Month: February 2018

The Trend of Transgender Identity (Part 1)

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In my last post I mentioned that there was another trend I wanted to cover, and that trend is the increase in the number of people with a transgender or gender non-conforming identity (TGNC). Part of the reason why I didn’t cover it in the last post is that it’s something of a minefield, and if I’m going to get blown up (which I suspect I am) I want it to be after a full and complete explanation of my position, rather than a paragraph tossed in together with a discussion of CPUs and heroin. Also I, probably naively, assume that if I really explain things in a calm, dispassionate fashion that I won’t get blown up, period. Recent events have left me less sure of that, but I persist in believing it nonetheless.

I’ve actually been thinking I needed to write a post on this subject for a long time, but earlier this month I read something that really struck me. It was a report by The Associated Press, on a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. (Being syndicated, I came across it in US News and World Report.) The study they were reporting on claimed that nearly 3% of high school students identify as TGNC. Specifically from a group of 9th and 11th graders in Minnesota.

The study is an analysis of a 2016 statewide survey of almost 81,000 Minnesota teens. Nearly 2,200 identified as transgender or gender nonconforming.

I thought it’d be nice to know the exact numbers rather than “almost 81,000” and “nearly 2,200” and after some digging I found the original study. It was 2,168 out of 80,929 meaning it was closer to 2.7%. Accordingly I’ll be using that number. But regardless of whether it’s 3% or 2.7% that would appear to represent a gigantic increase in just the last few years. The AP article mentions another study out of UCLA which claims that 0.7% of teens aged 13 to 17 identify as TGNC. Which I would argue, even if it’s closer to the mark is still a large increase. Also it should be noted that the 0.7% was an extrapolation of teen rates from adult answers, meaning that if the trend has recently spiked it might explain the discrepancy.

It has been many, many, many years since I was in high school, but in spite of that fact, and the fact that it’s only a single data point and all the other reasons which make it not a very good comparison for Minnesotan high school students in 2016, I’m going to bring it into the discussion anyway.

My high school was a three year high school that had, conservatively, 1700 students attending. If we apply the 2.7% number to that student body we get 46 TGNC students. Now as you might imagine we didn’t have even a single openly transgender student back then. An experience I imagine most people from my generation share. And any attempts on my part at guessing how many closeted TGNC students there were is going to be wild speculation, but having come this far down the road I might as well continue and guess that maybe there was a couple? Certainly I haven’t heard of anyone coming out later, even in these more tolerate times. If, for the sake of argument we take my number and extrapolate from that we get a compound annual growth rate of nearly 11.5%. Which as I pointed out in the last post does not have to go on for very long before it’s 100% of people. Also I don’t think the rate of growth has been constant since the late 80s, I’ve talked to people 10 and even 20 years younger than me and they report the same basic impression of their high school that I had of mine. Which would mean that it could be a lot higher than even 11% which is already pretty high.

One of the reasons I used my high school experience as a baseline, is that I didn’t find a lot of good numbers on growth in TGNC individuals. And the one thing I did find was in Swedish, that said it’s dramatic enough that I’m going to reference it anyway. It’s a chart of referrals to a clinic specializing in gender dysphoria among children. From 2000 to 2006 the number of yearly referrals is in the single digits. After that it starts to gradually increase, but stays below 20 until 2011. 2012 and 2013 both look to be around 25, but then in 2014 it starts skyrocketing and by 2016 it’s gone all the way up to 197 referrals. Basically an eight-fold increase in the space of three years. I understand this is a report from a single clinic in Sweden, but I think it matches my assumption that the growth rate has largely spiked only very recently.

This aside, for my purposes it’s sufficient to know that it’s a trend and that it’s growing very quickly, which everything seems to indicate. From this, hopefully, safe assumption, I want to spend this post examining the various theories for why this might be happening:

The transgender and gender non conforming have always been with us they’ve just been hiding. Accordingly it’s not the number of TGNC individuals who are increasing, but only our awareness of them

Under this theory the number of high schoolers who are TGNC has always been around 2.7%, and it is only now in this more tolerate and enlightened time that they finally are free to express their true selves.

My sense is that this is the current conventional wisdom. Though that may be putting it too strongly. But you can see evidence of it in the AP article:

Dr. Daniel Shumer, a specialist in transgender medicine at the University of Michigan, wrote in an accompanying opinion article in Pediatrics that the study supports other research suggesting that earlier counts of the trans population “have been underestimated by orders of magnitude.” He said that the higher numbers should serve as a lesson to schools and physicians to abandon limited views of gender.

Notice that he doesn’t say that the numbers are increasing but that earlier counts were “underestimated by orders of magnitude.” Leading one to assume that the numbers and percentages are static, we’re just getting better at counting.

For my part, I tend to be skeptical that this is the case. For all the issues I have with full normalization of homosexuality, they can at least point to a fairly deep historical precedent. With gay communities in times and places even when persecution and repression were at their most severe. While there is some evidence for historical TGNC you get the sense that it mostly was present when it was required by culture, rather than existing in spite of culture, like homosexuality.

That said I’m not ruling it out. In this post I’m not ruling anything out. It’s entirely possible that this is exactly how things are.

TGNC numbers are increasing, but that’s a good thing, and it goes hand in hand with progress elsewhere

Last year I attended the Mormon Transhumanist Conference (and I intend to be there again this year). One of the talks was about the gender spectrum and the speaker gave, as her opinion, that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing. That one of the abilities we’ll have as our power grows and as we draw closer to Godhood will be the ability to change our gender as we desire. While I continue to argue that this bears no resemblance to any LDS doctrine I’m aware of, it does fit right in with transhumanism.

To put it another way, this theory holds that the number of TGNC people is increasing because technology in general is increasing, and with it an ability to throw off shackles and restrictions which previously would have been unthinkable. An idea that’s at the core of Transhumanism. And, If we consider just what we can now do in this area, then this is obviously true. If we consider what we should do, then the situation becomes a lot murkier.

There is certainly a way in which this works together with the first theory. Previously people who felt that their gender was different than the body they were born in had very little recourse. Now through the marvels of technology we can offer them hormone treatment and gender-reassignment surgery. But beyond that, I get the sense that there’s also a way in which people feel there’s a moral or even spiritual arc to the whole thing, that the freedom to choose your gender goes along with all the other freedoms progress has brought us. That certainly seemed to be the sense in which the MTA speaker meant it.

Under the first theory, the 2.7% of people who have always been TGNC are driving the development of this technology, but under this theory if technology enables transition might it also be encouraging transition?

As I already alluded to, I freely grant that increased availability may lead to an increase in identification, what I’m not sure about is whether it’s a good thing. And you’ll have to wait until part 2 before I tackle that question.

TGNC numbers are increasing because of hormones and other chemicals being introduced into the environment

You don’t have to look very far to find people speculating that there has been a definite decrease in masculinity over the last several decades. Some of this is ascribed to the softening of the culture in general, which we will cover in a moment, but some of this has been tied to hormones in the environment or endocrine disruptors like BPA. If it’s the chemicals that are responsible for depressing masculinity, then it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it might get so low that it flips things over to femininity, or just mixes things up entirely, giving us the genderqueer designation. This explanation would be more plausible if the transitioning were all in one direction, but it’s not. That said, there are more male to female transgendered individuals than female to male. With most people estimating the ratio at around 3:1. Also it’s not like we have a smoking gun of causation, so hormones in the environment could be causing all manner of changes in both directions.

