Books, blogs and tweets all collide, the news stream is part of our personal narrative. Thoughts swirl in a giant vat as more are pumped in, never able to reach critical mass. Let me attempt to fold all these ideas together.
1 – A tragedy in endless parts
Economists are different from the rest of us, but as time goes on you begin to realise they are the more interesting than everyone combined.
One such economist is Robin Hanson. You might have heard of him. Hanson’s entire schtick is postulating on obtuse thought experiments. He goes quite out of his way to write and think about things that no one else is writing or thinking about, if only to show how limited the average writer or thinker is. I have to admit that sometimes I have a hard time comprehending his posts on Overcoming Bias, but at the very least I try to work through over and over what he is trying to say. That’s kinda the key here, folks. You gotta try and understand what the other person is saying, not ‘read into’ their words. I mean, it’s a bit of a fine line, but go on, surely you’re a smart cookie. Demarcation is very important.
But of course if you talk about rape or sex a certain subset of people are going to assume you are being ‘creepy‘. All the articles that have come out against Robin are great examples of emotioneering fronting as journalism. It’s a weird form of literalism in that there are certain words that trigger a response, and context or nuance goes completely out the window. I don’t necessarily agree with Robin’s ideas of equality, but taking his ideas seriously is important. Unfortunately for the majority of his detractors this does not even occur to them. In Robin’s Tweet above, what he is getting at is that – and I can attest to this, right now, in fact, because my mental capacity strains to haul it all in – people are incapable of doing everything at once. That is, you are either able to take a thought and see it from every angle because you care about truth, or you narrow your vision because you care about what other people think. And there are a lot of people to care about. Your average internet user is too busy worrying about how they appear to others (i.e. nice and respectable) to have even the capacity to think about something a little outside the bounds of regular thought structures. And they are already so hyper alert that just reading the word rape or something not overtly ‘anti-x’ will spin the outrage machine into action.
As an economist, I am sure Hanson would appreciate the idea that people are invested in certain modes of thinking. The human brain does not have unlimited energy nor hard drive space. Whenever one of these outrage mobs coalesces, a lot of energy is able to be directed at the target, as scores of minds are directly bootstrapped together. And the real tragedy lies in the fact that at the end of the day they are all going to forget about Robin and move their energy on to another target. The laser either breaks through the shield or gets diverted to a new target that has appears on the radar.
That is not to say that in the meantime there is not plenty to leverage. Since the initial incident there have been countless think pieces by the intelligent and not so intelligent. Like with Trump, the media love a good bit of outrage. It gives them clicks and ad revenue. But the problem is it creates a feedback loop. You can’t necessarily trust the word of any writer these days, least of all someone quickly writing a hit piece. Often these journalists or writers are emotionally invested in the topic. See Example A. This woman a) completely misses the point and b) delights in the suffering of others, so long as she and hers get results. It’s about power, as evidenced from her concluding line, ‘…I can sometimes see just how much of that power is already long gone.’ Never mind any long term downsides, all that matters is that now and in the near future women are able to be completely single and independent and still get all the sex they want.
Through all of these attacks Robin managed to not only weather them, but absorb them and fire their energy out again. He used every objection as a case study to further contemplate our motivations. He, along with Kevin Simler, even wrote a book about our hidden motivations, called Elephant in the Brain. These people were not even aware that they were taking part in an experiment. They were always on Robin’s terms. See, the thing everyone missed is that there is a system at work and you can see it if you know what you are looking for, if you are able to peek behind the words and outrage and see things as they really are. Allow me show you.
2 – Uruk, hi.
Lou Keep has written an absolutely riveting collection of posts on his blog called the Uruk series. It is ostensibly about nihilism in society, but through the lens of four books we see its aspects: the state, the crowd, the individual. These bodies play off against each on other and accelerate nihilism to its end point, which of course is still over the horizon. There is plenty more despair to go around yet. Death is not nihilistic. Death is a release valve. It could also be a goal depending on your view point (certainly not the case with transhumanists). Each entry in the series builds on the last, with exponential increases in realisation. Keep manages to string the ideas of each book together cohesively, even concisely despite the massive amount of knowledge he is distilling.
What has this got to do with a tenured economist? The attacks on his person are mostly from narcissists, screeching women and male feminists. Society has destroyed our metis or common ways of seeing things. Good manners have completely gone out the window. All that matters is reaction time and never backing down. Everyone is frustrated as hell. To these narcissists there is nothing but appearance, and if you appear to be a Bad Man, well, your time is up.
