This is the mindset that enabled northwest Europeans to exploit the possibilities of the market economy

Friday, January 18th, 2019

There is reason to believe that northwest Europeans were pre-adapted to the market economy:

They were not the first to create markets, but they were the first to replace kinship with the market as the main way of organizing social and economic life. Already in the fourteenth century, their kinship ties were weaker than those of other human populations, as attested by marriage data going back to before the Black Death and in some cases to the seventh century (Frost 2017). The data reveal a characteristic pattern:

  • men and women marry relatively late
  • many people never marry
  • children usually leave the nuclear family to form new households
  • households often have non-kin members

This behavioral pattern was associated with a psychological one:

  • weaker kinship and stronger individualism;
  • framing of social rules in terms of moral universalism and moral absolutism, as opposed to kinship-based morality (nepotism, amoral familialism);
  • greater tendency to use internal controls on behavior (guilt proneness, empathy) than external controls (public shaming, community surveillance, etc.)

This is the mindset that enabled northwest Europeans to exploit the possibilities of the market economy. Because they could more easily move toward individualism and social atomization, they could go farther in reorganizing social relationships along market-oriented lines. They could thus mobilize capital, labor, and raw resources more efficiently, thereby gaining more wealth and, ultimately, more military power.

This new cultural environment in turn led to further behavioral and psychological changes. Northwest Europeans have adapted to it just as humans elsewhere have adapted to their own cultural environments, through gene-culture coevolution.


Northwest Europeans adapted to the market economy, especially those who formed the nascent middle class of merchants, yeomen, and petty traders. Over time, this class enjoyed higher fertility and became demographically more important, as shown by Clark (2007, 2009a, 2009b) in his study of medieval and post-medieval England: the lower classes had negative population growth and were steadily replaced, generation after generation, by downwardly mobile individuals from the middle class. By the early 19th century most English people were either middle-class or impoverished descendants of the middle class.

This demographic change was associated with behavioral and psychological changes to the average English person. Time orientation became shifted toward the future, as seen by increased willingness to save money and defer gratification. There was also a long-term decline in personal violence, with male homicide falling steadily from 1150 to 1800 and, parallel to this, a decline in blood sports and other violent though legal practices (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions). This change can largely be attributed to the State’s monopoly on violence and the consequent removal of violence-prone individuals through court-ordered or extrajudicial executions. Between 1500 and 1750, court-ordered executions removed 0.5 to 1.0% of all men of each generation, with perhaps just as many dying at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial (Clark 2007; Frost and Harpending 2015).

Similarly, Rindermann (2018) has argued that mean IQ steadily rose in Western Europe during late medieval and post-medieval times. More people were able to reach higher stages of mental development. Previously, the average person could learn language and social norms well enough, but their ability to reason was hindered by cognitive egocentrism, anthropomorphism, finalism, and animism (Rindermann 2018, p. 49). From the sixteenth century onward, more and more people could better understand probability, cause and effect, and the perspective of another person, whether real or hypothetical. This improvement preceded universal education and improvements in nutrition and sanitation (Rindermann 2018, pp. 86-87).

Macroeconomics is a combination of voodoo complex systems and politics

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

In a recent interview, Shane Parrish asked Naval Ravikant, What big ideas have you changed your mind on in the last few years?

There’s a lot on kind of the life level. There’s a couple, obviously, in the business level. I think on a more practical basis, I’ve just stopped believing in macroeconomics. I studied economics in school and computer science. There was a time when I thought I was going to be a PhD in economics and all of that. The further I get, the more I realize macroeconomics is a combination of voodoo complex systems and politics. You can find macroeconomists that take every side of every argument. I think that discipline, because it doesn’t make falsifiable predictions, which is the hallmark of science, because it doesn’t make falsifiable predictions, it’s become corrupted.

