The Empire ‘Likes’ Back: Soft Power and Authority in the 21st Century

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The Brink of a 21st-Century Empire?

From the vantage point of 2020, the soft exit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan (née Markle), from a starchy royal life for a Netflix–backed Royal Life™ is an innocuous, tabloid fascination. From the vantage point of centuries of civilization, it is potentially an historic event. The transition of the Duke and Duchess from obedient servants of the Crown to freewheeling influencers of “the streaming platform that brought you The Crown,” sits at the nexus of ancient and modern power — of primaeval royalty and digital reach. In this marriage of three estates — the Crown, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley — is the template for a 21st-Century empire.

Rule Britannia

Monarchy is one of the most powerful inventions of the replicators that brought you humanity. It allows a generation of a family to stamp its mark upon the future to a far greater degree than does heredity alone. Whereas the first monarch’s mark upon each generation is successively halved in terms of heredity, her influence is undiminished in terms of political power: Queen Elizabeth II is only 1/16th related to Queen Victoria but she is every bit the Queen, perpetuating up to this minute her family’s reign.

Monarchy has been one of humanity’s dominant answers to the questions of what ensures intergenerational cultural persistence; what allows the transfer of political power; and what confers legitimacy upon the seat of political power. It is the story of conquests, constitutions, fratricide, regicide, and revolutions. It is biblical. It is an agonist of the great wars of the 20th Century. It is a force whose legacy continues to shape most of our present world whether we realize it or not.

Monarchy exists in positive law — at the ends of barrels and bayonets of Lee Enfield rifles — but also in cultural legitimacy. It was only the revolutions of the 18th and 20th Centuries — American, French, and Russian — that dissociated monarchy from 10,000 years of the natural law itself — the unquestioned order of man, nature, and nature’s god. Based on that track record, monarchy is among the fittest memes ever to exist on Earth in the minds of men.

In two sentences, the memetic fitness of an Empire was dramatically scaled back:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, July 4, 1776.

While “Rule Britannia” is no longer a regime imposed around the globe by the end of a rifle, its progeny remain the dominant forces defining human life the world over: the English language, empirical science, the United States of America, the industrial revolution, the Anglo-American common law, the transcontinental global market, the Turing machine (or “computer”), and the World Wide Web. In five British names — Newton, Bacon, Locke, Darwin, and Smith — you have the basis of modern science, philosophy, politics, law, and economics. Add in Bentham, Mill, and the King James Bible and you arguably have the basis of modern morality. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but it continues to shine on its memetic, cultural legacy.

The Fittest Meme

The first two decades of the 21st Century have seen, as Marin Gurri puts it, a crisis of authority: the Arab Spring, Brexit, the election and presidency of Donald Trump, the declining sway of legacy media and expert institutions, the balking of international institutions in the face of a global pandemic. Paradoxically, it is the very dominance of the legacy of Rule Britannia — a global anglophone civilization linked together by the technological descendants of British (or at least Anglo-American) inventions, the computer, the Internet, and the modern corporation — that has eroded the authority of the elite class that administers that legacy.

Fittingly, two of the most elite members of the most elite class, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex of the British Royal Family, have decamped from their formal station for greener pastures in the “influencer” game.

Being royal has historically carried the distinct advantage of avoiding market competition. One’s place atop the hierarchy was ensured without having to dirty one’s hands in the rough and tumble of the marketplace. Now, the Duke and Duchess would prefer to compete than to merely sit.

While the very arbitrariness of a royal status insulated from the social signals of one’s fellow men led to the political Declaration that justly struck a great blow against monarchy, that very insulation itself was an advantage of the royal system that could (though certainly did not always) redound to the benefit of society as a whole. Where democracy risks (and must provide republican institutions to counteract) tyranny of the majority and tyranny of faction, monarchical tyranny against the majority and against faction could protect minority rights and the general welfare. Not having to respond to the short-term, kinetic demands of the demos could lead an otherwise enlightened statesman to make unpopular but beneficial decisions for the long-term, static wellbeing of society.

