Excerpts and Discussion of Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option”

Prologue (mine, not Dreher’s)

The book is an extended exposition of what is at heart a very simple thesis and message.

That premise: “Genuine, traditional Christianity is quickly dying throughout the West, as it has been for a long time. But now things are getting to a critically bad stage. If committed Christians don’t appreciate this, and aren’t ready, willing, and able to make radical changes in the way they live their lives, then The Faith will surely die out soon, perhaps carried forward in name only by what will have become little more than an imposter. Many Christians don’t appreciate this state of affairs, either through ignorance on the one hand, or willful denial and obtuse blindness on the other. The war is lost, and so it’s well past time for Christians to start thinking seriously about the strategic requirements of cultural survival. Hopefully it’s not too late, but it very well might be, especially if Christians don’t stop sleepwalking off the cliff. They will need to come to grips with the sheer precariousness of their situation, and figure this all out, pronto.”

Dreher puts a lot of meat on the bones of that proposition, but the idea itself is not too complicated. Since that idea is always in the background, discussing any of Dreher’s explorations of different aspects of the problem or potential solutions naturally ends up revisiting common themes several times.

Some of those themes include the critical importance of social environment on psychological influence, the “raise and release” problem of there being no current life-cycle solution so young people can stay in the fold and form families with like-minded mates, the ethics of perpetuation, and a proposed ‘campus community’ solution.

On occasion I will also go a little hard on Dreher when he engages in double-mindedness. He sometimes lacks consistency regarding how concerned one ought to be about respectability and normalcy. Dreher also tends to switch modes between writing as if this is an urgent and dire struggle for survival, but then denies advocating for exactly the kind of extreme measures that would be warranted were the situation as dire as he claims. Maybe there’s no one right position on those matters and so Dreher’s style merely reflects a judicious balance between competing interpretations. Whether that’s right or not, I’ll be pointing those occasions out, so that you can judge for yourself.

Now, Dreher’s focuses almost exclusively on the situation for Christians, which is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows him to keep a narrow focus on something about which he is more well-informed per the maxim “write what you know”. On the other hand, that exclusivity tends to obscure the real nature of what is going on, as if it were a strictly and peculiarly Christian issue.

It’s not: the premise clearly extends to any kind of traditionalism. That’s true whether it is tied to a particular religion or ideology, or whether it is merely a passively acquired collection of informal elements of social capital and culturally-embedded folkways. Regardless, any form of traditionalism stands no chance against the ‘ideological rectifications’ which characterize the contemporary forces of social change.

For example, there are plenty of secular atheists who want the sex segregation of toilets to continue to be the default cultural practice, and who aren’t on board with the latest PC crusade to impose this innovation on everyone, like it or not.

Eventually, these people are either going to get on board, or they are going to find themselves mixed in with the Christians and all the others in a bigger set of “Culture War Losers”.

How valuable is the book? Even if was unfamiliar with Dreher’s extensive past writing on the subject, I wouldn’t say there’s much that’s informative or new about it, either to any serious and honest observer of the Western scene or even to those with only a small amount of historical familiarity.

To these people, it might be hard to stay very interested or invested since so much of what he’s saying seems obvious and noncontroversial.

And yet … despite that obviousness, it’s undeniably important for two reasons.

First, no one else seems nearly as motivated in sounding this indubitably necessary alarm, in nearly as clear and prominent a manner. Dreher is not ‘alone’ exactly as a voice in the wilderness, but he doesn’t have much company.

And second, raising that alarm makes a lot of people – both Christians (of a particular type) and anti-Christians – very upset in what is clearly a “she doth protest too much” manner. They understand the premise and its implications intuitively and well enough to feel an urgent compulsion to deny it and attack it vigorously, but when do so, they usually embarrass themselves by demonstrating ignorance of its actual content. The confidence that they simply have to be right and Dreher wrong, is felt so deeply that they apparently feel fully entitled to make all these attacks without, you know, actually reading the book.

It’s just intellectually painful to read nearly all of those ‘critiques’, being almost all devoid of any shred of good faith. That is, the lack of integrity, horrid quality, and hysterical character of most of these criticisms is more revealing – and probably teaches us more about what’s happening and what’s likely to happen – than Dreher’s book ever could be.

Now, personally, I found that having followed Dreher’s blogging over the last several years to have been really indispensable to grasping the meaning and limits of every point he’s trying to make in the book It really helps to know Dreher, The Man in order to know this book, when to forgive him, and when to roll your eyes at him.

Reading Dreher can be frustrating in that he so frequently crawls all the way up to an important insight and then … disappointingly chokes on the social undesirability of the conclusion at the last minute. (He may be doing this as part of a strategy to stay above the minimum threshold of public respectability, and there are a few times I suspect that, but my impression is that he’s almost always being sincere.) He’s like one of those sports teams which one can’t stop rooting for because it always gets so close to a win, but which just keeps breaking one’s heart.

But at least he chokes in an ironically predictable way. It is always the direction of “Mainstream, Respectable, Literate, American Christian Nice.” The kind of Nice oblivious to the way it is having its usually noble, pro-social sentiments abused and exploited by its sworn enemies. In this sense, if he has not transcended the very error he is begging his co-confessionists to overcome, then at least he is writing as one who knows them so well from being one of them, in a way that no one else can.

At any rate, I wouldn’t have wanted to read this book “dry”, as it were, without the sauce of that context, and I think had I done so, I’d come away with an inadequate impression of it.

If I were to point out his main fault, it is that he never calls the devil by its name, so to speak. He never points the finger at progressivism and leftism, and hardly thinks it’s important to discuss that ideological phenomenon as a central issue, to pluck it out of the extremely broad historical narrative he lays out. Now, this could be out of strategic wisdom and professional savvy and caution as much as out of ignorance or naiveté. I think it’s a mix that is about 80% the latter, for two reasons.

First, at times, on certain subjects, he seems like the infamous fish that doesn’t know it swims in water, and he lacks conscious awareness that he’s committed to some concept or moral notion that owes more to modern progressivism than anything with an authentic Christian heritage.

And second, despite frequently covering instances of their latest ideological excesses, he still tends to get the tenets and character of current progressivism wrong. Mostly, he is out of date. He buys into the neutrality narrative spun by the old liberal public intellectuals (many of whom are now also balking at the latest developments) for today’s real thing: the bullying power games of contemporary PC and the Social Justice Warriors

This causes him to repeatedly make an error, which is to say that ‘religion’ is being eroded by a neutral, empty, nothing of relativism with an ultimate form of individualist secularism as the end point. Instead, it is simply being replaced by a new ideology that fills the vacuum with its own mythologies, orthodoxies, and an endless efflorescence of sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations.

This puts someone like me in an odd and unique position. Almost all Dreher’s critics accuse him of crying wolf or being a chicken-little at best, and more usually a looney-tunes-level alarmist kook or worse. Meanwhile, I’m saying that Dreher is underestimating his enemy, painting an overly rosy picture, and not being nearly alarmist enough.

This is going to sound strange, but go with me a while and let me explain. While Dreher may not be alarmist enough, at the same time there is a sense in which he also needs to lighten up.

There are two sides to the coin of rallying people to the fight. One side is negative: to shake them out of their complacency and fill them with justified terror and angst. “Wake up! They are coming for us! We are losing! The situation is dire!” But then, when the troops are marshaled, the other side of the coin must provide them with positive motivation, by reminding them what, exactly, they are fighting for.

And what traditionalists are fighting for is the way of life they cherish and which is awesome. A traditional, faithful life is filled with potential for moments of pride and sweetness and harmony with each other, the world, and the Lord. It allows one to meet adversity with a community, with love, hope, and joy. It is beautiful and true and worth fighting for.

Introduction: The Awakening

Dreher opens the book by saying he experienced the very common kind of political transformation that happens when a man becomes a father and tries to take a shot at traditionalist, wholesome child rearing in the current American scene. The responsibilities and interests of that role tends to lead to a new perspective on social affairs with different areas of emphasis and concern. When one starts to grasp the problems one faces, it is indeed a rude awakening.

It’s a political awakening in the “mugged by reality” sense, when someone in that position realizes just how ideologically naive they’ve been (often in a libertarian direction), and how the deck has been stacked against them, and in so many ways beyond their control and power to mitigate.

Shared public spaces – and the official and informal social rules which govern them – have a character that either supports wholesome families or repels them and forces them into a self-imposed house-arrest. The situation is a zero-sum conflict of interest.

Dalrymple has described this situation in the context of the elderly in today’s Britain. They often don not feel free to leave their homes if it’s after dark on a boozing night.

The question of “who, effectively, owns the streets, and for what purposes” is one of fundamental political importance. It is a subject one only really begins to appreciate when one notices that he must exile his children from those ‘public’ spaces.

The old social order was much better at preserving a kind of public wholesomeness quarantine. It encouraged discretion and insisted that matters best kept away from innocent and immature children be sequestered from them in private spaces.

As such, most ordinary parents could afford to engage in “free-range parenting” without much worry. The new social order tolerated things like Times Square becoming a red-light district, before the negative public reaction led to reversing some of those excesses.

So fatherhood got Dreher thinking seriously about the nature of this crucial, difficult problem, in the child-rearing version of Johnson’s line: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

What does wholesome child-rearing require in terms of psychological, social, and communal influences? Where could he go for the support and social reinforcement he realized he needed?

He wondered whether the Republican Party was still a political coalition able and willing to defend the interests of religious families, and he concluded that it wasn’t.

Within the GOP, there had long been tension between traditionalist. social conservatives on the one hand, and those who were more interested in resisting leftist economics and statism from a libertarian, individualist, and market-based perspective on the other. The latter group was indifferent or neutral to the social requirements of families, and over time, they seem to have won out.

What about the churches? Worthless. They had become culturally impotent, inert, and beleaguered. But worse, they were now mostly uninterested in counter-culturally challenging the ideological zeitgeist. The Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis seems intent on surrendering to it almost entirely, And Dreher – once a Catholic himself – has blogged in a way that leaves little doubt that regards Pope Francis the same way that Dante judged Pope Boniface VIII – “a wicked man who leads his flock astray.”

But it’s by no means only a Catholic problem, and Dreher is not shy about insisting that all denominations of “his people” suffer from the same malady. He writes:

Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

Well, ok, but what kind of “fight” did Dreher want or expect? What would he have liked to have seen? More sermons? I have a feeling that if counter-culturalists of any stripe organized to put up real fights, Dreher would recoil in outrage.

Dreher was strongly influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and puts his bottom line up front.

The time was coming, said MacIntyre, when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

Few want to admit what is plainly true: full participation and the social integration of ‘normalcy’ is now deeply incompatible with a traditional lifestyle. And, like it or not, there is no alternative but to surrender on the one hand, or retreat and withdraw on the other. If you want your kids to grow up a certain way, believe in and cherish certain things, then there is no other option but to separate them from general society and surround them with a highly-selective peer group – really an entire sub-society – which will give you the support you need.

That’s a tough message. The first thing people try to do to deal when presented with very hard choices is to try to deny the reality of the trade-off they face.

People prefer to live in their illusions, able to tell their lies. They want to be normal people, fully participating in normal American society. They may like to signal different priorities, and claim that they’d be willing to give up some of the benefits of normalcy if there were any conflict with their sacred values and religious commitments. But, then that conveniently never happens to be the case.

No one wants to admit to the embarrassment of being on the losing side of a power and status conflict. It is humiliating to concede that one is being shoved-out and compelled to leave by stronger, higher-status victors. And the opposition is likely to encourage the delusion to keep down their adversary’s guard and avoid triggering their early warning detection systems.

That’s all understandable, but if it doesn’t change, it’s going to be why 99% of Christians are going to fade away.

I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom out children and out children’s children to assimilation.

By assimilation, he means apostasy, since the mainstream culture is far too un-Christian.

Meanwhile the Millennial generation began to abandon the church in number unprecedented in U.S. history. And they almost certain did not know what they were discarding: new social science research indicated that young adults are almost entirely ignorant of the teaching and practices of the historical Christian faith.

All of this raises the questions of why did these churches give up teaching, why is that world is growing ever more hostile, and why is Christianity now suddenly, unavoidably countercultural.

Dreher says that Obergefell was a critical milestone in the overall trend, a theme he will revisit several times:

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left – which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream – has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

Dreher’s best contribution to the modern conceptual toolkit is his “Law of Merited Impossibility”: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

It began as a description of the untrustworthy rhetorical style by which elite progressive public intellectuals would argue for some social reform. It’s a slippery slope argument. Opponents would reasonably and accurately point out that the reform logically belonged to a class containing much more objectionable measures, and would open the door to them. All of those measures are bound together by a similar ideological value, but one that admits no articulable limiting principle, or provides any line of demarcation between the arguable and the awful. Thus, acquiescing to the nose in the tent would sooner or later mean letting in the whole filthy camel.

Which is what principled progressives really wanted, or at least found unobjectionable. They knew there was no such limiting principle, and that disliked subsequent changed would follow. But they understood that admitting as much honestly and publicly would be politically foolish, as the camel’s filth remained too unpopular, at least, for the moment.

The principle of anti-discrimination, in its absolutist and dogmatically unreasonable form, simply does not tolerate any non-hypocritical exceptions to the general rule. And so all social institutions, norms, and policies inconsistent with the principle must and will be swept away, in the fullness of time. The issue of unpopularity, no matter how horrible the results, is merely one of a social force that causes frustrating delay but which is by no means insurmountable.

So they misled and tried to forestall these arguments by claiming their opponents were avoiding the merits of the narrow issue at hand. They then switched rhetorical gears, mocking those rivals mercilessly for fear-mongering and concocting absurd scenarios. They would say that all sensible people knew those scenarios were extreme exaggerations, which would never come about, and which were something the progressives weren’t even arguing for and, besides, everyone understood those things to be politically “impossible.”

Then, the minute the narrow reform was implemented or some political or judicial victory was won, it was suddenly ok to start publicly working on accomplishing those impossibilities without skipping a single beat.

The truth of Dreher’s law is taught to us by sad experience, and almost every other week these days. It is a supplement to Auster’s identification of unprincipled exceptions and says that all such exceptions are inherently fragile, that is, in the realm of politics, “all slopes are slippery”.

The ultimate political test of Dreher’s Law – for those who oppose some reform due to the undesirability of some logically implied extensions – would be to observe the response to an offer of a certain kind of limited compromise. That would be one in which the reform is enacted in exchange for official and reliable prohibition of all those “impossible” scenarios. And if the deal doesn’t survive the courts, then the whole bargain self-annihilates.

The progressives will say “no deal”. That would strike one as odd if one believed they were being honest about what is and is not “impossible”, since who would object to what one truly believes to be impossible? What’s the cost of offering insurance against something which cannot happen?

The real importance of Dreher’s Law is it makes one take ideological extrapolations seriously instead of dismissing them, which in turn helps one recognize the kind of future one is really facing and what one is up against.

In the final part of the introduction, Dreher outlines the structure of the book, and lets the reader know he isn’t going to get behind any specific proposal or suggestion. He is going to continue to raise the alarm, present some examples of Christians giving it a shot, and hope that it inspires people to get together and try to solve the problem.

Like, say, cutting themselves off from the mainstream and running for the hills.

Oh, whoops, Dreher doesn’t want to say that. That’s because it is one of two major ‘critiques’ of his thesis which are made by nominal Christians who really don’t want to admit they’re now going to have to choose between their Christianity and comfortable lifestyles. “Dreher says run for the hills!” is an interesting kind of argumentative fallacy. It is a sneaky way of trying to dismiss Dreher’s basic premise. If (1) a conclusion follows from Dreher’s statements, and (2) is so undesirable that my brain won’t accept it, then (3) it must be wrong and absurd, thus (4) Dreher is nuts and everything he says can be ignored. So (5) Whew, what a relief! Now we can ignore the problem and just go back to whatever we were doing. QED.

Dreher recognizes the power (however unfair) of this rhetoric in the fight for deutungshoheit and control over the public opinion on the issue. He responds by saying, “I’m not saying run for the hills! Over and over again, I insist, in the most explicit terms, that I’m not saying run for the hills! These people aren’t able to quote me, and they aren’t even making an argument that it’s a conclusion implied by anything I’ve said. Please stop saying it!”

Now, it’s true that his milquetoast-Christian critics haven’t made that argument, and they show no real interest in doing so. But unfortunately for Dreher, that doesn’t mean one couldn’t make it, or it wouldn’t be valid if one did.

It’s true that Dreher insists over and over that he isn’t saying run for the hills. But unfortunately, he can’t show that the solution set for the problem includes anything less drastic or radical He would be more honest to say, “I might be saying run for the hills. I’m not sure yet; nobody is. It’s not something I’ve worked out or could work out. I really hope I’m not saying that, but it’s possible I am. To be even more gloomy and frank about it, it may turn out in the final analysis that even running for the hills wouldn’t be enough. Hills are much protection anymore.”

I suspect that everyone, Dreher and his critics, grasps all that, but that the rhetorical games dance around it. Both Dreher and his critics may suspect it to be true, but have to pretend it’s false, for different reasons.

The critics pretend RFTH is false because that implies they don’t have to get off their asses to do anything: the most comfortable and pleasant possibility.

Dreher has to pretend RFTH is false because he doesn’t want it to scare away readers before even having a chance to make his case.

But again, how do we know that Christians won’t need to RFTH? How do we know that Dreher’s historical examples of Christian survival despite oppression and adversity are relevant to the modern age?

Modern religion faces a different kind of enemy: the metaphysical revolution of empiricism and eliminative materialism. One is contending not with superstitious pagans or even someone like Celsus but with a set of ideas altogether (and durably) antithetical to all serious theological sensibilities. And it is a set which has solidly owned the perch atop all the hierarchies of our intellectual life for centuries, with every sign of being irreversible so long as advanced civilization persists.

The other major criticism from these types is the claim that separating from mainstream society can’t preserve Christianity because it is inherently anti-Christian. All Christians, these critics say, are commanded to evangelize and proselytize on behalf of the faith. They are to be the salt of the earth and a light unto nations. That, at a minimum, requires them to remain integrated with the heathens in order to be ambassadors for Christianity and winsome examples projecting the noble virtuousness of the Christian character. By such example and good works, and by routine display of courage and the strength of their commitments, they will generate such a positive impression that it will open the hearts and minds of the heathens, and make them receptive to the gospels.

This argument has even more rhetorical strength and emotional resonance than the previous one. Religious commandments are not easy to counter by rational explanation of exceptional circumstance in which injudicious obedience would be self-destructive. When the pragmatic mode of cognition turned off, the counterargument – that there is no sustainable strategy if converting one man come at the cost of losing two – simply doesn’t resonate. “Will the last convert please turn out the cemetery lights.”

Dreher instead says, “We can’t give away what we do not have,” and something about the savor of salt. He is desperately trying to communicate with these critics in the accepted language of Christian argumentation, but it’s hard to sustain much patience for it.

I understand why he can’t be more blunt, but I sometimes wish he would break down just once and hit them with a 2×4 of frankness, like this:

It’s completely unethical of you to abuse the duty to evangelism as an excuse to do nothing except put your head in the sand, deny the crisis, and avoid reality. It’s not like you’re some full-time missionary, converting and baptizing people left and right, and I’m asking you to stop all that and give up your important, holy works. You just don’t want to make the sacrifices that would follow from disengagement and separation from mainstream society. And you’re so desperate to avoid them that you’ll disgustingly pretend it would be anti-Christian to do so, which is perverse. And also, frankly, blasphemous, since the result of your counsel would mean a continuation of the status quo which is, obviously, the suicide of Christianity. “Passive evangelism” goes both ways, and you don’t look winsome to the abyss without it looking winsome back to you, or, more importantly, to your kids. It’s so winsome, in fact, that you can’t bear the thought of leaving it, even if means the death of your Faith for your family. That allure is why you’re making all these excuses in the first place. You can’t bullshit your way out of this one, so get you head out of your ass. Jesus commands you to tend to the survival of Christianity, and isolation or insulation of one kind or another is only the bare minimum of what it’s going to take. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Once we could play offense. Now we must play defense. Or perish. So buck up, it’s time to get with the program.

Chapter 1: The Great Flood

Dreher was living in the Baton Rouge region where he was raised during the 2016 Louisiana Floods, and blogged extensively about his experience of the disaster and the charitable assistance he and his family provided to those in need. He uses the example of that rare and devastating flood as a metaphor for the unprecedented crisis facing Christianity in the West. It was the kind of thing people ignored as a possibility because no one believed – or wanted to believe – it could ever really happen.

And then when it happened, most were woefully unprepared.

The analogy breaks down in that a flood is a statistical outlier and caused by impersonal forces of nature indifferent to any exercise of agency, while the crisis of Christianity results from the last several centuries of human history.

We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood – or if you believe Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a fifteen-hundred-year flood: in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. … barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America.

The storm clouds:

The breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities – we were troubled by these developments but believed they were reversible and didn’t reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our approach to faith. Our religious leaders told us that strengthening the levees of law and politics would keep the flood of secularism at bay. The sense one has was: There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed by continuing to do what Christians have been doing for decades – especially voting for Republicans.

He’ll revisit this theme later, but while it’s a long diversion, we might as well get into this here.

There is no possible final resolution to the ancient debate between moralistic idealism and realistic pragmatism. Probably, we are best off accepting a kind of tacit compromise of keeping both positions around and in a balance of dynamic, adversarialist tension, giving advocates of each side a chance to make their case in new and every-changing contexts.

We must save our souls, but if we are to survive and our ways are to continue, then we must also save ourselves. And so, if we are to attend to both, then when we do not enjoy luxurious circumstances of perfect safety and security, we will sometimes have to make hard choices of trading one value off for the other.

It is of course usually good to have an allergy to fighting dirty. But that’s not the case when you are innocent and your life depends on it. Prison gangs are every bit worthy of everyone’s condemnation and disgust. But in the special context of prison, one joins or one perishes.

So, without being totally dismissive of absolutist viewpoints, we should also avoid letting either side go to extremes. That’s especially true in a time like ours, when advocacy and responsibility are so decoupled.

Dreher repeatedly signals his disaffiliation from the Republican party, and especially from Donald Trump. He seems to do so at each possible opportunity. In this, he is hardly alone, and certainly not an outlier among prominent, Christianity-focused American public intellectuals. He is probably more anti-GOP than the rest of them, and somewhat less anti-Trump: a difference that likely stems from how intertwined each of their careers are with establishment conservatism. Dreher writes for (indeed, his blogging seems to drive most of the traffic to) The American Conservative. But TAC is not an establishment journal, so he maintains some ideological distance from the GOP mainstream, which complements his geographic distance from the Acela corridor.

But what he seems to share with those Northeast fellow travelers is a common desire for disaffiliation and social distancing. Nearly all prominent right wing writers want desperately to be taken seriously and to be seen as special cases worthy of civility, respect, and thoughtful consideration in the eyes of liberals and progressive elites. They want to be friends, not enemies. They want to be seen as distinct: more principled, sophisticated, and nuanced than those straight-ticket-voter-for-life hoi polloi fundamentalists. They don’t want to be presumptively dismissed, reflexively disposed of, and ostracized from polite society. They abhor being found guilty by association.

American Christian public intellectuals have a common habit of declaring a kind of indifferent and transcendent insensitivity to basic political calculations. They repeatedly express agonized and angry disappointment with their ordinary American Christian fellows, tossing them under the bus for (purportedly) abandoning their Christian principles and commitments for the sake of temporal, political power.

In the wake of Trump’s election every one of these commentators has used some version of the following argument:

Christians and social conservatives have gone on and on for at least two generations, saying that choosing politicians of spotless integrity and character, and deeply committed to our moral values, was of preeminent importance, and a non-negotiable priority over any other political concerns. But now they are suddenly willing to drop all of that and support Donald Trump, whose personality and life history clearly represent almost the polar opposite of that ideal. So much for the principles of these so-called Christians! Don’t they realize we’ll irreversible damage and lose our reputation for being sincere men and women of principle. The danger is that from now on, the progressives will simply call us a bunch of dishonest hypocrites who were never honest about the requirements of our faith, but charlatans merely abusing assertions of religious conscience and conviction as a cynical cover story. They’ll say it was all just a charade obscuring a political agenda based on bigotry, oppression, exploitation, and greed.

These commentators have a good point, there’s no denying it. However, pragmatism and realism dictate that strategies must change when circumstances change. And boy, have circumstances changed: half of TBO is dedicated to describing by how much. Different values can come into conflict, and the question is one of finding the optimal balance, not of “making an idol” of one value to the expense of all others and then taking it to harmful extremes. Indeed, the obsessive maximization of one value by their political and cultural opponents is exactly the origin of the trouble Christians are in.

That all raises the question: What is the right balance between idealism and pragmatism now?

We will revisit the subject in the review of Chapter 4, “A New Kind of Christian Politics.” But for now it’s enough to say that the right balance can not be suicide.

And, to be blunt, there is just something pathologically suicidal about modern American Christianity un-tempered by a commitment to a superseding principle of the survival of the things one claims to care about.

There is something that craves the self-righteous satisfaction of taking a conspicuously public stand for collective martyrdom for the sake of ‘principle’ – one that is hard to distinguish from generic, progressivism-compatible ‘niceness’ – no matter how futile, impotent, unreasonable, or counterproductive. These performances overflow with displays of sanctimonious indignation, but at the end of the show it’s clear that they don’t take the danger of failure seriously. That’s someone else’s problem.

Absent the special circumstance of a solid track-record transforming this kind of commitment into net increase and propagation, any beleaguered group whose members care about something more than survival, won’t survive. We cannot all be the priests in the French Carmelite Convent, or the holdouts on top of Masada, or there will be no one left to honor the martyrs and be inspired by their example.

Either you’re willing to accept the end of something, or you’re not. Well then, what if you’re not?

Perpetuationism is the general idea that for anything one deems worthy of permanent continuation, the moral imperative of existential preservation gets top priority. When working through one’s moral calculus and choosing among alternative courses of action, the principle of survival and maintenance of viability always has precedence and trumps other considerations.

When survival is not threatened, one is freed – indeed morally obligated – to use one’s position of security and surplus to practice the other virtues, widen one’s circle of concern, and elevate the overall climate of social interaction, so far as it is feasible and prudent to do so. If one can afford to be gracious, one should be. If not, one is justified in stern harshness.

But in times of peril and catastrophe, it’s perfectly reasonable and normal to adjust ethical regimes as necessary and appropriate, especially when to do otherwise would mean to permit the perverse result of one’s defeat by a less scrupulous enemy. This is merely what happens when a situation warrants the declaration of martial law, and what people mean when they discuss “lifeboat ethics” or “wartime ethics”.

All of this seems consistent with common sense and normal moral intuitions, so why is the commentary so lopsided, and why do American Christian public intellectual commentators so often stick with advocating naively idealistic policies even when they are clearly counterproductive? There’s just no incentive for them to do otherwise. That’s what virtue signaling is all about. When one doesn’t actually bear any responsibility for consequences, one is judged only on what one says, not on the bad results which follow. That why the focus on things like ‘reputation’ instead of consequences.

At any rate, the “preserve our reputation” line relies on a myth. With perhaps the exception of a few high-status Christian commentators, Progressives have already believed that about all religious conservatives for a long time: either they were brainwashed idiots or Elmer Gantrys at best. Nothing but evil liars paying lip service to religious sentiments they didn’t share, and scriptures they had never read, merely as means of suckering the brainwashed idiots as a road to power. The minute a principled man of character steps into the limelight and emerges as a potential threat, the progressives give that individual zero credit and their media apparatus spares no time at all in smearing the man as evil incarnate, whether that individual lived a scandalous life that gives them plenty of ammunition to do so, or whether he’s been a spotlessly clean boy scout from birth. E.g., Mitt Romney. (Though they are happy to emphasize all those positive traits and rehabilitate all the beautiful losers the minute after they no longer pose any political threat, and prove useful for other purposes.)

Now, it’s true that Dreher doesn’t want to be the “no choice but to vote GOP to buy time” guy for much the same reason he doesn’t want to be the “run for the hills” guy. It’s a wise position. It would cause unwanted and distracting collateral controversy that will seriously detract from his main message and deafen the ears of too many members of his intended audience. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean there are any better alternative options.

Ok, long diversion over. Let’s get back to the rest of the Chapter:

Dreher spends a few pages describing the collapse of authentic Christian belief in the West, and in America in particular.

The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. … Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught is devoid of power and life.

He gives the basic tenets of Smith and Denton’s “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, which, not coincidentally, sounds an awful lot like the charitable, non-judgy, and politically-quietist NGO progressives want Christianity to be, or about as much as they can tolerate from it.

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

MTD is most of what’s left of American Mainline Protestantism, and, not coincidentally, is a little hard to tell apart from Unitarian Universalism. Herberg’s “triple melting pot” from Protestant-Catholic-Jew is now mostly one MTD melting pot for many Americans of all creeds with attachment to their faiths and traditions lighter than what is necessary to sustain a genuinely counter-cultural status and lifestyle. Which is now most people.

Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

At this point one might well ask what “coming to terms” means after transcending mere denial. But judging from many of the reactions to Dreher’s message to date, it seems that dealing with denial alone is such a major front in the war that one needs to focus on that, and ease them into it as gently as possible. Thus it’s best to be vague about next steps. And there is some value to letting people think it through for themselves.

But then again, maybe they already have on some level, and this frame has the direction of causation reversed. Perhaps it is a protective reaction that is downstream from already having faced – on some psychological level – some uncomfortable implications about the hard requirements of the near future.

That is, the recipe for their denials isn’t made up of a cold-blooded and hard-nosed analysis of the real state of affairs, but with precisely with the ingredients of those implications. Realistically for most people – even those who like to imagine themselves as dedicated and pious Christians – these implications are just too hard to bear.

People are going to have make the hard choice about how much they are willing to sacrifice. On the one hand, there is fidelity to faith but cultural withdrawal and separation. On the other, a normal, successful life, integrated into mainstream society and culture, and able to interact and socialize in general with one’s reputation and status intact, able to get into the good schools and good jobs.

“I’m not saying run for the hills!” – “Yeah, I know you’re not saying it. But … it kind of sounds like … we’re going to have to run for the hills. At least, that’s the level of sacrifice we’re talking about. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not the run for the hills type. So, though I don’t like to admit it, I’ll probably just cave.”

No one wants to admit that. And one doesn’t have to: the only thing one has to do is pretend and deny the problem exists at all.

But that denial is made tough when faced with the facts and figures which Dreher marshals in favor of his claim, and indeed, which seriously faithful men and women across the country experience every day in relation to the weakening health of their churches and congregations.

So the number one response to Dreher so far has been some salt and light gibberish.

Dreher’s response is both current and very strategic and diplomatic. “We cannot give what we do not have. Our light must shine bright, not flicker in smoke, and our salt must taste savory and not lose its essence. So we must tend to our own very serious weaknesses and strengthen and build up ourselves and our own communities before worrying about that.”

After all, the “being salt and light …” rebuttal is like trying to plead with the lions in the arena, or ‘inspire’ the spectators who only came to see you become a fun, fancy feast. If it ever worked, it doesn’t any longer. The fact is, everybody knows this strategy has been tried for our entire lives, and it has failed, utterly.

Is there any precedent for the precarious times in which Western Christianity finds itself?

Fear not! We have been in a place like this before. In the first few centuries of Christianity, the early church survived and grew under Roman persecution and later after the collapse of the empire in the West. We latter-day Christians must learn from their example – and particularly from the example of Saint Benedict.

Dreher spends a few pages detailing the story of Saint Benedict, the case of whom he seems to have picked up from the following paragraph from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (my emphasis added).

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.

But while Benedict does indeed have a special and important role in the history of Christianity, it’s worth asking before even getting started whether the example is a good analogy for our time or not. Have we actually been here before, or are modern technological times simply too different, too ‘disenchanted’, and too unique?

If we aren’t sure, then how do we know if we can actually learn anything of practical and spiritual use from Benedict’s example? After all, if the book is called The Benedict Option, and spends a lot of time on Benedict and his monastery, then and now, then if we even suspect that the answer to that question is negative, why even bother?

Rome’s fall left behind a staggering degree of material poverty, the result of both the disintegration of Rome’s complex trade network and the loss of intellectual and technical sophistication.

That was Benedict’s context, but consider just how different that description is from today’s conditions in which, if anything, it is our wealth and material prosperity and government welfare expenditures that make us much less dependent on neighbors or community.

Does it matter? My answer is that Saint Benedict is a fairly arbitrary choice and is not critically important to the book’s message, so one doesn’t have to worry about it very much. A dozen other examples could have been chosen and the same outline and structure followed. Indeed there’s something of a cottage industry online of people playing theme and variation with “X-Option” as a snowclone. X=Benedict is merely one satellite out of many possibilities orbiting the same general idea of alarm, rejection, exit, “exile in place”, and separation. On having an insular focus and building one’s own community according to a distinct, countercultural vision for the sake of that vision’s continuation when its survival is at stake.

There is a particular, important lesson that we can derive specifically from the Benedictines at the Norcia monastery, and I’ll discuss that when getting to Chapter 3.

Dreher later discusses MacIntyre’s thesis:

We are governed by what MacIntyre called emotivism: the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.

MacIntyre said that a society that governed itself according to emotivist principles would look a lot like the modern West, in which the liberation of the individual’s will is thought to be the greatest good.

… Achieving this kind of society requires:

1. Abandoning objective moral standards
2. Refusing to accept any religiously or culturally binding narrative originating outside oneself, except as chosen;
3. Repudiating memory of the past as irrelevant; and
4. Distancing oneself from community as well as any unchosen social obligations.

It’s worth pausing here and observing that this is not actually what our world looks like. Not even close. What’s really going on?

MacIntyre, Dreher, Deneen, and many other non-progressive Public Intellectuals of a certain age are still stuck in the ‘Relativist’ frame (cf: “Relativism and the Study of Man” – 1961) which goes back well over a century but which started to fade away during the early “New Left” era. They are beating a distracting dead horse, when there is a live one running around, winning the race.

Ask whether it makes sense that virtue is being undermined to critically low levels at the same time that “virtue signaling” is exploding in frequency of usage. It is being used as a legitimate complaint about an increasingly intense social phenomenon of sanctimonious conspicuously displays of critical and judgy-condemnations. One can’t signal arbitrary, individualized virtues. It’s only possible when there a dominant ideology emphasized by nearly all high status people has social currency.

Furthermore, does it make sense to say that it’s still all about choice and self-interest – the emancipation and liberation of individuals from authority – when ‘liberals’ are completely eager for state authority to impose various behavioral and speech rules on everybody, according to their moral vision?

All the relativism and principled (as opposed to boutique) multiculturalism talk occurred during what we can now appreciate to have been merely an intermediate phase of our political evolution. It characterized an early stage of the diffusion of a minority elite ideology into the cultural mainstream, until that ideology established sufficient levels of adoption and dominance to encourage its proponents to switch gears.

One argues for ‘relativism’ when one is trying to tear down an established moral order to make space for something new. And one drops that effort the moment one achieves the upper hand, then works to consolidate one’s gains and eliminate all rivals.

This evolution is entirely analogous to the evolution of progressive positions from free speech absolutists to ruthless speech police during the same time-frame.

The truth is, we’re not ‘after’ virtue at all. We’re just after the old set of virtues, which have been replaced by a new, progressive set.

We can demonstrate this by assessing the elements of that list.

1. Have we abandoned objective moral standards? Ask Americans whether slavery and racism are objectively evil. 95% at least for yes, especially if people are saying it in public under their own names.

2. Do people refuse to accept cultural narratives? Not if it’s the arc of history being long but bending towards social justice.

3. Is memory of the past irrelevant? Not when it comes to condemning most of that history as immoral by current standards.

4. Are we immune from communal standards of social obligations? Not when it comes to recycling or carbon emissions. Or paying taxes and supporting generous redistribution, unlike those evil, greedy, selfish people.

Dreher calls this barbarism, but it isn’t that at all. This is a rival set of moral and organization principles which form the basis for a different form of civilization than the traditional Western one it is displacing. Not an equal civilization, mind you. Like attempts to establish Communist societies, progressive civilization will have its unpleasant and dysfunctional aspects according to its fundamental characteristics. But it remains a rival foundation for a civilization nonetheless.

Dreher concludes the chapter by going back to the Baton Rouge Great Flood of 2016, and to the ‘Cajun Navy’ and the rest of the local response which arose spontaneously, “… out of the love local people had for their neighbor, and the sense of responsibility they had to care for those left poor and naked by the flood.”

Now, Dreher is just using this example to illustrate what he hopes will happen with regards to a spontaneous response to the crisis for Christianity. But one can imagine a progressive asking that if, as is likely, these were mostly Americans more under the thrall of MTD than orthodox followers of Christianity, then what’s so bad about MTD after all?

I think Dreher would answer that this is a key error of someone who cannot think outside the progressive framework. It’s not about analyzing the pros and cons of different social models. It’s about whether one can live as a pious Christian in an antagonistic society, and if so, how. A society full of ‘nice’ MTDs untethered from any particular tradition, even those who can be relied upon to feed each other jambalaya after a disaster, still won’t help a Christian to live a genuinely Christian life. He needs more.

Actually, I think Dreher already knows that leftism / progressivism is not ‘after virtue’ but consists of ‘different virtue’ than the set handed down in the West’s Great Tradition, with its substantial Christian inheritance and influence.

Just like the critics of older Socialist movements and keen observers of the ‘sociology of Marxism’, Dreher has an instinctive recognition of the religious mindset, even when directed towards secular ends. He finds it intuitive to use religious terminology to explain the social psychology of contemporary progressivism. Terms like zealot, fanatic, Puritan, blasphemy, heresy, excommunication, etc., all seem to flow naturally and cut the nature of common and instinctive norm-policing behaviors at the joints.

Progressives are adamant in their instructions to individuals as to what ‘problematic’ things they may not say, do, or believe. At least if they are to retain their employment, invitations to talks, or membership in polite society.

I’m guessing he’s also has plenty of exposure to discussion of the idea of American Civil Religion (e.g., Robert Bellah’s 1967 article). That idea some important influence on the neoconservatives and their conception of Civic Nationalism for a Propositional Nation, and it generated similar kinds of ‘religious’ behaviors. And indeed, a large part of the idea was to find a more universal substitute for religion which could deliver similar, salutary social effects.

So why all the emphasis on relativism and unlimited liberation then?

I think it’s two things:

1. People just can’t get past the “‘Religion’ Requires A Supernatural Deity” frame. They will say things like, “Without God, and without a fixed moral revelation, how can there be any basis for asserting moral claims? And the immediate logical implication of the absence of such a tether is obviously moral nihilism.”

This is made more difficult by the fact that secular progressives also operate within the same epistemic framework, and would reject any identification of their ideology with a ‘religion’. They certainly wouldn’t go even further and recognize that is effectively our “state religion”.

But that’s not how the social psychology of ideological cognition works. For better or worse, God is not a necessary ingredient.

The human moral mental architecture is able to accommodate, latch onto, and implement other, secular systems. And so long as enough high-status people signal their belief in that system, then the vast majority of adherents will be untroubled by any logical contradictions or other intellectual problems deriving from alternative, trans-objective metaphysical constructs taking the place of God.

2. The erroneous obsession with a purported “unlimited liberation of the individual” derives from the traditionalist social conservatives focus on sexuality and the family. If one maintains this cynosure, then the past 60 years look like

… a cutting asunder of straps and ties, wherever you might find them; pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter: a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions …

New rights to contraception, abortion, no-fault divorce, the moral welter of modern family law, a right to sodomy and to gay-marriage, normalization and commercialization of promiscuity, cohabitation, voluntary single-motherhood, all the new pronoun-Nazi and socially-contagious sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) stuff, ‘toxic’ masculinity, etc. The list goes on and on.

And it’s not just normalization, but Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” which insists that the only new sin is the moral condemnation of the old sins.

One can see how someone of a traditionalist bent would view all that as almost morally nihilistic and libertine ultra-individualism. It seems to be heading inevitably towards unrestricted license to do almost anything with anyone or anything, like Bartol’s Alamut: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” or Crowley’s Thelema, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

But all that is in error. Progressive sexual morality gives with one hand but takes away with the other, and can be obnoxiously and inhumanely strict in new ways depending on who is trying to what to whom.

The subject is out of the present scope, but the point again is that to focus on ‘relativism’ is to be led astray.

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis

Since it’s worth going over again for this chapter, let’s review Dreher’s Law of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

When progressives propose some social reforms, traditionalists get worried. Some reforms are bigger deals that others. Some cross long-established lines that underpin important social compromises and hold back a flood of other measures. When the reform looks to be a crack in that dam, traditionalists figure out that new moral and legal principles would be established, the implications of which would include changing a lot of things they strongly care about. So they bring up the examples of those implied, undesirable consequences as an argument against implementing the reform.

Progressives don’t assuage such concerns by credibly committing to forswear the enactment of these potentially aggravating policies. If they were willing to do so, there are plenty of clever ways they could try to accomplish it. For example, they could do so by explicitly prohibiting them in the law, or perhaps by placing huge public bets against the prospect. Instead, progressives prefer to deploy an alternative, rhetorical strategy by saying that traditionalists are either lying to cover up their bigotry and/or being literally crazy, hysterical, and paranoid about what ‘everybody knows’ will never come to pass.

And then, when all that was predicted in fact comes to pass, and usually in just the blink of an eye, the progressives not only refuse to admit they were deceitful or even just innocently wrong, but say that of course it should be this way, because it’s a clear and obvious logical implication of a (now sacred and established) moral principle!

Since this keeps happening the same way, over and over again, in practical terms, Dreher’s Law translates as, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, or a thousand times in a row, shame on me. So don’t trust them again. They’ll ask for an inch, but when you give it to them, they’ll take a mile, call it justice, and still ask for more and more again. Either insist on rock solid assurances, or fight them to the end.”

We can observe this pattern in a more general way, without the persecution, but with unintended social consequences. When traditionalists and social conservatives predict a parade of social horribles and cultural undermining or moral collapse as a result of new policies, subsidies, and norms, the progressives will insist that’s all exaggerated crazy talk that will never happen, and then when it does, say it’s a good thing, after all.

Or, at the very least, that there is no valid, non-bigoted basis for judging a new ‘alternative’ state of affairs as worse than anything else.

“The Law of Transvalued Impossibility” doesn’t have the same ring to it.  But it’s the equally true abstraction of Dreher’s Law, and one we can observe in operation every day.

All this provides the right perspective and framework to interpret the way Dreher starts his chapter by exploring the social fallout and collateral damage of the sexual revolution, feminism, and the adoption of new consumer technologies.

Yet neither woman is confident about the future for their grandchildren. One tells the other that in the past year, she has gone to six baby showers for young women in her family and social circles. None of the expectant mothers had husbands. Some had more than one child out of wedlock. The gray-haired women know what poverty and insecurity are like, and they can’t believe that these young women would bring children into the world without fathers in the home, given how much more likely children in those situations are to be poor. And where are the fathers, anyway? What is wrong with young men these days?

… Still, the normalization of having children outside of marriage is hard for them to take. In the 1940s, when they were born, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among whites was 2 percent. It is now nearly 30 percent (the overall birth rate to unwed mothers is 41 percent). “It’s like the whole world is coming apart,” sighed one of the women.

“I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see it,” said the other.

Those women aren’t imagining things. Their whole world really is unraveling. …

… We are living with the consequences of ideas accepted many generations ago, and as a result of those decisions, we are losing our religion – a far greater crisis than merely losing the habit of churchgoing.

Dreher spends the rest of the Chapter to briefly explain the outline of the theological, ideological, and intellectual history that got us to this point. Here are his “five landmark events.”

1. In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation – or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality.

2. The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

3. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.

4. The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

5. The Sexual Revolution (1960-present).

For step 1, he explains Thomas Acquinas’s Scholasticism and “metaphysical realism” as having three elements:

1. The world and everything in it is part of a harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning – and all things are signs pointing to God.

2. Society is grounded in that higher reality.

3. The world is charge with that spiritual force.

This was part of a long tradition of Natural Revelation. Then came William of Ockham (of the Razor), and Nominalism.

This sounds like angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff, but its importance cannot be overstated. Medieval metaphysicians believed nature pointed to God. Nominalists did not.

But why did Nominalism win, or, at least win enough to change History? Dreher doesn’t say, and to be fair, that’s a hard question.

Another question is to what extent did Nominalism really win, as ideas related natural revelation never seemed to go away, but again, that’s a tough one.

I think Dreher’s point is that the idea of separation between nature and God made nature more open to examination, study, inquiry, and artistic expression and exploration. It did by dissipating it’s theological charge. Then Dreher’s story gets a bit murky as somehow the line of causation runs to a series of catastrophes such as the Hundred Years War, a great 14th century famine, and then the Black Death, out of which, somehow, emerged the Renaissance and the sprouts of individualism and optimistic humanism.

Then Dreher gets to Luther and the Reformation, but he treats the surface theological and moral versions of that narrative as sufficiently explanatory, while leaving out the geopolitical aspect of Luther’s German prince allies trying to break free of Rome’s power so they could enjoy it themselves.

Then he moves on to the savage European Wars of Religion, to include the Thirty Years War, which wiped out a quarter to a third of the population in some regions.

To be fair, the Wars of Religion were as political, social, and economic as they were religious. But the religious basis for the wars caused weary European intellectuals to explore ways of living peaceably with the schism between Rome and the Reformers.

Meanwhile, The Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton:

… overturned the Aristotelian-Christian cosmos – a hierarchical model of reality in which all things exist organically through their relationship to God – in favor of a mechanical universe ordered by laws of nature, with no necessary grounding in the transcendent. … the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism. If the material world could be studied and understood on its own, without reference to God, then science can exist on its own, free of theological controversy.

… The Scientific Revolution culminated in the life and work of Sir Isaac Newton, a physicist, mathematician, and unorthodox Christian who fabricated a new model of the universe that explained its physical working in a wholly mechanical way.

For multiple reasons including simple status envy, the power of this type of explanation would eventually be mimicked by all disciplines even when wildly inappropriate. This often led to hubris and overconfidence in the ability to model, control, and engineer all aspects of the complicated world to suit man’s purposes. Which often led to disaster.

(For some historical perspective: remember that a Mayflower full of Puritans left Plymouth over 20 years before Newton was even born, and would set up a strict theocracy on a new continent.)

Whether Dreher’s telling actual makes sense as a sufficiently, causally explanatory historical narrative could be the basic of endless debate. But we should ask to what extent is all of this explanation even necessary to Dreher’s thesis? Dreher writes:

For our purposes, the Enlightenment matters because it was a decisive break with the Christian legacy of the West. God, if He was mentioned at all, was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but the nondescript divinity of the Deists.

Well, that says most of it rather concisely. It was an irreversible metaphysical upheaval. When Science, reason, and empirical thinking – the Enlightenment state of mind – became high status and intellectually fashionable among European elites, then received traditional theology came to be doubted as unfounded superstitions suitable only for children and simple, low-status commoners.

Gradually over generations, and as with all fashions, that view dispersed among the elite classes and then trickled down the social hierarchy until it has hollowed out adherence to the old faith, the excesses of which came to be openly mocked as ridiculous. Eventually God is dead for a critical mass of the people that matter, and everyone else would catch up eventually.

Dreher then gets to Locke:

The purpose of government, according to Locke, is not to pursue virtue but rather to establish and guard a social order under which individuals can exercise their will within reason. …

The U.S. Constitution, a Lockean document, privatizes religion, separating it from the state. Every American schoolchild learns to consider this a blessing, and perhaps it is. But segregating the sacred from the secular in this way profoundly shaped the American religious consciousness.

For all the good that religious tolerance undoubtedly brought to a young country with a diverse and contentious population of Protestant sectarians and a Catholic minority, it also laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice. In the American order, the state’s role is simply to act as a referee among individuals and factions. The government has no ultimate conception of the good, and it regards its own role as limited to protecting the rights of individuals.

One must note here that it is impossible, or at least incredibly unstable, for a government run by human beings to have no effective substitute for an “ultimate conception of the good”. Civilizations cannot be governed well without a set of ideas which provides both the popular legitimization of coercive power and a moral and practical guide for how to make all kinds of decisions which necessarily involve countless value judgments.

Whether recognized as such or not, all states have an effective state religion, with or without a supernatural Deity, and America is no different. If the state does not collapse, and when the old religions fade in importance and influence, then the state religion persists, evolves, and adapts to fill any vacuum left behind.

When a society is thoroughly Christian, this is an ingenious way to keep the peace and allow for general flourishing. But from the Christian point of view, Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity’s undoing.

That is, Christianity’s replacement.

Dreher then rapidly takes us through the familiar and abbreviated road of Rousseau, the bloody, terrifying, and deeply anti-clerical French Revolution, de Tocqueville, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and up to the early Progressive era

The important changes, though, took place among the cultural elites, who continued to shed any semblance of traditional Christianity. In American, from 1870 through 1930, these elites worked what sociologist Christian Smith terms a “secular revolution.” They harnessed the energy and tumult of industrialization to remake society along broadly “progressive” lines.

It pushed religion to the margins of public life, advocating science as the primary source of society’s values and as a guide to social change. Within Christianity, it replaced the religious model of the human person with a psychological model centered on the Self.

In other words, freedom of conscience and religious choice turned religion into an optional consumption item and a competitive marketplace where the always-right ‘customer’ is, inevitably, in charge of what gets sold.

Dreher then gets into “The Triumph of Eros”. In the aftermath of WWI:

Sexual morality loosened. New styles of art and literature arose, making a conscious and definitive break with the discredited values of the prewar world.

Did we really see such a ‘discontinuity’ after the war, or were these simply continuations of trends that had been developing for a long time as people and society in general became richer?

Dreher moves on to the popularization of psychology, Freud, and his ‘interpreter’ Philip Rieff who wrote one of Dreher’s favorites, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud.

Rieff, an unbeliever, argued that the West, amid unprecedented liberty and prosperity, was going through a profound cultural revolution. It had not become atheist, but it had spiritualized desire and embraced a secular “gospel of self-fulfillment.”

… In Rieff’s theory of culture, a culture is defined by what it forbids.

That’s reminiscent of the apocryphal line, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” misattributed to Voltaire.

The main thing that helps a culture survive, Rieff wrote, is “the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” A culture begins to die, he went on, “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.”

There are a few quotes about Eros and the liberation of an individual’s carnal desire becoming a cult that … doesn’t quite jive with the #MeToo era and cries of #ToxicMasculinity. Again, Dreher starts to go off track when the subject is progressive sexual morality:

The Romantic ideal of the self-created man finds its fulfillment in the newest vanguards of the Sexual Revolution, transgendered people. They refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.

That doesn’t sound right. For instance, most LGBT advocacy rejects Foucault’s framework in his The History of Sexuality and insists on “Baby I was born that way.” That is, these identities have nothing to do with “choice” and are “real and authentic,” innate and immutable characteristics that therefore deserve the same special legal protection as other discrete and insular minorities.

Transgenderism is the logical next step, after which will come the deconstruction of any obstructions, in law or in custom, to freely chosen polygamous arrangements.

That doesn’t seem consistent with typical feminist imperatives, but these things are fluid, as it were, and we’ll see. But this quote from philosopher Charles Taylor, which we are told “describes the cultural mindset that has captured us all,” seems completely out of touch with our era:

Everyone has a right to develop their own forms of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each much, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.

No way does that describe out current culture. There is zero tolerance of ‘bigots’. No one is allowed to be racist or sexist, to discriminate or segregate or hate. Taylor’s description was the rhetoric and spin used by the Old Liberals when it was socially expedient to do so. That era was over long ago.

The church, a community that authoritatively teaches and disciplines its members, cannot withstand a revolution in which each member becomes, in effect, his own pope.

But each person is not his own pope. We have whole institutions dedicated to forming culture and shaping public opinion, that can broadcast to everyone on earth simultaneously at zero marginal cost. And humans are social animals who have a spontaneous desire towards mimicry of high status elites, which includes conspicuous adherence to the same beliefs in their attempts to signal affiliation.

It’s like the magnetic field at the North Pole, and all the compass needles all around the world respond to the field in the air and point toward it. That’s our new pope. That’s everybody’s pope, if not already, then soon enough. Even the actual Pope now follows that pope.

Dreher sums up:

The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered us to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significant and connection.

I was hoping that Dreher would place more causal weight on that material comfort and wealth itself, but the idea that poverty and precariousness might in some ways be psychologically useful to preserve authentic religious belief across a whole community would likely be distracting and off-putting for his audience.

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow,” said the writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The shadow of the Enlightenment’s failure to replace God with reason has engulfed the West and plunged us into a new Dark Age. There is no way through this except to push forward to the true dawn. We who still hold the golden thread loosely in our hands must seize it more tightly and cling to it for future generations, or it will be torn from our grasp.

I realize Dreher is using it metaphorically, but one must appreciate how bizarre, exaggerated, and even absurd, the use of “Dark Age” must seem to a typical progressive looking around at what he or she perceives as the richest, most technologically sophisticated, and most ‘just’ society that has ever existed.

Furthermore, they are unlikely to agree that they have failed to replace God with ‘reason’. For one, they have replaced God. And they imagine their secular system of morality and conception of social justice to be objectively reasonable and vastly superior to anything which came before, the best that could be said about which is that they were grasping towards the current understanding. Serious thinking Christians do themselves no favors by using language that betrays a failure to pass the Intellectual Turing Test on this point.

Dreher doesn’t want to give progressives any more ammunition to pick the fight they want to have with him, and that’s prudent. But if one is going to survive a war one really has to know how his adversaries think.

Chapter 3: A Rule For Living

Dreher relates his visit to the Monastery of Saint Benedict in the monk’s hometown of Norcia, where Dreher says he caught a, “… glimpse of the Christian future.”

But just the Christian future?

Dreher has written the book from what he calls the small-o orthodox Christian perspective. After all, even though it’s a little light on actual strategy, the subtitle is, “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian World.” Emphasis on the Christian, and did I mention Christian?

That’s fine, and it confers several advantages.

He sticks to his areas of expertise, stays focused without overly broadening the scope of his effort, and retains the ability to talk to a selective audience in a language they already understand, and use symbols and stories with which they are already familiar.

He also avoids picking a fight and provoking the progressives to rabid, bloodlust-level rage by saying he’s only writing about Christians. That’s instead of for a potentially larger (and thus more dangerous) coalition of the religiously-minded, traditionalists, and social conservatives. Also non-progressives of all stripes who may also be just as interested in carving out a different vision of community and a sustainable alternative to the progressive cultural hegemony.

I think Dreher would say that a specific focus on Christianity is warranted given its unique significance in Western and American history, and also the especially open contempt which current cultural elites have for Christian attitudes in particular, while tending to bite their tongues about other religious traditions.

But a consequence of that choice means that he spends too little time exploring the nature of the big picture which affects those other constituencies. The overall nature and structure of those Christian problems are the same as everybody’s else’s problems. They are, “bigger than Jesus,” if you’ll pardon the blasphemy, and Option-innovating Christians will need to understand them too if they are to have any hope of success.

Nevertheless, many of those specifically Christian factors still illustrate some point of wider interest. For example:

Father Cassian, a sixty-one-year-old American, reopened the monastery with a handful of brother Benedictines in December 2000, nearly two centuries after the state shut the tenth-century prayer citadel’s doors and dispersed its monks.

The suppression of the Norcia monastery happened in 1820 under laws imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte, then the ruler of northern Italy. Napoleon was a tyrant who inherited the anti-Christian legacy of the French Revolution and used it to devastate the Catholic Church in all territories under French imperial rules. Napoleon was the dictator of a French state so anticlerical that many in Europe speculated that he was the Antichrist.

It’s good to know the monastery is back, and that it will be rebuilt after suffering severe damage in the Central Italy earthquake of 2016. The capacity of great religions for long-term continuity, to persevere through adversity, to keep dreams and hopes alive, and for regeneration after gaps of countless generations is truly impressive and inspiring. Definitely worthy of study.

However, this passage only goes to show the inherent and awful vulnerability such institutions have, and the dilemmas they face, when they are out of favor with a state antagonistic to their values, practices, and very existence. Consider also the English dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the late 1530s, with the Act of Supremacy and the Suppression Acts. This included Benedictine institutions such as the Saint Radegund nunnery (which became Jesus College, Cambridge), Selby Abbey, and St. Peter’s Abbey of Dorset.

When facing severe cultural and political pressure, there is an obvious temptation to engage in complete political withdrawal and quietism in the hopes that the powers that be will leave one alone. The Napoleonic example shows that this is a foolhardy hope and an exercise in wishful thinking.

