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A Gen X Life Story

A Gen X Life Story

As the girl and I headed off to our 40th high school reunion at the end of last month, I needed a book to read on the trip. I picked The Gen X Girl’s Journal by Kari Thorsdottir, which had been on my reading list for a while. It seemed appropriate since we are both Gen Xers, born around the same time as the book’s author. Based on the book’s cover, I expected something like a memoir about the Gen X young adult experience, full of trenchant social observations and pop culture trivia. That’s what you expect from my generation.

What I got instead was a novel that very directly and subjectively describes the life of a woman named Annika, from her freshman year in college in 1985 all the way to current times, ending in the year 2019. It is somewhat of a conventional life – Annika joins a sorority in college, graduates into a white collar career, marries and has two sons, and struggles with balancing family life and work life. There are a couple of story arcs that achieve closure by the end of the book, which finishes with her 30th year college reunion, but for the most part the narrative just goes through the paces of an ordinary life, up until middle age.

The writing lacks literary embellishment, simply describing events and the characters’ thoughts and emotions from a third person perspective. It sometimes dwells on specific events, and at other times skips years in a single paragraph, reflecting how we typically recall our lives. Some moments stick with us, even as the years fly by.

I enjoyed the read, even though the story is so basic. I mean, I’ve read other memoirs of Gen X women born around the same time as me. Some have led more interesting lives, like commercial jet pilot Laura Savino; while others, such as professional writer Sari Botton, write with more literary flair. But in its unassuming way, Kari Thorsdottir’s book drew me into Annika’s personal experience, with all the intimacy of a journal or diary. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was based on the author’s own life, even though it purports to be a work of fiction.

As was the case with the other memoirs by Gen X women that I have read, I found that despite the significant differences that come with being a man, I still recognized and could easily empathize with Annika’s life experiences. She tread territory that was familiar to me, since she was born at the same time as me. That’s what it means to belong to the same generation; you share the same course through history. Anyone from my generation – man or woman – could easily see a part of themselves in Annika. And anyone from any generation would gain a better understanding of the Gen X life course by reading this book.

Here is the author’s link tree if you want to get a copy- https://linktr.ee/genxgirlsjournal

Syncing up the Book Reviews

Syncing up the Book Reviews

I joined goodreads a while back, but it was after I started this blog. Since I joined goodreads, I’ve been reviewing every book I read on that site. But since I’ve reviewed books on this blog as well, and some of those were done before I was on goodreads, I realized that this blog and goodreads are not in perfect sync.

My OCD couldn’t handle this, so I paraphrased my blog reviews on goodreads for all the missing books, to plug in the gaps. Is there any point to this? Just me obsessing on feedbacking my life experience into the Internet, which is, after all, going to outlive me. The Internet is where our civilization is containerized, consumed, digested and stored for future use, for at least the intelligent reasoning and meaning processing aspect of civilization that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere.

Here’s a list of the book reviews that were added to my little ecosystem in the noosphere, where my thoughts may or may not add value to mental reality:

Memoir of a Millennial Childhood

Memoir of a Millennial Childhood

I recently finished this coming of age memoir, by Emi Nietfeld, a young woman born in the early 1990s. It was a fascinating read for me, since we have had such different lives, being a generation apart in age. I have read memoirs by women of my own generation, born around the same time as me, and honestly I recognize much of my own experience in what they recount. But not so much with this one.

Here is my review on goodreads:

A frank, revealing, and often harrowing coming of age memoir by a young woman, structured around her college admissions experience. The author comes from a disadvantaged background, facing many difficult constraints, including treatment for mental illness. In her mind, college represents an escape to a better future, but she becomes disillusioned when she realizes she must disguise her past in order to receive the acceptance she craves. I found this a fascinating read, since Emi Nietfeld’s life experience is so far removed from mine. I am from an older generation, and male, as well as having had a fairly ordinary family as a child. I did recognize in Nietfeld’s memoirs what I understand to be common themes for Millennial girls growing up: intense pressure to achieve and conform, confrontations with stubbornly dysfunctional adult institutions, and a panoply of self-destructive behaviors for stress release. I very much appreciate her openness and honesty describing her experience, which she does skillfully and even with a little humour, where she can find it. An eye-opening read and highly recommended.