Social media has been maligned for destabilizing democracy. To the extent it does, it is because it overdoses democracies on democracy itself. Every voice — no matter how false, fatuous, or destructive — is heard and can be repeated endlessly. Institutions from universities to corporations to newspapers to governments tread carefully around and cater to the whims of the digital demos. In a world where the lowliest jester can take down the mightiest king, the Duke and Duchess would rather be off the throne and in the pit.

If handled adroitly, Prince Harry and Meghan can wield the power of the old and new worlds. They hold the most elite original brand of the world’s underlying civilization and are now at liberty to unleash it not above the marketplace but within it.

The original advantage of royalty — the ability to avoid competition — still obtains for the Sussexes to a great extent. They did not need to build an app, top a sport, win a talent competition or an election to reach their current station. The Duchess did need to make it to a certain rung of fame and fashion for entree to her royal status, but its grace is now fully hers. The Sussexes’s followers are baked into the cake. Their royalty makes them inherently interesting regardless of whether they embrace it, renounce it, or do something with it in between — and regardless of whether the rest of us are aware of the ultimate source of our fascination. Not only are the Sussexes starting on third base in terms of followership, but they also don’t have to perform any justificatory cultural function to retain their renown, like winning a world cup or making a platinum record.

This market exceptionalism allows the Sussexes to transcend the short-term incentives of the marketplace like the ancient royals before them. They can be famous without having to play to the crowd. They can be truly influential, since they are not captives of their own fans. That is, as long as they understand the original source of their followership and do not debase their power through fan service.

An Empire of Soft Power

It is apt that the Sussexes are taking the reigns of a nascent cultural venture just as one of the last emblems of British hard power, Hong Kong, is fully dominated by the CCP. The Sussexes have the opportunity to build an empire of stateless soft power through their royalty and the tools of entertainment and social media.

The modern Windsors are gunpowder monarchs without a true command. Yet the power of the Victorians lay as much in their cultural as in their military force. Its royal imprimatur notwithstanding, Victorianism was the rise of, as Deirdre McCloskey puts it, bourgeois dignity — a universally adoptable manner that could confer dignity upon an individual from any rank of society through habit, not birth.

The Sussexes can trade on the dignity of their “birth” while modeling a universal culture for the 21st Century. With the tools of Hollywood and Silicon Valley coupled to their inherent followership they can wield vast cultural force on multiple continents.

Like the leader of a democracy, social media platforms face some perverse incentives. Since their authority and power is derived from the favor of and engagement by the demos, they risk serving the short-term, kinetic demands of their users instead of their long-term, static interests. This can lead them to trade on the tendencies of human nature to engage in immediate gratification and get hooked on informational junk food. Given weaknesses in the human capacity for inter-temporal optimization, a market participant can addict a user by supplying a subjective experience that is a mere iota more pleasurable at the marginal moment of life than the best foregone alternative — even if the aggregate pleasure provided by that market participant is substantially lower (or potentially negative) in the long run when compared to foregone alternatives that failed to appeal at the marginal moment.

Market participants can debase us in their quest to serve us. In that quest, both parties are debased — the pusher and the addict.

If the Sussexes can maintain their long-term resonance regardless of their ability to supply short-term gratification and feed short-term addiction, they can escape the debasement of the commoner influence peddler.

From Wellness to Wellbeing

The high-end influencer game vacuously employs the term “wellness.” A moniker with the connotations of premium-mediocre bourgeois consumption and vague oatmeal-like aromas.

While the Sussexes may easily fall for the temptation of servicing premium-medicore consumerism, the high-road is premium bourgeois. Rembrandt and the Dutch Renaissance were products of the high-end bourgeois. The Sussexes, if they keep aesthetic discernment about them can be more Rembrandt than GOOP.

