Month: June 2017

The Cultural War and The Overton Window

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As I said in my last post, I’m not the first person to speak about the current political climate in terms of a civil war, and the events of the last few weeks mean I definitely won’t be the last either. As one of my commenters pointed out I didn’t mention the shooting last week at the congressional baseball field. But even more recently than that, on Monday morning, a man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims who were leaving a London mosque. That attack was probably a response to an attack earlier this month where some Muslim terrorists drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge before getting out and stabbing people. One would hope that we’ve seen the last such incidents for awhile, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

I think it’s becoming clear that we have a real problem on our hands, the only questions are, “Is it getting worse?” And, “How much worse?” As I indicated in the last episode (of which this is a continuation) the answer to both those questions is greatly assisted by understanding how long it’s been going on, and so I’m more focused on the long term view then I am on dissecting every individual incident. For one thing, if that’s really what you’re looking for there are no shortage of people willing to engage in that dissection. Also, by looking back decades rather than days we find things that are both comforting and sobering. All of this is to say that, as usual, I’m more interested in the 50,000 foot view than the view from the ground. Another person who shares this preference is Dan Carlin of the Common Sense and Hardcore History podcast, who released a Common Sense Episode on this very topic on Sunday, so just before the most recent incident in London. An incident which paradoxically makes his podcast even more timely.

Carlin mentions that a lot of people will want to write off the various perpetrators, from the baseball shooter, to the van drivers, as crazy. And in my experience, that’s definitely going to happen, though people will disagree about which are crazy and which are evil. In fact it’s striking how often people decide that the people who are on their side of things must have been crazy while people on the other side are invariably evil. I would offer that they’re all crazy to one degree or another, but Carlin makes the excellent point that they represent something of a canary in a coal mine. As things get angrier and polarization increases the most susceptible crack first. But he argues, and I agree, that if it continues more and more people will drink the kool-aid and the amount of craziness it requires to turn violent will continue to decrease.

We have seen this happen before. Preceding the Civil War there was Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Bleeding Kansas, and of course, the event which most resembles the kind of thing we’re worried about today, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. More recently when we look at the flare-up of the late 60s/early 70s there was the Weather Underground bombings, the Kent State Shootings and the Manson Family Murders. I don’t feel qualified to get into the psychology of people before the Civil War, but looking at the list of people involved in the more recent social unrest we have the whole continuum from very insane on one end to very sane on the other. It’s hard to argue that Charles Manson is not insane, but the participants in the Weather Underground were sane enough to go on to become respected professors, and I can’t find anyone who claims that the National Guardsman who fired on protesters at Kent State were anything other than sane.

Reviewing these incidents should provide some comfort. As bad as things are today we haven’t had anything yet that rivals the events I just listed. Even the campus protests of today, as angry as the protesters are, don’t (yet) come anywhere near the intensity or scope of the campus protests or the wider social unrest present in the late 60s/early 70s. As much as I worry about increasing violence and the widening ideological chasm, it has been worse. And I don’t think people realize how bad it was. This is another thing Carlin brings up in his podcast and to illustrate his point he uses the following selection from Nixon’s Memoirs:

From January 1969 through April 1970 there were, by conservative count, over 40,000 bombings, attempted bombings, and bomb threats–an average of over eighty a day. Over $21 million ($140 million in today’s dollars). Forty-three people were killed. Of these 40,000 incidents, 64 percent were by bombers whose identity and motive were unknown.

Now you may not want to believe Tricky Dicky, but I think we can all agree that things aren’t as bad now as they were then. Still, as I said in my previous post, whether they remain that way depends on which direction things are headed and how long they’ve been headed in that direction. I have already said that I think they’re headed left, and they’ve been headed left for awhile. But the important question, as always is, what evidence do I have of this? And here I would like to introduce another way of looking at this subject, the aptly named, Overton Window.

The “Overton” comes from Joseph P. Overton, a think tank executive who died young in a plane crash, and if you spend much time in certain corners of the internet you’ll already be familiar with this term. But if you’re not familiar with it, the idea behind the Overton Window is that out of all the things you could talk about some are acceptable and some are completely unacceptable. The things which are acceptable are inside the Overton Window and everything that’s unacceptable is outside the window. The idea was originally developed as a way of describing the political viability of an idea, and specifically what someone seeking a public office could and could not say if they wanted to have any hope of getting elected. Some examples will help to clarify things:

Currently, supporting same sex marriage is squarely in the Overton Window, not only can you talk about it, it’s policy everywhere in the US. On the other hand, opposition to same sex marriage is at the edge of the Overton Window. You can still talk about it, but depending on which party you’re affiliated with it may disqualify you from seeking public office. From this you may have already deduced one of the central features of the Overtown Window, it moves. For example less than 10 years ago Obama said: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Can you imagine any democrat seeking a nationwide office saying that now? No, and that’s because in the last ten years the Overton Window moved significantly with respect to this issue.

