Brilliant Article from James Traub in today’s Business Insider which I print in full: essential reading and also, as well as an indictment of corrupt conservatism, an equal indictment of the lack of new rejuvenating ideas for reform from Progressives who haven’t had a new economic policy strategy for nearly 5 decades:
In this op-ed, James Traub argues that America has become “decadent and depraved.”
He explains what decadence means, and how it’s tied to corruption.
“Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse,” he writes.
In The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon luridly evokes the Rome of 408 A.D., when the armies of the Goths prepared to descend upon the city.The marks of imperial decadence appeared not only in grotesque displays of public opulence and waste, but also in the collapse of faith in reason and science.
The people of Rome, Gibbon writes, fell prey to “a puerile superstition” promoted by astrologers and to soothsayers who claimed “to read in the entrails of victims the signs of future greatness and prosperity.”Would a latter-day Gibbon describe today’s America as “decadent”? I recently heard a prominent, and pro-American, French thinker (who was speaking off the record) say just that.
He was moved to use the word after watching endless news accounts of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets alternate with endless revelations of sexual harassment.
I flinched, perhaps because a Frenchman accusing Americans of decadence seems contrary to the order of nature. And the reaction to Harvey Weinstein et al. is scarcely a sign of hysterical puritanism, as I suppose he was implying.And yet, the shoe fit. The sensation of creeping rot evoked by that word seems terribly apt.
Perhaps in a democracy the distinctive feature of decadence is not debauchery but terminal self-absorption— the loss of the capacity for collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a common form of reasoning.
We listen to necromancers who prophesy great things while they lead us into disaster. We sneer at the idea of a “public” and hold our fellow citizens in contempt. We think anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a fool.
We cannot blame everything on Donald Trump, much though we might want to. In the decadent stage of the Roman Empire, or of Louis XVI’s France, or the dying days of the Habsburg Empire so brilliantly captured in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, decadence seeped downward from the rulers to the ruled.
But in a democracy, the process operates reciprocally.
A decadent elite
A decadent elite licenses degraded behavior, and a debased public chooses its worst leaders. Then our Nero panders to our worst attributes — and we reward him for doing so.
“Decadence,” in short, describes a cultural, moral, and spiritual disorder — the Donald Trump in us. It is the right, of course, that first introduced the language of civilizational decay to American political discourse. A quarter of a century ago, Patrick Buchanan bellowed at the Republican National Convention that the two parties were fighting “a religious war … for the soul of America.”
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) accused the Democrats of practicing “multicultural nihilistic hedonism,” of despising the values of ordinary Americans, of corruption, and of illegitimacy. That all-accusing voice became the voice of the Republican Party. Today it is not the nihilistic hedonism of imperial Rome that threatens American civilization but the furies unleashed by Gingrich and his kin.
The 2016 Republican primary was a bidding war in which the relatively calm voices — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — dropped out in the early rounds, while the consummately nasty Ted Cruz duked it out with the consummately cynical Donald Trump.
A year’s worth of Trump’s cynicism, selfishness, and rage has only stoked the appetite of his supporters. The nation dodged a bullet last week when a colossal effort pushed Democratic nominee Doug Jones over the top in Alabama’s Senate special election.
Nevertheless, the church-going folk of Alabama were perfectly prepared to choose a racist and a pedophile over a Democrat. Republican nominee Roy Moore almost became a senator by orchestrating a hatred of the other that was practically dehumanizing.
Trump functions as the impudent id of this culture of mass contempt
Of course he has legitimized the language of xenophobia and racial hatred, but he has also legitimized the language of selfishness. During the campaign, Trump barely even made the effort that Mitt Romney did in 2012 to explain his money-making career in terms of public good. He boasted about the gimmicks he had deployed to avoid paying taxes.
Yes, he had piled up debt and walked away from the wreckage he had made in Atlantic City. But it was a great deal for him! At the Democratic convention, then-Vice President Joe Biden recalled that the most terrifying words he heard growing up were, “You’re fired.”
Biden may have thought he had struck a crushing blow. Then Americans elected the man who had uttered those words with demonic glee. Voters saw cruelty and naked self-aggrandizement as signs of steely determination.
Perhaps we can measure democratic decadence by the diminishing relevance of the word “we.” It is, after all, a premise of democratic politics that, while majorities choose, they do so in the name of collective good.
Half a century ago, at the height of the civil rights era and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, democratic majorities even agreed to spend large sums not on themselves but on excluded minorities. The commitment sounds almost chivalric today. Do any of our leaders have the temerity even to suggest that a tax policy that might hurt one class — at least, one politically potent class — nevertheless benefits the nation?
There is, in fact, no purer example of the politics of decadence than the tax legislation that the president will soon sign. Of course the law favors the rich; Republican supply-side doctrine argues that tax cuts to the investor class promote economic growth.
What distinguishes the current round of cuts from those of either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush is, first, the way in which they blatantly benefit the president himself through the abolition of the alternative minimum tax and the special treatment of real estate income under new “pass-through” rules.
We Americans are so numb by now that we hardly even take note of the mockery this implies of the public servant’s dedication to public good.
Targeted tax cuts
Second, and no less extraordinary, is the way the tax cuts have been targeted to help Republican voters and hurt Democrats, above all through the abolition or sharp reduction of the deductibility of state and local taxes. I certainly didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan, but I cannot imagine him using tax policy to reward supporters and punish opponents.
He would have thought that grossly unpatriotic. The new tax cuts constitute the economic equivalent of gerrymandering. All parties play that game, it’s true; yet today’s Republicans have carried electoral gerrymandering to such an extreme as to jeopardize the constitutionally protected principle of “one man, one vote.”