Wellness points to a less mediocre idea. At the heart of modern ethics lies John Stuart Mill’s meditations on “wellbeing,” the ultimate end of liberty. In wellbeing, Mill unites utilitarian and rights-based morality by defining individual wellbeing as a constitutive feature of the concept as a whole.

A soft-power empire devoted to maximizing human wellbeing is the highest road the Sussex project might take. This road is available to the Sussexes to the extent they can avoid the doom loop of fan service and fan addiction. Escaping perverse incentives, they can focus on their followership’s wellbeing.

This would involve choosing effective altruism over affective altruism in their charitable work: evidence-based high-yield projects over preening photo ops. It would look to Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Raj Chetty for intellectual heft and inspiration.

It would also involve cultivating artistic projects that strive for transcendent excellence over fashionableness. It would look to Roger Scruton, Simon Schama, and Kanye West for inspiration.

Is any of this remotely likely? Who knows. The centrality of mental health to some of Harry’s projects is a promising sign. The tools for individuals to captain their own souls and seek static over kinetic pleasures are essential to wellbeing properly understood and overcoming the doom loop of an addiction-based market. Self-possessed individuals can make market signals themselves point to healthier demands and help raise society to the plane of a virtuous cycle.

If the Sussexes can uncouple high status from high price, untether fact from fashion, and make quality, tasteful design more widely discernible and attainable, they will have launched a project deserving of the word noble.

Currently they are a skunk works for the British Royal Family as a whole. If they succeed, the Royal Family can co-opt their success. We will know this has come to pass if the Empire ‘likes’ them back.

Coverups, Corruption, and inCapacity

China has some impressive institutions. One can decry the immorality of the CCP’s concentration-camp-building surveillance state and obfuscation of a burgeoning global pandemic while also acknowledging, for example, that China’s disease tracing program bore impressive results. (Query whether the U.S. or any Western state would or should (!) tolerate the involuntary commitment of babies and the publishing of an infected person’s entire post-infection whereabouts on a municipal WeChat account.)

Repeatedly, intellectuals in Western democracies embarrass themselves salivating over the perception of uber-competence in authoritarian competitor states. Nonetheless, it can be true, for example, that the Soviets both built Potemkin props to seduce Western useful idiots and also built a genuinely impressive roster of mathematicians (though query whether the Soviets or a deeper Russian civilization did the latter).

While there is something to admire in the speed with which China can stand up a new rail station or construct an airstrip on an artificial island, there is also reason to believe the edifice of CCP state capacity has cracks in its foundation. Literally.

Interesting analysis by Ian Storey in The Diplomat argues that the runways on China’s ostensibly fearsome forward operating bases in the Spratly islands may be too poorly built (hastily laid and at risk of subsidence) to sustain a viable jet fighter presence to establish local dominance.

In addition to inherent engineering challenges with artificial islands, corruption may have hurt the strategic project. Storey writes:

Doubts about the structural integrity of the artificial islands are amplified when the issue of corruption is considered. Despite President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, corruption in China remains endemic, including in the military-industrial complex. For instance, in July 2019 Su Bo, who oversaw the construction of China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was convicted of corruption and jailed for 12 years. And in May 2020, Hu Wenming, the head of China’s aircraft carrier construction program, was arrested and charged with corruption and passing secrets to foreign powers. Corruption in the building industry leads to short cuts and shoddy construction.

Ian Storey, “Why Doesn’t China Deploy Fighter Jets to the Spratly Islands?,” The Diplomat (Aug. 14, 2020).

While there is much to admire (and perhaps fear) in the glittering hardware markets of Shenzen, do not underestimate the extent to which corrupt institutions will bring down even the most technically competent civilizations. Even the most positive interpretations of China’s failure to warn the world about the COVID-19 outbreak pin the blame on the perverse incentives within the CCP regime. As the New York Times reports, “Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.” This is a manifestly unhealthy and unsustainable information conveying mechanism. Much is made of the Chinese surveillance state’s panoptic omniscience — and yet at best the story of COVID-19’s escape is one of Beijing’s inability to discern that middling bureaucrats from the provinces were hiding the onset of one of the greatest human crises in a century.