You never have the counterexample on the economy. You can never take the US economy and run two different experiments at the same time. Because there’s so much data, people kind of cherry-pick for whatever political narrative they’re trying to push. To the extent that people spend all their time watching the macroeconomy or the fed forecasts or which way the stocks are going to go the next year, is it going to be a good year or bad year, that’s all junk. It’s no better than astrology. In fact, it’s probably even worse because it’s less entertaining. It’s just more stress-inducing. I think of macroeconomics as a junk science. All apologies to macroeconomists.

That said, microeconomics and game theory are fundamental. I don’t think you can be successful in business or even navigating through most of our modern capital society without an extremely good understanding of supply and demand and labor versus capital and game theory and tit for tat and those kinds of things. Macroeconomics is a religion that I gave up, but there are many others. I’ve changed my mind on death, on the nature of life, on the purpose of life, on marriage. I was originally not someone who wanted to be married and have kids. There have been a lot of fundamental changes. The most practical one is I gave up macro and I embraced micro.

I would say that’s not just true in macroeconomics, that true in everything. I don’t believe in macro-environmentalism, I believe in microenvironmentalism. I don’t believe in macro-charity. I believe in micro-charity.

I don’t believe in macro improving the world. There’s a lot of people out there who get really fired up about I’m going to change the world, I’m going to change this person, I’m going to change the way people think.

I think it’s all micro. It’s like change yourself, then maybe change your family and your neighbor before you get into abstract concepts about I’m going to change the world.

The barbarian invaders had one thing the civilized Incas did not

Monday, January 14th, 2019

James LaFond praises the barbarians who took down the overly civilized Aztecs and Incas:

The Aztecs were besieged and in crisis, having lost their entire empire before the small pox killed 9 in 10 of them. So you are correct, this was not a win by disease but by deed. What did them in, primarily — and Barbara Tuchman in her March of Folly makes the best case for this — was their excessively civilized and fatalistic slave mind set, which had the entire nation acting in slavish obedience to a superstitious fool, Montezuma. As Bernal Diaz relates, their city was the greatest in the world surpassing any in Europe in all ways, from sanitation to food distribution to obedience to the law. All of this contributed to their fragility in the face of the Barbarian invaders, who fought over who was to be their leader up until the time of battle. Cortez usurped the leadership of the expedition.

Secondarily, the Aztecs had embarked on the folly of empire, enchaining slave races to their cruel will, races all too ready to ally in their hundreds of thousands with Cortez.

Now to the Incas, in which even fewer Aryan Barbarians took down an empire many times more powerful than the Aztecs. The Incas had bronze axes, maces and flails and stone weapons which defeated Spanish helmets. One Inca detachment even defeated a Spanish force in a fairly even battle. Again, the slave mind of a people whose king was a living god defeated the Incas, even as their vast army, which would have slaughtered the Aztecs and was organized much like the Roman Legions, stood obediently outside of the city where their fool leader and all of his officers agreed to meet unarmed with the 150-odd armed invaders. They never imagined that 150 armed men would kill all 20,000 of them [this in itself indicating a lack of heroic mindset] as their leaderless slave army watched from the surrounding hills. To their credit, the Incas, having already suffered heavy disease losses before the encounter through third-party contact, fought on for 40 years. However, their imperial system turned on them as the Spaniards used their road networks and stone fortress cities and recruited allies from their subject peoples. Agriculturally, the Incas were the most advanced civilization on earth at this time, but militarily they were barely into the Bronze Age. However, there have been studies done showing that they could have easily won and kept the Spaniards at bay while reverse engineering technology and using captive Spaniards as craftsmen much like the Japanese did hundreds of years later.

What really killed the Incas was that they had homogenized their people to a degree not seen until postmodern America, forcing tribes to give up their identity and moving them to alien places, enforcing communal food distribution, and finally softening to the point where they were unable to conquer the barbarian peoples to north, east and south. As with Rome before the Germans and Persia before the Macedonians, and then America before the drug cartels with its interstate system after, the centralized nature of the empire and the highly developed road network, blessed their invaders with godspeed.