Inside much of the party, no stigma attaches to the conscious disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. Democrats are not “us.”
Finally, the tax cut is an exercise in willful blindness. The same no doubt could be said for the 1981 Reagan tax cuts, which predictably led to unprecedented deficits when Republicans as well as Democrats balked at making offsetting budget cuts.
Yet at the time a whole band of officials in the White House and the Congress clamored, in some cases desperately, for such reductions. They accepted a realm of objective reality that existed separately from their own wishes. But in 2017, when the Congressional Budget Office and other neutral arbiters concluded that the tax cuts would not begin to pay for themselves, the White House and congressional leaders simply dismissed the forecasts as too gloomy.Here is something genuinely new about our era: We lack not only a sense of shared citizenry or collective good, but even a shared body of fact or a collective mode of reasoning toward the truth.
A thing that we wish to be true is true; if we wish it not to be true, it isn’t. Global warming is a hoax. Barack Obama was born in Africa. Neutral predictions of the effects of tax cuts on the budget must be wrong, because the effects they foresee are bad ones.
It is, of course, our president who finds in smoking entrails the proof of future greatness and prosperity. The reduction of all disagreeable facts and narratives to “fake news” will stand as one of Donald Trump’s most lasting contributions to American culture, far outliving his own tenure.
He has, in effect, pressed gerrymandering into the cognitive realm. Your story fights my story; if I can enlist more people on the side of my story, I own the truth. And yet Trump is as much symptom as cause of our national disorder.
The Washington Post recently reported that officials at the Center for Disease Control were ordered not to use words like “science-based,” apparently now regarded as disablingly left-leaning. But further reporting in the New York Times appears to show that the order came not from White House flunkies but from officials worried that Congress would reject funding proposals marred by the offensive terms.
One of our two national political parties — and its supporters — now regards “science” as a fighting word. Where is our Robert Musil, our pitiless satirist and moralist, when we need him (or her)?
A democratic society becomes decadent when its politics become morally and intellectually corrupt
A democratic society becomes decadent when its politics, which is to say its fundamental means of adjudication, becomes morally and intellectually corrupt. But the loss of all regard for common ground is hardly limited to the political right, or for that matter to politics.
We need only think of the ever-unfolding narrative of Harvey Weinstein, which has introduced us not only to one monstrous individual but also to a whole world of well-educated, well-paid, highly regarded professionals who made a very comfortable living protecting that monster. “When you quickly settle, there is no need to get into all the facts,” as one of his lawyers delicately advised.
This is, of course, what lawyers do, just as accountants are paid to help companies move their profits into tax-free havens. What is new and distinctive, however, is the lack of apology or embarrassment, the sheer blitheness of the contempt for the public good.
When Teddy Roosevelt called the monopolists of his day “malefactors of great wealth,” the epithet stung — and stuck. Now the bankers and brokers and private equity barons who helped drive the nation’s economy into a ditch in 2008 react with outrage when they’re singled out for blame.
Being a “wealth creator” means never having to say you’re sorry. Enough voters accept this proposition that Donald Trump paid no political price for unapologetic greed.
The worship of the marketplace, and thus the elevation of selfishness to a public virtue, is a doctrine that we associate with the libertarian right. But it has coursed through the culture as a self-justifying ideology for rich people of all political persuasions — perhaps also for people who merely dream of becoming rich.
‘The last stage before collapse’
Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse.
The court of Muhammad Shah, last of the Mughals to control the entirety of their empire, lost itself in music and dance while the Persian army rode toward the Red Fort. But as American decadence is distinctive, perhaps America’s fate may be, too.
Even if it is written in the stars that China will supplant the United States as the world’s greatest power, other empires, Britain being the most obvious example and the one democracy among them, have surrendered the role of global hegemon without sliding into terminal decadence.
Can the United States emulate the stoic example of the country it once surpassed? I wonder.
The British have the gift of ironic realism. When the time came to exit the stage, they shuffled off with a slightly embarrassed shrug. That, of course, is not the American way. When the stage manager beckons us into the wings we look for someone to hit — each other, or immigrants or Muslims or any other kind of not-us.
Finding the reality of our situation inadmissible, like the deluded courtiers of the Shah of Iran, we slide into a malignant fantasy.
But precisely because we are a democracy, because the values and the mental habits that define us move upward from the people as well as downward from their leaders, that process need not be inexorable. The prospect of sending Roy Moore to the Senate forced a good many conservative Republicans into what may have been painful acts of self-reflection.
The revelations of widespread sexual abuse offer an opportunity for a cleansing moment of self-recognition — at least if we stop short of the hysterical overreaction that seems to govern almost everything in our lives.
Our political elite will continue to gratify our worst impulses so long as we continue to be governed by them. The only way back is to reclaim the common ground — political, moral, and even cognitive — that Donald Trump has lit on fire.
Losing to China is hardly the worst thing that could happen to us. Losing ourselves is.
James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit.”
Well the bad news: I just finished probably the most disturbing book I have ever read: Daniel Ellsberg’s “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner”.
It’s main findings: (My own from his: we are lucky still to be here given all the near misses he describes and the madness of the very clever and the current nuclear weapon system)
1.The USA had, well before Trump, and still has a First Use policy for nuclear weapons: US policy is not simply the threat of retaliation.