There will always be dark truths within a society. In many (if not most, if not all) cases, acknowledging and handling that reality is the best path forward. A civilization with institutions too corrupt to detect, surface, and mitigate internal and global threats in a timely fashion is not one that anyone desiring a healthy future should wish to emulate.

My latest for Exponents: Green Tech and the Post-Decadent Society

I argue in Exponents:

Ultimately, it is alchemy – cultural and technological creativity – or as Douthat puts it, the capacity to “imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance” that counteracts decadence. So where to begin the post-decadent project? Well, green technology – to avoid the worst of climate change and, perhaps, transcend yet more spiritual disillusionment.

In the discussion of stalled growth, Douthat paraphrases Tyler Cowen for the proposition that green technologies are “defensive” in nature – helpful for sustainability but “not a world-altering innovation in the style of the steamship or the airplane or the gas-powered automobile that it aspires to replace.”

Douthat’s reservations here are overstated, as sustainability is underrated. In Cowen’s own case for the morality of economic growth, Stubborn Attachments, the watchword is “Wealth Plus,” with the “Plus” encompassing the essential feature of environmental and societal sustainability. To the extent the crisis in cultural confidence Douthat depicts is the result of deceleration and subtle backsliding, even modest steps forward are vital inflection points and potential origins for yet greater ambition. With further imagination, green tech is the beginning of our renaissance.

Imagine a grand bargain that sees a carbon tax enacted alongside wise deregulation – of the Saul Griffith, not C. Montgomery Burns, variety – to make nuclear and solar energy more affordable and devote a greater share of national GDP to research and development. Imagine, as Peter Thiel invokes in a review of The Decadent Society, compact nuclear reactors cheaply powering, with zero carbon emissions, the factories to produce and the electricity to fuel Teslas for mass consumption. Imagine those same reactors powering hyperloops to carry commuters from abundant, affordable, and aesthetic carbon-sink housing to prosperous urban cores. Imagine in the heart of the city (as well as the cloud) Stripe University – educating minds for creativity, not credentialism – where the Department of Progress Studies is pioneering institutional incentives to speed the replacement of compact fission with fusion reactors.

Imagine a reporter from the Srinivasan Post – her retirement fund and children’s college funds secured with assets from initial coin offerings that seeded transformational technologies – delving into her latest in a series of investigations of fusion technology, which help scientists, regulators, venture capitalists, and the public parse PR puffery from bona fide breakthroughs. Imagine students and researchers the world over inspired by those articles to make significant contributions to fusion and other digital science hub repositories – from the COVID-25 vaccine to the Martian Excursion Module repos – in return for their own coin stakes in that technological progress via the a16z “It’s Time to Build” exchange.

Is this future far-fetched? As Douthat might say, have some faith – and let’s get to work.

Check out the rest!

Fashion Before Politics

Perhaps more clearly than any other stories in recent memory, the dual developments of I) public health leaders excusing popular protests from social distancing rules, and II) the mercurial meaning of the #DefundThePolice rally cry have revealed that bitter partisanship in American politics does not stem primarily from disagreements over policy. The rapidly shifting, contradictory definitions of “lockdown” and “#DefundThePolice” from one moment to the next suggest that American political fissures cannot be fully understood as substantive or even ideological differences. This is not to say that the “infinity war” of 2020’s polarized polis has nothing to do with politics or ideology, but rather that political and ideological divisions are artifacts of a deeper source of faction and conflict: an identitarian culture war that predates and will outlive its woke vs. MAGA incarnation.

I.

