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Rust Cohle from True Detective is a Very Specific Type of Highly Online Guy

Emily Nussbaum is very smart and a good critic, and in particular she is right that the women on True Detective are paper thin.

But she is genuinely wrong about Rust Cohle! He is not “a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti.” He is instead a taut, precise rendering of an extremely specific Online Type of Guy from around 2014. I am not the first person to notice this! Emily Nussbaum probably doesn’t know this type of guy because she does not spend time on Less Wrong.

This type of guy has a set of stock-positions. Those positions are probably correct. The problem is that if you believe them you will go insane. And that is the plot of True Detective!

It is an interesting fact that if you ask non-philosophers about Rust, they dismiss it as adolescent, but if you ask actual philosophers, they say Rust is basically right about things but you just can’t live that way.

Let’s do a rundown.

One: sustained human identity over time is an illusion.

First, let’s describe the typical view of human identity: there is a sustained person who was you yesterday and will be you tomorrow, such that the future person can be reasonably held morally accountable for the past person, since they’re the same person.

We can put that in Cartesian terms: There are your experiences (what it is like to be you). Some of these experiences are happening right now, some of them happened before, and some of them will happen in the future. Then there is you, the person who is having those experiences, who had the previous experiences that you remember and will have the experiences you anticipate, and who responds to those experiences through actions: your actions, for which you are morally accountable. Seems sensible. What’s the problem with it?

Well it’s bullshit; that’s the problem with it.

Who the fuck is this you person? All you know is that there are experiences right now. It’s not a theatre; there is not a separate performance and audience. There is only the experience itself. There is no evidence of anything but experience, of any watcher in the water, because being experience is constitutive of and coextensive with being evidence.

So why does it feel so strongly like there is a “me” who has my experiences?

Well, let me tell you a plausible story. These experiences that exist are informed by several physiological systems. For example, one of those systems is called “vision.” It includes the optic nerve and the visual cortex, and it helps your present experience to be informed by the presence of electromagnetic waves in your vicinity. A more interesting example is called “memory.” It includes the hippocampus and the amygdala and it helps your present experience be informed by your body’s past neurological activity.

This “memory” causes a relationship between your current experiences and the past experiences of a body that shared many atoms with the body you inhabit.

And the memory system also makes you feel like you could be having other experiences than the ones you’re having. After all, you remember having other experiences. Ergo, you get the notion that there is a you who was having some experiences before and is now having different experiences later.

But this is an illusion. Yes, memory odes suggest that different experiences could exist than the experiences you’re currently having. But that doesn’t mean you could be having different experiences, the same as the fact you and I both exist doesn’t suggest that you could have different experiences than the ones you’re having.

Your memories don’t have anything to do with former experiences at all; they are the product of physical information storage in physical space. The connection between “past you” and “present you” isn’t that present-you can hear the reflections of past-you’s experiences through remembering them. It’s that past-you took actions that physically manifest in your present memory systems that affect your experiences right now. But this connection is just a physical relationship between two physical phenomena, with ship-of-Theseus type differences between them. It is not a metaphysical connection between two different experiential states. I find it plausible that the two experiential states (you and past-you) bear a family resemblance, but that’s just speculation.

One tends to believe in a deeper connection than the merely physical one between one’s past and one’s present. You want to believe it was really you who experienced 2019, the same you who’s currently experiencing 2022. But what is really the connection beyond the physical memories? Is there really, deep down, a you which is shared between your past and your present?

Probably not. For example, suppose that while, physically, you travel forward in time, your consciousness travels backwards in time. First it experiences 2023, then 2022, then 2021. So, experientially speaking, you’ve already finished 2023, and you’ll start 2021 in one year’s experiential time from today. Only, in 2021, you’ll have no memories of 2022, only memories of 2020, because memory is a product of the *physical* connection that follows the chain of causation from past to future, not the *experiential* connection that flows from future to past.

But, in this example, what is this experiential connection that has nothing to do with memory? What is this thing that’s being borne ceaselessly into the past? We do think there is something there, but it’s hard to put our finger on it. How can we flesh out this intuition of an intrinsic connection between past self, present self, and future self into something coherent?

The answer is that there is no answer. Personal identity is an illusion.

There are some other connections between your past/future self and your present self that inspire your intuition that personal identity is real.

  1. Your past self behaves basically the same way you’re currently disposed to, because mammals are more or less consistent, just like thermostats or rivers. So, your past performance is very informative of your presence character.
  2. Your past self is pretty bad at lying to you, so you know a lot about them.
  3. You have gotten into the habit of doing things as a favor to your future self (like saving money)
  4. Other people will hold your future self accountable for things that you are doing right now and use the same name for you across time and in general treat present you and future you as indistinguishable. For example, they might, as a favor to present-you, buy a gift to give to future-you.

Those are all very intimate connections that you have with yourself across time. But they probably aren’t enough to support things like “guilt” or “innocence.” At least, not in the way we might like.

As an example, suppose you had an identical twin. You were inseparable. You could pretty much always tell what the other was thinking. You behaved in extremely similar ways, and you were incredibly altruistic toward each other.

One day, you and your twin are going to fly to Sicily, but at the gate a technical issue prevents you from going. You tell your twin to go anyway, and she does.

While in Sicily, your twin gets a gelato in a picturesque seaside town. The gelato is delicious. In fact, it’s so delicious that when your twin sees a child get its foot caught on a buoy and begin thrashing in the water, your twin decides, instead of saving the child, to finish the gelato first. Afterward, your twin takes a stretch, undresses, carefully folds her clothes, and dives in to help the child. But then it’s too late.

You hear about it. You realize that, given the connection between you and your twin, you probably would have done just the same. You vividly imagine the town and the child from your many trips to the same place. You imagine so accurately that your daydreams might as well be memories. So, you feel horribly, horribly guilty; you are permanently haunted by the child that more-or-less you allowed to die.

Now instead suppose you don’t have a twin. Rather, you have a lot of good friends. On your birthday, your friends take you to a bar and egg you on into getting roaringly blackout drunk – something you never do. You have a great evening, and, in your stupor, you decide you’ll be fine to drive. You’re not fine to drive, and you careen into a family’s SUV, killing a child.

From then on, you know never to get drunk again. You’re a very resolute person so you know you really won’t. Accordingly, you don’t feel guilty at all.

So the two people in these stories have not had normal reactions. We would be perplexed by the former and horrified by the latter. But our response is really a little silly. In reality, the behavior of the Sicily-going-twin was much more informative of the disposition of the stateside-twin than the behavior of the drunk-self was informative of the behavior of the sober-self. So if guilt is about learning bad things about your current character through your past actions, the twin has much more to be guilty about. Also note that memory basically can’t distinguish the first story from the second.

What instead makes us feel the drunk driver ought to feel guilty while the stateside twin ought not is that the drunk driver actually killed someone.

But like that only really makes sense if we believe in this illusion of sustained identity over time.

This is the source of Rust’s attitude toward guilt, and shame, and pride, and love. It’s not that he thinks they’re wastes of time, or self-absorbed. They are fundamental errors about the nature of personal identity.

This is all implied through like two, three throwaway lines that I’m not going to find for you because you should really watch the show.

Two: Hard Atheism

I am sure you are familiar with the arguments for and against the existence of God, so I am not going to bore you with them. But this Type of Online Guy is always, like Rust, a hard, hard atheist (except! Watch the show!). This is probably because the golden age of the blogosphere was just one long fight over whether God exists.

Two Point Five: Really Hating Divine Command Theorists

If you looked at SSC comment sections from like 2010-2015 you would basically OD on people bitching at the religious for not wanting to go to Hell.

Three: the B theory of time

Remember that scene where Rust crushes the beer can? Literally such a sick scene. But also a big thing in philosophy called the B theory of time.

Weirdly, in the show this is referred to as “membrane theory” which is an unrelated interpretation of quantum physics.

Yeah so the idea is that while we feel that there is a “past” and then a “present” and then a “future,” it’s probably simpler to see “now” as only special because it is the time that we currently happen to inhabit, the same way that 42nd Street is special when you happen to be at Grand Central, even though it’s not actually any more real than 131st. It’s just where you happen to be.

[note: I am not entirely convinced of the B theory, but this very specific Type of Guy really are always B theorists. See: the sequences]

So what’s the deal with the beer can? Well, think of each point on the circle that outlines the cylinder of the can as a piece of matter. As you walk from the bottom of the beer can to the top, that’s analogous to the way that matter moves through space over time. Each circular slice of the beer can is analogous to a moment in time. Now crush the beer can; you see all the time slices superimposed over each other.

Why does the B theory matter? Well, morally, we tend to be much more bothered about future suffering than past suffering, even if it’s out of our control.

Think of how we tend to regret things we did that caused us to have a good time in the past but fucked us over going forward, while we excitedly anticipate future pleasures that we made big sacrifices for.

If you see “the past” and “the future” as fundamentally equivalent to “to my left” and “to my right” then those inclinations become very silly. There is no reason I should see the future as oncoming and the past as gone. Therefore, our present feelings should be symmetrical about future happinesses and past happinesses. But then it’s kind of hard to give a shit about anything.

[and also we should basically not care about future happiness or past happiness for ourselves any more than we care about the happiness of other people, because personal identity is an illusion]

Three Point Five: The B Theory of Time and the Eternal Recurrence

So if you believe in the B theory of time then a sort of natural corollary is that the eternal recurrence that Nietzsche toyed with as a thought experiment (not as a theory!) is true in a very literal sense. Even the tiniest moment is eternal because the flow of time is essentially illusory.

People have noted this connection.

Note: this type of highly online guy is generally not way into Nietzsche, or generally any historical philosopher other than maybe Hume and Epictetus.

Four: Wanting to Die

Rust says he wants to die but is just too cowardly to kill himself. Is this just a cool line that’s fundamentally vapid? Maybe. But roll with me for a second.

Have you ever experienced real suffering? Seems like yes. How stoked would would you be if you could drift off into sleep as a way of avoiding real suffering? Separately, have you ever experienced happiness? How different was it from peace? What if, when you were so happy, you drifted off into sleep? How bummed would you be about that?

One reasonable answer would be, “I would not be that bummed if I drifted off to sleep when having a good time. In fact, I like drowsy days at the beach. However, I would be super stoked if I could drift off into sleep to escape pain.” However, if that is your answer, then maybe your life is fundamentally suffering and you should kill yourself. After all, drowsy days at the beach are a decent approximation of death, so if you like them, maybe you’d like to be dead.

For me I think this is a bit of an open question. I do like drowsy beach days, but I also like the way that bananas taste, and bananas are very different from death.

But this very specific Type of Guy does often tend to view life as suffering, which is may why so many are attracted to Buddhism/meditation. No surprise that Rust meditates, is it?

Five: Antinatalism

This follows naturally from seeing existence as suffering.

Interestingly, lots of this type of Highly Online Guy are actually not anti-natalists, but instead want to make sure that some day there are like 60 trillion orgasming robots pasting over the solar system.

Something something character development; something something dead daughter.

Six: Property Dualism

At one point in the car, Rust notes that man, as sentient meat, obeys evolutionary programming, but does not follow nature’s laws. There’s also the line about the locked room and the line about being a biological puppet. I read this as suggesting property dualism; that conscious entities have experience, facts about which are irreducible to facts about physical science, even though people’s physical behavior is driven by physical laws. Not necessarily epiphenomenalism!

Again, very common among these online guys. Robin Hanson is an exemplar.

This belief is not as miserable as the others. I am a happy property dualist!

Eight: Memetics!

There’s like a throwaway line where Rustyboy notes that he’s a big believer in studying the evolution of cultural forms basically the same way you would study biological evolution. Very, very hip among this type of Online Guy.

Nine: Various Personal Behaviors

The pull-up bar. The r/MaleLivingSpace apartment. The Jameson. The Psychedelics. LMAO to all.


A Quick Note on Displacement and Morality

America has a lot of internal migration. She also has limits on housing supply. The upshot is that sometimes, high-wage internal migrants displace the locals. Lefties have gotten very upset about this in recent years, decrying “gentrification“. But that leaves us with a bit of a puzzle: if gentrification is so bad for natives, why do city governments whore themselves out to get Amazon offices? Won’t that bring yuppies? Isn’t that bad? Yet surely the governments aren’t stupid, and they represent the native residents who elect them. The natives must be getting something. A Puzzlement!

