Books I Finished in February (Plus a Conference I Attended)
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties By: Christopher Caldwell
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism By: Doris Kearns Goodwin
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey By: Candice Millard
The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer By: Neal Stephenson
God Can't: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils By: Thomas Jay Oord
For the last several years Nassim Nicholas Taleb, along with a few associates, has conducted a week long course on risk, the Real World Risk Institute. As anyone who has followed the blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Taleb, going so far, on occasion, to call myself a disciple of Taleb. As such it was always my goal/dream/plan to attend the institute at some point. However, if you had asked me at the beginning of the year if 2020 was the year for that, I would have laughed, but I had a recurring item on my to do list to at least consider it every year and late in January that reminder popped up. This year, after reviewing my calendar for the week it was being held, and finding it was completely open, while also considering whether any other year would necessarily be better (assuming they even hold it in the future which is never a guarantee). I realized that perhaps this year was as good as it was going to get. Which is a very round about way of saying: I spent the last week of February at the Real World Risk Institute.
Going in I really had no idea what to expect. I had read all of his books of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of the material would be an expansion on that, how much of it would be entirely different, or really what the course work would look like. (I was also really worried about staying awake all day during five days of coursework. Particularly given that my last personal update was all about how I like to take naps.)
It ended up being awesome. As far as Taleb himself, I had always heard that despite a reputation for being savage to public figures and on Twitter in general that he was delightful in person. And that was indeed the case, He basically asked me how I was doing every time I was anywhere near him. He was a genial and humorous lecturer, and I (mostly) had no problem staying awake because the material was so engaging. It was largely stuff from his books, but deeper and more discursive. We spent a surprising amount of time in Mathematica with him showing the formulas behind his various assertions and graphs.
Beyond the actual coursework, I met a lot of great people as well. I ended up sitting next to an admiral, talking to people from all over the world including places like India, Iran, and Switzerland, and overall making some great connections. It was genuinely a fantastic experience. Though as you can see it left me a little light on the number of books I finished:
I- Eschatological Reviews
First, because I couldn’t figure out where else to put it, I’d like to start by mentioning an interesting statistic the book includes on the opioid crisis. In order to put the crisis into perspective Caldwell mentions that during the post Vietnam heroin crisis deaths spiked to 1.5 per 100,000, and that during the crack epidemic deaths spiked to 2 per 100,000, but that the opioid crisis has caused deaths to spike to 20 per 100,000, and in West Virginia the rate is actually 50 per 100,000. And yet, it’s only been recently that they’ve gotten anywhere near the same amount of coverage as the first two crises. I bow to no one in my concern of the opioid crisis and related deaths of despair, but even I was shocked by the disparity.
I hadn’t seen anyone else mention that comparison, so I thought I’d get it out there. Where most of the people who review this book end up going is to Caldwell’s contention that America really has two constitutions. The first, created in 1787, is the one we all think of when someone mentions the US Constitution. The second, created in 1964, and commonly called the Civil Rights Act, is not generally viewed as a constitution, but one of Caldwell’s central arguments is that it is, and that from this much of the current political landscape follows as a conflict between the original, de jure constitution, and the new de facto constitution. That, rather than being a natural extension of the original constitution, the Civil Rights Act is in fact a rival constitution, not complementary but actually opposed in most respects to the values of the original.
Having read the book and considered the evidence I see no reason to doubt that this is exactly what’s happening, and that furthermore a reckoning is coming. But it’s not immediately clear what that reckoning will be, one assumes Trump (and Sanders?) is part of that reckoning, and on the very last page of the book there’s the briefest reference to his 2016 candidacy, but that’s it. The lack of any other reference to Trump’s presidency almost makes one wonder if Caldwell is teeing up a sequel. Rather, instead of spending time on Trump, and the various recent discontents, he spends a surprising amount of time on the financial side of things. Which I think has been less remarked on by other people reviewing this book. (At least from what I’ve seen.)
In addition to his “two constitutions” thesis, he puts forth another thesis, which is in some respects more interesting. It goes something like this. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 it essentially opened up the gates of entitlement spending. But, while this spending was still in its infancy it was possible to imagine that things could be stopped or reversed, and indeed, that appeared to be the way things might be headed under Johnson, and even more so under Nixon, but Nixon ended up getting impeached. Which basically put the issue in the hands of Carter. Who actually tried to cut entitlements, and furthermore proposed lean and tight budgets. Whether his efforts contributed to the stagflation of the 70s or not, the timing of that was against him. All of this meant that by the time it got to Reagan entitlements were too entrenched to do anything about, and there was really only one thing he could do: Spend like crazy, cut taxes, and shift the burden of entitlements to future generations.
Certainly Reagan wanted to cut entitlements. He campaigned on getting rid of the Department of Education, and promised to end affirmative action with “the stroke of a pen”. But by the time he came along it was too late, entitlements had already become so embedded that there was nothing he could do, and instead, backed by massive increases in government spending and persistent deficits, the number of people who view entitlements as their birthright has just continued to grow.