Take the example of prominent public health voices making exceptions to once sacrosanct prohibitions on public gatherings in order to bless nationwide protests against police brutality and America’s long train of racial abuses. First, it bears emphasizing that police brutality and America’s long history of injustice due to racism are categorically reprehensible, and free speech and assembly in the name of overcoming these evils are categorically right. Without getting into legal complexities around time, place, and manner restrictions on First Amendment rights, that what were once propounded as ostensibly neutral and generally applicable rules to prevent and control infectious disease turned out to have country-mile-wide loopholes for the expression of certain viewpoints — however valid they are — demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of those who backpedalled on their initial public health proclamations but also the unseriousness of their professional commitments.

Of course, the world is a messy place of competing values and tradeoffs. That’s what the skeptics of inflexible distancing and gathering rules have said for some time. It is entirely defensible for anyone considering the totality of the circumstances and manifold dimensions of moral life (rights-based, utilitarian, etc.) to conclude that protesting police brutality and racial injustice is more important than abiding regulations to control infectious disease. What is less defensible, however, is that those who previously allowed no exceptions (moral, political, compassionate, etc.) to the highest-possible good of public health regulations came to advocate, without admitting the shifting bases of their value judgments, for a particular political struggle’s exception to the universal rule. And not only that it qualified for an exception but that it had itself become the highest-possible good, coterminous with the campaign for public health generally.

It would even be entirely defensible, in that vein, to attempt to argue that on a single scale of utilitarian values, over some time horizon, the loss of life due to police brutality would be greater than that due to COVID-19, and that with the sober rationality of a scientist we must cold-bloodedly triage the competing societal tragedies. But note the word “argue.” Some public health officials made conclusory statements that police brutality was as great a public health crisis as, or a greater public health crisis than, COVID-19. But the enlightened technocrats who once browbeat skeptics (and often with good reason) with charts and graphs and models — dispassionate quantitative measures that can be directly compared — all of a sudden did no such thing to justify their new “public health” conclusions.

That humans are fallible and hypocritical is not a terribly interesting observation. But that public health voices could toggle their primary criterion for public policy recommendations from “public health” to “other” is a prime example of the thesis that something other than policy animates our political divide. It is also an example of how something other than ideology explains that divide. On a philosophical axis of authoritarian to libertarian, the public health voices that went from arguing for universal lockdown to nationwide protest vaulted from authoritarian to anti-authoritarian overnight. It is true that the bundle of commitments on the center left has often seen a preference for the heavy hand of the state on matters of economics coexist with a skepticism of state power on matters of policing. Yet consider who was tasked with enforcing the sacred distancing rules of yore. Of course, enforcing the law goes hand in glove with law enforcement. But without any indication of experiencing cognitive dissonance, a prominent body of political voices would simultaneously send in the cops to protect public health and abolish the cops to protect public safety.

II.

When it comes to abolishing the cops, #DefundThePolice is both a prime example of a motte and bailey fallacy and of how cultural styling and posturing trumps political and ideological commitments as the salient criteria of American partisan division and discourse.

#DefundThePolice means many things to many people, running the gamut from radical abolition of the police to longstanding, bipartisan ideas for reforming the police (which some police might even welcome). That it simultaneously means contradictory things is a feature not a bug. It allows the partisan to signal political radicalism that reveals identity, due to how the slogan alienates “the right enemies,” while simultaneously requiring no particular policy preference. Do proponents mean disarming cops, disempowering police unions, ending qualified immunity, changing rules of engagement and limits on the use of force, etc.? It doesn’t matter. Because the primary objective is to demonstrate that one does not want to be seen as a moderate even if one’s policy preferences are moderate.

What About the Other Side?

While the two broad examples examined here tend to come from the left, not much else needs to be added to demonstrate the same phenomenon of cultural commitment dominating political and ideological commitment on the right other than: see President Donald J. Trump.