As a long time student of generations, I have read a lot about the Millennial childhood experience, but of course that does not compare to actually living it. The closest I could come to that is, well, reading a memoir such as this one. I really was struck by how much the author’s experience aligned with what generational theory has to say about the Millennial peer personality, particularly the traits of: pressured, achieving, and conventional, if not so much sheltered *, since she had a tough family situation.

Nietfeld overcame the difficulties of her background, or at the very least made it out of childhood and into therapy, as she relates in her epilogue. She is active online, and you should easily be able to find her on social media, where she advocates for reforming institutions to better serve the needs of “troubled kids” in circumstances like the ones she faced. In particular, she is against the idea that a difficult childhood should be tolerated, or even accepted, as a means for someone to develop “grit” or “resilience” and emerge as a stronger person.

To me, this really stands out as a turning away from the attitude of my generation – Gen X. We believed that no one would look out for us, and that it was indeed up to us to develop the inner strength to withstand whatever abuses the world hurled at us. Emi Nietfeld’s response – that we should fix institutions to make them work, rather than avoid them as inherently unworkable – is the surest sign that she is a member of the Millennial generation.

*for more on the peer personality traits of Millennials growing up, see the book Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss

Strategy Review: The Next American Nation

Strategy Review: The Next American Nation

Michael Lind published his amazing work, The Next American Nation, in 1995. It’s a book about how different versions of the American republic have emerged periodically, following revolutions every hundred years or so. Seeing as it came out just before one of my favorite books about such cycles, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, it’s kind of strange that I never read it until now. It is the most egregious example of a book that came out in the Third Turning that I am finally getting around to reading in the Fourth Turning (there have been many others). I should have been comparing Lind’s revolutions to the Strauss & Howe cycle decades ago! But no matter, I finally read it, and in this review I will discuss what I found.

Lind describes three historical versions of the American republic: the one after the founding of the United States, a second one after the U.S. Civil War, and a third one following the Civil Rights era. He also speculates on a possible fourth republic in the future (which could be now, since he wrote this over twenty-five years ago). It’s interesting that two of Lind’s revolutions coincide with Fourth Turnings from Strauss & Howe, but the third one does not, and also that Lind does not identify the New Deal as the founding of a new version of the American republic. I have seen the same pattern in another theorist’s version of waves or cycles of political change, and I’ll get to that point later in this post.

To Lind, it’s important to consider that the United States of America is a nation, and that it has (or should have) a national identity. It does not make sense to think of the United States as a federation of separate national groups (as implied by the “nine nations of America” idea), nor should it be considered a collection of people united by an ideal such as democracy, or individual rights, or free market capitalism. The United States is a nation, like any other, and it’s not even exceptional. It is not, for example, the only settler society consisting of people who are mostly descendants of immigrants from the past few hundred years. It is not the only nation with a diversity of ethnic groups and religions. It is a distinct and unique nation, to be sure, but so are all others.

As a nation, each version of the American Republic has four identifying characteristics: a national community, a common ethic, an elite class, and a national political creed. Lind’s book is very orderly, and he explains what he means and describes these characteristics clearly for each version of the Republic. I will do my best to summarize what he wrote.

The First American Republic, the one founded in 1789, Lind calls the Anglo-American Republic. The national community of that Republic was people of Anglo-Saxon heritage, and the common ethic was Protestant Christianity. So you can see he is straight up accepting that, in its founding, the United States was an exclusive nation for a particular ethnic community – those we would later call WASPs, the original privileged Americans. The First Republic was dominated by an elite class of Southern planters, and its political creed was the decentralized republicanism of Thomas Jefferson.

