Fighting the Bureaucracy

Modern civilization is plagued by many evils, but the most common, in everyday life, is paperwork. By “paperwork” I mean basically all bureaucratic overhead, all of the accounting, regulation and compliance enacted in the past century.

Paperwork is the devil.

David Graeber gets it: 

… as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. …

Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. …

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

I call these people “lizards” because they do not seem to have human souls.

Some amount of paperwork, of course, is necessary to keep track of things in a modern, industrial economy in which food for 320 million people has to get from farms to tables every single day. The expansion of paperwork beyond its necessary domain is essentially the auto-cannibalization of society, a metastatic cancer of bureaucrats and paper-pushers.

If we want to fight bureaucracy, we have to know what feeds bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy grows because people don’t trust each other to do the right thing. It grows because people over-graze the commons, because they dump toxic waste into rivers, because they build cheap apartments that turn into flaming death traps, because they take bribes and cover up incompetence, because they discriminate against minorities or hand out sinecures to their friends.

The demands for paperwork are generally demands that you prove that you have or can do the right thing–that you will not pollute, that you have car insurance, that your products are not dangerous or defective, that your medicines aren’t poisons and your experiments don’t involve giving people syphilis.

The more people do not trust each other to do the right thing, the more layers of bureaucracy they institute. If I am afraid that police officers are taking bribes, then I propose more oversight and agencies to ensure that they do not take bribes. If I am concerned that mining companies are paying off the EPA to let them dump toxic metals in the groundwater, then my response is to demand another agency come and clean out the EPA and enforce tougher restrictions on dumping. If I don’t trust you, then I hire someone to watch you.

The problem with this approach is that adding more untrustworthy people to a system doesn’t start making them trustworthy. If I can bribe one person, then I can bribe the person who is supposed to make sure that no one gets bribed. In the end, we just end up with more people to bribe.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, people are “ethical” and the whole thing grinds to a halt. To get your new building built you first need authorization from the wetlands licensing committee, and the lady from the licensing committee wants thirteen forms in triplicate proving that your building won’t impact the mating habits of a rare toad that you are pretty sure doesn’t even live in your state. To get your study on the efficacy of a survey your clinic already hands out to patients approved by the ethics board of your local institution you first have to prove that you will not be collecting personal data from at-risk patients, but you can’t know if they are “at risk” until after you collect their data. Or maybe the guy who is supposed to send you the form you have to fill out simply isn’t returning your phone calls and you can’t figure out from the website where his office is located.

The more you try to fight bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy wins, and the bureaucracy does not care if you starve to death, you Kulak.

To the bureaucracy, you are always a Kulak.

There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse. This happened to the Soviet Union. It takes a long time, it’s not fun, and you can starve to death in the meanwhile. The replacement system may not be much better.

The other is to increase trust so that people don’t advocate for more bureaucracy in the first place. True, this doesn’t get rid of what you’ve got, but at least it contains the spread.

Trust is hard to get, though. You could do a thousand year breeding experiment. You could try to brainwash children. Or you could look at how the incentives are set up in your society and try to align them with the outcomes you want to achieve. (We can try, at least.)

Aligning incentives requires doing something hard: admitting that humans are human. Communism keeps failing because of “wreckers,” aka ordinary humans. Humans will lie, cheat, and steal if it benefits themselves; this is why we have police. Humans will also fall in love, have sex, and make children. We will then cheat and steal to feed our children, if need be, because we love them.

Accept human nature and align incentives accordingly. (Easier said than done, of course.)

Here is an entertaining example:

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll quote the rest:

The mafia backed company actually had good, fresh food! Most of the mobsters’ kids went to those schools (several I went to school with saw their dads go down). The sandwiches were real hoagies on good bread, there was fresh fruit, juice, etc. All local.

Then, overnight, all their food was gone, and their vending machines too. And they were replaced by the corporate equivalent. And we were excited too! National brands, etc! Now the good stuff! Nope.

The corporate food was shite. No more local, fresh ingredients. The portions were smaller. All the food was overly processed and overpriced. It was just nasty. I remember my dad and others laughing bitterly about it.

At the time, I was struck by how these unintended consequences were the most visceral ones. Later in life, I came to realize that this was the norm: that the unintended consequences of any major political change are often the ones with the greatest impact.

But it was also my first inkling that the real world differences between the literal mafia, and the even greater power of modern corporations, were not as black and white, or clear cut, as those who benefitted from the latter would have any of us believe. Fin/

I knew and dreaded Aramark as a kid. When people, whether kids or prisoners, don’t have a choice about the food they eat, the quality tends to suffer. By contrast, when you are feeding your own children (or the children of mobsters), cooking quality tends to be decent.

The same dynamic as at work in children’s electronics. Electronics that are marketed solely to kids, like the LeapFrog system, tend to be bad (often very bad) because the buyer (parents) tends not to be the users (kids), and kids often don’t have enough experience with electronics to realize they’re being ripped off. (Every augmented reality devices I have bought has been similarly bad to awful.) The only good kids’ electronics systems I have encountered also have significant adult fanbases, like Nintendo.

Capitalism, of course, is the classic case of aligned incentives. Invisible hand and all that. It’s not perfect (corporations will eat you for breakfast if they can get away with it,) but it’s pretty good. People are more likely to protect the commons when they have an expectation of future gain from the commons.

Reputation also helps align incentives. People care about what others think of them. The internet has both expanded our ability to interact with total strangers who have no reputations and to create reputations, with interesting effects. Sites like Amazon and Yelp allow small, previously unknown sellers to build up their reputations, making people more confident about what they’re buying.

By contrast, the recent kerflufle over Youtube, trying to make it more kid-friendly via increased regulation, has done nothing of the sort. None of the things parents want to protect kids from have actually been addressed because bureaucracy just doesn’t work that way, but if you don’t like Youtube, you already have the very easy option of using literally any other content service.

Incentives matter.

The Fullness of America

This turned out to be a popular thread, so I thought I’d  share it over here.

This is a good example of a common misconception: that physical space per person matters.

Things that actually matter:
1. Water per person
2. Farmland per person
3. Cost of housing near city centers
4. Commuting time to city centers

Thing is, while we still eat food, our economy has been, since the late 1800s, something we describe as “industrial” (and now “post-industrial”). This means that the vast majority of people have to live in cities instead of farms, because industries are in cities.

Don’t get your political information from anyone who doesn’t know we live in an industrial (post-industrial) economy, folks.

One of the side effects of living in an industrial/post-industrial economy is that, by necessity, you end up with uneven population densities. We don’t plop cities down on farmland (not if you want to eat) and you don’t try to grow potatoes in city medians.

So a pure measure of “density” is meaningless.

In an agrarian economy, land is the most important resource. In an industrial/post-industrial economy, proximity to industry is itself a kind of resource. People have to actually be able to get to their jobs. This is why in places like Silicon Valley, where housing is artificially restricted, the price of housing skyrockets. You can probably find some super cheap (relatively speaking) land a mere hundred miles away from SF, but people can’t commute that far, so they bid up the prices on what housing there is.

Of course it would be great if people could just build more housing in CA, but that’s a separate issue–regardless, if people could just move to one of those less populated areas, they would.

(By the way, South Africa is also a modern, industrial economy, which is why the idea of taking people’s farms and redistributing them to the masses is absurd from an economic point of view. South Africa is not an agrarian society, and very few people there actually want to be farmers. The goal is not economic growth, but simply to hurt the farmers.)

Many of our other resources are similarly “invisible”–that is, difficult to quantify easily on a map. Where does your water come from? Rain? Rivers? Aquifer?

How much water can your community use before you run out?