That is the question for today: suppose we only care about the interests of the natives: when do you want young white Berkeley graduates with apple laptops moving in, and when do you not?

Well, here’s one case where you want them: when you own your house. You aren’t exposed to the increase in housing costs because you own your housing, so you aren’t displaced. Yes, your property taxes go up a bit, but this effect is very small, and you can still afford to stay.

And you get all of gentrification’s benefits. Gentrification is great if you can afford it. I’m not going to argue why, because we can just look at revealed preferences. Homeowners are generally just as likely to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods than similar neighborhoods that don’t gentrify (some studies find they’re more likely). That’s a bigger deal than it might seem. If you’re a homeowner in a gentrifying neighborhood, you suddenly have a big asset you can sell by leaving. If people are no likelier to sell a valuable gentrified house than a valueless non-gentrified house, then people are getting their money’s worth out of that home value.

But let’s ignore homeowners. Most urban poor are renters anyway.

So about those renters. Sometimes, even renters need these yuppies around. Let’s look at revealed preferences again: poor areas with no gentrification tend to hemorrhage population. Why? Well, at the neighborhood level it’s mostly about crime. But the municipal level is where things get real scary. Look at the fastest depopulating cities in the US. They tend to come in three kinds:

  1. Poor urban cores of otherwise functional metro areas, mostly black and with high crime [Baltimore, Detroit, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, St. Louis, Flint, Gary]
  2. Company towns where the plant (or mine) has shut down [Rockford IL, Charleston WV, Decatur IL, Jacksonville NC]
  3. Ohio

So we can see that when a place sufficiently fails to gentrify, it becomes uninhabitable, and everyone leaves. There’s a threshold where a city is simply too poor, uneducated, lacking in transit connection, and black, and it collapses.

(By the way, there’s actual serious data backing up these patterns. I just think seeing extremes is more fun)

Now, I mention race rather than just income. I know that’s a bit odd, but apparently it’s what matters? What seems to repel newcomers are perceptions of social disorder. These are much higher for poor black neighborhoods than similarly poor but less black ones, probably from a mix of racism and actual differences in crime rates.

The upshot is, when there aren’t enough yuppies, you get more crime, no jobs, and no tax base. Then tax rates have to rise to balance the collapsing property values, and eventually almost everyone leaves.

There’s a spiral. Neighborhoods that don’t gentrify shrink, and the remainers are generally poorer and less educated than the leavers. That itself discourages gentrification, and you reach a demographic threshold where the neighborhood or city pretty much dies.

So you need a certain number of yuppies just to keep the lights on.

But you don’t want too many. When do you have too many? You have too many yuppies when the natives are all being gentrified out. This happens more rarely than most people think. For one thing, neighborhood decline is much more common then gentrification. For another, gentrification mostly happens from the natural churn of people into and out of neighborhoods, not displacement of individuals: more newcomers are rich whites, fewer are poor and black, but natives aren’t leaving at especially high rates. You do get displacement when gentrification really gets going. The hallmark of things getting bad is when a bunch of people are homeless, which tends to happen in places with rapidly increasing home values.

Now, there’s some evidence that displacement is good in the long term, because when people are forced to move they tend to move somewhere with good opportunities. So, for example, it’s great for your kids’ careers if your house is destroyed by a fucking volcano. It’s also true that children tend to have better educational and career outcomes if their neighborhoods gentrify (somewhat hard to identify causation). But in places like San Francisco or San Jose where pretty much the entire original population has to move out, idk that just seems bad to me.

So there are two bad equilibria. In one, a city fails to gentrify, the city goes to shit, and everyone leaves. In the other, the city gets too nice, and no one can afford to live there anymore.

Now, some people think that urban decay is not the same sort of moral problem as displacement. In one case, you’re forced to leave a place because you can’t afford it. In the other, you voluntarily choose to leave because it sucks. Maybe the first is worse? But… Eh. From the poor person’s point of view, these issues are the same, and the result is the same. Staying in place became untenable, so they moved somewhere else.

The real difference is from the point of view of the gentrifying yuppies (who comprise like 98% of the discourse). When poor people leave Williamsburg or the Mission to find somewhere cheaper, yuppies feel bad because the expense is their fault. When poor people leave Jackson or St. Louis to find somewhere safer, the yuppies don’t even know it’s happening.

Of course, another reason that nice New Yorker reading gentrifiers tend to underestimate the costs of urban decay is that they have a rather rose-tinted view of poor neighborhoods. They see gentrification as pricing out renters from their deep ties to tight-knit communities. In reality, low income renters, just like other renters, are pretty loosely connected people. They move around often, and tend to gravitate to places with more economic opportunity, just like high income renters. Only, they don’t have as much money.

I personally think it a little odd that this romantic view of low-income neighborhoods has caught on among their yuppie replacers. These are people who grew up in idk Fairfax and then went to college in maybe Boston, now live in let’s say Seattle and fly home perhaps twice a year, yet see ties to the community as a deep, inviolable bond. Really? Perhaps there is some white psychodrama going on here.

But perhaps not. Should it really surprise us that gentrifiers tend to see historically low-income neighborhoods as quaint, charming places where a person would want to live? These are people who live in the poor neighborhoods so nice they stopped being poor. Should we be surprised that such people would overestimate community ties in poor neighborhoods? The only people they know from the older, poorer version of their neighborhood are the ones who stayed.

But I digress.

To a serious policymaker, your goal is to steer your city between the Scylla of depopulation and the Charybdis of displacement. This is hard. Natives probably get fucked by gentrification in New York, San Jose, and Seattle. They get fucked the other way in Baltimore, Chicago, and much of the Midwest.

The perfect balance is in cities like New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport, and Providence. Their populations are stable after nosedives during the crime waves of the ’70s and ‘the ’90s, but rents remain low. Locked-in institutions like Yale, Brown and state governments keep enough money and business within city limits, while the fact that they are shitholes keeps away anything else.

There’s unfortunately only so much cities can do via the Elm City Method. You can’t just pop-out an Ivy League University or a State Government overnight, nor is it easy to turn your own city into a shithole (well…). But cities do have tools to attract the goldilocks number of yuppies: tax and regulatory codes. In SF, doing anything at all is a high-budget nightmare. It’s easier in Madison and Pittsburgh, because those cities are not as cool, and they want your business.

Now, what does this mean for you, dear reader? What can you do? Well, I would never recommend making any decision based on ethical grounds. But I will consider my duty done today if I have helped some yuppie Chicagoans feel smug. If you live in Chicago, you needn’t worry about displacing people. You can buy all the lattes you want (’tis the season). Your mere presence is a boon to the city. Now go eat your awful pizza.

[Of course, all of these problems would disappear if we just let people build homes.]

The Laws of Law

Over the the last four to five hundred years, something very special has happened: Law won. In America, we tend to see the law as the dowdy chaperone of the frontiersman. We see her sensible office shoes following in the spurred footsteps of the cowboy, pushing the roughnecks and cavaliers further and further across the continent in their search for raucous anarchy.

As historians love to point out, that’s not exactly correct. There were systems of dispute resolution on the frontier, and native societies had governing institutions, contracts, customs, as did the Spanish and French. But, like, it’s obviously a little correct.

Today, I am going to try to define a little better what we mean when we say that the rule of law won. Then I am going to gesture at an explanation of why. But, reader beware! This is a big topic and I don’t have a confident answer.

So first, let me make a couple of stipulations.

First, I want to stipulate that the rule of law really has made improvements in modernity. During American settlement, many disputes turned on who had the most dudes with guns. Before American settlement, the story is similar. Yes, sophisticated native societies like the Pueblo had complex governments resolving disputes (Kivas!), and surely the Mississippians did too. But between the constant shifts in power between tribes and the general anarchy, a lot of disputes in indigenous America turned on who had the most dudes with bows.1 Medieval Europe similarly had stupendously high rates of violent death.

Second, I want to stipulate that the rule of law is fundamentally about how to resolve disputes. Basically, when one person wants something, and another person wants something else, the law intervenes. Yes, legal systems also structure our society in ways that cause certain disputes to never arise. But, like, roll with me. It’s mostly about disputes.

Third, I want to note that law is not how we resolve all disputes. Most disputes never get to the court. But law is the final arbiter. Today, when disputes escalate, they’re resolved by some deputies of the state (a judge, a jury, a DMV clerk) consulting a big book on how to resolve disputes and coming up with a decision. Then professional enforcers make sure that what the deputies said should happen actually does. Obviously this is an approximation, but it is a pretty good one, so, like, go with it for now.

So that’s what law is.

But law is a pretty weird form of dispute resolution. Historically, there have been a number of sources for deciding how individual disputes should be resolved. These include:

  1. Custom.
  2. Prescriptions written down in a big book somewhere.2
  3. Morality
  4. Deliberations by a council, jury, or judge
  5. Threats

These decisions can be made by different groups:

i. The state.
ii. A quasi-state: mafia families, noble houses, or gangs: entities with strong negotiating positions but not total monopolies on force.
iii. A moral authority, like a priest, elder, or marriage counselor.
iv. Emergent phenomena arising from disperse behavior.
v. The force of the community en masse (posses, mobs, crowds).

And there are a number of mechanisms by which such resolutions can be enforced:

a. Ostracism/distributed enforcement
b. Lynching
c. Professional Enforcers
d. Whining
e. Assault

Five hundred years ago, a lot of disputes were settled by ii, iv, and v, referencing 1 and 4, enforced by a mix of a, b, d, and e. This was pretty diverse. In colonial New England, ad hoc religious councils would convene to settle on who was the right kind of prude and who was instead naughty. They used a mix of ostracism and deputized law enforcement to kick people out of Massachusetts. In Virginia, customs of honor were enforced by cycles of vengeance, with the occasional lynching thrown in.

Today’s situation is much more homogenous. When you have a dispute that you can’t resolve, how will it be escalated? For most people, you call a lawyer. Then, you initiate a bunch of procedures and, if it continues to escalate, the court looks at some books and then tells a bank to change a value in some spreadsheet, and one of the disputants is suddenly kind of broke. Or, if the book gets very upset, someone goes to jail.

How did we get to this situation? .

I don’t know. But it’s clear this was not a necessary outcome.

Lots of changes since 1600 seem like basically natural outcomes of the rise in literacy and improvement in technology. But this is not one of those. Societies can get by without falling fully under the rule of law, and they can even get pretty rich. Look at Mexico! In Mexico:

  1. A huge proportion of the labor force works in jobs that aren’t exactly legal.
  2. A lot of people are squatters, yet are able to enforce some rights against expropriation.
  3. Substantial parts of the country are ruled by cartels.

Realistically, there is no law in Mexico. So it really could have gone a different way in America, too. We could have a high level of technology and still mostly resolve disputes the old fashioned way: lots of custom and habit, with a healthy helping of physical force.

So why are countries different? I don’t really know, but we should note that there are a few traits common to countries where the rules of law holds:

  1. People expect the law to be followed. Or, there are clear rules about exactly what ways the rules will be violated. For example: in America, no one drives the speed limit (that would be insane), but people also do not drive 25 mph above the speed limit (that would also be insane). There is a set of rules around speed limits that are pretty consistently followed, even if they’re not what are on the books.
  2. People often follow the law even though no one is making them.
  3. Generally speaking, breaking the law is viewed as embarrassing. A common punishment in schools for mildly illegal behavior is that they call your mom. Ex-convicts face serious social stigma.
  4. In countries with rule of law, when rules are established, individuals will make personal sacrifices to make sure those rules are enforced.

So perhaps we have an explanation of the variation across societies: there are multiple equilibria. If everyone punishes violators, then punishment is fruitful. A single person can’t enforce a norm by themselves, only a village can. If there is no expectation of rule following, you can easily end up in a Mexico situation. In contrast, a general expectation of rule following is pretty easy to maintain. People will be more willing to enforce the rules, since they know that others will join in, making their enforcement effective. People will break a lot more laws if the police can be outrun. On top of that, a rarity of violations makes a sustained policy of enforcement less costly. So, once you’ve got a law-abiding society, it’s relatively easy to keep it.

But that doesn’t explain everything. In this model, I can explain why some societies would be able to sustain Law better than others. But why should any countries be able to sustain law at all? I still have two large and unexplained features:

  1. Enforcement of rules isn’t distributed, it’s routed through a series of centralized institutions.
  2. There is some essentially altruistic behavior. Yes, expectations that others will enforce the rules will make enforcement minimally costly for me. But why should I enforce them if it’s costly at all?

