Thrown Off Balance

Thrown Off Balance

Last week I received somewhat shocking news when I logged into work on Tuesday (Monday was a holiday so this was the start of the week). Apparently, for cost cutting purposes, some positions had to be eliminated, and unfortunately mine was one of them. I was told that my last day would be January 27. In other words, I was given two weeks notice.

This was unexpected as I recalled having been assured at the end of 2022 that my contract was extended for 2023. I guess they just meant for the start of 2023. What a raw deal. Now I am faced with the prospect of looking for work, always a challenge and ever more so as I grow older.

I might have known something like this was coming, since the amount of work the team was doing had been declining. But I guess I thought it would happen to someone else, not to me. Apparently there’s been a trend of tech layoffs, and I got caught up in it. I wonder if it’s a sign of more widespread economic troubles to come.

The manager on my project says he wants to hire me back, once they have the funds. It’s just a question of if there is anywhere they could move me to in the meantime; they say they are looking, but I’m not sure how much faith I have. A sneaky paranoid feeling makes me think they’re just blowing smoke in my eyes and are glad to be rid of me.

I went for a walk later in the week, and on my walk I stumbled on the uneven sidewalk and took a spill. I couldn’t catch my fall and hit the ground hard, luckily onto my side so I didn’t hurt myself badly, except I did skin my knee. It is still raw and red and painful, and I have a little limp from avoiding bending my leg. Was it clumsiness that caused my fall? My failing vision? It feels like this unexpected news threw me off balance, and so I literally lost my balance and fell, and now I bear this painful limp like a mark of my misfortune.

I’m sure it will heal quickly, and I’m sure I’ll get back on my feet again and be stable soon, one way or the other. It’s just getting wearying trying to stay on the path.

My 2022 Retrospective

My 2022 Retrospective

In world events, the two big stories of 2022 were clearly the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the confluence of the Jan 6th committee hearings and midterm election results, which I will call the slow death of MAGA. I thought it was impressive that the Biden administration was able to rally the West in support of Ukraine, and also dodge the expected “red wave” repudiation of the executive term. Is this inching towards a “blue wave” consolidation, and a revitalization of the Western alliance, after the setbacks of the previous administration? Or is it just pulling the partisan tension ever tauter, in anticipation of a reckoning still to come? Either way, I would like to take this opportunity to extend a middle finger to all of the MAGAts in the Putin/TFG camp, and heartily wish them more failure and humiliation in the new year.

In my own life, the best new thing to happen to me was being hired to work on the end notes for the sequel to The Fourth Turning. I’ve been a fan of Strauss & Howe generations theory for 25 years now, nearly half of my life, and it’s an honor to be included in Neil Howe’s process of writing the much anticipated sequel to their 1997 book (Bill Strauss passed away in 2007, sadly). It has been a lot of hard work, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute and to prove myself (I’m pretty good at methodical information organization).

I say this is the best new thing to happen to me, because there is much to be grateful for in 2022 that is a continuation of past trends. I really am one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to work from home in a time of plague, and while the Covid-19 pandemic is about to reach its three year anniversary, my extended family and network has for the most part mercifully been spared the worst outcomes from the disease (though enough of us have caught it, Lordy). Our family is financially stable, even while our national economy is not. And though I have Boomer parents and Millennial children, I am not really “Sandwich Generation” in the sense of being responsible for caring for family both above and below me on the age ladder. My parents, thankfully, have retirement savings.

I’m also very lucky and grateful to be with my partner, Aileen, after almost ten years since we reunited at our 30th year high school reunion in 2013. We started off visiting each other frequently from our respective homes 400 miles apart, and ended up living together under one roof. Being in lockdown together tested our relationship – could we stand continuous contact for months on end? Turns out we could. Pandemic lockdown and moving in together have only strengthened our partnership, and I look forward to many decades together to come.

My big hope for 2023 is more opportunity for creative work, for myself and everyone else in the household. I know, it might seem crazy to wish for work. Didn’t I just enjoy a week off from that? But we Gen Xers are in our peak earning years, so it’s very good for us to keep that going at this point in our lives. I for one will be hitting the ground running next week, rereading Neil’s book while also swamped with work at my computer job. Aileen has had her contract at West Chester University extended, which is great because it means she will get one full year there to put on her resume. As for the young Millennials in our family, I hope for more opportunity to learn and grow, and figure out where they want to go in life. We will, of course, be there to support them.

To my readers, I say thank you for checking out my blog, and I invite you to keep visiting as I continue to chronicle these challenging times. We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but we can be sure there is significant change coming. I hope you have a foundation in your life like mine, because that will so helpful for getting through this crisis era. All the generations will need one another for a safe and prosperous New Year.

Please Don’t Stick That in My Brain: Some Thoughts on the Past and Future of Cyberpunk

Please Don’t Stick That in My Brain: Some Thoughts on the Past and Future of Cyberpunk

I’ve recently enjoyed a little foray into cyberpunk fiction. I watched the Netflix anime series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, and also read the book on which it is ultimately based. Technically, the TV series is based on the video game Cyberpunk 2077, which is itself based on the tabletop RPG Cyberpunk. But the creator of the RPG has acknowledged that he was heavily influenced by the book Hardwired, by Walter Carlos Williams, which is the book I read. I could definitely see the influence, traced all the way back through this pop culture pedigree – in concepts, style, and even a little bit in content.