I mostly agree with this, but I also think he’s probably conflating two separate things, and not doing a great job of connecting the two. (What percentage of the debt can actually be attributed to the Civil Rights Act?) Additionally I wonder how much of what he’s talking about is genuinely unique to the US and how much is just what Lord Woodhouselee observed in 1791, namely:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.
Is it possible that the only thing which has been added in the modern version of this equation is the ability of people to vote themselves special treatment as well? Perhaps, though it should be noted that most additional rights were granted by the judiciary rather than through a vote. But perhaps in this day and age agitation is more powerful than voting. Perhaps the quote should be changed to:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the people discover they can agitate for largess and special benefits at the expense of the nation as a whole.
What This Book Says About Eschatology
Having covered all of this, what we might call the domestic eschatological implications of the book should be obvious. It used to be taken for granted that while there might be severe crises from time to time in the US, the country’s core foundation was unshakeable. Particularly after passing through the crucible of the Civil War. Increasingly this is no longer the case, the foundation is definitely starting to appear “shakeable” and people are wondering if their confidence might be misplaced. If, perhaps, our system of government might be more fragile than we think.
The book posits two possible avenues for catastrophe, the first and seemingly more immediate problem in Caldwell’s opinion is spending, and much of what Caldwell warns us about is dependent on the assumption that the deficit and the debt are going to turn out to be big problems. I’m obviously on record as saying they are, but there is an increasing minority who argues that the dangers posed by debt are overblown, and maybe spending on entitlements won’t single-handedly blow things up, or at least if it does it will take longer than I think. (It certainly has taken longer than Ross Perot thought it would.) And if that’s the case, perhaps Reagan was unintentionally brilliant when he opened the floodgates of federal spending. But if ongoing spending and entitlement growth are going to kill the country then all that matters is whether it’s going to continue or not. It seems safe to bet that it will.
Even if spending isn’t going to end up being catastrophic all by itself. The book puts forth another possible avenue for catastrophe. One that’s more vague, but in the end probably less tractable. This is the conflict between the two constitutions. As they say, a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject, but I think Caldwell has done something very valuable by pointing out the fundamental irreconcilability between the two visions. That they cannot coexist for very long, one or the other is going to eventually triumph. What will that triumph look like? Will it end up shattering the nation? At a minimum it’s already created some bizarre contradictions, and it’s safe to say these contradictions are only going to get harder to manage, and the conflicts surrounding them more difficult to resolve.
II- Capsule Reviews
This book is what you would get if a biography of Teddy Roosevelt and a biography of Taft loved each other very much, and the offspring of that union was then adopted by a history of turn of the century muck-racking/investigative journalism, and then allowed to grow until it was nearly 1000 pages. And what a book it is.
As usual with books of this breadth I’m not going to be able to cover even a fraction of what I read, but I will offer up a few things I thought were particularly interesting.
It’s hard to overstate how close Roosevelt and Taft were before Taft became president, and how excited Roosevelt was to have Taft succeed him and how much he did to make it happen.
Taft never wanted to be president, his true dream was always to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and he was, eventually). It was really his wife, Nellie, that had all of the ambition. Taft was fine with that as long as she was in a position to support him, but a couple of months after he was inaugurated, she had a pretty severe stroke, and things instantly flipped from her being able to support him, to him spending a lot of time supporting her. It’s one of those things that doesn’t get much attention, but you can imagine an alternate universe where she didn’t have a stroke and things were very different.
Roosevelt’s wife was the opposite. She hated the limelight and was a very private person. Also, she was his second wife. His first wife died of Bright’s Disease (kidney failure) two days after the birth of their first child. And just eleven hours earlier, upstairs from where his wife would die, Roosevelt’s mother died at the age of 48 from typhoid fever. (His father had died six years previously.) Roosevelt would never talk about his first wife, even going so far as to leave any mention of his first marriage out of his autobiography.
Roosevelt only became president because McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. That much everyone knows, but he was only vice president because conservative New York “Machine” Republicans, opposed to the progressive agenda he was pushing as the state’s governor, wanted him out of that office, and contrived to offer him a role where he would be essentially powerless. Roosevelt knew what they were up to, but the trap was so cleverly constructed he couldn’t get out of it. But when McKinley ended up dying in office it backfired spectacularly.
As part of Roosevelt’s platform for president, when running against Taft, he wanted to subject judicial decisions to being reviewed and overturned by plebiscites, where a simple majority of the people could annual any judicial decision. A proposal so radical that even with the enormous fights over the Supreme Court currently taking place, I’ve never heard of it being suggested again. (Figuring out why that is would make an interesting post of its own.)
Taft and Roosevelt did eventually reconcile, and had a few more years of being close friends before Roosevelt died at 60. You may be wondering why he died comparatively young. If so make sure to check out the next review.
Beyond those brief takeaways, I was particularly struck by one very distinct parallel between that time and ours: both now and then people and politicians found themselves in the middle of a media revolution. In Roosevelt’s time it was the revolution of investigative journalism, and he managed to partner with these journalists in a masterly fashion in his pursuit of progressivism. This partnership is the primary reason Goodwin titled the book “The Bully Pulpit”. But even as Roosevelt took advantage of the muckrakers, he also warned that they could go too far. That at some point journalism would reach a point where it would be so dominated by the search for scandal that, in response, the government would be able to do very little other than respond to those accusations, leaving hardly any time for the actual business of government to take place.