A question for another day.

1[It always delights me that the archeological/genetic record keeps embarrassing historians and anthropologists and vindicating linguists. Yes, the Roman economy was far more sophisticated than late antiquity . Yes, it was deeply market-driven. No, the British didn’t make the modern caste system; the castes of India have been forced apart for thousands of years. Yes, Stalin really did want to conquer the world. I like this because the methods in linguistics (model building) are more to my taste than the methods in history and anthropology (leftist whining)]

2 [I personally think that common law counts as verdict based on what was written down in a big book, because generally legislators know what precedent is, and statute over-rides case law. So, if the guys holding the big book want to change outcomes in courts, they can do that, even though the courts are usually referencing precedent, rather than the big book itself]

No, the Logic in Dobbs does not Reverse Obergefell

[Note: the post below is a legal argument for why the logic in the Dobbs opinion does not overturn Obergefell or Griswold and the other cases defended by “privacy rights”, despite some cheeky rhetoric in the opinion. I wrote it because I saw smart people, including Erwin Chemerinsky, who said that it would. This seemed to me like a misreading. Since then, I talked to a guy I know at YLS, who said that received opinion there is that no, Dobbs does not actually overturn privacy rights, and the “rooted in history and tradition” test does not overturn them either, for basically the reasons I outline below. The reason everyone is saying that they’ll get rid of right to privacy is because we know Alito and Thomas want to already, so the cheeky rhetoric in the opinion will encourage activist litigation on Obergefell, which will probably win in a 6-3 court. So, this post is a little pointless. Of course, pretending that arguments matter at the Supreme Court is pointless always.]

A lot of apparently intelligent people are claiming that the leaked Supreme Court Opinion overturning Roe v. Wade threatens other important rules like Obergefell v. Hodges, but it does not.

It’s clear from the text of the opinion of Dobbs itself that whoever drafted the opinion wanted to be absolutely clear that it could not be used to argue for overturning Obergefell. They do that not only by saying, “Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion [including Obergefell]” but also by very, very carefully wording their argument so that it does not apply to Obergefell and Loving.

But people still think it’s a threat. The possible threat argument is this:

  1. The decision in Dobbs proposes a strong limitation on inclusion of rights under the “Due Process” clause of the 14th amendment. It must turn on two questions: whether it is “deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition and whether it is essential to our Nation’s “scheme of ordered Liberty.”
  2. The opinion explicitly says that all rights defended in the court must be based in the text of the constitution, and in particular, rights defended on 14th amendment “Due Process” grounds must proceed from a thorough investigating the concept of ordered liberty as included in the 14th amendment.
  3. The opinion appears to say that all rights not explicitly enumerated in common law by the time of the ratification of the 14th amendment or at least a very long time ago cannot be included as “Ordered Liberty” protected as substantive due process.
  4. Obviously, homosexuality and interracial marriage were not considered rights at that time.

But the appearance of (3) isn’t actually what Alito’s opinion expresses. The opinion is that, whatever unenumerated rights the 14th amendment protects, the arguments in Roe and Casey that include abortion under those rights are terrible, because of the totally unique question of the rights of fetuses. 

You can argue that fetuses have no rights. I personally might be receptive to such arguments, at least early-stage fetuses. However, both the Roe and Casey courts instead recognize that fetuses have valid rights, and that the state has a legitimate interest in defending the fetus’ rights, but they have to be balanced against privacy rights of the mother. They just decide with almost no argument at all exactly how those rights should be negotiated. That is what gives the Alito opinion its force. To argue that states can have legitimate interests in fetal rights, he only has to refer to precedent. Alito’s opinion remains agnostic as to whether fetuses have rights worth defending. 

But this is also why the decision does not threaten Obergefell or Loving, legally speaking.

Here are some important facts about the Dobbs opinion

  1. The opinion only questions an application of the “right to privacy” that courts have previously decided is protected under the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment, but Obergefell wasn’t actually argued on vague privacy grounds, but instead by specific marriage rights established in Griswold and Loving.
  2. The Dobbs opinion does not actually say at all whether the right to privacy is a legitimate right protected under the 14th amendment. Only, any right to privacy or autonomy is certainly not universal, and in particular does not include the right to an Abortion, because (as the court had previously determined) the state has a legitimate interest in protecting any rights that fetuses may have.
    1. It almost demands a legal test for being “deeply rooted in our National History and Tradition” that would require a right to have been accepted by the time of the ratification of the 14th amendment to get substantive Due Process protections. But it doesn’t. 
  3. Stare Decesis still matters. The court does not say they can overturn existing cases willy-nilly. In particular, Alito lists five reasons that Stare Decesis can be overwhelmed in this particular case. Few apply to Loving or Obergefell. These are:
    1. The nature of the error made in Roe/Casey (that it is a point of constitutional interpretation).
    2. The poor quality of the reasoning in Roe and Casey.
    3. The unworkability and general silliness/vagueness of the rules in Casey.
    4. The ways that consistency with Roe and Casey have overturned other, pre-existing law.
    5. The weak standing these laws have actually had in practice.

One of these applies to Obergefell (maybe two, and at a stretch three) but two definitely don’t, and the one concern that does definitely apply (that Obergefell was decided based on constitutional interpretation) is the least decisive of the five. 

(2), and especially (2a) is the really scary one, but I promise I will explain later why it’s chill. 

Really, all three of these are chill. What is encouraging people to freak out is that Alito is a very cheeky boy.

The Case against Due Process Rights?

Alito keeps on hinting that a lot of purported substantive due process rights, including the right to privacy, might be bogus. He keeps hinting that the concept of “Ordered Liberty” has been totally abused, implying the cases grounded in privacy rights might be overturned. But he doesn’t actually say it. Here is some important text, and I think it well illustrates the ways Alito hints at a radical overhaul of court doctrine without explicitly saying it: 

On occasion, when the Court has ignored the “[a]ppropriate limits imposed by “respect for the teachings of history,” Moore, 431 U.S., at 503, it has fallen into the freewheeling judicial policymaking that characterized discredited decisions such as Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45, 25 (1905). The Court must not fall prey to such an unprincipled approach. Instead, guided by the history and tradition that map the essential components of our Nation’s concept of ordered liberty, we must ask what the Fourteenth Amendment means by the term “liberty.” When we engage in that inquiry in the present case, the clear answer is that the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect the right to an abortion.

This yells, “consult history more!” a lot, but it doesn’t actually say that anything that was considered illegal in 1868 is not protected under the Due Process clause. It just says that what was illegal in 1868 (along with other legal history) provides important evidence and guidance. I don’t think anyone is really going to dispute that. Precedent matters. But this doesn’t preclude the idea that the idea of “Ordered Liberty” might be very general, and that the Due Process clause might protect a lot of behaviors that jurists in 1868 did not realize, because some rights (perhaps including some rights to personal autonomy) might be very, very broad and hard to grasp.

So the decision really should not threaten Obergefell and we should all calm down, right?

Well, not quite yet. You see, Alito makes three confusing rhetorical moves that might ennervate a more anxious reader than I. 

First, he says that any rights protected under the 14th have to be balanced against any other rights, and that if there is a right to “personal autonomy” this right is not universal. This freaks people out, but put it in more general terms and it’s surely something you already agree with. 

Lots of rules restrict personal autonomy: child negligence laws, drug use laws, FDA decisions, licensing rules that restrict you can provide you medical care and even haircare! We balance personal autonomy against other competing interests all the time.

I think most of the people freaked out about this one are people physiologically incapable of considering that fetuses might have rights.

If fetuses don’t have any rights, then even a pretty narrow right to autonomy plausibly guarantees the right to an abortion. So, if Dobbs reverses the right to privacy, why would the right to privacy protect anything else? The obvious answer is: it protects privacy rights that do not run up too much against other valid concerns. Alito keeps saying that his decision does not say anything about privacy rights in general. It’s just that he’s moving abortions from the “taking contraception” class of behaviors to the, “snorting cocaine” class of behaviors. But people are apparently incapable of understanding this. 

Second, Alito has some alarming chatter about generality and support. First, Alito says that, “[privacy] criteria, at a high level of generality, could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.” It’s alarming that he says, “generality” suggesting that something so general as a right to privacy would be indefensible, but the alternative meaning is that the right to privacy cannot be so general that it overwhelms others’ legitimate rights. He also says that Roe has “No Constitutional Support”. This might also suggest that a right to autonomy doesn’t exist, but it could equally mean that the primacy of the right to privacy over any rights a fetus might have lacks constitutional support. The first would threaten Obergefell, but the second wouldn’t. Since he says over and over again that he is not threatening Obergefell, charity demands we take him at his word and assume he means the latter. [That is charity of legal interpretation. Politically speaking, we should not assume that the latter is what he means].

The opinion is very, very carefully written to hint at the right to privacy being bogus without having any logic at all that commits the court to that position.

Is Alito Making Public Opinion in 1868 the Key to Due Process Rights?

Second, and more worryingly, he seems to suggest that all behaviors protected by substantive Due Process in the 14th must have been explicitly protected by common law in 1868. In particular, Alito argues that for a right protected by the 14th to be legitimate, it must be “Deeply Rooted in our Nation’s History and Traditions”. Then, he goes on for a few pages about how abortion was basically illegal from Camelot on down to the Nixon administration. Then he says, “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.”. That might suggest that anything that was illegal for a very long time definitely isn’t a right.

But that’s not quite right. It means that a specific right to Abortion is not deeply rooted, but it might be part of a broader right. Alito considers the idea that there might be broader rights that conflict with 19th century practice and are more important, including a right to privacy. Then he neither confirms nor denies that position:

In drawing this critical distinction between the abortion right and other rights, it is not necessary to dispute Casey’s claim (which we accept for the sake of argument) that “the specific practices of States at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment” do not “mark(] the outer limits of the substantive sphere of liberty which the Fourteenth Amendment protects.”505 U.S. at 848. Abortion is nothing new. It has been addressed by lawmakers for centuries, and the fundamental moral question that it poses is ageless.

You may note that while gay marriage has been conceivable for a long time, the presence of a large class of public, stable gay families that had no legal recognition was pretty unique to the early 2000s, and is relevant to the test noted above. My mans is working very, very hard to make sure that the Dobbs decision does not apply to Obergefell at all.

Some people have concluded that even though Alito isn’t explicitly overruling privacy rights, the legal test “Deeply Rooted in our History and Tradition” would put such a stringent demand on them that Obergefell would have to go. The best support for that is this passage:

A [historical] inquiry was undertaken in McDonald, supra, which held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms. The lead opinion surveyed the origins of the Second Amendment, the debates in Congress about the adoptionofthe FourteenthAmendment, the state constitutions in effect when that Amendment was ratified (at least 22 of the 37 States protected the right to keep and bear arms), federal laws enacted during the same period, and other relevant historical evidence. 561 U.S, at 767- 777. Only then did the opinion conclude that “the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”

Then he says, 

Timbs and McDonald concerned the question whether the Fourteenth Amendment protects rights that are expressly set out in the Bill of Rights, and it would be anomalous if similar historical support were not required when a putative right is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution.

It’s not insane to interpret this as saying that to argue for rights to be included in Substantive Due Process, you have to find that they’re so “Deeply Rooted in our Nation’s History and Tradition”, that arguments “similar” to those above could be found for them, and this requires finding evidence for your opinion from before 1868. Alito definitely wants to encourage this reading. He is an extremely cheeky boy. But his own arguments deny it. First, when investigating whether abortion rights pass the “Deeply Rooted” test, he looks at evidence all the way up to 1973. Second, the Glucksberg case that he cites favorably did not turn on public opinion in 1868 and instead looked at evidence up to the present. Alito cites it approvingly, saying it, “surveyed more than 700 years of “Anglo-American common law tradition”. Since its evidence starts with Magna Carta (1215), Alito at least thinks that evidence up to 1915 counts lol. 

Of course, Alito might be saying that evidence from after 1868 matters, but you need at least some evidence from before that. He certainly wants to hint at that, but that can’t be the test he’s demanding. First, that would be a wildly specific test to just hint at instead of saying outright. But also, the “Deeply Rooted in our History and Tradition” is pretty normie boilerplate to say about due process. If he were trying to change a test that already had a decently established meaning, he would have to do more than hint.

