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Saturday, February 24, 2018
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In my last post I mentioned that there was another trend I wanted to cover, and that trend is the increase in the number of people with a transgender or gender non-conforming identity (TGNC). Part of the reason why I didn’t cover it in the last post is that it’s something of a minefield, and if I’m going to get blown up (which I suspect I am) I want it to be after a full and complete explanation of my position, rather than a paragraph tossed in together with a discussion of CPUs and heroin. Also I, probably naively, assume that if I really explain things in a calm, dispassionate fashion that I won’t get blown up, period. Recent events have left me less sure of that, but I persist in believing it nonetheless.
I’ve actually been thinking I needed to write a post on this subject for a long time, but earlier this month I read something that really struck me. It was a report by The Associated Press, on a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. (Being syndicated, I came across it in US News and World Report.) The study they were reporting on claimed that nearly 3% of high school students identify as TGNC. Specifically from a group of 9th and 11th graders in Minnesota.
The study is an analysis of a 2016 statewide survey of almost 81,000 Minnesota teens. Nearly 2,200 identified as transgender or gender nonconforming.
I thought it’d be nice to know the exact numbers rather than “almost 81,000” and “nearly 2,200” and after some digging I found the original study. It was 2,168 out of 80,929 meaning it was closer to 2.7%. Accordingly I’ll be using that number. But regardless of whether it’s 3% or 2.7% that would appear to represent a gigantic increase in just the last few years. The AP article mentions another study out of UCLA which claims that 0.7% of teens aged 13 to 17 identify as TGNC. Which I would argue, even if it’s closer to the mark is still a large increase. Also it should be noted that the 0.7% was an extrapolation of teen rates from adult answers, meaning that if the trend has recently spiked it might explain the discrepancy.
It has been many, many, many years since I was in high school, but in spite of that fact, and the fact that it’s only a single data point and all the other reasons which make it not a very good comparison for Minnesotan high school students in 2016, I’m going to bring it into the discussion anyway.
My high school was a three year high school that had, conservatively, 1700 students attending. If we apply the 2.7% number to that student body we get 46 TGNC students. Now as you might imagine we didn’t have even a single openly transgender student back then. An experience I imagine most people from my generation share. And any attempts on my part at guessing how many closeted TGNC students there were is going to be wild speculation, but having come this far down the road I might as well continue and guess that maybe there was a couple? Certainly I haven’t heard of anyone coming out later, even in these more tolerate times. If, for the sake of argument we take my number and extrapolate from that we get a compound annual growth rate of nearly 11.5%. Which as I pointed out in the last post does not have to go on for very long before it’s 100% of people. Also I don’t think the rate of growth has been constant since the late 80s, I’ve talked to people 10 and even 20 years younger than me and they report the same basic impression of their high school that I had of mine. Which would mean that it could be a lot higher than even 11% which is already pretty high.
One of the reasons I used my high school experience as a baseline, is that I didn’t find a lot of good numbers on growth in TGNC individuals. And the one thing I did find was in Swedish, that said it’s dramatic enough that I’m going to reference it anyway. It’s a chart of referrals to a clinic specializing in gender dysphoria among children. From 2000 to 2006 the number of yearly referrals is in the single digits. After that it starts to gradually increase, but stays below 20 until 2011. 2012 and 2013 both look to be around 25, but then in 2014 it starts skyrocketing and by 2016 it’s gone all the way up to 197 referrals. Basically an eight-fold increase in the space of three years. I understand this is a report from a single clinic in Sweden, but I think it matches my assumption that the growth rate has largely spiked only very recently.
This aside, for my purposes it’s sufficient to know that it’s a trend and that it’s growing very quickly, which everything seems to indicate. From this, hopefully, safe assumption, I want to spend this post examining the various theories for why this might be happening:
The transgender and gender non conforming have always been with us they’ve just been hiding. Accordingly it’s not the number of TGNC individuals who are increasing, but only our awareness of them
Under this theory the number of high schoolers who are TGNC has always been around 2.7%, and it is only now in this more tolerate and enlightened time that they finally are free to express their true selves.
My sense is that this is the current conventional wisdom. Though that may be putting it too strongly. But you can see evidence of it in the AP article:
Dr. Daniel Shumer, a specialist in transgender medicine at the University of Michigan, wrote in an accompanying opinion article in Pediatrics that the study supports other research suggesting that earlier counts of the trans population "have been underestimated by orders of magnitude." He said that the higher numbers should serve as a lesson to schools and physicians to abandon limited views of gender.