It is widely recognized that pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply, included in this are things like birth control pills and testosterone replacement pills. The presence in the environment of chemicals has been a concern for the environmental movement since at least the time of Rachel Carson if not before, one which hasn’t gone away. The question is, is anyone concerned that hormones or other chemicals in the water supply might be contributing to the increase in the number of people who identify as TGNC?

If you search the internet for any support for this theory you immediately find an article titled Fish becoming transgender from contraceptive pill chemicals being flushed down household drains. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a Smithsonian article which explains that the word “transgender” was never used in the original article, the article was about fish becoming intersex, which is not the same, and that it’s not clear that it was contraceptive pills causing the problems it could easily have been caused by other chemicals in the water. In other words still likely something humans are doing, but not something you can blame entirely on birth control pills.

My own sense of things, is that while something along these lines might be a factor in the increase, if it is, it’s a small one. If you could draw a clear link between some chemical or hormone and an increasing number of people identifying as TGNC, then I think people would have done it already. There would be a larger pattern in how and where it happened. Also most of the candidates under discussion have existed in the water supply for a lot longer than just the last few years, which is when, according to the numbers from our Swedish clinic, most of the increase has happened. At least as I read things. But maybe I’m being naive. The same kind of people who worry about chemicals in the water are the same kind of people who are proponents of theory one, that the underlying rate has not increased at all. Accordingly it might not be in their ideological interest to point out any possible connection.

TGNC numbers are increasing because of mutational load

I talked about this in a previous post. The idea of mutational load is that every generation a certain number of negative mutations are introduced. In the past these mutations didn’t accumulate because individuals with negative mutations were more likely to die without reproducing. As such the mutation load was kept in check because most of these negative mutations did not get passed on. With the advent of modern medicine, the number of people who die before getting the chance to reproduce is very low, regardless of any negative mutations they may be carrying. As such more get passed on, and the overall level across the entire population begins to rise.

As I mentioned in the previous post this idea provides a potential explanation for many troubling modern trends. The increase in autism, low sperm counts, allergies and possibly even suicide risk. If, and I grant that this is a big if, we decide that these things can be explained by increased mutation load then it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t consider adding the increase in people who identify as TGNC to the list as well. Also it should be noted, while we’re discussing this that evidence is growing for a link between gender dysphoria and autism.

I suspect that saying that TGNC individuals have a negative mutation is going to upset some people. (I suspect that everyone will be upset by at least one thing in this post.) But it’s important to clarify, again, I’m just trying to make a comprehensive list of explanations that are at least somewhat plausible. I don’t have a horse in this race. (Which is not to say that some horses don’t look better than others.) Also as you may have noticed the theories have moved from least upsetting to more upsetting, so at least I’m trying to ease you into some of the more controversial theories.

As I said, saying that TGNC individuals have a negative mutation may be upsetting, but in a sense everyone who argues that TGNC individuals were born that way, are also arguing for a genetic explanation of the condition they’re just not arguing for a recent genetic explanation. Which is what separates that theory from this theory. Also they may object to the application of the “negative” label. But this is something else I’ll be covering in part 2.

As to my own probability assessment. It’s hard to say. It makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s also a terrifying possibility. Also it’s hard to square it with a dramatic spike in the last couple of years.

TGNC numbers are increasing because of cultural changes

As I mentioned above, my sense is that historically homosexuality was present regardless of how oppressive the surrounding culture was, but that TGNC traits seemed to mostly be present when it was integrated with the culture. In more modern eras, we have the example of drag shows. In ancient Assyria, there were parades. And then there was a cult in ancient Greece who worshipped Cybele, and as part of that worship men castrated themselves, and thereafter dressed and identified as females. If you toss in examples of TGNC among the Native Americans, you have mostly covered the historical examples, at least those listed in Wikipedia. And I’m confident if there were any other large historical examples that they would have found their way into the article, but I’m not any kind of expert.

Based on these limited examples, as I said, it’s my sense that culture may have pushed TGNC rather than the other way around. If that’s the case, and given past trends that have run through society and in particular taken hold among teens, it’s not inconceivable that the increase in TGNC teens could be because of a subconscious sense that it’s now cool.

While TGNC advocates may take issue with the “coolness” theory, they appear to acknowledge that culture is playing a big part in things, such as allowing previously closeted TGNC individuals to out themselves. The question is, if the changing culture is having such a massive effect (once again refer to Swedish Clinic chart) is there any way in which culture may be driving the increase?

All of this is to say that culture is definitely changing, but how much culture is following and how much it’s leading is a very complicated issue. But one thing is clear, culture is definitely contributing to the increase, if for no other reason that people feel far more comfortable identifying as TGNC.

A desire to identify as a different gender than the one you were born with is a sin, and it’s increasing because sins of all kinds are increasing.

As you might imagine, I’m not going to shy away from an explicitly religious theory. Which is not to say that I believe it’s a doctrinally correct theory. (For Christians in any case.) Also before we can do anything else, it’s important to identify whether sin in general is increasing. If it’s not, the theory is considerably weakened. My guess is that most people belonging to any of the Abrahamic religions have no doubt that it’s increasing. And many of the irreligious, though perhaps unwilling to use the term “sin”, would say that the world is getting worse as well. (Pinker would disagree of course.) Given that this is a religious theory, the attitude of the believers is probably sufficient for our purposes.

With the other theories, certain consequences and actions naturally follow, but with this theory they’re a little bit more opaque. If unhappiness with “the gender you were assigned at birth” is a sin, than what should be done about it? It is true that many activities identified as sinful take the form of giving into what have historically been identified as “baser” urges. From this you could imagine classifying the urge to be transgender as no different than the urge to have sex before you’re married, with a similar exhortation to resist it, and for some people (not me) that’s as far as you need to go. For others, the idea of repressing the urge to have sex before you’re married is one they don’t even consider. (They may resist the urge to have sex, but their marital status has nothing to do with it.) And in fact outside of dieting, and exercise, the idea of suppressing urges has to be at some sort of historical nadir.

And this gets more into what I feel the LDS position is on TGNC, that it’s more akin to homosexuality, being gay isn’t a sin, it’s acting on it that’s a sin. Though with TGNC acting on it is a little less clear. Gender-reassignment surgery certainly counts (and is explicitly mentioned in the LDS handbooks) but what about wearing women’s clothing if you’ve previously identified as male all your life? What about binding your breasts if your a woman who feels like man?

I am sympathetic to those who find this theory horribly offensive, or those who aren’t offended but still think it comes across as both bizarre and unlikely. Beyond that even if you could get on the same page, I think many people would point out that being TGNC is tied to people’s identity in a way that being horny (regardless of orientation) really isn’t.

In other words this theory, even on it’s on terms, is kind of messy. And I’m not a big fan, particularly since it so easily slides into mistreatment of the TGNC, when people confuse the sin for the sinner. (Particularly, since, as I pointed out, the sin is actually somewhat unclear.) This sort of mistreatment is something I feel there is far too much of, even now.

That’s where we’ll end for this week. I had intended to cover everything in a single post, but I haven’t even covered all of the different theories yet, so you’ll have to come back next week for part 2.