Typically, a story in this genre features protagonists who are marginalized outcasts, and also stylish and cool (that’s the “punk” part). They make a living as outlaws, and probably party hard in their free time (that’s the “edge” part). They have expertise with advanced technology, and interface with it using direct neural connections (that’s the “cyber” and “hardwired” parts). Their adversaries are powerful corporate conspiracies in a futuristic setting where multinational (or even multiplanetary) corporations have eclipsed governments. Think Blade Runner. It’s something about the zeitgeist of that time period (the dawn of the Reagan era) to imagine corporations replacing governments as the rulers of Earth. You might even think of it as sci-fi authors being characteristically prescient.

The anime series Cyberpunk: Edgerunners has all these genre features, in a slick, stylized package with a kind of pastel-colored 1980s aesthetic. To me watching it felt very much like sitting in on RPG sessions where a motley crew of adventurers go on missions, collect loot, and buy ever more powerful upgrades to their fancy cybernetic enhancements. In that sense it’s a fitting adaptation of the tabletop game and video game that are its ultimate source material. That’s not to say there’s no bigger picture or meaningful plot; there is an over-arching story and there is depth to the show. It’s very well executed, making it both an artful and an entertaining series. I should warn you, though, if you plan to watch it, that it depicts extremely graphic violence, as one would only expect from a roleplaying game (I’ve RPG’d a lot, and trust me, gamers love to live out their violent fantasies around the gaming table).

The signature element of the cyberpunk genre is undoubtedly the cybernetic implant – some sort of machine enhancement of the human body. Maybe it’s a weaponized appendage. Maybe it’s enhanced senses, like eyes that can see infrared. Or maybe it’s a chip in the brain that let’s you interface directly with computer systems, hacking into them in a virtual reality mode where you become a digital avatar travelling through cyberspace. In the original cyberpunk tradition, you typically have ports, in your skull or perhaps at the base of your neck, where you jack in to cyberspace by plugging in wires. These stories were all dreamed up before there was ubiquitous wifi, so it makes sense that writers would assume that was how to connect to a network. It’s like how in 1970s sci-fi people in the far future are using computers with monochrome CRT monitors. You could always argue that a direct wired connection would be faster and more reliable than a wifi connection, so it would still be desirable to have a USB port in your head, even in a cyberpunk future saturated with wifi networks.

In Cyberpunk: Edgerunners you have all these kinds of cybernetics. The specific ones that a character uses define a sort of character class for them; whether they are combat oriented – which could mean being strong and fast for hand-to-hand combat, or just very accurate with long range weapons – or a computer hacker, sneaking into the corporate networks while the combat characters watch over them or create a distraction. Sometimes drugs are needed to work with these cybernetics; specifically, in this anime, a character has to take immunosuppressants to prevent his body from rejecting his implants. In the book Hardwired, the characters took a stimulant drug which helped their nervous systems to interact with their hardware.

This sort of transhumanist idea of replacement cyborg parts has been around for decades now, but how close are we to neural implants in real life? We really only have implants which provide minor electrical stimulation for medical rehabilitation purposes; they sort of help an organ by giving it a little kickstarting jolt. Implants directly into the brain have been used to treat neurological or mood disorders, but all they are doing is alleviating symptoms with a tickle of electricity. They are a far cry from science fiction human-machine interfaces that link the mind to digital space. For that, we still have to rely on our old-fashioned senses, and put on a set of VR goggles. As for cybernetic body parts, well, the closest we have is myoelectric prostheses, which can pick up electric signals from the muscles, thus enabling the user to control the prosthetic. But this signal is picked up from the surface; no implant is needed.

The idea of direct neural connection to electronics, merging human consciousness with machines, remains a far-fetched sci-fi fantasy, like sentient androids or colonies on other planets. But it’s one which science fiction keeps revisiting. You may have encountered it recently in episodes of the anthology series Black Mirror, where people have devices in their brains or eyes which record everything that happens to them, or interface them with an augmented reality social network. These are simply used as vehicles for plots involving crime, troubled relationships, or people struggling for social acceptance. These stories could have been told without including imaginary technology, but the point is to look at modern life by extrapolating from current trends.

Today we engage with social media platforms on our pocket computer devices; will we someday be doing it via chips implanted into our brains, with a thought and a flick of the eye instead of a swipe of a finger? I’m going to say no, no we will not. But I guess it’s not impossible. Just not going to happen in our lifetimes, if ever. And if something like that did become available in our lifetimes, I would have to say nope, no thank you. I do not want a chip in my brain.

I do think it’s interesting how cyberpunk dystopias in the Blade Runner style – where edgy, marginalized protagonists use their cybernetic implants for leverage in high stakes, high risk adventure stories – have evolved into a style more like Minority Report, where boring dystopia participants meander through a garish commercial hellscape, desperate to find meaning in their existence. The awesome short video Hyper-Reality, reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode, captures this milieu perfectly:

This isn’t the dystopia I signed up for.

I see this new kind of cyber-setting as a reflection of the overall shift in the zeitgeist – away from the free-wheeling times of my Gen X youth and toward the Millennial era, with its emphasis on group participation and consensus-seeking networks. It’s a friendlier, if more banal, kind of cyberspace. The stories are no longer the picaresque adventures of original cyberpunk, but instead Kafkaesque social commentaries, where the individual is stripped of all agency, and the audience is invited to gaze in horror at the bland nightmare that modern society has become.