Massive immigration of non-Anglo Saxons (Germans and Irish primarily) throughout the nineteenth century undermined this order. After the Civil War came the Second American Republic, which Lind calls the Euro-American Republic. He states that the Civil War could be understood as a war between the Anglo-American South and the Euro-American North. The Second Republic’s national community was white people of European descent, and its common ethic was “Judeo-Christianity,” in that it was for the most part inclusive of Protestants, Catholics and Jews. In fact, it is from this “triple establishment” of religions that we get jokes that start with “a pastor, a priest, and a rabbi…”

The Second Republic’s elite was the Northeastern business and professional class, what might be called the new bastion of WASPness, or those who could claim descendance from the Mayflower. It’s political creed was a more democratically inclusive form of federalism, still decentralized but with more universal suffrage, and undeniably white supremacist. It was during the Second Republic that the frontier closed, and we got the “melting pot” concept – that America was forming a distinct culture out of the cultural elements of its many different immigrants. It was during this time that the concept of “whiteness” expanded to include all Europeans, not just Northern Europeans. Still, the Northeastern WASP elites dominated, and it is from them that we get what might be considered the quintessential elements of American culture: baseball, football, and how we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As already noted, Lind does not consider the Depression, New Deal, and Second World War era to be revolutionary or to have founded a new version of the American Republic. Instead, he identifies the next revolution as the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and declares that the Third American Republic, which he calls the Multicultural American Republic, was founded around 1972 with the end of the Civil Rights era and the establishment of affirmative action and racial preferences. The Multicutural American Republic doesn’t really have a national community, being something of an amalgam of different racial nations, and it lacks legitimacy in the public eye.

The Third Republic’s common ethic is one of ethnic authenticity – being true to whatever your particular race-based subculture is. Its political creed is multicultural democracy, reinforced by racial gerrymandering. Its elite is a white overclass, which maintains what might now be called the “neoliberal order” (though Lind doesn’t use that term), and allows a small number of non-whites into their class through affirmative action, which Lind calls a “racial spoils system.” This is a compromise made so that the white overclass can remain the elites without risking the unrest of another Civil Rights movement.

Clearly Lind recognizes the long shadow of white supremacy and white privilege in American history. But he could hardly be called “woke” (to use the current parlance); in fact he is generally considered to be a conservative. According to his Wikipedia page, in his works he upholds “American democratic nationalism,” which is basically the form of his ideal Fourth Republic. It’s a Republic that guarantees individual civil rights more universally, backed up by a vigorous yet limited central government – a vision closer to that of Alexander Hamilton than that of Thomas Jefferson, which perhaps explains the popularity of the musical.

In the Fourth American Republic (still to come), the national community is both a cultural melting pot and a racial melting pot, united by American English and an identifiable American culture. Its common ethic is what Lind calls “civic familism,” which is kind of a belief in the importance of family as the foundation of a stable society. Family life is private, and can be religious or not, and patriarchal or not; it can be whatever works for the particular family (think “modern family”), so long as it provides a stable base from which the family members can then engage publicly as responsible citizens. At least that was how I interpreted his argument.

The Fourth American Republic’s political creed is a national democracy where civil rights are uniform, and the law is absolutely color blind. This harkens back to the original civil rights vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his famous quote about judging people by their inner, not their outer qualities. This is what the revolutionary civil rights era was trying to bring about, before the compromise of affirmative action twisted its meaning and gave us the unsustainable racial preferences system of today. Or rather, the unsustainable system of the time when Lind wrote this book. Recently, affirmative action is under attack by the Supreme Court, which Lind might consider a step towards the Fourth Republic that he envisioned. But I haven’t seen anywhere that Lind agrees with this assessment.