But these incidences were only partially a lost defense and very much a gained conquest. The Barbarian invaders had one thing the Civilized Incas did not, a heroic ethos, which gave their enemies no rest as the Pizarro Brothers and the ruthless Soto descended on the faltering empire [already in the midst of a plague and a civil war] like wolves on sheep, which are what barbarians are to disorganized civilians.

Where Athaluppa sat stoically at Cajamarca and was burned to death in the very fire that melted down his sacred relics into bullion, even though he could have called in his armies to kill the invaders as he burned, not many years later we are related to an example of how Pizarro, his conqueror, behaved in the every same circumstance, when surrounded by Barbarian cutthroats. In the land of the Inca, not so far from where Athalupa died stoically as an ascendant Sun God, Pizarro and his assistant were attacked by five armored conquistadors while wearing only clothes and swords. While his secretary groveled, Pizarro cursed him and his assassins, tore a drape from the window as a shield, and well into his sixties, took some of his killers to hell with him.

What doomed the Incas is they were too civilized and this was permitted by an erasure of the heroic — if indeed they ever had a heroic ideal — from their martial culture. The heroic ideal did rise up [or reemerge] in the form of renegade Incas as a result of this cultural clash, but too little and too late.

The perfect counterpoint to these two civilizations being failed by their leaders and failing to rise up as a people, but remaining slaves to the alien invader to this day, is found in the Anabasis of Xenophon, or The March-down-to-the-sea. When the 10,000 leaderless Greek mercenaries sat by under orders while their leaders were murdered at a parley with the Persian army which vastly outnumbered them, the Greeks simply elected new leaders and fought their way free. Had the Inca army outside Cajamarca been made up of ancient Greeks the Spaniards would have been butchered that afternoon. It was the Anabasis which convinced Alexander that Persia was ripe for the picking.

The behavior of Conquistadors was that of independent rogue operators, often criminals in a state of disobedience to their government handlers, a shining half-century in masculine history when men reverted to the ancient Homeric ideals of heroism, cunning in the face of an alien foe and brutal natural selection among themselves to determine who was fit to lead the small barbarian pack in its descent on the soft, degenerate fold of Civilization, with its quivering neck bared to the ever-reoccurring cycle of cleansing barbarism that remains humanity’s last hope.

I highly recommend Bernal Diaz Del Castillo’s The Discovery And Conquest Of Mexico, by the way. I’ve been meaning to read Xenophon’s Anabasis forever.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian Guest.)

For the black market, everything stays the same

Saturday, January 12th, 2019

Gun ownership is rising across Europe, the Wall Street Journal reports:

The uptick was spurred in part by insecurity arising from terrorist attacks—many with firearms, and reflects government efforts to get illegal guns registered by offering amnesty to owners.

Europe is still far from facing the gun prevalence and violence in Latin America or the U.S., which lead the world. World-wide civilian ownership of firearms rose 32% in the decade through 2017, to 857.3 million guns, according to the Small Arms Survey, a research project in Geneva. Europe accounts for less than 10% of the total.

But Europe’s shift has been rapid, and notable in part because of strict national restrictions. In most European countries, gun permits require thorough background checks, monitored shooting practice and tests on regulations. In Belgium, France and Germany, most registered guns may only be used at shooting ranges. Permits to bear arms outside of shooting ranges are extremely difficult to obtain.

Strict registration requirements don’t account for—and may exacerbate—a surge in illegal weapons across the continent, experts say.

Europe’s unregistered weapons outnumbered legal ones in 2017, 44.5 million to 34.2 million, according to the Small Arms Survey. Many illegal weapons come from one-time war zones, such as countries of the former Yugoslavia, and others are purchased online, including from vendors in the U.S.


Armed robbery and similar crimes often entail illicit guns, while legally registered firearms tend to appear in suicide and domestic-violence statistics, said Nils Duquet of the Flemish Peace Institute, a Belgian research center.

