The Best Book on Political Theory I’ve Ever Read

I’ve been reading The Logic of Political Survival by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and I think it’s the best book on political theory I’ve ever read. Here are a few topics explored in the book:

  • Why two democracies almost never go to war with each other
  • Why democracies almost always win their wars over dictatorships
  • Why dictators tend to have longer terms in office than leaders of democratic countries
  • Why countries with small ruling coalitions tend to be more corrupt
  • Why even the most popular and successful leaders in democratic countries tend to be elected out of office after a relatively short time

It’s very rare for me when almost everything I read in a book is new information. But that has been my experience with The Logic of Political Survival. It’s dense, empirically driven, and historically informative. Highly recommended.

New paper on Anarchy, Blockchain, and Utopia. How blockchain technology might “make it more feasible for individuals to exit political-socioeconomic systems at the level of the system itself and elect to accede freely to institutional systems which formulate, promulgate, keep and verify institutions and public records without a centralised authority.”

Color me very skeptical.

My old law professor at Duke, Neil Siegel, just published a paper about something I’ve been thinking ever since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign took off. The real problem with Donald Trump isn’t so much that he’s committed any grave constitutional violations or that his policies are so very bad. While he may be criticized on both of those fronts, the real problem with his presidency is his blatant disregard for established political presidential norms. By failing to respect the rule of law as a political norm, he has helped to foster what may be an irrevocable distrust in the country’s political institutions. The jury is still out on how this will impact the country long term, but I am nervous that it might not be possible to ever put that genie back in the bottle.

An old post by Cal Newport about how social media companies can only succeed if use of their products is compulsive and unhealthy.

I’m not a huge fan of silent movies, but Buster Keaton is something else.

Sometimes You Can, Indeed, Get What You Want

A great story of how Jason Kottke of Kottke.org got to play an extra on one of his (and my) favorite TV shows, Halt and Catch Fire.

Mr. Money Mustache on Bitcoin.

Calculated Risk’s ten economic questions for 2018. Disagree with this man at your peril.

Will Wheaton reckoning with the reputation of the Star Trek character that brought him to the pinnacle of nerd-frame.

A video entitled Self Promotion.

Happy 2018!

Refined Sugars and Ad Hominem Arguments

I used to have a crap ton of unhealthy habits but a real yen for new year’s resolutions. Sometimes I would even make resolutions while I was engaged in the very act of doing the things I was trying to stop. As a particularly ludicrous example, I remember a few times, years ago, when I would draw up plans or a “resolution” for how I was going to drink less or not at all at the very moment I was drunk and in the process of getting drunker.

Perhaps not surprisingly this never worked. And I eventually came around to figuring out that if I wanted to stop doing something the first step was to just stop doing it.

I.

This year, after celebrating with a few glasses of sparkling water, I went to bed on New Year’s Eve around 9:30, put on a noise cancellation device, and woke up in 2018 feeling all right with the world.

And though I don’t much care for resolutions any more, there are still a few bad habits I’m trying to kick: Namely, I’m trying to give up refined sugars and avoid news sources and people that frequently rely on or resort to ad hominem arguments.

My reasoning for giving up the refined sugars is that they’re a collection of (incredibly delicious but) fattening, tooth-rotting substances with little to no nutritional value. And since I’m not the kind of guy who can eat one or two cookies, it’s best that I avoid them altogether. If it comes to bananas and kale, I’m ok at moderating. But when it comes to pure sugar, I’m like a much paler,  hairier version of the cookie monster.

My reasoning for giving up news sources and people that resort to ad hominem arguments is that they’re (easy to read but) emotionally toxic and make me feel angry and unhappy. I like to say that I don’t like Deadspin, Gizmodo, angry rants on Facebook, Buzzfeed or any of that rubbish, but I still occasionally indulge. And the end result is usually the same as when I eat a bag of cookies: I feel swollen, angry, bloated, and hating the world.

II.

The thing that got me thinking about refined sugars was when I was audiobooking the Eddie Izzard autobiography, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens. Izzard gave up refined sugar a few years back and rants about sugar in the book early and often. He attributes lots of negative things about his youth and early middle age to his excessive consumption of sugar.

But the line that stuck with me the most was when he said that refined sugar “destroys your tastebuds for real food.”

I had never really thought about it like that before, but it makes sense. The more your diet consists of refined sugars—chemically manufactured products designed to lure us with their sweetness—the more real foods don’t seem quite so appealing.

III.