The setting of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners could be seen as a holdover from the early days of cyberpunk, a place where some kind of individual achievement is still possible, like the video game worlds that are increasingly the domain of older generations. If only in our imaginations, technology can make us better. But even this anime has a warning about technological hubris, about which I won’t elaborate lest I spoil the show. I’ll just make this statement, though it is a cliché: if we rely too much on technology, we risk losing ourselves.

Subreddit of the Week: Overemployed

Subreddit of the Week: Overemployed

I have a confession to make: I am overemployed.

This is the opposite of underemployed, a state in which a person works fewer hours than they have available and makes insufficient income to meet their needs. Instead, as an overemployed person, I work long hours at the expense of my free time, and am doing well financially. I do worry a little that we may be in for a recessium, which could conceivably cost me my one job which actually pays well. But that’s just all the more reason to keep nose to grindstone.

I said I’m “overemployed” but that’s kind of an exaggeration. Really, I’ve just taken on a couple of gigs beyond my full time Information Technology job. And I shouldn’t complain (though that is my brand), because these are great opportunities for me to develop myself more broadly, and to contribute something to society beyond simply slogging bits for an investment company (yeah, I’m in FinTech).

One of the gigs I’ve already blogged about – Aileen and I are adjudicators for the Philadelphia Independence Awards. This job involves going to see high school theater productions, then judging the performances and technical aspects of the shows, and providing constructive feedback. It takes up some time, since we have to drive to the show, and then it might last a couple of hours, plus the time writing up the feedback. The only compensation is a stipend to cover fuel costs, but every bit helps, as they say. We see about 16 shows over the course of the school year.

The other gig is one that I’m super-excited about; it’s really a dream come true. I’m working for none other than Neil Howe, generations expert and co-author of The Fourth Turning. When he advertised for a research assistant to help with his new book, I submitted an application and a short resume highlighting my generations studies (including this blog). Imagine my excitement when he responded! He took on both Aileen and me as research assistants.

At first, we did research on pandemics throughout history. This was during the early days of Covid, so it felt very in the zeitgeist. Not much of this research, if any of it, will actually be incorporated into the book. But now what we are working on, as a deadline fast approaches, is the end notes. This is very time consuming, and I sincerely hope that with all the work we’re putting into it, the notes will be comprehensive and useful, even more so than they were in the first book.

So that’s the sense in which I’m “overemployed.” We are being compensated for working on the notes, but the rate is much less than what I make in my IT job. But like I said, this is more an opportunity to be a part of something big, to contribute to an important project which I have been following for the better part of my adult life. It’s obviously very exciting for me to be working with Neil Howe.

But I’m not going to make an insane amount of money, like some people who are overemployed. Now what do I mean by that? Well, that’s where the title of this post comes in. Check out the subreddit /r/overemployed, a community that invites you to work two remote jobs, earn extra income, and reach financial freedom. Yes, there are folks out there who are working multiple full-time salaried remote jobs and making huge incomes – possibly as part of a FIRE strategy. Or possibly simply because they see an easy way to exploit the circumstances of remote work.

If you drill down into the subreddit, you can learn what it’s like for people who have chosen this path. Usually, none of their multiple employers know about the other ones. So they have to make sure to hide the fact of their overemployment (except anonymously on reddit, of course). It’s definitely a shady deal. But it’s doable because with a lot of “email laptop” jobs, there isn’t actually a lot of work to do. You just have to invest in a mouse jiggler, and learn to avoid being expected to attend too many meetings.

There are other considerations, like which job to put on your social media profile, and how to handle health insurance and taxes. You can learn all the tricks of the trade, and the lingo associated with it, over on /r/overemployed. There are users claiming to hold as many as 7 jobs at once! It’s not something I could do, mostly because it seems like enough work as it is to manipulate that many employers. I mean, it just doesn’t seem right to deceive your boss like that. But can I really talk? It’s not like I tell my full time employer about my side gigs, or even this blog (though they could find out).

And if someone is able to fulfill the job requirements of multiple jobs at once, then why shouldn’t they? If they could do it while being up front about it with their various employers, then it should be perfectly legit, right? Never mind what this means for income inequality, and how unfair it is for people who aren’t in lines of work where you can get your job done sitting at a desk at home. It just goes to show how varied outcomes can be in our “land of opportunity,” where everything depends on individual ambition and achievement. And, no doubt, on the luck of the draw.

I’ve certainly been lucky in my circumstances, that let me find the extra time to work on other projects, even while keeping my fin tech employers happy. I’m not so much overemployed as employed to the fullest.

The Walking Dead Finale and How This Show Captured the Zeitgeist

The Walking Dead Finale and How This Show Captured the Zeitgeist

Tonight the series finale of The Walking Dead will be broadcast on AMC. I have been a fan of this show since it began way back in 2010, which seems like a lifetime ago. When it premiered, I was living in North Carolina, and watched it with my roommate at the time. I found it to be a compelling, immersive horror story. It gave me the creeps and made me want to lock up the house and peek out the windows to check for zombies. But I still looked forward to new episodes every Sunday; as Bob Calvert sings, we like to be frightened.