2. The Russians have their Perimeter defense system that automatically launches a full scale nuclear attack on the USA, if Moscow is destroyed by a nuclear weapon; and one reason for this is the insane policy that the US military keeps talking about of decapitation: trying to kill the Russian leadership to make a nuclear attack by them harder, but instead makes it more automatic.
3. The use of nuclear weapons in the US is delegated way down the military command (the President’s nuclear football etc. is bs theater) and there is very little in the way of physical systems to prevent their use by a lone mad man, and in effect the US has a human rather than fully automated Perimeter defense system of its own that any nuclear attack on Washington would likely trigger massive retaliation almost automatically.
4. Even a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would start a nuclear winter for several years killing 2+ billion people, and a full scale US-Russia nuclear war would trigger a much longer one that would last perhaps a decade of Ice Age conditions and most of the human race would starve to death
5. No one is much bothered by all this. Too scary to solve?
6. Ellsberg suggests that ending the Doomsday Machine is technically very easy: the US adopts a No First Use policy, and in agreement with the Russians gets rid of its land based missiles and relies on sub based missiles and both sides get rid of a lot of nukes to end the risk of nuclear winter. And yep the Russians destroy their insane Perimeter system.
Two new phrases: Omnicide: destruction of the human race.
And SAD: Self Assured Destruction.
And a nice quote:
“Madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Polanyi’s six points: The analysis of Polanyi’s Great Transformation can be summarized in the six points listed below.
1: All societies face the economic task of producing and providing for all members of society. Modern market societies are unique in assigning this responsibility to the marketplace, thereby creating entitlements to production for those with wealth, and depriving the poor of entitlement to food. All traditional societies have used non-market mechanisms based on cooperation and social responsibility to provide for members who cannot take care of their own needs. It is only in a market society that education, health, housing, and social welfare services are only available to those who can pay for it.
2: Market mechanisms for providing goods to members conflict with other social mechanisms and are harmful to society. They emerged to central prominence in Europe after a protracted battle, which was won by markets over society due to certain historical circumstances peculiar to Europe. The rise of markets caused tremendous damage to society, which continues to this day. The replacement of key mechanisms which govern social relations, with those compatible with market mechanisms, was traumatic to human values. Land, labour and money are crucial to the efficient functioning of a market economy. Market societies convert these into commodities causing tremendous damage. This involves (A) changing a nurturing and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth into a commercial one of exploiting nature, (B) Changing relationships based on trust, intimacy and lifetime commitments into short term impersonal commercial transactions, and (C) Turning human lives into saleable commodities in order to create a labor market.
3: Unregulated markets are so deadly to human society and environment that creation of markets automatically sets into play movements to protect society and envirnoment from the harm that they cause. Paradoxically, it is this counter-movement, this opposition to markets, that allows markets to survive. If this was not present, markets would destroy the society and the planet. For example, the Great Depression caused the collapse of many free market institutions, and the government stepped in to prop them up and substitute for them. Similarly, only massive government intervention save the world from a major economic crisis following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007. This protective, anti-market, move allowed capitalism to survive. This is called the “Double Movement” by Polanyi, who says that the history of capitalism cannot be understand without looking at both sides — the forces trying to liberate markets from all regulations, and the forces fighting to protect society from the harmful effects of unregulated markets.
4: Certain ideologies, which relate to land, labour and money, and the profit motive are required for efficient functioning of markets. In particular, both poverty, and a certain amount of callousness and indifference to poverty are required for efficient functioning of markets. Capitalist economics require sales, purchase, and exploitation of labor, which cannot be done with creating poverty, and using it to motivate workers. The sanctification of property rights is another essential feature of markets. Thus, the existence of a market economy necessitates the emergence of certain ideologies and mindsets which are harmful to, and in contradiction with, natural human tendencies.
5: Markets have been fragile and crisis-prone and have lurched from disaster to disaster, as amply illustrated by GFC 2007. Polanyi prognosticated in 1944 that the last and biggest of these crises in his time, the Second World War, had finally killed the market system and a new method for organising economic affairs would emerge in its wake. In fact, the Keynesian ideas eliminated the worst excesses of market-based economies and dominated the scene for about 30 years following that war. However, the market system rose from the ashes and came to dominate the globe in an astonishing display of power. This story has been most effectively presented by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.
6: Market economies require imposition by violence — either natural or created. As noted by the earliest strategists, deception is a crucial element of warfare. One of the essential ingredients in the rise of markets has been a constant battle to misrepresent facts, so that stark failures of markets have been painted as remarkable successes. There are a number of strategies commonly used to portray an economic disaster as progress and development. Without this propaganda, markets could not survive, as the forces of resistance to markets would be too strong. For example, a fundamental message of modern economics textbooks is that capitalism has created tremendous wealth and unprecedented progress. In fact, notwithstanding capitalist propaganda to the contrary, this growth has been extremely costly. We have sold planet Earth and the future of our children, and are celebrating the proceeds without taking into reckoning the costs. Accounting for the costs of destruction of environment, animal species, and human society, shows that that costs of growth have been far higher than the benefits. See “Evaluating the Costs of Growth” (September 21, 2014). Real World Economics Review, issue 67, 9 May 2014, page 41-51.. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2499115
Worth the long read: the argument between optimists and pessimists re our current situation: from today’s UK Guardian:
The headlines have never been worse. But an increasingly influential group of thinkers insists that humankind has never had it so good – and only our pessimism is holding us
By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that made sense was one of profound pessimism – tempered, perhaps, by cynical humour, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride. Naturally, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump loomed largest for many. But you didn’t need to be a remainer or a critic of Trump’s to feel depressed by the carnage in Syria; by the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean; by North Korean missile tests, the spread of the zika virus, or terror attacks in Nice, Belgium, Florida, Pakistan and elsewhere – nor by the spectre of catastrophic climate change, lurking behind everything else. (And all that’s before even considering the string of deaths of beloved celebrities that seemed like a calculated attempt, on 2016’s part, to rub salt in the wound: in the space of a few months, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and George Michael, to name only a handful, were all gone.) And few of the headlines so far in 2017 – Grenfell tower, the Manchester and London attacks, Brexit chaos, and 24/7 Trump – provide any reason to take a sunnier view.
Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloom. In December, in an article headlined “Never forget that we live in the best of times”, the Times columnist Philip Collins provided an end-of-year summary of reasons to be cheerful: during 2016, he noted, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty had fallen below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuels had failed to rise for the third year running; the death penalty had been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries – and giant pandas had been removed from the endangered species list.
In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared that by many measures, “2016 was the best year in the history of humanity”, with falling global inequality, child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day. Throughout 2016 and into 2017, alongside Collins at the Times, the author and former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley – the title of whose book The Rational Optimist makes his inclinations plain – kept up his weekly output of ebullient columns celebrating the promise of artificial intelligence, free trade and fracking. By the time the professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill delivered his own version of the argument, in the Spectator (“Nothing better sums up the aloofness of the chattering class … than their blathering about 2016 being the worst year ever”) the viewpoint was becoming sufficiently well-entrenched that O’Neill seemed in danger of forfeiting his contrarianism.
The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled “the New Optimists”, a name intended to evoke the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our prevailing mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things really are – illustrating a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And that it is best explained as the result of various psychological biases that served a purpose on the prehistoric savannah – but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.
“Once upon a time, it was of great survival value to be worried about everything that could go wrong,” says Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian and self-declared New Optimist whose book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future was published just before Trump won the presidency last year. This is what makes bad news especially compelling: in our evolutionary past, it was a very good thing that your attention could be easily seized by negative information, since it might well indicate an imminent risk to your own survival. (The cave-dweller who always assumed there was a lion behind the next rock would usually be wrong – but he’d be much more likely to survive and reproduce than one who always assumed the opposite.) But that was all before newspapers, television and the internet: in these hyper-connected times, our addiction to bad news just leads us to vacuum up depressing or enraging stories from across the globe, whether they threaten us or not, and therefore to conclude that things are much worse than they are.
Really good news, on the other hand, can be a lot harder to spot – partly because it tends to occur gradually. Max Roser, an Oxford economist who spreads the New Optimist gospel via his Twitter feed, pointed out recently that a newspaper could legitimately have run the headline “NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY” every day for the last 25 years. But none would have done so, because predictable daily events, by definition, aren’t newsworthy. And you’ll rarely see a headline about a bad event that failed to occur. But surely any judicious assessment of our situation ought to take into account all the wars, pandemics and natural disasters that might hypothetically have happened but didn’t?
“I used to be a pessimist myself,” says Norberg, an urbane 43-year-old raised in Stockholm who is now a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington DC. “I used to long for the good old days. But then I started reading history, and asking myself, well, where would I have been in those good old days, in my ancestors’ northern Sweden? I probably wouldn’t have been anywhere. Life expectancy was too short. They mixed tree bark in the bread, to make it last longer!”
In his book, Norberg canters through 10 of the most important basic indicators of human flourishing – food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood. And he takes special pleasure in squelching the fantasies of anyone inclined to wish they had been born a couple of centuries back: it wasn’t so long ago, he observes, that dogs gnawed at the abandoned corpses of plague victims in the streets of European cities. As recently as 1882, only 2% of homes in New York had running water; in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was a paltry 31, thanks both to early adult death and rampant child mortality. Today, by contrast, it’s 71 – and those extra decades involve far less suffering, too. “If it takes you 20 minutes to read this chapter,” Norberg writes at one point, in his own variation on the New Optimists’ favourite refrain, “almost another 2,000 people will have risen out of [extreme] poverty” – currently defined as living on less than $1.90 per day.
These barrages of upbeat statistics seem intended to have the effect of demolishing the usual intractable political disagreements about the state of the planet. The New Optimists invite us to forget our partisan biases and tribal loyalties; to dispense with our cherished theories about what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it, and breathe, instead, the refreshing air of objective fact. The data doesn’t lie. Just look at the numbers!
But numbers, it turns out, can be as political as anything else.
The New Optimists are certainly right on the nostalgia front: nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century. In a 2015 survey for YouGov, 65% of British people (and 81% of the French) said they thought the world was getting worse – but judged according to numerous sensible metrics, they’re simply wrong. People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher. The average European or American enjoys luxuries medieval potentates literally couldn’t have imagined. The essential finding of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a key reference text for the New Optimists, seems also to have been largely accepted: that we are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds – from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying – in steep decline.
But the New Optimists aren’t primarily interested in persuading us that human life involves a lot less suffering than it did a few hundred years ago. (Even if you’re a card-carrying pessimist, you probably didn’t need convincing of that fact.) Nestled inside that essentially indisputable claim, there are several more controversial implications. For example: that since things have so clearly been improving, we have good reason to assume they will continue to improve. And further – though this is a claim only sometimes made explicit in the work of the New Optimists – that whatever we’ve been doing these past decades, it’s clearly working, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with. Optimism, after all, means more than just believing that things aren’t as bad as you imagined: it means having justified confidence that they will be getting even better soon. “Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis,” Ridley wrote after the financial crisis of 2007-8, “because of the way that markets in goods, services and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialise honestly for the betterment of all … I am a rational optimist: rational, because I have arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence.”
