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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.

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.

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.

Crowdfunded Medical Care Manifests the Rebuilding of Social Capital

Crowdfunded Medical Care Manifests the Rebuilding of Social Capital

Recently one of our friends put up a GoFundMe for medical expenses, meaning they started a campaign to raise money on a crowdfunding platform. They need help, to the tune of potentially tens of thousands of dollars, because their insurance is denying a claim for arcane reasons.

It was recently reported that one third of GoFundMe campaigns are to cover medical bills. Arguably, GoFundMe has become one of the nation’s major health insurance companies (although crowdfunding doesn’t work quite like insurance).

When I saw my friend’s post on social media, I knew was witnessing what has become a commonplace in the United States of America, which has the worst ratio of healthcare costs to healthcare performance in the developed world. I mean, it’s embarrassingly bad compared to other countries.

From https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/08/05/global-health-rankings/

Granted, the U.S. is much larger and much more diverse than any of the other 10 countries on the chart above. But if we had something closer to universal health care, if we just had better insurance coverage for everyone, then maybe we could move closer in the direction of lower costs and higher performance.

That we don’t have universal health care could be attributed to our particular governmental system, with its gridlocked legislature in the thrall of special interests. I’m tempted to bring in this concept of the “market state,” which I have blogged about in the past. In this context, the gist of it is that government has less power over the economy than in the past, and we are governed more by informational markets.

In that case, substituting a mutual aid network easily enabled via the Internet for a fully functional healthcare system could just be the wave of the future. It’s how the informational market state does healthcare. Whee!

It doesn’t seem adequate. A better way to think about this might be in terms of living through the Crisis Era of the saecular cycle. Institutions have broken down to the point that we can’t rely on them. Instead, we rely on one another.

The Crisis Era is a time of gathering, of rebuilding the social capital that was lost during the previous social eras. That’s why we’re forming social networks, to which we can then turn in time of need. These social networks are a manifestation of the rebuilding of social capital.

Unfortunately, as a “system” this doesn’t work for anyone who doesn’t have a social network. It is dangerous to be isolated in these times. We need better institutions, that serve the people instead of special interests. But for our institutions to be reformed in this way, we first need to restore democratic government.

Homelanders in Hell

Homelanders in Hell

We recently watched an excellent zombie horror TV series called All of Us Are Dead (one season so far available on Netflix). It’s set in a high school, so it’s also a coming of age show, with accompanying side stories about fitting in and surviving bullying and whether or not to reveal your feelings to your crush. Not to say too much, but you can probably guess from the title that things don’t go very well for most of the students.

One theme that runs through the show is the expectation that the kids have of being aided or rescued by adults as the zombie apocalypse rages through their school, but ultimately being disappointed. There are heroic adult characters in the show, as well as cowardly ones, but for the most part the high school students are left to their own devices and it’s up to them to save themselves. The fantastical circumstances don’t allow for many options.

This is common enough in zombie shows; they always end up as survival against all odds stories. But in the case of this show there is an overarching sense of cluelessness and irresponsibility coming out of the adult world, while it’s the kids who end up paying the price. In fact, the zombie virus origin itself is tied to a subplot involving both negligence and recklessness by adults.

It’s a depressing show, and watching it I couldn’t help but compare the fate of these fictional schoolchildren with those who in the real world have been victimized in their classrooms by horrific mass shootings. They too should have been protected, but were abandoned instead. It’s an unmistakable parallel which aligns the young characters in this show with the Homeland Generation in the United States. You might say that this show belongs to a new genre I will call “Homelanders in Hell.”

What do I mean, “the Homeland Generation?” In terms of Strauss-Howe generational theory, this is the generation, born since 2005, currently in childhood and filling the halls of middle schools and high schools. By their age location in history, as children during a Crisis Era, their role is stay out of the way, protected by adults who are doing the hard work of managing multiple unfolding catastrophes.

Except, tragically, when adults fail them, overwhelmed as they are by the magnitude of the disaster. Then their role is to be mourned in death, and in death to be held up as an inspiration for adults to find the courage and strength to do better.