Over the years, my roommate moved out, and so I watched the show alone. Then I became a cord-cutter (that is, I cancelled my cable subscription), so I had to wait for seasons to come to Netflix before I could catch up on episodes. I also started reading the comics, and I loved to compare and contrast the comics with the TV series. For example, of the four characters depicted in the series finale promo shot above, one is never in the comic, and one dies early on. Of the other two, one wanders off and is never heard from again, and only the last one actually remains relevant to the story all the way to the end.

It’s understandable that the writers of the TV show would want to deviate from the comic series storyline, to keep fans guessing. The writers also didn’t have much choice, for two basic reasons. One is that the actors playing the children aged faster than the story timeline; there’s no way their characters could have a story arc to match the one in the comics, over a 5 or 10 year period IRL. The other reason is that sometimes the stars just wanted to leave the show.

The main character, Rick Grimes, had to be written out of the TV show because the actor playing him wanted to spend more time with his family. In my opinion, this was a grave blow to the series, since the comic’s basic story is how Rick Grimes manages to build a community out of a ravaged post-apocalyptic society. The comic series has a kind of triumphal ending, after dragging the reader through all sorts of harrowing hell. Can the TV series accomplish something similar? I guess we’ll find out soon enough. But I think the TV show kind of got lost at times, because all it could do was recycle plot lines with new sets of characters, as actors came and went. It just didn’t achieve a strong overarching story arc, as the comic does.

Another interesting difference between the comic and the TV show is that the comic is actually much more violent, and also has foul language and sexual content that is absent from the TV version. This, of course, is because the TV show is on basic cable; AMC content is not TV-MA rated, as far as I know. As I recall, the TV show is as edgy as it is at all only because it comes on late at night. The comic also, as a rule, has more interesting zombies, since it’s easier to draw animated corpses in various states of decay, than it is to construct them with prosthetics or paint them with CGI. The TV show has hordes of fully clothed, barely decayed zombies – that is, extras wearing face makeup – whereas the zombie hordes in the comic have bones poking out and guts hanging out every which way.

The difference in the intensity of the violence on the TV show became very significant about halfway through the show’s run. This was around the peak of the show’s popularity, at the end of season 6 and beginning of season 7. At this point, I was watching new episodes at a movie theater in North Carolina. Yep, this theater showed them as they premiered, and free of charge. The theater was next to a college campus, and would be packed full of young people. I would usually go by myself (though I did convince a friend to join me a few times), and would have a couple of beers while I watched. It was a lot of fun.

Season 6 ended with a cliff hanger, and there was all this buzz and excitement when season 7 started. But in the first episode of season 7, a beloved character was brutally murdered. I still remember the shockwave through the audience when it happened. The next Sunday, the crowd was maybe half the size. That moment practically killed the show; it’s popularity plummeted after that. But the irony is that in this instance, the TV show was being completely faithful to the comic book. The same exact murder happens in the comic, and because of that I wasn’t surprised by it at all. And as for the brutality of it, well, the comic had always been that violent; it was like the TV show was catching up. But this was too much, I think, for most fans, and the TV series never recovered it’s viewership levels after that.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I finished reading the comic books, and continued watching the TV show with Aileen. At this point, in order to stay current, we purchased the seasons on Amazon prime (yeesh), and then eventually got an AMC+ subscription. Tonight, we’ll be able to watch the last episode, on our streaming smart TV. I’m very curious to see how its ending compares to the one in the comic series.

While I do think the comic books are better, because they have a more coherent story and actually have a point, I have enjoyed the show, and its creators and producers deserve kudos for their achievement. 12 years (11 if you consider the pandemic break) is an amazing run for a television series. It’s been quite a journey for the characters who survived this long, and for the audience that has stuck with the show to the end.

Aileen and I have discussed why this show is popular. She says it’s because it reminds people that no matter how bad their lives get, it’s nothing like what the characters in The Walking Dead have to go through. And she agrees with me that the series captures the mood of the Fourth Turning. As I’ve blogged before, it’s like the reckoning that Gen X has been waiting their whole lives for, finally coming to pass. It parallels the state of our world today, with everything falling apart, and group pitted against group. I just hope that in the show, and in real life, the good guys win.

The Work from Home Routines of Cats and Men

The Work from Home Routines of Cats and Men

Princess Sashimi and I both work from home, and sometimes I think she has an easier job than I do.

My routine consists of waking up, having some coffee to dispel my brain fog, then logging on to my work and personal computers (it’s called multitasking) and getting stuff done. I do try to start off with reading a book, just so that I don’t jump immediately into a screen first thing in the morning, but that’s generally for half an hour at most.

Around 9:30, my first work meetings start, and then I’m usually pulled into meetings for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon is when I get a chance to be productive. Somewhere in there I fit in a little time for breakfast and lunch, often eaten at my desk. I also work simple chores into the schedule, such as emptying the dishwasher or doing a load of laundry.

Sashimi, meanwhile, sleeps all day.

So it does seem that her job is easier than mine. But would I be able to do her job as well as she does? For instance, would I know when it’s time to move from the blanket on the floor to the bed upstairs? She does that at some point in the day, and I don’t think I would understand the correct timing if I was trying to fill in for her. Timing and sequencing are the key to doing anything right, so I think it’s best to leave the day sleeping to the professional. Each of us has our own contribution to make to the world’s well-being, and I should stick to what I do best and not compare myself to others.