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The Terrible Power of Tiny Trends

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Einstein is said to have remarked that “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe”, or maybe he said it was “mankind’s greatest invention”. Or more likely he said no such thing, and this quote ended up being attributed to him later, as is the case with so many of his supposed quotes (nor does it just happen to Einstein.) Regardless the quote persists because it has an element of truth to it. Compound interest acts as something of a juggernaut, slowly gathering momentum until it’s essentially unstoppable. All the way back in 1769 an Anglican minister and actuarial mathematician named Richard Price gave this example of its power:

A shilling put out at 6% compound interest at our Saviour’s birth would . . . have increased to a greater sum than the whole solar system could hold, supposing it a sphere equal in diameter to the diameter of Saturn’s orbit.

But, of course, no one did invest a shilling at 6% at the time of Jesus’ birth. And the reasons why are probably obvious, but they bear reexamination despite their obviousness.

Perhaps the most obvious reason no one did it, is that there are no banks which have survived from that time till this. And after the recent financial crisis, it should be an open question as to what it even means for a bank to “survive”. There are some very old banks in England, but it’s pretty clear that none of them would have survived for the last 300 years (or even the last 30 without government help. And not only did no banks survive from 0 AD until now, but no country has survived. (As you may recall I argued in a previous post that very few countries have survived intact for more than about 100 years). If it had been possible to make such an investment, another question is who would the beneficiary have been. The Japanese Imperial Family has apparently been around that long, but I’m not aware of any others. Or perhaps there’s some organization that, had they been far-sighted enough, could now own a sphere of money as big as the Solar System? There are a few Christian Churches who, in theory, trace their organization all the way back to the death of Jesus, (which I suppose is close enough) and perhaps if any banks and countries had survived with them, they could have made that investment.

However, even if the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem or Emperor Suinin had wanted to make such an investment and even if there had been a bank around to accept it and hold on to it all the way down to the present day (paying 6% interest the entire time, though even 1% would probably still get you the Earth and all of its productive assets.) There is still one, final, insurmountable hurdle. They must have figured out some way to ensure that no one, in all the time between 0 and 2018 AD, could have ever raided the “piggy bank”. That everyone from bandits, to the government (or are those the same thing) would have left that giant pile of money sitting there, untouched for over two thousand years. And of all hypotheticals we’ve considered, that is the least realistic of them all.

In any event, regardless of what Einstein did or didn’t say, it’s evident that the power of compound interest is checked by many things, the stability of the banking system, and of nations, by impatience, greed, and the longevity of organizations. And this is probably a good thing, even if the Japanese Imperial Family would do a great job of running the world, I think the process of selling it to them would be hugely disruptive. And in fact I would swear that I heard a podcast a couple of years ago (Radiolab maybe?) that claimed there was a time when people were so worried about bequests that lasted for 100s of years, that moves were made to limit them, but for the life of me I can’t find it. In any event it’s not important, the important thing I want to emphasis is first, the power of even a tiny effect if that effect compounds (and even non-compounding effects if they last long enough.) And second that when things get derailed it’s often because of instability rather than the reverse.

Compound interest draws a lot of attention, not only because it provides exponential growth, but also because it’s a simple system which is easy to track. Anyone can sit down and put together a spreadsheet and see exactly how big the principal gets, and if they like, they can adjust the interest rate and see that earning a 6% interest rate is way better than a 20% improvement over earning a 5% interest rate. The question I want to examine is whether there are other things which act like compound interest in their potential for growth (and by extension impact) but which we have missed because they’re hard to measure. Is there anything on which we’re accumulating a sort of societal compound interest and if we are, which things are accumulating a positive interest rate and which things are accumulating negative interest?

It may be that there are only a few things like that, and that even if we don’t have a firm handle on them, people are still aware of them, and working to solve them. But I’m also interested in things which don’t compound or do so very slowly, but which might be disastrous if they continue for long enough. These things are even harder to see, but more important to discuss because of that.

Let’s start by looking at societal trends that most closely resemble compound interest. Here, the first one most people think of is population. I already spent a post talking about this, so I don’t intend to spend much additional time on it, but you can immediately see where the fact that population compounds causes problems on both ends of the spectrum. First you have a potential Malthusian Catastrophe, which people have been discussing since, well, the time of Malthus, and more recently, particularly in the more developed world, people have started noticing potential problems on the other side of things, of having too low of a birth rate, which compounds in the other direction.

As I said in my previous post I think both directions have the potential to be catastrophic, and to again quote from one of the all time great movies of the past century, Tommy Boy, “In auto parts, you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As it is with auto parts so it is with humanity. I don’t think there’s a very credible, non-dystopian scenario where we have a precisely stable population.

In an attempt to not be entirely pessimistic, let’s now turn to look at something which compounds in a good way: knowledge. In fact not only does knowledge compound, but the rate at which it compounds is going up. It’s as if you had an investment that started out paying 1% per year, but quickly went to 10% and then 100%. I am often critical of technology, particularly when it’s implemented naively, but this is one things it has done quite well.

At this point, I might toss out a statistic on how fast knowledge is currently doubling, and I will, but it’s going to get a little meta. If you do a Google search on rate of knowledge doubling you’ll get one of those info boxes, and it will say that knowledge is currently doubling every 12 months and soon it will double every 12 hours. This box links to an article written in 2013. The article has no reference for the current 12 month doubling rate (and in fact it actually says it’s 13 months) but does link to an IBM paper (on an unrelated subject) for the 12 hour doubling rate. When you look at the article it actually says 11 hours (and by the way, I can forgive both roundings, I appreciate the elegance of going from 12 months to 12 hours) and goes on to say that the 11 hour number is set to happen “four years from now”. When was the paper written? 2006! Meaning back in 2013, knowledge was presumably already doubling every 11 hours, and possibly even quicker than that. And who knows what the doubling rate is now. I looked for a more current figure, but all of the top results reference the same 2013 original from the infobox, and most of them repeat  the claim that “Soon information will double every 12 hours” not aware that that was a prediction from a 2006 paper for the rate of doubling in 2010.

In any event, I assume knowledge has a certain rate of doubling, and that the rate is increasing. And when people are optimistic about the future, what you find when you peel away the layers is that they are mostly relying on this positive compounding overwhelming any other negative compounding or even any other negative trends. To put it simply, they feel that the future is going to be awesome because we’re getting smarter. I am definitely sympathetic to this point of view, and it has a lot going for it, but I’m not sure it’s quite the unalloyed good people think it is. First, however fast knowledge is increasing, the human brain isn’t getting any more powerful. And I’m well aware that this leads directly to transhumanism, but as I just pointed out with some of the questions in the last post, replacing ourselves with artificial intelligence in order to keep up with the growth of knowledge, is something which could end very badly. Of more immediate concern, the pressure for scientific knowledge to increase has lead to a massive system of “publish or perish” which has in turn created the replication crisis. All of which is to say, as I so often do, I hope the optimists are right, but I think the challenges are vastly more significant than they think.

The other famous compounding trend that’s gotten a lot of attention over the last few decades is  Moore’s Law. Of course any mention of Moore’s Law has to be accompanied by the obligatory mention of concerns that it’s running out of steam. The next step in this discussion is for someone to come along and mention quantum computing and how it will revive Moore’s Law. And of course all of this, once again, leads directly into transhumanism, AI and the aforementioned awesome future, which I’ve probably already spent enough time on.

As the circle widens evidence of compounding or exponential effects becomes harder to find. And we start to move into the realm of long term trends which may or may not have compounding effects. Despite this, even if something doesn’t grow or shrink exponentially if grows or shrinks period for long enough, inevitably problems are going to arise.