In addition, while the examination above, admittedly, is a stylized overgeneralization of beliefs on the left, the right can similarly be stylized to reflect the inverse positions but same inconsistencies on the issues above:

LeftRight
Policing– Abolish the cops
– Law enforcement professionals are presumptively compromised
– Send in the cops
– Law enforcement professionals deserve deference
Pandemic– Send in the cops
– Public health professionals deserve deference
– Abolish the cops
– Public health professionals are presumptively compromised

[Epistemic posture: more speculative:] There is also something to be said about inconsistencies on both sides regarding what constitute appropriate terms of debate. This is subject to even greater grayness and more exceptions to the rule than the analysis above, which, again admittedly, was already subject to some grayness and exceptions. Nonetheless, a stylized examination of “left and right” reveal a modicum of internal inconsistency on when it is appropriate to invoke, and how much deference can be given to, statistical and data-driven discussions of societal problems. When it came to the lockdown, certain corners of the right found themselves eschewing data-driven arguments for less contingent value judgments on what the good life entailed in all circumstances. Fair enough. When it comes to policing, certain corners of the left find themselves committed to first principles of justice and dignity that transcend certain bloodless quantitative descriptions of historical trends. Again, fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their “stubborn attachments.”

It is the job of reasoned political discourse to parse the boundaries between “stubborn attachments” and areas for consequentialist compromise — to find common ground among first principles and debate acceptable means toward those common ends. This process breaks down not when some corners hold onto their “stubborn attachments” but rather when those corners view empirical and consequentialist analysis as inherently illegitimate; not when they are unmoved by a type of argument but when they are opposed to the argument itself.

So here too with methodology lies inconsistency within both partisan camps. To once again oversimplify, corners of the right reject empirical analysis of public health but accept it with respect to public safety, and certain corners of the left accept empirical analysis of public health and reject it with respect to public safety.

So What’s Going on?

That the “culture war” is the sine qua non of American political conflict is not a new idea. The question is what beyond being “for it or aginnit” with respect to the typical list of “guns, god, and gays” defines the culture war’s battle lines. Here’s a theory held with intermediate confidence: the fundamental dividing line is fashion.

The fault line that separates two separate bundles of heterogenous philosophical and methodological commitments masquerading as coherent ideological camps is the acceptance or rejection of the legitimacy and high status of a taste-making class.

Broadly speaking, the American left accepts the high status and authority of the taste-making class and the American right rejects it. Fashions evolve but the present-day camps’ general veneration or rejection of vogue for vogue’s sake does not.

The taste-making class largely but does not entirely overlap with the “elite.” Wealth is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a tastemaker. The taste-making institutions are themselves like Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus — the components may change completely but the identity of the institution holds over time. In fact, the tastemakers’ position is among the most tenuous in society — they are eminently replaceable planks in a permanent ship.

The taste-making institutions occupy the upper rungs of cultural creation and dissemination: media, entertainment, and academia. Fashion is the emergent product of the internal and external incentive structures that govern these institutions. Fashion is the net constellation of memes, and their derivatives, that these institutions propagate and confer high status upon.

Social media has enhanced fashion’s relevance. It has made signals of cultural status ever more present and ever more important. While social media has created new outposts among the upper rungs of media, entertainment, and academia, it has not fundamentally changed the fact that these rungs are the redoubt of fashion. It has made the reach of legacy fashion institutions much farther and has turbocharged the meme competition among the top rungs of culture, since the barriers to cultural transmission have been lowered, which, in turn, created a race to the top that raised the barriers to high status.

This is not to say that the right categorically rejects the output of fashion. Rather the right reserves the option of refusing to attest to the quality of a given fashion product. Whereas the left accepts a fashion product’s quality as an inherent property of the authority of the institutions that produced it.

The right is skeptical of the high status of the lockdown and #DefundThePolice whereas the left embraces the lockdown and #DefundThePolice because the signifiers themselves are high status, regardless of what is actually signified — the terms of the lockdown and the meaning of #DefundThePolice, after all, are entirely rewritable.