Water feels infinite because it just pours out of the faucet, but it isn’t. Each area has so much water it can obtain easily, a little more that can be obtained with effort, and after that, you’re looking at very large energy expenditures for more.

wss-gw-depletion-us-map-trend
Source: Groundwater Decline and Depletion from US Gov

Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900–2008). A natural consequence of groundwater withdrawals is the removal of water from subsurface storage, but the overall rates and magnitude of groundwater depletion in the United States are not well characterized. This study evaluates long-term cumulative depletion volumes in 40 separate aquifers or areas and one land use category in the United States, bringing together information from the literature and from new analyses. Depletion is directly calculated using calibrated groundwater models, analytical approaches, or volumetric budget analyses for multiple aquifer systems. Estimated groundwater depletion in the United States during 1900–2008 totals approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers (km3). Furthermore, the rate of groundwater depletion has increased markedly since about 1950, with maximum rates occurring during the most recent period (2000–2008) when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 km3 per year (compared to 9.2 km3 per year averaged over the 1900–2008 timeframe).

We’re not just “full”; we’re eating our seed corn. When the aquifers run out, well, the farms are just fucked.

There are some ways to prevent total aquifer collapse, like planting crops that require less water. We’re not totally doomed. But the idea that we can keep our present lifestyles/consumption levels while continuously expanding the population is nonsense.

unnamed
The most effective way to stop global warming is to HAVE FEWER PEOPLE living 1st world lifestyles (source)

Eventually something has to give. Someone has to scale back their consumption. Maybe it’s no more almonds. Maybe it’s less meat. Maybe it’s longer commutes or smaller houses.

No matter how you slice it, resources aren’t infinite and you can’t feed cities on deserts.

One more thought:

This is all technical, addressing the question of “How do we measure whether we are really full or not?”

No one has addressed the question of whether being “full” or not is even important.

You could look at my house and say, “Hey, your house isn’t full! There’s plenty of room for two more people in your living room,” and I can say “Excuse me? Who are you and why are you looking in my windows?”

This is my house, and it’s not my responsibility to justify to some stranger why I want X number of people living here and not Y number of people.

If I want to live alone, that’s my business. I am not obligated to take a roommate. If I want my sister and her husband and five kids to move in here with my husband and kids and their dogs, too, that’s also my business (well, and theirs.)

It is not a stranger’s.

Just because we can cram a lot of people into Nevada does not mean anyone is obligated to do so.

A Bit of Dissent on rational actors and organizations

Anthropologists and economists often try to figure out why large-scale systems (tribes, corporations, societies, etc.) operate the way they do. Why does this tribe have polygamy and that tribe polyandry? Why do these people tattoo themselves all over and those people abhor tattoos? What is “business casual” and why do I have to wear it? Why are we at war with Eastasia?

The general presumption is that even when societies do things look irrational, they have some hidden logic that actually makes them good or adaptive–we just have to figure out what it is.

Here’s an example:

Here are researchers asking if people get complicated all-over body tattoos because it’s an “honest signal” of enhanced immune response? (IMO, this is a silly idea, but rather than go off on a tangent I’ll save the longer discussion for the end of the post.)

By contrast, we fully admit that individual behavior is often wrong, irrational, stupid, or outright crazy. Individuals make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

So when people do things that don’t make much sense, we are quick to write them off:  people are dumb. They do dumb shit.

I would like to offer a dissenting view. I think people are, most of the time, reasonably intelligent and competent. They make mistakes, but if you look at how we have evolved and learned to think and react to the world, most of our mistakes make a kind of sense–they’re often just misplaced heuristics.

By contrast, the collective behavior of groups and organizations is often irrational and stupid, and the only thing that keeps them going is either humans inside doing their best despite their organizations, or society having been constructed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get people to stop doing stupid things.

Let’s take war. Most people say they are opposed to war, or they don’t like war, or they prefer peace. Many people say that world peace is an admirable goal. Most people who’ve thought at all about WWI say it was a dumb and pointless war. Many wars look dumb and pointless.

Ask people whose countries are actually involved in a war, and many of them, perhaps most, will assert that they want peace (it’s just those bastards on the other side who are making it difficult).

If everyone wants peace, why do we have wars?

Because “it’s complicated.”

Systems are complicated and it can be very hard for people, even well-meaning ones who mostly agree on what ought to be done, to reign them in and pull an entire society away from the brink. It is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a machine gun that walking toward one is a bad idea, yet the commanders in WWI kept ordering wave after wave of men to charge the guns; tens of thousands of men were mowed down every day during the Battle of the Somme. This went on for months. Over a million people died, and in the end the Allies gained a whole 6 miles of territory. The battle didn’t stop because the commanders wised up to the stupidity of charging at machine guns, but because the weather was too cold to continue.

It sickens me just thinking about it.

And then everyone decided that WWI was such a riot, they should hold a sequel!

In sum, humans are usually competent enough to run their own lives and only occasionally need interventions by their friends and families. After all, most of us are descended from people who were competent enough to make it to adulthood and find a partner willing to reproduce with them, so at least we have that going for us, genetically.

By contrast, organizations go awry all the time. Anyone who has been to the DMV (or worse, the VA) probably has stories to tell. Societies do lots of good things, like get food from farms to the supermarket, where I can buy it, and it makes sure I have electricity and heat so I can cook my foot, but societies also do lots of stupid things, like invade Iraq. 

Stupid systems are a much bigger problem than stupid individuals. Stupid are usually only a danger to themselves. Even the most successful terrorists (that I know of) have only killed a few thousand people. Stupid systems, by contrast, can kill millions of people.

From an anthropology perspective, the implication is that sometimes when we see societies doing things that don’t make sense, maybe they actually don’t make sense. Not because the people involved are necessarily stupid, but because groups can get stuck in stupid ruts.

 

Tattooing: the article would be sounder if the authors just said that tattooing appears to be protective against disease. It doesn’t need to signal anything; if it keeps people alive in a rough environment, that alone is enough to make the behavior persist.

Interestingly, here’s a guy’s story of dealing with eczema his whole life, then getting a tattoo and the eczema clearing up:

At 23, I eventually got my right arm tattooed—a glorious, multicolored, three-quarter-length traditional Japanese piece composed predominantly of geishas and flowers. …

After it was done, my eczema did start to clear up — not just on the skin that was tattooed, but everywhere. That led me to believe that it would have improved anyway as I got older. I had such a positive experience, I got the other arm done a couple years later. So, yeah, fuck eczema.

Maybe the tattoo did have an effect on his immune system.

But there are plenty of places outside of Polynesia where people also face high disease burdens, but don’t have massive, body-spanning tattoos. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has high rates of disease and the locals have certainly heard of tattoos, but they haven’t adopted Maori style full-body decoration.

It’s hard to come up with a sensible answer for why some cultures adopted tattoos and some didn’t besides “they wanted to.”

(Note: I’m not calling tattooing stupid.)

 

 

People who cannot find a place for themselves in society have nothing to lose if society burns

Detroit Abandoned Buildings
Detroit

I have I’m trying to write, but words aren’t flowing. Still, it’s a general fact: you preserve what’s yours; you love what’s yours.

When you don’t feel part of society, it stops mattering to you whether society burns. You know the principle: not my circus = not my monkeys.

Which means that you can’t half-ass community. Long term, you can’t have an underclass. You can’t have outcasts. You have to have community, and you can’t force it through some idiotic top-down “team building” exercise, because dammit, that will just make people hate each other even more. Community has to be a real thing that real people actually enjoy being part of, or they will, at best, let it fall apart; at worst they burn it down with you in it.

The Detroit riot of 1967 left 43 dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed; Detroit has yet to recover.