“It’s clear that illegal guns are used mostly by criminals,” he said.


In Germany, the number of legally registered weapons rose roughly 10%, to 6.1 million, in the five years through 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to Germany’s National Weapons Registry. Permits to bear arms outside of shooting ranges more than tripled to 9,285, over the same five years.

Permits for less lethal air-powered guns that resemble real guns and shoot tear gas or loud blanks to scare away potential attackers roughly doubled in the three years through the end of 2017, to 557,560, according to the registry.


In Belgium, firearm permits and membership in sport-shooting clubs has risen over the past three years.

Belgian applications for shooting licenses almost doubled after the terrorist attacks by an Islamic State cell in Paris in Nov. 2015 and four months later in Brussels, offering “a clear indication of why people acquired them,” said Mr. Duquet.


Belgium has for years tightened regulations in response to gun violence, such as a 2006 killing spree by an 18-year-old who legally acquired a rifle.

“Before 2006, you could buy rifles simply by showing your ID,” recalled Sébastien de Thomaz, who owns two shooting ranges in Brussels and previously worked in a gun store.

“They used to let me shoot with all my stepfather’s guns whenever I joined him at the range,” said Lionel Pennings, a Belgian artist who joins his stepfather at one of Mr. De Thomaz’s shooting ranges on Sundays.

Mr. Pennings recalled that in the past he could easily fire a few rounds with his stepfather’s gun. “Now it’s much stricter,” he said. “You can only use the guns you have a permit for.”

A Belgian would-be gun owner must pass almost a year of shooting and theory tests, plus psychological checks, said Mr. De Thomaz.

The gun-range owner questions the impact of that policy. “With each terror attack, the legislation gets stricter,” he said. “For the black market, everything stays the same.”

Les Gentils, les Méchants

Saturday, January 12th, 2019

Voilà! Les Gentils, les Méchants:

(With a tip of the chapeau to a certain ami.)

The sensation of a continuous sharp trill

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

The US embassy in Havana halved its staff when diplomats came under sonic attack:

The mysterious wave of illness fuelled speculation that the staff had been targeted by an acoustic weapon. It was an explanation that appeared to gain weight when an audio recording of a persistent, high-pitched drone made by US personnel in Cuba was released to the Associated Press.

But a fresh analysis of the audio recording has revealed what scientists in the UK and the US now believe is the true source of the piercing din: it is the song of the Indies short-tailed cricket, known formally as Anurogryllus celerinictus.

“The recording is definitively a cricket that belongs to the same group,” said Fernando Montealegre-Zapata, a professor of sensory biology at the University of Lincoln. “The call of this Caribbean species is about 7 kHz, and is delivered at an unusually high rate, which gives humans the sensation of a continuous sharp trill.”

Scott Adams adds his hypnotist perspective:

If you tell a hundred random people they were attacked by a sonic device, twenty will have symptoms. You can test it without the noise.

I’m not tainted by these times that we live in

Tuesday, January 8th, 2019

Ryan Holiday has noticed that people can’t even learn from history anymore because they don’t like a given person. Robert Greene has seen the same thing:

Well yeah, I had a recent example on social media that was so irritating. One of the people in the book is Coco Chanel. And I’m a great believer in trying to find as many women examples as possible. You’re writing a book on human nature — it is kind of absurd to have 90 percent of the stories about men as if that’s assuming that men and women are exactly the same. Clearly there are differences. So I believe in that aspect of finding. And so I looked into her, and I found her story extremely interesting.

Now, of course, in the thirties and forties, she flirted with Nazism, and she definitely was tainted by that. And rightly so — she had kind of weird fascistic ideas that can be traced early in her life and for various reasons. And I brought that up in the story and then I say how she kind of rehabilitated herself in the fifties with her great comeback and bringing her line of clothing back, et cetera. And I get this kind of a-hole on Facebook — who’s somebody I know and I’ve met before — and he’s clearly really bitchy and kind of upset with my book for whatever reason. And he brings out: “Well yes, but she was this Nazi, this fascist and you know, isn’t it interesting how fashion and fascism were kind of linked, et cetera.”