Lind provides a long list of radical reforms that would be needed to bring about his revolutionary Fourth Republic, all meant to bust up the oligarchy and create a level playing field on which the racially-blind working class can thrive. These reforms include immigration restrictions, tariffs, progressive taxation, college tuition subsidies and caps, and an end not only to affirmative action in college admissions but also to legacy preferences. He warns that without these reforms, we could end up as a “Brazilianized” society with permanent racial castes, or succumb to a nativist backlash and a demagogue who attempts to restore the good-old white supremacy of the Second Republic.

Looking at the state of affairs today, in 2023, I imagine that Lind would recognize some things coming to pass that he wrote about in 1995. The rise of MAGA indeed seems like a nativist backlash with tinges of white supremacy (make America like the 1950s again). Its enemy in the civil conflict, wokeism, is like an entrenchment of the racial preferences regime of the “Third Republic.” So we are facing both of these possible negative outcomes that Lind warned about, and not much chance of achieving the reforms he advocated.

Michael Lind has written several more books since The Next American Nation, and frequently has opinion pieces published online. I haven’t read any of his other books, but from what I’ve seen of his online presence, he continues to beat the drum against oligarchy, and promote what he thinks are the best options for the working class. For example, in this piece he argues that we need to ditch neoliberalism and wokeism as tools of the elites, and need a coalition of pro-worker factions from both political parties to work together. He does not believe that we can achieve the Fourth Revolution by having one party or the other dominate in government; that will simply entrench the status quo, since those parties are captured by the elites.

As already discussed, it is notable that Lind considers the Civil Rights movement to be the Third Revolution that founds the Third Republic, rather than the New Deal, as identified in Strauss and Howe generational theory. I think this is because Lind is focused on understanding a nation as a cultural entity, supported by an instutitional framework, perhaps, but not defined by it. Strauss and Howe, in contrast, define their Crisis eras as periods of institutional transformation, or as they put it, changes to the external order. Roughly halfway between each Crisis, they identify another transformative era that they call an Awakening, in which what changes are social values – in other words, the internal order.

According to Strauss and Howe, the changes that Lind calls the Third Revolution were really changes to the internal order during the last Awakening. The “Multicultural Republic” that resulted is still the New Deal Republic, but with its institutions questioned and weakening, under assault from the new multicultural values. The reason this Third Republic (as Lind calls it) lacks legitimacy is that we haven’t yet fully passed through the Crisis era, from which a new institutional framework will emerge that incorporates (to a yet unknown extent) these new values. Once all the political dust settles from the Culture Wars battles now being fought in courts and legislatures, we’ll see how “woke” we end up becoming. When the political conflicts are finally settled, the new “Fourth Republic” will be accepted as legitimate, perhaps grudgingly by many, but legitimate nonetheless – at least in the sense that no one has the energy left to fight against it.

The other theorist who similarly identifies a new order emerging from a period later than the New Deal is Philip Bobbitt, with his theory of the market state as a new consitutional order coming out of the end of the Cold War. I tried to summarize his theory in a blog post some time back. I’ve actually posted quite a lot about the market state, and eventually come to the conclusion, in my own words: “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.” Bobbitt, like Lind, intuited a profound social change occurring in his time, and fit it into his theory in a way that made sense to him.

I think that Lind and Bobbitt both miss the New Deal era as a revolutionary period because of the focus of their respective theoretical frameworks. Lind is focused on national culture, while Bobbitt is focused on military strategy. To them, the New Deal may have seemed like a bureaucratic adjustment to the republic or constitutional order that came out of the Civil War, not an epochal event in itself. To Strauss and Howe, it was indeed epochal, part of the previous Fourth Turning, as defined by their generational framework.

It’s clear that Lind realized profound changes happened to American culture coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, a commonplace observation in social history. He labeled it the founding of a new Republic, whereas Strauss and Howe would have called it the beginning of the end of the Republic that came out of the New Deal era, with the real founding of a new Republic happening a couple of generations later, in the aftermath of the Fourth Turning that they predicted (and which we are now in). From a high enough view, I suppose, the difference is immaterial. The world is constantly in flux, and you can draw your lines wherever you want to try to make sense of it.

