You asked whether I had anything in writing to point you to about the history of the great international debtors' revolt of the 20th century, more commonly called the World Wars. I didn't, and I have had some trouble figuring out what the best approach is, in part because it's not clear who my audience is or which feedback if any is trying to learn something new rather than condition me to say more familiar things. Without an idea of someone who might understand me, there is no such thing as an attempt to communicate. The epistolary format has worked well for me recently, so I am going to try to explain what I know to you, personally, and publish at least my original email, and any back-and-forth you're willing to share.
I want to start by explaining the importance of this history. If I tell you that the old world has been overthrown by a class of debtor-aristocrats, and society converted en masse into a debtor aristocracy, you might think of exemplary cavaliers such as Thomas Jefferson and get the wrong idea. Instead, I'll start with an anecdote about the sort of person I mean, so you can see the relationship between membership in a debtor class, shame, class privilege (including "racial" privilege), and opposition to language. Next I will talk a little bit about the mechanism by which the debtor aristocracy propagates itself. Then I'll go into the chronology of the Money Wars. Along the way I will try to clearly signpost standard search terms, related bodies of recorded knowledge, and particular books or essays that might be relevant, but there are a lot, and I will try to write this in a way that at least potentially stands alone - please do err on the side of asking me questions (or trying to restate things in your own words to check whether you understand) rather than assuming you should do your own research first, because that will help me create a canonical summary I can point others to, and I expect that you are better informed than the typical person I need to explain this to.
The S&P 500 (a commonly used index of large publicly traded companies) has declined in value by around 30% over the last month. How much of this is an event-driven response to the expected pandemic-related reduction in trade, and how much of this is a bubble popping, conveniently blamed on the pandemic? Continue reading →
A lot of people in my social network have been trying to track news about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, which seems like a global pandemic that's going to kill a lot of people. I've found some of this overwhelming and difficult to figure out how to use, until I sat down with a few friends, over the phone, and worked out a simple analytic framework for thinking about some basic decisions. Continue reading →
Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)
Things capitalism is good at:
Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
The obvious: making value fungible
Anyone know of work on -
a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?
This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.
Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.
The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.)Continue reading →
There are a few points I didn't make in my post on blame games because they seemed extraneous to the core point, which are still important enough to write down.
The Pecking Order game is a zero-sum game in which people closer to the center expropriate from people farther from the center, and use some of those resources to perpetuate the power imbalances that enable the expropriation. Players that fail to submit to expropriation by higher-level players are punished by those more-powerful players, often through intermediaries. Players that fail to help members of their class expropriate from those beneath them are excluded from their class, and often coordinated against more overtly.
This game isn't inherently majoritarian, - instead, it allows smaller groups to stably expropriate from larger ones, because every player in the middle has a short-run incentive to go along with the arrangement.
When pecking orders are overt and common knowledge, there can be an element of delegation that allows the pecking order to process some limited amount of information centrally, as a hierarchy. Feudalism is a simple example of the hierarchy game. Modern states almost always have some hierarchical arrangements, such as the police and military, and (less formally) economic class.Continue reading →
Summary: Political constraints cause supposedly objective technocratic deliberations to adopt frames that any reasonable third party would interpret as picking a side. I explore the case of North Korea in the context of nuclear disarmament rhetoric as an illustrative example of the general trend, and claim that people and institutions can make better choices and generate better options by modeling this dynamic explicitly. In particular, Effective Altruism and academic Utilitarianism can plausibly claim to be the British Empire's central decisionmaking mechanism, and as such, has more options than its current story can consider.
Ben: It feels increasingly sketchy to me to call tiny countries surrounded by hostile regimes "threatening" for developing nuclear capacity, when US official policy for decades has been to threaten the world with nuclear genocide.
Strong recommendation to read Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine.
So I get that the US' nuclear policy was and probably is a nightmare that's repeatedly skirted apocalypse. That doesn't make North Korea's program better.
Ben [feeling pretty sheepish, having just strongly recommended a book my friend just reviewed on her blog]: "Threatening" just seems like a really weird word for it. This isn't about whether things cause local harm in expectation - it's about the frame in which agents trying to organize to defend themselves are the aggressors, rather than the agent insisting on global domination. Continue reading →
I've been discoursing more privately about the corruption of discourse lately, for reasons that I hope are obvious at least in the abstract, but there's one thing I did think was shareable. The context is another friend's forthcoming blog post about the politicization of category boundaries.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb recommends that instead of the balanced portfolio of investments recommended by portfolio theory, we follow a "barbell" strategy of putting most of our assets in a maximally safe, stable investment, and making small, sustainable bets with very high potential upside. If taken literally, this can't work because no such safe asset class exists.Continue reading →