I have already discussed lots of things which fit this criteria, and so I’ll mostly be reviewing trends we’ve touched on previously. To start with, there’s, naturally, the national debt, which I discussed a few months ago. I think a case could be made for the debt growing exponentially, certainly if you look at it just starting in 2000 (or even 1980) that’s what the curve looks like, even as a percentage of GDP. However if you widen the view and go all the way back to the countries founding you’ll see lots of debt peaks which later dropped to more manageable levels. It should be said that on all previous occasions the peak was due to war, and the war ended. This time there is no war (or if there is, it shows no signs of ending). For this reason and others I’m on record as saying that I expect the debt to essentially follow the track it’s already on rather than dropping back as it always has before. As to what that might mean, I recommend reading my previous post.

Another area where exponential growth is often mentioned is social media. And as I’ve pointed out a couple of times this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The more persnickety among you may argue that growth in social media is just a subset of the growth in knowledge (or even Moore’s Law) which we’ve already covered, but while most people don’t directly interact with “knowledge” they are intimately involved with Facebook. Also, I don’t consider this to be something that truly compounds, for one, I suspect that Facebook’s growth will be more of an S-Curve, than an unbounded arc towards infinity. Additionally and obviously there aren’t infinite people… All of this doesn’t matter, because Facebook and similar social media sites are interesting for another reason. If you grant the premise, which I and an increasing number of others have made, that Facebook is actually doing more harm than good, then I think it provides a great example of something that’s not intrinsically bad, but only becomes so after significant growth.

In other words, if we look at the trends associated with Facebook that actually concern people we can see where they all started out benignly, and only began causing problems once the curve/userbase reached a certain level. Let’s just look at a few examples of trends within social media.

Coordination: Looking back to my Moloch post I mention that the best way to get around “races to the bottom” is to coordinate. Unfortunately Facebook has taken coordination to a level where instead of bringing people together it’s allowed them to splinter into incredibly narrow ideological niches.

Speech: As I pointed out in the last post where I talked about social media, we’re discovering that excessive speech can be used to censor almost as effectively as actual censorship.

User Base: Having a massive user base is what makes Facebook appealing, it also provides a single point of failure where one bad decision can have a gigantic impact. And I’m not even talking about the whole Russia/Facebook controversy, I’m talking about how tiny changes to one of the algorithms is national news.

One trend which I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing is the rise in inequality. It’s not that I haven’t been aware of the discussion or the underlying problem, I just wasn’t sure that I had much to say about it that was unique or interesting. Still it’s a problem I’m interested in, so just recently I started reading The Great Leveler, I expect I’ll eventually devote an entire post to the book, but for now it does have something interesting to say which ties directly into the current topic. From the book jacket:

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling–mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse and catastrophic plagues–have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

Here we see two interesting ideas associated with rising trends in general. First they often have unintended consequences. (A topic which can never get too much attention.) In this case it’s the unintended consequence of reducing violence. And as great as this is, Scheidel argues that much like a forest fire, you need one every so often to clear out the accumulated deadwood. Which is not to say that you couldn’t have a post-violence society which was more equal, but in which everyone is objectively worse off. Thus even knowing, that sans violence, inequality is just going to continue to rise, that may still not be a trade we’re willing to make. And so, inequality just keeps growing, but this takes us to the second point illustrated by the example. Things can’t grow forever, and as we saw in the example of trying to earn compound interest since the birth of Jesus, when they do break, it’s generally though instability, of exactly the sort Scheidel is talking about. If we avoid mass-mobilization warfare, does that just mean we’ll eventually have a transformative revolution, or that if we avoid both the state will just collapse? Which wraps this point in with the first one. It may be that you can only avoid a forest fire for so long, and that eventually one comes whether you want it or not. Recall that it’s not just the rich getting richer, most everyone else is getting poorer, are you sure that’s a trend that can continue forever without ever crashing under its own instability?

In other words all of this is to say that no matter how innocuous or small a negative trend is, if it continues for long enough something has to break. Fortunately humanity has gotten pretty good at making course corrections. Still there are some recent trends where our attempted course correction has so far been ineffective. And other cases where the course we should take is clear, but difficult. And finally there are some cases where I’m not sure what sort of course correction we should make, and even if I was I’m doubtful we’d ever take it. In closing I’d like to provide one final example that combines a little bit of all of those issues.

The example I’m thinking of is the recent increase in deaths of despair. Here, most of the attention has been focused on people overdosing on opioids, and my sense is that people feel it’s a problem we’ve just recently become aware of, and that we have corrected our course, it just hasn’t quite taken effect yet. I certainly hope that is true, but even if it is, there’s more going on than just opioid addiction. First, it’s not as if opium was just barely discovered, or that heroin was only recently created (Bayer started marketing it over the counter in 1895.) The epidemic of overdosing is largely unique to our time and place. Second, even if you strip away deaths of despair to do opioids, you still have an increase in suicides and deaths from alcoholism. One writer puts it this way:

Opioids are like guns handed out in a suicide ward; they have certainly made the total epidemic much worse, but they are not the cause of the underlying depression.  

(As long as we’re on the subject did you see the story about the fentanyl bust in Boston? 33 lbs, which may not seem like much, but fentanyl is so bad, that’s enough to kill every person in Massachusetts.)

Returning to the quote, if there is an underlying depression, and I believe there is. All of the explanations for it involve things like job loss, and inequality, both of which seem destined to get worse. As I already said we’re pretty good at course correction, but job loss is unlikely to get better as automation becomes more prevalent, and if we buy the thesis of The Great Leveler, inequality is unlikely to get better absent violence. Accordingly there is at least some justification for thinking that the trends are going to continue, that whatever course correction we have initiated is not going to be enough.

I said that the second possibility is a change of course which is clear, but difficult. In this case it’s clear that we need to remove the despair. Most sociologists agree on what that would take: more high-paying manufacturing jobs, stronger families, and a general feeling of being useful. Some of those are easier to define than others, but all are incredibly difficult to accomplish. Though my argument for a long time has been that this is what people were hoping for when they voted for Trump. And while I assume some of them genuinely thought he could give them all that, I imagine most were making a speculative attempt to complicate.

Finally deaths of despair also fall into that category of problems where I’m not sure what to do. The world has moved on and we can’t turn back the clock. Trump can promise to bring back manufacturing jobs till the cows come home, but he’s unlikely to have much of an impact. The trends we see are too massive to be stopped so trivially. Thus saying we need more high-paying manufacturing jobs is not all that different from saying we need a miracle.

If the trends can’t be stopped, and as I said, I hope they can. It may initially not seem like a catastrophe. But this is where the length of the trend becomes important. Taking just the opioid component (and remember there’s a lot more going on with deaths of despair.) If things merely continue as they have been we’ll end up with 420,000 additional dead people in the US over just the next 10 years (basically equal to all the US soldiers who died in World War 2). And that’s not all deaths that’s deaths over the pre-epidemic baseline, which I’m pegging at around 1999-2000. (Figures extrapolated from charts linked to in the show notes.) This all assumes that we stop it here, and it doesn’t get any worse. If, on the other hand, the trend continues to rise at the same rate it has been, a 5x increase over 17 years (from 1999 to 2016) then by 2035 we would have a quarter of a million people dying every year.