In the end, the statements he makes that people interpret as threatening Obergefell boil down to two platitudes:

  1. Rights protected under the 14th should have some basis in tradition and our notion of “ordered liberty”.
  2. Privacy and autonomy rights are not some universal sanction to do whatever you want to whomever you want whenever you want.

He makes these sound scary, but they are not. (1) is scary if given a hyper-originalist interpretation, which certainly wants to encourage. But he doesn’t give it one, and if a lawyer tried to use Dobbs as a defense for a hyper-originalist interpretation of (1), they run aground on the fact that it denies the explicit statements in the opinion itself (that it is not overturning Obergefell, Loving, etc.).

Staring at the Decesis.

Another big defense for Obergefell is Stare Decesis: that we generally defer to the reasoning of prior courts. Stare Decesis is real and the opinion does not ignore it, just argues that in this case, it is overwhelmed by five factors:

In this case, five factors weigh strongly in favor of over. ruling Roe and Casey: the nature of their error, the quality of their reasoning, the “workability” of the rules they imposed on the country, their disruptive effect on other areas of the law, and the absence of concrete reliance.

What does that mean:

  1. The nature of the error – This is that the error was of constitutional interpretation rather than legislative interpretation, and that it’s on an important matter. Alito argues that it is more reasonable to overturn decisions of constitutional interpretation because the constitution is so hard to change. This is reasonable, and unfortunately it applies to Obergefell
  2. The quality of their reasoning – Alito thinks that the reasoning in Roe was terrible. To be clear, he is right. Based on his other opinions, he personally thinks this applies to Obergefell. I doubt that Kavanaugh and Gorsuch do. Realistically, Obergefell was a way less crazy decision than Roe, and most of Alito’s arguments for why Roe’s reasoning was bad don’t apply to it.
  3. The “workability” of rules imposed on the country – This is that the rules in Roe and Casey use vague terms like “Undue Burden” that have never been consistently applied [he is correct] and that there is constant activist legislation trying to monkey with exactly what the rules are. So, Roe & Casey aren’t really the kinds of functioning, legitimate laws that Stare Decesis is meant to protect. Of course, this is a little cheeky for a conservative lawyer to say, because it is the conservative legal movement that has done all this monkeying with Roe. Fortunately, this really doesn’t apply to Obergefell because marriage is well defined. It has to be for tax reasons! 
  4. The disruptive effect on other areas of law – This is that enforcing Roe has caused other rules and principles to have to be overturned. For Obergefell, this has been a little true (remember that guy who didn’t want to make the gay cakes?) but it would be pretty easy to carve out religious excemptions while keeping Obergefell on the books, and to be honest I’m surprised the court hasn’t done that already.
  5. The absence of concrete reliance – One reason that Stare Decesis matters is that people structure their lives around the expectation that laws won’t suddenly change. Casey had some reasoning about how people structure themselves emotionally and whatever around getting to have abortions, but, come on, that’s kind of bogus. Anyone can pretty adequately prepare for a reversal of Casey by not having sex. In contrast, a marriage is such a central organization of your life that negotiating the legal difficulties breaking them up is an entire profession.

So only (1) definitely applies to Obergefell, but it’s the least important. Then, (2) applies somewhat, and (4) applies a tiny bit but you could easily make those problems go away without changing Obergefell very much. (5) doesn’t, and instead militates that Stare Decesis is far more compelling on Obergefell than most SCOTUS decisions.

Wait what actually justified Obergefell?

Above, I have argued that overturning Roe doesn’t threaten Obergefell because it doesn’t deny that there may be a right to privacy/autonomy that is pretty general, just not so general as to include abortion.

But you don’t actually need a super general privacy right to defend Obergefell, you just need specific autonomies and specific privacy rights. So, as a quick aside, I want to note that the privacy/autonomy grounds that grounded Roe were very different from the arguments for Obergefell, Loving, Griswold, Eisenstadt, and Lawrence and you can drop the privacy right that decided Roe while keeping the other decisions.

If you are not up to date on all these debates, you might be wondering why I keep saying Roe was defended on grounds of a right to “privacy” but I’m clearly talking about something different: a right to “autonomy” or something like that.

You’re right! The “right to privacy” as it was purported to apply to Roe was a complete misnomer. Let us amble through the history of how that strange terminology came to be.

The fourth amendment includes “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. Based on this, and some other good stuff, there slowly emerged a common law rule that no laws can require unreasonable intrusion into intimate, personal life. To be a little flippant, the public has to stay out of your damn bedroom. This grounded Griswold (which let married couples use contraception) and Eisenstadt (which let everyone else). Later, similar logic applied to gay sex (Lawrence). These are pretty deep roots in our national history and tradition.

But then, in an extremely hand-wavey way, the Blackmun court argued in 1973 that these rights to freedom from excessive government intrusion into intimate life applied to abortion. This is kind of crazy because doctors are licensed by the state so medical procedures are obviously the state’s business, and no one at the time thought this argument made any sense. So they just kind of pretended that privacy and autonomy are the same thing (hence why we call the autonomy right a “right to privacy”).

Separately, the Obergefell majority invokes the arguments in Griswold and Loving to justify a special marriage right as something fundamental to liberty. The arguments in Obergefell for why marriage has to be defined to include same sex couples are very brief, basically terrible, and not really written to be persuasive (read it yourself!) But there is an argument that the opinions in Griswold and Loving established the tangible legal benefits from marriage as essential to liberty, and those arguments apply to gay and straight couples similarly. You can see these arguments in Roberts’ dissent (where he hints that he might accept a right to civil unions).

Roe, instead, points at a big sign saying, “autonomy” and calls it a day.

The courts in Obergefell, Griswold, Loving, Eisenstadt, and Lawrence made specific arguments for why the rights they outlined were extra fundamental, had grounding in precedent, and were uniquely the domain of the private individual. 

In Sum

So, summing it all up, the logic in Dobbs does not overturn Obergefell or cases based on privacy rights. 

Does this matter? Lolwut? No. Arguments don’t matter at the Supreme Court. Let’s be real; it’s a legislature. The legislature is now mostly Republicans, so a bunch of Republican decisions are gonna come down.

I’m guessing they won’t overturn gay marriage though, just because I think Gorsuch and Roberts are pretty conscious of popular opinion. 

How to Succeed in Social-Norm-Enforcement Without Really Trying

How do you enforce a rule? 

This is a common problem. Life is full of disputes and full of collective action problems, so many norms have to be enforced. We also have random bad pointless norms but let’s ignore those for today.

In these United States, we have two tricks. First, we have a state. The state consists of a deliberative body with a large pot of money and a near monopoly on violence. The deliberative body hires agents to enforce its will. It also hires agents to sustain itself.

Our second trick is the goodness of our hearts.

But both of those are fragile. History is full of governments being swept in and swept out, and in our hearts, goodness come in limited supply. There’s only so much sympathy and self-denial you can expect, so sympathy can only deal with incidentals.

So what’s a girl to do when she’s a society with a complexly interwoven society subject to unreliable government? That is the question this blog post shall answer.

The answer is that she does ostracism. Lots, and lots, of ostracism. And if things get complicated enough she does a caste system. 

What’s so great about ostracism? In brief, it’s antifragile. In slightly less brief, ostracism is a self-sustaining norm because everyone has to participate in the enforcement and that solidifies a Nash equilibrium with lots of punishing.

In even less brief, read the rest of this post.

The problem that ostracism solves is free ridership on punishment.

For example, I might like that thieves are punished, but not want to make the needed sacrifices to make that happen (paying my taxes). So, we also need to enforce the rule that taxes are paid (we need IRS agents), and we also need to enforce the rule that we enforce the rule that taxes are paid (we need managers ensuring good work product from IRS agents), and we need to enforce the rule that we enforce the rule that…

… Infinite Regress!

In the US, we escape this regress by all voting for good candidates. Voting, and researching for whom to vote, is irrational, and a selfish person would not do it, but alhamdulillah we all do it anyway and it makes government agents do their jobs.

How does ostracism escape this infinite regress? It’s actually super cool and clever how. Ostracism is a punishment where it’s obvious if anyone has failed to enforce it, and it’s easy for people to punish the non-enforcers.

Why? For most of history everyone lived in tight villages, so you can see whether someone isn’t participating in the ostracism. You just look who’s visiting which house. Plus, you don’t need to make a checklist of who’s done the punishment and who hasn’t. The default is punishing because the default is not interacting. You only need to watch to see if someone “breaks”.

As long as you have a notion of, “pollution”, that non-ostracizers must be ostracized themselves, then everyone enforcing every rule is a Nash equilibrium

Let’s be pedantic and look at the math. Assume the utility of person p follows the following equation:

    Up = Σi=1n U(p,i)*C(i,p)


  • there are n people in the community
  • U(p,i) is how much pleasure person p gets from being in contact with person i 
  • C(i,p) is 1 or 0 depending on whether person i is in contact with person p

If a single person “defects” from the norm, then they only get to keep in contact with one person, and unless that one person is super cool and chill, their utility is going to plummet. In a premodern society you would die. So no one is going to deviate.

The rule that you’re ostracized for not joining the ostracism is really important here. If you didn’t ostracize the non-ostracizers, they would break from the ostracism any time it was convenient, and the whole system would collapse (the Nash equilibrium would be one of no ostracizing). So it’s not surprising we see pollution elements of ostracism norms in societies across the globe. We see an emphasis on the pollution of moral wrongdoing in:

  • Oedipus Rex
  • Hinduism
  • The Amish, Hutterites, and other “All in or all out” religious minorities.
  • Old Testament Judaism.
  • Roma

These tend to be societies that don’t get to use the government to enforce rules. This is the way you enforce strict rules without a government.

Another thing you’ll need for the norm to work is some kind of forgiveness. There have to be some lesser rules that people can violate occasionally without it being a big deal. We wouldn’t want full ostracism for, like, trespassing. And so it’s not surprising that annoying but affordable re-purification rituals appear in cultures all over the world.

Fun! Game Theory explaining phenomena!

But there are limitations. For this system to work:

  • Everyone has to know everybody else’s business. If people don’t know exactly whom to ostracize, then they’ll end up fraternizing with people they should be ostracizing and the “pollution” rule will become unsustainable.
  • Everyone has to know all of the rules, and everyone has to know that everyone else knows all the rules. 
  • It has to be a huge pain to switch communities. If people could easily switch over, then getting ostracized would not be nearly as bad.

Those limitations are no problem in a village. But they get constraining in a big complicated city with a lot of immigrants and emigrants. So it’s not surprising that ostracism cultures tend to be in small communities, say two hundred people: congregations, rural villages, clans. They’re all good at ostracism and use it liberally.

But can it work in the city? Well, you’re going to need to break things down into teams.

The teams should work like this:

  • Within your team, you ostracize anyone who breaks your team’s rules. But you don’t need to know anything about people on other teams. You can treat them all the same regardless of what they’ve done against their own rules.
  • Fraternization across teams is severely restricted. Otherwise, when people were ostracized from their own team, they would meet their needs by spending time with members of other teams and getting ostracized wouldn’t be such a pain.
  • The rules within your team are as simple as possible. This works best if the lifestyles of your team are as similar as possible. Like, you all have the same job. This way, you don’t need too many rules. Everyone’s life is about the same, so not that many unique situations arise in communal life, so the rules within a team can remain manageably simple.
  • Each team collectively enforces its rights against the other teams. The rules for what a person on one team can do to a person on another team are relatively simple, and tit-for-tat strategies and cycles of reciprocal are common. In practice, teams with more military, political, or religious power will end up largely dominating the other teams.

Oh look. We’ve invented the caste system. And it has lasted two-thousand years.

The Post that was Promised

In my last post I said that real wages for a given class of income have fallen in hyperdense cities since 2000 due to rising rents, and that professional class real incomes there are much lower than in other cities. If you haven’t read that one, read it first because here I’m just going to make good on that promise.

Real wages by location are difficult to measure because of selection bias. Suppose you wanted to look at the wages of college graduates in two places. You find that real wages are higher in, say, Berkeley than they are in Tulsa, and conclude that another wave of Okies will take flight to the San Joaquin, this time with diplomas in hand.

But that’s probably wrong. The college graduates in Berkeley aren’t making more than those in Tulsa because the opportunities in Berkeley are that much better. It’s mostly because the college graduates in Berkeley are smarter, more go-getting, and better trained than the graduates in Tulsa or Dayton.