Strategy Review: The Accidental Superpower

Strategy Review: The Accidental Superpower

There’s a certain genre of popular nonfiction which I really enjoy, one where scholarly intellectuals develop a grand strategic theory to explain the state of the world. I have reviewed a number of them over the years on this blog, and inevitably I tie them in to my favorite grand theory of all, the generations theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. I mean, logically, if different scholars find different patterns in social, political and military history, then those patterns can be compared and related to one another. These different thinkers might be looking at the same patterns from different perspectives.

The latest work in this genre that I’ve picked up is The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan, who is a geopolitical analyst who emphasizes the importance of geography and demography in determining the fate of nations. The Accidental Superpower was published in 2014, and already has multiple follow up books which I might also read, though I thought that this one alone provided many great insights into the power dynamics of the world today.

Zeihan starts with a quick survey of the rise of human civilization with important technological turning points, leading up the emergence of the United States as a global power. As Zeihan sees it, the United States is fated to superpowerdom (that’s the “accident” of it) by geographic advantages: two oceans protecting its flanks, with many excellent harbors on the coasts, and a massive navigable river system in a fertile heartland. These are the features which make it such a wealthy nation. It’s not its culture or its system of government which make it wealthy; it’s the wealth which makes its culture and government even possible. It’s because of the vast supply of capital that comes with low transport and security costs that the U.S. can have a free-wheeling capitalist society. At least that is how I understood the argument.

Another consequence of these advantages is that the United States, at the conclusion of World War II and the start of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, was able to craft a unique postwar order via the Bretton Woods free trade agreements. What this amounts to is a pact between the U.S. and its Cold War allies: we will protect you from the Reds, and you will participate in our free trade regime, which includes access to our markets. The U.S. was able to do this because it had the only big navy left on the oceans (so it could protect the trade routes), and because it has so many economic advantages that it can easily prosper in a non-protectionist, open global market.

At least that’s how it used to be. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, there is less of a pressing need for the U.S. to maintain the Pax Americana. The U.S. public is wearying of the costs of this maintenance, including the economic costs to the domestic labor market (read: loss of manufacturing jobs and lack of wage growth because the labor market has gone global). This is the familiar story of the recent long era of economic growth and relative world peace, accompanied by growing popular discontentment at fading economic prospects, culminating, so far, in an era of grievance-ridden political strife.

Zeihan avoids discussing domestic U.S. politics. In fact, he spends most of his book analyzing the state of affairs in other countries around the world, and concluding that none of them will fare as well in the near future as the United States will. The era of globalization sustained by Bretton Woods will wind down (is winding down), and a more chaotic era (which Zeihan calls “the coming disorder”) will result. In this disordered world the U.S. will remain preeminent, thanks to its geographic advantage.

Zeihan does discuss generations, but only in the demographic sense, not in the Strauss and Howe sense which explains changes in social mood and social priorities. For Zeihan, the importance of generations is in how they participate in the economy at different phases of life: young adults drive consumer spending, mid-lifers are the capital holders who provide a tax base, and children and the elderly are both burdens. For a healthy economy, you really don’t want an “inverted age pyramid,” where the elderly population is larger than the population of young and mid-life adults trying to sustain them. Luckily for the United States, it has the advantage there as well, with higher fertility rates and more immigration than other developed nations have.

For Zeihan, globalization came about because of the security needs of the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet threat. With that threat gone, globalization will come to an end. He was writing this before Trump’s challenge to NATO, before Brexit and before the pandemic, all events which have held up this prediction. Using demographics, Zeihan predicts that with Boomers retiring and Gen Xers replacing them as the tax base, capital will become dear and financial markets will suffer: another prediction held up by current events.

Again, Zeihan focuses on geopolitics and demography. He doesn’t get much into culture or domestic U.S. politics. What generations theory (in the Strauss & Howe sense) could add to his thinking is the idea that after the Great Financial Crisis in 2007-08, there was a shift in the social mood. Americans were past a tipping point and no longer receptive to an open and interconnected world. The free trade regime of Bretton Woods, set up by older generations as an expression of American power and prestige, was now seen by new generations as corrosive to American cultural integrity and economic security. The long boom of economic growth and rising asset valuations of the ’90s and ’00s was now seen as the product of excessive risk-taking. In this new era, spooked financial markets avoid risk, and we depend on central banking monetary policy and government stimulus to sustain economic growth, tools which at this point have exhausted their potential.

Generational theory draws on cultural and attitudinal explanations for shifts in social behavior, and these ideas dovetail well with Zeihan’s more strictly material viewpoint. Generational theory even offers an explanation for the end of the Bretton Woods regime and the coming disorder: it’s the inevitable decay of an institutional framework that accompanies the progression of generations. It’s the long arc of the generational cycle, and though the previous order is now crumbling, out of the disorder some new regime will emerge.

Before concluding this review, I would like to connect some of Zeihan’s thinking to other strategists I have reviewed on this blog. One of them is legal scholar Philip Bobbitt, whose idea of the “market-state” has been covered here multiple times. Bobbitt claims that a new constitutional order is emerging to replace the nation state, one in which markets have more power than governments. Now, it seems quite possible that this idea of a new order only makes sense in world of globalized free trade, which we now have reason to believe is coming to an end.