Xenophobia” is apparently the fancy new word people are using for old-fashioned racism in South Africa:

Prior to 1994, immigrants from elsewhere faced discrimination and even violence in South Africa. After majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations, the incidence of xenophobia increased.[1] Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks. In May 2008, a series of attacks left 62 people dead; although 21 of those killed were South African citizens. The attacks were motivated by xenophobia.[2] In 2015, another nationwide spike in xenophobic attacks against immigrants in general prompted a number of foreign governments to begin repatriating their citizens.[3] A Pew Research poll conducted in 2018 showed that 62% of South Africans viewed immigrants as a burden on society by taking jobs and social benefits and that 61% of South Africans thought that immigrants were more responsible for crime than other groups.[4] Between 2010 and 2017 the immigrant community in South Africa increased from 2 million people to 4 million people.[4]

Why the hell did anyone think that majority rule by black people in South Africa would result in less racism? Is there something magical about voting that stops people from being racist? No, you idiots. (Not you, my gentle reader. I know you never thought such nonsense; you know that the media has reported on plenty of racist Americans voting in elections.)

According to a 2004 study published by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP):

“The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion … embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders … Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.[7]  “

What, being aggressively pro-your-own-group leads to being aggressively anti-other-groups? Who could have figured that one out?

Reminder that Johannesburg used to be a first world city.

Meanwhile, Nigerian TV has some interesting segments. “Shrine” seems to be a euphemism for “human sacrifice cult”:

Maybe some of those South Africans are on to something?

— Oh jeebus, I just read about lobotomies. Changing course, guys:

 Freeman’s name gained popularity despite the widespread criticism of his methods following a lobotomy on President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy, which left her with severe mental and physical disability.[2] … Walter Freeman charged just $25 for each procedure that he performed.[8] After four decades Freeman had personally performed as many as 4,000[11][12][13] lobotomy surgeries in 23 states, of which 2,500 used his ice-pick procedure,[14] despite the fact that he had no formal surgical training.[2] … Up to 40% of Freeman’s patients were gay individuals subjected to a lobotomy in an attempt to change their homosexual orientation, leaving most of these perfectly healthy individuals severely disabled for the rest of their life.[15]… His patients often had to be retaught how to eat and use the bathroom. Relapses were common, some never recovered, and about 15%[16] died from the procedure. In 1951, one patient at Iowa’s Cherokee Mental Health Institute died when Freeman suddenly stopped for a photo during the procedure, and the surgical instrument accidentally penetrated too far into the patient’s brain.[17] Freeman wore neither gloves nor a mask during these procedures.[17] He lobotomized 19 minors including a 4-year-old child.[18]

“We went through the top of the head, I think Rosemary was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside”, he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman asked Rosemary some questions. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backward. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” When Rosemary began to become incoherent, they stopped.[23]It quickly became apparent that the procedure had not been successful. Kennedy’s mental capacity diminished to that of a two-year-old child. She could not walk or speak intelligibly and was incontinent.[24]”

This guy won a nobel prize in medicine.

I don’t trust doctors very much.

A few other random thoughts:

I have no opinion on the Hong Kong protests because I am not from HK or China and don’t speak Chinese and so don’t know enough to have an opinion. I do think, however, that there is a frequent–and understandable–impulse crave excitement that modern life cannot otherwise supply. We want to be heroes; we want to be like the people in games and movies.

Even in Minecraft, a game that starts with you digging dirt blocks with your bare hands, ends with you fighting a dragon. People want that dragon; they want to be heroes, and who cares if it involves burning down someone else’s house? Characters in movies never stop to consider whether their rampages are flipping innocent people’s cars or preventing normal people from getting to their jobs; these mundane considerations pale to nothing when there is an ENEMY to be conquered… but often enough that enemy is just an invention of our own boredom.

Antifa, too, want to play-act being important by killing the enemy. It’s the same impulse that leads normal people to play video games; normal people are just good at distinguishing between games and real life.

What’s to be done with the dumb?

Society seems split into two camps on the matter of intelligence. Side A believes that everyone is secretly smart, but for a variety of reasons (bad teachers, TV, racism, sexism, etc) their true intelligence isn’t showing. Side B believes that some people really are stupid, because they are bad people, and they therefore deserve to suffer.

Out in reality, however, there are plenty of good, decent people who, through no fault of their own, are not smart.

I’m not making my usual jest wherein I claim that about 75% people are morons. I am speaking of the bottom 40% or so of people who have no particular talents or aptitudes of use in the modern economy. For any job that isn’t pure manual labor, they will almost always be competing with candidates who are smarter, quicker, or better credentialed than they are. Life itself will constantly present them with confusing or impenetrable choices–and it will only get worse as they age.

The agricultural economy–which we lived in until 7 decades ago, more or less–could accommodate plenty of people of modest intellects so long as they were hard-working and honest. A family with a dull son or daughter could, if everyone liked each other, still find a way for them to contribute, and would help keep them warm and comfortable in turn.

When you own your own business, be it a farm or otherwise, you can employ a relative or two. When you are employed by someone else, you don’t have that option. Back in the early 1800s, about 80% of people were essentially self-employed or worked on family farms. Today, about 80% of people are employees, working for someone else.

Agriculture is now largely mechanized, and most of the other low-IQ jobs, whether in stores or factories, are headed the same direction. Self-driving cars may soon replace most of the demand for cabbies and truckers, while check-out kiosks automate retail sales. I wouldn’t be surprised to see whole restaurants that are essentially giant vending machines with tables, soon.

The hopeful version of this story says that for every job automated, a new one is created. The invention of the tractor and combine didn’t put people out of work; the freed-up agricultural workers moved to the city and started doing manufacturing jobs. Without automation in the countryside we couldn’t have had so many factories because there would have been no one to work them. Modern automation therefore won’t put people out of jobs, long-term, so much as enable them to work new jobs.

The less hopeful point of view says that we are quickly automating all of the jobs that dumb people can do, and that the new economy requires significantly more intelligence than the old. So, yes, there are new jobs–but dumb people can’t do them.

If the pessimistic view is correct, what options do we have? People are uncomfortable with just letting folks starve to death. We already have Welfare. This seems suboptimal, and people worry that many of those who receive it aren’t virtuously dumb, but crafty and lazy. Makework jobs are another option. If not awful, they can let people feel productive and like they’ve earned their income, but of course they can be awful, and someone else has to make sure the fake job doesn’t result in any real damage. (If they could work unsupervised, they wouldn’t need fake jobs.) Our economy already has a lot of fake jobs, created to make it look like we’re all busy adults doing important things and prevent the poor from burning down civilization.

People have been floating UBI (universal basic income) as another solution. Basically, all of the benefits of welfare without all of the complicated paperwork or the nagging feeling that some lazy bum is getting a better deal than you because everyone gets the exact same deal.

UBI would ideally be offset via an increase in sales taxes (since the money is initially likely to go directly to consumption) to avoid hyperinflation. This is where we get into “modern monetary theory,” which basically says (I think) that it doesn’t really matter whether the gov’t taxes and then spends or spends and then taxes so long as the numbers balance in the end. Of course, this is Yang’s big presidential idea. I think it’s a fascinating idea (I’ve been tossing it around but haven’t had a whole lot to say about it for about fifteen years) and would love to see the independent nation of California or Boston try it out first.

UBI doesn’t exactly solve the problem of the dumb–who still need help from other people to not get scammed by Nigerian princes–but it could simplify and thus streamline our current system, which is really quite unwieldy.

Thoughts?

What is “Society”?

In Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson defines a “population” as a group that (more or less) inter-breeds freely, while a “society” is a group that communicates. Out in nature, the borders of a society and a population are usually the same, but not always.

Modern communication has created a new, interesting human phenomenon–our “societies” no longer match our “populations.”