Notice that he doesn’t say that the numbers are increasing but that earlier counts were “underestimated by orders of magnitude.” Leading one to assume that the numbers and percentages are static, we’re just getting better at counting.
For my part, I tend to be skeptical that this is the case. For all the issues I have with full normalization of homosexuality, they can at least point to a fairly deep historical precedent. With gay communities in times and places even when persecution and repression were at their most severe. While there is some evidence for historical TGNC you get the sense that it mostly was present when it was required by culture, rather than existing in spite of culture, like homosexuality.
That said I’m not ruling it out. In this post I’m not ruling anything out. It’s entirely possible that this is exactly how things are.
TGNC numbers are increasing, but that’s a good thing, and it goes hand in hand with progress elsewhere
Last year I attended the Mormon Transhumanist Conference (and I intend to be there again this year). One of the talks was about the gender spectrum and the speaker gave, as her opinion, that when the Proclamation on the Family talks about gender being part of our “eternal identity” that in this case eternal means ever-changing. That one of the abilities we’ll have as our power grows and as we draw closer to Godhood will be the ability to change our gender as we desire. While I continue to argue that this bears no resemblance to any LDS doctrine I’m aware of, it does fit right in with transhumanism.
To put it another way, this theory holds that the number of TGNC people is increasing because technology in general is increasing, and with it an ability to throw off shackles and restrictions which previously would have been unthinkable. An idea that’s at the core of Transhumanism. And, If we consider just what we can now do in this area, then this is obviously true. If we consider what we should do, then the situation becomes a lot murkier.
There is certainly a way in which this works together with the first theory. Previously people who felt that their gender was different than the body they were born in had very little recourse. Now through the marvels of technology we can offer them hormone treatment and gender-reassignment surgery. But beyond that, I get the sense that there’s also a way in which people feel there’s a moral or even spiritual arc to the whole thing, that the freedom to choose your gender goes along with all the other freedoms progress has brought us. That certainly seemed to be the sense in which the MTA speaker meant it.
Under the first theory, the 2.7% of people who have always been TGNC are driving the development of this technology, but under this theory if technology enables transition might it also be encouraging transition?
As I already alluded to, I freely grant that increased availability may lead to an increase in identification, what I’m not sure about is whether it’s a good thing. And you’ll have to wait until part 2 before I tackle that question.
TGNC numbers are increasing because of hormones and other chemicals being introduced into the environment
You don’t have to look very far to find people speculating that there has been a definite decrease in masculinity over the last several decades. Some of this is ascribed to the softening of the culture in general, which we will cover in a moment, but some of this has been tied to hormones in the environment or endocrine disruptors like BPA. If it’s the chemicals that are responsible for depressing masculinity, then it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that it might get so low that it flips things over to femininity, or just mixes things up entirely, giving us the genderqueer designation. This explanation would be more plausible if the transitioning were all in one direction, but it’s not. That said, there are more male to female transgendered individuals than female to male. With most people estimating the ratio at around 3:1. Also it’s not like we have a smoking gun of causation, so hormones in the environment could be causing all manner of changes in both directions.
It is widely recognized that pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply, included in this are things like birth control pills and testosterone replacement pills. The presence in the environment of chemicals has been a concern for the environmental movement since at least the time of Rachel Carson if not before, one which hasn’t gone away. The question is, is anyone concerned that hormones or other chemicals in the water supply might be contributing to the increase in the number of people who identify as TGNC?
If you search the internet for any support for this theory you immediately find an article titled Fish becoming transgender from contraceptive pill chemicals being flushed down household drains. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a Smithsonian article which explains that the word “transgender” was never used in the original article, the article was about fish becoming intersex, which is not the same, and that it’s not clear that it was contraceptive pills causing the problems it could easily have been caused by other chemicals in the water. In other words still likely something humans are doing, but not something you can blame entirely on birth control pills.
My own sense of things, is that while something along these lines might be a factor in the increase, if it is, it’s a small one. If you could draw a clear link between some chemical or hormone and an increasing number of people identifying as TGNC, then I think people would have done it already. There would be a larger pattern in how and where it happened. Also most of the candidates under discussion have existed in the water supply for a lot longer than just the last few years, which is when, according to the numbers from our Swedish clinic, most of the increase has happened. At least as I read things. But maybe I’m being naive. The same kind of people who worry about chemicals in the water are the same kind of people who are proponents of theory one, that the underlying rate has not increased at all. Accordingly it might not be in their ideological interest to point out any possible connection.