So maybe the nation state will have a chance to make a comeback. Or, as I speculated in one post, a new constitutional order will emerge which is like the nation state, but adapted to the new strategic environment. This certainly makes sense in a scenario of global disorder following U.S. withdrawal from its role as the free world’s security guarantor. All the nations scramble to get their footing and find a way that works. But then there’s the question of the coalition supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion, led by the United States. It suggests that the U.S. is maintaining its security role, even as global trade is being severely disrupted. But that might not last; President Biden, who represents the old generation and the old order, could soon be replaced by a MAGA leader. The balls are all up in the air.

One final note on the market-state: Bobbitt defined different flavors of this constitutional order. To wit: an individualistic “entrepreneurial” kind, which the United States has; a “managerial” kind with more state control, which is typical of European countries; and a “mercantile” version with protected domestic markets, which is what Japan has. I bring this up because Zeihan’s descriptions of the geographical foundations of nations’ economies goes a long way to explain why there are different flavors of the market state. The capital rich U.S. can afford a more entrepreneurial mode of life, whereas nations without all the geographic and resource advantages that the U.S. has need more regulation and government control. Zeihan’s geography-based model of national fortune is very powerful, and probably the best thing I got out of reading his book.

The other strategist I was reminded of when I read The Accidental Superpower is Thomas P. M. Barnett, who wrote The Pentagon’s New Map about a decade earlier. Barnett is a military strategist who developed a geopolitical theory that divided the world into a “Functioning Core” of stable states and a “Non-Integrated Gap” of failed states. He looked at the history of post-Cold War American military interventions (going back to Panama in 1989, technically on the cusp of the Cold War), and concluded that the U.S. faced a new post-Cold War mission of integrating the Gap states into the Core. He tried to map out a blueprint for how the U.S. could succeed at this mission, sort of a new phase of Pax Americana and maintenance of the global free trade regime. He critiqued how President Bush was handling it with the Iraq War, noting that the key was bringing in a strong alliance network for long-term post-conflict stabilization; unilateral regime-toppling was not enough.

In the mid-2000s, with 9/11 still fresh in memory, there was this kind of heady excitement about the projection of American power in the upper echelons of government and the military. It made Barnett’s kind of expansive strategic thinking possible – I recall in his book that he described himself as a “cockeyed optimist.” There really was a hope of bringing democracy and capitalism online in far-flung places and crafting a world where globalization worked for everyone. Now that the U.S.’s Middle Eastern military adventures are seen as a Vietnam-like failure, Barnett’s star has faded, though I have heard he is working on a new book.

One thing that Barnett and Zeihan have in common is that they are both Gen Xers, though about ten years apart in age. Barnett is early wave, and seems to have inherited a little bit of Boomer idealism. Peter Zeihan, on the other hand, is very much the pragmatist. He comes across to me as a hard-headed, just the facts, tell it like it is practical thinker, and his vision of the future is more pessimistic than Barnett’s. There won’t be a next wave of globalization, simply because it is not a strategic imperative for the one power on Earth that might bring it about.

As I mentioned, Zeihan has followed up The Accidental Superpower with a few other books. He also has a web site, “Zeihan on Geopolitics,” and is very active on Twitter, where these days he is focused on the war in Ukraine. He is a smart and knowledgeable guy whose insights are worth checking out.

How to Act Your Class

How to Act Your Class

In my last post, on the Netflix series Inventing Anna, I noted how Anna’s posing as a German heiress had reminded me of a concept I learned about in a workshop on “Bridges out of Poverty.” This concept is “The Hidden Rules of Economic Class,” basically different attitudes and approaches to life based on whether you are poor, middle class, or wealthy. It was Anna’s attitude about money that made this connection for me; she was living a luxurious life as if money didn’t matter (wealthy approach), when it might have made more sense to be circumspect and manage her money like her friends did (middle class approach).

I’ve included the graph of hidden rules above (you can easily find this with an Internet search). You might notice that the wealthy approach to money is to conserve it, not to spend it, but my point is that the wealthy live in a higher tier of consumerism, and don’t relate consumer spending to money management. Instead, consumer spending is a way of signaling membership in the wealthy class. That is what Anna Sorokin was doing: living large to bolster the credibility of her invented heiress persona, and for awhile successfully pulling it off.

This kind of large living is only sustainable if you actually have a vast reservoir of capital on which to draw, which Sorokin did not have. That capital is what the wealthy want to conserve and invest, whereas the middle class, happy to have what little capital they do (at least they’re not poor, with zero capital), simply want to manage it so that they can enjoy as good a life as is feasible.

One way to think about it is with respect to end of life spending. If you’re middle class, you save up for retirement, so you can finally stop working (you probably won’t be able to work in your old age, anyway), but then all that savings gets consumed in the last decades of your life. You leave this world with nothing, just like you entered it. With retirement costs being what they are, you probably will burn though all your savings in your twilight years. It’s like the system is rigged to suck up all your energy, hapless little Matrix battery that you are.

But if you were wealthy, you would presumably want to leave the world with more than you started with. I mean, if you had a billion dollars at some point, you would want to die with more than a billion dollars to your name. You wouldn’t spend all that money on jet planes and yachts; you would want to leave a legacy, a foundation or something. That’s the wealthy “conserve and invest” rule for money.