So, if the Benedictines offer a glimpse of the Christian future, then how can we know whether that future isn’t susceptible to being snuffed out in an instant by new or revived anti-Christian attitudes and movements? Why are the members of the current ideological vanguard and their allied enforcer agents of the state not the proper inheritors of the French revolutionaries? After all, consider their clearly allergic reaction to quite mild claims of The Benedict Option itself.

The problem is that no institution based on values at odds with state law or modern mainstream society can long survive without being selective as to its membership and associations. And that necessarily implies some degree of discrimination which will run afoul of the absolutist egalitarianism and anti-discrimination tenets of contemporary progressive ideology. That’s what’s so pernicious about the principle of anti-discrimination when taken to extremes: there is simply no end to the obnoxious interventions in intimate human affairs that it can justify, no private sphere immune from molestation.

For example, is it really that hard to imagine some kind of Memories Pizza or Masterpiece Cakeshop scenario for the monastery in which anti-Christians try to create disputes in order to force a shut down? What if a woman applies to join, the monks refuse, and she sues for discrimination? What if a biological woman asserts maleness, either with or without surgical alteration, and the monks refuse to recognize the claim’s accuracy or legitimacy or use preferred pronouns? What about if the monks are told to provide adequate facilities for members of other faiths?

What we know is that any hesitation in unconditional surrender will be chalked up to bigotry, plain and simple. Whether by compulsion of law or even just as a matter of unbearable public controversy, these possibilities are unfortunately perfectly realistic dangers.

One could come up with hundreds of variations, much more nightmarish than these, and pulled right out of today’s headlines (or dark humor versions thereof).

Maybe it seems like it couldn’t happen today, but things are changing rapidly, and what about in 2030, or 2050, or 2100? Nothing is really off the table on those timelines.

So the question is, why should anyone be confident it could never happen to the Benedictines, or to anyone else trying to establish a community that follows that institution’s example? How can one make sure that the glimpse isn’t fleeting and ephemeral: the only glimpse anyone will ever see?

Worth a ponder, as is this:

Most of the men who refounded the monastery are young Americans …

That’s interesting, and it raises the question, “Why so many Americans?” The easy guesses are that America is both big and (still) more religious than any place in Europe, that the country is rich and so these particular men may have been able to draw on greater financial support for their project, and also that social networks being what they are would cause word of a new initiative to spread in a particular way, in a particular ‘infosphere’, and so tend to fill the ranks of a new endeavor with citizens from the same country.

All that seems plausible, but my impression is that all this still misses an ineffable and important additional piece to the puzzle that derives somehow from America’s particular, distinct, and yes, exceptional cultural history. It’s difficult to articulate or explain, because one only comes to appreciate the distinction by exposure to devout Christians both from American and other backgrounds. For whatever reason, Americans seem different.

Perhaps it is because the sides in America’s culture war have been locked in an arms race for ages. They are experienced and hardened veterans which have been stimulating and thus strengthening each other through continuously sustained combat for a long, long time. And while it must be said that traditionalists have been gradually losing almost without interruption – and will continue to do so as long as they lack the support of the elites – still, by this special provocation, the fire that the lingering and rejectionist remnant carry in their souls is stoked to burn especially brightly.

From this perspective, it seems almost obvious that TBO couldn’t be other than an American book. One that needed to be translated into numerous languages for export to places with no domestic equivalent, instead of coming into the US from abroad.

Dreher goes on to explain The Rule of the monastery, but most of the details would not be of interest to a wider audience. What is important is the psychological impact of a way and pattern of life in which one is constantly relating to God, and one in which every person is surrounded by an influential social group of people who are all doing the same, all the time.

In that situation, one is formed and molded every day by consistent environmental cues, and thus automatically and spontaneously reinforced in one’s beliefs, attitudes, and perspective. Just as with language and other social conventions, culture is picked up automatically and subconsciously by social immersion.

For most normal people, these are the essential ingredients of a subculture which enables members to build and maintain a God-centered life. Or really any kind of value-driven life. Without them, most will not be able to resist the instinctive tendency to conform and go along with whatever values are mainstream and high-status in the broader society.

This is the perspective to maintain when reading Dreher write:

You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root.

And later:

The order of the monastery produces not only humility but also spiritual resilience. In one sense, the Benedictine monks of Norcia are like a Marine Corps of the religious life, constantly training for spiritual warfare.

And Brother Igantius Prakarsa says, “Everything is evangelical. Everything is directed to God. Everything has to be seen from the supernatural point of view.”

All that it to say that “Life is a PsyOp.” And Christians, if they are to live authentically Christian lives in a hostile environment, need to live lives that are constantly exposed to pro-Christian “psychological operations”, instead of undermined by rival secular influences and messages. They need “spiritual sovereignty”.

It’s the same way for everything. Humans tend to follow internal compasses that point in the direction of the strongest magnetic field. To point True North requires shielding and minimizing interference. And a post-Christian mainstream is a loadstone always pulling one away.

One’s daily existence itself – the sum total of one’s interactions, work, routines, allocation of time, encounters, observations, decisions, actions, and so on – is constantly and powerfully influencing and acting on one’s mind, mostly at a subconscious level. This is the sense in which Dreher uses the term ‘liturgy’. It is slowly and steadily adjusting one’s worldview and even self-conception in a process mediated by our most fundamental and core cognitive mechanisms.

The Secret of Our Success, says Henrich, is our cultural flexibility and ability to learn and pick things up from other members of our social groups, often effortlessly by mere exposure and with no conscious attempt at “instruction”, as children easily absorb spoken language and accents.

And one of the most important things we are learning all the time is how to fit in and succeed in the dynamic environment of our social groups. These were likely some of the most important and powerful instincts for our ancestors in their primitive environments, where our human nature was forged.

The brain is clearly always performing some specialized cognitive function of socially-relevant “intelligence collection”, and then calculating not just the optimal response, but instead constantly reprogramming the self. At least, to the extent it can, given its hardwired genetic constraints and other limitations (e.g., the familiar decrease in flexibility resulting from age).

It is a process that flies under the radar of conscious awareness, and for which the executive function mostly serves to concoct cover stories and rationalizations. People can always try to put up a conscious and deceptive act – to merely pretend they are conforming – but most people simply aren’t very good at lying. On the other hand, they are often intuitively good at detecting lies, at least at the gut-feeling level. So a better approach is to self-brainwash and really come to believe what it is socially expedient and useful to believe.

This is how most acculturation and assimilation really works, and it is also the basis of Rene Girard’s insight into “acquisitive desires” and “mimetic preferences”. We are constantly trying to show off: to seem cool and impressive, but without seeming as if we’re trying to look impressive. But that requires that we know what everyone else will find to be impressive.

One sees this process at work all the time, for example, when one joins a new church or congregation, or integrates into a military unit or a corporate culture. Human beings are social, and the brain has some kind of specialized Social Calculus Module which emerged to handle these matters, a function which has always been the key to human survival and success.

Most everyone grasps that this is the way things work for kids and especially teens who, in modern times, spend most of their waking hours away from parents. And it is why their peers and popular media have such a strong influence on their whole personality. They are more reluctant to admit that it works in the same way for adults and throughout our lives. Indeed, most advanced and sophisticated attempts at influence people are trying to leverage these mechanisms, and to give one an impression of new common knowledge, of what all the other people are thinking and doing. Especially the cool people.

And while most people don’t realize it, this is what the culture war is really all about.

It’s a kind of “mental environmentalism.” No man is an island, and no countercultural (and fading) set of beliefs or traditions can expect to long survive if its members are thoroughly integrated and regularly exposed to the distinct values and habits of mainstream society.

If one isn’t going to reject, withdraw, and separate from mainstream society to a substantial degree, then one needs the normal, everyday social and mental environment to continuously support and buttress that desired worldview, for oneself and one’s children.

Otherwise, you’ll drop out of your counterculture, or your kids will. As Dreher points out later, “It takes a village” not just to raise a child right, but to keep men and women on the right track spiritually.

Parents simply can’t do it alone while trying to raise their families in the middle of a raging river with the current flowing the other way (especially when one sees brave salmon jumping straight into the bear’s mouth.) It does no good to try and install the best air filters in one’s own house when as soon as the kids head outside they are choking on poison gas.

So traditionalists need to shape the whole mental environment not just for their kids, but for themselves. There is pent-up, desperate demand from parents for help in this regard, for when and where their influence reaches its limits. And many of our political debates have this ‘postmodern’ insight lurking in the background as context. But if one can’t rely on the whole of society, then one needs the liberty to construct a separate, micro-society that accomplishes as much of the same functions as possible.

In his blogging, Dreher tends to both emphasize parental culpability, while also providing plenty of personal stories undermining that impact of that blameworthiness.

He is quick to blame lazy and weak parents for not doing enough at home, for not choosing Christian schools or homeschooling, for not going to church enough or living Christian-enough lives, and for allowing their kids access to popular culture and social media technologies.

But then he posts letter after letter from people whose parents did pretty much everything possible along those lines, or sometimes from the parents themselves about their lost kids, as projects that ended in complete failure. Usually the very minute the kids left home and joined mainstream society.

The lesson is that it’s impossible to do it alone, but it’s easy if the elites, law, and culture have your back. The public square has private impact, and so everyone has a stake in it. A hands-off strategy just means being at the mercy of whoever owns the megaphones. And if you can’t control the public square, all that’s left is exit of some kind or other, to your own private village where you can make your own square.

The situation of a Christian in the West today is akin to Lot in Sodom. One can’t be the cashier at the whorehouse and expect his piety to be unaffected by the experience. We are all radios tuned to the frequency of these socially-relevant signals, and one cannot be indifferent to whether those signals are wholesome or degrading, or to whether they build or burn the social, moral, and cultural capital upon which our lives depend.

And so the fact is that everyone has a huge stake in what the social environment feels like, what messages it sends and influences it has. Taking a hands-off and free-market’ approach – a legacy of enlightenment values – is unilateral disarmament in the never-ending war for our souls.

It has become popular among public intellectuals as of late to explain the foundation of most of our cultural, ideological, and political disputes as having their genuine origins in the question of who shall have enjoy high or suffer low social status, despite all the posturing to the contrary.

And that seems correct, as it is increasingly well-established that matters of status are likely the fundamental drivers of human social psychology.

But an implication of that explanation is that there exists some deep intuition emanating from the Social Calculus Module that is in tune with how all the signals bombarding every brain powerfully influences how those minds and souls form and reform. And there is an instinctive understanding of the impact any changes to those signals will have on those minds, and, indeed, the whole social order.

And this is why the recent progressive reframing of religious liberty and tolerance into a mere “freedom to worship” is a deceptive mirage, and a trap believers must be keen to avoid. Progressives say this with the clear implication that religious individuals ought to compartmentalize their faith and quarantine it from their public life: to keep it as private and secret as possible. To keep it “in the closet”, so to speak. Believers are otherwise expected to participate in mainstream society and obey all the usual norms and laws in their interactions with others, whether or not this violates their consciences and their sincere and deeply held beliefs.

Accepting that state of affairs would be any traditional faith’s death warrant, executed, as it were, in the fullness of time.

But here’s the thing: the culture war is lost.

Or, at the very least, a lost cause. It’s far too late for any more “mainstream shaping and influence operations,” in order that the world “be made safe for” Christianity. One must accept the ugly truth that if Christians, or traditionalist social conservatives in general, ever get the mainstream culture back, it won’t be for many generations.

It is no longer possible for there to be a cohesive, coherent, and unified American popular culture in which the religious enjoy sufficient status with enough respect and perceived normalcy that they and their children can remain fully integrated into ordinary life while keeping their faith from imploding. The excruciatingly hard choice is either capitulation or strategic withdrawal with increased insularity. There is no alternative.

If religion survives in the West, it will be in deeply fragmented societies. And despite all the talk about multiculturalism, most Western countries have not had to maintain peace and order amidst such serious divisions for a long time. If it is to be done at all, it will require some substantial institutional innovation, both at the level of the state, and the level of independent, value-based communities.

A hopelessly incohesive and low-trust society requires different institutions than the society which gave birth to our inherited ones that are groaning under the pressure of a new, polarized context. These will not necessarily be “new” institutions, perhaps they will look like some updated version of old ones such as the Ottoman system of millets, or Chinese special areas. But the old ways will not persist, so new ways must be discovered.

And this is what the Option is really all about. But in the meantime, it’s going to get tougher.

The closure of certain professions to faithful orthodox Christians will be difficult to accept. In fact, it’s hard for contemporary believers to imagine, in part because as Americans, we are unaccustomed to accepting limits on our ambitions. Yet the day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are nor prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith.

The “certain” professions are likely to become “all” of them, at least, if one doesn’t hide, lie, pay lip-service, and either compromise one’s integrity or one’s theological principles. The progressives will insist on measures that force the bigots to out themselves, or accept the humiliation of silent heresy. What happens when the company wants everyone to attend the pride event, or to wear rainbow apparel, or to use forms of address inconsistent with traditional scruples?

How much of the labor force could really be immune to such trends and pressures? Christians trying to withdraw economically from all the sectors that might put their values at risk would be doomed to even lower status by means of lower status work, and lower overall life success. They would be poor, which by itself is no insufferable condition. But today, that poverty would imply an inability to afford to separate from the American underclass whose lives are defined by constant familial and sexual chaos, dysfunction, disorder, and sin. Which is not exactly Mayberry on the “wholesome environment in which to raise your kids” scale. A Christian-flavored gypsy subculture cannot be the goal.

People might think about withdrawal and dropping out of normal society to be better Christians, but their Social Calculus Module is sounding off the loudest alarms anticipating what a drop in status such a move would entail. And it will drive them with irresistible compulsion to invent some excuse rationalizing why they can’t do it, or why it need not, or even must not, be done.

Relearning asceticism – that is, how to suffer for the faith – is critical training for Christians living in the world today and the world of the near future. “There is no greatness which is not grounded deep in self-conquest and self-denial,” said Romano Guardini, who explained that all formed of order must begin with mastering the self and its desires.

Dreher compares this to a “fast”, but what is implied here is a permanent lifestyle fast. We can all admire and be inspired the examples of extraordinary martyrs and saints who kept the faith despite incredible trials and hardships. But, realistically, a faith that requires a life of constant suffering is not a “test” most people can pass.

At the very least, people are going to need tight-knit and geographically proximate local communities to protect their interests and their faith. But our nations are still urbanizing, leading to a hollowing out the smaller locales where such communities ones existed. We are quickly moving to an increasingly atomized society and a point where nobody knows how to live in that old fashion anymore, let alone form them in sustainable and enduring ways.

The rootlessness of contemporary life has frayed community bonds. It is common now to find people who don’t know their neighbors and don’t really want to. To be part of a community is to share in its life. That inevitably makes demands on the individual that limits his freedom.

But that loss of individual freedom was part of the tacit “deal”, for which one could expect to receive the consideration of various community benefits. There are certain situations in which fewer choices for everyone actually create social possibilities which wouldn’t otherwise exist. For example, fewer television stations, and synchronous broadcast, means it’s easy to talk to people about what was on last night. The Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings has written that he first started watching the show obsessively due to just such a situation. He was living overseas and the Armed Forces Network was the only channel available for all his classmates.

More choices means less social synchronization. Choosing preferences for individual experiences can therefore undermine fulfilling ones preferences for collective experiences. And if people can choose whatever they want in terms of congregational religious experiences, then it’s hard to ask for sacrifice, because it becomes impossible to provide collective benefits.

Today, one doesn’t care to know his neighbors in part because one can’t want what is irrelevant to one’s interests. The combination of modern prosperity and state subsidies means that people are more independent and don’t need to rely on each other the way they used to.

And modern technological and economic developments continue to make us more independent from each other every day as the trend is to try to unbundle and transactionally substitute for the services we used to barter with each other.

For example, one can view marriage as incorporating a kind of economic “deal” into the overall relationship. Maybe the wife does housework while the husband does yardwork, and after all, the cleanliness of the house and the beauty of the yard are things they enjoy in common. But if the couple is wealthier, maybe they just pay for maid service and landscaping, which frees up time to pursue their individual interests. Their marriage has gained something in an obvious sense. But it has probably also lost something in a more subtle sense.

We want power and freedom and independence but we also want community and belonging and lasting friendships. We are human and we want it all, even if all means a bundle of mutually exclusive contradictions. But for a community of deep and durable relationships, we need to need.

That consumerist approach to the community of believers reproduces the fragmentation that is shattering Christianity in the contemporary world. In Benedictine monasteries, however, monks are always aware that they are not merely individuals but are part of an organic whole – a spiritual family.

The Rule’s instructions concerning obedience are meant to foster mutual accountability. Everyone in the monastery depends on everyone else, and all decision of importance must be made with others and consider their interests.

What is unpopular and demanding has a hard time surviving without a captive audience. But if you are dependent on everyone else in your community for everything – whether it’s trade, employment, friends, or even spouses for you and your kids – you’ll probably try hard to stay in everyone’s good graces. And that means living in conformity to community values and abstaining from rocking the boat.

Life in Christian community, whether in monastic or ordinary congregations, is about building the kind of fellowship that every one of us needs to complete our individual pilgrimage. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Life Together, his own rule, of sorts, for living in a faithful community:

A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.

In the same spirit, Dreher concludes the chapter with a section “The Only Great Tragedy In Life”

The Benedictine example is a sign of hope but also a warning: no matter what a Christian’s circumstances, he cannot live faithfully if God is only a part of his life, bracketed away from the rest. In the end, either Christ is at the center of our lives, or the Self and all its idolatries are. There is no middle ground.

And he ends with some prophecy:

When I first told Father Cassian about the Benedict Option, he mulled my words and replied gravely, “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.”

Chapter 4, A New Kind of Christian Politics:

Dreher says that with the loss of the culture war, the era of religious right “values voters” having any kind of significant influence and sway over the GOP and state policy is over. That is, if they ever actually did have any influence above the lip-service payment level, which is debatable.

And so, traditionalists will have to abandon those pursuits as impotent, futile, and often counterproductive, and adjust their perspective and tactics to the new reality of permanent defense.

The Benedict Option call for a radical new way of doing politics, a hands-on localism based on pioneering work by Eastern bloc dissidents who defied Communism during the Cold War. A Westernized form of “antipolitical politics,” to use the term coined by Czech political prisoner Vaclav Havel, is the best way for Orthodox Christians seeking practical and effective engagement in public life without losing our integrity, and indeed our humanity.

Dreher is again trying to convince Christians to give up on normal politics, to give up on fighting a lost cause, and to focus as much as possible on building and maintaining their own “thick communities”, and strengthening their own faith and pious practices. He especially wants them to stop rationalizing exceptions and making excuses for themselves. They need to both withdraw and also to stop fooling themselves that current levels of “engagement” with the fallen mainstream culture are sustainable. Christians are to mind their own proper business and, “tend one’s own garden,” in Voltaire’s terms.

But the trouble with appeals to quietism or an ill-defined ‘localism’ is that while you may decide to not be interested in politics, politics can still be interested in you.

And relying on the good graces of adversaries so that they will not dissolve your monasteries is simply not a workable strategy.

The truly revealing thing about those infamous florist, cake decorator, and other cases is just how incredibly nice, pleasant, charitable, good, and friendly the defendants were in those cases were. How they had lived lives indistinguishable from the ‘Mr. Rogers’ ideal advised by all those commentators going on about reputation and ‘winsomeness’. Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some of them even voted for Obama. None of that made a lick of difference for them, and there is certainly no reason to think it would in the decreasingly Christian future.

So the question is whether Christians – especially in America – are already so weak that they will only “suffer what they must,” or whether they still maintain sufficient potential strength to deter the intrusion of regular politics into any new ‘antipolitical politics’ they create for themselves. Without that, the situation is perilous in the extreme, and prospects are bleak.

Dreher goes on to give his own version of a narrative of “The Rise and Fall of Values Voters”, which emphasizes the sexual revolution and the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision in Roe, which he identifies as a fundamental turning point. Then we fast forward 42 years to Obergefell and then, of course, to Trump:

Where do the erstwhile values voters fit in the new dispensation? We don’t, not really. The 2016 presidential campaign made it clear – piercingly, agonizingly clear – that conservative Christians, once comfortably established in the Republican Party, are politically homeless.

Well, maybe not “homeless”, because, after all:

During the general election campaign, some prominent Evangelicals and a handful of leading Catholics climbed aboard the Trump train out of naked fear of a Hilary Clinton administration. In his upset victory, Trump captured 52 percent of the Catholic vote, and a stunning 81 percent of the Evangelical vote.

Now, it may not be their dream house, or anything more than an “any port in a storm” refuge, but at 81 percent, it kind of sounds like at least some American Christians have a political shelter of necessity after all. Again, most Christian public intellectuals are much more likely to be Democrats or progressives. They have nothing but disdain for Trump which spills over into deeply bitter resentment for the support he enjoys among their fellow confessionists.

But support for Trump derives from the pragmatic political necessity of making the best of a tough situation, and dancing with the one that brought you when nobody else would.

Dreher warns this will ruin their reputation, but that’s trying to close the barn door after the horse has already bolted. Once a group is thought to consist of occasionally nice people, but who are still, fundamentally, “refusnik bigots” and loyalists of a “Homophobe Confederacy”, then in the words of the other candidate, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

Besides, fair or not, conservative Christianity will be associated with Trump for the next few years, and no doubt beyond. If conservative church leaders aren’t extraordinarily careful in how they manage their public relationship to the Trump administration, anti-Trump blowback will do severe damage to the church’s reputation.

Ok, but how did that jive with this quote from Chapter 5?:

As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says in his book Onward, by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.

That seems right, and so maybe the church shouldn’t be so obsessed with its reputation, after all.

Here’s where Dreher gets real:

No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries.

But then:

One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself.

Wait, what? That seems completely off base. This would have been a good point for Dreher’s editor to have pushed back and insisted on some evidence and quotations at the very least.

What religious conservatives of the last generation (or two, at least) were actually doing is constantly complaining about disturbing cultural trends, to such an extent that it often reached a borderline conspiratorial and paranoid manner. That’s the polar opposite of the kind of complacency of thinking the culture would “take care of itself.” And, as it happens, it turns out their apocalyptic gloominess for the future of Christianity and traditional values was prescient! More like Cassandra than Chicken Little.

If anything, participation in politics was often framed by these folks as being something thrust upon them by necessity in a desperate effort at “community organizing”, as it were. They had to use their numbers to compel the establishment and powers that be to stop ignoring them and take their interests seriously.

Dreher gets real again, in a good transition to the next section, “Traditional Politics: What Can Still Be Done”

The best that Orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.

This line is extremely important, but it goes by fast if you’re not careful to stop and appreciate its full implications.

So, at the risk of going off on the kind of provocative and triggering sidetrack that – judging by nearly all of the critics of TBO – will make everyone forget everything else in this discussion, let me put that a little differently.

The best orthodox Christians, traditionalists, or rejectionists of all types can do is try to enable and protect the members, subcultures, and institutions of Benedict Option Communities, so that, in whatever form they may take, they won’t be dissolved by the state like so many monasteries before them.

Following from the logic of Perpetuationism, the existential considerations of cultural continuation and political survival necessarily take precedence over other matters, because those other matters could not otherwise be addressed at all.

And so, for social conservatives of all stripes, this goal ought to be become the primary purpose of traditional, non-local politics. This is nothing more that the result of it being the last goal left when all the other, grander objectives are taken off the table, as no longer feasible.

Dreher says about as much when he writes:

Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty.

Ok, that’s settled.

But how to do it? What would it take?

To explore that, Dreher takes us to Kansas in 2014 with the very religious Sam Brownback as governor, when many state-level Republican politicians sought to introduce or expand the practice of introducing conscience clauses for various professions, and:

… anticipating court-imposed gay-marriage, tried to expand religious liberty protections to cover wedding vendors, wedding cake makers, and others.”

The effort was strongly resisted by Democrats, but also by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, and failed in the Kansas Senate without ever getting to Brownback’s desk.

Which leads one to ask, “Well, OK, if religious liberty legislation can’t get passed by ordinary methods even in a situation like that – in as ideal circumstances as one can hope for these days – then to the extent one views these legal protections as essential, what would it take to get them?”

After the failure in his own state, former Kansas legislator Lance Kinzer who spearheaded the original effort just keeps banging his head against the same wall.

Yet Kinzer has not left politics entirely. The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions. To the end, he travels around the country advocating for religious liberty legislation in state legislatures. Over and over he sees Republican legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. … Pastors and lay Christian leaders need to prepare their congregations for hard times.

Well then, as a purely logical matter, it looks like it’s either “game over”, or, else, something will have to be done about that business lobby.

So, if those Christian leaders are not to simply capitulate on the matter of engaging in traditional politics to expand their religious liberty and rights to community autonomy, and if it is not yet practically impossible, then it seems that they have no alternative but to play political hardball. With the business lobby, with Democrats, and even with the country at large, to whatever extent that proves necessary.

Which in turn raises the question: what would nonviolent, civil, and legal “political hardball” look like?

Now, at this point, one might say, that whatever that strategy might be, it’s obvious that it’s completely foolish to talk about it explicitly in public. That’s true! Unfortunately, it’s also obvious that there is no other effective way left for traditionalists to coordinate on these matters. That’s a fundamental weakness of position, but one goes to war with the army one has.

So, getting back to hardball, for one, it would require sufficient organization and coordination such that most sympathizers vote as a reliable bloc – a “votebank” – according to leadership endorsements of Republican primary candidates who can be trusted to pursue a religious liberty agenda.

True, previous efforts at such counter-establishment organization on the right have not had promising results, to put it mildly. And in general this kind of coordination and level of commitment is extremely hard to pull off.

However, much of the West seems to be in the midst of a disruptive political realignment and it’s not clear whether the situation will evolve to a more fluid one in which the old rules and patterns no longer operate.

One example of a non-mainstream American religious group which has already operated in this manner for decades – and to enviable levels of success – are the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish communities of the Northeast. The power of the Satmar bloc in New York is legendary (or infamous, depending on your perspective). When the heads of those communities tell a candidate that they have the ability to get every adult to the polls and have them all vote the same way, they mean it, and they deliver. They are the ultimate “community organizers,” in that sense. Though in truth the community is already extremely organized by its very nature, and the leaders are merely riding that way to play the democracy game. Benedict Option Communities will surely be so as well.

Despite their minority status and relatively small numbers, by and large, these ultra-orthodox Jews punch well above their weight, and so they tend to get what they want. And, in addition to as much public subsidy as possible (which is what any “organized community as special interest group” seeks), what they want is to maximize their autonomy: to be left alone and to manage their own affairs according to their own rules, with as little interference and oversight as politically and legally possible.

It’s a form of clientalist group solidarity which is a very pared down version of the old “machine” politics. And, for them, it works. It works really, really well.

Many contemporary American Christians – especially white ones – have been acculturated to bristle at that approach to democratic politics, just as they have nothing but contempt for the left’s constant agitation for identity politics and ceaseless denigration of ‘privileged’ class enemies. But seeing as those Christians have no other workable alternative, they’ll get over it, and the fact is, they’re already headed down that road.

Because, like it or not, clientalism based on group solidarity works. There is no stable equilibrium in a two-party democratic system – especially in an era of shifting demographics – in which only own party makes use of this potent weapon while the other maintains a policy of neutrality and unilateral disarmament.

We tend to think that kind of situation is both normal and sustainable because we’ve lived with that being the case for a long time. But that era was always destined to expire as the stresses continued to build, and now it’s over. Indeed, it seems the great mystery of what is happening to the right all over the West is simply watching its convergent evolution to its own form of clientalism in real time.

If that’s right, then the prospect of disciplined voting blocs insisting on religious liberty candidates, and their elected politicians reliably delivering on those narrow objectives, is not so outlandish after all.

Now, if something like that could be done – to be sure, an astronomical if – then how would those elected politicians actually go about playing hardball?

Well, if “hardball” is to mean anything it all, then when someone lacks carrots, that only leaves sticks. And, to be blunt about it, that means deterrence by a credible threat against something your opponents care about. A legal and non-violent threat – this isn’t antifa – but a compelling one nevertheless. So, what does the business lobby care about?

Now, in the US at least, due to a combination of historical contingencies, the geographic distribution of the population, and the founders’ intentionally frustrating vision of state political organization – in which ‘ungovernable’ was a feature, not a bug – it turns out there is a way for a steadfastly determined minority to get its way.

And everybody already knows what it is: Shutdown. Or, in the words of Internet inventor and nearly-President Al Gore, “Political Terrorism“.

Now, I’m going to talk about the potential for a shutdown in just a moment, but I think the only phrase that describes it is “political terrorism”: Nice global economy you got there. Be a shame if we had to destroy it. We have a list of demands. If you don’t meet them all by our deadline, we’ll blow up the global economy.

Right. That’s how intransigent minorities win.

Except, it’s never worked before, which is why the idea always gets such weary eye rolls from the commentariat at even the faintest whisper of floating the idea. “Oh brother, here we go again. This never works, and worse, it’s always counterproductive, resulting in nothing but completely pointless hassle for ordinary, innocent people.”

But ‘never’ isn’t right. That claim rests on thinking that the future will keep on looking like the recent past. But for Christians and traditionalists, it won’t.

There’s a simple explanation for why shutdown warnings have not worked so far, which weighs against believing that will continue to be the case in the future.

Brinksmanship threats don’t work if they’re both bluffs, and known by one’s opponents to be bluffs. They can’t work if your opponent is sure that you aren’t serious and, at best, merely going through the performative motions of signaling by means of frustrating political theater.

A nuclear option is worthless if your opponents knows ahead of time you’ll never actually press the button, as if they were able to read your instructions in your letters of last resort and learn that you ordered your commanders to just lie back and think of England. You can’t win a game a chicken if your counterpart can see you are sure to swerve away. Where’s the fear? If there isn’t any, then it’s all just a show.

And this is the charade which has characterized every single shutdown in modern history. It has always been an exercise in crying wolf, since nobody really means it.

But, it’s just a matter of time until someone comes along who does really means it. And they’ll really mean it, and everyone else will know they really mean it, because they will believe they have absolutely no other choice left but to really mean it.

And that is what will make the future look different from the past, which was full of choices and alternative options that are no longer available.

And, what Dreher is saying over and over again, is that “no other choice” is just another way to describe what is coming soon for American Christians and traditionalists.

Which is why they’ll need this “Benedict-Nuclear Option.” Or the game is over before it begins.

After all, to use Al Gore’s language, why exactly is one supposed to care about blowing up the economy if one is shut out of it, and one’s children can neither participate in, nor benefit from it, without compromising their faith and integrity? What’s the point of caring about what happens to “someone else’s economy”?

This is the kind of argument all discriminated-against groups tend to make, with justification. So maybe the “business lobby” (and chambers of commerce and so forth) have something to worry about, after all.

All of this is bound to strike an ordinary American as exceedingly apocalyptic and even more alarmist than Dreher is accused of being. Is all this really necessary? Will we really be shut out of the professions for our faith? Let’s see what Dreher says:

Part of the change we have to make is accepting that in the years to come, faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian. In a nation where “God and country” are so entwined, the idea that one’s citizenship might be at radical odds with one’s faith is a new one.

Dreher then mention’s Havel’s famous Power of the Powerless essay in which Havel uses the motif of a greengrocer compelled to put up a “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign in his window by a Communist state.

Dreher channels Havel and describes the political consequences of refusing to “live within a lie” and put the sign in the window:

His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth” – and it’s going to cost him plenty. He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or to any college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplish something potentially powerful.

He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. …

Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system – but he has preserved his humanity.

Or … he’s dismissed by all right-thinking and respectable people as some bigoted and hateful crank or delusional troublemaker who deserves everything he’s going to get before everybody forgets about him forever. Hoping for Havel’s outcome, as hard as his journey was, is naively optimistic in our present situation.

Imagine the typical progressive’s reaction to hearing someone got fired for refusing to wear a company rainbow pin during pride month. Are they moved by his “bearing witness”? Do they really think he’s a “threat to the system”? Or is it just, “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The image of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. In this way, the story of the naked emperor is inapt. Half the people – and nearly all the educated and elite ones – see him clothed. They react to any claim of nakedness by concluding there is someone seriously wrong with the claimant.

So while Havel is a hero, and his essay inspiring, the story isn’t exactly reliable. One has to remember that details about life in the West had penetrated enough into the consciousness of people under the Soviet system that it had gone a long way towards undermining faith in and commitment to that system, and any optimism and true belief had long given way to widespread cynicism. When the West was widely perceived to have higher status, the writing was on the wall, and any failure of will to meet any sign of resistance with an immediate, brutal crackdown would spell the beginning of the end. And just so, it ended. But the West has no West.

More Havel:

“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed” (emphasis RD).

The answer, then, is to create and support “parallel structures” in which the truth can be lived in community. Isn’t this a form of escapism, a retreat into a ghetto? Not at all, says Havel; a countercultural community that abdicated its responsibility to reach out to help others would end up being a “more sophisticated version of living within a lie.”

That sounds more like marketing than logic.

Any anyway, what exactly is so bad about retreating into ghettos? And is there really a clear distinction between a ‘ghetto’ and a Benedict Option?

It’s fairly clear from the history of the Jews in Europe that the existence of ghettos, whatever their other drawbacks, was likely instrumental in preserving the continuity and traditions of local Jewish communities. When the Jews were liberated and emancipated and dispersed themselves out of their formal enclaves, it only took a few generations for most of them to assimilate and integrate into the cultural mainstream and watch their distinctive faith and practices gradually become watered down and fade away. Meanwhile, the ultra-orthodox, penned in by their eruv wires into modern, voluntary ‘ghettos’, and with their higher fecundity, are probably what the future of Judaism in the West will look like. Ghettos work.

Dreher quotes the admirable Vaclav Benda on building parallel institutions, especially for education:

The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.

I recommend reading more about Benda’s life and practices, but it seems clear that a Benedict Option community should be one in which life in centered around frequent study, learning, and teaching. Like, say, a small ‘campus’ of connected, committed households in close proximity.

And, Dreher says, households in “internal exile” that disconnect from the broader culture, and look inward:

Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not good enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.

The point is not that we should stop voting or being active in conventional politics. The point, rather, is that this is no longer enough.

Chapter 5: A Church For All Seasons

Dreher begins the chapter by referencing Robert Louis Wilken’s warning about the “collapse of Christian civilization” in the West, due in large part to the ‘normalization’ of most Churches. This ‘normalcy’ means widespread and substantial ignorance of Christian tenets and history, and an increasingly hermetic compartmentalization of religious life. More pious and knowledgeable Christians have long taken their traditional position as ‘culturally normal’ for granted, but they will now have to get used to a new reality, leaving ‘normalcy’ behind.

As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says in his book Onward, by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.

When faith becomes weird, embracing the weirdness will set one free.

It’s not about losing respectability so much as it is about the members of the church putting themselves in a position where they are no longer so sensitive to the typical human impulses to care so deeply about perceptions of normalcy and broad respectability in general society.

The gap between churchgoers and secular infidels can grow so wide that it goes past a “point of no return”. Or, perhaps more precisely, past any point of remaining ambiguity where it would still be feasible to keep a foot in both worlds without marking yourself clearly as a “different other”.

Once that tether to mainstream secular culture is cut, it no longer pulls members into heretical or weaker forms of faith. If it pulls, it pulls out completely, and so those who remain become ‘free’ from the pressures to conform and compromise. In the alternative, they have intentionally been made (or purposefully made themselves) simply too incompatible with the mainstream to ever integrate easily, and too exclusively dependent on their coreligionists for social, spiritual, and even ordinary transactional needs.

Many traditionalist religious groups require conspicuously distinctive habits of dress and patterns of life which by design do not allow one to blend in with mainstream society (cf. ‘nonconformity to the world‘). Members of future churches will need to be metaphorically and psychologically ‘branded’ with costly signals of commitment in a similar, hard-to-reverse fashion.

Churches will need to re-evangelize and re-educate young Christians who know little of actual Christianity, but they must be wary to avoid the temptation to appeal to the fluid tastes of the modern masses and the lowest common denominators.

Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centers with religious morals slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living, breathing Body of Christ. Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable atomized members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize.

Part of the problem is that, especially in the US – and as a longstanding feature of American history – many Christians – and especially Protestants – are not effectively a ‘captive audience’ of any particular sect.

This means in part that they have the social right to exit and only suffer comparably minor social penalties and negative consequences from switching denominations. Furthermore, this is generally viewed as a common occurrence and personal matter which ought not to warrant harsh reproach, or raise any great deal of consternation or opprobrium. Indeed, sects optimistic about their own growth opportunities obviously see it as their theological mission to swipe members from other denominations as ‘fair game’, and are thus eager to engage in the ‘conversion contest’ while fishing for souls.

The trouble is that this state of affairs turns “churching” into a mere economic sector and competitive marketplace, with typical competitive pressures leading to a ‘customer service’ mentality of indulgent and obsequious unobtrusiveness. The attitude of “the customer is always right,” (or else he’ll leave) reverses the typical relations of authority and status. It also leads to gimmicks of low-brow appeal which are by their nature fragile and ephemeral when exposed to the fickle and discursive whims of the masses.

Indeed, such pressures weigh hard on those who cater to any minority, refined, or ‘elite’ tastes, which can increasingly only be done in the largest or most cultured cities with a critical mass of these rare patrons. Nevertheless, one might try to counter with the fact that, however diminished, the market still manages to supply these few, special consumers with products in their niche interests. So why should devout Christians worry about competition all-but-eliminating non-mass-appeal churches?

Because unlike all those other goods and services and entertainments, churches cannot be trying to please consumers. Instead, churches and religions must make difficult demands on the individual, teach the individual that it is he who ought to work hard to try to please God. It is very much a “no pain, no gain” message. And just like with strenuous physical exertion, people can train themselves to maintain the right perspective and attitude, and learn to enjoy and even love the process. As with exercise, it’s easier to get into, and near-effortless to maintain, if everyone else you like is also doing it, and it’s equally difficult if you are all alone while you’re friends are out at the bar.

But there is no question that members of households are told to give up their time, money, convenience, pleasure, every spare mental ‘clock cycle’, and many other life opportunities. That’s in order to fulfill their religious duties, and so the congregation functions all day, every day, as a constantly exercised social organism: the primary community of one’s entire life. Churches insist that instead of trying to indulge their impulses, congregants abstain from feeding and yielding to their desires. Churches may claim that a faithful life is ‘liberating’ in a certain, counter-intuitive sense, but such ’emancipation’ is still occurring under a system that emphasizes obligation, submission and one’s duty to obey holy authority.

Ok, one might counter, churches cannot function normally (or at least, as they often did historically) in a competitive market like some ordinary product in a bazaar. But maybe they are more like ‘jobs’. Don’t jobs also make difficult demands and require submission and obedience? And jobs are everywhere.

Yes, but jobs pay people, while people pay churches. Conscripts have gone without pay, but the sovereign can coerce them into contributing to the military effort. Imagine if those conscripts were not only unpaid, but also taxed, and yet somehow also free to leave and stop paying the tax at any moment. How many would stick around? Would you? You would have to really, really believe the cause was worth fighting for.

Only those motivated by the most intense sense of patriotism, the moral imperative of the cause, or compelled by the danger to their families and interests presented by an approaching enemy, would stay for that fight.

Churches also offer a ‘service’ that has no close analogy in a competitive marketplace. Companies are trying to tempt you with ever more intense ways to feel good. Churches place at least some emphasis on making one feel bad. The concept of sin and the emotions of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, remorse, contrition, repentance and atonement are all part of the natural and instinctive arsenal ordering human group behavior. The proper channeling of those moral impulses makes the higher forms of civilization characterized by strong religious community possible.

Yes, there is the upside of release and salvation via purification and forgiveness, but in the necessary moments of emotional discomfort those upsides lack salience. One perhaps need not go all the way to Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God every day. But give people plenty of choices, and the market will eventually weed out all the hectoring, which will throw some very important babies out with the bathwater.

Which is not to say that churches (or God through the church) don’t offer benefits to ‘trade’ in exchange for the burdens of devotion that make the cost worth bearing. These constitute some of the subconscious psychological incentives for continuing in pious observance. That’s the ‘gain’ from the ‘pain’. But these are either metaphysical and theological in nature (e.g., salvation of one’s soul from eternal damnation), or otherwise tacit in terms of various social benefits. These social benefits either fly below the radar of full conscious awareness, or are the kinds of things it is considered bad form to articulate as consideration in an explicit ‘bargain’.

All of which is to say there is nothing quite like a traditional ‘church’ in any marketplace, and that when churches are in a position of open competition it is inevitable that many will succumb to the pressure to converge to whatever else tends to succeed in the markets for mainstream culture and entertainment. That in turn means a constant temptation to compromise on matters of faith when it conflicts with the popular zeitgeist.

This alienates the orthodox, conservative, and traditionalist congregants who, judging by existing demographic trends, are the constituents of the only future the church is likely to have, if indeed it is to have one at all. In the present egalitarian cultural context, it also increasingly turns off men, with an emphasis on messages tending to lower the status of fathers and undermine traditional biblical conceptions of male roles and masculine virtues. Staying attractive and useful to fathers may seem to just be a different aspect of the “need to appeal” disease, but it’s really not. The church must provide the pragmatic utility of constantly repeating messages which reinforce institutions and practices which are fighting uphill battles against both animal impulses and the mainstream culture.

There is another downside to mass appeal, which one can see in almost any church today, and which is also exacerbating the membership problem.

In brief, the problem is that, out of the large set of possibilities, human beings can only maintain certain psychological ‘modes’ at any one time. And the way religious services are conducted tends to elicit one to the exclusion of the others, and so one must be careful to do it right, to trigger the right few modes, and not other, incompatible ones.

Consumerist churches bending their practices to the needs of popular appeal simply cannot carry on their worship in traditional ways that convey deep solemnity, sacredness, gravity, intellectual maturity and seriousness. They cannot add to that a sense of the supernaturally mystical; awe, wonder, and personal smallness when confronted with the majestic presence of the divinely; and overwhelming significance, even across the distance of earthly intermediation.

There are many other substitutes and opportunities for “fun group events” in modern life (indeed, this is part of the problem). But there is no alternative for the routine reminding and re-grounding in theological metaphysics. For the reorientation from the mundane and worldly to the deep foundation of everything in the miraculous divine. To preserve one’s animating enchantment with everything as rooted in and emanating from God’s cosmic order, such that one feels compelled to live one’s life in harmony with that order instead of by mere whim.

There is of course plenty of room for the occasional fun holiday celebration and other outlets for youthful energies. But that ‘carnival concert’ spirit simply cannot become the regular mode of worship without coming off as puerile, off-putting, and low-brow to the smarter, higher-status, and more successful members of the congregation. These people constitute the natural aristocracy and indispensable pool of leaders of the religious community, and they will naturally balk and defect at the constant carnival. Instead, they will preferentially associate with the rest of their class, which is increasingly atheistic. They will need substance that induces a more contemplative frame of mind, when one can exercise higher intellectual skills and meditate and reflect on the meaning and implication of the overall theological framework.

This is an entirely different problem from merely being ‘weird’. Movements which are merely ‘weird’ don’t show any systemic disability in attracting intelligent leaders, and often start out with a cadre of highly intelligent people focusing on a new, ‘weird’ idea.

This isn’t about being a kind of elitist snob, just for tastes in churching. If the church, or Christianity, or religion in general becomes perceived as a low-brow pursuit of low-intellect, low-status, low-class people, then it will shed higher-status members below the critical mass it needs to function as an institution capable of providing deeply spiritual and intellectual fulfillment. Sadly, things have already moved a long way in this direction. A longer way than many people would like to admit.

In such circumstances the church becomes unable to focus on emphasizing knowledge and theological reasoning. It cannot be constantly teaching and reteaching the essential knowledge keeping people tied to the faith. The carnival displaces the catechism.

And it means that almost anytime members of these congregations encounter, use the services, or seek the counsel of intelligent, high status professionals, they are meeting people who look down upon their faith, and who will, intentionally or inadvertently, tend to make them feel ashamed about it. The message is clear: “Smart, respected, prestigious, and successful people don’t do what I do. If I want to be like that, to be seen as that kind of person, to be accepted by the rest of those kinds of people, I have little choice but to hide my faith, or really, just give it up.”

This is a very hard problem to solve. How to make both doctrine and regular collective experience applicable across multiple and highly distinct levels of intelligence and maturity and interest?

It’s difficult – maybe impossible – to do by design. The evolution of most organized religions included the gradual development of traditional institutions performing this role, usually by segregating sub-groups for special advanced study or other purposes. It probably emerged by a combination of trial and error and serendipity.

However, it’s worth observing that the institution closest to religion in modern times and which tends to carry on many of its historical patterns and practices – education and academics – has also developed a tiered system of differing levels of expertise and depth of understanding. And these also tend to correlate strongly with intelligence, prestige, and temporal success.

Benedict Option churches will have to re-adopt these patterns and practices and re-focus on education if they hope to make it.

It is at this point and in this spirit that Dreher starts to outline his list of Corrective Actions.

CA1. Rediscover the Past

A big part of the falling away today is that our children don’t know the history of Christianity or grasp why it matters. …

It’s not that Evangelicalism rejects the foundational theological writings of early Christianity, she [Dreher’s friend] explained, but that it never mentions them. Nor did the the church of her youth dig deeply in the Reformation tradition from which it sprang. In her church and religious school, she was fed nothing but the thin gruel of contemporary Christianity, with its shallow theology and upbeat sloganeering.

Dreher provides a far-from-exhaustive list of lives to study, the names of which I suspect are unknown to many Western Christians:

Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, John Crysostom, the Cappadocians, Jerome, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Maximum the Confessor, Irenaeus, and so many more: these voice from the first eight centuries of the Christian church still speak to us today. Christians seeking to deepen their connections to historical Christianity should read them men of God.

Most people don’t read very much, especially in our increasingly post-literate society which prefers assimilating new information through non-textual media. And not everyone is suited to the intellectual approach. But Dreher’s basic message to focus one’s efforts to learn much more history and heritage remains sound. Part of the reason is that a focus on deep history in particular is indispensable to a feeling of continuity, connection, and commonality with one’s predecessors, which in turn is an essential element of the Perpetuationist perspective and sense of duty to the past.

CA2. Recover Liturgical Worship

By ‘liturgy’ Dreher seems to mean more than just ‘stage directions’ for presenting the script of worship, but mental and spiritual influence writ large: the overall psychological effect of the whole context of a religious experience combined with the impact of all environmental stimuli. Some excerpts:

James K. A. Smith, an Evangelical Christian philosopher, points out that all of life is liturgical, in the sense that all of our actions frame out experiences and train our desires to particular ends. Every day we are living out what he calls “cultural liturgies” of one kind or another.

… The lesson here is that various elements present in the ritual of shopping at a mall activate particular desires and direct them toward certain objects, the purchase of which promises to deliver satisfaction.

Christian liturgies, on the other hand, should lead us to desire communion with God.

… The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as the key reason why the modern church is falling apart.

… Liturgy restores the stability we’ve lose by cementing the story of the gospel in our bodies. As MacIntyre has said, if we want to know what to do, we must first determine the story to which we belong. Christian worship, done properly, provides us with regular reminders that we belong to Christ and to the story He is unfolding.

…The most power rituals involve the body, says Connerton. They make use of all the senses to impress the sacred story upon the individuals gathered. For example, when worshipers kneel or prostrate themselves at a certain point in a ritual, they learn in their very muscles the awe-filled meaning of that sacred moment – and it helps them remember.

Many of those movements have the effect of naturally evoking instincts of submission and paying respect to those higher in status. For example, there are the military and judicial customs and courtesies, and East Asian systems of etiquette.

Dreher says that Evangelicalism is at a disadvantage in this matter.

Simon Chan, a noted theologian, scholar, and writer based in Singapore, is one of a growing number of Evangelical church leaders who argue that their churches must return to the richness of liturgical worship. Evangelical ecclesiology is inadequate to the task of meeting postmodernity’s challenges, he has written.

The idea seems to be that this knowledge was once unneeded and so discarded and then ‘forgotten’. But the textbook is there to relearn it, if one is so inclined. Dreher continues:

This is in part because Evangelicalism has historically been focused not on institution building but on revivalism, making it inherently unstable. It has also taken an individualistic approach to faith that leaves it vulnerable to pop culture trends.

That’s true, and bad news, for all the reasons given above. Still, some of those pop culture trends derive from an evolution of approaches to become ever more sophisticated and effective at influencing their audiences. They work really well. So the use of those techniques has not been without its successes for the evangelical community. Still, there is a price to be paid, and if one lives by that sword, one dies by that sword.

Plus, evangelicalism developed partly in reaction to liberalism within Mainline Protestant denominations, whose more formal worship style led Evangelical dissenters to associate (wrongly, in Chan’s view) liturgy with spiritual deadness.

Chan believes that a worship approach that focuses on seeking spiritual highs – church as pep rally – is unsustainable. If you want to build faith capable of maintaining stability and continuity, you need to regularly attend a church that celebrates a fixed liturgy. That’s how individuals come to be “shaped by the Christian story.”

It’s easier said than done. Whether it’s at church, at work, at school, or even in a failing relationship, who doesn’t know what it feels like to suffer through boredom and “going through the motions” without genuine feeling or emotion? At the same time, there are couples who go on for decades with sustainable motivation and contentedness with their daily routines and joyous affections. Happy families are all alike, and so, perhaps, are happy parishioners.

More opposition to church as entertainment:

We detest entertainment as worship. We believe that God is to be worshiped in a way that communicates his transcendence, as well as the warmth of the Gospel,” Martin says. “Contemporary worship manipulates. God is not a fad or a hipster deity. To attach him to our own little slice of popular culture fails to do justice to Him as the transcendent God over all history and cultures.”

Ben Haguewood used to go to mainstream Evangelical churches, where he appreciated the seriousness with which the congregation took Scripture, but he grew to dislike the lack of reverence.

CA3: Relearn the Traditional Christian Habits of Asceticism

This may seem to be a somewhat strange section right after several paragraphs emphasizing the potential psychological importance of a sensuous richness in worship, but all things in moderation, including self-denial.

Religion involves a great deal of discipline and self-control at all times, and that is a skill which for most people requires long-training and regular exercise to maintain.

Additionally, it helps break down the tendency to take material comforts for granted, and restores a sense of appreciation and gratitude for one’s blessings. Also, there has been and still is plenty of real suffering in world, and routine experiences of discomfort help to expand one’s powers of empathy and sympathy, which stimulate the impulses of compassion and charity.

Fasting like this is not easy, especially at first. Eastern Orthodox priests ordinarily prescribe light fasts to spiritual beginners. The point is not to abstain from certain foods for legalistic reasons, but to break the power our bodily desires have over us.

CA4. Tighten Church Discipline

A community of faith must also be a community of high moral standards, accountability and enforcement.

The early church maintained fairly strict discipline among its congregations. They believed that the Way led somewhere and that those who refused to walk the Way needed to be brought back to it, or, if they persisted in sin, be sent away from their own congregations.

CA5. Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty

Dreher has been considering writing a book about this particular aspect of religious experience, and the power of encounters with of extremely moving aesthetic qualities. Not just art, but ‘beautiful’ and inspiring human actions of kindness, nobility, love, and grace.

“Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Why? Because seeing examples of great beauty and extraordinary goodness bypasses our rational faculties and strikes the heart.

… Put more plainly, unbelievers today who cannot make sense of the Gospel’s propositions may yet have a life-changing wordless encounter with the Gospel through Christian art or works of Christian love that pull them outside themselves and confront them with the reality of Christ.

The first Christians gained converts not because their arguments were better than those of the pagans but because people saw in them and their communities something good and beautiful – and they wanted it. This led them to the Truth.

That particular historical narrative explaining the growth and appeal of the original Christian communities remains the subject of some debate, to put it mildly. But the overall message of the impact of human and artistic beauty on religious feelings is unarguable.

CA6. Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom

Getting serious with this one.

In the early church, the willingness to suffer, even to the point of laying down one’s life, for Christ was seen as the most powerful testimony to the truth of Christ. Today’s churches will not be equipped if we do not keep this in mind and live lives prepared to suffer severe hardship even death, for our faith.

That’s going to mean separating the truly committed from the fair-weather faithful.

… We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life.

This is a key line:

A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist.

Exactly right, and this is the precise reason why most Mainline Protestant denominations continue to implode.

Dreher ends the chapter with the real “Why?” behind The Benedict Option, which is to lay out the necessity to develop institutions which will survive and perpetuate themselves even under tremendous stress.

And Benedict Option believers will break down the conceptual walls that keep God safely confined in a church-shaped compartment. That’s because a church that is a church only on Sunday and at other formal gatherings of the congregation is not only failing to be the church Christ calls us all to be; it is also not going to be a church with the strength and the focus to endure the trials ahead.

Chapter 6: The Idea of a Christian Village

I had mentioned to [Michael Medved] that my wife and I were planning to homeschool our children. Well and good, Medved replied, but you should both understand that homeschooling is only a partial measure.

“You need to make sure you live in a community that shared your faith and values,” he advised. “When you child leaves home to go play with the neighborhood kids, you have to be able to trust that the values in your home are not undermined by the company he keeps.”

… Everything that practical parenting experience has taught me confirms Medved’s counsel. It really does take a village – that is to say, a community – to raise a child.

Clinton didn’t mean it that way, but the point about the indispensability of a social environment which consistently reinforces and indeed marinates the forming, and ever-reforming, individual in the same set of values as ubiquitous social conventions is true and important.

The fate of religion in America is inextricably tied to the fate of the family, and the fate of the family is tied to the fate of the community. In her 2015 book How the West Really Lost God, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt argues that religion is like a language: you can learn it only in community, starting with the community of the family. When both the family and community become fragmented and fail, the transmission of religion to the next generation becomes far more difficult.

CA7: Turn Your Home into a Domestic Monastery:

“A man’s home is his castle” must combine with a new principle, “A man’s home is his church.” “Every man a priest” tends to evoke some matters of theological controversy, but the duties to teach, to emphasize, and to lead by example by being seen living one’s values belong to the heads of every religious household.

Just as the monastery’s life is ordered toward God, so must the family home be. Every Christian family likes to thing they put God first, but this is not always how we live. (I plead guilty.) If we are the abbot and abbess of our domestic monastery, we will see to it that our family’s life is structures in such a way as to make the mission of knowing and serving God clear to all its members.

… Living in a domestic monastery also means putting the life of the church first, even if you have to keep your kid out of a sports program that schedules games during your church’s worship services. Even more importantly, your kids need to see you and your spouse sacrificing attendance at events if they conflict with church. And they need to see that you are serious about the spiritual life.

CA8: Don’t Be Afraid to Be Nonconformist

Raise your kids to know that your family is different – and don’t apologize for it.

This is easier said than done, but is almost self-evident in its necessity. Most families in this situation like to do this by emphasizing that they are living in a modern Sodom and that almost all the rest of the secular world is irredeemably fallen and sinful and thus must be avoided in every feasible instance.

CA9: Don’t Take Your Kids’ Friends for Granted

Parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures like to believe they are key influences in their kids’ lives and the main molders of their character and worldview. Alas, a lot of that is wishful thinking. As a salutary corrective to such thinking, Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do remains one of the most important books of the last half century and required reading for any intelligent parent.

It’s important your kids have a good peer group. By “good,” I mean one in which its members, or at least most of them, share the same strong moral beliefs. Though parental influence is critical, research shows that nothing forms a young person’s character like their peers. The culture of the group of which your child is a part growing up will be the culture he or she adopts as their own.

Engaged parents can’t outsource the moral and spiritual formation of their kids to their church or parachurch organization. Interviewing a wide variety of Christians for this book, I often heard complaints that church-affiliated youth groups were about keeping kids entertained more than disciplines.

At times like this in the book I begin to suspect that even many devout and pious parents start to secretly think to themselves, “Good grief, who has time, energy, and persistence for all that? My faith is deeply important to me and I believe it to be the cornerstone of my life and existence. But honestly, I’m not a saint. I’m just an ordinary person who has to work late and comes home tired and sometimes it’s a struggle to just get dinner on the table. I can’t supervise everything all the time. Nor would I want to even if I could. I just don’t know if I’m up to handling being that “engaged” all the time. I’m going to need a whole lot of help.”

In other words, “It takes a village.” But one at culture-peace, not embroiled in culture-war, the battles of which parents are likely to lose.