A still from the TV series All of Us Are Dead
The Informational Market-State Culls the Herd

The Informational Market-State Culls the Herd

In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic I blogged about how the crisis was proving to be a “tempering test of the market state.” What I mean by “market state” is this concept by legal scholar Philip Bobbitt of a newly evolving constitutional order. It’s an order where government has less power and instead markets provide the decision-making and regulation. It’s also been called the “informational market-state” or the “neoliberal market-state.” More and more I’ve become convinced that while Bobbitt is correct in his broader theory of periodic changes in the constitutional order, with the “market state” he has really just identified the priorities of the market-driven social era of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the new era, I would expect faith in markets to collapse and a return to government regulation to be in demand.

But let’s grant that the market state premise is correct. We are now in an individualistic, market-regulated constitutional order. In the earlier blog post, I framed the Covid-19 tempering test in these terms:

The Covid dilemma as it relates to this constitutional order is this: if the market state is supposed to protect the citizen while maximizing opportunities, what does it do when these goals are mutually exclusive? Simply put, an endemic disease that is highly infectious and lethal entails restricting economic activity in order to save lives, but that necessarily reduces economic opportunity

It would seem, based on the experience of the past year, that the market state’s resolution to the dilemma is simply to accept the loss of life. A premium in human lives must be paid in order to maintain the open society so vital to sustaining economic opportunity and generating financial wealth. The latest guidance from the CDC puts the onus on individuals to mitigate against the coronavirus as they see fit, certainly in keeping with the logic of the market state.

Some individuals have more leeway to make these choices than others, a fact not lost to many on social media.

I’ve seen a ton of posts like the one above, about how the CDC, and our society as a whole, have abandoned the vulnerable. It’s a brutal truth about our current state, where the government has essentially given up on the pandemic. It was just too big a creative leap to get out of our “normal” mode of an open society. And since we couldn’t get to herd immunity, we’re settling for herd culling.

How sustainable this will be, I do not know. Covid-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the United States, well ahead of vehicular accidents. And it’s even worse for certain age groups, and presumably also for the immunocompromised. It’s just a cold fact that if we keep going the way we’re going, then one fallout of this crisis era will be significant population loss. It wouldn’t be unprecedented in the grand scheme of things.

On Group Feeling and Group Conflict

On Group Feeling and Group Conflict

As part of my general sociological research on the Crisis Era and the recent pandemic, I have been studying the topic of ingroup solidarity and outgroup aggression. Essentially, this is the social theory of group identification and the idea that people are more likely to support those whom they perceive as belonging to their group and to be hostile to those whom they perceive as being outside of their group.

I’ve browsed some academic works, which typically define the ingroup and outgroup in either nationalistic or ethnic terms. The studies find support for the hypothesis (idea) above, with interesting twists. For example, level of support can be affected by perceptions of status difference and whether one’s own group’s status (privilege) is threatened, or whether an outgroup is perceived to be particular hostile to one’s ingroup. Both of these perceptions will lead to increased hostility towards an outgroup. With each of two groups perceiving the other in this way, they can get caught up in a vicious cycle of mutual hostility, certainly a recognizable phenomenon in many of the conflicts in our world.

Two groups caught up in such a vicious cycle may well be the political parties in the United States today. The degree of partisanship and rancor between the two factions has become legendary. I’ve been blogging about it for a long while now, and recently speculated that we have social media bubbles to sustain “group feeling”, in the words of Ibn Khaldun. To put it differently, social media bubbles serve to maintain ingroup solidarity, and sometimes even to encourage outgroup aggression.

I found this one fascinating paper which speculated that Trump’s election victory in 2016 might well have been because of greater group solidarity among Republicans than among Democrats. The resisters like to mock the MAGAs for acting like they are in a cult, but really MAGAs are just exhibiting stronger group feeling. This will only help them in the ongoing conflict. Link to the research paper follows.

Another source I studied as part of this little project is the book Tribe by Sebastian Unger. In this brief work, the author argues that one reason for so much anxiety and depression in modern life is that we are removed from our evolutionary past, in which we lived in small, cohesive groups (tribes). In other words, by nature, we have a deep need to experience group feeling. In times of war and disaster, this atavistic experience returns. And though no one wants to be in a war or disaster per se, those who do, such as veterans with PTSD, often report that they miss the feeling of solidarity they had with their group while they were in the midst of hardship and danger.