Two hundred years ago, news traveled only as fast as a horse (or a ship,) cameras didn’t exist, and newspapers/books were expensive. By necessity, people got most of their information from the other people around them. One hundred yeas ago, the telegraph had sped up communication, but photography was expensive, movies had barely been invented, and information still traveled slowly. News from the front lines during WWI arrived home well after the battles occurred–probably contributing significantly to the delay in realizing that military strategies were failing horrifically.

Today, the internet/TV/cheap printing/movies/etc are knitting nations into conversational blocks limited only by language (and even that is a small barrier, given the automation of pretty effective translation), but still separated by national borders. It’s fairly normal now to converse daily with people from three or four different countries, but never actually meet them. 

This is really new, really different, and kind of weird.

Since we can all talk to each other, people are increasingly, it seems, treating each other as one big society, despite the fact that we hail from different cultures and live under different governments. What happens in one country or to one group of people reverberates across the world. An American comforts a friend in Malaysia who is sick to her stomach because of a shooting in New Zealand. Both agree that the shooting actually had nothing to do with a popular Swedish YouTuber, despite the shooter enjoining his viewers (while livestreaming the event) to “subscribe to Pewdiepie.” Everything is, somehow, the fault of the American president, or maybe we should go back further, and blame the British colonists.

It’s been a rough day for a lot of people.

Such big “societies” are unwieldy. Many of us dislike each other. We certainly can’t control each other (not without extreme tactics), and no one likes feeling blamed for someone else’s actions. Yet we all want each other to behave better, to improve. How to improve is a tough question.

We also want to be treated well by each other, but how often do we encounter people who are simply awful?

The same forces that knit us together also split us apart–and what it means to be a society but not a population remains to be seen.

Learning in Numbers

There is strength in numbers, but is there wisdom?

I’ve heard from multiple sources the claim that parenting, paradoxically, gets easier after the fourth child. There are several simple explanations for this phenomenon: people get more skilled at parenting after lots of practice; the older kids start helping out with the younger ones, etc.

But what if the phenomenon rests on something much more basic about human psychology–our desire to imitate others?

(Perhaps you don’t, dear reader. There are always exceptions.)

As Aristotle put it, man is a political animal–by which he meant that we are inherently social and prone to building communities (polities) together, not that we are inherently prone to arguing about who should govern North Carolina, though that may be political, too. In Aristotle’s words, a man who lives entirely alone is either a beast (living like an animal) or a god (able to fulfill all of his own needs without recourse to other humans.) Normal humans depend in many ways on other humans.

Compared to our pathetic ability to learn math (just look at most people’s SAT-math scores) and inability to read without direct instruction, humans learn socially-imparted skills like the ability to speak multiple languages, play games, assert dominance over each other, which clothes are fashionable, and how to crack a socially-appropriate joke with ease.

Social learning comes so naturally to people that we only notice it in cases of extreme deficit–like autism–or when parents protest that their children are becoming horribly corrupted by their peers.

So perhaps households with more than 4 children have hit a threshold beyond which social learning takes over and the younger children simply seem to “absorb” knowledge from their older siblings instead of having to be explicitly taught.

Consider learning to eat, a hopefully simple task. We are born with instincts to nurse, put random things in our mouths, and swallow. Preventing babies from eating random non-food objects is a bit of a problem for new parents. But learning things like “how to get this squishy food into your mouth with a spoon without also getting it everywhere else in the room” is much more complicated–and humans take food rituals to much more complicated heights than strained peas and carrots.

Parents of new children put a great deal of effort into teaching them to eat (something that ought to be an instinct.) Those with means puree fresh veggies, chop bits of meat, show a sudden interest in organics, and sit down to spoon every single last bit into their infants’ mouths. It is as if they are convinced that kids cannot learn to eat without at least as much instruction as a student learning to wield a welding torch. (And based on my own experience, they’re probably right.)

By contrast, parents of multiple children have–by necessity–relaxed. As a popular comic once depicted (though I can’t find it now,) feeding at this point becomes throwing Cheerios at the highchair as you run by.

Yet I’ve never seen any evidence that the younger children in large families are likely to be malnourished–they seem to catch the Cheerios on the fly and do just fine.

What if imitation is a strong factor in larger families, allowing infants and young children to learn skills like “how to eat” without needing direct parental instruction just by watching their older siblings? You might object that even infants in single parent households could learn to eat by imitating their parents (and they probably do,) but having more people around probably enforces the behavior more strongly, and having younger children around gives an example that is much more similar to the infant. We adults are massive compared to children, after all.

If basic learning of life skills proceeds more easily in an environment with more peers,(for infants or adults,) then what effects should we expect from our current trend toward extreme atomization?

I recently came across an essay about life in a trailer park vs sturdier housing:

To me, growing up in that trailer park meant playing until dark with neighborhood kids, building tree houses and snow forts. Listening out my bedroom window for the sound of my dad’s pickup truck leaving for work in the early morning. Riding my bike down the big hill at the top of the lot, avoiding potholes and feeling safe because there wasn’t much traffic and if I fell and skinned my knee, someone would come out on their front porch and ask if I was okay.

Some of the only happy memories I have of my childhood were from that time in my life, before my parents were thrust into insurmountable debt, before my mother was hospitalized, before I had to go live with my grandmother. Nana had a real house. She didn’t live in a trailer. But when she would scream at me or try to attack me as I squeezed by her and fled upstairs, I wished I had neighbors close by to hear her — to believe me, and to perhaps even help.

The most dysfunctional and unstable years of my life were spent in a real house, with four walls and a slanted roof — where fences went up between the houses so that no one ever had to feel responsible for what went on behind their neighbor’s front door.

This is more about atomization than learning, but still interesting. Is it good for humans to be so far apart? To live far from relatives, in houses with thick walls, as single children or single adults, working and commuting every day among strangers?

Certainly the downsides of being among relatives are well-documented. Many tribal societies have downright cruel customs directed at relatives, like sati or adult circumcision. But that doesn’t mean that the extreme opposite–total atomization–is perfect. Atomization carries other risks. Among them, staying indoors and not socializing with our neighbors may cause us to lose some of our social knowledge, our ability to learn how to exist together.

We might expect that physical atomization due to technological change (sturdier houses, more entertaining TV, comfier climate control systems,) could cause symptoms in people similar to those caused by medical deficits in social learning, like autism. A recent study on the subject found an interesting variation between the brains of normies and autists:

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

This might explain the high rates of body dysmorphias in autism. It might also explain the high rates in society.

I remember another study which I read ages ago which found that people basically thought about “God” in the same parts of their brain where they thought about themselves. This explains why God tends to have the same morals as His believers. If autists have trouble imagining themselves, then they may also have trouble imagining God–and this might explain rising atheism rates.

Even our rising autism rates, though probably driven primarily by shifts in diagnostic fads, might be influenced by shrinking families and greater atomization, as kids with borderline conditions might show more severe symptoms if they are also more isolated.

On the other hand, social media is allowing people to come together and behave socially in new and ever larger groups.

For all their weaknesses, autists are probably better at normies at certain kinds of tasks, like abstract reasoning where you don’t want to think too much about yourself. I have long suspected that normies balk at philosophical dilemmas such as the trolley problem because they over-empathize with the subjects. Imagining themselves as one of the victims of the runaway trolley causes them distress, and distress causes them to attack the person causing them distress–the philosopher.

And so the citizens of Athens condemned Socrates to death.

But just as people can overcome their natural and very sensible fear of heights in order to work on skyscrapers, perhaps they can train themselves not to empathize with the subjects of trolley problems. Spending time on problems with no human subjects (such as mathematics or engineering) may also help people practice ways of approaching problems that don’t immediately resort to imagining themselves as the subject. On the converse, perhaps a bit of atomization (as seen historically in countries like Britain and France, and recently AFAIK in Japan,) helps equip people to think about difficult, non-human related mathematical or engineering problems.