What’s important is that these different theorists identified a common pattern in the way social change plays out. Societies tend to go from an ordered state to a disordered one, as one would naturally expect, given entropy. At some point, after the order has broken down far enough, an impetus to restore order kicks in, and society is reordered, but in a new way. Because Lind identified the same pattern that Strauss and Howe did, his American Republics closely match the saecular orders of generational theory’s turnings, even though they don’t match exactly.

In The Next American Nation, Michael Lind lays out a hopeful vision of how the United States could remake itself along the lines of true racial equality and respect for individual civil rights, living up to an expansive interpretation of the ideals expressed at its founding. To get there requires a raft of sweeping structural changes to our social order, which seem impossible to achieve, after a quarter century of partisan politics and government gridlock, with cultural conflict and imploding civic trust making any semblance of order seem like a far away fantasy. What history tells us is that the conflict of this Fourth Turning cannot last forever; at some point its fuel will be expended, and like any fire it will burn out. Only then will we see order emerge from the ashes, but whether it resembles Lind’s Fourth Republic or not, we cannot know.

You Really Should Read “The Self-Aware Universe”

You Really Should Read “The Self-Aware Universe”

In multiple posts on this blog I have referenced a theory of unitive consicousness as the best explanation for how it is we are alive in the Universe. If you’re interested in learning more about this theory, the place to start is the book below, which I summarize in this brief review.

“Consciousness is the agency that collapses the wave of a quantum object, which exists in potentia, making it an immanent particle in the world of manifestation.”

Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe (1993)

This simple and powerful idea is at the heart of the book The Self-Aware Universe, in which physicist Amit Goswami proposes a monistic idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics, and connects science with mysticism and religion. He explains the physics in simple terms for the layperson, with ample figures to help with understanding. His proposed theory does away with the paradoxes of quantum physics which arise when a purely materialistic theory is applied. It also reintroduces meaning and morality to existence, huge problems for materialistic science to grapple with and a major reason for the rift between science and religion, a rift which is so damaging to society.

Goswami attempts to heal this rift with his new approach to science which acknowledges the reality of consciousness. He explains his philosophical approach with reference to past philosophies, and cites experimental results which support his view. He goes into dense discussions of the experimental data and how best to interpret it, but also has light-hearted mock encounters with historical philosophers to provide background.

This book is a must read for anyone serious about understanding the nature of reality, and their place in the Universe.

An excellent synopsis of Goswami’s theory of the self-aware Universe can be found here:  The Self-Aware Universe Synopsis.

Opening the Heart for a Healthy Life

Opening the Heart for a Healthy Life

When Aileen and I first reunited, she gave me a book about heart disease, written by Dr. Dean Ornish. It is titled “Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease.” She had already given it once before – to her husband, Gavin, after he developed heart problems. Based in part on the advice from this book, he switched to a vegetarian diet, which helped. He also took pharmaceutical drugs, and after much medication management is now back to eating meat. It’s not like he necessarily followed Ornish’s program exactly, but reading it and heeding some of its advice was a help.

I read the book when Aileen gave it to me, and while I also have not followed the program exactly (or much), I certainly valued what I learned. Mostly the program for treating heart disease is just common sense advice: reduce stress, get exercise, absolutely do not smoke tobacco, and eat a proper diet. In fact, nearly half of this book is healthy recipes.

What I really valued about the book was its many anecdotes of individuals reversing heart disease, and the way their path to healing was tied to the bigger picture of their life. It wasn’t just about making physical changes, but also changes in attitude and in their emotional life, even in their spiritual life. It was about how beliefs and feelings affect physical well-being.

Ornish calls his program “opening the heart.” He specifically discusses opening to one’s feelings, to the needs of others, and to a higher purpose. What I got out of it is that heart disease, whatever its physical manifestations, is a result of closing oneself off. It is a disease of isolation.