An interesting tidbit that I got out of Junger’s book is that personalities who tend towards aggression, while not well adapted for ordinary life in peaceful times, become an invaluable asset when survival is at stake, such as during wars and disasters. This is hardly surprising to learn; I only mention it in the context of the previous discussion of ingroup solidarity and outgroup aggression. To whatever extent people in one group (say, a political faction) feel that their status (privilege) is threatened or that they are targets for another group (faction), then aggression will be seen as a valuable survival trait.

I don’t want to end this post on such an ominous note, so I’ll also mention that in the research papers I looked at there was evidence for factors that mediate against hostility between groups. One, believe it or not, was simply persuasion. So maybe your social media posts aren’t all just shouting into an echo chamber. Another is the perception of a shared common fate with outgroups, or a sense of belonging to the ultimate group, “all of humanity.” If these factors can be encouraged, maybe there is hope for us after all.

For those who are interested, I’ve put links to the research papers below.

The Crisis Era in Terms of Khaldun’s Theory of Dynasty Formation

The Crisis Era in Terms of Khaldun’s Theory of Dynasty Formation

I recently posted about The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, a remarkable book on world history that was written in the 14th century, but has many ideas about political and social science that fit right in with modern philosophical views. In my post I couldn’t help but wonder what the author would say about the state of the world today, were he to somehow be here to observe it. He was a pretty successful guy in his time, as I understand it, and to time travel him to our mess of an era would probably be rude, but I guess if it was just for a consultation and then he got sent back home it would be OK.

So how he would describe the state of our civilization today? He would obviously be amazed at all the advanced technology, and at the population level and degree of urbanization across the planet, which he would have thought was unachievable because of the inherent limitations of “sedentary culture.” He also, I imagine, would be surprised by the prevalence of democratic government. While he mentions the Greeks and Romans in The Muqadimmah, I don’t recall that he ever acknowledges their systems of government in ancient times. He may not have even been aware of them.

If he actually was aware of the nature of ancient Greek and Roman government, he would certainly recognize them as the antecedents of our modern democratic systems. If not, their existence would be a real eye-opener for him. Either way, I think he could still find a way to frame his understanding of our government in terms of his theory of dynastic formation. He would say something to the effect that we had invested royal authority in a representative body by means of cleverly crafted laws. Assuming he had access to all the history between his time and now, he would also note that the laws were often found faulty and had to be revised, and sometimes broke down altogether in periods of incredibly destructive warfare. He might wonder if we really knew what we were doing.

He would probably be disappointed with the relative statuses of Christianity and Islam today. In The Muqaddimah he frequently refers to the European Christians as a people, but does not have much to say about them except to acknowledge that they live up to the north of the areas he is mainly interested in, which are Spain, North Africa and the Middle East (he uses different names), that is, the Muslim world. He is writing during the Islamic Golden Age, after all. If he were here today, he would have to face the reality that European Christians have successfully spread their culture to new lands across the seas and are generally richer and more powerful than the nations of the Islamic world.

Looking at the United States today, he would probably observe a decline in religious organization, and note that religion no longer acted as a restraining influence. He would then observe that the royal authority of the representative government was also in decline, and would probably attribute that to the generational distance from the time of the global war which had established the current dynasty. He would recognize the richness and diversity of our sedentary culture as a sign of a civilization in its final disintegrative phase.

Does it even make sense to describe the government of the U.S. as a “dynasty?” Well, it might, in order to shoehorn Khaldun’s theory into the modern era. The current dynasty in the U.S. could be understood as the institutional framework that came into existence in the aftermath of World War II, when there was strong group feeling in the country, and trust in big institutions. As the generations have passed that group feeling and trust have eroded, and the royal authority of the government has eroded accordingly. The dynasty (that is, institutional framework) founded four generations ago is now disintegrating; hence the reeling sense of chaos that pervades our society.

I think that the way Khaldun would describe our state is something like what follows. The absence of religion (shared values) as a restraining influence (ordering principle) means that royal authority (rule of law) is required to establish order. For a new dynasty (institutional framework) to form, a new faction must arise which has the group feeling (solidarity, consensus) and desert attitude (courage, willingness to sacrifice) to achieve superiority and establish its royal authority (recognized right to rule). Applying this model to the ongoing partisan conflict between the red zone and blue zone factions in our society, about which I’ve blogged a great deal, it’s clear that the winner of the conflict will be whichever faction most successfully marshals these qualities of solidarity and courage. That is, whichever faction has the strongest group feeling.

Seen in this light, that each faction has a social media bubble, where a consensus on facts and values is continuously reinforced, makes perfect sense. It’s an effort to sustain group feeling during the conflict, since losing that group feeling means granting superiority to the other faction. It’s really that simple.

Which faction is currently favored in the conflict? A few years back I would have speculated that the red zone faction, rallying around former President Trump, had a stronger group feeling. They really seemed to have a greater solidarity of purpose than the blue zone faction, split between its progressives and moderates. But after the failed coup attempt in early 2021, my sense is that the strength of their faction just wasn’t quite enough to achieve superiority, and now they are on the defensive. However, I would note, as Khaldun might put it, that the red zone has been more clever at manipulating the laws of royal authority to favor their faction.

I’d like to think that Ibn Khaldun would agree with my interpretation of modern events in light of his historical model. I bet that if we did snatch him out of time to come observe our era, he wouldn’t want to go back just yet – not until he saw how events in the rest of this phase of civilization unfold.

Rights vs. Responsibilities in the COVID Era

Rights vs. Responsibilities in the COVID Era

Take a look at the remarkable chart below, which shows death rates from COVID-19 for six different groups of United States counties. What distinguishes the groups of counties is the partisan voting rate, and what is remarkable is how much higher death rates are in Republican leaning counties than they are in Democratic leaning counties, after the first big wave, which hit primarily coastal megacities.

It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that this reflects the politicization of the pandemic, and how, in Republican-leaning parts of the country, there are lower vaccination rates and lower levels of compliance with mitigation rules such as wearing face masks and avoiding indoor gatherings. I’ve complained before about how insane this is, but here I want to give a little more thought as to why people might be motivated so differently in their behavior that they experience such disparate outcomes.

Here, I want to comment on how data like the above relates to two different ways of looking at the world. One is to see it from the standpoint of the individual, and their unique perspective. And the other is to see it from the standpoint of the collective of all people, which is what graphs like the above are doing. Graphs like the above are created by aggregating data – each week, a certain number of people die from COVID-19. Each individual death is a tragedy, and some deaths are unavoidable no matter how much we as a society try to mitigate against the spread of the virus. But looking at the aggregate data makes it plain how mitigation efforts do reduce overall suffering and death. That’s why we ask, as a society, for everyone to participate collectively in this effort.

The problem is, large numbers of people don’t want to see the world from this collective perspective. Their preference is to focus on the individual, and the rights of the individual. It’s like they see the dots on the graph, but not the curve. But one dot alone doesn’t give you any information, when you are trying to determine good policy. The curve, the collection of dots, is what lets you make an informed choice. The dots themselves just give you individual stories, what we call “anecdotal evidence,” which could be used to justify any policy. For example, as the graph above clearly indicates, some people in the counties with the lowest death rates do die from COVID-19. No place has a 0% rate. You’ll always be able to point to a case of a breakthrough infection in someone who was vaxxed and boosted and still got sick and died. But that one case alone is not enough to justify giving up on vaccination. To decide what overall policy is the most sensible based on one case and not the entirety of cases is foolish.

The same applies in other areas, like gun control. Simply put, firearms are a hazard and making them easier to access and carry around increases the risk to everyone of injury or death from firearms. It’s why we have this idea of sensible gun laws to regulate the use of firearms, making everyone safer, just as we regulate so much else in life. But a sizeable minority is obsessed with the individual right to bear arms, stymying lawmakers’ efforts to enact such legislation. This minority probably thinks that their arsenals will make a difference in upcoming political struggles. But however violently future political conflicts are resolved, what easy access to firearms will mostly do is increase the rates of suicide and homicide by firearm. I’m not even talking about mass shootings, I mean just ordinary incidents involving firearms.