TGNC numbers are increasing because of mutational load
I talked about this in a previous post. The idea of mutational load is that every generation a certain number of negative mutations are introduced. In the past these mutations didn’t accumulate because individuals with negative mutations were more likely to die without reproducing. As such the mutation load was kept in check because most of these negative mutations did not get passed on. With the advent of modern medicine, the number of people who die before getting the chance to reproduce is very low, regardless of any negative mutations they may be carrying. As such more get passed on, and the overall level across the entire population begins to rise.
As I mentioned in the previous post this idea provides a potential explanation for many troubling modern trends. The increase in autism, low sperm counts, allergies and possibly even suicide risk. If, and I grant that this is a big if, we decide that these things can be explained by increased mutation load then it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t consider adding the increase in people who identify as TGNC to the list as well. Also it should be noted, while we’re discussing this that evidence is growing for a link between gender dysphoria and autism.
I suspect that saying that TGNC individuals have a negative mutation is going to upset some people. (I suspect that everyone will be upset by at least one thing in this post.) But it’s important to clarify, again, I’m just trying to make a comprehensive list of explanations that are at least somewhat plausible. I don’t have a horse in this race. (Which is not to say that some horses don’t look better than others.) Also as you may have noticed the theories have moved from least upsetting to more upsetting, so at least I’m trying to ease you into some of the more controversial theories.
As I said, saying that TGNC individuals have a negative mutation may be upsetting, but in a sense everyone who argues that TGNC individuals were born that way, are also arguing for a genetic explanation of the condition they’re just not arguing for a recent genetic explanation. Which is what separates that theory from this theory. Also they may object to the application of the “negative” label. But this is something else I’ll be covering in part 2.
As to my own probability assessment. It’s hard to say. It makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s also a terrifying possibility. Also it’s hard to square it with a dramatic spike in the last couple of years.
TGNC numbers are increasing because of cultural changes
As I mentioned above, my sense is that historically homosexuality was present regardless of how oppressive the surrounding culture was, but that TGNC traits seemed to mostly be present when it was integrated with the culture. In more modern eras, we have the example of drag shows. In ancient Assyria, there were parades. And then there was a cult in ancient Greece who worshipped Cybele, and as part of that worship men castrated themselves, and thereafter dressed and identified as females. If you toss in examples of TGNC among the Native Americans, you have mostly covered the historical examples, at least those listed in Wikipedia. And I’m confident if there were any other large historical examples that they would have found their way into the article, but I’m not any kind of expert.
Based on these limited examples, as I said, it’s my sense that culture may have pushed TGNC rather than the other way around. If that’s the case, and given past trends that have run through society and in particular taken hold among teens, it’s not inconceivable that the increase in TGNC teens could be because of a subconscious sense that it’s now cool.
While TGNC advocates may take issue with the “coolness” theory, they appear to acknowledge that culture is playing a big part in things, such as allowing previously closeted TGNC individuals to out themselves. The question is, if the changing culture is having such a massive effect (once again refer to Swedish Clinic chart) is there any way in which culture may be driving the increase?
All of this is to say that culture is definitely changing, but how much culture is following and how much it’s leading is a very complicated issue. But one thing is clear, culture is definitely contributing to the increase, if for no other reason that people feel far more comfortable identifying as TGNC.
A desire to identify as a different gender than the one you were born with is a sin, and it’s increasing because sins of all kinds are increasing.
As you might imagine, I’m not going to shy away from an explicitly religious theory. Which is not to say that I believe it’s a doctrinally correct theory. (For Christians in any case.) Also before we can do anything else, it’s important to identify whether sin in general is increasing. If it’s not, the theory is considerably weakened. My guess is that most people belonging to any of the Abrahamic religions have no doubt that it’s increasing. And many of the irreligious, though perhaps unwilling to use the term “sin”, would say that the world is getting worse as well. (Pinker would disagree of course.) Given that this is a religious theory, the attitude of the believers is probably sufficient for our purposes.