I don’t think that will happen, and it’s possible that the opioid epidemic is a better example of a trend we missed than a trend which will continue. Which is to say that if you had predicted that overdose deaths from opioids would go from around 10,000 in the year 2000 to 52,000 in the year 2016, people would have thought you were crazy. And if they had believed you they would have done everything in their power to stop it. The question I want to leave with, is what are the current trends where we’re metaphorically in the year 2000. Trends just at the beginning of their rise, or even worse beginning to compound, where this is the time to act. Is there any way of identifying them, and if so, is there anything we can do? Or, are these trends similar to inequality, something that can only be reversed by significantly instability?

I suspect I’ll be referring back to this post a lot, particularly since there are a lot of examples I didn’t even touch on. I’ll cover one of them in my next post.


This is my new record for the longest post. If you like in depth (or rambling) writing, then consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then how did you ever end up here?


The 2018 Edge Question of the Year

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Since 1998 (and in other forms earlier than that) John Brockman, founder of the Edge Foundation, has been doing a question of the year. Brockman is a book agent specializing in scientific literature and consequently well connected to the sorts of people you might want answers from. In past years he’s gotten answers from people like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson and even Alan Alda. I have not read all the responses to every annual question (though I’ve read quite a few) but those I have read are, in general, very thought provoking, and at least once (perhaps more) I’ve used the answers as part of a post.

It occured to me near the end of last year, that despite Brockman, unaccountably, not asking me for my answer, that I could nevertheless provide one for the 2018 Question of the Year, and that it might make a good post. I had actually intended to do it in January while the year was still fresh, but as far as I can tell the 2018 version of the question has only just recently become available. (And it still isn’t listed on the page with the rest of the questions). Also, based on this statement it appears that this might be the last year he does it.

After twenty years, I’ve run out of questions. So, for the finale to a noteworthy Edge project, can you ask “The Last Question”?

Unlike past years, this question, as might be expected, produced some very short responses. In that vein I’ll keep my response short as well, but I still have a few thousand more words to write, so I’ll save my response for the very end and spend the rest of the time discussing the other responses. I think if nothing else they give a very interesting snapshot of the current intellectual zeitgeist. Though this last question does have the same weakness as most of the previous questions in the series. Scott Aaronson (the very first response from this year, it’s alphabetical) describes his response and the challenge of responding thusly:

I’m not thrilled with the result, but reading through the other questions makes it clear just how challenging it is to ask something that doesn’t boil down to: “When will the rest of the world recognize the importance of my research topic?”

Fortunately my “research topic” is very broad, and however prejudiced the individual responses are, there is a lot of overlap between my interests and those of the people responding.

To begin with there are some questions which directly speak to past posts. For example the response by Jaeweon Cho is basically one of the points I was examining just last week:

Can we design a modern society without money which is at least as effective economically and politically as our current system?

As you’ll recall the unfortunate historical conclusion is that it’s probably impossible. But apparently there are still people, like Mr. Cho, who continue to hope that it can it be done. No offense to Mr. Cho, but not only is that a question which already has a pretty solid answer, I don’t think it is a really good “last question” either (a failing common to many of the responses this year.) Which is to say I’m not sure the future of humanity hinges on whether we can design a system without money.

More interesting and consequential is Kurt Gray’s Question:

What will happen to human love when we can design the perfect robot lover?

Long time readers may recognize this as being very similar to the question I posed in my post Is Pornography a Supernormal Stimuli? Unfortunately I don’t know Mr. Gray’s answer to that question, but I’m confident, as I pointed out in the post, that we’re already getting a taste of the answer to that question and it’s not good. Of course I’m sure that there will be at least some social and cultural stigma around having sexual relations with a robot for a long time, but for anyone who watched Bladerunner 2049, and remembers Joi, the holographic companion, you know that it doesn’t necessarily have to be skeezy.

One of the other respondents was Samuel Arbesman, who you may recall from the post I did where I reviewed his book Overcomplicated (among other things) And his question is very near and dear to my heart:

How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?

This is one answer/question that definitely isn’t guilty of the sin Aaronson described above (the sin of being a thinly veiled discussion of the person’s research.) And it also fits the criteria for being a good “last question”. I think it’s safe to assume, as Arbesman probably does, that long-term thinking corresponds to long-term success, or in other words we’re not just going to accidentally stumble into a glorious future, we’re going to have to work for it. The question is, are we “doing the work”?

As I have pointed out repeatedly, I don’t think we are, and one of the problems with the modern world is its increasing fixation with solving urgent, but potentially unimportant problems. As I have argued, not only is long-term thinking a requirement for civilization, it may in fact be the very definition of civilization. That we are civilized to the extent that we do not prefer the present over the future. Thus I might slightly rephrase Arbesmans question to be, “If civilization relies on long-term thinking, how do we encourage that in a world that is becoming increasingly focused on the short-term?” I’m not sure, but I’m going to keep writing about it.

Speaking of writing about things, if we move from specific posts to the broader themes of the blog it takes us to Joscha Bach’s question:

What is the optimal algorithm for discovering truth?

As I have pointed out from time to time, it’s nice to imagine truth as some immutable object. And if we could just find the right algorithm we would uncover this truth in all its glory and in so doing banish doubt forever. Though perhaps I’m being unfair to Bach, maybe he is just hoping to uncover as much truth as possible, and has no illusions about uncovering the truth behind everything. (Also it should be said, unlike many questions this is an interesting “last question” not merely an interesting question.)

The issue I take with the question is that I think there’s less Truth available than most people imagine. There certainly is some, a few kernels here and there, that have brought large benefits to humanity (the law of gravity for example) but I think a better question is, “What is the optimal algorithm for making decisions under uncertainty?”

I agree with Bach that it would be nice if we just knew THE TRUTH and could act accordingly, but that option is unavailable for 95% (and maybe closer to 99%) of the things we’re actually interested in because we’ll never know the truth. And this is why so much of this blog is focused on antifragility. Because most of the time we’re acting in situations where the truth is unavailable.

Speaking of situations where the truth appears to be fluid, Kate Darling asks:

What future progressive norms would most forward-thinking people today dismiss as too transgressive?

This is one of the many questions which doesn’t feel like a “last question”, nevertheless this is also something I’ve repeatedly wondered about, though, if you’ve read my blog, I’m more interested in past progressive norms which are now dismissed as horribly trasgressive, than future progressive norms. But both past and future norms tie back into the idea of the Overton Window, which is something of significant short-term importance.

I think it says something about the speed at which things are changing that this question is even asked. As the phrase goes I don’t know Kate Darling from Adam (or should it be Eve? There’s those progressive norms again) so I don’t know if she considers herself particularly progressive, but the fact that she’s worried enough about it to make it her “last question”, says a lot about the modern world.

Continuing to match responses, to things I’ve covered in the blog, as you might imagine Fermi’s Paradox makes an appearance in the responses, though it didn’t show up in as many times as I would have thought. Perhaps the paradox no longer grips the imagination like it once did. But interestingly in one of the few responses where it did show up, it showed up connected to religion. Thus once again, even if I do say so myself, my own interests prove to be right on the cutting edge. As to the question, Kai Krause asks:

What will happen to religion on earth when the first alien life form is found?​

First, I should offer a caveat. This question really only applies to Fermi’s Paradox if the alien life in question is intelligent, but that is where the question is the most interesting. Second, similar to some of the other responses, I’m not sure this is a very good last question.

To begin with, a lot of it’s finality depends on the religion you’re speaking of and the form the alien life takes. If the question isn’t about the paradox, if it just relates to, say, finding simple life in the oceans of Europa, then I don’t suspect that it will have much of an effect on any of the world’s major religions.