There are a number of interesting ideas covered by Keep, so let’s whip through and compare. Metis is an important one.
Metis, on the other hand, is a kind of accumulated, experiential knowledge.
This is what communities build. This is what tradition is. What economists tend to do is upset metis, though I would give it to Robin that he is at least one economist who tries to see our underlying motivations and accounts for that, hence his tendency for left-field thoughts. They are only left-field because the State has put its hand into every aspect of our lives. The woman in the above Medium piece (let’s call her Subject H as in hysterical) is happy that the State has intervened. Or so it appears. What is more apparent is her frustration at the system, and her desire to see metis upended.
Uruk also explores the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The author of The Great Transformation, Polyani, explores some related themes, namely the double movement:
The people will want protections, and they’ll be pushing for political power, but the only acceptable political terms are “economic” in this very restrictive sense.
Now where I have seen this before? Oh right, in the rantings of people like Subject H. All economic power needs to be redistributed to women, consequences be damned! Economic equality for all, but let’s not even contemplate how we deal with sexual inequality. This builds off the previous idea of the State messing around with how things have always worked, because then the people push back and try to fix things (usually through such wide-eyed utopian ideals like democracy). It’s very easy for the state to make things better ethereally, but not in ways that matters. How does greater poverty and a growing GDP pair? As Polyani explains:
The paradox vanishes once you realize that “richer” means only in terms of wages, and that the full range of wealth that existed before is not taken into account.
The curse of policy.
We see in Subject H and everyone who spoke out against Robin being very, well, frustrated. This is caused by the above meddling, and it leaves them open to mass movements. This is where the Russian Revolution came from, this is where Fascism came from, this is where current populism has arisen from. And it is also the cause of modern day feminists and SJW politics. People are frustrated as hell by all the meddling of the State and, heck, they just aren’t going to put up with it any more. Keep sums it up:
If the base of a mass movement is supplied by frustrated people, then any “good” movement will be outcompeted by one better at impossible, frustrating goals. It’s just a numbers game, the one with more frustrated individuals is the bigger movement. Hence, the type of actions that a “successful” movement (as in, successful at being a movement and nothing more) uses are meaningless, repetitive, and aimed at solidifying identity without achieving anything else. They frustrate the base more. The very best are those that frustrate a whole lot of outsiders, too, whether by actively interfering or at least convincing them that the things they find meaningful are really meaningless. The movement that does this recruits from the biggest pool possible.
The worrying thing is that Subject H and her ilk are going to stay frustrated for a very long time. And so will the incels.
The final step along the road to nihilism is narcissism, and never has it been more abundant that in our society today.
Keep describes it as follows:
Narcissism is essentially about the weird tension between making everything about you while also hollowing out the self.
We think modernity invites narcissism willingly, but it is actually a defence mechanism against the modern world. Not a very good one, and there are other options, but it is defensive nonetheless. Subject H is a great example. Her rant appears to focus on all those other women. You don’t deserve sex so other women can gain power! But it is projected for an image of herself. All those people ranting against Robin can barely comprehend what he is trying to say, and in responding they show their narcissistic inclinations – how they interpret his words is not protecting others, but a reflection of their own self-image. They have to take a side, a predetermined side in many cases. Their outrage is always taking him literally, never seriously. And it is foolish to never take a reflection seriously. It isn’t about Robin at all, but about each and every person mirroring each other.
The issue that Lou Keep touches on, and which the Hanson debacle is a microcosm of, is one of interpretation. No one understands each other, and yet everyone is spouting their own truth on the matter. These truths are used as power plays (and in the case of the State, they have a monopoly on power already). This is remarkably similar to how the Bible has come to be interpreted; everyone has a different opinion on the Word of God. (No, I am not comparing Robin to God.)
(Or am I?)
All this reminds me of Thomas Aquinas. Let me explain.
Aquinas discusses in quite some detail the difference between respecting a person and respecting their nature.
It follows, accordingly, that respect of persons is opposed to distributive justice in that it fails to observe due proportion. Now nothing but sin is opposed to virtue: and therefore respect of persons is a sin.