The thing that got me thinking about ad hominem arguments was the recent Sam Altman blog post about how he felt more comfortable talking about sensitive topics in China than in San Francisco. And how he thought this was a very bad thing.

I thought Sam made a very intelligent, reasoned, articulate case for the benefits of a society that is conducive to broader free speech norms.

But then of course the entire internet proceeded to shit all over him. Now, if you Google his name, the 4th thing that comes up is a Gizmodo article called “Sam Altman is an Idiot.”

Sam Altman is a Stanford grad, a wealthy and successful entrepreneur, and the head of the most prestigious startup accelerator in the world, at the age of 32. He is most decidedly not an idiot. If you are in a debate with Sam Altman and your initial conclusion is that he is an idiot, then that probably says more about you than it does him.[1]

But that is the internet we have today.

I happen to agree with Sam. But I can appreciate that there is an intelligent, reasoned position on the other side of the debate. There is no easy way for a government or society to restrict the kind of speech we believe is unhealthy for our society while allowing the good stuff to get through, but it is possible that it can be done better than the US does today. And it is possible that the healthiest equilibrium is one that further restricts speech.

Since Sam is smarter than I am, I suspect he knows this, too.

But there was precious little reasoned counter-argument to Sam’s post. Instead, there was plenty of this.

IV.

At first, I didn’t think there was any connection between refined sugar and toxic online debates. And on the surface there is not. But over time, I started to notice how both began to seem very much alike.

They’re both easy and ubiquitous. And getting more easy and ubiquitous all the time.

Refined sugar is everywhere in the grocery store. Granola bars? Check. (Supposedly healthy) Soups? Check. Emergen-C for when you’re sick? It’s the first and the second ingredients. Fancy yogurt? Tons of it. It’s in damned near everything that comes in a package. It’s quick, tasty, tempting, and easy. And ad hominem arguments, they’re really easy, too. It’s easier to call someone you disagree with an idiot than it is to explain why you think they’re wrong—or to use your best efforts to persuade them on why they might change their mind.

V.

I’ve had a blog for more than two years now! After two years and 170 posts, it’s had literally (barely) thousands of readers.

The most popular article I’ve written thus far is called the Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus. It’s about why capitalism is making it harder every day to be healthy.

Our sweets are getting sweeter and our booze is boozier and our drugs are getting more potent. Our social media are getting better at devouring our time and attention resources, our streaming TV channels are getting better at making us binge, and our news sources are getting better at getting our clicks. Those sites that don’t pull off this feat cease to exist. The ones that survive keep getting better at getting and keeping our attention.

This means that our entertainment today and our tasty treats are more enticing than at any time in human history. Yay 2018! But it also means that it’s never been harder to resist these temptations. Boo 2018!

VI.

A nuanced, thoughtful discussion is a like a kale green salad with cashews and a touch of lemon. A personal attack on a celebrity is like Count Chocula with chocolate milk and extra marshmallows. Or, if you’re an adult, it’s high-end Malagasy chocolate with caramel and sea salt. You know the former is better for you, but man, chocolate, caramel, and sea salt?

VII.

I remember the first time I ever went online, back in 1995. I couldn’t tell you why now, but whatever reason, the first thing I thought to do was to see what I could find about one of my favorite bands, an obscure country-rock jam-band outfit from San Francisco called Dieselhed.

As a teenager growing up in suburban Denver, I didn’t know a single person who liked Dieselhed. But online I found so many—a whole world of people who traveled around the country to watch their shows, record live tapes, and exchange Dieselhed music.

I knew at that moment, then and there, that I had found my people.[2] I knew, then and there, that after the internet, nothing would be ever the same.

VIII.

If Gizmodo had written an article in response to Sam Altman’s post with the headline, “Contra Sam Altman, here are seven reasons why social shaming of certain forms of speech will provide greater benefit to society than allowing them to continue,” nobody would have read the article. Since their actual post title, “Sam Altman is an Idiot” is the 4th thing that comes up when you Google the man’s name, we can safely assume that lots of people did read it. Or, at least, clicked on the link.

XI.

Avoidance of hyperstimuli is more about what’s left after you get rid of the sugar high than it is about dumping the sugar high.

In lives with less porn, endless sugar, obsession with athletes who play sports on TV, and Netflix and chill, there is more love-making, nutritious food, play, and real human interaction.

And in a world with less shouting online, there is more calm and quiet. There is less feeling that our society, our world, and our own lives are damaged beyond redemption.

X.

We know that salad is better for us than gooey marshmallows. The question, of course, is what do we do with this information?