Peer pressure really begins to happen in middle childhood. Psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris in her classic book The Nurture Assumption, says that kids at that age model their own behavior around their peer group’s. Writes Harris, “The new behaviors become habitual – internalized, if you will – and eventually become part of the public personality. The public personality is the one that a child adopts when he or she is not at home. It is the one that will develop into the adult personality.”

Harris points to the example immigrants and their children. Study after study shows that no matter how strong the home culture, first generation offspring almost always conform to the values of the broader culture. “The old culture is lost in a single generation,” she writes. “Cultures are not passed on from parents to children; the children of immigration parents adopt the culture of their peers.”

Three follow-on points immediately follow from this.

First, while teenagers are often portrayed in popular culture as being naturally “rebellious”, they are in fact incredibly conformist and hypersensitive to matters regarding social opinion and approval. This may seem unbelievable to any parent who has experienced the struggle with surly and disobedient adolescents, probing for opportunities to reset the boundaries of dominance and power in the relationship. But that ‘rebellion’ is merely the manifestation of the teenager’s status radars switching targets away from their parents and locking instead to the worldview and attitudes of their peers and that of the general mainstream culture.

Second, “social contagion” is a real, powerful, and extremely important phenomenon. The young mind’s flexibility and tendency to self-reprogram in response to environmental cues about socially important matters has almost limitless potential, for good or ill. In certain circumstances, one bad apple really can spoil the bunch, and in contemporary society what happens during times of peer-interaction are particularly hard for parents to supervise. We are already at the end of the era where it is possible to discuss the truth of this matter as relates to matters of sexual orientation and gender identity without being reflexively accused of bigotry by the people who relish the role of making such accusations. But any educated person can acquaint themselves with the history of diverse cultural approaches to sexual matters to arrive at the conclusion that “baby I was born that way” is hardly the full story.

And third, at some level most parents already understand the importance of peer groups. But when “good peers” are a scarce resource, in the American system, parents start to compete with each other in a zero-sum price war for rights to attend the “best” local schools. Parents collectively pretend that this has something to do with the ‘quality’ of the education at those schools. But they nearly all secretly know what makes a “good school” is a high concentration of “good students”, and there just aren’t enough of those to go around. If parents find themselves unable to pay the prices in that bidding war either by money, grueling commutes, or other lifestyle sacrifices, then they’ll need another way to be selective about their kids’ friends.

CA10: Don’t Idolize the Family

This is one of those instances in which Dreher is using “idol” in the distinct and unconventional way of a subgroup of modern American Christians. What he seems to mean is “don’t worship your own family as if the members have no serious imperfections”, or “don’t romanticize all family life.” Ok, but these are common and obvious beliefs that have no pressing need of corrective action. Does anybody think attitudes toward the traditional nuclear family are too strong these days?

Dreher seems inconsistent and conflicted about the ideas of ‘extremism’ and ‘fanaticism’. On the one hand, he knows that he and many people of similar levels of Christian piety and devotion are regarded as akin to extremist fanatics by mainstream culture. Dreher in particular is accused of being so when he is perceived to be calling for the self-exile of Christians away from normal society.

But then, instead of concluding that there’s something fundamentally wrong at root with the idea of this kind of judgment, he tacitly concludes that it’s just wrong for him. He looks a little past where he happens to be and seems willing to turn that same artillery on others. He knows friends like him who lost their children to the faith, and thinks it’s because of “the culture”, but when it happens to people more strict or alarmed than he is, it’s the parents fault, having “sheltered” them and “driven the children away.”

Aren’t the monks in the monasteries “fanatically religious”? Won’t the people in their Benedict Option communities be called “fanatics” and “cultists”, and indeed, with justice? Isn’t a ‘cloister’ a sheltering enclosure separate from the outside world? But if that’s what living the faith means, then what’s wrong with any of that?

My provisional conclusion is that because Dreher is a smart guy, he knows what he’s doing here, which is once again have to throw normals and the idea of ‘normalcy’ an occasional bone. That avoids the kind of triggers that make those normal people put up their mental shields and give themselves an easy out as a convenient justification to disengage from the whole uncomfortable topic.

Still, he’s doing the overall message of the book a disservice by using the same disparaging terms. Ask a typical European what he or she thinks about American Christians withdrawing from morally corrupting public schools and choosing to home-school. “Weird” and “Cult” and “Creepy” and “Fanatics” is exactly what you’ll hear. If that’s wrong – which it is – then what’s wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with Dreher’s vague prescriptions?

Here’s “Ellen”, an atheist brought up in a strict home by “fanatically” religious parents:

“My parents are a very paranoid people. They’ve conspiracy theorists. They’re afraid that if they exposed their children to the outside world, we were going to be corrupted, because they see the world as this filthy, filthy place,” she told me. “That total sheltering is very damaging, and cutting yourself off from the world like that is exactly the kind of environment you need to develop a cult.”

I’ll ask again, if living the faith means it looks like a “cult” from the outside, then what’s wrong with a cult? Weren’t the early Christians we’re supposed to be learning from and imitating considered to be developing a cult by their pagan compatriots? Those pagans were right! But, so what?

And didn’t Dreher just spend half a book demonstrating the truth of the proposition that Ellen’s parents were, in the main, right? They have every right to be paranoid, and Dreher says earlier that ordinary Christians aren’t being paranoid enough. They are right to believe the outside world if corrupting and filthy, and Dreher says earlier that ordinary Christians are exposing themselves too much to it. Dreher just got done telling us not be scared to keep our families different and not to apologize to the kids for it.

Didn’t the Bendas tell these (completely accurate) tales to their own children, that their Communist-run world and most other people in it were full of nothing but evil and lies and that they were to trust no one else but those in the family and their small group of trusted relations, all keeping the faith together?

“Ellen” continues:

But please tell parents that if they want their kids to stay Christian, not to do what mine did. They smothered us and made us into rebels.

This isn’t an uncommon story, but that by no means makes it a true explanation of what really happened here. The fact that Hollywood seems particularly fond of it should clue one in to what’s really going on. A big role of human consciousness seems to be in concocting rationalizations and narratives and to tell ourselves ‘explanatory’ stories that have little to do with actual cause and effect, and everything to do with blame-shifting excuses that will be socially accepted by our audience.

First of all, as above, parents don’t make teens into ‘rebels’. Teens ‘rebel’ because they are conforming to new sources of ‘social authority’ which are displacing familial authority. If anything, it just reinforces the above point that Ellen’s parents failed because they lacked a village.

Second of all, for every story of ‘fanatical strictness’ that goes this way, there’s another that goes the other way, with children brought up to love and cherish their faith, keep it throughout their lives, and pass it on to their own children.

And finally, the real problem here is the lack of a full-life plan. That is, a place in the village for children, for students, for adults with young families, for the retired, and for everybody at every stage. What even the most devout Christians – especially Americans – have been doing instead is just “raise and release”. As with domesticated animals, this is a perfect recipe for quick feralization.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition of having children move away from home and establish their own distinct lives at relatively young ages could only work to preserve family traditions in a cultural environment in which the fact that those traditions were widely shared could be taken for granted. But, for the social influence reasons explained above, that practice has always been counterproductive for counterculturalists, which Christians now are. So “raise and release” will have to change too.

CA11: Live Close to Other Members of Your Community

Dreher explores the necessity of close proximity to one’s fellow congregants. Most people have experienced how, despite all our advanced coordination, transport, and scheduling technology, actually getting people together for anything is like herding cats, and moving around is now a time-consuming ordeal. A modern, working faith community that gets people together all the time simply can’t afford to have its members spread out, even just a few miles apart across the same urban area. Except for some orthodox Jews, most religious traditions in America don’t have experience with dictating where congregants actually live.

But for any Benedict Option to be viable, matters of real estate and concentration will have to have central importance to the overall plan. When done intentionally or inadvertently, such actions will have the effect of a kind of local development plan which resembles the process of gentrification, especially if the land started out cheap. Members of these communities will have to find ways to accomplish these ends without upsetting other neighbors or local civil authorities. And political experience teaches us that people can be quite passionate and determined when fighting over ‘turf’ like this.

Dreher then spends some time applauding the Mormon successes in this regard:

The Benedictines structure all their life – their work, their rest, their reading, their meals – around prayer. Christians in the world are not expected to live at the same level of focus and intensity as cloistered monks, but we should strive to be like them in erasing as much as possible the false distinction between church and life.

Recall that Brother Martin of Norcia believes that after experiencing life in Christian community, it’s hard to be fully Christian, or fully human, without it. The Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormons) may not be Orthodox Christians, but they are exceptionally good at doing the kind of community building that the monk suggests is a vital part of being a Christian.

… Mormons don’t believe in ward-hopping. They are assigned their ward based on where they live and have no rights of appeal. This compels them to work together to build a unified community of believers, not to wander in search of one. Givens calls this “Zion-building, not Zion-hunting” – a reference to the Mormon belief that adherents must lay the foundation for Zion, the community that Jesus Christ will establish at His return.

It’s worth pointing out that Mormons, in addition to many other distinct traditions, by virtue of having additional scriptures, have what is probably a built-in inoculation against church-swapping. This doesn’t protect members of orthodox Christian denominations, especially those of the Mainline Protestants which once regarded each other as different as night and day. Though convergent evolution to mainstream culture and progressive ideology, the mainlines can barely be distinguished from each other any longer, even by their own theologians.

Related to religious real-estate development plans, in the Eastern Orthodox Community in Eagle River, Alaska:

A number of cathedral families live within walking distance of the cathedral, on land purchased by church members decades ago, when it was affordable.

“When it was affordable.” Could that work elsewhere too?

Paul and Rachel’s parents were among the early settlers of a distressed neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia where the new community’s members could afford housing. They helped each other fix up their places and began life in common. Today the Alleluia Community has around eight hundred members, many of whom remain in Faith Village, which is what they call the original settlement.

A pattern emerges. The same was true for the early Catholic families trying to concentrate themselves in Hyattsville, Maryland. They got in while the getting was good, but part of the reason that particular neighborhood is no longer as affordable today is because by their very presence they made it a more desirable place to live, especially for each other.

There’s a trade-off between living inside family castles on the one hand, or walls for a whole community on the other.

Currie, a Catholic in Hyattsville, Maryland, believes that the atomizing structures of American suburban life make it harder to be truly Christian. “A lot of the choices we make about how we live have tremendous consequences spiritually,” says Currie. “The way postwar America decided it wanted to live accelerated the process of cultural disintegration and alienation we’ve all experience. Secular writers have written about this, but Christians need to understand that as well.

…Though Hyattsville is now less affordable than it once was, more than one hundred Catholic families have relocated there, in large part because they wanted to be part of a thick community with a good parish – and now a good school.

… Their close-knit Catholic neighborhood gives them the nurturing they need to be strong witnesses to the faith in the secular city.

… The only way they can resist the pressured of worldliness and secularization is by living near each other and reinforcing their religious identity through life lived in common. Their thick community is a strong model of being in the world but not of it.

An analogy of what’s going on could be to nuclear enrichment of isotopes of Uranium. U238 is like the common mass of inert mainstream society and U235 is like members of a particular faith tradition. If there are too few of them, too far apart, ‘alienated’ from each other, the potential for interaction is neutralized, and their main distinguishing potentiality has no outlet for manifestation. But if enough of them are concentrated to high commonality and above a critical mass, then one has the ingredients for a sustainable chain reaction.

CA12: Make the Church’s Social Network Real

More on the successful example of the Mormons:

The LDS Church lives out that principle in a unique way. The Mormon practice of “home teaching” directs two designated Mormon holders of the church’s priestly office to visit every individual or family in a ward at least once a month, to hear their concerns and offer counsel.

… Non-Mormons can learn from the deliberate dedication that wards – at both leadership and lay levels – have to caring for each other spiritually. The church community is not merely the people one worships with on Sunday, but the people one lives with, serves, and nurtures, as if they were family members. What’s more, the church is the center of Mormon social life.

CA13: Reach Across Church Boundaries to Build Relationship

Colson and Neuhaus realized earlier than many that the post-1960s cultural changes meant that conservative Evangelicals and orthodox Catholics now had more in common with each other that with liberals in their own church traditions. They called their kind of partnership, born in part out of pro-life activism, an “ecumenicism of the trenches.”

Today, things have evolved and advanced to the point where the real distinction is between progressives and traditionalists of all stripes.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. To be sure, the difference churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful.

CA14: Love the Community But Don’t Idolize It

Again with the ‘idolize’, and again Dreher seems inconsistent, conflicted, and somewhat naive for taking “Ellen’s” narrative at face value. The danger at present is the opposite of an excess of communitarianism.

Father Marc Dunaway, the cathedral’s pastor, lived through the painful departure of friends and family who left in search of a more rigorously observant Orthodoxy. In 2013, he told me, “I think the cure for any community to avoid these sad troubled is to be open and generous and to resist the urges to build walls and isolate itself.”

Like, say, a monastery?

“If you isolate yourself, you will become weird.” … The idea of community itself should not be allowed to become an idol. A community is a living organism that must change and grow and adapt.”

This is just dead wrong. It’s not coming out of his own mouth, but including this quote at all was Dreher’s biggest error in drafting the book. I’m not saying he should be wearing “Make Christianity Weird Again” baseball caps necessarily, but warning Christians to be wary of forging their own path because they might seem strange from some other perspective is antithetical to the rest of his premise.

First, that’s almost the exact same rhetoric used to advocate for a series of liberalizations that end in the dissolution of the original faith. The ‘idol’ language is meant to be a warning not to take anything to an inappropriate extreme, but that includes throwing around idol language every time someone wants to merely insinuate that they are on the ‘moderate’ side of a debate, but without actually making an argument. “Don’t idolize warnings not to idolize.”

And while it’s not Dreher saying it, ‘weird’ is a particularly daft word. As explained above, devout Christians of all stripes don’t just seem weird to secular types. Like it or not, and whether they want to admit it or not, Christians are indeed weird now.

Warnings about weirdness are faulty at root and play right into the pressure towards secularization. It is completely at odds with Moore’s statement that, “by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.” Worrying about being ‘weird’ means worrying about losing cultural respectability, which, in effect, means the prohibition of radical faithfulness.

Here are some more examples to emphasize the point. Foreign cultures – the Japanese come to mind – are often considered ‘weird’ to Americans, but that’s more due to our prejudice and obliviousness to the narcissism of thinking our own narrow perspective is somehow objectively more valid, than having anything to do with them.

Some Mormon practices are seen as ‘weird’, and generate a lot of mean-spirited mockery, but laugh all you want, the Mormons are winning and probably in better shape than any other Christian group. Ultra Orthodox Jews seem really bizarre, especially with their unconventional costumes. But outside of Israel, and going by current demographic trends, in a generation or two, nearly all observant Jews will be Orthodox. Speaking of Israel, the story of that country and Zionism fits so well with Dreher’s premise that its absence comes off as a conspicuous omission from his book. After all, Israel is like a Benedict Option writ large – all the way up to national sovereignty.

The point of Israel in the classical Zionist conception is precisely to serve a place of refuge and sanctuary for the people of a particular faith, to be a Jewish state, and one in which, almost anywhere one goes, one can’t help but breathe in Judaism with the air. That is, to be the easiest place on earth to be authentically Jewish. I understand that if Dreher even mentioned Israel it would open up a completely distracting can of worms, and that he was wise to avoid it. Still, what Benedict Option Christians want and need are their own little Zions.

And speaking of foreign places, the past, too, “… is a foreign country; they do things different there.” Weird things. At least, to modern eyes. But if we are going to look backwards for inspiration and examples of how to live in a new, harder age, then we are going to have to recognize that ‘weird’ is a bogus group insult.

On the other hand, when applied to particular, socially-malfunctioning individuals, ‘weirdo’ has a much more legitimate and justified meaning, and talking about it is a good occasion to bring up the problem of screening bad characters out.

The reasons are complex, but it seems clear that something about our modern culture produces a lot of maladjusted and unstable castaways from mainstream society, the majority of which are incorrigible misfits because psychologically defective in some way. They think they just need a different home, and maybe some do. But unfortunately, many of them are the kind of people who can’t do well in any home, and will cause trouble, sooner or later. Because they don’t fit in with the mainstream, they are driven by loneliness, status-craving, and instinct to try and find a place for themselves in some countercultural community.

And there are lots and lots of them, so they will tend to show up in numbers that overwhelm the psychologically healthy if one is not careful about it. But a community consisting of a persecuted minority depends absolute on the quality, loyalty, and reliability of its members, and is least able to deal with such types. Open entry is not an option without guaranteeing a quick descent to the lowest common denominator. They much be excluded, and, alas, such exclusion will probably be seen as very unchristian, because it’s not ‘nice’.

Which, yeah, it kind of is. But here’s the thing – it’s possible to “Make an idol of Christianity” too, in a “mistaking the map for the territory” kind of way. Christianity can go off the rails in self-destructive and counterproductive ways too. To prevent certain bad tendencies from running amok, they must be balanced by the limiting principle of Perpetuationism. In the language of ecology, it must maintain its character as an adaptive and evolutionarily stable strategy, else go extinct. Christian principles taken to self-destructive extremes in the past include xenophilia, socialism, and pacifism, and each of these have required correctives of one sort or another. In this case, charity, hospitality, and inclusiveness will have to be tempered by prudent caution. Personnel is policy, and a community can never allow itself to be turned into a flophouse, a bothy for itinerant transients, or a public restroom.

CA15: Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good Enough

If you spend too much time planning and trying to build the perfect Benedict Option community, you will never start. And if you wait around for the church, or someone else, to get something going, it may never happen. What are you waiting for?

Part of the hesitation is the instinct that any such project presents a massive coordination / “Aumann common knowledge” problem that, by its inherent social nature, requires a lot of people to sign on all at once. Which they won’t do, unless they feel certain that everyone else will too. One needs to gauge real levels of interest and commitment, but you can’t really obtain reliable information leading to accurate predictions by merely asking people to provide a costless and riskless indication of interest.

Fortunately, commitment vouching and threshold-triggering techniques like the crowdfunding approach used by Kickstarter are emerging to help solve these coordination problems. Those who wish to form new Benedict Option communities would be advised to learn more about them.

Dreher highlights the encouraging example of the Tipi Loschi (“Usual Suspects”) community of San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy.

“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then seek God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. …”

Though an ocean separates them, Leah Libresco (now Leah Sargeant) understands what Sermarini is talking about. She is a Catholic and effervescent Benedict Option social entrepreneur who lives in New York City with her husband Alexi. Before they married in 2016, Libresco organized Benedict Option events among her young single Christian friends in Washington, D.C. She started doing this after becoming convinced that her circle needed more Christian cultural liturgies in their daily lives.

“I used to do thing with my Christian friends, and we knew we were all Christian, but the fact that we were Christian never came up,” she says. “There’s something weird when none of the communal parts of your life are overtly Christian. The Benedict Option is about creasing the opportunity for those things to happen. It doesn’t feel urgent, but it’s really important.”

Dreher concludes with a familiar focus on family and education:

In the years to come, Christians will face mounting pressure to withdraw their children from public schools. Secular private schools may offer a better education, but their moral and spiritual ethos will likely be scarcely better. And established Christian schools may not be sufficiently orthodox, academically challenging, or morally sound. A tight communal network generates the social capital needed to launch a school, or to reform and revive an existing one.

It’s hard to overstate the important of the Christian educational mission. Aside from building up the assembly of believers in the church, there is no more important institutional work to be done in the Benedict Option.

Chapter 7: Education as Christian Formation

With the dawn breaking from the long Communist night, Vaclav Benda reflected on what he and his allies in the dissident movement had accomplished to that point. Benda was disappointed by their failure to establish much of a parallel polis, but one failure in particular he described as catastrophic: their inability to establish a schooling system that would provide alternative education to the state’s.

… Why had they failed? Their efforts had been too exclusive, and the forms too flawed. Even as it loosened the bonds in other areas of civic life, the Communist state kept its iron grip on education. And, said Benda, the destruction of the Czech family under Communism made it difficult for any educational reform to succeed.

Two observations worth pointing out. First, Czechia, while an astoundingly impressive economic recovery case and an increasingly prosperous nation, has not recovered culturally, at least insofar as levels of fertility and religiosity are concerned. There are few large and devoutly Catholic families like the Bendas left. But while the Communist tyranny undoubtedly played some role, in these matters Czechia does not seem all that different from other prosperous European countries, and so it seems clear that Benda was fighting a phenomenon of cultural transformation even bigger than the influence of Communist totalitarianism.

And second, while it’s easy to overplay the role and exaggerate the influence of education, everyone still recognizes how important it can be. This obviously includes the state, as demonstrated in this case even while it was relaxing controls on everything else. Any attempt to wrest control over education that the state perceives is opposed and threatening to its interests will clearly be met whatever legal and political measures are thought necessary to neutralize that threat. It will be either in hard forms like outlawing homeschooling (as many other countries do), or softer forms such as curriculum control, ideologically problematic mandates, exclusion from competitions and other opportunities to demonstrate talent and merit, disqualification for grants or scholarships, or refusal to accredit, certify, or grant certain credentials, which are de facto requirements for many careers.

The state is likely content with an outcome such that the choice of non-state-sanctioned educational options means a loss of respectability and recognition so severe that it effectively means sacrificing any chance of a normal, successful life for any talented student. This creates a heart-wrenching situation for his or her parents who are forced to decide between their faith and their duty to improve the welfare of their children.

Benedict Option communities will have to stay out of politics whenever possible, but it seems likely that in the particular matter of education, broad autonomy and near immunity from state intervention and oversight must be fought for as a non-negotiable priority. It’s so important that it’s even be worth the cost of some inevitable unfortunate cases of incompetent and inadequate instruction. For if those are to be regulated, supervised, and made to conform with the state’s will, everything will be.

The cloud of Communist tyranny did produce a strange sliver of a silver lining in the Captive Nations, in much the same way that the ghettoization of the European Jews preserved them in their Judaism.

From Catholic Poland came the sparks – in the form of the Solidarity labor movement and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II – that ignited the fire that burned Communism to the ground. And yet today Poles like the Catholic philosopher and former dissident Ryszard Legutko lament that the faith and culture his people preserved through the dark night of totalitarianism are dissolving

Don’t be too sad for the Catholic Poles in losing the dark night that inspired them to keep a candle lit, because it turns out they are in luck. Fortunately for them, the European Union seems determined to offer a soft and bureaucratic substitute for foreign domination by a totalitarian menace. And, at least at the moment, it seems like Poles are reacting with their characteristic failure to submit.

Meanwhile, in America, the fact that we are our own enemies in the Cold Civil War fails to trigger similar reactive impulses.

We traditional Christians in America can learn from both Eastern European examples. We face nothing so terrible as the Czechs did under Soviet domination, of course, but the more insidious forces of secular liberalism are steadily achieving the same aim: robbing us and future generations of our religious beliefs, moral values, and cultural memory, and making us paws of forces beyond our control.

“The Great Erasure.”

What work is presently being done?

Today, across the Christian community, there is a growing movement called classical Christian education. It is countercultural in both form and content and presents to students the Western tradition – both Greco-Roman and Christian – in all its depth. Doing it right requires a level of effort and commitment that contemporary Americans are not accustomed to – but what alternative do we have?

The stories of these schools provide plenty of causes for both optimism and pessimism. On the pessimistic side, in 2013 Charles Murray wrote about a secular classical school’s experience with a government jealous of its control over employment and the curriculum.

From the beginning, the administrators of the Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) were openly hostile to the idea of a classical curriculum and threw up one frivolous bureaucratic roadblock after another. Now, in the last months before the school is finally scheduled to open this fall, the FCPS has informed these parents that they can’t hire the nine teachers that they had selected after vetting 300 applications. Instead, under Maryland law, the school can be forced to accept teachers on the county’s “to be placed list”—in other words, teachers who the FCPS would otherwise let go. Furthermore, the parents running the school cannot even interview them—nor learn their names, nor have any other way to get an idea whether these teachers have any understanding of the classical curriculum or the ability or motivation to teach it. The FCPS can simply force placement of the teachers it can’t use in any of its other schools.

This is not an isolated case. The charter school movement can supply hundreds of them. It just happens to be one that has happened close to me. It is representative of the kind of naked display of power that increasingly happens throughout government—in the schools, the regulatory agencies, the tax authorities, at the county, state and federal levels alike. Americans who are acting in ways our civic culture has traditionally celebrated—harming no one, just trying make a living or build a business or, in this case, collaborate to educate their children—find themselves balked, forbidden, and in some cases prosecuted, by bureaucracies that increasingly exist to protect themselves and their own interests, and have gathered unto themselves the power to do so. This is not a partisan issue. It represents a betrayal of what America is supposed to be about.

But there are many equally positive stories that shine a light through the darkness.

And what about after high school, to deal with the “raise and release” problem?

To that end, one of the most important pieces of the Benedict Option movement is the spread of classical Christian schools. Rather than letting their children spend forty hours a week learning “facts” with a few hours of worldview education slapped on top, parents need to pull them from public schools and provide them with an education that is rightly ordered – that is, one based on the premise that there is a God-given, unified structure to reality and that it is discoverable. They need to teach them Scripture and history. And they should not stop after twelfth grade – a Christian plan for higher education is also needed.

Progressives are not used to arguing for the value of public education with the same terms that the military uses to describe its goal of creating camaraderie and esprit de corps. That is, of inculcating a homogeneity of outlook that helps foster shared experiences and group consciousness, of common dedication to higher ideals, of national coherence and cohesion and collective patriotism instead of segregated insularity, and so forth. But watch the progressives turn on a dime and wrap themselves in the flag when it’s Christians talking about withdrawing from public schools en masse. That’s a trigger as effective as a matador’s cape is to a raging bull.

And, sadly, they’ll have a point too. These things are valuable and reluctantly abandoning them out of necessity is the definition of tragedy. But, alas, the deterioration of the political and cultural situation has gone quite too far past the point of a tolerance and reconciliation that would make these various, legitimate values compatible once more. We must leave behind these dashed hopes, and with faith in Providence, sail into uncharted territory.

At any rate, if Benedict Optioners need a higher education plan, then when does the Christian learning stop after that? The answer is clear: it doesn’t.

The obvious implication of all this emphasis on education is the need for an institutional arrangement that insists upon a perpetual, lifetime of learning, and of staying together with one’s ‘classmates’ for as much of one’s life as feasible. This is the kind of attitude toward constant religious learning that is behind the use of the Yiddish terms shul (“school”) and batei midrash (“houses of studying”) for synagogues.

If we start to pull all of Dreher’s suggestions into a synthesis we get something approaching a residential college campus. Once again see that universities are the most reliable guide for how to preserve and adapt traditional religious institutions like monasteries and project them into the modern age while maintaining their function. Like military bases abroad, residents would likely spend most of their time and social interactions with each other, living in ‘base housing’ or barracks, dormitories, faculty quarters, or fraternity group arrangements, and with everything revolving around the primary mission of the community.

And, conveniently, with just a few exceptions so far, universities are granted a legal status that affords them a remarkably broad degree of autonomy, selectivity, and the right to police up the behavior of all members of the campus community. Children and young students would go to school full time, but even working adults can come together and take a night class every semester, according to their availability and intellectual capability, and for the rest of their lives.

Such a community is more like a village or shtetl that can adapt and expand its capacity to deal with all the various needs of its members. They may even find ways to network with each other for the sake of employment opportunities. And, as has been known to happen on campuses on occasion, they may even be able to fall in love with each other, and then form their families in the warm supporting embrace and cultural consistency of their fellow residents.

The setup could be one of clear physical enclosure like a ‘gated community’, or an informal amalgamation combining a lot of small and close properties together. But either way, some sort of ‘religious campus’ is the only sort of thing that has any hope of solving all the big problems at once.

More on classical Christian schooling:

Educator Martin Cothran, a national leader in the classical Christian school movement, says that many Christians today don’t realize how the nature of education has changed over the past hundred years. The progressivism of the 1920s involved using schools to change the culture. The vocationalism of the 1940s and 1950s tries to use schools to conform children to the culture. But the traditional way of education, which reigned from the Greco-Roman period until the modern era, was about passing on a culture and one culture in particular: the culture of the West, and for most of that time, the Christian West.

A good commentary about this Great Tradition and the changes in pedagogy can be found Nock’s famous collection of lectures, The Theory of Education in the United States. Cothran continues:

“The classical education of the pagans that was transformed by the church attempted to inculcate in each new generation an idea of what a human being should be, through constantly having examples of ideal humanity set in front of it, and by studying the great deeds of great men,” Cothran told me. “This was a culture with a definite and distinctive goal: to pass on the wisdom of the past and the produce another generation with the same ideals and values – ideals and values based on its vision of what a human being was.

That is: Perpetuationism. That old system which emphasized the cultural continuity of the Great Tradition and which focused on character formation over utility worked very well for a very long time. With luck, we can hope it will again.

“That’s what education was for over two millennia,” he continued. “It is now something that retains the old label, but is not the same thing. It is not even the same kind of thing. It has been abandoned in the modern school – including many Christian ones. Even many Christian parents who do not accept the political correctness of today’s schools have completely bought into the utilitarian concept of education.”

Dreher calls for a balanced and combined approach:

If it’s true that a simplistic, anti-intellectual Christian faith is a thin reed in the gale of academic life, it is also true that faith that’s primarily intellectual – that is, a matter of mastering information – is deceptively fragile. Equipping Christian students to thrive in a high secularized, even hostile environment is not a matter of giving them a protective shell. The shell may crack under pressure or be discarded. Rather, it must be about building internal strength of mind and heart.

It will probably require something extra too. Children will have to be taught an accurate and measured story about how and why it all went wrong in the secular mainstream, why the differences are significant and unbridgeable, and why it’s important that they withdraw and keep their distance to the extent possible. As of yet, Christians have been both reluctant and incompetent at researching and imparting this tale, and that will have to change.

CA16: Teach The Children Scripture

Some disturbing quotes from professors at religious colleges.

“You would be surprised by how many of our students come here knowing next to nothing about the Bible,” he said sadly. “A lot of our students come here from some of the most highly regarded Catholic schools in this region,” said one professor. “They don’t know anything about their faith and don’t see the problem. They’ve had it drummed into their heads that Catholicism is anything they want it to be.”

That raises the question of how did such utter failure of religious instruction come about at these supposedly Catholic schools. But the broader point is that widespread ignorance is a real problem even in the best of circumstances. Religious scripture, doctrine, commentary, and history cannot be an optional sideshow or mere elective; it must be part of the daily life of study.

Again, we can learn from Jewish education here. Charles Chaput, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, witnessed the power of Orthodox Jewish education on a 2012 visit to Yeshiva University. After observing students studying Torah as part of the university’s basic coursework, Chaput wrote how impressed he was by “the power of Scripture to create new life.”

Imagine multiple generations of entire families living at and attending a lifetime version of their religion’s approach to Yeshiva University together.

CA17: Immerse the Young in the History of Western Civilization

Education not only has to reset our relationship to ultimate reality, it also must reestablish our connection to history. That is, education is key to the recovery of cultural memory. The deeper our roots in the past, the more secure our anchor against the swift currents of liquid modernity. The greater our understanding of where we came from, the more securely we can stand in the post-Christian present, and the more confidently we can chart a course for the post-Christian future.

Dreher’s appeal is to connect people of the present to their deep heritage and to honor and carry on the memory of the entire long chain of their predecessors. Notice how opposite this spirit is from the recent trend of the Great Erasure, the PC-based implementation of damnatio memoriae which involves blotting out every public trace of each and every historical figure who would not be found perfectly compliant with today’s dyspathetic sensibilities. The effect of all of which is to alienate moderns from their history, focus on condemnation instead of respect, insist on the past’s irrelevance instead of the idea of that history containing insights worthy of modern consideration. To break any sense of continuity or commonality, gratitude or duty.

We have already come a long way in that direction.

Consider the recent lament of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen. In an essay published in an online education blog, Deneen said his students are nice, pleasant, decent young men and women, but they are also “know-nothings” whose “brains are largely empty” of any meaningful knowledge. “They are the culmination of Western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.”

… However intelligent and accomplished they may be, these young people could be on of the last generations of this things called Western civilization. They don’t even know what they don’t know – and they don’t care. Why should they? As with their scant knowledge of the Christian faith, they are only doing what their parents, their schools, and their culture have taught them.

Alas, it’s nothing new.

The angry secular prophet Philip Rieff, surveying the wreckage of universities in the wake of the counterculture’s protests, unleashed a thundering jeremiad against the higher educational establishment back in the 1970s. In his 1973 book Fellow Teachers, Rieff, also a college professor, excoriated educators for acquiescing to trendy student demands for “relevance”. In Rieff’s jaundices view, they surrendered their magisterial authority and abdicated their responsibility to pass to the next generation their civilizational inheritance. “At the end of this tremendous cultural development, we moderns shall arrive at barbarism,” Rieff wrote. “Barbarians are people without historical memory. Barbarism is the real meaning of radical contemporaneity. Released from all authoritative pasts, we progress towards barbarism, not away from it.

Dreher makes a common complaint that his ‘higher education’ left him almost entirely ignorant of the even the basics:

In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek or Roman history … I knew only the barest facts about Luther’s revolution. I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton. My understanding of Western history began with the Enlightenment. Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting.

As bad as that sounds, it’s even worse today, when historical instruction and knowledge even for ‘educated’ individuals tends to fall off a cliff if it was more than 100 years ago.

CA18: Pull Your Children Out of Public Schools

This section will probably strike the average reader as the most radical and personally burdensome element of Dreher’s counsel.

Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, not religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.

There’s the matter of ideological conflict as well.

Plus, public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture. For example, under pressure from the federal government and LGBT activists, many school systems are now welcoming and normalizing transgenderism – with the support of many parents.

Or, just as often, without the support of many parents. Or even the knowledge of many parents, who either aren’t informed about these matters, or, sometimes, and even in the cases of their own children, are simply lied to by school staff as implementations of official policy, when such lying is deemed to be more fully consistent with being an ‘ally’ to those children, in the name of an Orwellian version of “safety”

There’s not much hope in fixing the public schools in this regard.

Few parents have the presence of mind and strength of character to do what’s necessary to protect their children from forms of disordered sexuality accepted by mainstream American youth culture. For one thing, the power of the media to set the terms of what’s considered normal is immense, and it affects adults as well as children. For another, parents are just as susceptible to peer pressure as their children are.

Most Christian parents understand all this on some level. But understanding the cost of the implications to be too high to bear, they are desperate to concoct absurd rationalizations for doing nothing.

Some tell themselves that their children need to remain there to be “salt and light” to the other kids. As popular culture continues its downward slide, however, this rationale begins to sounds like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child.

CA19: Don’t Kid Yourself About Christian Schools

Many American Christian schools are hardly Christian in anything more than name only, as a mere carryover from more religiously serious origins. Many of them gradually succumbed to the various competitive and market pressures to be little more than another typical private prep school, and a means to non-religious ends.

The principal of one Christian high school told me that he and his faculty are constantly battling parents who find the serious moral and theological content of the curriculum too burdensome for their children. “All they think about is getting their kids into a top university and launching them into a good career,” he said. Another principal, this one at a pricey Christian academy in the Deep South, said, “Our parents think if they’ve paid their seventeen-thousand-dollar tuition bill, they’ve done all that’s expected of them about their child’s religious education.”

CA20: Start Classical Christian Schools

As mentioned above, we live in an era of specialization, which includes the compartmentalization and disaggregation of the ‘trades’ underlying many social interactions. An individual these days, especially as enabled by new technologies, may have different and non-overlapping sets of ‘friends’ specific to the contexts of work, sports, studies, games, intellectual conversations, and so forth.

That’s completely different than doing everything with the same set of friends, even if it’s by necessity, and when it often means as least one person in the group isn’t particular interested in the event of the moment. That not very ‘efficient’ in a technical sense, though sticking with the same group of friends in a variety of contexts has a value all its own.

The former situation allows for a variety of context-specific ‘identities’, whereas the latter scenario of being a ‘known quantity’ compels a static personality from context to context. Scott Adams has a famous and controversial blog post about the potential to disaggregate marriage itself. That current flows against the kind of deep, multi-contextual human relationships needed to form the foundation of a strong and durable religious community. Such communities will need to focus intently on pulling the fraying strands back in and weaving them together in a sustained effort at reaggregation.

A good classical Christian school not only teaches students the Bible and Western civilization but also integrates students into the life of the church. At the newly opened Saint Constantine School in Houston, a classical Christian school in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, president John Mark Reynolds’s model integrates the school as much as possible with families and churches. He calls it a kind of “new monasticism” that seeks to harmonize church, school, and family life for its students.

In the American context there’s a potential legal benefit too, though one that will likely be vulnerable to sustained litigious onslaught.

School-church integration in a post-Christian age also has a practical benefit. Existing under the umbrella of a church offers legal protection not available to other Christian schools. Legal experts say that Christian schools facing antidiscrimination challenges in court have greater protection if they can demonstrate that they are clearly and meaningfully guided by established doctrines of a particular church and can demonstrate they enforce those doctrines.

CA21: No Classical Christian School? Then Homeschool

Again, this applies mostly to Americans who, when compared to the rest of the prosperous West, enjoy a somewhat unique right and wide latitude to teach their children in their homes as they see fit, so long as they meet some minimal requirements.

The trouble is that homeschooling comes at the opportunity cost of one spouse’s potential income. In a society in which most households are supported by one breadwinner, that wouldn’t present an insupportable burden. But dual-income households have constituted a majority of families for nearly half a century. The economic logic of the two-income trap means that failing to keep up with the rat race can yield a substantial drop in one’s standard of living and ability to afford a home in a quality neighborhood.

But it is possible for some, provided they are willing to live ascetically. Maggie added that she and her fellow homeschooling moms are surrendering careers, success, and given the local cost of living, significant material wealth for the sake of their children.

The deeply faithful will of course give up nearly everything for God, but as a purely practical matter, encouraging the marginal cases to ramp up their pious observance at life-altering cost is an awfully hard sell.

And it’s not just about quality of life. The answer to “So, what do you do?” is one of the core ways that people signal their social status to each other: how they show off their impressiveness and ‘interestingness’. Women tend to be particularly sensitive to these matters and, in this post-feminist era, feel intense pressure to provide a careerist answer.

This fills an isolated mother with pangs of doubt, regret, frustration, and restlessness. Having a social scene of other mothers where religious homeschooling is uniformly highly encouraged, respected, and perceived as both normal and noble is essential. It reverses the polarity of those pressures and provides the kind of social reinforcement that enable confidence, satisfaction, and pride.

CA22: The Benedict Option and the University

Dreher reviews some promising experiments at Christian campuses and among religious groups at conventional campuses, in the direction of students helping each other to live more fully and faithfully religious lives. That includes anti-vice social support systems to help people resist degrading and sinful temptations that would overwhelm them in isolation.

There were small but strict rules too. No girls in private rooms with closed doors. No alcohol except in the rooms of those of legal drinking age. Some men who struggled with pornography would leave their laptops out in the common room so they would not be tempted.

It worked wonders. Metge said that life in Chancellot gave him a level of emotional and spiritual health and stability that he had never experienced.

That’s impressive, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that they are fighting the worse kind of uphill battle in the presence of the ceaseless bacchanal that constitutes the only real ‘common culture’ at many American college campuses. The need to form and remain within one’s own institutions remains.

The specter of persecution in the name of ‘antidiscrimination’ now persistently looms over the roofs of religious institutions. The trouble is that advocates had long tried to convince the jurisprudential community that the analogy between racial matters and those like sexuality – which touch on the core of religious convictions – is legally isomorphic. That process is now nearly complete, to the point where it will inevitably be deemed to justify any action which was ever judged permissible in the fight against racial discrimination. The precedent of the Bob Jones case extending to non-racial matters is now what animates most of the justified fear.

The moment making the danger clear happened during the oral arguments in the Obergefell case, when Justice Alito engaged then Solicitor General Verrilli in the following dialogue:

Alito: “Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So, would the same apply to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?”

Verrilli: “You know, I ­­– I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I — I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.”

Disaccreditation is one possible consequence of fights over that issue.

While groups like Metge’s will help students retain their faith in college as it is now, they may be even more vital in the future. If the much feared attempts to strip academic accreditation from Christian colleges and universities on antidiscrimination grounds materialize and succeed, there will be many fewer places for believing students to go and for faithful professors to teach.

The problems at Catholic colleges mirror those at Catholic secondary schools. Catholicism doesn’t come first; mainstream ideological respectability does.

Anthony Esolen agrees. A well-known literature professor, Dante translator, and orthodox Catholic, Esolen came under intense fire in the fall of 2016 within his own school, Catholic-run Providence College, for speaking out against what he believed was the administration’s attempt to guy its Catholic identity for the sake of multiculturalism.

CA23: Go Back to the Classics and Forward to the Future

Classical Christian education is the new counterculture. In just over a century, Christians have gone from the center of American culture to its margins. Let’s own our status and be proud of it. “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it,” said G.K. Chesterton.

… Peering into the near future, the world of work looks uncertain for everyone, especially for Christians. The practical challenges facing us are unlike any that most believers int his country have ever dealt with. Schools and colleges – morally, spiritually, and vocationally – will have to prepare young believers for some increasingly harsh realities.

Chapter 8: Preparing for Hard Labor

In the age now falling upon us, Brother Francis and the Benedictine model of sanctifying ordinary labor will be a model to traditional Christians in our professional lives, in important ways. First of all, the Benedictine model reminds us that work and worship are integrated and that our careers are not separate from our faith. Seconds, it reminds us that manual labor is a gift – a gift that Christians may have to rediscover if post-Christianity squeezes us out of the professions.

CA24: What Work is For

The title of this section is not really a “corrective action”, which would more properly be “Remember what work is supposed to be for, from a Christian perspective.”

Balance is key. There’s a reason why the Rule prescribes labor only certain hours of the day. Work is a good thing, even a holy thing, but it must not be allowed to dominate one’s life. If it does, our vocation could become an idol. Recall that if an abbot sees that a monk craftsman is taking undue pride in his work, the Rule requires the abbot to reassign him. It’s a harsh penalty, but one that reminds all Christians that our labor derives its ultimate value from the role it plays in God’s economy.

CA25: Burning Incense to Caesar

Again, as a corrective action, it would be “Don’t allow yourself to succumb to the temptation to burn incense to Caesar to purchase peace.”

And you will be temped, because things and choices will get hard soon.

We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval, but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age.

… As the LGBT agenda advances, broad interpretations of antidiscrimination laws are going to push traditional Christians increasingly out of the marketplace, and the corporate world will become hostile toward Christian bigots, considering them a danger to the working environment.

The pressure is already mounting.

Among the criteria the foundation used in its 2016 evaluations was that “senior management/executive performance measures include LGBT diversity metrics.” A company that wants to win the foundation’s seal of approval will have to show concrete proof that it is advancing the LGBT agenda in the workplace. The “ally” phenomenon – straight people publicly declaring themselves to be supporters of the LGBT agenda – is one way companies can both demonstrate progress to gay rights campaigners, as well as identify dissenters who may stand in the way of progress.

… These workers fear that this is soon going to serve as a de facto loyalty oath for Christian employees – and if they don’t sign it, so to speak, it will mean the end of their jobs and possibly even their careers. To sign the oath, they believe, would be the modern equivalent of burning a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar.

It is now Christians who have to choose between being “out” or in the closet, and who would stand to benefit from a normative institution such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that discourages any workplace actions that touch these sensitive matters.

There is plenty of reason for alarm.

Everyone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through “diversity and inclusion” training and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.

Plus companies that don’t abide by state and federal antidiscrimination statues covering LGBTs will not be able to receive government contracts.

That’s a big deal when the state plays such a large role in almost every industry in the overall economy, and dominates contracting for entire major sectors.

In fact, according to one religious liberty litigator who has had to defend clients against an exasperating array of antidiscrimination lawsuits, the only thing standing between an employer or employee and a court action is the imagination of LGBT plaintiffs and their lawyers.

“We are all vulnerable to such targeting,” he said.

Says a religious liberty lawyer, “There is no looming resolution to these conflicts, no plateau that we’re about to reach. Only intensification. It’s a train that won’t stop so long as there is momentum and track.

The progressives see the matter as a moral imperative the political implementation of which admits no logically limiting principle. There will be no ‘plateau’ at all. Dreher mentions real cases and possibilities involving medicine, the law, public accommodations, and government, all of which leaves one wondering, “What’s going to be left?” It’s a good question.

CA26: Be Prudent

Basically, try to avoid open conflict on these matters whenever possible and consistent with one’s sense of integrity. For any party certain to lose a major dispute, it’s not about “choosing one’s battles” so much as attempting to dodge them in every feasible circumstance.

Silence does not always mean acquiescence, and in some cases it may be a wiser and more loving approach. In the end, we may be required to lose our jobs and even, alas, more. But aggressive workplace challenges to our faith can something be deflected or stalled by a saintly exercise in prudence. Silence can be a shield.

CA27: Be Bold

Dreher says Christians should seriously consider switching fields.

… Christians need to ask themselves some tough questions. Am I called to work in this industry? If so, how do I live faithfully within it? If not, can I find a safer line of work?

CA28: Be Entrepreneurial

Now is the time for Christians whose livelihoods may be endangered to start thinking and acting creatively in professional fields still open to us without risk of compromise. The goal is to create business and career opportunities for Christians who have been driven out of other industries and professions.

Yeah, sounds good. But talk about having to deal with the problem of antidiscrimination lawsuits. Dreher says one outlet for entrepreneurial energies will be satisfying the demands of other Christians for specifically Christian goods and services. For example, for wholesome entertainment content and modest clothing.

An example of the potential market for these products, could be several Mormon companies including CleanFlicks and VidAngel (the latter claiming to operate under the ‘filtering’ provisions of 2005 Familiy Movie Act). These specialized for a time in Bowdlerizing popular films to remove all morally objectionable and inappropriate material, and then distributing those edited version to the pent-up demand of a large market particularly sensitive to those matters. The demand was there, proving the potential. But in these particular cases the major movie studios were not cooperative with the project, to put it mildly.

CA29: Buy Christian, Even If It Costs More

If one could actually get people to do it, and the prices were only slightly higher and quality the same, then the idea might have some merit. But the history of other such efforts outside of immigrant enclaves is not very encouraging. Free rider and coordination problems make boycotts or ‘reverse-boycotts’ hard to pull off, just as the “Buy American” campaign fizzled out to little effect. The Nation of Islam once tried something like this (and in its characteristically zany way), but again, it all amounted to very little and eventually disappeared. Mass market products and commodities are probably not good candidates for this kind of strategy. However, personal services marketed via social networks present a much more plausible case.

CA30: Build Christian Employment Networks

This suggestion speaks for itself. But the trouble is that most businesses operate in highly competitive markets. That means that any distortion from meritocracy – to include religious favoritism – tends to introduce extra costs that are prohibitive because they make a firm less competitive. At least, outside special circumstances in which one is somehow able to derive large dividends from uniquely high levels of social capital. Another possibility could be when top workers are willing to work for lower wages at a firm more friendly to their values, or perhaps under pressure from their community and family members.

CA31: Rediscover the Trades

Dreher discusses the example of manufacturing jobs in the mostly Catholic community of Elk County, Pennsylvania.

If you have a strong work ethic, can pass a drug test, and can be trusted to show up on time, Elk County has a job for you. Its local manufacturers know that within ten years, they will need ten thousand workers to replace the skilled laborer who are retiring.

… MacDonald says there’s already a good basis for a Catholic Benedict Option community there. There are plenty of churches, a great Catholic school system that’s improving, and a culturally conservative ethos that’s family-friendly. Plus it’s affordable: you can get a good house for around sixty thousand dollars, which is not much more than many skilled laborers make in a year.

The catch is that you have to work in a factory … And you have to live in a place MacDonald describes as “in the middle of nowhere”.

Unfortunately, those are likely not the only catches. There are advancing technological developments steadily increasing the power, capability, and cost-competitiveness of automation substitutes for human labor, which includes skilled labor. There are threats from globalization, foreign competition, and plain old outsourcing.

Elk County could be a model for the future, but there are also big risks. There are no guarantees in life, and things like Elk County sound like risks worth taking. But other, similar towns became bombed-out, rust belt zombies, depressing shells of their former selves.

Elk County might be special though. The question remains whether such a strategy can scale to be employed by Christians across the West. These are just extremely hard problems, they face every developed country in the world, and no one seems to know what to do about them. Manufacturing jobs may be part of the solution, but won’t be enough for the majority of people looking for Benedict Option alternatives.

MacDonald continues trying to sell his community:

If you’re in a place in your life where you decide that you can’t work for your company because you can’t be an ally, Elk County might make sense,” he says. “Nobody’s going to ask a die-setter to be an ally. They don’t care.”

If recent history has taught us anything, it is that they will be made to care.

“You can’t make a living as a farmer, but you can make a living as a die-setter,” says MacDonald. “Industrialism is the new agrarianism. It’s not back to the land, but back to the trades.”

People used to be able to make a living as farmers, but now they can’t. If industrialism is the new agrarianism, the risk is that the same thing is coming for our die-setters and tradesmen. How long until all die-setting is done by robots? It’s not that far away; it’s going to happen in our own lifetimes. Elk County will adapt, but whether there will be enough manufacturing jobs left to go around remains an open question.

CA32: Prepare to be Poorer and More Marginalized

Times are going to get very tough for the faithful, and they will need to help each other out.

When that price needs to be paid, Benedict Option Christians should be ready to support one another economically – through offering jobs, patronizing businesses, professional networking, and so forth.

… Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom, and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold on to what we have. That is the way of spiritual death.

Dreher concludes:

We will be able to choose courageously and correctly in the moment of trial only if we have prepared ourselves in every possible way. We can start by thinking of out work as a calling, as a vocation in the older sense: a way of life given to us by God for His own glory and for the common good. There is no reason we can’t serve the community and our own desire for professional excellence as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or almost anything else – as long as we know in our hearts that we are the Lord’s good servants first.

Chapter 9: Eros and the New Christian Counterculture

The opportunity to work is a gift from God that, when rightly employed, serves life and draws us back to Him. However, if work – or family, community, school, politics, or any other good thing – becomes an end in itself, it turns into an idol. It will eventually become a prison, a desert, even a graveyard of the spirit.

One manifestation of the “graveyard of the spirit” is a contemporary way of life best described by Milan Kundera’s “lightness of being.” It is a materialistic, consumeristic, and hedonistic existence devoid of sacredness, transcendence, overarching purpose, or spiritually deeper meaning. Though, to be fair, it is also free of the terror of hellfire and damnation, though perhaps susceptible in some cases to the cosmic angst of facing the nothingness a truly terminal mortality.

It is a perspective that sees the point of one’s life as being little more than an opportunity to amuse oneself. And during that life one’s time is taken up with whatever whims strike one’s fancy, be they petty obsessions, striving for social status, or indulging in various forms of consumption, vice, and entertainment.

For certain souls, such a disenchanted, mundane, and inconsequential existence is, as for Kundera’s character, unbearable. The lack of a True standard, of profound significance, and of connection to the divine makes life feel dissatisfying, empty, barren, trivial, and aimless.

But those people are now likely in the minority. I’d guess that most folks would look around their workplaces and judge that most of their coworkers seem to bear such secular lightness just fine. On the contrary, they find any heaviness to be oppressive, awkward, and uncomfortably suffocating.

Still, outside of particularly intellectual environments, and with perhaps the exception of political subjects which act as substitutes for religious ones, it becomes impossible to carry on the kind of weighty spiritual conversation about serious philosophical matters that religious people have with each other on an easy and routine basis. And this is so alienating that is inspires a kind of ‘pity’ and an impression of spiritual ‘deadness’. Hence, ‘graveyard’.

But it’s not just in the secular workplace; it’s an outgrowth of modern mainstream culture at large. Unfortunately, that means it describes Christian communities as well, especially younger ones, and with increasing accuracy. Dreher described some of this in a popular 2016 post, The Coming Christian Collapse.

He begins the Sex and Incarnation section of this chapter like so:

I once heard an Evangelical woman, in a group conversation about sexuality, blurt out, “Why do we have to get stuck on sex? Why can’t we just get back to talking about the Gospel?

Such is the plea of the desperate conformer to the mainstream who, in her inability to reconcile the clear conflict between her faith and popular ideology, seeks a kind of relief in the hope she can simply overlook, ignore, and avoid the problem.

Obviously there are a host of theological explanations deriving from Christian religious doctrine that explain why it is imperative to get “stuck on sex”, and Dreher makes a very brief but satisfactory summary of them.

But more generally, the traditionalist conception of social organization is one in which the fundamental and culturally prioritized unit is the family, not the individual. As Milton Friedman once said regarding the role of inheritance in the human motivation to work and save, “We are really a family society, not an individualist society.”

If one takes that seriously, not just as a description but a prescription, then one arrives at the perspective of familialism. Raising that concept to a fundamental principle and purpose of the civilized social order naturally implies a whole framework and constellation of norms, policies, and folkways that sustain that order against the entropy and chaos of primitive human impulses.

And of course Christian norms also emphasize a particular, traditional vision of family life such that its doctrines regarding sexuality build upon this common familiastic foundation. In other words, any ideology that focuses on the family cannot help but be “stuck on sex” as the most fundamental matter to regulate and tame, and the most fundamental impulse to be channeled and elevated to sacred importance. In an ideologically-stable family-based society, everything necessarily orbits around a particular ideal enjoying the highest status and level of social (and divine) approval.

This necessarily comes at the expense and exclusion of all deviations from this ideal, which is unfortunate. But that’s part of the tragedy of the human condition, for status is always a zero sum game, and for there to be winners, there will also be losers. Winners should of course treat losers with as much charity, compassion, and generosity of spirit as is compatible with the maintenance of the effectiveness of the mental environment. That is in exchange for the pro-social sacrifice that is being thrust upon them, and in the past this has been managed with some hypocritical leniency and tolerance so long as matters are kept private and discrete. But none of that implies that the system should be abolished, in a naïve and futile attempt to end the tragedy. It’s built into who we are; there’s no getting rid of it.

Nothing but the whole arsenal of social institutions and pressures can hope to contain impulses as powerful, volcanic, and potentially dangerous as those surrounding the evolutionary imperative of sexual reproduction.

Social conservatives have been warning for generations that traditional moral institutions are indispensable to this hard project, and that human sexual nature being what it is means that tearing down these institutions in the name of other values thinking that these reforms will be ‘harmless’ will yield results that are anything but. They will come mostly at the expense of the social normalcy of strong and healthy family life, especially for the lower classes. And that’s exactly the collapse we watched happen over the past several generations.

Dreher summarizes the typical orthodox Christian perspective on sexual deviancy:

Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality.

Easy divorce stretches the sacred bong of matrimony to the breaking point, but it does not deny complementarity. Gay marriage does. Similarly, transgenderism doesn’t merely bend but breaks the biological and metaphysical reality of male and female. Everything in this debate (and many others between traditional Christianity and modernity) turns on how we answer the questions: Is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire?

… The point, however is that to the modern Christian imagination, sex was filled with cosmic meaning in a way it no longer is. Paul admonished the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” because the body was a “temple of the Holy Spirit” and warned them that “you are not your own.”

“You are not your own” illustrates one of the key ideological differences between traditional religious viewpoints and the modern, liberal perspective sanctifying the individual will and especially sexual autonomy.

Dreher goes on to describe the rapid and radical change in attitudes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity over the last few decades, and continues with his correction action plan.

CA33: Don’t Compromise to Keep the Young

Be prepared to accept shrinkage by “evaporative concentration”, letting all the loosely attached members go (who were unlikely to tough it out anyway), and keeping only the truly committed and reliable.

CA34: Affirm the Goodness of Sexuality

Andrew T. Walker, a Southern Baptist lay leader of the millennial generation, says he grew up in a good church but never heard a single sermon about Christian anthropology (i.e., what is man?) or biblical sexuality beyond conservative platitudes.

“I don’t ever recall having a lesson about why my body is a good thing. No one ever explained to me why complementarity is important,” Walked tells me. “We’ve been so driven by a culture of entertainment, but if you told most congregations that for the next few weeks, we’re going to have a sercom series about biblical anthropology, the congregations wouldn’t greet the idea enthusiastically,” he continues. “This is wrong. That has to change if we’re going to survive and pass down the faith.

“Tragically, I fear that the average Christian in America is no different than the average American – we just want to be told what to do and how to feel. …”

This gets back to the point about ideological messages needing to be able to be expressed with multiple layers of depth, suitable for different personalities, needs, and levels of sophistication and maturity. Sometimes detailed, rational explanations are just the ticket. But sometimes they can be counterproductive, even undermining other hard demands when someone falls into the conceit of thinking that no rule can be legitimate or worthy without a rational explanation, but being unable themselves to articulate such a justification.