If all this were really true, it would suggest that an overwhelming proportion of the energy we dedicate to debating the state of humanity – all the political outrage, the warnings of imminent disaster, the exasperated op-ed columns, all our anxiety and guilt about the misery afflicting people all over the world – is wasted. Or, worse, it might be counterproductive, insofar as a belief that things are irredeemably awful seems like a bad way to motivate people to make things better, and thus in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Here are the facts,” wrote the American economist Julian Simon, whose vocal opposition to the gloomy predictions of environmentalists and population experts in the 1970s and 1980s set the stage for today’s New Optimists. “On average, people throughout the world have been living longer and eating better than ever before. Fewer people die of famine nowadays than in earlier centuries … every single measure of material and environmental welfare in the United States has improved rather than deteriorated. This is also true of the world taken as a whole. All the long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.”
Those are the facts. So why aren’t we all New Optimists now?
Optimists have been telling doom-mongersto cheer up since at least 1710, when the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz concluded that ours must be the best of all possible worlds, on the grounds that God, being perfect and merciful, would hardly have created one of the more mediocre ones instead. But the most recent outbreak of positivity may be best understood as a reaction to the pessimism triggered by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. For one thing, those attacks were a textbook example of the kind of high-visibility bad news that activates our cognitive biases, convincing us that the world is becoming lethally dangerous when really it isn’t: in reality, a slightly higher number of Americans were killed while riding motorcycles in 2001 than died in the World Trade Center and on the hijacked planes.
But the New Optimism is also a rejoinder to the kind of introspection that gained pace in the west after 9/11, and subsequently the Iraq war – the feeling that, whether or not the new global insecurity was all our fault, it certainly demanded self-criticism and reflection, rather than simply a more strident assertion of the merits of our worldview. (“The whole world hates us, and we deserve it,” is how the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner derisively characterises this attitude.) On the contrary, the optimists insist, the data demonstrates that the global dominance of western power and ideas over the last two centuries has seen a transformative improvement in almost everyone’s quality of life. Matt Ridley likes to quote a predecessor of the contemporary optimists, the Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay: “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
The despondent self-criticism that frustrates the New Optimists is fuelled in part – at least the way they see it – by a kind of optical illusion in the way we think about progress. As Steven Pinker observes, whenever you’re busy judging governments or economic systems for falling short of standards of decency, it’s all too easy to lose sight of how those standards themselves have altered over time. We are scandalised by reports of prisoners being tortured by the CIA – but only thanks to the historically recent emergence of a general consensus that torture is beyond the pale. (In medieval England, it was a relatively unremarkable feature of the criminal justice system.) We can be appalled by the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean only because we start from the position that unknown strangers from distant lands are worthy of moral consideration – a notion that would probably have struck most of us as absurd had we been born in 1700. Yet the stronger this kind of consensus grows, the more unconscionable each violation of it will seem. And so, ironically enough, the outrage you feel when you read the headlines is actually evidence that this is a magnificent time to be alive. (A recent addition to the New Optimist bookshelf, The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer, binds this argument directly to the optimists’ faith in science: it is scientific progress, he argues, that is destined to make us ever more ethical.)
The nagging suspicion that this argument is somehow based on a sleight of hand – it would seem to permit any outrage to be reinterpreted as evidence of our betterment – may lead you to another objection: even if it’s true that everything really is so much better than ever, why assume things will continue to improve? Improvements in sanitation and life expectancy can’t prevent rising sea levels destroying your country. And it’s dangerous, more generally, to predict future results by past performance: view things on a sufficiently long timescale, and it becomes impossible to tell whether the progress the New Optimists celebrate is evidence of history’s steady upward trajectory, or just a blip.
Almost every advance Norberg champions in his book Progress, for example, took place in the last 200 years – a fact that the optimists take as evidence of the unstoppable potency of modern civilisation, but which might just as easily be taken as evidence of how rare such periods of progress are. Humans have been around for 200,000 years; extrapolating from a 200-year stretch seems unwise. We risk making the mistake of the 19th-century British historian Henry Buckle, who confidently declared, in his book History of Civilization in England, that war would soon be a thing of the past. “That this barbarous pursuit is, in the progress of society, steadily declining, must be evident, even to the most hasty reader of European history,” he wrote. It was 1857; Buckle seemed confident that the recently concluded Crimean war would be one of the last.
But the real concern here is not that the steady progress of the last two centuries will gradually swing into reverse, plunging us back to the conditions of the past; it’s that the world we have created – the very engine of all that progress – is so complex, volatile and unpredictable that catastrophe might befall us at any moment. Steven Pinker may be absolutely correct that fewer and fewer people are resorting to violence to settle their disagreements, but (as he would concede) it only takes a single angry narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes to spark a global disaster. Digital technology has unquestionably helped fuel a worldwide surge in economic growth, but if cyberterrorists use it to bring down the planet’s financial infrastructure next month, that growth might rather swiftly become moot.
“The point is that if something does go seriously wrong in our societies, it’s really hard to see where it stops,” says David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, who takes a less sanguine view of the future, and who has debated New Optimists such as Ridley and Norberg. “The thought that, say, the next financial crisis, in a world as interconnected and algorithmically driven as our world, could simply spiral out of control – that is not an irrational thought. Which makes it quite hard to be blithely optimistic.” When you live in a world where everything seems to be getting better, yet it could all collapse tomorrow, “it’s perfectly rational to be freaked out.”