With the other theories, certain consequences and actions naturally follow, but with this theory they’re a little bit more opaque. If unhappiness with “the gender you were assigned at birth” is a sin, than what should be done about it? It is true that many activities identified as sinful take the form of giving into what have historically been identified as “baser” urges. From this you could imagine classifying the urge to be transgender as no different than the urge to have sex before you’re married, with a similar exhortation to resist it, and for some people (not me) that’s as far as you need to go. For others, the idea of repressing the urge to have sex before you’re married is one they don’t even consider. (They may resist the urge to have sex, but their marital status has nothing to do with it.) And in fact outside of dieting, and exercise, the idea of suppressing urges has to be at some sort of historical nadir.
And this gets more into what I feel the LDS position is on TGNC, that it’s more akin to homosexuality, being gay isn’t a sin, it’s acting on it that’s a sin. Though with TGNC acting on it is a little less clear. Gender-reassignment surgery certainly counts (and is explicitly mentioned in the LDS handbooks) but what about wearing women’s clothing if you’ve previously identified as male all your life? What about binding your breasts if your a woman who feels like man?
I am sympathetic to those who find this theory horribly offensive, or those who aren’t offended but still think it comes across as both bizarre and unlikely. Beyond that even if you could get on the same page, I think many people would point out that being TGNC is tied to people’s identity in a way that being horny (regardless of orientation) really isn’t.
In other words this theory, even on it’s on terms, is kind of messy. And I’m not a big fan, particularly since it so easily slides into mistreatment of the TGNC, when people confuse the sin for the sinner. (Particularly, since, as I pointed out, the sin is actually somewhat unclear.) This sort of mistreatment is something I feel there is far too much of, even now.
That’s where we’ll end for this week. I had intended to cover everything in a single post, but I haven’t even covered all of the different theories yet, so you’ll have to come back next week for part 2.
There are also many theories for why people blog. One theory is that they are motivated by the money they can earn. If that theory seems at all likely to you, consider donating. (My own sense is that this theory is not very likely.)
Saturday, February 17, 2018
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:
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Einstein is said to have remarked that “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe”, or maybe he said it was “mankind’s greatest invention”. Or more likely he said no such thing, and this quote ended up being attributed to him later, as is the case with so many of his supposed quotes (nor does it just happen to Einstein.) Regardless the quote persists because it has an element of truth to it. Compound interest acts as something of a juggernaut, slowly gathering momentum until it’s essentially unstoppable. All the way back in 1769 an Anglican minister and actuarial mathematician named Richard Price gave this example of its power:
A shilling put out at 6% compound interest at our Saviour’s birth would . . . have increased to a greater sum than the whole solar system could hold, supposing it a sphere equal in diameter to the diameter of Saturn’s orbit.
But, of course, no one did invest a shilling at 6% at the time of Jesus’ birth. And the reasons why are probably obvious, but they bear reexamination despite their obviousness.
Perhaps the most obvious reason no one did it, is that there are no banks which have survived from that time till this. And after the recent financial crisis, it should be an open question as to what it even means for a bank to “survive”. There are some very old banks in England, but it’s pretty clear that none of them would have survived for the last 300 years (or even the last 30 without government help. And not only did no banks survive from 0 AD until now, but no country has survived. (As you may recall I argued in a previous post that very few countries have survived intact for more than about 100 years). If it had been possible to make such an investment, another question is who would the beneficiary have been. The Japanese Imperial Family has apparently been around that long, but I’m not aware of any others. Or perhaps there’s some organization that, had they been far-sighted enough, could now own a sphere of money as big as the Solar System? There are a few Christian Churches who, in theory, trace their organization all the way back to the death of Jesus, (which I suppose is close enough) and perhaps if any banks and countries had survived with them, they could have made that investment.
However, even if the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem or Emperor Suinin had wanted to make such an investment and even if there had been a bank around to accept it and hold on to it all the way down to the present day (paying 6% interest the entire time, though even 1% would probably still get you the Earth and all of its productive assets.) There is still one, final, insurmountable hurdle. They must have figured out some way to ensure that no one, in all the time between 0 and 2018 AD, could have ever raided the “piggy bank”. That everyone from bandits, to the government (or are those the same thing) would have left that giant pile of money sitting there, untouched for over two thousand years. And of all hypotheticals we’ve considered, that is the least realistic of them all.
In any event, regardless of what Einstein did or didn’t say, it’s evident that the power of compound interest is checked by many things, the stability of the banking system, and of nations, by impatience, greed, and the longevity of organizations. And this is probably a good thing, even if the Japanese Imperial Family would do a great job of running the world, I think the process of selling it to them would be hugely disruptive. And in fact I would swear that I heard a podcast a couple of years ago (Radiolab maybe?) that claimed there was a time when people were so worried about bequests that lasted for 100s of years, that moves were made to limit them, but for the life of me I can’t find it. In any event it’s not important, the important thing I want to emphasis is first, the power of even a tiny effect if that effect compounds (and even non-compounding effects if they last long enough.) And second that when things get derailed it’s often because of instability rather than the reverse.