There are other rules of economic class aside from how money is treated. For example, with respect to personality, for the poor it’s important to be fun and likeable (so people will want you around and take care of you), but for the middle class it’s more necessary to be emotionally stable and achievement oriented (so you can secure a wage income stream). This difference came up in conversation with Aileen back when she was doing the 2020 census. She noted that when she was in poor neighborhoods, people were nicer and more cooperative than the people in middle class neighborhoods, who were often outright hostile.

Now, there was some selection bias among the folks she was visiting, since census non-responders probably include people who don’t want to be bothered by the government in the first place. But when Aileen shared this observation, I immediately thought of the hidden rules of economic class. So I “Steveplained” (that’s the term for when I mansplain) to her that poor people are nicer because they don’t have much choice; they have nothing else to offer the world. Middle class people can afford to be jerks and to alienate others, because they can satisfy their needs with market transactions, seeing as they have money to work with. But if you have no money, you’d might as well be obsequious and hope for a handout.

I find this hidden rules concept fascinating, and have put some thought into how it might make sense to borrow rules from all the classes in order to be a well-rounded person. After all, there might be some scenario in which your class suddenly shifts, and it would be best to be prepared to fit in anywhere in the graph. Well, the most likely shift is from middle class to poverty, due to personal misfortune or possible society-wide economic collapse. But why not be resilient and even something of a class-doppelganger, like Anna tried to be?

So this is what I came up with.

From Poverty:

  • Have a sense of humor and cultivate a likable personality. Be a person that others would want to have around, because you never know when you might suddenly be utterly dependent on others.
  • Be mindful of the present circumstances and the local environment; don’t become isolated from your immediate surroundings. Get to know your neighbors!
  • Be prepared to adapt to sudden change.

From Middle Class:

  • Cultivate professional skills and the ability to continue earning income. Society hasn’t collapsed yet, and you want to earn while you can.
  • Manage your money well, and also your physical and mental health, with consideration for the future.
  • Be aware that choices matter and that you can change yourself for the better.

From Wealth:

  • Think about what you can preserve for posterity, especially considering that you will never actually become wealthy. But you can still think of leaving a legacy of specialized knowledge, valuable collections or keepsakes, and your philosophy of life.
  • Network. It’s always good to have connections.
  • Maintain traditions and a sense of decorum.

That’s what I distilled out of the hidden rules of economic class. I can’t honestly claim that I follow all the rules in the lists above fully. Rather, I gravitate toward the middle class way, being something of a shut-in, and relying on my skilled wage income to buffer my family from life’s hardships. I like to think I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I get very cranky with my fellow human beings! I’m sure you understand.

I hope you have found these ideas illuminating, and are as intrigued as I am by this framework for understanding economic class. Maybe you will recognize some of these rules at work in your own life, in ways you hadn’t thought of before.

A Millennial Learns the Hard Way to Act Her Wage

A Millennial Learns the Hard Way to Act Her Wage

Recently we enjoyed the Netflix limited series Inventing Anna, based on the real-life story of a young woman who scammed New York high society for a good while during the 2010s. A lot of the show focuses on the high life – international travel, high-end hotels, designer clothes, expensive food and drink.

It reminded me of how movies from the 1930s were often about the well-to-do; everyone is in top hats and tails or fancy dresses with low cut backs, attending parties with ever flowing champagne. What Great Depression?

Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise is a delightful pre-Hayes code 1930s film about con artists travelling in high society.

Those movies were a form of escapism, and I got a similar vibe from this show, with its Millennials living like the Kardashians. But that’s not the norm for Millennials, right? Millennials are suffering in this economy, right? From watching Inventing Anna, you’d barely know – there are no gripes about student loans or the impossible cost of living, just young people living large. That’s why it struck me as a parallel to the films of the 1930s; it’s entertainment obsessing and focusing on the lives of the wealthy, while pushing the troubled nature of the economy out of sight.

It might not be fair to say that the titular character Anna was simply a con artist. Aileen and I had a discussion about this after we finished the show. In my opinion, she wasn’t a straight-up scammer in the Jimmy McGill sense. She was self-deluded and trying to accomplish something using sheer gumption and wishful thinking; she was trying to “fake it until you make it.” She was living way beyond her means while attempting to get a huge loan for a business venture, for which purpose she engaged in some technically fraudulent activities. She got caught because she exhausted her credit, and was charged with crimes, convicted and sentenced to prison (she has since been released).

But what if she had pulled off her scheme? What if she had somehow gotten the loan and started the business and made it profitable and joined high society for good, to the point that she had a cadre of fancy lawyers who could clean up her little bit of fraud behind her. Fait accompli. Then she just might have been another highly successful “art of the deal” type scammer. Like, you know, the guy who was President of the United States at the time.

My Man Godfrey is another 1930s film set in high society, which actually addresses class issues and The Great Depression.

Critiques of the show and of the magazine article on which it is based have tied the story to the class issues facing Millennials, as well as to the erosion of standards of truth and honesty that characterized the previous administration. Young adults today see the lives of the rich and famous plastered all over media, even while the chance at upward mobility is denied them, with economic opportunity available to fewer and fewer people as income inequality worsens. Why shouldn’t they do whatever it takes to make it?