Runciman raises a related and equally troubling thought about modern politics, in his book The Confidence Trap. Democracy seems to be doing well: the New Optimists note that there are now about 120 democracies among the world’s 193 countries, up from just 40 in 1972. But what if it’s the very strength of democracy – and our complacency about its capacity to withstand almost anything – that augurs its eventual collapse? Could it be that our real problem is not an excess of pessimism, as the New Optimists maintain, but a dangerous degree of overconfidence?
According to this argument, the people who voted for Trump and Brexit didn’t really do so because they had concluded their system was broken, and needed to be replaced. On the contrary: they voted as they did precisely because they had grown too confident that the essential security provided by government would always be there for them, whatever incendiary choice they made at the ballot-box. People voted for Trump “because they didn’t believe him”, Runciman has written. They “wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump”. The problem with this pattern – delivering electoral shocks because you’re confident the system can withstand them – is that there’s no reason to assume it can continue indefinitely: at some point, the damage may not be repairable. The New Optimists “describe a world in which human agency doesn’t seem to matter, because there are these evolved forces that are moving us in the right direction,” Runciman says. “But human agency does still matter … human beings still have the capacity to mess it all up. And it may be that our capacity to mess it up is growing.”
The optimists aren’t unaware of such risks – but it is a reliable feature of the optimistic mindset that one can usually find an upbeat interpretation of the same seemingly scary facts. “You’re asking, ‘Am I the man who falls out of a skyscraper, and as he passes the second storey, says, ‘So far, so good?’” Matt Ridley says. “And the answer is, well, actually, in the past, people have foreseen catastrophe just around the corner and been wrong about it so often that this a relevant fact to take into account.” History does seem to bear Ridley out. Then again, of course it does: if a civilisation-ending catastrophe had in fact occurred, you presumably wouldn’t be reading this now. People who predict imminent catastrophes are usually wrong. On the other hand, they need only be right once.
If there is a single momentthat signalled the birth of the New Optimism, it was – fittingly, somehow – a TED talk, delivered in 2006 by the Swedish statistician and self-styled “edutainer” Hans Rosling, who died earlier this year. Entitled “The best stats you’ve ever seen”, Rosling’s talk summarised the results of an ingenious study he had conducted among Swedish university students. Presenting them with pairs of countries – Russia and Malaysia, Turkey and Sri Lanka, and so on – he asked them to guess which scored better on various measures of health, such as child mortality rates. The students reliably got it wrong, basing their answers on the assumption that countries closer to their own, both geographically and ethnically, must be better off.
But in fact Rosling had picked the pairs to prove a point: Russia had twice Malaysia’s child mortality, and Turkey twice that of Sri Lanka. Part of the defeatist mindset of the modern west, the way Rosling saw it, was the deeply ingrained assumption that we are living through times that are as good as they’re ever going to be – and that the future we are bequeathing, to future generations and especially to the world beyond Europe and north America, can only be a disheartening one. Rosling enjoyed observing that if you had run this experiment on chimpanzees by labelling a banana with the name of each country and inviting them to pick one, they would have performed better than the students, since they would be right half the time, thanks to chance. Well-educated European humans, by contrast, get things far wronger than chance. We are not merely ignorant of the facts; we are actively convinced of depressing “facts” that aren’t true.
It’s exhilarating to watch “The best stats you’ve ever seen” today – partly because of Rosling’s nerdy, high-energy stage performance, but also because it seems to shine the bracing light of objective fact on questions usually mired in angry partisanship. Far more than when he delivered the talk, we live now in the Age of the Take, in which a seemingly infinite supply of blog posts, opinion columns, books and TV talking heads compete to tell us how to feel about the news. Most of this opinionising focuses less on stacking up hard facts in favour of an argument than it does on declaring what attitude you ought to adopt: the typical take invites you to conclude, say, that Donald Trump is a fascist, or that he isn’t, or that BBC presenters are overpaid, or that your yoga practice is an instance of cultural appropriation. (This shouldn’t really come as a surprise: the internet economy is fuelled by attention, and it’s far easier to seize someone’s attention with emotionally charged argument than mere information – plus you don’t have to pay for the expensive reporting required to ferret out the facts.) The New Optimists promise something different: a way to feel about the state of the world based on the way it really is.
But after steeping yourself in their work, you begin to wonder if all their upbeat factoids really do speak for themselves. For a start, why assume that the correct comparison to be making is the one between the world as it was, say, 200 years ago, and the world as it is today? You might argue that comparing the present with the past is stacking the deck. Of course things are better than they were. But they’re surely nowhere near as good as they ought to be. To pick some obvious examples, humanity indisputably has the capacity to eliminate extreme poverty, end famines, or radically reduce human damage to the climate. But we’ve done none of these, and the fact that things aren’t as terrible as they were in 1800 is arguably beside the point.
Ironically, given their reliance on cognitive biases to explain our predilection for negativity, the New Optimists may be in the grip of one themselves: the “anchoring bias”, which describes our tendency to rely too heavily on certain pieces of information when making judgments. If you start from the fact that plague victims once languished in the streets of European cities, it’s natural to conclude that life these days is wonderful. But if you start from the position that we could have eliminated famines, or reversed global warming, the fact that such problems persist may provoke a different kind of judgment.