The other issue is this: cost of living is much higher in Berkeley. Largely, this reflects the high cost of rent, but high rents raise prices for any goods and services that require a physical footprint (everything but porn and Netflix).

When studies look at consumption patterns, they tend to find that uneducated people have much better consumption opportunities (which I will henceforth call real wages) if they move to a cheaper place, even though their paychecks get smaller numbers on them. For college graduates, however, these studies tend to find similar real wages across different commuting zones.

But I disagree with these studies, because of a proverb my father described to me as a child.

“My son, if a paper tried to control for a confounder, they did not fully control for the confounder.”

Even if you really have measured cost of living, the problem with comparing real wages for college graduates by location is that college graduates differ vastly. Papers try to correct for this by identifying human capital, but in my opinion they are all doomed to fail.

In a good new paper on this topic (the one linked above), let’s check the variables they used to distinguish college graduates so they could form comparison classes:

  1. Age
  2. Gender
  3. Race
  4. Hispanic Origin
  5. Marital Status
  6. Number of Children

You will notice that none of those are the number you would really want, which is the USNews ranking of the college that the person attended, the grades they got, and the subjects they majored in. Obviously this paper had no way of measuring actual human capital, and had to proxy based on years of education, which only gets you some of the way there.

So the attempt to identify how much each American household could be making in different locations is probably doomed. You would need pretty granular information about each person’s human capital, and I’m just not sure that exists (there might be some good way to do this using military assignments).

So how do we predict what a person’s real wages would be if they moved?

Probably you should just look at a class of college graduates who are basically the same everywhere and see how their wages vary by place.

I choose pharmacists. No offense to pharmacists, but, like, pharmacists are all the same dude. They all receive similar training at similar schools and they all do a similar job. They have very little premium on working special hours or having a stellar career history. There are no hotshot pharmacists, and there are no sleazy ambulance chasing pharmacists. So I think an average Tulsa pharmacist is probably pretty similarly productive as a New York pharmacist, and by seeing the wages of pharmacists we can get a good idea of wages for comparable college graduates by location. Another useful thing about pharmacists is that you basically need the same number of pharmacists anywhere you go, because the need for pharmacists is demand for medication, and age/health distributions just don’t differ that much across metros.

Pharmacist wages are also set by a super competitive market. They work by the hour, usually aren’t unionized, and their skills easily transfer across firms. So their wages aren’t subject to many screwy distortions and probably basically reflect supply and demand.

(GPs and civil engineers might also work for my purposes so I could include them in the analysis, but lol screw you guys, this is just a blog).

I have two claims about pharmacists:

  1. Real wages for pharmacists are lower in New York City and the Bay Area than elsewhere.
  2. Real wages for hyper-urban pharmacists have fallen since 2000.

Can we test these claims?

Luckily the BLS collects data on wages by location and they have a category for pharmacists.

Here are pharmacist wages in New York, Boston, San Francisco metros and the nation compared to cost of living in 2022 (since that’s the year I can find). 

New YorkBostonSan FranciscoU.S.
Median Wage (Hourly)$59.62$60.15$77.5$61.88
Cost of Living168.6153.4244(100)
Real Wage$35.36    $39.21    $31.76 $61.88

As you can see, once you adjust for cost of living, real wages for pharmacists are half as high in New York and San Francisco as elsewhere.

So, one of two things are true. Either all the pharmacists are trapped in New York by a malevolent power, or professionals will make enormous sacrifices to their material well-being for the chance to live in the city. I think the latter.

Now let’s look at what sacrifices they would have made in 2000:

New YorkBostonSan FranciscoU.S.
Median Wage (Hourly)$31.83$32.62$39.48$34.11
Median Wage (2020 Dollars)$48.35$49.55$59.97$51.81
Cost of Living118.5120.8145.6(100)
Real Wage$40.80$41.02$41.19$51.81
Note: wages converted to 2020 dollars using CPI.
Second Note: Unfortunately, no one maintains continuous cost of living calculators. But I found these indices from 2002 from Moody’s analytics. I assume cost of living relative to other cities didn’t change a ton in just 2 years. I did use two different cost of living calculators since I couldn’t find one with both years, but I promise I looked at them and the methodologies were similar.

These are much smaller. Real wages for pharmacists in the country have grown a lot since 2000, but in New York, Boston, and San Francisco they’ve actually fallen.

These numbers on the cost of living are kind of shocking, but I honestly believe them. The change for New York is hard to stomach at first but remember that the biggest thing happening here is a close of the gap between the outer boroughs (where it used to be pretty cheap to live and there were lots of poor people) and Manhattan (where it was always expensive and there weren’t any poor people south of maybe 110th). The change for SF does not surprise me at all. 

Also, there is a limitation on my study. Pharmacists can tell us how much professionals will pay to live in a location because they are similar people across locations. But we can’t just compare their real incomes over time. We want to look at the change in real incomes for a typical professional by location, but pharmacists have moved up the income distribution as health care has eaten the entire economy.  Pharmacist real wages grew 19.4% over that time, but average wages in the 4th quintile (remember, we’re talking about yuppies here) increased only 13% in that time. Supposing pharmacist real wages had only grown 13%, pharmacist wages would be 5.4% lower than they are now, and the change in real wages would have looked like this (all in 2020 dollars):

New YorkBostonSan FranciscoU.S.
Median Wage in 2000 $48.35$49.55$59.97$51.81
Cost of Living (2002)118.5120.8145.6(100)
Real Wage (2000)$40.80$41.02$41.19$51.81
Median Wage if 5.4% lower (2020)$56.40$56.90$73.32$58.54
Cost of Living (2020)168.6153.4244(100)
Real wage if 5.4% lower (2020)$33.45$37.09$30.05$58.54

So, while actual real  wages for pharmacists in hyper-dense cities fell by only about 5-25%, they would have fallen by 10-30% if pharmacist incomes hadn’t outpaced the rest of the upper middle class. At the same time, real incomes for pharmacists nationwide increased 20%, and would have increased about 13% if pharmacist wages had just kept up with the rest of the upper-middle class.

You might doubt my particular choices of cost of living indices, but the general conclusion is robust. CPI-adjusted incomes for professionals in big cities have increased maybe 15% since 2000. Have prices in big cities increased that little in that time? Absolutely not; more like 25-30%. Beer at bars used to be 50% more expensive in New York than elsewhere, now it’s usually twice as expensive. 

It is unquestionable: pharmacists make large material sacrifices to live in New York, and they will now make much larger sacrifices to live in New York than they would in 2000

Of course, it is possible that pharmacists are effete social butterflies or have gotten way cooler since 2000, and fail to represent more practical, sensible groups of professionals who wouldn’t make these massive sacrifices. But, like, come on. It’s pharmacists.

The fact is that everyone, even boring pharmacists, have spent the last 20 years in a desperate dash to the coasts.

So why is everyone fleeing Milwaukee?

I doubt this really fits anyone’s political narratives that well. Liberal narratives fail. The non super-dense part of the country has gotten a lot more socially liberal and ethnically diverse since 2000, so people aren’t chasing liberalism. And I think conservative narratives probably fail too. The new liberalism in middle America is probably not why people hate living there so much, because the most diverse part is where they want to go.

Nice urban amenities are also not the answer. Coffee and restaurants have gotten a lot better in middle America since 2000, but coffee in New York was always good. I would argue the museums have gotten worse, but maybe I’m just crotchety and insta-ready exhibits are actually profound.

In sum, even though they’ve gotten more expensive, New York and SF haven’t improved in any material way. Outside of literally just Jersey City, regulation and zoning rules have kept the built environments of America’s hot locations in cryogenic stasis, and anyone who’s lived in New York for a long time can tell you that other than the slow removal of families and the poor and the rise and fall of crime, nothing has really changed.

I also want to reiterate that “taste have changed, now people like being in cities more” is not an answer to this question. Are young professionals now happier to be resource-poor in cities while they weren’t before? Probably not. Why would they be? What would be making them happier? And yet they take the deal, which means they wouldn’t be happy elsewhere, either. Even if “taste” is why they hate the Midwest now, they still hate the Midwest now and are forced by markets to live there.

I have to think this is a story about the collapse of social life. As Americans spend more time and home and become increasingly uncomfortable socializing with strangers, the critical mass of people required for educated to have a satisfying circle of friends has increased to 5-10 million people all connected to the same train system.

Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad.

A Tale of Two (Maybe Eight) Cities

American life has gotten worse for the young professional classes since 1995-2000. Here is how we know.

  1. Life in New York City and San Francisco has changed extremely little since 2000.
  2. People will now sacrifice much more to live in New York City and San Francisco. Rents are higher relative to wages, and material living standards have become noticeably worse.
    1. (and San Diego, Boston, Seattle, Denver, DC, LA)

In a simple model of rational agents maximizing consumption, the direct implication is that life elsewhere has also declined. This simple model is basically correct.

Let me explain:

People have to choose between living in a hyper-dense city of 6-20 million people or living elsewhere. Their choices will differ by resources and taste. If the demand curve has shifted outward for hyper-dense cities while the product has not changed, that means the alternative product (living in mid-size cities) has worsened.

The demand curve has shifted out for life in big cities. Not only have rents risen, material living standards for normal people there have fallen substantially while they have risen elsewhere, so the real price of living in New York has risen a lot.

Think about Seinfeld. Seinfeld is not meant to be aspirational. Elaine reads scripts for a publisher and George is a real-estate agent.

But they live in perfectly comfortable apartments on the West Side, sometimes they go to Broadway shows, and they spend all their time in diners. Today, people could only afford to do that if they had household incomes of roughly $400,000. There’s basically nothing today that young people do in the city that the Seinfeldians could not, now they just do it more rarely because it costs so much and they have to commute in on the L.

Perhaps the show is unrealistic? No. If you talk to people who lived in New York in ~2000, life really was like that for middle class college graduates, and if you look at the data, the prices for services in New York have skyrocketed since that time due to rising rents. That means that for people at a given point in the class hierarchy, the “deal” of living in New York has gotten worse. [I am going to prove this in more detail in a future post by examining the wages of pharmacists. For now, take it as given]

Let me explain how this works. Since construction is illegal, New York (like CA) has a more or less fixed supply of cafes, bars, and restaurants near transit. As the poor are replaced by the rich, the best spots become full of richer people and the poorer are shunted to lower quality locations or out of the city entirely. For a given person, the spots they get are worse than they used to be.

But people still take this worsened deal. That means life elsewhere must have similarly declined, or people would leave New York and rents would fall. Living in NYC and living elsewhere are substitutes.

Of course, the world is more than a simple model of rational agents, so some objections can be made to this argument. But I think those objections all fail.

Here are the objections I can think of.

  1. Perhaps there has been an increase in the niceness of New York and San Francisco (maybe falling crime rates, maybe the internet makes life better everywhere).
  2. Perhaps there has been an increase in the relative returns of working in NY/SF as an investment in one’s future career. 
  3. Perhaps there has been a change in tastes and the population structure that make NY/SF more attractive to a wider audience (such as an increasing childless share of the population)
  4. Perhaps people now understand how nice big cities are in a way that they did not previously.
  5. The population has increased faster than the housing stock in dense cities.

I think all of these objections fail to explain the data. 1 maybe succeeds a little bit.

Let me address them.

5. This is just rising population hitting against fixed housing stock.

This doesn’t work because while the population has grown, the yuppie population hasn’t. Most population growth has just been aging. What has instead happened is a higher proportion of yuppies want to live in dense cities than did in the past, pushing prices upward. The shift in demand is real.

4. Perhaps people only now understand how nice cities are.

I am going to dismiss this one out of hand. Everyone watches movies; everyone knows what New York is.

3. Perhaps delayed age of marriage (or change in tastes) makes New York nicer for more people.

Obviously, New York is not for parents. Space is horrifically expensive and moving kids around in a car is a lot easier than getting them somewhere by the subway. That is why New York (and SF, and LA, and Boston/Seattle) are increasingly full of young white collar professionals. Average marriage ages have increased since 2000, raising the population who would want to live in New York and SF. Perhaps that explains the increase in demand.

But this can’t explain why the suburbs of megacities have increased in price almost as fast as their downtown cores.

And in these suburbs, material living standards have similarly fallen. For example, I live on one of the cheapest streets of my hyper-expensive northeastern town. Its houses were built for retirees and lower middle class workers: plumbers, mechanics, etc. It is now inhabited by consultants, professors, and lawyers. The houses are on average 1300 square feet, and on my block there are multiple Teslas. The average home price is ~$650,000. Just like with restaurants, there are a fixed number of spots, so as more people want to move in, each person gets a worse one.