Thoughts?

Notes from E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology

 

a-giraffe-walks-behand-a-termite-mound-in-the-bushland-of-the-okavango-delta-in-botswana-1600x1066-1024x682
Termite Mound aka Termitary

I recently came across a copy of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (the textbook, 1977 edition) at the secondhand shop.

In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker gives about the best recommendation I can think of for Wilson’s book:

At Harvard there were leaflets and teach-ins, a protester with a bullhorn calling for Wilson’s dismissal, and invasions of his classroom by slogan-shouting students. When he spoke at other universities, posters called him the “Right-Wing-Prophet of Patriarchy” and urged people to bring noisemakers to his lectures. Wilson was about to speak at a 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when a group of people carrying placards (one with a swastika) rushed onto the stage chanting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” One protester grabbed the microphone and harangued the audience while another doused Wilson with a pitcher of water.

Pretty intense for a guy whose career is mostly about ants.

Since it is easier to remember what you have read if you take notes and then transcribe them, and this thing is 574 pages long, I’ll be transcribing some of my notes here as I go along.

The book gives lots of interesting examples of different concepts. For example, in the section on parasitism, there’s an example of a variety of termite that moves into and eats the nests of other termites, thus making a termite mound-in-a-mound, I suppose. To be fair, some termite mounds are about as big as a house and so this is a totally reasonable thing for termites to do.

Chapter 1: The morality of the Gene

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide.

That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. …

From now on, let’s use “” instead of blockquotes.

Chapter 2: Elementary Concepts

“Genes, like Leibnitz’s monads, have no windows; the higher properties of life are emergent. To specify an entire cell, we are compelled to provide not only the nucleotide sequences but also the identity and configuration of other kinds of molecules placed in and around the cells. To specify an organism requires still more information about both the properties of the cells and their spacial positions. And once assembled, organisms have no windows. A society can be described only as a set of particular organisms, and even then it is difficult to extrapolate the joint activity of this ensemble from the instant of specification, that is, to predict social behavior. …

“Society: a group of individuals belonging to the same species and organized in a cooperative manner. … Yet aggregation, sexual behavior, and territoriality are important properties of true societies, and they are correctly referred to as social behavior. … Since the bond of the society is simply and solely communication, its boundaries can be defined in terms of the curtailment of communication.”

EvX: I have been thinking for a long time about language as effective barriers of culture. Not that culture can’t cross language barriers (movies get dubbed all the time,) but it’s much harder. And since some languages are easier to learn than others, (eg, Finnish is harder than German if you speak English,) cross-language communication is probably easier between some groups than others. The Finns (and a few other European groups) speak non-Indo-European languages, which might make them more functionally isolated within the European context than, say, their neighbors in Sweden.

Back to Wilson:

“Individual: Any physically distinct organism… The distinction between the individual and the colony can be especially baffling in the sponges. … [Hah.]

“Population: A set of organisms belonging to the same species and occupying a clearly delimited area at the same time. This unit… is defined in terms of genetic continuity. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the population is a geographically delimited set of organisms capable of freely interbreeding with one another under natural conditions. …

“In sexually reproducing forms, including the vast majority of social organisms, a species is a population or set of populations within which the individuals are capable of freely interbreeding under natural conditions. By definition the members of the species do not interbreed freely with those of other species, however closely related they may be genetically. … In establishing the limits of a species it is not enough merely to prove that genes of two or more populations can be exchanged under experimental conditions. The population must be demonstrated to interbreed fully in the free state.”

[Example: Lions and Tigers can interbreed, yet even in places where their ranges historically overlapped, no one ever reported finding wild ligers or tigons. While they can interbreed in zoos, their behavior is different enough in the wild that it doesn’t happen.]

EvX: And here’s where people ask about Sapiens and Neanderthals. Yes, they interbred. But it looks like they didn’t interbreed much (while they bred plenty with their own,) and it also looks like there’s been a fair amount of selection against Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, winnowing down the genes passed on to us. For example, there’s pretty much no Neanderthal DNA on the Y chromosome, suggesting that any sons of Neanderthal-Sapiens unions were infertile (or didn’t make it at all.) There’s also no (known) Neanderthal mtDNA, suggesting that the matings that did happen involved Neanderthal men with Sapiens women–or if the opposite pairing happened, those children were brought into Neanderthal tribes. At any rate, the pattern is far from complete interfertility.

Back to Wilson:

“A population that differs significantly from other populations belonging to the same species is referred to as a geographic race or subspecies. Subspecies are separated from other subspecies by distance and geographic barriers that prevent the exchange of individuals, as opposed to the genetically based “intrinsic isolating mechanisms” that hold species apart. Subspecies, insofar as they can be distinguished with any objectivity at all, show every conceivable degree of differentiation from other subspecies. At one extreme are the populations that fall along a cline–a simple gradient in the geographic variation of a given character. In other words, a character that varies in a clinal pattern is one that changes gradually over a substantial portion of the entire range of the species. At the other extreme are subspecies consisting of easily distinguished populations that are differentiated from one another by numerous genetic traits and exchange genes across a narrow zone of intergradation.

The main obstacle in dealing with the population as a unit… is the practical difficulty of deciding the limits of particular populations.”

EvX: I would like to point out that humans made up these words to carve up a part of reality that doesn’t always carve that easily. For example, it may be obvious that a wolf species that ranges over thousands of miles is pretty different at the far east and far western extent of its range, but there may be no exact spot in between where the eastern type ends and the western type begins. By contrast, sometimes in human societies you have groups of genetically and culturally distinct people separated for centuries by little more than a road, a wall, a religion, or a language. There is no a priori reason to think that one of these cases fits the definition and the other does not.

But the language we use to delineate groups of ants or wolves or fungi is not the language we use to delineate humans, not just because we wish to be inaccurate, but also because we generally wish to show each other respect. We do so by avoiding language normally reserved for non-humans and using special terms for humans, eg, my offspring are normally referred to as my “children.”

Back to Wilson.

“What is the relation between the population and the society? Here we arrive unexpectedly at the crux of theoretical sociobiology. The distinction between the two categories is essentially as follows: the population is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced gene flow, while the society is bounded by a zone of sharply reduced communication. Often the two zones are the same…

The Multiplier Effect

Social organization is the class of phenotypes furthest removed from the genes. It is derived jointly from the behavior of the individuals and the demographic properties of the population… A small evolutionary change in the behavior pattern of individuals can be amplified into a major social effect by the expanding upward distribution of the effect into multiple facets of life. …

“Even stronger multiplier effects occur in the social insects. … The structure of nests alone can be used to distinguish species within the higher termites.”

EvX: There follows an interesting description of how termites build their mounds, also known as “termitaries.”

“Multiplier effects can speed social evolution still more when an individual’s behavior is strongly influenced by the particularities of its social experience. This process, called socialization, becomes increasingly becomes increasingly prominent as one moves upward phylogenetically into more intelligent species, and it reaches its maximum influence in the higher primates. Although the evidence is still largely inferential, socialization appears to amplify phenotypic differences among primate species.

S”ocialization can also amplify genetically based variation of individual behavior within troops. The temperament and rank of a higher primate is strongly influenced by its early experiences with its peers and its mother.”

EvX: This is a really interesting idea. We hear constantly that ideas like race and gender are social constructs, but what exactly a social construct is we hear far less often. The implication–at least as the phrases are employed–is that they are not real at all, that they are make believe, that we have chosen some random and arbitrary place to carve up reality and that we could use some other random place just as well, but Wilson provides a much better conception: “social constructs” are really amplified ideas about the world around us. In other words, they’re exaggerated stereotypes.