And this whole thing explodes, and I try to make the comment that there are plenty of other people in history we can pick apart. Pablo Picasso supported Joseph Stalin well after everybody knew what an evil dictator he was. So does that mean we can’t appreciate anything that Picasso ever did or wrote before that? The French writer, Céline, whom I really like a lot, wrote some amazing novels like Journey To The End Of The Night. And, in the forties, he also had a flirtation with Nazism. As did Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound’s poetry is fantastic. Céline’s novels are amazing.

Can you separate the flaws some people have with perhaps some political thing that came up in their life from their work or find some value or some lessons to be learned from them? Chanel is this amazing story of a woman who overcame all odds — an orphan from sheer poverty who created one of the most powerful fashion houses ever in history. Well, can’t we learn from that? Oh no, because of this taint on her, we can’t even go near her, she’s radioactive.

And when I made that point, all these incredibly snarky comments came up and these people said, “Oh, well, I guess it’s okay to support Nazism as long as you make beautiful clothes,” or whatever. All this kind of really ugly arguing, and I had to leave the discussion because when it gets to that point, it’s so irrational, there is nothing you can say or do anymore.

One of the main points of my book is to understand that we’re all flawed. We need to get over our fucking sense of moral superiority, which is probably the most aggravating quality in twenty-first century life — people’s insane sense of moral superiority as if, because of their posts on Facebook or their pathetic little blog where they support some righteous cause, they are superior to other people. It’s so much a part of modern life and it’s this need people have in times where things are a bit dark. It’s this sense of, “Oh, I’m not tainted by these times that we live in, I’m superior to it, I’m superior to other people, I’m good, I’m angelic,” et cetera.

It’s about airing your grievances

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Robert Greene sees modern identity politics as self-defeating:

Traditionally, the favorite tactic of people in power, who want to maintain power, is Divide and Conquer — to find some way to keep the public divided so that there’s never a large enough group of people to challenge them. And so, when you go into identity politics and you identify what’s right or wrong to the narrow group that you belong to — assuming that it is narrow — you’re kind of playing into the hands of those who are in power because the only way to overcome an entrenched power system is through numbers, through unity, through finding some cause or way of uniting people.

It’s been the story throughout history of any kind of successful insurgency movement. Trying to overcome an entrenched power structure — you need numbers. You need something that will rally the vast majority of people. We sort of see that a little bit now with the kind of riots that are going on in France now — what they call the yellow vest movement — where it’s got a really broad base of support. It’s kind of a very weird mix of the Right and the Left. I’m not saying that it’s a justified cause or that it’s great, just that, if you really are after power, that’s what you need to do.

But a lot of identity politics isn’t really about power, it isn’t about wanting to change the system. It’s about airing grievances, feeling wronged and wanting sympathy and to sort of play the role of the victim. Because if you really were thinking about power — if you’re really thinking about, let’s say you want to win this election, you want to get rid of Trump, identifying Trump as probably the most negative factor that any of us have seen in our lifetime in politics — the only way forward is unity — finding some way to grab the working class people, to unite the disaffected white workers in the Midwest with African-Americans in the south, or whatever, and finding what brings them together and creating a broad-based movement.

So, simply on the level of strategy and practicality, identity politics is extremely impractical. It’s narrowing your base of support to something too small to ever topple the power structure. So then to me it’s not really about practical matters. It’s about airing your grievances.