Compound interest draws a lot of attention, not only because it provides exponential growth, but also because it’s a simple system which is easy to track. Anyone can sit down and put together a spreadsheet and see exactly how big the principal gets, and if they like, they can adjust the interest rate and see that earning a 6% interest rate is way better than a 20% improvement over earning a 5% interest rate. The question I want to examine is whether there are other things which act like compound interest in their potential for growth (and by extension impact) but which we have missed because they’re hard to measure. Is there anything on which we’re accumulating a sort of societal compound interest and if we are, which things are accumulating a positive interest rate and which things are accumulating negative interest?
It may be that there are only a few things like that, and that even if we don’t have a firm handle on them, people are still aware of them, and working to solve them. But I’m also interested in things which don’t compound or do so very slowly, but which might be disastrous if they continue for long enough. These things are even harder to see, but more important to discuss because of that.
Let’s start by looking at societal trends that most closely resemble compound interest. Here, the first one most people think of is population. I already spent a post talking about this, so I don’t intend to spend much additional time on it, but you can immediately see where the fact that population compounds causes problems on both ends of the spectrum. First you have a potential Malthusian Catastrophe, which people have been discussing since, well, the time of Malthus, and more recently, particularly in the more developed world, people have started noticing potential problems on the other side of things, of having too low of a birth rate, which compounds in the other direction.
As I said in my previous post I think both directions have the potential to be catastrophic, and to again quote from one of the all time great movies of the past century, Tommy Boy, “In auto parts, you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As it is with auto parts so it is with humanity. I don’t think there’s a very credible, non-dystopian scenario where we have a precisely stable population.
In an attempt to not be entirely pessimistic, let’s now turn to look at something which compounds in a good way: knowledge. In fact not only does knowledge compound, but the rate at which it compounds is going up. It’s as if you had an investment that started out paying 1% per year, but quickly went to 10% and then 100%. I am often critical of technology, particularly when it’s implemented naively, but this is one things it has done quite well.
At this point, I might toss out a statistic on how fast knowledge is currently doubling, and I will, but it’s going to get a little meta. If you do a Google search on rate of knowledge doubling you’ll get one of those info boxes, and it will say that knowledge is currently doubling every 12 months and soon it will double every 12 hours. This box links to an article written in 2013. The article has no reference for the current 12 month doubling rate (and in fact it actually says it’s 13 months) but does link to an IBM paper (on an unrelated subject) for the 12 hour doubling rate. When you look at the article it actually says 11 hours (and by the way, I can forgive both roundings, I appreciate the elegance of going from 12 months to 12 hours) and goes on to say that the 11 hour number is set to happen “four years from now”. When was the paper written? 2006! Meaning back in 2013, knowledge was presumably already doubling every 11 hours, and possibly even quicker than that. And who knows what the doubling rate is now. I looked for a more current figure, but all of the top results reference the same 2013 original from the infobox, and most of them repeat the claim that “Soon information will double every 12 hours” not aware that that was a prediction from a 2006 paper for the rate of doubling in 2010.
In any event, I assume knowledge has a certain rate of doubling, and that the rate is increasing. And when people are optimistic about the future, what you find when you peel away the layers is that they are mostly relying on this positive compounding overwhelming any other negative compounding or even any other negative trends. To put it simply, they feel that the future is going to be awesome because we’re getting smarter. I am definitely sympathetic to this point of view, and it has a lot going for it, but I’m not sure it’s quite the unalloyed good people think it is. First, however fast knowledge is increasing, the human brain isn’t getting any more powerful. And I’m well aware that this leads directly to transhumanism, but as I just pointed out with some of the questions in the last post, replacing ourselves with artificial intelligence in order to keep up with the growth of knowledge, is something which could end very badly. Of more immediate concern, the pressure for scientific knowledge to increase has lead to a massive system of “publish or perish” which has in turn created the replication crisis. All of which is to say, as I so often do, I hope the optimists are right, but I think the challenges are vastly more significant than they think.