What we tend to focus on is merely the dressing over the people. The state doesn’t see the true worth of tradition, mass movements rise up and give everyone a voice, and narcissism is nothing but imagery. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the welfare state, and nor am I in favour of sex redistribution. The reasoning is touched on by Aquinas. None of this shuffling of resources is given out because of the nature or actions of people, but in mere respect of them being persons. Modernity forces us to focus on persons and not actions as the State isolates us from communities, economics harries us, mass ideologies flow and narcissism provides the mindset of adhering only to appearances, and even reflections of appearances. We live in sin; we respect people too much.
3 – We are all very far from normal
Loneliness, narcissism and nihilism are all tied together. We might think that just because we live in a large city we are automatically connected with other people. Most likely, far from it. What’s the difference between being alone and loneliness? The ability to detach and the inability to attach, respectively. But how do we get this message across succinctly?
I recently read a book that I urge you all to pick up. I would almost go so far as to say it is a modern classic. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a recent bestseller in the UK and it is ostensibly about how Being Kind is a net good for society and the individual.
For me, whether the author intended it or not, it is the perfect portrait of the typical modern citizen, and more importantly, the typical modern woman. Eleanor suffered a great tragedy in her youth, and we see her life now touched by the State: she was moved between foster homes and now has regular meetings with a social worker. She has a perfectly competent job, but is socially poor. She, like everyone else, gets swept up in ridiculous notions such as romantic love and ‘going to gigs’ as some form of fulfillment. And finally, Eleanor is extremely narcissistic in the sense that Lou Keep describes in the Uruk series. It is a defence mechanism, and she thinks she is special and unlike others. The author does a remarkable job of actually showing the way she makes everything about her, in her own mind, while never quite acknowledging the complete emptiness of herself (until the end when she embraces normie life).
There is an incredible materialism to her outlook on life, and at one point she says, ‘I’ve never made a sausage roll. I don’t suppose it’s terribly difficult, though. It’s only pastry and mechanically recovered meat.’ Never mind the skill and love that goes into making any worthwhile meal, no, it’s all just matter. She is content to eat pesto pasta every night because it contains enough nutrients. She floats herself in vodka every weekend, but she isn’t an alcoholic, of course not, she’s not a real alcoholic. By the end of the book she still doesn’t find a partner and is living with a cat. She is the literal embodiment of the hopeless case that is many modern woman. She can say she is OK all she wants but it doesn’t make it true. It’s a sort of willful blindness, and at one point she remarks that:
Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself.
There is much more in the book. For example, Eleanor goes on about how manners have disappeared from the world (“I find lateness exceptionally rude.”), and Lou Keep in the Uruk series notes that:
Manners have run their course, in Lasch’s time but even more for us: now you can wear sweats to the park, the concept of a salad fork activates dyspepsia, and the boss goes by “Jeff”.
The book shows us what is important in life: having community connections. Knowing people and more importantly knowing yourself. But in order to achieve this one has to change. Like so many modern people, Eleanor struggles to break out of her safe routine. She is stuck in stasis. But stasis doesn’t save you from death. There is an interesting theory that depression and other disorders are actually defence mechanisms against suicide, and when they fail we kill ourselves (so depression is a symptom of suicidal thoughts, not the other way around). Eleanor does attempt to kill herself when the reality she created falls apart, but thankfully she is saved. This is when her self-awareness kicks in. She muses:
I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.
It is only when she stops pretending that she is Completely Fine and embraces change (i.e. in her case, making friends) that she is able to stave off death. And here, I think, we get to the crux of the Robin Hanson debate:
Eleanor Oliphant thinks she wants a romantic relationship, but in the end realises this is a lie. In the book she never has sex, nor even enters a loving relationship. Instead she receives a platonic friendship and a connection with her peers. Interestingly, one of the main male characters in the book is depicted as an ‘incel’. He plays videogames, dresses slovenly, and has a bad sense of humour. And yet in this book he still manages to bang the hot girl (no, not Eleanor). Something, something, subconscious-desires-of-the-author. But back to Eleanor. One of the main demons she defeats is loneliness. Human contact of any sort, something Eleanor does not even understand at the start of the book, is vital to our continued survival. And Robin Hanson is talking about this. Sure, he mentioned sex – gentle rape and cuckolding – but what incels really want (heck, what all of us really want) is human connection. And the modern woman, after all their liberation, refuses to give it. To her it is just about sex, consent, harassment and male privilege. If all of the writers above have taught me anything, it’s that the system tries to atomise us. It’s only now that this process is finally creating an negative externality. Economic factors always have a delayed reaction.