Generals must sometimes provide their subordinate officers with detailed explanations so that they can understand the big picture. These lower ranking officers then exercise their independent judgment and use their delegated authorities to improvise and help accomplish the overall mission when the situation’s complexity and uncertainty overwhelms any prior attempt at planning. But the junior enlistedmen need just the opposite. That is, a spirit of faith and trust even in the absence of explanations, and a readiness to simply follow orders, submit, and obey, as suits their role and purpose. And by such reliable obedience, they deliver a better outcome for everyone involved.

Dreher notes an interesting difference in attitudes regarding sexuality between American Evangelicals and Catholics:

There is an enormous disparity between Evangelical youth and Catholic youth on sexual matters. Surveys find that while Millennials as a group are much more liberal about sexual matters, Evangelicals are more likely than Catholics to profess traditional Christian teachings. Indeed, Catholics are doing such a poor job forming their youth that Catholic Millennials are more likely to be sexual liberals than average Americans are.

That’s interesting and again raises some difficult questions about why the emphasis on these matters has fallen so steeply in the Catholic church in particular.

Dreher continues:

Yet there is a growing movement within many churches to downplay or dismiss entirely the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and instead emphasize fighting poverty, racism, and other forms of social injustice. This is a false choice. Social justice activism is laudable, but it does not earn you indulgences for sexual sin.

Wrong: it’s not laudable at all. At least, not in the forms typical of our day and age. Dreher may be caught in a bind. There is a worthy ‘Social Justice’ tradition in orthodox Christianity, and Dreher doesn’t want to get caught in the trap of criticizing that tradition. But he knows full well, and better than most, that the movement going by that name has warped and metastasized into a terrible monstrosity that must be discouraged and de-emphasized if there is to be any hope of restoring it to its proper bounds. Personal sacrifice to privately contribute to worthy charity is laudable. Encouraging conspicuous and heavily politicized virtue signaling at no personal expense is socially corrosive and downright contemptible when displacing traditional religious activities and values.

CA35: Moralism is Not Enough

To reduce Christian teaching about sex and sexuality to bare, boring, thou-shalt-not moralism is a travesty and failure of imagination.

… Young people are not going to be argued into Christian chastity or browbeaten by moralistic maxims. Beauty and goodness, embodied in great art and fiction, and in the lives of ordinary Christians, married and single, is the only thing that stands a chance.

CA36: Parents Must Be Primary Sex Educators

If we don’t do it, the culture will do it for us. The pornification of the public square continues apace. To paraphrase the late, great media scholar Neil Postman, when children can access computers or smartphones and watch hardcore pornography, childhood is over.

Mothers and fathers have to be far more aggressive in governing their kids’ access to media and technology.

The best default baseline is probably a complete blackout, with individual uses being authorized by exception.

Kids today grow up in a culture that seeks to obliterate the natural family: one man and one woman, bound exclusively to each other, and the children they have together. It is not considered bigoted to say that the natural family is superior to any other arrangement.

This throws the culture war’s fundamental ideological battle line of familialism vs anti-familialism into stark relief.

It’s hard to know how to start those conversations and where to take them. A terrific resource for families is The Humanum Series, six short movies … presenting the traditional Christian visions of sex, gender, marriage, and family.

… Christian parents must never assume that their children understand that the natural family is God’s plan for humanity. We have to make this explicit in our teaching.

CA37: Love and Support Unmarried People in the Community

Young Americans are waiting longer to marry, making it more likely that your church community has single Christians in it. As I said earlier, church can be a lonely place for singles. I didn’t marry until I was nearly thirty and felt invisible in the parishes I attended a single man.

It is understandable that churches hold marriage and family up as ideal forms of the Christian life, but doing so often devalues the lives and witness of those who do not receive the call to marriage.

Dreher’s sympathies with singles is understandable and compassionate. But social nudges are usually as uncomfortable as they are necessary. And there’s nothing wrong with that nudge, quite the contrary. Progressives have a long tradition of arguing against the ‘stigma’ that traditional social institutions place on anti-social behaviors. But that stigma, emotionally difficult as it may be to bear, serves a vital social function.

And in contemporary America, it’s remarkable to what extent life in high status circles -where intense working conditions are common – is dominated and run by singles. Or by people who relegate their family life to such minor important they might as well be single. That’s because people who have to devote any percentage of their potential working time to the needs of family or church are at an obvious competitive disadvantage when it comes to maximizing productivity, availability, and flexibility. They will either not be selected to fill those top roles, or they will not even try in the first place.

These incentives are highly discouraging of family formation. At these levels, the scales of the secular world are already out of balance in favor of singles, and it is entirely appropriate for religions to push them in the other direction, to say that it is the duty of singles to join the social order of family life, or to serve it in prescribed ways, but not to stand apart from it.

Dreher recommends churches establish fraternities or barracks for their singles.

Moreover, if a parish community has the resources, it should consider establishing single-sex group houses for its unmarried members to live in prayerful fellowship as what you might call lay monastics.

Dreher says this compassion should be extended to homosexuals.

Gay Christians, like all unmarried Christians, are called to a life of chastity. This is a heavy cross to bear, but one that cannot in obedience be refused.

Our gay brothers and sisters in Christ should not have to carry it alone.

At the same time, Christians should be prepared to respond to charges of sexual ‘cruelty’ – that they are singling out particular people to suffer a lifetime of agonizing sexual frustration – with the doctrinal perspective on chastity.

CA38: Fight Pornography with Everything You’ve Got

One should be cautious in using the results of convenient empirical studies to try to bolster a religious point, for fear of sawing off the branch one is sitting on. This grants a higher magisterial authority to Science, which is the metaphysical break that led to the modern condition.

Still, in the case of pornography, the science we have is merely consistent with common sense and what are now sadly routine observations of the addictive, drug-like effect it has on people.

Recently though, neuroscientists have discovered that pornography use has potentially devastating effects on the brain. Watching porn floods the brain’s pleasure centers with dopamine. The more one uses porn, the more one has to use it, and more extreme versions of it, to get the same dopamine hit. Pornography literally rewires the brain, making it very difficult for longtime users to be aroused by actual human beings.

… Christians, especially Christian parents, don’t dare take this lightly. In addition to having the porn talk with their children early, parents should firmly resolve not to give kids smartphone with access to the Internet – or unmonitored Internet access, period. Parents have to watch the peer groups of their children closely and take strong, decisive action if porn enters the picture.

Dreher concludes by quoting Wendell Berry:

As with so many other things in contemporary society, we modern Americans see sex as wholly a private matter, one of individual rights. But this is false. The rules, rituals, and traditions of a community pertaining to sexuality, says Berry, intend “to preserve its energy, its beauty, and its pleasure; to preserve and clarify its power to join not just husband and wife to one another but parents to children, families to the community, the community to nature; to ensure, so far as possible, that the inheritors of sexuality, as they come of age, will be worthy of it.”

Berry goes on to say that “if the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing – and our time is proving it so.”

Chapter 10: Man and the Machine

Dreher begins by offering personal testimony on the reality of e-addiction and our constantly nagging psychological dependence on our electronic devices and information flows. Disconnection and solitary quiet time, alone with one’s thoughts and reflections, while one of the most common human experiences for all of history, now feels a little like withdrawal. This is something one can see in the pathetic desperation of the faces of people looking for a place to recharge their dead or dying smartphones.

The religious mind needs time to ponder, contemplate, meditate, and commune with the divine: to concentrate deeply for an extended time on prayers and big questions. But such things become impossible when the temptation to constant distraction is ever-present, and when the yielding to it with collapsed attention spans ubiquitous.

We have trained ourselves into becoming obsessive, wireheaded rats, constantly pressing the lever for a burst of whatever pleasure we derive from these things, or relief from the uncomfortable silence of solitude.

As a reference, Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place has much more to say on this, including some important, sensible, and practical advice.

One warm spring weekend in 2016, I went to a Benedict Option conference at Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in deep rural Oklahoma. Once I arrived, I was unsettled to learn that we were so far from civilization, as it were, that cell phone reception was impossible. Wi-Fi was possible only if you went into a building on the conference site and stood in a certain place, or placed yourself in a single corner of the abbey’s guest quarters, and hoped for the best. For that weekend, I was largely cut off from the outside world.

I was startled by how anxious this made me. …

Over the course of the weekend, every time there was the slightest lull in conversation, my hand reached into my pocket reflexively to pull out my iPhone and check e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and the news. … This unplanned exercise in asceticism was revealing, and I did not like what I saw.

We lose the ability to be genuinely present and attentive. More disturbingly, even basic and indispensable skills of effective face-to-face socialization fade and become more challenging. Speeches and sermons of even ordinary length may be ‘obsolete’ as viable methods of public communication when one’s audience can no longer pay the kind of attention that allows them to follow along. Lawyers and doctors already report that juries no longer have any patience for long opening statements, and patients start to tune out after the first few sentences of attempts to gain informed consent. Important or popular exercises of the oratory and rhetorical arts of public speaking used to attract crowds who would eagerly go to such events and attend for hours. Today, one is lucky if one can get someone to listen with sustained interest longer than it takes to make an elevator pitch.

As I sat listening to speeches, the moment my attention flagged even in the slightest, I went for my iPhone. The speakers were quite good, but I still found it difficult to give them my full attention. Am I always like this? Yes, alas that’s me. It had become so second nature that my addiction was invisible to me, in part because nearly everybody else I know does the same thing.

… We think our many technologies give us more control over our destinies. In fact, they have come to control us.

Dreher says it’s even worse and deeper than that in terms of implications for sustaining a religiously faithful mindset in an increasingly virtualized experience of human existence. The argument could use some more fleshing out.

And this opens the door to the more fundamental point about technology: it is an ideology that conditions how we humans understand reality. … [technology] trains us to accept the core truth claim of modernity: that the only meaning there is in the world is what we choose to assign it in our endless quest to master nature.

…Technology itself is a kind of liturgy that teaches us to frame our experiences in the world in certain ways and that, if we aren’t careful, profoundly distorts our relationship to God, to other people, and to the material world – and even our self-understanding.

All of that seems reasonable and concordant with recent experience. But then Dreher stretches the argument too far. In the “Technology is Not Morally Neutral” section, he says that that the technological view in general makes us see the world in a material way, something, “over which to extend one’s domination, limited only by one’s imagination.”

It is only in modern times, with the rise of technology, that our tools have turns the tables on us and gained the power to direct our metaphysical and theological convictions.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Later Dreher specifies that the internet in particular is the really radical and disruptive new technology, but here he remains too abstract. If Dreher meant modern, information technology, or maybe advanced industrial technology, he really should have said so.

Technology as a general term includes pretty much any tool or technique that humans developed since the origin of their distinction from animals. Not just “since the stone age”, but including the stones. Discoveries, innovative inventions, and other technological progress – to include items we now regard as simple like pots and wheels – are essential elements of civilization and any state of human existence that can even approach a condition of prosperity. Even cultural institutions are “social technologies” in a way, and ones necessary to sustain civilized communities.

Technological development occurred all over the world and long before Jesus was born, and there is little evidence that the metaphysical applecart was overturned by the ideology of technology every time someone create a new, better tool. Dreher says we don’t have to go Amish (and even the Amish are using plenty of technology), which implies there might be some way to approach technological use with enlightened awareness, discipline, and moderation. He will make some suggestions in this regard, but it’s hard to know whether anything could really work.

A more likely story would be that our use and development of tools does not displace traditional philosophy with a “technological ideology”, but that instead the wealth, capabilities, and social changes that are the consequences of technological progress produce conditions and incentives that enable new concepts to flourish which were once prohibitive or infeasible. These influence the ideas people use to make sense of and navigate these new and very different worlds. That is, it may not the “ideology of technology” but “ideology after technology.” The really pessimistic view is that if one doesn’t like the bathwater of that modern ideology, one has little choice but to throw out the baby as well, but no one knows for sure.

More deeply, though, technology as a worldview trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old and familiar and to valorize the future uncritically. It destroys tradition because it refuses any limits on its creativity.

That just doesn’t seem to be true; it’s a much more mixed story with plenty of awareness that the sword is double-edged. Sometimes we privilege the new, but one can find articles any day fretting about the risks of troubling technological developments such as nuclear energy, autonomous drones, and bioweapons. There is always plenty of talk precisely on the topic of imposing limits to avoid future dangers.

The 1978 birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby,” caused great controversy at the time, especially among religious leaders, many of whom denounced it as unnatural and warned that it would lead to the commodification of childbearing by separating conception from sexual union.

Putting the ideologically sensitive question of the status of human embryos to the side, it’s still reasonable to argue that those warnings turned out to be either mistaken or exaggerated in terms of the greater impact of IVF technology on general sexual morality, where other cultural developments and trends were much more influential.

This line, however, rings very true.

For Technological Man, choice matters more than what is chosen. He is no much concerned with what he should desire; rather, he is preoccupied with how he can acquire or accomplish what he desires.

Dreher then sets his sights on the internet as the great modern culprit, though with some inconsistency. Consider that this line:

But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes away from us is our sense of agency.

Immediately follows this paragraph:

And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways that I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does every day.

Doesn’t that sound like a terrific expansion of agency?

Perhaps the tragedy of the modern human condition is that we are now “Slaves to Agency”?

Matthew Crawford identifies a paradox intrinsic to the Internet as technology: it tells us that it is giving us more freedom and more choice, but in fact it is seducing us into passive captivity. The experience of inner compulsion I had at the abbey repeats itself in some small way every day.

He then returns to his questionable claims regarding philosophical impact.

Compounding the problem, the technological mentality denies that there is anything important to be known, aside from how to make things that help us realize our desires: in ancient Greek, techne, or “craftsmanship,” versus episteme, or “knowledge gained through contemplation,” Techne refers to knowledge that helps you do things, while episteme refers to knowledge of how things are, so that you will know what to do.

That’s not right. Even if Dreher meant to qualify it as, “anything important to be known about the nature of truth and the universe,” it still wouldn’t hold, as there remains a thriving intellectual community that vigorously explores this type of knowledge even when it lacks obvious utilitarian value (though perhaps not admitting as much on the grant applications).

The production of new knowledge and scholarship on all manner of non-technological topics is probably at all-time highs. Indeed, it is due in large part to the capabilities that new technologies have created. For an example of pursuing knowledge about something “important to be known, the big question of “Who We Are and How We Got Here,” looms large, and is also the title of geneticist David Reich’s recent book. Which, far from being some esoteric obscurity, has generated plenty of mainstream interest and commentary.

CA39: Take on Digital Fasting as an Ascetic Practice

It will take a great deal of mental discipline

Developing the cognitive control that leads to a more contemplative Christian life is the key to living as free men and women in post-Christian America.

The man whose desires are under the control of his reason is free. The man who does whatever occurs to him is a slave. …

If you don’t control your own attention, there are plenty of people eager to do it for you. The first step in regaining cognitive control is creating a space of silence in which you can think.

Old practices and institutions can and should adapt and expand to deal with the problems of the digital age by encouraging regular disconnection and abstinence.

A Jewish organization called Reboot promotes a nonsectarian concept they call “digital Sabbath.” It’s a day of rest in which people disconnect from technology – particularly computers, iPads, and smartphones – so that they can reconnect with the real world. The digital Sabbath is not a punishment but rather a means through which one can lay aside the world’s cares (at least the ones communicated to us via digital technology).

This is akin to the ancient Christian habit of ritual fasting … This is why all serious believers must engage in periods of asceticism. They teach us to rid ourselves of accumulated distractions that keep our eyes from seeing our goal. Neil Postman, though a secular man, praises religious ascetics … To paraphrase the title of Postman’s most famous book, the practices of religious ascetics prevent them from amusing themselves to spiritual death.

CA40: Take Smartphones Away from Kids

The danger is real.

My wife once asked a new Christian friend why she homeschools her children, given that they live in a good public school district. Said the friend, “The day my fifth-grade son came home from school and said his friends were watching hardcore porn on their smartphones was the day my husband and I made the call.”

For the sake of both convenience and maintaining amicable relations with their children, parents are sorely tempted to want to trust their kids to make good – or at least innocent – choices with digital technology. But that is profoundly naïve wishful thinking.

Moms and dad who would never leave their kids unattended in a room full of pornographic DVDs think nothing of handing them smartphones. This is morally insane. No adolescent or young teenager should be expected to have the self-control on his own to say no.

Another useful supplement to the “no smartphones” policy is a “no screens in bedrooms” rule. The only way to deal with the risks of digital connectivity while preserving some of the benefits is to make the use of such devices as public as possible.

Additionally, this problem once again illustrates the need for widespread social support and reinforcement for a “wholesome commons”, because one either makes the public world safe for children or has to keep them sheltered from it. This is impossible without widely shared agreement as to fundamental values. For example, there are products available that provide filtering or monitoring capabilities, but what kinds of things will be filtered out in our contentious environment? It’s likely that any company with a product that even offered the option of an “LGBT filter and monitor” would immediately bring the entire force of progressive ire on top of them like a ton of bricks.

Dreher talks about the perils of sexting, but he could be talking about social media in general.

Finally, though most teens who sext will never find themselves in legal jeopardy, the moral dimension can be ruinous. The habit trains kids to objectify the opposite sex, treating them as commodities, and to regard their own sexuality as something to be marketed for status. A single illicit image that hits social media can destroy a teen’s reputation and set them up for bullying and abuse.

It’s worse than that. A key problem is that any digital content sent over networks falls outside of one’s control and can be copied without limit and accessed indefinitely with a persistence approaching immortality. The past can come back to haunt everyone, and that one sin, mistake, or ‘youthful indiscretion’ can now live forever and be used to embarrass or worse. It’s too hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once it gets out.

It’s now a common joke for non-millennials to say that they thank God they made their mistakes before the advent of Facebook and Twitter and so forth. But young people will have no such luck. The danger is that they do not have the cautious instincts and norms needed to preserve their future reputations in an increasingly digital world. The Onion headline, “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due to Facebook,” is funny precisely because it expresses the disturbing truth of the matter.

Dreher says ban it all, even though your kids will hate it, and hate you for it. At least until they grow up to appreciate the wisdom and necessity of the action. They’ll hate much less, and think it’s normal, if you are able to surround them with peers who all face the same rules instead of all being free of them. Yet another reason we need Benedict Options.

In another example of his conflicted inconsistency regarding cult-like weirdos and control freaks:

Yes, you will be thought of as a weirdo and a control freak. So what? These are your children

“So what” indeed.

CA41: Keep Social Media Out of Worship

CA42: Do things with Your Hands

Technology enables us to treat interaction with the material world – people, places, things – as an abstraction. Getting our hands dirty, so to speak, with gardening, cooking, sewing, exercise, and the like, is a crucial way of restoring our sense of connection with the real world. So is doing things face to face with other people.

CA43: Question Progress

Dreher is worried about amoral and immoral future technological developments, and could have quoted Ian Malcolm’s line from Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

The only impregnable fortress is metaphysical, the conviction that meaning transcends ourselves and is grounded in God. There are boundaries beyond which we cannot go if we want to live.

Dreher then wraps up the chapter and the substantive chapters of the book. It’s also a fitting book-end to the whole discussion, which I hope was of some value to you.

If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition – ways of thinking, speaking and acting that incarnate the Christian in culture and pass it on from generation to generation – we will have nothing to stand on at all. If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep that sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it. And if we lose it, we are at great risk of losing sight of the One to whom everything in that sacred order, like a divine treasure map, points.

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Some Comments on Yuval Levin

Arnold Kling recently had a post, What happened to the Center?, in which he linked to Lindsay and Pluckrose’s A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity, and in which he wrote:

In the quoted paragraphs, I think they come close to an important observation, which is that as the stakes of politics come to be perceived as high, centrists get thrown off balance. Michael Anton’s infamous flight 93 election essay is a case in point. In conversation, Yuval Levin has argued vehemently against the thesis of that memo. He prefers a point of view that says, “Wait, things are not that bad. The political process works very slowly. We are not on the verge of total defeat at the hands of the left.”

Well, I was not in agreement with that, but hadn’t remembered seeing Levin’s “case” yet.

Jeffrey S. provided a link to Levin’s Conservatism in an Age of Alienation (you can watch him read a version of it to a Harvard audience here), and I responded.

Kling then posted Speaking for Yuval Levin, and said:

More recently, in conversation, he says that the guardrails have been working. This has been frustrating for those of us who want to see Obamacare repealed and other policy shifts proportional to the drama of the Republican victory a year ago. There have been some changes of direction, for example at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission, but in other areas there has been institutional inertia. Levin would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Most important, the fact that President Trump has been checked at times by courts and by Congress helps to remind Progressives of the value of traditional institutions.

I left a short comment, and then decided to respond, um, just a little more comprehensively, to Levin’s essay in the following two additional comments: 1 and 2.

Now, these were blog comments, and could clearly use some polish. But to capture them all in one convenient place, I’ll copy them below the fold.

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Excerpts and Group Discussion of Tyler Cowen’s “Average Is Over”

Yes, I’ve been away for a while.  Yes, this is 50K words.  It’s worth it.  Read on.

HANDLE:

Chapter 1, Work and Wages in iWorld:

1. Cowen lays out some facts:

1.A. Real wages for young people are down, and unemployment (or, more precisely, underemployment and the labor-force dropout rate) is up.

1.B. The situation is international

1.C. Meanwhile the very top earners are earning much more.

1.D. The Great Divergence (Or Great Bifurcation, or Great Skewing) is widespread and expresses itself in many dimensions, good things are correlated with other good things, likewise bad with bad.

2. This is because:

2.A. Automation and increasing productivity of industrial robots and intelligence machines (intelligence used in a weak sense, mostly any IT).

2.B. Globalization

2.C. Split of the economic into very stagnant (Baumol services, old tech) and very dynamic (new tech) sectors.

The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you? … Ever more people are starting to fall on one side or the divide or the other. That’s why average is over.

There is now a joke that “a modern textile mill employs only a man and a dog – the man to feed the dog, and the dog the keep the man away from the machines.”

Not each and every one of these innovations will pay off. But let’s ask a few questions.

First, in which major areas do we see ongoing technological advances exceeding expectations from just a few years ago?

Second, in which areas do we see a lot of new and promising technological works in progress?

Third, in which areas can we expect the general forces propelling innovation … to remain powerful?

Finally, can we see evidence that these areas are already influencing economic statistics measuring our nation’s well-being?

I’ll get into more detail on all of these questions, but for now the point is that the areas of the economy identified in the answers to these questions all overlap on one technology: mechanized intelligence.

3. Human beings are more predictable, readable, and ‘exploitable’ by sensors and algorithms than many people would comfortably accept or want used against them. But these statements are true, they are exploitable, and so they are going to be exploited, and the world is going to change a lot because of it. This will creep people out at first, precisely because they will be so effective.

This [Franchise, by Asmiov] may sound outrageous to many. It seems to cross a precious line of liberty and freedom. But perhaps we are not as free as might think in the first place. … the future of technology is likely to illuminate the unsettling implications of how predictable we are and indeed in 2012 political campaigns invested heavily in predicting where to find supporters and important swing districts.

Whether we like it nor not, our sparring partners will use mechanized intelligence during our business contests

Wasn’t that in the movie of Crichton’s Rising Sun (1993)? We’re going to get a world where people actually are under the social equivalent of the Eye of God, where everyone has plausible access to all your embarrassing past sins even more than today, so it really does make people God-fearing and suppresses transgression. Of course, that includes political and ideological transgression.

Eventually it will be commonly understood that such analyses are going on in real time. Negotiators will be trained to fool or otherwise throw off the voice-tracking programs. In turn the programs will be improved to keep up with these tactics, setting up a never-ending “arms race” between technologies of deception and detection. And a new kind of sophisticated social interaction will develop. That is bigger news than any new gadget.

… We may tend to think of mechanized intelligent analysis as primarily useful in judging other people, but it will also have the potential to promote self-knowledge. During a date, a woman might consult a pocket device in the ladies’ room that tells her how much she really likes the guy. The machine could register her pulse, breathing, tone of voice, the level of detail in her narrative, or whichever biological features prove to have predictive power.

The sorry truth is that if we knew all or even some of the bad things about our prospective partners, we might be so cautious that we never take a romantic leap. As it stands, the world is set up to overreact to negative information, as even a whiff of scandal causes us to lose trust in other individuals. We will need some significant cultural changes to make do with an increase in the “warts and all” coverage mechanized intelligent analysis will soon be delivering about virtually all notable public figures and many private individuals too. … The positive illusions (all out children are above average) that help us get through everyday life could so easily wither in the face of sangfroid machine critiques. Not this year or next year, but most likely within our lifetimes

4. Tech is improving faster than other sectors because more lightly regulated.

It is no accident that we are seeing so many signs of significant progress in mechanized intelligent analysis, albeit in varying stated of maturity. First, Moore’s law about ongoing advances in processing speed has continued to pay off, with no immediate end in sight. Second, the machine intelligence sector is largely unregulated. If you compare it to health care as a world-altering, stagnation-ending breakthrough industry, regulatory obstacles are a far greater problem for pharmaceutical companies and for hospitals than for the like of Google, Amazon, and Apple. Health care, with its physician licensing, Byzantine hospital regulations, and FDA approval process, also makes most of its changes quite slowly, for better or worse.

Still, very often entrepreneurs and scientists can do the work behind smarter machines, and develop usable products, without need much special permission from the powers that be. … Technological progress slows down when there are too many people who have the right to say no, but software in general gets around a lot of the traditional veto power point.

HANDLE: 

Part I, Chapter 2: The Big Earners and the Big Losers

…here is what is scarce:

1. Quality land and natural resources
2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced
3. Quality labor with unique skills

Here is what is not scarce these days:

1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return)

I. Marketing. Echoing Sailer:

Despite all the talk about STEM fields, I see marketing as the seminal sector for our future economy.

Here’s a recent and related article of his at Bloomberg.

II. Personal Services, people are going to treat the rich like royalty all the time, and constantly try to get access to them:

We can expect a lot of job growth in personal services, even if those jobs do not rely very directly on computing power. The more that the high earners pull in, the more people will compete to serve them, sometimes for high wages and sometimes for low wages. This will mean maids, chauffeurs, and gardeners for the high earners, but a lot of the service jobs won’t fall under the service category as traditionally constructed. They can be tough of as “creating the customer experience.” … All of those people are working to make you feel better. They are working at marketing.

It sounds a little silly, but making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future.

He uses the metaphor of Calcutta beggars all climbing over each other to try to get the favorable attention of a passing billionaire. That’s a lot of people in the future. Billionaires will both be flattered by that, but also quite annoyed and one can expect them to become a bit calloused to it all and put up, for lack of a better term, their ‘bitch shields’ to the army of pitchmen, or force them to go through gatekeepers. That reminds me of this classic Roosh post.

For high earners, life will feel better than ever before, but at the same time, life will feel more harried and more overloaded with information than ever before.

III. Who is earning? Mostly managers, finance, and law.

If we look at the increase in the share of income going to the top tenth of a percent from 1979 to 2005, executives, managers, supervisors, and financial professionals captured 70 percent of those gains.

IV. Scrutiny and Hyper-Meritocracy.

We are going to be scrutinized at work much more closely, continuously, and much more accurately, than most people are used to, or will be comfortable with. There is a joke. “In the past, they said that in the future people would only work 3 hours per day. They were right. What they didn’t know is that, in the present, we still sit in front of our desks for the other 5 hours, pretending to work.” That joke won’t be funny soon, and it may not ever make sense to future workers.

Another development is this: The better the world is at measuring value, the more demanding a lot of career paths will become. This is why I say “welcome to the hyper-meritocracy” with a touch of irony. Firms and employers and monitors will be able to measure economic value with a sometimes oppressive precision.

V. Scarce and Surplus types of labor:

In any case, the slacker twenty-two-year-old with a BA in English, even from a good school, no longer has such a clear path to an upper-middle-class lifestyle. At the same time, Facebook, Google, and Zynga are so desperate for talent that they will buy out other companies, not for their products, but rather to keep their employees. It’s easier and cheaper to buy the companies than to try to replicate their recruiting or lure away their best employees. Often the purchased product lines are abandoned. … The technology blogs call this being “acqhired,” …

Heh – business opportunity. Out-compete the big boys recruiting talented and undervalued engineers out of college to work at a ‘start up’ and paying them little or just in promises of options or something. Have them work on some project which gets attention but otherwise doesn’t have to make any genuine business sense. Maybe do a culling down to the best half. Then tell Google you’ve got an engineer-plantation they can buy, slaves and all. Google doesn’t care about the land or the cotton, it has its own groves, but it likes the slaves, because you are known to have good taste in slaves. Profit.

VI. Good managers are the scarce input in many operations, which is why their salaries have gone up so much.

He says that top folks simply don’t have enough time to invest in managing more people. He gets offers from good people to work as an additional research assistant for him for free, and he still turns them down, because he has no more time. He would have to get a middle manager to take on more people, even free people, and he can’t do that cheaply.

To hire a risky and iffy worker, without a competent overseer, simply isn’t worth it, no matter how low the wage. And so a lot of workers have a hard time being picked up and integrated into productive teams.

It is precisely that process that managers are paid to make work more efficiently. It is a process that is continuing its long, long trend towards increasing importance. And finally it is why managers are being paid more.

VII. Workers need to be more conscientious and happily obedient to be valuable these days.

Team production makes the quality of “conscientiousness a more important quality in laborers. Managers need workers who are reliable. If you have a team of give, one unreliable worker is wrecking the work of four others. …

It’s not just that the bad workers are lazy or maybe destructive. It’s that low quality workers spread bad moral to many others …

VIII. Conscientiousness not equal between sexes

The growing value of conscientiousness in the workplace helps women do better than men at work and in colleges and universities. At my daughter’s recent college graduation ceremony the awards for the top achievers in all the school’s programs and departments went almost entirely to women, including awards in science and mathematics.

I’ve seen this during my education too. They didn’t necessarily get the choicest jobs, but boy did they rack up the good grades awards.

It is well known from personality psychology, and confirmed by experience, that women are on average more conscientious than men. They are more likely to follow instructions and orders with exactness and without resentment.

You can think of men as the “higher variance” performers at work. That means some men are more likely to be the very highest earners and also the exhibit extreme dedication to the task … Other men, in greater number, will be more irresponsible, more likely to show up drunk, more likely to end up in prison, and more likely to become irreparably unemployable.

Didn’t Larry Summers get fired from his Harvard Presidency for saying something similar?

Here is another, more general way to think about the shifting gender balance of power in education and parts of the workplace. The wealthier we become, the grater a cushion we have against total failure, starvation, and other completely unacceptable outcomes. In such a world, both women and men will indulge some propensities that otherwise might be stifled or kept under wraps or that would not have been affordable fifty or one hundred years ago. For some men, these propensities are quire destructive and this turns them into labor market failures.

And some of the women turn into sexual market failures. Anyway, it’s all about minimizing management and supervision costs, especially through early screening and filtering.

The premium is on conscientiousness, namely whether the worker can follow some straightforward requests with extreme reliability and basic competence. … If you’re a young male hothead who just can’t follow orders and you have your own ideas about how everything should be done, you’re probably going to have an ever-tougher time in the labor markets of the future. [Smoky! -H]

Let’s draw up a simple list of some important characteristics …

1. Exactness of execution becomes more important relative to accumulated mass of brute force
2. Consistent coordination over time is a significant advantage
3. Moral is extremely important to motivate production and cooperation

IX. Bad workers are potentially huge liabilities in lots of ways, including of course disastrous legal consequences. Exclusion of even slight risks is key.

Workers represent a firm to the broader outside work, and the firm faces a higher risk of lawsuits. … It is easier to destroy than to create, and the more valuable and the more precision-based that firms become, the more they will worry about destruction of value coming from workers.

Any time there is a discussion of management strategies, you probably will hear a lot of works like teamwork, morale, and integrity. That’s all well and fine, but what if we substitute exclusion for all those nice warm phrases. They would be the same management strategies merely explained from a different point of view, namely of those who are kept away. There is no high morale without exclusions, no integrity without exclusion, and no corporate culture without exclusion. If the management styles at today’s quality companies seem so nice, so friendly, and sometimes so downright heartwarming, it is possible only because those cultures are so very picky, snobbish, and elitist at the same time. There is no open door.

X. Careers – the brightest, best-compensated, non-STEM people are going into finance, law, and consulting.

X.A. Law: Today, laws are more numerous and more complicated increasing demand for lawyers, at least at the top end.

X.B. Consulting: A global economy means longer supply chains, and consultants can help businesses track and evaluate those complex operations (he goes on to say that many business managers never step back and do real intellectual ‘fresh look / big picture’ analysis of their operations.

X.C. Finance: Growing in part because the promise of bailouts encourages banks to become larger and take on more risk (your mileage may vary with this one)

Working to exercise and demonstrate their general intelligence is in fact the main thing they are good for, and moving beyond this can take quite a few years. …

We tend to glamorize these well-paying jobs. If we can set aside the glamour and perhaps our envy, me might notice that our society does not know what else to do with these people, who are otherwise not always very productive.

VLADIMIR: 

I’ve been very busy with work and social obligations in the last few days, so I won’t be able to make a detailed comment for another day or two. However, for now, I’d just like to point out that this stuff appears to be optimized for injecting a dose of reality into the mainstream in a way that tries to avoid treading on any crimethink mines while minimizing the inevitable distortion of truth that follows from that. I think Cowen should be given much credit for doing it so successfully.

Heh – business opportunity. Out-compete the big boys recruiting talented and undervalued engineers out of college to work at a ‘start up’ and paying them little or just in promises of options or something. Have them work on some project which gets attention but otherwise doesn’t have to make any genuine business sense. Maybe do a culling down to the best half. Then tell Google you’ve got an engineer-plantation they can buy, slaves and all. Google doesn’t care about the land or the cotton, it has its own groves, but it likes the slaves, because you are known to have good taste in slaves. Profit.

This might actually be a part of the explanation for all these startups that appear to be wildly overvalued relative to the merits of their ostensible business plan.

HANDLE: 

I know a Tesla mechanic and he really likes his job. He used to work for BMW, and said it had a truly toxic culture (not one that sounded very traditionally German) and the rats (i.e. other mechanics) were fleeing from a sinking ship. A former BMW maintenance manager was poached by Tesla, and he knew who the good guys were at BMW, and so was given them task of poaching them too.

Which really make you think.

One thing Tesla has is that anyone who can create a new car company from scratch will maintain a permanent advantage over all established car companies, in that it won’t be saddled with all those tremendous pension liabilities to former workers, and established super-powerful unions. Musk certainly has an incentive to get as far ahead on the automation curve as possible to avoid ever having to deal with those problems at anything like the magnitude of burden all the other companies must carry.

That makes it very hard for any established company to eat his lunch by copying simple and widely available tech, while also making it hard for any other new company to overcome the barrier to entry, especially if future subsidies are likely to be less generous than what Musk got to help him get started. That means there is a special, one-time opportunity to pick up this particular $100 bill off the sidewalk. He picked it up.

I admit I didn’t give this particular advantage enough consideration before, and now it seems to help account for Tesla’s unique ability to capitalize on electric cars with big batteries, which, after all, anyone can make. But his timing means that he’s the only one that can make them both with the most generous subsidies and before amassing manufacturing-era labor liabilities and before sclerosis infects his company.

It’s not necessarily regulatory arbitrage as it is also a kind of legacy sclerosis arbitrage. Indeed, this was and remains a considerably portion of the competitive advantage of East Asian automakers in the US market. All else being equal, the Big Three had to make an extra few thousand dollars per vehicle to pay for their liabilities. Tesla gets to start from scratch with a clean slate. That just having a clean slate is such a huge advantage these days is revealing in itself. Combined with ludicrously generous crony subsidies, it makes a strong case for his special, inimitable position.

Furthermore, in addition to not being saddled with the unions and all those pension liabilities to former workers, he’s got another advantage which accrues to any new company in an established sector, indeed one the big Silicon Valley companies have conspired among themselves to avoid by means of forming a labor-market demand-side cartel.

I’m guessing a lot of your work environments are a lot like mine, where compensation is fairly flat and compressed and bears little relation to ones marginal productivity in the short term, despite everyone knowing informally who is really pulling the weight. In the long term high performers are rewarded with promotions, but this suffers from Peter Principle problems, and anyway only works in tall hierarchies. There is a new employee where I work who is getting paid nearly as much as I am, but who is doing 20% of the work, because he is a moron, but he beats everybody in seniority, which is, alas, how the system works. He won’t get promoted, but in a way that’s almost worse, since the good performers will leave the job and people like him will stick around, lowering average productivity.

Everybody I know has lots stories like these.

So that creates another kind of obvious arbitrage opportunity. Maybe “Productivity Correlation Arbitrage.” If one could only pick one good manager in a unit or office, tell him he must fire 60% of people, and that he has unlimited authority to fire anyone he wants, and those he retains will get paid double so long as all the work gets done, then I have no doubt that the company and everyone left will be much better off.

Some seasonal companies actually do something like via over-hiring, automatic attrition, and selective rehiring. I had an uncle-in law who worked a job like this on the Alaskan oil fields and called it something like an “underbrush fire” that left all the big timbers standing.

But most mature organizations, especially those saddled with strong unions, can’t legally or practically manage anything remotely approaching this kind of ruthless culling.

But if a new company can poach a few good managers with the special inside knowledge needed to be future poachers of more good people, then your new company can start off with much better people producing much more value and for only a little more money. Is Tesla doing this too? That’s pretty smart, and it seems to borrow from some insights that may have been gained from Silicon Valley experiences.

Hmm… something to think about.

HANDLE: 

Part I, Chapter 3: Why Are So Many People Out of Work?

I. The labor force participation rate has been going down for some time.

Cowen includes this picture (though timed to lack the little upward spike at the end)

Well, 67 to 63 in 15 years seems pretty dramatic.

But let’s constrain to prime working age adults:

Not as dramatic. Let me abuse faulty human visual pattern finding here (something between pareidolia and apophenia). What I want is to do a Fourier transform and get out the seasonal signal, but also the business cycle oscillation with a bust in the early 90’s, boom in the late 90’s, bust in the early 00’s, boom in the mid to late 00’s, and then the GFC big bust until, well, now. What I want to say is that the smooth hump that would be left would have peaked around 1996 just above 84%, and in 20 years has declined to over 81%. The questions are whether that 3% is gone for good, and where things go from here.

A big part of the difference is more higher education. Not all the difference, but a lot. A lot of people criticize Cowen, saying he is purposefully ignoring that and so exaggerating the problem. IIRC, he has responded that it still means that our economic structure makes more bodies unavailable for production at any moment, but the issue here is supposed to be ‘involuntary unemployment’.

II. Here is how the step by step evolution of machine intelligence worked in Chess (an obsessive analogy with Cowen, for obvious reasons, for much of the book.)

This step-by-step evolution is how intelligent technology will change a lot of industries.

At first the machine hardly adds anything and it’s really just an investment in building a better machine.

At the second step, experts – the in field of the program’s operation – will be required to work with the machines, to fill the gaps in what the machines can do.

As the programs improve, the next and third step is that the humans understand the programs very well, with a minimum of expertise – but expertise nonetheless – in the relevant industry. These workers will essentially be information processors, albeit with an understanding of context.

The fourth and final step is that the human isn’t needed much at all because the program on its own is so strong.

Computer programs do especially well in chess because it is a totally regularized environment where the right answer can be ascertained, at least in principle, by pure calculation.

… In poker, the very best players are still humans, because the computers don’t know how to psych out the opponent, bluff, or real the “tells” from the guy sitting across the table. The more that an endeavor requires inferences about the mind-states of others, the more than intelligent machines will require human aid. We humans do have out talents.

III. Back to labor force participation

Those numbers on labor force participation are telling us that, for whatever reason, over 40 percent of adult, non-senior Americans don’t consider it worthwhile to have a job. They can’t find a deal that suits then.

… Adult males are seceding from the workforce – or being kicked out – in frightening numbers. Few of these individuals are wealthy playboys. Is it no surprise that popular culture today has this image of the male slacker, a young man who lives at home, plays video games, is indifferent to holding down a job, and maybe doesn’t run after young women so hard.

… People are getting accustomed to an existence where they cannot find satisfying work at a wage they are happy with.

… Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected federal disability benefit; now the number is up to 8.2 million, at a direct dollar cost of $115 billion a year, over $1,500 for every American household. Yet the American workplace, as measure by deaths and accidents, has never been safer.

The number actually peaked near 9 million in Sept, 2014, and has been mostly flat ever since, with a small but steady decline afterwards. The number of applications and awards (the first derivative) peaked in late 2011 and has declined over 25% of average since then. The Disability Trust Fund was set to go bankrupt in late 2016, and was expected to lose $30 Billion a year indefinitely.

The ‘fix’ was in the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015”, which shifted 0.57% of the 12.4% in total payroll taxes from the old age program to the disability program, but only for three years (so, spending 5.4% of ‘pension contributions’ to bail out a formally financially segregated insurance program). DI tax receipts, which had been mostly flat for 8 years, suddenly jumped 35% in 2016, by over $40 Billion extra dollars, pushing off the insolvency of one trust fund, at the cost of accelerating the insolvency of the other trust fund, but in the end only delaying the inevitable DITF bust for about 5 or 6 years, unless there’s another bailout, which everyone knows there will be. This was one of the most under-reported story of that year, and not just because of the election and Trump.

These problems with labor have gone beyond the general problems with our economy, so something has gone wrong with work itself.

… But for men, from 1969 to 2009, as measured, it appears that wages for the typical or median male earner have fallen by about 28 percent.

He admits some people dispute that number, but even some rosy assumption come up with a pretty disappointing and surprising number.

Imagine yourself as an economist back in 1969, being asked to predict the course of American male wages over the next forty years or so. You are told that no major asteroid will strike the earth and that there will be no nuclear war. The riots of the 1960s will die out rather than consuming out country in flames. Communism would go away as a major threat and most of the world would reject socialism. Who would have thought that wages for the typical guy were going to fall?

Ctrl-F for ‘immig’ comes up nothing, and maybe those numbers should have been stipulated as well to our hypothetical 1969 economist. And there were some people on the nationalist, anti-globalist right who thought wages for the typical guy would be hurt by a more open economy with more open borders. But there were not dominant voices, to put it mildly.

IV. The Great Recession. During the boom, firms weren’t paying much attention to granular productivity. After the bust came the microscopes and the firings.

Firms … took some discrete steps to figure out which workers were adding the most value, and once they identified the less productive workers, they let them go.

… Those laid-off workers have been absorbed into new jobs at a rate much slower than is usual following a recession. They can’t get their old jobs back, even though the worst of the crisis is over and corporate profits are back up. Most importantly, the new jobs being created are more likely low wage than mid-wage.

… most labor market polarization is transmitted through the immediate mechanism of recessions, which is when those middle class jobs are disappearing. After the recession is over, the lost middle class jobs do not come back.

V. Putting aside problems with short-term nominal stickiness, lower wages still can’t fix the problems with contemporary low-productivity labor, as in the past, because today’s suspect workers just aren’t worth the trouble.

“Seeking only workman’s wages I come looking for a job, but I get no offers. Except the come-ons from the whores on Seventh Avenue …”

It doesn’t matter how flexible the wage is in the more complex, less brute force jobs. A manual worker who just shows up at your door is probably not someone you want to hire unless it is already part of a preexisting business plan with broad buy-in from your enterprise and your creditors. The worker might say, “I’ll lower my wage demands by thirty percent!” or, “I’ll work for nothing!” It usually won’t matter. The sad reality is that many of these workers you don’t want at all, even if the business plan involves additional labor. Some workers simply aren’t worth the trouble unless the demand for extra labor is truly pressing.

I believe these “zero marginal product” workers account for a small but growing percentage of out workforce.

During the surge and temporary force-builds, the Army and Marines had to lower standards and accept less impressive applicants in order to meet accession quotas for enlistedmen. Usually that involved relaxing each of the many standards each by a little bit. Actually, the system pretends the standards aren’t being changed at all, but that individuals are being granted discretionary ‘waivers’ of a typical standard on a one by one basis by commanders, which is the system ordinarily used rarely in exceptional cases for people with extreme talent or value in some area, but maybe just under the threshold for one of the standards. Well, suddenly these waivers were routine. Still, there is value to keeping the standards ‘in the book’ the same, since everybody still knows what they are supposed to do, and the waivers will eventually go away when the pressure is off.

But eventually you are going to be cutting into muscle and bone and not able to relax some standards any more. And someone is going to discover where you are going to get the most bang for your buck in terms of the greatest numbers resulting from a policy change in the other standards. That turned out to be in background check department, which gave rise to the whole ‘moral waivers’ problem. A lot of these guys were good soldiers, fit enough and smart enough to fit in, go fighting downrange, and get the job done well, but, inevitably, a huge number of them got into serious disciplinary trouble at some point. They were good workers who would get in trouble, which is a very different problem from the obedient and law-abiding ones that just aren’t up to snuff.

In times when men were desperately needed, when those men got in trouble, they’d get slapped on the wrist with minor penalties, or even just a good old-fashioned “smoke the shit out of him” extended painful-exertion session with an NCO. But as soon as Congress announced the numbers had to go down – by a lot, and quickly – then a very different message went out to commanders. Suddenly every little thing was a dischargeable offense, and it was, predictably, disproportionately the moral-waiver guys who were getting kicked out.

VI. Productivity. The labor-productivity statistics following the GFC bust bear this story out.

Cowen says that in a typical recession, especially under simple Keynesian Aggregate Demand models, one might expect to see job losses occur across the whole economy and in each sector in a fairly proportionate way. Everything should just shrink, and average productivity should remain the same. But that’s not what happened. In many firms, hours fell faster than output and productivity increased a lot. That means that this time firms went to effort to identify the gold and the dross, and then disproportionately got rid of dross. What’s worse is that while some of those people weren’t dross, everybody knows that people who lost their jobs and became unemployed were disproportionately dross, and so other firms were reluctant to hire them back, based on this statistical generalization. And that means re-employing those people was a different problem from the one of past recessions.

Some of the JOLTS data bears this out too. Firms were hiring, but disproportionately from pools of college graduates on the one hand and people who already had jobs and were just switching companies on the other. They weren’t hiring in anything like a similar proportional rate from the giant reserve army of unemployed.

One quibble with this data is that something like that might still show up as an artifact in some large firms that are just indiscriminately firing line workers, but which can’t cut overhead in headquarters, where people are paid the most. Still, I’m guessing that’s probably a minor issue.

VII. There are plenty of new, if lower paying jobs. However:

There are plenty of lower-paying jobs in the world, more than ever before, but here are the rather significant catches:

1. A lot of those jobs are being created overseas. If the job does not require high and complex capital investment, the advantage to keeping that job in the United States is lower.

2. A lot of Americans are not ready to take such job, either financially or psychologically. They have been conditioned to expect “jobs in the middle,” precisely the area that is falling away.

3. Through law and regulation, the United States is increasing the cost of hiring, whether it be mandated health benefits, risk of lawsuits, or higher minimum wages.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that unemployed young workers will only slowly be reemployed. And the jobs they get will often have considerably lower wages.

VIII. Freelancers and self-employed and food trucks:

Rono Economou … is a typical story. She was laid off [from] her well-paying job at a large Manhattan law firm … After some soul-searching, she responded by opening Boubouki, a small Greek food stall … she wakes up at 5:30am, lift a lot of heavy bags, and can’t afford to miss a day of work. It’s not clear her project will succeed financially, much less bring her riches, and it also doesn’t seem that her life is freer. A lot of future jobs will look like this – that is, they will look more like the jobs we already see in great numbers in developing countries.

Over time we can expect these categories to blur, and freelancing jobs will become increasingly respectable and indeed normal, if only because they offer a bit of pay and a bit of personal freedom too. More workers will think of themselves as free agents, and more employers will be keener to make hires without traditional benefits packages being attached to the job offers.

If the law lets them anyway, and allows independent contractor relationships without benefits, overtime, or guaranteed regular hours.

However, I have a friend who despite being quite gifted was just a bad fit, personality-wise, for the boring daily grind of a middle-management bureaucrat. Too restless and athletic and temperamental. Not the family man type at all; just a little too much wild blood in there.

He ended up quitting his civil servant job and driving Uber / Lyft full time. He was making good money for a while, and now he makes ok money, enough to get by in an expensive city, though of course with no pension and only the minimum health care plan.

It’s a lot less than he was making in his regular job, and his net per ride is decreasing as the situation gets more competitive and the market-makers turn the screws. Also there is volatility and seasonality and he has had to bust his ass to avoid hitting the wall a few times. Also, if he ever does decide to try and settle down and rejoin the workforce, then he’s got a whole lot of Uber on his resume, and no references.

Still, if he’s got enough money saved up, and he gets an invitation or sudden opportunity or just a feeling and wants to take two weeks off on a whim to go climbing or biking or to pursue some love affair, or just go on a bender, he doesn’t have to ask anybody for permission. He just goes on the spur of the moment. He waits for those last-minute crazy international deals out of his airport and if the price is right he just goes. If he runs low on cash or wants to make some indulgent purchase, he can increase his hours whenever he wants. If he gets insomnia or some chick flakes on him or something, boom, he can just turn on the app and start making money then and there. He’s actually met a girl this way once. He says, “I have no supervisors or clients and no one is responsible for me but me. I am a free man. I love it.”

To him, this kind of life is satisfying, if hard, low paying, and low status, but it feels like it is still full of dignity because of his independence and freedom from having to submit to anybody or any schedule other than his own. I am almost of opposite temperament to him in many ways, but even I’ll admit that there are times when that grass looks a little greener and I slightly envy his flexibility. But I’m fairly certain his standard of living simply must descend, eventually, to that of his most hungry competitor. Which is to say, next to nothing.

IX. Threshold earners, and their culture:

Today, many of these young earners are threshold earners, meaning earners who are content just to get by and who do not push ambitiously for a higher wage or stronger credentials at every step. Williamsburg, Brooklyn is full of young threshold earners, although rising rents are starting to push them out into the other parts of the city …
… it is commonly recognized that a lot of the young denizens simply aren’t striving after very much, at least not in terms of commercial job opportunities.

X. Summary

Overall, these job market trends are bringing:

1. Higher pay for bosses
2. More focus on morale in the workplace
3. Greater demands for conscientious and obedient workers
4. Greater inequality at the top
5. Big gains for the cognitive elite
6. A lot of freelancing in the services sector
7. Some tough scrambles for workers without a lot of skills.

Those are essential characteristic of the coming American labor markets, the new world of work.

HANDLE: 

Part II: What Games Are Teaching Us

Chapter 4: New Work, Old Game

I. Gaming is a huge part of the economy now, bigger than Hollywood, which is an under-reported and under-recognized fact. They also emphasize rapid processing of large amounts of information, which is what will be especially valuable in the future.

II. Watching how intelligent machines play and eventually beat the top masters in Chess (and recently, Go) provides a rich source of data about the tendencies, strengths and weakness of human decision making.

In the past, without the ability to ‘verify’ whether a decision was really the ‘correct’ one through exhaustive computational analysis, only other top human experts could evaluate a decision by another top human expert. And they would have to use their fallible heuristic intuitions to do so. What’s more, if there is something common about brain architecture that makes these intuitive engines fail in common ways, the expert consensus will evaluate another expert’s ‘wrong’ move as right.

But now we can really scrutinize these things with the help of machines, and as a result we can learn about the power and limits of our own brains, or, at least, the best our species has at the moment before the Chinese pay Stephen Hsu to use CRISPR to create biological super-intelligent super-alpha-Han or something.

III. Computers make a lot of ‘ugly’ moves, that feel wrong or weird to the pattern-recognition heuristic intuitions of most human players, and which full of complexity and mystery.

Chess grandmasters have coined a phrase – “That’s a computer move” – to describe those ugly, counterintuitive decisions made by computers, the moves that surely appear wrong. Yet the machines that produce those ugly moves beat the grandmasters virtually every time.

The moves of the machines show, regularly, how puny and unreliable our intuitions are, even if we spend our decades studying chess.

It makes you wonder if the same is true about the rest of our lives.

IV. Partnering with machine-intelligent advisors and playing to win in broader human contexts.

It may get riskier yet, as the computers are programmed to play an active, tactical game. The computer is programmed to play for a win, not a draw. We can imagine competing intelligent-machine companies offering programs that seek out an active advantage in a typical human situation. No one rises to the top of the business world by breaking even on a lot of deals, and no one successfully woos a lot of women, or marries the right one, by acting “just okay” or neutral. People know that they need to take chances in complex situations, and they will buy tactical computer programs that help them do this. We’re going to generate a lot of hairy, very complicated personal interactions, driven by real-time data analysis and computer intelligence.

Average is over. Some real-world interactions will become a lot simpler and call for conservatism and simple rule-following behavior, while others will become far more complicated and extreme. The case for keeping it simple is plain: Just do what the machine tells you. Avoid mistakes, hang on to your job, your relationship, your portfolio, or whatever it is you are trying to preserve. Defer to the authority of the beast with the intellectual brute force.

HANDLE: 

Part II, Chapter 5: Our Freestyle Future:

I. A lot more chess analogy stuff. Freestyle (or ‘advanced chess’ or ‘cyborg’ or ‘centaur’) is human+machine teams playing other human+machine teams. If H is human and M is machine, you can imagine the possible competitions as:

H v H (traditional)

H v M (human playing computer, will always lose now)

M v M (software playing itself or another piece of software)

H+M v H (Freestyler versus human, human alone should always lose)

H+M v M (Freestyler versus some software, maybe different software. If it’s the same software, and the human is expert, then the Freestyler should probably win.)

H+M v H+M (Freestyle competition)

I am leaving out the complication of there being multiple humans, or multiple machines, or both, with maybe a team of people trying to figure out how to decide between multiple options when different chess engines give different answers.

And that’s the example Cowen uses with the champion British diversity-poster-children team of Anson Williams (Afro-Caribbean), Nelson Hernandez (looks Spanish to me), and Yingheng Chen (Anson’s girlfriend).

Anson, when playing, is in perpetual motion, rushing back and forth from one machine to another, as Freestyle chess is, according to team member Nelson, “all about processing as much computer information as rapidly as possible.”

Freestyle teams study the opening moves their machine opponents have made in previous games because, as Kasparov has observed, an initial advantage in Freestyle chess usually means an eventual victory. The players also know the weaknesses of particular engines and how one engine can at times offset the weaknesses of another.

Well, I suppose what we have here are kind of a meta level of intuitive heuristics, bolstered by ‘intense probing’ of each engine’s offered move when there is a ‘evaluation flip’ opportunity. How do the humans know about these strengths and weaknesses and make decisions? Why aren’t those intuitions susceptible to the same problems as in standard chess? My point is, why can’t that be automated in a similar fashion by a kind of meta-chess engine. Of course, if you have meta-chess engine software, combined with all the other engines, you have a super-engine. And maybe then we need to go one level higher in the hierarchy of engines and meta-engines, and meta-meta-engines …

II. More chess …

III. Having good and quick memory is important in these games, and in the real world too

Indeed, in plenty of real-world situations the immediate command over factual or analytical material brings a big edge. Discussions in meetings, strategies and reactions during sales calls, lawyers arguing in front of a jury, and managers in volatile, voices-raised personnel situations all try to draw upon preprocessed information at a moment’s notice. In all those cases, it matters more and more what workers have learned from the computer, or not, and how well they remember computer-derived information and advice.

IV. Another real-world ‘freestyle’ combo example. Medical diagnosis.

For over 20 years there have been automated imaging systems for histology and pathology and cell screening, such as in pap smears, blood draws, and biopsy samples. It’s also true in radiology. There’s also been automated EKG analyzing software to help cardiologists for longer than that. (In fact, little Handle once worked in the cold room at a local university hospital where the ‘supercomputer’ did exactly that, reading the data off old cassette tapes and making preliminary diagnosis, often very well, sometimes comically wrong.)

These systems are under the ‘supervision’ of an expert human and try to divide things up by ‘comparative advantage’, but really there is some feedback and complementary cross-checking to compensate for the other party’s weaknesses.

For pap smears, there can be lots and lots of cells, and the computer never misses a potentially abnormal one, but it has a false positive a lot of the time. It sends only these images to the doctor who studies them more closely. But that processing is done over thousands of cells and completed in a flash, which saves the docs lots of valuable time. The ‘team’ works like this:

Machine: Many, Easy. Filters down to:
Human: Few, ‘Hard’

Of course, what is ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ is a matter of the latest software and how smart it is which, in the short term, is probably also a matter of expense. But as machines get smarter and faster, the margin will keep shifting until eventually the human doctor isn’t ‘needed’ at all. That is, he adds zero value to making the results statistically more reliable.

V. On the other things, it will be hard to replace human agents for some diagnostic tasks, because of GIGO problems and that whole poker-like ‘reading the state of a human mind’ problem.

One medical innovation would run a patient’s reported symptoms through a Watson-like software program and see what might be wrong, drawing upon extensive databases. But can the computer ask follow-up questions to the patient properly or guess where the patient might be lying or exaggerating in the description of symptoms? … Not anytime soon, and so we are back to collaboration.

Actually, I think the computers might be pretty good at figuring out if someone is lying or exaggerating, or helping tip off the doctor or nurse.

VI. Implications for credentialed guild professionals:

It is clear that for the collaboration to work, we need to have a very smart machine. But, if the machine is already in place and plugged in, how expert does the human have to be? When the worker has to be a highly paid physician, a collaborative team can be costly, even if it improved health outcomes. The world – not the mention the American Medical Association – is pretty far from accepting this fact, but the person working with the computer doesn’t have to be a doctor or even a medical expert. She has to be good at understanding and correcting the computer’s mistakes, which is a very different skill.

VII. We are already running a kind of experiment of automated diagnosis given symptom descriptions with Google, which never had to ask anyone permission to do it, and which, apparently, isn’t liable for this going wrong. Which it must have done plenty of times. Again, ‘the tech exception’. But lots of people are typing in their inquiries and getting, it turns out, ok diagnoses.

The study did not consider the possible costs of incorrect or misleading results, so we’re still far from evaluating this rather large-scale experiment in new medical institutions. If nothing else, it’s an argument for proceeding with more regularized and authorized forms of the collaborative approach in medicine. We already have computerized doctors, and that illustrates the power of information technology to spread rapidly; the next question is how good and how reliable our mechanical medical servants are going to be.

VIII. Broader Lessons

1. Human-computer teams are the best teams
2. The person working the smart machine doesn’t have to be expert in the task at hand
3. Below some critical level of skill, adding a man to the machine will make the team less effective than the machine working alone.
4. Knowing one’s own limits is more important than it used to be.

We also can use the concept of man-machine collaboration to define the difference between a worthless or “zero marginal product” worker and a potentially valuable worker. The worthless worker is one whose cooperation with the machine makes the final outcome worse rather than better. A potentially valuable worker offers the promise of improving the machine, taken alone.

VLADIMIR: 

Clearly, immigration is the elephant in the room that Cowen is doing his best to ignore. Another is that a policy of protectionism of domestic workers against having their wages crushed by overseas competition (except for narrow politically powerful special interests) is no longer really in the Overton window, and he doesn’t even stop to consider if this might change.

Moreover, he doesn’t get to the core of the problem of what’s really so bad about being poor in the New Economy. The only really important aspect of this problem he does mention is real estate. But clearly, the much worse issue is the social Coming Apart that’s taking place along with the economic Average is Over, i.e. the fact that one must be somewhere in the upper deciles of the wealth and status distribution to avoid being stuck in horrifying social chaos and decivilization. Alas, even with Cowen’s skills, it’s just not possible to talk about this meaningfully without going too far in obvious crimethink directions.

Despite all that, I think Cowen is pretty much correct with all his observations, and the fundamental trends he identifies would still be taking place even if their consequences weren’t further exacerbated by immigration and overseas labor competition. As libertarians like to point out when they argue in favor of free trade and open borders, imports and immigrants — ignoring the political and other externalities of the latter — are just like technology. The argument is supposed to work by appealing to the unquestionable goodness of the latter, which supposedly only crazy Luddites could dispute. But of course, properly understood, it actually demonstrates that economic changes brought by technology itself may at least in principle have bad consequences for a majority of the population. Even if that had not actually been the case for the last few centuries, things may be changing now.

SPANDRELL:

No Coming Apart in Japan. 3.5% unemployment. No immigration. No real estate boom. Increased centralization in Tokyo, yes, but nothing too dramatic. You can buy a decent house for 300k in a Tokyo suburb.

Wages have stagnated since the peak, but inequality hasn’t risen that much. No great increase in compensation for managers, CEOs and all that. Certainly no boom in financial services. Salaries for traditionally lucrative guilds such as law and doctors are if anything decreasing, especially law after the bar exam was made easier.

I see a lot of assertions about automation and human+machine teams which sound edgy and fun and make it sound like a sci-fi novel where governments are weak and engineers determine the future; but I’m not seeing much of a thorough argument.

I’ll make the obvious objection: Everything is Politics. Average is Over happened because of the particular political choices of USG. It could have happened differently. It could still change. Nothing inevitable about it.

VLADIMIR:

4. Tech is improving faster than other sectors because more lightly regulated.

It’s remarkable that the word “technology” in its popular shortened form (“tech”) has come to mean “things done in Silicon Valley.” There seems to be a popular assumption, not altogether inaccurate, that nothing else happens any more in the realm of technology that’s not totally stagnant and uninteresting.

As a fascinating look into the past as a foreign country, I recommend the story “The Chief Research Chemist of the Metaplast Corporation” from Richard Feynman’s autobiography.Outside of the computer industry, I don’t think it’s possible to imagine anything like this happening today: a smart guy given the freedom to tinker around and improve and invent things, unrestrained by an onerous and rigid bureaucratic process and superiors trembling at the prospect of regulatory and legal repercussions at every step. It’s a sobering thought when people mention all this economic deregulation and liberalization that’s supposedly taken place since the 1970s.

VLADIMIR: 

Spandrell: Assuming your description of Japan is accurate, then according to you, what exactly were the political and other factors that have made Japan different?

I can see the following possibilities (not mutually exclusive) off the top of my head:

(1) Lack of mass immigration combined with demographic shrinkage has made the supply of low- and mid-skilled labor stagnant or falling just in time to compensate for the falling demand due to technology.

(2) As a highly cohesive and disciplined society, Japan implements protectionism and makework exceptionally well, ensuring continued prosperity even for those classes that would otherwise lose out badly in the AOE economy.

(3) Similar to Germans, the Japanese are so exceptionally productive that capital is still chasing them wherever they live, preventing the Great Centralization from playing out in a severe form. (What exactly do people in Japanese small towns do these days that’s competitive in the global economy, rather than being propped up by the state?)

(4) The Average is Over/Coming Apart trends are not just due to economic factors, but also because the old Malthusian farmer cultural and social capital is eroded further with each generation that lives in cushy prosperity, so there’s a bifurcation between the successful upper percentiles who continue with the old farmer ethic, being somehow unaffected by this degeneracy due to genes or lucky circumstances, and the lower classes who are reverting to a savage state. Maybe due to culture and/or HBD the Japanese just have the old farmer ethic ingrained much deeper.

(5) The Japanese have never done much except dull and uninspired (if still very successful) copying of American technology and institutions, and their Asiatic conformity prevents any exceptional individuals from sticking out. So there just isn’t any market for exceptional performers who would form the successful right peak of the bimodal AOE distribution.

(6) A variation on (6): maybe there are exceptional performers, but the Asiatic conformity dictates that they must not stick out in terms of compensation. (This isn’t so far-fetched: for all the frantic talk about rising inequality in the U.S., my experience is that income distribution in the corporate world is, if anything, quite communist, due to factors I don’t quite understand. People who are more productive and have greater responsibilities get paid more, but nowhere near in proportion to how much their contribution and responsibility is greater.)

Anything else?

SPANDRELL:

(1) There’s something to it. Also IT adoption is fairly low. Most Japanese offices haven’t changed that much and are fairly unproductive, but nobody seems interested in changing that. Candide has some insight on how fucked up the local IT industry is.

(2) Legally speaking Japan is hardly protectionist, but the industry is set up so that imports don’t sell well. Part of that is public policy part of that is the complex guild-like structures that dominate the economy and keep makework a thing.

(3) I live in a very, very small town, inside a very small province. Don’t get me wrong; young people are leaving, Centralization is a thing. But a small thing. 80% of young people stay, and they have plenty of jobs. Lots of industry, large and small. All Japanese industry is in the countryside, more or less. A large part of that is due to public policy and sheer pork; the Japanese politician class are mostly rural, to this day.

(4) I don’t think that’s it. Denmark has been prosperous for longer than Greece. Degeneracy is a matter of public policy too. Japanese don’t do drugs because they get life imprisonment. Single mothers don’t get welfare easily. Japanese law doesn’t subsidize degeneracy. I blame France for White savagery, in Asia it just doesn’t happen. Athrelon had a good article about how in Asia the lower class is well behaved.

(5) Conformity is certainly a thing. But I don’t see what those exceptional individuals in the US are doing that justifies coming apart in the whole West. As Sailer puts it most recent Silicon Valley innovations are just regulatory arbitrage (this is funny too). Asian regulators are not into arbitrage. They set up guilds decades ago and they enforce them.

(6) This is absolutely a thing. The Japanese are well aware that some workers are awesome and many are semi useless; yet everybody has to make a living. If anything very productive people are forced to work more than anyone else. They get paid more, but not vastly more. In the end the purpose of compensation is bragging rights. In Japan you get massive bragging rights with a $200k salary. Out of the chart bragging rights. You can look down on everybody. Do you really need a yacht?

So in summary:

1. The rent-seeking structure the state set up in the 1950s still remains in place. No regulatory arbitrage, no disruption. You can’t make rich by destroying a whole industry. They won’t let you.

2. Investor influence on management is nil. Management culture in Japan is collegial, they have their old culture of collective management and there are limits to executive pay. People are *very* sensitive to the difference between a $200k salary and a $190k salary.

3. The State is very invested in the rural areas and won’t let them fall. Money is running out, so they’re going to have to do something, but if Centralization is to happen they’ll take care it happens slowly.

4. No anarcho-tyranny. No drugs. No petty crime. Little immigration, and the few there is happens in Dubai-style semi-slavery terms. So the “flight to civilization” component of Centralization in the West doesn’t exist here.

Basically Japan (and I guess Germany) doesn’t like AIO. To the degree that the information economy makes AIO easy to happen, Japanese public policy buts effective barriers. You can’t stop it completely, but you can slow it fairly well. Seems to me that Anglosphere policy is actively accelerating AIO. And Russian or Chinese policy it’s pushing it even further.

Given the omnipresent status of the modern state, one can’t talk of the economy in a vacuum. Economic forces work inside the framework of state policy. Anglo state policy enables AIO, Asian state policy staves AIO, Third World state policy captures AIO. There’s nothing inevitable about it. There is no vacuum, there is always a choice.

DIVIDUALIST:

You can learn a lot about an economy if you look at business software. How much it values productivity, and do people really work efficiently or not. Humans will make mistakes and sometimes use the wrong post code, etc. Ideally business/ERP/accounting software – the order processing, invoicing module – would allow you to preview and even print an invoice in order to review and amend it before you finally post it to the accounting books or finalize it, where it become unchangeable. Or it would allow a simple, one-click crediting the invoice and making a new, editable invoice copying all the data if you realize the mistake too late. Now if you look at Denmark, where 90% of the businesses use Navision / Dynamics-NAV, it is best summarized as “LOL WUT I don’t even.” Zero opportunity for human scrutiny after processing. No preview, you have no friggin’ idea how an invoice will look like before you actually post and finalize it, and one-click crediting was just introduced in 2015, before that, for 20 years, they had nothing. Do Scandinavians even wörk?

This may look like a tiny thing, but the sensibility of the software is a signal of how local employers regard employee productivity which should normally be correlated with GDP because what else. This is how I don’t understand why Denmark is (comparatively) rich.

LESSER BULL:

I do not know if the Danes are actually that inefficient. But if they are, my thought would be that destruction is easier than construction. So it takes a lot of efficiency to make up for wrecking things through bad personal traits. If you don’t wreck things, you can be pretty prosperous without too much effort.

HENRY DAMPIER:

This is one reason why professional jobs in the 1950s and 60s were relatively calm. Women were happy working secretarial jobs, so the e-mail hell of today was handled by typists and secretaries handling memos. The memo volume was probably similar in terms of cognitive load to our current e-mail load, but now we expect everyone to handle an inane frenzy that keeps people paying attention to work after hours.

It’s also pretty common for professional women to either do nothing or to do worse than nothing by scheduling tons of expensive meetings. Then, the productive people have to work overtime uncompensated to make up for the slack in productivity.

We also have women being overhired in junior positions, overgroomed for promotion, who then tend to leave the workforce in enormous numbers at various biological breakpoint ages — which is the problem that “Lean In” was supposed to try to address. This makes the entire long term structure of the labor force seriously discombobulated.

We’ve also lost specialization in many office settings — now everyone is expected to type, whereas before, with even less efficient technology, we had specialized typists.

HANDLE:

Handle’s corollary to Parkinson’s Law: Behaviors that tend to lengthen the time needed to finish a project increase to the productivity available.

CANDIDE:

I’m about a third of the way through the book and I don’t like it much. Cowen is too glib to my taste (I have no gift for glibness, so this might just be envy on my part). Content-wise, I feel he got his bearings wrong through an unfortunate focus on one example of man-machine collaboration — namely chess — which is very untypical for having a clear-cut, objective goal (winning or losing) and ways of telling whether you reached it or not, as well as taking place in an extremely circumscribed environment with no unquantifiable factors and “unknown unknowns”. Once these two restrictions are removed, enhanced computation speed stops being nearly as useful (as, indeed, Cowen notes even about chess programs in the opening when the programs are operated without opening databases) and tends to function as a mirror for the operator’s prejudices, like a modern haruspex.

HANDLE:

To be fair, he says something very close to this in Part II, Chapter 6,

CANDIDE:

I don’t know where you read that. He did make remarks about the peculiarity of chess as a field of endeavor in Chapter 7, but his takeaway was nothing like what I wrote above, but rather that we’ll try to make the world more like chess — sliced and diced to be easy for software to work with. He makes a good observation that companies tend to offload some formerly clerical tasks on customers, lowering productivity. Also, I disagree about his take on humans “learning to override their intuition through use of/experience with computers”. This may partly stem from a conflation of “intuition” and “cognitive biases”, parallel and related to the conflation of “religion” and “superstition”. The chess players don’t “override their intuition”, they tune it in a different way. System II cognition is not really separable from System I cognition, the former is built out of and upon the latter.

ETA: Finished the book. The science chapter was rather bad, in my opinion, because Cowen’s philosophy is faulty. I have mentioned his misuse of “intuition” above. In the context of science, he uses “understanding” to mean something on the order of “corresponding to common sense derived from everyday experience”. In fact, it is quite possible and normal for one to pick up intuitions and quantum-mechanical common sense in the course of learning physics, and if this quantum-mechanical common sense does not jibe with everyday-experience common sense then so what*. One can still apply that common sense and those intuitions to solving problems, which is what counts. The same goes for more abstract mathematical structures. Cowen might have made a much better case for himself if he picked up on the problem of proof-by-computer (the map-coloring theorem is a well-known example) where a sizeable proportion of mathematicians feels doubtful whether this constitutes proof at all. If one takes away the “genius machines” and the pro-immigration stance, the last chapters are a passable, if relatively uncontroversial and not novel, argument in favor of the “Brazilification” version of American future.

* To pick up a mundane example, I think and believe that astronauts staying in space for long periods, e.g. at the ISS, quickly develop a separate set of common-sense intuitions related to their everyday experience, where water does not spill, objects don’t fall downwards etc. It would be interesting to know how quickly they adjust between these two sets.

HANDLE:

Here is a related paper of his from last year: Economic Development in an “Average is Over” World

SPANDRELL:

I don’t get it. What’s he saying, that the Third World doesn’t need to make stuff because Samsung sells cheap phones?

Well, cool, every single dude in Africa has a smartphone. He still doesn’t have a toilet, nor a proper house, nor a job. Isn’t that what development used to be about? Have they redefined that to mean having a facebook account?

ASDF:

Cowen has been pretty straightforward about this. He believes the world will be composed of a vast tannish underclass living in barrios with substandard infrastructure and shortages of anything that has some supply bottleneck. They will have access to cheap internet media and some trickle down mass produced goods, but won’t have great access to the things you mentioned. Above them will be the elite and perhaps 10-15% of people making up the professional/engineering class to run the robots and create high end goods.

He puts a positive spin on it, but he doesn’t lie about what he’s pushing for.

HENRY DAMPIER:

Why is deindustrialization seen as a point of success? Having a close loop — culturally, legally, physically, economically — between design and manufacturing is helpful to businesses rather than harmful.

Also even though the proportions of manufacturing employees go down, in absolute numbers, they are going up, even those employed effectively by the same company. “Radical insourcing” could only happen with more manufacturing expertise rather than less. If Boston Dynamics can’t even produce a useful robot, the imaginary academic manufacturing engineering community may not be as useful as the actual manufacturing community which is building expertise in China, Taiwan, etc. and not here.

The proposed radical automation stuff assumes that the useless prototypes routinely touted in magazines like Popular Science/Mechanics that never result in any usable products are going to suddenly become useful any day now.

He also misunderstands the nature of ‘Free’ software:

First, measured gdp won’t pick up free goods such as Facebook and Google.

Bzzzzzt. Neither of these things are free. Merchants pay for Facebook and Google. They’re the primary users: the other people are just along for the ride. And that activity is indeed picked up by GDP.

It also may not require much in the way of cultural changes or transformations, as most cultures in the developing world already are sympathetic to higher personal consumption. The almost obsessive pro-saving, pro-education ethics which evolved during the East Asian miracles need not be repeated for this growth path.

More clever-silliness. To consume, there must be savings.

Further, the digital economies are not actually all that digital. Amazon runs on UPS. UPS drives its trucks on publicly financed highways. The homes that it ships packages to benefit from advanced infrastructure and a network of blue collar labor that keeps those homes well maintained. Not even free apps can make all that much money from third world users because unlike in countries like China where there is some infrastructure, it’s awfully hard to ship packages to them. Extrapolating that economies can then be digital-first is profoundly confused.

The few countries that do manage something like this, like Estonia, have some unusual characteristics that aren’t shared by the Philippines or Central Asia. So even attempting to generalize a theory of economic development like this is almost a total waste of time, especially because individual political factors are going to be much more important than an attempt to understand which way the Hegelian groundhog is going to twitch his nose next year.

To his credit he makes some gestures towards this.

Most goods are still physical because humans live in the physical world. Even digital products tend to only be as valuable as the tangible objects that they describe.

So for example, even though Salesforce is a digital product, the services that it provides its customers are, at most at a few hops, about tracking the movements and ownership status of physical goods of some kind. Even if the Salesforce rep is selling software to the guy who sells software to the guy who is the regional manager for John Deere who ships John Deere tractors to the physical retailers, the original value down the chain came from the creation of that tractor. And the value of those digital transactions is effectively capped by the physical goods.

I guess people look at Nike and see that the manufacturing only cost $10 and the shipping costed $2.50 averaged out in bulk and that the pair of sneakers retails for $125, but that sorta ignores that there is no $125 sneaker without the physical sneakers, and you can’t build the cult of belief around the magic powers of those sneakers without the physical items themselves.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that even though non-manufacturing activities often make up most of the value of higher end products, that doesn’t mean that the manufacturing itself is of minor consequence. Especially for higher end products, total control over materials sourcing and manufacturing process is important. You can’t get that with enormous language and ocean barriers.

Shrugging your shoulders at the loss of American competitive advantage and saying “great, maybe the Kazakhs will do it for us, because reform here is unthinkable” is setting the country up to become another backwards polyglot republic at a time when it might have been possible to reverse direction from the 1970s.

The ‘why’ of deindustrialization also seems to handwave away the impacts of environmental regulation and other factors that actually motivate companies to offshore manufacturing. The reduction in industrial employment happens in high-regulation states, while the growth happens in low-regulation states. Rationalizing non-competitiveness as progress seems to be counterproductive.

CANDIDE:

It’s much more difficult to deliver toilets and proper houses than smartphones and second-hand clothes. The economic value-added of average people has been falling steadily towards negative territory, and as First-worlders aren’t allowed to get their kicks from mission civilisatrice and ruling anymore, there’s no incentive to deliver or maintain services in Third-world-like locations. And I’m not sure how much labor-related policies like Moldbug proposed in “Letter to France” and “Dire problem12</1>” would help, since demand by cognitive elite is limited.

DIVIDUALIST:

The smartphone production is done in the third world basically by having very capable management who rules workers with an iron fist, maintaining military discipline.

SPANDRELL:

No, no, no. Smartphone production isn’t done in the third world. It’s done in China. The Chinese are serious and disciplined, genetically so; it doesn’t take that much to put a Chinese to work, let alone Chinese women, who are the majority at Foxconn production lines. Foxconn bosses aren’t military types. They just pay well, and enforce lots of small petty rules to break resistance. It’s like a primary school more than like a military institution.

There’s no way in hell that smartphones or anything at that level of complexity could be built in India, the Middle East or Africa.

VLADIMIR:

Content-wise, I feel he got his bearings wrong through an unfortunate focus on one example of man-machine collaboration — namely chess — which is very untypical for having a clear-cut, objective goal (winning or losing) and ways of telling whether you reached it or not, as well as taking place in an extremely circumscribed environment with no unquantifiable factors and “unknown unknowns”. Once these two restrictions are removed, enhanced computation speed stops being nearly as useful (as, indeed, Cowen notes even about chess programs in the opening when the programs are operated without opening databases) and tends to function as a mirror for the operator’s prejudices, like a modern haruspex.

That’s certain to happen if there is no reality feedback from competition. But if there is competition, then the haruspexes get outcompeted by those who are able to recognize when they should trust their judgment and when to defer to the machine. (The latter sort of ability is one of Cowen’s key points, which is in my view a very accurate insight.)

It’s similar to how, for example, statistical methods in the hands of academics usually become a tool for producing ideological propaganda and impressive-looking nonsense that’s good only for padding one’s publication resume. But this doesn’t mean that similar methods are worthless when used in industry, or that one could compete in these industries without using them.

HANDLE:

Part II, Chapter 6: Why Intuition Isn’t Helping You Get a Job

You could rename this chapter “[some] Intuition is Overrated,” or even, “Intuition is Over.”

However, as with most things, I think it would be wise to split intuitive instincts into what you might call core social instincts. On the one hand, there are human evaluation instincts such as “woman’s intuition” in sensing underlying discrepancy between her counterparty’s presented self and his or her actual perceived self. On the other hand, there are experienced-based, pattern-perceiving intuitive heuristics. An examples of the latter could be the representativeness heuristic, a potential failure mode of which is said to be the ‘clustering illusion’.

I. Romance

Cowen starts with romance – “we take a lot of wrong turns in our pursuit of a good partner” – but that is of course a very tricky subject fraught with landmines, and so he’s wise to just leave it at that.

And yes, I understand this makes the point more salient to many people in his audience who adhere to a deluded understanding of the mate-choosing process and about the underlying mechanisms of various relationship failure modes. One can’t even get close to subject of discussing human sexual nature without touching the most sensitive and hysteria-inducing triggers.

But to slightly more enlightened readers, blaming modern relationship failures on rationality failures akin to the deviations of chess grandmasters from the best computer programs is a strikingly … misleading … or at least importantly incomplete, analogy.

The issue is tricky, of course, because of the definition of the ‘good’ in this context. That is, the unarticulated end or purpose for which these partners would ‘good’. Of course modern ‘romance’ is a kind of a hybrid or intermittent oscillation between forager and farmer modes of courtship, mating, and family formation, with a serious ‘time inconsistent preferences’ problem, to put it mildly, and one about which it is impossible to have a profitably frank discussion in public these days.

My point is simply that romantic intuitions are not like chess intuitions in ways too important to make this ‘good partner screening’ analogy work for me. And going further, in chess, the obvious goal is to win, or at least not lose. But people lack full conscious awareness of their romantic goals, and have horrible understandings of the situations that will make them happy romantically (e.g. the hundred bullet-point list of partner essentials, ‘you never know what you need until you get it’, and so forth.) Thankfully, most people end up settling into a new romantic equilibrium and forgetting all the nonsense they once ‘believed’ about what was indispensable. That’s a good and important function of ‘Schelling Amnesia’ – socially useful memory retconning.

But if you are trying to ‘help’ people by forcing them to collapse this vague and deluded cloud of sentiments and (mis)conceptions into some concrete set of goals and preferences, and then have a computer produce ‘advice’ as if these goals were stable and permanent things and it were really essential that they be met, then the computer (and by its influence, the person using the computer) are going to take seriously what ought not to be taken seriously.

You risk locking a person into exactly the kind of bad ideas and bad strategies that cause women to hold out too long for Mr. Right, while at the same time not actually ensuring that the priority of effort is placed on maximizing their ‘market value’, so to speak. Now that would be unwelcome but possibly still helpful advice, “the most important thing for you to do right now if you want to land and keep a good husband is lose weight and stop being such a nag,” but if Apple has got to make Siri give officially PC answers, then who is going to be able to capitalize on a RealTalk app?

Part of the old matchmaker system was a more wise and enlightened understanding of the nature of romance and what it takes to make happy marriages (in a supportive, reinforcing, all-encompassing social environment), and of course, a very liberal dose of paternalism. But computer-assisted hyper-individualism is as likely to lead men and women astray as they might soon think ‘faulty intuition’ does in the unaided context.

But Cowen says the matching software could nudge people away from these bad ‘hold out’ strategies too, thus helping them avoid the pitfalls of too much nudge-free, self-reliant individualism. And speaking of injecting a palatable dose of reality into mainstream discussion without triggering crimethink instincts, check this out:

But it is easy to recognize the value of having a matchmaker nudge the indecisive into, well, growing up. You can’t keep shopping forever, though humans have long seemed to want to do so. It is common to continue sampling profiles and dreaming on about a perfect mate but not actually dating anyone. Surely this is not the best use of technology. Perhaps most importantly now, dating algorithm technology can help us realize the errors in some of personally generated choices.

Yeah, but dating algorithm technology like Tinder can keep attractive women in their fertile prime on the carousel until theirs 30’s, constantly exposed to occasional addictively thrilling tastes of five minutes of alpha and bombarded with the lusty attention of thousands of potential suitors, turning the social-media false-consciousness of being an “ultra-hot mini-celebrity” knob all the way to 11, thus ruining them for mellowed stable marriages with ordinary loyal providers but with a comparative paucity of drama and passion.

A final note on modern romance. Who discriminates?

Years later, when doing the research for this book, I read that the scientists at Match.com have discovered that a conservative is, on average, more willing to email a profile listed as politically liberal than vice versa.

Sounds plausible, though I’d like to see the methodology.

II. Some Behavioral Economics / Psychology / Nudge Thoughts.

Biases, such as toward the familiar, are something we have long tried to overcome. In the growing field of behavioral economics, researchers measure the biases behind individual choices as judged by some external standard. We’ve learned – or we think we’ve learned – that individuals overestimate their degree of influence over events, and anchor too much on one piece of information when making decisions, among many other human errors and biases. The last time I looked, the list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia had forty-eight entries.

But even after all this work and all this evidence, nagging questions remain. When it comes to measuring a human bias, are we sure that the researcher is correct and that the individual choice is wrong? I have a lot of funny habits that I think serve me pretty well.

We see similar dilemmas in the more systematic literature. Remember that old rule of thumb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? Economists often consider it a “bias” that we value commodities we already own much more than commodities we might acquire (this bias is known as the “endowment effect”).

But for all its apparent irrationality, maybe this is an inescapable part of anyone’s ability to be loyal to friend and family. Maybe part of true loyalty is that we can’t always apply it selectively on a moment’s notice. In that case, these endowment effects may be an essential part of the good life rather than a signal of our irrationality. I’m not saying we know this for sure, only that the models we economists device don’t really settle it.

This is very reminiscent of the whole infamous “Fat man and the runaway trolley” problem that we are also told is evidence of an irrational bias. But insurmountable reluctance and hesitation to commit personal and lethal violence against some random innocent stranger in cold blood – and a potentially dangerous large male at that! – and even in such a ‘lesser evil’ circumstances, is probably also an indispensable ingredient in the social recipe of ‘the good life’.

And of course, as we’ve discussed in the game theory threads, many behaviors that may seem irrational from a certain, narrow perspective are in fact perfectly rational when one grasps the role they play in the big picture of managing human disputes.

When economists investigate human rationality, they are often too dependent on arbitrary stipulations about what is rational and what is not, expressed in the form of models. An economist must write down some mathematical axioms and then find that human behavior falls short of these axioms. But how convincing were the axioms in the first place for complex and multidimensional human problem solving? A lot of the research in this tradition isn’t convincing, no matter how brilliant the investigator. Other economists rely on artificially constructed laboratory investigations to try to measure human rationality or lack thereof. They use inexperienced undergraduate subjects, who are not always taking the problem-solving exercises seriously, and the prizes for good performance are relatively small.

One should also keep Szabo’s point about fallacies mistaking short for long games in mind when assessing these studies.

The nice thing about computer chess is that we have clear-cut standards, albeit not perfect standards, for good chess moves and bad chess moves. So, putting human play through the lens of the engines, what do we learn about human intuition?

III. Testing, understanding – and maybe one day exploiting (to whose benefit and detriment?) – patterns of human intuition by data-mining archives of human calculation decisions and comparing them to the computer’s answers. Today in chess, tomorrow … everything?

Ken Regan was a chess prodigy (like Cowen) who became an Oxford-minted Mathematician working on the infamous P-NP problem, but has in recent years been conducting some of the most rigorous investigations in the manner described above.

Some of those observations:

III.A. Humans are ‘contempt averse’ and try to avoid (if I’m interpreting this right) “unfamiliar complications without a perception of plausible paths to victory – or even out of deadlock – within their the horizon of their experience or ability to calculate.”

III.B.

A player is least likely to make a major error when the game is tight, and if anything, players do their absolute best when they are faced with a slight disadvantage in their position.

III.C. There is not much evidence for a Nassim Taleb “Black Swan” model of cognitive failure.

Most games are decided on the basis of the accumulation of advantages, and the level of error is fairly well predicted by the relative skills of the players.

III.D. Players have consistent ‘styles’. For example, Kramnik is highly accurate ‘for a human’, but he doesn’t try to exploit psychological-based tactics against his opponents to throw them off their games by purposefully generating ‘unfamiliar complications’ where, in addition to the difficulty of the decision, their frustration, emotions, and ego will cause them to make more mistakes than usual. The polar opposite and currently most ‘nettlesome’ player is said to be prodigy Magnus Carlsen, of whom Cowen is something of a fan-boy (though in this hero worship of Carlsen he is hardly alone in the chess world, and this kind of hero-worship or real heroes is fine by me.)

III.E.

The striking fact about chess is how hard it is for humans to play it well. The output from the programs shows that we are making mistakes on a very large number of moves. Ken’s measures show that even top grandmasters, except at the very peaks of their performances, are fortunate to match Rybka’s recommendations 55 prcent of the time.

Rajlich [Rybka’s creator] stresses that humans blunder constantly, that it is hard to be objective, hard to keep concentrating, and hard to calculate a large number of variations with exactness. he is not talking here about the club patzer but rather the top grandmasters: “I am surprised how far they are from perfection.” In earlier times these grandmasters had a kind of aura about them among the chess-viewing public, but in the days of the programs the top grandmasters now command less respect.

III.F. Humans also seem to prefer thinking about things – especially competitions – in “drama narratives aligning with the story patterns which most humans instinctively experience as particularly salient”. Or maybe a Sapir-Whorf-style constructed conceptualization in terms of the way they categorize (and mischaracterize) what is really ‘going on’ in certain situations. But we’ll revisit that a little later when I talk about Go. But for now, it’s important to note that this may give humans a kind of ‘Schelling Point’ advantage over computers in certain human-to-human match-ups if one’s intuitions align well with the opponents’ intuitions, which allows one to make essential – and more accurate – inferences regarding mental states and motives. This is something the current approaches to machine learning has a very hard time accomplishing up to now.

It might be possible to get programs to learn to be better players of chess or Go by playing other machines – or copies of their own software – over and over. Theoretically, it could use those ‘lessons’ to get ever better and faster at totally crushing humans in man-machine play too. But if you had a program play itself in poker some other simulation of a human competition and it might not actually learn anything very useful about how to get better at beating humans in person. It’s easy to get a machine to play the odds based on the cards on the table, it’s hard to get them to play the humans, based on human factors. So far, anyway.

All this talk about improving on the intuitions of experienced experts reminds me a little of the ‘Moneyball’ revolution, at least in baseball. Or maybe I should say “the story of the Moneyball revolution”, since there is still plenty of debate and controversy about the matter, which is further complicated by the fact that when everybody adopts Moneyball tactics in the arms-race for victory, then Moneyball stops looking as effective as it did when it was newly innovated and used by only one or a few teams as a temporary way to exploit an opportunity in the marketplace.

The “story of Moneyball” is that hero amateur enthusiast Bill James practically single-handedly realized that coaches and managers were making hiring, pay, and fielding decisions based on little more than gut hunches and some crude, individualized statistics (hits, base runs, RBI’s, etc.) that may reflect individual glory but didn’t add up synergistically to achieve the mission of maximizing team wins and championships. So he took a look at all the numbers in all the databases and tried to discover new metrics like ‘win shares’ which were much more statistically reliable and could guide these decisions. When Brad Pitt started actually dumping intuition-based decision-making and using these guides in a dynamic and continuously-refined manner his team suddenly started winning a lot more. Yay, score one for statistics and computers and boo human ‘expert’ intuition.

But in addition to arms-race complications (and, ahem, the steroids era, and also the explosion in player salaries which attracts much better athletic talent on average) there is still a lot of debate about whether all this was really any good. After all, one cannot escape the problem of ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’, and there are plenty of important human things (like having the right personality to be a good team player who enhances morale) which can be observed and perceived by coaches, managers, and scouts, but which are never measured or captured in the game statistics and so won’t show up in the regression analysis.

Another example could be noticing that a player is one of those athletes who peaks too early and then will wear out fast and get injured too severely, too many times. Should you play him into the ground now, chewing him up and spitting him out, or maybe pace him so he’s more of a long-term investment and maybe stays healthy long enough to really hit his stride later on? Or maybe the guy is just a thug deep down and, whatever the numbers say, is destined to get into serious trouble eventually and in a way that will really hurt the team at a critical time. Worth taking that chance? Will the computer know how to look for thugs? Would it be legal to teach it to, even if it could? I anticipate that the law of ‘discriminatory algorithms’ and what must and must not be done about them is going to be a very hot area in the years to come. Someone should write a legal note on it now (besides Orin Kerr this time).

Anyway, a lot of the articles critical of Moneyball these days have as a thesis something along the lines of, “On second thought, and taking another look, and now that we know the whole human story which wasn’t reported at the time or known outside a small circle of insiders, it turns out that maybe human intuition about a lot of these things wasn’t so bad after all. And is still really important and, at least at present, not easily replaceable with more ‘data science’.”

Remember the example of the doctor who knows how to tell when his patient is lying or exaggerating or omitting important facts, vs. the computer who merely records and processes everything inputted on the form as if they were genuinely presented symptoms of an underlying disease.

And, it seems to me, such confusion and controversy is likely to remain the case in these very human instances with a huge number of dynamic and subtly interacting variables, low signal-to-noise measurement problems, and a huge amount of ‘causal density’. The big trick according to Cowen is how to have the machine and the man be good complements, focusing on their respective comparative advantages and correcting the weaknesses of their ‘teammate’. But teasing out which teammate is better at which function in these complicated circumstances won’t always be straightforward.

However, I think the economic incentive is big and permanent enough that eventually this ‘division of labor’ will be optimized one way or the other – even through just a lot of dumb trial and error – and mostly what the humans will be doing is ‘assessing the human factor’ and “being a pleasant (and effective / manipulative / motivating / inspiring) human interactor when a particular experience of human interaction is desired (thus more useful and profitable).” That’s taking ‘customer service’ and ‘customer experience’ to a whole new level. We are all Geishas now. Geishas to other Geishas. And at this point Cowen might dryly quip, “Those new service sector jobs.” But that probably is the future of labor, and, of course, the qualities needed to do these things really well are both rare and very hard to teach.

IV. Circling around to the point about ‘Nudge’

So what? Haven’t thousands of articles from psychology and behavioral economics outlined major weaknesses in human perception and decision-making abilities? There are the works of Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, and many others. Haven’t we all heard about “nudge,” the concept so eloquently outlined by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler? In that worldview, experts know the biases of other decision makers and design the choice architecture to manipulate better human choices, such as changing the default options for which pension plan you will enroll in.

Yes, but the chess result differs. Computer chess is pointing out some imperfections in the world’s experts, or you might say it is pointing out imperfections in those who, in other contexts, might be nudgers themselves.

… It is precisely our reasoned, considered judgments that we should be more suspicious of.

Well, ok, but then why not let Rybka nudge us? And maybe not ‘us’ all at once with some one-size-fits-all society-wide ‘policy’, but individually, with some app that takes our specific, current circumstances and particular preferences and goals into account, and gives everyone the unique and personally-tailored nudge? Isn’t the idea to have the machine in the man-machine team tell the man what it ‘thinks’ the man ought to do? If a human chess expert/scholar like Ken Regan tells us that, if we want to maximize our odds of winning, we should do whatever some computer program tells us, or even ‘nudges’ us into following the computer’s ‘provably superior’ advice, then what’s wrong with that?

So, this needs a big bit of context that Cowen leaves out, which is the whole (largle Libertarian) counter-attack against the Nudge™ intellectual enterprise. Which follows the Cato Clever™ strategy. When the progressives start barking up some novel, dangerous tree, it’s tempting to take the bait and challenge their assumptions and worldview head on. But that never works, because challenging these assumptions is sure to get one tarred as either a bigot, moron, or an eye-rollingly naive geek who is totally out of touch with the latest science of human reality.

So the Cato Clever™ strategy is to posture as if one accepts all the false things which much be publicly accepted – and even embrace, celebrate, and cheerlead for them – but then to find and relentlessly pursue some oblique line of attack.

In the case of Nudge, the strategy path seems to be what one might call ‘Counter-Mandarinism’, or applying correctives to the naive progressive faith in ‘scientific’ experts to rationally guide the populace and the economy towards some kind of optimal equilibrium. The same general road was later taken in the field of ‘Public Choice’ (and now ‘behavioral public choice‘) and Academics, Experts, and Mandarins put in charge of studying, designing, implementing, and enforcing the new Nudge requirements are sure to have less than impressive results – certainly less than advertised – because of the inherent limits to any system of empowered government scientific experts tasked with management of human decisions and behavior.

V. “Signs of Improvement”

An example of ‘bad intuition’ is that, for what are well-understood psychological reasons, male chess players noticeably increase their risk-taking and aggressiveness when paired with an attractive female opponent, “though not in a manner that increases his chances of winning the game.” If they are relying too much on intuition without some
“coldly-calculating disinterested supervision” (such as that provided by an intelligent machine), then they may not consciously realize they are thinking with the wrong head.

And it seems, in part due to the increased competitive pressures and deeper insights brought about by the introduction of chess computers to the scene, that chess players are learning to avoid some bad moves that many players used to intuitively perceive as good moves, and are still steadily getting better, even while the edge of the best chess machines continues to grow. Maybe the best players today could have put off Deep Blue for another year or two, and that’s something, but not much in the big scheme of things. And here we are trying to grapple with that big scheme.

Old respected openings are now understood to be surprisingly vulnerable, and others are understood to have been underrated. “It’s revolutionized our understanding of the game. What else will machine intelligence revolutionize?”

Cowen devotes nearly a whole page on the progress of women playing chess (Polgars are so exceptional that they are in the “prove the rule” category), but this is not much worth discussing even in brief form unless you are already familiar with the real explanations of why fathers are more eager than ever to encourage their daughters to engage in competitive diversions.

VI. “The Future of Intuition”

Ken Regan ran an extremely deep analysis of a game between prodigy (they’re all prodigies, aren’t they?) Alexander Grischuk and Kramnik in 2007. Kramnick lost, but there was a point where the perfect move could have forced a draw.

At the cognitive level, this unexpected depth is also a disturbing result. It shows that we humans – even at the highest levers of intellect and competition – like to oversimplify matters. We boil things down to out “intuitions” too much. We like pat answers and we take too much care to avoid intellectual chaos. Even if you don’t think those flaws apply to everybody, they seem to apply to some of the most intelligent and analytic people in the human race, especially good chess players.

What does all this mean for our decisions, especially in the workplace?

1. Human strengths and weaknesses are surprisingly regular and predictable.
2. Be skeptical of the elegant and intuitive theory.
3. it’s harder to get outside your own head than you think.
4. Revel in messiness.
5. We can learn.

It is both scary and exciting. Human intuition is becoming radically aware of its own limitations.

Finally, I’ll add some personal speculations about the nature of these intuitions when it comes to certain competitive activities.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the news and conversations about AlphaGo and the games with world champions with interest. Or, I should say, I’ve been trying to understand the discourse surrounding these developments as best I can, not ever having played Go, and being hardly competent – not even at a dilettante level – to discern the merits of claims regarding cutting-edge machine learning.

Now, I understand that any activity accumulates jargon and terms of art and turns of phrase that cannot really convey their intended meanings to those who are inexperienced or uninitiated in the underlying experiences they seek to describe. Wittgenstein and all that; ok. If you’ve never surfed or skied, you can’t understand what the hell those people are talking about – except on some theoretical level perhaps – when they use some strange, often childish, terms to describe some kind of ‘disturbance in the force’ of some wave or slope that most experienced practitioners in those sports would recognize as generating a particular set of management problems for even very skilled athletes. If you’ve ever been a captive but ignorant audience to X-people talking about X at this high level and asking them to explain what they mean when they say ‘Y’, you’ll know that more often than not they pause in tongue-tied impotence and can’t figure out any good way to relay the experience.

What I’ve found interesting is that in these discussions about Go and Chess, for perfectly obvious reasons, the phrases used to describe the situations and moves take on a very martial character – ‘dominating that territory’ and so forth.

However, it turns out that many of these intuitive (and I’d guess instinctive) simplifying conceptualizations and heuristic-based judgments are not very accurate ways of summarizing the ‘real’ strengths and weaknesses, or stabilities and vulnerabilities, of the actual situation, at least from the ‘provably superior’ perspective of the victorious intelligent machine.

My guess is that humans like to simplify and generate these imperfect reductionist abstractions in particular and common ways, given the architecture of our brains and psychological tendencies with deep evolutionary roots. Humans like particular story arc patterns and arrangements of dramatic tensions, and they will probably interpret competitive situations instinctively in terms of the emotional framework of these built-in responses to stimuli that resemble these primordial competitive scenarios.

The imperfections and deviations of our intuitions from the ‘provably superior’ moves of the computer – and our over-and-under-estimations of the character of certain situations – might stem, in part, from wanting to cram the square pegs of the reality of these artificial games into the round holes of our instinctively preferred narratives, which probably did once fit the rounder, more natural competitions our ancestors frequently experienced. But then again, that’s just my guess as to one of the reasons why these deviations aren’t random.

CANDIDE:

My guess is that humans like to simplify and generate these imperfect reductionist abstractions in particular and common ways, given the architecture of our brains and psychological tendencies with deep evolutionary roots. Humans like particular story arc patterns and arrangements of dramatic tensions, and they will probably interpret competitive situations instinctively – maybe subconsciously – in terms of the emotional framework of these built-in responses to stimuli that resemble these primordial competitive scenarios.

Don’t know about chess, but with Go terms it’s a bit different. There are three factors: some terms are not ‘loaded’ (e.g. invasion, approach, pincer, points/territory) and are that way simply because we have to talk about things that happen on the board somehow. Other terms, like shape, influence, strength and weakness of stones, carry much more weight and are much vaguer — it’s a very common complaint from beginner to about candidate master level. Only very strong players really understand their meaning, and even then mostly implicitly, i.e. they cannot easily explain in words why a particular shape is good or why these stones are heavy, but only by demonstration of play sequences until their judgment becomes obvious to you (now that I think of it, it’s the same situation as with proofs in mathematics). And the third factor is that amateurs, or pros entertaining amateurs, necessarily fall into using the kind of easy-to-understand analogies you mention, or give up and discuss trivia.

CANDIDE:

To add to the board games angle, I remember reading some time ago about an estimate of how far are the best (human) professional Go players from perfect play. The idea was that the stronger a player, the more consistent his results are with his and his opponents’ ranks. The author graphed a measure of consistency against handicap stones, a common and ancient measure of relative strength, and the intercept corresponding to perfect play was at around +4 stones from the strongest Koreans. This is actually an almost unbelievably large distance, as the distance between 1p and 9p dan is usually estimated at around 2 stones. (Incidentally, Takagawa used to say sometime after WWII that he wanted 4 stones handicap to play with God.) Unfortunately I have forgotten where I read this, maybe it was in a tournament booklet and didn’t make it to the Internet.

RASPUTIN:

Yeah, but dating algorithm technology like Tinder can keep attractive women in their fertile prime on the carousel until theirs 30’s, constantly exposed to occasional addictively thrilling tastes of five minutes of alpha and bombarded with the lusty attention of thousands of potential suitors, turning the social-media false-consciousness of ultra-hot mini-celebrity knob all the way to 11, thus ruining them for mellowed stable marriages with ordinary loyal providers but with a comparative paucity of drama and passion.

I think that the feedback from it is a long way from being theoretically processed, even on otherwise relatively analytical manosphere blogs, and it is as significant a development as the anonymity / alienation of the move to the city, away from the rural areas, was a couple of centuries ago. It obviously intersects with the thoughts on the “extreme lightness of [modern ‘progressive’] being” that you expressed recently:

The only sources of real animation or passion in their lives seems to be limited to work, entertainments such as sports and music, and various consumerist and socializing indulgences such as partying, going to restaurants and events … If you ask them about marriage, family and children, it’s not exactly a sore or touchy subject – though slightly more so for the edge-of-the-wall women – but their rationalized response is along the lines of “maybe, maybe not, who knows. I’m cool either way. If things feel right and it happens, great, otherwise, no big deal. It’s not like I’m particularly trying for some particular outcome, just enjoying life as it happens.” But those explanations and ‘justifications’ never seem heartfelt from either men or women …

To these people, it seems to me that the extreme lightness of their being (at least from my perspective) is indeed usually bearable. Actually, bearable is probably the low point of the spectrum, and the young ones with some status, money, prospects, and SMV seem to be genuinely enjoying a life barren of considerations of purposes and major life events that are utterly central to one like myself.”

For most people, until relatively recently, being single was a relatively undesirable state. For most normal, un-game-enlightened men, meeting people outside friendship groups was hard and carried a relatively high risk of rejection contra success rate (‘cold calling’ in a bar, etc). Obviously, with time, knowledge and practice rates could be improved, but many beta-males would much sooner avoid the hurt and settle into a committed relationship which guaranteed them access to sex without the hassle / humiliation / energy expenditure necessary to score new sexual partners, at least in so much as doing so required active effort.

The Internet changed things to an extent with sites like Adult Friend Finder, but openly using these was considered low-status and certainly weren’t the kind of thing you could respectably talk about at work. But the newer generation of apps (Tinder is essentially Grindr for heterosexuals), changed all this and made open discussion of their use commonplace, which in turn attracted many more users who would previously have been turned off by the low-status connotations of (openly) touting for sex on the Internet.

The overall effect of this has obviously been to make being single a much more attractive option to both men and women for a much longer duration than before, since even as your meatspace social groups start to shrink and atrophy as you get older, there is an endless source of strangers out there open to relatively low investment / commitment sexual encounters. The barriers to entry for men (humiliation / rejection) have also been greatly diminished as the initial contact takes place remotely, and for women (social stigma) have been removed because these encounters can take place outside the constraints of their normal social groups.

This in turn places much more pressure on people forming relationships in the first place, since it is always possible for either party to defect / default back to this relatively easy / attractive reset option. Knowledge of this also breeds distrust on both sides within long-term relationships, as the list of previous sexual partners on both sides grows exponentially longer with each hit of the reset option. I shudder to think what the long-term effects of these trends will be on family formation, or indeed preservation.

HANDLE:

Cowen highlighted a paper demonstrating an argument that at least one aspect of automation may decrease with an increase in the minimum wage.

The idea is that lots of current automation is not really a replacement for low-skill humans, but a complement and augmenter of low-skill humans that allow them to do what was previously higher skill work.

So, as a hypothetical example, imagine that to make a really good latte, you used to need to hire a really skilled Barista, and the number of people who can do that really well is scarce, so they command a premium in pay over the minimum wage.

Now some company invents a machine that allows any random retail schlub earning minimum wage to make you an equivalent quality drink (or equivalent in utility when price-adjusted downward) at the push of a button and a few mindless “machine feeding” tasks, with the machine even guiding the worker in those dull tasks step by step to be nearly foolproof.

If the price of the machine is sufficiently low, the employer will replace the skilled human with the unskilled-human plus human-needing-machine combo, or “team”

But, if the minimum wage increases to that which the skilled Barista once commanded, then the team is more expensive that the skilled human, and there is no incentive to invest in or develop our intermediate-automation-case machine in the short term, which might stall out of the development of full-automation-cases later on if they must build on the foundation of the successful marketing of intermediate solutions.

HANDLE:

Chapter 7: The new Office: Regulation, Stupid, and Frustrating

One of the biggest challenges in the new world of work is dealing with a world designed for the (relatively) smooth operation of machine intelligence.

At this introductory sentence, I was thinking something more along the lines of “staying out of the way of automated floor cleaners, and having to walk awkwardly in rooms and hallways with furniture styles and layouts and even ‘tracks’ that were designed for those machines instead of humans.” Like living in a ‘baby-proofed’ house, which is no longer quite like a house made to match the needs and wants of human adults. Or maybe having to deal with extremely risk-averse self-driving cars.

And yeah, that’s partially what Cowen is leading up to. It’s in contrast to merely putting up with badly designed human-interface or customer-service systems which don’t have much ‘machine intelligence’ at all, but instead suffer from a lack of it. And which may in fact be designed in a subtle effort that is trying to chase those expensive customers away instead of serving them, but with plausible deniability.

That is, the experience isn’t frustrating as an unfortunate but inherent consequence of using technology, because we’ve got to put up with machines which are frustrating because still too dumb.

Instead, in these instances, the (plausibly deniable) frustration is the point, as an instrumental device that organizations (or individuals through passive-aggressive behaviors) use to filter and nudge other humans away from making the most resource-intensive demands. The machine is merely the impersonal tool being used to deliver that intended frustration, so that some poor human doesn’t have to take any abuse or suffer an escalating emotional conflict. It also discourages those emotions in the first place, since everyone knows (or learns eventually after kicking an ATM a few times) that they are useless when deployed again dumb machines.

Now, humans have been deploying intentionally-frustrating interactive experiences at each other for a long, long time to accomplish the same goals for the same reasons. It just so happens we have these powerful tools to do this these days. And it’s socially convenient to have these tools be the scapegoated ‘face’ of the frustration and to provide us with a great excuse for it. As if it the frustration was due to dumb tech, which is forgivable, instead of a human’s intentional design, which is infuriating.

Is there a test for whether the frustration in an annoying experience is intentional or incidental? I think so. Since customers in genuinely competitive markets don’t like frustration, if a company can reduce it cheaply, then they will. I know I pay a little extra to my preferred car insurance company, because their customer service is consistently outstanding compared to the others I’ve known. Totally worth it.

But anyway, in trying to introduce his point, Cowen provides an example that goes in the second – bad interface – direction. Yes, I understand the point he’s trying to make here about the frustrations to come and their causes. And since they will be somewhat novel, the best way to explain them is to use some familiar, current frustration.

So it’s nitpicking to go after a tenuous analogy just trying to get this across to the average reader while delivering some bad news. And yeah, I’m spending too much time on a brief introductory portion. However …

I really, really didn’t like his example since it seemed to be of a category that has very little to do with ‘machine intelligence’ and much more to do with bad institutions, poorly managed organizations, refinement-paralyzing regulation and red tape, and sclerosis-inducing insulation from market incentives for quality service and efficiency.

And it’d be really unfortunate if high-status and influential academics seemed to be lending any credence at all to this corporate excuse in those cases when it’s a bunch of baloney.

Now, maybe one can say those human problems are now such durable or even expanding features of our social and cultural landscape that in any discussion of the future we should certainly try to anticipate what the typical experience of the combination of that organizational context with new automation solutions will feel like.

And yes, of course companies will try to use newly cheap technologies whenever possible in order to route customers, employees, etc. through the less costly, but dumb, computers first, to see if barely-adequate software can handle the issue or direct you to the right place instead of a comparably expensive and potentially trouble-making human. That’s nothing new.

However, maybe you’re like me and you’ve noticed that some of these solutions – especially online or via mobile apps – are well-designed, intuitive, efficient, fast, and in almost all respects so preferable to dealing with a human being that one would never go back unless forced to.

And maybe you’re also like me and you’ve also noticed that, in pretty much the same niches and information-exchange-and-processing spaces, you are occasionally forced to deal with truly awful automated systems that never seem to get better – or worst-of-all-worlds combination of bad humans using worse automated systems on your behalf – and you wonder why certain organizations can’t or won’t adopt better practices and solutions which are obviously readily available. Sometimes even the poor customer service agents on the receiving end of a tirade are just as equally clueless and exasperated as to why their company’s system is so much dumber than their own experiences with other, better companies. They are equally surprised, frustrated, and disappointed that they can’t use their system to do anything more for you and fix obvious issues.

So my ancillary point is that it’s possible to interpret (or spin) the accompaniment of “frustration and technology” as either “frustration because technology” (+economic incentives of course), or as a mere coincidence, with the frustration having a different root cause, with more human culpability attached.

Sometimes technology developed as well as is currently possible (given certain costs) will still be frustrating, because the state of the art just hasn’t advanced to the non-frustrating point yet. But sometimes the state of the art is perfectly fine, and has been for a long time, and through some combination of human and organizational incompetence and indifference, the ‘solution’ one gets is pathetically bad.

And thus my primary point is that maybe a prediction of lots of similar future “interactive technology proximate” frustration is perhaps not as indubitable a proposition as it seems, and it may be somewhat misleading to attribute that frustration to new tech instead of to old human foibles. A lot of frustrations I had in the past have already been remedied with IT, so it’s an ambiguous situation.

So it’s hard to estimate the future path of our ‘aggregate frustration’, since some formerly-frustrating things will get better (and many have improved dramatically in my lifetime) while other new frustrations emerge. Some current frustrations will turn out to be less inherent and more a product of the old-dog-new-tricks problem of stubborn human preferences for the way (older) people had already learned to perform some task. Old retired people in particular are much more patient than young people, have low time value, and try to squeeze some socialization time out of their commercial and transactional encounters. Young people often find that awkward and annoying.

So, younger humans might even prefer the ‘frustrating’ dumb-technology experience to the old human one. This will depend on what becomes socially normal, the kind of training and experiences they’ve had. I recently bypassed a line at a McDonald’s to use a big touch tablet instead, and for me, it was a superior experience in almost every way. My mother would be horrified at the prospect of having to use it.

It will also depend on the human capital of the people who end up allocated to certain service jobs in the future. Because systems using human employees can be just as frustrating too! And sometimes frustrating in the same way and for the same root reasons. And quality humans matter just as much to one’s experience as quality tech.

Frustratingly stupid technology is certainly no more frustrating that dealing with frustratingly stupid humans, or ones insulated from market pressures by captive audiences and job security and de facto government protection. Isn’t that why the DMV or Social Security Office experience is such a common joke? In fact, some commentators have started pushing back against these jokes by noting mild improvements in some local DMV experiences in the last decade. But of course, most of these improvements and lowerings of frustration are precisely due to the introduction of “machine intelligence” technologies, which does goes against the grain of Cowen’s point.

So again, whether or not we should expect more or less frustrating interactive experiences, whether we’re dealing with humans, technology, or some combination, seems to be less a function of the emergence of still-mostly-dumb machine intelligence, than a function of the usual social factors that undermine the incentives for humans and organizations to deliver pleasant experiences to the users.

It’s probably reasonable to expect the state of the art in machine intelligence to keep making progress and to keep getting cheaper, and so the capability-imposed ceiling probably won’t be what’s responsible for frustrating interactive experiences in the medium-to-long term.

Instead, the cause of our frustrations will be the same factors that made it annoying to deal with some Roman or Chinese bureaucracy two thousand years ago.

Cowen’s illustration is a story about trying to call Cox’s help-line to get a storm-damaged cable rehung. He gets in the typical annoying phone tree designed for routine calls and tasks – “to check your balance, press 1, to pay your bill, press 2 …” – and ends up having to ask for human help, which he gets and which solves his problem. He was annoyed at having to repeatedly give information they should already have, like his phone number even though calling from a Cox phone line.

But in my own experience, companies have been recognizing me by caller-id for about a decade, and the copyright on AIO is 2013. And the fact he chose a Cox experience provides a hint to what may really be going on. I don’t think I need to point out that cable companies are infamous for poor customer service, tend to be monopoly-ish, and that this is not a coincidence. I think Cowen would argue for the government leaving Cox alone, so it’s at least a little bit ironic that he would pick this particular frustration – something potentially derived from Cox’s monopoly-ish position – to provide as an example of a more general phenomenon.

Now, was the annoyance of this experience really due to machine intelligence? Again, you can try to spin it that way, but I say no. First, phone-tree machine intelligence now has redundancies in website and mobile app options. If I’m calling anyone on a phone these days, it’s almost by definition because I can’t do what I want without a human, because if I could, then I would have been able to do it online or with my smartphone, and that’s not just cheaper for the company, it’s easier, more convenient, and more pleasant for me.

So, if I’m calling in, I already know my solution is not on the damn phone tree, and I start pressing 0 or yelling “operator!” or “help!” And in the arms race of telephone customer service, that is often not working quickly anymore, so they throw some extra delays and irrelevant options at me.

And that’s because nearly everyone is hoping to get a hold of a human right away too, whether they’ve exhausted internet options or not, and even though they ‘shouldn’t’ need a human in the eyes of the company. For people like me, there will be no alternative or cheaper way to handle my issue than by giving me a capable and authorized human to deal with. Well, no cheaper alternative except hoping that I’ll give up, which I’m sure a lot of even internet-savvy people do.

As an aside, this is apparently also the ‘Kafka’s Gatekeepers” approach to American medicine these days, which may even be for the best, given that many people will eventually get better on their own and have better outcomes without early medical intervention. One hopes that these selective gauntlets are ‘choice architecture’ nudges set up with the thought that the people without real problems will get nudged out of the system early, while the people with real problems with pay a small frustration cost but will keep persisting, which means that eventually they’ll get the care they need.

I worry that neither of these is true. That is, that, (a) this model isn’t true in fact, that stubborn persistence and genuine illness are not strongly correlated, and that there are too many persistent hypochondriacs who suck up resources, and shrinking violet sick who just get sicker and end up costing a lot more later on, or maybe dying. And (b) that the frustration filter wasn’t even set up with any evidence that this model would be true, and instead is just a crude way to try and cut volume and costs.

But see, once again, we’re talking about a human, social problem as the source of frustration. Not a technological one. Some people really do still put up with a call to customer service for ordinary tasks. And right now, systems are designed in a ‘dumb’ one-size-fits-all manner that has to route every person through some master flow chart to figure out what kind of user you are and what you want to do.

Emerging IT is like an growing ladder that extends our grasp of economic fruit higher up the tree. And I’ve said before elsewhere that I think that radical personalization might open up a lot of new, meaningful opportunities for real progress by eliminating some of the one-size-fits-all / lowest-common-denominator inefficiencies that currently plague our lives.

So maybe in the future the cable company or the bank already knows who I am, what kind of ‘customer service user’ I am, and I can ‘earn’ and establish credibility over time as someone who is a ‘power user’ of their internet options, and who should therefore just get routed immediately to a human being if I’m calling in.

A boy can dream. Maybe instead of a credit score I’ll have a customer score that companies can share, as they exchange Yelp-like reviews and notes about my tirades. Maybe high ‘customer scores’ get you ‘concierge service’. That’s something you or your company can pay for, but one can also ‘pay’ for it in terms of an established record.

Actually, I have no way of knowing things like this aren’t already happening. I think some companies are already doing this quietly, as I compare my experiences with those of others and I’m already starting to notice odd differences.

Maybe this kind of comparison will become impolite, like discovering price discrimination by asking the person next to you on the plane what they paid for their ticket. ‘Service discrimination’ will also be something you keep to yourself, while you are always wondering if there is some secret higher tier or ‘lifehack’ way to manipulate and shape one’s ‘presented customer profile’ to get better perks, like ‘comps’ at a Casino.

For air travel, an analogy could be that you know you can always pay for first class, but you’d like to get comped to business class by being a good, loyal, low maintenance customer.

Maybe we’ll have a layer of meta-frustration: frustrated at the system that handles service discrimination, just like air travelers are irritated by the increasingly complicated welter of the boarding process.

If I can impose frustration on you at the right time, once you’re already committed and the cost of exit is high, maybe I can extract a rent from you at the last, impulsive minute in exchange for reducing it. Like overpriced concessions at the ballpark or theme park. Or like a tempting upgrade in boarding tier and seat class. (Though if this is expected, solve for equilibrium.) But in which case, once again, the frustration is both intentional and arguably unnecessary (in the sense that technology could do no better). Instead of being due to the current technological limitations, it will in fact be due to technological capabilities having passed some threshold which enabled such scientifically calculated frustration imposition. This will be in combination to whatever truth there is behind Scott Adams’ Confusopoly and Akerlof and Shiller’s Phishing for Phools.

3. Cowen notes that the future of retail involved the customer replacing a worker and being required to “pitch in” and contribute some work with their whole transactional process, couples with machine intelligence. Many of us already have the experience of pitching in with bagging, boxing, or warehouse retrieval when shopping at Aldi, Costco, or Ikea. At the DC Ikea, the path to the warehouse leads one to a terminal where one can search for parts and assembly kits. Fortunately the software is smart enough to not be Scandinavian special-accents-and-letters-sensitive, so you can just type “bork-bork-desk” on an English keyboard without the umlauts and empty set symbols or whatnot. And of course in online shopping, the customer is putting in some work in partnership with the search function to browse and learn about various options, so no salesperson has to bother with any of that.

This will make things cheaper, which is hard to notice. But it will also feel like annoying work, which is a cost which will “hit you in the face” as the practice spreads into new domains.

4. He goes into a short rant against the frustrating limitations GPS systems. Well, first, does anyone even remember how frustrating paper-maps-and-directions road navigation used to be? I remember what it was like to drive around, at night and/or in weather, in a new town, trying to keep a reasonable speed, while squinting to read the print on the road signs from far enough away that I could signal in time and brake slowly enough to not cause an accident. The truth is, people missed their turns a lot in these circumstances, and circling back, sometimes several times, was a fact of life.

And second, I think he was right in 2013, but wrong in 2017. I use GPS every day, and in my personal experience, it’s gotten a lot better at fixing all kinds of minor issues and in just a few years. That remarkable pace of real improvement I think makes my point about technology in working markets probably being more of a reducer of old frustration rather than a producer of anything but temporary new ones.

He says:

In short, when GPS fails, the problem is that human beings have not sufficiently reduced the complexity of the surrounding environment.

But then GPS got a lot better when nothing got simpler with the environment. Instead, it seems that Google in particular was able to observe, with a high degree of precision and granularity, countless humans traversing the same areas and interacting with other vehicles, and to statistically process that growing database to learn not only what ‘real’ paths they were taking, but also, by means of experimenting with many different approaches to directing GPS-using drivers, to learn the optimal way to communicate that reality to the modal driver.

Indeed, here are humans ‘pitching in’ and being unwittingly recruited to complementarily partner with ‘dumb’ machine intelligence and temporarily perform the “navigating messy, complex real world environments” function. At least, long enough for the machines to watch it happen enough times to create some indistinguishable (in the narrow context) imitation of how a genuinely intelligent creature would respond to certain combinations of stimuli. I expect to see a lot more of this kind of thing. Is this how Deep Mind learned to play Go, in part by ‘watching and learning from’ the combined history of all those human-v-human games?

That raises a question about which I can’t even really speculate, being quite out of my depth regarding these subjects. However, if we are teaching machines to be proficient at certain human things in large part by watching and, I guess, ‘distilling the essence’ of how humans are doing it, then it seems like we can make machines act like super-humans in certain contexts. I mean, be in relation to the best humans as the best humans are to second-best humans. Better, but perhaps not different. But does that mean that we are ignoring or have no idea how to effectively explore large areas of potential ‘intelligence space’ that is profoundly different from the way humans would approach certain problems? Will we be discovering human local optimal and missing global optima? Does it matter?

5. He uses another typical example of the self-service grocery store checkout, another example of being asked to ‘pitch in’. Do you remember when you first saw one of these how you thought they would be cool, only to realize on first use how crappy an experience it is? For me, it hasn’t gotten much better in years, which I’m guessing is because cashier tasks implicate Moravec’s paradox and a version of the Pareto principle of diminishing returns that the last 10% of progress will take 90% of total effort.

Cowen says he uses them, but his shopping expeditions have changed as a result, “refuses to buy anything that has to be weighed, named, or otherwise evaluated on a discretionary basis.”

Costco just started experimenting with self-checkout. But in my experience, their cashiers and baggers are much faster and consistently reliable. But nothing is weighed or evaluated. Everything has a prominent bar code. You don’t buy an apple, you buy a flat of a dozen apples, and while the flats might vary in weight, it’s not by enough to matter, so they all cost the same.

Years ago I saw an ‘awesome future’ commercial showing a shopping cart full of merchandise in which each item must have had some kind of RFID tag. The shopper pushed the cart through some magentometer-looking arch and all the items rang up instantly. Apparently we’re not there yet.

I avoid self-checkout unless the extra time it takes to get a human cashier is really severe. When I use them, I’ve learned to just abandon certain items in my basket that have a high likelihood of causing a machine error. If I get an error and no “machine error servicing worker” is able to come immediately, then I usually put up with it, but on occasion I’ll just rage-quit and walk out. The problem is that while the machine is recruiting me to pick up items and scan them, it’s not recruiting me to resolve issues when they occur.

That’s because it doesn’t trust me. It shouldn’t trust me, that’s the right call, since a reliably trusting machine would get played even more than a naively trusting person that never wises up. Margins are tights, and customers will squeeze you a few percent without thinking they’re doing anything seriously wrong, while eliminating your profit. But if the store only wants machines trusting store employees in the event of any ambiguity, then that cuts deep into any potential labor and time saving. And so every trip is a gamble between a predictable wait for a cashier, or a usually faster, but occasionally much slower, self-checkout.

In previous conversations I said that ‘trust issues’ could exacerbate centralization because even when certain tasks need not necessarily be done in close proximity, often times the extra cost would be worth bearing so that sensitive information stays in house among people with longer-term relationships, commitments, mutual dependencies, and under the same jurisdiction for civil and criminal process. My bottom line point is that similar trust issues are going to make some tasks hard to fully distribute to the customer too.

6. Switching gears, Cowen starts a section on Machine Assessments. “Workers will be increasingly tagged with their strengths and weaknesses, expressed in terms of numbers.”

This is metrics working their way up the work hierarchy. Deliverymen have been measured on speed, traffic tickets, accidents, and complaints, and fruit pickers are measured on bushels per hour, and that’s old news.

But Cowen is talking about professors, lawyers, doctors, etc.

No Child Left Behind was 15 years ago, which really kicked off the nationwide fad to try and measure teacher performance. It hasn’t worked out so well, but of course education is a problematic field for the typical study approaches, for null hypothesis reasons.

Overall it’s a big GIGO problem. If we measure academics by number of published papers, we’re going to get a lot of worthless papers. We are still debating whether “Moneyball” really works.

We have metrics at my workplace. Senior managers are obsessed with metrics for performance evaluation, which is what they’re told to be. I’m sure there’s a meta-metric for them that takes into account how many metrics they have developed, how many they are using, and how well they are using them.

But the metrics just aren’t that good as soon as the work gets complicated.

As an example, one workplace I know measures certain expert reviewers by clearance time. But there is an obvious trade-off between speed and the quality of scrutiny, just as with any quality control. And quality of scrutiny is hard to measure, which is precisely why expert reviewers are needed in the first place. So upon implementation of the metric, reviewers start gaming it immediately, and respond with “clear with no edits”, whereas in the past they would have taken a few days to work some of their contacts in the expert community to verify whether one word should be changed to achieve near-perfection. There is also the issue of fairness, as the experts will all be treated as a group of peer competitors, but some of their topics inherently take longer to process than others.

I’m not saying that these metrics can’t be refined to be both more fair and more accurate over time. However, there is little motivation and attention put on that task once the metric is established. And furthermore, there are just enough subjective assessments and judgment calls in the performance reviews that somehow, at the end of the day and averaging over several cycles, people seem to get ranked more or less according to their marginal productivity. And that seems to be despite the metrics, not because of them.

Which I think reveals what is really going on. Most poorly performing people will have at least one metric give them one black spot at every review. Not that high performing people don’t occasionally get a black spot, but no one seems to care much about that, and their managers understand it’s a kind of aberration or ‘system bug’ that can be ignored. But with poor performers, one begins to accumulate the all-important paper trail for Human Resources and the Lawyers.

That being said, maybe the “gimmick metric era” will fade away with the magic of big data and the capacity of machine intelligence to pick up the things that the good human managers were picking up, but without many of their biases. It seems we really can use the best game-playing software to also evaluate the strength of human players of Chess and Go, so how long before those techniques are extended?

We can expect to have this practice spread more widely. The next step is to hire individuals to work with genius machines to assess the performance of workers, most of all skilled professionals. I mean the people we depend on, like doctors, lawyers, professors, and our coworkers too.

The results might not be very politically correct. In two ways. The first is through group statistical disparities, and the second is by more definitively demonstrating Hansonian medicine or Klingian education.

Sooner or later, most professionals, especially at the top end of the market, will be graded by teams of skilled workers cooperating with smart machines. Think of this as more scientific Yelp rating for almost everything, just as we now have such ratings for restaurants.

It had better be ‘more scientific’, because using Yelp reviews to find quality restaurants is very unreliable, as Cowen has himself complained. Of course, using Cowen’s reviews is also, in my experience, unreliable.

Let’s say it is a lawyer. Potential customers can ask their smart phones where the lawyer went to school, what her class rank was, and what kinds of promotions she has received. That information will be accompanies by an asterisk: ‘This information explains only 27 percent of lawyer performance.’

How confident should we be that ordinary clients will be able to process this information appropriately? And anyway, the basic rule of “you get what you pay for” will tend on average to turn price into the best metric available.

Will professionals be able to opt out of this system? Not really.

Many of the lesser lawyers will decline to be rated .. That will hurt their business prospects … Have you ever opened up the Friday movie page and read, ‘The studio declined to make this movie available for screening at press time’? The obvious conclusion is that the film is a dud, and indeed it usually it. … sooner or later most professionals will have to submit to ratings, one way or another.

Of course, currently many professionals are rated by means of subjective online reviews (e.g. rate my professor), and just like Yelp, those reviews tend to be very unreliable except as popularity contests, and I haven’t noticed any improvement over time. That’s in contrast to crowd-sourced product reviews on Amazon, which I think have gotten better and more reliable over time, especially given tools like fakespot.

Cowen says that professionals will compete more intensely with each other and prices will more closely match marginal productivity. That’s going to cause some social problems.

Naturally this is going to both demonstrate some unpalatable facts about the distribution of and persistent gaps in human performance levels, and it’s going to be harder for the political process and social pressure to both put a thumb on the scale to achieve certain numerical targets, while simultaneously denying the true extent of the intervention.

But also, as any union foreman or squad leader will tell you, putting too much of a spotlight on individual performance can be corrosive of team spirit and camaraderie and leads to all sorts of contempt and resentments. In many situations there’s a delicate psychological balance between the justice of giving every man his proper due and the pretense of treating peers as ‘equal’ partners and dissolving a lot of differences in ‘luck’. And managers can only do so much to foster this right balance. The team members must all play their parts joining in the pretense as well. So the best performer can be admired and rewarded, but perhaps the situation calls for the right touch of false modesty and humility, “Aw shucks, I just got lucky or had a good day, and there’s no I in TEAM,” and so forth.

Some professionals will rise to this challenge but many others will be demoralized. Just as chess grandmasters no longer seem so wise and omniscient in light of computer analysis, so will doctors, lawyers, and teachers lose a good deal of their aura. … We will end up with professionals who are less sanctimonious and less arrogant.

One can hope. And this seems to be one of those times in which Cowen is subtle trying to inject a little sense into current thinking on these topics while slipping it gently past the resistance of the usual shields and mental blocks.

Then again, sometimes some people really do need to follow expert advice, and that mystical aura – however disproportionate or unsubstantiated in reality – acts like “legitimacy” and does come in handy for producing the psychological reactions that make these people more likely to willingly obey and comply. Some of you are parents – its own kind of higher-status ‘professional’ role in comparison to young children – and you probably know what I’m talking about in terms of your own experiences. It’s a double-edged sword, and we’ll miss the good edge when it’s gone.

It’s going to be a very different world when consumers feel so much on top, and in some ways it will be more dangerous because consumers do not always know what they are doing. … It will be harder for doctors and lawyers to “nudge” us and control us, because we will become more used to evaluating them, standing above them, and applying the programs to them in a manner that will make them feel small and will make many of us feel more powerful.

7. The Flipside of Ratings

I’ve spoken of patients ratings doctors, but doctors will rate patients too, especially if the doctor’s own rating depends on how well a patient follows a prescribed regimen of treatment. How many doctors will want to treat the patients who do not follow up on instructions and take their medications? In the future we might see doctors turning away those patients, or charging them higher prices, or putting them last in the queue for a visit.

You’ve probably heard of FICO scores, which serve as credit ratings in the United States. The company that created FICO scores … is now working on created a Medication Adherence Score …

Doctors will send away from of the very worst patients, in part to avoid wasting their time, in part to avoid the feeling of failure, and in part to protect their own performance ratings

Well, while I can only hope that my track record demonstrating I’m a ‘good patient’ will get me quick, friendly service anywhere I go, compared to those ‘bad patients’ who get turned away or suffer the stink eye, I have my doubts. Maybe I’ve become cynical about these things.

I suspect that to the extent this kind of thing can reduce my privacy and make my medical experiences even more annoying, it is already happening. And to the extent any of this could improve anything, it’s probably already illegal, or would quickly become so as soon as it started to ‘bite’ just a few typical sob stories. “Why don’t I inject my insulin according to the instructions? Well, it all started in my childhood … ”

How about a “consumer difficult quotient”? … Customers will have to live with the reputations they create for themselves.

The digital panopticon will mean we’ll all be living a neo-village kinds of existence, with very little effective privacy and the social / ‘permanent digital record’ equivalent of the All-Seeing God watching your every move. Except the belief in the existence of this God doesn’t depend on faith. Who knows, maybe the equivalent of village-life norms full of ‘God-fearing’ people will reassert themselves as a new social equilibrium emerges in reaction to these new features of life. Again, a double-edged sword, but in terms of social and cultural capital, we could probably use extra incentives to help lots of people stay on the straight and narrow.

On the other hand, I’ve remarked several times that our culture seems to be producing new effective norms of ‘digital discretion and prudence’ very slowly – or not really at all – even in response to plenty of prominent media reports of people getting caught. The instinctive impulses that create ‘digital panopticon complacency’ (or temporary absent-mindedness, blindness, etc.) and cause people to lower their guard seem very easy to trick into a false sense of privacy, and very hard to discipline. Something about the way people interface with the internet or social media seems to evoke a sense of being free from all the human and electronic prying eyes. I mean, even the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency apparently forgot that he was subject to surveillance!

Maybe in the future, instead of just burying it in the disclaimers in some EULA, these interfaces will have to constantly warn people over and over that everything they do is subject to being recorded and shared, just like some telephone customer service lines have to warn you that the conversation is being recorded to avoid liability under the wiretap laws. Maybe the “webcam light” should always stay on, whether the camera works or not, just to keep reminding people of this problem. Maybe we’ll need daily prayers (or nudges) to remind ourselves, as a “memento memori”.

One way of looking at this is Brin-type of Transparent Society is also a kind of ‘pan-underwriting’ society, in which every application, request, attempt to match, etc. in which one tries to make the best impression is complemented (or perhaps ‘kept honest’) by the notion that a thorough – and now instantaneous – background investigation will be performed to verify and assess all claims.

Then again, loan underwriting – and the prudent principles upon which it is based – has been around forever, and that didn’t stop Countrywide from handing out loans to all comers with the bare minimum of scrutiny like candy at Halloween. “You don’t look like a little kid, and you’re not wearing a costume, but, whatever, here’s your ARM.”

8. Our (Legitimate) Fears

For lack of a better way to put it, what if too much accuracy and truth about human measurement is harmful to motivation or bound to lead to sub-optimal reactions? Maybe there’s something to ‘growth mindset’ and there’s such a thing as nobly lying about ones odds in order to boost optimism, confidence, attitude, and motivation to optimal levels? Maybe there’s a sweet spot, and you can overdo it in either direction. Maybe that infamous Dunning-Kruger chart tells us something not only about delusional self-regard, but the necessary amount of delusional self-regard and uncertainty to bring about the optimal levels of effort, so that potentially productive people neither get too demoralized nor too full of themselves, nor too gleeful or disappointed if things don’t go as expected.

On the negative side, too much knowledge can hinder achievement. What if a computer had graded Einstein at five years of age when he still was not talking and assessed his change of becoming a great scientist? That truth, albeit some imperfect statistical estimate of the truth, will discourage too many people. Alternatively, maybe a future star will be done in because he is repeatedly told, from day one, that he is the anointed one. [Wasn’t that the plot to Gattaca? -[b]H[/b]] A certain amount of ambiguity may be good for the career ambitions of young people, and in the future we may miss some of the ambiguity we enjoy today.

9. Judgment

… In other words, however useful the concept of standardization may be in the workplace, it can be scary when applied to social and economic relations as a whole. This is not a world where everyone is going to feel comfortable.

The discomfort with machines will expand along a number of dimensions. The most skilled man-machine teams will earn a lot, but there will be an issue of societal trust, precisely because their mastery of external environments may outstrip our ability to judge them.

We already can’t judge the performance of good algorithms without … trusting the judgment of special algorithm-judging algorithms or meta-algorithms. One of you Latinophones can make the appropriate modification of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

He does have a paragraph that again suggests people will try evade personal responsibility and launder socially-undesirable but true / necessary decisions by attributing the culpability to algorithms.

That will reduce accountability both for ugly-but-right decisions, but also for questionable-but-wrong mistakes. Your perspective on that probably depends on your opinion of our current accountability systems. For example, if you think the current liability system is borderline insane, pins far too much of the blame for incidents on the wrong parties, penalizes them in complete disproportion to the harm or degree of hazard, and leads to awful risk-averse / zero-tolerance reactions on the part of deep-pocketed decision-makers who are terrified about the prospect of a lawsuit, then maybe you think that making an algorithm the ‘face’ of responsibility would be an improvement if it disrupts the imposition of crazy judgments on any particular party. Then again, I spent far too much time above writing about the pitfalls of the ‘algorithm as whipping boy’ approach to accountability to trust that will actually happen.

In other contexts we will not be able to avoid making some very direct moral judgments. Let’s say, for instance that you own a driverless car. How should such a car be programmed in case an accident in imminent. Should the car swerve away from hitting a baby carriage, but at risk of running into two elderly people?

Oh Lord. It’s Trolley Problems all the way down. Can the answer be other than what is expected to be cheapest in a lawsuit? If that’s not the answer, the law is wrong. And the law says that the law can’t be wrong. QED.

Also, what about your poor passengers? Pro-tip: To weigh the utilitarian moral calculus in your favor – so your car doesn’t decide to murder you by veering into a wall instead of hitting a group of thugs or carjackers blocking a road – always be sure to carpool and fill up the seats. That way, the Rawlsian logic circuits will decide to just mow those people down. Uh oh, now people are going to hack their own driverless cars to convince the machines that they are full of people. Uh oh, now google will try to measure the number of smartphones in the car to verify. Uh oh, now people will just fill up their cars with extra smartphones … I can do this all day.

Should the car be programmed to crash you into a telephone pole, rather than run a p=0.6 chance of knocking over a pedestrian? It is easy enough to imagine such issues being debated on the evening news.

Nooooo…

I don’t imagine that public debate will let the programmed cars behave very “selfishly.” But what if a human driver takes over operation of the car right before the crash occurs? Currently the legal system allows a fair amount of leeway to human judgment. Might our legal standards for human drivers toughen up too? Will the moral calculus of your “driving program” be admissible evidence for your reckless-driving hearing? Probably so. You can see that a lot of everyday morality is going to change.

I don’t know. Humans might be reluctant to shift norms in a direction that has a good chance of biting themselves in the asses later on. The leeway we give other people is often the leeway we hope to get ourselves. It might just be the case that human liability stays the same, but machines are held to a higher standard. Or maybe humans will fall so far behind the machines so quickly that human drivers will be outlawed faster than we think. It’ll be like Pinker’s Better Angels, and future generations will think the level of harm we blithely tolerated for the sake of having our human-driven automobiles is practically inconceivable.

LEONARD:

I think my TLDR on it is that capitalism works, but state-micromanaged capitalism is pretty crappy. The awful experiences you described earlier (bank, doctor) were both interactions with two of the most regulated industries there are. You mention GPS and yes, it’s pretty great now. I just drove to the vehicle emissions inspection station having google direct me via voice on my phone. No need to look.

There certainly is the question about exactly why interacting with uncompetitive corps is typically vexing. I expect there are lots of explanations, but to some degree they all boil down to one thing: providing anything — a good customer experience included — is not easy to do well, and unless there is some pressure coming down from on high, in general it won’t be done well.

In particular, I think that strategy of “frustrate a paying customer so much he gives up” is something that basically will never exist in a free market. Indeed even the suspicion of such a thing strikes me as a nearly infallible flag of state intervention of some kind. Paying customers are gold; you piss them off at your profit’s peril.

Some specific comments:

I don’t generally have trouble with self-checkout at grocery stores. I do buy produce. Yes, it took a little effort to learn how to do that; it’s not just “wave the bar code around until the machine beeps”. But I did learn. It is indeed more work, but you get something for it: shorter waiting time. And in any case the time I used to spend standing in grocery store lines was not really quality time for me. Certainly I’d enjoy it more now with a smartphone than I used to with … not much, people magazine? But “losing” time that I wasn’t really using well to begin with, presumably for slightly lower prices and slightly less time in line seems reasonable to me.

To me, the biggest problem with supermarket checkout is getting clueless people in front of me. Variance is higher.

One more thing is this vein is even more automation of stores. If you haven’t already, check out Amazon Go. Amazon Go is a brick and mortar store with no checkout. It doesn’t really exist yet save for a test store in Seattle which apparently serves only Amazon employees. Still, they are almost there; they claim to want to open to the public this year. Assuming they prevent the entry of random bezonians, then they can probably afford a significant proportion of unintentional “shoplifting”. Customer discrimination FTW.

Metrics: fine for sports. (Even there, require expert judgment to apply in a sensible way.) Useful ones not obtainable in real life. Too easy to game.

The panopticon: coming. I doubt this will create a significantly useful “customer rating” because of disparate impact; we all have the right to “privacy” which is to say that only a conviction in a court of law can be used against you, and probably not even that. (In a non-democratic state, though, very likely.) Indeed, as you suggest we saw the exact opposite play out in mortgages, which were big money enough to have a “customer rating” even before serious computerization of everything.

HANDLE:

It will be interesting to see how the impact of the digital panopticon plays out in different legal regimes and social systems. I can see a whole spectrum of approaches, from maybe a ‘European’ and perhaps quasi-futile prohibition on collection and use, to maybe a ‘Chinese’ overt encouragement or insistence on it.

VLADIMIR

This is metrics working their way up the work hierarchy. … But Cowen is talking about professors, lawyers, doctors, etc.

Overall it’s a big GIGO problem. If we measure academics by number of published papers, we’re going to get a lot of worthless papers. We are still debating whether “Moneyball” really works.

… But the metrics just aren’t that good as soon as the work gets complicated.

It’s the classic problem known as “Goodhart’s Law.” If the metric itself is all you care about, it’s pretty straightforward; we’re in the realm of classic piecework. But any metric that is only a statistical correlate of the thing that’s actually important will rapidly degenerate into uselessness, because it incentivizes people to target the metric rather than the really important goals.

I am probably an outlier with my experiences, being in an industry where things are still done in far more unregulated and less bureaucratized manner than anywhere else, and moreover also working in a team that has these characteristics to an exceptional degree (despite existing within a large corporation). Still, in all of my working experience, successfully done projects have always rested on informal sorts of judgment that basically boil down to whether someone truly knowledgeable and reliable — a reputation established by an informal but convincing track record, and only somewhat correlated with formal rank — is keeping a close eye on things. Whatever metrics I’ve seen used have always seemed to me utterly worthless unless backed by this sort of informal assurance that, so to say, real adults are in charge of things.

HANDLE:

Chapter 8, Why the Turing Game Doesn’t Matter

1.

It’s the bumps and delays that will make the rise of smart machines a livable process. It could well be destabilizing if the technologies of mechanical intelligences – two hundred years’ worth of progress, plus their complementary applications were placed in our hands overnight. A lot of people couldn’t get any jobs whatsoever because they couldn’t work with the advanced machines, and it would take them a long time to learn. We deal with machines today as well as we do because our progress has been gradual, allowing us to learn along the way. When it comes to technology, progress is usually good, but gradual progress is usually better.

This seems plausible to me. One of the theories of the Great Depression compatible with Alexander Field’s Great Leap Forward is that period of invention in the decades around the turn of the century was so radical that it completely disrupted established modes of productions and patterns of specialization and trade. This was the ‘Edison-Diesel era’ with new electric devices and internal combustion motors opening the door to all sorts of new applications and possibilities.

In the ‘technological deterministic’ Great Depression-causation story, the adjustment to these new realities was completely traumatic, not only affecting employment levels and investment volatility and yields, but also having an enormous and rapid impact on trends in politics, society, and culture.

We may be seeing something like that again. Here’s an excerpt from Cowen’s The Complacent Class

When it comes to ordinary, everyday American life, how quickly will matters turn chaotic or disorderly again, and what forms will that implosion take? .. The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor then a model of ongoing progress. .. All of this can happen even if you think the majority response will be a great and greater love of peace.

I wonder if slow and steady growth is not just preferable in terms of personal and social stability, but if to some extent it has been ‘caused’ by human and social limitation. Perhaps the ‘drag’ of learning curves and the constrained pace of human adoption of, and adaptation to, new production technologies has been like a governing mechanism which, to some extent, may have been responsible for a kind of disruption-reducing smoothing-out or slowed-rollout of what would otherwise be sudden, radical shifts and booms.

That’s mere speculation, but it there’s anything to it, then we might have some reason to expect “this time is difference” and things will be worse in terms of adjusting to new social equilibria “in time”. When new capital technologies and machines acted more as complements than substitutes for labor, then major expansions of production required training up large portions of the population, which was a slow process. But in the future, if fewer and fewer specially talented humans are needed to partner ‘freestyle-like’ with machine intelligence, then there will be both the ability and incentive to select for that subset with the highest adaptability and shortest adjustment times. As for everybody else … it’s not a pretty picture.

2. The Long Run

Cowen covers some of the most prominent ‘futurist analysis’ in this area.

First he mentions Yudkowsky’s bleak ‘foom’ prediction and unfriendly AI-takeover, but dismisses it, with an only-somewhat subtle dig at what might be the underlying psychological impulses that encourage people to focus on this particular type of scenario:

But the evidence so far doesn’t suggest this kind of unstable cascade to be very likely. Even the strongest programs need human assistance every step of the way. …For all their practical abilities, there is no reason to expect these [chess] programs to move down the corridor of self-awareness … The truth is there are no real vampires, no dragons, and no HALS. Let’s not worry about them appearing under the bed or in our hard drives.

Hanson’s next, naturally. I’m guessing he got an early look and probably objected to the word ‘dystopian’.

In another dystopian vision, the proliferation of computer intelligence will bring about a Malthusian world where human laborers will struggle to warn subsistence. Economist Robin Hanson, my colleague at George Mason University, considers this scenario in the fascinating and influence paper “Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence.”

… It’s even possible that the machines will be cheaper than the level of subsistence wages. In that case either workers must live off charity or the population will shrink rapidly or some mix of both. … but eventually machines substitute for intelligent labor and wages can fall rapidly.

But “who will own the machines” and “what will government even mean”? Maybe we’ll spread the wealth.

The machines are still owned by someone, and the owners of machines are very wealthy … Alternatively, perhaps the government owns a share in the machines and it uses that wealth to support the remaining poor, who did not but machines in time and who now cannot find jobs because of competition from the machines. They will become wards of the state, much as many people live off of oil wealth in some of the less populated petro-states.

But we have this thing called taxes. Taxes on income and property and sales, oh my. And those taxes are already like the government owning a share of all companies and output. And pretty much all governments collect a lot of taxes for the explicit purpose of redistributing that wealth.

And, despite the differing nominal titles and official, de jure structures of formal distribution of power, we have also seen a de facto international convergence of systems of political and economic organization in which private parties are allowed to own and allocate capital and perform entrepreneurial functions (so long as they do not upset the political apple cart.) Over time, we can probably expect competitive pressures to select against any severe deviations from the basic outline of this economic model.

So I expect the mixed economy and redistributive taxation to continue, and the question is in what form and amount. There are also the questions of how big the ‘ward of the state’ class will grow, and how the inherent tension between an increasingly concentrated machine-owning class and a growing but voting welfare class will be resolved in democracies with universal suffrage.

Still, Cowen doesn’t think we need to worry too much about this vision:

Robin’s paper is thought-provoking. Still, I am looking across a more modest time-scale and more modest set of changes. Robin’s analysis might apply to the very long run, perhaps hundreds of years from now. But for the next fifty years or longer, the Freestyle model is more application. Most AI applications still require human support, and those applications, even if they spread considerably, will not come close to displacing all human jobs. Instead, intelligence machines will replace some laborers and augment the value of others in a slow and halting manner.

I think this is more far sanguine than warranted. One doesn’t have to believe in foom or ems coming soon to see a higher probability than Cowen of fast and disruptive change. It will take time for entrepreneurs to discover “those new service sector jobs” for all those displaced laborers. And the discovery process may not be able to keep up with technological and economic change. Not just for a little while, but maybe from now on.

I think major cultural and political shifts will be necessary to establish a new social equilibrium well-adapted to the new – and still evolving! – realities. And I am not optimistic that our institutions are up to the task, or that out present ideological environment is at all conducive to it.

Finally, how did we get to page 137 without mentioning ‘singularity’ yet. Ah, here it is. Cowen is really writing about ems, and could have stuck with Hanson since Robin did literally write the book on the subject. Or I guess he had come far along into his draft by the time AIO was written. But Cowen is rule-of-three futurist name-dropping, so it’s Kurzweil of course.

The most radical hypothesis about future technology is Ray Kurzweil’s vision of a machine intelligence “Singularity.” Kurzweil argues that mankind will obtain the capacity to scan brains and upload them into computers. There will be many copies of each “person” and presumably these entities will exist for a long time, with the multiple copies making the “person” hard to wipe out, even in the event of a system crash. I’ve heard some of Kurzweil’s followers claim this scenario will happen within the next fifty years, and Kurzweil’s writing seem to encourage such speculations.

… I suspect this will never be viable, if only because the human brain is so intimately connected to the human body, and because it so relies on the body for inputs and nourishment. … That means “brain emulation” requires building a whole working body (or significant parts thereof) not just an abstract, digitalized “brain in a vat.”

This seems to me to be Cowen’s weakest argument in the whole book. Even if true in its strongest form, why not just emulate the endocrine system too? Even the entire body would probably be profoundly easier than the brain. He has debated Hanson on this point, occasionally with some indirectness, and, well, Cowen is highly gifted in responding to criticism in a way that makes him appear as little like a debate loser as possible.

This is one of those times where I suspect Cowen knows perfectly well what’s up, and has some ulterior motive for sticking to an obviously weak position, perhaps to be palatable to most of his audience while expecting close readers of a Straussian disposition to pick up the real message. I know brothers, many of you will say I’m giving him too much credit. But I think he deserves it, and this case it seems clearer to me than most.

He returns to the critique in which he claims that the real reason these narratives are believed by their proponents is not because of the compelling case of the argument, but, ahem, because of the instinctive psychological appeal of the dramatic contexts they describe – like a bildungsroman plot line following Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He’s not subtle at all this time around.

All of these extreme scenarios, whatever their differences, share some features. They are about worlds that we cannot today control, influence, or even visualize clearly. They tend to be about worlds we cannot investigate empirically or find direct parallels for today. They are somewhat like religious allegories, involving some mix of concepts of deliverance, resurrection, destruction of the current world, and immortality. Given the appeal of such tales, I’m suspicious that these extreme scenarios are living off of their emotional appeal, and they are a kind of religion for computer nerds. Let us set that devotion aside.

3. Man-Machine Convergence.

Cowen discusses the Turing test and some of the chat programs. Occasionally I like to check up on the latest programs that run online. They are more powerful than in the past because often powered by a search-engine or database, Watson-like, but by now they all seem to have long settled on the same set of what are little more than gimmicks. These are designed to cover up obvious deficiencies and fool the poorer judges who are unserious about making any real attempt to uncover the presence of a program. These gimmicks include pretending to not be an adult fluent in the language of conversation, and framing a bunch of non-sequiturs or nonsensical responses as ‘jokes’. The irony – kind of a meta-joke really – is that these programs don’t get your jokes, and testing for a sense of humor is one of the easiest and quickest ways to determine whether you’re really dealing with a human. But it’s hard to maintain interest in the progress (or lack thereof) of these programs when the whole effort seems to have entrenched itself into mere gimmick-improvement.

He has a pet theory about Turing and his namesake test.

Turing was gay. He was persecuted for this difference in a manner than included chemical castration [Diethylstilbestrol] and led to his suicide. In the mainstream British society of that time, he proved unable to consistently “pass” for straight. Interestingly, the second paragraph of Turing’s famous paper starts with the question of whether a male or female can pass for a member of the other gender is a typed conversation. The notion of “passing” was of direct personal concern to Turing and in more personal settings, Turing probably did not view “passing” as synonymous with actually being a particular way.

The movie The Imitation Game (which sounds like The Crying Game, probably not by coincidence) didn’t quite go into the embarrassing, rough trade particulars of how and why Turing got caught in flagrante. Lots of people thought Turing was a real genius and also a very strange bird. It’s not clear how many people knew or thought he was gay, but it seems he was careless about hiding it.

Turing did not make this point, but many human beings, intelligence and of mature age, could not pass what we now call a Turing test. This includes many human beings who would do well on IQ tests or other traditional measures of intelligence.

I get his point, that ‘passing’ as a normal human requires a mental module which automatically and correctly infers norms and cultural conventions from experience and then conforms ones speech and behaviors to what will be accepted as ‘normal’ by ones interlocutors. And maybe better than merely ‘normal’, this module also seems to be a kind of “mental deep state” pulling strings behind the scenes and shaping one’s consciousness, preferences and emotions to present an effortlessly sincere character role, one that is calculated to produce the optimal social result for the speaker: an actor who doesn’t know he’s acting. And this social calculus module is obviously defective or deficient in many otherwise talented people, disproportionately males, some of whom try but fail to compensate for it by disciplined effort and training, for instance in the basics of ‘Social Interaction Artistry’.

But I think that his ‘many’ might be carrying more weight than it should. I’ve known a few of those people, and one can still tell right away from written conversation that one is dealing with a ‘human with issues’, which is a totally different experience than dealing with a human-imitating machine.

His larger point is a kind of argument from comparative advantage, which is that the incentives in place will ensure that, in the beginning, machine intelligence – not just automation of simple tasks but higher-level information processing – will evolve in the direction of complementarity instead of substitution. The machines will be doing what machines do best, and the humans doing what the machines can’t do as easily or cheaply.

What does this say about the collaboration between humans and computers? Convergence isn’t needed. In his question to take down the notion of imitation as the standard of intelligence, Turing notes that a machine will be most effective, cognitively speaking, when it does something other than imitate or try to imitate a man.

If the Turing test is cracked, how might the asking and answering bots change things?

“Face time” will become all the more important as a signal of actual interest and caring, because “computer time” will be too easy to replicate through the bots. Maybe you’ll use Skype to prove it is really you, and that will work for as long as bots cannot replicate your facial expressions and voice patterns through a streamed image”

Which, might be closer than we think. These videos are freaky-impressive:

On machine-enabled cheating and “symbiotic complementary specialization”.

That all said, a true systematic cheater will usually leave telltale marks on his or her games, at least if the cheating is repeated rather than one-off. Ken’s method is likely to catch the chronic crook, but it will not detect a grandmaster who cheats only a tone critical turning point in the contest.

In any case, rather than converging, man and machine are likely to become more different in some ways, including cognitively. Most of this book is about the evolution of the machines, but people will change too. I’m not talking about longer-run chances in the genetic code, but rather more simple changes in how we live out lives, and which skill we decide to acquire or not. To put it bluntly, we are outsourcing some parts of out brain to mechanical devices and indeed we have been doing that for millennia, whether it be to writing implements, books, the abacus, or a modern supercomputer. In response to all these developments we have focused more on the skills that the machines can’t bring.

Maybe a good analogy for what will happen to both humans and machines in the evolution of machine intelligence is what happens very early on in an instance of biological symbiosis. Originally you have two very different organisms that only occasionally make low-value ‘trades’ and are otherwise independent and able to survive well on their own. But eventually comparative advantage divides labor up so that the partner more efficient at some particular task is the only one doing it, and the other partner eventually completely abandons the capacity to do the task itself as ‘deadweight’, increasing the gains from trade, but making both creatures completely co-dependent.

4. Memory and “Search”

The Google crutch, if I may call it that, influences how we think and how we learn. There’s now good systematic evidence about how Google changes out mental capacities, and I think most of us have experienced this personally as well.

Definitely. I’ve often been amazed with accounts of the past in which, for example, story tellers were expected to memorize entire complex narratives verbatim. I’d guess that the transition away from intensive focus on memory began with the spread of the printing press and literacy.

In earlier times there was a prominent “science of memory,” in which was taught the skills of remembering numbers, people’s names, sequences of numbers, and so on. This science goes at least as far back as ancient Greece, and it flourished during medieval and Renaissance times. Journalist Joshua Foer recently wrote eloquently about this kind of memory discipline in Moonwalking with Einstein and returned some prominent to it. He focused mostly on one particular technique known as the “method of loci” by which elements you wish to remember are given a position in an imaginary place along with some surprising or colorful attributes. Foer recounts his adventures in the USA Memory Championship using his newfound skill of memorizing decks of playing cards.

The ancient arts of memory, in their most general form, and techniques to improve your mind. … The point was to make your ideas “searchable,” … Google is making a lot of the memory arts fall away altogether. … Second we have become much better at searching for answers, and that too is a skill.

Being a real power-user pro at the art of internet search and having a good instinct for how to use particular search engines most efficiently in the case of hard-to-find-but-know-its-there items is still a respected and important skill in my workplace, and in any law office paying out the nose for still-often-poor Lexis or Westlaw search results. It’s always possible the search engines for those services are intentionally ‘crippled’ so that they generate some profit through unnecessary extra searches. I’m complained about Amazon’s once-lousy search engine before, but I wonder to what extent the company was hoping that they could tempt you with some unrelated items. Hmm.

Two different effects are operating here, but we can tease them apart for a look at where humanity is headed. On one hand, many successful individuals will learn how to think like smart machines, or at least enough to understand their operation, in order to become wealthy, high-status earners. In that way we will become more like computers – well, a large number of high earners will become more like computers anyway, cognitively speaking.

That raises some questions of how we should try to educate and evaluate people in these useful machine-intelligence-exploitation-artistry skills. Will professions try to prevent that, to protect incumbents?

That said, when it comes to our private lives, we will become less like computers, because we rely on computers for many basic functions, such as recording numbers, helping us with arithmetic, and remembering facts through internet search. In these ways we will become more intuitive, more attuned to the psychology and emotions of everyday life, and more spontaneously creative.

I’m not sold on that claim. Thoughts?

5. The Machine’s Place.

It seems even when the machines are a lot better than the human competitors, we’re not so interested in watching them. For instance, when it comes to chess we humans don’t seem to care when the machines play each other. Hardly anyone is watching or talking about the computer vs. computer games. … It seems we care more about drama than about perfection.

Well, yeah. But wait until we have huge battle bots! Seriously though, of course few people care about machine contests in competitions the purpose of which is to rank humans by relative status. Playing a game serves a different purpose than its study, and watching humans play is exciting because that purpose is a major factor.

What does that all say about us as spectators and human beings? We don’t want to treat human beings and computer programs the same way, even when the latter become extremely skilled, or perhaps especially when the latter become extremely skilled. We wish genius machines to serve out practical ends, but we don’t want to turn over to them the spheres of life that structures out narratives , drive out emotions, define what our lives are all about, and help us separate right from wrong., We’re determined to “keep them in their place.”

… We won’t always listen to business or negotiating advice from the genius machines, and maybe we won’t be as interested in the music they compose, buying it only if a human composer pretends to have the creator or co-creator.

Heh. We already use celebrity performers to present the products of the real creative workers behind the scenes. Now humans will be playing Christian to Cyrano for the affections of Roxane, and taking the credit and providing the ‘brand’ for decisions and products made by programs. “Automation with a human face.”

LEONARD:

1. The Great Depression was a monetary problem. Boom/bust. Exacerbated by poor policy once it started. This is accepted fairly generally, I thought. I don’t see the need for more causes, and I am very skeptical about the idea that (i.e.) the existence of the automobile was so challenging that it caused any real cognitive fails and subsequent economic effect.

2. As you say, modern governments already de-facto own a share of every company. This is what income taxes are, viewed operationally. Indeed, this is something I would formalize were I promoted to Fnargl. No corp taxation, but when you form a company or expand it, 20% of all new shares are allocated to the government.

In any case, as Moldbug said years ago, the problem with disemployment is not that everyone will starve. We already have extensive disemployment and nobody starves. It’s that people need work to find meaning in life, and when robbed of meaning they tend to live lives of vice, crime, squalor, and alienation.

We move on to Solution B, which I think is the solution most people believe in. Work? Who the hell wants to work? Work is anti-hedonic by definition. If it didn’t have negative utility, it wouldn’t be work. So, it’s supposed to be a problem that in the future, work will be obsolete, and we’ll be able to produce goods and services without any human labor at all? That doesn’t sound like a problem to me. It sounds like a victory.

The problem with Solution B is that we’ve already tried it, quite extensively. You see Solution B every time you go to the grocery store. Next to the button marked “Debit/Credit” is one marked “EBT.” Ever pressed that one? Even just by mistake? It’s the Solution B button. America has entire cities that have moved beyond anti-hedonic labor disutility and entered the gleaming future of Solution B. One of them is called “Detroit.”

Regarding Cowen on singularity, first, the “human ems go foom” seems to me less likely than “pure AI goes foom”. Does he not address the latter? Wrt human ems, Cowen’s argument there is totally retarded. Your “Straussian” explanation is I guess most plausible, because writing anything as stupid as that is implausible.

3. The Turing Test was not restricted to the detection of neurotypical humans. Certainly not as proposed by Turing. (His sexualization of it is interesting… nothing like that would happen today.) It is simply whether one can detect a computer attempting to pass as human. As such, if the computer decides to try to appear to be non-neurotypical, and that fools the interrogator, that counts.

I don’t think the symbiosis metaphor will fly here. The problem is that evolution only hill-climbs. If you’re a symbiont and you’re getting all the X you need from a partner, then immediately you will be under evolutionary pressure to cease making X yourself. There is no path to you becoming X independent. In the analogy, it is true that man-machine symbiosis will largely work this way, because most of it happens within the context of the market. And markets are profit-optimizing; they are hill-climbers. But there is still a path to further AI development: people can act outside of markets. I.e. we do research that is not profit maximizing. We can “jump” around problem spaces, including going “downhill”.

4. For the claim that “we will become less like computers”, it is perhaps useful to analogize computers:humans::nerds:normals. Are normal people getting less tech-capable due to nerds doing that stuff? I dunno. Certainly people work on cars less than they used to, because we can’t as much. But OTOH the massive increase in computers everywhere means a lot more people interacting with them in at least some capacity. Those facebook pictures don’t take themselves.

5. It’s retarded thinking people care about machine vs machine “battles”. By contrast, as we saw recently, we care about human vs. human “battles” even if they are as stupidly trivial as rock-paper-scissors.

I think a genius machine that somehow assigned people purpose in lives would be very popular. Very, very popular. In fact if a decent human-friendly AI ever gets going I am quite certain it will be worshipped as a god. Imagine you pray to God to stop being so lonely. The next day God suggests that you go to the autostarbuck at 9:06… standing there alone waiting for her mocha is this blonde in a “mysteries of science” t-shirt… and you work on the “mysteries of science” veeyarcast!

VLADIMIR:

Re: Turing test, people tend to get into quasi-profound philosophical arguments about it, entirely missing the forest for the trees. The simple fact is that there is a wide range of common-sense topics where any adult human not suffering from severe mental retardation can make direct, clear, and accurate judgments, but which are presently utterly beyond the capacity of any present machine intelligence.

Just start asking a series of trivial common-sense questions. Can a mouse hide in a coffee cup? What about a horse? What’s worse, getting run over by a truck or a bicycle? There will be an immediate striking contrast between complete nonsense output by a computer (except maybe where it gets lucky and returns a direct Google hit) and sensible answers given by even the feeblest (within normal bounds) human intellect.

This clearly shows a vast chasm between currently existing computers and what we take for granted as common sense in humans, which we haven’t even begun to bridge, and we don’t have a good idea how we’d even approach the problem. When (if ever) computers start passing such rudimentary Turing tests, it will be a real game-changer, compared with which all these subtler philosophical issues are insignificant.

HANDLE:

Part III: The New World of Work

Chapter 9: The New Geography.

…we have seen a great stagnation of wages in the United States since about 1973. … Should we blame the foreigners for our difficulties? And how will foreign competition shape jobs and wages going forward.

The three common dimensions of the ‘blame foreigners’ argument are:

1. It’s competition from foreign firms in the same spaces as US industries under free-ish trade.
2. It’s the immigration.
3. It’s the outsourcing.

Cowen dismisses 1 and 2 as negligible, but as for 3:

Some of my economist friends will hate this: It is increasingly hard to deny that outsourcing is playing some role is stagnant American wages and slow job creation. …

Economists use the forbidding phrase “factor price equalization,” … a similar mechanism operates for labor. If workers in India or China are much cheaper, and not correspondingly unproductive, either the workers will move to the capital or the capital will move to the workers.

I’ll leave the immigration claim to the side. But it seems to me that “foreign competition”, if benefiting from more favorable local conditions like lower wages or looser regulations, is really a lot like outsourcing, except with formal ownership and incorporation being abroad instead of in the US. Of course, a US company isn’t actively managing the migration of operations from domestic locations to abroad, but if the foreign company has comparable organizational capital, then their products will be cheaper, and eventually the US company will be forced out of business. And that’s assuming no other special advantages or subsidies that those countries might give to their domestic exporting companies.

Anyway, what about workers displaced by outsourcing?

The reemployment of displaced workers has been relatively weak since the late 1990s for reasons that are no fault of the Chinese. The rising demands have been for very special kinds of skilled workers rather than for workers as a whole.

He then reviews Michael Mandel’s argument that a lot of productivity growth (meager as it’s been!) is confusing gains in nominal productivity (i.e. lower prices for the same amount of inputs) with real productivity (i.e. innovation opening up the possibility of a new production function which needs less of an input, at whatever price, to make the same output).

In terms of labor productivity that’s a big difference. Operations can become more “productive” in nominal terms in this way by finding cheaper workers to do the same things in the same way with the same kind and amount of equipment. Operations become more productive in real terms via new automation solutions or labor-augmenting capital tools, even with wages and interest rates held constant. Sometimes one can source abroad to places where wages are so much cheaper that they compensate for drops in real productivity.

But Cowen says outsourcing isn’t enough to explain it either:

… but outsourcing just isn’t big enough to be driving the problem of stagnant wages. It more like one of several reasons why a lot of low-wage American workers aren’t reemployed as rapidly as in times past.

So what’s actually happening?

During these periods of prosperity, we were world leaders in education – K-12 and university. There was a closer match between the skills required of workers at higher levels of the value chain and the skills that American workers actually possessed. Nowadays, the demands of machinery – including of course computers – are rising at a faster rate than are human capabilities. The machines are getting better education, more rapidly and more cheaply, than are their human teammates and potential teammates. That the root of the problem for a lot of workers.

What a conspicuously bizarre way to say it.

Many millions of people can turn a screw on an assembly line, work a lathe, or handle a telephone switchboard. Not so many people can team up fruitfully with Rybka or, more generally, work with intelligence machines … To blame the Chinese, or outsourcing, is to point to a mere shadow play …

But we see manufacturing wages in China rising a lot. Why doesn’t the same logic hold these workers back? A lot of them are turning screws, and there are billions of cheaper screw-turners. Maybe they’ll stagnate now, but what about that recent long, substantial rise?

Back to chess:

By the way, the very best US chess players are often foreigners in a sense – most of them having come from Israel and the former Soviet Union. You might think they’ve “taken slots” from US players, but the deeper reality is that having lots of good players in your country, foreigners or not, helps – not hurts – your chance of becoming world champion.

Yeah, but what about your chances of becoming national champion. To the extent that factor price equalization has not quite run to completion, preserving excess domestic wages is obviously in the interest of people currently receiving those wages.

And if only there were some kind of technology that allowed these Americans to play and learn from these masters, even if they were abroad. Maybe they could send letters with moves via the postal service. Yes, I know that would be slow and cost stamps, but there must be some way, right? Maybe they’ll invent some kind of technology one day …

And what about our poor child chess prodigies abroad, when all their nations’ grandmasters have been moved to the US for our own selfish motives in ‘our’ quest to achieve global chess domination? Will they not be deprived?

When it comes to outsourcing, three truths need to be observed.

First, there is no realistic way to stop Americans from investing abroad. …

I think the government could figure this out if it was really interested.

Second, at a fundamental moral level a job for “a foreigner” is every bit as worthy an outcome as a job for “a real American.” If Chinese wages are going up and American wages are somewhat flat, as has been the case, I say bravo to them and let’s try to meet the challenge. … It may ring hollow with the American electorate, but it is still true.

Maybe we should be more cautious about things that ring hollow with the American electorate, because three years later … well, let me put it this way, it looks like a lot of them were favoring those “real American” jobs over those equally morally worthy Chinese jobs.

I mean, think about it from the perspective of an owner of Pepsi stock. If Pepsi market capitalization falls by the same amount that Coke’s rises, then it’s a moral wash. Why should that Pepsi shareholder vote for board members expected to obey a fiduciary duty to vigorously pursue the policies that maximally increases his own wealth, with total indifference to what happens to Coke owners?

Well, we know what Pepsi is supposed to be for vis a vis their stockholders, and we know that most economists would agree. Milton Friedman, at the very least, would have argued against any other goal. It seems many members of that American electorate were asking themselves why shouldn’t countries be for them in the same way.

Third, if you’re worried about outsourcing, you should probably have a more liberal rather than a less liberal attitude toward immigration. If the United States takes in more immigrants, the areas in which those immigrants work are less likely to see jobs outsourced abroad. Immigration makes it possible to keep those jobs at home.

So long as they are being performed by immigrants for low wages and supported by the redistribution state. Hooray! Local J. O. B. S!

That’s a clever (and sneaky) rhetorical trick. People love jobs, and maybe they’ll forget that what they really love is the idea of there being more opportunities to do more lucrative things for the existing local labor force, or at least the idea of preventing existing patterns from evaporating. They might not be as enthusiastic about the mere existence of jobs for their own sake, regardless of what is being done or who is doing them.

Well, ok, maybe your manufacturing workers are out of luck, but there would still be plenty of local complementary / support jobs. Which, for some reason, would not be done by cheaper immigrants too? And I guess that’s better than watching the rest of the local economic ecosystem evaporate and go abroad. Still, is that what actually happens? Not exactly.

Here is another way to think about the problem. A lot of economic activity wants to locate itself in those regions that are the most populous, wealthiest, most important, and most central to the nerve center of our world. Not everywhere can be a center of the global economy and not many people and investors wish to focus their activities in Nebraska. … Part of a competitive solution, for the United States, is to build up its own economic and cultural clusters of importance. That means more people and also more immigration, both high-skill and low-skill.

A Global Geographic Trend:

Just as labor market outcomes will move toward the poles of either “very good” or “very bad”, so will the same be true for a lot of cities, states, geographic regions, and countries. What we see is that individuals with college degrees are gravitating to areas where a relatively high percentage of the other individuals also have college degrees.

… Circa 1970, the most educated and least educated cities differed from each other by about sixteen percentage points … Today the difference … has about doubled in terms of percentage points … Ambitious and talented young people today are more likely to want to live in a relatively small number of cities and regions, rather than spreading themselves out as much as they used to.

The internet has made some things nicer for some people away from the hubs, however

But if you wish to be a high earner, learning from other well-educated people, geographic proximity is growing in importance, whether in companies or in leading amenities-rich cities or most likely in both.

It’s happening everywhere, despite linguistic and other barriers. For instance, from Spain to Germany.

I hardly expect Spain to be emptied out, but soon observers will start to realize that “economic integration” isn’t exactly working out as advertised. What people expected from economic integration was a wealthier and slightly more ethnically diverse version of what they had ten or fifteen years ago. What they will be getting is a dramatic shift of labor resources into the most highly valued firms and also into the most highly valued business regions. There will be lots of “hollowing out” of various regions – at least in terms of well-educated high earners – and not everyone will be on the winning side of this process.

… A lot more of Mediterranean Europe is going to look like southern Italy and Sicily: somewhat empty in terms of economically successful enterprises on a large scale. It will rely more on tourism and more on retirees and government transfers, but overall the fiscal problems of these regions will worsen and they may lose some political autonomy.

What about protectionism in the US?

I don’t fear a big surge in protectionism in this country, or in the world more generally.

Three years later …

About those new service sector jobs (echoing The Great Stagnation):

The security of these non-tradable sectors is nice for many of us, but it also means that people in most newly created jobs in the United States aren’t facing so much of a daily market test. Most of our job growth is coming in what I call low-accountability sectors. People get paid to produce things, or offer services, and we’re never quite sure how much value they are putting on the table.

Keeping America Great Still

The good news for Americans is that the longer-term trends seem to favor the relative position of the United States in the global economy. The United States is likely to continue as a leader in applying artificial intelligence and this will likely cement long-term American economic growth.

One reason for this is simply that America can sell its artificial intelligence products to the rest of the world, but a deeper mechanism is operating too. If there aren’t many workers in a plant or project, hiring in a wealthy country brings less of a wage penalty.

So, for example, if we built giant factories with enormous capital-to-labor ratios and full of robots, then there are only a few people around, and one can be choosy and select the ones least likely to be costly troublemakers. Aggregate wages are such a small part of total operational expenses that siting will be based on other considerations, such as being closer to the customers when maximum speed if essential.

But of course wages are just one reason why outsourcing is attractive, and there are plenty of other things which can make a location an easier and cheaper place to do business. Can any place in America compete on electricity costs? What about regulatory burdens, or the liability system? On which of those other measures is the US also globally competitive outside of certain industrial sectors where institutional and human capital is most important? Um…

After all, Mexico is right there. I have a feeling new ‘gigafactories’ will only be set up in the US because of regulations, protectionist politics, and subsidies.

HANDLE:

No one really cared about Chapter 9 I guess.

Chapter 10: Relearning Education:

Education is a touchy and politicized subject about which typical beliefs are so stubbornly distinct from anything approaching an accurate view of the real state of affairs that it’s nearly impossible to have a sensible conversation. It’s also why we’re so far out on the diminishing marginal returns curve that education expenditures are draining the budgets of local governments and student-loan-encumbered-youth dry, and why we tolerate forgoing enormous opportunity costs for such pointless wastes of time that there is probably plenty of worse-than-useless Hansonian Education to go along with Hansonian Medicine.

But it’s sacred. So, if he’s going to get progressives to pay attention, Cowen can’t charge into the barricades like Kling raising the Null Hypothesis banner, or Caplan firing his pure-signaling-model canons, or Hanson quipping that “School isn’t about Learning“.

Speaking of Caplan, he said in mid ’16 that his education book would be published in March 2017, but I haven’t seen any sign from him or anyone else of the typical pre-publication marketing blitz. His publishing company wanted to avoid the election period, and I’d guess it also wanted to deconflict schedules with Cowen’s The Complacent Class. That was smart call, since Cowen took up all the GMULE marketing bandwidth for a while.

Anyway, we’ve talked about the Cato Clever™ strategy before, and specifically applied to education reform advocacy. It’s like Judo. instead of “No, because …” it’s “Yes, and therefore …” That is, instead of resisting the movements of your opponent, which they are prepared for, you unexpectedly move to the side and give them room to keep charging – and even help them do so – so that they make absurd overshoots. You then apply a little unexpected pressure in a strange direction, which causes them to stumble.

For policy matters, instead of disputing certain sacred assumptions directly as Hanson, Kling, or Caplan might do, one adopts a posture of accepting these assumptions in earnest (i.e. not saying you accept them merely provisionally or just for the sake of argument) and then use that very assumption (plus some convenient theory and studies) to argue that the implication of the logic leads to one’s desired course of action.

So, instead of saying that public education doesn’t make any difference to outcomes and is so wasteful and ideologically obnoxious that the huge government subsidy can’t be justified and should be abolished, say that of course public education could be making big differences, but is failing to do so for some reason – probably too much ‘uniformity’ or bad public choice incentives – and so school choice, vouchers, and charters are the way to go.

One can claim perhaps that school choice gets ‘better’ results. When that proved untrue in terms of test scores, one can move to goal-posts to utility and talk about parent and student satisfaction.

One way I think Cowen frequently does this is by using a variant of motte-and-bailey tactic on his own readers regarding key words. See here and here for Arnold Kling’s take on Cowen’s, um, unconventional and ambiguous uses of the word ‘Complacent’ in his latest book. (Kling preferred ‘pathological’, which, again, is much more direct and frank, but thus inescapably more provocative of the mind-closing psychological resistance Cowen seeks to avoid.)

In this chapter, Cowen seems to be playing the same game with ‘education’. Which, fortunately for him, is already such a confused term susceptible to a variety of different meanings and uses in ordinary parlance that his word game is much more defensible. Do we mean “what happens in school” or even just in the university or “any kind of learning experience” or what?

He tends to slide between meanings, but at least he is being clearer about a particular purpose for the sake of analysis. But right after an opening paragraph which introduced us to that particular analytical perspective, he injects an unexpected and gloomy vision of the future. It’s like when the pediatrician distracts the child to lower the impact of a shot. He starts the chapter this way:

We as a nation have been thinking about education without knowing what we really want from it. Do we want well-rounded young adults to emerge? Or good citizens? Role models? These goals seem reasonable but what do they mean? For the purpose of this chapter, and indeed this book, I’ll keep the goal simple. [b]One goal of better education is to procure better earnings[/b]. How we might achieve that is the question.

Whether we will remain [b]a middle class society or not[/b] depends firstly on how many people will prove to be effective working with intelligent machines. One percent of the population? Ten percent? Fifty percent? Secondly it depends on how many people will find work either as [b]personal servants or as more distant service providers to the high earners, [/b]and what wages they will be able to negotiate.

My emphasis.

Ah, the power of juxtaposition. He doesn’t actually say that fiddling with pedagogical techniques, at least, those for the masses, will raise or lower that percentage of elite machine partners. More likely, as we’ve seen in athletics, the naturally gifted elites can be coached better than they are at present to be even more productive and more formidable global competitors. And the vision of the Neo-Downton Abbey future of formerly middle class people becoming less well off personal servants to the rich is concisely articulated. And since everyone already knows Cowen’s punchline that we won’t remain a middle class society because, well, ‘Average Is Over’, then, like Charles Murray has said many times over the last few decades – for example in Real Education – America’s future depends on how it chooses to teach its most talented kids. And as for everyone else, well, it’s not going to be pretty.

Cowen says:

The answers will have a lot to do with education. In particular, how many people will receive world-class or at least satisfactory educations in the years to come so they can the best, or at least acceptable wages?

I would recommend a very careful and lawyerly reading of the above excerpt. It seems to be diverging from the Null Hypothesis and GMULE consensus, but I would suggest it’s written specifically to trigger that patellar reflex in his typical reader: of appearing to be drawing the mainstream, approved-orthodoxy causal line from “good education” to “higher earning”, but without actually doing so.

He then talks up the potential of online education, MOOCs, Khan Academy, etc. This was an interesting line:

Circa 2013, no one is surprised when a new foreign aid program consists simply of dropping iPads into rural Ethiopia and letting children figure out how to work them.

Well, I guess I’m not surprised that there are foreign aid programs like that. We do all kinds of stupid things with foreign aid. What do the fine effective altruism folks at Givewell think about these iPads? In fact, we have completely domestic programs like that which (at egregious expense) put iPads in the hands of ordinary students, and those schools are not exactly flooding the ranks of the software development labor force. On the contrary, there seems to be a lot of porn watching and game playing, i.e. enablement of modern, bad-habit vices.

Learning how to ‘work’ (that is, merely operate the user interface of) an iPad is also quite a bit easier than learning how to program for one. Or if that’s at all controversial, then let me put it this way. Anything you can teach nearly any child by means of “Ethiopian Airdrop” is practically by definition not a skill that will remain scarce in the way that could justify higher than typical levels of compensation. I mean, I think when automobiles first hit the mass markets, learning to drive them was challenging and something young people did better, mostly for analogous reasons of motivation that makes the Ethiopian country kids want to learn how to use their iPads. But truck drivers weren’t scarce for longer than a historical blip, and if a Teamster ever got paid well it wasn’t because of his special, hard-to-reproduce-in-quantity skills.

Anyway, the internet revolution is more than just substitutes for classes:

In my own field of economics, what is the most common and regular form of contact the general public has with economic reasoning? It’s no longer the Econ 101 class but rather it is economics blogs, which are read by hundreds of thousands of people every day. I submit that “cross-blog dialogue,” as I call it, is for many people a better way or learning than boring lectures, PowerPoints, and dry, overly homogenized, designed-not-to-offend-anybody textbooks.

He lists a few other obvious examples, maintains they are qualitatively different – and clearly superior to – the old “classes on videocassettes” model, and that they are well-suited to study and refinement.

The world still awaits systematic, rigorous (randomized control trial) studies of all these methods of learning, and it is too early to say what is working and what is not. Nonetheless, we do know two things for sure. First, very often the online methods and much cheaper and also more flexible than the previous alternatives. Second, some learners – quite possible a minority – love the online methods.

“Quite possibly a minority” is an interesting turn of phrase. Notice also that “loving” certain methods doesn’t necessarily translate into “flourish under and enjoy superior results for the relevant target outcomes.”

Here’s his argument for why online education will really matter.

The first is that online education will be extremely cheap. Once an online course is created, additional students can be handled at relatively low cost, often close to zero cost.

Ok, sure. But let’s think about why we’re even worried about education costs. For one thing, we know education used to be much cheaper and a much better value until fairly recently, by almost any metric one can devise. Also, we’re reading constant complaints about the bloat in both overpaid administrators and completely extravagant buildings and amenities on university campuses. For some reason these institutions have been behaving as if prices in education don’t matter much for a long time. If they start mattering all of a sudden, then there’s plenty of fat to cut out.

Another obvious example. You what has close to zero marginal cost of reproduction? Textbooks Pdfs for sure, but to the extent they are necessary or preferred, printed texts and photocopies could be negligible costs.

But look at the college bookstores – they aren’t even close to cheap. We have all heard the many specious arguments for why textbooks assigned by the professors in the typical American university are so expensive in the typical campus store, but these fall flat the vast majority of the time.

In a discussion about this topic over at Kling’s place, I looked up a price at the local college which I expected to be better than average, and discovered:

… let’s take a look at the book for George Mason’s Fall 2014 offering of Math 315, “Advanced Calculus I”: The Way of Analysis by Robert Strichartz. Buy New for … $224.65! Whoa. Talk about sticker shock.

Yes, there are the now standard ways to reduce the cost to students. You can ‘rent’ it, or get it used, and also try to resell it. But those coping mechanisms have emerged precisely because the book cost is so outrageous.

No disrespect to Strichartz or his publisher or the professor who picked this book, but in this field the same learning objective could be achieved with a free book that entered the public domain a half century ago.

We could be cheap right now if cheap mattered. Again, everyone is acting like it doesn’t matter. Universities are acting as if they are operating under Blagojevich logic.

Cowen admits that sometimes people are willing to pay high prices not just for some marginal extra value but precisely for the high prices – what they accomplish in terms of selectivity, and what they signal about prestige and wherewithal.

I don’t think the price will fall all the way to $200, because good schools won’t want to look too cheap, and maybe they don’t need the money, but still I expect the price for a class to be much lower than its current level, especially at institutions below the top tier.

We’ll see. It’s been four years since the book was published and things still seem to be heading in the opposite direction. One could guess that the economy will eventually evolve in a direction in which there is clearly little to no status or life-outcome premium to be gained by an average American by moving from, say, the 200th ranked institution to the 50th ranked one.

Online education can thus be extremely egalitarian, but it is egalitarian in a funny way. It can catapult the smart, motivated, but nonelite individuals over the members of the elite communities. It does not, however, push the uninterested student to the head of the pack. Here is yer another way in which the idea of a hyper-meritocracy will apply to our future.

… the rewards will flow more readily to top talent, not the socially well connected.

Again, this is hyper-meritocracy in terms of overall market-measured productivity, which is raw cognitive talent, learned proficiencies, plus CUTS (Complementary Uncorrelated Traits and Skills). If the student isn’t a striver – isn’t motivated, curious, diligent, perseverant, resilient, conscientious, emotionally stable (or well-adapted), scrupulous, and hard-working, then he isn’t going to get very far.

In terms of absolute levels of performance, machine-driven education will boost strivers at many difference levels. In terms of [b]relative [/b]performance, it is actually many of the non-top performers who will rise the most, because many of the very top performers would attract a lot of attention and instruction under any system, with or without computers. And then many individuals will not rise at all – they won’t sit down at the screen.

That’s going to be a lot of students.

Will online education spread at rapidly as computers have revolutionized chess teaching and learning?

… most likely it will not. One major problem is simply that universities are for the most part bureaucracies. Faculty often fear online education because they sense it will either put them out of a job, lower their status and importance, or force them to learn fundamentally new methods of teaching, none of which sound like pleasant prospects, especially for a class of individuals used to holding protected jobs that involve a certain amount of autonomy and indeed coddling.

Perhaps a preview of The Complacent Class. What about accreditation?

And the faculty are by no means the only obstacle. One central question is how quickly accrediting bodies will move to grant full and transferable credits for good online courses. I do expect to see some progress in this direction, but accreditors serve in part to prop up a higher education cartel. At some point they might think twice about allowing so much competitiveness into the market …

Chess vs. Harvard:

The chess programs are the very center of the teaching, and for the best students they end up being the most important teachers themselves. The computer becomes the center and – dare I say it? – the human teacher becomes the add-on …

The kind of machine-based learning is driven by a hunger for knowledge, not by a desire to show off your talent or to “signal” as we economists say. If you’re not a good player, the fact you studied with a top teacher doesn’t mean a thing. No one is impressed and no one will want you to play for their team. There is nothing comparable to the glow resulting from a Harvard degree … The company selling Rybka tries to make its product replicable and universal, whereas Harvard tried to make its product as exclusive as possible. Now, which model do you think will spread and gain influence in the long run?

Maybe. Harvard’s had a pretty good long run. To wit:

Of course Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and other schools of that ilk may end up being the ones providing the online education. … Yet there is a fly in the ointment, and it remains to be seen whether schools such as Harvard can excise it. The current business model of Harvard and Princeton is to market the quality of exclusivity and to raise money by encouraging alumni to donate to such a wonderful and exclusive institution. …

Given that business model, will Harvard and Princeton really be the ones to award credits for online courses, say to several thousand very good students in Bangladesh?

II. Face-to-face Instruction

What are the human teachers going to be for?

In part, the human chess instructor teaches the pupil how to use the computer. [ie. with mastery -H] The human instructor has also become more important for motivation, psychology, teaching pacing, and teaching the psychological foibles of potential human opponents. With younger and less experiences players, the skills include keeping one’s composure, maintaining concentration, and not getting psyched out or intimidated by older or better opponents.

Sounds like sports when taken seriously. I.e. Texas. In other words, the future human teachers of the very talented will be like today’s super-coaches to elite professional athletes. One third experienced expert mentor / one third zen-level trainer in the arts of meta-cognition / one third Tony Robbins-class confidence booster. Or something like that. Elites are going to get coaches along with their machine-based training to help them reach their potential and be their ‘personal best’. CEO’s, Surgeons, and so forth.

The machines will help teachers and students overcome the bias that sometimes emerges in what become very close relationships and could cloud judgment. Many a coach or trainer has become fond enough of a student to start to overlook their shortcoming at critical point, and then with remedies that are too little, too late.

The next step is that human instructors will consult the machines to better understand the mistakes their students are making. Even if the machines do the work measuring the mistakes, as discussed earlier, the human instructor may still be the one to interpret and deliver that information (in inspiring fashion of course), and the one to outline a course for improvement.

This probably demonstrates two things. One is that if “what is well-defined will be automated”, then what’s not yet automated is what’s not yet well-defined. The art of inspiring coaching is probably hard to define, and hard-to-define ‘arts’ will be left to humans as our comparative advantage. Like AI’s will encourage us to babble better.

But even if it’s not that hard to define, or for some Alpha-Go neural nets to extract the patterns from a million coaching transcripts, there is the question of whether humans can be motivated in the ‘inspiring coach’ way by non-humans, and what kind of status-based relationships are necessary to generate the kind of psychological states one is trying to produce. My hunch is that coaching is a job that has real benefits, but that humans won’t respond well to coaching by non-humans. They don’t even respond to humans who aren’t right there in front of them. The trouble is, there can’t be many more coaches worth their salt than there are elite performers, so while these may be some of those “new service sector jobs”, there will not be enough of those jobs to employ most people who will fall into the servant-class or underclass.

For all these reasons, chess lessons on Skype, as you might commission from India, have not become popular, even though they are cheaper than face-to-face instruction. The programs have forced chess instruction to evolve, in largely beneficial ways, and – here is a key point – in ways that make the job harder to outsource. The instructor who teaches human qualities like conscientiousness and who motivates his student need to be there.

Echoes of The Great Centralization and Handle-Baumol stagnation theory. The jobs that will be left are the ones that can’t be automated or outsourced. That means they are jobs that require humans beings to be close to one another. That leads to geographic centralization through tightening the physical spider web of economic relationships. And things humans do close to each other can only be done at human speed, which for ordinary workers is limited, so productivity growth stagnates. These are also tasks the productivity of which can’t be augmented much more by adding capital, so there is low demand for investment, but high demand for central real estate, in a slow-growth, low-interest-rate, rent-is-too-damn-high environment. The mid-century manufacturing era of the everyman was one in which there was plenty of remaining opportunity for high-yield complementary uses of capital to augment labor. Now there are plenty of substitution opportunities, but not much complementary opportunities beyond a small, saturating amount.

So, take coaching as an example. Coaching must be done in person by humans, and coaches can only coach so many players at a time, and perhaps only one at the top levels of certain fields. The machines will help the coaches coach, sure. But they won’t be that expensive. And past that small amount of money invested in software or hardware, there’s not really any additional opportunities to invest lots more money in a coach that will really pay off in terms of his becoming such a better coach that he could pay back high interest loans with additional income.

In the long run, professors will need to become more like motivational coaches and missionaries. The best professors have understood this for years and have been serving that function from the beginning. What’s less well understood is that improvements in AI will make these the remaining roles of what we now call “professors.” The professor, to survive, will have to become a motivator and coach in essence and not just accidentally or in his or her spare time. … We could think of the forthcoming educational model as professor as impresario. In some important ways, we would be returning to the original model of face-to-face education as practiced in ancient Greek symposia and meetings in the agora. … Let’s treat professors more like athletics coaches, personal therapists, and preachers, because that is what they will evolve to be.

Preachers …

Of course, educational institutions aren’t ready to admit how much they share with churches. These temples of secularism don’t want to admit they are about simple tasks such as motivating the slugs or acculturating people into the work habit and sociological expectations of the so-called educated class. As it presently stands, we are losing track of a college educations real comparative advantage.

This is the argument that Cowen uses against Caplan’s pure signaling model. Ok, maybe most of the kids aren’t learning much content in college according to exit exams. But they are maturing and learning the kinds of meta-cognitive skills, self-discipline, and SJW orthodoxy that will help them fit in with members of their likely future scenes and succeed in workplaces full of other ‘educated class’ individuals. And, ok, maybe we’re failing at that too now because, but it’s only because we’re ‘losing track’ of what college could be doing, as it was doing in the past.

Maybe educators are thought too highly of:

We like to pretend our instructors teach as well as chess computers, but too often they don’t come close to that ideal. They are something far less noble, something that we are afraid to call by its real name, something quite ordinary: They are a mix of exemplars and nags and missionaries, packaged with a marketing model that stresses their nobility and a financial model that pays them pretty well and surrounds them with administrators. It’s no wonder that this very human enterprise doesn’t always work so well.

How good students will be treated vs. not-so-good students.

What does the resulting model of education look like? The better-performing students will be treated much as chess prodigies are today. …

The lesser-performing students will specialize in receiving motivation.

“specialize in receiving motivation” is another great Cowen-ism and quasi-euphemism. It actually made me stop and laugh out loud when I read it. Usually we say that people specialize in doing something, not having something done to them. So do renal failure patients now ‘specialize in receiving dialysis’? Anyway, what kind of motivation are we talking about, exactly?

Education, for them, will become more like the Marines, full of discipline and team spirit.

Ah, that kind of motivation. “I WILL motivate you, Private Pyle …”

And what about the drill sergeant of the hearth?

Not everyone will adopt the so-called “tiger-mother” or Asian parenting style, but its benefits will become more obvious. A lot of softer parents will hire schools and tutors to do this for them. The strict English boarding school style of the nineteenth century will, in some form or another, make a comeback.

First Downton Abbey servants, now this. Talk about Vickies.

If your eleven-year-old is not getting with the program, you will consider sending him away to the hardworking, whip-cracking Boot Camp for Future Actuaries. Neo-Victorian social ideals may not triumph, but they will become a much stronger force among lower earners.

Will we have star tutors for ordinary subjects like Tony Robbins for motivation in general or perhaps some the minor-celebrity PUA-trainers? They’re already here. Asia, naturally. Home of cram schools and grind culture.

Especially charismatic teachers will surely have their place – and probably a very well-paid place – in the new world of work. Hong Kong already has glamorous celebrity tutors, called “tutor kings,” … It is rumored that Richard Eng, one of the leading tutor kings, pulls in $1.5 million a year; his face is on billboards, he drives a Lamborghini, and his license plate reads simple “Richard.”

More coaching:

High-skilled performers, including business executives, will have some kind of coach. There will be too much value at stake to let high performers operate without a steady stream of external advice, even if that advice has to be applied rather subtly. Top doctors will have a coach, just as today’s top tennis payers (and some of the mediocre ones) all have coaches. today the coach of a CEO is very often the spouse, the personal assistant, or even a subordinate, or sometimes a member of the board of directors. Coaching is already remarkably important in our economy, and the high productivity of top earners will cause it to become essential.

LEONARD:

Coaching is not going to be formalized for high-status jobs, excluding athletics. In all coaching it is the coach’s knowledge that is superior to that of the performer. I.e. knowledge-wise, he is superior; he has higher status. But you cannot lead an organization if there an obvious other leader with higher status. It makes no sense. The Board should hire the coach if he’s better than the CEO.

Athletics is an exception proving the rule. In athletics, the athlete has superior physical ability, whereas the coach presumably has superior knowledge. Since it is the physical performance that people want to watch, the coach can be lower status and yet still offer something to the coachee. This won’t work for mental performances — i.e., almost all work.

Furthermore, if coaching many (most?) high-skilled performers really will make economic sense in the future, it should make economic sense now. Perhaps not yet for more marginal performers, but surely it should for those whose performance affects billions of dollars in value. But who is Bill Gates’ coach? Warren Buffett’s? Etc. Who is Trump’s coach?

Again, notice the contrast with athletics. Today, top athletes uniformly have (team-shared) coaches; many have personal trainers and personal coaches. In fact “coaching” as a thing extends all the way down to tee ball levels. (I’m a coach!) And personal trainers exist and are hired by individuals fairly routinely, simply to help improve health and personal appearance. If you can get volunteer coaches in little league, and “personal training” is a consumption good, why don’t we have paid coaches for every Starbucks owner or McDonald’s franchise? I expect because these hypothetical coaches offer no real value.

DEVIN HELTON:

There is such thing as a CEO coach, and many famous CEO’s have discreetly had coaching. Bill Campbell is a well-known example, he coached many Silicon Valley CEOs — See this article

Sales coaching is also a thing, companies routinely hire an outside firm to give their sales rep coaching to achieve higher productivity. Though most sales coaching is done in house, either via the managers or by hiring full-time coaches/trainers.

HENRY DAMPIER:

The reason why you hire an outside expert in business is because they have outside knowledge and more expertise because they have solved similar problems you’re likely to encounter.

While it’s better to bring as much knowledge as you can in house, it’s not always economically possible to do it. Trump obviously has tons and tons of political ‘coaches’ but they don’t exist to give them affirmations or to be his boss.

Also it’s funny to see predictions about automation that are almost entirely based on tech company PR pieces and that have not all that much to do with the reality of 21st century office work. I mean, the PR people at these tech companies don’t even talk to the engineers at the same companies — why do you think that predicting the economic future based on PR puff pieces is a sound strategy?

There are many hidden flipside costs and risks to automation that may not be readily apparent from a surface analysis. It doesn’t result in a straight line of productivity growth.

HANDLE:

SNORLAK said: We’re actually only 1-2 years away from computers being able to consistently beat the best humans in no-limit Texas hold ’em. Already, if you’re dumb enough to play online poker for money, you’re going to lose to a computer (you are not one of the best humans). Assuming the unscrupulous online poker site owner isn’t fixing it, of course. Poker was actually considered an easier problem than Go, Go just had more resources thrown at it.

That’s not quite what I was getting at. As far as I know, those poker-winning algorithms are not connected to cameras scrutinizing human faces for revealing tells of intentions and states of mind. Those algorithms are combining a near-perfect statistical understanding of the odds of various hands, with some game theoretic considerations of the best possible brinkmanship strategies, and a huge repository of typical human master-level games and frequency of triumph given certain plays and betting behaviors.

So, the algorithm can ‘infer’ (kind of) what the human is really trying to do from the observable data of the cards, the track records, the betting patterns, and so forth. But not from actually physically observing the human, listening to variations in the timbre of his voice, noticing breathing, etc. Certainly not from carrying on a indirectly probing dialogue.

Now, those inferences from that limited set of game-based data are, apparently, good enough for the purposes of winning at poker. But similar approaches may not be good enough for other activities, for example, using human intuition, wisdom, and judgment to determine how seriously a doctor should take his patient’s story of symptoms, health history, and compliance with medical advice.

A algorithm for a ‘diagnostic computer’ taking down and processing symptoms at face value is probably not going to be able to be as good as the ‘walking intuitive polygraph machine’ ideal for a human doctor, or sophisticated customer.

Come to think of it, Cowen should have used the debreifer-polygraph combination as an almost ideal human-machine partnership, able to do things that no human or machine can do on their own.

Which is not to say that computer’s won’t get equipped with the rest of the observational suite of sensors they require, and will then get better at those sorts of tasks, and probably eventually surpass human-level skills too.

Imagine complaining to a future AI doctor about your back pain, and then being told in the Siri-voice, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m estimating a 98% chance that you’re exaggerating to get access to narcotics. Please go home and take an ibuprofen.” And how would anyone know if those systems are reliable and haven’t been manipulated by health insurance companies or the government to be overly ‘cynical’ so as to deny care to save money?

Get ready, this world is coming fast!

(To SNORLAK, attributing my bank customer service problems to old, indecipherable code)

I don’t think that’s it. Whenever I make almost any payment or purchase, whether by card in person, mobile phone app, or on the web, the user interfaces on all those platforms update within seconds and put a “(pending)” by the transaction for some amount of time. Certainly the system knows right away to reduce my available credit, and will decline subsequent charges over that amount not a minute later.

So, obviously some of the (no doubt quite old) communications systems and databases are updating right away. But something about the payment system puts these transfers ‘on hold’ for some amount of time, and makes them somehow tentative and subject to revocation or charge-back or detection of fraud during the window, only after which they are deemed to have been somehow confirmed, verified, and cleared.

To me this all smells of having more of a legal, regulatory, and corporate policy nature than having anything to do with the capability of the information technology.

I understand what you’re saying about the half-century-old programming languages and probably some antique hardware and procedures being involved as well, all invisible to me. But I don’t think that’s the root of the problem when the features I can see work so well and fast. We’re trying to explain the sluggish dark matter, but attributing the latency to dark technology doesn’t fit with the technology I can see – which would interact and probably depends on that dark technology – working so well.

VLADIMIR:

Right, those ancient COBOL back-ends actually seem to be the best-functioning part of modern banking from the perspective of an ordinary user. In my experience, all the awful frustrating problems are either in the human parts of the bureaucracy (which should be straightforward to reform for a competent management) or in websites and other modern components of their information technology.

HANDLE:

Riffing on the potential of ‘coaching’ a bit, Cowen barely touched on what I regard to be one of the low-hanging fruits of computer-guided learning, which are gains from radical personalization and custom tailoring. Most of us can appreciate the advantages of ‘tracking’ and segregating students by ability so that the more homogeneous group can be taught at their appropriate ‘level’ and pace. Of course, American education has officially moved away from this practice for ideological reasons(while unofficially reinventing it at the High School level with classes advertised as ‘Honors’ or preparatory for AP or IB tests).

But tracking taken to its logical extreme is like the one-on-one coaching / tutoring / apprenticeship model and the most important reason it isn’t done in general is that it’s economically infeasible to provide so many expensive human instructors. (Well, at least for normal kids. Because of various recent education-related laws, disabled children are often allocated these kinds of enormous per-capita resources, for very little gain, as education realist occasionally complains of.)

But computer are cheap, and algorithms have effectively zero marginal cost.

I took the ‘adaptive’ version of the GMAT on a computer many years ago and, I must say, even back then it was very good at escalating and quickly determining my ability levels and then keeping the questions within a narrow range of that level.

So it doesn’t seem implausible to me that, whatever their weaknesses, educational algorithms could be very good at providing highly personalized instruction, determining a student’s potential and comparative advantages, and optimizing for a custom tailored curriculum that will help the student reach his potential in a quick and efficient manner.

This data would be a goldmine for an actually competent counselor, and perhaps also for future admissions personnel. Why, after all, would you even need an SAT, if one had access to the cognitive potential estimates derived from many years of the student’s learning experiences?

HANDLE:

Chapter 11: The End of Average Science.

Part I:

The opening appeals to the “self-actualization” value of work among today’s highly-educated upper classes. Cowen’s idea of his own target readership is most evident in these few sentences. In this milieu, one isn’t a working class deplorable or a money-grubbing, penny-pinching merchant. One can’t be high-status and a lazy aristocrat inheritor living off land rents or dividend checks. You don’t necessarily have to be rich, but you do have to either be a celebrity, or have a job with a sexy and/or world-improving mission.

We also see a preview on emphasis of the themes “The Great Stagnation” and the usual mantra, “In the long run everything depends on the economic growth derived from innovation.”

Many of us have striven to work at something that is not only well paid but is meaningful and important. We want to contribute something substantial. Some of us wanted to be teachers, some medical doctors, some particle physicists. In the vast array of career choices it is easy to overlook the fact that modern professions all depend on scientific discoveries to one degree or another. So what about science? Is average over for science?

The basic idea is that the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Too many of the world’s greatest minds have been attacking too many of the greatest problems in too many areas of inquiry for too long and with increasingly powerful and expensive equipment to leave anything left that could be discovered in an easy, quick, and cheap manner by even an extraordinary, genius-level mind. At some point, the world is mostly mapped, and the remaining corners remain only because they are so hard to get to.

The argument is that we are way, way out on the diminishing marginal returns curve, which means from now on, minor discoveries will take teams of geniuses years to produce even with huge amounts of resources. And since the simpler, easier-to-understand patterns probably have been uncovered already, many of these discoveries will barely be comprehensible, if at all, even to the most elite minds in some specialized sub-corner of a discipline. One won’t be able to lead even a talented novice to the coal face anymore. Maybe to the mine mouth, but the vein lies a mile or more beyond.

We should not, however, take that state of knowledge as fixed. I’m not talking about decline in literacy here – science itself is, in many areas, moving beyond the frontiers of ready intelligibility. For at least three reasons, a lot of science will become harder to understand:

1. In some (not all) scientific areas, problems are becoming more complex and unsusceptible to simple, intuitive, big breakthroughs.
2. The individual scientific contribution is becoming more specialized, a trend that has been running for centuries and is unlikely to stop.
3. One day soon, intelligent machines will become formidable researchers in their own right.

The overall picture is a daunting one for the ability of the individual human mind to comprehend the science of how our world works.

We’re already at the point where there is not always common agreement as to what it means to “prove” a mathematical theorem. … no single mind knows if the theorem is true and instead a group of mathematicians goes over the theorem, divvying out the parts to the appropriate specialists.

He writes of HP Labs researcher Vinay Deolalikar’s stab at P≠NP seven years ago. My understanding is that the an expert consensus emerged fairly quickly that the approach was “fatally flawed”, but Cowen wrote it up this way:

As I write, the matter is still unsettled, though the mathematical community is learning in a negative direction against the proofiness of the supposed proof.

On Specialization:

Specialization is also reshaping applied science and invention. Formerly, a researcher or potential inventor could learn the entirety of a scientific or applied area in a few years’ time, master it, and produce an innovation rather quickly, often working alone or in a very small group. The major inventions behind the Industrial Revolution, for instance, were often driven by amateurs. That’s become a lot harder because there is so much knowledge to master in the mature fields. It can take ten years or study or more to get to the frontier of a lot of area, and by the time you get there, and figure out something new, your contribution is a marginal one or maybe a little out-of-date. The frontier moved on while you were trying to master it.

Implication to rapid innovation:

The ability to “go it alone” is conducive to rapid innovation and innovation by amateurs. Lone individuals and small groups can make major contributions, and that limits the stultifying effects of bureaucracy and regulation.

The future:

Still, as the accumulated total of human knowledge increases, those breakthrough sectors become just a small part of our scientific understanding of the world. Science tends to look more like bureaucracy, and in standard bureaucracies no single mind has much of a grasp of the whole. In my own field, economics, coauthored pieces are already becoming much more common, and with a greater number of authors, as they are in many other fields of science as well.

Eventually, dare I say it, science will also look more like religion and magic because of its growing inscrutability. The working parts will be hidden, much as an iPhone functions without showing you its principles of operations.

Impossible Problems:

In more recent times, in many particular areas, the hopes for comparably simple major breakthroughs have been dashed on the rocks. There have been plenty of scientific advances, but the world seems to be a messier place conceptually than before. Genetic explanations for human behavior continue to grow, but the connection between genes and outcomes is growing messier and more complicated all the time. Even the height of a person – a clearly heritable characteristic – seems to involve dozens of distinct genes, with more being found all the time. We’re not going to find a “gay gene” or an “autism gene,” even though genes play major roles in both homosexuality and autism.

I think Steve Hsu might have a few things to say about this.

We simply may have reached the point in some key scientific areas where we are working with levels of explanation that our human brains – even those of Nobel laureates – cannot handle. The top scientists might end up being people not who “know,” but rather who hold shadowy outlines of the truth in their heads.

He uses the example of the Wikipedia article on string theory, which was drafted and edited to be as accessible and intelligible as possible, and is anything but. A market metaphor:

Just as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek and Michael Polanyi stressed that a market economy evolves to the point where it is very difficult to understand the overall interrelationships of production, so can the same be said for many branches of science.

Cowen says that the age structure is lengthening in many fields, which is rough on innovation because:

… with some age we acquire wisdom but we lose some of the sharp conceptual edge and the willingness to overturn established ways. The innovators we end up with tend to be less revolutionary …

These developments may prove problematic for areas such as mathematics, which have relied heavily on prodigies.

Implications for management, allocation, and policy:

It will be increasingly hard for scientist administrators, philanthropists, and also government bureaucrats to get a handle on what is going on in a lot of scientific areas. The inscrutability of science will place an increasing burden on trust, whether it be trust in particular institutions, scientists, or reward structures such as the Nobel Prizes. How about trust in Google?

Part II: Machine Science:

Most current scientific research looks like “human directing computer to aid human doing research,” but we will move closer to “human feeding computer to do its own research” and “human interpreting the research of the computer.” The computer will become more central to the actual work, even to the design of the research program, and the human will become the handmaiden rather than the driver of progress.

We’re going to have to find a better word for this than handmaiden if we care about recruiting. Of course how many researchers simply throw data at Stata, Statistica, or Minilab and wait for some magic numbers to pop out and then spin an interpretation of them already? Or tweak a few variables to get there? At some point they learned about the logic of manipulating matrices, but then they forgot all that and learned to stop thinking and trust and rely on the machine.

An intelligent machine might come up with a new theory of cosmology, and perhaps no human will be able to understand or articulate that theory. Maybe it will refer to non-visualizable dimensions of space or nonintuitive understandings of time. The machine will tell us that the theory makes good predictions, and if nothing else we will be able to use one genius machine to check the predictions of the theory from the other genius machine.

Sounds like a mash-up of influences from Stephen Wolfram and Douglas Adams. Wolfram once pitched his company’s Alpha aspirationally as maybe becoming capable of just such analysis one day. And if one genius computer tells us the answer is 42, another genius computer will be needed to tell us the question, and perhaps a chain of genius computers needed to design the next level of genius computers.

The incentives for producing better science will encourage this broader unintelligibility … That’s the division of labor and complementarity, both of which can push scientific results away from general intelligibility once those genius machines enter the game.

For the public:

Still, as a general worldview, science will not always be very inspiring or illuminating. The general educated public will to some extent be shut out from a scientific understanding of the world, and we will run the risk that they might detach from a long-term loyalty to scientific reasoning.

In favor of what? (… hopes the answer isn’t “Islam” …)

We will see, more and more, the relatively mundane data-gathering sides of science. The bureaucracy and data gathering of science will be visible, as will be the magic of the devices we use. But that middle layer of knowledge – science as a general means for educated laypersons to understand the world through theories – will peak sometime in the twenty-first century.

Part III: Whither Economics?

The ultimate test of any theory is a market test. It doesn’t matter if your dog food is delicious in theory if the dogs won’t eat it. Do people in the business of building, say, planes for a living actually use your theory of aerodynamics, or do they ignore it and do something quite different?

If any field should understand this insight most deeply, it ought to be economics itself. So, the question is, do the dogs with options eat economics-theories brand dog food? Not really. They eat data. Lots of data.

In the last ten years there has been a big shift in emphasis and it has come largely from web companies, not from academic researchers. When web companies are figuring out their business models, and trying to market to their customers, they tend to use a lot of raw, relative unfiltered data. Quite simply, they do this because they can. Facebook, Google Amazon, and other companies have a phenomenal amount of high-quality information at their disposal, more than more academic economists are used to having.

Which is why it was such a big deal when Chetty got all that juicy, albeit redacted, IRS information. Unfortunately no one else gets to look at it to use it to rigorously scrutinize Chetty’s more suspect claims. The info-trove possessed by the big web companies probably puts whatever the IRS has to shame anyway.

And when they process this data, they go a relatively atheoretical route. They “crunch” the data, and we now have “Big Data,” as we’ve come to call it, as the next business revolutions, which refers to the use of statistics on the data generated by electronic communications.

These companies, in their approach to this data, are fairly suspicious of structural theoretical models. … they’re not trying to start with “the Jonesian model of why people use google,” …They go straight to the numbers and try to find power where they can.

Economics as a research area, in recent times, has been following the same path as these web companies: lots of data and relatively weak theoretical structure. Powerful data crunching, and careful data gathering, is pushing out theoretical intuition.

Pattern-finding algorithms + huge amounts of granular, intimate data = new results. But algorithms won’t be biased in favor of socially desirabiltiy, so, will we like those results? Clearly, given the war on noticing patterns, the usual suspects will hate some of those algorithmically noticed patterns. They will especially hate them because of the inapplicability of the usual accusations typically levied against human researchers. So they will probably try to pin blame on the coders somehow and, predictably, no one’s really going to check whether there’s anything wrong with the code, because obviously there won’t be anything wrong with the code. As a consequence, socially disfavored but also, you know, “true” results, will probably either be taboo open secrets, or they will simply have to be kept in house as proprietary information. We’ve already seen the beginning of this trend.

These programs will confirm some connections we already believe in, see come connections that we currently do not grasp, and perhaps generate some hypotheses that we do not suspect. Economics is not yet there, but perhaps in the next fifty years such endeavors will supplant the economist’s reliance on theoretical models.

What about understanding?

We will know how to feed the machines with data, and how to test them against each other, and we will know how to use their results. But at some point we will cease to understand all of the component parts of the science and we will cease to understand how the predictions are put together. On the machine will, in its own way, be able to encompass the entirety of the theory in its tests.

This makes me think of a metaphorical parallel to the Prime Conservative Insight, that presumptively one ought to be faithful, obedient, and deferential to traditional rules, cultures, and institutions, since these developed through an evolutionary process and we don’t – and perhaps can’t – fully understand their functions, their benefits, and the mechanisms by which they produce those benefits.

Anyway, how will all of this code-reliance change the character academic “discourse”?

Some notion of publication may still exist, but the important outlet for research will be in standardized, machine-digestible form.

I don’t know. That’s not very NYT-worthy now, is it?

That’s the single biggest change in economic science we can expect over the next fifty years. When it comes to “the new paradigm,” a lot of people are expecting the next Marx, Keynes, or Hayek. The changes to come will be more radical than that and they will challenge the very relationship that the scientist has to his or her craft of study. The real change will be the subordination of the individual scientist.

Back to economics:

Overall, the profession is producing more first-rate empiricists than before, yet theory hasn’t progressed much in twenty years or more. Theory is increasingly ignored.

He clearly wants to shout that something went fundamentally wrong in the development of modern, mainstream economic theory. But as for empirics:

We’re not far away from having a single de facto, more or less unified, empirical social science. In that social science, researchers invest a lot in learning empirical techniques and then invest some marginal energies in the simpler theories that surround their chosen field of study. Finally, they spend their research time looking for new data sets, or looking to create that data, whether by detective work or by lab and field experiments.

This keeps reminding me of Chetty’s Magic Dirt.

In addition to empirical researchers, another kind of specialist will specialize in understanding the machine results at the “meta analysis” level in order to interpret and explain them. Some of that will be for the consumption of specialist experts in the fields, but some will be for public consumption. You know, like Vox explainers, or Bloomberg view economist popularizers / journalists. Like Cowen. Or maybe like Scott Alexander for Psychiatry. But also like Paul Krugman and Noah Smith. Which … is not exactly good news.

These Freestyle researchers will be pioneering a fundamentally new way of “doing” economics and a fundamentally new sense of what it means to be an economist and indeed a scientists. They will earn good money and a degree of public game, and their numbers will multiply, even as their daily routines become increasingly estranged from the practices of normal everyday science in their fields.

At least for a while, they will be the only people left who will have a clear notion of what is going on.

VLADIMIR:

… we are way, way out on the diminishing marginal returns curve, which means from now on, minor discoveries will take teams of geniuses years to produce even with huge amounts of resources. And since the simpler, easier-to-understand patterns probably have been uncovered already, many of these discoveries will barely be comprehensible, if at all, even to the most elite minds in some specialized sub-corner of a discipline. One won’t be able to lead even a talented novice to the coal face anymore. Maybe to the mine mouth, but the vein lies a mile or more beyond.

This chapter seems to me by far the weakest and the most detached from reality. Cowen is not describing our world, but an altogether imaginary one in which the enormous labor and resources poured into the official science since WW2 have been utilized in an ideal way towards genuine scientific advance. Whereas, of course, this has only created a bureaucratic system full of perverse incentives, whose output is overwhelmingly — without exaggeration, I’d say well over 99% — just make-work and nonsense.

In most fields, possibly the overwhelming majority of them, it just isn’t that hard to get to the coalface if one uses some minimum of common sense to sort out what’s really important. A very smart person with a good general overview of the field — something that can be acquired by someone who has talent, motivation, and opportunity for quality instruction no later than early twenties, possibly late teens — shouldn’t need more than a few months of focused study to get there in most cases.

And that’s for complex STEM subjects, where the distance to the coalface is undoubtedly the greatest. In “social science” we see the spectacles such as Sailer vs. Chetty, where an amateur blogger, applying only some straightforward common sense, can rip apart the supposedly cutting-edge work of an ultra-elite academic genius.

HANDLE:

I had similar thoughts, but isn’t it somewhat surprising that someone like Cowen and in his position with his (apparently) intimate familiarity with the cutting edge output and literature of his field, would make claims like these?

VLADIMIR:

With Cowen, it’s always difficult to tell what he really thinks, and what’s just the “anti-bait” and filler that may be silly and wrong on the face of it, but serves as sugar-coating for what he sees as the important points for which he wishes to open the minds of his high-status progressive readers.

Maybe he asked himself how his fundamental AOE points would apply to an idealized world of which most academics like to imagine they’re a part, and then concluded that such an account, however detached from reality, would nevertheless be a good way to make them appreciate these really important points.

Or maybe it’s simply that he is also drinking the same kool-aid. (Even Hanson often seems to me like his social calculus module is putting some serious barriers between his basic insights and their straightforward application to some of the uglier aspects of the modern academia.)

HANDLE:

Chapter 12

This final chapter focuses on his guesses regarding the political implications of these trends. It seems almost inevitable in a social democracy that with most wealth and productive activity highly concentrated in small fraction of the population that the temptation to use the state to grab and confiscate the surplus and redistribute it to clients in exchange for votes – but under some cover-story narrative and rationalization of just deserts – will continue to be completely irresistible. Maybe the only thing keeping up from a basic income is that it’s too basic if everyone gets it, and not just clients. Then again, we can always argue forever regarding just how generous it ought to be.

The forces outlines in this book, especially for labor markets, will force a rewriting of the social contract, even if it not explicitly recognized as such. We will move from a society based on the pretense that everyone is given an okay standard of living to a society in which people are expected to fend for themselves much more than they do now.

Depends what he means by “fend for themselves.”

I imagine a world where, say, 10 to 15 percent of the citizenry is extremely wealthy and has fantastically comfortable and stimulating lives, the equivalent of current-day millionaires, albeit with better health care.

A Complacent Class.

Much of the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and also cheap education. Many of these people will live quite well, and those will be the people who have the discipline to benefit from all the free or near-free services modern technology has made available. Other will fall by the wayside.

The Dire Problem and Kahn Academy and Joyboxes and Opioid epidemics. And welfare and “disability” and “unemployment insurance”. And everyone who can struggling to distance themselves and their children from “waysiders”.

That’s for developed countries. What about in developing countries?

Since the self-motivated will find it easier to succeed that ever before, a new tier of people from poor or underprivileged backgrounds will claw their way to the top. The Horatio Alger story will be resurrected, but only for those segments of the population with the appropriate skills and values, namely self-motivation and the ability to complement new technologies. It’s in India and China that the risk of a new middle and upper class is reflecting this trend most clearly.

IQ+CUTS+Tech Complementarity. The Horatio Alger narrative of bootstrapping success through persistent and determined exercise of bourgeois virtues via a combination of self-motivation and merit / talent / gifts seems to depend for its popularity on the developmental context of the economy at the time. Also on there still being a lot of unharvested peasant talent that hasn’t yet been gleaned from the hinterlands and thrown into the IQ shredder cities.

But as many have already pointed out, some of the big problems with efficient meritocracies is that eventually the hinterlands get severely creamed like fresh milk. Not just drained of brains, but of the whole natural local aristocracy capable of judicious community leadership, and willing to perform it in a way where they can use their status to advertise for more civilized standards of behavior. Furthermore, those who don’t succeed are left without any socially acceptable excuse to explain away their pathetic condition, and so must contend with the psychological burden – and the hit to ego and self-esteem via sociometer – of knowing definitively that they are real hopeless losers, and of knowing that everyone else knows that about them too. This seems like a recipe for all kinds of trouble, especially the channeling of these negative emotions into potentially explosive resentments. I guess that’s what the tranquilizers will be for. Not exactly what they meant by, “insure domestic tranquility.”

This framing of income inequality in meritocratic terms will prove self-reinforcing. Worthy individuals will in fact rise from poverty on a regular basis, and that will make it easier to ignore those who are left behind. The wealthy class will be increasingly self-motivated, will be larger over time, and -precisely because we are selecting ever more for self-motivation – will have increasing influence. It is their values that will shape public discourse and that will mean more stress on ideas of personal ambition and self-motivation. The measure of self-motivation in a young person will become the best way to predict upward mobility.

Yikes. Highly motivated young people aren’t always motivated to do good things.

But while Cowen is emphasizing cases of rising from poverty, I imagine that in first world countries most of those stories will be, well, stories of first, maybe second generation immigrants. The two prior generations of pretty much my entire extended family were just such stories.

But on the domestic scene, the Coming Apart trends will tend to produce the opposite observation of hardening castes, and more current success descending from past success. Unless by some magic there is more widespread adoption of belief in the reality of assortative marriage and the genetic inheritability of IQ and other marketable skills, then it’s not going to seem very meritocratic, and more like a privileged aristocracy acting as a country club, cartel, and conspiracy for keeping their secret stash all to themselves. Indeed, we see some progressives trying to spin this narrative, seeing what traction they can get from it. And once again one is reminded of Chetty’s bogus research into the magic dirt theory of intergenerational mobility.

Speaking of Charles Murray.

We’ll also see a lot more of some of the hypocrisies common today. For instance, it’s pretty common to hear tenured economics professors at establishment schools espouse the relevance of liberal democratic policies, such as the social safety net. These same individuals, if asked to explain their choice of academic hires, or their choice of which students to push in the job market, often respond in rather harshly meritocratic terms. If a graduation PhD student does not have his job market paper ready by his fifth year of study, it’s because “that student didn’t have a strong enough work ethic,” or something like that. That same professor will be very shy to apply the same kind of rhetoric to discourse about the safety net, for fear of sounding like a non-liberal crisis such as, say, Charles Murray. When it comes to a lot of values issues – and what people really believe in their daily lives – the gap between conservatives and liberals isn’t as large as it might first seem.

It’s pretty obvious how one reconciles and rationalizes away this apparent ‘inconsistency’, which is to say that the meritocracy frame is valid for intra-class (or iso-privileged) comparisons, but not for inter-privilege comparisons.

But anyway, here we have a good illustration of “political consistency vs. analytical consistency”, belief signaling with personal hypocritical deviation, and maybe some Conquest’s First Law.

What does that mix of values mean for actual social choices? We’ll pay for as much of a welfare state as we can afford to, and then no more.

Well, how is this different from the social democracy we already have?

Part II: The Fiscal Crunch

Everybody already knows many governments are going to need to raise taxes and lower spending, and will probably avoid doing so until absolutely compelled by near-crisis conditions. See: Illinois 2017, for just one of many good examples this year. Low wage growth for most current taxpayers and all that “waysider welfare” is just going to make this worse / accelerate the arrival of crisis moments. And if bond rates for new debt ever tick up faster than inflation and economic growth, then that would makes the fiscal situation even worse.

So, “Who Is Going To Pay?” Well, who’s not going to pay?

It’s a common view that “the top 1 percent” can or will fund these forthcoming expenditures by paying higher taxes. I don’t think that is likely, for a few reasons, even though I do think the wealth will end up paying somewhat higher taxes. But why can’t they pick up the whole tab? … The wealthy will grow in numbers, and that also means the wealthy will grow in influence. Imagine that today’s millionaires comprised 10 percent of the citizenry; that would make for an extraordinarily influential and politically potent group, much more so than the wealthy today. Can you imagine that group funding the entire future by raising taxes on itself? I don’t see it.

The very rich also have ways to protect their money, and the wherewithal and incentive to hire clever people with the special knowledge of how to do so. That’s always been a good business for lawyers specializing in that field.

He also uses Laffer Curve logic. And there is a discussion of tax incidence – where any attempt to tax high earners will just get passed on to other parties.

Cowen says it’s too hard to cut the big entitlement spending programs too, because the geriatric vote too consistently for them.

To balance the budget right now through spending cuts, we’d basically have to come close to getting rid of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security altogether. And I’m talking about the complete elimination of those expenditures, not shifting them into somewhere or something else.

I haven’t looked at the most recent numbers – or what they were when he wrote those sentences – but that does seem like a bit of an exaggeration. The expenditures for these programs combined are much larger than the budget deficit, so maybe he means it in some other way.

I submit that the aggregate amount of aid given to the elderly, the needy, and other groups is unlikely to decline, whether we approve of that outcome or not. … But the total expenditures on the health of the elderly will rise both in absolute and per capita terms, not fall. This is the general trend of Western societies since the late nineteenth century and no reformers, including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, have really taken on entitlement spending through government and beaten it back. It’s simply too popular.

You know, it’s funny. The word “populist” gets thrown around a lot these day. A Lot. And nearly always in some derogatory sense. You know what’s really ‘populist’? Entitlements, that’s what. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” But no one uses it as an epithet and means that, now, do they?

In percentage terms, relative to outstanding need and vociferous claims, the altruism of the public sector will have to fall. … It’s not about ideology; it’s a question of making the numbers add up.

I am forecasting a few particular changes, starting with the most obvious and ending with the least obvious:

1. We will raise taxes somewhat, especially on higher earners.
2. We will cut Medicaid for the poor (but not so much Medicaid for the elderly) by growing stingier with eligibility requirements and with reimbursement rates for Medicaid doctors, who will impose queuing on program beneficiaries.
3. The fiscal shortfall will come out of real wages as various cost burdens are shifted to workers through the terms of the employment relationship, including costly mandates.
4. The fiscal shortfall will come out of land rents; in other words, some costs of living will fall as people begin to live in cheaper housing.
5. We’ll also pay off growing debt by spending less of our money on junk and wasteful consumption.

That’s operating from a pretty simple theory of US politics that says “old people get their way.”

Gerontocracy, kind of. More like Geron-Satisfice-ocracy. (Is that already a thing?) Old people will go along with whatever so long as they get their benefits first and are otherwise left alone.

He says financially-stressed workers will have to move to cheaper places to make ends meet, and he uses Texas as the prime example, which is kind of a crappy place to live with, “C-grade public services,” but has, “… very cheap housing and a decent record of job creation…”

He attributes cheap housing to laxer zoning rules, naturally, but not with as much unqualified celebration as it typical in libertarian circles.

For instance, Houston doesn’t have traditional zoning. You might find an office tower, a used-record store, and a whorehouse all right next to your home. Houstonians live with that, and since home prices are reasonable the relatively wealthy can insulate themselves from the less pleasant consequences of mixed-use neighborhoods.

People like having money more than what the government would give them in exchange for their taxes.

Since there is considerable net in-migration to Texas, I conclude that a lot of Americans would rather have some more cash than better public services. Not everyone wants that bundle, as you will see if you poll the wealthy upper-middle-class residents of Brookline, Massachusetts or my own neighborhood in northern Virgnia. Nonetheless, on the whole, we as a nation are moving in that direction.

Are we now? I’m not so sure. What’s going on in Austin lately? What’s that Houston mayor up to lately? We’re about to see what happens when Texas gets demographically transitioned and more and more areas go increasingly Blue. And what’s Land call it again, “ruin voting”?

Which are the states with the highest-quality public services? On the basis of measured expenditures this would typically be California and state in the Northeast, but in general those regions are seeing outmigration.

I lol’d. Sometimes Cowen just goes way over the top to tip off his readers to the Straussian signal. The “basis of measured expenditures” is about the dumbest basis imaginable for measuring the quality of public services. California!? Where retired fire chiefs of tiny nowheresvilles are getting six figure pensions for life? The highest quality! Jesus.

Anyway, the point is, if people choose cheaper, uglier, messier, more chaotic, less-taxes, lower quality public service Texas, then the future is going to look a lot like .. well … Latin America. With lots of actual Latin Americans too. Favelas, tiny homes, delicious beans with freshly ground cumin, all that stuff.