To take a less partisan example let’s look at single payer healthcare. In 2008 when Obama was running for the presidency, he made sure to clarify that his proposed health care plan was not single payer, because he knew that the idea of single-payer healthcare is unpalatable to a lot of people and advocating for it would have made it difficult for him to get elected. In other words, it was on the edge of the Overton Window. And even after the election, and despite controlling the presidency and both houses of congress, the democrats didn’t try to pass single-payer despite the fact that it was clear, even then, that the frankenstein monster they did put together was almost certainly worse than single payer. Now that healthcare is back on the table not only is single-payer being seriously discussed but even republicans are talking about it. Another example of the movement of the window, though notice that it’s moving more slowly than in the first example.

From looking at stuff inside, or at the edge of the window let’s look at something that was once in the Overton Window and is now so far outside of it, that it’s a major news story if anyone attempts to even slightly minimize its horror. Of course I’m talking about slavery. There was a time when talking about whether slavery should be legal, or whether it should be expanded into new states, or whether free states had a duty to return escaped slaves, were all well within the Overton Window. Now, of course, such subjects aren’t anywhere near the window of acceptable discourse. And I’m probably going to get in trouble for even talking about it.

In all of the examples the window moved left. And as we shall see, that represents another interesting feature of the Overton Window, not only does it move, when it does move it always moves left. In the last post we talked about how conservatives, after decades of effort, finally got tired of trying to change academia and the media and defected to create their own institutions. In this post we uncover the explanation for why. Not only were conservatives unable to make media and academia more conservative, they were unable to even hold the line. Historian Robert Conquest summed up this process in his second law of politics:

Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.

And not only are all organizations moving left, there is significant evidence, as we saw with same sex marriage, that they’re picking up speed.

At this point, particularly for those inclined to disagree with me, you’re probably looking for a counter example, some place where the window did not move left. And I will concede that It’s certainly possible to cherry-pick some small issue where the right achieved a temporary victory, or a tiny roll-back. But, as I mentioned in the beginning, my point is to look at things from 50,000 feet, and from that view point, the long-term trends are all moving left. So the fact that Proposition 8 made same sex marriage illegal in California in 2008 or the fact that the effective corporate tax rate was once 50% and now it’s 17% are not facts which falsify the idea. Because, the key fact is not that same sex marriage was made illegal again for a few years, but that it became legal everywhere after a fight of less than a decade. And the key fact is not where the government gets it’s money and if it’s getting more or less from businesses, but how much the government spends and how much it continues to grow in size.

And these two examples represent the two branches of conservatism: fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. And as you can probably already guess I am claiming that within these two broad categories the leftward shift is unmistakable.

If we focus first on fiscal conservatism, no one who looks at government spending could do anything other than conclude that fiscal conservatives are getting their butts kicked. As usual SlateStarCodex beat me to the punch (seriously how does that guy write so much?) and in his most recent post he has several graphs showing the ridiculous growth in government spending, and particularly in welfare programs. Of the graphs he included, my favorite is the one showing per person welfare spending in constant dollars. On this graph there is a spot marked to show when President Clinton implemented welfare reform. And at that spot the graph flattens a tiny, almost imperceptible amount, it doesn’t go down, it’s just flat. Meaning that even when we set out to reduce welfare spending that all we were able to do was hold it flat for a couple of years. Now of course it dropped a lot during the financial crisis, so it’s not impossible for it go down it’s just not something, apparently, that we can exercise any conscious control over.

Looking at that graph reminds me of something Thomas Sowell once said. (Though, for the life of me I haven’t been able to track down the reference.) He pointed out that if government programs really had the impact their advocates claim then you should be able to easily pick out when they were implemented on a graph and yet if you take away the labels and the dates, that’s rarely the case.

The welfare spending per person graph is a great example of this. (Here’s another example.) I am positive that without the label and without the date axis that no one could pick out the spot where the Clinton welfare reforms were implemented. Of course this is all just an interesting, though somewhat tangential point. The important point is that no matter how fiscally conservative the Republicans are; No matter how large their legislative majority; Or how many tea party candidates get elected, Government just keeps growing. In 1913 you needed a constitutional amendment to implement the income tax. In 1935 the only way Social Security was passed was because it was expected to cover just a tiny number of people (the average American didn’t even live until 65 back then) and even so there were serious debates about its constitutionality. In 2001 you could propose (unsuccessfully I might add) to privatize social security, But in 2016 neither candidate was even able to propose raising the retirement age. (Clinton actively opposed it.) The Overton Window just kept moving left. If you can’t even talk about raising the retirement age and be a viable political candidate, you certainly can’t talk about privatization of Social Security, and heaven help you if it get’s out that you ever considered eliminating it.

Government just keeps growing. And one of the points made in the SlateStarCodex article is that this is despite the Republican base becoming increasingly fiscally conservative, and despite the associated rise of the Tea Party, and despite the Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress for 12 out of the last 22 years and the House (which is in charge of the money) for 18 of the last 22 years. One of the favorite phrases fiscally conservative pundits use when speaking about this issue is that, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t,” and Margaret Thatcher wisely observed that eventually you run out of other people’s money. And that is certainly the case, but it looks like our very best efforts to avoid that eventuality have barely move the needle.

Based on all of this I would reiterate my position that in the realm of government spending the Overton Window is moving left. Even if it took 80 years for Social Security to get to the nearly unassailable position it currently enjoys, it still got there. In part this relative slowness is due to that fact that when it comes to spending we do have a useful measuring stick in the form of money. If we run out of it, everyone (presumably even Paul Krugman) would agree that we have a problem. Krugman might point out the abstract nature of money in a world where we can print our own or spend $3.5 Trillion on quantitative easing. To which I would retort that, while it’s not perfect it is nevertheless better than nothing.

On other hand when it comes to social issues we enjoy neither the same leisurely pace we had with fiscal issues, nor a generally agreed upon measuring stick. With respect to accelerating cultural change, I have already mentioned same sex marriage, and while it’s definitely a great example of the kind of rapid change I’m talking about, a better example might be transgender rights which appear to progressing by an order of magnitude faster still. Though, making such a claim, is precisely the situation where a generally agreed upon measuring stick would come in handy.

Frequently, when someone is trying to measure something abstract like transgender rights they’ll turn to the Google Ngram viewer and look at word frequency. If we do that for the word transgender we see usage of the word as being all but non-existent until 1988 when the graph suddenly goes almost vertical. Unfortunately the Google NGram viewer only goes to 2008, but in the 20 year period from 1988 to 2008 occurrences of the word transgender increased 33,000%! And you can only imagine how much more common the word has gotten since 2008. In other words the concept of being transgender essentially didn’t exist before 1988 and now when I do a search of the word transgender in the news I get articles on Pakistan issuing a transgender passport, two different deputies (one in Colorado, one in Orlando) coming out as transgender, a debate about whether to delay allowing transgender people into the military and a discussion of whether someone can decide that they’re transgender when they’re only three.  All of this around a concept that didn’t even exist 30 years ago. If this isn’t evidence of the Overton Window moving left at an ever increasing speed, I don’t know what is. And transgender awareness and same sex marriage are not isolated issues, this is a society wide change that has happened blindingly fast, and which has incredibly broad implications well beyond either of the two individual issues.

Now there are a lot of you who think this is a good thing, or at least not a bad thing. And I certainly hope you’re right, but before we can definitely say that we need to know what the endgame looks like. And this is where both the speed of the Overton Window and the lack of a measuring stick come into play. If we continue at this pace for another 30 years where does that put us? Is it possible that in that time we will have gone too far? Or that we have already gone too far? What measuring stick are we using to know when we’ve “run out of money”? And this is where we finally return to Dan Carlin’s podcast. Speaking on the subject of a potential civil war, Carlin asks a very important question, “What does winning a civil war even look like?” Does everyone have to be comfortable with the most liberal current position that exists today, because in 10 years that will be mainstream? What about 20 years from now? By that time would we all have to be comfortable with positions that even the most liberal person finds abhorrent now? What if there are people who will never be comfortable with those ideas? Do we kill them? Re-educate them? Banish them? And this all assumes something approaching a best case scenario for the left where they win and there’s no violence. Neither of which, especially the latter, is guaranteed.

The Overton Window is an express train heading at great speed towards an unknown destination. I don’t know how to stop it, but it would be nice if it didn’t run over anyone as it hurtles into the darkness.


The world is changing fast, if you think that’s a good thing you should donate since I’ll need the money for my own re-education when the time comes, and if you think it’s a bad thing you should also donate because now you understand better why that is.

Also there will be no post next week. I’ll be taking my summer vacation.


Which Side is Really Losing in Politics?

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

Or download the MP3


Many years ago I got an email from my brother urging me to register my opposition to some new forest service regulations that were about to take effect. My brother is an avid snowmobiler and he claimed that the new regulations would severely impact snowmobiling in a nearby national forest. As I recall he sent me to a webpage where the injustice of the new regulations were laid out in minute detail, and with much ranting.

Obviously my first inclination was to help out my brother, but from reading the webpage it was apparent that the regulations were just the latest battle in an ongoing war between the snowmobilers and local environmentalists. And out of curiosity I went looking for the other side of that war. In particular I wanted to know what they thought about the new regulations. After a little bit of sleuthing I came up with the name of the group on the other side of the issue and went to their webpage. As I said this was many years ago, so I can’t remember the identities of either group but I do remember thinking that as much as the snowmobilers hate these new regulations that the environmentalists must love them.

Instead, I discovered that the environmentalists appeared to hate the new regulations just as much as the snowmobilers did, and there was a similar rant about how horrible and unjust the new regulations were on the environmentalist’s website. I honestly don’t recall any longer if they were also urging people register their opposition, but they very well might have been. Regardless, it was clear that they were also not happy. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me. Bureaucracies constantly have to split the baby in such a way that no one is happy. But still, one can’t help but feeling that it would have been better to make at least one of the sides happy than to make both equally miserable.

I was reminded of this story recently as I was thinking about the current liberal-conservative dynamic, and especially the fact that these days, nearly everyone, regardless of their political persuasion, seems convinced that their side is losing. Immigrants are convinced they’re all about to be deported. Christians feel under attack by an increasingly secular society. Democrats and liberals are dismayed by the election of Trump and Republicans and Conservatives are alarmed by the increasing strident social justice activism.

Of course it’s one thing to lose a battle it’s another to be losing the war, and to me it seems obvious that on any time horizon longer than about a year, the left/liberal/progressive side has been winning the war. Though, while this seems obvious to me, it’s definitely not obvious to some of them. In particular I remember seeing a comment on Facebook from a high school acquaintance, wherein he confidently asserted that outside of same sex marriage and a couple of other items (unfortunately I can’t find the original comment) that the right has been dominating politics and getting their way for decades. I have a hard time imagining how even the most partisan individual would arrive at that conclusion, but given that I’m neither liberal, on the left, or especially progressive, perhaps I’m just another person who is convinced that their side is losing. But what does the evidence actually say?

Let’s start by looking at a battle the left definitely lost, though before I do, I should clarify that I know that by using “the left” as all purpose term to identify one side of things and “the right” as my all purpose term for the other side that I’m hand waving all manner of ideological differences and lumping people together who may not only disagree with what I’m about to say, but they may have significant disagreements with each other. With that caveat in place let’s move on.

The biggest loss the left has suffered recently is obviously the election of Trump. But, recall, and this is something I’ll be mentioning a lot, we need to distinguish between losing a battle and losing the war. The last election was a particularly hard fought, and acrimonious battle. And without a doubt the left lost that battle (though, when it’s all over we may decide that we all lost.) But did the left lose the war? Losing a decisive battle can mean you lost the war, but was the election of Trump decisive? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. First, Trump’s victory has so far not amounted to much. Every proposal he’s made has been fought tooth and nail. Second, and closely related, the opposition is anything but cowed. If you need proof of this compare the Russian and Chinese opposition to the current American opposition. Finally, in a democracy none of the “battles” should be decisive because you reset the board and have a new “battle” every four years (or two if you count control of the legislature.) With all this I don’t think there’s any reason to declare that the left has lost the war.

However, looking deeper you may recall an argument I made in a previous post that the Supreme Court, and the judiciary more broadly, are gradually becoming the de facto rulers of the country. If you buy into this argument, (and certainly many people called it the most important issue of the 2016 election) Then, depending on how many justices Trump gets to appoint and depending on how conservative they end up being you could certainly imagine a scenario where this particular battle ended up being rather decisive. However I would offer up a couple of reasons why this is unlikely.

  1. Trump is unlikely to get the opportunity to replace more than one of the court’s liberal judges. To do even that, one of them would have to die (Most likely Ginsburg, but maybe Breyer) since none of them would dare to retire while Trump is President. Slate has this great calculator based the CDC tables which tells you the odds of any given judge or combination of judges dying and it puts the chances of one of at least one liberal justice dying at 56%. If this is the case then it is conceivable that the conservatives could end up with a 6-3 majority on the bench, assuming that Kennedy and Roberts continue to be counted on the conservative side of things. Which brings me to the second point.
  2. Both Kennedy and Roberts have become increasingly liberal over time. (See this graph.) In fact it’s quite common for a justice nominated by a Republican president to end up on the liberal wing of the court. Recent examples of this are: Blackmun, Souter and Stevens. The opposite, Democratic Presidential nominees ending up on the conservative wing, is basically unheard of. Thus even if Trump does manage to flip a liberal seat to a conservative one, there’s a good chance that one of the judges currently considered to be conservative will end up mostly siding with the liberal wing of the court. Witness Roberts’ votes on Obamacare and Kennedy’s vote on Same Sex Marriage.

On the first point, we mostly just have to wait and see what happens. On the second, though, we should get a pretty good idea of whether Trump is “winning” when the Supreme Court gets around to ruling on his travel ban, which will probably happen sometime this fall.

The best case scenario for Trump is a 5-4 ruling upholding the travel ban and overturning the rulings of all the lower courts. Then if he can hold on to that basic split, and if a liberal justice dies, and if he can get a nominee through the Senate (which is by no means a certain thing) and if, by this time, Kennedy or Roberts hasn’t drifted over to the liberal side of the court then we might end up with a 6-3 conservative-liberal split on the Supreme Court. This would be pretty bad for the left. But I hardly think it would represent losing the war. In the mid 90’s seven of the nine justices had been appointed by Republican Presidents and despite this, to the best of my knowledge Roe v. Wade, for example, was never in any danger of being overturned.

This all assumes that the Supreme Court overrules the lower courts, which is by no means certain. Alan Dershowitz, a noted liberal attorney, thinks they will, but no one (including Dershowitz) would be surprised if they didn’t. And if they don’t, then at best the election of Trump is a temporary setback for the left, considering that he won’t have been able to get even his signature initiative past the courts.

That may have been a deeper dive than you wanted into the Supreme Court, but I spent so much time on them because, in the final analysis, particularly if you consider the US, that is where most of the recent battles have been decided, so if any side was going to lose permanently it would probably involve the court in one respect or another. Of course all of the foregoing assumes that Trump plays by the rules and many would argue this assumption is already invalid given that he’s been breaking rules left and right. Still I don’t see him breaking any of the big rules (suspending elections, declaring martial law, trying to stack the court, etc.) Also recall that we’re talking about who’s winning now, and while it’s appropriate to consider the near future in that assessment the farther away from the present we get the less value our assessment has.

I started off by looking at the area where you could make the strongest claim that the left is losing. Outside of Trump’s election the left’s case that they’re losing gets more tenuous. Though, another area where the argument could be made is with respect to the media, particularly if you start including social media. This point is closely related to the last one I made about the election, since many people have claimed that it was Trump’s mastery of social media (especially Facebook advertising) which lead to his upset victory. But unlike looking at the voting records of the Supreme Court Justices to detect a liberal-conservative split, trying to decide who’s winning the media battle is a lot more complicated, though if you want to argue that Trump’s election proves that the conservatives are at least doing well in this battle I would certainly grant that. But as far as winning goes, before you get too far into things you have to decide what winning even means outside of something like an election. Is the right winning because Fox News is the #1 cable news network? (Though with Trump as a target, Rachel Maddow has been doing pretty well recently.) Is the left winning because only 7% of reporters identify as Republican? Does the rise of, so called, fact-free journalism mean that the right is winning because they’re much better at propaganda or does it mean the left is winning because the facts are on their side? Or are we really just dividing into separate echo chambers where each side is winning the game because they made up the rules and didn’t invite the other side to play? I’m inclined to think it’s this last thing…

As he does so often Scott Alexander beat me to the punch and published an examination of this issue on SlateStarCodex at the beginning of May. His article was, in turn, responding to another article that had been posted on Vox.com (a website whose liberal leanings are pretty obvious) about tribal epistemology, which is a fancy way of describing the echo chamber problem. Alexander’s summation of the Vox article is so great I have to quote it:

…there used to be a relatively fair media in which both liberals and conservatives got their say. But Republicans didn’t like having to deal with facts, so they formed their own alternative media – FOX and Rush Limbaugh and everyone in that sphere – where only conservatives would have a say and their fake facts would never get challenged.

Or: everyone used to trust academia as a shared and impartial arbitrator of truth. But conservatives didn’t like the stuff it found – whether about global warming or trickle-down economics or whatever – so they seceded into their own world of alternative facts where some weird physicist presents his case that global warming is a lie, or a Breitbart journalist is considered an expert on how cultural Marxism explains everything about post-WWII American history.

As hilarious as I find this description, it’s also an accurate representation not only of the article, but of the viewpoint that many on the left have about where things stand at the moment. But there are several problems with this representation. First, though it’s beyond the scope of this post, I don’t think liberals have nearly the monopoly on truth that they claim. Second, and most germane to our subject, if conservatives have fled en masse from media and academia, isn’t retreating from the field a pretty good description of losing? Finally, it implies that this is a recent split, that everything was going along fine when suddenly, right around the election of Trump, the conservatives went crazy and unilaterally blew the whole system up because they hate the truth. Leading to a broken system where liberals continue to be on the side of facts and justice and conservatives have turned into rabid barbarians.

Alexander takes particular aim at this last point, and mentions that the original article (the one he’s commenting on):

…devotes four sentences in his six thousand word article to the possibility that conservatives might be motivated by something deeper than a simple hatred of facts.

Alexander points out, I believe correctly, that reducing the recent conservative split down to just a “hatred of facts” leaves out all manner of context. Which is to say it blatantly misrepresents what has happened. The four sentences Alexander call out, end with the statement:

But the right has not sought greater fairness in mainstream institutions; it has defected to create its own.

Both Alexander and I remember the last several decades a lot differently, but Alexander says it better so I’ll use another quote from him:

This is a bizarre claim, given the existence of groups like Accuracy In Media, Media Research Center, Newsbusters, Heterodox Academy, et cetera which are all about the right seeking greater fairness in mainstream institutions, some of which are almost fifty years old. Really “it’s too bad conservatives never complained about liberal bias in academia or the mainstream media” seems kind of like the opposite of how I remember the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternately pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. Then they defected to create their own.

If you agree with this narrative (and it certainly matches my experience) then we can take three things from it. First it bolsters the idea that the conservatives are losing, second that they have been losing for a lot longer than just since November, in both media and academia, and finally that we have ended up with a media civil war that bears many similarities to the actual Civil War. Another situation where people attempted for decades to keep things together but finally, when it became apparent that was impossible, that’s when hostilities finally break out. Though, hostilities this time around are not anywhere near the level of the actual Civil War and it might be more appropriate to call this a “cold civil war.”

Of course, I am by no means, the first person to talk about an increasingly divided country, or of a national divorce or even the first person to compare it to a new civil war. But I think most of these people are looking at it from a very short time horizon, while I think the key insight in this whole thing, the insight which Alexander brings to the table is that this has been going on for decades, and what we’re seeing recently is people giving up on trying to solve the problem via compromise. Just as, with the election of Lincoln, it became apparent to the South that it would no longer be possible to maintain slavery via the federal government.

Taken all together what this means is that the chasm which is opening up in society is not some recent development, some short-lived mass hysteria brought on by the election of Trump, rather it’s something that has been going on for a very long time and rather than current events being a temporary detour, they more likely represent a metamorphosis into a new and frightening reality, which may bear more resemblance to 1860 than to 1968.

Looking at all of this you may dismiss my conclusions. Perhaps you don’t think conservatives are losing, or you think the division is a temporary bump in the road, not some new and frightening change to the country’s politics. If so I would urge you to stay tuned, because I definitely intend to return to this subject and cover areas beyond the Supreme Court and the media and perhaps delving into these other areas will change your mind. But that aside, for the moment, I would ask you to assume that I am correct, to assume that the conservatives are losing and that they’ve been losing for a long time. If this is the case, what are the potential outcomes?

The first possible outcome is that, just like the South during the Civil War, the conservatives could be routed, their institutions could be laid waste and the things they feel deeply about could be made illegal. (It should be pointed out here that the process of making things legal they deeply oppose has already begun.) And there would be many who would cheer this outcome, and if you believe that the signature conservative positions of today are as bad as slavery was then, you probably should cheer this outcome. (You also might be deluded.) But if you can imagine this outcome from the position of the victors, can you also imagine it from the position of the vanquished? And if so do you imagine that they’re going to surrender quietly? It could be argued (and this is one more thing which I intend to cover in more depth when I return to this subject) that conservatives have been surrendering for decades and it hasn’t gotten them anything. And that the rise of the alt-right and the election of Trump and all of the other associated phenomenon have come about because conservatives are tired of surrendering, particularly when it brings no benefit. In any event this outcome flows from the methodology of war, and as I have said in the past, it’s unlikely to be as quick and as painless as you imagine, even if you happen to be on the winning side and even if you keep the violence to a minimum, which is by no means certain.

That is, broadly, what happens if the trend continues. On the other side we have the outcome if the trend reverses itself, things peak, and while, yes, the conservatives are losing, and have been losing for a long time, it slows down, and in a manner similar to what happened in the late 60’s/early 70’s, activism and protests and social unrest reach a crescendo and then subside. Just like Nixon, Trump will leave office and everyone will calm down a little bit. Fox News will mellow and become more like CNN. The polarization in congress will subside and we’ll once again have a bunch of moderates, who reach across the aisle to pass intelligent bipartisan legislation. Obviously, something like this, is the outcome I prefer, but it’s an outcome that requires a lot of understanding and a lot of wisdom. And as I describe it, it honestly doesn’t sound very likely.


If you prefer to see the war fought out in this way with words rather than fists (or guns or worse) consider donating, in return I promise not to punch anyone.


Straddling Optimism and Pessimism; Religion and Rationality

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One of the regular readers of this blog, who also happens to be an old friend of mine, is constantly getting after me for being too pessimistic. He’s more of an optimist than I am, and this optimism largely derives from his religious faith. Which happens to be basically the same as mine (we’re both LDS and very active). Despite this similarity, he’s optimistic and hopeful, and I’m gloomy and pessimistic. Or at least that’s what it looks like to him, and I’m sure there’s a certain amount of truth to that. I do have a tendency to immediately gravitate to the worst-case scenario, and an even greater tendency to use my pessimism to fuel my writing, but I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as my friend imagines or as one might assume just from reading my posts. I already explored this idea at some length in a previous post, (a post he was quick to compliment) but I think it’s time to revisit it from a different angle.

The previous post was more about whether my outward displays of pessimism reflected an inward cynicism that needed to be fixed, i.e. was I being called to repentance. (I think the answer I arrived at was, “Maybe.”) This post is more about what the blog is designed to do, who the audience is, and how writing in service of those two things is a lot like serving two masters (wait… Is that bad?) And therefore may not give an accurate impression of my core beliefs, beliefs which I’ll also get into. Yes, I’m writing a post about the blog’s mission nearly a year into things. Make of that what you will. Though I think we can all agree that occasionally it’s useful for a person to step back and figure out what they’re really trying to accomplish.

I think the briefest way to describe the purpose of this blog is that it’s designed to encourage antifragility. Hopefully you’re already familiar with this concept, and the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in general, but if not I wrote a post all about it. But if you don’t have the time to read it, in short, one way to think about antifragility is to view it as a methodology for benefitting from big positive rare events and protecting yourself against big negative rare events. In Taleb’s philosophy these are called black swans. And here we touch on the first area in which writing about a topic may give an incorrect view of my actual attitudes and opinions. In this instance, writing about black swans automatically makes them appear more likely than they actually are, or than I believe them to be. Black Swans are rare, and if I wrote about them only in proportion to their likelihood I would hardly ever mention them, but recall that a black swan, by definition, has gigantic consequences, which means they have an impact far out of proportion to their frequency. Thus, if you were to judge my topic choice and my pessimism just based on the rarity of these events, you would have to conclude that I spend too much time writing about them and that I’m excessively negative on top of that. But if I’m writing about black swans in proportion to their impact I think my frequency and negativity end up being a much better fit.

Of course writing about them, period, is only worthwhile if you can offer some ideas on how individuals can protect themselves from negative black swans. And this is another point where my writing diverges somewhat from my actual behavior, and where we get into the topic of religion. As a very religious person I truly believe that the best way to protect yourself from negative black swans is to have faith, keep the commandments, attend church, love your neighbor, and cleave to your wife/husband. But as long time readers of this blog know, while I don’t shy away from those topics, neither are they the focus of my writing either. Why is this? Because I think there are a lot of people already speaking on those topics and that they’re doing a far better job than I could ever do.

If there are already many people, from LDS General Authorities to C.S. Lewis who are doing a better job than I could ever do, in covering purely religious topics, I have to find some other way of communicating that plays to my strengths, without abandoning religion entirely. But just because I’m not going to try and compete with them directly doesn’t mean I can’t borrow some of their methodology, and one of the things that all of these individuals are great at is serving milk before meat. Or starting with stuff that’s easy to digest and then once someone can swallow that, moving on to the tougher, chewier, but ultimately tastier stuff. and in considering this it occurred to me that what’s milk to one person may be meat to another. As an example, if you have a son, as I do, who is nearly allergic to vegetables (or so he likes to claim). And you want him to eat more vegetables, you wouldn’t start out with brussel sprouts or spinach.  You’d start with corn on the cob soaked in butter and liberally seasoned with salt and pepper. On the opposite side of the equation if someone were to decide, after many years, that they are done being a vegetarian, you wouldn’t introduce them to meat by serving them chicken hearts or liver.

In a like fashion, there are, in this world, many people who already believe in God. And for those people starting with faith, repentance, and baptism is a natural milk, before moving to the meat of chastity, tithing and the Word of Wisdom. There are however other people who think that rationality, rather than faith, is the key to understanding the world. With these people, it is my hope, that survival is the milk. Because if you can’t survive, you can’t do anything else, however rational you are in all other respects. And then, once we agree on that, we can move on to the meat of black swans, technological fragility, and what religion has to say about singularities.

It should be mentioned that before we leave the topic of “milk before meat,” that it’s actually got something of a bad reputation in the rationalist community (to say nothing of the ex-mormon community). They view it as a Mormon variant of a bait and switch, where we get you into the Church with the promise of three hour meetings on Sunday, paying 10% of your income to the church, giving up all extramarital sex, along with booze, drugs and cigarettes (recall, that you have to agree to all of this before you can even be baptized.) And then I guess only after that do we hit you with the fact that you might have to one day be the Bishop or the Relief Society President? Actually I’m not clear what the switch is in this scenario. I think all of the hard things about Mormonism are revealed right at the beginning. Also I’m not quite sure why they take issue with the idea of starting with the easier stuff. We literally do give children milk before meat; we teach algebra before calculus; and don’t even get me started on sex ed. In other words this is one of those times when I think the lady doth protest too much.

Moving on… Choosing a different audience and a different approach does not mean that I am personally any less devoted to the faith and hope inherent in my religion. And that hope comes with a fair amount of optimism. Certainly there are people more optimistic than me, but I am optimistic enough that I have no doubt that things will work out eventually. The problem is the “eventually,” I don’t know when that will be, and until that time comes, we still have to deal with competing ideologies, with different ways for arriving at truth, and with the world as it exists, not as we would like it to be. Also if we’re only able to talk to other Christians (and often not even to them) then we’re excluding a large and growing segment of the population.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, and much of the motivation for this blog came from seeing areas of surprising overlap between technology and religion, particularly at the more speculative edge of technology. As an example, look at the subject of immortality. In this area the religious have had a plan, and have been following it for centuries. They know what they need to do, and while everyone is not always as successful as they could be in doing what they should, the path forward is pretty clear. They have a very specific plan for their life which happens to include the possibility of living forever. Some may think this plan is silly, and that it won’t work, but the religious do have a plan. And, up until very recently, the religious plan was the only game in town. Which doesn’t mean that everyone bought into it, but, as I mentioned in a previous post, If you were really looking for an existence beyond this one that involved more than just memories, then it was the only option.

Obviously not everyone bought into the plan, people have been rejecting the religion for almost as long as it’s been in existence. But it’s only recently that there has been any hope for an alternative, for immortality outside of divine intervention. Some people hope to achieve this through cryonic suspension, e.g.freezing their body after death in the hopes of revival later. Some people hope to achieve this by digitizing their brain, or recording all of their experiences so that the recordings can be used to reconstruct their consciousness once they’re dead. Other people just hope that we’ll figure out how to stop aging.

These different concepts of immortality represent an area of competition between technology and religion, but the fact that both sides are talking about immortality is, I would opine, a neglected area we see the overlap I mentioned. Previously only the religious talked about immortality and now transhumanists, are talking about it as well. When presented with this fact, most people focus on the competition and use it as another excuse to abandon religion. But there are a few who recognize the overlap, and the surprising consequences that might entail. Certainly the Mormon Transhumanist Association is in this category and that’s one of the things I admire about them.

To take it a little farther, if we imagine that there are some people who just want a chance at immortality, and they don’t care how they get it, then previously these people would have had no other option than religion. Whether religion is effective, given such a selfish motivation, is beyond the scope of this post though I did touch on it in a previous post. But in any event it doesn’t matter because, here, we’re not concerned with whether it’s a good idea, we’re concerned with whether such a group of people exists and whether, given the promise of technological immortality, how many have, so to speak, switched sides.

I’m not sure how many people this group represents. Also I’m sure the motivations of most religious individuals are far more complicated than just a single minded quest for immortality. But you can certainly imagine that the promise of immortality through technology might be enough to take someone who would have been religious in an earlier age and convince them to seek immortality through technology instead. If there are people in this category, it’s unlikely that much is being written specifically with them in mind. All of this is not to say that my blog is targeted at “people who yearn for immortality, but think technology is currently a better bet than religion.” A group that has to be pretty small regardless of the initial assumptions, but this is certainly an example, albeit an extreme one, of the ways in which technology overlaps not only the practice of religion, but also the ideology, morals and even philosophy.

It’s easy to view technology as completely separate from religion, and maybe at one point it was, but as we get closer to developing the technology to genetically alter ourselves and our descendents, eliminate the need for work, or create artificial Gods (and recall we already have the technology to destroy the world) then suddenly technology is very much encroaching on areas which have previously been the sole domain of religion. And taking a moment to examine whether religion might have some insights into these issues before we discard it, is, I believe, a worthwhile endeavor. This is where, by straddling the two, I hope to cover some ground the General Authorities and people like C.S. Lewis have missed.

Interestingly, this is where religion ends up providing both the source of my pessimism as well as the source of my optimism. I have already mentioned how faith in God is a source of limitless hope, but on the other hand it also provides a framework for understanding how prideful technology has made us, and how quick we have been to discard the lessons of the both history and religion. We are faced with a situation where people are not merely ignoring the morality of religion, they are in many cases charting a course in the opposite direction. In this case, what other response is there than pessimism?

Of course, and I should have mentioned this earlier (both in this post and in the blog as a whole.) You have probably guessed that my name is not actually Jeremiah, that it’s a pseudonym I adopted for the purposes of this blog. Not only because I took the theme from the book of Jeremiah but also because I think there are some parallels between the doom he could see coming and many potential dooms we face. I assume that Jeremiah had faith, I assume that he figured it would all eventually work out for him, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t pessimistic about the world around him, enough so that a we still use the word jeremiad to mean a long, mournful complaint. And I think he was onto something. I know it’s common these days to declare that we just need to be optimistic and love people regardless of what they’re doing. But I’m inclined to think a pessimistic approach which is closer to Jeremiah’s might actually produce better results. And this is where we return to antifragility, which is another area of overlap between religion and technology, though probably less clear than the immortality overlap we talked about (which is why I started with it.)

The great thing about striving to be antifragile is that it’s a fantastic plan regardless of whether you’re religious or not. As I mentioned earlier my hope is that survival may provide a useful entry point, the milk so to speak, even for people who aren’t religious. In particular I think self-identified rationalists place too much weight on being right in the short term and not enough weight on surviving in the long term. Which are strengths of both antifragility specifically and religion generally. Obviously we don’t have the time to get into a complete dissection of how rationalists neglect the long-term, and I have definitely seen some articles from that side of things that did an admirable job of tacking the potential of future catastrophe. Perhaps, it’s more accurate to state that whatever their consideration for the long term that religion does not factor in at all.

But religion is important here for at least three reasons. First as I said in a previous post, even if there is no God, the taboos and commandments of religion are the accumulated knowledge about how to be antifragile. Second religion is one of the best ways we have for creating resilient social structures going forward. Which is to say, who’s better at recovering from disaster? The rationalists in San Francisco or the Mormons in Utah? Finally, if there is a God, being religious gives you access to the ultimate antifragility, eternal life. Obviously this final point is the most controversial of all, and you’re free to dismiss it, (though you might want to read my Pascal’s Wager post before you do.) But, with all of this, are you really sure that religion has no value in our modern, technological world? To return to the main theme of this post, I think people underestimate the value that comes from straddling the two worlds.

The problem with all of this is that in trying to speak on these subjects the minute you bring in religion and God many people are going to tune out entirely. Thus, despite this being an emphatically LDS blog, I don’t spend as much time speaking about religion as perhaps you might expect. In part this is because I honestly think you can get to most of the places I want to go without relying on deus ex machina. Believing in God does make everything easier to a certain extent (across all facets of life) but what if you don’t believe in God? Does that mean that you can throw out religion in it’s entirety, root and branch? I know people want to dismiss religion as a useless or even harmful relic of the past, but is that really a rational point of view? Is it really rational to take the position that countless hours, untold resources, and millions of lives were wasted on something that brought no benefit to our ancestors? Or worse caused harm? If this is your position then I think it’s obvious that the burden of proof rests with you.

There is a God in Heaven. And so I have all the optimism in the world. But, when so called rationalists, mock thousands of years of wisdom, then I’m also a huge pessimist. To use another quote from Shakespeare, remember “There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


I think it’s obvious that whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, religious or rational (or ideally both) that we’re basically on the same page. So why not donate?


The Derbyshire Standard and the Stability of Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1- Fundamental change in our the system of government

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

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

2- Civil war or revolution  

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

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

3- Significant loss of territory

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

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

4- Foreign occupation

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

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


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