For example, let’s imagine a world in which the average male is taller than the average female, but there’s a lot of variety in height and so there are many individual men who are shorter than a good chunk of women, and likewise many women who are taller than a decent chunk of men. The idea that “men are taller than women” is of course true on average, but also an exaggeration. Men who are particularly short and women who are particularly tall may dislike the fact that they don’t match this Platonic ideal.

Back to Wilson:

“The Evolutionary Pacemaker and Social Drift

“…when evolution involves both structure and behavior, behavior should change first and then structure. In other words, behavior should be the evolutionary pacemaker. … Social behavior also frequently serves as an evolutionary pacemaker. The entire process of ritualization, during which a behavior is transformed by evolution into a more efficient signaling device, typically involves a behavioral change followed by morphological alterations that enhance the visibility and distinctiveness of the behavior.

“The relative lability of behavior leads inevitably to social drift, the random divergence in the behavior and mode of organization of societies or groups of societies. …

“The amount of variance within a population of societies is the sum of the variations due to genetic drift, tradition drift, and their interaction. … Even if the alteration to social structure of a group is due to a behavioral change in a key individual, we cannot be sure that this member was not predisposed to the act by a distinctive capability or temperament conferred by a particular set of genes …

“…Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1973) have suggested that in human social evolution the equivalent of an important mutation is a new idea. If it is acceptable and advantageous, the idea will spread quickly. If not, it will decline in frequency and he forgotten. Tradition drift in such instances, like purely genetic drift, has stochastic properties amenable to mathematical analysis.”

EvX: Good old memes. How I love them.

Adaptive Demography

“All true societies are differentiated populations. When cooperative behavior evolves it is put to service by one kind of individual on behalf of another, either unilaterally or mutually…

“The proportions of the demographic classes [like old and young people] also affect the fitness of the group and, ultimately, of each individual member… a deviant population allowed to reproduce for one to several generations will go far to restore the age distribution of populations normal for the species.”

EvX: By “deviant population” he means a population that has more or less of a particular class than is ideal, like if an ant colony lost half of its workers in an accident or a plague wiped out most of the children in a society.

Nature_trees_dark_night_forest_moon_1920x1200“Only if its growth is zero when averaged over many generations can the population have a chance of long life. There is one remaining way to be a success. A population headed for extinction can still possess a high degree of fitness if it succeeds in sending out propagules and creates new populations elsewhere.”

EvX: Your destiny is the stars.

And with that, I’m taking off for the evening.

A few quick thoughts on Millennials and Burnout

How Millennials became the Burnout Generation, a recent Buzzfeed article, makes some very good points:

In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris lays out the myriad ways in which our generation has been trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace — first in school, then through secondary education — starting as very young children. “Risk management used to be a business practice,” Harris writes, “now it’s our dominant child-rearing strategy.” …

Harris points to practices that we now see as standard as a means of “optimizing” children’s play, an attitude often described as “intensive parenting.” Running around the neighborhood has become supervised playdates. Unstructured day care has become pre-preschool. Neighborhood Kick the Can or pickup games have transformed into highly regulated organized league play that spans the year. Unchanneled energy (diagnosed as hyperactivity) became medicated and disciplined.

Like most old millennials, my own career path was marked by two financial catastrophes. In the early 2000s, when many of us were either first entering college or the workforce, the dot-com bubble burst. … skilled jobs were in short supply. I worked as a nanny, a housemate worked as an assistant, a friend resorted to selling what would later be known as subprime mortgages.

Those two years as a nanny were hard — I was stultifyingly bored and commuted an hour in each direction — but it was the last time I remember not feeling burned out. I had a cellphone, but couldn’t even send texts … I was intellectually unstimulated, but I was good at my job — caring for two infants — and had clear demarcations between when I was on and off the clock.

Then those two years ended and the bulk of my friend group began the exodus to grad school. … It wasn’t because we were hungry for more knowledge. It was because we were hungry for secure, middle-class jobs — and had been told, correctly or not, that those jobs were available only through grad school. Once we were in grad school, and the microgeneration behind us was emerging from college into the workplace, the 2008 financial crisis hit. …

More experienced workers and the newly laid-off filled applicant pools for lower- and entry-level jobs once largely reserved for recent graduates. We couldn’t find jobs, or could only find part-time jobs, jobs without benefits, or jobs that were actually multiple side hustles cobbled together into one job.

These are the good points, and all of us can recognize how, regardless of our personal trajectory, that dealing with two recessions in a row when you are trying to enter the workforce can be a major problem. This is stuff that no one except maybe the President or the Fed Chairman can do much about, and it’s good to recognize that some of us had an easier start in life than others.

After some more very reasonable points, article makes an unfortunate turn, discussing the tyranny of things people definitely do have control over:

… They’d never seen the particular work that they do described, let alone acknowledged. And for millennials, that domestic work is now supposed to check a never-ending number of aspirational boxes: Outings should be “experiences,” food should be healthy and homemade and fun, bodies should be sculpted, wrinkles should be minimized, clothes should be cute and fashionable, sleep should be regulated, relationships should be healthy, the news should be read and processed, kids should be given personal attention and thriving. Millennial parenting is, as a recent New York Times article put it, relentless.

Stop. Just stop.

Most of this is unnecessary bullshit being sold to you by ads in women’s magazines.

Stop doing “outings.” Eat what you need to get by and you won’t need to exercise. Sleep when you’re tired. Shop less. Don’t read the news.

 “I’m really struggling to find the Christmas magic this year,” one woman in a Facebook group focused on self-care recently wrote. “I have two little kids (2 and 6 months) and, while we had fun reading Christmas books, singing songs, walking around the neighborhood to look at lights, I mostly feel like it’s just one to-do list superimposed over my already overwhelming to-do list. I feel so burned out. Commiseration or advice?”

You know what? I don’t like holidays. I’m perfectly happy taking advantage of whatever fun activities are available for my kids, but I’m not adding to an already overwhelming to-do list. Holidays are supposed to make you feel better, not worse. If what you’re doing isn’t helping, then STOP.

While writing this piece, I was orchestrating a move, planning travel, picking up prescriptions, walking my dog, trying to exercise, making dinner, attempting to participate in work conversations on Slack, posting photos to social media, and reading the news. I was waking up at 6 a.m. to write, packing boxes over lunch, moving piles of wood at dinner, falling into bed at 9.

I assume the job, move, and prescriptions are required. Owning a dog, exercising, travel, posting photos on social media, reading the news, and making dinner in the midst of a move are not. For goodness’ sakes, order a pizza. If posting on Instagram is stressing you out, stop posting on Instagram.

Even the trends millennials have popularized — like athleisure — speak to our self-optimization. Yoga pants might look sloppy to your mom, but they’re efficient: You can transition seamlessly from an exercise class to a Skype meeting to child pickup.

Let me tell you something about poor people: they don’t take exercise classes. They certainly don’t buy special pants for their exercise classes and then complain that their mom calls them sloppy.

Poor people don’t have the money for fucking exercise classes.

So there are two separate things going on in this article. The first is a very reasonable thing about recessions, temp work, work that bleeds into free time, never ending to-do lists, etc. And really, this is something that I think needs to be said louder and more often: many people worked hard, their parents worked hard, they did “everything right” and still got screwed by a system that is simply bigger than themselves.

The second is a very stupid thing about how hard it is to change pants between Yoga class and picking your kids up from daycare.

Look, I know you want to do everything, but you can’t. I know there are popular magazines out there claiming that you should spend two months salary on a diamond ring, but this is a complete fiction made up to benefit the diamond companies. Your parents never did extra curriculars–either they went to school clubs, church, or they rode their bikes around the neighborhood. These things are nice if you can afford them and have the time for them, but they are not necessary.