Anna Sorokin had none of the qualifications for entering the world of fashionable socialites, but the lure of that lifestyle was irresistible to her. So she invented the qualifications; she created a “German heiress” persona and she attempted to insert herself into high society simply by acting like the people there do. What’s astonishing is that, for a few years at least, it worked. All she had to do to become a socialite was to act like one.

You might say that Sorokin didn’t act her wage, and for that paid a high price in reputation, and even lost her freedom (though I understand she got a handsome payout from the Netflix series production). What does it even mean to act your wage? This question leads me to the concept of “Hidden Rules of Class,” which I learned about in a workshop called “Bridges out of Poverty” that was held at one of my workplaces.

The concept of the hidden rules of economic class is that living in a particular socioeconomic class means having certain attitudes about and approaches to dealing with life’s basics. For example, with respect to money: when you live in poverty, money is simply something you need to survive. Easy come, easy go. But when you are middle class, money is something you have to manage – you have to tend it the way a farmer husbands livestock. When you are wealthy, money is now something to conserve. It’s more than a means to live, it’s a legacy.

If you’re wondering whether you are middle class or not, just ask yourself if you have to manage your money. If you have no savings or income surplus to work with and are just living hand to mouth, then, sorry, you are poor. But if you have the ability to live within your means, so long as you budget, and have enough leftover income after paying for necessities to plan how to use it – to save for big purchases or vacations (or retirement!) – then, congratulations, you are middle class. You might live in one of any number of tiers of the middle class, defined by the size of your house and the fanciness of your car and the cost of your vacations, but if you have to pay attention to your income and expenses, then you are middle class.

Only if you are truly in the wealthy class can you live like Anna Sorokin tried to live, casually travelling to anywhere on Earth and spending money on expensive luxuries without any thought. In that socioeconomic class, there is no concept of work-life balance, because you don’t work to live. You don’t go on vacation, you just live on the planet wherever you want, and naturally you choose pleasurable locations which for the middle class are occasional vacation destinations. You aren’t managing money at this point to get by, you are managing connections and exclusive memberships – your status is what you groom, not your account balances. The money takes care of itself.

That is how Anna lived, with incredible chutzpah, even though she wasn’t in the right class. And because she did it so naturally, she pulled it off – for awhile. It couldn’t last, of course, because there was no actual capital backing her up, just imaginary capital. I say she must have been self-deluded, because how else could she convince so many others of the reality of her delusional persona? Whether she realized it or not, she was taking advantage of the hidden rules of class to roleplay someone in the class she wished to be in, for as long as she could get away with it.

A Not So Fun Sandman Fact Check

A Not So Fun Sandman Fact Check

This post contains a mild spoiler about the Netflix series “The Sandman,” which we just started watching. If you don’t want a spoiler, don’t read any further! Stop now while there’s hope!

First I’ll just say that The Sandman on Netflix does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Neil Gaiman’s comics, though I’m recalling that spirit through a very hazy fog of memory, since I read the comics decades ago. I am thoroughly enjoying the dark fantasy aesthetic of this new TV series, as well as the signature Gaiman storytelling style, which I would describe as forgivably clichéd.

While watching the first episode, I had a curious moment of synchronicity. One element of the story is the outbreak of “sleepy sickness,” or encephalitis lethargica, which occurred from roughly 1917-1927. In the fantasy show it is attributed to the imprisonment of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. Basically, if you mess with the immortal power behind sleep and dreams, you’re going to mess with people’s sleep cycles pretty hard.

My synchronicity experience was that I had literally just read an academic paper about this outbreak, earlier that same day. This article was examining historical evidence for sequelae (abnormal conditions resulting from a previous disease) to earlier pandemics which are similar to long COVID.

Here is a relevant quote:

The Spanish Flu Pandemic (1918-1919) and Encephalitis Lethargica

The long-term neurological effects of the Spanish flu pandemic
of 1918 and 1919 included Parkinsonism, catatonia, and
“encephalitis lethargica”. The term encephalitis lethargica
was first used by the Austrian neurologist Constantin von
Economo in 1917 after he identified an increased number of
patients in Vienna with meningitis and delirium during the winters
of 1916 and 1917. In 1918, disorders that were similar
to encephalitis lethargica were reported elsewhere in Europe
and the United States, with a peak in cases in 1923 and a decline
over the course of the decade. Ravenholt and Foege
showed that in Seattle, Washington, clusters of deaths from
encephalitis lethargica significantly increased a year after the
winters of 1918 to 1922. Importantly, they also showed that
in American Samoa, which largely escaped the 1918 and 1919
influenza pandemic, there were very few cases of encephalitis
lethargica. In comparison, in Samoa (formerly known
as Western Samoa), where 8000 influenza deaths occurred,
there were 79 deaths due to encephalitis lethargica between
1919 and 1922.

In other words, sleepy sickness wasn’t the result of a supernatural mishap. It was “long Spanish influenza!”

It is understandable for this fantasy story to associate sleepy sickness with its main character’s fate, since there is such a strong thematic connection. But in reality, the disease is likely an effect of viral infection or exposure, a more mundane explanation but also one that is very relevant to us in these pandemic times.

There seems to be a wish or urge to put the COVID pandemic behind us, even though the virus is still circulating and still killing. The lesson of past pandemic sequelae is that the effects of COVID will be with us for years to come.