The argument that we should be feeling happier than we are because life on the planet as a whole is getting better, on average, also misunderstands a fundamental truth about how happiness works: our judgments of the world result from making specific comparisons that feel relevant to us, not on adopting what David Runciman refers to as “the view from outer space”. If people in your small American town are far less economically secure than they were in living memory, or if you’re a young British person facing the prospect that you might never own a home, it’s not particularly consoling to be told that more and more Chinese people are entering the middle classes. At book readings in the US midwest, Ridley recalls, audience members frequently questioned his optimism on the grounds that their own lives didn’t seem to be on an upward trajectory. “They’d say, ‘You keep saying the world’s getting better, but it doesn’t feel like that round here.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but this isn’t the whole world! Are you not even a little bit cheered by the fact that really poor Africans are getting a bit less poor?’” There is a sense in which this is a fair point. But there’s another sense in which it’s a completely irrelevant one.
At its heart, the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they intend their sunny picture of humanity’s recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics. This is a perfectly legitimate political argument to make – but it’s still a political argument, not a straightforward, neutral reliance on objective facts. The claim that we are living in a golden age, and that our dominant mood of pessimism is unwarranted, is not an antidote to the Age of the Take, but a Take like any other – and it makes just as much sense to adopt the opposite view. “What I dislike,” Runciman says, “is this assumption that if you push back against their argument, what you’re saying is that all these things are not worth valuing … For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable, given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the [unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.”
Johan Norberg, who launched his book Progress two months before the US presidential election, watched the results come in on a foggy morning in Stockholm, at a party organised by the American embassy. As Trump’s victory became a certainty, the atmosphere turned from one of rumbling alarm to horrified disbelief. “We were all Swedes in the media, politics, business and so on – I think it would have been hard to find a single person there who had hoped for a Trump win – so pretty soon the mood was going downhill dramatically,” Norberg recalled. “And what’s more, they didn’t have any alcohol, which didn’t help, because everyone was saying: ‘We need something strong here!’ But they had it more set up like a breakfast thing.” He smiled. “I think Americans don’t really understand Swedes.”
The populist surges of the last two years in the US and Britain – powering the rise of Trump, the Brexit vote, and the unpredicted levels of support for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn – pose a complicated problem for the New Optimists. On the one hand, it’s easy enough to characterise such anger directed toward political establishments as a mistake, based on a failure to perceive how well things are going; or as a legitimate reaction to real, but localised and temporary bumps in the road, which needn’t constitute any larger argument for pessimism. On the other hand, it is a curious view of the world that sees such political waves solely as responses, mistaken or otherwise, to the real situation. They are part of that real situation. Even if you think that Trump supporters, say, were wholly in error to perceive their situation negatively, the perception itself was real enough – and they really did elect Trump, with all his potential for destabilisation. (The New Optimists, says David Runciman, think of politics as nothing more than an annoyance, because in their view “the things that drive progress are not political. But the things that drive failure are political.”) There is a point at which it stops being so relevant whether widespread pessimism and anxiety can be justified or not, and becomes more relevant simply that it is widespread.
Norberg is no Trump supporter, and the election result might have seemed like a setback to an author promoting a book painting humanity’s immediate future as entirely rosy. In it, he does warn that progress isn’t inevitable: “There is a real risk of a nativist backlash,” he writes. “When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.” But it is in the nature of the New Optimism that negative developments can be alchemised into reasons to be cheerful, and by the time we spoke, Norberg had an upbeat spin on the election, too.
“I think it might be that in a couple of years’ time, we’ll think it was a great thing that Trump won,” he says. “Because if he’d lost, and Hillary had won, she’d have been the most hated president of modern times, and then Trump and Bannon would have used that to build an alt-right media empire, create an avalanche of hatred, and then there might have been a more disciplined candidate the next time round – a real fascist, rather than someone impersonating … Trump may prove to have been the incompetent, self-absorbed person who ruins the populist brand in the United States.” This sort of counterfactual argument suffers from not being falsifiable, and in any case, it’s a long way from a position of straightforward positivity about the direction in which the world is moving. But perhaps it is the one genuinely indisputable truth on which the New Optimists and the more pessimistically minded can agree: that whatever happens, things could always, in principle, have been worse.
It’s not really related to how I use Bayes Theorem, but then maybe I am unorthodox or maybe I simply don’t understand it and made up my own version of it which is quite likely. I do that.
I tend to focus on the Bayesian idea of how much we should change our mind on rough order probabilities in the light of new information, rather than obsessing on how precise the probabilities are before and after new information. My priors are rough and ready approximations. And for me a good Bayesian approach is one where we are open to new information and adjust our views appropriately, rather than obsesses about roulette wheel like prior and post probabilities. Knightian Uncertainty insights can still be used to assign rough probabilities that then adjust in the light of the new data. Or indeed we can say we don’t know. But sometimes we have to act and saying “we are from Barcelona and know nothing” is not possible. In a battle you have to shoot or not shoot sometimes…
Philip Tetlock’s work on Expert Political Judgement suggests we are not good at forecasting, experts especially; mainly because most of us only use one lens (are Hedgehogs rather than Foxes who know many things in Isaiah Berlin’s terms) and because we don’t admit error and therefore cannot learn from it. Nor I would add do we adjust our forecasts in the light of new data very appropriately. We are over-committed to our prior forecasts.