The idea that the key to reversing heart disease is “opening” the heart ties to the concept of chakras, which are the centers where vital energy flows in alignment with physical organs. Charkras can be open or closed (“blocked” is also used), and when closed or blocked, disease will result in the corresponding organ(s).

The chakra aligned with the heart is the seat of emotions and love; that is why you have that feeling of your heart expanding when you experience intense love. This can even happen when you vicariously experience love while watching a mushy romantic movie. You are experiencing your heart chakra opening, blossoming even (think of how chakras are often depicted to look like flowers). Watching mushy movies is good for your heart!

But walling off your emotions, being unwilling or afraid to care about yourself or others, will close down your heart chakra. The vital energy aligned with your heart will be blocked, and the organ itself will begin to show signs of disease. Emotional isolation – loneliness, or anger and fear directed at others – leads to an ailing heart.

As the name of Ornish’s program implies, opening the heart (chakra) is the key to maintaining heart health. He does not specifically mention chakras, either because he discounts them or because he does not want his book to seem like it supports alternative medicine. But I think that the similarities between his medical program and the concepts of chakra medicine are no coincidence. A deeper truth about the nature of human life is being revealed.

How can it be that there is some kind of vital energy, and how could it possibly interact with our physical bodies? There is no measurable quantity of physical energy associated with our feelings of vitality, feelings like what I described above, when your heart expands with joy and love. But those feelings are real – our experience of them is direct evidence of this vital energy.

The best explanation of how our vitality – our aliveness – is connected to our physical forms lies in the the primacy of consciousness model of reality. I have brought this model up before, in a post on “mind over matter.” There, I described how my mental experience manifested in parallel with events in the physical world, mediated by unitive consciousness.

A similar phenomenon occurs in vital experience, which manifests in parallel with our physical bodies. The correspondence of the chakras of our vital bodies (there are seven chakras total) to specific parts of our physical bodies is mediated by unitive consciousness, which is the agency which keeps us alive. Our experience of our vital bodies is internal and private; it is our feeling of being alive, not accessible to others, who can only see our physical bodies. Other people will notice when consciousness ceases to correlate our physical bodies with a correpsonding vital body, of course – that is when our physical bodies become lifeless; that is, when we die.

That, anyway, is the theory of life based on the primacy of consciousness model of reality, a model on which I have expounded here in several posts. How this model can be applied to the life sciences, and to medicine and health, is covered in an excellent book by Amit Goswami called “The Quantum Doctor.” I’m currently rereading it, but I’m sure at least some of what it says lines up with what Dean Ornish wrote in his book on heart health. Per Goswami, our beliefs and feeling affect our physical bodily health because they are all connected through the agency of consciouness. Ornish might not have said so quite as explicitly, but he was on to the same thing.

The science is clear on the matter – health can be influenced from above, by intention and emotion, as much as from below, by chemicals (drugs) and surgeries. Keep all of that in mind to live a full, healthy life.

Very Excited About Our Tulips This Year

Very Excited About Our Tulips This Year

In front of our house there is a little round planter area which is full of tulip bulbs. They’ve done really well this year, as you can see from the picture to the right. They’ve created this lovely riot of pink blooms, with some red thrown in for highlight, which you can admire every time you step out front.

They reminded me of this book I read a while back, called Tulipomania, about the infamous tulip bulb market bubble in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The book starts with a history of the tulip, which originated in the steppes of Central Asia, coming to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. It’s a very hardy plant, able to tolerate extreme cold and dry weather. We certainly don’t put any effort into caring for ours; it’s like they just obligingly come up every spring to give us a show.

As for the tulip mania of the 1630s, well, it’s possibly the best known example of a market bubble in economic history, though there have certainly been others. As the book explains, a market bubble occurs when a good is artificially priced much higher than its actual worth. Supposedly, according to economic theorists, markets will naturally adjust prices based on supply and demand. These theorists are assuming that people behave rationally, and pay for stuff based on its worth to them, relative to other options. However, it might not be correct to assume that people are always rational, as a survey of history will reveal.