The Transience of Memory: Let’s Remember Where We Parked

In a win for innovation, Eric Schmidt apparently helped the U.S. Air Force apply software to mid-air refueling. The New York Times reports:

At an Air Force facility in Qatar in 2016, Mr. Schmidt visited officers who scheduled flight paths for the tankers that refueled planes. They used a white board and dry-erase markers to set the schedule, taking eight hours to complete the task.

Mr. Schmidt said he recalled thinking, “Really? This is how you run the air war?” Afterward, he and others at the Defense Department worked with the tech company Pivotal to ship software to the officers.

This sounds like a welcome efficiency gain. I just hope we remember how to use the white boards. I would bet there is accumulated knowledge and cognitive skill embodied in the expert flight path whiteboarders that we can’t fully understand or replicate without either carefully recording the current state of knowledge or having to retrace over time the same slow path by which the knowledge evolved in the first place.

Don’t underestimate our incapacity to recall how to perform complex and essential processes following a periodic lapse in use. There was a period when we lost the knack for manufacturing a key ingredient in nuclear warheads. At one point, there were fears we lost the capacity to manufacture F-22s. While those fears proved unfounded when an audit uncovered the necessary tooling, the concern itself proves the difficulty of regaining embodied knowledge that goes missing.

This is where Schumpeter meets Hayek. Creative destruction can birth a better way, but it also means that gradually-accumulated and embedded knowledge will be razed.

Even elephants can go missing from the historical record. In the jaws of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and economists ponder how much civilization forgot about the 1918 flu, not to mention the 1957 flu, not to mention our 2006 preparations for pandemic flu.

Given the difficulty of holding onto low-frequency, high-amplitude knowledge, one might expect competent civilizations to produce and then hold sacred value-laden documents, such as constitutions, religious texts, and commandments.

My first for Exponents: Neoliberalism – The Cause of Surveillance Capitalism?

FRIEDRICH VON HAYEK 1981 Austrian economics and political philosopher in Gothenburg

I argue in Exponents:

Protecting sanctuary in the home against encroaching technology is valued by diverse thinkers. Hayek and Zuboff would seem to agree that the economic logic of the market can run amok when it breaches the threshold of the private home. Yet instead of dismantling the economic engine, we ought to let it operate in its appropriate domain. The role of law in confronting the loss of contextual integrity due to modern technology can be to preserve the historic separation between the intimate and extended orders. The home could be made safe from even more digital prying eyes. The power of Big Tech can be harnessed to optimize the globalized world, while at the same time it is kept out of the modern hearth.

Do read the whole thing.

Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia

Alexis de Tocqueville (*This portrait is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.)

For many problems, local and preference-sensitive solutions are more efficient and effective than distant fiats (e.g., U.S. university-based network computing was far more advanced than Soviet computing). However, local preferences themselves can be inefficient (e.g., single family home owners opposing new construction). Between market mythologizing and top-down, central planning lies an option of preference cultivation.

Local cruft and inertia often need to be fracked. But centrally-chosen alternatives leave much to be desired. For example, well-run charter schools employing common core materials can outperform stagnant district schools, but the common core can stymie good teachers. Centrally-imposed solutions might raise the floor but lower the ceiling.

What if we could raise the floor against the wishes of vested and complacent special interests opposing reform but also raise the ceiling against arrogant technocrats demanding standardization? What if local preferences themselves could be reformed without the need for preference-denying guardrails. It would be like having a market that eschewed fast food instead of requiring a mayor to tax or ban it.

Incentives and self-interest matter. An individual teacher’s union member can understand where her bread is buttered and oppose non-unionized charters competing for students and per-pupil funding. That’s rational. But it may not be rational on a longer time horizon. One generation may benefit from an inefficient allocation. But the next generation will be left with underperforming schools and unaffordable public employees.

Civilization is premised on one generation caring about the welfare of the next. Somewhere among those with vested interests lies concern (even if overshadowed by other considerations) for the long-term well being of the community or at least one’s own progeny. (Note: civilization will not work without progeny.)