What has increased so much in price is living near New York, not living in New York. This is not a story about walkable neighborhoods becoming more desirable. This is a story about everyone fleeing from 90% of the country.

Now, you could instead tell a story where rising numbers of childless yuppies push families out of Park Slope into surrounding suburbs, raising prices in Scarsdale, Jersey City, and Princeton, but you would need such a cascade of refugees to get the rent increases we actually see in those cities that I just don’t think that’s happened. No matter what, people still make great material sacrifices to live in Montclair and Staten Island, so their alternatives (moving to Sandy Springs or Shaker Heights) must also have declined in quality. 

Besides, the delayed age of marriage is itself an effect of the price increases we are talking about

If you compare surveys on how many children people would like to have with actual birthrates, you find that a startling gap has opened up in the past two decades. The factors women most commonly cite as preventing their procreation are economic, in particular housing and the increasing costs of childcare (which is also secretly the cost of housing).

There isn’t just more demand for megacities because the population who like that sort of thing has grown. People will now make sacrifices to live in New York that they would not have in the past. There is no getting around it.

Perhaps the change in preferences is something more esoteric; something deep in the American psyche has made them want to live in large, dense conurbations. But even if the cause of Americans’ urge to escape from Michigan and Ohio is merely psychological, they are willing to make greater sacrifices to leave, so that must mean they are less happy in their current locations.

2. Perhaps the investment returns of living in New York have increased.

Material living standards have fallen in these cities (I.E. their consumption value), but perhaps their investment value has grown. Perhaps if you want to live well in your forties, you have to face some suffering when you’re 25.

Living in dense cities does definitely assist in acquiring human capital and raises your late-career wages. But the question isn’t whether living in dense cities helps your career. It’s whether it helps more than in 1990

This has happened in some industries. If you want to be a journalist and you want to make a career, you have to work in DC or New York. Media is dominated by national outlets. The days of the city newspaper are over.

But how general could this be? Changes in the long run wage-returns to living in dense cities would be something that’s almost impossible to precisely measure, but, anecdotally, a lot of tech has moved from the bay area and finance from New York in this time, remote work has become increasingly possible, and white collar industries where we know it is possible to build a career in smaller cities (commercial banking, law, engineering, [pharmacy!]) have not seen the shift out of New York that we would expect if New York life were an investment product. Instead, these industries have perhaps become even more centralized.

Companies are in NY/SF/DC/LA/Boston because workers want to live there, not the other way around.

1. Perhaps New York has actually gotten nicer.

You could tell quite a convincing story about the gentrification wave from 1990 to 2010 with only two characters: fixed housing stocks and a falling crime rate. But crime rates have been basically stable since 2005 while the relative price of living in megacities has only increased. 

You could come up with other clever little reasons life could have improved. These would be: technology and social coordination, or better amenities.

But technology really should have pushed people out of New York. Most technological advances since 1995 have been indifferent between city mice and country mice, or made more of a difference in the country. First, people in the city spend more time outside the house. If screens got a lot better to sit behind this wouldn’t help city-dwellers very much, since they don’t spend much time in front of them.

In addition, the three technologies I can think of that really permeated into meatspace also push people out of cities. These are Yelp, texting, and GPSes. GPSes mark a major improvement in life outside the metropolis for obvious reasons, but they matter extremely little where navigation is by subway map. The improvement that Yelp makes is a little subtler. Yes, Yelp helps you find restaurants, but it also makes restaurants better. Since information about them is more readily available, they have to make sure to be good. But the difference in the city is small. In the city, the sheer thickness of the restaurant market always kept restaurants good through competitive pressure. 

Note that chain restaurants are in decline through the United States (as we would predict from information about independent restaurants becoming so readily available). But New York never had chains. While technology has made urban-type amenities much better through the country than in the past, they are basically the same in NYC.

Texting and interpersonal communication has also made quite a change in life and makes it easier to keep up with people, but, again, this matters less in New York than elsewhere. Let’s go back to Seinfeld again. Remember how they would just drop into each others’ houses? That’s a lot more feasible in dense, walkable cities, and a lot harder anywhere else. So texting makes a much smaller difference in NYC than elsewhere.

Perhaps life is better in New York because of better coordination – that is, more of your friends live in New York than in the past, making it more desirable to live there. But did any yuppie in NYC in 2000 ever complain that they didn’t have any friends? I don’t think so, and, time use surveys do not indicate that New Yorkers have fuller social schedules today than in the past. In fact, just the opposite.

Life really is basically the same in New York as it was in 2000, only now you can’t afford to live there.


It is likely that all five objections are true, in part. But these are small effects on the margin. What we have seen in the past twenty years is that, for a person of a given age and social class, living standards in the biggest cities have gotten quite massively worse. And yet people continue to choose to live there.

Which means life elsewhere must also be in decline.

Why is it worse? And why has this worsening affected life in cities so much less than other places?

Well, if you talk to people who want to move to New York (and these other cities), most of it is that a lot of their friends live in New York and they would like to hang out with them. Hmm.

Ranked List of All Books I Read Since 2020

Ding-dong, booklist! Like last year, this is a purely objective ranking of the books I read in Anno Domini 2021. The original languages are (English) Greek, French, Russian, Italian, Latin, and Pirate. The forms include the novel, the play, history, philosophical essays, and self-help. The chronological range is slightly more than two thousand years.

Naturally, the ranking is scientific and impartial, and no coherent disputations can be made.

This year I made more liberal use of not finishing books, and I heartily recommend it. I read more and I enjoyed more what I read. There was only one real stinker this year, and I think that was the fault of the translator.

Without any further ado, allons y


The Plague (trans. Stuart Gilbert): This was the only failure of all the books I read this year, and, as I said above, the problem was just the translation. I started reading the novel in French and the flow was easier, the characters emerged more readily from their actions. Unfortunately my French wasn’t quite up to the task of reading the novel and I eventually gave up.


Foundation’s Edge: This book is fine, but nothing more. There aren’t really interesting ideas like in the original trilogy, and it lacks the feeling of scientific necessity contained in the first books, I, Robot, and some of his other work.


Silas Marner: Again, this book is fine, but it suffers from that maudlin tendency of the Victorians to focus on Dear Little Things. Not only is there a Dear Little Old Man, he has a Dear Little Child! I got the feeling Eliot didn’t quite trust herself to make bold statements, so she stuck to a story where the viewpoint and morality was too obvious; too trite. The foul of spirit are also incompetent, the poor are all good at heart, etc. I suspect our own era of literature will suffer the same fate.


Madame Bovary (trans. Eleanor Marx-Aveling): This had rather the opposite problem of Silas Marner: the characters are too venal. Second-Empire Normandy could never quite grab me because it was such a dreadful place full of dreadful people. Perhaps this can be justified as “literary realism” but I finf most people I know much less reptilian than les madames et monsieurs de Yonville.

Again, the problem may have been reading it in English, as so much of Flaubert is purportedly the prose.


Portnoy’s Complaint: Here’s the thing. Portnoy’s Complaint is a tour de force. Nothing but a man’s Oedipal whinings to his therapist, sustained over three hundred pages, cleverly structured to reveal information in a way both psychologically convincing and dramatically taut.

You really feel that you’re in the psychologist’s chair, listening to a real, human figure, with complex and interwoven neuroses. You see at the guts-and-gears-level just how this wretched little man came to be.

There is only one difference between you and the therapist. The therapist is paid.


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: The question is “how does science work?” 

Kuhn’s answer is “idk. People have different ideas, and they run with them until they can’t”.

Kuhn is right on all points. This is a perfect work of philosophy and is absolutely convincing on perhaps the key question in the philosophy of science.

But I found it hard to imagine disagreeing with him. Of course science is built from theories that are proposed and defended until our human judgement concludes them worse than other competitors, all things considered. That is how all belief works. So why read the book?

I wonder if anyone else could get anything out of it. Perhaps I’m just spoiled from knowing Econ, which is more obviously Kuhnian than, say, physics.


Peter the Great and the Emergence of Modern Russia: Fine book, reasonable amount of information, but not detailed enough or conceptually ambitious enough to really stand out.


Count Zero: The Neuromancer books are each 700 pages of world fit into around 270 pages of paper. They are bewildering; you would have a hard time answering basic questions about the plot as you read it, and you couldn’t easily recall which events happened to which character. They are very good. 

We are now at the point of this list that was all more than worth my time.


The Red and the Black, Part I (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff): This was compelling. But, like with Madame Bovary, I had trouble with how awful everyone was. Was France really this awful? Are they still like that? What is going on?


Puck of Pook’s Hill: What a strange premise. Puck, the oldest old thing in England, befriends a group of early 20th century children and takes them on a series of psychedelic adventures through the history of Britain, interspersed with quite abstract poetry, some of which is considered Kiplings’ best.

But there was a problem. An anthology is always a little distant from the reader and hard to engage in. So is a frame novel. In a framed anthology, those distances compound.


Candide (trans. Henry Morley): This is a delightful little story, but a lot of the humor is satire of Liebnizianism. If you ran into Liebnizians more often, maybe that would be funnier, but I myself have never encountered one.


On The Road: I think perhaps the reason this retained its stature over the years was that so many of the secondary figures also became famous (William S. Burroughs, Allan Ginsberg) but deep down this is a report of a few road trips across the United States made by someone who was not particularly insightful.


Logic & Mysticism: A book of essays, some technical and some popular, on Language, Logic, and Mathematics. All of them were more or less right, except for the giant gaping hole in Russell’s mathematics. My undergraduate advisor once said that Russell was the single philosopher to have had the best reasons to have believed nothing but the wrong.


The Coup: In this book, John Updike imagines how it would feel to not be from a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania, but to instead be a zealous African dictator. It has the hallmarks of Updike in his later career: the surrealism, the luxurious prose, and the truly shocking objectification of women.


Mona Lisa Overdrive: What can I say? The plot was tighter than Count Zero’s.


She: Rider Haggard invented the blockbuster movie just as much as Spielberg or Lucas. He’s always a lot of fun, and many consider She his strongest work, though I didn’t find Aisha quite as compelling a character as Allan Quartermain, Umbopa, or Henry Curtis. Too theatrical for the page. With the right treatment, this could make an excellent movie, though I don’t think they’d do it because of the ferocious racism.


Normal People: Sally Rooney has said that her writing style was heavily influenced by the composition of emails,and you can tell. It is easy to get through 200 pages of Rooney’s prose in a day. Some of her characters, over the course of those 200 pages, will become interesting. I wish Connell and Marianne the best.

Thirty Eight

A Room with a View: I wish I had liked this book better, and I almost did. It was only that I didn’t care very much for the characters, especially the governess-figure, and I knew from too early on that The Boy and The Girl would end up together, with The Gentleman foisted out.

Strangely, though I didn’t like the book as much as I might’ve, it made me excited to read more of Forster (I have read some work of his in the past).


Goodbye, Columbus: These stories are quite fine, especially the titular novella, but I would appreciate it if Phillip Roth could perhaps once or twice make an attempt to write about someone other than himself. Maybe just develop a secondary character; a love interest or something. Who knows.


A Separate Peace: Knowles did a good job of what he was trying to do, but I couldn’t help wishing his novel of lost innocence in the second world war had centered on Catholic rather than WASPish aristocrats. I know one ought not fault an author for her choice of subjects, but the great artist should bring the most delicate feelings out of her culture: its psychological fulcra. Guilt, dread, helplessness? These are Catholic emotions.

Like all WASPs, the book is at its best in court.


Ethan Frome: Good God has Wharton made the Berkshires seem dull; I promise never to go there again. Of course, that is a premise of the novel. But need it be?


The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America: This is a book about how violent crime rose (~1969) and fell (~1994) in America. Will it tell you why? No. No one knows. But it will tell you how.

One thing I hadn’t known before reading was that the late 20th century crime wave was two largely unrelated events. The first was a wave of crimes by twenty-somethings starting in 1970ish, and then, as it waned, a second wave rose up after Snowfall, committed by 1984’s teenagers. Criminality is more generation-dependent than time-dependent, and has almost nothing to do with macroeconomic conditions. Take from that what you will.


If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (trans. William Weaver): What a trick this little novel has. A clever trick! But does it need to be done more than once? Not really.