The other famous compounding trend that’s gotten a lot of attention over the last few decades is Moore’s Law. Of course any mention of Moore’s Law has to be accompanied by the obligatory mention of concerns that it’s running out of steam. The next step in this discussion is for someone to come along and mention quantum computing and how it will revive Moore’s Law. And of course all of this, once again, leads directly into transhumanism, AI and the aforementioned awesome future, which I’ve probably already spent enough time on.
As the circle widens evidence of compounding or exponential effects becomes harder to find. And we start to move into the realm of long term trends which may or may not have compounding effects. Despite this, even if something doesn’t grow or shrink exponentially if grows or shrinks period for long enough, inevitably problems are going to arise.
I have already discussed lots of things which fit this criteria, and so I’ll mostly be reviewing trends we’ve touched on previously. To start with, there’s, naturally, the national debt, which I discussed a few months ago. I think a case could be made for the debt growing exponentially, certainly if you look at it just starting in 2000 (or even 1980) that’s what the curve looks like, even as a percentage of GDP. However if you widen the view and go all the way back to the countries founding you’ll see lots of debt peaks which later dropped to more manageable levels. It should be said that on all previous occasions the peak was due to war, and the war ended. This time there is no war (or if there is, it shows no signs of ending). For this reason and others I’m on record as saying that I expect the debt to essentially follow the track it’s already on rather than dropping back as it always has before. As to what that might mean, I recommend reading my previous post.
Another area where exponential growth is often mentioned is social media. And as I’ve pointed out a couple of times this isn’t necessarily a good thing. The more persnickety among you may argue that growth in social media is just a subset of the growth in knowledge (or even Moore’s Law) which we’ve already covered, but while most people don’t directly interact with “knowledge” they are intimately involved with Facebook. Also, I don’t consider this to be something that truly compounds, for one, I suspect that Facebook’s growth will be more of an S-Curve, than an unbounded arc towards infinity. Additionally and obviously there aren’t infinite people… All of this doesn’t matter, because Facebook and similar social media sites are interesting for another reason. If you grant the premise, which I and an increasing number of others have made, that Facebook is actually doing more harm than good, then I think it provides a great example of something that’s not intrinsically bad, but only becomes so after significant growth.
In other words, if we look at the trends associated with Facebook that actually concern people we can see where they all started out benignly, and only began causing problems once the curve/userbase reached a certain level. Let’s just look at a few examples of trends within social media.
Coordination: Looking back to my Moloch post I mention that the best way to get around “races to the bottom” is to coordinate. Unfortunately Facebook has taken coordination to a level where instead of bringing people together it’s allowed them to splinter into incredibly narrow ideological niches.
Speech: As I pointed out in the last post where I talked about social media, we’re discovering that excessive speech can be used to censor almost as effectively as actual censorship.
User Base: Having a massive user base is what makes Facebook appealing, it also provides a single point of failure where one bad decision can have a gigantic impact. And I’m not even talking about the whole Russia/Facebook controversy, I’m talking about how tiny changes to one of the algorithms is national news.
One trend which I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing is the rise in inequality. It’s not that I haven’t been aware of the discussion or the underlying problem, I just wasn’t sure that I had much to say about it that was unique or interesting. Still it’s a problem I’m interested in, so just recently I started reading The Great Leveler, I expect I’ll eventually devote an entire post to the book, but for now it does have something interesting to say which ties directly into the current topic. From the book jacket:
Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling--mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse and catastrophic plagues--have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.
Here we see two interesting ideas associated with rising trends in general. First they often have unintended consequences. (A topic which can never get too much attention.) In this case it’s the unintended consequence of reducing violence. And as great as this is, Scheidel argues that much like a forest fire, you need one every so often to clear out the accumulated deadwood. Which is not to say that you couldn’t have a post-violence society which was more equal, but in which everyone is objectively worse off. Thus even knowing, that sans violence, inequality is just going to continue to rise, that may still not be a trade we’re willing to make. And so, inequality just keeps growing, but this takes us to the second point illustrated by the example. Things can’t grow forever, and as we saw in the example of trying to earn compound interest since the birth of Jesus, when they do break, it’s generally though instability, of exactly the sort Scheidel is talking about. If we avoid mass-mobilization warfare, does that just mean we’ll eventually have a transformative revolution, or that if we avoid both the state will just collapse? Which wraps this point in with the first one. It may be that you can only avoid a forest fire for so long, and that eventually one comes whether you want it or not. Recall that it’s not just the rich getting richer, most everyone else is getting poorer, are you sure that’s a trend that can continue forever without ever crashing under its own instability?