If, on the other hand, the question ties into the paradox, and the first alien life form we encounter is a civilization vastly superior to our own, then I imagine the impact could be a lot greater, and it might in fact be final, particularly if the aliens share one of our religions. I know most people would be shocked if the aliens had any religion, and even more shocked if it happened to be one that was already practiced on Earth, but I think I’ve laid out a reasonable argument for why that shouldn’t be so shocking. Nevertheless I guess we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Supposing, as most people expect, that the aliens have no religion. Then the situation could be final, but that would be because of the alien part of the question, the religion part of the question would have nothing to do with it. As far as the religion side of things, even if it had the effect of wiping out religions (which I doubt) and even given my own feelings on the importance of religion, I don’t think the end of religion would mean the end of humanity. All of the preceding being just a complicated way of arguing that Krause didn’t intend to ask a “last question” with respect to humanity, he intended to ask a “last question” with respect to religion. I would argue that if we rephrased the question as, “Are those crazy religious people going to finally give up their delusions once we find aliens?” It would be at least as close to Krause’s true intent as the actual question and maybe more so.

But perhaps I’m being unfair to Krause, though he’s not the only one to ask questions about religion, and if we move over to that topic, we find that Christopher Stringer was more straightforward:

Can we ever wean humans off their addiction to religion?

And he’s joined by Ed Regis:

Why is reason, science, and evidence so impotent against superstition, religion, and dogma?

Less negative, but mining a similar vein Elaine Pagels asks:

Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century?

I may be harping on this too much, but why are all these questions “last questions”? Despite my decidedly pro-religion stance, I’m not arguing that they’re not interesting questions, in fact I think the utility of religion is embedded in those questions (something Stringer and Regis, in particular, might want to consider) but they’re only last questions if the respondents imagine that unless we can get rid of religion, that humanity is doomed. As you might have guessed I strongly disagree with this point. Not only because of how far we’ve already come with religion, but also because unless they’re all defining religion very narrowly, I think we should be extremely worried they’ll toss out the baby of morality with the bathwater of religion.

I think David G. Myers, while basically speaking on the same general topic phrases his question not only more interestingly, but more productively:

Does religious engagement promote or impede morality, altruism, and human flourishing?

At least this question admits the possibility that the billions of religious people both past and present might not all be hopelessly deluded. And this is also a slightly better last question. The progress we’ve made thus far, as a largely religious species, argues strongly that religion doesn’t prevent progress from being made, and on the other hand asking if religion might be important to “morality, altruism, and human flourishing” is something that should definitely be done before we get rid of it entirely (as Stringer and Regis appear prepared to do.)

Outside of religion, many of the questions involve AI, another subject I’ve touched on from time to time in this space. Starting us off we have a question from someone I’ve frequently mentioned when speaking of AI, our old pal Eliezer Yudkowsky:

What is the fastest way to reliably align a powerful AGI around the safe performance of some limited task that is potent enough to save the world from unaligned AGI?

(I should explain that here Yudkowsky uses AGI, as in artificial general intelligence, rather than the more common AI.)

In this area, at least, we finally start to see some good “last questions”. From Yudkowsky’s perspective, if we don’t get this question right, it will be the last question we ask. He even goes so far as to use the phrase “save the world”, and, from his perspective this is exactly what’s at stake.

Maria Spiropulu’s question is similarly final, and similarly bleak.

Could superintelligence be the purpose of the universe?

I’m assuming it’s bleak because it makes no mention of humanity’s place in this eventual future. One assumes that the superintelligence she envisions would be artificial, but even if it weren’t the alternative is a race of post-humans which would probably bear very little resemblance to humanity as it is now. And I know that for many people that’s a feature not a bug, but we’ll grapple with that some other time.

As long as we’re emphasising how well the AI responses fit in with the “last question” theme, Max Tegmark’s question is especially clever in this regard”

What will be the literally last question that will preoccupy future superintelligent cosmic life for as long as the laws of physics permit?

Something of a meta-last question, but another one which presupposes the eventual triumph of some form of superintelligence.

Finally in this category I want to mention Tom Griffiths’ response:

What new cognitive abilities will we need to live in a world of intelligent machines?

This question is less futuristic than the rest, covering as it does mere job automation rather than the eventual heat death of the universe, but job automation could nevertheless be sufficiently disruptive that there is a potential for this to be the “last question”, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a purposeless ennui has already gripped much of the nation, and job automation, as I have pointed out, promises to only exacerbate it.

My purpose in highlighting these questions, other than pointing out the obvious, that people other than myself are interested in artificial intelligence, is to illustrate the widespread belief that we’re in a race. The same race I talked about in my very first post. A race between a beneficial technological singularity and catastrophe. And, as these responses have alluded to, the technological singularity doesn’t have to be beneficial. It could be the catastrophe.

Of course other than Yudkowsky’s response, the AI questions I listed avoid any direct mention of potential catastrophe (which is probably one of the reasons I keep coming back to Yudkowsky, whatever his other flaws at least he acknowledges the possibility things will go poorly.) In fact given the “last question” theme there’s really a surprising dearth of questions which allude to the possibility that progress might not continue along the same exponential curve it has followed for the last few decades. Only a single question, from John Horgan mentions the word “war”.

What will it take to end war once and for all?

And even this question seems to assume that we’re 95% or even 99% of the way there, and he’s just wondering what it will take to finally push us over the top.

As I said Horgan, and Yudkowsky are outliers, most of the responses seem to assume that there will still be researchers and scientists around in 50 or 100 or in however many years, working as they always have to create the “optimal algorithm for discovering truth” or develop a “comprehensive mathematics of human behavior” or investigate the differences in evolution “one hundred thousand years from now”. I can only assume that he expects us to be around in one hundred thousand years, otherwise I imagine evolution will be much the same one hundred thousand years from now as it’s been for the last three billion years.

Perhaps the next 50 to 100 years will be as uneventful as the last 50, but the next 100,000? I know that many of these people believe that something awesome will happen long before then. Something which will lock in progress and lock out catastrophe. (Something like civilizational tupperware.) But what if it doesn’t. Is there any chance of that? And if there is, shouldn’t we perhaps do something about it? Particularly now that we’ve got all these cool gadgets that might help us with that? Fortunately, there are some responses which acknowledge this. Albert Wenger in particular seems to share exactly the concerns I just mentioned:

How do we create and maintain backup options for humanity to quickly rebuild an advanced civilization after a catastrophic human extinction event?

And Dylan Evans is even more pessimistic:

Will civilization collapse before I die?

(Though perhaps his question is more subtle than it initially looks. Maybe Evans is a transhumanist and expects to live for a very long time.)

I was happy to see at least a few questions which acknowledged the fragility of things, but in the end I keep coming back to Arbesman’s question:

How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?

Since so many of the other responses inadvertently proved his point. There was a decided lack of long term thinking even in answer to a question that basically demanded it. As Aaronson said, most of the questions really boiled down to:

When will the rest of the world recognize the importance of my research topic?

And of those that avoided that, many engaged in only positive long-term thinking, which to my mind is a potentially fatal oversight. One that overlooks not only the challenges humanity is likely to face, but the challenges we should be the most worried about.

Of course, I promised I would provide my own response. And it’s certainly unfair to criticize others if I’m not willing to try the same thing myself, but before I do. To the many respondents who religiously read this blog, but whose questions I didn’t mention. (Sorry Freeman!) I apologize. You may assume that it was fantastic.