It is prey to a general critique of the postmodern. In abandoning the formal strictures of the modern novel, the postmodernist, attempting to open up the bounds of discourse, leaves herself unable to discuss anything but the modern novel itself [I know of one exception: “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas”].


The Idiot: No, not the Dostoyevsky, this one is about a girl at Harvard in the 90s. Even though the action is in quite the recent past, it feels foreign from the view of 2021. The interconnection of the internet has made the world a very small place.

This book has lots of wonderful elements, the usual observations on language and society you see in literary fiction, all which work together to develop the theme.

But the plot doesn’t have very much narrative force and the characters don’t have much flesh to them. Sometimes critics have described the book as being written at a distance from the characters, but it’s more precise to say they’re through a fog, or perhaps on the other side of an email exchange [cough cough this was intentional].


The Remains of the Day: I guess, “ohh ho ho, you thought the premise of the book you were reading was this, but then it turned out to be that” is the formula for every Kazuo Ishiguro and, yes, it is a formula. Still, a good formula is good as much as it’s formula, and the naturally cautious placement of Ishiguro’s word choice well matches the novel’s clinically shy hero, so the book turned out well. Form, content, etc.

Overall effective and sometimes insightful.


Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A compact monograph on exactly what the title promises. Race and Slavery in the Middle East will interest a reader to just the extent that race and slavery in the middle east could.

Perhaps the most fascinating detail to me was the strict distinction Middle Eastern slavers drew between Ethiopians, who were heirarchically on par with other non-Muslims, and the Zanj, assigned to only the most menial tasks.

Can’t ever catch a break, those Zanj. But at least they (supposedly) enjoyed a dance.


The Edible Woman: Margaret Atwood, more than most other feminist writers of her era, turned out to be correct. That is, her focal topics really were the matters of renegotiation after the sexual revolution: the roles of men and women within the marriage, the place of marriage (vs. other ends) within a woman’s life-cycle, and how romance could proceed both within and around its traditional bounds.

It’s all here folks, at the moment of its highest tension, enjoy!

Lots of little English department type literary elements as well, for thems what likes that sort of thing.


The End of The Affair: Most Graham Greene novels were conceived by spinning two wheels on a pointer. The first wheel has locations on Earth. The other has emotions to feel toward God.

In this case, the first wheel fell on “London” and the second on “Jealousy”.

Wouldn’t you like to know how that turned out?


The Same Door: These are good Updike stories; the sort that you would have been excited for if you saw his name on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post or Playboy. Between the lines you can see Updike’s Angstroms coming together, and his own marriage falling apart.


The Picture of Dorian Grey: There are several versions of this book, and unfortunately you have to read parts of both of them to get the best experience.

The history of TPoDG is this. Wilde published a novella serially that was quite explicitly gay. This couldn’t be distributed too widely without running afoul of censors, so when Wilde developed his original serial into a novel, that was all cut out. But lots of interesting parts of the story were added in place of the homoeroticism.

I recommend making your own word document by taking the original gay version and pasting in the new straighter chapters and sections (there is public information on which chapters were additional). The plot should remain consistent.


The Phantom Rickshaw (and other Eerie Tales): The highlight of this collection is The Man who Would be King. You should read The Man who Would be King. I hope you are already familiar with its general outline. Strangely, none of these tales are especially eerie.


The Art of Fiction: John Gardner, who wrote Grendel along with this essay on the production of fiction, had a tawdry affair with my 9th grade French teacher. Just putting that out there.

This book is a delight.


The Conquest of Happiness: This is Russell again, in the toga of the ancient philosopher more than the tweed of the modern. This book will help you to be happy. Or, it will at least help you to understand happiness. That is the premise. It certainly made me feel better. I think it will be much more effective to philosophically inclined males who don’t have any actual problems. For others it will be only an intellectual curio.


The Moviegoer: I am not someone who generally spends much time with Kierkegaard, but I will spend time with Walker Percy.

Catholics, man. Something about Catholics being morose gets me, and it gets me every time. Deeply funny.


Eothen: This is sometimes informally subtitled “the Splendour and Havoc of the East!” and you will see why. I believe it is widely considered that in the pages of Eothen Kinglake invented the modern travelogue. You can also see why Eastern travel was not more common at the time. Between the desert robberies, the armed cults, and the plagues, a traveler would have a hard time seeing the sights and a travel agent would have a hard time finding anything to advertise. My God what a wonderful tale.

The author also wrote an 8 volume account of the invasion of the Crimea, deeply hostile to Emperor Napoleon III, apparently because of a personal gripe with L’empereur. Strange.


Sense and Sensibility: I wish I had liked this better, and I will admit that out of the Austens I have read (P&P, E, NA, and S&S) it is my least favorite. It is funny, but for me there were a few distinct faults.

First, the time in London feels as if it is only waiting, because in London they had nothing to do, and (ironically) they had to get back to the country for the action to restart. Second, I will not tell you any more than this, but it is pretty obvious which boy is Bad and which boy is Good, so there isn’t much left to wonder about as you’re in the middle third of the book.
The third fault is that between the two girls (one is Sense and the other Sensibility) Sense is not any fun. Sense should be more fun. Sensibility shouldn’t be the only cheeky one. Austen herself was both level-headed and witty, so I’m not sure how she got this one wrong.


The Warden: Apparently Trollope wrote 3,000 words of fiction every single day. That seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

The Warden has, more than anything, a sensibility. That sensibility is that morality is easy, except when it comes to politics, which is very hard. As an econ nerd, I agree!


Go Tell it on the Mountain: This is sharp. In particular, the female characters are really inhabited rather than perceived, in a way rare among male writers.

Near the end, there is a passage of the sort common in High Modern Authors: taut, surreal, internal, barely attached to the world, reminiscent of Yeats or Sibelius: The sort of passage that can’t be interrupted or you have to start all over again.

It’s impressive when well executed and here it is executed very well.


The Good Soldier: Ford’s reputation has taken quite a tumble relative to his near contemporaries, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because he never went to quite the stylistic extremes of the Joyces on one hand and the Hemingways on the other.

But this is great if you’re looking for an unreliable narrator whom you can nevertheless place some trust in, if you’re looking for broken characters with consistent and traceable fault lines, if you’re looking for carefully timed releases of information outside chronological order, and you do not want to hear about Jews or Butlers. In many ways Ford was a forerunner of trends in later literary fiction once writers tired of the experiments and extremities of his own time.


The Death of Ivan Ilych and other Stories (trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude): These stories are all very good. Hot political takes coming right up, whatever your ideology.


Franny and Zooey: This is the funniest story that has ever been written about genetics.


Freedom and Resentment(and other Essays): These are classic essays in the analytic style. A classic analytic essay has three parts:

  • Introduce a famous tension of mind, logic, or metaphysics.
  • Then ask a totally different question about what words people use.
  • Try to convince these are really the same.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of the book’s central essay, the question is “can man be responsible for his actions?”

And the rephrased analytic question is “when do we say agents are responsible”

Strawson argues that when we say agents are responsible for their actions has little to do with metaphysical liberty and everything to do with when people can be modeled as rational, goal-directed agents. The mad are as metaphysically free as you and me, but when they wrong you, how angry can you really get?

Strawson quite effectively reduces the original Big Question to “Suppose it turned out man was an automaton. Would it suddenly become silly to get angry at him?”

Strawson thinks the answer is no. See how convinced you are.


Vile Bodies: When I was younger, I liked Waugh very much, but I didn’t understand why he had such a reputation as a prose stylist, because I saw no way that his prose was different from anybody else’s. I only knew that I laughed at the jokes and the actions formed vivid images.

Now I know better.


The Handmaid’s Tale: This is a book that was right to have been about Protestants. If it were about Catholics, it would not have been nearly as good. 



The Quiet American: This novel is about clueless American interventions in Vietnam escalating to bitter war, unsupervised agents empowering zealous dictators, and brutal means failing to secure the noble ends which supposedly justified them.

It was published in 1955. Wow, right?

The characters are also clever, and the ambiance sublime.


The Roman Market Economy: If you want to understand the Roman economy, this is the place to learn. I myself had no idea their banking system was so developed, and this convinced me just how important peace and stable government are to a modern commercial society. Now, the Romans never industrialized, but my God they got close. There is also interesting general information about trade and communication in a pre-industrial world.


The Once and Future King: I am treating the parts of The Once and Future King that follow The Sword in the Stone as one book, though they are in some sense three.

This is a very unusual volume. Usually novels with highly complex characters show those characters’ traits through their actions. Then, because the characters have revealed themselves through their actions, the narrator adopts a light touch.

Not so with The Once and Future King.

The action shows how Lancelot’s ugliness and skill led him to a rigidity of principle. It then shows these principles fail against his natural impulses and fill him with guilt, and the way this guilt leaves him weaker from his belief in his own weakness.

Then, the narrator will say “Lancelot’s ugliness and skill gave him rigid principles. When these ran aground on his natural impulses, the resulting guilt left him convinced of his own weakness, which made him weak in reality”

This remains a classic of fantasy because it is so singular and so excellent. Nothing will ever be made that is very similar to it, both because that would require tremendous skill and learning and because it would require a writer to adopt what one might call faults.


Aristophanes, Four Comedies (several translators): It appears to be more difficult to translate French, Greek, and Chinese than any other languages, and as far as I can tell the reason is that these are (or, were) the most civilized peoples in history. That is, their experiences were more defined by their own societal constructs than by nature or base impulses, and since we do not share their cultural constructs, when they make references, analogies, and double entendres it is unintelligible. Greeks thought in festivals, histories, local personages, and electoral systems just as Saxons thought in the changing of the seasons.

Here, the translators are heroes, preserving Aristophanes’ singular voice while making it intelligible to a modern audience (with the liberal use of footnotes)

But Aristophanes himself shouldn’t be ignored. He was a comic genius. In the structure of the plots and the frenetic pace of the wordplay he most reminded me of 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and Preston Sturges.

It is a curious thing that the first recorded instance of the Miles Gloriosus comes as a subversion of the archetype (the comically short Lamachus). In all likelihood this implies the existence of a rich tradition lost to history that Aristophanes played on. But, perhaps Aristophanes in his genius saw the evolution of the form before it had evolved. Perhaps Lamachus (the historical Lamachus) was actually just really short.

Brekekekex, koax, koax!


Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: Philosophers often refer to the character Kripke adopts in this novel as “Kripkenstein” because it is not quite Kripke’s endorsed belief, but it certainly isn’t Wittgenstein (the ostensible victim of Kripke’s exegesis). But the kayfabe is fine. Kripkenstein, like Uzbek and Reza, is quite an insightful philosopher.

The central conceit is this: suppose we try to follow a rule that we ourselves impose. Well, can’t we choose what the caveats are? Then, what’s the difference between a rule and a mere inclination?

And how is this different from talking?


The Secret Agent: I continue to believe that Conrad is the worst prose stylist in the English canon, but he may also be my favorite of its authors. Late in the novel, there is a scene between a character and his wife that has such tragic force, such loneliness, such fate and mathematical necessity, I had to fight not to cry. That’s even though I could point out stylistic oddities in nearly every paragraph.


The Golden Ass (trans. E.J. Kenney, though I flipped back and forth between different translations): This is the only complete novel we have from the Roman world. It is one of the wackiest anythings.

Basically, right at the beginning, the author says “I am going to convince you that this book is one thing, and then it will turn out to be something different, but then you’ll realize the change was obvious all along”

And then he does that!

It is also hilarious; I tried to read this in secret at my desk at work and gave up after several failures to suppress my laughter. Very much NSFW, btw.


Some Prefer Nettles (trans. Edward G. Seidensticker): There’s a rather obvious symbol at the center of the book (these porcelain dolls) that organizes the writer’s thoughts on modernity, human life, empire, and sexual relations. But that’s okay because the obvious symbol is so cool and freaky and fascinating. Despite the novel’s focus on some of the most foreign features of traditional Japan, I felt more familiar with the protagonist than I have with anyone in quite a long time.


Homage to Catalonia: The strength of Homage to Catalonia, like much of Orwell’s non-fiction, is that he lived one of history’s most interesting lives. Normally in dystopian fiction, the melding of the personal with the political is implausible, and has to be forced through set-pieces like Savage’s congress with Mustapha Mond. They can also have the flaws of the picaresque, presenting a catalogue of portraits without quite enough narrative drive to pull them together (1984). Or, they can lose plausibility. Extrapolating contemporary trends instead of creating a convincing world (Fahrenheit 451).