When I visit Latin America, I am struck by how many people there live cheaply. In Mexico, for instance, I have met large numbers of people who live on less than $10,000 a year, or maybe even on less than $5,00 a year .. they have access to cheap food and cheap housing. They cannot buy too many other things. They don’t always have money to bring the kid to the doctor or to buy new clothes. Their lodging is satisfactory, if not spectacular, and of course the warmer weather helps.

The altitude too. The point is, if the choice is between that and barely subsisting in some big Blue US city, you might prefer and choose the Mexican lifestyle, if you could live in the US. Texas beckons as a future “Mexico+”.

We could designate reservations for these untouchables and build them cheap favelas far, far away from gentrifying urban neighborhoods. For instance, in Texas. Texas is, like, super far away from New York and DC and San Francisco!

We also would build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela. The quality of the water and electrical infrastructure might be low by American standards, though we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless (the future version of Marie Antoinette’s famous alleged phrase will be “Let them watch internet!”). Hulu and other web-based TV services would replace more expensive cable connections for those residents. Then we could allow people to move there is they desired. In essence, we would be recreating a Mexico-like or Brazil-like environment in part of the United States, although with some technological add-ons and most likely with greater safety.

I think that parts of Texas are already kind of like this theoretical Mexico+. It’s been a while since I visited, and that was Austin.

Most people will be horrified at this thought. How dare you propose we stuff our elderly into shantytowns? Maybe they are right to be upset, although recall that no one is being forced to live in these places. Some people might prefer to live there. I might prefer to live there if my income were low enough.

There’s your basic income, similar in some ways as for the Indians. You can always do nothing and still get by ok on the reservation. It’s sad and depressing and depraved and socially pathological in every way, but it’s always an option if you assess that everything else is even worse. If you don’t want to live there, then you’ve got to work for your daily fry bread.

If we don’t build the nice shantytowns on purpose, they’ll still emerge through economic evolution anyway. Not so different, just not as nice as they could be.

El Paso is America’s twenty-third largest city (using data from 2000) and it would jump to fifth largest if we combined it with the population of its sister city, Ciudad Juarez, right across the Mexican border. You can think of it as one consolidated city with a very large attached shantytown.

I get what he’s saying, but you know … to nitpick, the shantytown is run by a totally different government, and there are border controls, there’s influences of NAFTA and smugglers and day trip medical and pharmaceutical tourism, and .. well, maybe thinking about it that way doesn’t make 100% perfect sense. I’ve been to Fort Bliss, and Juarez has been pretty much permanently off limits for military for years, and for good reason.

Indeed the shanty is essential to the success of El Paso. El Paso lives off of the manufacturing across the borer, as it lost its own manufacturing base some time ago and it has substandard levels of education.

“Lives off of.” How does El Paso live off manufacturing in Juarez, exactly? Do the workers in Mexico send remittances to the American relatives across the border? Ordinary trade connections in economic relationships don’t qualify as “lives off of” without serious violence to the language.

The city also benefits from an army base, from border-related law enforcement efforts, and from the drug trade. Howard Campbell, an anthropologist, notes that El Paso is parasitic off of Juarez rather than vice versa. El Paso has flourished by hooking up with an adjacent neighbor with much lower rent and much lower quality infrastructure. Despite all the problems that can cross the border, and despite Juarez being one of the world’s drug-cartel and murder capitals, few people in El Paso wish for Juarez to go away.

I doubt anyone actually asked them. I’m just going to let this pile of nonsense speak for itself. Cowen is just operating in provocation mode.

He then mentions Berlin as a low-rent city because of overbuilding when builders thoughts it might become the business capital of Germany.

It is easy to rent an acceptable apartment in a non-peripheral part of Berlin, not too far from a subway to streetcar stop, for a few hundred dollars a month. Food, too, is much cheaper than in the rest of Western Europe – cheaper than in most of the rest of Germany even. There are many thousands of people in Berlin simply living, on low rent, to “get by.” It’s the ultimate slacker city.

You may have heard, it’s a little more crowded now.

The point is, poorer people are simply going to have to move to where they can afford real estate, which isn’t anywhere near the expensive hubs. Unless the government subsidizes them to do so, one way or another. Which it is doing actually, and which it might continue to do, but I guess we can infer that Cowen thinks it won’t be able to afford to do so for much longer. I’m not so sure.

We’re going to get lower land prices one way or another. Not Manhattan, not West LA, not Fairfax Country Virginia and not the whole country, but some parts of it. Some version of Texas – and the some – is the future for a a lot of us. … People will respond to stagnant or shrinking entitlements by moving to cheaper areas.

Not giving out local COLAs for any benefits would help a lot. COLAs for employees are basically essential recruiting and retention tools, but the case for adjusting welfare benefits is weaker. Are there not <strike>workhouses</strike> reservations in Mexico+, Texas?

What about consumption patterns? Will we just get used to being poorer and consuming cheaper stuff? Like the now infamous chalupas and beans with cumin?

There is one final way we will adjust to uneven wage patterns and that is with our tastes. Many of society’s lower earners will reshape their tastes – will have to reshape their tastes – toward cheaper desires. Caviar is an expensive desire and Goya canned beans is a relatively cheap desire. Don’t scoff at the beans: With an income above the national average, I receive more pleasure from the beans, which I cook with freshly ground cumin and rehydrated pureed chilies. Good tacos and quesadillas and tamales are cheap too, and that is one reason why they are eaten so frequently in low-income countries.

… Citizens faces with financial pressures will shift into cheaper consumption, and a lot of them will do so without losing very much happiness or value, precisely because there is already so much waste in what they buy.

Seems legit. At the unprepared bulk commodity level, tasty calories are ridiculously cheap with not too much preparation. For people living in expensive areas, it seems to me that halving or, hell, tripling, food expenditures wouldn’t make much difference at all to the monthly budget when compared with rent (and often, student loans.) But on the other hand, for those who live in cheap or subsidized housing and spend a much larger portion of their budget on food, there is a lot of room at the bottom, especially if your time isn’t very valuable and so you can use it to cook. Still, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that almost all the gains to be had are in real estate, and everything else pales in comparison.

Here’s a bit of ugly reality:

This process of economizing won’t always go so well when it comes to poor women. A recent Pew Research Center study examined exactly who in modern America falls out of the middle class, and it found that women who are divorced, widowed, or separated are an especially vulnerable group. And children don’t help single mothers’ incomes. Taking care of one’s children can be thought of as a very expensive preference but it is a preference that, for a lot of people, is not going away. Younger women in the lower end of the income distribution will probably be some of the biggest losers, especially is they have a strong “baby lust” that induces or compels them to have lots of kids early in life. Many of these women will also find it harder to move to cheaper areas with lower-quality infrastructure because they may still desire good school for their children, especially if those kids are not self-starting learners from the internet. To top off all these problems, the desire for cheaper preferences and lifestyles may induce more lower-income men to abandon their children or at least to scale back financial support, a development that is extensively cataloged in conservative critic Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart.

That’s a lot of “may” for something that has been extensively studies and cataloged. It’s not exactly “Whoa, that future sounds scary, I sure am glad we don’t have to deal with those problems now.” These have been obvious, universally known, and growing features of American underclass reality for half a century at least. The Moynihan Report was in 1965! Oh well, that’s how these books get published these days I suppose.

Cowen goes on to mention that the marginal value of healthcare dollars is pretty low, so cutting back may not hurt people very much. And to the extent it does, as far as anyone can tell, the negative effect could be balanced by the positive consequence of a few behavioral changes, e.g., in diet and exercise.

Not everyone will respond in this way. We’ll end up with a society where the people with decent self-control win back a lot of the lost health gains by better behavior. The people who don’t have good self-control will lose out much more. They’ll lose a chunk of their health care and they won’t respond by getting on that exercise bike.

Personal qualities of character such as self-motivation and conscientiousness will reap a lot of gains in the new world to come. We can already see this in the numbers. The individuals falling out of the middle class are more likely to be divorced, to have low levels of formal education, to have low test scores, and to have a history of drug use.

Part III: The Politics of the Future

Politics follow demographics. And demographics in America means a lot of old whites, and not many more young people, though the young we have now come in every kind.

As I’ve mentioned, right now about 19 percent of Florida is over the age of sixty-five. By 2030, 19 percent of the United States will be over sixty-five years of age; in other words, we’ll be like Florida in terms of age structure. We’ll then get older yet.

Sounds like parts of Japan. Geezers everywhere.

We aren’t going to get revolutions.

It seems that, whether we like it or not, increasing inequality and growing domestic peace are compatible. Very often I read warnings about how income inequality will lead to a society where the poor take by force what they cannot earn in the marketplace. Yet these predictions run aground on the simplest of empirical tests, namely crime rates.

Well, that was 2013, and crime ain’t exactly fallin’ as fast as it used to be. But that’s got little to with economic inequality per se. Anyway, the left is denying that crime is rising, and it’s hard to do that while simultaneously saying inequality is rising, and rising inequality should make crime worse. Political consistency vs. analytical consistency, again.

There are many other historical periods, including medieval times, where inequality was high, upward mobility was fairly low, and the social order is fairly stable, even if we as moderns find some aspects of that order objectionable.

I wonder if this “threat of revolution” argument isn’t a substitute for actually making a good case for a feasible reform. I’ve very often heard commentators from the Left suggesting that if we don’t “do something” about income inequality, citizens will take matters into their own hands. There is a vague insinuation of a threat of violence, yet without any endorsement (or condemnation) of that violence. The commentator or writer doesn’t want to suggest that the violence is in order, yet still wants the rhetorical force of having that violence on his or her side of the argument, as a kind of cosmic punishment for the objectionable inequality.

Something like that, yeah.

The better guess is that Americans will become more conservative, now returning to both the political and literal senses of that word. They will become more enamored of low or falling taxes, whether or not such tax rates prove possible to maintain.

Which is why Ted Cruz won all those primaries. I suppose he could respond that maybe it just hasn’t happened yet, just you wait and see. But also, taxes have been going up. In Kansas, Illinois, Oregon. Where are all the new tax cuts?

They will look more toward local communities and tight local bonds, to protect themselves against economic risks. Unlike the predicted breakdown in the social order, these trends are already significant and observable in today’s America.

Um …

Political conservatism is strongest in the least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, and most economically hard-hit states. If you doubt it, know that of 2011, the politically conservative states are, as measure by self-identification, Mississippi, Idaho, Alabama, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, South Carolina, North Dakota, Louisiana, and South Dakota. As Richard Florida puts it, “Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind.”

Those states have becomes outposts of Tea Party support. Their electorates are not out there leading the charge for higher rates of progressive taxation or trying to revive the memory of George McGovern. The most liberal areas tend to be urban or suburban, with lots of high-earning professionals. My own residence – in Fairfax County, Virginia – was strongly conservative in the early 1980s when I first lived there. … Circa 2012, Fairfax County is now in per capita terms the wealthiest county in the United States. It broke cleanly for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections and it is somewhat more Democratic than Republican in terms of party support.

Without getting too deep into these distracting weeds, this is also missing quite a bit of the local story and context, especially with regard to demographic change and certain related local policies. But with that paragraph doesn’t it seem like Cowen was this close to predicting something or someone like Trump? Not close enough though.

If we extrapolate these trends into the future, we can expect the higher earners to identify with the values embraced by today’s moderate Democrats. They will believe in progress, diversity, and social justice, although they may not be huge fans of radically progressive taxation.

However, they will be huge fans of the latest radically progressive gender identity orthodoxy. Or else.

Some of them will be “small L libertarians,” but those libertarians will like the same jokes and TV shows as the moderate Democrats among the high earners.

And go write articles for the Niskanen Center and The Atlantic or something.

The lower earners will be split into two groups, the more extreme conservatives versus the individuals who receive transfers from the social welfare programs supported by the moderate Democrats. I’m not suggesting that they will cynically vote to line their pockets, rather that the moderate Democrats will offer a worldview that embraces those individuals and offers them higher status and respect, thus winning their political loyalties. The more extreme conservatives will embrace religion and nationalism to a higher degree.

I think it’s clear we’ve passed “Peak Embrace Religion” for social conservatives, unfortunately. The implosion continues apace, and Dreher’s The Benedict Option was, if anything, published far, far too late. I think Cowen was just way out of his competency window here.

He said we won’t get revolution because most envy is local – the guy down the street, not the billionaire on Wall Street.

Sometimes I wonder why so many relatively well-off intellectuals lead the egalitarian charge against the privileges of the wealthy. One group has the status currency of money and the other has the status currency of intellect, so might they be competing for overall social regard? And in that competition, at least in the United States, the status currency of intellect is not winning out. Perhaps for that reason the high status of the wealthy in America, or for that matter the high status of celebrities, bothers out intellectual class most. That intellectual class, however, is small in number, so growing income inequality wont by itself lead to political revolution along the lines many intellectuals have imagined.

Getting close to the end now.

We might even look ahead to a time when the cheap or free fun is so plentiful that it will feel a bit like Karl Marx’s communist utopia, albeit brought on by capitalism. That is the real light at the end of the tunnel. Such a development, however, will take longer than I am considering in the time frame of this book.

It’s not even that good of a light, and then he just snatches it away. Dismal science indeed!

In the meantime, get ready. The basic look of our lives, and the surrounding environment, hasn’t been revolutionized all that much in forty to fifty years – just try viewing a TV show from the 1970’s and the world will seem quite familiar.

Tell that to my kids. They’ve never seen a pay phone. You want to feel old? Wait until one your kids asks you with genuine confusion why we say “hang up” to end a call.

That’s about to change. It is frightening, but it is exciting too.

It might be called the age of the genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise. One day soon we will look back and see that we produced two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else. Average is over.

Fin.

ASDF:

Chapter 12 does seem to be the Cheap Chulupas plan. Its obviously monstrous. The line between “I predict this will happen” and “I want this to happen” is always rather thin with that group. At least the World Controllers in Brave New World lamented the flaws of their system. The GMU crowd seems to be excited by them.

VLADIMIR:

It’s monstrous if you assume — as most people do on both left and right — that the mid-20th century golden age of the common man would just continue indefinitely unless the government actively ruins it, and that we only need to be “smart” in some quite obvious ways to restore and keep it.

However, if we discard this assumption as unjustified (which it clearly is), and look at the range of realistic possibilities, the Cheap Chalupas scenario starts looking not that bad. This is not to say that stupid and crazy government measure aren’t making things worse, of course. But it’s a big mistake to take for granted that the 20th century-style universal prosperity is just what happens by default, or that its continuation would be possible for even a very good government.

SPANDRELL:

Cowen’s Future sounds like an elaboration of what we have called Brazilification; although he makes it a function of economics instead of demographics. He also assumes no big decline in the quality of governance, massive ethnic and plain family nepotism and the hinterlands organizing themselves along violent gangs, among all those other little things we all love about Brazil.

I think it’s obvious that actual Brazil is more likely than the milder Cowenzil. And that’s assuming that Islam is contained and that 2 billion Africans don’t invade Europe and North America.

ASDF:

All you really needed to maintain something mid-20th century is a different immigration policy and mildly HBD aware public policy. Some of it isn’t even public policy, how about just not celebrating degeneracy as a virtue in the cultural arena.

It seems to me that you can find societies around the world that adopt parts of this platform, and that they don’t exactly represent any kind of radical program with no history of successful implementation.

I don’t know if I’m convinced that things were inevitably going to go this way. While we are all aware of the factors leading to the current situation, if we are to believe that even mild tweaks to the timeline, most of which just would have been preserving the status quo at the time, were in fact impossible, then I don’t see how we can hold out any hope for any positive changes going forward whatever, including even maintaining the current situation.

HANDLE:

A counterargument is that lots of low-skill immigration has bought us a little bit more time since it kept the capital-labor substitution rate lower than it would have otherwise been, because lots of cheap, reliable labor (and externalizing many of the costs of that labor pool on the taxpaying public) undermined the incentives to develop and deploy automation technology. You can think of a lot of “cheap labor” (whether native, immigrant, or outsourced) as a kind of rival “technology”, and if the price is low, then actual technology won’t be competitive until algorithmic efficiency rises and hardware costs fall, which takes time. One wonders where things would be today had the US stuck with the 1920’s-1940’s immigration policies, or gone with a Japanese or even Canadian/Australian selective immigration model.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how much that counterfactual would have goosed technological development in this area faster than it happened. I’m guessing a little, but not much, but it’s hard to know. Still, eventually we’ll be living in a country full of robots. The Japanese will just have robots and Japanese descendants. The US will have robots and descendants of all the newcomers too. The newcomer descendants will vote, but the robots wont.

ASDF:

Robots aren’t a problem. Surely, people would prefer to live the way they did in the 1950s while having a robot do the hard labor they used to do. My Dad hardly liked waking up at 3am to do hard labor.

When my Dad retired he simply became a more complete human being. He produced musicals, developed athletic talents, got more involved with community and family, and took all his hobbies to a new level.

Let’s say robots really could make all labor obsolete. Imagine lots of well behaved white people getting a cut of their robot produced UBI to make ends meat while they live in their 1950s style communities.

I don’t view robots as being the primary cause. Bad genes and bad culture is. The third world was still a shithole before robots came around, and will still be a shithole after robots.

VLADIMIR:

Well, I can indeed hear Lennon’s “Imagine” playing in the background while reading this!

For even the most civilized population imaginable, if you think its average (let alone below-average) people could live on handouts and nevertheless avoid descending into complete degeneracy and savagery, I think you’re completely out of touch with reality.

HANDLE:

Recently updated pseudoerasmus post – tech and inequality – related to this thread topic.

Ironically, as production becomes more brutally efficient with labour-saving technology, consumption becomes more ‘inefficient’. The hallmark of consumption by the rich has always been its labour-intensiveness. Think of aristocratic dining halls as recently as the Gilded Age, with one liveried footman for every guest at the long table in the dining hall.

That’s why ‘hand-made’ has snob appeal. Bespoke fetishists may think of it as “valuing timeless artisanal quality”, as does one London financial journalist who apparently has not only suits and shoes custom-made by hand, but also socks, neck ties, and (!) pocket squares. (When those silks stick out of the breast pocket, woe unto those rolled edges sewn with plebeian machine-neatness…) This tailor-blogger with a cult following makes suits by hand, or ‘deconstructs’ famous brands, and blogs about every lovely stitch. But in reality such sartorial Epicureanism is about deriving more and more marginal utility out of sillier and sillier quality ‘improvements’. And such things point to the niche consumption fantasies of the merely upper-middle-class.

The “dream of the 1890’s is alive” in the era of LARPing as a Victorian artisan, servant, or dandy. In the future everyone is Beau Brummell for 15 minutes on instagram.

I would not have used the phrase the “emptiness of life” to make the case about class-based status-signaling conspicuous consumption. See what you think about the rest of his or her argument.

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Procrustean Rashomon

Sorry Jesse; they’ll keep getting away with it. Over and over.

Everybody likes a good procedural.   If the fundamental elements of the dramatic formula work their magic even once, then all the necessary ingredients are present, and it can work a hundred times more with the most trivial variations.

So, instead of Columbo, or Monk, or Perry Mason, why not pitch a new show in which every episode always begins with the shooting death of a large, unarmed black man in his late teens by a man of some other race.  The footage will be grainy and with rapid, frenetic shifts in the camera position so that it’s never quite clear to the audience what really happened.

The stories all take place in the town of Gini, Virginia, with the intro sequence showing a large sign displaying: “Welcome to Gini – Proud to be a Diverse and Vibrant Community.”

The mystery exists for the characters of the show as well, including the same collection of random members of the community, but that doesn’t stop them at all from losing their damned minds and immediately jumping to unjustified conclusions.  There’s always a team of four detective special agents tasked to investigate these, ‘sensitive matters’.

Three of them are old timers who hate each other’s guts and who go by the collective name, “three blind mice” which is an allusion to the metaphor about blind men describing an elephant.”

You’ve got Senior Agent Irving Trunks, with good connections in politics and a steamy relationship with his journalist gal pal.  Rumor has it that he’s on the take along with some of his powerful friends in high places.  That might be why he tends to leave certain critical bits of information out of his reports, and also why a certain scummy lawyer is always receiving early tip-offs and can get to key witnesses before anyone else knows they exist.

But somehow Trunks is Mr. Teflon – nothing sticks – and the accusations never seen to hurt his career.  Trunks is frequently having private, conspiratorial conversations about the case with the competent but very politically ambitious District Attorney who is always sensitive to public opinion and obsessing about winning the next election as a white guy in diverse, vibrant Gini.  He and Trunks seem to have a certain … understanding.

Next up is Agent Mohammad Tusk has two brothers in federal prison for mysterious reasons which are never made clear, and since he’s gotten the special treatment from the TSA one too many times he’s got a serious grudge against all symbols of authority.  He used to work as an inspector general in IA – internal affairs – and he’s seen every kind of bad a bad cop can be and earned no friends and a hell of a lot of enemies in the process.  So naturally he’s got a chip on his shoulder a mile long towards those idiot bastards on the beat.

And then there’s Agent Sean Patrick Ryan O’Tayle, a fourth generation cop who has lost three male relatives and members of the force – to include his own father – to fatal encounters with criminal scumbags.  His great-grandad was one of the last marshals in the Old West, and he’s a real ‘law and order’ kind of guy and a devout Catholic family man.  He’s kind of punchy, and a choke-hold-first, ask-questions-later kind of guy, but he’s got a sensitive side and his hidden secret is his deeply paranoid fear that he’ll follow his father into an early grave and leave his wife a widow to take care of their 7 kids.  That is, unless he’s always the quicker draw, like great-grand-pop was.

But there’s also, “The New Guy” – a transfer from the big city.  Turns out that New Guy – something they will continue to call him no matter how many season extensions get greenlighted – is a real glasshole.  He’s always wearing some big, fancy, high-tech monocle augmented-reality device that, he says, “Gives me access to all the information,” and, “Allows me to see every angle clearly and simultaneously.”

It’s also got a special feature – the “Bayesian Anticipated Baseline Engine” or “The Babe” which talks to New Guy in a computer-cold but somehow still sexy Scarlett Johansson voice.  The Babe uses open source social media, government data and statistics, and that great source of accurate undernews – amateur bloggers – to notice patterns and derive the best guess as to what really happened given the initially limited amount of information.

Like in Columbo, “The Babe’s” first guess at the answer is almost always right, it’s just a matter of collecting the evidence.  In the middle of the show, some new piece of information will seemingly prove The Babe to be completely wrong, and the Blind Mice will enjoy giving the New Guy a ruthless ribbing for it, but then, “The Twist!”, and that piece of information will turn out to be fraudulent and The Babe wins again.  Catchphrase, “Always play the odds, gentlemen.”

But let’s get back to the beginning of the show.  After the initial incident footage, we watch the detectives receive their mission brief at headquarters from The Chief.  “We don’t know all that much yet.  Got a 911 call late last night from a man who said he shot Tyrone Washington dead in what he claimed was a random act of violence gone wrong.  A few witnesses disagree.  We’ve got him in a holding cell right now, but there’s not much to go on.  Finish reading these preliminary reports, get your butts out there, and solve this case!”

Back at the desks, Agent Trunks takes only the most cursory glance skimming through the case file, senses an opportunity, gets that sinister gleam in his eye, and says, “Unarmed black male teenager gunned down?  Hell, ain’t it obvious?  Hate-crime homicide; open and shut.  What more do we need to know?  Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be by the digital sender making calls to by girlfriend, a scummy lawyer, the District Attorney, and a buddy on capitol hill for … um … no particular reason.

Agent Tusk noticed the guy in the holding cell is a Federal Air Marshal who used his service handgun to shoot Tyrone.  “Says here he shot Washington with military-grade frangible RRLP rounds – reduced ricochet, limited penetration – the kind of thing they give to Spec Ops forces for close-quarters combat in urban terrain.  What the hell do you need that on a plane for, or while walking around in a vibrant neighborhood late at night?  Good grief, everyday is September 11th to these wackos.  Talk about overkill; are we becoming a fascist police state or something?  Just crazy.”

Agent O’Tayle is not having it.  He adjusts his taser holster slightly and says, “Oh, come on.  A man’s got a right to defend himself, and normal bullets would do more damage and pose more hazard to bystanders.  I did a tour in the Marines before joining the force, and I can tell you don’t know jack about military equipment.  Anyway, this guy’s a Marshal and that means he’s one of the good guys putting his life at risk protecting the rest of us, knows how to control himself and handle a weapon, and has probably got a spotless background.  I say we give him the benefit of the doubt here, especially given that nasty scar on his jawline.  Also, you know the kind of neighborhood Tyrone lives in, bullying thugs for life all over the place, muggings and fist-fights every night.  Says here Tyrone’s got a sealed and expunged juvie record, but we don’t have a copy of it.  What do you think was in there?  Parking tickets?  Overdue library books?  No way Mo.”

New Guy has The Babe hack into the files, check out the relevant facebook and twitter accounts, look up some crime statistics, and download all the surveillance videos with 24 hours and 10 miles of the incident scene.  The Babe, cool and calm as ever, says, “Analysis shows a 90% probability that Tyrone was in the wrong, but only a 10% probability that use of deadly force was necessary and disengagement and safe retreat was impossible.”

The three blind mice all scoff at this pronouncement in their own characteristic ways.

Gradually, over the course of the hour, the mystery will unravel piece by piece.  But not before the scummy lawyer, the journalist, the politician, and the District Attorney have incited the locals and stoked up a riot with their sensationalist and mendacious coverage of the incident.  The riot completely distracts the Three Blind Mice who proceed to debate the relative merits of the protestors and their behavior.

But the New Guy trudges on, doing the Yeoman’s work of actual investigation and collection of evidence, and eventually proves The Babe correct.  But only after it’s too late.  The DA got reelected by putting the Marshal on trial and ruining his life, the Journalist won a Pulitzer, the scummy lawyer gets priceless free publicity and makes a fortune in the settlement, and so forth.

When the New Guy announces his findings, the three blind mice try to walk back their most extreme incorrect assertions to avoid embarrassment, but mostly they just complain about The Babe’s invasion of privacy and unauthorized disclosures of confidential information, and then they shrug their shoulders and try to forget the whole, nasty business.

Until the next episode, where it all happens all over again!  And again, and again.  It’s tragic and kind of depressing sometimes, but always hugely entertaining.  Come on, you know you’d watch it.

What’s the name of the show?  What else?  ‘Bonfire!’ (Tom Wolfe, Executive Producer) with an image of a silhouette of the town of Gini in the midst of a raging conflagration as the logo.  It’s supposed to symbolize what happens to a community when the incitement machine gets busy spinning its narrative.

Bonfire

***

I can’t do any better than Steve Sailer has done in commenting on the facts and coverage of the Ferguson incident, so please donate to him.  (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and pay special attention to his list of media narrative fiascos for new episode screenplays for Bonfire!)  It seems that these events are now a permanent part of our cultural landscape and there’s nothing anyone can do about it apparently.  There is too much to gain politically and in eyeball indoctrination time, and no one pays any price for making mistakes, or just lying and making things up.

But what I would like to comment on is the nature of how those conversation occur and how our discourse about these matters tends to proceed.  Which is with complete incoherence and more permanent irreconcilability than between Israel and Hamas.

Arnold Kling has his famous “Three Axis Model” of politics which he expressed at length in his short book, “The Three Languages of Politics” (buy it!)

The Three Axis Model says that our three major ideological factions tend to have obsessive-compulsive one-track minds, and process every political and governmental issue within that particular frame of analysis.  They are all wearing blinders and using both high and low-pass filters to block out any inconvenient truths and to try to force the real world to conform to some false mythology that allows them to press their agenda forward.

These frames are so incomparable that they are essentially orthogonal axes.  What is most salient for one faction is inconsequential for another.  People are literally “talking past one another.”

Another way to visualize it is that three separate trials are going on.  Each judge is examining the same underlying event but pursuing entirely different causes of action related to it.  Thus the questions of which facts are material and relevant to an essential element, and which lines of inquiry are productively probative of those facts, are entirely different.  One judge is conducting a murder trial, and another is trying to determine the disposition of the priceless antique murder weapon.  Most of the time, each judge is focused on their particular priority and neither judge probably cares very much about what is happening in the other case.  If they try to discuss their cases over lunch, they will bore the hell out of each other, because they just couldn’t care less about the other issues.

So, for any major media event of this kind, each faction – Progressives, Libertarians, and Conservatives – will first decide what agenda item is most important to them, then tend to take a very selective sample of the facts, stretch them to fit their preferred ideological version of reality with their own good goods and bad guys, and thus tell stories that differ greatly from each other and also with reality.  Procrustean Rashomon.

Because they care about different things, none of these ‘conversations’ can ever go anywhere but in endless pointless circles.  If there were direct contradictory claims and a shared standard of judgment (a ‘shared language’ or ‘axis’ to use Kling’s terms), then one could have a classic debate with the potential of resolution on the basis of logic and evidence.  But when the standards differ that kind of resolution is impossible.

Kling has written his own brief three-axis post about Ferguson, and in the show outline above, Trunks represents the Progressives who mostly care about social injustice and are obsessed with trying to tell a story of an America teeming with murderous white racist men.  Tusk or O’Tayle will try to point out to Trunks that it really doesn’t make sense to the oppression narrative that the ‘protest’ against ‘racist police’ would manifest itself in the mob-like destruction and looting of private storefronts which had nothing to do with the incident. To liberal Trunks, this is inherently excusable and completely besides the main point.

Tusk represents the Libertarians who despise state coercive power and authority so much and so generally they find it hard to think straight about the mere practical trappings of that authority when donned by the individual agents of that authority, and so they are going on and on about the visual impressions of observing police equipment and tactics about all of which they are really pretty ignorant.  They are also trying to complain about the same events as the Progressives – if on somewhat different grounds – and distinguish themselves from the Conservatives because they know the most important thing in life is to not be affiliated with them and thus targeted by the Progressive attack machine once that hornet nest gets stirred up.

And O’Tayle represents the Conservatives who mostly care about preserving law and order via deference to state authority, who don’t believe in the Progressive narrative about homicidal hate-criminals, and who probably isn’t very sympathetic to the plight of welfare-dependent underclass communities and the volatile thugs that tend to emerge from them.

The larger point is that all three blind mice have valid points to make if the others cared or would be willing to hear them, but they’re not. When O’Tayle tells Tusk that officer Darren Wilson was dressed in normal police clothes when the shooting occurred, Tusk says that’s not the point.  But everything everyone says in never ‘the point’ for everyone else.

So the formula is probably fixed for all time, they will go on and one talking past each other in exactly the same way, and Bonfire! will be extended for more seasons than General Hospital.

At least until we get some New Guys.

Or at least, until every non-black man in America gets the message that they cannot shoot an unarmed black man under any circumstances, no matter how justified, without completely ruining their own life and finding themselves at the center of the big top in a modern-day inquisitorial circus.

Not that this will stop the shootings, but that the market for unregistered drop-guns will probably explode and everyone who thinks they need to carry a weapon will start carrying two.  You know, one for each of ya.

And actually, to whatever limited extent they had to do so, they arguably already have gotten the message, which is why the prestige press can’t ever find a case that actually fits their narrative and why these events always turn into such media fiascoes over and over.

***

One final note about the nonsensical charges of ‘militarization’ of the police that mirror the work of Mainstream Libertarian Writer (Cato, Reason) Radley Balko and his two books, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, and, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Even Ross Douthat – one of my favorite writers – finds himself overwhelmed enough by his hollywood-primed intimidation by the Soldier-like appearance of contemporary police uniforms and military-origin of their equipment, that he links to a picture of ‘heavily-armored‘ police on PBS, amongst other things.  Yes, some civilian police have armored vehicles all over the world, and for good reason, but no, cops don’t drive main-gun ‘tanks’, Ross.

UPDATE: Oh God, Ross, there you go again.  Complete proving my point.  Grenade launchers? Tanks?  Really?  Come on.

When Ross repeats ‘Grenade Launcher’ (three times!) he means to evoke Rambo’s high explosives, but police are only ever equipped with tear-gas, and the safest way to distribute it a good distance into a riotous mob is by means of indirect fire for which you need a tube propulsion chamber, that is, unless Ross would prefer police to throw actual ‘grenades’ (ooh! that sounds scary too!) or aim them directly at peoples faces.  Your call, Ross.  Police have used riot control gas in less safe and effective ways for decades and no one calls it ‘militarized’.  A real military with real ‘tanks’ meaning to take out a massed formation would use this:

Ok, if the police start carrying those, I’d agree that it’s, “Time to take their toys away.”

Ross goes on:,

The only recent calm on Ferguson’s streets came after state cops started walking through the crowds in blue uniforms, behaving like police instead of storm troopers.

Heh, I beat him to the punch on the Stormtroopers, see below!  Predictable.  Oh, and those blue uniformed policemen were walking through a crowd of members of the Bloods criminal gang, of which Michael Brown was most likely a member.

Calm. Also, packing heat.

Well, despite the time-tested and always effective technique of neutralizing looters and vandals by walking down a street in the middle of the day, in front of a million cameras, and with the firearm with which the press is more comfortable, the calm was, alas, short-lived for reasons unknown.

“Peace and justice took a very different turn after dark,” Johnson said. “Molotov cocktails were thrown, there were shootings, looting, vandalism and other acts of violence that clearly appear not to have been spontaneous, but premeditated criminal acts.”

Police demilitarization success story

And the Chief did more than just walk around:

St Louis County Police confirm at least 200 of their officers are on scene and helping handle the situation. They confirm the Domino’s Pizza on West Florissant was set fire and burned. [The Domino’s Pizza in Ferguson are popular KKK hang-outs that totally had it coming, as everybody knows.] They also confirm multiple businesses vandalized and looted. Unbelievably, County Police told Fox 2 News that its officers were at the Ferguson Market earlier when looters showed up, but were ordered to “Stand down” by incident commanders at the scene and basically withdrew and allowed the looters to have their way with the store.

Um, who’s the ‘tomfool police’ now, Ross?

Douthat adds:

But there may be trade-offs here: In an era of atomization, distrust and economic stress, our punitive system may be a big part of what’s keeping crime rates as low as they are now, making criminal justice reform more complicated than a simple pro-liberty free lunch.

Now where have I heard that before?

END UPDATE

To anyone who has never actually worn that clothing or equipment, or been around people who have, it looks scarier than a typical policeman’s garb with an ordinary protective vest despite carrying an incredibly deadly .45 but in a holster and magazines on a belt.

But that’s only because we’re used to seeing them that way, and not because it makes any actual difference.

I’m sure a visitor from the United Kingdom to the U.S. in 1946 would be taken aback when seeing a normal, armed post-war U.S. police officer, but that’s just status-quo bias, reacting to any deviation from the baseline to which one has calibrated their expectations.

To anyone that has ever worn this ‘scarier’ equipment, it looks like no big deal at all, just a different configuration that is a lot more practical, comfortable, and effective which is exactly the reason a Soldier dresses that way.  In fact, most Soldiers would want to carry a .45 for close-quarters combat like many cops do, but they have to settle for lower stopping power M-4/AR type carbines and 9mm handguns.

Cops are not Soldiers.  Because there is some overlap in the tools and techniques best suited to their work does not have any special meaning.  Cops cannot aim mortar tubes, throw high-explosive grenades, operate crew-served weapons, forward-observe to adjust indirect fire, call for close air support, operate tanks or artillery pieces, be prepared to operate in the presence of WMD contamination, or provide higher-echelon level logistics.

The problem is that, when you put the entire modern kit together, a cop looks enough like a Star Wars stormtrooper to a journalist that they can’t keep their heads screwed on right.  What they should do is consider the devices one by one and try to actually prove that it will make a positive difference by taking it away.

Let’s consider body armor for example.  What frankly amazes me is all the talk about ‘body armor’ being ‘militarization’ and having something, somehow to do with what happened to Mike Brown.  Check this out:

BodyArmor

176,000 results?  It’s only been a few days!  When will it hit half a million?

But we’re just talking about protective vests.  Of course they look military because they all do the same things, are made out of the same stuff, and tend to look the same way.  The implication is that somehow life will be better if we just take these vests away or deny the police the ability to wear them.  Ok, now where do people explain the mechanism of how that works.  Zero out of 176,000, guaranteed.

Here’s a link to the terrifying Business Insider piece, which fails to make even one logical claim.  No one can be surprised by any silly thing Exum says anymore, but Szoldra should be ashamed for this:

“If there’s one thing I learned in Afghanistan, it’s this: You can’t win a person’s heart and mind when you are pointing a rifle at his or her chest.”

Yeah, I’m betting that when you were in Afghanistan, you also learned that when in those situations in which you might need to point a rifle at someone’s chest, it’s best to be dressed and equipped just like that.  And the problem is that it’s hard to know when you’re going to be in that situation, which he can learn from the latest Green-on-Greene incident.

Gee, I wonder how someone like Agent Trunks – operating on the Progressive axis of politics and describing a delusional alternative reality would try and explain that shooting to Tusk and O’Tayle?

But it’s still unclear whether the gunman had Taliban ties and whether he slipped through the military’s screening process, said Philip Mudd, a CNN counterterrorism analyst and former CIA official.

[Yeah, he also works for Soros-funded New America Foundation.  Just back from a trip to Cuba, Google’s Eric Schmidt is Chairman of the Board, and Obama pal Anne-Marie Slaughter is President and CEO.  Recent blog post – “Does America Need a Tahrir Square?”  Oh, that sounds like a great idea.  After all, it worked wonders for Egypt.  Find the right Ferguson formula one day and we just might get one!]

“I don’t think we should look and make judgments about the vetting process too quickly,” he said. “You would think on the surface that maybe he was recruited by the Taliban. That’s not necessarily the case.”

Witnessing the horrors of war sometimes inspires soldiers to turn against their onetime allies, he said.

“He might have seen something in the last months or years… and sometimes there is an emotional switch that turns on after their recruitment, after their vetting, that leads them to say, ‘I want to do something about this. I’m going to kill someone in the U.S. military,'” Mudd said.

Whoa…

I’m thinking they didn’t teach Mudd that insight of killer-profiling at the FBI Academy.

Looks like I can find all the Bonfire! script writers I want at CNN and NAF.  They’re pros at fiction there.

 

UPDATE (28-AUG-2014):  I would like to recommend that everyone read two things.  1. The high-quality dialogue between myself and Vladimir in the comments sections below, and 2. Richard Epstein’s “Lessons From Ferguson“, which is the most level-headed, reasonable, and accurate essay I’ve seen any Libertarian write about the matter.  Indeed, it is a kind of a <i>cri de coeur</i> of one of the most brilliant, prominent, and thoughtful Libertarian public intellectuals that the ‘new class’ has very much lost its way.

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Slate Star Codex Polite & Productive Pilot Project

Not a normal post, most of you can just ignore this:

Scott Alexander, over at SlateStarCodex, mentioned that there is a whole subreddit for polite, productive debates between feminists and men’s rights advocates.  Huh; who knew?  Upon investigation I found that the discourse there certainly exceeded my expectations for internet dialogue by such people on such a subject, which I admit was a pretty low bar.

Still, it tempered my cynicism slightly and put me in a whimsical mood, and I mused that it it would be great if such a thing were possible in our own little corners of the internet.

Well, Scott posted my suggestion at a part of his latest Open Thread, and several people (e.g. Oligopsony, eeuuah) seemed to express interest in the idea and also a willingness to abide by high standards of grace and decorum.  So, I have a strong spider sense that I’m making a mistake that will in all likelihood degenerate into ugly childishness, but the SSC-sphere is mostly full of mostly reasonable characters who care about polite norms of interactions, and I’m feeling reckless, so let’s take that chance.

This is not a post for that discussion.  This is a post where people who have an interest in participating in that discussions, and/or have suggestion on the best way for it to proceed and topics to cover, may leave comments to that effect.

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Suppressing Tories

By late 1775, if an American attempted to remain loyal to the King and Great Britain, what were the likely consequences?  Are you a modern version of a ‘Tory’ too?

From: Conceived in Liberty, Volume IV, Part II, Chapter 13.  Murray Rothbard, 1976; [Some additional emphasis in bold and separation into smaller paragraphs]:

… On the local level, the old committees of inspection, observation, and correspondence, which had enforced the Continental Association, naturally evolved into new city and rural committees to run the war, specifically to raise and operate the militia and especially to crush dissenting Tories.

The Americans had had no chance to hear present-day opinion that they were merely fighting a conservative and moderate revolution; hence they went at the Tories with a zeal that went beyond the bounds of libertarian principle. The concept of “enemy of American liberty” was quickly extended from violators of the continental boycott to anyone critical of the Revolution. Known and suspected Tories were hauled before the local committees, and as Professor Miller puts it, “If the committees failed to persuade, the mob took over. Thus was created a police system, secret, efficient, and all-powerful.”

Letters, especially to England, were seized at the post offices and carefully examined; spies eagerly took on the task of keeping watch on suspected Tories. And in contrast to enforcement of the Continental Association, committees did not try to confine punishment of Tories to voluntary boycott and ostracism; instead, fines, imprisonment, confiscation, and banishment came increasingly into play.

Persons were hauled before local committees for criticizing the Continental Congress, belittling the Massachusetts Army, criticizing Presbyterian prominence in the Revolution, and a host of other “errors of opinion.” The new extralegal Massachusetts General Court urged Harvard College to dismiss all faculty members having Tory views. Individual Tories were not only boycotted and forced to recant their heresies; stronger methods of punishment were adopted as soon as the rebel committees became the effective authorities in their areas. As early as May 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress recommended to local selectmen and committees that they confiscate the arms of all unfriendly to the rebel cause and forbid anyone to leave the province without special permission of the local committee or the Congress.

The following month, the provincial congress directed the town committees and selectmen to confiscate and take charge of the property of all Tories who had fled behind the British lines at Boston or elsewhere. In New Hampshire, the provincial congress, as the supreme judicial body of the province, sentenced Tory Col. John Fenton to indefinite imprisonment as “an enemy to the liberties of America.” In September, the New York Provincial Congress created a hierarchy of penalties for Tories, including fines, disarming, prison, and banishment. And in November, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law decreeing death and forfeit of property to anyone assisting the British army with information or supplies.

[NB:  Confiscating the property of disloyal refugees is considered pretty nasty by a lot of people when the players are Israel and the Palestinians.  But no one ever says the the US should restore the descendants of the loyalists the expropriated lands of their ancestors.]

One of the critical litmus tests used by the local committees to smoke out Tories [‘Pariah-baiting’, See, e.g. 1, 2] was a public oath of loyalty to a defense association succeeding the old Continental Association. As historian Alexander C. Flick concluded, the association became the first decisive test of the politics of individuals…. It stamped the individual as a Whig or Tory in the eyes of his neighbors, and treatment was meted out to him accordingly…. Hesitation [to sign] involved suspicion; refusal, guilt. The Loyalist who was true to his convictions, creed, and king was detested, reviled and if prominent, ruined in business, tarred and feathered, mobbed, ostracized, or imprisoned; and all this at the will of a committee, self-constituted and responsible to no one.

Thus, a Revolution and revolutionaries dedicated to the cause of liberty moved to suppress crucial liberties of their opposition—an ironic but not unsurprising illustration of the inherent contradiction between Liberty and Power, a conflict that can all too readily come into play even when Power is employed on behalf of Liberty.

Hesitant to take any steps that might lead irrevocably to independence, the Continental Congress refused to do anything about hunting and combatting [sic] Tories, leaving the task to the separate towns and provinces—this despite the requests from Massachusetts and Maryland for a general congressional test oath for all the colonies. In October 1775, however, Congress learned that Dr. Benjamin Church, one of the top revolutionary leaders of Massachusetts and chief surgeon of the Continental Army, was a traitor in the pay of the British. This grave shock led Congress to urge the various local committees to crack down on everyone who might “endanger the safety of the colony or liberties of America.”

The committees redoubled their efforts in rounding up suspects, imposing test oaths and punishing recalcitrants with disfranchisement or prison. The Continental Army was also authorized to aid in suppressing Tories. Even as conservative a man as George Washington wondered why the Tories, “abominable pests of society… who are preying upon the vitals of their country [should] be suffered to stalk at large, whilst we know that they will do us every mischief in their power.”

[The chapter ends with the following]

… The defeat of the Revolution also required an indomitable will, but General Howe, the commander-in-chief of the British armies after the removal of the disgraced Gage, in October 1775, was an ardent Whig opposed to the war. These inner convictions kept him valiantly trying for a compromise political peace rather than a repressive military solution to the conflict, thereby substantially weakening the resolve of the counter-revolution.

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Seeking Educational Alpha

Nothing however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

-Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776.

There are plenty of professions in which individual human performance matters a great deal but is difficult to measure directly in a simple or obvious way.  However, when that level of performance becomes important – which usually means there is a huge amount popular interest and/or money at stake – then that creates the incentive for statistics and quant types to plunge into the numbers and develop those metrics.

Teams sports provides a good example of a case in which an individual player’s contributions to the desired end state – victory – can be difficult to assess.  But there is interest and money, and so, for example, in the sport of baseball, we have the famous Bill James with his Sabermetrics and Win-Shares, and Michael Lewis’ sketch of Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane’s analytical magic in Moneyball.  And you can bet that all other sports now have their own metrics cults and prophets.

But when it comes to the recent fad of measuring individual teacher or school performance, or the efficacy of alternative pedagogical styles, it seems to me that governments are using a completely misguided approach in simply looking at student test scores.

This is because the fair and accurate way to assess teachers is not PC, but whatever way we use must be PC, so PC makes us dumb yet again, and unfortunate and innocent teachers are the victims of the collateral damage who bear the brunt of our collective insanity and unwillingness to come to grips with reality.

And we really need that fair and accurate way to measure teacher performance, because (1) teachers are particularly vulnerable to getting tarnished with an unjustified bad reputation courtesy of teenage angst, self-perpetuating warped perceptions, and the school rumor mill, and (2) the knee-jerk reaction is to go get smarter teachers based on test scores, certification exams, and the place they received their diploma under the assumption that these characteristic will also make them ‘better’ teachers, but (2)(A) there is little evidence to support that assumption (see Education Realist on the subject) and (2)(B) Bizarrely, and most un-PC of all, it will definitely mean the unjustifiable replacement of lots of perfectly adequate black and hispanic teachers by whites and asians but without any likely gains in student achievement.  The value and power of a sane and reasonable metric to prevent this inequitable nonsense cannot be overstated.

How should we assess teachers then if we’re going to go beyond end of year standardized test scores?  We should borrow a page from finance.  We don’t care about a fund manager’s gains alone.  We care whether he can consistently beat the market at the same level of risk.  That’s called ‘Alpha‘.  And we aren’t looking for a teacher’s test scores either, we are looking for his Educational Alpha.  How do we find it?  We move there in a sequence of steps.

1. From Scores to Yield

First, we should recognize that it’s not a teacher’s fault if a student arrives in his class with knowledge well below the standard expectation, and neither should it be to that teacher’s credit if his student arrives knowing 50% of the class material on day one.  That leads us to the concept of ‘value-added‘, which is nothing really new.  You generate two standardized exams which are distinct but test the same range of knowledge, and you give the kid one at the beginning of the term and one at the end and measure the difference in scores.  That’s analogous to ‘yield’ in finance.  If I tell you the price of a stock at the end of the year when you sold it, that means nothing to you unless you also know the price at the beginning of the year when you bought it.

2. From Yield to Expected Yield

But yield isn’t enough.  Some horses are thoroughbreds and will get a lot faster in their first racing season.  Others are draft-horses and won’t.  That’s not the fault of the jockey, that’s the fault of the quality of the material being worked and the hand the trainer is dealt.  Kids are the same; some are quick and smart, and some aren’t.  We are used to hearing about the awful teachers in America’s urban public schools, but it’s possible that some of them are doing the best that anyone can do with what the kids they’ve got and should be getting medals and applause instead of criticism and disdain.  On the basis of yield alone, if you give a teacher a bunch of Einsteins, that instructor is going to look great even if they do nothing, while another teacher given a class full of Beavis and Butthead clones is going to look awful.

So one needs to figure out to what degree one expects a particular child to improve during the course of a term, and then compare the student’s actual performance to that forecast.  The expected yield is like the market benchmark in the finance analogy.

3. Generating Expected Yield

But how do we calculate such a forecast for a child?  The best we can do is continuously collect a vast amount of data on a wide variety of variables from a large number of students and perform some kind of statistical regression analysis.  This regression analysis will show us which variables have the strongest correlation coefficients and are most explanatory and predictive of yields, and a subsequent factor analysis will help tell us which of those variables are strongly correlated with each other so we can reduce the forecasting model to the absolute minimum number of factors while retaining the accuracy of the prediction.

This model isn’t going to be a perfect, but it will probably get us in the right ballpark most of the time for most kids.

The problem is the question of which variables will one be throwing into the statistical sausage factory.  If I had to guess, the strongest predictor would be IQ, but good luck giving every kid an IQ test in this climate.  Fortunately, there are reasonably good proxies for IQ in the results of certain standardized tests that are given to young students, so that’s one way to get around the politics.

But what about other factors?  Some things – like peer groups and life circumstances – are just hard to capture.  Other things are easy to capture, but are politically sensitive and tend to give rise to controversy: race, gender, socioeconomic status, family situation, height and weight, etc.

For the latter group of factors, one faces two main problems.  The first is that this kind of regression analysis is going to produce some very unpopular and taboo results that contradict some of societies most important pretty lies in a way that will threaten the careers of anyone involved in the process of producing them, and the second is that using those results to generate different profiles and expectations for different students is going to drive the usual suspects completely crazy when they notice certain patterns.

But this is the minimum of what you have to do if you are genuinely interested in measuring teacher quality and performance.  The fact that no one is doing it is evidence that, despite all the signalling to the contrary, no one is really interested in measuring teachers if it means we have to look squarely in the face of the part of the problem which lies in the students themselves.  I don’t completely agree with Robin Hanson’s quip that “School Isn’t About Learning” but advocating for school quality isn’t about teacher performance if one isn’t willing to adjust completely accurately for the composition of the class that teacher has to manage, and based on the sometimes ugly truths of reality instead of utopian fantasies.

So, the profile and the model is the hard part, but let’s assume we get it done anyway, and for any student we can plug his vitals into the computer and out pops his expected yield.  That is like an individualized, custom ‘Beta‘ of 1.

4. From β to Δ

So, for any particular student in a teacher’s class, we have an expected change in subject test score and, at the end of the year, the actual change.  The difference is Delta – Δ, and we would expect a lot of statistical noise, and small positive and negative deltas amongst the various students.  But we aren’t measuring students, we’re measuring the teacher’s performance, so we need to add up all the student deltas and take an average, \bar{\Delta}.  And you would want to normalize the deltas to measure them in terms of the standard deviation of the normal student distribution of test scores for that subject.

5. From \bar{\Delta} to α

One expects a teacher to have good classes and bad classes, and good years and bad years.  But if you take all the \bar{\Delta}‘s and average them as well, then the ups and downs should cancel out, and what you have left is the sustained ability to impact students above or below what would have been expected with a merely ‘average’ teacher.  That’s Educational Alpha, that’s fair and accurate, and that’s what we should be measuring.  But we’re not.

And there are definitely some political reasons why we’re not, and why we probably won’t be doing it anything in the future either.  However, since the No Child Left Behind era we have been collecting oodles of data on students and teachers alike (here’s an example from LA), and while they are still doing this wrong, I’m sure some enterprising statistician among you can extract the Alpha scores through a little clever manipulation of the existing dataset.  What would we see then?

Some Predictions.

1. The Null Hypothesis In Education == The Efficient Market Hypothesis

Bryan Caplan has his signalling model of and case against education and Arnold Kling has what he calls the null hypothesis in education (see here: 1, 2, and 3).  The basic idea from both concepts is that, on average, school quality, teacher performance, pedagogical style, teacher test scores, and dozens of other usual suspect considerations in fact make very little difference for test scores and life outcomes, and the primary driver of those outcomes is the cognitive talent and character of the student himself, on which the educational system – really any educational system – can only have the smallest of impacts, if any.  Mostly, the kids are born bright or dull, and unless you stunt them, they’re going to develop their minds and mental skill at their innate rates, no matter what you do.

In other words, it’s really hard for a teacher to beat the student market.

What that means is that we would predict most Alpha scores to be close to zero, with just a few slightly negative or slightly positive, and I’d guess a bias to the negative since one would reasonably expect it’s easier to skunk an entire class than to bring everyone up above their expected level of performance.

And as with repeatedly successful fund managers, there will be a few teachers with sustained and consistently high alpha scores, and it will be very difficult to explain why, what they are doing that is so special, or whether in fact their cases are mere statistical flukes.  In either case, whatever the secret sauce is to their magic, it will prove impossible to replicate and scale across the educator population.

If this is true, then the frame of all our entire education debate and all our over-politicized discourse is completely wrong.  And this is something we could, conceivably, discover right now.

Teachers are right to push back against unfair evaluations and obsession with test scores, but they should be agitating for this kind of evaluation program so they can prove their case instead of constantly appearing like they have something embarrassing to hide and are just trying to avoid scrutiny.

2. Losing The Alibis

One of the terrific shames of our age is that PC makes it impossible for most people to speak forthrightly about their core interests lest in the course of conversation they accidentally step on one of a multiplying numbers of taboo land-mines. That gives rise to an insatiable demand for alibi-frames, or cover stories that allow us to ‘justify’ our actions and desires in the modes our society currently tolerates, whether or not they make any sense or correspond to reality.

But if people invent these alibis out of whole cloth, they’ll just be accused of using racist code-words and dog-whistles and such, and so they have little choice but to ride the wave generated by the influential people who control the bounds of respectable discourse and the direction of political policy, and use rhetorical judo to leverage those ‘acceptable concerns’ into a rationale that will also allow them to get a little of what they want too.

Here’s what happened.  Education reform advocates, social scientists, and progressive policy makers have been facing down the full standard deviation racial gap in test scores for generations under the assumption of the neurological uniformity of all population groups and the corollary belief that they could close the gap through ‘resources’ (i.e. money) and ‘the best teachers’ and pedagogical methods.

It hasn’t happened.  Nothing seems to work.  But that hasn’t stopped the reformers who can’t be convinced to pull the plug and thus keep trying increasingly desperate interventions to save their patient.  But all of those efforts rely on keeping a certain seductive myth alive: that the explanation for the gap is not genes but because of a certain kind of ‘privilege’ which is that all the smartest teachers with all the positive alpha are locked up in the nice white and Asian suburban schools.  And, if only we could get Harvard’s finest to do a single tour in the ghetto before predictably burning out and bailing for jobs in administration or academia, we could solve this problem once and for all.

It’s a fairy tale.  But if you keep the myth of untapped alpha alive, don’t be surprised when other people start using it in ways you don’t appreciate.  That’s practically the only thing to get a non-progressive initiative accomplished in this political environment.

There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the current public school system and a lot of people want out and the ability to pursue alternatives, but without having to pay for private school on their own, which they can’t afford, or to buy a house in an elite school district, which they also can’t afford.  What do these parents really want for their children out of the educational system?  Who knows – lots of different things.  Some want out from under the government’s thumb so they can choose their own curriculum and disciplinary rules.  Others want their kids to have the highest quality peer group. There’s a thousand different desires.  But the one thing these parents are allowed to say they want is better quality teachers and better quality schools, relying on the assumption that these things are meaningful concepts and, you know, exist.

That is, they are allowed to say they want to go to a place where the teachers have more alpha.  How can you tell them no when you’ve been running a massive ‘get more alpha’ campaign for generations?  Hence charters and vouchers and so on.  And a brain-dead never-ending education policy debate.

However, when we actually start measuring teacher alphas, and if we fail to reject the null hypothesis in education, then the legitimacy of the frame of all these arguments and alibis and cover stories will suddenly evaporate.

One the one hand, that’s an unfortunate result for someone like me who supports the maximum amount of educational variety, freedom, and entrepreneurship.  A genuine free market in education won’t produce a company that can magically make Johnny smarter, but it would satisfy what his parents want, instead of some school board bureaucrat.  But progressives will use the result to shut down charters and vouchers as ‘unjustifiable’ based on performance, and thus force everyone into identical public schools for the sake of their collectivist and egalitarian principles and for propagating narratives most compatible with their own ideological perspective.  They’ll also stop anything the unions don’t like, such as the evaluations themselves, and experiments like performance pay.

On the other hand, they might just stop obsessing about ‘the gap’ and let schools go back to tracking students by ability so that teachers can have more cognitively homogenous classes, which are easier and more efficient to teach.  If we could even catch up with 50 years ago, we’ll move far ahead of where we’re at today.

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