Gun rights advocates will argue that it is unfair to deny them their individual rights just because of the negative consequences of other people’s choices. They are looking at the dots – you can’t take what’s mine based on someone else’s actions. For gun control advocates, the argument is that restricting gun rights will benefit the public in the aggregate. They are looking at the curve – overall suffering and death will go down if you change the rules. This is the same logic that goes into determining rules for the mitigating against the spread of the coronavirus. Restricting some rights, like the right to congregate indoors in large groups, will benefit public health, in the context of a highly transmissible and potentially fatal virus in circulation.

The zealous prioritizing of individual rights over collective good is what leads to memes like the one on the right, found on Twitter. It’s what leads to freedom derisively being called “freedumb,” when taken to the point of needlessly endangering lives. But those who won’t comply with mandates for the collective good aren’t really dumb, they are just prioritizing their rights as individuals over what is best for society as a whole. To them, compliance with authority smacks of submission to tyranny. They even have narratives based on historical occurrences to justify their resistance, even though the context is completely different now.

Maybe it would help for people to think in terms of both individual rights and individual responsibilities. Then you can keep your personal autonomy, but also recognize that your personal choices have consequences. Then you can see how you as a dot fits into the bigger picture of everyone else as a curve. Look again at the graph. It’s clear that for any one given individual, your chances of dying from COVID-19 are small. Not even half a percent of the country has. But if you are careless about transmitting the virus, you will help to kill some people. And that’s on you.

The Demand for Order in the Age of the Social

The Demand for Order in the Age of the Social

I see a lot of complaining about how evil Facebook is and how much they’ve abused their power. But how can this social media company have any power at all? It’s really simple and obvious how to destroy Facebook – all its users simply have to stop using it. Then it will vanish and never plague us again. What does this platform provide that is in any way essential, such that its users are compelled to use it? Where is its power coming from?

A couple years back I wrote a post about when I first joined Facebook, mentioning how it had connected me to people from my past, and how it continues to connect me to people in my present. This need to connect, to have a place of gathering and belonging, is what drives the demand for platforms like Facebook. In this crisis social era, that demand is high. It’s why we all can’t just quit social media.

Remember at the end of 2020 when, after the election went to Joe Biden, Red Staters were announcing on Facebook how they were leaving for a new platform? They weren’t quitting Facebook to go off and be by themselves. They wanted to have their own social media platform for people like them, who shared their view points.

The mission statement of the Facebook company (now called “Meta”) is, in fact, to build community and togetherness. And a primary complaint people have about the Facebook company is the ways it has failed at this mission, and instead caused divisiveness. Or, if not caused the divisiveness, at least irresponsibly permitted its platform to be used by others to promote discord and even violence.

A related complaint about Facebook is that the platform allows the spread of misinformation. Never mind that different factions in our society have different ideas of what constitutes correct information. I wonder: is it more that people want the platforms they use to reinforce, rather than contradict, what they want to believe?

This complaint does raise the question of why the platform should have any obligation to be responsible for the veracity of its content. What I mean is, if such a site is simply a social gathering place, why shouldn’t people be free to post nonsense and lies? Not to say that harm hasn’t been done by misinformation on social media, but why is it the social media platform’s obligation to control the information? If I tell a lie on a street corner, does the town the street is on get blamed for it?

Now there is the argument that misinformation spreads much more rapidly on social media then it ever could by word of mouth. But even here, without some specific platform available, another could surely be found. If we did destroy Facebook in the way I suggested (on the count of three, everyone delete their account…1..2..), couldn’t people still spread their lies via, say, email chains? That’s how we did it back in the ’90s, and I’m pretty sure email providers are off the hook for whatever content is sent through their servers.

My point is that it’s not really the technology behind these phenomena, it’s the people. People are spreading the misinformation, as they always will, and just happen to be using the means that are available today. Putting the onus on a social media company for policing its content is understandable, and a popular stance, but it speaks as much to what people want from these platforms as it does to how they are run as businesses.

We want a way to gather safely, and we expect the providers of such places to exercise some authority in keeping those places safe. That’s the demand curve of this social era. The problem is, social media companies are profit-making enterprises that derive revenue from user engagement, however it can be acquired (“Attention Merchants” is what Tim Wu calls them). So long as this tension exists, where private enterprises maintain our public spaces, we will have reason to mistrust Big Tech and the platforms they provide us, even though we couldn’t conceive of leaving them.