And now, finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my last question:

Is humanity doomed because we have mistaken technology for wisdom, narcissism for joy, and debauchery for morality?


There’s another last question I’d like you to consider, not the last question for humanity, but the last question I ask at the end of every post. Any chance you’d consider donating? Maybe it’s finally time to answer yes.


How I Almost Became a Communist

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I was talking to a friend the other day and he mentioned how his son “needed space”. That he needed somewhere he could go to get away from everyone else. I have no doubt that this is true, but it made me wonder why it’s true. Certainly this is not a need that would have been recognized or catered to 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. I remember that when I was growing up sharing a room with a sibling was the rule rather than the exception. I specifically recall one family which had four boys all sharing a room (families were also bigger back then as well). And this is just within my lifetime. If you go even farther back, you’ll find entire families sharing a single room or even a single bed.

My intent is not to pick on this kid or his need for space. As I said I’m sure he does need space, I’m just wondering where that comes from. How and why have things changed so much in just the last few decades. And of course maybe I’m misidentifying what’s changed. Maybe in the past people still needed space they just went outside and spent hours being unsupervised. Which is another place where people take issue with the modern world, and we just noticed that people “need space” now because kids basically spend all their time inside. Or, perhaps most likely, it’s a combination of both.

The point I’m getting at is remind people, as I have mentioned before, that the past is a foreign country. And it’s difficult to imagine both the thoughts of those “foreigners”, and the emotions they experienced. Particularly if no effort is made to shed modern prejudices and ideology, to abandon your viewpoint and embrace the perspectives of the past. And, of course, if you’re not able to do this, not only will you find it hard to understand people in the past, you’ll find it hard not to condemn them.

If you are interested in understanding the past (and you should be) then probably the easiest way to do it is reading books, particularly books written during that era. You might think of them as sort of a travel guide. This post came about in part because, without really setting out to, I recently ended up reading several books, all written in the period between the two World Wars. Specifically:

In Dubious Battle by Steinbeck

For Whom the Bell Tolls By Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms By Hemingway

Homage to Catalonia By Orwell

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

Before we continue, I read quite a bit of Steinbeck beyond just “In Dubious Battle”, just barely finishing East of Eden, his magnum opus, and once I’m done with that, I think I may be done with Steinbeck for good. (Though I have heard I should at least read Cannery Row before deciding to abandon Steinbeck forever.) It’s mostly pretty depressing stuff, though he’s a gifted writer. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine she wanted to know what she should read, so since I already wrote something up I thought I might as well include it here, as long as we’re on the subject.

Despite reading a lot of Steinbeck I haven’t read all of it, by any stretch, but Wikipedia lists five books under his Major Works and I have read all of those. Restricting myself to just those five, this is what I told her:

  • In Dubious Battle: Read this book if you want the clearest vision of his political sympathies.
  • Of Mice and Men: If you want to experience the recurring sadness of a Steinbeck book in the fewest number of pages read this one.
  • The Grapes of Wrath: If you’re only going to read one book, you should probably read this one, since it’s a great novel and also gives you the political angle.
  • East of Eden: His best novel and probably his best book period.
  • Travels with Charley: If you’d rather read some non-fiction and get a feel for Steinbeck himself. Also the “least sad” book on the list.

As I said Steinbeck is definitely a talented writer, and in fact all of the authors of the interwar books I mentioned were great writers, and, returning to my original point, much of what made them great was their ability to transport the reader back to the time when the book was written. Back to a time when a lot of things were different, but in this post I mostly want to focus on just one difference. The generally favorable way they treated communism and socialism (which were less differentiated then than now). And, particularly in the case of “In Dubious Battle”, Steinbeck’s passion for it. It should be noted that two of the books I listed dealt very specifically with the Spanish Civil War, a conflict which was largely viewed as a war between communism and fascism. When you have fascists on the other side it makes any sympathy for communism more understandable.

As I was reading these books I confess to being initially resistant to viewing communism favorably, even granting the differences between eras. But as I said, the authors have a way of drawing you in, and before you know it you end up with at least a certain amount of understanding and sympathy for the author’s viewpoint and the struggles people experienced during that time. And I started wondering what I would have thought if I had actually been alive during the interwar years. I wonder if I might have taken a path similar to Orwell, who initially viewed the communists sympathetically and joined up with them as a means of achieving the greater goal of defeating Franco and the fascists before becoming disillusioned (and nearly killed) by communist infighting, leading him to eventually write books like Animal Farm and 1984.

Perhaps it’s best to begin by discussing my initial reluctance, which stems from several sources. First the excesses and murders of communism have been very well documented. I have, on the bookshelf behind me The Big Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, which I confess I have yet to read, but I am nevertheless very familiar with the facts. From one of the reviews:

Communism did kill, Courtois and his fellow historians demonstrate, with ruthless efficiency: 25 million in Russia during the Bolshevik and Stalinist eras, perhaps 65 million in China under the eyes of Mao Zedong, 2 million in Cambodia, millions more Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America–an astonishingly high toll of victims. This freely expressed penchant for homicide, Courtois maintains, was no accident, but an integral trait of a philosophy, and a practical politics, that promised to erase class distinctions by erasing classes and the living humans that populated them. Courtois and his contributors document Communism’s crimes in numbing detail, moving from country to country, revolution to revolution. The figures they offer will likely provoke argument, if not among cliometricians then among the ideologically inclined. So, too, will Courtois’s suggestion that those who hold Lenin, Trotsky, and Ho Chi Minh in anything other than contempt are dupes, witting or not, of a murderous school of thought–one that, while in retreat around the world, still has many adherents. A thought-provoking work of history and social criticism, The Black Book of Communism fully merits the broadest possible readership and discussion.

In defense of the intra-war authors I mentioned, most of these crimes were years in the future, and those that had already happened had been very effectively covered up.

Another source of my reluctance comes from being a Mormon, which has had a strong ideological distaste for communism going back decades. The biggest advocate probably being Ezra Taft Benson, who went on to be the president of the Church from 1985 to 1994. Most people seem to agree that by the time he became President of the Church he was no longer that concerned, but previous to that, particularly in the 60s and 70s when he was just an apostle (one of 12) he gave some pretty fiery speeches, many of which are still preserved in the churches archives. For example:

Communism introduced into the world a substitute for true religion. It is a counterfeit of the gospel plan. The false prophets of Communism predict a utopian society. This, they proclaim, will only be brought about as capitalism and free enterprise are overthrown, private property abolished, the family as a social unit eliminated, all classes abolished, all governments overthrown, and a communal ownership of property in a classless, stateless society established.

Since 1917 this godless counterfeit to the gospel has made tremendous progress toward its objective of world domination.

Interestingly my reaction to Steinbeck’s passion for communism and Benson’s opposition was very similar. Though I intend to spend more time on the former than the latter, Benson’s comments also felt foreign. Obviously in part this is because in 2018 we’re 27 years past the breakup of the Soviet Union and while currently China is still communist, it’s largely in name only. On the other hand Benson’s opposition happened during the height of the Cold War, when events like Sputnik, the Hungarian Revolution, and the Cuban Missile Crisis were still very fresh. Nearly 30 years after its collapse it’s easy to dismiss the threat of international communism because we know how it turned out, but it didn’t look like a sure thing at the time. A point I’ll be returning to.