Individuals’ understanding of self-interest can be expanded to “self-interest properly understood” a la de Tocqueville. Horizons can be broadened, consequences can be ascertained, lessons can be learned, and tastes can be made. Rejecting those premises would mean rejecting any possibility for education, political persuasion or cultural transformation. Those premises would seemingly have to be accepted by both the left and the right, otherwise why do people ever open their mouths?

If education is at all possible, preferences can be changed. Preparing market and political participants to better understand their own self-interest as enmeshed in long-term community values, and cultivating their preferences accordingly, should lead to better outcomes.

Continue reading “Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia”

In Defense of Dilettantism

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Gains from Multiple Competencies

Odds are good that there are unrealized gains from more people being competent in more than one discipline. While specialization is undoubtedly a foundation of so much that we value, and it ought to continue to be, we probably don’t have too little of it.

As deep specialization leads the most talented and most knowledgeable further down esoteric rabbit holes — albeit important ones — our experts become less competent at communicating about, collaborating on, and evaluating work across fields.

Opportunities

Given how much specialization there is, there is low hanging fruit for those that can traverse specialties and live at the borders between them — with each foot in a different realm.

While we can hope for talent that can reach expert status in more than one field, and we will likely continue to see some such polymaths, there probably won’t be many of them. There are much better odds that there will be more people who are quite good at one thing and not half bad at another.

It’s a bet worth taking that incentivizing talented people to develop useful knowledge in additional fields in which they may not be the best but can still be perfectly alright will yield dividends.

At Present

Academia and the professions encourage specialization.

The demand for specialization slots people into areas in which they have the highest comparative advantage. For professionals, this will often mean one’s “best subject” from a GPA standpoint.

Based on academic incentives, it’s rational now to avoid risky experimentation in what are not one’s best subjects.

Where We Can Take This

It’s a bet worth taking that we can realize gains from incentivizing and not penalizing students for seeking to be: an ‘A’ Mathematician and a ‘B+’ Historian, an ‘A’ Pre-Med and a ‘B+’ Computer Scientist, an ‘A’ Graphic Designer and a ‘B+’ Economist — and so on in really any combination of disciplines where one is extraordinary and merely ordinary.

Innovation and Competence

Within and across disciplines there are at least three key competencies:

  1. Raw Skill (literacy, numeracy, and other acuities),
  2. Knowledge (memory and experience), and
  3. Creativity (capacity for novel recombination, generation, and synthesis)

We likely prioritize these competencies in that same order as one works one’s way up the academic and professional ladder. It is only after proving one’s Skill foundation (entrance exams), that one gets to delve into Knowledge (coursework), and it’s only after reaching a certain level of respectability that one’s Creativity (tinkering) is at all accepted.

Obviously some degree of mastery and working competence must precede productivity. But we are probably too rigid in enforcing this typical path, especially since the distribution of the three competencies — as with everything else — will likely have high variance.

Raw Skill would seem to correlate with how quickly one can scale the heights of a field, but Knowledge acquired slowly is knowledge all the same. It should be considered a terrible loss that institutional incentives consign one who might be, for example, a ‘B+’ biologist to effectively be an ‘F’ biologist because he or she was likely never going to be an ‘A’ biologist.

Creativity may yet be the most undervalued competency — currently treated like a fun latent bonus that may yet be discovered in someone who already succeeded in measures of both Raw Skill and Knowledge; something that hopefully is found from time to time in some highly Skilled and highly Knowledgeable students after an institution has already finished evaluating and educating them.

The Ultimate Bet

Where this ultimately leads is a theory — again a bet that appears worth taking — that ‘A+’ Creativity coupled with ‘A’ competence in Field X and ‘B+’ competence in Field Y is a more valuable package (capable of more productive and value-adding innovation) than what we currently select for and train: ‘A/A+’ competence in Field X alone coupled with ‘UNKNOWN’ Creativity.