We could picket our local grocery store with a sign that says, “Down with Frosted Flakes!” but something tells me that’s not likely to be effective. And so, too, an organized boycott of Deadspin and Gizmodo and all sites of their ilk is unlikely to change much.

I believe in nudges and thoughtful choice architecture, but there’s a limit to how well that will work. Because if Facebook optimized for what was healthiest for you, rather than what was most likely to attract your attention, it would just be replaced by another social media platform that was better at getting your attention.

Capitalists are as content to sell you a Hanes t-shirt as a Coach purse. Businesses are looking to make money, and they’re willing to cater to those who want to blend in and to those who want to stand out. They’ll sell you sugary snacks or rolled outs or anything in between. People will find a way to sell you what you want to buy.

Right now, we’re buying (by clicking the links for) the shouting online. We’re buying the insults. We’re buying the personal attacks.

I have the sphere of influence of a small rodent. I know that this blog post will not move the needle of online discourse. But I’m hopeful this resolution (totally unrelated to the turning of the calendar year) to avoid toxic online conversations and people will improve my life. That I’ll be less anxious and upset. That I won’t have that constant, unrelenting feeling that the world is rotten to its core.

As I learned with Dieselhed way back when, there are niches for everything online. It’s just about grooming your little online garden so that it’s a reflection of the life you want. Maybe Metallica’s fan pages were 100,000 times more popular than Dieselhed’s—I’m sure they were. Doesn’t matter.

It’s good enough that you can find your people, and to know that they’re out there.

[1] There are plenty of intellectual types who resort to this garbage, too. One writer who’s recently lost me is Nassim Taleb. I’ve enjoyed much of his writing, particularly this, but then there’s stuff like this, where he calls intellectual-yet-idiot a class of caricatured straw academic who, as best as I can tell, is just a composite of the opposite of him. Sure, he’s a smart and often innovative thinker. But name-calling is still just name-calling. It’s lazy and cheap. It doesn’t reflect well on you even if you’re a writer of Nassim Taleb’s stature (particularly if you’re a writer of his stature).

[2] I never actually became friends with any of those people.

Haidt on the Age of Outrage

Jonathan Haidt on the Age of Outrage. Long, but worth reading in its entirety.

Eliud Ngetich does a fartlek workout in Central Park in NYC. Like a bullet train speeding by cars stuck in second gear.

The same workout in Eldoret, Kenya.

Slate Star Codex on the risks associated with Adderall. I was on Concerta, which is essentially time release Ritalin, from 2006-2010. I developed a tolerance for it where I basically stopped noticing its effects. But, despite the tolerance I had acquired, I also noticed once I had started getting back into semi-serious running that it was causing me to have an elevated heart rate, about ten beats a minute higher than it would have been otherwise. That was compelling enough to make me give it up.

A Beneficial Ruse

One of the only successful surgeons of the 19th century was a woman who pretended to be a man her entire adult life, because that was the only way she could practice medicine at the time.

Last week, my old college cross-country teammate became the first person to coach two separate athletes to national cross-county titles. Congrats, John!

Hugh Hefner died this year. His personality and character left plenty to be desired. Part of me wonders whether his death was a nice bookend to the era of when old men traded power for sex in an open and shameless way, or in a covert and shameful way, and when they were sometimes glorified for doing so.

Without justifying any of that crap, Playboy, the actual magazine, had some genuinely great moments.

On a more pleasant note, here’s a heart-warming video, just in time for the Holidays. It’s a compilation of Russians doing very kind things, filmed on dash cams.

Why Deny the Obvious, Child?

Yesterday, I read this article on FiveThirtyEight about whether, “Passing The Tax Bill [Would] Help The GOP In 2018?”

The conclusion was “probably not.”

I tend to agree, but not for the reasons mentioned in the article.

The tax cut won’t go into effect until 2018. Which means that the effects of the tax cut won’t be felt by most people[1] until April 2019. Whatever the impact of the policy—good, bad, or indifferent—its actual consequences won’t come about until well after the 2018 election.

But somehow in a 1500-word article about whether the tax bill would help the GOP in 2018, the fact that its impact would happen after the election never seemed worth mentioning.

As Hanson would say, politics is not about policy.

Why deny the obvious, child?

[1] Except for those who estimate taxes quarterly, which is only about 10% of the population.

Simler and Hanson on Our Hidden Motivations in Everyday Life

[Update: December 17, 2017, with comments from Hanson]

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson recently published The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. It’s a book that might best be understood as a 400-page-long elaboration of the following blog post by Hanson, written nearly ten years ago:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The book is about the elaborate dance between the pleasant sounding, prosocial, altruistic motives we project to the world and the selfish motives that often underly our behavior.