But Homage to Catalonia avoids this; Republican Spain really was just the dystopia that Orwell depicts, and Orwell really was right in the center of it, and he really did see all of its remarkable sides.


Treasure Island: Try to imagine improving Treasure Island. You can’t. The premise is absurd. 

Read this if you haven’t; it will not take long.


War and Peace (trans. Ann Dunnigan): War and Peace is the best, the finest, and the greatest book that I have ever read, of any kind. It is not only insightful, emotionally arousing, and pivotal in the history of literature, it evinces an understanding of social science rivaled by few books (or bloggers) today, despite the lack of data at Tolstoy’s disposal, several hundred pages devoted to personal gripes that Tolstoy had with great-man-theorists of history, and Tolstoy’s own efforts to shape his work into religious propaganda.

I recommend the Anne Dunnigan translation. I tried several before starting, and hers was by far the most readable. 

The last hundred-odd pages turn to a long discourse on, among other matters, freedom and our social norms. In it, Tolstoy notes whether we call an action free or determined is really just a matter of our attitude about it, which will consist of how much we focus on the events leading up to the action, whether the actor was far in the past, and how well we understand the actor’s relationship to the world. This determines the role of freedom and responsibility in our laws, so metaphysical freedom vs. necessity is not what we care about, morally.

Practically Strawson’s thesis a century before Strawson wrote.

Amtrak Sucks; Publics are Terrible at Choice.

The other day, I spent $312 dollars on a short distance train ticket. This is because the congress of the United States is a scoundrel and a thief. Let me explain.

Every year, Amtrak makes a loss and has to be subsidized by the federal government. However, one part of AmTrak lessens the blow: the NorthEast corridor. 

A plurality of Amtrak’s riders are on the roughly 600 miles of Track that Amtrak operates between Boston and DC. In 2019, Amtrak made more than half of its revenue from northeast corridor service.

That’s because the North East is uniquely suited to train travel.

Most of America is not. That’s why very few Americans use trains. Many transitheads would beg to differ. But they are wrong. American transit fans are mostly just big nerds who had a really good time on their semester abroad in Copenhagen and want to exactly recreate those 4 pleasantly buzzed months for the rest of their lives. Railsexuals. But this is unrealistic.

For long distance trains to be a viable method of travel, the environment has to have a few essential features:

  1. Large, dense cities close enough to each other that you’d rather travel at train speeds than hop in a plane
  2. Some reason not to drive – either the straight, well maintained tracks needed for high speed rail, awful traffic, or a lot of people who don’t have cars.
  3. Enough urban public transit/taxi density that people can easily get from the train station to their house.

Most of America does not have these things. Even other population dense regions: California, Florida, and Eastish Texas, aren’t nearly as suitable as the Northeast. That’s because their cities are post-car. Even though the regions are population dense, the cities aren’t dense enough to support the last-mile public transit needed to make long distance rail feasible. The density needed for train travel is pretty special – you need a hyperdense urban core with also-pretty-dense inner ring suburbs surrounding it. And that really doesn’t happen beyond the borscht belt.

So, a reasonable government would, like the boy scouts, accept what it cannot change, and focus train provision where train provision actually has a purpose, admitting that rail isn’t going to be useful in other parts of the country.


No no no. In America, what we do instead is lose a ton of money on a bunch of trains that nobody rides, then pay for it by spiking up prices where trains are actually useful.

Look at this table again, and see if there’s anything that strikes you as funny:

You might notice that in 2019, The Northeast Corridor was only 38% of the riders, but 56% of the revenue. That means that the average trip in the NEC cost 107% more than the average trip outside of it. Perhaps that could be because trips in the northeast corridor are longer and more expensive to run.

Except, they’re not, as should be apparent from this map:

You see that tiny blue line? You just can’t have trips that long strong on a blue line that tine. North East corridor trips are shorter than the average trip, and are cheaper to run for another reason: the trains are full. A typical train outside the NEC is almost entirely empty, but in the NEC the trains run close to capacity. And AmTrak owns most of the track it operates on in the North East, while it has to rent track from freight in other parts. This saves a ton of money in operating costs. The only thing that can make trips in the Northeast more expensive to operate is the presence of the high-speed ACELA line, but that doesn’t even nearly make up for it. All in all, Amtrak makes a profit of $90 for every single passenger in the northeast. 40% of every ticket goes to line the pockets of the system, even accounting for the capital costs of operating the track.

Let me rephrase that. The United States government steals $90 from you every single time that you ride a train in the Northeast.

And it’s even worse than that. It’s not that a few train riders are being bilked to subsidize the vast majority. Most of the Non-NEC rides are on “state supported” local intercity rail in California, Pennsylvania, and New York. These only lose a little money, and the denser coastal ones can be profitable in some years. The massive losses are on the basically useless long distance rail,  like the California Zephyr, which covers the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco but takes more than 10 times as long as a plane. These cost twice as much to maintain as they can generate in tickets.

So, why does this happen?

Well, between them, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and New Jersey have 12 senators. The rest of the country has 88.

And that’s all she wrote.

Every year, Amtrak runs at a loss and has to beg congress for money. They’re not going to cut down to only the profitable lines because that would piss off 80% of congress. So, they need to jack up prices wherever they can to shrink their headline deficit and let them subsidize the useless but politically unassailable lines.

It’s especially vexing because, as everyone learned in Econ 101, the right thing for the government to do in industries with natural monopolies and low marginal costs is to operate them at a loss. Fixed costs are high for train service, marginal costs are low. So, monopoly exploitation hurts even more than in a normal industry, since every ticket unsold is almost pure deadweight loss. Amtrak should have cheap tickets year round except for holidays, when the trains start to fill up and we have to sort who gets to ride and who doesn’t. The marginal social cost of a trainride might be even less than $0 because it lessens traffic.

And it’s even more upsetting because America has a great way to deliver pork-barrel funds to flyover states: ag subsidies. Throwing money at Iowa by filling it with riderless trains wastes the oil, labor, and capital costs required to run them, but subsidies to farmers aren’t nearly as destructive. Sure, they inefficiently shift some land from beans and carrots to soy, but the effect is maybe small, and only a little of the bribe money leaks out of the bucket (except for what we lose paying off the WTO). In contrast, almost all the money going to pointless Amtrak lines is spent providing the unwanted service. No agent likes this outcome, it’s just the Schelling point we landed on, and if they tried to renegotiate someone might be unable to tell whether they’re getting screwed.

Now, I haven’t even mentioned Amtrak’s inefficient management, but that’s a story for another day.

Giving Thanks

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that America exists. America was created in quite a bloody way, like all countries (except Belgium) and like all the great American states that predated it, but today we’re a rich happy country that’s nice to live in. People have been down on America recently, and are even feeling bad about Thanksgiving. But America is great, mostly because it’s such a nice place to live, since America’s effects on the world are really much smaller than our effects on America.

Even if you don’t count America’s own happiness and prosperity as a reason it’s good, all things considered, it’s a blessing that we exist.

And I am going to tell you why.

First, America is history’s most benevolent and restrained hegemon.

It’s not surprising that America’s dominance has coincided with the only worldwide increase in peace and living standards that has ever happened, because we’re just way better than the world powers of the past. Yes, there have been lots of atrocities. But we do fewer of these than most powers, and they are more or less on accident. Even when we cause disasters (like Iraq) we don’t even steal the resources. We just try to do something that’s good (like kill Saddam) and then accidentally destroy a country. 

Yes, we were much more willing to invade Latin America for selfish reasons before the Franklyn Roosevelt administration. But even then we placed strict limitations on how much invading other great powers could do, and they were were only really able to get away with it during the civil war. Even our Latin American fiascos generally followed the pattern of trying to improve a bad situation and finding it impossible.

This is very different from what other great powers try to do. Other great powers really want to conquer places and steal things from them, and the world really does see America as the best alternative. Countries that we have had huge recent wars against, like Viet Nam, tend to take our side on foreign policy. Yes, every country (even our allies) likes to complain about us, but, when push comes to shove, they’re on our team, and they get very upset when America recuses itself from a conflict.

The world of the 21st century can intelligibly be seen as a community of peaceable nations who all get along, excepting a few “rogue states”. This is new. “Rogue state” made no sense before 1991; the world was nothing but “rogue states” because there was no law against which roguishness could be defined.

So America really is improving the world today.

Second, it’s good to have rich neighbors, because trade works like gravity. Many people think of wealth as a zero-sum war of resources, but that’s really not how it works. Instead, having rich neighbors is good and helps you be rich. This is a corollary of the gravity theory of trade. The richer and more productive a country is, the richer its trade partners can be, because it makes what they provide more valuable. That’s why Mexico has gotten so much richer since NAFTA. The world economy really is not zero sum. The richer you are, the better for everyone else.

Granted, there are problems with having other countries be rich because it contributes to global warming, since rich countries use more oil. But even in the worst case scenarios, world GDP is still going to increase over the next decades, and people will still undoubtedly be richer in a world that gets to trade with America than one that does not.

Third, America has a wonderful culture of innovation and this has made every person in the world much better off.

It’s hard to convince people just how awful the past was, but it really was awful, and the reason the modern world isn’t nearly as bad is largely America’s culture and institutions of innovation.

If you wanted to list the technological improvements that have most improved the world since 1900, they would probably be:

  1. The electrification of Industry
  2. Gasoline powered travel (the automobile and diesel trains)
  3. Mass long-distance communication
  4. The Green Revolution
  5. Penicillin

And these are, more or less, American innovations. Yes, Penicillin was discovered by a Scotsman: Alexander Fleming, and its medical applications were established by a team at Oxford, but then the British government was unwilling to invest in its mass production and they went to the Americans instead.  The others are more straightforwardly American.

mRNA vaccines were the most effective against COVID-19 and are shaping up to be possibly the most important discovery of our young century. They are not the creation of any single scientist, but instead an accretion of research from hundreds of scientists in dozens of teams, from countries across the world. But while many of the most important scientists in the development of mRNA haven’t been Americans, they’ve done their best work here. 

More than having individual great scientists, America has a culture, an institutional framework, and an educational system that fosters innovation, especially among immigrants.

Is it possible those immigrants would have made the same inventions if they never had the chance to come to America? Yes, but it’s unlikely. The Soviet Bloc forcibly kept all its brightest minds within its borders and delivered much less innovation during the Cold War than Eastern Europeans have been able to deliver since, so it’s very likely that destroying one big center of innovation would reduce innovation worldwide. Are there other countries these immigrants could have done their research in? Well, the only other well funded universities in immigrant-friendly societies are in the UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, and the Netherlands. Those are just not as big as America. America is just so much bigger. This bad boy can fit so many fucking immigrants in it.

Most of the exciting upcoming technology is at least in part American:

  1. Semaglutide! Semaglutide is about to lengthen the human life expectancy by multiple years. It’s a weight loss drug, but unlike other weight loss drugs, it actually works, and it doesn’t kill you. This is so important that I can’t believe how little people talk about it. My guess is that people who closely follow science news tend not to be fat, and so are afraid to lose the smugness of superiority. But they’re being bad. Obesity is an extremely common deadly disease. And, it is a disease that may disappear. Semaglutide is just one of a generation of weight loss drugs that are in development right now, including tirzepatide, which is coming out of Eli Lily and may be even more effective.  These are all piggybacking off the discovery of Liraglutide, a similar but slightly less effective molecule discovered at, you guessed it, Johns Hopkins.
  2. Electric cars are really good and really important. And, for whatever reason, Tesla’s technology simply blows everyone out of the water. Tesla’s huge improvements in battery technology over its competitors are going to be essential for not just cars but also using renewables, which can generate electricity very cheaply but are unreliable, necessitating much more electricity storage than humanity has needed in the past.
  1. Fusion. Sci-fi fans have thought fusion was 20 years away for almost a century now, but maybe we’re actually going to have it in like three years. The key innovation is this tape covered in tiny electromagnets. This would make the world almost immeasurably better, and has the potential to basically solve the climate change problem.

Now, it’s an open question whether this is actually going to work. I was just at a party with two grad students from the Princeton Plasma Lab, perhaps the world capital of fusion research. One of them told me the startup has already solved all the hardest technological problems and that this tape gives them a massive advantage over the older technology Tokamak. The other told me absolutely not.

We’ll see what happens.