A rare tulip of the sort that set off tulip mania.

The story of tulip mania is an interesting one. It seems that before the bubble, and after it as well, there was a market for rare bulbs that produce exquisitely beautiful, multicolored tulips. The variegated patterns on these flowers are the result of a virus, which can be preserved in a bulb when it is propagated by division. So it was possible, though very difficult, to breed these rare tulips, and tulip connoisseurs were very interested in acquiring these bulbs; hence their high prices. They were like luxury tulips.

Somehow, when the general public got wind of how much these bulbs were selling for, they decided they wanted in on the racket. Of course, they couldn’t all buy these rare bulbs, since by definition there aren’t many of a rare thing, so they just bid up the prices of the common tulip bulbs. You know, the boring red and yellow and purple ones that you can see filling fields in the Netherlands if you do a quick image search. These shouldn’t be worth a whole lot of money; they’re a basic commodity, like potatoes. But somehow the Dutch masses convinced themselves they were all tulip bulb brokers and these common items soared in price. It was a classic case of “irrational exuberance.”

The bubble didn’t last too long, because the fundamental value of the ordinary tulip varieties simply did not justify the high prices. That’s what makes an asset price bubble a bubble; sooner or later the exuberance wears off, and the holders of the asset who bought it for its inflated price can’t offload it for a profit. Demand for the asset drops sharply, and pop! goes the bubble. The asset owners are stuck “holding the bag,” as they say. They get wiped out.

What stands out about tulip mania is how plainly it is an example of a price bubble, since it involves a basic commodity, and the price inflation was so disproportionate to what one would think was a rational expectation. I mean, surely the farmers who were selling their bulbs at these inflated prices knew they were ripping off the speculators, right? Were they being immoral? Arguably, they were being rational – any given farmer would know that if they didn’t sell their bulbs to someone willing to pay so much, some other farmer would. Any given speculator knew that if they didn’t buy and flip some bulbs, some other speculator would, and reap the profits. It was a case of herd psychology, everyone just playing along with the madness.

A similar herd psychology is at work in the kinds of bubbles that most commonly affect our lives, which are in the stock market, such as the dot-com bubble, or in real estate, such as the 2000s housing bubble. When credit is easy and exuberance is high, everyone just kind of goes along with the trend of rising valuations and carefree spending. No one wants to spoil the party. If you’ve seen the movie The Big Short, you know that the guys who saw that the housing bubble was going to burst were going against conventional thought. When the bubble did burst, it was hard to pin the blame on anyone. I mean, you could single out obvious actors, like the credit rating agencies in the case of the 2000s housing bubble, but can you prove they were guilty of fraud, and not just of herd mentality? No, you can’t.

I think this kind of mania is possible because, ultimately, money and the value of stuff is a fiction in our collective heads. If we all agree that a digital coin is worth ten thousand bucks, that’s what it’s worth. If later on we all agree that it’s worth a hundred bucks, it becomes worth that much, and too bad for you if that’s all you’re invested in. We could even all agree that the tulip bulbs in our front yard are worth ten thousand bucks apiece! Just venmo me and they’re yours.

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.

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.

A Really Good History Book from about Six Hundred Years Ago

A Really Good History Book from about Six Hundred Years Ago

I recently finished The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun, a book which had been part of my tsundoku for some time and which I finally got around to reading in connection to generations theory research. Khaldun’s work is actually referenced in The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe, in the chapter on archetypes in history. I might have remembered this, but it was only when I rediscovered the fact that I felt compelled to pull The Muqaddimah off my shelf to read it and find the connections.