I’ve long enjoyed the writing of both Simler and Hanson, and so I will confess I that was predisposed to like the book. I was not disappointed. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and easily digestible read on a difficult subject.

The book is an excellent survey of the literature on evolutionary biology, self-deception, and the biology of self-deception. The authors draw from the research of Trivers, Tooby, Haidt, and others.

The key thesis is not just that we are blind to our motives, but that we are strategically blind to our motivations. That we are evolutionarily designed to provide post-hoc rationalizations for why we do what we do, but that it is often not in our best interests to fully know the real motives.

First, we’re suggesting that key human behaviors are often driven by multiple motives—even behaviors that seem pretty single-minded, like giving and receiving medical care. This shouldn’t be too surprising; humans are complex creatures, after all. But second, and more importantly, we’re suggesting that some of these motives are unconscious; we’re less than fully aware of them. And they aren’t mere mouse-sized motives, scurrying around discreetly in the back recesses of our minds. These are elephant-sized motives large enough to leave footprints in national economic data.

As an example, imagine someone who gives to charity. If the real reason for that giving is not only a genuine care for others, but also a desire to look good in the community, according to the authors, the best way to sell that false motivation is to actually believe that the real reason for giving is a genuine care for others.[1]

The authors quote Trivers, who says, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”

Politics is about coalition building rather than pure policy. Art is about showing off how much leisure time we have to perform challenging and hard-to-replicate tasks rather than beauty. Religion is about norm enforcement and hard-to-escape community bonds rather than divine inspiration. Education is about conformity, day care, and socialization rather than learning.

Nearly all of our social activities have hidden subtexts that are about more than what we politely discuss in public. These are our hidden motives in everyday life.

When I talked about this book with my wife, she said, “that’s interesting and probably at least partially true, but what do we do with that information?”

It’s a good question. It’s probably the question most people will ask themselves as they read the book.

Funny she should ask. It just so happens that this question was the central focus in the book’s last chapter and conclusion.

This was also what I considered the weakest part of the book.[2]

The authors’ primary answer to the question is “situational awareness.”

That’s all well and good when the goal is to detect others’ bullshit, but an alarm went off in my head in the “Physician, Heal Thyself” sub-chapter.

After all, if one of the main theses in the book is that self deception is strategic and lack of self awareness in terms of our motivations serves a critical evolutionary purpose, how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic?

We cannot “deceive ourselves to better deceive others and simultaneously strategically benefit from doing the opposite.

This seems flatly contradictory. If the very trait that is strategic in its absence can also be strategic its presence, then neither trait would be strategic. The whole book is about not-P and then the last chapter says, “But P!”  The Elephant in the Brain is an anti-self-help book, and that’s ok. It might be the best anti-self-help book I’ve read. But in the last chapter it reverses course and goes into full-on self-help mode.

The correct answer to the question of “what do we do with this information?” is probably “situational awareness of our self deception, though interesting, might not be that helpful in terms of our own behavior. That’s why we were designed with this lack of self awareness.”

But that’s not what the authors say. Instead, they try to rationalize why this brand of situational awareness is helpful, and how it can be used in our personal life and in business.

The authors state that, “Savvy institution designers must therefore identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve.”

If taken literally, this is horrible advice! Savvy institution designers will do no such thing. Elon Musk would not be a better entrepreneur if he were aware and openly stated that his real motivations for building his companies were not just the betterment of the human race but rather the glorification of his own ego and the raising of his own status.

If Stanford and other elite institutions advertised that their education was available for free to everyone and that the real value of a degree was because of a bald, zero-sum elitist credentialism; if churches advertised that the real reason for their elaborate ceremonies and overwhelming institutional demands was to demonstrate shared commitment and community-enforced norms rather than because of divine inspiration; if companies acknowledged that the real purpose of the business is for the ego-glorification and wealth-creation of the owners, rather than for whatever garbage is spouted off in the mission statement; if a political party admitted “what we’re really trying to do is raise the status of these groups and lower the status of these groups,” then all of these institutions would immediately and irrevocably unravel.

Such rational instincts make for bad coalition building. And weak coalitions make weak institutions. Tooby says:

People whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to “rational,” scientific propositions have a problem when—as is generally the case—new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member—at risk of losing job offers, one’s friends, and one’s cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.