Take back your time. Learn to say no. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING.

Focus on the things that matter.

Guest Post: Ethnography of the SWPL, pt. 2

Note: today we have a guest post, courtesy of Monsieur le Baron. I hope you enjoy it.

Welcome back. I’m happy to be here with another guest post.

Last time, we discussed the strange creature known as the Bobo. But not all SWPLs are rich. Many are, in fact, quite poor. What of these… SWProles? Today, we’ll be covering the Theory of the Aspirational Class, walking through some musings, and making some conclusions.

First, to explain terms. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the author’s analysis. They have a tendency to lump both Bobo and SWProle together into one homogeneous SWPL group, which they call “elite” or the Aspirational Class. I don’t think this is necessarily a valid leap – while it does capture some essential cultural similarities, the defining aspect of the SWProle WITH RELATION TO their more affluent brethren is their total lack of power or money – their lack of eliteness. Nor is “Aspirational Class” really totally valid for the whole class. I am the most aspirational of my cohort, but this is not held up as a virtue – I’m a dirty “striver” (although I must fall upon a phrase oft shared with my Russian friends: “A shark swims or it suffocates.”). And even this striving is not nearly at the scale of the SWProles. I want for very little, mostly some more money so I can sustain a lifestyle of truly excessive and vulgar spending, and obviously power and a spot in the upper class. I dream of one day exclusively shopping at Whole Foods while beginning every morning with avocado toast.

From the Theory of the Aspirational Class:

Today’s aspirational class lacks such self-consciousness, and many members lack bobos’ financial means. The aspirational class is motivated by self-confident values and is actively choosing its way of life through an extensive process of information gathering and forming opinions and values, some of which involve money but many of which rest on cultural capital instead.”

Yes, money! A lot of goddamn money. A friend of mine trawls Dave Ramsay and other finance story places, and one couple, who made only about $150,000 a year, managed to get half a million dollars in debt financing their dissolute Whole Foods eating crunchy lifestyle. Unbelievable. An asparagus water here, a sushi roll there, and now you’re talking about real money. We live in a society obsessed with luxury and flash.

Which brings me to my second disagreement. The good doctor divides spending into conspicuous, inconspicuous, and other. But what she calls “inconspicuous” spending is not meant to be inconspicuous at all, but is merely a new form of status signaling. Instead, they could be called “Traditional” and “Modern”, or, even more aptly, “Tasteless” and “Stuff White People Like”.

But I still find it admirable for an academic to gather so much data. Most analyses are equally flawed and rely wholly on anecdote. This one has data. Lots of data. And the gathering of data is an inherently worthy goal. Without further ado, let’s begin.

To my chagrin, I often encounter the belief that rich people love to buy what one might call “expensive bullshit”. I call this a sort of “reality TV” or “Wolf of Wall Street” syndrome. It’s like Instagram reality, but for money. Many people spread this bullshit while few have an interest in debunking it. It allows buyers of dumb branded clothing to think they’re impressing others with a genuine status symbol. Makers of said dumb branded clothing obviously benefit. And the real upper castes benefit by obfuscating true class markers. But still, people should be able to figure this out. And especially those who keep abreast of these things.

Here’s a chart.

Screenshot_20181208-161200_Amazon Kindle

The short answer to the question of traditional (aka garish) status signaling and elites is “no”. The long answer is “nooooooooo”.

Screenshot_20181208-161247_Amazon Kindle

The more educated you are, the more you buy SWPL things. Also, the more you have to status signal in general. This is significant and we’ll return to it later.

Screenshot_20181208-161307_Amazon Kindle

The bigger the metro, the showier people get. People are least showy in that old stronghold of status, the Northeast. This means something too.

Screenshot_20181208-161217_Amazon Kindle

The older people get, the less they signal.

We’re getting there.

Let’s draw a graph.

In one corner, you have your classic prole. They have no culture and they have no elite competence or power. You know them! You love them! They’re classic proles. On the other end, we have people with lots of sociocultural status and power. They’re Bobos. They’re the reigning heavyweights of USG and the FEDGOV empire. They’ve got the aristocratic traditions, the power, the money, the institutions, the everything that matters.

But wait, this leaves two empty sectors. Ah, exactly. This is the explanation for Schrodinger’s SWPL, the fine fellow on stuffwhitepeoplelike which flips between self-confident, affluent elite, and nervous, anxious faker who only pretends to like classical music and can only speak English by the entry. Viewed solely through culture, as stuffwhitepeoplelike does and as Theory of the Aspirational Class does, one cannot properly distinguish the two. That’s because the difference between a mere aspirant and a true blue aristocrat is actual power.

So what is the SWProle doing then? The act of performing elite class culture is an act of self-affirmation, of belonging. By performing elite culture, they are making a symbolic claim to being elite. Of course, this claim is frequently challenged by a hostile society – I call this challenge of reality. In reality, they are not elite in any real sense of the word, and, indeed, can barely afford coffee without spiraling into debt. Only through constant and continuous signaling can they distinguish themselves from the proles they basically are. And how does one signal? Luxuries. Lots and lots of luxuries. Why do millennials spend so much of their income on luxury goods? Because so many millennials are educated, education is participation in a literal surviving organ of the Ancien Regime, and therefore it invites the young graduate to buy lots of luxuries to assert their new elite status (and, as seen in a previous chart, many take this invitation).

What happens when something threatens to pop this comfortable delusion bubble?

The rage of the almost elite

Who rages the most against the proles?

“Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen.  And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people.   I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.”

Familiarity breeds contempt. This is why I have so much of it against my fellow aristocrats.

The lot of the SWProle is a cold and miserable one.

And, I think, a fundamental error in approach.

Let’s discuss the right way to become elite, then. Let’s discuss our final sector.

I divide the upper middle class into a few different kinds. You have the noblesse de robe, the noblesse d’epee, the haute bourgeois, socialites, and the clergy. Let’s narrow our focus to a peacetime society midway through its development. This means our primary drivers of elite formation will be the haute bourgeois and the noblesse de robe.

Some neoreactionaries identify the aristocracy with top tier businessmen, and while I don’t think that’s totally true, I think there are grains of truth to it. They sense, rightly, there is something reactionary about the corporate structure. Similarly, I usually identify the aristocracy nigh totally with the noblesse de robe, which is a distortion on my part. To state things more accurately, I would say that different institutions inherited different segments of the aristocratic idea after the shattering of the Ancien Regime. The customs and practices of the royal court were carried away and eventually planted in fertile soil, and this little seed grew up into the idea of Big Business. And the universities and academies of the Ancien Regime which trained so many generations of bluebloods dissociated from the idea of aristocracy, at least explicitly, and so became today’s Ivory Towers.

What SWProles are essentially trying to do is to get into the elite via socialization. But this is flawed. First of all, it’s flawed because their act is too perfect. I discuss this in my post about sartorial correctness , but it’s basically like the differences between an educated foreigner and a native speaker. The latter makes certain classes of mistakes that make the language more fluid and natural. Second of all, it’s flawed because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the character of upper caste socialization. Proles like to imagine upper caste socialization as extremely smooth and elegant. And it is, in a sense. But it’s only elegant because the upper castes define what “elegant” is. It’s not true grace in the normie sense, it’s self-assuredness. An aristocrat is a creature that thinks hugging their kids is weird, but keeping a ferret in your breasts to eat lamb shanks is perfectly normal. They’re weird. Wealthier people have a higher incidence of autistic children.

It’s not normie social interaction but smoother. What are aristocrats actually doing? Who are the residents of our missing quadrant?

They’re doing nerdtalk and powertalk.

Boom.

The chart is complete.