In other words all of this is to say that no matter how innocuous or small a negative trend is, if it continues for long enough something has to break. Fortunately humanity has gotten pretty good at making course corrections. Still there are some recent trends where our attempted course correction has so far been ineffective. And other cases where the course we should take is clear, but difficult. And finally there are some cases where I’m not sure what sort of course correction we should make, and even if I was I’m doubtful we’d ever take it. In closing I’d like to provide one final example that combines a little bit of all of those issues.
The example I’m thinking of is the recent increase in deaths of despair. Here, most of the attention has been focused on people overdosing on opioids, and my sense is that people feel it’s a problem we’ve just recently become aware of, and that we have corrected our course, it just hasn’t quite taken effect yet. I certainly hope that is true, but even if it is, there’s more going on than just opioid addiction. First, it’s not as if opium was just barely discovered, or that heroin was only recently created (Bayer started marketing it over the counter in 1895.) The epidemic of overdosing is largely unique to our time and place. Second, even if you strip away deaths of despair to do opioids, you still have an increase in suicides and deaths from alcoholism. One writer puts it this way:
Opioids are like guns handed out in a suicide ward; they have certainly made the total epidemic much worse, but they are not the cause of the underlying depression.
(As long as we’re on the subject did you see the story about the fentanyl bust in Boston? 33 lbs, which may not seem like much, but fentanyl is so bad, that’s enough to kill every person in Massachusetts.)
Returning to the quote, if there is an underlying depression, and I believe there is. All of the explanations for it involve things like job loss, and inequality, both of which seem destined to get worse. As I already said we’re pretty good at course correction, but job loss is unlikely to get better as automation becomes more prevalent, and if we buy the thesis of The Great Leveler, inequality is unlikely to get better absent violence. Accordingly there is at least some justification for thinking that the trends are going to continue, that whatever course correction we have initiated is not going to be enough.
I said that the second possibility is a change of course which is clear, but difficult. In this case it’s clear that we need to remove the despair. Most sociologists agree on what that would take: more high-paying manufacturing jobs, stronger families, and a general feeling of being useful. Some of those are easier to define than others, but all are incredibly difficult to accomplish. Though my argument for a long time has been that this is what people were hoping for when they voted for Trump. And while I assume some of them genuinely thought he could give them all that, I imagine most were making a speculative attempt to complicate.
Finally deaths of despair also fall into that category of problems where I’m not sure what to do. The world has moved on and we can’t turn back the clock. Trump can promise to bring back manufacturing jobs till the cows come home, but he’s unlikely to have much of an impact. The trends we see are too massive to be stopped so trivially. Thus saying we need more high-paying manufacturing jobs is not all that different from saying we need a miracle.
If the trends can’t be stopped, and as I said, I hope they can. It may initially not seem like a catastrophe. But this is where the length of the trend becomes important. Taking just the opioid component (and remember there’s a lot more going on with deaths of despair.) If things merely continue as they have been we’ll end up with 420,000 additional dead people in the US over just the next 10 years (basically equal to all the US soldiers who died in World War 2). And that’s not all deaths that’s deaths over the pre-epidemic baseline, which I’m pegging at around 1999-2000. (Figures extrapolated from charts linked to in the show notes.) This all assumes that we stop it here, and it doesn’t get any worse. If, on the other hand, the trend continues to rise at the same rate it has been, a 5x increase over 17 years (from 1999 to 2016) then by 2035 we would have a quarter of a million people dying every year.
I don’t think that will happen, and it’s possible that the opioid epidemic is a better example of a trend we missed than a trend which will continue. Which is to say that if you had predicted that overdose deaths from opioids would go from around 10,000 in the year 2000 to 52,000 in the year 2016, people would have thought you were crazy. And if they had believed you they would have done everything in their power to stop it. The question I want to leave with, is what are the current trends where we’re metaphorically in the year 2000. Trends just at the beginning of their rise, or even worse beginning to compound, where this is the time to act. Is there any way of identifying them, and if so, is there anything we can do? Or, are these trends similar to inequality, something that can only be reversed significantly by instability and violence?
I suspect I’ll be referring back to this post a lot, particularly since there are a lot of examples I didn’t even touch on. I’ll cover one of them in my next post.
This is my new record for the longest post. If you like in depth (or rambling) writing, then consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing, then how did you ever end up here?