Savvy institutions have dogma. Savvy institutions have mission statements. Savvy institutions have mottoes, creeds, and fight songs.

Savvy institutions do not acknowledge their own inconsistencies.

Institutions that acknowledge their own weaknesses, biases, and inconsistencies are weak institutions.

This is why rationalists struggle to organize a meetup of 20 people in a metro area of two million people, whereas the Mormon Church and Islam are growing as fast as they are. This is why you’ll never meet a 3rd-generation Unitarian.

It would appear that the authors fell into their own trap—wishing for a pretty benefit to ascribe to our awareness of our hidden motivations, when the rest of the book tells us that the opposite is true.

Either way, this doesn’t take away from the greatness of the book on the whole. The overall work is still well worth reading. If any of these concepts are new to you, reading this book will make it hard to look at much of anything you do in the same way again.

[Update: Hanson replied to this post twice on Twitter. I’ll give him the last word]

“Did you see us say: ‘Even when we simply acknowledge the elephant to ourselves, in private, we burden our brains with self-consciousness and the knowledge of our own hypocrisy. These are real downsides, not to be shrugged off.'”

and

“You ask ‘how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic?’ We didn’t mean to suggest that the gains from situational awareness will usually outweigh these harms. We just said ‘There are benefits'”

[1] The authors would probably acknowledge that charity is at least partially about the selfless act of giving, but would emphasize that we are programmed to emphasize the pleasant-sounding aspect our selflessness when doing so while concealing our more selfish desires beneath the surface.

[2] I’m not normally inclined to focus on what I believe to be the most negative aspects of an author’s work. But in this case, Hanson claims that he prefers direct, frank criticism. So here goes.

Nothing to See Here

For about 1500 years, humans were better than machines at chess. In 1997, the world’s best chess-player computer beat the world’s best human. From 1997 to 2017, the best human-computer teams were better than the best computers at chess. Now as of this week, humans have no value to add against the best computer chess-playing teams.

Nothing to see here. Please move along.

Apparently, significant loss of neurons is not a normal part of aging.

Great David Chapman piece on fake insights. Explains why many of the times when we achieve “breakthroughs” or major discoveries what we really discovered was a sleight-of-hand trick.

Feeling blue about the all the shenanigans going on in DC? Maybe this will cheer you up.

On the Benefits of Status Flexibility

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

One underrated virtue is the concept of status flexibility.

So much of American society is obsessed with spending every spare minute of life clawing the way to the top of whatever ladder you might find yourself on.

Sometimes, relative status matters. But not always. Though you won’t hear many people talk about it, sometimes you can actually improve the quality of your life by playing lower status roles.

Consider the concept of the first follower, as espoused and explained by Derek Sivers:

By attaching one’s self to a higher status person as a follower, rather than trying to be a leader, you can raise your own status. This is the basic principle behind finding a good mentor, finding a Ph.D advisor, or brown-nosing any high profile member of your community. In many ways, it’s easier to ride the coattails of someone who already has prestige than to try to achieve prestige directly.

Further, by playing the low status role in your initial conversations with new people you meet, you can raise your status long term. This is a critical subtext in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, perhaps the most important self-help book of all time.

Here are the key tenets of that book:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people
  • Smile
  • Remember a person’s name
  • Be a good listener
  • Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so
  • To be interesting, be interested
  • Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering
  • Talk in terms of other people’s interests
  • Make the other person feel important

In sum, play a role that temporarily increases your neighbor’s status, rather than worrying about your own, ,and you can reap rewards (or you can just have friends who enjoy your company).

And though obvious, it’s worth mentioning: It’s easier to play low status roles than it is to play high status ones. If everyone tries to go through the door first, there will be logjam at the entrance. Best to open the door for your neighbor instead. You avoid the rush, and you be considerate while you’re doing it.

This may sound a touch cynical, but consciously deferring to others—and being content deferring to others—in most situations is among the most prosocial things you can do. Most of society’s conflicts arise when two or more people are clamoring for status. Avoid needlessly clamoring for high status when it doesn’t matter and you avoid many conflicts.

Of course, most of us  have a desire to play the hero at least some of the time. But the savviest are careful about picking their battles.

Trying to be a leader all of the time is a guaranteed path to  stress and turmoil. Every society needs people who will play roles of modest status most of the time for it to continue to function. Not only is that rational, but it’s totally healthy. Whether you’re ultimately looking to angle for higher status in your preferred field, just looking to fly under the radar, or even if you just want to live a life of peace, consciously accepting a flexible stance on status is an effective strategy to get there.