We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

I didn’t realize that Robert Greene had suffered a near-fatal stroke last August. His new book, The Laws of Human Nature, is out. Some people don’t like to accept that there is such a thing as human nature, but Greene argues that looking at reality is always better:

The people who don’t believe that human nature is something real, who believe that humans are malleable and that we make our own nature, generally want to believe that we are perfectible by some kind of government or system. It has traditionally been a kind of a communist socialist revolutionary idea. And the idea is that by creating the right kind of system or government, you can alter what corrupted us (which they maintain was done by social injustice, the rise of large civilizations, and the oppression and the accumulation of capital, et cetera.) They believe that if we go back and alter this system, we can return to that kind of pure human being. This is what I wrote about the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong — Mao wanted to recreate human nature. That’s always been the belief and it’s kind of a mix of wishes that humans were really this kind of angelic creature in the beginning and that we can return to that.

And what I’m trying to say is humans can change, we can alter, we could become something superior, but only by really coming to terms with who we are and getting over this myth of the Garden of Eden — of the fallen human being who was once so angelic just 5,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago. But I think the evidence is clear looking at our chimpanzee ancestors and the record of early homo sapiens that we do have aggressive, violent impulses, that we are pretty much irrational by nature, and that the kinds of qualities that we value can only come about through personal work, through conquest, through overcoming our tendencies that are kind of animal-like. And that rather than some government that’s going to perfect us, it’s the work of individuals being conscious and aware of who they are as opposed to being in denial. There’s a quote from Angela Carter that I’ve used in several books: “We want to believe that we’re descended from angels instead of primates.”

The incredibly unpopular idea that could stem opioid deaths

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Megan McArdle sees two options for dealing with the fentanyl epidemic:

Keep doing what we’re doing and let addicts keep dying as they’re dying, until the opioid epidemic burns itself out. Or start talking about ways to make safe, reliable doses of opiates available to addicts who aren’t ready to stop. That would mean opening more methadone clinics and making it less onerous for doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, a relatively mild opioid that’s difficult to overdose on. But lowering the death toll may well require a more drastic step: legalizing prescriptions of stronger opiates.

Prescription heroin? Remember, I said you might not like the solution. I don’t like it, either — and frankly, neither do the drug policy researchers who told me it may be necessary. But when fentanyl took over the U.S. illicit drug markets, it also got a lot of addicts as hostages. We’ll never be able to rescue them unless we can first keep them alive long enough to be saved.

Manufacturing up-from-hardship tales to sell to the Ivies

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018

The T.M. Landry College Preparatory School seems like a predictable outcome of our current system:

Bryson Sassau’s application would inspire any college admissions officer.

A founder of T.M. Landry College Preparatory School described him as a “bright, energetic, compassionate and genuinely well-rounded” student whose alcoholic father had beaten him and his mother and had denied them money for food and shelter. His transcript “speaks for itself,” the founder, Tracey Landry, wrote, but Mr. Sassau should also be lauded for founding a community service program, the Dry House, to help the children of abusive and alcoholic parents. He took four years of honors English, the application said, was a baseball M.V.P. and earned high honors in the “Mathematics Olympiad.”

The narrative earned Mr. Sassau acceptance to St. John’s University in New York. There was one problem: None of it was true.

“I was just a small piece in a whole fathom of lies,” Mr. Sassau said.

T.M. Landry has become a viral Cinderella story, a small school run by Michael Landry, a teacher and former salesman, and his wife, Ms. Landry, a nurse, whose predominantly black, working-class students have escaped the rural South for the nation’s most elite colleges. A video of a 16-year-old student opening his Harvard acceptance letter last year has been viewed more than eight million times. Other Landry students went on to Yale, Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell and Wesleyan.

Landry success stories have been splashed in the past two years on the “Today” show, “Ellen” and the “CBS This Morning.” Education professionals extol T.M. Landry and its 100 or so kindergarten-through-12th-grade students as an example for other Louisiana schools. Wealthy supporters have pushed the Landrys, who have little educational training, to expand to other cities. Small donors, heartened by the web videos, send in a steady stream of cash.

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity.

