm, similar to a rabbit hopping. And the point of the paragraph quoted, is to point out that the body interprets a tap on the wrist differently if it’s followed by taps farther up the arm, then if it’s not.

This extended preface is all an effort to say that in the past posts I may have have fallen prey to the curse of knowledge. I may have let my own knowledge (meager and misguided though it may be) blind me to things that are not widely known to the public at large and which I tossed out without sufficient explanation. I feel like I have been particularly guilty of this when it comes to the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, thus this post will be an attempt to rectify that oversight. It is hoped that this, along with a general resolve to do better about avoiding the curse of knowledge in the future will expulcate me from future guilt. (Though apparently not of the desire to use words like “expulcate”.)

In undertaking a survey of Taleb’s thinking in the space of a few thousand words, I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I’m optimistic that I can at least give you the 10,000 foot view of his ideas.

Conceptually Taleb’s thinking all begins with the idea of understanding randomness. His first book was titled Fooled by Randomness, because frequently what we assume is a trend, or a cause and effect relationship is actually just random noise. Perhaps the best example of this is the Narrative Fallacy, which Taleb explains as follows:

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Upon initially hearing that explanation you may be thinking of the previous paragraph about the “rabbit illusion”. I think Taleb’s writing is easier to understand, but the paragraph is a little dense, so I’ll try and unpack it. But first, what’s interesting, is that there is connection between the “rabbit illusion” and the narrative fallacy. As I mentioned the “rabbit illusion” comes because the body connects taps on the wrist, elbow and shoulder into a narrative of movement, in this case a rabbit hopping up the arm. In the same way the narrative fallacy comes into play when we try to collect isolated events into a single story that explains everything, even if those isolated events are completely random. This is what Taleb is saying. It’s almost impossible for us to not try and pull events and facts together into a single story that explains everything. But in doing so we may think we understand something when really we don’t.

To illustrate the point I’ll borrow an example from Better Angels, since I just read it. The famous biologist Stephen Jay Gould was touring the Waitomo glowworm caves in New Zealand, and when he looked up he realized that the glowworms made the ceiling look like the night sky, except there were no constellations. Gould realized that this was because the patterns required for constellations only happened in a random distribution (which is how the stars are distributed) but that the glowworms actually weren’t randomly distributed. For reasons of biology (glowworms eat other glowworms) each worm kept a minimum distance. This leads to a distribution that looks random but actually isn’t. And yet, counterintuitively we’re able to find patterns in the randomness of the stars, but not in the less random spacing of the glowworms.

It’s important to understand this way in which our mind builds stories out of unconnected events because it leads us to assume underlying causes and trends when there aren’t any. The explanations going around about election are great examples of this. If 140,000 people had voted differently (125k in Florida and 15k in Michigan) then the current narrative would be completely different. This is, after all, the same country who elected Obama twice, and by much bigger margins. Did the country really change that much or did the narrative change in an attempt match the events of the election? Events which probably had a fair degree of randomness. Every person needs to answer that question for themselves, but I, for one, am confident that the country hasn’t actually moved that much, but how we explain the country and it’s citizens has moved by a lot.

This is why understanding the narrative fallacy is so important. Without that understanding it’s easy to get caught up in the story we’ve constructed and believe that you understand something about the world, or even worse that based on that understanding that you can predict the future. As a final example, I offer up the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of at least 100,000 people (and probably a lot more). And all because of the narrative: Islamic bad-guys caused 9/11, Sadaam is only vaguely Islamic, but definitely a bad guy. Get him! (This is by no means the worst example of deaths caused by the narrative fallacy, see my discussion of the Great Leap Forward.)

Does all of this mean that the world is simply random and any attempts to understand it are futile? No, but it does mean that it’s more important to understand what can happen than to attempt to predict what will happen. And this takes us to the next concept I want to discuss, the difference between the worlds of Mediocristan and Extremistan.

Let’s start with Mediocristan. Mediocristan is the world of natural processes. It includes things like height and weight, intelligence, how much someone can lift, how fast they can run etc. If you’ve ever seen the graph of a bell curve this is a good description of what to expect in Mediocristan. You should expect most things to cluster around the middle, or the top of the bell curve, and expect very few things to be on the tail ends of the bell curve. In particular you don’t expect to see anything way off to the right or left of the curve. To put it in numbers for anything in Mediocristan 68% will be one standard deviation from the average, 95% will be within two standard deviations and 99.6% will be within three standard deviations. For a concrete example of this let’s look at the height of US Males.

68% of males will be between 5’6” and 6” tall (I’m rounding a little). 95% of males will be between 5’3” and 6’3” and only one in a 1.7 million males will be over 7’ or under 4’7”. Some of you may be nodding your heads and some of you may be bored, but it’s important that you understand how the world of Mediocristan works. The key points are the average, and the median are very similar. That is that if you took a classroom full of students and lined them up by height the person standing in the middle of the line would be very close to the average height. The second key point is that there are no extremes, there are no men who are 10 feet tall or 16 inches tall. This is medicrostan. And when I said it’s more important to understand what can happen, than attempting to predict what will happen, in Mediocristan lots of extreme events can not happen. You’ll never see a 50 foot tall woman, and the vast majority of men you meet will be between 5’3” and 6’3”.

If the whole world was Mediocristan, then things would be fairly straightforward, but there is another world in which we live. It takes up the same space and involves the same people as the first world, but the rules are vastly different. This is Extremistan. And Extremistan is primarily the world of man-made systems. A good example is wealth. The average person is 5’4”, the tallest person ever was 8’11” tall. But the average person in the world has a net worth of $26,202 while the richest person in the world (Currently Bill Gates) has a net worth of $75 billion which is 2.8 million times the worth of the average person. Imagine that the tallest person in the world was actually 2,800 miles tall, and you get a sense of the difference between Mediocristan and Extremistan.

The immediate consequence of this disparity is that the exact opposite opposite rules apply in Extremistan as what applies in Mediocristan. The average and the median are not the same. And some examples will be very much on the extreme. In particular you start to understand that in a world with this sorts of extremes in what can happen it becomes very difficult to predict what will happen.

Additionally Extremistan is the world of black swans, which is the next concept I want to cover and the title of Taleb’s second book. Once again this is a term you might be familiar with, but it’s important to understand that they form a key component in understanding what can happen in Extremistan.

In short a Black Swan is something that:

  1. Lies outside the realm of regular expectations
  2. Has an extreme impact
  3. People go to great lengths afterword to show how it should have been expected.

You’ll notice that two of those points are about the prediction of black swans. The first point being that they can’t be predicted and the third point being that people will retroactively attempt to show that it should have been possible to predict it. One of the key points I try and make in this blog is that you can’t predict the future. This is terrifying for people and that’s why point 3 is so interesting. Everyone wants to think that they could have predicted the black swan, and that having seen it once they won’t miss it again, but in fact that’s not true, they will still end up being surprised the next time around.

But if we live in Extremistan, which is full of unpredictable black swans what do we do? Knowing what the world is capable of is one thing, but unless we can take some steps to mitigate these black swans what’s the point?

And here we arrive at the last idea I want to cover and the underlying idea behind Taleb’s final book, Antifragility. As I mentioned the concept of Antifragility is important enough that you should probably just read the book, in fact you should probably read all of Taleb’s books. But for the moment we’ll assume that you haven’t (and if you have you why have you even gotten this far?)

Antifragility is how you deal with black swans and how you live in Extremistan. It’s also your lifestyle if you’re not fooled by randomness. This is why Taleb considered Antifragile his mangum opus because it pulls in all of the ideas from his previous books and puts them into a single framework. That’s great, you may be saying, but you’re unclear on what antifragility is.

At it’s core antifragility is straightforward. To be antifragile is to get stronger in response to stress. (Up to a point.) The problem is when people hear that idea it sounds magical, if not impossible. They imagine cars that get stronger the more accidents they’re in or software that becomes more secure when someone attempts to hack it, or a government that gets more stable with every attempt to overthrow it. While none of this is impossible, I agree, that when stated this way the idea of antifragility seems a little bit magical.

If instead you explain antifragility in terms of muscles, which get stronger the more you stress them, then people find it easier to understand, but at the same time they will have a hard time expanding it beyond natural systems. Having established that Extremistan and black swans are mostly present in artificial systems antifragility is not going to be any good if you can’t extend it into that domain. In other words if you explain antifragility to people in isolation their general response will be to call it a nice idea, but they may have difficulty understanding the real world utility of the idea, and it’s possible that my previous discussions on the topic have left you in just this situation. Which is why I felt compelled to write this post.

Hopefully by covering Taleb’s ideas in something of a chronological order the idea of antifragility will be easier to understand. And it comes by flipping much of conventional wisdom on it’s head. Rather than being fooled by randomness, if you’re antifragile you expect randomness. Rather than being surprised by black swans, you prepare for them, knowing that there are both positive and negative black swans. Armed with this knowledge you lessen your exposure to negative black swans while increasing your exposure to positive black swans. All of this allows you to live comfortably in Extremistan.

If this starts to look like we’ve wandered into the realm of magical thinking again, I don’t blame you, but at it’s essence being antifragile is straightforward, for our purposes antifragility is about making sure you have unlimited upside, and limited downside. Does this mean that something which is fragile has limited upside and unlimited downside? Pretty much, and you may wonder if we’re talking about man-made systems why would anyone make something fragile. This is an excellent question. And the answer is that it all depends on the order in which things happen. In artificial systems fragility is marked by the practice of taking short term, limited profits, but having the chance of catastrophic losses. On the opposite side antifragility is marked by incurring short term limited costs, but having the chance of stratospheric profits. Fragility assumes the world is not random, assumes there are no black swans and ekes out small profits in the space between extreme events. (If this sounds like the banking system then you’re starting to get the idea.) Antifragility assumes the world is random and that black swans are on the horizon and pays small manageable costs to protect itself from those black swans (or gain access to them if they’re positive).

In case it’s still unclear here are some examples:

Insurance: If you’re fragile, you save the money you would have spent on insurance every month, a small limited profit, but risk the enormous cost of a black swan in the form of a car crash or a home fire. If you’re antifragile you pay the cost of insurance every month, a small limited cost, but avoid the enormous expense of the negative black swan, should it ever happen.

Investing: If you put away a small amount of money every month you gain access to a system with potential black swans. Trading a small, limited cost for the potential of a big payout. If you don’t invest, you get that money, a small limited profit, but miss out on any big payouts.

Government Debt: By running a deficit governments get the limited advantage of being able to spend more than they take in. But in doing so they create a potentially huge black swan, should an extreme event happen.

Religion: By following religious commandments you have to put up with the cost of not enjoying alcohol, or fornication, or Sunday morning, but in return you avoid the negative black swans of alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, and not having a community of friends when times get tough. If you don’t follow the commandments you get your Sunday mornings, and I hear whiskey is pretty cool, but you open yourself up to all of the negative swans mentioned above. And of course I haven’t even brought in the idea of an eternal reward (see Pascal’s Wager.)

Hopefully we’ve finally reached the point where you can see why Taleb’s ideas are so integral to the concept of this blog.

The modern world is top heavy with fragility, and the story of progress is the story of taking small limited profits while ignoring potential catastrophes. In contrast, Antifragility requires sacrifice, it requires cost, it requires dedication and effort. And, as I have said again and again in this space, I fear that all of those are currently in short supply


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.


The Change Hurricane: Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East German’s in 1988?

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Every so often in history everything changes, and people can find themselves in situations which seemed unthinkable just a few years or even a few months beforehand. Examples of this include the Sack of Baghdad (which I’ve already talked about), Poland during World War II, the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of the Aztecs and of course the recent Syrian Civil War. In all of these cases there was definitely a certain degree of surprise attached, which is not to say that these catastrophes came out of nowhere, or even that no one could have predicted them, just that they generally happened more quickly than expected and when they did happen the consequences were much worse than generally anticipated.

As we look back at these catastrophes they are all strong arguments in favor of preparing for the worst. Of course preparing for the worst is costly, but these are all situations where even large costs would have been worth it if you could be sure of avoiding the one big catastrophe. As just one example if you were a Jew in Poland in 1937, however inconvenient it might have been to take your family to America, it would have been way better than any outcome which involved staying in Poland. Yes you may not have spoken the language. Yes immigration would have been costly and difficult. Yes, you may have left friends and family and your home, but anything is better than what did happen.

Some people will argue that while all of this is obvious in hindsight, could you really expect the Polish Jews to realize all of that was coming in 1937? And this is an excellent point. To put it in more recent terms, no one imagined in January of 2011 that the Syrian Civil War would still be going on in November of 2016, that Assad would still be in power (and likely to remain in power) and that 400,000 people would have died. But in the same vein of things being clear only in hindsight, once things have happened it’s too late to do anything about them. Obviously the ideal solution is to see things before they happen, but that’s impossible. Or is it?

It is impossible to be sure about anything that hasn’t happened. Our hypothetical Jew could have fled Poland in 1937 only to have Hitler assassinated in November of 1939 by Johann Georg Elser, perhaps leading to a situation where death camps never happened. In other words it could have very easily ended up being a bad idea to make huge sacrifices in order to flee Poland. To use an actual example you could have crafted a daring plan to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin in May of 1989, risking death, when all you had to do was wait six months.

This is the question we’re faced with. Are we Polish Jews in 1937 or East Germans in 1988? And that’s nearly impossible to know, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to which way the wind is blowing and whether it’s a gentle breeze or hurricane force winds. Lately it appears that it might be the latter and that it might be blowing in the wrong direction.

As I said in my last episode, I’m at least as worried about the reaction to the election of Trump as I am about the actual election. But it’s not just the US where winds seem to be blowing in a worrisome direction and with powerful force. I’m seeing things all over the world that are worrisome and potentially catastrophic. Here’s a quick sample of some areas of concern from around the world:

1- NATO could be disintegrating: First there’s the election of Trump, but on top of that we have the top two candidates in the upcoming French Election both favoring closer ties to Russia, with even the establishment candidate saying “Russia poses no threat to the west.” As I have argued in the past Russia views NATO expansion as a major threat and a major betrayal, there’s no easier way to get on their good side than pulling back from that expansion and no quicker way to get on their bad side than seeking to continue NATO expansion.

2- Italy might be on the verge of collapse. You may or may not have heard about the huge vote recently in Italy, regarding some constitutional reforms. The leader of Italy, Matteo Renzi, said that the reforms were necessary to bring stability to Italy and he consequently resigned when they were not passed. Having a change of governments in Italy is nothing newsworthy, but Italy is in a serious financial crisis and Italian bonds represent the third largest bond market in the world. Italy may be facing a financial Armageddon regardless of what happens.

3- Turkey is getting progressively more autocratic. Turkey is still a democracy, and they still hold elections (also there’s the occasional coup) but those elections are becoming increasingly pointless. Recep Erdogan has a pretty good chokehold on things and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Also as Turkey becomes more autocratic, the ideological split between them and Europe widens. As an example the EU Parliament recently voted to end talks on Turkey’s membership in the EU. Turkey is still part of NATO, but on that issue I refer you back to point number 1.

4- The Middle East and North Africa are still a mess. We’ve already talked about the Syrian Civil War, and of course there’s ISIS. The good news is that ISIS appears to be near defeat, the bad news is that no one knows what happens once the various players in the region no longer have a common enemy. Also, like most people you may have forgotten about Libya, or if you haven’t you may have heard that a peace deal was signed. Well whatever the effects of that deal there’s still a vast civil war taking place, with Obama saying that not being prepared for a post Gaddafi Libya was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

5- Venezuela is suffering from hyperinflation and economic collapse. Of course the economic problems are the result of a huge power struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents, but just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean that there’s an easy to fix. And as a side effect of this Venezuela has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.

As it stands, individually, none of these five items seems like that big of a deal or that catastrophic. Just the normal rumblings of the world. But each of them could grow into something huge. Going back through the list:

The end of NATO would mean the end of American hegemony. It has to end eventually, and better it end with a whimper than a bang, but the world that comes after it ends could be very different.

Events in Italy could mean the end of the EU, which is already looking shaky after Brexit. Also we’ve see how financial contagion spreads. The failure of Italian banks or bonds could mean another global financial crisis.

Turkey is the traditional foe of Russia. If both are resurgent and NATO goes away, do hostilities start again? How soon before Turkey and Erdogen decide that they need nukes?

The Middle East and North Africa have never been poster childs for stability, but now the chaos is beginning to spread. Refugees from these two areas are one of the major driving factors behind the EU crisis and a contributing factor to what’s happening in Italy. Syria seems bad enough already but it could get worse.

Venezuela is on it’s way to becoming a failed state. Does having a failed state to our south look the same as Europe having failed states to the south of them? It seems like, best case scenario, we end up in a situation similar to Argentina under Pinochet, and as someone who spent the latter half of the 80’s in high school debate, I can vouch for how much hand-wringing he caused.

But perhaps you remain unconvinced. So I will turn to something which does involve potential global catastrophe, nukes, war, China and shamans… I’m speaking of course about North and South Korea.

We all know that North Korea has nukes, but since the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, the rate of advancement North Korea has shown both with nuclear weapons and missiles, has been, well, impressive. Just this year they’ve done two nuclear tests and 21 missile tests. There has always been an appalling lack of any concrete options with respect to North Korea, but as their technology gets better all the former bad options just keep getting worse.

When North Korea had just one nuke they mostly used it for leverage to acquire food aid, and as one more deterrent against invasion. Now that they have several nukes and increasingly advanced delivery systems what will they do? I think people kind of assume that things would continue as before, there would be a lot of bluster. Minor cross border incidents involving fatalities, a general despair, but nothing big would happen. But increasingly the winds of change in that region appear to be blowing more strongly. A sense of urgency is growing, and a consensus developing that North Korea is planning to use its weapons to dictate events on the peninsula. Perhaps demanding that the Americans leave.

I’ve talked before, at some length, about how nukes are qualitatively different than any previous weapon. And this illustrates the point. Imagine that North Korea got to the point where they could hit the west coast with an nuke. (Some estimates put this at only five years away.) And they threaten to nuke San Francisco unless we  remove all our forces from the Korean Peninsula. What are our options? We might hope that China would cut off trade, but it’s not like the North Koreans aren’t used to sanctions and hardship. In other words I’m sure there would be all sorts of diplomatic reactions, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t work. So we’re looking at the threat of a nuke hitting San Francisco, and we’re out of diplomatic options. Now what?

Obviously it would be great if we could shoot the missile down, but as I mentioned in the previous episode on nukes, that’s actually difficult. A lot would depend on whether we had the right ships in place to shoot the missile down when it was launched. But let’s say, optimistically, that we have an 80% chance of shooting it down. Are we willing refuse their demands and accept a 20% chance of SF getting nuked? If we’re not willing to do that (and I suspect we wouldn’t be) what other options do we have? We could, of course, always invade, but that just changes the SF missile from a possibility to a certainty. And adds enormous war deaths on top of it.

In addition to the increased external tension between South and North Korea. South Korea is dealing with a major political crisis of its own. It’s current president Park Geun-hye has an approval rating among 19-39 year olds of 0%. Yes, you read that right, the number of people under 40 who like her is statistically undetectable. This is where the shamans come in. The reason for her unpopularity is that she has engaged in frequent consultation with an old friend who is the leader of a shamanistic cult. (In a fashion similar to Nancy Reagan.) Just the consultation might be a storm that could be weathered, but the president also funneled money to her friend.

Does the weakness and unpopularity of the South Korean president make the North Korean situation worse? That’s hard to say for sure, but it certainly doesn’t make it any better. And it seems safe to assume that for people living in South Korea things must seem pretty chaotic. Thus just like the Polish Jew in 1937 and the East German in 1988. The South Korean of 2016 is faced with a choice. They can do nothing and take their chances. Or they can spend time and money trying to mitigate the downsides of various potential catastrophes. In the latter case they’re still taking their chances they’re just trying to lower the odds of something truly bad happening.

It’s always possible that the North Korean government will collapse (though this isn’t necessarily great for South Korea either) or that some other, positive black swan will emerge, and the 2016 South Korean will be in the situation of the 1988 East German. But it’s also possible that the 2016 South Korean will be much closer in circumstances to the 1937 Polish Jew. As I said you can’t know for sure. And it’s always a balancing act between the admittedly high probability that things will be okay which makes preparing for the worst just wasted time and money, or, on the other hand, the small possibility that things will be awful, and you’ll be grateful for every bit of preparation and upset that you didn’t do more.