This is interesting given how much scandal there actually was at the time. Corruption was endemic in a way that’s hard for us to imagine (I know people will disagree with me on this, but I don’t think Trump comes even close) and at the time nearly every politician of a certain age had engaged in it to one extent or another. As a result uncovering scandals was easy and productive, particularly at the beginning, but as all the “low-hanging fruit” was uncovered, the muckrakers had to dig deeper and deeper to uncover new scandals to satisfy the appetites of their readers, which is precisely how they got their name. And Roosevelt worried that as things continued the government would be spending so much time on scandals that it wouldn’t have any time left to govern.
I understand that our own situation is not identical, and that there certainly still are active scandals that should be uncovered, but when you look at the kind of things that have happened historically, most of what counts as a scandal today is almost laughably minor by comparison. And the situation gets even worse when we compare the size of the scandal to the level of outrage it generates. And yes, this is a complicated topic, coming as it does, shortly after Trump’s impeachment. (FYI, I think I would have voted the same way Romney did.) But considering the topic more generally, I do think that pointing out wrong-doing (much of it imagined) is easier than ever, the outrage generated by it greater than ever and that both have contributed more than we think to the dysfunction of government, in much the way that Roosevelt imagined.
By: Candice Millard
This was in my audible library, and having finished the one book about Roosevelt it seemed only natural to immediately move onto another book about him while everything was still fresh in my mind. Though in most respects, despite it largely being about the same person, this book reminded me more of the survival books I’ve read recently than any presidential biography.
Like many true stories where people barely survive, this book starts with heavy foreshadowing, mentioning all the bad choices that get made before the journey even starts, all of the decisions that will come back to haunt people, and all of the past events which, while seemingly inconsequential at the time, nevertheless manage to have profound effects on the journey.
After reading River of Doubt I’m actually surprised that Roosevelt’s story wasn’t featured in any of the survival books I’ve previously read. Because as far as coming close to death, I think Roosevelt and the rest of them came as close to death as anyone I read about in those other books. For example, at one point Roosevelt had decided to take a lethal dose of morphine because he’s been badly injured and the injury is infected, leaving him unable to continue. The only reason he didn’t is that his son, Kermit, is on the trip, and he not only manages to talk Roosevelt out of it, but manages to convince the rest of the party to try this insane scheme for getting their canoes past some particularly difficult set of rapids. As it was, even though he survived, the journey clearly shortened TR’s life, by possibly 10-20 years.
As you can imagine from all this, it was a truly epic story, with death, suffering, courage, stupidity and betrayal. I think it’s possible to disagree and argue about Roosevelt the politician, but when it came to his philosophy of the strenuous life he definitely practiced what he preached.
By: Neal Stephenson
Late last year I decided that I was going to start doing deep re-reads of selected books. This is the first book I chose. Having finished it, I realize it deserves a full post, because there’s so many great things going on (along with a few head scratchers). But I would like to include one of my favorite quotes from the book, to give you a taste of why I like the book so much:
"You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices," Finkle-McGraw said. "It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others--after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?"
"Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others' shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour--you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.
"We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy," Finkle-McGraw continued. "In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception--he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing."
"That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code." "Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved--the missteps we make along the way--are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power." All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.
By: Thomas Jay Oord
Late last year Oord emailed me and said he liked my podcast, which was enough to convince me to read one of his books and see what his philosophy consisted of. Which eventually led me to this book...
As I’ve blogged about extensively, the theological problems of suffering and evil have been around for a very long time, at least since the time of Epicurus who is said to have come up with this the initial trilemma around the topic:
If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?
As you might have guessed from the title of the book Oord’s answer, is that it’s the first option, “God is unable” or in pithier terms, “God Can’t”. But he adds a very large caveat to this assertion: It’s not that he is not omnipotent, rather he refuses to control us. From the jacket:
God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. God loves everyone and everything, so God can't control anyone or anything.
As explanations go, this one has a fair bit going for it. It allows God to be every bit as loving as you can conceivably imagine. A being who would entirely remove evil and suffering, but just can’t without diminishing some of his love through unrighteous control. It definitely fulfills the primary requirements of allowing God to be loving and omnipotent while still explaining suffering. And on top of that it’s straightforward, it doesn’t rely on mystery, i.e. saying things like “God’s ways are not our ways.” All that said, I think it ends up generating its own trilemma:
If God can’t control “anyone or anything” then why do we do things like pray?
But clearly, to the extent Jesus is God, he certainly controlled at least some things. For example controlling diseases by healing them.
If God can control some things, like diseases, and those things cause suffering, why do they still exist?
I admit it’s not quite as pithy as the original trilemma (or even a true trilemma) and I’m equally certain that Oord has an answer. But if he did I’m still a little fuzzy on what that answer is. Also I have my own theory for why God permits evil and suffering (and which has backing from recent work on AI Risk) and for obvious reasons that’s the one I’m going to stick with. But it was intellectually stimulating to read someone else’s explanation.