Culture is too important to be left to the sociologists

Wednesday, December 19th, 2018

Culture matters, Virginia Postrel reminds us:

The mid-20th century period in which the modern libertarian movement arose is now looked upon with great nostalgia, especially in the United States. As my friend Brink Lindsey puts it, the right wants to live there and the left wants to work there.

When Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again,” the again refers to the world in which he grew up. The war was over, standards of living were rising, and new technologies from vaccines to synthetic fibers promised a better future.

Social critics of the day deplored mass production, mass consumption, and mass media, but the general public enjoyed their fruits. The burgeoning middle class happily replaced tenements with “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Snobs might look down on the suburbs, but families were delighted to settle in them. Faith in government was high, and other institutions—universities, churches, corporations, unions, and civic groups—enjoyed widespread respect.

It looked like a satisfactory equilibrium. But it wasn’t. The 1950s, after all, produced the 1960s.

Consider a series of best-selling books: The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, published in 1950; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Organization Man by William Whyte, both published in 1957; and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, published in 1963. All of these books, and undoubtedly others I’ve overlooked, took up the same essential theme: the frustration of the person of talent and integrity in a society demanding conformity and what Riesman called “other-directedness.”

These books succeeded in the economic marketplace, as well as the marketplace of ideas, because they tapped a growing sense of discontent with the prevailing social and business ethos. Their audience might have been a minority of the population, but it was a large, gifted, and ultimately influential one. Despite the era’s prosperity—or perhaps because of it—many people had come to resent social norms that demanded that they keep their heads down, do what was expected of them, and be content to be treated as homogeneous threads in the social fabric. The ensuing cultural upheaval, which peaked in the late 1970s, took many different forms, with unanticipated results.

One of the most paradoxical examples I’ve run across comes from Dana Thomas’s 2015 book Gods and Kings, on the fashion designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. It’s about Galliano, who was born in Gibraltar and grew up in South London as the son of a plumber. His career, Thomas comments in passing, was made possible by two cultural phenomena: Thatcherism and punk.

How could that be? After all, Thatcherism and punk are usually seen as antagonistic. I asked Thomas about it in an interview. “Both were breaking down British social rules and constraints,” she said. Punk brought together kids of all classes, while Thatcher’s economic reforms encouraged entrepreneurship.

    If you had an idea and you had the backing then you could make it happen, no matter what your dad did in life or your mother did in life or where you came from or what your background was, or where you grew up or what your accent sounded like. These were all barriers before. So it double-whammied for Galliano. It was great. Because it allowed him to get out of South London, get into a good art school and be seen as a bona fide talent on his own standing, as opposed to where he came from. And he was also able to get the backing to start his company, because there was more money out there. It gave him more freedom. Before punk and before Thatcherism, chances were the son of a plumber was not going to wind up being the head of a couture house.

If you care about the open society, how could you not be interested in a phenomenon like that? How exactly do such transformations take place, and what are their unexpected ripple effects? What processes of experimentation and feedback are at work? Could a young designer do the same thing today and, if not, why not? Are these moments of cultural and economic opportunity inherently fleeting?

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

Sacrifices must be made!

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

The Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator looks like a bit of fun:

Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator
“Sacrifices must be made!”

The minister, who was previously in charge of education, and before that, of health, and who is now heading occult affairs after the most recent cabinet reshuffle, having once again failed to unseat the prime minister, shakes your hand. His skin is damp and oddly yielding. You relax when you realize he doesn’t mean human sacrifices. He just wants to reduce your organisation’s budget, he explains. By twenty percent. Effective immediately.

Your organisation is in charge of defending the United Kingdom from paranormal threats. Vampire covens, stray werewolves, pixie swarms, cultists with funny robes and impractical daggers, unlicensed hauntings, and more obscure matters. Also, to liaise with sister organisations as part of the EUROCC framework — except maybe not anymore, as no one can agree on whether EUROCC, which predates the EU, is affected by Brexit — and to render occult aid and advice to the government — as if they’d ever listen.