I think the final and perhaps biggest source for my initial reluctance to identify with the author’s and their favorable views of communism comes from evaluating the injustices people currently worry about. Which for a variety of reasons I’ve already touched on, do not appear to be all that bad. This is because most of the injustices people hoped communism would fix, were fixed without communism, more effectively and more quickly than the communists themselves managed, even when given free reign. But this doesn’t mean that during the interwar period there weren’t horrible injustices being committed, And this leads me to the central point I wanted to cover.

There’s no longer any question of whether the fascists are going to conquer Spain. The last time someone died during a labor dispute, according to Wikipedia, was 1979 (and the last time before that was 1959.) Arguably even war has gotten a lot better since the end of World Wars. As I said everything those authors were concerned about has gotten a lot better, some might even argue that all of these problems are now solved, but they certainly hadn’t been solved at the time when they were writing, They were still very real and very big. When Steinbeck talks about hundreds of migrant farm workers traveling long distances to pick apples, only to have the apple growers drop the wages being offered once they’ve arrived, I’m sure that exact thing happened countless times. As well as the arson, and the murders, and the twisting of laws, and the corrupt public officials Steinbeck describes as well.

Accordingly it’s understandable for someone of that era to be sympathetic to communism, especially If you were one of those migrant workers constantly getting jerked around by the growers, or a poor farmer fleeing the dust bowl, like the Joads, or fighting literal nazis during the Spanish Civil War like Hemingway and Orwell, or someone who was aware of all these injustices. For all these people, I can see where communism must have seemed pretty attractive. Not only did it promise better working conditions, more money, and less inequality, it seemed to be a better way to deal with the world in nearly all aspects. In fact communism had, or was assumed to have, advantages I hadn’t even considered.

This realization came from something else I read recently. As is so often the case I found it while reading SlateStarCodex (in this case one of the older entries). It was a book review of Red Plenty. I’ve already described how no one (or at least very few) foresaw the vast number of deaths communist regimes would end up being responsible for. In other words it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that communism would fail morally. Red Plenty describes how it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it would fail economically either. This surprised me. These days the conventional, if somewhat simplistic wisdom, is that if you want a wealthy, productive country, capitalism is the clear choice. But if you want to take care of poor and disadvantaged people socialism/communism is better. At first glance, communism appears to start with a leg-up morally, which is why it’s understandable that people didn’t expect it’s moral failure, but these days we assume that its economic failure should have been obvious. Red Plenty makes the case that it certainly wasn’t obvious to the communists and it wasn’t considered a foregone conclusion even in the West, particularly in the 50’s.

As I said, I was surprised by this, but when you start thinking about production and economic output, communism, potentially has a lot of advantages. The biggest advantage being all the things they don’t have to spend time and energy on. For example advertising and marketing, exorbitant CEO salaries (and the associated wasteful luxuries) research and development, etc. All the time and energy which would be spent on these things can instead be spent on making the entire economy work better. On top of all the activities you don’t have to worry about at all, there are all the other areas which would presumably experience economies of scale. Things like healthcare, and human resources, knowledge about business processes, etc.

Sure there might be some disadvantages from eliminating the motivation of greed, but to balance that out they save countless millions of manhours elsewhere. You can quickly see where this argument would lead the Soviets to believe in the 50s that not only could they provide better for the poor (the supposed core advantage of communism) but that on top of that they would also out produce the West. I don’t think this is precisely the argument Kruschev was making when he gave his famous We Will Bury You! Speech, but it all fits together in their ideology.

Once you hear this, and think about it for a minute, it’s a reasonable argument. One that was largely proven false by subsequent events (and a lot of help from Stalin and Mao), but once again, at the time people didn’t know that. The argument was reasonable, and one more point for communism.

While the broad strokes of why things didn’t work out the way they hoped are widely understood the specifics are still fascinating. I’ll let Alexander relate my favorite example:

A tire factory had been assigned a tire-making machine that could make 100,000 tires a year, but the government had gotten confused and assigned them a production quota of 150,000 tires a year. The factory leaders were stuck, because if they tried to correct the government they would look like they were challenging their superiors and get in trouble, but if they failed to meet the impossible quota, they would all get demoted and their careers would come to an end. They learned that the tire-making-machine-making company had recently invented a new model that really could make 150,000 tires a year. In the spirit of Chen Sheng, they decided that since the penalty for missing their quota was something terrible and the penalty for sabotage was also something terrible, they might as well take their chances and destroy their own machinery in the hopes the government sent them the new improved machine as a replacement. To their delight, the government believed their story about an “accident” and allotted them a new tire-making machine. However, the tire-making-machine-making company had decided to cancel production of their new model. You see, the new model, although more powerful, weighed less than the old machine, and the government was measuring their production by kilogram of machine. So it was easier for them to just continue making the old less powerful machine. The tire factory was allocated another machine that could only make 100,000 tires a year and was back in the same quandary they’d started with.

It’s interesting to pick out from the story what they used instead of prices. We see quotas, central planning, punishments and, perhaps, the most ridiculous, the weight of equipment being produced. And none of those systems was able to compensate for the signal provided by the price.

At this point if I wasn’t nearly out of space, we might delve into a discussion of how capitalism’s real strength is that it acts as a giant computer for calculating value, getting things where they need to go, and reflecting scarcity. Perhaps I’ll get into that in a future post. But in this post we’re talking about all the reasons why communism seemed so great. And how easy it was to miss the factors that would cause it to eventually fail. When I look back on the issue of pricing, there were certainly people who understood that it was going to be a big weakness of communism, but I don’t think it was so obvious that we should hold it against people like Steinbeck and Hemingway that they missed it. Anyone who has zero reservations about setting a minimum wage is essentially making the same mistake. And my sense is we still have a lot of those people.

One of the main points I’m trying to get across, is to urge people to exercise a little bit more kindness and understanding for people in the past. And this includes both Steinbeck and Benson. Both because it’s hard to imagine how bad laborers had it in the 30s and because it’s hard to imagine how scary the cold war looked in the 60s. Also, it should probably go without saying that this kindness and understanding should extend to people in the present. (And I would not argue with you if you claimed I could do better on both.)

That said, I am of the opinion that one can be understanding and kind while still being critical, or perhaps more accurately while still thinking critically. I know many people would argue that’s an oxymoron, but I disagree. As we saw with communism, some things, no matter how noble their intent, or how pure their aims, end up not working. The fact that communism didn’t (and doesn’t) work, doesn’t mean bad things weren’t happening, that injustices weren’t being committed, that people weren’t dying. All it means is that communism wasn’t the best way of helping those people, despite, on its face, appearing to be the ideal solution.

I know that for some people this will be hard to believe, but I really am trying to figure out the best way to help all the people who need it. Accordingly, when I take issue with utopian plans or visions for a better world, or criticisms of this system or that, I’m not doing it because there is no injustice, or because I think the harms aren’t real, or because I don’t want a better world. When I wonder if The Pervnado/#MeToo Movement is getting out of hand it’s not because I think that sexual harassment never happens, or that it’s not really bad, or that women routinely lie about it. It’s because we’ve seen idealism perverted before, we’ve seen legitimately horrible injustices used an an excuse for greater injustices. We’ve seen a system that seemed, at the time, to have everything going for it, a system that really seemed to care about the injustice, and poverty and the wrongs men commit against each other. And we saw that same system turn into one of the largest disasters the world has ever known.


Speaking of understanding, I probably could do better, but how many people understand my argument connecting AI to Mormon Theology vs. how many who understand social justice? If you think the former might be just as important to understand as the latter consider donating.