“I’ve been inside elite institutions of many different sorts, and discovered the horrible truth that most of the people in them are just ordinary people making it up as they go along, but one place I hadn’t quite made it yet was the top of our disease control agencies.2 So in a bit of naïveté analogous to Gell-Mann amnesia, I just assumed that there was some secret wing of the Centers for Disease Control which housed men-in-black who would rappel out of helicopters and summarily execute everybody in Wuhan who had ever touched a bat. And I was genuinely a little bit surprised and disappointed when instead they were caught with their pants down, and a bunch of weirdos on the internet turned out to be the real experts (the silver lining to this is that now we all get to be amateur scientists).”https://www.thepsmiths.com/p/review-central-banking-101-by-joseph?ref=thediff.co
It’s difficult to square this circle but on the one hand I’m someone who has Tom Nichols’ Death of Expertise on my bookshelf and on the other I spend a fair amount of time wondering how we have made it this far as a civilization when incompetence is rife. The issue is that this doesn’t mean we have to wholesale dismiss the entire system, but we must rather figure out how to return to decentralization, and also, trust in even the ordinary people we want to run our affairs, but avoid any semblance of worship. This is another reason I despise both Obama- and Trump-worship: They’re not special, they may be smarter in some ways than you (probably/definitely not Trump) but they make up for that with commensurate flaws. In the words of AWOLNATION: kill your heroes.
“The average American—branded, for the first time, as “The Consumer”—was now confronted with easy money from lots of institutions, some new and some old. State-of-the-art personal finance companies and old neighborhood banks, the newly developed stock market and the long-trusted retailer all offered new ways to purchase, even without substantial wages or savings. Middle-class buying and borrowing habits changed drastically. American households’ consumer debt more than doubled over the course of the decade, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of household income. It went from $3.3 billion in 1920 to $7.6 billion in 1929, and, after hovering between 4–6% in the first two decades of the 20th century, it jumped to 10% in the third. After declining from 1900 to 1916, real debt per household nearly doubled in the 1920s. Urban mortgage loans to homeowners and businesses also doubled over the course of the decade.”https://americancompass.org/flapper-economics/
The converse to these points about consumerism, the morality of thrift versus debt, etc. is that such decentralized ownership is the mechanism whereby massive projects can actually be accomplished, e.g., skyscrapers, interstate highways, significant research, dams, etc. Now, are all those worthwhile? You could argue maybe not, but some you have to concede are incredible contributions. The answer lies, as always, in the balance. Could we be stockholders without succumbing to consumerism? Of course – the wealthy among us use credit primarily as a tool.
“But it was only in 2020 that the risks became truly evident. Jack Ma—the founder of Alibaba, China’s richest man, and a role model to younger entrepreneurs—criticized the Party’s handling of financial reform, and then disappeared for months. Regulators postponed the I.P.O. for Ant Group, another of Ma’s companies, and fined Alibaba a record $2.8 billion for antitrust violations. Similar disappearances and penalties swept through one industry after another: education, real estate, health care. The Party explained that it was targeting inequality, monopoly, and excessive financial risks, but some of the arrests seemed personal. Ren Zhiqiang, a real-estate tycoon, received an unusually harsh sentence of eighteen years on corruption charges, after someone leaked an essay in which he mocked Xi as a “clown stripped naked who still insisted on being emperor.”https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/10/30/chinas-age-of-malaise?ref=thediff.co
The big question of the 2020s geopolitically probably is what will become of China, and the signs aren’t looking great. Developed nations are too intertwined for a violent break to work, while its tottering economy requires loyalism and exports.
“Belloc advocated various methods to combat economic centralization, such as different tax structures to disincentivize what we’d now call chain stores. The larger one’s operation becomes, the higher tax one pays. There is effectively a penalty on bigness. Belloc wishes to turn our attention from thinking in terms of consumption (“what can I buy?”), which is the attitude of the “wage slave,” to liberty (“am I economically independent?”). Economic liberty is only achieved by ownership of productive property. Belloc would likely look at modern economies and conclude, despite our vast wealth and access to truly stupendous consumer goods, that we are not really free since most of us are wage earners, not entrepreneurs or proprietors. Belloc is constantly attentive to the problems of centralization. Note in our day, as in Belloc’s, the ability of wealth to use its power to curry favor with government, secure regulatory capture, and set up barriers to entry that discourage competition.”https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2023/07/the-liberty-to-value-common-goods-a-review-of-the-political-economy-of-distributism/
As the world encounters massive demographic crises in a few short decades, it’s not unreasonable to think employee-owned enterprises will become much more popular as a way to outcompete for immigrants or really any labor.
“When we relate to the world through an LLM, we treat reality as a standing reserve from which we expect to frictionlessly receive answers to any question that comes to mind. We don’t have to study. We don’t have to endure frustration. We don’t have to weigh opposing perspectives. We don’t have to imagine alternative ways of seeking answers. We don’t even have to “torture” nature in a Baconian sense. We just type in a query and hit enter. Questions that cannot be answered in this fashion become less interesting and imaginable.”https://www.plough.com/en/topics/life/technology/what-problem-does-chatgpt-solve
Chatbots may not end the world, but LLMs will probably make us dumber. That’s my crude contribution here, but really, you should read the beautiful piece above by my long-ago acquaintance Jeff Bilbro.
“Recent studies have highlighted the connection between our diet, use of antibiotics and our gut bacteria in the development of allergies. A 2019 study led by Nagler showed that the gut of healthy infants harbored a specific class of allergy-protective bacteria not found in infants with cow’s milk allergy. This was followed by a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that found that five or six specific strains of gut bacteria in infants seem to be protective of developing food allergies. A lead researcher on that study, Dr. Lynn Bry, surmised that our lifestyles are, for better or for worse, capable of “resetting the immune system.”https://www.noemamag.com/modernity-has-made-us-allergic/?utm_source=hackernewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=learn
An interesting little thought re modern life I’ve had, especially in the context of “safe spaces” due to “triggering” is that as much as we try, we simply can’t protect ourselves from everything. Moreover, it’s bad for us.
“He fixed things often and silently. Grandpa just cared about things working. He had an instinct for not just broken things but soon to be broken things. He would point out risky work, bad decision making in the form of shoddy materials or shifting angles. He was offended by the trace measures left in the world that signified short-term planning. So I learned that this too had something to do with craft. He had a visual vocabulary that amazed me. I think about how he could see these details. He saw choices and constraints and tensions and frictions where I just saw chairs. He saw effort where most people just saw end products.”https://www.drcathicks.com/post/on-craft?utm_source=hackernewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_term=fav
The unintended consequence of consumerism, diminishing populations and inexorable growth in pursuit of the next quarter’s earnings all have produced a world of junk we don’t know how to fix. Yet, geopolitical trends may start taking matters into their own hands and forcing us to respect craft and repairs again.