One of the reasons I’m recording this episode and indeed one of the reasons for having this podcast in general is that people have a tendency to underestimate the chances of something bad happening. So if you’re on the fence about which course to choose I think you should choose to be prepared. But perhaps even more important I think you need to be aware of the political weather. If you’re a 1937 Polish Jew and you’re not paying attention to Hitler then of course you’re going to make the wrong choice. On the other hand for those East Germans preparing to escape in 1988 Gorbachev had been in power since 1985, so for them the wind was blowing the opposite direction and they just had to wait.

The title of the episode is The Change Hurricane, and thus far all I’ve talked about is some local storms which, while scary, and possibly globally significant (I can only imagine what would happen if North Korea nuked San Francisco) are still fairly local. If we’re talking about hurricane’s one would expect something bigger than just a spat between the two Koreas which has been going on since 1948. I am of the opinion that things are bigger than just the isolated incidents I mentioned above, but this is also where things get more speculative. Also it’s time for another list.

Outside of the storms I’ve mentioned here are some of the longer term weather patterns which I think are blowing in the wrong direction:

1- Declining American Power: We’ve already talked about the end of the American hegemony and as I mentioned it has to end eventually, and when it does I doubt we’re going to transition to another unipolar world, or even a bipolar world. I think there will be lots of countries trying to fill the gap. Certainly China and Russia, but also Turkey, Iran, India and Brazil are all going to want a piece of the pie. And that could play out in interesting and potentially violent ways.

2- Nuclear proliferation: Closely related to the last point. There are a lot of countries who could currently make a nuclear weapon, but have chosen not to because they consider themselves to be under the US nuclear umbrella. Turkey and Japan would certainly fall into this category. Does a declining America and a belligerent Russia and China set off a new round of proliferation? If it does the chances of weapons being used goes way up.

3- Immigration: This is a hot button issue with lots of emotion on both sides, and by classifying it as a negative trend you may feel that I’m already choosing a side, and perhaps I am, But in a sense this is a secondary effect. If things get worse because of wars or famine or global warming, then the number of people willing to risk nearly anything to get to a better country (similar to our 1937 Polish Jew) is going to go way up. And insofar as I am taking a side I think that there is a limit to the rate at which immigrants can be assimilated, and when this limit is exceeded, things can start changing in unexpected ways, as we’re seeing in Europe.

4- Debt: The modern, developed nation state, is able to accumulate debt in amounts never before imagined. I see that as a huge source of fragility. Perhaps it is or perhaps it isn’t, but we could be getting an example of how bad it can be if Italy runs into problems with its bonds. One early indication that makes me worry about Trump is it looks like he might explode the deficit.

5- Social Unrest: I think by historical standards the level of social unrest is still pretty low. But, as a consequence our tolerance for it is not that high either. What happens if Trump is as bad as his worst critics fear, and we have riots every night in most major cities? I can’t even begin to predict what that looks like, but I think, at a minimum, It’s safe to say that the anti-cop/pro-cop division would become much more pronounced.

6- Environmental concerns: I already mentioned this to a certain extent under immigration, but for many people the trend that worries them the most is global warming. One of the chief arguments is that this makes things worse in places where it’s already pretty bad, like Sub-Saharan Africa. But also if the sea level rises by six meters that’s not good either. I think this is more slow moving than the rest, but it could also be the hardest to do anything about.

This entire episode could be written off as nothing more than fear-mongering. We’re probably not the 1937 Polish Jews and I assume most of my readers aren’t even 2016 South Koreans. We could in fact all be like the 1988 East Germans and we’re only a short time away from the dawning of a new age where we never have to worry about another Hitler, or Nuclear Proliferation or Global Warming, and any preparation you do now is just a waste of time. As they say, anything is possible, but that particular scenario seems unlikely, and not just because we’ve completely neglected to mention things like natural disasters. At least with Korea and Syria we have some control.

In other words.Bad things happen, and most people are surprised by them. But you don’t have to be. If you see which way the wind is blowing you can take steps to lower your risk. And it’s possible that those steps will be a waste of time and money, but it’s also possible that in 2019 when President Trump defaults on the debt, and panic grips the world, that you’ll be glad you spent some time preparing for the worst.