So to me a healthy use of Bayesian Theorem in economics would be around say Brexit, a very Knightian situation in its lumpy political and economic aspects. At the time of the Referendum I think I assigned about a 35% probability to a Wrecking Ball Scenario aka Hard Brexit with no plan. (I had three other possible scenarios as per Peter Schwartz scenario based futuring). As time has passed I have raised that to about 50% in the light of government incompetence and absence of any apparent plan…if they suddenly next week came out with a brilliant and credible plan my % probability of disaster would plummet..Bayesian Adjustment…
Now I am not using these %s in precise terms like odds on the roulette wheel, that if we ran Hard Brexit a 100 times in parallel universes, 50 would turn out disastrous (and yes I define disastrous as say 10% below trend line growth in GDP by 2029 say) but following Tetlock’s idea that we should test our forecasting by assigning rough probabilities so that over many forecasts of many different things, we can refine our judgment using fine grained %s of our confidence level in our forecasts, rather than binary: Brexit = success vs Brexit = disaster…Such a pity my current Brexit example is 50/50 so ok may it 55/45 or whatever. 🙂
Finally I like to use what I call Reverse Bayesian-ism: “What information would make you change your mind?” (rather than how much should you change your mind in the light of new information.) This is a good test of what I call Positional Fundamentalists: people whose views/forecasts are so rigid that no information, even in theory if it existed, would make them change their mind. The supporters of a certain US President often fail this test when I apply it. Brexiteers often come close…
Anyway, as a loose Bayesian, I am open to changing my mind in the light of any argument or evidence that you may offer to show I am full of it. I am often mistaken…how about you? 🙂
Canadian Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson is all the rage I hear, being told this by a friend who is more in tune with Net Celebrities. And there was some famous interview on Channel 4 that as I don’t have a TV eluded me though I have watched it and thought he did well against a useless interviewer. Here is the UK Financial Times review of his latest book 12 Rules. And yep UK FT is hardly Post Modernist Maoist Grand Central.
Oh and spare us the death threats. Apparently, when you criticize him, his followers send death threats to you for your temerity in questioning the guru, or at least some of them do. We just post what is interesting to provoke discussion, and have big dogs and lots of defenses… 🙂 And three of my friends here are ex-Special Forces, ageing but still capable…
“12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson — back to basics: A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition
In the Balkanised age of the internet, bands that most people have never heard of can fill arenas, and TV series on platforms most people don’t use can have audiences of millions. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, shows that intellectuals can play that game too. His YouTube lectures — with titles such as “Identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege” — have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
His new book, 12 Rules for Life, began as an answer to a question on the online forum Quora: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” His response, we are told in the typically self-aggrandising “Overture” to the book, touched a nerve with readers, who “upvoted” it 2,300 times and gushed “You win Quora. We can just close the site now.”
It’s not difficult to see why Peterson’s rules sold in the online marketplace, where attention spans are short and repackaged clichés pass for original insights. In headline form, most of his rules are simply timeless good sense. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”; “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” The problem is that when Peterson fleshes them out, they carry more flab than meat.
Peterson’s big, unifying idea is that chaos and order, along with the processes that mediate the two, are the “primal constituents” of “the world of experience”. He sees almost everything through this lens, not heeding his own advice to “Beware of single cause interpretations — and beware the people who purvey them.”
Although he advocates a balance between the two, most of the time he argues that we need more order. In practice, this means a conservative return to tradition and what is “natural”. Dominance hierarchies, for example, are said to be “older than trees”, a “near-eternal aspect of the environment”. But since when has “natural” meant “good”, or “is” meant “ought”? If we cannot move beyond dominance hierarchies, then his apparently empowering advice to stand tall has the chilling corollary that others will have to stoop.
It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is ‘Be precise in your speech’
He certainly is not shy of advocating aggression, saying it “underlies the drive to be outstanding”. Those who disagree that kids sometimes need more than “a swat across the backside” are “not thinking such things through . . . not acting responsibly as a parent”. He even says it would have done a two-year-old good to have been thrown “30 feet down the field” for some minor playground bullying of his own child. That doesn’t stop him from later arguing that the school in The Simpsons benefits from the presence of Nelson Muntz, the “King of the Bullies”, without whom it would be overrun by the resentful, the touchy, the narcissistic, the intellectual, the soft and the infantile.
Peterson, who has become one of the most prominent critics of anything that can be labelled as “political correctness”, is especially conservative on gender and family roles. “Female lobsters . . . identify the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him,” he writes. Generalising from the crustacean to the human he adds, “This is brilliant strategy, in my estimation.”
On planet Peterson, the social revolutions of the 20th century have not lifted us above atavistic power games and brought about female emancipation but have led to universal degeneracy and the enfeeblement of men. Where “the traditional household division of labour has been demolished”, the result is “chaos, conflict and indeterminacy”.
Peterson has a knack for penning sentences that sound like deep wisdom at first glance but vanish into puffs of pseudo-profundity if you give them more than a second’s thought. Consider these: “Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking at, or having”; “In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.” It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is “Be precise in your speech”.
This is not the only time Peterson breaks his own rules. He sounds charming when advocating the principle of charity: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” In practice, he often dismisses people with opposing views with barely concealed contempt. This is particularly noticeable when he talks about religion. Peterson, a Christian, doesn’t just say atheists are wrong, but that they are wrong to even think they are atheists. Those who think otherwise “don’t understand anything. You didn’t even know that you were blind.”
Peterson represents the backlash against his own boomer generation. His book’s subtitle, “An antidote to chaos”, expresses the yearning for a more ordered, simpler world. The antidote, however, is an ethics of conformity, most clearly expressed in his assertion that “It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable”.
Peterson peddles a kind of academic populism in which the philosophies of Heidegger and Kierkegaard are drafted in to support the will of the people and the wisdom of tradition. No one trying to understand how to live should read this book. Anyone interested in the growing assault on liberal values, however, should study it with fear and trembling.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan Peterson, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Random House, RRP$25.95, 448 pages