Khaldun has his own theory of a generational cycle in politics, or at least a generational progression. It’s basically the idea that as the generations pass, the authority of a dynasty declines and eventually disappears altogether. The founding generation establishes and consolidates the authority, and the next generation continues to benefit from it while beginning the process of constricting it. The third generation is just living in the shadow of that authority, even as the dynasty is in its most materially prosperous phase. The fourth and last generation of the dynasty is dissolute and wastes the legacy of the previous generations; at that point the dynastic authority disintegrates.

The parallels to the turnings theory of Strauss & Howe, which also has a four-part cycle and theorizes four generational archetypes, are plain. There’s also a similarity to the cycles of government identified in ancient times by Polybius. It’s fascinating to think that Polybius was writing fifteen hundred years before Khaldun, and Khaldun was writing over six hundred years before our time, and yet these parallels are there, even with modern thinking. It’s like these different scholars writing in different eras are all discovering the same fundamental truths.

Khaldun’s work is comprehensive in its scope (he’s what you would call a polymath) and reminds me a bit of Aristotle, just in the breadth of what he covers and the systematic way he goes about categorizing and explaining things. His work is also reminiscent of Herodotus, in that he writes about historiography and the importance of applying a discerning intellect to the study of history, lest one simply repeat the misinformation that is frequently passed down as historical fact.

While he does echo these ancient Greek philosophers, he is also plainly a denizen of the medieval age. He takes for granted the validity of his religion, Islam, and believes in spiritual reality and supernatural powers (he has a whole section railing against sorcery and its danger to religion). His model of physics is based on the four elements, and his model of biology and medicine is the medieval one of the four humours corresponding to those elements. We might think of these views as scientifically backward, but he’s simply working with what was known in his time, before the advances of the modern era.

What’s truly remarkable about Khaldun’s work is his discourse on social and political science. He has this conceptual framework around which he constructs a theory of how and why civilization forms, and its sources in religious and dynastic authority. In his view, religion forms dynasty and dynasty forms civilization, which sort of marks him as a theocratic medievalist. But you could think of this view as simply the idea that government must be rooted in some kind of moral ground in order to establish its definition of justice.

In his treatise, Khaldun repeatedly invokes the same concepts as he describes civilization in general, and the difference between simple desert civilization and what he calls sedentary civilization with its wealth and cities, basically describing a rural-urban divide. Let’s see if I can do a good job summarizing his theory.

In order for humans to live together cooperatively in a society they need some sort of “restraining influence” to prevent them from simply predating on one another. This influence can come from religion or it can come from the “royal authority” of a ruler. The royal authority of a ruling dynasty derives from “group feeling,” which is like social cohesion within a population, creating mutual esteem and loyalty. At first a dynasty has “desert attitude,” meaning a simple way of life and qualities of toughness and courage. This enables it to prevail over its enemies and establish its rule. But subsequent generations of the dynasty lose the desert attitude as the dynasty develops “sedentary culture.” The dynasty prospers economically, its cities grow in wealth and population and become advanced in the sciences and crafts, but all of this is at the expense of group feeling. Eventually the dynasty falls to some other one which has the desert attitude and group feeling that enable it to achieve military superiority.

It’s clear why Strauss & Howe would have referenced Khaldun, since his analysis has similarities to their turnings theory. You can also see how Khaldun anticipates the future thinking of Western philosophers. While reading The Muqaddimah and encountering his ideas, it occurred to me that the Age of Enlightenment might as well be considered to be the time when Western philosophy finally caught up to Ibn Khaldun. Honestly, encountering these ideas in a book written in the 14th century makes me reconsider the whole concept of a rift between the “medieval” and “modern” ages. It also make me wonder how Khaldun would see our world today, if he were to somehow be here to observe it.

I found The Muqaddimah to be a very easy read. Khaldun writes with confident authority and with common sense, and his thinking is very clear. Credit must go to the translator, Franz Rosenthal, for transforming Khaldun’s Arabic into straightforward English. I’m very happy to add The Muqaddimah to my “Read” bookshelf, from where I’m sure I will keeping referring to it as I continue my studies of generations and history.