SWProles are almost certainly doomed to failure because they’re trying to socialize normally with people who are doing nerdtalk and powertalk. They just don’t get it. Even if they memorize all the quirks, their failure is the failure to grok the category of conversation.

By contrast, the main difference between nerds/boors and true Bobos is self-assuredness or the lack thereof.

What is powertalk? Powertalk is a concept taken from Ribbonfarm’s Gervais Principle, and it’s basically the naked discussion of gains and losses. Go read it if you haven’t, though I disagree with his characterization of the inner life of psychopaths. In powertalk, you’re always talking real shit. Successful businessmen do this really well. But, unfortunately, the normal world frowns on them. People from normal backgrounds who try to do well in business and FIRE are pulled down by their peers. People resent the wealthy. People resent early retirees. They’re surrounded by crabs in a bucket. The only choice is to hide. But when you hide, you become less self-assured. And the subject varies somewhat. Money remains a concern, but powertalk past a certain level of social status must also focus on the original burrito: Power. So they must learn a new subject matter.

Similarly, what do nerds do? Nerds talk and argue about the minutia of nerd cultural works like sci-fi and comics, and they discuss the fine technical details of various technologies. What do aristocrats do? They talk about and argue the minutia of art and music, and they discuss the fine details of various Important Ideas and Historical Events and Other Humanities. Don’t these look similar? In fact, they’re the same thing. Art criticism is just nerds geeking out about comic trivia except over something socially acceptable, and it’s socially acceptable because aristocrats decided it was. Again, the difference is not in category, but merely in subject matter. And the mildly autistic often wish socialization was more explicit and rule-based.

Good news! Aristocrats already had a highly rule-based way of socialization. They called it good manners and it involved signaling what the purpose of your conversation would be by folding a specific corner of a greeting card and many other arcane, bizarre rules. In Ancien Regime France, it was impolite to be the last to thank someone. Unfortunately, this rule has to be broken by someone. Needless to say, there were a lot of dangerously polite people, including one fellow who jumped out of a window to pounce upon someone and properly bid them farewell and thanks. It’s not that they’re not following a weird set of social rules, unlike normies who do things by instinct, it’s that nerds have the wrong rules.

ETA:

“Eccentricity was central to the aristocracy’s mystique. It was inventive, often disconcerting and entirely natural to a self-confident caste which knew that it was different. Aristocrats were free to indulge their whims.”

“…anyone who lived by his wits could call himself a gentleman and have their presumption endorsed by a herald… The aristocracy have always been an open elite.” 

This quadrant of the chart is the quadrant of eliteogenesis. Every so often, a mutant is born in Appalachia or some other backwater province. These mutants don’t fit in. Their environments abuse them and they lose their self-assuredness, being marked as abnormal. But through a creaming mechanism of the day, ambition, and their own thirst to find like-minded people, they are drawn inexorably towards the capital. And if they are able to find a mate and produce offspring, they will make people just as weird as them.

The difference is that their children will be self-assured, totally convinced that their weird little world is normal.

A noble house is born.

So if eliteogenesis is a knowable process, surely we can measure it? Yes, yes, we can. And someone did.

Enter our final idea: Secular Cycles.

Turchin has many interesting ideas, but we’re going to focus on the idea of elite overproduction.

You have two forces, creation and extinction.

If we take the measured peacetime extinction rate of noble houses and do some math, we arrive at EXACTLY the same imputed mobility rates as given by Professor Clark’s equations in The Son Also Rises. And these mathematical rates match up with historical data about the lifespans of noble families across the world. About half of the modern corporate workers in Japan are samurai descendants. 42% of European high nobility descendants have PhDs. The median lifespan of a Chinese gentry family is about 250 years. In short, everything maths out extremely nicely and cleanly. Convenient, eh?

The other half of elite numbers is production. We have the mechanism of parvenus, by which nerds and boors become founders of new noble houses. But what happens if there’s not enough room? Society can only absorb so many people in the professions. A potential elite instead goes into a pool of prospective elites. A nerd is not hired by a major tech firm, but instead sits at home and makes a nuisance of himself writing exploits.

In the early stages of the secular cycle, there is an abundance of room and resources to grow. The peasants (primary producers) flood in to exploit these resources, resulting in widespread commoner prosperity. The elites begin a secular cycle impoverished and therefore do real work. Many advances are made across all sorts of indices. However, all the excess value created by the peasants results in spectacular potential surpluses for the elites, which begin to increase in number. This causes a shift into the stagflation phase. How do elites sustain themselves? In the long run, elite professions push the societal production frontier. Engineers produce new technologies that result in long-run efficiency gains, doctors increase societal lifespan resulting in more working years, priests produce new cultural memes which structure life, scientists deepen our understanding of the universe, and bankers allocate capital more efficiently to push growth. In short run, elites must feed themselves by transferring value into their own mouths. So the commoners produce all this value, but an increasing amount of elites consumes it all, resulting in stagnant incomes for the common man. The stagflation phases of this secular cycle and the last one both saw massive flowerings of Western science and technology, as the vast number of elites accomplish all sorts of brain work. The decades since 1970 have seen all sorts of transformations in our way of life. The Information Age really is a revolution.

But all their value transference takes a toll on the average worker. Inequality begins to rapidly increase, as elite incomes surge far past commoner incomes. These decades since 1970 have also seen massive gains in the income of the 1%. This greatly increases the incentive to become elite, so more and more people aspire to it. However, more people aspiring to be elite combined with a saturation of the societally allowable professionals drives all sorts of further dynamics. Since there’s so much competition, elites become more nervous and anxious. That causes them to trust their fellow elites (now competition instead of collaborators) less, reducing societal cohesion. Leftism, the extension of a society’s principles towards their inevitable (but disastrously idealistic) conclusions, reaches a fever pitch, as elites try to shore up their social position. And their need to shore up their financial position means they demand even higher and higher incomes and hoard even more cash, further driving up inequality. Their fear, hatred, and resentment of elite aspirants drives a new class war on the middle class. Their anxieties lead them to pass all sorts of bizarre and increasingly paranoid policy. The frustrated aspirants and rejected parvenus form new counterelites ready to launch revolutions. The weight of all these excess elite aspirants and the negative dynamics associated with them eventually prove to be too much, and society begins to decline. The oversupply of potential elite labor crushes the income of service elites, which has the additional nasty side effect of making rentierism the only game in town. That means elites now have to get their value transference through pure rent-seeking and exploitation of state mechanisms, which means that political jockeying overtakes brainwork. Social cohesion collapses. Society descends into civil war as counterelites battle elites for state spoils. Revolution shakes the core of the state. Elites are culled left and right. But those elites, as corrupt as they are in the late stage, still fill a valuable role. Society sees a rapid increase in complexity in the integrative half of the secular cycle, but as we all know from our Incerto, complexity implies fragility. And this fragility becomes a dire foe in the disintegrative part of the secular cycle. If you kill half the doctors in a hospital arbitrarily, does it run half as well or less than half as well? Globalization is abruptly deglobalized and complex systems of trade and knowledge collapse. Infrastructure is lost. Land is abandoned. Factories go silent. Occasionally there is peace, but until the elite oversupply is resolved, the state remains unstable and cannot permanently reform.

Finally, the elite numbers have been pruned. Adversity brings out the hidden strength in the remaining elites. Without extra elites to pick up the slack, and with all the wealth of the nation destroyed, the elites return to doing useful work. All the fallow land and abandoned infrastructure provides plenty of room for peasant expansion. A new secular cycle begins.

Below is the Secular Cycle chart. Our current situation matches the Stagflation phase pretty well, and we may be headed into the Crisis phase soon (or now).

Sunrise, sunset.

I would like to thank EvolutionistX for this opportunity.

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