Your predecessor, in charge for over twenty years, finally retired last year, got his life peerage, and is now spending most of his time with ducks. He left behind a sprawling agency and very little documentation as to which parts are vital to the defence of the realm, and which parts are the hobby-horses of an eccentric Oxfordian.

Well, you’re just going to have to find out. Start cutting.

Gestures of virtue are as formalized as kabuki

Monday, December 17th, 2018

We’re back to the hypocrisy sweepstakes, Camille Paglia:

As a bumptious adolescent in upstate New York, I stumbled on a British collection of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams in a secondhand bookstore. It was an electrifying revelation, a text that I studied like the bible. What bold, scathing wit, cutting through the sentimental fog of those still rigidly conformist early 1960s, when good girls were expected to simper and defer.

But I never fully understood Wilde’s caustic satire of Victorian philanthropists and humanitarians until the present sludgy tide of political correctness began flooding government, education, and media over the past two decades. Wilde saw the insufferable arrogance and preening sanctimony in his era’s self-appointed guardians of morality.

We’re back to the hypocrisy sweepstakes, where gestures of virtue are as formalized as kabuki. Humor has been assassinated. An off word at work or school will get you booted to the gallows. This is the graveyard of liberalism, whose once noble ideals have turned spectral and vampiric.

Why Is American mass transit so bad?

Friday, December 14th, 2018

Why Is American mass transit so bad? It’s a long story:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. Even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak. Annual per capita transit trips in the U.S. plummeted from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970, where they have roughly remained since, even as population has grown.

This has not happened in much of the rest of the world.


What happened? Over the past hundred years the clearest cause is this: Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.


[The Age of Rail] was an era when transit could usually make money when combined with real-estate speculation on the newly accessible lands, at least in the short term. But then as now, it struggled to cover its costs over the long term, let alone turn a profit. By the 1920s, as the automobile became a fierce competitor, privately run transit struggled.

But public subsidy was politically challenging: There was a popular perception of transit as a business controlled by rapacious profiteers—as unpopular as cable companies and airlines are today. In 1920, the President’s Commission on Electric Railways described the entire industry as “virtually bankrupt,” thanks to rapid inflation in the World War I years and the nascent encroachment of the car.

The Depression crushed most transit companies, and the handful of major projects that moved forward in the 1930s were bankrolled by the New-Deal-era federal government: See the State and Milwaukee-Dearborn subways in Chicago, the South Broad Street subway in Philadelphia, and the Sixth Avenue subway in New York. But federal infrastructure investment would soon shift almost entirely to highways.


It is not a coincidence that, while almost every interurban and streetcar line in the U.S. failed, nearly every grade-separated subway or elevated system survived. Transit agencies continued to provide frequent service on these lines so they remained viable, and when trains did not have to share the road and stop at intersections, they could also be time competitive with the car. The subways and els of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are all still around, while the vast streetcar and interurban networks of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, and many others are long gone. Only when transit didn’t need to share the road with the car, and frequent service continued, was it able to survive.


All of these [systems introduced in the 1970s] featured fast, partially automated trains running deep into the suburbs, often in the median of expressways. With their plush seating and futuristic design, they were designed to attract people who could afford to drive.

But these high-tech systems were a skeleton without a body, unable to provide access to most of the urban area without an effective connecting bus network. The bus lines that could have fed passengers to the stations had long atrophied, or they never existed at all. In many cases, the new rapid transit systems weren’t even operated by the same agency as the local buses, meaning double fares and little coordination. With no connecting bus services and few people within walking distance in low-density suburbs, the only way to get people to stations was to provide vast lots for parking. But even huge garages can’t fit enough people to fill a subway. Most people without cars were left little better off than they had been before the projects, and many people with cars chose to drive the whole way rather than parking at the station and getting on the train.


Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented.